Who Once Was Lost
©2005 The Angst Guy (email@example.com)
Daria and associated characters are ©2005 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Synopsis: Two little girls from Highland, Texas, go to Camp Grizzly for several weeks of annoying summer fun. Only one little girl comes home. Three years later, the other little girl begins her long journey back—but discovers that the world has moved on without her. Inspired by the fifth-season Daria episode, “Camp Fear,” “Who Once Was Lost” is the first tale in a science-fiction series about a Daria displaced in time.
Author's Notes: This story began as an experimental spin-off of another Daria fanfic, “Fortunate One,” and begins in almost the same way. It was not intended to grow into a multipart alternate-history science-fiction fanfic, but it did anyway. The chronology of the story assumes that Daria Morgendorffer would normally have graduated from Lawndale High in the year 2000, but here did not.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Galen “Lawndale Stalker” Hardesty for asking me not to vivisect or kill Daria in this story; Brandon League for reminding me of The Flight of the Navigator; and Ranchoth, Galen, and others for little tweaks here and there. It helped.
All was right with the world, or at least as right as could be managed. Fourteen-year-old Quinn Morgendorffer relaxed in the passenger seat of her father’s Lexus and closed her eyes of robin’s-egg blue. The pop-music radio station played Hanson’s latest hit, which lulled her into near hibernation except for her nodding head, moving lips (“Mmm-bop!”), and tapping foot.
“Busy day, kitten?” Jake Morgendorffer asked, maneuvering through morning suburban traffic. “You’ve got a test in Math Strivers, right? Or was that Phys Ed?”
“It’s not a test, Daddy, it’s a quiz, and it’s in math,” she murmured, and then added—knowing it was pointless—“Don’t worry.”
“I won’t,” said her father. “I mean, I always worry a little, of course, but that’s normal. I’m supposed to worry. After all, ninth grade is tough. It’s your first step into high school and adulthood. At least you’re not in a military school, like I was. Damn my old man! Oh, remember, if you need anything, just call us on your cell phone. You have your police whistle, right? And the pocket siren?”
Quinn nodded, trying to stay in the flow of the music. “Yes.” She’d left the pocket siren at home because it malfunctioned once during history class, but she wasn’t going to mention that.
“Your mother said you could have your friends over tonight as long as all of your homework is done first,” Jake went on. “Well, I suppose as long as you have it done before Monday, okay?”
“Just be careful and have a good day. That’s all that matters. Just be careful and have fun. I wish my dad had let me do that.” Jake shouted at his side window toward the heavens. “I hope you’re happy, Daddy Dearest!”
Exhaling long and slow, Quinn opened her eyes and looked out the side window. Another song came on the radio, this one by BoysIIBoys. Her head began to nod in time with the rapid beat (“Please do me do me do me do!”).
“Oh,” her father continued, coming out of his mini-rant, “let’s not argue anymore with your mother about getting a nose job. It doesn’t matter if your friends get their own nose jobs. Your mother made it very clear that your nose is fine just the way it is, no matter what any plastic surgeon says. What do they know, anyway? And why do they call them ‘plastic’ surgeons? They don’t work on plastic, do they?” He drove in silence for three seconds. “You know not to go anywhere by yourself, right?”
“That’s my girl!” He turned the car into the semicircle drive to the front doors of Lawndale High School, slowed, and stopped by the curb. “See you tonight, kitten!”
“You, too.” Quinn gave her father a kiss on the cheek and got out of the blue Lexus with a casual toss of her long mane of orange-red hair. The September air was cool and crisp, but she wore her usual end-of-week outfit of a colorful tee and jeans. Her father could not tell that she wore a bright red halter top under the tee; the tee would go in her locker once she got inside, to be put back on before school let out so her parents wouldn’t freak at her exposed midriff.
“Call if you need anything!” her father shouted after her. “And good luck on your P.E. test!”
“Bye!” She shut the car door and waved him off, though he drove away slowly and kept looking back in the rear-view mirror. Turning, she headed for the building to get out of sight, or else he’d drive back and ask her what was wrong.
Her best friend, Sandi Griffin, and the rest of the Fashion Club were waiting for her outside the main entrance. They waved, giggling over a new bit of school gossip. Quinn checked to make sure her father was gone, then peeled off her tee in relief.
“Nice top, Miss Fashion Club Vice President,” said Sandi. “It goes perfectly with your complexion.”
“And you know complexions best, Sandi!” said Quinn brightly.
“That’s why I’m the prez. I’m complexicate—complicationed—I know my complexions.”
“Speaking of complexions,” Quinn added, “everyone ready for a makeover party tonight at my place?”
The other girls squealed with excitement. They had been waiting for the overnight at Quinn’s the entire week. Her parents were quite tolerant of teenage get-togethers and often sprung for food and movies, as long as no one left the house.
“Oh, you just won’t believe what we heard was going on between Rob and Lisa!” Stacy Rowe bubbled. “You absolutely won’t believe it! I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m doubting that you’ve believe it when you hear it because it’s true and you’ll have to believe it, but when you hear it first you absolutely—”
“Chill, Stacy,” said Sandi with a tired look (ignoring Stacy’s subsequent “Eeep!”). “We should share our current events in a more secluded setting. Let us adjourn to the girls’ room.”
“Good,” drawled Tiffany Blum-Deckler. “I have to go.”
“Go ahead and go, then,” said Sandi, “but not here.”
Halfway down the hall, Quinn stopped for a moment at a water fountain. When she drank her fill and raised her head, she saw that someone had put a huge poster on the wall above. It was a poster she knew by heart. HAVE YOU SEEN THESE CHILDREN? the header cried. Below the title was a large array of black-and-white photos of lost children, each with a name, personal data, date and place of birth, and date and location last seen.
The photo of the unsmiling girl in the dead center of the array was the one Quinn knew best.
Brown hair, brown eyes
Born 11/20/1981 – Austin TX
Last seen 6/8/1994 – Camp Grizzly AR
Her face had been shown for over three years on posters, milk cartons, TV ads, mass mailings, and billboards, but Daria was still gone. Quinn’s big sister by a year and a half, Daria had turned up missing after a hike at a children’s summer camp. Repeated searches had produced nothing. Every lead had petered out. The Arkansas state police had filed it away as a cold case. Even a $10,000 reward had no effect. It was one of the strangest and most heart-wrenching disappearances of the 1990s—and it was her sister.
Quinn never allowed herself to speculate on Daria’s fate. She knew what usually happened to children when they were kidnapped. She also knew the swiftly diminishing chances for recovering any missing child alive as time went on. Quinn’s parents still believed their eldest daughter might yet turn up. There was always a chance. Quinn believed in that chance, too, and always had.
Three years later, however, it was an infinitesimally tiny chance. Quinn didn’t let herself think about how small the probability was. She would never get through a single day if she did. It was enough that the chance was there.
For the thousandth time, she studied her sister’s impassive face. It was Daria’s seventh-grade class picture from Highland Middle School, back in Texas, where the Morgendorffers had lived when the two sisters were sent on their ill-fated camp adventure. Quinn remembered that neither had wanted to go. Her parents made them go anyway. It was for their own good, their parents had said—but they cursed their words now, with one daughter left, and did all they could to keep that daughter safe.
Quinn, too, had a cross to bear.
God forgive me for denying you were my sister, Daria, she thought, looking at the tiny picture. God forgive me for calling you my distant cousin in front of my new friends at camp. If I ever see you again, I will make it up to you in any way I can. I swear it.
She turned away from the poster and rejoined her friends. None of them said a thing, though they were looking at the poster and thinking about Quinn’s sister, too.
“Quick,” she said with forced cheer, “tell me what’s up with Rob and Lisa!”
She swam into consciousness, cold and aching all over. A swirling vortex spun madly in her head. She took a breath and found her lungs filled with knives. Crying out, she rolled over, pushed herself up on her elbows, and opened her eyes—but there was no light anywhere. She was on a flat, dry, ice-cold surface—but where was she? The pains in her joints and muscles were mind shattering. Something had awakened her, but—
The ground trembled and rocked, pitching her from one side to the other. Freight-train thunder boomed around her and jarred her down to the bones. The odor of broken stone filled the air, mixed with the pungent smell of fresh earth. She panicked. Earthquake! She’d be killed! Was she in a cave? A cellar? She had to get out!
She tried to get to her feet, but her muscles would not cooperate. Searing pins and needles lanced into her limbs. She cried out and redoubled her efforts to get up, scraping her knees and hands on broken bits of stone that fell over her from the ceiling.
A new earthshaking roar came from ahead of her. She looked up—and a wall of dust flew into her face, blinding her. Screaming in pain, she got a mouth full of powdered rock and coughed until she feared she would choke to death—
—and blinked her streaming eyes again, and ahead of her saw light. Light! It came down from a hole in the ceiling of the room—no, it was a cave! She was in a cave—she remembered it, how she’d fallen into a sinkhole—
Scrambling to her feet, she limped and stumbled and staggered and fell and crawled, always moving toward the light. It was all that mattered, getting into the light, going up and out of there. She found herself on top of a rock pile, trying to dig her fingers into falling earth, then something was in her hand, a vine, and she pulled and hauled herself up, hands stinging and bleeding, boots finding toeholds as she went, and light filled her eyes and blinded them—glorious, brilliant sunlight! She was free! She crawled out as the earth rocked and shook once more, scrambling on hands and knees through forest undergrowth until she wrapped her arms around a tree and held on for dear life.
Moments later, the rumbling faded and ceased. Silence filled the woods. Dazed, she looked around her. With a trembling hand, she reached up and adjusted her glasses by reflex, amazed that she had kept them.
I’m at Camp Grizzly, she thought. I remember now. I fell down the stupid sinkhole when I had to stop and tie my bootlaces and got left behind the other campers on the hike, and I ran to catch up and tried a shortcut through the woods and fell into the sinkhole, hitting the earthen sides of it as I went in, then—
She took a deep breath with a raw throat. “I’m—” she said, then coughed and coughed until she almost threw up. Her throat was parched, and her entire body still ached with pins and needles. She had the strangest sensation that she had overslept.
When she felt steady enough to do it, she got to her feet. She was lost, as she expected. She had no idea where the trails were, much less the main campgrounds. Running her bruised hands through her dust-filled hair, she scanned her surroundings, then looked down at herself. Her knees and hands were bleeding, and her blue Camp Grizzly T-shirt was the same color as her medium-brown short pants. Her normally pale skin was the same color, too, in fact. She was filthy beyond words.
I give up, she thought. I’m going back to the cabins for a shower. I wonder how long I’ve been gone. The whole camp will be out looking for me, if I knocked myself out in that fall. On the other hand, maybe they won’t be looking for me. Most of them could care less. Cretins.
It was hard to remember what had happened after she’d fallen. It didn’t matter now, though. A shower was what counted—a shower and a call home to her mother to get her out of this camp, pronto. If she had to fake an appendicitis attack, she would. She’d had enough of summer camp to last a lifetime.
Rubbing her cheek where she’d banged into a rock while crawling out, she looked back the way she’d come. A large chasm lay only thirty feet away, into which whole trees had dropped, roots and all. She realized it was probably the cave in which she’d fallen, now wholly collapsed from the earthquake. There was supposed to be a fault system around here, she remembered, one that ran through several states, including this one, Arkansas. That explained where the little earthquake came from.
She stared at the chasm and thought about how ridiculously lucky she had been to get out before the thick rock ceiling fell and flattened her like a pancake under a steamroller. Shaking her head, she staggered up the slope and discovered the pathway she had left only—minutes ago? Hours ago? What time was it?
It’s time to get the hell out of here, that’s what time it is, she thought. Twelve is too young an age to die at summer camp, or anywhere else. I want to live long enough to make everyone pay for ruining my life.
She set off, determined to get un-lost and out of there. As she went, she tried to speak again with more success. “I am Daria Morgendorffer,” she shouted hoarsely, “and I am sick and tired of having fun!”
Daria Morgendorffer was mad at a lot of people. She thought about this as she stomped along the trail back to the cabins. At the moment, she was angriest at her parents, as it had been their idea that she be forced to go to summer camp for a month, supposedly for her own betterment. (If only Quinn had been sent away, that would have been fine, but nooo.) She suspected the camp thing was just an excuse for her parents to get some alone time for a few weeks. Dump the kids, party it up, schedule some “quality time” later to soothe the conscience. It figured.
As bad as things were for Daria at the moment, she knew Quinn was surely having a good time. Quinn always had a good time. If they’d been on the Titanic, Quinn would have ended up warm and safe in a lifeboat, being plied with drinks by the surviving crew, while Daria sank alone into the cold depths of the Atlantic. For always winning out in the sibling-rivalry sweepstakes, Quinn ran a close second to their parents on Daria’s crap list. After camp, though, her eleven-year-old sister would recapture the number-one position, as she always did.
Quinn usually had no thoughts deeper than her nail polish was thick, but she was cuter than cute and enormously popular. Daria saw herself as smart and well read, only averagely attractive, and enjoying the same level of popularity as the Black Death. Her peers at Camp Grizzly were no better than the teen queens, thugs, airheads, and jocks in her now-completed seventh-grade class at Highland Middle School. The other campers called her “the weird kid” and ignored or harassed her as they pleased. Daria retaliated with acidic commentary, cold glares, and a refusal to participate in group activities whenever possible. It was her Shakespearean insults, however, that earned her the “weird” title. Perhaps, she reflected, calling the other campers a “churlish, pox-infested mob of louts and strumpets” during the S’mores Roast had been a bit over the top. Still, they’d deserved it.
The worst of her camp peers was a tall, blond, muscular kid named Skip, who constantly berated her for a lack of camp spirit. “Grrr! Go Grizzlies!” he shouted at her morning, noon, and night, like a sadistic guard trying to break the spirit of a prisoner of war. The other campers were jerks, but none quite as vile as Skip, who took it upon himself to bring her kicking and screaming into the Grizzly cult. He was currently number three on her crap list.
