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.
The blond-haired woman wrinkled her nose at the slightly antiseptic scent in the air outside the front nurses' station of the Cedars of Lawndale. Hospitals had always made her uncomfortable and this evening brought particular dread. Choking back a couple of tears, she said, "Hi, I'm Rita Chambers. I was contacted as next of kin for the Morgendorffer family. I'm Helen's sister."
The nurse looked up, honest sympathy on her face. "I'm so sorry. Please follow me; Miss Daria is in one of the family guest rooms and she could really use some company."
"How is she?" Rita asked.
"She's taking the loss of her parents hard."
"What about Quinn?"
"The doctors are still trying to save her. It's very touch and go right now."
Rita nodded and continued in silence while they walked down the corridor away from the main emergency room entrance. Near the end, the nurse stopped at a closed door and knocked. "Miss Daria?"
A very faint voice replied, "Yes?"
"Your aunt is here."
The nurse said, "Go on in. There is a call button inside if you need anything and we will keep both of you updated when we learn anything more about Miss Quinn."
"Thank you," Rita said.
After the nurse turned, Rita slowly opened the door and stepped in to what was a basic hotel room. Her sixteen-year-old niece Daria was seated on the bed, her glasses resting on the nightstand, her hair tangled and her eyes red from crying.
Rita carefully sat down next to her niece. "I got here as fast as I could. I'm so sorry."
It was Daria's turn to nod. "Thanks."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"I don't know."
"Are you okay with me staying here?"
Slowly, Daria leaned to the side until her head rested on Rita's shoulder. Almost as slowly, Rita put her arm around Daria. Just as Daria's tears started her own, Rita said, "I miss them too."
Within another few minutes, Daria's emotion and exhaustion hit and she fell into merciful sleep.
Rita gently answered, "Come in," when she heard a knock on the door. A young doctor, probably in his early thirties, entered. "Mrs. Chambers?"
"Yes," Rita answered.
Daria stirred. "Hmm?"
"A doctor is here," Rita said.
Daria opened her eyes. "Dr. Phillips. How…how is Quinn?"
Eyes downcast, Dr. Phillips shook his head. "I'm sorry, Daria. I'm so sorry. The damage to her kidneys and liver was too severe. She passed a few minutes ago."
Daria gulped and her eyes filled with tears again.
To Rita, he said, "Mrs. Chambers. We have grief counselors on standby for when Daria is ready. Or, when you are ready."
"Thank you, doctor."
"Take as long as you need. The room is yours."
After Dr. Phillips had left, Daria whispered, "They're all gone."
Sensing the need, Rita put her arms around Daria again.
Daria asked, "What am I going to do?"
Her eyes also tearing up, Rita said, "I don't know, but you're not alone."
Hearing the answering machine once more, Rita sighed and said, "It's Rita, again. Please call me back. This is important and I don't want you to learn about it from your answering machine." The message done, she hung up the phone.
Still in the hospital's guest room, Daria said, "No luck?"
Rita shook her head. "I don't think that Amy wants to talk to me. I'm sorry."
Thinking about her often strained relationship with Quinn, Daria said, "What happened that was so bad?"
"Nothing big, it was a bunch of little things adding up. Look, Daria, I reached everyone else, my mom, Jake's mom and also his sister."
"Thanks," Daria said.
Both sat in silence for several minutes. Uncomfortable, Daria started to gather her things. "Can you take me home?"
"Are you sure?" Rita asked.
"Yes, please. I don't want to be here anymore."
"Okay, Daria. I'll take you home. I can try to reach Amy again when we get there."
When they arrived at Daria's home, she carefully avoided looking at her mother's red SUV parked in the driveway where the tow service had dropped it off. While Daria unlocked the door, Rita quickly looked inside to see the camping gear piled in the rear cargo area. Just as quickly, she averted her eyes and followed Daria inside.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" Rita said when she saw Daria standing in the middle of the living room, staring blankly at the television.
"Is there anything I can do?"
"No. I don't think that there is anything you can do, but – um - thanks. I'm going up to my room."
"I'll try to take care of things from here. Maybe find something for us to eat."
"I'm not feeling very hungry."
"Just in case. I'll be down here if you need me."
"Okay," Daria said, heading up the stairs. At the top, she stopped and turned. "Rita?"
"Check on me in about an hour?"
After a short search, Rita found the telephone in the kitchen. She noticed that there were several messages on the answering machine. Grabbing a nearby notepad, she sat down to listen and take notes in case there was something important.
After several messages for Quinn from boys seeking a date, Rita heard, "Hey, Daria, it's Jane. The family craziness was too much for even Trent and me to stand, so we borrowed my aunt's rental car and then flew the hell home. I saw the Suburban Assault Vehicle in the driveway and figured you were home, too. Give me a call and we can gripe about our wasted weekend."
"I know Helen would have a fully alphabetized and cross-referenced listing of important phone numbers around here somewhere," Rita said as she started looking. In the top counter drawer, she found an address book. "Good."
Rita was surprised when she opened the tab marked, "Daria's Friends" and found only a single entry. However, the name "Jane Lane" told her that she found what she had needed. Back to the phone, she dialed the number.
"Hello?" a husky, male voice answered.
"Hi, may I speak with Jane, please?" Rita said.
"Sure," the voice said. "I think she's in her room."
After what seemed like an overly long pause, Rita said, "Are you still there?"
"Yeah, just moving slow today. You know how it is."
"I think so."
After another long pause, she could hear, "Janey, phone."
Faintly, Rita heard, "Daria?"
"Kinda sounds like her mom."
Clearly on the phone, Jane said, "Hello?"
Wary, Jane said, "Yes."
"Hi, I'm Rita Chambers, Daria's aunt." After taking a deep breath, she said, "Daria could use a good friend right now. There was an accident and, and, she lost her family."
