DARIA 2007:

The Girl from Hope

 

 

 

©2010 The Angst Guy (theangstguy@yahoo.com)

Daria and associated characters are ©2010 MTV Networks

 

 

Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: theangstguy@yahoo.com

 

Synopsis: What might Daria have been like if the show had taken place in 2007, ten years later than it did? And what if Daria had gone to an alternate high school back in Highland? One answer to those questions lies in this response to two fanfic challenges.

 

Author’s Notes: This story is rated R for language and dramatic situations. It began with two challenges from PPMB. Roentgen, on 8/5/06 (“Highland’s Other High School,” in the Deep Thoughts forum), wrote:

 

“In the Beavis and Butt-Head episode “No Laughing” (June 2, 1993), the little dumb asses get into trouble in school when they can’t stop laughing at any remotely salacious remark. The principal has finally had it with them and Coach Bradley Buzzcut informs the rest of the class about the boys’ fate:

 

‘You see, class, Beavis and Butt-head here are not allowed to laugh for a whole week. That’s right, and if they do laugh they’ll be expelled, and they’ll have to go to Hope High School where they’ll get their asses kicked on a daily basis by all the other delinquents....’

 

My question: how come there haven’t been any more fanfics about this infamous Hope High School, a school that’s even worse than Highland High?”

 

Prince Charon, on 7/30/06 (“Iron Chef: Retro Dariana” in the Creative Writing forum), wrote:

 

“The opening of IICY includes a series of historical ‘What Ifs’ set in earlier decades. Pick one, and show what Daria would have been like, if the show had been set in that era.... So, any takers?”

 

Here is the story, showing what Daria might have been like if the show had started in 2007, ten years later than it did. This tale appeared on SFMB from August to October 2006. Background notes are appended to the end of the story (“Author’s Notes II”), but reading them is not necessary to enjoy or understand the story.

 

Acknowledgements: Thanks to both Roentgen and Prince Charon for the push. E. A. Smith, Sleepless, DigiSim, and Mr. Magnum found several errors in the story I had to fix, and B.T.L., Brother Grimace, and Scissors MacGillicutty suggested changes and clarifications I adopted. Roentgen, Custos Sophiae, Tildessmoo, Richard Lobinske, and Sleepless made astute and prescient guesses about the background and content of this tale that influenced my overall plotting. Thanks, all!

       The ultra-cool Stereo Hifi font that so looks like the Daria TV show logo is ©1997 by Cathy Davies. Thank you, too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

I dreamt the past was never past redeeming:
But whether this was false or honest dreaming
I beg death’s pardon now. And mourn the dead.

 

—Richard Purdy Wilbur, “The Pardon”

 

 

 

 

The future is an enormous question mark, and

I don’t know what lies ahead. I only know that

if it moves, I’m shooting it.

 

—Daria Morgendorffer, The Daria Diaries

 

 

 

 

 

 

I

 

 

       The flame-red Lincoln Navigator rode through Lawndale’s morning traffic like a stallion passing through a mob of peasants and dogs. Daria Morgendorffer turned from the GPS mapper and glanced down from the front passenger window, peering into cars with an impassive face. If a driver or passenger looked up at her, she stared back through her rectangular-lens glasses without blinking until traffic separated the vehicles or the subject looked away. She then resumed chewing her gum and peered at the nav system until another victim came into view.

       “Daria,” said the driver without looking her, “I know the move here was difficult, but I want you to look at this as a fresh start. You’ve got a clean slate, and not many people get that.”

       The gum chewer offered no sign that she heard. She continued watching the streets scroll by on the dashboard nav system.

       “Daria,” said the driver in a louder tone.

       She tucked the gum in her cheek. “Transmission received,” she said in a monotone.

       “You’ll have a chance to make real friends here. I want you to go the extra mile and get to know people. And let them get to know you. This isn’t like Highland.”

       Daria inhaled, held her breath for a reflective moment, then let it out. “Unless I let it be,” she said softly.

       The driver frowned. “What exactly did you mean by that?”

       “Nothin’.”

       “Look, I want you to drop—”

       The wordless melody of a long-ago Joni Mitchell tune filled the air: Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? The driver sighed and punched the handless phone button. “Helen Morgendorffer here.”

       “Eric Schrecter!” said a hearty male voice. “Helen, how’s our firm’s new partner this morning?”

       “Eric, hi!” The brunette behind the steering wheel punched another button, activating the wireless headset hooked over her right ear. “I’m taking the girls to their first day of school. How are things at the office?”

       Daria looked away. “Over and out,” she whispered. Walking teenagers crowded the sidewalks. The school had to be nearby. Daria pushed her glasses up from their usual perch on the end of her nose and peered ahead. At the base of a five-story flagpole with an oversized American flag snapping from it, an enormous massive block of stone was visible, the writing on the marker clear from a block away.

 

 

 

 

LAWNDALE MAGNET HIGH SCHOOL

High Security, Higher Standards, Highest Results!

GO, LIONS!

 

 

       The logos of a dozen corporations decorated the lower border of the marker, signaling the companies’ financial support of higher education in exchange for shameless in-school advertising. Daria noted Ultra-Cola, two pizza restaurants, three radio or TV stations, a cyber-café, four clothing stores, and some place called The Zon were among the school’s sponsors. A man in a blue uniform stood near the marker, a holstered yellow stun pistol, plastic handcuffs, a nightstick, and a radio hanging on his belt. He was scratching his forehead, a blue duckbilled cap in hand. SECURITY, read the yellow letters on the cap.

       “Just a minute, Eric,” said Daria’s mother to an invisible presence. “Can I call you back? I’m about to drop the girls off. Thanks.” Helen punched the hang-up button on the dash, then raised her right hand so it was visible to the back seat and snapped her fingers.

       “What?” came another girl’s voice.

       “Quinn, we’re here,” called Helen. “Turn off the TV and get your books.”

       Daria heard a sigh and the sound of her sister taking off her earphones and tossing them in an unused seat. “Let us off on the street!” she called. “Don’t pull up to the doors!”

       “All right,” called Helen. “Wouldn’t want to embarrass you.” The enormous SUV slowed and edged over to the sidewalk behind a line of parked cars. “I remember when I was your age, and my parents once drove my sisters and me to school, and I—”

       The Navigator’s right rear door opened and slammed shut. Daria’s sister was already out and gone, her windblown Faith Hill hairstyle burning holes in the libidos of every male in sight. Students everywhere stared at Quinn’s flawless skin, orange-peel hair, and tube top with dropped jaws and wide eyes. Hardly anyone paid attention to the tiny cross on her gold necklace, hanging from the J of the necklace’s WWJD? charm.

       Daria again tucked the gum in her cheek, then picked up her backpack from the car floor. A hand caught her arm before she could pop the door and escape.

       “I know this is a difficult period of adjustment for you, Daria, and you don’t make friends easily,” said her mother, “but stick with it. Do the right thing this time. You know from what happened that you can’t say anything that comes into your head just to shock people.”

       Daria regarded her mother with a blank expression. At last, she opened her mouth. “Is Eric available?” she asked.

       Shock spread over her mother’s face. “Wha—what the hell did you mean by—”

       Daria jerked on the door handle and jumped out of the high seat before that sentence was completed. She whirled when her boots hit the sidewalk and slammed the heavy door shut on her mother’s rage, then turned and walked toward the school, backpack dangling from the straps coiled around her left hand. That shot was for Daria’s father, left back in Highland in the pending divorce. Payback was a bitch, indeed.

       It was warm for early autumn in the suburbs. Loose black jeans over black boots, a long-sleeved black jacket unbuttoned in front, and a burnt orange t-shirt filled the bill. Daria palmed her gum and dropped the wad into the street gutter, then felt in an inside jacket pocket for her smokes. She had already spotted a small group of teen smokers standing on the sidewalk just down from the school entrance. She shook the open cigarette pack, took one in her lips, and exchanged the pack for her lighter. She stopped well short of the group, dropped her backpack, and lit up with a hand cupped around the lighter. The first drag she took, she held in for five seconds to get the maximum nicotine punch. Smoke then roared from her nostrils like dragon fire. She was careful to look away from the group and make no eye contact, so no one would speak to her. Everyone was leaving her alone. Bliss.

       A minute later, a bus came through traffic, slowing with a squeal of brakes to a spot uncomfortably close to Daria. She looked up in irritation over the top of her glasses, which had slid halfway down her nose again.

       “Fuckups are here,” someone muttered in the cluster of smokers.

       The bus was a standard orange-yellow school model, but with “LAWNDALE COUNTY DEPT. OF SOCIAL SERVICES” on the side over a blue-and white seal showing a small child holding an adult’s hand. LYRE, read the initials under the seal. The doors shrieked open, and a handful of students got off, heading for the school.

       All but one.

       Daria studied the tall girl in the hip-hugging black skirt and midriff-revealing red V-neck top with sleeves that reached her elbows. I KICK DAMN HARD read the words on the back of her top, over the complex blue tattoo just above her hips. She was crowned by jet-black hair in a long shag cut that did not hide her artsy dangly earrings. Her lips were the color of new-drawn blood; black eyeliner accented her bright blue irises.

       Instinct said the tall girl was an outcast. She might even be interesting. She’s going to ask me for a cigarette, Daria thought.

       The outcast spotted Daria, her gaze lingering a half-second too long. She sauntered over.

       Daria took out her pack and held it out without being asked. She had never done that before and could not say why she did it then.

       “Thanks,” said the outcast, taking one. She put it between her blood-red lips and leaned close. The ends of their cigarettes touched as they inhaled and the virgin cigarette caught.

       The new girl smelled of perfume, unlike Daria, who smelled of soap and a knock-off brand of dandruff shampoo. Maybe she’ll go away now that she’s got a smoke, Daria thought, but for some reason she hoped the outcast girl would stay. “What’s L-Y-R-E?” she asked.

       “Lawndale Youth Residential Enterprise,” said the tall girl in a deep, gravely voice. She took the cigarette from her mouth and blew out a long cloud. “Everyone calls it Lyre.” She drew out the word so it sounded like liar. “County home for runaways, foster care, orphans, leftovers. I’m Jane, by the way.”

       Daria knew the girl’s type; she just hadn’t met a friendly one before. “Daria,” she said, and she took out her cigarette and rubbed her nose to avoid shaking hands. She had never liked to touch or be touched, especially after leaving her last high school.

       “First day here?” asked the tall girl, looking her right in the eyes.

       Daria nodded. “Mom dropped me off,” she began, then instantly hated herself for sounding like a little kid.

       “Where’re you from?” asked the tall girl—Jane, Daria reminded herself.

       “Texas,” said Daria, getting nervous. She tried to moderate her voice. Goddamn hick accent.

       “What part?”

       “West Texas, Highland. Middle of nowhere.”

       “You a Dubya fan?”

       Daria looked up with a narrow, annoyed gaze.

       “Guess not,” said Jane with a grin. She flicked ash from her cigarette, one arm crossed over her waist to hold the elbow of the other. “Had to be at least one.”

       A bell rang in the distance. All the other students around began migrating for the doors to get into school.

       “We have time,” said Jane. She studied Daria again. “You have any bad habits?”

       Daria took a deep drag on her cigarette. “A few,” she said when she exhaled.

       “They get you into any trouble?”

       “Yeah.” Daria looked up into the taller girl’s blue eyes. Jane was smiling at her. Daria managed a slight smile in return.

       “Welcome to the club. We get a lot of people like that, me included.” Jane looked at her speculatively. “Ever kill anybody?”

       Daria’s smile faded. She looked away, drew on her cigarette until it burned down to the filter, then dropped it and crushed out the butt with the black toe of her right boot.

       Jane watched, then took a last drag and flipped her cigarette away. “You gotten around town yet?” she asked, as Daria picked up her backpack.

       Daria shook her head no, looking at the ground.

       “What’s your homeroom?”

       “Barch,” said Daria after a moment.

       “Me, too. Tenth grade?”

       “Yeah.”

       “Great. I’ll fill you in on things.”

       “Thank’ee.” Daria finally looked up at Jane and noticed something. “You got any books?” she asked, forgetting about her Texas twang and hick choice of words.

       “Left ‘em at school for the weekend,” said Jane. “Too heavy.”

       Daria glanced at Jane’s lean, wiry musculature. Too heavy, her ass. Her new friend was built like an athlete, maybe a runner. She probably could kick damn hard, at that. Part of an elaborate blue tattoo peeked from the end of one of her red sleeves. It looked like it had the same pattern as the one across her lower back. Jane was the living embodiment of the phrase, I don’t give a shit.

       It was exactly how Daria felt about things, too.

       “Better get in,” said Jane, starting for the doors. “I’d love to go somewhere else, but we’re on camera.”

       Daria’s gaze flicked around as she followed. No camera was visible. That meant the local Big Brother was subtle, unlike the one at Daria’s old high school. She would have to be careful wherever she went.

       Memories of her old high school provoked a particular concern. “They make people go to special psychological classes here?” asked Daria with a raised eyebrow. “Self-esteem classes?”

       Jane shook her head and grinned as they walked into the school. “No one here gives a fuck about your self-esteem.”

       “Thank God,” Daria breathed. Jane laughed aloud.

       The second bell rang. They were both late for homeroom and got detention. Neither of them cared.

 

 

 

 

II

 

 

       “…so the old bum tries to crawl into our basement through the broken window, the police get him, and then they find me alone in the house asleep upstairs. I didn’t care about the bum, actually. He left me alone and I left him alone, except to lock the basement door to make sure he left me alone. My parents let everyone break into the house. It was part of their leftist tradition. Long story short, the county got me.”

       Jane banged her locker shut and spun the combination dial. “That was a year ago. No one’s picked me up for foster care, not even my parents, who’re afraid to come back to this state because of the abandonment charges pending against them. My next oldest brother Trent stayed in the house until my folks forgot to mail in the mortgage, so that’s gone, too. He stuck around for a while, living in his car and trying to earn enough money to give some to me, when he made the mistake of walking past an Army recruiter and now he’s in Iraq, driving a supply truck. At least he’s got a steady job. That’s a first for the whole family.”

       “You hear from him much?” asked Daria.

       “Nah.” The girls headed for their next class, dangerously close to the next bell. “He’s not the writing kind, doesn’t even do e-mail. He recorded a tape for me with some songs he played on it—he likes to write music—but mostly he just complains. He hates it there. Some guys in his unit got killed by an IED a few months ago and he’s worried about his friends buying it. He never worries about himself, always about other people.”

       Jane reached into a pocket of her skirt and pulled out a small piece of paper, handing it over to Daria. It was a printout of a color digital picture showing a tall, thin young man in camo, leaning against a large dusty truck and smoking a cigarette. He had a face that hinted that he and Jane were closely related. He looked hot, tired, dirty, and—Daria was not sure how she knew this—gentle and kind. He gave the camera a mocking half-smile as if saying, Life sure is funny, isn’t it?

       “He’s the only one in my family who stuck around to look after me,” said Jane. She stared without blinking at the picture Daria held. “We raised each other, I guess, with everyone else gone. He sends me part of his paycheck every two weeks. I’ve got a real bank account now, but I don’t use it much. Nothing to spend it on since I can’t wander around on my own.”

       “When’s your brother get back?” Daria had stopped thinking about her Texas twang, and it was back with a vengeance. She was thinking about Trent, wondering how old he was and whether Jane would mention her to Trent when they next communicated and would he write to her and why was she, Daria, even bothering to think about stupid stuff like this. Nothing like that would ever happen... especially now.

       “He’s supposed to return stateside next summer, but they’ve been messing with rotation dates so much, I don’t know when I’ll see him.” Jane took back the picture that Daria offered and put it away. “Anyway, I’ve got two more years in LYRE and then I’m on my own for good. I haven’t thought about what to do after that. I’d like to work on my drawings, but I have to be practical. No one else in my family has been practical, except Trent, and I still wonder about him. I mean, the Army, jeez.”

       Daria gave Jane a critical look. She had not thought of Jane as the artsy type, but it made a certain kind of sense. “What’d you like to draw?”

       “People, mostly. I’d like to paint, sculpt, all that, but the dorm leaves a lot to be desired in terms of storage space, so I stick with sketchpads, pencils, charcoal, stuff like that. Some of the others at LYRE model for me now and then, but the staff doesn’t like it for various reasons. I get by.” Jane ran a hand through her layered haircut as they approached the classroom door. “Next time, it’s your turn to answer my questions.”

       “I don’t recall agreein’ to that,” Daria grumbled as she followed Jane into the room. The bell rang a moment later.

       Jane turned before she sat down and gave Daria a knowing smile: You’ll talk. You’ll tell me everything. You don’t think you will, but you will. Count on it.

       With a grim look, Daria prepared to take a vacant seat next to Jane at the back of the room.

       “Uh, Miss Morbid... um, Mor-gen-dorffer, sorry,” said the teacher, a mushy-looking man who frowned at a class seating roster. “Mrs. Manson in Intervention Services called before you came in. She needs to see you in room one-thirteen. It’s down the hall and down the stairs, to your left as you go out the door, past the water fountain.”

       “Yes, sir,” Daria groaned, then left the room with backpack in tow as Jane waved goodbye. The teacher’s directions proved inadequate, but Daria was able to figure out the room numbering system and was at room 113 before long.

       “Come in,” said a gray-haired woman with glasses when Daria opened the door. “Are you—” She held a sheet of paper to her eyes “—Dar-ee-ah?”

       Dar-ee-ah, ma’am,” said Daria, pronouncing it correctly. She glanced at a second person in the room, a stocky Oriental woman in a business suit with square glasses, short black hair, and an intense, narrow gaze.

       “Of course, Daria, my mistake.” The woman laid the page on an open chart on her desk, then rose to her feet and extended a hand. When Daria did not respond to the offer of a handshake, the lady shrugged, motioned to the empty chair across the desk from her, and sat down again. “Daria,” she said, “I’m Margaret Manson, the school psychologist, and this—” She indicated the other woman.

       “Angela Li, your principal,” said the other woman. She did not offer to shake hands. “Welcome to Laaawndale High School, Daria.”

       “We spoke with your mother last week about your coming here,” Mrs. Manson continued. “I’d like to welcome you to Lawndale, too. We’ll do everything we can to keep you and the other students safe and secure in this facility while you’re here. Have you heard about Lawndale High before now?”

       After a moment, Daria stirred. “Only that you will do everything necessary to keep the other students safe and secure while I’m here, ma’am.”

       Mrs. Manson shook her head. “I meant, Daria, that we want to keep everyone here safe, including you. This is a special magnet school, I’d even call it an atypical one, with a unique focus on security issues. We live in an uncertain world, and Lawndale High responds to the wants and needs of the community. We want to be ahead of the times, not behind them. Ms. Li had a major hand in redesigning this campus to offer the highest level of physical security to the students and faculty. You probably noticed the metal detectors when you came in this morning, and perhaps the fact that access in and out of the school is fairly restricted.” She waited to see if there was a response.

       Daria filled the silence after another pause. “My last high school was surrounded by a twelve-foot chain-link fence with razor wire ‘long the top, ma’am,” she said. “The metal detectors were set to airport security levels, and only school buses were allowed through the gates. We weren’t allowed to use backpacks, we wore school uniforms, adult guards were in the restrooms and halls, we were under video surveillance, and students who misbehaved were sent home or to juvenile hall. I mean no offense, but you have a way to go before this school reaches that level.” After a beat, she added, “Ma’am.”

       “Hmmm, so it seems,” said Ms. Li. She eyed Daria thoughtfully. “That was Hope High School in Highland, Texas, correct? That’s the ‘second-chance’ alternative school for the Lubbock region?”

       Daria nodded slightly but did not answer.

       When Mrs. Manson saw that the principal would make no further comment, she looked down at the folder on her desk. “By the terms of the placement agreement that allowed your transfer here from the Highland school district, your complete school records from both Highland and Hope were sent to us. I want to emphasize that you are under no restriction here for any event that occurred while you were in Texas. You are a full-time high-school student with all the rights and responsibilities of such. As far as we’re concerned, you have a clean slate.”

       Raising an eyebrow, Daria opened her mouth as if to speak.

       “A clean slate,” interrupted Ms. Li, “in so far as your actions before coming to Lawndale are concerned. Being tardy for homeroom this morning is your problem. Don’t let it happen again. Right now, you have a half hour of detention after school. Penalties get progressively worse with continued infractions. Any school would do this, and we’re no different.”

       Daria subsided.

       “What were you going to say?” asked Ms. Li.

       “Nothin’, ma’am.” Daria frowned. “Nothing, I mean.”

       “I like your manners.”

       There was no response to the praise other than a slight nod.

       Mrs. Manson spoke next. “Though you have a clean slate here, we do need to talk about the past for just a moment. It won’t take long. Do you know why you were sent to Hope High School, Daria?”

       Daria’s face grew tight. Her chin lowered as she looked at the psychologist.

       Mrs. Manson began again. “Do you know why you were—”

       “Yes, ma’am,” the girl interrupted, her voice tense.

       “Why was that, then?”

       The petite brunette looked down and mumbled something.

       “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear—”

       “Because I was involved in the deaths of a number of people,” Daria said in a barely audible voice. She shifted in her seat, then added, “Ma’am.”

       Mrs. Manson nodded slowly. “How were you involved?”

       “Isn’t it in my paperwork?” said Daria. Her throat was dry and she could tell her accent was back, but she was too nervous to do anything about it.

       “I only want to hear your take on it.”

       Daria drew in a deep breath and looked at the floor again, collecting her thoughts. “It started when I gave a speech to my English class at Highland High School,” she finally said. Her breathing grew more rapid. “It caused some of the students to... it caused two of the students to go crazy.” She swallowed. “They shot some people.”

       Mrs. Manson nodded. “I remember that incident. In fact, I believe I saw the news as it was happening, last year. Those were special ed students, weren’t they?”

       “Yes. They’d been mainstreamed, ma’am. They were—” Daria coughed and cleared her throat “—they were in my class. They sat—they sat behind me. I talked to them sometimes after school, but not often.”

       “Were they friends of yours?”

       “No! I mean, no, they weren’t, ma’am, not friends. I just knew ‘em. Not my friends.”

       “This speech you gave, what was it about?”

       Daria’s face was bloodless. “Had to give a speech about someone from history, ma’am,” she said softly. “I picked Lyudmila Pavlichenko. She was a soldier in the Soviet Union in World War Two.”

       Mrs. Manson blinked, then looked at Ms. Li, who shrugged in return. “I’m sorry,” said the psychologist. “Lyudmila...?”

       Pavlichenko.” Daria roused herself. The tempo of her voice picked up. “She was a sniper in the Soviet army, killed over three hun’erd Germans in less than a year, using a bolt-action rifle with a four-power scope. Thirty-six of her kills were other snipers. After she was wounded by mortar fire, the Soviets sent her on a diplomatic mission to the United States and Canada. Prez’dent Roosevelt met her in the White House, making her the first Soviet citizen to have that happen. She made speeches all ‘cross the U.S., got postage stamps in her honor, got to be a Hero of the Soviet Union, and ever’thing, all ‘cause she was good at shootin’ people.” Her eyes looked skyward as she searched her memory. “She got some guns as presents while she was here, a Colt and a Winchester. The Americans liked her.”

       In the silence afterward, only the faint tapping of Ms. Li’s finger against the arm of her chair was heard. “You know your subject very well,” she said.

       Daria shrugged and nodded once, again avoiding eye contact.

       “Why did you pick this particular person for your paper?”

       After clearing her throat twice, Daria said, “Had to pick someone we admired.”

       Mrs. Manson’s jaw dropped. She recovered after a moment with effort.

       “Did you admire this person for being a good killer?” asked Ms. Li crisply. She had not reacted to Daria’s words at all.

       Daria shook her head immediately. “No,” she whispered. “That wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t like that, ma’am.”

       Ms. Li frowned. “You didn’t admire her, or you did? I’m confused here.”

       “I didn’t!” said Daria, looking anxious. “I know I said I did in class, but that was just—I just wanted to shock people, that’s all! I just—it wasn’t like ever’one said it was. She wasn’t really my hero or anythin’. It was—I just wanted to get a reaction, that was all. I was sick of school—I mean, I was bored with it, just tired and sick and bored and ever’thin’, and—”

       “You wanted to scare people?”

       The diminutive student nodded rapidly. “That was all I wanted to do! I wrote the whole thing up just to drive ever’one in my class crazy and—” She broke off in shock, eyes wide “—wait, no! I didn’t mean that! I meant, I just—it was a joke! I didn’t want anyone to get killed or go crazy or nothin’, I really didn’t!”

       “But the two boys, they took you seriously.”

       Daria swallowed and nodded. Her hands trembled in her lap.

       “They wanted to be famous, like Lyudmila... whatever her name was. Spencer.”

       “Pavlichenko,” corrected Daria. “Brenda Ann Spencer was—” She flinched and looked from woman to woman, finishing in a rush “—somebody else! Lyudmila Pavlichenko was the one I was writin’ ‘bout!”

       “Oh,” said Ms. Li. She shrugged and appeared to lose interest in the topic, glancing at Mrs. Manson. “I think that’s everything.”

       “Um,” said Mrs. Manson, looking over a paper on her desk, “actually, I did have a few more—”

       “We don’t need to bother,” Ms. Li said, cutting her off. She looked back at Daria with a kind expression. “None of this is going any further than this room, and we’re done with it. A clean slate, Miss Morgendorffer. We have plenty of people here who have more problems than you do, if you can possibly believe that. Furthermore, to the best of our knowledge, your name and photos were never publicly revealed, which made your transfer here infinitely easier. You really are starting over again, and that’s what we all need. I want you to focus on your schoolwork and graduation and nothing else, eyes on the prize. Are you with me?”

       Daria nodded. Beads of sweat rolled down her white face.

       “Good!” Ms. Li stood and motioned for Daria to follow her to the door. “You go on back to class. I’ll call ahead for you, but you can stop at the restroom on the way if you need to. Oh, get your backpack, you forgot it by your chair. There you go. Let’s make this a good year for all of us. Oh, and Daria?”

       The little brunette’s knees were shaking. “What?” she said, holding the backpack in front of her like a shield.

       “No smoking on or near school property.” Ms. Li held out her right hand, palm up. After a moment, Daria gave up her cigarette pack. “Good girl. Good time to quit. Stay healthy.”

       When Daria was gone, Ms. Li stood at the door for several second, still looking off in the direction Daria had gone.

       “What just happened, Angela?” asked the psychologist in irritation. “I had to find out—”

       “She knows who Brenda Ann Spencer is,” said Ms. Li in a low voice. She turned from the door and walked back to her seat again, but she stopped before sitting down. “Do you have the results of her psych tests from Hope?”

       “Here.” Mrs. Manson handed them over.

       Ms. Li took the documents and sat down, flipping through them. She stopped to read a long paragraph. “They didn’t rule out conduct disorder,” she said, then flipped a page. “Elevated, elevated, scores are up all over. She’s depressed, very much so. That’s internalized anger. Scared, yes, and anxious and remorseful—I believe she didn’t mean for the shootings to happen—but she’s angry, too, very angry. Parents are getting divorced, she spent six months in an alternative school built like a prison after being secretly investigated for instigating the shootings... probably had a chip on her shoulder long before it all happened, too. She’s not antisocial, she won’t even try to get along with people the way a sociopath will, to throw everyone off. She just hates and avoids people, period.”

       “Isn’t that a little strong, to say that she...” Mrs. Manson’s voice trailed off as Ms. Li eyed her over the top of the papers, then looked down and resumed reading. “Well,” Manson continued, “who’s Brenda Sue Spencer?”

       “Brenda Ann Spencer,” said Ms. Li absently, still reading the paperwork. “School shooter in San Diego, January nineteen seventy-nine, killed two people, wounded a bunch of children. Said she did it because she didn’t like Mondays. Daria got her full name right. If she researched Lyudmila whatever, she’s probably researched them all, every sniper and shooter there is. Thank God we don’t have a gun club here.”

       “Oh,” said Mrs. Manson, taken aback. “Are they sure she didn’t mean for the shootings to happen? That was pretty bad—eleven people killed, including the two boys, and it happened the afternoon after school, the same day she gave that—”

       “One of the boys is alive, but brain dead,” said the principal. “He’s one of the eight wounded.” She flipped another page in the paperwork and squinted to make out the words. “Did you see her WISC-Four?”

       “I did. That was a surprise. She has the highest score of anyone here by a long shot, except maybe Jodie Landon. She’s a damn smart kid. A point in her favor, I’d say.”

       Ms. Li merely grunted. “MMPI wasn’t so good. Her Beck was worse. We’re going to have to watch in case she tries to hurt herself. I wonder if she’s seeing a counselor on the side.” When she finished reading, she tossed the paperwork back to Mrs. Manson’s desk and got to her feet. “I need to get Mrs. Bennett to set up a permanent Internet search for me,” she said, stopping at the door. “If word gets out that Daria Morgendorffer was the one who sparked the Highland shootings, it’ll be on the ‘net first, probably in someone’s blog, then the whole world will know and we’ll be up to our asses in reporters and angry parents trying to get Daria kicked out before they pull their own kids out. It’s probably just a matter of time. I couldn’t very well refuse her, though. She didn’t pull the trigger.”

       “So, you do think she planned what happened?”

       “No, but it won’t matter to anyone else.”

       “You know,” said the psychologist, “she’s got a sister, Quinn, who’s—”

       “I know. I talked to her this morning. She’s already been taken in by the Little Angels.” Ms. Li rolled her eyes. “I’m not worried about her.”

       “But Quinn might say something.”

       The principal laughed briefly and shook her head. “No, she won’t. She won’t say a thing. She was covering up like mad when I saw her. She told me she was from Lubbock, not Highland. She won’t even admit her parents are divorcing, says her father’s working out of town.”

       “Oh.”

       “Do me a favor, would you, Margaret?”

       “Name it.”

       Ms. Li turned the handle of the doorknob, but did not yet open it. She lifted her chin as she looked at Mrs. Manson. “If you see or hear anything unusual about Daria from other students or Security, and I mean if you hear anything at all, tell me instantly. If she swears, if she sneaks a smoke, if she’s seen with a pill bottle, if she cuts herself, if she draws a map, if she starts a list of names, if she uses the library computer lab to look up weaponry or shooter statistics, if she blows her goddamn nose wrong, you find me instantly and you tell me. Don’t waste a second.” She raised an index finger and moved it in time with her words. “Whatever else she is, that child is very... very... angry.”

       She opened the door, closed it behind her, and was gone.

 

 

 

 

III

 

 

       “Are you okay?”

       Daria heard the words and came back to reality. She was walking down a crowded school hallway done in purple, with orange lockers on the walls. The tall athletic girl walking beside her looked at her in concern.

       “Oh,” Daria mumbled. “Sorry.”

       “You’ve been kinda out of it for a while,” said Jane. “Did anything happen when you saw Charlene Manson?”

       “Uh, oh, no, nothing. That was okay. It’s just... I am kinda out of it today.”

       “I gotta tell you something. I love your accent.”

       “My acc...” Daria gave a mock frown. “I don’t have an accent.”

       “Yes, you do. It’s great. It’s like having a foreigner for a friend. I should make a recording of you talking and send it to Trent.”

       Daria mustered the best evil look she could and turned its focus on Jane.

       “You’ll have to do better than that, pardner,” said Jane with a grin. “You ride horses a lot in Texas?”

       “Uh... no. Some of us have pickup trucks now. Those of us who became fully evolved, however, stay at home in front of the TV and never get up.”

       “I like that, but it wouldn’t have worked for me. If I’d had a pickup truck, I wouldn’t have been home when the police came by after the vagrant.”

       Daria sighed. “What’s the next class like?”

       “Oh, Current Events is pretty good. The teacher’s wacko, but he has great arguments with the football players. He gets everyone stirred up. Sometimes I even learn something, God knows why or how. Let’s try to get seats together again. I don’t have a phone to send text messages with.”

       “Neither do I,” Daria confessed. “Didn’t think I’d need it.”

       “Didn’t think you’d need it? Why? You didn’t think—oh, never mind. We’ll do it the old-fashioned way and pass notes. Crude, but effective.”

       Daria could tell Jane had caught the unspoken message: I didn’t think I’d have any friends to talk to. She was grateful that Jane had not said it aloud.

       Daria and Jane were in their seats before the bell rang, Jane sitting to Daria’s left. “Good morning!” barked the graying, hawk-faced teacher at the front of the room, whose left eye bulged out when he emphasized certain words. He had an Italian name, Daria remembered from her school intro packet. “We have a new student joining us today,” the teacher went on, “and that’s Daria Morgendorffer.” He gave a nod in her direction, then let his gaze wander over the rest of the room. “As the rest of you doubtless recall, we’ve been discussing the war in Iraq. I’m not taking partisan sides—that’s your job!—but we’ll examine the issues carefully so, in theory, you can make informed decisions, or at least half-baked ones!”

       The teacher swung around to face Daria. “Miss Morgendorffer!” he fairly shouted, causing her to jump. “If you would, please, tell the class what moment in the current conflict stands out most in your memory! Any trivial event will do.”

       Daria caught her breath and made herself think. “The bombing of Baghdad, televised live,” she finally said, her twang almost gone. I can’t afford to sound like a hick.

       “Mmm,” said the teacher, starting to pace across the front of the classroom. He did not look at her. “Are you talking about the first Iraq War or the second?”

       “The second, the ‘shock and awe’ attack.”

       “Ah! Excellent!” The teacher turned to pace the other way. “Friday, March twenty-first, two thousand three. That was indeed something to remember—but we each remember it differently.” He stopped. “Who else remembers the ‘shock and awe’ bombardment?”

       For a moment, no other hands went up. Then a broad-shouldered black student as tall as the teacher raised his hand. “I saw it on the news that night,” he said.

       “I did, too, but not as it was happening,” said a black female student. “I was in school.” Two others raised their hands as well.

       “Ah, my apologies,” said the teacher. “I had forgotten you would be in class that day. That would have been, um, fifth grade for you, I believe.” He turned to Daria with a quizzical look. “How did you get to see it?”

       “One of the classrooms at... in elementary school had it on TV.” Daria’s voice fell after she stopped herself from naming her elementary school, Highland.

       “It did?” The teacher looked surprised, but then moved on. “Some people have all the luck. Okay! What else do you remember about the current war in Iraq? Anyone?”

       Daria felt something poke her left elbow. She looked down. A scrap of paper sat on her desk by her arm. She glanced at Jane, who sat with a politely bored expression, then looked up at the teacher—Mr. DeMartino, she remembered now—as she unfolded the scrap. The moment he turned his back on the class, she looked down and read:

 

 

THUMBS UP, YOU GOT ON MR. D’S GOOD SIDE

 

 

       She folded up the scrap again. Around her, she was aware of other students staring at Mr. DeMartino with their hands hidden from view—pushing buttons on their cell phones to text each other. Two had wireless buds in one ear each, their heads turned to keep DeMartino from seeing that they were listening to low-volume music. Hardly anyone seemed to be interested in what the teacher was saying, even if they kept their gaze on him.

       “Was the ‘shock and awe’ attack news?” Mr. DeMartino said in a loud voice, looking over the classroom, “or was it... entertainment? And how could we possibly tell the difference? What’s your opinion?” He noticed a hand up. “Kevin?”

       “I didn’t see it,” said a dark-haired kid in a football jersey, “but that would’ve been cool!”

       The teacher’s face twitched with annoyance. “Jodie!” he called, turning to the black girl with cornrows who had spoken earlier. “News or entertainment? Help us out!”

       “Both,” said the girl. “I think a lot of people got off on the idea that we were bombing another city and you could watch it happen. I thought it was sick.”

       “It was still news, though,” said the tall black student sitting near her. “That was the start of the war. It wasn’t like it was a WWE Smackdown. They didn’t stage it. It wasn’t fake or anything.”

       “It was staged,” said Jodie. She sat up, her face tense. “That was the whole point of ‘shock and awe,’ to overwhelm everyone, including the spectators. It was like throwing people to the lions and watching them get eaten alive.”

       “They had lions?” asked the dark-haired kid named Kevin.

       “No!” snapped Jodie. She rolled her eyes in disgust.

       “The whole point of ‘shock and awe’ was to get the Iraqis to surrender,” said the tall black student. “It was to scare ‘em badly enough to cut the war short.”

       “Yeah,” muttered Jodie, “and that worked really well, didn’t it?”

       “I don’t get why we were fighting the Rockies to begin with,” squeaked a curvy blonde in a blue sweater. “Did they attack us first?”

       “Let’s see what the class says, Brittany.” Mr. DeMartino surveyed the room. “What do you think?”

       “Yes!” said several students, raising their hands. “No!” said a dozen others, including Jodie and the tall black kid.

       “No!” said Daria in a louder than usual voice—and then clamped her mouth shut.

       Too late. Mr. DeMartino swung in her direction with a sharklike grin. “Daria!” he cried, pouncing on his prey. “Your opinion! Did Iraq attack America first?”

       She swallowed. Once upon a time, she had looked forward to a good rousing classroom debate. Now she cursed the impulse that made her the focus of attention. “No,” she said in a low voice. “The administration decided to attack first. They knew Iraq had nothing to do with Nine-Eleven, despite their claims, and they—” She hesitated a beat, knowing she had already said too much “—had already discussed finishing up old business from the first Iraq War. They didn’t think all the weapons of mass destruction had been removed from the country, again despite reports otherwise, so they decided on a preemptive first strike and went for regime change.”

       “And four years later, we’re still there getting the shit knocked out of us,” said Jodie, glaring at her desktop.

       Daria blinked. Swearing in class in front of a teacher was an “actionable offense” at Hope High School. Mr. DeMartino didn’t seem to mind, however. He was smiling. “Who thinks the war was the right thing to do, for whatever reason? Raise your hands!”

       About a third of the class put up their hands—including the tall black student. Jodie glared at him and shook her head. The black kid lowered his hand and rubbed his short haircut nervously. Numerous students began to talk at once. Daria noticed only brief interruptions in the text messaging going on. She could pick out two kids playing pocket videogames on silent mode at the same time they talked to those around them about Iraq.

       “Mike!” said Mr. DeMartino with glee to the tall black kid. “Why do you believe this war was the right thing to do?”

       Daria felt another poke at her elbow. She took the next scrap and read:

 

 

DID YOU SAY YOU WERE FROM HIGHLAND TEXAS?

 

 

       She instantly crumpled the note, biting her lower lip. I did tell her that. Why did I tell her? What was I thinking? I wasn’t going to tell anyone. After a glance to her left, noting in the corner of her eye that Jane was watching her, she nodded once, then looked back at the discussion going on between Mr. DeMartino and the student named Mike.

       “... and we’d been fighting him off and on since the first war, under Clinton, so why not just wrap it up? We knew Saddam was bad, but we didn’t really know he didn’t have poison gas and A-bombs and all that. He’d tried to kill the first Bush, and he was sending support to suicide bombers, so he was just another terrorist as well as a dictator.”

       “What about Afghanistan?” asked DeMartino with a narrow gaze. “Didn’t attacking Iraq weaken our commitment elsewhere?

       “Well—” Mike spread his hands “—we’re a superpower, right? We can fight a two-front war, can’t we? We did it before, in World War II. At least now our targets are almost in the same place. We—”

       “This is bullshit!” snapped Jodie, turning on Mike as other students gasped. “The whole thing with Iraq was all about oil! Afghanistan attacked us, not Iraq! The Taliban was letting Al-Qaeda work in the open there! They were the enemy, not Iraq! Do you know how many civilians we’ve killed in Iraq for the sake of our idiot president? Saddam was not the enemy! Osama was the enemy, and we let him go!

       “We didn’t let him go!” Mike protested, but he had to shout over the chaos in the class. Half the students were cheering Jodie’s words, clapping and stamping their feet, while the rest used the time to catch up on their messaging, music, and videogames.

       Daria felt something touch her left elbow again. She snatched the note from Jane’s fingers and crumpled it in her fist, face tight, watching Mr. DeMartino wave his arms to restore order. She already knew what the note said. It would ask if Daria knew anything about the shootings in Highland late in the year before, if she had known anyone who had been involved or hurt. Well, duh. Highland was as tiny as a town could be and still have its own hospital. Everyone knew everyone. How could she not know?

       Mr. DeMartino was getting a big-boned Goth girl to explain her views about the war. Few people were really listening, only glancing up now and then while their fingers worked under their desks, tapping out messages. Someone else had her head down on her desk, taking a whispered cell-phone call with a wireless earpiece. Daria could hear what the teacher and the Goth girl were saying, but none of it registered. She was leaving them behind and couldn’t help it.

       How could she, of everyone in town that day, not know?

       The present crumpled into a ball as the past unfolded and came to life.

 

 

* * *

 

 

       She wore black that day except for her white blouse and red skirt, carrying a candy ordering list as she walked door to door on Highland’s west side, near the drive-in theater. She had walked there after school by herself rather than catch a ride with one of the teachers, thus risking a ride with her younger sister. She had no desire to share her bad mood with anyone during one of the school’s exercises in forced-labor fundraising. This late fall afternoon, however, Daria had one positive thing going for her, which was that she had a note in her jacket pocket from Mr. Van Driessen, her English teacher, asking her parents to come in for a conference. The note said nothing about why the parent-teacher conference was sought, but Daria knew, and she could not wait to see her parents’ faces when they found out.

       She had done it again. She had said the unutterable, read it aloud in the latest in her series of class essays designed to shock, upset, annoy, harass, disturb, vex, and punish those around her—punishment being key. Having her parents insist she get involved in extracurriculars was a load of horse manure. Walking door-to-door selling candy for her school was for the birds. But knowing her sister Quinn would sell five times what Daria could merely by smiling and looking cute was too great a cross to bear. That she had to suffer through each school day in the company of fools was less a burden than being outdone by her sister once more. Payback was due again for denying Daria a lazy evening at home in her room in her bed with an open book, and that payback would be a real mother (mother, ha ha, payback for my own mother making me do all this garbage, let her choke on it).

       Today, that payback had been a daring essay about a person Daria had claimed to admire more than anyone else: a female Soviet sniper with over three hundred kills. She had filled the essay with rich detail, much of it imagined, and read it aloud with relish. The downside was knowing that though her essays always upset people, no one ever heard what she was trying to say: Look at me. Pay attention to me. Value me. Keep me from thinking my intelligence is wasted and there is no hope for the future. No one heard.

       To be honest, Daria admitted to herself that she really did admire Lyudmila Pavlichenko, though she would never say so aloud. A woman so bold that she could fight in a war, shoot down men with impunity, and win the heart of the world for it—well, who wouldn’t want to be like that? Daria remembered a passage in Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (which she had checked out of the local library with her adult card) in which the lost boy of the tale was befriended by a Red Army sniper named Mitka. Who would not have wanted such a strong, intelligent, sensitive, lethal man as a companion? As Daria walked from house to house, getting names and orders (but no money, that would be collected when the candy was delivered), she daydreamed that she was like Lyudmila Pavlichenko, perhaps a secret agent or professional assassin. She would call herself Melody, maybe Melody Cool or Melody Hammer or—no, the Austin Powers movies had ruined that other option. She would be a loner assassin like she imagined the girl in The Professional later grew up to be: Melody McCool, who learned her trade from an older and wiser killer, and one day on a secret mission she would meet a man like Mitka, the man of her dreams, and together they would—

       The sound of distant firecrackers distracted her. She shook her head and pushed it out of her mind (the idiots around here!) and kept walking and ringing doorbells and daydreaming when she wasn’t fuming about the unfairness of life. About a half-dozen houses later, she heard police sirens to the east, mingling with the continued sound of firecrackers. She turned in annoyance to hear the noise better, and—

       The ground trembled under her boots. She felt the atmosphere thump like a piston as a pressure wave accompanied by a noise like thunder rolled over her. A dome of orange flame rose over the trees to the east, crowned by black smoke that swallowed the fireball and rolled up into the cloudless West Texas afternoon sky. She felt the fireball’s radiant heat on her face from a quarter-mile away.

       She stopped dead and stared. What the fuck was that?

       Her candy-selling list dangling from her right hand, fifteen-year-old Daria Morgendorffer stood on a corner sidewalk in a rundown subdivision. A cool breeze blew around her. As she watched the black cloud rise, she heard more sirens and a sound like distant screams. She frowned and started walking slowly toward the pillar of smoke and the screaming sounds. Something was definitely wrong. Should she investigate? Should she stay out of it?

       She thought of Quinn.

       Her pace picked up. After a block, she estimated that the pillar of smoke was in the vicinity of the hospital, perhaps north of it. The sirens had drowned out the screams. There were gas stations there east of the Mini-Mall, particularly one that the kids from Highland frequented for stale, half-price doughnuts and pastries after school. Did the firecrackers have something to do with this? She heard more firecrackers go off, but they weren’t firecrackers now, they were gunshots, she knew it for a fact.

       Gunshots? A failed robbery? A nut case with a gun?

       Sometimes Quinn hung out at that gas station, because that was where the boys often were. Sometimes Quinn—

       Daria dropped the candy list and started running for the pillar of smoke. She threw herself into it, but she was physically small to begin with, never exercised if she could avoid it, and ate junk food whenever possible. Her burst of speed lasted barely a minute. Five minutes after that, she was staggering along the street-side dirt path behind the Starlite Drive-in’s big screen, still several blocks from the school and the pillar of smoke beyond. Huge pit stains showed through her blouse, and wet strands of hair hung over her steamed-up glasses. She could barely breathe, her lungs full of razors.

       It was then that she spotted a silver Honda Accord coming through an intersection a block ahead. The car squealed to a stop, backed up, then sped down the street toward her on shrieking tires. The driver slammed on the brakes when he reached Daria, skidding over the centerline to block the empty oncoming lane. Her father jumped out of the car white faced, ran over, grabbed Daria around the waist and lifted her off the ground (Hey! Dad! What are you doing? she cried), then ran with her to the car, shoved her into the rear seat before slamming the door on her, jumped in the car himself, and peeled out of there to head west again, away from the pillar of smoke.

       Thank God, he cried as he drove. He did not stop until he reached a motel five miles outside of town. Thank God, thank God, thank God.

       Her sister had been safe at home watching TV, having filled her candy-ordering sheet a half-hour before. All she’d had to do was smile. She was unscathed.

       Daria never saw the actual shootings. She never saw the exploded propane rack, the gas fires, the burned-out hulks of the minivan and two cars at the filling station, the rag-doll bodies and the blackened stick people, the police cars and ambulances and fire trucks and madness and chaos, actual screams issuing from the mouths of insane parents and horrified neighbors, dirty streams of red running over the pavement to fill the gutters.

       She saw it later on videotape and in countless photos. The police and the prosecutors made sure she saw everything. They made sure she knew.

       Mr. Van Driessen, who had driven a minivan for a group of candy-selling children, survived. The four students in the minivan, parked by the propane tanks, did not. Mr. Van Driessen walked with a cane when he came to the juvenile hearing and testified against Daria. He had her report on the sniper, complete with his note: Call parents ASAP.

       Seven of the dead were from her English class. She had known them all. She had hung out with the two shooters on occasion and everyone knew it, even her parents. She found them amusing but nothing more. They were outcasts, like her, but intellectually and behaviorally challenged, to put it mildly. Acquaintances, nothing more.

       No one had believed that. Not even her parents.

       Daria could not be convicted of anything, as no one could prove her essay was the signal to start the rampage. No one could prove she had meant for the shootings to happen. However, she could be expelled from Highland High School, and she was. The worst they could do, the authorities thought, was to send her to Hope High School and be rid of her as the parade of funerals began. That parade went on for a week.

       The worst they actually did, however, was to tell her everything. She never forgot a single photograph, a single scream on the collected videotapes. She saw and heard them in her sleep and while she was awake, twenty-four seven three hundred sixty-five. There was no escape from it.

       She stopped writing except for the briefest possible answers. She picked up smoking and swearing from the other girls at Hope. She rarely read. She rarely spoke. She made no friends. Even the hard-case students at Hope were wary of her, fearing she might yet have a gun or knife concealed on her, or she might know one more shooter. She was completely alone at last, as she had so often wanted to be.

       In time, she began to daydream of death.

 

 

* * *

 

 

       She blinked and reached up to rub her eyes. Mr. DeMartino was writing something on the board. The girl named Jodie was giving the boy named Mike a look of smoldering rage, which he did his best to ignore. The Goth girl was chewing gum. The bubbly zaftig blonde was texting someone and trying not to giggle aloud. Kevin, the dark-haired boy in the football jersey, had nodded off.

       Jane alone was watching her.

       The bell rang. Students got to their feet and filed out of the room, laughing and talking and poking each other with pencils.

       “Are you coming?” asked Jane, standing by her desk.

       Daria got up, mechanically picking up her books and notebooks. She had not opened a one of them.

       “I didn’t mean to bug you,” said Jane. “I was saying that the only way I can get out of LYRE is if someone invites me over someplace with a parent around, then drives me back before eight p.m. I don’t mean to be pushy, but it’s the only way I can see anyone after school. Otherwise I have to catch the bus or go back with a social worker.”

       “Oh,” said Daria. She realized the tiny wad of Jane’s last note was still in her right hand. She dropped it on the floor. “Okay. I’ll ask my—” She grimaced. “I forgot my mom won’t get home till late. I can’t drive yet, either.” This is never going to work.

       “Well, fuck, I tried.”

       “Maybe we can work something out.” Why am I saying this? It won’t.

       “That would be great if you could. You mind some company after school? Do homework together? Hang out? Watch TV?”

       “Sure.” No. Yes. I don’t know.

       They left for their next class.

       The hardest part of living was facing herself in unprotected moments when a new and ugly truth would pop out. And the hardest part of that was remembering when her father told her what had happened back in town, and she realized that she might have had a part in making it happen because the shooters might have been her classmates and they might have been inspired by what she had said in class and how she said it.

       As she walked with Jane, she recalled the moment she realized that someone had listened to her at last. She had made a difference in the world. Her voice had been heard. For the instant that had followed, but no longer, she had been wildly happy.

       She remembered, and for the ten thousandth time she wished she was dead.

       Above her, behind a ventilation grill in the ceiling, a miniature camera watched the two girls go.

 

 

 

 

IV

 

 

       Detention was held in the gymnasium at two-thirty sharp under the direction of a hard-faced, pigtailed P.E. teacher in blue sweats, assisted by four athletic-looking seniors, male and female. “All right!” the teacher shouted into a wireless microphone as she looked up at the bleachers and the twenty-odd students before her. “We don’t have any hour-long detentions today, so we’ve got thirty wonderful minutes together! We’re going to make that zero minutes tomorrow, is that clear? I said, is that clear? Good! If you have homework, start working on it now! If you don’t have homework, get your buns down here and run fifty laps for me! Everybody got work to do? Great! Now, get working!

