Welcome to Spec Script, where author Michael B. Tager delves into the unexplored from your (or his) favorite television shows.
By Michael B. Tager
It’s dark and the puddles beneath Whitney’s knees stink of drowned beetles. Mud squishes between her fingertips. A weight presses on her spine, breath slowly forced from overworked lungs. She grunts, resisting her stomach’s roils. She feels like she’s drowning. The weight piles on. Her mouth is moving and words slip into the air, “Don’t lose control, Whitney. Don’t lose control. Don’t lose it,--” She closes her eyes when the shaking begins.
Her hand slips and the heaviness sharpens. Her heart skips and her control slips its leash and she wants them to get off her fucking already get off get off get off. But she doesn’t say it, not yet. She can’t. This isn’t her. She’s above this. She is ice.
But she can’t straighten her elbow and she sinks deeper and now she feels cold in her bones and she hears snickering and her veins groan from excited blood and it’s too much and she screams so loudly her throat rips and suddenly she’s sobbing and the weight lessens as someone hears her and a crack of sun shines into her eyes.
Soon, the weight is off. “God, Whit,” Courtney said. “It’s a pyramid. Stop being a little bitch about being the base. We all have to do it.”
The rest of the Rancho Carne Toros circled her. Some wore concerned expressions--freshmen primarily--but most gave her full-on stink eye. Courtney, her soul-sister, worked her full eye roll and thin-lipped smirk. Courtney could fuck with her, she accepted that. But the others? They weren’t as pretty as either of them, they weren’t as cool. They hadn’t earned their looks.
Stuffing her emotions back into her diaphragm, where they belonged, Whitney brushed dirt from her halter and athletic shorts, grass from her toned midriff. Twenty yards away, the football players pretended to practice. But some, she could see, watched the cheerleaders and some only had eyes for her. Even distressed, she tossed her hair. Have to keep up appearances. She learned that in Sunnydale, from Queen Cordelia herself. All of her old crew had learned. She’d been a novice when she’d joined the crew but she had learned quickly. It was all old hat now, even what she wished to forget.
Old habits die hard, even when those who taught them were themselves gone.
“Look,” she said, “I just had a moment, ok? I’m fine. Let’s do it again.” She scanned the bleachers for anyone-who’s-anyone who might have witnessed her lose her shit. Luckily, no one there mattered. When she relaxed, she yawned. God, but she was tired.
Courtney’s eyes narrowed and she leaned in. Her mouth twisted and she flapped her hands at the surrounding cheerleaders. “Skitter off, creeps.” The Toros muttered, but they listened to the HBIC. Once alone, Courtney put a hand on Whitney’s shoulder. “Bitch, you ok? You look garbage.”
Whitney wished Court wasn’t so secretly astute. Playing dumb was their thing and they were good enough at it that they sometimes fooled one other. Whitney plastered on the cheesiest grin she could muster. Her skin hurt. “Girlfriend, you know me: five by five.”
“Nuh-uh, bitch. Spill.”
Frustration flared in her belly, a cup runneth-ing over. “Look, I haven’t slept in goddamned days and your shitty attitude isn’t helping.”
The even, measured response surprised Whitney. “What do you see?”
Courtney dropped every pretense of diva. “Honey, are you having the nightmares? The ones about Sunnydale?”
Her eyes watered. “I don’t. I mean, God.” She whispered, “It’s been bad.”
Courtney pulled her into an embrace, strong arms wrapping, a gentle side-to-side rocking. Whitney murmured thanks for the mommy rock.
From the football field, a voice yelled, “Kiss her,” and without breaking contact, they both lifted and extended their middle fingers. This is why everyone needs a best friend. This is why, even though so many hated them, they never felt alone.
The San Diego sun warmed Whitney’s shoulders. A thin wind twirled dirt at their feet and cooled her for what felt like forever.
But too soon, the wind changed direction and brought with it the scent of trash. Just a whiff (perhaps a dumpster), but it triggered nonetheless. Because peace never lasts. Scent and place and time are all tied together and Whitney knew that even though she was here and now, she was there and then and all Whitneys were Legion and they’d live on when she was old and die when she died. And then another of the boys, message not taken, wolf whistled. And Whitney was back in the deep dark cold. Back in Sunnydale.
She broke away, vision swimming. “No, no, no.” She breathed, she closed her eyes, she tried to stop the flood. But nothing stopped what was in motion, and cold not-breath was on her neck, the stink of fetid air and rotted, congealed blood invaded her. She screamed again, at the open sky.
Her legs churned, away from Courtney, the field and the now-silent boys. She stumbled and caught herself and wrenched herself upright. She remembered her friends running and falling in the graveyard, the sound of sneakered feet on soft, mist-kissed earth. Ahead was an exit and blessed streetlight, the possibility of help. Behind her friends, not-athletes, her fellow mean girl Cordettes, screaming with what little breath they spared. Behind them, death.
In the now, she was out of the stadium, back on school proper. A few burners loitered on a brown-green hill playing hacky sack, a handful of teachers strolled to the parking lot. None knew that evil lurked. When had she ever felt safe like they did? When had she ever been able to relax at school?
San Diego wasn’t Sunnydale; Rancho Carne wasn’t Sunnydale High; Courtney wasn’t the Cordettes. Whitney knew that, she told herself that every single day. Her therapist told her every week, her parents told her every night. But could she believe it?
