“Jaaamie,” came a sing-song voice that only made her groan more.
“Come on, wake up,” Dani shook her arm.
The brunette, newly twelve, just pulled her pillow over her head. “Who let you in?” her voice was muffled under the lump of goose feathers, and she fought to keep her head covered when Dani tugged at the pillow.
“Mikey did. Y’know, you really should tell him not to open the door without asking who’s there. My mom said there’s a crime wave going on.”
“Not in this shitty town,” Jamie snorted, giving in to Dani tugging her pillow.
“Well, I wanna show you something in this shitty town. Or...near it, anyway. So get up,” a blush came to Dani’s cheeks, despite the word coming from her lips so effortlessly. It was the first time Jamie had ever heard her use such an un-ladylike word.
Sitting up, the twelve year old attempted to flatten her wild curls, “Dani Clayton saying ‘shit’. Must be serious,” her eyes widened as she released a sarcastic puff of air before she took in Dani’s outfit.
With a yellow ribbon holding half her hair up, long blonde tendrils fell over her shoulders that were left uncovered by her yellow tank top that was tucked into a pair of white, high-waisted shorts. She looked like the human embodiment of a daisy. Which reminded Jamie, she needed to ask Louise to help her start a little garden plot in the backyard for the summer.
“It is serious, so get up. Get dressed and brush your teeth. I’m packing you a pop tart and you can eat it when we get there,” Dani just giggled quietly, flashing the braces she was due to get off at the end of the summer. Jamie had never seen her without them before, so she was eager to see what her real teeth looked like.
She watched as she left the room, wondering what the hell Dani could be waking her up for at— she glanced at her alarm clock and groaned again— eight in the morning. But she got up anyway, trudging to her closet to pull out an old olive green t-shirt (that was a little too small, as she was apparently hitting her growth spurt), and a pair of black piped sweat shorts.
She neglected the training bra that her mother insisted she start wearing and threw on the clothes before brushing her teeth in the bathroom she shared with her brothers. And once her hair was combed well enough and her face was washed, she slid dirt-covered sneakers on over her socks and made her way down the stairs, still curious about where Dani was planning on taking her so damn early.
“Third grade sounds so exciting! What else did you like to do in school?” she heard Dani’s voice as she nearly tripped down the stairs over her untied shoelaces. But she stopped to tie them once she saw Dani sitting at the kitchen table, talking to Mikey as he played with a few action figures.
“We learned about the planets. I quite liked that,” he smiled, shyly nodding his head. Jamie knew that her little brother liked when Dani would come over. She would help him with his homework sometimes after school and even make ants on a log for everyone to snack on before Dennis and Louise returned home from work.
Jamie learned that the oddly named snack was peanut butter spread into the curve of a celery stick with raisins lined up on top like actual ants on a log. Jamie hated raisins, and she still hadn’t mentioned that to Dani. But she ate them every time.
“Oi, don’t get him talking about space or we’ll never get to leave,” the brunette chuckled quietly, playfully sticking her tongue out at Mikey after he did it to her first. “Mikey here’s gonna be an astronaut, aren’t you?”
“Yep!” he grinned proudly, “I’d like to go to Jupiter. That’s the biggest planet.”
“That’s right, smarty pants,” Dani smiled, ruffling his hair before looking up at his sister, “You ready?”
Jamie just nodded her head with her lips pressed into a tight line. She hadn’t really hung out with Dani alone too many times before. Usually when they were together, it was at school. When it wasn’t at school, it was at Jamie’s house or the O’Mara’s with Eddie. She had still never been inside Dani’s house.
Eddie was around most of the time. But Eddie was at Boy Scout camp for the next month and a half, and Jamie had to admit, she was looking forward to not having to share Dani’s attention for a while. She knew once he came back, things would go back to normal.
“Be good for Denny, okay? Mum and Dad will have a cow if you nearly break a window again,” she pointed a finger at Mikey as Dani got up from the table.
