Her gaze traveled over a patch of subdued hunter green. The pleasant expanse ended abruptly at a jagged slash of roughly textured orange. It upset her. The confinement felt forced, unnatural, and stifling. But then, possibly the feeling was a result of her fever, and not the painting. Tara lifted the fingers of one hand to the back of her neck, and found her skin to be warm. She rolled her head in a gentle circle, prodding at various points along her neckline, then moving down to her shoulders. She seemed to ache all over, and her awkward sitting position was exacerbating the soreness in her sides and lower back. Wriggling her feet out from underneath herself, she stretched her legs, and felt the tingling rush of blood returning to her toes.
The gallery was quiet. Tara realized that from her bench she could see not a single other person-a rare occurrence for such a frequently visited location. Behind one of the doors she knew there was a class in session-she had witnessed the students trickling into the room half an hour earlier-but the light visible through the door's crisscrossed glass panel was dim. 'They're probably watching a video,' Tara thought. 'That's what I could use. A nice dark room, the monotonous drone of a disinterested professor-I could put my head and doze off.' She paused, mid-thought. 'No, that's not fair. I'm sure most of the teachers are excited about their classes. I know Mr. Giles would be.'
Tara glanced up at the staircase, half expecting her thought to make him appear at the top. He usually showed up about this time; the two had taken to meeting up on days when Tara worked early shifts. She enjoyed Mr. Giles' company; she knew he was both knowledgeable and passionate, but he presented himself in a way that was comfortable and reachable, and he always seemed genuinely interested in the opinions Tara shared. They discussed artwork in the exhibit, mostly, but Mr. Giles would sometimes tell stories of his classes, and Tara would speak of work at the diner, or of her own dabbling in painting.
Perhaps he wouldn't stop by, today. Their meetings were not formally scheduled, after all. 'And it's probably better that he not show up,' Tara decided. 'I wouldn't want to get him sick.' She grimaced when the thought triggered a bodily reaction; she'd been trying to ignore it, but she had to pee. She muttered an oath under her breath, and stood. For the third time since arriving at the building, Tara anxiously made her way to the ladies' room.
Professor Giles was there when she returned. He had his back to her, and was gazing intently at a series of oval shaped canvases depicting a single male subject at various life stages. Tara shuffled gingerly toward him, until they stood side by side. If he recognized her presence, he gave no sign of it. "Hi, Mr. Giles," Tara greeted.
A quick intake of breath marked his surprise, but he looked at her calmly. "Ah. Hello, Miss Maclay," he smiled. "I didn't hear you sneaking up on me."
"Sorry to startle you," she replied. "You don't have to call me Miss Maclay-I'm just Tara."
"Yes, well, the same holds true for you. Rupert, please. Mr. Giles is for my students," the professor remarked. "Not that they all take to it. Your friends, for example-Miss Rosenberg and that...that Miss Summers." Mr. Giles paused long enough to check the pocket at the breast of his jacket, and frowned when he found it empty. He rummaged through the rest of them, at last pulling a neatly folded handkerchief from one. Removing his spectacles, he squinted at the lenses before attacking a few spots with the cloth. "She's a handful," he finished mildly.
"Oh? What do they call y-" Tara's body picked that moment to erupt into a fit of hacking coughs. She felt as though her lungs were turning inside out.
"Good heavens, are you quite well?" Mr. Giles inquired.
Tara shook her head feebly. "I'm pretty sick," she confessed. She was sore from her racked lungs to her legs, and didn't feel like putting on a stoic front any longer.
"You've got the flu?"
"No, I-I think it's something else. I've been pretty sore most of the day, and..." Tara lowered her gaze, embarrassed. "And some-some other stuff, too," she mumbled.
The professor looked concerned. "Have you been to a doctor?" he asked.
"N-no, I haven't been." Tara bit at her lower lip. "We don't-I mean, we just moved here two week ago, s-so I don't have a doctor, yet."
Mr. Giles had been teaching long enough to recognize when he wasn't being told the full story. He studied the girl for a long moment, deep in thought. "Tara," he said slowly, "if you are feeling unwell, it would behoove you to schedule an appointment as early as possible. I could give you the name of a woman. She was Mar-she was my wife's doctor; I can assure you she is a terrific physician. In fact, if you happen to have the evening free, I would offer to drive you to the office."
"Thank you for offering, b-but you don't have to do that," Tara declined.
"Perhaps not," Mr. Giles replied, "but I'd feel much better for it. Would you do it to ease an old man's heart?" A droll smile lifted the man's cheeks as he emoted, covering his chest with one hand.
