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. 2010.
This is the seventy-second and concluding story in the Falling into College series.
Seated on a lounge chair under the southern California sun, Quinn said into her cell phone, "Don't make me fly over there for an intervention."
On the other end was her sister, Daria, who was seated at her computer work desk. "Jane and Karen are both important to me. I'm having a hard time deciding."
"No kidding, but you've got to decide sometime. Your wedding is only, like, eight weeks away."
"I know, I know."
"Does Michael have a Best Man?"
"At least he can make a decision. Why don't you ask him how he did it?"
"I already did. Jack and Sean flipped a coin and the loser got it."
"God. That is such guy thinking."
Daria chuckled and said, "They do it rather well."
"But they're not helping you. Look, you have finals next week, right?"
"Yes, and graduation on the following Saturday."
"Which is a week from tomorrow. You've got to decide this weekend."
Daria sighed in agreement. "You're right."
"So, are you going to decide?"
"Quinn, you're starting to sound like Mom."
"You say that like it's a bad thing."
"In this case, probably not."
Watching his fiancée on the sofa, Michael said, "That's the twelfth time you've flipped that quarter. What's up?"
"Trying to make a decision."
"Random chance? No heartfelt deliberations over the facts?"
"I tried that and couldn't come up with a decision, so I thought I'd try your method."
"That usually only requires one coin toss," he said, "unless you're doing best out of thirteen."
"No, I'm still not happy with the result."
"I see. I think."
Daria turned and faced him, setting the coin on the coffee table. "Okay, you flipped a coin to decide between Jack and Sean."
"Yeah. Seemed like the best way. Oh, I see. You're trying to decide between Jane and Karen."
"Exactly. How were you able to stick with one coin toss?"
"Well, Jack gets to stand up during the ceremony and Sean buys the beer for the bachelor party. It seems like an even trade to them and they both get to contribute to the wedding."
Daria's head sunk into her hand. "That doesn't help."
"Isn't there something important that one of them can do while the other stands with you? I don't know, like hire the male stripper for the bachelorette party?"
Daria shook her head. "CC already promised to cover that if needed. She can get a discount. Hey, does that mean that Sean's hiring a stripper?"
"Actually, he's bringing his GameStation 2."
Daria looked over the top of her glasses and said, "Please tell me that you're going to be gaming and not using it to watch CGI porn. If you're going to do that, have a little self-respect and get a real stripper."
In the morning, Daria lay in bed, spooned against Michael and with her face pressed against his shoulder. She felt a light shift at the foot of the bed as Bump jumped up. The cat crawled on top of Daria and turned around twice before laying down on Daria's side. After less than a minute, Bump wiggled and stood up, not satisfied. She stepped over onto Michael's side and curled up there, resting her head on her paws.
That lasted almost as long. With an annoyed "meow," Bump stood and paced between Daria and Michael, searching for the perfect spot to sleep. Standing on Daria's rear, Bump turned and crawled forward between them. Purring, she stretched out and immediately fell asleep, contented.
Daria whispered, "Bump, you're a genius."
Scratching his side under his t-shirt, Derek opened the door in response to repeated bell ringing. "Oh, hey, Daria. What's up?"
Daria briskly entered and said, "Pardon me, Derek, but I need to borrow your wife for a while."
"Um…" he said, turning to follow. "Sure."
From the kitchen, Karen said, "Daria?"
"I hope you're free this morning."
"I know that look in your eye. I'm free."
"Good," Daria said and turned. "Now we need to get to Jane's."
"Jane? Oh, now I really know I need to follow along." Karen grabbed her purse off a chair back and gave Derek a quick kiss as she passed. "I'll be home whenever."
"I'll be here," he said. "Good luck…whatever you're doing."
Nell opened the door and said, "Daria, Karen. Good to see you. Come in, please."
After they stepped in, Nell closed the door and Daria said, "Is Jane mobile yet?"
"I heard something in her room about ten minutes ago," Nell said. "Um?"
Daria went straight to Jane's room and Karen stayed by the door. Karen lifted her sunglasses and said, "We're on a mission for Daria."
"What kind of mission?" Nell said.
"Not a clue."
Daria opened Jane's door and found her half out of bed and still in her sleepwear. Daria said, "You're coming with us. No questions. No answers."
Jane blinked a couple of times. "Wha?"
Daria pulled on Jane's arm, forcing her out of bed and to uneasily stand. "We've got something to do. Today. This morning."
Daria rummaged through Jane's open dresser and handed some clothes to her friend. "Put these on."
Following directions, Jane pulled on a pair of jeans over her boxers and a long-sleeved shirt over her t-shirt. "Nhg."
Daria found a pair of running shoes and squatted down to put them on Jane's feet. Jane looked down and said, "Shu?"
Daria then led Jane by the arm out of the room. "Nell, we'll have her back sometime this afternoon."
"Sure, no problem."
Karen held the door open while Daria continued to lead Jane. "We'll pick up some coffee for you on the way."
"Coffee," Jane said.
Karen followed and said, "I need to ask your mom if that was your first word."
Daria pulled into a streetside parking space and said, "Here we are."
Caffeinated, Jane looked around and said, "What are we doing here?"
Daria pointed to a boutique across the street. "Maid and Matron of Honor dresses. Find something and we'll make sure it fits. I'm buying."
"Maid and Matron?" Karen said.
Daria said, "Sometimes, no decision is the best decision. Both of you are being recruited."
Jane said, "Both of us?"
"Feline logic," was Daria's reply.
Karen shrugged. "Makes sense to me. And that tells me I've been around you two for too long."
"Works for me," Jane said. "Do we have to find something to match or something?"
Daria replied, "When have you two ever matched at anything?"
"Outside of tolerating you?" Karen said with a smirk.
Jane said, "Morgendorffer, I'm warning you. No pink taffeta."
Daria checked the street and, finding it clear, opened her car door. "We're not buying a funeral dress."
Jane nodded and also got out of the car. "As long as we're on the same page."
Karen also got out and said, "But it usually helps to be in the same book."
When Daria arrived back home, Michael was at the dining table. Books and notes were piled high in a semicircle around him. "Success?" he asked, barely looking up from studying.
Daria leaned back against the door to close it. "And I have the charges to Mom's credit card to prove it. How are you doing?"
"I'm fine," he said, then tilted his head toward the window sill. There, Bump was at the open window, glaring at a gray tabby cat sitting in a window across the alley. "But Her Majesty has been having a loud difference of opinion with the neighbor."
Daria went to the window and looked over Bump's shoulder. "What's the problem?"
Bump meowed at the other cat and then let out a huff. Across the alley, the other cat meowed in reply, tossed its head and then dropped down out of sight inside the neighboring apartment.
Bump snorted and turned her attention to Daria by rubbing her muzzle against Daria's arm.
"You can tell me later, then," Daria said.
Michael said, "I thought of something while you were gone. With you having two attendants and me possibly adding Sean to my side…the wedding procession is going to get awfully crowded once you add in both of our parents. What, that's going to be four plus four plus the two of us…ten."
Daria stayed at the window and rubbed Bump's head. "I hadn't thought about that. Hmm."
Daria leaned back against the wall and picked up the cat, cradling her against her chest. "I'm willing to bet that Jane and Karen won't be heartbroken about skipping the procession and just staging up front."
"Jack will jump at that in a minute. He was a little freaked out when I told him he was included. He originally thought he was going to pull the usual 'sneak in from the side and wait' routine like in most weddings."
"I still wonder if I'm going to be able to talk Sean into this…"
"There's no law that says the number of people we include has to be balanced."
Michael nodded his head. "And nobody said that we were balanced."
Daria came over and sat down at the table, still carrying Bump. She leaned her head back and said, "One more crisis averted."
"You're getting pretty good at that."
"I've had plenty of practice keeping Mom and Quinn in line and not letting this wedding grow into a monster."
"Even if it has grown from the living room to the backyard?"
Daria said, "Why don't you go back to studying?"
"You know, I think I'll go back to studying. Oh, and the pizza should be here in about fifteen minutes."
Daria leaned over and kissed him. "I knew there was a reason I liked you."
Between them, Bump looked up and meowed.
"And you, too," Daria said. "Brat."
Daria closed her bluebook and slowly thumbed the button on top of her pen, retracting the tip. Done. I'm done. The rest of the students in class were busily writing their test essays. She sat back in her chair and could physically feel the tension in her body slide away. Three days of final exams were over. I'm really done.
At the front of the room, a gray-haired professor sat with his feet on his desk and an academic journal issue in his hands. Though reading intently, his gaze also passed over the top of the pages and focused on the students. Decades of practice watching students had been honed to a fine art.
Almost light-headed, Daria took her bluebook to the front of the room and placed it on the desk. The professor politely nodded and then glanced at the door, excusing her to leave. She paused at the door and looked back in. One other student had risen and was going up to the professor. Daria stepped back and closed the door. In silence, she walked down the hallway with only the sounds of her boots following.
Daria maintained her quiet as she left the building and stepped out onto the Quad. She looked around and, seeing nobody near, let out a modest, "Yes!" before continuing on her way.
Michael knocked on his boss's office door at the Visitor's Center. His boss looked up from his paperwork and said, "Yes, Michael?"
"Mr. Morrison, my last final was today. Have you had a chance to look into the budget situation like we talked about last week?"
Mr. Morrison flipped through some folders and selected one. "Yes, I have. We can afford for you to work full time through the summer, but you'll still be OPS. No benefits."
"Understood. Thanks. With Daria working for the paper through the summer, we'll be able to keep our heads above water until we start grad school."
"Good luck, and congratulations."
Slowly nursing a brightly colored mixed drink, Jane sat in the living room, blankly staring at the television. On the screen, the Sick, Sad World reporter said, "So, you claim that Quantum Mechanics explains cat behavior. How so?"
A man in a lab coat responded, "You either know where a cat is or where it is going. Therefore, cats are a wave/particle duality."
"Does that explain Schrödinger's Cat?"
"Of course, though most people don't understand that the cat put Schrödinger in the box."
Nell pushed the door open and entered the apartment. "Whew. I'm glad that's done. Hey, Jane."
Nell walked over to the living room and watched a moment of TV. "That good?"
"You're awfully quiet today."
Jane took a drink and said, "I'm done. I finished. I actually finished."
"Yeah, great, isn't it?"
"I'm still working on shock."
"I finished something important. I'm a Lane that finished something important."
"That's good, isn't it?"
Jane turned and said, "Yeah." Her eyes cleared and her smile returned. "No, that's, hell yeah!" She jumped up and ran around the sofa, dancing. "I finished college. I freakin' finished college!"
Nell watched and said, "That's more like I expected."
When Karen and Derek arrived, they guessed from the parked cars that several other BFAC students, Daria, Michael and his friends Jack, Sean and Clarice were already at the old apartment. Climbing the stairs, Karen said, "It's going to be really embarrassing tomorrow if we oversleep and I miss graduation."
"Something tells me that those early-rising relatives of yours will make sure that you don't," Derek said. "I'll give you odds that your brother will call before seven, just to tease you for turning into a soft city girl."
Karen nodded knowingly and said, "You learn quickly, don't you?"
CC greeted them at the door, holding a bottle and two plastic stem glasses. "Hey, guys. Drop your keys, come on in and have a drink."
"What is it?" Derek said after depositing his car keys among everyone else's in a brightly painted flower pot next to the door.
"Perrier-Jouët. Um, 1997 is supposed to be a good year," CC said while starting to pour.
"I heard of that when we were planning our ceremony," Karen said. "How can you afford such high-end Champagne?"
CC winked and said, "It was a tip. And no, he didn't try to put it under my g-string, though it probably would've been funny as hell if he'd tried."
"If you put that much of yourself into it," Karen said, "how can we refuse?"
Beyond, they could see that Trent was in one corner, strumming on his guitar and providing some background music. Others were crowded around the table for munchies and drinks or mingling among stacked packing boxes and moving totes.
Jane stood next to Daria and lifted her glass high overhead. "Okay, everybody, you're seeing what might be the first sign of the apocalypse. Not only is Daria Morgendorffer voluntarily at a party…she brought booze!"
Nell said, "Not just booze…tequila!"
Amid the applause, Daria said, "I blame my parents for getting me hooked on margaritas while on that cruise last summer."
"Didn't Amy make the suggestion to try one on the trip?" Michael said.
"Okay, we can blame her, too. Now, I'm going to channel my inner Quinn and ask you to please mix up another one for me," Daria said, pressing her glass into his hand.
"Aw, isn't that cute?" Jane said. "I've got to tell Quinn the next time I see her. She'll be so proud."
