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.
Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2007.
This is the fifty-third story in the Falling into College series.
Daria Went Down to Georgia
The November afternoon sun highlighted Maddie Myerson's light brown/blond hair as she opened the front door of her house and looked across the yard toward the equipment barn for her husband, Geoff. She spotted him crawling up onto a tractor parked near the far end of the barn, a wrench in one hand and grease smeared over his face and arms. Maddie cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, "Geoff!"
He took his cap off and wiped his face with a less-greasy part of one arm. "Yes, dear?"
"That was Karen. They're all set to fly to Brunswick Wednesday night. You'll need to get there by about eight."
Geoff asked as he walked across the yard, "Still all six?"
"No, dear. Jane and her boyfriend are going to see their families instead."
"Okay, but that still means I'll have to clear the empty predator mite boxes out of the truck's back seat."
"Something you should've done a week ago, Mr. Myerson," she teased.
"You know how busy things are during transplant season for the sweet onions." Teasing in return, Geoff said, "It's not like you've been that busy; you should pick them up."
"Fine, I'll let you cook the turkey while your mother offers advice."
"What time am I supposed to be at the airport?"
A dull aluminum and gray walker around her legs, Helen stood at the downstairs bathroom counter. Most of her weight rested on her right leg, but she felt comfortable enough to place some on her weakened left while she applied makeup.
In their temporary bedroom, Jake called, "Honey, have you seen my razor?"
She looked at the device still resting in its charger on the bathroom counter. "In here, Jake," she replied before dropping her head in frustration-not so much at her husband, but at the remaining effects her stroke had on her voice.
Jake appeared and reached for the razor. "Thanks, honey. Boy, I wonder if California's changed that much since I was there back in '69."
"I'm sure it has."
"I ate at this great burger joint on the way to Altamonte called 'Peace on a Bun'. Maybe we can try to find it."
"Jake, Altamonte and San Diego are in completely different parts of California."
Helen faintly smiled and said, "Good thing we won't be passing through Boulder, Colorado."
Studying his and Helen's reflections in the mirror, Jake said, "Was it really us?"
Helen closed her makeup compact and answered, "It doesn't seem like it anymore. Was it really so long ago?"
Jake put his arm around Helen's waist. "Long enough for us to have a beautiful daughter in college to visit."
She rested her head on his shoulder. "Quinn sure is excited about it."
"Almost as much as Daria was last year, even if she'd never admit it."
Closing her eyes, Helen said, "We may not be the same people we were back then, but maybe that was the price for two wonderful children."
"Die, bastard, die!" Lewis yelled at the television while furiously waving and pressing buttons on a game controller. On the television, a Nazi airplane exploded and the young man flopped back onto the sofa in relief.
Carrying a suitcase, Michael walked behind the sofa and said, "How many does that make?"
"A grad student who doesn't know how to fly has over fifty kills. Yeah, that's a realistic flight sim."
"You're just jealous because you can't get more than two before being shot down."
"Maybe. Still hanging around here all weekend?"
"Yeah, no reason to go put up with the family. A bunch of us plan on getting together at Dina's Devilish Deli for dinner tomorrow to satisfy our turkey fix."
Michael leaned against the sofa back. "I feel kinda weird. This is the first time since I started college that I could afford to go home for the holiday and I'm not."
"No, you'll be with your girlfriend, a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Michael, it's part of that whole 'leaving the nest' bit."
"Yeah. But, I was also thinking that since Gina's a senior, she might be gone next year. What if we've already had our last Thanksgiving dinner together, and didn't even realize it?"
"I don't think anyone really plans a last big Thanksgiving together. They just sort of happen. If you're lucky, it's a good one, if not…oh well."
"Sorry Lewis, I didn't mean to bring anything up."
"Not your fault, it was my choice of timing." Lewis turned to look at Michael. "Hey, I'll be all right. Get going, or you'll be late. Remember, if you hear Dueling Banjos, run."
"I'll take that under consideration. Have a good weekend."
Michael went downstairs to the sidewalk and waited for a couple minutes before Daria's car appeared. Karen and Derek waved from the back seat of the black sedan as Daria pulled into the loading zone half a block down the street. Just as he reached the car, Daria pulled the trunk release to open it, allowing Michael to drop his suitcase inside before coming forward.
Daria leaned over to kiss Michael as he sat down. "Hi."
"Hey," he said, returning the kiss.
Daria checked over her shoulder and pulled back onto the street. "Next stop, airport. Oh, um, Karen has some news about the sleeping arrangements at her parents'."
"Oh?" Michael asked.
Karen said, "Um…to avoid freaking out Great-grandma, Daria and I will be in my old room, and you and Derek will be in Terry's old room. Ya'll can decide who gets the bed and who gets the cot."
Disappointed, Michael nodded in understanding. "Derek, I hope you don't snore."
"Not that anyone's told me," Derek said. He reached into his pocket for a quarter. "Heads or tails?"
"Eh, heads," Michael guessed.
Derek flipped the coin and showed it to Karen, who said, "Tails."
Michael muttered, "Damn."
Jane parked her car against a curb and looked at the impressive building. "I'll give those frat boys marks for comfortable digs."
She jogged to the front door and rang the bell, softly whistling and grinning while she waited. A huge, broad shouldered man with curly blond hair answered the door. "Oh, hi Jane. Come on in and I'll holler for Mike."
He took three steps and bellowed, "Mike! Get your slack ass down here!"
Jane smirked and said, "Such subtlety."
He laughed. "Defensive tackles are not known for that."
Taking the stairs two at a time, Mack ran down the stairs with a suitcase in one hand.
Jane ran over and intercepted him at the base of the stairs. "Hey there, tiger."
He wrapped his free arm around Jane's waist and kissed her. "Then you must be a tigress."
"I like that; just don't ask me to put stripes in my hair."
Fran leaned against the kitchen counter, chin resting on her left hand, as she watched Quinn buzzing around the suite's common room. "You're going to wear yourself out if you keep that up."
Quinn rapidly replied, "I want everything to look right for Mom and Dad. It means a lot to me."
