Lawndales Finest

 

The Last Daughter of Krypton

 

 

Chapter One: Strange Visitor from Another Planet

 

            More often than not, a hero’s most epic battle is the one you never see; it’s the battle that goes on within him or herself.

 - Kevin Smith

 

 

            Jane ran through the cool autumn air, her soul at peace with the steady rhythm of her feet as they pounded the pavement of Howard Drive. She’d just finished a loop around town and was heading home for a shower and a glass of orange juice. She was one house down from her driveway when the black SUV came screaming out of a cross street and turned onto the main road.

            She stopped running, her jaw sagging in horror as the mountainous vehicle bore down on her. She saw the driver yelling angrily into his cell phone just before the grill struck her and bore her down under the tires. She heard the sick crunch of her skull breaking against the road, and the horrid tearing noises as she twisted and spun underneath the truck.

            One of the back tires drove across her thighs, and she was no longer trapped under the vehicle. She lay limply on her side and watched as the black truck vanished into the distance.

            “Janey! Janey!” Trent shouted, running up and kneeling next to his sister. “God, Janey talk to me.”

            “Trent?”

            “I’m here Janey, I’m here.” Trent carefully rolled her over onto her back and started checking her for broken bones.

            “I love you, Trent.” Jane’s vision started to blur as tears ran from the corners of her eyes. This, she knew, was the end.

            “Love you, too.” Trent smiled down at her. “You’re not hurt, by the way.”

            “Wha!?”

            Trent pulled her to her feet, and there was no pain. She looked down at herself, and not only did she seem unwounded her clothes weren’t even torn. She was dirty and covered with various automotive fluids, but there wasn’t any blood.

            “What the hell?” she muttered. “I heard my head bust on the pavement.”

            Trent put one hand on her shoulder and led her back down Howard Drive to where the SUV had originally struck her. He pointed at the new pot hole in the road, a divot of crumbled asphalt surrounded by a network of cracks.

            “You heard the pavement bust under your head.”

            “I don’t understand. Not that I’m unhappy about it, but why aren’t I dead?”

            “Come into the house, Janey. We need to talk.”

            Jane numbly followed her brother into the house and took the glass of orange juice he offered her. She sat at the kitchen table and waited for things to start making sense again.

            “I was seven years old when I met the angel.” Trent began.

 

***

 

            Trent sat on the living room couch, awkwardly holding his mother’s old guitar across his lap. The instrument was almost as big as he was, and he was having a lot of trouble reaching all the frets he needed. He was trying to teach himself to play Stairway to Heaven but he wasn’t making much progress so far.

            His mother came into the room and ruffled his hair. “That’s my little man.” she coo’d at him. “Let your little wings stretch, Trent. Fly free and find your muse.”

            “Um, yeah Mom. Sure thing.”

            “I’m heading out to Arizona for a couple of weeks, sweetie. There’s food in the freezer and your sister Summer is supposed to be home in the next couple of days.”

            “Ok. Later, Mom.”

            Amanda Lane breezed through the door and was gone. Trent put down the guitar and sighed sadly to himself. He got down from the couch and wandered around the room, stopping in front of the bookcase.

            The shelves were mostly filled with his mother’s pottery, interspersed with some of his sister Penny’s hand woven things. The only book was the huge Bible someone had given his parents as a wedding present.

            He reached up and ran his fingertips down the spine of the big book. He wondered about God sometimes, and had come to the conclusion that He was like Trent’s parents; vaguely loving and supportive, but mostly absent and unconcerned. It made him feel sad to think that way.

            Trent walked to the front door, pulled it open, and went out into the front yard. He really wasn’t supposed to go outside by himself after dark but no one was around to stop him. His parents were gone, and he’d be lucky if Summer arrived back home before the food ran out. Sometimes she didn’t, and Trent ended up eating over at his friend Jesse’s house.

            Trent looked up, the stars twinkling in the sky above him. He saw one star, brighter than the others, and decided to make a wish.

            “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight.” he said, speaking the ancient chant known to all children. “I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.”

            He closed his eyes tightly and tried to think of a good wish.

            “I don’t want to be alone any more,” he whispered to the darkness. “I want somebody that will stay here with me, somebody that will need me and love me.”

            He cautiously opened his eyes and glanced around, but the front yard was unchanged. He sighed and turned to go back inside when he realized he was seeing the yard with surprising clarity. Everything was exceptionally well lit, far more brightly than it had been when he walked outside.

            He looked up again, and the star he’d wished on had become much brighter. It was almost as bright as the moon, then it was almost as bright as the sun. He heard a roaring noise like prolonged thunder, and saw that the star was growing larger. He realized the falling star was headed directly towards him.

            Trent ran around the corner of the house and watched as the star crashed into his front yard. He closed his eyes and clapped his hands over his ears as the intense wave of light and sound washed over him. Staggered, he fell to the ground and covered his head.

            After the ruckus died down he risked peering around the corner of the house. The yard was torn all to hell, and the grass was smoldering. The hedges near the front door were actually on fire. A large silver object was sitting in the yard, partially buried a few feet in front of the house.

            Moving in a dreamlike haze, Trent stumbled towards the object. Getting close enough to inspect it, he saw that it was wedge shaped, and seemed to be stuck in the ground nose first.

            “Whoa,” Trent dry swallowed nervously. At the sound of his voice a small aperture opened on the object and a beam of white light lanced out of it, shining directly into Trent’s eyes. The dazzling light faded after a second, leaving Trent even more disoriented than he had been previously.

            A glowing figure appeared, standing between Trent and the fallen star. The figure appeared to be a tall man, with long white hair and flowing blue robes. He smiled kindly at Trent.

            “Are you an angel?” the boy asked.

            “No, no I am not.” the old man replied with a chuckle. “I am an old man who has come a very long way. I must ask you for your help, Trent Lane.”

            “You came to talk to me?” Trent asked, equal parts excited and afraid.

            “Not to you, specifically.” the old man smiled again. “You are the person who is here, and help I must have. You are an honest boy. I hope I can trust you.”

            Trent frowned, wondering how the old man knew his name or anything else about him. He decided the old man must be an angel after all, but just couldn’t admit it for some reason. Maybe he was on a secret mission.

            “What do you need me to do?”

            “I have brought something here, to your planet, which requires care and attention I can no longer provide. I need you to care for it in my place. This will not be easy, and will be a very serious commitment for you. I know that you are young, but I promise the rewards will exceed the effort.”

