By Annie Sewell-Jennings
What keeps it from floating up high
The hatred of people that I might have crossed
Or the gravity of our desires
It's hell either way calling St. Expedite
Hell either way calling St. Expedite
It's hell either way calling St. Expedite
Well it's hell either way calling St. Expedite
--Grant-Lee Phillips, "St. Expedite"
Principal Wood was right. As soon as the school year picked up, the kids started to flood into her office. Problems left and right. This girl who might be pregnant. This boy who lost his brother. The kids like her. Sometimes, there are boys who get crushes on her, pretty Miss Summers in her low-slung slacks and platform heels. They bring her presents, candy bars and teddy bears. They want her in their photographs. At the end of the year, they'll clamor to have her sign their yearbooks.
But they don't know that she hears things.
Sometimes, when the office is quiet and no one is talking, Buffy can hear him through the ventilation system.
Rambling words traveling up through steel tunnels, pouring into her small, cluttered cubicle. Snippets of sanity. Howling. Whimpers. Laughter, unhinged and without humor. He can pour all of his misery into his nonsense, and she thinks that insanity might be contagious.
She thinks it might be catching.
"Be good, you know. Must behave. Stand up straight. Don't slouch..."
She brought in a radio. Plays alternative music softly in her cubicle, murmurs of electronic folk. Quiet, peaceful songs. Atmospheric noise. When that did not work, she tried to cover the vent in her office. Muffle his mutterings with a washcloth. It only made her sweat when she could not feel the air conditioning, and still she heard him suffer.
"Never love you. Never. Worthless fuck. Stupid, awful..."
When she could not block it out anymore, Buffy tried to simply ignore it. Pretend that it wasn't there. Just the voices of the kids as they laughed and changed classes with the ring of the bell. The clanging of Coke cans in vending machines. Lockers slamming shut. Easier to manage that way. Not so time-consuming. Not so disturbing.
She does not want to be disturbed.
She does not eat lunch in the cafeteria with the other faculty members, nor does she hang out in the break room and gossip over cheap coffee and half-stale doughnuts. She simply is not hungry. Good for me, she thinks to herself. I'll keep my girlish figure and not pig out on fish sticks.
Instead, she tries to meditate. Sits Indian-style in the abandoned office and thinks about root systems and serenity. Channels her chi, relaxes her muscles. Closes off the physical and concentrates on the spiritual.
She's trying to grow new skin.
"Hungry... Just a bite, just a taste... No, no, no. Stop it. Bad thing, awful thing, dead thing..."
Her skin always breaks in the end.
Laura Cochran is a triumph.
The dark-haired, quiet girl sits patient and collected in the chair across from her, cable-knit sweater smooth and the color of cream. She's always so well dressed. Immaculately groomed. Wears nice, pearly jewelry and looks like she plays tennis and cricket. Looks educated and smart.
Buffy has pored over her file. Examined her grades, studied her history. Academia is one of Laura's strong points; she's on her way to being the valedictorian of her class. President of the student council. A member of the mock-trial team. Accepted to Stanford on a full scholarship. Volunteers at the local soup kitchen.
Three weeks ago, Laura Cochran was sent to the hospital for overdosing on cocaine.
The girl bows her head, swipes strands of hair out of her eyes with manicured fingernails. "I feel stupid," she says. "I mean, thinking back. It wasn't the brightest thing in the world to do. But I was at a party, and it was there, and..." She shrugs gracefully, a tight motion underneath creamy wool. "I just did it."
Buffy does not know the proper responses. She had only a semester of psychology from a woman who created monsters in her spare time, and she does not trust key phrases and textbooks. "Pressure?" she asks, and Laura nods.
"Yes," she admits. "Too much of it. I feel like I have to be on all the time. I guess the coke was an easy fix. But then I started to do more of it, and suddenly I couldn't function without it. I was addicted."
Addiction. It's a word that Buffy knows well. Sympathetically, she smiles. Pats Laura's hand. "You're doing so well."
Laura smiles brightly. "I am," she says proudly. "I've gone twenty-one days without any drugs in my system. My sponsor says that I'm on the road to recovery. It's still hard, but I'm making it. These things take time, right?"
Whispers again, coming from the vent. "Time, time, there's too much of it. Too much time, and will you just sodding shut up..."
Tightly, Buffy smiles. "Right."
When she sees him, he's curled up on the floor in a little black ball. Hair still bright, but dirty and rumpled. Hands clawing at his disheveled curls. There's blood on his face.