"I'll be back," Michael said in a barely passable Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation.
Karen stopped next to Daria while Derek followed Michael to the makeshift bar in the kitchen. "I feel a little out of place here," he said.
"Everyone's going to graduate tomorrow, except me."
"But we've known each other long enough that it doesn't matter."
"I know, but it still feels strange since I won't graduate until December and, by then, most of my friends from college will be gone."
"I'm sure that you'll get to know some new friends."
While Michael mixed Daria's drink, Derek prepared bourbon and cola for Karen. Derek said, "I don't know. With what I saw in Afghanistan, I can't seem to connect with the younger students."
"You've still got your Army buddies."
"Some of the best guys you'll ever meet. It's just…my gut tells me that sooner or later they're going back overseas and I'll still be here."
"I…I don't know what to tell you. That's completely out of my league."
Derek put a hand on Michael's shoulder and said, "I'd rather have an honest 'I don't know' than some clueless pap."
Her left arm locked against the crutch, Nell took careful aim and let the dart fly. When it struck just off the bull's-eye of the target hanging on her door, she said, "Yeah! Beat that, suckers."
Michael unsteadily came up to the line and tried to focus on the target. After a squint and two false starts, he threw his dart. It missed the target entirely and embedded in the scrap cardboard set up around the target for just such an eventuality. "Bugger," he said and stepped back, where he took a drink that drained his bottle of beer.
Not in much better shape, Derek took his position and, after a needless attempt to determine wind direction with a wet finger, tossed his dart and managed to hit the target about halfway to the bull's-eye. "Ack."
Nell swiveled her hips in a dance and grinned. "Okay, guys, pay up."
While taking a five out of his wallet, Michael said, "We really shouldn't have bet against someone who was sober."
Also retrieving money, Derek leaned against a loose chair and said, "I bet you're right."
"Oh, come on," CC said, leading Karen back to her room. "Jane told me about some of the stuff you bought to impress your guy. Trust me, Derek's going to like this."
"I don't know, it seems a little over the top."
"That's the whole idea, silly."
"No offense, but I'd feel weird doing it."
"Oh, come on. It's only a little fun between two people." CC twirled her glasses. "Daria told me that Michael loved what I taught her to do with these."
Karen said, "The landlord is not going to let us install a pole in the bedroom."
"Don't worry; there's plenty you can do without a pole."
"Okay, let me give it a try."
Sitting at the table with Trent and Jane, Daria said, "You're planning on loading Jane, Nell and CC into your land blimp to move them back to your place on Sunday?"
"There's plenty of room in George," Trent said. "All their stuff is going into the rental truck that Max is going to drive and Jane will have her car. What's the deal?"
"Your sanity over the long drive?"
Trent laughed and coughed. "Can't be any worse than listening to Spiral on the road."
"Speaking of Mystik Spiral," Jane said. "Where is Max?"
"Coming up tomorrow."
Jane pressed. "Are you sure?"
"I asked Jesse to remind him."
Trent stroked his goatee. "Hmm, maybe I better have Lindy call tomorrow morning."
"That would be a wise move," Daria said. "Though I wonder about the wisdom of cramming everyone into your house."
Jane shrugged. "CC and Nell can take over one of the unused bedrooms and, if any wandering Lanes show up, they'll just have to stay in whatever room is left over."
"That's a lot of mouths to feed in one place," Daria said.
"Yeah, but the rent's cheaper than here. Look, while it would've been cool to start our business in Boston, we're going to have to settle for hitting the Baltimore and D.C. markets instead. We can stay with Trent and Lindy until we get on our feet or until Lindy gets fed up and throws us out."
Daria sighed. "It's going to be weird living in Boston without you around, again."
"It's only a couple of months and then you'll be in Williamstown."
"That's still three hours away."
"And Karen is still going to be in Boston."
Daria sighed again. "And after we move, I'll be nine hours away from her."
"We all know how to use phones, Daria."
"I know, it's…"
"You're getting soft, Morgendorffer," Jane said.
"Daria, you'll be fine," Trent said.
"How do you know?" she replied.
Trent waved his fingers back and forth. "Ethereal transference. I can feel it."
"Are you sure you're not feeling the five Kamikazes you've thrown back since I got here?"
Jane laughed and said, "Yeah, hmm…"
Waking with his arm pinned between Daria and the sofa back, Michael groaned as he gently pulled it free. Early morning light came into the room through an opening between the drapes. "Good morning," he whispered.
Daria stirred and said, "Morning."
"Be right back."
Others from the party that had stayed overnight were scattered around the apartment on chairs, sleeping bags or, in the case of Karen and Derek, on an inflatable mattress. Michael stood and wove between the bodies on his way to the bathroom. He felt like King Harry walking through the aftermath of Agincourt and he started to lightly sing:
From her room, CC said, "If you're not carrying Christian Bale to drop on my bed, you'd better be quiet."
Sprawled on her bed, Nell said, "If he's carrying Christian Bale, you'd better share."
The ringing of a cell phone caused all three of them to flinch, while several moans arose from the sleepers. Uncharacteristically groggy, Karen hit the on button of her phone and said, "Yeah, what do you want?"
She pulled herself to a sitting position as she listened. "Terry, I hope you're up because you're feeding Wayne and letting Jill sleep in."
Derek also sat up and looked at his watch. "Almost like clockwork."
"Like you didn't party while in college. Give me a break. No, I'm on a nice air mattress that we had the foresight and planning to bring along. Don't worry, we'll meet you and Mom and Dad for lunch. Don't forget that we're also meeting with Derek's family, plus the Morgendorffers and the Fultons. Okay, talk to you then. Bye."
Peeking out from inside a sleeping bag, Jack said, "Who the hell would call you at this god-awful hour of the morning?"
"Was he raised in a barn or something?"
"Close enough. He's a farmer."
Bundled in another sleeping bag, Clarice said, "Pardon my friend, Karen. He's a little slow at times. Like, between the time he wakes up and when he goes to sleep."
"You're sounding awfully cheerful this morning," Jack said.
"That's because I got pleasantly tipsy last night. Not hammered."
Jack put his hand to his head. "Speaking of hammers. Who's got some aspirin?"
A chorus of further requests arose through the apartment.
Still asleep, Trent mumbled, "Don't diapers have zippers?"
CC poked her head out the door and called toward Nell's room, "Are we sure we want to crash with Jane at his house until we get our own place?"
Nell said, "Hmm. Hey, Daria. Can CC and I crash at your folks' place until we get the gallery up and running?"
Daria turned and leaned over the sofa back. "You'll have to negotiate that with my parents."
CC said, "Negotiate with a business consultant and a lawyer? No way. We'll stay at Jane's place."
Jane staggered to her door and leaned against it for support. "If you keep making all this noise, you can stay in the bomb shelter."
CC grinned. "Promise?"
The Buffet Raft was filled to capacity when the gathered families were seated. Two harried waitresses had pulled three tables together to make room for everyone. One stayed behind to take drink orders. Jake had taken a seat next to where Karen's nephew, Wayne, was seated in a high chair. Beside Wayne were Jill, then Terry, Karen's parents Geoff and Maddie and then Karen and Derek. Helen was to the other side of Jake, followed by Daria and Michael, then his parents Samantha and Ron. Rounding off the table were Derek's parents Tony and Miriam, as well as his brother Jason.
Samantha said, "Helen, is Quinn still in class for the semester?"
"I'm afraid so. Quinn has finals next week. She's going to fly back for the wedding, though. How's Gina doing?"
"She's very happy. The conservatory suits her well."
"When are her classes over?"
"The week before Memorial Day. She's going to stay home over the summer. She really misses her friend Natalie and wants to spend time with her."
Jake said, "Ron. Are you ready to do some grilling next month?"
Ron said, "Looking forward to it, Jake. Looking forward to it."
Daria and Michael chuckled at the worried glances Helen and Samantha exchanged.
Helen was the first to remember. "Daria, this is the place where we stopped to eat with Karen when you two first met."
"And the food hasn't improved a bit," Daria replied.
"Seems like it was only yesterday."
Thoughtful, Daria said, "Yesterday – and an eternity." She squeezed Michael's hand and said, "It feels like another world, now."
"Yeah, you're a lot better than my dorm roommate," he replied.
"I should hope so."
Geoff said to Derek's family, "Thanks for coming along. It means a lot to our little girl."
Miriam said, "Our pleasure. She's family, now."
Maddie said, "And we'll be back for Derek's graduation."
"Thank you," Tony said with a soft smile.
Jake waved his fingers at Wayne and said, "Goo-goo."
The toddler squealed happily and grasped Jake's fingers. They began a tug-of-war over said fingers.
Sensing the attention on them, Daria and Karen said together, "Don't even think about it."
Tony said, "Don't look at me. I don't feel old enough to be a grandfather, yet."
Samantha tilted her head and said, "You know, I'm not, either."
"Bribes to remain child-free are gladly accepted," Daria said.
"I'll be good," Helen said. "But you might want a little practice to deal with Mother and Grandma Ruth."
Maddie said, "Oh, just tell them to buzz off, Daria. Have kids when you're damn good and ready and not a moment before."
Karen said, "Mom?"
"You too. Don't get me wrong; I'd like to have more grandkids…but only when you're ready."
"Okay, Mom. You've got a deal," Karen said.
Helen smirked. "That sounded like Daria talking to me."
Wayne squealed again and clapped his hands. When Jake noticed everyone looking, he said, "Did I miss something?"
Sitting among the other graduating students as the keynote speaker addressed them, Daria whispered to Karen, "Doesn't that man look like Dick Cheney with a beard?"
"You know, you're right," Karen whispered back. "What did he just say?"
"I think it was, 'One angst to rule them all.'"
"What does that mean?"
"You've got me. Maybe he's trying to sell Angst Rings or something."
Karen tilted her head. "I can see a market for that."
"You know, so can I."
The student seated in front of them started bobbing his head in rhythm to unheard music. Karen said, "I wonder how many of our illustrious fellow graduates are hooked up to their MP3 players."
"Everyone that has one," Daria said and then stifled a yawn.
"Don't do that," Karen said as she yawned. "It's contagious."
"I wish I had one."
"Or followed Michael's lead and stuck a book up my sleeve."
Unnoticed by them, the university president took the podium and said, "Honored graduates. Please rise and join the procession."
"Saved by the bell," Daria said.
When the president said, "Daria Louise Morgendorffer. Magna Cum Laude,English and Education," she made her way to the podium. The president shook her hand and presented a diploma folder. As she crossed the rest of the stage, Daria whispered, "Wow, he didn't mangle my name."
Next, the president called, "Karen Penelope Myerson. Magna Cum Laude, Veterinary Science." Karen started her walk across the stage. After a quick handshake, she took the folder from the president and moved on.
Back in line with Karen, Daria flipped the folder open. "Kind of anticlimactic that they give us empty holders."
Karen said, "Yeah, my high school held the real thing hostage so that everyone more or less behaved. Does that mean some things in life are still like high school?"
"You've got it. Come on, you know that parts of grad school are going to feel like high school."
Standing with Jack and Sean after the ceremony, Michael watched the crowd for Daria and/or any of the various family members who had gathered for lunch. "Still don't see them."
Jack said, "Then just hang with us. My folks agreed to hold back and wait for the rush to clear."
"Yeah, and mine are also waiting for things to break up so that they don't have to get my grandmother's wheelchair through the mob," Sean said.
"Might as well," Michael said. Looking around, he said, "So, we're free of here. Feels kind of…not as exciting as I was expecting."
"That's because you're a glutton for punishment. We're done and we feel great," Sean said as he high-fived Jack.
Jack said, "But then, you're also stepping into a deeper hole next month."
Clarice joined them and said, "Yeah, with both feet and eyes open."
"Hey," Michael said. "Congratulations and all that stuff."
"I was hoping to catch you before I left."
"I'm flying to New Mexico tomorrow morning and I start my new job on Monday."
"Good luck with everything."
Jack said, "Yeah, good luck."
"You are the ones who are going to need it," she said. "Without me to keep you in line."
Sean said, "It's going to be rough, but we'll manage."
Clarice went to Jack and Sean, giving each a tight hug in turn. "I'm going to miss you guys. Stay in touch, damn you."
"I will," both said.
Clarice gave Michael a careful hug. "I'll miss you, too. Good luck with the wedding." She gave him a light peck on the cheek and said, "And if I ever hear about you getting divorced, I'll kick your ass."
Moments after Clarice disappeared, Daria, along with her parents and the Myerson clan, walked up. Daria said, "Should I be jealous?"
