By CharlieGirl, The Angst Guy, and Angelinhel
(with help from many others)
Daria and associated characters are ©2005 MTV Networks
Feedback is appreciated. Please write to: email@example.com (The Angst Guy), or firstname.lastname@example.org (Angelinhel).
Synopsis: What did Daria see behind the attic door that made her faint? Would you believe . . . another Daria? Prepare for a crossover journey into strange but familiar Lawndales, drawn from alternate-universe Daria fanfics of every sort.
Authors’ Notes: On January 21st, 2005, Kristen Bealer began an Iron Chef contest on PPMB to complete a story begun by CharlieGirl (a.k.a. Kendra), called “Illusions.” The conclusion had to show what Daria saw behind an attic door in her home that made her faint. This entry in the contest was begun by The Angst Guy and run as a serial story until mid-February, with added help from Angelinhel for sections using her original character, Angel. Story sections in which other alternate “Dariaverses” were visited in detail were reviewed by the creators of those worlds.
CharlieGirl’s introduction is repeated here with minor changes. Her story title was retained for the whole work. A familiarity with the third-season episode “Depth Takes a Holiday” is helpful in understanding certain key events in the story.
A list of the fanfics on which the alternate universes in this story were based is presented at the end of this tale, with additional notes.
Acknowledgements are at the end of the story.
The most dangerous of our calculations are those we call illusions.
—Georges Bernanos, Dialogue des Carmelites
Daria lay on her stomach, her head resting on her arms, staring at the blankness of her padded wall. Nothing much was eating at her, except boredom, and a bit of disgust that she kept well-squashed—for now.
Jane was busy with her new job at Pizza King, trying to save enough up to help with college expenses, pending financial aid. Quinn, who was finally becoming interesting, was at Sandi’s house with the remnants of the now-defunct Fashion Club. Her father Jake was with a promising client, discussing a possible contract over drinks—or, more likely, drinking alone. Tom, with whom she had broken up only a few weeks earlier, was most likely at the Cove with his family.
And her mother Helen . . . was at work, boffing the boss as usual.
And, as usual, Daria said nothing, trying to maintain the peace long enough so that she could escape. She hoped that Helen and Jake would maintain their illusions long enough so that Quinn could get out relatively unscathed, too. Quinn was finally becoming human, and Daria didn’t want to see that crushed out by their parents’ problems.
Daria tried to block out images of what Helen was doing that very moment, but it was becoming difficult. She got up and put on her boots, intending to go for a walk. When she reached her door, though, she thought about how soon this house, which had been a home to her for nearly three years, would be gone. No doubt once Quinn was off to college, the ‘rents would split. They had been wanting to for years, despite occasional flings with each other, and the only reason they stayed together was “for the girls.”
In the hallway, Daria paused at the head of the stairs and looked up at the attic pull-door on the ceiling near her parents’ bedroom. She’d never bothered to go up there, and all she really knew about their attic was that there were a few boxes from Highland, and there were windows, so even if there was no bulb, the mid-afternoon summer sun would let her see well enough.
“Oh, what the hell.” She jumped, caught the cord, and gave a good tug. The attic door came down with a hard creak. Daria had to kick the hinges to make the stairs unfold. “Well,” she remarked, “no one’s been up here in awhile, that’s for sure.”
Climbing the steep steps to the top, she looked around. Dust had been stirred up when the stairs had moved, and the motes danced in the sunlight like a scene from a dream. Nearly spellbound, Daria pulled the steps up after her, closing the trapdoor. There was a light switch on a support beam, and the bulb on the pole crackled to life after long dormancy.
The floor of the attic was made of pieces of wood, some of it one-by-fours, and some of it just thick, wide sheets of wood. Testing it, she found the floor strong enough to hold her weight, although more than two people on one of the boards would probably crack it. Just to be safe, she stuck to the places where she felt beams beneath her feet.
There were a few boxes right near the entrance, and Daria recognized all of them. This one contained Quinn’s baby clothes and mementos—worthless, financially, but too precious to be tossed. And that one over there was . . . hey! Her parents had fished her ruined flute out of the garbage and saved it. Underneath were school reports, progress cards, drawings, and a few toys. A well-read copy of Black Beauty was tucked in the corner of the carton.
Gently searching through other boxes, Daria found all sorts of bits and pieces of her childhood. Her parents had saved quite a bit more of her stuff than she’d thought. God, had she really worn that dress? And those little booties! Had her feet really been that tiny? She was nearly overwhelmed with emotion.
“They loved me,” she said in awe. “They always said that they loved me, but they really did.”
She sat down with a thud and put her head in her hands, trying not to cry. Never before had she felt more wanted, more cared-for by her parents. Even if they had their problems, even if they were probably going to get a divorce, they had always loved her. No one who didn’t care about a person would save so much of a person’s life. And now she was leaving them, going off to college, and her plans had never included returning to visit her parents for anything other than holidays and funerals. After pondering that for a moment, tears began to leak out of the corners of her eyes.
Twenty minutes later, after a good cry and going downstairs to fetch a box of tissues, she was back in the attic. The spell of the motes had been broken, and it looked like any other attic, except for . . . except for that door on the far wall. Why was there a door in their attic? Stepping lightly across the boards, not worrying now about falling through, she crept quietly up to the door and listened at it. No, no unusual noises. She put her hand on the knob and turned. It was locked.
“Okay, bigger mystery than I thought. Why is there a locked door in this attic? Why am I thinking of that Simpsons Halloween episode where Bart finds his conjoined twin locked up and creating pigeon-rats? What is behind this door?”
She went back downstairs and returned with a screwdriver, then proceeded to jimmy the lock. The handle was rusty, but eventually Daria heard a click. She held the screwdriver in front of her like a weapon, turned the handle, and pulled. . . .
Daria Morgendorffer had fainted clean away.
Her hand on the doorknob, Daria turned to look back at Jane. “Do you think it was too much when I waved and said, ‘Yo, sup’?”
“I think it was your overpowering charisma that did it.” Jane stepped past her friend and raised her digital camera, aiming down at the unconscious Daria on the other side of the door. Flash. “The fainting spells do seem a bit over the top, especially on the sixth time around. Maybe some of these alternate Darias have, you know, issues.”
“Can you imagine a Daria that didn’t?”
“You got me there.” Jane stepped through the doorway and knelt by the unconscious Daria, taking one more flash photo at close range before setting the camera aside. “She’s dressed just like you, so you’re okay. Looks like we have another window for a full download. You’d better get your stuff and go.”
“On the way.” Daria picked up the external hard drive and cables, then stepped through the attic door to the other side. She shivered as she walked past her own body and headed for the pull-down stairs. “If this house has more than one Quinn in it, I’m burning it down. I couldn’t believe the last one had five.”
“Oh, you liked it better in the world that had no Quinns, and you were a cheerleader and the VP of the Fashion Club?”
“I hate you.” And, for a moment, she almost did.
Daria dropped the attic’s trapdoor and made her way down the stairs as quietly as possible. She seemed to be back in her own home, down the hallway from her room—except, of course, she wasn’t. “This gives me the creeps,” she whispered to herself, walking in what she hoped was a casual way to her room. No sound came from any other part of the house. Maybe she was alone. That would be perfect.
Her room looked almost exactly like it did in her real home. (She couldn’t stop herself from thinking she was the real Daria and her home was the real Morgendorffer home, and everyone and everything else on the other side of the attic door was just a bad copy.) Even the Apple computer was the same. She pulled over the chair, sat down, attached the cables from the external hard drive to the CPU, and booted the system up. Everything loaded, and then—
She took a deep breath and began running down the usual list: H1GHLAND, LANEJANE, 3I4I5926, NCC1701X, S0L1TUDE—
The system opened.
“That’s not good,” she mumbled, feeling a chill go down her spine. She remembered using S0L1TUDE as a password just after coming back from that nightmarish family-therapy weekend at Quiet Ivy, where her parents tore into each other and came within a hair of destroying their marriage, the family, and everything else. This world’s Daria was still using that password, which did not bode well for what secrets she was keeping. Steeling herself and trying not to feel like a morally depraved thief and peeping tom, Daria clicked through the computer’s files until she found the folder for her personal documents. This she copied onto the external hard drive, along with a few system folders that caught her attention because of the dates given for last modification. She was in the habit of hiding particularly personal or damaging material inside system folders, almost always the same ones—and her alternate-world duplicates clearly had the same habit.
This done, she turned off the computer, disconnected the external hard drive, and wadded the cords up for easy carrying. She took a last walk around the room, checked to see if her diary was still in its usual secret place (it was), and read a few pages. Aghast, she read a few more.
“Damn it,” she whispered, her eyes huge. “Damn it to hell.” She finally shut the diary and hid it away. She felt like her insides were falling out. This is not my world. This isn’t happening to me. It’s happening to her, not me. I am the real Daria. Weak-kneed, she stumbled out of the room for the stairs. I can’t take too much more of this. I really can’t. Jumping from universe to universe like this is tearing me apart.
By the time she got back into the attic, Jane had finished giving the prone Daria a long drink from a wine cooler. The Daria on the floor coughed, swallowed, then turned her head and saw the (real, I am the real!) Daria walking toward her over the wood floor.
“All done,” said Daria to Jane, kneeling beside the prone Daria. “The rest of the house is empty.”
“This is one hell of a dream,” the prone Daria murmured, staring up at her duplicate.
“That’s all it will be, too,” said Jane, holding the prone Daria’s head in one hand. “You’re going back to sleep, and when you wake up, you won’t remember us at all.”
The prone Daria’s gaze went to the wine cooler. Fear entered her face. She stirred and tried to get up, but four hands held her down.
“Don’t!” said Jane, trying to straddle the prone Daria’s legs. “It’s too late! It’s only a couple of roofies! We’re not going to hurt you!”
Panicked, the prone Daria struggled harder to get up.
“Stop it!” shouted Jane, half sitting on her.
“Who are you?” cried the prone Daria. “Who . . . are . . . you?”
“I’m you!” shouted (I am the real!) Daria. “Stop fighting and listen to me! Stop it! Just listen to me!”
The prone Daria continued to struggle, almost knocking off her glasses.
“I know about Mom and Dad!” Daria forced the other Daria’s shoulders down. “I mean, your mom and dad, Helen and Jake! I know what’s going on!”
The prone Daria stopped fighting and looked up in shock. Sitting on the prone Daria’s thighs, Jane shot the upright Daria a startled glance.
“I know about your mom and Eric, the whole thing!” Daria yelled in desperation, louder than she wanted. “And your dad’s drinking and your fears they’re getting divorced and everything! You’re still going to make it! You’re still going to come out okay, and Quinn will make it, too, and everything will be fine, all right?”
Panting for breath, the prone Daria stared, her eyes huge. “How did you know?” she gasped.
“I read your diary! I always hide it in the same place in my room! You’re going to be okay! I am you! I know you’ll make it, and you’ll get Quinn through this, too! Trust me! You’ll make it! We always do!”
The prone Daria’s grip began to weaken. She looked from the Daria above her to the Jane holding her down.
“We’re from a parallel universe, swear to God,” said Jane. “We come in peace. Seriously, we do. We’re just out . . . exploring.”
“It’s a long and unbelievable story,” said Daria, eager to talk about anything but this Daria’s dreadful secrets. “You remember that hole behind the Good Time Chinese restaurant? The one you thought you dreamed about, that went to Holiday Island? It’s real. We think it’s an alien or extradimensional artifact. Jane found it. This Jane did.”
“Lucky for me that Pizza King wasn’t hiring in my universe,” said Jane. “I was taking out the trash at Good Time last week when I found the gateway right behind the dumpster, exactly where it was in the dream. You could have knocked me over with a breadstick.”
“See, I’d never asked Jane if she’d had the same dream I had, about the holidays coming to life,” Daria continued. “But we both had the same memory, because it wasn’t a dream. The holiday people, or whoever they were, must have used magic or ESP on us to block the memories after we left. It didn’t completely work, though. We still remembered something of that whole Bizarro World experience.”
“So we sneaked over to Good Time one night and found a metal framework surrounded the gateway under the restaurant’s rear wall, boxing in that hole in the wall,” Jane finished. “We borrowed some crowbars, broke a few larceny and property-damage laws, and drove the frame back to Daria’s house, where we mounted it in the attic on the old door that went nowhere. Now it goes everywhere. Cool, huh?”
The prone Daria blinked, struggling to stay awake. She looked up at the Daria above her.
“It’s true,” said the upright Daria. “We have an alternate-universe portal. And we really are here for peaceful purposes only.”
“Huh,” Jane said under her breath, “that’s not what you said when we found the house with quintuplet Quinns.”
“Oh, shut up.”
The prone Daria strained her face toward the mirror image above her. “Will it . . . everything . . . be okay, like you said?” she whispered. “It’s so . . . messed up . . . I’m . . . I’m so afraid.” The last word was barely audible.
Sadness filled Daria’s face. “I swear to you,” she said, leaning over the other Daria, “it will be okay in the end. Just go to sleep. You won’t remember us, but you’ll remember that everything will turn out okay. You’ll make it. You and Quinn, you’ll both make it through this.”
The prone Daria’s eyelids fluttered, then closed.
Swallowing, Daria put a hand on the sleeping Daria’s forehead, as if checking her temperature. She ran her fingers through the other Daria’s hair, sighed, then stood up on shaky legs.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said. She picked up the external hard drive and walked back through the door, kicking aside the screwdriver the other Daria had dropped..
Jane watched her go, then looked down at the sleeping Daria. Quickly, she bent over and kissed the sleeping Daria on the forehead, laid her head on the floor with care, and got up. She collected her camera, miniature tape recorder, and bottle, and left. The door shut behind her with a click.
Daria and Jane went downstairs to the second floor and closed the pull-down staircase. They then went to Daria’s room, where Daria put the external hard drive in the secret space in the closet in her room.
“Aren’t you going to download that?” Jane asked.
“Later.” Daria shut the door. “I need break after all that. I’m sorry.”
Jane nodded. She knew Daria had discovered terrible things in that last alternate world, things that opened wounds and fears about her home and family, and she would need a few hours to recover. “Sure thing, amiga,” she said, then on impulse went over and gave her best friend a hug. Daria returned it, holding Jane tightly.
“I’ll be okay,” said Daria, her voice muffled by Jane’s black shirt. “That one really . . . I just need a little time to get over it.”
“You know, that was a sweet thing you said to her, that she was going to make it. Maybe you gave her hope.”
Daria exhaled. “I wish I really believed it. It really got to me, her mother . . . the whole thing. It was too much.” She swallowed. “I hope she does make it.”
“I’m sure she will.” Jane gave a last squeeze, then let her friend go. “I’m going home to download the pictures and see if I can pick anything unusual out. Nothing interesting in her pockets. She looked the same as they all do, most of them.” She flinched, thinking of the Daria from world number two.
“Okay.” Daria sat down on her bed and took off her glasses. She then put her face in her hands, elbows on her knees.
“It was really bad, wasn’t it?” asked Jane, waiting by the door.
Daria nodded without looking up. “It was the pits.”
“Call me later, okay?”
After a moment, the door to her room closed with a soft thump.
Later that night, Daria downloaded what she’d recovered from that other Daria’s computer. The short stories were bleak, filled with family secrets and betrayal—unending betrayal, presented with a chilling banality as if everyone in the world were as faithless as the inconstant moon.
In a hidden folder with a coded numerical name in one of the system files, though, was a file describing the other Daria’s discovery that her mother was having a long-term sexual affair with her boss at the legal firm where she worked. The other Daria had accidentally overheard the whole story straight from her mother, who was in a private company-sponsored therapy session at Quiet Ivy. The session was accidentally broadcast over a malfunctioning desk intercom to another office, where the other Daria had been reading. It had destroyed her faith in everything good, turned her into an apathetic burnout with no goal except escaping her parents’ home at the earliest possible moment.
“I hope you found something to hold onto,” said Daria, but not to herself. She wiped her eyes. “You have to make it. You’re me, too. You have to make it, so I’ll know that I will, too, if anything bad happens to me.”
Bad like in world number two, whispered a voice in her head. Almost all of the other Darias had problems, but not like that second one. It made the first and third one look livable, and this one look almost good.
She shut off the computer and went to bed. She did not dream, or did not remember if she did, and she was glad of it.
They went for number seven the following day, just after lunch.
“Remind me again why we’re doing this,” said Daria, making sure the portal frame was properly connected to the attic doorway.
“We wanted to find out what killed the cat,” said Jane, putting fresh batteries in all her equipment. “At least, that’s how it started.”
“Huh?” Daria looked back, frowning. “What did that remark mean?”
“Well, didn’t you feel personally involved after the first one, just a bit?”
Daria’s angry reply never made it out of her mouth. She turned back to the framework, biting her lower lip.
“Sorry, amiga,” said Jane, now ashamed. “Should’ve kept my mouth shut.” It had been the second world that caused the change, not the first, though the first had been bad enough. The third world had perfectly frosted the cake.
The first Morgendorffer-Lane experiment to reach an alternate universe had backfired horribly. While half expecting to find a world in which the Confederacy had won the Civil War, or America was still a British colony, they had instead met a very Daria-looking Daria from a perfectly normal world, who fainted upon seeing herself on the attic door’s other side.
And, upon recovering, grabbed Jane and began to cry, refusing to let go of her.
“It’s okay,” Daria mumbled. She let go of the framework and rubbed her eyes. “Consider yourself forgiven. You probably have a point.”
The first alternate-world Daria could not be consoled and refused to let Jane out of her sight. Brief questioning revealed that the other world’s Daria had argued with the other world’s Jane over a trivial embarrassment several years earlier, and their friendship had gone on the rocks—permanently, it turned out, when the other Jane was struck and killed by an out-of-control truck on Dega Street, next to the Zen. The other Jane never had a chance. And the other Daria never had the chance to mend the damage to the only real friendship she had ever known. Now she had Jane again, and she wouldn’t let go.
It was Jane who came up with the only possible solution. She secretly wrote a note for Daria to go downstairs, mix a sleeping pill in one of her father’s badly hidden supply of wine coolers, and feed it to the other Daria. It was a reasonable risk, as Daria had a taste for wine coolers and sneaked two from her dad on a monthly basis, sharing with Jane. The risk paid off. Once the other Daria was unconscious, the girls moved her back to her own world, then left, shaken.
It didn’t stop them from world-hopping, though they debated over better drugs to use and settled on using illegally obtained roofies for their ability to cause amnesia. Tricking the other Darias into drinking the spiked wine coolers turned out to be unnecessary. The other Darias always fainted, to the world-hopping Daria’s annoyance and Jane’s amusement, and drank whatever they were given upon awakening. Checking out alternate-universe homes, taking pictures, and downloading computer data for “research” began and grew with further explorations.
“If I lose my job at Good Time, I’m going to regret it when my college tuition bill comes due,” muttered Jane, testing her pocket tape recorder. She thumbed a playback and listened to a few of her own words before hitting rewind.
“You’re getting some of my cash reserves, I told you,” said Daria. “I just want to play with this thing a little more, okay?” She finished checking the portal frame and stepped back. “Ready when you are.”
Jane turned on the recorder and put it in a pocket of her red jacket. She picked up the digital camera and nodded.
Daria turned to the portal frame surrounding the old attic door, put her hand on the doorknob, then closed her eyes and fixed an image in her mind, reciting to herself the formula that she and Jane had worked out for visiting alternate universes. The gateway did not open without a mental image of its purpose in the mind of the person triggering it, this much they had learned.
Somewhere out there, thought Daria, another me at this time is about to open a door in an attic. When that other me opens the door, I will open this door, and our worlds will be joined for as long as the doors remain open.
She opened her eyes and pulled open the door.
A door opened on the other side at the same moment. Another Daria identical to her peered through, gasped aloud—and fainted. Thump.
“Seven,” said Jane. “Jeez, how can you even look at yourself in a mirror without—”
Someone behind the fallen Daria stepped forward into the illumination from the windows and the lone attic light bulb—and shrieked.
“Quinn?” gasped Daria in recognition. “What the hell are you—?” She hurried through the door to the other side, maneuvering past the unconscious Daria—and came to a dead stop.