She knows that he's done this to himself. Not just the wounds, not just the scratches. His suffering stems from his own crimes. When he screams at invisible people, he's yelling at his own victims. Telling them to leave him alone. Let him be. But Buffy cannot have sympathy for him. She cannot give him strength or teach him how to meditate. There is no chi for him to harness.
There is only karma.
A whimper, a sigh. Slowly, too-blue eyes lift up and caress her face. It pains her when he looks at her. His entire face lights up like it's Christmas (what's a word means glowing?) and he gives her an expression that looks too much like begging. "Buffy," he breathes, and a smile touches his mouth. She hates that smile. It doesn't look like him. Too soft. Too honeyed. Too gentle.
"You have to stop screaming," Buffy says flatly. "It's disrupting my work."
Eyelashes flutter, the color of soot. The color of the streaks of dirt and grime on his high, feline cheeks. Disappointment and shame register, and he drops his head. "Very bad of me," he whispers. "Terrible. Should... Should be quiet. Like the mice." Fingernails, dirty and ragged, skitter over the floor in an impression of mice feet, and Buffy suppresses a shudder. It frightens her when he's like this.
Her feet beg to run. Her breath is quick, and her heart flutters in her chest. Get away from him. Far away, where he can't touch her. There are bad implications in the architecture of his face. His voice rubs her like sandpaper, burning off the skin she's grown. A part of her feels mean and terrible, cruel and callous. Insensitive.
"It's not your fault," she tries, but he does not understand.
"My fault, my fault, all my fault, terrible me..."
When he starts scratching at his face again, peeling off his own skin to reveal the blood beneath his once-gorgeous features, Buffy runs away.
Her old room no longer smells like her.
Ashes snake and coil on the end of the incense stick. Myrrh and unidentifiable herbs burst into plumes of fine, fragile smoke. Everything is tenuous in this room. Delicate and uncertain.
Willow sits Indian-style on a pillow, her red hair pulled up in a ponytail, eyes closed as she meditates. There is no need for bandages anymore; she has grown back to her full strength. Yet sometimes, she slips up. A floating candle. Sparkles and flickers in the air. The occasional flying pencil. But she is learning control. She is working on it.
And when she smiles, she looks like herself.
Her eyes open, and there's that old Willow look as she grins at Buffy in the threshold. "Long day at work?" she asks, and Buffy nods. Grimaces, rolls her head back. Pops her back.
"Terribly long," she admits. "But it's okay. The kids are good, and the pay's not so bad. Sure beats flipping burgers."
A flash of old, mischievous eyes, but they're tired. Weary. Too different. It's uncomfortable when Willow looks at her like this, giving her eyes that have seen too much, or a smile that's too thin and frail. "Mom wants me to go back to school," she says. "Dad's not too happy with my less-than-stellar GPA from last semester."
"Did you tell them that you were too busy trying to end the world to cram for finals?"
As soon as it comes out of Buffy's mouth, it is apparent to her that Willow does not appreciate this humor. It irritates her, that her attempts at comedy are not accepted here. She can laugh about what happened to her. Make her jokes, ha-ha, I used to be dead and now I'm not. But bring up a skinless guy and an ancient temple and Willow goes all turtle-in-the-shell.
It's not fair. I'm over it. Get over it, too.
She just wants things to be okay again.
Florence, the school secretary, is a smoker.
It's Florence's business if she wants to kill herself with cancer sticks. Buffy does not want to pry. She cannot control the actions of others.
But the smell...
It reminds her of things. Bad things. Times spent on her back in the dark, cavernous underground of his crypt, covered in sweat and quilts, watching him exhale loops and hoops of smoke from his plush mouth. Nimble fingers flicking ash into a chipped ashtray, so neat, so quick. The taste of his mouth when he kissed her.
It makes his screaming louder.
She thought she'd told him. No more screaming. How is she supposed to concentrate on helping people with all of his fucking noise? Banging pipes, ranting and raving at nothing at all, slamming things around. The worst is when he cries. Sobbing, weeping, wailing. Sometimes, she thinks that she can taste the salt of his tears in her bitter coffee.
Cigarette smoke creeps in from the cracks of the window, and Buffy can see Florence leaning against the brick wall outside of her office. The Virginia Slim between her fat lips, the plaid jumpsuit that does not fit her well. Sometimes, she thinks of telling Florence to take her smoke breaks somewhere else. Maybe lie to her about it, tell her that she's allergic.
But then she thinks of living without the cigarette smoke, and it doesn't sound so good after all.