"The place is cleaner than it was when we moved in. You've even combed out the dust bunnies."
Quinn stopped and absorbed the last comment. "I have been a little frantic, haven't I?"
"Just a little. I think Grace and Tammy are scared to come out of their rooms until you're done."
"I want Mom and Dad to understand how much I like it here."
"I'm sure that they'll figure it out."
Pushing Helen's airport wheelchair through the crowded concourse, Jake looked at the long line in front of the security station. "Um, Helen, how are we going to get your wheelchair through the scanner?"
Feeling like every eye was on her, she said, "They'll have to hand-check me."
"Are you sure?"
"I'll be fine, Jake."
"I hear they're getting really strict on this security stuff."
"Yes, Jake. Just make sure the rest of our carryon goes through the x-ray machine right."
The wait slowly frayed their nerves before they finally reached the screeners. Jake placed their carryon luggage and Helen's purse on the x-ray machine's conveyer belt. A woman smiled and nodded at Helen. "This way please, and I'll take care of you."
The second screener, a balding man, said to Jake, "Please remove your shoes and run those through also, sir."
The woman examining Helen squatted and said, "I'll get them for you, ma'am. Sorry, standard procedure."
"If you must," Helen said.
The woman placed Helen's shoes on the conveyer and pushed her to the side to begin hand inspection. "This will only take a moment or two."
Near panicked, Jake looked at the man and said, "My shoes? What's wrong with my shoes?"
"It's standard procedure, sir."
Jake started to reach for his shoelaces, but stopped. "Is it safe to touch them?"
Bored and slightly sarcastic, the screener said, "You may want to hold your breath."
"Hold my breath?" Jake jerked his head up, wild-eyed. "Why do I need to hold my breath?"
"Sir, you're holding up the line."
"Oh!" Jake took a big gulp of air and held his breath. When he leaned over to untie his shoes, he overbalanced and fell, sprawling under the edge of the conveyor. "Dammit!"
Several people in line started to laugh, as well as the screener.
"What's so funny?" Jake screamed, trying to sit up. Bumping his head on the underside of the conveyor caused more laughter.
"Gah!" Jake pulled his shoes off without untying them and tossed them overhand onto the conveyor.
Trying to recover some decorum, the screener extended his hand to help Jake stand. "Sir?"
"Oh, thanks!" Jake said, accepting the help and looking embarrassed as he stepped toward the metal detector.
He screener tugged on Jake's sleeve and held out a plastic dish. "Please put your keys and any other metal objects in here."
Jake replied, "Oh yeah, sure!" and piled keys, loose change, a rabbit's foot and a cell phone in the tray.
Once through the checkpoint, Jake turned to retrieve their items. "See, Helen? That wasn't so hard."
Helen sighed and buried her face in her hands.
Jake took his position behind the wheelchair and started pushing when a third screener said, "Sir, you may want to put your shoes back on."
"Just a moment; these things don't exactly come off fast," Daria told the airport screener as she dropped to one knee and started to untie her boot.
Already through the checkpoint, Daria's comment caused Derek to snort from holding back a laugh.
"What was that for?" Karen asked him.
Derek looked briefly at Michael, waiting in line behind Daria. "I'm picturing…" he started to say before stopping to chuckle again.
Daria pulled one boot off and looked up at him, scowling. "You don't need to go any further."
Karen saw Michael look slightly away with a faint, thoughtful smile on his face, which caused her to break out in laughter.
Switching to the other boot, Daria looked up again and asked, "Now, what?"
"Nothing," Karen said, catching her breath.
"Ugh." Daria untied the other boot and stood, placing both boots on the x-ray machine. "Don't mind my friends. They're…special."
"Hello? Anybody home?" Jane called into the seemingly empty Lane house.
"I'm in the kitchen," Lindy called back. How was your trip?"
Jane followed the voice and said, "Long, and my butt is stiff." In the kitchen, she saw Lindy at the table reading a cookbook. Other cookbooks and new-looking utensils were scattered around. Jane observed, "You were serious about dinner."
"I've missed big dinners, and maybe around here, it won't break down into petty bickering."
Jane leaned over the back of a chair. "Yeah, because bickering requires effort. How's Trent?"
"Good. He's in the basement, practicing."
"I don't hear anything; are you sure he's not asleep?"
Lindy chuckled. "Like I said, practicing."
"Uh-huh. Since the band broke up, practicing what?"
"He's still doing solo performances, and I've hooked him up with some local agencies to do background music for commercials and stuff."
"Please tell me he's getting paid more than a set of tires and studio time."
Lindy laughed more. "I heard about that. Yes, he is."
"Hey, Janey," Trent said, walking into the room.
She turned and hugged her brother. "Hey, you weren't asleep. Married life really is changing you."
In his familiar warm, slow voice, Trent said, "Maybe a little."
"What's your contribution tomorrow?"
"Um, keeping Jesse, Max and Nick out of Lindy's hair."
Jane turned back to Lindy. "I thought you wanted a dinner without bickering."
She waved off the concern. "Now that they're no longer in a band, the boys play together a lot better."
"Figures," Jane said.
"Still going to eat at the MacKenzies, too?" Lindy asked.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge of two full Thanksgiving dinners." She patted Trent's stomach. "Looks like you've put on a little weight. Or are you expecting?"
"Expecting what?" Getting the joke, Trent deadpanned, "Oh, um, not that I'm aware of. Maybe I should get it checked out."
Quinn leaned halfway out of the suite's door and waved. "Bye, Eddie! Thanks for bringing the food over from the deli. I appreciate it so much."
A man's voice replied, "Anytime, Quinn."
Leaning back on the sofa, Fran took a bite from an apple and said to Grace, "How does she do that?"
Grace shrugged. "She's cute."
"Come on, cute only goes so far."
"She's a mutant," Tammy said. "She can control the mind of any male."
"I can almost buy that," Fran said.
Quinn turned and closed the door. "It's all in the attitude. You have to know what you want."
"She's a mutant," Tammy reasserted. "But where does she hide the costume, and where's the bald guy?"
