Christmas is a holiday that persecutes the lonely, the frayed, and the rejected.
- Jimmy Cannon (1910-1973)
“Do you think you could hurry that up a little? I’d like to be in and out of here before those guards are missed.”
“No, I can’t hurry it up,” Jayne said, glaring up at the pushy human. “Do I rush you when you’re being judgmental and violent?”
“I’m not judgmental,” Harmony said, and then sighed dramatically and took a step back. “Fine, just try to remember that we’re trying to break somebody out of a prison, in the middle of a hostile city filled with evil wizards and their servants, which is in the middle of a hostile nation ruled by other evil wizards. I’m feeling a little exposed out here, ok?”
Jayne rolled her eyes and went back to work on the door while the priestess stepped away to quietly reassure the rest of the team that everything was fine. With a small smirk, she disabled the last trap and slowly pushed the door open. Stale, dank air flowed up the stairs in front of her and caused the torches to flicker wildly.
“About time,” Alexa muttered, brushing past Jayne and starting down the steps. Jayne scowled at her briefly, and felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at Harmony, who squeezed her shoulder lightly and gave her a quick nod of thanks. The priestess followed the witch down the stairs, making room for the last member of the team to step up beside Jayne.
“You need a ride, little one?”
“You know me,” Jayne said with a grin. “Too lazy to walk anywhere on my own.”
With a quiet chuckle and the creaking of oiled leather, the well muscled warrior woman dropped to one knee. Wasting no time, Jayne grabbed a hold of the metal ring on Anna’s back and settled her boots into the small stirrups built into her armor. Feeling Jayne settle into place, the other woman stood and hurried after their companions.
The dark staircase led the team down to a damp, stuffy corridor adorned with heavy, oaken doors. Harmony strode down the hallway, pausing in front of each door to peer through the small grate set in each one before continuing on. Near the end of the hallway, she stopped in front of a door and gestured at it.
“Jayne, this one,” she said. “Hurry, please.”
Anna crossed the length of the hallway in about four strides, and Jayne dropped off the elf’s back when she stopped in front of the door. The diminutive girl spent a few seconds examining the door and lock.
“You guys might want to step back,” Jayne said. “This door is trapped to the Abyss and gone, and the lock is at least partly magical.”
“I could just blast it,” Alexa offered as the others backed off to give Jayne room to work.
“Might be a bad idea,” Jayne said as she attacked the door with her tools. “I have no idea how that would react with the spells already on the door.” She worked quickly and quietly, occasionally dodging aside as the door emitted sparks or the occasional burst of flame.
“If she can’t get it,” Anna said quietly, “I’ll just kick it down. I’m pretty sure I can take whatever that door is gonna dish out.”
“But if you couldn’t, I’d have to walk everywhere,” Jayne said, stepping away from the door. “I’m reasonably certain the door is now harmless, but I unlocked it and it still won’t open. There’s a spell on the lock and I’m not sure how to untangle it.”
“It’s ok,” Harmony said. “It should open for me.” She moved up and grasped the iron ring on the door and pulled. The door shuddered a second and then swung open with a groan of protest.
The low light from the hallway illuminated the small room, revealing its single occupant. The young woman slumped in the corner wore tattered black robes, and her matted hair covered her face. Harmony hurried into the room and knelt down next to the prisoner, and placed one hand on the other girl’s head. The priestess murmured a quick prayer and the unknown girl groaned and looked around. Half her face was covered by a pair of oversized glasses with one cracked lens. A pair of stubby horns curved up from her forehead.
“You got my message?” the girl asked in a rusty voice. “I’m surprised you came, I thought you hated me.”
“I’m sorry for what I said before,” Harmony said. “I should have taken you with me when I left. Can you walk?”
“Not while I’m still chained to the floor, and I didn’t want to leave with you. You were right about me.”
“No,” Harmony said. “I don’t care about your heritage anymore, you’re not an evil person. You’re my sister no matter who your father was.”
Jayne moved into the room and began working the lock on the manacle.
“We have trouble,” Anna said, her head cocked sideways. “I hear a couple of dozen men on the stairs, in metal armor.”
“Melody,” Harmony said, addressing the prisoner. “Is there another way out of here?”
“Maybe.” She staggered to her feet and flashed a smile of thanks at Jayne as she tossed the chain aside. “You know how much Mom always liked sneaky back ways into and out of places.”
“Find the way out,” Anna said. “I’ll hold off the guards.” She pulled the two large axes off her hips and idly twirled one of them. With a feral grin she jogged off up the hallway.
