©2004 The Angst Guy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Daria and associated characters are ©2004 MTV Networks
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Synopsis: Daria Morgendorffer hears the story about Howard the duck (not that Howard the Duck) in this third-season tale that explains why Trent Lane will not go into a bookstore. A little shipperiness and angst included.
Author’s Notes: Early in December 2003, Mahna Mahna posted an Iron Chef challenge (“Bookstoraphobia”) to explain why, in the second-season episode “Pierce Me,” Trent says he cannot “set foot in a bookstore” but refuses to explain further. The Iron Chef story had to include three other elements as well, these being a ‘68 Chevy, a gift certificate, and a duck. It took almost three months to come up with a story. Here it is.
Acknowledgements: Thank you, Mahna Mahna, for the clever challenge.
When Daria Morgendorffer got to Jane Lane’s house that Saturday afternoon, hoping for a pleasant walk to the Books By The Ton outlet store, Jane’s older brother Trent was the one who answered the door. He wore only a pair of faded blue jeans and sandals. Blue Maori tattoos stood out through the dark hair covering his shoulders, arms, and chest, and he was chewing on a toothpick.
“Oh,” said Trent in his low, rough voice. He took the toothpick from his mouth. “Hey, Daria. What’s up?” He ran a hand through his tangled black hair as he looked down at the diminutive, brown-haired figure who was his little sister’s eleventh-grade classmate and best friend.
“Umph,” said Daria, her face burning furiously as she tried not to stare at Trent’s naked chest. She adjusted her large round glasses and pointed vaguely into the house, her gaze darting everywhere but continuing to come back to his lean upper-body musculature. “Um . . .”
“Yeah, Janey’s here,” Trent said easily, “but she’s, uh, kind of indisposed or something. Come on in.” He pushed the door open. “She’ll be out of the bathroom eventually. She likes to read in there. Good for her mind.”
Trent waved and walked off to the kitchen, leaving Daria to close the front door. She stared after him, noting how low his blue jeans rode on his narrow hips, and her face got even redder. Coordinating her limbs took major effort under these trying conditions, and she tripped and almost fell while walking across the worn carpet. Luckily, her best friend’s older brother did not see this, allowing Daria to cling to the rags of her self-respect. If crushes were diseases, Daria’s would long ago have sent her to an early grave.
In moments, Daria found herself in the kitchen with Trent, realizing too late she hadn’t meant to follow him around like a puppy. Before she could back up and escape to Jane’s room, Trent sat down at the kitchen table and saw her. “Have a seat,” he said, indicating one of the mismatched chairs at the table. “I’m working on some new songs.”
“You’re working on some new songs?” she repeated—and she winced and smacked her forehead. Despite her immediate desire to run from the house and never be seen again, she watched helplessly as her traitorous body walked to an unoccupied chair and sat down next to Trent.
“Yeah.” Trent nodded sagely. He opened a huge, battered notebook and picked up a pencil, holding it over a partially completed set of lyrics. “I need a word that rhymes with ‘hex.’”
Daria’s mind instantly supplied a word that she fought to suppress. She thought her face would catch fire. “Mmm,” she mumbled. “Um, plex.” Shaking her head violently, she turned redder and tried again. “No, that’s not a word. Sorry. Uh, pex. No! I meant, blex. Bex! No—trex! Dex gex mex fex!”
“Trex?” asked Trent with a frown.
“I meant sex!” said Daria, almost shouting. With a gasp, she clamped both hands over her mouth, staring at Trent in horror.
“Sex,” said Trent. He looked at the ceiling, then looked down, nodding thoughtfully. “Yeah, that’ll work. Sex. Cool. Thanks, Daria.”
Daria leaned forward in her seat and banged her forehead on the tabletop.
“You’re thanking Daria for sex?” asked Jane, walking into the kitchen with a magazine in hand.
“Yeah,” said Trent, writing something in his notebook. “It was her idea.”
Daria made a strangled squeak that sounded like “no.” It was hard to tell if that was the actual word, as she wouldn’t look up from the tabletop.
Jane gave Daria an amused look, noting her friend’s terminal embarrassment. “I’m sorry I missed it, then. The video would have sold for at least a grand over the Internet, easy.”
“Video of what?” Trent asked, still writing out song lyrics.
Desperate to escape, Daria stood up and promptly knocked her chair over backward. She tried to grab it but turned around too quickly, losing her balance. Her legs entangled, she stumbled and fell—toward Trent. Trent looked up just in time to catch her around the waist and pull her to his chest with a surprisingly strong arm.
“You okay there, Daria?” he asked, still seated. He held her upright until she was steady on her feet again.
“Fine,” she croaked hoarsely. “Fine. Thanks.” His body scent was sweaty, masculine, and powerful, and his grip was gentle but firm where he held her around her waist. I’m only seventeen and he’s twenty-two! cried the rational part of her mind, which at the moment was down to only one neuron. She was positive she would go mad if he held her but a moment more.
Trent let her go.
“No problem,” he said, returning to his notebook. After a moment to recover her bearings, Daria started to leave the kitchen as quickly as she could—but then noticed that Jane was sitting at the table opposite Trent.