Her younger sister Quinn stared back with enormous eyes behind eyeglasses that looked remarkably like Daria’s own, though with thinner frames. Quinn wore a spring-green tee and black Capri pants, not unusual for her fashion consciousness, except that the green tee had a decoration on its front that arrested Daria’s attention as soon as she looked away from Quinn’s glasses.
“Ohmigod,” whispered Quinn, looking from one Daria to the other and putting a hand to her forehead. “There was something wrong with those diet cookies the school was selling! I thought they tasted funny!”
“What is that?” said Daria, pointing to the T-shirt decoration.
“What?” Quinn looked down. “That’s pi,” she said. “The Greek letter. Three point one four and all that.” Quinn’s initial shock faded as she leaned closer, squinting. “Are you really another Daria? Or could I tell if this was a dream even if I tried?”
Daria nodded. “It’s another me. Are you Quinn?”
“Well, duh! Who else would I be?” Quinn looked past Daria, then carefully scooted around her to reach her fallen sister. Jane stood in the doorway with a shocked expression on her face, camera raised but motionless.
“Daria?” said Quinn, lifting her sister’s head while glancing around. “Are you all right? We seem to be having a really weird hallucination together.”
“Is anyone else in the house?” asked Jane.
“What?” said Quinn, looking up, suddenly wary. “Don’t try anything. I can scream so loud it’ll burst your eardrums.”
Jane sighed and looked at the Daria she knew. “The oofies-ray scheme isn’t going to work here,” she said.
“I know.” Daria scratched her head. “Okay, this one we’ll talk to. These two, I mean. I think it’ll be okay.”
“What?” Quinn looked back and forth from Jane to the other Daria. “What are you two talking about?”
Jane cleared her throat and stepped closer to Quinn. “We come in peace,” she said. She raised the camera, aiming down. “Smile.”
Once the other Daria was awake, the meeting went surprisingly well. “I’m sorry to hear about Mom and Dad here,” said (I’m the real) Daria, after hearing a recitation of this world’s family history and giving her own. She had removed her green jacket to let everyone distinguish between her and the Daria with the brainy sister. “This is the second alternate world we’ve visited with a divorce in progress. We hit the other one yesterday. It was pretty bad.”
“Mom and Dad are just separating, not divorcing,” said Quinn. “I hope.”
“Was that other world worse than this one?” said the other Daria. Everyone sat on the attic floor in pairs, the world-hopping Daria and Jane facing the local Daria and brainy Quinn.
“Much worse.” No-jacket Daria looked at the glasses-wearing Quinn. “It may be hard for you to accept this, but you’ve got nothing to complain about.”
The jacket-wearing local Daria snorted. “Good to hear that someone thinks so.”
“Your sister doesn’t like math? Really?” asked Quinn, pushing her glasses up on her nose with a finger.
“Hates it,” said no-jacket Daria. “The Fashion Club broke up a couple months ago, but the foursome still gets together. Quinn—my Quinn—is doing a lot better. We agreed to never turn out like our aunts.”
The local Daria and Quinn perked up. “You mean Mom’s sisters?” said Quinn. “What happened to them?”
The local Daria and Quinn visibly relaxed. “Oh, that,” said jacket-wearing Daria. “Yeah, they do that here, too, but not so much now with the baby.”
“Baby?” said no-jacket Daria and Jane at the same time, mouths hanging open. “What baby?”
“Amy and Joel had—” Jacket-wearing Daria stopped and turned around. A noise had sounded from downstairs. “Crap, someone’s home.”
No-jacket Daria and Jane quickly got to their feet, picking up their equipment. “Hate to run,” said Daria, “but if we don’t get out of here, one of your parents is going to come up the steps and have a cow the size of Pennsylvania.”
“I’ll go see if our Good Time restaurant has an interdimensional portal I can borrow,” said jacket-wearing Daria. “Maybe we can get together again sometime, do lunch, scare some people.”
Quinn darted forward and threw her arms around the no-jacket Daria, giving a quick hug. “Good luck with everything,” she said. “Be careful. Don’t open any bad doors, okay?”
“Uh, okay,” said the flustered Daria. “I will. I mean, I won’t. Whatever.”
The two Darias looked at each other a last time, then shook hands and parted. Jane started to close the door from her side, and Quinn from hers.
“Wait!” shouted no-jacket Daria, spinning around. “Who is Joel?”
The doors shut and contact was broken.
They rehashed the seventh expedition in Jane’s home, in her room. The animated talk ran on for an hour. Both travelers were relieved that things in the other world had not been worse, and the other Daria and Quinn had been quite well adjusted. Jane could tell Daria didn’t know what to make of the brainy Quinn, but their first impressions were favorable.
“Okay,” said Jane, clicking through the digital photos of the other Daria and Quinn on her computer, “what have we learned so far?”
“There are certain things mankind was not meant to know,” Daria said without hesitation, “and we’re up to our necks in them.”
Jane consulted a list by her computer. “Were you thinking about world number four, where you and I had that civil union in Vermont and were thinking of getting you pregnant by Trent before we went to college?”
A strained look crossed Daria’s reddening face. “I was trying not to.”
“Good thing the other Jane wasn’t around when we crossed over. I’d have kicked the butt of anyone who slipped my soul-mate an alcoholic beverage full of roofies.” Jane smiled, her voice lowering a register. “Hey, amiga, can you honestly say that you’ve never looked at me and thought about—”
“That does it,” said Daria, standing up with a scowl. “Boot to the head.”
“Okay, okay! Down, girl!” Jane’s smirk didn’t go away, though. “Seriously now, what can we conclude from our mini-vacations on seven what-if worlds?”
Daria sat down on her bed again. “This is harder than I thought,” she said, wringing her hands together. “I’m not looking forward to this as much as I once did. I think it’s more fun for you because we haven’t met another Jane yet.”
“Hmmm. Nothing bad’s really happened to other Janes, so far. Well, except for me getting killed in the first world. Bummer.”
“You were a runner a couple of times, which figures, and an artist otherwise, gay or straight. Thinking about seeing more than one of you at once gives me the chills, though.”
“Hey, I think it would be cool. Think of all the terrible things a gang of Janes could do. Twenty-four hours, and ve vould rule zee vurld!”
Daria didn’t laugh or even smirk. She lowered her head. “Terrible things, yeah. Terrible things are all I can think of. I never thought it could be so bad, that things could go so badly for me so many times, somewhere else. I just can’t believe it.”
Jane’s smile sank. She turned her chair from her monitor to face her friend and thought about, but did not speak of, world number two. World one had been rough, but after their visit to world two, with world three slamming in right behind, Daria’s goals in world-hopping seemed to change from having a little excitement, poking around where she didn’t belong, to something more. It had seemed at first like a do-gooder urge, making troubled Darias happy, but that wasn’t quite it. Most troubled Darias were likely to stay troubled, no matter what this Daria did. It was like masochism now, this running around. Almost like—testing herself, maybe? Growing up? Preparing for something?
“Talk to me, amiga.”
“It’s . . .” Daria sat up and ran both hands through her long hair. “I always thought I had a rough life, competing with Quinn for attention when I was growing up, having parents who were half with-it at best, being surrounded by smiling, shallow, plastic people—I always thought I had it so hard, but now I think I was the shallow plastic person. I was the stupid one. I see it now, just how good I’ve had it, and I feel freaking stupid for thinking it was otherwise.”
She leaned forward over, elbows on her thighs, and looked at the floor. “And I see how lucky I was all this time to have found you. I knew it before, I really did, but now it’s . . . it’s totally different. I cannot believe I was so lucky to find someone like you. I wouldn’t have made it without—” Her voice cracked and she stopped, rubbing her face.
Uncomfortable now, Jane cleared her throat. “And I was lucky to get you. However, if we go on too much longer like this, we’ll end up getting married like on world four, and I don’t have the money for a wedding dress.”
She expected Daria would make a face and a sarcastic remark, but instead Daria stared at the floor and nodded. “I can understand why they did it,” she said. “I’m not gay, and I know you aren’t, but I understand them. They had it all, and they knew it. Their world and this last one have been the best so far. And ours, too, I guess. I just wish it didn’t eat at me so much.”
Jane found herself imitating Daria’s pose, leaning forward. “Then why are we still doing this?” she asked in a soft voice. “Are you thinking about stopping?”
“What? No, not stopping. Just . . . why are we doing this, I dunno anymore. I . . .” Daria sighed. “Let’s not talk about this now. Later, maybe. I have to think it through. I want there to be a purpose to what we’re doing, since we’re blowing off so much time doing it, and everyone keeps asking where we are, why weren’t not around, and all that. If Mom and Dad weren’t so busy at work, and Quinn wasn’t out so much of the time on dates or at her friends’ houses, we’d have to rein back our trips, and I’m glad we aren’t. I really want to keep going, even though this is scaring the living daylights out of me.”
They were silent for half a minute.
“Want me to try it?” asked Jane, and realized as she said it that she didn’t want to do it, she didn’t want to be the one who activated the portal. She was too afraid of what she might see on the other side. It might be an alternate version of her—a bad alternate version—and she didn’t know how she’d deal with it.
Daria shrugged. “If you want, but you don’t have to. I’m kinda used to it now.”
“Maybe it’s better if we go with that, then. The portal’s probably attuned itself to your personal vibes, or whatever.”
The beginnings of a smile appeared on Daria’s face as she looked up. “Hmmm,” she said, “you’re buttering me up so you don’t have to open the door and wonder why you keep fainting every time you see yourself.”
“It’s your intense charisma, I keep telling you. Maybe if you wore a mask or something. We could put a paper bag over your head. Want to try it?”
Daria looked up, fighting a broader smile. “I’m thinking of a two-word phrase that begins with F.”
“I’m lucky to have you, too.” Jane scooted her wheeled chair over to Daria. Their hands found one another and held on.
“I’m glad this isn’t like that first world,” Daria whispered. Her grip on Jane’s hands tightened. “I’m really glad.”
And I’m glad this world isn’t like the second, Jane thought. That was worse than the third one. Funny that I was a runner in both of them. I did pretty well, but not Daria. At least world three’s cheerleader/Fashion Club Daria had a few real friends and had a chance for a better life when she got away from home. At least she had a spirit, bruised and battered and shrunken and angry as it was.
Whereas the second world’s Daria was an empty shell.
“No more roofies as part of the plan,” said Daria when they got back into the attic that evening. “Spike the drink anyway, just in case, but leave it back here somewhere in case we need it. We’ll talk it out and see what we discover. Looking through those computer files is taking up too much time, and I didn’t feel right about it anyway.”
Jane got to work on the drink. “Did you ever think we would need a weapon, by the way?” she asked as she worked. “Just in case?”
“In case what, another world’s Daria turns out to be a gun nut?”
“Well, you never know.”
“No, forget it. After that wonderful experience with paintball in the tenth grade, just thinking about live ammunition gives me hives. We’d probably shoot ourselves by accident before we shot any bad guys.”
“And any bad guys we shot would probably be us, anyway.”
“Don’t give me any ideas while you’re within range. Let’s get on with this.”
They got ready, and Daria opened the door.
A door on the other side opened at the same. The Daria there, looking exactly like almost all the others, gasped and fell backward in a faint, dropping a flashlight that went out when it hit the floor.
“Damn it!” Daria snapped while Jane giggled behind her. “This crap has gone far enough!”
“What crap are you talking about, amiga?” came Jane’s voice from a short distance behind the fallen Daria.
Daria’s anger and Jane’s giggles vanished in a shot. As one, they moved to the doorway and strained to see into the near-darkness of the other attic.
A tall, lanky figure took a few steps closer to the door, faintly illuminated from behind by a ceiling light near an open stairway door. The figure tapped a long, pale walking stick to the left and right on the wooden floor ahead of her as she moved. “Daria?” said the figure with Jane’s voice. “Daria, what are you talking about?” The walking stick struck the fallen Daria’s head lightly on one side, and the figure quickly knelt and felt around with one hand.
The figure was Jane, wearing wide, stylish sunglasses and dressed entirely in black, with a jet-black waterfall of long hair. She kept her head facing forward, not looking down at the fallen Daria. As one fist clenched her white cane, the fingers of her other hand found the fallen Daria’s face by her knees and ran over it—and she gasped. “Daria?” she said, her voice rising. “Daria!”
“She fainted,” said the Jane in the doorway, talking a step closer. “Let—”
The new Jane reacted in less than a second, the white cane coming up and whipping back in both her hands like a baseball bat. “Get back!” she yelled, ready to strike. “Get the hell away from us!”
“No!” yelled Daria, holding up her hands. “Don’t! Wait a minute!”
A stunned look spread over the kneeling Jane’s face, half hidden in her long hair. “Daria?” she said. The white cane waved in her grip. “What the hell’s going on?”
“Oh, no,” said Jane, stepping back. “She’s blind.”
“What’s going on?” the blind Jane shouted. “What’s happening?”
“Jane!” Daria pushed her Jane aside and stepped through the doorway. “Jane, be careful! It’s me, Daria!”
The blind Jane hunched down as if preparing to be attacked. Her face became partly visible through her hair—a nightmarish mess of scar tissue reaching down to her misshapen nose. Whatever had hurt her had clearly damaged her eyes as well, now hidden behind the sunglasses.
“Wait! Listen! This is hard to explain. My name is Daria, Daria Morgendorffer, but I’m not the Daria you know. She’s in front of you. She passed out when she saw me. We look exactly alike, and it must have frightened her. We—Jane and I, we came from another—”
“Oh,” groaned the fallen Daria. She put an arm over her face. “Oh, what happened?”
“Here,” Daria said, stepping through the doorway into the room. Her boot thumped loudly on the floor. “Let me—”
One of the blind Jane’s hands released the walking stick and went behind her back. Daria heard an electronic tone a moment later, then a woman’s faint voice: “Nine one one. What is—”
“Eleven eleven Glen Oaks Lane!” shouted the blind Jane, facing the doorway. “Get the police! Hurry!”
“No, damn it! Don’t do that!” shouted Daria. “We just want to—”
The white cane sliced the air with lightning speed and smacked Daria in her left upper arm. Daria shrieked and stumbled back. The blind Jane rose up on one knee, dropping the cell phone behind her and reversing her grip on the cane to whip it back around a second time. She hit the sighted Jane in the side of the head as the latter stepped in to grab Daria. Jane yelled, dropping her digital camera, and manhandled Daria back through the doorway. She then slammed the door shut, leaning on it to keep it closed. Contact was broken.
“Freaking hell!” yelled Jane, both hands covering a flame-red cheek. “Goddamn freaking hell! That hurts!”
Daria sat down on the wooden floor, gripping her arm and trying not to cry. “What did she do that for?”
“And I lost my damn camera!” Tears running down her face, Jane began to spew curses that nearly shocked Daria into forgetting her injury. Jane concluded with, “That rotten bitch!”
Then, a moment later, she smiled and began to chuckle. The chuckle swiftly turned into hysterical, full-blown laughter.
“What the hell’s so funny?” Daria growled.
Jane doubled over and howled with mirth, even as she held her aching cheek. Blood trickled from her right ear.
“She got us!” Jane gasped. “I told you that those other Janes could kick butt, and this one was as blind as could be and she kicked our asses! I am the greatest!” She sank down to her knees, her back to the attic door, then fell over on her side laughing.
“Drop dead, Lane,” Daria said, fighting a smile, and then she began laughing, too.
When it was over, they bandaged themselves, had a wine
cooler each, and fell asleep in Daria’s room on the rug. Late that night, Daria
dreamed she opened the attic door, and behind it was a Daria in a matching
denim skirt and vest, with a burnt-orange top, cork sandals, stylish glasses, a
gold necklace and rings, and nothing in her eye sockets except darkness.
Her screams woke up Jane, who knew without asking what had happened. The nightmares had started with world number two. They fell asleep again in bed, nestled together like spoons until the late morning sun got them up.
The next day was a Friday, and after breakfast Daria and Jane decided to make the most of an empty house and visit at least two alternate worlds in a row, possibly three, as long as their nerves and sanity could take it. On the downside, Quinn asked some pointed questions before leaving on an all-day date about what was going on in the attic.
“We’re making a movie,” Jane said. “I call it, ‘The Life and Death of a Dust Bunny.’ It’s sort of Russian in tone, sentimental and uncommunicative, with a little Andy Warhol thrown in.”
“Uh-huh.” Quinn gave Jane and her sister a doubtful eye. “Well, don’t bring any dust bunnies downstairs where they can reproduce. Ta-tah.” She started off, then turned and added, “Oh, and if making this movie requires drinking any more wine coolers, buy your own. Dad’s asked me twice if I’ve been getting into his stash.”
“The wine coolers keep the dust bunnies happy,” said Daria. “Can’t have a movie without happy actors.”
Quinn left, shaking her head. “No wonder I don’t understand art,” she mumbled.
Daria’s parents were already gone. The cynical duo made their way back to the attic in no time.
“I bet it was that episode of ‘Sick, Sad World,’ the rerun,” Daria said. She was finishing some notes on the last expedition through the doorway.
“Which episode?” Jane was unwrapping a disposable camera.
“The one that was on two or three nights ago about the attic monsters. We missed it from doing this.”
Jane looked up, the light dawning in her face. “Oh, that one, yeah! And the second half of the show was about illegal space aliens taking our jobs! The shapechangers!” She smacked her forehead. “Oh, no! Of course! That was one of their best shows ever! Scared the living hell out of me when I first saw it!”
“Exactly. The last Jane must have seen the show and got overexcited, that’s all.”
“Wait—that Jane was blind. She couldn’t see it!”
“Oh. Um, well, maybe the other Daria saw it and she told Jane, or Jane listened to it, or—God, listen to what I’m saying. Can you believe we’re talking about this?”
“What I can’t believe is that I dropped that damn digital camera. It had all our photos on it, plus . . . oops.”
Daria looked up from her notes. “I don’t like that ‘oops.’ Please tell me what that ‘oops’ meant and if we should find a new place to live.”
“Um, well, it sort of had something experimental on it. Kind of a comment on . . . oh, hell, I took pictures of me naked and covered in stage blood, chewing on a mannequin’s arm. We’re still friends, right?”
Daria’s pencil tapped the side of her head, then she shook her head, sighed, and went back to writing.
They were ready in fifteen minutes more. This time, Jane wanted to be the one to open the door. “It’s only fair,” she said. “What’s the worst that could happen—we go to a world where everyone’s a flesh-eating ghoul except me? How likely is that?”
“Shut up and open the damn door.”
Jane’s hand rested on the doorknob, but she turned and said, “Daria?”
“Bet you fifty the other Jane doesn’t faint.”
Daria’s lip curled in a snarl. “You’re on,” she said in a dark tone.
“One, two, two-and-a-half, three.” Jane pulled the door open.
The door opened on the other side, revealing an identical Jane with her hand on the other doorknob. The other Jane’s eyes grew wide and she froze—then raised a hand, rubbed her eyes, and leaned forward to stare again.
“Thank you for not fainting,” said Jane. She turned to Daria. “You owe me fifty smackers, amiga.”
Daria glared at the other Jane. “Thanks loads.”
The other Jane cleared her throat, then looked to one side at something behind the door on her side, then looked back at Daria and Jane, then away again, then back. “Hey, Daria?” she called, leaning back, her head turning.
“What?” came Daria’s voice from somewhere out of sight.
“You owe me fifty buckaroos,” Jane said. “It’s not Bart Simpson’s twin.”
“I owe what? Hey, how’d you get that door open?” Boot steps approached.
“She’s going to faint,” Jane told the other Jane. “Bet you fifty.”
“No way,” said the other Jane as the other Daria appeared around the door. “She won’t—”
“Damn,” said the other Jane, looking down. “That sucks.”
“Where are those wine coolers?” Daria growled. She walked back into the attic, got one, opened it, walked through the door past the other Jane, and poured the bottle’s contents into the prone Daria’s face.
“Hey!” yelled the other Jane, grabbing Daria’s wine cooler. “You’re wasting it!”
The other Daria coughed and tried to sit up. “What happened?” she gasped.
