By Annie Sewell-Jennings
Chapter Four: Boston, Massachusetts
“In the cathedrals of New York and Rome
There is a feeling that you should just go home
And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is”
--Jump, Little Children, “Cathedrals”
Who is Joan?
Standing in the middle of the barren, scorched highway, staring blankly and dully at the shells of butchered houses, the blackened bodies crumbling into ash where foundation and sturdiness once reigned, she looks like a wraith in white. Snakes and slivers of alabaster dart ruthlessly around her slender, pretty face, twist and snarl around her shoulders, and the tattoos scream out the history that she cannot unlock as she stands barefoot in the black soil.
When she first realized that she had no memory, he was the one who suggested the tattoos. “No reason not to,” he said. “Already got that big one on your back, right? May as well keep going.” It was a way to make the fragile permanent, the delicate into evidence. She could solidify her tenuous hold on her past by simply etching reminders and snippets into her skin. But she has always regarded them as separate entities, not related to one another. Names that she dreams about. Phrases that she has uttered. Places she might have visited.
What does her skin say when everything is strung together?
Glory. Fireman in the floods. You haven’t even begun. Joyce. Close your eyes. Love’s bitch. Scooby. Willow. 730. Death is my gift. Going through the motions. The Master. Angelus. Shallow cuts. Moment of happiness. A creature worth saving. The Harvest. Jenny. Is this hell. The Initiative. Class Protector. Hellmouth. Xander. Let it burn. Faith.
It is the centerpiece of everything, like all of the other markings orbit around this first tattoo, its plain lettering and bold, unforgiving English. Ever since she first saw herself in the mirror, first read the word cut into her skin, she has wondered what it means. Is it a warning not to set foot into the sunlight? Is it the hope of being awash in summer again? But now she is beginning to think that it is the one thing that connects all of these other fragments and segments together. It is evidence. It is an accusation.
It is the key.
White surgical gauze rests snugly against the newest marking on her left arm, and she cannot bring herself to peel it back yet to have a peek. When she lay in the tattoo chair and had the man etch it into her skin, he could not watch her. His long limbs stretched hopelessly in front of him, and he looked away, closing his eyes like every hum of the pen pained him. Like he was the one getting branded. The entire time, she stared at him and wondered what it all meant. What all of this really is.
She is beginning to disbelieve him, and it’s starting to tear her apart.
He taught her everything that she knows. When she woke up disoriented and terrified in the backseat of his car, he was the one who turned around and asked her if she was all right. He was the one who ran his hands down her back and soothed her when she first walked into the sunlight and was scorched by it. She will forever associate the scent of aloe lotion with the touch of his hands. But did he really teach her everything? Did he leave the most important pieces out?
Did he know her before she lost everything?
Sweeping leather swirls around his legs as he approaches, and he looks like the warrior that she knows he is and can be. They have often caused destruction together, though she knows his wound and knows that he cannot drink. How many times has she stolen blood for him? How many times has she treated his wounds? These questions are unending, and she hates him. She never questioned him before New York City. Never questioned him before Faith.
But Faith called him a different name than the one that he introduced himself with. Faith, with her red velvet smile and her poisonous eyes. She hates the woman like she has never hated anyone before in her life, and this hatred is based on the simple, stupid fact that the woman made her question everything. All of the pieces of the puzzle are etched into her skin, and she suffered for it because she thought that it was the only way.
What would he do if she were to ask him the truth? Lie to her? Tell her that he knows nothing? She is beginning to have more vivid dreams, more intense nightmares, and the past is unfurling before her eyes whenever she falls helplessly into slumber. The smile of a redheaded girl with witch’s eyes, the way an elegant, tired man cleans his glasses whenever he is uncertain. Pieces of the mystery, shards of history. She is afraid to piece them all together.
But she knows now that she has to in order to stay alive.
Cool fingers brush her hair away from the nape of her neck and she does not turn around to look at him. The striking planes of his face are all lies to her now. Deceit pools in those stunning, deadly sapphire eyes. “I found a church up here that we can stay in tonight,” he murmurs, and she nods her head softly, lowering her eyes when she turns around.
It kills him that she cannot face him anymore.
Faith. Fucking Faith, of all people, standing in the middle of New York City and spreading her poisonous anger to everyone like a venereal disease. Now his lover can barely bring herself to kiss him, stares hopelessly into mirrors and endlessly reads the tattoos scattered across her body. The vow that he made is starting to wear on him, and he knows that the time for honesty is nigh. Honesty. What the fuck can he possibly tell her? How can he ever bring all of this back when he’s done his best to make himself forget?
