Rialdo Martin watched in quiet horror as the girl jumped, her form like a tiny silver bead sliding into an inkwell. It was a two-hundred foot drop to the first marker, a plateau of powdered concrete and cauterized steel that Rialdo had pegged as a onetime ice cream parlor. From there she'd hike two sloping miles to reach the D-Zone; a long hard slog over blackened husks of minivans and asphalt roads snapped like craggy lengths of tree bark, flanked by a network of hot springs that peppered the way down with a mysterious, volcanic steam.
Well, mysterious for Rialdo, anyway. The old grave robber had jumped some spooky holes in his day, but nothing compared to the goose-pimply weirdness of this Southern California trench, the place other jumpers were calling Hell’s Way Home. It was called something else once. But like all the fuzzy details of the catastrophe itself, that name had faded from the public consciousness. That kind of mass amnesia was pretty typical; no matter how big and terrible the event in question, people eventually find other big, terrible things to worry themselves about. They just move on.
Still, there was something different about this place. The explosion had cast a conspiratorial glow brighter then any H-bomb (one of the more popular working theories). It was so blinding and ominous that even the Bigfoot-and-UFO geeks kept their distance. Consequentally, Rialdo assumed that the less he knew about this job, the better.
Besides, the girl had paid him a generous cash advance; more than enough for him to bite his tongue. And perhaps several others, should the need arise.
“'No questions,'” was the woman's oft-repeated rule, delivered in that trilling metallic rasp or hers he’d grown to dread. She was a small and blonde thing, with huge, wet eyes the color of sea grass. Short, impossibly thin, with the kind of hair and suntan you find in plastic bottles; at a glance, one might easily mistake her for a high school cheerleader, not a creature that should inspire an ounce of anything like dread.
But, try as he might, Rialdo never could feel at ease around her. In the evenings before the jump, she’d summon him to the shabby motel room to study the maps. Invariably, he’d catch himself studying her instead; but furtively, just as a field mouse might study an eagle.
The girl’s small body was a lie, he realized. She was like an athlete of some obscure sport, with a cage of lean muscle that seemed sculpted out of iron and misery. He would stare dumbstruck while she penciled her cryptic notes all over his elevations, hand and mind moving with the sort of feline intensity you’d expect from a four star general planning a massacre. More than once, he’d found himself avoiding her gaze. It ran contrary to every professional goddamn instinct he’d ever possessed, but he just couldn’t help but look away. There seemed to be something terrifying lurking behind those ridiculous, Disney cartoon eyes.
Now, Rialdo Martin fed slack through a hard rubber spindle, watching as his disturbing employer sank into the seamy bath of twisted metal and scorched earth, her fireproof survival suit glittering like a jewel in the abyss. The last rays of the sun were already dying over the horizon, but she demanded a nighttime jump. She was mad, apparently, and rich enough to fund her madness.
A dangerous combination, Rialdo thought. He quickly spooled out thirty more yards, cranking faster than he would normally consider safe, suddenly wanting to put as much distance between himself and this strange creature as possible.
And then, just as she passed the jutting lip of an upended townhouse, she vanished, swallowed by shadows.
“Bye bye, psycho,” he whispered. “Hope you find what you’re looking for down there. Whatever the hell that is.”
The darkness covered everything like a second skin, a welcome barrier against the whole broken world. There wasn’t much left of the town that was recognizable. The old familiar haunts and winsome duplexes were all mashed and melted together, like the blurred corners of dreams. It had been three hundred and fourteen days since their battle with The First, but vast swathes of the site remained un-mapped. Everybody seemed like they were in such a hurry to forget what happened here
There’d been the occasional scavenger. Some were "fortune hunters": guys who dressed and talked like Indiana Jones but were actually just glorified grave robbers. Kinda like the guy she hired, really.
Others had even murkier motives. She remembered the day when the sign went up on eBay. Willow had sent her the link, sans subject line. The friendly white on green lettering looked strangely unspoiled in the pics, no worse for the wear. The seller was listed as “tasty81,” and, after a bit of cyber-sleuthing, the Witch traced him back to a crappy basement apartment in Islip, New York. She’d thought about making a bid, but the auction ended a day later: eighteen dollars and fifty-three cents for that little chicken cutlet of history. The darned thing was probably hanging in some kid's dorm room now, nestled between a singing trout and an X-Files "Believe the Lies" poster.
And, ultimately, In-The-End-edly, this hardly seemed to matter. A thought stuck with her, though. She couldn’t help but imagine what else might be lying around down there, awaiting some sordid Internet funeral.
