There Beneath the Blue Suburban Skies
Text ©2003 Roger E. Moore (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Daria and associated characters are ©2003 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: email@example.com
Synopsis: Ninth-grader Daria Morgendorffer learns from her new phys-ed teacher at Highland High that the future can ride on the flip of a coin.
Author’s Notes: This was offered in response to a PPMB “Iron Chef” challenge from Brother Grimace, who asked for alternate-history “what if?” stories in which one or two “Daria” characters followed one of their other major interests in life, not the one most prominently displayed on the show. The character(s) otherwise had to be the same as on the show. A happy ending was also required (sigh). This version is different from the one on PPMB, as I added a little more Highland flavor here and made some corrections. I’m sure I took liberties with the Highland setting and school events involving Daria, as presented in “Beavis and Butt-head,” but perhaps the story will hold together anyway.
The story’s title is from a Beatles’ song. You have to guess which one. 8)
Acknowledgements: My warmest thanks go to Brother Grimace, for the contest that sparked the idea for this story, and to Mistress Thea Zara, who unknowingly provided the tinder by telling me about a certain “Daria” character in a fanfic she was writing.
For data on Daria in Highland, I started with a long essay from Outpost Daria, “Daria on Beavis and Butt-head” (http://www.outpost-daria.com/ch_diarrhea.html). James “CINCGreen” Bowman pointed out a very helpful online essay he did on Daria’s appearances in the “Beavis and Butt-head” show: “‘Way Back When’ Department : Daria—The Highland Years” (http://www.geocities.com/cincgreen/highland.html). D. T. Dey also clued me in on Highland’s school colors (red and either white or yellow, depending on the source). Thank you all!
Daria Morgendorffer had not finished changing into her gym clothes when a shrill whistle blasted through the nearly deserted girls’ locker room. Already in a foul mood, Daria swore under her breath as she pulled on her red trunks, white socks, and sneakers, shut and locked her locker, and ran for the door into Highland High School’s main gymnasium. Her lower back ached, everything got on her last nerve, and she had forgotten to bring the Midol to school with her. She was too embarrassed to ask her classmates for some, and the school wouldn’t even give out aspirin without a parental permission slip, which Daria’s mother and father kept forgetting to sign. It was a great way to start the new school year.
The other freshman girls milled about noisily in the gym, talking about boys, clothes, dieting, and the current arguments they had going with each other. Daria was the last one out of the locker room. No one noticed as she stayed near the wall by the door, trying hard to become invisible at the back of the group. She adjusted her glasses, angrier now because one ear frame was slightly bent from being dropped that morning. The glasses slid halfway down her nose every two minutes. One hour, she told herself, one hour and I’ll be in World History. Hang on a little while longer.
Daria thought it odd that she did not hear Coach Buzzcut’s deep bellow, ordering the girls into formation for stretches and exercises. Instead, after a few more seconds, the shrill whistle blew again. “All right, muchachas!” shouted a young woman hidden from Daria’s view. “Formation! I’m sure you know how to do it, so do it now! ¡Rápidamente!”
Daria immediately hurried to her usual spot in the center of the middle of the formation. One of the smaller girls in the class, Daria hoped she would be well screened by taller teenagers on every side of her from any teacher’s verbal abuse. She smoothed down her t-shirt, gritted her teeth against her cramps, carefully pushed back her glasses again, and looked to the front of the gym.
“Okay, muchachas!” shouted a tall young woman in a red running suit. “I’m sorry to say that your instructor, Coach Buzzcut, who I’m sure you love and admire, will not be with us for a few months!” Surprised gasps ran through the formation. “I don’t have much information on him at this time,” the woman continued, “other than he had an accident playing touch football with some of his buddies and had to be hospitalized. All I can tell you is that the school called me up last Friday night and asked if I would come in and run your class while he was away. I said hell, yes, despite that fact that teaching pays as much these days as waitressing, if you don’t include the tips!”