“Have a seat,” said Jane grandly, enjoying Daria’s discomfort. She waved at her oblivious brother. “Trent’s lap is free.”
“We were going to go out!” said Daria, teeth gritted.
“Out?” said Jane. She appeared to think hard. “Was that before or after the sex?”
Before Daria could come up with a response—not that one was possible—Trent looked up from writing out his lyrics. “I’ve already got that,” he said.
“What?” said Jane.
“The sex,” said Trent. He looked down and began writing again. “Good idea, Daria.”
“Bookstore!” Daria whispered urgently to Jane. She didn’t dare look at Trent. “To bookstore go we must, Jane. To go now, yes! Bookstore!”
“Bookstore?” said Trent, looking up. He frowned and shook his head. “Not me.”
Even in the depths of her humiliation, Daria remembered a long-ago conversation she’d had with Trent, on a day in her sophomore year when the two of them went shopping for a gift for Jane’s birthday. Forgetting her shame for a fraction of a second, Daria turned to Trent with a puzzled look. “Why?” she asked.
Trent grunted and stared at the page with his new lyrics. “I can’t go into a bookstore again,” he said. After a pause, he flipped the notebook shut and got up from the table. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he added, and he walked out of the kitchen, leaving his lyrics book and pencil behind.
Daria and Jane stared after him in surprise. “Well,” said Jane, “now you know the magic anti-relationship word. Bookstore. I knew it would work on football players, but Trent was a surprise.”
“I’m going to kill you,” Daria hissed. “I swear on the Encyclopedia Britannica, you pull this yenta thing once more, and I am going to chop you into—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Jane, still looking after her brother. “Trent?” she called. “Hey, Trent?” Receiving no response, she got up and walked to the doorway of the kitchen. She motioned to Daria. “Come on. He went upstairs to his room.”
“No!” said Daria, almost shouting again. “He told me a long time ago that he could never go into a bookstore, and I don’t need to know why! Let’s get out of here now and go to the—”
Jane grabbed Daria by the hand and, ignoring her protests, dragged her out of the kitchen toward the staircase. A minute later, they stood in the open doorway to Trent’s large, ill-kept bedroom. Trent lay on his back on his bed, an arm thrown over his eyes. The floor was so covered with old clothing, papers, and CDs, it was difficult to know if the room actually had a carpet.
“Trent?” said Jane, holding Daria’s arm with both hands to prevent her continued attempts at escape. “Why won’t you go into a bookstore?”
“I can’t talk about it,” Trent said. He coughed, then fell silent again on the bed.
“You have to,” said Jane. “Daria says she has to know why, and she has to know right now. Don’t you, Daria?”
“Shut up!” Daria hissed, desperately trying to break Jane’s grip on her wrist.
Trent swung his feet over the side of the bed to sit upright. Sighing, he looked down at his clasped hands, his elbows resting on his knees. “Okay,” he said softly, “I’ll tell you. But don’t bug me about it anymore. I don’t like to talk about it.”
Daria stared at Trent and stopped struggling to get free. She and Jane exchanged glances, Jane let go of Daria’s wrist, then both stepped into the room on their own. Jane walked over to the bed and sat down next to Trent. Daria started to sit beside Jane, but Jane caught her and forcefully directed her to sit on the other side of Trent. Kill you, Daria mouthed to her friend with a glare, but Jane paid no attention.
“So, why won’t you go into a bookstore?” Jane prodded. “I never thought about it until now, but I’ve never seen you go into one.”
Trent looked down at the floor. “I never went to them much because they didn’t sell music books,” he began. After a long pause, he said, “The bad stuff sort of started when you were in middle school.” Another long pause later, he went on. “It was because of Howard.”
“Howard?” Jane looked confused. “Howard who?”
“Come on, Janey, you remember Howard,” said Trent, shaking his head but staring at the floor. “The white duck.”
“Howard the Duck?” asked Daria in surprise. “The one in the comics?” She was almost able to forget she was sitting right next to Trent, who was still half-dressed. On a bed. Just inches from her.
“No, the one that kept coming by our house,” said Trent. His hands began to work, his arm muscles knotting up. “I think he was tame or something. He wouldn’t fly off when you walked up to him, if you were careful.”
“Oh-oh-oh! I remember!” said Jane, looking excited. “Howard! Yeah! You named him after the street we live on, Howard Drive!”
“I knew you’d remember him,” said Trent. “He liked bread crumbs. I used to take a slice of whole-wheat bread out every day and feed it to him in the backyard.”
“I fed him, too. He was great! A little fat after a while, though. He bit Wind in the nose once, I remember. Beaked his beak.”
“Yeah.” Trent smiled. “That was pretty funny. Wind tried to look at his eyes real close to see if they were pink, but Howard didn’t like someone’s face so close to his. Jesse’s kind of like that, too, but he won’t bite anyone for it. He just backs away.”
“Wind said his nose was maimed forever,” Jane said, also smiling. “He had it covered with a huge bandage for weeks.” She sighed. “Good times.”