"Only that if I ever do hurt you, she'll probably be the first in line to kill me."
With the graduation mob rapidly thinning, Jane worriedly searched among the faces. "Come on, don't tell me you fell asleep somewhere," she said. "I wanted someone to see me walk."
"Hey, Janey, there you are," Trent softly said behind her.
"Ah!" she said, spinning. "Don't do that, you oaf!"
"Sneak up on me in a crowd like that."
"I snuck up on you?"
She grabbed him in a hug and said, "Yes, but you're here."
"Told you I would." Trent tussled Jane's hair and said, "Overachiever."
"Overachiever?" she said, trying to push her hair somewhat back in place.
"For a Lane."
"That's my job."
Starting to lead her brother to where she had last seen CC and Nell with their families, Jane said, "So tell me. How did you stay awake through all that hot air?"
"Okay, let me rephrase that. How did you wake up after hearing all that hot air?"
Trent rubbed his neck. "Oh, a trick I learned from Mr. Morgendorffer."
"What possible trick could you have learned from him?"
"I paid a kid five bucks to wake me up."
That evening, Helen and Jake joined Ron and Samantha at a bay front restaurant. After the waitress brought their drinks, Samantha said, "This is a lovely place. How did you hear about it, Helen?"
Lowering her menu, Helen replied, "Daria told me that Michael has taken her here a number of times. I'd say your son has good taste in places to dine."
"I'd say that your daughter is a good inspiration for him," Ron said.
"I think they inspire each other," Helen said.
Glancing out the window, Jake said, "Wow, look at the moon rising over the water. Like some romantic movie."
Helen leaned against him. "Like you, Jakey."
Samantha approvingly said, "I can see that you've been rubbing off on our son again."
At their server station, their waitress saw the two couples gazing at the moonrise and said to a coworker, "I'll be back in five."
"Do you want me to keep an eye on table seven for you?"
"Nah, look at them. It's going to be ten minutes before they even pick up a menu again."
Morning found Daria on the sofa, holding a bowl of popcorn shrimp in one hand and feeding them one at a time to Bump with the other. "We're actually going to be free from classes for three whole months. I haven't had this much time away since I graduated from high school."
Dressed, but combing hair wet from a shower, Michael came down the hallway and sat on the sofa. "Are you going to get back to writing like you did for that summer, like we discussed?"
"Meow," Bump said, eyeing Michael.
"We know that you would prefer Daria to stay home and tend to your every whim, but she has to work somewhere to keep you in fresh seafood every Sunday."
Daria fed Bump another shrimp and said, "Having time to write again will be nice. Plus, just like that summer, it's going to be my only chance to write on my own terms until after I graduate again."
With another piece of shrimp fed to Bump, Daria said, "And unlike that summer, I'll also have real income from continuing at The Mast part-time through summer."
Michael put his arm around Daria. "I think we're going to make it."
"Providing the wedding doesn't kill us."
"Nah, it'll make us stronger."
Holding the door key in her hand, Jane surveyed the empty apartment and sighed. "I'm going to miss this place."
Having completed her walkthrough, Mrs. Lyndon said, "I'm going to miss you girls."
"My accountant is going to cut a check for the deposit Monday morning and I'll make sure it's in the mail."
"Thanks, again. We're going to need all the cash we can get."
"You're braver than I am, quitting your jobs and moving to another town to start a business."
"Or more foolish. I'm going to miss the children's hospital."
Mrs. Lyndon placed a hand on Jane's shoulder. "Then find some children to teach in your new home."
"I could do that. Thanks."
Mrs. Lyndon took the key from Jane's hand. "I think your friends are waiting for you."
"They are. Thanks for everything."
"My pleasure. Good-bye, Jane."
Jane felt choked up as she walked down the stairs a final time to the waiting convoy of vehicles. Her car was parked in front, waiting for her to get in. Behind her was Max in a rental truck with CC riding shotgun. Taking up the rear was Trent with Nell as a riding companion. Parked out of the way was Karen's small truck, with her and Daria waiting.
"See you two next month," Jane said, hugging Daria and Karen at the same time.
"You bet. Things are too far along now," Daria said. "If Michael and I try to elope, Mom and Quinn will race to see who gets to kill us first."
"Good luck with the gallery thing," Karen said.
"Thanks. Look, guys. I'm going to get on the road before I get too emotional."
"Get going," Daria said playfully, but Jane could hear the sadness in her voice.
"Drive careful," Karen said.
"Thanks. Bye…for now."
Jane jogged along the waiting cars, holding up a finger and circling it to tell the drivers to start their engines. Jane hopped in her car and quickly cranked it up and, with a wave, was on her way.
Karen looked up at the apartment. "We had good times here."
"I wish Derek and I could afford to move in."
"I know how you feel, but we need to move on."
"I know I'm getting closer to what I've always wanted to do, but…I hate growing up."
Daria nodded and said, "It has its shortcomings."
"I think we need a trip to Cheap and Cheesy Pizza. For old time's sake."
"I think you're right."
"We'll have a slice for Jane."
"Make it two. She could never stop at one."
Jane watched Trent and Max park their trucks at the interstate rest stop. When everyone had crawled out of the vehicles, she announced, "Potty break."
"About damn time," Nell said, already on her way to the restroom.
"Jane, I'm going to start calling you 'Old Iron Bladder,'" CC said, following Nell.
Jane joined them and said, "You learn a few tricks long-distance running."
Trent and Max looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders. Trent said, "Coffee?"
"Man, that sounds good," Max said. "Let's go."
They wandered to the vending machines. Trent went straight to the coffee machine while Max got distracted by the snacks. He said, "I'm getting kind of hungry."
Waiting for his coffee to dispense, Trent said, "Hey, me too."
One coffee and a candy bar each later, Trent and Max were waiting near the restrooms. Trent said, "It's going to be kinda weird having Janey back in the house. Good weird, but weird."
"Better get ready for a whole lotta weird with four chicks living in the house."
Trent shrugged. "Be like when Summer, Penny and Jane were at home."
"That CC kinda scares me."
"She was, like, knitting chainmail for the last couple hours. Said she needed a new bikini."
"Maybe she likes swimming."
"Wouldn't she sink?"
Max drank some coffee. "Do you know what you're doing?"
"No. When has that stopped me?"
Trent finished a bite of his candy bar. "Janey's a big girl. I'm not worried."
"Yeah, she is. Hey, Trent."
"We had our eyes on the prize. So how come we didn't have a plan like the girls have?"
"Maybe we should've looked at where we were going."
Max finished his coffee, crumpled the cup and put it in a nearby bin. "Hmm."
The women exited the restroom and Jane said, "Ready?"
Trent finished his coffee and also tossed his cup. "Sure. I'm following you. You know where you're going."
Nell whispered to CC, "Why do I feel like we just missed something?"
"It's a guy thing. Don't worry," CC answered.
Holding her child in her arms, Lindy took a couple of steps down the basement stairs and said, "Amanda, they're here."
Amanda smiled and took her foot off the control pedal of her pottery wheel, holding her hands in place to keep the forming pot on an even keel as it slowed to a stop. "Be right up, dear."
Lindy barely waited to make sure that Amanda was washing the clay from her hands before going back up the stairs and over to the front door. She reached it just as it opened and Trent stood in the door. He said, "I'm home."
Lindy gave him a warm hug and quick kiss. "Glad you're back." She stepped aside and said, "Good to see you back home, Jane."
"Same here," Jane said. "These are my friends CC and Nell. You two, this is Trent's primary caretaker, Lindy, and their kid, Andrew."
"Hi," Lindy said. "Come in."
With a "Hi," from each, Nell and CC entered the house, with Max the last in line.
CC said, "Nice place."
Amanda reached the living room and said, "It's going to be so nice to have a house full of people again."
Jane went through another round of introductions and said, "Unless Dad is hiding around here somewhere, that should be it for now. Is Dad here?"
"He's in the Everglades," Lindy said.
Amanda approached CC and stared. After tilting her head, she said, "Your hair is blue."
"Yeah, it's kind of a trademark for me."
"It suits you."
"Although I am thinking about letting my natural color grow out."
"What is your natural color?" Jane asked, suddenly curious.
"Blonde. You don't think I could keep that shade of blue if I was a brunette or a redhead, did you?"
Nell said, "This is all great and stuff, but we've been on the road for, like, forever. Can we find some dinner or something and then continue this conversation?"
Lindy picked up the phone and hit a speed-dial button. "That confirms that you're Jane's friends. Pizza is on the way."
A "wet paint" sign next to "Landon Consulting" on the door window instantly told Jane that Jodie had completed the buyout. Therefore, she was slightly surprised to find Mr. Morgendorffer inside. "Oh," she said.
Jake turned and said, "Hey there, Jane-O. Long time. These must be your new business partners. Jodie was just telling me that you were expected."
Jane said, "Yeah, this is Nell and CC. Guys, this is Daria's dad."
"Hey," CC said.
"Hi, Mr. Morgendorffer," Nell said.
Inside, Jodie said, "Please, everyone, come in. I'm anxious to get started."
"And I'll get out of your way, Jodie," Jake said. "Good luck."
"Thanks, Mr. Morgendorffer."
"Jane, Nell, CC. Take care. I'll see you at the wedding."
"Trust me, I wouldn't miss it," Jane said.
"Why don't you stop by and say 'Hi,' tonight? I'm sure Helen would love to see you."
Jane looked at Nell and CC and shrugged. "Sure."
"That goes for all three of you. See you tonight!" Jake almost skipped as he left the office and went to his car.
Jane said, "I think retirement suits him well."
Jodie sighed. "I'm glad we're finally done with the transition. I really appreciate all the experience I had working for him and getting the chance to buy the business, but…well, Jane, you know how Jake can be."
"True, very true," Jane said.
After everyone had taken a seat in Jodie's office, she passed around several folders. "I've located several possible locations for your gallery. Personally, I think the storefront on Dega Street is your best bargain."
Jane looked at the address and said, "That's across the street from Axl's."
"The city council is trying to bring more boutique and specialty shops into the downtown area and what you have in mind fits well."
CC said, "Is the city willing to kick in any money to help with their grand plan?"
"No cash up front, but tax breaks for new businesses that should really help you out while you get started. The details are on page four of your packet."
After reading, Nell said, "Not bad. Not bad at all."
"When can we look at the storefront?" CC asked.
Jodie said, "We can call the owner right now if you want."
After receiving nods and shrugs from her partners, CC said, "No sense in waiting around. The sooner we can get started, the sooner we can start getting some income."
Jane said, "Sounds good to me. Oh, CC, trust me; you don't want to work in the strip clubs in Lawndale."
After a short laugh, Nell said, "What about building up a clientele? Jane told us about Gary's Gallery and we're really hoping to sell more originals."
"That reminds me," Jane said. "Is Gary's still in business?"
"No," Jodie said. "Lawndale is all yours."
Jane asked, "What about drawing customers from the Baltimore and DC areas?"
"I have some ideas about that," Jodie said. "I still know a couple of staffers at Congressman Sack's office from the summers I worked there. I can put the word out through them to the DC crowd."
Nell said, "Nice connections you have."
There was a little sadness and regret in Jodie's voice when she said, "I figure that I should get something out of wasting my summers in that hellhole."
Looking at Lawndale High as she got out of Jane's car, CC said, "It doesn't look as bad as you and Daria made it sound."
Jane said, "Ms. Defoe got rid of the most obvious security devices."
Jane felt a little strange leading her friends past the school resource officer by the front door and to the office. At the front desk, she said, "I'm Jane Lane. I have an appointment with Principal Defoe."
"Ms. Lane," the receptionist said. "She's been expecting you. Go right in."
Claire Defoe rose as they entered. "Jane. It's such a pleasure to see you."
"Claire, these are my friends and new business partners, CC and Nell. Guys, this is my favorite teacher from high school, Claire Defoe. She's not a bad boss, either."
Claire sat back down and waved the newcomers to fairly comfortable chairs. "It's hard to believe it's been four years since you graduated. My, how time flies."
"And three years since you got this office permanently," Jane said. "No offense, but that still freaks me out a little."
"You get used to it," Claire said. "How is your old friend, Daria?"
"She's good. Getting married next month."
Jane shrugged. "She found a good male and grabbed him."
"You said your friends are business partners. Tell me about it."
"That's right. We're going to open up a gallery here in town. We found a place on Dega Street that we like and, with a little luck, can open soon."
"While a lot of our stock is going to be our stuff, we want to open up space for new artists. Like, say, promising high school students."
CC said, "We think it'll be cool to give the kids someplace other than school or home to show off their work."