The first ten minutes were a nightmare of misunderstandings and hunting for clean towels, but when things settled down and more wine coolers were passed out, the interdimensional encounter took on a rosier glow. Daria again took off her green jacket and made Jane take off hers, so no one would get confused if anyone got up and walked around. Histories were recited, future plans compared, family members named, and a few differences found—but only a few.
“You two have had a busy summer,” said no-jacket Daria, looking a bit peeved. “I haven’t gotten published yet, myself. I didn’t think anyone would want a Melody Powers story, so I didn’t even try one.”
“Send one to Literature in Action,” said jacket-wearing Daria. “It’s almost the only market left that’s open to new talent in action-adventure fic.”
“You would know,” no-jacket Daria said, trying not to sound like sour grapes. “I must have sent out two dozen stories and eight poems by now, all rejections.”
“Try a novella and make something awful happen to Melody,” said the other Daria. “Make her crawl and spit up lots of blood. Angst sells.”
“That was so sweet of the Morgendorffers to give you that party!” no-jacket Jane told jacket-wearing Jane. “Can I see that family portrait you did for them?”
“Uh—sure, I think. It’s sitting in the family room. I don’t believe anyone else is in the house.”
“Let me guess,” said no-jacket Jane, ticking off names on her fingers. “Helen’s at work, Jake’s out at the movies, and Quinn’s on a date.”
“We must have a really boring universe,” said jacket-wearing Jane. “I promise next time you come by, I’ll have the Recreation Committee set off some bombs and start a house fire.”
“That would be great, thanks!”
The two Janes got to their feet and waved goodbye to the two Darias, then went to the attic stairs and headed down.
“Okay,” said jacket-wearing Daria when they were alone, turning back to no-jacket Daria, “what was the name of the boy you had a crush on in ninth grade at Highland High School, but Beavis and Butthead ruined it by telling him they saw you naked when they didn’t, and you always kind of wished afterward that they were both dead?”
No-jacket Daria gasped, then raised her hands and fingerspelled a name.
“Correct,” said jacket-wearing Daria. “You’re definitely not an illegal shape-changing space attic monster, not that I imagined for a moment you were. Next question: How did you really get here from your universe?”
Jacket-wearing Daria frowned and narrowed her eyes.
Sigh. “I told you, we walked through a doorway using an alien portal framework from the back wall of Good Time Chinese, and—”
Jacket-wearing Daria held up a hand to stop her. “That’s not possible. I made that up in a short story I gave to Jane a few days ago, when we were at Good Time Chinese.”
“Huh? But you got the idea from that dream, right? Holiday Island? Christmas, Halloween—”
“—and Guy Fawkes Day living with us, everything. No, I didn’t. I’ve never had a dream like that. I just made it up for Jane and Trent. Big Cupid, little leprechaun, Love Taser, the works. No dream.”
“But the framework is right there,” said no-jacket Daria, pointing to the doorway. They both got up and went to look.
“This is impossible,” said jacket-wearing Daria, inspecting the framework.
“But it’s imaginary! I made it up for Jane and Trent’s story!”
It was no-jacket Daria’s turn to frown. “You have a copy of this story?”
Several minutes later, the two Darias were in the jacket-wearing Daria’s room, watching a story come out of a computer printer. “I don’t believe this,” said no-jacket Daria, holding the story as she read it. “This can’t be something you made up! This is impossible!”
“But this—” No-jacket Daria shook the story in her hands “—really happened.”
“I need a wine cooler.”
The two Darias marched out of the bedroom, heading for the stairway down to the first floor.
“Oh, Daria,” said Quinn, looking at the two Darias as she came down the hall from the staircase, “Joey’s waiting out in the car, and I need my—my—my—muh . . .”
“Uh-oh,” said both Darias at once, looking down at Quinn’s unconscious form.
Both Janes appeared at the foot of the stairs, clutching plastic bags full of food fresh from the refrigerator. “Did someone drop something?” one called.
“Weren’t you watching the front door?” called jacket-wearing Daria, looking irked.
“We were in the kitchen!” said no-jacket Jane.
“It’s time to beat feet,” called no-jacket Daria. “The manure has hit the windmill.”
“But we haven’t finished lunch yet!” said jacket-wearing Jane.
“You had breakfast just half an hour ago!”
“But they have cold pizza and chicken wings!”
“Jane, Quinn just saw both of us and passed out, and her boyfriend will be here in less than a minute! We have to get out of here!”
“Damn it!” said both Janes at once, and then jacket-wearing Jane helped no-jacket Jane stuff her pants pockets with food taken from the Morgendorffers’ refrigerator while both tried climbing the stairs at the same time.
“You have my sympathies,” muttered jacket-wearing Daria, watching them and shaking her head.
“And you mine,” said no-jacket Daria.
“Thank you. I’m glad someone finally understands.”
“I am too.”
And they looked at each other and smiled as neither of them had ever smiled before.
Leaving Quinn in the hallway, the four girls climbed into the attic again and came to a stop before the attic door. No-jacket Daria picked up her jacket and put it on, as did Jane, and they stood awkwardly looking at their feet.
“Oh, hell,” said one of the Janes, and she hugged the other Jane to her.
“Godspeed,” said Daria to Daria, holding out a hand. They shook and smiled again, then hugged. When they were done, they turned to the Janes.
“JANE!” both shrieked.
“There’s nothing wrong with kissing, okay?” one of the Janes snapped as they broke their clinch.
“Everybody does it!” said the other, wiping lipstick from around her mouth.
“You’d better get your Jane out of here before something brain-destroying happens and we all have to kill ourselves,” said Daria.
“Done,” said Daria, grabbing the arm of a Jane and pulling.
“No!” yelled Jane. “The other one!”
“No!” yelled the other Jane. “Take her!”
“Damn it!” yelled both Darias.
“Hey, Quinn?” called a teenage male from downstairs. “Quinn? Did you find that scrunchie?”
Everyone had time for one last hug, and one each Daria and Jane went through the doorway. All of them closed the doors with the greatest reluctance.
And all of them cried afterward.
An hour later, when the girls felt close to normal again and had consumed all of the food Jane had brought with her from the other house’s refrigerator, they stood in front of the attic door with their hands on their hips and talked it over. They decided to go ahead with a second journey, but with two major changes in operating procedures. First, they would avoid drinking wine coolers until later that evening, when world exploring was finished for the day. Second, a plan was hatched to prevent a certain repetitious occurrence involving the other Darias.
“As long as we don’t bump into each other when we go through,” said Daria, wrapping it up, “and we move quickly, we should be able to catch her when she falls. Assuming she falls.”
Jane coughed discretely. “When she falls, you mean.”
“Fine, be that way. You get that side, I get this side, no more nosedive, crash, and burn. One of my copies is going to get a concussion otherwise, and they seem to have more than enough angst in their lives. Except maybe for that last one, the lucky little . . . anyway, let’s do it.” Daria put a hand on the attic doorknob. “Okay,” she said, positioning herself and thinking through the special phrase to activate the gateway, “on the count of three . . . one, two, three!”
She jerked the door open, but was a little uncoordinated from the wine coolers consumed earlier and discovered at the last moment that one of her boots was in the way. It stopped the door with the edge right in front of her. Too keyed up to think properly, Daria started forward anyway and banged hard right into it on her left shoulder. “Ow!”
Even in the confusion, Jane was able to launch herself through the door. As she rushed in, an obviously startled and frightened Daria on the other side took a step back, dropping something from one hand. Her eyes then rolled up and she crumpled—or would have, except for Jane catching her and lowering her to the wooden floor with perfect timing.
“Oof!” said Jane, bending over the new-fallen Daria. “You’ve put on a couple pounds since . . .” She stopped, looking down, then gasped aloud and pulled back.
“Now what?” said Daria, grimacing as she walked over and rubbed her shoulder. “You said I had a weight problem?”
“You might say that,” said Jane in a whisper. She pointed.
The fallen, tangle-haired Daria was not dressed like a usual Daria. This one had an oversized forest-green T-shirt and black sweat pants, and on her feet were ultra-soft fuzzy white house slippers that each appeared to be a large rabbit’s head, complete with long ears—and a red mouth at the toes full of sharp, pointy, white-felt teeth.
Jane pointed to the white script letters on the T-shirt, which proved to be more interesting than all the rest of the fallen Daria’s outfit put together. MOTHERHOOD: THE SECOND OLDEST PROFESSION, it read. A faint odor of sour milk and baby powder drifted in the air.
Wordless, Daria knelt by the body’s side. The fallen Daria seemed to have a larger tummy and hips than she did, but Daria could not tell if the other one was still pregnant. A weary quality was reflected in the prone Daria’s face, dark circles under her eyes attesting to a lack of sleep. Jane reached for the fallen Daria’s T-shirt and gently pulled it up.
“Hey!” said Daria, reaching over to stop her. “What are you doing? Get dirty with your own clones, but not with mine!”
“She’s wearing a nursing bra, Daria,” said Jane with a look of amazement. “She’s just had a baby.”
Shocked, Daria peeked under the T-shirt—and saw that the other Daria was indeed wearing a snap-together nursing bra.
“Looks like you’ve finally got a pair, too,” said Jane, leaning closer. “I bet she’s two cup sizes bigger than you.”
Daria grabbed the hem of the other Daria’s shirt and pulled it out of Jane’s hands. “That’s enough of that,” she snapped, tugging the shirt down again—but she felt her head begin to spin. She sat down on the floor and pulled up her knees, letting her head droop forward. My God, she had a baby! I have a baby! She does, I mean—but she’s me! We have a baby!
“I going to faint,” said Daria, and she meant it.
“Oh! Here, lie down a moment!” Jane was suddenly at her side, easing her back to lie on the floor. That done, Jane found herself looking from one Daria to the other, unsure of what to do with either. “Don’t pass out on me!” she said. “I can’t handle you both!”
“A baby,” whispered Daria, staring at the attic ceiling. “God in heaven, a baby.”
“You’ve had a baby. I mean, she did.”
Jane delivered the next line with a straight face. “Do you think it’s ours?”
“What?” Daria glared up at her friend. “Oh, why don’t you go stuff a—”
“Shh!” Jane hissed. “Don’t wake her up! What are we going to do? She probably has the baby in the house right now! What are we going to do with her?”
Daria got up on one elbow, then made herself get to her knees again. “Check her pockets,” she said. “I don’t know if those pants have any, though.”
They did, and in the pockets were a used pacifier, a small stuffed penguin, four one-dollar bills, a pill, and a penciled note in Daria’s handwriting that read: CALL DR. 4 NXT CHKUP ASAP MON A.M.?
“Since when did you like penguins?” Jane asked, glancing at the toy. She put it down, then checked the silent figure over. After a moment, Jane picked up the fallen Daria’s left hand and got her friend’s attention. There was no wedding ring on the fallen Daria’s ring finger.
The possible meanings of this swiftly sank into Daria’s brain, and she groaned aloud. “Great. That’s just great. All I can think of is, who’s the father? And do I really want to know?”
“I bet I can come up with a good suggestion,” said Jane in a low voice. “And it isn’t Trent.”
Daria’s face fell. “I bet I know who you’re thinking of, too. How could I do this? How did I get myself into this?”
“There’s usually only one way to do it,” Jane said, but it didn’t come out quite as funny as it could have.
“Thank God she didn’t get hurt when she fainted,” Daria mumbled, stuffing the objects back in the pockets where they were found. “I’d never have forgiven myself if she had.” She noticed something half-hidden under the edge of the other Daria’s T-shirt, almost under her hips. Reaching for it, she produced a small pair of baby shoes, tied together by their shoelaces. On the side of each of the shoes was written, in pink letters, QUINN.
“Oh, my God!” gasped Jane. “You named your baby after Quinn?”
“Are you insane? These are Quinn’s old baby shoes! She must have come up to get them and—”
“Daria?” called a man’s voice from downstairs. Horror-struck, Daria and Jane looked at each other, too unnerved to move. “Daria? Are you up there?” the voice repeated. The speaker was at the foot of the ladder going into the attic. Daria and Jane recognized the speaker at once.
It was Tom Sloane, Daria’s recently ex’ed ex-boyfriend, the only guy with whom Daria had every flirted with the idea of having premarital sex. The possible consequences of that option were now clear as crystal. Daria had a half-second to run the timing through in her head, dating events from the day when she and Tom had originally planned to “do it,” and it fit. It was Tom’s baby—Tom’s baby and hers.
“Say something!” Jane whispered, pointing to the attic stairs.
“No!” Daria mouthed, fearful of being overheard.
“Daria?” called Tom. Heavy footsteps sounded on the attic stairs.
“WAIT!” Daria shouted, almost hysterical. “DON’T COME UP!”
The footsteps stopped. “Hey, are you okay up there?”
Daria’s shouts had not awakened the other Daria. “I’m fine!” she cried, “just fine! I, uh, I have a surprise for you! Don’t come up and spoil it! Stay downstairs!”
“Uh . . . sure, okay. Whatever you say. Did you find those baby shoes?”
“Yes! Yes, I did!”
“Can you throw them down? Jane wants to see if they fit.”
Another exchange of startled looks. “Jane?” Jane whispered. “Jane’s here, too?”
“Daria?” called Tom. “Is someone up there with you?”
“No!” yelled Daria. “Of course not! I’m . . . talking to myself!”
Jane snatched the baby shoes out of Daria’s hands and threw them. They went through the trapdoor perfectly.
“Ouch!” cried Tom. “Daria! Careful with those, okay? You hit me right in the forehead.”
“If he got me pregnant as well as you,” Jane hissed, “I’m going to hit him in a lot more places than just his freaking head!”
“Shh!” Daria raised her voice. “Sorry! Everything okay down there with you?”
“It’s all right. It’s almost feeding time, so come on down as soon as you can. Oh, and your mom said she wanted to show you how to express milk into bottles you can keep in the refrigerator, so Jane or I can do the feeding when you need to rest. She called from a maternity store where she found a good breast pump.”
Daria’s face turned bright red as Jane stared at her, savoring the moment but not daring to laugh. Mortally embarrassed, Daria said, “Great! Wonderful! Good for her!”
“Jane said she wants to watch. She brought a camera, if you don’t mind.”
“I do mind! This isn’t Wild Kingdom!” She glared at the Jane beside her, who was hunched over, fighting back laughter. “Uh, sorry again about hitting you with the shoes!”
“That’s okay. It was my fault. I should have just come up to get—”
“No! I mean, no, don’t spoil the surprise!”
They heard Tom walk away, muttering something under his breath as he did.
“We have to get out of here,” Daria said in a hushed voice. “The sooner, the better. Yesterday would be best.”
Jane managed to suppress her mirth. “Don’t you want to stay and talk to—”
Daria shook her head so hard her glasses almost came off. “No! This is way too complicated! It’s too big a mess, and I don’t want to deal with it right now! She must have gotten pregnant by Tom by accident, and I just don’t want to deal with that, okay? I don’t! We have to go! Now!”
Pressed a hand to the prone Daria’s cheek, Jane then looked at the Daria beside her. “Don’t you want to see the baby?” she asked.
The words cut Daria to the bone. “No!” she said, and was surprised to find herself almost in tears. “No, I don’t! I don’t want to deal with this, okay? Let’s go!”
Jane nodded and gave in. She and Daria stood and looked down at Daria the mother, her chest slowly rising and falling under the green T-shirt.
“Love the slippers,” said Jane. “Bet they’re from that Monty Python movie. Wonder where she got them?”
“Same place she got the baby, I bet,” said Daria glumly. “Tom’s family knows all the good places to shop.”
“You know, she’s not getting up, and we can’t just leave
her there. What if Tom doesn’t come up here for a while?”
“Um . . . I have an idea. Go back through the door. I’ll be right after you.”
Jane left to wait on the door’s other side, ready to shut it when Daria came through. Daria checked the unconscious Daria a final time, then cupped her hands over her mouth. “Tom!” she yelled.
After a pause, footsteps came quickly toward the stairs. “What?” he called back.
“Help me! I feel like I’m going to faint!” Daria quickly darted through the doorway, and Jane shut the door behind her as heavy feet thundered up the stairs.
“Oh, thank God we got out of that one,” said Daria. She turned to see Jane suddenly stare at the door with an upset expression. “Now what?” she cried.
“We left the other attic door open!” Jane said. “Tom’s going to see an open door there!”
Daria reached over and gave the door on their side an experimental tug. It remained shut, having not received a mental command to open. “We’re safe on this side,” she said. “Contact’s broken. I guess the door will just be open, then, showing the wall behind it.”
“I hope so,” said Jane. She ran both hands though her hair. “That sort of freaked me out, you know?”
“I know. It did me, too.”
“We didn’t get to find out the baby’s name or sex. We don’t know anything about it, just that it’s there.”
“And it’s mine and Tom’s—hers and Tom’s, goddamn it! We don’t need to know anything more!”
“If you say so.”
“Oh, for the love of Pete, that’s not my baby! It’s her baby! I don’t want to get involved in that, okay?”
“Whoa, whoa, okay! ¡Me disculpo, amiga! I didn’t mean to—”
Daria stomped away, but Jane ran and caught her before she got to the stairs. “I’m sorry, okay? I know this hurts, but you’re right, it’s not you, and I won’t talk about it anymore, okay?”
“Leave me alone.” Daria stomped down the attic stairs and locked herself in the bathroom.
“Daria! Crap.” Jane sighed and leaned against the wall next to the bathroom door. She was starting to wish she’d never found the alien artifact—then she corrected herself and wished she hadn’t told Daria about it. Daria was having a terrible time with it, but Jane didn’t feel it was wrecking her life in quite the same way, if at all. In fact, the ten journeys into “what if?” worlds had given her a fantastic shot of self-confidence, as well as an unexpectedly exciting fantasy that she dared not say aloud: hooking up with herself across the universes. If that doesn’t make Daria’s head explode, she thought, nothing would. Well, I shouldn’t do it. I’d have to be a moral degenerate to even think about it for more than a second, so I won’t do it. Not more than once or twice, for sure. It’d probably get boring after the first six or seven hundred times, anyway, who knows. She shivered and closed her eyes, letting her mind drift, then sighed and brought herself back to reality.
And she remembered something. “Hey, Daria?” There was no response, but she didn’t expect one. “You remember what Ms. Barch told us in science last year, when we were studying clones? You remember what she said about identical twins?” A pause, no response. “She said identical twins don’t have the same fingerprints, remember that?”
She waited. A minute later, the door opened and Daria stood there, looking at her.
“So,” Jane went on, “identical twins aren’t identical. They never are. Those other Darias, they only look like you on the surface, but in more ways than one, they aren’t you. They’re separate individuals. If you’d been born with a twin sister, the two of you wouldn’t do every single thing exactly alike, right? Well?”
“Right,” said Daria. She was deep in thought. “So the Daria who had the baby could not possibly be me. If she was, she would not have gotten pregnant. I would not have gotten pregnant.”
“You didn’t get pregnant, you mean. You didn’t.”
Daria frowned. “Right, that’s what I meant. And the other Daria who got published, that wasn’t me—damn it. And the Daria whose mother was fooling around wasn’t me, and so on. I keep telling myself that those Darias aren’t me, but down deep I kept thinking they were. I was even trying to think of them as photocopies of me, fake me’s, but that wasn’t working. But you’re right, even identical twins and clones aren’t identical.” She let out her breath. “I don’t have anything to worry about. Those others aren’t me and couldn’t possibly be me, and if I had been in their shoes, things would have come out differently. In fact, the Darias with different parents, like the ones whose mothers are . . . sort of weird, even if they look like my mom, they must be even more different from me than usual, but they’re still mostly like me. Still throws me for a loop now and then, though.”
Every single world has thrown you for a loop, Daria, Jane thought but wisely did not say aloud. “Kind of makes you wonder how the gateway even works, doesn’t it?” she said instead. “We keep asking for another Daria or Jane to open the door on the other side, but it’s like the gateway—”
“—keeps sending us to close approximations of us, not the real us. I guess that would be impossible, to send ourselves into our exact same universe, not that what we’re doing already isn’t totally impossible. Makes you wonder how far the limits go on who could be considered a close approximation of us.”
Daria blinked and thought. “Yeah, or what. Scary.”
