Winter in Hell
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: Two cynical outcasts, seniors at Lawndale High School and the best of friends, struggle through another difficult day.
Author’s Notes: This story is rated R for language and adult situations. The events herein take place in mid-December, in the same year in which the “Daria” TV movie, “Is It College Yet?” takes place in Lawndale. It is assumed that readers are familiar with the characters of the “Daria” show, so detailed explanations of who is who are not needed.
“Winter in Hell” began life as a different story entitled, “Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea,” which recounted some of the events of the summer after IICY. After several months of fruitless struggle to finish it, it was merged with “Breakable,” an earlier script fanfic along the same lines, and it mutated into this version.
This tale was written to mesh with a number of earlier “Daria” fanfics, with the kind permission of their authors. This story is not meant to be a definitive follow-up to any “Daria” fanfic; it is one possible outcome of many in the future “Dariaverse.” A description of which stories are linked to this one and how they are connected appears at the end of this tale, to avoid giving away certain plot elements early on. My heartfelt thanks go out to Brandon League (“Contemplation (Jeffy's Journey)”), Crusading Saint (“Attraction Anxiety”), Mike Yamiolkoski (“Outage”), Renfield (“Holding On”), and Wyvern (“Inheritance”) for allowing the content of their stories to be used here.
Acknowledgements: My eternal gratitude goes out to the beta-readers for this tale. Two, Thea Zara and Crusading Saint, previewed an early portion of this and offered valuable feedback. The beta-readers for the entire story were (in random order): Thea Zara, Brandon League, Renfield, Deref, RedlegRick, EastVan, Robert Nowall, Crusading Saint, Wyvern, THM, Brother Grimace, TerraEsperZ, and Steven Galloway. The detailed feedback that was submitted resulted in extensive changes to the story, but the comments made the final version stand far above the original. Thank you!
She awoke in darkness with the sure feeling that she’d just caught the flu. Her nightgown, shorts, and underwear were soaked with sweat, and she radiated fever heat like a blast furnace from head to toe. She also had the unmistakable sense that if she took off her covers and got out of bed, she would chill to the bone.
She had to go to the bathroom, though. She couldn’t stay in bed for long, even if she wanted.
Maybe she did have the flu. She hoped with all her heart she did. If it was not the flu—she put off thinking about the consequences. Of course, this had to happen on a Monday morning, she thought. “Figures,” she murmured aloud—and grimaced in pain. Her throat was raw, and she thought a railroad spike had been driven between her tonsils. Wide awake, she rolled over, glanced at the red numerals on the bedside alarm, then flopped on her back again and pulled the covers up to her nose. She could wait on the bathroom a little longer just to stay warm.
Today was the first day of the last week of school before Christmas break started. Nothing was going right, but nothing had gone right for months now. With crises in progress at home and school together, she had nowhere left to escape. Her stress level had surely ruined her disease resistance. If she didn’t have the flu . . . well, the stress was still to blame for her fever. She had five days left to slog through classes at Lawndale High School. Five days more to walk over the broken wreckage of her life and be reminded of her outcast status. Then, Christmas—
She snorted. What a laugh. What’s there to celebrate? She had long ago stopped being particularly religious. Was she expecting a cheery gathering of parents and children opening gaily wrapped gifts around a decorated tree, as she saw every day in saccharine TV commercials? What was left after everything she valued had been destroyed, trampled flat at home and school by her family and peers? Or ruined by me, she reminded herself. What is there to be thankful or happy about? Nothing, except—
I am thankful I have her for a friend.
She nodded, looking into the dark. That was all that made life bearable. I am so lucky to have her. She’s the only real friend I’ve ever had. I don’t know what I would do without her. I can’t imagine why she’s stuck with me. I’ve certainly not been worth the trouble, with my lousy moods. I’m a drag on her life. She would be happier without me—but knowing she’ll be there with me is the only reason I can stand to go on.
She rubbed her face. Sick or not, she had to be at school in a few hours. Today she had to turn in her English Lit report on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which had taken her days to research in the library and on the Internet. It had been a struggle and a half, but it was done, and she was proud of the result. If it was good enough, she could drag another B or even an A out of Mr. O’Neill-Barch’s class. Another one, imagine that! What would her parents say if they knew? If they cared. If they suspected she existed.
She shivered violently. Damn. It didn’t matter now if she stayed under the covers or not—she was chilling fast, and she had to pee. Steeling herself, she flung back the covers and got out of bed. The chills began two seconds later as she crossed the carpeted floor to her bedroom door, heading down the hall on bare feet. By the time she got into the bathroom, she was shaking so badly she almost fell down on the white tile floor. She shut the door with nerveless fingers, hurried to the toilet—
—and discovered it was not the flu.
“Ouch! Damn it! Damn it, damn it, damn it!”
The burning sensation was ferocious, as bad as it had ever been. She snatched a dry washcloth from the sink, bit down on it, and screamed into the cloth as loudly as she could. She made herself do this three times. It helped only a little. She almost cried, but it wasn’t worth it. Nothing was worth it.
Worse, she now itched down there. She hated that even more than the burning. It took all her willpower to ignore the itching, which at its worst almost drove her mad—and it was always at its worst. There were days when she wished the itching would simply kill her so she could find blessed relief.
Genital herpes, however, never killed anyone. You only wished you were dead.
Her stress had revived it, she knew. The doctor she had secretly gone to see at the Middleton Medical Arts Center had told her all about it. High levels of stress nearly always reactivated the herpes virus. It was just getting started on its work again.
Resigned to her suffering, she considered taking a hot shower and getting dressed, even as early in the morning as it was. She elected against it; she desperately wanted a little more sleep, a little more time to hide away under the covers and stay warm. She waited until the pain subsided, if not the itching, then flushed and washed her hands twice with lots of soap and the hottest water she could stand. Even then she felt contaminated, poisoned from down there outward, even to the ends of her hair.
She glanced up at herself in the bathroom mirror. Long tangled strands of brown hair covered her face, and dark circles hung under her haunted brown eyes. I almost look like I’m wearing glasses, she thought. Her nightshirt was spotted with sweat stains from her fever, and she still shivered all over from the chills. Even then, at her lowest, she cracked a smile. She was amused at this close-up view of her downfall.
How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle, saith the Bible. How are the mighty fallen.
“Sandi Griffin,” she said to her reflection in the mirror, as if hailing a long-unseen acquaintance. “It’s old Sandi Griffin. You look like shit.”
Sandi’s bedroom, the Griffin residence
A voice inside her head told her, quite sensibly, that it didn’t matter what she wore anymore. She wasn’t the president of the Fashion Club. There was no Fashion Club now, only that pathetic wannabe imitation that Brooke Spencer now ran, the Morning Glories. Put on a jacket, t-shirt, and jeans. Put on a trash bag, even. No one cares what you look like. Why should you?
It did matter, though. It did matter. She tended to dress conservatively these days, but she had no objection to some bright color when it worked, and today she felt like she needed it: a magenta-pink vest over an off-white blouse, with periwinkle pants and a brown belt, gold buckle. She looked at her neck scarves and chose a silk gold and black one, found her favorite gold earrings and tiny cameo necklace, two bracelets, her gold-faced watch, a nice ring . . . and she was good to go. She stuffed a pair of pink shoes in her book bag, put on her winter-walking sneakers that she would change out of at school, and she headed back to the bathroom.
She took her Acyclovir to blunt the worst of the symptoms—should have taken it yesterday when I thought an outbreak was coming on, should have taken it then. She then spent a little time combing out her long brown hair and fixing her face—not as much as in the old days, but enough to get rid of the circles under her eyes and add highlights in the right spots. It didn’t have to be perfect. It just had to look good, to show Brooke and the Morning Glories and the rest of the senior class and the whole goddamn Lawndale High School that Sandi Griffin was not dead yet.
Even if she sometimes wished that she was. Even if she often wished it, but would never go there. Death still frightened her, and she had a little bit left of her pride.
She left the bathroom at 6:51 and walked to the stairs—but stopped at the top step and looked down the hallway to her left. Why do you want to go there again? What did they ever do for you, anyway? They hated you as they got older, and you didn’t like them much, either, so why go on about it, just because they were your brothers?
But they still are my brothers.
Then, where are they? Why did they leave you and Mom, and run off with . . . ?
Moments later, she stood in front of the open door to the room where Sam and Chris had once slept. She almost forgot about the itch.
The boys’ room had furniture in it, but it was as empty as a promise. The pale blue walls still had their racecar and babes-in-swimsuits posters. The closets were still full of their clothing, unworn for over four months now. The carpet was unmarred by dirt or footprints since it had last been vacuumed. Sandi’s mother Linda talked often about converting the boys’ room into a new office, but she only talked.
I wonder how it feels for her, Sandi thought. I wonder how it feels to have children who one day run off with your husband and leave you behind. I knew they argued with Mom all the time, but I never dreamed they wanted to leave. I never dreamed Dad wanted to leave. One day at the end of summer, he doesn’t come home from work, and the boys don’t come back from summer camp, and I’m home alone and I take the call from camp that the boys have left with Dad, do I know what’s going on? I call Mom, and she can’t get Dad, who doesn’t come home, and some gum-chewing guy comes by the house that night and serves Mom with divorce papers, and there it is.
The family is gone. It’s over.
And I didn’t even know there was much of a problem. I had popularity and dating on the brain. I missed everything but the finish.
Sandi walked into the boys’ bedroom. She looked down at the beds, looked in the closet, smelled one of Sam’s athletic t-shirts hanging there. It still smelled like he did.
You called me a bitch before you went to camp. She tried to picture Sam before her. It helped to smell his shirt again. I accused you of going through my room and taking stuff, which of course you had, only I didn’t know just what you had taken. I should have checked right then. I said you were in my stuff again, and you just went off and called me a bitch—a stupid, worthless bitch who didn’t belong in the family. You’d called me a bitch before, but not in the way you did before you left. You said it like you meant it, like you hated me. Then you called me the C-word. I couldn’t even believe that. I had no idea you would say such a thing to me. I wonder now if you weren’t on drugs or something. You weren’t very nice to me—to anyone—for weeks before you went to camp.
And you’d started punching me when you got mad. I couldn’t believe you would do that, either. That hurt. We used to hit each other when we were kids, but now when you hit me you really hurt me, and you called me a bitch and the C-word and you shoved me into the kitchen wall so that I banged my head on a shelf, and when I looked up next, holding my head and trying not to cry, you were gone, outside getting in the car with Dad, and he drove you and Chris off to the bus pickup for camp. And I told Dad later, but he blew it off. He didn’t care if you hit me. Boys will be boys, Sandi, stop complaining about everything, man, how you like to complain, just like your mother.
He didn’t care about me. I don’t know if he ever cared about me. He loved you boys. I wish he had loved me, too. Sandi swallowed, staring into Sam’s shirt. What did he think when he looked at me? Did he see Mom? Was he glad to wash me out of his life, as glad as he was to wash her out, too?
What happened, Dad? Why did you leave me?
She waited for an answer, but nothing came. She let go of Sam’s shirt and walked out of the room, leaving the door open.
Downstairs in the kitchen, she found a handwritten note from her mother, placed at Sandi’s usual place at the dinette table: WORKING TONIGHT IN STUDY, STAY THE HELL OUT. Her mother, the vice president of marketing for KSBC-TV, was consumed with reworking the budget and sweating over how long she’d be able to keep her job. Sandi saw a newspaper article on Saturday saying layoffs were rumored to be coming at the station. Times are hard all over, she thought as she threw out the note.
Sandi made a small breakfast for herself—milk, cereal, a banana. She ate quickly and put the dishes away in the dishwasher, made sure everything was in its place, everything neat and orderly. She didn’t know if her mother was up or asleep, at home or at the television station. She didn’t check.
Getting ready to go, she looked down where Fluffy’s food and water dishes sat empty on the floor. Where are you, Fluffy? Her mom had let him out of the house by accident a week ago, and he had run off. Did you get sick of me, too? Did you find someone else who would love you more than I would? I really did love you. I put up with almost everyone else, but you I loved. Are you even still alive?
She felt her forehead and cheeks. The herpes outbreak fever was raging. She was sweating again, and she still itched. Her hands strayed down, jerked back. Can’t touch it, it will spread the virus, can’t touch myself there, can’t touch at all. The doctor warned me to never touch my eyes if I touched myself down there, if I thought I had the virus on my fingers. I could go blind, spread it all over. Can’t touch it, ever.
The digital thermometer said her temperature was 101.9. She took two aspirin and two Tylenol with another glass of milk.
It was time to get her only friend and share a walk through Hell.
Outside the Morgendorffer residence
The cold, dark sky was half-lit by orange streetlights. A handful of diamond stars survived the glare, twinkling down over Lawndale. Frost decorated every lawn in the town. Sandi pulled up into the Morgendorffers’ driveway, shivering like mad with a long overcoat on and her car’s heater turned up full blast. Dawn was still forty minutes away.
She tapped the horn lightly once and searched the bright windows of the red, two-story home for Quinn’s face. Was that her peering out through the big window? No, it was her mother, Helen, already dressed for another day at the legal office downtown where she worked. What a job that must be, she thought, doing battle in corporate law all day long. Helen was as tightly wound as a human being could get, but she was okay. Sandi knew her own mother had a low opinion of Helen, but Linda had a low opinion of everyone but herself.
Sandi saw Helen reach for Quinn as her daughter ran for the front door, forcing a hug and kiss on her. Sandi did not remember when her mother had last hugged her. She did not think it had happened since . . . since she couldn’t remember.
Sandi’s breath formed a cloud of ice before her face. Mom, do you still love me? Do you love me even though I did it with a boy and caught herpes, and the whole world knows? Do I really want to hear the answer to that? Will you leave me, too, someday, or just throw me out? I’m old enough to be thrown out, I guess. It’s your house now.
Moments later, the front door opened and Quinn hurried out, her backpack in her left hand. She wore moon boots, designer jeans, and a waist-length white fur coat with no hood. Sandi felt her heart leap when Quinn grinned at her. The day got better, even if only for a moment, and she rose above her fever and the hellish itch.
