Seven Days


A Daria/The Ring fanfiction by E. A. Smith







Jane marched into Wind's vacated room, armed only with an empty trash bag and a sense of mission.  The room was in the usual disheveled, filthy state in which Wind usually left it, with candy bar wrappers and food scraps left everywhere, scattered like the place had been ransacked by a hungry ten-year-old.  Wind, she mentally addressed her absent sibling as she tossed the refuse into the plastic bag, are you incapable of doing anything for yourself, other than mooching off us and screwing up relationships?  I don't ask much out of a living space, but I draw the line at attracting rats and mice.  She couldn't abide the vermin; they nibbled on her paintings.  Which is why, every time Wind departed after one of his unannounced visits, she found herself playing maid, scouring his room for every last bread crust and empty soft drink can he had left behind, leaving nothing that might attract art-destroying rodents.


Wind had been visiting for the past two days, and had just up and left the night before (a circumstance Jane welcomed, despite the extra work it brought her).  It had been an odd visit, though; he hadn't shown up crying, so he wasn't on the outs with his girlfriend du jour, and he hadn't asked for money.  Instead, he had holed up in his room, barely making his way outside those four walls.  And then, he had just left, with no more explanation given than when he had arrived.  He hadn't even spent any time inside the new "naming gazebo".  All of which just made the usual littered state of his room even worse.


Having picked up every visible scrap of food, Jane gave the room a final once over, and noticed something she had missed, or ignored, the first time around.  Lying on Wind's bed was a plain, unmarked videotape.  She picked it up and examined it from all sides, but there was nothing to give a clue as to its origins or contents.  I guess Wind forgot it.  There's something intriguing about unmarked tapes, but it's probably just one of those marriage counseling TV shows he's so addicted to.  Or maybe it's something a little more . . . private.  Did Wind make videos like that?  Jane didn't know whether to be titillated or disgusted with the possibility.  Well, I have to watch it now, just to find out.  If it's one of those, I'll turn it off right away.


Normally, the TV in this room didn't have a VCR, but Jane noticed that there was one hooked up now.  Looking closer, she realized that it was the set from the living room television.  Wind must have brought it up here to watch the tape in private; maybe it really is him and some girl . . . ew.  Jane stuck out her tongue at the thought, but was still curious enough to try it out.  She slid the tape into the deck, and pressed play . . .



*  *  *  *  *



Daria was sitting at her computer, searching for a starting point for her new Melody Powers story, when Jane burst into her room, waving a videotape over her head.


"Yo, amiga, you've gotta see this!" she exclaimed as she walked over to Daria's television.  Daria herself was surprised by her friend's enthusiasm; of the two of them, Daria was much more the film buff.  Before Tom had provided a new viewing companion, Jane had accompanied her to a few arthouse screenings, but had never shown more than cursory interest.  Jane's taste in film ran more towards the exploding head variety, which Daria found amusing only in small doses.


"What is it?" she asked somewhat cautiously as she walked over to her bed and sat down at her usual TV-viewing position.


"I'm not really sure," Jane replied, somewhat distracted by getting the tape into the built-in VCR.  Daria cocked an eyebrow in curiosity.


"So you've decided to start showing me random videotapes?"


"I found it in Wind's room this morning, while I was cleaning up after him," Jane said, now paying fuller attention, having gotten the tape in and activated the unit.  She took the remote and joined Daria on the bed.  Her voice betrayed none of her usual irritation at having to pick up after her older brother.  "It's this weird collection of images, very surreal.  Very creepy.  I'm not sure what it all means."


"And you think I should see this why, exactly?"  Not that Daria wasn't up for the surreal and creepy, but if it had been found in Wind's possession she doubted that there could be anything particularly special about it.


"Because I haven't been able to get the images out of my head all day; it's given me all sorts of great sketches."  She pulled one of her pocket-sized sketchbooks out of her jacket and waved it in Daria's face, then flipped very rapidly through it.  Daria wasn't able to catch a good glimpse of the contents, but it appeared nearly full.  "I can't remember the last time I've produced so much.  So I thought you might appreciate the inspiration; besides, I want to see what you make of it all."  Daria couldn't deny her friend's enthusiasm, and seeing as how her own inspiration seemed elusive at present, she gave Jane the affirmative.  Jane started the tape.


