image of woman sitting in armchair writing

Leaving Normal

The Doctor took his leave with a quiet, "I'm sorry" and the door clicked gently shut behind him.

On the bed, Buffy lay motionless. The leather restraints were left unbuckled. She hadn't moved or spoken in hours, hardly a danger to herself, never mind others. Her open eyes stared blankly up at the bare whitewashed ceiling.

Hank's arm tightened around Joyce's shoulder as they stared at their daughter in silence.

"You need rest, darling. Let me drive you home," he murmured after a few moments.

She shook her head, barely able to see him for the tears streaming from her eyes. His presence was suddenly suffocating and she shirked his grip almost violently.

"How can you say that? We can't just leave her like this!" Joyce said in an angry whisper. Perhaps it was silly to keep her voice low but she had to believe that Buffy could still hear them and Joyce didn't want to upset her.

They'd put on a united front for Buffy's benefit, as if nothing had changed in the six years Buffy had been in this hospital. So Joyce had tolerated Hank's touches, his holding of her hand, been all supportive smiles and devoted wife and mother. It was a sham, but one she was willing to perpetuate for her daughter's health.

Now... now she couldn't stand the sight of him. The thought of being alone in a car with him made her stomach turn.

"There's nothing more we can do tonight. The Doctor said so himself."

She knew Hank was trying to be reasonable, and maybe he had a point, but Joyce wanted to lash out and, unfortunately, he was the nearest target. She was ready to do just that but when she saw the expression on his face, the sheer tiredness in his eyes, her anger deflated to nothing. She sighed, and sat in the chair beside Buffy's bed.

"Just go then," Joyce said in a resigned tone. "I'll call you tomorrow."

She watched as he stooped to place a gentle kiss on Buffy's forehead. When he leaned in to do the same to Joyce, she turned her head away. She listened to his diminishing footsteps as he walked towards the door and then he was gone.

It was as if she could breathe a little freer now. With careful movements, as if she would startle her, Joyce took Buffy's hand in her own. The skin was clammy.

"Oh, Buffy," she said softly, "I wish you could see that you're all that matters to me in the world." She stopped herself from correcting that to "to us."

She and Hank had been living separate lives for a long time now. It was only during visiting hours that the wedding rings were slipped back into place and they adopted the charade of being husband and wife. They had decided that it was better for Buffy to have one constant in her life, something she could count on - Mom and Dad, together. After visits they were businesslike, arranging their next appointment to go to the hospital.

The deception would continue for as long as it needed to. Buffy had been in remission from her schizophrenic episode before and it could happen again. Joyce had to cling to that hope.

To accompany that thought, she squeezed Buffy's hand but there was no answering movement, only Buffy's dark unseeing eyes staring forward.

There was a soft knock on the door, startling Joyce from pensiveness. She glanced over her shoulder to see a nurse opening the door.

"Sorry to disturb you. Time for her meds."

"Oh," Joyce said, a little flustered. "I quite forgot the time. Should I be going?"

The nurse looked at her watch and smiled. "Well, technically visiting time is over but, nah, I won't tell if you won't."

Joyce gave a weak, grateful smile and watched the nurse as she went about her duties, administering the drugs that would reportedly help Buffy get better. Sometimes Joyce suspected they only made her illness worse.

She was vaguely aware of the nurse watching her through the corner of her eye. For the first time since she'd entered the room, Joyce really took notice of her. She was around Buffy's age, a little taller, and dark haired with dark eyes. Although in traditional white nursing apparel, the young woman seemed at odds with this sterile, clinical place.

"Are you a relative?" the nurse asked, as she poked a syringe into Buffy's arm.

Joyce tried to hide her wince. Needles had always made her squeamish. "Yes. I'm her mother."

The syringe was pulled out just as quickly once the contents had been injected into Buffy's vein. A small square bandage was taped over the point of entry. "This one's normally pretty feisty. Usually have a hell of a time trying to get her to take her meds." She paused and looked sadly down at Buffy. "I'm actually sorry to see her like this."

"Thank you," Joyce said, not quite sure what else to say.

The nurse backed slowly out of the room. "Look, I finish up in half an hour. You wanna grab a coffee in the cafeteria with me? You look like you could do with a pick-me-up."

Although Joyce's lips formed to make a polite refusal, somehow the word "yes" slipped out.

Half an hour dragged by but Joyce used the time to tell Buffy about the latest goings-on at the gallery - the new assistant she'd started, the latest shipments of African tribal pieces, and her most recent sales. As if Buffy lying here and Joyce rabbiting on was the most normal thing in the world.

As she was leaving, Joyce kissed Buffy as Hank had and tried to stop the inevitable tears from overflowing. Crying could wait 'til she was alone. She wanted to be strong, she had to be otherwise she might crack up too. Was that such an unkind, selfish thought?

The cafeteria was mostly empty when she arrived there, with only a few members of the night staff clustered around one table. It was too brightly lit and Joyce wanted to hide in a shadowy corner. Instead she took a seat at a table on the far side of the room, out of earshot of the staff.