Sandi unlocked the passenger door with a pushbutton on her door armrest. Quinn ran around the car, threw the door wide open, and flung herself into the passenger seat, dropping her backpack on the floor between her legs. Freezing air poured in after her. “Hi!” she cried, half laughing and half yelling, and slammed the door. She had her safety harness on in a second, her arms a flurry of motion. “Man, it’s cold!” she screamed. “Turn up the heater! I hate this! I hate this!”
“Gee, Quinn, and a cheery good morning to you,” Sandi said in her deep, Valley Girl drawl. She smiled as she reached up to put the car into reverse. It took a moment as her hand shook violently, even with gloves on.
“Sandi, are you okay?” Quinn said. She leaned over, studying Sandi carefully.
“Oh, I’ll live.” Damn it. “I didn’t sleep well, that’s all.”
Sandi got the car onto the street and put it into drive, setting off for school. She was sweating under her overcoat at the same time she was shivering to death. “I’m having another outbreak,” she said in a low voice.
“Oh.” Quinn settled back into her seat. On impulse, she reached over and gently covered Sandi’s right hand with her own, as Sandi gripped the steering wheel. Even through her gloves, Sandi still felt the warmth of Quinn’s touch—and was grateful.
“I’ll be okay,” Sandi said, eyes on the road. “Don’t worry about it. You have your report for Mr. O’Neill, I presume? I meant O’Neill-Barch. I’ll never get used to that.”
Quinn gasped, then bent over and unzipped her backpack. Sandi slowed the car, expecting they were about to head back to Quinn’s house.
“Here it is!” Quinn pulled a handful of crumpled papers out in triumph. “Thank God! I thought I’d left it in my room. That would’ve been great.” She stuffed the papers back into the backpack and leaned into her seat, running her hands through her short hair.
Sandi could not help a glance at Quinn. I like her hair style better all the time, she thought. The reflection of the headlights coming through the windshield fell on Quinn’s wildly spiked pixie cut. It was too dim yet to see it, but in full sunlight, her super-short orange-red hair looked like a burst of flame with yellow tips on some of the spikes. It had been tricky to pull that one off, but it had worked.
Sandi looked back at the road. I still miss her hair long, like it was until just after school started, but at least now it’s a million times easier to care for. And it still looks cute, even if she doesn’t think so. She’s never going to lose that cuteness.
“O’Neill had better not give me a hard time about my paper,” Quinn said, looking out the window. “I worked on that damn thing until my eyes crossed, then I had to find that stupid poem for self-esteem, too.” She rubbed her hands rapidly together in her lap.
“Where are your gloves? Not fashionable to wear them now?”
“Huh? Oh, crap. I forgot ‘em.” She jammed her hands into her fur-lined coat pockets. “We’ll be inside all day anyway.”
“Hey, I wanted to ask if you want to go by Middle-Mall after school. It’ll be crowded, but I’d kinda like to get away for a little.”
“Mmm, no, just wanted to—”
“Yeah, if that’s okay.”
“Wanna go to Cranberry Commons instead? They have a piano shop there.”
“No, I’d kind of like to avoid everyone around here, you know?”
“Sure. Right after we get steamed?” This was Quinn’s term for Mr. O’Neill-Barch’s Self-Esteem for Teens class, which met three days a week after school.
“One second after the clock hits four.”
“I found a poem for him. He’ll love it.” Quinn snuggled down into her fur coat. “I used to torture Daria so much about that.”
“Oh, she was in the self-esteem class, too, after we moved here. Just once, though, and she tested out early.”
“That’s right, she did. She and Jane each had to give a speech—”
“And Jane pretended to freak out and ran off!”
“That was so funny! And O’Neill was chasing her!”
“It was funny. Boy, I gotta tell you I was so pissed when Daria told everyone I was her sister. Those were the days. I thought I would die if everyone knew.”
Sandi smiled. “Well, I knew about that. It was so funny to listen to you go on, pretending she was your cousin.”
“Yeah.” Quinn took a deep breath and let it out. “I don’t know how Mrs. Manson figured Daria had to take that class, the self-esteem one. She sure didn’t need it.”
“Huh. You know, I always thought Daria was—I dunno, I never thought she liked herself much.”
“Well, yeah, that’s sorta true, but she didn’t like anyone else, either, so it all balanced out. Nobody came up to her standards, you know? Not even her. She wasn’t mean, she just . . . I think she saw things as they really were, you know.”
Sandi hesitated. “She didn’t like me, either? Not that it matters or anything.”
Quinn glanced at Sandi, then looked away. “She didn’t like the Fashion Club. It wasn’t you in particular, Sandi, not that I remember. She never said a bad thing about you to me, just about the club as a whole. She thought we were all like shallow and stupid to go on about makeup and clothing and accessories like we did.”
A short silence filled the car.
“She was right there, I guess,” said Sandi.
“Yeah, I guess she was at that. Hey, you know, she’s coming back again for the holidays.”
“Yeah. Jane’s driving back with her.”
“Jane Lane.” Sandi sniffed and rubbed her nose. “Did I ever tell you I got stuck in an elevator with her once?”
“With Jane? No way. When was this?”
“It was over a year ago. I was too embarrassed to tell you about it. This new hairspray I used gave me this awful rash all over my face, and—”
“No, it did! I was red all over!” Sandi laughed, to her surprise. “I went to see this dermatologist downtown to get some skin cream to fix it, and I didn’t want anyone to see me like that, so—”
“Hey,” said Quinn, “was that the time you wore that head scarf and sunglasses all day long, for like a week?”
“Um, yeah, that was it. Jane and I—”
“And you got all over my butt that time that I wore a head scarf?”
“Oh, Quinn . . . I’m sorry. You know what I’m like.”
Quinn waved it off. “Forget it. Go on about you and Jane, in the elevator.”
“Oh. Well, we got on the elevator and the power went out. We were stuck in there for an hour or two, and we tried to get out, but nothing worked, so we like talked a lot. I thought she was like this major geek at first, but it turned out she wasn’t. She was . . . she was cool. Abrupt, for sure, but she was okay. She showed me her artwork, and it—it was really good.” She stared ahead at the road. “We were kind of like almost friends for a bit. We never talked much, but we left each other alone. She was okay.”
Quinn took a deep breath. “Well, I don’t know if Jane ever liked me that much. I went by her house one time, when you and I weren’t doing real well, and she got really sick of listening to me rattle on. I was really nervous and talked my head off about fashion crap. She was glad to get rid of me when Daria came by.” Quinn looked out the windshield, rubbing her hands together again. “I guess she was okay, though. She knew where she was at, you know? She spoke her mind, but she really knew where she was at.”
They drove in silence for a little. “Daria was nice to me once, too,” Sandi said. “She told me some things that helped me out once, when I was . . . when I was worried about Fluffy, maybe getting sick and dying. It was sort of weird, but it did help.”
Quinn stared at her. “You asked Daria for advice on that?”
“Well, it was after Tommy Sherman died, and everyone was—”
“Oh, yeah, I remember.” Quinn’s head bobbed. “Never mind, I get it, I get it. She’s helped me out before, too. She gave me some really good advice, summer before last.” She paused, lost in thought. “In the end, though, it didn’t help very much.”
Sandi had an inkling of where this was going. She drove and said nothing.
“She told me I had to give people a chance to get to know me. I had to let them see the real me, but I had to be prepared to get slapped in the face. Pow.”
Sandi clenched her teeth and hoped this would blow over quickly.
“So I did, and boy, wasn’t that the best advice I ever got. I should’ve just let it go, but I had to push it. I had to go after him to make sure he got to know the real me. I really wanted him to see the inside me, the smart me.” Quinn abruptly laughed without a trace of humor. “He sure did that! He sure got to see the inside me! He got to see it all!” She laughed again, then rubbed her eyes. “Boy, did he ever! He saw it all! Like it really matters now. I shouldn’t even go on about it. It doesn’t matter. It never did.”
Sandi waited a few seconds more, then asked in a low voice, “Who else is coming over for the holidays?”
“Oh . . . my Aunt Amy’s coming by for a couple days, between Christmas and New Year’s. She’s my mom’s youngest sister. That’s all.”
Sandi glanced at Quinn again. They were almost at the high school. “What’s she like?”
“Amy? Oh, she’s okay. We don’t get to see her much. She travels a lot ’cause she’s an art dealer, but she doesn’t live that far away, maybe three hours by Interstate, way past Middleton. I think being around Mom drives her nuts. I like her outfits. She can be sorta cool.” Quinn sighed. “The only thing is, she doesn’t like me very much. I heard her tell Daria one time that she was her favorite niece.”
Sandi made a face. “Ouch.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Quinn looked out the window, away from Sandi. “You know, it’s all family, they . . . you know, they do what they want. Sometimes they don’t care what we think. It’s like your . . . your mom and you. What can you do?”
Sandi nodded as she pulled into the parking lot. “What can you do?” she repeated. “Beats the hell out of me.”
Sandi’s locker, Lawndale High School
They had five minutes before the bell rang and summoned them to History. Their faces were still red from the freezing run across the parking lot to the school. Sandi’s locker was on the second floor by the library, next to the stairwell. She has just finished changing shoes for the day.
“Tonight’s the big climax, excuse the pun,” said Quinn. Her fur coat gone, she now wore an open blue-jean jacket over a hot coral halter-top. “Six couples on a cruise ship seeing which partner is the last to cheat. Passion and fashion without compassion, like the ads say. We can’t miss it. Come over and watch it with me after we go to the mall.” She hesitated. “If your mom doesn’t mind,” she added.
“She doesn’t care,” said Sandi absently. “She’s working at home tonight.” She tried to look like she was deciding what books to take. In reality, she was itching like crazy now, and she sensed that the outbreak was spreading to her thighs and rear. The Acyclovir wouldn’t take hold for a couple of days. This was going to be a very bad week.
“Well, she should, if . . .” Quinn’s voice trailed off. An uncomfortable expression ran over her face but cleared away in moments. Her voice came back, confident again. “The show should be a riot. I saw on this preview that showed—”
“Herpo!” Someone shouted it in the stairwell, his voice crudely disguised. “Hey, Herpo Marx! What’s happenin’, Herpy?”
The high level of noise in the corridor dropped instantly. Everyone up and down the hall looked at Sandi—then at Quinn. Quinn’s head snapped in the direction of the stairwell, and she darted to it in a second, shoving her way past other students to get there. She stood at the stairwell and listened. Faint laughter rang down from the third floor. She then turned and walked back toward Sandi’s locker. “It was Matt,” she said when she came back. “Matt Wyndham. He’s that new kid. He asked me out Friday, so I know his voice. I have to stop at the office before class. You go on in, I won’t be long.”
Sandi nodded as if nothing had happened, though her face got a little red. She continued to pull books out of her locker. Matt was toast. She knew someone had put him up to a very bad prank, because no normal kid at Lawndale would dare make fun of Sandi if Quinn were around. Sandi ignored the insults and laughter as best she could. She never turned anyone in, no matter what they did to her. It wasn’t worth it. Some kids, if they thought they could get away with it, used to do a lot to her. Sandi just took it.
Quinn, however, had never once failed to turn in someone who harassed Sandi. Only newbies and troublemakers made that mistake now. On the rare occasions when the main office refused to listen, Quinn got her lawyer mother to call the principal, Ms. Li, and threaten big-time legal action. Helen had connections with other attorneys who prosecuted school-harassment cases—so the main office always listened. Sandi’s mother Linda gave only minimal support to this pressure, complaining that it took valuable time away from her work. Still, since school opened in August, one student had been expelled, five suspended (one twice), and two had transferred away. Ms. Li claimed credit for keeping the school on a zero-tolerance footing, though Lawndale had a worsening local reputation as a police-state institution.
Quinn’s self-control was gone, too. I bet you get that blown fuse from your dad and mom, Sandi thought. Just looking at Quinn wrong could ignite a screaming rant and another complaint to the office. No one knew what had happened over the summer to change her—no one but Sandi. And, of course, that one other person.
No one but newbies asked Quinn out on dates now, especially after what happened to Jeffy. Jeffy had said or done something wrong one day while talking to Quinn, and now he went to school at Carter County High, expelled forever from Lawndale. What had he done? No one knew but Quinn and Ms. Li. No one dared ask.
Quinn didn’t date even if asked and didn’t care. Sandi had lost count of the times Quinn had ranted to her about how sick she was of everyone, how sick she was of being everyone’s fool. Quinn had a new nickname around Lawndale High: Red Dragon. No one dared call her that to her face, but it was accurate enough, once she had burned off your skin with her fiery breath, then summoned her mother to destroy all you had left to you.
Still, Sandi thought that being called Red Dragon was better than being called Herpo Marx any day. But being called Herpo Marx was loads better than what was going to happen to Matt Wyndham within the next hour.
Nice meeting you, Matt, Sandi thought as she closed her locker and spun the combination dial. Too bad you had to leave so soon.
Mr. DeMartino’s American History class, Lawndale High School
The first-hour history lecture doubled as a hypnotic sedative. Many students were yawning and drowsy, particularly if they’d partied late the night before. Sandi didn’t have to worry about that. She not only didn’t party these days, but her spreading outbreak ensured that sitting would be very uncomfortable, bordering on painful. And early American colonial history was not quite the equal of that damnable, burning itch.
Carefully adjusting her position to reduce her pain, Sandi leaned forward and looked around the classroom. Her gaze fell upon Kevin Thompson, still Lawndale’s star quarterback despite this being his second time through twelfth grade. His head had fallen forward to rest on his desk, a faint snore drifting from his direction. He sat only two seats in front of Sandi, with Jamie White—Kevin’s best friend—between them. Mr. DeMartino clearly didn’t care if Kevin slept through class; Kevin was such a moron that having him snooze was a blessing for everyone. How anyone put up with him was a mystery, though being good at football had helped.
Kevin and I are the oldest seniors, she thought, him twenty and me nineteen. At least I have the excuse of being held back a year before I went into first grade, unlike this bozo, who flunked his senior year and now has to repeat with us. I wonder if he’s dreaming of his bimbo ex-girlfriend in far-away college-land. He’s asked out every girl in twelfth grade except Quinn and me, but he still doesn’t have a regular new “babe” to cuddle, except for those obligatory one-night post-game romps with the cheerleaders. I wonder if the story’s true that the cheerleaders draw straws, and the loser gets Kevin. Ms. Li says she likes him because he’s still making those touchdowns, so maybe she should take him under her wing, or whatever metaphor is appropriate for that sort of . . . affair. Ewww, I just grossed myself out. Grossed out or not, Sandi began to yawn.