. . . a ring of light . . . static . . . red water . . . a woman in a mirror . . . a girl with long hair in the mirror . . . a man in a window . . . a coastline with a twisted tree . . . a mouth with a long tube running out . . . a barren tree . . . a crescent of light . . . a fingertip impaled on a nail . . . writhing maggots . . . a centipede crawling out from under a table . . . a horse's eye . . . severed fingers in a box . . . the barren tree on fire . . . the woman standing in front of the mirror, turning to look at the viewer . . . the window . . . the chair hanging upside down in the air and spinning . . . a single ladder propped up against a wall . . . dead horses on the coastline . . . the woman falls off a cliff . . . the ladder . . . the ring of light . . . a well . . . static


As the images flashed by, Daria found herself transfixed, unable to turn away.  The images made no sense, but somehow they were compelling, entrancing, disturbing, and by the time it was over, Daria was annoyed to find herself fighting down an extreme sense of unease, as though she had just woken from a nightmare.  She was even breathing a bit heavily, and she wondered if she had been holding her breath without noticing.


"So, what do you think?" Jane asked, ejecting the tape and slipping it into her jacket pocket.  She was eager to hear her friend's considered opinion, but Daria didn't know what to say.  She wanted to shrug it off with a joke, some sarcastic comment that would trivialize the strange effect it had had on her, but she found she couldn't dismiss it that easily.  Then, downstairs, the phone rang; the sound was faint, and only occurred once, but it was enough of an outside stimulus to bring her out of the hold the tape had put on her.  Jane was grinning sadistically.


"It had that effect on me, too, when I first watched it," she said, "but after an hour or so I started to get all sorts of great ideas.  I'm thinking of doing a whole series of paintings inspired by it."


"We should send it in to Sick, Sad World," Daria said, finally finding her voice.  "They would love to get their hands on something this bizarre."


"Yeah, I thought about it," Jane replied, "but since I don't know who created it, there would probably be some copywrite issue."


"Wind didn't say anything about it?"


"Nope."  Jane shook her head.  "He didn't breathe a word.  I just found it in his room.  Maybe he's trying his hand at filmmaking, or has a friend who is.  But speaking of Sick, Sad World . . ."  She flipped the channel, and familiar lone eye filled the screen.  Its familiarity helped to soothe Daria's nerves, and soon things were back to normal again.  The only sign that the tape had ever existed was that, every few minutes, Jane would pick up her sketchbook and draw a few quick lines, then return it to her pocket.  Daria was curious to see what she had come up with, but the images of the tape were too fresh in her mind for her to want to see, at this very moment, what Jane's mind had done with them; she could take a look later.


About an hour later, Helen called Daria to dinner, and Jane stood up to leave.


"Are you sure you want to go?" Daria asked.  "We've got all the lasagna you can eat."


"I think I'll pass.  I'd rather spend my time working on these new paintings than playing Twenty Questions with your parents."  Daria accompanied her down the stairs, and as Jane exited the door, she turned towards the kitchen, and walked in just as her mother was removing the lasagna from the oven.  She was the first one there.


"Daria, please tell your friends that I don't appreciate practical jokes, especially when I'm waiting for a call from Eric," Helen said, dropping the pasta onto the table, her voice stern.


"I'll be sure to pass that on to my hoard of practical-joke-playing companions," Daria replied.  She smirked at Helen's baleful stare.


"Seriously, Daria," she admonished, "I was waiting for a very important call about an hour ago, but when the phone rang, it was some girl.  She just said 'seven days', and then hung up."


"Jane was in my room an hour ago, and that's not her style anyway.  What did she sound like?"


"Young," Helen said, as if just realizing it.  "She had a very high voice."


"It was probably one of Quinn's fashion fiends; sounds like Stacy."  Though from what she knew of the pig-tailed sycophant, that sort of joke wasn't really her style either.  "Or maybe just a wrong number."


"Maybe," Helen conceded, just as Jake and Quinn entered the room.


Daria didn't give the incident a second thought.







Daria sat on Jane's bed, pen scratching rapidly across the paper in her notebook, ideas flooding her mind.  She had woken up that morning feeling disturbed, off-kilter, though she couldn't put her finger on exactly why; she couldn't remember any bad dreams, which were the usual cause of such morning jitters.  The mood had lasted throughout breakfast, and it hadn't mixed well with Quinn's dissertation on the pros and cons of short hairstyles for hot summer months.  She had told Quinn that if she wanted a truly striking look for summer, than she should go for the cool bald look, giving her admirers the chance to compliment her on her shapely skull, adding that maybe shorter hair would not sap so much energy from her brain.  Quinn had replied that only weird artsy girls still thought that the bald look was in, that she had already been the recipient of several approving comments on the symmetrical shape of her head, and had finished with the suggestion that she and her weird artsy friend should sit in on a gathering of the former Fashion Club to find out what would be fashionable for artsy types in the next season.  To the dismay of both their parents, the conversation had just gone downhill from there, and by the end of the meal Daria knew that she was going to have to spend the rest of the day not just isolated in her room, but totally out of the house.  Daria had felt a twinge of guilt over slipping into her older patterns with Quinn, when they were finally starting to find some common ground, but by the time she was halfway to Jane's, any residual remorse was crowded right out of her head by a flood of ideas for her new Melody Powers story, all of which took their inspiration from one of the images from the tape Jane had brought her yesterday.