            Trent wondered what the angel could have brought that would require such careful attention. Maybe it was a pet, or a weapon of some kind. He wanted to know, but Trent didn’t think the angel would tell him until he agreed to keep whatever it was.

            “Ok. I’ll keep your thing for you.” Trent held out his right hand to shake on the deal.

            “I am afraid I cannot shake your hand, Trent Lane.” the old man said sadly. “I am nothing more than the shadow of the man I once was.”

            “Oh. It’s ok.”

            The old man nodded gravely, and then stepped out from between Trent and the fallen star. The top part of the fallen star split open, and Trent saw that it was hollow inside. The inside of the space ship, for Trent realized that was what it must be, was heavily padded. In the middle of all the padding was a big wad of blue cloth. Something moved inside the cloth.

            Trent stepped closer and looked down at the moving object. The cloth was pushed aside by a little pink hand, and a pair of bright blue eyes peered back up at him. It was a little girl, maybe two years old.

            “Her name is Jan-El,” the old man said, “You must hide her, help her grow and learn until she becomes a woman.”

            “Jane L.” Trent whispered. “She’ll be my little sister. I’ll take good care of her, I promise.”

            “Be careful, and keep her secrets.” The old man faded away, and a clear crystal popped out of the little hole in the ship from which the light had been shining.

            Trent stuffed the crystal into his pants pocket and helped the little girl out of the ship. She staggered slightly, apparently not skilled at walking yet.

            “Let’s go into the house and get something to eat, Jane.” Trent said proudly. “Then we’ll go upstairs and you can pick a bedroom.”

 

***

 

            “Is this a joke?” Jane asked, glaring at her brother.

            “No.”

            “So I’m your little sister from outer space?”

            “I guess, yeah.”

            “Ok.” Jane stood and started pacing. “Assuming I believe this, what did Mom and Dad say about suddenly gaining a kid?”

            “I told Mom that Dad dropped you off the last time he was in town, and she took you down to the hospital and got a delayed birth certificate for you. Dad never asked.”

            “Oh.” Jane frowned down at her brother, “Nobody noticed a big silver thing tearing the hell out of our front yard?”

            “There was a huge meteor shower that night. There was stuff landing all over Lawndale. A couple of people even got killed.”

            “You couldn’t have left a space ship parked in the front yard. Even around here, somebody would notice.”

            “The next day me and Jesse welded a bunch of scrap metal to the outside of it.”

            “You mean the crappy sculpture in the front yard is actually the space ship that an angel used to fly me to Earth?”

            “I don’t think he was an angel, Jane.” Trent took a beer out of the refrigerator and opened it. “I think he was a computer program or something from the ship. Like the doctor on that Star Trek show.”

            “A hologram?”

            “Whatever.” Trent took a swallow of his beer and looked at Jane. “You don’t believe me.”

            “Not really, no.”

            Trent got up from the table and walked upstairs. Jane sat back down and examined her ruined clothes. Hearing Trent rooting around in his room, she grabbed his beer and downed a few swigs. A few minutes later Trent came back downstairs carrying an old shoebox.

            He put the box on the table in front of her and sat back down. He picked up his beer, then looked at it curiously. Shrugging to himself he finished it off and tossed the empty bottle in the trash. Jane examined the box, then pushed the lid off.

            Inside the box, neatly folded, was a blue cloth. Resting on the cloth was a long, thin piece of clear crystal.

            “I never tried to figure out what the crystal was supposed to do.” Trent said. “But I guess you can have it now if you want it.”

            Jane stared at the crystal. She stared at it and suddenly knew without doubt that Trent had told her the truth. For the second time in one day, her eyes teared up.

            “I’m some kind of alien, aren’t I?” she asked. “I’m not human. I’m not really your sister.”

            Trent reached out and took his sister’s hand. “You’re always my little sister, Janey. I picked you to be my sister, and that makes you special.”

            Jane smiled weakly at her brother. “I have to go think about this. I’ll be upstairs painting.”

            “You don’t want the stuff in the box?”

            Jane looked at the contents of the box again, then replaced the lid. “It’s waited fourteen years, it can wait a little longer.”

 

***

 

            Jane trudged down the street towards Lawndale High, not looking forward to the first day of her sophomore year. She’d girded herself with her favorite blue t-shirt and red jacket, worn over ratty jeans and rattier combat boots. She made her way into the school building and went to the table under the bulletin board to find her class schedule. Time to find out who her homeroom teacher was going to be this year.

            She groaned when she saw she’d be greeted every morning by Nutty O’Neill, the feel good English teacher. It could have been worse though, she could have ended up with Dead-Eye DeMartino. She turned and started walking down the hall when the PA system came to life with a screech.

            “Jane Lane, please report to Doctor Manson’s office. Thank you.”

            Jane rolled her eyes and reversed course, heading to the school psychologist’s office. She arrived at the door and knocked lightly.

            “Enter.”

            Jane opened the door and walked in, waving cheerfully to the woman waiting inside. “What’s up, Doc?” she quipped.

            “Good morning, Jane.” the doctor answered. “You seem to be happy today. Did you have an experience this summer that recentered your sense of self-actualization?”

            “I found out that I’m an indestructible alien from outer space masquerading as a normal teenage girl.”

            The psychologist frowned at her, and scribbled ‘strong feelings of alienation still present’ on her notepad. “That’s very interesting. Please be seated.”

            Jane sat in the chair across the table from the doctor. “So I guess I’m here for the annual head poking?”

            “If you want to put it that way.” Manson said. She wrote ‘downplays seriousness of her condition’ on the notepad. “We’ll start with some word association.”

            “Don’t let me stop you.”

            “I’m going to say a word and you’ll say the first thing that comes to mind.”

            “Even if it’s naughty?”

            “Yes, Jane.” Manson sighed. “Even if it’s naughty.”

            “Ok, shoot.”

            “Self.”

            “Sufficient.”

            “School.”

            “Bored.”

            “Friend.”

            “Joke.”

            “Brother.”

            “Trent.”

            “Who?” Manson asked, glancing up from her notepad.

            “Doctor.”

            “What?”

            “Where?”

            “No, no.” Manson said, waving one hand. “You said ‘Trent’ and I was asking for clarification on that.”

            “Oh. Trent is my older brother.”