"It's very generous of you, Mr. Gil-um, Rupert, but I can't-I don't have the m-money for it, right now; I've only been working for-"
"Of course you wouldn't be asked to pay," the professor interrupted.
Tara shook her head. "No, I couldn't let you do that."
Mr. Giles sighed, his mouth flattening to a thin line. "Tara, the University pays me a rather obscene amount of money to write papers, and to stand before classrooms full of mostly indifferent students to lecture about the art, artifacts, and cultures of civilizations that haven't existed for hundreds of years. Please, would you let me do this small thing for you? Then I could go to sleep tonight feeling as though I'd done something genuinely helpful with my day."
"I-well, w-when you put it that way, how can I say no?" Tara giggled. "Sure, spend your hard earned dollars on me."
It was a short walk from the gallery to the parking lot where Mr. Giles had parked his car. The professor slowed his long strides so that the two could walk side by side. He did not comment on the girl's movement-a tentative gait that made apparent her discomfort. Instead, he spoke about the woman they were going to see. "Her name is Dr. Nancy Chandling. She works at an office on Berwyn House Road, just a short drive from here. Nancy is a wonderful general practitioner, as well as an old friend of the family; I'm sure you'll warm to her immediately. My wife always said she was the best doctor she'd ever had."
"I-I don't mean to pry, but...that's twice you've referred to your wife in the p-past tense," Tara noted. "You aren't married, any longer?"
Mr. Giles unconsciously twisted the golden band on his finger while they walked. "Ah, yes," he said quietly. "My wife-Mary, her name is-her name was Mary. She passed away, three summers ago."
Tara stopped walking, and Mr. Giles had to double back several paces. "I'm s-so sorry," she apologized, "I d-didn't know. I didn't mean to-"
"It's all right, Tara. I've had a lot of time to dwell on it, and most of the-well, of the negative thoughts, I suppose-they've passed. The subject isn't off-limits," he said with a sad smile.
"Still, I feel like that w-wasn't the most tactful way to ask a question like that."
Mr. Giles shrugged. "I'm not sure. There is a certain relief in direct questions, much of the time. I can appreciate them." He dug through his pockets, at last pulling out a keychain, which he wrung between his fingers as they resumed walking. "So much of conversation seems to be superfluous, almost like-almost like people are filling in the silence while they're trying to figure out how to say what they really mean. And then, how to wrap it with the proper disclaimers and diplomatic padding."
Tara laughed at the professor's words. "Not everybody," she challenged. "Haven't you heard Willow talk? The words all seem to tumble out before her mind has half a chance to censor anything."
"Yes, it's a breath of fresh air-although sometimes it's a rather long breath. That one can go on," Mr. Giles chuckled. "She's a wonderful student to have in class, though; she's started some interesting discussions, and she actually reads the assignments, which, sadly, is remarkable. Ah, here we are." He stopped in front of a line of vehicles, and pressed a button on a device that was attached to his keychain. The lights on a pristine, sporty red BMW convertible flickered, and its door locks popped open.
"This is your car?" Tara asked, barely suppressing a giggle.
"Yes-why?" The professor's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"Oh, no reason," the girl replied innocently as they climbed in. "...You really do need help spending those hard-earned dollars, don't you?" she laughed.
Grateful to be able to, Mr. Giles joined in the laughter.
Professor Giles was right: Dr. Chandling quickly made Tara feel right at home. She had a tender, caring manner about her, which stood in stark contrast to the cold professionalism of the Maclays' old family doctor. She opened the meeting with genial conversation, asking Tara how she'd met Rupert-the name still sounded foreign on the girl's tongue-and she showed genuine interest when Tara mentioned the student art gallery.
"So, you're not feeling so great, hm? Fever?" the physician finally broached the subject, her tone remaining light.
Tara nodded. "And I've been really sore, and..." She trailed off, her eyes darting about the office. Dr. Chandling inclined her head, waiting patiently for the girl to complete her thought. "And I-um, I have to use the b-bathroom a lot," Tara mumbled.
"The soreness-is it centered around the pelvis?"
Tara glanced warily at the office door, which was closed. "Y-yes, mostly. There, and-and my b-back and sides."
Dr. Chandling bobbed her head. "When you urinate, is it painful?"
Tara let out a rush of breath. "Goddess, yes. Is it-is it s-something bad?"
