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Backstage 28 - Precious Cargo

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Precious Cargo
by Aadler (with contributions from SRoni)
Copyright October 2007


Fang Fetish Awards, Round 9 – Best General Fic
August 2008

Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.



Tito has a pickup truck. Ford F-250, extended cab, with a lightweight camper shell that he uses for weekend outings but can remove easily by himself, if he needs to transport anything oversized. He bought the truck used, but it had less than 30K on the odometer, so he’s been making payments for the past two years. Three more months and it’s his, free and clear. It shows some body damage — came that way, one of the reasons the first owner was willing to sell, plus Tito uses it for work — but it’s still in top operating condition. Which is exactly the way things should be: looking good is okay, but performance is what really counts.

When you have a truck, you never run out of friends, because there’s always somebody who needs something moved. That’s not a problem for Tito. Favors are generally repaid in beer, and he gets along okay with his work buddies, and (he doesn’t go out of his way to mention this part) you can learn some unexpected things about people when you get a good look at their stuff.

As it turns out, Harris is no exception. And, as usual with Harris, even the unexpected isn’t really what you’d expect. And, this time, the new information came with the loading of the stuff, rather than from the stuff being loaded.

It’s always been a puzzle, trying to figure the kid out. Hard worker, smart worker, sees the long picture as well as staying right on top of the complications that can bog down a job if you don’t catch them as they pop up … When the guys want to stop off for a few beers after they knock off for the day, Harris usually has something else he has to do, but the times he does come along, he seems to take real pleasure in kicking back and kidding around and just, well, hanging out. He’ll nurse a single beer through an entire evening, but he doesn’t make any show of it. Okay on the job, okay off the job … the kid’s just okay, period. Takes awhile to notice that you always seem to be wondering what else might be going on there.

So then Harris takes him to pick up the stuff, and the mystery deepens. Come on, now: a houseful of girls? Okay, not his house. Okay, most of them look to be prime jailbait. Okay, so the obvious mother-hen of the bunch — blonde, five-foot-nothing, but with eyes like a VC sapper’s — has to be the same ‘Buffy’ who juggled girders and beat the hell out of Vince and Tony and Marco (Tito wasn’t on the job that day, but the story is still being told) a few years back. All the same, even in the few minutes it took to get their belongings into the truck, Tito could see that Harris knew them all, addressed them with easy, casual authority, and was totally in his element.

Not a harem, no … but if the kid isn’t getting it on with somebody in that house (two or three somebodies, more likely), then Tito is no judge of human nature.

Nice, then, a few tantalizing possibilities to speculate about during the trip. Makes the drive go faster, and decent entertainment in its own right. Plus, it gives Tito an excuse to not think too much about his own situation.

Staying employed in Sunnydale has never been a problem. Even when there are no major projects going, you can always find repair jobs of one type or another — lots of wear and tear around this city, from various sources — and word gets around if a guy is willing to work around city licensing requirements, ask no questions, and take a quiet cash payment. Tito’s good at those things, and good enough at off-the-books plumbing, simple electric, brickwork, even drywall, that he seldom has to go back and correct a job. (He’s always ready to do that if necessary, though, and makes sure they know he will. Just good business.) Tito lived well, gave no particular thought to the future, took the steady revenue flow for granted … Lately, though, things are different. Instead of maintenance — never mind expansion — people are starting to put homes and even businesses up for sale, and relocate while they await word of a buyer. Tito’s savings, such as they are, won’t cover him much longer, so he’s making a scouting trip to Los Angeles, see about picking up a little of this or that. Just to tide him over.

He won’t be coming back. Deep down, he’s already made the decision, though it’ll be awhile yet before he admits it, or even consciously recognizes the fact. It’s all changing, he felt it sooner than some others but this has been a good gig and he was reluctant to leave it. With the pool of customers dwindling, though, it’s time to look elsewhere. They won’t be coming back, either. That handwriting has been on the wall for weeks, and getting clearer all the time.