Some girls laughed at this, though others looked askance at the teacher’s swearing. The tall young woman in the red running suit gave a grim smile and scanned the forty-three-girl formation. In the middle, Daria swallowed. She could tell that the new teacher, despite her joking, would not tolerate trouble. Getting on her bad side would make Daria’s solitary life worse than it was now, if that were possible. Coach Buzzcut’s authoritarian presence seemed worthy of nostalgia.
“Okay,” the new teacher continued, walking slowly back and forth across the front of the formation like a general addressing her troops, “I’m warning you now, there are four ways to piss me off. One, tell me I’m over thirty. I’m not.” General laughter again. “Two, tell me I’m a loser. I’m not.” Very faint laughter, quickly ended. “I won three state championships in track when I was a senior in high school, and when I was over at A&M I tried out for the American team in the last Olympics, and I would have gotten it if I hadn’t tore up my damn knee.” No one laughed. Daria’s gaze went to the woman’s legs. Indeed, she did walk stiffly, favoring her right leg.
“Third,” she continued, “you’ll really piss me off if you don’t try your best. I don’t give a rat’s ass what you muchachas do later in life. I’m sure not going to try to turn all of you into Olympic stars, but I sure as hell am going to my level best to teach you something about life, what little there is I know about it.” She stopped and shouted at the formation. “Life sucks!” No one laughed. “Life sucks, and the only person who’s going to make it un-suck is you! ¿Usted comprende?”
The other girls glanced at each other and mumbled or nodded their heads. Daria said nothing, only watching.
“I said,” shouted the new teacher, her eyes aflame, “do you all understand me?”
“Yes, teacher!” Daria shouted back with the other girls in formation
“¡Bueno! Now, when I blow my whistle, I want all of you to head outside to the football field, which is where we’re going to warm up. We don’t have that many nice days left this year, it’s almost October, and we’re going to make the most of the outdoors while we can. I want the back row to lead the way out, each row following after that, so we have an orderly line. And I want you to jog, too—don’t be walking and talking and carrying on like a bunch of gum-snapping airheads. Jog out to the field and wait for me there. It won’t kill you—but I might. ¿Usted comprende?”
“Yes!” Daria and the other girls shouted, though not as loudly as before.
“Bueno.” The teacher put her whistle in her mouth and blew a quick blast, then spit the whistle out to dangle on its neck chain. “¡Vaya! ¡Rápidamente!”
The rear line immediately turned and headed for the gym door. The other girls broke into low giggles and chatter, turning around, too. Daria glanced at the teacher, who turned in place—and then grimaced and reached down for her right thigh. An instant later, she jerked her hands back, straightened, and forced the muscles in her face to relax. Daria noticed she was balancing on her left leg, taking pressure off her right.
Daria was still looking at the new teacher when the girl behind her shoved her in the middle of her back and hissed, “Move it!” Daria stumbled forward, arms flailing to regain her balance. The rest of the line ahead of her had already run for the gym door. Daria kept herself from falling, but her glasses fell off and clattered across the wooden floor. Panicked, she ran after them but could see nothing clearly through the great colorful blur the world had suddenly become. She got down on her hands and knees, feeling about. The other girls snickered as they ran out of the gym.
Daria spotted a dark blurry streak that turned out to be her glasses, but the damaged earpiece had broken away from the frame. Her panic growing, she found the earpiece and tried to put it back on, but it was impossible.
A pair of blurry white running shoes and red-clad legs—one limping slightly—entered her field of vision from the right.
“They broken?” said the new teacher, somewhere above Daria’s head.
Daria got up. She was painfully aware of her cramps again, on top of everything else. “Yeah,” she said, preparing herself to be yelled at. “It’s Monday, all right. May I put tape on it before I go?”
“I don’t have any tape in the office at the moment. Here, give ‘em to me.” Daria did, and the teacher tucked them into a pocket in her red pants. “We’ll fix ‘em when we get back. Can you see without ‘em?”