Something tickled Sandi’s right elbow. She reached over with her left hand to scratch, and incidentally intercepted the slip of paper Quinn was trying to give her. She waited until Mr. DeMartino’s back was turned to a map of the early American colonies at the front of the classroom before she glanced down at the unfolded note.
WHAT DID BROOKE DO TO HER FACE?
Sandi tried not to smile, which was almost impossible. She glanced to her left at Brooke Spencer, two rows away, who had apparently applied her makeup this morning with a trowel and a roller brush. Sandi flipped the note over and, under the guise of taking notes on the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote out her response: FOR SHAME! LET US NOT MAKE (TOO MUCH) FUN OF THOSE LESS FORTUNATE. She then refolded the note and, while scratching her right elbow again, passed it back to Quinn, who sat behind her.
Sandi glanced at Brooke and shrugged before looking back at the map, where Mr. DeMartino was pointing out Massachusetts and talking about religious issues. Brooke, you are the sorriest looking fashion authority in the history of high-school fashion clubs. You go and reconstitute your own fashion club after I disband the old one, make yourself president, then you come to school wearing a dress that would be uncouth in a trailer park, with makeup that the Three Stooges must have applied with thrown pie pans. A fine example you set for young women in your senior year. I have more fashion under the nail of my little finger than you’ve had in your whole life, and those three years I ran the old Fashion Club were the—they—oh, what the hell does it matter now? Damn, why can’t I drop it? Why do I care? Why bother with it? I should forget it and move on, damn it!
Sandi sighed and looked down at her desktop. She had moved on, hard as it was. It was just hard to keep from looking back when you had so little left in the present and nothing at all in the future. Cashman’s, I can always do floor sales. I can’t get into any good college with my test scores. Quinn can go anywhere.
But I’ll still be here, working retail, long after she’s famous and gone.
Her eyes began to fill. She suppressed the thought savagely and kept her control.
Something tickled her arm again.
LUNCH HERE AT SCHOOL OR OUT SOMEWHERE?
Sandi mulled it over, but only briefly. Students were not supposed to leave the school grounds for lunch, but many did anyway. Cafeteria food was going downhill.
OUT. I’M NOT FEELING SOCIABLE.
She specifically wasn’t feeling like having the whole school stare at her and whisper while she was having such a massive outbreak. She squirmed in her chair, trying not to make a face. How the mighty have fallen.
Mr. DeMartino turned to the class, his near-psychotic gaze falling on Sandi—no, on Quinn, behind her. “Miss MORgendorffer! What was so SPEcial about the United Colonies of New ENGland?” Mr. DeMartino’s right eye seemed to pop out of his head whenever he emphasized a syllable while speaking. You never got used to seeing it.
Quinn didn’t miss a beat. “It was the first colonial federation in America, sort of like the United States only a lot weaker. The colonies organized for mutual defense against the Dutch and Native Americans, but the whole thing fell apart after forty years because the individual colonies couldn’t agree on doing things together. It was the issue of states’ rights versus federal rights, more or less played through for the first time.”
“OutSTANDing! You have filled the intellectual VOID left at this school when your sister DARia departed for college. I would CLONE you if only we had money budgeted for it this fiscal YEAR. As it IS, I can’t even get good toilet paper on my current SALary. But THAT’S neither here nor THERE.” He turned to the colonial map.
Sandi smirked at the remark about toilet paper, though she suspected he had a point about his salary. Cashman’s probably wouldn’t pay much better, but at least she would know her subject. Her thoughts stayed ahead to the evening. Sandi carefully tore off a paper scrap to make up her own note to Quinn.
Sandi looked up, but Mr. DeMartino was looking at Stacy, three rows to her left. Stacy was chipper today: bright flower-print dress, hair styled nicely, pearl earrings, fresh-faced, Lawndale’s very own girl next door.
“Yes, Mr. DeMartino.”
“Tell the class, if you will, WHY the colony of Rhode Island was FOUNDed?”
“Um . . .” Her face screwed up with anxiety. “Religious . . . freedom?”
“ExACTly, Miss Rowe! CongratuLAtions for not allowing your many DUties as Lawndale’s Homecoming Queen to interFERe with your STUDies!”
Surely this is another sign of the Apocalypse, Sandi thought as Mr. DeMartino turned back to the colonial map. Stacy Rowe, the human doormat, comes back to school in her senior year after not talking to me for most of the summer, runs for Homecoming Queen—and wins. Goes to show you what a buttload of nonstop assertiveness therapy will get you. It put a little steel in the doormat, even got her that awful job at the mall in Middleton, working at the Cheddary shop in that geeky farm girl outfit. Well . . .
Sandi sighed and looked at the map without seeing it. Good for her, I guess. I probably had it coming, her shutting me out forever. It was too easy to walk on her, too easy to take advantage. I probably had something to do with her needing all that assertiveness therapy. I wanted to make her my slave when she told me she’d tried to hex me, when I had that throat problem last spring. We sort of made up, but sort of not. I was pissed that she’d even think of doing something like that.
So, maybe that’s the reason she won’t talk to me. Her shrink probably told her to blow me off, like I’m bad for her ego or something. I might make her flower of self-esteem wilt. If that’s it, then . . . Sandi shrugged. Well, good for her. Good for her. She looked down at her blank note to Quinn.
I WOULD LIKE TO COME OVER FOR TV. WANT ME TO BRING SOMETHING? She scratched her elbow, and the note disappeared. She crossed her legs, which was a mistake because it made the itching worse. She uncrossed her lags and grimaced. No chance of falling asleep in class now.
I’ve changed, too, she reflected. I’m not like a totally new person, but I am different. I’m not in control of anything anymore. I’m not a better person, oh no—just one who lost her control. My home life is a zero, my social life crashed and burned months ago when everyone found out I had herpes, and the whole school either hates me or laughs at me. God damn that jerk Oakwood quarterback. I hope he drops dead and rots, and I hope I see it happen. Sandi couldn’t even bring herself to name the boy who had been her only sex partner and would probably forever be her only sex partner. One time, she had it one time and it wasn’t even a good time—and never again.
Quinn had tried to talk sense to her about it. Lots of people got herpes and had good lives. Quinn’s cousin Erin had it, though no one was supposed to know. It happens, bad stuff always happens, but herpes sure wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. There was medicine, and the condition did improve over time. You still had a good shot at a good life, just like everyone else. And you could have sex again—or so the rumor went.
Sandi’s mouth twitched. Yeah, right, lots of people get herpes and go on to have normal lives. They aren’t me. I made myself out to be so very hot for so long, I walked on the backs of the whole student body, and then this came along and BOOM, it blew up on me just like that. Everyone was either thrilled to see me screw up or terrified that if they touched me, they’d get herpes. I was the Lawndale Leper.
And Mom almost threw me out of the house, she screamed at me like I’d stabbed her. God damn you, she screamed, does everyone know? Everyone? You stupid little spread-legged tramp, how could you do this to me?
Beats the shit out of me, Mom, I yelled back. I’m the one with herpes, not your big sorry ass, and she slapped me and that was about the last thing we ever said to each other, four months ago. She sniffed. On the good side, though her home life was a zero, at least it was quiet. She and her mother left each other alone. Sandi was out of the house before seven, and she called ahead and left notes or phone messages if she was going to be out late. Her mother stayed in her home office with the door locked most of the time when she was home. There was hardly any need to wave hi anymore. Just her and her mom leading separate lives, alone in a very big house. Sandi was gone all Thanksgiving Day at the Morgendorffers, and she wasn’t even missed.
All this in part because Sam got into Sandi’s room before going to camp, went through her drawers, and found the lab report from the Middleton Medical Arts Center. I should have burned it. I should have torn it to pieces and put it through a shredder and burned it with gasoline, before Sam found it and somehow put it on the Internet and highlighted it right on the front page of the Lawndale High School website. School hadn't opened, so no one could be found to rework the webpage until four days had gone by, and by then it was too late, the whole fucking planet knew, the whole fucking planet, and everyone from Alaska to Antarctica had a good long laugh at Sandi Griffin—courtesy of her brother, who then went to camp. Nothing could be proven, but I knew that he—
Her elbow tickled.
WE’VE GOT PLENTY. WHY NOT STAY OVER TONIGHT? ARE YOU OKAY? YOU’RE BREATHING LOUD.
Sandi crumpled the note up. She swallowed and concentrated on slowing her breathing down. I have nothing left—no, she had to correct herself—I have one good thing left in my life. I have a friend who never gives up on me. I’ll never know why, but she’s the only good thing left in my life, and I’m so grateful for that.
That, and having my HIV test come out negative. Thank you, God.
It was not a good idea to reflect on either point for too long, she knew. One foot in front of the other, one day at a time, and the good times will come back at last, Mrs. Manson, the school psychologist, had told her in an unwanted moment of impromptu hallway therapy.
Fat lot you know, Sandi thought. Stick to helping the people who deserve having your butt-ugly face stuck in their business.
She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth together. The itch was driving her mad.
Her eyes snapped open and focused on Mr. DeMartino, who stared back with great intensity. She straightened in her seat, kept her face impassive. She did not blink as she looked back. Never show your fear, never.
“DeSPITE your continued fixATION on fashion and costuming, I have more reGARD for your inTELLigence than for that of certain OTHERS in this class”—Mr. DeMartino did not look in the direction of the sleeping Kevin—“so I will direct a GENeral question to you. If you WOULD, tell the class the most unUSual thing you recall READing about life in the New England COLonies.”
After a pause to collect her thoughts, Sandi asked, “Anything other than their weirdo movie-prop daywear?”
Mr. DeMartino’s eyes narrowed. “Anything you think WORthy of MENtion.”
Sandi frantically searched her memory. She was on the verge of defeat when she remembered something from a history magazine article she’d skimmed the week before, when preparing a short essay on colonial dress and sumptuary laws. “Massachusetts once had a law that, like, banned Christmas. If you celebrated Christmas, they fined you.”
Mouths dropped all across the room.
“What?” cried Stacy Rowe. “They what?”
“It’s true,” Sandi went on, surprised at Stacy’s reaction. “I don’t remember why, except that they had some kind of major geeky religious problem with it, so—”
“That’s not possible! That’s a lie, Sandi!” Stacy was almost out of her seat, her face white with fury. Everyone stared at her, their mouths dropping open still further. “No one in America would ever ban Christmas!”
“Miss ROWE, if you PLEASE!”
Stacy blinked and came to, looking at Mr. DeMartino and the rest of the class as if they had appeared before her out of nowhere. “Eeep,” she gasped, and she sat down. “I’m sorry!”
What the hell was that? Sandi wondered in amazement. Was that the assertiveness talking, or did I finally rub you the wrong way? How long had you waited to go for me like that?
Mr. DeMartino’s severe expression softened for a moment, and he turned to give Sandi the barest smile. “Miss GRIFFin, my regard for you has DOUBLED in a single STROKE. YES, Massachusetts in 1659 did inDEED forbid the celebration of CHRISTmas—something the REST of you might wish to ponder as you lie SNUG in your overpriced, upscale MANsions next week. Perhaps fearing its eventual doom from commercialiZATION, Massachusetts banned Christmas for thirty YEARS.
“And Miss Rowe—SINCE you have displayed such an extreme INterest in this topic, please write a PARAgraph about this incident for us by FRIday, and read it aloud to the CLASS. Your Homecoming Queen patriotism is apPREciated, but your open-MINDedness is just as WELcome.”
Stacy’s lower lip trembled, but she took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes, Mr. DeMartino.” She looked down at her desktop, red-faced and somber. “I’m sorry.”
“Christmas has been cancelled?” Kevin Thompson cried, awake but confused. “Those bastards! How could they do that? I was going to get some presents!”
Giggles and laughter ran through the entire class, the tension mostly broken. Sandi couldn’t help but smile. Only Stacy didn’t laugh.
Mr. DeMartino gave Sandi one last look of approval before turning to Kevin. “Mr. THOMPson,” he began, “so glad you were able to JOIN us in the space-time conTINuum from your last secret mission into DREAMland!”
As Mr. DeMartino gleefully turned his wrath upon the hapless Kevin, Sandi noticed several students glancing at Stacy, then giving Sandi angry looks. She knew immediately what was up. They blame me because she blew her cool and snagged a punishment assignment. Screw it, they can all be mad at me. I give up. I can’t baby-sit the oh-so-precious feelings of every dope in this whole school.
Her elbow tickled.
IS IT OKAY IF I CALL YOU A BRAIN?
Sandi smiled and wrote back.
IT’S OKAY WITH ME, PINKY.
Sandi looked around and noticed Brooke giving her a particularly dark gaze for a moment before turning away. Trouble coming, her senses warned, but she shrugged and looked down at her history book. There was nothing she could do about it now—nothing but wait.
Sandi’s locker, Lawndale High School
The day continued on its way down a difficult track. In Phys Ed, Ms. Morris was working through a year-end fitness profile for every student, and today was chin-ups, push-ups, and rope climbing. Sandi scored far below average in every category and earned a reprimand from Ms. Morris for trying to hide in her office. (She didn’t buy Sandi’s excuse that she was looking for ointment to put on a rope burn.) Worse, Sandi didn’t want to change in front of the other girls with her outbreak spreading over her butt and thighs, so she dawdled until she could slip out of sight for a few seconds and get into or out of her gym suit. She skipped the shower altogether and put on a lot of deodorant instead. Quinn wasn’t able to help, being tasked by Ms. Morris to keep push-up scores.
Quinn had Basic Business Management with Mrs. Bennett next, and Sandi had French III. Word in the halls was that Matt Wyndham had been suspended for three days for harassing other students. The news surprised no one.
Halfway through French, Sandi became nauseated and excused herself from class. She suspected her Acyclovir was causing it as a side effect. She made it back, pale and weary, after fifteen miserable minutes in the restroom. The smirks of the other students ate at her, but she pushed it aside and finished class in what she thought was good order.