            “Ah, yes. Interesting young man, as I recall. Would you care to discuss your relationship with your brother?”

            “No.”

            Manson looked up sharply, but Jane met her glare with a lazy smile. Just because she had to come in here and play brain games didn’t mean she had to roll over and make it easy on Manson.

            “I’m afraid I’m going to have to recommend you take the self-esteem class again, Miss Lane. You’re still overly hostile and defensive, which I think is based on your fear of rejection by your peers.”

            “Woo-hoo.” Jane said dryly. “Maybe seven will be my lucky number. So, does this mean I can go to class now?”

            “Yes, Miss Lane. Try to have a nice year.”

            Jane walked to the door and opened it to find another girl standing just outside. Jane paused to smirk appreciatively at the shorter girl’s horrid fashion sense; she was wearing a pea green jacket over a pink t-shirt and a black pleated skirt. She blinked at Jane in surprise, one hand still lifted to knock on the door.

            “Your turn for the ol’ head shrinker, eh?” Jane asked. The girl cocked her head sideways and examined Jane through narrowed eyes.

            “Please come in, Miss Morgendorffer.” Manson said from inside the office.

            “Catch you later.” Jane said, cutting around the girl and walking off down the hall.

 

            That afternoon Jane walked into Mr. O’Neill’s room and glanced around to survey the newest crop of self-hating freaks. It looked like the usual gang of metal heads, goths, and burn-outs. Jane settled herself in a handy desk and pulled out her sketch pad. She selected a pencil and glanced around the room trying to decide who to draw first. Jane noticed the new girl sitting a couple of seats up the row from her and decided she’d make a good model.

            The girl was oblivious to Jane’s attention, being completely absorbed by the fairly hefty looking novel on her desk. When Mr. O’Neill came into the room a few minutes later the girl put away the book and got out a notepad and pencil, apparently preparing to take notes.

            The teacher sat on the edge of his desk and smiled warmly at the students scattered around the class room. He cleared his throat and began speaking. “Esteem . . . a teen. They don't really rhyme, do they? The sounds don't quite mesh. And that, in fact, is often the case when it comes to a teen and esteem. The two just don't seem to go together. But we’re here to begin realizing your actuality.”

            The new girl looked up from her notes, seeming to be perplexed by what Mr. O’Neill was saying. Jane quickly drew the angles of the girl’s face, trying to capture the expression.

            Meanwhile, Mr. O’Neill continued, “When we do, each and every one of you will be able to stand proudly and proclaim, ‘I am.’ Now, before we . . .”

            “Excuse me.” the new girl interrupted. “I have a question.”

            “Sorry,” Mr. O’Neill said with a smile. “Question and answer time is later.”

            The girl frowned. “I want to know what ‘realizing your actuality’ means.”

            “It means,” Mr. O’Neill paused and looked troubled. “Look, just let me get through this part, okay? Then there'll be a video!”

            Jane decided to let the new girl off the hook and slipped into the empty desk behind her. Leaning over the girl’s shoulder, she whispered “He doesn't know what it means. He's got the speech memorized. Just enjoy the nice man's soothing voice.”

“How am I supposed to follow him if I don't know what he's talking about?” the girl asked with a scowl.

“I can fill you in later.” Jane said with a grin. “I've taken this course six times.”

 

After the class was over, the two girls walked out of the school. The new girl paused on the steps to pull her long red hair back into a pony tail.

“My name is Quinn Morgendorffer.” she said. “What’s yours?”

“Jane Lane.” Jane held her hand out to the younger girl. “Pizza critic, artist extraordinaire, and strictly C average math student.”

The girls shook hands and started walking home.

 

“So then,” Jane said, a few blocks farther down, “after the role-playing, next class they put the girls and the guys in separate rooms and a female counselor talks to us about body image.”

“What do they talk to the boys about?” Quinn asked.

“A classroom full of guys and a male teacher?” Jane replied with a smirk. Quinn stopped walking and turned to Jane with a matching smirk.

“Nocturnal emissions,” they said simultaneously.

“I don't get it, Jane.” Quinn said as they started walking again. “You've got the entire course memorized. How come you can't pass the test to get out?”

“I could pass the test,” Jane said, “but I like having low self-esteem. It makes me feel special.”

Quinn quirked an eyebrow at her new friend’s tone of voice but let it pass unquestioned. They walked the next couple of blocks in silence until they arrived at Jane’s house.

“Well,” Jane said. “This is me. You wanna come in?”

“Not today.” Quinn said with a sigh. “I’m already coming home late from school. Amy is probably already in high freak mode.”

“Amy?”

“My aunt, she takes care of me.” Quinn said. “You should come over and meet her sometime. She’s cool.”

“Alright,” Jane said. “See you at school tomorrow?”

“Sure thing.” Quinn turned with a flip of her pony tail and continued down the street.

 

***

 

            The next morning, Jane and Quinn ambled down the school hallway towards their lockers. As they got near, Jane grabbed Quinn’s sleeve and stopped her. Jane then nodded towards the group of girls clustered near their lockers.

            Two of the girls were talking, a brunette wearing purple and a cheerleader with her hair done in two long braids. An asian girl stood a few paces behind the girl in purple.

            “Fashion fiends at twelve o’clock.” Jane said with a smirk.

            Quinn quirked an eyebrow and tried to listen in on the conversation.

            “Jeez, Stacy.” the brunette was saying. “Don’t you realize how much of a ‘fashion don’t’ wearing a uniform is? You have no fashion independence, and blue and yellow are clashing primary colors.”

            “I know, Sandi.” Stacy said meekly. “But I thought being on the squad would offset the fashion drawbacks.”

            “Well,” Sandi said, crossing her arms and looking at Stacy disapprovingly. “I suppose it’s enough of a popularity boost to balance out. Just don’t be like Brittany and wear that outfit every day.”

            “Yeah,” the asian girl drawled.

            “I wouldn’t do that!” Stacy squeaked. “Thanks for understanding, Sandi. You’re the best.”

            “Hm, I suppose.” Sandi looked down the hallway and saw Quinn and Jane. “Come along, ladies. I see students in need of our assistance.”

            “Aw, hell.” Jane muttered as the Fashion Club approached.

            “Good morning,” Sandi said to Quinn, toying with the chain of her emerald necklace. “I’m Sandi Griffin, Fashion Club President. Don’t worry, we’re here to help you.”

