As it happened, the summer after she met Willow was also the summer when the Scoobies began to spend time at Buffy’s house— or Buffy’s mother’s house, which it was then, though Buffy had moved back into her sunny second-floor bedroom for the break. They no longer fit comfortably into Giles’ apartment, and Joyce seemed glad to have them, if bemused. Tara thought she had been a little lonely. Tara sort of thought she was still a little lonely, although now also frequently harassed.
It wasn’t just Joyce, either. Sometimes she ran into Buffy in the hallway, and Buffy would smile at her, absently, with the light golden on her bare head. “Hey, Tara,” Buffy would say, in a voice like she was talking to herself or to the wall at Tara’s back. And after all there was something alive and tentative about that big pleasant house, with its empty rooms full of stacked crates from the gallery. It might have been holding its breath.
Willow seemed happier there than she had ever been at college. She talked to Joyce about art, throwing around terms like “interstitial dialogue” and “conceptual robustness”. Tara didn’t really understand it. She didn’t really try. Mostly, she liked sitting and drinking the fruity drinks that Joyce made by swearing at her blender and listening to Willow talk. In her family everyone had a beautiful voice, even Donny; they were Maclays and they could sing the birds off the telephone poles, or, in Donny’s case, the telephone numbers off the birds. Willow, as far as Tara knew, couldn’t even hold a tune. But when she spoke the world seemed clearer: the stuff of brief digressions, rather than unimaginable complexity.
Then there was one day in June when Joyce was out collecting a shipment for the gallery, and Willow took her by the hand and led her up to the guest room, where covered paintings gathered dust in piles on the floor. There was no one the house, but Tara was still shocked when Willow kissed her. Because— well. Willow, Tara thought in her unkinder moments, preferred controlled experiments. She would fuck Tara in Tara’s bedroom, which saw no visitors but her, and kiss her in Giles’ apartment, where everyone knew that Willow was gay now; but licking her ear in the house of a woman who thought they were friends— for Willow, that was unprecedented recklessness, and for a moment Tara did nothing at all, just stood stock-still and open-palmed while Willow tucked her teeth into the bone curve of Tara’s jaw.
“H-here?” she said, and Willow murmured, “yes, need you, want you, now,” like a girl who had taught herself to love with books. “Okay,” said Tara, meaning not, really, but putting her hand on Willow’s hip anyway because Willow’s hair was edged in sunlight and feathering to white. They might never do this again, she knew.
“Okay,” said Willow, briskly, and then remembered that she was being sultry, and said, “Okay, baby,” her lips moving against the side of Tara’s throat. They backed up against the wall, and Tara looked over Willow’s shoulder and saw dust, floating in the sunbeams. She saw that for a second it took the shape of a girl.
Then she was sliding down to the floor, Willow’s fingers clever on the catch of her jeans; and the dust was just dust, motes in her eye, filling her lungs, as she breathed onward: in.
The world was slender; the door left barely ajar. There was Dawn, green as the spring, the light of her a hole. And there was Willow, hands-in-hair, spoon-in-mouth, Willow with a thousand soft things spilling off her tongue. It’s okay baby. Baby. Don’t cry, eat this, be still. Tara turned her head and Willow’s thumb tracked the motion, Willow said her name and turned her head back.
I’ll make you well, Willow promised, in the night, every night. Tara moved the hands that she discovered attached to the end of her arms, working them back into her wrists, burying them in her wrists. Her sleeves were like a skin. I’ll make you well, I’ll make you well. I’ll make you.
“Bitch,” someone said. Tara wholly agreed. Her hand was back, and stinging. Willow turned her head. Willow’s cheek blossomed like spring and behind the budding iris, her eye was an endless hole.
At her mother’s funeral, Tara burned flowers.
Her father didn’t see her. She sat in her plastic chair, making fire with one hand and covering it with the other. It was a trick her mother had taught her, a civil way of disposing of things she didn’t want to eat. Her mother had not been very interested in nutrition. The flowers were part of her bequest: the last remnants of the garden she had had in another city, before she married Tara’s father. They had spent twenty years between the pages of a chapbook, the blood pressed out of them and the velvet too. Tara listened to the minister speak solemnly about dust, and she breathed smoke.
Later, at the reception, one of Donny’s friends offered her a cigarette. Normally Donny’s friends ignored her, and she encouraged it, but the awkwardness of grief made her huge and visible whatever she did. His name was Adam. He said: “Want a fag?” Yes, please, Tara thought, and bit her lip. “Thanks,” she said instead, and sucked on the end, filling her mouth with the taste of tar, little bits of charcoal flooding the flat of her tongue.
She coughed a lot. The smoke tasted different from the smoke of the flowers. Younger, like nuts, like meat. Adam took the cigarette back after just the one puff. Tara thought she was supposed to feel calmer, or happier. She mostly felt an urge to clean her tongue off on the inside of her cheek. When Adam lifted a strand of hair away from her face, she was aware of it, the shifting of the air against her cheek. They were standing on the porch, at the edge of her mother’s married-woman garden, which was not yet in bloom. There had been other people on the porch but cold and the promise of quiche had driven them back into the parlor. Adam put his hand on her breast. “I’m sorry about your mother,” he said, the muscles in his neck standing out like pieces of a stripped machine. She shrugged one shoulder and his fingers dragged down almost to her ribs.
“You have, um, an interesting way of showing it,” she said.