"What happened to Spike?"
Shut up, Willow. She does not want to talk about these things. Not when she's trying to be calm, when she's trying to paint the walls of her mother's bedroom a sunny, funny yellow color and listening to poor Rat's compilation tape. A shrug of her shoulders, a flip of her ponytail. "Don't know," she lies. "He hasn't exactly been clear enough to give a straight answer."
Willow frowns, sweeps the brush down the wall. "Have you asked him?"
A jerky motion, and she almost drops the brush. "No." The word is firm, hard like concrete.
Willow does not ask again.
He haunts her nightmares.
Sometimes, she thinks that it would be easier if she would dream about the bathroom. The torn gray robe, the hard tile floor. Those are nightmares she can handle. She's the victim, rolling around on the floor while he makes demands he has no right to make and presses his bruising, forceful knee onto her thigh. If she could dream about that, it would be...
But Buffy only dreams about the church.
Slender silver man walking between the pews, rattling off nonsense with tears in his voice. So desperate, so tired. His hands unbuckling his pants. Service the girl. Horrifying, absolutely frightening, but not because of... That. No, there's another kind of fear entirely in the unsnapping of buttons, the resignation in his voice.
Am I flesh to you?
When she wakes up, there are tears on her face. Tears like that night. Pain squeezing her heart. Suffering. Mourning. Grief. Regret.
Something akin to...
The tears burn like acid.
Laura Cochran is dead.
Not by vampire. Not by demon.
Something much, much worse than that.
The news of her death spreads quickly throughout the school. Laura was well-liked, beautiful and popular. She was a model student, and this is not the way that perfect girls are supposed to die. They aren't supposed to have seizures behind the wheels of their brand-new Mustangs, their pretty cashmere sweaters stained with blood. They're supposed to live forever, bright beacons leading the way, happy and free.
Buffy does not know what to do.
She was clean. That's what she'd said, just a week ago. Clean. How poised she'd been. How collected. That bright, glimmering smile as she flipped her hair. Talk over Homecoming decorations and which deejay she should choose for the dance. She was...
Helplessly, she sits in her office while the teachers go for lunch. Meditate, meditate. Connect to the root system. Grow new skin. Gather the chi, collect strength, heal. Heal.
"Gone away, she's gone away, and hush, you're not being quiet enough for her, shh, shh..."
When he starts weeping in the basement, Buffy cannot help but join in.
It's a sad affair, as all funerals are. Mourners gathered around a dark rosewood casket, throwing crocuses and lilies onto the lid. Her parents stand stricken and confused; the mother breaks down into sobs when the casket begins its final descent into the ground. Buffy wants to console them, but she does not have the words. She wants to apologize.
I'm sorry. I thought she was fixed.
She decides against it.
Willow is there, dressed in black, her slender hand wrapped around Buffy's wrist. They stand together, quiet and somber, until the workers begin to shovel dirt and the mourners disperse. When Laura's grief-stricken parents pass by her, Buffy cannot meet their eyes. Shame passes through her, and a deep, resonating guilt resounds through her bones.
I thought she was fixed.
"I don't understand," she says through dry lips, and Willow turns her head, frowning. "She was in my office just a week ago. She was clean. No more drugs."
Quietly, Willow nods her head. "I know, Buffy. These things... They happen. People can't keep it under control all the time."
"No, that's not it. She was a straight-A student. She had everything going for her."
"But you don't know that."
No. She supposed she didn't.
As they walk through the graveyard, the sun starts to dip into the horizon. A ball of fire, blazing and bright, dimming into dark twilight. "I thought I helped her," Buffy says numbly. "She seemed... Happy. Like she'd made sense of everything. And I thought that I'd helped her do that." She shakes her head. "I should've listened harder. Should've... Should've done something differently."
"You couldn't help it."
"No," Buffy says abruptly. "I was supposed to help it, Willow. That was my job. Guidance counselor and all. But all I did was guide her into..." She cannot finish the sentence. Raw pain slices through her like a dagger, and she feels ill. "I wasn't strong enough. I didn't..."
Suddenly, she realizes where she is. Where she is standing.
That bright morning in May. Crawling out of the open grave, her sister at her side, the world laid open and gorgeous in front of her. Sunlight epiphany, gorgeous and majestic. Everything was in bloom, the wind carrying the scent of flora and possibility. A dry sort of heat crawled on her body, and it was the best feeling in the world. I can do this. I can live. I can live in this world, and be happy. It's over.