“I’ll keep her from getting killed by the wizard that’s inevitably going to be with them,” Alexa said, rolling her eyes.
“I think this is a good place to stop,” Ted said. “We can start with the combat first thing next week.”
“I hope they like Milf’s Acid Arrow,” Sandi said. “Geekery or not, I like blowing things up.”
“Melf,” Jane said, shaking her head. “With an ‘e’ . . . milf means something completely different.”
“Whatever.” Sandi shrugged. “Besides Stacy, anybody need a ride home?”
“Well, the Morgendorffers and I live here,” Jane said with a shrug. “So we’re fine, thanks.”
“We could spend the night,” Stacy said. “Are you sure you don’t want to, Sandi? We can have a sleep-over like old times, we’d just have to call Tiffany.”
“I have to get home,” Sandi said with a sigh. “You know how my mother can be.”
Daria and Quinn exchanged a glance and said nothing.
“It’s not a long walk, but I’d take a ride home if you’re going that direction,” Ted said.
“You live in the house with corn growing in the front yard, right?”
“It’s a food source, a fuel source, and it provides shade in the summer.”
Sandi sighed again and shook her head. “Let’s go.”
Ted pulled on his backpack and then took Stacy’s hand, leading her as the two of them followed Sandi to the door and out of the house.
“What’d you think of the game, Daria?” Quinn asked. “I made your character for you, it took me hours of reading through different books to get everything just right.”
“So, it was like accessorizing, but for geeks?” Daria asked with a smirk.
“I didn’t think of it that way,” Quinn said, frowning thoughtfully. “But, I guess so. It’s like, you pick your class and then you have to make sure you have the right details to make it work right. Also, I’m not a geek.”
“So, what color lipstick do you put on a raging barbarian?” Jane asked.
“Green,” Quinn answered. “Stacy’s character is an elf, and a bright green color meshes with her armor and adds a touch of exotic.”
“You knew she’d have an answer,” Daria said.
“So, you didn’t answer me,” Quinn said. “What do you think, Daria?”
“Eh, I didn’t really get to play but it was fun watching you guys bicker in character. I think you may have been a little transparent with your character background, though.”
“It’s true,” Jane said. “Valiant crusader for good on the run from her mother, who is an evil witch that consorts with devils.”
“It’s no worse than Sandi playing a sorceress so she can max out her charisma,” Quinn muttered. “Besides, Harmony is cool: see, I started her as cleric and then took levels of paladin so I could . . . .”
“Quinn,” Daria interrupted, holding up one hand. “I may not socialize much, but even I know that you’re about to commit a geek faux pas.”
“I’m not a geek, and what faux pas are you referring to?”
“Never, ever tell somebody a long-winded story about your paladin,” Daria said. “That’s like . . . the first rule of games or something.”
“So, how’s Boston?” Jane asked. “How have you been?”
“It’s great, I love college. It’s like being in high school, only with a much smaller idiot population and the way classes are handled I get to avoid most of the football scholarship crowd.” Daria smiled. “I’m finally finding teachers that know things I don’t. I managed to embarrass myself once or twice before I learned to keep my mouth in check.”
“I wish I’d have been there to see that,” Jane said.
“Any guys we need to know about?” Quinn asked.
“No time for love with a double major and a part time job. Working at the copy place isn’t glamorous, but it beats fast food.”
“Are you getting enough to eat?” Jane asked.
“What?” Daria asked, blinking at her best friend.
“Daria,” Quinn said, and then looked away. “I . . . we know that Mom isn’t helping you with school. If there’s anything we can do to help, just ask.”
“I’m fine,” Daria said, dropping into her old deadpan voice.
“Daria . . . .”
“I’m fine, really.” Daria sighed and shook her head. “Things are a little thin sometimes, but I’m getting by. I appreciate the thought, but the two of you need to save all your money to cover your own expenses when you head to college.”
“Are you sure?” Jane asked.
“Yeah,” Daria said with a shrug. “Amy sent me a check a couple of weeks ago.”
“You’re back on speaking terms with her?” Quinn asked, looking surprised.
“Actually, I tore it into pieces and mailed it back to her. Not the most mature thing I could have done, but I refuse to be bribed. What she and Mom are doing is wrong, and I’m not going to have anything to do with it. My principles are worth eating a few bowls of ramen noodles.”
“Maybe it wasn’t a bribe,” Jane said. “Maybe it was meant to be a peace offering, or an apology.”
“Sounds like our family,” Quinn muttered. “They think money fixes everything.”