She glanced at her watch. Dear God, quarter to eleven. Fatigue pressed behind her eyelids and she knew that her make-up had probably smudged, making her look like a raccoon. Running a hand through her hair, she realised it was tangled. Great, she thought, the bouffant from hell. She was considering leaving when she spotted the nurse striding through the cafeteria doors.

She was out of uniform, wearing jeans and a white vest, and stopped to exchange a few brief words with the other staff and, judging by the laughter, it was something coarse. Then she turned towards Joyce and acknowledged her with a wave, before heading up to the counter.

A minute later she brought two coffees over to where Joyce was sitting.

"Hope you like it black," the nurse said.

Joyce didn't but she was too tired and too polite to complain.

"Sorry I got delayed. This patient was freaking out, thought I was trying to poison him. Took a few swings at me. Damn orderlies are never around when you need them."

"Oh dear," Joyce said, mustering genuine concern for the young woman's safety. "Were you hurt?"

The nurse shrugged. "I managed to restrain him." She paused to gulp down some coffee, holding the cup in both hands and peering over the rim at Joyce. "I'm Faith, by the way."

"Joyce Summers," Joyce supplied. She looked at the woman, curiosity getting the better of her. "So, do you regularly care for my daughter? I always wonder if she's different when Hank and I aren't around."

"I'm pretty new here. I mostly work nights. That involves dishing out the medication and watching them while they're supposed to be sleeping." Faith stopped to reach into her purse and pull out a packet of cigarettes. "Do you mind?" When Joyce shook her head, Faith tipped the packet towards her, only for Joyce to shake her head again. So Faith took a cigarette and lit up, exhaling quickly. "I know, it's a dirty habit and as a medical professional I should know better but everyone has at least one vice, right? Anyway, I keep an eye on the patients at night and that tends to be when Buffy's at her most agitated. I guess she thinks she should be out killing those vampires and instead she's locked up."

Joyce was dismayed. It wasn't exactly what she'd wanted to hear. Faith took another puff on her cigarette and looked at Joyce speculatively.

"I guess you were thinking she might be more normal?" Faith said in a wry tone. "You know she's convinced I'm like her? A vampire slayer."

Joyce nodded, realisation slowly dawning. "I believe she's mentioned you once or twice." That was an understatement. There was a whole contrived story regarding rival slayers, a corrupt demonic mayor, a revenge plot, and a prison sentence. It had made Joyce's head spin when she'd first heard it. She'd had no idea Buffy's delusions were so richly detailed.

Faith smiled. "She's never stuck cutlery in my gut yet, but not for lack of trying."

There was an awkward silence, as Faith realised that Joyce was in no mood for inappropriate jokes. She reached across the table and gave Joyce's wrist a reassuring squeeze. "Look, I hear all kinds of stuff in here. And people - six months down the line, whatever - they do get better. Trust me, B will be checking out of here in no time."

Joyce stared down at Faith's hand resting on her skin. "She's been here six years," Joyce said quietly. "I just don't know -- "

The older woman stopped, on the verge of weeping again. She shielded her eyes with her hand and willed the tears away. She was not going to lose it in front of a stranger.

"Hey," Faith said gently, abandoning her cigarette in a nearby ashtray, "it's okay."

"It's not," Joyce insisted, almost petulantly. "I can't talk to my husband without starting an argument, my daughter is crazy and I -- I feel like such a failure." She gave a short, mirthless laugh and looked up at Faith. "I don't know why I'm telling you this."

It was ridiculous, unloading her problems on this poor girl. She bet Faith wished she'd never suggested coffee in the first place. Get a grip on yourself woman, Joyce mentally shook herself.

"Hank - is he your husband? The guy I saw leaving Buffy's room?"

"We're separated," Joyce nodded, as if that was a vitally important piece of information at this moment.

Faith played idly with her coffee cup. "Sorry. Well, actually, I'm not."

Joyce gave a surprised, quizzical look.

Pushing the coffee cup aside, Faith leaned forward on her elbows. "Feel free to tell me I'm right out of line here but, I've seen you around, and I think you're just about the hottest woman I ever saw. And you deserve so much better than a sleazebag who flirts with all the nurses while his wife and daughter are going through shit."

Taken aback, Joyce sat speechless for a while. Strangely, it was the sweetest thing anyone had said to her in a long time. Her cheeks were warm, both embarrassed and flattered at the same time. She took a sip of the hot, acrid coffee and felt the shot of caffeine jolt her back to herself, suddenly awake and clear-headed under the migraine inducing fluorescent lights.

"Before I make an ass of myself any further, I'm just gonna leave you my number. If you wanna meet up or just talk..." Faith shrugged. "If not, that's cool. Please, don't be offended."

Faith stood and pushed a folded up scrap of paper towards Joyce. With an awkward wave and a small parting smile, Faith left the cafeteria.

For a while Joyce sat there, not daring to pick up the piece of paper. A mental hospital was the last place she expected to get hit on. By a woman. And when she looked such a mess! She almost laughed out loud. Maybe the surroundings were getting to her but she was starting to feel a little delirious.

Right, home, bed, she instructed herself sternly. But before she went, she grabbed the phone number off the table and shoved it into her purse.

Tomorrow already seemed a little brighter.

Continued in Approaching Normal