Fran curled one finger in her long, dark hair. "She is a redhead."
"Yeah," Tammy said, walking to the food and picnic accessories piled in the kitchen. "Let's hope we're not around when she goes bad."
Quinn joined Tammy in the kitchen. "This is going to be so much fun: a picnic on the beach for Thanksgiving."
Fran said, "It's different, anyway."
Grace scratched her head and asked, "Quinn, how are we going to get your mother's wheelchair onto the beach?"
Quinn stopped in mid-motion and stared back at Grace. "Uh…good question."
Seeing his daughter and her friends enter the baggage claim area, Geoff waved and said, "Karen! Over here!"
"Dad!" Karen broke from the others and ran to her father.
Geoff hugged her and said, "Welcome home, sweetheart."
Derek followed and said, "Hi, Mr. Myerson."
Geoff grabbed Derek's hand to shake it. "Welcome back." Looking past him, he saw the other two. "You must be Daria and Michael. Welcome to Georgia."
"Hi," Daria answered slightly before Michael said the same.
"Karen's told us a lot about you." Geoff turned back to Karen to ask, "How was the flight?"
"Okay to Atlanta, but then pretty bumpy on the way here," she said. "Kind of like Terry's old on a clay road. Daria, that thing was a spray-bombed primer gray and the shocks were worn out two years before he bought it."
"Sounds like half the trucks I saw in Texas," Daria said. "Though I'm willing to bet they don't have the longhorns on the hood around here."
"Nah, just bug-shields and brush guards," Karen offered.
"The airport closed curbside parking for 'security', but the regular lot is pretty close," Geoff said. "Let's get your bags and load up."
"They couldn't squeeze too many people on that little commuter plane," Daria said, "So it shouldn't take too long, providing our luggage actually made the transfer in Atlanta."
Daria's prediction about them not taking long to locate their luggage proved accurate, and everything did, in fact, arrive. Geoff felt a little odd, walking back to the truck empty-handed as each of the others insisted on carrying their suitcases. As promised, the pale blue four-door truck, sides splashed with dried mud and dust, was parked nearby.
Geoff made a circle around the truck, unlocking doors and unsnapping the bed cover. "You can put your bags in the bed, they'll be safe."
While the others were placing luggage in the truck bed, Geoff said, "Elvira must know you're coming home; she's been prancing around, all excited, lately. We're stabling Junior for the Wilsons, plus the Alvarez's Lancer and Lucinda. Everyone can ride."
Daria fixed her eyes on Karen. "Ride? Isn't Elvira your horse?"
Karen shrugged and grinned. "It's a lot of fun. I know you've had a bad experience, but I hope we can change your mind. Trust me?"
Daria sighed and said, "I'll think about it."
"Good enough," Karen said, knowing not to push her luck and happy that Daria was willing to agree to that much.
"Who's sitting where?" Michael asked.
"You're the new guests," Geoff said, "You and Daria can sit in back; Karen and Derek can sit up front with me."
Karen cautiously looked in the back seat. "Good, you cleaned it out."
"You sound just like your mother."
"Quinn, you're gonna wear a hole in the carpet," Grace said, watching Quinn pace back and forth behind the sofa.
Quinn stopped. "Sorry, I'm just worried about them running late."
Tammy said, "It's the day before Thanksgiving; the traffic around the airport always sucks. They're probably stuck behind some asshole pissed off over a fender-bender."
Under her breath, Quinn said, "I hope it isn't Dad."
"And if they take a wrong turn, it's always a pain to get back on track. They'll get here when they get here." Fran picked up a remote, pointed it at the VCR and said, "Hey, why don't we watch the last episode of Buffy?
"You want to drool over Spike some more," Tammy said.
"Like there's something wrong with that?" Fran fired back.
Tammy said, "Move over," and sat on the sofa next to Fran.
Grace sat on the other side, one leg dangling over the sofa arm. "Give me Angel."
"Hopeless shippers," Fran said, half-mocking.
Grace held her head up. "Like you'd kick Angel out of bed."
"Of course not. But come on, he's got his own series. Buffy and Angel will never get together."
Quinn dashed to the door upon hearing the first knock and opened it. "Mom! Dad!"
"Quinn!" Jake exclaimed, standing behind Helen's wheelchair.
"Sweetie," Helen said, openly happy to see her daughter.
Quinn hesitated a couple seconds as she absorbed how her mother had changed. Besides the wheelchair, Quinn could see the slight, added fullness around her face from the extra weight gained during her enforced inactivity. Starting to cry, Quinn leaned over and embraced her mother. "It's so good to see you."
That triggered tears in Helen as she held her daughter and Jake rested his hand on Quinn's shoulder.
Fran, Grace and Tammy wordlessly gathered near the door and patiently waited. When Quinn stood up, she wiped her eyes and said to her roommates, "Sorry, guys."
"Eh, no problem," Tammy said.
"Mom, Dad," Quinn pointed to each girl in turn as she said, "This is Fran, Tammy and Grace."
"Hi, kids," Jake cheerfully said with a wave of one hand.
"Hello, everyone," Helen said. "It's good to meet you."
The other girls gathered around to say their greetings. Amid the chatter, Helen cocked her head and reached out to touch the left side of Fran's smile, where the normally down-turned corner was barely raised. The result was reminiscent of Helen's now uneven smile.
Fran said, "That's one thing Quinn's brilliant makeup can't change. I've learned to live with it."
Helen lowered her hand. "Then you're doing better than I am."
"I've had more practice."
Jake stared in wonder at the main room of the suite as he and Helen finally entered. "Wow, our daughters sure have better places to live than we did in college, Helen."
His comment drew Helen's attention away from Fran. "Thank goodness. Honey, we lived in a dump."
"Now that you mention it, the place was kind of run down. This is much nicer."
Quinn said, "Mom, I thought you had an electric wheelchair."
Helen explained, "We figured that trying to get it through checked baggage or finding a rental car it would fit into would be a nightmare. But don't worry; my arm's a lot better and I can move myself pretty well." She winked at Jake, saying in a sultry tone, "And, your father enjoys the exercise."
