The place even smells real.
That is perhaps the first thing Waverly notices.
For years, the only scents in her life have been clinical. She has never actually seen it, but her room actually somehow smells white.
The worst was the cleaning fluid they used to mop the floor - it seemed to cling to the air for hours, making the inside of her nose feel like it had been burned. Sometimes, the drugs they administer through her IV line smell a little too. That same, sharp, nonspecific smell of a hospital.
The best is when someone from her old BBD team visits, because they might carry with them perfume, aftershave, or even laundry detergent. The smells are far off memories of her old life, but they are a temporary sticking plaster, papering over the cracks for now.
Occasionally, one of the nurses opens the window if the weather is fine - never a guarantee in the Ghost River Triangle - and if the grass has been cut or the flowers are in bloom, sometimes Waverly gets to smell those too.
It does not sound like much, but it is almost comforting to know that the world keeps turning and the seasons keep changing. Almost a comfort, but not quite.
Waverly wants to be happy that her team are otherwise okay. To a degree, she is happy. But she is resentful too, not at her loved ones for living but at herself for not managing to do the same.
She hates this halfway house so much that thinking on it too long causes a throbbing pain in her right temple.
She must be the only Earp in generations who was too stubborn to actually finish the job and die. Instead she stuck around - but not properly; just a motionless cage of her old self, tucked into the same, stupid hospital bed for years.
That is, until now.
Some sceptical part of her had thought she might be able to tell the difference, but the illusion of the city was as flawless as all the leaflets had promised.
Wynonna had read the brochures aloud one afternoon in what was, apparently, early summer.
The doctors constantly assured her loved ones that Waverly perceived everything that was going on around her, so Wynonna did her best to visit often. On the days she either could not make the trip or could not bear to, Dolls comes instead, or perhaps Doc, or even Jeremy and Rosita together.
On special occasions, the whole family visits her together.
There had been a time in the early days when the visits had dwindled, reasons given alongside a name Waverly heard as Bulshar, but since that time Waverly was never without visitors.
If anything, it only makes her more lonely.
She feels as though she is holding them back.
Wynonna never did much of anything these days, never strayed far from home now because of Waverly. According to the updates, Bulshar is gone and with him the Earp curse, but there were apparently many monsters left in the Ghost River Triangle and while it is true that Wynonna is still trying to get rid of them, it is not the full story.
She has never said as much, but she does not leave because she feels guilty that Waverly cannot do the same.
It would be easier, Waverly knows, if she had simply died.
It is a morbid thought but an accurate one. Because you can grieve a corpse and then you can begin to move on, but Wynonna cannot have closure if Waverly clings to life like a ghost.
If she could let herself go, she would, but as it is Waverly cannot even consent to anything involving her medical care. Hell, she cannot even blink twice for ‘yes’.
So it falls to Wynonna to give the consent for something called the San Junipero project.
With a fifteen-minute discussion at Waverly’s bedside and only three identical signatures on two different pieces of paper, Waverly becomes part of the next batch of test users.
It seems like the easiest decision Wynonna has ever made about her sister’s care, but Waverly suspects otherwise.
“I hope you’ll like it there,” she says one evening when she visits Waverly alone. “I mean, there’s no reason you wouldn’t and it’s only for a few hours a week anyway. They’re still trialling it on people who aren’t, you know. Who are still alive but don’t get to leave the hospital.”
Not for the first time, Wynonna’s voice grows heavy with tears.
“I just wish I could know that I was doing right by you babygirl. I just wish you could tell me yourself.”
The air in San Junipero is warm and it smells of wet tarmac and saltwater. That alone might be the best sensory experience of Waverly’s life.
There are, however, a lot of things fighting for that title.
There is something pawing at the edge of every one of her senses, demanding her attention like a persistent puppy.
She finds herself standing in a small living room, not dissimilar to the one in the flat above Shorty’s but different nonetheless in a few ways. While not large, it is still bigger than her old living room and in some ways reminiscent of the homestead too. There are two armchairs turned together, each of them maroon in colour and made of studded leather which looks battered and worn in the best of ways. There is a darkwood floor and multiple rugs laid out atop the floorboards, each one unique thanks to the swirling wood grain patterns.
