There is a particular care, waking with Dani for the first-millionth time, Jamie had not considered upon falling into her bed. A particular care to the whole thing she truly hadn’t thought about.
In her defense, she also hadn’t planned on Dani’s bed so early. She was relieved, in a very specific way--which felt much like disappointment and gratitude in equal measure--to find Dani uninterested in sex last night. Relieved, because Dani is meant to be coasting for four days toward ill-conceived flirtation by the time she finally makes her way up here, and this--this wasn’t quite how Jamie remembers it going.
Not Dani, holding her hand up the stairs like she was afraid letting go would mean spooling back her courage.
Not Dani, dressing in the privacy of her bathroom, offering Jamie an awkward few minutes staring at herself in the newly-uncovered mirror as she waited.
Not Dani, holding up her spare dressing gown with an expression so bordering on hilarity, Jamie hadn’t been able to resist bursting into laughter.
“No,” she’d said through a wave of giggles, “thank you. Don’t think that color will, ah, bring out my eyes.”
Dani had laughed, brought out a clean t-shirt and a pair of shorts instead. And Jamie had waited--standing in the bathroom for long minutes after she’d bundled up her clothes, looking at herself in a mirror bigger and cleaner than the one waiting back in her flat--for the magic to kick in. To kick her out. To restart the whole goddamn thing.
Nothing. Nothing at all. No glimpse of shadow in the glass, no glimmer under her skin, no sign it was coming. She’d breathed out, bowed her head, nodded. Little changes to the story. Tiny steps in a better direction. Good.
Dani had been sitting on the edge of the bed, looking nervous, and for a single heartbeat, Jamie had wondered if this was the moment, after all. This, with Dani fresh off of an exorcism she hadn’t allowed Jamie to witness. This, with Dani looking at her like she was just a little bit terrified of everything Jamie represented.
Jamie had sat beside her, unconsciously placing herself just a little bit out of reach, and said softly, “Feel better?”
Like a dam breaking, she thought, even as Dani shifted toward her, arms sliding around her neck. Like something too heavy being dropped at last, as Dani wept into her collar, making tiny gasping sounds like there wasn’t enough air in the whole house to make up for what she’d lost tonight.
Jamie’s memory of falling asleep is fairly fuzzy; somewhere along the way, they’d moved under the covers. Somewhere along the way, she’d kissed Dani’s cheeks, tasting salt, and thought too sharply of those final months. Somewhere along the way, Dani’s hand had worked into her hair, cradling the back of her head, and she’d lost herself in the soft brush of Dani’s breath on her lips.
Falling asleep had been easy. Instinctive. Natural.
Waking in Dani’s arms almost breaks her entirely.
For a moment--a long, languorous moment--she has no idea where or when she is. For a moment, eyes shut, this could be their bed, their room, their home. For a moment, eyes shut, she can almost believe those seven years were a dream--a horrible feverish nightmare from which she’s finally waking.
Her right hand moves to Dani’s left, searching instinctively.
“Morning,” Dani murmurs, and she shuts her eyes a little tighter, holds her breath, her fingers tracing the bare space between Dani’s knuckles. Her heart sinks.
“Whatcha doing?” There’s amusement in Dani’s voice, but uncertainty, too. Jamie swallows.
Dani shifts beside her, clearly waiting for Jamie to open her eyes, and Jamie thinks, In a minute. In a minute, I will. But for just a little while longer, I need...I need...
How long has it been, since she truly got what she needs? How long, since the last time she felt whole the way she does right now, eyes shut, letting herself linger in the rapidly-vanishing hope that this is their life together, that they are you-me-us and that Dani--Dani of the first time around, the Dani with whom she built a life--is still here?
“I should probably get the kids up,” Dani says quietly, though her hand is threaded through Jamie’s, squeezing gently. Jamie nods.
“Kids. Right.” It’s all drifting away, morning fog blasted to nothing by the rising sun. Kids means Wingrave family means Bly Manor means 1987. Kids means Dani’s job--Dani’s love for her charges--Dani’s selfless need to put things right--is still at the forefront of her mind.
Kids means she’s still in this thing, and time is ticking rapidly down.
She hears Dani slide from the bed, feels her stand awkwardly beside the frame as though torn between the task at hand and the desperate need to keep holding onto Jamie. “You, uh. You coming?”
“Sure,” Jamie says, squeezing her eyes shut as hard as she can. “Sure. One minute.”
She hears Dani move to pick out clothes, shift toward the bathroom to change, and thinks that is maybe the strongest sign of all that things are still then, and not fixed at all. Dani stopped disappearing to change her clothes barely a week into their road trip, her fascination and delight with Jamie’s inability to look away too strong to fight off.
Hated it, she’d said, laughing as Jamie pressed against her back, kissed her neck, pleased when the blouse in Dani’s hands dropped to the floor again. When Eddie did it. Never gave him the chance, if I could help it.
But? Jamie’d said against her skin, and Dani had let her head fall back, one hand groping around to pull Jamie closer.
Everything is different when it’s you.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Dani has reappeared. Without opening her eyes, Jamie is sure she’s draped in pastels, her hair as tall as she could coax it in a few spare moments. The old Dani, the one she hadn’t been able to keep herself from falling for in the first place. The one operating on stolen time.
“All good,” she hears herself say, smiling a little. “Just wakin’ up.”
Waking up slowly with Dani used to be the best part of the day. Waking up slowly without her had been...
Not doing it again, she reminds herself sharply. Not going to have to do it again.
“Well,” Dani says, somewhat uncertainly, “I’ll...see you downstairs?”
Jamie opens her eyes at last to find her lingering at the door, her brow furrowed with something like concern, something like uncertainty. You’re being weird, that looks says, and I don’t know why. Because this Dani hasn’t had time to understand her yet. Because this Dani has had only a few days to comprehend her tics and habits, the precise way she bites down on a smile, the way she chain-smokes on a bad day and locks herself away with her plants when they’re the only thing that makes sense.
Her Dani would understand this quiet, closed-eyes approach to the morning as Jamie needing to be held. Needing to be touched. Needing to be reminded, just for a little while, that there is strength in this world outside of her own body.
This Dani, this younger, unwary version, doesn’t know any of that yet.
She opens her mouth--to say she’ll be right there, to say everything’s okay, she’s just a bit sluggish this morning--and before the words can spill out, her eyes are cutting right. Her eyes, so used to gazing into reflective surfaces with the desperate hope of a too-young widow, find the mirror.
There is a woman inside. A woman, too frail, too spindly, too wrong to be Dani or her own reflection. A woman in white. A woman who is, unmistakably, closer than she’s ever been before.
The easy words die in her throat, Jamie sitting bolt upright. Dani, leaning against the doorframe, jolts with surprise.
“What’s wrong? What is it?”
“Nothing,” Jamie says, too quickly, knowing she’s too far away to catch Dani by the arm and prevent her looking. There is nothing to do but watch with helpless horror as Dani, still in the grip of old habit, turns slowly back into the room--tilts slowly toward the mirror--peers with trepidation into the glass--
“I don’t...” Her head gives a minute shake, her face solemn and unsure. “I--what do you see?”
Only you, Jamie thinks, a knee-jerk habit response that very nearly spills from her lips. She swallows hard, turns her gaze from the specter in the glass, smiles.
“Nothing. Trick of the light. Dani?”
There’s a shine in Dani’s eyes each time she hears her name, a particular glimmer of such joy, it’s enough to pull Jamie’s attention from the gravity of the Lady. “Yes?” Even her voice, Jamie notes, sounds brighter today. Held in some part of her mouth less strained, less firmly gripped by should and must.
“Would you--I mean--there’s a pub.” The words are coming too fast, her eyes threatening to dart toward the mirror again. Resisting, she tries to straighten her back, tries to smooth the nerves out of the phrasing. “In Bly.”
“You told me,” Dani affirms, taking a step nearer the bed as though unaware of doing it. “You said you live above it. Little--uh--flat, right?”
“Right.” Don’t look away. Don’t look away from her. Not for a second. “Want to...want to get a drink with--”
“Yes,” Dani says before she can finish. The grin on her face makes her look absurdly young, absurdly light. Jamie can’t help grinning back.
“Tonight? We can ask Hannah to look after the--”
“Tonight,” Dani repeats. She hesitates, looking as though she can’t quite believe herself--and then, before she can think better of it, she’s swooping down, kissing Jamie quick, darting away again.
Tonight, Jamie repeats, allowing herself one final glance at the mirror as she dazedly gets out of bed at last. I’m taking her away, and you can’t do a fucking thing about it.
Who gets nervous about a first date after they’ve already married a woman? Who lets the first time in this timeline map over all the hundreds of dates, and sort-of-dates, and was-gonna-be-a-date-but-let’s-stay-home-and-shut-out-the-worlds two people can build over a lifetime?
Not Jamie, certainly.
No, the anxiety running rampant through her body--so young, so strong, so unnervingly capable of absolute terror--has less to do with the idea of taking Dani out on a date, and more with taking Dani out of this house. How had Dani herself put it, a lifetime ago: away from all this. Away from kids, and the unwitting, too-solid ghost of Jamie’s failures. Away from the future, which marches steadily toward them like a nuclear weapon at the ready.
Hannah is looking at her over the rim of a mug she never quite sips from, amused calculation all over her face. Jamie raises her eyebrows.
“What? What’s this?”
“I am,” Hannah says lightly, “immortalizing in my mind this moment.”
“And what moment would that be?” Her voice is just a little snappish, her eyes cutting yet again toward the kitchen door. Dani’s upstairs, chatting with the kids about the evening expectations--You listen to Mrs. Grose, and no pretending she doesn’t know the bedtime routine--but she’s been upstairs for what feels like ages now. Every moment that ticks by without her reappearance in the doorframe pushes Jamie a little farther into the unreality of the situation, her bones waiting for that ever-encroaching tickle of magic.
“This one,” Hannah says, with the patience of a woman who still believes all the time in the world is laid out before her. “The one where you look, for the first bloody time since setting foot on these grounds, like things aren’t quite going to plan.”
“Have a plan,” Jamie answers automatically, still gazing over Hannah’s shoulder. “Good plan. Kind of plan gets ruined by nosy--” She hesitates, thumbing through her mental catalogue of obscenities for something that would fit around Hannah’s relaxed shoulders. “...old...broads.”
“Oh, well done,” Hannah says, raising her tea in mock salute. Jamie groans.
“Well, at least I’m fuckin’ doing something about it, aren’t I?”
“Who’s to say you’re the only one?”
She sits up straighter, her fist rapping the table in surprise. “Hang on. Hang on, can’t just go sayin’ shit like that without explanation.”
Hannah shrugs. “You were right.”
“Well, I know I was--I was?” Hannah has said many things to her over the years, many of them complimentary, but she’s not sure you were right ever had cause to land among their multitude of conversations. “Right about...?”