Which is where she found herself now, writing furiously to try to capture all the nuances and details she saw in her head before they slipped away into the ether.  With an unoccupied corner of her mind, she wondered why the disjointed and enigmatic scenes from the video could be so strongly suggestive, how they could form a narrative in her mind almost of their own volition, with what felt like very little shaping on her part.  But while she was curious, she would not argue with such instant inspiration; one of the first things that any writer learned was to capture such momentary flashes as quickly as possible.


She was not the only one so in the grip of her muse; Jane was painting furiously, barely finishing one image before tossing it aside and starting on another.  Pictures of ladders, wells, twisted and leafless trees, dead horses.  And on every canvas, somewhere, out in front or hidden in the background, a ring, a slightly uneven but unbroken circle of paint.  All of them drawn in a curious angular style, quite unlike Jane's former works; in subdued colors and black and grey, in contrast to her accustomed colorful approach.  If Daria had not been sitting in the same room, watching her in the throes of creation, she would have been willing to swear that these were the work of another artist completely.  But isn't that what every artist wants to do, to progress, to never produce the same work twice?  If Jane is using the tape as the means to that end, then all the better for her.


They had spent most of the day in silence, appreciating each other's company without feeling the need to interrupt the creative process; but after several hours the rush began to wear off, or at least to recede temporarily like a tide, and conversation began to leak out.


"So, any news yet on the Boston housing front?" Jane inquired as she ran her brush along the canvas.  The very thought of that situation was enough to make Daria flop onto her back, hanging her head off the end of the bed.


"It's a nightmare," she said after a few seconds of inward groaning.  "Real estate in Boston is a buyer's nightmare, rent is sky high, and Raft has no single-bedroom dorms.  Even with my scholarships, I'm not going to be able to afford an apartment all to myself until you arrive.  Mom was right; I am going to end up with a psycho roommate."


"Just watch out for the showers," Jane said, head still pointed towards the easel.


"It's what I get for being optimistic," Daria groaned.  "I was counting on college being the start of my exit from the purgatory of high school into the beginnings of my real life.  An environment where I am surrounded by people chosen for their intelligence instead of their physical proximity."


"Without actually having to live in contact with any of them."


"I'd like to be able to ease into the experience, yes."  She sat back up and watched as Jane continued to apply color to canvas.  "High school isn't real life at all; it's not even preparation for it.  I just don't want any additional problems to deal with as I make the transition."


"I told you before, I can do some work for Gary's Gallery, send you my half of the rent."  Daria frowned, wishing she could say yes to the offer.


"I can't do that to you, Jane," she said.  "You can't afford artist burnout right before you head off to BFAC.  I've shared a house with Quinn for seventeen years; I can share a room with an unknown irritant for four months."


"Maybe I can sell some of these at Gary's," Jane mused as she put the final touch on her newest piece, then replaced the filled canvas with a blank one.  She considered for only a few seconds before starting up.


"Yes, nothing says artistic sophistication in the suburbs like a painting of a dead horse."


"It's a comment on the death of nature in modern society," Jane said, even as she sketched the outline of spreading branches.  "It's environmentally conscious art, perfect for the walls of SUV owners and hairspray addicts."


"Just the thing to hang on the wall next to the mounted deer head."  Suddenly, Daria knew what had to happen next to Melody Powers, and her pen was moving again.  She would have to transfer all of this to her computer later, which is where she usually did her writing, but it was critical to capture the ideas as they came and not censor herself merely to shorten that future repetitive task.  The room faded back into silence.







It took several of Daria's insistent rings of the bell before Jane finally opened the door.  Despite the early hour (early for Jane, anyway), there was little of her usual morning dishevelment about her - she was wearing her usual daytime clothes, her hair was combed, and her movements didn't drag with morning fatigue; however, there were large dark circles under her eyes, and her face was pale, giving her a completely different morning zombie appearance.  Daria knew that she herself couldn't be looking all that good; she had ran all the way from her house, or at least walked very fast, and she was panting heavily and feeling a little sick to her stomach.  Of course, the nausea had more than one cause.


