Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged. This is a prequel to my story, Three, that tells the story of one alternate universe Daria Morgendorffer.
Jim Vitale, senior partner of the law firm of Vitale, Davis, Horowitz, Riordan, Schrecter, Schrecter, and Schrecter, placed an employment packet on his desk and glared across it at Eric Schrecter, the youngest partner of the firm. "I agree that Helen Morgendorffer is the most qualified applicant for the job. Unfortunately, she's an attractive divorcee, meaning that we won't get any work out of you and eventually, I'll have to spend the time and effort to bury a sexual harassment suit. Therefore, you will hire the next ranked candidate for the new associate position."
Disappointed, Eric Schrecter said, "Yes, Mr. Vitale. I'll contact Mr. Armitage directly with the good news."
Mr. Vitale dismissively waved his hand. "Now get out of here. And make sure that Maryann has the rejection letters to the rest of the candidates in the mail by the end of the day."
"Yes, Mr. Vitale."
"Mom?" Daria Morgendorffer said, seeing her mother at the table with her head cradled on her arms. "What's wrong?"
Tired, Helen looked up at her oldest daughter. She pushed a letter aside and said, "I'm sorry, sweetie, but that job in Maryland fell through."
"You said that the interview went really well."
"I thought so, but I was clearly wrong."
"So we're stuck in Highland?"
"For at least a little while."
Rubbing her temple with her free hand while talking on the phone, Helen said, "Jake, the child support was due a week ago."
Standing in his tiny apartment, Jake said, "Helen, I haven't had a client in the last two weeks. I simply don't have the money, I swear!"
"The sad thing is, I believe you," Helen said.
"But I've got some great leads," Jake said. "As soon as I get them reeled in, I'll catch up in a flash."
"I'm sure you will, Jake," Helen said, tired. You always had good intentions, but they pave the way to Hell, bankruptcy and divorce.
"I can't wait to see the girls this weekend."
"I'll bring them over right on time."
"I miss them."
"I know you do, but…"
"I know, I know," Jake said, deeply saddened.
"I need to go now. Bye."
"Bye," Jake said, and hung up the phone. He slammed down the shot of cheap vodka that was sitting on the table and said, "Dammit!"
Walking away from the phone, Helen sighed and said, "You're not going to find any new clients. Not around this town. No matter how much you dream, you big oaf. I'd better start working on a smaller budget."
Jake pulled a videotape out of the player and it trailed a crumpled strip of tape back into where it was caught in the VHS player. "Damn, stupid 99 cent video rentals!" he shouted and yanked on the tape, pulling the player out and causing it to fall.
"No, you don't!" Jake dove for the machine and managed to catch it before bashing his head against the TV stand. "Ow!"
Seated on the sofa, Daria and Quinn watched in tired resignation, a single bag of microwave popcorn between them. "It's okay, Daddy," Quinn said. "We can see it next time."
"Are you going to need some ice for that?" Daria said.
Rubbing the bump on his head, Jake said, "Ow."
"I'll get some from the fridge, Dad," Daria said. "Just a minute."
Quinn picked up the bag and offered it to Jake. "Popcorn?"
"Thanks, Quinn," Jake said, reaching for the treat.
"I think you could use it more than I do."
"Not much of a Saturday night, is it?"
"It beats most of the alternatives in this town," Daria said, returning with some ice wrapped in a dishcloth. "Here."
Jake placed the ice on his head and said, "Thanks, kiddo."
"Sure thing, Dad." Daria took a handful of popcorn and sat back down on the sofa.
"Since the movie is shot, I guess we can talk about what's up with you," Jake said.
Daria shrugged. "Not much. Go to what passes for a school in this town. Watch the local idiots eat nachos and get slapped by anything with two X chromosomes. The usual."
"Quinn?" Jake said.
"Try to look good for school. See how many boys ask me out for dates."
"You're dating?" Jake said, shocked.
"Mom won't let her," Daria said. "But that doesn't stop idiot boys from trying."
"They're being nice," Quinn said. "And someday I will be able to go out on dates and it will be good to have practice in choosing which one to accept."
"I stand corrected," Daria said.
"What about you, Daria? Any boys?"
Daria wrinkled her face in disgust. "You've got to be kidding."
Standing in front of the senior partner's desk, Helen said, "Mr. Baylor, in the last six months, I have increased my billable hours by 27 percent and my courtroom success rate is the highest among the associates."
Mr. Baylor looked all of what you would expect from the stereotype of a Texas lawyer. Cowboy boots, hat on a rack behind him, and a large, ornate silver buckle on his belt. It was a look he carefully worked to maintain to please his clients and look good on television ads. He leaned back, showing his large belly, and looked at Helen. "We really appreciate all the work you do, Helen. We really do. You know that I would vote to make you a partner in a minute, but, you know how some of the other guys can be about women-folk."
Helen struggled to hold back her anger. "I can guess."
"I can put all of this forward, but I can't promise anything."
Helen nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Baylor."
"Now, I've got to go. You can't keep Judge Wallace waiting at the golf course. Keep up the good work, Helen."
"I will," Helen said as she backed out of the office. After she closed the door and turned away, she mumbled under her breath, "You can't fool me, you chauvinistic bastard. Right now, you're shredding my request because you don't want to bother trying to promote of us 'women-folk.' I have got to get out of here. Somehow."
"Mo-om!" Quinn cried. "You can't possibly expect me to live on a clothing budget like that."
Firm, Helen said, "Quinn, you still have more spending money than a lot of your classmates."
"No buts. Compared to a lot of your classmates, it is still generous."
"You're killing me."
"No, only forcing you to be a little more responsible."
"But you're not doing it to Daria!"
"Even when your father and I were together and we had two incomes, Daria wasn't spending as much as I'm still allowing you."
"They don't have libraries for fashionable clothes."
"Quinn, it's not an option. I have only so much money coming in and have to pay the mortgage and all the rest of the bills before giving you a clothing allowance."
"It's not fair!"
Helen shook her head. "Life's not fair. It's really not and most of the time, there's not a damn thing you can do about it."
"Hey, Daria," the boy known as Butt-head said, "we're going to get some wheels."
Daria looked askance at him and his friend. "How could you two ever dig up the money for a car?"
Beavis said, "Dig. Yeah, chicks are going to dig our car."
"That didn't answer my question."
"We don't need any money," Butt-head said.
"You can't steal a car."
Beavis said, "We're not going to steal it. Todd would kick our asses."
"Todd Ianuzzi is mixed up with this?" Daria said. "That can't be good."
"We just have to do some driving for him," Butt-head said.
Daria warned, "That's really not good."
Beavis said, "Diarrhea, that's what's so good about it. We get the car, and we get to drive."
"Driving is what some guy named Bubba is going to be doing to you when the police catch you with whatever Todd has hidden in the car."
Butt-head said, "Hmm."
"The cops aren't going to catch us," Beavis said. "Don't worry."
"That's right," Butt-head said. "Our car is going to haul ass."
Daria shook her head and walked away. "You're going to be sorry."
Daria groaned when she saw the orange Gremlin rolling down the dusty street with blue smoke rolling out of the back. The car stopped next to her and Beavis leaned out of the passenger window. "Cool car, huh?"
"It's a piece of junk," Daria said.
"Wanna ride?" Butt-head said from behind the wheel.
"No," Daria said. "But, you guys might want to grab some nachos. Right over there."
"Nachos, cool," Beavis said. "Hey, Butt-head, let's get some nachos."
"Yeah, nachos," Butt-head said, rolling the car forward and into the parking lot of the convenience store.
After the boys entered, Daria walked to the car and, after checking that nobody was looking, stuck a pencil into the valve stem of one tire, breaking the tip off and jamming the valve open.
When the boys came out, noisily eating a tray of nachos each, Beavis noticed the tire and said, "Man, that sucks."
"What sucks?" Butt-head said.
"Yeah, that sucks. What are we going to do?"
"Change it," Beavis said.
"But Todd said not to open the trunk or he'd kick our asses."
Daria said, "You guys had to be someplace important, right?"
"Yeah," Butt-head replied.
"With the tire flat, you'd better start walking. You don't want to be late."
"Yeah, we'd better walk," Butt-head said.
Beavis said, "Walking sucks!"
"Todd said we had to get to the old drive-in."
"Yeah. We'd better walk."
"Later," Daria said as the boys wandered away.
She then went to the payphone outside the store and dialed. After a short pause, she said, "I'd like to report a suspicious car."
Sitting at the dining table with her children, Helen said, "I heard that the police found a car with a trunk full of cocaine in a parking lot today."
Daria said, "Hmm."
Helen said, "I really worry about you and your sister in this town."
"Do you know what that stuff will do to your nose?" Quinn said. "Eww."
"I can see your point, Quinn. Daria?"
"This town kills enough brain cells as it is. Why would I want to kill more?"