“Time,” Hannah says, with a tiny smile--not a joyous one, Jamie can’t help noting, and wonders if Hannah does already understand there is such a beast as too late, lurking in this very room, “is unpredictable. Short. Unkind.”
“It is,” Jamie agrees, leaning slowly back with a nod. Hannah places her lips to the rim of the mug again, sighing against the porcelain.
“Owen and I, we had...time, once. Would have been something fabulous, I’m sure, if we’d known to grab for it while we--well. But now, he’s off to Paris just as soon as his affairs are in order--or Margaret’s, I suppose--and I’m...”
“Going with,” Jamie says in a low, urgent tone despite herself, despite the magic hissing with distaste beneath her skin. “Going with, and exploring all that fine French bread, and the countryside, and--”
“Jamie,” Hannah says, in a tone just a little too like how Dani had always stretched out her name, in the end. Just a little too like a woman with a noose already looped around her neck, gazing out from the gallows, waiting for the moment the floor will inevitably fall out from beneath her boots. Jamie shuts her eyes, feeling fifty all of a sudden, feeling older than that, even. Feeling as though there is no such thing as enough, for the weight of guilt.
“No,” Hannah goes on, and a soft hand curls itself around Jamie’s fist. She does not open her eyes, does not allow herself a sweet inhalation, even as Hannah says, “No, I’ll be staying right here. This is my home. This is where I--but it doesn’t mean we couldn’t talk.”
“Last night?” Jamie is surprised. Owen had been swaying something awful, wine just about oozing up from his pores, and Hannah had looked so tired she was nearly insubstantial in the dark. Hannah squeezes her hand now, laughing.
“Of course not, the man was drunk as a lord, wasn’t he? But this morning. Before any of you woke. He...deserves to know. That I love him. That I’ve loved him longer than any sense would appreciate.”
She says the words so neatly, as though they don’t hurt, as though her hand is not flexing around Jamie’s with an almost convulsive rigidity. Too tight, that grip, pressing the bones of Jamie’s hand until they grind.
Dead women, Jamie thinks distantly, have the tightest grip of all.
“And,” she says, to keep the sob in her throat pushed low where it belongs. She can feel that old familiar jump in her jaw, that muscle which goes absolutely mad every time her emotions seize hold and turn her into a skid. “And what did he have to say?”
“You know Owen.” Hannah sounds fond, more than anything. Fonder still than agonized. It’s something. “Just about fell over himself to tell me--well. Private things, really. But he wants me to go with him. He believes I can...he believes I would...”
You could, the younger version of Jamie might have said with simple urgency. With amusement, even. You could fuck off from this place, head into the sunset, never look back. Have a goddamned adventure, Hannah Grose.
This one, who knows all too well that every adventure must end somewhere, says, “But he loves you.”
“He does,” Hannah says, like a sigh, like the relief of breaking the surface and finding clean evening air in your lungs once more. “He says he does, and I believe him. And maybe that’s enough, isn’t it? Just to know. Just to believe.”
No, Jamie thinks. No, it isn’t enough. Isn’t enough to live it, even. There is no enough, when it’s them. Could never be.
“Yeah,” she says, because a good friend knows there is, eventually, a time where lying is a kindness. “Yeah, guess it is.”
The silence that stretches between them is a little too thick, a little too full of words she’s never going to be able to banish. Ones she’s mulled over while falling asleep, or talking to Dani--or to Owen--or on her worst days. The days where she gazes into the mirror and thinks, Hannah would know. Hannah would have some secret ritual, some mad prayer, and it would set things right. Too easy. Too easy to sanctify a woman in death, turn her into a magician.
She moves to say something else--to ask what else they’d talked about, though it’s none of her business--but there is movement in the doorway at last. Dani, appearing in the wrong color jumper, and a skirt, and a smile.
It’s not quite what it should be, and that feels good to Jamie. Feels like a sign. She was able to stand by Dani’s side last night, as the glasses went into the flames, and she was able to wake in Dani’s bed this morning, and Dani was able to choose something different to wear for their first date, and all of that tastes so much like freedom, she’s terrified to hold it in her mouth.
“Where’s Owen?” Dani asks, crossing to the table and hovering between Hannah and Jamie. “Thought he was going to help out tonight.”
“He had some things to attend to this evening,” Hannah says, too lightly, and though Dani doesn’t notice--Dani is looking at Jamie, her excitement palpable in the lean of her body against the table, the press of her hands against her own sides--Jamie does. There was more to that conversation, she understands. Pleading, perhaps, on Owen’s part. Gentle resilience, on Hannah’s.
Love, she can see, is worth it--but perhaps there are still gaps left in the fabric, even with all the love in the world. Love is only part of the thing.
Timing. Timing is the real trick, and maybe there is kindness to love stretched between two souls, love given voice--but maybe there’s a little bit of cruelty, too, when time gets its say. Maybe.
Did it help? she wonders, even as she rises from the table, takes Dani’s hand. Was it right?
Hannah’s eyes are bright, her smile unshadowed. Enough? It’s never enough. But it was something, and the best Jamie can do with the circumstances.
“Are you all right?” Dani asks, and Jamie realizes she’s frozen, staring at Hannah like this is the last time she’ll see her. She shakes her head, pulling herself back to the present.
“Excited,” she says honestly, and Dani laughs with such sweet apprehension of her own, she can’t help a smile. Hannah looks them both over, appraising.
“Enjoy yourselves,” she says, letting the rest of it lay beneath the words. “Consider the fort manned until your return.”
Jamie believes her. Or, to put it more cleanly, believes that Hannah believes. It’s something, true--though when she turns her head, catches a glimpse of the window above the sink, the outline of white gown and black hair etched into the glass, she can’t deny fact. That some things are just as big as belief. That reality matters, too.
That reality and belief are sisters sharing the same mottled bed, in fact, each twining around the other, each shaping in turn the world she is forced to walk--with or without Dani Clayton’s hand in her own.
“Come on,” she says, loudly enough for the Lady edging ever nearer in the glass to hear. “Place’ll keep for one night.”
In truth, Dani only saw this pub one time--during daylight hours, when she’d accompanied Jamie to pack a bag on the way out of town. Jamie hadn’t been particularly long-suffering about the act; her life until Dani hadn’t overflowed with tactile keepsakes, her belongings restricted to the essential and a couple of small plants. The decision to leave the lot behind hadn’t taken long, and she’d missed it not at all once Bly was in the rearview.
Now, standing outside in the pleasant chill of evening, she feels as though this one scrappy pub represents an entire future. Choices made and reinforced. Loopholes built and slipped through. A whole story rewritten, told fresh.
There was a moment--with Dani sitting beside her in the truck, her hand hesitant as she reached for Jamie’s--which had felt like waking for the first time in that bathroom. That jarring, uncertain rush of energy had overtaken her, and she’d thought, This is it. This is where I wake up back in that room, back in 2007, back when it all matters not at fuckin’ all. Taking Dani out of that place, taking her over that border and into the wider world, had felt like too big a change. Too big a distance between what was and what is meant to be.
She’d blown past the property limits at a truly stupid speed, prompting Dani to laugh and say, “Can’t wait for that drink, huh?” And Jamie, looking at her in the dim glow of the dashboard, looking at the wrong color jumper, the pretty blue eyes, the strength of her smile, had thought, If you steal her from me now, let this be the last thing I ever remember.
She’d blinked, her foot pressing the pedal nearly to the floor, and then--and then they’d been out. Out. Free. A thousand ways to say the same goddamn thing. Bly Manor and all its ghosts, all its unrepentant gravity, sat behind them. Ahead, a world without need for Dani Clayton’s sacrifice.
Keep going, something had whispered in her then, a temptation almost too great. Keep driving forever, until you reach airport or seaside, and then leave this fucking place behind. Go.
She hadn’t felt the glitter of the magic, and that--like the quiet before a devastating storm--more than anything kept her on the road. Kept her voice level as she steered Dani toward the kind of conversations they’d have upon leaving Bly for good. Kept her hands from shaking all the way to the village.
Because the magic does not want her to succeed--not in big, artful, impractical ways. The magic, though responsible for placing her on this path, wants the past to remain as it was. Small steps. Small steps only.
The magic will not accept more than that.
And the Lady wants Dani for good.
She keeps her hands in her pockets as they press into the pub, find a table, as Jamie orders a round. Every step feels like pushing gently against the skin of some invisible bubble. Every word out of her mouth, every drop of beer on her tongue, every tap of her boot against the floor--each one feels like setting both palms against a mirror and waiting to see if she will fall through.
“You’ve never seemed like this before,” Dani points out. Her face is pleasantly flushed--the pub is warm, just loud enough to mask their conversation to others without drumming too hard over their ability to hear one another--and she’s barely touched her drink. She seems more interested in Jamie, draped over this chair as she tries to remember what calm feels like with her heart ricocheting around her ribcage.
“Seemed like...?” She sips her drink, smiling a little when Dani makes a thoughtful face.
“Nervous. Like, actually nervous. I didn’t know you got nervous.”
“Been a minute,” Jamie says, which is true. She hasn’t really felt anything like this--anything strong, anything capable of unwinding her steadiness--since Dani waded into that lake. Not until waking up in 1987 again.
Some part of her has been nervous since that moment--but not merely because of Dani, or the ability to set things right waiting just out of reach. Some part of her, if she’s truly honest with herself, has been nervous since waking up in her old flat in that raggedy old t-shirt because there is a possibility--more distinct, more sane than the belief in magic and second chances--that she never did wake here. That she is, in fact, sprawled on the floor of a hotel room in California. That she has, in fact, slipped into some kind of coma, or a suspended hallucination. That she has, in fact, died.
Purgatory, she thinks with a sudden flare of amusement, would look so much like this. Like a loop of endless repetition, like seeing Dani and never quite being able to save her. Over. And over. And over.
“There are reasons for that,” she says. “Complicated ones. And easy ones. People, ah--they feel...exhaustive, most of the time. Too much to take on. Not much point, being nervous about that.”
“All of them?” Dani is grinning. Dani, seeing through to the heart of her without meaning to, as she always had. Even if Jamie wasn’t always prepared to admit it.
“All of them,” she agrees, watching the light in Dani’s smile dim. “Even you. Even me. Especially me. But, uh, that’s the thing, isn’t it?”
“The thing that makes me nervous.” When Dani doesn’t seem to understand, she shrugs, tips back another swallow. “That even despite that, some things--make you want to take a shot, anyway.”
“Some things,” Dani repeats, her lips still curved upward. Jamie laughs.
“Not gonna make it easy, are you?”
But that had never been true. Dani had made it easy, every step of the way, where she’d been able. Dani had made it easy, talking to her about nothing, and about everything. Dani had made it easy, coming back each day to her smile. Dani had made it easy to fall in love, easy to need her, easy to be needed in return. Not by doing anything in particular. Not by being any fabrication, any too-clean assembly of expectations, but simply by being her, she’d made it the easiest thing in the world.