"What?" Jane said in shock.
"Her sister and parents are dead from an accident during their camping trip. Can you please come over for Daria? She needs a friend."
"I'm on my way!"
Jane didn't bother to knock or ring the door bell. "Daria!" she called as she ran inside.
Waiting on the stairs, Rita stopped Jane and said, "Hold on."
"My friend needs me," Jane said.
"Yes, she does. But she asked for an hour alone and I'm respecting that. However, I asked you to come over for when she is past that." Rita checked her watch and said, "Which should be in about forty minutes."
Rita motioned for the stair step next to her. "Have a seat. Tell me a little about Daria."
Jane sat but said, "You're her aunt."
Rita sighed. "Daria's mother and I never got along very well and, therefore, we didn't see each other very often. Now…it's too late."
"My family doesn't exactly get along with each other, either."
"I remember that Daria is smart, likes to read, and that she doesn't worry about fashion or appearances. It bothers Mother since she thinks, well, she's a little old-fashioned."
"No, she's not a fashion follower. Daria likes to write."
"Do you write?"
"I take it Daria is doing well in school?"
"Aces every class."
"Good. Extra credit?"
"When she finds something interesting."
"She's not a jock."
"I mean, academic awards."
Jane snickered. "At Lawndale? You have to be kidding me."
Rita fidgeted before cautiously asking, "Your name was the only one I found in Helen's address book under Daria's friends."
"That's about right. We're outcasts."
"We enjoy it and we avoid a lot of your standard teenage angst."
"Put together, that sounds a little like Helen as a teenager."
"But she's always pushing Daria to participate in, well, almost anything she can. Um, could," Jane said, catching herself.
Sad, Rita said, "People change."
"What made Helen change?"
"I don't know," Rita said, leaning against the rail. "I might have been part of it. I used to always tease her about her grades and her frumpy clothes. I wish I hadn't done that."
After several moments of awkward silence, Jane said, "So, what do you do?"
Rita said, "I do volunteer work and help out my mother."
"One daughter, Erin. She's twenty-two. What about you? Brothers or sisters?"
"Two of each. My brother Trent is the same age as Erin and the rest are older."
"We're not talking about Daria very much."
"Daria is Daria," Jane said. "She…"
Standing at the top of the stairs, Daria said, "I thought I heard voices."
Jane jumped up and hurried to her friend. "I came over as soon as your aunt called me."
"How are you holding up?"
"The outside looks fine. The inside – not so well."
"Anything I can do?"
"You've already done it."
Downstairs, Rita said, "Take your time. I'm going to try to reach Amy again."
Daria said, "Good luck, Rita."
"Thanks. I'm going to need it."
Rita felt a wave of thanks and dread when a voice on the other end of the phone said, "Hello?"
Rita replied, "Amy, it's Rita."
Amy said, "Hi, Rita. What's so damned important that you've been spamming my answering machine?"
"I have some bad news."
"You broke up with another boyfriend?"
Patience worn, Rita snapped, "No, we lost Helen, and Jake and Quinn."
"What do you mean, lost? As in…?"
"Yes. They were on a camping trip and ate some poisoned berries. I'm sorry. They're gone."
"But Daria wasn't poisoned. Physically, she's okay, but she's taking things hard."
"Daria is the older girl, right?" Amy said. "Starting college?"
"She's still in high school."
"Amy, I know we haven't gotten along too well, but can you come down here to Lawndale and help with things for a few days?"
"Oh, crap. I've got…no, work be damned. I'll be there tomorrow morning. I know I have the address around here somewhere."
"Thanks, Amy. I'm really feeling overwhelmed with all this."
"Hang in there, Rita. I'll see you in the morning. Good-bye."
"Okay, Amy. Bye."
Rita held the phone to her chest and sat down at the dining table. "That went better than I had feared. Now for one more."
Rita dialed from memory and when she heard an answer, said, "Paul, I'm going to be in Lawndale, Maryland for a few days. My sister Helen passed away suddenly, along with her husband and one daughter. I'm staying with her other daughter while we try to make arrangements for the funeral."
After listening from his home in northern Virginia, Paul Myerson said, "I'm so sorry, Rita. Is there anything I can do?"
"I don't think so. Not now, but I'll probably need to take you up on the offer later."
Paul said, "You mentioned Helen's other daughter. What's her name?"
"Daria. What's going to happen to her?"
"I don't know. Hopefully, Helen and Jake made plans in their will."
"I hope so, too. This has to be rough on the kid."
"It is," Rita said. "A friend is up in Daria's room with her right now."
"Glad she has a friend like that. Keep me in the loop, will you?"
"Okay, now take care of things and get back here soon, okay?"
"I'll do my best. Good-bye, Paul."
The first idea Rita had that she was no longer alone in the kitchen was when Jane said, "Hey, something smells like food."
Rita turned from the stove and said, "Oh, hi. I found some frozen lasagna and added a few things to try to spice it up a bit. How is Daria?"
"Rough, but hanging in there."
"Can you tell her that dinner will be ready in a few minutes?"
"Yeah, I can do that."
"You're welcome to stay, too. There's plenty."
Jane replied, "I was hoping you would say that. I'll be right back."
As Jane hurried upstairs, Rita located plates and utensils so that the table was set by the time Daria reached the kitchen. Her eyes were red, she looked tired, and she walked with a shuffle. Worried, Rita said, "Daria, please have a seat. I hope this will be okay."
Daria nodded and followed the direction. Without a word, she started to mechanically eat.
For conversation, Rita said, "I finally reached Amy and she'll be here tomorrow to help us out."
"Amy and I will be busy almost all day. Do you want to stay here or go to school?"
Quiet, Daria said, "School. I don't want to be here alone."
"I'll make sure you get there."
Daria nodded again.