“Where is Denny anyway?”
“In the attic,” Jamie rolled her eyes, “Dad gave him permission to move all his stuff up there and turn it into his new bedroom. So he’s fixing it up.”
“So now I have the big room all to myself,” Mikey beamed from the table.
“Yeah, and it was supposed to be my room until you lot stole it from me.”
Dani just smiled at their brief banter before shrugging her shoulders as she held onto the straps of her backpack, “Worked out better for me, I guess. I’d rather have you across from my window than two boys.”
“Don’t blame you,” Jamie snorted before leading Dani out to the garage where they kept the only bike they had to split between the three of them. Denny was hoping to get a job to afford his own soon, but that meant he’d be taking the bike to get to work until he could save up enough for a car.
“So where are we going, exactly?” she asked, wheeling her dad’s old bicycle towards where Dani was straddling her pink one on the sidewalk. It was so Dani, a pink bike with a white basket in the front and colorful streamers hanging from the handles. It was so typical, in fact, that Jamie didn’t even seem surprised the first time she saw it.
“You’ll see when we get there,” the younger girl sat on the leather seat and took off down the sidewalk, beckoning for Jamie to follow.
Jamie kept up, whether it was right behind her or right beside her as they rode together out of their neighborhood and onto the street. It was a small town and they didn’t live near the busiest part of it, so cars weren’t really an issue. Plus, all the grownups were already at work for the day. Or headed there, at this hour.
“Dani, seriously, where are we going?” Jamie looked from where she was biking beside her. They’d been riding for nearly thirty minutes and they’d just passed the town line.
“I told you, you’ll see,” she replied almost blissfully, laughing a little as the summer sun hit her skin and the wind blew through her hair.
Jamie had never seen her so carefree before. She actually had half a mind to question whether their sleepy little town was under a spell that kept Dani so rigid. Because the second they crossed the town line, the blonde had nearly become an entirely different person.
“This way,” about ten minutes later, Dani took a turn to the left into a neighborhood that looked questionable, even by Jamie’s standards.
It wasn’t a development like their own. The houses were far apart; Some big, some small. Like it was built back when people had originality and weren’t so desperate to fit in with everyone else. But it was like a ghost town. All the houses had overgrown dead grass in the yards, boarded up windows, crooked shutters, and empty canopy garages. Like no one had lived there for years.
“We’re almost there,” the blonde pulled her bike into a turn down the next street.
Cherry Tree Lane
Jamie read the faded street sign as her eyebrows knit together in confusion, still following Dani up the road that was void of just about anything but houses that stood alone. They must have been nice in their prime, but whenever they were abandoned, the elements had certainly left their effect on them.
When they reached the end of the dead end street, Dani pulled her bike to a slow stop, looking up at the house in front of them. It was cute. A light shade of blue. Black shutters, red door, black shingles. Nothing really special about it. It was even average in size. And it was definitely deserted like the rest of them.
“This is it,” Dani nodded towards the house in front of them, dismounting from her bike and dropping the kick stand while Jamie, with no kick stand, let her bike fall to the cracked pavement without care.
“Okay…” she looked to her friend, still a bit confused about why she’d woken her up at eight in the morning to bring her to an abandoned house.
But Dani just cocked her head in the direction of the mailbox as they stepped a little closer, “Look at the number.”
The brunette squinted her eyes in the sun, stepping closer to the mailbox to look at the number on the dirt-covered side. “Seventeen?”
“What’s so special about the number seve—“ she stopped to connect the dots in her head as the name of the street flew to the front of her brain. “Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane. Like in Mary Poppins?”
“Yep,” Dani grinned proudly, rocking back and forth on her feet as she clung to her backpack straps.
Jamie just nodded, a slight chuckle escaping her throat as she shrugged her shoulders, stepping back towards the blonde. “Okay, I guess that’s pretty neat. What, did you take me here cause I’m British or something?”