True, she knew that not everyone at camp hated her. One annoying girl named Amelia followed her everywhere like a stray cat waiting for a handout. Daria had no use for sycophants, but Amelia never quit. And the camp director, Mr. Potts, was decent enough—except of course for the fact that he ran the camp, which put him midway up Daria’s crap list. Plus, he had little time for giving individual attention or cutting slack where needed. At least he’d recovered her glasses when, thanks to Skip pulling Daria off the dock, they’d fallen into the lake during the grab-the-greased-watermelon game. Mr. Potts also found some bug repellant for her that kept a few of the mosquitoes away. But he still ran the camp. Guilty.
The physical side of camp would have easier had not Mother Nature seen fit to stick Daria in the 25% bracket for growth. At age twelve and a half, Daria was one inch short of five feet and weighed barely over ninety pounds. She read, watched TV, or pecked on a computer instead of exercising, and she didn’t eat properly if she could help it, so her strength and endurance were below average as well. She was primed for trouble. Color Wars, prolonged hiking, calisthenics, rope-climbing, swimming in the lake to battle other swimmers for possession of greased watermelons—Camp Grizzly was, for her, the first circle of Hell. Daria had been there less than a week, but she doubted she’d live to see the rest of June, much less the rest of 1994, if she stayed a moment longer. Especially if there was horseback riding.
Daria shivered. Distracted from her gloomy thoughts, she rubbed her bare arms. It was cooler out than she had thought it should be for June. She frowned and looked around at the trees she passed. Some of the leaves were turning yellow and orange. A few were already red and brown. She wondered if this part of the forest had been treated with poisonous chemicals that damaged the leaves. That would be great if she got poisoned, too, from walking through it. Her funk deepened.
A plan was called for. If she pretended to be sick and could make it look authentic, Mr. Potts might call her parents to come get her. At worst, she would get a day off in the medical cabin with Ms. Barnes, the overworked camp nurse. It was worth a try. Should she go for a deadly tick or spider bite, or eating poisonous mushrooms? If the latter, she’d have to make herself throw up before she got back to camp, for the sake of authenticity.
Her plans came to naught in moments, however. A fresh-faced little girl with short, honey-blonde hair appeared on the path ahead, walking in Daria’s direction. She wore a bright yellow sweat suit with red letters printed across the front—Camp Sunrise. Where the hell was that?
The girl spotted the filthy Daria at the same moment and waved, though with a look of concern. “Hey!” she shouted. “Did you fall down or something?”
It had to be the stupidest question Daria had ever been asked. “I’m fine,” she called back with a curled lip. “I always look like this.”
“You look like you fell down,” the girl repeated. She stopped and looked Daria over. “Are you hurt? Did the earthquake do that?”
“I’m crippled for life. What are you doing here?” Daria did not stop as she spoke. The little girl fell into step beside her, walking back to camp, too.
“I was looking to see if some kids ran down this way when the earthquake came,” the girl said. She seemed to be about eight and reeked of cheer and wholesomeness. “Everyone got real scared except me. I’m a cabin captain because they said I was so responsible. Which camp are you from?”
“Grizzly. Where’s Camp Sunrise?”
“Grizzly? Where’s—oh! The old camp name!”
“What old camp name?”
“Grizzly! It’s Camp Sunrise, now!”
Daria’s patience began to wear thin. “Whatever,” she said. “I’m going back to the cabins.”
“I’ll go with you,” said the girl. “My name’s Tricia Gupty. What’s yours?”
Daria looked down at herself. My name’s Mud. “Daria. Is Camp Sunrise next to Camp Grizzly?”
“No, it is Camp Grizzly. I mean, it used to be Camp Grizzly, but they changed it after a girl disappeared.”
The conversation was becoming stupid as well as irksome. “When did they do that? This morning?”
“No! A couple years ago, Mom said.” Tricia slowed to take a closer look at Daria’s outfit. “Is that a real Camp Grizzly T-shirt?”
“It’s my evening gown. Can’t we just walk and enjoy the quiet for a change?”
“Wait. Did you say your name was Daria?” The little girl caught Daria’s dirty elbow and tugged.
“What’s your last name? Is it Morning—”
“Morgendorffer, and I don’t feel like talking anymore.”
The gasp from the little girl caused Daria to look down at her companion. “Daria Morgendorffer?” Tricia cried. “Like the girl on the poster? Are you really? Wow, they’ve been looking for you since forever! Where in the world have you been?”
The camp’s been looking for me? Daria knew this was bad news. She must have been gone longer than she’d thought, perhaps a full day after she’d knocked herself out. There was no telling the trouble she was in now. Worse, no one would ever believe she’d fallen into a sinkhole, because the earthquake had destroyed all evidence of it.
On the other hand, if the camp director thought she was uncontrollable and phoned her parents to come get her, perhaps the experience would serve a greater good. All might soon be well. If only Tricia would shut up.
“So, where were you all this time?” Tricia pressed, walking at her side.
“I’ve been out eating poisonous mushrooms, okay?” Daria snapped. “I’m sick of talking, I want a shower, and I hate this rotten camp!”
“No, this is a great camp!” Tricia cried earnestly. “It’s for homeschoolers like me. We come out for a week to learn about the exciting wonders of Creation Science, we make s’mores, and we have sack races! My brother Tad gets to come next year. Hey, did you get lost in the woods? Did you run away from camp and come back today? Did the earthquake make you come back? Do your Mom and Dad know you’re here?”
There was no use in replying. Daria marched on as Tricia peppered her with guesses as to Daria’s previous whereabouts. “If you were kidnapped, the FBI will find the guys that did it, you know! They’ll get them for sure! And I bet I get the reward for finding you! It’s ten thousand dollars, but maybe they’ll give me a million and I can use it to feed homeless families! That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?”
To Daria’s infinite relief, the camp cabins appeared around the next bend in the path. As the forest cleared, however, a disturbing sight appeared. The children at the camp were all small and dressed identically to Tricia, in bright yellow sweat suits. No blue-shirted Camp Grizzly people were about. The blue-and-white banners for Camp Grizzly that Daria had last seen had all been replaced by yellow-and-red banners proclaiming this area as Camp Sunrise, and several new buildings were present that Daria was positive had not been there when she’d left to go on the hike. The Snack Shack, for sure, had appeared out of nowhere.
Feeling a touch of anxiety, she slowed as she approached the main campgrounds. Her attention was drawn to a large sign near the camp parking lot.
Welcome Fall ‘97 Session!
Stay Safe, and Have Fun!
What the hell? she wondered. Fall ‘97? Like 1997? Is this some kind of practical joke, or just a mistake on the sign? If it’s a joke, is everyone in the camp in on it? It figures that no one let me in the secret—unless I’m supposed to be the butt of it. That makes sense, almost.
“Tricia!” several young campers shouted when they spotted her. “Tricia, the earthquake’s over, and we found everyone! No one’s missing! All present!”
“Where’s the camp commander?” Tricia shouted back. “I have to tell her something real important!”
“She went to call the police and tell them we found everyone!” a boy shouted. He pointed at Daria. “Who’s she?”
Feeling quite uncomfortable now, Daria decided to get cleaned up before doing anything else. Tricia, however, grabbed her arm. “No, wait! You have to come with me!”
“I don’t have to do anything!” Daria said, jerking her arm away. Her self-control began to erode. “I’m going to take a shower, get cleaned up, and everyone can go stick it!” She wanted to add something rude and pithy from Shakespeare, but she was too shaken to remember any of it.
“Tricia!” called a man’s voice. It sounded familiar. “Tricia, what’s going on?”
“Mister Potts!” shouted Tricia. “I found her! The missing girl, Daria Morgendorffer! I found her!”
“Tricia, that’s not at all funny! We don’t—”
Daria turned. A portly, balding man with glasses walked toward them from one of the cabins. As he approached, he fell silent and instead stared at Daria with great intensity. His face cleared in shock. His mouth fell open, and he stopped dead in his tracks. It was Mr. Potts, the director from Camp Grizzly—but he wore a yellow sweatshirt and black pants now, and the yellow sweatshirt’s letters said: CAMP SUNRISE.
“Jesus God,” Mr. Potts breathed. He took a halting step closer, his eyes locked on Daria. “Great Jesus God!”
“That’s swearing!” Tricia shouted. “You’re not allowed to swear here, Mister Potts!”
“Is that you?” Mr. Potts said to Daria. “Are you really Daria? You look like her. Did you lose your glasses in the lake just before you—is that really you? Where the living hell have you been, girl?”
“Stop swearing!” Tricia yelled.
Daria found herself unable to answer. Something had happened to Mr. Potts. His hair was almost white now instead of grayish brown, and his face was lined. He seemed to have put on weight since she’d seen him last, before the hike, which couldn’t have been more than a day ago.
Her skin began to crawl. This was an elaborate hoax, and she didn’t deserve it—but Mr. Potts was the kind of person who would never tease anyone like this. He seemed genuinely stunned to see her. And if the aged look he had was only makeup, it was a world-class job.
Mr. Potts took Daria by the shoulders with both hands, looking into her scratched, smudged face. “Thank Almighty God!” he gasped—and a moment later, he had her in a bear hug. Daria, who hated being hugged, was so shocked she did not even think of protesting. “Thank God, you’re safe!” he cried. “I worried myself sick over you!”
“Mister Potts!” Tricia said. “Do I get the reward so I can help homeless people?”
“What?” He let go of Daria and looked down at Tricia in a daze. “The reward?”
“Yes!” Tricia held up an eight-by-eleven-inch sheet of paper that she had removed from a cabin bulletin board. In the center of it was Daria Morgendorffer’s middle-school yearbook photo, blown up in black and white. Across the top was written: HAVE YOU SEEN ME?
Feeling her grip on reality slip away, Daria took the page from Tricia’s hand and read the bottom lines.
Brown hair, brown eyes
Born November 20, 1981, in Austin, Texas
Disappeared June 8, 1994, at Camp Grizzly, Arkansas
Daria Morgendorffer was last seen on a hike along the Woodchuck Trail at Camp Grizzly (now Camp Sunrise), Arkansas. She wore a blue T-shirt with a Camp Grizzly logo in white, brown short pants, and gray, low-rise boots. She wore corrective lenses for nearsightedness. A $10,000 reward is offered by her family for any information as to her whereabouts. If you have any information on this missing child, immediately contact the Arkansas State Police at this number—
Daria’s gaze dropped to the bottom of the page.
Issued by Arkansas State Police, Little Rock AR – August 1997
“What day is it?” Daria said in a stunned voice.
“Friday,” said Tricia.
It had been Wednesday when she’d left on the hike. “What date is it? The date?”
“Oh. Um, September twenty-sixth, nineteen ninety-seven.”
Daria stared at the missing-child flier. Rational thought was not possible.
“What happened to you?” Mr. Potts asked. “Were you hiding in the woods, or staying somewhere else?”
Unable to speak, Daria merely stared up at his face, mouth open in shock. I have got to be dreaming. That’s the only explanation. This has got to be a really bad dream.
“Well, we’ll find out what happened eventually,” said Mr. Potts. “Three years and three months! I can’t believe it.” He laughed as if a great burden had been taken from him. “I can’t believe it! You’re alive! It’s really you! At least, I think it’s you!”
Young campers who had crowded in around Daria, Mr. Potts, and Tricia began to cheer and clap. Several campers took flash photos of her.
“This is a joke, right?” whispered Daria to Mr. Potts. Her knees were shaking. It was very hard to breathe. “This is some kind of joke you’re playing on me, isn’t it?”
“You’d know better than I would, girl,” said Mr. Potts. “You’d better not be playing a joke on me, let me tell you, even if you are Daria. We’ve got to get the camp director and nurses to look you over and get you cleaned up. I can’t believe you’re actually here.” He looked her over once more with a puzzled frown. “You know, you don’t look like you’ve changed at all since you’ve been gone. You look exactly the same as the day . . .” He shook his head and directed her toward the nurses’ cabin.
Tricia took the page from Daria’s unresisting hands before she left. “Boy,” said the little girl with great satisfaction, “is your mom going to be glad to see you!”
Dinner at the Morgendorffers that Friday evening went much as it always did—for a short time, anyway.
“. . . so Sandi said, anyone who wears white after Labor Day would wear short pants with black socks, too.” Quinn ate another spoonful of microwaved lasagna. She sat in her usual place at the dining table in the kitchen nook, with her back to the wall. “I think there should be a law,” she added, pointing her spoon at her mother for emphasis. “I really do. What’s the point of having fashion if people don’t pay attention to it?”
“That’s wonderful, dear,” said her mother Helen, looking over a legal brief beside her plate. “I think white is an excellent color for her.”
“Muuh-ooom!” Quinn glared. “You’re not listening to me!”
“Of course I am, dear. You said Sandi was wearing white for Christmas. Or something.”
“No! Listen to me! I said—”
“Why are we eating so early, anyway?” Jake asked from Quinn’s left. “It’s hardly five o’clock!”
Helen gave her husband an exasperated look. “Jake, I told you this morning that I have to go back to the office to get this brief ready for the Titan Motors case next week. This could be critical to winning a settlement! Plus, Quinn’s got company coming over, and I’d rather she—”
“Does anyone want to hear about my math quiz?” Quinn asked.
“Sure, sweetheart!” said Helen, changing her tone to one of sympathy. “How did you do?”
“How should I know?” Quinn said peevishly. “I just took it today!”
The cordless telephone rang. Helen sighed, got up from the table, and walked over to pick up the handset. “It’s probably Eric from work, wondering why I’m not there yet,” she said. She raised the handset. “Morgendorffers, Helen speaking.”