They looked at each other.
“I’m okay now,” said Daria. “Let’s do it again.”
“We’re doing this just for fun, right? Just something to pass the last summer before college?”
“Uh . . . I don’t know about that yet. I’m still thinking. Let’s go before I change my mind.”
“This is getting easier,” Daria said as she and Jane lowered Daria Number Eleven to the floor on the other side of the attic door. Daria Eleven was just another “normal” Daria in a green jacket, black skirt, and so on. After looking number eleven over briefly, Daria stood up again and looked around, mildly intrigued. “Lot of stuff up in this particular attic,” she commented, an eyebrow raised. “Where’d they get all these boxes? Look at that bicycle. And those look like musical instrument cases over there. This is twice as much stuff as anyone else ever had up here. More than we’ve got, for sure.”
“Maybe this is the universe in which no one bought anything at your parents’ yard sales,” said Jane, moving the unconscious Daria into a more comfortable position. “Want to look inside a box and see what secrets lurk within?”
Daria’s gaze was drawn to the lowered staircase beyond. “Not really.” She worked up her courage and said, in what she hoped was a confident voice, “Know what? I’m going downstairs. These Darias aren’t me, so I have nothing to worry about if I pretend to be one of them. Who’s going to know the difference?”
“Other than your telepathic lover, no one. This Daria’s just like you. Hey, you could pretend to be your own evil twin in this world—except that you already are. Oh, Daria, before you go—”
On her way to the pull-down stairs, Daria stopped and looked back. “What?”
“Be really, really careful.”
“Of course.” Daria bit her lip, then took a breath and continued to the stairs. “I’ll think of myself as Neil Armstrong and make a few small steps for man.”
“That’s more like the Daria I know,” said Jane, looking through the fallen Daria’s skirt pockets. “You want to download anything from this one’s computer? Pick up souvenirs?”
“Nah. Just going to explore.” Daria descended the stairs to the second floor.
“Have fun.” Jane’s fingers poked something in an inside pocket of Daria Eleven’s jacket. She withdrew a folded sheet of paper that appeared to have a lot of printing on it. TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, read the top line after she unfolded the page. Jane looked up, saw that Daria was gone, then sat back on her heels as she read. “‘Emergency medical personnel should be aware of the following information in case . . .’” Jane said aloud, then frowned and read faster.
Meanwhile, Daria reached the bottom of the attic stairs and headed for her room. Someone came to the bottom of the stairway to the first floor. “Daria?” called her sister, Quinn. “Are you up there?”
“I’ll check and get back to you,” Daria responded. No one has to know I’m any different, she thought. I’ll do what I’ve wanted to do all along, just look around and leave and not get involved. This should be a snap. It will be a snap.
“Why’d you want to get into the attic when you know we have to leave soon?” Quinn called back.
Daria hesitated, her hand on the knob to her room. “Where are we going?” she called back before she realized what she was saying.
“Knock it off,” said Quinn. “Just hurry, okay? Jane will be here in a minute.”
Her puzzlement deepened, but Daria did not let her confidence slip. “I’ll be right down,” she said.
“Good. Don’t forget the you-know-what!”
Daria froze in the act of opening the door to her room. She blinked, started to walk back out in the hall, then forced herself to keep going into her room, with no idea what the “you-know-what” was.
The bedroom was not noticeably different from her own. However, on her computer desk was a small white box with a yellow ribbon and a folded card on it. Curious, Daria opened the card and read: For my little sister, who stood by me when all was lost. I can never thank you enough. Daria.
She stared at the card. Her mouth was dry with the uncomfortable sensation of anxiety. After a moment, she shook it off and returned to her unperturbed state as best she could. Was this item the “you-know-what” that Quinn had talked about? She decided to chance it, and she walked out of her room with the box in hand. What had Quinn done to deserve a gift? The box rattled slightly. Earrings? Necklace? Nose ring?
Halfway down the stairs, Daria heard girls talking in the family room. She could not identify the voices. It sounded like young teens. What were they doing here?
She reached the bottom of the stairs and came around to the right, looking into the family room. Everything was almost the same, except for the long strands of yellow crepe paper hanging everywhere from the ceiling and draped over the furniture. Yellow balloons were clustered in several spots against the ceiling, ribbons trailing from their knotted ends.
And a cluster of five young girls, about middle-school age, sat on the couch and sofa, eating nuts and candies out of small bowls on a decoration-laden coffee table. Each girl wore an identical gold T-shirt with a name printed on the back in black letters. Kristen (a black girl with long straightened hair in a topknot, bangs cut in front), Katherine (long brunette hair parted in the middle), and Jasmine (short-haired blonde) were the three with visible names; the other two were slouching with just their heads visible. One of the other two, also a young black girl, looked strangely familiar.
“Hey, Daria!” the girls cried upon seeing her. A red-haired girl with oval-lens eyeglasses and a long ponytail waved the most enthusiastically at her, sitting in the middle of the sofa. She turned around too quickly for Daria to catch the name on the back of her shirt. Her gaze dropped to the small gift in Daria’s hand. “Oh!” she cried. “Are you giving that to me now?”
“I don’t have enough for everyone,” said Daria with a bland expression, making it up as she went along. “I’ll just give it to Quinn for safe keeping.”
Several of the girls giggled. “Is Quinn carrying the presents?” said the pony-tailed girl. The front of her yellow-gold tee had a tiger’s snarling face on it in black, surrounded by the words LAWNDALE MIDDLE SCHOOL above and BAND GEEKS below. Golden glitter sparkled on her cheeks.
Daria blinked, brain racing but getting nowhere. “I guess so,” she said, unable to think of a snappy reply. Band Geeks? Did the Daria of this world still play the flute, as she had back in Highland, Texas?
Quinn walked out of the kitchen wearing blue jeans and a red tee, the portable phone in her hand. She spotted Daria and walked over, shaking her head. “Don’t let her see it!” she said reprovingly. She pointed to the small gift. “Put it in your pocket until we get there!”
“It’s for you,” said Daria, holding the gift out to her sister.
Quinn rolled her eyes. “Oh, right.” She suddenly changed her attention to the telephone. “No, Jason, I wasn’t talking to you. It’s my sister’s birthday and we’re going to a roller-skating party. Of course I can roller-skate! Do I look like a dweeb? No, she knows how to skate too, Jason, and she’s not a dweeb! You’re talking about my big sister!” She looked back at Daria, motioning at the gift. “Go on! Put it away!”
“But . . .” Daria looked around the room. The five middle-school girls looked back with puzzled expressions.
“Daria,” said the pony-tailed girl with an anxious look, “are you feeling all right?”
“I guess,” said Daria, but she kept looking around, trying to pin down what she was missing. She knew it couldn’t be her own birthday, which was in November—unless, of course, the other Daria had been born in the summer and this was her birthday. Was it Quinn’s? No, Quinn said it was her sister’s birthday, so—what did that mean? And why go to a roller-skating party? When did Quinn learn to roller-skate? And who were these girls in the family room who knew her by name?
“Oh,” said Daria, looking at the other African-American girl who seemed familiar. It was Jodie Landon’s little sister, Rachel, a skinny kid with cornrows and a large braided ponytail of her own. “Hi, Rachel,” she said, trying to pretend nothing was wrong. “How’s Jodie?”
Rachel shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “Working, I guess. I don’t see her. She goes to Turner pretty soon. She says hi and hopes you’re doing better now.”
A knock sounded from the front door. “That’s Jane!” called Quinn from the kitchen. “No, Jason, I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to Daria!”
Completely at a loss for words, Daria went to the door to escape further embarrassment. It was Jane. “Yo,” she said, looking the same as always. “Ready to go skating and embarrass yourself in front of the entire civilized world?” Her gaze went to the gift, and she plucked it from Daria’s hand and read the card. “Oh, how sweet! You really are turning into the mushy one, aren’t you? You have good taste. She’ll love it.”
“I guess,” said Daria uncertainly. Her brow furrowed as she looked back into the family room. I roller-skate, too? What the hell is this? “We seem to have company.”
“So you do,” said Jane, handing the gift back to Daria and coming inside. “Hi, Ronnie. Happy one four to you. Where’s Quinn?”
“In the kitchen,” said the pony-tailed girl, making a face. “She won’t get off the phone.”
“Get a crowbar and pry her loose.” Jane turned back to Daria, and her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Your mom and dad are at the skating rink with the big stuff and the pizzas.” She finished in a louder tone. “Who has the car keys?”
After a moment, Daria felt her pockets, still holding the gift. “Not me,” she said, becoming more anxious. “Was I supposed to drive?” Too much was going on to know what the right thing to say was. She couldn’t tell herself it didn’t matter if she screwed up, because it did, and she felt like she was on the verge of screwing up in a serious way.
“Funny one, Daria,” said Jane. “We’re not that desperate, and you’d need to get your license back, first.” She looked toward the kitchen and raised her voice. “Quinn? Do you have the car keys?”
“Got ‘em! I’m driving!” Quinn called. “Everyone come on and go out in the garage and get in the SUV!” Her voice lowered. “Jason, look, can I call you back from the skating rink? I have to go. No, I’ve told you, it’s for Veronica! It’s her birthday! No, you’re not invited!”
“Veronica?” said Daria blankly, looking back at Jane. “Who’s Veronica?”
The chatter in the room fell to almost nothing. The stunned look on Jane’s face was all that Daria needed to know that she had just screwed up, in spades.
“Your little sister,” said Jane after a moment’s hesitation, pointing to the pony-tailed girl.
Daria turned to look at the pony-tailed girl, who regarded her with the strangest mix of hurt and shock and horror that Daria had ever seen.
Pretend it was a joke! shrieked a voice in Daria’s head. Quick! Make like you know who she is!
“Goodbye, Jason!” Quinn came back into the family room, shutting off the portable phone. “Everyone ready?” she said into the silence. When no one spoke, she looked around a little more, frowning. “What’s wrong?”
“She doesn’t remember me,” said the pony-tailed girl, pointing to Daria. Her voice choked off and she covered her mouth.
Quinn instantly looked at Daria, the same look of horror crossing her face. She put the phone on the back of the sofa and walked over to Daria. “Is that right?” she asked, her voice trembling. “You do remember Veronica, don’t you, Daria? Please tell me you do, okay?”
Say yes, damn you! Say yes!
Daria opened her mouth but said nothing. She couldn’t lie. Strong but gentle hands took her by the shoulders and turned her around. Jane’s face was right before hers, her blue eyes looking deep into Daria’s. “Do you know who Veronica is?” she whispered.
After a moment, Daria slowly shook her head no.
A low wail broke out. The pony-tailed girl with the oval-lens glasses forced her way between Jane and Daria, grabbed Daria’s green jacket by the lapels, and pulled her close. “Daria!” cried the pony-tailed girl, her voice rising. “What’s my name?”
“Ronnie,” warned Jane.
“Tell me, Daria. Who am I? What’s . . . my . . . name?”
Trembling, Daria forced herself to say, “Veronica,” but it came out as a question, not a statement.
“Don’t,” said the girl. Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled over. “Not on my birthday, don’t do this to me. Please don’t do this.”
“She can’t help it,” whispered Quinn from behind Daria. Her voice was dead. “It came back.”
“Is it the tumor?” said one of the girls, the brunette named Katherine. “I thought they got it all. It’s been a year, hasn’t it?”
“It’s back,” said Quinn, her voice breaking. Daria felt a hand on her arm.
Jane’s shoulders slumped in defeat. She stared at Daria with a hopeless look. “God damn it,” she whispered. “God damn it all to hell.”
The pony-tailed girl shut her eyes, too, but tears ran from them in streams. She leaned forward and put her face against Daria’s shoulder, her arms encircling Daria and pinning her arms. “Please remember me,” she said. “Please remember me, Daria.”
“Wait a minute,” said Daria, pulling away. She couldn’t take any more of it. “I’m sorry. I can explain. I’m not who you think I am.”
“Daria, no.” It was Jane. “Don’t talk. Quinn, get the phone and call your mom and dad, quick. Tell them what’s going on.”
“But I’m not Daria!” said Daria quickly. “I mean, I’m not the Daria from here!”
“Come on,” said Kristen, nervously pulling on Jasmine and Katherine. “Let’s go in the kitchen.”
“Can we help?” asked Katherine. “Can we do anything?”
“Shh,” said the pony-tailed girl, hugging Daria to her. “I still love you. I’ll always love you.” Daria tried to pull away, but the girl wouldn’t let her go.
“Angel,” said Quinn, standing but slumped against a wall. Her eyes closed. “Angel, we need you right now. Please come. We need you immediately.”
“Who’s Angel?” asked Jasmine.
“Wait!” said Daria, fighting to remain calm. “Listen to me. I’m really not—”
Everyone jumped at the shout from upstairs. Boots pounded down steps, raced over the second floor, then pounded down the stairs to the first floor.
“Daria, you have to read this!” shouted another Jane, racing around the corner into the family room with a sheet of paper in her hand. “The Daria from this world had a brain tu—” The new Jane skidded to a stop, eyes wide, taking in the crowded room and the identical Jane right in front of her.
Kristen, Jasmine, Rachel, and Katherine gave piercing shrieks and ran from the room into the kitchen, still screaming. The Jane with Daria took a step back, her face blank with horror. The pony-tailed girl turned, saw both Janes at once, and made a queer keening noise that grew in intensity.
“Oh, my God!” screamed Quinn, spotting the two Janes. “Angel! Angel, help us help us help us!”
“Wait!” said the new Jane. “We’re from another world, and we—”
“Invaders!” yelled the local-world Jane. She leaned to the right, snatched up a glass bowl of peanuts from a cushion on the sofa, and threw it at the other Jane’s head. The other Jane barely dodged it. The bowl shattered again the front door, but the local Jane now had two more bowls, one in each hand.
Daria grabbed the pony-tailed girl and shoved her aside, crashing her into the local-world Jane before she could throw the bowls. “Run!” she yelled at what she hoped was the Jane from her own world, and the two girls fled back upstairs. Daria realized too late she still had the small gift in one hand, but she couldn’t make herself let go of it.
“They’re alien invaders from the eighth dimension!” yelled the Jane in the family room. “The ones that were on ‘Sick, Sad World’! They’ve got the real Daria, our Daria! Stop them!” Several sets of feet stampeded toward the stairway and headed up.
“I freaking hate that ‘Sick, Sad World’ episode!” yelled Jane as she led Daria up the staircases. She got to the top of the stairs in the attic and looked back, hearing the Daria behind her stumble. “Hurry up!” she shouted. “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
“I’m coming, damn it!” Daria shouted back. She reached the bottom of the attic stairs and raced up, badly out of breath. Jane ran on to the attic door—and noticed that the other Daria was not on the floor in front of the doorway. She skidded to a stop and looked around wildly, but saw no sign of her.
Daria was halfway up the attic stairs when she saw the other Jane reach the second floor and run for her, murder in her cold blue eyes. With a shriek, Daria forced her aching legs to keep moving. She reached the attic and ran for the doorway to home—
Someone tackled her from behind and slammed her flat into the wooden floor, knocking her breath out. Her glasses fell off. The ribbon-wrapped gift bounced away. The attacker jammed a bony knee into Daria’s back and forced her head down with one hand.
Jane looked over and saw the other Jane tackle and sit on Daria, holding her down. The other Jane then reached into an inside pocket of her red jacket, pulled out a long-bladed hobby knife with a cap, ripped off the cap with her teeth and spat it out, then lifted the knife in one hand, aiming it down at Daria’s back.
“No!” screamed Jane. She started forward, hands out. “God, no! Don’t do it!”
The other Jane looked up grimly, fist clenched around the knife held over her head. “Release our Daria!” she shouted. Behind her, more feet came up the attic stairs.
“I don’t have your Daria!” Jane shouted back. “She was here on the floor! She fainted when we came in from our world, and I don’t know where she went! We didn’t hurt her, I swear it!”
“Oh, my God!” Quinn yelped from the top of the stairs. “Ronnie, don’t come up here! Stay back!”
“Where is she?!” the other Jane yelled. “Let her go, or you’ll lose this one, too!”
Jane got down on her knees with her arms out, pleading. “Please, you don’t know what you’re doing! Don’t hurt her, please! We’re not alien invaders! We’re just another Daria and Jane, that’s all! We came from another universe, like yours! We didn’t hurt anyone! Please don’t do it!”
“Where is our Daria?”
The pony-tailed girl reached the top of the stairs and saw a Jane with a hobby knife sitting on top of a Daria, with another Jane kneeling across the room. She screamed, and Quinn dragged her back from the stairs.
“I don’t know!” cried the Jane on her knees. “God as my witness, I don’t know where she is!”
The Jane with the hobby knife raised her weapon. The Daria on the floor turned her head and saw the knife, and her eyes became enormous.
“Angel!” shrieked Quinn, clutching the pony-tailed girl to her. “AN—GEL!”
“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?” roared a woman’s voice out of thin air.
A diffuse light appeared in the air two feet to the right of the Jane holding the unsheathed hobby knife. In less than a second, the light took solid form as a human being—a petite, twenty-something woman who snatched the knife from Jane’s hand in one lightning motion.
“Angel!” shouted Quinn and the pony-tailed girl at once.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the woman screamed at Jane. “Have you completely lost your mi—” The young woman’s attention was drawn to the other Jane, and she gasped. “WHAT IN THE FREAKING HELL IS GOING ON?” she yelled to everything and everyone in general.
“They’re alien invaders from the eighth dimension!” the closer Jane yelled back, still holding Daria to the floor. “That one over there—” She pointed to the pleading Jane “—kidnapped Daria! This Daria is an imposter!”
“We didn’t kidnap anyone!” the pleading Jane cried. “I don’t know where—”
“Liar!” yelled the other Jane.
“Knock it off!” yelled the twenty-something woman. She had golden-red hair down to her mid-back, yellow-green eyes, a plain gray T-shirt, and flared jeans above her bare feet. “And everyone wonders why I don’t watch the damn TV! Nobody’s invading anybody!”
“Excuse me,” called a new voice. Another Daria walked through the open attic door behind the pleading Jane. She held a sheaf of papers in one hand. “Can we possibly turn the noise down in here?” she said. “I’m fine, I’ve not been kidnapped, and just as a side note, there’s an entire universe on the other side of this door that’s almost an exact copy of this one.”
The Jane holding Daria down leaped up and ran for the new Daria. The pleading Jane jumped up and ran for the prone Daria. Both Janes kept far apart as they circled each other and ran on, each grabbing the Daria she sought.
Angel’s attention turned to the Daria and Jane who had wandered into this universe, now sitting on the floor near her feet. Jane kept her arms wrapped protectively around her best friend, who rubbed her back where she’d had a knee jammed into her spine. The two girls stared up at the young woman in awe—and more than a little fear.
“Why don’t the two of you stay right where you are until we sort this out,” said Angel to them.
“Sure,” said Jane. “We’re not arguing. Trust me. Uh . . . can I get her glasses from over there, though?”
“Here.” The young woman made a hand motion. The glasses sailed off the floor and landed gently in front of Jane, who stared at them in disbelief.
“Angel?” came a shaky voice. Veronica took a hesitant step forward.
“It’s all right now, Ronnie,” said Angel, holding out her arms.
The pony-tailed girl launched herself at the young woman, who caught her and held her close. “That Daria didn’t remember me!” Veronica cried. “And we thought the tumor had come back and then there were two Janes and they said our Daria was gone and everyone was screaming and I didn’t know what to think and then Jane had a knife and it’s my birthday!” She burst into tears.
“It’s all right now,” said Angel. “It’s all right.” She turned to Quinn, who seemed to having trouble keeping her own tears in check, and extended a hand. Quinn walked over and took it with both of her own.
“Good to see you,” said Quinn, white faced.
“And you, too,” said Angel. She gave Quinn’s hand a gentle squeeze and held on for a few seconds more. “Okay,” she said, letting go, “why don’t you sit right about there. Hey, Daria? Jane? No, the ones from this world, not you two. Come over here and have a seat. Jane, you sit away from those two, and keep your hands to yourself. And Jane—you and I are going to have a talk when this is over, just the two of us, and you’d better believe we’re going to go over what just happened.”