Whitney reached the main entrance to Rancho Carne High. Sweat covered her, but not running sweat. Flop sweat. She opened the door and entered, but the dim lights and the air conditioning reminded her of the crypt.
A sobbing croak escaped her aching throat and she slipped inside the first door and slammed it behind her, trying to catch her breath. But her lungs wouldn’t cooperate and she couldn’t catch anything, and her chest hitched and caught and hitched again. God, why couldn’t she calm down? Why did she have to be so weak? She slammed her fist against the wall. Dust fell like snow.
A blackboard. The chalk infuriated her. Who cared about trig at a time like this? Fuck trig. She let her mouth lapse into ugly snarls. Her fist balled and she lashed out with corded muscles honed by lifts and flips, with two years of self-defense classes.
The blackboard shuddered and her knuckles screamed as her skin split. She welcomed the pain because it was something other than her constant nerves and her inability to relax and lack of sleep and twitching at any growling sound, or the sight of blood, or the smell of mildew and dust.
Her other hand swung and then left-right-left-right, a tattoo beat on the chalkboard that cracked and spit dust that clung to her exposed skin. And her hands screamed agony and she didn’t care because how dare they attack her, how dare they leave her for so long while her friends were fed upon by those things and how dare no authority in Sunnydale look for her for over a day, while her friends’ bodies were piled upon her and those things laughed and tortured her with needles and lighters and threats and jokes of death and rape and worse, resurrection.
She couldn’t stop swinging and punching until her fists were a mass of blood. That’ll do. That’ll do.
The tears came and the sobs came and this time she didn’t fight it. Her therapist told her to feel her emotions, told her that PTSD came to everyone and that she wasn’t weak. How could she be weak to have dealt with all that she had? She couldn’t be weak.
She’d lost her entire Junior year to recovery, to learning how not to scream all day every day. How to accept that she was strong. But at times like this, it didn’t feel like strength.
By the time her tears devolved into snotty moans, she heard a soft, tentative knocking. “Whit?”
“Go away, Courtney.”
The door opened and she scooted out of the way. Courtney entered, her face as naked and unguarded as Whitney had ever seen, just wide eyes and pursed forehead and a moue of glossed lips. She saw the chalkboard and then Whitney’s now-throbbing hands. “Oh my God, Whit.”
Somehow, Whitney laughed. “I know, right? What a drama queen. But also, ow.”
Courtney was beside her, her hand moving up and down Whitney’s back, rubbing out knots. “Dude, tell me what happened. Please. You can trust me.”
Something deep in Whitney’s chest tightened. “I can’t.”
“I’m your best friend, bitch.”
Whitney’s hair flew as she shook her head, no amount of vehemence enough. “You don’t understand,” she said, “I can’t. I don’t have the words. For anyone.”
A hint of anger colored Courtney’s words. “Bitch, I’ll shut up if you need or listen to whatever you have to say. Just trust me to help you.” Finally, the old Courtney.
Whitney clenched her teeth, rested her back to the wall so she could see everything, so none could sneak up. She regarded Cortney with cold blood. Anger was good. Anger purified.
Like, how dare Courtney get angry at her. How dare she expect what 2 years of therapy couldn’t deliver. “You entitled ass. Don’t you understand that that’s not how this works? Of course I trust you, but I’m afraid of trust. The last time I trusted anyone, they died. They died. I was hospitalized for six months with broken bones and a punctured lung and a bruised colon, blood loss, hypothermia, you name it. I lose a year of school. And when I came out of it, I lost it. Every time I smelled the night, I hyperventilated. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t do anything. So we moved and it was ok for a little while and now it’s been back for weeks and I can’t stop.”
Her head fell and she rested them on her bent knees, legs hugged close to her chest. She was aware of Courtney breathing. She could imagine Court’s face: lower lip between teeth, picking at split ends. Shame spread, a tidal wave of embarrassment. How in the world could she look anything but a little scared wimp? She should be able to control it. She readied herself for what came. For Court’s withdrawal or her defensive yelling. Whitney’d seen it all.
Instead, she felt Court’s hand her forearm. “God, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m here for you. Everything’s ok.”
Whitney sniffed and wondered if it were true. Of course it wasn’t that simple, but she’d been saved once, through providence, and the bravery of a small blonde enemy who risked her life for Whitney, as she’d risked her life for so many others. She couldn’t save her own life. She’d needed help.
She remembered the hand hauling her to her feet, the strong voice whispering that everything would be ok, that her tormenters were dust. That she’d eventually be ok and that she wasn’t alone. The blonde saved Whitney’s life and that was something. Maybe it meant that she was worth saving?
And now she had a best friend. She might never be back to normal, but maybe things were better now? Still horrible, but maybeimproving. And sometimes, she reminded herself, when she wasn’t paying attention, she felt safe. Sometimes for days at a time.
Maybe it was ok to accept support.
Court’s grip was strong, her whisper warm and calming. Whitney grabbed her friend’s offer of support. She closed her eyes and leaned back, ignoring the pain in her hands and the tumbling of her soul. She was tired. “Can I rest here for a minute?”
Courtney’s hands stroked Whitney’s hair. She shhhhed. “You’ll be ok. You’ll get there. You'll get through this. Everything will be ok.”
Michael B Tager is a Baltimore-based writer and editor. More of his work can be found at michaelbtager.com. Likes include garden gnomes, cats, tacos and Prince.