"I suppose that is reassuring," Helen said.
"Work with me, here," Quinn said as she walked Helen in front of a sewing machine display. "It's an investment that will pay off for both of us."
"I suppose, if you're going to stick to it."
"Your budget doesn't give me a choice. Look at me," Quinn firmly said. "I will look fashionable and if this is the way to do it, I'm in all the way."
Helen nodded. "Deal."
"You're not going to regret this, Mom."
"I hope not."
"And after this, we need to stop by Jo-Lee Fabrics for some patterns and material."
Helen felt a rare smile form. "My mother would probably be happy with you learning how to sew. I am, too, but for a very different reason."
"I would say that Daria needs to start writing her own books, but she's doing that already."
"Maybe she'll sell one someday. Who knows, someday, you might sell a dress you made."
Quinn said, "No, Mom. I want to sell an entire line of dresses."
"It's always good to have a goal."
Helen sat at the table, making violent doodles on a note pad while she talked on the phone. "Little Erin is getting married. I can't believe it. She seems so young."
Daria backed out of the kitchen and into the hallway.
Helen listened for a moment. "Twenty-one? It seems like just yesterday that she was thirteen. Where does the time go?"
Daria cracked Quinn's door open and saw her sister at the sewing table. "Barksdale alert level two."
Helen said, "Uh-huh. Really? Windsor Hills resort. I'm sure it will be lovely."
Quinn said, "God, what now?"
Daria said, "You might have to put that thing to use for both of us. Erin's getting married."
"I'm sorry, Rita," Helen said. "But we just can't get away for that long…It's two days hard driving each way…Sure, we can fly, if Mother is willing to pay for the tickets…Because I'm a single mother of two still paying off students loans from law school while covering all the costs of my failed marriage…Come on, Rita. Compared to what she's paying for this wedding, three round trip tickets will be pocket change."
"Oh, hmm. You know, I think I'll like making you look good," Quinn said.
Enraged, Helen screamed, "Well, screw you, Rita! And mother! And the damn horse you two rode in on!" She almost threw the phone across the room, catching herself at the last minute and dropping it onto the cradle.
Daria looked back at the kitchen. "Or not."
"That didn't sound good."
Helen walked down the hallway to them. "I'm sure you couldn't help but hear. I don't think we will be hearing from my family any time soon."
"So, we're not going to the wedding?" Quinn asked to confirm.
"If Mother had her way right now, we wouldn't be allowed in the same state."
Daria watched the small-framed boy being led away by the police and slowly shook her head. "Who's the bigger idiot? The idiots or the idiot that follows them?"
"You want us to follow you, Daria?" Butt-head said.
"Heh-heh," Beavis said. "That way, we can watch her ass."
Daria turned. "I don't have any proof, but I'm willing to bet that you're the real reason that Stewart is being arrested."
"Stewart's being arrested?" Butt-head said.
Beavis said, "That's cool."
"Considering how he's probably going to be treated in jail, not really," Daria said.
Butt-head saw another police officer carrying an evidence bag holding a revolver. "That's Todd's gun. He's going to kick Stewart's ass."
"Like the way he kicked our ass over losing that car," Beavis said.
Daria shook her head and walked away. "When the hell am I going to get out of here?"
"Mom?" Daria said when she entered the house.
Seated on the sofa, Helen lifted her head and held up a letter. "I'm so sorry, sweetie, another rejection. This time, it seems that I'm overqualified."
Daria sat down. "I'm sorry, Mom. I know you want to get out of here as much as I do."
"I made a choice to be here, even if it was a bad one. You didn't have a choice."
"It is my choice not to kill my classmates." Seeing her mother's expression, Daria quickly said, "Kidding, Mom."
"You have so much potential."
Daria patted her mother's arm. "If Nietzsche was even partially right, you can rest assured that I'll be strong when we finally get out of here."
"At least you can find a bright side to this place."
Standing before a judge, Helen said, "Your honor, I am asking the court to stay any sanctions." She turned to Jake. "It is my sincere opinion that Mr. Morgendorffer is not intentionally avoiding his child support payments and instead, does not have the financial resources to meet them. Furthermore, sanctions at this point would hinder visits with his seventeen and fifteen-year-old daughters, to their detriment."
The judge said, "You are surprisingly understanding, Ms. Barksdale."
"As much as I may be frustrated at my former husband's financial ineptitude, my primary concern is the well-being of my children."
The judge tapped her gavel on the bench and said, "Sanctions against Jacob Morgendorffer hereby stayed. Mr. Morgendorffer, you are a very lucky man."
Jake nodded. "Yes, your honor."
Looking at some briefs, the judge said, "But I am also going to give you some strongly considered advice. Your consulting business is a complete and utter failure. Admit it and move on to a real job. For your children."
"Yes, your honor," he said.
The judge said, "Good. Next case, please."
Standing behind a large desk in an overly-opulent office, the short, bald man gave Jake an evil grin. "Sure, Jake. I'm glad to have you back. You realize, of course, that we filled your old job and you're going to have to start at the bottom."
Thinking again about how the man reminded Jake of the long-dead Italian dictator, he nodded and said, "Yes, sir."
"Great! Now, as soon as we've tossed the previous occupant's stuff in the trash, get to your new desk and get to work."
A foot-tall Christmas tree stood on the coffee table of Jake's apartment, with three wrapped gifts under it.
Jake set a steaming mug each in front of Daria and Quinn. "Yeah, it's instant, but it's still hot cocoa."
"Thanks, Dad," Daria said.
"Yeah, thanks, Daddy," Quinn said.
Jake sat between the girls. He handed each a gift and said, "Merry Christmas."
Daria took the remaining gift under the tree and gave it to him. "Merry Christmas, Dad," she said. "From both of us."
Quinn found a box of computer software. "Fashion World's Design and Pattern Maker! Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!" she said while giving him a hug.
"The 1998 Writer's Market Guide. Thank you," Daria said.
Jake said, "I'm really proud of you two. I wish it could've been more, but I've caught up on my child support, so maybe next year. If I don't kill that mini-Mussolini first!"
"Daddy, open yours," Quinn said, trying to calm him down.
"Oh, yeah. Sure, Quinn." He peeled the wrapping away and smiled. "The New Joy of Cooking. With CD-ROM! Thanks, kids."
Daria said, "We thought you'd like it."
"But how do I move the computer into the kitchen?"
"We'll think of something," Daria said. "For now, let's enjoy the hot cocoa."
Not even bothering to contain the joy he felt, Principal McVicker said, "Beavis and Butt-head. You've finally crossed the line and I've got you."
Beavis said, "We don't want anything you've got."
Sensing that this was bad, Butt-head slapped his partner. "Shut up, Beavis."
He slapped back. "You shut-up, butt-munch."
McVicker's smile widened while the boys bickered. "You are no longer my problem and I won't have to see you ever again."
"Cool," Beavis said. "I don't want to see you again, either."
McVicker rose, keeping both hands on his desk. His smile had grown to almost comic proportions. "Enjoy Hope High School."
"Heh, heh. That's where the badasses go to school," Beavis said.
Butt-head said, "Oh, shove it, you ass-wipe."
"Mr. Van Driessen. Please send Daria Morgendorffer to the office. She will not be returning to class today."
Mr. Van Driessen said, "Go ahead, Daria. I hope everything is all right."
Confused, Daria started to gather her things. "Me, too."
In the hallway, Quinn saw Daria and rushed over. "What's going on?"
"I don't know, but I have a bad feeling about this."
Seeing their mother waiting in the principal's office caused Daria to say, "I really have a bad feeling about this, too."
Helen turned and, with tear-stained eyes, pulled both into a hug. "I'm so sorry, girls."
"Mom?" Quinn said.
"Please, sit down," Helen said. After each had, she squatted down to their level. "There's no good way to do this. Your father…" Helen gulped and tears started to flow again as she said, "Your father had a heart attack."
"A heart attack?" Quinn cried. "Oh, no!"
Dreading the answer, Daria said, "How serious?"
Helen closed her eyes. "He…Jake was pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital." Crying again, she leaned forward and grabbed her daughters. "I'm so sorry."
Helen parked the car outside of the cemetery and turned to her daughters, both of whom were dressed in black. "I'll wait for you here."
Daria said, "Mom…"
Helen shook her head, a sad look on her face. "I don't want a scene at Jake's funeral. Ruth never cared for me very much and ever since the divorce, I've been the she-bitch from hell in her eyes."
"It doesn't seem right," Quinn said.
"I'll say my good-byes to him later. It's better for everyone this way."
"Not for us," Daria said.
"It is the best that we can do."
"That pretty much sums up life," Daria said as she opened the door. "Good luck, Mom."
"Thanks, sweetie," Helen said.
"We'll think about you," Quinn said.
