Today, while Dawn is at school, I am cleaning out the attic, looking for things to sell. The bills are piling up faster than Doublemeat paychecks, and something has to give. I will not go to Spike. Or Giles. This has to be me.
The sorting would go faster with Dawn or Willow's help, but Dawn is too attached to things—I'd spend more time arguing with her about what to keep and what not to then I would sorting—and Willow is helping Anya at the magic box today. She feels bad, living here, not helping with expenses. It's getting to be the trend around here. Everyone feels bad.
I find a box shoved deep into one corner, remarkably undusty, with "old books" freshly scrawled in Dawn's loopy hand. Books are worth money, right? And anyway the box isn't heavy like a box of books that size should be. I slit the tape on the top, press back the cardboard flaps.
On top are photographs, in one of those paper drugstore sleeves. I slide them out. The first few are all from the same sitting, Will and Tara and Dawn, laughing, making faces. The pictures are from this summer. There is a copy of the one Willow used to have framed by her bedside, the one now face down on the nightstand. I put it aside, wondering if Tara would want it. There is one of Dawn and Spike that looks like it was taken fairly late that summer on the front porch. It is dark out, and the light from the flash is reflecting off Spike's skin and bleached hair like he has a halo. He is slouched against the doorframe in a pose of affected indifference, and Dawn is doing her best Spike-impression, leaning against him with an arm tucked through his, trying not to laugh. I put this one aside too. To give back to Dawn, I tell myself, but I know it isn't true. The rest of the stack is mostly of the gang, some old artwork of Dawn's.
I put the pictures aside, start pulling other things out of the box. There is a journal. I think about reading it, but I don't. Underneath is a black shirt, men's, faintly smoky and unmistakably Spike's. (Hah. Unmis-stake-ably.) It smells vaguely of one of Dawn's perfumes, and I realize I can hardly remember the last time I wore perfume. High school, maybe. No—with Riley. During the day anyway. At night, well, didn't want to give the vamps any more notice than I had to. Now . . . just doesn't really go with the grease, you know? Or the outfit.
I fold the shirt a little more carefully than I have to, put it down beside the journal. Still in the box are a few things of Mom's—notes and things, a bracelet—a condolences card from Dad, a mass of ticket stubs. At the bottom is the dress, the one Dawn was wearing that night. The fabric is so dark the bloodstains don't show. You can't fault Glory for lack of style. It looks like it's been nearly ripped in half. I never asked how they . . . what happened after the portal closed. I didn't want to know, and I don't want to think about it now.
I don't want any of this. I start to pack everything back up, fighting the breakdown that always comes. The dress, the shirt, the ticket stubs. I am picking up the journal when something slips out. More photographs, carefully rubberbanded together.
They are pictures of me. In the one on top, I am sitting in the living room, smiling, one arm around Dawn, who is smiling too. I look . . . so happy. It takes me a minute to realize it's not me at all. It's her. The Buffybot.
They took her picture? I wonder, and tug off the rubberband, tears forgotten. There is a whole series of her—in the house, sitting in on Scooby meetings, even slaying. Almost as if I'd never been gone. From the pictures, you can't tell.
She's so bright, and so perky. Her hair is perfect. And still long. I lift a hand to toy with the ends of my own hair where it brushes against my jaw, and still feel a dull stab of regret. Of pain, really, more general than regret, or grief. Too much to categorize into neat little words like that. Because remembering what I've done only reminds me why I did it.
Cutting it . . . I thought I'd make it go away, you know? The stylist asked what I wanted and I told her: "Make me different." Part of me wanted just to be different than I was, wanted the haircut to create that for me; the other part screamed for something just to prove this wasn't business-as-usual, that something had changed since all that "before" the bot was constructed from, the smiles, the quips, the sparkle. Like the hair would prove I was wrong, a cosmetic cry for help, see look, it's not me! But it's like what Tara said, its surface, like a cellular sunburn. It doesn't mean anything. It doesn't widen the gap, not really. All it does, most of the time, is make me remember.
The sound of a car driving by makes me glance towards the door, and I catch my reflection in the hopefully antique mirror I had laid against the wall for transport downstairs. I am wearing a white bandana of Mom's tied over lackluster hair, old jeans, white workout tank. My face is still pale—daytime at the DMP keeps my tan from coming back, I guess—and my eyes are so haggard. I can imagine Spike's voice in my head, harsh, Looking a little worn about the edges, aren't we, Slayer? but I know it's really me, dressed up in black and bleach and an English accent.
He knows it too. He tells me the things I won't tell myself. The walking, sneering spector of my worst self-fears. Truth where I am a lie.
I want to break the mirror. Hurl something at it, anything, anything to shatter my own image. I would, but we need the money, there's Dawn to take care of. That's the bottom line. There's Dawn to take care of.
I wonder if she took care of Dawn too, during the summer. If that's what the pictures mean. I wonder if Dawn misses her, if she ever wants her back. They all look so happy, in the pictures. It was me that messed things up again, me coming back, the way I am now. They never look happy anymore.
I'm exaggerating and I know it. The Slayer, pouting. In the pictures, I look happy too. It's not me, I know that, but I can't help it. It's like she's the one who was real, and now she's dead, mechanical parts tossed or recycled or God knows what else. Irretrievable, even for Willow. I'm the robot now. I slay and work and make peanut butter sandwiches and . . . and want Spike. God help me. It's almost funny. I even want Spike.
It's like I'm more gone now than I ever was before.
I finish packing the box up quickly. My hands are shaking so badly I can't get the rubber band back around the pictures, and they scatter across the floor. I gather them up, try to remember the order, but I can't, it's all mixed up in my head, I wasn't there.
It takes me three tries to get the box closed. I wrap my arms around my legs and rest my forehead on my knees. Maybe I'm crying. I don't know how long I sit like this.
The back door opens, closes. There's cursing. I can smell singed flesh.
"Pet?" Spike calls from downstairs. "Buffy? You here?"