"Hey, Xander!" My perky greeting matched the brilliant southern California late morning sun as I jumped into the rental car next to my old high school "best bud." It did feel good. The dry warmth was such a welcome change from the eternal dampness of the Pacific northwest that I almost forgot the reason I had flown down from Seattle. He smiled, leaned over from the steering wheel and gave me a warm embrace.
"You look great, Will. I wish I could say the same for myself." I blushed at his sincere compliment.
"You're always too hard on yourself," I said, trying to boost his ego. Time had not been as kind to Xander. Still two years shy of forty, he had put on weight but what was most noticeable were the spreading strands of premature grey now interspersed with his originally rich black hair. Looking at his face as he pulled away from the curb, I couldn't help but notice the deep circles under his eyes.
"Sorry I was late," he said. "Had a hard time finding the place. I don't remember this hotel. Must be one of the new ones. A lot of stuff has changed around here."
"Xander," I put my hand on his arm as he maneuvered to a stop light. He looked over at me. "Thanks for coming. It means a lot to me."
"Will, I always thought it was too late to help Buffy." Xander turned the car out onto the long stretch of road that eventually would lead to Sunnydale High. "When you called, it was like getting a second chance. You know I'd do anything for her. I just wish we had been able to do this twenty years ago."
"I know, Xander, I do, too." We didn't say anything for the next few blocks. Then Xander broke the silence in his matter of fact way.
"Oz couldn't make it, you know."
"Yeah, I figured as much."
"Something about the full moon and not wanting to lock himself in the bathroom on the red eye!"
I smiled. Dear old Oz, sounded just like him.
"He sends his love."
I was about to ask Xander how Oz was doing, if he ever got married, if he had any children, but something made me stay silent.
"Oh, and I got a surprise for you . . . Cordy's coming."
"What?" I nearly yelled it. "You're kidding? How did you convince her? How did you even get her to talk to you?"
"Piece of cake." Xander grinned as he looked out straight ahead at the heavy traffic. " I just called her office in D.C. Some campaign dweeb answered the phone. I said 'This is Xander Harris and I want to speak to Cordelia Chase.'" Xander smiled.
"They put you through to her? Just like that?"
"Are you kidding! No way! The dweeb did everything he could to get rid of me. 'She's very busy.'" Xander did a marvelous imitation of an officious twenty-two year old political intern on his first job.
"'I'd be happy to e-mail you one of her position papers. What was the issue you were concerned about?' I could hear all kinds of office noise in the background, and I swear Cordy was yelling at somebody. I should know what that sounds like by now!"
Enthralled by the story, I just gazed at Xander, my mouth open in amazement. I saw the whole comedy of errors unfold as he told it.
"So I told the dweeb he better inform his boss, who I knew was standing right behind him, that Xander Harris was calling from Boston to talk to her. Instead of putting me on hold, like an idiot, he covered the receiver with his hand. I heard everything. 'Ms. Chase, some weirdo on the line here is demanding to speak to you. Says he's a Sander Harris.' Then the "S" hit the fan! It was so great to hear when it's not directed at you!"
Then I started laughing, and I think I cried inside a little too. Xander was smiling and joking again, the old Xander I remember, the one who used to bring me salamanders as a kid, just to make me scream.
"Let me finish, Will! So I hear this yell in the background, 'You Moron, McGowan! Patch it into my office, now!' Then a smooth, unruffled voice comes on the line, 'This is Senator Chase, how may I help you?' She's still a pro! It took every ounce of my self control not to break out laughing!"
I was hardly able to contain myself. "So? What did she say?"
"Not much, actually. I did most of the talking. Funny, she was real sweet, though. Said she'd cancel all her appointments and be here. In fact I bet she's probably beat us to the school by now."
"Xander, she's not expecting anything of you, is she?" Cordelia had never married, but instead had buried herself in a high powered career. Somehow I thought she never fully accepted Xander breaking off their engagement.
"If she is . . . oh God I hope not. You don't think, Will . . .? I didn't say anything to lead her on! . . . Cripes, Will, Anne Marie's gonna kill me! How the hell am I gonna get outta this?"
"You're babbling, Xander." It was reassuring to see some things hadn't changed.