Adam said, “They said you were a dyke. You don’t look like it.”
“Thank you?” said Tara. Adam didn’t smile. He had long lashes, like a girl, and when he blinked she imagined them intermeshing, getting caught up in one another, one seamless line of thorns. He squeezed the underside of her breast, the hard edge of his palm pressing against the rib there. “You’re not really a dyke,” he said, “or you wouldn’t let me do this, would you?”
“How would I stop you?” Tara asked, but he was rapt in his exploration of her chest, and barely seemed to hear. She believed in the weight of her breasts where he touched them. Her mother had always bought her bras a size too large, even when it became clear that Tara would never need to pad her bras for cleavage. “Look to the future,” her mother had said. Tara wondered if Adam could feel it. The space between cloth and skin.
“Do you want to know a secret?” she asked.
Adam put both of his hands in his pockets. He had the cigarette clamped between his teeth. He looked about fifteen years old, suddenly, and there was an intelligent light in his eye. “Yeah, okay.”
“I’m leaving next year. For college. I’m going away,” she said.
She had told her mother that, months ago, and then no one, and then her mother had died. She didn’t know if she was hoping to get the same result this time or not.
Adam chewed his cigarette and nodded, the little paper tube bobbing between his lips. “Me too,” he said, ruminatively.
“You’re, uh, going to college?”
“Nah,” said Adam, with a hint of irony that made Tara flush to her roots. “Military. Going to join up. Take your shirt off,” he said, and breathed smoke out of the side of his mouth.
Tara could think of nothing to say. “Not here,” she told him, finally, and led him into the brambles, at the far corner of the garden, where the plants grew high against the dusk-blue sky. She unbuttoned her shirt and shouldered it off, letting it drop darkly to rest in the dirt. The air was cool and wet as ink on her arms. Adam walked around her once, and laid one square palm between her shoulder-blades, where the skin was clear and pale and unmarked by any promise at all. Tara tilted her head back, and breathed in the sweet scent of Lethe’s bramble. She smelled her mother’s magics, gathering on the vine.
What it felt like not to owe Willow her sanity.
The first time Willow said, “We have to bring her back,” Tara walked out of the house. Which was Buffy’s house, then, although both Buffy and Joyce were dead. Tara walked down the steps and pretend not to hear Willow shouting her name. She went out into the hot street, feeling the warm June night on her back. Willow ran after her and caught her elbow and she kept walking, not listening, hearing nothing but her pulse in her ears. She was remembering Dawn’s book, the book Willow had given her. She was remembering Willow talking about success. The success of resurrection. While she had been trying to tell Dawn that her mother was dead.
“Tara, please,” Willow begged, “I don’t understand,” and Tara knew that if she turned around Willow’s eyes would be clear and grey and weeping. Sometimes it was easier when Willow’s mouth bled power and her eyes moved like stones in their sockets. Then, usually, there was nothing Tara could do.
“When my mother died,” said Tara, not stopping, but slowing. “I didn’t, uh. I didn’t react like, like Buffy did.”
Willow was behind her. She said nothing. Tara wanted to look at her, wanted to see the purse of her lips and the quickly-buried irritation in her face. But she thought, stupidly, that if she just kept going— if she didn’t look at Willow, if she walked forward with Willow trailing behind her, hand on her arm— she could get through to her; she could make her see.
Don’t look back. Don’t look back, and you may lead her out of hell.
“I was much more like Dawn,” said Tara, softly. “Only worse, because I was alone, and I didn’t have a sister. I thought that I didn’t have— anything, really. And I tried to bring my mother back. I thought, I had to, I needed her. The world wasn’t big enough, without her.”
“It didn’t work?” said Willow, very close to her ear.
Tara looked at the sky. It was cloudless and dark and unbroken. Sometimes she still couldn’t figure out why the sky remained: closed and sealed and silent overhead. There should have been a tower, somewhere.
She had stood by her mother’s grave and waited for the Earth to groan, to split. For the universe to part and let her mother through. She remembered the quiet of the cemetery; the perfection of the grass.
“Willow,” she lied, “it worked. But she came back wrong. So wrong. Just— just the shadow of her, and I could feel her, breathing, and it hurt so much— Willow," she said, "Buffy is gone.”
Willow’s hand tightened around hers, and in the instant of her shrinking grip Tara could not parse the wholeness of her bones inside her fingers. The clean stretch of her skin.
“Shh,” said Willow, skimming her hand up Tara’s back, up the curl of Tara’s spine, to tangle in the short hairs at her nape. “Shh, sweetie, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry that happened."
There should have been a goddess.
"But Tara, you were really young, you said you were only seventeen, couldn’t exactly have known what to do. Tara, look at me,” and there she was, there she’d been all along: in front of Tara, surrounding her, her eyes so gentle and her mouth so close. Her face like damnation.
“I can do this, Tara. We can do this. I’ll show you, Tara, next time. Next time I’ll explain it right. I’ll make you see.”
“Oh, god,” said Tara, nauseous. She leaned her forehead against Willow’s forehead and breathed in Willow’s fervent exhale. When she closed her eyes she could see Buffy falling, like a scar in the substance of the dark. “Tara,” whispered Willow, “let’s get you home,” her arms around Tara, her hands braced on the flesh of Tara’s back. And Tara felt her fingerprints as poetry; as fragments of beauty gone to stone.