Dani is walking down a street in a seaside town in Northern California, and none of this is real.
There are posters on brick walls advertising Dirty Dancing, The Lost Boys, some He-Man movie. From the doorway of a restaurant, Belinda Carlisle is playing, in perfect sync with the open doors of Tucker’s. Dani is walking there, even if she doesn’t realize it.
She remembers when The Lost Boys came out. Eddie had wanted to go see it, and Dani had told him no, she had to study, she had to pass her exams and find a student teaching job and pay rent. So Eddie had gone alone, and Dani had admitted to herself that she wanted to see The Lost Boys, just maybe not with him. She glances around, but there isn’t an AMC anywhere she can see.
It feels real enough. There’s the rough sound of crummy pavement under Dani’s sandals and the feel of the sea breeze on her arms; she can even smell it. But it isn’t real, and Dani knows it isn’t real. It’s been several decades since a night like this ever happened, and the real Dani, the physical Dani, isn’t anywhere close to this right now.
The program-simulation-whatever it is had given Dani a mirror when she first turned it on. Told her to customize. But this is all new, and Dani’s imagination isn’t very broad, so she’s dressed simply: light denim jeans, a pink blouse. Blonde hair in a ponytail, Birkenstocks. It’s cooler than she expected, but she hadn’t really expected to feel anything at all.
Tucker’s is a big place, situated on the corner of a block. Music and people spill out from the inside, some of them lining the walls surrounding the building. A crowd of young people with teased out hair and colorful clothes light cigarettes in the alley, wave at Dani as she walks past. Years of friendly instincts force her to wave back before Tucker’s swallows her whole.
The music is even louder inside. The lights are dim, most of them neon and flashing. The dance floor is crowded and Dani can feel the sweat rolling off of people in waves, hitting her far back at the entrance. Smaller areas – booths, an arcade, what looks like a private room – branch off from the main bar, technicolored and drenched in alcohol. Dani’s fingers twitch as cigarette smoke wafts across her nose. It’s been… Jesus, years.
People jostle Dani, heading for the exit. The watch on her wrist buzzes, which Dani didn’t know the watches did, but – 10:00 PM. Two hours until the system switches off. Dani should have logged on earlier, maybe, but nerves held her back.
With a light step and clenched fist, Dani wades through crowds to the bar and leans over it, tapping her fingers to catch the attention of the bartender.
“What can I get you?”
“Um… rum and Coke, please.” It had been Dani’s go-to once upon a time. She isn’t sure she’ll taste it, but for nostalgia’s sake.
“Second that,” a voice behind Dani says, and she turns to find a woman standing over her right shoulder, hands shoved in her pockets. She’s wearing a worn-looking shirt with Blondie displayed proudly on the chest and jean cutoffs, her feet shoved into workman’s boots. Her hair is loose, but a bandana is tucked into her waist. She looks like a mechanic, or maybe a burnout. Not like someone who frequents Tucker’s.
The bartender slides two rum and Cokes across the bar, and the mystery woman snatches one up, talking a long sip dramatically. Dani watches the tension in her arms – tries not to, but it’s hard – and the way her throat flexes when she swallows – see above. This close, she notices the woman has dirt smeared across her cheek and neck. Without thinking. Really without thinking. Dani reaches up and rubs the dirt away with the pad of her thumb.
The woman raises an eyebrow. “Something wrong?”
Dani goes bright red, yanking her hand away and tucking it into her back pocket. “Sorry. I’m sorry. You had… dirt.”
“I often have dirt,” the woman smirks, and Dani notices something to her. An accent, English. Something rough and clinging to soft sounds, running past Dani’s ears despite the loudness of the club. She smiles, tight-lipped.
The woman looks her up and down. And okay, maybe the person who ordered your drink and stood still while you awkwardly rubbed their cheek isn’t the best person to make friends with right away, but Dani’s too nervous to really do anything else. Her mother always said she defaulted to “too much friendly” when nervous.
“Jamie,” the woman offers after a long pause. She extends a hand, which Dani notices is now free of dirt. In fact, all of her is.
“Oh, you didn’t have to clean up. I mean- well, I just figured- you know, I really don’t know why I did that.”
“S’fine.” Jamie smiles again, a little more tender this time, and in a blink of an eye, the dirt is back, streaking her skin subtly and dug into her fingernails. “If it doesn’t bother you.” She’s teasing. Oh.
Dani reaches for her drink and takes a long swallow, letting the alcohol linger. She doesn’t feel much, just a little warm, and is contemplating this when Jamie nods at her drink. “First time?”
“Drinking or visiting?” Dani fires back, meeting Jamie’s eyes, now a surprised bright. They’re green, Dani notices. Pretty.
“I meant visiting. Figured you’d had a drink before.” Jamie leans against the bar, drawing another sip of her drink. Dani gestures with her glass around.
“It’s my first time here, I guess. Never… tried it before.”
“And what do you think so far?” Jamie asks cautiously. Teasing, but also genuinely interested. Maybe making friends with the first person she saw wasn’t Dani’s… worst idea, maybe.
She shrugs. “It seems fine. I mean. You’re the most interesting thing that has happened so far.”
“The experience is only as good as you make it,” Jamie mutters into her glass.
Dani gives her a look. “Did you just quote the brochure at me?”
“Maybe.” Jamie smirks, abandoning her glass on the bar. She holds out a hand, which Dani looks at before reaching out. Jamie’s hands are rough on the palms and warm. She interlaces their fingers. “Fancy a dance, newcomer?”
“I’m not a very good dancer,” Dani warns her. Jamie rolls her eyes.
“That’s half the point, Blondie.”
Dani has never danced. Not like this, and not at all, really. She went to a few dances in college, mostly the mixer kind with couples lingering around the edges with plastic cups, talking mortgages and children and when is life going to start already. Dani had always wanted a little more than that, but, well. Now, it’s different. Jamie keeps Dani close, firing questions at her in between songs. Easy things – what do you think of this one? You ever played the original Pac-Man? Where did you find those shoes, honestly? – and they don’t make Dani think too hard about her answers.
Good that she doesn’t have to think, because Jamie close makes her a little dizzy.
Neither of them are very good dancers. Dani is mostly shuffling her feet, and Jamie is an uncoordinated mess, but what she doesn’t have in talent she makes up for in enthusiasm. It’s Dani who eventually decides she needs a drink, and Jamie follows her, ending up in a booth towards the outskirts of the club, a glass of Coke shared between them.
“So, Blondie…” Jamie starts and Dani shakes her head.
“Uh-uh. You can’t keep calling me that, not when you’re wearing that shirt.”
“Huh?” Jamie looks down, and when she sees what she’s wearing, chuckles to herself. “Shite. Sorry, I kinda forgot I had this on.” Jamie looks up, leaning casually against the side of the booth, facing Dani head-on. “Well, I’d give you another nickname, but I don’t know much about you, unfortunately.”
Dani gives her a challenging look. “You could just call me Dani.”
“No can do, I’m afraid.” Jamie takes a pointed sip of her drink. “Everyone I like gets a nickname of some sort. My brother, he’s Bomber. A retired pilot. I call my niece sprout. So what’ll it be for you, then?” Dani shrugs, not relenting. Banter – turns out she’s good at it. “Start here then,” Jamie says. “What did you do?”
“I was a teacher.” Dani says it with only a slight waver of her voice. Jamie might notice. But she doesn’t say anything.
“While I can’t very well call you Miss Honey, given it’s ’87 and all,” Jamie muses, gesturing out to the club. “Anything else?”
“I babysat a lot when I was little,” Dani suggests. She has a feeling she knows where this is going, especially when Jamie’s eyes light up.
“Poppins it is,” she decides, clinking the Coke glass against Dani’s nose. She just smiles.
“Okay, what about you?” Jamie raises an eyebrow. “What did you do?”
“I was a gardener,” Jamie says proudly, handing the glass back when Dani reaches out a hand. “Landscaping and the like, for the rich and powerful in the jolly land of England. Moved to Maine around ’96 and got into conservation. Sold plants wholesale for a little while.” Jamie shrugs. “If it grows, I handled it. That’s it for me.”
“Not working anymore?” Dani asks. Jamie smiles ruefully.
“Lung cancer.” She taps her fingers against the table, a cigarette appearing between them. “Couldn’t give it up, though. It’ll be… I mean, it’s coming, but slowly.” She turns to Dani, the cigarette disappearing. “You?”
“It’s complicated.” Dani punctuates her words with a swallow of Coke. Her watch buzzes again – 11:00 PM. Jamie glances down.
“An hour. You happen to be busy?”
Dani shakes her head. “Not at all, really. Why?”
Jamie stands, stretching her arms above her head. “Could do for a drive. I know a lovely spot by some cliffs. If you wanted the whole experience, mind.”