Grace laughed and said, "Don't you just hate it when parents do that?"
Fran said, "I always thought my aunt and uncle were cute."
Tammy said, "It's creepier when Mom and the Step-Creep or Dad and the Jailbait do it."
Fran said, "Okay…eww!"
Lying on a decades-old folding bed, Daria blinked one eye open to look at Karen already dressed and moving around the room. "Your whole family gets up at the crack of dawn, don't they?"
"Nah," Karen joked, "Dad's usually up at least an hour before. That's why he likes Thanksgiving; he can sleep in."
"It's amazing you didn't try to kill me when we shared that dorm room."
"Thought about it: too sleepy, no coordination, wouldn't work."
A rooster crowed in the front yard.
Daria rolled to glare at the window. "Those damn things really do exist."
Karen chuckled. "Yep, they sure do."
"I'd have thought natural selection would've eliminated such an obnoxious trait by now."
Down the hall, Michael pulled the sheet from his head and looked at the window. He grumbled, "That's worse than an alarm clock."
In a t-shirt and sweat pants while doing pushups on the floor, Derek said, "Damn sight better than hearing Reveille."
Michael flopped over, taking several seconds to realize that the voice was at floor level. "You're exercising," he said, dumbfounded.
"Yep. You should try it."
"I get enough sweeping up the crap people leave around our national landmarks, and I'll certainly pass on it before breakfast."
"Okay, I can see that."
The rooster crowed again, causing Michael to roll back over and say, "Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time."
Daria tossed the sheet aside and rolled her legs over the side of the bed to sit up. "When in Rome. Hey, this is nice; it's not that cold."
"Amazing, isn't it?" Karen said. "One of the advantages of south Georgia; winter waits until winter."
"I can see the attraction," Daria said, putting on slippers and standing, straightening her black nightgown in the process. I hope there's not a long line for the bathroom."
Easily switching to sit-ups, Derek continued his exercise routine. "I noticed that Daria's lost some weight lately. Looks good on her."
Michael sat up on the cot and rubbed his face with his old t-shirt. "Her mother's stroke spooked Daria and she's trying to be careful about stuff like that. You know, I never really noticed that she'd gained; I always thought she looked wonderful. But, I did notice when she lost the weight. Speaking of which, it looks like Karen has, also."
"She says it's Daria's bad influence."
"Change of subject: do you suppose they'll have breakfast ready soon?"
"It's probably waiting for us."
Hearing many voices, Michael and Daria wandered into the dining room. Karen's immediate family was already seated, including her brother, sister-in-law and baby nephew. Karen stood and said, "Daria, you remember Terry, that's Jill and the really cute one is Wayne." Waving at the newcomers, she said, "The two sleepyheads are Daria and Michael."
After a round of greetings, Maddie said, "Karen, why don't you get some plates ready for our guests?"
"Okay, Ma," Karen said while walking to the kitchen. "We have fresh scrambled eggs, ham, grits and toast with Grandma's peach preserves. Follow me."
Michael said, "It all sounds good."
"I figured that. How much?"
"Oh, two eggs, ham slice, two toast, and, um, not so much of the grits."
"You'll learn about good food eventually. Daria?"
A loud knock came from the front door, followed by a man hollering, "Morning!"
Maddie dropped her forehead onto one hand. "Rick. Don't have to worry about calling him late for dinner…he's always early."
Jill, a medium-framed, pleasant faced blonde, said, "I hope he left the corn liquor at home this time."
Rising to go to the front door, Geoff said, "That would be a first."
From the other room, Rick said, "Hmm. I smell breakfast; talk about lucky timing."
Daria gazed uncertainly at the direction of the voice. "Uh, one egg and a slice of ham. A piece of toast and the peach stuff."
"Got it." Karen rocked her head in the approaching relative's direction. She then rolled her eyes, saying, "And so it begins."
Late in the morning, Jane jogged from her car to the MacKenzies' front door. Just as she raised one hand to the bell, the door swung open and Colin grinned to see her. "Glad you could make it, Jane."
She gave the stocky, muscled man a hug. "How you are, Colin?"
"About as well as you can expect around here," he joked as he closed the door behind them. "Sleeping on the couch, horrible cookin' and a son with no respect."
Jane said, "Yeah, I can tell you're starving."
"What's that lying man telling you, this time?" Leesha MacKenzie stepped into the living room from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a check-patterned hand towel.
"The usual," Jane said, giving the large woman a big hug. "Nothing that I'd believe."
"Smart girl, Jane. Now if we can just get some meat on your bones."
"I'm sure you're going to try your best, today," Jane said, playing along with the joke.
"You know it, hon."
"Mom," Mack said, coming up behind Jane and putting his arms around her waist.
"'Bout time you got here," Leesha said. "Leaving this poor girl to talk with your father all alone. If I hadn't come in, there's no telling what he might've told her."
"If you ever get a chance to meet her roommates," Mack said, "You'll know why I'm not worried about anything Dad can come up with, or you."
"I remember meeting Daria at your graduation and I've heard the stories." She laughed and went back into the kitchen. "Kids these days. What are those darn colleges teaching them?"
"I'm still trying to figure that one out," was Jane's answer.
Colin had already taken his favored position in his recliner and started the TV. "Mike, do you remember that one year we ate dinner with the Landons?"
Jane sat on the sofa next to Mack, leaning against him. She said, "That doesn't sound good."
Colin joked, "About the only way for Leesha and Michelle to be any more different, would be for one of them to be white."
Mack said, "With Mrs. Landon having the home court advantage."
"Have to admit that the food was tasty," Colin said. "Though I still can't figure out why they called that bird a turd-something."
Jane said, "I think I know what you're talking about. It's one of those turkey/duck/chicken fusion things. Thought they only existed on Sick, Sad World until one of the seniors made a sculpture out of one."
Leesha called from the kitchen, "That thing was a crime against nature!"
"Mom was not impressed. This, of course, offended Mrs. Landon."
"Things went downhill from there. By the time dinner actually was ready, they were not talking to each other." He leaned forward and whispered, "For which we were all thankful."