            “Help us?” Quinn asked dryly.

            Jane leaned against the nearby lockers, suddenly feeling a little woozy.

             “There’s not anything wrong with any individual piece of your outfit.” Sandi said, examining Quinn closely. “It’s just that they all fight amongst themselves.”

            “That certainly explains the strange tears and stains.”

            “The shirt is cute, and the jacket has a nice cut but pink and green clash horribly. The lines of the jacket interfere with the lines of the skirt.”

            “And you shouldn’t wear boots like that with a short skirt.” Stacy volunteered.

            “You’re wearing colors from the waist up and black from the waist down.” the asian girl drawled, still maintaining her distance from the group. “And that’s just wrong.”

            “Thank you, Tiffany.” Sandi said.

            “I appreciate the pointers,” Quinn said, her face set in a slightly annoyed lack of expression. “But I’ve been dressing myself since I was four. I pick out the clothes I wear for specific reasons, and I don’t need to explain myself to you.”

            Sandi looked upset and insulted. Stacy looked upset and seemed to be on the verge of tears. Tiffany looked bored. Jane collapsed to the ground, gasping for air.

            “Jane!” Quinn shouted, kneeling and rolling Jane over onto her back. She immediately saw that her friend’s eyes were glazed over and her skin had an ugly green tinge.

            “I’ll help you take her to the nurse!” Stacy volunteered.

            “Ok, thanks.”

            The two girls grabbed Jane under the arms and pulled her back up onto her feet. They started staggering down the hallway, Jane barely able to support her own weight.

            “Um, I’ll go tell Mr. DeMartino you won’t be in homeroom,” Sandi stammered, her face pale.

            “Tell Mr. O’Neill about Jane.” Quinn gasped.

            “I will,” Sandi turned and quickly walked off down the hallway, Tiffany following along behind her.

            By the time Quinn and Stacy got Jane to the nurse’s office she was feeling well enough to walk under her own power. While the other two girls waited nearby, the nurse checked Jane over and pronounced her well enough to head to class.

            “What happened?” Quinn asked as soon as they left the office.

            “I don’t know,” Jane said with a frown. “I just got all dizzy and weak, and it was really hard to breathe.”

            “You looked awful.” Stacy said.

            “Thanks.” Jane said, glaring at her. “I needed that clarified.”

            “Sorry.”

            Jane sighed and shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. Thanks for helping me get to the nurse.”

            “You’re welcome,” Stacy said, smiling warmly. “Come on Quinn, let’s get to class.”

            “Yeah, ok.” Quinn looked Jane over carefully. “You gonna live?”

            “For a while yet, I suppose.” Jane replied with a weak grin. “See you at lunch.”

 

            Jane and Quinn sat at an otherwise empty lunch table and picked at their food.

            “God, what is this stuff?” Quinn asked plaintively.

            “School pizza. Cheese whiz and tomato paste on a big cracker, invariably served with creme corn,” Jane said with a smirk. She began to heartily shovel down the previously mentioned corn.

            “Ugh.” Quinn said, pushing away her tray. “Next time, I’m getting a salad. Hopefully, they can’t mess up lettuce and diced vegetables.”

            “Don’t get your hopes up.”

            “Fashion fiends at three o’clock and closing.” Quinn said with a smirk.

            Jane glanced around as Sandi, Stacy, and Tiffany walked up to the table and joined them.

            “Didn’t I abuse you enough in middle school?” Jane asked. “I was hoping that you might have learned to leave me alone.”

            “I have a responsibility to weather unpleasantness in the pursuit of fashion excellence,” Sandi said loftily.

            “Brave words from a girl in a pair of bib over-alls that surrender at the knees,” Quinn grinned.

            Sandi frowned and looked down at her clothes. “There’s nothing wrong with my outfit,” she pronounced with great finality.

            “Whatever,” Jane said.

            “Sandi!” Stacy gasped. “What happened to your new necklace?”

            “The chain broke.” Sandi said, looking glum. “I put it in my locker. I’ll have to take it to the jewelry store tomorrow.”

            “Oh, I’m sorry.”

            “Thank you for your concern, but my woes are not at issue here. We’re trying to help the fashion unfortunate.” Sandi looked Jane over, “Like, I can’t believe you’re wearing clashing primary colors.”

            “You mean like her?” Jane asked, pointing at Stacy.

            “Eep!”

            “Calm down, Stacy.” Sandi said, and then turned back to Jane. “She has no choice but to violate fashion taboo on the days she wears her cheerleader uniform. You don’t have that kind of excuse.”

            “How about the excuse that this is the look I want to have. Did you forget that I’m an artist, Sandi? I don’t limit my color pallet based on what Waif magazine says.”

            Sandi looked thoughtful. “Artistic rebellion? I suppose that’s an acceptable reason, although you’re really pushing it with those nasty old jeans.”

            Jane rolled her eyes and started gnawing on the excuse for a pizza on her lunch plate.

            “What about you?” Sandi asked, turning to Quinn.

            “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness,” she answered, smirking at Sandi.

            Before the conversation could continue the bell rang, summoning the students back to class.

            “Saved by the bell,” Jane murmured to Quinn. Quinn snickered quietly and left the table.

            “We’ll talk later,” Sandi said to Quinn’s back.

 

            Later that evening at Jane's house, Quinn and Jane lounged on the end of Jane’s bed and watched television.

            “I can’t believe this show is as good as you claim it is,” Quinn said.

            “Shh, it’s on.” Jane said, grabbing the remote and turning up the volume.

            A bright green and yellow swirl appeared on the television screen surrounding a floating human eye. “And now, back to Sick, Sad, World.” a voice announced. The logo image faded, and was replaced by a fancy looking English study. A young woman and an elderly man sat in high backed chairs, facing one another.

            “This is just astounding!” the woman said. “Here you are: blind, deaf, and barely able to walk, yet you conducted simultaneous affairs with three members of the royal family! The question on all of America's mind is: how did you do it?”

The old man leaned forward in his seat and cupped one hand around his ear. “What?” he croaked.

“She doesn't get it.” Jane said with a grin. “It's the royal family. You'd have to be blind.”

Quinn chuckled as the TV image changed to an overview of a cheesy-looking U.F.O. convention. The same reporter was wandering around the convention with a camera crew.