Dani stands up without another thought. (She did come here to experiment, after all. She can’t reasonably spend the whole time in Tucker’s.)
(That is one hell of an excuse.)
Jamie has a green Jeep Wrangler parked down the street from Tuckers. The gas tank stays full and the wheels make grinding noises against the dirt of the roads. They’re headed south, in from the sea. As they drive, the trees number more and more. Dani feels the world closing in on her, in the best kind of way. Jamie holds her hand across the center console, almost subconsciously.
“How far does it go?” Dani asks, craning her neck back. The city has all but disappeared behind them, not even a twinkle on the horizon. The clock on the dash reads 11:34, and Dani feels fidgety.
“How far does what go?” Jamie’s voice has gotten lower, softer, as they’ve gone on. Every so often, she points something out; a spot she knows well, the species of tree to their right, an anecdote about that particular mileage sign. Dani gets the sense Jamie has been visiting for much longer than she has. “You mean the city?”
“I mean… this.” Dani waves her hands in the air, at the foliage that surrounds them. “All of this. I mean… none of it’s real. And we’ve been driving for so long, I just figured…”
“What, we’d run into a force field and go careening off a cliff?” Jamie nudges Dani’s arm with a sly smile. Dani would feel dumb, but she doesn’t. Jamie just has that… way. “Nah. Far as I can tell, it goes as far as you want it to. S’a simulation, after all. Whatever our puny human brains want, the computer gods will generate for us.”
Dani snorts out a laugh. “That’s a… way of looking at things.”
“You’ll find I’m quite cynical.” Jamie clicks off the engine and glances around. They’ve stopped in a small parking lot, just off of a forested highway. In front of them, as far as Dani can see… trees. Redwoods, she thinks. Tall, imposing, kinda beautiful, really. “Cynical about a lot, but not everything.”
“Let me guess,” Dani smirks. “You’re not cynical about giant trees.”
“Not in the slightest.” Jamie drums her fingers on the steering wheel, pressing her tongue against the inside of her cheek. Dani glances over and catches the tension in her jaw. So she hops out of the Jeep, landing on the dusty path.
“Show me the way?”
They walk slowly, leisurely. When Dani slows to inspect a low flowering plant, Jamie stops next to her. “Redwood sorrel,” she says. “Sensitive to sun. These ones, the purple ones, are pretty old. The white ones are younger.”
Dani glances back over her shoulder. Jamie is standing with her hands in her pockets, eyes fixed on a point just beyond Dani’s head. “You know all of the plants in here?”
“Most of them.” Dani stands, and Jamie glances up from under the hair that falls in her eyes. “You… interested in a few tidbits?”
Dani scoffs at the back of her throat. “Yes, please.”
Jamie narrates the forest life. Talks about lady ferns and red alder and California hazel. Laments the plasticky look of everything in the forest – “I miss the real redwoods, those giant bastards. Never minded feeling dwarfed by them” – and tells Dani about trying to climb one when she was younger. According to Jamie, that’s where the scar on her right hand came from. “Scraped off a few layers of skin on a branch,” she says, looking at the pink line fondly. “I think of it like a battle wound. Tree one, me zero, but at least I’ve got this gnarly thing.”
Both of them ignore the persistent beeping of Dani’s watch, until they can’t anymore; it won’t shut up after 11:59.
“Will I see you next week?” Dani asks, her voice crooked on the words, trying her hardest not to put too much faith in a single night.
“Can’t reason why not,” Jamie smiles that smile, and Dani’s watch beeps a final, angry time, and the redwoods disappear.
At seven o’clock on Saturday, Jamie is in her house. Well, sort of her house. A house that is hers, that she claimed and covered in posters and framed photos and plants and soft blankets, and so far nobody else has ventured out here. She’s not sure how property ownership works in an afterlife simulation, but Jamie will take what she can get.
A quick perusal of her closet results in a Bon Jovi t-shirt and denim cutoffs, or: Jamie’s usual outfit. A quick perusal of her fridge results in a bottle of beer, or: the tasteless drink that she partakes in anyway. Things, here, are not like they are there. There’s the vague flavor of something, a hint of a scent or the brush of a texture, but it fades without ever properly registering.
It’s not like that when you pass over, full-timers tell her. Everything feels so much more real. Jamie will just have to take their word for it.
She’s contemplating a quiet night in – some records and a book, maybe a walk along the beach – when the wrinkled Blondie shirt she’d left on her bed from the week previous clicks. Dani. Might be back, now. Might want to dance again, or chat, or anything. Jamie downs the rest of her beer and digs out her car keys.
It appears that Jamie has made a friend. An online friend, an afterlife friend who could live in Fresno or Queensland and Jamie wouldn’t know the difference. A friend of the instant-connection type, who laughed easy and smiled tightly and acted like she had never been there before. Jamie is not often the type to be good with friends, but Dani doesn’t seem like that type either. Suppose they could be bad together, if it came to that.
In any case, Jamie is parking and walking to Tucker’s. She whistles, waves hello at one or two people she recognizes, full-timers and tourists alike. Jamie’s been on allocated time for two years now. 104 Saturdays, you start to get to know the regular crowd. There are some newbies. Dani’s age, she’d reckon, trying things out. They flit in and out of Tucker’s, the stores and restaurants, they walk out on the road to the Quagmire. Jamie spent one or two Saturdays there when she first started out. Enough not to go back.
Dani is in Tucker’s, watching a group of guys play Donkey Kong. Jamie taps her on the shoulder, hands her a Coke.
“Welcome back, stranger.” A smile comes to Dani’s face as she realizes. Jamie works her mouth, trying to think of something else to say, but-
“You weren’t around when I got here. Thought I scared you off.” Dani volleys back quietly, leaning in close to Jamie to say it. She may not be able to feel much, but the puff of warm breath across her ear as Dani speaks is unmistakable.
“Was at home,” Jamie murmurs as Dani pulls away, draining a sip of her Coke. “Considerin’ an evening in with the plants, but I thought I’d find your company much more stimulating.”
Dani smirks. “You prefer talking to me more than your plants? I’m honored.”
“The plants don’t talk back,” Jamie concedes.
They dance. It’s fine. Jamie, as a rule, is not generally opposed to dancing with pretty girls in nostalgia hallucination clubs, but something about Dani is different. Other girls – some of whom still lurk around the beach house like moths who haven’t gotten the hint – with them Jamie would sway along just enough to convey interest. It was more a game of pressing her hips in and kissing along their necks until they’d had just enough entertainment and she could drag them away for a night of more pleasant things.
Dani isn’t like any of that. For one, she stays a hand’s length away from Jamie, doing her own awkward foot-shuffle and hip-twist in time to the music, rather than pressing as close as possible. Periodically, she stops to say something about the music, get another drink, or just laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. She gets Jamie laughing right along with her.
Just like the week before, they end up tucked into a booth, empty bottles littering the table, somewhere around 10:00. They’re trading get-to-know-you stories, talking around the harder parts of lives long lived. Dani mentions a best friend from childhood, but he gets cut out of the stories around ’81. Jamie doesn’t say anything about her childhood, even though she’s willing to spend hours talking about Flora, if necessary. The only child Jamie’s ever liked is her niece, she likes to say.
“Alright,” Jamie drawls as Dani wraps up a horror story about student teaching in downtown Indianapolis. “Quickfire round.”
“Ready.” Dani straightens her back and locks her hands in front of her, mouth solemn.
“I had a fish when I was little, but nothing later on.”
“I had a dog, but he passed years back. Loyal chap. Musical guilty pleasure?”
Dani places a hand on her heart. “ABBA, always. Lemme guess… Bon Jovi?”
Jamie glances down at her shirt; she has once again forgotten what she’s wearing. “Nah. Well, actually…” She makes a face. “Yeah, maybe.”
Dani snorts into her drink. Something fruity the bartender had offered up with a teasing smile. “Favorite place you’ve lived?”
“Maine. Stayed there for decades, after all.” Between nameless coal towns in the North, London, and Chicago, Maine is without a doubt more Jamie’s speed. Life spread out over miles, clean air and space to grow. She liked the cold beaches and the seafood and the way people got to know you, over time. When the cancer set in, Mikey had suggested moving to Illinois to be near him and his family, and though Jamie, by principle, does not like being cared for, the space had started to settle into her hollow bones like a cavernous, shaking breath, on the verge of a cough. Now, she spends most of her days in a little townhouse with a postage stamp backyard. Flora tends to the garden, though. Almost as well as Jamie would.
“I live in Chicago now,” she offers up, for no reason at all. Other than- well. A twitch at the back of her skull whenever her skin brushes Dani’s. Jamie may be old and sick and retired, but she’s not incapacitated. Maybe in some ways but not in her ability to ride a train. And she can’t help thinking – in the worst, most complicating kind of way – she might like to feel Dani’s skin, for real, one day.
Dani chews on her straw. “Hmm.”