Tuning her flashlight in wide arcs, she tried her best to familiarize herself with the revised landscape. A blanket of raw earth covered the rubble of her old Armor Matter (Ammo Mutter? Elmo Motto?) and any semblance of streets and intersections had been obliterated by the Big Bang, leaving no visible order to the random shards and tangles that survived.
Three ghosts howled some ancient lyrics at her, but they were far away and out of key:
'Maybe you could blow something up?'
I was thinking of a more subtle approach, ya know. Like excessive not-studying. 'If there's something bad out there… we'll find, you'll slay, we'll party!'
Thanks for having confidence in me. 'Something's coming. Something is going to happen here.'
Gee, can you vague that up a little?
As she crossed the intersection of State and Destruction, little needles of familiarity jabbed at her. The wreckage old Sun Cinema suddenly reminded her of a huge crumbled aspirin. Near the foot of the dark pancake that might have once been the Magic Box, the french-fried branches of a bush groped at her like a skeleton’s hand.
Moments later, she was running, scrambling over the embankment of a shattered pool deck, the cobwebs there exploding into clouds like spent gunpowder. As she bounded across a Super Mario-esque gauntlet of smashed brick piles, a thick mist leaked up from caverns hidden in the gaps, blotting out the sky above with poison vapor the color of rust. Squinting up at it, it seemed to her that the town of Sunnydale was showing its true self at last, the one masked behind layers of green oxide grass and prefab kitchenettes. It looked like the Mouth of Hell.
(Is that you, baby?)
(Do you still smolder?)
In what she found to be a stunning turn of events, Rialdo Martin turned out to be worth his paycheck after all. The high school was exactly where the Slimeball Sherpa said it would be. Or, more accurately, it wasn’t right where he said it wouldn’t be. A pair of ragged gashes gutted the earth from parking lot to football field, meeting in the center like the X on a giant map.
Wow, pirate reference, she mused.
Wish Xander was here for that.
She clambered down through a breach in the school’s western wall, her footfalls echoing off panes of melted black glass like a round of ghostly applause. The sound was a little too spooky, even for her. In the shattered hallway, a charred banner proclaiming “Class of ‘03” sagged down like an old devil’s smile. She froze when she saw it, her fingers wrapped around the bent maw of a lunchroom doorjamb. She stared for a good ten seconds at it, reminded of a thousand lost and unnamable things.
As she peered into the open wound of the cafeteria, she could make out the formation that Rialdo had nicknamed the “Stairwell” on his maps. The twin cross-like paths drilled almost straight down into the earth at their meeting place, corkscrewing to form a kind of massive spiral staircase down through the rotted stone. Compared to the shattered corpse of the town, this winding path to the basement was smooth, as if drawn by laser from some distant point below.
It's just a hole. A hole inside a hole.
Jeez, talk about metaphors.
Drawing in a sharp breath, she began her descent. The air thickened sharply on the way down, as though nothing had breathed there for centuries. An image sawed through her mind. She pictured a man, standing electrified in the swirling melee. Slipping deeper into the shadows, she found herself urgently probing the crags and crevices with her beam, searching for any signs of movement, signs of…
(because you handed him a bomb) Shut up. (you left him to die alone you let him die a monster…) Shutup, shutup, shutUP...
Gritting her teeth, she wrestled the demon down. She’d gradually learned to identify its voice over the years; a shrill, savage din that rattled up from her blood like a swarm of bees. It was her strength, she knew, the violent ghost that gave her an edge in the most hopeless battles.
They hadn’t seen him die. Not actually. They saw it in his eyes, heard it in his voice, for sure. Since then, that old African wraith had gradually abandoned her too, draining into the narrowest corners of her soul. She could still feel its seething company sometimes, but it was a remote, alien presence now; a knot of spiderwebs and black ice and nerves gone dead. It’d gone mad with grief at the theft of its lover, the unlikely kindred spirit who wore a bleach blonde vampire like a cheap suit.
Death had touched her before. She remembered the Body, as still and polite as an old museum painting of vegetables. She could still see it when she closed her eyes, and the couch, and the cordless phone with its large plastic buttons, and the hospital hallway with its green, germless walls. They’d had a funeral, and everybody came to it and then left everybody left it.
Everybody except her. She’d stayed to say an actual goodbye. The whole group-huggy thing seemed totally ridiculous to her these days. Death was the Big Alone
Fade to black. Roll credits.