_”She doesn’t remember anything. Leave it that way.”_
No one ever gave him any instructions on what to do if she started remembering. He didn’t prepare for meeting anyone that they might have known in their past. Everyone is dead, incinerated in the conflagration of the world, but somehow Faith survived. Not fair. Not bloody fair at all.
Silence whispers throughout the stunning architecture of the abandoned cathedral, wind murmuring past shattered windows that carry the images of the divine. Stained glass Christ stares down at them like they are trespassers as they enter the church of the damned, and all around them is the scent of death. There were people here when the world fell, bent down on their knees and clinging to rosaries when the flames scorched through the land and left them all for dead. Black ashes that once were bone and marrow lay scattered haphazardly on the scorched red carpeting, and the interior of the cathedral is charred and blackened from the flames.
Amidst all of the ruination, she stands out like a bright ghost, her hair a white flame twisting and writhing down her reddened back, the white dress slipping slightly off of her sunburned shoulders. How ironic that she is wearing a rosary made of turquoise, like she knew somehow that this is where they would end up. Her haunted eyes take in all of the scenery of the cathedral as she walks slowly down the aisle, swallowing the bitter medicine of the end of the world. Normally, she would ask him questions, make him laugh, take his mind off of all the carnage that he used to delight in. Now, she is numbed to it.
She’s all grown up now.
Disdainfully, he brushes ashes off of a pew and sits down in it, hearing the charred cedar creak and moan underneath his weight. “Lovely place,” he says sarcastically, and she says nothing to him, approaching the altar of the cathedral. He cannot follow her that far because it is consecrated against him, and the power of all of the religion and mythology inside of the cathedral makes him weak, burning into his skin with the force of a thousand crucifixes. “Needs a spot of redecorating, though.”
Blazing albino hair swings as she turns around to face him, her eyes dark and sad as she looks at him. “Did I believe in God?” she asks, and the question lets him know that everything he barely held together is now falling apart at the seams. She has never asked him about her past before. She always took his word that he did not know her. Now, because of one stupid girl in crimson velvet, she doesn’t believe him.
It’s a terribly familiar feeling.
“I don’t know,” he says, and she sighs. Lies. He knows.
“Don’t lie to me,” she says tiredly, and she tilts her head at him with a sad smile on her face. “Did I tell you that I dreamed last night? I’ve been doing a lot of dreaming lately. Makes me a little afraid to go to sleep, actually. The dreams are pretty bad. But you were there last night. Standing in an alleyway, smoking a cigarette, clapping your hands sarcastically. You told me that we’d meet again on Saturday. You told me that you’d kill me.”
Pained, he closes his eyes. He remembers that. Remembers how arrogant he used to be, how much he delighted in the idea of her death. Plotted for it, ached for her blood, yearned for the sensation of snapping her bones between his hands. And now, she remembers, too.
“Yeah,” he mutters. “I was a real asshole back then.”
Her voice is broken when she speaks to him. “You knew me,” she says, her voice fragile and accusatory all at once. “Why did you lie to me? You told me that you didn’t know who I was, but you’re in all of my dreams now. I see you every night when I go to sleep. Taunting me, chaining me to walls, throwing your fists at me. You hated me.”
Slowly, he shakes his head, giving her a sorry smile. “Wrong,” he says. “I loved you. Loved you more than you’d ever let me.”
Desperately, she throws her head back and closes her eyes, running her hands nervously through her mass of white hair. “I can’t take it. Can’t take any of this. I loved you so much, so much that it hurts, and…” Her eyes squeeze shut, her face a portrait of the most exquisite pain. Years ago, he would have killed to see her in such torment. Now, it just kills him. “I don’t know anything anymore. Right back to square fucking one, Randy.” A spurt of hysterical laughter chills him to the bone. “Or is that your real name? Or is it this?”
One furious, fantastic gesture rips the white gauze from her left shoulder, revealing the harsh, jagged lettering of her newest tattoo. It accuses him with its killing structure, with its hateful penmanship: “SPIKE”.
Wincing, he turns his face away from her, choosing instead to look at a ruined stained glass representation of the Virgin Mary. “Yes,” he hisses. “It’s Spike. Happy now?”
“No!” she cries, her awful, beautiful hair settling around her shoulders in a shower of snow. “God, no. I’m not happy. I was, once. You made me so fucking happy, with all of your lies and your promises. Tattoo yourself, Joan. The bad dreams don’t count, Joan. Only the present matters, Joan. Remember all that bullshit you fed me?” Her voice lowers into a hoarse whisper. “Is that even my name? Do you know my name, Spike?”
He knows it. It haunts him in all of his dreams, but she never bothers to ask about what he dreams about at night. Nightmares painted in holocaustic colors of red and gold. Candlelit effigies for the dead life he used to live. Images of a beautiful girl with beautiful golden hair, swooping in for the kill because she hated him more than she hated anything else on the planet. He knows her name all too well.