Even when it wasn’t.
Even when it would have been so much easier, not to.
Not here, Jamie thinks. Here, it’s different. Cleaner. Here, there are no shadows lurking, no women urging closer in the empty glasses on nearby tables, in the windows, in the mirror. Here, they truly can start fresh.
“There’s a story,” she says, leaning over the table. “Not sure this is the place for it, really, but nothing’s perfect. You did show me yours, so...I mean, if you want...”
Skip to the end. Why not? Dani is nodding, and Jamie knows the truth of it in her blood: that there is no perfect, and that doesn’t matter in the least. That the flowers had been wonderful, and it had been right for the moment--but that the moment changes. Each night fits differently around them as they shift, as they grow, as they learn to match one another from untested angles. The story has room enough to wrap around them in new shades. The story, told well enough, can map different roads--different lines of conversation, different color jumpers, different firsts. It’s all right. It’s okay to let it be different this time.
Dani is still Dani. She is still her. They are still you-me-us, now and always, and the set dressing means not a fucking thing, in the end. Maybe that’s the most important part of telling it: knowing the core is all that really counts, when you reach the very end.
She recounts the story, gazing at Dani all the while, and finds it easier now she’s older. Finds it so much easier, now she understands Dani better--what makes her tick, what makes her lean in, how hard she can love Jamie even at her worst. This Dani isn’t there yet, but she can see the shape of the woman she’ll become already: in the tick of a smile, the press of her hands, the steadiness with which she accepts Jamie’s every trauma and mistake and bundles them up like neatly folded clothes, never to be worn again. This Dani isn’t that Dani, not yet, but the bones are the same.
The story over, she hesitates. There’s another set of beats here, another important notion to impart--the organic quality of life, the eventuality of death, the beauty of the thing. It’s true. It was true then, and even now--with Dani’s loss feeling so close to the surface again--it is still true.
Still. She hears herself, a lifetime ago, say, You don’t decide who lives and who doesn’t. I’m sorry, Dani, but you don’t. And Dani, though she had appeared to be listening at the time, had turned that back on her. Had turned it back at the very end of the line, as if to say, I love you enough to decide. Just this once. Just this once, I get to decide after all.
She’d been furious, when the shock had worn down enough to feel anything else. She’d been furious in a way she’d never known with Dani. It had hurt almost more than losing her, in its own way, that anger--how it had roiled through her in hot waves, dragging back the years until she was twenty-five, twenty, sixteen again, and out of control.
That anger, that fire raging deep down, had been the only reason she’d kept walking. She knows that now, understands it on a visceral level--that, sometimes, anger is the only reason a person keeps going, until the agony recedes enough for rational thought to take hold again. She knows that. And still, it seemed so heavy on her chest each morning, that anger. That miserable, hateful feeling of injustice at it all.
You don’t decide who lives and who doesn’t, she’d said once upon a more innocent time, believing it wholly, and looking down at Dani in that lake had felt as though Dani had grabbed her by the chin, forced her eyes to meet bright blue ones, and calmly replied, Watch me.
Just like that. Just like that, Dani--brave, reckless, selfless, stubborn Dani Clayton--had decided. Decided, like it was her place, like she’d had the right to decide for Jamie. Dani had decided, as that miserable Lady Viola Lloyd had decided not to die, not to go, to drag them all into her pain--and maybe Jamie had played that part up, in weaving a narrative for Flora and her friends, maybe she had closed her eyes and groped for details to make it all fit, but it was still not hers. Not her story. Not her choice.
Dani got to decide, and Viola got to decide, and Jamie has to go on living with it. Just another player in the tale.
The anger had been fierce, and fervent, and the only reason she’d survived the first year. The anger, and the simple, almost neat agony of it: why, she remembered thinking, do you get to write it this way?
“Once in a blue goddamn moon,” she says now, pushing it all down and back into a trunk she intends never to unlock again, “someone might be worth the effort. So, yeah. Bit nervous. Been a long time since the last blue moon.”
Dani swallows. “Feels easy, though, doesn’t it?”
Jamie raises her eyebrows. “Does it?”
“Easier than it should.” She almost looks embarrassed, in the best way. It’s an expression Jamie is used to, the one she’d wear whenever she baked something unexpectedly incredible, or made a stranger laugh out loud, or made Jamie’s eyes roll back in bed. All the little carvings of a woman who spent so long living for others that in doing things right--doing them her way, and finding that way best after all--she’d been almost preternaturally sheepish about her own victories.
“Not sure I follow,” Jamie says, though it’s only because she wants Dani to say it. Only because she likes watching Dani begin to work open all those little padlocks, revealing the truth of her within. Dani seems to think for a minute, sipping her drink, her hand cupped over the glass with such uncharacteristic carelessness that Jamie can’t look away.
“With you, I feel like...I don’t have to think about it. Or overthink it. Or question if what I’m feeling, what I’m...” She pauses, thumb slipping up into her mouth with habitual nerves, smiles. “Wanting. Is okay. With you, it feels like it is, even when it never used to be. And it makes me...”
“Happy?” Jamie suggests when she goes quiet again for a long beat. Dani tilts her head from side to side, considering.
“Sad, in a way. That it took this long. That it had to go this way--with him, first, you know? That I feel like I’m doing something wrong, putting away my...guilt. That he’s dead, and it took him dying to be...this.”
“But it didn’t,” Jamie says, leaning across the table. It’s suddenly very, very important that Dani understands this. Suddenly so deathly critical, that she can piece it together the way Jamie has helped her do over months and years of conversation. “It didn’t take him dying. You said it yourself: you broke up. Before he stepped out of that car, before he made that choice, you made yours. You didn’t kill him, Dani.”
“No, I know,” Dani says, in a tone of voice that says knowing and believing are two different things entirely. Jamie casts a quick glance around, lets her hand slide across to press Dani’s into the scarred wood for a moment.
“You didn’t. The universe is random, and it can be shite, and there’s nothing we can do about that. He died. That’s awful. You’re still here. That’s...that’s the best thing that’s ever happened.”
Dani looks at her without an ounce of wariness, her eyes holding too much for her words to catch up with. She opens her mouth, seems to think better of it, twisting her hand under Jamie’s to better line up their fingers.
“Thank you,” she says, “for the drink.”
Jamie blinks. Another new beat, another new line. Not quite right. Not quite familiar. Is this Dani letting her down easy? Dani deciding, as Dani never has, that this is not what she wants, after all?
“I think,” she says, with Jamie starting to slide back into her seat, heart thrashing a fresh and terrible rhythm beneath her shirt, “I’ve seen enough of the little pub.”
“Oh,” says Jamie, almost woodenly. Even if it means losing her, she’d promised. I save her, even if it means she never falls in love with--
“Your flat,” Dani says, a kind of stoic concentration on her face that means she has reached a decision and will not be dissuaded. “It’s, uh. It’s upstairs, you said?”
The relief nearly knocks her from her chair. The relief, sweeping through her, is everything. Jamie’s grin could light this whole fucking establishment.
Standing in this flat again, she thinks the world must right itself now--will start fresh, start anew once more, that she’ll have tripped some unseen wire and rebooted the whole game yet again. That the simple fact of Dani walking in behind her, one hand firmly in Jamie’s, will set it back.
“It’s small,” she warns, her voice as level as she can make it, though she’s shivering all over with a fear she can’t lay out for Dani. “Never needed much--”
“I always wanted to live like this,” Dani says. Jamie raises her eyebrows, surprised.
“Seemed romantic.” Dani is moving slowly around the open living space, her eyes devouring all the tiny intricacies of Jamie’s life alone. “Not having anyone to answer to, not needing to obsess over dusting every corner all the time. This--” She touches a flannel shirt, tossed carelessly over the back of Jamie’s single armchair, looking impressed. “Just being able to have a moment of...of who cares, you know?”
Jamie, who hadn’t even realized she’d left things so absently around the flat--who hasn’t paid attention to a thing in this place except the bathroom mirror in years--is almost embarrassed. Except Dani is grinning her full-force grin, the one Jamie has seen a thousand times over the good days, and could never get enough of. Dani isn’t trying to make her feel better about the plate on the counter, still riddled with toast crumbs, or the light arc of dust on the lampshade Jamie hadn’t gotten around to wiping clean. She’s serious. She’s delighted.
“Didn’t think about company,” Jamie says honestly, “or I would’ve done better.”
But hadn’t this been how their home had looked, too? Dani had never put it quite this way, in quite so many words, but there had always been a comfortable clutter to the places they’d landed together--a few too many pillows on the bed, a shirt almost always left out of the closet, tiny signs of lived-in that had never quite allowed for immaculate. Messy, they had never been, but there had been a sturdy sense of okay about the whole thing. It’s okay if the vacuuming is put off a week. It’s okay if the laundry, folded, sits in the basket. It’s okay to loosen the threads, to not sit pretty, to be comfortable without needing to make a thing of it.
Had that been Jamie’s influence? She hadn’t realized. Hadn’t thought of it that way. But maybe Dani--who had been expected to keep a perfect house in her old life, who had stood straight and dressed in ironed blouses and jumpers without pops of thread at the sleeves--had needed someone like Jamie to show her a home can be a little untidy and still be safe.
“I’ve never lived alone,” Dani is saying quietly now, still running her fingers along the buttons of Jamie’s discarded shirt. “Not in thirty years.”
“Bit less romantic than it seems,” Jamie says, unable to keep the weight of sorrow out of the words. Dani looks at her, brow furrowed.
“Why do you sound so sad?”
I don’t, the younger version of Jamie would have said--scoffed, even, with a laugh, tilting away from the truth. This version, who has not only laid out her past, but grown comfortable with it in a way one only does after years and years of processing, says, “There’s only so much loneliness a person can stand, I guess.”
“You’re lonely?” Dani is moving to her, slowly, an unconscious mirror of the way Jamie had moved toward her in that bedroom before Margaret’s funeral. There’s a look on her face that says she’s never considered Jamie as a lonely figure before now--though there will come a time where she’ll think of little else, obsessed with the need to make Jamie safe even in her own absence.
“Yes,” Jamie says, hearing her voice shake. “Sometimes. Lately.”
It’s not the cool thing to do, not the confident, collected way to handle a date, but she can feel herself folding inward. Can feel herself split down the middle--half standing in this flat, out of her own time, half curling in a hotel chair in California. Knowing, in her bones, in both timelines, that there is an inherent wrongness to being alone. Knowing, in her core, where even the magic can’t reach, that any place Dani isn’t will never feel warm enough.
“You’re not alone,” Dani is saying, and she imagines that voice curling around her sleeping self, that certainty pressing in along the lines of her dreams. “You’re not.”
She’s holding Jamie by the shoulders, looking at her with focused intent, and the old Jamie would have grinned. Would have done something to take the pressure off this moment.
This one, the one carrying Dani’s last hope in her heart, croaks, “You promise?”