       Daria, Jane, and most of the other students sat high on the bleachers near the rear wall. The P.E. teacher did not seem to mind. Jane propped herself up with an open sketchpad across her thighs. Daria carefully organized her algebra homework on her lap and pulled out a mechanical pencil. “She really knows how to grab the hearts and minds,” she whispered, glancing up at the teacher.

       “Morris the Macho,” Jane whispered back. She began to rough out a picture of a cheerleader jumping into the air, pom-poms raised and feet kicked back. “She gets what she wants, for sure.”

       “How long’ve you known her?”

       “Just since last year. She and ‘Hulk’ Gibson are the main coaches. Morris takes care of track, soccer, and field hockey. Gibson handles football, softball, and basketball. We’ve got other coaches for archery and all that, but Morris and Gibson are the kings.”

       “You mean queen and king?” said Daria, looking at her homework.

       “Kings in every way,” said Jane with a smile.

       “Oh.”

       “Doesn’t matter to me. Her partner Dina has a PDA shop in town and runs time-management workshops. The school buys PDAs from her in bulk. All the seniors have them. I think next year everyone’s supposed to get one, but they’ll have school programming so you can’t mess around with them.”

       Daria nodded over her homework. “Goodthink,” she muttered.

       Jane paused in her sketching to look over at Daria. “As in Nineteen Eighty-four, you mean?”

       Daria looked up and met her friend’s gaze, mildly impressed. “Yeah. You’re sayin’ the PDAs’re fixed so you can’t do bad things with ‘em.”

       Jane grinned. “That’s what I thought you meant. I read that book ages ago. Nasty little thing.”

       Daria felt a smile creep over her face. It was impossible not to think she’d finally found a soul mate. She glanced at Jane’s sketch, then did a classic double take. The cheerleader had Daria’s face. “Hey!”

       Jane smirked and kept drawing.

       “Any parents complain about Morris?”

       Jane snorted. “Morris and her partner are locals. They even went to school here. No one cares. Plus, the school’s got something like a seventy percent win rate at almost everything in sports, which is outrageous, so they won’t replace her. For every parent who pulls their kid out to go somewhere else, five are fighting to get their kids in—and a lot of kids want to be here.”

       “Long as they don’t mind Big Brother lookin’ over their shoulders.” Daria shrugged. “No accountin’ for tastes, said the man as he kissed his horse.”

       “People love security, Daria. Freedom, they don’t need. It causes trouble.” Jane glanced around the gym. “Did you get your mom when you called from the office?”

       Daria sighed and wiggled her pencil back and forth over her homework paper. “No. Left a message with her sec’tary, Marianne something. I’ll just walk home. Funny. Used to be a lot of lawyers where she works, then half of ‘em up and left for New York City. Must be better lawsuits there. Mom got on as a junior partner at the firm. Think it’s called Vitale, Schrecter, Schrecter & Morgendorffer, now.

       “Is she making big money?”

       “I guess. Haven’t seen her enough to know.”

       “Sounds a little like my absentee parents. So, when you go home, no one’s there?”

       “Mom said I don’t need to be on a leash. I just... have to keep my nose clean, whatever.”

       “Stay out of trouble.”

       “Yeah.” Daria stared at her blank homework paper and sighed.

       “She can call my social worker anytime for me to come over.”

       “You must want out of that LYRE place pretty bad.”

       “You have no idea how badly. Tell your mom I’ll be a good influence on you. I won’t smoke or drink or take drugs in the house. Boys, though... hmmm”

       Daria peered at Jane over the top of her glasses, then rolled her eyes and looked down at her not-yet-started algebra homework again. “You’re not helpin’. Mom’s mad enough ‘bout me smokin’ as is. She sees you do it, she’ll—”

       “She won’t. I needed a good excuse to quit.” Jane hesitated, then said, “So, you’re really from Highland? Where those shootings were last November?”

       The world came to a halt. Daria stopped wiggling her pencil. I knew it wouldn’t work. Damn it.

       “Bad topic?” asked Jane in a lower tone.

       “I was there,” said Daria. Hearing Jane’s gasp, she added, “Not right where it happened. A few blocks away. I heard it. Saw part of it.” The propane fireball. That counts.

       “Oh, shit. I’m sorry. I didn’t think. I’m sorry.”

       “It’s okay.” Daria put down the pencil, all interest in homework lost. “Doesn’t matter.”

       “I won’t talk about it again, I promise.”

       Daria raised her gaze to look out over the gymnasium. Depression settled in and pulled her shoulders down. “Doesn’t matter,” she whispered. “They’ll all figger it out soon enough.”

       “Figure what out?”

       “That I was there.”

       Jane looked confused. She put down her sketching pencil. “Is that why you moved here?” she said.

       Daria nodded, still looking across the gym at nothing.

       “I’m sorry. Can I do anything?” asked Jane.

       “No,” Daria whispered. After a moment, she closed her algebra book and tucked it in her open backpack. “I gotta go to the restroom.”

       “Want me to go with you?”

       “No.” Daria shouldered her backpack and got up, then stepped down to the next foot plank and left. She did not look back. When she reached the bottom of the bleachers, she walked over to the teacher in the blue sweats. “May I go to the restroom, ma’am?”

       Ms. Morris pointed toward a hall door with the pencil she had held over her clipboard. “Make it fast.”

       “Yes, ma’am.” A minute later, the restroom door thumped shut behind her as she walked over to the sinks. The stalls were empty; she was alone. The floor was clean enough, so she put her backpack down and took off her glasses, folding them up and setting them on the shelf below the mirror. She then washed her hands and face, then stood with her head bowed and both hands covering her eyes.

       I knew this would never work. I knew it wouldn’t, I knew it. Her face burned. She knew she was crying and someone would walk in at any moment and see her like that, but she couldn’t help it. She sniffed, ran water over her hands, and rubbed her face again.

       The door squeaked open behind her, then thumped shut. She opened her eyes enough to look in the mirror and see, despite her blurry vision, that it was Jane. She covered her eyes again and rubbed them.

       “God, Daria, I swear I am so sorry. Me and my big fucking mouth.”

       “It’s okay.” She sniffed again and wiped her eyes with the palms of her hands. “Don’t worry ‘bout it. I’ll be all right.”

       “Can I get you anything?”

       Daria pulled a paper towel and blew her nose in it. “Nah. Comes and goes. Don’t pay no ‘tention to it.”

       “That is just the most amazing drawl you have.”

       A short laugh burst from Daria’s lips, ending in a cough. She pulled more paper towels and wiped off her face. “You are so full of shit,” she said as she reached for her glasses, but she smiled when she said it.

       “You sound just like my social worker,” Jane said with a nervous smile. She looked around at the stalls. “Uh, as long as I’m in here...”

       “Yeah, well, when in Rome...”

       “Christ,” said Morris when they returned to the gym, “did the two of you have your nails done while you were out? Keep it to three minutes next time, or I’ll add a half hour to your detention!”

       “Yes, ma’am,” said Daria with a solemn look.

       “Ditto, ma’am,” said Jane with a smirk.

       “I still want to talk to you later,” Morris said, looking at Jane.

       “Later, okay.”

       The two girls made small talk at the back of the bleachers until detention ended. Daria walked with Jane to the bus loading dock, where a battered blue Pinto hatchback awaited with an older woman at the wheel. She beeped the horn when she saw Jane.

       “Mrs. Sullivan, my social worker,” said Jane, waving back. “For God’s sake, don’t ask her about her colon.”

       “I ‘preciate the warnin’,” Daria muttered.

       “See you tomorrow?”

       Daria sighed, but a faint smile appeared on her face. “If I must.”

       Jane grinned and waved goodbye, then got into the hatchback and shut the door. Daria waved as they drove away, then went home. The walk was only six blocks but crossed two busy thoroughfares. Rush hour must start early around here, she mused. She wondered why she was not as depressed as before. She wondered where Jane had lived before the Lanes lost their house. She wondered if Jane was serious about sending a recording of her voice to her brother in Iraq. He looked like such a cool guy.

       “Get over it, girl,” she grumbled, rolling her eyes again. “Nothin’ll happen. Nothin’ ever does.”

       She reached home mildly depressed, having started to think about her father back in Highland, and was fumbling in her pocket for her house keys when the front door opened. Red-haired Quinn stood in the doorway with a cell phone to her ear. She was eighteen months younger and two inches taller than her sister.

       “Nev’ mind, Marianne,” said Quinn to the phone. “She’s here. Don’t say nothin’ ‘bout this to Mom. Thank’ee.” She shut the cell phone and put her fists on her hips. “Where you been?” she snapped, her twang as bad as Daria’s.

       “Out,” said Daria, pushing past her. “M’ back now.”

       Quinn shut the door and followed her sister to the kitchen. “I was worried sick ‘bout you! Anything happen?”

       “No.” Daria dropped her backpack on the floor by the counter, then went to the refrigerator and opened it, looking inside for a snack.

       “We’re havin’ beef lasagna tonight, so watch what you eat. Why didn’ you come right home when school was out?”

       “I had detention.” Daria pulled out a Tupperware container filled with barbecued chicken wings.

       “You what?” yelled Quinn. “Daria!

       “Oh, fuck, would you let it go?” Daria set the container of wings on the kitchen counter and popped it open.

       “Watch your mouth! What’d you get detention for?”

       “I was late to class. Jane and—” She grimaced and cursed herself.

       “Jane and you? Who’s Jane?”

       “Nobody. Let it alone.”

       Quinn walked around the counter to face her sister. “She your friend?”

       “Mebbe,” Daria mumbled, chewing on a wing.

       “Is she good people?”

       Daria swallowed her bite, not making eye contact. “If she’s hangin’ ‘round me, prob’ly not.”

       Quinn stared into her sister’s face, then nodded. “She’s prob’ly all right, least for you. I was worried ‘bout you.”

       “Don’t be.”

       “I love you.”

       Daria looked down at the chicken wings and picked up another one in silence.

       “I don’t want—” Quinn stopped and tried again. “I just want things to go okay here. I want you to be all right.”

       With a sigh, Daria dropped the uneaten wing back into the container, recapped it, and put it back in the fridge. “That’s nice,” she said on her way out, leaving her backpack behind. “I’ll be in my room.”

       “God loves you, too, Daria.”

       Daria stopped dead in the doorway leading out of the kitchen to the family room. She turned and looked with narrow eyes at her sister, taking in the tiny gold cross at her neck. “Don’t say that,” she growled. “I told you not to ever tell me that.”

       “It’s true, though,” said her sister, looking defensive.

       “God loves me like that thief that was crucified with Jesus, right?”

       Quinn straightened. “That’s right,” she said softly. “He does.”

       The words came out of Daria’s mouth in a rush, faster than she could think about them or stop them. “That thief still died, right? They came and broke both his legs while he was nailed up there and he died there, didn’t he? He died in pain, didn’t he? What fuckin’ good did that do ‘im? Tell me! And all he did was steal somethin’! He died in pain on a fuckin’ cross, and what fuckin’ good did God do for ‘im? You tell me! God didn’t do ‘im any fuckin’ good at all!

       She turned on her heel and stamped upstairs and slammed her bedroom door and locked it with the knob lock as well as the deadbolt and chain she had added right after she had moved into her room a week earlier. She started toward her bed, but then spun and kicked the side of her desk as hard as she could. The computer keyboard bounced and two books fell off the shelves. Ignoring the pain, she kicked her desk again, then again and again with her hard-toed boots until she had knocked most of the books and CDs down and the keyboard was on the floor. She was aware she had been cursing aloud but she did not remember what she had said. A red haze covered the world. As she walked across the room, she stamped on a CD case, smashing both it and its contents, then snatched up a book from the floor and threw it against a padded wall. She then snatched off her glasses, threw them as hard as she could, then fell to her knees and slammed both fists into the mattress of her bed, swinging her arms over her head and hammering down over and over until the bed jumped with each blow. God damn it! she screamed as she hit the mattress. God damn it, God damn it, God damn it, God damn it!

       A long time later, she opened her eyes. Her head was cradled in her arms. She lay full-length on the bed. She did not remember getting on it. Her boots were still on. She wasn’t sure where her glasses were. She hoped they were intact. She’d broken two pairs this year already.

       No sound could be heard except for cars passing outside. She knew without checking that her sister was praying for her. She hated thinking about that, but she knew it was true. Ever since that day, Quinn had been praying for her, and Daria could hardly stand it.

       Damn her anyway, she thought, hiding her face in the covers. Damn her anyway for doing that shit. I wish she’d fucking stop. But she did not get up to go make Quinn stop. She bunched the covers around her head and thought about how life would go if she were dead, how good that would feel to have no more pain, and eventually she went back to sleep.

 

 

* * *

 

 

       Someone was knocking on her door. She awoke in darkness, her thinking muddled, and felt around for her glasses for several seconds before she realized they were gone.

       “Daria?” It was her mother. “Daria, take off your earphones! Daria?” Louder knocking followed. “Dinner’s ready! Come on downstairs!”

       “Comin’,” she grumbled, getting up. The lights were off, and it was almost dark outside. She felt her way to the wall switch, turned the lights on, and began hunting for her glasses.

       They were under her bureau. The left earpiece had broken off.

       “Shit.” She looked in the drawer where she kept spare parts for her glasses, but she had no extra earpieces and no spare glasses.

       “What’s that?” asked her mother over dinner. She had not mentioned Daria’s crack about Eric Schrecter from that morning.

       “What’s what?”

       “On your glasses.” Helen leaned close to squint at Daria’s face. “Is that tape?”

       “Oh. Dropped ‘em.”

       “Again? Daria, that’s the third time this—”

       “Did I tell you what Angie wants the Little Angels to do for Homecomin’?” Quinn interrupted, looking from sister to mother and back. “She wants us to have a prayer circle before the game with Oakwood. We’re gonna do it in the parkin’ lot an’ try to get the cheerleaders from both teams an’ maybe the football players to join in. Kelly’s gonna talk to her cheerleader cousin at Oakwood ‘bout it. One of the cheerleaders here is Jewish, but we’ll work it out somehow.”

       “That’s... uh, wonderful, dear.” Helen peered again at Daria, then shook her head and lifted a forkful of lasagna. At that moment, an electronic disco version of Total Eclipse of the Heart rang through the air. Helen dropped her fork and was out of her chair in a second. “Be right back!” she said as she ran for the cell phone by the sink.

       Quinn looked across the table at her sister. Daria glanced at her, then kept her eyes on her plate and toyed with her lasagna. In the background, they could hear their mother talking gaily to someone named Eric. Helen laughed, glanced at the girls, then walked out of the kitchen with the phone to her ear.

       “Dad called,” Quinn whispered when their mother was out of earshot.

       Daria looked up, then made herself look down again. “What’d he say?”

       “He’s doin’ all right, mostly. He said he misses us.”

       Daria swallowed but kept her composure. “That’s nice.”

       “I said we missed him, too. I told him we’d started school today an’ were doin’ okay.”

       “Don’t lie on my account.” Her appetite gone, Daria put down her fork and pushed her plate away. She eyed her milk and decided she could choke it down. She reached for it, turned the glass around once, then let it go. It was no use. She was done.

       “Well, thank you!” said their mother in the family room. She laughed again. “That’s very sweet of you, Eric!”

       Quinn put a hand to her forehead and winced, eyes closed, then lowered her hand, pushed back her chair, and stood. Her dinner was only half finished. “I’ll clean up,” she said.

       “My turn,” said Daria, also getting up. Ninety percent of her food was still there.

       They put everything away except for their mother’s dinner, then left and went upstairs. Daria went in her room and knelt to pick up the remains of the CD she had crushed. She heard Quinn come to the doorway, stand for a minute looking around at the destruction, then walk off to her own room.

       Probably to pray. I wish she wouldn’t do that.

       When the shattered CD and its case were disposed of, Daria took a moment to look at her room in a broad sweep. She was feeling jumpy. Fitting, she thought, that a crazy woman lived here before I did. Very fitting. She reached out and picked at a piece of lint on a gray padded wall, dropped it on the maroon carpet—then lashed out and punched the wall as hard as she could. She felt and heard a snap simultaneous with a stab of agony in her right hand, near the base of her middle finger. Hissing, she doubled over and held her hand in her left armpit, waiting for the intense pain to subside.

       She heard footsteps in the hallway too late. “Daria?” called her sister.

       “Go away!” she said through her teeth, turning her back to the doorway. “Just get out of here! Fuck!

       “Don’t hit me,” said Quinn. She was coming into the room.

       Daria grimaced and went for her bed, sitting on the edge of the mattress doubled over. She knew for sure she had broken a finger. It wasn’t the first time in the last year that she’d done it.

       Quinn came around in front of her and crouched on the maroon carpet. She kept her arms out toward Daria, hands up to ward her away if she attacked. “Let me see it,” she said.

       “Go to fuckin’ hell!”

       “Daria.” Quinn’s face was pasty white. “Please. Be careful. Please.”

       “Go away.” Daria’s face was down to her knees. A dull throbbing radiated out from the middle of her hand. She’d broken something, all right. It hurt like blazes.

       “Don’t hit me, Daria. Be careful. Don’t hit me.”

       Fingers touched Daria’s shoulder. “Careful,” whispered Quinn. “Be careful. Be gentle.” She began to pull on Daria’s right arm, soft and slow, talking all the while. She did not say I love you because that would almost certainly trigger an attack.

       The injured hand came free. Quinn held Daria’s right arm by the wrist and turned the hand over one way, then the other. She still kept her other hand up, shielding herself from Daria’s left hand, just in case. “It’s swelled up pretty bad,” she said. “Wait for me, okay? Just wait for me. I’ll be right back.” She let go of the hand, rocked backward on her heels, then got to her feet and left the room at a run for the hall bathroom they shared.

       She returned with a small, well-used hand split and a cloth bandage roll, only to find Daria face down on the bed, lying on her hands. It took another few minutes of coaxing to get Daria to sit up again and let Quinn put the bandage on. Quinn did not try to shield herself this time, as she could read Daria’s body language and saw her shoulders were slumped and her muscle tone was slack. No energy left to fight.

       When the hand was splinted and wrapped, Quinn sat by her sister, elbows on her knees, hands clasped before her, and talked about her day. Daria sat and listened, head down, but said nothing.

       “Can you tell me ‘bout Jane?” Quinn finally asked.

       Daria stirred and looked at her wrapped right hand. “She’s in some kind of county home. Her parents abandoned her, and her brother’s in the army in Iraq. She’s okay.”

       “Is she gonna come over sometime?”

       “Oh. Mom needs to call her social worker to get permission.” Daria made a face. “And Mom has to be home, too, so forget it.”

       “You got the number?” Quinn took the scrap of paper Daria pulled from her pants pocket, memorized the number, then handed it back. “I think I can fix it,” she said.

       “Mom has to call.”

       “I’ll take care of it. I know what to do.”

       Daria exhaled heavily. Quinn probably did know what to do. That was what was so frustrating about it. “Thank’ee,” Daria whispered. She felt exhausted.

       Quinn started to reach for her sister, stopped, then pulled her hand back. “You okay now?”

       Daria nodded, her head down. Her long auburn hair hid her face.

       “I want to see your hand in the morning, before we go to school. Mom said we gotta walk from now on.”

       “Figgers. I don’t care.”

       “I’m sorry I ran off this morning when she dropped us at school. I just had to get out of there.”

       “I know. Whatever.”

       “Daria? Can... can I hug you?”

       Daria shook her head no, her defenses up again.

       “Okay, then. Get some rest.” Quinn watched her for a moment more, then gently closed the door. Daria heard her footsteps go down the hall and then downstairs.

       There was nothing to do. Daria picked at the long bandage wrapped over her right hand, but Quinn knew her stuff. The bandage was well set. She gave up and just sat. She had no will to clean up the mess in the room just yet.

       Quinn’s footsteps came back upstairs and down the hall to Daria’s room. The door squeaked open, then Quinn reached in and sat Daria’s backpack by her desk. “In case you gotta do homework,” she said, then gave Daria a weak smile and promptly left again.

       That’s right, Daria thought dully. Algebra. Totally forgot it.

       She did not move further except to take off her taped-together glasses, lay them on the floor under the edge of her bed, and lie down again. Though she was restless, she was asleep again within ten minutes and dreamed of nothing for the rest of the night.

 

 

 

 

V

 

 

       “I could get used to this,” said Daria two days later, as she followed Jane to an unoccupied table in the school cafeteria.

       “So could I, if my tray were being carried by a naked gladiator who looked like Brad Pitt,” said Jane. She put down the tray holding lunch items for both her and Daria. “To each her own, I suppose.”

       They sat on opposite sides of the table, and Jane began distributing plates and silverware. Daria took her soft drink with her left hand, her splinted right hand kept motionless in her lap.

       “How long till that thing comes off, again?” asked Jane, nodding at the hidden hand.

       “Week.” Daria looked glum. “Really hard to smoke with my left hand. Makin’ me crabby.”

       “I thought you were trying to quit.”

       “You were the one tryin’ to quit,” corrected Daria. “And I could get right used to this, too.” She finished arranging her menu items on one plate: two slices of pepperoni pizza, a pile of cheese-covered French fries, and a crumbly square of chocolate cake, with a tall plastic glass of Ultra-Cola to boot.

       “Get used to what?”

       “Buffet-style comfort food from my fav’rit rest’rants. We didn’t have anythin’ like this back at—” Block it, block it, block it “—back in Texas. You took what the cafeteria ladies threw on your tray, and you said, ‘Thank you.’”

       “I might have said the ‘you’ part, but I don’t think I would have said ‘thank.’”

       “Politeness, the curse of civilization.” Daria reached for her cheese fries.

       “Speaking of which, what’d you think of Current Events this morning?”

       Daria pointed to her overstuffed mouth. “Mmmph.”

       “You think that’s what Brittany says when she goes on a date?”

       The urge to laugh aloud was terrific. Daria slapped a hand over her mouth to keep from spitting out her food. Jane gave her a merry smile. “Was it something I said?

       “I fuckin’ hate you,” Daria said after she swallowed.

       Jane blew Daria a red-lipstick kiss. “If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that...”

       “Current Events,” said Daria after wiping her mouth on her napkin. “It was okay.”

       “I thought you were going to say something after Kevin said torture in wartime was okay because God said it was.”

       “Thought about it, let it go. Wasn’t worth it.”

       “What were you gonna say?”

       “That he was an asshole. Seemed self-evident.”

       “I expected something a little more witty.”

       “Wasn’t feelin’ witty. I was feelin’ like bein’ truthful. Shouldn’t do that, causes too much trouble.”

       “Your self-control’s pretty good.”

       “Most days. Be thankful I don’t drink.”

       “I used to,” said Jane, putting down her Ultra-Cola. “My big sisters used to leave wine coolers and beers all over the house when I was little. I started drinking ‘em because nobody would get me a drink from the kitchen. Then Trent found out and started pouring ‘em out or throwing ‘em away. Spoiled all my fun. Whew! I had some good times!”

       “Where were your folks?”

       Jane shrugged. “Away doing their respective art things. They sent money back to a checking account, but Penny, Ron, and Summer drained it all before they moved on. Mom and Dad kept planning to start a new account for Trent and me, but it never happened. At least Trent came through.”

       “My mom and dad are getting’ a divorce,” said Daria. She took a small bite of her pizza as if she had said something about the weather.

       Jane raised an eyebrow as she chewed on a bite from a hot dog. “Oh?”

       Daria shrugged. It came across as forced. “No big. Mom wanted to leave Texas, Dad didn’t wanna pull up stakes right away, bunch of other stuff got thrown in, Dad up an’ left, and that was it.” She shrugged again. “Nothin’ to tell.”

       Jane’s eyebrow went up even higher. “When did they split up?”

       Daria took a long time running her tongue around the inside of her mouth, chasing errant food particles. “End of July,” she finally said. “‘Bout... six weeks ago now.”

       “My parents will never get divorced,” Jane said after a pause. “They’re almost never home at the same time, so I don’t know who they’re going out with when they’re gone—probably everyone in the phone book, from what my siblings have said—but they’ll keep up the fiction, even with the house and kids gone. It was a common-law marriage anyway. They didn’t like the paperwork.” Jane finished her hot dog in one swallow. “I’ll never get married. It’s not worth it.”

       “Hmmm.” Daria used her fingers to scoop up more pizza and fries.

       “So,” said Jane, “what was your old school like, if you don’t mind my asking?”

       Daria realized she didn’t mind. She had the urge to be more open, test the waters. She swallowed her food, then tilted her head back and considered how to answer the question. “Mark Twain said, ‘When in doubt, tell the truth,’ That was so you didn’t have to ‘member so much.”

       “I thought you said the truth causes trouble.”

       “My whole life is trouble. Won’t matter.”

       Jane eyed the diminutive brunette. “Should this wait for a better time with fewer people around?”

       “Nah, don’t matter.” Daria swallowed a last bite and wiped her mouth. “I’m better ‘bout talkin’ ‘bout it, not a problem.” She paused to recall details. “That was Hope High School, in Highland. It was built kinda like a prison, big open square with a courtyard in the middle. There was a big fence ‘round the grounds, chain link, with wire mesh over it so you couldn’t climb in or out. They had cameras, but they were out in the open, not hidden. Hmmm.” She scratched her nose, then rested her chin on her hand. “We had school uniforms. Couldn’t use anythin’ to carry books in. Roll call in ever’ class, monitors in the halls, bathrooms, and courtyard. No locks on the lockers.”

       “Why not?”

       “Easier for the staff to get into ‘em.”

       Jane frowned. “To steal things?”

       “Nah, to look for contraband.” Daria took her hand off the table and picked up another bunch of cheese fries. “Not much privacy. I like it here a lot better’n there, even with Big Brother spyin’ on me.”

       Jane stared at Daria for a long moment. “Sounds like it was a prison.”

       Daria took a deep breath and let it out. “Alternative school.”

       “Oh. Thus the name Hope?”

       “Yeah. Ironic.”

       “How long did you go there?”

       Daria cleared her throat and put both her hands in her lap. She kept her gaze on Jane’s food. “Maybe best not to go into it too much yet. Not as ready for it as I thought.”

       “I wasn’t going to ask anything else.” Jane looked discomfited. “Well, I was, but I won’t now.”

       “Okay.”

       “You know,” said Jane conversationally, “you don’t have to tell me all this, even if I am being nosy. I like you fine as you are. If you don’t want to go into it, then... don’t. Let it go. It’s the past. You can’t do anything about it. Just let it go.”

       Daria’s face was blank. “Okay,” she whispered.

       Jane pointed her left little finger at her companion. “You’re pretty cool.”

       Daria ate the last of her cheese fries. “I was thinkin’ the same ‘bout you.”

       “One or both of us has brain problems.”

       “From where I’m sittin,’” said Daria, almost smiling, “that’d have to be you.”

       “Well,” Jane began, then she looked to her left. “Oh, there’s that other new girl.”

       Daria looked in the direction Jane was looking. Quinn was sitting down with a group of girls two tables over. She had not yet seen Daria. As soon as they were seated and had their trays placed before them, they took a signal from a tall girl with platinum blonde hair and bowed their heads. A few students looked on, then went back to their lunches. A few seconds later, there was a general chorus of “Amen!” and they opened their eyes and began eating.

       “Which new girl?” Daria asked, keeping a straight face.

       “The redhead,” Jane whispered.

       A boy in a duckbill cap, football jersey, and baggy shorts stopped by the group, standing behind Quinn. “Hey,” he said. “Are you Quinn?”

       “What?” Quinn turned and looked up with a bright smile. “Oh! Yeah, that’s me!”

       “Um, I, uh... are you doing anything this weekend?”

       “Well,” Quinn began, “lessee, I’m goin’ to church Sunday mornin’, an’ I’m goin’ with some friends to a Bible study youth group Sunday night, but I think that’s it, ‘cept for homework. Depends on what God wants. I might have to be home, I never know.”

       “Oh.” The boy looked nonplussed and tried another topic. “Um, you, like, got any brothers or sisters?”

       “I gotta big sister,” said Quinn. “She’s real smart. Did you want anythin’ else?”

       “Uh... nah. ‘S okay.” The boy sauntered off, trying hard to look casual. The girls waited until he was halfway across the room before they broke into fits of giggles and laughter.

       “Those are the Little Angels,” said Jane. “They’re the local Jesus Freaks. That redhead would make a great magazine cover model.” She picked up the remains of her hamburger. “I wonder if she was being real about what she does.”

       “That she goes to church and all?” asked Daria.

       “Yeah. I think some of them don’t practice everything they preach.”

       “She’s real.”

       Jane looked up just as she bit into her hamburger. She held that pose, staring at Daria, waiting.

       “She’s my sister,” said Daria.

       A look of incredulity crossed Jane’s face as she looked from Daria to Quinn and back. She took the hamburger out of her mouth. “I am very glad,” she said, “that I did not stick my foot entirely down my throat just now. You’re serious?”

       “As a heart attack.”

       “That’s your sister, the Christian supermodel?”

       Daria nodded and looked over at Quinn, who was talking with the platinum blonde between giggles.

       “So, is that a good thing or a bad thing?” said Jane.

       “Uh... she’s okay, I guess.” Daria looked back at her plate, picking her teeth with a fingernail. “We have our moments, but mostly we get along. Depends on the day.”

       “Okay,” said Jane, “so you have a sister, you went to an alternative high school, you smoke, you’ve had some ups and downs, you know Orwell and Twain, and what I want to know is, what else is there about you that I ought to know before I say or do something stupid? Other than asking why you went to the alternative school. You’re not terribly forthcoming. Maybe this is a Texas thing, I dunno.”

       “Oh.” Daria looked reflective. “Nah, just a me thing. Don’t talk as much as I used to.” She picked up her napkin and became interested in folding and refolding it. “I used to talk more,” she said. “Kinda told ever’one what was on my mind whenever I wanted, didn’t care ‘bout the consequences. Little free with my mouth.”

       “Uh-huh.” Jane waited, but nothing else came. She cleared her throat. “Okay, listen up, here it is. If I happen to say something that totally bugs you, I want you to tell me. Don’t blow me off, don’t cover it up, just tell me. That’s real important to me.”

       Daria looked up. “Okay.”

       “I can be pretty emotional about things, in case you haven’t noticed, and what I don’t like most is to have people run off on me. Everyone I’ve ever known has done that, except maybe Trent, but he’s in Iraq so he sorta ran off on me, too. My parents, my sibs, all thirty-eight of my boyfriends, everyone, they all ran off. I’m sorta tired of it, and I’m not kidding about how pissed I am about it. If you get mad at me, you come and talk to me, or believe me, I’ll come and talk to you.

       “I will.”

       “Promise me that.”

       “I promise.”

       Jane held out her right little finger. Daria lifted her right hand to respond, but both girls wound up staring at the bandage-wrapped brace.

       “I forgot,” said Jane, exchanging hands. She and Daria solemnly shook their left-hand pinkies. “Okay,” said Jane when they were done, “tell me something else.”

       “Okay.”

       “How’d you do that?” Jane pointed to Daria’s bandaged hand.

       “I... I punched a wall.”

       “You hit a wall and broke your hand.”

       “Middle finger.”

       “You punched a wall and broke your middle finger. On purpose?”

       Daria nodded.

       Jane considered. “I can understand that,” she said at last. “Okay, that’s all I wanted to know.”

       “Can I ask you a question?” said Daria.

       “I’m not gay. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about it now and then, but I’m not really gay, I think. Maybe bi. I think you’re supposed to find out about that in college, anyway. Maybe if I was gay, I could get into the movies. Was that what you wanted to know?”

       Daria managed to look irked. “No, that wasn’t it.”

       “Oh. Forget all that, then. What?”

       Daria opened her mouth and for a moment looked as though she were about to ask her question, but the words never came out. After a few seconds of motionlessness, she settled back in her seat and stared at Jane’s lunch again. “Never mind. Forget it.”

       “Hypothetically speaking,” said Jane slowly, “if you did just now have a question to ask me, what would it have been?”

       Daria raised her head and met Jane’s gaze. After a long moment, her mouth opened. “What was the—”

       “Oh, hi!” cried a voice. Quinn walked up on Daria’s side of the table. She was looking over at Jane. “Is this Jane?” she asked.

       “I am she,” said Jane. “Or her. Something like that.”

       “Hi, Quinn,” said Daria, looking relieved despite her deadpan tone. “Wassup?”

       “Nothin’. I just came over to see how you were. You okay?”

       “More or less. You?”

       “Right as rain!” Quinn extended a hand to Jane. “Any friend of Daria’s is okay by me,” she said.

       Jane reached up and shook, a bemused smile on her face. “We were just talking about you.”

       “Oh, my gosh! Well, I don’t wanna interrupt anythin’ important like that, so you two go back to talkin’! Good to meet ya, Jane!” Quinn waved and headed back to the table with the other Little Angels, who also waved at Daria and Jane.

       “I don’t understand how it’s possible the two of you are related,” said Jane.

       “Darwin works in mysterious ways,” said Daria.

       “I thought that was Mendel’s fault.”

       “Could’ve been Satan’s, for all I—”

       “Oh, hey!” cried Quinn, hurrying back. “I forgot! It’s okay for Jane to come on over after school from now on. I got it all straightened out. Jane, you gotta ring Eleanor, though. She’s already talked to Mom an’ she’s got all the information.”

       “Eleanor?” asked Jane, looking puzzled.

       “Your social worker, Mrs. Sullivan. Gotta run! Bye!”

       Daria and Jane exchanged looks as Quinn hurried off. “What just happened here?” said Jane.

       Daria tossed her napkin on her plate and got to her feet, pushing back her chair. “That was my sister,” she said, “one of the great forces of nature.”

       Jane got up, too. “Why was she calling my social worker Eleanor? I’ve never called her Eleanor, not ever. She said I should always call her Mrs. Sullivan. I didn’t even know she had a first name.”

       “Don’t try to understand it,” said Daria, following Jane to the tray drop-off. “Just go with the flow.”

       “I thought you were going to say, ‘Just rope and throw and brand it.’”

       “I don’t wanna talk ‘bout your datin’ habits.”

       “Why not? You might learn something.”

       “Kiss my butt.”

       “I thought you didn’t want to talk about my dating habits. I gotta go by the office, won’t take long. See you in class.”

       Jane was late getting to computer lab, but she wore a broad grin when she entered. She handed the teacher a note, then took a seat at the computer beside Daria’s while humming a few bars from Pink’s “Get the Party Started.”

       “Good news?” whispered Daria. “Or’d the heroin kick in?”

       “We’re walkin’ home together today,” Jane whispered back. “And you’re not getting any of my heroin, nyah nyah nyah.”

       “Bitch,” Daria said with a smile. “What happened? Did you call—”

       “Okay, class!” called the teacher, a plump middle-aged lady named Bennett. “Today we were going to talk about the joys of JavaScript, but the tutorial is down until tomorrow, so we’re going to the backup plan and review what we’ve learned about e-mail etiquette.” She ignored the chorus of groans from the students. “Is there anyone here who does not know how to create and send an e-mail?”

       No hands went up. “Duh,” muttered one student.

       “Okay, great! Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to send an e-mail to someone, per school guidelines, but—quiet, please! Okay, your e-mail has to be at least two hundred words long. The system will check your e-mail before it goes out to make sure it’s within guidelines and is at least two hundred words long! Kevin, that doesn’t mean you can repeat words over and over again, you won’t get credit for that. Jodie, please don’t write to the White House any more. I’d appreciate it. Andrea—you know what not to do. Daria, do the best you can with one hand. Kevin, stop laughing! That wasn’t funny! Yes, everyone can get started—oh! Wait! You can’t write to yourselves! The system has your e-mail addresses in it, so it knows if you try that. Don’t! And you can’t write to your parents or your siblings, either. It has to be to someone outside your immediate family. Grandparents are okay, Jennifer. Just not you and not your immediate family! Okay, let’s get started. Two hundred words! Kevin, don’t lean back in your chair. Yes, Brittany, what is it?”

       Daria groaned as she eyed her monitor. Other than her father, there was absolutely no one that she knew that she could—

       “You’re writing to my brother,” said Jane, scribbling out an e-mail address on a scrap of paper. She finished and slapped it on Daria’s keyboard. “That’s his unit address. He’ll get it tomorrow when he wakes up.”

       “What?”

       “Write to him. Say anything. And ask him if he knows when he’s coming stateside.”

       “Jane,” called Mrs. Bennett, “no talking please. Yes, Brittany, I’m coming, just a minute!”

       Left to her own devices, Daria brought up the e-mail page for the school as she had been taught in the last two classes, entered her password, and carefully typed in Trent’s e-mail address. She tabbed down to the title line and pecked out:

 

 

Letter from a friend of your sister Jane

 

 

       She tabbed down to the body of the letter... and stared at the screen. What am I doing, writing to him? I can’t do this. He doesn’t even know me. What am I going to say? This is completely—

       “Get going,” said Jane out of the side of her mouth as she typed away.

       “I don’t know what to say.”

       “Yes, you do.”

       Daria sighed and chewed her lower lip. She wasn’t ambidextrous, but she had done this before, other times after she had hurt herself. She usually hurt her hands. Her left-hand fingers hesitantly went to the keys.

 

 

Hi, Trent:

 

 

       She made a face and erased that, typing instead:

 

 

Dear Trent:

 

 

       That looked too forward, but it was proper style, so she left it with reluctance. She spaced down.

 

 

Your sister Jane, who is sitting an arm’s length away from me as I write this, told me I should write to you. We are at Lawndale High School in Computer Lab. I came to Lawndale High on Monday of this week and met Jane before I got into the building. She has been very decent to me and she has had many good things to say about you. I have no idea what else there is to say to

 

 

       She made another face and erased the last line. Her typing picked up speed.

 

 

She showed me a picture of you, printed out from somewhere. Jane misses you a lot. She asked me to ask you when you were coming home. I guess you have her own e-mail address, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t even know if she has a computer.

 

 

       Daria paused. What else was there to tell?

 

 

I have a little sister, too. Her name is Quinn, and she’s a grade behind me. She’s okay most days. We came here from Texas. The less said about my old hometown, the better. Lawndale doesn’t seem like too bad a place, but I’ve been here less than a week so what do I know. At least Jane is here, and

 

 

       She hesitated again, then continued.

 

 

that has made my staying here quite tolerable. Jane says I have an accent, but I don’t. I do notice, however, that the locals here have a funny way of speaking.

 

I used to have e-mail addresses all over the place, but I haven’t used them in so long now, I think they’ve expired. You can write to me here at my school address, but I think it would be better for you to write to Jane. You are very lucky to have her as your sister, and she looks up to you maybe more than you know. I do not

 

 

       She stopped again, took a deep breath, and pecked away.

 

 

think I have been as good to Quinn as you have been to Jane, and I would like to change that, though it is very hard to do. I am set in my ways even if I am not yet sixteen (born on November 11, which is funny because that is Veterans Day), but maybe for Quinn’s sake I should do better.

 

Anyway, there is not much else to tell. We were supposed to write 200 words and

 

 

       She quickly deleted the last two lines.

 

 

Anyway, the important thing is for you to take good care of yourself and come home as soon as you can. If you want to write to me, that’s okay, but be sure to write to Jane first, because she loves you.

 

 

       Daria reached up and wiped her eyes under her glasses with her fingertips.

 

 

I wish you the best.

 

Your sister’s friend, and hopefully yours,

Daria Morgendorffer

 

 

       She blew her nose on a used tissue she fished out of her jacket pocket.

       “You okay?” asked Jane, glancing over.

       “Allergies,” said Daria, putting the tissue away again.

       “What’d you write to him?”

       “Buzz off.” Daria turned her monitor screen so it was harder for Jane to see it.

 

 

P.S. When is Jane’s birthday? And when is yours?

 

 

       Daria clicked the e-mail on its way and sighed with relief. Then she began to worry that perhaps it was a mistake to say to Trent, “and hopefully yours” at the end, because that looked too much like she was mooning over him. Too late to worry about it, now. Damn it!

       “I didn’t know you had allergies,” said Jane, peering at her. “Your eyes are red.”

       “Lot you don’t know about me,” Daria muttered.

       “You have dandruff, too?” Jane guessed. “Psoriasis? Bird flu? Rabies?”

       “Jane, please, no talking,” called Mrs. Bennett in a tired voice. “Yesssss, Brittany, I’ll be right there.”

       “Thank you,” Jane whispered.

       “For what?”

       “Writing to Trent.”

       Daria shrugged. “S’okay.”

       “I have some other pictures of him, ones he sent from Iraq. Wanna see ‘em?”

       “Okay.”

       Jane was silent then. Daria glanced over and saw Jane swallow and stare at her monitor without typing anything. In that moment, Daria saw another Jane who lived in fear that one day she would be visited by several men in Army uniforms who would give her a message, and then she would have to stand alone in front of a black coffin as it was lowered into the earth, alone because no one else in her family would be there for the funeral, and she would be given an American flag folded into a triangle and that would be all she would have left of her big brother when she went back to the county shelter that night, a folded-up flag and a few little pictures of him from computer printers.

       Daria started to reach for Jane’s right hand with her left hand, but her hand stopped halfway there. She had never tried to comfort someone before and literally did not know what to do next.

       Jane noticed out of the corner of her eye and reached over to take Daria’s hand, and they sat together like that, Jane staring at her blank computer screen and Daria staring at Jane, hand in hand, until Jane let go to wipe the tears off her face.

       It was the first time in a year that Daria had thought of a funeral that was not a funeral she felt she had caused.

       “Yes, Brittany,” called Mrs. Bennett in exhaustion. “I see you. I’ll be there in just a second. Thank God the day’s almost over with.”

 

 

 

 

VI

 

 

       When they got to their final class of the day, the thirty-something art teacher with a perm handed Jane a folded letter before class started. Jane read through it, then stuck it in a pocket with an annoyed look.

       “Drafted?” asked Daria.

       “Sort of,” Jane grumbled. “Morris wants me to run track again.”

       Daria raised an eyebrow. “You said, again?

       “I ran track in middle school until the county got me. The high school and the county haven’t been able to get it together for me to do it again, because I’d have to stay after school a lot and run on weekends, too, and I don’t have a guardian to hang around with me. Morris wanted to know if I was up for it this year, but I don’t see how it would work. Plus, three of my ex-boyfriends are on the track team. Actually, that last part wouldn’t be so bad. The guardian thing is the hurdle I can’t get over.”

       “No other sibs around to help? You said somethin’ yesterday ‘bout bein’ the youngest of five.”

       Jane frowned as she took several sheets of paper from the art teacher, who was walking from table to table passing them out. “Well, there’s Ron, my oldest brother, but I’d have to listen to him blab on forever about how rotten Mom and Dad were and what a bitch his current—”

       “Jane, no talking,” said the art teacher.

       “Sorry, Ms. Defoe.” When she thought the teacher was out of earshot, Jane whispered, “—what a bitch his wife and/or girlfriend is. And he’s the stable one. Summer’s in meth rehab again, and Penny’s fighting globalization with the Zapatistas, last I heard, so that’s—”

       The teacher turned and cleared her throat with a meaningful look in Jane’s direction. The girls were forced to wait until school ended to continue their talk. Daria had time to sneak in a fast cigarette before Mrs. Sullivan met them at the back of the school by the parking lot with further particulars of Jane’s newfound freedom.

       “You’ll have to wear a GPS anklet,” Mrs. Sullivan said in a businesslike manner, holding up what looked like a short, thin cable lock for a bicycle. A knob like the antenna on a cell phone stuck out of the locking part. “I’ll put it on you and make the adjustments. It’ll tell us where you are in case there’s an emergency and we need to come pick you up. If you remove it before you get back to LYRE, the deal’s off. If it falls off your foot—though it shouldn’t—just call LYRE and they’ll fix it.”

       “You’re kidding,” said Jane, staring at the anklet.

       “It’s this or come back to LYRE with me, right now,” said Mrs. Sullivan.

       “Can’t you at least get me one in red?”

       Mrs. Sullivan gave a slight smile. “I’ll look into it, but for now you’ll have to manage with Day-Glo orange.”

       It took less than a minute to snap the anklet on. “See,” Mrs. Sullivan said, standing up, “the antenna goes right over the back of your sneaker and ankle sock. Perfect.”

       “I can’t believe this!” Jane moaned. “I have to be tracked by satellite?”

       “Jane,” said her social worker, “the only reason you get a privilege like this is because, number one, you’re passing all your classes, though I’d like to see you earn something better than a D plus in anything, and, two, you’ve never tried to run away.”

       “Oh, right. Where the hell would I go?”

       “It’s the thought that counts. You’re only the third person this year we’re trying this with, so stop having a hissy-fit over it and get with the program.”

       Jane gave her a resigned look. “I just wanted to complain. It’s my nature.”

       “Do tell,” Mrs. Sullivan sniffed. “Come on, both of you girls get in the car and I’ll drive you to your friend’s house. Just throw the paperwork in the back seats on the floor.”

       “Hate to say this,” said Daria, looking anxious, “but I’m not sure if my mom’s—”

       “She’s there waiting for us, so hurry. I don’t know how long her temper will hold out.”

       “Right.” Daria nodded as she got into the battered Pinto. “That’s my mom.”

       “How come you’re driving us there?” asked Jane, slamming the door after she got in. “I thought we could walk over.”

       “I have to call LYRE and have your friend’s house benchmarked in the GPS system, so we know where it is.”

       Jane let her head fall back against the seat in exasperation. “I am such a criminal.”

       Mrs. Sullivan smiled and started the car. “Only the best for you, kid.”

       “Did my sister work this out with you?” asked Daria.

       “Quinn? She got it started. Your mother took it from there, though it was an uphill struggle.” Mrs. Sullivan put the car in gear and pulled onto the street. “I’d say you owe your sister big time.”

       Daria rolled her eyes. After a moment, she reached down in her boot for a hidden cigarette and stuck it in her mouth, then fished for her lighter.

       “Don’t you dare smoke in my car,” said Mrs. Sullivan, peering in the rear view mirror.

       Daria groaned and put the cigarette away. “Sorry.”

       Helen Morgendorffer, in a magenta business suit-dress with sunglasses pushed up on her forehead, was indeed waiting at the house when the girls and the social worker arrived. She shook hands with Mrs. Sullivan and Jane, though she seemed quite distracted, then gave Jane a brief tour of the upscale home (family room, kitchen, bathrooms, Daria’s room, everything else off limits).

       Her pleasant if distant mood lasted until Mrs. Sullivan’s car disappeared down the street. “Listen to me,” she said, addressing both girls with no trace of humor. “I have to go back to the office to finish a brief for a very important case. I expect you two to behave yourselves while I’m gone, or else. Am I understood?”

       “Got it,” said Jane. “I’m going to teach Daria about lipstick, maybe try some blushes on her. I thought a peach would go well with her complexion. What do you think?”

       Daria looked at Jane as if she had grown two new heads.

       “Fine, whatever,” said Helen. She started to leave for the garage when she looked down at Jane’s feet. “What’s that orange thing on your ankle?”

       “Art you can wear,” said Jane guilelessly. “Made it myself. Like it?”

       Helen shook her head and left.

       “Good one,” growled Daria, “but if you so much as touch me with a lipstick, I’ll never speak to you again.”

       “Promises, promises,” said Jane. She spread her arms and twirled slowly in place, head back, looking up, smiling in bliss. “Ohmigod, I can’t believe this. It’s after school, I’m not back at LYRE, and I’m actually free until eight o’clock to do whatever I want, anything at all, with no one spying or ratting on me. This is incredible. You have no idea.”

       Daria had started to smile at her friend’s joy, but the smile flickered. I do know what that is like. I felt it every night I came home from Hope High School. “So, what’d you wanna do?”

       Jane lowered her head to peer at Daria. “I dunno. What do you wanna do?”

       “Don’t rightly know.” Daria considered. “Homework?”

       “Right. Fuck that shit.”

       They took a smoke in the backyard, hid all the evidence, then made half a grocery bag full of popcorn and sat in front of the giant-screen plasma TV in the living room. “He married an alien—from halfway across the galaxy!” cried the announcer. “And now she wants a divorce and half his money! But were they really married to begin with? It’s the old extraterrestrial ex post facto, next on the Judge Hangim Hye Show!”

       “Can’t believe you never saw this show before,” said Daria, propping up her sock feet on an ottoman.

       “We don’t get cable at LYRE.” Jane scooped out a handful of popcorn. “My parents never got it, either. Do you think these cases are real?”

       “Who cares?” said Daria. “This show’s wilder’n Hogzilla on crack.”

       Jane laughed so hard she choked on her popcorn.

       A half-hour later, in the middle of the case in which an undead zombie was suing a cemetery groundskeeper for crypt neglect, the front door opened and Quinn came in. “Howdy!” she cried. Several other girls came in behind her and looked around.

       “Hey,” Daria called in a deadpan voice, turning from the TV.

       “Thanks, Quinn, for setting this up!” called Jane, waving from the couch. “You’re the best!”

       “Yeah, what she said, I guess,” Daria added.

       “No problem!” Quinn called. “We’re just headin’ up to my room for a prayer meetin’! Where’s Mom?”

       “She went back to work,” said Daria, her eyes again glued to the TV.

       What?” cried Quinn. “But she has to drive Jane home! And she’s supposed to be here while—ohhh! Lord, don’t let me break the fifth commandment!”

       The herd of teenage girls stampeded up the stairs in moments. Five minutes later, just as the TV judge was about to rule on the zombie’s lawsuit, Quinn came downstairs again. “Daria, can I see you in the kitchen, please?”

       “In a sec,” said Daria. The zombie won the right to eat the groundskeeper’s brains, but the groundskeeper won the right to die of natural causes first. Daria then got off the couch as the commercials started and headed for the kitchen. “If I’m not back in one minute, come and drag me outta there,” she told Jane.

       “Mrmrgh mffl,” Jane replied through a mouthful of popcorn.

       Quinn’s nails clicked loudly on the kitchen counter as she drummed her fingers. “Mom’s s’posed to be here while Jane’s here,” she said. “I can’t believe she ran off like that. What was she thinkin’?”

       Daria had the sense that a major difficulty was in the offing. “We’re not doin’ anythin’ wrong,” she said, trying not to feel defensive. “What’s the problem?”

       “The problem comes if her social worker comes back an’ sees you two here unsupervised,” said Quinn in a low voice, pointing into the family room in Jane’s direction. “The whole point of Jane gettin’ to come here was that there’d be an adult around to watch out for things.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Daria, I don’t know if you know this or not, but Jane’s had charges, big ones. They got dropped on account of her age an’ plea bargainin’ an’ ev’thing, but she’s gotta be supervised, ‘specially here. Didn’t Mrs. Sullivan say anythin’ to you on that?”

       Daria frowned and pulled back. “No, and how come you know so much ‘bout this?”

