Objects in the Mirror
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
Im not a ghost. Whatever I may be, its not that.
Its funny, actually, that I should be so sure. Ive been in this position before, or one like it, and then I thought I was a ghost, with less evidence than I have now. I met all the criteria: disembodied consciousness, memory of my own death, unable to move on the difference being, this time Ive actually seen my own corpse. I wont be returning to that body, not again. I made sure of it.
By rights, that ought to settle the matter, and yet I still cant believe it. Not a question of logic, more what I would have called visceral certainty, back when I still had a human frame that contained viscera. I just know. Im sure there really are ghosts, and equally sure Im not among them.
On the other hand, I also know there wont be any miraculous saves this time. I was in the land of shades, and then I was brought back into the sun: wonderful, unexpected, beyond joy, and not to be repeated. Ive already had my second chance, I dont get another spin at the wheel.
Kill me once, shame on you. Kill me twice, I stay that way.
I hope. Blessed Jesus, let it be true. Because there is a way out (or may be), and its wrong, and Im not strong enough to be sure I wont take it, and I dont have any way to arrange things so that Ill no longer have the choice.
Im angry now. I never was, before. Many other things: grief, despair, hopelessness, Why me?, but not anger. Which isnt reasonable, Im mad because I was brought back from the dead? Thats where I am, though. Angry at fate, at my own arrogance and carelessness, at all the things I planned but was never able to carry out. Angry at the lives wasted by my weakness and stupidity. Angry because I got another shot, and blew it; because I did something that may have hurt someone horribly, and cant be sure I wouldnt do it again
Angry because I let her go.
I never found her, made it right between us. I wanted to, I watched for her, but I never truly searched. It still hurt, and I thought there was time.
It always comes back to time. Two lives werent enough for me, I still needed more.
The cruelest irony is that I understand her now, where I couldnt before. I know how it feels to yearn so hopelessly for a lost life that youll do almost anything to get it back and then watch that almost be inexorably eroded, in increments too small to be measured. I know what its like to barter away your soul, one sliver at a time, at once realizing what youre doing and reassuring yourself that its not really what it indisputably is. I know the shame that creeps up on you until you cant stand to face the people who matter most to you.
She lied to me, and used me, and gave me back my life, and I never saw her again. And now, because I made so many of the same choices, I feel unworthy of her.
In my world as it is now, that actually makes sense.
Well, its done. Im here now, like it or not, and every five or six weeks I have to come to a decision. When I first find myself in a new body, I can only watch and listen and feel; I have full sensory input, but no control. As time passes and my consciousness becomes more fully integrated with that of the host, I gradually become able to affect the bodys actions. It starts as a subtle influence, parts of my personality and desires seeping over into the host (theyre never aware of me, though sometimes they realize that their attitudes have changed), but I dont doubt that if I stayed long enough, I would eventually have total dominance.
Problem is, Im fairly sure that would involve obliterating the host personality. Ive been killed twice now, had my life stripped from me against my will. I wont do that to someone else.
I wont. I wont.
But its so hard to let go sometimes.
No matter what the charts may read (medical professionals dont say coma anymore these days, its persistent vegetative state), I still believe I actually died that first time, and then had my body jump-started by some mystical sideshift while my detached awareness was elsewhere. The worst of it was that I didnt die for any reason: not from anger, nor appetite, nor greed for gain, nor anything at all. Just a whim, and to create the right effect, and voilà, Im dead on the floor. I hated that, and when I had the power to fight back, I did everything I could to tilt the balance in the dark, savage war raging under the surface of business as usual in Sunnydale.
Now I rank alongside the same kind of menaces that killed me (twice!). Not one of them, not yet, but becoming one of them, or threatening to become. I want so much to do the right thing, because its right; and I want so much to do the wrong thing, because its easy. Wouldnt even have to explicitly choose, really; just wait an extra day, and then another, put off the necessary act until it no longer matters
No. Im not one of them. Im not like them, wont let myself be like them. (She said that, and betrayed me, and I never forgave her. Will God forgive me?) Even with how things have changed for me, I still stand with the agents of light. I dont have my old abilities telepathy, mental projection, remote possession but once youve seen the truth behind Sunnydales desperately cheerful facade, there are always opportunities to make a difference. Ive done what I could, and Ill keep doing it until some further change in the cosmic cycle sets me free again.
