Daria

 in

The Misery Chicks

 

 

            Of all the creatures that were made, man is the most detestable. Of the entire brood he is the only one – the solitary one – that possesses malice. That is the basest of all instincts, passions, vices – the most hateful. He is the only creature that has pain for sport, knowing it to be pain. Also – in all the list he is the only creature that has a nasty mind.

 - Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain's Autobiography

 

            Wretched, ephemeral race, children of chance and tribulation, why do you force me to tell you the very thing which it would be most profitable for you not to hear? The very best thing is utterly beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. However, the second best thing for you is: to die soon.

 - Aristotle, Eudemos

 

            To judge from the notions expounded by theologians, one must conclude that God created most men simply with a view to crowding hell.
 - Marquis Donatien Alphonse-François de Sade

 

 

            The young girl lowered her book, blinking myopically in the dim light. She frowned to herself and started looking around. The lights around the camp had started coming on. She sighed and closed her book, tucking it under her arm.

            “Quinn!” she yelled. Her voice carried through the area and several campers turned to look at her, but that didn’t matter to her.

            Why does she always do this? Dammit, if she wandered off and got lost or hurt I’m the one that’s going to get yelled at by Mom and Dad. She’s ten, you think she’d be able to take care of herself.

            Daria stood and started wandering around the camp, looking for her sister. Quinn wasn’t in the mess hall or the bath house. Daria checked a few of the cabins and then started walking down towards the lake.

            “I hate hide and seek,” she muttered under her breath, glaring at everyone that crossed her path. “Quinn!” she shouted again, “it’s getting dark, and I’m not in the mood to play your stupid kid games. Where are you?”

            Great, all the other kids are looking at me like I’m some kind of raving lunatic. After tolerating the Perfect Princess all this time, I may very well be . . . too much time looking into the abyss and all that.

            Daria spun around when she saw a flicker of red in her peripheral vision. She jogged over to the spot she’d seen it, but there was nothing there but the beginning to one of the hiking trails.

            I hate hiking. I hate the woods. I hate being shuffled off to camp all summer instead of staying home and enjoying the library. Mostly, I just hate Quinn.

            Daria frowned and squinted her eyes, peering down the trail. She saw nothing except the gathering gloom, and with a look of annoyance she turned back towards the camp. She took a couple of steps and stopped. The flash of red had been the exact color of Quinn’s hair. If it was her . . . if she was running off into the woods at night . . . .

            “Dammit,” Daria muttered as she turned and started following the trail. She walked along slowly for a couple of minutes as the woods became darker and scarier. She kept jumping at what she was certain were harmless woodland noises, being made by harmless woodland creatures. All completely harmless, she was quite sure.

            I just know that she’s going to jump out of a bush any second now, and she’s going to scream and wave her arms at me. I bet she’s got a bunch of her idiotic little friends out here, too. They’ll all have a big laugh when I freak out and then run back to camp. I’ll have to trudge all the way back by myself in the dark, and they’ll probably wait and scare me again.

            Daria froze when she heard the muffled scream from up ahead.

            “Quinn?” Daria asked, her voice weak and rusty with fear. There wasn’t an answer, but Daria knew her sister’s scream when she heard it.

            God, what kind of trouble has the little idiot gotten into now? Bah, this probably part of the joke.

            Daria squared her small shoulders and marched down the trail. She’d walked another dozen yards when she heard scuffling and whimpering from just off the trail. She pushed through the undergrowth into a small clearing and stopped, staring in shock at what was going on. She could see clearly enough despite the dim light, but for a few seconds she couldn’t believe her eyes.

            Quinn was lying on the ground with a teenage boy kneeling next to her. He had one hand on her shoulder and the other was covering her mouth. Quinn saw Daria and gave her a look begging for help. Daria didn’t recognize the boy, but whatever he was doing it couldn’t be good for Quinn and Daria knew she had to protect her annoying, stupid little sister.

            “Leave my sister alone,” she said, stepping into the clearing. The boy glanced up and smirked.

            “Whatever, four eyes. You run back to camp, maybe I’ll forget you tried to butt in.” Turning back to Quinn, he unbuttoned her shorts and started trying to work them down her legs while she struggled weakly to keep them up.

            Daria took a few running steps and brought her heavy, hard bound book down on the back of the boy’s head. He cried out in pain and lashed out, backhanding Daria to the ground. Quinn scrambled away, pulling her pants back into place. Daria sat up and realized her glasses were gone. She saw the fuzzy image of the boy turning towards her, a fuzzy Quinn standing behind him.

            “Run, you idiot,” she hissed. The boy whipped around and grabbed at Quinn, but she was already sprinting away. He turned back towards Daria with an irritated growl and walked over to where she was still sitting.

            “You don’t look so bad without your glasses,” he said, and reached for her.

            Daria gritted her teeth and closed her eyes . . . .

 

            . . . she opened her eyes and glanced around the car. She was riding in her father’s blue Lexus, she and Quinn were on their way to their first day at their new school. She turned around and looked at her sister, who was sitting in the back seat.

            “Everything ok back there?”

            “I’m fine, thank you for asking.” The redhead sat with her knees up and her shoulders hunched over, her long red bangs partially obscuring her features. Her baggy black jacket hid most of her slim figure, and her floor-length brown peasant skirt finished the job.
            Daria nodded and pulled her glasses off, polishing the lenses on her t-shirt. The frames had been broken in three places, each spot carefully mended with black duct tape. She put them back on and ran a finger-tip down her nose with a sigh, feeling the lumps in the cartilage where it’d been broken.
            “Now girls,” Jake said, “I just want you to know that your mother and I realize it’s not easy moving to a whole new town.”
            “I’ll have to put a bunch of new idiots in check,” Daria said in her flat monotone voice, “then I’ll need to work up a new schedule for maintenance beatings. Should be fun.”

            “You could try not making a bad impression on your first day,” Jake said with a nervous laugh.
            “What’s that supposed to mean?” Daria asked, glaring narrowly at her father.

            “Uh,” Jake said, his face paling slightly, “what I mean is, ah, that the first day at a new school is bound to be difficult.” Jake parked in front of Lawndale High and turned to look at his eldest child.

            “For Quinn, you mean.” Neither of them noticed Quinn getting out of the car.

            “Both of you, you don’t have to . . . .”

            “Oh, gross!” someone nearby said, “Do you shop at S-Mart or something? That has to be the nastiest looking outfit I’ve ever seen.”
            Daria opened her car door and stepped out. “I’ll try to help her through this difficult period of adjustment,” she said to her father, and slammed the door shut. She took two strides forward to the brunette that was picking on her sister and grabbed her by the throat.

            “So, what’s your name?” she asked in a conversational tone.

            The girl’s eyes widened and she made a few choked coughing noises.

            “Daria,” Quinn said, “it’s ok. She didn’t mean to . . . .”

            “Shut it imbecile,” Daria said calmly. Quinn took a step back and paled.
            “Sandi, her name is Sandi,” a pigtailed girl said, looking near panic herself. “Please, she’s turning blue!”
            Daria let go of Sandi, giving her a light shove so that she fell backwards into the other girl. “The next time I see either of you even look at my sister I will make it my life’s work to turn your existence into a living hell. Do you understand me?”

            Sandi nodded mutely, tears starting to form in the corners of her eyes. The other girl was already in full hysterical weep, and looked like she was on her way to passing out from hyperventilation.

            “It’s nice to know that we have an understanding,” Daria said, and then turned to Quinn. “C’mon, time to meet the principal . . . I wonder if she’s a Nazi or a feel good pansy like we had back in Highland.”

            Daria turned and walked into the school building, ignoring the stares she was getting from the other students.

            “I’m so sorry,” Quinn said to the terrified looking girls. She sighed sadly when she noticed that they had turned away from her, apparently taking Daria’s threat literally.
            “Quinn!” Daria called out, her voice cracking like a whip. Without thinking, Quinn spun and ran towards her sister, almost tripping over the hem of her long skirt.

            When Quinn caught up with her sister, Daria was already standing with a small group of other students. She quietly took her place at Daria’s side and listened to the administrator that was addressing the group. The woman, presumably the principal, was a Korean woman of average height with an annoyingly high pitched voice.

            “As you can see,” she was saying, “our Lawndale High students take great pride in their school. That's why you'll each be taking a small psychological exam to spot any little clouds on the horizon as you sail the student seas of Lawndale High.”

            “Can’t let the weak be eaten by wolves, can we?” Daria muttered with a smirk. The preppie looking girl standing nearby frowned and took a half step away from the sisters.

            “Nobody told me about any test,” Quinn whispered to her sister.

            “Don’t worry,” Daria said snidely. “It’s a psychological test. You’re automatically exempt.”

            “Oh,” Quinn said, looking at her toes. “Alright.”

 

            “Quinn, Dora, my name is Ms. Manson,” the psychologist said, smiling benignly across the table at the girls.

            “Daria,” she grated, glaring back across the table. “I suggest you don’t mistake it again.”

            “Um, my apologies.” The woman, obviously flustered, shuffled some papers around on the table for a moment. She held up one, showing a silhouette image of two people conversing.

            “Daria,” she said, “what do you see in the picture?”

            “It’s a herd of beautiful wild ponies running free across the plains,” Daria answered. She hadn’t bothered to look at the picture.

            “Um,” Manson said, “there aren't any ponies. It's two people.”

            “Last time I took one of these tests,” Daria said, fixing the woman with another glare, “they told me they were clouds. They said they could be whatever I wanted.”

            “That's a different test, dear. In this test, they're people, and you tell me what they're discussing.”

            “I think they’re discussing pushy, nosy school councilors that have delusions of adequacy. Or they’re talking about ponies . . . take your pick.”

            Ms. Manson blinked at Daria a couple of times and then turned to Quinn. “What do you think is in the picture, dear?”

            Quinn took a fast, surreptitious glance at her sister and then muttered the word, “Ponies.”

 

            The Morgendorffers sat around the kitchen table eating dinner, a frozen lasagna Helen had warmed in the oven. Jake ate steadily, washing his meal down with a few glasses of red wine. Daria also ate at a steady pace, mostly ignoring her family. Quinn pushed her lasagna around on her plate, but didn’t seem interested in eating it. Helen quickly finished off her meal and leaned back, looking at the others.

            “Quinn, are you feeling ok?” she asked.

            “I’m fine, thank you for asking.”

            “How was your first day at school?”

            “Fine,” Quinn answered, her eyes flickering to Daria and then back to her plate.

            “Did you make any friends?” Helen asked with a sigh. “Meet any new people, join any clubs, anything?”

            “Some people tried to be mean to me, but Daria made them stop.”

            “I’m glad you’re still watching out for your little sister, Daria.” Helen smiled at her elder daughter, who shrugged and continued eating. “What about you, anything interesting happen to you today, dear?”

            “Well,” Daria answered, “my history teacher hates me because I know all the answers, but there are some interesting idiots in some of my classes.”

            “That’s great,” Jake said.

            “Jake!” Helen snapped.

            “I . . . uh . . . .”

            “What your father was trying to say,” Helen said in an exasperated tone, “is that you shouldn’t judge people before you know them. This is a new school in a new town, and you don’t want it to be Highland all over again.”

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

            “You girls need to make a couple of friends. Don’t be so critical, give people the benefit of the doubt.”

            “It all boils down to trust,” Daria said flatly.

            “Exactly,” Helen answered with a smile. “Show a little trust.”

            “Because that mentality has worked out so well for me in the past,” Daria answered dryly.

            “Daria,” Helen started before she was interrupted by the phone. “Hello? Yes. Yes, she’s my daughter . . . I see . . . listen, will this require any parent-teacher conferences, and if so is it the sort of thing my assistant can handle? Ok, great . . . bye.”

            Quinn and Daria shared a sad look at the mention of Helen’s personal assistant.

            “You girls took a psychological test at school today?”

            “Yeah,” Quinn answered dully.

            “Quinn, honey, they want you to take a special class for a few weeks, then they’ll test you again.”

            “I knew I was going to fail.”

            “You didn’t fail anything, sweetheart. You just seem to have low self-esteem.”

            “That’s too bad,” Jake said, frowning at his youngest daughter.

            “We tell you over and over again how wonderful you are, and you just don’t listen to us,” Helen said. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

            Quinn stared at her plate without answering for a few moments, and then glanced up at Daria with a pleading expression.

            “She doesn’t have low self-esteem,” Daria said. “It’s a mistake.”

            “I’ll say,” Jake said with a decisive nod.

            “In fact,” Daria continued with a smirk, “I’d say that the test just revealed that she has a refreshingly honest opinion of her own value as a person.”

 

***

 

            The next afternoon, Quinn walked into her English teacher’s classroom and dropped into a desk in the very back of the room. Sitting next to her was a dark haired girl from Daria’s grade who was industriously working in a sketch pad. Every few seconds the girl would glance up, stare at one of the people in the class for a moment, and then return to her drawing.

            “So,” the girl said after a few minutes, “if I draw a picture of you, is your sister going to threaten to kick my ass?”

            “Only if she finds out,” Quinn answered.

            “Cool,” the girl replied, and started drawing again. After another couple of minutes, the classroom door opened again and slightly upset looking Mr. O’Neill came in. He sat on the edge of his desk and smiled at the students.

            “Esteem, a teen,” he said. “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 are here to begin realizing your actuality and when we do, each and every one of you will be able to stand proudly and proclaim, "I am." Now, before we unlock your potential I have an interesting instructional video for you to watch. It explains why self-esteem is important.”

            Quinn frowned while the teacher turned on a television and put the tape into the VCR. When he dimmed the lights she leaned over to whisper to the girl sitting next to her.

            “Between this guy and the school psychologist I’m getting the idea that around here the illusion of mental health is a lot more important than actual mental health.”

            The other girl snorted with amusement. “Illusion is all that matters around here.”

            “Great. How am I supposed to test out of this class if it’s all smoke and mirrors?”

            “I can fill you in later,” the girl answered with a grin. “I’ve taken this course six times already.”

            “Cool, I’m Quinn Morgendorffer.”

            “Jane Lane.”

 

            An hour later, Quinn left the school building with Jane a couple of steps behind. Daria, who had been waiting outside, smoothly stepped between the two girls.

            “Hi,” Jane said, smiling brightly.

            “Leave my sister alone,” Daria said flatly, glaring up at the taller girl.

            “Calm down,” Jane said, “I’m just trying to make a friend. I’m cool with you hanging out, too. Let’s go get pizza.”

            Daria took a step back so Jane could leave the building, and the three girls stood on the school steps looking at each other.

            “Maybe I didn’t speak plainly enough,” Daria said. “Stay away from Quinn, or else.”

            “Or else, what?” Jane asked, moving forward into Daria’s personal space. Daria snapped her fingers and pointed at the door, and Quinn vanished back inside.

            “You had best step off,” Daria grated, “before you get stepped on.”

            “Witty,” Jane said with a smirk. “You stay up all night thinking of that?”

            “She has enough trouble with boys, the last thing she needs is some dyke chasing after her.”

            “Dyke?” Jane said, glaring down at the shorter girl. “Sorry honey, but I like the dick. What the hell gives you the idea I’m a lesbian?”

            “Short hair, butch attitude, combat boots,” Daria answered.       Jane smirked and looked over Daria’s nearly flat-top hair, her aggressive scowl, and her own clunky combat boots.

            “Ok, look Ms. Crewcut,” Jane said, taking a half-step back. “While appreciate your invitation to join the pot-and-kettle society I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline the honor.”

            “Whatever,” Daria said. “You want to stay out of trouble, you steer clear of me and Quinn, got it?”

            “Why are you all over her case? What’s wrong with letting her make a few friends?”

            “She’s not smart enough to make her own decisions,” Daria answered. “For God’s sake, the girl is so out of balance she got stuck in a special class for losers.”

            “It’s supposed to be a class to help people with bad self-images,” Jane said with a frown. “And I think I’m starting to figure out why Quinn needs help.”

            “Since you’ve known her so long,” Daria said with a sneer, “what profound insights have you come to?”

            “It’s your fault.”

            “What!?”

            “All your sister’s problems . . . your fault,” Jane shrugged. “You’re a bitch.”

            Daria’s face darkened with anger and she waded in, throwing body blows at the other girl. Jane danced back faster than Daria had expected and started using her greater reach to good effect. Jane was fast, but Daria hit hard and a few minutes later both girls sat on opposite sides of the steps panting and watching one another warily.

            “I think you bruised my ribs,” Jane said.

            “Wimp,” Daria replied calmly as she taped her glasses back together again.

            “Sorry about your glasses, I was aiming for your jaw and you ducked.”

            “Not the first time they’ve been broken, probably won’t be the last.”

            “Probably not, especially since you still haven’t convinced me to quit trying to be friends with your sister.”

            “You’re not gay,” Daria said with a sigh. “What do you want with her? Our parents don’t let her have any money.”

            “Sometimes people want to be friends and don’t worry about sex or money,” Jane said. “Do you really think everything is about taking advantage?”

            “Well, yeah.” Daria put her glasses back on and looked curiously at Jane. “That’s the way everybody is. People want things, and they try to take them. By lies if they can, by force if they have to, but if you have what they want then you better be ready to defend yourself.”

            “Why do you watch out for Quinn?”

            “Because she’s my sister.”

            “What do you get out of it?”

            “Nothing,” Daria answered with a frown. “She’s my sister, I look after her. She can’t take care of herself.”

            “Does the word ‘doublethink’ ring any bells?”

            “Yeah, what about it?”

            “You’re not much for the self-inspection are you?”

            “No, that’s a waste of time. I know who I am, I don’t need to sit around and think about it all day.”

            “You’re a twisted little crueler,” Jane said with a sigh.

            “What’s that supposed to mean?”

            “Look,” Jane said, standing and taking a couple of steps towards Daria. “Let’s call a truce. You can’t keep an eye on Quinn all the time by yourself, so let me help. We’ll both keep an eye on her, and we can watch each other’s backs, too.”

            “What do you get out of it?”

            “Two friends, and you and I don’t have to pound the crap out of each other again.”

            “You don’t back down, do you?”

            “Nope,” Jane said with a grin. “We Lanes may wander off, but we don’t back down.”

            Daria nodded and stood. “Alright, we’ll give it a try. You stab me in the back and I’ll break your knees.”

            “Same to you,” Jane said, and held out her hand. Daria glared at her a moment and took the hand, shaking briefly.

            “Quinn,” Daria snapped loudly. The redhead immediately stepped back through the nearby door.

            “Daria?” she asked quietly.

            “You can hang out with Jane if I’m not around. If she gets you in trouble or lets you break one of the rules, you come find me immediately and tell me. Otherwise, you do as she tells you. Understand?”

            Quinn nodded vigorously.

            “Rules?” Jane asked.

            “She’ll tell you what they are, if it comes up,” Daria answered with a shrug. “Now, did you say something earlier about pizza?”

 

***

 

            The three girls stopped in the hallway just outside Mr. O’Neill’s classroom.

            “You sure I won’t need a house key or anything?” Daria asked.

            “Sure I’m sure,” Jane said. “Just knock on the door until Trent wakes up and comes downstairs. If you get tired of that, just go on in and make yourself at home. My bedroom is upstairs, first on the left. There’s sodas in the ‘fridge, but don’t eat anything in the kitchen. I don’t want to have to call an ambulance when we get there.”

            “Ok,” Daria said, and then turned to Quinn. “Are you going to be ok without me?”

            Quinn nodded.

            “You stay with Jane, ok?”

            Quinn nodded again.

            “You keep her out of trouble,” Daria said, glaring at Jane.

            “No problem, amiga.”

            Daria stood in the hallway and frowned to herself as Jane and Quinn went into the classroom for their self-esteem class. With a sigh, she turned and walked off. She left the school and walked most of the way home, stopping in front of a yellow house.

            “Huge metal thing in the yard,” she muttered aloud. “This must be the place, can’t imagine two houses with that sort of decoration.”

            She walked up to the front door and started knocking loudly. After a moment, the door swung open to reveal a young man wearing boxers and one sock. Daria’s eyebrows went up as she looked him over: tall, dark hair and goatee, tribal tattoos, thin but decently muscled.

            “Hey,” he said in a deep, gravelly voice. “Um . . . are you selling something?”

            “No, I go to school with your sister.”

            “Cool,” he said, and stepped back from the door. “I guess you can come in. Janey isn’t home right now.”

            “I know, she’s at the self-esteem class with my sister. We’re gonna hang out after.”

            “Oh, ok.” Trent scratched the back of his head and looked down at her. “Um . . . you want something to drink?”

            “Sure,” Daria said with a smile. “Nothing American, though.”

            “Cool.”

 

            “So,” Mr. O’Neill said, “what are we talking about when we talk about ourselves? Anyone?” He looked around the room and then nodded to one of the boys who had his hand up.

            “We’re talking about us!” the boy gushed.

            “Excellent!” Mr. O’Neill said, clasping his hands together. “When we talk about ourselves, we’re talking about us. Now, I’ve got a little challenge for you: today we talked about turning your daydreams into reality. Tonight, I want each one of you to go home and do just that. What do you say?”

            The students muttered a little, and O’Neill glanced around and pointed at Quinn.

            “You,” he said. “What’s a daydream that you’d like to see come true?”

            Quinn nervously glanced at Jane, who shrugged at her. Then, she looked up at the teacher, who was watching her with rapt attention. Finally, she muttered something under her breath.

            “What was that?” O’Neill asked.

            “I don’t know,” Quinn said, speaking a little louder.

            “You don’t have a daydream that you’d like to make real?”

            “No,” Quinn answered, staring miserably at her desktop. “I just . . . no . . . nothing, never mind.”

            “Come on,” O’Neill said in a chiding tone. “You can share with us.”

            Quinn closed her eyes and balled her fists up on the desktop. Jane could hear the noise as Quinn muttered something over and over again to herself, but couldn’t quite make it out.

            “Well, maybe you can tell us tomorrow,” O’Neill said. “Class dismissed, everyone.”

            Quinn bolted from the room immediately, the door bouncing back sharply from its contact with the wall. Alarmed, Jane followed close on her heels as the redhead ran to the school’s doors and then skidded to a halt.

            “Jane?” Quinn asked quietly.

            “Yeah?”

            “Ok, I wanted to make sure you were with me. Are you ready to leave?”

            “Sure, Quinn. Um . . . are you ok?”

            “I’m fine, thank you for asking.”

            Jane put her hand on the younger girl’s shoulder and slowly turned her so they were facing each other. Quinn flipped her hair around so that her face was mostly covered by her long bangs.

            “You’re not fine,” Jane said. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?”

            “No, I’m not allowed. It’s a rule.”

            “Can you tell me about your daydream?”

            Quinn chewed her lip and seemed to shrink a little in her already oversized clothes. Nervous again, she glanced back and forth to make sure they were alone in the hall.

            “I wish I could trade places with Daria,” she whispered, leaning forward so that she could speak directly into Jane’s ear.

            “You still can,” Jane said. “Stand up to her, think for yourself. You can be your own person, I’ll help you.”

            “I’m too stupid, and I’m a coward,” Quinn said, shaking her head slowly. “I ran away.”

            Jane frowned, dismayed at the younger girl’s lack of faith in herself.

            “Can we go?” Quinn asked. “I don’t want Daria to worry about me.”

            Jane nodded and led the way out of the building and to her house. When the girls arrived Jane pushed the front door open and walked in, heading to the kitchen. Quinn followed along behind and almost ran into Jane when she suddenly stopped.

            “Trent, what happened in here?”

            “Um . . . nothing.”

            Queen peeked around Jane’s shoulder at the young man she was talking to. He was sitting at the kitchen table, shirtless. Two of the kitchen chairs were knocked over, and one of them was broken. A huge pile of junk mail and newspapers littered the floor between the table and the cabinets.