"I think I can talk the new art teacher into agreeing to this," Claire said. "You're making me proud, Jane."
"You gave me a leg up with that internship, Claire. It's only fair that I return the favor."
Mike MacKenzie felt comfortable in his old bedroom. After the hectic days of finals and graduation, it felt good to relax in long-familiar surroundings. Closing his eyes, it was easy to feel like a teenager again.
His reverie was interrupted by his mother at the bedroom door. "Mike, honey. You have a phone call."
Mike rolled off the bed. "Oh. Who is it?"
"Someone named Sean."
"I can't think of anyone named Sean who would call me, but I'll take it."
Mrs. MacKenzie passed the phone to her son and said, "Dinner will be ready soon."
The thought of his mother's home cooking made his stomach growl in anticipation. He held the phone to his ear. "Hello."
"Hi, my name is Sean and I'm a friend of Michael Fulton."
"Oh, okay. What can I do for you?"
"A bit of a favor for Michael. Since Jack and I don't really know anybody in Lawndale…I was hoping to get some help in finding a location for his bachelor party."
"How, um, extreme do you expect this thing to get?"
Sean gave a good-natured snort. "We're talking about Michael here. Beer and console gaming."
"In that case…I think I can help you."
Helen felt solid satisfaction as she dialed the phone. When Daria answered, she said, "Good news, sweetie."
At home and trying to balance her cell phone while working on the computer with Bump vying for attention, Daria said, "And that would be?"
"The last detail for your wedding is in place. I found a videographer."
"I know how you feel about such things, but even if you don't want a copy of your wedding, I do."
Daria acquiesced. "Okay, Mom. Where did you find him?"
"You may find this funny, but it's the same gentleman who did the work for Jim Vitale when his daughter had her Confirmation mass. I still had the videographer's card."
"Jim Vitale? Isn't he the partner at your old firm that you said Satan himself wouldn't turn his back on?"
"Yes, but when it comes to paid talent, he knows where to find the best."
"Why do I get the feeling that the term 'paid talent' has a fairly broad meaning?"
"I'm sure that there are some things I'm glad I never found out about my old firm."
"Now that I've shared my news, how are you doing?"
"I'm actually working on my all-American novel."
"How many communists have you killed so far?" Helen asked.
"Surprise of surprises, I'm not writing a spy thriller. I'm trying my hand at some historical fiction."
Playful, Helen said, "And I'm sure being engaged to a future archeologist has nothing to do with that."
"I see the sarcasm is returning to you, Mom."
"It's nice to be able to let it out again."
Entering the jeweler's dimly-lit workroom with Daria, Michael said, "Every time I'm in this place, I feel like I should see Sauron forging the One Ring."
"Jane said he was talented and, let's be honest, we couldn't beat the price he offered," Daria said.
Looking at some of the designs on display, Michael said, "He has character."
A voice came from a back room, saying, "I'm usually called a character."
A young man with long brown hair pulled into a ponytail appeared and said, "Ah, Daria and Michael. I know what you're after."
"That's an easy one, Marshall," she said.
Michael said, "I'm hoping that Daria was telling the truth about nose piercing being as relatively painless as a belly button."
"I learned not to ask what anyone does with them or where they wear them," Marshall said, opening a drawer and bringing out two boxes. "Just enjoy them."
Daria opened the boxes. On each of the gold bands within was a cast design of intertwined ivy. "Beautiful."
Marshall said, "Going with a lower karat weight of gold will make the design more durable, but remember that over time, you will still see wear on it."
"Understood," Daria said.
"You know, picking up the rings means that we are serious about this whole marriage thing. I guess it's too late to back out now," Michael said.
Though he caught the joke, Marshall said, "You like living dangerously, don't you?"
"Very dangerously," Daria said. "But I tolerate him."
"Jane wasn't kidding about you two." Marshall opened a receipt book and filled in the form. "Your last payment will be eighty-six dollars and twenty-one cents, once you include the governor's cut."
Daria handed over a credit card, which Marshall ran on a small machine. He said, "Thank you for helping pay for my graduate school."
"We'll be in the same boat in a few months," Michael said.
"Both of you?"
"You're crazier than I am."
Daria said, "That's saying something, considering that Jane Lane recommended you."
The efficiency apartment was small, but very tidy and tastefully furnished. Quinn accepted a diet soda from Sandi Griffin and said, "I love what you've done with this place."
Sandi directed Quinn to the two-seat nook that was the dining area of the apartment. "I've tried my best on my budget."
"It really is great."
"I'm sorry I don't get to see you much. Between your schedule and my schedule and trying to see Q…"
Sandi smiled. "If there's one thing I've learned about living in Southern California, it's that nobody has enough time to do everything."
"Don't I know it."
"You're going back to Lawndale for your sister's wedding tomorrow, right?"
"Isn't the wedding still several weeks away?"
Quinn nodded. "I want to spend time with Mom and Dad. They're feeling lonely with me all the way out here and Daria, well, having so much going on in her life."
"I still haven't heard from my parents," Sandi said. "I get e-mails from my brothers from time to time. It's weird that we get along so much better, now."
"How are your brothers doing?"
"Hanging in there. It's still not very good."
"I'm so sorry, Sandi."
It was Sandi's turn to nod. "I knew what I was doing. It hurt, but I'm free now."
"I'm glad things are going better for you. Weird how things change, like, I can't believe Daria let me help plan her wedding."
"I won't forget how much she helped me. Speaking of relationships, will you do me a favor?"
"Can you see if you can meet up with Stacy and Tiffany? Since we all went our separate ways…"
"I know what you mean. I'll see what I can do."
After fighting her way through traffic at the San Diego Airport, Fran found a place to park at the passenger drop-off in front of the terminal. "You owe me, Morgendorffer."
Quinn said, "Don't worry, I'll pay you back in full when I get back," as she opened the passenger door.
Fran reached down and pulled the trunk release. "When is Q flying out to join you?"
Going around to the open trunk, Quinn said, "The day before. He's busy with research and can't get away for too long. We'll fly back the following Sunday."
"Ooh, four days of parental inspection with your folks in maximum matchmaking mode."
Quinn covered her face. "Did you have to bring that up? Mom and Dad won't be too bad, but my grandmothers…"
"That's what friends are for."
"Since you can't save a piece of cake for me, could you grab an unattached male instead?"
"E-mail or phone number?" Quinn asked.
"Both. You need to be flexible these days."
Quinn laughed and said, "You're not the shy girl I met freshman year."
"Nope, and it's all your fault."
"That's what friends are for."
Pink. Lying on her canopy bed, Quinn looked around her old room and tried to remember why she had so much of the color there. She said, "I know my room didn't have those awful bars and padding, but I wonder why you didn't redecorate my old room like you did Daria's?"
Standing in the doorway, Helen said, "Well, like you said, it didn't have that awful padding, so there wasn't as much need."
"There are times I miss this room."
"You're always welcome to stay."
Quinn sat up. "You were hoping I would stay during summer breaks. That's why you didn't change my room."
"I won't deny it. I miss you and your sister."
"It's not like I don't miss you, Mom."
"I know. I can't tell you how happy I am that you came early."
"I like being back. It feels good."
Helen walked over and sat down on the bed. "Make sure you tell that to your father."
"Is he getting antsy?"
Helen raised one eyebrow.
Quinn said, "He is. I'll take him out tomorrow. Just the two of us."
"What will you do?"
"He's going to need something new for the wedding."
Helen leaned over and hugged Quinn. "Shopping. Some things never change…and I hope that they never do."
Driving his car while Quinn sat in the passenger seat, Jake glanced at the numerous shopping bags in the back seat. "This is great, Quinn. Why didn't we do this before?"
"Oh, Daddy. You know how it is. Teenagers don't want to be seen with their parents."
"But you're not a teenager any more."
"That's why it's cool to be seen with my dad."
Looking ahead, Jake saw a new store and said, "Hey, do you want to stop in at Jane's new place?"
"Is it open?"
Jake turned at the next intersection and, after a few minutes, pulled to a stop along Dega Street next to a storefront that proclaimed, "Three Art Chicks," on the display window. Three paintings were on display, each a distinctly different style.
Jake led Quinn into the store and was greeted by Jane saying, "Hi, Mr. Morgendorffer. Quinn, this is a surprise. When did you get into town?"
"Last flurry of planning for someone's wedding?"
Quinn laughed and shook her head. "That's pretty much settled. I wanted to spend some time with Mom and Dad."
Jane said, "Were you hit on the head or something?"
"Hit with a little common sense," Quinn replied.
"Hey, I thought I heard voices," CC said, coming in from the back room. "Real customers?"
"Daria's father and sister," Jane said.
"Hey, Mr. Morgendorffer," CC said. "And you must be Quinn."
"Hi," she said.
Nell followed, saying, "Hi there."
After Jane introduced her business partners to Quinn, she said, "What brings you here?"
"Checking the place out," Quinn said. "And maybe some shopping. I think there's still some space left in the back seat."
"Shop away," Nell said. "Then shop some more."
Jake said, "Looks good, girls."
"Thanks," Jane said. "Jodie was going to use her contacts to start scaring up some interest in our stuff. Hope that works out."
"Lots of businesses look for artwork for their offices," Jake said. "I'm sure you'll do fine."
CC said, "I hope so."
While Quinn and Jake were looking around the store, Jane was pleasantly surprised to hear the door open for another customer. She was more surprised to see who was there. "Tom Sloane?"
"Jane Lane," he said, walking in and letting the door close. "I heard through the grapevine that you were back in town."
"Grapevine?" Jane said.
"Mom heard about it from Mrs. Landon at the Country Club. Apparently Jodie bought out Daria's father's old company."
"She sure did," Jake said, coming out from around a display. "Tom, good to see you again."
"Hi, Mr. Morgendorffer," he said, feeling a little uncertain. "Hi, Quinn," he said, seeing her.
"Hi, Tom," Quinn said.
Tom said, "So, Jane, when I heard you were opening up a gallery, I had to stop in and meet you and your partners."
After another round of introductions, Jane wondered aloud, "Is anybody else from my past going to show up?"
Tom shrugged. "I didn't see anyone behind me."
"So, besides checking on your old girlfriend, what brings you here?"
"Shopping for art, actually," Tom said. "I've got a new office at Grace, Sloane and Page to furnish."
"You got sucked into the family business, eh?" Jane said.
"Dad made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
"I bet he did," Jane said.
"My father's company isn't that nefarious. It was too tempting to pass up."
Curious, Nell said, "Since you seem to know everyone here, are you going to Daria's wedding?'
Tom shuffled his feet and said, "Um, no. It would be rather awkward."
"Bummer. I was looking for a date."
Quinn giggled and said, "That would be awkward for Tom."
Jake said, "I thought you and Daria were on, you know, good terms."
"We still e-mail from time to time, Mr. Morgendorffer. But she was right. We went in different directions. She found her way and I found mine."
"It's a good thing," Tom said. "But you can do me a favor."
"Sure," Jake said.
"Give her my best wishes."
As they were closing up for the day, CC said, "Man, I wish every day could be like this. Five paintings in two hours."
"You and me, both," Nell said.
Jane said, "Well, we may be off to a good start with Tom. His mother is on the board of the Lawndale Art Museum."
"That would be a sweet crowd to bring in," CC said.
"The board tends to be a little traditional," Jane warned, "but I think Tom's going to put in a good word for us."
"What makes you say that?" Nell said.
"He bought the best work each of us had out. He bought samples to show around."
CC said, "You think?"
"Why?" Nell asked.
"Knowing him, he wants to shake things up in Lawndale. I hope he succeeds."
Standing near the front counter of the boarding facility at Raft's Veterinary School, Daria said to the attendant, "You're kidding me."
The young man shrugged. "Sorry. With the students and half the faculty out of town, summer is our slow season and the best time to do major work in the kennel areas."
Daria sighed. "In that case, can you recommend a place to board my cat?"
"I can think of a couple of good places, but I need to warn you that, unlike us, summer is their busy season and they fill up fast."
"I'll have to take my chances."
The attendant scribbled some notes and handed over a piece of paper. "These are the places I recommend."
"What if they're full?"
"Hope you know someone who can watch it, or take it along with you."
"I'm going to Paris and Rome."
The attendant grinned. "I'm sure your cat would appreciate the sights."
"Yeah, and after spending the flight in the cargo hold with the other pets, she'll appreciate gouging my eyes out."
"Hmm...in that case, hope you find a sitter."
On duty at the Franklin Park Zoo, Karen walked along one of the sidewalks and said to Daria, "I'm sorry that you drove all the way out here for nothing, but I can't. As much as I'd be happy to watch Bump, our landlord won't even allow a gerbil."