"Everything you've described so far sounds like nothing more than a urinary tract infection; it's very common, and easily treatable," the physician explained soothingly, smiling when she saw the look of total relief wash over Tara's features. "The infection has probably spread to your bladder, which is what's causing your soreness and fever. A round of antibiotics will probably knock it right out of your system."
"It's just p-pills?"
"That's right," Dr. Chandling nodded. "We'll send a urine culture to the lab, to make sure that the infection hasn't made it to your kidneys, but judging by your condition, I doubt very much that is the case."
Tara gulped. "A urine c-culture? What's, um, what's involved with t-that?"
The doctor held back a laugh. "Don't worry, Tara. We'll just send you to the bathroom down the hall with a plastic cup. No poking or prodding or crazy, invasive technology, today."
"Sorry." The girl gave a tentative chuckle. "I guess I'm a little bit nervous."
An hour later, Tara sat in the passenger seat of Mr. Giles' convertible, clutching a white paper bag containing a full course of antibiotics and a note from Dr. Chandling detailing the proper dosage to take. The doctor had assured her that she would have the lab results back within three days, but that there was nothing to worry about. Tara watched Mr. Giles drive. His hands gripped the steering wheel tightly, and his eyes flicked constantly between the road and all three of the mirrors. He noticed Tara, and smiled.
"Glad to have that be over and done with?" he asked.
"Definitely," Tara agreed. "Mr. Giles, I-"
"R-right. Rupert. I, uh-I wanted to say-thank you so much. For everything today, I mean. For giving me a ride, and covering the-um, p-paying for the visit. Dr. Chandling was really great, and the whole thing was just-I know you d-didn't have to do any of that for me, so it was very nice of you. Thank you."
The professor's smile grew wider as Tara rambled. When she was done, he said simply, "You're welcome, Tara." They drove in silence for a minute before Mr. Giles asked, "Ah, before we get too far along, here, where are we headed? I should return to the University, but shall I drop you off at home beforehand?"
"Oh, could you maybe, uh, t-take me back to the gallery?"
Mr. Giles frowned, but didn't take his eyes off of the road. "Well, I could, certainly-that's where I'm headed, anyway-but don't you think it would be a better idea to go home and get some rest? Honestly, I was quite startled to see you at the art building in the first place, considering your fever; I'm not so sure you should be up and about."
"I don't-" Tara paused in the middle of her thought, then continued slowly, picking her words carefully. "I'd rather you b-brought me to the gallery. I've been thinking about, um, maybe starting to paint again, and there are some really good pieces in the exhibit, now, and, and-"
"Tara," the professor said quietly, "you're pushing your body too far. I know it's not my place to pry, but...is there some reason you're reluctant to be at home, right now?"
The girl shrank back into the bucket seat, unsure how to answer the question.
Mr. Giles cast a quick glance in her direction, and continued, "I can't imagine that feeling the way you do, you'd want to be doing much else but sleeping, and the art building isn't terribly conducive to that, as nice as the scenery might be. Are you absolutely certain I can't bring you home?"
"No, thank you. Y-you're right," Tara murmured. "I'd like t-to stay away from my apartment for a while, if-if that's okay."
"All right, then. The gallery, it is."
Ten minutes later, they walked into the artificial warmth of the art building. Mr. Giles said he had to check for messages in his office, and Tara excused herself quickly to use the bathroom. They reconvened in the lobby.
"Do you know what time it is?" Tara asked, looking around for a clock.
"Almost ten past six."
"Really?" The blonde appeared startled. "I've got to-is there a phone? A payphone in the building?"
"There's a phone in my office," Mr. Giles offered. "Is it a local call?"
Mr. Giles led the way to the room, and slid a clunky-looking phone across the desk. "Just dial a nine first to get outside of the campus, then the number," he explained, then he stepped from the room, leaving the door only slightly ajar to afford the girl more privacy.
Like many of the temporary offices in the building, his was merely a division off of the main office. While he waited for Tara to make her call, the professor poured himself a cup of hot water from the coffee machine, then lifted a packet of Earl Grey from a wicker basket on the counter. He left the bag to steep, and eased his lanky frame into a cushioned chair. He let out an earnest sigh.
"Long day, Professor?" a young, chestnut-skinned woman asked, looking up from her laptop computer screen.
"You have no idea," Mr. Giles replied. "Valerie, enjoy your youth; as you age, you'll find that the days contain fewer and fewer hours."
"Oh, I've got a bit of an idea," she chuckled. "The first few weeks of each semester are pretty hectic in here. Everyone's always wanting to force their way into classes that are full, or trying to readjust their entire schedule in a last-minute panic." Valerie nodded in the direction of the professor's office. "Is that your daughter?"