“How do you think you did on the test, kitten?” asked Jake, getting more lasagna.
“Daddy, it was just a quiz, so stop torturing me, okay? I’m all stressed out and I’ve got a Fashion Club meeting here tonight and I haven’t—”
“Who is this?” asked Helen in a loud voice. The handset creaked in her white-knuckled grip. Jake and Quinn looked at her and fell silent, waiting. “The Arkansas State Police?” she said. “What’s this about?”
Quinn gripped her spoon, but her appetite was gone. She knew what the phone call was about. Someone had found Daria’s skeleton in the woods near Camp Grizzly, and the whole family would have go and identify it this weekend. Quinn didn’t think she could hang on to her sanity if she had to see—
Her mother’s eyes became impossibly large. “What?” she said in a loud, high voice. She swayed on her feet. Jake jumped from his chair and went to his wife.
“Is it her?” Helen shouted, nearly hysterical. “Do you know if it’s really her?”
Quinn got up and ran to her mother’s side. “What?” she demanded. “What’s going on?”
She heard a man’s voice over the phone, but could not make out the words. Whatever was said had a remarkable effect. Helen’s eyes rolled up into her head, the handset slipped from her grasp and fell to the floor, and her legs buckled underneath her. Jake and Quinn caught her before she fell across the tiles, easing her down to a prone position. She was out cold.
As her father rubbed Helen’s hands and face, calling her name, Quinn ran after the phone and picked it up. “I’m Quinn, Quinn Morgendorffer!” she said, near panic herself. “I’m Daria’s sister!”
“Is Helen Morgendorffer still there?” said a man with a drawl that made Quinn think of movie hillbillies.
“Mom fainted! She’s okay, though. Dad’s taking care of her. What’s going on?”
“Will your mother be all right?”
“Yes, she’s fine! Forget about her! Tell me what happened!”
“All right. I’m Captain Henry Lee Lucas, with the Arkansas State Police. I’m calling from St. Joseph’s Hospital here in Hot Springs. This afternoon, a young woman was found near Hot Springs National Park, wandering through an overnight camp for kids. She says her name is Daria Morgendorffer.”
Quinn inhaled sharply, her eyes huge.
“Now, I know there were some false leads with this case early on,” the officer continued, “so I don’t want to get your hopes up too far. However, we have her in the pediatric unit here at St. Joe’s, and her fingerprints match those we have on file for your daugh—I mean, your sister. She also knows almost all of the background information that your family supplied so that we could weed out con artists posing as her. We’re still waiting on the DNA match results. We’d like to ask if you and your parents can get to Hot Springs as soon as possible to make a positive identification.”
As hard as Quinn had clung to the idea that Daria might yet be alive, she had long suspected that her sister was dead and had been so since shortly after her disappearance. She now thought her head would explode. “Is she there?” she cried. “Can I talk to her? Is she hurt?”
“She’s in good condition, though a bit dehydrated, and she was bruised and scratched up in places. Nothing major, as far as we can tell. She was walking in the woods when they found her. I’d let you talk to her, but she’s been sedated and is getting some rest right now in her room. We had a little earthquake here this afternoon, and she apparently showed up right after the tremor ended. Anyway, can you speak for the family as to whether you’ll be coming to Hot Springs to—”
“We’ll be there!” Quinn shouted. “We’ll be there as fast as we can get there!” She snatched a pencil and pad of paper on the kitchen countertop. “Tell me where she is again! And I need phone numbers! And your phone number!” She scribbled rapidly. “Does Hot Springs have an airport?”
“Quinn?” called Jake in a shaky voice, kneeling at Helen’s side. His face had lost all its color and he seemed unsteady himself. “Who is it?”
“They found Daria!” Quinn screamed. “She’s alive, Daddy! She’s alive!”
For a moment, Jake simply stared at his daughter. Then he burst into tears and bowed his head, clutching Helen to him.
Barely keeping her wits about her, Quinn finished her conversation with the officer after getting more contact information, and then hung up. She intended to call Sandi Griffin to cancel the sleepover, but the phone rang again almost immediately.
“Hello?” she said, her voice too high and loud.
“Is this Quinn?” She barely recognized her mother’s youngest sister from D.C., Amy Barksdale. Amy was screaming, too. “Get your mother! Turn on the TV to a news channel! I think they found Daria!”
“They did, Aunt Amy!” Quinn screamed back. “The police in Arkansas just called! They found her and she’s alive!”
Hysterical shrieks poured from the phone. The call-waiting beep came on at the same time, but Quinn was too distracted to answer it. She put the handset down and ran into the living room to turn on the television set. After clicking through four cable stations, she hit a 24-hour news channel. On the screen was a reporter in a light jacket, talking into a microphone from the side of a forest-lined road. The volume was turned down, but the bottom of the screen had a running line of news type: BREAKING NEWS—ARKANSAS STATE POLICE ARE SEARCHING CHILDREN’S CAMPGROUND NEAR HOT SPRINGS FOR ALLEGED KIDNAPPERS OF DARIA MORGENDORFFER—DARIA VANISHED IN JUNE 1994 AT SAME CAMP AT AGE 12—SEVERAL WITNESSES REPORT THAT DARIA WAS FOUND ALIVE NEAR CAMPSITE THIS AFTERNOON—CHILDREN AT CAMP BEING EVACUATED—AMBULANCES UNDER POLICE ESCORT LEFT CAMPGROUNDS FOR HOT SPRINGS ONE HOUR AGO—BREAKING NEWS
And then the screen changed. Quinn’s heart stopped.
A color photograph was shown in which an anxious and dirty young girl wearing glasses was apparently talking to an astonished-looking older man who also wore glasses. The girl’s stained blue T-shirt had the familiar Camp Grizzly logo. The caption under the photo read: TAKEN BY CAMPER EARLIER TODAY AT CAMP SUNRISE, ARKANSAS.
Without a doubt, the anxious girl was Daria. She looked exactly as she had when Quinn last saw her three years earlier. At the time, Daria, kicking at rocks in irritation, had left the cabin area at the end of a line of trail hikers.
It struck Quinn as odd that the Daria in the photo looked rather small and thin for a girl who should be almost sixteen. And why was she wearing a Camp Grizzly shirt after all this time?
She had no time to think about it. The doorbell rang. Unable to imagine going anywhere without running and screaming, Quinn ran to the front door and opened it.
“Eww,” said Tiffany Blum-Deckler, clutching an overnight bag. She looked Quinn up and down with a wrinkled nose. “You’re, like, all sweaty and red and—”
“They found my sister!” Quinn screamed. She grabbed the startled Tiffany and hugged her and tried to jump up and down at the same time. “They found her! They found her, and she’s alive!”
Quinn stopped jumping a moment later and held Tiffany by the shoulders at arm’s length, grinning like a maniac.
Tiffany blinked. “Oh,” she said slowly. “Is she coming to the sleepover, too?”
Wearing only an open-back hospital gown, Daria lay awake in her hospital bed under a blanket, staring at a pile of news magazines on her stomach. Her head was propped up on two pillows. A chocolate milkshake from the cafeteria sat on the table beside her. In a chair nearby, a brunette nurse in her twenties read a murder-mystery novel. Daria wondered if she’d been placed on a suicide watch, or if the hospital staff was insuring she would not sneak out the door and run away. She didn’t mind. It was nice for once to know someone was around.
“I don’t understand,” Daria said in a low voice.
The nurse looked up. “Sorry. What did you say?”
“I don’t understand. I don’t . . .” She hesitated. Talking about this was pointless, but she needed to think out loud and have someone hear it. “How could I have been gone this long? It’s not possible. I fell into a sinkhole—I mean, it looked like an opening into a cave, I was running down a slope through the trees and didn’t even see it until I was right on it, and I fell into it and then . . . here I am.” She sat up in bed. “Did the doctors find any kind of head injury on me, like a concussion or skull fracture, a little one, or . . . or anything?”
“No, your X-rays checked out,” the young nurse said calmly. “Nothing broken that we know of.”
Daria glanced at the clock over the doorway. It was nine fifteen p.m., Friday night. “When did they say my parents would get here?”
“They were on their way earlier to an airport, I think in Baltimore,” said the nurse. “They might try to call again. I’m sorry about that mix-up, or you could’ve talked to them before now.”
Daria shrugged. In a way, she was glad of it. A miscommunication between the hospital staff and the police had one of the officers thinking Daria had been given medication to help her sleep, at the very moment when she was in bed watching the news on the room’s TV, taking a break from the doctors’ poking and probing and questioning. Though she wanted to see her family—never mind how angry she was with them earlier—she also wanted time to collect herself and try to figure out what had happened.
Her earlier suspicion that she might be in trouble for being away so long was proven prophetic. Given the increasingly pointed interrogations to which she had been subjected since the police had taken her into custody, she knew that while everyone was glad to find her alive after all this time, no one believed her story about what had happened. No one.
It had been a long afternoon and evening. After getting her scrapes bandaged up by the Camp Sunrise nurses, Daria had asked to take a shower. The police told the camp by phone not to let her do it, as she might have crime-scene evidence on her that would be washed away. The police came in force shortly thereafter—cars, helicopters, K-9 units, everything. She told them there had been no kidnappers, she’d merely fallen down a sinkhole, but the police elected to play it safe. Buses carried all the kids and counselors away as heavily armed search teams with dogs scoured the region, tracing Daria’s footsteps back to the collapsed cave she had described. Daria was sent off in an ambulance with medics, police officers, and counselors who examined her while they asked her where she’d been for three years.
Daria quickly elected to take the advice of Mark Twain: When in doubt, tell the truth. She thought it a wise choice at the time, but she wondered about it now. The truth wasn’t enough for anyone who heard it. It wasn’t enough for her, either. The time between her falling into the sinkhole and her climbing back out was, from her perspective, a day at most but probably less. She hadn’t gone to the bathroom in her clothing, so it had likely been a few hours max if she had been knocked unconscious in the fall.
Yet, that wasn’t right, either. Everyone she’d met since she’d climbed out said she’d been gone for three and a quarter years. The camp itself had changed, and the news magazines were further proof of it. Even if she had struck her head—and the X-rays said there was no physical evidence of that, or even evidence of any trauma from a fall—she would not have survived underground in a coma for three years. Everyone asked for more information than she could possibly give. She feared that they suspected she was hiding something, but there was nothing more to tell. She fell into a cave on Wednesday, June 8th, 1994. She came out on Friday, September 26th, 1997. No rational explanation could account for that. It was enough to make her think about the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland.
The door to the room opened, and a forty-ish nurse with streaked blonde hair came in, carrying a chart in one hand. “Hey, Daria,” she said, giving her a warm smile. She walked over to check the IV bag that led down into Daria’s left arm. “You’re looking good,” she said, then turned to the other nurse. “Anne, you can go on break. Sarah can sit in if need be.”
After the other nurse left, the older nurse put Daria’s magazines aside and took her temperature with an electronic thermometer. She made a note in the chart, then set it aside, too. “No fever,” she announced, hands on her hips. “Catching up on your reading?”
“A little.” Daria looked at the clock again. “Waiting for my family to get here.”
“They should be here before midnight. I think their plane lands at the airport at ten. The police are going to bring them right here.” The blonde nurse waited a beat before continuing. “You ready to see them?”
Daria nodded, but her gaze drifted. “I didn’t know they lived in Baltimore now.”
“Lawndale,” said the nurse. “It’s a suburb of Baltimore.”
“When did they move? From Highland, Texas, I mean?”
“Oh, baby, I don’t know that. You’ve been gone a long time.”
Daria sighed in despair. “But I haven’t,” she said. “I haven’t been gone anywhere. I mean—I haven’t gone, I didn’t go . . . oh, forget it.” She relaxed her head and stared up at the ceiling in defeat. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know anything.”
“Do you have any other family around Baltimore?”
“My mom’s sisters live near there. Maybe that’s why Mom wanted to move. Aunt Amy moved to D.C. a couple of years ago, in nineteen ninety-two . . . wait, that’s wrong, isn’t it? She moved there in nineteen ninety-two, so it’s been . . . whatever. And Aunt Rita lives in Leeville, Virginia, with Uncle Ross and my cousin Erin. At least, they did in nineteen ninety-four. I don’t know where they are now.”
The blonde nurse looked at her in sympathy. She seemed to understand. “You don’t remember anything at all that happened to you from the time you say you fell into that cave until this afternoon, right?”
“Yeah.” Daria paused, looking at her purple fingers. The fingerprint ink would not come out for days. “Everyone’s keeps asking about it, but I don’t know what to tell them.” She suddenly gave a mirthless laugh. “I was thinking that . . . this was a heck of a way to get out of camp. I really hated it at Camp Grizzly. I wanted to do anything to get out of there, but . . . I just never expected this.”
“Were people being mean to you there at camp?”
“Well, sort of. One guy there was really obnoxious, but he never actually hurt me. He was just annoying. It was just a stupid camp full of stupid people, and I wanted to go home. I don’t know what happened to me, though. I just don’t—” She groaned, feeling like a broken record “—I don’t get it.”
The nurse patted Daria’s hand. “Do you want to get a little sleep before your folks arrive?”
Daria shook her head. “I want to stay up for when they get here.”
“Your sister’s coming, too. Quinn, is that her name?”
“Yeah.” She swallowed. Mention of Quinn caught her off-guard. “I’m sort of . . . nothing.”
“What?” The nurse seemed genuinely concerned.
“I’m sort of nervous. A little.” Daria began to play with her fingers, focusing on them intensely. A scratch ran through the left lens of her glasses, but it could be borne for the time being. She took her glasses off and squinted at the scratch.
“What are you nervous about?”
