An early morning breeze softly rattled the blinds at Buffy's bedroom window. Curled up at Buffy's side, Willow had one arm thrown across the blonde's stomach, her head cradled comfortably in the crook of Buffy's elbow. Buffy's hand rested lightly on Willow's shoulder. Neither opened their eyes at the gentle rap upon the door. Slowly, it creaked open and Xander's face appeared. He spoke in a hushed voice, apparently reluctant to wake the sleepy Slayer, while at the same time feeling compelled to do so.
"Buffy?" he whispered. "Have you seen Willow? She's not in her room, and—"
Xander's jaw dropped several inches as he contemplated the scenario before him. Raised eyebrows almost merged into his hairline and for a few moments, he seemed afraid to move – afraid to say anything else – afraid to even gasp for oxygen. He simply stared.
"Nine years, I've waited for this moment," he eventually breathed as though awestruck, "and I only have one eye to enjoy it. Life hates me."
His gaze became fixed. He even went so far as to tilt his from one side to the other, in order to commit to memory more than just one perspective for future recall. With a sly smile, he slunk from the room, closing the door behind him.
On cue, Buffy carefully cracked open one eye and peered across the room. She grinned wickedly.
Willow's grin was no less evil, even though her eyes remained shut. "That was so wrong," she admonished.
"Aw, how can something so wrong feel so right?" queried Buffy with a mischievous pout.
"We shouldn't toy with him like that," replied Willow, smirking as she rolled onto her back and engaged in a routine of luxurious stretching.
"Well then he shouldn't ruin any more potential dates for me," declared Buffy firmly as she swung her legs to the floor.
"It's good that we're beyond revenge."
"Please," scoffed Buffy, "sometimes a touch of vengeance is the only thing that makes a Slayer get up in the morning. But enough about scary things which motivate Buffy." She looked down at Willow, who had yet to roll out of bed. "How about you? Feeling better?"
Willow nodded. "Yeah, I am. And thanks for last night." She favored Buffy with a smile of appreciation. "I just wish I could stop worrying."
"The worry part is pretty typical whenever someone you love isn't around," shrugged the blonde matter-of-factly.
"Yeah, but it's more ..." Willow shook her head and decided to try again. "Sometimes it's like everything's so different. Like there's this- this whole new jigsaw puzzle. A-And when you put it together, the picture's still the same, but the pieces? They don't go where they used to." She sighed heavily. "I just get so scared sometimes that when we put it all together ... the piece that's me won't fit any more."
Buffy halted her rummage through the closet to consider Willow. "Well speaking as someone outside looking in, I'd say you're the only piece that Tara knows still fits."
With a smile of gratitude for the kind words, Willow tossed back the covers with a yawn. "So," she decided. "All I can hope is that Tara's doing what she needs to. And, if she's lucky, sleeping better than me."
With a violent start, Tara woke from yet another bad dream. Quickly orienting herself, she rubbed at her eyes and uttered a low noise which was somewhere between a groan and a growl.
"I had a plan," she stated, plainly aggravated. "A good plan. Talk to my father, tell him I'm still alive, get some stuff cleared up, move on. One less item in the 'nightmare fuel' column."
Tossing the blanket to one side, she swung her legs off the bed. Clearly in a bad humor, she marched out of the bedroom and headed for the stairs. Upon reaching the kitchen, she slammed down a cereal bowl and angrily shook the contents out of a Crunch Berries box. At least one-fourth of the crispy nuggets failed to reach their intended target, bouncing gaily along the surface of the counter before rolling to the floor. They were ground to powder beneath her feet as she stomped her way to the icebox. The act of milk-pouring was treated with equal animosity as Tara continued her tempestuous rant.
"That part, as it turns out – not so possible." She viciously scooped up the bobbing berries and shoveled them into her mouth. "Okay, fine," she mumbled. "If there's one thing I've learned, it's to be adaptable. So sure, I'll clean up the house, do the whole bit." Tossing the spoon into the now empty bowl, she dumped both into the sink.