Mr. Giles reached out for his tea and carefully brought it to his face, sniffing dubiously at the beverage. "No, she isn't my daughter," he replied. "She's a stu-well, no, a-a friend, I suppose." He tested the drink, then made a face and set it back down on the counter. "Actually, I've got a six-thirty Classics section over in Marie Mount I must dash off to; I was hoping I could leave her here for an hour and a half or so. Will you be around?"
"I'm only on shift until seven, but I'll probably be here a while longer, doing some other work." The girl indicated her laptop. "Want me to keep an eye on her?"
"That would be splendid, thank you. Just check on her every so often, maybe show her where the Nurofen is if she asks-"
"I'm sorry, the what?"
"The-the painkillers," Mr. Giles explained, unable to recall the actual brand name. I expect she'll spend most of the time asleep."
He saw his office door move, and Tara poked her head out of the room. Standing, he approached her, asking, "Is everything all right?" Tara nodded, and Mr. Giles sneaked around her into the office. He unlocked a cabinet and withdrew a tightly wrapped bundle of polyester and nylon.
"Thanks for letting me use your phone," Tara said gratefully. "I wanted to check in with my brother, and-and...w-what is that?" She watched the professor kneel down and unbutton the ties, then unroll the spiral of material onto the floor.
"It's an inflatable mattress," the man explained. "I've got to leave for a class right away, but please feel free to use my office while I'm gone. I should return by eight o'clock." He checked his watch, and stood hastily. "Oh, there is some bedding in the cabinet. But I've got to run!" The professor quickly gathered up his briefcase and a stack of papers. "If you need anything, ask Valerie, and-and if you've left by the time I return, then I suppose I'll see you another day." With that, the man darted out of the room, with Tara trailing slowly behind.
For several seconds after he departed, she stood dumbfounded, looking back and forth between the half-inflated mattress on the office floor, the nearly untouched cup of tea on the countertop, and the grinning receptionist. "You'd be surprised how often he takes off like that," Valerie laughed.
"Why-why does Mr. Giles have an air mattress in his office?" Tara asked, failing to put the pieces together.
"Heh. He'd tell you it was to catch a short nap every now and then, during long breaks in the middle of his days." Valerie clicked something, and her screen went black. She snapped the laptop closed. "But every once in a while when I work an early shift, I can hear him snoring loud as a fog horn in there when I first come in. But you didn't hear that from me."
Tara didn't think it would be easy to fall asleep in an unfamiliar location like the office, but she was wrong. Perhaps it was her body being too sick and exhausted to care. Maybe it was the typing; after a short break, Valerie had gone back to work on her paper, and the soft tap, tap, tap of the keys lulled Tara toward a state of blissful relaxation. It was a safe sound, comforting in its foreignness; there hadn't ever been a computer in the Maclay household, and the jittering response of the laptop's internal parts served as a constant reminder that Tara was away.
Her shower was taking too long. The water felt so relaxing, though, like it was trickling into her pores and soothing the deepest aches of her body. Besides, she wasn't prepared to face the day. Only when the hot water began to fade did she reluctantly step out. Moments later, Papa burst into the bathroom without knocking, causing Tara to grab for a towel and quickly wrap herself with it.
"You're still not ready?" he gawked. "Hurry up! You're going to miss the bus!"
Tara blinked, confused. "But Papa, it's Saturday; there's no school, today."
The answer seemed to placate the man, and he backed out of the room, not bothering to shut the door behind him. Tara's mother hovered in the hallway, watching her husband depart. She turned to look at Tara, and flashed her a dazzling smile. She looked healthy; the significance of this fact brushed against Tara's conscience, but it drifted by before she could get a firm grasp. Mama eased the door closed with a gentle click.
Tara patted the water from her skin. Already, she was beginning to fret. It was Saturday, wasn't it? Didn't the school bus come on Saturdays, anyway? Had she lied to her father? She darted across the hallway and peered nervously out her bedroom window, just in time to see the big yellow bus lumbering up the road. Tara panicked. She would never make it out to the bus stop in time! She hadn't even put on her shoes, and her bookbag wasn't yet packed.
It was okay. She could still run to school, and arrive just before the first class; she'd done it before. Her parents wouldn't even need to know, just as long as they didn't look out a window and happen to see the bus drive by. Please, don't let them look out the window. Tara watched the bus slow as it neared her mailbox; then, it actually turned into the driveway itself. Beep, beep, beep! It signaled backing up, and Papa, who was backing out of the garage to head to work, had to swerve to the side, narrowly avoiding a collision. Tara groaned and fell back onto her bed, pulling a pillow over her head.