       “Don’t you mind how I know, I just know. Oh, I could just—I can’t say it, it’d make God mad, but I can’t believe Mom just up an’ left. She knew what was s’posed to happen. I’m gonna call her up right now. You go on back in there and stay with Jane. I’ll fix this. Maybe that sec’tary of hers, Marianne, can drive Jane back.”

       “I can call Mom,” said Daria with a tight face. “I know what to say.”

       “No, you go on. Lemme handle this. Now, shoo.”

       Daria felt her temper rise. Her fists balled up. “I’m not a little kid, Quinn,” she growled. “Don’t you dare treat me like that.”

       Quinn started to say something but thought better of it. “I apologize ‘bout that, then,” she said, holding up her hands in surrender and taking a step back. “I’m just angry ‘bout Mom leavin’, that’s all. Calm y’self. Anyways, I’d rather it was me than you chewin’ out Mom this time. You got company in the other room, so go be with your friend. Don’t let her sit in there alone.”

       Lacking any viable argument to that, and feeling rather useless anyway, Daria went back into the family room. The courtroom show was back on, but she found it impossible to focus on it. Jane, too, was unusually quiet. They did not eat as much popcorn as before, and talk was at a minimum.

       When the show was over, Jane stood up and stretched. “I could use another smoke break, if you don’t mind,” she said.

       “Sure.” Daria put on her boots, then they went outside again through the sliding kitchen door, around to the backyard’s red-plastic-and-silver-pipe picnic table that Helen had found at a local Wal-Mart. Around them was the high wooden privacy fence that shut out everything but the tallest trees and the sky. Daria pulled out a pack of cigarettes she kept hidden under the gas grill, then they sat on the top of the table facing away from the house, their feet resting on one of the plastic seat planks.

       “Well,” said Jane, blowing out a long stream of smoke, “I guess you’re a little curious about what my charges were.”

       Shit! Daria shook her head, pissed that Quinn had not been as discrete as she could have been.

       “I kinda thought you already knew,” Jane said. She scratched her head with her thumb, then took another drag on her cigarette.

       “No one said anythin’ ‘bout it till she did,” grumbled Daria. “You said the past was gone, so let’s forget it.”

       “I want to talk about it.”

       Daria gave up. “Then talk.”

       “I wanted a computer,” said Jane, looking at a treetop beyond the fence. “My folks kept promising they’d get me one, but they never did, they were gone so much. They used to leave travelers’ checks for Trent to use for paying the bills, after my older sibs sucked the main bank account dry and left town, but Trent, bless his heart, wasn’t very reliable, so I started paying the bills. I’d long ago figured out how to forge Mom and Dad’s names on my report cards, so things went okay for a while, as long as I could get Trent to cash the checks and get money orders. Then I got tired of nagging him, so I had Trent set up a local checking account in his name, and I dumped all the rest of the money my folks left us in there and forged Trent’s name on the checks instead. He didn’t care.

       “Then, about three years ago, I decided it was time to get that computer, and I got Mom’s credit-card number from the papers she left lying around the house and I ordered my own computer using the public library’s computer. After that, I was in business. I was teaching myself graphic design and HTML with the extra software I ordered, but we had more bills and the mortgage was coming due. Then I got another kid in middle school to teach me identity theft, and I started using other people’s credit cards from websites I found online so I wouldn’t completely drain out my own account. It was tricky juggling around the money so the stolen card numbers couldn’t be traced back to me, but I did it. I’d say there was a year’s time before the police found me that I had the house fixed up pretty well. I even had a maid service and a mowing company come by now and then. Didn’t cost me a thing except a few hours a month surfing for stolen cards and stuff. Trent was my front man. Even if he was asleep in bed, even if he wasn’t even home, everyone thought it was him doing it, not me.

       “What bugged me most, though, was that Mom and Dad never said anything about it. They came home three times while I was doing all of this, and they never once mentioned it. Not once! It was like they were oblivious to everything I did. That so fucking pissed me off!”

       Jane stopped for a long moment to finish her cigarette. She snapped the butt away into the long green grass, then leaned back, propped up on her long arms. “There’s more.”

       Daria sat motionless, her head cocked slightly toward Jane. A column of smoke drifted from her cigarette.

       “I had my own pages on MySpace and Xanga and places like it, full of stuff about my life alone, though I didn’t say exactly where I was or who I was. I think it was obvious I was a kid, though. All sorts of people were writing to me, and after a while some of them talked me into getting my own hosted website, trying out my HTML and layout skills, and then they talked me into posting pictures of myself there and charging people to see them. I took all major credit cards and sent the money to my bank account—Trent’s account, I guess, but it was really mine.”

       Jane coughed. “Then everyone talked me into posting pictures of myself naked. I bet you saw that coming from a mile away. Pretty soon I was doing anything and everything you could imagine, all by myself, and man, I raked in some real dough. Fourteen years old and a porn star. I had guys writing to me from every continent but Antarctica. I think I was actually famous for a while. I had so much money, I didn’t know what to do. I even thought about moving out, getting my own place through some front, but I didn’t want to leave Trent behind. He never knew a thing.”

       She rubbed her nose. “Then that damn homeless guy came along the summer before I started high school, and everything fell apart. The cops got my computer, my studio, my bank account, everything. They charged me with several kinds of fraud, mostly that forgery and identity-theft stuff, but there was some wire fraud stuff, too, that almost got the feds involved. It never came to trial, though. The district attorney couldn’t see prosecuting a fifteen-year-old, especially because of the porn thing. They were going to charge Trent, but they dropped that, too, on account of no evidence. He really didn’t have a clue. We lost the house then, and finally the city cut a deal where I’d go to the county and get enrolled in Lawndale High because of the high security, but my parents would get charged with felony child abandonment and anything else the DA could hit ‘em with. That’s the real reason Mom and Dad never came back. I don’t know where the fuck they are now. Then Trent joined the Army, and here I am. I don’t think I left out much. All the charges against me were dropped, though I’m on probation until eighteen. I can’t fuck up, or else they send me off to someplace hardcore, maybe like that alternative school you went to, only maybe not as nice as yours.”

       Jane looked down and pulled another cigarette from the pack. “You mind?” she asked.

       Daria shook her head no, pushed over the lighter, then looked at her boots.

       “So,” said Jane, lighting up, “whaddya think?”

       Daria looked at the toes of her boots. “What kinda camera’d you use?” she said.

       “For what, the porn shots? Oh. My dad’s a freelance photographer. He had a couple of digital cameras he didn’t need, older models, and I just set ‘em up on tripods in his studio in the basement. I ordered some books on digital shooting and nude photography from online bookstores, fixed up the floodlights, threw some pillows and blankets around, then went from there.”

       “How much d’you clear?”

       “What, how much money’d I make?”

       “Yeah.”

       Jane laughed once, but it turned into a cough. “Wow, I’m not that good at math stuff. I know I took in at least four thousand the last month before the cops got me. It was really going up. My expenses weren’t anything. I was worried I’d have to pay taxes or something if I got caught, I was making so much, but I hadn’t figured out how to hide it. I was going to get some books on setting up offshore accounts when I got busted.” She sighed. “‘Lack of money is the root of all evil.’”

       “George Bernard Shaw,” said Daria without inflection. “Man and Superman. I like that one.”

       “Jeez, you’re a smartass. So, you’re not gonna call me a slut? Throw stuff at me? Try to get into my pants? Probably not the last one, but I know a couple girls who tried. I couldn’t count the guys.”

       Daria shook her head. “You figure out what shots in your galleries people were clickin’ on most, so you could tailor the site to get more hits?”

       Jane frowned in puzzlement. “How could I do that?”

       “There’re ways to track hits, get stats on who’s going where how often, ‘cetera. Depends on your software and host system.”

       “Well, shit, I didn’t know everything about setting up a website.”

       Daria faced Jane directly. “Your site still up?”

       “Nah, it’s gone. They had it shut down with all my other websites, everything, all gone. I heard there was a website you could go to and look up webpages from years past, but I haven’t found it.”

       “I know where it is. The WayBack Machine, they call it. I’ve used it before.”

       “Oh.” Jane considered this. “You got a computer?”

       “Yeah, but it doesn’t have Internet access. Not allowed to have it.”

       “You can’t? Well, that sucks. Oh, wait—do you mean by court order?”

       Daria nodded.

       “Hey, me too. What the fuck is up with that?” Catching Daria’s expression, Jane saw the light. “Oh, I get it. It’s how you got into Hope High. Never mind, then.”

       “That wasn’t how.” Daria looked at her boots again, wiggled them back and forth. “My turn, I guess.”

       “You don’t have to.”

       “Sure, like I could refuse after what you told me.”

       “Now, wait, I didn’t mean you had to—”

       “I killed some people.”

       Jane’s voice shut off. She froze in place.

       “I killed eleven people,” Daria went on in a monotone. “I caused ‘em to be killed. Eight were wounded. One of the eight is brain dead, one of the shooters the police took down, so I guess that’s twelve dead, really. I started what happened in Highland, the shootings. It was my fault. I made it happen.”

       Jane still said nothing. She still did not move.

       “That’s how I got put in Hope High School,” said Daria. Her tone began to relax. “I wrote this essay for English class...”

       She talked for twenty minutes without stopping. She left out nothing.

       When she did stop, she kicked her feet in the air for a few seconds. “Quinn found Jesus right after that. Says her guardian angel saved her, but she won’t say that to my face anymore. She’s like my second mom now, after me all the time. I guess she’s makin’ up for me. Maybe she’s makin’ up for Mom, too, not bein’ ‘round and all. Bad sister, good sister; bad mom, good mom. Quinn’s got it covered.” She shook her head. “I used to be responsible. Now I don’t do anything, and Quinn does ever’thing. I’m the bum in the family. I can’t be trusted to do squat. Ms. Li knows, the principal. Mom knows, and Quinn does. I don’t think anyone else ‘round here knows, other’n those three. ‘Cept you, now. Unless someone back in Highland lets the horse out of the barn, I’m just here.”

       Jane had gotten a fifth cigarette out and was trying to light it. When she succeeded, she tossed the lighter aside and drew in a deep breath, held it, then let it slowly out. Her fingers trembled.

       “That’s my story,” said Daria. “Think that’s all of it.”

       “You know,” said Jane, “all you did was write something. You didn’t really shoot anyone.”

       “That’s not how ever’one else saw it,” said Daria, an edge in her voice. “They showed me what those two boys did. I had to look at ever’one’s body, ever’ single one of ‘em. They had ‘bout five, six hun’erd pictures. Some people had videos of it, and I had to see all them, too.” She rubbed her hands together and stared into space. “There was a girl in my class, kinda smart like me, named Cassandra. She was in the minivan where the propane blew up. She caught fire and burned to death there in the car, her seat belt still on. Windshield melted over what was left of her. You ever see one of those mummies they find up in the Andes, all shriveled up? That was her, all black and gray, shriveled up. They said she fell apart when they took her out of the van.” Daria stopped rubbing her hands together and stared at nothing. “She’s in my dreams now, when I sleep. She talks to me sometimes, still all burnt up, but her mouth moves. She looks at me—”

       Daria flinched and shook all over, then wrapped her arms around herself. “I can’t stand it when she does that,” she said, still talking in a monotone. “I can’t stand it. She won’t quit.”

       They sat together without speaking until Daria let go of herself and got off the picnic table. “Better go in and do homework,” she said. “You can copy my stuff. I had almost ever’thing finished ‘fore we left.”

       “What was it you were going to ask me?” said Jane, looking Daria in the eyes.

       “What?”

       “You were going to ask me something at lunch, I forgot what the question was. You started to say it before Quinn—”

       “Oh, that. I was gonna ask what the worst thing you ever did was.”

       “Oh.” Jane dropped her cigarette, only half finished, then got up and stamped it out. “I don’t know what the worst thing I ever did was,” she said, “but the worst thing that ever happened to me was when Trent found out what I’d been doing. The cops told him. He started screaming at me, just screaming and cursing at me, and then he broke down and cried.” She swallowed. “I felt like the lowest thing on earth when he did that. I was so ashamed, I wanted to kill myself. I thought for a long time he went into the Army just to get away from me. I guess he didn’t, but I still sometimes think he did.”

       “He wouldn’t have sent you any money, then.”

       Jane shrugged, looking at the ground. “I dunno. I still feel like shit about it. He didn’t deserve that.”

       Another long pause. Daria rubbed her face with her left hand. “Not much in the mood for homework.”

       “Me, either. Hey, can I ask a favor? Hope it won’t make you mad if I do.”

       “Fuck, just ask.”

       “Can I read that paper you wrote, the one you did for that class?”

       Daria blinked and looked up, considering it. “I guess. I don’t mind. Why?”

       “Just curious. Do you have a copy?”

       “No. It’s online, though.”

       “It is? You’re kidding.”

       “No. Had it posted to one of my old websites, part of a blog I was doin’. I look at it now and then with the WayBack Machine.”

       “Oh. But you don’t have Internet access, so—”

       “Library computer.”

       “Oh, right. Yeah, like me. I do that, too, use library computers. Not supposed to, though.”

       Daria cleared her throat. “Now I got a question for you.”

       “Shoot.” Jane flinched and looked upset. “Sorry. Jeez.”

       It only brought a smile to Daria’s face. “You got any pictures of you from your porno site?”

       Jane’s expression turned to one of surprise, then she wiggled her eyebrows and gave Daria a leer. “Curious, are we?”

       “Yeah, a little.” Daria smiled back. “Just a little, that’s all.”

       Well, now,” said Jane, “I used to charge for that, but maybe for you I’ll make an exception—except that my website’s gone.”

       “WayBack Machine.”

       “Oh!” Jane laughed. “Right, I forgot! Yeah! I still remember the address, too.”

       “We’ll have to be careful at the library,” said Daria, smiling faintly. “Can’t afford to get caught, either of us.”

       “Sure! Man, this is so funny. WayBack Machine. Wow, those were the days.” She looked down until her gaze stopped at Daria’s bandaged hand. “That why you broke your finger?”

       Daria held up her right hand and inspected the wrapping. “Yeah, ‘cause it’s what I killed ever’one with.”

       “Huh?”

       “My hands. By writin’.” Daria lowered her arm and shrugged. “I don’t write anymore. Nothin’. Done with it.”

       “You don’t mind if I read that essay?”

       “If you don’t mind me lookin’ at your pictures.”

       “Nah, that’s cool with me. Look all you want, if you can find anything in that WayBack thing.” As if on cue, she and Daria started through the yard for the kitchen’s sliding door.

       “I loved Judge Hangim Hye,” said Jane in admiration. “That show was funnier than hell, assuming the afterlife’s got a humorous side.”

       “Come over and watch some more of it tomorrow, or whenever.”

       “If I can. You know what?”

       Daria turned her head and looked up over the tops of her glasses. “What?”

       “This beats the hell out of talking about Jesus.”

       Daria nodded solemnly as she looked away. Her face was at peace. “It does at that. It surely does at that.”

 

 

 

 

VII

 

 

       Quinn put down her grapefruit spoon that Friday morning and gave her sister a troubled look across the kitchen table. “Daria?”

       “Mmm?” It was difficult for Daria to say more with her mouth full of Pop-Tart.

       “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

       I guess I owe her that much, at least. Daria swallowed but kept her head down, as if the tabletop were more interesting than anything else. “Sure,” she said when she could.

       “How’re things goin’? With Jane, I mean.”

       Daria thought, then shrugged. She shrugged a lot lately. It was easier than giving a real opinion, and it invited less comment from others. Plus, no one died if she did. At least, they hadn’t yet.

       “She seems like a nice person,” said Quinn. “I mean, I know she’s had problems an’ ev’thing, but... well, she is a lively one an’ all, looks to be fun to be ‘round, an’—”

       Daria raised a finger on her left hand as she looked up. Quinn stopped and watched her carefully. Though Daria wondered how Quinn always seemed to know so much about things that didn’t concern her, that was not the issue at hand. “What’re you gettin’ at?” Daria asked.

       “Ah, nothin’, really, I was jus’...” Quinn looked down and poked at her spoon. “I jus’ want you to be happy, that’s all.”

       Daria snorted lightly and reached for another Pop-Tart.

       “I mean it,” said Quinn. “I really do.” She stopped poking at the spoon and sat with her hands in her lap, staring at the grapefruit half in her plate.

       The urge to tell Quinn to go to hell was strong, but not overwhelming as it had once been. Daria forced it back with some effort. “She’s okay,” she said at last. “She’s not up to some people’s standards, mebbe, but she’s okay to me. She...” Daria stopped. It would not do to say, She understands me. That would be saying too much.

       “Okay,” said Quinn. Several times after that, she seemed to be on the verge of saying something else, but no words came out. Daria waited, then finished her second Pop-Tart.

       “I wish Mom was home more,” Quinn finally said, apropos of nothing. “Wish she didn’ leave for the office ‘fore we even get up. Makes the house seem too empty.”

       Daria shrugged. In a way, she was glad her mother wasn’t home more often. The neglect was easier to deal with than the inevitable arguing.

       “This isn’ fair,” Quinn said a few seconds later without looking up. “None of this is fair. Ev’thing sucks. I don’ want to swear, but some days I can hardly keep it in me. None of this is fair!” Her voice rose to a shout. “I hate those two boys!”

       Daria stared at Quinn in shock. Quinn shut her eyes and covered her mouth, then put her hand down again. “I mean it!” she cried at the tabletop between her and Daria. “I hate them! They didn’ have no right to take ev’body’s lives away! They didn’ have no right to take away our lives, neither! I’m so... so fuckinmad at them! They took away from you, an’ they took away from me, an’ I’m glad they got killed! I’m glad the police shot ‘em! I wish I had shot—oh!

       Quinn shoved her chair back, jumped to her feet, and ran from the kitchen. Her footsteps echoed through the family room, then thumped up the stairs and down the second-floor hall. The slamming of Quinn’s bedroom door came a second later.

       Daria sat with her mouth open, looking at the empty doorway between the kitchen and family room. After a few moments, she closed her mouth and hesitantly stood up. What do I do now? she wondered. What brought that on?

       She stood in uncertainty for almost a minute. Then she cleaned up the table, got her backpack, and stood at the bottom of the staircase for another two minutes, looking up and listening to the silence. Then she left the house for school.

       In homeroom, she laboriously wrote out a note with her left hand and passed it to Jane. Jane read it, then wadded it up and stuck it in her pocket. “I’ll see what I can do,” she whispered back. Because Daria and Jane did not have the same math class before lunch, Jane could hang around after the second-period English class she and Daria shared in order to catch Quinn before the latter’s third-period Language Arts class began.

       The two girls made it through Current Events in good order, staying out of the shouting match that evolved over the current administration’s war record, and were fifteen minutes from the end of English (a.k.a. “Great Literary Voyages”) when the intercom clicked on. “Mr. O’Neill,” said a voice that was undeniably Ms. Li. “Is Daria Morgendorffer in your room?”

       “Yes, she is!” said the teacher, peering upward as if searching for the speaker. “What do you—”

       “Send her over to Intervention Services, if you would. She’s needed there for just a minute. Thank you.” The intercom shut off.

       “Ah... okay! I will!” Mr. O’Neill looked nervously in Daria’s direction. “Um, Miss Morgenhoffer, if you would, it sounds like—”

       “On the way,” Daria interrupted, getting her books together.

       “See you at lunch, Brain,” Jane whispered.

       “Narf,” said Daria on her way out.

       “What?” said Mr. O’Neill, looking nervously after her. “Were you saying something to me?”

       The closing door cut off his words. Daria walked down the hall with her books cradled in her arms, wondering what was coming next. She paused once to peer at a display case that held various school trophies and awards, including a letter Ms. Li had written years ago to the then-governor of Texas, George W. Bush, with W’s brief but chummy reply. Shaking her head, she made it to Mrs. Manson’s office and opened the door with a minor sense of dread.

       Only Mrs. Manson was present. “Hi, Daria,” she said, without getting up from her desk. “Please, have a seat. This won’t take long. I wanted to see how things were going with you after your first week here.”

       “Um, fine, I guess, ma’am.” Daria shifted uncomfortably in the chair across from Mrs. Manson. She glanced at the items on the counselor’s desk. One was a fresh newspaper clipping. She wondered if it was from the morning paper. Daria had not read a newspaper in depth in a year. Nothing in them interested her these days.

       “Good, good,” said Mrs. Manson. “Glad to hear it. You like your classes?”

       “They’re all right... um, ma’am.” She turned her head slightly to see the clipping better. It was about a local soldier who had just been killed in Afghanistan. Sherman, his name was: Corporal Thomas Sherman, U.S. Army.

       “What’s your favorite class?” Mrs. Manson glanced over some notes on her desk.

       Daria looked up and pushed her glasses higher on her nose. “They’re all okay.” No point in trying to start a real conversation here. Certainly no point in being too honest, either.

       “Teachers okay, too?”

       “Yes, ma’am.” Definitely not going there.

       “And have you made any friends?” Mrs. Manson looked up and waited.

       Oh, I get it. Jane. This is about Jane. “I guess.”

       “Not sure if she’s really a friend, you mean?”

       Yup, it’s about Jane. She knows I have only one friend. “No, ma’am. I do have a friend, just one so far.” Don’t need any others. One is just fine.

       “Oh.” Mrs. Manson seemed uncertain of what to do next. “What’s she like?”

       “My friend?” A shrug. “Fine.”

       “Uh-huh.” Mrs. Manson waited for more, but nothing came. “Okay, well, we just wanted to be sure things were going well for you. All our students are important to us.”

       She said “we.” Ms. Li’s in on this, too, of course. Wonder if they’ve been spying on us. What do they think is going on?

       Mrs. Manson cleared her throat in the silence. “So, what kinds of things are you doing for fun?”

       Where’s this going? “Um... watchin’ TV, mostly.”

       Manson smiled. “Of course. Every teenager’s dream job. Well, Daria, have you thought about trying some after-school activities?”

       Daria looked puzzled. “Like what, ma’am?”

       “Oh, we have lots of things going on here,” said the school psychologist. “We’ve got a tennis team, drama society, chess club, debate team, quick recall, Beta Club, marching band, compu—” she coughed “—I mean, all kinds of sports and recreations, even some language clubs. What languages do you speak?”

       “Some Spanish, tiny bit of French, but that’s ‘bout it. They didn’t have French or anythin’ like that at Hope, like you do here.”

       “You and Jane have the same Spanish class, right?”

       At that moment, something flickered across Mrs. Manson’s face, as if she suddenly wished she had not said what she had. Her expression returned to near-normal less than a second later. She waited for Daria’s reply.

       Got it. Daria thought carefully about what she would say next. She sensed a bigger issue at hand. “Jane and I have homeroom, Current Events, English, Spanish, computers, and art together,” she said in an even tone. “We’re ‘part for math and science.”

       “Have you tried making any other friends?” Mrs. Manson pressed. “Talked to anyone about common interests, asked questions, reached out, anything like that?”

       “No, ma’am. I mostly keep to myself.” This is such a fucking game. If you don’t want Jane and I to hang out, just say it. Bring it on. “There a problem?” she asked with more of an edge in her voice than she had intended.

       “No, there’s no problem!” Mrs. Manson forced a momentary chuckle. “We just want to make sure... ah, you know, that everything’s going okay for you! So, uh, no extracurriculars. Um, okay, then...” She rifled through a stack of papers on her desk.

       She’s scared to death of me, Daria realized. She recognized the syndrome common to many of her peers and teachers at Hope High. She thinks I might kill her if she pushes me too hard. Li must’ve put her up to this against her will. Figures.

       “Where is that... here.” Mrs. Manson pulled out a stapled batch of papers. “Here’s a list of things we have going during and after school. We’ve got yearbook, the school paper—you’re a writer, right?”

       Daria rubbed her lips. “Not any more.”

       “No? Why n—” The psychologist jerked, eyes wide, realizing what she had said.

       “‘Cause,” said Daria evenly, “last time I wrote somethin’, lotta people died.”

       Her face turning pale, Mrs. Manson became interested in scratching her scalp and looking at the paperwork before her. “Well, then,” she finally said, pushing the stapled papers across the desk, “take these with you and see if there’s anything you want to try. We’d like to hear back from you by Monday afternoon at the latest. It’s good to stay busy, and we like to see our students involved in things that, you know, help... well, you know. Uh, that’s all. Thank you for dropping in, Daria. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. We love having you around!”

       Daria stared at the increasingly nervous psychologist, then nodded and got her books and got up. She went to the door but turned around at the last moment. “Can Jane and I do somethin’ together?” she asked.

       “Uh... I’ll check,” said Mrs. Manson, looking everywhere in the room except at Daria. “I’ll find out and let you know.”

       “‘Cause Jane’s my best friend, and I like bein’ with her.” Daria said with a deadpan expression. She waited a beat, then added on impulse, “She’s the only one ‘round here who makes me happy.”

       “Oh! Right! Yes, I’m sure that should be... all right somehow. That should be fine, as long as the two of you... I’ll check on it! Don’t worry!”

       Daria gave Manson a final blank stare, then left the room. She was down the hall when the bell rang for the next period. So preoccupied was she that she did not remember much of anything that happened between then and the moment she saw Jane later at lunch.

       “Morris still buggin’ you ‘bout runnin’ track?” Daria asked without preamble as they headed for the lunch line.

       Jane gave her a strange look. “How’d you know? She asked me in the hall on my way over here.”

       “They know we’re hangin’ out together,” said Daria. “Li, Manson, mebbe some of the teachers. They don’t like it.”

       What?

       “No so loud.” Daria took a damp tray and handed it to her friend. “Relax. Think I fixed it.”

       “Boy, that just—” Jane angrily bit off her next words. “Was that why they called you out of class?”

       Daria noticed the students in front of her were trying not to make it obvious that they were listening in. “Eat now. Talk later.”

       Jane contained herself with visible effort until she dropped their shared tray on the table with a clatter. “That really bites!” she hissed before she sat down.

       “It does,” Daria agreed calmly. “Think I fixed it, though.”

       “How?”

       Daria grimaced, but said it anyway. “I told Manson you keep me happy.”

       Jane choked off a laugh. “Wow, that’s good! I hope it works.”

       “That you’ll keep me happy?”

       “No, that it keeps them from breaking us up! Stay with the program, Pinky.”

       “Narf.” Daria opened her milk carton and reflected. “I also asked if you and I could do somethin’ together. She was pressin’ me for somethin’, some extercurric’lar.”

       “You mean,” said Jane, “you and I, doing an activity together, after school?” She gave Daria a sultry look and wiggled her eyebrows again. “Like photography, perhaps?”

       “Ha, right. Not likely they’d let us do that. Writin’ essays is out, too. Lot of stuff’s out, computers for sure.”

       “Hmmm. My guess is, you don’t run or anything athletic like that.”

       “You guessed right.”

       “Thought so. You know, maybe Morris could use your help with track. You could carry the water cooler. Hmmm, no, skip that. Has to be something smaller. A lot smaller.”

       “Like your brain?”

       “Not that small. Lemme think. Oh, wait!” Jane put down her hamburger. “About Quinn, I talked to her for a couple minutes. She didn’t tell me everything about what was going on, but she’s doing better, whatever it was. I said you were worried about her, and she said she appreciated that. Cheered her up a lot, in fact.”

       Daria quietly groaned. “Don’t overdo it.”

       “I wasn’t overdoing anything.” Jane began eating a chicken wing. “You get along better with her than I do anyone else in my family, except Trent. You just have trouble saying what you want to with her, and I have trouble saying what I want to with Trent. I don’t know how to talk to him anymore, after all the bullshit I’ve put him through.” She dropped the meatless wing bone on her plate. “You wrote more in your e-mail to him the other day than I’ve been able to write in weeks. I’m still having problems with just telling him ‘hi.’” Jane looked over at her friend, who was studying the pizza slices on her plate. “Make a deal with you. You help me out with Trent, I’ll help you out with Quinn. Deal?”

       Daria bit her lower lip, then nodded. “Sure.”

       “Great! Oh, before I forget, I asked Quinn to find out if I could come over this weekend for a sleepover, assuming that’s okay with you and your mom and so on.”

       Daria looked up, a strange expression on her face. “Sleepover?”

       “Yeah, you know, I come over with my toothbrush and crash on your sofa or something. LYRE allows it, but you have to ask a day in advance, so it couldn’t be tonight. Need a parent around, too, of course. Maybe we could get in some library time, too, if you get my drift.” She leaned closer, an eyebrow raised. “Is that okay with you, that I asked?”

       “Oh, yeah, that’s fine,” said Daria, coming out of her trance. “It’s just that... I haven’t had anyone sleep over since... since I forget when. Sixth grade, I think. That didn’t go so well. No one’s ever...” She broke off and started eating her pizza.

       “Hope I’m not pushing things,” Jane said, trying to sound casual.

       Daria shook her head no. “I’m—” She stopped eating and swallowed “—not used to havin’ friends. Kinda new to me. I... I just don’t know what to do all the time. I don’t mean anythin’ bad by it. I just...” She shrugged. “Just not used to it.”

       “Me, too,” said Jane in relief. “Funny, isn’t it? Getting hit on by guys is no problem. Sometimes I take ‘em up on it. Having someone I can talk to, though, that’s different. Speaking of which—” She pointed at Daria. “Did you have a boyfriend back in Texas?”

       Another headshake—and a blush. Daria became more preoccupied with her food than before.

       “If you ever want one,” said Jane, “you can have a few of mine. I don’t mind sharing.”

       Daria looked up from her pizza with a glare.

       “No kidding,” said Jane. “I have a ton. Take your pick. You can even have Trent when he comes back, if you don’t mind being underage. Ow!

       “Sorry,” said Daria with her mouth full. “Thought you said, ‘Take your kick.’”

       “Be-yotch!” exclaimed Jane as she rubbed her leg. She gave Daria a wicked grin.

       “That’s my middle name,” said Daria in contentment. “Ask anyone.”

       “Wait till we get outside, girl,” Jane promised, picking up a cookie and waving it at Daria. “I’ll show you who’s the reigning Queen of Ass Kicking.”

       “Reigning Queen of Ass, you mean,” muttered Daria with a smirk.

       “Oooo,” Jane began, her eyes narrowing in mock anger. “You are so—”

       “Knock it off here,” said a shrill voice like fingernails going down a blackboard. “What’s going on between you two?”

       Startled, the girls looked up. It was Ms. Barch, the hatchet-faced, chip-on-her-shoulder science teacher. Usually she was friendly to girls. She seemed less so, now.

       “Nothin’, ma’am,” said Daria, all innocence. “Just talkin’.” She could tell everyone around them had fallen silent. Uh-oh. Now what’d I do?

       “Same here,” said Jane, looking at the teacher with a smile. “How’re you?”

       “It doesn’t sound like you’re having fun,” said Ms. Barch sourly. “It sounds like you two were arguing.” She looked at Daria. “Did you kick her?” she asked, pointing to Jane.

       Jane’s smile vanished. “No, she didn’t!” she said in near panic. “She didn’t do anything!”

       “I didn’t ask you,” said Ms. Barch, who had not turned away from Daria for an instant.

       There was silence for the space of one breath.

       “Ma’am,” said Daria in a conversational tone, “if I did somethin’ wrong, I am rightly sorry for it. I don’t ever want to cause a problem here. I admire you and would not want to get on your bad side.”

       Another space for a breath.

       Ms. Barch’s harsh expression melted. “All right,” she said, not unkindly. “We have a zero-tolerance policy on violence here. I want you to understand that even playing around isn’t allowed. We come down like a ton of bricks on anything like that.”

       “Yes, ma’am,” said Daria in a low voice.

       “I didn’t see what happened, but if it happens again, you—”

       “Yes, ma’am,” Daria said in a whisper. She had not moved except to speak.

       Ms. Barch gave the girls a last look, then left. Conversation at the tables around began to pick up again. Everyone glanced at them before returning to their meals.

       Daria looked down at her food but made no move to eat it.

       Jane exhaled angrily. “What the hell was she all—?”

       “Shhh,” Daria whispered. “Don’t.”

       Jane fidgeted for a few moments longer, then subsided. She picked up another chicken wing and turned it over in her fingers, frowning at it.

       “My bad,” said Daria, her face devoid of emotion. “Wasn’t thinkin’.”

       “You didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t apologize to me.” Jane looked across the table and noticed Daria was noticeably pale. “You okay?”

       Daria shook her head slightly. Her jaw tightened.

       “You want to leave?”

       “No. Just sit for a little, like nothin’ happened. It’ll go away.”

       “What’ll go away?”

       “Bad attention.” Daria took a deep breath. “I don’t wanna get thrown outta here.”

       Jane made a face but said nothing in response. She finished her chicken wing, wiped her hands, and looked at the downcast Daria for a moment. On impulse, she reached across the table with her right hand, palm up.

       Daria looked up. After a moment, she took Jane’s hand with her left hand. Jane squeezed her fingers once, then let go.

       “Got a little too free,” said Daria, looking restless. “Can’t do that. Can’t mess up.”

       “We need to go somewhere so we can be a little free,” Jane said. “Can your mom have Marianne come over and baby-sit us again today after school?”

       Daria didn’t reply. She became increasingly depressed.

       Jane waited until Daria stirred, then got up and dropped off their tray on the conveyor belt leading back to the school kitchen. They walked to computer lab, then meandered through the rest of the day until the end of art class. Daria did not speak at all during that time.

       Ten minutes before the final bell, the intercom clicked on. “Good afternoon, students,” said Ms. Li in a solemn voice. “Before we get to the other announcements, I have something sad to share with you. One of our former students, Tommy Sherman from the class of oh-four, left school and joined the Army before graduating. Some of you might remember Tommy as the quarterback who led the Lawndale Lions to victory in the state championships three years ago. He became an Army Ranger and was assigned to Afghanistan in two thousand five.”

       The class was silent as the principal continued: “We received word last night, and some of you might have heard it on the news this morning, that Corporal Tommy Sherman was killed in action in the renewed fighting around Kandahar. He was twenty-one years old.” Several students gasped. “The school is looking into the possibility of having up a memorial service for him next Friday during fifth and sixth period, in the auditorium. Details will be announced next week. We are very sorry to have lost him.”

       As Ms. Li continued with other announcements, Jane shook her head. “Trent knew ‘im,” she whispered grimly. “They were in the same grade.”

       “You know him, too?” whispered Daria, out of her shell for the moment. The rest of the class was talking, covering their conversation from the teacher’s ears.

       Jane shook her head. “Only by reputation. He got into trouble all the time. Trent said Tommy quit school and joined the Army to keep from going to jail here, get him out of the area. I don’t know what he did, but it was pretty bad.” She blew out her breath. “Guess it didn’t work out like he thought it would.”

       Daria had fallen silent again. They left when the bell rang and went outside, preparing to walk to Daria’s house.

       Mrs. Sullivan was waiting for them on their way out. “No visit today,” she said briskly, looking right at Jane. “Get on the bus and head back. You didn’t clean your area last night like you were supposed to. You’re going back to clean it now.”

       Jane’s eyes got huge and she sucked in her breath. “Mrs. Sullivan, please!” she cried. “I’ll clean it up when—”

       “You know the rules, Jane.”

       Lips pressed together, a red-faced Jane stared at Mrs. Sullivan for several long seconds before she lowered her head in rage and shame.

       “Can Jane come to my house tomorrow for a sleepover?” Daria asked suddenly.

       “That depends on her,” said Mrs. Sullivan, still looking at Jane. “And it depends your mother, too, I might add.”

       “If you could work out,” Daria went on, “that’d be great. We... we’ve been helpin’ each other.”

       Mrs. Sullivan gave Daria a curious look. “That’s good to know,” she said at last, looking back at Jane. “I’ve checked her teachers’ reports online and noticed her grades are going up. No detentions this week, either, except for Monday.”

       “I’ll get everything cleaned up when I get there,” Jane mumbled. “I’ll do my chores tomorrow morning, too.”

       “I don’t mean to be cruel, dear,” said Mrs. Sullivan. “We have to—”

       “—stick to the rules, I know.” Jane turned to Daria and flashed a smile she didn’t feel. “See you tomorrow, Pinky.”

       “You’re Pinky,” Daria said. “Don’t get confused about that.”

       “Yeah, you wish.” Jane looked at the buses. “I’d better run.” She took off at a quick jog and did not look back.

       Mrs. Sullivan’s car keys rattled in her hand. “I’d better be off, too,” she said, but she eyed Daria before she went. “Jane’s lucky to have a friend like you.”

       Daria could think of no good response to that. She walked home alone after Mrs. Sullivan left. It seemed to take forever without Jane.

       Blonde-haired Marianne was getting out of her white Neon as Daria walked up. “Don’t unpack your telecommutin’ laptop,” she told her mother’s legal secretary. “Jane couldn’t come over.”

       “Oh, sorry to hear that.” Marianne jumped back in her car. “Gotta get back! We have a big case tomorrow and your mom needs her brief!” She took off in a heartbeat, engine buzzing away.

       Daria dropped her books by the staircase up and listlessly wandered into the kitchen. There was nothing in the refrigerator worth snacking on. She wondered what time her mother would get home. Daria planned to be in her room with the door locked when she did. She sat down at the table and looked at dust floating in the air, illuminated by the setting sun.

       She thought about Trent and wondered if he’d gotten her e-mail. She wondered if he was safe where he was in Iraq. The war there was going badly of late. Troops were being pulled out and brought home, but many had to stay no matter what. Transportation troops were in the middle. Some were coming back, some weren’t yet.

       She wondered what Trent really thought of his little sister.

       Or what he’d think of her, if he knew what she had done.

       A half hour later, the front door opened and a number of girls came in. Most went upstairs. One walked around to the kitchen.

       “What’re you doin’ here?” Quinn exclaimed, stopping in her tracks. “Where’s Jane?”

       Daria shrugged. “Couldn’t come over today.”

       “Oh.” Quinn pulled on the bottom of her pink blouse. “She all right?”

       Daria nodded absently.

       “You all right?”

       Daria started to shrug, then looked at her sister. “Quinn?”

       Quinn paused and stared at her, nervous and alert.

       “M’ sorry,” said Daria. She looked down at the tabletop. “M’ sorry for... for not bein’... any good at bein’ a sister.”

       Quinn’s mouth fell open. “Why’d you say that?” she asked. “You’re a fine sister.”

       Daria shook her head. “M’ not,” she said. She looked around the room below eye level. “Messed up a lot. Can’t seem to fix it. Can’t fix anythin’ anymore.” She took off her glasses, laid them on the table, and rubbed her face with her left hand. Her right hand still throbbed under the bandage, but the pain was tolerable. She heard Quinn walk closer.

       “I’m not sorry you’re my sister,” Quinn said, her arms crossed in front of her.

       “I would be,” said Daria, hiding her eyes.

       “I love you.”

       “I don’t know why.”

       “‘Cause you’re my sister.”

       Daria shook her head. “That’s a terrible excuse.”

       “Can I hold your hand?”

       “No,” said Daria after a pause. She swallowed. “Could use a little hug, though.”

       “Oh. Okay.” Quinn came in carefully, but she put her arms around Daria and gently pulled her close. After a moment, Daria’s left hand came up and pressed Quinn closer. They stayed like that for perhaps a minute, hardly daring to breathe, keeping the moment.

       Daria finally pulled away. Her face was wet and red. “Don’t leave your friends upstairs all alone,” she said, her voice breaking.

       Quinn kissed her on the forehead, then left. She knew when it was time to go.

       Alone again, Daria crossed her arms on the kitchen table and rested her head on them, face down. She stayed that way for a long, long time.

 

 

 

 

VIII

 

 

       Saturday morning did not begin on a promising note.

       “Daria,” said her mother, her arms crossed against her crisp ivory blouse, “as you recall, we had a family meeting about this before we moved here. My job is keeping all three of us afloat. If you want to continue having a roof over your head and food on the table, you’ll understand how important it is that I come and go from work as often as required to get the job done. Your sister has had friends over, and she doesn’t need anyone to supervise them!

       “My situation isn’t hers, though,” Daria repeated, fighting for calm: Steady, keep it together, don’t blow up. “Can’t you telecommute from home for the weekend? We aren’t using the dining room, and you could set up—”

       “No, I can’t, and I think it would be better if you found yourself a friend who didn’t need to be supervised. I don’t even know why she needs to be supervised. What is the deal with that, anyway?”

       “I thought her social worker ‘splained it to you, Mom.” But perhaps it’s for the best that either she didn’t or you weren’t listening when she did. Here’s my version, then. “Jane’s homeless. She lives in a county-run ad’lescent shelter, and they want to make sure she’s cared for wherever she goes. That’s all.” Unless by some horrible accident you discover the rest of the story. I can tell now you won’t be receptive to it.

       “I did talk with that lady, Ellen or Scully or whatever her name was, but I was watching a teleconference at the same time. Does it have to be me here, and not another adult? Maybe I could call your aunt Amy and have her come over. She hasn’t seen you and Quinn in ages. I wish she’d get that stick out of her butt. Can’t you talk to one of the neighbors and see if—God, look at the time. I have to go. You handle it and call me in an hour. I should be back about five this evening if everything goes well. Maybe your friend can come over then. I’m sorry it has to be like this, but that’s life. Goodbye, sweetie.”

       Daria bit her lip as her mother left. She had been hoping to get Jane over much earlier than five p.m., but she knew she would have to take what she could get. She did have Mrs. Sullivan’s cell-phone number, thanks to Jane. Maybe there was a way out.

       “Let me think,” said Mrs. Sullivan, who answered the phone after five rings. Daria heard her yawn. “I don’t see why your mother can’t stay at home,” the social worker grumbled. “Single parent working on a weekend. Damn disgrace. That’s why kids today are... oh, sorry, don’t mind me. My mouth runs over sometimes.”

       “I know the problem,” said Daria blandly.

       “Hmmm, maybe Heather can do it. Call your mother and see if she minds if a college student comes over to sit with you and Jane, then call me back. Heather’s a sophomore at Middleton College. She’s assigned as a temp to LYRE on weekends for one of her classes. She didn’t flunk out in her freshman year like a lot of them did, so she’s got something going for her upstairs. I don’t have much for her to do around here today. The problem kids are in juvie for a little vandalism party they had, so things are quiet. Jane’s one of our better kids. For God’s sake, don’t tell her I said so. It’ll go to her head.”

       “Scout’s honor,” said Daria, who had never been a Girl Scout.

       “Good girl. Tell your mother Heather’s doing this for college credit, so she’s not to be paid, not even a tip, no matter what she says. Give her an inch, swear to God. You get back to me soon as you can, so I can get back to sleep. Back to work, I mean. I was up half the night with the Mongol Horde.”

       “Will do. And thank’ee.”

       “You’re the one that deserves the thanks.”

       Daria made a noncommittal noise, then hung up and keyed in the speed-dial number for her mother’s cell phone. The phone rang once before she heard a sigh, followed by: “What is it, Daria?” A Bee Gees disco CD played in the background on nine speakers with THX sound. Her mother was still in the Navigator on the way to work.

       “Solved the problem,” said Daria, raising her voice to be heard over “Stayin’ Alive.” “Don’t worry ‘bout it no more.”

       “Don’t use double negatives, Daria. You know how I hate that. Anyway, that’s great. I wish you could have done this before I left this morning so I wouldn’t have had to—”

       Daria hung up and rang Mrs. Sullivan back. “Mom’s jiggy with it,” she said. “Can Heather drive Jane here?”

       “How early do you want her?”

       Daria glanced at her watch. It was ten till nine in the morning. She was glad she had showered and dressed early. “Now.”

       “I need to do paperwork, so thirty minutes, max.”

       “Done.”

       “See you later.”

       “Bye.”

       Daria went upstairs to her mother’s master bedroom and went through her nylons-and-socks drawer until she pulled out an envelope at the bottom marked “Emergencies Only!” She pulled out four twenties from the thick pile of bills, stuck those in her pants pocket, then put the envelope away. She checked herself in the bathroom mirror—hair wasn’t too bad, forest-green tee, black jeans, boots, glasses cleaned on a towel, good to go—then went down the hall to Quinn’s bedroom and knocked.

       Quinn came to the door barefoot in a knee-length white T-shirt. Green paste (perhaps it was cold cream) was smeared over her face. Upward Bound! read the shirt, with a smiling angel in flight pointing the way heavenward. “Wuzzup?” she said blearily.

       “Mom’s gone,” said Daria. “College student named Heather’s comin’ with Jane in thirty. She’ll stay till Mom gets back.”

       Quinn yawned. “‘Kay, great,” she mumbled. “M’ goin’ over t’nother girl’s house to study an’ stuff. Got the ‘dress an’ num’er here somewheres.”

       “No prob. Good luck with the beauty sleep.” Daria went back downstairs and looked for breakfast in the fridge. It was hard carrying things around with her right hand bandaged and splinted, so she took all of that off and gingerly flexed her hand. Her middle finger ached, but she figured it would heal on its own. If it didn’t... well, then, life sucked, as usual. It wasn’t as if she planned to write many essays these days.

       When her Pop-Tarts and reheated bacon were finished, Daria sat in the family room, channel surfing and fidgeting until she heard the doorbell ring. She dropped the remote and went to open the front door.

       On the walk immediately outside stood Jane, a lit cigarette in hand, in her usual tight skirt, tee, sneakers, orange anklet, and jacket with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows. Today’s clothing color was blue, except for the black tee. Standing beside her was a young woman with long wavy chestnut hair, two long braids on either side framing a face dominated by Ray-Bans, light freckles, and a Virginia Slim dangling from full, Angelina Jolie lips. The young woman wore black bellbottoms, goddess boots, a fringed buckskin jacket, and a wary look.

       “Daria Morgendorffer?” said the woman in buckskin, cigarette still in her mouth.

       “Prob’ly,” said Daria.

       “Hold still.” The young woman raised a video phone in her right hand and aimed the unit at Daria, then moved it back and forth once to get a full view. Daria glanced at Jane, who shrugged in response.

       “I’m Heather,” said the girl, snapping the phone shut and dropping it in a jacket pocket. “I’m a psych major from Middleton. Child Protective Services made me the temporary guardian for Lucrezia Borgia here, just for today. I e-mailed your photo and hers and a picture of your house back to LYRE, in case anything happens that’s not supposed to happen. You two can do what you want, but don’t leave the house without me and forget about doing anything illegal. Don’t even try it. No boys, no booze, and no drugs except caffeine and nicotine. Got it?”

       “Got it,” said Daria.

       “On the up side, I’m not a damn babysitter, so I don’t need to be in your business all day. I got stuff to do. Just stay within shouting distance so I can tell if you’re alive.”

       “Got it.”

       “Cool. Lemme get my stuff from the car, then. Don’t lock me out, or I’ll hit 9-1-1 and you can explain it to the police.” She turned and walked back to a red Sunbird parked on the curb.

       “Lucrezia Borgia?” said Daria, raising an eyebrow at Jane.

       Jane rolled her eyes. “It was an accident. I handed her a dirty coffee cup this morning when I was working in the cafeteria, and she said I was trying to poison her.”

       “Looks like her java fix didn’t take.”

       “We had to leave before her second cup. She’s not a morning person. Neither am I, for that matter.”

       “Seem pretty awake to me.”

       Jane grinned. “I’m out of LYRE for two whole days. I haven’t felt this good since I discovered orgasms.”

       Daria gave her friend a pained look. “Right. I’ll get a pot goin’ in case. You want coffee, too?”

       Jane’s grin widened. “So, when did you discover orgasms?”

       “We got cinnamon, hazelnut, butter rum, mocha, kahlua, and regular,” said Daria flatly. “And mebbe decaf.”

       “I’d guess fourteen,” said Jane. “You probably read about it at the library first, checked out a few books on it, then wrote a term paper.”

       “Mom also has a machine that makes espresso, latte, mocha, and cappuccino. And I won’t hawk a loogie in your cup if you shut up now.”

       “Black with lots of sugar for me.” Jane flipped her cigarette away. “Three cups to start with.”

       “You got TiVo?” asked Heather, walking back carrying a black commuter bag with a Gunslinger Girl anime figure on the side. Her sunglasses hung an earpiece from the front of her buckskin jacket.

       “Yep,” said Daria, eyeing the bag’s emblem. “You want coffee?”

       “Yeah, thanks. Espresso, if you got it, all I can drink.” Heather marched into the family room and deposited her bag on the sofa in front of the plasma TV. “Mind if I park here? I gotta lotta calls to make, and I have to do something about a paper for class.”

       “Fine with me,” said Daria. “Be right back.” She went into the kitchen and started the coffeemaker and espresso machines. When she returned, Heather was working the TiVo remote, looking up recent episodes of Lost. Jane was lying sideways on the love seat, reading a news magazine upside down.

       “Can I smoke in the house?” asked Heather, scrolling down the programs lists on the TV.

       “No,” said Daria. “Mom’s number-one rule. We can go out back, though.”

       “You’ll have to show me around,” said Heather. She tossed the remote aside and leaned back, looking up at Daria. “I know her story,” she said, nodding at Jane. “What’s yours?”

       “I have a story?” asked Daria.

       “Everyone’s got a story,” said Heather. “What’s your thing?”

       “I’m a mass murderer,” Daria said after a moment of thought.

       “Well, least you have a hobby to fall back on when things get dull,” said Heather, missing the horrified look that Jane gave Daria. “You from Texas, Oklahoma, or what?”

       “West Texas. What’s your story?”

       “Mine?” Heather exhaled as she thought. “Drink too much, smoke too much, broke all the time. Credit card’s down about two thou, still going down. Boyfriend’s being an asshole. The usual.”

       “Why’d you get in psychology?”

       “Felt like it. My brother’s retarded. He’s okay, just needs help with things. Got interested in doing stuff for others as a result, and here I am. Stupid me.”

       “Got any life advice for us?”

       “For who? You and Jane?”

       “Yep.”

       “General advice, or advice about today?”

       “General.”

       Heather looked at the ceiling and scratched her upper lip with her thumb. “If you’re gonna drink,” she said, “then lock the door and drink alone. You won’t get date-raped that way.”

       “That’s enough advice for me,” said Jane, swinging her long legs off the love seat and leaving the magazine behind. “Anyone up for a smoke?”

       Daria walked Heather through the kitchen, stopped at the refrigerator to confirm the existence of large quantities of soft drinks and junk food, then headed outside to the picnic table. As they sat and smoked, Heather talked about Middleton College, which Daria recalled was the place where, by coincidence, her parents had met in the late 1970s. Heather’s stories were markedly unlike those Daria’s parents used to tell.