“If she wants to apologize, she can apologize,” Daria said. “The words ‘I’m sorry’ don’t need to come with cash, they need to come with sincerity. Also, if you want to apologize to somebody you should actually do so directly instead of sending a token and hoping it’s enough.”
“Funny you should say that,” Jane said.
Before Daria could ask what she meant, the doorbell rang. Jane stood and, under the withering glares of both Morgendorffer sisters, walked to the door and opened it.
“Come on in.”
“Hi,” Amy said nervously. “How’s my favorite niece?”
Jane sighed with relief as the twin glares shifted away from her, towards the older woman.
“Mom must have had an affair and there’s a younger sister we don’t know about,” Daria said, slowly quirking an eyebrow. “Because I know you’re not asking about Erin.”
“Daria, please, hear me out.”
“I’m not your enemy. I know you’re angry at Helen for cutting you off, but I promise that I had no idea she’d done it. When I found out, I had a few choice things to say to your mother, I can promise you that.”
“That was why I sent you a check, because I didn’t want you suffering because your mother and her sisters can’t get along. When I got it back from you, I realized you might be angry at me. I just wanted you to understand, I didn’t have anything to do with this.”
“So,” Daria said. “You came to apologize?”
“Yes,” Amy said, looking slightly confused.
“Amy, you’re a smart woman,” Daria said. “In fact, I used to really look up to you. I kind of thought of you as what I wanted to be like when I grew up. So, I want you to think, and tell me if there’s anything wrong with this situation.”
“Of course there is,” Amy said. “This whole situation is wrong, and I’m just sorry that you girls are getting caught up in it. If mother hadn’t . . . .”
“Ha!” Daria said, leaning forward and pointing at Amy. “There, you almost had it before you started getting upset about Grandma Evelyn.”
Amy frowned and crossed her arms, while Jane quietly shuffled towards the kitchen.
“Stay,” Daria said, jabbing a finger at Jane without looking away from her aunt. “You brought this on yourself, you get to suffer through it.”
“Girls, plural,” Daria continued, glaring at Amy. “You’re sorry that ‘you girls are getting caught up in it,’ correct?”
“Of course I am.”
“So, you realize that Quinn is actually sitting in the room?”
“I can see her,” Amy said, matching Daria’s cold stare. “I’m neither blind nor stupid.”
“Yet you walk in here and refer to me as your ‘favorite niece’ right in front of her. You came to give me money, even though I have scholarships and a part time job and Quinn is living on the charity of strangers.”
“You came here to apologize to me, even though you and my mother have driven Quinn out of her own house? Even though you’ve seen fit to name her in a law suit?”
“Daria,” Amy started.
“Oh, no. I’ve been letting this stew for a while, and even though it’s really meant for Mom you’re going to have a serving,” Daria said, rising to her feet. “I understand that Grandma Evelyn played favorites with Aunt Rita, and I can completely sympathize with how much that must have sucked. After all, I had to put with the same thing growing up: Mom always favored Quinn over me.”
“Then you understand,” Amy started again.
“I understand that Mom fell into the trap of acting like Grandma, and so have you. That’s why you have the whole ‘favorite niece’ thing, and it hasn’t escaped me that you picked the child that Grandma didn’t like,” Daria said.
Amy paled and leaned against the door. Jane winced.
“So what I want to know is this: how dare you come here and rub Quinn’s face in this? This house is where she came to escape you and Mom, and the whole ‘Battling Barksdales’ nonsense. She’s sick of it and frankly so am I. Quinn and I are never going to make the same mistakes you have, we are never going to learn to hate each other over something as stupid as money or a pat on the head from an older relative.”
“I’m . . . I’m sorry,” Amy said.
Daria’s voice rose nearly to a shout, but stayed eerily calm and flat, “You are still apologizing to the wrong person.”
Amy flinched and then looked at Quinn. “I’m sorry.”
Daria glared balefully at her aunt as she opened the front door and left the Lane house. After a moment of tense silence, Quinn stood and hugged her sister.
“I love you,” Quinn whispered, and then turned and ran up the stairs. A moment later, the sound of a door thumping closed could be heard.
“Daria, I . . . .” Jane started.
“Were trying to help,” Daria finished for her. She sighed and dropped back into her chair. “I appreciate the intent, but please don’t spring something like that on me ever again.”
“Really making herself at home, isn’t she?” Daria said musingly, looking up the stairs towards Quinn’s bedroom.
“It’s nice,” Jane said, accepting the change of subject and returning to her chair. “She keeps the kitchen stocked and prevents me from going too stir crazy with nobody to talk to. Trent seems confused as hell, though.”
