Dark of Hearts
©2004 The Angst Guy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Daria and associated characters are ©2004 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: email@example.com
Synopsis: How would the third-season episode “Jake of Hearts” have gone if Jake’s father, Mad Dog Morgendorffer, were still alive? This twisted Daria/Tom shipper-fic from a dark alternate universe answers the question.
Author’s Notes: In late January 2003, MMan posted an Iron Chef challenge on PPMB called “Every Dog Has His Dotage.” He asked for alternate-universe stories in which “Mad Dog” Morgendorffer, Jake’s father, was still alive during the time of Daria’s high-school years in Lawndale. Mad Dog’s existence had to be a key part of the story. “Dark of Hearts” was my response to the challenge.
Acknowledgements: My thanks go out to MMan for his challenge.
It was hot and the air was dead, and the black dress created an itchy spot on Daria Morgendorffer’s back that she could not reach. After bearing it for many long minutes as the minister droned on about loss and grief and renewal, she tensed her shoulders and gently rubbed her back against the pew to ease it. It helped only a bit. She sighed and let it go. The itch, like almost everything else today, was not important. It could be borne for a while longer.
The choir began “Amazing Grace” when the minister finished. Daria had never been particularly religious, but she listened dutifully in the unlikely event the words had some meaning for her on this day. In the end, she concluded they did not. Wretched she was, as well as her mother and sister, but of redemption there was no sign. Still, she could bear that, too. She was expected to sit, stand, or walk when the moment called for it; nothing else would be asked of her. It would be a simple day.
I wish Tom were here, she thought.
Her hands lay open in her lap as the choir sang. A bead of sweat ran down the side of her face to her chin. The overhead fans and air conditioning were not up to dealing with an overflowing congregation on a clear spring day. Daria glanced to her right at her mother, who sat straight up in the pew in her own black dress, with pearl earrings and necklace, her wedding and engagement rings, a red rose in her fingers. To Daria’s surprise, her mother’s gaze was dry, steady and strong. Except for that terrible moment during Tuesday dinner, four days ago, and later that night in the ER waiting room when the doctor gave them the final news, her mother had not cried at all.
Daria’s sister Quinn, however, had never stopped crying. Indeed, she wept even now. Quinn sat on the opposite side of their mother from Daria, one hand clutching their mother’s hand and the other hand wiping her eyes and nose with a soggy handkerchief. Even in her misery with a minimum of makeup, Quinn looked stunning. Her best friend, Sandi Griffin, sat on Quinn’s other side with her chin up, watching the choir. She seemed to pay no attention to Quinn’s tears, but her rigid face betrayed her strain.
Daria felt a thin, strong hand reach across her lap and take one of her hands as the song drew to a close. She turned her head just enough to see the large blue eyes of her only friend looking back at her. Daria looked down at once, but she squeezed Jane Lane’s hand in gratitude. Unlike Sandi, Jane did not look stoic. Her expression reflected the inside of Daria’s soul.
The minister said a few more words, then two of the ushers walked to the front of the church and carefully lowered the lid on the oak-paneled casket. It was a pretty casket, and Daria admired the purple silk pillows and lining as the lid came down. She then looked one last time on the face of her father, then the lid was sealed and he was gone. Quinn sobbed audibly. Their mother swallowed but looked steadily onward. He looked like he was asleep, Daria thought. He looked so much better than he did Tuesday night when I wiped guacamole from his face with my hands and tried to give him mouth-to-mouth, while Quinn stood in the background and screamed, and Mom shouted at the 911 operator as if this were all the operator’s fault. I tried to bring him back, but he had already left us. He looked good now, though. At least there’s that.
She watched the casket be rolled out of the chapel through a side door. I wish you had been with us more when you were alive, she thought to the casket’s occupant. I wish you had spent some real time with us, time when you were not yelling at Mad Dog on the phone or yelling about him to the rest of us. I knew so little of you, and now it is done, and on I will go wherever that leads me. But I wish you had been with me for a little while. I would have liked to know you. It is my darkest fear, however, that I did.
I wish I knew if you had ever loved me. I wish I could hear those words from someone, someday.
I wish Tom were here.
The service concluded. One of the ushers motioned to the Morgendorffers to rise and accompany him up the center aisle and out of the chapel. Helen Morgendorffer calmly rose to her feet, holding Quinn by the hand. Jane rose with Daria, and Sandi with Quinn. Daria looked around and saw her four aunts, her cousins, her mother’s parents—and her father’s: Grandma Ruth and bent, white-haired Mad Dog.