“Promise,” Dani says, and leans in, and the place no longer matters. The dishes in the sink, the extra pair of boots tossed under the coffee table, the knowledge that her bed is unmade in the next room matters not in the least. All that counts is Dani kissing her, Dani feeling so real, so solid, so tethered to the world it’s impossible to imagine her sliding out of reach again.
Dani feels like Dani at last, everything else set aside, the road leading to this inevitable burst of joy, and Jamie has done one thing so right. One thing so right, there’s no arguing. All the setbacks, all the repetitions, all the glimpses of the Lady where she’s not meant to lurk--and still, they’re here. Still, Dani is here, a hand curled around her neck, a smile on her lips, kissing like she’s never considered another option.
Dani is here, and maybe the script was wrong, and maybe the setting is new, and maybe they’re bumping into the coffee table, knocking a lamp askew as they back toward the bedroom, Dani’s foot catching on the little knot in the floor and nearly tipping them both down. Maybe the laughter is louder than it was in the stillness of the manor that night, and their clothes are dry even as they are slowly, hesitantly discarded, and the moonflowers have bloomed where no one will take notice tonight. It’s different. It’s different.
But different is not better, and it certainly is not worse, because when all the details wash out, the framework remains the same. Dani, toppling back on unmade sheets with breathless laughter, feels the same under her hands. Dani, laughter twisting into a dizzy groan with Jamie’s lips on her neck, tastes the same. Dani, wrapped around her with legs bare, hair wild, saying her name for the first of so many times in that exact tone of voice, is gloriously, absolutely the same.
And there’s something else to this, too, a strange side-slung gift the magic couldn’t have intended. The first time--the first time, when Dani had wanted so badly and been so nervous at the same time--had been good. Had been wonderful. Had been Jamie in the lead, understanding Dani needed the comfort of someone who knew what she was doing, understanding that the newness of Dani was nothing compared to how new she’d felt to Dani in return. And there had been things to consider: the other occupants of the house, and the mirror over the vanity, and the tiny lingering fear that she’d wake the next morning only to find Dani had changed her mind.
That time had been wonderful, and she’d spent a lifetime with Dani building on it, strengthening what they’d begun in Dani’s borrowed bed--but this time, with thirteen years of memory sunk into her hands, her lips, the rhythm of her hips, she feels no fear at all. No concern that Dani will change her mind. No worry over who might hear, who might care, what might come barging out of the glass to shatter the moment. No fear, even, that the magic will be waiting for them around the corner. They are out. They are free.
This is only now, the most in the moment she’s ever felt with Dani--where neither of them are afraid. Dani carries nothing in her head but a desire to be exactly here, splayed on these exact sheets, panting as she turns her face into Jamie’s pillow. Jamie carries nothing in her head but a need to be exactly here, kissing her way down a body almost more familiar than her own, closing her eyes and sinking into Dani’s hands in her hair, Dani’s hips rolling to meet her mouth, Dani’s voice painting the walls of this place she’s never really gotten to know.
And there’s something about it, she thinks, gently easing Dani’s legs further apart, gently tracing with her tongue until Dani cries out, that is more than magic. Something about Dani’s first time being her thousandth. Something about how powerful the memories are--Dani in that bed at the manor, Dani in a dozen beds scattered in a dozen motels across America, Dani on their couch, Dani in the back room of the shop--now that she’s pressing her face against Dani’s skin here. Memory is so tenuous, so vague, so willing to slip out from clenched fists--but here, as Dani pulls reflexively to guide her in, as her fingers map familiar skin, she feels closer to the entire span of their life together than ever before.
“How,” Dani gasps much later, the sheets sweat-soaked, Jamie laying beside her, “did you do that?”
“Practice?” Jamie suggests, her tone midway between gentle joke and absolute honesty. Dani laughs.
“No, but--how’d you know? What would--what would make me feel--”
Jamie distracts herself from a laugh by pressing her face to Dani’s shoulder, kissing slowly along to her neck. Dani buries a hand in her hair, sighing agreeably. Better to do this again, Jamie thinks, mind and body in perfect agreement--because the alternative to letting her hand slip down Dani’s body is to admit something too near the truth. That she knows Dani perfectly. That she has spent years exploring Dani--when Dani was at her best, when Dani was at her worst, when Dani was everything in between. That it’s all second-nature, even after years apart--the ticklish spot here on her ribs, the place on her neck that makes her swoon, the exact pressure which, applied to the jut of her hip, drags her attention instantly to the bedroom.
How’d you know? She’s been waiting seven years for another chance to map Dani’s body--to kiss Dani with feverish joy--to feel Dani press against her, bare skin and soft breath and a voice she’s terrified to forget. The story changes, but some things don’t. Some things are gloriously, wonderfully familiar in ways she’s been craving for longer than she wants to think about.
Of course, Dani will have to learn her all over again. For Dani, every freckle is uncovered treasure--every scar is a story untold--every time she trails her nails down Jamie’s back, presses a thigh between Jamie’s legs, kisses Jamie’s lips, it is the greatest novelty. For Dani, it’s fresh. Uncharted. Maybe even a little daunting.
I’ll make it easier, she thinks with the mindless giddy excitement of new sex. Anything she needs. And, in her own way, she suspects Dani will continue to find ways to surprise her. Dani, who has still--though the book should be exactly the same for her--managed to squint into the shadows and come up with mysteries. Dani, who looked her in the eye in the greenhouse and told her a storm was coming.
No storm, she thinks now, letting her fingers tease gently until Dani grabs her by the wrist, urging her in. No storm. We’re free. We’re out. I got her out.
It’s so easy, letting herself believe it. So easy, as Dani presses her face into Jamie’s shoulder and unleashes a stream of muddled pleasures and curses and sounds without syllable. Out. She’s out. She’s free of that house, of that hell which will certainly follow, and all there ever needs to be again is this.
She believes it, as they wind down at last into dazed slumber.
She believes it, falling asleep with Dani’s arm around her waist, Dani’s naked skin warm against her back.
She believes it.
Until the phone rings.
It’s nothing. Has to be nothing. Wouldn’t be fair, if it wasn’t nothing.
She’s out, goddammit.
“What’s--who’s--” Dani, groggy, is sitting up. “S’that your phone?”
Jamie can’t quite answer. Can’t quite bring herself to search for words, even as she’s pulling on the first article of clothing her hands find--Dani’s jumper, strangely, too warm and too much sleeve, but smelling so perfectly of Dani she can’t help pulling it over her head anyway.
The phone, sitting on a little table in the living room, is still bleating. She hesitates, hand hovering over the receiver, thinking with the innocence of sleep: If I just don’t answer. If I don’t pick up. We can go back to sleep. We can go back to--
“’Lo?” She hesitates, listening, hoping against hope for silence--but the voice on the other end is Owen’s. Owen, sounding glazed. Owen, aghast.
“Jamie. You have to come back.”
“I don’t understand,” she says, though she thinks she does, actually. Thinks she’s putting it together, actually, even as her eyes move toward the bedroom, toward Dani’s approaching footsteps. The story changes. The story--
“You have to come back,” he repeats. “There’s been a--there’s been--”
No. No, no, no. We’re not doing this. “Been a what, Owen?” And what is he even doing there? He shouldn’t be there. He’d gone home. It had only been Hannah in the house. Hannah, and the kids, and--
“What’s going on?” Dani, in Jamie’s t-shirt, hair rumpled, a mark just above her collar where Jamie had bitten a little too hard. Dani, looking exactly as she should right now--sleepy, and perfectly mussed from hours of good sex, and free.
Dani, at the start of the life they should have lived. Blue eyes. Unhaunted. Beautiful.
“Don’t,” she tells the phone line. “Don’t say it.”
Dani is moving more quickly now, waking faster than either of them would like, pressing her head close to Jamie’s so they both can hear when he ignores this command.
“The kids are gone. There was--there was something--the lake. I don’t know.”
“What about the lake?” Dani asks sharply. Her hand is on Jamie’s back, pressing hard. “Owen.”
“I don’t know,” he says, and his voice is so helpless, Jamie closes her eyes against it. “I don’t know. I had a dream. I came back--thought I was just being silly, that Hannah would--but Hannah isn’t here. I don’t know where she is. She’s not--and the kids. Miles. Something is wrong with Miles.”
“Peter,” Jamie says, almost not caring that this is the magic word to undo it all. Free. She was fucking free.
"Flora,” Dani presses, determined to make sense of this insanity. “Where is--”
“The lake,” Owen repeats. “She took her. Into the lake. She’s--I’m so--there’s nothing to be done. I tried. I tried for almost an hour.”
Owen, paddling in helpless circles in the dark. Owen, thrashing under the waves in a button-down shirt and jeans, the water filling up his shoes, the water combing reckless fingers through his hair. Owen, watching Flora bob under, never to swim back to shore.
Jamie bows her head against the wall, her stomach sick. Wrong day. Wasn’t meant to happen tonight. Was meant to be days from now, was meant to be different, Flora wasn’t--
“What are you talking about?” Dani has pried the phone from her grasp, is speaking into it with the unwavering steadiness Jamie has heard her use with the kids. “Owen. Slow down.”
Jamie, her forehead still pressed to the wall, doesn’t need to hear it. She thinks she can imagine just fine how it all played out without Dani in that house. Thinks she knows all too well how Peter Quint would have jumped at the opportunity to get those kids alone--to take Miles--to press Rebecca into doing the same to Flora.
And Rebecca, who was always so much kinder than Quint could imagine, wouldn’t. Rebecca would have tried to fake it. Tried to help Flora past the beast wearing her brother’s skin. Tried to help Flora--
“Right into her,” she hears Owen’s tinny voice say, apparently for the third or fourth time. He does not seem to be doing well. “Right into her, she walked. I don’t know--what it was--what she was--”
“The Lady,” Jamie says tonelessly to the wall. Dani, hand shaking so badly, the receiver jitters against her cheek, looks to her with perfect uncertainty.
“What? Jamie, who--”
“The Lady,” Jamie repeats. “The one who haunts that fucking house. The one Flora was always so scared of. Took her into the lake, I’d wager. Drowned her.”
“Drowned?” Dani repeats shrilly. “Don’t be--don’t say--no one was drowned--”
But Owen is silent, save for the soft sobs trailing over the line, and Hannah is gone, and it’s all too late. It’s all too wrong.
You can save her, the magic seems to whisper, malicious in its delight. But at what cost, Jamie? What cost is worth paying to keep Dani Clayton alive?
Anything, she’d have said before tonight. Anything at all.
“No,” she says now, aware of how weary she feels, of how broken she sounds. “No. Not this. Dani wouldn’t want this.”
“What wouldn’t--Jamie, what are you talking about?” Dani sounds frustrated. Anguished. There is an image in her head, Jamie knows, Flora’s tiny body in a pink nightgown, floating facedown.
The one in Jamie’s is clearer. More familiar in a tactile way. Not floating facedown, but stretched in eternal repose at the bottom. Weighted. Staring. Permanently.