”No,” Dani rolled her eyes and took her hand, leading her up the long driveway towards the rusted canopy garage. “Mary Poppins is my favorite movie. This house was built in 1960, the year I was born,” she started to explain as they moved past the garage and towards the back yard.
Dani stopped walking, turning towards Jamie and letting go of her hand, suddenly embarrassed. “I know it’s silly, but...I dunno, I feel like I’m meant to live here, y’know?”
“Not silly,” Jamie shook her head, “Odd coincidence, but not a silly one. How’d you find this place anyway?”
“My dad actually grew up on Sycamore, the next street over. That’s where my grandparents lived, but they died before I was born,” Dani kept walking, twiddling with her own fingers instead of holding onto Jamie’s hand again, “He actually wanted to buy this house after the movie came out in ‘64. My mom says he thought it was a good investment, buying a house with a famous street name and number. Thought it would sell for a lot after a few years.”
“He didn’t know about the books?” Jamie snorted quietly and shook her head.
“I guess not,” Dani muttered, giving a rather glum smile down to her shoes instead of laughing.
Jamie just nodded, stepping through the tangled grass beside her as they reached the back yard where an empty in-ground pool was surrounded by a brick patio. She could only imagine the people who lived here before and what kind of parties they must have been throwing with a backyard like this. “Well, clearly there’s a ‘but’ coming, since you don’t live here now.”
Dani just breathed a light laugh as she moved to sit on the edge, dangling her legs into the empty pool. “But…” she continued as Jamie had suspected, reaching into her backpack for the napkin-wrapped pop tarts she’d toasted for Jamie’s breakfast back at the house, “Mom said some company came in and bought the whole neighborhood. I guess they were planning on building a shopping plaza or something.”
“Another ‘but’ coming,” Jamie chuckled, taking the pop tart from her with a quiet “thank you”.
“But, then the US started getting more involved in the war...and...I dunno, I guess money got to be an issue for whatever company it was. They bought all these people out of their homes for nothing. And now the houses are just...here. Empty. My mom thinks they’ve been trying to sell the whole property, but no one’s wanted to buy it.”
The brunette shook her head with another incredulous snort as she bit into the strawberry-filled pastry. “Should just let people buy the houses instead of trying to sell the whole chunk of land.”
“That’s what I’m hoping for,” Dani nodded, swinging her legs so the backs of her white sandals tapped against the edge of the concrete pool, “This house even has a conversation pit in the living room. I think those are so cool.”
“You can see inside?”
“My dad took me inside when I was eight,” she smiled at the memory, “One day over the summer, he told my mom he was taking me to get ice cream. But instead he brought me here, picked the lock on the back door and we explored the whole house. We even made plans for where all the furniture would go if we ever got to move in.”
“Sounds like a cool guy. No offense, but he looks like a stiff. Never took him for the type to pick a lock,” Jamie shrugged, dusting the crumbs off her fingers.
“Who are you talking about?”
“Your dad. The guy that lives in your house that seems to always have a tie on...?”
“Oh that…” Dani breathed a bit of a laugh, “That’s not my dad, that’s Tom. He’s...well, my mom wants me to call him ‘dad’. But he’s just her boyfriend. He moved in last summer a little before you got here.”
Jamie’s eyebrows raised a bit in surprise. The way Dani spoke so fondly of her dad, it made more sense to Jamie now why she had never met the man who was living next door. She’d known Dani for almost a year, but she had only been to her house once for her birthday party last September. And that was just in the backyard.
“He died,” Dani’s shoulders hunched a bit as she wrung her fingers over her white shorts, looking down at her lap, “My dad, I mean...almost three years ago.”
The brunette was quiet for a few beats, wondering what to say. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled after a while, squeezing her eyes shut and wishing she had something better to offer than a simple apology, “Was it, uh...was it in Nam?”