Mack said, "After dinner, Dad wanted to watch a football game and Mr. Landon a Business Street Journal special on the upcoming holiday sales season."
"Oh, exciting," Jane said, dryly.
Mack said, "Dad and I, Jodie and Rachel all ended up in Rachel's room, watching an old Power Rangers video."
"I knew there was a reason I fit in around here; that sounds like a Lane reunion."
Daria looked at the large number of people gathered around the huge main dining table, plus at several smaller tables scattered in the living room and kitchen. At least thirty extended Meyerson family members were assembled in the family farmhouse to devour two huge turkeys, a pair of whole hams, and enough side dishes to feed an entire floor of a Raft dorm.
Taking a break from feeding Wayne, Jill turned to Daria. She quietly told the overwhelmed-looking young woman, "I don't know all their names, either."
"Where'd they all come from? I mean, do they all live nearby?" Daria asked.
"They're scattered around the southern half of the state, plus a couple from north Florida and some others from Alabama."
"And they all gather here…why?"
"They don't want to cook?"
"Why does Mrs. Meyerson put up with it?"
"She loves to cook and hosting is kind of a tradition that goes with the house. I think it's written into the deed or something."
"Gah!" Wayne voiced, bouncing up and down in Jill's lap.
"Pardon me." Jill spooned out some more baby food and offered it to Wayne. "Who'd have thought someone would get so excited by strained carrots?"
Daria watched for a few moments, fascinated by the interaction of mother and child.
At one of the side tables, a group of young men and teenage boys looked at Karen and Derek, laughed and started singing Dixie.
Across the table from Daria, Karen shook her head, saying, "They're still giving me a hard time about dating a damnyankee."
"One word," Daria noted. "I haven't heard that since leaving Texas."
Michael wiggled a finger in one ear, as if to try to clear it. "Do they always sing that badly?"
"Wait until Rick passes around a bottle of 'Tuesday was a Good Year'; they get worse, much worse."
"Daria, just bash my head in now and spare me."
"You're not getting out of it that easy," she warned.
Maddie stood and faced the singing boys. "That's enough." When they continued, she raised her voice slightly and commanded, "That's enough!"
The singing fell off and the house fell silent. Geoff rose and clasped Maddie's hand, saying, "Let's take time to quietly contemplate what we are thankful for in our lives."
Maddie scanned the tables, her eyes enforcing the "quietly" part of Geoff's request.
Daria thought of her family and how, ironically, she felt closer to them. Quinn, even though we live on opposite coasts, we talk more than we did in high school. Mom, I can't believe your strength of will and determination to recover, and I'm thankful you have the chance at all. Dad, despite your upbringing, family is your core strength and you'd be a lost soul without us. Michael…when did I start thinking of you as family?
Michael felt Daria's hand on his. When he looked over, she was gazing up at his face with a warm smile. Daria. I'm thankful for you and everything that brought us together. Mom, Dad, Gina, thank you for helping me become the person she loves.
Holding her stomach and moving slower than usual, Jane led Mack through Food Lord to the bakery section. "Tell your Mom, if that dinner didn't put some weight on me, nothing will."
Also feeling stuffed, he said, "She'll be proud to hear that."
"Did she always feed you like that?"
"Why do you think I was always working out? I had to burn off all that food somehow."
She leaned against his arm and grinned. "I can think of a few ways to burn things off."
"I'm sure you can." He stopped by a rack of pies. "Lindy asked us to pick up pumpkin, right?"
"Yeah, she said her attempt was a little, um, brittle. But don't worry; she said the turkey was fine."
He selected a pie. "Any preference?"
"One looks about like another to me. Go with what you've got."
Only a single register was open at the front of the store. They got in line behind a brunette holding a single TV dinner. Jane suddenly recognized the young woman and said, "Sandi? Sandi Griffin?"
"Do I…" Sandi turned and recognized them. "Jane? Mack?"
Mack said, "Hey, what brings you here today?"
Sandi held up the microwavable package. "I figured I should at least have some turkey today."
"You're by yourself?" Jane asked.
"Yeah. My folks still won't talk to me. Tiffany moved to New York City last month and Stacy's off at a race. And Quinn, I'm sure you heard that her parents are visiting her this year."
Jane looked at the frost-edged box for several seconds. "Um, look, Mom and Dad are snowed in up in Finland and can't make it, so we have extra. If you want, you can join us, what's present of my family and some of their friends."
Sandi looked at her planned dinner. "Really?"
"Really. I've…come to realize that nobody should be alone on a day like this."
At the edge of the beach, Helen looked at the front half of a broken surfboard parked on the sand next to the pavement edge. "What is that?"
Tammy said, "Your ride out onto the sand. I just waxed it and we tested it out. Works pretty good." She picked up a couple of ropes attached to the leading edge. "Just have a seat and we'll slide you right out there."
Embarrassed, Tammy admitted, "Best we could come up with besides convincing a couple of strong and cute guys to carry you."
Helen glanced at Quinn, not doubting that she could find such assistance. "If I see a camera, I'll sue your asses off."
"No cameras," Quinn said.
Forcing herself not to rely on outside support, Helen gingerly stood and pivoted before slowly lowering herself to the board. Pleased with her success, she half-smiled at Quinn and waved her fingers to where Grace and Fran were finishing setting out the meal on a large blanket placed just above the beach wrack from the previous high tide. "You may proceed."
Pulling on the ropes, Quinn and Tammy slid Helen out to the picnic with little effort while Jake nervously hovered just behind in case anything happened.
Crawling from the board to the blanket, Helen mused about how this looked like something from her college days. Everyone was dressed leisurely in shorts and light shirts, tennis shoes or sandals. The girls had found nice baskets to hold the various dishes, replacing the original store packages. The warm sea breeze and the soft crash of the surf added to an ambience that simply felt right. When Jake sat beside Helen, she leaned against him and it felt like 1971, not 2001.
Later, while finishing her dinner, Quinn said to her parents, "I know she said it was only fair, since you spent last Thanksgiving with her and her friends, but I wish Daria was here."