In a way, Harris was the one who triggered it. Tito had been talking with some of the others on the crew about what they’d do when this latest job shut down (just supposed to be temporary, reallocation of city funding, guaranteed they’d iron it out eventually), and mentioned that he might check some possibilities in La-La Land. A few days later, Harris asked when Tito might make one of those trips, because some of his friends had some things they’d like delivered to a hotel in L.A., no rush but he’d been wondering when they could find the time, and they’d be happy to cover Tito’s gas and maybe a little extra if he could drop off the stuff, being as he was already planning to go to the city. Some discussion of times and sizes, casual negotiations — Harris is a good guy, and it’s only common sense to cut your friends a break, ’cause no telling when you’ll be the one needing a favor — and it was all set.

Tito is on the Interstate now, and he’s settled into cruising speed: three MPH over the speed limit, meaning ten or fifteen slower than the traffic around him. No hurry, he’s more concerned with smoothness and comfort than with racing anybody, and a part of his mind that never rises to surface awareness tells him it would be really dumb to survive nine years in Sunnydale only to buy it in a freeway crack-up because he was in a rush for no reason.

The camper shell is on the back. After he does the delivery, Tito figures he can bunk there while he investigates the construction market, both official and informal. He’s brought some things of his own, mostly clothes and basic supplies, but there’ll still be room for him and a sleeping bag back there. Mainly he’ll just have to be careful where he parks.

It doesn’t occur to him to consider that, for this temporary scouting trip, he made sure to pack the few special things that he wouldn’t want to lose.

*               *               *

Annabelle started it. Or Molly, because of Annabelle. With more Potentials showing up every day, and Buffy wanting to keep them all under the same roof so there are no stragglers to be picked off, space is at a premium. There have been actual fistfights over the shower schedule, bedding arrangements are defended almost as passionately, and it was early recognized — and decreed — that personal possessions were to be considered utterly sacrosanct. When you’re forbidden to mess with anybody’s goodies, but every inch of living space has to be fought for, there are bound to be conflicts.

Annabelle’s backpack, still around after Annabelle was buried, posed a problem. Couldn’t keep stepping around it, couldn’t snarl at the newcomers for not knowing not to ask whose was it and would she move it, please? … Buffy had her hands full with other concerns, and Xander, though he didn’t officially live at Revello Drive, was suddenly Senior Leadership, so he made a unilateral decision: Annabelle’s possessions would be divided among the other Potentials, with the first arrivals getting preference of choice, and he — Key Guy, Mister Fix-It, Xan the Man — rendering final judgment in any disputes.

Wasn’t much to divide, really. Annabelle had traveled light, as did most girls who suddenly found themselves hunted by eyeless, voiceless assassins. Some underwear, a fringed shawl, a couple of second-rate paperbacks (‘historical’ romances, lurid but more suggestive than explicit), a bag of peanuts unfinished and beginning to show mold … Nothing of value, and the only item of even minor interest was a dreamcatcher of feathers and wire and thread, the kind found at craft fairs and tourist shops anywhere. “I’ll take that,” Molly said, as soon as she saw it. “Annabelle … it was special to her.”

Most of the girls had never met Annabelle: gone before they arrived, first of their number to die in Sunnydale. Her name was whispered sometimes but nobody really knew anything about her … except for Kennedy, who was contemptuously dismissive before being flatly ordered to cut it out, and Molly, heretofore unwilling to speak at all of her fallen comrade. This small revelation was news, and Caridad was the one to ask. “Special? Why? What did it mean to her?”

“Couldn’t say.” Molly reached for the dreamcatcher, fingers trembling even though she kept her face clear of expression. “She always made a big too-rah of hanging it up before she went to sleep. Didn’t say why, and I didn’t ask. So I don’t know.” Tears spilled down her cheeks as she held the cheap, flimsy construction, and she gave up the struggle and began crying openly. “Don’t guess I’ll ever know.” Then she fled.

They’re all of them more aware of their own mortality than most their age, but this was still a full-face slap of cold reality. When Chloe hanged herself two days later, and the stunned survivors realized they hadn’t known her well enough to mourn her properly — nothing beyond she loved Winnie the Pooh, at any rate — it was a crisis moment. They could cope with the thought of dying, or even of being forgotten, but they were terrified by the prospect that they might live, with the concomitant responsibility of memorializing their honored dead, and then find themselves without the ability to do so.

