A Better You
Beneath the rubble, far below the ruptured pipes and their leaks, under the meters of mud and rocks, there are caves. Narrow and rounded out into the bedrock the way a child pokes at dough, they are lit with a soft chalky glow.
At the far end of this particular cave, a roll-top desk, its varnish spotless and gleaming, has been set up. Neat bundles of files and the odd paper, secured with flat red tape, await the reader. The ink in its uncapped bottle rolls gently every time another collapse or rupture sends down its vibrations.
A fine cloud of dust sifts down from the network of cracks above the entrance, gathering into a shallow depression in the rock.
Moments pass. Collapses occur, aftershocks ripple, but it is quiet down here.
The dust starts to darken slightly, going pink and ruddy, as it rises, molding itself around an invisible human form: face and hands first, then arms, torso and neck. Finally legs and a pair of delicate feet.
While the air is chilly down here, the rock is nearly as warm as this new skin.
"I'm afraid not, no," the clerk says as he enters from another cave. He sets down his teacup on the saucer awaiting it on the desk, opens the top drawer, and extracts a single piece of paper. "Quite far from Hell, as a matter of fact."
The new human struggles up onto his elbows. Of course it's Spike; you already guessed that, I hope. Short, clean hair brushes his forehead as he looks around, blinking and chewing his lip. He is darker than you've ever seen him, flushed with pounding blood and glowing with sweat.
He looks very vital. That's a fancy way of saying *alive*.
"What the fuck's going on?" Spike has lost none of his inherent grace; this much is clear as he bends at the waist and flips himself to his feet. He advances, head ducked to avoid the stalactites, on the clerk at the desk.
"I'm here to tell you that," the clerk replies mildly. "Why don't you take a seat?"
He indicates a ladderback chair with a red tartan pillow on the seat. Spike eyes the pillow, the clerk, and the cave itself. "Why don't you just start talking?"
"Fine. I sense that you'd prefer I skip the preliminaries?"
"You think?" Spike pats the pockets of the jeans that have appeared low on his hips and squints up at the cave's ceiling. "That gonna hold?"
"Oh, yes," the clerk replies. He pauses in the midst of shuffling his papers and hands a crisp pack of unfiltered Camels and new book of matches to Spike. "Not a worry there."
Spike eagerly lights the first smoke he has truly tasted in a century. The match winks out as he tosses it toward the clerk. "Right. You were saying?"
"No preliminaries? I hope you're sure about that," the clerk says. Spike nods and circles his hand in the air. "Really? It truly is a fascinating tale, full of red herrings, the odd Macguffin, numerous dead ends--"
"Cut to it."
"All right. I'm here to tell you you're alive. You're alive! Congratulations."
Spike's eyebrow twitches up, but he contents himself with another hard suck on the cigarette.
The clerk turns to the desk and files some loose sheets, pausing now and again to sip at his tea.
"And?" Spike asks.
Glancing over his shoulder, the clerk smiles absently. "That's all. Congratulations. Have a nice life. Thank you for your sacrifice."
"But I'm dead!"
"No, you're not." The clerk shakes his head sadly, smiling indulgently.
"You thought you were going to die?"
"What with the bolt of light and the frying to ash? Yeah, thought I was dying. Didn't I?"
"My word, no," the clerk says. "You're very much alive."
"But I'm dead!"
"You're much too healthy looking to be dead," the clerk observes.
Spike checks his hands. They are rather pinkish.
"You see?" the clerk continues. "You can't be dead. You wouldn't fit in. Too pink, too moist to be dead."
Both of Spike's hand curl into fists that he shakes loose. Instead of hurling the punches that seem imminent, he scratches the back of his neck. "Maybe," he says slowly, "You need to fill me in a tad bit more."
"No need," a new voice says. A tonily, lushly accented voice. From yet another recess in the cave, a slim figure steps forth. He looks for all the world like the Spike of 1977 with white-blonde hair and a cruel curl to his lips. Yet his blue linen summer suit and lace-up walking shoes are as immaculate and expensive as his accent. "You don't need to hear the rest. You can go now."
"Don't I?" Spike stiffens at his double's entrance, looking him up and down, evaluating him. "And who the hell are you?"
"I'm William," the new arrival says. "I'm you. But a better you."
The clerk steps between the doubles, raising his hands in supplication.
"Please, gentlemen. Let's not allow this to get out of hand."
"Out of hand?" Spike says. "Who is this pansy arse? And what is he doing with my face?"
"See?" William says, leaning against the wall. If he were not the gentleman he so obviously is, he would sling his hands in his pockets. "That's exactly why I am here."
The clerk clucks his tongue gently. "Please, please. This is entirely unexpected. If you will allow me to check the records--"
"Don't bother," William says. "Just let this--this *man* die, put me out in the world, and everyone will be happy."
William turns to Spike. "Pardon? Weren't you just saying you thought you were dead? Didn't you *want* to be dead a moment ago?"