Now she was at her locker, waiting for Quinn to show up so they could sneak out of school for a light lunch somewhere, but her paper was missing—her English Lit paper on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” She flipped through her books and notebooks. It had been folded up inside her English notebook, which she’d accidentally taken to French class, but now nothing was there.
The bottom dropped out of her already troubled stomach. “No,” she whispered. She began going through everything in her locker.
appeared out of nowhere, car keys swinging around her index finger. “Hey,
“Wait,” Sandi gasped. She dropped her English Literature book while trying to flip through it. “Damn it! Just a second!”
“What’s wrong, Sandi?”
It wasn’t in her locker. It must have fallen out in French, or between French and her locker or Phys Ed. “My paper’s gone.” Her chest was too tight. It was hard to breathe and talk. “I have to find my paper.”
“Your Lit paper? Oh, sure, let’s go.”
They retraced Sandi’s steps back to French and found the classroom dark and empty. No English paper lay on the floor under or near her desk. The hallways were crowded, but it was easy to see that no English paper was there, either. They looked in hallway trashcans, washroom garbage cans, under desks, in broom closets. They ended their search in the gym, watching Ms. Morris yell at a bunch of ninth graders trying to do push-ups.
Overheated again and starting to sweat, Sandi felt her legs get weak. She leaned against a wall, head back, hands covering her eyes. “Oh, shit,” she muttered. “Oh, shit. Don’t let this happen to me, please.”
“C’mon, let’s keep looking.”
“It’s gone. Someone took it.”
“Who? You mean, in French?”
“I got sick and had to leave class. Someone must have gotten into my stuff. I left it all under my desk.”
“Could you have left it in the car?”
“No. I looked at it before History, just checking it, then put it back.”
“If it was taken in French, then Mr. Winston would have noticed, right? Let’s go ask him. Maybe he saw someone pick it up.”
Mr. Winston was in the teacher’s lounge. He was a huge, gentle bear of a man who spoke French with a Quebec accent. He shook his head. “I did not see anyone take your papers, Miss Sandi,” he said. “But, then, I was not watching always, eh? I write on the blackboard a lot, you know? My back is turned like so, eh?” He demonstrated, looking over his shoulder as he turned away from them briefly. “I hope you find your papers, Miss Sandi. I cannot help, and I am sorry.”
Sandi and Quinn wandered aimlessly down the first-floor hallway.
“They got me,” Sandi said in defeat. “Some of Brooke’s little Morning Glories sit next to me in class. One of them must have gone through my stuff and stolen the paper. Or I lost it because I’m such a stupid idiot dope for not putting it in my locker like someone with brains would do. I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this is happening to me. I worked so hard on it, so goddamn hard. . . .”
They ate a short dispirited lunch in a corner of the cafeteria. Sandi picked at her food. After she and Quinn left, she couldn’t remember a thing she had eaten, or if she’d even had dessert.
As they left the cafeteria, Brooke and four of the Morning Glories came in.
“Oh, hi, Sandi!” Brooke cried, a strange look of glee on her face. “You’re looking fashionable today!”
“Halloween’s over, Brooke,” Quinn said, her voice a dangerous monotone. “You can wash off the clown paint now.”
Brooke gave Quinn only a glance. Knowing Quinn’s temper, it was unwise to start anything with her. “We’ll see you in English in a few minutes,” she said to Sandi, grinning. “Should be an interesting class. Ta ta for now!”
Brooke and the Morning Glories left, snickering.
“Bitch,” Quinn hissed softly.
“Come on,” said Sandi, tugging on her arm. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s go.”
They went to their lockers. It was time to face the consequences.
Mr. O’Neill-Barch’s English Literature class, Lawndale High School
Sandi went directly to Mr. O’Neill-Barch’s desk when she walked in, with Quinn behind her. He was frantically searching for his class notes in his briefcase.
“Mr. O’Neill?” she started. “I meant O’Neill-Barch, sorry! If you have a moment, please, I—”
“Sandi! I haven’t read your paper yet, but it looks excellent,” Mr. O’Neill-Barch said, not looking up at her. He pulled handfuls of paper from his briefcase, then put them back, shaking his head in frustration. “I’ve always been quite the fan of Coleridge. I had only enough time to skim what you wrote, but you seem to have hit exactly the right note in your analysis. Please don’t think that my ignoring you at the moment has anything at all to do with you personally. I’m just a little at loose ends. Oh, darn it.”
Sandi blinked. “What? You read my paper?” Other students in the class looked on in curiosity. Quinn walked around and stood by Sandi’s side, looking puzzled.
“Oh, yes, your paper, the one on the ‘Ancient Mariner.’ Ah-ha! Found my notes! Just have a seat, and we’ll get on with class. I’m sure you did an excellent job.”
“What?” Sandi repeated. Her head swam. “My paper?”
Quinn took Sandi by the elbow and led her to their seats. “Let him think he’s got it,” Quinn whispered. “If he thinks he’s lost it, he’ll give you an A out of guilt.”
Brooke’s parting words about “an interesting class” came back. Wait—what if she switched papers and gave O’Neill some awful thing she wrote up herself, to embarrass me? Overcome with dread, Sandi started to get up from her desk.
“Ah!” said Mr. O’Neill-Barch. He pulled something from the mess on his desk and held up a collection of papers, stapled at the top. He smiled at Sandi. “Here it is!”
“May I see it, please, for just a moment?” Sandi called, her voice too high. She started forward, one hand out. She was way out of order, but if Brooke had doctored the paper, she could be in huge trouble.
Mr. O’Neill-Barch looked puzzled, but he handed her the paper. She flipped through it.
It was her paper. It had some scuffmarks, wrinkles, and an odd stain on it, but it was her paper. Stunned, she handed it back to the teacher. “How did—”
He waved her back to her seat. “Oh, I’m sure you did just fine. I’ll grade it with the others. Don’t worry.” He turned to address the class. “Now that Sandi has brought up the topic, let’s turn in our books to page two-eleven and look at ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.”
“Ancient whaaat?” Tiffany Blum-Deckler asked, looking up from filing her nails.
“Mariners,” said Kevin. “They’re a baseball team in Seattle.”
“Uh, Kevin,” said Mr. O’Neill-Barch in a strained voice, “we’re talking about mariners as in sailors, not baseball players.”
“But I know for a fact they play baseball! They’re not my favorite team, but—”
“Kevin, thank you. I understand. Let’s go back to the topic at hand. The poem you picked for your report, Sandi, is rather long, but we have time for a few stanzas. Let’s have a discussion! To start out, would you read the section starting at line, um, two thirty-three, down to the bottom of that column, line two fifty-three?”
“Sure,” she said, still lightheaded and confused. How did my paper get here after all? Who did it? Am I going crazy?
“This is a poem about baseball?” Kevin said. “Cool!”
“No, Kevin, this . . . oh, forget it. In the selection we’re going to discuss, the mariner is the only survivor of his ship, and he describes what he sees. Sandi, if you would, please read for the class.”
Sandi looked down at the volume on her desk. She swallowed and hoped her voice would hold out. As she read, her voice grew deeper and rougher. No voice or sound interrupted.
“Alone, alone, all, all alone,
“Alone on a wide, wide sea!
“And never a saint took pity on
“My soul in agony.
“The many men, so beautiful!
“And they all dead did lie:
“And a thousand thousand slimy things
“Lived on; and so did I.
“I look’d upon the rotting sea,
“And drew my eyes away;
“I look’d upon the rotting deck,
“And there the dead men lay.
“I look’d to heaven, and tried to pray;
“But or ever a prayer had gusht,
“A wicked whisper came, and made
“My heart as dry as dust.
“I closed my lids, and kept them close,
“And the balls like pulses beat;
“For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky,
“Lay like a load on my weary eye,
“And the dead were at my feet.”
The room was silent.
I can’t believe I never liked to read stuff like this, Sandi thought with a rush of excitement. I can’t believe I missed all this good stuff. I bet this is the stuff Quinn’s sister liked to read. I think I finally understand her a little bit. She really knew what the good stuff was, and this was it.
“Ewww!” said Tiffany thickly. She put down her nail file and looked at Sandi with a shocked frown. “Saaandi, that was groooss. I can’t belieeeve you read thaaat.”
Every eye in the room jumped to Tiffany, then to Sandi—then to Quinn. Quinn looked indifferent, as if she’d not heard a thing. No one was fooled for an instant.
“Well, now,” said Mr. O’Neill-Barch quickly, eyeing Quinn, “we should look at it from as many angles as possible and not be judgmental. This is a classic work of—”
“But that was about deaaad things,” Tiffany went on, staring at Sandi with an unblinking frown. “You never used to talk about deaaad stuff. You wrote about thiiis?”
Sandi thought about this, then nodded agreement. “That’s right. I did.”
Tiffany stared a moment longer, then her face lost its intense look. She sighed, shrugged, picked up her nail file, and went back to work as if nothing had happened.
Every eye in the room, except for Sandi’s, went to Quinn. Quinn slouched in her seat, looking at Mr. O’Neill-Barch. Sandi alone knew that Quinn wasn’t going to rat on Tiffany. It was pointless. Tiffany was just being Tiffany. They didn’t even hold it against her, too much, that she had joined the Morning Glories right after it was formed. Tiffany still thought of herself as a friend of Sandi and Quinn—for what little that was worth—and she was solely concerned with her weight and a modeling career. Picking on her was like picking on a baby bird.
“Did the selection that Sandi read have a special meaning for anyone?” Mr. O’Neill-Barch called out, too quickly. “Anyone at all?”
“I liked it!” said Kevin. “That stuff about the dead things was cool!”
“It rocked!” Jamie added, pounding his desk.
“Um, that’s wonderful, yes, but what I meant was, did anyone understand what was going through the soul of the doomed sailor? Did anyone understand anything of his torment, his inner turmoil and isolation, his inability to reach out and redeem his soul?”
There was dead silence in the class. Students looked blankly back at him and played with their pencils.
“Hey,” said Kevin. “In the poem, do the dead guys get to eat that baseball player?”
Mr. O’Neill-Barch’s English Literature class, Lawndale High School
The bell rang. The students jumped to their feet and ran for the door as if English literature was deadlier than nuclear fallout. Three of the Morning Glories hung back. Their expressions had registered shock when Sandi’s paper turned up on Mr. O’Neill-Barch’s desk. They nervously chattered about what they planned to do during Christmas break, always keeping Sandi and Quinn in the corners of their eyes.
“Mr. O’Neill-Barch,” Sandi said, once most of the students were gone, “how did you get my paper?”
“What? Oh, yes,” he said. “Joey Brown dropped it off with me during lunch. Please don’t worry about your grade, though. It’s not good for your self-esteem to worry about things like that. I’m sure it will be fine.”
“Joey?” whispered Quinn, stunned. “But where did he . . . I’ll find out.”
The three Morning Glories suddenly hurried for the door and split up in the hall, walking quickly in different directions. Quinn was right behind them, heading for the main office.
Forgotten, Sandi walked to her locker on her own.
Joey? Joey turned it in? How did he get it? He doesn’t even like me anymore after I screwed everything up so completely for us last summer when we were dating. At least he didn’t go back to chasing after Quinn. I couldn’t have stood that. He’s going out with Lisa now and won’t even give me the time of day. And he’s not even in my French class! How could he get my paper? Is he messing with me, or what?
Sandi stayed at her locker longer than necessary, fiddling with her books. Her itch was mind numbing now, and she was almost dead on her feet.
Two more hours to go. Science was first with Mrs. Barch-O’Neill (better known as Bitch-O’Neill to students when they were far from school), then Statistics for Business with Mrs. Bennett. Sandi and Quinn collaborated on Stat and were acing it. Both classes promised brain-dead relief from the lingering stress of the day so far, topped off by the self-esteem class. Then she could run away with Quinn to the mall and do what she really wanted to do, find a moment of solace in this miserable day.
She walked alone to Mrs. Barch-O’Neill’s science class—but Mrs. Barch-O’Neill stopped her at the door.
“Don’t even come in, sweetie,” said Mrs. Barch-O’Neill in her awful fingernails-down-the-blackboard voice. “The office called. The principal wants to see you at once.”
Ms. Li’s office, Lawndale High School
An office worker sent Sandi back to Ms. Li’s office. Too tired and confused to remember to knock, Sandi opened the door and went in despite the loud arguing she heard as she approached.
“So are you going to confess, or do I call your mother?” Ms. Li said to Joey.
Joey, seated on the other side of the principal’s desk, was clearly at wit’s end. “Ms. Li, I swear before God, I found her paper—Sandi, there you are! Listen, I found your paper in the dumpster behind the school, near the cafeteria! I was outside there for a few minutes with Lisa Caruthers, we were just talking, and I heard someone come out and she threw something into the dumpster. I thought it was weird, because this girl—”
“Name,” said Ms. Li. “Out with it. Protecting the guilty won’t help you.”
“I’m not protecting the guilty, Ms. Li!” Joey appeared ready to pull out his hair. “I couldn’t tell who it was, I swear! I went to look as she was going back into the building! I went over to the dumpster and looked in because I was curious, see, and when I looked in the dumpster I found Sandi’s paper on top of the trash! I didn’t steal it!”
“I never said you did,” Quinn said. She slouched in a chair nearby, arms folded tight across her chest. “I just wanted to know where you got it.”
“Well, now you know!” Joey snapped, his voice rising.
Sandi stood and listened, not bothering to find a seat. She felt like she had walked into the ocean and was being dragged away from shore by the undertow.
Quinn stared hard at Joey. “Was she one of the Morning Glories?”
“Damn it, Quinn, I said I don’t know who the hell she was!”
“You do know! You’re covering up for her!”
“Hey!” Joey’s face came alive with fury. “If you want to burn me, you do it! You go ahead and do it! Bring out your mommy and sic her on me, little girl!”
“You’re goddamn right I’ll do it!” snarled Quinn. “You’re in on this with them, aren’t you?”
Joey’s jaw dropped. “You’re crazy!”
“You want to hurt Sandi, so you got together with Brooke and—”
“You’re fucking crazy, Quinn! I didn’t do anything to hurt Sandi! I would never do that, never!”
“Please!” cried Ms. Li, alarmed. “Students!”
“You’re gonna burn, Joey.”