“Yeah, I don’t think he’s completely grokked to the fact she’s living here. He gets this surprised expression every time she walks into the room.”
“You don’t say?” Daria said, quirking an eyebrow.
“It’s nothing like that, I just think he’s happy to know he’ll still have somebody around after I head to Boston.”
“Which reminds me, I have a piece of advice for you: buy thermal underwear. You have no idea how cold that place gets in the winter time.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jane said. “Daria, I really am sorry. I really did think it would help.”
Daria sighed. “That was why I didn’t want you to leave the room. You just got a little taste of what it’s like to get between Barksdales.”
“I won’t be making that mistake again,” Jane muttered.
“It’s ok, Jane.” Daria glared at the door a moment and then shook her head. “This has been allowed to fester long enough, I’m putting an end to it.”
“It’s about time.”
“And you’re helping.”
Quinn followed Stacy down the hall to her bedroom and, when they arrived, sat on the edge of Stacy’s bed. She kicked her shoes off with a grateful sigh and wiggled her toes in the plush carpet.
Stacy sat at her vanity and looked at Quinn curiously. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s these shoes,” Quinn said. “They pinched when I bought them, but I thought they made my legs look hot so I put up with it. My feet are a half size bigger now than they were then.”
“Oh my God. Quinn, I won’t ever tell anybody you have fat feet, I swear!”
“I do not have fat freakin’ feet, Stacy.” Quinn rolled her eyes. “I bought these shoes almost three years ago, I’ve grown. Duh.”
Quinn sighed. “I’m sorry, Stacy. I’m just under a lot of stress, and you don’t deserve to have me taking it out on you. Besides, I really appreciate you asking your parents if I could go to church with you.”
“It’s ok.” Stacy stared at the carpet a moment, and then asked, “Why are you wearing three year old shoes?”
“I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“It’s because of your mom, isn’t it?”
“Stacy, I really don’t,” Quinn said, and then looked away. The redhead took a deep breath, and then continued, “My family situation really sucks, ok? My cool aunt showed up at Jane’s last night after you guys all left and she got into an argument with Daria.”
“Amy hates me,” Quinn said quietly.
“Of course she doesn’t,” Stacy said. She moved to the edge of the bed next to Quinn and took one of her hands. “People say things they don’t mean when they’re angry.”
“I hope Daria has kids someday,” Quinn said, absently wiping her eyes. “I want to be the cool aunt and spoil them.”
“Hey, how weird is this?” Stacy asked.
“You’re tearing up and I’m telling you it’ll be ok. It feels backwards.”
Quinn cracked a smile, and then started to giggle. After a moment, both girls were laughing hard enough to cry.
“Good thing we’re wearing smudge-proof mascara,” Stacy said. Both girls went into another giggle fit.
“Thanks, Stacy.” Quinn leaned over and hugged her friend. “I needed that.”
“You’re welcome. Hey, can I show you something?”
“It’s my new treasure,” Stacy said, standing and walking to a bookshelf. “I got it a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been dying to show it to somebody.” She pulled down a novel and handed it to Quinn with a giddy grin.
After a moment Quinn asked, “What’s a Spelljammer?”
“That’s not the point,” Stacy said, taking the book back and flipping it open to the first page. “He signed it, the author signed it for me.”
“Oh, well that was really nice of him.”
“I met him through the Fandemonium board,” Stacy said. “After he retired as a professional author he started writing fan fiction in his spare time. I shipped him the novel and he signed it and shipped it back to me.”
“That’s cool,” Quinn said, sitting on the edge of the bed.
“We used to message each other and stuff, he’s really cool. I read all his stuff, because I want to be able to write like he does. See, on the forum people call him The Agony Guy and he writes all this really sad, heart-wrenching stuff. It makes me cry sometimes, but I can’t stop reading it because I have to see how it ends.”
“Uh huh. Stacy . . . you didn’t offer to dye your hair the same color as his or anything, did you?”
“What? No, he’s a guy and he’s old and stuff. I don’t want to dye grey into my hair,” Stacy said.
“Ok. It’s just that you said you used to message each other, so I’m guessing you don’t any more.”
“No,” Stacy said, and sighed sadly. “Not since the restraining order.”
Stacy sat heavily on the edge of the bed and stared at the carpet.
“Stacy, what did you do to cause this guy to slap you with a restraining order?” Quinn asked.
“Oh, it wasn’t him. It was his wife.”
“I sent him a couple of pictures of myself.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Quinn asked.
