CHAPTER TWO: THE PRESENT
Tara stopped walking and looked around. She knew the forests around Sunnydale pretty well, but she didn’t recognize any of the trees around her. She put her hands on her hips and with a teasing smile said “Are you sure this is the right way?”
Willow stopped as well and walked back to where Tara was standing. It was an early fall evening, cool enough it seemed like they could walk forever, but not yet cold enough that either needed jackets. The last rays of the setting sun filtered down through the treetops. They were utterly alone.
“No,” Willow said. “I’m not.” She lifted her hands, palms up, and said “I don’t know what happened. I thought this was the way.” She placed her hands in the back pockets of her jeans and looked around for a familiar landmark. They were supposed to meet the others for a picnic, but where were they?
Tara’s eyes sparkled. “I think you planned this,” she said playfully. “Wanted to get me all to yourself so you could seduce and then ravish me. You vicious monster, you.”
“But all for the sake of love, m’lady,” Willow said, playing along.
Willow walked a few more steps and then shrugged. “I guess if we’re lost we’ll just have to make the best of it.”
Tara grinned and walked up behind her, placing her arms around Willow’s waist. Tara kissed her softly on the back of the neck.
Willow turned around and intercepted the next kiss. Tara’s lips were gentle but firm. Every time was like the first time, and Willow couldn’t believe how lucky she was to have found someone like her.
Tara pulled away slightly and looked around. “What if the others find us?” she said softly.
“I don’ t care,” Willow said with a grin.
“I love you,” Willow whispered in Tara’s ear as they lowered themselves to the ground.
Willow started and looked around. Her classmates were staring at her—most with sympathetic faces, but some with mocking grins. In front of her, Professor Markin stood with her instructor’s copy of Jude the Obscure and an expectant look on her face.
“Now that you’re with us again, Ms. Rosenberg, would you care to discuss how Hardy--”
The bell rang and the other students began to hurriedly gather up their books—some of them had classes all the way across campus, while others just couldn’t bear the thought of being stuck in a classroom any longer than necessary. Willow distractedly gathered her belongings as well and headed for the door.
“Ms. Rosenberg? Do you have a moment? I would like to speak with you about . . . some things.”
Willow turned and looked back. Professor Markin was sitting in one of the student’s chairs in the front row. Because college instructors might teach in three of four different classrooms every day, they often had desks only in their own offices. Willow walked over and sat down across from her.
“Ms. Rosenberg—Willow—how are you feeling today?” She said it hesitantly, unsure of where the boundaries should be.
“Fine,” Willow replied.
“Good, good. Listen, I know things have been tough since your . . . friend passed away, and I know the grief counselors always talk about how important it is to try to keep up a normal routine, but . . . Well, the simple truth, Willow, is that the quality of your coursework has declined significantly, as has your grade for participation.”
Willow sat there, giving the appearance that she was listening carefully, but Professor Markin knew she was off in her own world again. Still, the instructor had had something on her mind for several days now and decided it was the time to say it.
“Willow? What I’m trying to say is that you’re not cutting it—and it just wouldn’t be fair to the other students if I gave you special treatment. Still . . . I just think it might be a good idea to consider your other options—just temporarily. It’s still early in the summer term. If you like, I can probably talk Administration into letting you drop the class without any permanent mark on your transcripts, and maybe you can sign up again for Fall Term—when things are . . . better.”
“Uh huh,” was all Willow said in reply.
Professor Markin tried one last time. “Willow, are you sure you’re okay? You know there’s plenty of people here for you to talk to if you need it.”
“I’m fine,” Willow said before picking up her books and leaving the room.
Willow left Sedgwick Hall—where most literature classes were held—and stepped outside. Down a small set of stone steps was a large open area called, imaginatively enough, The Square. It was one of the few green areas still left on campus, and the students had fought to keep it free from development. It was just after lunchtime and still rather busy. As she walked down the steps, Willow hardly noticed the students playing frisbee or talking, or trying to catch up on a week’s worth of reading in the five minutes before class started.
She cut across The Square and headed for her dorm. She didn’t say “hi” to anyone, and no one said “hi” to her. Although Tara’s murder was no longer the hot topic on a bustling campus like Sunnydale College, even those students the couple had been friendly with were unsure of how they should handle themselves around Willow. Should they act sad? Cheerful? Sympathetic? As if nothing had happened? Afraid of appearing awkward, most chose the easy way out and simply avoided her altogether.
Willow entered the residence hall and walked in the direction of her room. She stopped at the room next to her own—Tara’s. The door was closed, and there was no sign that anyone lived there. In fact, Tara’s room had been cleaned out and her things put in storage just a few days after she died. They had asked Willow if she wanted to help—but she didn’t.
And now it’s like she never existed. Because she doesn’t exist. Because she’s dead. When I’m seventy years old, Tara will still be dead. And she’ll never be seventy. Because she’s dead.
Willow continued on and opened the door to her own room. It still looked much the same as it always had—books on magic on the shelves, posters on the wall, mementos on the desk. But it was different as well. In one corner of the room sat a pile of the things Willow had received from friends and relatives after Tara’s death— cards, flowers, books on dealing with grief. All sat unopened and untouched. On the floor next to her bed was a large cardboard box—inside were things of Tara’s, both things Willow had saved and things that Tara’s relative had thought Willow might want. Candles, books, love letters, a rock shaped very roughly like a heart, a blue furry lobster.
Willow closed the door and sat on the edge of the bed. Her eyes were open but she didn’t really see anything.