“U.F.O. conventions,” she said with absolute seriousness. “Once sneered at as the domain of so-called ‘kooks,’ have become big . . . big business, drawing hundreds of thousands of people each year, people as sane and rational as you and I. People who come simply to satisfy a normal curiosity.”

A young man with a big nose and unkempt hair stepped into the camera’s view, smiling and waving at the audience. “Hi! I'm Artie.”

“Artie, hello.” the reporter said, turning to him with her microphone. “Tell me what brought you here, Artie.”

“It was a cone-shaped craft about fifteen feet long, with an air speed of . . . oh . . . I'd estimate mach twelve,” he answered. “They kidnapped and stripped me, examined me briefly, returned my clothes, and dropped me here.”

“I see,” the reporter said, a skeptical look on her face.

“They pressed my pants,” he said, gesturing down at his jeans. “Did a nice job.”

“You know all the answers to the questions on the release test, right?” Quinn asked, picking up the remote and muting the television.

“I've got them in my notebook.”

“Well, why don't we just take the test tomorrow and get out of the class once and for all?”

“How would I spend my afternoons?”

“U.F.O. conventions?”

            Jane looked slightly uneasy. “I’m not really sure I’d want to mix with that crowd. I don’t like a lot of starch in my pants, you know.”

            Quinn sighed. “We could hang out more, you could come over to my place and meet Amy.”

            “This low self-esteem class is really eating at you, isn’t it?”

            “It’s eating into my library time. Besides, I don’t want my sister to find out there’s something wrong with me . . . and she will find out.”

            “Sister?”

            Quinn stood and started pacing around the room. “Yeah, I’ve got an older sister. She sent me this jacket, that’s why I wear it all the time.”

            “Is she in college or something?”

            “I’m not sure, really.” Quinn sighed sadly. “She lives in Japan. I get e-mail from her almost every day and a package every couple of weeks, but it’s not the same as having her here.”

            “God, that sucks. I don’t know what I’d do without my brother.”

            “You mean that lump on the couch downstairs?” Quinn asked with a smirk.

            “Yep, he would be the lump in question. Do you mind if I ask why your sister is in Japan?”
            “She went there when I was little.” Quinn sat again and started twisting her hands pensively. “I don’t talk about Daria very often. I told everybody in Highland I was an only child.”

            “Highland?”

            “Texas . . . that’s where we lived before we moved here. We’re originally from Gotham City.”

            “Really? You know Gotham is only about half an hour from Lawndale.”

            “Yeah. We moved away when I was little, and now we’re back.”

            “So what’s up with your sister?”

            Quinn looked up at Jane, her eyes shining with unshed tears. “Are you my friend, Jane?” she asked quietly.

            “Of course I am.” Jane said, sitting up. “Look, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

            Quinn laughed mirthlessly and looked away from Jane. “I’ll tell you about it someday. I promise.”

            Jane put one hand on Quinn’s shoulder, trying to comfort her. She mentally kicked herself for stumbling over what was apparently something fairly traumatic in her friend’s past. “So,” she said in a forced cheery tone, “why don’t we go over those self-esteem answers?”

 

            Quinn unlocked the front door of her new home and walked into the living room. About a quarter of the room was full of boxes, stacked in neat rows against the far wall. She dropped her backpack onto a couch and walked into the kitchen.

            “Hey, sweetie.” Amy said. Quinn’s aunt was sitting at the kitchen table, working on one of the puzzles in her crossword book. “Help me out here: ‘the time between twelve and twenty,’ seven letter word.”

            “Torture.” Quinn answered, walking to the refrigerator.

            Amy put down her pencil and watched her niece rummage around for available nutrition. Eventually, she found a cup of yogurt and grabbed a spoon, and then joined Amy at the table.

            “I think it was ‘teenage,’ sweetie,” Amy said gently.

            “Same thing.”

            “You want to talk about it?”

            “No.”

            Amy went back to her crossword while Quinn ate her yogurt. After a few minutes the yogurt was done, and Quinn stared into the empty cup.

            “I made a friend,” she said quietly.

            “That’s good,” Amy put her pencil down again, “boy or girl?”

            “Girl. Her name is Jane, and she’s an artist. We’re in that stupid self-esteem class together.”

            “Ah, did she get misfiled like you?”

            “Yeah. She’s already taken the course six times. I think she keeps taking it because she doesn’t have anywhere else to go or anything else to do.”

            “She doesn’t have a lot of friends either, huh?”

            “I haven’t seen her talking to anybody else, so I don’t think so.”

            “Are you going to stop at one friend, or do you think you might give a few other people a chance?”

            “Why should I give these people a chance?” Quinn asked bitterly. “Most of them are vapid and shallow and horrible.”

            “Sweetie, you don’t want this to be like Highland again. Do you?”

            “Not much chance of that happening,” Quinn muttered, “unless there's uranium in the drinking water here, too.”

            Amy chuckled at her niece. “You should try to make a couple of friends. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Sure, people are mostly horrid but every now and then somebody will surprise you by being decent.” Amy shrugged. “It all boils down to trust.”

            “Trust?”

            “Exactly. Show a little trust.” Amy paused thoughtfully. “But only a little, no point in letting people take advantage.”

            “You’re right, trust is important.” Quinn grinned slyly. “Can I borrow the car?”

            “As long as you’re ok with me saying you stole it when the police call me.”

            Quinn chuckled and tossed her empty yogurt cup in the trash.

            “There were these other girls. I think they were trying to be friendly, but they were kind of rude about it.”

            “Oh?”

            “Yeah. They were trying to tell me all the stuff that was wrong with my clothes. I think they were going to move on to make-up tips after that, but Jane got sick and we had to take her to the school nurse.”

            “She ok?”

            “Yeah, she was fine like ten minutes later. If she hadn’t turned that horrible shade of green I’d have figured she was faking it.”

            “What did you say to those other girls?”

            “I told them that I wear the clothes I do for my reasons, and they don’t need to know what they are.”

            “I see. Would you mind telling me your reasons?”

            Quinn sighed and rolled her eyes. This was the problem with dealing with Aunt Amy when she was in parenting mode. She asked the same nosy questions that other parents asked, but she was so polite and reasonable about it that you couldn’t just blow her off.

            “This is my favorite jacket, Daria sent it to me.”

            “I know, but what about everything else?” Amy gave Quinn a stern look. “I know you’ve been reading my old psych books, so analyze yourself.”