So strong. So bright. She'd thought it over, the pain of last year, the suffering. The depression. But how could all of that fade away in one sunlit revelation? How could she possibly have thought that it was over, that it was finished and done? That she was so strong, so beautiful? Inside, there are parts of her that are still broken and shattered from her resurrection. A piece of her that still longs for heaven.
"It was a quick fix," Buffy says softly. "Just a quick fix."
But pain like that cannot be expedited. It cannot be hurried along, or made to disappear. It lingers, like scar tissue. Like the scrapes and burns on his body, so dark and bright.
"They put the spark in me..."
"Buffy?" Willow asks, her pretty face lined with worry, and Buffy swallows hard.
"I have to go."
He's writing on the walls.
Gorgeous penmanship. She'd always thought that he would write in chicken scratch, long and tall lettering, slashing wounds. But he is unpredictable as always, writing in flowing, lovely streams of sentences and phrase, etching his strange poetry onto the walls of the basement. He talks to himself as he writes.
"Not so good, this one, but it'll do. It'll do." His voice grows louder, agitated. "Stop laughing at it! Not funny, is it? Still not done, you know. Could use a little work. I'll try harder. Hard worker, I am."
When she speaks, she keeps her voice gentle, and cannot staunch the admiration. "You are."
Startled, he drops his pen and steps away from the walls, and then ducks his head. "Sorry," he whispers. "Was too loud again, wasn't I? They yell. They don't understand. Need your quiet, you do. Got a job to do." He covers his heart with his hand, the heart covered by so many scratches. I tried to cut it out. "Got to help people."
Buffy nods and drops her head. "I'm trying to help," she says.
She's brought him things. Blood. A change of clothes. A blanket, some candles. The scented ones. Sandalwood and cinnamon. The scents that he likes.
A little nervously, Buffy extends her arms and lays the duffel bag at his feet. "I, um, brought you some stuff," she says, and she quirks her mouth at him. "You look like you haven't been eating well." Conflict crosses his face as he looks at the bags of blood she's laid carefully in the bag, and he leans forward, takes a smell. Shocked, he lifts his eyes, and she swallows, a little embarrassed. "You look like you need the good stuff."
"Human," he says, and then he shoves the bag away. "Can't. Not that. No, no. Wrong."
Mentally, she curses herself. Stupid, so goddamn stupid. She shouldn't have brought him human blood. How fucking thoughtless she is. "I'm sorry," Buffy says. "I'll go to the butcher and come back."
But he's still shaking his head, pushing the bag away from him. "Don't deserve it," he says. "Don’t deserve your help."
Doesn't he know? He's always been so insightful, even when she does not want it. Can't he look at her and tell? She's helpless. As helpless as she's always been. Her help has landed a girl in a grave, all because she thought that there was such a thing as a quick fix.
"No such thing."
Surprised, Buffy lifts her eyes. "What?" she asks, and he shakes his head.
"Thought I'd fixed it," he says, rubbing his arms together. Blindly, he looks around him, seeing something that only he can see. "Didn't I? Thought I'd come back all right. But it didn't work. Didn't take." He hangs his head, winces. "Still a monster. Still a thing."
She can feel them stinging behind her eyelids. Assaulting her, assuaging her. Part of her wants to be strong, wants to be bright and beautiful again. Wants to be whole. But the other part tells her that there is no shame in crying. There is no way to live in this world and not feel pain.
Especially when she has destroyed something beautiful.
She steps closer to him, and her feet scream to run again. Her body wants to flee. Hide away from his dirty, tearstained cheeks. Cower from the face of his madness. Run away from the mess she has made. Pretend that she is still all right. That she's fixed.
The only problem is that he is broken.
Buffy does not speak as she sits down next to him. Her words are worthless. Instead of dispensing wisdom, she has only dispensed death and demolition. He tries to move away, mutters something about worthiness, but she grabs his hand before he can do so.
I'm the one who's not worthy.
So cold. His hand is so cold. His face illuminates as she makes contact with him, and he turns the power of his blue eyes on her. Haunted. Harrowed. Stripped. Unhinged. So innocent, and she's ashamed of herself for thinking that he deserved this. Ashamed of herself for ignoring his help. But not anymore. She can't do that anymore. Not to him.
And not to herself.
She licks her lips. Draws soothing, anxious circles on his skin with her thumb. She wants to tell him that she's sorry. That she's suffering. That she wants him to make her feel better, that she wants him to tell her that he still loves her. That she's still lovable.
But instead, she swallows hard and nods at him.
"I'm listening, Spike."