“Buffy. Your name is Buffy Anne Summers.”
She screams, howls out her anguish and relief, damned and freed in the knowledge of her forgotten name. “Bastard!” she spits, throwing a scorched silver candelabra at him, narrowly missing his head. It doesn’t matter. He’s used to her throwing things at him. He once had years of practice. “You knew this entire time! The entire fucking time!” She wilts a little, her heart breaking openly on her face. Fuck the idea that people wear their hearts on their sleeves. Hers is written all over her body, inked permanently into her skin. “What else do you know? Do you know everything?”
Resignation settles in, and he thinks that this is what she must have felt once on that crappy platform made of debris, preparing herself for suicide. He hopes that she felt more liberated and less doomed. “I know a lot,” he says finally, looking down at his hands, unable to look at her face or all of her fucking tattoos. “Knew you for four years before all of this happened. Knew you forever.”
Limply, her arms lie at her sides, and she looks more exhausted than angry as she walks down the aisle of the church, that gorgeous hair drifting slightly around her shoulders and face, pouring down her back. She sits beside him on the creaking, groaning pew and looks pleadingly into his eyes. “Who was I?” she asked. “Do you know what I am? What’s wrong with me?”
She always asks so many questions, but the answers usually don’t hurt so much. Licking his dry lips, he picks up a fine section of her plain linen dress, missing all of the bright and dazzling colors that she used to wear. “You were a girl,” he says simply. “Beautiful girl who lived in a nice house in a nice neighborhood in a fucking awful town in California.” Startled, she looks up and he grimaces. “Yeah, California. Now you know why I won’t go back.
“But you were more than a girl. You were a Slayer. Killed my kind, hunted down the demons, saved the world more than anyone should ever have to. You had a miserable time of it and you had a wonderful time of it. Suffered more than your fair share until it hurt your face to smile, so you just stopped grinning after a while. Had friends, had lovers, had terrible taste in music and a white girl’s rhythm when you danced.” He smiles sorrowfully. “And I fell in love with you.”
A memory sparks in her mind then, burning and searing through the thin film of lies that she protects herself with. Him, in a dark alleyway yet again, holding a pool cue and taunting her with the knowledge that he could kill her. Talking about dancing.
_”That’s all we’ve ever done.”_
“Did I love you back?” she asks softly, and he shakes his head in grief, that mournful smile still fading on his harsh face.
“No,” he confesses. “You hated me. Said we were mortal enemies.” He chuckles. “You were right, of course. We were mortal enemies. Just so happened that I had to blur the line by falling head over ass in love with you, and you never forgave me for it.” He swallows, tells her the worst part. “You hated me until the end.”
In the last ten years that she has spent in this condition, living in a collapsed world, she has learned that lies are as commonplace as the sight of a dead body or a puddle of unexplained blood. Deceit is part of the scenery, and in order to survive, she has to peel back the layers and steal the truth. Yet she never thought that the lies would cover him. She never thought that love was a lie.
She shakes her head at him. “I don’t know what to do,” she whispers. “I just need to know everything. I can’t take this anymore. I have to know who I am. I’m nothing now.”
He can’t keep the tremor out of his fingers when he brushes her cheek with his hand. “You’re wrong,” he says softly. “You’re Joan, remember? Can’t that be enough?”
They both know that it will never be enough. She is a product of her own fantasies, covered in memories that she can only barely hang onto, and she is afraid of all that she is and all that she will become. The man that she thought she loved has turned out to be nothing more than a pathetic liar, and the woman that she thought she was is just a dream. A nightmare from which she has only just woken up.
A muscle near his jaw twitches, and he closes his eyes. “You want all the answers, pet?” he murmurs. “Fine. Get some sleep. Long road ahead of us.” He buries his face in his hands and tries to hide from what he tells her next. “Tomorrow, we head for California.”
Shaken and disturbed, she stands up and wraps her arms over her chest. The stained glass windows stare at her in accusation and sympathy, this lost little lamb all alone in the world with nothing but a thin guise of lies to protect her. Bowing her head, she turns to walk away from him, needing to be alone, until a question runs through her mind and she cannot escape it.
“What does the tattoo mean, Spike?”
Funny, how he wishes that he were Randy again. He hated that name for so long. Now, he craves it. “Dawn,” he murmurs. It’s been ten years since he spoke her name. “She was your sister. Don’t make me say the rest of it. Give me until California.” He can’t tell her the rest of it tonight. Can’t tell her why she is who she is now.
She just closes her eyes and wonders if she’ll still be sane by California.
(end part four)
Continued in Chapter Five: Reno, Nevada