“Quinn, I sent him some,” Stacy leaned over to Quinn and stressed the final word, “pictures.”
“Yeah, but . . . oh . . . oh, Stacy. You didn’t?”
Stacy shrugged and smiled sadly. “Probably not the best idea, huh?”
“Does Ted know about this?”
“Sure, he’s the one that took the pictures,” Stacy said. “Who else was I gonna get?”
Quinn blinked a couple of times and handed the book back to Stacy. “Stace?”
“Never, ever tell me what you do with Ted. I want to remain delusional that you’re sweet, naïve, and innocent.”
“So, you don’t want to know about the leather outfit with the thigh high boots and mask?” Stacy asked.
“No, that’s actually the exact sort of thing I don’t want to know about.”
“Ok, I guess I won’t tell you that it was just a costume for a convention we went to last month.”
Quinn fell backwards on the bed and covered her eyes with one hand. “I hate you.”
There was a light knock on the door, and it swung open to reveal Stacy’s mother standing in the hallway.
“What’s up, Mom?”
“Quinn’s sister is on the phone.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Rowe,” Quinn said, sitting up. “I’ll take the call in here, ok?”
Quinn grabbed the phone off the nightstand and held it to her ear. “Yeah?”
Stacy couldn’t hear what Daria had to say, and Quinn didn’t participate in the conversation beyond the occasional ‘uh-huh,’ but the expression on the redhead’s face slowly darkened to the point where Stacy found herself slowly edging away from her best friend. After a few minutes, Quinn said goodbye and hung up the phone.
“What’s going on?”
Quinn opened her mouth to say something, paused, and then gave Stacy a smile that was creepy, thin, and eerily familiar. “Operation Overlord,” she said.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Google it,” Quinn said. “I gotta go, Stacy. I’ll call you later, ok?”
Stacy sat thoughtfully for a moment after Quinn had gone, and then grabbed her phone and hit one of the speed dial buttons.
“Hey, Sandi. I was talking to Quinn about shoes, and you remember when we were retro-shopping on Dega Street and found that shop with all those clothes that looked like stuff Quinn used to wear?”
Quinn stopped on the sidewalk and looked up at what she had come to think of as her mother’s house. She held her shoes in one hand, the numbness of her feet on the cold concrete preferable to the pain from the narrow high heels. The number of cars in the driveway bothered her, and for a moment she contemplated turning around and heading back to the Lane house.
“Daria said she needs me here,” Quinn muttered to herself. She squared her shoulders and marched up the driveway to the front door, where she stopped and knocked.
Helen opened the door and looked at her youngest daughter with surprise. “Quinn, this is your house, you don’t have to knock.”
“Really?” Quinn asked, quirking an eyebrow.
Helen sighed and stepped aside, allowing Quinn to enter. The redhead looked around the living room, noting her aunt Amy sitting on the couch and her father sitting on the love seat. Daria was in the corner of the room, finishing the decorations on a Christmas tree. The air was full of the sound of people not talking.
“Quinn,” Daria said, turning and giving her sister a warm smile. “You’re just in time to put the star on top.”
Quinn stood frozen in place, the absolute surrealness of the situation throwing her for a loop. She looked around the room again, from Amy glaring at the ceiling with her arms crossed to her nervous looking father who was passing an empty martini glass from hand to hand. Helen’s grimace of forced happiness was off-putting, but at least it was more familiar than the creepy, real seeming smile she was getting from her sister.
“Are you ok, Daria?” Quinn asked.
“I’m fine, now get over here. You know it’s always your job to put the star on top, and it’s just not Christmas until you do!”
Quinn walked over to the tree hesitantly, dropping her shoes by the couch on her way past. She took the plastic silver star from her sister and, standing up on her toes and bracing against the wall for balance, pushed it into place at the top of the tree.
Daria clapped her hands and laughed merrily. “Now we’re just waiting on the rest of the guests, and we can get this party started!”
“Guests?” Helen asked. As if on cue, the doorbell rang the moment after she spoke. She turned and opened the door, and then stepped back in surprise. “Rita? Erin? What are you doing here?”
“We came as soon as we heard you’d decided to have some sense,” Rita said, sweeping past Helen to enter the room and look around imperiously.
A second later, Erin followed her mother into the house. She gave Helen a nervous smile and then immediately looked away, choosing to stare at the floor.
“Sense?” Helen asked, the ice in her tone making the December air outside seem balmy by comparison.
“Daria called and told me that you and Amy wanted to discuss dropping this silly law suit,” Rita said with a sniff.