Jane said, "Um, Rita. Would you have a problem if I stay here tonight?"
"Oh, dear me, no. As long as it is okay with your mother," Rita said.
"I don't think she'll object."
"Go ahead and call."
Jane grabbed the cordless phone and dialed. When her brother answered, she said, "Hey, Trent, I need to talk to Mom."
Home alone, Trent said, "Gotcha, Janey. Go ahead."
Jane waited a few moments before saying, "Hey, Mom. Can I stay at Daria's tonight? She's still not doing well after, you know."
Jane nodded and said, "Okay, thanks. I'll see you after school tomorrow."
Jane turned the phone off and said, "Mom's okay with me staying, but I will have to run home after school tomorrow."
Rita then nodded. "That's fine. Thank you, and please thank your mother when you see her."
Later that night, after preparing for bed herself, Rita checked Daria's room to see her asleep on her bed and Jane in a sleeping bag on the floor. "Rest well, girls," Rita whispered before closing the door.
From there, Rita went to the guest room. Quietly, she shut off the light and climbed into the unfamiliar bed. Settled, Rita closed her eyes and prayed, "Please give me the wisdom to help Daria. If you are willing, I will take her in as my own daughter. She reminds me so much of Helen and I…I hope to make up for my mistakes."
Hearing the doorbell, Rita hurried down the stairs and checked the peephole in the front door. Clearly pleased, she opened the door and said, "Amy!"
Outside, Amy Barksdale stood, holding a travel mug in one hand. "Rita."
"Thank you so much for being here. Come in, please. When did you leave home?"
Entering, Amy said, "Oh-dark-thirty. How are you holding up?"
"I'm managing. You?"
"I had to stop a few times to dry my eyes. What about Daria?"
"Her friend Jane stayed the night. They're getting ready for school."
"School? Brave or avoiding?"
"There is a lot of her family here."
"I see." Amy held up her mug. "Do you have anything for a refill?"
"There's coffee in the kitchen. I'll show you."
After Amy filled her mug and Rita filled one, the sisters sat at the table. Amy said, "I've been afraid that something like this would happen. I'm sorry, Rita."
"I'm sorry, too."
"Why did it have to be the one of us to have gotten out with the least damage?"
"Maybe because we're the ones who needed to learn something?"
"Lousy way to teach us a lesson. Change of subject. Specific plans for the day?"
"After dropping the girls off at school, we'll go to Helen's law firm. I'm guessing that they would know about any wills or planning that Helen made."
"That's a good bet."
"And then, we'll need to start on the funeral arrangements. I have a little experience with that after Roger passed away."
"What? I…I'm sorry. I didn't know."
Rita shook her head. "I don't think I ever told you. I didn't think that you would be interested."
"The sad thing is, you're probably right."
Rita looked out through the sliding glass doors to the back yard. "Do you want to drive today?"
"We're not going to fit everyone into my little car," Amy said. "Do you have the silver car in the driveway?"
"Yes, that's mine."
"Then you're driving."
Surprised at seeing an extra visitor when she came downstairs, Daria said, "Aunt Amy?"
Amy turned and rushed to hug her niece. "Oh, Daria. I'm so sorry."
Daria accepted the embrace with a soft, "Thanks."
Stepping back, Amy said, "Wow, you've grown."
Daria replied, "It's been a few years."
Embarrassed, Amy said, "Yeah. Sorry, again."
"Hi, I'm Jane," the other teen said, extending her hand.
"Rita told me that you stayed with Daria. You're a good friend."
"I like to think so," Jane said.
Rita joined them, saying, "Amy and I are going to drop you off at school today and then go to Helen's law office and then to a funeral home to make arrangements. This will probably take all day, so do you want us to pick you up after school?"
Daria said, "We'll take the ride. I have a feeling that I will be running low on patience by then."
"Okay," Rita said. "Would you like some breakfast?"
Jane said, "Sure."
"I hope French toast will be okay."
"Yeah, we can deal," Jane said, leading Daria to the kitchen.
While Daria and Jane were getting out of the car, Rita noticed a muscular African-American teenage boy and a slender girl run toward Daria. The girl immediately grabbed Daria in a hug while the young man stood by. Rita opened the window and said, "You must be friends of Daria. I'm Rita, her aunt and this is Amy, also Daria's aunt."
Amy nodded, and then the young man said, "I'm Michael, but everyone calls me Mack. That's Jodie. Yeah, we're worried about Daria."
"Can I enlist you two to help Daria through the day? Amy and I need to make arrangements for everything."
Mack said, "We will."
When Jodie let Daria go, Rita said, "We will be back in time to pick you up. Will right here be a good place?"
Daria said, "This is fine. Aunt Rita, Aunt Amy, good luck today. I think you have the harder job."
Rita grimly nodded, knowing that she didn't look forward to the day. "Have a good day, or as best as you can."
Jane waved. "Good luck and I'll also keep an eye on Daria."
Amy said, "Good deal. Until we get back, bye."
Rita and Amy stopped at the receptionist desk. Amy said, "Good morning. We're Helen Morgendorffer's sisters. I'm Amy Barksdale and this is Rita Chambers."
The woman placed her hand over her mouth for a second and sobbed. "I'll let Mr. Vitale know that you are here. He had Mrs. Morgendorffer's secretary pull the files this morning." After a brief phone conversation, she said, "Please go right in. Mr. Vitale's office is at the end of the hall."
Rita said, "Thank you."
"I'm so sorry."
Amy nodded her thanks and followed Rita down the hallway. As they neared the indicated door, it opened and a large, balding man ushered them inside. "Ladies, please accept my sincerest condolences. I'm Jim Vitale."
