Almost Strangers in the Night
©2004 The Angst Guy (email@example.com)
Daria and associated characters are ©2004 MTV Networks
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Synopsis: A short Quinn/Upchuck shipper-fic. No, seriously. Look, it was Brother Grimace’s idea, so go blame him.
Author's Notes: Brother Grimace, bless his heart, issued a personal Iron Chef challenge to me in July 2004, to write a short romance-type story (shipper-fic) involving Quinn Morgendorffer and the notorious Upchuck (Charles Ruttheimer III). They had to be kept in character and made sympathetic, and the story time could not exceed one day. [sigh] This story was finished in the following month.
This story was written with information gleamed from the helpful essay, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Transportation in Daria,” by Daniel T. Dey, at Outpost Daria (www.outpost-daria.com); from many episode scripts and stills from various websites; from numerous websites about the 1966 Buick Wildcat (“Rrrowrr!”); and from the map of the Mall of the Millennium from The Daria Diaries. The “Daria” episodes “The Invitation” and “I Loathe a Parade” (and TV movies Is It Fall Yet? and Is It College Yet?) form the groundwork for this tale. Also, Please Understand Me: Character & Temperament Types, by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates, was invaluable for helping me to understand Upchuck (an ESFP type, through and through—see for yourself!).
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Brother Grimace for the challenging challenge.
“Please allow me!” Charles Ruttheimer III opened the car door like a gentleman, of course, and he waited until Quinn Morgendorffer was comfortably settled and no part of her anatomy risked being caught when the door was shut. He then walked around and got in on the driver’s side. “Comfortable, my sweet?” he asked as he buckled in.
“Gawd, I hope no one saw me here with you,” Quinn grumbled, fastening her safety belt. “It would totally ruin me in this state.”
“You have nothing to fear, my crimson-haired angel.” Upchuck stuck the key in the ignition and started the car. The V8 engine roared to healthy, bone-rumbling life. “We left through the service entrance of the mall, as you wished, and the veil of night is falling across the eastern seaboard. Our secret rendezvous is safe. If not, however, let people say what they will. Only jealousy moves their tongues.”
“Listen,” said Quinn, turning in her seat and giving Upchuck a non-nonsense glare. “Here are the ground rules. One—”
“I am your slave to command, Miss Morgendorffer.” He backed the car out of the parking space, then headed for the mall exit and the Interstate beyond.
“—one,” Quinn went on, “if you so much as touch me, you’ll get a face full of pepper spray, I’ll trigger my purse siren, I’ll dial nine-one-one on my cell phone, I’ll scream out the window until the police pull you over, and then I’ll tell my mom and you’ll really be in trouble!”
“Ooo, a challenge indeed! Be still, my heart! Rrrowrr!”
“Two, the only reason I’m in the car with you is to go home, and that’s all that’s going to happen, right? You’re taking me home, and that’s it! It’s not a date! It’s a ride home! Got it?”
“Call it what you like, my fair one.” He slowed and stopped at the last stoplight before the Interstate on-ramp. “You’re in for a ride, and a thrilling one it will be!” He swept a hand at the windshield, indicating the hood and engine. “Can you hear this baby purr, my feisty kitten? You are being transported in such style as most women only dream of.”
“Give me a break, Upchuck! This car is older than my dad! You don’t even have buttons to roll the windows up!”
“Tut-tut! This exquisite beauty hails from nineteen sixty-six, a very fine year for Buick Wildcats. That silver handle on your door, if turned around, will take care of the window. If you want, I can put the top down and we can sail with the night wind playing over our upturned faces.”
“No! Someone will see me for sure, then!” Quinn hunched down in her seat. “Do you have something I can put over my head, like a paper sack?”
“The engine of this marvel is a Wildcat four sixty-five, the hottest of the hot. It was purchased and installed at no small cost to myself, though with inadvertent financial help from my father, who lacks in poker ability what he makes up for in monetary resources. Three hundred sixty horsepower, capable of taking two young lovers to the ends of the earth and—dare I say it?—far, far beyond.”
“And I can’t believe you painted it hot pink! I mean it’s . . . augh! What am I doing in here?”
“You are being driven home following an unfortunate loss of a previous ride, I believe. The Mall of the Millennium is in our past, and ahead, somewhere on the other side of that hog-carrying tractor-trailer, is the future. You might wish to roll up your window, my lovely, and I will put on the air conditioner. The smell from the truck might prove to be—”
“Oh, ewww!” Quinn rolled up her window in seconds. “Why can’t they keep disgusting animals on the farm and away from everyone else? That is so gross! How can anyone stand it?”