“Did she?” Helen said, turning her stare on her eldest daughter.
“Let’s talk about all that later,” Daria said, her smile still in place. “I know it’s still a week before Christmas, but it’s hard to get everybody together for a major holiday. Let’s go ahead and celebrate now, shall we?”
“Daria,” Helen growled.
“Sure thing, kiddo.” Jake smiled and gave Daria a thumb’s up. “I saw that tin you carried into the kitchen, should I go get it?”
“I think we could use some cookies,” Daria said. “Quinn, why don’t you go with him and get some glasses out of the cabinet. There’s eggnog in the ‘fridge.”
Quinn followed her father into the kitchen and the two of them put together a tray for the glasses and eggnog. Her father picked up the large cookie tin and then motioned for her to grab the tray.
“I don’t know either, pumpkin.” Jake shrugged. “Your sister usually seems to know what she’s doing, so I’m just going with it. Ok?”
“Ok.” Quinn grabbed the tray, and taking her cue from Daria plastered a happy smile on her face before she headed back out into the living room. Faking pleasantry was old hat for Quinn, especially after being the date queen of Lawndale.
When she and her father walked back into the living room, it was obvious the battle lines had been drawn. Rita and Erin had taken over the love seat, and Helen had joined Amy on the couch. Daria was busy sorting through presents at the foot of the tree while humming Jingle Bells. Quinn put the tray on the table and walked over to stand next to Daria. Jake carried the cookie tin over to the window and began quietly munching.
“Daria, I want an explanation,” Helen said.
“Ok,” Daria said, rising to her feet. “I planned this whole get together, because I thought it would help us grow as a family. I couldn’t have done it by myself, my friend Jane helped a lot but she said she didn’t want to intrude so she isn’t here. She’s really helped a lot, both me and Quinn; it’s like she’s an older sister who puts her younger siblings’ welfare ahead of her own.”
Daria smiled brightly at Rita, who looked away and frowned.
“The tree looks great, kiddo!”
“Thanks, Dad. Quinn, can you help me give out presents?” Daria asked, handing Quinn a small, colorful gift bag.
“Sure.” Quinn checked the tag, and then walked over to Jake. “Here Daddy, this is from Mom.”
Jake reached into the bag and pulled out a pair of keys on a ring. He exchanged a confused look with Helen, and looked at Daria. “These are my apartment keys.”
“I know,” Daria said, her smile finally fading. “I got them out of your coat pocket when you weren’t looking. But they really are from Mom, not me.” Daria grabbed another box and handed it to Quinn.
“To Rita, from her sisters,” Quinn read aloud, and then carried the box to her aunt.
Rita hesitated a moment, and then tore open the paper and took the top off the box. She stared into it for a few moments and then asked, “How did you get this?” The silence stretched out for a few seconds as she and Daria locked eyes. Slowly, Rita reached into the box and pulled out a dark blue t-shirt with a cheerful yellow ‘Stop and Rob’ logo stitched over the breast pocket.
“I gave it to her,” Erin said quietly. “She came up to the house yesterday with her dark haired friend and we talked for a while.”
“How could you?” Rita shrieked, her daughter flinching away from the noise and anger.
“I don’t get it,” Helen said.
“I do,” Amy said flatly.
“That’s one of Aunt Rita’s spare shirts from her job,” Daria said. “See, she really doesn’t have any job skills and she’s pretty old to be entering the job market for the first time, no offense Aunt Rita. Without Grandma Barksdale to support her, and without the money from her inheritance, she had to get a minimum wage job at a gas station.”
“Well, it’s about time . . . .” Helen started to say.
“They turned off our electricity,” Erin said, glaring at Helen. “Do you know how cold that huge house gets with no power? Not that you care, I bet you’re just happy you finally got to beat Mom at something.”
“Oh, and here’s one for Quinn!” Daria said, her flat tone belying her cheerful words. “You won’t have to walk far to deliver this one.” She winked at her sister as she handed over the gaily wrapped box.
“To Quinn, from the Battling Barksdales,” Quinn said quietly. Dreading what she was going to find in the box, she carefully and meticulously unwrapped the present without tearing the paper or damaging the ribbon. She slowly pulled the lid off the box and gasped at what was inside. Reaching in, she pulled out a beautiful antique silver mirror.
“Like it?” Daria asked.
“Look into the mirror, it’s your Christmas gift from us. You mother, your aunts, your sister . . . one way or another, we’ve all abandoned you. All you have is yourself, and I’m sorry.”