The End. She felt like it should have a question mark, like in some lame old horror flick when the monster’s eyes suddenly flip open and it comes screaming back to life. Did love have a sequel? Some big, splashy, totally illogical blockbuster of a reunion? And if not, couldn’t she at least say goodbye? Xander had an eyewitness to Anya’s death. Tara died in Willow’s arms. She was jealous of those neat and horrible and final endings. Clean cut and cut clean. Plenty of fuss, sure, but none of the muss. The muss, she discovered, is what keeps you up at night
She’d dreamt up the this X-treme Sports vacation shortly after they set down stakes in Cleveland, where the strange new machinery of their world was swiveling around her at a brisk clip. But with Giles’ hands now firmly gripping the purse strings, Council Redux had agreed to finance her little outbreak of Indiana Jonesing.
On the record, it was official Slayerly biz: a junket to investigate a burgeoning hell mouth in Lisbon. Only Rupert Giles himself had known her true intentions. She remembered his distant expression, the vague and persistent nodding as he stared out the window at a field of fresh recruits exercising in the yard. There were no followup questions afterwards, nor any of the spiteful recriminations that almost sank their adult ‘ship. in fact, she couldn’t squeeze so much as a disapproving, fatherly sigh out of the man anymore. She simply told him what she needed and then he had simply given it. He would work out any messy details. She thought it was very British of him.
Now, in the maze of shorn rock at the bottom of the Stairwell, she found herself running on Superchick autopilot again. She dumped her pack and set out the generator and the stuff for the halo. A sullen grin flashed as she remembered Rialdo’s equipment checklist; he’d rationed thirty pounds of gear for her; she brought three hundred. Clenching the flashlight in her teeth, she snapped the tripod together like a field rifle and screwed the halo to the top. The generator buzzed to life with a faint hum, casting a blue umbrella of light over the nearby scenery.
It was the heart of the storm. Ground zero. Heart pounding, she slowly spun to get her bearings. She didn’t need the crappy map for this part. She’d been here, standing exactly here, almost a year ago. The immense silence of the place was both unnerving and profound, the altar of an empty church. Everything around her was covered in a fine cottony dust that made the stir of echoes all but impossible.
As she tuned her flashlight, something suddenly leapt out of focus at the corner of her vision. She breathed sharply, a hundred thousand nerve endings flaring into action. But there was no danger here anymore, no magic. It was only her shadows, a trio of blue phantoms lapping at the craggy bulkhead of the grotto. But the feeling stayed with her. Her mind was on fire, and when she breathed again she knew why. The scent was faint but undeniable, exactly the same rich musk of cigarettes and old leather that filled his old crypt. Exactly.
This was impossible, of course. A trick of the senses. She doubled back and forth like a bloodhound, wanting and not wanting to rule it out. As she roved in the direction of a short earthy mound, the aroma swelled, intoxicating her.
And, then she saw it. An electric current raked through her, freezing the heart in her chest. At her feet, black leather details peered out from beneath a film of gray ash. A rusted metal zipper sneered up at her like a row of dagger-sharp teeth. Gone.
Just like that.
After a long moment, she stooped to touch the thing. Instinctively, one hand swept at a dusty sleeve. She had a sudden, terrible thought that froze her mid-motion, and her eyes began to rove the dark sugary film that seemed to coat the walls of the sanctum.
He was everywhere.
Unable to resist, she clutched the sad remnant to her chest, drawing in one soundless breath after another. The smell was like something holy. It tumbled down into her lungs like warm rain, untainted by the stench of a thousand dead soldiers of Hell. She kept gasping him in, awestruck, half afraid that she might choke on him or, worse, use him all up. The tattered scrap of leather appeared to magically shine itself in her fingers. It took almost a full minute before she realized she was crying.
She saw him standing in the doorway muttering something clever about heroes, saw the knowing-but-not-telling look in his eyes. She saw him glowering at her in front of a police station, fanged teeth gnashing, jealously guarding her from an act of self-destruction. Saw the boy-poet with the fake gold hair, her kinky knight-in-shining orgasms, the Big Bad who lured her back to a world she once yearned to leave behind.
She knew she once had love inside her. It was selfish thing she refused to share; even with herself, until it was too late. They'd clawed it away from her, those Murderers-That-Be. This was all they left; a dusty trophy from a lone wolf’s kill.
It seemed like enough, somehow. More than she could have hoped for, when you get right down to it. When she whispered his name, the soft powdered remains of the creature shook loose from the walls, raining down a storm of brittle gray snowflakes. She breathed, resisting the horror of it, her lungs drinking deeply of his lost, ruined flesh.
And down there in the quiet darkness, kneeling at the bloody, swollen lip of Hell, Buffy Summers said goodbye.