Inside the well-appointed office, Mr. Vitale showed them to comfortable chairs before he took a seat behind a large oak desk. "Helen was one of our hardest working associates. We're all going to miss her. I had the opportunity to speak with Jake at a couple of company functions, but, regrettably, I barely met her daughters. Mrs. Chambers, I understand that you have been staying with Daria. How is she doing?"
"Daria's had a rough time, but she's pulling through," Rita said. "She's at school right now and it looks like she has good friends to help her through the day."
"Glad to hear it," Mr. Vitale said. He picked up a folder, opened it and placed it in front of the sisters. "At our firm, we believe in setting an example for our clients. Therefore, Helen had prepared a will and purchased life insurance for her and Jake. Daria will be financially well cared for."
"Thank goodness," Rita said.
Amy said, "Helen always believed in thinking ahead."
Mr. Vitale said, "However, she never settled on a guardian for the children. This is a little awkward, but she was uncomfortable with recommending either you two or Jake's sister. Helen had a Mr. and Mrs. Yeager, but they never gave a clear answer."
Rita and Amy looked at each other for several moments. Amy then said, "I suppose we deserved that."
Rita said, "Mr. Vitale. I'll do it. I want to. I owe it to Helen."
"That's very generous of you, Mrs. Chambers. If there are no objections from other family members, we can prepare the paperwork in a couple of days."
"Thank you," Rita said.
Amy said, "Rita, are you sure?"
"Yes," she replied, nodding. "Absolutely."
Mr. Vitale turned over several pages in the folder. "Moving on, Helen made arrangements for her and Jake at a local funeral home. Sadly, the possibility of also losing one of their children at the same time was not considered, so that will be your responsibility."
Rita nodded. "I understand."
Amy said, "Hopefully, we can work from what has already been decided."
"Very good," Mr. Vitale said. "I will have Helen's secretary, Marianne, oversee collecting her personal items and have them delivered to you at your convenience."
"That's very kind of you," Rita said.
Mr. Vitale closed the folder and gave it to Rita. "Everything needed is right there. Please, don't hesitate to call if you have any questions."
Amy said, "You've been a great help."
"I wish I didn't have to be." Mr. Vitale rose and assisted the sisters to the door. "Once again, you have my condolences on your loss, as well as the best wishes of my entire staff. Please call if you need any help. We will be here."
After saying their thanks, Amy and Rita left the building. "That wasn't as bad as I had feared," Rita said.
"I'll take what we can get," Amy said. "Because I still think we're going to need it."
Looking at a fabric swatch in a book, Amy said, "I don't know about pink for the lining. It seems like too much."
Rita said, "I took a peek into Quinn's room and she liked the color."
The funeral director was a middle-aged man that had only a thin ring of hair around his head. "It's a lovely color for a young girl."
Amy insisted, "I honestly can't see anybody wanting to spend eternity surrounded by bright pink."
The director flipped a couple of pages to a very pale pink. "How about this one?"
"Hmm," Amy said. After an internal debate she accepted the inevitable and said, "I think I can go with that. Rita?"
"Do you think that Daria will?"
"I don't know," Rita said. "I hope so."
Amy said, "Okay. Use that one."
"Very good." The director put the book away and said, "One more item. Do you have anyone in mind as the officiant? Mr. and Mrs. Morgendorffer said that they were going to get back to me on that, but never did."
Rita sighed and said, "Jake and Helen were not very religious. I don't think that they attended a local church. But I volunteer at my church and I'm sure that my minister would be willing to perform a service."
"Please tell me that it's not the same church and minister that Mother took us to as children," Amy said with worry. "I don't think that we need to hear Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God during the service."
"No, dear. We have a new pastor."
Amy nodded. "I really don't have anyone that I could recommend, so, okay."
Rita searched in her purse for a business card that she gave to the director. "Here is Rev. Jameson's card. I will call him and ask if he can do the service. If he can schedule it, then I will call you."
"Thank you, Mrs. Chambers. I will await your call."
Looking around the fast food place while she and Amy searched for a table, Rita said, "I'm not sure about a place called Cluster Burger."
They found a table and took a seat. Amy said, "I'm not thrilled, but I really needed a cup of coffee and pizza places usually don't have any."
Sipping from a paper cup, Rita said, "I guess the sweet tea could be worse."
Amy drank from her cup, grimaced, and said, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find worse coffee. I bet this has been sitting around since breakfast. Maybe, yesterday's breakfast."
Shrugging, Amy said, "It's caffeine."
Rita watched Amy nurse the coffee for a few moments before saying, "With all that's been going on today, we haven't had a chance to catch up with each other. How are you doing? What's going on in your life?"
"Mostly working. The magazine treats me well. I enjoy living in New York and I get to travel."
"Yeah, I knew that was coming. It gets a little lonely at times. What about you?"
"Between Mother and the church, I keep busy. Erin's doing well, though I'm a little concerned about this young man she's been dating. I don't want her to make the mistakes I've made…but she doesn't want to listen."
Amy said, "That sounds like she's related to us."
"I hope Daria's more sensible."
"Does she have a boyfriend?"
"I don't know."
"There's a lot we don't know about her."
Rita said, "I have a lot to learn."
"You're a lot braver than I am."
"I don't feel that brave."
Amy reached across the table to hold Rita's hand. "Trust me, you are."
Rita had little problem spotting Daria waiting in front of the school and eased her car to a stop in front of her. When Daria silently got in and sat in back, Amy said, "How did it go?"
Daria let out a heavy sigh. "Everyone was walking on eggshells around me, making me even more of an outcast than I was already. My English teacher had a breakdown and ran out of the room. The principal is planning a memorial for Quinn tomorrow."
Rita said, "That's nice of her. We'll be there, right Amy?"
"Of course," Amy said. "Daria, what time?"
"Where's Jane?" Rita asked.
"She went home to check on her older brother. Trent – needs supervision."