            “I guess everything else is like a defense. I have huge, ugly boots so stay away from me. My shirt clashes with my jacket, so I’m obviously unpopular. My skirt is an unflattering length, so boys leave me alone. I don’t wear make-up, because I don’t want people to think their opinion matters to me.”

            “So you’re trying to alienate everyone and push them away.”

            “Yeah.”

            “And what do you gain from that?”

            “People leave me the hell alone.”

            “Jane didn’t leave you alone.”

            “Well, no.”

            “Those other girls didn’t leave you alone.”

            “No.”

            “So, tell me again what you’re gaining from your attempts to drive people away.”

            “Nothing,” Quinn muttered.

            “Then do you believe that it’s a worthwhile investment of your time and energy?”

            “Probably not.”

            “You’re a smart girl, Quinn.” Amy said, and patted her niece’s hand. “You should trust your judgment, take people as individuals, and separate the wheat from the chaff. You’ll be fine.”

            “Yeah, ok.” Quinn smiled slightly. “Thanks, Amy.”

            “You’re welcome, sweetie.” Amy picked up her pencil and focused on her crossword puzzle again. “You got anything for ‘a restful state’ that’s a five letter word?”

            “Death,” Quinn answered with a smirk, and left the kitchen to start her homework.

            Amy rolled her eyes at her niece, and filled the word ‘sleep’ into the puzzle.

 

***

 

            Early the next morning, Quinn knocked on Jane’s front door. She waited patiently for a couple of minutes, then knocked again louder. She was about to knock for a third time when the door opened.

            A tall, thin young man stood there in his boxers, blinking sleepily at Quinn. He was pale, with a goatee and an unkempt mop of black hair. His arms were decorated with dark blue tribal tattoos. Quinn realized that he’d said something to her.

            “What?” she asked.

            “I asked if you’re Jane’s friend Quinn,” he said with a lazy smile, “you’re not awake yet either, huh?”

            “Yeah,” she said, “I mean, no. I mean, I’m Quinn and I’m awake,” she winced at her inane stammering. “Is she still here?”

            “Yeah, she’s upstairs getting ready for school. You can go on up,” he stepped out of the doorway and motioned towards the stairs.

            “Thanks,” Quinn said, blushing furiously as she edged past him.

            “Oh, hey,” he said, glancing down with surprise. “I forgot pants again. Sorry about that.”

            “No problem,” she muttered and ran upstairs. She pushed Jane’s bedroom door open and ducked inside, quickly closing the door and leaning against it for support.

            “Lemme guess,” Jane said with a smirk, “Trent opened the door in his boxers.”

            Quinn nodded and blushed again.

            “Liked what you saw, did you?” Jane asked gleefully.

            “Kill me now,” Quinn muttered.

            “You’re a little young, but he kinda likes the school girl look. You want me to put in a good word for you?” Jane asked, grinning from ear to ear.

            Quinn looked at Jane narrowly. “Jane, don’t forget that you’re made of meat and meat-like substances.”

            “Yeah, yeah.” Jane leaned over and started pulling her boots on while Quinn wandered over and examined the new painting on her easel. The background was a dark, starry night. The foreground was taken up by a bright red and yellow shield with a stylized lightning bolt or ‘S’ shape on it.

            “Speaking of looks,” Jane continued, “what made you change yours?”

            Quinn glanced down at the dark green slacks and pale yellow t-shirt she’d worn today in place of her usual pink shirt and pleated skirt. “I had a talk with Amy last night,” she said with a shrug. “She asked me what I was gaining from deliberately alienating people.”

            “What are you gaining from it?” Jane asked.

            “Nothing, so I decided to stop. Or at least be more precise in who I choose to drive away.”

            “Well,” Jane said, finishing with her boots and standing, “I guess I can’t fault that logic.”

            “You’ve been a really good friend, Jane.” Quinn said, “You’re the first person who’s been nice to me in a long time.”

            “Um, thanks.” Jane said, slightly embarrassed.

            “But Sandi and her friends were trying to be nice to both of us and we blew them off,” Quinn turned and looked at Jane. “I think we should give them a chance.”

            “Sandi and I sort of have a history,” Jane said with a sigh. “We were best friends the whole time we were growing up.”

            “What happened?”

            “One day she stopped coming over and hanging out. When I tried to talk to her at school she got all snotty and venomous at me.”

            “What a bitch!”

            “I found out later it wasn’t really her fault,” Jane said sadly. “Her parents are really rich and influential and they decided they didn’t want her associating herself with some poor kid with no future.”

            “That’s horrible,” Quinn said sympathetically.

            “Yeah. It really hurt my feelings at the time, and we had a big fight over it. We didn’t speak to each other for a while, and then she got held back in eighth grade. I moved on to high school and tried to forget the whole thing.”

            “So you think maybe she’s trying to patch things up with you?”

            “Maybe,” Jane looked thoughtful, “maybe I’ll give her a chance, but if she tries to give me make-up tips, I’m going to tell her to go to Hell.”

            “That’s fair,” Quinn said with a smile. “We could both use a few more friends. Do you realize how weird and uncomfortable it would be for one of us if the other one got busy doing something or got a boyfriend and left the other one with nobody to talk to?”

            “That’s true,” Jane said philosophically. “I like you Quinn, but honestly I don’t think I could put up with a clingy, jealous friend.”

            “Good. I’m glad you agree.”

            Jane grabbed her backpack from the floor and pulled the strap over one shoulder. “You ready to go?”

            “Sure.” Quinn gestured towards the painting. “What’s that supposed to mean, anyway? I got most of your other stuff, but this isn’t speaking to me.”

            “Oh, that.” Jane said, leading her friend to the door. “It’s space, obviously.”

            “Right,” Quinn said as they went downstairs and headed towards the front door. “But what’s with the shield with the curvy design on it?”

            Jane looked thoughtful as she shut the front door to the house. She didn’t answer until they were halfway to school.

            “It means hope,” she said.

            “Hope?”

            “Yeah. I had a dream about it. That symbol means hope.”

            “So, hope coming from outer space? Or hope for humanity by reaching outer space?”

            “Hope coming from outer space.”

            Quinn looked at Jane speculatively. “Did you go to that alien convention after I went home last night?”

            “No,” Jane answered with a shudder. “Those people are just too weird.”

            “You don’t believe in aliens?”