“Seeing my Mom and Dad.” The nurse said nothing, so Daria continued. “When I saw my sister—” She put her glasses on again and sighed. “When I saw Quinn last . . . it feels like it was this morning. It does. She was at camp, and she’d had her eleventh birthday just . . . this must sound stupid, but it was only a few weeks ago, as I remember it. Anyway, when I last saw her, she was in line waiting to get breakfast at camp, talking to her friends. She was ignoring me, but she always does that. I was leaving on the hike, so that was the last . . . and then I last saw my parents, as I remember it, about a week ago, when they dropped us off at camp. It’s just not . . .” She looked up, speaking in a low voice. “I’m scared of what they’ll look like. When I look in the mirror, I look exactly like I did before I fell down that hole, and in my head, all I remember and everything, I’m still twelve—twelve and a half, really. My sister—she’d be fourteen now. I can’t believe that. That isn’t right. I’m scared about seeing them—it really scares what they’ll look—”
Daria’s voice broke. She fought back tears. The nurse reached to one side and produced a tissue that Daria used to wipe her eyes. “I’m really scared,” she said, and she began to cry.
The nurse held her hand until Daria finished and cleaned herself up. “No one believes me,” she finished, wiping her eyes under her glasses. “I don’t know what happened. No one kidnapped me, and I didn’t run away. I don’t remember anything except falling down in a cave, then waking up and climbing out when the earthquake came. I was really scared I was going to be killed, but I got out and I thought everything was going to be okay. I didn’t want to go back to camp, but I did, and that little girl found me, and there’s nothing else to tell. I’m telling the truth, but no one believes me and they won’t leave me alone, and I don’t know what else to do!” She gestured at herself in exasperation. “I mean, look at me! Do I look like I’m going on sixteen?”
“I was thinking that you seem a little small for your age,” said the nurse softly. “My daughter turned fifteen last month, and she’s five seven. She’s not even the tallest girl in her class.”
“I’m still four foot eleven! They measured me when they brought me up here. I wasn’t that big compared to the other kids in my class to begin with.” Daria blew her nose again on the tissue and put it aside. She felt grubby. Her hair was in dire need of a wash, as was the rest of her. “I’m sorry. I’m in a bad mood. Where did my clothes go?”
“The police took them to get evidence from them.”
“Evidence? Evidence of what?”
“I couldn’t tell you that, baby. I’m not a cop. I married one, but I’m not one.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do.” She looked down at herself. “I hate this gown thing.”
The nurse laughed. “No one likes them. I think the guys like seeing them on women, though, for the rear view.”
“Yeah, great. I didn’t want to be in bed when my parents got here, but maybe it’s better if I am.”
“Tell you what,” said the nurse. “I can check downstairs for something you can wear. We have spare clothing for patients, things that the local churches donate. Want me to do that?”
Daria considered this and nodded. “Okay. Thanks. Maybe some jeans or shorts or something, and a T-shirt. Nothing too stupid looking. I’m not the fashion model type. I like something sort of regular looking. Oh—can I take a shower before my parents get here? I haven’t had a shower since—” She fought back a smile “—since nineteen ninety-four, I guess.”
The nurse smiled for her. “Let me see what I can do. I think the police have collected all the evidence they need to for now, but I’ll ask. You want to watch a little television in the meantime?”
“No.” It was disturbing to watch news reports about her discovery. Every channel except the sports ones had something about her. Speculation had already begun about what had happened. Listening to the theorizing was upsetting. So far, she was either an abused, amnesiac cult-kidnap victim or a sociopathic runaway survivalist, if she hadn’t been taken away briefly by aliens on a UFO. What did her parents think had happened? Would they believe her? Did she have anything to say that was worth believing?
“You want anything else to read?” asked the nurse.
Daria looked over at the magazines on the table. The Oklahoma City bombing. The Republican Congress. O. J. Simpson’s murder trial. War in Bosnia. Mir. Jet crashes. The Olympics in Atlanta. The Olympics bombing. Clinton’s reelection. Fighting in the Middle East. Cloning. Comets. Stock market boom. Whitewater. Hong Kong’s return to China. A Mars rover. Princess Diana and Mother Teresa dead, less than a month ago. And she had skipped the sports and entertainment news.
“No, thank you.” She’d had too much recent history. It wasn’t any one thing that bothered her most. It was all of them at once, the sum of all she had missed. Which begged the question: How could it have happened? “I can’t believe this is real,” she whispered. “This can’t be happening to me.”
“We’ll get it sorted out, baby,” said the nurse, squeezing her hand. It was strangely comforting to be called baby, though Daria knew she normally would have hated it. She felt a terrible need to be babied for a while.
“Thank you,” said Daria, and she squeezed the nurse’s hand back. “Thank you for helping me.” She had not said “thank you” to anyone without being forced to do it since she was ten.
“That’s what I’m here for,” said the nurse. “I’ll be right back once I find out about a shower for you and some clothes. Sweats okay?”
“As long as they’re not too . . . yeah, whatever. Anything’s okay. Thanks.”
The nurse smiled, gave Daria’s hand one last squeeze, and left. On her way out, she called another nurse in to sit with Daria. The new nurse brought some incomplete charts and sat in a corner of the room, not talking, scribbling away.
With nothing to do, Daria’s gaze wandered back to the TV. She picked up the remote, glanced at the clock (nine thirty on the nose), then at the new nurse writing. She then clicked the set on.
A series of ghastly green concentric circles appeared on the screen with a clash of music. In the center of the circles was an open eye, with garish red letters laid over all. “Do cloned sheep have souls, or do they flock to Satan?” shouted an announcer. “See our exclusive report, ‘Halo, Dolly!’ next, on ‘Sick, Sad World’!”
The ghost of a smile formed on Daria’s pale lips. This might not be too bad. It would help pass the time until her family arrived, anyway. She settled back into her pillows, took a sip of her milkshake, and watched—and, for a little while, forgot her troubles.
It took forever for the Morgendorffers to get into St. Joseph’s Hospital, thanks to the on-air reporters and cameramen from dozens of television and radio stations who rushed their police motorcade in the parking lot. Uniformed officers struggled to hold the media crews back as other policemen shoved their way through the mob to the doors, clearing a path for the family. More reporters filled the lobby, shouting and holding cameras aloft and thrusting microphones at the overwhelmed Helen and Jake. Quinn bore it well, smiling and waving in her excitement to see Daria, but despite her grin, she wanted nothing more than for the media people to be stuffed into a leaky cargo freighter and sent to Indonesia.
Once inside the hospital, the Morgendorffers were escorted to a conference room, where they met with the team of doctors who had examined Daria. After apologizing for the media circus outside, the team leader warned the Morgendorffers not to question Daria too closely about what had happened to her over the last three years. Police had questioned her several times already. She now needed acceptance, not a new cross-examination. Further, such questioning would probably be pointless, as she apparently had no memory of anything from the time of her disappearance to the present day.
“Nothing?” asked Jake. “I mean, is it possible she’s—” He glanced uncomfortably at his wife and Quinn “—repressing the memory of what happened?”
“That’s possible, and we’re exploring that,” said the doctor. “However, we have no evidence that that’s the case. One of the nurses who were with Daria this evening is the head of our pediatric staff, and she’s spoken with Daria on several occasions. Your daughter has opened up to her, but again, it appears your daughter genuinely does not recall anything between her disappearance in June three years ago to this afternoon, when the earthquake came and she was found.” The doctor leaned forward in his seat. “More to the point, at the time she was found, she still believed it was June nineteen ninety-four, she’d been gone only a short while, and she was still at Camp Grizzly. She’s been very consistent on these points.”
“That’s craz—” Jake glanced at Helen. “That’s completely terrible,” he finished.
Helen fidgeted. “You don’t think she . . . well, might have gotten lost, or wandered off, or—you know?”
“We can’t say. We literally have no idea what happened.”
“Can we see her now?” asked Quinn.
“We have one more issue we have to talk about, something you need to know before you see her. Daria—” The doctor hesitated.
“Is scarred?” said Quinn.
“Doesn’t remember us?” said Jake.
“Doesn’t want to see us?” said Helen.
“No, no, no.” He raised his hands, then dropped them into his lap. “Has she always been short for her age? In height, I mean.”
Helen and Jake looked at each other. “Well,” said Helen in confusion, “she’s a little under-tall, maybe, but not particularly. She was a couple inches shorter than the other girls in middle school. A late bloomer, I always thought. Why?”
“As best we can tell from our limited information,” said the doctor, “Daria does not seem to have grown over the three years while she was gone. The camp supplied us with copies of her application forms from three years ago, which show her age, height, weight, and so on. Your daughter is still the same height and about the same weight as when she was last seen, in the middle of nineteen ninety-four.”
The silence after that statement drew out. Quinn immediately thought of the photo of Daria at Camp Sunrise, how small she had looked for someone who was almost sixteen.
“She hasn’t grown?” said Helen in amazement. “What are you talking about?”
“As I said, she’s the same height as when she went to camp, the same height and weight. She’d actually lost a pound or two from—”
“How tall is she?” Helen pressed.
“Ah, she’s four feet and eleven and one-quarter inches. Her weight is ninety pounds.”
The Morgendorffers looked stunned. “Is she sick?” asked Helen. “Could her growth have been stunted? If she was eating things from garbage cans around camp, hiding out in the woods, would she—”
“Mom, I don’t think she was hiding out in the woods,” said Quinn, though she couldn’t explain how she would know that. It just didn’t seem like something Daria would ever do.
“No, she’s in good health,” the doctor said quickly. “We can’t explain why she looks as she does, but we’re still investigating and want to run more tests. She was well fed, though dehydrated. We put her on an IV, and she should be close to normal. The IV was taken off a short while ago for the duration of your meeting with her, but when she goes to sleep, we’ll consider putting it on again for a while longer.”
“Excuse me,” another doctor put in. “I hate to interrupt, but we desperately need her complete medical and dental records, and we have to get them as soon as humanly possible. We feel this is quite urgent, given the circumstances. We have some tests we’d like to run on her before she is released. We can discuss this after your meeting with her.”
“Sure,” said Jake. “Of course,” said Helen. Both were visibly shaken.
“You said she thinks it’s still nineteen ninety-four?” asked Quinn. “How can she think that?”
“She doesn’t think so now, but she apparently did when she was found,” said the head doctor. “She’s been watching TV and reading a fair amount in her room this evening, and the nurses say she’s had trouble understanding what happened to her and how she could have lost three years of her life. She might be very sensitive about this issue, so think carefully about what you say to her. Certainly, don’t joke about it.” He looked around the room. “Anything else?” He then stood up. “Let’s go see her, then.”
The doctors and the Morgendorffers, flanked by four hospital security guards, walked to the elevators and went to the fifth floor. Quinn followed her parents, her head filled with fears and worries. Will Daria be angry with me when she sees me? We never got along well, and I wasn’t trying to get close to her at camp. And then I said that thing about her being my cousin, which I know she overheard because she said something snide about it the night before she went on that hike. I could slap myself for that. I hope she has forgotten it. I should apologize anyway—but what will I say to her when I see her? Will I recognize her? Is she really that small? That means that I would be—
They were at room 513, Daria’s room. The doctor pushed the door open. Helen, who had been walking almost even with the doctors in front of her, shoved her way through first. Quinn saw her mother stop for a moment, dead in the doorway, and give a strange cry—of joy or fright, she couldn’t tell. Helen ran into the room, followed a second later by her father, who appeared staggered. Quinn had the wild thought that her father aged ten years the moment he saw Daria again.
Helen’s wordless cries rang down the hallway. Alive with hope but steeling herself for the worst, Quinn stepped into the doorway and looked.
It was Daria. There was no question of it—long brown hair, round glasses, the face, everything. She was held in an embrace between Helen and Jake, who had almost lifted her from the floor in their desperation to hold her to them. Though her face was buried in Daria’s shoulder, Helen’s wails and sobs filled the room, drowning out even those from Jake.
Quinn stood in place. She wanted to rush forward, too—but she could not believe what she saw.
Clad in a worn green sweatshirt, black stretch pants, and mismatched sneakers, Daria was almost a head shorter than Quinn was. Daria was no longer her big sister. Daria was an undersized twelve-year-old girl, the same girl who vanished at Camp Grizzly, and Quinn was now two years and almost six inches her senior.
Quinn gaped in horror. She could not believe she was looking down at the sister to whom she had always before looked up. She could not even think of anything to think.
Pressed tightly between the crouching Helen and Jake, Daria opened her eyes to look around the room. She saw Quinn—and stared in disbelief.
On wooden legs, Quinn walked forward until she reached her sister and sobbing parents. She gently leaned down, took her sister’s face in her hands, and kissed her on the forehead. “I love you, Daria,” she whispered. “I missed you so much.”
The look on Daria’s face, however, was not one of love. It was the look of someone who has seen a dreadful thing, a horror beyond imagining. Quinn saw the look and understood it instantly. I’m a monster to her. I’m almost a woman, and she’s a girl. She’s lost her place in the family. Her world is destroyed, and I am the destroyer. I, the sister she always hated, the one she could not compete with for attention and popularity, I have her place now, too. I have it all. I wish to God that I were dead.
Quinn woke up in her chair with a stiff neck. It was dark in Daria’s hospital room except for a sliver of light coming under the door from the hallway outside. She grimaced and tried rotating her head in a circle to stretch her neck muscles and ease the stiffness, but that had only limited success. Her glow-in-the-dark watch said it was 2:53 a.m. Sighing quietly, she shifted her position in the hard chair to get more comfortable, but then discovered her rear end had gone to sleep.
She gave up and carefully got to her feet to stretch. As she did, her elbow bumped into an unseen table beside her, which caused her to flinch though the noise was not too loud. Fearing the worst, she looked in Daria’s direction. Her sister was still a motionless dark shape under the bed blankets. However, their mother was gone from her chair by Daria’s bedside. Must have had to go to the bathroom, Quinn thought. Her father had gone out to find a hotel in the area that would take them on short notice. She hoped he was able to find a way through or around the reporters without difficulty, though that did not seem likely.