Helen watched the girls walking toward the gravesite and then slumped down in the car, quietly crying. Unnoticed, Daria glanced back and saw her.
The graveside gathering was small. Beside the priest was Jake's mother Ruth, his sister Pat, their cousin, Tanya and a group of coworkers recruited as pall bearers. Once Daria and Quinn were in place beside Ruth, the priest began his graveside service.
Listening to the priest felt odd to Daria. She had been fourteen the last time she had listened to one, at Tanya's wedding. Before then, she dimly remembered a few times from before she started school and the times that Ruth had taken them to mass during visits.
All Quinn would ever remember was the simple coffin.
After all was done, Daria and Quinn started to walk back to the car. Ruth stopped them and said, "It's a good thing that she didn't disturb the ceremony."
Daria ground her teeth together and said nothing.
"She's the reason for everything bad that happened to my Jakey."
"Please, Grandma," Quinn said with tears in the corners of her eyes.
"Do you know how much my boy was worth? Do you? Five hundred dollars. That's all."
"Grandma, Dad was giving everything he could to us," Daria said. "But I didn't know how much he was shortchanging himself."
"I bet she was draining it away to spend on who knows what."
Tears flowing Quinn repeated, "Please, Grandma."
"I really don't think that she is fit to raise you two."
"Yeah, that's why Mom's sitting out there crying," Daria said, bitterness rising within her.
"I don't like your tone, young lady," Ruth said in rebuke.
Daria stopped. Her patience was gone and her fists clenched as she locked her eyes on her grandmother. "Well, I don't like your whole attitude. We just buried my father and all the hell you can think to do is tear down our mother, you selfish, self-centered little bitch."
"What?" Ruth cried.
"You heard me. I just lost my father and I'm really not in the mood to listen to you attack my mother."
"Why, you ungrateful little brat. I can see that too much of your mother has rubbed off on you."
"Grandma, stop it!" Quinn said.
"You, too? In that case, go to her. It's what you deserve." Ruth turned and angrily walked away from them.
Daria wiped tears away from her face and said, "Let's go, Quinn. I don't think we're wanted anymore."
Crying, Quinn nodded and followed her sister to the car.
When Daria got in the car, she simply said, "I don't think that we'll be hearing from Grandma Ruth from now on."
Outside of her boss's door, Helen placed a hand on the letter in the pocket of her suit and felt grateful for what seemed like the first good news in years. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and stepped in. "Good morning, Mr. Baylor."
"Helen, what brings you to my office? Any issues with your cases?"
"In a way," she said, placing a folded letter on his desk. "I am giving you my formal, two weeks' notice. In that time, I will work with the other associates to make sure that they are up to speed on all of my cases."
Mr. Baylor slowly opened the letter and read it before finally saying, "Another job offer, eh? You do remember our non-competition clause that forbids you from working for any other corporate law firms within a fifty mile radius, don't you?"
"That will not be an issue, Mr. Baylor," Helen said. "I've accepted a position with Lawson, Comstock and Whiddon."
"They do criminal defense law."
"Hence, no competition."
"Are you sure that you want to work with the scum of the earth like that?"
Helen shook her head while biting back her preferred response. "I realized that I needed to expand into a different area of law."
Mr. Baylor sat back in his chair and held up the letter. "In that case, resignation accepted. Make damn sure that you have all of your cases in order before you leave."
After she left and closed the door, he spat into a spittoon and said, "Dammit. I hate when they get uppity like that. Now I need to find some kind of replacement that has a clue of what the hell they are doing. Dammit."
Seated at the dining table with her mother and sister, Daria said, "I know that it's a better paying position and all, but honestly, I was hoping that you would find a position someplace – anyplace – else."
"I know, sweetie," Helen said. "But I had to admit that I wasn't going to find a better job by staying put. I need better experience and references if I'm ever going to have a chance of a job somewhere else."
Daria nodded. "You probably have to stay at least a year, correct?"
Helen said, "Yes."
"Since I start my senior year in a couple of months, that means I'm stuck in Highland until I graduate."
"But hopefully, you can find someplace better when I'm off to college and I won't have to come back here to visit and do my laundry."
Helen said, "That's my goal."
Watching Daria at the new computer, Helen said, "Happy birthday, sweetie."
Still feeling stunned at the gift, Daria said, "I can't believe you can afford this, Mom."
"It's amazing what happens when you get paid something close to what you're worth."
"This is going to make preparing my college applications a lot easier."
"Promise me one thing, Daria."
"Don't apply to Middleton. You can do so much better."
"I have been thinking about Raft. In Boston."
"It's a good school. I think you should apply. Anyplace else?"
Daria chuckled. "Maybe Bromwell."
"I think you should."
"I don't have a whole lot of extracurricular activities. Or should I say, what passes for extracurricular activities around here."
"You've been talking about submitting a story to a magazine. I bet that having one accepted will go a long way toward convincing them to admit you."
Daria patted the computer monitor. "Maybe you're right. How about if I get started?"
"Have fun, sweetie."
Leaning against the doorframe of Daria's room, Quinn said, "It's about time. I've been making clothes for a couple of years now."
"And I've been writing for longer," Daria said. "Only this time, I hope to get paid for it. You should try it."
"I will, Daria. I will. Someday, it will be my designs on the Paris runways."
Daria smirked. "I hope you mean fashion runways and not the ones at Charles de Gaulle Airport."
Quinn shook her head. "Daria, you're weird."
"What do you expect from living in this town?"
"That it gave us the inspiration to get the hell out?"
Daria smiled. "You just might make it after all."
Seeing her client approach the courthouse wearing his usual sleeveless shirt, Helen shook her head. "Mr. Ianuzzi. That's hardly appropriate attire for a court appearance. It's going to make it harder for the judge to sign off on the plea agreement."
Todd said, "Yeah, I've been thinking about that."
"Now is not the time," Helen warned.
"Yeah, it is. The deal sucks."
"It's going to keep you out of state prison."
"But I still gotta spend a month in county lockup."
"It's the best deal you were going to get."
Todd growled. "Maybe I got a lousy lawyer."
"Nobody could've gotten you a better deal, Mr. Ianuzzi. Now, please, we need to get inside before we're late and the judge completely sinks the idea of a plea bargain."
"How about we sink the deal right now?"
"Then we'll have to go to trial and honestly, you're looking at five to ten, if you're lucky. If the judge is in a bad mood during sentencing, ten to fifteen."
"I really hate judges and lawyers."
"Hate them all you want," Helen said. "But you've got to live with them right now."
Todd looked around at the empty courthouse steps and pulled a pistol from his front pants pocket. "Maybe not."
"Why don't you explain to the judge that I'm just not going to show up, huh?"
Nervous, Helen said, "That's not going to work very well. Please, put the gun down before one of the bailiffs sees you."
"Nobody's looking. They're all inside."
"Okay, nobody is looking. But if you walk away, they'll hunt you down for skipping the court date."
"They won't find me."
"They found you the first time."
"I was drunk."
"And you'll probably get drunk again. Mr. Ianuzzi, please. I'm trying to help you."
"You're not doing a very good job of it."
From near the door, a bailiff shouted, "Drop the weapon!"
Todd leveled the pistol at Helen's head. "Drop yours or she's dead!"
The bailiff repeated, "Drop the weapon. You can't get away."
Todd looked at Helen. "If you'd have just shut up, I'd be on my way."
"Please, Mr. Ianuzzi. Listen to him."
Todd looked up to see that the bailiff had been joined by several other law enforcement officers. All of them had drawn weapons pointed at him. "Fuck it," he said.
"Mr. Buzzcut. Please send Daria Morgendorffer to the office. She will not be returning to class today."
Feeling the blood drain from her face, Daria rose and, with the teacher's nodded permission, gathered her things. Unnoticed, the manuscript she planned to mail on the way home fell from her backpack and onto the floor.
That night, Daria had barely fallen asleep when a hand gently shook her.
"Are you awake?" Quinn said.
"I don't want to be alone."
Daria moved over in the bed. "I don't think I want to be, either."
Quinn crawled under the covers and curled up next to her sister. "I don't feel like Thanksgiving tomorrow."
"I can't think of much to be thankful for right now, either."
"I'm thankful for you."
Daria held Quinn and said, "I'm thankful for you."
"Are we going to make it?"
"I think so."
"I believe you," Quinn whispered back.
After their mother's coworkers and handful of friends had departed the service, Daria and Quinn slowly walked back to the limousine. Quinn said, "I know you don't think much about religion and stuff, but thanks for having a minister hold the service. I think Mom would've wanted it."
Daria nodded. "I thought so, too."
The driver silently opened the car door and quietly closed it after they had entered. Quickly after, they were on their way back to the funeral home.
Quinn asked, "What now?"
Daria stared out of the window. "Since both sides of our family refused to even talk to me, we're on our own."