There is even a hearth, although something instinctual tells Waverly that this is an apartment. But of all the supposedly impossible things happening to her right now, this hardly takes precedence.
In fact, Waverly finds she has to drift to the nearest chair and sink into the cushions, suddenly overwhelmed.
She hasn’t left her bed in years. She hasn’t even opened her eyes. And suddenly she has been plunged into a room she has never seen before in a world that does not technically exist.
She feels like she is actually here. This place feels real. And yet her body has not technically moved - she is still laying motionless in Purgatory.
Her mind boggles and reels, and for a moment she wonders if this was really the right decision.
She had yearned for San Junipero from the moment she had heard about it. It had seemed like a way out of the hell she had been living for years, but now it all seemed a little much.
Across the room a window is open, the glass half-hidden by a soft, gauzy curtain. It was thin enough to let in a pleasing amount of peachy-pink light from outside.
Whatever is out there, Waverly can hear it all. The soft strains of life - of real life - filter through to her and she frowns.
It is not as though the hospital ever falls entirely silent. That in itself is a form of torture.
There are beeping monitors, the frequent patter of footsteps as people walk by along the corridor outside, and sometimes on a clear day she can hear the distant rumble of the odd passing car. She hears the voices of the nurses, of other patients and their families, and she is seldom without the stupid, but admittedly quite addictive, daytime television dramas that the nurses put on for her.
None of this was real life however. It might have been tangibly real, but it was a distorted reality. It felt like it belonged to someone else’s life.
There is the paradox then, because here in this projected, illusionary world, however, the world sounded the way it should - the way Waverly remembers life used to sound. There are sounds she had forgotten she ever once took for granted.
She can hear music, and she has to laugh at the fact that she is in some kind of manufactured heaven and yet someone is still playing Taylor Swift.
(...we’re happy, free, confused, and lonely in the best way...it’s miserable and magical…)
It had felt as though her friends played that album every damn day the year they turned seventeen. Half of her memories from that year are etched into a song from that very tracklist.
Something swells within her chest and she does not know whether she should tip her head back and laugh or curl up and cry.
Even when happy, she still feels so very alone. There is no one to share this feeling with here, and there is no way to share it back at home.
It has been so lonely to be so isolated after what happened to her, but it doesn’t feel any less lonely now. There is so much life (figuratively speaking) out there now, but she would bet that she doesn’t know a single other soul in San Junipero.
Wynonna isn’t here, because Wynonna is alive and well - thank God. The same applies to Jeremy, Chrissy, Dolls; anyone she considers friends. Willa isn’t here because she died just before any advancements in this sort of technology. It cannot be used on those already gone, only on those who are soon to be departing. And soon, it might be rolled out for all people like Waverly - for the ones who aren’t going anywhere at all. But it was too late for Willa or Ward. They were gone, drifting in a space between worlds.
It all makes Waverly feel unwell, nausea creeping into her stomach before she even has time to be shocked that such a sensation exists in a world of make believe.
After years working with Black Badge and watching Wynonna send people to Hell, the notion of the afterlife still leaves her feeling like she has spiders on her skin.
She might have been transported from the cold and empty reality of her physical state - but Waverly is still as lonely as ever. She is still searching for something, for some kind of salvation she cannot even articulate.
She sits in the little living room for nearly an hour, trying to regulate her breathing and get used to her own body again.
She jumps at every little sensation.
When she shifts in the chair, her bare arm tracks from warm leather to cold metal and she recoils for a moment. She snags her foot on the loose corner of a rug, the felt fringing brushing over her toes where they stick out of her sandals. The shock of it all but sends her into a panic, until she is able to connect physical stimulus to physiological reaction again.
She has spent such a long time laying in a bed. The sheets all feel identical, the pillows are always stacked to the same height, the temperature in her room is controlled and as such never deviates. She has not felt in years. She only moves when others decide it is so; when her bedlinen is changed or when she is moved to reduce the risk of sores. Or, when a nurse lathes a damp cloth over her skin because Waverly cannot do it for herself.