“Good times,” said Trent, nodding in agreement.
“So, it was because of Howard the not internationally famous duck that you stopped going to bookstores,” said Daria, feeling a bit of her self-possession return. “Correct me if I’m wrong here.”
Trent thought about this, then nodded. “No, that’s right. I went to a bookstore and got a book on birds so I’d know more about him. He was a regular duck, sort of, but it didn’t have anything about regular ducks in the book, so I read about mallards. Didn’t help much, but it was interesting anyway.”
Silence reigned for about ten seconds.
“I don’t get it,” said Daria.
Trent took a patient breath. “Howard was a cool duck. He was the best.”
Jane nodded, lost in her memories. Another long silence.
“And—?” Daria said.
Trent raised a hand and rubbed his face. “And someone ran over him.”
Daria blinked. She tried to form a response to this but could not. “Oh,” she said. The news disturbed her more than she let on. I shouldn’t be upset about this, she thought. People are thoughtless and mean like that all the time, and it was probably an accident. Her eyes started to burn anyway, and she swallowed.
“He liked to walk on the sidewalk and get handouts from people, but he sometimes crossed the street when there were cars around. Everyone stopped or went around him, mostly, but one night someone didn’t, and I found him the next morning.” Trent rubbed his eyes, then dropped his hand. “He was already dead. I got a shovel and buried him in the backyard, where the irises are. I didn’t want him to get thrown out in the trash. I thought he should be with people who liked him.”
The burning in Daria’s eyes was intense. She looked away as if interested in the wall and rubbed her eyes, trying to wipe them dry. The rubbing made them redder and wetter. Her throat hurt. It was just a duck, she told herself. Stop it!
“So,” continued Trent, “I wanted to write a song about Howard. I thought he’d like that. I went to the bookstore to look for another book on ducks, something that wasn’t about mallards. Mom gave me a gift certificate that someone gave her in payment for a pot she’d made, and I went looking for a book.” His voice drifted off.
Jane poked her brother in the knee after another minute passed.
“They didn’t have anything,” Trent said. “I wanted to write about Howard and his life, kind of like it might have been, you know, for a duck, but the store didn’t have anything, so I went home. I sat next to where I’d buried him and tried to think like he might have thought, but that didn’t work, either. He was a duck. He was different, but I still liked him. He was okay.”
“You never wrote the song,” said Daria. It worked to wipe her eyes on her sleeve, where Trent wouldn’t see it.
“Never.” Trent opened his hands and looked at them. “A man came by the house later, a few days afterward. He heard from someone that Howard hung around our place, and he thought Howard was our pet. He said he was the one who hit Howard. It was an accident. Howard was crossing the street at night, and the man didn’t see him until it was too late. He was driving around in an old car, a sixty-eight Chevy he was trying to restore, and he felt bad but he thought Howard was just a duck. When he heard more about him and he thought it was our pet, he felt really bad and said he’d pay for us to get another duck.” Trent shrugged. “I said no. It wouldn’t be Howard.”
Trent hesitated, then added, “I told him it was okay. It was an accident. The guy didn’t mean it, and he looked like he felt pretty bad about it. I didn’t think Howard wanted people to feel bad. I told him it was okay. We shook hands, and he went away.” He reflected. “Nice car. The Chevy.”
Trent rubbed his hands together. “I went in the backyard later, and I sat down by Howard and told him about it. After a while, I didn’t feel so bad, that I couldn’t write a song for him, and I went back in.” He clapped his hands lightly together. “That was it. But I couldn’t go in a bookstore again. It made me think too much of Howard.”
Jane leaned over and gave her brother a hug from the side. Trent put an arm around her, and on impulse put an arm around Daria, too, and hugged her close. She let him do it. It felt good.
After a good hug, he let them both go and got up from the bed. “I should get showered,” Trent said, and he walked out of the room and down the hall. When the bathroom door closed behind him, Daria looked over at Jane, who looked over at her.
“You okay, amiga?” Jane asked.
Daria nodded, looking away again.
“I’m sorry about dragging you in here.” Jane looked away, too, and scratched the back of her head.
“It’s okay,” said Daria.
“So, you still want to go to the bookstore?”
Daria looked down at her boots. “Yeah.” After a pause, she said, “Maybe Howard would want it that way.” She flinched, making a face. “God, did I really say that?”
“He was a good duck,” said Jane. “I liked him. I hadn’t heard the whole story about him before. I never knew he was buried under the irises. They’ve always grown well there, for some reason. Guess it was Howard. Beats me.”
With a deep breath, Daria got up from the bed, wiping her eyes a last time. Jane followed suit a moment later.
“We can still stick around if you want,” Jane said. “The lock on the bathroom door’s broken, and you can hand Trent a towel when he comes out. He might like that.”
“I hate you!” Daria hissed, walking out of the room.
“Hey, it might be foggy in there after he turns off the shower,” Jane said with a little smile, following behind her. “He might not be able to find the towel rack. I’m trying to look out for him, okay?”
Original: 02/29/04, modified 10/28/04