Buffy, preoccupied with dreamquests and lethal combat, hadn’t seemed to recognize the dire threat to morale. Xander had, and so had made another unilateral declaration: Pick out something special to you, something that matters, tells about who you are. Give it to me, with a sealed letter explaining what it means. I’ll find a safe place to keep everything, and when this is all over, well, anybody who didn’t make it will still have something to speak for her.

It’s a small thing, one of many that he’s had to come up with over the last several weeks … and not just him, probably Willow’s done similar on-the-spot repairs, and Dawn, and Giles, maybe even Buffy herself. They’re not running a coordinated operation here, they’re trying to stay alive from one moment to the next, so impromptu is the order of the day. Somehow, though, this one took hold. It gave them something to do at times when they might otherwise have found themselves overtaken by despair; they consulted with each other, had whispered conversations and open arguments, working to find the best conveyor of memory and meaning and essence.

It spread. After awhile, no one was talking about it anymore, but the number of sealed packets entrusted to Xander’s care grew until just about everyone was represented. By this time, he’d put enough thought into the preservation of these mementoes to realize that “a safe place” might not be possible within the Sunnydale city limits.

So, Tito, headed toward L.A., with a set of printed directions (courtesy of Willow) to the hotel where Angel is headquartered with his people. Willow also provided a cover letter, requesting that their personal belongings be stowed until someone could come to pick them up.

The shipment is on its way. This responsibility, at least, has been met. Now he — and they — can focus on more immediate concerns.

*               *               *

By the nature of their choosing, the collection of packets in the pickup doesn’t take up much room. The girls had to select mostly from the little they’d been able to carry with them, so the majority of their submissions are in the way of individual dedications, messages to those who survive by all who realize they might not.

There’s nothing from Robin Wood. This notion was originally intended for the Potentials; by the time it spread beyond them, the dissemination was so informal and unspoken that it never reached him. He still doesn’t know about it, nor has anyone else realized that he doesn’t. If he did know, he still might not have bothered to include anything. Robin Wood is a man focused on the present, on the mission; he doesn’t give much thought to how — or whether — he is remembered.

Kennedy, likewise, elected to absent herself from the program. Kennedy is building her future right now. She is confident of being remembered, assuming Willow lives; if Willow doesn’t survive the coming weeks or days, Kennedy honestly doesn’t give a damn what anybody else thinks.

Amanda’s packet contains the ribbon she got, along with the rest of the swing band, when they took second place in last year’s regional finals. Her letter explains that she knows it’s corny to be proud of such a silly thing, here when she’s suddenly a child of destiny and they’re all working to save, you know, the world, hello! But she’s proud of it anyway, darn proud. She worked hard for that, pushed everybody else to work hard, she’s a weird girl with a long funny-shaped face and she was nearly a foot taller than her classmates by the age of twelve, she knows this about herself, but that stupid band and that stupid competition and that stupid ribbon were the first things in a long time to show her that she could make something of herself. If anybody needs anything to tell them what kind of person she is (was), this will tell it: that the thing that matters (mattered) most to her is a dumb little red ribbon with gilt lettering that’s already starting to rub off.

Molly put in Annabelle’s dreamcatcher, and her letter covers most of ten pages without saying much that is coherent. She’s not unintelligent, but she has little faculty in self-expression. Someone trying to understand her from this will get confused impressions of guilt, shock, self-doubt. Molly hates Annabelle for dying, especially for dying by giving in to fear. She can’t admit these feelings to herself, and only time will resolve them.

If she has the time. Molly doesn’t expect to be alive much longer; that, too, can be seen in the letter.