Upstairs in the bathroom, she ran her toothbrush beneath a steady stream of water, the uncapped tube of Colgate ready in her hand. Seemingly lost in thought, she watched the bristles become soaked, frowning at the brush as though it were the root of all her problems.
"It's been kind of a rough year, you know?" she remarked with vexation, giving the brush an irate shake. "Little bottles, body regrowth, an almost-murder ... Maybe it's not so much to ask for a decent night's sleep!"
The outburst reverberated for a moment, soon followed by the explosion of breaking glass. Involuntarily, Tara clenched the tube in her hand and a stream of toothpaste erupted, landing wetly in the sink. Abruptly, Tara raised her eyes to the mirror, which had shattered from the center almost as though it had been savagely punched. A myriad of fractured images regarded her with astonishment from within the jagged shards barely clinging to the frame. Tara blinked rapidly at the reflections of surprise and peered closer, not quite believing what has just occurred. Carefully, she took stock of the situation and nodded.
"I'm thinking that the quicker I do this? The better."
As what remained of the mirror succumbed to the law of gravity, Tara took a quick step back to avoid the rain of splinters which hit the porcelain countertop with a sharp tinkle. She blinked again and gave another affirmative nod before tossing both toothpaste and toothbrush into the wreckage.
Stiffly, she turned and left the room.
Dressed in baggy dungarees and an oversized plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves, Tara tackled the kitchen. She scoured the crockery and glassware until they gleamed, before wrapping them in newspaper and placing them carefully in boxes. She scrubbed the interiors of now empty cupboards and swept grime from the floor with a corn broom, methodically working her way into every nook and cranny.
Across the room, at a high counter of solid pine, Emma Maclay held two eggs in one hand and deftly cracked the shells against a large bowl before dropping the unbroken yolks into the mixture. Standing next to her on a three-legged footstool, Tara was just tall enough to lean her elbows on the counter. Expectantly, she watched her mother smoothly fold the yellow-gold batter. Presumably captured in hopeful anticipation of being able to lick the wooden spoon, Tara was unprepared for the flour-coated finger that poked the tip of her nose, leaving a little white smudge. She crossed her eyes in an effort to see the mark and then giggled. Emma continued her rhythmic beating and pretended to be unaware of the recent occurrence. Reaching across the counter, Tara gathered a handful of flour into her tiny fist and tossed it at her mother in retaliation. With an expression of complete and utter horror, but with a twinkle in her eye, Emma immediately placed both palms on her daughter's cheeks and then firmly squished. The end result was two perfectly-formed handprints. Sporting a mischievous grin, Tara reached for the flour canister and dragged it toward her, digging deep. Soon, both little girl and woman were enveloped of a flurry of white.
Glancing over her shoulder, Tara surveyed the polished pine surface of the counter, shaking her head with amusement before moving on.
Standing in the doorway, Tara's eyes roamed over the mountains of clutter that had been shoved into the room with no apparent rhyme or reason. Several ancient steamer trunks littered the floor, while overstuffed boxes had claimed most of the remaining space. Once upon a time, Tara might have looked upon the room with the eager anticipation of a child on a treasure hunt, but today she simply sighed heavily at the Herculean task before getting to work.
Boxes were emptied, sorted and repacked. Piles were created with no visible logic. Slowly but steadily, entire sections of the room were transformed from chaos to order.
Wincing at her aching back, Tara straightened and moved to a wardrobe tucked into a nearby alcove. Standing on tiptoe, she began to clear the top shelf, pulling out plastic bags and brown paper carriers. In a far corner, she unearthed a cardboard box buried beneath a stack of old magazines and tossed it to the floor along with the rest of the jumble. Sitting cross-legged, she began to sift through the items. There seemed little of value and it was with an increasingly bored expression that she eventually turned to the box and removed the lid. Abruptly, her demeanor changed and she peered at the interior with heightened interest.
Reaching inside, Tara extracted a rather pretty crystal about the size of a small rock. Indeed, the entire contents of the box contained paraphernalia of mystical use and origin – small bunches of dried herbs tied with faded ribbons, tiny phials of colored powders. Tara balanced the crystal on her palm and gazed into its depths. Then, exhibiting much surprise and a goodly dose of fear, her head snapped toward the door.