“As the man said when he kissed his mistress’s black leather boots, it’s all a matter of taste. So, to lighten our two-hour ride home, perhaps you could tell me—”
“Two hours? We’re just an hour and a half away! Hey, speed up! You’re going only fifty!”
Upchuck sighed and increased the car’s speed to seventy. “Miss Morgendorffer, you have only to ask, and your wish will come true.”
“I want it quiet, then! Don’t even talk to me!”
“So be it. I shall listen in rapture to the ethereal music of your breathing.”
Upchuck was good as his word, though for the next fifteen minutes he did tend to hum romantic Broadway and movie show tunes. He was in the middle of “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic when Quinn said, “This is the car you drove in that homecoming parade a couple years ago, isn’t it?”
“Bull’s-eye, my delightful Amazon of memory! This is indeed the ‘Love Machine’ of fable and legend, though it has come a long way since then.”
Quinn made an ick face. “You had those blow-up dolls in the back—”
“Companions, mon cheri. They were dear companions who, alas, are with me no more. They had leaks and would not stay inflated. Yet, while they lived, they and I were the swinging royalty of Lawndale, if only in my imagination.” He sighed and looked wistful. “I was young, but they were so full of promise.”
A shudder went through Quinn. “Gawd, I don’t know why they had to put your vehicle so close to the Fashion Club’s float.”
“A happy error that quite made the day for me. Ah, the memories.” After a moment, he reached over and turned on the radio. Mozart filled the air.
“Oh, please,” said Quinn, “can’t we listen to something besides violin music by dead people?”
“Ah, but this is a classic station, and that is the music of the ages. I confess to a certain weakness for Mozart, though most of the time I prefer more current fare. And speaking of current times, you did not tell me how you came to be stranded at the Mall of the Millennium as you were. Would your limousine not start?”
Quinn exhaled heavily. “It wasn’t that. I don’t want to talk about it.” She gestured at the radio. “Can’t you get some real music on there?”
“Anything for a lady.” He punched a button, and a Top 40 song came on, the volume lowered to avoid interfering with conversation. “It sounds as if you were the victim of a cad, though I find that impossible to believe. One such as you would never associate with lowlifes.”
She shot Upchuck a did-you-hear-what-you-just-said glance, then rolled her eyes and looked out the side window. They drove in silence for another minute.
“It was Corey,” she said, sounding tired. “We sort of had a fight.”
Upchuck’s eyebrows raised. “I cannot believe that,” he said, indignant. “Every man in Lawndale is as agreeable as home-baked pie in your magnificent presence.”
“Well, you can believe it. What a jerk! We came out of a movie, and he made such a scene and called . . . he was just a jerk! I could have killed him! And then he told me he’d had to go to the restroom, and he went out to the parking lot instead and drove away! He left me!” She hissed through her teeth. “Oh, when I get home, I’m going to—”
“All is clear now,” said Upchuck thoughtfully. “He made demands on mademoiselle that were outrageous and unwanted, and in spurning him you gained his ire. I see it all.”
Quinn frowned and looked at Upchuck. “Spurning?”
“You rejected his advances! The sad tale is written across your face for all the world to see.”
Silent now, she looked away.
“He was a boor,” Upchuck continued. “When he should have been content with the gift of your beauty and charm, he—”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
He nodded, and they drove in silence again for another minute.
“How did you know what he did?” Quinn finally asked. “Were you spying on us, or what?”
Upchuck suppressed a smile. “I was busy this evening with the evening gown pageant by the Fountain Full of Pennies on the third level, across from the Ladies’ Lounge. My talents as MC are known far and wide. I did not need to spy to know from your expression what had happened.”
“We saw you there at the pageant when we were going up the escalators.”
He sighed with bliss. “It was a night to remember. I was surrounded by feminine pulchritude of the highest order—at least, until you got into the car with me, which set a new standard altogether.”
“I’ve been in a car with you before.”
“I recall, yes, when I gave you, your sister, and Miss Lane a ride home from Brittany’s party several years ago in my father’s Volvo. It was one of the high points of my sophomore year.”
“So, who won?”
“The evening gown contest.”
“Oh, it wasn’t a real contest. It was a fashion show put on by the department stores and a few others. It paid handsomely, but the company of the ladies was payment enough.”
Quinn snorted. “Why didn’t you just give the money back, then?”