It is humiliating, all of it. She has been dehumanised, depersonalised - she has lost her essence.
But here and now there is none of that to deal with.
Here at least, she has agency in some ways.
For all intents and purposes, she is herself.
So, once she has reacquainted herself with her extremities, she finally decides it is worth leaving the armchair.
Her legs are shaky, but her feet are planted firmly on the floor and it even feels like she is standing upright. It is easy to forget her reality. She supposes that is the point of it.
Walking with a natural gait comes to her surprisingly quickly, and it is hard to tell what bodily functions in San Junipero are muscle memory or all just part of a computer code.
She can hardly ask Wynonna to lend out the FAQ manual.
The technician who had dropped off and booted the equipment (under Jeremy and Dolls’ watchful supervision, Waverly understands) had only explained that the simulation worked a little differently for everyone.
‘It’s the most advanced VR system in the world’, she had said with a note of humour in her voice, like she was oversimplifying matters. ‘But the key to the system is you,’ she went on, before amending, ‘or the user.’
She had been speaking to Dolls and Jeremy, because of course no one speaks to Waverly in that respect anymore. No one passes that kind of necessary information to her first - it all goes through someone else.
Still, Waverly had heard enough to glean the basics. One of the medical staff would press a button at seven o’clock every Saturday night and she would perceive herself to be elsewhere. She had precisely five hours to do as she pleased in what was described as a small, pleasant city called San Junipero. When she ‘arrived’ she was to find signs of life - if she so wished.
She was to do, more or less, whatever she pleased.
But after years stuck in one room, the notion of choice now seems unbearable.
For a while, she is tempted to stay put. This apartment is probably supposed to be her ‘home’ in San Junipero. It does seem tailored to her, although it is perhaps a little surplus to requirements when she will only be on a standard dosage. But she likes the idea of ‘arriving’ here and finding herself in a private space. It is a far more appealing thought than simply flicking a switch and finding herself stood in the street.
But then a clock on the mantelpiece tells her it is skirting eight o’clock, and something like panic rises to her throat.
She is wasting time, or at least that is how it feels to her in that moment.
In four hours she will be back in hospital, stuck motionless and without voice for another week.
She reminds herself that nothing here is real. That even if something bad were to happen, the consequences will simply right themselves as part of the program.
She could go outside and take a walk. She could start small. But she should do something.
She feels about one wrong move away from total sensory overload.
This is supposed to be fun. She can see that the person she used to be would have delighted in a place like this.
But she hasn’t been that person in almost half a decade.
It all feels like a vicious circle. She wants to take joy in what she is experiencing, and she wants to be thankful for the gift she has been given. She wants to delight in the feeling that anything could happen. But every frustrating moment in which she feels totally out of her depth only sends her into a deeper panic as she senses that she is continuing to waste time.
At the very least, she can appreciate that it is truly beautiful here.
She makes it outdoors by sunset, and the sun’s graceful descent below the horizon casts everything in the most beautiful shade of pink that Waverly thinks she has ever seen.
She cannot ever remember seeing a sunset this beautiful, and somehow this reminder that San Junipero isn’t real only sets off another ache in her chest.
All the same, it is a blessing for her eyes to be open for a change. She has been asleep for so long, she had forgotten the simple, sweet joy of even the most mundane sights.
Her apartment - fourth floor, west-facing she discovers as she makes her way outside - is set on a wide street which seems to be mostly residential. By the time she makes it there, people are already enjoying their Saturday freedoms. Clusters of people - almost exclusively young, fashionable, and radiant-looking - have gathered around outdoor seating areas, and half of the groups have music playing from some unseen source.
Waverly discovers the group responsible for all the Taylor Swift: a small selection of people clustered at a tiny, quaint bistro just below her window. They are playing something completely different by the time Waverly is outside.