“No, he was just sick for a while. Too sick to get drafted, even. Something to do with his heart, I never really understood what it was. And my mom won’t talk about it,” Dani shook her head, gazing down into the empty pool.
They sat in silence for a while after that, neither of them really sure of what to say. But the silence wasn’t entirely uncomfortable. The birds were chirping in the trees as the morning breeze blew through the overgrown grass. It was a peaceful silence; One that neither of them would mind staying in for a while.
“Well, hey,” Jamie rested her hands on her bare knees, looking over at the eleven year old beside her, “Maybe when we’re older, the company that bought this place will have pulled the stick out their arse and you can buy it and make it yours. Decorate it the way you and your dad talked about, even.”
Dani gave a bit of a toothy grin as she tucked her hair behind her ear, “Yeah, maybe.”
“I mean it. Who knows, maybe when we’re old...like thirty, you’ll be living a practically perfect life here, Poppins. Like you said, you’re meant to live here.”
A heavy blush took over Dani’s face as blue eyes turned to face her. “You really think so?” she asked with a shy grin, surprisingly not appalled by the nickname.
“I’m sure of it.”
She held her arms around Flora in the back seat of Karen’s car pretty much the whole ride back to the house. Miles was keeping his chin up like his dad always taught him to. Eddie was always on some ‘boys don’t cry’ shit with his son, and it pissed Jamie off more than anything.
But at least she could offer some comfort to Flora, who held onto her aunt (the closest thing she had to one, anyway) for dear life from her little booster seat. The side of her blazer was probably covered in snot and tears, but Jamie didn’t really care. Years of babysitting Flora, she’d gotten a lot worse on her. She could handle a few boogers. And she certainly wasn’t going to let them stop her from comforting the little girl.
They pulled up to the house where cars started to line up around the cul de sac and rolled slowly into the garage. “Kids, why don’t you go get washed up,” Karen unbuckled her seatbelt and looked into the backseat, smiling proudly when Miles immediately got out of the car without a word.
“Go on, sprout, do as Grandma says, all right?” Jamie whispered down to Flora as Karen opened the door for them so Flora could slide out.
“Danielle, please go fix your makeup before you start greeting the guests,” the older woman spoke to her daughter up in the passenger seat from where she stood by the open door of the back seat, moving so Jamie could get out. And just like at the church earlier this morning, Dani sat still in her seat, unwilling to get out of the car just yet.
“I’ve got her, Mrs. C,” Jamie muttered quietly with another reassuring smile, sensing Karen’s frustration with Dani, not that she thought it was at all justified. The woman just nodded and sighed, disappearing into the house before Jamie walked around the station wagon to open the passenger side door again.
“Can we go?” Dani’s voice came through the open door the second Jamie got it open, not giving the brunette a chance to say anything first.
“Can we just go there? Just for...a few minutes?”
Jamie knew what she was talking about. But...she couldn’t understand why Dani would want to go now. What was the point? They hadn’t been there in years.
“Dani...you’ve got a house full of people…”
“Just for a little bit, Jamie, just for—“
“It’s across town. It’s a twenty minute drive. Your mum’s gonna go ballistic.”
“Jamie, please,” Dani’s eyes, usually a bright blue, were like a shade of grey; like she’d lost all the light inside her that made them so bright. And she knew that bringing Dani there would only make them darker.
Jamie just stared into the deep irises. Dani’s eyes were puffy and red from crying, her face was blotchy and pink, showing even underneath her makeup, and mascara tear tracks still stained her cheeks from the weight of the morning. She looked so desperate that Jamie could practically feel her heart cracking at the sight.
“Come on, then,” she sighed, helping Dani out of the car and onto her feet, shutting the door behind her. Dani wasted no time taking off her heels and dropping them to the concrete garage floor before starting a brisk walk towards Jamie’s truck, brushing past everyone who dared try to stop and talk to her. Karen was definitely going to be pissed about this, but this was what Dani wanted to do. And Jamie always did what Dani needed.