"I miss her too, Quinn," Helen said.
Three young men jogged past behind Jake and Helen. One of them said to the others, "Lucky bastard. I hope I can get hot chicks like that when I'm old."
Another said, "Five college girls? You know he's rich."
"Just not freaking fair," the last said as they continued up the beach.
Helen half turned and asked, "Did they think I'm a college student?"
"Mrs. Morgendorffer, don't take this the wrong way; it's completely a compliment," Fran said. "You look good for someone your age."
Quinn said, looking down, "Well, duh. This kind of cute had to come from somewhere."
Feeling overwhelmed, Helen whispered, "Thank you."
Grinning, Jake said to her, "You look as good as you did the day I met you."
"Oh, Jakey," she cooed back.
Quinn held up her hands. "Mom, Dad. If you're getting any ideas, wait until you're back at the hotel."
Jane stared hard at the table Lindy had set. A delicately browned turkey on a large platter graced the center of the table, while around it were bowls of potatoes, gravy, green beans, salad, cranberry sauce, corn and the pumpkin pie. Each diner's setting was properly placed and the table appeared as something from a magazine. "Lindy, this looks almost...traditional."
Smiling with deserved pride, Lindy said, "Well, if you use your mother's ceramics, nothing will ever be completely traditional."
"Kind of like how I remembered from a long time ago," Sandi said, both sad and grateful.
"Sandi," Jane warned, "You're sitting next to Jesse. Make sure you don't let your hand drift too far toward his plate, especially if he's holding a fork."
The brunette studied the muscled, bare-chested man entering the room. "He is very attractive."
"That, he is," Jane agreed with a light chuckle.
"You say he was in a band with your brother for years, right?"
"Yep. Mystik Spiral."
"No wonder you didn't seem to pay much attention to guys in high school. Probably safe to say now, but before you started dating Tom Sloane, people thought you and Daria were, you know. Sorry."
"Yeah, we noticed, but didn't care that much. Don't worry about it, that was years ago."
Slowly, everyone finished wandering in and sat down. Holding Trent's hand, Lindy said, "Thanks for coming to our home."
Reaching for the turkey, Max said, "Thanks for inviting us over. This looks good."
Already dishing up mashed potatoes, Nick said, "Yeah. Maybe next year I can bring Ariel."
Trent said, "That would be cool."
Holding the bowl of stuffing, Jesse said, "This smells better than Cluster Burger."
Taken aback by the young men's assault on the food, Sandi could only stare at them before asking Jane, "Um, have they like, eaten lately or anything?"
Jane said, "They're fairly well behaved today. Lindy must've given them a warning."
Lindy said to Sandi, "I hear that you're going to Lame-Ass U," using a well-worn in-joke among Lawndale State students.
"I might only go for this year and take an AA degree. Lawndale doesn't feel like home anymore. I'm thinking about moving to California, near Quinn. She's the closest I have to family, now."
"Quinn's a good friend who'll stand by you and tell you what you need to know, not just what you want to know," Lindy said with gratitude in her voice.
Mack said, "Sounds like her sister."
Jane poked his ribs with her elbow. "Better not let Daria hear you say that, even if it is true."
Outside the barn with Daria, Michael and Derek, Karen said, "Daria, you look shell shocked, but otherwise intact."
Glad to be outside and away from the crowd and noise, Daria said, "That happens every year?"
"More or less."
"Is that why there's a police car parked at the end of your driveway?"
"That's just Rusty. He's waiting to make sure Great Aunt Kay is driving and not Rick."
"I'm glad somebody's making sure your uncle with the moonshine isn't behind the wheel. It's amazing you survived this long with your sanity intact."
"Who says it's intact?"
"Good point." Scanning the ground carefully, Daria then asked, "Why are we going to the barn?"
"I thought it would be a good time to meet the horses we'll ride tomorrow. Don't worry; no riding lessons. I don't think any of us want to get into a saddle right now."
Daria clenched her teeth and forced her legs to keep moving. "You say you have a good horse for me, right?"
"He's about the closest thing you'll find to a horse on valium. Junior's very mellow."
Inside the barn, the first stall was occupied by a mid-sized black mare that reared her head and whinnied upon seeing Karen. "This is Elvira." She stroked the horse's cheek and fed it a carrot. "Hey, girl, I can tell you're glad to see me."
Michael said, "Let me guess, you also liked Black Beauty as a kid."
"Loved it," Karen replied, rubbing Elvira's neck.
Daria shook her head. "I can't believe you named your horse after a TV vampire known for her boobage-revealing clothes."
Karen laughed, "It's also a joke on an old Oak Ridge Boys song." They moved to the next stall, where a tall, chestnut stallion waited. Karen gave him a carrot and said, "Derek, you remember Lancer."
He approached and patted the horse's cheek. "Yep. Good boy."
A chestnut mare was in the next stall. Karen said, "Michael, this is Lucinda."
Remembering what he had learned several years earlier at camp, Michael came up to the side of the horse's head and stroked the top of her snout. "Hi there."
While Michael petted Lucinda, Karen led Daria to the last stall. A massive, gray gelding calmly munched on some oats, watching them. Daria looked at it and said, "'Very funny. Now, where's the horse I'm going to be riding?"
"That's him, that's Junior."
"Percherons tend to be large. They started out as warhorses for armored knights."
"Karen, really, this isn't funny."
"I'm serious. He's the best choice for you to ride."
"He's a retired draft horse who used to pull wagons and buggies for the Wilsons. If a horse can pull it, Mr. Wilson will collect it. Junior pulled the hay rides at the county fair for years. If a horse can stay calm with fifteen screaming kids behind him, he'll stay calm with you on his back. He's big and not very maneuverable. He's also getting up there in years and prefers to take everything at a nice, easy pace."
"Like a retiree's Cadillac."
"Basically. Come here and say hi. Walk up to the side of his head, so he can see you. Don't act scared, it tends to make the horse nervous."
"Don't act scared. Sure, no problem."
"Junior has more experience with nervous people than other horses, but acting confident will make things easier, all the way around."