“Hey! You go ahead! Burn me like you burned Jeffy!” Joey was on his feet, index finger stabbing at Quinn. “You do that! He didn’t deserve it, and I don’t either! Just screw you, Quinn! See if I care! You go do it!”
Quinn came to her feet, too. “Good luck at Carter County High with the other losers!” she hissed. “Kiss Lawndale goodbye!”
“Anywhere’s fine with me as long as you’re not there! Even Hell would be better, only I’m sure you’d be right there with me, still chewing on my ass!”
“Students! Stop this now!”
“You dirty, rotten piece of—”
Someone banged hard at the door. Everyone stopped and caught a breath. Joey and Quinn stepped back and stared at each other with naked rage, breathing fast and hard, fists balled at their sides.
The door opened. It was Miss Carnes, one of the office aides. She had a black VHS videotape in one hand. “Ms. Li,” she said, not daring to look anyone else in the face, “here’s the tape from the security control center.”
Ms. Li got up immediately. “This should solve the whole problem,” she said in a shaky voice, taking the tape. She turned and plugged it into a VCR unit on a TV set behind her chair, then adjusted the unit’s controls. Sandi saw Joey turn pale; he glanced at her, then looked away, nervous and uneasy.
Sandi felt close to fainting. The fighting upset her far more than she believed possible. More stress would make the outbreak even worse. She found a chair and dropped into it like a rock, hoping she wouldn’t pass out. She was too hot, the fever returning in force. Cold sweat trickled down her face, dripping on her vest, blouse, and scarf. She prayed she wouldn’t start to chill.
The TV screen lit up. After a moment, the tape got going, and a movie began. It was a security camera view of the dumpster area behind the cafeteria kitchen. Ms. Li ran it fast forward, then stopped it, reversed it, and started it forward at normal speed.
One thing was very clear in the color tape. Joey and Lisa were behind the main dumpster, deep kissing and feeling each other both up and down. The camera showed them perfectly. No one in the room dared to breathe.
Sandi closed her eyes and lowered her head, her face crimson. You liked me once, Joey. After you stopped hounding Quinn, you said you really liked me, and I was so shocked to realize that I liked you, too, and the few times we kissed were the best kisses I’d ever had in my life. You thrilled me down to my toes. You were so funny and made me laugh, you said I was beautiful all the way through, but you were just being nice, I know, because I was really just a stupid bitch and I couldn’t stop being a stupid bitch. I wish it had worked out for us last summer. I tried so hard to change, I tried to change just for us, but I couldn’t stop being me. I wish I had been less of a Sandi and more of someone else, anyone else. I blew it. I lost you, I wound up with a jerk from Oakwood who ruined my life, and now I have to look at this. Now I have to see you do this right in front of me, with someone else, not me.
The life ran out of her. She covered her eyes with her hand. Take a look, Sandi, whispered a voice in her head. He liked you, he might have even loved you, and now look at him with her. Look at what you lost. Way to go, girl. She struggled not to cry.
Gasps went up in the room, but she did not raise her head.
“Karen,” said Quinn. “It was Karen Niles, the Morning Glories’ vice president.”
Sandi opened her eyes, but her vision was starry and blurred. She wiped her eyes on her hands and sniffed and tried to focus on the TV. Never let them see you cry.
Ms. Li had shut the videotape off, however. “Joey, you can go,” she said in a monotone, clearly exhausted. “Sandi, Quinn, you can go, too. Everything that was said here has been forgotten. Please don’t speak of it again. Miss Carnes, please have Karen Niles come to my office. Call a school security officer, too, to accompany her.”
Joey and Quinn exchanged cold looks before Joey stalked out. Sandi tried to stand up but her head was full of vapor and fuzz. Quinn came over and helped her out of Ms. Li’s office to a chair in a vacant side room. Two glasses of water later, Sandi felt better, but the office staff kept her around until the last class of the day started at two, just to be sure she was okay. Quinn stayed with her. They did not see Karen Niles be expelled from school—
—but they heard it happen. Her wails and cries came through the office walls with perfect clarity. Sandi hunched over and shut her eyes and jammed her fingers in her ears, trying to think of anything else. Quinn leaned back quietly in a chair beside Sandi’s and listened to the wails as if to music, her face radiant with triumph.
Mr. O’Neill-Barch’s Self-Esteem for Teens Class, Lawndale High School
This is the last thing to do before we leave, ran Sandi’s mantra through most of the self-esteem class. It’s the last thing before we leave. She pushed aside everything else from the day, made herself forget it, put it in a closet and shut and locked the door. Four aspirin pushed down her fever again, though her stomach hurt and she fought off nausea for half an hour. Last thing to do, and then we’re free.
Though Quinn and Sandi sat beside each other in the middle of the classroom, they were the last two students Mr. O’Neill-Barch called upon for their self-esteem assignment for the day. His face tight with anxiety, he cleared his throat and said, in too hopeful a voice, “Sandi, please share the poem you think best expresses the inner you.”
Sandi looked down at the photocopied sheet on her desk. It covered the page in her spiral-ring notebook on which was the Hangman game she was playing with Quinn. She had picked the letters E, T, M, O, and S, and the seven-letter mystery word now looked like this: _SS_O_E. Sandi had already figured out it was a reference to Mr. O’Neill-Barch, so Quinn was not going to win their usual ten-dollar bet on this one.
“I have a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay,” Sandi began—then stopped, seeing a look of anguish on Mr. O’Neill-Barch’s face. “What?”
“You didn’t . . . pick ‘The Suicide’ again, did you?” he asked.
“No, it’s another one.” It had been mildly amusing at the time to see his reaction to her reading of “The Suicide” in the previous session of the Self-Esteem for Teens class, though it resulted in several long visits to the school psychologist and many phone calls from the school to Sandi’s mother, who said she was a vice president in marketing under a terrible deadline and would the school please stop bothering her about Sandi’s clowning around. It had not really been worth the trouble.
Mr. O’Neill-Barch did not look relieved at Sandi’s words. “Very well, you may read your poem,” he said in a strained voice.
“Thank you,” she said. “It’s called, ‘The Dream.’ ”
Mr. O’Neill-Barch frowned as he tried to recall the work. Sandi began anyway.
“Love, if I weep it will not matter,
“And if you laugh I shall not care;
“Foolish am I to think about it,
“But it is good to feel you there.
“Love, in my sleep I dreamed of waking,—
“White and awful the moonlight reached
“Over the floor, and somewhere, somewhere,
“There was a shutter loose,—it screeched!
“Swung in the wind,—and no wind blowing!—
“I was afraid, and turned to you,
“Put out my hand to you for comfort,—
“And you were gone! Cold, cold as dew,
“Under my hand the moonlight lay!
“Love, if you laugh I shall not care,
“But if I weep it will not matter,—
“Ah, it is good to feel you there!”
Sandi let go of the page and looked up. Her throat hurt, but it was worth it.
“That was wonderful, Sandi,” said Mr. O’Neill-Barch, nervously looking from Sandi to Quinn and back. “Um, why did you choose this particular poem?”
Sandi shrugged absently. “It was nice.”
“Okay, yes, nice is good. Now, the idea was to bring in a poem that said something about the inner you—in this case, the inner Sandi. Could you tell us how this reflects your inner feelings of self-worth and self-esteem?”
Sandi looked blankly at Mr. O’Neill-Barch. “My what?”
“Your self-esteem. You know, how good we feel about ourselves. Does this poem reflect your inner worth, the real you inside?”
Sandi looked down at the poem. “No, not really. It’s just nice to read.”
“How do you feel inside, though, when you read it?”
Sandi looked up at the blackboard behind Mr. O’Neill-Barch. “I felt okay.”
“But how do you usually feel?”
Sandi thought, then gave up. “I feel like shit.”
Mr. O’Neill-Barch deflated. He leaned down and made some notes on a pad on his desk, underlining something several times. “We’re short on time, so we can talk about this next week.” A trembling entered his soft voice. “Quinn, do you have your poem ready?”
Quinn looked up, her pale blue eyes burning cold again. “Did you think I didn’t?”
Mr. O’Neill-Barch grimaced. “No, no. Please, just read your poem.”
Quinn glared at him a few moments longer, then looked down at her handwritten notes and said, “I picked a short poem by Stephen Crane. It’s called, ‘The Heart.’ ”
A long sigh escaped Mr. O’Neill-Barch. “I’m not familiar with that one,” he said, looking relieved. “It sounds wonderful. Please continue. We could use some cheer.”
Quinn’s eyes flashed. “Why? Did Sandi’s poem depress you or something? Did it bum you out? Is there like some kind of a big—”
“No, Quinn—please, I apologize. No, really, I do. I’m sorry. Please, please, would you read your poem for us?”
Quinn snorted, then looked down and cleared her throat. “ ‘The Heart,’ by Stephen Crane.
“In the desert
“I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
“Who, squatting upon the ground,
“Held his heart in his hands,
“And ate of it.
“I said, ‘Is it good, friend?’
“ ‘It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“ ‘But I like it
“ ‘Because it is bitter,
“ ‘And because it is my heart.’ ”
For several long seconds, Mr. O’Neill-Barch stared at Quinn with an open mouth. The room was dead and still.
“That’s it,” said Quinn. She folded up her paper.
“Whoa,” said a boy two rows over. “Oh, man.”
With a defeated air, Mr. O’Neill-Barch looked down at his watch. “Thank you, Quinn,” he muttered. “On Wednesday, we’ll see a video on body image, called, ‘Every Size Is Right for Me.’ We will have a discussion afterward on size, weight, teenagers, and what’s really important in life.”
“What’s really important in life,” Quinn said aloud, standing quickly and gathering her books, “is maintaining a size three.”
“Absolutely,” said Sandi, playing along. “Not every size is right for me, that’s for sure.”
Quinn raised a hand, palm out to Sandi, and Sandi gave her a resounding high-five. Mr. O’Neill-Barch sat down at his desk and sighed heavily. “Sandi and Quinn,” he said as the two passed his desk to leave, “might I see you both for a moment?”
The girls looked at each other and shrugged. They ignored the curious glances sent their way by departing students, waiting as Mr. O’Neill-Barch nervously searched the scattered papers before him.
“So,” said Sandi, walking up, “how’s married life?”
“Eh? Oh, uh, excellent, wonderful. Janet and I are happy in every respect. Truly a match made in, uh . . .” His fingers trembled as he pulled a square gray sheet of paper from under a stack and looked it over.
“This isn’t about my paper for English Lit, is it?” Quinn asked in a flat tone. “I didn’t copy it.”
“Oh, no, no, no, it’s not that, not that at all, no. You wrote about Emily Dickinson, right? Oh, no, it’s not that. I haven’t read any of the papers yet. Just got them in today, you know.” He forced a short laugh. “And I might add that I’m very pleased with your progress in the Self-Esteem Class, too, both of you. I think we might have it licked this time or . . . or the next time. Well, third or fourth time’s the charm, they say!” He gave the girls a curiously frightened smile, then handed the square gray page to Sandi with a shaky hand. Sandi took it and read it over, with Quinn looking on from the side.
“We’re starting another special after-school class, you see.” Mr. O’Neill-Barch cleared his throat and made a hand gesture. “It’s a, uh, alternative lifestyles awareness class, only eight weeks long, and the first session begins in mid-January, if we can get the DVDs and self-help notebooks we need for it, and maybe a guest lecturer. We’re thinking of calling it, ‘Different Drummers of Lawndale,’ after that saying, you know, about—”
“This is for gay and lesbian students,” Sandi interrupted.
“Uh, ah, well, yes, um, it is, but it’s also for—”
“Mr. O’Neill-Barch, I don’t have anything against gay or lesbian students, I really don’t—but I’m not a lesbian. Or gay.”
“Same here,” said Quinn, staring at him. Her blue eyes smoldered. “Did someone maybe tell you that we were, kind of as a joke? ‘Cause a lot of kids here think we are, you know, and they spread all sorts of rumors about us.” Her voice got louder. “Or did it kind of look to you like we were lesbians, ‘cause Sandi and I are friends and hang around each other, but you think women can’t be friends and hang around each other unless they’re lesbians, kind of like girls can’t be friends with guys, ‘cause they’ve always got to be sleeping together or something? Was that it? What’s the deal here? Did Brooke put you up to this? Is this something I should talk to Mom about, or what?”
Mr. O’Neill-Barch was paralyzed. His trapped-rabbit gaze jumped from Sandi to Quinn and back. “Ahhh,” he said, but he said nothing more.
Sandi looked down at the page, then carefully put it on Mr. O’Neill-Barch’s desk. After a moment, she reached down and began to fold the paper over, forming a triangle. She folded the paper again, then became occupied in folding and refolding it for the space of one minute. Mr. O’Neill-Barch looked down and watched in breathless silence.
“There you go,” said Sandi at last. She held up the result. “A ducky. Maybe the ducky’s gay, maybe not.” She sat the origami figure on the desk in front of the teacher. “But he’s a special ducky. Tomorrow, I’ll make a partner for him.”
“Make it a doggie,” said Quinn. “Maybe the ducky is into interspecies dating or something.”
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” said Sandi, raising an eyebrow at Quinn.
“You mean, doggie style?” said Quinn, and her lips drew up in a smirk. “What makes you think I haven’t?” They spontaneously giggled, then gave each other a hug in front of Mr. O’Neill-Barch, who looked on with wide eyes.
“Quack, quack,” said Sandi, and she gave Quinn an extra squeeze.
“Woof!” said Quinn, and she made loud panting sounds with her tongue out, causing them both to giggle again. They then left, arms around each other. Sandi was thoughtful enough to close the door behind her.
Interstate 77, Eastbound
The sun was low in the sky as Sandi maneuvered into a spot behind a tractor-trailer. She adjusted the rear-view mirror so the sun wouldn’t be in her eyes, then clicked on the cruise control. Middle-Mall was just a half-hour away, an average-size shopping center on the outskirts of a college town the size of Lawndale. She felt better than she had all day, except for not being able to sit comfortably.
“You ever have a bad dream?” Quinn asked, slouched back in her seat. Her face was half-hidden in the fur collar of her white coat.
Sandi tensed. “No, not lately.” You liar.