Following a desire to sit closer to her sister, Quinn walked over to her mother’s chair and carefully moved it up to the side rails on Daria’s bed. She settled into the cushioned seat, hoping her mother wouldn’t come back right away—then looked at Daria and jumped, startled.
Daria’s eyes were open. Her face was turned toward her sister, both of them barely visible in the half-light from under the door.
Quinn calmed quickly. She knew Daria couldn’t see very well without her glasses on, so everything was probably just a blur to her. Putting her forearms on the cold railing, Quinn rested her chin on one of her hands. “Hi,” she said softly.
Daria said nothing back.
“I love you,” Quinn added. She reached over to adjust Daria’s blanket.
“I heard,” said Daria in a low voice.
This will be hard going. She’s still a kid. “I’m glad you’re back,” she said, withdrawing her hand.
“I didn’t go anywhere.”
“You did for us. We missed you. It’s been the worst thing ever, not having you around.”
“I have a little trouble believing that.”
Ouch. “I mean that,” Quinn said, swallowing. “I know I said things to you that I shouldn’t have, and I’ve regretted saying them for years, ever since I last saw you. If I could take them back and do everything over again, I would. I really missed you.”
Daria’s eyes glittered in the darkness. “How was it, being an only child?”
That one really stung. Quinn felt her temper rise, but she tried to keep a lid on it. “It sucked.”
“Well, then you try being an only child with your sister presumed dead. You try living for three years wondering what kind of awful thing happened, wondering if there was something you could have done to save her, wondering if her body was going to turn up one day and you’d have to go look at it and wonder what sick things were done to her before she died. You try it next. I don’t ever want to do it again.”
In the silence that followed, Quinn made her hand reach for Daria again, taking hold of a corner of her blanket. “I don’t want us to go back to doing what we were doing. I really don’t. I don’t know what happened that took you away from us, but I know this rivalry thing has got to stop. I can’t do it anymore. I quit. I want you, and that’s all.”
Daria did not reply. It seemed, though, that she retreated a little.
“So,” said Quinn in a forced but lighter tone, “how do you like nineteen ninety-seven?”
After a moment, Daria shrugged under her blanket.
“You said the police took your clothes?”
“Yeah.” Daria bit her lip. “Do you think I’m crazy?”
“No.” Quinn’s hand began to rub Daria’s back through the blanket. “I was afraid I’d go crazy lots of times, though. I thought . . .” She let it drop. “I can’t believe you’re back. All I’ve wanted for three years was to see you again.”
I deserved that. “No, my sister. I told everyone about you. I did a TV commercial for you once, two years ago. It was a public service spot for missing children in general, actually, back in Texas, but it had you in it—pictures of you, movies of you. Millions of people saw it. We have it on tape somewhere. I told everyone I wanted you back.” She stopped and wiped her eyes. It wasn’t good to talk about it anymore. It would only make her cry again.
“What did you think happened to me?”
Quinn almost laughed. “I was afraid you were dead.” It was strange, she thought, that saying that didn’t upset her more. “I kept hoping we’d find you. I was really hoping you’d run away and would turn up somewhere, hiding in a library or something. I didn’t care what it took, as long as we got you back.”
“Do you think that’s what I did?”
“Run away, you mean?”
Quinn sniffed and continued to rub Daria’s back. “No. I know that’s not it. I don’t think you were kidnapped, either. It doesn’t make any sense. I know I’m not as smart as you, but I’m not stupid, either. I don’t know what happened. I know you’re back, but I’m kind of scared that I’m going to wake up and you’ll be gone again. I couldn’t take that, not after this. I couldn’t take it.”
Daria blinked. “You believe me?”
Quinn nodded slowly. “I believe you. I mean, look at you and look at me. It’s just impossible. It doesn’t make any sense. Something happened that screwed us up, it screwed everything up, and it doesn’t make any sense, but it happened anyway. Maybe we’ll figure it out one day, I don’t know. All I care about is that you’re back, and you’re safe, and we’re together.”
“Everyone thinks I’m lying.”
“Everyone’s full of crap.” Quinn gave a twisted smile. “I didn’t really need to tell you that, do I?”
“They are full of crap,” Daria said with feeling. She was silent for a few moments. “I’m afraid Dad thinks I’m mental, and Mom thinks I ran off.”
Quinn nearly winced. That was exactly what they thought. She could tell. “I want to tell you something,” she said. “If there’s a guy who’s dating me, and something happens that makes me think he’s dating someone else, which of course is ridiculous, I sit down and I think about it. I look at all the evidence, and everything that I know isn’t true or doesn’t fit the facts, I throw out. Whatever’s left when I’m done is what I assume really happened, even if it doesn’t seem possible, like him dating someone else at the same time he’s dating me. I’ve thought about this whole situation, and I can’t see anything at all fitting the facts, so I know that whatever anyone’s said up to now isn’t what really happened. I have to believe you because nothing else makes any sense. You’re still twelve—twelve and a half, that would be, aren’t you?”
Daria nodded. “Yes.”
“Well, I’m fourteen and a half, and that makes no freaking sense at all, so everyone else is wrong. Something else happened, and we haven’t figured it out yet. That’s all there is to it.”
Quinn heard Daria snort. “Occam’s Razor. I can’t believe you did that.”
“Can’t believe I did what? What do you mean, a razor?”
“It’s a technique in logic. Not important, don’t worry about it.”
Quinn’s hand moved up and touched Daria’s cheek. “You’re all that’s important.”
A moment later, Daria’s arm moved. Her fingers came up and gripped Quinn’s hand. “Promise me something,” Daria said.
“Promise you won’t ever call me your little sister. Sister, okay, but not little.”
“Okay.” They sat in silence for a long minute. “I can’t sleep,” Daria whispered at last. “I can’t stop thinking about everything. I’m too nervous.”
“I can’t sleep in the stupid chair.” Quinn thought about it, then stood up. “I have an idea,” she said.
When Helen finally came back from the bathroom and talking with Jake by cell phone, she found Quinn in the hospital bed with Daria, her arms wrapped around her sister. The two were cuddled together in spoon fashion under the blankets, Daria in front. Quinn’s shoes were on the floor where she kicked them off. Both girls were sound asleep.
Saturday morning was, relatively speaking, uneventful up to the moment Quinn hit the cameraman.
At nine a.m., the Morgendorffers were sharing breakfast in Daria’s room. Daria was propped up in her bed, making a face at the hospital food on the tray before her. Quinn sat next to Daria on one side of her bed, stirring up a steaming cup of instant vegetable soup from a cafeteria vending machine. At the foot of the bed, Helen was eating a chicken salad croissant, and Jake was having coffee and a bagel.
Daria was about to remark that the low-fat, pork-flavored tofu sausage on her plate looked and tasted as if it had come in a bucket out of the surgery department, when a shout in the hall outside drew everyone’s attention to the doorway. The heavy room door suddenly banged open to admit a puffing man in a jacket and slacks with a television camera on his shoulder. The man scanned the room as outraged nurses rushed for him in the hall. He spotted Daria and swung the camera in her direction, flicking the camera’s spotlights on.
Quinn, who sat on the side of the bed by the door, was faster. She flung her cup of hot soup at the cameraman, splashing it across his lens, face, and chest as well as the door, the room wall, and the floor around him. The man recoiled with a cry of pain and a curse, but Quinn was on her feet. She lunged at him and shoved him hard in the chest as she yelled, “Get out!” He stumbled and fell backward, hitting the floor with a loud thump. The camera landed on top of his chest, knocking the wind out of him. The nurses and two security guards were on him by that time.
Shutting the door, Quinn stood quietly for a moment, then picked up her empty soup cup and plastic spoon from the floor and dropped them in a trashcan. She then went back to her seat by the bed without looking at anyone. Daria and her parents stared at her, then Helen and Jake got up and went to door to look out in the hall at the confusion. The cameraman was struggling with the security guards, trying to fend them off with his camera. Jake and Helen stepped outside, and the door shut behind them.
“He’ll live,” said Quinn in a sullen voice. “Jerk.” Having no soup now, she picked up her diet soft drink and drank from it.
“You can have my sausage,” said Daria.
Quinn glanced at it and made a face. “Right,” she said. “I’ll get another soup later.”
They listened to a variety of shouts and arguing voices outside.
“You can call me your little sister, but only one time,” said Daria.
“No, it’s okay.”
Helen’s shrill voice rose above the chaos, spouting legalese.
“You can give me a makeover,” said Daria.
Quinn turned and gave her sister a disbelieving look.
“I was kidding,” said Daria.
“I thought so.” Quinn rubbed her face and gave the door a dark look. “Jerk,” she muttered.
Daria finished her meal, except for the sausages, and they played a game of poker with a pack of cards Quinn bought in a first-floor gift shop, keeping score of their imaginary chips on a scrap of paper. Daria won the first two games and was winning the third when the door opened and their parents came back in, followed by a security guard and a nurse. The guard looked around, appeared satisfied, and left. The nurse took Daria’s temperature and blood pressure and left after giving Quinn a smile and whispering, “Good job!”
“Quinn, dear,” said Helen as soon as the door closed, “please don’t attack any more people from the media.”
“He attacked us,” said Daria in a deadpan tone, looking at her cards. “I thought he had a bazooka. It was self-defense.”
“Daria, please. Quinn, listen to me. I’m serious. I know that what he did was not appropriate, but he’s probably going to sue us, and—”
“We should sue him,” said Quinn, glaring at her own cards. “And I’m not sorry.”
“Well . . . let’s let your father and I talk to the media from now on, okay? We need to get them on our side. It’s just like when you’re working a legal case, you have to—”
“Fine,” Quinn growled. She threw her cards in a pile on Daria’s blanket and crossed her arms in front of her, glowering at the floor with her lower lip stuck out.
Daria watched her sister solemnly. It was not as much fun to see Quinn upset as it once had been.
“Quinn?” said Helen. “I mean it. Let us handle things from now on.”
“I have to go to the bathroom.” Quinn got up and went to the door, hesitating only a moment when her hand was on the knob. With a surge of will, she threw the door open. The cameraman was nowhere around. Stepping around the spilled soup, Quinn stalked off down the hall, the door closing behind her.
With a sigh, Daria gathered the cards together and shuffled them. “So,” she said to her parents, who were resuming their seats, “tell me more about the new place.”
“New place?” asked Jake, reaching for his coffee.
“In Lawndale, Dad.”
“Oh! Yeah, it’s a peach. Red brick, three bedrooms on the second floor, two bathrooms—”
“I know about that part. How big is the refrigerator?”
“Big enough! The freezer holds six cartons of lasagna on the bottom shelf alone!”
Some things never change, thought Daria. “Where will I stay?”
“You’ll get the guest bedroom on the second floor,” said Helen.
“As an honored guest?”
“No, dear, don’t be silly. We’ll fix it up for you just like your old room back in Highland.”
“The guest bedroom’s better than that other upstairs room,” said Jake. He shivered. “Creepy.”
“Creepy?” Daria forgot about shuffling the cards. “Creepy in what way?”
“Bars on the windows, padded walls, the works,” said Jake, shaking his head. “Only a nutcase would—um, never mind.”
“That sounds like a cool—”
“We’re not putting you in there,” said Helen firmly. “That’s our storage room. The former owner kept her mother there in her last years. Poor thing. She wasn’t all there mentally.”
Daria noticed her father sneaking a nervous glance at her before sipping his coffee. She looked down and began shuffling cards again. “Where will the guests sleep if I get the guest bedroom?”
“Hotels, of course,” said Helen. “Lawndale has enough of them. We’re not that far from two Interstates, and of course Baltimore itself. I told you about my new job, and Jake’s consulting business.”
“I’m one lucky businessman, working for myself at last!” Jake said with a grin. “Wish my father could see me now! The bastard.”
“You filled me in on the rest of the family, too,” said Daria, looking at her cards. “You still have all my things, right?”
An ominous silence filled the room. Daria stopped shuffling again and looked up. “My books?” she prompted. “I don’t care if you threw out my clothes. You kept all my books, right? In the attic? In storage?” She paused. “Somewhere?”
Her father became interested in his bagel, taking a huge mouthful right away. Her mother cleared her throat and set aside her chicken salad croissant. “Daria,” she began, “sweetheart, we had a lot to move when we left Highland, and—”
“You didn’t,” Daria said in a flat voice. She dropped the cards in her lap.
“We’ll replace some of them, I promise,” said Helen. “It’s just that—”
“Where are they?” said Daria sharply.
“Now, dear, I hardly think you can complain about it. I mean, really, look at the circumstances. You’d been gone for three years, and we didn’t know where you’d run off to—”
“I didn’t run off anywhere! What are you talking about? I fell in a sinkhole, and—look, please tell me where my books are!”
“Daria, sweetie,” said Helen with marked tension, “let’s be rational about this. You must have had some kind of problem—maybe you were so upset at being at camp, you suffered some kind of amnesia and just went—”
“Mom! Stop it! That’s not right! Dad, where are my books?”
Jake looked unhappy. “Can I talk after I finish my bagel?” he said.
“No! Tell me!”
“Jake,” said Helen in a warning tone, “I want you to back me up on this. We didn’t know what to do with her things, and it was your idea to donate them to charity and—”
Daria clapped her hands to the sides of her head. “No!” she shouted. “No, you didn’t! Augh!” She fell over backward on the bed, facing up at the ceiling. “I can’t believe it!”
“Daria! Calm down!” said Helen, putting down her chicken salad. “Look at it from our side! We didn’t know where you’d gone, we didn’t know when you’d come back, and we—”
“Shut up! Just shut up!” Daria pulled the blanket over her head and became invisible.