In Tara's eyes, the figure of her brother almost filled the entirety of the opening, despite being only a youth of average stature and no different from most gangly teenage boys of 17. For a moment, his expression was intrinsically suspicious but upon realizing the significance of the spectacle before him, he grinned maliciously. As Donny strode purposefully across the floor, his younger sister visibly cowered at his approach.
Donny's expression said everything. He would tell on her. Tell what he had seen her doing, and take infinite pleasure in doing so. Reaching down, he roughly tore the crystal from her hand. His eyes narrowed and his lips curled into a contemptuous sneer as he made his way to the door.
It was with some shock that he felt a restraining grip on his arm. Amazed at Tara's foolish audacity, he spun around to face her and was taken totally unawares when she snatched the crystal from his grasp, secreting it behind her back.
This new development shocked Donny, but far less than it angered him and he demanded the return of his prize. Pleading eyes reflecting anxiety, Tara slowly shook her head. This did nothing but steel Donny's own resolve. Fearful of his calculated move in her direction, Tara scuttled backward, but the room was small, overcrowded, and she could find no sanctuary. Again, he forcibly insisted upon repossession of the crystal, but again, Tara refused. Shaking her head once more, she instinctively crouched in a corner and curled herself into a tight defensive ball.
With a jarring flinch, Tara opened her eyes and gazed solemnly at the crystal cradled in her palm. She quickly stole a look at the vacant doorway before depositing the object back into its box. Replacing the lid, she put the package carefully to one side and began to clear the cluttered bottom shelf of the wardrobe.
The Hoover emitted a low hum as Tara vacuumed the living room, occasionally glancing at the well-worn lounger that seemed to somehow dominate the room. She pushed the sleeves of her plaid shirt further up her arms and vacuumed with even greater dedication, conscious of her father's watchful gaze. But he sat in silent observation – saying nothing, doing nothing. He simply stared at her while she worked. She found the scrutiny to be disquieting, but continued without comment nonetheless.
Rays of the late afternoon sun danced upon a spotlessly clean living room carpet as Tara sorted through a tall bookcase. She inspected each edition as it was removed, but the collection was largely unremarkable, consisting of well-worn novels, a smattering of fairy tales and a few historical biographies. As she pulled out the last stack on the top shelf, a volume that had apparently been pushed flush against the back of the bookcase fell forward with a muffled thud. The cover was of a dull brown leather and bore no identifying title. Tara redeposited the stack of books in her hand and took hold of the new discovery.
Perching on the top step of the small ladder she'd been using to reach the higher shelves, Tara balanced the book on her knees. It was a relatively nondescript item, somewhat large in size yet not so bulky that it could not be easily hidden. Layered with dust and apparently unopened for quite some time, the spine cracked as a curious Tara peeked inside.
It was a photograph album, and Tara wonderingly flipped through the pages. She moved through them too quickly to take in many details, but two things were readily apparent: most of the pictures within were old and the subject of each one was female.
In Xander's workshop, Dawn was helping reorganize. She hefted a particularly heavy box full of partially-finished items from one of the countertops to the floor, groaning with the effort.
"You better hold up your end of the bargain for this," she grumbled, dropping the box with a thud.
"I said I'd talk to your sister about getting you a car," Xander replied, sorting through drawer of jumbled tools. "Didn't say I'd succeed."
"I know," agreed Dawn reluctantly, "but come on! Next year I'll be a college student. A student of college. Just like her, right? So it's like we're practically the same age."
Xander threw a thoughtful glance over his shoulder. "Is that how it works? So all Ponce de Leon had to do was go back to high school, huh? Silly little Spanish man." He shook his head in deep regret before returning to his task.
"I think it's good that you're doing this again," Dawn told him, waving her hand to encompass the entire room and its contents.
"I never really stopped," Xander responded, pulling out a handful of screwdrivers of varying lengths. "The whole carpentry thing just sort of went on vacation for a little while."
"But it's back?" probed Dawn meaningfully.
"Honestly? Not sure," he admitted with a wry grin. "I don't really know what I want to do now."