"Damn," Daria said. "All of the good boarding facilities are full from people going on summer vacations and the ones that had openings had them for a reason."
"Too bad Jane wasn't still in town. She could've watched Bump. What about some of your coworkers at the paper?"
Daria shook her head. "Not likely. A couple of them have dogs and one has birds. Not a good mix."
"What about Wendy from the theater?"
"She's in Philadelphia, directing. No good."
Daria thought for a moment and said, "I guess I can try."
"I thought your mother was okay with Bump."
"She is, but I don't know if she's comfortable enough to have her loose in the house."
"Worth a shot."
"Yeah. You know that if I do this, Dad is going to spoil that cat even more than I do."
"Just make sure he doesn't feed her so much tuna that she gets mercury poisoning."
Seated on the couch at home that evening, Michael said, "You've been staring at the phone for the last half hour. Do you want me to make the call?"
Also on the sofa, Daria said, "No, no. I'll do it."
"Yes. I want to make sure Bump is going to be safe while we're gone."
"That's sounding a little maternal."
"What if it is?"
"Just confirming my belief that we're going to be one of those couples with cats instead of kids. Cats are cheaper than kids and we can buy toys for ourselves instead."
Daria crawled over and gave him a kiss. "I like the way you think. I think I'll keep you."
"I'm very grateful," he said, returning the kiss. "But are you going to make that call?"
"Yes," Daria said, rolling back to the other side of the sofa and lifting the phone. "Right now."
After Daria dialed, Quinn answered the kitchen phone in her parents' home. "Hello?"
"Hi, Quinn. It's your wayward sister."
"Hey, Daria. What's up?"
"Is Mom home?"
"Yeah, just a minute." Quinn covered the phone and said, "Mom, it's Daria."
Helen hurried over from the living room. "Thank you, dear." She took the phone and said, "Hello, Sweetie."
"Hi, Mom. Can I ask for another big favor?"
"Of course you can. What is it?"
"All of my options for boarding Bump in Boston fell through." Daria winced and continued, "Will you be able to watch her while we're gone?"
After several seconds of silence, Daria said, "Mom?"
"Oh, um, of course I can, Daria," Helen haltingly said.
"You don't sound that certain."
"I'm convincing myself."
Curious, Quinn said, "Mom, what's going on? Is Daria all right?"
"She's fine, Quinn. She asked me to watch her cat while she's gone."
"Oooh!" Quinn squealed with delight. "It's going to be so much fun to have a cat around before I go back."
Daria said, "I hear that Quinn likes the idea."
"I'd say so," Helen said.
Daria sighed in relief. "One more crisis averted."
Quinn loudly said, "I am so going to spoil your cat."
"Or then again, maybe not," Daria said.
Under a sign that read, "Rowe Custom Automotive," Quinn peeked into the auto bay and saw a lean man with brown hair pulled into a long ponytail leaning over the engine of a car. She said, "Um, hi, Mr. Rowe. Is Stacy around?"
Dennis Rowe looked up. Wiping his hands on a rag, he said, "Quinn? It's been a while. Sure, Stacy's around back in the paint shed. I'll show you."
Quinn followed him, trying to avoid the occasional grease and oil stains on the concrete. She said, "How have things been?"
"Good, good," he replied. "How about you?"
"Also good. I'm back home for my sister's wedding next week."
"That's nice," he said. Dennis stopped at a door and loudly knocked. Inside, they heard a compressor shut off and, after a couple seconds, Stacy opened the door.
Taking a respirator off, Stacy said, "Quinn!" Looking down at her paint-misted disposable coverall, she added, "I'd hug you, but…"
Quinn laughed and said, "You can wait."
Dennis said, "Why don't you take a long lunch. I'll finish painting the Munson's car."
"Thanks, Daddy," Stacy said. Jogging to the restroom, she called back, "Be with you in a minute, Quinn!"
Enjoying her salad, Stacy looked around the food court of the Lawndale Mall and said, "This place must seem so tame to you now, Quinn."
Quinn looked around and said, "You know, malls out west don't look any different than this. The same stores. The same uniforms on the employees. The same fake plants. And the same food. I'd think this was tame to you with your racing."
Stacy shrugged. "I guess so."
"Seeing you in that coverall made me think that you'd turned into a tomboy or something."
"I am, a little. But I still like to get out and shop. I'm the best dressed racer on the circuit."
"I'll bet you are."
Stacy said, "I heard that Sandi was out near you."
"She is and is doing okay. She has the cutest apartment."
"She wanted me to see you and Tiffany while I was in town."
"Tell her I said, 'Hi.'"
"Have you seen Tiffany lately?"
Stacy looked down at her plate. "No. She left town a year ago."
"Where did she go?"
"New York. Said she was going to do some more modeling there."
"I haven't seen her in any magazines or catalogs," Quinn said.
"I think she just wanted to get away from Lawndale." Stacy sighed. "And not look back."
"Have you asked her father?"
"He said that if she didn't give me her address, there must be a reason."
Stacy reached over and touched Quinn's hand. "I'm sorry."
Quinn nodded in thanks. "We knew we were going our separate ways. I guess she needed to go farther."
The young women sat in silence for several moments. Taking her hand back and leaning forward, Stacy said, "Change of subject. Tell me about this boyfriend of yours."
Holding Bump's carrier in front of her, Daria followed Michael down the stairs of the apartment building. She said, "Hold on mail. Check. Notified landlord of our absence. Check. Bills paid up. Check. Plane tickets packed. Check. Passports secure. Check. I think we're ready."
Carrying their luggage, Michael said, "Birth control packed?"
"Check," Daria confirmed.
At the ground floor landing, Daria went around Michael and opened the door with her free hand. "Car keys?"
Parked at the curb was a somewhat aged, dark purple sports car. Leaning against it were Jack and Sean. Karen and Derek were also waiting beside her small pickup. She said, "That it?"
"I think so," Daria said. Going to her car, parked in front of Karen's truck, she opened the door and put the carrier in the back seat. Most of the remaining back seat was covered by two garment bags hanging from the roof hooks.
Michael loaded the suitcases into the trunk and closed it. "Let's hit the road."
Jack said, "Because we all have a date with destiny and she just ordered the lobster plate."
"Are you sure you want him as your best man?" Derek said.
Michael shrugged and said, "Coming from someone who needed video link to a best man halfway around the world?"
Karen opened the driver's door of her truck and said, "Now, boys."
"My thoughts exactly," Daria said, getting behind the wheel of her car.
Bump meowed a loud complaint about being in the carrier.
"Don't worry," Daria told her. "There will be pit stops."
Michael said, "Do you really think she's going to deal well with a leash?"
"No, but I'm betting that her need to answer nature's call will override her complaints."
When Michael brought the car to a stop in the Morgendorffer driveway, Bump meowed and shuffled around in the carrier. Daria looked over the seat and said, "Yes, we're here."
Michael asked, "How's your hand?"
Daria glanced at her bandaged hand and said, "It'll heal."
"Don't blame that loose dog on me," Daria said. "And don't blame me for breaking things up before you really hurt it."
Michael opened the door and said, "I bet the owners of that Rottweiler are still wondering what scared it so bad."
"Scared or scarred?" Daria said.
"Maybe both. Remind me not to get Bump really angry."
Derek parked Karen's truck behind them and the two got out, stretching after the drive. Karen got out and said, "Finally."
"Welcome to good old Lawndale. Home of the Giant Strawberry," Daria said.
Karen said, "I think I'll wait until tomorrow to take the tour."
Jack's car rolled in last and parked beside Daria's car. Sean got out first and said, "We're here."
The front door of the house opened. Helen waved and said, "Welcome home, Daria. Please, everyone, come in."
"You were watching at the window, weren't you?" Daria said.
"You can't blame me for being a little excited, can you?"
"I suppose not. Has anyone else made it yet?"
Helen said, "Amy, Reese and the girls are staying at Le Grande. Ruth is staying at the Dutchman Inn. Rita and Mother expect to be here in an hour or so. They're going to stay at the Lawndale Garden. Michael, your family's flight arrived on time and they're staying at the Airport hotel."
Michael said, "Thanks, Mrs. Morgendorffer."
Quinn appeared at the door behind Helen. "Thank God we're not trying to fit everyone in here like we did for Mom and Dad's silver anniversary."
After they gathered their belongings and she picked up Bump's carrier, Daria led the others to the house and said, "Even if there were enough rooms, I don't think there would be any survivors."
As Jack and Sean entered, Helen said, "Are you boys sure you'll be comfortable on the sofas?"
Sean said, "Trust me; we've slept on plenty of couches. We'll be fine."
Inside, Jake hurried over and hugged Daria, squeezing around the carrier. "Welcome home, Daria."
Jake sucked his lip in for a moment before saying, "I'm proud of you."
She whispered, "I'm proud of you. We can talk later."
Jake nodded and let her go. He then said, "Karen, Derek. Follow me, I'll show you to your room."
Bump meowed inside the carrier as they followed Jake upstairs. Daria set it down and opened the door. "Okay, Bump. This is going to be your home for the next couple of weeks."
The cat sniffed the air several times and then bounded out and up onto a sofa back. There, she calmly lay down and started to wash a paw.
Michael said, "I think she finds the accommodations acceptable."
In the morning, Helen came down the stairs and had to laugh at the sight before her in the living room. Sean was face-down on one sofa with his feet sticking out from under the sheet where they hung over the opposite end. On another sofa, Jack was in a half-fetal position with one arm flopped onto the carpet. "Some things never, ever change," she said.
Trying to be quiet, she went into the kitchen. After setting up the coffee machine, she started making a batch of pancake batter. Helen smiled to think about how long it had been since she'd cooked breakfast for so many people. "Just about as long as it's been since I've seen a couple of young men passed out on the sofa."
Thinking about what kind of appetites four young men would have, she decided to double the recipe to be safe.
Helen was still mixing the batter when she heard shuffling feet enter the kitchen. She saw Jack, his hair a tangled mess and looking like a sleepwalker. She said, "Good morning."
He blinked and leaned against the counter for support. "I smell coffee."
"Over there," Helen said, waving at the pot. "Cups are overhead, sugar right there. I'll bring you some milk."
Jack nodded and shuffled over to the coffee pot. He located a mug and filled it. Helen arrived with the milk right after he'd added the fourth spoonful of sugar. "Thanks," he said, taking the milk and pouring a healthy amount into the cup.
Helen completed the batter and poured the first batches onto the griddle. Jack heard the sizzle and wandered over, "Whoa, real food."
Sean's head poked over the back of his sofa. "Food?"
Helen said, "I suppose I should expect Michael and Derek to show up soon."
Jack laughed. "They're sleeping with girls. They'll be down later. Since we don't have girls, our brains step down to the next obsession – food."
Helen looked at the bowl. "Maybe I should've made a triple batch."
"No wonder Daria came out kinda cool," Sean said as he crawled off the sofa and toward the kitchen.
"Still trying to figure out how Michael lucked out," Jack said.
Thinking about Daria's story of how they got together, Helen said, "From what I understand, he took a chance."
"And still got lucky," Jack said. He paused and hurriedly added, "I don't mean that kind of lucky."
"Excuse me," Sean said. "While my friend is getting his foot out of his mouth, where's the coffee?"
"Right there," Helen said, pointing to the pot. "Help yourself."
"Thanks," Sean said and proceeded to prepare his coffee with less sugar but more milk. "Ah."
Helen flipped the first batch of pancakes. "So, what do you have planned for my future son-in-law tonight?"
Jack gulped down some coffee and said, "Can we plead the fifth until after our second cup?"
Sean said, "Or grab a fifth of something to put into our cup?"
Helen smiled. "I can be patient."
Jack said, "You're a lawyer, right?"
"We're so screwed," Sean said.
Helen said, "Or you can tell me about Michael, from his friends' perspectives."
Jack laughed deeply and said, "That we can do."
Hearing the doorbell once again, Daria said, "How many different cars did the caterers come in?"
She opened the door and found an imposing African-American gentleman at the door. He said, "Good afternoon. I'm Mr. Wright. Is this the Morgendorffer residence?"
"Your colleagues and their insanity are out back," she said.
"Colleagues? I'm afraid you must have me mistaken for someone else. I'm the videographer Mrs. Morgendorffer hired."
"Oh. In that case, the general insanity is out back and you're free to join it."
"I see. For my reference, you are?"
"The female victim of tomorrow's festivities."
"Ah, the bride. Pleased to meet you."
"Don't tell anyone; I'm trying to stay incognito."