Helen exhaled through her nose. She picked up her croissant again and angrily began to eat.
Daria did not hear her. Gone! shrieked a voice her head. They’re gone! How could they do this to me? Stephen King, Jane Austin, Anne Frank, Madeleine L’Engle—gone! The Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Lord of the Rings, Anne of Green Gables, The Last Unicorn—gone! Emily Dickinson, Edgar Lee Masters, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Shel Silverstein—gone! Black Beauty, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Martian Chronicles, The Annotated Alice—gone! Murdered! Thrown into the bin to be pawed, torn apart, left to rot, rained on, crayon-marked, thrown away! Daria wanted to claw her eyes out.
“Daria,” said Helen, swallowing her bite, “you need to get a little perspective. Think about it. You can always get more books. It’s not like they were alive, you know.”
That’s what you think, Daria raged to herself. That’s what you think. “You thought I was dead!” she snapped from under the blanket. “You didn’t believe I was coming back, and you went and threw out all my stuff! I can’t believe this! You didn’t believe I was alive!”
“We didn’t actually throw it out, kiddo!” said Jake. “They were glad to get your clothes and books and—”
“You stop it, Daria!” Helen shouted. “That’s enough! This is no way to act on your first full day back with your family! If you wanted those books so much, why didn’t you come home and get them?”
“I couldn’t!” Daria shouted back, throwing off the blanket and sitting up. “Damn it, Mom, I didn’t run away!”
“Don’t you believe me? Why don’t you believe me?”
Helen got up. “There’s a lot about this I can’t explain,” she said, “and one of those things is your behavior. It’s bad enough that you put us through all this hell without you raving on and on about your books! We didn’t know what to do! We did the best we could! And I’ve had enough of this.” Without another word, she walked out of the room. The door thumped shut behind her.
“Now, kiddo,” said her father in an anxious tone, “let’s not get so upset. Those were only books! You can check them out again at the library in Lawndale!”
“Augh!” Daria fell back on her bed and pulled the covers over her head again. “They were mine! I can still see them!”
“You’re not having a flashback, are you?” Jake asked in a high voice.
Daria grabbed her pillow and crushed it over her face and ears.
“Listen,” said Jake, “if you think you’re hearing voices, I can get one of the doctors to come in and maybe—”
The door to the room opened and Quinn entered. She took in the scene as she walked back to her chair. “I must have missed something,” she said. “Where’s Mom?”
“You didn’t miss anything, and she went for a walk,” said Jake quickly. “Say, kitten, why don’t you wait here with Daria and I’ll go check on your mother, okay? And if Daria starts talking to the walls, call a nurse.”
“Daddy! What’s going on?”
“Be right back!” he said, and he was gone.
Quinn got up and leaned over Daria’s bed. “Daria?” she said.
Her sister took the pillow off her head and pushed down the blankets. It was obvious that she was crying.
“Uh-oh.” Quinn looked back at the door, then at Daria again. “What happened? Did you have a fight?”
“Forget it.” Daria took off her glasses and rubbed her reddened eyes with her fists. “I should have stayed in that damn sinkhole.”
“I hate to say this, but you’re probably right,” Quinn said. “I overheard a doctor down the hall saying he needs to get blood samples from you. He’ll be here in a couple of minutes. I think they’re going to make you pee in a cup, too. You remember that time when we were in traffic and I really had to go, and Mom handed me that cup and said—”
“I don’t want to talk right now.” Daria pulled the covers over her head again.
“Okay.” Quinn noticed her father had left behind his bagel and her mother her croissant. She wandered over and consumed them in moments. “Hope that was fat-free mayo,” she muttered, then picked up a fashion magazine, sat back in her chair, and began to read.
“You’re going to need some new clothes before we get home,” she remarked to the lump under the blankets. “And that means . . . shopping spree!”
Over the course of that weekend, Daria sank into a state of inactivity, non-communication, and depression that Quinn began to refer to as “the Great Sleep.” The loss of her books was the worst thing Daria could imagine other than physical torture; in some ways, it was worse. It was like having part of her brain cut away. Furious, she refused to talk to her parents unless strongly prodded, but she did not tell Quinn, the doctors, or the child psychiatrist who came by Sunday afternoon why she looked so tired and down. Whenever she could, she crawled into bed and gave herself to oblivion.
Activity continued in the world outside her funk. The doctors at the hospital ran numerous tests on her—blood work, x-rays, MRI scans. She lost track and didn’t care. She did notice a growing interest in her on the part of the doctors, none of whom told her what they’d learned about her condition. Strangely, she did not have to go to the bathroom for anything except urination until Sunday. She thought that was odd because she’d had a large breakfast the morning of the hike, knowing that lunch would consist of barely edible berries and stale canteen water.
Two good things did happen, though they were more a lessening of bad things. First, following several conferences with doctors on Saturday afternoon, Helen stopped dropping veiled accusations that Daria had run away. She talked almost exclusively to Jake or Quinn afterward, saying little to Daria. Second, after Jake got a hotel room near the hospital, Daria’s room became less crowded, and only one or two of her family members were present at any time thereafter. This greatly reduced the tension between all of them.
To Daria’s infinite relief, Quinn remained her unwavering ally, bringing her magazines and small treats from the gift shop and offering comfort whenever possible. Quinn’s desire to build a new relationship between them seemed genuine. “We’ll get through this,” she said, and Daria started to believe her.
Monday morning, Daria awoke on her own just before six a.m. Only her father was present in the room, asleep in a nearby chair. Having nothing else to do, she picked up the remote and turned on the television, running the volume down to avoid waking up her dad. After a bit of surfing, she found a news channel and watched for the headlines.
To her surprise, she was still one of the top stories. The police were still searching the campgrounds for possible clues to her disappearance, but enormous interest was being shown in the collapsed cave that they had discovered by backtracking Daria’s route using dogs. Digging machines were being brought in, and FBI vans had been spotted entering the grounds, which had been sealed off as a crime scene. A number of curious reporters and locals had been arrested while exploring the grounds. Authorities warned everyone to stay away from the area to avoid destroying or removing evidence. No one would comment on what they believed caused Daria’s disappearance, or what they were finding at the cave.
What the hell is it with that sinkhole? Daria wondered. Did they find something down there under all that rock? A mad scientist’s lab? A buried spaceship? An interdimensional gate? The White Rabbit?
Daria’s medical condition was described as good. Mention was made of a cameraman from a St. Louis TV station being beaten on Saturday after he had sneaked past guards at the hospital. He claimed he had entered the Morgendorffers’ room by mistake and the attack was unprovoked. The attacker was not named, and the cameraman would not answer questions about charges he would file in the future. Daria glared at his image on the screen and wished she had gotten out of bed to help Quinn bash him, lawsuits be damned.
She was about to surf to another channel when the news anchorman began a short segment talking about fears parents had about their children being kidnapped by Satanic cults. Daria frowned as she absorbed a mishmash of hearsay and rumors about kidnap victims being programmed to commit evil acts, like mass murders, if exposed to sensory triggers such as the color red or the smell of roses. None of it had ever been proven, but the fear of it persisted in the public mind.
“What a load of bull,” she muttered, and she turned off the TV. Her attention swung around to her father—and her heart sank. He was awake and had seen the last report. Damn it, damn it, damn it!
Jake noticed Daria watching him and quickly got up from his chair. He stretched and gave her a forced smile. “Hey, kiddo!” he said. “Good to have news to start the day, eh? That was crazy stuff—I mean, weird, it was—hey, feeling up to some breakfast?”
“Not really,” she said. In truth, she was a little hungry, but she did not want to eat with her father around. He got on her nerves.
“Boy, I could really go for one of those Burger Barn breakfast burritos! Sure I can’t bring one back for you? I need to get back to the hotel and get a shower at some point, and—”
“Just go,” she said glumly, looking down at the blanket.
“Great! I’ll get one of the nurses to look in on you. Oh, Quinn and I are going to a store later this morning to get new clothes for you. She says she knows your size. Figures, doesn’t it? We gave—I mean, you’ve probably outgrown all your old clothes, so you need some new ones!”
“Dad, how could I outgrow anything when I haven’t even grown?”
“Ha, ha! That’s funny. Listen, I’d better run. Be back this afternoon! Your mother will be over in an hour or so. Love you, kiddo!” He waved and was out of the room in moments.
As the door shut, Daria fell back on her pillows again and took off her glasses. Dad’s acting like I’m a monster, she thought. I hoped he’d be really glad to see me, but the way he’s treating me is the pits. And Mom doesn’t believe I didn’t run away; she keeps trying to get to me admit I was hiding out in the cave or staying with other people all this time. Why can’t she figure it out? Quinn did! Mom and Dad act like they don’t want me anymore.
Perhaps, she reflected, perhaps they didn’t want her anymore. Perhaps that was the real problem.
She blocked the thought, but it quickly returned. She could not get over the impression that her parents publicly said they wanted her back, but down deep had recently come to terms with her loss and, in their minds, had said goodbye and buried her. If so, she had committed an unpardonable sin by coming back from the dead and wrecking their restructured world. They had given away all her things, moved to a new city, gotten a new home, gotten new jobs, and become accustomed to having only one daughter. They had gone through all the stages of grieving for a lost child and were done with it—only to get the lost child back.
Daria felt her stomach turn over. Perhaps that was their issue: to either keep their new and simpler world, or restructure their lives once more and take on a difficult, expensive, and time-consuming burden—Daria. The circumstances of her disappearance and reappearance were incredible, too much to absorb even for her. What must it be like for her parents? Was it easier for them to reject her than keep her? To her horror, Daria could envision the possibility that she might in time be put up for adoption. She felt sick to her stomach thinking about it. Would they send her away if they could not accept her return?
And why had Quinn welcomed her back? Perhaps Quinn, whatever her fears, had not truly given up hope. She had prepared herself for Daria’s return, as lost a cause as could ever be, and had been rewarded for her faith beyond measure. Why else would she be determined to resist Daria’s bad attitudes and overcome them? Why else was she so willing to believe in the impossible? Quinn, once the bane of Daria’s existence, seemed to be the only person left who rejoiced that Daria was alive.
Daria rarely cried, but she was overwhelmed from her ruminations and felt a major weeping jag coming on. Furious with herself, she clamped down on her emotions, jamming her fists into her eyes until she saw stars from the pain. Once she felt she could handle it, she put her glasses back on and pushed the buzzer to ask a nurse for breakfast, then turned the TV on and began surfing. Nothing held her attention. Before long, she fell again into dreamless sleep.
At seven thirty, two nurses woke her and escorted her to the shower. One found a few more items of used clothing for her and brought her new underwear. Though she said little, Daria was grateful for the attention. She felt she was something of a favorite with them, and she tried to be a good patient despite her depression. Several nurses noticed the absence of her father and asked about him; she only shrugged.
Her mother reappeared just before nine, accompanied by two doctors. Too tired to sleep, Daria was out of bed, sitting in a chair and reading a brand-new news magazine with a feature story of her discovery. She thought the campers’ photos of her at Camp Sunrise were unflattering, but at this point she didn’t much care. “Hi,” she said, setting the magazine aside.
“Hello, dear,” said her mother, looking very subdued. She gave Daria a perfunctory kiss on the top of her head. “Sorry I’m late. I was talking with—” She gestured to the doctors, who introduced themselves. Daria had met so many doctors, she forgot their names immediately. Everyone took a seat.
“Daria Morgendorffer,” said one of the doctors, a bespectacled and bearded man who leafed through a thick chart with her name on it. He stopped at a page and read it. “We got a number of your medical records in over the weekend, mostly by fax. Express mail brought more just an hour ago.” He paused, chewing his lower lip as he flipped a page and read that one. “You’ve told everyone you don’t remember a thing from the time you fell into that cave at the camp, until the earthquake came and you climbed out.” He looked up. “That quake was courtesy of the New Madrid fault system, by the way. Most people think all the earthquakes are in California, but we have fault lines running from here through Missouri and into Tennessee.” He fell silent, reading the chart again. “By any chance, did you ever see a movie called, The Flight of the Navigator?”
“What?” Daria blinked, thinking. What a strange question. “Was it the one about the medieval kid who sees visions of himself falling off a steeple?”
“Um, no. I saw that one. That was called The Navigator. I meant another movie, one about a boy who gets picked up by a flying saucer. A Disney movie, I think. My kids rented it a few years ago. Pee Wee Herman did the voice for the spaceship.”
Daria was confused. “I’ve heard of it, but—” The light dawned “—oh, the boy who didn’t grow older while he was gone. But that was the relativity thing. When the UFO took him away, he went almost as fast as . . . light . . .” She fell silent, trying to absorb what she was saying—and what it had to do with her.
“That’s the one,” said the doctor, still looking at her chart. “Interesting story, under the circumstances.” He sighed, then let her chart fall shut and looked at her directly. “You are a very unusual person, Miss Morgendorffer. You’ve been gone for over three years, yet, for some reason, we cannot find any medical evidence that during that time you’ve aged a single day.”
Daria felt a strange mixture of fright and elation at the doctor’s words. Did he believe her story? Was he about to offer proof she hadn’t run away or gone mad, that she could remember nothing and there was a reason for it?
“That’s sort of how I feel about it,” she said carefully. “I don’t feel any older, but I don’t remember seeing a spaceship, much less anything else after I fell into the sinkhole. Until the earthquake, I mean.”
“I didn’t mean there was an actual spaceship involved. I meant only the parallel with the movie about your aging—rather, your apparent lack thereof. I’ve read your statements on what happened before you were found.” He drummed his fingers on her chart cover. “Do you know, just a while ago we examined an x-ray that was taken of your right shoulder in March nineteen ninety-four, at a clinic in Highland, Texas. You fell from a chin-up bar during P.E. and reported injuring your shoulder, so an x-ray was taken to determine if you had broken anything. You hadn’t. Do you remember that?”