The Jane who had held the hobby knife turned red and swallowed as she walked over. To the amazement of the Daria and Jane who had gone world-hopping, the other Daria and Jane did everything Angel told them to do, without talking back.
Angel looked down at Veronica, whose face was buried in her shirt. Veronica’s sobs had turned into hiccups. “Ronnie?” said Angel. “You’re soaking my shirt, hon.”
“Could she be another sister?” Jane whispered, nodding at Angel.
Daria shrugged. “Could be. She looks a bit like Rita, but not as—”
“No,” said Angel without looking at the girls, “I’m not another Morgendorffer sister. Come on, Ronnie, sit by your sisters and Jane.”
“Oh!” said Veronica, adjusting her glasses. “I forgot! Kristen and Jasmine and Rachel and Kathy are in—”
“They’re fine,” said Angel. “I’ve stopped time everywhere but here so we could have a little chat.”
“You did what?” Jane said, her eyes getting bigger.
“She stopped time. Everything’s stopped but us.” Quinn supplied.
“Like the pause on the VCR,” Veronica chimed in, as if such a thing happened at least once every day. “She can cross universes, too, just like you did, but it takes her a long time to—”
“Ronnie,” said Angel, “remember our little talk about keeping secrets?”
“Oh,” said Veronica, subsiding. “Sorry. Forgot.”
“You can do all that?” Daria gasped. “Who are you?”
“Like, duh!” said Veronica. “That’s Angel.”
“You’re a real angel?” Daria said in a high voice.
“That’s her name,” Quinn said, before the woman could speak, “but she says she’s really not. She really is, of course. She’s our guardian angel.”
Daria’s face went slack with shock. “You have a real guardian angel in this world? That’s not possible!”
“I’m not technically an angel,” said the woman in a calm tone. “A true angel is a human-like manifestation of the will of the Highest Power, created to accomplish one task. I’m not that sort. I’m more of a, um, more like an interested party.”
“Yeah, right,” said Veronica with a touch of sarcasm. She smiled up at Angel. “She’s the real thing.”
Jane shook her head in amazement. “This has got to be the craziest alternate universe yet,” she said. “Do you have winged monkeys here, too?”
Angel gave Jane an annoyed look. “Depends,” she said. “Do you like bananas?”
“Crazy universe or not, thank you for saving my life,” said Daria, still massaging the pain in her back.
Angel gave the other Jane a brief glare. “You’re welcome.” She looked back at the foreign Daria and Jane. “And now, I’d like to know how you got here, all the details, please. And, as we don’t have much time because keeping time stopped like this is very tiring, I’m going to take a short cut and get the information directly. If you don’t mind.” She took a step toward the world-hopping Jane, one hand coming out with fingers spread.
Jane recoiled and immediately scooted across the floor away from her.
“I’m only going to read your mind,” said Angel, her right hand still out. “If you don’t let me do that, I’ll stop time only for the two of you and read your minds without your permission.”
Jane took a shuddering breath. “Okay,” she said slowly, “but there might be a little bit of stuff in there that shouldn’t be said aloud, please.”
Angel snorted. “And that would make you different from anyone else just how? Come on.”
Looking as anxious as Daria ever remembered seeing her, Jane steeled herself and closed her eyes as Angel reached for her forehead. Angel kept her hand on Jane for about ten very long seconds before she let go and stepped back.
“Dear God,” said Angel, blinking. “What in the name of all mercy have the two of you done?”
“Jane?” said Daria, quite worried now. “Are you okay?”
Jane opened her eyes and nodded, but she looked glum. “Sorry, amiga,” she mumbled. “She got everything.”
“We’ll skip the icky stuff and go straight to the important part,” said Angel. “Is that artifact on your side of the doorway, then? The metal framework that you two stole from that restaurant?”
Jane nodded. “It wasn’t really like stealing,” she said.
“Right, and that thing you’re sitting on isn’t really your butt, either. How could you do a thing like that?”
Jane sighed and shrugged, looking at the floor with a depressed expression.
Angel shook her head and looked at Daria next.
“Wait!” said Daria, holding up her hands. Her heart began to beat at double-time. “I’m not really ready to have my mind read yet, so if—”
“I don’t need to read your mind at the moment,” said Angel. Her tone grew darker. “I’ve got a head-full of the most amazing things from your friend. You don’t have the slightest idea of what you’ve been doing, do you?”
It was hard to talk with her throat so dry. “What do you mean?” Daria asked.
“I’m talking about the consequences of your actions!” Angel snapped. “Any reasonable system of law would call what you’ve been doing breaking and entering or trespassing, or both, and this is the eleventh universe you’ve broken into!”
The other Jane and Daria, as well as Quinn and Veronica, gasped and stared at the intruding Daria and Jane. “Oh, you two are in so much trou-ble!” sang Veronica.
“Shh,” said Angel, motioning for silence. She continued to frown at the newcomers. “You’ve not only broken into ten other homes besides this one, you’ve drugged six other Darias with illegally obtained sedatives mixed with alcohol, which could have killed them—and for all I know it has killed them! They could have choked to death on their own vomit while they were asleep! Didn’t you think of that? What in the flaming ground floor of Hell were you thinking? Or were you thinking?”
Daria felt her face burn, but she kept her gaze locked on Angel and her lips sealed. Behind Angel, the other Jane carefully scooted herself in front of the other Daria, shielding her, and Quinn pulled Veronica tight in her arms. All four of them looked at the intruding Daria and Jane as if they had grown horns and devil tails.
“You’ve been stealing data out of the computers of other Darias,” Angel went on, “reading their diaries and private writings, violating their privacy as if you were some kind of insane espionage agents working for Big Brother! You let other Darias fall down when they fainted and you turned it into a big joke! You’ve frightened any number of people across eleven universes, damn it—including a new mother and a blind person, for the love of God!—and you have the bloody nerve to think that you haven’t done anything wrong? Are you crazy?”
Daria cleared her throat. “Well,” she said evenly, “since you put it that way, we have had some—”
“Stop treating this like a joke!” Angel bit her lips and paced the floor back and forth between the two groups.
“I’m not saying it’s a joke,” said Daria. “I’m saying that—”
“Oh, shut up!” Angel put her hands to the sides of her head, as if she had the world’s biggest migraine.
Veronica leaned toward in intruding Daria and Jane. “Now you’ve made her mad,” she said in a loud stage whisper. “You’re gonna get it.”
“Sweetie,” said Angel, still pacing, “why don’t you and Quinn go downstairs and check on your four friends? They’re asleep in the family room on the couch and sofa.”
“Why?” said Veronica. “If you put them there, they’ll be safe and—”
Quinn got to her feet. “Come on, Ronnie,” she said, and her manner made it clear she would not stand for insubordination. As Ronnie was led by the hand down the attic stairs, she waved to Angel—and then pointed a finger at Daria and Jane while glaring. You’re going to get it, came the message. You’re going to get it good.
Her pacing over, Angel waited until Quinn and Veronica were gone, then made another hand motion. The pull-down stairs rose in silence and stopped in a fully closed position.
“Angel,” said the other Daria, “were you talking about the Good Time Chinese restaurant?”
Angel turned around in a flash. “How did you know?”
“I dreamed about it,” said the other Daria.
“I did, too,” said the other Jane, and she and the other Daria stared at each other with open mouths.
“So did we,” said the intruding Daria. “That’s how we found it. We think that—”
“I know, I know,” said Angel. “There might be more than one, but the device is so powerful it’s creating a multi-planar resonance signature.”
“Ohhh-kaaay,” said the intruding Daria, “but there was another Daria who said she made it up in a short story, and she didn’t dream about it at all.”
“Same thing,” said Angel. “Resonance signatures manifest in all sorts of ways. It’s a come-hither signal, a way of ensuring that someone finds it. It must have been made by the Architects. It’s the kind of thing only an Architect would think of.”
“The what?” said several Darias and Janes at once.
“Another race,” said Angel, pressing her fingers to her temples again. “Real aliens from another arm in this galaxy. The Architects made those inter-universal gateways about half a billion years ago, loads of them, and ran all over the place with them. Beings that find the gates now tend to hide them away for whatever purpose they can dream up, like sneaking into other people’s homes—or invading other worlds or universes.”
“What?” said the other Jane in surprise. “You mean like that episode of ‘Sick, Sad—’”
“Exactly like that, yes. They actually got it right, almost, though they wouldn’t know it even if the truth bit them right in the ass. These two—” Angel pointed to Daria and Jane “—aren’t the real invaders. They were just using the real invaders’ tools.”
“Wait a minute,” said Daria, raising a hand. “You are telling me that some alien race stuck a gateway in the back of a Chinese restaurant in order to invade Lawndale?”
“No,” said Angel. “The Architects are all gone, dead most likely. Other beings are using the gateways now, humans like you two—or other beings entirely.”
“But humans would have to be the ones who put the gateway in the restaurant in the first place, right? They’d—”
Angel raised a hand, palm out, at Daria. “Just stop,” she said. “I can’t answer that, but I can sense that you’re trying to avoid the core issue here, which is what you’ve done with the device you stole.”
“Stole? Was it really the property of the Good Time restaurant?” Daria asked, getting testy.
“You and your girlfriend damaged the back wall of the restaurant digging that gateway out! Who’s going to pay for the damage? You? Your parents? The insurance company, sure, but the police are checking into it, too, you know? I’m sure they are. Can you name some of the crimes you and Jane could be charged with if the cops come knocking on your door tomorrow?”
Daria bit down on her lips, her eyes narrowing as she looked back at Angel. Jane, for her part, stared at the floor and played with her fingers in silence.
Angel sighed and made a motion to telekinetically pick up a small object on the floor. It was the yellow-ribbon-wrapped gift Daria had dropped earlier. “Here,” she said, sending the floating gift to the other Daria. “Take the charm bracelet downstairs to your sister. Why don’t you two get going to the skating arena? I can’t hold time back any longer. The other four girls won’t remember anything; they’ll think it was all a dream or something. Just get in the car and go. I can handle things from here.”
“I’m sorry,” said the other Jane, also looking at the floor where she sat. “I’m really sorry about what happened with the, uh, the . . . the knife.”
Angel knelt in front of her and put a hand under that Jane’s chin. “You of all people,” Angel said softly. “You of all people, that you should have done such a thing. We’re still going to talk later.” Jane seemed to shrink as she spoke.
Shaking her head, Angel stood. “Go. Hurry. And don’t talk to anyone about this, of course.”
“Of course,” said the other Daria.
The attic stairs lowered without being touched by anyone. The other Daria and Jane got up and left with hardly a glance back. The stairway came up again as soon as it was empty.
Angel turned to the remaining Daria and Jane. “Let’s go look at your artifact. Warn me where it is, though. I can’t touch it.”
“Why not?” asked Daria in a low voice.
“That’s not important right now,” said Angel. “Let’s go.”
Jane and Daria got up from the floor and walked in a downcast manner toward the attic doorway. Jane went through first. Just as she reached the doorway, Daria took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes with the back of her wrist. Her elbow banged into the doorframe as she went through, and the glasses flew off to one side. “Hey!” she cried, looking around.
“I’ll get them,” said Angel, looking to one side and making a hand motion.
In less than a second, Daria was through the door. She grabbed the attic door on her side and slammed it shut behind her. Contact was broken.
Jane turned, confused. “What just happened?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Daria snapped. “Don’t open the door again. She might find this universe eventually, but with any luck it’ll take a while if that Veronica kid was right.”
“Where are your glasses?”
“Threw ‘em away to distract the angel. It worked.” Daria headed for the stairway down. “No loss. I have a spare pair in my room.”
“Daria? Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. Don’t follow me.”
She did not respond. Jane walked over to the stairs and listened as she heard Daria go to her room, then head down to the main floor and leave the house, shutting the front door behind her. Jane sat down on the steps and put her head in her hands. Angel’s words rang through her head. After a while, she began to cry.
Jane stood with her hand on the attic door for a long time, much longer than either she or Daria had ever given the door before. She finally took a deep breath, let it out, and opened the door.
The other door opened, too. And there was a Jane there, too, exactly like her. The other Jane seemed to be expecting her. She had nothing in her long-fingered hands. Angel wasn’t there, but Jane knew she wouldn’t be, as the formula she had mentally recited had Angel’s absence be part of the requirement for the door to open again.
The two Janes looked each other in the face for a moment before looking down at each other’s boots.
“I’m sorry,” each Jane said at the same time.
The Jane who had been touring the universes, though, was the first to get the next word in. “Wait. Look, I understand why you did what you did. If it had been me, I would probably have done it, too. Your Daria’s been sick, you were feeling very protective of her, and I feel exactly the same way about my Daria. She’s my best friend. I’ll never find another one like her. Same’s true for you, of course, so I understand.”
“I’m never going to watch that damn show again,” said the other Jane.
“I’m not too fond of it either, now,” said Jane. “But I owe you and everyone here an apology, because your Angel was right, we crashed every world we came to, and we must have made a terrible mess of it. I really hope—” Jane’s voice caught in her throat and she put a hand on her forehead, looking down “—I really hope we didn’t hurt anyone, because I could never forgive myself if we did. We just found this thing, and we started to play with it, and it just got to be too much. We did a lot of bad things with it, I know that now, but they didn’t seem that bad until Angel told us what we’d done. She’s right. We just—we let it get away from us, it was so exciting and that doesn’t make it better or forgive us, but it was just too much. We’ve been doing this for days, and . . . and for everything we did that hurt you and Daria’s family, I am so sorry, and I don’t know what else to do or say. I’m sorry.”
There was a long silence as Jane tried not to cry. She wiped her eyes on her red jacket sleeves.
“You know what I did,” said the other Jane. Her voice had no inflection. “I can’t ask for forgiveness like you can. You’ve done nothing wrong, compared to what I did. Angel talked to me a long time about it. I did a terrible thing. I almost killed someone who was as loved and cared as our Daria, and I can’t live with myself over it. I can’t get rid of it, I can’t forget it, and I can’t stand it. You did nothing wrong, compared to me.”
The other Jane sniffed, her eyes watering. “I asked Angel to help me forget what I did, because she can do that, but she said no. She can stop any pain, but she won’t stop it for me. If I forget what I did, she said, I might do it again. I think she’s right. I’d give up anything to fix it, even my life, but that wouldn’t work. There’s nothing I can do, nothing anyone can say that will make it better for me, or for you or your Daria, what I did.”
They stood there, looking at each other’s boots, until Jane looked up and said, “Does your Daria roller-skate, really?”
The other Jane slowly nodded. “It was part of her physical therapy after they removed the brain tumor. It took her weeks to come back to something like normal. Her memory’s intact, at least from the time of the surgery. She remembers Ronnie now, and a few other people it turns out she forgot, but only what she’s seen of them after the surgery. She doesn’t remember much from before, I don’t know why. She’s still in school until the end of the month to finish her credits. Because she had so much trouble with things during her recovery, her parents took away her driver’s license, too, so Quinn or I drive her around.”
“She’s very lucky to have you and everyone else looking after her.”
“She’s lucky to have her sisters and Angel. I don’t know anymore if she’s lucky to have me.”
Jane knew there was nothing she could say that would fix that. It struck her as odd that she didn’t even feel particularly angry about what happened, just frightened and glad it was over with, but shaken even now. Nevertheless, she found herself saying, “Well, I think she’s lucky you’re there.” The other Jane looked up and stared at her, but Jane went on. “Did Quinn enjoy her birthday party anyway? Veronica, I mean, sorry.”
The other Jane gave a one-shoulder shrug. “It was okay. We got there in time. I left early. I wanted to go for a walk by myself.”
“That’s what my Daria is doing,” said Jane. “Not sure where she went.”
“You should go look for her,” said the other Jane. “What I did might be bothering her.”
“No,” said Jane, shaking her head. “I think this is something else. She’s had something on her mind for a while now, but I can’t get her to talk about it. We were having a bad time with this stupid—” She looked at the metallic framework surrounding the attic doorframe “—whatever it is. We kept hitting really bad worlds where everything was going wrong.” She let out her breath. “Anyway, I wanted to see you before Angel finds us and shuts this gateway down. I wanted to just wanted to say I was sorry. None of this would have happened if we’d just used our heads. We didn’t, and I’m sorry.”
The other Jane looked down and shrugged. She gave every sign of being profoundly depressed.
“I love you,” said Jane, “and I forgive you.” And she swallowed and shut the door as carefully as she could, then sat down and had another cry, but not as long or as bad a one as she had before. After a few minutes she decided it was time she went out to find Daria, and she cleaned herself up and left the house, locking the front door behind her.
What Daria couldn’t understand, of all the things that had happened since she and Jane had started messing with the gateway, was why this last other Jane had not killed her. Daria remembered looking up at the hobby knife in the other Jane’s hand, and she was afraid until she saw the hand tremble. She’s not going to do it, Daria realized, lying on the floor beneath the other Jane. She can’t bring herself to do it. It’s all bluff. She wants her Daria back, and all she has left is to threaten that she’ll hurt me. She won’t, though. She can’t. She’s terrified of losing her Daria, but terrified too of what she’s doing, what she’s suddenly become.
And when Angel appeared and snatched the knife out of that Jane’s hand, that Jane did not resist. The knife vanished after that; where it went did not matter.
Why didn’t she try to kill me anyway? Daria thought. I deserved it for the evil I’ve done. What have I become?
She sat on an isolated bench at the Village Green, a small city park only two blocks from her home. The bushes around her kept anyone else from noticing she was there. It was late in the day. She suspected her family would be home about now. Where Jane would be was anyone’s guess.
Two empty wine cooler bottles sat on the ground beside her boots. She had taken them out of the house when she left, hidden inside her jacket. It was warm outside but her hands were cold.
Did I really kill those other Darias?
She looked up. Through the thick leaves and branches of the tree shading her, she saw the bright blue of the sky. The world was so peaceful. It seemed the calm before the storm, knowing that before long Angel would show up, and Daria would face the consequences of what she’d done.
That Daria who was a mother, she didn’t get up before we left. The other Darias had gotten up within a few moments of when we got there, but that one stayed down. Did something go wrong with her when we frightened her? We helped her down, but did something more happen? Is she dead now? Did I kill that baby’s mother?
She lurched to her feet, looked around in a daze, and set off for home again. The wine cooler bottles stayed on the ground behind her.
The Daria who had lost her Jane, the Daria who had lost her freedom, the Daria who had lost her soul, what about them? Did the roofie mix kill or sicken them? The lesbian Daria, the Daria with five Quinn sisters, the Daria whose mother was cheating, are they alive now? They were real people, but I treated them as if they were less than human or not human at all. Why did I do this?
She crossed a street against traffic. A car hit its brakes and honked at her. She made it to the other side unharmed.
I’ve felt for so long that my life was hard, and now I see it wasn’t so hard at all. So many others had worse lives than I did. Then I came along and made their lives infinitely worse. I wanted to look into myself, see what I had always missed about who I was. I used the gateway to look at other Darias, thinking that if I looked at them, it would be like looking in a living mirror. I would see things that were hidden within me and denied to my consciousness. What I didn’t know, though, was how deeply I hated myself. I see it now. I liked being understood, but that didn’t go deeply and that didn’t last. I hated myself more than anything else. I hated those other Darias because they were like me. I wanted to see what was hidden inside me, and it worked. I saw who I was. I looked in the mirror, and I was a monster.
When she got home, it was twilight.
“Hi, sweetie!” said her mother. She sat on the sofa where Daria remembered her youngest sister Veronica had sat, in another universe far away. “We’re having dinner in an hour. I have a few more legal briefs to read through first.” Her cell phone rang. “Hello? Oh, Eric, yes, I have the files right here!”
“Oh, Daria!” called her father from the stereo cabinets. “Listen, kiddo, do you know if your sister is taking wine coolers from behind the old records we have stacked up in the bottom shelf here? I’m missing quite a few of them. I thought maybe one of her boyfriends, you know, was—”
She walked up the stairs to her room, but on the way noticed that the pull-down staircase to the attic was raised. Her hand automatically opened the door to her room, but she did not go inside. She looked around and saw nothing that would be of help to her. Then she turned and went to the pull-down stairs and jumped once to grab the cord. Her sister Quinn was talking on the portable phone in her room, her laughter audible through her closed door.