Amy asked, "How much younger is he?"
"Five years older," Daria said. "He's in a band."
Amy smiled and said, "Gotcha. Is he cute?"
Daria blushed, turned away and said, "Um, I guess."
"And you like him."
Amy playfully slapped Rita's shoulder. "More realistic than having a crush on one of the Beatles."
Rita said, "You're just jealous that they didn't have a song about Amy."
"It's a song about a meter maid, and I bet you still get gushy about it."
"Not gushy, but I still like it. Daria, put yourself in my shoes. What would you think as a seventeen-year-old if the biggest band you know had a song with your name?"
"Vaguely creeped out?"
Rita sighed. "You'd have to understand the Beatles in 1967."
Daria said, "Sorry, I'm still not in the best of moods."
"Oh dear, I'm sorry," Rita quickly apologized.
Daria shook her head. "Can we all stop with the apologies? I know you don't mean to be insensitive and there's no need to dwell on it. I think I'll do better that way."
Amy said, "Agreed."
Seeing the market ahead, Rita said, "Daria, does that Food Lord have a deli?"
"Good. We've all had a stressful day and I think that some simple takeout will be best for dinner."
"I can do takeout," Amy said.
Daria said, "Sure. Food's food."
Over a dinner of rotisserie chicken, prepackaged salads, baked beans and cole slaw, Rita and Amy updated Daria on the funerals arranged for the day after next.
Daria said, "Thank you. I don't think I could've handled all that."
"Fortunately, your mother and her law firm had taken care of most of the details. They were very supportive," Amy said.
"After how much they seemed to take advantage of Mom," Daria said, "that is a little strange to hear."
Rita said, "Lawyers are people, too."
"I guess I was wrong about them."
Amy said, "You were probably right, too. Like Rita said, they're people. They can be real asses, but still lend a real helping hand when you need it."
"It works for me," Amy said.
Uncomfortable, Daria said, "Um, was anything mentioned about what's going to happen to me after all this?"
Rita took a deep breath. "If there are no objections from the rest of the family, I agreed to be your guardian. Your parents provided for you very well."
Daria took the information in. "Does that mean I'll have to leave Lawndale?"
Rita said, "We haven't even gotten that far, yet."
Seated on one of the sofas and watching television Daria rose and said, "I'll get it," when the doorbell rang.
Seated on one of the other sofas, Amy said, "Are you sure?"
"It's probably for me anyway, and it's better if I face things instead of hiding."
"Okay, Daria," Amy said, then whispered to herself, "You're braver than I am."
Daria stopped at the door and watched it for several seconds, building the courage to open it. When the bell rang a second time, she inhaled and pulled the door.
Standing outside, Rita's daughter Erin said, "Oh Daria, I'm so sorry for your loss."
"Erin?" Daria said, mildly surprised.
"I decided to come up early in case Mom needs help with anything."
Amy rose and walked to the door. "Hi, Erin."
"Hi, Aunt Amy."
Now uncomfortable, Daria said, "Um, come in."
"Oh, yes. Of course," Erin said, stepping inside and closing the door. "How are you doing, Daria."
"Not that well, but I have some help."
Amy said, "I'll go upstairs and get Rita."
"Is there anything I can do?" Erin asked.
"Not really. But, um, thanks," Daria said. "I don't know where you're going to stay. Amy and Rita are already sharing the bed in the guest room."
"I can sleep on the couch."
"Erin," Rita said as she hurried down the stairs. "Sweetie, how are you?"
Erin accepted a hug from her mother. "A little tired from the drive, but okay."
The younger woman sighed. "Brian and I had another fight."
"It'll be all right."
"No, it's not," Erin said, pulling away. "Brian doesn't want to attend the funerals and wanted me to stay with him."
Amy said, "Ouch, that's cold-hearted."
"He's a good guy," Erin said. "He's just…"
"A jerk," Rita said. "I've dated enough of them to spot one."
"Mother, I don't want to talk about it right now, okay?"
Noticing Daria turn away during the conversation, Amy went to her and said, "What's wrong."
Tears in her eyes, Daria said, "Mom used to call me sweetie."
Leading her away, Amy said, "Why don't we have a seat while they settle things?"
Rita and Erin walked up behind where Amy and Daria were seated at a sofa. Rita said, "I must apologize for that, Daria. You have too much on your mind to deal with our petty family problems."
"I'm sorry," Erin said. "My little problems are nothing compared to what you're going through."
"Family problems never seen to be far away," Daria said. "That's part of the reason we went on that camping trip. To get away from our problems and de-stress. It was actually working for a while. Dad was – Dad was starting to relax just before things happened."
Daria rested her chin on arms folded over the back of the sofa. "I miss them."
"Of course you do," Rita said.
"I don't know how many times I wished that they were gone. That I was away from them."
"We all go through that, Daria," Amy said. "Some more than others."
"It's a wish I didn't want to come true," Daria said.
"We didn't, either," Rita said. "We miss our sister, too."
"You've been through this before," Daria said. "I never knew my grandfather, but you grew up with him. How do you get through all of this?"
"From moment to moment," Rita said. "Moment to moment. And help from those that care."
"And you've been a lot of help."
Standing next to the guest bed, Amy said, "How long has it been since we've had to share a bed?"
"Some time at Grandma's place?" Rita replied from the other side of the bed.
"I think that was it. It seems so long ago."
Amy sighed and sat on the bed. "Thirty years. It has been a long time."
Yawning, Rita said, "And it's been a long day. I really need some sleep."
"Me, too. I hope you don't snore."
"Not that I know of. You?"
Amy shrugged. "My cat hasn't said anything."
"You still haven't found anyone?"
"Nah, and the odds are not looking good."
"I'm sorry," Rita said.
"Neither of us has really been lucky in that department. I always envied Helen. Jake seemed a little flaky, but he loved her and stayed with her."