            “I believe,” Jane said, looking oddly pensive. “I’m just not sure what they’ve got planned for us, that’s all.”

            “According to the websites I checked last night their primary plan seems to involve body cavity searches,” Quinn said with a smirk.

            “Oh, gross.”

 

            That day at lunch Quinn and Jane approached the Fashion Club’s table. Jane hung back, still not entirely convinced this was a good idea. Steeling herself, Quinn put her tray down next to Sandi’s and sat.

            “I see that you listened to my advice,” Sandi said, glancing briefly at Quinn.

            “Yeah,” Quinn said, stirring her salad. “Look, I want to apologize for being so snitty to you guys yesterday.”

            “Me, too.” Jane said, sitting next to Quinn. She looked directly at Sandi and said, “I’d like to apologize for the way I acted.”

            “We forgive you!” Stacy said, smiling broadly. “I just knew you’d come around!”

            “Stacy!” Sandi said, glaring.

            “Sorry.”

            “What Stacy was trying to say,” Sandi pronounced imperiously, “is that we graciously accept your apologies.”

            “Thanks,” Quinn said, smirking slightly.

            “I’m having second thoughts about this,” Jane muttered. Sandi quirked an eyebrow at Jane and gave her a tentative half-smile.

            “While the two of you aren’t really Fashion Club material,” Sandi continued, “I suppose it would be alright if you hung out with us.”

            “You can help me with colors, right?” Tiffany drawled to Jane.

            “Oh, God.” Jane muttered to her lunch tray.

            “Why don’t we sort of ease into this?” Quinn asked, grinning at Jane’s discomfort.
            “This is gonna be so cool!” Stacy said, clasping her hands with excitement. “I always wanted to be friends with art people!”

            “I’m not an artist, I’m a writer,” Quinn said.

            “You’re cool anyway,” Stacy said reassuringly.

            Quinn rolled her eyes and prodded Jane. “Speaking of art, do any of your talents run towards photography?”

            “Upon occasion. Why do you ask?”

            “No reason,” Quinn said with exaggerated nonchalance. “I was just talking to Jodie Landon this morning.”

            Jane’s eyes narrowed. “And what did Miss Over-Achiever have to say?”

            “That the Lawndale Lowdown was running short handed this year. I volunteered to be a writer. I think it’ll be good experience for later, if I decide to study journalism in college.”

            “And this has what to do with my photography skills?”

            The other three girls began studiously eating their salads, with only Sandi betraying a slight smirk.

            “Oh, not much,” Quinn said. She bit her lower lip nervously, and then blurted, “I kinda told her you might be interested in being a photographer for the paper.”

            “Did you, then?” Jane asked, arching an eyebrow.

            “Come on, Jane.” Quinn said, putting on her best ‘sad kitty’ expression. “I can dig out interesting stories and write about them, and you can be there to capture the moment in glorious color for all time.”

            “Interesting stories, huh?”

            “Scandal, corruption, crime, civil unrest, and all manner of social ills. With our names right on the by-line. Picture it: by Quinn Morgendorffer, photos by Jane Lane.”

            “This is going to get published in a high school newspaper?”

            “Jodie was pretty desperate for a reporter. She made several hasty agreements that she may regret later.”

            “Well, you’ve certainly piqued my interest.”

            “If I may interject,” Sandi said, “this would also be an excellent opportunity for us, meaning the Fashion Club, to reach out to the greater community of Lawndale High.”

            “What do you mean?” Quinn asked suspiciously.

            “I’m merely offering my services as a fashion columnist. Could you pass the offer on to Jodie for me?”

            “Sure, Sandi.” Quinn said, feeling slightly relieved that Sandi wasn’t going to ask her to write about fashion. She was reminded of another of her less than stellar moments in Highland, and ruthlessly repressed the train of thought. “I bet she’ll be happy to have you working with us.”

            “I could do stories about athletics,” Stacy said, “and the cheerleaders!”

            “I’ll help, too.” Tiffany drawled.

            “That’s great, guys!” Quinn said. “Jodie’s going to be really happy.”

 

            That afternoon, Quinn and Jane sat in Mr. O’Neill’s classroom waiting for the start of what would hopefully be their last self-esteem lesson.

            “So,” Jane asked, “was Jodie really happy?”

            “I think she was a little overwhelmed,” Quinn said, shaking her head. “Apparently she usually has a really hard time getting people to sign up for stuff.”

            “Who else is on staff?”

            “Jodie is the editor, and her boyfriend Mack is the head gopher. Beyond that I think it’s us and the Fashion Club.”

            “We’re it?” Jane asked, a little shocked.

            “Well, she’s got some girl named Andrea doing a horrorscope.”

            “Don’t you mean horoscope?”

            “Yeah, that’s what I asked. Jodie shook her head and walked off.”

            “Well, I guess you’d have to know Andrea.”

            “Ok, class!” Mr. O’Neill said enthusiastically as he entered the room. “Are we all ready to invigorate our inner person today?”

            “My inner person was over stimulated and died of a heart attack,” Quinn muttered. Jane snickered from the desk behind her.

            After an interminable amount of time, Mr. O’Neill started drawing the lesson to a close. “And so,” he said, “for tomorrow I want you to make a list of ten ways the world would be a sadder place if you weren't in it.”

            “Oh, Mr. O'Neill, Mr. O'Neill?!” one of the boys in the back of the class called out.

            “Yes, um,” Mr. O’Neill tried to remember the boy’s name and failed, “you.”

            “Is that if we'd never been born, or if we died suddenly and unexpectedly?” the boy asked.

            “Never been born,” the teacher replied with a wink. “See you all tomorrow!” he added cheerfully as the bell rang. He turned and started gathering his papers when he realized that Jane and Quinn were standing behind him.

            “Hi,” he said somewhat nervously, “did you need clarification on something we covered today?”

            “We feel really good about ourselves,” Quinn said, trying to look perky.

            “We want to take the graduation test,” Jane added.

            “Well! I'm glad your self-image meter is on the uptick!” Mr. O’Neill said, “But there's still three more weeks of class left.”

            “This first week has been a real eye-opener,” Quinn said, and then smiled coyly at the teacher. “It must be the way you teach.”

            “Oh, well,” he said, blushing slightly, “thank you very much.” He glanced over at Jane, then looked at her more closely. “You know, you look familiar somehow.”

            “So, can we take the test?” Quinn said, trying to distract him.