The stairs came down. Daria went up. It was almost completely dark in the attic, but she did not turn on the overhead light. There was enough twilight coming through the windows to see where to go. She pulled up the stairs, then walked to the attic door and stood before it.
This will be the twelfth time that Jane or I have opened this door, she thought. It would have been more appropriate if it had been the thirteenth. That would have been perfect, the most unlucky number for a most unlucky life. No, that’s not right. I made my own luck. Everything bad that’s happened to me on this side of the door has been my own fault. I can’t deal with it anymore. I need another drink.
She looked around in the near darkness and noticed a wine cooler sitting on a box nearby with the cap still screwed on. It was warm when she picked it up, the top had already been opened, and it was almost empty, but that meant either she or Jane had drunk from it. It didn’t matter, as she had shared drinks with Jane before. The bottle went to her lips and she raised it, swallowing most of it in two gulps—
—and coughed, spitting a little of the liquid out. Something tasted wrong. She thought maybe she’d just choked, so she took another drink—and spit part of it back into the bottle, swallowing the rest. The liquid did taste funny. “Gross,” she muttered, and set the bottle aside. It fell over and rolled away. She coughed again.
And then she remembered. It was the bottle with the roofies in it, the one Jane had mixed up and then set aside just before they went to the world with the blind Jane, several days ago.
“Oh, crap!” she said, frightened at what she’d done. I have to go back downstairs immediately and tell—NO! I can’t! I don’t want anyone to know what we’ve been doing up here! Damn it, I don’t want—
She began coughing again. I can’t believe I went and goofed myself up like this! I need help, but I can’t go downstairs! She started to feel strange and found herself leaning on the attic door, her head reeling. The roofies mixture must have been strong. The other Darias had succumbed to it quite swiftly.
I’ve really screwed it up this time. I killed those other Darias. I poisoned them just to keep them out of the way. Now it’s come back around full circle, and I’ve poisoned myself, too.
Her hand felt for the attic doorknob and found it.
Take me away from this. Get me out of here, if only for a while, until I get over drinking this crap. I’ll have to lay down somewhere, face down so I won’t choke on my own vomit. I hate myself. I hate myself and I have to get out of here. I deserve nothing good. Give that to me.
She pulled on the handle.
The door opened.
And a door opened on the other side.
She remembered at the last moment that a Daria would have to be on the other side, a Daria who would see her twin and fall over in a faint. She started to swear in frustration—
—but there was no one on the other side. It was just an empty attic similar to her own, with fading red light in the windows. The curse words died on her lips. There was nothing in the other attic at all, no boxes or other things stored away. It was as empty as if the house had never been lived in.
And no one held the other door open. No one at all.
Daria stepped through the door, blinking in surprise. The air was stale and overly warm. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Someone always had to be on the other side to let her through, to complete the gateway as she had set it up. She looked back at the other attic door, but it seemed perfectly normal.
Another wave of dizziness passed through her, and she put a hand to her head. “Damn,” she muttered, then looked across the other attic for the stairs.
—go to your room—
“What?” Daria said aloud. She looked around, puzzled. No one was there, but she thought she had heard something like a whisper, but it had no sound. Maybe it was just her thinking out loud. She should go to her room, though. That made sense. She staggered across the floor to the stairs and fumbled with the steps, finally pushing the staircase down and locking it in place.
Below her, in the rest of the house, was nothing but darkness and dead air.
She knew where her room was, though, and she had not been afraid of the dark for many years. She dropped the bottom part of the stairs and went down.
A minute passed.
Then the door to the attic on the side she was on creaked and began to move. It caught for a moment, then moved again and slowly closed until it hit the doorframe and was completely shut.
Contact was broken. The twilight faded to black, and all was night.
“Jane! How good to see you! Daria’s upstairs.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Morgendorffer. When did she get in?”
“Oh, about an hour ago. When you see her, tell her that her father and I have decided to go out for dinner tonight, and she can have anything she wants in the refrigerator. You, too, of course. We’re in need of a spontaneous, all-night intimacy retreat, we’re literally on our way out the door, and nothing can stop us from—oh, wait just a second, that’s for me. . . . Eric! Yes, I was just looking through the paperwork. . . .”
“A little too much information there, but no problem. I’ll just go upstairs and—”
“Hi, Jane! Daria’s around somewhere here. Is my tie on straight?”
“Yes. Those Disney characters never go out of style, do they, Mr. Morgendorffer?”
“Nope! Say, Jane, do you know if Quinn’s boyfriends have been stealing wine coolers from me? I have this secret stash of them downstairs—”
“Uh, can I get back to you on that? I kinda have to see Daria right away.”
“Oh, sure! Mum’s the word on the wine coolers, though! I’m going to set a trap for the thieves tomorrow. Lousy, rotten teenage punks think they can—”
“I think your wife is calling for you downstairs.”
“Oh! Right! If you see Daria, tell her about the trap I’m putting on the wine coolers in case she’s looking in the kitchen under the sink behind the trash can, okay?”
“Got it. Oh, hi, Quinn. Have you—”
“No time to talk, two guys are taking me out at the same time tonight, and—oh, damn, I broke a nail! Can you believe that? Maybe if I wear gloves or something. Or I could put a bandage over it. I bet if I sat in dim lighting—oh, who am I kidding? With this dress, neither of them will ever look at my fingers. Daria’s around here somewhere, probably in the attic again. I thought I heard her drop the ladder a while ago. And remember what I said about the wine coolers. Bye-bye!”
“Bye.” Jane rapped on Daria’s bedroom door with her knuckles. “Daria? Hey, Daria, are you in there?”
After waiting a few seconds, Jane opened the door to the bedroom, but the light was off. On the off-chance that her partner in crime was asleep, she tiptoed in, but the bed was empty. “Attic, then,” Jane said, and she went out into the second-floor hall. The front door downstairs slammed shut behind Quinn as she left on her date, and Jane heard the garage door grind its way up as the older Morgendorffers prepared to leave as well on their overnight intimacy retreat.
It was easy to reach up and grab the pull-down cord for the stairway. As Jane heaved down, she sang out, “Ready or not, here I . . . what?”
The attic was completely dark.
“Daria? Hey, are you up there? Daria!”
With an uneasy feeling in her stomach, Jane dropped the lower steps and climbed toward the darkness. She remembered the location of the old light switch and flipped it on when she got to the top step. “Daria? Are we playing hide and go seek, or what?”
No reply. She started toward the attic door.
It was open. Behind it, in the doorframe, was unpainted wallboard.
Jane slowed to a stop. She was overly aware of her breathing, the air roaring in and out of her. The gateway device was on this world and no other, and it kept the door shut unless the gate was active. If Daria had gone somewhere and shut the other door behind her, contact was broken and she could never open it to return. And no one could possibly know where she’d gone.
“Daria!” Jane broke into a run and was at the open door in no time. Her hands ran over scratched-up gray wallboard, decorated with nail heads and dents where someone had hammered it into the two-by-fours behind it. She shrieked and pounded the wallboard with her fists. She shut the door and tried to open it again, but it didn’t open, locked shut by the gateway. “Daria!” she screamed, and then she put her lungs into it. “DARIA, GOD DAMN IT, OPEN THE DOOR! OPEN IT! DARIA! DARIA!”
Jane struggled fruitlessly with the knob, then leaned forward with her head on the door, sobbing. She gazed down at her feet. In the faint light she could see a shape on the floor, a wine cooler bottle. She then looked over at the place where days ago she had put a spiked wine cooler, one with roofies dissolved in it, but that bottle was gone. When she picked up the bottle on the floor, she saw a milky residue of wet powder in the bottom. Daria had poured out the mixture—or had drunk it.
“No,” said Jane. “No, please, not this.” She dropped the bottle and put her hands on the door. “Not this. Open the door, Daria.” She tugged on the knob. “Daria, open the door, just open the door, please. Oh, God. Oh, God, please.” She sank to her knees, face and hands pressed to the smooth wood.
“Angel,” she said suddenly. “Angel!” She quickly stood and put both hands on the door. “Take me to Angel! Take me to the world where Angel is! I need to talk to her right now! I need her to help me! Take me to Angel right now!”
She reached down for the knob and pulled.
The door opened. Jane cried out and hurried forward as the door on the other side opened, too.
No one was there. Beyond the door was only darkness.
She wiped her eyes. Had she heard something in the other lightless attic? Did something move? “Daria?” she said. Yes, now she was sure she heard something rustle. She stepped into the dark just past the doorway. “Daria?” she said in a louder voice. “Are you in here? I’m here for you, Daria!”
She took one step past the door. “Dar—”
The entire attic on the other side lit up. She recoiled as brilliant light stabbed into her eyes. Screams rang out.
“Jesus Christ, it’s her!”
“It’s the freaking demon!”
“Jane! Jane, get away from there!”
Half-blind, Jane spun and ran back for the doorway. Someone was already there, the person who had opened the door and was now trying to shut it. Crazed with panic, Jane grabbed the person—a thin-limbed female about her size wearing a black, form-fitting outfit and fencing mask—and bodily flung the person away. She then grabbed for the door, which had almost shut, and jerked it half open. She looked back as she did. The black-clad person had fallen to the floor and her fencing mask had come off, revealing a scarred, ruined face with a black bandana tied over her eyes.
The blind Jane of world eight. It all came together. They had waited for days for the attic aliens to return, so they could catch one.
And Jane was it.
Feet rushed up from behind. Jane got one boot through the door before someone hit her in the back and slammed her into the door, knocking out her breath. Her heavy boot was caught between the door and door jamb, saving her foot from being crushed and the door from shutting completely.
Jane got her right elbow free and twice rammed it as hard as possible into the head of the black-clad person who had tackled her. He grunted and slipped, and she hit him again and as he fell she saw it was her big brother, Trent. Amid the screams, someone else ran up with a baseball bat, and she dodged to one side and grabbed for the bat as it swung past, her foot still caught in the door. Her fist came up and hammered the bat-swinger in the cheek, almost knocking her down. It was Daria, dressed in black with her hair pulled back in a ponytail and safety goggles covering her glasses and eyes.
“Stop it!” screamed Jane, more crazed because she knew exactly what was happening. She tried to squeeze through the doorway to escape, but Trent grabbed her legs again and she punched him in the face, knowing it was wrong and unable to stop.
This world’s Daria whirled back around, her own fists flying as she screamed, “Damn you for hitting Jane!” Jane grabbed Daria by the hair and forced her head down, but three more people tackled her then and dragged her from the door. She went down in the mob, kicking and punching and being kicked and punched as she screamed Angel’s name as loud as she could.
Several people fell heavily on top of her. She fought for several seconds more before she realized no one was fighting back. As fast as she could, she dragged herself out of a limp pile of black-clothed bodies, crawling away on her hands and knees to catch her breath.
“What the hell
are you doing?” shouted Angel, standing right in front of her. “Did I miss
something? Are you deaf in your world, or just stupid? Didn’t anything I told
you sink in?”
“Daria,” gasped Jane, aching all over, “ran . . . away . . . drugged . . .”
Gentle hands caught Jane by an arm to pull her up. A strange sensation ran through Jane’s skin where Angel touched her. The aches grew less in a second, her strength returned, her panic eased. She was still disoriented, but Angel held her up.
“Daria ran off,” Jane repeated. She bent over at the waist, hands on her knees, still huffing. “Please . . . help me find her. I don’t know . . . where she is. She drank some stuff . . . drugs, maybe by accident, before—”
“I get it. She freaked out, doped herself, and went world-hopping again. Couldn’t handle it and ran off.” Angel shook her head in disbelief. “And Daria’s supposed to be the smart one. All right, just give me a minute to think.”
Jane looked around, sweat dripping from her hair and face. This attic was littered with prone bodies, everyone wearing black outfits like military commandos or comic-book ninjas. The nearest bodies were visibly breathing, so Angel had not used a time-stop. Jane guessed Angel had merely put everyone to sleep as an energy saver, as she had done for Veronica’s friends in a previous world. As Jane panted, she spotted a large dark banner in the background, over the stairs. In huge red letters, it read: ENJOY YOUR VISIT TO EARTH!
In smaller letters below that was printed: BEFORE TEAM LAWNDALE KICKS YOUR ASS!
And following that was the open-eye logo of the Sick, Sad World television show.
“Uh-oh,” she said. Quickly, she looked for what she dreaded most.
Angel walked over to the body of the black-clad Daria, who bore the beginnings of a nasty bruise on her cheek where Jane had struck her. Kneeling, Angel touched Daria’s forehead with spread fingertips, appeared to concentrate—
—and jumped to her bare feet with wide eyes. “Damn it!” she yelled. “We’re on worldwide live television!”
“I know.” Jane pointed at two wall-mounted TV cameras, both with red lights on, aimed right at her.
“God damn it!” Angel roared, stamping her foot. Wild sparks and black smoke erupted around the room as cameras and recording equipment exploded. The flames and smoke were extinguished a second later. “I knew I should have used a time stop! I knew it, but nooo!”
“Why didn’t they just nail that door shut?” Jane yelled back. “Why’d they have to open it?”
“Because you dropped your damn camera here and they got into it and saw you covered in that fake blood chewing on fake bodies, and then they saw those pictures of the other Darias lying unconscious, and they thought you were a man-eating demon-alien coming to collect Darias from every universe for junk food! You scared the living crap out of them, then your camera’s contents scared them even more, and then greed won out and they contacted ‘Sick Sad World’ and now they’re going to get two million each for letting Sick Sad film a live cross-universal invasion!”
“Two million? Dollars? EACH?”
“Forget the damn money! I’ll never be able to clean this up! Everyone on this whole damn planet has seen us! They saw me appear! Son of a bitch!”
A police siren rose in the distance. A second one joined in, then a third.
“It just doesn’t get any better than this, does it?” said Jane.
“You are so freaking not funny. We have to get out of here.” Angel’s expression told Jane that she was undergoing a severe internal struggle to arrive at an unpleasant decision. “Let’s use the gateway. We don’t have time for anything else.”
“Is it safe for you? You said you couldn’t—”
“Were you in that room all along, waiting for the ambush?” Jane went through the door, Angel behind her. Angel flinched, grimacing as she went through, just before Jane closed the door and broke contact with the other world.
“I was on my way there, but I wasn’t there yet,” said Angel, looking over her new surroundings. “I’ve been trying to fix the mess you two left behind on a dozen worlds. Were you looking for me or for the blind Jane?”
“For you, of course!” Jane ran both hands through her black hair. “You’re my only hope! The gateway took me to that world when I asked for you, and I thought you’d already be there!”
“You can communicate with it?”
“The gateway. Is that it?” Angel pointed to the metallic framework surrounding the attic door’s jambs and lintel.
“That’s it. I don’t know if I’m really talking to it. Why can’t you touch it?”
Angel swallowed. “Long story. The short form is, did you ever read The Lord of the Rings?”
Jane frowned. “Yeah, but—”
“You remember when Frodo offers the One Ring to Galadriel, in the first book, but she can’t take it from him?”
“Yeah, but . . . oh.”
“It’s the same kind of thing. I’d rule the universes, any of them, all of them, as beautiful and terrible as the morning and the night. It’s too much power, and for many long reasons, I don’t have it in my nature to resist destroying as much as I would create. You have no idea what the Architects’ gates can do. Even I don’t know all the things they can do. On my own, I can move from reality to reality, but it takes a lot of time and effort. Those gates move anything anywhere—” She snapped her fingers “—like that. It’s unlimited power. Well, for all practical purposes, unlimited. Beings such as you and I would never know the difference.”
Jane tried to take it in, then gave up. “So, how to we find Daria? We don’t have another Daria to get my Daria to open the door and let us through.”
“Then we’ll cheat.” Angel reached up, hands spread, for Jane’s head. Jane reflexively jerked away, eyes wide with fear. “Whoa,” said Angel softly. “It’s okay. Trust me. It’s the only way to get her back.”
Jane swallowed and nodded, then closed her eyes and stood still. Angel put her hands on either side of Jane’s head, fingers pressed to her temples. “Think about Daria,” she whispered. “Think about what you like most about her, as intensely as you can. Think about her, and when I tell you, reach over and open the door. We can trick the doorway once, I hope. Just think about Daria, the one you know and care about, your best friend, and for a moment, with my help, you will almost become her. Good. Okay, now.”
Feeling not at all herself, as if her mind were hosting another presence, Jane turned and reached for the doorknob. The door pulled opened. Jane staggered, but Angel caught her before she fell. Jane’s mind abruptly cleared and she put a hand to her forehead, wondering what had just happened to her.
“It worked,” said Angel, but she looked through the open door with a puzzled frown.
“The other door didn’t open,” said Jane, squinting in the dim light.
“Yes, it did, but only a crack,” said Angel. “Could . . . could you push it, please? I can’t touch it.”
Jane gave a light shove. The other door swung open into darkness.
“Oh, hell!” said Jane, backing up. “We’ve gone back to the ambush place!”
“No,” said Angel. Her confused look was replaced by shock. “No, this is somewhere else.” She peered into the darkness.
“Daria?” called Jane over Angel’s shoulder. “Hey, Daria? Is this the right world? Is this the—”
“Shh,” Angel hissed. She stepped closer to the doorway, arms raised as if ready to grab for something or ward it away.
“What?” Jane whispered.
For a moment, Angel kept that pose. She appeared to be listening.
“She’s dead,” said Angel in a soft voice, straightening.
Jane went through the door and into the darkness like a shot.
“JANE!” Angel shrieked, still on the other side of the doorway. “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO BE STUPID! YOU AREN’T PREPARED! JANE!”
The air was warm and smelled of unsettled dust. Her eyes had partially adjusted to the dark, but beyond a certain point, Jane couldn’t see a thing. Arms waving in front of her, she slowed down until she found the support beam next to the pull-down stairs and felt for the light switch. She flicked it on, snapped it up and down. Nothing happened.
Angel had stopped yelling. I have to find Daria and get her out of here. She’s not dead. She’s not. Feeling ahead with a foot, Jane found the stairs were already lowered. She crouched and scooted over the floor until she had good footing on the steps, then quickly went down. The air in the house was dry and devoid of odors. The blackness below was total and complete. And there was a strange echoing quality in the air, almost as if . . .
Jane’s booted foot touched the hallway on the second floor. The sound was loud. The hall carpet was missing. She stepped back on what sounded like bare wooden floor, feeling the wall for the light switch she remembered was there. Nothing happened when she flicked the switch rapidly back and forth. The power was out.
Find Daria. Feeling the walls, unable to see a thing, Jane headed for Daria’s room. When she found it, the door was shut.
“Daria?” she said. She reached over for the door knob. One boot slipped and squeaked across the wooden floor as she shifted her weight; she caught herself before she fell. She had stepped in something slick. And there was a new smell in the air, a fresh, sharp, half-familiar odor. When she shifted her footing to get closer to the door knob, she discovered her boot soles were sticking to the floor.
She found the knob and pushed open the door into Daria’s room. The hinges creaked loudly and there was that curious, empty echo again.
One foot forward. The bottom of her boot smacked wetly as it lifted away from the floor.
Her other foot made the same smacking noise as she moved forward again. The motionless air was thick with a rich, almost metallic tang. She could almost taste it in her mouth.
It reminded her of blood.
The thought paralyzed her. “Daria?” she whispered, terrified now. The word echoed around her and died.
Her boot made popping noises as it pulled away from the floor. It swept gently forward—and bumped something soft and low right in front of her. Her heart in her throat, Jane slowly crouched and put her trembling hands out before her.
“Daria?” Her hands swept the air. “Daria, is that—”
Her fingers brushed against damp clothing covering a still, soundless form. She swiftly ran her hands over the figure, touched a bare limb, an arm, and lifted it. It swung up, lifeless. She slid her fingers up to the hand, which hung without moving. By now her own hands, front and back and past the wrists, were slick with sticky warmth.
She found the figure’s shoulders, ran her fingers through thick, long hair, and found a wet, sticky face.
And round-lens glasses.