            “Where’s Daria?” Jane asked.

            “Back yard,” her brother answered. Quinn frowned slightly as she looked him over. He looked surprised, and perhaps vaguely alarmed. He had what looked like fresh bruises blossoming on his shoulders, including a couple that looked like . . . .

            “Oh,” Quinn said quietly. Jane, not hearing her, grabbed her hand and pulled her out the back door into the overgrown yard. Daria could be seen sitting in a dilapidated gazebo, smoking a cigarette and drinking from a can.

            “Geez,” Jane said, walking over to the gazebo with Quinn trailing along behind. “What the hell happened to my kitchen, Daria? You and Trent get into a fight?”

            “No, not a fight,” Daria said with a smirk. She took another sip of her drink.

            “Trent let you get into his Iron City stash?” Jane asked, her voice full of surprise. “He doesn’t let anybody have that beer! What’d you do, blow him?”

            Daria’s smirk got bigger, but she didn’t answer.

            “Wait,” Jane said, finally putting the pieces together. “You just met him, and you . . . and he . . . excuse me.”

            Quinn sat on the floor of the gazebo at Daria’s feet as Jane stomped back into the house. The girls couldn’t hear Trent’s side of the conversation, but Jane’s was fairly clear.

            “You absolute moron!” Jane shouted. “You know she’s sixteen . . . she’s in my grade, idiot . . . and you gave her a beer . . . how many beers!? . . . what the hell were you thinking? . . . ‘she grabbed my dick’ is not a valid excuse, goddamn it . . . you’re going to bleach the damn kitchen table, too . . . I don’t want to know where else, just bleach it . . . God, I only left you two alone for an hour . . . wait ‘til I call Monique.”

            “Monique?” Quinn asked. “He’s got a girlfriend.”

            “Yeah,” Daria said, taking a last drag off her cigarette before grinding it out. “He probably should have said before, but . . . .” She let the comment trail off with a shrug.

            “You would have anyway.”

            “Yeah, but I would have enjoyed it more.”

            Quinn sighed.

            “Don’t worry about it, Sis. I can take her.”

            “I know.”

            “How are you?”

            “I’m fine, thanks for asking,” Quinn replied.

            Daria nodded.

            “The yelling has stopped.”

            “Let’s head in,” Daria said, finishing off her beer. “We’ll see if Jane still wants to be friends with us.”

            Quinn gave her sister a sad look and obediently followed.

 

***

 

            Daria sat cross-legged on the floor of her bedroom playing a video game. She didn’t look up at the knock, and a moment later the door opened. Jane entered, with Quinn trailing along behind.

            “Wow,” Jane said, looking around. “The walls really are padded. I wasn’t sure if I should believe you, Quinn.”

            “Quinn doesn’t lie,” Daria said, still mostly concentrating on her game. “First off, lying requires more imagination and a better memory than she’s got. Secondly, the last time I caught her in a lie I beat her black and blue.”

            “You . . . beat her?” Jane asked quietly. She glanced over at Quinn, who was busy trying to vanish under her own hair.

            “Past tense,” Daria answered absently. “I haven’t hit Quinn in . . . how long?”

            “Three years, six months, and fourteen days,” Quinn answered automatically.

            Jane relaxed slightly and walked over to sit on the edge of Daria’s bed. She looked over at the TV screen and her jaw dropped.

            “Daria?”

            “Hmm?”

            “I know I’m going to regret asking this, but are you the girl?”

            “No,” Daria answered absently, tapping away at her controller. Jane flinched at the results.

            “You’re the guy?”

            “Yup.”

            “You just had sex with that girl, and then killed her.”

            “Bitch had my money,” Daria answered with a shrug. “That’s how we roll on the street, home girl.”

            Jane glanced over at Quinn, who seemed to be stifling a giggle.

            “Can we stop playing the scary crime game now, Daria?”

            “Yeah, yeah,” Daria sighed. She saved her game and turned it off, then tossed the controller towards the TV and spun around to face the bed.

            “Thanks.”

            “So, how was Self-Haters Anonymous?”

            “Amusing,” Jane answered. “You really ought to start coming, you can just hang out in the back of the room. I doubt O’Neill will notice that you aren’t supposed to be there.”

            “He’d notice me,” Daria said, smiling wickedly at Jane.

            “Oh?”

            “Do you remember that he was late showing up to the first class?”

            “Yeah.”

            “I caught him in the hallway and explained a couple of things to him, mostly about how he’d better not upset Quinn.”

            “I couldn’t tell,” Jane answered with a shrug. “He wouldn’t lay off her the other day, he wanted her to OUCH!” Jane spun around at the sharp pain in her lower back, to see Quinn industriously writing in a notebook. Quinn looked up at the sudden movement, flinching back and flipping her hair around to cover her face.

            “He wanted her to what?” Daria asked.

            “He was pestering her about one of his stupid self-esteem exercises,” Jane answered, rubbing the sore spot and watching Quinn speculatively. “He has a habit of picking one person and making them answer questions through the whole class.”

            “I’ll talk to him again.”

            “Let me,” Jane said. “We agreed to both look out for her, right? I’ll take care of how she’s being treated in the self-esteem class.”

            Daria glanced from Quinn to Jane suspiciously, and then slowly nodded.

            “Good,” Jane said. “So, what are we doing tonight? We’ve got the whole weekend for homework, so I want to do something fun.”

            “We could go see your brother’s band,” Daria said with a smirk.

            “Daria, I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

            “It could have been worse; you could have walked in on us.”

            “Thank you for that image,” Jane said with a wince. “Look, I was kind of hoping you’d like him, maybe a little crush I could tease you about or something. I wasn’t thinking about the possibility that Trent might get picked up for statutory.”

            “Satisfied customers file no complaints,” Daria said, her smirk growing.

            “Also, he confessed to Monique and they had a screaming break-up over it. Well, she screamed, he just nodded a lot.”

            “So he’s available now?”

            “Daria, focus. Monique is about six inches taller than you, and outweighs you by a good bit, too. She has a nasty temper and is probably sitting in the Zon right now downing beers, watching Mystic Spiral play, and waiting for you to show up.”

            “Ok,” Daria said in a defeated tone, “you convinced me, Jane.”

            “Good.”

            “We have to go now; I can’t miss a fight like that. Quinn, go get changed and we’ll head out.”

            Quinn nodded and left for her bedroom.

            “You’re insane. Hell, I’m insane. Insane Jane Lane rides again,” she said with a sour chuckle.

            Daria smirked and started lacing up her boots. Jane glanced over at Quinn’s school books and saw the open notebook. Looking down at it, she saw that the redhead had been working on her self-esteem class assignment: a list of ten ways the world would be a sadder place if she weren’t in it. Ten lines, neatly double spaced, were numbered below the title.

            At first, Jane thought every line was empty, but then she noticed that reason number one had eraser smudges on it. She picked up the notebook and tilted it against the light, and faintly read: Jane might be sadder.

            “You ready?” Daria asked.

            “Yeah,” Jane said, dropping the notebook back onto the bed. “Let’s make like Autobots and roll out.”

 

            The three girls walked passed the bored looking bouncer and entered the dimly lit bar. The noise washed over them first, then the smell. Quinn coughed quietly, hanging back and peering over her sister’s shoulder at the crowd.

            “There’s Trent and Jesse,” Jane said, pointing at a table. Daria recognized Trent, and assumed the muscle bound long-hair in the leather vest was Jesse. Jane led the sisters over to the table and they all sat.

            “Hey,” Trent said, nodding to Jane and then giving Daria a slightly guilty grin. “Jesse, this is Daria and her sister.”

            “Hey,” Jessie said, nodding.

            “Why aren’t you guys up on stage?” Jane asked.

            “Taking a break between sets,” Trent said. “Nick and Max went to go get us some cheese fries.”

            “They don’t serve food here?” Daria asked.

            “Oh, they serve food,” Trent answered. “If you’re brave enough to eat it.”

            “Ah, well then,” Daria said. “They check IDs here?”

            “Nah,” Jane said. “Not until your second or third beer, anyway.”

            “Cool, you want to go get us a couple of beers?”

            “Sure. What about you, Quinn?”

            “Just a soda please,” Quinn said. “Do you want me to help you carry them?”

            “Sure,” Jane said, rising to her feet. “Ah, crap.”

            Everyone turned to look in the same direction as Jane, and it was obvious who she was looking at. A tall, rail thin woman with black hair was stalking towards their table, her glare obviously aimed at Daria.

            “I called it,” Jane said. “I’m getting in my ‘I told you so’ now, while there’s still time.”

            “You said she was taller and that she outweighed me,” Daria answered. “She can’t even outweigh Quinn, I’ve been cheated.”

            The woman stopped a couple of feet from the table and transferred her glare from Daria to Trent.

            “Hey, Monique,” he said weakly.

            “You put your dick in that?” she asked, pointing at Daria.

            “Um, a couple of times.”

            “Jesus, Trent. She looks like a guy.”

            “You’ve got a lot of room to talk,” Daria said. “How much duct tape did you need to produce that cleavage? I’ve seen better tits on a bull.”

            “Stop staring at ‘em then,” Monique shot back. “With that hair cut and those clothes, I’m not surprised you’re a dyke.”

            “I fucked your boyfriend, you dumb bitch,” Daria said with a sneer. “That’s the reason you’re mad at me, remember? Kind of precludes the dyke angle, don’t you think?”

            Jane glanced around the table and found herself surprised at the intense way the others were following the argument. She knew Jesse and Trent would be all about watching a chick-fight, especially Trent since he was the object of the dispute. She just hadn’t considered they’d be as interested in it as they apparently were. What surprised her most was the way the normally skittish Quinn was openly staring, her eyes flicking back and forth from Daria to Monique.

            “I’ve never heard somebody so proud of being a whore,” Monique said.

            “I’m just an amateur,” Daria replied, “I leave the professional work to girls like you.”

            “You get away from my man,” Monique hissed.

            “He’s not yours now, and if he ever was he’d have turned me down, wouldn’t he?” Daria leaned back in her chair and smirked. “And that’s what’s burning your britches, isn’t it?”

            Monique lashed out, slapping Daria across the face with a resounding crack. The bar noise subsided as several patrons turned to look. Daria slowly turned back to face Monique, a bright red palm print clear on her face and a tiny trickle of blood seeping from the corner of her mouth.

            “Oh, you bitch,” Daria said, grinning broadly. “Thank you, thank you so very much.”

            Daria’s chair hit the floor as she exploded to her feet, burying her right fist in Monique’s stomach. The taller girl staggered backwards and raked her nails across Daria’s face, sending her glasses skittering across the floor and leaving three bloody lines across her forehead and one cheek.

            “Nails? Girl fighting,” Daria sneered, moving towards her target. She took a solid punch to the head from Monique and lashed out again, putting her fist right back in the same spot in the other girl’s midsection.

            Monique got in a couple of more good punches to Daria’s face and head, as if the younger girl wasn’t bothering to defend herself at all. In return, Daria landed another solid body blow and then punched Monique dead center mouth, landing the punch hard enough her boots left the floor for a moment. Monique dropped to the floor and made pained gagging noises.

            “Daria, behind you!” Jane shouted. Quinn grabbed her as she lunged up from her seat.

            “You sawed-off little bitch!” A girl with a green mohawk stepped up behind Daria’s right side and brought a pool stick down on her. The cue shattered across Daria’s shoulder and back, and she was forced down on one knee.

            “Lemme go,” Jane snapped at Quinn.

            Daria lunged back to her feet, tackling the girl with the mohawk. They hit the floor in a rolling ball of fists, elbows, and profanity.

            “She lost her glasses, she’ll hit anybody that gets too close,” Quinn said, pleading with Jane.

            “It’s two on one, I’m not letting her take a beating.”

            Jane pushed Quinn aside and walked into the broad chest of one of the Zon’s bouncers.

            “Settle down,” he rumbled. Jane peeked around his giant bicep and watched two more bouncers grab Daria and the Harpies’ drummer. Monique had staggered to her feet, and stood quietly with a sulky expression.

            “Trent, sit your sister and her friends down and keep ‘em quiet, or else.”

            “Sure, Bobby. Sorry about the trouble.”

            Quinn fished Daria’s glasses out from under the table and handed them to her. Daria nodded her thanks and put them on, just in time to watch the Harpies being escorted out of the bar.

            “Why didn’t you try to stop that from happening?” Jane asked, glaring at her brother.

            “Number one rule,” Trent answered, pausing to take a swing from his beer bottle. “Never interfere with a chick fight. They just beat the crap out of you trying to get at each other.”

            “Yeah,” Jesse said, nodding.

            “It’s alright,” Daria said, “the fight after is the best part of sleeping with some other girl’s guy.”

            “I’ll take your word for it,” Jane said, obviously still annoyed.

            Everyone sat around the table in slightly uncomfortable silence for a few minutes, except Jesse who seemed oblivious to the tension. Trent sipped his beer and stared off into space. Jane spent her time trading off between studying Daria and Quinn, who seemed to be carrying on a completely silent conversation with finger movements, head nods, and facial expressions.

            “Could you guys cut it out with the damn drowspeak?” she finally said.

            “Drowspeak?” Daria asked, quirking an eyebrow.

            “Evil underground elves, they use sign language to coordinate their attacks on their victims.”

            “If they live underground, how can they see the sign language? Wouldn’t it be better to use light signals?”

            “They can see in the dark,” Jane said patiently. “They’re elves.”

            “Oh.”

            “Hey,” Trent said, nodding towards the door. “There’s Nick and Max with the cheese fries.” He glanced at the girls and frowned. “We, uh, didn’t order enough for you guys. We didn’t know you were gonna be here.”

            “It’s fine,” Jane said.

            “Yeah, I’m getting about tired of here anyway,” Daria agreed. “We’ll hear you play some other time.”

            “Cool,” Trent answered.

            The three girls left the bar, passing the blue haired guy and his bald friend on their way out.

            “Cheese fries actually sound pretty good,” Daria said. “Where’s a good place for that, Jane?”

            “Well, there’s ACK!”

            Daria spun around and saw a couple of women she didn’t recognize grabbing Jane and Quinn. Jane struggled with her attacker, and it was obvious the woman had her hands full holding onto the athletic girl. Quinn started screaming at the top of her lungs and thrashing wildly.

            “Leave my sister alone!” Daria shouted, moving towards the attacker and the hysterical redhead. She only got a step before being grabbed herself by the girl with the green mohawk. Monique stepped out from behind a nearby car and smiled.

            “You loosened a couple of my teeth,” she said. “So I figure I’m gonna knock a few of yours out. That sounds fair, right?”

            Daria ignored Monique and continued towards Quinn, the girl holding onto her being brought along for the ride. Quinn managed to tear loose from her captor and sprinted off down Dega Street, still wailing like a banshee.

            “Jane!” Daria barked. Jane jumped a little into the air and came down on her captor’s foot with both boot heels, causing the girl to scream in pain and stagger backwards. Jane vanished down the street after the fleeing redhead.

            It took Jane almost a minute to catch up to Quinn, who was hiding behind the mailbox in front of Axl’s Piercing Parlor. She slowly approached the younger girl, staying well in the streetlight and holding her hands out.

            “Quinn, it’s me, Jane.”

            Quinn glared at her from behind the mailbox.

            “Are you alright?”

            “I’m fine, thanks for asking,” Quinn replied.

            “Ok. Come on, we need to go help Daria.” Jane turned and jogged back up Dega Street with Quinn following along behind. The blue lights cut on in front of the Zon while they were still fifty yards away.

            “Crap,” Jane said, and slowed to a walk. She and Quinn approached to see Monique and her bandmates being put into the back of the two Lawndale Police cruisers. Daria was sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the wall of the building and talking to a cop.

            “S’fine,” she muttered as Jane walked up. “Jus’ a l’il fi’, officer. I’m fine. Ri’ as rain.”

            Quinn knelt next to her sister and checked her pupils.

            “They’re sisters,” Jane said, as the officer moved to stop Quinn. The policeman frowned and turned back to Jane.

            “Lane?” he asked suspiciously.

            “Yes, sir.”

            “I’m not going to have to bust you or your friends for anything am I?”

            “No, sir.”

            “Care to tell me what’s going on?”

            “My brother’s old girlfriend,” Jane said, pointing at one of the police cars. “His new girlfriend,” she finished pointing at Daria.

            “She looks a little young.”

            Jane leaned forward to whisper, “They’re not really dating, he just needed to make Monique back off. We didn’t think she’d start a fight over it.”

            The cop frowned at Jane for a moment, and finally sighed and shook his head. “I’m just gonna stop asking questions now. You’re a better liar than you used to be, Lane.”

            “Thanks?”

            “That wasn’t a complement,” the policeman replied, and then nodded at Daria. “She needs a trip to the ER. We can call for paramedics or you can take her, your choice.”

            “I’ll borrow Trent’s car,” Jane answered. “Be right back.”

 

            “I called Mom while you were talking to the lady at the desk,” Quinn said as Jane sat down next to her. The waiting room chairs were small, hard, and plastic.

            “Ok,” Jane said with a nod. “She’s gonna have to come down here to wave insurance paperwork at them anyway.”

            The girls sat together in a vaguely uncomfortable silence for a short while, until Jane noticed an auburn haired woman leave the elevator, glance around until she spotted Quinn, and then begin striding directly towards them.

            “Your mom?” Jane asked, gesturing at the woman. Quinn nodded in response.

            “Quinn Louise Morgendorffer,” the woman snapped. Quinn jerked upright in her chair but said nothing. “What is the meaning of all this?” the woman continued.

            “We . . .” Quinn began.

            “Dragging your poor sister to a bar of all places? And now she’s in the hospital. What were you thinking?”

            “I’m sorry,” Quinn said, looking down at the floor.

            “I can’t believe how irresponsible you are,” the woman said. “After all that your sister does for you, I’d think that you could be a little more concerned about her in return. Sometimes I just don’t know what to do with you.”

            “Wait a minute,” Jane said.

            “Who are you?” Helen asked, glaring down at Jane.

            “Jane, I’m a friend of your daughters. This wasn’t Quinn’s fault.”

            “I’ll be the judge of that,” Helen snapped. “I appreciate you helping get Daria to the hospital, but I think you should leave now.”

            Jane stood and took a couple of steps towards the elevator before stopping and turning back to Helen. “No,” she said quietly.

            “Excuse me?”

            “I made a deal with Daria, that I’d keep an eye on Quinn for her when she couldn’t. Also, Quinn is my friend. I’m not going to just walk off and leave her sitting here by herself.”

            “She isn’t by herself, I’m here now.”

            “And you need to go deal with the hospital people, and check on Daria. The nurse told me that she’s not too badly injured, but you might want to check on that yourself,” Jane said, and then narrowed her eyes. “Seeing as how she’s your daughter and all.”

            “Fine,” Helen answered with a scowl. “Suit yourself, young lady.” Helen turned and stalked off to the registration desk where she could make someone else’s life hell for a little while.

            “Don’t take this the wrong way,” Jane said, dropping back into her chair, “but your mom is a bitch.”

            “Daria gets hurt a lot because of me,” Quinn answered with a shrug.

            “This was not your fault,” Jane said, turning to glare at her friend.

            “I ran away,” Quinn said. “Again.”

            “What?”

            “I ran away, and you had to come after me. That left Daria alone with four girls who wanted to hurt her. If I wasn’t such a stupid coward it could have been four on three and we would have won.”

            “No, what do you mean you ran away ‘again’? This has happened before?”

            “I always run away,” Quinn said quietly. She shook her head and let her hair fall in front of her face. “I’m stupid, and I cause trouble, and then I run away and Daria gets hurt. I’m the worst sister ever.”

            “Daria brought this on herself, when she helped Trent polish my kitchen table,” Jane said.

            “That’s my fault, too.”

            “How the hell is that your fault?”

            “I can’t talk about it. It’s a rule.”

            “That’s crap.”

            Quinn’s eyes got huge.

            “Well, it is. You need to stop letting Daria run your life and maybe try breaking a rule every now and then. It’s good for you.”

            “No,” Quinn said, shaking her head.

            Jane sighed and rubbed her temples. She was pretty sure she felt a headache coming on.

            “Jane?”

            “Yeah?”

            “Why do you care?”

            “Huh?” Jane looked up and blinked at the redhead, confusion apparent on her face.

            “Daria and I aren’t easy to get along with. Why do you care?”

            Jane sighed.

            “You don’t have to tell me, I’m just curious.”

            “I’m just trying to think of a way to say it that doesn’t sound pathetic.”

            “Oh.”

            The girls sat in silence for a moment, and then Jane said, “First of all, I really and honestly do like you and your sister. You’re both fun to hang out with.”

            “Ok.”

            “I have no real family outside of Trent, and I spend more time taking care of him than the other way around. We both have to do what we can for money, just to keep the bills paid and ramen in the kitchen. Trent doesn’t make a lot of money with the band.”

            “He doesn’t have a regular job?”

            “No, he isn’t responsible enough to keep one. He can’t stand having to live by a schedule.”

            “Ok, but what does this have to do with me and Daria?”

            “You two are the only friends I have.”

            “Surely not, you’re so smart and pretty.”

            Jane snickered derisively.

            “You are.”

            “No, I’m a freak. I’m Insane Jane Lane, the creepy art chick that might be on drugs, or might be a lesbian, or might be a Satanist, and has huge orgies at her house every weekend that nobody has ever been to . . . but everybody has a friend of a friend who’s been there.”

            “People say that?”

            “The closest thing to a friend I ever had was that goth chick Andrea, and that was based entirely on shared misery. The only guys I’ve been with made me promise to keep it a secret before they’d come over.”

            “I hate guys,” Quinn said. “They’re all animals.”

            “Yeah,” Jane nodded. “But that’s what I like about them.”

            “Ew,” Quinn said with a small smirk.

            “You’re not much for the guys, then?” Jane asked. When Quinn shook her head, Jane asked, “Girls?”

            “No, I’m guy oriented,” Quinn answered. “I just don’t like how they act.”

            “I know what you mean, some of them can be pretty bad.” Jane looked down at the floor for a moment and then back up at Quinn with a small smile. “Can I tell you something without you freaking out at me?”

            “Sure.”

            “I’ve had a lot of guys, I’m sort of the go-to girl for guys that can’t get their girlfriends to sleep with them.”

            “Why do you let them use you like that?”

            “Better than no attention at all,” Jane answered with a shrug. “I was pretty much ok with it until one of the guys said his dad wanted to meet me.”

            “What did you do?” Quinn asked.

            “I made a hundred bucks,” Jane muttered.

            Quinn stared wordlessly.

            “You’re freaking out,” Jane said with a sigh.

            “I won’t tell anybody,” Quinn said. “We . . . we probably shouldn’t mention it to Daria, either.”

            “After the way she was playing that car stealing game? Damn right I’m not going to tell her.”

            “So, do you still?”

            “Yeah,” Jane said. “I make enough money now that it doesn’t matter if Trent works or not. He’d completely freak if he knew, so I let him think I’m selling pot. I make the guys at school buy me stuff now. Most of that goes straight down to the pawn shop, where they’re half convinced I’m the most prolific shoplifter in Lawndale.”

            “Well, at least the bills are getting paid.”

            “Yeah,” Jane said with a twisted smirk, “And just for the low, low cost of my human dignity. It’s ok though, by the time I graduate high school I’ll have plenty of money saved up and I’ll be able to go to a good art school and launch my career.”

            Quinn nodded.

            “I shouldn’t have told you, I’m sorry.”

            “It’s ok,” Quinn said with a shrug. “At least you enjoy your work.”

            “I guess,” Jane said with a sigh. “I just really had to tell somebody, and I knew I could trust you.”