Daria shook her head. “Not very well. I’m really nearsighted.”
“Okay,” said the teacher. Her voice
was friendlier now for some reason. “Tell you what—you be my assistant for now,
okay? Here.” She handed Daria her clipboard and paperwork. “What’s your name?”
“Daria. I like that name. You walk out with me. I can’t jog now like they can.”
Daria nodded quick agreement, and they went out through the gym door together. The other girls were far ahead, heading across the parking lot for the football field.
The new teacher’s limp was pronounced as she walked. Her face showed a certain strain. “It’s not always this bad,” she said. “Weather’s changing, that’s all.”
“You tried out for the Olympics?” Daria asked, her curiosity overcoming her instincts.
“Yeah. Got that close to it, too.”
“Oh, it was stupid. I tripped in a workshop and knocked an anvil over on my leg. I screamed to wake the dead, I tell you. Busted my knee all to pieces.”
Daria looked up at the blur of the teacher’s face. Her red hair, in a shaggy pixie cut, gleamed in the bright morning sun. “An anvil?”
“Yeah. I like to do metal crafts now and then. It’s my hobby. My family’s big into one kind of art or the other.”
Daria nodded, scanning the parking lot ahead of her to make sure she didn’t fall over anything and hurt her own knees. “May I ask you something?” she said.
“Sure. What is it?”
“You said there were four things that would piss you off. You didn’t say what the fourth one was.”
The teacher laughed. “You’re right,” she said, “I forgot. It’s my name. I hate it when people make fun of my name.” She laughed again. “I forgot to tell everyone my name, too, didn’t I?”
Daria nodded. “I don’t think anyone else noticed,” she said.
“It’s my first day. Figures I’d do that. I’m Ms. Lane. Penny’s my first name, Penny Lane. Like the Beatles’ song, you know? I guess my parents liked it or something.”
“Oh,” said Daria solemnly. She immediately understood the teacher’s problem. “Some of the other kids call me Diarrhea,” she said, staring at the asphalt as she walked.
“They call you Diarrhea instead of Daria?”
“You get used to it after a few years,” Daria said. They were across the parking lot now. The football field was not far ahead.
“Well,” said Ms. Lane, “like I said, life sucks. You can’t control other people, especially the stupid ones, and man, there are a buttload of them around, aren’t there? Life sucks, but we have to make it un-suck as best we can. That’s all we can do.”
Daria thought this over. It made sense. How it would actually work in specifics was unclear, but the basic idea was good.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked Ms. Lane.
“Just stay with me,” said Ms. Lane with a smile, “and don’t worry about a thing.”
* * *
Being Ms. Lane’s assistant had distinct advantages. Though Daria had to participate in most calisthenics with the rest of the students, the teacher called her out to carry things, keep time with a stopwatch (held inches from her face), use her cell phone to call the main school office with questions about schedules and equipment on order, and perform other minor duties. Coach Buzzcut had also used the reliable Daria as a class helper, but not to this extent. Daria got considerable satisfaction from seeing her classmates sweating rivers while she stood calm and cool in the shade of a telephone pole, timing laps around the football field. Daria hardly thought about her cramps at all.
“Is Daria going to run, too?” one of her classmates gasped to Ms. Lane before collapsing on the grass.
“Don’t you worry about her,” said Ms. Lane darkly. “She pulls her weight. Now, get up off your hind end and walk it off before your legs seize up. I swear, you kids are lazier than my little brother, and he sleeps all damn day. Get up!”
Even after Daria’s glasses were fixed that week, Ms. Lane kept her on as the girls’ phys-ed class assistant. Already a social outcast, Daria was not inconvenienced by the nasty looks her classmates gave her, but she was also careful not to lord it over the other students. By late October, everyone accepted the new order of things.
“The principal told me you got to meet Bill Clinton last year,” Ms. Lane said as they watched the other students run an obstacle course.