(Stripped to the waist, we fall into the river… )
As Waverly walks, directionless and lost, she discovers that San Junipero seems almost stuffed to the brim with places of entertainment. She passes a large movie theatre (inexplicably advertising showing times for Life of Pi and The Hunger Games of all things) and countless bars, bistros, restaurants, and clubs.
She cannot hope to take it all in at once, and the first thing her eyes do properly is send a few tears over her cheeks. It is a while before she remembers that she can wipe them away, and the feeling of her fingers on her face - skin against skin - is a marvel in itself.
She walks and walks, forgetting that it does not especially matter if she gets lost. She would like to keep her bearings for future visits of course, but the worst that can happen is that she wanders until midnight.
She has so many questions about this place. Mundane, functional questions.
Things like will I rematerialise where I left off? or will I have any memory of my last visit? or why does it feel like I’m stuck in the past?
The movies, the music, the clothes people are wearing - nothing feels quite like the world she left. Half of the people seem to be in glittery high heels and those wearing makeup seemed to be favouring such bright colours Waverly feels like she has stepped back in time. She passes an electronics store on her journey and every one of the televisions seems to be showing reruns of the Olympics from a few years ago. The one in London.
It is like being the new kid at school, trying to find the science block or learn her timetable. She has no idea if what she is doing is right and has no way to check once she leaves. She is simply aware that she does not want to return to her half-life in Purgatory with nothing to show for another stab at freedom. Of course, no one would know either way except her. But it matters all the same.
She looks around for some kind of guidance, trying to settle on a plan of action.
The next person who stands out, she decides eventually. I’m going to do whatever they do.
It doesn’t take long.
Waverly has sat herself down on a metal bench beneath a little cluster of trees. For a while, people pass by in groups and while they all look interesting in their own ways - they are strangers, with their own lives and their own reasons for being in San Junipero after all - Waverly does not feel drawn to them.
Plus, she realises quickly, it feels somewhat intimidating to just approach a whole group of strangers at once.
Something like that might not have occurred to her in the time before.
Now though, she feels uncertain and particularly worried that she is missing out a whole lesson on nuance and etiquette here in a world of the dead or dying. That in itself makes her feel out of sorts. After all, she falls into neither category.
So, she starts focussing on lone passers-by, but finds that most are walking with a quick sense of purpose and, Waverly realises as she checks her watch, they probably do not want to lose any of their remaining time in San Junipero to green-fingered novices.
Then, just as the first signs of darkness thread through the city - black paint dipped into clear, clean water - Waverly sees her.
A woman walking on the other side of the street, hands in her pockets and gait long but even.
She is tall, sufficiently so to draw Waverly’s eye, and has striking red hair under a black beanie hat which, in the end, is what seems to hold Waverly’s gaze.
She is walking with direction but not rushing, alone but not seeming to search the street for company, and Waverly cannot take her eyes off her.
She feels her heart race, half-surprised at how naturally her body slips into its old ways - how she doesn’t even notice most of the sensations that had been absent for far too long.
She puts the feeling down to nerves. Waiting had been easy; a good excuse to sit and people watch. Now though, she feels compelled to follow through on her own promise and, almost of her own accord, she feels herself rising to stand when she sees the woman duck into a bar fifty feet away from Waverly’s vantage point.
Waverly follows, having absolutely no clue as to what she will actually do once she is inside.
She has no intention to actually speak to the woman - she has no idea what she would say to her for a start - only to follow the lead of someone who looks far more at ease here than Waverly feels.
Waverly crosses the street and, taking a deep breath, ducks inside the bar.
The familiarity of the environment hits her immediately. This place is bigger than Shorty’s was, and it is more of a bar-club hybrid with its loud music and ample dance floor. Even so, Waverly knows bars and she knows the atmosphere they create.
With its lights and cacophony of shouts and pumping music, this place is arguably much more overwhelming than being outside and yet Waverly feels herself exhaling in relief.
She can handle a bar.
She can handle watered down drinks and bad singing and loud, loud music.
Don’t you worry, don’t you worry child. See, heaven’s got a plan for you...
The woman she followed inside has momentarily disappeared, and Waverly tries hard not to search for her. People don’t come to San Junipero for others to trail after them like lost puppies.