Jamie, regretting everything she’s ever said, with a gentle nudge to Dani’s arm: “How about you, then?”
Dani is quiet for a moment. “I’m in the Midwest.” A beat. “Illinois too, actually. Evanston.”
“Good to know.” Jamie reaches for her drink, but Dani stops her with a panic-quick hand on her wrist, fingers just tight enough to get her message across.
“But I don’t-” Dani starts, then stops. Jamie waits. She lowers her hand, and when Dani eases off, shifts so their fingers are intertwined. “I don’t want to- I’m sorry. Maybe you did. And I don’t want to seem like I don’t… don’t like this, because I do. You’re great, Jamie.” A flicker of a smile crosses her face, her eyes unfocused; once again, Jamie has thoughts. Questions. “Really great, I just can’t- I don’t know if I could do it if it was… you know.”
“Real?” The sinking in her chest is partly what pushes Jamie to prompt.
“No,” Dani muses. “Not real. I mean, this is real… enough. I can’t do it if the… I don’t know, disguise, I guess? If that’s gone.”
Something, then, feels like it settles. Jamie understands. The slightest bit more. “You don’t want me to see you. What you… are? Look like? I don’t know.”
Dani sighs. “Kind of. It’s really… complicated. Jamie.”
The way she says her name is like an admission, or maybe a prayer. Jamie leans over, facing her.
“S’alright, Poppins. It’s almost midnight. Just…” Dani chews on her lip, and Jamie wants to kiss her. Might, even.“Forget I ever said-”
Jamie is waiting outside Tucker’s by 7:06 the next Saturday. Dani sees her as she’s walking into town. She’s leaning against her Wrangler, a cigarette between her lips and giant sunglasses guarding her eyes from the sunset. She’s wearing ripped jeans, Docs, and a denim button-down over a Smiths shirt. When she spots Dani, she raises her eyebrows.
“A dress, tonight.” Dani gives a little twirl, laughing.
The reasons for the dress are threefold: one, Dani’s getting a hand of the whole customization thing and when they say the only limit is your imagination they really mean it. Two, this is Dani’s third Saturday, third Saturday – date? meeting? good time? – with Jamie, and she thought it might be nice to dress up a little. Some makeup, a blowout, and one of the dresses she always liked but never had the confidence to wear back in ’87.
Three would be advice from friends in college. Boys like dresses, they said. And your long legs are a blessing, they said. Drive them up the wall, they said.
So Dani’s not trying to provoke anything, but she’s trying to do something. She’s not getting kicked off without kissing Jamie tonight, is what she’s saying.
(A miracle, that Dani Clayton ever got this bold. But as her mother used to say, when Dani wants something, Dani will get it).
She intends it as a sort of make-up for last week, her unexplainable hesitance and the crumbling shards of fantasy that surrounded her when Jamie asked the question. She’s only just started this. She didn’t intend to get knocked away before she even started. By the system, Jamie, or her own damn ghosts, Dani will persevere.
“Where are we going?” she asks, gesturing at the car. Jamie climbs in, patting the passenger’s seat next to her.
“Beach,” she shrugs. “Redwoods, maybe. I just can’t stand another night in Tucker’s. Not a fan of sharing your attention, t’be honest.”
Dani’s cheeks are fire-engine red, but the blast of air over the top of the windshield cools her down quickly. She puts on a zip-up hoodie from her old school over her dress, and when Jamie notices, she chuckles but doesn’t say anything.
“So, why here then?” Dani asks. Jamie raises her eyebrows. With the sun gone, her sunglasses have disappeared, and her eyes are sparkling in the low light.
“Heh. I meant, why San Junipero? I’m sure there are… towns in Maine, or something close.”
Jamie laughs under her breath. “Believe it or not, this was the closest thing. And… well, I like the trees. The beach is nice. And the culture is… what I was missing in my twenties, we’ll put it that way.” Jamie indicates (even though they’re the only ones on the road) and heads west, towards the beach. She doesn’t ask why Dani chose here. She might have learned her lesson from last time, or maybe she just isn’t curious. Either case: Dani would answer the same. Something that she missed, something that she wanted to try again.
A few minutes later, they come upon a relatively secluded beach poking out into the ocean. There’s a winding path down sloping cliffs to get to it. At the top, bracketed by the wind and the endless horizon, is a fish fry doling out dishes to one or two other patrons who decided to leave the city behind for a Saturday. Jamie orders food and joins Dani a moment later at a picnic table on the edge of the cliff.
“D’ya ever wonder who works here?” Jamie muses, casting her eyes back at the brightly-lit shed. “I mean, I would not want to spend eternity frying fish and selling it to people for fake money.”
“Could be an AI or something,” Dani suggests, popping a fry from Jamie’s plate into her mouth. It doesn’t taste like much; the memory of a french fry more than the fry itself. Dani chews and thinks. Maybe later. Once I’m here for real.
The number of – dates, this is definitely a date – Dani has had like this she can count on one hand. So it’s a surprise, genuinely, to feel the rubber toe of Jamie’s boot along her sandaled foot a few minutes into their meal. She jumps a little.
“Shit,” Jamie mutters. Her foot retreats, and a second later is back; with a flip flop on this time. Jamie offers a sheepish smile, and Dani returns it.
Playing footsie with a pretty girl at a seafood shack in the middle of a California that only exists in her memory, Dani thinks. Will wonders never cease.
And it isn’t just that. It’s the way Jamie inches closer as they eat, and then talk, until their sides are pressed up against each other. It’s their hands, interlocking as they trade a bottle of beer back and forth, feet swinging over the cliff – the picnic table long abandoned. It’s Dani nudging Jamie’s shoulder as they walk along the beach, and Jamie nudging back.
They walk for how long Dani doesn’t know, but eventually they come across a house, big and white with its porch coming out over the beach. She raises her eyebrows.
“Was that there before?”
“It’s a simulation, Poppins.” Jamie waves her fingers in the air. “It’s magic.” Dani snorts.
Jamie drags her by the hand up the stairs, in through a back door to a warm-looking kitchen overflowing with herbs that have the slightest of scents. Dani knows within the first few seconds that this is Jamie’s kitchen, Jamie’s house.
Jamie takes her to the living room, where a record player gently spins The Smiths (“You’re matching your shirt again.” “Goddamnit.”) and photos cover every surface unoccupied by books or plants, most of them of Jamie at various popular landmarks or hugging a girl who ages throughout the pictures. Jamie’s niece, most likely, who she mentions a lot. There’s a young man and woman in some of them, maybe her brother and sister-in-law. In a few, Dani sees a Jamie older than the one she knows, with laugh lines on her face and grey curls around her temple, unruly as ever. There aren’t many of those.
Jamie steps in front of her as she observes, gently tangling both of their hands together. “This is me,” she says, and means it in more ways than just the one.
Dani’s watch beeps for 11:00, which is plenty of time, really.
She launches forward, latching onto Jamie with all she has. Her lips are soft and warm, even if a little light and foamy feeling, but the shape of Jamie is whole in Dani’s arms. She hears Jamie make a soft sound, of surprise or appreciation, before hands land on her hips and lower back. Dani sighs a little against Jamie’s mouth, and she responds in kind.
“Took you long enough,” Jamie murmurs. Dani groans, long and low as she presses their foreheads together.
“Yeah, but I did it anyway.”
Jamie walks them backwards towards her bedroom, and Dani couldn’t think of a better way to spend an hour.
None of it is really real, Dani is reminding herself. But it’s hard to hold true to that. Jamie’s hand on her hip feels real enough. The press of their skin against each other feels real, just like the slight scratchiness of Jamie’s sheets against Dani’s back. Jamie’s mouth against hers, though smoother than expected, is warm and pliant. Her tongue provides a pressure Dani didn’t know she’d been seeking, in real life or in her own head.
Jamie’s fingers intertwined with her own also feel real, very real.
As 11:59 creeps closer, Jamie rolls onto her side and brings their joint hands up to Dani’s face. “You’re very pretty.”
“Thank you,” Dani grins, blushes. Jamie scoots closer, throwing a leg over Dani’s, and after the last hour that shouldn’t be the most interesting thing, but it is. “You’re pretty, too.”
“Dunno.” Jamie ducks her head, scattering kisses across Dani’s chest and shoulders. “That was nice.”
Dani hums, scratching her fingers up and down Jamie’s bare back. “When did you know?”
“When did I what?” Jamie’s eyes peek out from under an unruly curtain of curls, and Dani pushes them back from her face. A softness falls around them like powdered sugar and warm rain, accompanied by the crash of waves against the shore outside.
“When did you… know. That you liked women.” Dani stumbles over the words, but Jamie is nonchalant. Not a muscle in her body tightens as she rolls onto her back, keeping their hands locked and resting on the skin of her stomach. She shrugs.