       “Everyone says it’s all about studying and getting grades,” said Heather, knocking ash from her cigarette. “But it’s really about money. That’s the bottom line. My ‘rents are on me twenty-four seven to cut up my credit card and get a better job, and then get a really big job after grad school to pay off my student loans. This shit really gets me down. It’s not about helping people at all. It’s about the paycheck and the bills and lots of little stuff. Sometimes I feel like dumping it and working as a cashier at K-Mart for the rest of my life. If I get a Ph.D., I can get a starting salary in the mid-thirties, maybe forty. They say fifty and up, but I’ve been checking and I haven’t found anything like that. My mom got laid off at work two months ago, and my dad’s got two jobs, so I can’t ask them for money. It’s fucked up.”

       “What’s the academic life like at Middleton?” asked Daria.

       “The what?”

       “Academics. Seminars, lectures, classes...”

       Heather gave her a blank look.

       “The parties,” amended Jane.

       “Oh. Stay away from the open punch. Bring a Coke or something and pretend you’ve got a little extra in it, maybe splash a little bourbon around the rim. Tell people you’ve got a cold sore so you don’t have to share it. Bring a spare in case your first one runs out. Always make sure your cell phone’s fully charged. And never go into any room with a bunch of drunk guys in it, especially frat guys. They are the worst.”

       “And always drink alone,” finished Daria.

       “You’ll never regret it,” said Heather. “Trust me. You wouldn’t believe the shit that goes on.” Then she told them what really went on.

       “I like your idea about working for K-Mart,” said Jane, when Heather was done.

       “Wonder how Mom and Dad made it through,” said Daria. “Or mebbe I don’t wanna know.”

       “You don’t.”

       “So,” said Daria, dropping her cigarette butt and crushing it out, “nobody goes to college to learn anythin’ anymore?”

       “They do,” said Heather, “but you gotta be cold and practical about it. If the binge drinking or drugs or getting pregnant or STDs or killing yourself or anything like that doesn’t get you, the debt definitely will. Never forget the money. I wish I’d known what it would be like before I got there. I might’ve saved myself some angst. Too late, now.”

       “What’re y’all doin’ back here?” called Quinn, peering around the side of the house. “Better air y’selves out ‘fore you come back inside, or Mom’ll have herself a fit.”

       They went back in. Quinn took off for her friend’s house while Heather unpacked her laptop, PDA, and other wireless paraphernalia on the sofa. Daria led Jane upstairs to her room. “S’ not much, but it’s home,” said Daria, letting Jane in.

       “A crazy lady lived here?” said Jane, admiring the gray padded walls and thick maroon carpeting.

       “That’s what they tell me.” She watched Jane explore the room, then walked over to her bed and fiddled with a remote, aiming it at a TV set mounted near the ceiling on a metal platform. “See if anything’s on.”

       “Nickelback,” said Jane, peering at Daria’s CD collection. “Pearl Jam, Evanescence, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters...” Jane turned, giving Daria a significant look. “Hole?” She turned back to the collection. “Goo Goo Dolls, Nirvana... you are the one true alternative girl, aincha?”

       “What you got ‘gainst Courtney Love?” asked Daria, frowning at the TV, clicking through satellite channels.

       “Nothing,” said Jane, looking through Daria’s meager paperback collection now. “She’s just darker and harder-core than most people out there.”

       “What’d you like listenin’ to?”

       “Oh... anything. I mean it. Trent’s pretty much hard rock and alternative, too, so you two would fit together great, but me, I could listen to anything. Mom was always into ethereal kind of New Age stuff, Celtic and ambient and all that, and Dad was into jazz and Brazilian stuff. Ron liked top-40 and easy listening and old rock. Penny was into Cuban, revolutionary Latin music, and Summer played nothing but rap. Country takes me a while to get into, but I can do that, even. Disco kind of gives me a headache, though.”

       “Thank God for little blessin’s.”

       “You know,” said Jane, turning from the bookshelves, “I sort of expected you to have more books. You struck me as the reading type.”

       “Don’t read much anymore.” Daria stopped and stared at the station on the TV screen. “Like the Conspiracy Channel?”

       “Never heard of it.” Jane wandered over and stood behind her smaller friend. “Why don’t you read anymore?”

       “Makes me think too much.” Daria handed the remote to Jane over her shoulder, then walked over to her bed and propped herself up against the wall with a pillow. She tossed a second pillow over beside her for Jane’s use.

       Jane studied the TV, which showed a view of the World Trade Center in New York, pre-9/11. The volume was very low. She then walked over and flopped down on the bed beside Daria, lower legs dangling over the side, her upper body supported on her elbows. She dropped the remote between her and Daria. “What is it you don’t want to think about? Or can I guess?”

       “Ever’thing.”

       “What did you used to like reading about?”

       “Ever’thing.” Daria shifted on the bed. “Poetry. Short stories. Novels. History. Science fiction. Fantasy. Thrillers. Politics. Philosophy. Anythin’ I’d get my hands on.”

       Jane was silent, watching as the TV showed an amateur video of the second jet hitting the South Tower of the WTC. A second amateur video followed, then a third.

       “After ever’thing happened,” Daria went on in a monotone, “it wasn’t worth it. Wasn’t interested in anythin’. If I thought too much, I got to carin’ too much, and then I got mad that nobody was doin’ anythin’ to fix the mess we were in, only makin’ it worse, and then I’d realize nothin’ good was gonna happen anyway, no matter what I did, and then I’d do somethin’ stupid, like try to piss people off to punish ‘em for bein’ stupid, or write a paper for a class that makes people go crazy. Wasn’t worth it. Wasn’t worth carin’ ‘bout anythin’. Only made it all worse.”

       The TV showed an extreme close-up of the second plane’s collision with the South Tower, with small arrows highlighting different blurry and indefinite spots of light below the plane. “You care about your sister,” said Jane.

       “That’s different,” said Daria slowly.

       “How is that different?”

       “It just is.”

       “Lemme see your hand.”

       Daria held up her left hand, still watching the TV.

       “No.” Jane rolled over and reached across Daria, ignoring the latter’s cry of “Hey!” to pick up her right hand. “Is it healed yet?”

       “Damn it!” Daria tried to get her hand away, but Jane was strong and had a good grip. “It’s fine! Get up off me!”

       Jane let go and rolled back with a smirk. “Not very friendly for someone who wants to look at my naughty bits.”

       “That was online, not in real life,” growled Daria, examining her right hand. Her middle finger still hurt, but not very much. “Careful of my hand.”

       “I thought you said it was better.”

       “It’s not perfect.”

       “You need to do something besides punch a wall when you get mad at yourself. Me, I go get laid when I feel bad. Fixes me right up.”

       “That’s great, but I’m not you.”

       “When’d you take the bandage off?”

       “This mornin’, ‘fore you got here.”

       “Which doctor put it on you?”

       “Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman.”

       “Quinn? Really? She’s got a great future in surgery. Has she been fixing you up like this before?”

       “S’ talk about something else.” Daria frowned and focused on the TV. Diagrams of the interiors of the two WTC towers were being shown, with places marked “EXPLOSIVES” every few floors.

       “So, ask me something,” said Jane.

       “What?”

       “I dunno.” Jane leaned back and stared up at the ceiling. “That’s an interesting crack up there. What does it look like to you?”

       “What?”

       “On the ceiling. What’s that look like?”

       Daria glanced up. “A herd of beautiful wild ponies running free across the plains,” she said, then looked back at the TV.

       Jane squinted. “Nah.”

       “What’d you see, then?”

       “Hmmm. Looks to me like lightning... a bright bolt of lightning shooting down from a cloud, from the hammer of Thor as he rides across the heavens at the front of a great line of storms. I see war and rumors of war. I see flashes of light from the mouths of guns in the darkness, children running and screaming, shadows and rocks, and the lightning curls above.”

       She sat further up on her elbows, still looking up. “I see rain falling from the faces of the dead. The lightning twists among them. I see angels with swords falling upon the earth to do battle, but they battle with us, the mad and the damned. There is war in heaven, war on earth. Hurricanes and fire, smoke and flame, damnation and ruin, darkness over all.”

       In the silence thereafter, Jane stole a glance at Daria. She was staring up at the ceiling with a look of dull surprise, her mouth open.

       “What do you see?” whispered Jane.

       For a long minute, Daria continued to stare upward.

       At last, she lowered her head, looking in the direction of the TV without seeing it.

       “Nothin’,” she said. “I see nothin’.”

       “Nothing at all?” asked Jane.

       “Nothin’.”

       Jane looked at the TV. Blueprints of a Boeing 757 were being examined by someone with a pointer, showing locations of passengers. “Does Quinn ever talk to you about religion?”

       “Used to. Doesn’t so much anymore.”

       “We had a guy come by LYRE now and then on Sunday mornings and hold services. It wasn’t like real church, more like little get-togethers—read the Bible, say prayers, talk a little. They told me to go once when I was in a bad mood, and just for the hell of it, I went. Trent had just left for the Army, I think. Anyway, I was there in the audience, or congregation, whatever, wasn’t but a couple dozen people there, and the sort-of preacher guy asked me to pick something from the Bible for him to read. I told him, ‘Psalms Sixty-Nine!’ to get his goat. That really got the staff steamed up, but the guy said sure, he was okay with it, and he read it.” She hesitated. “It wasn’t what I thought it’d be.”

       Jane was quiet for a few moments more. “I really hate it when people try to shove Jesus down your throat, especially when you can tell they haven’t been following anything Jesus said since day one, it’s just their way of feeling better about themselves without having to look at what they’re really doing. They can just blame everything on you. I wanted to shove it down their throats for a change. Psalms Sixty-Nine, I thought that would work. It’d be some off-the-wall thing about who begot who and so on, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t like that at all. It turned out it was about some guy who was in real trouble and asking God for help. He’d screwed up big and everyone was piling in on him and cursing him, tearing him down more than he deserved, and he couldn’t take it anymore. This guy knew that God knew all about him, everything he’d done that was bad, but he still thought God would help him out. I was so surprised when he read that.”

       Daria lay motionless for a time. “So, what happened?” she finally said.

       Jane shrugged. “I thought a lot about it. The semi-preacher guy didn’t come back; he was reassigned over to Carter County. I didn’t go back to Sunday prayer after that. I just thought about it.”

       “The Psalm say if God helped that guy out?”

       “No. It was just his prayer for help, nothing else.”

       “Bible’s funny,” said Daria, watching red circles appear around the photographed heads of some but not all of the 9/11 hijackers. “Mom and Dad used to take us to church in Highland till I started to arguin’ with the Sunday school teacher. Lady was tellin’ us ‘bout the widow’s mite one time, ‘bout the old lady who gives ever’thing she has to the church, two cents worth, while rich people give lots more than she does, and the teacher said, who did the most good, the widow or the rich people? ‘Course I said the rich people did ‘cause they gave more, and the church’d do lots more good works with the money.

       “The teacher, she didn’t like that, and we had ourselves quite an argument about it right there in class, and I think I finally said somethin’ like, maybe the rich people should stop goin’ to church and just let old widows go, so the church’d have ‘bout fifty cents in its collection plate and ever’one’d go home happy. The teacher yelled at me then and said I didn’t get the point, and I said I got the point loud and clear, which was that the church wants people to dump ever’thing they’ve got into the collection plate and go ‘round poor all the time, and that was when I was sent out of the room to sit with Mom and Dad in the sanctuary. We didn’t go back very often after that.”

       Jane tried to rub the smile from her face without success. “What else did you learn in Sunday school?”

       Daria chewed on the inside of her cheek. “Stuff that made ever’one mad. I was workin’ my way up to my little essay, I guess. Thing that made everyone maddest was when we stayed after services one day for a picnic behind the church, and I asked the minister if the Bible was all true, and he said yes, and then I asked what the most ‘portant part of the Bible was, and he said the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and then I asked him why the Gospels didn’t agree on what happened. If all four Gospels were true, then why didn’t they say the same thing ‘bout the most ‘portant thing in the Bible? I had a Bible with me and I was tryin’ to show him where all the contradictions were, and he said I was too young to understand, and I said I’m old enough to know when I’m bein’ lied to, and ‘bout that time Mom showed up and dragged me out of there. I shoulda taken the hint and shut up. Wasted my time and ever’one else’s time tryin’ to make sense of it all, and made ever’one mad, too. I was pretty mad myself, ‘specially after Mom whacked my butt.”

       Her gaze lowered. She was not looking at the TV on the ceiling. “Wish I’d learned my lesson back then, ‘stead of now, with ever’one dead. Wasn’t worth it. Nothin’ was worth that. Wish I’d learned to just shut up and let ‘em do whatever they wanted. Didn’t matter if they lied and acted like hypocrites and ignored Jesus. What mattered in the end was what I did, and that made the real difference.” She reached down and scratched her thigh. “That was when I quit readin’.”

       “Least you listen to music, still.”

       “I guess.”

       “Did one of your CDs break?”

       Daria looked over. “What?”

       “There’s a piece of what looks like a CD on the floor over there. I saw it earlier.”

       “Oh.” Daria looked at the TV again. “Broke it. Dumb thing to do.”

       “You get mad a lot.”

       “I guess.”

       “You need to get laid.”

       Daria coughed and laughed at the same time. “Fuck you,” she said at last.

       “No,” said Jane, wagging a finger. “Fuck you.

       “Knew this was a mistake,” said Daria, trying very hard to look angry. “Knew as soon as you got off the bus you were gonna screw up my life.”

       “We got a ways to go on that, kiddo,” said Jane, sitting up on the bed. She turned to smile at Daria, then noticed an odd look on her face. “What?”

       “Oh, nothin’.”

       “Tell me.”

       “My dad always called me ‘kiddo.’” Daria looked away, her fingers playing with the blanket. “I miss him. He has a bad temper like me, lets it out wrong sometimes, but I still miss him. He was on my side, most of the time. He was the one who came and got me when the craziness started. Mom found Quinn at home, but he found me.”

       Jane looked at the floor and let a few long seconds pass. “I could use an Ultra-Cola.”

       “Me, too.” They got off the bed, straightened their clothing, and headed out the door to go downstairs.

       Heather came around the corner at the bottom of the stairs from the family room and started to come up, but stopped when she saw them. She had a sheet of printer paper in her hand.

       “For you, Jane,” Heather said. “It’s from your brother in Iraq.”

 

 

 

 

IX

 

 

       Jane hurried down the steps to snatch the page from Heather’s fingers. “Hey, thanks!” she said, then kept walking until she stood by the windows in a corner of the family room, reading the message to herself.

       “She asked me to check her e-mail,” Heather told Daria by way of explanation. “She’s allowed one account through the county’s computer system, but everything that goes in and out has to be reviewed by her guardian because of stalkers, predators, spam, porn, etcetera. Mrs. Sullivan just released this one.” Heather turned to Jane and called, “I didn’t read it when I saw it was from Trent, by the way.”

       Jane did not answer. She turned her back to Daria and Heather, still reading.

       Daria looked over at the TV set and Heather’s informal command post on the sofa. “How’s the war goin’?” she asked.

       “Pretty good so far. I haven’t spilled espresso on anything, at least.” Heather crossed her arms and eyed the TV, which was paused in the middle of an episode of Lost. “I was about to write to my cousin in Indiana to see if he’d do a term paper for me. He’s a grad student in social work at IU. I’m hoping he’ll write it if I send him one of my baby pictures, framed and everything. He’s a sucker for sentimental stuff like that.”

       “Baby pictures?”

       “Yeah, well, he’s one of those really emotional kinds of gay guys who get all weepy over family stuff. He’s so easy to bribe, and he never asks for money. Lucky me.”

       “Don’t have any cousins worth bribin’,” said Daria. “Got one on my mom’s side I heard was datin’ a guy in Washington and bein’ real secretive ‘bout it, and the other on my dad’s side is playin’ Happy Homemaker in Ohio somewheres, poppin’ out kids like biscuits.” She cleared her throat. “Wouldn’t it mebbe be easier in the long run to write your own paper? I mean, so all the mistakes in it aren’t someone else’s?”

       “It’s like this,” said Heather, not in the least offended. “I’ve only got so much time to do what I have to do. Tests, finals, face-to-face stuff, I have to do that myself. Homework, most of that I have to do, too. But papers, researching stuff—that takes time I don’t have. I’m like a middle manager. You have to be, to get through. I get my assignments from the teachers, then delegate work-for-hire to the freelancers. I review their work when it comes in, pay them with my credit card through PayPal, then download their files and fiddle with them to give them my voice and fix anything that needs to be fixed. Plus, if I have to turn over electronic copy, I have to reset the file’s properties or cut-and-paste everything to a new file so a teacher won’t find out the paper started on someone else’s computer, unless the hired guy can do that himself. Some can.”

       Daria looked skeptical. “Don’t a file’s advanced properties show things like how often you’ve worked on a file and when you started it?”

       “I’m all over it. If I have to, I start a junk file when I get a paper assignment, mess with it a few times a day, then fill it with the final paper when I get it and delete the trash. No one’s figured it out yet. I was sure someone would.”

       “Hmmm. You seem to have the bases covered...” Daria broke off, following the startled look she saw Heather give Jane.

       Jane was leaning against the back of the love seat. Wet streaks ran down from her eyes to her chin. She was still reading, though the letter trembled in her hands and she was taking short, ragged breaths.

       “You okay?” said Heather. She uncrossed her arms, ready to move in.

       Jane reached the bottom of the letter, sniffed, glanced over it once more, then folded the paper up and stuffed it in a pocket of her blue jacket. “Man,” she said, wiping her eyes with her fingers, “that was a long one. Longest one he ever sent me.”

       “Is Trent all right?” Daria felt herself caught between wanting to comfort her friend and worrying she would do the wrong thing.

       Jane nodded. Her voice was rough. “He’s fine. I warned you I get emotional, didn’t I?”

       “What’d he say?” asked Daria.

       “Oh...” Jane pulled a handkerchief from another jacket pocket and blew her nose. “He said he got your e-mail. And he wants to meet you and find out what kind of accent you really have.”

       “Yeah, right.” Daria felt her face get hot. Trent wants to see me? ME? Why?

       “Oh, he did. I don’t know what you wrote to him, but it really hit him hard. Trent’s never written that much to me in his whole life. That was a hell of a letter.” She blew her nose once more, then wadded the handkerchief and put it away. She looked at Daria with joyful blue eyes. “Thanks, amiga. I owe you for that.”

       “What’s amiga mean?” asked Heather. “You don’t mean that dinosaur computer, I assume.”

       “It’s Spanish for ‘girlfriend.’” Jane ran her hands through her hair, then dropped her arms to her sides. “Whew! Time for some coffee.”

       Heather stayed in the family room to watch the rest of her Lost episode and compose an e-mail to her sucker cousin in Indiana. Jane got an oversized mug full of black coffee with about a quarter of a bowl of sugar in it, then nodded toward the back door again. Daria followed her outside to the picnic table again, pulling out a cigarette.

       When Jane got to the table, however, she put down her mug. “Gimme that,” she said quietly, snatching Daria’s cigarette from her mouth before Daria could react. Jane dropped it on the table by her coffee.

       “What are you—” Daria began. Her words turned into a muffled cry as Jane advanced on her without warning and enveloped her in a full-body hug. Daria struggled at first, though not as hard as she could have. She had never been a hugger—physical closeness was too unnerving—and she was intensely aware of unfamiliar sensations: the warmth and pressure of Jane’s body, soft and strong from her face down to her hips; the scent of Jane’s perfume and the freshly laundered smell of her jacket; the sound of Jane’s breathing. It was an invasion of Daria’s cherished personal space... but, oddly enough, it wasn’t all that bad.

       Then Daria realized Jane was crying again.

       “Hold still,” whispered Jane. “I won’t do anything funny. Stay still just for a moment.”

       Daria stopped struggling and tried to relax, but the closest she could manage was to close her eyes and hunch herself up. Jane’s hug wasn’t like the hug Daria had gotten from Quinn, but it had a reassuring quality of its own. It was the first time in memory that someone other than her parents had hugged her with such abandon.

       It was the kind of hug that implied she was worthy of being loved.

       But that was something Daria was neither ready for, nor truly believed.

       “Thank you for what you did,” Jane whispered when she could speak. “That was the best letter I ever got from him. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. Thanks, amiga. Thank you so much.”

       “Okay, you’re welcome!” said Daria, her eyes still shut. “Don’t break my glasses!”

       Jane gave her a last squeeze and let her go. She stepped back to get her coffee and gave Daria a bright smile. “I warned you I get emotional,” she said.

       “Never said I didn’t believe you, did I?” Daria retrieved her cigarette and took on the opposite side of the table, as far from Jane as possible without leaving the area. “It wasn’t like I asked you to prove it.”

       Jane unfolded the letter she had taken from her pocket, then held it out to Daria, easily spanning the picnic table with her arm. “Here, read what he said. Take it.”

       “That’s personal,” said Daria with a frown, the unlit cigarette in her fingers—but she was already looking down at the page and scanning the words.

       “I want you to see it,” said Jane.

       Daria gave up and took the paper in the hand holding the cigarette, but in moments she completely forgot about it.

 

 

 

Dear Janey,

 

I hope you are doing good. I am sorry it took so long for me to write. I think it was too long. I started this letter to you yesterday but have had a lot of trouble saying what I want to say. I don’t know why. Writing songs was way easier. I have to send this letter now, even if it has mistakes, because I am leaving soon on another road trip, a long one.

 

I got a note from a girl who says she is a friend of yours at school, named Daria. She said a lot of good things about you. She sounds like a cool person to hang out with. But she also said some things that made me think a lot about how I treated you. I don’t think she meant to do it, but I’m glad in a way she did. The more I think about it, and I have had a lot of time to think as I am still in Ramadi (we did not move to Baghdad last month like we thought we would), the more I need to talk to you about what I am thinking (write to you about it, I mean). I don’t know if it will make anything better for you when you read this. You can tell me if it does, or not, whatever. So here it is.

 

What I think is that I owe you an apology, maybe a lot of apologies, maybe a ton of them, for how I acted over everything. I am ashamed of what I said to you that time I got mad and lost it. It wasn’t your fault, what you did. It was my fault. I should have taken care of things at home like the bills and stuff, but it was easier let you do it. I don’t have a good excuse for what I did, or why. It was my responsibility, but I slept instead and blew it.

 

You won’t believe it, but I’ve changed a lot since I’ve been over here. I take care of a lot of stuff for my unit, day and night. If I don’t do my job right, bad things happen, and I don’t mean being yelled at by my company commander, which he does sometimes. You depended on me, too, and I should have been there when you needed me. That sits on my mind a lot after what Daria said about me being your big brother. I think about it even when I should be sleeping. None of this would have happened if I had done what I was supposed to do. None of it.

 

Daria said you look up to me, but if I had been a good big brother, the kind I should have been, you would not have gotten into so much trouble. You did what you did because no one looked out for you, and the person who let you down most was me. Not Mom or Dad, not anyone else, just me, because I was there and they weren’t.

 

We are going north in a few hours to deliver fuel. I wanted to send this before I leave. I am sorry I let you down and hope maybe you will forgive me. I want to be different from now on, a better big brother, the big brother I should have been. I would like to see you again if you could stand to see me. If not I will understand. I will still send money to you either way. You deserve a better start. You were always the smart one in the family. I think you were the only realistic one, too. I wish I had learned more from you than I did.

 

Take care of yourself. I don’t know when I will come home again. Daria asked about that. They’re changing our departure dates again because of the fighting (not allowed to write about it). I would like to see Daria when I get back. I know a few guys here from Texas and they have a strange way of talking, like they were from a TV show, but don’t tell Daria that. Maybe you can send a picture of you two by mail (they still cut off attachments, so e-mail pictures won’t work). My unit address is the same as before, but I will be hard to reach for a while except by e-mail, if we have time. I promise to write back faster than I have until now.

 

I love you, Janey. You are all that I am living for.

 

Trent

 

 

 

       Daria lowered the letter. She was speechless. After a moment, she numbly handed the letter back.

       “What’d you think of it?” asked Jane, putting the letter away again.

       Daria shook her head, unable to sort out her feelings. She was glad that Trent had said so many good things to Jane—the apologies were especially welcome—but had Daria’s note to Trent truly caused that? It was too good to be believe, which in Daria’s experience meant it probably wasn’t true. It was hard to know what to think. Perhaps it was true, though, that she had finally caused some good to occur—a small amount of good, compared with the evil she had wrought, but still... it was a nice thought if so.

       If so.

       As Daria was lost in thought, Jane wandered over to the back fence in the silence, looking at one of the small shrubs there. “You have to understand how I feel about Trent,” she said. “He’s been my hero since forever. He graduated high school when I was in middle school, and he wanted to do something special to celebrate, so he went to a tattoo parlor and had Maori tattoos done across his shoulders and down his arms to his elbows. He told me he almost got tattoos on his face, too, like a real Maori, but he chickened out at the last minute. He got the idea from a tattoo magazine. I mean, that was so very Trent to do that.”

       Jane walked back to the table and put down her large mug, then took off her jacket and dropped it on the bench. “I couldn’t be left out,” she said, reaching down to peel off her T-shirt.

       Daria’s heart caught in her throat. She glanced around to see if anyone was watching. “Jane? What’re you doin’?”

       Jane stripped off her shirt, dropped it on the table, then stretched her arms upward and turned in place on her toes, still wearing her white jogging bra. Across her lower back and hips, rising on either side over her ribs to her shoulder blades, then over to the base of her neck, was a stunning panorama in blue, black, and maroon. Arcs and whorls, spirals and pinwheels, diamonds and hearts, and trees filled with long-tailed monkeys and coiled serpents ran riot, crowned with a red sunburst spanning her shoulder blades. The blazing star’s face bared long fangs at the viewer with a fierce expression.

       Eyes huge, Daria looked Jane up and down. Mazelike patterns ran down Jane’s upper arms to her elbows, and further designs reached down into her skirt from her lower back. How far down the tattoos went, Daria didn’t dare imagine.

       “Isn’t it something?” said Jane. “I always wanted to be like him somehow. I always wanted that connection.” She dropped her arms and picked up her shirt, put it on again, then pulled on her jacket as well. “Trent’s looked out for me since I was in diapers. Even when he was just a bum, I loved him. He was the only one in the family who acted like I mattered, like I was really there.” She picked up her coffee and took a sip. “And that’s the end of my dysfunctional family story. And that’s why I was so happy to hear him say what he did.”

       “I see,” said Daria, dazed. “How’d you have all that done, again?”

       “Guy in Swedesville did it. Trent went with me, in loco parentis. He must have been loco to let me do it. I paid for it with my checking account, having Trent sign the check, just a few months before the cops got it.” Jane studied Daria for a moment. “I can’t tell if you’re underwhelmed or what. You’re a little hard to read sometimes.”

       “Overwhelmed,” Daria admitted. “I just... I’m glad that ever’thing turned out okay with your brother and all. I don’t know what else to say.”

       “People tell me I’m a handful.” Jane sat on the table across from Daria, holding her mug in her lap. “You said something about your dad when we were upstairs. What’s he like?”

       “What’s my dad like?” Daria finally remembered to light her cigarette. She put the lighter away as she took a long drag and exhaled. “What’s he like realistically, you mean?”

       “If you must.”

       “Well...” A look of intense concentration came over Daria’s face. “My dad and I kinda get along. It’s funny, but we get along best when we aren’t doing anythin’, but we’re doin’ it together. I mean, we’d sit together, like at the table readin’ the paper or in the livin’ room watchin’ TV, but we didn’t really talk a lot. We didn’t need to. Dad’s sort of... I dunno, sort of messed up. He had a lot of trouble with his own dad when he was growin’ up and never got over it. My grandpa was in Vietnam. He was Special Forces, one of the ones who went over early. Said he was called ‘Mad Dog’ by the other guys when he was over there. That’s all my dad ever calls him, Mad Dog. I don’t know if Grandpa made him call him that or what. Grandpa’s dead—he died when my dad was a teenager, ‘bout my age—but sometimes it’s like he’s still ‘round, the way my dad goes on about him. The past makes Dad a little crazy.” She shook her head. “I wish he’d forget it and let it go. He always claims Grandpa said he’d be a failure, and he can’t ever get over it. I just wish he’d quit.”

       “Was your grandfather abusive to your dad, do you think?”

       “Prob’ly. Makes sense. I don’t know all what happened, ‘cept Dad got yelled at a lot and sometimes he got hit. Grandpa wasn’t ‘round that often. He was overseas most of Dad’s childhood, and he drank a lot when he was home. Dad drinks sometimes, but he never hit me and never hit Quinn, that I know of. He does yell, though. He will do that. He doesn’t tell me I’m stupid or anythin’, he just yells, like, oh... will you and your sister stop that damn arguin’, it’s gettin’ on my nerves, how can I get any peace ‘round here gah damn it, and so on and so forth. Then he starts yellin’ ‘bout his job, how he hates workin’ for the man he does, but he keeps on workin’ for him so we have a house to live in, etcetera. He and Mom had all the same lines: they’re puttin’ food on the table, why aren’t we all grateful for it, stop arguin’, all that crap.”

       “Your mom ever spank you?”

       “Nah. Just the once, when I was pissin’ off the minister. That fired her up pretty bad. Dad sometimes hit walls and stuff when he’s mad, beat on tables, but he never hit us. Not ever.”

       “What’s he do? I mean, for work.”

       “Oh. He’s in marketin’ for Howie Zowie’s, big retail company in Lubbock, kind of like Wal-Mart or K-Mart or Target but not as successful. It’s local only. Howie Zowie’s going under, I think. Can’t compete. I’m worried Dad’s gonna be out of a job soon. He talked ‘bout doin’ consultin’ work freelance, but I think makin’ the jump scares him. It would me. Jobs are real scarce there. If his business didn’t work out, he’d be worse off than before, so I think he’s hangin’ on, tryin’ to make it work long as he can.” She scratched her nose. “Plus, I don’t think Dad’s all that... I dunno, all that easy to get along with. It’s not like people’d come runnin’ to see him, I guess.” Daria looked mildly embarrassed. “I mean, he’s my dad and all, but you wanted realistic, so there it is.”

       “Did he and your mom fight a lot?”

       Daria exhaled, blowing long clouds of smoke from her nose. “Yeah,” she said, and left it at that.

       “Your grandfather couldn’t have been that old when he died,” said Jane. “You said your dad was still a teenager.”

       “He died of leukemia when he was in his thirties, ‘bout thirty-five,” said Daria. “Think it might’ve been from Agent Orange or somethin’, but I never heard anythin’ else ‘bout it. I just left it alone. Dad doesn’t talk ‘bout what happened when Grandpa died. He just went on to college later and met my mom and that was it.”

       “Are you going to see him anytime soon?”

       “I dunno. Not likely. Maybe Christmas, somethin’, I dunno.” Daria knocked ash from her cigarette. “Now I got a few questions for you again.”

       “Um, okay.”

       Daria turned her head to look at Jane directly, sitting back with her arms for support on the tabletop. “What was that like, takin’ pictures of yourself?”

       Jane raised an eyebrow. “You mean the nudie pictures?”

       Daria nodded. Her blank expression was impossible to read.

       “Oh. Well...” Jane scratched the back of her neck and smiled, looking at the fence. “It was exciting, to tell the truth. It was something new. I liked it that guys wanted to see me like that. It was... it was a turn-on. No one knew about it but me, and it turned into this kind of secret fantasy thing I had, just me and the camera and the computer and all these guys sending me mail on how much they loved me, how good I looked, how great I was, all that. I mean, I knew I wasn’t supposed to do it, that there was something wrong with it, but that made it all the more exciting. It just blew me away. You should have seen the stuff they sent when I got the tattoos and started posing then. Man, they went wild. It was such a feeling of power, that I could do all that and have these guys begging me to do things, like I was famous.” She sighed. “I mean, yeah, they were using me, they really were, but in a way I was using them, too. None of them ever showed up at my door or anything. I mean, some asked about it, but I always said no, so I didn’t feel threatened over it. It was my little secret.”

       Her smile became mocking. “Of course, it didn’t stay a secret long. A lot of people here now know it was me, which is a big reason I have to live at LYRE and have people supervise me—” Jane jabbed a thumb behind her at the house “—until I’m eighteen. They can’t watch me all the time, though. I’ve found ways around it.” She looked upward at the sky, then down at the orange band on her right ankle. “Hope no one was listening to that by satellite.”

       “So, you kinda knew what was goin’ on was illegal,” said Daria. “Or mebbe not illegal, but wrong, say.”

       “Yeah, sort of, but I didn’t really care. It just made it more fun. Me, Jane from middle school, the renegade, wild thing. Aside from all the trouble it got me into, it was all right. I wonder if I’ll keep thinking that when I’m older, or if I’ll regret it. I hope not. I’m not one for regrets, that’s for sure.”

       “You knew it was wrong, but you liked it,” said Daria evenly.

       “Yeah, exactly.” Jane sensed something else in Daria’s voice, and she turned her head to watch her.

       Daria nodded and looked at the fence. After a long moment, holding the smoldering cigarette in her lap, she nodded again, slowly. “You know a thing is wrong, but you do it anyway. It’s like somethin’ inside you makes you do it, like it’s not you, but it really is you. You wanna do it, and you don’t care ‘bout the consequences. You wanna stick it in their faces one more time, give ‘em one more good one to think about, watch ‘em squirm when they see a little of the real...”

       She broke off and put the cigarette between her lips.

       “We’re not talking about my nudie pictures anymore, are we?” said Jane, worried where this was going. She had the odd sensation that Daria had in the last few moments aged greatly, so that her face looked weathered and old, beaten and tired. The sensation passed when Daria knocked ash from her cigarette again and brushed off her pants.

       “It’s funny,” Daria said, looking down at nothing. “Here we are, you and me, and there’s that guy, Tommy whatever—Sherman, I think—”

       “That’s it.”

       “—Tommy Sherman, then, and you say he did somethin’ so bad he had to run away from it, but we don’t know what it was, so he goes off in the Army and gets killed and now he’s a hero, no matter what it was he did, but you and me, we’re sittin’ here and no one thinks we’re heroes. Well, okay, so you’re a hero to your fans, but not me. Definitely not me. I wonder if I got killed doin’ somethin’ big, people’d see me different. Prob’ly not.”

       Jane gave Daria a disapproving look. “I wouldn’t like for you to get killed.”

       A shrug. “Gotta go sometime.”

       “Not right at the moment, no, we don’t.”

       “Well, I’m not plannin’ on it, so don’t worry ‘bout it. It wouldn’t be worth dyin’ just to look good to ever’one, anyway. Big waste of time. Dyin’s not worth the effort.”

       Jane nodded. “Living is worth the effort.”

       Daria snorted. “Don’t know if I agree with that, either.”

       “Interesting discussion. So, not to change the subject or anything, but is there anyone you look up to? I mean, like I do with Trent?”

       Daria shrugged at first, then thought about it. “My dad,” she finally said. “Not the same, but I guess that’s it.”

       Jane finished her coffee and set the mug aside. “How so?”

       Her companion took a deep breath. “I guess ‘cause my dad stuck by me the whole time, through the whole fuckin’ mess, even in the worst of it. I think he wasn’t so much stickin’ by me ‘cause he thought I was innocent—I mean, he did at first, but as ever’thing started comin’ out, he still came to see me, but he stopped sayin’ it wasn’t my fault. He’d just come and stay with me in the evenin’s and talk a little, bring me somethin’ to read when I was bein’ held in juvenile, ‘fore they transferred me to Hope and let me go home again.”

       Daria leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees, hands clasped together before her with the cigarette smoking in her fingers. “It was weird,” she said. “I felt like he accepted that it was me that did it all, that I’d caused what happened, and he’d decided to face it and deal with it. He never said that, but I could feel it. I’d never expected that in him, that he’d stick by me. It’s funny ‘cause I never thought anythin’ like how disappointed I was that he didn’t think I was innocent anymore. I was thinkin’ instead that I was glad he was there for me when I needed him, and I really did need him. I’d never thought that’d ever happen with him, as he was so hard to reach all the time, but when he stayed with me, it helped. I kinda accepted after a time that I was responsible, that I had their blood on my hands, all those dead people, and I had to deal with it, too.”

       She finished the cigarette, then dropped the butt in the grass. “I never talked ‘bout this with anyone in my life,” she said, staring at her clasped hands.

       Jane fished for a reply, found none, and said nothing.

       “You know,” Daria continued, “I kinda wanted to see your pictures not ‘cause I’m gettin’ into you or anythin’, it’s not that, but I all the time think too much on what happened, and I think I really need to see someone else’s life instead and get my mind on some other topic. I could really use a break. That’s why I like that judge show on cable so much. It’s crazy, but I don’t have to think when I watch it. I can sit on my ass and get a little peace.”

       Daria turned her brown eyes on Jane, a smile growing. “Love your tattoos, by the way. Those’re great. Are Trent’s anythin’ like those?”

       Jane smiled back and shook her head. “I overdid it,” she said. “Trent’s are nice, but I blew a wad on mine.”

       “It shows.”

       “Thanks. So, you didn’t answer my earlier question.”

       “What...” Daria rolled her eyes, then looked at the grass again. “Forget it. I’m not talkin’.”

       “You ever get laid? Fucked? Do it?”

       “Let it go.”

       “Nah, I wanna know. Have you done it?”

       Daria bit her lips together and lowered her head. Her face was a wall.

       “You can tell me.”

       Daria shook her head. Something in her manner had changed.

       Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore. Jane sensed it and just like that she knew. Oh, shit. I can’t believe this. God, I can’t believe it.

       “I’m sorry,” she said when she could find her voice. “I was... I’m so sorry.”

       Daria shrugged, eyes closed. “Nothin’ happened,” she said in a distant voice.

       Jane started to scoot closer but stopped when she saw Daria tense up and withdraw. A small silence reigned.

       “You want to go back inside?” Jane asked.

       A headshake no.

       “You want me to go away for a while, and you be by yourself?”

       Another no, more empathetic.

       Jane tried once more. “Then, can I sit a little closer to you? I won’t try to hug you. I just want to sit next to you, if that’s okay.”

       After a long pause came a soft, “Okay.”

       Jane moved over until she was a foot from her friend, then sat in a posture very much like Daria’s: leaning forward with her head down, elbows on knees, hands clasped. They did not touch.

       “If you need me, I’m here,” Jane whispered.

       “I’m okay,” Daria said, her voice barely audible. “Nothin’s wrong.”

       “I’m still here,” Jane whispered back.

       Daria nodded. Her eyes opened, glistening and full. She looked at the grass and said nothing more.

       They sat like that for fifteen minutes, listening to distant traffic and the birds and the wind. When they were done, they picked up after themselves and went back inside.

 

 

 

 

X

 

 

       “How late are you girls going to be up?” asked Helen Morgendorffer that night, after pushing the power-off button on her ultra-slim phone and noticing it was 10:26.

       “Be a while yet,” Daria called from the family-room couch in a deadpan tone.

       Helen dropped her phone into a pocket of her suit-dress and came out of the kitchen. “Homework done?”

       “Done,” said both girls in near chorus, watching the plasma television.

       “Your Aunt Rita said hello. Nice that she found the time to call between going to spas and tanning parlors.” Helen peered at the widescreen set. “You’re watching courtroom TV?”

       “Chalk it up to your good influence,” said Daria without looking away from the set. “Like mother, like dau—”

       “Here it comes,” Jane interrupted, pointing at the TV. “Slow it down.”

       Daria raised the remote and held her thumb over a button.

       On the TiVo-replayed “Judge Hangim Hye Show,” the judge was speaking to a disheveled, wild-eyed defendant in chains, asking who would represent him at his trial. The man jumped to his feet and shouted, “My lord and master! SATAN, DEFEND ME!”

       Daria’s thumb hit the button. The scene slowed down as red smoke roared from the floor of the courtroom in a huge jet, then ceased. When it cleared, a tall man with tousled gray hair, a boyish face, and an infectious grin stood where the smoke had appeared, speaking into a cell phone. He wore a dark suit and black wingtip shoes of unusual size.

       “Turn up the volume!” cried Jane.

       Daria did, then thumbed off the slo-mo button.

       “Gotta go, Hillary,” said the man with a warm Southern accent. “Right. You, too.” He snapped the phone shut and beamed at the judge. “My wife was unable to be here, Your Honor,” said the man as Daria quickly turned the volume down again. “She sends her regrets. I’ll take over Mister Bloodbather’s case, if you don’t mind.”

       Told you!” said Jane, slapping her thigh. Told you that was him!”

       “Not really him,” muttered Daria. “Good synthetic, though.”

       “What kind of courtroom TV is this?” asked Helen, making a face.

       “My kind,” said Daria. She reached across Jane’s lap for the popcorn bowl.

       “Well, don’t stay up too late.” Helen cast a disapproving eye at the elaborate tattoos visible down Jane’s arms, then shook her head and headed for the staircase. “I need to finish a couple of briefs before I turn in. Big case starting Monday.”

       “Knock ‘em dead, Mom,” said Daria blandly.

       Helen stopped and looked back in shock. Daria!

       “G’night, then,” Daria added, raising a hand to wave for a half-second before returning to her normal posture.

       Glaring at her eldest daughter, Helen Morgendorffer stomped up the stairs.

       “How much did you give Heather?” asked Jane, watching the defendant’s attorney charm all the women in the jury box.

       “Eighty,” said Daria, but with her mouth full of popcorn it came out as “A-E.”

       “Eighty dollars?

       Daria nodded and took a moment to swallow. “Not so loud.”

       “Why? I thought she was supposed to work for free.”

       “Wanted to make sure she was prop’ly motivated to come back again and babysit us when we needed her. I was bein’ a good middle manager, like she suggested. Liked her advice, too.”

       “Where’d you get the money? Was that your allowance?”

       “Nah. It was ‘mergency money. Seemed like a ‘mergency to me, so...” She shrugged.

       “Huh.” Jane turned back to the TV and scratched under her T-shirt. She had taken off her jacket hours earlier. “For eighty bucks, she’d probably cut classes to babysit us on a weekday.”

       “I’d pay more for a weekday. What time d’you have to be back tomorrow?”

       “Four o’clock, no later. Will your mom be here to drive?”

       “Hope so. Prob’ly should nail her door shut to make sure she’s here.”

       “I love this house. You got lots of room. Wish your mom was into foster care. You want another sister?”

       “Not if I have to share the bathroom with her, no.”

       “That was so funny, the way Quinn looked when she saw my tattoos. I thought her eyes would fall out. She recovers fast, though, I’ll give her that.”

       “She’s okay.” Daria pointed. “There, in the audience. Look at that lady.”

       “Where?”

       “Blue dress. Oh!” She covered her mouth, delighted and horrified at once.

       Jane howled with laughter. “Damn!” she gasped when it was over, “they think of everything on this show!”

       “Gotta love it.”

       The episode ended. Daria put the show on pause in the middle of the credits.

       “That was great,” said Jane, grinning. “You know, the Monica thing happened when I was in grade school, and this boy in my class asked the teacher, ‘What’s a blowjob?’ God, I thought I would die, that was so funny.”

       “Mmm.”

       “You sleepy?”

       Daria roused herself and looked away from the TV. “You kiddin’?”

       “Me, neither. Was that the last episode that TiVo had? Damn. What else is on?”

       Daria clicked through the menu, then highlighted an item. “Conspiracy Channel. How ‘bout that one?”

       “Sure. Anything’s fine as long as it isn’t church stuff.”

       Daria clicked the remote. A male voice-over was describing a vast array of cross-shaped antenna towers seen over a snowfield. He kept saying the word harp.

       “Think they’re going to destroy the world before we graduate high school?” asked Jane, a foot in her lap so she could pick her toes.

       “Might, but kinda doubt it.”

       “That make you happy or sad?”

       “Neither.”

       “Your mom or your sister have any nail polish? I want to do my toenails.”

       They went upstairs. Quinn had a half-empty bottle of Blazing Fireball Red nail polish in the bathroom she shared with Daria. Through the closed door to the master bedroom, they heard fingers hitting keys on a keyboard in a long, steady rain.

       They went back downstairs and picked up where they left off. There was tornado footage on TV, intercut with scenes of scientists calmly sitting at long rows of computer monitors, then more pictures of the big antenna towers rising from the snow.

       “Heather drove me by our old house on the way over,” said Jane, bending over to paint her right toenails first. She moved the orange anklet’s antenna out of the way. “A family named Johnson lives there now, according to the mailbox. I saw some kids’ toys in the yard. Bet they remodeled the whole interior. I wonder if Penny came back and got a little surprise when she rang the doorbell.”

       “She the one in Mexico?” MEH hee koe was how Daria pronounced it.

       “Yeah, Chiapas. She’s got red hair, kind of a jerk. I haven’t heard from her in two, three years. Could be dead, I guess.”

       “Hope not.”

       Jane blew a bubble with her gum, snapped it, finished her big toe. “Haven’t heard from Summer, either, in a few months, but that’s no surprise. Probably still in rehab. I don’t know who has her kids. Once she found out I couldn’t babysit for her anymore, she stopped coming by.”

       “Quinn keeps tryin’ to convert me. Tells me God loves me, so on. She doesn’t try so much as she used to, right after she found Jesus. Guess she got tired.”

       “Ron tried to get Trent to buy into this Internet thing he had going. I think it was one of those pyramid schemes, but I’m not sure. Trent said he’d think about it, then didn’t do anything. It drove Ron crazy. That was great to watch.”

       The TV showed an Air Force hurricane hunter flying over cloud tops, then more intercutting with the same group of calm scientists fiddling with their control panels. One scientist flipped a switch, and the next scene showed hurricane winds tearing the roof off a hotel and hurling it away in pieces.

       “Who’d you say that girl was Quinn’s spending the night at?” asked Daria.

       “Stacy Rowe,” said Jane, working on another toenail. “She’s one of those high-anxiety freakazoid types. I saw her pass out a couple of times in the hall when she got real worried about something.”

       “Quinn’ll prob’ly try to convert her, too.”

       “I think Stacy’s already a Christian.”

       “Prob’ly not Christian enough,” said Daria, watching as sea waves pounded a shoreline in a storm. “Quinn’ll fix that.”

       “She’s pretty nice, really, for an evangelist.”

       “We used to fight a lot, though.” Daria raised her arms and interlocked her fingers on the back of her head. “Hit each other. Mostly me hittin’ her.” Her face reddened. “That was stupid. I quit it. Mostly it was right after ever’thing happened, when I was goin’ through changes and havin’ a bad time. I was crazy. Finally got over it.”

       “That’s good.”

       “Wish I hadn’t done it. My temper’s not too good. Better now, though.”

       “I can understand that. Glad it’s better.”

       Daria took out her gum and wrapped it up in its old wrapper, then put it on the coffee table. Jane did her middle toe. The TV showed the antenna towers in the snow again, this time with arrows pointing upward from their tops.

       “I wasn’t raped,” said Daria. Her voice choked off on the last word, and she cleared her throat several times. “I didn’t—” cough “—mean for it to sound like I was, outside. It was—” cough “—what happened was, I—” cough “—sorry, I was going to class and I used to take this shortcut through—” cough.

       By the fourth cough, Jane had recapped the nail polish and was sitting beside Daria on the sofa. Daria paused to rub her eyes under her glasses. Jane put her hand on the sofa cushion near Daria but did not touch her. Not yet.

       “Sorry,” said Daria, straightening her glasses and looking at the TV again with a red face. Words poured out between interruptions. “This guy caught me in the maintenance ha—” cough “—sorry, hallway near the loading docks. No cameras there. This was back at Hope. He was a senior in for drugs, big guy. He didn’t really rape me, he—” cough “—made me do stuff, that was all. It w—” cough “—’cuse me, it wasn’t anythin’. I was okay. It didn’t happen again. I didn’t go that way no more. He got sent to another facil—” cough “—damn it, another facility for fightin’ with staff. That’s all.”

       “Who else knows about this?” asked Jane, watching Daria’s face.

       “Uh—” cough “—no one, I think. I mean, he does, I guess, but no one else.” Cough.

       “Did you tell anyone?”

       Daria shook her head rapidly. “Wasn’t worth it. Wasn’t important.”

       “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Jane reached for Daria’s shoulder.

       “No, it really—AH, NO!” Daria jerked away from Jane’s hand and shuddered violently, her arms covering her face. “Don’t touch me!” she yelled. “Don’t touch me!

       Jane reared back but kept her arms out, ready to block or grab. She thought Daria’s mother would hear and would come downstairs to find out what was going on, but that didn’t happen.

       “I’m okay!” Daria said, not shouting as loudly now. “It’s okay!” She shuddered again and took a deep breath, then took off her glasses to wipe her face. “It’s all right! I’m fine. I’m okay now.” Her voice was almost normal. “Sorry. I’m fine. Forget it. I’m okay. Nothin’ happened.” She put her glasses back on, then took them off immediately and began wiping the smudged lenses on her T-shirt. “Sorry. I’m okay now. You didn’t do anythin’ wrong. I’m all right.”

       “Okay,” said Jane, watching her.

       “I just didn’t want—” cough “—want you to think, you know, it was anythin’. It wasn’t. I don’t do that a lot. It was okay to hug me, by the way, earlier. That was okay. Kind of surprised me, but that was o—” cough “—okay. Just be careful, but don’t worry ‘bout it. I don’t like to be touched a lot, but I’m okay. See?” She put her glasses back on and gave Jane a semi-normal Daria-esque look. “All done. See?”

       “Okay.”

       “I’m not a freak.”

       “No, you’re not.”

       “Okay, then. Paint your toes or... whatever. Sorry.”

       Jane held out her hand. Daria stared at it, then took it and squeezed hard. “Sorry,” she said, her voice quiet and low. “Sorry ‘bout that.”

       Jane nodded.

       “Okay,” said Daria. She let go of Jane’s hand and looked back at the TV again. “I’m okay now.”

       “Want me to paint your toes?” asked Jane. She was serious.

       “Uh, um, I, uh... uh, sure. Whatever.”

       Five minutes later, Jane sat on the floor with one of Daria’s feet in her lap, painting her toes.

       “Never did this before,” said Daria, still watching the TV but occasionally looking down to see what Jane was doing.

       “First time for everything,” said Jane. “Two toes down, eight to go.”

       “I feel stupid.”

       “Lots of people paint their toes. It’s what girls do at sleepovers.”

       “Wasn’t what I meant.”

       “You’re my best friend,” said Jane, painting away. “You can do anything you want.”

       “Still feel stupid. Really stupid.”

       “What’s your IQ?” Jane blew on Daria’s painted toes.

       “Dunno.”

       “Liar.”

       “Eh.”

       “What is it?”

       “Hun’erd’n thirty-nine.”

       Jane shook her head as she worked. “You got me beat.”

       “No. No, I don’t.”

       Jane blew on Daria’s toes again, then began on the fourth one.

       “You got me beat,” said Daria. “You can do anythin’. I can’t do anythin’ at all anymore.”

       “You can be my best friend.”

       A long pause. “Okay.”

       Jane finished Daria’s left foot, examined her work, then put down that foot, resettled herself, and picked up the other one. “Hold still,” she said.