That being said though, Waverly is not entirely sure what the majority do come to San Junipero for.
It seems kind of like a party town - deliberately set up to accommodate the boundless feeling of a Saturday night out; pure anticipation and unbridled hedonism. Although the thought still appeals to some lost part of Waverly, she wonders if it is the same for everyone else.
As she waits to get a drink, she looks at the people around her. They are all young , she notes, as young as me. She cannot help but wonder at it. Tragic accidents happen every day, but the vast majority of people died when they were old. She considers whether this is a place to reclaim lost youth and she feels a tiny dart of bitterness pierce her stomach.
She never got to have it the first time around, not really.
She catches herself as soon as the thought enters her head. She has promised herself time and again that she would not resent others.
She orders a Jack and coke when it is her turn, because she does not like the idea of how a beer might sit in her stomach (or how it would seem to, at any rate). Something about the drink feels a little like home, and she feels an absurd wave of emotion hit her when it is placed on the bar in front of her.
The barman does not ask for money, which is good because Waverly does not know if she has any. She moves away to find an empty booth and angles herself to watch people dancing. They look like they are having fun, and Waverly both enjoys the sight of it and detests feeling like an outsider.
Being on the periphery had become a way of life for her, and she was loathe to feel that way even in a place that she was supposed to be free.
She feels her eyes fill, and obstinately swallows down a gulp of her drink in attempt to drown the tears, determined that she will not make a spectacle of herself here.
Both the whiskey and the bubbles in the coke burn her throat. It takes her a moment to realise that this is the first thing she has drunk for herself in all this time. She almost laughs. It would not have been her first choice. It sounds stupid, but she misses hot tea - but it hardly seems like the place to order something like that.
Perhaps , she reasons, I should have chosen one of the little cafes instead.
She is just beginning to think she will finish her drink and leave again, wondering if there might be any way to opt back out of this program again, when something - she will think of it later as providence - intervenes.
A man slides into the seat opposite her at the booth - young in much the way of everyone else here, and not unattractive but equally not someone who might have caught her eye either.
“It breaks my heart,” he says by way of greeting, “a beautiful girl like you sitting there all on your own.”
Waverly wants to roll her eyes but instead remains impassive. Years of working at Shorty’s had brought about enough interactions like this, before; during; and after her relationship with Champ. They had been taxing then and were shaping up to be no less taxing now.
The difference, however, is that Waverly about feels at the end of her tether right now. She is overwhelmed, unsure of how to conduct herself here, (hell, she is unsure of whether she even wants to be here at all), and she really does not need this right now.
“Don’t you worry about me,” she says, faking a cheery smile and easy tone.
“I guess I can’t help it,” the guy says, smiling again in a way that is nowhere near as chivalrous as he thinks.
“Listen,” she begins, but the man has already continued speaking.
“Look, I’m not going to pretend here. You’re hot as hell and there’s still two hours before midnight. I figured you looked like you could use - ”
But however he was intending to finish that sentence - some fun, cheering up, a distraction - Waverly does not find out because she feels someone else knock into her side as they sit down next to her. In tandem, an arm snakes its way tight over her shoulders.
“Hey girl,” an enthusiastic voice says and Waverly finds herself unexpectedly enveloped in the presence of the red-haired woman from earlier. She has a beer in her hand, which she comfortably sets down on the table. “I can’t believe I’m seeing you here!”
The woman pulls Waverly into a sideways hug and settles her chin on Waverly’s shoulder. Dropping all false enthusiasm from her voice, she whispers,
“If for some absurd reason you’re actually interested in going off with that douche canoe, then just say ‘it’s my first night ’ and I’ll go away again.”
She pulls away, leaving Waverly with an overwhelming scent of vanilla clinging to her clothes. It is one of the first sensations that has not felt all-consuming in a bad way, and Waverly breaths it in. She has not smelt vanilla in a long, long time.
It had not even been a scent she had particularly strong opinions on before but with relief seeping through her at a get-out clause, it might be her new favourite smell.