"I think one of my friends has a crush on you," Willow said.
"What? Who?" Tara shoved the hotel pillow aside, and looked at the redhead, who was lying on the other bed. Willow's lower body was lit by lines of thin orange light, which spilled into the room through a set of mangled blinds, but her face was covered by shadows. Tara knew the girl was blushing.
"One of the ones who're visiting us..."
The dreamscape lurched, and Tara was running.
"This way!" Hannah cried, turning to bolt up a flight of stairs. Tara, Willow, and Buffy climbed after her. Not far behind, the Campus Police were in pursuit. The stairs crisscrossed like an Escher painting, becoming increasingly more difficult to navigate at each floor. Sometimes the flights of steps would skip floors entirely; other times, they would leave you stranded on a landing, with no option but to double back. After a minute, the four girls were scattered on the stairs, each on a different floor. Tara worked her way methodically up toward the top, arriving at the foot of a long flight of steps at the same time as Buffy did.
"This is it!" Buffy exclaimed. "These will take us to the top!"
Tara peeked over the railing at the precipitous depths below. Many floors down, Willow was struggling to find the right path, and becoming more frustrated with each wrong choice. Hannah was nowhere to be seen. "I've got to go back for Willow," Tara stated. Buffy shrugged and continued up the final flight, while Tara began picking her way back down the stairs.
They met each other halfway, and tried unsuccessfully to retrace the path Tara had taken from the top. After finding themselves three times at the same dead-end, they finally climbed over one of the railings and lowered themselves down to a new flight. Tara went first, and was delighted when Willow asked her for help down. She reached up and held the redhead around the waist as she gingerly brought her feet down to the railing, then hopped to the landing.
The new path brought her to a ritzy furniture store. The ceiling was so high Tara could hardly make it out through the clouds, and the prices, printed on gold-trimmed tags, weren't much lower. She walked with Marni, Willow's friend-the one who had a crush on her, she remembered. She wanted to talk with her, to keep a fluid dialog, but she kept stuttering and saying the wrong name. Mina, she'd say, and Marni would raise an eyebrow dubiously. Why couldn't she get her name right? Was she really that conversationally inept? Mina-no, Marni!-was stunningly gorgeous, but the awkward communication and her detached personality didn't make Tara particularly attracted to her. Not like Mina: five minutes of talking with Mina made Tara feel like she'd known the girl her whole life.
A massive pair of double doors in the back of the store opened out to a rooftop patio. More of the store's furniture was on display; it was divided into sections, each grouping set up to show how the matching pieces might be arranged in an actual room. Tara wondered what happened to the furniture when it rained. She imagined the meticulously placed pillows dark and sagging under the weight of the water. A wave of overwhelming sadness swept through her, and it was all she could do to keep from bursting out in tears. She couldn't do that-she couldn't cry in front of Marni; the girl would think she was a complete loon.
The phone call was for Mina. She couldn't recall if she'd reached over and picked up the hotel phone or if the storeowner had handed it to her. The redhead was curled up next to her on the bare mattress. It was comfortable, which surprised Tara; she usually had trouble sleeping without a blanket. But with her body curved around Marni's smaller form, Tara experienced a profound sense of security-warmth that pooled in her belly and spread outward to the rest of her. She snuggled closer.
"Honey? You there?" A voice crackled through the line.
Tara lifted the receiver to her ear. "P-papa?"
"Tara, I've got wonderful news," her father said happily. "I'm gettin' married!"
Mama eased the door closed with a gentle click.
Tara's eyes flickered open. She had dreamed of Willow. That's all she could remember.
Tara hesitated, her fingers inches from the door. She felt pathetic, descending upon a new friend with all of her problems like this, but then again it did seem to be the day for being carried. She couldn't stay at the art building overnight, and she was too frightened to go home, so here she was. Tara let her knuckles rap against the surface. 'Anyway,' she thought, 'there are things we need to talk about.'
A yawning Faith opened the door. She rubbed her eyes and looked Tara over as the blonde shivered in the hallway. Tara, in turn, looked anywhere but at Faith, who had answered the door in a loose tee shirt and underwear, not bothering to don a pair of pants. She stood aside, a silent invitation for Tara to enter, and the blonde slunk shamefully into the apartment. Wordlessly, Faith let the door swing closed behind her.