            “I’m good at keeping secrets,” Quinn said with a nod.

 

***

 

            A couple of days later, Daria limped down the school hallway towards her locker. Her ribs were still sore, and her left forearm was in a cast, but she otherwise felt fine. At least, she felt fine as long as she didn’t try to walk too fast or talk too much. She scowled slightly when she saw the two football players standing in front of her locker.

            The short, skinny white guy she’d dismissed shortly after arriving at Lawndale. His girlfriend cheated on him constantly, which told Daria he was probably crap in bed on top of being a blithering moron. The tall black guy was a much better catch, and she’d flirted with him off and on but she’d finally resigned herself to the idea that he wasn’t going to cheat on his girlfriend.

            “Move,” she said, stopping near them. The two guys stepped away from her locker and Mack gave her a concerned look.

            “Daria, what happened to your face?”

            “A steel toed boot,” she answered. One whole side of her face was blue and purple where one of the Harpies had gotten a couple of good kicks in.

            “You gonna be alright?”

            “You want to kiss it and make it better?” she asked with a smirk. “I got bruises in all sorts of places, if you’re interested in helping.”

            Mack stammered a non-reply as his face darkened with embarrassment.

            “You hang out with that art chick, right?” Kevin asked.

            “Yeah.” Daria stepped between the football players and opened her locker.

            “Ok, that explains it then.”

            “Explains what?”

            “Oh, I think you know,” Kevin said with a chuckle.

            “Kevin, shut the hell up,” Mack said. He grabbed the smaller player by his shoulder pads and steered him off down the hall.

            Daria finished getting the books she needed and headed off to English class. She arrived there a few minutes later and settled into her seat just before the bell rang.

            “Class,” Mr. O’Neill said, “I thought today we’d take a break from the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet to discuss the real life tragedy that happened last night here in Lawndale. Let's share our feelings of violation following the loss of our beloved cybercafé, alt.lawndale.com. Who would like to start?” The teacher glanced around the room and nodded at Kevin. “Charles?” he asked, and then frowned when Kevin didn’t answer. “Charles, did you hear me?”

            “Um,” Kevin said, “You mean, Kevin?”

            “Kevin, heh. I'm sorry,” O’Neill said while shuffling though his seating charts. “You . . . uh . . . look like somebody else. What do you have to say about last night's horrible event?”

            “I was home all night. You can ask my parents. Besides, I already have a computer.”

            “No, Kevin. I mean, how did the theft make you feel?”

            “Um . . . sad?”

            Daria rolled her eyes as a few other people in class snickered.

            “Are you asking me or telling me?” Mr. O’Neill asked patiently.

            “Angry?”

            “Hmm,” the teacher said, and turned to another student. “Jodie, how about you?”

            “I think the cybercafé served one very particular segment of the community,” the girl answered promptly, “but it still pisses me off when people take what isn’t theirs.”

            “That’s how I feel!” Kevin said with a big smile.

            “Thank you, Kevin.” O’Neill said before turning back to the second student. “Jodie, about that word, ‘community.’ Isn’t that the whole idea of a cybercafé, to jack us into the global community? I think what's most disturbing about this crime is the symbolism involved. Don’t you agree, Jane?”

            “No,” Jane said flatly.

            “Suddenly, we’re cut off,” he continued. “We can’t hail our friends across the globe and say, ‘It’s a beautiful day in the cyberhood.’ They didn’t just take a few computers. They took the symbol of our virtual community. To visit alt.lawndale.com was to come together with the planet!”

            “Oh, come on,” Daria said, her voice dripping with scorn.

            “Yes?”

            “Come together with the planet?” she sneered. “By staring at a screen for hours? Sitting in a room full of people you never say a word to?”

            “Hmm. Interesting point, Dorian.”
            “Daria,” she growled. Mr. O’Neill blinked at her a couple of times and suddenly paled. He began to nervously shuffle his seating charts.

            “Daria,” he said, putting emphasis on her name, “you believe that while connecting Lawndale citizens to our global neighbors, the cafe was alienating us from each other?”

            “I’m saying if you really miss the place, put a Mr. Coffee in the damn computer lab.” At that, she shared a smirk with Jane while an undercurrent of laughter rippled through the room again.

            “So, in your opinion, what we really need is a return to the traditional coffee house of yore, where you’d watch some performers and share a cup with your friends, face to face.” Mr. O’Neill smiled broadly at Daria, completely missing the scowl she was giving him in return.

            “You’re a visionary,” Jane said dryly.

            “Right here and now, let’s pledge to make Daria’s dream a reality,” Mr. O’Neill said, addressing the whole class.

            “You mean the one where people walking down the street burst into flames?” Daria asked. “Or the one where people don’t read more into what I say than I mean?”

            “No, the coffee house! We’ll plan it, locate it, raise the money, and open it!”

            “Would that qualify as an extracurricular activity?” Daria asked.

            “Of course,” the teacher answered with a smile.

            “I don’t do extracurricular,” Daria muttered darkly.

 

            Later that day, Daria sat in her room playing video games while waiting for Jane and Quinn to get out of their self-esteem class. She frowned and paused the game when she heard footsteps on the stairs, since no one else should be in the house. The footsteps paused outside her door and she leaned back, pulling a knife out from under her bed.

            “Daria?” Jake said, knocking lightly on the door.

            “Dad?”

            “Hey, kiddo.” Jake pushed the door open and stopping, looking down at his daughter and the very sharp knife she was holding.

            “Everything ok?”

            “Sure,” she answered, sliding the knife back under the bed. “I didn’t know it was you until you spoke.”

            “Oh,” Jake said, relaxing slightly. “Where’d you get the knife?”

            “Grandma Ruth’s attic.”

            “Your grandfather’s ka-bar?”

            Daria nodded.

            “It’s a good knife, be careful with it,” Jake said. “Don’t do anything bad with it, ok?”

            “Sure,” Daria answered, peering up at her father curiously. “Why are you home from work so early?”

            “I got a call from your English teacher.”

            “And?”

            “He was telling me about this coffee house project he’s got going, and he was wondering if you wanted to contribute somehow.”

            “Funny, since I’m pretty sure I clearly told him I didn’t.”

            “Maybe you should reconsider.”

            “Oh?”

            “Who is that dark-haired girl I’ve seen you and your sister hanging out with?”

            “Jane.”

            “She’s the first person I’ve known you to invite over to the house.”

            “So?”

            “And you leave Quinn alone with her.”

            “Yeah, sometimes.”

            Jake nodded to himself.

            “What does this have to do with the coffee house?”

            “Maybe the three of you should do a group presentation, poetry or something. You still write sometimes, don’t you?”

            “Sometimes,” Daria frowned. “I’m not sure if what I write is suitable for public display.”

            “Think it over, ok?”

            “Ok.”

            “I’m proud of you, Daria. No matter what else, you’re my little girl and I love you,” Jake said. He nodded once to Daria and left the room. Daria sat there for a long time, staring at the door with a faintly puzzled look on her face.

 

            Half an hour later, she was back to normal and playing her game when Jane and Quinn walked in. Jane collapsed across the bed and Quinn sat on the floor near Daria.

            “I feel self-affirmed, don’t you Quinn?” Jane said.

            “I feel very pretty,” Quinn answered in a sarcastic tone of voice. “This whole class is a farce. Maybe I don’t want to be pretty, did they ever think of that?”

            “Whoa there,” Jane said, looking surprised at the unusual vehemence in Quinn’s voice.

            “You had a whole class on how to be pretty?” Daria asked, quirking an eyebrow. She rapidly tapped buttons on her controller, resulting in the sounds of gun fire and explosions from the television.

            “Body image,” Jane answered. “Supposed to make us feel good about ourselves and how we look.”

            “Oh.”

            “Better than what the guys got,” Quinn said.

            “What did they get?” Daria asked.

            “A classroom full of guys and a male teacher?” Jane said with a grin.

            “Nocturnal emissions,” all three girls said after a short pause. Daria and Jane started snickering, while Quinn smiled quietly.

            “Dad talked to me today,” Daria announced. “He suggested we do something for O’Neill’s coffee house.”

            “I’m not sure how I feel about being a public spectacle,” Jane said.

            “Think of it as performance art.”

            “You want to do this?” Jane asked skeptically.

            “Sort of, maybe, not really, but it seemed important to Dad,” Daria said with a sigh. “He doesn’t do the parenting thing very often, he doesn’t think he’s any good at it.”

            “Oh.”

            “He seems to approve of you, though.”

            “Well, that gives me a fifty percent approval rating. Better than some presidents, I guess.”

            “Don’t worry about Mom, she does the parenting thing even less than Dad.”

            “Not good at it either?”

            “Something like that,” Quinn muttered. Daria nodded her agreement and continued sniper shooting virtual policemen.

            “I just don’t know what we could do,” Daria said. “Quinn is terrified of being the center of attention, I don’t much care for it, and apparently neither do you.”

            “I don’t mind attention,” Jane said with a grin. “I just said I didn’t want to be a spectacle. We could do something modest and tasteful, I’d be ok with that.”

            “Got any ideas?”

            “Yeah, but I don’t know where to buy stripper poles,” Jane answered with a shrug. Daria snickered, and Quinn’s jaw dropped in horror.

            “I . . .” Quinn said. “I . . . I am not . . . I can’t . . .”

            “Settle down,” Jane said, making calming motions at the redhead. “It was a joke, ok? Besides, we’d need you to stand in the crowd and urge people to throw money.”

            “Nobody is going to pay to see me naked,” Daria said. “I’ve got too many scars, for starters. You might be able to get some money like that, though.”

            Daria was too focused on her game to notice the uncomfortable look exchanged between her sister and Jane.

            “Nothing wrong with scars, even on a girl,” Jane said. “You should let your hair grow out, though. The Sinead look is very over.”

            “I don’t like hair pulling in fights, and that’s all those dumb bitches ever want to do.”

            “Anyway, what are we going to do at the coffee house?” Jane asked.

            “Dunno,” Daria said. “I’m not even sure I want to do anything yet.”

 

***

 

            “I'm here,” the angry looking goth girl snarled into the microphone. “But where are you? Sure, I see your body. Anybody home in that rotting bag of flesh?”

            The small crowd in the coffee shop applauded politely as she stomped off the stage. She walked past the table where Daria, Jane, and Quinn were sitting and seemed to hesitate a second. She gave Jane a tiny nod and continued on to a table in the back.

            “See?” Jane said to Daria. “You don't want to do poetry for this crowd.”

            “Good thing we decided to do nothing at all.”

            “We’re contributing by consuming coffee and adding to the bohemian atmosphere,” Jane replied with a smirk.

            “Thank you very much, Andrea,” Mr. O’Neill said from the stage. “It takes a lot of courage to expose your raw emotions that way.”

            One of the stage lights came on and swung around to illuminate Andrea sitting at her table alone. She was drinking from a suspicious looking, dark brown bottle and when she realized she was being stared at she quickly stowed the bottle away and began glaring at everyone around her.

            “Is that the friend you told me about?” Quinn asked quietly, seeing the worried look on Jane’s face. O’Neill began introducing the next act, but the girls were ignoring him.

            “Friend is a strong word.”

            “Sister in arms?” Daria asked.

            “I guess,” Jane answered with a shrug. “She and I used to sit together at lunch and make fun of people, or just complain about school and our shitty families.”

            “Why don’t you talk to her anymore?” Quinn asked.

            “I hang out with you two now, and I’m not as negative as I used to be. Before that, she started missing a lot of school because of her drinking. I think it’s getting worse.”

            “Maybe you should invite her over to our table,” Daria said. “She can join our gang.”

            “Daria,” Quinn said quietly, her eyes huge.

            “Gang?” Jane asked, quirking an eyebrow.

            “Sure, our gang: we’re the Misery Chicks. She’s pathetic and weak, I’m hateful and violent, and you’re obsessive and co-dependant. We could use a surly alcoholic to round out the membership.”

            “That’s not funny,” Jane said with a frown.

            “I wasn’t joking.”

            “We’re not as bad as you make us sound.”

            “We’re not?” Daria asked. “Should I start giving you examples? Which of us should I start with?”

            “Look,” Jane started, and then paused when she noticed Mr. O’Neill hovering nearby. “Can we help you?”

            “I sure hope so. I’m in sort of a pickle and I was hoping one of you could help me out.” The teacher smiled at the girls, although his smile started to slowly wilt under Jane and Daria’s combined glares. After a moment he started sweating and fidgeting.

            “What do you want?” Daria asked flatly.

            “I just got a call, the evening’s final performer won’t be able to make it. I don’t suppose one of you could reconsider doing something for us?”

            Quinn shook her head rapidly and tried to vanish inside her baggy skirt and jacket. Daria glanced over at Jane, who shrugged and rolled her eyes.

            “Jodie,” O’Neill said, looking at Jane.

            “Jane.”

            “Sorry,” he said, looking even more flustered. “Are you sure? Maybe a dance routine or some gymnastics? I heard you’re really good at that sort of thing.”

            “No,” Jane said, her voice cold as ice. The teacher flinched back from the waves of anger crashing from her cobalt blue eyes. “Further, I don’t want to ever hear anything like that from you again. Understood?”

            O’Neill nodded and turned towards Daria, who was busy giving her friend a puzzled look. Jane stared into her coffee cup and said nothing.

            “D-Daria? You write such evocative things, maybe you could do something off the cuff?”

            Daria slowly turned from the obviously upset Jane, to her terrified sister, and finally to O’Neill. “Off the cuff?”

            “Yes, like a spoken word piece; free form poetry, stand-up comedy, that sort of thing. Just get up and drop some jive rap for the coffee drinkers.”

            “Do I get a little set of drums?”

            “Um,” O’Neill said, obviously trying to think of where he could find a set of bongos at this late hour.

            “You know what, I think I will help out,” Daria said. “You let me know when you need me on stage, Mr. O’Neill. Don’t worry about the drums.”

            “Thank you, so much!” The teacher turned and scurried away, relieved to have solved the crisis.

            “He has no idea what he’s just done, does he?” Jane asked.

            “Nope,” Daria answered, then abruptly turned to Jane. “You’re a dancer?”

            “No, he still had me mixed up with Jodie, she used to do ballet. It makes me mad when he can’t remember who I am.”

            “Hmm,” Daria said, and glanced over at Quinn briefly. “I almost believe you, Jane. Don’t worry about it, though. If you want to keep some secrets I understand, and dance related secrets are certainly the kind I don’t expect you to share willingly.”

            “Thanks?”

            “Welcome. Now go grab your goth buddy and bring her over here, I want to meet her.”

            “Worst she can do is say no,” Jane sighed, and left to get Andrea.

            “You’re joking right?” Quinn asked as soon as Jane was out of earshot.

            “Nah, my sense of humor is lousy.”

            Quinn flipped her hair around to cover her face and crossed her arms. She then slumped down in her seat and stared at her sister from beneath her bangs. Daria sipped her coffee and watched Jane and the goth girl talk. After a couple of minutes the other girl shrugged and stood, following Jane back to their table.

            “I’m Andrea,” she said, dropping into an empty chair.

            “Daria, and the pouty lump is my sister Quinn. She’s off limits, by the way.”

            “Everybody knows Little Red is off limits,” Andrea replied with a smirk. “Sandi Griffin had to wear turtleneck sweaters for a week after you explained things to her.”

            “Nobody bothers me,” Quinn said quietly. “Nobody ever does, not anymore.”

            “Andrea writes angry poetry,” Jane said. “She’s also a decent illustrator and does a comic strip for the school paper.”

            “Really?” Daria asked.

            “Yeah, but I have to keep it all weak and tame or the powers that be get their collective knickers knotted. I still have my fun, though.”

            “Tell her,” Jane prodded.

            “Near the end of last year, the football team made it to the state play-offs and we were going up against some Catholic private school. So I wrote a strip depicting the Lions versus the Christians.”

            “It was a little bit graphic,” Jane added with a snicker.

            “Landon read it, and I swear that girl turned white for a second,” Andrea said. “Then, she turned green and had to leave the room for a little while.”

            “Nice,” Daria said. “How did Li take it?”

            “That’s the funny part of the story,” Andrea answered. “Li overruled Landon and had my strip printed. Me and Jodie aren’t on really good terms anymore.”

            “I imagine not,” Daria said with a smirk. “Jane said you and she used to hang out. You want to hang with us, now?”

            “Got nothing better to do but drink, and hanging out with you guys might kill less brain cells.”

            “We’ll see how it goes, there might be more stuff going on in the near future. We’ll all need to discuss it.”

            “Sure.”

            “Daria,” Jane said, and motioned towards the stage. Mr. O’Neill was beaming down at the people sitting in the coffee shop. He tapped the microphone a couple of times and coughed.

            “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve got a real treat for you tonight. The expected final performance of the evening has been replaced by a spoken word monologue by sophomore Daria Morgendorffer. Her essays are always sharp and challenging, so I’m certain she’ll have something interesting to say. Daria?”

            “Something interesting to say,” Daria said under her breath as she stood and walked towards the stage. “I think I can deliver on that promise.”

            Daria stepped up on the low stage and turned towards the audience, squinting slightly in the bright stage lights.

            “Can we dim these lights a little?” she asked. She nodded when the lights faded, and then turned back to the audience again. With the lights lowered she could actually see everyone in the crowd, their faces turned to her with expectant expressions. She felt a tiny stab of anxiety and nervously rubbed the soft fuzz on her scalp.

            “Jane tells me I should let my hair grow out,” she said. A few people in the crowd chuckled quietly. “Most of you know me,” she continued, “or at least know of me. My name is Daria Morgendorffer, and I got dragged up here with no forewarning so I don’t have any prepared material.”

            “Really, I’m ok with that though. Prepared statements always ring a little false, you know? The only thing I hate worse than a lie is a liar, but the world is full of both of them, isn’t it? No contractual obligation, risk free offer, limited quantity available, the check is in the mail, I’ll call you tomorrow, don’t worry honey I’ll pull out in time.”

            The crowd laughed again, this time a little louder and a little more wide spread. Daria glanced at her table, and saw Jane and Andrea watching her with matching smirks. Quinn was wearing the expression of resigned dread she always had when she knew Daria was about to make a scene.

            “People lie to us everyday. Your parents lie to you; they tell you that you are precious and special but we all know you aren’t. But, you keep trying to convince yourself that they aren’t lying and you are this wonderful person. Since you’re all such wonderful people it must be ok to kick and denigrate the people that aren’t so good, right? Of course it’s ok, it’s not like they’re special like you are.”

            Daria paused and glanced around. Most of the people in the crowd were confused now, a few were angry, and a couple of people looked alarmed.

            “The teachers lie to us, they tell us that what we learn is school is deeply important and will form a foundation of knowledge to build our whole lives on. Do you know how many people with college degrees wait tables and run cash registers for a living? In ten years, do you really think you’re going to have a job where you need to be able to solve for x, or know how many people died at the Battle of Antietam, or be able to recognize a dangling participle on sight?”

            “Um, Daria . . .” Mr. O’Neill said from just offstage. He took one step onto the stage and immediately withered under her glare. He wrung his hands together and shuffled backwards.

            “The faculty lies to us all the time, too. The self-esteem class is a holding pen for people that Manson thinks should be kept in line. They don’t have low self-esteem, they just don’t smile and dance like pretty puppets. Then there’s the security around the school: metal detectors, drug sniffing dogs, surveillance cameras, random locker searches, bullet proof skylights. I repeat: bullet proof skylights. We can’t get decent textbooks or fix that leak in the girls’ bathroom, but by God nobody is going to snipe us from a helicopter while we’re swimming in the pool. Oh, and in case any of you were wondering: the metal detectors don’t actually work. I have reason to know.”

            The crowd shifted and muttered nervously. They were trying to decide whether or not she was joking, and how they should feel about either determination. Jane toasted her with a coffee cup.

            “The best part is how much you all lie to each other. You see, I’m a fairly unpopular person around here and I occasionally chat with some of the other unpopular people. It’s like we’re invisible or something, and it’s amazing what kinds of things all the beautiful, special people do right in front of us and you don’t even think about it. I don’t just mean students, either. I got called down to office last week and Ms. Li had me sit in front of her desk while she was on the phone to a company that makes electroshock therapy equipment.”

            “No fucking way,” Andrea said, loud enough for everyone to hear her.

            “I don’t lie,” Daria said. “And that’s what this is about, really. I hate lies, and I hate liars, and that means I hate almost everyone in this room. I have this dream sometimes, where I’m at school and I have this really big, sharp . . . you know, I think I’ll keep that to myself. I don’t like discussing my fantasies with strangers.”

            A nervous laugh rippled through the room.

            “Yeah, you’re laughing but you’re also scared. And that, ladies and gentlemen is why lies are weak and to be scorned while the truth is strong and will always be known in the end. Lies are weak, lies are afraid, lies have to hide and can only operate in packs. The truth can stand alone; one truth can knock down any number of lies. Once you know the truth, it roots in your head and you can’t get rid of it. Oh, you can work around it or cover it up with more lies, but it’s always going to be there and it’ll pop out at you when you least expect it. Someday, no matter how many lies it gets buried under, the truth will be known.”

            Daria almost screamed the last few words, throwing them at the audience like knives. The room was silent now, everyone quietly hoping the crazy girl on stage was finished. A quick glance told her that even Jane and Andrea looked worried. Quinn still wore the same resigned expression she’d had through the whole diatribe.

            “How many of you told a lie today?” Daria asked. She began to stalk back and forth on the stage, her eyes roving across the crowd. “How many of you told a bunch of lies? How many of you lie first thing in the morning and last thing at night? It’s like a little prayer to your ego.” She stopped and smirked.

            “I know,” she whispered, her voice sliding through the room like a caress. “You’re not as careful as you think, and you’re certainly not as clever. Well guess what, children? The truth is here, and she’s pissed.”

            The silence got thick as Daria let the seconds trail past. She heard O’Neill sobbing behind the coffee bar. Everyone else in the room stared at her.

            “Jodie,” Daria said, pinning the girl with her gaze. “You are not the only black girl at this school, and it’s ok if you act like a human being. No one will think less of you for it, and in fact you might make more friends that way. Also, I tried really hard to seduce your boyfriend.”

            “What!?” Jodie shouted, half rising from her seat.

            “It’s ok, I failed. I was really impressed with his loyalty to you, by the way. Until I found out that the reason he wouldn’t cheat with me is that he already had a piece on the side. Well, that and I’m not really much to look at. In completely unrelated news, Sandi Griffin is not the virginal prima donna that she’s led you all to believe.”

            “I don’t have to listen to these insults,” Sandi snapped. “Stacy, Tiffany, we are leaving.”

            “I didn’t have to listen to the two of you in the gym’s storage room while I was using the weight benches, either. I listened out of morbid curiosity and that’s why you’re going to put your narrow asses back in those chairs and listen to me now. You can’t leave, because you have to know what I’m going to say next.”

            The Fashion Club members shuffled their feet a little, and then slowly sat back down.

            “So, anyway. Based on what I was hearing through that door there’s not anything that Sandi won’t do, so I don’t feel too bad about not rooking Mack out from under you, Jodie. Stacy Rowe is jealous as hell, though. She stood just inside the door to the weight room and listened just as hard as I did, but she was crying while I was laughing. Mack must be a really popular guy.”

            Daria paused, and walked over to the coffee bar. She leaned over it, smirked at the sight of O’Neill curled up in a fetal ball, and snagged herself a bottled water. She took a couple of swigs and jumped back onto the stage.

            “He’s not though, sorry to hurt your feelings Mack Daddy. After watching Little Miss Wandering Eyes in the showers after gym class I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that it’s not you she’s crying over. So, I’d like to welcome Stacy Rowe to the big, bright world outside the closet and give her a personal warning to stay the hell away from my sister. Yes, I’ve caught you looking.”