"I wish I could've set a better example for Erin. This Brian guy is not good for her."
Rita nodded. "I've seen his kind before. But Erin is not going to listen to her loser mother about boyfriends. Not with how many failures I've had."
"Mine's not much better; I've just avoided the more spectacular breakups."
"I've been good for those, haven't I?"
"Maybe getting away will help Erin. I find a night failing to sleep on a couch does wonders for my opinion of people."
"I hope so."
Amy reached for her bedside lamp. "Let's get some sleep. Something tells me we're going to need the rest we can get to make it through the next two days."
Rita reached for her lamp. "I think you're right. Good night, sis."
"Good night. Sis."
>From the window on the staircase landing, Rita watched Daria and Jane walk away toward school. Thinking back to high school, she regretted not having one friend like that. She'd had many friends and was one of the most popular girls in her class, but Rita felt a tinge of regret and envy. After the girls were out of sight, she turned and walked down the stairs. "In that way, you're lucky, Daria."
"What was that, Mom?" Erin said from the living room.
"Thinking about Daria and her friend, Jane."
"They seem pretty close. Kind of like me and Nancy in high school. Well, before I screwed things up."
"It wasn't your fault."
"Yes, it was, and I don't want to talk about it."
Rita sighed, "Okay, Erin."
"I just seem to keep screwing up everything in my life."
"I do, and you know it." Erin bitterly laughed. "You even warned me about Brian, and you were right. You're even more right than you thought."
Rita carefully listened and didn't interrupt.
"I don't even think that I love him."
"Scratch that, I don't love him." Erin quickly turned and marched to the front window. "The only damn reason I'm still with him is that he gave me herpes and nobody else will ever want me."
Rita rushed over. "Oh, sweetie."
"Did you hear me? He gave me herpes!"
Rita replied, "I heard, and I'm sorry."
Crying, Erin said, "You're not going to tell me, 'I told you so'?"
"Would it do any good?"
"I'm just trying to be here for my little girl."
Accepting a hug, Erin said, "Thanks, Mom."
Rubbing sleepy eyes, Amy walked down the stairs and saw them. "Are we having a mother-daughter moment?"
Erin looked up. "I'm breaking up with my boyfriend."
"Um, sorry?" Amy said, confused.
"Something I just realized I need to do. Long story."
"Make it a clean break," Amy said. "Trust me on that."
Walking past them, Amy said, "I really need to get some coffee."
To Erin, Rita said, "Are you going to be okay?"
She said, "I think so. I already feel better."
"Daria is one of Lawndale High's most prized pupils," Principal Angela Li said as she escorted Rita and Amy to the auditorium. "Her academic prowess brings honor and glory to our school."
Amy carefully whispered, "I already want to throttle this woman."
Rita nodded in agreement, but instead said, "Thank you, Ms. Li."
At a set of double doors, Ms. Li said, "You have seats reserved for you in the front row, beside Daria. I will be on stage shortly," and then walked around to the stage entrance.
Overall, the gathered students ignored them as they walked down to their seats. Daria nodded when they arrived. It was clear that she was uneasy.
Jane was seated to the other side of her and looked glad to have help.
Rita looked up to see a large photo of Quinn placed next to a large bouquet of white flowers on the stage. To the side was a podium, where Ms. Li had just arrived.
The principal said, "Settle down, settle down, everyone."
The general buzz in the room quieted.
"How can we make sense of such a tragic loss? Quinn Morgendorffer was one of the bright lights of the student body of Lawndale High. A beacon of fashion to us all."
Rita shifted her attention to Daria. The girl sat stiffly in the chair, grasping Jane's hand. From time to time, Daria's lip quivered slightly as she struggled with her emotions.
Rita barely noticed the three girls that came up on stage to speak, catching only their names: Sandi, Tiffany and Stacy. However, she was startled when Ms Li said, "And finally, a few words from Daria Morgendorffer."
"Oh, no," Amy said.
"Hold on," Rita replied, placing a hand on Amy's arm.
Daria stood and turned back to Jane. "It's all right," she said. Looking a bit shell-shocked, Daria stepped up to the stage and to the podium while the room became silent.
"I have only a short comment. If you have a sister, don't forget to tell them that you love them. Don't miss your chance. And don't miss your chance with anyone important to you. Thank you."
Riding in the back seat of Rita's car, Daria haltingly asked, "Can we, uh, stop by the mall?"
"The mall?" Amy asked from the front passenger seat.
Embarrassed, Daria said, "I need something decent to wear tomorrow." She then spread her arms slightly. "My wardrobe looks pretty much like this."
Rita said, "Oh, dear. We'll stop at the mall."
"Do you have any store in mind?" Rita asked.
"Not really. There's a J. J. Jeeters and a Cashmans, which is where Quinn did most of her shopping."
Rita said, "J. J. Jeeters is too informal, so we'll go to Cashmans, though it wouldn't be my first choice."
Daria said, "I'm open to any suggestion. I just want something appropriate."
"We'll take care of you," Amy said.
Inside Cashmans, Rita and Amy escorted Daria past the teen-centered Junior 5 and directly to the petite woman's section.
Rita stepped back and appraised Daria. "You're what, five-one?"
Rita turned and started looking through one end of a rack of black dresses while Amy started on the other end.
Within five minutes, each came over with several black dresses draped over their arm. Amy said, "You'll need to try these on and choose which one you like."
"All of those?"
Rita said, "We wanted you to have a little variety."
"Okay," Daria said, accepting the armload of dresses. "If I'm not back in an hour, send out a search party."
While they waited, Rita and Amy sat down on benches near the fitting rooms. Amy said, "Remember what it was like to be that size?"
Rita gently laughed. "Faintly."
"She's a cute girl."
"She reminds me of Helen at that age."