“I do have my financial needs, and the ‘Love Machine’ has an unquenchable thirst for gasoline and oil. Hardly as unquenchable as my own thirsts, but—we must carry on as best we can.”
Quinn rolled her eyes again. “And you do carry on.”
He grinned. “It is in my blood,” he said with a theatric flourish. “I celebrate life, Miss Morgendorffer, so that it may celebrate me. It is so much better than the alternative. Better to be Don Quixote than a drab, empty suit behind a desk all my life.” He looked at her as he drove. “Don’t you feel the same way, my fellow flame-haired one?”
“Feel what way?”
“That there is more to life than this.” He again waved a hand at the window and the darkening landscape beyond. “We are both redheads, overflowing with our passions, dominated by our desires. Don’t you feel, as I do, that you were destined for greater things than dreary old Lawndale?”
“Of course I do!” Quinn shook her head violently. “Damn, I shouldn’t even be talking to you.”
“We are merely passing the time, nothing more. It is—” He peered at a green Interstate road sign looming out of the darkness “—eighty-nine miles to go until home is reached. And twelve miles to the near rest area.”
She blew out her breath. “I shouldn’t have gone out with him. I thought he would turn out to be a jerk.”
“So many men are like that,” Upchuck sympathized. “They are after only one thing, and it is not a maiden’s heart.”
“He made me so damn mad.”
“It was not your fault.”
“If I kill him for leaving me there at the mall, it will be.”
“What is it you want more than anything else in the entire world?”
“What?” Quinn stared at him, caught off-guard by the change in topic. “What do I want more than anything?”
Upchuck nodded, watching the road.
“Oh, man.” She shook her head slowly. “I have no idea. I have no freaking idea at all.”
“Fashion model for fur coats, swimwear, and lingerie?”
“No, I want . . . I don’t know, maybe go into business or something. I think about that sometimes. I like what my mom does, working in an office, only I don’t want to be a lawyer, I want to be in charge of things instead of reporting to someone else, and I’d never let anyone boss me around over the phone in the middle of dinner.” A pause. “Not even Sandi. I’d be my own boss.”
“That you will,” said Upchuck with certainty. “That you will, and men will throw themselves at your feet and beg for your orders.”
“No, they won’t.”
Upchuck hesitated, then looked at Quinn in puzzlement. “Eh?”
“They won’t throw themselves at my feet.” She took a deep breath. “I’ve got my limits, and they know it. They’re getting tired of me around here, and frankly, I’m getting tired of them, too. Like taking me to a restaurant and movie, then buying me flowers and scrunchies and little stuffed bears means that I have to . . . to . . . I just have my limits, that’s all.” Her voice rose to a shout. “They know it, and if they don’t like it, they can shove it!” Quinn reached in the purse between her feet and pulled out a small tissue to wipe her eyes. “So, in answer to your question or something, I don’t know what I want to do after graduation. Let’s don’t talk anymore.”
“As you wish.” Upchuck was lost in thought as he drove. A few minutes passed before he said, “Forgive me for upsetting you, my dear. I meant no harm.”
Quinn sighed, slumped in her seat. “It’s okay.” A moment later, she said, “So, where are you going?”
“To your home, as we agreed—unless you want to go somewhere more interesting.”
“No, that’s not what I meant. Where are you going to college?”
“Ah! Is there life after high school? Indeed! In but a few short weeks, I am scheduled to appear at the ivy-covered doors of Chicago’s Lloyd University, at the college of business, with all my worldly possessions. There I hope to unlock the secrets of my entrepreneurial potential, make a few billion before graduation, then retire and travel the world. If I am lucky, I will die in the arms of the world’s most beautiful woman, and her husband will never have his revenge. That’s the plan, anyway.”
Quinn found herself smiling as she looked at Upchuck. “I can’t believe you.”
“What can’t you believe, my burning cinnamon gem?”
She laughed. “You . . . I don’t know how to say it. You come off like this terminally horny, romantic guy, and it’s just so . . . so . . .”
“Overwhelming? Mind blowing? Seductive?”
“No, it’s funny! Oops, I didn’t mean—”
He grinned. “No, funny is good! The fairer sex always treasures a sense of humor. Whatever works!”
Quinn shook her head. A smile crept over her lips. “I have to ask you something, Charles.”
Upchuck could not help but smile, too. She had called him Charles. Charles! “Ask me anything at all.”
“Doesn’t . . . doesn’t anything ever get you down?”