“I had one a few months ago, right when school was starting.” She said nothing for a minute. She stared out the window at the desolate landscape of browns and grays. “I think it was some kind of psychological thing, you know. I couldn’t figure it all out. Part of it I could like understand, but part of it not.”
“This isn’t going to like freak me out or anything, is it? Like, I’m not going to crash after I hear it, right?”
Quinn abruptly laughed. It was a brittle sound. “That would be funny if you did, you know. Not funny ha, but funny weird, because my nightmare was about a car crash.”
“Okay,” said Sandi, tensing up a lot. The itch was back. She winced and shifted in her seat. “Well, it’s probably—”
“It was right after David told me I was still shallow and dumped me. I was just in total shock. It just blew me away. We had this huge thing going, and it was . . . it was everything, he was just everything to me, and he called me up and said, that’s it, I’m going back to college, it was fun but it just won’t work. Sorry, adios, I’m outta here. You know, I just lost my mind. My mom and dad didn’t know what was going on with me. They still don’t know. Daria was already gone, so she didn’t know anything. I wouldn’t come out of my room, I cried every day for a week, and then it was school, and bang, there I was, you know. Completely, totally screwed up. And he left! He left just like that, like he was leaving a bus stop, you know? He left me just like I was a bus stop, didn’t even look back. Nice visiting with you, Quinn, great body you have, you really know how to use it, glad I was your first, but I gotta go, good luck in the future, bye. Just like that, bye, and he’s gone.” Without warning, Quinn lashed out and slammed her fist into the dashboard, causing Sandi to jump. “Just like that, you son of a bitch! Just like that! You LEFT me!” Her fist hammered the dashboard. “YOU—LEFT—ME!”
“Quinn!” Sandi’s mouth was dry with fear. “Quinn, please!”
“What was I supposed to do, damn it? I practically danced on that thing of his, I gave it to him in any way he wanted, he had me up one side and down the other, and I read his stupid college books until I was practically fucking blind, and he still dumped me! He still said I was shallow! What else did he want? Was I supposed to get a brain transplant? I bet that was it, I was supposed to get Daria’s fucking brain and give her mine, and then he could have the whole package, brain and ass all in one bite-sized piece! I bet that was it—he wanted me to get a brain transplant. Wow, was I ever—was I ever—oh, fuck it!” Quinn threw herself back into her seat, her breath roaring in and out of her. “Just fuck it!” She swallowed and shook her head, staring out the side window.
Quiet fell between them.
You did nothing wrong, Quinn, Sandi thought as she drove. You showed David your heart, and he threw it away. And there’s the difference between us. I never let anyone see my heart, except Joey. And I, not he, threw that away.
Several minutes passed.
“You had a dream,” said Sandi. She hoped it was the right thing to say.
Quinn didn’t answer right away. “I had this dream,” she said at last, her voice calm, “about being in Mom’s SUV with Daria. Daria was driving. I wanted to drive, but she was driving, and we were talking, you know? It probably means something, that she was driving and not me, but whatever. We were talking, and I told her I wanted to die.”
Sandi kept her gaze fixed on the tractor-trailer ahead of them. Her knuckles and fingers turned white from her grip on the steering wheel.
“Daria said, what? Or something like that. She couldn’t believe I said that. I said, I wanted to die, could she help me die. She asked me why, and I said . . . I said something about, it’s not worth it. I tried to be smart, I tried to let people see the real me, like she wanted me to do, and it didn’t work. People didn’t want to see the real me. They wanted the outside Quinn, not the inside Quinn that was me. They wanted my hair, my body, they wanted sex with me, but they didn’t want me. They didn’t even want to look at the inside me, the real me. It wasn’t worth it. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter at all.”
Quinn inhaled deeply, then blew the air from her lungs in a tired rush. “We were talking, and she was about to say something to me, when—boom! A truck hit us, and I was dead. It killed me. Daria was still alive, though. I remember that, that she was still alive after I was dead. I don’t know what happened after that.” She looked at Sandi. “It means something, I think. I haven’t figured it out yet, but it means something, that in that smashed-up car Daria lived but I didn’t. Daria was a brain, and I was just a cute piece of ass pretending to be a brain. That’s all I was.” She shook her head. “All I am, I mean. That’s all I am.”
Sandi glanced in both her rear-view mirrors. Traffic was moving smoothly, but she was seized with an unshakable fear that something bad was going to happen at any moment. It took everything she had to push the fear down and not panic.
“That was my bad dream,” said Quinn. “I’m still trying to figure it out. Have you had a bad dream like that?”
“Yes,” Sandi said. She instantly regretted it.
“What was it?”
Sandi’s mouth opened, but she was silent for a few seconds. “Let’s talk about something else,” she finally said. “Can we?”
“Just tell me what your bad dream was.”
“We broke up, you and me,” Sandi said in a rush. “We weren’t friends anymore. I was divorced and had a daughter, and I was telling her about you and me, that I stole a boyfriend of yours in our senior year, and you never forgave me for it, and you never wanted to see me again.” Don’t tell her any more! Shut up! Sandi quickly wiped at her eyes. “That was it. It wasn’t important. Can we talk about something else?”
Quinn looked at Sandi with a touch of amazement. “You dreamed that you stole my boyfriend, and we broke up over it?”
“Yeah. It was a stupid dream.”
Quinn smiled and shook her head. “Sandi, correct me if I’m wrong, okay, but haven’t you and I been stealing boyfriends from each other since the day we met? I mean, really, haven’t we?”
Sandi sniffed and wiped her eyes again. “This was different,” she said. “Forget it, okay? It was stupid.”
Quinn looked at Sandi for a few seconds, noting her red eyes. She looked away again. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Forget it. It’s okay. We’re still friends.” She forced a laugh. “I won’t steal your boyfriends, ever. Not now, for sure. They wouldn’t want me.”
Quinn turned her head and looked Sandi over. “Bullshit.”
“Well, how can I go out with anyone, damn it? Everyone knows! I have to tell everyone I date that I’ve got herpes! Who’s going to want me? Who’s going to want to touch me? I can’t even have a precious little baby without having a C-section because my baby might get herpes from me! But how could I ever have a baby anyway if—can we please change the subject? Please?”
Quinn looked down at her hands and played with her fingers.
“I’m sorry,” said Sandi. “It’s my outbreak, it’s driving me nuts.”
“You want to hear something funny?” said Sandi.
Quinn looked over at her.
“You know why I went out with that guy, the guy I did it with? I’ll tell you why. This will kill you. I wanted—I went out with him because I wanted to have sex before you did. Do you believe that? I swear it’s true. I wanted to have sex first. You did everything else before I did, you got all the guys I couldn’t get, so I thought I’d do it first and have that, at least, and I could lord it over you. Isn’t that a scream?”
Quinn said nothing. She looked away.
“And you know what the best part is? What really makes it funny?”
“You had sex first anyway! You were first again! You had great sex, and you got dumped but you can still find someone else later, but I had it one time, one lousy fucking time, and it was the pits, it really was the worst thing ever, it hurt and he was mean to me and I caught herpes, and isn’t that funny? Aren’t I a scream, Quinn?”
Quinn swallowed and opened her mouth.
“Answer me! Aren’t I a scream?”
Quinn reached over and put her hand on Sandi’s arm. “Sandi.”
Tears ran down Sandi’s face without stopping. “I’m such a scream,” she said, fighting for control. “I’m so goddamn funny.”
Quinn made her pull over. They rested by the roadside for five minutes, and Sandi used up twelve tissues. A phrase went through her head, over and over: If I weep it will not matter. It was from her poem. She didn’t know why she thought about it now.
“I wanna play some piano,” Sandi said at last. “Let’s not talk anymore.”
“Let’s go, then,” said Quinn softly.
They slowed down only once more on the way to the mall, when Sandi thought she saw Fluffy walking by the roadside. It was only a wad of paper.
By marvelous chance, Sandi found a parking space only three rows back from the main entrance to Middle-Mall. She beat four other vehicles into the space and was rewarded with dirty looks, a middle finger, and a shouted “Slut!” She took it all in stride. It was the Christmas shopping season, after all, when giving was so important.
“Let’s run for it,” Quinn said, and they did, making it into the mall at a quick trot. Inside it was warm, noisy, and packed with bored college students, weary shoppers, and crying children. The air smelled vaguely of cedar. Huge pine trees decorated with Christmas ornaments had been set up all down the main aisle of the mall, with a small railroad track for children’s rides weaving among the tree bases, robotic forest animals, and giant-size wrapped presents at the mall’s center. The chaos and warmth swept away some of Sandi’s depression and physical discomfort.
Middle-Mall was a single-level mall that seemed to stretch forever down zigzag corridors. They were careful not to go anywhere near the local outlet of The Cheddary, where Stacy Rowe might be standing outside in her red-and-white farm girl outfit with her yellow cheese-slice nametag, handing out free samples of the all-new lite-beer-and-peanut Cheddary Holiday Cheesy Gift Log. Instead, they cut through a department store and came out at a side corridor near the Cuter Computer branch store. The piano center was straight ahead. Sandi glanced up at the store’s name and groaned, as she always did when she came here. What kind of idiot thought of that?
“Welcome to Pianist Envy! Can I help you?” asked a relentlessly cheerful young woman in a black dress. Her nametag said she was Mary Sue.
“Just looking,” said Sandi. She didn’t recognize the floor clerk; holiday help, she guessed. She knew most of the staff on sight. “Can I try one of the pianos?”
“Uh,” said Mary Sue in confusion, “well, maybe. I guess. Let me check.” She hurried off to the back room.
“Good help is hard to find,” Quinn murmured.
“And bad help is everywhere,” Sandi murmured back. She wandered over to a Steinway and gently ran her fingers over the keys. She looked up, saw the racks of sheet music, and walked over to pick out a few pieces. Quinn waited for her by the Steinway, pecking out “Chopsticks” and getting several notes wrong.
Sandi looked up to see Mary Sue emerge from a back room. “Sure,” Mary Sue said, looking surprised, “the manager said you can play any of the pianos you want, as long as you don’t break anything or spill your drink over the keys. You’re not drinking anything anyway, though. Are you taking piano lessons?”
“I used to, until ninth grade,” said Sandi. Before I decided the Fashion Club was more important, and Dad sold our piano because he hated it. Or, he hated listening to me play it. Whatever. She went to the Steinway, set up her sheet music, and sat down on the bench. It took a few seconds to adjust her clothing so she was comfortable. Several people in the shop watched her with mild interest as they tapped keys or looked at the small electronic organs. Quinn found an empty chair nearby and sat down, crossing her legs and leaning back.
Sandi flexed her fingers, then settled both hands in her lap and closed her eyes for a moment, sitting upright. Peace, come to me. This is all I have left that I control. This is all I have left that I enjoy. Peace, come to me. She became aware of her various body ailments, but she felt the pain and discomfort pull away from her like the tide going out from the shore. She then opened her eyes and raised her hands to the keys, and she began to play Chopin’s “Prelude,” in its slow serious rhythm. Quinn leaned back in her chair and stared off into space, listening.
Sandi glanced at Quinn, finished without an error, then switched to an old Neil Young song, “Old Man.” As she played, Quinn soon began to mouth the words to the tune without singing it. Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you. . . .
My piano teacher said I was really good, Sandi thought as she played. She said I might play professionally if I only practiced more. She was so upset when I said I was sick to death of piano and was quitting. Is she still teaching? I should look her up next year, if she’ll have me.
She glanced at Quinn again, her thoughts adrift. I wonder if she thinks about her Dad when she hears this song. I don’t think about mine, except to wish that he had spent some time with me. That would have been nice. I could have used that.
Her fingers played out the last stanzas of “Old Man,” then she paused to rub her hands together. A few people in the shop applauded. She flipped through the song sheets, then set another one up. Quinn’s face was relaxed and peaceful. When Sandi began the next song, Quinn’s face brightened with delight. Quinn and Sandi had seen the movie Titanic six times each, and “My Heart Will Go On” was one of Quinn’s favorite songs.
A little too optimistic for me, however, Sandi thought as she played slowly. She almost made a mistake at one point, hesitated a little too long in correcting her finger positioning, but she managed to finish well. Need to practice. I should come out here more often. Maybe in January, that would be good. New Year’s resolution number one.
Sandi looked up at the end and noticed that a small crowd of people stood at the edges of the store, looking in at her. It wasn’t often she collected an audience. She looked at her sheet music, set up another song, and began Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday.” I can relate to this one. All my troubles seemed so far away. . . .
The song reminded her of someone. She thought as she played, then smiled to herself. Daria, of course. Everyone used to call her the misery chick. Now I’m the misery chick. Life is so funny like that, isn’t it? Life is so very funny.
Quinn looked so relaxed as to be on the verge of sleep. After “Yesterday,” Sandi toyed with the opening bars of Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” but she could not get her fingers to work quickly enough and made a few errors. Quinn roused herself, looking off into space again. Sandi pushed aside her irritation and focused only on getting the fingering right, and she managed to get one page into the song without errors before stopping. She sighed and reshuffled the sheet music. She stopped at last at the piece she wasn’t sure she wanted to play. Too close to home. Maybe not a good idea to do this one. But why did I pick it out, then?
She opened the music, stared at it, and began to play Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You.” I will remember you. Will you remember me? Her eyes strayed to later words in the song. She immediately thought of her nightmare, losing Quinn’s friendship and being alone forever. And she thought of the thing she had stopped herself from telling Quinn—that in the dream, when she was lost and alone, Sandi had named her little daughter Quinn. She could play only a few more bars before she couldn’t see the music through her tears. She stopped and rubbed her eyes with the bottoms of her palms. Don’t cry now in front of everyone, no, don’t, not yet—
“You okay?” Quinn asked, looking at her with concern.
Sandi took a deep, ragged breath. “I’m fine. My eyes are just tired.” She sniffed and sighed. “It’s probably a good time to quit. We still have to drive home.”
“No, I’m okay.” Sandi sniffed again and felt her pockets for an unused tissue.
Quinn got up and came over, a tissue in her hand. Sandi used it, stuffed it in a pocket, then got up and collected the sheet music. Time to go.
Spontaneous applause burst out from the people watching at the window. Sandi looked up, startled. It looked like over two-dozen people, all ages and sizes.
And one of them was Joey Brown, clapping slowly, watching her.