"What about Aunt Amy? I know we haven't seen her in years, but…"
"No response. I don't even know if I had the right address for her."
"I haven't had a chance to really look at Mom's finances, but I think her life insurance will be enough to keep us going for the near future."
"What about after that?"
"I'm sorry, Quinn. Right now, I don't know."
The judge looked down from the bench and said, "Miss Morgendorffer. This is a great responsibility that you are about to accept. Are you sure this is what you want?"
"Yes, your honor," Daria said.
"Very well. This court now recognizes you, Daria Morgendorffer, as the legal guardian of the minor, Quinn Morgendorffer, until such time as she reaches the age of eighteen." The judge clapped his gavel and said, "Good luck, young lady."
Daria said, "Thank you, your honor."
Seated in the First Highland Bank office, Daria signed a check and slid it across the desk to the man seated opposite. "That should do it."
He lifted the check and silently read the amount before checking his computer. He entered the amount and nodded to Daria. "Congratulations, Miss Morgendorffer," he said as he slid a bundle of papers back across the table.
Daria lifted the property deed and read through it. "That's one thing I won't have to worry about."
"If there is anything else we can help you with, don't hesitate to call," the banker said.
"I think this covers most of it for now."
He pressed his card into Daria's hand. "In case things change. We're here for you."
"Thanks, I guess."
A week after dropping off another check at one of Highland's car dealerships, Daria was pleased to find an envelope in the mail. She opened it and checked that all the information on the car title was correct. She put the title back in the envelope and patted it. "That's another big expense out of the way."
Late in the evening, Daria stared at the computer monitor, rereading the story she had intended to submit to Musings magazine. Finished, she whispered, "I can never write something like that again. Good thing I lost it," before closing the file and deleting it.
Opening a spreadsheet, Daria started to work on her finances. "I've got more important things to worry about."
Hours later, she closed the program and shut down the computer. Resigned, she said, "The numbers don't lie."
She stood and walked to Quinn's room, peaking in. With a smile, she whispered, "But I can do one thing, first."
Sleepy, Quinn stepped out of her room and toward the living room. To her surprise, Daria was already awake and waiting by the small Christmas tree.
Daria said, "Good morning, sleepyhead. I thought you'd never get up."
"You've got a present under the tree and I'm getting tired of waiting for you to open it."
Quinn started to pick up the package and stopped. "It's heavy."
"That's the way some of them they come. Open it."
Quinn pulled the paper away and then sat back in surprise. "Daria!"
She smiled over her coffee. "I take that as a sign of success."
"This is a real professional sewing machine."
"That I'm sure you will put to good use, and get a fine start on your career."
Quinn hugged Daria, "Thank you!"
"Merry Christmas, Quinn."
Feeling embarrassed, Quinn picked up the much smaller package and gave it to Daria. "I feel a little guilty now."
Daria found a handmade blouse and skirt inside the package. Knowing the effort that Quinn must have put into it, Daria hugged her and said, "It's perfect. Thank you."
In fits and starts and not without difficulties, Daria and Quinn made it through that winter. School continued as it always had and the town of Highland stayed the same. By spring, the town had forgotten about Jake and Helen and treated Daria and Quinn as if they had always been alone.
Daria found that she had easily slipped into the role of surrogate mother while Quinn almost as easily accepted the role in return. Their old rivalry of years before had almost vanished, dispelled over the years by divorce and death. They were survivors. They were sisters.
And in that spring, Daria received a letter. She briefly read, "Welcome to Raft," before she slowly crumpled the letter and dropped it in the trash. Thinking about the truth of the numbers recorded on her spreadsheet, Daria said, "Maybe later."
The valedictorian's sash gently chafed Daria's neck as she stepped to the podium and faced the graduating class and their families. The Highland High auditorium was hot and stuffy, even with the feeble circulation from fans running at each end of the building. The miserable conditions encouraged things to be kept short and Daria was more than willing to oblige.
"During my time at Highland High School, I have learned that life will throw complications at you that you never could anticipate. Meeting those challenges is what makes us what we are. Honoring our obligations gives us meaning and strength. Starting tomorrow, I will meet those challenges and will honor my obligations. I hope that all of you will, too. Thank you."
As she walked away, some scattered, confused applause rose in response while the salutatorian stepped forward to give her speech. Daria didn't even listen as Cassandra gave something much closer to the usual, uplifting word salad that one would expect to hear at a graduation.
On their way out of the auditorium, Quinn said to Daria, "What's going on?"
"I've graduated and I'm trying to get as much distance between me and Highland High as possible. Unfortunately, I can't get as far as I want."
"That's not it," Quinn said. "What is really bothering you? What was all that 'honoring your obligations' stuff back there?"
Now walking through the parking lot, Daria sighed. "The insurance money is almost gone. Once I paid off the house, set aside an escrow account for the property taxes and paid off the car, we only had so much to live on. We have maybe a month left. Unless…"
"I accept the job I was offered."
"You found a job? That's great. Where?"
"The only place hiring in this town. Momma Parker's All-Night Diner."
"Eww, that place out by the truck route?"
"They need a waitress for the graveyard shift."
"Daria! What about college?"
"I don't have a choice. It will have to wait because I've got to get you through school. It's what I agreed to do when I became your guardian."
Quinn sadly nodded, but said, "Promise me you'll look for something better."
"That's a promise I won't have a hard time keeping."
Mamma Parker was a surprisingly spry woman in her sixties with silver hair pulled into a bun on top of her head and covered with a hair net. Looking over Daria in her pale blue uniform, Mamma said, "I'm going to run you through your first shift. I want to know if you can cut it and if you can't, you'll be gone come morning and I'm the only person that does the firing around here."
Well aware of how much she needed the job and equally aware of the extra base pay for taking the graveyard shift, Daria said, "Yes, ma'am."
Mamma pointed out items at the main waitress station. "There are your menus. Extra order pads are on the shelf underneath. Also keep extra pencils there. Don't get greedy; they cost money. Cash register, spindle for paid tickets and the credit card machine. I'll show you how they work with the first customer."
Daria nodded and stayed quiet.
Mamma looked to the back and said, "And sometimes, you gotta yell to wake Bennie up."
"The cook. Bennie!"
A thirtyish man wearing a hair net poked his head out from the walk-in cooler and said, "Yes, ma'am?"
"Making sure you're awake."
"I made an extra pot of coffee so I would be."
"Good. Now, close that door, you're letting all the cold air out."
Daria allowed a faint smile. The exchange hinted at a friendlier atmosphere than she had anticipated.
By six o'clock the next morning, Daria was comfortable with her duties. Years of careful note-taking in class made writing down customer orders a breeze. Running the cash register presented no problems for her and she often was determining the best mix of coins for change even as the drawer popped open. The main task that still required work was carrying trays. Unsteady trying to balance them on a single hand over one shoulder, Daria contented herself with using two hands at waist level.
Mamma stopped beside Daria and said, "You've done a good job, sweetie. You're a keeper."
When Daria teared up, Mamma cocked her head and said, "What's wrong? I want you to stay."
Daria wiped her eyes on her apron. "I'm sorry. My mother used to call me that."
Momma made the connection. "Morgendorffer. Your mother was…I'm so sorry, Daria. I saw that in the paper."
Daria nodded. "I'll survive."
"I'm sure you will, but I'll make sure not to remind you like that again."
Quinn was awake and eating breakfast when Daria made it home. She looked up and said, "How did it go?"
"About as exciting as you would expect from waiting tables in the middle of the night," Daria said. She sat down at the table. "Damn, my feet are tired. I've got to get something other than these boots to wear."
Quinn smirked. "It's about time."
"I'm too tired to argue."
"How did you make out in tips?"
"At four in the morning, as long as you have boobs, keep the coffee cup full and don't growl, you can bet on a good tip."
Quinn said, "You didn't growl at anyone, did you?"
"Only when someone grabbed my ass."
"That was my thought, but the growl made him back off."
"You didn't get in trouble with your boss for that, did you?"
Daria said, "I think she approved. She wants a waitress that can stand up for herself."
"I guess that makes sense."
Daria yawned and she said, "But now, I'm going to bed. Try to keep the noise down to a dull roar, will you?"
"Good night, Daria. Or should that be good morning?"
"I'll settle for good dreams."
"I'm sorry, Miss Morgendorffer. We are looking for someone with experience."
"While your application looks good, the position requires a college degree."
"We like to have employees with more experience."
"We're currently not hiring entry level positions."
"The position requires at least two years of experience, Miss Morgendorffer."
"I don't think you will be a good fit in the office, but we do have openings for dancers out front."
Daria shook her head at the offer. "Thank you, but I'm not very good at dancing. I'll pass."
"One more year and we can get out of here," Quinn said as she prepared for the first day of her senior year.
Still wearing her work uniform, Daria helped with Quinn's breakfast. "If I have to keep working as a waitress, I expect good grades out of you in return."