            Sandi stared at Stacy in shock, while Stacy stammered desperately trying to say something, anything that would keep her in her idol’s good graces. After a few seconds, Stacy just slumped over in her chair with a dejected expression.

            “Speaking of Mack Daddy and nicknames we all hate, how are you doing tonight, Kevin?”

            “I’m great,” he answered. “I’m the QB.”

            “How’s Angie?”

            “Pretty good last time I talked to her, if you know what I mean.”

            “What, exactly, do you mean?” Brittany said, turning to glare at her boyfriend.

            “I mean she was happy the Lions won a game, Babe.”

            Brittany stared at him through narrowed eyes and Daria could almost see the gears grinding.

            “He means that Angie was happy the same way you were happy last time you saw Sam Stack,” Daria said.

            Brittany’s eyes opened widely as her jaw dropped. “You mean my Kevvie and Angie are having sex!?”

            “That is the conclusion I have shepherded you to, yes.”

            “Wait,” Kevin said, looking confused. “You and Stack are happy the same way me and Angie were happy? Then you’re cheating on me, too!”

            “Which makes you both selfish, worthless mates. Congratulations, you’re perfect for each other.”

            “Really?” Brittany asked. “Oh, Kevvie! I love you!”

            “I love you, Babe!”

            Daria sighed as the two idiots began noisily making out at their table. “Poor Angie,” Daria said. “I guess she lost her chance at catching the QB and becoming captain of the squad. Probably better for her in the long run, because let me tell you: those cheerleaders are brutal. You guys remember Dawn falling in the shower and breaking her arm last week? Yeah, she didn’t fall down. Nikki paid some violent nobody at school two hundred dollars to make sure Dawn was hurt too bad to stay on the squad this semester.”

            Daria took another swig of water and surveyed the room. Kevin and Brittany fell out of their chairs with a thump and began groping one another on the floor. A tall, skinny guy pulled the cloth off their table and draped it over them with a slightly nauseated expression. Jodie was standing in the back of the room glaring at Daria hatefully, and Sandi had moved to Jodie’s forsaken seat next to Mack. Stacy sat alone and sobbed quietly, as Tiffany had changed tables to stay with Sandi.

            “Two-hundred dollars is a whole lot of money. It’s great to be able to make that kind of money with just half an hour of physical exertion. Not too many jobs you can get with that kind of pay scale, right Jane?”

            “Please don’t,” Jane whispered.

            “I don’t have to, Jane. Everybody knows, but nobody talks about it. Well, nobody talks about it except a whole bunch of pissed off girlfriends that only half believe the rumors flying around. Don’t worry though, I made you a promise and I’ll keep it: anybody comes for you, I’ve got your back, amiga.”

            Jane closed her eyes and bit her lower lip, and Daria couldn’t tell whether she was hurt, angry, or relieved. Hesitantly, Quinn reached out and took Jane’s hand.

            “What about me?” Andrea asked, glaring daggers at Daria.

            “What about you? Nobody cares.” Daria shrugged. “People like me and you don’t get gossiped about, because we’re not important enough to talk about. They use us, though. Me for violence, and you for adventures in chemistry, and Jane for . . . well, I said I didn’t need to talk about that.”

            Daria finished off her water and tossed the empty bottle behind the counter, eliciting a squeak of alarm from Mr. O’Neill.

            “I haven’t even talked about the teachers. DeMartino’s gambling, Bennett’s cheating on her husband with one of the students, O’Neill’s abuse of psych meds, and Ms. Li’s embezzlement. We could be here all night, people. We could make this a Herculean feat, comparable to cleaning the Augean stables. For those of you not up on Greek myth, I’m saying that there is a phenomenal amount of shit to be shoveled around here.”

            Daria stepped off the stage and walked over to the table she’d been sitting at a little while ago. She nodded to the other girls to join her, and the four of them began walking to the door. She let the others go in front, and she paused just before leaving.

            “But you’re all going to have to do that for yourselves. I’ve shown you where to find the shovels, it’s up to you whether you want to clean this place up or live in filth.”

            The bell over the door jingled cheerfully as she left.

 

***

 

            “What do you expect me to do with you, Miss Morgendorffer?”

            “Could you clarify the question?” Daria asked, staring at Principal Li across the desktop.

            “Clarify?”

            “Yes, are you asking me what I would do if I were a school principal dealing with a student like me? Are you asking me to predict what I believe you’re going to do? Are you actually asking my advice on the situation? Help me out here.”

            “The question was rhetorical, Miss Morgendorffer.”

            “Ah, ok. Sorry for the interruption, please continue your monologue.”

            Ms. Li sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Two weeks ago you stood up in front of a group of your peers and practically admitted to carrying weapons on school property and attacking a fellow student, putting her in the hospital. Dawn was an asset that brought honor and glory to Lawndale High.”

            “I didn’t admit anything, and you can’t prove either of those allegations. If you could, I’d be sitting in jail instead of your office.”

            “You have disrupted the orderly learning environment of this school.”

            “I’m sorry all the beautiful people are mad at each other now. Maybe if they acted like human beings this sort of thing wouldn’t have happened.”

            “Miss Morgendorffer,” Li said, and then paused a moment to regard the young woman sitting across from her. “Daria, I made a phone call to Principal McVicker this morning, and we had a long and enlightening conversation.”

            “Oh, really?”

            “Yes, and he was able to tell me about a lot of things that have been expunged from your permanent record.”

            “That’s interesting.”

            “Yes, and before you run home and talk to your lawyer mother I’d like to repeat something you just said, and note that it applies to me as well. I’ve admitted nothing, and you could not prove such an allegation.”

            “Talking to Mom was the last thing on my mind,” Daria said, anger glinting in her eyes.

            “Assaulting a faculty member would result in your expulsion, Miss Morgendorffer. If you were gone, who would look after your sister?”

            Daria glared at Ms. Li and said nothing.

            “I see that we understand one another.” Ms. Li leaned forward, putting her elbows on her desk and steepling her fingers. “You are a brutal, violent little thug. Luckily, there are ways that even you can contribute to the honor and glory of Lawndale High.”

            “What do you mean by that?”

            “Just that I want you to stop causing trouble and be a better student. If I happen to think of anything else, I’ll be sure to discuss it with you.”

            “Yeah, right. Can I go to class now?”

            “No, I’m afraid not.”

            “What now?”

            “You may recall that your class is going on a field trip to the Mall of the Millenium today, as an economics project. Certain malcontents have been restricted from this field trip on the grounds that they are disruptive influences.”

            “I guess I’m one of the malcontents?”

            “Excellent deductive reasoning, Miss Morgendorffer. You’ll be spending the day in study hall with Mr. DeMartino, so off you go.”

            Daria rolled her eyes and left the principal’s office. She walked slowly, trying to stretch out the journey to the history class room as much as possible. She pushed the door open and glanced around the room to see if anyone she knew was stuck here too. She vaguely recognized the guy with spikey hair and a nose-ear chain, and she shared a few classes with the girl in the red cap that was sitting next to the door, but no one else looked familiar. She walked to the back of the room and dropped into a desk. She pulled a novel out of her back pack and settled down to spend the day reading.

            “Hey,” Andrea said, sitting in the desk next to her. “How’s your mouth?”

            “Mostly healed,” Daria said without looking over. “Also, still ready to say what I think, and to hell with anybody that doesn’t like it.”

            “You deserved that punch.”

            “Yup, that’s why I didn’t hit her back.”

            “I can respect the whole speaking the terrible truth thing, that’s the way I am.”

            “Then why are you hating on me?”

            “I’m not.”

            “Really?” Daria looked over at the goth and quirked an eyebrow. “Then how come Jane hasn’t spoken to me since the coffee house?”

            “That’s between you and Jane. I just want to know one thing.”

            “What?”

            “You said you didn’t care what Jane did, that you were her friend and had her back no matter what. Did you mean that?”

            “I don’t lie.”

            “Come with me to her house after school today.”

            “Why do you care?”

            “Jane and I were sort of friends at one point. Not really close, but we talked and I miss that. Being alone all the time sucks.”

            “So, you need me and Jane to make up so you can join us and be one of the happy tree friends?”

            Andrea shrugged. “Come to her house today or don’t, it’s up to you.”

            “I know it’s up to me,” Daria said. “What are you getting out of this?”

            “We’ll talk on the way to Jane’s, or not.”

            Andrea turned away and pulled out a sketch pad, ending the conversation. Daria frowned to herself and went back to her novel.

 

            That afternoon, Andrea and Daria headed to Jane’s house with Quinn trailing along a couple of steps behind them.

            “So,” Daria said. “What’s your take home on this Andrea? And why couldn’t Jane just talk to me when she got back from the field trip?”

            “Jane didn’t go on the field trip, she wasn’t at school today.”

            “She hasn’t been at school all week,” Quinn said quietly.

            “Sick?” Daria asked.

            “She hasn’t felt up to leaving her house,” Andrea said. “I went by there yesterday and talked to her. She doesn’t know that I’m bringing you over, so she’s probably going to be mad.”

            “Are you trying to start another fight?”

            “No, she wouldn’t be up to it right now anyway.”

            “I don’t know, I think she likes fighting almost as much as I do,” Daria said with a smirk.

            “She doesn’t like it, but she won’t back down.”

            “So, you still haven’t told me how you profit.”

            “Jane told me that you were obsessed with what angle people were working, and that you were paranoid about being taken advantage of, but I didn’t believe her. You are crazy.”

            “I don’t mind being used as long as I’m getting something out of it, too.”

            “You never do anything out of the goodness of your heart?”

            “Nope.”

            Andrea glanced over her shoulder at Quinn but didn’t say anything. The three girls walked on in silence until they reached Jane’s house. Andrea opened the door and lead them inside, and upstairs to Jane’s room.

            “Jane?” she said, knocking lightly on the door.

            “Yeah?”

            “Are you dressed?”

            “Yeah.”

            Andrea pushed the door open and walked in, Daria and Quinn following along behind her.

            “Hey,” Jane said, before she saw the sisters. Her face paled, throwing the bruises into sharp relief. Quinn gasped at the damage: Jane’s eyes were blacked, her right cheek was an ugly shade of greenish yellow, and her lip had obviously been busted. Her arms were also badly bruised.

            “What the hell?” Daria asked.

            Jane shrugged and looked at the floor. Daria strode across the room and dropped to her knees in front of Jane, putting herself in the artist’s field of vision. Jane started to turn away and Daria grabbed one of her hands.

            “What the hell?” Daria repeated.

            “One of my clients got out of hand.”

            “You’ve been beat to shit, Jane. That’s a little more than out of hand.”

            “Nothing is broken, I’ll be ok.”

            “You’re far from ok,” Daria said. “Who did this?”

            Jane dry swallowed and closed her eyes.

            “Who. Did. This?”

            “You know Helena on the track team?”

            “Vaguely.”

            “She came up to me last week and said she’d heard the rumors, and that her parents were divorced, and she wanted to set me up with her father.” Jane laughed bitterly. “I should have known better, since her boyfriend Evan was one of the guys I’ve been sleeping around with.”

            “It was a set up?”

            “Either that or Helena has no idea what her mother was actually running from when she left,” Jane said with a small shrug. “I went by there Saturday and talked to him. He wanted some rough stuff, so I quoted him a pretty high price . . . that usually backs them down but he agreed without even thinking about it. So then we had sex, and afterwards he beat the crap out of me and threw me out of the house.”

            Daria stood and began walking towards the door.

            “We can’t call the police,” Jane said. “What would I tell them?”

            “The police never did me any good anyway,” Daria answered, her voice cold and flat. “Quinn, stay with Jane. I’ll call here later.”

            The three girls were quiet for a moment after she’d gone, until Jane started sobbing. Quinn immediately sat next to her and hugged the taller girl while Andrea looked on awkwardly.

            “She’s going to take care of me,” Jane sobbed into Quinn’s shoulder.

            “She must like you, she’s never put forth any effort for anybody else before. She didn’t even do anything to help her two flunkies back in Highland, and they waited on her hand and foot.”

            “I have a feeling that a whole lot of things just changed,” Andrea muttered to herself.

 

            “Good run today, Helena.”

            “Thanks.” Helena finished drying her hair and tossed the damp towel at her gym bag while her friend was using the mirror to finish applying make-up. The rest of the girls on the track team had already showered and gone home, but Helena and Maria had stayed late to help Coach Morris put away the equipment.

            “You going to the movies with us tonight?”

            “No,” Helena said with a sigh. “I’ve got a mountain of homework to do, and I’ve been putting it off too long. Test byes now aren’t going to keep me in college later, you know.”

            “How’d Evan take it?”

            “He had little temper tantrum about it, and I told him to take his cheating ass on home.”

            “Cheating?” Maria turned and gave her friend a shocked look.

            “Yeah, he’s been fucking that Lane girl and spending all his spare money on her instead of me. Probably why I didn’t get anything on our anniversary, the cheap bastard.”

            “Men are pigs.”

            “Yeah, but if she hadn’t offered him what he wanted it wouldn’t have been a problem. I straightened her ass out, though. I don’t think she’ll be a problem anymore.”

            “What did you do?”

            “I tossed her some new business, that’s all. Maybe she’ll leave my boyfriend alone.”

            “So you’re not going to dump him?”

            “No, I’m going to make him grovel and beg.”

            “Oh.”

            “Then I’m going to dump him.”

            Maria laughed and turned back to the mirror, finishing the last touches on her eye shadow. Helena spent the time digging her old clothes out of her locker and packing them in her gym back to take home and wash.

            “I’m done with the mirror, you want me to hang out?”

            “Nah, you head on. I’ll see you tomorrow, ok?”

            “Sure.”

            Helena finished packing her bag and zipped it up. She stood and closed her locker door without hearing the combat boots moving quietly across the tiled floor. She had no indication that she wasn’t alone until she felt a hand grab her hair and the locker in front of her rushed forward to impact with her face.

            A while later, she realized her forehead was aching. Her vision slowly cleared and she blinked, glancing around the weight room. She tried to move and failed, and looked around in a panic. She was sitting on one of the weight machines, her wrists and ankles duct taped to the lift bars.

            “There’s about five hundred pounds of weight loaded on the machine,” a girl said from somewhere behind her. “You’re in good shape, but you’re not that good.”

            “What the hell is going on?” Helena demanded, struggling against the tape.

            “You and I are having a dialogue, in order to achieve a greater understanding. You may ask questions, which I may or may not answer. I will ask questions, which you will answer to my satisfaction.”

            “You’re that buzz-cut psycho, aren’t you? When I get loose from here I’m calling the cops on you, bitch.”

            Daria walked around in front of the girl and smiled down at her. The smile looked friendly enough, but the eyes stayed hard and cold. The little brunette turned and sat on Helena’s shins, twisting slightly so they were eye to eye. She reached down and pulled a knife out of one boot and lightly tapped Helena on the forehead with the handle.

            “That would be a foolish course of action, Helena. Sure, you can get me arrested but my mother is a lawyer and I’d be out before you finished filling out the paperwork. Then I would go to your house and kill you.”

            “What?”

            “If you tell anyone about this conversation, I will find you and murder you. Do you understand me?”

            Helena stared at the other girl in shock. The longer she stared at Daria’s impassive expression the more she believed. Finally, she gave a shaky nod.

            “Good. Now, I already heard you bragging to your friend about setting Jane up with your father. What I want to know, and don’t lie to me, is do you know what your father likes to do to women?”

            Helena’s head twitched slightly, first to the right and then the left. Daria tossed the knife from her right hand to her left and issued the bound girl a vicious backhand.

            “Verbal response, if you please.”

            “He’s my dad,” Helena sobbed. “I don’t want to know how he gets off.”

            “But you do know, don’t you? You know why your mother left. Why he can’t keep a girlfriend. Maybe you know personally?”

            “No. No, no, no, no, no. He wouldn’t do that, I’m his princess. I’m his princess.” The teen girl began crying loudly, and Daria watched impassively. “He hits his girlfriends sometimes, but only when they pick a fight with him. They always start it.”

            “I’m sure they do,” Daria said. She stood and put her knife away, and then turned towards the door.

            “You can’t just leave me here.”

            “No, I suppose not.” Daria turned back and pulled her knife out again. Helena’s eyes got huge as she watched the shorter girl approach.

            “What . . . what are you . . . oh, God.”

            Helena began to struggle wildly, obviously expecting to get a cut throat for her trouble. Daria sighed quietly and punched the girl in the jaw. She smirked to herself when Helena went limp, and then began using the knife to cut the duct tape holding her in place.

            “So, are you really going to kill her if she calls the police?”

            Daria looked around as Stacy Rowe stepped into the weight room. The former Fashion Clubbie was not looking her best; her hair was done in one braid down her back instead of her old two braid style, her expensive looking outfits had been replaced by jeans, a t-shirt, and a simple denim jacket, and she wasn’t wearing make-up.

            “No,” Daria said, putting the knife away again. “I guess I won’t kill you either, if you want to turn me in. I just hope you believe me when I tell you that she deserved this beating and more.”

            “Like I deserved to be outted in front of all my friends?” Stacy asked, walking across the room to Daria. “The way you made me out to be some kind of stalker chasing after my best friend’s panties? Did I deserve that?”

            “I was on a roll.”

            “You were on a roll.”

            The two girls stared at each other as the seconds dragged on, until Stacy lashed out with an open hand slap. Daria caught her wrist and Stacy gasped in pain. Her eyes narrowing, Daria shifted her grip and used her other hand to force Stacy’s jacket sleeve down revealing a long white bandage. She quirked an eyebrow.

            “Go to hell,” Stacy said, glaring at Daria.

            Daria took a half step away from the other girl, and pushed her own jacket sleeve back. Stacy looked down and saw the white scars marbling the flesh of Daria’s inner arm.

            “Already been there. I understand why Mr. Razor wants to take a walk,” Daria said flatly. “You shouldn’t hate yourself, you should hate me.”

            “I can’t,” Stacy said, looking away. “You made it out to sound so dirty, and it makes me so angry every time I think about it. But, you were right . . . I was lying. I lied to myself, and Sandi, and my parents, and the guys I dated. I needed to hear what you said, but it might have been better if you hadn’t done it in the middle of a damn coffee shop.”

            “Would you have changed, if I’d whispered in your ear?”

            “No.” Stacy sighed. “I still don’t think you did me any favors.”

            “Maybe I didn’t, but I think I’m turning over a new leaf. Did you listen to the whole conversation, or just me threatening to kill track girl over there?”

            “She set up your friend Jane to get her ass kicked, didn’t she?”

            “Pretty much, yeah.”

            “So, are you and Jane?”

            “I’m not, and I repeat my warning to keep your hands off Quinn. As for Jane, I don’t know. She gives off a weird vibe every now and then, but I’m pretty sure she’s not like you.”

            Stacy nodded.

            “Look, I have to go do something horrible to this girl’s father. I’m a little pressed for time right now.”

            “Right. I guess I’ll see you around school.”

            “I ruined your life, didn’t I?”

            “Pretty much, yeah.”

            “Was it a good life?”

            “I thought so.”

            The two girls stared at each other silently for another few seconds, and Daria asked, “Can you keep your mouth shut and look threatening? I could use a look out while I’m working.”

            Stacy paused and considered the question. “You want me to hang out with you while you do crime?”

            “You can hang out after, too. You’d have to be able to get along with Jane. Oh, and I guess Quinn and Andrea, too.”

            “You turned me into a social outcast. All my friends hate me now.”

            “Guess they weren’t very good friends. At least you know we’re honest.”

            Stacy slowly nodded, and when Daria left she fell in beside her.

            “You know where to find this guy?”

            Daria reached into her jacket pocket, pulled out a small card and handed it to Stacy.

            “A driver’s license?” she asked as she looked it over. “Helena Carter, three hundred Glen Oaks Drive. That’s just a couple of blocks from here.”

            “Lucky us.”

 

            “Yeah, we’re having a sleep over,” Andrea said into the phone, glancing up as Jane came back into the room. “Daria’s busy in the kitchen with Jane, she asked me to call you and tell you.”

            Jane glanced over at Quinn sitting on the bed, having knotted herself up in the far corner. The artist tossed her wet towel onto the pile of dirty clothes near the closet and pulled a light blue button down on over her black t-shirt.

            “I’ll be sure to tell them, Mr. Morgendorffer. Yeah, you have a good night.” Andrea hung up the phone and rolled her eyes. “I’m surprised he believed me, I have no practice at lying to parents.”

            “Yours are ok with whatever you want to do?” Quinn asked.

            “Her parents don’t ask questions,” Jane said, sitting on the edge of the bed.

            “Oh, that must be nice.”

            “Dad is usually passed out drunk and Mom is dead.”

            “Oh,” Quinn said again. “Maybe not so nice, then.”

            “So,” Andrea said, looking at Quinn. “What’s your sister’s deal, anyway? You guys have a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and your dad sounds like he walked out of a fifties daytime television show. Jane tells me your mom is a little psycho, but that doesn’t explain why you and Daria have ‘damaged goods’ stamped on you in big red letters.”

            “I’m not allowed talk about it,” Quinn muttered. She glared at Andrea briefly from behind her bangs and then glanced over at Jane.

            “Don’t push it,” Jane said, shaking her head at Andrea.

            “Whatever, sorry I asked,” Andrea said. “Can you make a guess about what she’s up to now?”

            “I saw the track people running laps when we left school, Daria probably went back to see if that girl is still around. If she is, Daria might beat her up and then come back.”

            “Well, at least that’s something,” Jane said with a small smile.

            “I don’t think she’ll stop there, though.”

            “What do you mean?” Andrea asked.

            “I think she started caring about Jane, more than she lets on and maybe more than she thinks she does. Daria hasn’t ever had a friend before, and I haven’t seen her get mad like this since the time one of her flunkies tried to kiss me.”

            “You think she might hurt Helena?”

            “No,” Quinn said. “Not Helena, her father.”

            “What do we do?” Jane asked.

            “The guy beat the crap out of you, I say we let him suffer,” Andrea said.

            “What if he calls the cops on her?”

            “He won’t,” Quinn said quietly. “She won’t give him time to, she’s smarter than that. And after she’s done, he’ll be too scared.”

            “He’s a big guy,” Jane said. “I don’t think Daria is going to scare him.”

            “She will,” Quinn whispered. “You don’t know how scary she can be.”

 

            Larry Carter tossed a frozen dinner in the microwave and glanced up at the kitchen clock. He frowned and double checked the time on his wrist watch, his frown deepening. Helena should have been home from school by now, track team or no track team.

            “If she’s off somewhere with that Evan boy,” he muttered to himself, and then suddenly grinned. If his daughter was spending time with her boyfriend, he’d do nothing at all since that was the deal they’d made. She arranged for him to scratch his itch, the least he could do was look the other way while she got somebody to scratch hers.

            He’d have to have a talk with Daddy’s Princess when she got home, though. The deal hadn’t included the girl she set him up with being a money grubbing little whore, and that part was the one thing he wasn’t happy about at all. Larry Carter doesn’t pay for sex, by God. Of course the little teen slut had loved every minute of it, every woman loved Big Larry. She was a little upset when he didn’t pay her, but she stopped arguing after the first backhand. The rest of the beating had been a formality.

            Larry hunted around in the ‘fridge and pulled out a bottle of water to go with dinner. He still had the slut’s number, and he wondered if she’d come over if he called. She seemed pretty stupid, he bet if he apologized and promised to pay her double she’d come back. Hell, as much as she liked it she may come back for free if he called her up. Women were sluts like that, and he knew that a good man could be hard to find.

            He walked over to the corkboard and pulled the slip of paper with the girl’s number on it down. He headed over to the telephone and stopped when he heard the doorbell ring. Dropping the paper on the kitchen counter, he walked over and looked through the peep hole in the door. He saw a pretty brunette girl standing on his door step, glancing around nervously.