It never even enters Waverly's head to turn down this stranger's offer of help.
“Oh my God!” she works to feign as much surprise and enthusiasm as the other woman, finding it comes fairly naturally. “It must have been, what? Ten years?”
“Eleven,” the other woman says decisively and Waverly grins at the neat touch. She turns to the man opposite them, who clearly is not buying the fake reunion thing, but hardly has much basis to question it. “You don’t mind, do you? What’re the odds bumping into someone here, you know?”
Grudgingly, he agrees to this point and moves away again. As soon as he has gone, Waverly breathes a sigh of relief.
“Hey, no problem,” the woman says with a smile that etches beautiful dimples into both cheeks. “All girls together, right?”
Waverly chuckles but something feels off about the woman's reason for helping. The stranger must sense it because she pulls a face.
“And like, don’t take this the wrong way but I saw you come in,” she adds. “You looked kind of lost. I figured the last thing you needed was that guy making things worse. He kind of has a reputation round here; doesn’t like the word ‘no’, likes to take it as a challenge. You know, that kind.”
Waverly blushes and struggles to hold the stranger’s gaze. She has deep brown eyes and an indescribably pretty face.
“Is it that obvious that I’m new? I mean, you basically used it for your code word so...”
“Look, if the rest of us can spot a first-timer a mile off, it’s only because we were all the same,” the woman says with a kind smile. “Anyone who says different is a liar. This place is stupidly overwhelming.”
For some reason, Waverly feels her blush spread. “Normally I could handle guys like him, it’s just…”
“Hey, I don’t doubt it for a second. I’d bet on you in a fight.” The other woman smiles and although Waverly knows she is making a joke at her expense, there is somehow no malice in the stranger’s face.
“You’re making fun of me.”
“Not even slightly, it takes guts to walk into a bar like this on your first night in San Junipero. Trust me. So it doesn’t hurt to have some help sometimes.”
“Oh, you don’t have to,” Waverly starts. “I mean, I really appreciate it. But I know we all only have a few hours here. I’m sure you have better places to be.”
Internally, Waverly cringes. She has no idea why she is sending this woman away, only that she does not want to be a burden on someone here. She gets enough of that at home.
Ignoring her, the woman sips her beer again. “I’m Nicole. And first of all, I have absolutely no plans for tonight.”
Waverly waits, but Nicole does not speak again.
“What’s second of all?” Waverly asks eventually.
“Second of all, you’re really pretty,” she says, grinning.
“Oh, I uh - ”
“Hey, don’t sweat it,” Nicole says. “Just tell me your name, if you want to.”
Nicole smiles and tests Waverly’s name on her tongue.
“Like that?” she asks, checking her pronunciation and Waverly nods. “It’s pretty, I’ve just never heard it before.”
“You and everyone else,” Waverly says, finally smiling back as her blush dies down.
It takes them both a while longer to realise that Nicole still has her arm around Waverly’s shoulders. They both seem to notice as one, when Waverly moves to pick up her drink. Slowly and looking unbothered, Nicole withdraws her arm. She pushes the uncuffed sleeve of a green plaid shirt up to her elbow. They are still sitting close, however, neither having moved much since Nicole sat herself in Waverly’s personal space.
Her body is pleasantly warm against Waverly’s and she is in no hurry to scoot back.
They both take a drink and then Nicole speaks again.
“So it really is your first night here, huh?” she asks and, again, Waverly nods. “Well, from my experience it gets better if you keep coming back. You get to know how it all works eventually.”
Waverly chews this over for a second.
“How long have you been here?” she asks, before panicking. “Shit. Is that even something I should say to people?”
“I mean, honestly? I wouldn’t ask just anyone right off the bat, just to be safe. But I genuinely don’t mind. I’ve been coming here a couple of months.”
“Thanks,” Waverly says. “I’ll take any advice I can get. And thanks too for not biting my head off for the dumb question.”
“It’s not dumb, there’s a lot to learn,” Nicole replies, voice gentle and ever-present smile gentler still. Waverly studies her face for a beat longer than she perhaps should, casting about for something to say in response.