Sandi froze and stared at him.
Joey looked back. He waited until the crowd broke up, then he walked over.
“Can I talk to you?” he said to Sandi. He gave Quinn only a glance. “Alone?”
Sandi looked down and nodded in Quinn’s direction. “It’s okay.”
After a dark look at Joey, Quinn walked out of the shop and pointedly stood by the Cuter Computer entrance across the aisle, watching the two of them in the store from there.
Joey turned back to Sandi. They spoke in whispers. “I’m sorry about what happened back at school, in Ms. Li’s—”
“It’s okay. It wasn’t your fault.”
“I lost my temper. It was stupid of me. I’m really sorry about that.”
“You should apologize to Quinn, then.”
Joey’s jaw muscles tightened. “Okay. But I’m sorry anyway. I’m sorry for everything, the . . . the whole thing with L—”
“You don’t have to be.” She took a breath. “Thank you for finding my paper.”
He nodded, looking down. “Sure.” They stood there, looking at the floor between them. “Are you okay?” he finally asked.
She nodded, not looking up. “I’m okay.”
“Good. I came out to get stuff for Katie and Mom. Last minute . . . you know.” He nodded once. They stood there a while longer.
“How’s your mom?” she asked.
He sighed. “Better, now. She’s in AA. Kept her job. Katie’s doing good.”
“Good. She’s a sweet little girl.” It was hard to say the next thing. “She’s lucky to have a brother like you.”
He almost smiled. “You look good,” he said softly.
“Thank you.” She swallowed. “You, too.” After a final pause, she said, “I should get going.”
“Okay. Take care of yourself.”
Sandi nodded. “You, too.”
They stood there a few seconds more, then Sandi turned and started off. She stopped and turned back to Joey. “Joey?”
“What?” He looked up into her eyes.
She opened her mouth and no words came out for several seconds.
“I’m sorry, too,” she finally said.
Joey didn’t answer. He looked at the floor as she walked away. When he looked up again, she and Quinn were gone.
Interstate 77, Westbound
They didn’t speak until they got onto the Interstate again. Sandi clicked on cruise control and pulled her feet back from the pedals.
“You okay?” Quinn asked.
“I’m okay.” They both knew she was lying. They let it go.
A long pause developed.
“What did Joey want?”
“Oh.” A pause. “He said he was sorry.”
Another long pause.
“I want to ask you something.”
“Wh-what happened with Jeffy?”
Quinn looked at Sandi, then looked away and rubbed the side of her face. “Oh. Well, you remember earlier this year when I told you he flipped out and was trying to get my mom to go out with him, because I wouldn’t go out with him?”
Sandi almost smiled, but she sensed that would be a mistake. “That was crazy.”
“You don’t know the half of it. I found out he wanted to go out with her because he got into the house the week before and saw her naked.”
Sandi gasped. “Oh, my Christ. You are so kidding me.”
“No. She’d just gotten out of the shower and was walking around without a stitch, and he got into the house looking for me and ran right into her. He wanted to go out with her because of that. Can you believe that? Know what else he did?”
“He came up to me on Friday after classes, the first week school was in, and he asked me for samples of my hair. He said he was doing a science experiment, and he wanted to see what the difference was between hair on different parts of the body, and he asked me for hair samples.”
Sandi thought about this before it hit her. She turned to stare briefly at Quinn, who looked out through the windshield. “You’re kidding me.”
“Nope. He wanted head hair and pubic hair. He said he’d been thinking about this experiment for a long time. I told him he was nuts, he had to be totally completely nuts to ask me a thing like that. Then you know what he asked me?”
Sandi couldn’t even frame a response.
“He asked me if I could get some hair samples from Mom. Head and pubic hair.”
Loud gasp. “No!”
“I swear he did. He asked me that right out in the school parking lot.”
Sandi blinked. This was beyond belief. “What did you do?”
“I told him to go straight to hell, to get out of my life and never come back. Then I went home and told Mom, and she went with me to school the next morning and we got Jeffy expelled for harassment. That’s why he’s out with the nowhere kids at Carter County High. He deserved it. I haven’t seen him since, and I hope I never do. Shithead.”
Sandi drove, scarcely believing what she heard. A green exit sign came and went. “Was that when you cut your hair?” she asked softly.
“Yeah, that was it. I was going to cut my hair anyway after David dumped me, but after Jeffy did that, I didn’t want to see it anymore. I chopped it right off with a pair of scissors, and my mom had a fit when she saw me. She looked like I’d tried to kill myself. She took me to a stylist that night, at that hair place over in Cranberry Commons. It was a Friday night. That’s why I had this—” She indicated her pixie cut “—when I came to school that next Monday.”
Sandi nodded slowly. It all made sense now.
“Can I ask you a question?” said Quinn, peering at Sandi with narrow eyes.
Sandi nodded slowly, trying to be casual, but she bit her lip and her face betrayed her. She was terrified of what Quinn might ask, but she swore to herself, whatever it was, she would be honest about it. She would not lie this time.
“You want to stop and eat something at that new restaurant, Greener Sleeves, on the way home? We could each get a salad bar, maybe something off the menu and split it. I’m starved.”
Sandi let her breath out in ragged relief. “Yes, please,” she said, her voice shaking. “Let’s do it. I’m starved, too. I’ll buy.”
Outside the Griffin residence
“Next time I’ll have what you had,” Sandi said when they were in Lawndale again. “My salad was okay, but that soup-and-sandwich thing you got looked good.”
“It wasn’t enough, ‘cause I’m still hungry,” Quinn responded. “You want popcorn when we get home?”
“I just have to leave a note for Mom,” Sandi said, turning the corner onto the street where she lived. “Won’t take but a minute. I’ll leave the engine and the heater on.”
“Did your mom get a new car?”
“What? Why’d you say . . .” Sandi peered ahead in the darkness.
A red sports car she did not recognize was in Griffins’ driveway, up at the garage door. On impulse, Sandi slowed and stopped the car on the street without pulling into the driveway. She shut off the headlights as she did.
“What’s wrong?” Quinn asked, looking from the house to Sandi.
“Wait for me,” Sandi said, then steeled herself and got out of the car into the freezing wind. She shut the door as softly as she could, then walked quickly to the driveway. On impulse, she stopped at the mailbox and took out the only letter inside it, stuffing it in a pants pocket before she approached the car. A streetlight showed that the sports car’s license plate was KSBC01. The mud flaps on the rear wheels had Playboy rabbit-head emblems on them. She peered inside the car, saw a briefcase on the floor of the passenger side and financial papers scattered over the passenger seat.
Sandi looked up at her house. All the front lights were off. She walked around the side of the house to the back yard, moving slowly and staying near the house.
A faint light came from the kitchen windows. Sandi walked over and carefully peeked from a corner through the nearest window overlooking the entire kitchen. No one was there. She looked down the side of the house and noticed a crack of light from her mother’s study. She walked over, carefully stepped up on a decorative rock next to the side of the house, and looked in through a slit between a window blind and the bottom ledge of the window itself.
Her breathing stopped. Her eyes grew huge, and she stared a long time. Finally, she ducked her head and left, heading back to the front. She moved quickly, not thinking about anything except getting away from the house as fast as possible.
Quinn watched as Sandi came back to the car and opened the driver’s door. Sandi slammed it after she got in, then put on her safety harness, put the car in drive, and pulled away from the curb. She drove past the house and went on down the street, heading for a main road. Her face was devoid of all expression.
“Whose car was that?” Quinn asked, her voice low.
“Station manager’s,” Sandi said. “Mom’s boss.” She did not look at Quinn.
Sandi did not answer.
“Your mom working on stuff?”
Sandi opened her mouth to say something, but then she shut it.
“Did you leave a note?”
After a long pause, Sandi shook her head no.
They drove in silence until Quinn’s home appeared. Sandi parked in the driveway, shut off the engine, and was out of the car in an instant.
“Let’s go!” Sandi said quickly. She waited for Quinn to get out, and they both ran for the front door.
Living room, the Morgendorffer residence
When they got inside the house, Quinn took Sandi’s coat and had her go to the living room to crash on the couch while she went in search of her mother. To one side of the television set was the Morgendorffers’ artificial Christmas tree, small and silvery with its wire branches bent in the wrong directions. Several boxes of unpacked ornaments and lights lay around it.
Picking up the remote, Sandi flicked through channels, wrinkling her nose at “Sick, Sad World” before finding the Reality Channel. The newest episode of “Dating, Mating, and Rating!” would be on in about five minutes. They were just in time.
Not that Sandi cared. She looked at the TV and saw only what she had seen happening in her mother’s study. She shook her head and blinked her eyes, but the image came back again and again.
Way to go, Mom. Thank God I didn’t just walk in while you were working on Playboy Man.
Footsteps entered the living room.
“Mom’s making popcorn for us,” Quinn said, dropping onto the couch on Sandi’s right side. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “It’s microwaved. Don’t worry.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Morgendorffer,” Sandi mumbled, not looking up.
“Not a problem, dear,” Helen Morgendorffer said, walking in from the kitchen to stand behind Sandi. Her hand settled onto Sandi’s shoulder and gently squeezed. “Quinn asked if you could stay over, and that’s fine with me. You want me to call Linda?”
“NO! Oh—I’m sorry! I’m really sorry! I meant, no, no thank you, please don’t bother her. I’ll call her in a bit. She’s really busy tonight, lots of big problems at work. She brought some stuff home with her to work on alone.”
“But wasn’t the station—” Quinn stopped short. Her eyes widened. She got it. She became interested in the TV again, her face turning red.
“Did you bring pajamas and extra clothes for tomorrow? And a toothbrush?”
“She can wear my clothes,” said Quinn, still blushing. “We’re exactly the same size.”
“Almost exactly,” said Sandi.
“Exactly enough,” said Quinn. “We’ll be fine. I’ve got extra toothbrushes, too. Where’s Dad?”
“Oh,” sighed Helen, “he’s out of town for the night at a business meeting. He thinks he might get Cuter Computer as a client. That would probably cheer him up, getting a little consulting work in to start the new year.”
Quinn looked up at her mother in surprise. “Mom, are you kidding me? Cuter Computer is a really big company! It’s not some little thing!”
Helen stared at Quinn, taken aback. “What? I thought it was just that one little store out in the Mall of the Millennium.”
“That’s a branch store, Mom! It’s got little stores all over the place, even in Middleton. Cuter Computer is big, Mom! Jeez!”
“Oh.” Helen looked stunned. “Oh.” She walked off into the kitchen. Quinn rolled her eyes and lightly beat on her forehead with a fist. “I can’t believe she didn’t know that!”
“So, your dad is like going to be rich soon?”
“I dunno. Maybe. That would be cool.” Quinn shook her head. “Cuter Computer. Oh, man.”
“Dating, Mating, and Rating!” shouted the TV. “The reality show that knows no bounds—not even reality!”
Quinn picked up the remote and lowered the volume as scenes from past shows were flashed on the screen: men and women flirting, kissing, screaming their heads off at each other about cheating with other people, and throwing food during dinner.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” said Quinn contentedly.
The night’s lineup of new couples came on, with thumbnail biographies of each, emphasizing potential trouble areas.
“That one’s cute,” said Quinn, indicating a man with the remote. “I could go for someone with his own Internet company.”
“Geek,” muttered Sandi.
“Rich geek,” Quinn corrected her. “Dresses well.”
“Ah ha. Look. See, he likes hookers.”
“He’s a natural for this show, then.”
“Maybe that’s what I’ll do instead of working at Cashman’s all my life. I’ll—”
“—be a hooker?”
“You wish. I’ll be a madam. You can be my star hooker.”
“How are we going to split the money?”
“What are you girls talking about?”
Both turned to see Quinn’s mother, looking shocked, standing in the entryway to the kitchen. She held a huge bowl of microwaved popcorn in her hands.
“Career choices,” Quinn said. “Oh, Mom, right.”
Helen came over and handed the bowl to Sandi. At that moment, a scene from a previous show appeared in which topless women had a screaming argument and began wrestling and pulling hair, knocking over tables and chairs.
“What on earth?” Helen gasped.
“This is for class, Mom,” Quinn said.
Helen stared at her, then at the TV. “For what class?”
“Statistics,” said Quinn, then filled her mouth with popcorn.
Helen gave Quinn an annoyed look and shook her head.
Sandi marked the air with a fingertip. “One down. She’s out of the race.” She looked at Helen. “See? Statistics.”
Helen rolled her eyes. “Shows like that aren’t good for you.”
“Okay,” said Quinn. “ ‘Sick, Sad World’ it is.” She lifted the remote and pretended to click it.
“Forget I said anything,” Helen muttered, and she headed back for the kitchen.
Sandi smiled, then noticed that Helen had stopped in the kitchen entryway and was staring at her and Quinn with an odd expression.
“Is anything wrong?” Sandi asked.
“No, no,” Helen said. “It’s just that for a moment, the two of you sitting there, watching television, reminded me of . . . oh, never mind.” She shook her head and walked back into the kitchen. “I’ll be looking over some legal papers in here.”
“Okay,” Quinn called, her eyes fixed on the TV.
Sandi looked at Quinn, an eyebrow raised. “I don’t look like your sister, do I?”
“No,” said Quinn. “Mom’s being weird. She gets like that.” She scratched her thigh. “I think she misses having Daria around, that’s all.”
“You don’t look much like Jane.”
Quinn rolled her eyes and snorted gently. “Damn you, Griffin, don’t you start getting weird on me, too.”
Sandi smirked. “I wouldn’t dream of cutting into your territory.”
“Thanks, Daria. Pass the popcorn.”
Sandi reached for the popcorn bowl to her left. “Tell me the truth. Am I easier to get along with than Daria?”
Quinn gave her the briefest glance. “By a billion trillion miles. Getting along with you is easy. You should have lived with her all your life. We do okay now, we really do, but we had it in for each other for years before now. You’re the greatest, Sandi.”
Sandi felt a tiny thrill at hearing that. She shifted position on the couch, glad that her outbreak had stopped hurting for a while.
Something crinkled in her pants pocket. She remembered the letter from the mailbox, and she dug into her pocket and pulled it out.
LINDA R. GRIFFIN, PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL, read the top line of the address.