Dawn chuckled. "You sound like pretty much everybody at school."
"Well it is one of the great questions of our time," conceded Xander, closing the now neatly-arranged drawer. "But until I figure it out? This is good."
"I'm still not sure you should've quit being a Watcher, though." Dawn's tone grew huffy and indignant. "Somebody needs to kick Giles in the butt."
Xander raised an eyebrow. "Have you talked to Hannah lately? Iím thinking somebody might."
"I mean seriously," Dawn continued, tossing her hair over her shoulder and glaring out of the door as though the object of her vexation were standing there, "what is his deal?"
Xander's response listed toward bitterness. "I dunno, but I've still got a bit too much mad left to care right now."
Somewhat taken aback at jolly old Xander's lack of empathetic concern, Dawn's expression turned from annoyance to mild anxiety, however she was interrupted before there was a chance to pursue the issue.
"Hi, Mr. Xander," came a hesitant voice from the open doorway.
Xander turned, a delighted smile already plain on his face in recognition of the visitor. "Chrissie! How's my favorite little hero-in-training?"
"Okay ..." she replied, sounding very far from 'okay.'
"Uh-oh," remarked Dawn with a wise nod. "I know that lie when I hear it."
Xander too had an abundance of experience in that area. "What's wrong, Munchkin Land?"
He pulled a rocking chair from the corner and patted the seat. Chrissie readily obliged. She scooted back, feet dangling several inches from the floor. Placing his palm against the headrest, Xander pushed gently, and the chair began to rock back and forth while he waited patiently. Hopping up on a large crate nearby, Dawn sat Indian-style and leaned her elbows on her knees, also waiting and willing to provide whatever help she could.
"It's Mrs. O'Brien," Chrissie began with a sniff. "I don't think she likes me."
"I don't think that's possible," Xander rebutted. "You don't have the 'unlikable' gene."
Dawn was missing a crucial detail. "Mrs. O'Brien?"
Chrissie threw her a miserable glance. "My new Watcher."
"Ohh," acknowledged Dawn as everything clicked into place. "Why do you think she doesn't like you?"
"She doesn't smile like ever, and she always sounds mad, and ..." Chrissie pouted, "she makes me do pull-ups." Her head hung woefully.
Confused, Dawn looked to Xander for an explanation.
"Chrissie hates pull-ups."
"The bar's always so high!" she complained with extreme vehemence. "Mr. Xander never made me do them, but Mrs. O'Brien does, and she just never smiles!" Swiveling in her seat, Chrissie regarded Xander with appreciation shining from her eyes. "You always smiled, Mr. Xander! Even when you didn't!"
This time, it was Xander's turn to be confused and Dawn's turn to provide the explanation.
"Twelve-year old logic," she advised sagely. "Just go with it."
Xander continued to push against the chair whenever it reentered his range and Chrissie swung her legs in sync with the comforting rhythm.
"Mrs. O'Brien wants you to be the best Slayer you can be," he consoled, "just like I do. I promise she doesn't hate you, she's just really, really ... frumpy."
Chrissie was less than satisfied with the assurance. She searched Xander's face hopefully. "Mr. Xander, can you be my Watcher again?"
In the manliest way possible, Xander's expression visibly melted. His reaction paled in comparison to Dawn, however. Emitting a high-pitched sound of adoration in the back of her throat, she looked as though she might actually dissolve into a gooey puddle right there on the spot.
Xander crouched by the side of the chair. "You know that my quitting has nothing to do with you, right?" he insisted.
Chrissie stared at her fingers, twisting themselves into knots within her lap. "I know."
He tilted her chin so she was facing him. "I can't do the Watcher thing right now, but you're the best Slayer a Watcher could hope for. Don't let Stormy Face O'Brien make you think otherwise, okay?" He straightened and peered down at the young girl with exaggerated sternness. "That's an order."
It clearly wasn't the answer she really wanted, but Chrissie seemed to take the order to heart and resolved to do just that. For a second, anyway, because her expression soon wilted once more.
"Can we still maybe do stuff some time?" she asked plaintively. "I miss you."