He sighed. “Oh, once in a while, but the cruelties of certain teachers like the man-hating Ms. Barch are behind me now. There might be other potholes in the highway of love and adventure, but why dwell on them? Possibilities abound, and I come equipped with my own emotional shock absorbers. If one avenue of amour is closed off, thousands more await. If a damsel chooses to not go out with me today, she might tomorrow, or else her sister or cousin might wish to sample my wares, so to speak. One never knows what a woman will do.” He sighed again, adrift in memory. “One never knows.”
Quinn shifted in her seat. “I wish I could do that.”
“Be optimistic like that, no matter what happened.”
“But why should someone like you, of all people, suffer the ravages of melancholy?” said Upchuck in a puzzled tone. “You have your fierce beauty, and with that you can—”
Quinn made a strange sound, and Upchuck stopped at once. “I said something wrong?” he asked.
“You don’t understand,” she said in a low voice, looking out the side window. “You don’t understand at all.”
He started to speak, thought better of it, and kept driving. They passed a rest area, went over a bridge, and cruised through dark countryside.
“Being beautiful doesn’t do it,” Quinn said, her voice hard. “I’m naturally cute, and I’d be cute even if I fell face-down in the mud, but that’s not it. That’s . . . the truth is, being beautiful doesn’t get you anything.”
Upchuck blinked, his mouth open in astonishment.
“I’m serious,” Quinn went on. “I can’t tell you how many boys look at me, and all they see is the outside of me. They don’t see anything else, nothing else.”
Seeing an opening, Upchuck said on impulse, “Like the Quinn who would run her own business.”
“Yes!” Quinn’s shout caused Upchuck to jump. “That’s it! They don’t see that! They don’t see the inside me! Only one guy in all my life ever saw a little bit of the real me, the inside me, and he—” To Upchuck’s further amazement, her voice broke and she put a hand over her mouth. He was sure he saw a tear run down her cheek.
“Oh,” said Upchuck, having nothing else to say. She had been hurt. He knew this was the critical moment, the time to Say the Right Thing and Win Her Heart—but he didn’t know what that thing was. Frustrated, he thought and thought. “I don’t know what to say,” he finally admitted.
Quinn wiped her eyes again, then put the tissue away. “You don’t have to say anything. Just forget it.”
“No,” he said, “that’s not what I meant.” He talked without thinking. “You have a whole world inside you, waiting to be seen, but when you show it, they still don’t see it.”
“I think he saw it, but . . . it just wasn’t enough.”
This was a very strange conversation, he thought. “Does he go to Lawndale?”
“No, no. He was in college, going into his sophomore year. He was my tutor last year for the summer, and he helped me with my schoolwork a little. Well, a lot, really. I liked him.” She stopped, then added, “I liked him liked him.”
“I tried to . . . he really helped me a lot, and I kind of . . . it just didn’t work.”
“He brought something out of you, something new,” said Upchuck, having an insight. “He—”
“Exactly!” said Quinn. “That’s exactly it! He brought out a side of me I didn’t know existed. I could be smart, a little, and it was okay. It was even kind of fun. He showed me it was good to read a little and know stuff like history instead of just fashion all the time. I’m not a brain like—well, like my sister, Daria, but I can know stuff like she does, too.”
“He saw inside you.” He rolled his eyes, hoping Quinn didn’t catch the accidental double entendre.
“He did.” Her face tightened, and she was silent for a moment. “It wasn’t enough, though. He wouldn’t go out with me. He was in college, and he said . . . well, it doesn’t matter what he said. He turned me down and left. It was awful.”
“Ah. We are not talking about a cad, then, but—”
“No.” Her voice fell low. “He just didn’t like me.”
“Now, surely he must have liked you in order to work with you as he did.”
“I mean, he didn’t like me as a partner. A date.”
“My rubescent delight, as I said before, there’s no accounting for tastes. A fine man he might be, but a year ago you were, dare I say it, underage. Perhaps he was merely being a gentleman until you turned eighteen.”
Quinn shook her head, looking out the windshield at the night. “No, it wasn’t that. He . . . oh, hell, he said I lacked depth, something like that. He said I was shallow.” They drove in silence for a space before Quinn added, “He was right, I guess. I knew all along I wasn’t deep or anything, but . . . no one had ever said it like that. He didn’t even look at the outer me. He went straight to what was underneath, and . . . nothing there.”
Upchuck sensed that it was important to say something. Again, he had no idea what the right thing was. He shrugged and plunged in. “Yet it is obvious you are bright,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “You have ambitions beyond the common, especially if you want to be on the top in your business instead of, um, underneath. And, if I may say so again, a year ago you were—how old?”