A wordless wail came out of Jane’s throat. She tried to lift the figure in her arms, but it was too clumsy and heavy. Dead weight, she thought, keening and half mad with terror. She got an arm under the body’s neck and lifted, bringing the body to a sitting position with its head lolling back, then prepared to heave the body over her shoulder and try to stand up. Tacky wetness clung to her hair, soaked into her jacket and tights, and ran down her forearms to her slippery hands.
Door hinges creaked. Jane jumped, clutching the body to her, and stared into the blackness with her heart in her mouth. She heard the bedroom door close with a thump. The latch popped into place. The deadbolt knob turned and clicked.
Something was in the room with her.
Next to her.
“Angel?” she whispered hoarsely, trying to see. “Is that you?”
And then she knew it wasn’t.
Jane pulled the bloodied body close as she looked over her shoulder and strained to see in the blackness. The thing made no sound at all, not even on the floorboards.
“Who is it?” she managed to whisper. Her chest was tight with terror. “Please,” she said in a louder voice, “don’t hurt us. Please just let us g—”
The tip of an ice-cold knife pressed into her forearm.
Jane shrieked and kicked away on the slick-wet hardwood floor, shoving the body ahead of her. She reached a wall and pressed against it, trying to get as close to the wall as the body she held was. She screamed no and keep away from me and don’t hurt me, but mostly she screamed and her screams rang with a peculiar echo. Even in the dark, even in her madness, she realized Daria’s room had changed. The wall next to her was plastered, not padded, and smelled of latex paint. There was no rug and no furniture where there should have been. It was alien and empty and new.
Her screams died into low sobbing as she waited, steeling herself for what would come next.
Cold fingers grasped her arm and pulled.
She shrieked and flailed blindly with her right arm, but she lashed air and touched nothing. There was nothing anywhere to touch, nothing at all, and no sound but from her.
She knew what the thing really was, then, and she began to cry in earnest.
“Why are you here?” she said, though she wasn’t sure if she said it, screamed it, or thought it. “Why are you doing this to me? What do you want?”
The air in front of her, very close to her face, seemed to crackle. What was said she heard more inside her mind than in her ears.
“No! Go away! Get away from me, get out of this room!”
—this room this room is my room—
“No! This is Daria’s room! This is her room!”
“It’s not! It’s her . . .”
And she knew who the thing had once been. She thought she would go insane, and for a moment, she almost did.
“No. It can’t be.”
“Daria? It’s not you, is it? God, it can’t be. Is that you? What happened to you? Daria, what happened?”
—happened something happened something—
—happened made a choice made a choice there is always a choice born out of place and time—
“What? I don’t understand!”
—a choice you understand you always understand but you hurt when you get too close when something happens that hurts so the choice there was a choice to leave the hurt and everything passes everything passes away you understand it passes away—
“What are you saying? Are you hurt?”
—you hurt me when you were close too close to me too close you hurt me so there was a choice—
“No! I would never hurt you, Daria!”
—told my mother you told her everything—
“What? I didn’t tell your mother anything! I didn’t!”
—told her the problems my problems you said don’t cut me off you said on the phone picked up the phone and heard you tell her my problems you hurt me when you told her everything—
“That—Daria, that wasn’t me! That was another Jane, the Jane from this world, not me!”
—jane it was jane it was you—
“No! Daria, listen! If your Jane told your mother you were having problems, she was probably worried about you! That Jane was afraid for you and she—”
The tip of a knife pushed hard into Jane’s upper arm and she recoiled and screamed and found it hard to stop.
—trusted you trusted you and you told her everything you hurt me—
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Don’t hurt me! I’m sorry I hurt you! Please don’t hurt me! I’m sorry!”
—sorry you hurt me sorry for hurting you for you understand you understand me you alone understand what alone is to be alone so alone now you understand but no one else no one else understands—
—what happened what happened was something happened no one understands the hurt of so alone the hurt they don’t understand the hurt they never understand the alone the pain the misery chick the brainiac the outcast the oddball the loner the loser they never understand never understand never—
“Who was it, Daria? Who didn’t understand?”
—no one no one ever but you understands no one but you ever no one ever no never ever never—
Jane said what came next into her head. What came next into her head was: “I love you!”
Cold fingers dug into her arm and would not let go. She tried not to scream but it was impossible not to.
—no don’t say that don’t ever say that it hurts it hurts to love it hurts too much don’t say that—
“I love you! I can’t help it! I do love you! Let go!”
The cold grip on her arm tightened.
—let go let you go let you—
“Stop it! Stop it! Just let us go! I love you! I love you, Daria! Let us go!”
The hand on her arm was gone.
—hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts to love it hurt when something happened it hurt so much there was a choice for oblivion but now so alone it hurts more even more it hurts forever oblivion hurts forever it hurts and never stops it never stops hurting it hurts to be loved it hurts even more alone forever to know you love me it hurts me alone forever go you can go you can go away go away go away go—
Jane felt something withdraw from her. She felt it, even crying as hard as she was.
—you can go—
The deadbolt on the door turned and popped back.
Still sobbing, Jane gathered the body of her best friend in her arms and tried again to drape it over her shoulder and lift it.
She half turned, choking on tears. “What?”
—no she must stay here forever in oblivion misery chick outcast loner loser she must stay you must go—
“No, Daria. She has to go with me. I love her, too.”
—no she must stay she is me she was born out of place and time and must stay—
“No! She must go with me!”
“I love you, Daria, but she—”
The deadbolt slowly clicked back into place.
—then you both shall stay—
Jane could hear her heart beating in her ears so fast and loud she thought her eardrums would burst.
—with me stay with me forever in oblivion forever—
It was hard to speak with so dry a mouth. “No. Daria, wait, don’t—”
—both shall stay with me—
—forever together we shall stay together in oblivion we two born out of place and time you understand me you understand the alone the loneliness of always but together we shall be together always forever—
“No! No, I won’t! You can’t—”
The knife went deep into her upper right arm. She screamed as she’d never before screamed in her life.
It slashed across her side, slicing through clothing and into the skin.
—you understand you always understand—
“NO GOD STOP IT!”
—always a choice there is always a choice—
It jabbed into her lower back under her ribs even as she howled and struck out to stop it, dropping the body.
“NO STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT!”
—everything chooses oblivion to flee from the misery the loneliness the misery chick and you out of place and time will be always together you understand when no one ever understands the misery chick born out of place and time will be with you forever together in beautiful desolation we will be always forever together forever—
Jane’s screams became incoherent. She rolled and kicked at the air, but the knife still came in.
—something happened that you understand something happens to everything passes together you will be like me so no one understands you either and the she who is me will be like me like the misery chick out of place and time together we will all be in beautiful desolation forever and ever and ever and ever—
She crouched in a corner, back to the wall, eyes shut and head down, and struck out slapping and hitting nothing as her fingers, hands, and arms were cut again and again and again.
—there is always a choice and the knife was my choice with the knife was i freed of my loneliness and free in this room of my life when the knife took my loneliness in this room and was free and was free in oblivion forever and soon you will understand me much better and soon you will see what it is like when something happens to you with the knife when it happens and you are the misery chick too—
The door exploded and roaring daylight came in. Light and flame enveloped the room. Jane looked up at a shadowed thing that stared into her face from inches away, and she never forgot it for the rest of her life. The shadowed thing turned from her and rose in an instant, striking at the bright Angel coming for it through the door. Great ragged wings of white sprang from Angel’s back, and she wielded a long weapon, a trident made of flame. She deflected the shadowed thing’s first attack, but the thing drove in again and slashed across one of her hands, and she dropped the burning trident. It bounced across the floor into the opposite wall, spilling fire all the way. The shadow turned back to Jane thrust down at her with a long black blade.
Angel grabbed the shadowed thing from
behind with both hands, ignoring her wounds, and heaved it away from Jane. The
shadow whirled in fury, a black streak in its hand. The knife went straight into
Angel’s gray shirt where her heart would be, and she looked startled, as if
this was not what she had expected would happen.
Enraged, the shadowed thing pushed on the knife and drove Angel ahead of it toward the opposite wall, as Angel’s wings thrashed and beat the attacker. Instead of reaching for the knife in her heart, Angel grasped the thing’s head in her hands and forced it to face her own, focusing on the shadowed thing with unblinking intensity. A second later, they struck the wall behind Angel and the wall burst like a glass window and the shadowed thing and the Angel fell through it together and vanished—
—and the wall was normal again, eggshell-painted plaster without decoration. Flaming chunks of the door littered the empty room. Angel’s trident lay by the far wall, crackling with yellow light. Smoke rolled to the ceiling and filled the air.
Jane uncoiled herself from the corner and crawled through a shallow lake of blood to the body she had tried to lift. It was her Daria, so soaked in red it was impossible to tell what color her face, clothes, and hair had once been. Her glasses were deeply scratched and smeared with blood. Behind the glasses, her open eyes were glazed and unresponsive. She got Daria on her back, holding her arms together in front, forced herself to her feet and staggered out. Climbing the stairs to the smoke-filled attic took ages. Jane coughed until she could only crawl, still carrying Daria with her.
A thousand years later, she crawled through a smoky attic doorway and pushed the door shut behind her. Contact with the burning abandoned house was broken. Jane fell over and cried out. Daria rolled off and came to rest on her back, staring at the attic ceiling, ruined glasses askew. Pulling herself across the floor to her friend, Jane felt her neck for a pulse, then watched her chest and put her cheek by Daria’s open mouth. No pulse, no breath. Nothing moved, nothing at all.
“No,” whispered Jane. Her head bowed and touched the red of Daria’s shirt. “No. This can’t happen. I won’t let it. I won’t. I’ll get Angel.”
She arose and crawled to the attic door, pulling herself up to the knob. “Angel,” she said, and she pulled on the knob but the door did not open. “Angel, come on. Come on and help me. Help me, please.”
She let go of the door and coughed and spat red onto the wooden floor of the attic. It hurt to breathe. “No,” she said. “Won’t let it be.” She pushed herself up on the door again. “Anyone, anyone please help me. Help me save her. Help me please.” She pulled on the doorknob.
The door opened.
A door on the other side opened. Another Jane was there, dressed as she was but uninjured, looking down with startled eyes. She then turned and shouted, “Quinn! Emergency! Get up here!”
“What is it this time?” said another Daria, out of sight behind the other door.
“No!” said the other Jane, trying to ward someone away. “Don’t look!”
“I’m not going to faint, damn it!” said the other Daria, and she walked around the door. She froze in her tracks when she saw the red-splattered Jane on her hands and knees and the motionless red-soaked Daria behind her. Then the other Daria folded up like a card table and fell across the floor.
“Sorry about that,” said the other Jane, coming through the door. She then shouted back, “Quinn! Damn it, hurry!”
“Alright! I’m on the phone, okay?” called a light voice from someone running up the attic stairs on the other side. It was Quinn, a cell phone pressed to her right ear. “I’m sorry, Sandi,” Quinn said as she walked across the attic. “It’s always something around here these days. Can I call you back in two minutes? Just two minutes. Okay, great. Bye.”
Quinn snapped the cell phone shut and without batting an eye stepped over the unconscious Daria and went through the attic doorway to where the red-splattered Jane sat in a daze, held upright by the uninjured Jane. As she walked by, Quinn reached out and touched the red-splattered Jane on the forehead for half a second.
Life and energy flooded Jane’s head and shot down into her chest, arms, abdomen, and legs. She inhaled as if she had awakened for the first time in her life and discovered that nothing hurt—not her fingers or arms or legs or chest or lungs or anywhere she had been attacked. Even the scars were gone. Stunned, she saw Quinn sigh and kneel by Daria’s blood-soaked body and put aside her cell phone. Quinn placed one hand on Daria’s forehead and one on her unmoving chest, over her heart. She then closed her eyes and bowed her head. Her lips moved.
Three seconds went by.
The red Daria jerked, jerked again, inhaled sharply and began to cough.
“Eww,” said Quinn, looking at her bloody hands as she got to her feet. She picked up her cell phone by the antenna with two gory fingers, making a face, and walked back through the attic doorway. “I’m going to wash up, Jane,” she called over her shoulder as she left. When she passed the fallen Daria, Quinn deliberately bumped her shoe against the other Daria’s boot, who stirred groggily and put a hand to her face. “What happened?” the other Daria murmured.
The other Jane stood and helped the red-splattered Jane to her feet. “Our card,” said the other Jane, tucking something in the red-splattered Jane’s jacket pocket. “Read it when you have time, and have a good day!” She wiped her hands on her jacket as she walked back through the attic door, then smiled and waved before she closed the far door and broke contact.
“What happened?” the red-soaked Daria murmured. She tried to sit up but fell back. “I’m so dizzy and tired, and I feel really gross, like I need a shower. Ugh, what is this on me, blood? What happened?”
Jane got down on her knees and took Daria in her arms, pulling her close despite the mess. It didn’t matter. “Something happened,” she whispered. “Something good.”
For the hundredth time in three days, Jane pulled the card from the inside pocket of her new blue-jean jacket and read it. This time, though, she read it aloud to Daria. Daria lay on her bed staring at an interesting crack in the ceiling of her bedroom, while Jane lay on her back on the carpet nearby.
“‘Quinnfinite Miracles, Incorporated,’” Jane said. “‘Divine Intervention Made Fashionable! No Tithes Required.’” She squinted and held the card closer to her eyes. “‘Donations Accepted for Staff Maintenance. Saint Daria, Historical Archivist and Lorekeeper. Saint Jane, Iconographer and Souvenir Designer. Disciples and Ye Faithful: Ask About Our Special Rates!’” She squinted even more and held the card several inches away as she read the bottom lines. “‘Offer Good This Time/Space Continuum Only. Not Responsible for Interdimensional Transportation Errors or Delays Due to Quinn’s Dating Schedule.’”
“I smell a scam,” said Daria. “I would never call myself a saint unless there was a payoff in the wings.”
“You’d never do real work unless there was a payoff, you mean.”
“I’d never do real work, period, but I’d never be a saint, either, without adequate recompense for my loss of privacy, the public humiliation of people taking my name in vain, and the phone calls at all hours asking for favors. If I sold indulgences, though, that would help.” She scratched her nose. “Wonder what kind of souvenirs they’re selling. Last season’s shoe relics? Pieces of the One True Scrunchie?”
“Speaking of public humiliation, I was wondering if the other Jane ran the gift shop or if the other Daria did.”
“Quinn’s wannabe disciples, most likely. I’d never do retail work.”
“Unless your mother made you.”
“You’re not helping.”
Jane put the card away. “Saint Jane,” she said. “Saint Jane. Saint . . . Jane. Saint Jane’s First United Reform Church of Quinn, Lawndale Synod. Hmmm.”
“I’m getting nauseated.”
“Saint Daria. Saint Daria.”
“The first thunderbolt I can throw, you’re getting it right up the butt.”
“Funny, but I think ‘Saint Daria’ actually works—not as well as ‘Saint Jane,’ but adequate. It has a certain ring to it. It would work much better, though, if you were martyred.” Jane grimaced. “Sorry. Didn’t think through that one before I said it.”
“Let’s go visit the lion pit at the zoo and see which one of us gets martyred.”
“You’d fall into the lake at Monkey Island before you even got to the lions.”
Daria sat up on her elbows with a sour look. She wore brand-new dark denim low-rise jeans, a rust-red T-shirt long enough to cover her midsection, and new black boots—but no glasses. “That little trick I played on Angel wasn’t very smart,” she grumbled. “I had only one extra pair of glasses, and I can’t see a damn thing through the scratched-up pair. Mom said it would be Friday before my new set was ready.”
“I hope Angel’s okay,” said Jane, and then wished she hadn’t said that aloud.
Daria picked a fuzz ball from her jacket. “I do, too,” she said in a low voice. “We owe her our lives.”
Jane rubbed her eyes. It didn’t help to shut out the last image she had of Angel, grappling a ghost with a knife in her chest as she fell into darkness. Was she dead? Could she even die? True angel or not, getting a knife in the chest couldn’t be good.
“It was all my fault,” said Daria. “I can’t believe I did it.”
“We couldn’t have known where that door went,” said Jane in a tired voice. Damn my mouth, she was almost getting cheery again. “And that thing we fought wasn’t you, you know that.”
“But I caused it to happen. I did something really stupid, and you and she were badly hurt as a result. You could have been killed, and she probably was.” Daria’s face grew longer as she tried to picture what happened when the ghost had attacked Jane. The supernatural healing they had received from the alternate Quinn had removed even their scars, and Jane had said little about what actually happened, but Daria remembered something of what the ghost had done to her. Even the roofies didn’t remove that. Then, too, Jane had not had the luxury of drinking a powerful painkiller mixed with alcohol before the ghost tried to cut her into pieces. The memories of her suffering would be dreadful compared to the murky pains and images Daria had of her own experience.
“It’s over and done with,” said Jane, wishing Daria would stop picking at her emotional wounds. Getting touched by the magical Quinn had even dulled her memories of being attacked by the ghost. “Our being there was an accident. You got hurt, too.”
Daria shrugged. “I got killed, you mean, but that was my fault. I can’t believe the mess I made.”
“I forgive you, amiga, I really mean it. Can you please accept that? Okay?”
Daria stared at her feet and thought about being dead. It hadn’t felt like anything. Dying had been terrifying and had hurt like hell, roofies notwithstanding. Being truly dead, though, was nothing at all, like being asleep and unaware even of time passing.
Daria didn’t answer. She lay back and looked at the ceiling. I wish I knew if Angel was alive, she thought. She saved my life twice because of my screw-ups. How can I ever make it better? Maybe I can’t. Maybe that’s just what I have to live with, that I can’t make it better. But how can anyone live with that? This isn’t like my kissing Tom and hurting Jane. This is life and death, the real thing.
Jane exhaled, knowing this breast-beating would go on for days to come. There had to be a way to derail Daria’s depressed thoughts before they turned into a runaway train and took a really bad turn—if they hadn’t already. “I’m grateful you’re alive, Daria,” she said patiently. “That’s good enough for me.”
“Are you thinking about that crack in the ceiling? Looks sort of like the back of a dragon, to me.”
“I guess.” Daria sat up on her elbows again and stared at her sock feet. “This whole thing with the gateway was my fault from the start, from the moment we found it.”
“Daria, if memory serves, I was the one who found the damn thing and talked you into tearing it out of the restaurant’s back wall.”
“But it was my idea to use it like we did.”
“Let me finish, please?”
Jane looked at the ceiling and was silent.
“A lot of things have bugged me about myself for a long time,” said Daria, lying back on the bed. “You know most of it. About all of it, really. I expected a lot more out of myself than I had. I thought I was a better person than I turned out to be.”
Jane opened her mouth to interject something, but thought better of it.
“From the moment we mounted that alien thing on that door, I knew what I wanted to do with it. I wanted to see myself in other situations, other possibilities, and figure out if I was as screwed up as I was afraid I was or if it was just the times, or both, or whatever. I didn’t think I was living up to what I could be, and maybe somewhere else, someone named Daria had the secret, and I could get it and . . . and I don’t know what.”
“Be a better person.”
“Yeah. I hate saying that, but yeah. I blew it. All I had were illusions about myself, illusions about who I could become. I’m not a better person. I’m just another messed-up human.”
“Same here, I guess.”
“Not like me. I think I understand that ghost of me better than I thought I did.”
“Whoa,” said Jane, turning and pointing a finger at her friend. “I hope you aren’t thinking that I think you’re thinking.”
“What? Oh. I meant, I have thought about killing myself before, like she did.”
Jane rolled on her side to eye Daria. “When did you last think about it? Today?”
“No,” Daria lied, then went back to the truth. “When I wrote that damn story about the flesh-eating bacteria, when Tom read it and said it had problems. I was really pissed. I remember a time, not long after that, I was going to print out another story I wrote and tell him I got it off the Internet and see what he thought of it, but I decided not to bother. I was still feeling raw from the first time, and I didn’t know what would happen if I pushed it.”
“You thought about killing yourself over that?”
Daria was silent for a moment before she answered. “I was afraid I wasn’t any good as a writer. I thought maybe no one understood me, what I wanted to say, but more importantly that maybe no one understood me for who I was. You, yes, but no one else. No one seemed to get it. I don’t know if anyone does even now. I don’t know if it even matters.”