She followed her down to her green 1969 Ford F100, watching as the blonde climbed into the passenger seat (apparently remembering that the passenger door had a faulty lock). She ignored the whispers of “where is she going?” and “what is she doing?” from the crowd of people that saw Dani practically sprint to the sidewalk, focusing on just getting on the road and getting her best friend away from all this.
And once the engine was on, she was taking off down the street. She could feel Dani exhale in the seat beside her the second they left the neighborhood and pulled onto the main road. About fifteen minutes from now, they would pass their former neighborhood. And five minutes from that point, they would reach the edge of town.
“Thank you,” the blonde released a breath as if she’d been holding it all day, letting her hair down from where it was tied back with a black scrunchie.
“Karen’s gonna kill me, I’ll have you know,” Jamie chuckled now that the mood was a little lighter, “Gonna have to sleep with one eye open tonight and make sure she doesn’t poison my breakfast in the morning.”
“You’re still staying over?” Dani turned to her with what looked like relief.
“Course I am. Said I would, didn’t I?”
“You did, I just...with it being such short notice, I didn’t know if it would stay that way...y’know with your work and everything.”
Jamie glanced between her and the road ahead, hating to see her look so down. She knew when Dani was feeling guilty for something. She’d given her a vague apology this morning, and then at the church she mentioned Edmund’s death being her fault. It was pure guilt and she knew it.
At this point, she was sure she knew Dani better than she knew herself. She could pick up on her moods as if Dani had written them out for her in big block letters and underlined them three times. She just wished she had the ability to read her mind so she could find out why she felt that way.
“Some things are more important than work, Poppins,” she reached over for her hand, running her thumb delicately over her cold knuckles.
She drove the familiar path down the road, passing the town limit sign and taking a sharp left onto Maple Avenue. After she drove down the deserted street past Pine Street and Sycamore Road, Jamie uselessly put on her directional to take the familiar right onto Cherry Tree Lane.
If this place seemed lifeless twenty years ago, it was even worse now. Every house in the neighborhood had all been bulldozed to the ground back in ‘79. It was as if the people who owned the property had waited specifically for Dani to leave for college so they could destroy one of her dreams for the future.
Even without the dream of owning the practically perfect house at number seventeen, it had been Dani’s place. It was where she went to calm down when she felt overwhelmed. It was where she went to feel close to her dad again. The house gave her hope. And though the house she lived in now had been painted to look just like it (Jamie’s idea), it still wasn’t the same.
And now, the two women stared ahead at the vacant property as Jamie parked the truck, facing where the house used to sit. The concrete driveway lead to nothing but a pile of old wood that they didn’t even bother to discard. What hurt the most was that the houses were all torn down for nothing. Whatever plans they had that required them to be removed had fallen through yet again. And the carcasses of what once stood had been left to rot for the last eleven years.
Dani was quiet as she stared at the wood pile, her throat bobbing as she tried to keep her emotions at bay. She hadn’t been to this spot in a while. She only came back every now and then; And only with Jamie.
”Y’know, I’ve never even taken Eddie here?” she remembered the blonde looking up from her copy of ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ while they sat by the empty pool doing their homework. Back when being fourteen was both the best and worst thing in the world.
”I dunno. I never felt like he would understand.”
”And you thought I would?”
Somehow, every trip back since her special place was destroyed, it still came as a surprise to see the rubble of what could have been. Each time, it was as if Dani just convinced herself that the last time she’d been there was just a dream, and the house would still be standing when she arrived. And each time was a let-down.
“C’mere,” Jamie sighed with remorse, pulling Dani across the leather bench seat until she was flush to her side, draping an arm around her shoulders to hold her close. She still didn’t know what the point of coming here was. She knew it would only upset Dani more. But apparently it was what Dani needed.
And Jamie always did what Dani needed.