Mad Dog was all that anyone in the family ever called him, at his own insistence. He hated to be called Grandpa or Dad, or addressed by his real name. If you forgot and called him something he didn’t like, he turned away and would not speak to you for the rest of the day. Mad Dog, that was how he wanted to be remembered. It was his Army nickname. He had been in the service for only two years during the Second World War, working as a supply clerk at a post in Arizona, so how he got the name Mad Dog was anyone’s guess, though he did have a bad temper. He’s mellowed, Grandma Ruth always said, so Mad Dog must have been a real bastard in his younger days.
Daria followed her mother out of the chapel. They walked past Mad Dog and Grandma Ruth, but Daria did not look at either one. It was Mad Dog who had driven her father to the grave, Daria knew, Mad Dog’s constant harassment that brought on her father’s fatal heart attack, but she felt no animosity toward Mad Dog over it. It was just the way life was. She did not like it, but she felt there was nothing she could do about it, so she let it go.
A black limousine drove the Morgendorffers, Jane, and Sandi to the cemetery. Daria did not later remember the ride. It was as hot at the cemetery as it had been in the church, and no breeze stirred the air. Daria thought she saw heat ripples coming from the tops of nearby tombstones as her father’s coffin was lowered into the earth.
The service at the gravesite ended. The crowd broke up. Daria found herself alone with Jane, and she turned to her friend.
“Do you think puppets would help?” she asked.
Jane blinked. “What?”
“You said puppets could make anything funny. Could they make this funny?”
Jane stared at Daria for a long moment, then put her arms around her best friend and pulled her close.
“I wish Tom were here,” Daria said. She felt Jane stiffen briefly, but she gave Daria an extra squeeze before letting her go.
“I think we’re going back to the church for lunch,” said Jane. She never talked about Tom. Daria knew why, but it did not bother her.
Daria looked after the rest of her family. “I guess I could eat something,” she said.
“Good,” said Jane. She kept her arm around Daria’s waist. Daria did not object and gave in to her friend’s urging to walk back to the limousine. She turned around once to look back at her father’s grave. A backhoe and three workmen waited nearby to fill all the dirt in once the tent was taken down. Beside the grave stood Mad Dog and Grandma Ruth in silence, looking down at their son’s casket at the bottom of a ten-foot pit of red clay. Grandma Ruth wiped her eyes with a handkerchief. Mad Dog stood there and did nothing.
I could push him in, Daria thought as she looked back at Mad Dog. I could run back and push him in.
She turned away instead and got in the limousine and went to the church, where she ate fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and a slice of apple pie. Helen had lot of coffee and a chocolate cupcake. Quinn ate nothing, a stone figure surrounded by her high-school classmates. Mad Dog and Ruth did not stay, leaving for their home right after they left the cemetery. No one missed them.
After getting home that night, Daria left the house with Jane and went for a walk. Their path seemed aimless at first, but eventually Jane sighed and looked reluctant to continue in the direction they were heading. They were at an intersection across from Lawndale High School, where they attended eleventh grade.
“Where are we going?” Jane asked, though Daria could tell Jane knew where they were going.
“I just want to see him for a little,” said Daria. “I won’t be long. Want to come?”
Jane groaned, then pulled on Daria’s arm and turned her around to give her a long hug. “I can’t go with you,” she said. “I just can’t. Don’t be gone long. Call me when you get home, okay?”
“Okay,” said Daria.
“Promise you won’t be long. Five minutes with Tom, ten max, then come home. Promise me.”
Jane gave her friend a last hug, then let her go. She watched Daria cross the street with the light, then walk off along the side of the high school to the east. When Daria disappeared around the side of the high school building, Jane turned and left. “Damn it,” she muttered, kicking a pebble. “God damn it to hell.”
Daria walked across the school grounds toward the athletic fields. Beyond them were the wealthier subdivisions, from Crewe Neck to the individual estates of Lawndale’s elite.
She was not going there, however. She walked to the football field, where the Lawndale Lions were having scrimmage practice to keep in shape for the traditional end-of-school-year game with the Oakwood Taproots. Football was next to godliness in Lawndale, Daria always said, if one wasn’t choosy about the quality of one’s gods. She stood off to the side of the field, looking over the players, coaches, and students and parents watching from the stands.
“Daria?” She turned and saw Brittany Taylor, the blonde head cheerleader. Brittany walked over with a distressed look and hugged Daria, though Daria did not hug back. “I am so sorry to hear about your dad,” she said. “Is the funeral over?”
“Yeah,” said Daria. “Is Tom around?”
Brittany let go of Daria and regarded her with a strange look of sadness and pity. “He’s back in the office, in the home team locker room,” she said. “You’d better call before you go in. He might . . . he might be busy.”
“Thanks.” Daria started off in that direction.
Daria turned. Brittany tried to say something, but in the end she just waved and wiped at her eyes. “Take care,” she said.