“I feel kind of bad for not enjoying it right now.”
It is not really what she intended to say, but it has been so long since she has spoken to another person that she cannot help but offload something.
“Yeah, it’s not for everyone,” Nicole tells her evenly. “But I’d give it a few visits before making that decision, if you feel you can. Maybe try out some different areas and some different eras if this one isn’t your thing. I haven’t done much of that but there’s probably time.”
Waverly feels her head spin and reevaluates the amount she has had to drink. Not nearly enough to be hearing things. Her heart sinks. She is really and truly out of her depth.
Nicole raises her eyebrows in surprise. “Wow. Okay. Whoever did your hardware royally screwed you over.”
“I’m starting to feel that, yeah.”
“Right. San Junipero 101. The town is basically the same every time you visit, but you have the freedom to visit during any past era you want. We just can’t ever go forward. You just kind of, think it and you go there. Think it and you get the clothes you want - all stuff like that, mind controlled in a way that feels totally nuts the first few times. Only places you don’t do it is where you want the authentic feeling - queueing at a bar and so on, because who doesn’t miss that experience?” Nicole jokes and inspite of the nerves in her stomach Waverly smiles.
She lets this information settle with her for a while.
“Okay,” she says, drawing the word out between them. “So when are we now? And since I didn’t decide, why did I get put here?”
“It’s 2012,” Nicole says. “I started off here too, so I’ve been coming back. I think they just pick a year that has good memories or good connotations. Would that make sense to you?”
Waverly casts her mind back. 2012 - she had turned seventeen that year, but it was a great summer and a great year at school afterwards. They were almost adults, people had their licences, and they finally felt like they had freedom. There were parties, she was head cheerleader. She was starting to feel like Waverly more, starting to grow into herself. There had been a killer New Years party…
“It would,” she decides eventually and Nicole nods as if Waverly has confirmed something more than just her first visit to San Junipero. “What? What did I say?”
“I just,” Nicole begins, choosing her words. “I kind of got the impression you were from my time too. There’s not many of us here, I don’t think.” Nicole’s forehead creases, like she is sorry, but she does not say anything to that effect.
Waverly supposes that must be a big part of life here, knowing that people have sad stories and not daring to ask more.
There is so much more Waverly wants to ask, but time is slipping away from them now so she has to prioritise.
“Why is everyone our age? The age we really are, I mean?”
Nicole pulls a confused face. “I haven’t dared ask. I would assume it’s like those weird little philosophy questions you get. ‘What would you look like in heaven if everything’s meant to be perfect?’ - then everyone answers you’d look like the version of yourself you were happiest with.”
“I suppose if I died old or whatever, I’d want to come back as a version of me from better times,” Waverly points out, and in response Nicole’s face falls for a moment before she covers the emotion. Waverly makes a mental note to spend the next week reviewing every possible blunder you could make in the afterlife.
It must be so easy to say something insensitive here.
“What happens when we leave?” she asks, keen to fill the silence.
“What, weekly? Nothing much,” Nicole says, draining her drink. “Just the reverse of what happened coming here. You feel like someone’s flipped a switch and you’re waking up again elsewhere.”
Waverly nods, already dreading the feeling of waking - but not waking properly. Of the blackness of leaden eyelids and the impossibility of stricken limbs.
San Junipero might have been overwhelming, but settling now and talking to someone for the first time in a long time is starting to make her ease up. She almost has the sense that she does not want to leave.
“And coming back next time?”
Nicole smiles again. “Well I’m glad you’re considering a next time. You start the same most times. It can vary if you put some thought into where you want to be, but mostly you’ll be in a home they designed for you based on your memories or your desires.”
“So you don’t just pick up where you left off?”
“It’s never happened to me, no.”
“So you could meet someone in a place in one year, and then never see them again if they hop from year to year?” Waverly says, trying to get her head around it. “Never bump into them again?”
She does not quite know if she is asking this with an agenda. It has been nice speaking with Nicole, nice to feel like she at least knows one other person here. But again, she does not want to feel like she is trailing after one person like a shadow.