"I guess that's only fair. I'm sorry you haven't been able to find anything else."
"So am I, but I'll survive. You make sure that you survive school."
"Good. Now, get out of here before you're late."
"You just want to go to bed."
"Damned right I do. Now, off to school."
"See you tonight, sis."
The house was quiet when Quinn returned home. As had become her habit over the summer, she cracked the door to Daria's room open and checked inside.
Clad in a worn nightshirt, Daria was asleep under a single sheet, clutching a pillow. After watching her sister for a minute, Quinn closed the door and went to her room to change.
An hour later, Daria awoke. After dressing and a trip to the bathroom, she wandered out to the kitchen.
Quinn turned and said, "Dinner is almost ready."
"Thanks, Quinn," Daria said, sitting down at the table. "One of these days, I'm going to get used to eating dinner for breakfast."
"I offered to make you eggs."
"I smell eggs cooking for eight hours every night and that's what I end up eating at work anyway. I don't want eggs at home."
"Not when I can smell the real food you're eating. Well, close to real food."
"It's good for you, Daria. If I left you on your own, you'd only eat lasagna and pizza."
"True, but you left out the most important part of your cooking. I didn't have to make it or serve it."
"That's the spirit."
Daria smirked. "You learn well."
"Don't tell anyone, Daria. I have a reputation to uphold."
"Your secret is safe."
"No openings at this time."
"Miss, I really don't think you can lift fifty pounds over your head."
"Sorry, miss. We've had a dozen applicants with more experience."
"While I'm sure that you are fluent in French, we really need someone who speaks Spanish."
"Try back with us when you get your degree."
Looking back over her shoulder as she walked away from the Highland newspaper, Daria muttered, "Based on the misspellings in every issue, college didn't do you much good."
The yawn that broke Daria's attention away from the computer was a pleasant break. Daria rubbed her eyes and pushed back away from the desk. "Nothing's coming. I could type, 'It was a dark and stormy night,' and make more progress than I've done so far."
Daria closed the program and shut down the computer. After a quick trip to the bathroom, she closed the window blinds to block the sunlight and crawled into bed. "I think I can use the sleep more."
Daria was woken up by Quinn yelling, "I made it!"
"What?" Daria said, blinking her eyes.
It took a moment to recognize that Quinn held a letter. She said, "I've been accepted to East Texas University."
"Congratulations, Quinn. You earned it."
Quinn sat on the bed, suddenly thoughtful. "It's going to be weird moving out of here."
"It'll be good for you, Quinn."
"I'm worried about leaving you alone."
"Don't worry about me. I'm going to turn this into a party pad once you're gone."
"Like I'm going to believe that."
"You'd better not."
"I'm still worried about leaving you here."
"I'll be okay."
"What about your going to college?"
"We can only afford tuition for one of us at a time. You first. No arguing."
Quinn wagged her finger at Daria. "As long as you let me help you after I get a job."
"Deal. Now, let me go back to sleep."
Quinn stood up. "I guess I'd better. You get all cranky otherwise."
>From her seat in the auditorium, Daria watched as Quinn mingled with her friends after the graduation ceremony. She felt a twinge of jealousy at how easily Quinn was able to make friends, but was glad that at least she wasn't as alone.
Alone. The word lingered in Daria's mind. I've always thought I was alone, but I've always had Quinn, and Mom, and even Dad. Now – now I'm going to have to learn what alone really means.
Quinn ran over to Daria. "Hey, we're going out to celebrate a bit. I probably won't get home until after you've left for work."
"You're eighteen," Daria said.
"Go have fun. If I feel evil, I'll wake you up for breakfast when I get home."
"Only you would threaten something like that."
"Go, have fun," Daria ordered. Have some for both of us.
Standing next to the door of a long-distance bus, Quinn opened a small box and said, "Daria?"
"You're going to need a phone, Quinn. It's pretty basic, but at least you can call your older sister every once in a while. I've tested it out and everything works."
"Thank you," Quinn said. "I'm going to call you at least every week."
"I won't complain if you do."
"Are you getting one?"
"I’m keeping the land line so that I can keep an internet connection. Besides reading, getting online is one of the things that will keep me sane while you're gone."
"I wish you would get out more and meet some people," Quinn said.
"Highland isn't a total wasteland. There are a few good people around."
"I know. I've met some of them at work. But being good and being compatible with me are two different things. I'm a difficult person to know."
"You're not that bad."
"You're only saying that because I'm your meal ticket."
"And I know you better than you think."
Seated behind the wheel, the driver said, "Time to go, missy."
"Don't be late," Daria said.
Quinn gave her a hug and said, "Thanks for everything, sis."
"Take care and go learn something."
Daria watched Quinn climb aboard the bus and watched as it drove away. "Maybe I can get you a car next year."
Thereafter wordless, Daria returned home and went to bed, hoping to catch a couple more hours of sleep before her shift. The silence in the house seemed to close in around her as she hugged a pillow tightly before drifting off.
"Hello," Daria said, answering the telephone.
"Hi, Daria," Quinn cheerfully said.
"I see you figured out how to use your new phone."
"I wanted to let you know that I made it safely and that I'm in my dorm room."
"Thanks for calling. How is it?"
"Small. Oh, my God. You wouldn't believe how small it is. The closet is tiny and my sewing machine completely covers the desk."
"I hope you left room for your roommate."
"I think she was just as shocked."
"It will give you something to mutually complain about."
Quinn laughed. "I think we can find a few more things, too."
"How was your trip?"
"Awful. I'm going to have nightmares about the food, and the toilet on that bus…I'm not even going to go there."
"It sounds like a character-building experience."
"It was an experience. How are you doing, Daria?"
"So far, mostly I've slept. It's a funny thing; the house is quiet without you around here. I think I like it."
"Don't let it stay too quiet," Quinn warned.
"I'll take that under consideration. On a more serious note, everything in your bank account should be ready to pay tuition and buy books. You'll have to live frugally, but I think we've both learned to do that."
"I'll make it, Daria. I'm more worried about you."
"I'm a survivor. Besides, I can grab free food at work. Anyway, I'm glad you called. I need to get ready for work. Good luck, Quinn."
"Thanks, Daria. Good luck to you, too."
"Thanks," Daria said while thinking, Good luck. Someday. Maybe.
Sitting on a stool next to the griddle, Bennie said, "Hey, Daria."
After busing a table, Daria was placing the dirty dishes in a dishwasher tray. She said, "Yes?"
"You're smarter than anyone that's ever worked in this greasy spoon. Why don't you at least go to Highland Community College?"
"I can't afford it with my sister in college."
"Can't she get some financial aid?"
"We managed to get a couple of scholarships for her, but they don't pay the full amount."
"What about student loans?"
Daria sighed. "She's got one and we're trying to limit it to that. Too many people come out of college with crippling debt. I want Quinn to have a clean start. As for me, they look at the house and say that I don't qualify because I could take out a new mortgage on it. When Quinn graduates, then I'm out of here."
"That sounds like a good plan."
"I hope so. I hope so."
The early evening quiet disturbed Daria. She had to admit that she missed hearing her sister moving around the house, even if it was her talking on the telephone or watching the latest boy-band videos. She turned on the Forecast Channel for some background noise and retreated to her computer.
After looking at the monitor for a minute, she started to type.
And she continued to type until she heard the Midwest forecast on the television. "Dammit!" she said, quickly saving her file. "I'm going to be late for work!"
With uncharacteristic speed, Daria rushed through putting on her uniform and out to her car.
Feeling sheepish when she walked through the diner's door, she said, "Sorry I’m late. I got distracted and lost track of time."
The impatiently waiting second shift waitress said, "It's about time and I really don't care. Don't do it again."
"I won't," Daria said. Though I can't wait to get back to writing.
"I don't care if we eat Thanksgiving dinner at the Cracker Wheel down by the interstate; I'm glad to be home," Quinn said to Daria as they walked to the front door.
"Sad as it is to admit, I'm glad to see you, too," Daria said, opening the door.
Quinn looked around and said, "It looks like nothing has changed."
"Nothing really has."
Quinn set her suitcase down and examined the dust around some of the items on the coffee table. "I mean really hasn't changed. Like you haven't moved anything since I've been gone."
"I've been writing a bit."
"Well, most of the time. I finally broke my writer's block."
"That's great! What are you writing?"
"A spy novel. It's drawing me in like – like I haven't been drawn for years."
Quinn nodded. Like, before Mom died. "Is it any good?"
"I like to think so. But it's going to need a lot more work."
"I was kind of hoping you would get out a little more."
"I enjoy writing."
"As long as you're happy."
"I don't know about happy, but I'm better."
"Another good idea?" Bennie said as he watched Daria scribble on a scrap of paper.
She said, "Yeah, and I don't want to lose it."
"Still working on that novel?"