            “Can I help you?” he asked after opening the door.

            “Actually, I came to help you,” the girl said with a nervous smile. “I go to school with your daughter.”

            “Oh,” Larry said, stepping aside so the girl could come in. He gave a quick appraisal as she passed by, noting the tight jeans and long braid down her back. He pushed the door closed and followed her, not noticing that something had prevented the door from closing all the way.

            “So,” the girl said, stopping in the living room. “How do we do this?”

            “What’s your name?”

            “Sta . . uh . . Anna.”

            “Well,” Larry said, smiling at the obviously skittish girl. “Anna, why don’t you take off your jacket and get comfortable?”

            “Ok.” She slowly pulled her jacket off, flexing her arms over her head so her t-shirt rode up and exposed her pale stomach. Larry licked his lips and stared at the girl. “Is it ok if I brought a friend?” she asked, giving him a small smile.

            “What?” he said, blinking at the brunette in front of him. He heard an odd buzzing sound, and then knew nothing but confusion and pain until the darkness claimed him.

            He slowly started to wake up some time later. His head was pounding and the small of his back was aching fiercely, like he’d been burned. Larry tried to move and discovered his limbs were strapped in place. He opened his eyes and recognized his own bedroom; he was cuffed to the bed frame.

            “What kind of kinky shit is this?” he asked angrily.

            “Let me guess,” a flat, female voice said from outside his field of vision. “The cuffs are there for the girls, right?”

            “Damn right,” he answered. “You let me up from here and I might go easy on you.”

            “Did you hear that, Anna? He’ll go easy on us.”

            “He’s awfully generous,” a second girl said. Larry recognized the voice as the girl he’d met at the door. He frowned to himself when he recognized another sound in the room, the clatter of his keyboard.

            “Are you on my computer?”

            “Yes,” the deadpan girl replied. “And I’m just shocked at the sort of things I’m finding on here. You’re a pillar of the community, Mr. Carter. Who would have thought you’d be such an active member of the child pornography community? Of course, I suppose adult women have too much capacity to fight back.”

            “Listen you little sluts, you let me up from here,” he glared and looked around the room as much as he could from his position, and blinked in surprise at what he didn’t see. “Where the hell are my damn pants?”

            “We pulled them off you before we brought you in here,” the girl at his computer said. “When I tasered you, you pissed yourself and we didn’t want to deal with the smell.”

            “I’m finished going through the photo albums,” the girl with the braid said, her voice coming from near his closet. “There’s nobody we know in there.”

            “Ok, put them down next to the magazines. Did you put all the other stuff in that shoebox like I told you to?”

            “Mostly,” the girl said nervously. “I wanted to keep the Mary Jane.”

            The girl near the computer sighed. “People haven’t called it that since the seventies. You know that, right?”

            “Um, of course I knew that.”    

            “It’s just pot now, and you can’t have it because we don’t know if he put anything on it.”

            “Ok.”

            “What the hell are you bitches doing, stealing all my shit? I’m going to kill you.”

            The bed shifted with a sudden jerk, and he blinked up at the girl leaning across him. She wouldn’t be bad looking if it wasn’t for the butch haircut, the coke bottle bottom glasses, and the crooked nose. She waved a very shiny knife in his face and he blanched.

            “Dar . . uh . . Melody?”

            The girl lightly tapped him on the side of the face with the knife blade. “Anything you say can and will piss me off, and therefore you have the right to keep your fucking mouth shut. Do you understand the right that I have given you?”

            He nodded very carefully.

            “Melody!?”

            “Now, I came in here with the idea to beat you black and blue and leave it at that. Then we started poking around in your house and found out about all these bad habits you have. Things like coke, and pot, and some of these pills I’ve never seen before, and your truly stunning collection of teen girl porn. I’m letting you off easy because I haven’t found anything with actual kids in it so far.”

            “Melody.”

            “As much as I hate cops, I think they’re the ones best able to handle this. Besides, I can beat you up once now or warm myself with thoughts of you spending fifteen to twenty as somebody’s bitch, right?”

            “Melody.”

            “What?” the girl asked, glaring at her friend. The brunette with the long braid stepped into his field of vision, and he saw her holding up a wad of clothing. He didn’t recognize any of it at first, but the look on the psycho girl’s face reminded him of where the black shorts, black t-shirt, and bright red button down had come from. She slowly turned back to him and he watched her knife hand slip out of sight, pressing the cold steel against a very tender area.

            “You made her walk home naked?” the girl asked calmly.

            “Please, I’m sorry,” Larry said, tears streaking down his face.

            “Listen to me very carefully,” the girl said. “You never met her, you have no idea who she is. You never met me, or my friend here. You have no idea who we are.”

            Larry nodded.

            “When the police come you will cheerfully confess to the drugs, the pornography, and any other sick little things you’ve been doing that don’t involve the three people I just told you to forget.”

            Larry nodded again.

            “If you fail me in any way, I will find you. I will pan fry your testicles and make you eat them. Do you understand me?”

            Larry continued to nod.

            “Good. Let’s go.”

            Stacy followed Daria out of the man’s bedroom and back into the kitchen.

            “So, would you really do it?”

            “If you weren’t here, I’d probably be doing it now,” Daria said, gritting her teeth.

            “I’ll hang onto Jane’s clothes.”

            “You do that,” Daria said. She walked to the phone in the kitchen, saw the piece of paper with Jane’s number on it, and slipped it into her pocket. She picked up the phone and dialed.

            “Hello?” she said a moment later. “Hi, yeah. I’m robbing this guy’s house and I found a huge stash of drugs and underage porn. Yes, I said I’m robbing him. Because even house breakers have a sense of decency and community. No, I won’t wait to make a statement, but I’ll leave the phone off the hook so you can trace the call.”

            Daria put the phone on the counter and walked out, Stacy still following behind. They had walked a couple of blocks before they heard sirens in the distance.

            “Aren’t you worred about the police looking for us?”

            “No, once they see the gift wrapped sack of shit we just handed them they won’t look too hard for us.”

            “Oh,” Stacy said. They walked in silence for another few moments, and then she said, “That guy was a real jerk.”

            “Yep.”

            “And he totally deserves to get arrested, and even getting beaten up and stuff.”

            “Yep.”

            “But why did you totally flip out? I mean, you went from planning to just leave him for the cops to threatening to . . . you know . . . making him eat his own . . . you know.”

            Daria stopped and looked down at the double handful of clothes Stacy was still carrying. “Those are her favorite sneakers, did you know that?”

            “Um, no.”

            “She wears them when she jogs.”

            “Oh.”

            “He used her, he beat her, and he made her walk home naked and humiliated. Do you know what that’s like?”

            “No.”

            “Good,” Daria said quietly, and resumed walking. Stacy followed along behind, still looking slightly confused but unwilling to press for more information.

 

***

 

            The doorbell rang, and Trent wandered out of the kitchen and opened the front door. The girl standing on the doorstep was cute in a jailbait sort of way, with big brown eyes and long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail.

            “Hey,” Trent said.

            “Um, hi, I’m Stacy, I’m here to see Jane,” the girl said, giving him a slightly nervous smile.

            “She’s upstairs,” Trent said, stepping aside and motioning for the girl to come into the house. “Hey, do you know Daria?”

            “Um, yeah.”

            “When you see her, tell her I’d like for her to come see me play again,” Trent said, and then wandered back into the kitchen. Stacy shrugged and headed upstairs, looking for Jane’s room. She found the correct door and knocked lightly.

            “Enter.”

            “Hi,” Stacy said, pushing the door open and walking in. Jane was in her usual outfit, working at her easel. She glanced over at Stacy and nodded before going back to the painting. The younger girl wandered over and sat on the edge of the bed, looking over at the canvas. Jane was working on a landscape, but apparently it was ten minutes past the apocalypse: the hills were cracked and cratered, the stream in the foreground was boiling, and the trees were on fire. The scene was populated with birds, animals, and fish that were all going about their business as if nothing was wrong with the world.

            “That’s how I feel sometimes,” Stacy said quietly.

            Jane sighed and dropped her paintbrush into a nearby jar of water. “Speaking of how you feel,” Jane said, turning to look at the other girl, “I’ve noticed that you seem a lot less jumpy lately.”

            “I don’t have anything to be afraid of anymore,” Stacy said with a shrug. “Everything I was worried about has already happened.”

            “You survived.”

            “I tried not to. When I confronted Daria last week I was sort of hoping she might kill me, since I pretty much sucked at doing it myself.”

            “You’re not still thinking that way are you?”

            “No, I’m over it now.” Stacy gave Jane a shy smile. “I’m not alone anymore, and I know that even if you guys laugh at me you’re not going to kick me out of the group. Daria has been teaching me a lot of cool stuff, too.”

            “Good.”

            “I’m glad you’re concerned, though.”

            “Well, yeah. You seem like a good person, and I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you.” Jane smirked down at the doe-eyed brunette and then sat on the edge of the bed next to her. “Where’s the rest of the gang?”

            “They’re probably going to be late. Didn’t Daria call you?”

            Jane frowned and grabbed the cordless unit on the bedside table and thumbed the button to turn it on. She listened for a moment and heard nothing, and then experimentally punched a couple of other buttons.

            “She probably did, the battery on this thing is dead.” Jane tossed the phone back onto the table and shrugged. “I’ll put it back on the charger next time I go downstairs. What’s going on?”

            “Daria and Andrea are still working on their science project, and they’ve got Quinn running errands for them. Apparently their mouse got eaten by Andrea’s python and they have to train another one from scratch.”

            “Ouch.”

            “Yeah, but they’ll be ok. Daria is Ms. Barch’s favorite student.”

            “Yeah,” Jane said. The artist spent a moment looking over her canvas, and then said, “I guess you can relate to this a little, can’t you?”

            “Having everybody around you acting normal while you think the world is coming down around your ears? Yeah, I can identify with that idea. Maybe not as much as you and Daria can, though.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Oh, it was just something she said after we left that guy’s house. You know . . . that guy.”

            “The guy that beat me up and cheated me out of my hooker pay? That guy?”

            “Yeah, that guy,” Stacy said, looking away and blushing.

            “You don’t have to be embarrassed, I’m not.”

            “I’m not embarrassed, I’m angry. How dare he put his hands on you? It made me mad when I heard about it, that’s one of the reasons I agreed to go to his house in the first place. He was a filthy, degenerate pervert and you shouldn’t have to deal with people like that.”

            “Looking to be Ms. Barch’s second favorite student?”

            Stacy chuckled nervously and shrugged.

            “Look,” Jane continued. “I can’t thank you or Daria enough for what you did. It was really nice to know that people cared about me as a person, I’m not used to that. The thousand bucks you brought me from his house was a nice touch, too.”

            “That was my idea,” Stacy said, smiling proudly. “I found the money in an envelope in the top of his closet. You got half and Daria and I split the other half.”

            “Nice little payday all around then. So, what was it that Daria said on the way over here?”

            “She asked me a question, that’s all.” Stacy looked up at Jane and blushed again, quickly looking away. “I’m not sure if you really want to hear the conversation.”

            “I’m a survivor.”

            “I found your clothes in the floor of his closet,” Stacy said quietly, pausing when she heard Jane’s breath catch. The artist looked at the floor and wrapped her arms around herself. “I won’t say anymore,” Stacy said, putting one arm around Jane’s shoulders.

            “No, go on.”

            “Daria got really, really scary when I showed them to her. She went all terminator on the guy, no facial expression and no emotion in her voice. She threatened to cut his . . . um . . . balls off and make him eat them.”

            Jane nodded.

            “When we left the house I asked her why she got all freaky, and she asked me if I’d ever been made to go somewhere with no clothes on. I told her no, and she just said ‘good’ and walked off. It was really creepy.”

            Jane continued to stare at the floor with a far away look, and she slowly developed a deep frown.

            “Jane?” Stacy said, shaking her gently.

            “I’m ok,” Jane said, looking up with a wan smile. “I was just thinking about what you said, that’s all. I’m ok, really.”

            Stacy watched dubiously as Jane stood up and walked around the room a couple of times. After a few moments, she seemed to have calmed herself and sat back down next to Stacy.

            “You know,” Stacy said, trying to change the subject, “I draw sometimes when I feel upset. Nothing as good as what you do, but it helps as a stress reliever.”

            “Really? Can I see your stuff?”

            “Anytime,” Stacy said with a small smirk, and grabbed her backpack from the floor. She unzipped the bag and pulled out a couple of sketch pads, passing them to Jane. She watched Jane’s face as the artist began flipping through the pages, pausing occasionally to examine a drawing more closely. Curious, Stacy leaned over to see which ones Jane was pausing at and the two girls finished looking at the sketch pads shoulder to shoulder.

            “So,” Stacy said, turning to Jane. “What do you think?”

            “You’re good,” Jane said, looking over at the smaller girl. “I think you need more practice, but . . . .” Jane’s voice trailed away. The two girls sat side by side, staring intently at one another with their noses a few scant inches apart.

            “Could you help me?” Stacy asked, tilting her head a little and looking up at Jane hopefully.

            “I . . . uh . . .” Jane abruptly stood and took a couple of steps away from the bed and Stacy. “Look, Stacy . . . .”

            “Don’t,” Stacy said. “Whatever you’re going to say, don’t. Please.”

            “Stacy,” Jane said again.

            “No,” Stacy said, standing. “I didn’t ask, you don’t have to answer. I wouldn’t ask right now anyway, not after what just happened to you.”

            Jane narrowed her eyes at the obviously upset girl, noticing that Stacy was starting to get pale and wild eyed, the way she would when Sandi was hectoring her in the hallways back during her Clubbie days.

            “God, what have I done?” Stacy said. “You must hate me now, you must think I’m this horrible person trying to take advantage . . . .” Stacy started gasping and fell backwards onto the bed.

            “Shit,” Jane said, and rushed to her side. “Breathe, Stacy. Breathe. Dammit.”

 

            “Hey, Trent. Is Jane home?” Daria asked after he opened the door. Trent looked behind her and saw that she had her creepy little sister and that goth chick in tow.

            “She’s upstairs with that other girl,” Trent said, moving aside so they could come into the house. “Hey, did she give you my message?”

            “No.”

            “Oh, well I guess not since I gave it to her just a couple of hours ago,” Trent said with a chuckle that trailed off into a cough. “I wanted you to come see us play again, I promise there won’t be any trouble with Monique this time.”

            “I’ll think about,” Daria said with a smirk. “Do you want me to come to the show, or just the after party?”

            “Both?” Trent said with a slight blush. He grinned and waved at the girls and then left, heading back down to the basement to practice some more with the rest of the band.

            “Lucky you,” Andrea said. “I never could get him to look at me like that.”

            “It was all a matter of grabbing the gear shift without grinding the clutch,” Daria smirked. “Let’s head upstairs, I want to check on Jane.”

            The three girls headed up and found Jane’s bedroom door mostly open already. Inside, they saw Jane industriously working on a canvas and Stacy stretched out on the bed behind her.

            “What’s up?” Daria asked, as she led the others into the room.

            “I’m on a roll,” Jane said. “I’d just finished one piece when Stacy showed up, and now I’m inspired for another.”

            “I had another anxiety attack,” Stacy said weakly from the bed. “I’m ok now, though.”

            “I thought you were over those,” Daria said with a frown. Stacy shrugged at her and closed her eyes, trying to relax on the bed. The bed shifted as someone sat, and Stacy opened her eyes and saw Quinn perched next to her. Quinn looked down at her with a quirked eyebrow and then glanced over at Jane, and then back to Stacy. Stacy blushed furiously and closed her eyes again.

            “So, you think the new mouse is gonna work out?” Andrea asked.

            “It should,” Daria answered with a smirk. “As long as it doesn’t get eaten.”

            “Look, I already said I was sorry.”

            “How are you, Quinn?” Jane asked, trying to tune out the discussion between her other friends.

            “I’m fine, thank you for asking.”

            Jane paused at her work, and turned to look at the redhead. Quinn was propped up on the bed next to Stacy, reading her history textbook. Stacy seemed to be asleep, although her face was still flushed and she wore a small smile.

            “Listen up,” Daria said, breaking Jane’s reverie. “There’s a reason Siouxsie Sioux and I have given up on the pursuit of science for the evening.”

            Andrea grumbled under her breath and glared at Daria. Quinn put away her book and gave her undivided attention to her sister, while Jane crossed her arms and watched Daria with an interested expression. Stacy sat up and nodded to Daria.

            “I had this idea a couple of weeks ago, at the coffee house,” Daria said. “For obvious reasons I didn’t get a chance to discuss it then.”

            “We have been busy little bees, haven’t we?” Jane asked with a smirk.

            Daria rolled her eyes and continued, “I was thinking about how Jane and I promised each other we’d watch each other’s backs, and how we both look after Quinn.”

            Stacy giggled and patted Quinn on the arm, until she noticed the look Daria was giving her and yanked her hand back with an “Eep!”

            “I was thinking we could expand on the idea. I’ve gotten to know Andrea better, and Stacy is shaping up pretty well. I was thinking that we were sort of turning into a gang.”

            “Daria,” Quinn said quietly.

            “I was in a gang back in Highland, and we did a lot of illegal stuff. Quinn, I’m not talking about getting back into all that . . . at least, not as much as I was before. Ok?”

            “What are you talking about?”

            “Stacy and Andrea could join us. The two of you, plus me and Jane, and we all watch each other’s backs and help out with whatever somebody needs.”

            “What about Quinn?” Jane asked.

            Daria shrugged. “No offense to Andrea or Stacy, but I don’t know either of you well enough to leave Quinn with you.”

            “I’m not a baby sitter anyway,” Andrea said. “Anyway, I’ve never been in a gang before, do we get matching tattoos or something?”

            “No,” Daria said with a smirk. “I don’t want to do anything that draws any attention if we can help it. It’s really less of a gang and more of a mutual assistance society.”

            “What the hell,” Andrea said. “I’m in.”

            “Sounds groovy,” Jane said, grinning.

            “Me too!” Stacy said.

            “And . . . and I’ll help any way I can,” Quinn said hesitantly.

            “Quinn,” Daria said, glaring at her sister.

            “I want to help, please.”

            Daria sighed and nodded.

            “Great, I hereby dub us,” Jane said, and then turned to Daria and slowly smiled, “The Misery Chicks.”

 

***

 

            Jake sighed deeply and looked around the cheap hotel room, a mixed feeling of shame and confusion settling down on him. He wondered briefly what twists of fate had brought him here, and whether he could have chosen better in his life and avoided this new level of shame. Deep in his heart he knew his fears were true; he had made foolish decisions, trusted where he should not have, and too many times retreated when he should have held firm.

            “You look gloomy.” The girl lying next to him rolled over and looked up at his face. “Don’t tell me I’ve got to cheer you up again, I’m not sure I’m up for that quite yet.” Jake gave the girl a small smile and shook his head at her. She was tall for her age, which seemed quite a bit younger than he’d expected, and she had a lean and athletic build. Her heart shaped face and piercing blue eyes were topped by a mane of red hair that she wore long and loose.

            “I’ll be fine, just getting an early start on my midlife crisis.”

            “Want to talk about it?” she asked, pulling his hand onto her stomach and patting it. “I’m a good listener.”

            “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

            “Well, let me lob a question at you and maybe that’ll give you a good place. Who’s Lavender?”

            “My wife’s old nickname, back when we first got together,” Jake said. “We were happier then.”

            “I could tell,” the girl said with a smirk. She watched Jake blush and then continued, “I was a little curious because you were so specific on the phone about what you wanted: long red hair, hippie clothes, and a submissive attitude. It made me wonder about you, Jake.”

            “Wonder what?”

            “I know a girl that matches that description pretty well, that’s all.”

            Jake gave the girl a puzzled look for a few moments, until the expression was replaced by slow realization and horror. “You know my youngest daughter.”

            The girl nodded.

            “Look, I really don’t want to discuss this, or even think about it. I swear I’d never hurt my little girls.”

            “I meant it when I said I was a good listener. Some of my clients pay me to just sit and listen to them, and you’ve got me all night. You may as well make some use of your recovery time, right?”

            “Helen, my wife, never had a submissive attitude,” Jake said, looking away for a moment. “I guess that part was a complete fantasy of mine. She’s always run the family, makes all the decisions, everything.”

            “I can see where that might put a damper on your sex drive, if you’re not into dominant women.” The girl gave Jake a slow smile and asked, “should I be more submissive next time?”

            “No, you were fine,” Jake said and sighed again. “There probably won’t be a next time. This was another bad idea.”

            “I hope I didn’t upset you.”

            “I should have recognized you when you walked in,” he said. “I guess I was too pre-occupied.”

            “Well, I didn’t intend for you to be looking at my face,” Jane said. She sat up on her side of the bed and started pulling the pins out of her wig. “You don’t mind if I take this off now, do you? It’s a little itchy.”

            “No, go ahead. Do you want me to give you a ride home?”

            “That’d be great.”

            “We’ll go as soon as you’re ready.”

            Jane pulled the red wig free and put it on the table next to the bed, along with the handful of hairpins. “I’ll make you a deal,” she said, turning back to Jake.

            “What?”

            “You answer my questions, and I’ll give you back your money.”

            “That’s a lot of money.”

            “I’ve got some serious questions. If it makes you feel any better you can think of it as a confessional.”

            “You don’t look like a priest.”

            “Lots of religions believe in confession.”

            “Your name is Jane, right?”

            “Yes. Jake, your daughters are two of the best friends I’ve ever had. I don’t want to hurt them any more than you do, ok?”

            “I don’t think they’d be happy about this.”

            “You might be surprised. I think Quinn would be happy that you’re happy, and Daria probably wouldn’t care either way. So are you going to take the deal or not?”

            Jake leaned back against the headboard and stared at the wall opposite him. After a few moments of reflection he shrugged and nodded.

            “What happened to Quinn and Daria?”

            Jake looked down at her and stammered a moment, trying to find an answer. He had assumed this would be the tack of the conversation, but didn’t expect her to lob the question that soon or that bluntly.

            “Let me narrow that down,” Jane said. “When did it happen, and did you string the bastard up by his thumbs? It’s pretty obvious what happened.”

            “What do you think happened?” Jake asked.

            “Quinn got molested or raped or something, and now Daria is insanely overprotective of her.”

            “You’ve got it half right.”

            “Wait? Daria?”

            “Dammit,” Jake said, and got out bed. He walked across the room to his trousers and pulled them on, and then dragged a chair over to the bed. He sat and looked at Jane in the dim light of the room and said, “I don’t know if I can tell this story, not this long after it happened. I’m almost afraid to talk about it.”

            “Afraid?”

            “Helen forbade any discussion of it. She was extremely vehement, and her threats were really scary.”

            “She’s not here, Jake. It’s just you and l’il ol’ submissive me, remember?”

            Jake gave a low and somewhat broken chuckle. “Well, you know we moved here from Texas, right?”

            Jane nodded.

            “My wife’s family lives a couple of hours north of here. A few years ago, we sent the girls to a summer camp near there. The girls were able to go for free because the camp was owned by a man my sister-in-law was involved with at the time.”

            “Ok.”

            “Something happened while the girls were at camp,” Jake said sadly. “I never found out exactly what, but you’re right that it’s pretty obvious what sort of thing it was. I think the boy was trying to get Quinn and Daria helped her get away, and then he caught her instead.”

            “Why don’t you know the details?”

            “We didn’t know anything bad had happened until a month after we brought the girls home from camp, and Quinn started acting differently. She used to be very outgoing and popular, and she was very proud of her appearance even at a young age.”

            “And Daria got violent?”

            “Yes, before going to camp she was very reserved and quiet. She read all the time, and tried not to interact with other people.”