“Nope,” Nicole says, popping the ‘p’. “Not unless you make plans to.”
Waverly is about to speak again, perhaps suggest meeting here again in a week, when a new song starts up and Nicole throws her head back and laughs.
“God this was a party staple back then.”
I threw a wish in the well, don’t ask me I’ll never tell…
Waverly cannot help but laugh too. She and Chrissy danced to this song more times than Waverly could now count. She feels her mood do a dizzying one eighty. Perhaps she really can recapture something of the past here. And Nicole is nice.
“Do you dance?” Waverly asks, feeling bold and almost scared to ask a relative stranger to dance to a song from her youth. She checks her watch. They still have one hour.
“I never used to,” Nicole says lightly. “But I do make a few notable exceptions now.”
“What kind of exceptions?” Waverly asks hopefully.
“Exceptions for simulated dance floors and pretty girls,” Nicole says, letting Waverly take her hand.
There is no real direction to the dancing. There are no specific moves, nothing which really makes sense, only that Waverly has not moved like this in years and she has had no one to move with.
The longer she settles here the easier it feels. It isn’t perfect yet, but Waverly feels the shackles of her reality back at home loosen slightly.
It is clear that Nicole is not much of a dancer, but she tries for Waverly, who does her best not to think about Nicole’s bright smile or the way she keeps calling Waverly pretty.
She must know that there is no time for anything to happen between them now, and besides - Waverly has never once in her life considered that with another woman anyway. She tries not to think about strings or attachments, but still wonders if Nicole is following a different thought process entirely.
They both sing along to the best parts of the song - before you came into my life I missed you so bad - and try to enjoy a slightly off-tone Kesha song (Die Young, in this environment?) before eventually conceding defeat at the next track and sitting back down.
“Thank you,” Waverly says when they have both caught their breath. “For helping me out earlier, and for dancing.”
“No problem,” Nicole says, cheeks a beautiful shade of pink. “I had fun - it’s what we’re here to do.”
This makes Waverly question something that has been bothering her all night.
“Is it always just a party town?”
She stares across at the dancefloor. It is not a bad thing - far from it in fact, when Waverly has spent half her life moving around a bar like it is her second home.
“Just?” Nicole asks, raising an eyebrow and grinning playfully. “You don’t like to party?”
Waverly smiles, eyes darting down to the table before she finds the courage to look back up and hold Nicole's gaze.
“Oh, I love to party,” Waverly says, voice heavy with implication.
“Good. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“That seems kind of presumptuous you know.”
“Well, what can I say? Either this year or a couple either side,” Nicole spreads her palms. “I’m here every week.”
The song shifts yet again and just as Waverly wants to reply, wants to ask if she can see Nicole again, everything goes black.
She comes to in her hospital bed, pinned down and anxious like there is a weight on her chest. She can hear the tread of a nurse in the room, humming a sad tune Waverly recognises from years ago.
There is nothing to show from San Junipero, nothing to tell her it wasn’t all a vivid dream.
Then, knowing it is midnight, she does her best to shut her mind off because the last thing she wants is throw a carefully-cultivated routine out of order.
She tries for sleep and the closer it looms the more convinced she becomes that she will wake tomorrow and realise that San Junipero was a figment of her imagination, that she only dreamed the red-haired woman with a beautiful, easy smile.
But then, it comes back to her; the sweet scent of vanilla pods.
The next morning, Jeremy visits.
She hears a rustling and can assume that he has brought flowers.
Jeremy always brings flowers.
She likes to smell them, but cannot say for sure whether he realises this when he buys them.
“A little bird told me that you hightailed it out of here last night,” he says brightly.
Waverly can at least say that, to Jeremy’s credit, his acting skills have vastly improved over the years. His forced cheer never sounded so convincing in the beginning,. It almost manages to fool Waverly now, but he never really sustains it well.
Today, he does not even seem to want to try.
“I don’t know where you went Waves,” he murmurs sadly. “But I sure hope you had a lot of fun.”