When we pulled up into the old Sunnydale High parking lot, the first thing I spotted was the vintage Alfa Romeo sticking out like a sore thumb amidst all the construction equipment. Then I gasped as my eyes fell on the tall figure of Cordelia standing beside the red car. From a distance it was like twenty years had never passed. She was tall, dressed in slacks with wrap around dark glasses and a light sweater casually draped over her shoulders. She was also tapping her foot impatiently. No, some things definitely had not changed.
"Where the hell have you two been!" Cordelia barked as we climbed out of the car, "I've been waiting for twenty minutes!"
"Boston," Xander remarked nonchalantly.
"Seattle," I chimed in.
Cordelia just shook her head and smiled. Close up I could now see the beginning of wrinkles on her well tanned face and my little vision from twenty years ago quickly evaporated.
"Hi, Willow." Cordelia said. There was a warmth in her voice I suddenly realized I had forgotten.
"Hi, Cordelia," I replied. We just stared for a moment and then put our arms around each other. It was another surprise in a day that would be full of surprises.
"You know," she said, "I almost didn't come. I didn't know what I was going to feel like when I met you guys again." She took off her dark glasses. "I guess I feel pretty good." I spotted the faintest hint of wetness around her eyes.
"I'm real glad you did."
Cordelia looked over my shoulder at Xander who was standing a few feet behind us with the dust from the construction site blowing around his shoes.
"Willow, who's the dude you got chauffeuring you around?"
"Him? Oh, just some riff raff I picked up at the airport."
"Excuse me!" Xander snapped defensively as he barged his way forward.
"You look familiar," Cordelia said, waggling her finger at Xander. "I know! You were that obnoxious newspaper editor in San Francisco who wouldn't endorse me in the last election!"
"Come on, stop it Cordy," Xander spoke softly with a little hurt in his voice. He tried to catch her gaze head on but ended up staring at his dusty shoes instead. I could tell from the look on Cordelia's face that, at first, she derived considerable pleasure from teasing Xander. But as the moments passed something in her couldn't take seeing the slightly overweight and prematurely greying guidance counselor stand there with his head hanging as he had so many years before.
"Hey, you jerk," Cordelia said quietly. As Xander looked back up at her, Cordelia opened her arms and the two embraced silently. I just stood to the side. I could feel the warmth. This was what I remember Buffy always called a "real communication moment," and you didn't interrupt one of those for anything.
Xander then stood back from Cordelia staring up and down at her.
"Wow, you're still a babe!"
"Thank you!" Cordelia was honestly pleased by the compliment. "How's your family? How much trouble did Anne Marie give you about coming?"
"Plenty," said Xander, smiling, "but underneath it all she was really good. I told her about Buffy and everything a long time ago."
"Everything, Xander? Us, too?"
"Oh Yeah!" he said wiping his brow. "That's one thing. You don't keep secrets from Anne Marie! She said if I so much as looked at you wrong, she'd send for her four brothers in Dublin, and after they tore me to pieces, they'd feed the parts to the carp in the Charles River!"
"She sounds perfect for you."
"Yeah," Xander spoke quietly. "She's been my Guardian Angel." Then Xander and Cordelia stared at each other for a moment. Finally Cordelia spoke.
"It's okay, Xander. Still friends?"
"Yeah, still friends. And you can insult me anytime you want."
"No problem, jerkface."
"Anytime, pom pom brain."
Smiling at each other, they both were silent for a moment more. Now was the time to interrupt.
"Hey guys," I said, "Not to diss the 'moment' but how are we going to get inside?"
"Oh! That's right!" said Cordelia, and she began fussing in her purse. "Hang on, I got it right here." She quickly pulled out a single key. "Ta dah!" Cordelia announced and looked at me and Xander as if expecting us to bow.
"That's my ex!" announced Xander picking up immediately on Cordelia's need for praise.
"Where'd you get that?" I asked. Somehow Cordelia's constant resourcefulness always amazed me.
"Let's just say the superintendent of schools owed me bigtime since I was the one who got the matching federal funds for the new building." Cordelia put on her trademark smug grin. Xander and I just shook our heads.
"Well," Cordelia said, "I didn't come two thousand miles to stand out here in the dirt! And I ditched a half dozen media hyenas back at the hotel. I don't know how long I'm gonna have before their pea brains figure out I'm not inside anymore!"