“Guess… since I was wee. Something was always different, you know. I- it’s a feeling, admittedly, that I don’t clock as a before-and-after, if you know what I mean.” Dani chews on her bottom lip. “S’one of those things that just… happens. Natural. Like a flower blooming. You… bloom the way you’re meant to, I think.”
“God.” Dani scoffs, and Jamie gives her a look. “No, sorry. You’re just so… grounded. That’s, like, the wisest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say.” She shoves Jamie’s shoulder playfully. Jamie takes the opportunity to roll over, settling on Dani’s waist. She props herself up on her hands, her hair tickling Dani’s nose and eyelids as she leans in.
“That’s what they call me. Wise.” Jamie leans down for a kiss, but before Dani can melt into it in any way, Jamie’s gone again. “But s’true. All of life is natural. There’s a reason people… decompose.” Dani fake-gags, and it’s Jamie’s turn to shove her shoulder. “Yeah, but there’s a reason. People are meant to go in cycles. Life is natural. If it wasn’t, we’d always be stuck in one place forever, and we’d never grow. Or bloom.” Jamie reaches up a finger, traces it down Dani’s nose, across her lips, around her face.
“That’s lovely,” Dani starts to say, but the beeping clock cuts her off.
The next week, Dani walks into Tucker’s behind the early crowd, orders two rum and Cokes, and finds a booth near the door.
Jamie doesn’t show up, and by 10:00 Dani figures she’s not going to.
But there are other places to go. Dani doesn’t have a car, and she doesn’t necessarily feel like driving one, so she walks: to the fish fry on the cliff, which is shuttered for the night by the time she gets there; the main strip, lit in neon and covered in wandering people, none of whom have seen Jamie; and down to the beach house. Dani gets as far as the front door before the beeping of her watch jolts her out of her search altogether.
The next week, she tries again. First to Tucker’s, where Jamie makes appearances frequent enough it gives Dani a little faith. Then to the fish fry, then the house. Jamie isn’t anywhere. Dani spends the rest of the night wandering the town, peering into storefronts and kicking up sand on the beach.
On the third week when Dani can’t find Jamie at all, she approaches the bartender for her regular drink and an answer.
“Where could I find somebody? If I was… looking for someone. Who I couldn’t find.”
The bartender gives her a look. “Looking for anyone in particular?” She’s a tall woman, with long dark hair pulled back from her face and a tight shirt. Everything about her is confidence, and in a different world, where Jamie and Dani hadn’t already met, Dani might stay by this bar a little longer. Right now, she won’t.
Dani casts her eyes around. “Uh, Jamie. I don’t… she’s shorter, and has brown hair. Curly? Wears a lot of band shirts?” The bartender’s eyes shift as she wipes off a glass.
“Yeah, I know Jamie. We used to meet up from time to time at the Quagmire. Before she gave it up.” The bartender shrugs. “Doubt she’s there, though. You checked her house?”
Dani nods. “What’s… what is the Quagmire? Jamie mentioned the name once, but I…”
“Are you new around here?” The bartender sets down her glass and leans forward, looking Dani right in the eye.
“Uh… yeah. Sort of.”
“I’m Theo.” The bartender holds out a hand. It’s dry, warm when Dani shakes it. She cracks the slightest of smiles. “Listen, you seem nice. And I know Jamie, right?” Dani slides onto a bar stool, not liking the direction this conversation is going. I don’t need to be warned off a playboy, she’s about to say. I’d like her anyway, playboy and all, she’s about to say, but Theo just laughs.
“Okay, two things. One, Jamie’s a homebody. She’s just so… down to Earth, especially when she’s actually buried in the Earth. She doesn’t really do the wild night stuff, at least not anymore. She’d much rather stay in. Has a whole VHS collection for lazy nights, and, like, her favorite board games ranked, that kinda shit.” Theo’s grin is teasing, but Dani absorbs the information nonetheless. Likes board games. Got it. “Second… if she’s got you looking for her, she’s spent enough time with you, she likes you. So don’t think she’s hiding.”
“I don’t,” Dani says, and she doesn’t. Jamie is slow and easy and in her Dani can see the jitters of a young adult broken and never quite put back together, but neither of them have been twenty for a long time. Jamie is seasoned, comfortable, and not the type to leave something without facing it head-on first. These are things that Dani is fairly certain she knows.
“Good.” Theo gets down to it, pouring Dani a rum and Coke as she talks. “But listen, Jamie’s been… I mean, rough. I’m a full-timer, myself-” Dani’s eyebrows raise. “Yeah. Decent gig, I’ll admit it. But Jamie’s been coming once a week for ages. Every so often, I saw her at the Quagmire. It’s dark in there, and hot, and it smells like sex. She’d dance and then find some girl to drag into some dark corner and forget with. I was never totally sure what she was trying to forget, but she was trying to do it hard.” Theo slides Dani’s drink across the counter.
“I don’t know everything,” Theo finishes. “But one day she came in here, sat down, told me to pour her a drink, and said she wasn’t going back. And she hasn’t.”
Dani nods. “Do you… do you know where she might be?”
Theo sighs, leaning on elbow on the bar. “If I were you, and you’ve exhausted all other options, I would check the trees.”
Dani runs out of time trying to find her way to the redwoods that week. But the week after, instead of wasting time at Tuckers or the beach house, she heads down in the direction she remembered them having gone.
The parking lot is empty save for one green Jeep Wrangler, the door open but the interior empty. As darkness falls, Dani follows the path into the woods, wading through low-lying plants and fallen needles. When she’s deep enough in that the pattern of trees looks unfamiliar, she calls out. “Jamie?”
“Oi- oh, hell.” There’s a thudding noise, and something small, dark, and flailing falls from one of the taller redwoods. It thuds to the forest floor, and from the underbrush, Dani hears a low, guttural “fuck…”
“Jamie, shit!” By the time Dani has picked her way over, Jamie is sitting up, rubbing her arm and leaning against the tree trunk. Dani kneels next to her, reaching out to feel for broken bones before remembering technically, neither of them have bones. “Are you okay?”
“Teaches me for not having my pain slider set to zero,” Jamie mutters, her eyes glazing over for a moment. A few seconds later, she flexes her arm, smiling. “S’more like it. Right then.” She looks up into Dani’s eyes, a smile that seems almost childlike spreading across her face. “Howdy. Wasn’t expecting to see you all the way out here.”
“This is what happens when you disappear for three weeks,” Dani glowers, sitting back on her heels with her arms crossed. Jamie, at least, has the dignity to look sheepish.
“M’sorry,” she says, rubbing the back of her neck as Dani crawls through plants to settle in next to her. “In my defense…”
“In my defense, I’ve really been wanting to get to the top of one of these.” Jamie pats the trunk of the redwood lovingly. “And I’ve needed… distraction recently.”
“Why’s that?” Dani, it seems, is incapable of keeping her hands off of Jamie if they’re less than five feet from each other. She’s already instinctually reaching out, bumping Jamie’s shoulder with her own, linking their hands and turning inwards. The heat of Jamie is intoxicating – and once again, Dani is reminded of more, one day, permanent.
Jamie sighs, staring up through the canopy of trees. Her fingers flex in Dani’s almost subconsciously, her ankle tapping against the ground. “My birthday, the Thursday before last. Turned 80.”
“Holy- Jamie.” Dani’s eyebrows raise. “Jeez.”
“That’s about right.” Jamie looks over, wry eyes settling on Dani, skimming over her face like she’s looking for something. “Doctors told me six months six months ago, so. My niece, she bought a koala in my honor.”
“You can do that?”
“Eh, Flora has ways.” Jamie waves her hand. “I think it’s one of those adoptable things. It’s sweet.”
“Yeah.” They trail off, Dani staring out at the low of the forest, Jamie’s eyes trained to the sky above.
“The stars. They’re… almost in the right order. I can see Sagittarius.” Dani glances up, but she doesn’t know constellations very well.
“Jamie.” Jamie leans in, resting her head a little on Dani’s shoulder. “You don’t… you didn’t go away because you didn’t want to see me, right?”
Jamie coughs, clearing her throat. “Now, Poppins. Whatever would have given you that idea?” Dani shrugs, and she feels Jamie’s smile pressed into the skin of her shoulder as a kiss. “I assure you. I haven’t quite gotten enough of you yet.”
Jamie’s guiding hand on her chin, and a press of their lips together. “Might never,” she whispers, and Dani grins.
“You know, I was talking to Theo last week.” Jamie groans, her head falling back to hit the tree.
“Theo is a busybody. What illicit secrets did she tell you?”
Dani’s muffled laugh falls more into Jamie’s collarbone than anything. Slowly, she’s migrated to become tangled in her once again. She never really wants to leave. “She was very informative. About many things. Such as… a VHS collection you may or may not have?”
Jamie huffs out a laugh. “You curious, Poppins?”