“My fault,” Jamie says in that same flat voice. Owen is openly sobbing now, no words left to him, and Dani slowly sets the phone down. She turns instead to Jamie, her hands reaching, a brand-new instinct for comfort already worked into her skin.
“Jamie. Don’t say that. You couldn’t have--”
“I came back,” Jamie says. “For you. To save you.”
Dani opens her mouth, perplexed, manages, “That doesn’t make any sense. Jamie, it’s the shock. What are you--”
“I came back,” Jamie repeats exhaustedly, letting herself slide to the floor, letting herself give up. There is no glitter among her bones, not yet, nothing pulling under her skin. If she keeps talking. She has to believe it will reset if she just keeps talking. “From 2007. Seven years after you die.”
Dani says nothing, her eyes wide, though she drops to a crouch with a hand on Jamie’s back. Jamie swallows.
“You’re supposed to be there. She’s--to keep her from taking Flora, you give yourself instead. And we leave Bly, for good. And it’s good, Dani. It’s wonderful. You are...we are so in love. But she’s there. The fucking Lady, she’s there. And one night--one night, when I’m not--”
She closes her eyes, letting it wash over her. How she’d woken before Dani could run that night--how she’d thrown on a brown flannel shirt, half-buttoned as she’d sprinted to the living room, catching Dani with her hand on the doorknob. Dani, who hadn’t been carrying bags, or even a jacket. She’d only stood there in jeans and a red shirt, looking at Jamie with bruised certainty in her eyes.
You’re not even gonna leave a note? Jamie remembers snapping, the exhaustion and the terror and the impending loss too huge to smooth into something sweet, something reassuring. She’d felt dizzy, the adrenaline of the moment almost knocking her flat.
Don’t. Don’t keep saying my name that way. She’d wanted to scream, wanted to throw up, wanted to grab Dani and never let go. This last, she allowed herself, wrapping her arms around Dani with a strength that bordered on panic. You. Me. Us. Right? We do this together, Dani. We always have.
Dani had been silent. Hadn’t fought her. Had, in fact, melted into her arms, face against Jamie’s shivering shoulder. Jamie had held on, teeth gritted against tears.
We do it together. You are still here, Dani. You’re not going anywhere.
How many times? How many times had she said it--believed it--meant it with everything in her. And how many times had Dani nodded? Tried to let Jamie’s belief grow large enough to fold her into its power. Tried to accept Jamie’s truth for her own.
She’d brought Dani back to bed, stretched out on that mattress which only felt right with both of them on it. Dani, who had pressed in close, had kissed her, had cried. They both had, then, though Jamie had tried to ward it off. Crying, she’d felt, seemed too final. Like an admission of how close Dani had come. How close the Lady had come to taking her.
They’d fallen asleep. Jamie had fallen asleep. There is no greater crime, she’s thought every night since, no greater tragedy. Orpheus looked back. Jamie closed her eyes. Both knowing, somewhere deep down, that so doing would mean the end.
But she’d been so tired. And Dani’s arm had been stretched across her chest. Dani’s wrist, Dani’s pulse thudding comfortably away, under her fingers. She’d know, she believed as she lost the battle with her own eyelids, if Dani moved. She’d feel it.
“I can’t,” she says now. “Lose you again. I can’t. I keep--reliving it. I keep going back. Trying to find the right way. To keep what was and what needs to be, and it’s just me, and I’m too--I’m not--I’m not enough--”
Flora. She hadn’t been thinking of Flora. And Miles, too, a tragedy so much worse than anyone will realize--Miles, who will look like a runaway. A boy with all the knowledge of a man, a child with a criminal’s cunning, can vanish so easily. No one will ever know that Miles is as dead as--as dead as--
“She takes you,” Jamie says bleakly, a single tear tracking down her cheek. “She takes you, and I thought if I could only run with you, I could stop it--“
“Can you,” Dani says. Stops. Takes Jamie’s face in her hands. “Can you stop this? Fix this?”
Belief. Reality. Does it even matter which one is bigger, which is more potent, in the end?
“I don’t know,” she says. Yes. Yes, almost certainly. “Dani, you don’t understand. What it’s been like. I--living without you has...”
“But we lived,” Dani says softly. There is the kind of rock-solid certainty in her voice Jamie remembers all too well, the kind that never questions or insults, only accepts. “Didn’t we? You said it’s been seven years since--but almost twenty since this moment. Right?”
“Don’t,” Jamie tries, with little strength behind the word. Dani is right. Dani has always been right about things like this. Belief. Reality. For Dani, they’ve always been one and the same.
Dani gets to decide. Dani gets to write her story.
“That’s years,” Dani says, smiling despite the tears in her eyes. “That’s years, Jamie. With you. With me. With--”
She doesn’t have to say the rest. That Flora is a child. That there is an innocence to those kids that was never protected as it should have been, because none of them had known. That, if Jamie has any power at all to correct this, she is not only obligated, but mandated to do so--by Dani’s nature, and by her own.
You love those kids. You always did.
“Will you go back?” Dani asks, pressing her forehead to Jamie’s. “When you set it right, if it--when she gets me again, the way you said. Will you live it all again with me, or will you go back?”
“I don’t know.” She can’t breathe. Can’t feel anything except Dani’s breath on her lips, Dani’s hands on her face, Dani’s skin sliding against her own. Dani, stubborn, strong, selfless Dani.
You don’t get to decide who lives and who doesn’t.
“I don’t--” Dani hesitates. “I don’t want to say it yet. And ruin it, if you’re still--but we’re happy?”
Jamie nods, not trusting herself. Dani sighs.
“Then I think I ought to thank you. For loving me. For giving me a chance to get it right.”
The magic is coming on strong now, as though it has been gleefully waiting for this moment--for Jamie to sit here, broken, with Dani’s sad smile pressed into one final kiss. The magic is coming on, and when she clenches her eyes shut, sinks into Dani again, she thinks, I tried. I got her out. I got her free, and it doesn’t--it didn’t--I don’t know what to--
Her knees don’t ache.
Her third finger is bare.
The Lady is pressed against the inside of the mirror now, not so much a reflection as someone trapped beneath a sheet of ice. Her hands flex against the glass, the whorls of her fingerprints long worn to nothing by centuries of water. There is a certain silent assertion in the spread of those hands, which grasped--will grasp--are confident in their grip around Dani Clayton’s lifeline. Dani, who gets to decide. Viola, who always has, and always will.
It’s the story, Jamie. You carry it, you tell it, but it is our story, Jamie. Whether you beat yourself against the walls of time until you’re bloody, whether you admit defeat now, that doesn’t change. It’s the story. You’re only the teller.
Jamie reaches out, taps the glass once with the tip of her finger.
“Fuck,” she says succinctly, the words jagged in her throat, “you.”
She rears back, fingers curling, and punches the glass hard enough to crack open her knuckles.
She lets it play out. Every paragraph. Every chapter. She makes the tiniest changes along the way--Owen, urged to say goodbye; Hannah, pressed to admitting her love; a bonfire, with the three of them giving a mostly-unwitting farewell to the housekeeper who deserves so much more--but the rest, she leaves be. The mirrors remain uncovered. Dani’s private exorcism is her own. She even leaves after that first kiss, stays away the requisite days, pretending to feel too much shame to set foot back at Bly.
Dani comes to her, in the greenhouse, armed with terrible coffee and a stubborn need to be heard. Dani comes to her, and they plan a date that will not go quite that way--Jamie will not risk it again, will not risk taking Dani from these grounds before the proper time; there’s no telling how many ways the others might go, if she keeps at it. No telling if the house might burn down this time--if one of the kids might fall from the parapet--if it might be worse each time than before. A hundred deaths on Jamie’s conscience. A hundred selfish decisions leading to gravesites. Her belief, shaping reality in the ugliest of ways.
She lets it play out. Every paragraph. Every chapter. And she tries, she really does, to enjoy it.
Tries not to see the Lady, creeping ever closer.
Tries not to feel the certainty in her bones.
Running out of chances, that certainty says.
Nothing left for it, that certainty says.
Maybe not a do-over at all, then--maybe only the cruel kindness of one final goodbye.
Instead of fighting it, she tries to let it wash over her as it had the first time ‘round. Tries to remember being young and brash, thinking she understood it all--the beauty of death, the value of honesty, the way someone can, every so often, still be worth all the bad the world has to give. She’d thought herself so worldly back then. Thought she believed what she was selling.
The moonflowers bear witness again, as they were always meant to, and she tells her story. Talks to shadows. To Dani. There is no glass out here, no reflection, nowhere for the Lady to lurk, and she lets herself wrap Dani’s kiss around her like a shield.
They are forged in Dani’s bed once more, and Jamie doesn’t fixate on how best to go about it--on how to imbue this new experience of Dani’s with thirteen years of home. She only lets herself love Dani without thought, without pressure, understanding on some too-deep level that it might be the first time--or the very last. Knowing that the only thing that matters is now.
It might, she thinks, as Dani sighs into her mouth, be the first time she truly believes one day at a time. Truly. If it’s all she’s got, she might as well.
The first time, she’d fallen asleep hard--her body satisfied, she’d been able to stay awake only for an hour or so of bleary conversation. Tonight, she does not sleep at all. She reclines, one hand propped under her head, watching Dani’s face as she asks all the questions to which she already knows the answers. Favorite school subject. Favorite food. Worst sound you’ve ever heard. First concert.
It’s like watching a comfort movie, Dani happily answering each in thoughtful turn--and volleying questions back. Favorite color. Ugliest shirt you’ve ever owned. Best birthday present. Worst fear.
“Losing you,” Jamie says honestly. Dani raises her eyebrows.
“Now who’s the flirt? You’ve already charmed the pants off me--the British pants, even.”
Jamie laughs, kisses her quickly--then more slowly, pleased when Dani presses against her thigh, rolling her hips almost languidly in an easy rhythm. It’s so like their life together, in those early days--so like Saturday mornings spent in bed, stumbling out to the kitchen for peanut butter and toast before pulling the blankets back over their heads. It’s so like home, and though Dani has laughed off her phrasing as just another bit of banter, as Jamie hiding the truth beneath something pretty, she thinks Dani feels it already. How well they fit. How much sense they make. How a person can be shaped so much like shelter after so little time, a safe space built of bones and kisses and heartbeats.
Dani may not know, truly, what Jamie has been going through--but Dani is special, all the same. Dani, who is wired in all the right ways for a ghost story. Dani, who is wired in all the right ways to be as magic as a human woman is able.
Too easy, Jamie thinks exhaustedly, to sanctify a woman in death. Dani isn’t a magician. Dani isn’t a spell made flesh. Dani is only the most brilliant, beautiful person Jamie’s ever known, and the universe is so dedicated to punishing those most brilliant, those most beautiful, those most full of belief.