            “Wait,” Jane said. “A month later? Didn’t they go to the camp councilor, call the cops, something?”

            “Apparently they did go to the councilor, and he took their story to the owner. The boy they were accusing was the owner’s son.”

            “Oh, God.”

            “The girls’ aunt pitched a fit at them for making up stories about her boyfriend’s son after they’d been allowed to come to the camp for free. Apparently the story got out at camp, and all the other kids turned against them and accused them of trying to get the camp shut down.”

            “So they stopped talking about it.”

            “Helen drove up to her mother’s after we got part of the story out of Quinn. She came back two days later and grounded the girls for making up such a horrible story. I tried to talk to her, but she had her mind made up and once that’s done you may as well not bother.”

            “How could she not see that something was going on?”

            “She was rarely home,” Jake said. “I guess it was easier for her to believe that her daughters were making up a story than it was to accept that we shipped them off somewhere and let it happen.”

            “It’s not your fault,” Jane started.

            “Isn’t it? Helen and I tried to parent by remote control, and when it blew up in our faces we couldn’t take the heat. I tried to be a better father than my old man, but I screwed up just as bad as he did.”

            “At least you tried, right?”

            “I guess. After that the girls pretty much stopped talking to us, unless we were prodding them with questions. Daria looks after Quinn, and I think Quinn is looking after Daria in her quiet way.”

            “Now they have a bigger support group,” Jane said. “They have friends now, and we care about each other.”

            “At least somebody is watching out for them,” Jake said sadly.

            “Hey now,” Jane said, as she slid out from under the sheet and into Jake’s lap. “No more gloomies. Let’s forget all the ugly for a little while, ok?”

            “Jane, I’m not sure this is right. I didn’t know who you were earlier, or how young you are.”

            “I knew exactly who you were,” Jane said with a smirk. “You don’t want to call me up again, I’m cool with that. But I never leave a client with a frown on his face, it goes against my professional ethics. You don’t want me to be unethical do you?”

            “Well . . . no.”

            “I’m glad we agree on something, Jake. Besides, my brother told me something interesting about men once, something about you not having any choice after you’ve been grabbed. I wonder if it’s true.”

            “Gah! Jane!”

 

***

 

            Stacy hit the mat hard, trying to bounce and roll with the fall. She staggered to her feet and wiped the sweat out of her eyes.

            “You’re better than this,” Daria said. “Why aren’t you focused?”

            “Can we take a break?”

            “Yeah, I guess.” Daria took a couple of steps backwards and then sat on the mat. “Quinn, go get us some water.”

            Stacy sat a few feet away from Daria and watched as Quinn put down her history text and walked out of the Morgendorffer garage towards the kitchen. She wiped her forehead again and looked over at Daria.

            “Well?”

            “I’ve been replaced,” Stacy said sadly.

            “Replaced?”

            “Sandi invited Brooke into the Fashion Club, and they made her secretary. I’ve been replaced.”

            “Oh. I’m sorry, I guess.”

            “Brooke had her nose done a few days ago,” Stacy said. “It’s all thin now.”

            “Why does this matter?”

            “Sandi and I were best friends all through elementary school, she always kept the other girls from picking on me.”

            “You said that she treated you like a slave, though.”

            “Not at first. She was a really good friend for a while, and then she got all obsessed with being popular and important. After a while she didn’t want friends, she wanted followers.”

            “And you’re a good follower?”

            “I don’t know,” Stacy said, a thin thread of anger in her voice. “How am I doing so far?”

            “Excuse me?”

            Quinn came back into the garage and froze when she noticed the tension in the air. She very quietly put the two bottles of water within reach of Daria and Stacy and then quickly scooted back to her corner and her homework.

            “I’m your follower now, aren’t I?”

            “I don’t see you that way,” Daria said. “I don’t want followers, Stacy. Nobody is twisting your arm to stay.”

            “Except that I don’t have any where else to go and you know it. You knew it when you invited me to come with you to Carter’s house.”

            “Stacy, what I knew about you wouldn’t fill a matchbox. What makes you think I knew you were a spineless jellyfish that can’t change her tampon without permission?”

            “I am not spineless, or a jellyfish, or . . . ew.”

            “Then make up your mind, because you just got done telling me that you were nothing more than a follower.” Daria stood and glared down at Stacy. “Your pathetic whining is hurting my ears.”

            “Bitch,” Stacy said, climbing to her feet.

            “I’m proud to be a bitch,” Daria sneered. “It’s better than being a wishy-washy, skittish little carpet muncher like you.”

            “Don’t you dare talk to me like that!”

            “Ok, I take back the ‘carpet muncher’ part of comment, since it’s obvious the only reason you’re interested in girls is that you can’t get any guys. Of course, you haven’t had any luck with girls either, have you?”

            Stacy snarled and launched herself at Daria, flailing with both fists. Daria held her hands up and took most of the blows on her arms and shoulders. Stacy kept swinging, her punches interspersed with wordless screams of rage. Quinn tried to hide behind her math book, watching the fight with wide eyes and a small smile.

            After a minute Stacy staggered backwards, glaring hatefully and trying to catch her breath. Daria relaxed her guard and gave the other girl a smirk.

            “Much better. You come at somebody like that in a real fight and they’re going to panic and try to get away, unless they’re used to fighting. If they’re used to fighting they’re going to pound you into the dirt. You need to learn to channel your temper, use your anger instead of your anger using you.”

            “Wait, you wanted me to attack you?”

            “How do you feel about Sandi replacing you?”

            “It hurts,” Stacy said.

            “But you’re not all eaten up by it anymore. The rage you were letting fester has been vented, at least partially.”

            “Yeah.”

            “You have to learn to vent, Stacy. Express yourself, or you’ll never get over your insecurities. You’ll keep having panic attacks, like the one you had over at Jane’s.”

            Stacy slowly nodded.

            “And for the record, I don’t want to know what’s going on between you and Jane. She’s a big girl, and I’m going to assume she can take care of herself unless she asks me to step in.”

            “What makes you think there’s something going on?”

            Daria rolled her eyes at Stacy, and then said, “Anyway, quit thinking like a follower. I’m not Sandi, ok?”

            “Ok.” Stacy sat down on the mat and opened her bottle of water, taking a long swig.

            “If you say something I don’t like, I’ll argue with you. I’m not going to freeze you out or anything. If you cross too big of a line, I’ll probably break your nose.”

            “I guess if that happens I can ask Brooke for her surgeon’s number.”

            “I wouldn’t worry about it,” Daria said, rolling her eyes. The conversation was interrupted by the garage door being lifted open from the outside, revealing Jane and Andrea. They were chuckling about something as they came into the garage and pulled the door closed again.

            “Oh, God . . . I’m all sweaty,” Stacy said, quickly glancing from Jane to Daria. “I brought clothes, can I use your shower?”

            “Wait a minute,” Jane said. “You have to hear this story. Besides, I’ve seen you sweaty before.” Jane suddenly realized everyone in the room was staring at her, except Stacy who looked as if she were willing the concrete floor to swallow her whole. “We’ve been jogging together, people. Daria, back me up.”

            “Stacy needs more exercise to get into better shape, so I suggested it.”

            “Lane’s got a girlfriend,” Andrea said, smirking at the slightly alarmed look on Jane’s face.

            “I’m just going to die, ok?” Stacy muttered.

            “Shut it, Morticia.” Jane crossed her arms and glared menacingly around the room, and then turned back to Andrea. “You know, it wouldn’t hurt you to get out and run a few laps with us.”

            “Yeah, yeah. Tell them your story, Jane.”

            “No, you tell them your story first.”

            “Ok,” Andrea said with a huge grin. “I guess you already know about that girl getting a nose job?”

            “We were discussing it,” Daria said, quirking an eyebrow at Stacy.

            “Well, Sandi Griffin came up to me today wanting to know if I’d be willing to chip in to help her pay for getting some work done. She told me that her sidekick went and had her nose done, and now she’s got to keep up.”

            “Tiffany had plastic surgery?” Stacy asked, her eyes getting huge.

            “That’s the best part,” Jane said, stifling a chuckle. “She didn’t, she just put a bandage on her nose so Sandi would think she did. She told me about it in gym class, she said she was doing it to get back at Sandi for being a bitch.”

            “Wow,” Stacy said.

            “She also asked me to tell you,” Jane said with a shrug, and then looked away. “She wants you to call her.”

            “I will, later.” Stacy smiled to herself. “Tiffany isn’t the sharpest tack in the box, but she has a good heart.”

            “I’m glad it cheered you up,” Jane said quietly.

            “So, what’s your story?” Daria asked.

            “I went jogging after school, and you’ll never guess what I saw downtown.”

            “What?” Stacy asked.

            “Kevin Thompson all dressed up like the Hunchguy of Notre Dame,” Jane said, a grin spreading across her face. “He said it’s some kind of extra credit thing Ms. Barch has him doing. Sounds to me like she’s just being mean.”

            “Probably,” Andrea said. “It’s still funny, though. The jerk deserves whatever punishment he gets if you ask me.”

            “Is Mystik Spiral playing tonight?” Daria asked.

            “Probably,” Jane said. “Trent’s car wasn’t at the house.”

            “He promised me Monique wouldn’t start another fight, but I want to go see the band anyway.”

            “What should I wear?” Stacy asked.

            “Jeans, t-shirt, whatever. It’s a grunge club, not a fashion show.”

            “Ok. Is it ok if I use your shower now?”

            “Yeah, just make it snappy. I need to shower too before we can go.”

            “We could save some time and hot water,” Stacy said with a smirk.

            “Cute nose you got there,” Daria said, glaring at the former Clubbie.

            “Eep!” Stacy grabbed her gym bag and ran out of the garage.

            “What was that all about?” Jane asked.

            “Quinn can explain it,” Daria said as she headed for the kitchen door. “I’m going to make a sandwich real quick. I don’t want to depend on the Zon’s kitchen for dinner.”

 

            A couple of hours later the girls trooped into the Zon and took over an empty table. Jane flagged down a waiter and ordered a pitcher of beer for the table, slipping him a twenty when he quirked an eyebrow at Stacy and Quinn.

            “I don’t see the guys,” Andrea said.

            “Still a little early,” Jane said, glancing around. “They’ll probably start their first set soon.”

            “I need to use the bathroom,” Quinn said.

            Daria rolled her eyes and stood, motioning for Quinn to accompany her.

            “Wait, I need to go to,” Stacy said. “She can go with me, ok?”

            Daria narrowed her eyes and stared at Stacy for a few uncomfortable moments, and then turned to Quinn and said, “If there’s trouble, you get right back here. If you can’t get right back here, scream your head off. Got it?”

            Quinn nodded and the two girls headed off to the bathroom.

            “I don’t think Stacy is going to bite her,” Jane said.

            “Me either,” Daria said, watching her sister and Stacy pick their way across the room. “However, I’m not completely convinced of Stacy’s competence as a Quinn wrangler.”

            “Wrangler?” Andrea asked, smirking.

            Daria shrugged, and then nodded to the waiter as he dropped of the pitcher and glasses. Jane poured three drinks and held one up to toast the others.

            “To us,” Jane said with a smile. “Because who’s like us?”

            “Nobody’s like us,” Daria said, lifting her own glass.

            “Thank the Goddess,” Andrea said, before draining her drink and refilling the glass. Daria smirked while Jane and Andrea chuckled quietly.

            “So, Jodie cornered me for a little chat today,” Daria said.

            “Where do we send the flowers?” Andrea asked.

            “No where, she wanted to apologize to me. She said it wasn’t fair for her to be angry at me over what Mack and Sandi were doing, that she felt guilty for shooting the messenger.”

            “What’d you say?” Jane asked.

            “I told her that since she didn’t actually shoot me that there was no harm done. She thought I was joking, but I didn’t feel the need to correct her.”

            “You’ve been shot?”

            “Hell, no. I’ve been shot at, sure . . . but when the guns come out this little girl makes tracks for the hills.”

            “I got shot once,” Andrea said. “My dad was cleaning one of his pistols while he was drunk and he thought it’d be a good idea to squeeze off a shot to make sure everything was fine. He remembered to always point the gun up, but he forgot that my bedroom is right over the living room.”

            “I remember that,” Jane said, rolling her eyes. “Your dad is such an idiot.”

            “Yeah, but now I have a cool scar right in the middle of my foot, top and bottom.”

            “Hey Bobby, what’s up?” Jane said, looking up at one of the Zon’s bouncers as he walked up to the table.

            “Hi, Jane. You and your friends aren’t here to cause any trouble are you?”

            “No, we’re just going to have a couple of beers and watch Trent and the guys. Cool?”

            “Spiral is over at McGrundy’s tonight, the Harpies are playing here. That’s why I thought you were here to start something.”

            “Crap,” Jane said, quickly looking around the room. “Daria, can we go now, before there’s another fist fight?”

            “I guess,” Daria said, rolling her eyes. “Where are the bitches, anyway?”

            “Getting ready for the show, they’re in the dressing room.”

            “This place has a dressing room?” Andrea asked.

            “No, they use . . .” Jane’s eyes widened and her face paled, “they use the bathrooms.” At that point, a loud shriek rolled out of the hallway leading to the bathrooms. Jane and Daria’s chairs hit the floor as they sprinted across the bar.

            “I’m too old for this,” Bobby muttered as he began walking in the same direction. Andrea smirked, picked up the half full beer pitcher, and followed along behind the bouncer.

 

            “Do you really think I have a chance?” Stacy asked, staring at herself in the mirror.

            “I dunno,” Quinn said as she washed her hands. “Maybe. She likes you, but I don’t know if she ‘likes you’ likes you. If you know what I mean.”

            “Yeah.” Stacy sighed quietly. “Hey, can I ask you something?”

            “You can always ask.”

            “Daria said something weird to me once, and I was hoping you could explain it.”

            “Sure, what did she say?”

            “She said something about having to walk around naked and hurt.”

            Quinn’s eyes got huge.

            “Quinn?”

            “She . . . she told you?”

            “Nothing specific, that’s why I’m asking you what happened. Something happened, didn’t it? Jane got all weird when I asked her about, but then she told me it was nothing.”

            “It is nothing.”

            “It’s not nothing.”

            “Talking about it is against the rules, don’t make me tell Daria you were asking.”

            “Ok, ok. Sorry.”

            “C’mon, we don’t have all night,” Monique said, pushing the bathroom door open. “We need to get ready for the show.”

            The band stopped just inside the bathroom and stared. Quinn quickly shuffled sideways and hid behind Stacy.

            “Friends of yours?” Stacy murmured. Quinn shook her head rapidly.

            “Hey, if it isn’t kid sister,” Monique said, a nasty smile spreading across her face. “I wonder how big sister would like it if we used your head for a punching bag.”

            “Please don’t,” Quinn whispered.

            “Awe, is Little Red scared of the big bad Harpies?”

            Quinn slowly shook her head. “No, I’m afraid of losing Daria. If you hurt me, she’ll kill you. Please just let us go.”

            “We don’t want to have to get rough,” Stacy said, bringing her fists up.

            “Please,” the girl with the green mohawk said, rolling her eyes. “Last time she tangled with us she ended up in the hospital. I don’t think Miss Braids here is going to slow us down any more than she did.”

            Monique took a step forward and reached for Stacy’s arm. Stacy ducked sideways and lashed out with one fist, hitting Monique’s nose with an audible crack. The woman staggered backwards, one hand on her bleeding nose and her eyes wide. The other members of the band lunged forward and Quinn shrieked at the top of her lungs. As Quinn tried to run for cover in a stall, one of the women grabbed her by the hair and yanked her off her feet.

            “You brog by fuggin node you liddle bidch,” Monique growled at Stacy. The other two members of the band advanced on Stacy, moving a little more cautiously than their leader. Stacy swung at one and the other moved in and grabbed her shoulders, spinning her around towards the mirrors.

            Jane shoved the bathroom door open just in time to see mohawk girl bounce Stacy’s head off a sink, letting the teenager topple to the floor in a spray of blood. Jane gaped at the ugly gash across Stacy’s forehead for a second and then launched herself at the other woman in a flurry of fists and profanity.

            Daria came through the door next, plowing into Monique as she tried to sneak up behind Jane.

            “Whore,” Monique said, whirling on Daria.

            “Fuck you,” Daria said calmly, punching Monique’s already broken nose. The taller girl wailed in pain and slumped against the wall. Daria stepped around her and walked over to where her sister was rolling around on the floor with one of the other band members. She watched them wrestle for a moment, timing her kick to land when the other girl was on top.

            Dazed, she rolled off Quinn and clutched the side of her head. Daria calmly stepped over her sister and kicked the woman a couple of more times, rendering her unconscious. Daria lifted her foot to kick again and Quinn struggled to her knees and grabbed her sister’s hand.

            “Daria, it’s over,” she said quietly. “Please, don’t let them take you away from me again.”

            “Are you ok?”

            “I’m fine, thank you for asking.”

            The bathroom door opened again, this time revealing Bobby the bouncer, with Andrea standing beside him.

            “What the hell?” he said, looking around the room. Monique was near the door, slumped against the wall and holding her nose, her shirt soaked with blood. Stacy was next, still knocked out and bleeding heavily from the cut on her forehead. Jane knelt across the unconscious body of mohawk girl, methodically pounding her face while the third member of the band struggled to pull Jane away. Daria stood near the stalls, helping her sister stand. Just beyond them, the fourth member of the Harpies was sprawled on the tiles.

            Bobby stomped across the room and wrapped his arms around Jane, lifting her bodily away from her target. He shot at a glare at the woman who had been trying to restrain Jane, who promptly turned and ran for the door. She swung it open and stopped, seeing Andrea waiting outside taking a drink directly from the beer pitcher she was carrying.

            “Hey,” Andrea said, and swung the heavy glass pitcher against the side of woman’s head. The pitcher cracked and beer sloshed everywhere, and the Harpy staggered a couple of more steps before sinking to the floor.

            “Bitch made me spill my beer,” Andrea said, pushing the bathroom door open and walking inside.

            “Dammit, Jane.” Bobby spun her around and glared down at her. “I’m about getting tired of this shit. What the hell were you trying to do, kill her?”

            “Yeah,” Jane said, glaring down at the bloody drummer. “You know, I think I was.”

            “Jesus, what’d she do to you?”

            “Stacy,” Jane said, her eyes going wide. She struggled away from Bobby and knelt down next to the unconscious teenager. “Shit, she’s bleeding everywhere. You got a rag or something?”

            Bobby yanked the bandana off his head and handed it to Jane with a frown. “Look,” he said, “I’m gonna have to drag the Harpies down to the emergency room. Get your friend squared away and get the hell out of here. I don’t care if your brother’s band is our best act, you and your friends are banned. Sorry, Jane.”

            “It’s ok,” Jane said, tying the bandana tightly around Stacy’s forehead. “This isn’t the first time you’ve banned me. I’ll stay gone for a while, I promise.”

            “So,” Andrea said, leaning against the door with her broken beer pitcher. “How are we going to get Stacy to the hospital? I bet she needs some stitches.”

            “I may have a solution, gimme a minute,” Daria said, pulling out her cell phone.

            “Where are you taking them?” Jane asked, looking over at Bobby. “We’ll take Stacy somewhere else, no point in brawling in a hospital.”

            “Lawndale Emergency Clinic, that’s where I always take the drunks that get banged up.”

            “Alright, we’ll head to Cedars then. Daria, have you cooked us up a ride yet?”

            “Yeah,” Daria said, putting away her cell phone. “Andrea, can you help Jane carry her?”

            “Sure.”

            Daria glanced over at Bobby, noticing that he was busy trying to get the Harpies’ battered drummer to come around. She quietly knelt down in front of Monique and the two girls stared at each other for a moment.

            “Listen,” Daria said, pitching her voice low. “If you come after me or mine again, I will personally rip your nose clean off and shove it up your ass, do you understand me?”

            Monique glared hatefully at the uppity teenage bitch, until the absolute calm and certainty in the girl’s stare started melting through her anger. It occurred to her that it was entirely possible the little psycho meant exactly what she said. Slowly, Monique nodded.

            “Good.” Daria calmly stood and left the bathroom, walking quickly to catch up with the others.

            Jane and Andrea carried the unconscious Stacy between them, with Daria walking along side and glaring daggers at anybody who looked like they might comment. Quinn ran a little ahead and opened doors for them until they found themselves outside on the sidewalk. They stretched Stacy out on a nearby bench, with her head resting in Jane’s lap so she could keep an eye on the makeshift bandage.

            “Who did you call?” Andrea asked.

            “One of our fellow nobodies. She was being stalked by some guy, and she couldn’t afford the cash to pay me to scare him off. She promised me a future favor, so I broke the fingers on his left hand and retrieved all the pictures he’d taken of her. He had some expensive camera equipment, so thanks to Mr. Pawn I managed to make some money anyway.”

            “Camera equipment? It wasn’t Upchuck was it?”

            “Nah, some home school kid. I can’t remember his name now.”

            “Charles isn’t that bad,” Jane said absently, staring down at Stacy’s waxen face. “The whole ‘grr, feisty’ thing is a big act, he’s actually a really sweet guy. Also, he has buckets of money.”

            “Jane, don’t share,” Daria said, rolling her eyes.

            “Sorry.”

            “So, how come we aren’t going to jail?” Quinn asked.

            “Yeah, I can hear that phone call,” Andrea said, smirking at the redhead. “Hello, officer? This is the bouncer at the Zon. We need you to come arrest a bunch of underage girls that were drinking in our bar and then got into a huge brawl. Thanks.”

            “Oh.”

            “Don’t worry about it,” Daria said, patting her sister on the shoulder.

            “Ok.”

            An older model BMW pulled up to the curb and the driver’s side window rolled down. A girl with blood red hair stuck her head out and looked the group over for a moment.

            “If she bleeds on the back seat, you guys have to clean it up. My aunt would not be thrilled if she noticed bloodstains back there.”

            “That’s fair,” Jane said. She and Andrea managed to get Stacy upright just in time for the brunette to groan and look around groggily.

            “Whas goin on?” Stacy asked. “Did we win? I feel sick.” She promptly folded over and vomited all over the sidewalk.

            “I’m so glad she did that over there,” the girl in the car said.

            “Me too, this way we don’t get any on us,” Andrea said with a smirk. “Thanks for the lift, Scarlett.”

            “Eh, I owed Daria a favor.”

            Moving slowly, Jane and Andrea maneuvered Stacy into the back seat while Quinn and Daria climbed in the front with Scarlett.

            “Where to?”

            “Cedars of Lawndale,” Daria said.

            Scarlett put the car in gear and gently pulled away from the curb. A few seconds later, the motor of a black Hummer roared to life and the large vehicle pulled out to follow the girls.

 

            “I’m sorry,” Stacy said quietly. Jane lowered the clipboard of paperwork she was filling out and looked at her quizzically. They’d gotten to the emergency room a few minutes before and due to her head wound Stacy had been sent straight back to one of the little rooms to wait for a doctor. A nurse had already come by, giving Jane the clipboard and washing most of the blood off Stacy’s face.

            “What for?” Jane asked.

            “I was trying to help, and I just made things worse.”

            “Stacy, it was four on one. What were you supposed to do? It’s not like you know kung-fu or something.”

            “I know. I just felt so useless.”

            “You held them off long enough for me and Daria to get there. Plus, you broke Monique’s nose, and I’m going to giggle about that for days.”

            “Really?”

            “Yeah,” Jane said with a smile. She turned went back to the paperwork, and for the next few minutes the tiny room was silent except for the sound of two girls breathing and the scratching of the pencil.

            “Hey, Jane?”

            “Yeah?”

            “I saw you coming into the room before I blacked out. You looked really angry.”