The home-team locker room smelled as bad as could be expected, but Daria was almost used to it now. “Tom?” she called. “Tom, are you back there?”
“What?” a man shouted back. “Who’s out there?”
The man laughed explosively, then stopped. “All right! My Lucky Charm! Wait out there, okay? I was havin’ a conference ‘bout the next game. Gimme a sec, okay?”
Daria waited until a senior cheerleader walked past her, clutching a clipboard with a red face. The cheerleader did not look at Daria. Daria did not look at her.
“Come on back, Lucky Charm!” called the man. Daria went through the locker room to the door marked: TOMMY SHERMAN, ASSISTANT FOOTBALL COACH.
“Hey, Lucky Charm!” said the muscular Tommy Sherman. His voice was nasal thanks to his badly healed broken nose. He bent down and gave Daria a sloppy wet kiss with tongue. He smelled a little bit like a cheerleader’s perfume. His right hand gave one of her breasts a quick squeeze. She let him do it. “Where the hell you been?” he said “I thought you’d come watch practice today. I was waitin’ and waitin’ for you. What happened?”
Daria found it hard to speak. “I was . . . I was out with Mom and Quinn, at the—”
“Oh! Oh, yeah, right, your dad croaked. Right, I forgot about that. The funeral was today, right? Damn, sorry I couldn’t make it, you know? We got this game comin’ up, and if we don’t win, Ms. Li said she’d croak me, too. Yeah, like she really could croak old Tommy Sherman, right? Heh! That’d be the day. Nobody’ll croak Tommy Sherman while you’re around, right?”
Daria nodded her head, looking down.
Tommy’s hand came up under her chin and pulled her gaze up to meet his. “I never forgot what you did for me, you know? You followed me out to the field that day I came back to Lawndale High, and you kept me from walkin’ right up under that football goal when it broke and fell over. It coulda killed me, but you were there. You’re my Lucky Charm, right? I’ll never forget my Lucky Charm, and you know it!”
A smile came to Daria’s face. “Thank you, Tom,” she said. It was as close to saying “love” as Tommy ever got. It was as close to “love” as seventeen-year-old Daria had ever heard from a man. It was good enough for her.
“That weirdo friend of yours isn’t still mad at me, is she?”
“You mean Jane?”
“Whatever. I didn’t make a pass at her, if that’s what she told you. I wouldn’t go out with a chick like her unless I was well into a kegger, you know? And I wouldn’t do it anyway, so she’s lying if she said I said anything, okay?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Look, I gotta ask you somethin’, all right?” said Tommy.
“Sure,” she said.
“How come you stick around with a guy like me?” Tommy almost laughed but went on. “I mean, yeah, I’m a chick magnet, I know that, and I got this cushy job from Principal Li on account of bein’ a hero and all that, but you—I mean, you’re kind of like this brainy misery chick, you know, and I can’t see how someone like you could hang around with someone awesomely cool like me, you know? I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re okay, ‘cause you’re like my Lucky Charm after you kept me from getting’ killed, but—how come you wanna hang around a guy like me?”
Daria’s brown eyes looked up into Tommy’s face, as his cold gray eyes and broken nose and long-battered face.
“You remind me of my father,” she said.
“The dead guy?” Tommy laughed aloud. “Oh, man, sorry, you threw me there! That was weird! I remind you of your father? Was he like some kind of football hero?”
“No.” Daria shrugged. “You just do.”
“Hey, whatever. Look, let’s take a few minutes and do something to cheer you up, okay?” Tommy pulled off his tee shirt and tossed it aside. “I know just the thing that’ll get you cheered up again, okay? Trust in Tommy to get you set right.”
Daria looked around. “Won’t someone come in?”
“Hell, no, everyone knows to leave old Tommy Sherman alone when he’s got company, you know that!” He hooked a finger into the top of Daria’s orange T-shirt, under her green jacket, and pulled her closer. “Get comfortable, Lucky Charm. Make Tommy Sherman a happy man, the way you know I like. Then I gotta run and meet the boys for some beers tonight, get tanked! Whew, I deserve a break after this day!”
Making Tom happy was not what she wanted to do, but he could be insistent, and at least it would take her mind off the funeral. And maybe it would get Tommy Sherman closer to the day when he said he loved her. It would be nice to have someone say that he loved her. No one else ever had.
“Okay, Tom,” said Daria. She was breaking her promise to Jane, but she hoped her friend would understand. She thought of the hymn the choir had sung in church. The lyrics went through her head as she undressed and Tommy reached for her. I once was lost, but now I’m found. . . . I once was lost but now I’m found. . . . I once was lost—
Original: 02/07/04, modified 10/28/04