Or until temptation and weakness and self-deception damn me beyond redemption.
I came close with the soldier, terrifyingly close. There was a reason, and it still seems valid, but it carried me so far into the darkness I had to do what I did, and there was no other way, but even so I keep wondering if it was worth the price. Some things can never be taken back; some forbidden fruit, once tasted, can never be forgotten. I had to do what I did, but it opened a door I cant close now.
Another bit of irony: while I was still alive, I ordered my activities in conscious emulation of the Slayer (working in secret to preserve a world that knew nothing of my role in its continued existence; alone, unheralded, serving without recognition, classic routine with all the trappings) and yet I had never heard of her not as Slayer, at any rate before my first death, and never actually saw her until moments before my second. There had been rumors, of course: petite, pixie-faced blonde that you never wanted to cross; a blue giant at the Sunnydale Mall, brought down by a piece of equipment variously identified as a laser cannon, a rocket launcher, and a portable disjunction generator; lights burning late at night in the high school library, and adolescent laughter and wise-cracks in one cemetery or another; tongue-in-cheek jokes about comings and goings at the city morgue, and any number of incidents at the Bronze too outlandish to be granted any credence at all. We moved in the same territory, but somehow never crossed orbits, at least not to my knowledge.
And then one night, there they were. Even with all I had heard, my eyes would have slid automatically past the little peroxide cheerleader type (no interest there), but my attention was seized by the sight of the red-haired witch, the one who could be twin sister to the leather-clad siren who had killed me a year before. Even though I had cleared up the distinction between them long ago, her face still transfixed me for an adrenaline-spurt fraction of a second. That was when I saw the Slayer, and the lanky, dark-haired boy with the clownish mannerisms, and the other girl, the chunky shy one too dishwater a blonde to be anything but genuine, and the muscular, open-faced man I would eventually know as Riley the soldier
I still dont know what happened. I had been tracking a minor nest of vampires for two nights, and killed three of the seven (self-stakings, no witnesses, a mystery never to be explained; one thing I had learned was, never leave tracks), and what sleep I had grabbed during the day hadnt quite brought me up to speed. Maybe I was careless, maybe I was a little loopy with the 3:00 A.M. giggles, maybe my luck was just running the wrong way that night. As I said, I never would have noticed the Slayer in such a commonplace setting, but I had heard the group itself described often enough to recognize it when I saw it. I studied them, intrigued but not really curious; stories aside, there just didnt seem to be anything especially remarkable about them. I tossed down the Buttery Nipple I had ordered (oh, yes, totally professional behavior when youre on the hunt, but I used to love those things, damn it), and took another look. At third glance there still didnt seem to be anything about them worth noticing, and I was about to turn away and do another basic scan for hostiles when I felt something, a little diffuse tickle almost below the level of awareness, and looked back. Something there, wonder what? Reached out with my mind: action invisible, undetectable, perfectly secure because nobody knew I was there, no one could see the power I carried within me
I dont remember anything after that. Or rather, my first subsequent memory was of realizing that Me was in the body of a nineteen-year-old male server at the Espresso Pump, and everything between that moment and the last an absolute blank. Theres no calculating how many times Ive reconstructed and analyzed that last living memory, looking for some clue, but Ive never recovered even a single snippet of recollection. Did I faint? Drink myself blind and unconscious? Was my mind struck down by some psychic presence whose powers so dwarfed mine that I could barely register them, and could never hope to equal or even measure them? Or was I simply plucked out of the herd by a random vampire while my attention was elsewhere?
I dont know. Ill never know. That my body was killed by a vampire was later independently established, and maybe its just denial that makes me suspect there was more to it than that. My essence and awareness grew and entrenched itself in the boys body, and when the day came that I used his hands to push away one of those awful frappuccinos he was always gulping down (cloying muck, and not even trendy anymore), and opened his mouth to order a Heath shake instead, I knew it was time to leave.
So I did. No effort, even, all I had to do was relax my hold on the anchors and let myself be borne away by arbitrary etheric currents. And then, within another week, I was coming back to life in the body of a courthouse secretary, mother of three, and I couldnt fail to recognize that I was back on the treadmill.