“Very much so.” Dani pulls herself to a standing position, holding out a hand for Jamie to take. “Maybe you… could show me?”
Jamie allows Dani to pull her in, taking the opportunity to capture her lips under the almost-real stars. “Oh, there are plenty of things I could show you.”
It’s one night a week, but Jamie’s lost track of time entirely. Everything is sitting at home, reading when she has the strength and sleeping most everything off, and blissful Saturday nights, spent tangled with Dani in sheets or under blankets on the couch. Switching between roving touches and kisses pressed to open skin to talking over whatever happens to play on Jamie’s TV.
“So,” Jamie says one night, one of the nights, a night with Dani wearing a loose-fitting red shirt and Jamie in a pair of boxers and a U2 t-shirt. “I am recently in my eighth decade circling this Earth. How about you, my lady?” Dani snorts, burying her face in Jamie’s neck. “Where are you on the racecourse of life?”
When she’s recovered from choking on laughter, Dani sighs. “I’m 74,” she says, pressing her nose into Jamie’s temple, aiming to distract her with kisses.
“Damn.” Jamie pulls back. “I’m a cougar.”
“Oh, relax.” Dani tackles Jamie to the couch, pinning her down with her hips as her kisses descend. Right before she can pull away the collar of Jamie’s shirt, she pushes up, jolting Dani away.
“Wait. 74 in Evanston. You don’t… are you around Westminster Place?” Dani shakes her head roughly. “That’s where my brother’s mother in law lives. Almost 100, that one. She’s tough.” Jamie sits up, pulling Dani so that she sits sideways in her lap. “Can’t live on your own, though. Have to have a caretaker to get one of the systems.” Jamie taps her temple, where, on her real body, a small circular device whirs away. Dani seems to tense for a second.
Jamie slides her hands under Dani’s shirt, running them up and down soft sides and around her back. Dani seems to relax more when Jamie’s touching her, feeling safe in knowing Jamie won’t let go. She presses close as she can while still letting Dani breathe.
There’s a part of her that regrets asking, but there’s also a part of her that doesn’t like lying. Or lying by omission, or holding back the harder parts when this far along, none of it really matters anymore. Jamie rubs along Dani’s skin, and eventually she opens her mouth.
“I’m actually at Evanston Central Intensive Care.” Dani takes a shuddering breath. “I’m not… I’m not at all like you think I am, Jamie.”
Jamie snorts. “Poppins, I’m five foot even with a face full of wrinkles and a head full of grey. I’m nothing like you think I am either.”
“No, Jamie…” Dani twists her fingers around the hem of Jamie’s shirt, pulling up just enough to brush her knuckles against the smooth skin of her stomach. “It’s… different than that. I’m not just… old, or sick. I’m not…” Dani pulls a breath in through her teeth, and Jamie tilts her chin up, meeting her eyes. “My body doesn’t… work.”
Slowly, gently, Jamie twists them. She sits back against the couch, pulling Dani so she’s parallel to her, their feet tangled together and Dani’s head tucked against her neck. “What do you mean, baby?” She murmurs, stroking her fingers through Dani’s long hair.
“When I was 26…” Dani starts, breathing long and slow against Jamie’s collarbone, “Sorry. I should start… from the beginning.”
“Wherever you want to start, love.” Jamie turns the TV down, knowing more acutely than any the searing sound of it in your ears as you try to think, to breathe.
“I had a fiancé,” Dani says, low and melancholy. “His name was- is Eddie, and he was my best friend growing up. My mom and his family sort of… I guess they thought it was inevitable, I guess. I don’t know. Anyway, we started dating in high school and then we got engaged.” Jamie’s fingers shift against Dani’s skull, a subtle reminder: I’m here. “We were engaged for a long time. And I kept trying- I always wanted to say to him, I don’t know. I don’t feel right, I don’t love you that way, but I never had the words. And then we were planning the wedding…”
“You didn’t feel like you had a choice?” Jamie fills in when Dani falls quiet.
“Yeah.” She sits up, just enough to run a hand through her hair and fist it, eyes cast downwards and red-rimmed. “So this one night, we’re having dinner and I just… I had enough. I told him. I had to. And he was angry, and we were fighting… I ran out of the house and into the street and this car. It just… came out of nowhere.” Dani goes still, and Jamie’s palms land on her thighs. Not squeezing, just there.
“Dani,” she whispers. Nothing else, really, to say.
Dani sits back, holding herself inches from Jamie. “Yup. So, it just never… I never got back my legs. And then my arms, and then… uh, I’m paralyzed. I can’t really… they said I would live, but I can’t… I’ve been in care since that night.” Jamie can hear it on her voice. Years lost, and a little bit of shame. “I can’t even talk, Jamie. I’m just… there. Listening to everyone do everything around me, and I can’t do anything about it.”
“Dani, I’m so sorry. So fucking sorry.” When Jamie strokes her cheek, Dani doesn’t object. Just leans into the touch like someone starved.
“So that’s me!” Dani forces as much enthusiasm as she can into her voice, a sobbing, shuddering laugh falling out of her. Jamie grabs her shoulders and pulls her back in, kissing her, feeling the tears on her lips, on her cheeks. She rubs them away.
“Dani,” she murmurs, and Dani just leans on her. Cries, quietly.
“I know,” Jamie says.
“Dani,” Jamie says. Because there’s really nothing else to say.
“We could take the scenic route, along the coast, but it’s just a little longer,” Flora says from the front seat. “What do you think, Aunt Jamie?”
“Don’t call me Aunt,” Jamie coughs into her hand. “It makes me feel old.”
Flora hides her laugh, biting her cheek. Jamie reaches forward, flapping a hand at the stereo system. “Change the channel. Jesus, feels like my ears are bleeding.”
Flora acquiesces, flicking buttons until a slightly more soothing, acoustic channel filters into the backseat. “You know, one of my favorite things about you is that you never lost your accent. Dad did, like, two years after he moved here.”
Jamie leans just slightly against the cool of the glass window, pressing her fingertips into the barrier between her and sea-air outside the car. “Your dad cares very little for culture, you’ll find.”
“Well, that’s right.” Flora starts humming along to the song on the radio, and the conversation winds to a close.
Jamie loves Flora. Dearly, more than any other child she’s had the pleasure of meeting or watching grow up. They talk quite a bit, and other than Mikey Flora is the most frequent visitor to Jamie’s Bedroom of Mortality. Flora tells her horror stories from work, horror stories about her boyfriends, and delightful stories about the dog walkers in Millennium Park. None of that makes any of this any easier.
“Flora, darling, I was wondering if you could do me a favor,” Jamie had said two days prior.
“Anything,” Flora responded distractedly, changing out the flowers on Jamie’s bedside table.
“Would you be willing to drive me somewhere? Just upstate a little. Evanston.”
Flora had looked over. The most knowing of looks on her face. “Are you meeting someone?” Jamie gave her a glowering look. “Oh, my. Good for you, Auntie.”
“Be quiet, sprout, or I’ll rescind the offer.” Jamie reclined against her pillows, feeling the shaking, delicate rattle in her lungs. She’d been pacing earlier, too much. Too many things on her mind. “It’s someone that I met on the… on the bloody computer thing. The San Junipero system. She’s in Evanston. She agreed to meet.”
Flora had only smiled and carried Jamie a glass of water. “How does Tuesday sound?”
So now, they’re driving along the coast, passing lake houses and crab shacks and forested paths. It reminds Jamie, only slightly, of the road to the redwoods. The only outside she sees much of these days, she’s reminded painfully when she feels the rattle of the emergency oxygen on the seat beside her. She doesn’t need it. Not now. Not ever, if she had her say.
Jamie doesn’t like getting old. Jamie likes, even less, what will come later. Jamie likes even less the alternative.
But that’s not what we’re talking about now.
Evanston Central Intensive Care is a stately building close to the shore, with an empty exercise yard. It’s taller than Jamie would have thought, for a building meant for the old and sick, and windows spot its surface. It looks white inside, and clean. It’s just past noon, and sleek cars pull in and out of the carpark, bringing family, doctors, nurses, and the like. The bored security guard at the gate waves them through as visitors, and then Flora is helping Jamie out of the car and onto the sidewalk.
There’s someone there to greet them at the front desk, a tall man with olive skin and a thick black mustache. He waves jovially, extending a hand. His brown scrubs are clean and his glasses shine in the sunlight. The youth of him makes Jamie straighten her back, just a little.
“You must be Miss Taylor,” the nurse says, clasping Jamie’s hand firmly. “I’m Owen, one of Dani’s primary care nurses.”
“Jamie.” She raises an eyebrow at the hauntingly familiar accent. “Where did you grow up, then?”
“Essex. Born and raised.” Owen gives her a pleased little smile. “Let’s see… the North, perhaps? Manchester?” When Jamie gives him an appraising nod, he chuckles, his chest puffing out. “Lovely to meet a fellow Brit this far inland. Well. Shall we?”