            “Well, it's not the way we usually do it, but I guess so.” Mr. O’Neill pulled the test out of the stack of papers on his desk. “Okay,” he said, reading off the paper, “Question one: Self-esteem is important because . . .”

            “It's a quality that will stand us in good stead the rest of our lives,” Quinn said.

            “Very good. Now: The next time I start to feel bad about myself . . .”

            “I’ll stand before the mirror, look myself in the eye and say: You are special. No one else is like you," Jane answered, trying not to smirk.

            “You two really have been paying attention!” Mr. O’Neill said with a smile. “Okay: There's no such thing . . .”

            “As the right weight,” Jane said.

            “Or the right height,” Quinn added.

            “There's only what's right for me,” Jane continued, the smirk starting to creep out around the edges of her mouth.

            “Because me is who I am,” Quinn finished.

            “I don't think we have to go any farther,” Mr. O’Neill said, putting the test back on his desk. “I am really pleased! I think the whole school needs to hear about this at assembly!”

            Quinn and Jane looked at the teacher, then at each other. Quinn shook her head and left the room, Jane following behind.

            “Let’s pass the test, you said. It’ll be great, you said,” Jane muttered.

            “Bite me, Lane.”

 

***

 

            The next day the students and faculty assembled in the gym for announcements and awards, to be followed by a pep rally for the Lawndale Lions football team. The principal, Ms. Li, stood at the podium looking out over the student body. Seated in a row behind her were several teachers, Doctor Manson, and Mr. O’Neill, with Quinn and Jane sitting near the edge of the stage.

            “And once again,” Ms. Li said into the microphone, “the bake sale was a tremendous success. We raised more than four hundred dollars, which was subsequently stolen from the office, but I am confident we will get that money back. In a related note, the school nurse will be visiting homerooms tomorrow to collect DNA samples. Now, Mr. O'Neill has exciting news about our after school self-esteem class.”

            Mr. O'Neill stood and approached the podium, the students applauding him anemically.

            “This is really going to help me gradually ease into student life,” Quinn said with a sigh.

            “Usually when I have this dream I'm wearing pink taffeta,” Jane replied, grinning.

            “Ugh,” Quinn groaned. “I left my brain bleach at home, dammit.”

            “Thank you,” Mr. O’Neill said as the half-hearted applause died. “You know, self-esteem is a little like your car's brake fluid. You may not even know you're low on it until, one day, you go to shift gears and nothing happens.”

            “That's transmission fluid!” someone yelled from the audience. Several other people laughed.

            “That's what I said,” Mr. O’Neill replied, trying to not get flustered. “Anyway, I'd like you to meet two students who have completed our self-esteem course faster than anyone ever before! Please join me in congratulations as I present these certificates of self-esteem to Quinn Morgendorffer and Jane Lane.”

            “Watch this,” Jane whispered to Quinn before standing, “it’ll be good.”

            She approached the podium to another round of semi-applause, which died as she began to speak into the microphone. “I just want to say how proud I am today. Knowing that I have self-esteem gives me even more self-esteem.” Jane paused and looked troubled. “On the other hand, having all of you know that I had low self-esteem makes me feel . . . kind of bad . . . like a big failure or something.”

            Jane paused dramatically, biting her lower lip and making a high pitched keening noise. The audience, now paying attention to the presentation, began to chuckle at Jane’s apparent break down.

            “I, uh, I want to go home!” Jane wailed, and began sobbing uncontrollably. She covered her face with her hands so nobody could see that she wasn’t actually crying. After a dramatic pause, she ran from the stage still whimpering loudly.

            “Quinn, wait!” Mr. O’Neill shouted, running off in pursuit of his presumably shattered student.

            Quinn stepped up to the podium, craning her neck to watch as Jane fled the room. Mr. O’Neill was right behind her, still calling out for ‘Quinn’ to stop and let him help her.

            Quinn leaned into the microphone and said, “Wow.”

            She was met with laughter and applause from the audience. She smiled coyly and tossed her hair, and the applause got louder. On the edge of the auditorium a blonde cheerleader slapped a boy in a football uniform and stormed out.

            “You guys are just so great,” Quinn said, leaning casually on the podium. Inside, her thoughts were racing, trying to figure out how to get away without publicly humiliating herself. Or at least a way to publicly humiliate herself that was as funny as what Jane had done. Then inspiration struck.

            “It’s really hard having low self-esteem,” she said solemnly. “And as we just saw, self-esteem can be a very fragile thing. The slightest disturbance can turn joy into misery.”

            There was muttering and nodding from the audience. Stacy burst into tears and called out, “You are so right!”

            “It’s ok, Stacy.” Sandi whispered, rolling her eyes. “Get a hold of yourself.”

            “Yeah,” Tiffany drawled. “Your mascara is getting all runny. Ewwww.”

            Stacy wailed in misery and fled the auditorium, accidentally knocking down the hapless Mr. O’Neill as he was returning to the auditorium. He staggered to his feet and quickly followed her, hoping to catch and heal at least one wounded student.

            “Do you see how fast a break down can happen?” Quinn said, thumping her hand on the podium for emphasis. “The students of Lawndale High need to band together. Those who are more fragile need support to heal their inner wounds.”

            Quinn paused to size up the audience. She held their attention in the palm of her hand, and mentally patted herself on the back for all the hours she’d spent reading and re-reading influential speeches from history. The rule of three was working like a charm.

            “Can you help your fellow students?” she yelled.

            “Yes!” came the thunderous reply.

            “Should you help your fellow students?”

            “Yes!”

            “Will you help your fellow students?”

            “Yes!”

            Quinn stepped away from the podium, smiling and waving to the audience. She’d briefly make eye contact with one person then skip to the next. This was probably not what Amy had meant when she advised Quinn to reach out to her fellow students, but Quinn had a feeling that her aunt would appreciate the irony.

            “I’ll help your self-esteem, Quinn!” a blond boy shouted up at her.

            “I’ll help more!” a dark haired boy called out, shoving the blond aside.

            “Don’t listen to them!” a red haired boy yelled. “I think you’re the esteemiest!”

            “That’s not even a word!” the blond boy said, throwing a punch at the red head.

            “Guys!” Quinn said, “Don’t fight over me.” She couldn’t decide whether to feel amused, gratified, or guilty as the situation deteriorated.

 

Chapter Two