“Daria, no . . . .”
“I should have come back, I should have done something about this a long time ago,” Daria said quietly. “But enough of that, I think it’s time for me to open something.” She pointed at another box, and Quinn picked it up and handed it to her. Daria quickly ripped away the paper and tossed aside the lid of the box, revealing a green sweater. Still moving quickly, she pulled off her t-shirt and started unfolding the sweater.
“Daria!” her mother shouted, quickly followed by a traumatized gurgling sound from Jake.
“What? It’s a warm sweater, and something I bought for myself. See, this is the gift you gave me.” Daria pointed down at her pale torso, her ribs obviously showing. “This is what happens when your diet consists of cup-o-soup twice a day.”
“I get it,” Helen said angrily. “I’m the bad guy. It’s my fault that my sister doesn’t have electricity, it’s my fault that my family has been driven out of their home, and it’s my fault that my children are starving.”
“No,” Daria said. “First off, Quinn isn’t starving . . . although I did notice that her shoes fit so poorly that she walked through the door barefoot in December. Also, those things aren’t entirely your fault.”
“I helped,” Amy said sourly. “Right?”
Daria leaned over to her sister and, in a stage whisper, said, “Mom and Amy are cranky because they haven’t gotten their gifts yet.” She grabbed a small box off the floor and handed it to Quinn, then pushed her in Amy’s direction.
“To Amy, from her sisters,” Quinn read, and then handed the box to her aunt.
Amy stared at Daria for a moment, and then shrugged. She had the box open in a few seconds and sat staring at the sealed vial of milky white fluid with a slightly confused expression. “What the hell is this?”
“It’s what you were given, from your older sisters,” Daria replied. “It’s venom, specifically rattlesnake venom. Do you know how hard it is to get that stuff shipped?”
“I see,” Amy said, tucking the vial into her pants pocket. “I’ll treasure it always.”
Daria reached under the tree and pulled out the last box.
“I suppose that’s mine?” Helen asked.
“To Helen, from her sisters,” Daria confirmed, and stepped forward to hand her mother the box herself.
Helen glared at her oldest daughter for a moment, and then took the box. She tore the paper aside in one motion, and opened the box. She stared inside for a moment, and then pulled out a smallish cattail whip, the strands made of thin chains adorned with small hooks. Helen blinked at the object for a moment and then looked up at Daria questioningly.
“It’s called a discipline,” Daria said. “I acquired it at a small Carmelite monastery near Washington, D.C. It’s used for self-flagellation, usually during prayer. In your case, I suppose it’s what you use to drive yourself to out-do your sisters at any cost.”
The room was silent for a moment while everyone tried not to look at each other.
“Quinn and I tried to hold an intervention for the three of you once, and it didn’t take,” Daria said quietly. “This is your last chance to work out your differences; Erin, Quinn, and I are leaving.”
“I’m leaving too,” Jake muttered. “No way in hell I’m gonna be left alone with those women.”
“I’m tired of going hungry,” Daria said. “Erin is tired of shivering in the dark, and Quinn is tired of not being welcome in her own home. Figure out what you’re doing about the will, and don’t bother to contact your daughters and/or nieces until you do.” Daria walked to the door and held it open, looking back into the room. After a moment Quinn walked outside, followed by a depressed looking Erin.
“That sucked,” Erin muttered.
“Let’s go somewhere fun,” Daria said. “We’ll take my car.”
“How’d it go?” Jane asked, looking up from the couch as the three young women shuffled through her front door. “And why the hell isn’t Quinn wearing shoes? It’s freakin’ December out there!”
“I wept that I had no shoes,” Quinn said, and chuckled quietly to herself. When she realized everyone was staring at her she shrugged and said, “Sorry, just reminded me of something I said to a friend once.”
“What, we’re friends now?” Katrina said, walking in from the kitchen. “That explains why Lane here invited me to come to the Christmas party.”
“Katrina!” Quinn said and ran across the room to hug the goth girl. Katrina tried to look annoyed at the attention, but she couldn’t completely suppress a smile.
“Let go, Beautiful Girl,” she grumbled. “You’re going to ruin both our reputations.”
“Daria, this is the girl I hang out with in the library every day,” Quinn said. “Katrina, this is my sister Daria and my cousin Erin.”
The front door swung open again and Trent walked in, carrying his guitar. “Hey, Daria. Merry Christmas.”
“Trent, you’re awake,” Daria said with a smirk.
“Whoa, yeah. How did that happen?” Trent smiled and glanced around. “Looks like Janey’s party is starting, I’m gonna head upstairs and get in some guitar practice.”