We all turned and walked across the parking lot over to the foot of the steps that led up to the front doors. I thought how often as teenagers we had sat on the side of those steps, talking, exchanging gossip about classes, boyfriends/girlfriends, vampires, the Hellmouth and the latest peculiar doings of Giles. As if following unspoken orders, we stopped and looked up to the doors.
Although the mid morning sun was shining brightly, the darkness behind the glass panes cast out a pall of uncertainty over us. I had no idea what to expect or what we would see in those empty hallways. Would the table still be there in the library? The tragedy we had all shared lay somewhere inside. And so it seemed was our youth, now crumbling, abandoned, ready for the wrecking ball. It made me angry, an irrational anger that the city of Sunnydale should show so little respect for what we had gone through, for all of what Buffy had done in those short two and a half years.
It was like we were looking through a gateway into another world, a world whose light had been put out by one terrible event, an event that had scattered those of us who had survived but left our souls forever scarred. Yes, the ghosts were here, too. I knew Buffy and Giles were somewhere in there.
"Okay," said Xander with hesitation in his voice. "This may sound silly in broad daylight but who's gonna be brave and go first?" Cordelia gave him a look as if to say, "Me?"
"I will," I replied firmly. I took the key out of Cordelia's hand and, as in a dream, climbed the steps up to the locked doors. "I'm here, Buffy," my mind thought. "I'm here and I brought the others. Be patient, dear spirit. Just a few minutes more."
I kept my eyes riveted on the door handles and then quickly pushed the key into the lock. I knew if I looked up into the darkness inside, I wouldn't have gone through with it. The lock didn't turn at first but I jimmied the key for a second and the worn aluminum bar suddenly dropped down almost of its own accord and the door swung open. I walked into the darkness, Cordelia and Xander close behind me.
Our footsteps on the faded linoleum rang down the dim empty hallways. Here and there a construction drop light hung from an open hole in the ceiling casting eerie illumination and sharp demon-like shadows. The first signs of demolition were everywhere. All the lockers were torn out, probably sold off and melted down for scrap. For a moment Cordelia stood mournfully gazing at an empty spot in the wall.
"It was here," she said sadly. "Mine was here." Xander stood beside her but didn't speak. In a funny way, it was like they were both grieving. I gazed into Ms. Calendar's computer lab but there was really nothing to see. All the desks and equipment were long gone leaving an empty room with a thin cloud of construction dust floating about a foot above the floor. I quickly turned and headed down the hallway towards the library. As I got closer, I could see the doors were missing.
I walked straight in without stopping . . . until my foot brushed against something small and box shaped on the floor. Looking down in the half light, I saw it was a book. As my eyes adjusted, I suddenly realized that the whole floor of the library was littered with them, some open, some closed, all tossed cruelly around as if they were valueless junk. Everything else was gone, the stacks, tables, Giles' check out desk. Only the books remained, left behind as if they were nothing more than another pile of construction debris.
I heard Cordelia gasp directly behind me, "The bastards!"
Immediately, I knew why things were this way. Over ten years ago, to save space, most schools had abandoned the old hard copy libraries and gone to fully computerized reference terminals. I guess Sunnydale High had been one of the few holdouts. Now, with the new school going up, the old place had given up the ghost. The image in the Library on that morning tore at my heart as much as those of Buffy and Giles in the dark of my nights.
"They don't know," I whimpered. "They don't understand . . . they never will . . ."
"Hey, Willow," Xander said calling me back. "Remember why we're here." I looked at Xander, and he smiled sympathetically. He was right. It had taken twenty years but we were finally back. I stared all around me searching for some sign. My mind called out to my ghosts. "Buffy? Giles? We're here. Where are you?" There was no reply. Only silence.
"What's going on?" Cordelia finally asked with an edge to her voice.
"Will?" Xander looked me directly in the face.
I was completely lost now.
"I don't know. I can't find them. I don't know what we're supposed to do." I started to panic as Cordelia's eyes blazed at me. She turned to Xander.
"I come two thousand miles, and she doesn't know what we're supposed to do!"
"Easy Cordie." Xander turned to me again, at the same time reaching into his pocket.
"Here, maybe this will help." Xander opened his palm to reveal a tiny cross on a thin chain. Buffy's cross. He had saved it for two decades. He never knew why until today.