“It matters to me. It matters a hell of a lot to me, Daria!”
“Yes, but I don’t want to marry you.”
“What? What does . . . oh.”
“I don’t want to go through life so completely alone like I have before now. It’s just too much. I don’t want to be an outcast. I don’t want to be a misery chick. I just want a life and maybe share it with someone. Maybe for always.”
“I know this probably isn’t what you meant, but I wouldn’t want a life without you in it, Daria.”
Daria bit her lip. “Or me without you.”
They said nothing for a while.
“That . . . that thing, that ghost thing,” said Daria, looking uncomfortable. “When I met it . . . it was saying things that bothered me. It was saying that I understood it, that I knew what was going on, that—”
“This isn’t good to talk about. Not at all.”
“But did it say that to you?” Daria sat up again. “I know the ghost wasn’t me, the me here, but I keep thinking there was something of me in it anyway, that capacity to do harm. It’s like all of those other Darias—all of them had a little of the real me in them, and I feel so . . . responsible, guilty even, and I feel sorry for everything that happened, especially the—”
Daria lay back again with a sigh and rubbed her face with her hands. “Sorry. It’s hard. You’re right.”
“As always. Look, I’m sorry for the bad things the other Janes did, too, because I feel like they were more than a little like me, too, but they really weren’t me, okay? I can’t carry the burden of their deeds around. That’s their job. You don’t want to do real work, a sentiment with which I am entirely in agreement, but carrying around other people’s guilt, even that of your twins, that’s too much work for me or you or anyone. If Quinn was your twin, would you be responsible for what she did?”
“Ouch. Stop. That worked.”
“I’ll send you a bill for the therapy, payable in food as always.” Jane lay down again, looking up. “So, what are we going to do about the gateway?”
“I don’t know. I thought about taking it with us to Boston.”
“I could go up with you when you leave, get a job until classes start up for me in January.”
“Get an apartment together.”
“That would work.”
“What about your job at Good Time, by the way?”
“Oh, they fired me days ago when I didn’t show up. No biggie. I was tired of chicken fried rice anyway.”
“Good thing they never figured out it was us that ripped up that back wall.”
“Good thing the restaurant’s insurance covered the damage.”
“Good thing we don’t feel worse about it than we already do.”
“Good thing we got the house here cleaned up before either your parents or Quinn got home.”
“I thought for sure Mom or Dad would look in the garbage can and find our bloody clothes in those sacks.”
“I thought for sure someone would see me run home in one of your old outfits.”
“Better than running home naked.”
“I don’t know about that. Speaking of which, how did your family take your new fashion look?”
“Mom and Dad about had a cow. They kept asking me if I felt all right or needed to lie down. Quinn kept trying to give me a makeover to go with the new clothes. Did Trent say anything about you wearing jeans?”
Jane sat upright and looked down at her newly purchased flared blue jeans, jeans jacket, bright red T-shirt, and black boots. What had ever possessed them to dress so much alike? Daria even had a jeans jacket of her own. They weren’t quite twins, but . . . “Nah,” she said, thinking of Trent again. “I don’t think he never noticed. I’m not even sure if he’s been awake all this time or sleepwalking.”
Daria swung her legs over the side of the bed to the floor and sat up, too. “I just wanted to look different from now on. Maybe it’s a way of saying I’m me and no one else, if that makes any sense.”
Even if we dress almost the same now, thought Jane. “Makes perfect sense,” she said, not wishing to mention the look-alike issue. “I guess we both needed a change.”
Daria nodded. “Now what?”
“That was my question, too. Are we calling it quits, running about the multiverse, or are we going to wait until opportunity knocks again and go?”
There was a knock at Daria’s bedroom door. Both girls jumped and gasped.
“Timing is everything,” said a familiar feminine voice beyond the door. “I couldn’t resist.”
Daria and Jane leaped to their feet and scrambled for the door.
In the hall outside was a young, blonde, barefoot woman about Daria’s height, wearing a gray T-shirt, worn jeans, and a weary smile. She held a pair of eyeglasses in one hand. “Boo,” she said.
The next five minutes were predictable.
“Not much to say about the spirit,” said Angel, sitting on the bed between the tearful and less cynical duo. “She’s in a better place now. I’m afraid the house burned down, which was my fault, but it wasn’t selling anyway even with that room remodeled. The ghost drove everyone off. At least the place was insured.” Angel absently rubbed at a spot on the right side of her chest. “I can’t say she went willingly at first, and it took a while, but in time . . . she saw the light, and she moved on. It’s over. She’s at peace.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Daria, and she burst into tears with Jane a second time, provoking a second round of hugs.
“On the good side,” said Angel five more minutes later, “I got new clothes.”
“Could have fooled me,” said Jane, wiping her eyes on Angel’s T-shirt.
“Hey, watch it! That’s not a Kleenex. And what’s your problem with how I dress? Didn’t the two of you wear the same outfits for almost three years?”
“Sheer laziness,” said Jane.
“Speak for yourself,” said Daria, adjusting her glasses. “I was making a statement about conformity and individuality.”
“Laziness, that’s what I said,” said Jane with a nod.
“So, why did you change your look now?” said Angel. “I like the new you, but I’m sort of curious.”
“We saw the error of our ways,” said Daria. “I’m only half kidding.” Her expression fell. “I’m sorry about everything, Angel.”
“If you let her apologize again,” warned Jane, “we’ll never get out of here.”
“No, really,” said Daria, and she began to tear up a third time. “I can’t get over it. I’m just so—”
“Apology accepted,” said Angel, but she put a hand over Daria’s forehead for a long moment, as if taking her temperature. Daria’s eyes half-closed when she did, and she didn’t move except to breathe. Jane noticed but said nothing.
When Angel removed her hand, Daria sniffed and sighed, but she seemed almost back to normal. “Before you got here, we were talking about what to do with that little artifact,” she said, as if nothing had happened moments before.
“I caught some of the discussion, but not the conclusion,” said Angel.
“We didn’t have one,” said Jane, eyeing Angel and Daria with a puzzled look.
“We’re taking it with us when we go to Boston,” Daria added. “We’re getting an apartment together, too, which won’t be a problem since Raft and Boston Fine Arts College aren’t so far apart, as the crow flies. Assuming the crow isn’t stacked up over Logan Airport.”
“Ah.” Angel rolled her eyes. “So if I gave you some background on the gateways, that wouldn’t change your thinking, would it?”
“We can’t leave it here,” said Daria. “Quinn might find it, or Mom or Dad. I don’t think I’d like that.”
Jane nodded. “Ditto. Of course, if the gateway gives us cancer, we might want to know about it.”
“It won’t,” said Angel, “but you used it fourteen times in just over a week, and there was a side effect.”
After a pause, Daria raised an eyebrow. “Halitosis?”
“Nose hairs?” Jane added.
“A not-so-fresh feeling?”
“Irreversible neural imprinting,” said Angel. “You don’t want to get rid of the gateway. You want to keep using it.”
Daria and Jane looked at each other, then looked at Angel. “We were a little undecided about using it again,” Daria began, “but I was thinking after a couple of days, maybe, we might give it one more shot.”
“One or two more shots,” said Jane. “Or three.”
A corner of Angel’s mouth pulled up. “But you could quit at any time, right?”
“Of course,” said both girls at once.
Angel’s face took on a touch of anxiety. “You know how when you direct an Internet browser to certain websites, the browser can get infected by a trojan that’s almost impossible to get rid of? A little program that keeps redirecting the browser back to the website, even when you don’t want that to happen?”
Daria shrugged. “You’re saying that’s happening with us, because we used the gateway too often?”
“But you used it, too, Angel,” said Jane.
“Just once, in an emergency,” said Angel. Her expression darkened. And then I created two worlds where I destroyed everything you loved. And made you watch. She shook off the thoughts. They didn’t need to know, and it couldn’t be undone. “When I came after the ghost, I did it the hard way, which is why it took me so long to get there. Using that device is not only dangerous to me because it would make me too powerful, it would also be impossible for me to even want to get rid of it.”
“I don’t think that applies here,” said Daria with an assured tone. “We’re using the gateway of our own free will. It’s not making us do anything we don’t want to do.”
Angel tilted her head. “What if I had it taken away from you?”
“No! Don’t do that!” cried Daria, her face turning pale. “You can’t do that!”
“You’re kidding, right?” Jane’s face had gone equally pale. “That could be so dangerous in someone else’s hands, and at least we know how to use it properly!”
Angel groaned and put her face in her hands. “Use it properly?” she said. “Oh, never mind. I can’t reverse the effects by myself anyway. The neural imprinting just makes it easier for the gateway to read your mind when you’re using it.”
“It’s not intelligent, is it?” asked Jane, calmer now. “It’s just a rectangular piece of metal, right?”
“Made by an alien civilization more powerful than you can imagine,” said Angel, looking up with an annoyed expression.
“Meh. So it’s like a smart computer, I can deal with that. At least it doesn’t talk back to me.”
“In a way, it does, though,” said Angel. “It’s been sending you to universes based on your subconscious desires and motivations. When you expected a bad place to show up, one promptly did. I can’t take the damn thing away from you, and I can’t make you stop using it, so the best I can do is warn you to be as careful as you possibly can when you do compulsively use it. Think happy thoughts.”
“Happy thoughts,” said Jane. “Happy thoughts. Like, find a universe where they think we’re alien sex goddesses or something.”
Angel looked upset. “Don’t even joke about that!”
“I’ll keep her under control.” Daria’s deadpan look then faded slightly. “Um, I was meaning to ask you about the other Darias and Janes we visited, if they—”
“They’re fine,” Angel said, “or at least as well as can be expected. I was able to erase, suppress, or alter almost all the memories of everyone involved so they aren’t likely to recall meeting you two, though there wasn’t much I could do about the world that had Jane and me on a live camera. That one’s a lost cause.”
“Jane said our twins there were getting two million smackers apiece,” said Daria. “Is there any chance we could—”
“No! Don’t you dare even try it here! I should say that one Daria did fall down a flight of stairs while under the influence of that roofie cocktail you created. She broke her leg, but she’s recovering well.”
“Oh,” said Daria, looking away in pain. “Crap.”
“Better that you know so you don’t try that again,” said Angel. “Be nice to your alternates. Do unto others, and so on.”
“Are you sure you’re doing okay?” Jane asked, looking Angel over. “I know you’re operating on a different level of existence than we are, but I was a little concerned about your condition when you left us the last time.”
“Oh, I’m okay,” said Angel. “Well, mostly okay. When it was over with, I actually grew back some feathers.”
“Feathers?” Daria raised an eyebrow.
Jane stuck her hands out to her sides and flapped them like wings.
“Oh,” said Daria, and she tilted her head to peer at Angel’s unremarkable back. “Yes, I see. Nice feathers.”
“Smart ass,” said Angel. “I’ll show you later.” Her tone became somber. “The two of you had me worried the last time I saw you, for that matter. Not to make light of it, but I was going to ask you how you managed to pull off your, uh, miraculous recoveries.”
“Oh.” Jane pulled the business card from her jacket pocket again and handed it over. “We sought professional help.”
A look of disbelief crossed Angel’s face as she read the card. “You’re kidding.”
Jane held up her right hand with the middle three fingers raised and pressed together, the thumb holding down the little finger. “Girl Scout’s honor,” she said. “I think it still counts despite that noodle-art incident at camp.”
Angel handed the card back. “I don’t want to know anything more about that universe or the noodle-art incident. Quinn as a messiah . . . Good Lord.” she shivered.
“I know the feeling,” said Daria glumly. “There’s always a bug stuck in my Happy Meal.”
“Why do you say that? You love your sister.”
“Yeah, but . . .” Daria turned away. “Things about her get to me sometimes. Sometimes all of the time.”
Angel cocked her head at Daria. “I think your problem here is the same as most everyone’s.”
“You’re lazy.” Angel smiled when Daria turned to glare at her. “Ah, jumping to conclusions as always. What most people don’t realize is true satisfaction with one’s life takes an enormous amount of effort. It’s hard to be happy.”
Jane frowned. “But being happy is so easy. Or everything feels easy when you’re happy. Or something like that.”
“No, you’re right. Being happy is easy. Getting there and staying there is hard. For example, let’s say it’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday. You’ve got plans to go to lunch with a friend, then on to the bookstore or to get new art supplies. You get in your car and halfway to town, you get a flat. How was your day?”
Daria huffed. “Crappy. I’d probably spend the whole day getting a new tire, and now I’m out a hundred bucks. Plus I probably missed the lunch and the bookstore.”
Angel raised an eyebrow. “Jane?”
“Sounds kinda sucky. At least it wasn’t raining.”
“Yes!” Angel shouted, startling them. “Jane, wonderful! Not perfect, but you’re on the right track. Yes, it sucked, but it could have been worse. Among other things, you could have been happy that the flat occurred close to town and you got help. The blowout didn’t happen at a high speed. It didn’t cause a major accident which could have cost more money or, worse, injuries. And you probably still would have made it to meet your friend. The easy way out is to be angry about your day being screwed up. The harder answer is to find the good in it and be thankful for that.”
Daria didn’t look pleased, but Angel put a hand up before she could say anything. “Please listen and stop throwing up defensive walls. I’m trying to help you, not insult you. That was just an example of how you have to learn to think of the positive, not dwell on the crap. It’s hard. It takes practice. And yes, there are still days when everything sucks and no matter how many times you tell yourself how much good you’ve got to be thankful for, it’s still hard and awful and just too much to take. And that’s okay. But you can make those days few and far between. Remember, nothing stays the same, everything changes, and that’s something that in the right light can give you a lot of hope.”
Daria gave her a noncommittal look. “I’ll think about it.”
Angel smiled. “Which was as much as I could possibly hope for, and I’m thankful for that. And I should go.” She stood up from the bed and paced to the center of the room, turning around to face the girls. “I hope to see you again.”
“Other Darias and Janes, or us specifically?” asked Daria with a bland expression.
“You specifically,” said Angel with tolerant amusement. An enormous pair of white wings unfolded from her back and stretched across the room, almost from wall to wall. The wings did indeed have more feathers than Jane remembering seeing on them last, and did not appear so ragged as before. A reward for her victory over the ghost Daria? Jane wondered, or something she grew back on her own?
Jane sneaked a look at Daria’s face. Her shocked expression was everything Jane could have hoped for. She took a mental snapshot and filed it away to remember in the years to come.
“Drive carefully,” said Angel. Her wings rose and began to flap, then a bright light enveloped her and she was gone. The air whirled and blew dust in small circles across the floor.
After five more seconds, Daria closed her mouth. “On that note,” she said, getting up from the bed, “I could use a wine cooler.”
“Or maybe not,” said Jane, getting up as well. “Let’s don’t, in fact. Those little drinkies haven’t helped our good judgment, what little of it we have left.”
“Or maybe not, then,” Daria agreed. “Pizza and Ultra-Cola would be fine. Dad’s stash has suffered enough, as have we.”
They walked to the door and out into the hallway—and stopped. Both were looking up at the pull-down stairway to the attic.
“Maybe one more trip before lunch wouldn’t hurt,” said Daria. “Just to prove we could do it and walk away.”
“Just a short one,” said Jane.
“Only be a minute.”
“Or less. Who knows?”
They were in the attic in no time, but dithered over which one was to open the door. “I’m sick of watching myself faint,” said Daria, “but . . .”
“For old times’ sake,” said Jane. “Give ‘er a pull.”
Daria did. The door opened.
A door on the other side opened, but it didn’t look like an attic door.
“About time,” said the Daria on the other side, standing in the doorway of her bedroom looking mildly annoyed. “You’re late. My compliments, however, on your nonstandard attire.”
Daria and Jane stared. “That isn’t an attic,” said Jane, pointing to the room behind the other Daria.
“Correct,” said the other Daria. “It’s my room.” She looked directly at Daria. “And don’t get it confused with your room, please. This room is a bit different. If you have a little time on your hands, and by ‘a little time’ I mean about one minute of time in your home universe, though possibly quite a lot more in mine, I could use your help.”
“You didn’t faint,” said Daria, taken aback.
The other Daria sighed. “No, I’m afraid not, and believe me I am entirely too aware of the Darianish propensity for doing so across alternate realities such as yours. Perhaps I should thank you for not . . . wait a minute.” The other Daria stepped forward and looked up and around at the doorframe in the attic. “No wonder you didn’t faint. You have an Architect’s portal. I’ll bet you’ve been all over the cosmos with it since breakfast. I’ll also bet you’re imprinted and can’t stop using it, too.”
“We can quit anytime we want,” said Daria.
“We’ve quit several times this week already,” Jane added.
“No doubt,” said the other Daria dryly. “I’m pleased, nonetheless. A portal could come in handy for our coming escapade. So, are you in?”
Daria and Jane exchanged looks. “She said it’d take a minute, so . . .” said Jane.
“We’re in,” said Daria.
“Then come into my TARD—um, my bedroom and meet my grandfather, the doctor,” said the other Daria, indicating a man standing off to one side by the computer desk. “He’s quite harmless for the most part.”
The man—tall, wearing an overcoat and long colorful scarf with a wide-brimmed hat—gave everyone a peculiar grin. “My granddaughter is full of herself since she graduated with honors from the Prydonian Academy. We’re grateful for your assistance no matter badly how she behaves.”
“Sounds like the Daria I know,” said Jane. “Is it safe to close the door?”
“Perfectly,” said the other Daria, smirking at the frown Daria was giving Jane. “We’ll be back to make use of the portal in no time, so to speak.”
Jane grinned and began to close the door. “What was your grandfather the doctor’s name?” she said.
“Not ‘What,’” said the other Daria. “‘Who.’”
And the door closed and they were off.
Authors’ Notes II: Within the context of the story, the world-hopping Daria and Jane using the Architects’ gateway visited the following Dariaverses in order, based on the fanfics named. (Stories with no author given were written by The Angst Guy.) The baseline Dariaverse from which the world-hopping Daria and Jane begin traveling is not counted here.
Kristen, Katherine, Rachel, and Jasmine, Veronica Morgendorffer’s fellow middle-school Band Geeks from Chapter Seven, have all previously appeared in Daria shows and books. Kristen is the complainer from Mr. O’Neill’s camp in Is It Fall Yet? Katherine Hanlon and Rachel Landon are from The Daria Database. Jasmine is the niece of Helen’s boss, Eric Schrecter, and appeared in the second-season Daria episode, “Pierce Me.”
Other Story Links: Additional Daria fanfics are linked to this one in various ways. CharlieGirl’s story-starter was adopted by other writers as well, so there are a number of Daria fanfics (some with the word “Illusion” in the title) that begin in the same way.
Careful readers will note Angel’s curious thought near the story’s end, directed at the world-hopping Daria and Jane: And then I created two worlds where I destroyed everything you loved. And made you watch. Angel’s dark side surfaced after she passed through the Architects’ gateway in chapter ten. After Jane run away from her to rescue Daria, Angel snapped, and her enraged response was to find a Daria and a Jane in other universes and do something dreadful to them. (Obviously, an anger-management class is called for.) To find out what happened then, see Angelinhel’s fanfics, “Be Careful What You Wish For,” #1 and #2.
Richard Lobinske has also linked a science-fiction story to this one: “Three.” The less said about it here, the better the surprise will be.
Acknowledgements: First, CharlieGirl must be thanked for creating the initial story, and Kristen Bealer for creating the Iron Chef to go with it. Crusading Saint, Brother Grimace, and Renfield created three Dariaverses that were visited before the actual story starts, based on fanfics that are arguably among their best—thank you! Thanks to Angelinhel, who created the time- and space-crossing “Mary Sue” being known as Angel, and she also co-wrote many of the sections in which Angel appears and contributed to other sections as well. Finally, Kara Wild, Richard Lobinske, Greystar, Robert Nowall, Wraith, and Galen “Lawndale Stalker” Hardesty are thanked for giving close looks at the sections in which detailed visits were taken into the Dariaverses they each created. I am grateful to you all! It was a lot of effort, but it was really worth it!
Original: 02/10/05, modified 04/06/05, 04/06/05, 09/26/05