Quinn looked over. “What’s that?”
“Got it out of the mailbox before we came over.”
“It’s your mom’s, right?”
Sandi did not answer. The return address was an attorney’s office in St. Louis. Is this from Dad? Is this where Dad is now, St. Louis? We used to live in St. Louis before we moved to Lawndale. Did Dad go back to where I was born?
Sandi stared at the letter. She flipped it over and ran her thumb under the seal.
Quinn blinked. “You’re opening your mom’s legal mail?”
“She opens all of my mail.” Sandi pulled out two sheets of paper and began reading. She figured Quinn would try to read the letter, too, but discretely. She didn’t care. What would it matter? It was her mom’s mail . . . after . . . all . . .
Dear Mrs. Griffin:
As you are aware, I have been retained by your estranged husband, Mr. Thomas Griffin, in the matter of the continuing divorce action between the two of you. You asked through your counsel, Drakken & Sons, S.C., to have all communication with you sent through your place of business at KSBC-TV in Lawndale. My recent attempts to contact you at your place of work have been unsuccessful, however, and Drakken & Sons has not been timely in forwarding a new address through I can re-establish private communication with you. I am therefore writing to you at your home.
Your request for the divorce action to include child support for your eldest child, Alexandra (Sandi) Griffin, is hereby refused. Granted, she is living with you while finishing high school; however, she is 19 years old, and as she is not the biological daughter of Thomas Griffin, he should not financially be responsible for her care, per the specific written agreement you established with your husband at the time of her birth in St. Louis. It is my understanding from the documents submitted to me by my client that Alexandra’s birth resulted from an extramarital affair between yourself and a co-anchor at KMXR-TV, Mr. Bradford Swain (now deceased), and the affair itself resulted in the termination of your position with KMXR-TV. You agreed in writing to supply sole support for Alexandra in the event of the dissolution of your marriage with Mr. Griffin, as one of the conditions for avoiding a divorce action at that time. Mr. Swain, you will recall, also employed our legal services when you attempted to sue him for child support, the case ending with his fatal heart attack.
Further, your request that my client assume immediate custodial responsibility for Alexandra is also refused. My client does not consider Alexandra to be his child, and he wishes no further contact with her under any circumstances. Your claims that caring for Alexandra is interfering in your work and personal life, and that she is out of control and needs constant supervision, are of no concern here. She is your daughter and your responsibility alone.
One of the other conditions to which you agreed, in order to repair your marriage following your affair with Mr. Swain, was that you would not again engage in an extramarital affair, a condition that my client believes you have repeatedly violated. He has produced considerable evidence supporting his contention that you have had an extramarital affair with your supervisor at KSBC-TV in Lawndale, ongoing for the past two years. My client considers his marriage to you to be irreparably broken.
I have still not heard from you regarding child support you are required to pay our client for your two youngest children, Samuel and Christopher, per our initial agreements with you in the divorce matter, this past September. Please contact my office as soon as possible in order to settle this issue amicably and quickly.
J. Arnold Crosby
Gateway Law Offices
Living room, the Morgendorffer residence
There’s been a mistake. This isn’t true, none of this is true. My father is my real father, he’s my dad even if he’s gone away, not this other whoever he is, Swain whatever, he’s not my real dad, he’s not my real father, my real father never said he didn’t want to ever see me again, someone’s lying or go this all wrong, this is all a big mistake, one horrible mistake, and any second now I’ll wake up and this will never have happened, none of it, and—
This couldn’t—it isn’t—this just couldn’t possibly be—my dad does want to see me even if he’s mad at me or something, he does want to see me, I know he does, because he is my dad, he—
It couldn’t be true that he’s not, because then—
And Mom—she—she doesn’t want to—
She can’t possibly want to get rid of—
She can’t be trying to—
This has to be a big—a big—
Living room, the Morgendorffer residence
No, I see now.
There was no mistake.
The letter fell from her hands into her lap.
Quinn finished reading it from there.
“Oh, no,” Quinn whispered. “Oh, Jesus God.”
Quinn’s bathroom, the Morgendorffer residence
This will never see the Internet, Sandi thought, tearing the letter and envelope into pieces smaller than her fingernails. No one will ever steal this from me and use it against me. No one.
“Sandi,” whispered Quinn, “are you sure you don’t want to—”
“Where are the matches?” Sandi asked, looking around.
They burned the scraps in the sink in Quinn’s bathroom. Sandi scrubbed out the soot and ash. The ceiling fan carried away the smoke, and Quinn sprayed the bathroom with air freshener so her mother wouldn’t know anything at all had happened.
They never did find out which couple on “Dating, Mating, and Rating!” that night was the last to cheat.
Quinn’s bedroom, the Morgendorffer residence
Sandi’s eyes opened, and she looked up into the darkness inside the canopy over Quinn’s bed. Quinn softly snored in the sleeping bag across the room. A frozen wind blew against the side of the house. Everyone else in the house was asleep.
She lay there awake, listening to the wind, and it all came together.
Sam shouted at her before he went to camp, his face livid. You stupid worthless bitch! You don’t even belong in our family!
Chris slammed a door in her face when she asked where their father was, a day earlier. Why don’t you go find your own dad?
Brooke was leaving the restroom as Sandi was coming in, just before the long Thanksgiving weekend. Just you and your mom for the holidays? Nice to have the whole family together.
Quinn sat beside her in the car that morning, her breath visible in the frozen air. You know, it’s all family, they . . . you know, they do what they want. Sometimes they don’t care what we think. It’s like your . . . your mom and you. What can you do?
Quinn had hesitated before saying, “your mom and you.”
Sandi lay still. She looked up into the darkness and saw it all.
The news about her father not being her father had been no secret at all, really. Sam and Chris must have told everyone before they left for camp.
Everyone had known for months. Even Quinn, loyal Quinn, who had never breathed a word.
Everyone had known.
Everyone but her.
Kitchen, the Morgendorffer residence
Sandi looked up when she heard a stair creak. After a few moments, Quinn appeared in the kitchen doorway, a look of sleepy astonishment on her face.
“Hi!” Sandi said with a grin. She gently pushed the liquor bottle in Quinn’s direction. “Come have a drink with me!”
Quinn stared. “Where did you get that?”
“Pardon,” said Sandi in French. She pointed, her finger wavering in the air. “Liquor cabiniment . . . cabinet in the living room. My mouth won’t work.” She snickered. “Like ever’thing else. I should’ve assed . . . asked first. Excusez-moi.”
Quinn was at her side, picking up the bottle. “You drank all this?”
“Oui. I couldn’t not get to sleep. I just needed it for to . . . for some sleep. Stupid mouth. I needed it to have a drink so I could some . . . could go to . . . uh-oh.”
More footsteps sounded from the stairs. Moments later, Helen came in, clutching her nightgown belt and frowning. Her gaze fell on Quinn, Sandi, then the liquor bottle. “Sandi? Sandi, what on earth—”
“Mom!” Quinn began, panicked. “Mom, she—”
“Hi, Mom!” said Sandi, waving and grinning. “Did you know ‘bout my dad, too?”
“What? Sandi, for the love of God, were you drinking in here?”
Sandi’s smile slipped. “Jus’ a li’l bit, Mom. I jus’ had a li’l bit. Did you know ‘bout my dad, what happened to him?”
“Sandi, no!” whispered Quinn. She moved the bottle away and recapped it, then took the half-empty glass from Sandi’s fingers. “Don’t talk about that!”
“You knew, din’ you, Quinn? You knew ‘bout my dad. I know you knew. You were being nice ‘bout it, though. Ever’body knew.”
“Sandi,” said Helen, “what about your father?”
“Mom, please help me get her back upstairs!”
“My dad’s dead.”
Helen flinched and gasped in horror. “Oh, no! Oh, my dear!”
“You din’ know?” Sandi burped and covered her mouth afterward. “Excusez-moi. My dad’s not my real dad, you know? My fake dad left. My real dad’s dead. Dad’s dead dad. Did I say that right?”
“Mom! Please, help me!”
“My real dead’s . . . my real dad is dead. I got a letter ‘bout it. Did you know ‘bout it, too, Mizz Morgendorffer? Ever’body knows. My bro’ers knew. Half-bro’ers, I guess. My dad told ‘em, my fake dad, and now ever’body at school knows. My half-bro’ers told ‘em before camp, before they went to camp. Quinn knows. You din’ know my real dad was dead, though, till—you know.” She smiled at Quinn. “I din’ know till we got here an’ I opened the mail. I know now. Now know, now.” She snickered and covered her face with her hands, her fingers spread. “Know now. Aren’t I a scream?”
Quinn and Helen caught Sandi’s arms and tried to get her on her feet.
“Sandi!” cried Helen. “Sandi, hold on to me! Hold on to me!”
“Dear God, Sandi, what did you do?”
“My dad’s dead. My real dad. Ever’body knows it. Chris and Sam told ‘em, they told ever’one. He din’ want me either, my real dad din’. I don’t belong here, I don’t—I don’t belong anywhere.”
They almost had her out the kitchen entryway when Sandi’s legs collapsed from under her. Quinn and Helen dragged her to the sofa in the living room, got her feet up, and turned on the lights.
“Mom?” Sandi said. She waved a hand, lying on her back.
“Quinn, for the love of God, what happened?”
“Just help her, Mom, please! I’ll tell you later! Please just help her! I don’t know what to do!”
“Sandi . . . Sandi, what is it?”
“Why doesn’t anybody love me?”
Sandi’s face broke. She suddenly gasped, fighting to pull air into her lungs. Her fists covered her eyes and pressed in as hard as she could to stop the tears from coming out. Stars exploded in her vision, stabbing her through her brain. “Why doesn’t anybody love me?” she shouted. She filled her lungs, then screamed, “Why doesn’t anybody—anybody—anybody at all LOVE ME?”
Living room, the Morgendorffer residence
The living room was half-dark, lit only by the overhead light from the kitchen.
“Quinn?” Sandi’s voice was a hoarse whisper. It hurt to speak.
Quinn put down her magazine and leaned over from her chair, beside the couch where Sandi lay covered up. “What?” she whispered back.
Sandi’s throat was raw. Her face and skin were burning up. My fever’s back. “I’m sorry,” she said dully. “I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Quinn’s voice was softer than the blankets that covered Sandi to her chin. “Don’t worry about it. Go to sleep.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I know. Sleep.”
Sandi sniffed and was silent for a few long seconds. “Quinn?”
Quinn looked at her and waited.
“Four more days,” Sandi whispered.
“What? Oh, school. Don’t worry about it. Forget it. Sleep now.”
“Then it’s . . . it’ll be Christmas.”
“Sandi . . . please go to sleep.”
Sandi licked her lips. It was very important that she say what she had to say, though it hurt her throat to get it out.
“M-merry Christmas, Quinn.”
Quinn started to say something, but she stopped. She looked down at Sandi with a terrible sadness in her face. “I love you, Sandi,” she said. Her hand reached over and gently stroked Sandi’s burning forehead, as a mother would. “Please sleep now. You need to sleep.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Quinn carefully put her fingers over Sandi’s lips. She leaned closer. “Go to sleep for me, Sandi. Please sleep.”
Sandi stared at Quinn for a long while. Quinn took her hand from Sandi’s mouth, but she then reached for Sandi’s hand and held it.
Sandi blinked. “I love you, too,” she whispered.
“And I love you.”
Sandi continued to stare at Quinn.
“Why?” Sandi asked. “Why do . . . why?”
Quinn looked at Sandi for a long moment. “I just do, that’s all.” She inhaled and let her breath out slowly. “I just do.” She squeezed Sandi’s hand. “Please sleep for me.”
Sandi thought about it. She blinked, blinked again, and her eyes slowly closed. “Okay,” she whispered. “I love you.”
“I’ll be here,” Quinn whispered back, holding her hand.
Sandi nodded slightly, and then she disappeared into the darkness.
Author’s Notes, Part II: To avoid spoiling the story early on, the other fanfic stories to which this one connects are listed here. First, however, some of the seeds for this story were planted by an excellent essay on Daria Morgendorffer by Guy Wheatley, “All For One and One For None,” which draws explicit parallels between Sandi Griffin and Daria in attitudes and behavior. I owe a debt to Kara Wild for a suggestion she made on PPMB about prejudice Sandi and Quinn might encounter as close female friends who are outcasts (students accuse them of being lesbians), and a debt to Renfield for finding a book reference about the clothing size that Quinn usually wears (size three).
Crusading Saint’s tale “Attraction Anxiety” is critical to the background of this story, revealing the beginnings of the difficult relationship between Sandi and Joey at the end of their junior year, plus details on where Jeffy went wrong when he briefly became stuck on Helen Morgendorffer. Brandon League’s “Contemplation (Jeffy's Journey)” has more on Jeffy’s thoughts about Quinn and sets up his preoccupation with red hair that, alas, is his undoing here. Mike Yamiolkoski’s script “Outage” tells of the time Sandi and Jane Lane got stuck in an elevator, thanks to Kevin Thompson’s goofball actions. In a way, it marks the beginnings of change in Sandi’s character.
Two other fanfics were used here as the dreams of certain characters. Renfield’s “Holding On” was the basis for the nightmare Quinn relates to Sandi on the way to the mall, and Wyvern’s “Inheritance” was the dream Sandi then relates to Quinn.
All five of these fanfics are recommended to “Daria” readers.
Finally, two fanfics that I wrote are linked to this one. “The Nothingness of Being” reveals some of the inner workings of Joey’s family life and thinking during a time when he was still infatuated with Quinn. Joey’s last name as it appears here, Brown, is my own invention, though I think someone else used it in a fanfic some time ago (a play on Jamie White’s name). “A Certain Amount of Depth” shows how Quinn’s summer affair with David Sorenson began, before her senior year.
The quotes from the Bible in the first section are from II Samuel 1:25 and 1:27.
The three poems quoted in this story are Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Dream,” and Stephen Crane’s “The Heart.” All are available in various locations on the Internet.
Sandi Griffin and Kevin Thompson’s ages as seniors—19 and 20, respectively—were arrived at from age information in The Daria Database, “Family Portraits” (Kevin’s sophomore year, 17, and Sandi’s freshman year, 16).
Thank you for reading.
Future (Lawndale High)