How many people have faced the situation thrust upon me twice now? of being not-alive but enduring, unable either to return to the paths of the living or to move on to whatever next step of eternity was laid out by providence for everyone except me? I cant live, and I cant die, and I cant change it. What did I do to deserve this?
All the same, I accepted it. The times between letting go and waking up again allowed me to rest, and my hatred of the jackals that prowl at the edges of a society they could never create was every bit as strong: more, in some ways, since I had been victimized yet again. I was no longer a champion, but I could still operate quietly from the sidelines. Leaving an alarm unattended; making a 911 call minutes before a casual bystander would have been able to see the necessity; sometimes just waiting a few extra seconds to turn off a pair of headlights, or asking some trivial question while a familiar quartet slipped past in the background shadows
I tried not to think about it too much. We dont always choose our crosses, but we must bear them with what grace we can. I bore mine, and recited Rosaries in my mind, and watched unceasingly for whatever little action I could take or prompt the host to take that might save another unwary life or smooth the path for the Slayer and her companions. Then two things happened, at the same time, that I wouldnt have dreamed of anticipating.
I came to consciousness in the body of Riley, the soldier.
And I saw the thing with my face.
I genuinely had never thought about it before, at least not on the level of surface realization but was there some secret part of me, unknown even to myself, that silently hoped this time was like the last, my abandoned body slumbering unattended somewhere, waiting for me to someday return to tenancy? If so, it died at the sight of her. She seemed smoother somehow, more mature, more assured. I saw her, and envied her, and hated her with instant, shocking virulence, and dedicated myself to her destruction.
Theres latitude for variation in the sequence, but the basic cycle is this: about a week in a new body before I begin to recognize where I am and who I am, like gradually waking from an unremarkable dream; another two weeks, during which I settle into my new home and begin making myself felt; two weeks more, with influence rapidly growing toward mastery. And another week, two at most, when every hour I remain increases the danger that I wont be able to leave before its too late. Ive become accustomed to it, done it a dozen times since I began my second exile, until the rhythm is as familiar to me as any wake/ shower/ breakfast routine that preceded it.
Not this time. The sight of that smiling predator, gliding sleek and deadly and unnoticed through the heedless humanity around her, wrenched me into full focus days before it normally would have come to me. From that moment I was wrestling for control in the body of the soldier, seeking out any impulse or inclination or insecurity that could nudge him in the direction I wanted to go. God only knows what I did to him in the process; I was obsessed, and knew it, and didnt care, no potential harm to him could be more important than stopping the creature hunting in my stolen flesh.
The most horrible part of it is that I dont think he ever knew. When I fed and increased the distance growing between him and the Slayer, when I deepened the bleakness in his heart and edged him toward the territory where she would range, when I bared his throat to her and gripped the hidden stake with his hand
when I did all of that, through him and to him, he still didnt know. Thought it was his own choice, his own misdoings. Blamed himself.
Sometimes I think Im in hell. But that cant be true, because the hell Ive earned would be much worse than this.
I had to do it. I had to. I couldnt leave her out there, killing with my face and my name, perhaps singling out the ones who used to care for me. I had to stop her. If my own final obliteration had been the price for that, it would have been worth it.
But then, I wasnt the one who had to pay the price. Was I?
When it was finally done, and the last physical remnant of my life settling into vague drifts of malefic dust, I left him as quickly as I could. I tell myself hell be okay, without my corrupting occupation, that hell shake off the memories of my time in his skull like some distasteful fantasy. I think he was a good man. I think hell be able to make it, now that he only has his own demons to face.
I was in him for almost seven weeks. I could have killed him, knew I was risking it. I dont know what other path I could have taken, but I dont deceive myself about the nature of what I did.
Will the Slayer come looking for me some day? Will the traces I leave coalesce over time into a pattern that can be detected and followed? Will she and the valiant others who walk beside her, of their own choice, see me as a threat that must be extinguished?
If such a day comes, will they, by then, be right?
I didnt ask for this. I dont want it. I just dont know how to make it end.
Im not a ghost. Ghosts can be exorcised, while I God have mercy on me, for I fear I am eternal.
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