       “That tickled,” said Daria. Her face tensed. “I don’t know what I’m doin’.”

       “That makes two of us.”

       “I killed all those people. I can’t stand it. I killed more people than the lady on Monster, Aileen Wuornos. How many people you think Tommy Sherman killed? He was in the Army. That’s what he was s’posed to do, shoot people, like the sniper in my paper, Pavlichenko.”

       “You didn’t shoot anyone.”

       “War crimes trials, they don’t hang the ones who pull the triggers. My Lai, Kosovo, Iraq, it’s all the same. I still can’t believe it sometimes. Don’t know what I’m doin’ anymore. Don’t know why I’m here or anythin’. I don’t know anythin’.”

       “Hold still.” Jane dipped the tiny brush in the bottle, wiped the excess polish on the lip of the bottle, then began to paint again.

       Daria watched as Jane worked. “Aren’t you s’posed to use polish remover first?” she asked.

       “This is practice,” said Jane. “I never did anyone else’s toes before.”

       “So, I’m the guinea pig.”

       “Looks that way.”

       “You talk funny.”

       “You’re the one from West Texas. Want to raid the fridge when we’re done?”

       “Sure. I could go for some ice cream.”

       They ate the chocolate-chip cookie dough instead. They sat at the kitchen table with glasses of milk and Daria’s little CD player sitting on the table near them, plugged into a pair of tiny speakers. Courtney Love sang as they ate.

       “I love this stuff,” said Jane, biting off another chunk before she handed the cookie-dough roll back to Daria.

       “I still wonder what Tommy did that he had to go into the Army,” said Daria, examining the roll with a thoughtful look. “I wonder who’d know.”

       “Who cares? He’s dead.”

       “I just wanna know.”

       “Trent might, but he’s not here. Who else... Curtis. He might.”

       “Who?”

       “Curtis Stalano, one of the security guards at the school. He graduated with Trent’s class. He’d probably know. I think he can get into police files and stuff.”

       “Can you point him out to me Monday?”

       “No problem.”

       I want to be the girl with the most cake,” the tiny speakers sang in Courtney Love’s voice. “I love him so much it just turns to hate / I fake it so real, I am beyond fake / And someday you will ache like I ache / Someday you will ache like I ache.

       They watched part of a Jerry Springer episode, then some Howard Stern (“He’s really got a thing about ‘doing anal,’ doesn’t he?” said Jane), then went upstairs to the bathroom Daria and Quinn normally shared.

       “Brought my toothbrush,” said Jane, waving it before Daria’s face.

       “Forgot your pajamas,” said Daria, trying to floss out a piece of cookie dough stuck in her teeth.

       “Wasn’t gonna wear any, so ha, ha, ha.”

       “Aren’t you supposed to do that at college? Run around without any clothes on?”

       “Wait and find out.”

       “You might catch cold.”

       “I might catch my next twenty boyfriends. I’ll save a few for you. You can experiment.”

       “Yeah, I could. I could chop them up, mix up the pieces, sew them back together, then run up a kite in a thunderstorm and see what happens.”

       “I wasn’t talking about that kind of experimenting.”

       “You’re no fun.”

       “Should I shower before we crash?” asked Jane. “I smell like smoke.”

       “Shower in the morning, so we can fight over the hot water like real sisters,” said Daria, checking her teeth in the mirror for foreign particles.

       “Great.”

       It was almost midnight when they went to Daria’s room, opened their sleeping bags, spread them out, side by side, across the room from the bed. Daria took off her boots and socks, took a nightshirt from a drawer, pulled off her pants and T-shirt, and pulled the nightshirt on. She left her clothes in a pile in the far side of the room, below the ceiling-mounted TV.

       She turned around to see Jane, wearing only red panties, looking at the CD collection again. Daria noticed that the tattoos on Jane’s back went all the way down to the bottom of her butt and partway down the tops of her thighs. She blinked and made herself look somewhere else.

       “Wish I had an iPod,” said Jane. “Maybe when the price comes down to ten bucks each.”

       “I don’t have one, either.” Daria sat on her bed. “You sleepy?”

       “No.”

       Jane put on her T-shirt and they went downstairs to the kitchen again. The corn chips and salsa disappeared next.

       “I liked this guy once at Highland High School,” said Daria, talking to the bowl of salsa before her. “Before ever’thing happened. I think he liked me. I dunno what happened to him. He wasn’t hurt in the shootin’, but I think I heard his family moved ‘way right after.”

       “What was he like?” Jane ate a corn chip.

       “He was okay. He was kinda... cute.” Daria turned red again.

       “I can’t believe you said that word.”

       “Mmm.”

       “You think Trent’s cute?”

       “I...” Daria quickly filled her mouth with chips. Her blush spread down to her shoulders.

       They went outside for a last smoke, went back upstairs, then sat on Daria’s bed and talked about school and teachers and classes. Sometime after one a.m., they got into their sleeping bags. Jane took off her shirt before she did. Daria turned off the lights and felt her way back to her bag. They lay on their stomachs, clutching their pillows under their chins, and watched distant headlights illuminate the curtains on Daria’s windows.

       “You scare me a little,” said Daria in the darkness.

       “I do?” said Jane.

       “You don’t—it’s like you don’t have any bound’ries. You just... it’s like there’s no separation ‘tween you and anyone else, you live so large. You’re like the whole world, like ever’thing. I live so small, ever’thing’s kept inside little boxes inside me, little boxes I have to label and organize just to get through the day. My whole life’s in these little boxes, compartmentalized, filed away, but you... sometimes I feel like my bound’ries break down when I’m with you, and that scares me. I don’t want to lose control again. I don’t want to do what I did anymore. You scare me like that, but I don’t want you to go away.”

       “I won’t.”

       “Good. I’m not very... I’m like my dad, really. Not many people liked me in Highland. No one really did, even before. M’ not good with others. Can’t put up with them. Rant ‘bout ever’thing. Can’t make anythin’ work anymore. Used to be smart.”

       “I like you fine.”

       “Wish I could go back, build a time machine, fix ever’thing.”

       “Take me with you when you go.”

       “Okay. I’m sorry. I’ll drop it. Tired of cryin’ over it tonight. Tired of ever’thing.” A long pause passed before Daria said, “I have to pick a extercurric’lar Monday. School’s makin’ me do it. I’d tell ‘em to stuff it, but don’t think I can afford to, anymore.”

       “Morris wants me to run, but I don’t have a guardian.”

       “Why can’t Morris be your guardian?”

       “She’s too busy. Mrs. Sullivan can’t, either. She’s got other clients.”

       “Heather prob’ly has classes.”

       “I could ask anyway.”

       “I could pay her. Counts as a ‘mergency.”

       “Your mom will go ballistic if she finds out.”

       “If,” said Daria.

       “Couldn’t hurt to ask.”

       “Guess not. Got nowhere else to go after school, anyway.”

       “Maybe you could be Morris’s aide. Use the stopwatch, haul around the snacks, all that. That’d count as an extracurricular. She’s got a lot of pull there.”

       “I guess. Need sunscreen, though. I burn easy.”

       “One more thing: you can’t smoke around Ms. Morris. She will go nuclear like you wouldn’t believe.”

       “Shit. Guess she would. Should never’ve started.”

       “Everyone says that. I need to stop, too. Maybe it’s for the best.”

       “Won’t be easy. Cigarette companies been puttin’ more nicotine in for years. It’ll be a bitch to quit. I can already feel it.”

       “Can we get patches or that gum?”

       “Don’t think so. Underage.”

       “Shit. Figures.”

       “I’ll ask Mom anyway. Who knows.”

       Nothing was said for a long while. Daria tried to sleep. She tossed and turned, then finally fluffed her pillow.

       “I’m awake,” said Jane in the dark. “Time is it?”

       “Dunno. Can’t sleep. Thinkin’ too much.”

       “What’d help?”

       “Dunno.” A sigh. “Used to read when I couldn’t sleep.”

       “Turn on the light.”

       “Don’t want to.”

       Daria heard movement in Jane’s direction, then felt a bump on the side of her sleeping bag. She reached over and found Jane’s hand. She held it. “Thank’ee,” she whispered.

       Jane waited until Daria’s breathing became soft and slow, then pulled back her hand. “‘Night, amiga,” she whispered, then she closed her eyes, too.

 

 

 

 

XI

 

 

       The remainder of the weekend passed pleasantly enough, but Jane’s departure Sunday afternoon and the waking torment of Monday morning came all too quickly. Desperate to select a halfway acceptable extracurricular activity before a completely unacceptable one was chosen for her by the school administration, Daria (following the advice of W. C. Fields) took the bull by the tail and faced the situation, choosing what appeared to be the least of many potential evils.

       Fifteen minutes after school ended, she had reason to wonder about her judgment as she struggled to haul an overloaded hand trolley toward the running track that encircled the gridiron at the high school’s football field. She had been outdoors only five minutes, but her school-issued blue sweat suit had large pit stains and her hair was plastered to her sweat-streaked face. She missed her smokes and was in a dark mood.

       “Get the lead out!” shouted Ms. Morris, wearing an identical blue sweat suit and glancing back at Daria from twenty yards ahead. She then turned to talk with Jane Lane, who wore a tracksuit and walked at the coach’s side. Other track athletes encircled the pair, none of them falling back as far as Daria.

       “Need a hand?” said a male voice behind Daria. “I can pull that till we get to the track.”

       Daria turned, sweating stinging her eyes. A tall young man in a blue security uniform and duckbilled cap was striding up on her right. He had thick wavy brown hair and a prominent chin. In a vague way, he reminded Daria of her father.

       “Thanks,” she said grimly, eyes front again, “but Morris’ll get mad if I don’t pull this myself.”

       “Understood,” said the guard. “Whatcha got on there?”

       “Water cooler and snacks for the track team,” Daria replied. “I have to guard it from the football players.”

       The security guard chuckled, only to be interrupted when his radio crackled. “Stalano, what’s your twenty?” said a woman’s voice.

       He pulled the radio from his belt and held it to his mouth. “Almost to the football field,” he said.

       “Copy, I see you on cam fifteen now,” said the radio. “Out.”

       “Out.” He put it back on his belt with his stun pistol, plastic handcuffs, and nightstick. “Well,” he went on, “if you need help, let me know.”

       “Thanks.” Daria was not in the mood to talk, but she did have a few questions to cover now that fate had put Trent’s old classmate, Curtis Stalano, at her disposal. She suspected she already knew the answer to the first question. Li assigned him here to keep an eye on Jane and me—Jane so she can run, me for the obvious reason. Couldn’t work it out for Heather to do it, as she had to work and study weekday afternoons, so—

       “How’d you get assigned to guard track practice?” she said.

       “Not just track practice,” the guard said, scanning the bleachers. “Ms. Li wants everyone to be safe. This is just part of my rounds.”

       Baloney. You’re standing next to ME. “Good for you,” said Daria. “No rival track stars will ever hit our runners on the knees.”

       “Say what?” asked Curtis, looking concerned. “Who’s gonna do what?”

       Daria sighed. “It was a joke. Some Olympic ice skater a few years ago hired someone to hit her main rival in the knee with a club. Didn’t work.”

       “No shit.” Curtis shook his head. “That’s crazy.”

       “It’s a crazy world,” said Daria, who then rolled her eyes. That was lame. Can’t believe I said that.

       “Sure is. You’re, uh, Darlene, right?”

       Didn’t Ms. Li go over this with you? “Daria.”

       “Daria, yeah, sorry. I’m bad with names.”

       Let’s hope not. “You’re Curtis Stalano?”

       “Uh, yeah, that’s me.”

       “I heard of you. Jane Lane said that you graduated with her brother Trent three years ago.”

       “Trent Lane, yeah. Trent and I didn’t hang out much, but I remember him. He hung around with that other guy, um, Jesse, Jesse Moreno. He was a stoner, Jesse was. Looked and talked like one, anyway. Trent was all right, though. I think they had a band for a while.”

       Carefully now. “Who else was in your class?”

       “Uh, lessee, well, Tommy Sherman, of course—he got killed the other day in the war—and Carl Fishbein, he was one of my friends, and Jessica Landry, Liz’beth Ann Cotes, dated her a couple times—”

       There was little time left, as they had almost reached the track. “What was Tommy Sherman like?” Daria asked.

       Curtis blew out his breath and shook his head. “I didn’t really hang out with him. He was a jock. Liked to party a lot. Full of himself.”

       “Why’d he have to leave school before he grad—”

       “Morgendorffer!” shouted Ms. Morris. “I need you over here right now!

       Daria picked up her speed to a trot until she stopped outside the dense circle of runners surrounding the coach, trying not to pant too loudly. Her fogged-over glasses were sliding off her nose. Morris gave a quick pep talk, then sent the runners off to do warm-up jogs and stretches. “Set up the cooler on the bench here,” said Morris to Daria. “No one gets snacks until I say so. You can pass out water cups, but pick up after everyone if they miss the trash can. And keep the damn helmet-heads out of our stuff.”

       “What if they just take our stuff no matter what I do?” Daria asked, clearly seeing this outcome in the near future.

       “Don’t let ‘em,” said Morris, and she left to confer with an assistant coach.

       Daria set up the cooler, then stored the cups and snacks under the bench and sat above it. She became paranoid that the jocks would sneak the snack box out from under the bench, so she finally wound up wedging it sideways below her seat while sitting astride the bench with her feet to either side, preventing anyone from pulling the box out. The back of the box pressed against the bench’s legs at one end, where she sat, making it relatively secure. She held a bagged stack of paper cups and passed them out as needed.

       Wish I could listen to music out here, she grumbled to herself. Good thing it’s cloudy, since I forgot my sunscreen. Should’ve asked Morris for some, but she’d probably call me a baby. Not that it matters. I hate it out here. I can’t believe I actually signed up to do this. Whatever happened to the old me, the one that never took crap from anyone about stuff like this, the one who stood up for her principles? That’s not exactly true, though, now that I think about it. Mom did make me write that fashion column for the Highland school paper until everything went to hell. I wasn’t planning on ever letting that happen to me again. Why the fuck am I here, anyway?

       “Hey, amiga,” said Jane, walking up from behind. “Got a cup?”

       “You haven’t even started runnin’ yet,” Daria muttered, handing a cup over.

       “Got to stay hydrated,” said Jane. “You don’t look red as a lobster, by the way. Wet as one, but not red as one. Love that little yellow racing stripe on your sleeves and pants.”

       “Fashion’s my middle name,” said Daria glumly. “How long’re we gonna be out here in Purgatory, again?”

       Jane gulped down a cup of water. “Till track season’s over.”

       “When’s that?”

       “When school’s out in May.”

       Crap. “Crap.”

       “I’ll be over to talk when I can,” said Jane. “Pick a topic to get us started.”

       “Why was I so stupid as to volunteer for this?”

       “A topic with a little more meat on it, I mean. Oops, gotta go, that’s Morris’s whistle.” Jane ran off, her tattoos showing on her upper arms and thighs. Daria checked for football players, saw none nearby, and went over to pick up stray cups.

       “Trent’s in the Army now, isn’t he?” said Curtis, walking over.

       “Yep.” Daria finished throwing out the cups, then noticed much too late that Curtis had gotten into the snack box and was unwrapping a bag of Doritos. She sighed, then resealed the box and wedged it under the bench again, sitting above it once more.

       “I couldn’t do what he did,” Curtis said, munching chips. “Going to Iraq would scare me to death. People get killed over there all the time. Tommy got shot by a sniper there.”

       “He what?” asked Daria, looking up in surprise.

       Curtis nodded. “It was in Sunday’s paper. Taliban sniper shot him and got away.”

       What a small world. “He was in Afghanistan, I think.”

       “No, it was Iraq,” said Curtis knowingly. “Paper said it was Iraq.”

       Idiot. “Okay, whatever. I was going to ask you, what—”

       “Hey,” said a new voice. “You got any of those chocolate Hostess cupcakes?”

       Daria turned. It was Kevin from her Current Events class, one of the football players. “No cupcakes,” she said, “and these are for the track team.”

       “Football’s more important,” said Kevin, his hand out. “C’mon.”

       “No.” Daria glanced at Curtis to see if he would offer any support, but he was digging into his chip bag.

       Kevin walked up to Daria’s place on the bench and leaned down to pull out the snack box whether she wanted him to or not. She knew she couldn’t afford to struggle with him, as he’d surely win and she would surely get hurt or, worse, get into trouble. Unless—

       “Ouch!” she yelled, grabbing her right hand and cradling it as if it were newly injured.

       “What?” said Kevin, pulling back. “What happened? I didn’t do anything!”

       “Hey!” said Curtis, walking over. “Get the hell out of here, Kevin.”

       “I didn’t touch her!” Kevin shouted.

       Curtis advanced on Kevin, who retreated. “I didn’t touch her!” Kevin yelled as he went. “She’s lying!”

       Daria managed a good glare after Kevin, then looked down at her hand. How far have I fallen to pull a stunt like this? What choice did I really have, though?

       “You okay?” Curtis asked. He bent over, gently examined her hand, then let it go. “What’d he do?”

       “Shoved me out’ the way,” she said, too deep into her lie to stop now.

       “He won’t do it again,” said Curtis. “I’ll file a report with the office.”

       Oh, shit. Now Kevin’s in big trouble because of their zero-tolerance policy, and he’s going to get me back for it. “I’m okay,” she said hastily. “I’m not really hurt, just startled. I don’t want him to be mad at me, anyway.”

       Curtis appeared to consider this. “Don’t worry about it, then,” he said with a grin. “I’ll put a word in Morris’s ear. She’ll fix him, off the record.”

       Oh, man. What the hell. “Thanks.” She kept cradling her hand. It wouldn’t do to act like it was fine, now.

       “Kevin’s not all bad,” said Curtis, hands on his hips as he watched scrimmage practice. “Not real bright, but not bad, actually. Great quarterback.” He grinned. “You know how hunger affects a man.”

       “I suppose.”

       “He’s a lot nicer than Tommy Sherman used to be, for sure.”

       At last. “Tommy was pretty bad?”

       “He got in trouble a lot.” Curtis rubbed his mouth, watching a group of cheerleaders begin practicing on the sidelines. “He was up on charges a couple times, mostly third-degree assault, underage drinking, DUI. Charges got dismissed ‘cause his dad had a good lawyer. Then he came on to this girl a little too strong, and she was gonna file assault or rape charges against him. I don’t know if he really did anything to her, but it wouldn’t surprise me. They settled out of court. She got some money, I think, and he took off. I don’t know if joining the Army was part of the agreement or anything, but the Army used to be pretty desperate to recruit people, before they started giving out those big bonuses, so in he went. Trent wasn’t like that, though. He was a good dude.”

       Daria nodded. She let her right hand rest in her lap, glad that it wasn’t really injured again. The middle finger still ached in the mornings.

       “Trent was okay,” Curtis went on. “‘Tween you and me, Tommy was a big waste of space. Some people were pretty fond of him for helping Lawndale take the state championship before he left. He was real good at football, not so good at other stuff.”

       “You don’t sound like you liked him.”

       “Eh, I don’t like to kick around the dead, but I knew the girl he was involved with. I think Trent knew her, too. Named Monique, Monique McCall. I think she played guitar in the band Trent had for a while.” He exhaled, still watching the cheerleaders stretch. “I hope Tommy got to be a better person after he got in the Army. No hard feelings now that he’s dead, anyway. I better go walk my rounds.”

       “Okay. Hey, what happened to Monique?”

       “Moved away. Haven’t seen her since graduation. I’m off. Stay out of trouble.” Curtis grinned at her to show he didn’t mean it, then left in the direction of the cheerleaders.

       Daria thought about what Curtis had told her. Her dislike for Tommy Sherman deepened—not that it mattered, she told herself. Curtis was right, and so was Jane: Tommy was dead, why worry about him now? Tommy wasn’t a part of Daria’s past.

       But someone like Tommy had been.

       Asshole. Glad you got shot by a sniper. She shoved the topic out of her mind and forced it back into its box, then got up to throw out more trash. She wished she could wash her hands. She probably had germs by the trillions now. Next time, she’d have to bring rubber gloves and disinfectant. The annoyances and boredom of her new job would have been tolerable if she had had her CD player and a pack of cigarettes. She planned to find out if she could get nicotine gum, but she suspected it was not for sale to teenagers. That meant she would have to quit cold turkey if she couldn’t find another way around it. Damn. Did Trent smoke? She thought about this but doubted it. Trent looked like he was too smart to start smoking. I thought I was smart, too, and look where I am. She decided not to ask Jane. Better to keep some illusions when possible.

       She wondered if Trent had written an e-mail to her. They had not yet checked their e-mail accounts in computer lab. E-mail was usually written on Wednesdays during the last half of the class. P.E. would replace computer lab in January for second semester. Daria was not looking forward to that at all.

       Would Trent be alive by January? She didn’t remember much about western Iraq these days, but she knew the anti-American fighting was ferocious there. Trent said he was delivering fuel, so he was probably driving a gasoline tanker. That was bad. Even thinking about it made Daria’s stomach hurt from nervousness. How must Jane feel, then? What a lousy war. She got mad at herself then for moping about an Army guy she’d never met, stationed halfway around the planet. He had looked so cool in the picture, though. Maybe the print had been bad and he didn’t look so cool in real life. What then?

       “God,” she groaned aloud, “shut the fuck up, Daria.” She looked around. Jane and a few other female runners were crouching at the starting line. Morris shouted, and the runners took off. She watched as the runners approached, shading her eyes from the sun.

       Jane was in the lead. Without so much as a side glance, Jane rocketed by with every other runner in her wake—and she was still pulling away. Whoa, thought Daria in astonishment. She wondered if Jane exercised a lot at LYRE. Smoking didn’t seem to slow her down, but Jane didn’t smoke a third as often as Daria did. Quitting would be easier for her. Quitting, in fact, looked inevitable for Jane, but not for Daria. She could easily see herself smoking for the rest of her life, until lung cancer or something equally ugly and painful brought her down.

       Which was more or less the idea. A slow suicide, not a quick one. She could live with that.

       Jane crossed the finish line in first place to the enthusiastic cheers of her teammates. Morris called her aside for a talk. As Daria watched, she saw Jane glance in her direction, then look back at the coach, wiping her face and listening.

       Wonder what that was about, though Daria. Hope Morris isn’t making her stop seeing me. Jane’s the only good thing about this dump.

       “You say something?” called Curtis the security guard, walking back from the cheerleaders.

       “What?” said Daria, startled.

       “You were talking to yourself,” he said. “Anything wrong?”

       “Nah.” Daria felt her face get hot. “Bad habit.”

       “What’d you think of the service they’re having for Tommy this Friday?” said Curtis.

       “Oh.” Daria remembered the last period’s announcement from Ms. Li. “It’s at the end of the day in the auditorium. I think his funeral’s on Saturday.”

       “Yeah. What’d you think about that?”

       Why is he asking me? She shrugged. “Nothin’ much. Didn’t know him.”

       “Hmmm.” Curtis looked back at the main school buildings. “Think anyone will protest it?”

       “Protest it?” Daria gave the guard a strange look. “Don’t think so. Why’d anybody do that?”

       “Li was asking me about it. She gets ideas sometimes. Cautious, I guess.”

       Daria shrugged again without answering. She wasn’t going to give Curtis anything he could take back to the principal.

       “Okay, then.” Curtis turned back to the cheerleaders, who were watching one that Daria recognized as Brittany fiddling with a large boom box. “I’m gonna go make some more rounds, then.” He wandered off toward the cheerleaders once more.

       “Ride ‘em, cowboy,” Daria said under her breath. She looked back at the runners. A new group was preparing to start. Jane was sitting on a distant bench with a towel around her shoulders, talking with a runner guy. Daria thought his name was Ethan or Evan. Probably an old boyfriend. Daria wondered if Jane would ever get serious about a boy to dump her in favor of spending quality time getting laid. She hoped not. Without Jane, there was no point in doing anything.

       Guitar music echoed across the gridiron from the boom box. Two of the cheerleaders at the left and right ends of a diamond-shaped formation held American flags upright on short poles. Brittany picked up a wireless microphone and shouted over the music, “Okay, it’s halftime! Let’s give it up for our military men overseas! Go, America!

       Daria listened to the clash of hard rock thunder begin—and frowned. She knew this song from somewhere. Where had she heard it before? Back in Texas? Why did it disturb her?

       Two cheerleaders began dancing to the pounding beat, then four did, then all of them in synchrony. The ones not carrying flags were doing something with their hands, pointing at something. No, Daria realized—they had their thumbs up and index fingers out. Pantomime handguns.

       All the football players took a break to listen and watch. The singer started and the cheerleaders went into overdrive.

 

 

All you women who want a man of the street

But you don’t know which way you wanna turn,

Just keep a-coming, and put your hand out to me,

‘Cause I’m the one who’s gonna make you burn!

 

 

       “AC/DC,” said Daria in astonishment. “What the hell?”

 

 

I’m wanna take you down,

Ah, down, down, down,

So don’t you fool around—

I’m gonna pull it, pull it,

Pull the trigger—

 

Shoot to thrill, play to kill,

Too many women with too many pills, yeah!

Shoot to thrill, play to kill,

I got my gun at the ready, gonna fire at will, yeah!

 

 

       Daria could not believe her ears. It was “Shoot to Thrill.” One of the Highland shooters had told Daria it was his favorite song, when they were talking after class just a year ago. She remembered his AC/DC lightning-bolt T-shirt, gray in color, remembered a photo showing how the shooter looked sprawled on ground and soaked in his own blood. He had loved this song, and here it was.

       The cheerleaders shook their asses, pumped their arms, stamped their feet, aimed their fingers, and spun the flags in perfect time with the driving rhythm. They had been practicing this song a lot. Drained of coherent thought, Daria looked around the field. The second team of runners, all male, had already taken off and gone past her. She didn’t see Jane. The football players clapped to the music, some of them dancing and laughing. The team captain, the black guy everyone called Mike, was trying to get another scrimmage going, but without success.

       The cheerleaders danced.

 

 

I’m like evil, I get under your skin

Just like a bomb that’s ready to blow,

‘Cause I’m illegal, I got everything

That all you women might need to know.

 

I’m gonna take you down,

Yeah, down, down, down,

So don’t you fool around—

I’m gonna pull it, pull it,

Pull the trigger

 

 

       Daria flinched as the refrain began. She had felt a presence behind her. It frightened her half out of her mind because she knew no one was there; she had looked only seconds before. She remained motionless, her head cocked at a slight angle, stopped in the action of turning around. She heard only music echoing.

 

 

Pull the trigger!

Pull it!

Pull it, pull it,

Pull the trigger!

 

 

       She summoned her tattered courage and slowly turned around. No one was there. She was alone. She could still feel the presence. It was still behind her. She turned again. No one was there.

 

 

I got my gun at the ready, gonna fire at will,

‘Cause I shoot to thrill, and I’m ready to kill,

And I can’t get enough, and I can’t get the thrill,

‘Cause I shoot to thrill,

Play to kill

 

 

       She forced herself to stop looking. People would see her and think she was crazy. She felt the presence close by but tried to ignore it. A long drum and guitar riff began in the song, punctuated by occasional shouts from the singer. She made herself sit down on the bench.

       “Nobody’s here,” she said aloud, unaware she was talking. “It’s just me, and I’m fine. Ever’thing’ll be fine, no need to worry ‘bout it. S’ just that guy from AC/DC singing about his wiener like it’s a gun, that’s all. Don’t need to act a fool over it. Don’t mean nothin’. Don’t use double negatives, Daria. Sorry.”

       The song climaxed as singer and guitars shrieked. Cheerleaders whirled flags and fired their hand-guns.

 

 

Shoot ya!

Shoot ya!

Shoot ya!

Shoot ya down!

Shoot ya!

Shoot ya!

Shoot ya down!

 

 

       Someone else was singing, her voice on the edge of audibility, behind Daria. Daria turned. No one was there.

       Cassandra.

       She got up.

       “Don’t run,” she said, voice strained, looking hard now at the empty air. “She’s not here. M’ not afraid. It’s okay.” She put her arms around herself. It was not cold out. She made herself sit down again, but stood up immediately, frightened that someone would touch her on the back. A few football players were looking at her instead of the cheerleaders.

       I can’t run. I can’t escape. She gave up. “M’ sorry,” she said, sitting down again. “M’ sorry. I didn’t mean for it to happen. I don’t know what to do. It was an accident. It was my fault, but I don’t know what to do.” She felt the presence behind her, almost touching her. “What’d you want me to do? What can I do? What—”

       The music stopped. She shivered violently, then hunched over with her head down.

       She was alone again. The world returned to normal.

       Daria scratched her arms, then sat up straight and calm as if nothing had happened.

       Jane ran once more that afternoon, winning with ease. They talked afterward in the locker room as they undressed and showered, the first time they had done that at school. It was hard not to peek at Jane, though Daria tried. She thought of a Ray Bradbury book she had read long ago and imagined the cover revised, with new artwork: The Illustrated Jane. Jane caught her looking and grinned. “You need a tattoo!” she shouted over the spray. “A heart with Trent’s name on it!”

       “With your name on my ass!”

       “Yeah, works for me!”

       Afterward, Daria borrowed the phone in Coach Morris’s office to call her mother’s legal secretary, Marianne, to see if she could drive the two girls home and telecommute from there until she took Jane back to LYRE.

       “You’re mom’s been trying to call you!” Marianne exclaimed. “Where are you?”

       “At school,” said Daria irritably. “I told her I might have to stay after to—” She stopped, hearing her mother’s voice in the background.

       The other phone changed hands. “Daria?” her mother snapped. “Where the hell have you been?”

       “At school, Mom, doin’ my extercurric’lar!”

       “Doing what?

       Daria’s temper eroded. “I’m helpin’ out with things after school! Jane and I need a ride home now!”

       “Listen to me. Have you talked to your father lately?”

       Daria made a face. “What? What’s that got to do with anythin’?”

       “I’ve been trying to contact him through our lawyers, but his attorney can’t get hold of him. When did you talk with him last? Was he going anywhere?”

       “I don’t know! I haven’t talked to him in over a week!” Quinn’s the one who calls him. I should call him, too. It’s been too long. What’s the problem getting him?

       “Well, if you do get in touch with him, have him call his attorney so we can get this thing settled out. I’m going to be late coming home.”

       “Mom, Jane and I need to get to the house!”

       “Then walk!” Helen said in exasperation.

       “No, Mom! Jane needs to... oh, forget it! Put Marianne back on, would you?”

       They waited for Marianne’s arrival across the street from the school’s north entrance. Daria felt she could not get her cigarette lit fast enough. Jane borrowed a couple of puffs, but no more.

       “Did you lose something at the track?” Jane asked.

       “No,” said Daria, puzzled. “Why?”

       “You kept turning around, looking for something.”

       “Huh.” Daria shrugged. “Nah, just bored.”

       “Hmmm. You think Marianne would take us by the library on the way home?”

       “What? Why? Oh, yeah. Forgot.”

       “You forgot?” Jane looked indignant. “Well, don’t I feel special now.”

       Daria shook her head and crushed out her cigarette butt. “After today, I think I already know what I’d be lookin’ at on your old website.”

       “Maybe so, but I still haven’t seen your essay.”

       Daria flinched. She turned to look behind her. She had no idea why she did that, as she had had no premonition of anyone else being near her.

       “You’re doing it again,” said Jane. She sounded more curious than amused.

       “Um, nah, thought I heard somethin’. Let’s just go home today. Kinda hungry.”

       Jane nodded thoughtfully. “Sure, amiga. Another time?”

       “Yeah.” Daria realized she was looking everywhere but at Jane. She rubbed her face. “Just tired,” she said. “Long day.” She reached down into her left boot for another cigarette.

       “Want me to go back to LYRE, you take a break?”

       “Nah, not that. Just... watch some TV. Hang out together.”

       “Love to.”

       Marianne picked them up in her white Neon ten minutes later and drove them to Daria’s house. Quinn met the three of them at the door, cell phone in hand, tears streaming down her red face.

       “They found Daddy,” she said. She began to cry.

 

 

 

 

XII

 

 

       A half-hour later, Marianne put away her cell phone and walked into the kitchen from the living room. She ran a hand over her styled blonde hair, putting loose strands back into place. “I got through to your mom,” she said to Quinn, huddled around the kitchen table with Daria and Jane.

       Daria looked up and frowned as she pressed Quinn’s cell phone to her ear, motioning for silence. Quinn got up from the table and guided Marianne to the far corner of the kitchen. “She comin’ home yet?” Quinn asked. Her face was strained but the tears were gone.

       “Not yet,” said Marianne. “She’s trying to call the hospital from her office, but they’re not giving her any information because of privacy concerns. She... she’s not taking that well, but she’s still trying to get through. Did Daria find out anything about your father?”

       “Not much.” Quinn glanced back at her sister and stuck her hands in her pants pockets. “She was talkin’ to a lady in admissions, but I think she’s on hold now.”

       “No, she isn’t,” said Daria with finality, thumbing off the phone. “They won’t talk to me.” She gently shoved the cell phone away from her. “I think it’s ‘cause of me.”

       “What do you mean, it’s because of you?” asked Marianne.

       Daria tensed and looked away.

       “Can I try?” Quinn asked quickly.

       Daria shrugged and waved at the phone. “All yours.”

       Quinn collected the cell phone and left the room in a hurry. Jane sat back in her chair, solemnly watching her best friend.

       Looking nervous, Marianne checked her watch. “I have to leave in twenty minutes,” she said. “I wish I could stay longer, but—well, I guess if you need me, I could—”

       “We’re fine,” said Daria woodenly. “Mom’ll get here soon.”

       “I wish I could stay, too,” said Jane, “but if she’s leaving, I’d better catch a ride back to—”

       “S’ all right,” said Daria. “Do what you gotta do.”

       Jane sighed and scratched at the tabletop with a fingernail.

       “That was such a miracle,” said Marianne, trying to brighten things. “If your sister hadn’t called—”

       “I know,” said Daria.

       “—your father’s office and gotten his boss to go look for him, well—”

       “I know.” Daria gave Marianne a narrow gaze, then looked away again.

       “I’ll go see how Quinn’s doing,” said Marianne, taking the hint.

       Jane turned to make sure Marianne was gone before she spoke. “I’ll call you later, if that’s okay.”

       “Sure.” Daria rubbed her face, then looked down at her lap.

       Jane sat back and waited. It took a couple of minutes.

       “Quinn did it again,” muttered Daria. “Her and that fuckin’ guardian angel of hers.” She shook her head slowly from side to side.

       “What exactly happened?” said Jane. “I didn’t catch the whole—”

       “Quinn’s been callin’ Dad on his private office line ever’ day,” said Daria. “I didn’t know she even had the number. She’s been tellin’ him ever’thing that’s been goin’ on. I knew she was callin’ him, but I didn’t know she was callin’ him all the damn time.”

       “Is that so bad?” asked Jane, arms crossed over her chest.

       “It’s just... hell, I should’ve been callin’ him, too. Least I shoulda called him once a week or somethin’. I haven’t talked to him since we moved here two weeks ago. Quinn’s been tellin’ me all the news ‘bout what Dad’s doing and ever’thing, ‘stead of me talkin’ to him. I just let her do it. Christ, listen to me, I sound just like Trent, don’t I? Shoulda done this, shoulda done that, shoulda called him but I didn’t. Such an idiot.”

       “How has Quinn been calling your dad? Wouldn’t your mom know about it, or does she—”

       “Quinn’s got a phone card with an eight-hundred number, so the call won’t show up on the phone bill.” Daria’s face tightened. “She said Dad gave it to her. Got like a thousand minutes on it or somethin’.”

       “Oh. Did your dad give you—”

       No, ‘cause I’m not the one he trusts, obviously!” Daria’s face contorted with rage—then she forced herself to take a deep breath and massaged her forehead, shielding her face with her hands. “Sorry. Kinda tense.”

       “I would be, too,” said Jane. She waited a beat. “So, what happened when she called?”

       “He wasn’t at his desk. Quinn wanted to tell him I had my first extercurric’lar, like that was so fuckin’ special or somethin’, but one of his co-workers picked up his phone and didn’t know where he was. Quinn tried callin’ a few more times, then she called one of the company’s toll-free numbers and got his boss and sweet-talked him into lookin’ for Dad, and that’s when they found him in the men’s room on the floor. They didn’t know how long he’d been there. They said he was breathin’ on his own, but he looked real bad. They called the amb’lance and took him to Highland General.”

       “Heart attack?”

       “Could be. Sounds like it, but I dunno.” Daria gazed at the tabletop with an empty expression. “Quinn the heroine. She always gets it done.”

       Jane cleared her throat. “You said they wouldn’t give you any information because—”

       “‘Cause of me. ‘Least I think so. They prob’ly know ‘bout me. Ever’one there does.” Daria bit her lower lip. “I had to give ‘em my name. Didn’t think to lie ‘bout it.”

       “You mean, they know about...” Jane let it trail off.

       Daria nodded without looking up. “Lawyers wouldn’t let ‘em put my name in the papers or on TV or anythin’, but they all know ‘bout me anyway, ‘cause of what happened. Small town, word gets ‘round.” She shook her head again. “They all know Quinn, too. They must think we’re angel and devil. Can’t imagine what they say ‘bout us. Prob’ly wanna put us on Jerry Springer.

       “Think your mom will take you and Quinn back to Highland to see your dad?”

       “No.” Daria’s face hardened. “Mom prob’ly won’t take us out of school now that we just started, but even if she did, I prob’ly can’t go back anyway. They don’t have an injunction to keep me from comin’ back, but they all hate me there, ever’ last one. Can’t blame ‘em. Mom said it wasn’t in my best interests, as she put it, to ever see that town again, ‘cept in a magazine. S’pose I could go anyway, but I think she’s right. I can’t go back without causin’ real problems, gettin’ ever’one all fired up again ‘bout what happened, ‘cause sure as shit, someone’ll recognize me and God only knows what’ll—”

       Marianne appeared in the doorway. “Quinn got through!” she said, motioning the girls to follow her. “She’s talking to a nurse!”

       Daria rolled her eyes and got up with an exasperated look. Jane went at her side.

       Quinn was on the loveseat in the living room, writing on the back of a magazine with a pen. “What room is he in?” she said to her cell phone. “What’s the number there? Okay.” She wrote something down. “Okay, now, what’s he got? What’d the doctors say?” She paused, concentrating. “He had an infraction?” she said.

       “Infarction?” said Daria, stepping closer. “Myocardial infarction?”

       “Myocard—yeah, that’s it? What is that?”

       “That’s a heart attack,” said Daria. “Ask ‘em if there’s any damage to his heart.”

       “Wait—what?” Quinn appeared confused by what the nurse was saying. She turned to Daria and thrust the cell phone at her. “I can’t understand what she’s sayin’! Can you talk to her, please?”

       Daria moved over quickly and took the phone. “A myocardial infarction?” she asked the nurse. She took the pen from Quinn and sat beside her sister on the loveseat, then picked up the magazine on which Quinn had been making notes. After a moment, she began writing down notes of her own. “His heart, what happened to his heart?” She paused a long moment, listening. “He what?” she finally said, her eyes growing big. She was silent for an even longer time.

       Jane looked around the room, rubbing her arms. She glanced at Marianne, who stood nearby with her hands clasped before her, eyes closed, lips moving. “Can’t hurt,” Jane muttered as she looked back at Daria.

       “So, what’s that mean?” said Daria to the phone. “What’re they gonna have to do?” A strange expression crossed her face, a mixture of fear and disbelief. She wrote something down.

       Quinn saw the note and gasped, then clamped a hand over her mouth and began to cry. Marianne went over and put her hands on Quinn’s shoulders for comfort.

       “Do they have a donor?” asked Daria. “Well, how long’s it gonna be before you know? Where is he on the list?”

       “Oh, my God!” Marianne was reading Daria’s last note. Quinn pulled free of Marianne, got up from the couch, weaved rapidly around the furniture, then fled upstairs, sobbing aloud.

       “Is he stable right now?” asked Daria, still writing. “Can he talk? He’s on a ventilator? Is he conscious?” She made more notes. “So, he wrote down that we could call ‘bout him? Well, I’m... yeah, I’m her sister. He said we two were okay, but not... yeah, I see. Can you tell me anythin’ else? Okay, listen, we gotta call you back later to find out more ‘bout how he’s doin’. I know you got that privacy thing... yeah, I know, I know, whatever... well, can we get some kind of code or PIN number or somethin’ from you so we can talk to you again? His social? I don’t... oh, she has it? All right, well, if she’s got it, that’s fine. Did she have that when she called there? What? Oh, you did? Okay. I didn’t know y’all did that. No, she’s not here. She... she had to leave. She’s okay, just needed to take a walk. So, the only people who can call there and get any information is my sister and me, right? Okay. Is he in any pain?”

       Marianne crossed herself, muttering under her breath.

       “All right,” said Daria, her tone indicating she was winding down. “So, he’s stable right now, and you’re gonna keep him in ICU for the night. Is he on some kind of heart machine? Oh. Okay. That like a pacemaker? Okay. Listen, can you give him a message from my sister and me? Can you write it down? Okay. I want you to tell him that Quinn and I know what’s happenin’ with him, and we’re gonna keep callin’ down there to see how he’s doin’. I don’t know if we can get there real soon. We live with our mom outside Baltimore, and things are kinda complicated right now ‘tween Mom and him. Yeah. They’re not yet, but it’s prob’ly comin’ in a few more months. Yeah. Well, he doesn’t need any more stress than he’s got right now. Just tell him... tell him...”

       Daria’s voice cracked, but she forced herself on. “Tell him we love him and we’re thinkin’ ‘bout him, and we’ll call him back as soon as we can, okay? Write that down and tell him. He can hear you, right? Well, I didn’t know, I’m not there. Okay. Okay, right. Thank’ee. Right. Bye.”

       Daria lowered the cell phone and thumbed it off, dropped it on the coffee table, then flopped back on the loveseat, drained.

       “Heart transplant?” said Jane, stunned.

       “It’s all they can do,” said Daria dully. “They’re fixin’ to keep him on a machine to keep what’s left of his heart goin’. Heart attack did too much damage. He must not’ve been on the floor very long, though, ‘cause they said he was really bad off, wouldn’a lived long if Quinn hadn’t called and got ever’one fired up when she did.” She rubbed her eyes under her glasses. “Quinn saved him, she really did. They said his co-workers were usin’ CPR on him, but he wasn’t conscious, then he died a couple times on the operatin’ table in the ER till they got him on the machine.”

       “Holy shit.”

       “Yeah, that’s what I was thinkin’.”

       Jane looked uneasy. “Did it... I don’t know how to say this, but did it affect his mind, being out so long?”

       Daria shook her head. “Nah, I don’t think so,” she said softly. “They said he was alert and writin’ stuff down a few minutes ago. Couldn’t talk to him, ‘cause they had doctors with him, runnin’ tests.”

       “I can stay a little longer, if you need,” said Marianne in a small voice.

       “I think you’re going to have to run me back to LYRE,” said Jane. “I can’t stay any longer without getting into trouble.”

       “All right, better do it, then.” Daria got up and walked the two of them to the front door. Jane turned and reached for Daria before she left. Daria hugged her without hesitation, pressing her face against Jane’s shoulder.

       “I’ll call,” Jane whispered.

       “Thank’ee,” Daria whispered back.

       “I love you,” said Jane.

       There was a long pause, but no break in the intensity of Daria’s hug.

       “Love you, too,” Daria whispered so only Jane could hear. She gave Jane a last squeeze, then let her go. She watched as Marianne drove her best friend away. Then she shut the front door and stared at the varnished wood of the door from close up, thinking about nothing at all. She then turned and went upstairs.

       “Quinn?” She knocked at her sister’s bedroom door. “Can I come in?”

       After a long moment, someone shuffled to the door and unlocked it. Daria opened the door gently. Her face wet and red, Quinn was wiping her eyes with the palms of her hands.

       Just do it, get it over with. “You saved his life,” she said.

       Quinn burst into tears. Daria held her. She made no sound as she wept, too.

       An hour later, cried out and exhausted, Daria went downstairs to the kitchen. She looked in the refrigerator but saw nothing she wanted to eat. She went back in the living room and picked up Quinn’s cell phone to call Highland General again.

       She heard the garage door rumble open.

       Daria snapped the phone shut and dropped it in a pants pocket, then sat down on the loveseat so she could see the doorway into the kitchen.

       A heavy engine made the walls vibrate until it shut off. After a pause, the door to the garage opened, then hard heels clicked over the kitchen floor and the door slammed shut. “Girls?” called Helen Morgendorffer in her business voice.

       “In here,” said Daria.

       Her mother came into the living room with quick strides, dropping her briefcase on the couch. “Damn hospital admin wouldn’t tell me a thing,” she grumbled, taking off her earrings. “Jake set it up so I can’t find out anything at all about what’s going on. Damn HIPAA regulations!” Her voice rose to a shout as she turned to face Daria. “I’m still his wife! They’re supposed to tell me what’s happening with him!”

       “He had a heart attack,” said Daria in an even tone. “They gotta get a transplant for him in the next few days, or he might die.”

       Helen stared at her daughter in wide-eyed shock. “What?” she shrieked. “They what? Where the hell did you hear that?

       “Quinn got through to the hospital, and I talked to ‘em.”

       Helen eyes got wider. “Quinn called the hospital and got through?”

       “Yep.”

       How?

       “Dad said he’d only talk to Quinn or me, no one else. He iden’ified Quinn by her voice when she called, and he gave the staff the go-ahead to tell us what was happenin’.”

       Helen’s shock was replaced by fury. “Why the hell isn’t he talking to me? I’m his wife! He should be talking to me!

       Daria raised her chin. “He don’t wanna talk to you.”

       “Stop talking like a hick!” Helen shouted. “You could use proper English if you halfway tried!”

       Daria shrugged. “I am a hick,” she said. “I don’t much care how I talk anymore.”

       “Don’t talk like that!” Helen snapped, then opened her briefcase and fumbled inside. “What did they tell you about his condition?”

       “He’s gonna die in the next few days ‘less they get him a new heart.”

       “I can’t believe it,” said her mother at a lower volume, still hunting in her briefcase. “I cannot fucking believe it. Are they getting him one?”

       “They’re checkin’ on it.”

       Helen pushed the briefcase aside without locating the object of her search. “Call them back and let me talk to his doctor.”

       “Doctor won’t talk to you. Dad said the staff could only talk to—”

       “I don’t give a shit what he said! Call the hospital back right now!

       Daria got up and walked out of the living room. “Call him yourself,” she said, heading up the stairs.

       “Daria! Daria!

       She went to her room and locked the door, but only wandered around the room several times, breathing heavily. “She don’t understand,” she snarled. “She don’t get it. She’s gettin’ a divorce, what the fuck does she s’pect’s gonna happen? This is stupid. She’s stupid. She can’t get what she wants just by yellin’ at it. God fuckin’ damn her.”

       She walked in a circle, then back and forth, until she got a black pen and a sheet of notebook paper, unlocked the door, and went back downstairs.

       Her mother was standing by the plasma TV, her back to the stairs, listening to her cell phone.

       “Mom,” she said, “you gotta tell me what you need to know.”

       “I can handle this,” Helen said without turning around.

       “Hospital’s not gonna tell you anythin’, Mom, ‘cause of the privacy act.”

       “I know what HIPAA is, Daria!”

       “Then you know you gotta go through me.”

       Helen whirled around. “Why in God’s name isn’t he talking to me?

       “‘Cause you’re divorcin’ him and we’re not.”

       Helen drew back, then leaned forward with her face in Daria’s face. “He wanted the goddamned divorce, not me!” she screamed. “He walked out on me! I didn’t throw him out! He broke up the marriage, if you have to know! He did it!” She straightened, then snapped her cell phone shut. “Screw it. I don’t need to know what happened. You deal with it, since you’ve got the in with him.” Her mother then walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table, facing the glass door and the wide strip of lawn up to the privacy fence. After a moment, she put her head in her hands.

       Daria stared after her, dumbfounded.

       “Twenty-two years,” said Helen into her hands. “Twenty-two years, two daughters, and he walks out. I like that. He walked out on me once before, just for a night, when you were little. We had an argument and he took off, slept in a hotel, then came home. I should’ve guessed that he’d do it again. Could’ve saved myself a lot of time and trouble.” She let her arms drop to the table and stared outside once more. “Should’ve known he’d do it again.”

       “Wh-what did you fight about?” Daria asked, frightened of the answer. A half-remembered memory began to surface—it was night, she was in her bed in their old Highland home, and she could hear her parents arguing in the other room—

       “The first time?” Helen sighed, then said, “Same thing we fought about the second time he left me. It was about you.”

       The world got very quiet and small.

       “Me?” gasped Daria in disbelief.

       “You,” said Helen, matter-of-factly. She seemed relieved to talk. “You were having trouble at Highland Elementary. You wouldn’t play with the other kids, you wouldn’t talk to anyone, you wouldn’t mind the teacher, all the usual, same thing that’s gone on with you every year since first grade. Since kindergarten, I think. Jake said I didn’t understand you. That was rich. I gave birth to you, and he said I don’t understand you. Well, I think now that maybe he was right. He always had a soft spot for you. Maybe he does understand you better. I sure as hell don’t.”

       She sniffed. “Anyway, we argued over what we should do about you, he left, he came back, we went on. And we were fighting about you when he left the second time, in July. We were trying to decide whether to stay in Highland or move. He was worried about getting another job that paid as well as his did, so he wanted to stay, even though that meant staying at that job he hated, with that boss he hated, and now it’s put him over the edge. I told him to quit, try his luck somewhere else, but he wouldn’t do it, oh no. Jake always knew better than I did. He stayed at that damn job and dug his own...”

       Helen got up from the table. She no longer looked angry, only tired. She walked toward Daria, who moved out of the doorway to the family room. “When you find out more about Jake’s condition, come upstairs and talk to me, if you would,” Helen said, not looking at her daughter. She passed Daria and headed for the stairs. “I have to call Mom, then Rita and Amy, then make some other calls. I’ll be in my room.” Her shoes thumped up the stairs. Her bedroom door closed quietly. All was quiet.

       Daria felt dizzy and put out a hand to steady herself. She stumbled, falling back against the family-room wall. The pen and paper fell from her hand.

       Me. It was me all the time.

       The family room appeared completely alien to her. She wasn’t sure she had ever been in that room before. She alternated between remembering everything that was happening and forgetting it, wondering who she was and what she was doing there, then knowing everything all at once. The truth always came back.

       It was me all the time. I destroyed my family. It was me who made Dad go away, not Mom—me who broke up their marriage.

       Her legs gave out. She sank to the floor, her back to the wall.