Helen joined them and said, "Mr. Wright. I see you've met my daughter."
Daria said, "I understand the caterers being here to set up the arch and chairs so that we know where to stand, but what are you doing here today?"
"I'm here to determine the best camera angles for each part of the ceremony."
"So you're not going to set up a camera on a tripod and let it roll."
"No, ma'am. Your mother hired me to produce a professional recording of your wedding." Two more men stepped up to the door. Mr. Wright said, "These gentlemen are my assistants and will operate two of the cameras. We will need to practice along with you to get the best recording while staying as unobtrusive as possible."
Daria held up her hands. "Okay, go do your job. I'll try to stay out of your way."
After Daria left, Mr. Wright said, "She seems a bit nervous."
"It's natural for a bride to be nervous."
"I see it all the time," Mr. Wright said.
"This way, please," Helen said, leading him through the house to the backyard.
He followed, whispering to himself, "Especially when mothers are involved."
The backyard was a scene of expected chaos. An arch covered with yellow roses was set up at one end of a white pavilion. White folding chairs on either side of an aisle filled the rest of the pavilion space.
Oddly, they had to go past two grills to get to the pavilion. The grills were in use and filling the area with the smell of smoked meat. Jake and Ron fussed over further preparations for a grand cookout laid out on a nearby table.
Near the arch, Daria and Michael were talking to Karen, Jane and Jack. Sean and Derek were seated and looking mostly bored. Quinn sat next to the newly arrived Q. She was grinning and he looked around nervously. Near the beginning of the aisle, Samantha and Gina were talking with Carol Murphey. Beside them were the caterers, a couple in their thirties who were fussing around the pavilion trying to make sure everything was in place.
Raising her voice enough to be heard over the general conversation, Helen said, "Okay, everybody, I think we can begin."
Mr. Wright said, "If you don't mind, I'm going to watch the first run-through back here to get an idea of where everyone will be."
"I trust your judgment," Helen said. "Now if I can corral my family into cooperating."
Helen stood before the arch and said, "Thank you, everybody. I think we're done. If you please, Jake and Ron will have the rehearsal dinner ready in just a few minutes."
Daria heavily sat down on a folding chair, pulling Michael down into the one next to her. "Finally. It's not like this was rocket science or anything."
"No, it's just the biggest day of your lives," Quinn said. "And we want you to look good."
"Damn, and I was hoping that winning a Pulitzer Prize was going to be the biggest day of my life," Daria said.
"Love can be the only reason you put up with her," Quinn said.
Michael kissed Daria's cheek and said, "It helps."
"Both ways," she replied.
"It's a good thing you found each other," Quinn said, "because nobody else could stand you."
Michael glanced over at Q, who had joined Jake, Ron, Sean and Jack at the grill. Quinn followed his gaze and said, "Not a word."
He grinned and said, "None needed."
When Derek had wandered over to the grill, Karen sat behind Daria and asked, "What is it with guys and fire?"
Michael said, "It all has to do with the primitive brain."
"Very primitive," Daria said. "You know, considering what's happened before, things seem to be surprisingly safe with our dads at the grill."
Quinn pointed to Samantha. "Michael's mom insisted that certain safety protocols be adopted. Backed up by our mom, they were very persuasive."
"I bet," Daria said. "Speaking of safety protocols, how have you and Mom kept our grandmothers under control?"
"Oh, that's simple. After what you pulled at Mom and Dad's anniversary, we threatened to turn you loose on them."
Remembering her trip home, Daria squeezed Michael's hand and said, "That was a good weekend."
After about ten minutes, Jake called, "Dinner's ready!"
As the hungry guys gathered around the hamburgers, bratwurst, steaks and ribs, Samantha said to Helen and Ms. Murphey, "So much for ladies first."
"It's the price of equality," Ms. Murphey said.
Then, Helen said, "Besides, Samantha, as a safety engineer, would you really want to get between a hungry pack of wolves and food?"
"No, I wouldn't. Speaking of hungry wolves, you should be glad that you never had to feed a teenage boy."
Self-conscious, Helen said, "Looking back, I wish I'd done a better job with my girls."
Gina joined them and said, "Watching that could almost turn you into a vegetarian."
Sean jerked his hand and said, "Ouch!"
Jack pulled a long fork back and said, "Sorry, dude. Didn't see your hand there."
Samantha covered her face and said, "He's the Best Man."
Waiting in line, Karen said, "I don't mind a little blood with my steaks, but I want it to be cow, not human."
Helen said, "And she's the Matron of Honor."
Jane said, "Eh, adds flavor."
Helen shook her head. "And she's the Maid of Honor."
Ms. Murphey said, "When you think of it, they're no worse than we were at their age."
"I shudder to remember every time I danced disco," Samantha said.
"I was an honest-to-God hippie," Helen said.
Gina said, "When you put it that way, Daria and the goofball seem almost tame."
Ms. Murphey mischievously said, "So, Gina. Do you have a young man in your life?"
Gina looked at her watch and muttered, "Darn."
"I'm sure there's a story behind that," Ms. Murphey said.
"I just lost a bet with my friend Natalie about how long it would take someone to ask me that question."
Inside on a sofa with her feet propped on the coffee table, Daria watched the Forecast Channel. Looking over her shoulder, Helen said, "Relax, sweetie. It's only a twenty percent chance of rain."
Daria rolled her head back. "So, what's your backup plan?"
"It's your wedding. Think positive."
"It's my wedding and I'm expecting something to go wrong. Weather would be at the top of my choices. It'll do less damage."
Helen leaned down and rested her arms on the sofa back. "If it rains, we'll just have to move everything in here anyway. It'll be tight, but I think we can manage."
"See, now was that hard?"
"But there will be no need. Things are going to be great."
Daria tilted her head back and looked at the ceiling. "Did you have to say that?"
"I'm your mother. Of course I had to say that."
"Then I'll blame you when the deluge hits us tomorrow."
"Whatever makes you happy," Helen said. "If you don't mind my asking, where are you and the girls going tonight?"
"Jane and Karen are keeping it a secret, which of course worries me to no end."
"You haven't bribed the information out of Quinn yet?"
"They know me too well and didn't tell her."
"Then I guess it will be a surprise."
"You know," Daria said.
Helen smiled and rose. "Being a lawyer has its advantages."
"If you know, then I can be reasonably certain that there won't be a police raid."
From the kitchen, Michael and the rest of the guys piled into the living room. Michael sat beside Daria, kissed her and said, "We're heading off to Mike's place."
"Have fun," Daria said, returning the kiss. "Back here by three, agreed?"
"That'll give us five hours' sleep. Agreed."
Jane, Karen and Gina filed in. Jane said, "Okay, Daria. It's time."
"I really don't have a choice in this, do I?" Daria said.
"After all that's gone into this, not a chance in hell, Morgendorffer."
Just as Michael and his friends arrived at the MacKenzie home, they saw Colin and Leesha leaving the house. She said, "You boys have a good time."
Colin said, "Just don't do anything that'll bring the police."
Behind his parents, Mike MacKenzie said, "Don't worry, Dad. I really don't feel up to a night in jail, nor explaining that to my new boss."
Colin gave a hearty laugh. "Okay, son." When he reached Michael, he said, "Congratulations."
Leesha said, "You be good to her, young man."
Michael said, "Thanks, I will."
After the older couple left, Jack and Sean popped the trunk open and began to ferry beer and the game console into the house while Mike held the door open.
Mike asked, "You brought Football Bowl III?"
"Like I promised," Sean said.
"Like any of us are going to run a play after we've had a few beers in us."
Michael said, "That is what is going to make it fun."
"Exactly," Mike said. "Trust me when I say that football is much more interesting under the influence."
Daria stood on the sidewalk and stared at their destination. "You brought me to the Zon? No wonder Amy opted out of the festivities."
Jane waved her hand. "Where else but one of the great places of our misspent youth?"
Daria shrugged. "It could be worse. It could've been one of those strip clubs."
"Daria, eww," Quinn said. "Don't even think like that."
At the door, they found Nell, CC, Lindy and Jodie Landon waiting. After hellos, they followed a waitress to a large table set up near the band stand. Daria saw the preset musical instruments and said to Jane, "What kind of horrible band do they have lined up for tonight?"
"A surprise just for you," Jane said.
Four men entered from behind the bar and, one by one, Trent, Max, Jesse and Nick took the stage. Trent went to the mike stand and said, "Hey, we're Mystik Spiral and we're back for one special performance."
The band finished with a flourish and Trent said, "Thank you! Congratulations, Daria!"
Jesse said, "Congratulations, yeah!"
The girls' cheers were almost drowned out by the cheers from the crowd directed at Daria.
The manager stopped by the large table and said, "I hope you ladies are having a good time."
"Of course we are!" Lindy said.
"Damned straight," Jane added.
Red-faced, Daria admitted, "Yes, we are."
The manager said, "Great. Just as a precaution, who's your designated driver?"
Lindy raised her arm to show a "no alcohol" arm band. "You know me."
Gina raised hers and said, "Sometimes, there's an advantage to being underage."
Quinn said, "Don't worry, we're covered."
"Excellent," the manager said. "Have a good evening."
"Have another drink, Daria," Jane said.
Daria shook her head. "You can have a hangover in the morning; I'm going to pass. Besides, I want to have the blackmail material after tonight, not be the blackmail material."
"You're no fun."
"It depends on your perspective. I anticipate great amusement from the photos of you tonight."
Trent made his way to them from the band stand. "Good to see you, Daria."
"Thanks, Trent. I can't believe you got the band back together for this."
"It was Lindy's idea," Trent said.
"Only one night?"
"Yeah, it's for the best. We've, um, gone our own ways."
Max joined them and said, "But we could be talked into another gig for Jane."
She glared at him and said, "Bite your tongue."
"Come on, Janey," Trent said. "We'd do it for you."
"I know," she said. "But don't hold your breath."
While Michael and Jack paired off for virtual football, Mike said to Derek, "Thanks for being the designated driver."
"It's easy for me nowadays," Derek said. "Alcohol and I don't get along."
"Not like that. No, when I drink, I remember things I don't want to remember."
"So, I take it easy and make sure my friends get home in one piece. A concept I've really come to appreciate."
Leaning over the sofa between the two players, Sean said, "Dude, go for a long pass!"
Jack said, "Like I could hit the broad side of a barn right now."
"Then let me take over!"
"You're worse off than I am."
At the table, Q poured another bag of chips into a bowl. "This has got to be the strangest bachelor's party I've been to."
Mike said, "You should've seen some of the ones at my fraternity."
"I can imagine."
"While Michael shows a basic instinct for survival. Can you imagine how Daria would react if he showed up with 'Help Me' painted on the bottom of his shoes?"
Q laughed. "Or wearing an orange jump suit straight from jail?"
"Quinn would kill him for that as a fashion violation."
"Yeah, she would."
Mike said, "So, are you going to try for the garter?"
"Nah, Quinn and I have an arrangement. You?"
"With two ex-girlfriends in the audience? Not a chance."
"So, it's one of those two."
Derek said, "Or nobody at all."
Mike said, "We need to make sure it ends up on somebody. Whether they want it or not."
"I like that plan," Q said.
"I'm in," said Derek.
After putting Jane, CC and Nell into the back seat of her car parked outside the Zon, Lindy said, "Don't worry, Daria, I'll get them home safely and get them up in the morning."
"Good luck with that," Karen said.
"I can get Trent up in the morning, and I don't mean that way. I can handle it."
Guiding Jodie to her car, Quinn said, "I'll be home right after I drop her off."
"Be careful," Daria said.
"I'm okay, Daria. I haven't had anything to drink."
"I'm not worried about your driving. I'm worried about Mrs. Landon when you lead Jodie up to the front door."
Jodie said, "Don't worry, Daria. I'll protect her."
"Good luck," Daria said.
After the other two cars left, Daria got into the passenger seat of her car, Karen in the back and Gina took the wheel. Gina said, "Home?"
"Please." After Gina started the car, Daria said, "That's one more obligatory youthful rite of passage out of the way."
When she opened the door to her old room, Daria said, "You got home before I did?"
Sitting on the bed, Michael said, "Well, we ran a full tournament and Derek kicked our asses."
"He was the only one sober."
"How did all of you fit into that thing of Jack's?"
"Now I know what a clown car feels like."
Daria sat on the bed next to him. "Home by three, just like we planned."
Michael said, "Yeah. Um, are you sleepy?"
Daria looked around and said, "Not really."
"Thinking about tomorrow?"
Annoyed, Bump yawned where she was comfortably resting at the foot of the bed. "Meow."