Dawn's vocalization made a repeat appearance, although increased in pitch and volume.
"You bet we can," enthused Xander. "Hey, how about tomorrow? We can—"
"Zoo!" declared Dawn triumphantly.
"We can zoo?" queried Xander, apparently befuddled.
"Go to the zoo!" corrected Dawn with an eye-roll. "All of us! It can be a big trip, with the monkeys and the tigers and the monkeys and the monkeys!"
A huge grin invaded Chrissie's face. "I like monkeys!"
"Clearly," Dawn intimated with a smirk, deliberately looking in Xander's direction, which earned her a glower in return.
But then, Chrissie's exhilaration began to evaporate a little and she appeared regretful. "Oh, but I promised my friend Rae we'd do something tomorrow."
Xander was not about to permit the bursting of any bubbles. "Well, how about making that 'something' the zoo then? Dawn's right – bring your friends, we'll make a day of it. My treat."
"Can I bring more than Rae?" inquired an overjoyed Chrissie, almost bouncing with excitement.
Xander was more than willing to comply. "You betcha."
"Yay! You're the best, Mr. Xander!"
Chrissie's delight was virtually tangible and certainly infectious in its enthusiasm. Dawn and Xander smiled happily at each other.
"Now all you have to do is keep repeating that to everybody you ever meet," Xander firmly instructed as Chrissie giggled and hopped out of the chair mid-rock. With a goodbye wave, she ran from the workshop, presumably to seek out Rae and inform her of this most excellent news.
As the excitement began to die down, Dawn looked at Xander with a critical eye. "I repeat: I'm still not sure you should've quit being a Watcher."
With a semi-shrug and half-bob of his head, Xander shoved the rocking chair back into the corner.
At the P&S Diner, Tara sat in one of the booths, a dish of pasta salad on the table in front of her. She consumed the meal in absent-minded fashion, totally immersed in the photograph album she had brought with her.
Even more so than the previous day, she was bombarded by darkly suspicious looks from the other patrons. Carrying a pitcher of iced tea, Peggy stopped briefly to refill Tara's glass, the expression on the waitress' face no less mistrusting than the rest of the diner's inhabitants.
Tara didn't notice, and it was doubtful at that moment she would have cared if she had.
It was with much reverence that Tara turned the pages. The pictures ranged from shots of a solitary young female, to photographs of the same woman, now older in years, accompanied by a small girl – presumably her child – to images of that child at varying ages. The pattern was repeated throughout the album.
As Tara studied the faces, captured in moments past, she was struck by the similarities – not only to each other, but each also possessed at least a passing resemblance to her own features. Although she would never have been mistaken for any of the subjects, there was a certain familiar quality: in the bone structure perhaps, or maybe the shape of the eyes, or even the curve of the smile. Regardless, it was all too plain that she was most assuredly descended from these women.
Tara turned toward the beginning of the book and studied one of the images there. It was a tintype that portrayed a young girl probably in her mid-teens, dressed in buckskin and standing by an oak tree with a rifle hoisted onto her shoulder. Further into the album was a sepia-toned picture of a woman wearing a blouse and peg top trousers, the working uniform easily associated with the war years of the early 1900s. Further still, black-and-white photographs became more dominant: a woman seated in a rocking chair upon a familiar porch, dress typical of the masculine style dictated by the 1930s with wide shoulder pads and head-hugging curls. The vividness of the oldest color photographs had faded considerably with age, but Tara smiled at one particularly engaging image: a woman with hair rolled into a beehive, sitting on a lawn and holding a little girl who could have been no more than two years of age. With an expression of rapt concentration, the toddler tentatively offered a carrot to a baby rabbit.
There were no names or dates written on the backs of any of the photographs. No identifying information to be found anywhere in the album. Tara didn't seem to mind.
Toting a fresh supply of cleaning materials, Tara walked along the main shopping thoroughfare, photograph album tucked securely and protectively under her arm. Deep in her own thoughts, she was oblivious to the scowls on the faces of those she passed. Proprietors peered around establishment doorways, glowering in her direction, while pedestrians deliberately crossed to the other side of the street at her approach, shooting daggers from accusatory eyes. Even the town's vehicles slowed to a crawl in order that drivers and passengers alike might cast a hostile glare upon the unmindful figure. It seemed that every resident was acutely aware of her presence and harbored no doubt as to her identity.
