Joyce doesn't remember the demon on the ceiling. At least, she doesn't think she remembers it. Maybe she does.
She definitely doesn't remember the attack. That's something. She's sure of that. Pretty sure.
For weeks, she'd been having these flashes she couldn't describe. Kind of like deja vu, but they were only sensations, at first: dizziness, a smell like cooking cabbage, the feeling of sunlight on her skin. She worried she was going crazy more than she worried she was sick. The brain tumor diagnosis was --
No, it wasn't a relief. Not at all. But she thought, at least the flashes would stop once the tumor was removed. She wouldn't be crazy.
Not any more than a woman whose daughter was the Slayer had to be crazy.
The morning that Buffy and Dawn bring her home from the hospital, they show her the nest they'd made on the couch, cushions now loaded with blankets in case she wants to lounge in the living room. Then they put her to bed in her own room, despite her protests that she can tuck the covers under her own chin just fine. Dawn makes stacks and stacks of pancakes with the fierce determination of a Summers girl who can't admit that she's still frightened. Buffy goes out for the rest of the day, for much the same reason.
Joyce stays in bed; she doesn’t want to get up. She doesn’t want this day to be real. She can admit to the queasiness from the anesthesia, but not the dread. (Did they get it all? How could they know?) The sun shines between the curtains, shafts of light moving slowly across the room.
Joyce lies in the bed, alternately closing her eyes and staring up at the ceiling. The flashes are still so vivid when they come, full of memories she can't place. Of standing in a restaurant kitchen and yelling obscenities at Buffy. Of eating thick blue pudding with her hands from a glass bowl the size of a kiddie pool. Of a black and gold scorpion-thing clinging to her ceiling while she lay helpless in the bed beneath it.
The memories don't go away. They slide into the patterns of her life, crawling out of her head and into the world with her. They feel like memories, not illusons or hallucinations. They feel the same as remembering the taste of the green jello she ate in the hospital yesterday: pedestrian and real. But they keep changing.
Sometimes in her memories, the thing on the ceiling is more like a monkey, with red and white stripes like a candy cane. It wheezed at her with a voice like a kazoo.
Joyce is fairly sure that memory isn't true, since surely someone would have made a joke about it? It wouldn't be funny, but at least then she would know. But they haven't made any jokes about it. All Joyce knows is that it really was there; that Dawn really did chase it off; that Buffy killed it.
She doesn't think she remembers any of it. It's just her brain, trying desperately to fill in the missing pieces. Because she's missing pieces of her brain --
She tries to calm down. She tries to rest. The doctors said it would be like this. It would take a while to feel like herself again after the surgery. But how is she supposed to get back to normal if she can't even feel safe in her own bed?
No matter how often she tells herself that the memories aren't real, the fact is: she was attacked in her own house. In her own bedroom. When she realizes she has to stop thinking or scream, she can't stand to stay in the bed a minute longer. She has to get away from it, but she can only trudge as far as the couch before her strength abandons her again.
Dawn is thrilled when Joyce comes to the couch; it's easier to see that she's not dead.
So Joyce eats pancakes and pretends to rest, wondering how long it will be before she breaks down in front of the girls.
She didn't want them to see how afraid she was, before, and she doesn't want them to see how afraid she is, now. It's not just that her body betrayed her, producing the growth that would have killed her. Though that is bad enough. She would have died --
It's the way she can't trust anything in her mind now.
She remembers sitting in a tree house and drinking tea out of tiny china cups. Except they don't have a tree house, and she can't imagine when she would have been having a tea party, as an adult. She remembers swimming in an ocean as pink as the grapefruit juice they buy in the store.
She remembers seeing her younger daughter as a glowing light, a creature of pure energy brought into her home like a changeling in an old fairy tale. Except that part is true, and all her memories of Dawn as a human are false.
Created, not false. Regardless of how it happened, Dawn is her daughter, curled up tightly beside her on the couch now. Joyce can see herself in Dawn's face. She can see the fear there, too, and the shadow of grief that hasn't passed.
Dawn is her daughter. Dawn is Buffy's sister.
None of the memories they have of Dawn are real. Or they weren't real. They never happened the way she remembers, no matter how well she remembers them.
Joyce's memories of the creature aren't real, either. Nor her memories of the pink ocean, nor the tea party. Some of these things happened, but not the way she remembers, no matter how well she remembers them.
The last of the sun sinks away slowly outside, the shadows curling around her and Dawn on the couch. The girl -- her daughter has been still for so long, Joyce has to touch her carefully to make sure she's still breathing. But her body has the looseness of sleep, something Joyce remembers from years of carrying Dawn to bed when she wanted to stay up with Buffy. The memory feels like something in her bones, something as solid as the house they live in. It's a lifetime of love and safety and protectiveness distilled into the warmth of a body pressed against hers.
It's no more real than the candy-striped monster on her ceiling. Than the safety of living in this house. Than the belief that her body won't betray her.
Joyce wraps her arms around Dawn and holds on tight.