Owen takes Jamie on his arm as he leads her down a sterile white corridor, sunlight coming through a window at the end like the light in the tunnel. “I’m not sure how much she’s told you about her situation,” Owen explains as they walk, Flora trailing behind. “She won’t be able to communicate much.”
“She mentioned,” Jamie breathes, catching eye of bodies, old bodies, asleep in beds through the open doors. This is where she hadn’t wanted to go, she said. Thank God Mikey had listened. “But I can talk to her?”
“Yes, she can hear you.” Owen pushes open a white door with one hand. Jamie clocks the placard hanging squarely in the center: Clayton, D. A purple check mark is next to her name in dry erase marker. Jamie taps it with a finger.
“What’s that mean?”
“Marked for San Junipero.” Owen sighs, and Jamie feels a part of her go numb, sufferingly quiet. “Yup. Yeah, she’s expressed a clear desire to pass over. We’re still… negotiating. It’s a very long story.”
“I happen to like long stories,” Jamie mutters, but pushes past him anyway, forcing her legs to move. Dani is in this room.
Dani is in this room, and it’s so much worse than Jamie had even thought.
Her hair is long and flax-golden, just as Jamie knows it, but tucked behind her neck and head. The strands are dry, under-washed. Her skin is pale and tight across her bones. It’s Dani, but it isn’t. It isn’t.
Not without a smile on her lips or any light in her eyes. This woman lies in a broken, still, body. Her unblinking eyes are trained on the ceiling, her lips are thin, and a tube extends from her throat, humming on pace with an electronic heartbeat. If Jamie’s lungs worked properly anymore, the air would have left them long ago. And it isn’t coming back.
Hands tucked comfortably in her pockets, she steps forward. To the foot of the bed, and lays a hand on Dani’s still leg. No warmth, none of that lingering consciousness she’s used to. It takes effort to move up, lay a hand on Dani’s head, stroke the hair back from her face.
“Hey, Poppins,” she whispers, and she’d like to imagine Dani’s smiling.
Flora lingers in the doorway, a hand on the frame. “Is this her, Aunt Jamie?”
Jamie swallows the retort and looks back, finds she’s swallowing much more. “Yeah. Yeah, this is her. Flora, this is Dani.”
“It’s lovely to meet you.” And despite the distance she keeps and the situation at whole, Flora’s words and smile seem genuine.
Jamie takes as deep a breath as she can – she starts coughing anyway. “What’s that you were saying about a story?”
Owen clears his throat. “Let’s… get some coffee.”
Jamie, as a rule, hates coffee, so Owen gets her tea instead. They settle at a table in front of a wide window, Jamie drumming her fingers against the table, Owen sipping his cappuccino.
“She got hit by a car at high speed when she was 26. Lived right by the highway and, just-” Owen mimes a car zooming by. “It didn’t even see her. It was almost over then, honestly, if the fiancé hadn’t called the ambulance in time.”
“The fiancé,” Jamie says. “Is he… what happened to him?”
“He’s stuck around.” Owen sighs. “Never quite given up on her, I think. Honestly, I just think he doesn’t want to admit what happened, or his role in it. In any case, they never got married, but he visits often. Him and his mum.” Jamie’s eyebrows raise. If she’d known he’d been around – well, there wasn’t much she could have done, but the retrospective threat helps. “About a year ago, Dani starts talking about the system, about passing over.”
“She can talk to you?”
Owen shrugs. “Somewhat. There’s a translation system, but the uses are limited. She can convey some ideas, but very little and the range is small. It’s enough, though, for the legal process.” He sets his cup down, pushing it to the edge of the table, almost so it falls. “Dani, she mentioned wanting to pass over, do the trial runs. Five hours a week, once a week.”
“I am familiar,” Jamie nods.
“Of course. Well, then you must know that the rules are testy. And the state has a crackdown on euthanasia cases. There’s a whole certification process. Now, Dani fits the criteria – limited to no mobility, lack of future prospect, likelihood of medical complication, the whole bill. We got permission to pass her over with the proper authentication. Primary care, doctor, and a family member needs to sign off.” Jamie abandons her tea, staring Owen dead in the eye. “Well, Mrs. Clayton passed a while back, and Dani doesn’t have any other family available to sign. So it comes down to spouse.”
“The fiancé,” Jamie fills in.
Owen confirms. “The fiancé. He comes in like a knight in shining armor, but Dani doesn’t want it. She didn’t want to be married to him in the first place, and he argues that it shouldn’t matter anymore, but I don’t know, I guess it’s a thing of honor. I don’t what he has to gain, other than the life insurance.”
Jamie scoffs. “And the satisfaction of knowing he backed her into a corner.”
The smile Owen cracks is rueful. “That too.” He clears his throat, running a hand through his hair. “So we’ve been talking, to him and the mother. There’s no negotiating the spousal signature, and Dani and I… we’ve been discussing the alternatives. Trying to figure something out.”
Jamie sips her tea, catching a glint of sunlight out of the window. It’s starting to fade into afternoon, the sun lowering and turning things orange. Jamie’s mind is a mixture of images – Dani, sun and salt in her hair, laughing with her hands on Jamie’s face; Dani lying in a bed still and silent; her house, her own house, with the sheets on the bed rumpled and some of Dani’s clothes thrown in the closet. Dani’s records on the shelves and Dani’s favorite brand of cereal in the cabinets. Marks of Dani, of the permanent sort.
“And all you need is a spousal signature?”
Owen frowns with a heavy shrug. “As far as I know.”
Jamie leans back, every muscle of her body taught. “I might have a spectacularly horrible idea.”
Been ages since Jamie’s been there in the daylight. It looks different. Shinier, lighter, less full of holes and things she’s hiding. The house feels clean.
Outside, Dani is sitting on the back steps of the house, where she had been when midnight cut them off the Saturday before. She looks up when she sees Jamie coming down.
“You didn’t have to go this far,” she ribs, squinting up at Jamie through her eyelashes.
“Come on,” Jamie gestures, pulling Dani up by the arm and dragging her down to the sand.
Dani laughs, allowing herself to be pulled along. “Jamie, what-”
With a whirl, Jamie is on one knee in the sand, her sneakers digging in behind her. “You want to marry me?”
“Jamie, you’re crazy,” is the first thing Dani says.
Jamie shrugs. Stays kneeling. “Maybe. But you want to pass over. And you need someone’s signature to do it. May as well be someone you really like, Poppins.”
Dani kneels down, face-to-face with Jamie. “You’re not joking?”
She’s biting her lip, but it’s to hide a smile. “I’m not joking,” Jamie admits.
Dani kissing her is all the yes she needs, but the actual confirmation is enough for her too.
Dani is walking down a street in Northern California, and all of this is finally real.
It feels real. Smells real. Sounds real and tastes real. All of it, because it’s all of it that’s left – no more hospital bed and oxygen tube. No more machines keeping her body alive. Just the sea and the sand and the 80’s music pumping out of Tucker’s. Just… her, here, where she likes it. For however long forever lasts.
In Tucker’s, she flags Theo down. “My usual.”
“Something different about you, sunshine?” Theo raises an eyebrow as she pours Dani’s glass. “You seem… smilier than usual.”
“My first day here,” Dani says. She can’t stop the grin from bursting forth. “I mean… my first day here, full-time.”
Theo makes a face. “Wow. Congrats, Dani. I’m happy for you.” She slides the rum and Coke across the counter. “Better not be a stranger, right? We’ll get lunch sometime.”
“Sounds good.” Dani toasts her with her drink. When she knocks back a sip, she tastes the burn of rum and the fizz of Coke, and good God she’s missed that. She’s about to down the whole thing when a tap on her shoulder sends her spinning.
Jamie stands there. Jamie, in all of her glory, wearing a white shirt open and tucked into black jeans, suspenders around her waist and a Simple Minds t-shirt on proud display underneath. She raises an eyebrow. “Damn, Poppins. Tell me I wasn’t the only one to dress up.”
Dani tries to hold in her laughter. She really tries. But she just ends up burying her face in Jamie’s neck, losing her mind. “Jamie…”
“C’mon, it’s our honeymoon. It’s really the least you could do.” Dani straightens herself, pinning the most serious of looks on her face before changing her clothes. A white sundress, she thinks, will do nicely.
“Ring too,” Jamie prompts, holding out her left hand, where a bronze claddagh ring rests on her fourth finger. Dani obliges, flashing the metal at Jamie when she’s done. “Now that’s more like it,” she murmurs against Dani’s lips as she leans in for a kiss. “Make me a wife and a widow all in one day, least you can do is give me the damn ring.”