"Okay, confident." Daria took a breath and stepped forward, reaching to touch the horse's cheek. Junior lightly snorted, and then leaned his head to move Daria's hand to the top of his snout.
Karen said, "He likes you and wants you to scratch right there."
Reminded of Bump doing something similar, Daria asked, "Are you sure there isn't a cat somewhere among his relatives?"
Helen felt refreshingly relaxed as Quinn pushed her wheelchair through the empty Pepperhill campus. The mission style architecture and elegant palm trees clashed with her old ideas of what a college should look like, but with Quinn, it seemed like a perfect match.
Quinn pointed and said, "There's a story that says, if someone graduates from Pepperhill without a good tan, the Nixon Tower will collapse."
Walking alongside, Jake grumbled, "How'd that crook get a building named after him?"
Quinn looked at him in confusion. "Henry Nixon was one of the school founders. I've never heard anyone mention that he was a crook."
Helen said, "I suppose that's a better story than what they say about General Middleton's statue where your father and I went to school."
Jake laughed. "But like they say, he's still in the saddle."
Catching on, Quinn said, "Dad…ewww."
There was a slight chill in the air the next morning as Michael, seated on Lucinda, tried to aim his camera at Daria sitting astride Junior, her small frame looking comically out of scale atop the large horse. "Hold still."
Daria frowned at him and squirmed in the wide saddle, trying to get comfortable. "My ass doesn't fit on this thing."
"You remind me of Jeanne d'Arc at the siege of Orléans."
"I'd feel safer in a suit of armor. At least you're not picturing me as Lady Godiva."
Seeing the glint in his eye, Daria groaned. "I really shouldn't have said that."
Riding Elvira at a trot, Karen came around a corner from the other side of the barn. She stopped easily beside Daria. "You're not slouching; good. Must be remembering something from summer camp."
"All this time I thought 'don't slouch' was just the camp counselors' generic advice and not something I really needed to know about riding," Daria said in return.
"But you're way too stiff. That's going to make it harder to stay on, and harder for Junior to keep you on his back."
Daria said, "I think this is going to be as relaxed as I can get."
Karen moved next to Daria. "You can do it. You're too pig-headed not to."
Still feeling nervous about the entire enterprise, Daria said, "Oink."
"That's the spirit. Don't forget, you're not just riding on your butt; distribute your weight between your feet on the stirrups and your thighs on the saddle."
"Spread out and do more damage that way."
"No, you'll do less damage. You ride all day with your weight only on your butt cheeks and you're really gonna regret it tonight."
"Oh, that makes me feel better. Although, I wonder about the idiot that first thought getting onto the back of a large, fast animal was a good idea."
"I bet the choice between riding a horse or becoming dinner for a saber cat was pretty easy."
"That hasn't exactly been a worry the last couple of years."
"Come on. Besides, if you don't like it, just think of the payback you'll inflict on me."
"In that case…"
Looking back over his shoulder, Derek said, "I don't see how anyone could stand being in a mall today, of all days."
"Black Friday's the high holy day of shopping. My sister missing that would be like the Pope skipping out on Christmas services."
"What about your parents?" Karen inquired. "Think they're with Quinn?"
"No. That would be like me trying to keep up with Jane when she's running."
Karen stopped at a fork in the wooded trail. "Hey guys, would you mind waiting here for a little while? Um, girl stuff, be back in a little while."
Derek shrugged and said, "Okay."
"Not at all," Michael said. "I can use a stop myself."
Daria followed Karen down the side trail and when they were out of sight of the boys, said, "I hope you really don't need someone to help you pee."
"I'm quite able to do that on my own. No, I want you to meet somebody."
Daria looked through the thinning trees along the trail ahead of them. "Karen, that looks like a cemetery."
At the forest edge, Karen dismounted and tied Elvira to a tree branch. "Wait here, girl."
Daria looked at the ground. "I was really hoping not to get down until the end of the day. That way, I wouldn't have to go through the embarrassment of getting back up here."
Karen grasped Junior's bridle and patted the horse. "It's really kind of rude to ride on the grounds."
"This better not be a joke."
Daria leaned forward and managed to swing her right leg over the saddle back before unceremoniously sliding to the ground. "No one will ever call that ladylike."
"We're not going far." Karen led the way, while her attitude changed from playful to serious. She stopped beside a headstone decorated with carnations carved into the face. Below the stone bouquet was inscribed:
Laura Deanna Austin
June 3, 1981 - October 17 1998
"Hi, Laura, I'd like you to meet Daria," Karen softly said. "Daria, Laura was one of my best friends in high school. What happened to her is why I was so worried about you when you got weird about your weight."
"Seventeen," Daria said, reading the dates.
"Bulimia. We…I never saw it, or realized it, or something. We used to joke about how much she could eat, but didn't know what was going on until she was put in the hospital. Then it was too late."
"Then you learned everything you could about eating disorders."
Karen nodded. "Seeing you wear baggy clothes and get upset about your weight scared me."
Daria squatted beside the grave. "I don't know if I'd have gone as far, but I had a few messed up ideas about myself. Karen, I'm glad you butted in." She looked up to say, "Thanks. Next time we're in Lawndale, I need to introduce you to Theresa Blaine."
"I'll look forward to it." Karen looked back at the horses. "We better get going before our boyfriends get bored and try to find something to entertain themselves."
Back on the trail, Michael said, "Daria and Karen aren't the type to go off the restroom together; I wonder what they're really up to."
"Considering Karen has the knowledge and practical experience to make a stallion a gelding, I'm not in a hurry to look."
"Almost back," Karen said. "Just the other side of the pasture."
"Good. I'm trying my best to spread out the weight, but my butt is getting tired," Daria said.
"Mine, too," said Michael.
"Hope you don't mind, but I want to get Elvira up to a nice gallop for a lap or two. Trail riding is fun, but sometimes you want speed."
"Right behind you," Derek said.
Daria waved. "Have fun."
Karen and Derek led their horses away, bringing them to a fast gallop across the pasture. Following, Michael and Daria found Lucinda and Junior impatient to follow. Michael said, "Want to try a little faster?"