       It was me, and now I’ve killed Dad, too. He’s going to die because of me. How many more will I kill? How many more lives will I take? How long will it go on?

       She closed her eyes.

       Kill me instead, please. I beg you, any being who can, God or Satan or anyone, kill me, kill me now. Have mercy. I can’t do it. I pray to you, have mercy and destroy me. Make me into dust and wipe it away. Stop this pain.

       She felt a familiar presence nearby.

       It was not God.

       She flinched in terror, but she remained where she was on the floor. “Okay,” she whispered, refusing to open her eyes for fear of what she would see. “Even you. Take me. You win. I can’t go on. Just do it.”

       The moment drew out.

       Time went on.

       Nothing happened.

       Not yet. She knew the awful truth then. She was not ready to be taken yet. There was more to come.

       Her head fell against her chest. Her back slid down against the wall until she was lying on her side, as she imagined her father lay on the floor of the men’s room until he was discovered. His heart was damaged, on its last legs.

       Her heart was already dead.

       Not yet. Not yet.

 

 

 

 

XIII

 

 

        “Hey.”

       Stirred from her private pain, Daria blinked and looked up. Jane sat down in the seat in front of her in homeroom. “Didn’t see you outside this morning,” Jane said, keeping her voice down. “What’s new?”

       “Oh.” Daria pushed her glasses up on her nose with her left hand and took a deep breath. “Late gettin’ in. Called the hospital last night ‘bout eleven, but Dad was asleep. Nurse said they’re gonna keep him sedated to ease the stress on his heart. No word on a donor, though. They said he wasn’t high on the list yet, but they had hopes.”

       “You mean, hopes that—” Jane glanced around, then continued in an even lower voice “—someone would kick the bucket and make a heart available?”

       Daria nodded, sad faced. “No better way to put it, I reckon.” Wonder if Dad could use my heart. I’m not doing anything with it.

       “You don’t look like you slept at all.”

       “Didn’t much.” Daria took off her glasses and laid them on her desk, then rubbed her face hard with her left hand to fight off a yawn. She had missed her morning smoke and was trying not to be irritable. Her other hand ached abominably as well.

       Jane glanced down and noted that Daria’s right hand was resting in her lap, hidden by the top of the desk. “When do you find out anything more about your dad?” she asked, looking up.

       “Got permission from the office to call the hospital at lunchtime. Mom talked to Ms. Li.” Daria sought to move the questioning elsewhere. “How’re you doin’?”

       “Okay so far. I wanted to tell you, Ms. Morris talked to me yesterday during practice. She wants me to get as much training in after school as possible, now that security’s got someone to hang around and babysit me. There’s a track meet this Saturday at Oakwood, season opener.” She cleared her throat. “Practice is going to cut down on our after-school time at your place, if I agree to it. I could refuse, but then I think she’d throw me off the team.” She brushed a strand of hair back from her forehead. “If you’re still interested in being Morris’s aide, you know, you could... come along Saturday. If you want to, I mean. We could ride together on the bus, get in some quality time.”

       Daria grimaced, in part from annoyance and in part from pain. Don’t have as much time with you at the track as I’d thought, and now you’re asking me to blow my weekends, too? I dunno, this whole idea was stupid from the get-go. “Aren’t there other people you’d rather ride with?” she asked.

       “On the bus? No. Who did you mean?”

       “Ex-boyfriends, whatever. Anyone.”

       Jane gave Daria an odd look. “I’ll always have ex-boyfriends. I haven’t always had someone I could really talk to, though.” She gave Daria a closer look. “What’s wrong?”

       Daria shook her head. “Nuthin’.”

       “Your hand still hurt?”

       Frowning, Daria glanced down at her right hand again. “S’ okay. Don’t worry ‘bout it.”

       “Did you—” Jane broke off and shook her head. “Never mind. Talk later.”

       Daria grew tense. She did not want to talk later. She had no urge to share details of the argument with her mother and the dreadful revelations it brought—or the throbbing pain in her reddened right hand, courtesy of repeatedly punching the wall in her room the night before.

       Ms. Barch rapped on her desk at the front of the class, and all chances for further discussion thankfully ended. Announcements included word that Tommy Sherman’s body was already en route back to the United States from Afghanistan for burial the following weekend in Lawndale.

       “One good thing about that track meet Saturday,” whispered Jane. “You won’t have to worry about being pressured into attending the funeral.”

       True, thought Daria. It’d be better than telling everyone to fuck off. Can’t afford that. I’d rather have more time with Jane and the TV, but we have to take what little we can get, don’t we? Her bad humor began to lighten. Maybe the bus time will make up for the other crap, who knows. It’s not like I have a full social calendar keeping me from going out. I haven’t done anything but watch TV since I gave up reading. I can sit in my room alone, or... what the hell, I’ll give it a shot. I’ll go with Jane to her track meets, be the supportive friend. I don’t know how I’m gonna pick up stuff, though, with my hand fucked up like this. I can’t even make my fingers close. Guess I’ll have to grit my teeth and... use my other hand.

       “I’ll go,” she whispered.

       Jane turned around and gave her a brilliant smile. It made everything feel good for a little while.

       The next class was Spanish, which did not require Daria’s full attention as she knew the language well enough to fake interest. Then it was time for Great Literary Voyages with Mr. O’Neill. Daria took her seat by Jane, giving a sheet-covered table at the front of the room by the teacher’s desk barely more than a glance. Her stomach was tied in painful knots from worry over her father, her failure to eat breakfast, and a lack of nicotine. Her right hand hurt worse than her stomach, though. It was puffy and red and hurt no matter what she did, a bad sign. And Jane was looking at it with obvious concern, another bad sign. I don’t want to talk about it, period, not even to you, Jane.

       “Good morning!” said Mr. O’Neill, beaming like a fleshy jack-o-lantern. “Yesterday we talked about why certain great works of literature have been banned—go, Mister Galileo!—and why people sometimes fear and hate the written word so much that they’ll burn books and libraries, or even make reading illegal! Today, we have a special treat: each one of you will get the chance to actually read a banned book!”

       A chorus of loud groans broke out across the classroom.

       “Of course,” Mr. O’Neill continued, his smile slipping, “you will also have to write a report about—”

       The groans grew in number and volume.

       “Now, now, I suppose we can make it a short report!” he finished, his features clouded with anxiety.

       “A sentence,” suggested a shaggy-haired slacker in the back.

       “A short sentence!” called one of the football players.

       “‘This book sucked! The end!’” another clarified.

       The groans turned to cheers. Jane glanced to her left at Daria, who was examining her aching hand and paying no attention to the goings-on.

       “Okay, that was... clever, but we have a lot of exciting work to do today, so let’s get started!” Mr. O’Neill forced a smile as he walked over to the sheet-draped table and removed the covering with a flourish. Carefully stacked on the table were piles of paperback books of every size and color.

       Cries of dismay filled the air. “We have to read all those?” someone shouted.

       “No, no, not all of them!” said Mr. O’Neill in a soothing tone. “But each of you has to read at least one!”

       “I can’t believe he’s making us read!” groaned the student behind Daria.

       Daria caught Jane’s eye and shook her head in disgust. These people are beyond help.

       “Each of you is going to choose a banned book this morning,” O’Neill repeated, indicating the table. “These are selections from the American Library Association’s list of the top one hundred most-challenged books of the last decade. I’ll call you up row by row for each of you to look over the books and pick the one you most want to report on—I mean, most want to read for your own enjoyment. Well, both, really. We’ll start over on my left with Mike’s row—just come over and pick out one book each, then tell me which book you took and I’ll write it down. The reports are due in at the end of October. Lots of time to read, so start tonight!”

       As the first group of students got to their feet with resigned looks and headed for the table, Jane tossed a note on Daria’s desk. Daria pulled it over with her right hand, winced, then slowly opened it. The writing was in Jane’s all-capitals script.

 

 

CAN I DO ANYTHING TO HELP?

 

 

       A nice thought, but Daria shook her head as she wadded up the scrap. However, a thought overtook her and she hesitated, bit her lip in consideration, then unfolded the scrap as she felt for a pen in her jacket pocket. Mr. O’Neill was writing down the names of the students in his class on a chalkboard list. The class was abuzz with whispers and giggles. Jane watched her from the corner of her eye.

       Clutching the pen in her trembling left hand, Daria stared at the scrap of paper. What could she tell Jane that would be of any use? Dear Jane, I really fucked up my hand this time. Don’t get on me about it. Oh, and my mom says I destroyed the family and killed my dad—but enough about me. How are you? There was nothing to say. She almost wished Jane had never approached her that first day. Jane was hope, an unimaginable but wonderful hope that things would work out in time. She was hope in a way that Hope High School had never been. She was—

       Daria grimaced and lost her train of thought. The pain in her hand made it hard to focus. She carefully printed “LATER” on the scrap and gave it back to Jane.

       The Chocolate War,” said a guy at the banned-books table. He held up the book. “Anybody here like chocolate?”

       “Me!” shouted several girls. He tossed the book to one of them, then tossed copies to the other girls who had hands raised. Mr. O’Neill ignored the goings-on, concentrating on the class roster he was transferring to the board.

       Heather Has Two Mommies?” exclaimed another student, pointing at a book on the table. Laughter broke out across the room. “That is so gay!

       “Now, now—none of that. Please hurry and make your selections.” Mr. O’Neill sighed as he faced the board with chalk in hand. “Brittany’s row may come up and pick books.”

       “I’m looking for that big sex book by Madonna!” said a boy with a nose piercing. More laughter rang out.

       “Not all the ALA-listed banned books are on the table,” said Mr. O’Neill testily. “Just choose from what’s there in front of you, please.”

       “Oh!” cried Brittany, snatching up a book. “Forever! I love Judy Blume!”

       “Pick something you haven’t read before,” O’Neill admonished.

       “It’s okay! I haven’t read this one!” Brittany grinned and winked at the class, unseen by the teacher, then took her seat. Other students got up without being asked and pored over the offerings on the table in a big crowd. The noise level rose, but not unbearably. Paperbacks rapidly traded hands or were discarded. Many of the thinnest and simplest books vanished. Most of the thicker books stayed behind.

       “Wanna go take a look?” Jane asked Daria.

       “Maybe when the mob leaves town.”

       “Lemme try something.” Jane turned away and waved at the students around the table. “Hey, Mike!” she called to the tall black football player. “What’s number sixty-nine on the banned books list?”

       More laughter. Unperturbed, Mike scanned a printout on the table, picked up a paperback, and expertly tossed it to Jane, who caught it and read the cover. “Slaughterhouse-Five,” she said. She turned to Daria. “I’ve heard of this one. Is it any good?”

       Daria nodded. It figured that Vonnegut would get banned. So it goes. She began to wonder what else was on the table before she remembered she didn’t read anymore. Still, she was curious.

       “Harry Potter!” someone cried. “Gimme! I’ve got—I mean, I haven’t read that one yet!”

       “Stephen King for me,” said Mike, taking The Dead Zone. Jodie frowned at the selection, then took Native Son. The big-boned Goth girl, Andrea, took The Handmaid’s Tale. Kevin took one of the Goosebumps books and began to read it, murmuring “Cool!” under his breath.

       Daria noticed Jane was looking at her expectantly. With a sigh, she forced herself to her feet and walked to the table, the last one in class to do so. She hid her right hand inside a jacket pocket. Deenie—no, read that one long ago. Flowers for Algernon—same. A Wrinkle in Time, A Light in the Attic, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Carrie, The Witches, Of Mice and Men, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Go Ask Alice, In the Night Kitchen, Brave New World, The Face on the Milk Carton, The Summer of My German Soldier—same, a year ago or more. She then spotted a Judy Blume book she did not recall reading. She turned it around to see the title: Tiger Eyes. Some kind of coming of age novel, no doubt—piece of cake.

       “Let’s take our seats!” said Mr. O’Neill, turning from the board at last. “Oh, everyone’s done except—”

       Daria noticed that she was the only one left at the table. She took Tiger Eyes and sat down. She had liked Judy Blume years ago, in middle school. Perhaps she should have picked something else, she thought, but at least the book would be easy reading. All of Judy Blume’s books were like that: short, clear, and to the point, with an impact you could measure on the Richter scale.

       Mr. O’Neill called out names from the class roster on the board and wrote the titles of the books picked by the students’ names. Daria had time to flip Tiger Eyes over and read the back cover blurb—

       —and knew instantly she had made a mistake. It was about a teenage girl whose father was shot dead in a holdup. The girl, her mother, and her sibling moved far away from her old home, but she still had to move beyond the trauma and get her life going again.

       Guns. Dead father. Moving away. Facing what had happened.

       I can’t read this! I can’t do it! Panicked, Daria got to her feet to put the book back and grab another.

       “Ah!” said Mr. O’Neill, spotting and writing down her choice. “Tiger Eyes! That was such a moving work, a triumph of the human spirit in adversity! I’d love to hear what you think of it!”

       “I’m picking another book!” Daria called, louder than she had intended.

       “Oh, don’t do that! That one’s excellent, a marvelous read! I wept buckets at the end, just buckets—but I won’t spoil it for you. Let’s move on now, so please take your seat. Oh, no—no, don’t put the book there. Take it with you, back to your seat. I’ve already written it down, besides. You won’t regret it! It’s just wonderful! Okay, great! Now, who can tell me why some of these books were banned?”

       “‘Cause they sucked?” offered an anonymous student.

       “Er, no,” said Mr. O’Neill, trying to ignore the laughter. “Because they made people think! They pushed the envelope for what was socially acceptable. Take Lenny Bruce, for example. No, he’s not in the banned books we have this morning. He’s just an example. Lenny Bruce was a comedian in the nineteen-fifties and -sixties. He used his comedy to challenge the close-minded thinking of his time. He was, um, I suppose you could call him rude, which didn’t help him legally, but his input was still valuable. I heard a recording of his once—” Mr. O’Neill smiled at the memory “—a monologue called ‘Southern Accents,’ I believe, about how people from the Deep South are perceived as—I suppose you could say ignorant—by everyone else in America because of the way they talk. He said if Albert Einstein had been a Southerner, the atomic bomb would never have been invented, because the moment people heard him speak they’d think—oh!

       Horror-struck, Mr. O’Neill recoiled when he spotted Daria. “Heavens, I completely forgot! You’re from Texas, aren’t you, Dora?”

       This produced another outburst of mirth from the class. Daria’s face turned bright red as she stared back, tightlipped.

       “What I was really trying to say,” a blushing Mr. O’Neill continued, “was that if Albert Einstein, you know, if he had talked like... like you do, then people might think... mercy, I can’t believe that I—oh, I’m so terribly sorry, Dora!”

       “Her name is Daria!” Jane shouted angrily, squelching the laughter.

       “Uh, of course, right! That’s what I said—Daria! Of course! Let’s move on, shall we? Um, okay, uh, ah, Jodie! Jodie, tell the class why you picked the book you did!”

       When the bell rang, Daria shot out of her seat and exited the room at a run. A few of her classmates imitated her drawl with varying degrees of comic success as she fled. Mr. O’Neill called out to her, and Jane too tried to get her attention, but she wanted nothing to do with anyone, friend or foe. She went straight to her locker, the red stain of humiliation covering her face. Spinning the dial and opening the locker were difficult using her left hand, but she managed to exchange her books in her backpack before heading to her advanced-placement Algebra II lesson. Jane had Math Strivers II elsewhere. Once she reached her class, Daria took her accustomed seat at the back of the room and waited for the next disaster to befall her.

       She then realized in the hurry to get there, she had left her math homework in her locker. She closed her eyes and bowed her head. I can’t believe I did that. I am such a fool.

       The class telephone rang. The algebra teacher, who had been preparing to speak, paused to answer it. He glanced up at Daria as he listened to the call, then said, “Will do,” and hung up. “Miss Morgendorffer, Mrs. Manson in Intervention Services wants to see you. You may rejoin us as time allows.” He handed her a hall pass as she left the room.

       Daria hoped this was not bad news about her father, though it would be well in keeping with the misery of the day. She decided to use her time to best advantage, bad news or no, so she stopped at her locker along the way and got out her algebra homework with a small sense of relief. She tested her hand, but it hurt as much as ever. Picking up a book was impossible. Must have cracked a bone in my palm, she thought, remembering how she had punched the wall in her fury. Serves me right. I ought to suffer for what I’ve done. I ought to suffer forever.

       She got to Mrs. Manson’s office and opened the door. Standing beside Mrs. Manson at her desk was Mr. O’Neill, a mournful look on his face.

       Daria swung back into the hall and pulled the door shut with a bang, then turned on her heel and headed straight back to algebra. She heard the door open behind her after a delay. “Daria!” cried Mr. O’Neill, “I want to apologize!”

       Fuck you! Just fuck off and die! She almost said it aloud. Her pace picked up.

       “Daria!” It was Mrs. Manson. “Please come back! Mr. O’Neill explained what—”

       She dodged around a corner and through a door, then bolted up a flight of stairs as fast as she could go. When she got to the second floor she was already winded, so she stopped at a water fountain and got a drink. She dried her mouth on her jacket sleeve, wiped her eyes with her fingers, straightened her fogged-over glasses, and, with as much nonchalance as she could muster, went back to algebra again.

       That was fast!” the teacher commented as she took her seat. “We’re reviewing quadratic equations. Oh, and I need your—right, your homework. And the hall pass. Thank you, Daria. Okay, on with the review.”

       The rest of the class went without interruption. She avoided eye contact, took illegible notes with her left hand, and gently massaged her right hand until the bell rang. Then she left to call the hospital in Highland from the main office, taking her backpack and books with her. Lunch with Jane would come right after. When she entered the office, one of the staff waved at her. “Daria!” she called. “Ms. Li wants to see you!”

       Daria felt herself tense up. “Have to call the hospital ‘bout my dad first,” she said. Was Mr. O’Neill lying in wait for her once again?

       “Wait, I’ll let her know you’re here!” The lady hurried away. The other two office staffers were busy helping other students. Daria stood at the countertop and fumed. She was on the verge of making her way around the counter to a desk phone when Principal Li walked in from her own office.

       Helen Morgendorffer was right behind her.

       “I’m picking you up from school,” said Helen. Her face was pale, and her voice weary and without animation. “I’m parked out front.”

       “Why?” asked Daria, gaze darting from her mother to the principal and back. “I was s’posed to have lunch with Jane.”

       “Not today,” said Helen with finality. “Let’s go, dear.”

       Daria felt the stirrings of fear. “What’s goin’ on?” she asked. Was this about her dad? Had something bad happened to him? Or had Daria screwed up yet again?

       “If you need the afternoon,” said Ms. Li to Helen, “just give me a call. I understand.”

       “Thank you,” said Helen. “Come on, Daria.”

       Sensing she would get nowhere with an argument, Daria followed her mother out of the building to the lot, her stomach in knots. They got into the Navigator and buckled in, Daria in the front passenger seat.

       “Quinn comin’ with us?” Daria asked.

       “No,” said her mother, starting the SUV. “It’s just you and me.” The car’s nine speakers erupted with a Bee Gees song at full volume, which Helen snapped off immediately.

       “What’s goin’ on?”

       “We needed to talk about some things I said last night.” The Navigator pulled onto the street and accelerated. “For starters, I think I owe you an apology.”

       Yeah, right. That’s sincere. “I need to call the hospital and find out how Dad is.”

       “Quinn’s calling for you. Someone from the office went to get her when we left.”

       Daria felt her temper rise. “I wanted to call him! Why can’t I do it?”

       “I know you did, but listen to me,” said her mother in a strained tone. “This is important. I said some things last night you might have misinterpreted, and I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about what happened between your father and me.”

       Fuck you, too! “I don’t care ‘bout that, Mom! I need to call and see how Dad’s doin’!”

       Quinn is calling! Right now, I want you to know it wasn’t your fault that your father and I broke up. It was strictly between us. You had nothing to do with it, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.”

       “Right. Fine. Lemme outta here.”

       Helen reached over and hit a button on the armrest of her door. All the doors in the Navigator locked shut with a loud snap. “Don’t get out!” said her mother. “Stay right there! I know how you are, so stop it! I want you to forget everything else and just listen to me for a few minutes!”

       “Why’re you doin’ this?” Daria protested.

       “You’re probably not going to believe it, and I don’t blame you, but I am worried about your father. I don’t hate him for all that’s happened. I’m angry, certainly, but I don’t hate him, and I don’t want anything bad to happen to him. He’s still your father. The news about his heart has upset me as much as it has you, no matter what you think.”

       Daria subsided, waiting to see what came next.

       “We need to make some decisions,” Helen said, watching the road. “If your father pulls through this, then I can arrange for you and your sister to fly back to see him, but it might be a couple weeks before you can go. Your father might not be able to see anyone right away after surgery, but after a little rest, I have no objection to your going. I might go with you myself.”

       “Okay.” This was unexpected. After a pause, Daria added, “Thank’ee.”

       “You’re welcome.” Helen blew out her breath. “There is a problem, though.”

       Of course. Daria steeled herself.

       “I won’t be flying to Highland to see your dad. I have to stop in Houston on another matter that just came up. The families of some of the shooting victims filed a wrongful death civil suit in Highland this morning, against the families of the two boys who shot everyone, as well as a number of other people. They’ve included us in the suit, too—and by ‘us,’ I mean you, me, and your father, not Quinn. The victims’ families are suing Highland High’s administration on top of that, but we don’t need to worry about them. We need to worry about us. I’m not telling you this to punish you or make you feel bad, Daria. I’m telling you because you need to know. I’ve hired a law firm in Houston to deal with the case, and I’ll probably need to fly there soon to work on our defense.”

       Daria was stunned. She had thought a lawsuit was a possibility after the shootings, but when she had heard nothing about it for almost a year, she had come to believe it was not in the cards. “Why now?” she asked, all else forgotten.

       “The victims’ families couldn’t agree for the longest time on how to go about it, but they seem to have worked out their issues and are proceeding with the suit. I was served with papers at my office and had to take the rest of the day off to deal with it. I might have to take off the rest of the week, too. Eric’s given me the time if I need it. You and Quinn will see your father while I start our defense work.”

       “So, gettin’ sued’s more important to you than Dad almost dyin’ in the hospital?”

       “Daria!” snapped her mother, stung to the quick, “I can’t do anything about Jake! The doctors are doing all they can to help him. That’s their job. We have to focus on what we can control, which is how we handle this lawsuit before it destroys us!”

       Destroys us? What’ll happen?”

       “What’s going to happen? To begin with, your father and I were named in the lawsuit, Daria, because we’re your parents. They weren’t allowed to use your name, but you’re identified as our daughter, age fifteen, and no one is going to miss that. Our last name isn’t that common. The suit claims you deliberately provoked those boys into their actions, and it goes into detail on how they think that happened. By the time the evening news finishes tonight, everyone everywhere is going to know your connection with the case. That’s the very first thing that’s going to happen, and it’s happening now, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it, nothing.”

       Daria’s mouth fell open. She stared at her mother in disbelief. “But I’m a minor,” she said in a small voice. “They can’t sue us if I’m a minor, can they?”

       “They sure can, and they just did. We’re going home for the rest of the day so we can talk, but I’m not sure you’re going back to school here again. I spoke to Ms. Li about that. We’ll have to wait and see. Quinn can stay, I think, but probably not you. We’ll have to look into a private tutor or... something.” Helen exhaled. “If I lose my job, I suppose I can home-school you, but I don’t think either of us wants that. I’ll have to find work somewhere, which brings us to the other thing that’s going... that might happen. I hope not, but it might, if we lose.”

       Daria felt her eyes burn. This can’t be real. It can’t be happening. How much are they suing us for? Eleven people died, another’s brain dead, more were wounded, so that come to how much? A million? Ten million? A hundred million? This is civil court, so the burden of proof isn’t as high as criminal court, and that means—

       “How much?” Daria croaked.

       “If the lawsuit goes through,” Helen continued after a pause, “and the plaintiffs win the judgment against us they’re asking for, we will probably lose everything, and I mean every... damn... thing. We’ll lose the house, I’ll lose my job, we’ll have to move into an apartment if we can find anyone who will take us—God, we might even have to move back in with Mother, wouldn’t Rita love to see that. Oh, and if they win you can hang up your college plans. We’ll be broke. This won’t happen tomorrow or the next day, but unless we get our ducks in a row on our defense and get ourselves out of the suit, we will be history, and I mean history, your father included. Thank God I put in to change my name back when we moved here. That should come through before long. I’ll be Helen Barksdale again, so maybe I can keep my job after all.”

       And avoid the stain of your daughter’s last name. I see. I don’t blame you. Daria wiped streams of tears from her face. She told herself she wasn’t crying. It was just the stress. She almost forgot how much her hand hurt.

       “I’m sorry, Daria.” Helen spun the steering wheel as she pulled into the driveway of their home, then pressed the garage-door opener. “We’re going to have a very rough time for a while, but... we’ll get through. If you want to call your father, you can call from here. You can use the house line, and I’ll use my cell. I won’t bother you. I would like to know how he’s doing, if you don’t mind telling me, but it’s up to you.”

       “Okay,” Daria whispered. She could tell her face was as wet and red as could be, and she was ashamed. Her emotional armor was shattered. She turned away from her mother as she got out of the SUV, leaning against the car door for support.

       “I’ll be in my room,” said her mother. She did not look back as she unlocked the door, shut off the security alarm, and went inside, leaving the door open.

       It took several minutes for the sobbing spell to pass. Daria blew her nose on tissues from her jacket pockets. “I want to die,” she whispered. “I want to die. Please let me die.”

       Still alive, she cleaned herself up as much as she could, then went inside. She went to the bathroom she shared with Quinn, took care of business, and went down the hall. Her mother’s bedroom door was shut. No sound could be heard from within.

       It finally hit her as she walked in the door to her own room. She might not go back to school tomorrow. She might not see Jane again, ever. She stood in the doorway for a long minute, then walked back to the door of her mother’s room.

       “Mom?” she called, knocking twice. Her throat hurt from crying.

       “What?” came the reply. “I’m changing!”

       “I still want to go to Lawndale! I want to finish high school here!”

       “Daria... look, we’ll talk later this evening, okay? Everything depends on what happens next. Let me talk to our lawyers, okay? After dinner, we’ll talk then.”

       At least she didn’t say no. Daria went to her room and sat down at her desk with a thump, drained of emotion. What am I going to do? How will I ever get by? She was too exhausted to punch the wall again. It wasn’t worth the effort. Nothing was worth it. All this because I found my voice. I always wanted to find my voice, find my true calling as a writer, see what I was capable of doing, and I did, and I am in hell.

       She found herself staring at the wireless phone on her desk. She did not have the willpower to pick it up and call the hospital. Quinn would do it instead. Quinn did everything just right. It was better that way.

       Worn out, she put her head down on her desk. Sleep did not come. In time, she got the remote for her ceiling TV and turned it on, clicking through dozens of channels but seeing nothing of interest. She stopped at a channel for up-to-the-minute news and saw that fighting in Iraq had intensified, particularly in the west where anti-American attacks came almost by the hour. Running across the bottom of the screen was the news that a huge explosion had been reported in Baghdad within the half hour. Getting through to reporters in the city was difficult.

       I hope Trent is okay, she thought. I hope he comes home, safe and sound and alive, for Jane’s sake. She bit her lip. I hope he never sees me, though. I hope he forgets me and never knows what I did. I can’t believe I wrote to him.

       She flipped through a few other channels, then noticed one channel showed a simple screen with the words: BREAKING NEWS. Nothing was happening, not even sound.

       Puzzled, she backed up to the news channel. A city map was being shown, with the legend, “LIVE FROM BAGHDAD” below.

       “—north, near the Green Zone!” cried an unseen woman, her voice muffled. “There are fires and debris everywhere, so much smoke I can’t see more than twenty feet. Dust and ash are still falling. The street is blocked—I can’t get through. Most of the vehicles around me are stalled. It looks like a building came down ahead of us. It’s like Nine-Eleven all around me! Pete? Pete, can you hear me?”

       “We can hear you, Melissa!” called a male voice from a studio. “Are you injured?”

       “I can’t tell if I’m getting through! The dust is terrible here. I’ve got it in my mouth even holding a rag over it. It’s awful. I can’t spit it out. Can you hear me? The driver and the cameraman were—they were—I was talking with—” The reporter broke off, coughing. “I hear this—I think it’s the wind, but I can’t tell if—oh! Oh, God! Oh, G—” A chaotic noise filled the room for a moment, followed by a burst of static. Then, nothing.

       “Melissa? Melissa, can you hear me? Can they get back to her? We’re not getting—”

       Daria watched the anchormen try to raise their colleague, then switched the TV off. Same old war, more bad news. She had no stomach for it. Nothing she thought or did about the war made any difference.

       She checked the time. Jane was probably wondering why she wasn’t at lunch. Quinn would be home in a few more hours with news, but Daria did not want to wait for her. She was tired and wanted to sleep. Quinn would wake her if there was anything to say about their father. She hoped for good news, or at least neutral news. Even no news would be welcome over bad news.

       Still fully dressed, she climbed into bed. She wished Jane were there. Jane always knew what to say. It was hard to get comfortable with her right hand so sensitive to every touch, but she managed. She listened to the road noise for a while, then—

       She had a dream in which her body was incinerated and turned into a petrified statue of ash. Then her arms broke off and smashed into dust on the ground. Her lower jaw fell off, then her hair. She could not speak as her lungs had turned to ashes, too.

       Then a pair of dead blue arms wrapped around her from behind and pulled her close.

       She lost her mind. No one heard her scream.

 

 

 

 

XIV

 

 

       Daria awoke to the sound of someone knocking on the door. She stirred, feeling thick headed and dizzy, then saw through the bedroom windows that the sun was still up. I hate falling asleep in the daytime, she thought; Now I’ll never get my internal clock back on schedule. She felt like she’d just had a bad dream, but thankfully she couldn’t remember much of it, except that Cassandra had been there, as usual. Figures.

       “Daria?” called Quinn from the hall. She pushed the unlocked door open a few inches, but did not poke her head inside. “Can I come in?” she said. “I got hold of Daddy.”

       “Yeah, okay.” Still groggy, Daria sat up and tried to rub her face with her right hand, but her arm would not move. It had gone numb from being slept on. She then noticed the back of her grossly swollen hand was also discolored, having turned from red to a splotchy greenish-black from her knuckles almost to her wrist.

       She tried to hide the hand when Quinn walked in, but her sister spied it and gasped. Quinn started over but stopped, suddenly wary. “What happened?” she asked. “Can I see it?”

       “No! Lemme alone!” The nerves in Daria’s arm began to wake up, and she grimaced as she got a sharp taste of the pain to come.

       Quinn held her palms out in a warding gesture and stayed near the door, just in case, but she still said, “Please?”

       “Not now!” Daria snapped. Her stomach churned, and every last nerve was on edge. She had the familiar symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. “You called Dad?” she asked to change the subject and calm down.

       “Yeah,” said Quinn, still looking at her sister’s hand. “He’s doin’ a little better. They’re fixin’ to clean him up an’ change his sheets, the nurse said, an’ he might be able to talk to us tonight. Nurse said he wanted to talk to Mom, too, which I thought was good. Don’t know what he wants to talk to her ‘bout, but I guess it counts as somethin’.”

       Daria gritted her teeth as she stood up and moved her right arm to shake out the pins and needles. She tried to move her fingers, but the attempt brought stabbing pain. I really did it this time. Maybe I overdid it—except that the point after all was to hurt myself, and in that I’ve definitely succeeded.

       “You want me to leave?” asked Quinn. She had moved back to the door, seeing Daria’s expression.

       Daria examined her hand, then tried to cradle it with her other hand. She sat down again on her bed. “So, Dad’s okay?” she asked.

       “He’s not good, no, but better’n he was.”

       It was hard to speak with the pain increasing. “You talk to Mom?” Daria said in a voice pitched too high.

       “‘Bout the lawsuit? Yeah. Mom said she was flyin’ down... I’m sorry, Daria, but we gotta do somethin’ ‘bout your hand there. It looks real bad.”

       Daria put her hand in her lap and bent over it protectively. “Just leave it.”

       “You hurt y’self again.” It wasn’t a question.

       Daria’s patience broke. “Just shut the fuck up!”

       Quinn tried another tack. “There’s bad news on the TV, ‘bout the war.”

       “There’s always bad news ‘bout the war. So what?”

       “They set off an A-bomb in that city over there in Iraq. Mom’s watchin’ it downstairs.”

       So, that’s what that was. Someone finally did it. Probably al-Qaeda, but who knows, and who cares now. Daria bit her lip. Oh—Trent. Jesus. No, wait, Trent was stationed west of Baghdad, out around whatzit, that other city....

       “Can I get you anythin’?” Quinn stood in the doorway, torn between staying and leaving.

       Daria abandoned her train of thought and stared at the maroon carpet on the floor. “You could kill me,” she muttered, thinking of the mess that was her life.

       “No! Don’t ever say that!”

       “I’ll say what I want! I’m sick of this, sick of ever’thing!” She looked at Quinn, her face tight. “Know why Mom and Dad broke up?”

       “Why they broke up?” Quinn looked startled. “What do you mean?”

       “They broke up ‘cause they were arguin’ over me. Mom told me that’s what made Dad walk out. It was ‘cause of me.”

       “But that can’t be true!” Quinn gasped. “They wouldn’ break up ‘cause of you, Daria!”

       “Bullshit, then why’d Mom say so?” Her mother’s apology had meant nothing, as it had not changed the basic facts. Daria looked at the floor as it all came out. “Now we’re gettin’ sued by those people ‘cause of me. Dad had his heart attack ‘cause he and Mom fought and he left her, so that was ‘cause of me. I can’t deal with it anymore. I’m sick of it, sick of ever’thing. All I wanna do is just—I’m just sick of the whole fuckin’ thing.”

       Daria felt at that moment that she had come to a decision: it was time to cash in her chips and get out of the game. She thought about jumping out a window, but her room windows had sawn-off bars in them, left over from the previous occupant, and she would not fit through the gaps. Plus, the second floor simply wasn’t high enough.

       “Daddy wanted to talk to you,” said Quinn. “He’s worried ‘bout you.”

       “Why?”

       “Well, ‘cause he’s our dad! Why do you think?”

       “Go to hell, Quinn.”

       “I don’t want you hurtin’ y’self again!”

       “Go fuck yourself!”

       Nothing happened for a moment. Then Daria heard footsteps entering the room. She looked up, temper flaring wildly.

       Quinn stood before her, arms spread wide. “Hit me!” she yelled. “Go on an’ hit me, hard as you can!”

       Daria saw red. Her lips curled back as she prepared to spring to her feet and give her sister exactly what she’d asked for.

       “Go on!” Quinn shrieked. “Hit me! Do it! Hit me! Get it over with!

       Blood roaring in her ears, Daria started to get up to knock her sister across the room... but then something else happened. Her nerve failed. Even as she willed herself to attack, her temper died. The rage drained away and left her empty and weak. She looked at the floor, dreadfully ashamed for what she’d almost done. I can’t do it. I can’t let myself do it again. I can’t hurt her anymore.

       Quinn slowly lowered her arms. “I love you, Daria,” she said.

       Daria bowed her head. Her eyes began to tear up. “I hurt my hand,” she whispered.

       Quinn stepped closer. “Show me it,” she said softly. “Lemme see it.”

       Daria carefully held out her hand, turning it from side to side. The pain was terrific and made her cry almost as much as her surrender did.

       Quinn took a good look. She did not dare touch it. “C’mon,” she said, gentle but all business. She extended a hand as if to help her sister up, but without touching her. “Let’s go downstairs. We gotta see Mom.”

       Daria got up, her face burning. Quinn knows what to do. I can’t do anything right. Nothing. Quinn led her down into the kitchen. Their mother was listening to a cell phone at the kitchen table, looking through a large pile of paperwork spread out before her over the tabletop. The miniature color TV sat at the other end of the table. A military press conference was in progress with an officer speaking to a crowd of reporters.

       “Mom,” Quinn said in a loud voice, “we gotta get to the hospital ‘mergency room, right now!” She glanced at her sister. “Daria fell on her hand in the bathroom and hurt it bad. We gotta hurry! Please get off the phone and let’s go!”

       “What?” Helen frowned at her daughter, the cell phone still at her ear.

       “C’mon, Mom!” Quinn shouted. “We gotta get to the ‘mergency room! C’mon!”

       “Why? What’s wrong... what?” Helen stared at Daria’s right hand, then said to the phone, “I’ll call you back!” and snapped it shut. “What happened?” she said, getting up from her seat.

       “Just get to the car!” Quinn steered Daria away to the garage door and kept her moving until Daria was buckled into the huge red Navigator in the back, by her sister. Daria said nothing, her willpower gone. She slumped in the seat as her mother drove to Cedars of Lawndale hospital through the growing chaos of mid-afternoon rush-hour traffic. I give up, Daria thought as she watched the cars go by. I can’t go on. I can’t. I want to die. The world would be so much better off.

       The huge red Navigator stopped in the hospital emergency lot fifteen minutes later, and the three of them got out. “Are you sure this is necessary?” asked Helen, looking flustered. “What if it’s just a bruise?”

       “Oh, for God’s sake!” yelled Quinn, and she shepherded mother and sister to the ER. They hurried inside and found the check-in desk, where an irritable Helen struggled with the paperwork and picked a fight with the staff over an insurance issue. Quinn got Daria settled off to the side of the waiting room, away from everyone else.

       “Thank’ee,” whispered Daria. Her eyes still ran from the arrow-sharp pain. It was unlike anything she had felt before.

       Quinn gave her a wan smile. “You’re welcome. Thanks for not hitting me.”

       Daria made a face. “Don’t say that.”

       “Okay. Sorry. Love you.”

       Daria swallowed. “Love you, too,” she whispered.

       They sat in silence, listening to the news on a distant television. Everyone in the waiting room watched a reporter describe near total devastation across Baghdad. The TV showed videos of flames roaring from shattered buildings against a smoke-filled night sky. Ash fell like black rain. Panicked men and women fled down a street past a camera, many carrying children or belongings, stumbling over rubble.

       “It’s the end times,” murmured an old woman in the waiting room. “God’s a-comin’.”

       Daria felt Quinn shift in her seat to be closer to her.

       “Looks bad,” Daria whispered, staring at the horror on TV.

       “I know,” Quinn whispered back. “It’s crazy.”

       “Can’t believe it.” Daria closed her eyes. Her nicotine jitters, the tension of the moment, and the pain from her hand were combining to give her a monstrous headache on top of everything else. She roused herself after a moment, forcing back the pain. “S’posed to call Jane tonight, let her know what was happenin’ with ever’thing.”

       “I got my phone. You want me to call her for you, right now? I can call four one one and get where she lives.”

       Daria shook her head. “Later,” she said. “She had track practice after school.” I was supposed to be there helping her.

       They settled back for a long wait. Daria tried to take a nap but couldn’t. As she listened to their mother in the background, arguing with the check-in staff about coverage, she began to talk in a low voice about Jane, then about the banned book she had picked and did not want to read, then about her burden of guilt and shame. She did not mention her desire to give up and die, or find some effective way to bring that about. Quinn listened and kept an arm around Daria’s shoulders for comfort. She did not bring up God or Jesus once.

       And Daria, who knew Quinn was going to pray for her later, this time did not resent it.

 

 

* * *

 

 

       They left the hospital at a quarter after ten that night, the night air still warm from the day. Helen carried consults for Daria to see two surgical specialists over the next week. Daria’s right hand was encased in a bright yellow cast from fingertips to mid-forearm. Only her thumb and index finger were free to move.

       Daria’s gait was unsteady, but Quinn held her by an arm to guide her across the parking lot. Her head felt like a balloon about to float away. Wow, that’s some damn nice pain medicine they gave me! I feel like I’m walking on air! It’s GREAT!

       “I don’t understand what happened, and don’t give me that stuff about falling down in the bathroom!” said Helen, walking ahead of the girls with her keys out. “Have you been getting into fights at school? Daria, listen to me! The doctor said—”

       “Mom, can we do this at home, please?” Quinn interrupted.

       “No, we’ll do it now! The x-rays showed your right hand had three new fractures, Daria, and the doctor said you had at least three other older ones from sometime in the last year! Your left hand had two breaks, and some of your fingers are crooked because the older fractures didn’t heal right! I don’t understand how in the hell you could break your hands that many times and not tell me about it! What the hell were you thinking? Are you fighting at school? The doctor showed me your x-rays, and you have fractures in every meta... I forgot the word, every finger-knuckle-bone in your goddamn right hand! Every one of them has been broken! I don’t get it! Can you explain it to me? How could you do that to yourself?”

       “Z’ easy,” Daria mumbled, her eyes glassy. She smiled. Wheee! No pain at all!

       “What?” said Helen, turning around.

       “Forget it, Mom!” Quinn interrupted. “Let’s talk at home, okay, and not out in public!”

       “Did you know about this?” Helen looked at Quinn. “About her fighting?”

       “Nah fye,” said Daria, wobbling on her feet. “Izza wall, Mom.”

       “What? I can’t understand—”

       “She didn’t fight!” Quinn snapped. “She punched the wall in her room!”

       Helen stopped dead and turned around. “What? Why the hell didn’t you tell me?”

       “‘Cause you wouldn’t listen!”

       “I didn’t listen because you never told me!”

       “Muuuh-ooom, can we just go home, please?”

       “What happened to her?”

       “I don’t wanna talk ‘bout it!”

       “You damn well better talk about it!”

       They went home. Daria stumbled and almost fell coming through the garage door, but Quinn helped her into the kitchen and got her to the family-room sofa, where Daria sat down, then slowly fell over, giggling. The room was going around and around and around and—

       Quinn put her sister’s glasses on the coffee table, then undid her boots and took them off, then took off her socks. “Whoa,” said Quinn, blinking. “You painted your toenails? When’d you do that?

       Daria stirred. “Call shane,” she said thickly. “Gah call shane.”

       “Can I call her for you?”

       “Hoogay.” Daria’s eyes closed. She mumbled something that didn’t make sense even to her, then fell asleep.

       She woke up with a pressing need to go to the bathroom. For a few seconds she had no idea where she was, then recognized the plasma TV and the sofa. What the hell am I doing here? How did... oh, right, got back from the hospital... must have passed out. Man, I have to go bad. She struggled to get up and in the process whacked herself in the jaw with her right-hand cast. “Ow!” she yelped. “Shit fuck!

       “Daria?” Quinn was suddenly at her side. “Hold on, I’ll help you up.”

       “Fuckin’ hell! Daria hissed through her teeth. “Bathroom! Hurry!”

       They got to the first-floor bathroom just in time. When Daria opened the door to come out, Quinn was waiting for her. “You okay?” her sister asked.

       “Yeah.” Daria hung on to the door for support. “Wha’ happen?”

       “The shot they gave you at the hospital knocked you out,” said Quinn. “Doctor said it might happen ‘cause you’re kinda small. I stayed down here on the loveseat ‘case you got up. Mom went to bed. Oh, an’ Mom and I had an argument an’ I’m grounded till I’m twenty.”

       “Tha’s good,” Daria mumbled, “but I’m not that small.” She started to rub her face with her right hand, stopped when she saw the cast, then used her left hand as she leaned against the wall. Her jaw ached where she had struck herself. “Time is it?”

       “‘Bout one. Wanna go up to bed?”

       Daria shook her head. “Forgot to call Jane.”

       “I talked to her. Hope you don’t mind.”

       “Oh,” said Daria, surprised. “Oh. What’d she say?”

       “She misses you. She’s worried ‘bout her brother, too, ‘cause of the war. She doesn’t think he was in that city, though.” Quinn looked nervous. “Um... I told her you went to the hospital.”

       Daria nodded agreeably. “Tha’s okay. I tell her ever’thing.”

       “Okay. Well, so did I.”

       “Okay.” Daria wondered exactly what Quinn had told Jane, but she wasn’t up to more questioning or puzzling it out. “You call Dad again?”

       “Yeah, but he couldn’t talk. They ran some more tests. He’s same as before, nothin’ new. Didn’t tell him ‘bout a lot of stuff, like tonight and the lawsuit and all, just that we loved him. That’s all I said for them to pass along.” Quinn cleared her throat. “Listen, Mom’s gonna call a counselor ‘bout you hurtin’ your hands. She wants you to see someone.”

       “Don’t care. I don’t care.” Daria felt her energy drain away. The world start to spin, and she pressed her back to the wall. “Hate this,” she muttered, trying to prop herself up. “Can’t—”

       Quinn helped her upstairs to her room and got her ready for sleep. Daria let her sister do whatever she wanted. It was easier than arguing, and it got things done.

       “Quinn,” said Daria, sitting on the edge of her bed. “Are you stayin’ at school here, after ever’thin’... you know, after the, um—”

       “The lawsuit?”

       “Yeah.”

       “Uh, yeah, I’d like to. Don’t know where else I’d go, an’ all my friends are here. Why?”

       “‘Cause Mom wasn’t sure I could go back. She said my... no, that her name and Dad’s were in the paperwork, not mine, but people would know who—”

       “Yeah.” Quinn swallowed. “Mom told me.”

       “So, ever’one’ll know it was me.” Daria again almost hit herself in the head with the cast again while trying to reach for her face. She became confused, and her sister helped her lie down, then covered her with a blanket.

       “You need anythin’ else?” asked Quinn, kneeling beside the bed.

       “Sorta. I’m not one for prayin’ and stuff, you know that. Uh... where’re my glasses?”

       “Downstairs. I’ll get ‘em in a bit and put ‘em on the dresser.”

       “Okay. I was sayin’, I’m not a prayer. Not a pray-er, I mean. Mouth’s not workin’ right, all fuzzy in the head.”

       “Okay.”

       “So when you tell God ‘bout this tonight, I was wantin’ to ask if you can get Him to make ‘Sandra stop followin’ me ‘round.”

       “Sandra? Who’s Sandra?”

       “C’sandra, from... back home. She’s... followin’ me alla time, can’t get her to stop. Dreams and ever’where.”

       Quinn appeared stunned. “Cassandra?” she whispered. “You mean, the girl from Highland High School, who used to... ?”

       “Yeah, tha’s her.”

       “She’s...” Quinn could not finish her comment.

       “She’s dead, but she still bothers me. Can’t make her leave me ‘lone. Make her quit. M’ sorry and all for what I did, but make her quit, please.”

       Quinn was stricken. “Uh, okay. I’ll... I’ll...”

       “Can’t take it anymore.” Daria sighed deeply. “Told Jane ‘bout it.”

       “Told Jane what?”

       “‘Bout C’sandra. ‘Bout the killin’, what I did. She said... she’s still my friend. She knows ever’thing. Told her ‘bout me, but she didn’t go ‘way. Friend.”

       Quinn said nothing. She kept one hand gently pressing down on Daria’s cast in case it popped up at her, but she listened and watched her sister intently.

       “Not into Jesus,” Daria mumbled, her eyelids starting to flutter. “Not good wi’ God an’ tha’ stuff. Wanned t’ be a good sis’ser, but wasn’t, an’ can’t get out of it. Tell Jane...”

       Her eyes closed again. She said nothing else.

 

 

* * *

 

 

       Daria woke up with the sun in the windows again. The bedside clock-radio said it was 8:17. She got up, needing to visit the bathroom once again, then found her glasses on the dresser and discovered a note taped to the inside of her bedroom door.

 

 

Daria,

 

Mom’s at work, and I’m at school. We called you in sick today. Take it easy at home. If your hand starts to hurt again, the medicine is in our bathroom (read the label!). There’s a plastic bag and tape in the bathroom to put your cast arm in so it won’t get wet. I’ll call when I can. If you call Daddy, do it after 9 so he’s had breakfast first.

 

Love you,

Quinn

 

 

       “Little mom, looking after me,” Daria muttered, then went to the bathroom. A half-hour later she returned, freshly showered, and got dressed. It wasn’t as hard to do things with her cast on as she had feared it would be, though it was certainly annoying at times.

       “Now what do I do?” she said. “After I get a smoke, I mean. I should prob’ly go to school or... or mebbe not. Good to see Jane, but a break’d be good, mental health day. Call Dad. Do homework.” She made a face. “Read that damn book. Shoulda got another one.”

       She had two cigarettes outside in the backyard, then turned on the TV so it wasn’t so lonely in the house. Most stations were still covering the nuclear attack on Baghdad. Casualties were now estimated in the tens of thousands. Most of the Green Zone had been destroyed. The Iraqi government no longer existed, and the allied command was in chaos. Attacks on Americans across Iraq had also spiked. Some claimed the Americans had brought the bomb in themselves, or else the Israelis had. As the bomb’s ground zero had been a Shiite slum northeast of the Green Zone, Sunnis were also suspected, particularly radicals working with al-Qaeda, which was itself the betting favorite in the West.

       “Hope Trent’s okay,” she said. “God, I hope he’s okay.” I really want to see him. I hope he’s a cool guy. He looks like a cool guy, and he looks really hot, too. Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m thinking about jumping him. Oh, my God. I need a long cold shower, and then a lobotomy. I’m going insane.

       She reached for the TV remote to turn it off—but as she did, an announcer broke in with word about an American supply convoy west of Baghdad that had come under heavy attack from guerillas. Many casualties were reported by a newsman embedded with a transportation company. A rescue mission was underway, but with the disaster in Baghdad, resources were few and slow in coming.

       “Oh, shit.” Daria sat down on the sofa and watched for another twenty minutes, but little else was available. Her stomach was in knots for worry over Trent.

       The house phone rang, making her jump. She reached over and picked up a wireless phone from the coffee table. “Morgendorffers,” she said in a high voice, afraid it was more bad news.

       “Hello?” said an unfamiliar woman’s voice. “Who is this?”

       “Daria,” said Daria. “Who’s this?”

       “Oh.” The woman sounded put off. “Is your mother around?”

       “No, she’s at work. Can I take a message?”

       “Mmm... no, I’ll call her there.”

       Daria was puzzled. “Who is this?”

       “I gotta run. G’bye!” The phone line clicked off.

       Daria stared at the phone, then pushed a couple of buttons and looked at the LED screen. BARKSDALE, A., read the caller ID.

       “Aunt Amy,” Daria said. She put the phone down. “Guess she didn’t want to talk to her murderer niece. I can understand that. Haven’t heard from her since I don’t know when. Shoulda said, ‘Sorry, Aunt Amy, I’m cleaning my guns for school right now, I can’t talk.’ Guess that’ll never happen again, her callin’ back.” Vaguely depressed, she turned off the TV and went into the kitchen to look for breakfast. She spotted her backpack by the door to the garage, then got herself a few leftovers from the fridge (May as well eat, nothing else to do) and sat down at the table. The house was too quiet again, so she went into the family room, turned on the satellite radio to an alternative station, and went back to eat.