“Can I listen?” Erin asked, losing her depressed expression for the first time.
“Sure, I guess.” Trent shrugged and walked upstairs, Erin on his heels.
“Isn’t she married?” Jane asked.
“Yes, and her husband shared a bond of love with her that no antibiotic can cure,” Daria said.
Jane’s eyebrows shot up, and she quickly stood and headed upstairs to have a talk with her brother.
“You weren’t kidding about your family, were you?” Katrina asked. “I thought my sister was the only loser chasing after Trent Lane.”
“Trent’s ok,” Quinn said, frowning slightly. “He just requires motivation.”
“Well, why don’t we motivate ourselves into the kitchen?” Daria asked dryly. “Jane promised me there would be seasonal foods and beverages.”
“Frozen turkey dinners, three tins of slightly stale sugar cookies, a half-gallon of eggnog, and a bottle of red wine,” Quinn said. “I picked out the wine, God only knows what Jane would have bought.”
“She might have, Heaven forbid, bought wine in a box.” Daria rolled her eyes and walked into the kitchen.
“Exactly,” Quinn said, following her.
Katrina shook her head and followed the sisters into the kitchen. She stood in the doorway a moment watching them, and then said, “Look, I just wanted to stop by and say Merry Holidays or whatever. I’ve gotta book out of here.”
“Why?” Quinn asked with a frown.
“Family crap,” Katrina said, shrugging her shoulders. “It was good to see you, Red.”
“You too,” Quinn said, giving the goth girl a dazzling smile. “See you back in the library, ok?”
Daria stood with her head cocked to one side and watched the exchange. After Katrina had gone, she smirked and asked, “When did you trade in the three musketeers?”
“Ugh, I hate nougat.” Quinn pulled a couple of dinners out the freezer and turned towards the microwave, pausing when she noticed her sister was still smirking at her. “Or were you making a reference to the book?”
“Nevermind,” Daria said, taking the dinners from her sister. She motioned towards the living room when the doorbell rang. “I’ll get these warmed up, you need to go answer the front door.”
Quinn rolled her eyes and walked back through the living room and opened the door. “Hey, guys! What are you doing here?” She smiled and stepped aside, letting Sandi, Stacy, and Tiffany enter the house. Stacy was almost buried under a pile of shopping bags and stumbled a little entering the house.
“Dirty,” Tiffany muttered glancing around the cluttered living room.
“Yeah, it’s hard to stay ahead of the guys in the band. They’re pretty messy,” Quinn said.
“Band?” Tiffany asked.
Quinn looked up as Jane’s voice could suddenly be heard, carrying down the stairs from her brother’s room. “Because you’re married, and you’ve got the damn crotch-rot, that’s why!”
“Oh my,” Sandi said, one eyebrow arcing upwards. “Quinn, I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t stay for the fireworks. Although it might be preferable to the network Christmas party my mother is dragging me to.”
“Older guys?” Quinn asked.
“Grabby hands,” Sandi confirmed.
“Ewwww,” Tiffany said.
“We, um, we brought you an early Christmas gift,” Stacy said from behind the armload of bags. “I hope you’re not mad.”
“Why would I be mad?” Quinn asked, looking into one of the bags. “Where did you guys get . . . all . . . oh.” Her voice trailed off and she took a step back. “I guess you know, now.”
“We didn’t buy back everything,” Sandi said. “A few of your fashion no-noes belong in that cast-off shack; I’ll not specifically mention those clogs you used to wear all the time.”
“We were retro-shopping a couple of weeks ago,” Stacy said, peeking out from between two bags. “We saw your stuff, but I wasn’t sure if it was your stuff until today. Why’d you sell your clothes, Quinn?”
Quinn shrugged, and crossed her arms. “I’m sort of running the finances for the house now, and we were running short of grocery money. I thought about that huge closet packed full of clothes, and how wasteful I’d been with my parents’ money.”
“Well, we can’t have a member of the former Fashion Club going without a diverse wardrobe,” Sandi said. “So we pooled our resources, and I zeroed out the club’s bank account.”
“Thanks, guys.” Quinn blinked a few times to keep herself from crying. “You don’t know what this means to me.”
“Oh, we do,” Sandi said, the other two girls nodding agreement. “I don’t know if I could be strong enough to sell my extra clothes.”
Daria leaned in the doorway to the kitchen, unnoticed by the girls in the living room as they shared a group hug. Her face wavered between a smile and a smirk, and she whispered to herself, “And God bless us, every one!”