Dani dozes off, eventually, and Jamie watches her sleep. If it’s the epilogue--if this really is the one and only night they will ever get without the burden of a beast in the jungle--she aims to enjoy every last second. It’s only right.
Dani, she thinks, looks so free in sleep. Dani looks as free as she always should have been, in a life made by fair hands.
“I love you,” she says quietly, knowing Dani will not remember, “with every piece of me left.”
It’s hard, living out a day you know to be final. Harder than she had ever imagined. Was this how Dani felt?
Was this what it was like for Dani, waking that morning--knowing she’d already skidded too close to the edge to be saved, knowing Jamie was never going to stop fighting for her until the choice was taken out of her hands? Did she wake and watch Jamie sleep, fingertips tracing brow and nose and lips until Jamie squirmed unconsciously away from the tickle? Did she curl in close, counting the breaths, her palm set between Jamie’s breasts to memorize every slow thud of her heart?
Did the sun feel just a little brighter than it should have? Did the air feel just a little more crisp? Had she looked out the window and thought, Always knew it was green, but this is unreal?
It’s like walking to the edge, she thinks, as Dani stirs. Like walking right up and peering over, letting her stomach turn over on itself.
“You been awake long?” Dani asks--not first thing. First thing was a kiss, and then another, hands roaming soft skin without any rush to an endpoint. First thing was a yawn, and a stretch, letting her limbs fall across Jamie without much care for grace.
“No,” Jamie lies, though she’s watched every phase of the night play across Dani’s face--the moonlight, the fade to dawn, the leisurely drag of daylight beneath the usual gray cloud cover.
Dani moves differently today--a little taller, a little more airy. She smiles sheepishly as Jamie watches her dress, flapping a hand toward the bed.
“Gonna lie there all day?”
“Be boring on my own,” Jamie says, and catches the t-shirt Dani tosses to her. One day. Last day. She’ll be damned if she loses a minute of it.
For her, it’s the end of the line. For Dani, it’s just another day. A good day, bright and cheerful, though the kids are strange, Hannah is barely present, Owen is still fending off the newness of his own grief. For Dani, it’s good, and if it’s good for her, it’s good for--
“Jamie.” Hannah has appeared in the doorway, beckoning to her. Jamie, who has been hovering just out of Dani’s reach, pretending to inspect tile which needs no replacement, frowns.
“Something wrong?” Her mind churns over the last twelve hours, searching for missed shadows. Had Quint slipped in while she was in Dani’s bed? Had she distracted again from the kids’ misery?
No. No, they’re both right there, Flora teasing Miles with a spoonful of oatmeal, Miles cringing away. Everything is just fine.
“I just wanted to say...” Hannah looks a bit puzzled, a bit distant; she has, Jamie suspects, been spending more time off this plane than not. Ghost mechanics are the product of a story told by the living, but there is something undeniably flimsy about Hannah at this moment.
“Yeah?” Jamie prods, her eyes sliding back to Dani, who grins. Hannah smiles.
“I’m proud of you.”
“Of me?” Jamie repeats, brows lifting. “The fuck for?”
“It wasn’t easy,” Hannah says. “After...after Rebecca. I thought for sure you’d shut down. And this young woman, she’s...certainly different. I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect you two to get on.”
Jamie almost laughs. Hannah hadn’t expected it?
“So, yes,” Hannah says. “I’m proud of you. For letting her in. For letting any of us in, after the past two years. Loss can...harden a person. I’m glad to see you haven’t let it consume you.”
Jamie looks at her, uneasy, and that thought comes again--that Hannah is not here, not really, and hasn’t been for weeks. That Hannah, if any of them could, might see through her now--not Jamie-of-’87, but Jamie-of-the-future. Jamie so much more shattered by loss. Jamie so much more consumed.
“Proud,” Hannah repeats, and touches her shoulder softly. “You haven’t given up, and I’m relieved to see it. You’re going to be just fine.”
She says it like goodbye. She says it like she understands. Maybe, Jamie thinks, some small part of her already does.
I’m glad to see you haven’t let it consume you.
You haven’t given up.
Last day. Last night. Last chance.
She can’t take Dani out of this place--the plot will only fill in around their absence, Peter taking what he wants, Rebecca tripping Flora accidentally into tragedy. Those points are fixed on the map, those elements of the story concrete as any tale ever gets. Dani has to be here, has to face the Lady head-on. Dani has to stay.
Maybe not just Dani.
“You could...come back,” Dani says, and the script says don’t. The script says let it breathe. The script says kiss her now, leave her wanting, come back tomorrow.
“Tonight?” Jamie asks. Dani nods.
She imagines driving to the flat at top speed, scrounging for a change of clothes, sprinting back with terror dripping down her spine. Best way to an accident, probably. Best way to ensuring this final chance is missed.
And it is the final chance. Without a doubt.
This is the last stop on this ride.
There was a time, not so many days ago, when Jamie truly believed she had never seen a ghost. That she was wired wrong. That there was something in her that simply did not allow for it, save for in situations of absolute certainty.
This, then, must be certain. Must be. Because the Lady is in every pane of glass, every standing puddle, every polished bit of silver. The Lady is in the bathroom mirror, the windows of Henry Wingrave’s study, the windows of her own truck. She steps into the greenhouse, and the Lady is there, reflected over and over again, leering with that face like putty, and Jamie knows. This is it.
She had seen Peter, before the certainty of Hannah’s death.
She sees the Lady now, before the certainty of tonight.
So, no. No, she will not be coming back.
“Think it’s best,” she says, hands smoothly taking Dani’s, “if I just stay. If you don’t mind the company.”
Dani beams, kisses her, and Jamie lets herself pretend for a moment that it won’t be the last. Lets herself pretend for a long, beautiful stretch--Dani’s hand urgent at the small of her back, Dani’s cheek warm under her palm--that this is the start and not the finish line.
"Here,” Dani says, when the kiss finally breaks--Jamie has let it go on much longer this time, her heart cracking a little as Dani finally pulls away. “Here, come with me.”
She’s pulling Jamie toward the bedroom again, and Jamie thinks, It’s a distraction. It’ll only go badly. It’ll only--
Not that she’ll be able to resist. Not that she’ll be able to deny Dani, if Dani begins pulling the shirt over her head, begins kissing her in earnest again. There are some moments, she senses, she will never be strong enough for.
Instead, Dani is fumbling through her own clothes, pulling out a white t-shirt and a gray hooded sweatshirt. “These,” she says, “should fit you. And, um. Fit you. Unless you’d rather a sweater?”
She holds one up, grinning. Jamie shakes her head.
Good. A fresh set of clothes. A fresh set of armor. It’s such a small thing, such a small concession to the shifting nature of time, but she feels right, pulling Dani’s shirt on. Right, zipping the sweatshirt over it, touching her fingers lightly to the soft cotton. These are new. These are Dani.
Last chance, she thinks. Make it fucking count.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” Dani says, kissing her cheek. They’re at the kitchen table, chatting with Hannah over tea, and Dani has just tipped her eyes toward the ceiling out of nowhere. Jamie frowns.
“Want me to come with?”
“I think it’s Flora,” Dani says. “Sounds like she’s out of bed. I just want to make sure she isn’t sleepwalking again. Stay here, I’ll be right back.”
Jamie hesitates, watching her go. It’s too close a thing, her every nerve insistent that she cannot possibly dare let Dani out of her sight this late in the tale--but when she moves to push her chair back, the glimmer of magic rakes across her bones like fire. She gasps aloud, gripping the edge of the table, dropping back into her seat.
“All right?” Hannah looks alarmed. Jamie shakes her head slowly.
“Just a--splinter, I think.”
Can’t follow yet. Can’t go up and interrupt what’s coming, though she remembers Dani’s telling well--how she’d pushed into Flora’s room and found a dead woman on the bed. How she’d run to the hall to find Peter Quint. How she’d run to the attic, and earned a bash on the back of her head, a gag stuffed into her mouth, a terrifying half hour of ghosts speaking of her like she wasn’t even there for the trouble.
I have to sit here, she realizes with dawning horror, and pretend not to know. Pretend I can’t hear them up there, beating her. Tying her. Scaring her half to death.
I have let him take Miles.
No. No, that isn’t right. There has to be a way. She’s pushing against the table again, more firmly this time, and the magic rakes claws down her back. Digs itself into the joints of her knees, her hips, her fingers. Pain, not merely a tingle, not merely glitter, but genuine pain spikes under her skin.
“Jamie,” Hannah says, eyes wide. “That isn’t a--”
“Can’t,” Jamie gasps. “Explain it. Can’t. Don’t ask, Hannah, please.”
She can’t redo it. Not again. Can’t bear knowing Hannah has died on her watch again, Owen is missing his chance to love her again, Dani is barreling toward this night of terror again. This is the last go. It has to be.
Can’t get up, though. Not without her body remembering all of a sudden that it is fifty, not thirty--except fifty didn’t feel like this, either. Maybe seventy would. Maybe one hundred.
Maybe a woman already dead, already rotting, pushing through the entropy with a steady determination, would feel like this.
She leans back in the chair, closes her eyes. Wait, then. Wait it out.
Upstairs, Dani is running.
Upstairs, ghosts are winning.
Upstairs, time is ticking down.
Jamie sits at this table, staring Hannah Grose in the eye, gritting her teeth.
She doesn’t sit still. She can’t. Every few minutes--what feels like minutes, but might actually only be a second at a time beneath the thrum of rising panic--she shoves against the table. Little by little, the pain becomes bearable enough for her to stand. Eventually, she can even take a step. Then another.
“What is happening?” Hannah asks, hovering at her side, because Hannah is locked into something terrible, but it isn’t this. It isn’t shoving her shoulder against the skin of reality and forcing it open, wrenching through a door that was not meant to be pried from its frame. Hannah is breathing on borrowed time, because Hannah hasn’t yet looked down. The world has not yet solidified around her.
Jamie is, now, at the last minute, trying to rewrite a certainty.
And it hurts. Her knees ache. Her fingers throb. There is a migraine buckling up the back of her head, a burn in her eyes, a tension in her back. Time does not want to be rewritten. The past does not want to let go.
Gravity, it seems, is an enemy only a fool would face.
But something put her here. Something woke her up in that bathroom in 1987, with brown hair, with steady hands, with a Blondie t-shirt and a second chance. Something did--and maybe that something only wanted to point and laugh, watch the pitiful woman stumble toward tragedy all over again, but that isn’t the point. The point is, something did this. And, even if it did it for awful reasons, with no sincerity at all, it did not calculate for this.
For what she’d do for Dani.
There are limits, sure--for other people. For the kids, for Owen, for people whose lives are meant to go on beyond the grip of this house. Limits to what she’ll do, if it means letting them drown.
But for herself? For Jamie once-Taylor, now-Clayton, who dove deep and screamed until her lungs tore beneath the waves? For a woman who has been living the best she can for seven years, knowing it’s a half-life, knowing it will never quite be enough?