"Good advice," Daria said. "But tonight, I don't think it'll work."
Bump settled back down and closed her eyes.
"So what do we do now?" Michael asked.
"Damn, I just thought of something."
"I'm really going to be on my own…well, on my own with you."
"Isn't that what you've been doing for the last four years?"
"You more than me. Come on, I've really been living on money from my folks and my grandmother the whole time I've been in college. I went for months without a job and only had to cut back a little. Working was for experience and to buy luxuries. But now, it will be just the two of us and what we can do for ourselves. It's a little frightening."
"That is frightening."
Daria tilted her head and said, "Hmm, I think I know something that might help." She went to her laptop case and retrieved a well-worn book with "1936" written on the cover.
"Wisdom from the past?"
"Mrs. Blaine has rarely failed me," Daria said. She opened the book and flipped until she found the right page.
I'm so nervous, I don't know what to do and I can't sleep. If this keeps up much longer, I'll have to date this July 14. I can't believe the day is almost here. Mark and I will be married tomorrow.
What if I trip over my dress? What if his poor old car won't make it to Niagara Falls? What if I'm so scared I can't speak?
My, my. So many things to go wrong. Take a deep breath, Theresa.
I know that Mom and I have tried to plan for everything. But I have to face it. Something will go wrong. I know it in my heart.
But with all our planning, I know a lot more will go right.
By this time tomorrow night, I'll be Mrs. Blaine. Nothing could be more right than that.
I feel better now and think I can get to sleep.
"Well?" Michael asked when she finished reading.
Daria smiled. "We can rest assured that something will go wrong tomorrow."
"But with all of Mom and Quinn's insane planning, most of it will go right."
Daria moved close and kissed him. "And twenty-four hours from now, we'll be married. Nothing could be more right than that."
"Hmm, I feel a little better."
"So do I. Let's get some sleep."
Thunder loud enough to rattle the windows woke Daria well before her alarm was set to go off. She groaned and said, "Dammit, Mom."
A little cramped with both of them on a single bed, Michael said, "Was that what I thought it was?"
Another loud peal of thunder completed waking them up. "Yes," Daria said.
"Your mother is going to freak," Michael said.
"Trust me, she's already past that," Daria said. "Now she's in reorganize mode."
"Do you think it's safe to go downstairs?"
"It's not going to be safe until after the reception and we're on our way to the airport."
The next boom sent Bump across the room and up onto the bed. She looked back at the rain-streaked window and meowed.
"Yes, dear," Daria said, petting the cat. "The weather sucks. You know that sometime, somewhere, one of us said, 'It could be worse. It could be raining.'"
Michael said, "I think that was me."
"So you get to go down and face Mom first."
"While you take care of Her Highness. Okay." Michael rolled out of the bed and pulled on some pants to go with his t-shirt. "I hope she doesn't expect formal clothes right away this morning."
"You're safe for now."
"We can look at the bright side."
"The rain will force everything back inside, just like you originally wanted."
"You'd almost think someone was looking out for us." After a pause, Daria said, "Nah."
Michael good-naturedly shook his head. "Back as soon as I can."
Looking a little worse for wear, Jack and Sean were seated at the bottom of the stairs. Jack looked up and said, "Are you sure you want to marry into this?"
"What's going on?"
"Mrs. Morgendorffer is going all Capt. Hornblower and ordering everyone around like she was on a ship in the middle of a storm."
Michael said, "From her viewpoint, she is."
Sean said, "We're staying out of the way."
"Let me take a look." Michael stepped past them and went to the kitchen. "Good morning?"
Helen spun and said, "Oh, good. You're awake. Where's Daria?"
"In bed, calming down the cat."
"Hey, Michael," Karen said from behind the counter where she was working on breakfast. "Butterflies yet?"
"Give us time," he said. "Recruit?"
Helen said, "I need Daria down here right away. We have to replan everything in the next hour."
"I'll let her know." Michael pointed his thumb at Karen. "But don't forget that you and Daria have a lot of help. I'll even make sure Sean and Jack do something constructive."
When she and her family arrived at the Morgendorffer home, Amy followed Sean's hand signals as he guided them into the space cleared in the garage.
Reese said, "Don't you think valet parking is going a little overboard for a home wedding?"
"Not when it's pouring buckets outside," she said.
Wearing a raincoat borrowed from Jake, Sean came up to the window and Amy rolled it down. He pointed to an interior door and said, "Go on in that way. I'll park your car."
Amy said, "Did you draw the short straw?"
"That happened back when Jack became Best Man and I became night-before Beer Provider."
"An important task," Reese said. "And one that doesn't require you to appear in front of the guests."
Amy laughed. "We'll only be a minute getting the girls out of the back seat."
After she and Reese got the twin six-year-olds ready, Sean got in the car and said, "Don't worry, I'll be careful. I can't afford to fix anything if I break it."
"Don't worry about that," Amy said. "But if you change the CD, I'll have to kill you."
Inside, Amy observed the guests already trying to get comfortable in the now-cramped living room. Her sister Rita and mother Tess Barksdale were talking with the Fultons and saw them. Rita said, "Amy, it's so good to see you."
Amy knew the long-learned unease at dealing with her family wouldn't go away any time soon, but she said, "Rita, Mother, it's good to see you."
Tess went straight to Jocelyn and Jerica. "How are my two cutest granddaughters?"
Quinn came over and said to Amy and Rita, "Looks like Grandma has someone new to spoil."
Teasing, Amy said, "You're not jealous that they've taken the cute crown?"
"As long as it keeps Grandma from asking me about getting married and having kids, I can handle it."
Reese surveyed the cramped layout of folding chairs moved into the living room and the arch placed at one end. "Looks like the weather dropped a big change of plans on things. How's Helen handling it?"
Quinn said, "Like Mom."
Amy said, "How's Daria handling it?"
"She's in her room with Michael. I think she's happy about the change."
"She wanted it in here in the first place, didn't she?"
"In that case, I need to talk to her weather witch."
Reese said, "No, you don't, or I'll never get time on the golf course."
At the door to their temporary room, Michael said, "Jack's ready and I can change in the bathroom. I'll see you when you're ready."
Seated on the bed with Karen and Jane to either side, Daria said, "If I holler, you'd better come running. I don't entirely trust these two."
"What's the worst they could do?" Michael asked.
Jane smirked. "You don't want to know."
"Such innocence," Karen said.
Daria said, "And I want to keep him that way. Now, let's get this done. I don't know why I need so much help; it's not like this dress is as complicated as putting on an EVA suit."
"Bonding," Karen said.
"I thought it was bondage," Jane said.
"That's between the two of them after the ceremony," Karen said.
"Okay, I’m out of here," Michael said, closing the door.
Karen burst out laughing. "You'd think that after all this time, he'd be used to us."
"He is," Jane said. "That's why he had the good sense to run away."
Daria sighed and stood. "With friends like these…"
Sean hung the raincoat in the garage before using the door into the kitchen. "That's everybody, Mrs. Morgendorffer."
Helen said, "You've been a big help."
"Eh, I kinda like Michael. What's next?"
"I think the next thing is for you to change into something more appropriate."
Running one hand down his t-shirt and jeans, Sean said, "Yeah, might be a good idea. I'll do that."
Helen looked at the living room. "I hope that the crowd hasn't reached critical mass."
Helen shook her head. "Oh, nothing. You know, I should probably finish getting ready, too."
Gina walked up the stairs and found Michael, already in his finely-tailored dark suit, pacing the hallway. "She cleaned you up real good, Goofball."
"Hey, brat," Michael said. "I'll have you know that I've learned to clean myself."
"So that's why you went to college."
Gina moved next to him. Keeping her voice low, she said, "Congratulations."
Michael nodded and hugged her with one arm. "I’m looking forward to returning the sentiment."
"Nothing's on the horizon, but I'll keep that in mind."
"Thanks for coming up here. It means a lot."
"Hey, you're a great brother."
"And you're a great sister."
"I better get back downstairs. I'll wait for your signal."
Gina was several steps down the stairs when she said, "Don't worry, I'll ask you to do the same for me."
With her, Jane and Daria at long last dressed for the ceremony, Karen suddenly said, "Uh-oh, we forgot something blue!"
"Hold on." Jane went over to the desk and picked up a small cloth pouch. "CC sent this along, just in case."
Wary, Daria looked inside the pouch to find a lock of blue hair. "Why am I not surprised."
Karen looked in and said, "Okay, good, it's straight."
"That's it," Jane said, tucking CC's contribution inside the closely-fitted jacket of Daria's dress. "As ready as you'll ever be."
Daria rubbed her face. "Final set of requests. One, go downstairs and chase everyone up here that needs to be up here. Two, make sure nobody is trying to kill each other or do structural damage to the house. Three, take your places and make sure Jack is there, too."
Daria looked in the full-length mirror that Quinn had insisted be placed in the room. The clean, smooth lines of the dress and jacket accented her small frame in a gentle, feminine manner while giving her a look of simple elegance. She adjusted her necklace and whispered, "You look good."
After taking a moment to prepare, Daria picked up her bouquet, stepped out of her room and walked to the end of the hallway where Michael was waiting. She said, "You look good."
"And that dress makes you look radiant," he said.
"I told Isabelle that radioisotopes were over the top, but she wouldn't listen."
He reached out and held both of her hands. "Asking you out that first time is still the best decision of my life."
"Finally accepting was mine. And I owe it to my parents."
"Your plan still on track?"
"At the reception."
Mr. Wright explained to Helen, "Camera one will pick up as everyone comes down the stairs and will follow them across and up the aisle. Through the ceremony, it will provide the guest view of the ceremony. Camera two will focus on the young lady singing and will hold there throughout the song. We can cut a copy for her at no extra charge. After the song, it will provide the close-ups of the couple. Camera three will pick up the party as they start down the aisle and go to their places. It will provide the side view for the rest of the ceremony."
Helen said, "Excellent. I'm glad you could adapt so readily to the change in plans."
"It's part of the service, ma'am. If you will excuse me, I want to do the final check on each of the cameras."
Jane and Karen came down the stairs. Jane said, "Places, everybody." To Karen, she whispered, "I've always wanted an excuse to say that."
Holding back tears, Jake joined Helen and they started up the stairs. He whispered, "She's not our little girl any more."
Helen laid her head on his shoulder. "No, she's our talented young woman."
Behind them, Samantha and Ron climbed the stairs. Ron said, "I was fine sitting down, but if this is what they want, I'm game."
Mrs. Murphey took her place behind the arch, followed by Jack, Jane and Karen.
Finally, Gina stood and took her place at the base of the stairs.
Mr. Wright hurried around the room making his last checks and, as he left each one, instructed the operator to start recording.
Despite all of Daria's protestations of things growing out of hand, it was a close circle of guests that waited: Ruth Morgendorffer, Jake's brother Bruce who was a last-minute arrival, Tess and Rita Barksdale, Amy, Reese, their two girls, Jodie Landon, Nell, CC, Sean, Mike MacKenzie, Trent, Lindy, their infant son Andrew and finally, Quinn with Q.
After listening to a couple moments of shuffling and whispers upstairs, Gina got the signal from her brother and, with a wink back, she began to softly sing with the voice that earned her a place at Berlioz Conservatory:
Arm in arm, Samantha and Ron were the first down the stairs. They smiled to the audience as they walked down to their front row places and took their seats.
Helen and Jake came down, also walking arm in arm. An observant watcher could see that Jake was in a grinning stupor and guided to their seats by Helen.
Daria and Michael arrived with the third verse, holding hands as they descended the stairs and walked up the aisle together.
As Gina repeated the last lines of the first verse, Daria and Michael turned to face each other in front of Mrs. Murphey.
Mrs. Murphey said, "Welcome, dear friends and family, as we celebrate Daria and Michael's vows of marriage."
She took a moment to gaze at each of their faces. "Marriage is the loving commitment of two people to share their lives while each grows as a person. It can be the most important commitment they will ever make. Daria and Michael, are you ready to proceed?"
Daria and Michael said, "Yes," in unison.
Mrs. Murphey reached to a small stand behind the arch and picked up the waiting rings. She gave one to Michael and he lifted Daria's hand to place it on her finger.
Mrs. Murphey said, "Michael, with this ring, do you promise to love and honor Daria as your wife and companion? To support when in need and forgive when in error? To bring her into your life as she brings you into hers?"
Michael firmly said, "I do."
Mrs. Murphey gave the other ring to Daria and she prepared to place it on his finger.
Mrs. Murphey said, "Daria, with this ring, do you promise to love and honor Michael as your husband and companion? To support when in need and forgive when in error? To bring him into your life as he brings you into his?"