"Yeah, a bit."
Rita said, "Daria's her own person, but you can definitely see who her mother was."
"I hope everything goes right tomorrow. For Daria," Amy said. "I'm worried about Mother and Ruth Morgendorffer. I haven't been around, but I don't remember them getting along well."
Rita said, "I'm worried, too. We need to make sure that they don't cause a problem. It's up to us."
Amy said, "But what can we do?"
"I'm working on it."
After about ten minutes, Daria came out wearing a simple, short-sleeved, knee-length dress. "I think that this one works best."
Rita said, "Good choice."
"It looks good," Amy said. "So do you."
Daria patted her belly. "Even I can see that I don't have a perfect hour-glass figure."
Rita laughed. "None of us do, Daria. You look nice. Good choice. Why don't we pick up a few more outfits while we're here?"
Daria headed back to the dressing room. "I think I've hit my shopping limit for the day."
"Are you sure? I couldn't help but notice your limited wardrobe."
Angry, Daria snapped back. "Yes, I'm sure, and my wardrobe is fine as it is."
"I was only trying to help."
Hoping to cause a distraction, Amy said, "Why don't we skip more clothes since those boots probably won't work well tomorrow."
Inside, they heard Daria say, "Dammit. Okay, shoes, but that's it."
Rita whispered to Amy, "Dammit. How could I do that?"
"We're all a little frayed. It was bound to happen sooner or later. I'm just surprised I wasn't the one to put my foot in my mouth first."
The ride home was quiet, with Daria still seething and Erin feeling guilty. Therefore, when they arrived, Amy went upstairs with Daria with the teen's purchases to hopefully talk her down.
Meanwhile, Rita went to the living room, where she saw Erin. Fearing another confrontation, she cautiously said, "Sweetie?"
"It's done," Erin said in a dull monotone, but wiped her eyes. "He wasn't even hurt, just mad. Said he could 'find another chick by the end of the week.' I feel sorry for whoever he finds."
Hoping she was right, Rita replied. "You did the right thing."
"Yeah, I did. How's Daria?"
"Surviving. She's trying to grow up to face all this. I hope she doesn't grow up too much."
"Me, too. Oh, Grandma called. She's at the hotel. And, Jake's mother called to say that she's at her hotel."
"Did they have any problems getting here?"
Erin rolled her eyes. "Between the two of them, I was on the phone for three hours."
"I don't think either of them is going to be in a good mood tomorrow."
Rita nodded. "I'll talk to Amy and try to come up with a way to keep them apart. At least, more apart than they were at Helen and Jake's wedding."
Dressed in black for the funeral, Rita opened the door the following morning and said, "Thanks for coming, Paul."
The middle-aged man smiled and embraced Rita. "Of course I'll be here for you."
"I've been so busy."
"I can imagine."
Rita let go and brought Paul inside. "Paul, this is my sister, Amy, you know Erin and my niece, Daria. Everybody, this is Paul Myerson."
Various hellos greeted Paul as he looked around the room and replied, "Hi. I'm sorry to meet you under these conditions."
A knock on the door caused Rita to turn. "Paul, was there someone behind you?"
He said, "Must be from that blue car I saw out there."
"It's Jane," Daria said. "She was going to get Trent to drive her over."
"Hi, folks," Jane said as Rita opened the door. Pointing to her black dress, she added, "I found something appropriate to wear and even found some of Dad's old clothes to make Trent presentable."
Standing behind Jane, Trent was looking presentable in a black dress shirt and trousers. Even his hair was combed more neatly than usual. "Hey," he simply said.
"Pleased to meet you, Trent," Rita said. "Jane has been such a help for Daria."
"Yeah, they're good friends," Trent said.
Daria came over and hugged Jane. "Thanks for being here."
"I wouldn't be anywhere else."
Daria then hugged Trent. "You, too."
"You're too cool not to be here," Trent replied.
Rita noticed a slight blush on Daria's cheeks, and that generated a slight smile on her face.
Amy said, "Now that it looks like everybody is here, we should probably be on our way."
Tess Barksdale, her hair dyed to match the red of her youth, sat upright at one end of the pew like the proper southern matron. As her pastor, Rev. Jameson, gave what she considered a rather bland eulogy, Rita carefully kept adjusting her body position to block the glares that her mother kept trying to give Jake's mother. At the other end of the pew, Amy struggled to do the same task with the more diminutive, sensible-looking Ruth Morgendorffer. In between, Erin and Jane provided comfort to Daria.
Keeping them apart at the cemetery is going to be tricky, Rita thought, trying to plan ahead. Rita glanced back at Trent along with a row of high school students seated behind Daria. Glad for her experience of working with church memberships, she easily remembered their names: Jodie, Mack, Charles, Kevin, and Brittany. I wonder if they'll help to keep the grandmothers apart – or at least shield Daria from them if things get nasty.
The row behind was another group of kids. Sandi, Stacy, Tiffany, Joey, Jamie and Jeffy. They're here to mourn their loss and to comfort each other. Nice kids, but I doubt if they will be of much help. More students were there, but Rita had not heard any of their names.
The remaining attendees were adults, mostly work acquaintances of Helen and Jake. By the looks on their faces, they were present mainly out of a sense of obligation. Rita felt sadness roll through her as she realized that Helen and Jake had no friends in Lawndale, only associates.
I'm glad you found friends, Daria.
"Amen," Rev. Jameson said. "Brethren, I will now ask you to join us at Lawndale Memorial Gardens. The procession will leave here in ten minutes for those that wish to follow."
As everyone rose to their feet, Rita, Amy and Erin gave each other quick nods. Rita gently took her mother's arm, saying, "I've arranged for us to ride with Helen."
Tess said, "How thoughtful, Rita. Thank you."