Daria patted Junior's neck. "He's actually been very careful with me. This is probably against my better judgment, but okay."
Michael leading, they started at a light trot, which the horses seemed to appreciate. He noticed that Daria seemed to be relaxing more and faintly smiling. He switched between watching ahead and checking on her.
Daria felt a sense of freedom and lightness, like she'd imagined as a child reading Black Beauty and had hoped to capture at Camp Grizzly. This isn't so bad. Daria noticed a sudden surge and smoothing of gait as Junior shifted to a gallop, but she was so intent on how she felt, the increased speed didn't register is her mind.
At the end of the pasture, Karen guided Elvira into a wide turn and started laughing when she saw Daria and Michael's horses now running freely. She pointed and yelled to Derek, "I think we have a convert!"
Younger and more agile, Lucinda had pulled ahead of Junior. When Michael turned, he noticed that they were riding at top speed. Daria's hair waved in the wind rushing past her head. "I've got to get a shot of this." Holding the reins in his right hand, Michael took the camera from his jacket pocket and turned again to Daria, trying to get her in the frame as the horse bounced along. After several bad shots, he finally got a good frame and captured the picture.
Sliding the camera back in his pocket, Michael saw a hole in the ground just ahead a fraction too late to prepare for Lucinda's dodge. His fall backward pulled hard enough on the reins to slow the horse somewhat before he tumbled off and hit the ground, bouncing and rolling.
Despite her reverie, Daria immediately saw Michael's spill and almost instinctively pulled back on the reins to slow, and then stop, Junior. Unhesitant, she was out of the saddle and running to Michael's side as he sat up. "Michael! Are you hurt?"
"Nothing worse than a bruised ego," he said. Panicked, he reached into his pocket. "My camera!"
"I don't care about the camera; we can replace that." Daria scolded, still worried.
Feeling a few aches as he stood, Michael switched the camera back on and checked the last recorded frame. His breath relaxed and he held it out for Daria to see. "No, but I don't think I could replace the picture."
In the scattered crowd before the airport security lines, Quinn leaned down to embrace Helen. "Thank you so much for coming out. It really meant a lot to me."
"Our pleasure, Quinn. Thank you for being such a gracious host."
When she stood, Jake hugged her. "Bye, Quinn. Hope the old man didn't embarrass you too much."
"Oh, Daddy. How could you embarrass me?"
He joked, "I could rant about my father to your friends."
"Okay, that would embarrass me. Speaking of my friends, how do you like them?"
"You have good taste in associates," Helen said, reaching to the left side of her face and remembering Fran's strength. "You can learn a lot from them. I have."
"I'll tell them that." Quinn reluctantly checked her watch. "You need to get through security. Goodbye, I'll see you at Christmas."
"Bye, honey," Helen said. "We'll be waiting for you."
"Take care, sweetheart," Jake said. "You'll always be my little girl."
"Thanks, Daddy. Bye."
Watching Quinn, with her even tan and fashionably short hair, disappear into the crowd, Helen reached for Jake's hand. "She's found her new home."
Knowing his wife was right, Jake put his other hand on Helen's. "Our girls have grown up."
"That, they have."
Mack flipped the trunk lid down on Jane's car and was surprised to see Sandi's car stop along the curb.
She opened the door and stood, looking over the roof. "Um, thank you."
"You're welcome," Jane said.
"Also, I wanted to say…um, you can also tell Daria, you're good friends."
Jane smiled, touched by Sandi's sincerity. "I'll tell her."
Favoring his right leg, Michael took his suitcase from Daria's car trunk. "It's been a great trip."
Daria embraced him. "Next time, try not to bang yourself up so much."
"It's only a little deep bruising and sore muscles."
Daria pulled away some. "You scared me. Please be careful. You're important to me. I love you."
"I love you," he answered, then leaned down to kiss her. "Lunch tomorrow?" he asked when they parted.
"Always thinking with your stomach. Okay, call my cell tomorrow so we can figure out where. I'm too tired to think that much tonight."
"Oh, and I want a copy of that picture. If you're going to risk life and limb, I want evidence."
"Yes, dear. You know, the Monday after the break two years ago was when you first agreed to go out with me."
"Has it really been two years already?" Daria asked. She also remembered how her parents' story of how they met influenced her decision.
"Trust me, I'll never forget that. It was one of the best days of my life. We can come up with something special, okay?"
"Deal. Goodnight, Michael."
After another kiss, Michael watched Daria drive away to drop Derek off at his apartment before she and Karen went home to theirs. Silent, he went into his apartment building and up the stairs. Images floated through Michael's head as he unlocked the apartment door: Daria sitting in the biology class where they met; her walking into the dorm lobby at the start of their first date; the joy on her face upon opening her first Christmas present.
He walked through the dark silence to his room. More memories came to him: sleeping beside her the night of Jane's birthday, when an ice storm forced them to stay at BFAC, the sunny day on the Quad he first said he loved her; the broken sadness in her eyes the day he prematurely asked her to marry him, and she correctly said, "No." Michael reached into his closet and took out a blue velvet box, opening it to see the emerald and gold ring inside.
"You've become so much a part of my life; I can't imagine it without you."
He thought of their reconciliation and the joy of hearing her first say, "I love you." Not looking away from the ring, he sat on the bed. Without a break, the memories continued: Thanksgiving the year before under the cloud of that stalker; their first night together; Spring Break in that cabin. He winced when thinking of his hangover after Trent's bachelor party, and beamed at how angelic Daria looked as Amy's maid of honor. He also remembered the reception, when Karen and Jane convinced Daria it was okay to dance with someone else and one handsome military cadet who tried to kiss her. Daria's polite refusal of the man killed the jealousy that had started to well inside Michael.
"I know her commitment. I…nobody…could ask for more."
He gently closed the ring box and stood to place it back on the shelf, as he'd done so many times before. However, this time he went to his dresser and instead, placed the box on top.
Thanks to Angelinhel for horse and horse riding information that kept me from looking like an idiot.
Thanks to Kristen Bealer, Ipswichfan and Mr. Orange for beta reading