A little pain. A little screaming agony. A little reality dragging hot talons down her bones.
It means nothing at all.
She was my anchor, said Owen a lifetime ago, and a few nights ago, and in her mind forever and always. He’d meant it as a double-edged sword--an anchor holds a person down, as much as keeps them steady--but right now, it feels like a boon. It feels like exactly what she needs. Gravity is pulling, but an anchor is firm, even then. Even now.
“Jamie. I really think you should sit. I really think I should call a--”
“Owen,” Jamie says. Hannah freezes. “Call Owen. Tell him he’s needed. Henry will be here, too, soon.”
“Henry.” It’s plain Hannah thinks she’s lost it, but that’s fine. It’s all fine, so long as she can keep inching along, step by painful step.
“Just--call him, Hannah. And...and thank you. For everything.”
There are two paths, she knows, as she fumbles out of the kitchen and stops, leaning heavily on the wall. Upstairs, where Dani is--upstairs, where the play is still running, though she couldn’t guess what stage they’ve reached by now--and she could try. Could force her stiff legs to take the stairs, her head pounding, her body aching in ways she’s never felt in her life.
Or: the quicker path. The wiser path. Not to reach Dani where she will be dropped unceremoniously in the forbidden wing, but to cut off the route she’ll take next. It’ll take a minute, either way--Jamie is in no state to sprint now, as she had that night so long ago, screaming Dani’s name--but if she starts now...if she’s persistent...
And do what? she thinks as she hauls herself out the front door, down the familiar path. What comes next, when you’re swaying in that bloody lake again?
Doesn’t matter. Can’t matter, not until she’s there. The burn is a blister now, though she can see no sign of the damage on her skin--save for bruising around her knuckles, where she struck out at a reflection and succeeded only at shattering a mirror. Nothing more than that, no rash or sore or tattered flesh. No broken bones. No bloody wound.
But it hurts. Oh, it hurts as she limps along, and every step she takes--every step she puts between herself and the house--hurts a little more. She hears herself making a low sound under her breath--a sort of whimper, a sort of curse--and realizes she’s repeating, “Us, us, us” like a metronome.
Us, as she crosses the lawn.
Us, as she catches sight of the lake.
Us, collapsing onto the shoreline.
She is thirty, and she is fifty, and she is ageless, hunched here in Dani’s borrowed clothes and days-worn jeans. She is aching, and she is agony, and time is beating against her with fists, with claws, with knives.
Gravity, unwilling to go quietly.
Time, unwilling to rewrite.
Time, which has always felt linear--like chapters--like dominos--like certainty. Except, hasn’t she learned otherwise? Doesn’t she know full-well that time can be mapped over again? That she can change it in small, important ways--give a man his goodbye, give a woman her words, give a wife a chance at freedom? Time bends around her. Time gives over to her memory, to her devotion, to her obstinate need to fix it.
She doesn’t know what put her here, but she thinks she can guess. Thinks there is more to a story than even she knew, in the telling. She hadn’t planned it. Hadn’t come to California carrying it for Flora, just another wedding gift to set upon a table. It had spilled out of her as though needing to be told, as though something--magic, or a lover’s ghost calling her home, or the simple, sacred agony of seven years alone--had needed her to do it.
Her finger and thumb are clenched around the bare skin of her third finger, squeezing an invisible band. She leans forward, staring into the lake, waiting.
Little longer. Just a little longer, and it’s all going to be--
She expects it to unravel, now. To pull back the curtain, laugh in her face, toss her back to the start--or to the future--or to the bleak obdurate nothing that is after.
You thought, she imagines some faceless god chortling. You really thought I’d let it go.
She expects--but the thunder in her head, though dragging a thin line of blood from her nose, is real. The shiver of her hands, which cramp when she tries to close them into fists, is true. Her knees ache. Her third finger weighs with a ring only she can feel.
And the Lady is coming. Out of the dark. Slowly, achingly slowly, with little cause or care for rush--and there is Flora, yes. Flora, in her arms. Flora, screaming for Uncle Henry, Uncle Henry, help me.
Sorry, Jamie thinks grimly, pushing to her feet as the Lady wades into black waves, just me this time.
There are magic words. There is a spell. Dani said it without thinking, with the selfless need to put things right, and Jamie could do the same now. She feels them heavy on her tongue--it’s you, it’s me, it’s us--and the urge to bridge the gap in the story with her own body is powerful. To put it right by way of changing only one tiny cog in the machine. To start the whole thing fresh with a new sacrifice.
But who’s to say whatever put her here won’t do the same for Dani, in twenty years? Dani, carrying Jamie’s story instead, regaling a room of strangers with love and loss. Dani, building an unwitting door to the past with word and memory. Dani, resting in a hotel room after Flora’s wedding, desperate for another chance to do it all over again.
Couldn’t they just wind up in an endless loop, then? Jamie--Dani--Jamie--a love story haunting in perpetuity, haunting their own past, forever?
A purgatory of their own making, that. Anyway, Jamie isn’t Dani. Jamie doesn’t carry ghosts. Jamie, who has been begging for a haunting of her own for years, is not wired that way.
Jamie is built with a different kind of devotion.
The Lady seems, for a moment, to twitch. Not stop. Just twitch, as though the name Jamie throws--the name Jamie insistsupon, as no one in hundreds of years has--is only a stone tossed at her back. No matter, Jamie imagines the thing pulling her strings saying, no matter, the plot carries on--
“Viola,” she says again, more firmly. Reality, shaped by belief. Belief, shaped by certainty. Flora is staring at her with unblinking horror over a frail shoulder, and the Lady is walking, the Lady is walking, the Lady is--
“Viola Lloyd.” Jamie is in the water, she realizes. Up to her waist already. Her hands tuck into the sleeves of Dani’s sweatshirt, her teeth gritted. “Stop.”
The Lady pauses. Jamie, heart pounding, breath winding tight in her chest, steps forward.
“This,” she says, “is my story now.”
It isn’t magic. Isn’t anything like it. It’s the last desperate hope of a woman who has spent so long chasing ghosts, she’s almost forgotten anything else. But the specter is turning, looking at her with that blank face.
“Didn’t seem like it,” Jamie says. The lank-haired head tips a little, thin, strong arms firm around Flora. Jamie, though doing so spikes agony all the way to the roots of her teeth, grins. “Parts aren’t. Lots of pieces, belonging to lots of people. Lloyd and Wingrave, Sharma and Grose. Her, most of all. So many pieces, for a story this big, and none of it mine.”
The Lady--Viola, whose truth was washed away by time, whose narrative was thin and brittle and desperate for a reason--is gazing at her with perfect, blank unsteadiness. Jamie, every bone in her face aching, nods.
“But that’s not enough, is it? Not the truth of it. Not the story itself. That’s not all that matters.”
Dani is the hero of the story. Dani always was, always will be, if Jamie has her say. But every story needs more than that, more than the black and white of hero and villain. Jamie didn’t see it, at first. Didn’t see, even while spinning the words for young people who will, in the fullness of a month, forget her face.
Dani is the hero of this story, and she’ll take up that mantle every time without being asked, but someone has to carry that story on. Someone has to build a bed for the haunting she can’t fully understand. Someone has to tell the tale.
What is a story, without the teller?
Jamie is grinning. Blood is running thick now, caking onto her lips, trailing down her chin onto Dani’s white shirt. Her head is crushing itself between two hands--past and future, maybe; gods and ghosts, maybe--but she is grinning. And she is sure.
“The story, most of it, is theirs--yours--hers, but this part? The part where it becomes something more--something passed down? This part is mine. She earned that. Earned me giving everything I had to it. To make sure Flora never forgot.”
Flora is gazing at her, bleary, and maybe this part of the story is true, too--maybe it is Rebecca looking back from that tiny, terrified face. Or maybe that’s another bit of lining laid by Jamie herself, to make it all fit, a tiny invention to give root to something unhinged. Impossible to say. Stories, once told with enough faith, have a way of becoming memory.
“Dani saved her,” she says, wading ever deeper, uncertain if she’ll be able to make her way back when it’s over. “Dani saved us all, even you, because there was nothing else. Because sometimes you love hard enough to win the day, even if you lose a little something for it. And you were the same, way I told it. Too stubborn. Too goddamned stubborn.” Both of you, she thinks with a pang like anger, like remorse, like hope, deciding to write it your way.
The copper is in her mouth, running down her throat. Her eyes are beginning to lose focus. She is in it now, weaving the story from inside its walls, making sense of it one word at a time. Telling it as only the dead can.
Can Dani hear her?
Little further. Little more.
“Know what I’ve been hearing my whole fuckin’ life? That same word. Stubborn. Never knew how to let go. Never knew when to say when. Dani was always better at that. Dani was always built to accept it. Me? I’d have kept swimming--kept walking--until it killed me. Wouldn’t have fixed anything, wouldn’t have changed it. Needed something more.”
Viola is drifting nearer. Waiting, Jamie senses, for words that will never come. She’s too goddamned stubborn for that, too.
“So I made it a story. Took all those threads, all that lonely misery, all that loss. Made it solid,” she pants. “Because I needed a reason. Because I needed to believe. What is a ghost? A regret. Fear. A wish.” She’s stumbling. There’s nothing to hold onto. She keeps moving anyway. “A fuckin’ story.”
Viola stares. Eyeless, wordless, she watches Jamie reach toward her. Jamie, who understands gravity, if not ghosts. Jamie, who understands the need to protect a family, no matter how small, no matter how scrounged-together. Jamie, who belongs to none of it quite the same way, who can rewrite it only because she is meant to scoop these bones and choose what can be carried into the dark.
“This story,” she says, more certain than she’s been in her entire life, “is mine to write, for loving her. Mine to edit, for loving them all. She.” A stumble. “Isn’t the only one.” A stagger. “Who can decide the ending.”
She hears Dani, dimly, shouting for her. Hears splashing behind her, before her, all around her trembling body. Feels the ground drop out from under her feet.
“We,” she says, half underwater, as Viola shimmers before her, lightens, seems to grow insubstantial, “decide this time. I do. For her. For all of us. End of--end of--”
And she is gone.
Time doesn’t want to be changed. Time doesn’t want to unravel. Time wants to keep going--not in a straight line, but in a constant arc of always and never and again. The dead know it. The dead know all.
When Jamie opens her eyes, she is not standing in a lake. Not laying in the grass. Not sprawled on Dani Clayton’s bed.
But a bed. Yes. A bed, made with fine sheets, stiff and white and almost unpleasant against her skin as only hotel sheets ever have been.
She closes her eyes again. Breathes out. Reaches blindly for her left hand with the trembling fingers of her right.
A band, worn comfortably by just this motion.
She sinks back against pillows made for any head willing to pay, listening. Outside, birdsong. Beyond these walls, other guests, making their groggy way through the morning.