“Yeah.” Daria was surprised the teacher brought it up. “I asked him about school funding.”
“What’d he say?”
“Um . . .” Daria felt herself turn red. “I don’t remember. Things were kind of confused that day.”
“Yeah, I heard about that. Good thing they put those two boys in special ed. Mainstreaming’s good when you can do it, but sometimes you can’t. So, what’d you think of him?”
Daria thought. “He . . . he was kind of charming, but I didn’t know if he was really charming or being . . .”
Daria looked up, her face clearing. “Yeah.”
A muscle twitched in Ms. Lane’s jaw. “I used to hate ‘em, politicians. I blamed ‘em for everything. Politicians, teachers, police, everybody in authority. I thought everything sucked, and it was all their fault. I used to think Mount St. Helens’ blowing up was the Oregon governor’s fault. Kind of funny to look back at it now.”
Ms. Lane stared out at the girls struggling through the obstacle course. She sighed heavily. “I had a teacher once, back in high school, and she was the meanest thing. Ms. Morris, I still remember her. She rode me like a mule, yelling at me about my attitude, telling me I had to be a joiner and get some school spirit, or else she’d do whatever. That ate me up, listening to her go on like that every day.”
She shook her head. Daria watched her in silence. “Then one day,” said Ms. Lane, “Ms. Morris told me she was sending me out for a track meet, whether I wanted to go or not. I could run pretty good, but I didn’t want to run just because she told me to. I was so mad, I took off one night and hid out in a little park so I could think it all out. I could either say no and suffer through whatever punishment Morris gave me, or I could show that tin-plated bitch that I could take anything she could dish out, prove that I was better than her.” She looked down at Daria. “You know what I did?”
Daria shook her head no.
“I flipped a coin.” Ms. Lane grinned, watching the other students. “I found a penny and flipped it for my future. Ironic, isn’t it? Penny with a penny. Kinda stupid, too. It came up heads, and I decided right there to stick it out. I went to the track meet, just like she told me, and I ran that thing and I won it. And I ran again and I kept winning, till there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do at that school. Ms. Morris had to get off my back then, because the principal kicked her ass if I even hinted that Morris was getting under my skin. She ate a lot of crow after that, Ms. Morris did. I showed her good.”
Ms. Lane took a deep breath and let it out. “I showed myself, though, is what I really did. I was ready to split out of the country after high school, head down to Central America and sell handmade crafts, do something like that, whatever. I wanted out in the worst way, but that’s what it would have been, getting out in the worst way. I stayed and fought it out on their terms and made the battle mine. I won the fight with Ms. Morris, but when it was over, I was happy just for myself. No one could ever push me around again, because I was worth something. I stood up for myself instead of running away.”
They stood under the cloudy sky in silence for several minutes. The cool wind blew Daria’s hair across her face.
“My family does a lot of that running away,” said Ms. Lane, her voice sad. “I miss ‘em now. I didn’t used to, but now I do. I got an older brother and older sister, and a younger brother and younger sister. The older ones are losers. They’re pitiful, all messed up. The younger ones . . . I don’t know. Trent’s kinda so-so. Jane’s doing the best of all of ‘em. She’s got a good head. Reminds me of you a little. I should go see them sometime soon, maybe for the holidays. I wish we’d all been closer when we were living at home, but it was too easy to get messed up, with Mom and Dad gone so much and never helping out. You gotta work at getting along with your family, or it all goes to hell. I really wish—”
Ms. Lane picked up her whistle and blew it, limping toward the obstacle course. “Hey!” she yelled. “Didn’t I tell you no kicking? Well, what the hell do you think you were doing, then?”
* * *
Ms. Lane was gone over Thanksgiving vacation. The Monday after that, she was back. It was too cold to go outside, so she had the phys-ed class do volleyball competitions, which the class enjoyed.
“I need your help, if you don’t mind,” Ms. Lane told Daria when she came out of the locker room. “You’re good with numbers, and I can’t do anything with them. Do you mind helping me with the budget?”