It shouldn’t be funny, but Dani is dead-not-dead now and it’s so, so funny, so she laughs. Full-bodied, all over, Jamie laughing right along with her. Eventually, Jamie gets her own drink, and they end up leaning against the bar, Dani pressed sideways into Jamie. Unable to let her go, leave her side for more than a second. The warm of her, the earthly smell she’d never quite noticed before. The way all of Jamie is real under her fingertips, really real.
“You were saying something about a honeymoon,” she whispers against Jamie’s lips when Theo’s finally kicked their newlywed gooiness away from the bar.
“Indeed I was,” Jamie whispers back, dragging Dani steadily by a comfortable hand, as always their fingers intertwined.
They drive in Jamie’s Jeep, through town, Jamie giving Dani the grand tour. They head up and down the coast, ending up on a cliff above the town, a maze of glittering neon below them. Jamie is smoking, sitting on the hood of the car, and Dani’s leaning her head on her shoulder.
“Sorry I never told you,” she says finally. “I just never… knew how to bring it up.”
“About the fiancé or about passing over?” Jamie asks. “Cause for both, s’okay. You don’t have to tell me everything.”
“I married you, I probably should.”
“It was a gesture,” Jamie says gently, and it makes something cold and scary fizzle in Dani’s chest.
“Anyway,” she ploughs on, standing up and digging her bare feet in the sand underneath them. “Jesus, it feels so real. This whole… this whole time, I’ve just been waiting for this moment. For this to be… me. Where I am.”
“You’re happy?” The slightest of quirks to Jamie’s lips.
“I’m so happy.” Dani dances, throwing sand and skirts in her face, shrieking out of pure delight. Jamie just watches, cigarette abandoned on the hood of the car. Her hands are by her sides, flexed tight on the hood of the Jeep, and her eyes don’t seem to know where to land. “God, I’m happy,” Dani says as she catches her breath. “I mean, how could anyone… not want this?”
“Could think of a few reasons,” Jamie says under her breath, and the cold fizzy feeling returns. Dani stops dancing, leans forward on the hood. She places her arms on either side of Jamie’s thighs, pinning them in.
“What do you mean?”
“M’sorry.” Jamie shrugs, looking past Dani’s head to the dark horizon. “Don’t mean to bring down the mood. And I know we never talked about it.”
“No, what do… what do you mean?” Dani asks it again, straightening and backing off. Jamie slides off the Jeep hood, picking up her cigarette with practiced ease.
“Just…” Jamie trails off, finishing off the smoke and crushing it under her boot. Dani watches it disappear in the sand, like it was never there. No scars left on a perfect world. “I don’t plan on passing over, Dani.”
Oh. Oh, says Dani’s head, and heart, and lungs. Her whole body, full of expectations, seems to trip over itself and fall, and keep falling. Not, not what she thought.
“I didn’t… I didn’t know that.” All she can bring herself to say.
“Yeah.” Jamie grabs the side of the Jeep, swinging around to the driver’s side door. “Right. Shall we get a move on? I can drop you off at the house before midnight.”
Dani swallows, her mouth working uselessly. “Jamie- Jamie, wait.” Jamie does. “Why? Why don’t you want to pass over?”
Jamie sighs, her head falling back to stare at the stars. “A lot of reasons, Dani.” For the first time since Dani’s known her, Jamie’s shoulders tense up, and her stance gets noticeably defensive. “I don’t need to list all of them to you. This was never really the deal.”
Dani scoffs. “You married me.”
“Like I said. It was a gesture.” Jamie looks down at the ring on her hand, the bronze of it faded to dull in the low light of the moon. “Look, Poppins. I like you. I do. More than I like a lot of people, but… my life, it’s my life. It’s like everyone else’s lives, it starts, it goes, and it ends. Remember I…” she trails off, her eyes getting glassy. “Fuck it. Get in, Dani, I’ll drive you.”
“No.” Dani stops. She roots herself, and Jamie stops too, shutting the Jeep door, maybe harder than she meant to. “Jamie- I never asked you to, but- I just don’t…”
“I told you this already.” Her jaw is tense. Her tone is almost biting, almost mean. It’s not- because-
Dani knows Jamie now, and Jamie is scared, Jamie is facing things she doesn’t want to, and this is how Jamie is when she’s scared. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.
“I told you this already,” Jamie says. “We were talking about it. The first time. Said I wanted it natural, didn’t I? I told you- damn it, Dani. I told you that things are natural. That’s what- that’s what good about this godforsaken life, is that it ends. That’s the beautiful thing about it.”
Jamie pulls on the Jeep door, opening it and closing it in an angry rhythm. Dani has barely registered the tears on her cheeks until she’s tasting them on her lips.
“Can’t be all bad,” she says, quieter than she means. “I mean, you met me.”
“Yeah,” Jamie says. She looks like she’s going to say something else, but-
The clock on the Jeep beeps, and Jamie is gone, replaced by still air, their five hours of time come and gone.
And Jamie isn’t coming back anytime soon, so Dani gets in the Jeep and drives it to the beach house, because she isn’t going anywhere.
The passing of days in San Junipero is like the passing of days in the rest of the world, only without any of the expectations. The first thing Dani notices is that there are no kids in San Junipero. Nothing, exactly, for her to take care of. Other than Jamie’s plants, which don’t seem to die but she feels the need to water anyway.
Dani stays in Jamie’s beach house. It’s not like Jamie is using it. She sleeps in a guest room, the windows thrown open to the coast. In the morning, she cooks breakfast, and then she goes for walks. Explores her new life. Drives in Jamie’s Jeep, getting the feeling of a wheel under her hands again. Everything is Jamie, all around her, and it makes the absence less pointed.
Dani takes Theo up on her offer of lunch on Friday, the day before Jamie will come back. Maybe. To distract herself from that non-possibility, she goes to Tucker’s and looks for Theo. “Feeling alright?” Theo asks her. “You’ve got a place to stay?” Dani says yes and doesn’t say much more, making Theo tell her about the locals instead. Gossip is about all her mind can handle.
On Friday night, Dani falls asleep in Jamie’s bed, with the sheets still wrinkled. She wakes up and makes tea in a mug decorated with flower petals, that isn’t Jamie’s but looks like something she’d like. The clock ticks on towards seven, and Dani feels like she might jump out of her skin.
Jamie almost doesn’t come back.
But she does.
Jamie is on the beach, in a Fleetwood Mac t-shirt and overalls, watching the sun set. She’s facing away from Dani, who leans on the porch, two bottles of Coke in her hands and sunglasses perched on her forehead.
“Hey,” she calls when the stillness feels too much. Jamie turns, her curls silhouetted by the sun, and Dani is once again thinking – how could you not want this forever?
But she’s not really talking about San Junipero, is the point.
“Taking over my house?” The words are sharp, but Jamie’s tongue is soft in her mouth, her brow knotted and her fists clenched. She pads up the sand, barefoot, until she’s right under Dani, staring up at her. Plaintive, almost apologetic, she looks.
Dani reaches down and tangles a hand in her hair. “Shouldn’t have left me all alone out here, then.”
Jamie doesn’t say anything. She does lean into Dani’s hand, just a little. “M’sorry for yellin’, love.” Accompanied by slight pout, the press of her eyes shut.
“You didn’t, really.” Dani pulls her hand away, and Jamie lowers her head. “Bottle of pop?”
Jamie scoffs “American” as she climbs the stairs, settling beside Dani on the top step to watch the night-waves crash. She chugs half the bottle in one swing, clearing her throat in that Jamie way, small and subtle and present. “What does it taste like to you?” she asks quietly.
“Like Coke.” Dani’s smile is wry.
“Yep. Should’ve known that.” Jamie leans back on her palms. “Tastes like nothing to me.” If Dani wanted to have this argument again, she would retort. But she doesn’t want to have this argument again. She just wants to hold Jamie’s hand.
She does, and Jamie laces their fingers together, sighing. “To Tucker’s, then?”
Dani shakes her head. “I think… just stay here for a while.”
Like a ball being volleyed between them, Dani has no idea who’s in control. Jamie twists, the upper part of her body leaning against the stair’s railing, and looks Dani up and down. “You’ve got all the time in the world, I suppose.”
“Not with you.”
“Not with me.” Jamie’s eyes are pinned to Dani’s face, but Dani can’t bring it in herself to turn. “Do you want to know why, Dani?”
Dani does want to know why. She wants to know why Jamie has a house, a closet of old band shirts and a VHS collection and greenhouse’s worth of plants and doesn’t want to stay with them. She wants to know why Jamie drove her out to the redwoods on the first night and kept bringing her back, why she kisses and touches with promises she’s willing to break. She wants to admit – to herself, to Jamie – that she knows neither of them really made any promises, they’re too old for that, but there were promises inherent all the same, and she wants to know if Jamie knows that too. That it’s too hard to hold someone’s hand five hours straight every Saturday, put a ring on your finger to give them a future, and let them go just because it’s natural. It is, in fact, the opposite of natural.