She’s got a flight to catch. A bag to pack. A mirror to gaze into once more, longingly, the last vestiges of the dream fading. It had felt so true, at the time--the fear of it, the excitement, Dani. The pain. The Lady.
Jamie, down a rabbit hole built of her own desperation. Jamie, shaping belief into reality, as only the storyteller can.
She isn’t the only one who can decide the ending.
A good story, she thinks wearily. Maybe not better than the one she’d imparted to Flora and her friends, but it felt good in its own way. Even the agony of breaking it open. Even the collapse under the weight of all the justice the universe refuses to dole out. It felt--
She is in a bed.
She hasn’t been in a bed in seven years.
She sits up, feeling her back creak in protest at the speed of it. Her hands brush her face, feeling familiar grooves, sweeping down a familiar haircut. Not ‘87. Of course not. That would be--
There is movement, in the bathroom.
She pushes to her feet, registering the clothes--not the blue silk she’d gone to sleep in, but an old t-shirt with Blondie splashed across its front. One she’d lost on a trip to New York in 1993.
Her eyes are frantic, search the room, and there--yes, her suitcase, right where she’d left it. And a brown bomber jacket. And a pair of boots she hadn’t been wearing yesterday. An old look. A look for a woman who hadn’t bought half her clothes trying to will a spirit in.
Strange clothes, and not just one suitcase, but--
She grips the doorframe, the bathroom door ajar, her eyes blurring with some fierce combination of fear and exhilaration. Not real. Can’t be real. Wouldn’t be--
She steps back sharply. The voice has gasped out, a hand flying to the woman’s chest.
“Jesus, you scared me. Didn’t know you were awake. Want to shower?”
Dani’s face never bore these early lines. Dani’s hair never had time to go gray around the temples, the gold standing out in sharp relief in comparison. Dani’s eyes, though, are unforgettable.
And blue. So incredibly blue.
She pushes into the bathroom, arms around a slim frame before she can stop herself--and there is more to Dani, somehow. More years, a few extra pounds, a solidness she hadn’t been able to hang onto in Jamie’s memory. She’d felt so fragile, near the end. Not so now.
Belief makes reality, and reality is solid, Dani is solid, Dani is--
Jamie is laughing, is kissing her, is turning to stare into the mirror--and the faces reflected back are theirs. She reaches out, gripping Dani with one arm, touching her own reflection with the tips of her fingers. Not quite the woman she’d seen in a flat in 1987, but not quite the one she’d left behind in 2007, either. Somewhere in the middle. Someone who had been allowed those extra seven years without the burden of tragedy, without grief etched into her every step.
Her eyes catch on the hand outstretched, the ridges of her knuckles--the thin white splinter scars from a punch thrown at an occupied mirror in a bathroom in Bly. She flexes the hand back against her chest, her heartbeat almost painful.
Dani, arms around her middle, raises her eyebrows at the glass. “You’re being weird.”
“What’s weird?” What isn’t? The last thing she remembers is-- “Had a dream. A really strange...dream. Dani. Did it happen?” Though she knows, doesn’t she, she can’t not know, not with new scars--not with the memory of that night--not with her own much-younger voice still ricocheting back to her. She isn’t the only one--
“I could ask for a little more specificity,” Dani says lightly, reaching for her toothbrush. Jamie rubs a hand beneath her nose, remembering vividly the thick copper rush staining her face.
“That night. With the--with the Lady--you’re--”
Dani raises her eyes to meet Jamie’s, her face pulling into a frown. “What made you think of that?”
“Dream,” Jamie repeats. “But it wasn’t just--I mean--I can’t remember...”
She can’t remember. What came next. What unfolded after sagging into the water, hearing Dani splash in after. There’s...nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing new, anyway, nothing to explain how that branch of the story had forked.
She reels back against the lip of the tub, sinking down, not caring at all as the remnants of Dani’s shower soaks into her pajama bottoms. “I don’t. I can’t--”
“Jamie?” Dani looks worried now. “What’s going on?”
It spills out of her, and with every word, she tightens her shoulders, her fists, expecting agony to buzz down her bones. Nothing comes, not the barest glimmer of magic. There is only Dani, seated beside her on the damp edge of the tub. Dani’s hand in her own. Dani’s ring, bright in the glare of the bathroom light.
“So...you don’t remember any of it?” Dani bites her lip. “Any of it. The last twenty years.”
“I remember,” Jamie says, almost defensively. “I remember twenty years. Just not...maybe not...these twenty years. I mean--I remember the bonfire, for Hannah.”
Dani nods. “And offering to keep me company when I went back to America? You were pretty shaken up, but you were adamant. Stubborn, really.”
Jamie closes her eyes, scrounging back through the years. “We saw...Maine. And...Boston...and Florida...” She presses her face into her hands. What would you give, to save her? What would you give up? “Oh god, did we live two completely different lives?”
“No,” Dani says. “No, that’s right. It seemed silly, to go from Boston to Florida, but you wanted to--”
“See the turtles,” Jamie fills in. Her breath is coming fast, humming through her like jet fuel. Dani presses a hand to her chest, seeking calm, and she breathes out more slowly. “We settled in Vermont. Because I--”
“Always thought snow sounded nice. Ever since you were a kid, and saw White Christmas,” Dani fills in. “We got a place. You opened a flower shop. Remember? The Leafling?”
“Of course I--wait, I opened? We. Didn’t we?”
“Well,” Dani laughs, “in the spirit of marriage, what’s yours is mine, but I don’t have much time to work the counter. What with...teaching and everything. You really don’t remember?”
A sacrifice, Jamie almost says. A sacrifice for a sacrifice. Dani’s life for some of their years together. For some of the memories she might have held most dear. It’s only fair.
But Dani is here. Dani is whole. Dani’s eyes are the brightest blue, and the rings are familiar, and her hands, holding Jamie like they’ve never let go, are strong.
“I said I love you,” she says desperately, “with a moonflower. And you proposed with a half-dead plant. And we--we’re--”
“Married,” Dani confirms. “As married as we can be. We’ll do it right, when we can, but I’ve never really cared. This is enough for me--”
“Yeah. Yes. Right.” Jamie stares at her, stares at the mirror, at the gray flecked through her own hair. Not spun silver now, but more than Dani had ever seen the first time around. “You’re here. You’re here, and she’s...not.”
“Never was,” Dani confirms, and that isn’t true. Time is not a straight line. Time is all-encompassing, is confetti, is impossible to pin down. That all happened--Dani and the Lady, Dani and the lake, Jamie’s many paths to this end. It happened. It was real. She remembers.
A person can change the story--can cheat death--can decide, through the fierce willpower of the truly obstinate, not to let the preordained path win. Viola Lloyd proved it once. Jamie Taylor, once again. But time is not linear. Everything that was is, even if--
“Do they remember?” she asks. “Flora and Miles. Do they remember?”
“Only what you told them last night,” Dani says. “As a ghost story. Quite the ending, too. Sad. I’m glad you changed it, though. Gives the whole thing a little more kick, doesn’t it, when it’s bittersweet?”
“Last night,” Jamie repeats. “Flora’s wedding.”
“Is this afternoon,” Dani says patiently, though there’s still a flicker of genuine worry in her eyes. “If you’re up for it. Jamie, you’re sure you’re--”
“Good,” Jamie says quickly. “Great. Perfect. You’ll, ah, help me through it? If I get details wrong.”
“The groom is Jack,” Dani says, standing and reaching out a hand to pull Jamie to her feet. “Owen is still deeply bad with puns. Henry thinks scarves are his thing now, and we’re not saying a word about it. Anything else, I think we can figure out.”
“You don’t think I’m crazy?” Jamie asks. “For--for telling you I just--
“Think you’re surprisingly sane, considering,” Dani says with a soft smile, kissing her lightly. “You really...remember it the way you told last night? With me--with me--”
She can’t finish, her brow creasing. She looks, for a moment, like the woman who once told Jamie she could feel a storm coming.
Time is not linear. Maybe, in some version of the story, Dani is still in that lake. Maybe, somehow, she can still feel the tiny little movements from that timeline, from that set of choices. Maybe there is a version still-unsaved, a version who watched it all with a loving hand, pressing Jamie forward when time tried so hard to punish her for hope.
But here, her hands are sweet on Jamie’s skin, her laugh bright as Jamie pins her against the counter and kisses her neck. Here, she giggles as Jamie turns on the shower, protesting with very little authenticity as Jamie drags her--in a tank top and underwear--back under the spray. She is real, this Dani--she feels exactly as she should, tastes exactly the same, gasps and sighs and squirms in all the right ways. Jamie won’t ask if she, sometimes, dreams of a plane boarded alone. Jamie won’t ask if she, sometimes, dreams of a single sentence scrawled on folded paper.
The storyteller knows, better than most, that early drafts do not count once the book is bound.
“I love you,” she says into Dani’s wet skin.
“I love you,” she says as she’s zipping Dani into a sleek dress.
“I love you,” she says as they’re making their way down to the wedding hand in hand.
“You say it like I’m going to forget,” Dani says, bending her face gently against Jamie’s shoulder as if happily embarrassed, even all these years later. Jamie kisses the side of her head, her cheek, any spot she can reach.
“Not taking any chances, is all.”
There are years, she knows, unaccounted for in her memory. Thirteen years where the pieces might not all line up the way she recalls, where Dani will have to explain things she ought to already know. Seven more where a life lived missing butts up against a life lived in peace. Seven lost years, a sacrifice made to a gravity well she had invented--and unwritten--and maybe had been true all the while. Maybe.
“Owen,” she says much later, on a dance floor, with Dani tucked neatly against her in unhurried revolution. Owen, dancing with Miles, holding him firmly around the waist as the young man squirms, raises an eyebrow.
“Did she ever tell you?” She swallows. “Hannah. Did she ever--did you ever talk about how you--”
“Should have grown old together, surrounded by adoring grandchildren?” Owen smiles. “We did, once. Not soon enough, but she said...said life was short, and fear was silly, in the end. That love mattered more. The work of loving is worth the pain of losing--her words. May have borrowed them, for a certain speech.”
Dani is looking at her, reading the lines of her smile as only Dani ever has. Jamie shifts her grip, a hand spread along the base of Dani’s spine, and nods.
“She should’ve been here. If I could...if I could do it all again...”
“She is,” Owen says. “Maybe not the way we’d want, but...she is.”
He believes it. She can tell he does, though he has no idea how many variations are tumbling together inside her head. He believes, and maybe someday, that belief will resolve into glitter along his bones, words and love and stubborn faith opening a secret door to a man twenty years younger, gazing into a mirror. Maybe his chance will place him further back on the board, with more openings to explore. Maybe. There is room for more than one storyteller, after all.
Dani is still looking at her, eyes so very blue, and to Jamie, she looks exactly as she had that summer. Beautiful. Perfect. Full of glorious potential. Never, ever to be forgotten.
“I love you,” she says again, kissing her in the middle of all these strangers, and it is, at long last, enough.