            “Well, yeah. You were hurt pretty bad, Stacy.”

            “That made you mad?”

            “Yeah.”

            “So I guess you do like me, huh?”

            The sound of the pencil scratching stopped.

            “Jane?”

            “I like you, Stacy.” Jane stared at the ceiling for a moment. “I just don’t know what that means, ok?”

            “Oh.”

            At that point the doctor, a thin woman with her graying hair pulled back in a lose bun, bustled into the room. She pulled the clipboard out of Jane’s hands with a smile and looked over the paperwork.

            “Alright, Miss Rowe. Let’s have a look at that forehead, shall we?”

            She carefully peeled back the bandana and frowned at the wound for a moment. She glanced over at Jane and then back at the wound, and then examined the rest of Stacy’s face and her arms.

            “How did this happen?”

            “I hit my head on the sink,” Stacy said.

            “Mm-hmm. Miss, can we speak outside, please?” The doctor motioned to Jane and then walked out into the hallway. Jane followed her and stood in the hallway, fidgeting under the woman’s stare.

            “Ok,” Jane said. “Why are you glaring at me like that?”

            “I want to know what happened.”

            “She hit her head on a sink, like she told you.”

            “She also has bruises on her arms. This hospital takes domestic abuse very seriously, even at your age.”

            “Domestic, what?” Jane blinked in confusion. “You think I did that?”

            The doctor’s eyes narrowed.

            “Stacy is my friend, we don’t live together or anything. There is nothing domestic about me and Stacy. At all. Really. Maybe. Hell, I don’t know.” Jane slumped against the wall. “I do know that I didn’t hit her.”

            “Then tell me what happened.”

            “You can’t tell her parents, they’ll totally freak out.”

            “I’ll take that under consideration.”

            “We went to the Zon, and there was a fight in the bathroom. The other half of the fight got taken to a different hospital by the bouncer. One of the girls spiked Stacy’s head off a sink just as I came into the room.”

            “Which explains your hands, I suppose.”

            Jane looked down and saw that the backs of her hands were covered with dried blood, and the skin was split on her knuckles. Immediately, her hands began to throb and ache.

            “Ow.”

            “Go back to the desk and check yourself in, dear. Those hands are going to need cleaning and bandaging. We’re slow tonight, you can probably get one of the nurses to take care of it before I finish with your friend’s forehead.”

            “So you believe me?”

            “I do. Now scoot back up front so I can get started.”

            Jane walked back out to the waiting room and asked the receptionist for another clipboard full of paperwork. She took the clipboard over to where Daria, Quinn, and Andrea were sitting and began filling out the paperwork for herself.

            “This didn’t hurt so much before I realized how fucked up my hands are,” she said with a sigh.

            “I can do it,” Quinn said quietly, taking the pencil and clipboard from Jane.

            “So, how is she?” Daria asked.

            “They’re going to stitch up her forehead, so I guess she’s ok. Did you call her parents?”

            “Not yet. Stacy said she had her insurance card and one of her mother’s credit cards, maybe we can get out of here without her getting into trouble.”

            “You don’t think they’ll notice the big bandage on her forehead?” Andrea asked.

            “Maybe she can wear a hat,” Daria said with a shrug.

            “So, how are we getting home?” Andrea asked.

            “I’ll call Trent in a few minutes, he can probably run us home between sets or something,” Jane said.

            “I think I’ll call my uncle,” Andrea said. “No offense, but I’m pretty much ready to get out of here now.”

            “No problem.”

            “I need a cigarette,” Daria said, rising to her feet. “Are you ok here, Quinn?”

            “I’m fine, thank you for asking.”

            “Ok, I’ll be right back.”

            “I think I’ll join you,” Andrea said, also standing. “Later, Jane. Later, Quinn.”

            The two girls waved as Andrea and Daria left the lobby. Once they were outside, Daria pulled a pack of smokes out of her jacket pocket and lit one up. She rolled her eyes at the stereotypical clove that Andrea lit.

            While Andrea called her uncle and asked for a ride home, Daria spent the time looking over a pretty black Hummer that was parked near the curb. She glanced over as Andrea flipped her phone closed and stuffed it into a pocket on her skirt.

            “He’s actually pretty close by, he said he could pick me up in a few minutes,” Andrea said.

            “Do you know if there are any chop shops in Lawndale?” Daria asked casually.

            “I doubt it, this is pretty small town. Why, you thinking of boosting the urban assault vehicle?”

            “Yeah, I could drop everyone else off and then make a few quick bucks off it. I guess I could still dump it at the quarry or something. Maybe if Trent can’t give us a lift.”

            “Sorry I’m bailing on you.”

            “Nah, it’s cool. No point in all of us hanging around if we don’t have to. I’d have gotten Scarlett to take me and Quinn home, but I figured Jane needed some moral support. Also, it’s kind of funny watching her try to figure out how she feels about Stacy.”

            “Caring about people is pretty scary for you, isn’t it?”

            Daria took a long drag off her cigarette and stared at Andrea with her best expressionless expression.

            “Remember, I’m the quiet one that sits in the back of the room and watches everybody,” Andrea said. “When you first came to Lawndale all you cared about was keeping Quinn under a rock. At first I thought you were just jealous of how cute she could be, but the longer I watched the more convinced I became that you really were crazy overprotective.”

            “She can’t take care of herself.”

            “She can, but you can’t see it. At this point, she probably can’t see it anymore either. She manages you pretty well, though. You realize that half the time you’re protecting her from things she doesn’t want to do anyway, right?”

            “Quinn has rules she follows and so do I. Anything past that, and you’re misinterpreting our relationship.”

            “Whatever. But now things are a little more dangerous, because you care about Jane, too. You have two people to look out for instead of one. Three if you count Stacy.”

            “Jane and I look out for Quinn together, and we watch each other’s backs. She helps me just as much as I help her. Stacy, I don’t know about yet.”

            “And you still get nervous about it sometimes. You can relax, Jane’s not going to betray you, ever. You don’t understand how desperately lonely she was before you and your sister came along. Stacy’s in the same boat, we’re all she’s got now.”

            “What about you?” Daria asked.

            “I’m more like you. A little bitter, a little cynical, a little fed up. This whole experiment is sort of a novelty act for me. I’m waiting to see if any of you guys are really serious about this whole Misery Chicks United idea or if it’s a passing fancy.”

            “How are we doing so far?”

            “Surprisingly serious, to the point that you’re starting to win me over. I was honestly concerned on the way to the fight. I was worried somebody would get hurt, maybe hurt bad, and it bothered me how worried I was. I’m not supposed to care, I’m the angry goth chick.”

            “It’s weird,” Daria said, tossing the butt of her cigarette onto the pavement. “Sometimes it does bother me, but sometimes I think I’m happy. It’s like I finally have a family that gives a shit about me.”

            Andrea was preparing to say something pithy when she caught the smell of ozone. A second later Daria made a high pitched squawking noise and staggered off the sidewalk and fell to the pavement. Jaw hanging in surprise, the goth teen turned and saw a tall, average looking man standing where Daria had been a moment ago.

            The man grabbed her roughly by one shoulder and shoved his other fist up against her chest. Andrea felt her bladder give as the shock from the man’s taser made her muscles jerk and cramp spasmodically. After a couple of seconds he released her and she fell to the ground near Daria, her mind in a pain induced haze.

            The man stepped over to Daria and knelt down next to her. Andrea heard her give another strangled scream as he applied the taser to her again. “Not so much fun being on that end of the taser, is it?”

            Daria gave a garbled non-reply.

            “Where’s your little friend, Anna?” the man said.

            “Go fuck yourself,” she croaked.

            “Oh, I’m going to have fun with you. I guess I’ll just have to take some more time to get you to cooperate.” He held the taser against her for another couple of seconds, and when he pulled it away Daria slumped over unconscious.

            Slowly, painfully, Andrea sat up and started trying to rise to her feet.

            “In the mean time, no witnesses.” The man stood, and put away his taser so he could draw a pistol. Andrea closed her eyes and waited, and a second later she heard the crack of gunfire. Another couple of seconds passed and she heard the thump of a body hitting the ground. A few more seconds and she heard footsteps.

            “Andy? What the hell is going on here?”

            Andrea slowly opened one eye and looked over at the policeman standing in front of her, his pistol still out and covering the obviously dead man that had assaulted them. The cop wasn’t old yet, probably in his mid-twenties, but he had the cold-eyed look that veteran officers develop.

            “Hi, Uncle Mark,” she said. “Thanks for showing up to give us a ride home. The unconscious girl is my friend, Daria.”

            “And the man I just shot?”

            “I have no idea.”

            “Carter,” Daria croaked. “Larry Carter, saw his picture in the paper. He’s a child molester or something, got arrested.”

            “They’ll bond anybody around here,” Mark said, frowning. “Andy, when you move out of your dad’s house I’m going back to New York. Now you girls sit tight, I’ve got to call this in and get started on the two tons of paperwork.”

            “Sorry, Uncle Mark.”

            “Not your fault, sweetie. I’ll get your statements and then ask one of the other guys to give you a lift home, ok?”

            “Can we get a ride for my other friends, too?”

            “Mom always said I’d come home in the back of a cop car someday,” Daria said absently, staring at the sky.

 

***

 

            “So,” Jane asked, “how’s the grounding going?”

            “About the way it usually does,” Daria said with a shrug. “Mom watched me and Quinn like a hawk for a record three days, and then went right back to working late every night.”

            “And your Dad?”

            “Never cared to begin with.”

            “I don’t know, Daria. I think your dad cares about you and Quinn more than you think he does,” Jane said.

            “I guess you’ve had some long talks with him, huh?” Daria asked with a small chuckle. Abruptly, she stopped in the hallway and examined Jane’s sheepish expression through narrowed eyes. “You know what, forget I asked that. For once, I really don’t want to know.”

            “I’m on board with that. Hey, here comes Miss Over-Achiever,” Jane said, nodding towards Jodie as she walked up.

            “Hey, you guys wanna buy tickets for the faculty-DJ roller hockey game?”

            “Are you kidding?” Daria asked, rolling her eyes.

            “We’ll take two.” Jane pulled out a couple of fives and passed them over to Jodie in exchange for the tickets.

            “What? You’re gonna pay to watch teachers skate around with DJs?” Daria asked. “Classic rock DJs, in point of fact.”

            “Daria, you weren’t here last year,” Jodie said, shaking her head.

            “Mr. DeMartino had a heart attack after one too many run-ins with Rock ‘n’ Roll Randy,” Jane said with a thin smile.

            “He had to have an emergency angioplasty,” Jodie said. “He almost died.”

            “But a voice told him that his work here on Earth wasn’t finished: some of the students weren’t wetting the bed yet,” Jane said. “This year, he’s more determined than ever to snatch victory from the jaws of death.”

            “What exactly are you trying to say?” Daria asked.

            “You know how there are people who go to car races on the chance that they might see a crash?”

            Daria blinked at the wicked grins that Jane and the normally reserved Jodie were sharing. After a moment she pulled out some cash of her own and held it out to Jodie.

            “I’m in,” she said. “Let me get another ticket so we can bring Quinn along. She loves watching people fight.”

            “Ok.” Jodie took the money and handed Daria a ticket, and then headed off down the hall looking for more customers. Daria and Jane continued walking to their lockers, where they paused to listen in on a conversation between Mack, Kevin, and Sandi.

            “Man, this game’s gonna be great,” Kevin said, pumping his arm in the air. “I say Mr. D goes down halfway through the second period.”

            “That’s too late,” Mack said. “He’s gonna blow out early in the game, while the adrenaline’s high.”

            “You guys are so insensitive,” Sandi said, rolling her eyes.

            “What do you have in the pool?” Kevin asked.

            “I refuse to participate in such a barbaric activity.”

            “Yeah,” Stacy said as she walked up to the group. “Especially when she found out I was the one running the pool. Jane, Daria, either of you want in on this?”

            “Sure,” Jane said with a broad smile. “I’ll take third period, two minutes in. Prime cramping time.”

            “What got you into this?” Daria asked.

            “Remember what you told me about dealing with my insecurities?” Stacy asked. She jotted down Jane’s bet in her notebook and stowed the cash in her back pocket.

            “Yeah?”

            “I’m dealing with them.”

            “Stacy, you’ve become so disgusting,” Sandi said. “I can’t believe I ever considered you a friend.”

            “Sandi, do you remember how you and I first met?” Daria asked. She smirked as Sandi’s hand moved to her throat. “Yeah, that was it. Do you remember who it was that practically begged me to let go of you?”

            Sandi glanced over at Stacy and said nothing.

            “Don’t choke her,” Stacy said absently, still writing in her notebook. “She needs to run to the girls’ locker room and deal with a fashion emergency anyway.”

            “Emergency?” Sandi said, her voice breaking slightly.

            “Brooke was making fun of the bandage on my forehead, and she had a sudden nasal relapse. It was almost like somebody hit her or something.”

            Sandi turned and hurried away to the gym, leaving everyone standing in a slightly uncomfortable silence until the intercom system snapped on with a high pitched whine.

            “Daria Morgendorffer, please report to my office,” Ms. Li said, her voice booming through the school.

            “If I get busted for what you did,” Daria said, shaking her head at Stacy.

            “If she asks just tell her I did it, I’ll fess up.”

            “Wow,” Mack said, watching Daria leave for the principal’s office. “Stacy, you’ve really changed.”

            “It sucks being afraid of everything,” she said, tucking her notebook back into her backpack. “Oh, that reminds me.” She stood on her toes and put her hands on Jane’s shoulders, pulling the taller girl down for a kiss. Jane struggled briefly, her eyes wide with shock, before she was drawn in and put her arms around Stacy’s waist.

            “All right!” Kevin said loudly, pumping his arm in the air again. Mack watched in open-mouthed astonishment as the kiss lengthened. Finally, Stacy let go of Jane’s shoulders and took a step backwards. Jane wobbled in place for a second before her eyes fluttered open again.

            “Are you ok?” Stacy asked.

            “We need to talk about this.”

            “I know, but at least now we’ll actually talk about it. I got tired of us dancing around the issue.”

            Jane slowly nodded, and then walked off to class. Stacy smiled brightly and skipped away in the other direction.

            “Dude, we should totally hit girls in the head more often if they’re gonna do that,” Kevin said.

            “Kevin,” Mack said with a sigh. “Just shut up, ok?”

            “Sure, Mack Daddy.”

            “Don’t call me that!”

 

            “Miss Morgendorffer, I’m pleased to see you answered your summons promptly.” Ms. Li smiled at Daria as she pushed the door closed and walked across the office towards the principal’s desk.

            “I was at my locker,” Daria said, sitting across from Ms. Li. “It’s about fifty feet from here.”

            “Well, I suppose you’re wondering why I called you here.”

            “I didn’t do it this time, honest.”

            “If you’re referring to Miss Doyle’s nose problems I’m already aware of that situation.”

            “Oh.”

            “She informed Ms. Morris that there was a complication with her surgery, is there something you’d like to add to that?”

            “No, not as long as you know I didn’t do it,” Daria said.

            “Very well. Do you recall the last conversation we had?”

            “Yeah, and I’ve thought about it some. I think you’re bluffing. If you had teeth, I’d have already been bitten.”

            “A lovely analogy,” Ms. Li said, giving a creepy little chuckle with the occasional snort mixed in. “However, you are incorrect. You haven’t been bitten because I expect you to do some biting for me. I’ve overlooked your behavior thus far Miss Morgendorffer, and I think you owe me a favor.”

            “Depends on the favor, I guess.”

            “Oh, this is something right up your alley, Miss Morgendorffer. I presume you are aware of the upcoming roller hockey face-off this Friday?”

            “Got my ticket,” Daria said, holding it up so Ms. Li could see it.

            “Excellent show of school spirit, Miss Morgendorffer. Have you heard any stories about the . . . travesty . . . that befell Lawndale High during last year’s competition?”

            “You mean Mr. DeMartino’s heart attack?”

            “Indeed. I want you to make sure that such a shameful display does not happen again this year. I want you to secure victory for the glory and honor of Lawndale High.”

            “You want me to bump off my history teacher?”

            Ms. Li glared across her desk and snapped, “This is no laughing matter, Miss Morgendorffer. I want you to take your little clique of thugs and make sure we win that hockey game.”

            “If you want the Misery Chicks,” Daria said, leaning across the desk and locking eyes with the principal, “you have to offer them the same deal you’re offering me. We help you out, we stay out of trouble.” The two stared at each other for a few moments until Ms. Li reached across the desk and shook hands with Daria.

            “You have a deal Miss Morgendorffer. You had better deliver on your end of the bargain.”

            “Don’t worry, we will.” Daria stood and left the office, dropping one hand into her coat pocket to turn off the small audio recorder she’d swiped out of her mother’s briefcase.

 

            “She wants us to do what?” Andrea asked.

            “You heard me,” Daria said with a shrug. They were gathered in Jane’s bedroom, since the privacy there had made it the default meeting place. Jane was stretched out on her bed with her math book over her face and her feet in Stacy’s lap. Stacy, sitting at the end of the bed, had pulled Jane’s boots off and was giving her a foot massage. Quinn sat in the far corner of the room reading her history book and occasionally taking notes from it. Andrea sat in the big, over-stuffed arm chair and watched Daria pace around the middle of the room.

            “Do we have a plan?” Jane asked, her voice muffled by the text book.

            “I was hoping we could discuss that. Can you take the book off your face?”

            “I’m hoping to absorb knowledge through osmosis. My steady C average is threatening to turn into a D, and my usual method of gaining extra credit doesn’t seem effective on Mr. Phelps.”

            “Quinn, after we’re done here start tutoring Jane on math.”

            “Ok.”

            “She’s damn good at math,” Daria said. “Now can we concentrate on making a plan?”

            “We could beat up a couple of the DJs before the game,” Stacy said.

            “Too risky,” Andrea said. “I don’t want to go to jail if I can help it. I don’t think Uncle Mark would be too happy to see his fragile and innocent niece go down for aggravated assault.”

            “Your uncle is seriously cute,” Daria said. “Plus, he sort of saved me from a fate worse than death.”

            “He has a strict policy against dating girls he meets through work, he says it never ends well.”

            “I don’t want to date him.”

            “I’ll pass along the message,” Andrea said, rolling her eyes. “Don’t hold your breath.”

            “We could bribe the DJs to throw the game,” Jane offered.

            “Not with my money,” Daria said. “I’m starting to lean towards Stacy’s idea. Of course, I like solutions that are simple and violent.”

            “Could we give the teachers some performance enhancers?” Andrea asked. “I’ve got the pharmaceutical equivalent of a bag of Skittles back at my place: uppers, downers, lefters, righters, and even a few inside-outers.”

            “Can you imagine Barch hopped up on something?” Jane asked.

            “Plus, we want to avoid Mr. DeMartino having another heart attack,” Stacy said.

            “It’s too bad we’re not part of the faculty,” Quinn said. “I bet you guys could take those old DJs without having to cheat.”

            Andrea, Daria, and Stacy turned towards the corner with looks of amazement. Jane slowly slid the math book down her face so she could blink at the redhead. Quinn ignored the attention and continued taking notes for her history class.

            “Quinn,” Daria said, “I take back exactly one third of the times I’ve referred to you as stupid. That’s a great idea, and I know exactly how to make it work.”

 

***

 

            “Ladies and gentlemen,” Charles said, his voice carrying through the PA system to fill the building. “Welcome to the Faculty vs. DJs Roller Hockey Exhibition. I’m sure you’re all looking forward to an exciting evening. I know I am.”

            “Can you see alright?” Stacy asked, leaning over to Quinn.

            “Yeah, these are good seats.”

            “I should hope so, I was trying to angle this into a date with Jane. Of course, this was before the master plan went into effect.”

            “How’s that going, anyway?”

            “The plan or Jane?”

            Quinn gave Stacy a deadpan stare that would have made her sister proud.

            “Oh, yeah. She’s sort of avoiding me,” Stacy said, staring sadly at her clasped hands. “I know she has feelings for me, but I think it scares her.”

            “Well, she has based an awful lot of her self-image on having sex with men.”

            “I know, I was just hoping that it wouldn’t matter. That we’d look into each other’s eyes and she’d see the truth or whatever. I’m being silly and romantic, aren’t I?”

            “Maybe,” Quinn said with a shrug. “I don’t really know anything about dating.”

            “You should try it, you’re really cute behind those bangs. We could put you in a short skirt and some high heels, maybe a shirt that shows your belly, pull your hair back, a little make-up, and why are you staring at me like that?”

            “Um,” Quinn said. She flipped her hair around to cover her face and crossed her arms, slumping back into her chair.

            “I’m not hitting on you, I promise.”

            “I know.”

            “Did I sound too much like Fashion Club Stacy?”

            “A little. Hey, the players are coming out on the floor.” Quinn pointed to where the DJs were skating out, being introduced by Charles as they came onto the floor. Most of the players were older men, still desperately clinging to the styles of their youth, but there were a couple of men and women in their late teens or early twenties on the DJ team.

            “Interns?” Stacy asked.

            “Yeah, I think they’re work credit students taking the communications major at Lawndale State,” Quinn said. “Including them was part of the deal Ms. Li made with the station manager.”

            “And now introducing the players from my own Lawndale High School,” Charles said over the loudspeakers. Charles began introducing the teachers, each one skating out on the floor as he named them. After the teachers were introduced he said, “And now we have an extra feisty treat for everyone, this year we’ve got three teaching assistants on the Lawndale team, the first of which is one of our starting forwards, Jane ‘the Pain’ Lane!”

            As the crowd cheered, Stacy leaned over to Quinn and whispered, “Please tell me he wasn’t allowed to come up with nicknames on his own.” Quinn smirked and shook her head.

            “And Lawndale’s starting defensemen, or I should say luscious defense ladies, are Andrea ‘Shakti’ Darling and Daria ‘D-Day’ Morgendorffer.” Andrea and Daria skated out onto the floor, with Daria rolling backwards so she could glare up at the announcer’s box.

            “Upchuck, don’t make me come up there,” she yelled, much to the crowd’s amusement. Daria skated over to her team mates and looked over the two teachers in the starting line-up, Mr. DeMartino and Ms. Barch.

            “Don’t worry,” Ms. Barch said, giving Daria a frighteningly cheerful smile. “None of those filthy radio freaks are going to slip one past me.” The science teacher turned and skated away towards their net.

            “I suppose she was your first choice to prevent scoring?” Andrea asked with a smirk.

            “She has refined ball checking into a harsh, yet elegant, art form,” Jane said.

            “Very amusing, ladies. Would it be alright with you if we focused on the conflict at hand instead of your side-splitting humor?” Mr. DeMartino said.

            “No problem, Mr. D. We all know what to do,” Daria said. “You and Jane focus on scoring goals.”

            “I’m good at scoring,” Jane said.

            “Me too, but in a different sense of the word,” Andrea said.

            “Andrea and I,” Daria said, glaring at the two would-be comedians, “are going to be working on some psychological warfare techniques. Let’s see if we can make the other team afraid to even skate into our zone.”

            The Lawndale team clacked their sticks together and skated to center court, where the Z-93 team and one of the referees were waiting for them.

            “I want a nice, clean game,” the referee said.

            “The Spatula Man says that you’re going down,” one of the DJs said, flexing like a pro-wrestler and almost hitting himself in the face with his stick.

            “This year your ass is mine, Rock ‘n’ Roll Randy,” DeMartino growled.

            “Lovely,” the ref said, shaking his head. He held the small wooden ball up in the air for a moment, and then dropped it to the floor. Randy and DeMartino lunged forward and the game was on.

 

            Midway through the first period, Randy was in control of the ball and skating hard for the Lawndale net with DeMartino hot on his trail.