Chao-Ahn misunderstood the purpose of this exercise, and so she wrote a lengthy narrative to her mother describing life in the Slayer’s household. (She included several carefully-rendered drawings of Spike, with the observation that if this isn’t the Frost-Haired Devil who reputedly slew the legendary Xin Rong, he must have deliberately patterned himself after that infamous individual. Rona happened to see her tuck the drawings into her packet, but thought it indicated a developing crush, and shook her head at ‘some people’s taste’.) Missing the point entirely, the letter nonetheless tells a lot about Chao-Ahn. She’s perceptive, analytical, wickedly critical, good-humored and good-natured and determinedly self-reliant. Her observations are frequently wide of the mark, but never entirely irrelevant; she understands little of the overall situation, but she knows she’ll be expected to fight, and Chao-Ahn is more than willing to fight. If she needs to be memorialized, this will serve the purpose … although they will, of course, first have to find someone who can read colloquial Cantonese rendered in Chinese script.

Vi put in drawings also, but these are her own. She filled two dozen pages with drawings of horses, different poses and activities and different breeds. Her letter tells how she always loved horses, and dreamed of being a veterinarian, although she’s begun to doubt whether she ever could have succeeded at that, given how much the sight of blood bothers her. Vi apologizes in the letter for dying, for failing them, and hopes she didn’t get anyone else killed in the process. She also expresses the hope that one of them will marry Xander, since she’s not around — if you’re reading this — to do it herself.

Xander’s packet, too, alludes to marriage: at least, one of them does. He cheated, putting in three packets. One for the Potentials, one for all his dearest friends, and one for Anya. Xander doesn’t worry about being remembered, so his parting words, if this is what they prove to be, are intended for others. How much they meant to him: Giles, Buffy, Dawn, Willow. Oz, long absent. Tara, buried but still cherished. Joyce, who was enough to renew his faith in motherhood even if he couldn’t quite make himself believe in marriage. Thanks to them, he’s been part of something special, something wonderful, for nearly seven years. Every bit of meaning in his life has come from them.

(No mention of Spike. Xander has nothing to say to Spike, or about him.)

His letter to the Potentials speaks to every single one of them, individually and by name. Encouragement, consolation, praise, caution, wry advice and insistent warnings. Listen to Buffy, but listen to your own heart, too. Trust Giles, but any other Watcher — however many are still alive — get only as much trust as they can earn. Don’t try to go it alone, that’s a quick death and not much of a life. And, finally: You’re all beautiful and strong and brave. I’m proud to have known you. Be proud of yourselves.

He worked on this for weeks, and by now it runs to almost a hundred pages.

His packet for Anya contains a copy of their wedding invitation, and a single note. I was trying to keep from hurting you. I messed that up big-time — wow, huge surprise there — but just remember: I never would have left you for any other reason.

Anya’s letter, by contrast, is disjointed, acerbic, full of complaints and insults (some of them actually intended as such). Her chosen memento is the first dollar she earned as co-owner of the Magic Box, with a postscript that she would have put in the wrapper from the first condom she and Xander ever used, only he had thrown it away in one of his periodic fits of moronic human fastidiousness. Besides which, the dollar bill actually has more sentimental value. A post-postscript tells Buffy, You and I never liked each other, and still don’t. But it really did suck when you were dead. A post-post-postscript advises Spike that drunken stamina doesn’t suitably replace actual concern for one’s partner, and that he could get a lot of sex tips from Xander.

The packet from Caridad contains a silver bracelet, with her name inscribed on the inside. It’s not from a lover, she explains: her older brother gave it to her when she was ten, and then he drowned five months later. Without offering a reason, she asks that it be left to Dawn if she is not herself able to claim it in the aftermath of what everyone knows is coming.

Denise has nothing to offer except her own thoughts. She always wanted to work in television when she grew up, she says. Not Oprah, maybe not even a weather girl, but somewhere in the industry. It’s a place where you can create something out of nothing, and not many careers will let you do that.

Lucy’s packet holds half a dozen poems. Her subject matter would alarm a school psychologist, but she’s beginning to wed meter to alliteration in a way that produces a compelling, mounting rhythm. Her letter admits that, while she’s captivated by Emily Dickinson, on paper she always seems to be aiming for Tennyson.

*               *               *

Andrew’s offering is a videocassette. No letter accompanies it. At one point he began a note (IT SHOULD BE JONATHAN HERE, NOT ME), but then tore it up. The video will have to speak for him by itself.