“Sure,” said Daria. Beats volleyball, she thought, and they went to Ms. Lane’s glassed-in office next to the gym, leaving the door open so they could hear the other students as well as see them.
“Damn school,” Ms. Lane grumbled, taking a seat at her desk. “I don’t know where the money’s going, but it sure ain’t coming here. Feel like I waste my time coming in every day. I can’t get basketballs, I can’t get soccer balls, I have to steal everything from the boys’ equipment shed ‘cause they won’t give the girls a break. We’ve got Title Nine, damn it, I shouldn’t have to do this.” She stopped and put her elbows on her desktop, her hands covering her face. “I’m sorry, don’t listen to me. I’m in a bad mood.”
“Do you need Midol?” Daria asked, then realized she’d missed the point entirely.
Ms. Lane laughed and dropped her hands. “Nah, that’s not it.” She leaned back in her chair and stared out the windows at the volleyball game. “It’s not that,” she said again, then she was silent for a long moment.
“You got a little sister, right?” Ms. Lane suddenly asked, not looking at Daria.
“Quinn,” said Daria, puzzled. “She’s in eighth grade. She’s kind of a pain.”
“Okay, but your parents take care of her, right?”
Daria hesitated, sensing a major issue was at hand. “I usually call it giving in to her every whim, but yeah, they take care of her.”
“Okay. Suppose one day,” said Ms. Lane, “you went home and found your sister in a dirty house with no food, nobody else at home, no power on because your parents were off somewhere and didn’t have the brains to pay the electric bills, your worthless little brother out with his band practicing in someone’s garage, and this was the day before Thanksgiving when you came home and saw all this.” She turned to Daria with a burning gaze. “Now, would that just about piss you off like nothing else in the whole damn world?”
Daria’s mouth fell open. “Jane? Your little sister Jane?”
“Little Jane, as old as you are, upstairs painting in her room with a blanket around her for warmth, eating a bag of stale potato chips the day before Thanksgiving because there’s not a thing left to eat in the house.” Ms. Lane suddenly leaned forward and her right fist slammed into the desktop. “Damn it all to hell!”
Daria jumped, then glanced out the long windows into the gym. Only a few other students noticed the outburst, as a fierce volleyball battle was raging and everyone was jumping and screaming.
Ms. Lane bowed her head. “I don’t know what to do,” she said in a softer voice. “I just don’t know. I don’t have the money to take this to court and fight my own parents for placement with me, and Jane says she doesn’t want to leave home anyway. She says she likes it there, just her and Trent with all that freedom, but she sure looked happy to see me walk in the door. I bought her canned food to last for months, paid the bills, took her out to eat, bought her some clothes and a new coat, everything that no one else would do. Fifteen years old, and all on her own. God Almighty.”
She shook her head, staring holes in the windows. “Trent was getting food for them, I’ll give him that, but he doesn’t have a real job. I don’t know what his problem is. He sleeps all day and gets these little night gigs with his band, maybe a hundred bucks a week. Jane’s learned to forge checks just to keep going. It’s the artist in her, I bet. Damn it! She’s been forging Mom and Dad’s signatures on everything for a couple years now. She and Trent keep the place fixed up just enough that Child Protective Services doesn’t come by and take her away. God only knows what’d happen to her if they did that. Some foster homes are okay, but the whole idea of it . . .”
After a long moment, Ms. Lane sighed. “God, I’m sorry, Daria.” She fell quiet and covered her face again. “I’m just so mad.”
Daria waited a few moments before she said, “What do you think you’ll do?”
Ms. Lane lowered her hands and rubbed her eyes. “I dunno,” she said in a low voice. “I dunno.” She was quiet a while longer, then said, “Actually, I think I do know. I just haven’t gotten things together to do it yet.”
Daria instantly knew what Ms. Lane had decided. She swallowed and glanced at the door, then looked back at her teacher in sorrow.