“Um, sixteen. My birthday was in May.”
“There it is!” he said, waving a hand. “A college man, nineteen or twenty, and a young woman in high school. You have depth, but your depth is awakening, developing, deepening! It was rude of him to point it out, true, but if he’d had any great depth himself, he would have seen your infinite promise.”
She snorted gently, not looking at him. “Maybe he did, and it wasn’t there.”
“Miss Morgendorffer, I pride myself on being a good—nay, an unexcelled judge of character. If I am in the mood for a jest, I know who I can tease and who I should avoid until a later day. My animal instincts have kept me out of trouble on many occasions—well, most of the time, anyway. Nonetheless, I can read other people like teleprompters, and you have no idea of the talents you have. If this tutor has done nothing else, he has shown you what could be beyond being beautiful. Pleasant to the eyes you are, but you are a whole world, an undiscovered land. You are as deep as deep can get.”
He glanced at her. She was looking at her hands in her lap.
“I hope I meet someone,” she whispered, “one of these days, who sees the real me and wants it.”
Upchuck opened his mouth—and carefully closed it. In a strange flash of awareness, he knew at that moment that he would not be the man who saw the real Quinn in all her glory. It was painful, but he accepted it. She was gorgeous to the point that it ached to look at her. Yet she was something more, too.
He surrendered. “Whoever that person is,” he said at last, “he will be the luckiest man on Earth.”
She was quiet after that for a long time. Upchuck began to fear he’d said the wrong thing—but then Quinn asked him about his college interests, and he told her about his planned double major in broadcasting and business. She talked about her father, a consultant, and that she wanted to get a job in which she was paid to give fashion advice—only she would be more successful than her dad, because she knew fashion inside and out. And her father was a bit of a nutcase at times, too. The conversation drifted to families, and Quinn talked about her parents, then Upchuck about his, traveling from his father’s home to his mother’s since their divorce in his infancy. He was used to it, and it helped that they both lived in Lawndale. Their mutual animosity was a problem, but he was good at deflecting such talk to more entertaining subjects. Keeping his battling parents entertained had been the core of his whole life.
As they drove, Upchuck and Quinn did not talk much about dating. Quinn was still stung from being dumped, and Upchuck did not want to admit he had dated only one woman—a Goth classmate named Andrea, who had taken him up when he made a pass at her at a graduation party. They had parted when she moved to California to go to college there, but the affair had been an eye-opener. He hoped to keep in touch with her. Andrea was a volcano; if one day she burned him up, it would be worth it.
The Interstate signs announced their proximity to Lawndale and home. The talk faded as the car turned down the off-ramp to the road in. Eventually, the Buick Wildcat came to a stop in the driveway of the Morgendorffer residence. It was dark all around.
“Allow me!” he said, getting out of the car. Hurrying to her side, he opened the door for her as she got out. He started to follow her to the house—but stopped himself. Going for a goodnight kiss seemed out of place after their long, soul-sharing conversations. Another time, he told himself. Another time.
“Have a good night, my lady,” he said, bowing slightly, “and I hope you have a much better tomorrow.”
“Thanks.” Quinn turned, scanning the empty neighborhood, then looked back at him. “I really appreciate you taking me home like this.” She swallowed. “And for talking to me. That sort of helped.”
“It was nothing, for someone as wonderful as you,” he replied. He shut the car door and stood there, suddenly nervous. “Well,” he said, sweeping a hand to her house, “good night.”
Without a word, she walked up and put her arms around him—just for a moment, but it was a solid hug. Stunned, he heard his heart pounding through his ears like a bass drum. He had the presence of mind to give her a gentle hug back before she pulled away and hurried to the front door of the house. She opened the door with a key, ran inside, and shut it after her. She never once looked back.
Crickets chirped. A truck rumbled by in the distance. Her perfume lingered in the warm night air. It was heaven.
Before long, Upchuck got back in the Buick and started it. She would not ever be seen with him again, he knew, much less ever date him, but it was not necessary. He had seen beyond the surface of a beautiful young woman, and she had gained something from it. And she had seen something in him beyond the Upchuck everyone else know, a thing he had not known was there, and she had rewarded him for it.
He closed his eyes and again felt her arms around him, her face pressed to his chest, her red hair tickling his nose.
“Rrrowrr,” he whispered, and then drove home.
Original: 08/05/04, modified 11/19/04