Daria nodded and wondered where this was going. The doctor opened her chart and began reading again. “We took another x-ray of the same area yesterday,” he said, “and there is no difference at all between the two pictures. No bone growth. Not a millimeter. Your height and weight are the same, of course, as they were in nineteen ninety-four. Your hormone levels appear to be within normal limits, but you didn’t grow. And that dentist we brought in last evening, she examined your teeth and this morning compared the results to the x-rays and notes we got from your old dentist in Highland, and she found that nothing had changed. You still have a small cavity on one of your molars, lower left side, apparently the same size as it was three years ago. We’re going to see if we can get you to a dental clinic near here this afternoon and shoot a few more x-rays, to see if those x-rays match your old ones. Very strange.”
Daria did nothing but stare at him. She had not believed that physical evidence would ever appear that would support her story—but this was going further than she had imagined.
“We took skin scrapings from your fingers, arms, and the soles of your feet,” the doctor went on. “You were not exposed to high levels of dirt over the last three years, as you would have if you had been living in the woods on your own. If fact, your skin seems to be fairly clean and well cared for. I assume you showered daily, even at camp. No long-buried dirt particles were found in the epidermis, none beyond the usual that is. You could have been living somewhere other than camp, of course, or . . . not.”
Daria glanced at her mother. Helen stared without expression at Daria’s feet, listening.
The doctor raised his chin. “You had a booster shot before you went to camp. Do you remember it?”
“It was a typhoid shot,” Daria said. Without thinking, she glanced down at her upper right arm.
“Mind if I look?” asked the doctor. When Daria agreed, he got up from his chair and examined her arm. “I’d like to get some photos of your arm this morning,” said the doctor. “I’m wondering if we might find the actual vaccination spot. That would be unusual after three years.”
“What happened to me?” Daria asked, her voice hoarse.
“I don’t know,” said the doctor. “I haven’t the faintest idea.” He thought. “Did you eat breakfast the morning you went off with the other campers, on that nature expedition? And dinner the night before?”
“Yes. I had . . . toast with butter, milk, cereal—it was Frosted Flakes—and a banana. I forgot what I had for dinner. A hamburger or hot dog, I think.”
“Your memory is very good.”
“I never got Frosted Flakes before. Everyone else took all the little boxes of it, except that day.”
“Ah. A good meal, then—but you didn’t have a bowel movement after you got back until last night, is that correct? Nothing Friday or Saturday. I know the nurses kept asking you about it.”
Her face burning, Daria nodded yes. She feared he was going to ask her more about it, which would be especially mortifying with her mother present.
The doctor let her chart fall shut again and looked at her speculatively. “Your digestive system was empty when you came out of the camp Friday,” he said. “We know because we did scans of your abdomen that evening, looking for signs of injuries or disease. The results revealed you had nothing in your stomach or intestines except what you’d eaten at Camp Sunrise Friday afternoon, once you were with the camp leaders and the police. Yet you were not starved in any way when found—hungry, I’ll bet, but not starved.”
The room was very quiet.
“You have something in your blood, too,” he said. “A chemical of some kind, not a microbe or virus. An odd chemical—not harmful, as far as we can tell, but odd. No one else has it but you.”
Daria shivered. She couldn’t help it. Something in my blood? This creeped her out completely.
After a long moment of silence, the doctor said, “Tell me what you remember, when you woke up in that cave on Friday.”
Fear crawled up her spine. “I—I told the police about it.” Her voice failed, and she coughed to clear her throat. “I woke up on the cave floor—”
“What kind of floor was it? Smooth, soft, rocky, hard, cold, hot—?”
“Smooth,” she said. “Like a . . . like a floor here. Very smooth and hard. I thought it was like marble, because it was so smooth and cold, too. Very cold.”
“Not like a real cave floor, was it?” he said steadily.
Why had she not thought of this before? Now she was really frightened. “No,” she whispered.
“Did you see anything around you?”
“No. It was black. Nothing.”
“Not even the opening to the sinkhole?”
“No, not . . . oh.” She had fallen into a sinkhole, but there was no hole at the top when she awoke, until the earthquake made one.
“You were in a lot of pain, you said, when you woke up.”
“Yes.” She still whispered. “I was lying on my back, and everything hurt. That . . . pins and needles thing.”
“Like the pins and needles you get when you’ve been motionless for a very long time? Were your arms at your sides, do you remember? Legs straight out?”
She nodded and shivered violently. How did he know that? What did he know about what had happened to her?
The doctor sighed again and leaned forward in his seat. “I don’t have any other questions for you, Miss Morgendorffer. We don’t know what happened to you, not yet. The FBI is going over your camp clothing now, and as you might imagine, we have more medical tests to run. It will be a busy week. We’ll try to make it a bearable one for you, though.” He turned to her mother. “I must ask you not to discuss this with anyone outside the immediate family, if at all possible.”
“Certainly,” said Helen. Her face was white.
“Good. We don’t need even more news hounds around the hospital than we already have.” He turned to Daria again. “I apologize for the trouble you’re going through while we sort this out. I hope we can start to get some answers for you—and for everyone—within the next few days.”
“When can I go home?”
“I’d say, mmm, Thursday, Friday at the latest. We should have everything we can possibly get by that point. That’s about it from me.” The doctor stood up, as did Helen and the other doctor who had remained silent.
“Excuse me,” said Daria, still seated. “You mentioned that movie.”
The doctor waited, looking down at her.
“Did they . . . did they find aliens in the cave, at the campground?”
A corner of the doctor’s mouth curved up. “I have no idea. Let us know if you need anything, Miss Morgendorffer. Someone will be by soon to explain the tests we wish to run today. Chin up. You’ve been very brave so far. Braver, I think, than I would be in your place. We won’t let you down.”
“Okay,” she said. Her voice was barely audible.
The doctors shook hands all around, then left. Helen sat down again. She looked at Daria, then looked off at the door.
A long half-minute ticked away.
“Mommy?” Daria had not said that word since preschool.
Helen did not move. She continued to look at the door.
“Do you love me?” It wasn’t what Daria had wanted to say. She hadn’t wanted to say anything.
Her mother half-turned toward her and paused. “Do I love you?” she repeated. She hesitated, then stood up. Looking away again, she walked to the door, opened it, and left the room without a word. The door closed with a soft thump.
As if from a great distance, Daria heard someone walk away, heels clicking on linoleum. A cart rolled down a hallway. Water rushed through a pipe and was gone. It was very quiet.
Daria stared at the floor, and then she bowed her head and wept.
As the bearded doctor had suggested might happen, the Morgendorffers’ departure from Hot Springs was delayed until Friday morning. Test results and reports continued to pour in and be given to Jake, Helen, and Daria. Daria’s new dental x-rays matched her old ones from three years ago. An eye exam revealed that her prescription for lenses was the same as three years before. The mark on her right arm from the typhoid booster shot in 1994 was found; it appeared to have been given only a few weeks earlier. And a preliminary positive reading of her DNA match results came back. The evidence mounted, and the conclusion was always the same: The girl found at Camp Sunrise was Daria—and she was still twelve and a half years old.
The unknown chemical in her bloodstream broke down naturally and was filtered out of her system by Thursday morning. It appeared, said the doctor, to be an organic preservative designed to prevent cell or blood crystallization at very low temperatures, while super-oxygenating cells to aid their revival.
“It was biological antifreeze,” said the bearded doctor, reading Daria’s chart at their final meeting on Thursday afternoon. He was talking to Daria. “It crossed into your central nervous system, too. Went everywhere. My guess is, and it’s only a guess, is that somehow you were preserved—I wouldn’t really say frozen, but that’s up to you—until the earthquake came and interrupted the process. That’s when you got out of the cave. We’d have to get the story from the FBI about what they’re digging out of the camp, but you know and I know that’s not likely. My guess is that whoever put you away meant for you to be retrieved in an undamaged state—brought back to life, if you will—but how anyone could pull off something like this is beyond me. It’s not in our technological repertoire.”
“Could the Russians or Japanese do it?” asked Jake, wide-eyed.
The doctor snorted. “When I said it wasn’t in ‘our’ technological repertoire, I didn’t mean American. I meant human.”
Daria merely listened, her face blank.
The doctor shrugged. “It’s only a guess, anyway. Good science fiction if nothing else.” He flipped her chart shut. “I don’t have a clue what really happened. I’m just trying to fit the pieces together, and it’s one hell of a puzzle. At any rate, you’re back. If I could duplicate and patent that antifreeze, I’d make a billion overnight, but having you back is all that really matters.”
Daria’s gaze dropped. It was not all that really mattered.
Quinn waited impatiently outside the room for the meeting to end. Her parents didn’t want her to be in the meetings, but she wasn’t particularly interested in the scientific and medical details of what had happened to Daria. She already knew the bottom line, which was that was her sister was back. Younger, older, that was irrelevant. It was Daria.
Yet something else had happened. Quinn knew something had gone disastrously wrong within the family that week, but she could not ferret out what. Her parents at best seemed preoccupied and distant, going through the motions but not really being around. At worst, they acted as if Daria were not present, avoiding almost all interaction with her. Obviously depressed, Daria slept whenever she wasn’t being subjected to medical exams, and she lost weight. Despite Quinn’s coaxing, Daria refused to talk, though she never objected to her sister’s presence.
Thursday afternoon, Quinn decided she had had enough. She knew the goal she wanted. Charting the course to find it was not the hard part; sailing it was the killer. It was time to sail.
The conference room door opened, and the bearded doctor walked out with a nod in Quinn’s direction. Jake and Helen came out after Daria did, but Quinn caught her mother’s arm as she passed. “I have to talk to you,” she said. “It’s urgent. Let’s go back in the room.”
“What’s this about?” asked Helen in surprise. Confused, Jake stopped and looked back. Daria kept walking toward the elevators.
“Dad, you take Daria up to her room,” Quinn called. “We’ll be right there.” She tugged her mother’s arm, guiding her back into the empty conference room. Quinn shut the door behind her. “What’s going on with Daria, Mom?” she began.
Helen shook her head. “I’m sorry, dear, but the doctor doesn’t want us to discuss—”
“No, I’m not talking about whatever went on in here,” said Quinn. “I don’t care about that. What’s going on between you and Daria?”
Helen hesitated. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Daria’s really upset. She looks so down she’s almost sick, Mom. Do you know what’s going on?”
“I don’t know. She won’t talk to me. We’re all having trouble dealing with what happened.”
“You know she didn’t really run away, right? I mean, you know that for sure, don’t you?”
“Quinn, I don’t know what really happened. It could have been anything. We just don’t know.”
Quinn slapped herself on the forehead. “Duh! Daria’s still twelve, and I’m fourteen! Wake up, Mom! Something really bad happened, something totally insane, and I’m sure you know all about it from talking to that doctor—but whatever it was, it wasn’t Daria’s fault! Think about it! How could it be?”
“You don’t know what happened any more than—”
“Look at her, Mom! She’s still a kid when she should be almost sixteen! No one on Earth runs away from home and comes back a kid! This isn’t Peter Pan!”
Helen wearily turned away and walked around in a small circle. “I know,” she said at last. She stopped by a chair. “I’m worried that—” She waved a hand “—Quinn, this is very difficult to know what to do. The doctor said so many things, and—”
“Difficult? What’s difficult about it? Daria is part of our family. She’s one of us, and she always will be. If she’s not in our family, then who is? You? Me? Isn’t she one of us, too?”
“That’s not what I’m . . .” Helen began pacing again, not looking at her daughter. “I know all the tests say she’s Daria, but it’s completely impossible. Daria’s been gone for three years. Your father and I finally accepted that she was gone, she was dead and we’d never see her again, and then this other person shows up who looks like Daria, and—”
“God, are you really saying that?” Quinn gazed at her mother in horror. “Listen to you! You never saw her body, so how could she be really dead? What happened to you, Mom? You were practically dancing on air Friday night when you saw her, and now you’re—what in the world are you thinking?”
“I think it’s impossible!” Helen suddenly shouted, facing Quinn. “How could she be alive after all this time? You think about it! You don’t know what kinds of things your father and I have been hearing about her! Even the doctor said it was impossible that she should be here! This whole thing is totally impossible!”
“Jesus Christ, don’t you feel anything when you see her? Don’t you feel it? She’s your daughter and my sister! She’s our flesh and blood! How can you do this to her? How can you do it to our family?”
“Oh, stop it, Quinn!”
“You stop it!” Quinn shouted back. “If you abandon her, you abandon me! I go where she goes! If you throw her out, we’re not a family anymore! Do you want that? Is that what happened? Did you shut her out? Don’t you even want her?”
Helen whirled. For a moment Quinn thought her mother was about to strike her, but instead she stamped across the room, gesturing violently. “I don’t know!” Helen yelled at the far side of the room. “I don’t know what I want!”
Quinn stalked after her mother and stopped behind her. “Do you love Daria?” she said in a hard voice.
Helen’s shoulders slumped.
“Do you? Do you love the little Daria you gave birth to? Do you love that little girl you lost? Do you?”
“Yes!” said her mother. “Of course I do, God damn it!”
“Then go tell her that! She’s upstairs! Go tell her that, and find out what’s bothering her so much that she won’t eat, she sleeps all the time, and she looks like she wants to die! Tell her!”
Helen lowered her head and rubbed her eyes with her hand, her back to Quinn.
Quinn waited. When she could wait no more, she said, “What is it, Mom?”
Her mother put her hands on the back of a chair and leaned her weight on it. “She asked me that,” she said reluctantly.
“She asked you what?”
“If—” Helen rubbed her eyes again “—she asked me if I loved her.”