Giles submitted a phonograph album — vintage vinyl by Cream — and what appears to be a small, curled earring. His letter explains neither one; it is dense, tangled, impenetrable prose. He struggled to express himself, and failed miserably. The consummate scholar would be chagrined to learn how thoroughly he was surpassed by a jack-leg carpenter with a treasured high school GPA of 1.85 … but not, especially, surprised by the fact.

Farideh’s packet contains a necklace (an insect sealed in amber and hung on a strip of leather) and a string of prayer beads. Both were gifts from her father, a ferociously proud man who elevated himself from sheepherder to merchant by sheer industry and determination. He is devoutly religious, and Islam provides stringent dictates regarding the proper roles of women … but Persian history also tells stirring tales of female warriors, and so last year he allowed Farideh to accompany the grave, soft-spoken Welshman, once the latter had fully explained his daughter’s possible destiny. It was a stunning display of trust, and Farideh would die under torture before violating that trust. Her letter, in carefully formed English printing, speaks of all this. It also acknowledges some unease at her discovery that vampires apparently are repelled only by Christian symbols, but ends by stating that she is a faithful daughter of Allah regardless of how He, in His wisdom and mystery, may choose to manifest Himself.

No such reservations are expressed by Rachel, though she was equally disconcerted at learning the ineffectuality — in this particular area, anyway — of the Star of David. (What kind of damn sense did that make?) Rachel turned over to Xander a cardboard box, secured in robust layers of masking tape, that holds a plush stuffed basset hound missing one eye. A seventh-birthday present from her parents, she slept with it for almost a year after her dad died. Rachel may make it through this business or she may not, but she draws comfort from the knowledge that Snuffles, at least, is going to safety.

Dawn’s packet holds a tattered copy of the Ordinary Princess. Until a few months before the move to Sunnydale (right about when her sister must have become the Slayer, Dawn now realizes), it was Buffy’s duty to read it to her as a bedtime story, a chapter at a time or until she fell asleep. It was a firm ruling from their mother, that Buffy would do this whatever the circumstances, and it broke many a deadlock of sisterly stubbornness. Dawn’s letter rigorously explains the significance of the book, the gift of her mother and her sister, and concludes: I don’t care if anybody remembers me. But if I’m not there, it’s up to all of you to remember them.

Colleen’s diary. No letter necessary.

Tamlyn’s charm bracelet, with a meticulous accounting of what each charm means.

Jutta turned in a nearly-empty bottle of the after-shave her Watcher-trainer used; she’d crept back hours after her hair’s-breadth escape, found him dead, and this the only meaningful reminder of him she was able to retrieve. He was nice to her. She wishes he could see how much she’s learning.

From Melissa, a glass paperweight with a tiny, perfect crystal rose at its center. No explanation.

Bethany: letters from a pen-pal, while she was at church camp. She’d been horribly lonely, and somehow these letters kept her going where cheerful reassurances from her parents just weren’t cutting it.

Cheryl Ann donated a photograph of Freddie Prinze, Jr., with an autograph she’s convinced is genuine. She’s never been anywhere near him in person, but after this business is over, she intends to see to it that they meet. Once you’ve fought for your life, celebrity-shyness just doesn’t pack the same punch.

Rebecca has an actual autograph book. She bought it on impulse, and then decided she’d collect interesting people instead of famous people. Her letter tells details of the first dozen interesting people she found. She’s sorry there isn’t time to cover them all, but things are starting to heat up, so …

Buffy.

Everyone, everyone who’s known Buffy for longer than the past couple of months, expected her to put in the leather jacket Angel gave her when she was fifteen. When it came time to choose, though, she found herself turning to a photograph of her and Dawn, its frame covered in seashells. A present from her younger sister, perfectly representing the irreconcilable contradictions of Dawn herself: the photo is of a time that never happened (though Buffy remembers it clearly), while the glued-on seashells were real-Dawn’s work. Their mother is there, too, not in the photograph but in what it means. They had both known, then — though Dawn didn’t yet — that their memories of her were false, and had both decided that she was their blood no matter how that blood had been formed.