"I do," Daria confidently said.
Mrs. Murphey held their hands together. "By the power vested in me by the State of Maryland, I now pronounce you married. Congratulations."
She released their hands, allowing Daria and Michael to come together for a kiss.
Reese whispered to Amy, "That was fast."
"Jealous?" she said back.
"An observation," he said.
"Dammit," Amy whispered.
"What?" Reese said.
"I forgot to make a face at Daria. Hold on." When Daria and Michael broke from their kiss and turned to face the audience, Amy tilted her head and stuck out her tongue.
Daria gently laughed and rolled her eyes back at Amy. Helen turned around and, catching Amy, whispered, "I should've known."
"I'm honoring a fine tradition," Amy said.
Together, Daria and Michael said, "Thank you," before they joined hands and returned down the aisle.
When they walked by, Nell whispered to CC, "So much for standing up after the 'if anyone has any reason, let them speak now' bit."
Hearing them, Sean said, "Did you really think that they would leave an opening like that?"
"Now that you mention it," CC said, "We really shouldn't have. Oh well. Better luck next time."
Helen stood and went to the front of the room. "Everybody, a moment please. I know things are a little cramped in here; please bear with us while the caterers prepare the reception. The food and drinks will be in the formal dining room and we're going to set up a table for the new couple out here in a moment."
Standing near the front door, Daria and Michael watched with their arms around each other. "One more river to cross before we're free," she said.
Even with things crowded and guests using places like the kitchen counter to eat, the reception was going fairly smoothly. Standing in front of Daria and Michael's table, Jane said, "Happiness still looks good on you."
"I must say that I agree with your friend," Tess said, coming up behind Jane, along with Ruth.
"You make such a beautiful bride," Ruth said.
"Thanks," Daria said, feeling self-conscious. Seeing her parents together and not otherwise occupied, she stood, saying, "Excuse me."
Raising her voice enough to be heard, Daria said, "Mom, Dad."
They turned and Helen said, "Yes, sweetie?"
"Today isn't just our wedding. Twenty-eight years ago, my parents were married. Happy anniversary to you."
After the clapping settled, Daria continued. "When Michael first asked me out, I turned him down. That was right before Thanksgiving. Oddly enough, when my dad brought me home for the holiday, he told me how he first asked my mom out and it struck me that it sounded like Michael. Later, Mom told me the same story from her memory and that convinced me to go back to Michael and say yes that next Monday."
Daria took a breath and said, "Michael had no trouble telling me he loved me, but something in me…wouldn't let me say it in return. That is, until this day, three years ago. On my way home from Mom and Dad's anniversary and renewal of their vows, I finally admitted that I loved Michael. So, in honor of how much their love has meant to me finding mine; Mom and Dad, thank you very much."
The guests loudly applauded as Jake and Helen stood there, surprised and, for one of the few times in their life, mutually speechless.
Michael whispered, "I think you got them."
Holding his guitar, Trent said, "Hey, I've been asked to play for the dance."
Daria stood and pulled Michael behind her. "How did we get talked into this?"
Michael said, "Wasn't this the tradeoff for keeping the crowd below two hundred?"
Trent said, "Mr. and Mrs. Morgendorffer. Mr. and Mrs. Fulton, come on up here, too."
The parents walked over and joined the new couple.
Trent strummed his guitar. "I've been asked by their parents to play two songs in honor of the couple. Songs that mean something to them."
Trent finished up the second song as the three couples danced in each other's arms.
Trent hit a last chord and said, "Cool."
Standing next to Michael as he rolled an elastic garter off of her wrist, Daria said to the single guys standing across the room, "You didn't think I was going to let him take it off of my leg in front of you guys, did you?"
"Worth a hope," Mike said. "I remember that you had nice legs in high school."
Michael turned and stretched the garter. "Okay, now remember the rules. We'll do this until somebody ends up with it. Grabbing it out of the air or slam dunking it onto someone's head, it's the same for me. Ready, go!"
Jack, Sean, Mike and Q stood and watched the garter make a graceful arc toward them. Nobody made a move as it got closer. As it neared his face, Sean reached out and caught the garter. "I suppose this means something."
Holding her bouquet, Daria said, "The same rules apply to you. We'll repeat this until someone ends up with it. Got it?"
Jane, Nell, CC, Quinn and Jodie were waiting. "Yes, your highness," Jane said with a faux-English accent.
Jodie looked at Quinn and said, "Set up?"
"We've got to," Quinn replied.
"Go." Daria tossed the flowers over her shoulder.
Quinn and Jodie moved to either side of Jane and tried to move her toward the trajectory of the bouquet.
"Hey!" Jane said, realizing what was going on.
As it came down toward Jane's face, CC reached over from behind and grabbed the flowers. "You owe me," she said.
Jane let out an overly dramatic sigh of relief. "I certainly do."
With a devious grin, CC walked over to Sean and put her arm around his. "You know, you're cute."
After she and Michael had changed into more appropriate traveling clothes, Daria stopped next to the bed to pet Bump. "We'll be back for you in two weeks, so take it easy on Mom."
"But you don't have to go easy on Quinn. I think she'll make an excellent chief of staff while we're gone."
Bump purred and meowed again.
Daria hugged the cat and set her down on the bed. "Bye."
Bump meowed once more and watched as they left the room. After they were gone, she went across the hall to Quinn's old room and hopped up on the windowsill to watch the driveway.
The wedding guests were lined up in the garage waiting for them when they came back downstairs. Karen was near the front of the line and said, "Trust me, Reese and Amy have a great limo service."
Daria looked at the limo, backed into the driveway just outside the garage, and the driver, waiting patiently under a large umbrella next to the open back door. "If Mom hadn't already offered to pay for the honeymoon, Reese would've let us use the family Gulfstream."
Karen said, "Private plane and no airport waiting; that would've been sweet, but I understand that mom's get priority."
Michael said, "Now that our transportation is settled, I want to double-check that Jane didn't have anything to do with the rice throwing."
"All Quinn," Daria said.
"Not that I'm paranoid or anything."
"You know our friends too well."
Tears in her eyes, Helen came up and gave Daria and Michael a hug. "Be careful on your trip."
Daria hugged back and said, "We promise, Mom."
Jake hugged Daria, but when he tried to speak, he couldn't. Daria said, "Thanks for everything, Dad."
Releasing her father, Daria pulled Michael forward and, with emotion in her voice, said, "Thanks, everybody, for being here for us."
The guests tossed the traditional rice over them as they crossed the garage and, with the help of the driver's umbrella, got into the car without getting wet from the dwindling rain. In only a few seconds, the driver was in his seat and the car was pulling away.
"Damn rain," CC said. "What are we going to do with all the toilet paper and soap we got to decorate Daria's car?"
Karen stepped forward and pointed to Daria's car, parked in the driveway. "It'll just have to be waiting for them when they get back. Do you think you three can handle it?"
"Sure thing," Nell said. She looked around and said, "Where's Jane?"
They heard a car start in the yard and Jane's car carefully backed off the lawn and onto the street. With a wave from Jane, she took off in the direction the limousine had gone.
Karen said, "She's being Jane. We'll have to ask her later."
"Do I want to know?" Derek said, putting his arm around Karen.
"Just a little girl talk."
"A man's got to know when to back off."
"I knew there was a reason I kept you around besides your ability to crawl under a desk and reconnect a computer keyboard."
Coming down off the day's excitement, Daria curled up next to Michael as the limo drove to the airport. "We should enjoy the limo, but I'm happy to just rest and do nothing for the moment."
Holding her, Michael kissed her forehead and said, "Works for me."
"We did it."
"We really did."
"Feel any different?"
"Better. Much better."
"Me, too," Daria said, closing her eyes. After a couple moments, she was asleep.
"Rest well," Michael said. "Rest well."
With the house emptied of guests, Helen stacked gifts in Daria's room to await their return. When she was done, Helen sat on the bed and started to cry again.
Quinn entered the room and sat beside her mother, placing her arm around her shoulders. "Thanks, Mom."
"Hmm?" Helen said.
"For being Mom."
"You're not so bad yourself, Quinn."
"I know. Daria's not so bad, either."
Hearing activity in the room, Bump left the windowsill and crossed back into Daria's room. With a single bounce, she jumped onto Helen's lap and, with a look up, started to purr.
Hesitant at first, Helen laid her hand on the cat and started to pet her. Quinn smiled and reached over to scratch Bump behind the ears.
Wondering where they had gone, Jake walked upstairs and found them. He leaned against the door frame and said, "I guess I'm pretty lucky after all."
After they got in line at airport security, Daria and Michael set their luggage down and took a breather. "Soon," he said.
"At this rate, about an hour," Daria replied.
He sat on one of the suitcases. "In that case, we might as well get comfortable."
Daria sat down and said, "Might as well."
"It finally stopped raining."
"I hope that means our flight won't be delayed."
They were startled to hear Jane say, "Sounds awfully optimistic to me, Amiga."
"Jane?" Daria said.
Hands in pockets, Jane shrugged and said, "I wanted a private sendoff. Hope you don't mind."
Daria stood and hugged Jane. "How could I mind?"
"It is your honeymoon."
"I guess you could officially say that it doesn't start until we pass through security," Michael said, checking his watch.
Jane wiped a tear away from her eye. "Sorry. I'm...it's a little hard. You've been my best friend ever since we met in that stupid esteem class. I'm going to miss you."
"Once Michael and I start grad school, we're only going to be three hours away from Lawndale."
"We know that three hours can be a long way," Jane said.
"Only if we let it, which I don't intend to do. Just like I intend to stay in touch with Karen."
"You are determined, aren't you, Morgendorffer."
"As much as I love Michael, I wouldn't have made it through college without you and Karen. So, you're not getting off that easy."
"In that case, Daria, I can be on my way." Pointing to the gap in the line, Jane added, "You better get going; it looks like the line is moving faster than you expected."
Daria and Michael rose and grabbed their suitcases. Daria said, "Are you going to be okay?"
"I am now. Go, have a great honeymoon and tell me all the kinky details when you get back."
Daria said, "We'll have a great honeymoon."
"What about the kinky details?"
"I'll think about it."
Jane sat on the hood of her car in the airport satellite parking lot. She sketched as the setting sun neared the horizon and planes flew by.
A police car stopped and a handsome, blond officer stepped out. "Excuse me, miss. What are you doing?"
Jane turned the sketchpad to the policeman. "Sketching."
He looked at the airliner flying toward the sun on the horizon. "Thinking about flying off into the sunset?"
"Sunrise. Artistic license."
"So, thinking about beginnings instead of endings?"
"My best friend just left for Paris and Rome for her honeymoon. Yeah, beginnings."
The officer smiled and returned to his car. "Well, you don't look like a terrorist. Sorry to disturb you."
Jane smiled at him. "That's okay. I don't mind a little eye candy this early in the evening."
He grinned and nodded. "Thank you. Have a nice day," he said before driving away.
She went back to work, trying several subtle differences of composition and placement. After about forty minutes, she had what she wanted and the sun was just dipping out of sight. She jumped off the hood and was opening her door when a black sports car stopped and the blond policeman opened the window.
"I was hoping you'd still be here."
Jane walked around her car. "Off duty?"
"So tell me; why were you hoping I'd still be here?"
"Well, a pretty woman with runner's legs and artistic talent seemed like an interesting combination."
Jane raised an eyebrow. "You run?"
"Mostly ten and twenty k races."
"Hmm. Got a name?"
While the airliner cruised over the Atlantic Ocean, Daria settled into the comfortable seat for the long flight. She quizzically turned when she heard Michael unexpectedly laugh. "What's so funny?"
"I was thinking about Jane and her ability to land on her feet. Something tells me that you don't need to worry about her."
Daria grasped his hand and said, "Something tells me you're right."
"Relax. We can worry about the rest later."
Arrangement of Non Nobis Domine by Patrick Doyle for Henry V
Freakin' Friends, from Is It Fall Yet? by Glenn Eichler and Peggy Nicoll
Simple Gifts, traditional Shaker hymn.
Crazy Little Thing Called Love by Freddie Mercury
When I'm 64 by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Thanks to my wife Louise for all of her support and, as I finish, very soon to be twenty-three years of marriage.
Thanks also to my long-time beta readers: Kristen Bealer, Ipswichfan and Mr. Orange, who found the numerous spelling errors, typos and other grammatical oddities in my writing and patiently read through many stories over the last six years.
Thanks to everyone who has read and enjoyed these stories. I hope you have had as much fun reading as I have had writing them.
December, 2009-March 2010.