Only seconds after Tara has passed by the window of a shoe store, the door opened and a young woman emerged onto the sidewalk. Around the same age, she watched Tara continue on her path. The green eyes were fixed in a concentrated stare – intense and probing, with a glint of personal interest that had not as yet been displayed by anyone else who made their home in the fair town of Hope Falls.
Tara sat on the porch swing, lazily pushing herself back and forth. Dusk was beginning to fall, but there was still sufficient light for her to easily see the photographs. The album lay open in her lap and she had already moved through a large portion of its contents. She tucked a few strands of hair behind her ears. Turning another page, a look of excitement crossed her face. The color picture portrayed a woman with her young daughter, both apparently seated on the very swing where Tara had recently taken up residence. Dressed in lilac, with pale yellow ribbons in her hair, it seemed that the small girl had just received an Easter basket and it sat on the wooden floor of the porch directly in front of her. Clutched lovingly to her chest was a plush pink bunny and she beamed with delight. She was young – probably no more than 5 years old – but for Tara, recognition was instantaneous. Tears prickled behind her eyes and her smile faltered for just a moment.
Tara's gaze lingered for a long moment on the happy image before moving on. There were a few more photographs of Emma Maclay, some taken with Tara's grandmother and some not. However, once Emma had reached the age of 16 or so, her mother made no more appearances. Tara regarded all these photographs with a twinge of sadness, but it couldn't mute the joy she felt at seeing her mother once more.
Turning yet another page, Tara chuckled to find herself as a baby, rolling her eyes at the overly-chubby cheeks and prominently bald head.
Startled, Tara snapped the album shut and peered toward the direction of the voice. It was the young woman from the shoe shop who had subjected her to such extreme scrutiny earlier that day. However, the face rang no bells within Tara's memory.
"Oh my god," continued the stranger in a hushed tone. "It is you. I mean, I heard, but I didn't ..."
Her words trailed away, followed by a bewildered shake of the head.
Now totally confused, Tara placed the album next to her on the swing. "I'm sorry," she began hesitantly. "Do I know—"
She squinted into the descending gloom and suddenly, her eyes widened. Standing before her was a girl about 9 years of age. With an impish grin, the little girl waved and then beckoned for Tara to join her. Tara blinked rapidly at the image and it wavered, quickly being replaced by the figure of the woman once more.
"Brooke ..." whispered Tara.
"I can't believe it," Brooke was continuing, still shaking her head. "I mean, it was weird enough how you just up and left like a month after graduation without saying anything to anybody. To me."
Tara found some amusement in the open accusation. "I ... seem to remember that you sort of stopped talking to me first."
At that, Brooke averted her eyes.
"Just before high school, wasn't it?" mused Tara, taking uncharacteristic satisfaction in Brooke's obvious discomfort. "Something about a new school, new friends, and a chance to not be lumped in with the demon girl?"
"Peer pressure?" Brooke tried to explain with a weak smile. At the disbelieving arch of Tara's eyebrow, she wilted. "I know, I know, like that isn't the lamest excuse ever."
Delving into the back pocket of her jeans, she pulled out a rumpled pack of Virginia Slims, showing it to Tara with a self-depreciating smirk and shrug. "They got me in all sorts of stupid ways."
Producing a disposable lighter, she lit the end of her cigarette. It glowed brightly in the near-darkness.
"Of all the dumb stuff I did in high school – and believe you me I did a lotta dumb stuff – wrecking our friendship was the dumbest of 'em all." She tossed a rueful smile in Tara's direction. "It took me a long time to figure out what I threw away, and by the time I did, you were gone. I always hoped you'd come back one day so I could apologize ... but then we heard that you'd ... died." She scrubbed at her nose with the back of her hand and inhaled deeply.
Tara listened attentively, apparently disinclined to interrupt.