"It's been a while, hasn't it?"
"Over two years so far."
"How long is it?"
"It's grown a lot more than I thought it would, but I've also made a lot of changes along the way." Daria gave a short laugh. "I think I've rewritten one scene at least a dozen times."
"Bet it's going to be a best-seller."
"If I ever finish. Sometimes, I think I'm being too much of a perfectionist."
"You want it to be the best you can make it, right?"
"Then I wouldn't worry about it."
"So now I'm getting writing advice from a cook."
Bennie shrugged. "All I know is that when I've done things half-assed, they haven't worked."
Bennie looked at the empty diner. "I'm going outside for a smoke break. Back in a few."
"Okay. I'll hold down the fort."
Only a minute later, a rather seedy-looking customer walked in. Figures. Daria picked up a menu and her order pad before going over. "Good evening," she said, placing the menu down in front of the customer. "Would you like something to drink?"
"Gimme a beer," he said.
"I'm sorry, we don't serve alcohol."
"Then what damn good are you?" he said.
Holding her patience, Daria said, "We have coffee, tea, soft drinks and orange juice."
The man stood and pulled a small-caliber revolver from his pocket. "You can give me all your money."
Daria gulped and stepped back, frightened. "I'll…I'll get it."
"Hurry," he said, waving the pistol at her.
Daria stepped behind the counter and opened the cash drawer. She grabbed all of the bills and pushed the wad toward the robber. "Here."
He took it and said, "That's it?"
Daria stepped back from the drawer so that he could see. "That's it, except the small change."
"Lying bitch!" he said, swinging the pistol and striking her on the right cheek, knocking her down and sending her glasses skidding across the floor. "Give me all of it!"
"That is all of it. Really."
He struck again, knocking her back against the divider to the kitchen before stepping over and pulling the drawer out, upending it and the coins on the floor. Seeing no more paper currency, he growled, "Fuck!"
Daria tried to crawl away as he pulled the coin tray from the drawer and looked under it. Angry, he slung the tray back into the kitchen. "I bet you took it all, bitch!" The next blow struck Daria's temple.
The next thing Daria knew, Bennie was saying, "Oh, jeez. Daria, wake up."
"Are you okay?"
Daria touched her bruised face. "It hurts."
"I'm calling an ambulance."
"Okay," Daria weakly said.
At the hospital, a police officer finished taking Daria's statement and said, "Is there anybody we can call?"
"Damn," Daria said. "My sister, at ETU. She's going to be worried."
The officer picked up the room phone and said, "Number?"
After Daria gave him the number, he dialed and said, "Would you rather do the talking?"
Daria nodded. "Quinn will take it better coming from me."
Daria waited for the phone to ring and then she heard Quinn say, "Hello."
"Daria? Do you have a cold or something?"
"I don't like the sound of that."
"I don't want you to get upset."
"I really don't like the sound of that."
Daria took a deep breath. "The diner was robbed. I'm okay now, but I'm calling from the hospital."
"Hospital! Daria, I'm on my way."
"I'm okay, Quinn," Daria said, downplaying the heavy swelling and stitches. "A few cuts and bruises, that's all. I didn't want you to worry if you hear anything on the news or something."
"Okay," Quinn said, wary. "But it'll only take me a couple of hours to drive home."
"Save your gas, Quinn."
"If you didn't want me to drive, why did you help buy me a car?
"You can check on me when you come home for spring break."
"I'll hold you to that."
"Deal, Quinn. So, how are you doing?"
"Mid-terms are next week. I'm feeling pretty good about them."
"Keep up the good work, Quinn. I'm proud of you."
"I'm proud of you, Daria."
"I'll see you in a couple weeks."
"I'll see you."
"Good night, sis."
"Good night, Daria."
After Quinn closed her cell phone, she stomped out to the Sorority House's common room. "My sister can be so infuriating."
One of the girls said, "What did she do this time?"
"Someone robbed her and she was hurt and she's acting like she wasn't that bad. I know she's lying because she sucks at it."
"What can we do, Quinn?"
Quinn sat down and crossed her arms. "Get my sister to not be so stubborn."
"From what you've told us, I don't think even we can do that."
Quinn started to cry. "I know."
The girls gathered around Quinn for support. "We're here."
The grinning gun store salesman said, "Can I help you, little lady?"
Her face still bandaged and sore, Daria pointed to a sign. "I want to sign up for your class."
"Right away," he said, producing a registration book. "Just need to get some information from you."
"Thanks." Daria filled out the information and said, "It starts this Saturday, right?"
"Yes, ma'am. Would you like to look at our selection of pistols?"
"Not now," Daria said. "I want to find out what works best for me in class."
"And fits within my budget."
"We have a nice selection of used firearms, too."
The first thing that Quinn said when she arrived home was, "What the hell is that, Daria?"
Daria picked up the holstered revolver from the coffee table and said, "It's a .38 Special. Used, but in good shape. I got a good deal on it since revolvers don't sell as well anymore."
"It's a gun."
"That's right, Quinn. And I have a concealed carry permit. Something like my mugging won't happen again."
Quinn suddenly reached out and ran her finger along the healing scar on Daria's temple. "He really hurt you, didn't he?"
"It wasn't fun."
"Have they found the guy?"
"You don't want to talk about it much, do you?"
Quinn moved Daria to the sofa and they sat down together. Quinn leaned against her sister and said, "In that case, tell me about how your story is coming along."
"What the…?" Daria said, feeling something wet on her face as she lay in bed while hearing rain outside. Blinking, she put her glasses on and looked up in time for another drop of water to splash onto her right lens. "Oh, hell," she said, standing up and looking at the water-stained crack in the ceiling. "That can't be good."
After pushing her bed out of the way and placing a cooking pot under the drip, Daria put on some shoes and awkwardly moved a folding ladder to the ceiling hatch to the attic. After climbing up the unsteady ladder, she opened it.
The attic was dark and musty. Holding a flashlight, Daria carefully walked on the roof trusses to the space over her room. There, she saw a large, stained and rotted area on the roof itself. She shook her head and covered her eyes. "Dammit."
Standing in front of Daria's house, the contractor finished writing on a pad and said, "With having to replace two roof trusses, the total will about $9,500. Give or take a couple hundred depending on final needs."
Daria sighed in frustration. "You're absolutely sure it was regular aging."
"Sorry, ma'am. It was just getting old. That roof's probably been there for twenty-five or thirty years. You've had that leak for a while now. It just got bad enough to come through the ceiling. Your insurance isn't going to touch it."
"Go ahead," Daria said. "I need a roof over my head."
Scrolling through her story and spot-checking for errors, Daria thought, This has turned into a magnum opus.
She scrolled more. Who would've thought that I would be so wordy? Quinn talks a mile a minute while I type a mile a minute.
Daria moved quickly when she heard the telephone ring. "Hello."
"Hi, Daria," Quinn said. "I made it. I survived. I passed my last final."
For one of the few times in her life, Daria felt real happiness. "Congratulations, Quinn. I can't wait to see your graduation."
"That means a lot to me."
"I've already confirmed the time off with Mamma Parker, so all I need to do is fill up the car and drive."
"I've made arrangements for you to stay in a guest room at the sorority house."
"Are you sure you want to let me loose around there?"
"I don't think you can do that much damage. We're big girls now."
"I'll see you in a few hours, right after I close down my writing file."
"Daria – Do Not Get Distracted," Quinn commanded.
Daria replied, "I promise not to do any unplanned editing."
"Tara," Daria said as she stepped out of her old car and looked at the sorority house. "Quinn hasn't been slumming during her stay at college."
Daria picked up her single suitcase and walked across the manicured lawn to the impressive front entrance. After a moment's hesitation, she entered and found a room full of people.
At the front, Quinn smiled and said, "Glad you could make it, sis."
"What's all this?"
A tall girl with long, dark hair stepped forward and held out a small necklace. "I'm the sorority president. Quinn's told us all about you and how much you've given up. For all that you've done for your sister, we're making you an honorary sister."
Surprised, Daria took the sorority necklace and said, "Um, thanks."
"And if you go to college where our sorority is present, you will be admitted."
"Thanks, again," Daria said, still unsure of what was going on.
Another young woman took Daria's suitcase from her hand and said, "I'll take you to your room so that you can freshen up."
Quinn said, "It's not much, but we have something planned for you later."
Daria looked around the room at the crowd. "This isn't much? You're learning sarcasm."
"I learned from the best."
Admittedly feeling better after a shower and change of clothes, Daria sat with Quinn in the guest room. "This was all your idea."
"Not all of it," Quinn said. "The other girls really wanted to do something."
Daria pulled at the sleeve of her green blouse. "The fact that you can sew and have kept me out of clothes shopping for the last five years is enough to call things even for putting you through college."