       She was settling into her eclectic meal when she decided to look in her backpack, as she couldn’t remember what books she had brought home. Among other things, she spotted Tiger Eyes and, after a moment of indecision, took it out. “I’ll call Dad right after I’m done eating,” she said, looking at the book cover. She ate a sweet pickle, then wiped her hands and flipped through the book. She idly read the first chapter as she finished off a brownie and a cold fried chicken drumstick.

       The first chapter was about a girl named Davey, who was trying to get dressed so she could go to her father’s funeral. Aghast, Daria flung the book back in her backpack, but she made herself retrieve it and continue reading and eating at the same time. The book was a fast read, and Daria was a fast reader, finishing it at the table after she was done with her meal.

       The similarities between herself and Davey (with the tiger eyes) were striking. True, Davey was a victim, not a perpetrator, who suffered mental and emotional trauma from her father’s murder. However, Davey had terrible fears about her life and her safety, fears that Daria shared to some extent, though Daria knew her own problem was guilt, not victimhood. Still, Davey (five letters in her name, begins with D, consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel-vowel like “Daria” if you called the “y” a vowel) had a friend named Jane at the new school to which her family had moved, and she had a younger sibling (a boy in the book), and a mother who wasn’t coping all that well with things. And Davey’s life was full of turmoil. The family had moved to Los Alamos, where nuclear weapons were made (Daria glanced up at the family room, where the TV had reported the nuclear attack on Baghdad), and Davey hadn’t yet dealt with her father’s murder. (I haven’t yet dealt with what I did, thought Daria. I haven’t gotten beyond it. I never will.)

       No real-life analogue existed to the book character called Wolf, which Daria regretted as Wolf helped Davey face her past and rise above it. (Maybe that’s Jane. Maybe not, though.) The ending was pure Judy Blume, sad and wrenching and terrible and triumphant at the same time. It left Daria wiping her eyes and blowing her nose on a paper towel. Mr. O’Neill had been right about the book, though it revolted Daria to think it. Davey faced her demons and moved on when she threw out the bloodstained clothing she had kept from that terrible day, the clothing she had worn as she had held her dying father. She was then free.

       “But I’m not,” said Daria, unaware she was talking to herself. “Death is all that I am or will be. What could I face like what Davey faced? Nothin’. No, that’s not true. I could face up to the lawsuit, let ever’one know who I really am. That’d do it. That’s it. I need to just face it. Let ‘em find out, then just live with it. That would do it.”

       She walked aimlessly around the house for a few minutes with a mental image of everyone at school fleeing from her after discovering she was the mastermind behind the shootings at Highland, that she was responsible. The image was not entirely unsatisfying. Let ‘em run, she thought at one point. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. They couldn’t throw me out of school, either. What would I have done to deserve it? Nothing. Just Jane and me, then, against the world. The hell with the rest of them. I’m tired of this. I should go to school. I missed half a day, but I could still go and get my homework.

       After she got her backpack together with all her books, she cleaned up after herself and left the house. She was down the street, lighting another cigarette, before she remembered she had not yet called her father at the hospital. I’ll do it later. Quinn’s probably called already. She does everything right. I can’t do shit. She suspected, though, that she was avoiding the issue. She was frightened to talk to her father after all that had happened with his heart. What if she called and they told her he had died? What then? And what would she say to him if he was still alive? What could she do for him that was better than what Quinn could do? Nothing. She kept walking to school, hoping that he would be alive when she finally did get up the courage to talk to him, but fearing the worst.

       The walk wore at her, though smoking gave her energy and cleared her head. Her hand had begun to itch in the cast by the time she got to school. She thought she might unbend a paperclip and stick it in the finger holes to get some relief. She went through security at the school’s front doors, checked in at the office (to the surprise of the staff), went to her locker to drop off her books, then headed for the cafeteria as that was where Jane would be. She expected at any moment that someone would point at her and cry, “There she is!” or words to that effect... only no one did.

       It took her a minute to realize why. The atomic bomb attack had wiped out all other news.

       The cafeteria was crowded, and Daria did not immediately see her friend at their usual table. The other students were tense, some talking about the bomb attack and others about friends and relatives overseas in the military. Daria then spotted Jane a half-dozen places ahead in the food line, which Daria immediately joined. (I wouldn’t mind eating one or two more things, to be sociable. I think I can manage a tray if I don’t put much on it.) Jane looked distracted and downcast, which Daria thought was reasonable, all things considered.

       When Jane turned moments later and spotted Daria, the flicker of a smile ran across her features. “What’re you doing here?” she called.

       Daria held up her yellow cast. “They let me out for good behavior,” she said.

       “Wow. Nice color. Need help with the tray?”

       “Nah, I’m fine.”

       “Okay. I’ll get a spot for us.”

       With careful balancing and maneuvering, Daria was able to make it to Jane’s table without incident. “You heard the news?” asked Jane without preamble.

       Daria took her seat. “‘Bout the bomb? Yep. He’s not there, though.” She elected not to mention the attack on the convoy west of Baghdad. It would keep until later. It’s probably not even the same convoy, so why worry about it?

       “I knew this was going to happen. I knew things would go south over there, sooner or later. Shit.” Jane stared at the few items of food on her tray. “I wasn’t that hungry, but I told myself that starving wouldn’t solve anything. Now I’m not hungry at all.”

       Daria looked down at her own tray, unsure if she should bother to eat. Her dilemma was resolved when Jane began to munch on a carrot stick, then attacked her supply of barbecued chicken wings. They ate quickly and quietly for a minute.

       “You read your book already?” Jane asked. “Thumbed through mine.”

       “I read it,” said Daria.

       “I knew it. God, you suck. Was it any good?”

       “It was okay.”

       “But you don’t want to talk about it, I can tell. I think I’ll like mine. I’m gonna read it this weekend. I’d like to know why he named it Slaughterhouse-Five. It takes place in World War Two, but there are aliens in it. Sounds pretty wild.”

       “So it goes.”

       “Yeah, that’s what people in the book say when something bad happens.” Jane said around a mouthful of cheese fries. “Speaking of which, maybe you could update me on your most recent disability, if you wouldn’t mind.”

       “Not much to tell,” said Daria after swallowing her own cheese fries. “Felt bad, punched the wall again, broke some bones, now I have to go see some specialists.” She looked around the cafeteria, on guard against someone saying something to her about the lawsuit. “Not gonna do it anymore. Stupid to begin with, now it’s really stupid. I was just feelin’ bad. Mom’s gonna have me see someone ‘bout it.”

       “Quinn told me, and I think it’s a good idea,” said Jane. Daria looked up, startled to hear her say that. “I’ve seen a shrink or two at LYRE,” Jane continued, unaware of Daria’s reaction, “and it helped me some. I hope you get someone who knows what they’re doing. Some of them are dorks and a few of them are real assholes. You still ought to get laid, but seeing a shrink is a fair if less orgasmic alternative.”

       Daria thought about the trainload of personal and family issues she could potentially bring up in therapy. Killing herself sounded much less messy and complicated, not to mention less embarrassing. I couldn’t do that to Jane, though. As long as I’ve got her, I can’t even consider that. I can’t believe I even considered it.

       “So, whaddya think?” Jane prompted.

       “Think you’re right,” Daria sighed. “When I feel bad, I’m not thinkin’ ‘bout what I’m doin’. I just do it. No impulse control, I guess they’d say.”

       Trent’ll like that,” said Jane, starting to smile again. “Underage, no impulse control...”

       “Thanks,” Daria growled, turning red. “Let’s not go there.”

       Jane’s smile wavered. “That’s assuming that he...” She looked down at her plate.

       That’s assuming that he comes home again, Daria completed to herself. “You have any other pictures of him?” she asked, desperate to change the topic even slightly.

       “Why?” Jane looked up. “You want one?”

       “Um—”

       “Sure.” Jane dug into her skirt pocket and pulled out a few bent and battered images clipped from computer printouts. She selected one in good condition and handed it over. “I can print out a new one of that in computer class,” she said.

       Daria took the picture. It was showed a slim, tanned, and muscular Trent with his shirt off, standing atop a desert-camo gasoline tanker. He was giving one of his slight smiles down at the picture-taker, blue faux-Maori tattoos visible on his upper arms and shoulders. He radiated masculinity and confidence in massive, eye-stopping doses.

       “People can hear you breathing all the way across the room,” said Jane. “You like that one?”

       Daria immediately put the picture in an inner pocket of her jacket, on the left side. “Shut up,” she managed to gasp despite her dry throat.

       “And you’re wearing him next to your heart, too. That’s so sweet!”

       “You’ll be wearin’ my boot up... never mind.” It was hard to be even pretend-angry. Jane grinned.

       They finished lunch, got their books, then went to computer lab. “Today we’re going to send e-mails again,” said Mrs. Bennett. “If you know of a soldier overseas, I’d like for you to write to that person this hour. It can be a close relative, I don’t mind. They’d probably love to hear from you, under the circumstances. We’ll do this for them and for our country.”

       “Trent,” Jane prompted Daria out of the side of her mouth.

       “I know, I know,” said Daria, feigning annoyance. She called up the e-mail system and discovered to her shock that she had mail: a letter from a “lanetrent” at an e-mail address for a transportation unit ending with “army dot mil.” It was dated last Thursday, the same day that Trent had written to Jane. Daria looked at the time but could not remember when Jane’s letter had been sent, so this one could have been written before or after it. The file size was significant. What in the world did he write to me?

       “Why’re you breathing so hard again?” asked Jane, looking over. “You sound like you—oh, cool! Can I read that with you or when you’re done, or do you want to edit out the hot juicy parts before I—”

       Daria reached over and turned her flat-screen monitor at an angle, to discourage her friend from peeking. Jane snickered and returned to her own monitor, pointedly humming a few bars from Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous.”

       Daria moved her face and shoulders as close to her computer monitor as she could without physically melding with it, to keep anyone else from seeing the letter. Then she opened the e-mail.

 

 

 

Hey, Daria,

 

It’s me, Trent, Jane’s brother in the Army. Bet you didn’t think I’d write back. I got your e-mail and wanted to thank you for writing and for looking after Janey while I’m gone. I don’t get much mail here, mostly spam from guitar companies because I spend a lot of my free time looking at guitars online. I had to sell mine before I got into the Army because I couldn’t take it with me, or so someone told me though it turned out not to be true, but it’s just as well. The power goes out a lot here, and the dust storms and heat and so on would make the guitar lose its edge, which is hard to explain if you don’t know about guitars. It’s a guitar thing.

 

Anyway, I was glad to hear from you. You’re pretty cool. I’d like to see your picture. If you can post it (and a new picture of Jane) to one of those photo webpages, that would be great. Then I could get a copy and carry you and Janey around with me.

 

You said a lot of things in your e-mail that made me think about my life, especially the things I should have done better because they were so important. Even though I don’t think you meant to make me think about things like that, I did anyway and I think it was good that I did because I needed to think hard, and it helped, I think. So don’t worry about it.

 

I don’t know what Janey’s told you, but here’s my story. Janey and I have been pretty close ever since she was born. We kind of raised each other. We didn’t have any choice about it. Everyone else kind of left and we had to do the best we could with stuff. The problem, though, was that I did not do the best I should have. I messed up and it led to a lot of bad problems that I would rather not talk about, things I feel bad about, though I think you would probably understand more than anyone else would if I told you. Anyway, I can’t change the past, but I can change the present, or at least I hope so.

 

I was supposed to leave on a road trip to Hadithah today to bring fuel to the Marine base there, but I got to thinking about what you said in your letter, about how much Janey looks up to me, and I thought about the times I wasn’t there for her when I should have been, and I made a big decision. I’ve been taking hazardous duty pay here for running fuel to the Marines around western Iraq so I could send more money home for Janey, though I realized maybe I was doing it kind of because I didn’t care much anymore about what I was doing. I bought a lot of insurance on myself so in case anything happened, Janey could still go to college. It’s a long story and has to do with my screwing up in the past and trying to make up for it. Then I read your letter and I realized Janey needed me, but I kind of ran off on her like everyone else did. I feel bad about it. Anyway, things are kind of falling apart here and we get attacked more often than I let on to Janey. Don’t say anything to her about it. I’ve lost a lot of good friends since I got here. You made me think that Janey doesn’t need to lose me, too, insurance or no insurance, though the money sure would help.

 

So what I did was I went to my company commander before the convoy left and said I wanted to be taken off hazardous duty and go back to headquarters. He yelled at me real loud for a while but finally said he understood and didn’t blame me, he’s burned out himself. That’s probably why he drinks so much. He still didn’t want me to quit, because I’m a good driver if I’ve had a lot of coffee, so he said he would let me go back to headquarters for a week, sort of like a vacation except I’d still be driving, and then I could come back to Ramadi. I said okay, though I don’t think I am going to change my mind. I hope you don’t think less of me for this, but I think the best thing to do is to finish out my time here in a safe place until I come home. I hope no one thinks I am a coward. I don’t even know if I am. If I get killed, though, Janey would have no one to look out for her. I know she can look out for herself, but that’s not what I meant. She’s the only real family I have. I wish I hadn’t run away on her like I did.

 

So your letter did a good thing. I owe you one for that. I will be back in the capital by Monday morning. The headquarters company is near the Green Zone (a funny name because it’s not very green), which is a good party place, and I will probably drive supplies around town until my departure date comes up. Boring but not so bad.

 

I hope to see you when I get back. You’ve helped me and Janey more than you will ever know. Thanks, Daria. You’re the greatest.

 

Off to Baghdad,

Trent

 

 

 

       Jane looked over upon hearing a keening cry break from her friend’s lips. A white-faced Daria was trying to push the button to turn off her monitor with her cast arm, but she was too panicked and upset to connect. Daria then shot to her feet, knocking over her chair, and shoved the flat screen around so it faced the wall. She then tried to turn off the computer itself, but it was pushed back too far under the table to reach. With a wild cry, she ran from the room and into the hall as everyone watched in surprise.

       Jane tried to follow her, but Mrs. Bennett blocked the door and told her to take her seat again. She set Daria’s chair upright, then looked at the backwards monitor, reached over, and turned it around again. As the teacher restored order to the classroom and prepared to call the office, Jane began reading Trent’s letter for herself to find the reason why Daria went crazy so suddenly. It took her only a minute to find out.

       “So it goes,” she whispered in shock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

XV

 

 

       A soft chiming noise interrupted the principal as she looked over the school’s projected budget for fiscal 2009-2010. The principal tapped a button on the side of her desktop as she spoke to the air. “Office, Ms. Li.”

       “Angela, this is Diane,” said a voice in her right-side ear-phone. “I’m sorry to bother you, but Daria Morgendorffer just ran out of my classroom, and I’m afraid I don’t know where she’s gone. I was going to send—”

       Ms. Li pushed away from the now forgotten budget plans. “When?”

       “When did she go? Oh, um, just a minute ago. Wait—Kevin! Don’t do that! Get down!”

       Ms. Li, swung around in her chair and tapped at one of the computer keyboards to the side of her desk. On an oversized monitor before her, a four-deep-by-six-wide rectangular array of black-and-white real-time camera images came to life. She taped another command on a macro-key. Facial recognition monitoring began. In moments, every person who walked by under a camera lens had orange lettering float by next to his or her head, spelling out a name and a numeric grade, or electric green lettering spelling out the names of faculty and maintenance staff.

       “You said a minute ago?” queried Ms. Li. Mrs. Bennett’s computer class was on the second floor in the library tower. Li tapped keys, calling up stored imagery from the last five minutes for that area. All cameras on the monitor suddenly changed to show only the twenty-two library tower pickups in classrooms, corridors, elevators, and stairwells. She could speed it up each scan to find out where Daria had gone.

       Mrs. Bennett’s line was open, but no one was there. Ms. Li heard Diane in the background, arguing with Kevin Thompson about trying to open a ceiling light fixture. No use waiting for a quick answer.

       She turned and picked up a red cordless phone. “Security,” she said.

       “Security here, this is Bridget.”

       “We have a two-oh-two. Her name is Daria Morgendorffer, D-A-R-I-A.” She typed in the name as she spoke, waited a moment, then read from the popup screen in the big screen’s lower right corner. “Brunette, short, five-two, slim, usually wears dark jeans and a T-shirt, boots, glasses. Please bring her to Intervention Services when you find her. Call Margaret Manson now and let her know Daria will be there shortly.”

       “Copy.”

       “Angela,” said Mrs. Bennett breathlessly, back at the phone, “I looked in the hall and I don’t see her anywhere. She seemed very upset when she left.”

       “Upset? Why? What happened?”

       “Well, nothing happened! We were sending e-mails, you know, like we usually do on Wednesdays, and suddenly she got up and started hitting her computer, then she ran out of the room! She has a cast on her arm, I forget which arm. I forgot to say that.”

       “Can you call up Daria’s account and see what file or e-mail she was viewing before she left?”

       “Sure, once I get a moment here. Can I call you back?”

       “Certainly, and don’t worry about anything else. We’ll take care of it, Diane.” Li cut the link and reached for the phone keypad, dialing an in-school number.

       “Office, Marsha here,” said a young woman’s voice.

       “Marsha, have you seen Daria Morgendorffer today?”

       “Uh, yeah, she came in, what, an hour ago, something like that. Looked like she broke her arm. She had a cast on her right hand. She signed in, but her sister called in this morning and said Daria was sick today and wouldn’t be here.”

       “Anything unusual about her? Stressed, maybe?”

       “Uh, no, she looked fine. She had one of those colorful casts, if that helps. It was bright yellow.”

       “Thanks.” Li broke the link and picked up the red phone. “Security.”

       “Security, Bridget here.”

       “Daria Morgendorffer has a yellow cast on her right hand.” Li hesitated, then went with her instincts. “Still a two-oh-two, but approach with caution. Report back if she talks or acts unusual in any way, or appears threatening.”

       “Copy. I’ve got Tyrone and Curtis on the way over there.”

       The small screens on the big monitor were set to show all that they had recorded in the last five minutes. Li picked the two showing opposite ends of the hall where the computer class was held. The images moved forward at moderately high speed. The facial recognition monitor chirped once and the left screen froze on the image of a longhaired girl in dark jeans running toward the camera to pass under it.

       “Gotcha,” said Angela Li. She allowed herself a smirk as her fingers flew over the keyboard, calling up other imagery. Everything went well for several seconds.

       Then Li frowned. Daria had vanished after running down a stairwell and passing camera position L-14 on the first floor—but she did not reappear on cameras L-12, L-15, or L-16. There was no restroom at that position, but there was an emergency exit door whose alarm had not been tripped, and there was—

       Li reached for the red phone in an instant.

 

 

* * *

 

 

       “You want to check the fire door or the maintenance one?”

       Curtis shrugged. “Maintenance. Should be locked.” He left his partner Tyrone to examine the fire door and walked down the corridor another twenty feet to the door leading down to the maintenance tunnel. He reached for his keys... and slowed to a stop. “Hey,” he called back over his shoulder. “Door’s open.”

       “What?” Tyrone walked over and eyed the door, which was only partially shut. He pulled his radio out. “Security, this is Williams. Door one one three is unlocked and ajar. Call maintenance and see who was the last one through with a key.”

       There was a pause. Curtis reached up and examined the pop-out button on the door’s edge. It was pressed down, forced inside the door by the door jam. If someone opened the door, the bolt would pop out and send a signal to Security.

       “Door was last opened eight minutes ago, but not with a key,” said a woman on the radio. “Checking with maintenance.”

       Tyrone checked the door, pulling it open. The button popped out. He then gently pushed the door shut, but the door lock did not click. “Lock’s broken,” he said. “Somebody’s gonna get burned for this one. Door’s been open this whole fucking time.”

       “This has gotta be it,” said Curtis. “She can’t have gone anywhere else.”

       “Why’d she wanna go down here?”

       “Beats shit out of me.”

       Tyrone rubbed his jaw, then reached down for his flashlight. “Lead on,” he said.

       They went through the door. The light switch on the other side was flipped on, revealing the top of the stairs down. The lights at the bottom, fifteen feet down, were on as well.

       Tyrone put away his flashlight and got on the radio again. “Security, Williams. Someone turned on the lights going down to the tunnels. And the door lock’s not working, door won’t fully shut. We need an emergency work order on it ASAP.”

       “Roger, copy. Still waiting on word from Maintenance.”

       “Call me when you find out, if you can reach me. We’re going down.” Tyrone replaced the radio on his belt and undid the strap on his yellow-orange stun pistol, pulling it free.

       “I don’t know if she’s armed,” said Curtis as he descended the stairs, but he undid the strap on his stun gun, too, keeping his hand near the butt. “She’s just a kid.”

       “Well, you never know.”

       Curtis didn’t answer. He reached the bottom of the stairs and looked down each corridor of the T-intersection before him. Lights were on in every direction.

       Tyrone pulled a thin cord from his radio and plugged it into a wall outlet, then snapped the radio on. “Security, Williams,” he said, keeping his voice low. “Stalano and I are in the tunnels. All the lights are on down here. Send backup for a search. She could be anywhere.”

       “Are the cameras on?” asked Curtis.

       “Bridget, are the cameras on down here?” Tyrone radioed back.

       “Wait.” A pause. “Negative, cameras are down for backup and testing.”

       “Get ’em up, then, and help us out.”

       “I’m working on it, Tee.”

       “I’ll check the tool shop,” said Curtis, pointing to the middle corridor.

       “I’ll get the power plant,” said Tyrone, unplugging his radio from the wall and heading to the left, stun gun out.

       Curtis made up his mind not to pull his stun gun unless he had to. The power settings were turned down to make injury was unlikely, but Daria was a pretty small kid. He remembered the security briefing on her, thought of how dreadful she was made to seem by Ms. Li, but how poorly Daria had lived up to that image. He well remembered the annoyed, put-upon girl in the sweat suit at the football field, the girl Kevin had pushed around. She really was just a kid. She didn’t look like she could hurt a fly—but, he admitted to himself, Tyrone was right, you never knew. That whole thing at Highland, inciting those boys to murder... he shook his head and started off, walking slowly putting his rubber heels down first so his boots made little noise.

       The water main access door was still locked. The ventilation system door was locked. The tool shop door was closed... but light came from under the door. He thought he heard a noise inside the tool room and started to reach for his stun gun, but forced himself to relax. He went to the door, slowly turned the knob, opened it a crack, then peered in.

       The tool shop’s lights were on. Someone had an emergency generator half taken apart on the floor between two benches. A lawn mower was behind that, some cabinets, a silent boom box on a table, and—

       He saw her. She was thirty feet away across the shop room and had her back to him. She was in front of a wall full of tools and posters and other things. Her right arm with cast hung down at her side, while her left hand was pressed to her forehead. She stood alone, hunched up, making little choking noises and shaking all over.

       She was crying.

       He swallowed, feeling he was intruding. Couldn’t be helped, he told himself. He put a hand on the door and pushed it open, deliberately trying to make it squeak. It worked.

       The girl jumped and spun around. The tears shut off the moment she knew she was not alone.

       “Daria?” he said, trying to sound friendly but ending up sounding worried, which he was. “You all right?”

       “Don’t come near me!” she shouted, red-faced and frightened. “Don’t touch me!”

       “Daria, you’ve got to come out of here. This room is staff only. Let’s go back upstairs, okay?”

       Daria shook her head, then looked around. After a moment, she strode over to a table holding a heavy-duty bench grinder. She picked up a long, flat, rectangular metal bar lying beside the grinder, grasping it around the middle with her left hand and using the thumb and forefinger from her right hand to guide the black bar up to the right side of her throat. “Stay where you are!” she said. “Don’t come any closer!”

       It took him a moment to recognize the object she was holding: a lawnmower blade for a light push mower. He wondered if the blade had been newly sharpened, and he put out his hands in a warding gesture. “Wait a minute!” he said. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold on, okay? Just hold on! Don’t do anything!”

       “Get outta here!”

       “Daria, wait a minute, all right? Take it easy, take it easy. Be careful with that.”

       She got a better grip on the bar. Fluorescent light gleamed from the bright silvery blade, the edge fine as a razor.

       Oh, Christ! “Wait! Daria? Daria, it’s me, Curtis. From track practice, remember? You’re Jane’s friend, right?” She didn’t respond, but she didn’t do anything else, either, except watch him and listen. “Daria, we should go upstairs, okay? All right?”

       “No!” Her tone was brittle and angry.

       “Listen, please be careful with that, okay? For me? Be careful. I don’t want you to hurt yourself. Just put it—”

       “Go away.” She was calmer now, but showed no sign of putting down the blade or moving it away from her throat.

       Get her to talk. Say anything. “Why’d you come down here?” No response. “Is Jane down here with you?”

       “No.” She sounded sullen, more withdrawn now.

       Jane’s her friend, right. Use that. “Does Jane know you’re down here?”

       She bit her lip, but shook her head slightly. No.

       “Okay,” he said, feeling he was getting somewhere. “Think about Jane, all right? Think about Jane and come on out of here.”

       Something changed in her manner. She drew herself up. He knew instantly he had made a mistake. “I am thinkin’ of Jane,” she said, and she raised the lawnmower blade vertically and tilted her head from the blade. He saw in an instant that if she made a downward slash, she would lay open her throat from skin to windpipe in less than a second, severing the arteries as well.

       WAIT!” he shouted, hands up to stop her. “Before you do anything, listen to me! Just listen to me for a moment, okay? That’s all I want, Daria, one moment of your time! Look, I’m not doing anything, okay? See? Nothing in my hands! Just talk to me for a minute!” He made himself talk in a lower, calmer voice. “Just talk to me. Please, just give me a minute to talk. All right? Can you do that?”

       She hesitated. The blade was still high and ready.

       “Daria,” he said, having no idea at all where this was going, “I don’t know what happened, okay? Can you explain it to me? Just tell me what happened, why you came down here.”

       After a moment, a small head shake: no.

       “I don’t understand,” he said. “Is Jane not your friend anymore? Is that it?”

       She bit her lower lip again. No response.

       Get her to talk! “Something bad happen?”

       A nod. Yes.

       He knew from his training that facing the issue sometimes helped. Things were always worse if someone thought you didn’t understand. “You want to hurt yourself?” he said, his voice almost dying away. She didn’t respond, but he knew the answer was yes. He took a shot in the dark. “What’s Jane going to do if you do that?” he asked.

       He saw her waver. He had hit home. “What’s Jane going to do? She’s your best friend, right? I mean, maybe something bad happened, okay, but think about it. Just think about it. What’s Jane going to do if you do that? She’s your best friend. What’s this going to do to her?”

       Daria swallowed. The bar lowered a few inches, trembling in her grip.

       Curtis licked his lips. “No matter what happened, Daria, no matter how bad it was, nothing is going to be as bad for her as what you’re about to do. Nothing could be worse for her than this. I knew Trent when we were in school, Daria. He talked about his little sister all the time. He thought the world of her, and he was always worrying about how he was going to take care of her. I know she had a bad situation and all that, but Trent just thought everything of her. Now Trent’s overseas and Jane’s here by herself, and I know she doesn’t have any friends around here except you. You’re the only friend she’s got. You’re it. How could you take that away from her? Who’s going to be her friend if you’re gone?”

       Her face worked with emotion. The bar shook in her hands. He thought he saw tears running down her face.

       “Don’t be afraid of me, Daria,” he said. “I’ll stay right here by the door, all right? But you have to put that down and come on out of here. This isn’t safe for you. I don’t know what happened, but I know if anything happens to you, Jane has no one left around here. Don’t do this to her. Put it down and come out, okay? Please! Think of her!”

       Daria’s face screwed up as she fought back tears. She began to make a high whining sound, keening in grief.

       What the hell happened to her? “Please, Daria.” He motioned for her to come out, taking a step back from the doorway. “Put that down, please.”

       She broke. The bar clattered down on the workbench. “Don’t touch me!” she wailed. “Just don’t touch me!”

       “I won’t touch you, I swear. I want to keep you safe. That’s all. Come on out.”

       She came out with her head down and shoulders slumped. He snapped off the lights and closed the door behind her. He was shaking so hard he was afraid he would fall down. “I won’t hurt you, I promise,” he gasped. “Let’s go back the way we came. You go ahead.”

       “Curtis?” It was Tyrone, down the hall and around the corner. “Hey, Curtis!”

       “It’s okay!” Curtis called, trying not to spook Daria. “It’s okay! I found her! We’re coming out! No problem, no problem!” He turned to Daria, who stood with arms crossed ten feet away, her back to the wall. “Let me go first, okay?” he asked.

       She let him pass and lead, but he walked backward so he could see if she ran for it. They went around the corner. Curtis saw Tyrone had his stun gun out, and he swiftly motioned for his partner to put it away. Tyrone did so reluctantly. Daria came out. They went back upstairs, Tyrone first, Daria next, Curtis in the rear.

       In the hall outside were three other security guards. “We’re locked down,” said one to Tyrone. “Police are on the way.”

       Curtis checked to make sure Daria didn’t run for it. She didn’t. She took off her glasses and wiped her eyes on her left sleeve, trembling as much as Curtis had moments earlier.

       “Security, Williams,” Tyrone said into his radio. “We’re out. We’ve got the two-oh-two.”

       “Which one?” said the lady on the radio.

       Tyrone and Curtis looked at each other. “Dah—” Tyrone stopped before he said her name over the radio, which was verboten. “The one with the broken arm,” he finished.

       “What about the other one?” said the lady on the radio.

       “What other one?” said Tyrone with a frown.

       “Jane Lane, that tattooed sophomore girl,” said one of the guards next to Curtis. “She got out of class when the bell rang, but now we can’t find her. She didn’t leave campus. Li locked down the school, nobody’s allowed in the halls till we find both two-oh-twos.”

       Daria looked up, mouth open, eyes wide.

       “Jane Lane?” said Curtis in shock. He glanced at Daria, then turned to the other guards. “Where’d the hell she go?”

       “Shit, man, if I knew that, I’d fucking have her by now,” said the guard.

       “Wasn’t she on camera?”

       “Hell, I don’t know. She was on the second floor with this girl—” The guard indicated Daria “—and got out in the crowd when the bell rang. We’re looking every fucking place. Get this one to Manson, but come on back and help us find the other one.”

       “Wait just a second.” Curtis turned to Daria. “You know where she might be, your friend Jane?”

       Daria looked at him blankly, then shook her head no.

       “Did you two plan this?” he asked.

       “No,” Daria whispered. “We didn’t, I swear it.” She wiped her wet cheeks. “I don’t know where she is.”

       Curtis felt his patience run thin. “Well, can’t you guess? We’ve got to find her, Daria. The school’s in lockdown. It’s what we do if there’s a gun on campus. We lock all the doors and everyone hides under the tables. We have to find Jane before the police get here, do you understand?” He crouched to look Daria in the face. “The cops are gonna bring dogs and guns in here! Lockdown is not a joke! Think hard! Where could she be?”

       “I don’t know!” Daria cried. “I swear to God, I don’t know where she is!”

       “Where did she like to go around here?”

       “She runs track!”

       “Couldn’t have left the building,” said a guard.

       “Where else, Daria?” asked Curtis. “Think!”

       Daria struggled to keep her composure. “She likes art!”

       “Third floor,” said Tyrone.

       “Let’s take her with us, just in case,” said Curtis. “She and Jane are best friends.”

       “You sure you didn’t plan this?” a guard asked Daria with a narrow look.

       No!

       “C’mon, take the stairs,” said Curtis.

       The guards surrounded Daria but moved so quickly she had to trot to keep up. They came out on the third floor, Daria panting from the effort, then turned down the hall toward the main art classroom, where a guard knocked at the door. “Security!” he called. “We’re coming in with a key!” The guard then unlocked and opened the door. Students inside peered out from under long worktables and began to cheer and clap.

       “Keep it down, please! Quiet!” yelled Ms. Defoe. She sighed and turned to the guards. “What’s going on?”

       “A couple of two-oh-twos,” said the guard. “We need to look around, the other one might be in here.”

       “I hardly think so!” said Ms. Defoe in surprise, and she indicated her pupils. “It’s just us!”
       “Could anyone have gotten in during the last break?” asked Curtis.

       “Uh—” Ms. Defoe looked uncertain. “Well, I went to the bathroom for a moment, because my students are usually well behaved, you see, but—”

       The guards split up and began searching the room. Curtis and two others migrated to a pair of doors against one wall. “Oh!” cried Ms. Defoe from behind them. “The one on the left is the bathroom, I know there can’t be anyone in there, and the other one is the art supply room, but—”

       Daria looked down. A ribbon of bright crimson had begun to wind its way out from under the door.

       She lunged and twisted the doorknob. It was locked. “JANE!” she screamed.

       Security guards grabbed her and dragged her back. Curtis fumbled with the key ring at his belt, inserted the key, turned it. The lock popped, but the door opened inward only a foot and a half before it stopped. Someone had hooked the framework of an open steel cabinet over the knob, blocking all entrance. The room was unlit.

       “I can get through the shelves!” Daria yelled. “Let me get through there!”

       Two guards hit the door at once with their shoulders, but it did not give. “Something’s stuck up against the other side of the door!” one called. “Can’t move it!”

       Tyrone snapped on his flashlight and peered around the door and through the shelves, lighting the dark room. “Oh, shit!” he gasped. “We need an ambulance! Call it in now!”

       “Get those kids out of here!” Curtis snapped at Ms. Defoe. “Out in the hall!”

       As the teacher herded frightened, yelling students from the room, Curtis caught Daria by the arm and pulled her away from the other guards. “Listen to me!” he said, putting his face next to hers. “If you can get in there, get whatever’s on the other side of the door away from there and let us in! Can I trust you to do that?”

       Daria nodded, her face dead white.

       “Okay, get going! Go!

       She got down on her knees and put her arms and head through an empty shelf, pulling herself along though the cast made it all the harder. Someone held a flashlight into the black room, lighting her way from above.

       Jane sat up on the floor barely fifteen feet away, legs out, her back to a file cabinet. Her skin was alabaster white. Her head was down, her chin on her chest, her red-splattered hands in her lap. She sat in a dark lake that extended for a foot to either side of her and ran off in long streams across the vinyl tiles. A light bookshelf had been wedged between the door and another file cabinet to serve as a brace, preventing the door from opening any farther than it did. The room stank of fresh blood.

       Daria put her left hand down on the floor to lever herself the rest of the way through the shelves, but her hand slipped on a wet spot and she dropped out into the room and banged her left shoulder on the floor. When she got up, her T-shirt, pants, and arms were sticky-wet and reeked. She shoved at the bookshelf, but it was jammed in place. “Pull the cabinet back!” she yelled. “Pull it back!

       Someone reached through the door opening and dragged the cabinet several inches toward the door. Daria forced the bookshelf aside, then got down on the floor next to Jane. A cool wetness soaked through the knees of her jeans. She didn’t hear the shriek of the steel-frame cabinet as it was lifted and forced aside so the door could open. She reached down for Jane’s hands and brought them up to her face, one by one, with her good hand.

       Jane’s right arm was untouched. Her left wrist was sliced open down to the two pale bones of her forearm, which Daria saw clearly even in poor light. Blood did not spurt as Daria did that; it pulsed out in weak waves before her eyes. Maddened with terror, she gripped Jane’s arm below the slash and raised it high, squeezing as hard as she could with her slippery left hand. The blood ran over her fingers and down her arm, running inside her shirt. One hand was not enough to stop it. She was hardly aware that anyone else was in the room with her. She was not even aware she was screaming.

 

 

 

 

XVI

 

 

       Quinn hesitated as she reached for the knob on her sister’s bedroom door. She gently knocked, waited in vain for a reply, then steeled herself and opened the door. She anticipated a sudden, violent response.

       No such response came, though in a way that was worse than having Daria throw something at her. Quinn peeked around the side of the door. Her older sister was in bed, completely hidden under the covers. The hospital gown Daria had worn when she was released from Cedars of Lawndale lay on the floor in a wad beside the blue hospital slippers. Quinn stared at the silent lump on the bed long enough to detect a very slow rise and fall of the chest, then sighed in partial relief.

       I should make sure she hasn’t hurt herself again, she thought, but she was too afraid to walk up on her sister and try to rouse her yet. Too much had happened that day for anything to be predictable. Better to let Daria be and see if she got up on her own. Quinn left the door ajar and went back to her room, but she was too nervous to relax and finally pulled the chair from her vanity over to her doorway and sat there, trying to concentrate on a Christian youth magazine while peering down the hall every few moments.

       The phone rang fifteen minutes later. Quinn jumped up and ran over to grab the wireless handset from the battery charger on her bureau. “Hey, s’ me,” she said as she clicked on the phone, thinking it was a friend.

       A moment later, the handset downstairs clicked on as well. “Morgendorffers,” said her mother in the kitchen.

       “Is one of you Daria Morgendorffer?” said an older woman’s voice.

       “Is someone else on the phone?” said Helen.

       “Me, Mom,” said Quinn. “Daria’s in her room, restin’.”

       “All right,” said the caller. “I’m Eleanor Sullivan, Jane Lane’s social worker. How are you two holding up this afternoon?”

       “Not well,” said Helen crisply. “Not well at all. Quinn, could you get off the phone, please?”

       “Can I just listen in?” Quinn said.

       Quinn.

       “I don’t mind if both of you are on the line,” said Mrs. Sullivan. “I don’t have any secrets to tell. I called to let you know, and you can tell Daria this, that Jane is out of surgery. It was touch and go, I understand, but she pulled through. She’s being moved upstairs to Intensive Care at this moment, but I don’t anticipate she’ll be there longer than a few days. I wanted Daria to know that she saved her friend’s life when she found her and stopped the bleeding. That was an extraordinary thing she did, a brave thing.”

       Quinn felt her knees go weak with relief. Thank you, Jesus! she prayed in exaltation, wiping sudden tears from her cheeks. Thank you so much! Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!

       “That’s good news,” said Helen, her tone solemn and guarded. “We were very worried.”

       “As were we all,” said Mrs. Sullivan. “That was quite a shock. I spoke with Jane a few minutes ago before she was moved, and I told her about Daria’s rescue. She was grateful, but she couldn’t say much more as she’s too weak. She’s going to rest for a few hours, so I’m heading home. I’ll try to talk with her again later tonight or tomorrow morning.”

       “How’s her hand gonna be?” asked Quinn. “I mean, can she—I heard she cut herself pretty bad, so will she be able to use it, or what, you know, when she’s better?”

       “I’m not sure how much use she’ll have with it for the time being,” said Mrs. Sullivan. “Her arm’s wrapped up quite heavily. The doctors don’t know the full extent of the damage to the muscles and nerves yet. Time will tell, I suppose.”

       “Does anyone know exactly why she tried to hurt herself?” asked Helen.

       “I’m afraid not. I talked with the principal an hour ago, and she assured me that they were doing everything they could to determine what led up to this. She was going to get back with me later this evening, about eight I believe. If I hear anything, I’ll call and let you know.”

       “Did it have anything to do with—” began Helen, but she stopped. “Mrs., um—”

       “Sullivan, but please call me Eleanor.”

       “Um, Eleanor, I should talk with you privately later on. I had some questions to ask.”

       “I’ll get off the phone, Mom,” said Quinn, but she didn’t want to and was trying to figure out how she could listen in.

       “No, never mind. I’ll call you later,” said Helen. “So, Jane’s out of danger?”

       “I believe so. I hope so, anyway. She lost a lot of blood, but Daria dragged her out of death’s door, from what the doctors tell me. I just called to let Daria know, and to give her my thanks. She did a truly great thing, God bless her.”

       “We appreciate hearing that, Mrs. Sullivan,” said Helen, her formal voice turning on. “Listen, can I get your number so I can call you later? And when would be good to call?”

       “You can call me anytime, but I won’t know anything more about Jane’s condition for a few more hours.” Mrs. Sullivan gave her cell phone number. “Daria can call, too, if she wants, any time. I’d be happy to speak with her. Jane gave me permission to give you information about her in an emergency.”

       Quinn had already memorized the phone number, a little trick she had long ago found handy when out on a date and lacked either pencil or paper to write down another cute guy’s phone number. She heard pressured breathing over the phone, her mother apparently focused on writing down the number. “Thank you for calling,” Helen finally said. “I’m glad you had good news for us. We could use it.”

       “You’re welcome. My best to Daria. Bye-bye.”

       The phone downstairs clicked off.

       “Mrs. Sullivan?” said Quinn suddenly, hoping to catch her, but the social worker’s phone clicked off as well. “Crap,” she muttered, then put the phone down. She thought about her options, then left her room and went down the hall to Daria’s bedroom, where she knocked on the door again. “Daria?” she called.

       No response. She pushed the door open wider and looked in. The long lump under the blankets did not move.

       “Daria,” said Quinn, not daring to step into the room. “Mrs. Sullivan called, Jane’s social worker. You ‘member her? She said Jane made it out of surgery an’ she’s bein’ moved into ‘tensive care. She made it. She’s alive.”

       No response.

       Quinn swallowed. “Mrs. Sullivan said you saved her life, Daria. She said you did a great thing.”

       Nothing.

       “Daria? You okay?”

       The lump breathed, but nothing else.

       Maybe she’s asleep, thought Quinn, but she suspected that was not the problem. When Quinn saw her sister, brought home by their mother from the Cedars of Lawndale ER, Daria had been but a shell of her former self. She shuffled her feet, head down and shoulder slumped, refused to make eye contact and never spoke a word. Quinn wondered if the horror of finding Jane near death was the real problem, or if something else had happened. It was impossible to know. How would I act if I had just found one of my friends covered in their own blood, and I got it all over me, too? Quinn knew it must have been a horrible shock. When would Daria snap out of it?

       She went back to her room and again tried to read a magazine. She finally dropped it on the rug and padded out into the hall in her sock feet to go downstairs and talk to her mother. She had almost reached the stairs when she heard her mother’s voice from the kitchen.

       “I’ll wait,” said Helen. Quinn heard the click of her mother’s shoes on the tile. “Yes, hello,” Helen said a few moments later. “Is this the principal? What’s your name again? When will Ms. Li be back in the office? Could you tell her that... oh, okay. I’ll wait.”

       Quinn hardly dared breathe. She tiptoed to the top step, straining her ears to pick up every trace of sound.

       “Ms. Li?” said Helen. She sounded as if she were standing in the doorway between the kitchen and family room. “This is Helen Morgendorffer, Daria’s mother. Yes, thank you. No, she wasn’t hurt. The ER let her go. I’m still waiting for word from the hospital about blood contamination, though, because she was so covered in it. I don’t know if that other girl, Jane, had anything that... oh, okay, thank you, but I haven’t heard anything from the hospital. I mean, I came over as soon as your office called me, and when I saw her in the emergency room, my God, I thought... I can’t say what I thought. I know, I know. Yes. No, she’s upstairs right now, in her room.”

       There was a long pause. “I’m sorry,” said Helen. “I don’t understand. Are you talking about... what? Daria did what? You’ve got to be kidding me. Where was this? Well, how did she get down there? Wait, start over again from the beginning, the whole thing. You’re saying that Daria...”

       Another, longer pause.

       “Okay,” said her mother at last, her voice brittle. “You’re saying... Daria tried to kill herself just before... but why? I mean, are you sure? How can you be sure that this... a security guard saw her?” Helen voice then rose to a shout. “She what?

       No, God, please no. Don’t. Quinn felt an emptiness grow inside her.

       A very long pause passed before Helen spoke again. “I can’t believe it. How could... I don’t understand how this happened. Wasn’t anyone watching her? Can’t teachers stop kids from running out of the room? How did she get... yes, I’d like to see that video. Yes, thank you, I think I really need to see... I can’t believe this. I can’t...”

       Astonished beyond words, Quinn looked back at her sister’s door at the end of the hall. Daria tried to KILL herself today? What in the world happened? How can it be?

       “Ms. Li... Ms. Li, I need to call you back. How much longer will you be in your office? Oh, okay, can I have your cell phone number, then? Okay, I’m going to go check on her. I’ll call you right back.”

       The phone chirped as it was turned off. Quinn was already on her way down the hall, heading for her sister’s room. She pushed open Daria’s door with the sound of her mother’s footsteps echoing up the stairs.

       “Daria?” said Quinn. She stepped into the room, then stopped, half expecting her sister to rear up from bed and come at her. “Mom’s comin’ up to talk to you. She’ll be here—”

       “Daria?” called Helen, coming down the hall. She brushed past Quinn and went into Daria’s room to the bed. She reached down and gently shook the lump under the covers. “Daria! Talk to me! Are you all right?” She grabbed the covers and yanked them down.

       Daria lay on her side facing the wall, wearing only the white cotton panties given her by the hospital before her release. She did not resist or strike out as her mother checked her over, examining her daughter’s neck, arms, and legs for injuries other than the new cast she had on her right arm, this one in electric green.

       “Daria!” said Helen. “I need to talk to you! I called the school, and your principal said... are you listening to me? Daria?”

       No response. Daria’s eyes remained closed. She did nothing.

       A dreadful possibility arose in Quinn’s mind. She turned from the bedroom door and went to the bathroom she shared with her sister, snapping the lights on. In a moment she spotted the bottle of pain pills Daria had been given for her hand injury. She snatched up the bottle and opened it. It was still full of pills. She poured them out on the counter and counted them as fast as she could. Only two pills were missing, no more.

       Not an overdose. Giddy with relief, Quinn put the pills away, then on subsequent thought put the bottle in her pants pocket before she went back to Daria’s room. No sense in tempting fate later on, she figured.

       Her mother was on her way out of Daria’s room. “She won’t talk to me,” she told Quinn in the hallway, her voice low. “Can you keep an eye on her for a while? Just check on her every few minutes and make sure she doesn’t... doesn’t do anything. Better yet, just stay near her and watch her while I make some phone calls. I’ll be downstairs. Call me right away if she gets up, or bring her downstairs. She and I need to talk.” Helen looked back in the room, then shook her head. “Just watch her,” she said, then left.

       “Okay.” Quinn stared at her sister for a while, then walked in as quietly as possible and covered Daria with the blanket, leaving her head exposed. Quinn then went to Daria’s desk and sat down in the wheeled chair there. She glanced at the wireless phone and noticed the line was busy. She wished she could listen in on the conversation her mother was doubtless having with the principal about whatever had happened.

       She waited a long time. She heard her mother’s voice rising downstairs but could make out nothing that was said, other than noting that her mother was angry or upset.

       At one point, Quinn found herself on the verge of saying, I love you, Daria, but she didn’t. She found that she couldn’t. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her sister, because she did. It was just that...

       “Did you really try to kill y’self?” Quinn said aloud.

       No answer.

       Quinn sat forward on the chair, elbows on her knees, worn out. “Mom said you tried to kill y’self.”

       All was quiet.

       “I wanna say I love you, but now I’m too scared to,” said Quinn. “This isn’ like when you hit your hand ‘gainst the wall. This is like somethin’ else. It scares me. I wasn’ afraid when you tried to hurt y’self, ‘cept when we’d get to fightin’, but even that’s not like this. Now I’m really scared. I don’ wanna be this scared, Daria.”

       Quinn focused on her sister’s shape under the blanket. “I know it was bad, seein’ Jane like that, but I think somethin’ else was goin’ on, too, and I don’ know if it was or not. I feel sick, thinkin’ ‘bout it. I would lay down my life to save you, I would do it in a heartbeat, but now I don’ know what you’re gonna do, and even when I heard Daddy had his heart attack, I wasn’ scared like this. I can’t stand it.”

       She swallowed. “I don’ even feel like prayin’. That’s not like me. I think I should be prayin’ up a storm, but I can’t. I can’t do it, ‘cause I don’ know if it’d help. I feel like it’s beyond that. There’s nothin’ I can think of to do ‘bout what’s happenin’. I just want my sister back. Even you hittin’ me wasn’ as bad as this. Nothin’s as bad as this.”

       Quinn got off the chair and crawled on her hands and knees to Daria’s bed. She sat up there, staring at her sister’s auburn hair peeking from under the blanket’s edge.

       “I love you more than I love God or Jesus,” she said. “I don’t care ‘bout them no more if you aren’ here, too. I give ‘em up. Only thing I ask is that you don’ leave me. I can’t take that. I can’t take that. I love you, Daria.”

       “I killed Jane,” Daria whispered to the wall.

       Quinn started and tried to focus on the back of her sister’s head. “No, you didn’,” she whispered back. “She’s alive.”

       “I killed her brother.” Daria suddenly rolled over in bed and faced Quinn. There was death in her bloodless face. “I wrote to her brother in Iraq, and he decided because of somethin’ I said to go to Baghdad, and he got killed by that bomb. He wrote me an e-mail before he went. I got it today in class. I wrote somethin’ and it killed someone else, just like in Highland. I can’t stop killin’ people. I didn’t even mean to do it, and I’m still killin’ people, and Jane must’ve read my computer screen and saw it and she tried to kill herself, too. It’s never gonna end. I killed her inside. She’ll try again later to die, I know it. I killed my best friend.”

       After a moment, Daria’s left hand came out from under the covers and touched Quinn’s cheek. “Even you,” she whispered. “I’ll kill even you. I can’t stop it.”

       Quinn reached up for Daria’s hand, held it, then brought it to her mouth and kissed it. She then laid her forehead on the edge of the bed, holding her sister’s hand by her cheek. “I love you,” she said to the bed.

       “I love you,” said Daria, no emotion in her voice.

       Quinn shuddered, then her shoulders began to shake as she cried.

       Daria stroked her hair and said nothing. She wondered where all the clothing she had worn had gone, the clothes with Jane’s blood on them. She didn’t remember them coming home with her from the hospital. She had wanted to keep them. The blood on the clothes was all she had left of Jane, who would soon be as dead as her brother.

       I love you, too, she thought to Jane. I’ll always love you.

 

 

* * *

 

 

       Footsteps on the stairs soon roused them. Quinn kissed her sister’s hand again, then crawled back to her chair. She didn’t feel she had the strength to stand up. She was wiping her face with her palms when their mother came in, stopping in the doorway. After a moment spent looking at Daria in bed, who looked back at her, Helen leaned against a doorpost and the energy seemed to run out of her.

       “I talked to Ms. Li,” Helen said in a matter-of-fact tone to Daria. “She told me about the e-mails you and Jane’s brother sent to each other. She sent a message to Trent’s unit, but she hasn’t heard back from anyone. Probably won’t hear anything for a while, all things considered.” She rubbed her forehead. “She’s also heard about the lawsuit in Highland, from somewhere, and she feels it identified you specifically enough that you might face some... some, what can I call it, some negative attention over it from your classmates, possibly the media, once they get beyond the current disaster-in-progress. Not to mention what else I heard happened today, about—” Helen turned to Quinn. “Would you mind leaving for a while? Your sister and I need to talk.”