Amy said to Ruth, "You will ride with Jake, and I will be your escort, if you choose."
"Thank you, Amy. That's very kind of you."
Erin said, "We'll ride with Quinn. Jane, you're welcome, too."
"Thanks, Erin," Jane said. "Daria?"
Glassy-eyed, Daria said, "I'll like that."
On the way to the hearse, Jane whispered to Erin, "Divide and conquer?"
She whispered back, "Hopefully, divide and silence."
"Something tells me that Daria's grandmothers do not get along."
"And I thought my family was dysfunctional."
Erin whispered, "An old boyfriend once told me that my family put the funk in dysfunctional."
"It fits. I've never seen Mom and Aunt Amy get along this well before."
Daria quietly said, "Sometimes you have to lose someone before you come to your senses."
Embarrassed, Erin said, "You heard?"
"Yes, and I expected as much, sad as that is."
One at a time, the closed coffins were brought out to the waiting hearses. The partners of Helen's law firm served as pall-bearers for each.
Quinn's coffin was the last and as the door was closed, Daria got in to the passenger seat. She placed her hand on the back window and said, "I'll be right here, Quinn."
Mourners were slowly starting to depart with the end of the graveside ceremony. Rita decided to take the opportunity to show her gratitude to her pastor and stepped over to him.
"Thank you so very much, Rev. Jameson," she said. "I'm sure that Helen, Jake and Quinn appreciate your kind words."
"You are very welcome, Rita," the minister replied. "How are you and your niece holding up?"
Rita glanced over at Daria, standing next to Jake's grave with Jane and Trent beside her. "I think Daria's going to make it, and so will I."
"If there is still anything you need, please don't hesitate to ask."
Amy joined them, saying, "I'm not much of a church-goer, but that was nice. Thank you."
Rev. Jameson said, "Why, thank you, Miss Amy. I was just asking Rita, how are you holding up?"
"A little rough," Amy said. "There's a lot that I wish I had said. And a lot I wish I had not said."
"Something that many of us have felt, because we are not perfect," he said. "That is why we have forgiveness."
Tess's voice suddenly rose above everything. "It was your son's 'camping skills' that caused all this!"
Rita and Amy turned to find the grandmothers facing off in front of Daria. Ruth said, "There is nothing wrong with my Jakey's camping skills. Your daughter must have distracted him. She was always distracting him!"
"Damn," Rita said.
"I was only gone a few seconds," Amy said.
"I knew that boy would lead my Helen to a bad end," Tess said. "Daria needs to live with me, so that she'll have a proper upbringing."
"Oh, please. You raised three daughters who couldn't stand each other," Ruth shot back.
"Both of my other daughters are here. Where is your daughter?"
"She couldn't afford the plane ticket from California on such short notice. Not everybody is as well-off as you are."
"All the more reason for Daria to stay with me. I can provide for her needs. Can you?"
"Money isn't everything," Ruth said. "I can provide what she really needs."
Amy and Rita's call of, "Mother!" was ignored as Tess replied, "Daria doesn't need to be screwed up in the head like Jake."
However, they didn't ignore Daria growling, "Stop it."
"What?" Tess said.
"Stop it," Daria said. "Both of you. I will not be argued over as if I were not here. And I will not be argued over by two people who have cared so little about my well-being, that this is the first time that I have seen them since everything happened."
Ruth said, "I only have your best interest at heart."
"No, you don't." Daria walked over to her aunt. "Rita is the one who has had my best interest at heart. From the first day and every day. I want to stay with her."
Daria then turned and fixed her eyes on her grandmothers. "I will stay with her."
Rita moved behind Daria and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Mother. Ruth. It's decided."
Ruth abruptly turned and stomped away. Tess stood her ground. "I suppose that having Daria close by will be almost the same. I can still be a good influence on her."
Rita said, "Daria, would you like to stay in Lawndale."
Daria nodded. "Jane's here."
"You don't have a job here," Tess said.
"I'll find one. I'll make this work."
"I won't bail you out this time."
Rita looked over her shoulder at the graves and then back. "Maybe I should take some of Helen's advice and stop being dependent on you."
"We'll see. You've never been able to stand on your own."
Amy joined them and stood beside Rita. "Don't bet on it, Mother. We've changed in the last couple of days. Rita won't be alone. No, I can't give her money like you, but I can give her my support. Right, Sis?"
"Right," Rita replied. "Now, Mother. Please stop making a scene so that we can go back to the house."
Tess said, "I'll find my own way back to the hotel. I'm not feeling very welcome right now."
"Mother," Rita said.
Tess turned away and walked away.
Taking a risk, Jane said, "Trent, why don't you escort Grandma Morgendorffer back to the funeral home and I'll take Grandma Barksdale. Daria, you and your aunts take the last car and we'll meet you there."
Amy said, "Are you sure?"
"Unless you want to cram all of us together," Jane said.
Rita said, "I say that we take our chances. Daria?"
Back at home, Rita sat with Daria and asked, "Are you positive?"
"Yes. Rita, you've been here for me and I've been able to rely on you," Daria said. "And I want to stay in Lawndale. I've never had a friend like Jane and I don't want to lose her."
"You have a deal." Rita then said to Erin. "What about you?"
"I'm okay if Daria is okay."
Daria paused and with a catch in her voice, said, "It might be nice to have a big sister."
Facing her biggest worry, Rita said, "Paul?"
Standing politely near the window, he said, "I can't move because of my work. Daria will graduate and be an adult in a couple of years. We can try to make things work long distance and re-examine where we are at then."
Rita nodded at him. "We can try that."
Amy said, "Looks like your family turned into something new."
"I like it," Rita said. "A new family and a new beginning."
Daria said, "A new beginning. Thanks."
Thanks to Louise Lobinske and Kristen Bealer for beta reading.
May – October 2012