"Daria, even with all the money their parents have, half the girls out there have student loans that look like a mortgage. All I have is that one we took out when I was a freshman, and you've been paying on that anyway. There are people who owe more on their cars than I owe for college."
"Then I've done my job and you will have a clean start."
Quinn hugged Daria and said, "It means a lot."
Daria didn't say anything, but smiled.
Quinn sat back and said, "But now, you have to go to college."
"Oh, I have to, huh?"
"Daria…this fall, you will start."
Daria shook her head. "I'm sorry, Quinn, but with how much the roof cost me, I can't start this fall. But I'm saving up for the next year. I promise."
"Quinn, I really want to go to college. Trust me on this."
"Okay. But I'm helping as soon as I can."
"I'll let you."
One of the girls opened the door and said, "Come on, Daria. This party's for you."
Daria shook her head. "I can't believe this."
Quinn said, "Enjoy yourself. Trust me, you're allowed."
"If you're going to trust me, I'll have to trust you," Daria said, rising and following them downstairs.
Despite the music being too loud and feeling buzzed by the time she was halfway through her second wine cooler, Daria was having a good time. Mostly, she sat and talked with all of Quinn's friends.
Not surprisingly, there were a lot of them.
And in a pleasing surprise that made Daria discard her stereotype about sorority girls, they were bright and engaging people.
They had accepted Quinn and, by extension, had accepted her. Daria fingered the new necklace she was wearing and sat back, pleased. "It was worth it."
Feeling like she was disturbing Daria at the computer, Quinn quietly said, "Can I talk to you?"
Daria turned and said, "Of course, Quinn. What's on your mind?"
Quinn twisted her hands together. "Um…I have a job offer."
"That's great, Quinn. Why the nervous act?"
"It's…it's in New York City."
"You didn't really expect to find a job in fashion design in Highland, did you?"
"You're not upset?"
"I've been expecting it."
"I've only been home for a month."
Daria gave her a wry smile. "The sooner you start making money, the sooner I can go to college."
Quinn glared at her sister. "It's all about you, isn't it?"
"Of course it is," Daria said. "What's the job?"
"Entry level buyer at a boutique."
"You should be good at that."
"Duh," Quinn said. "And it should give me contacts with all kinds of designer labels."
"So that you know where to sell your designs."
"Or maybe get hired by one."
"Not going to start your own label?"
"I figure I need to get my feet wet, first."
"When do you start?"
"They would like me there as soon as possible."
"Don't let them wait."
"What about you?"
"I'll be okay. Who knows, maybe I'll pick a college close to you. I've been looking at East York College."
"That would be wonderful if you went there."
"I'll move it to the top of my list."
Quinn thought for a moment. "What about the house?"
"Sell it and we'll split the money. Providing I don't have to do something like replace the roof again."
"Let's hope not."
Quinn looked over Daria's shoulder at the computer. "What about your novel? Is it ready to leave the nest yet?"
"As a matter of fact," Daria said. "I'm making sure everything is formatted right and it should be ready to submit before you're ready to leave for New York."
Quinn hugged Daria around the neck. "Good luck!"
"I'm going to need it."
Standing in line at the post office, Daria's hand shook as it held the hefty manuscript in its shipping box. Thoughts of over five years ago and the last time she had planned to submit some of her writing for publication ran over and over in her mind.
I miss you, Mom. As much as I miss Dad. I hope you don't mind that I dedicated the book to both of you.
"Miss? You're next," the man in line behind her said.
"Sorry, daydreaming," Daria replied, hurrying forward. "First class postage, please."
The teller weighed the package and told her the postage. After paying, Daria quickly walked out of the building and to her car. Sitting down in the driver's seat, she said, "I did it. I finally did it."
On the phone, Quinn said, "Daria, you would not believe the rent in New York. I almost fainted when I started to look."
"But you found someplace decent, right?"
"Yes, Daria. It's tiny, but there's enough room for me and my sewing. I'm going to e-mail you pictures as soon as I can."
"I'll look for them. How about your new job?"
"I'm getting paid to shop for clothes!"
"I'll take that as a positive thing."
"Have you heard anything about your novel, yet?"
"Give it time. They have to at least have time to skim the book and see if it sucks."
"Daria, your novel does not suck."
"I don't think so, either, but there's no telling what some editor might think."
"If they do, they're idiots."
"I'll make sure to tell them that."
Reading the letter, Daria's heart sank with each word, "We are sorry, but we don't feel that your manuscript is suitable for our audience. We encourage you to keep us in mind for your future endeavors."
Daria sat down and shook her head. "Get over yourself. Nobody is accepted on their first try. Read the editorial notes and get back to work. You can do this. You will do this."
Sitting behind the counter at the diner, Daria answered the phone, "Mamma Parker's All Night Diner."
"Hi, Daria," Quinn said. "Do you have a few minutes?"
"We're not busy. Ever since that new International House of Waffles opened, business has been off. Which sucks for my tips."
"Sorry. Any word on your book?"
I can't believe that three publishers turned it down."
"It's not that unusual for new authors to take some time to sell their work."
"You're saving up for college still, right?"
"As much as I can with how much my tips have fallen off. If nothing else, selling the house will give me enough to start."
"Keep at it, Daria. You can do it."
Daria crumpled the letter and tossed it into a waste basket next to the sofa. "Too long. Too short. Not enough character development. Too much character development. Not enough plot depth. Too many subplots. Dammit, I wish that they would just make up their minds. Ten rewrites and it seems like nothing I do is right. Either that, or those editors don't know their asses from a hole in the ground."
She picked up the rest of the mail to sort. "Junk. Junk. Water bill. East York College. Mmm, small and thin. Not looking good."
She opened the letter and read. "Due to a record number of applications, we have had to limit the number of nontraditional students allowed into the freshman class. Due to the strength of your previous academic record, we have placed you on our waiting list in the event of an opening occurring for you."
Daria tore the letter and screamed, "No!"
Angrily, she pounded her fists on the coffee table. "No! No! No!"
Devastated, she sat there with her face in her hands. For half an hour, she hardly moved. All the hardships and all the setbacks in her life replayed in her mind.
Abruptly, Daria pushed the table over and stood up. "Screw you, life! You want me to be alone. Fine! I'll be alone. But I'm getting out of this hellhole."
She stomped over to her computer and started a search. "Hmm, Montana real estate…"
Tired after working six hours stuffing envelopes at an office following a full shift at the diner, Daria stopped at the Highland Temporary Staffing office to drop off her time sheet for what she hoped was the last time. Working the extra hours as a temp worker had given her just enough money for her plans. Now, all she had to do was a quick stop at the bank and then – and then – things might be going her way.
Seated at a large, polished table in the title agent's office, Daria signed the necessary paperwork and slid it back across the table. "Done."
The man smiled. "You're now the proud owner of a country cabin. Are you still planning on putting your current house on the market?"
The realtor at the table said, "She's already listed it."
"I look forward to doing business with you again soon, then," the agent said.
Daria said, "So do I."
Taking a break from house cleaning, Daria talked on the phone with her escrow lawyer in Montana. "The paperwork is going Package Air and should arrive tomorrow."
In his office, the lawyer said, "Excellent news. Have you received my memo explaining the possible issues with the cabin?"
"I have and I'll deal with things as best as I can when I arrive."
"Very good, Ms. Morgendorffer. Do you have an estimated time of arrival?"
"Some time after I get my tax refund. Probably about a month or so, maybe even tax day. That would be mildly amusing."
"I will mark my calendar. For security, I am having new locks installed and I will overnight the keys to you."
"Sounds good. Anything else?"
"Not at this time. Have a good day, Ms. Morgendorffer."
Daria hung up the phone and got back to cleaning. Having lived alone for most of the last four years meant that she didn't have to do that much work to make the house presentable for potential buyers. At Daria's insistence, Quinn had taken all of her possessions when she moved to New York. Most of Daria's personal knickknacks were boxed up and moved to the attic or placed in a small, rented storage unit.
Even with the small amount of work needed, Daria still felt like a well-known television personality as she tried to make the house as presentable as possible. She had studied several real estate guides on how to maximize the visual appeal of a house and in the interest of a quick sale, she used every trick she could learn.
After a busy day, she sat down and relaxed. However, her mind didn't remain quiet as she asked, When do I tell Quinn? What do I tell Quinn?
Daria glanced over the counter at Bennie asleep on a chair in the kitchen. "Not like we're that busy or anything. If I stayed around here, I might have to go back to day labor just to keep my head above water. Bennie, I hope you have other plans."
Quinn hardly waited until she was outside of the fine restaurant before she used her cell phone to call her sister.
Daria answered with, "Mamma Parker's All Night Diner. How can I help you?"
"It's me, Quinn."
"I've been picked up!"
Daria said, "I hope that doesn't mean what it sounded like."
"I've been picked up by a fashion label. New Century Styles is going to feature a dozen of my designs in fashion shows this year."