       Quinn nodded, then wearily got up from the chair and left the room. Helen moved to let her go by, then waited until Quinn’s door closed before closing the door to Daria’s room and leaning against it. “Ms. Li said you tried to kill yourself today. She’s of the opinion that you and Jane had some kind of suicide pact, I don’t know, something like that. I told her I couldn’t see it, but... well, there’s Jane, and one of the guards saw you... doing whatever, and so Ms. Li doesn’t think you belong in Lawndale anymore. She thinks you’re a risk not only to yourself but also to others, and she’s started the process of having you expelled. Rather heartless of her, but that’s what she’s doing.”

       Daria stared at her mother but offered no reaction.

       “Legally she’s on shaky grounds,” Helen went on, “but with the lawsuit coming up back in our old hometown, I can’t see fighting it. We don’t have the money, and I don’t have the time or attention to file suit against the school system here. She said the county superintendent would back her up and I could call him if I wanted, but I believe her. I tried to say that this was too soon, she should wait, but her mind’s made up. I just let it drop. You’re suspended for the time being, for running out of the classroom, but you’re not to go back to that school, not ever again. Even saving Jane’s life won’t help. It’s everything all at once. You almost got through two weeks here, and now you can’t go back.” She paused before adding, “Correct me if anything I’ve said is wrong, anything about what I’ve said happened today at school.”

       Daria was silent.

       Helen nodded, then walked over to the chair and sat down in it. She crossed her legs and turned the chair so she was facing the doorway, one arm over the back of the seat. She idly played with her hair. “I’ll be honest with you about this,” she said, “because there isn’t any point in lying. We’re at the bottom now, or close to it. I don’t know where this is going to go, or what we’re going to do. I don’t know anything except I can’t have you hurt yourself. I love you. It must not seem like that most of the time, but I do, and I want you to live. I’m just in so much shock, I can’t even think straight. I can’t even think of what we should say to your father about this, though I don’t think we should say anything at all, not now. He doesn’t need to know this.”

       She took a deep breath, looking at the door, and let it out slowly. “It’s funny, but I still love him. That must seem very funny to you, but it’s true. He’s always cared about you and Quinn, maybe you in particular, and he... he’s cared about me, too, though he did let things go too far this time. I’m still angry with him, really angry, but I still love him, too. It won’t make any sense until it happens to you and you know what it’s like.” She sighed again, rubbing a finger over her lips. “I don’t think we’ll get back together, your father and I,” she said, “but for now, I do love him, a little, and I hope he recovers. I should have Quinn call him later and check in, see if they’ve found a donor yet.”

       She turned in her seat to face Daria. “Do you really want to kill yourself?” she asked, as if talking about the weather.

       Daria stared back at her.

       “I want you to live,” said her mother. “All the money I was going to put into keeping you in school here, I’m going to put into keeping you alive and helping you get over this. That’s my top priority, even over the lawsuit. I think I’m a lousy mother, I freely admit that, but you are going to live, and that’s it. I will never give up on that. I will never give up on you. I’m a lousy mother, but I love you.”

       Daria’s lips parted. “I love you, too,” she whispered.

       Helen got up and went over to sit on Daria’s bed. In a moment, Daria was in her arms. They sat on the bed and hugged for the longest time in silence.

       And while they did, Helen Morgendorffer thought about what she had decided she was going to do, and as lousy mothers went she knew she was right up there at the top of the list, because the first thing she was going to do to save her family was to send Daria away as soon as possible, perhaps far away and for years to come, to a place that could help her as no other place could. She knew of a place that might work. She had just called there and left a message for the directors, who were old friends of hers, asking if they could take her eldest daughter in. It was the kind of request old friends were for.

       Helen closed her eyes and felt her daughter pressed against her, the strength of her daughter’s arms around her, the warmth of her breath. Goodbye, Daria, Helen thought. She bowed her head over her child, but she did not cry. May God forgive me, and may someday you forgive me, too, but I have to do this. I’ve nothing left. Goodbye, Daria. I’ll always love you. Goodbye.

 

 

 

 

XVII

 

 

       The hours drifted by like a slow river, turning into days, which then became weeks. The months passed and faded. A year went by, then two, then...

 

 

* * *

 

 

       It was cold in the hazy morning sunlight, and a low fog hung over the tall prairie grass. The need for a cigarette became overpowering once she was out of sight of the ranch buildings, but Daria waited until she and Skywalker had descended the slope to the banks of Roaring Creek, then she reined him in and dismounted with a grimace. Even in warm leather gloves, her hands ached with the change in weather. She tied the horse to a dead tree on the bank and let him graze, then tossed back the saddle blanket covering the tools strapped to the saddle. She ignored the fence-mending toolkit, the collapsible spade and post hole digger, and so on, instead unstrapping the walnut-stock .44 carbine with telescopic sights before she slung it over her shoulder. She flipped up the collar on her fleece-lined denim saddle coat, took off her gloves and tucked them in her left coat pocket, then felt for the pack of Virginia Slims in the other pocket. She wore long underwear beneath her jeans, woolen socks beneath her black boots, and a black felt Stetson. It was barely enough to keep out the chill and the damp, but it was enough.

       It was mid-November, and the air had a bite to it. She stuck a cigarette in her mouth, got out her lighter, and reflexively hunched her shoulders as she lit up, cupping her hands around the precious flame. The lighter went back into her pocket. Everything around her was soaked, but she watched where the cigarette ashes fell. She had almost started a brushfire shortly after she arrived at the Martha Jane Canary Ranch for Young Women, and from that time on was scrupulously careful. She looked back on that moment as the beginning of what she called the New Learning: the mistakes in her life were no longer to be repeated. She stopped punching walls with her bare fists shortly thereafter.

       She surveyed Roaring Creek as she drew on her cigarette. It had rained heavily the night before, and the broad shallow stream was living up to its name. Willow Yeager said climate change was the reason the rains came more often if more unpredictably than they had over a decade ago, back when she and her husband Coyote (actually Pete) purchased a two-hundred-acre ranch on the plains of eastern Montana and established their youth residential treatment center. Willow often laughed and said the ranch was all Jimmy Carter’s fault. She and her future husband had been taken with President Carter’s save-the-world idealism when they were at Middleton College in the late 1970s, classmates of Daria’s parents. Afterward, they had worked like good little capitalists until they had saved enough capital to put their dreams into action. All had gone quite well, with the center caring for up to a dozen troubled teenaged girls, until just after Daria arrived. The Iraq War then became the Korean Nuclear War, when certain parts and plans for the Baghdad bomb were traced through intermediaries back to Pyongyang. In the madness thereafter, government funds for anything not directly related to the military or civil defense instantly dried up. Mental-health funding was the first to go.

       Strange, Daria thought, that the Yeagers’ dislike of President Reagan had also inspired them. Expecting that at any moment Reagan the “cowboy president” would start a nuclear war with the Soviets, Willow and Coyote had long ago outfitted their ranch with the finest in survivalist gear, from instruction manuals and batteries to Geiger counters and weaponry (for hunting only, they said). They now lacked for nothing—except income.

       Daria knocked ash from her cigarette into the rushing water and exhaled. In a strange way, she was at peace, as much as she thought possible under the circumstances. She had no radio, iPod, CD player, pager, PDA, computer, or wristwatch TV, no musical entertainment other than listening to the Yeagers and the other girls sing old pop songs a cappella or to someone’s guitar playing to pass the time. (Daria had tried playing a harmonica, but the other girls had made her stop.) She had begun to read again, stuffing old paperbacks acquired from flea markets in her saddlebags or under her pillow in the bunkhouse, formerly the girls’ dormitory for the treatment center. Of late, she preferred histories, crime novels, poetry, and fantasies, but she would read anything if it interested her in the slightest.

       She did not write, though. She knew she never would again. It was enough to observe and think, and act only when necessary. It was enough to do that, and no more.

       Was she the same Daria she had been during her brief time in Lawndale, she wondered, or the same girl in Highland at Hope High? Yes and no, she thought, but mostly no. She didn’t think of herself anymore as a troubled youth. Now she was eighteen years old, a diminutive, hard-eyed, 115-pound ranch hand who worked for her food and board. Her world these days was simple: earth and sky, clouds and tall grass, lonely trees and rocky gullies and barbed-wire fences. There was little to do except work and find ways to survive, so that one could continue to work and survive one day longer. Though an adult, she had no plans to leave the ranch. Everyone at the former treatment center gave her plenty of room; no one got in her face as long as she did her chores, and she always did them. It wasn’t heaven, but it could be worse. Whatever troubles she had she could keep inside her, and life would go on. She was completely alone once more, as she had so often wanted to be.

       She still had her family, though they were usually far away. She had trouble believing that her mother and father were seeing each other again. This was the second year both parents had agreed to take Quinn and visit Daria together for a few days, to celebrate Daria’s birthday. The expected divorce had never gone through, forever lost in the wake of other things Helen and Jake meant to finish first. Neither had mentioned it during their stay at the ranch the week before. They seemed relaxed and happy to be together.

       Daria shook her head at the memory. Just after their arrival, a gleeful Quinn revealed in private that their father had moved in with their mother in Lawndale—a temporary arrangement, claimed Helen, until their father got his own place, though that looked less likely every day. The new heart was holding up well for Jake. “He’s like a kid again,” Quinn confided, “or mebbe more like an old goat! You oughta see him ‘round Mom—or mebbe not! Gawd! An’ I thought teenagers were bad!”

       Of Jane, though, Quinn knew little. An older sister named Summer had left drug rehab and taken Jane in upon the latter’s release from the hospital, sold the family home, then had moved far from Lawndale and had not returned. Where Jane was now, Quinn had no idea. Daria thought of Jane and her lost brother Trent every day. The irony that Daria had been sent to a girls’ camp named for Calamity Jane was not lost on her. Why don’t you smile? asked the other girls at the ranch. You would be so beautiful if you would only smile, said Willow. Then Coyote would tell a truly awful joke, and everyone would laugh. Everyone but Daria.

       I still miss her. She was my only hope.

       And I destroyed her.

       Daria dropped the smoldering butt and ground it out in the wet grass with the toe of her boot. She reflecting on the great amount of time she spent alone, except for the natural world and Skywalker. When the Yeagers introduced her to Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, she received the most placid horse in the stable, the badly misnamed Skywalker. A chocolate-colored mustang with a white star on his forehead, Skywalker was lazy enough to suit Daria, who did not want a photocopy of the spirited mount that ran away with her at a summer camp when she was twelve, throwing her in a rock-filled river. EAP was supposed to be a short-term therapy, but then came the Korean Nuclear War and the loss of government funding, the EAP therapist drove back to Helena, and Skywalker became Daria’s horse by default.

       Seven of the dozen troubled girls subsequently ran away from the ranch or were picked up by relatives, and the ranch lost its license to operate. Five girls, including Daria, stayed on as they either had nowhere else to go or liked it where they were. With the fallout danger past from the nuclear war, the treatment center now sold hay and boarded horses for out-of-towners. They grew their own food, or else shot it. Only Daria did the hunting. No one else had the stomach for it.

       She was walking back to her horse when she saw Skywalker lift his head and uneasily prick up his ears. He had sensed something that she had not. She eased the carbine off her shoulder and snapped the safety off, then turned in place, the weapon raised and ready.

       Two yellow eyes regarded her from the tall grass on the opposite bank of Roaring Creek.

       She remained wary but calm. It was the third grey wolf she had seen this year. They were migrating eastward of late, coming down from the Rockies. Some ranchers and farmers cursed them and shot them. Daria lowered her weapon and stared back without blinking, her head high. She felt she was in the presence of a kindred spirit. Perhaps it was Trent or Jane, reincarnated and checking up on her. She hoped that it was.

       “Hey,” she said to the wolf, and she smiled. When the wolf got bored and left, she mounted up and headed home herself.

       The ride along the ranch’s border was pleasant enough, despite the cold and the mist. The fence was in good shape, at least. The ranch was a crooked square just under a thousand yards per side, big enough for everyone to have some space under the endless sky. It bordered Highway 13 down from Wolf Point and the Fort Peck Reservation, a few hours’ drive from the interstate and Billings, the nearest big city, such as it was. Daria always managed to stretch the time she spent checking the fence into several hours, bringing back pheasants or turkeys for the other girls to prepare. Sometimes Coyote would barbecue dinner, or Travis the jack-of-all-trades would cook up an exotic dish he read about in an old magazine. Daria did not trust or like the easygoing Travis, a drifter who showed up after the war and was too slick for her tastes. She suspected he was secretly seeing one or more of the other girls on the side, perhaps pilfering a little food and cash here and there, but she did nothing about it. He was good with a guitar and fair at singing, he knew his way around a stove and a toolbox, and everyone else liked him. He left Daria alone, so she ignored him as best she could.

       Ethan, the Yeagers’ uncommunicative teenage son, was harder to ignore. He was seeing one of the other girls, too, but was being open about it. Willow and Coyote had long ago given up on their objections to the match, since both youths were seventeen, they were well versed in birth control, and the girl’s state guardian was unconcerned. Ethan was not Daria’s type, but she had caught herself watching him more than she felt was good for her, especially during the summer’s scorching heat waves when he worked with his shirt off. Hormones were the problem, she knew, and hers had gone into overdrive in the last few years, with no one to scratch the itch. It didn’t help that the only one she believed could have scratched it was so much radioactive carbon now, scattered to the four winds.

       Her fault, that Trent and Jane were gone. She accepted it and did her best to move on. The only thing that really turned her on now was death.

       She got to daydreaming about death and looked westward, toward Highway 13. Tugging gently on the reins, she guided Skywalker off the trail, moving slowly in case the damn prairie dogs or other varmints had started another subdivision on the property. None of the horses stabled at the ranch had broken a leg in a gopher hole yet, but there was always a first time. Daria had Skywalker descend another shallow creek bed and proceed for ten minutes until they were at the bottom of a low hill, on the other side of which was the two-lane highway. Around her bloomed hundreds of blue and yellow wildflowers—the school colors of Lawndale High, she remembered—and at a large pile of rocks and debris on the west bank of the creek, where a riot of weeds were taking over, she brought the horse to a stop. The rocks were undisturbed. Good. No one and nothing else had been here but her.

       She gazed down at the rocky cairn and remembered the day she had built it. It had been a difficult day, a hard day, but it had not been the worst day of her life. Some bad things were less troubling than others. The killings at Highland would always disturb her conscience, and the loss of Jane and Trent hurt deeply and often, but death was not always bad. In the greater scheme of things, it might even be acceptable, if not good, especially if it helped you realize finally and forever who you really were.

       And you were comfortable with that.

       Everyone’s got a story, Heather had once said. What’s your thing?

       I’m a mass murderer, Daria had replied.

       Well, least you have a hobby to fall back on when things get dull.

       Back in the present, Daria studied the cairn a while longer, then turned Skywalker around and left for home. The ride was quiet. No one tried to call her on her cell phone, the only allowance she made to the high-tech world, other than her weapons.

       She rode through the main gate of the compound’s security fence just before lunchtime, soaked to the skin by the mist. The electronic gate swung shut behind her. She dismounted at the barn, put away her tack and tools, brushed Skywalker down, turned him out in the front pasture, then walked into the bunkhouse with the unloaded carbine under her arm. Tall, lanky Lawanda was playing Tetris on an old gray Gameboy in the TV room. The TV had a game show on with the sound turned up. No one else was around.

       “You got a call,” said Lawanda, without looking up. “Willa took it.”

       “Who was it?”

       “Dunno.” Lawanda suddenly shook the Gameboy until it rattled. “Shit fuck! Now I gotta start all over again! I hate this fuckin’ thing!” She said much the same in much the same manner almost every day.

       Daria went to her room, unlocked the door, and went inside. The room was spare, clean, and orderly. She dropped her things on her bed, undressed, showered, changed into dry clothes, then spent a few minutes cleaning the carbine and the ten-power telescopic sights. When she was finished, she put it in the rack on the wall over her bed, under the antique semi-auto M-1 from the first Korean War and over the illegal M4 for which she was still trying to find black-market parts. There was a gun show in Billings in December, and another one in the spring. With luck, the Yeagers would let her take the black Ford pickup they had long ago nicknamed The Boss, for Springsteen.

       She checked her ammo supply, then locked the rack, locked her room, and went to the cafeteria for lunch.

       “Hey, girl,” said Coyote, helping himself to another cup of coffee. His smile broke out beneath his bushy gray mustache. “What’s going on in the big sky country out there?”

       “Nothin’,” said Daria, getting a cup for her own caffeine fix. She drank it black with a ton of sugar. It helped her cope, to do something that Jane once did. No tattoos yet, though she was thinking about something with a Maori look.

       “You ought to be careful out there. Some bad people are out, and I’m not kidding. I was talking with Jim Dundee a while ago, and he said the Highway Patrol’s still looking for that fella that killed that woman in Glendive and got away last year. They think he might still be in the area, maybe even here.”

       Daria thought about the lonely grave under the rocks, surrounded by the blue and yellow wildflowers out by the highway. “He might be,” she agreed as she filled her coffee cup.

       “I’m just saying I want you to be careful, understand? Get right back to the ranch the moment you sense trouble.”

       “Mmm-hmmm.”

       “And you should quit smoking, too, you know,” said Coyote with a broad grin. “Bad for your love-life. Nobody likes to kiss an ashtray.”

       “Mmm-hmmm.”

       “You’re not listening to me at all, are you?”

       “Mmm-hmmm.”

       Coyote laughed as he left the cafeteria. Travis had made fried chicken and served it up as Daria approached with her tray. She got three pieces, a pile of mashed garlic potatoes, a glass of milk, and some green beans, then sat down alone to eat. Lennon Number Three wandered into the cafeteria and sat down at Daria’s side, giving her a mournful gaze. She ignored him as she always did.

       “Here, old boy! C’mon, boy!” called Travis. “I’ll feed ya!”

       The aged, pudgy German shepherd gave Daria a last hopeful look, then got up and padded over for his snack. Travis tore off a piece of fried chicken without bones in it and tossed it to the dog, who snapped it up with an eager expression.

       “Hey, Daria,” said Willow as she came in the room. “Travis. Hey, are you feeding that dog?”

       “Me?” said Travis, all innocence.

       “He’s fat as a pig. Look at him! He was half that size before you came here, Travis!”

       “But I ain’t feedin’ him!” Travis found it impossible to keep from smiling.

       “You’re lying, and don’t you say ain’t. I’m trying to teach these girls proper English.”

       “Shakespeare said ain’t,” Daria put in, dropping a chicken bone on her plate.

       “Shakespeare’s not teaching English at this ranch, and you stay out of this.” Willow’s smile betrayed her humor. “Speaking of you, I need to get my Christmas shopping started. What are you looking for this year?”

       “Hmmm.” Daria ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth, thinking. “Can I have a pony?”

       “You’ve got a pony.”

       “Oh, right. Um...” She began serious consideration.

       “I don’t like buying gun parts,” said Willow in a nervous voice.

       “I was thinkin’... a trip to Billings for that gun show next month would be nice.”

       “Jesus Christ,” said Travis with a touch of annoyance. “Who d’you think you are, girl? G. I. Jane?”

       The word Jane caused Daria to shoot a fiery gaze in Travis’s direction. He tried to outstare her but couldn’t. “Girls shouldn’t be messin’ with guns, anyway,” he said, turning back to the stove. “That’s man’s work. Don’t be thinkin’ you’re tougher than a real man, like me.”

       “Oh, please, Travis,” said Willow with a tolerant grin. She turned to Daria. “Can I see you in my office when you’re done?”

       Must be about the phone call. “Sure. Be right there.”

       “And no macho stuff on this ranch, He-Man,” Willow called to Travis. “We’re respectful of each other here—most days.” She waved to Daria and walked out. No one else was in the cafeteria but the cook and the girl in the black tee and jeans.

       Travis sighed and began washing a pot in the sink. “Be more respectful ‘round here if people stayed in their place, I say. Men do men stuff, women do women stuff. I know I’m in the minority here, but—” He turned to get another pot and almost jumped out of his skin.

       Daria was standing at the serving counter not four feet from him. She raised her right hand and snapped something shiny into the air with her thumb. It fell and clinked when it hit the stainless steel countertop, bouncing and rolling until it bumped into a dishrag.

       It was the empty brass cartridge from a .44 Magnum carbine shell.

       “Keep the change,” Daria said in a level tone. Then she walked from the cafeteria without a look back.

       After getting her hat and saddle coat from her room, she left and crossed from the bunkhouse to the main office. The cluster of one-story log-and-timber buildings that made up the central compound of the Martha Jane Canary Ranch included the main office, at the end of a long gravel driveway from Highway 13; the Yeagers’ home; the girls’ bunkhouse and cafeteria; the horse barn; the combination garage and tool shed; the one-room Mary Jane Canary School and indoor gym; the veterinary clinic (currently unstaffed); and three small cabins where adult hands like Travis stayed. Travis was currently the only older hand present, the other instructors, therapists, and caretakers having left once the money gave out. Unused buildings were now empty of valuables and locked; the girls did the cleaning and Travis the mowing. Daria’s parents, being old friends of the Yeagers, were allowed to use a spare cabin when they visited.

       The outside air was only marginally warmer than earlier, though the fog was gone. Several girls were riding horses on their lunch break before picking up their chores again. Daria had the urge for another cigarette, but she decided to wait until after seeing Willow. Two bald eagles circled in silence far above, against the clouds.

       Willow looked up from her desk and smiled as Daria entered the office’s warm lobby. “Hey, Daria!” she called. “I won’t keep you too long. Have a seat. Did Travis bother you with what he was saying?”

       “No, ma’am.” Daria dropped into the wooden chair with the embroidered pillow on the seat that read: TEXAS DON’T MAKE WEAK WOMEN. She took off her hat and put it in her lap as she leaned back and crossed her legs.

       “I know he says silly things sometimes, but he means well,” said Willow. “He’s such a dear, he does so much for us.” Willow looked at a sheet of paper on her desk. “I had a few things to go over, and I promise I’ll keep them brief. How are you doing?”

       Daria shrugged. “Fine.”

       “Good. Any chance of getting a nice big wild turkey for Thanksgiving next week? I want to make sure we have something we can share around, lots of leftovers for the winter. Maybe two turkeys would be best. Can you do that?” Willow winced as she spoke. Everyone knew Daria’s marksmanship was superb, despite her need for glasses.

       Daria’s face did not change expression. “Sure.”

       “Oh, excellent.” Willow regretted the consequences for local wildlife resulting from this agreement, but it had to be done. Predatory behavior is all natural, too, Daria was fond of saying. “Have you given any thought to your future?” Willow continued. “I mean, I’m assuming you’re still going to finish out the school year with us, though to be honest I should just graduate you now, as you know everything we could possibly teach here. I can give you the final comprehensive and send the results along to the state, if, um, you think you might want to look somewhere else for—”

       “I want to stay for now,” said Daria. She tolerated Willow’s rambling but liked to hurry it along whenever possible. “Don’t mind if I graduate early, but I like it here, if that’s okay with you.”

       “Oh, that’s great!” Willow laughed in relief. “We’d love for you to stick around! Goodness! You’re so young but so mature, like you have an old soul.”

       It was difficult not to roll her eyes, but Daria managed to suppress the urge. “Thank’ee.”

       “You’re welcome.” Willow became more nervous as she continued. “So, that’s out of the way. On to the next topic, I guess. Dear, I’m going to ask you a strange question, and it’s going to sound kind of... well, kind of like I’m accusing you of something, but I’m not. I thank God we took you in when we did, you’ve done so much for us. I don’t know how many times I’ve told your mother what a help you’ve been here, you’re worth more than a ton of gold. You don’t complain, you do everything that needs to be done, it’s just amazing. You’re like—”

       Willow heard Daria sigh heavily, and she broke off. “Well, anyway,” she said, her anxiety growing, “the reason I wanted to talk to you, and I’m fishing for clues here and not casting suspicion on you or accusing you of anything, is that yesterday I was, um, checking over the vet clinic, thinking maybe we could get a grad student from Helena or someplace to come out and work for us full-time instead of having June Macintyre come by once every two weeks, and, um, I, um, noticed—”

       “Someone had been in there,” Daria finished, taking a guess.

       “Yes!” cried Willow. “Someone had been in there—”

       “Where’d they get the key?”

       “Uh, I don’t know, really. The lock was still on, but when I went inside, things were a little moved around, and Coyote said he hadn’t been in there himself, so I don’t know what to think.”

       “Anything missing?”

       “Uh, no, I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t know, now that you mention it. I looked around—”

       “How could you tell someone had been in there?”

       Willow’s face colored up. “Well,” she said, “on the floor, behind one of the trash cans... oh, what the hell, I found a condom.”

       Daria rubbed her mouth, fighting down a smile. “A used condom?”

       “Um, yes. Disgusting. I threw it out, of course.” Willow made a face. “I can’t imagine what they were thinking, whoever it was.”

       “Travis have a key to the lab?”

       “No, he shouldn’t, and I never said it was Travis, of all people.”

       “You’re thinkin’ it.”

       “I—” Willow threw up her hands. “Maybe it was. Daria, people are people all over. You know that as well as I do.”

       “So he’s doing it with one of the girls.” Daria got a distant look on her face as she thought. “Prob’ly not Becks, not his type, and not Lawanda—” She did not give voice to the open secret that Ethan was seeing Lawanda, to avoid getting Willow fired up over the issue once more “—and I doubt Kayla, so that leaves Jasmyn. She’s eighteen, no problem if it’s her. Least he’s careful, which is more’n I can say for most guys.”

       “Well, I don’t want him doing it with any of our girls! It’s not appropriate behavior, and Kayla’s only fourteen, so it’d better not be her! Careful or not, the girl could still get pregnant, and we don’t have the resources for caring for a baby! This isn’t a homestead!”

       “Not yet.”

       “It’s not funny! We couldn’t afford it, Daria! If one of the girls got pregnant, she’d have to go to Billings or farther west just to be near a good hospital. And I don’t want Travis having a key to the vet clinic!”

       “Only you and Coyote have keys to ever’thing, right?”

       “Right.” Willow suddenly looked pained and smacked herself on the forehead with one hand. “Oh, shit. I forgot. We loaned Travis the key to the clinic four or five months ago, at the beginning of summer, so he could move the old furniture out for that rummage sale. I forgot all about that. Damn it!”

       “He coulda got copies made at the hardware store in Wolf Point ‘fore he gave ‘em back.”

       “Yes, of course. I’m such an idiot.” Willow blew out her breath and settled back in her chair, her face clear. She gave Daria a rueful smile. “This is why I like having you around. You get everything straightened out.”

       “‘Cept Travis has a key or two he shouldn’t have.”

       “Any ideas about what I should do? Should I call him in and tell him what we think?”

       “Nope.” Daria picked up her black Stetson and looked it over. “Don’t like him, but no point botherin’ him. He ain’t stealin’ anythin’ we know of, and he’s usin’ condoms, like you said.”

       Willow looked aghast. “But what if it’s Kayla? She’s just a kid, Daria!”

       Daria was silent for a long beat. “Well,” she said at last, “his tastes never struck me as runnin’ to children. He likes more... developed figures, given the places he looks when he’s talkin’ to Jasmyn. Don’t ‘member he’s ever paid much attention to Kayla, ‘cept gettin’ her to sing along when he’s playin’ guitar.”

       “But it’s possible, isn’t it? I mean, we don’t know what he’s doing, or with whom.”

       Daria’s expression became more solemn. “I know Kayla was hookin’ for drugs ‘fore she got here, but... yeah, you’re right, we don’t know what’s up.” She looked at Willow. “I was thinkin’ if we tell Travis ‘bout all this, he might deny it all, then up and leave first chance he gets. If he’s got keys to the clinic, he might have keys to other places, too. Mebbe you should check your valuables and the strongbox. You haven’t been to the bank since the middle of October, far as I know, so we’re cash heavy. Keep an eye on that box. Wouldn’t put it past Travis to pick up some spendin’ money on his way out.”

       “You really think he would?”

       “Could be wrong ‘bout him,” Daria admitted. “Could be right, though. You never know.”

       “Okay. I’ll... I’ll go check on things. I really appreciate you helping me out with this.”

       “You already tell Coyote?”

       “I’m going to, later. I wanted to talk with you, first.” The older woman sighed and smiled again. “This way, I got to talk to the person I trust most.” She winced again. “I don’t mean I don’t trust my husband, but... well...”

       Daria nodded in understanding. “That all?” she said, uncrossing her legs and preparing to get up.

       Willow looked relieved. “That was it. Thank you again for everything. Tell me if you have any ideas on how to resolve this.”

       “Sure.” Daria stood and stretched, then remembered. “Lawanda said somethin’ ‘bout you gettin’ a call for—”

       Oh!” Willow jumped to her feet and began looking through the scattered papers on her desk. “I totally forgot! I can’t believe I did that! Someone called for you, Jane somebody. She left her phone number. I’ve got it here somewhere.”

       Daria froze, thunderstruck. “Jane?” she said. “Jane Lane?

       “She didn’t give her last name when she called—oh! Here it is!” Willow handed over a scrap of paper with a phone number scribbled on it in pencil, with the name “Jane” below it. “Go ahead and use the phone here. I’ll go check on things around the ranch. Do you know a Jane? Wasn’t that girl whose life you saved a few years ago named Jane?”

       Daria took the scrap in her hands as if it were as fragile as gold leaf. She stared at the number and swallowed.

       “Guess that answers my question,” said Willow, walking around her desk for the door. “I’ll be around. Take your time, talk all you want.” She patted Daria on the shoulder, then left, closing the lobby door behind her.

       Daria felt for the chair behind her and sat down. Her knees were weak with terror. Is it Jane? Is it really her? Is she calling to curse me, threaten me, or both? Does she hate me? What happened to her all this time? Where is she? Oh, shit!

       She looked across the desk at the cordless phone. To even imagine taking the phone and dialing the number... she couldn’t. She didn’t have the courage. It was too much.

       Texas don’t make weak women.

       She got up and walked stiff-legged around the desk. The cordless phone was infinitely heavy in her hand. She placed the paper scrap on the desk and carefully punched in the numbers, one after the other, then pressed the last one and raised the phone to her ear, her breath roaring in and out of her. Time stood still

       The phone rang on the other end.

       And, a moment later, was picked up

 

 

 

 

XVIII

 

 

       “Hello, again,” said a voice out of the past. “I warned you I didn’t like it when people ran off on me, didn’t I?”

       Daria gripped the phone until the plastic nearly buckled and broke. “Jane?” she said in a strangled tone.

       “That’s what they call me, among other things. I’ll forgive you for running off this time, as I hear Montana wasn’t entirely your choice. So, you mad at me?”

       “No! No, I’m not mad at you!”

       “You don’t sound like yourself.”

       “Well, I can’t help it! Where the hell are you?”

       “Billings, Montana. This is a weird city. It’s got like one or two skyscrapers and some stubby halfway sort of skyscrapers, but the cliffs around it are pretty cool. Kinda flat otherwise. Just got in a few hours ago. How far am I from you, driving distance? I’m assuming you’re near Wolf Place or Wolf Peak or whatever the fuck it’s called.” Jane hesitated, hearing nothing. “Are you still there?”

       “It’s Wolf Point, and yes! You’re five hours away!”

       “Are you crying?”

       Yes, damn it!”

       “Well, I’m crying, too, amiga. I guess that makes us even.”

       Hearing the word “amiga” almost did Daria in. “I’m sorry for what happened!” she gasped as she wept. “I’m so sorry I can’t stand it!”

       “Sorry? Jeez, Daria, for what?”

       “For what happened to Trent!

       There was a pause on Jane’s end of the line. “Hey,” Daria heard Jane say in a distant voice, “she wants to talk to you. Come over here. Here, take this. Say something.”

       The phone changed hands. “Uh, hello?” said a rough, masculine voice. “Daria?”

       A strange cry came from Daria’s end of the connection.

       “Are you okay?” the guy asked.

       No!

       “She says she’s not okay,” the guy said, away from the phone.

       “Jesus fucking Christ, Trent, get back on the phone and tell her what happened!”

       The guy’s voice returned. “Uh, okay. Sorry. What happened was, I didn’t go to Baghdad like I told you in that e-mail. One of the drivers broke his ankle, and my CO made me go in the convoy to Hadithah instead of to headquarters, like I wanted. That happened right after I logged off. Anyway, as we were going north, we got ambushed.” Trent exhaled and was silent for a few moments. “It was pretty bad,” he finally said. “Lot of people got killed, most of the unit. Not many of us got out. A helicopter picked up eight of us, and a few more got on another copter, but that was all. It was bad.”

       Another moment of silence passed. “Anyway,” Trent went on, “I was moved around a lot after that, with Baghdad gone and my unit wiped out. I was attached to some other units, mostly combat, then I was in Kuwait a few months before I came back, working on the evacuation. I finally got home when my involuntary extension ran out, the third one. That was last, uh, February. When I got back, it took me six weeks to find Janey again. It was crazy. I didn’t think I’d be gone so long. Took some getting used to, being in the States after I got in. Kind of strange. Um, you still there?”

       “I’m here.” A pause. “I thought you were dead.”

       “Heh. For a while there, I thought I was, too. Are you okay?”

       “I don’t know.”

       Trent coughed. “I’m not dead yet, like they say in that movie.”

       “That’s good. I’m really glad. I’m sorry I’m crying. I can’t help it.”

       “It sounds like this phone call has hit you pretty hard.”

       “Well, I thought you were dead all this time! I mean... I mean, I really thought I’d made you go where that atom bomb went off! I thought I’d killed you and killed Jane, and—”

       “Well, you didn’t. Don’t think that. That wasn’t your fault. I was just trying to get back to HQ so I could go home to the States. You made me realize what was really important in life, Daria, and it was good you did that. I wasn’t thinking about Janey so much as I was thinking of me, till you straightened me out. You’re pretty cool. I don’t know how to say thank you for it, but... heh, I guess I did.” He coughed again. “Things right now are... well, they’re kind of like great but not great. It’s kind of hard to explain. Things are hard, but they’re better than they were and getting better every day. Tomorrow holds the key. Something like that.”

       Daria sniffed. “I’m really glad you’re alive.”

       “Yeah. Heh. You know, Janey kept telling me you had a weird accent. You kind of do, but I like it. I like your voice. Very Texan.”

       Daria laughed even as tears ran down her face. “Jane is so full of shit.”

       “Heh. Yeah, I guess she is sometimes. That’s funny. You sound a lot like her old social worker.”

       Daria laughed again, but then put a hand over her face and began to cry. “I missed you so much—I mean, I missed you and Jane—I mean, Jane—oh, screw it. I just wanted to die.”

       “Uh, don’t do that. Seriously, don’t. We’re like in the same state with you, finally, and we were thinking of coming to see you if that’s okay with—”

       “Yes! Yes, it’s okay! Yes! I can’t wait to see you! Oh, God!”

       Except for the noises on Daria’s end of the line, there was silence.

       “She’s crying again,” said Trent, off line.

       “Give me that,” said Jane. “Hello? Daria? You still there? I love you. We’re coming to see you as soon as we can get some gas in this stupid car. It’s an old Taurus that used to be Summer’s car. We’re borrowing it, so to speak. She probably doesn’t even know it’s gone. You wouldn’t believe the shit she had me doing in North Carolina. Remember me talking about babysitting her kids? She’s had more kids, up to seven now. She’s like a fucking population explosion. That’s all I did for the last year and a half, change diapers and clean up vomit, hers or her kids’. She was supposed to be home-schooling me, but she spent all her time partying and getting wasted. Fucking worthless piece of shit. Least she didn’t get into my bank account.”

       “Hey, come on,” said Trent nearby. “Family.”

       “Fuck that ‘family’ crap! She is a piece of shit! You even told me so yourself!”

       “Well, don’t let Daria—”

       “Daria knows everything about me already! Daria? You still there? Talk to me!”

       “I’m here, I’m here!”

       “Listen, everything worked out. It’s okay again. Quinn told us how to get to where you are. We tried calling her all last week, but apparently she was up there with your mom and dad. She told us about you and your folks getting dropped out of that lawsuit, the Highland thing. I didn’t even know there was a lawsuit, that’s how out of it I was. You’ll have to tell me what happened there. Oh, and happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, by the way. I’m sorry we didn’t get through to you any sooner, but we had a lot of stuff to sort out between me and Summer and fucking everyone else. It’s been a nightmare. And Trent had some stuff he had to get sorted out, too, but it wasn’t legal stuff. I won’t go into it. It’s been a hell of a year. We’ll talk about all that later, okay?’

       “Okay.”

       “You’re still crying.”

       “Am not.”

       “I love you.”

       “I love you, too.”

       “Sure you’re not mad at me?”

       “For what?”

       “For what? For fucking cutting my wrist and making you save my fucking idiot life, that’s what!”

       “Janey!” called Trent in the background.

       “Well—!” Jane shouted back.

       “I don’t care!” Daria said through her tears. “Just get here! I miss you so much!”

       “We’ll be there. It’s supposed to rain tonight, but we’ll be there with bells on. I have a map to your place online. Quinn helped me find it. Is there a motel around there anywhere?”

       “We got room. Just get here. And be careful on the way.”

       “We will. I love you, Daria.”

       “I love you, Jane. And Trent.”

       “Better not forget Trent, right. Okay, we’re going to get going now. My cell phone battery’s almost dead, too. Talk to you soon, okay?”

       “Okay. Bye.”

       “Bye. Trent says goodbye.”

       “Tell him I said goodbye, too.”

       “Wait a minute.” Jane’s voice moved away from the phone. “Trent,” she called, “Daria says she’s legal now!”

       “Janey!” cried Trent in the background.

       “Love you, bye!” cried Jane—and hung up.

       Daria managed to get the phone stuck back in its charger base on her fifth try, then used up a handful of facial tissues blowing her nose and cleaning herself up. Dazed, she sat down heavily in Willow’s leather chair and tried to remember what else she had to do that afternoon: help clean out the barn, do her laundry, check the inner compound fence, then dinner—then meet Jane and Trent. Then... she didn’t know what. The future was one big question mark.

       One thing for sure: Jane and Trent would never find out about the cairn she had built the year before, or what was under it. Daria still felt guilty over the shooting even if she felt it was justified, though the guilt had faded as the armor of self-righteousness had taken hold. It would still be tricky to explain to anyone why she had shot someone to death and covered it up, even if the guy had tried to pull her off her horse and get her rifle, even if she did find out a week later he was probably a murderer. Jane would think the worst of her, certainly, and maybe she deserved that, but she didn’t want it, didn’t want to deal with it. Still, no problem, they didn’t have to go out near the cairn when touring the ranch—and even if they did go there, no problem, because it didn’t look like a grave, did it? It was just a pile of rocks, after all, with a man’s body three feet underneath it. Jane and Trent would never know. Daria had done it only once, killing someone face to face. No one at the ranch had paid attention to the gunshot, as she often shot at game. It was just once that the game had been a human being who had deserved to die.

       Just once, so far. Cassandra, who had vanished from Daria’s consciousness after she had saved Jane, had not tormented her once about it. Justified, then.

       “Gotta talk to Willow,” she said aloud, moving on. “See if one of the cabins is available. Maybe I can sleep over with them tonight. Trent’s with her, though, so maybe not. I don’t know. Don’t know when they’ll get here, either. They might need something to eat once they get in. Don’t want to bug Travis, better ask Willow. Still have some leftover venison and store-bought chicken, I think. Better check.”

       She got up and put Jane’s phone number in her jeans pocket. Feeling at loose ends, she left the office and stopped outside the door, trying to think of what she needed to do. Becks and Jasmyn were sitting at a picnic table in their saddle coats and gloves, talking together. They ignored Daria as always, Daria the loner, Daria who used guns. She gave the girls a lingering look and remembered talking with Jane on the picnic table at her mother’s house in Lawndale. Soon, Jane and I will get to talk again. Very soon. I hope. She then wiped something out of her eye and left to ask Willow if she minded if Daria had visitors. Willow was delighted and offered the use of a cabin for them before Daria could even ask. Extras for meals for a day or two? No problem! Relieved, Daria then went to the barn to start her chores. Working always helped her relax and think.

       As she worked, though, something bothered her about the day. She couldn’t put her finger on what was off. She frowned and set the issue aside. It would come to her when it was ready. Once finished shoveling manure out of the stalls, she checked the tack to make sure it was all there and hanging up where it was supposed to be, then walked around the high inner fence of the compound to check for breaks or damage. She finished about two forty-five in the afternoon. About two hours of sunlight remained. Jane and Trent would arrive shortly after dusk, with any luck.

       Tired now, Daria stood in the doorway of the barn for a moment, looking over the ranch. A bitter wind had picked up, and the clouds were darker. Lots of rain coming, she knew. She hoped Jane and Trent did not have an accident on the way in. She didn’t think she could take it if that happened. Let me see them, she prayed, the first time in ages that she had done that. Please let me see them, and let them be safe and sound.

       She turned up her coat collar and headed for the bunkhouse to do her laundry. Voices caught her attention on the way. It sounded like arguing. She slowed down, listening, but continued on. In moments, she spotted the source of the noise.

       “I’m tellin’ you, I didn’t do it!” Travis shouted. He stood halfway between his cabin and the main office, facing Willow and Coyote. “I don’t have the God-damn keys to anything around here but what I’m s’posed to!”

       “Now, calm down!” said Coyote. “We’re just trying to—”

       “You’re just trying to find a good excuse to fire me!” Travis yelled. “I do good work around here! I pull my own weight! I don’t poke my nose into places it don’t belong, and this is the thanks I get!” Daria saw Travis look in her direction, grit his teeth, then turn on his heel and stomped to his cabin. The door slammed shut behind him. Willow, her arms crossed in front of her, and Coyote, hands jammed in his back pockets, began to talk in low voices. They were clearly upset from the argument, Coyote as much as Willow.

       Daria hesitated, then elected to stay out of the fight and changed her path to walk the long way around the main office building to get to the bunkhouse. She was surprised Willow had gone ahead and talked to Travis. She’d better guard that strongbox like I told her, she thought. At least Coyote was with her. Travis looked really bugged, though. Can’t blame him, I guess.

       Becks peered out of a front window as Daria approached, watching the goings-on. Becks was a strong, heavy girl with a butch haircut and the tattoo of a skull and crossed daggers on her thick left upper arm. “What was all that?” she asked when Daria came in.

       “Dunno,” said Daria, looking out the window with her. Willow and Coyote were walking back into the office building.

       “You seen Kayla anywhere?”

       “Nope. Her day to feed and water the horses?”

       “Sure is. She better get her skinny little butt out there before it gets dark. I’m not picking up her slack.” Becks sniffed and headed for the cafeteria.

       Daria looked at Travis’s cabin. The shades were drawn. Something was still bothering her. She couldn’t pin it down, so she went to get her laundry. Her daily mail was under her door: a postcard from Quinn, a gun catalog from a store in Fargo, North Dakota, and an advertisement for a magazine subscription. She started a load of dark colors, sitting in a folding chair in the laundry room as she thumbed through the catalog. It was hard to concentrate because she kept thinking of Jane. And Trent. And sex. And what a moron she was for thinking about sex. And the bigger problem of not appearing to be what she knew she actually was, a real killer, and how she could hide that. And how to explain that, if she ever had to, and whether Jane or Trent would listen and understand. And whether the meeting and the rekindled friendship would go to hell as a result. And so on.

       The load was halfway done when Willow came in. “Have you seen Kayla?” Willow asked. “We can’t find her anywhere.”

       Oh, shit. Another runaway. Daria sighed and put the unread catalog aside. “Becks was askin’ ‘bout her, too.”

       Willow looked grim. “I hope she’s just cutting out from doing her chores. Coyote’s looking around here in the rooms with the master key. Everyone else is outside. Becks is checking the cabins, including Travis’s place. I hope Kayla didn’t take off. She’ll get sick for sure in the cold and rain.”

       Daria went outside and got Skywalker from the barn, then joined Lawanda and Ethan on horseback to search the rest of the property. They hunted for an hour but found nothing. Becks and Travis were assigned to feed and water the other horses; Becks protested mightily but to no avail. Jasmyn helped Willow search the buildings a second time.

       Still searching by horseback, Daria now wondered if Kayla wasn’t more than merely sick, perhaps resting in a shallow grave this very moment like a certain person buried under a cairn. Perhaps Travis did know something about Kayla’s fate. Daria’s thoughts changed to images of how Travis would look in the ten-power scope attached to her .44 carbine. She might whistle just to get him to look up and see her at the last possible instant. He would look good that way in her memory. Screw what Jane and Trent thought of it. Daria remembered her sister’s rage at the shooters in Highland, the fury that had engulfed the ordinarily peaceful and cheery Quinn. Daria knew what that was like. She had felt it all her life. Maybe it came from their father after all, or from his father, the Mad Dog. Maybe it ran in the family.

       The trio rode back to the buildings to take a break. Kayla was still gone. Travis was still helping Becks with the chores. Good, thought Daria, that makes easier to keep an eye on him, just in case. She meditated on this as she put Skywalker in his stall. Something in the air tickled her nose and made her sneeze twice. The air smelled funny, like something burnt.

       “You smell anything?” she asked.

       “I can’t smell a thing with my allergies,” said Lawanda. “Damn mold.”

       “Smell what?” asked Ethan.

       “Somethin’ burnin’,” said Daria.

       “Shit,” said Lawanda, looking around. “I hope not.”

       “Can’t tell,” said Ethan, frowning.

       Daria saw the wooden ladder to the hayloft and climbed up. The smell grew stronger. It was a chemical stink, almost sweet but in a repulsive way. She wondered if an overheated electrical line was smoldering. “It’s up here!” she yelled as she got on the loft floor. “Somethin’s burnin’ up here!”

       It was when she said the last word, “here,” that she saw Kayla. She started forward, then stopped two feet short of the other girl.

       “No fuckin’ way,” Daria breathed. Her brown eyes grew huge as she looked down.

       A bone-thin bottle-blonde teen lay across the straw-covered wooden floor next to a hay bale. On the hay bale was a crumpled sheet of aluminum foil and a few small items: an open book of matches, a used match, a small metal keepsake box with white crystals in it, and a crude smoking pipe also made of aluminum foil, from which a trace of stinking smoke drifted. Kayla’s chest rose and fell in a shallow rhythm.

       Ethan and Lawanda charged up the ladder behind her, each carrying a red ABC fire extinguisher. They came to an abrupt stop beside Daria. After taking in the scene, Lawanda dropped her extinguisher and lunged at the unconscious Kayla, then slapped the smaller girl across the face as hard as she could. “You God-damn crackhead fucktard!” Lawanda screamed, hitting the unresisting girl again and again with her open hand. “You God-damn bitch!”

       Ethan bolted over and grabbed Lawanda’s arm. Daria stepped back in shock, then turned and walked back to the ladder and looked down. Travis, Becks, Willow, and Jasmyn looked up at her.

       “Kayla was smokin’ meth up here,” Daria said. “She’s wasted.”

       Daria then noticed that of everyone who looked up from below, Travis was the one who appeared the most horrified—Travis the cowboy romantic, the optimist, the beloved rogue with a misplaced macho streak.

       Travis, who still hadn’t run away.

       Then it hit her, what had struck her about the day as being so off. Travis had no need to screw anyone in the vet lab when he had his own cabin, which he shared with no one else. Why bother banging a girlfriend anywhere else but in his own home in the wee hours of the morning, when no one else was awake or would notice?

       And how would Kayla get methamphetamine in the middle of nowhere? The way she’d always gotten it, of course, by fucking someone who knew how to get it for her, someone with regular access to a car and keys to all the buildings, where he could arrange a tryst without being seen by his wife and son.

       You bastard.

       “Where’s Coyote?” Daria snapped, climbing rapidly down the ladder.

       “He took off ten minutes ago to check the road north of here,” said Willow. “He thought she might be hitchhiking toward Wolf Point. Daria? Hey, where are you going?”

       Daria was not an out-of-shape fifteen-year-old any longer. She ran to the bunkhouse in record time, got into her room, grabbed the .44 carbine and jammed in two shells, then ran out without shutting her door. The main office was next. Willow never locked her desk, and she always had a spare set of vehicle keys in the center drawer.

       “Daria!” Willow shouted from the barn, seeing the carbine as Daria left the office lobby at a run. “What the hell are you doing? Daria, stop and talk to me!”

       Once at the garage, Daria saw that Coyote’s midlife-crisis car was gone, the stylish yellow Volkswagen Golf GTI he had nicknamed Donna, for Donna Summer.

       The Boss, however, was still there in all its dark, dirt-streaked glory. No time to worry about her driver’s license, back in her room. Daria unlocked the truck, threw the carbine onto the passenger seat, then got in the driver’s seat and slammed the door. She hit the garage-door opener and turned the key in the ignition. The Ford F-350 crew-cab Lariat thundered to life. She snapped on the headlights next, then buckled in.

       The garage door was clear. She threw the truck into drive, then mashed the gas pedal to the floor and took off, a dust cloud billowing out behind her. Ethan and two of the girls ran toward the truck, waving their arms and shouting, but she spun the wheel to avoid them and was gone.

       It was almost dark. When she reached Highway 13, she did not turn north, as Coyote had told Willow he was doing. She went south. Twenty seconds later, the roaring Lariat crossed eighty miles an hour on a long straightaway and continued accelerating. Her cell phone rang. She thumbed it off and threw it onto the seats behind her.

       If she didn’t see Coyote, then he had gone north like he’d said, and he was innocent—or smarter than she was. If she did see him...

       Payback was a bitch, but this would be the mother of them all.

 

 

* * *

 

 

       He was stupid beyond normal definitions of stupid, Coyote told himself as he watched the road unwind through the growing drizzle and the Golf’s squeaky windshield wipers. He was a fool for losing his head and letting his dick do the thinking when that little tramp Kayla had unzipped her pants and offered, for the upteenth time, to give him the fuck of his life if he would only find her a little crystal, just a little bit, she’d do anything for just a tiny little bit. She would be careful, she promised, she would never tell, no one would find out. She’d do anything for one more hit. He was a fool for keeping her temptations a secret from Willow, then breaking down because Kayla was so persistent. He had found a source and bought her some, risked everything to have her like she said she wanted him to, then had given her the crystal when he was done. She had promised to be careful, promised she would do it with him again and again and again and again for more.

       And now, not two days later, she had run off or freaked out or died or something, and everyone was out hunting for her. Willow had already found the condom—Jesus, what had he been thinking, not going back to get it later like he’d planned? Was he brain damaged? He knew he hadn’t been in his right mind all along. Soon they would find Kayla, too, and probably find out everything from her, then he would be the one who was really fucked, not Kayla. He was fucked for everything—his marriage, his ranch, his son, his future, his self-respect and good name, everything, all for a little tail that wasn’t even that great, thanks to the fear and guilt and shame that went with it. Now he wished he had just shot himself and saved everyone else the trouble.