            “Come on, take your punishment like a man,” DeMartino wheezed.

            “I’m not a man, dude, I’m a rocker!”

            With a snarl, DeMartino skated up beside the DJ and took control of the ball. “Where’s your rock and roll power now, hippie?”

            Randy lashed out with his stick, hitting DeMartino’s leg. The teacher yelled loudly, falling over and clutching the injured knee.

            “Woo-hoo! Rock and roll power foreva!” Randy grinned and sped up, focusing on the woman in the net. If he could get a shot past her it would push the Z-93 team into the lead.

            “Hey jackass, Jim Morrison is dead,” Andrea shouted. The DJ looked around just in time for the goth to check him hard from the side, sending him off his skates and sliding across the hardwood floor. Daria swooped in from the other side and took a quick slap shot, passing the puck down court to Jane.

            “Oh, my knee,” DeMartino groaned, staggering to his feet.

            “Off the court,” Daria said as she skated past. DeMartino grumbled and shakily headed towards the bench and the doctors.

            “The refs are sending Rock ‘n’ Roll Randy to the sin bin for slashing,” Charles said, his voice carrying over the speaker system. “That gives the Lions two minutes to play with, unless Z-93 can come back with the penalty kill. Looks like Anthony DeMartino has been ordered off the court by the team captain, Daria Morgendorffer.”

            On the court, Jane and Daria were passing the ball back and forth, evading the Z-93 defensemen. Daria hooked the ball behind her towards Jane who picked up the smooth pass and barreled down on the intern guarding the DJ’s net.

            “D-Day and the Pain are playing keep away with Z-93, while the new Lion player skates on . . . it’s Claire Defoe, folks. She teaches arts, crafts, and the humiliation of radio personalities. Lane is making a run on the net, she shoots and . . . she scores!” Charles toggled a switch on the sound board and the chorus of Black Betty played to celebrate the goal.

            Quinn and Stacy shared a high five, while a few rows behind them Brittany and a couple of the other cheerleaders began chanting loudly, “Ain’t got no stones, ain’t got no sticks, we’ll break your bones, with our Misery Chicks!”

            “We get a cheer now?” Andrea asked, skating up to the face off.

            “Brit asked if there was any way she could repay Daria for helping her relationship with Kevin,” Jane said. “I might have suggested a couple of things.”

            “I helped?” Daria asked.

            “Yeah,” Jane said. “They don’t lie to each other about cheating anymore, so they get into a lot less fights.”

            “There is something profoundly wrong with this whole situation,” Daria said, shaking her head.

 

            Near the end of the second period the score was two to one, with Z-93 in the lead. Daria skated up to Defoe while the refs were setting up the next face off.

            “Claire, I need your head in the game. What’s the problem?”

            “I don’t know,” she said, looking down at the floor.

            “You’ve got speed and reach, you just aren’t aggressive enough. This isn’t because you know that Bing guy, is it?”

            “He’s one of my housemates.”

            “The ones you told Jane about? The ones that eat all your food and make a huge mess of your house? The ones that have been mooching off you since college and have never given you a dollar?”

            “Yeah.”

            “They’re using you, and you’re letting them,” Daria said, her voice dripping with scorn. As she skated off, she said, “Quit being a goddamn victim, Defoe.”

            Claire Defoe had a look of shock and horror painted across her face as she watched her team captain skate away. Slowly the look was replaced by hurt, and then anger. By the time she skated over to join the face off circle her face had settled into a determined scowl.

            The referee dropped the ball, and instead of vying for control Claire brought her stick up into Bing’s stomach. He exhaled sharply and staggered backwards as she brought her stick around to connect with the side of his head. Bing lost his balance and hit the floor. Claire tossed her stick down and yanked her gloves off, and the beating began in earnest.

            “And when I get home, you better not be there,” she screamed a few seconds later, struggling as a pair of referees dragged her off the court. “Tell all those other low life scum they better be scarce, too! Do you hear me?”

            Bing was being put on a stretcher and, due to his state of unconsciousness, was unable to hear anything being shouted at him. Luckily for Defoe’s other housemates a couple of them were in the crowd, and they were already planning a rapid escape before the art teacher could make bail.

            “Daria?”

            “Yeah, Jane?”

            “No more pep talks.”

            “You can’t question the effectiveness.”

            “I suppose it depends on what effect you wanted to achieve.”

            “And that’s the end of a very exciting second period,” Charles announced. “Now is a good time to stretch, hit the bathrooms, and grab some more hotdogs and soda. Also, now is the perfect opportunity for any ladies that wanted to drop off their phone numbers at the announcer’s booth. Rawr!”

 

            Daria looked around the locker room at her team, minus Defoe. Everyone looked sweaty and tired, but energy was still up and the team looked determined despite the score.

            “Anthony,” she said, “how’s that knee?”

            “It’ll do.”

            “Alright, I’m putting you back on the court. This time you’re coming in as a defenseman, and I want you to make Rock ‘n’ Roll Randy your personal hockey bitch. Can you do that?”

            “With pleasure.”

            “Janet, you’re out. I’m bringing in the back-up goalie.”

            “What!?”

            “You’re getting tired, and it’s making you slow. You’ve done a good job, take a rest.”

            Barch crossed her arms and leaned back against the lockers, glaring angrily.

            “Please go find your replacement and help her get into her pads.”

            “Fine,” Ms. Barch said, and stomped away.

 

            “Ladies and gentlemen,” Charles said into his microphone. “Welcome back, we’re going into the third period with the score at two to one favoring the Z-93 team. Lawndale has made a couple of substitutions in their line up, it looks like Mr. DeMartino is back on the court . . . good news for those of you who placed your bets somewhere in the third period.”

            Out on the court, DeMartino frowned and asked, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

            “Uh, nothing Mr. D,” Jane said. “You know you shouldn’t pay attention to anything Upchuck says.”

            Ms. Li skated out onto the court, rolling backwards and making double victory signs to the crowd. The audience’s reaction was mixed, some cheering and some booing, with an embarrassingly over-enthusiastic Mr. O’Neill cheering loudly from the top of the stands while waving a blue and yellow pennant.

            “Lawndale has also brought out their back-up goal tender, Miss Angela Li. Now, some of you may not know this but Ms. Li has a teaching certificate and an English degree from Washington State, where she played women’s ice hockey at the collegiate level.”

            Meanwhile, on the court Daria was settling into the face-off against one of the Z-93 interns. She had spent most of the second period terrorizing the petite college freshman, and Daria capitalized on her investment by leaning forward and slowly dragging a thumb across her throat. The intern paled, her eyes growing wide.

            When the referee dropped the ball, Daria hooked it and spun away before her opponent could react. Jane was already free and clear, heading down court into enemy territory, and when Daria passed to her everything came down to the Z-93 goalie. He proved unequal to the task, and Charles played the section of Black Betty once again to celebrate Jane’s second goal of the evening.

            “Excellent teamwork on the part of the Lawndale forwards,” Charles said. “I’m not sure where the Z-93 team’s head is, but in the future I suggest they keep their eye on the ball.”

            The period continued to grind on, neither team able to make the game winning goal. The Z-93 team, figuring out part of Daria’s strategy, rotated in some players that she and Andrea hadn’t traumatized yet. Lawndale’s defense was airtight, but their offense suffered because Daria, frustrated at how tightly the DJ’s defensemen stuck to her, started lashing out and ended up spending more time in the penalty box than on the court.

            “You’ve got to control your temper, amiga. I know I’m the star player and all, but I can only do so much by myself.”

            Daria, having just skated out of the penalty box for the third time, gave Jane a sour glare. “I’ll get right on that. Also, fuck you.”

            “I don’t think you can afford it,” Jane smirked, skating away.

            “We’ve only got a minute left to win this,” Daria called out, following Jane out onto the court. The pair skated into the general melee of the game, a buzz of activity on their end of the court as the DJs tried to slam home a goal only to be blocked time and again by Ms. Li.

            “Mr. DeMartino,” Daria said, pointing at Rock ‘n’ Roll Randy. “Hockey bitch.”

            With a nearly feral shout, the history teacher waded into his target. Both men tossed their gloves and sticks and began trading blows. Each grabbed the other man’s jersey with one hand and punched with the other, as they both rapidly skated in a tight circle.

            Andrea took advantage of the referee’s distraction to trip one of the other Z-93 players with her stick. Daria zipped by and picked up the ball on the end of her stick and started heading down court. Jane followed along, and the pair passed the ball back and forth the same way they did for the first goal of the game.

            “Give me a clean shot,” Daria called out. Jane passed her the ball and put on a burst of speed, pulling ahead and reaching the goalie several seconds ahead of her team mate.

            Jane smirked at the brawny young man guarding the goal and tossed her stick and gloves to one side, well clear of the goal area. The goalie looked confused for a moment as Jane reached for the hem of her jersey, and then his eyes grew wide as she yanked the front of her shirt up.

            He didn’t notice Daria scoring the winning goal of the game.

 

***

 

            “So, I didn’t hear from you this weekend. What happened?” Daria asked.

            “Well, it was sort of good and sort of bad,” Jane answered. She opened the school doors and the two girls walked in, heading towards their lockers. “Trent and I were supposed to go to a family reunion, which ranks in my top five worst things to do over a weekend.”

            “But?”

            “But he made plans to go to an open air concert with the guys in his band. Since he can pass that off as work related, it meant that we didn’t have to go to the reunion. The down side is that he forgot to take me with him.”

            “Forgot?”

            “Yeah, according to the guys he didn’t notice I wasn’t in the van until some time Saturday afternoon. And then he ran around the camp ground in a panic thinking I’d been kidnapped.”

            “Wow.”

            “Yeah. I love my brother, but sometimes I wonder if he’s all there or not.” Jane shook her head, and then quirked an eyebrow at her friend. “So I spent the whole weekend painting, what did you do?”

            “Dad had this idea that we should all go camping. That went over like a lead balloon.”

            “Not big on the great outdoors, huh?”

            “Well, Mom went off on a thirty minute rant about how she wasn’t going to waste her time gallivanting off to the middle of nowhere just because Dad was having a crisis. He tried to appeal to me and Quinn but we are never going out in the woods again.”

            “Again?” Jane asked, keeping her voice casual.

            “We went camping once before,” Daria said, her voice flatter and more emotionless than usual. “It ended badly.”

            “Mosquitoes?”

            “Hey, Jane?”

            “Yeah?”

            “This is the part where you stop asking so many goddamned questions.”

            Jane stopped in the hallway, and Daria took a couple more steps before stopping and turning to look up at the taller girl. They stared at each other silently for a moment before being distracted by a nearby, enthusiastic Kevin Thompson.

            “This is it, Mack Daddy!” he crowed. “The week of weeks!”

            “Too much hero worship isn’t healthy, you know,” Mack said, shaking his head. He suddenly frowned slightly and glared at Kevin. “And don’t call me that.”

            “But the man is coming! The man! Tommy Sherman brought it home, bro! The state championship. And now, he’s coming back to Lawndale.”

            “I know all about it, it’s all you’ve been able to talk about all morning. Tommy Sherman is coming, and we’re naming a goal post after him. Give it a rest, Kevin.”

            Daria frowned and quirked an eyebrow as the football players walked out of earshot. “Who is this guy that Kevin is raving about?”

            “He was quarterback three years ago when the school won the state championship.” Jane said. “My brother knew him.”

            “Why name the goal posts after him? Why not the whole stadium?” Daria asked, opening her locker.

            “Just the one: goal post.” Jane smirked and continued, “See, his trademark was that he always wanted to run the touchdown in himself.”

            “A real team player.”

            “Yeah. Anyway, he couldn’t keep from waving to the crowd when he did it. They cheered, he waved, and wham! He ran right into the goal post.”

            “Jesus, what a freaking moron. He was both stupid and egotistical, and I realize now how much we’re taking Kevin for granted.”

            “He broke his own nose twice,” Jane said, as they walked down the hall towards her locker. “Then, in the playoffs a week before the state championship, he scored the winning touchdown, and hit the goal post so hard he cracked his helmet. He was unconscious for six days. Miraculously, he woke up the night before the big game feeling great. The next day, he led the team to victory.”

            “Hence the hero worship.”

            “Yup, and now the school’s bought one of those new goal posts designed to break apart rather than split your skull.”

            “Why only one?”

            “Budget cuts,” Jane said with a shrug. “They’re naming it after good old Tommy Sherman.”

            “What does this guy look like?” Daria asked. “Do you know?”

            “Like a football player, I guess.” Jane started opening her locker and noticed Jodie walking down the hall towards them. “Oh, look. Here comes the lucky Student Council member who will do the honors.”

            “Hi, guys.” Jodie walked up and waved a handful of note cards in the air. “Look, I can’t get past the introduction to the speech I have to give. Can I read it to you?”

            “Does that mean I don't have to listen to it later?” Daria asked, smirking.

            Jodie rolled her eyes and started reading from the top note card, “Good afternoon, students, faculty, and distinguished alumni of Lawndale High. As a representative of your Student Council . . . and that’s it. Any ideas?”

            “It is my privilege today to once again send the message that learning is no substitute for winning,” Daria said.

            “And,” Jane added, “that it’s not how hard you study, it’s how hard you play football.” She growled the last word and pumped one fist in the air.

            “Gosh, thanks so much,” Jodie said with a scowl. “You think I like this?”

            “If you don’t like it, don’t do it. You know my policy on lying,” Daria said.

            “I have to do it, because I'm on the Student Council,” Jodie said. “It’s a job with many responsibilities, and today it’s my responsibility to kiss the butt of some jerk getting a goal post named after him, but at least now I feel really good about it.”

            Jane and Daria watched the angry girl stomp off down the hall, other students jumping out her way with expressions ranging from fear to confusion. Jane pushed her locker closed and looked over at Daria.

            “If she feels good about it, we obviously aren’t doing our jobs.”

            “I need to go find Quinn,” Daria said suddenly, and walked away.

            Jane watched her friend stomp down the hall, shoving aside anyone not bright enough to get out of her way.

            “They should designate a special lane in the hallway for pissed off girls,” Jane said to herself before heading to her own first period class.

 

            The bell rang and the hallway filled with students; the freshmen heading to lunch and the other grades going to their next class. Stacy and Quinn were the first ones out of Mr. DeMartino’s class, the other students having learned that it was no longer wise to get in Stacy’s way.

            “What’s wrong, Quinn? You’ve been jumpy all day, ever since you talked to Daria.”

            Quinn shrugged.

            “You’re not in trouble or something are you? I can help.”

            She shook her head.

            “Oh, God. It’s about me, isn’t it? Jane told Daria that she doesn’t want to see me, and Daria told you, and you’re too nice to tell me. That’s it, isn’t it?”

            Quinn stopped in the hallway and gave Stacy an incredulous look. “It’s not about you, ok Stacy? It’s stuff between me and Daria, I’m not allowed to talk about it.”
            “Are you ok?”

            “I’m fine, thank you for asking.”

            “You always say that, and it’s never true.” Stacy sighed and shook her head. “Sorry I started to flip out on you.”

            “It’s ok, let’s get to lunch before we get stuck with mystery meat.”

            “Ewwww.” Stacy made a face as the girls started walking down the hallway again. The brunette looked up just in time to see some kind of altercation ahead between a tall, well-muscled blond man and a few people she couldn’t see in the crowd.

            Daria staggered out of the group, pale faced and rapidly shaking her head. She got her feet tangled and hit the floor hard, her glasses flying off her face and bouncing across the floor.

            Stacy flinched and clutched her ear as Quinn made a nearly inhuman, high pitched wail. The brunette felt a hand slip under her denim jacket for a moment, and then the redhead sprinted away towards her sister.

 

            “Are we looking forward to our pre-lunch nap?” Andrea asked, joining Daria and Jane as they headed to English class.

            “I sure am,” Jane said with a chuckle. “I didn’t get home until late last night. It was worth it though, it’ll certainly bring up my GPA in a class that I promised not to name.”

            “Private tutoring,” Andrea said, shaking her head. “Jane, you are such a diligent student.”

            “I even dress that way sometimes.”

            “What about you, Daria?”

            Daria glanced over at the goth and shrugged noncommittally.

            “She’s been like this since we got here,” Jane said. The three girls approached Andrea’s locker and noticed a tall, well-muscled blond man leaning against it. He seemed to be mostly occupied with leering at passing girls, some of which hurried their pace when they realized he was watching them.

            “Excuse me,” Andrea said. The big jock stared at her in disbelief for a second, and she added a one-handed shooing motion. Jane stepped up beside Andrea and crossed her arms, while Daria hung back behind her friends.

            “You’re kidding, right?” the man said with a sneer. “You think I’m going to talk to you?” He glanced over at Jane a moment and said, “You, maybe. Like, four hours into a kegger.”

            “Perhaps after I vomit on your shoes,” Jane said, looking daggers at the boorish thug. No one noticed Daria staring at the man with a look of abject horror.

            “I don’t want to talk to you,” Andrea said.

            “Yeah, right. You said, ‘Excuse me.’ didn’t you?”

            “You’re leaning on my locker, jackass.”

            “Do you know who I am?” He stood and glared down at the girls. “I’m Tommy Sherman.”

            “No no no no nononononono,” Daria said, staggering backwards. She got her feet tangled and hit the floor hard, her glasses flying off her face and bouncing across the floor.

            “Daria?” Andrea asked, turning to look.

            All the pieces fell into place for Jane, who snarled and punched Sherman in the stomach. He smirked down at her when she took a step back, wringing her sprained wrist. He took a step forward and reached for Jane, and then everyone froze when an unholy shriek filled the air.

            From where she was standing, Jane saw Quinn reach under Stacy’s jacket and come out with one of Daria’s special plastic knives. The redhead sprinted down the hallway and leapt into the air, landing on Tommy’s back. She locked her knees over his hips and grabbed a handful of mullet with one hand, while she used the other to plunge the knife into his back.

            “Leave her alone,” Quinn shrieked. “Wasn’t once enough you bastard? Leave my sister alone!”

            “What the fuck?” Andrea said.

            “Help Daria, find her glasses,” Jane snapped. “Stacy, get the hell over here and help me pry Quinn off this douche bag.”

            Tommy Sherman toppled to the ground, screaming and desperately trying to twist his arms far enough around to grab Quinn. When Jane and Stacy grabbed Quinn she stopped struggling and let them pull her away, leaving the knife protruding from Sherman’s shoulder.

            “Quinn, what the hell?” Stacy asked.

            “He wanted to . . . he tried to . . . .” Quinn sobbed once and then screamed, “I was a little kid, you sick freak.”

            “Oh, God.” Stacy said, the color draining from her face.

            Daria, still trying to settle her glasses on the bridge of her nose, pulled Quinn into a hug and started murmuring to her quietly.

            “I’m so sorry,” Quinn sobbed, her voice muffled by Daria’s coat. “I’m so sorry, Daria. I couldn’t run away again. I couldn’t let him do that to you again.”

            “Shhh, it’s over now.”

            “So,” Andrea said. “I’m getting the idea that I shouldn’t try to stop this jerk from bleeding to death. Anybody not ok with that?”

 

***

 

            Jane knocked on Daria’s bedroom door and waited. She knocked again, louder. After a few moments she sighed and pushed the door open. Jane paused in the doorway, letting her eyes adjust to the dimly lit room.

            “It’s rude to open a door without being invited,” Daria said listlessly.

            Jane followed the sound of her friend’s voice and sat on the edge of the bed. Daria was visible primarily as a lump under the blanket.

            “Good thing I’m not a vampire or something. Daria, are you avoiding me?”

            “Not anymore,” Daria said, pulling the blanket away from her face so she could glare myopically.

            “I understand that you don’t want to talk to anybody.”

            “Really?”

            “Yes, really.” Jane rolled her eyes. “But I’m not just anybody. We made each other a promise, and I’m here to cover your back. Even if the one attacking you, is you.”

            “A Lane never gives up?”

            “Even though sometimes we wander off,” Jane finished, smiling slightly. “Look, we’ve all been worried about you and Quinn. What’s the news?”

            Daria sighed and sat up, reaching for her glasses on the nightstand. “Mom’s gone. She and Dad had a huge fight and she left, I think she’s sleeping at her office now or something. They’re getting a divorce.”

            “I’m . . . sorry?”

            “Hey, most of the time when people get divorced the kids wrongfully blame themselves. At least Quinn and I have the comfort of knowing it really was our fault.”

            “It was not your fault,” Jane said, sounding angry. “Your mother is a stone bitch, Daria. She put saving face for her family ahead of protecting her daughters. As far as I’m concerned she can go to hell.”

            “You sound like my councilor.”

            “Councilor?”

            “Yeah. We all see a therapist twice a week now. Tuesdays, we get private treatment and Thursdays we have family counseling. Speaking of which, Dad confessed that he’s been seeing you.”

            “Ah, um. Yeah, about that . . . .”

            “I’m not mad, he needed somewhere to go. Besides, it was worth it to see the look on his face when Quinn admitted that she was the one who gave your number to his secretary.”

            “She what!?” Jane stared at Daria in amazement, and then started chuckling.

            “Quinn is a lot smarter than I’ve been giving her credit for,” Daria said. “I still can’t believe what she did. Too bad the bastard lived.”

            “I’m not so sure you should feel bad about that, have you been reading the paper?”

            “No.”

            “Seventeen other girls have come forward, Daria. Most of them were cheerleaders back when Sherman was attending Lawndale. They’re all saying that without you and Quinn they never would have had the courage to say anything.”

            Daria blinked and said nothing.

            “He’s going to jail for a long time, Daria. And he’s going to have the labels ‘child molester’ and ‘rapist’ the whole time he’s in there.”

            “I guess that’s something.”

            “Did you know that Ms. Li was interviewed by the paper? She said that you and Quinn were model students, and the school is going to do everything in its power to help build the case against Sherman.”

            “So . . . we’re not expelled?”

            “There’s no way in hell Li can expel either of you. Can you imagine the press backlash she’d get for that?” Jane smirked. “Besides, Ms. Li asked me to tell you that she hasn’t forgotten the deal you made with her.”

            “So much for glory and honor.” Daria sighed and looked at Jane again. “You know, I told my Dad to tell anybody that stopped by that I was out for a run. I’m not surprised he forgot.”

            “He didn’t forget.”

            “Oh.”

            “Look, Andrea is talking to Quinn right now. She and I are on a mission to drag the two of you out of your rooms and downstairs to the living room. We have a stack of pizzas and several really, really bad movies with us.”

            “Where’s Stacy?”

            “She’s . . . ah . . . talking to Jake,” Jane said, blushing deeply.

            “And why is that?”

            “She’s . . . um . . . vetting all my clients now. She doesn’t want her girlfriend to catch anything or get beaten up again.”

            “That’s so cute,” Daria said. Her smirk grew as Jane’s blush deepened. “Well, get your taco eating ass out of here so I can change clothes. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

            “Sure.” Jane stood and walked to the door, pausing to look back. “You’re growing you hair out?”

            Daria ran her fingers through the short cap of auburn hair that had barely grown long enough to tickle her ear tops. “Yeah, a friend of mine once told me I’d look better if I wore it longer. I thought I’d give it a try.”

            “Smart friend,” Jane said, and left.

            Daria nodded and felt, for the first time in a very long time, a real smile on her lips.

 

Disclaimers: Stereo Hifi font is ©1997 by Cathy Davies. This story based on characters and situations created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis. The Daria TV show is a trademark of MTV Networks, a division of Viacom International Inc. and is referenced here without permission, and without profit. Original characters and situations created by the author are under (K) – all rights reversed. Hail Eris.

 

Author’s Note: The original idea for this story, and the first several pages, was provided by LSauchelli on the PPMB. He graciously allowed me to run with it, and any failings should be blamed on me alone.

 

Author: the NightGoblyn