“I’ll miss you,” she whispered.
Ms. Lane was very quiet before she finally said, “I’ll miss you, too.” She looked out the window at the volleyball game. “I won’t miss them, but I’ll sure miss you.”
* * *
The last of her packing done, Penny Lane shut the tailgate of her old station wagon, looked around the apartment complex’s parking lot a final time, and checked her watch. It was still dark, just after seven a.m. The cold wind bit through her heavy sweater and pants, and her bad knee ached with the knowledge of winter. She started for the driver’s side door, readying herself for the long drive to Lawndale. At least Jane would have someone at home with her for Christmas and afterwards, paying the bills and getting the food.
Penny stopped and turned around. Thirty feet away in the parking lot stood a shivering figure with long brown hair, wearing a tan jacket, black t-shirt, orange-red skirt, and heavy boots. A crystal prism on her necklace glittered in the dark.
“Daria?” Penny said in disbelief.
Daria took a ragged breath, then stepped forward. “I—” Her voice caught and she suddenly wiped her eyes under her round-frame glasses. “I c-c-came to w-w-wish you—”
Penny dropped her keys on the hatchback roof and limped over. She stopped short before reaching Daria, unsure if a hug would upset her. Daria wasn’t a people person.
Her problem was resolved when Daria walked the last few steps over and hugged her first, burying her face in Penny’s sweater. They stood in the cold wind in silence, listening to each other breathe.
Finally, Penny kissed the top of Daria’s head. “You’re gonna to freeze to death.”
“Okay,” said Daria, her voice muffled by Penny’s sweater. “D-d-drive carefully.”
“I’ll take you home first,” said Penny. “Hop in. We can move stuff around.”
Daria sniffed and nodded. She pulled away, teeth chattering. “I h-h-hope you like Oak-k-k-wood High.”
Penny smiled as she quickly led Daria to the station wagon’s front passenger door. “Lawndale High had better be ready. I’m in charge of the Oakwood girls’ basketball, soccer, track, and field hockey teams. Ms. Morris is gonna scream!”
Daria nodded and cleared her throat. “G-g-good,” she said. “I h-h-have t-t-to t-t-tell you—”
“Save it till you get in, okay?” Penny opened the car door, and Daria clambered in over a pile of small boxes and plastic bags. Penny shut the car door, then walked around to the driver’s side and retrieving her car keys. She got in quickly and pulled the door shut before the chill settled into her bones.
Daria shivered, rubbing her arms. “You really h-helped me,” she said. “What you t-told me, about life, th-th-that helped m-me a lot.”
“Good,” Penny said softly, but she was confused. What had she said that would have made any difference in Daria’s situation? Daria was difficult to reach, her sarcasm covering up for some major family issues.
“I get along b-better with my sister,” Daria said, teeth still chattering a bit. “We don’t fight like we u-used to. I try to take ch-charge of my p-problems now instead of w-walking away from them. I don’t d-do it all the time, but I t-try. I do my best.”
Penny nodded slowly, understanding. “You would,” she said. “I knew you would. Hey, you eat breakfast yet?”
Daria shook her head no.
“This one’s on me, then,” said Penny, starting the car. “We’ll grab you something on the way over.”
“Okay,” said Daria. She buckled her seat belt and shoulder harness, her knees up to her chin to avoid the packages around her.
“If you ever get a chance to come by Lawndale,” said Penny, turning around in her seat so she could back up, “you be sure to drop in and see us. Jane’s been wanting to see you since forever. I told her all about you.”
“Okay,” said Daria in a low voice. After a pause, she added, “Don’t count on it t-too much. Life sucks.”
“Life sucks, but you never know,” said Penny, putting the car in forward gear. She hated giving hope where there was none, but she couldn’t help it. “You just never know.”
Ten months later, Penny Lane looked down at the smiling figure standing on the doorstep of the Lane home in Lawndale and remembered those exact words.
Young Daria in Highland (age 15)