The pause afterward drew out too long.
“Oh, you didn’t,” said Quinn in a hollow voice. “Please tell me you didn’t.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t love her!” Helen snapped.
“Well, what did you say, then?”
“I didn’t say anything! I couldn’t—”
“Oh, my God.” Quinn turned away, looking up at the acoustic tile ceiling with her hands raised as if speaking to the heavens themselves. She faced here mother again. “You didn’t say anything? Nothing? When did you do this?”
“Drop it, Quinn!”
“Drop it? Your own daughter asks you if you love her, and you blow her off?” Quinn’s voice rose to a shout. “Do you love me, Mom?”
“Quinn!” Helen came about, furious. “You shut up, young lady!”
“Do you love me?”
“Lying bitch!” Quinn screamed.
Helen’s hand came out for Quinn’s face. Quinn dodged it and impulsively lashed back, her open right hand catching her mother across the left side of her face. The blow stung Quinn’s hand like fire. “Lying bitch!” she screamed as Helen staggered back. “You don’t love me if you don’t love my sister! You don’t love me if you don’t love her, too! Go to hell!”
Red-faced and teary-eyed, Helen came back as if to strike at Quinn again, but instead rushed past her for the door. She opened it and ran from the conference room, her heels clicking rapidly down the hall past the elevators to the stairwell. Quinn heard the fire door thump shut, then only the voices of hospital workers wondering what had happened.
Quinn shut the door to the conference room and sat down in one of the chairs. After a moment, she put her face in her hands and cried. She could feel it in the pit of her stomach. The family hung by a thread. Even a breath would destroy it. She feared she would vomit in her terror. After crying until she was cried out, she sat dully for a while longer, staring at the floor and trying to imagine where she and Daria would go. They would be together at least—she was sure of that, if of nothing else. Wiping her face on her hands and arms, she left and got cleaned up in a women’s restroom, then went upstairs to see her sister.
She got to the room at the same time her mother did. They came out of different stairwells and stopped when they saw each other at the far ends of the hall. Quinn finally walked toward her mother and silently gestured to Daria’s room. Taking the cue, Helen went inside first, followed by her daughter. Jake was watching the room’s TV with the volume off, while Daria tried to sleep with the blanket over her head.
The door closed behind Quinn, and no one in the family left until the following morning.
And when they did, they left together.
Friday morning, the Morgendorffers checked Daria out of the hospital in Hot Springs and prepared to go home. Jake had checked out of their hotel room and brought their luggage to the hospital, and everyone cleaned up and dressed in Daria’s room or the nearby restrooms. Except for haggard looks, Jake and Helen were close to normal in appearance. Quinn glanced at them, made sure that buttons were buttons and zippers were zipped, then gave them no further thought.
Though she still lacked a spark of animation, Daria was at least moving again. She wore clothes that Quinn had picked out for her that week at local stores, purchased on their parents’ credit cards: ash-gray wide-bottom jeans, a maroon T-shirt, a yellow-gold windbreaker, and black boots in a style Quinn remembered Daria had liked, though they made Quinn’s nose scrunch up. A new pair of eyeglass lenses (and frames, Quinn hoped) would have to wait until they were home. She brushed out her smaller sister’s long brown hair until it glowed, but knowing Daria’s anti-feminine tastes, did not force makeup on her. Not yet. Some things took time. At least the purple fingerprint ink was finally gone from her fingers.
Only Quinn appeared fresh. She pulled on her tight jeans and shoes, picked out an aqua tee that highlighted her eyes, put on her jeans jacket, brushed and styled her orange-red hair to resemble the cover model’s on last month’s issue of Waif, and put on makeup that would look good even in harsh camera light. Ready for action.
A last look the TV news confirmed the family’s worst fears. Word of Daria’s non-aging state had gotten out. A hospital assistant had talked to the media after copying a doctor’s notes during a meeting. The media frenzy had exploded. A muscle twitched repeatedly in Helen’s cheek as she watched. Quinn saw that and knew the hospital assistant, who had been fired, would soon wish he had been born without a mouth. Maybe her mother would think of a way to squash the obnoxious cameraman, too.
The police arrived to escort them through the media mob and on to the airport. A limousine—paid for by the state of Arkansas as a parting gift—would take them away. As they rode down the elevator, Quinn wondered if their lives would ever return to normal. She shook her head. Not a chance.
“Everyone smile!” she said, right before the elevator doors opened to the lobby. Television camera floodlights, cheers, and shouts poured in. Two uniformed Arkansas State Police officers led the way out, with Jake and Helen—with Daria between them, holding their hands—following behind. Quinn and two more officers came next, and hotel clerks with their luggage brought up the rear. Flash cameras went off dozens of times a second. Reporters shouted questions at them about aliens, immortality, interstellar spacecraft, and time travel; Helen and Jake gave back frozen, nervous smiles, too worried about what they might say to even speak. Daria looked around in open-mouthed astonishment. Quinn waved to the cameras and grinned, riding the crest.
The police-escorted limousine ride to the airport was made without conversation. Helen, Daria, and Jake sat in the back seat, with Quinn on the rear-facing seat across from them. Shortly after the limo took off, Daria suddenly unbuckled her seat belt and moved across to sit next to Quinn. Quinn put her arm around her sister, which was easy to do because of their difference in height. “Are you okay?” she whispered.
Daria nodded but said nothing, looking at her lap.
“I love you,” Quinn whispered, and gave her a hug.
Daria took Quinn’s free hand and held it with both of hers, looking down at their entwined fingers. On the way to the airport, she laid her head on her sister’s shoulder.
The airport was almost as bad as the hospital. Quinn noticed that people stared and pointed at them in shock, and a few tried to touch them or get autographs but were kept back by the police. Someone shouted, “Are they bringing back Elvis, too?” which caused Quinn to roll her eyes.
Daria turned in the direction of the man who shouted. She glanced at Quinn and smirked. “A pox on the flea-bitten mob,” she said in a deadpan. It was the most encouraging sign of the return of the old Daria that Quinn could ask for.
Except for the surprised looks and greetings from fellow passengers, and the inevitable out-of-the-way stopovers, the flight home was unremarkable. At Baltimore-Washington International, Jake and Helen were escorted to their car by airport security guards. Another police escort by Maryland state troopers was waiting for them. In the parking lot, Daria carefully looked over the family’s navy-blue Lexus before getting in. Quinn puzzled over this before realizing Daria remembered the mauve Corolla that had been the family car when the girls were driven to Camp Grizzly three years earlier—or two weeks earlier, in Daria’s mind.
“We’re about forty minutes from home,” Quinn told her sister. “Lawndale’s pretty cool. We have our own mall. The school is okay. Oh.” She frowned. “I forgot about school. You’re . . . eighth grade, yeah. Guess your summer vacation got cut kind of short. Lawndale’s got a couple of middle schools. We’ll have to get you in pretty soon. At least your birthday will come that much sooner. You’ve got that, anyway.”
“Let’s have a quiet ride home, okay?” said Helen wearily.
Quinn glared at her mother, then took Daria’s hand in hers. Daria did not resist. “I’ll help you fix up your room,” she said, keeping her voice low. “You’ll love it.”
Helen turned her head to speak.
“Nothing pink,” said Daria.
Quinn sighed in resignation. Daria was definitely coming back.
Helen looked away and said nothing.
The rest of the ride was made in relative silence, though Quinn pointed out interesting landmarks to her sister on the way. The motorcade left the Interstate at the Lawndale exit, went down a few streets, then turned into a large subdivision that appeared to be about two decades old. “We live on Glen Oaks,” Quinn whispered, watching the back of her mother’s head. “Right . . . there. The red—” She gasped. “Oh, look!” she said aloud.
“Oh, no,” said Jake and Helen at the same time.
Dozens of television vans were parked up and down Glen Oaks Lane. Police cars with flashing lights waited in front of the Morgendorffers’ home. Neighbors up and down the street began to cheer and take pictures from their front lawns as the motorcade pulled up. Above the front door of the red brick house at 1111 Glen Oaks was a huge banner, hung from the upper floor windows. It read: WELCOME HOME DARIA!
“That’s Rita and Amy by the front door! And there’s Erin!” said Helen, spotting her sisters and niece. “And Mother and Ruth! Look!”
“Mom?” said Jake, craning his neck as he drove. “Really?”
“Careful!” Helen shouted as cameramen crowded the streets around them.
Police got the Morgendorffers into their house and the company of their relatives. The house was filled with bouquets from well-wishers. Daria bore the weeping, joyful hugs and kisses from her aunts and grandmothers. She managed to ignore Grandma Barksdale’s comment, “Glad you finally saw reason and came back to us,” and Grandma Morgendorffer’s loud aside to Jake: “I made sure nothing red was in the house so she won’t go—you know.”
Mixed with this was Daria’s awareness that everyone else was highly aware of her short stature. “Didn’t you grow?” Grandma Barksdale asked, frowning at her.
“Shhh!” said Grandma Morgendorffer. “It was the aliens! It might set her off!”
Aunt Rita and Aunt Amy quickly steered Daria away to the kitchen for her welcome home cake. Daria noticed that all the telephones had been unplugged.
As the initial celebration wore down, Quinn led Daria upstairs to see the bedrooms. Quinn’s was as Daria expected—pastels and lacey things, clothes on the floor, stuffed animals and accessories on every surface. The guest bedroom was on the fluffy, feminine side, though with a grown-up’s tastes.
“Maybe we could paint it black,” said Daria, looked over the off-white walls. “A little ultraviolet paint, a black light . . . it could work. What does that other room look like, the one with the bars in the windows?”
“Forget it,” said Quinn. She looked around the room and said goodbye to its pleasant look. “Well, come on, let’s get your stuff moved in.”
Daria looked up at her. “What stuff?”
“Your books,” said Quinn.
“My what?” said Daria, and she followed Quinn back to her sister’s bedroom.
“Ignore the labels,” Quinn said as she got into her closet and began shoving out boxes on which was written contents identifiers like “SPARE SCRUNCHIES, BOX 4” and “WINTER ACCESSORIES—WET SNOW DAYS ONLY.”
Daria knelt down and ripped the tape off one of the boxes. The first thing that met her eyes when she opened it was a red, hardbound book: Animal Farm, by George Orwell. It was the book she had taken to Camp Grizzly three years (—two weeks!—) ago, which her mother had taken away in the futile hope it would encourage Daria to make friends. Below the book were more books. She opened another box, then another and another. It was her old library, every single volume of it.
“God, I thought I was never going to get rid of this stuff,” said Quinn, blowing stray hair out of her face as she finished heaving boxes out of the closet. “Dad left the book cartons in the garage overnight before he donated them. I waited until they went to bed, then took all your stuff out and put their old college books and all the old Reader’s Digests we had in place of them, and taped up the cartons. I didn’t want to let go of you so soon. Don’t say anything about the college—”
Her words were cut off when her smaller sister grabbed her and buried her face in her tee.
“Whoa!” said Quinn, but she held Daria tightly and kissed the top of her head. The front of her tee became very damp.
“Welcome home,” she whispered to her sister. “Welcome home.”
And all was again right with the world.
Quinn awoke, the sound of a board creaking in her ears. She rolled over and squinted at the bedside alarm. It was almost two a.m. The exhausted family had gone to bed soon after midnight, her aunts and adult cousin Erin asleep downstairs on the sofas. The grandmothers had gone back to a local hotel earlier in the evening. Some of the reporters were still outside, though.
A soft knock came from her bedroom door. “Waidaminit,” Quinn mumbled, sliding out of bed and adjusting her long nightshirt. She shuffled to the door and opened it, expecting her mother. If it was a cameraman, she knew she would scream her lungs out. After she killed him.
Instead, it was someone smaller, also in a long nightshirt. She was barely visible in the light from downstairs.
“Daria?” Quinn rubbed her eyes, then opened the door and let her sister in. “What’s up?”
“Can’t sleep,” said Daria.
“Oh.” A minute later, they were back in Quinn’s bed, cuddled up under the blankets as they had been at the hospital.
“Sorry,” said Daria.
“It’s all right. Bad dream?”
“No.” Daria shifted her position, making herself smaller. “Thinking too much.”
Daria didn’t answer right away.
“Come on, say it,” said Quinn. “Talking about it always makes it better.”
“I don’t think so,” said Daria.
Quinn listened to her sister breathe. “Just say it,” she said.
Daria swallowed. “What do you do when you lose something?” she said.
“What do I do? Well, duh. I go look for it. Like you. I mean, they didn’t let me go out in the woods or anything to hunt for you, except for the first day after you were gone when everyone at camp did, but I did that TV commercial thing. I put up posters and handed out fliers and everything. Let’s don’t talk about that anymore.” She paused a beat. “Why were you thinking about this?”
“Because,” said Daria, “someone or something had me frozen in that cave for three years and three months. Something really powerful had me and meant to keep me. And now I’m not there anymore.”
Quinn was suddenly aware of every little noise in the entire house. She was completely awake. “I see,” she said.
Neither of them spoke for a while.
“Let’s go back to sleep,” Quinn whispered, but Daria was already snoring softly in her arms.
What do you do when you lose something?
You go look for it.
Quinn buried her face in her sister’s hair. Sleep was forever in coming again.
Author’s Notes II: This story has a sequel, “But Now Is Found,” which continues the story of Daria’s new life in Lawndale. It was meant to be the second book in a series, Daria: The Outers Trilogy, but reader reaction to the science-fiction elements in the second part was strongly and widely negative. If there are enough calls for it, the third volume (“Was Blind But Now Can See”) might eventually be produced, or at least a detailed synopsis of where it was going; it is in note form on my computer. It is also possible the second volume will be rewritten to downgrade the SF elements and focus on the relationships, as in this story. Time will tell.
Original: 04/16/04, revised 04/06/05