Daria said, "Good luck, Quinn…That’s why you went to college."
"Thanks, but I feel kind of guilty…"
"Don’t feel guilty."
"But you're still in Highland."
"It doesn’t matter; you’re my sister."
"I wish somebody in the family would've helped you. It's been so long."
Bitter, Daria said, "Fuck the whole family. We haven’t gotten squat from any of them since Mom died. They can rot in hell for all I care."
A man entered the diner and found a seat.
Daria said, "Look, I can’t talk long, I have a customer. I’ll call you when I get off at six, seven your time. Later.”
Quinn said, "Okay, Daria. I'll call you then. Bye."
Daria hung up the phone, grabbed a menu, pulled an order pad from the pocket of her uniform, and walked up to the table. She placed the menu in front of the man and said, “Can I get you anything to drink?”
He paused before saying, “Just coffee, please.”
Daria wrote the order down and went to the back to pour a cup and grab a couple of creamers. She returned to the table and expertly set a cup and saucer down. "Ready to order?"
"I'm not that hungry; I’ll have a cup of chicken soup." He handed over the menu.
After writing down the order, Daria went to the kitchen window and said, "Bennie, wake up. I need a cup of chicken soup."
"Sure thing, Daria," Bennie said, standing and stretching. "I could use the break from my nap."
He picked up a bowl from a rack and ladled it full from a simmering crock of prepared soup. He walked to the window and said, "One chicken soup."
When Daria didn't move, he said, "Are you still with me?"
Like she woke from a dream, Daria said, "Oh, sorry. Just a feeling of déjà vu. Strange."
"I get that all the time," Bennie said. "Then I remember that most nights seem to be almost the same around here."
"Yeah, you're right."
Daria carried the soup to the customer and placed it on the table. "Would you care for anything else?"
The man pushed his glasses up onto his nose. "I'm good. Thanks."
Daria went back to the kitchen. "I heard from Quinn today."
"What's little sister up to these days?"
"She's going to have some of her designs shown by a small label. It's a big break for her."
"That's cool. What about your plans?"
"I signed the paperwork today. I now own an isolated Montana cabin."
"So that means that you're probably not going to be around for much longer."
"Probably a month. I'll give Mamma two weeks notice once my tax refund arrives."
Bennie offered his hand. "Good luck, Daria."
"I'll take what luck I can get."
Back at the title office, Daria sat across the same table from a young couple. Daria seemed to vaguely remember them from high school, but even seeing their names on the contract didn't bring up much more and by their behavior, she doubted if they remembered her.
The realtor said, "This is going to make a great house for you to start your family."
"I'm sure it will be," the young man said as he signed the indicated paperwork.
After he and his wife were done, the agent picked up the papers and carried them to Daria, who proceeded to sign them without comment.
After the paperwork was notarized, Daria said, "As agreed, the house will be vacated in two weeks and the keys will be turned over to the realtor."
"Thank you," the woman said. "Finding this house means so much to us."
"Thank you," Daria said. "This gives me the chance to do something that means a lot to me."
Not as agile as she was years before, Mamma Parker seemed to reflect the slowing business at the diner. With quiet acceptance, she read Daria's letter and then placed it on her office desk. "I've been expecting this for some time. I appreciate the courtesy."
"You gave me a job when nobody else would and you've treated me well."
"You're nowhere near as cheerful, but you've been my most reliable waitress. I'll miss that. I'll miss you."
"Oddly enough, I think I'll miss this place. But I need to finally move on."
"Yes, you do, young lady. Go chase your dream." Mamma looked around with sad eyes. "While it looks like it may be time to finally close mine."
"Daria," Quinn said over the phone. "What's going on? I was checking my account balance and I found this big deposit from you."
Inwardly glad that Quinn had finally broken the ice on a conversation that she had been avoiding, Daria said, "It's your half of the money from selling the house."
"You sold the house? Are you starting college early? Where?"
"I'm…not going to college yet."
"I was wait-listed by East York and my story was rejected again."
"Oh, Daria, I'm so sorry."
"So, I'm going to take a year off from life."
"I bought a small cabin in Montana. I also traded in Mom's old car for a used four-wheel drive truck. I'm leaving in two days."
"Two days? That won't give me time to see you."
"I know. Quinn, please, this is nothing against you. You've been the one thing that has kept me going all of these years. But it's time for me to do something solely for myself. I think I've earned it."
"Okay. I don't like it, but I can't argue with you. You deserve a chance to do something for yourself."
"My plan is to stay for a year and rewrite my novel from top to bottom. When I get back, the first thing I’m going to do is see you. I promise."
"You'd better, or I will be mad at you."
"I wouldn't want that."
"Daria, I love you. You're the best sister I could've had."
"I love you, Quinn. You're the sister that I'm glad I have."
Holding her medical records, Daria wondered why her old family doctor had asked for her to wait in a patient room after performing a final regular examination only a couple of days earlier. He soon arrived and sat down on the chair next to her. "Daria, I told you about the fertility issues that some young ladies have had because of that problem with uranium in the drinking water years ago."
"Yes. You said you wanted to run some tests."
"I'm afraid that they've come back and that you were exposed. It's difficult to tell a young person this."
"Tell me what?"
"That you most certainly will miscarry if you become pregnant."
Despite the fact that it was something she had rarely given thought to, the news still hurt. "Oh."
"I'm so sorry. I know you've been through a lot, Daria, and you really didn't deserve for this to happen to you."
"Perhaps it is for the best," Daria said. "With the way my life has gone, it's not like I was going to be planning on a family any time soon."
"In any case, you need to consult with a fertility specialist to go over your options. After all, unexpected things can happen."
"I'll look into something after I move."
"Fair enough," the doctor said.
Despite planning on leaving early in the morning for Montana, Daria crawled into the covered back of her pickup and retrieved a photo album, knowing that it would be late before she was done looking at it.
Inside the house, she sat on the sofa and flipped through photos of her and Quinn as small children.
She closed the album and lowered her head. "Dammit."
So instead of spending her final night there in a bed, she spent the final night on the sofa, holding the album close to her chest.
Daria's head hit the roof of her truck as it dropped off the pavement where her driveway met the road. "Good thing I got this truck," she said.
The driveway led to a log cabin set in a clearing on a forty acre lot. A pond was about forty yards away on the other side of the cabin and dense trees and wilderness surrounded everything. A single pole with an electric meter stood next to the house, with one line each for the power and telephone.
"I christen you Walden Mark II," she said after stopping the truck and getting out.
The new locks opened easily and she stepped inside. Rustic came to mind. Though clean, the cabin was still somewhat bare. A small wooden table and chairs were at the kitchen area along one wall. A threadbare recliner was in the middle of the room, while a single bed was against another wall. Behind a plastic curtain were the simple bathroom facilities. Finally, there was a nice fireplace, with a single sad-looking log in the hearth.
"Needs a good bit of work but livable," she said. "I can run back into town tomorrow to start buying furniture and more supplies. I guess I'll have to learn the fine art of home repair."
After several trips, she had transferred her few remaining possessions from the truck to the cabin.
As the escrow agent had promised, the power was on and the refrigerator was running. "Good," she said as she transferred her food inside. When that was done, she checked the telephone line and was glad to find that it was also live, with a preprinted note next to the phone with her new number.
"Dialup here can't be any worse than Highland," she said. She dialed and waited.
"Hello?" Quinn said.
"I'm here," Daria said.
"Oh, thank goodness. I was getting a little worried."
"Sorry. It's a long way between anywhere in Montana, but I'm here and alive. The place needs work, but I think I made the right choice."
"I hope so."
"I will call you every week," Daria said. "I don't think that I'm so far around the bend that I need to be a complete hermit."
"If you don't mind, I'm going to say goodbye and start writing. I haven't felt this inspired in…a long time."
"Go write, Daria. I'll wait for your next call. Bye."
Words flowed easily that night; new words that went in new directions. It was during that night that Daria had to admit that her novel was too much like her old life and, like it, had to be left behind.
So she wrote. Not with a plan, not for publication, but for Daria. She wrote things meant only for her.
Many hours later, Daria was amazed to discover that it was after midnight. As she walked to the toilet an uneven, staccato whine built outside. Curious, she opened the back door. Over the pond, a softly glowing disk haltingly descended to the water surface, a thin plume of smoke rising from one side. Abruptly, it fell the remaining feet, smacking the water with a loud report. The disk began to settle into the water by the side that had been smoking. In the dim light, she could see movement on the disk surface as four vague forms pushed an oval object into the water, and then climbed in. The disk rapidly tipped and dropped under the water.
Daria started to go back inside for her pistol, but decided against it. Instead, she cautiously stepped back outside and walked to the pond.
She knew that her luck had finally changed.
February - March 2011 Thanks to Kristen Bealer and Ipswichfan for beta reading.