"It's been years, but it still eats me up sometimes." Brooke sighed heavily and took another drag of her cigarette. "I hated the idea that I'd never get the chance to say I was sorry. Maybe buy you a drink." The eyes that searched Tara's face were hopeful. "Maybe try and get my friend back?"
The wistfulness lingered for a long time, but Tara seemed impassive to the plea. She simply regarded the woman in front of her unemotionally until Brooke, assuming the silence to be an indication of negativity, dropped her cigarette to the dry earth and ground it beneath her heel with an expression of disappointment.
"Okay then," she nodded after a moment. "I ... I donít blame you." She smiled cheerily, trying to be upbeat. "Well, I can get one outta three, at least. Tara, Iím so—"
"Is The Oasis still open?"
It was some time before the open-mouthed Brooke completely absorbed the implication behind the question. Then, her eyes twinkled and she gave a broad grin.
Tara pushed herself up from the swing. "Well I donít know about you," she stated pointedly, "but I'm feeling a little parched. Care to join me?" Her lips curled into a tiny but genuinely forgiving smile.
It was a gesture that Brooke happily reciprocated.
The Oasis was loud, smoke-filled and proudly exhibited a total lack of sophistication. Still, Brooke and Tara didn't seem to mind as they sat across from each other at a small table, each nursing a sweating bottle of beer and chatting amicably. Toward the rear of the establishment, an enthusiastic dart tournament was taking place while in a large annex to the left of the main room, groups of both men and women tested their skill with a pool cue. In front of the bar, individuals in varying stages of inebriation struggled to maintain their tenuous perches on the padded stools and slurred their demands for more.
Tara sipped at her drink. "So I took a few years off, but I'm back in school again now."
"In Pennsylvania!" Brooke seemed truly amazed. "What on earth made you to run all the way east?"
Tara shrugged. "Oh, well ... It's where all my friends wound up, so ..."
Brooked gave a knowing smile. "Followed someone special, huh?"
"Something like that," returned Tara with a mischievous grin.
Brooke regarded her seriously. "And all that time, you never remembered us back here?"
"I-I did sometimes," Tara admitted. "But after my birthday it was sort of like ... I just didn't want to think about it, you know?"
"Heck," continued Brooke, "I still have trouble believing you left in the first place."
"Sometimes even now I can't believe it," agreed Tara.
Brooke shook her head in astonishment. "I mean, I've heard of people doing some selfish, ungrateful things before, but—"
Tara wasn't at all sure she'd heard correctly. "What?"
"—you take the cake." She narrowed her gaze at Tara. "You know it broke your father's heart, don't you?"
Tara shook her head. "I ... I don't ..."
"He sat up in that house, wasting away because of you," Brooke accused. "When all he ever tried to do was love you. Keep you from hurting decent folks. You're all the same though, aren't you?" She sneered. "The Maclay women. All of you evil, right to the core. Oh, but you, Tara – you've gotta be the worst."
Although obviously hurt at the accusation, Tara refused to stifle her mounting indignation. "I'm pretty sure there are people out there worse than me," she pointedly rebutted.
Brooke chose to ignore the argument. "When my family first moved here and we became friends, the whole town tried to tell us." She waved a hand, as though encompassing the entirety of the bar and beyond. "Everyone knows about the Maclays. Hell, they even make you keep your maiden name as warning! My mom and dad didn't believe it, though." She shook her head at the obvious naivety. "Small town superstition, they figured. 'Cept even superstition's gotta come from someplace."
Her expression grew ugly. "And look at you now. Walking and talking like you ain't the dead thing we all know you are. Guess your daddy was right after all, wasn't he?"
Focused solely on Brooke and her unexpected tirade, Tara failed to notice that all surrounding activities were grinding to a halt as the clientele settled in to watch the show.
"So you brought me here to ... to what?" she challenged. "To embarrass me? Just to be cruel? I thought— I thought we'd ..."
Tara's words trailed away as she hung her head, furious with herself for being duped so easily.
"Thought we'd what?" snickered Brooke. "Have a beer, chat a bit then ... kiss and make up?" Her lips curled. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
A light flush crept into Tara's cheeks and her eyes flashed with anger.