No letter. Anyone who knows what the framed photo means, knows already. For anyone who doesn’t, no history lesson will be enough.

From Meg, a dried four-leaf clover. Terri, the name-tag from her Yorkie’s collar; she’d been unwilling to risk Gustav by bringing him with her, so the name-tag was a substitute. Marta, postcards from every bus stop and truck stop and train station she passed through on her way to Sunnydale.

*               *               *

Willow kept putting off her decision, because she had heavy responsibilities and there was a lot of pressure and how do you decide something like this? Besides, her own personal conflicts bulk mucho choco-latta-ya-ya, and recent events haven’t helped. She’s shown bad judgment in the past (never mind the whole murderous destroy-the-world interlude, right now her memory of animating Tara’s sweater, to mimic the absent girl’s embrace, strikes her as seriously creepy), and it’s not easy to commit yourself when you know from experience that you may find yourself looking back on this moment and moaning, my God, how could I have been so crazed —?

In the end, she selected and wrapped one of the stones she left on Tara’s grave marker. Her letter, unlike the loose babble that can still pour from her mouth in unguarded moments, is balanced, lucid, precise. I’ll never stop loving Tara, it says in part. At the same time, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life worshiping a dead woman’s memory, or never love again because nobody can match this idealized picture I made of her. I’m starting something new, and I’m a little scared: that I may be measuring a new lover against an unfair standard, that I may set myself up for failure by unrealistic expectations. It helps to remember that what Tara and I were at the end, isn’t what we were at the beginning. We grew. And I’m ready to grow again, if I’ve found someone patient enough to give me the time I need.

She worried that her friends might feel slighted, still worries a little. But she won’t be offended when (if) various packets are opened to show Angel’s jacket, a freeze-dried chunk of Anya’s wedding cake, video of Cordelia giving Xander his first BJ … Personal is personal, you make your own choices, and she’s never going to apologize for loving Tara.

*               *               *

Kinue speaks five languages, and wrote the same letter in each of them. It explains that her most treasured possession — a scroll detailing her ancestry for seventeen generations — was lost in the destruction of her home. She has reproduced the last eleven generations, from memory, in a scroll of her own. If she survives, she intends to consult with near cousins in the Mahou no Kage-shi to complete the restoration; if she should fall in battle, her wish is that the scroll be relayed to these same cousins, with an accounting of the efforts she made to continue bringing honor to her family’s name.

Rona put in one of Chloe’s sweatshirts. Her letter says only, I kept meaning to talk to her.

Dorinda, for reasons known only to Dorinda, contributed a handwritten copy of the lyrics to the early-Seventies one-hit sensation, Seasons in the Sun. All three verses. Each with its own chorus. All three choruses repeated in tandem at the end.

Pilar addressed her letter specifically to Andrew. Only a couple of pages, but guaranteed — should he see it — to confuse, mystify, and embarrass him.

*               *               *

Dozens of packets, letters, arcane objects and prized memories. All settled into a compact space in the back of Tito’s pickup.

There’s one more, smuggled in with a clutch of other submissions at a time when it could properly be overlooked. The contributor’s name isn’t marked on the outside. It contains a chipped coffee mug, with a broken handle clumsily repaired by aggressive application of epoxy. The mug was stolen from the Revello Drive house more than two years ago, and appears not to have been washed in the interim … as, indeed, it has not. Every few weeks, the thief would make hot cocoa in it, and ceremoniously add three small marshmallows, and choose to believe that the resulting concoction still carried some faint trace of the last such drink prepared for him, in this same cup, by a woman now dead.

It was precious to him long before he sought out the burden of a soul.

*               *               *

Individually, these things are obscure, trivial, puzzling, bizarre. Collectively, they are worthless in terms of worldly valuation. For those who chose them, each is treasure beyond price (including the plaster Madonna that Tito’s baby sister gave him when he finally agreed to start attending Mass again). Now, in the gently gathering shadows of a soft Southern California twilight, they journey together toward a place of safekeeping.

 
end