"Well, yeah, but--"
"What kind of life would *you* make?" William asks. He no longer addresses Spike so much as the cave at large. "Carousing? Brawling? Chasing women who'd never look at you twice and men who loathe you? Half-heartedly attempting overly dramatic suicides you'd never have the guts to go through with?"
"Watch it," Spike says lowly.
William blinks as he turns back. "Haven't you done all of that already? Don't you think we've grown a bit.... How shall I put this? Bored with your exploits?"
"Who's we? And how--"
"Think about it, Spike. The best you can offer is an exceptionally beautiful face and a lovely, if a tad slight, body. And those? I already have those. In addition, I have reading glasses that highlight my charming vulnerability, a much more genuine accent, one schooled at the Royal Academy rather than--what's yours? West Everlake Community College, I believe? I also can boast a taste for Kahlil Gibran, FitzGerald, and other winsome poets."
"Sound like a right arse to me," Spike says.
"Precisely." William extracts his bifocals from his jacket pocket and puts them on. Then he tousles his hair, such that the bleach job and spikes vanish. In their place are loose curls, wheaten and golden. "Oh? Yes, I have much nicer hair than you. Also a fully-stocked bar-- none of that ale and cheap whiskey you're so found of. I lean towards martinis and the latest single-malt scotch. And while I partake of the more meditative schools of yoga as well as tai chi ch'uan in order to stay flexible, as well as a daily appointment with the Stairmaster, you'll never find me kicking and howling for my life in some dank alley. I prefer, shall we say, the finer things in life."
"Finer?" Spike shouts. "That's not fine. Fine is a Husker Du bootleg you've never heard before, a road trip into the mountains. A good set of mates to watch your back. That's *fine*. What you prefer is--" Spike pauses. His search for the perfect insult is evident in his scowl and beetled brows. Suddenly his head jerks up as he grins. "Like the bourgie knock-offs in Crate and Barrel! Yeah! Like Ross and his bird! Rachel."
William nods and adjusts his well-conditioned hair. "That emporium does offer a broad selection of lifestyle accessories."
"And what's with this Victorian shite? *Emporium*?"
"I am the very model of a decent man, Spike. You, on the other hand, are a powder keg. No one knows what to make of you."
"So? I'm an original, I am."
William shakes his head sadly. "You are far too much of an original for the world to love."
"Gentlemen?" The clerk stands up from the desk. "I believe I have your answers."
"Don't need any," Spike says. "Get rid of him. Send me on my way."
The clerk nods. "Exactly."
"Pardon me?" William steps forward. "You do not seem to understand. I'm *William*. I'm much better than Spike."
"Yes," the clerk agrees. "You smell nicer, too. Be that as it may, you're not real."
"Of course I'm real! I'm Spike with a soul."
"I'm Spike with a soul," Spike says. "Earned it and everything."
"Do shut up, Spike," William says. "You did something, somewhere, in some other cave. Got some light thrown into you. And what have you done with it? Learned to enjoy life? Picked up a hobby or two? Adopted a stray dog? Joined a book club? I have. And I'm much happier for it."
"Saved the fucking world, that's what I did."
The clerk consults his papers. "I'm sorry, William. You're not Spike."
"Excuse me? I *am*. Look how pretty I am! How civilized! How well-dressed!"
"You're very pretty. And that's a lovely ensemble. However, much as it pains me to admit it, that man over there is Spike. Complete with the soul."
"But I'm just like he was before he was turned! Except better, of course. Fewer mother issues, you see."
"That's not quite how it works, I fear," the clerk says, and offers William a sheet of paper. "See there? That should confirm it. Spike with his soul is not that sweet man who left the party. Any more than Angel is Liam."
"Who's bringing my fucking Sire into this?" Spike shouts from the other side of the cave. He seems to have been emptying his new bladder, and he turns, still buttoning up. "Angel's involved, is he? Should've known. That necklace--"
"Angelus is a potato-faced pig," William observes. "Spike's sire was the ethereally lovely Drusilla."
"The ethereally loony Dru?" Spike crosses quickly to join the clerk and William. "As if she could focus long enough to sire a kitten. Wait, she tried that once. Didn't work."
"I am terribly sorry," the clerk tells William. "He is Spike. You are not. He gets the life."
"He doesn't even want the life!"
"Sure I do," Spike says, lighting another cigarette. "Always loved the world. Now I get to see it."
"But he can't offer anything!" William protests. "He's so base! And rude! He does nothing but fight and fuck! What kind of life is that?"
"Hell of a lot more interesting than picking out votive candles at your little emporium," Spike muses. He claps William around the bicep and bunches up the material in his fingers as he squeezes to leave a good mess of wrinkles. "Sorry, mate. Life's mine."
"You'll just screw it up!" William calls as Spike exits the cave. "Like everything else you touch!"
Even in the dark of the tunnel, William and the clerk can make out the two-fingered salute.