"Oh come on," Brooke told her disdainfully. "I know that's what you wanted." The laugh that followed was almost a cackle. "As if anyone could stand to have you trailing after them like a little puppy dog. God, just the thought makes me sick."
Tara fixed Brooke with an unwavering stare. "No, you know what's sick? The fact that for a second, I really thought there was something good left in this horrible place, something that hadn't rotted from the inside!"
Brooke didn't seem fazed by the barb. "You brought all this on yourself," she explained without sympathy. "You never should've left, Tara. If you'd listened to your father—"
"If I'd listened to him," Tara interrupted, her voice sharply confident. "I'd be as dead as you are now."
Pushing away from the table, Tara got to her feet, the conversation now clearly at an end. With jaw set, she strode toward the exit, nearly colliding with several patrons along the way. In silence, every pair of eyes watched her departure and then, with the closing of the door, the hush was broken by an excited buzz of discussion and speculation.
Finally dragging her gaze back to her beer, Brooke raised the bottle to her mouth. She didn't turn around when a hand was laid upon her shoulder.
"Don't sound too regretful, does she?" she remarked quietly.
The owner of the hand provided no vocalized response, simply delivering a reassuring squeeze before the fingers slipped from her shoulder. Brooke continued to focus forward as the individual followed Tara out the door and into the night.
Throwing open the front door, Tara stormed into the house. Her eyes prickled with unshed tears, but they were as much from anger as anything else. Nonetheless, she was extremely upset and every ounce of it was on display. Composure lost, she didn't bother to close the door behind her and the howling wind played havoc with the fallen leaves littering the porch, while the swing groaned a protest at being forcibly thrust from side to side upon its chains.
Emotions running riot, Tara paced back and forth across the floor, struggling to find some type of channel to release her pent-up energy. Then her attention focused on the worn armchair and she launched a heartfelt attack.
"Why? Why did you do it? Why did you hurt us?!"
The chair remained impassive. No presence lingered within the threadbare cushions, not even the vaguest shadow of a memory. Still, Tara continued her undeterred outrage as rush of scalding tears coursed down her cheeks.
Beyond the door, the wind's unfettered wail intensified and with it, the sounds of whispered voices, muted and indecipherable.
"Was it— Was it really control?" she demanded of the innocuous chair. "Were you that afraid of us? She loved you! Mama loved you s-so much! A-And so did ..."
The outside mumblings grew steadily more clear, but Tara seemed oblivious.
Demon. Witch. Evil. No escape. Forever.
"Why do you hate me?" sobbed Tara, her desperate eyes burrowing deep into the faded upholstery.
Hate. Evil. Forever. Witch. Evil.
Tara swiped away her tears, but more seemed to follow. "No."
Trapped. Hate. Demon. Witch. No escape.
The recriminations became more insistent, overlapping as though an invisible tongue was tripping in its anxiety to verbalize. The words became increasingly difficult to comprehend and Tara pressed her hands over her ears in order to smother the vicious charges, but it did little good.
"No, no," she appealed, shaking her head and stumbling backward until she collided with the wall.
The accusations reverberated with violence as Tara clenched her eyes tightly shut. She continued to protest, attempting to raise her voice even higher in the hopes of drowning out the ominous assertions but there was no escape. In a panic, she searched blindly for sanctuary but the room, even the house itself, seemed to be closing around her. Whimpering, she slid to the floor, curling into a compact ball that she might be as small as humanly possible. Her eardrums ached from the sheer pressure of her palms, but still the crescendo persisted, building toward a monumental climax.
And then, silence. Blessed and tranquil silence.
The voices abruptly ceased. The wind was stilled, barely stirring the dead leaves outside the door.
Cheeks drenched with tears, Tara lowered her trembling hands and cautiously opened her red-rimmed, swollen eyes. The sense of dread rapidly evaporated, as though someone had suddenly flipped a switch. Totally confused, Tara took stock of her surroundings and then visibly jumped to see her brother looming over her.
Donny grinned, every bit as real as Tara herself.
"Hey sis. Welcome home."