But Dani can’t say all of that right now. So she just says “yes.”
Jamie kicks a foot out into the sand, pushing it around with her heel. The words are slow to come, but they come with a force, a persistent might.
“My mum, and my dad, they didn’t mean to have children. I mean, they did, but they didn’t. Thought it might be easier than it was, I guess, but there was Denny, the surprise, and me, less of a surprise, and then… it’s two kids, and not enough space, or house, or money. So Dad starts working in a coal mine.” Jamie takes a breath, and Dani squeezes her hand. Not sure if it’s right or wrong but does it anyway.
“Dad is underground for… days. At a time. And Mum is a kid – young, when they married – and she was stuck at home with two kids she could barely keep attention on for two minutes, and then all of a sudden Dad is coming home early cause Mum’s in the hospital, giving birth to a baby that isn’t his. My brother Mikey.” Dani hums. Mikey, the father of Jamie’s beloved niece. There’s pictures of him inside, she thinks. She hadn’t known any of this before.
“Mum and Dad,” Jamie continues, “start fighting. And he’s gone a lot, avoiding the house and us kids. Denny likes to get into fights and get detention and stay out late, which leaves me to take care of Mikey when Mum can’t be bothered. So I do. Take care of ‘im, I mean. Do my best. But I’m twelve, and he’s a baby, and then Mum starts staying out late too and then one night, she doesn’t come home. And things happen, bad things, in an order of consequence, and me and Mikey end up in foster care.”
Dani’s breath is sharp. “Jesus, Jamie.”
“Wasn’t the worst. Well, I mean, it’s been worse. I make it to sixteen and then I’m out. I run to London, and a sixteen year old on the streets of London is never anything good.” Jamie clenches her jaw. “In between the couches, and the drugs, and the empty beer bottles; s’the fights and the shoplifting and a couple of years inside.” She hesitates, her hand flexing in Dani’s, but Dani holds firm. “Anyway. When I was done serving her majesty’s pleasure, I got a job at the first place that would take me. A nursery, just outside of London. I learned a lot there. Took over when the old owner died, and then switched to landscaping. Started my own business, and went from the ground up. Told you the rest.” Dani nods.
“Thing is,” Jamie says, her bitterness as thick as her accent. “Through all of that, there was no easy way out. There was nothing, really, to look forward to, except this shining gilded idea that it gets better, but when you’re living like that you never know if you can believe it.” Jamie’s hand has gone limp, and Dani starts tracing patterns into the palm, swallowing with every breath Jamie sucks in. “I didn’t have anything to be waiting for. No reassurance that this was the worst it got, or the best, or any of it. I was just living, Dani.”
“You did get there, though,” Dani points out. Quietly, she moves closer to Jamie. “You got all the way there, and you don’t have to just live anymore. It’s not about surviving, Jamie.”
“Plants survive.” Jamie’s words are almost swallowed by the crash of the waves. “They survive, and then die, so there will be more of them to come. Otherwise, what’s the bloody point?”
“The point is, the plants get to be happy too, you stubborn woman!”
This is how Flora responds when Jamie tells her about her and Dani’s conversation on Sunday morning. The words are so loud they force Jamie back against her pillows, shattering what’s left of her hearing. It’s noon, and she’s still not out of bed yet. Her lungs, she thinks, are likely getting worse.
“I suppose they do, sprout.” Jamie sighs, a smile creeping over her features at Flora’s characteristic annoyance. Sometimes, she is still so like the child she used to be, bright-eyed and optimistic and sure of the good things life would bring. Like Dani, in a way, with her faith. Jamie appreciates it. Loves Flora for it – loves Dani for it, as well. But it’s harder to understand it the way they do.
“Honestly, Aunt Jamie.” Flora sighs dramatically, collapsing into the chair next to Jamie’s bed. “I simply can’t understand you. You meet a beautiful woman who likes you so very much-”
“You don’t know she’s beautiful, she could be horribly ugly,” Jamie reminds her.
“I do know, because she must be. I met her, after all.” Flora flashes Jamie the Stern Taylor eyes, and Jamie closes her mouth, bemused. “She’s lovely and smart and you enjoy spending time with her, and you could have forever. A real forever, with a forever person. I just can’t understand why you wouldn’t want it.” Jamie opens her mouth to respond, but Flora cuts her off with a raised finger. “And I know, what you say about plants and the natural cycles of things. But it’s also, frankly, ridiculous. It could be so easy, Auntie.”
“It’s eternity. There’s no backing out of it.”
“In fact, there is. You can pull the plug whenever you want. And eternity means you never lose time to mistakes.”
“We’ve only known each other a short time, really.”
“And yet she’s all you can talk about.” Well, Flora’s got her there.
“There’s no point, to living a life that never changes.”
“Well, if you’re living to make her happy, that seems like a point enough.”
“It’s just not right. To make use of something that plenty of other people never got to have.”
“Yes,” Flora sighs, “but you have it. You have a chance to live the kind of love some people dream about. They didn’t have the chance, but you do. So take it, Auntie.” Flora’s hand covers Jamie’s arm, a stark reminder of her frailness. “Your body will be here to decompose, but why not let your heart be happy in the meantime?”
Out of arguments, Jamie’s mouth slowly closes. She remembers the facts.
She’s here, in a bedroom in a Chicago townhouse, in a bed she hasn’t been able to get out of alone for days. Her little brother and niece are taking care of her, holding on and riding out her stubbornness. With every breath she takes she worries about the next one.
Somewhere in a digital heaven, Dani is sitting on a beach, maybe reading, maybe talking to a friend she’s made, maybe waiting, for Jamie.
Plants die, fade into the dirt, and drop seeds for new life. Jamie, in all her trials, in all her single-minded focus, selfishly forgot to leave behind any seeds. She kept self-contained and left no scars, of the good or bad kind. No roots left peeking out of the earth, or constellations in the clouds. Just Jamie, and an empty bedroom when she’s gone.
They really have known each other for such a short time. If Dani had been anyone else, anywhere else anywhen else, Jamie would have held her as close as she dared. Might have recognized the rarest bloom when it hit her straight in the face.
“It isn’t that simple,” she says to Flora.
Flora just smiles. “It really is.”
The light from Tucker’s is a little bit brighter. The air smells like sea salt and cigarette smoke, and the fabric of her sweater is a rough, woolen texture. Jamie flexes her hands against her leather suspenders and scans the bustling club for the one she actually cares about.
Dani is at the bar, talking with Theo and another woman Jamie doesn’t recognize, laughing with her head thrown back. Jamie traces the column of her throat, the neckline of her blouse, and around again to the soft skin behind her ear she loved to kiss. Loves, she has to remind herself. With steps more confident than she feels, she comes up beside Dani and clears her throat.
“Theo, something bitter, if you don’t mind.” Theo seems more smug than surprised, as she pulls a glass from the shelf and goes to work. Dani turns her head, looking Jamie up and down.
Jamie sticks her hands in her pockets, raising her eyebrows. “That’s true.”
Dani’s face is carefully blank. “What are you doing here?”
Jamie looks out over the club, the bar, back to Dani, the only thing she really cares about looking at. “It’s not, in fact, as if I have anywhere else to currently be.”
Confusion flickers beat-quick across Dani’s face before resolving itself into the widest of smiles. She stands in a quick motion, grabbing Jamie’s face in her hands and kissing her, hard.
“Tell me you didn’t just do it for me,” Dani whispers against her mouth. Jamie laughs.
“I’d be lying if I said you weren’t a factor,” she admits. “But it was time. And a certain sprout convinced me that a life of surviving deserves an afterlife of reward.” Jamie loops one of her hands with Dani’s, linking their fingers together. The other slides over her shoulder. “Also, I’d be an ass if I left my wife behind.”
“Hmm, you would be.” Dani nods sagely, but the façade is easily broken by the sun of her smile. “I’m honestly… I can’t tell you how happy I am.”
“You don’t have to.” Jamie starts tugging Dani towards the dance floor, almost tripping over her own feet as she walks backwards. She couldn’t keep her eyes off of Dani if she wanted to.
“Are you sure you won’t mind spending a boring life with me in a beach house for eternity?” Dani questions, pulling close to Jamie and slinging her arms around her waist, fingers sliding into her belt loops. Jamie sighs, pressing her forehead to Dani’s, closing her eyes.
“Poppins, I want nothing more.”
Dani thinks for a moment. “We died exactly a week apart. That’s romantic.”
“Alright, I take it back. You’re insane.” Dani laughs so hard she pulls away, spinning from Jamie in the crush of exuberant bodies. But they find their way back to each other again, keeping their hips pressed close and their hands interlocked.
As they dance far past Tucker’s midnight closing time, Jamie realizes Dani is right. Into the early-morning sunrise, it feels all the more real.