As she stepped through the doorway, she wordlessly handed Jane several sheets of paper; it was the computer printout of her latest Melody Powers work, the one she had so meticulously typed into her word processor from her handwritten text of the day before.  Except that when she had woken up this morning and opened the program to do a little more work, she found that that was not what she had written at all.  Filling the pages was a simple three-word phrase, repeated over and over again.


Everyone will suffer.


"Writing your manifesto?" Jane asked as she flipped through the pages, each one identical to the last.


"That is what I found this morning in the Melody Powers folder on my computer," Daria said, finding her voice, though the words were still forced out between panted breaths.  She hadn't appreciated just how much gym class had kept her in shape, hated though it was; two months without it, and her chest was on fire.


"Could it just be somebody's prank?"  Jane's voice was choked; her face paled yet another shade, and she bit down on her bottom lip.  Daria shook her head, wishing that things were that simple.


"I keep my work password-protected," she said, the shortness of breath receding, though the roiling of her stomach continued strong.  "Hacking it would be way out of Quinn's league, and writing about suffering would rank a bit too high on her 'ew' meter anyway.  I don't think that I've pissed off any computer geeks lately."  She started to pace around Jane, who stood still at the center, perusing the papers with rising alarm.  "If this is what was in my story file, it's because I put it there.  But either I didn't realize I was doing it, or I don't remember it."  She stood still, facing Jane once again, though she tried not to concentrate on the papers her friend clutched in her hand.  "I wonder when I'm going to start chasing Quinn with an axe.  Or a crimping iron."


"Daria," Jane finally said, a tremor in her voice, "there's something I think you need to see."



*  *  *  *  *



Jane's room was littered with paintings, tossed about the room in careless fashion.  But the first thing Daria noticed was the easel.  On it was a white canvas, its purity violated by a single image - a black ring, painted over and over again until the paint was visibly piled up, with the paintbrush embedded in the center.  It looked to Daria as though Jane had just run the brush around and around until she had finally run the brush right through the canvas.


"This morning, I tried to go back to my old projects," Jane said from behind her.  "I couldn't.  No matter what I tried to draw or paint, it always came out something from the tape; at first, I didn't even realize I was doing it, and when I did, I couldn't stop.  It was like my hands didn't even belong to me anymore.  Daria, look at these paintings!"  She stepped into Daria's line of sight and waved her arm to take in the entire room and all the images contained therein.  "Do these even look like my work?!  How could I have ever thought that I was the one doing this?  And that's not even the worst of it."  She pointed to a stack of canvases in one corner of the room.  Daria walked over to look, and found that they were all her old works, piled chaotically.  But every face in every picture was painted over, not neatly, but as though a child had taken the brush and scribbled furiously, obliterating all traces of identity.


"I did all that after I finished the new pictures," Jane was saying.  "It was like I just went insane.  It didn't wear off until I had defaced every single one."  At the last few words, her voice sank to a husky whisper.


"I'm sorry, Jane," Daria said, not knowing what else to say to comfort her friend.  But Jane's loss was not the only question at issue.  "That tape did something to both of us.  Some kind of hypnotic suggestion, or mind control."


"Have you been getting visits from those black helicopters again?" Jane asked, giving her friend a skeptical glance.


"No, just the usual flying saucers."  Daria paused, wishing they could just trade clever retorts and ignore the unnerving events behind them.  But her unerring sense of reality brought her back to face them.  "I know that I sound like Artie on one of his stranger days, but I can't think of anything else that makes sense."


"I don't know, Daria.  I don't feel all that 'controlled'."  Jane clamped down suddenly after her last word, and Daria knew she had something more to say.


"Jane, what are you thinking?"


"You won't want to hear it."  Jane smirked grimly.


"Good; I haven't heard anything I didn't want to hear in at least a few minutes."


Jane sighed, and visibly braced herself.


"I feel like I'm being haunted, like some thing is looking over my shoulder, guiding my hand," she said haltingly, converting her sensations into words even as she said them.  "I know, it sounds ridiculous, and you don't believe in things like that.  But, when I was really young, my parents had some friends who were into some really weird mystical stuff, like ouiji boards and sˇances and things like that, and I saw things that you would never believe in."


"And when I was four," Daria replied, "I was convinced that there were monsters waiting in my closet to get me at night; there were even times when I was sure that I saw them.  But I outgrew it; kids with active imaginations see a lot of things that aren't there."  Jane shook her head emphatically.


"This wasn't like seeing a few shadows and hanging shirts in your closet at night," she said, knowing that her friend would never believe her, knowing what she had seen, knowing the sensation of the presence she now felt.  "There was no way these could have been anything but spirits, ghosts, demons.  I'm not saying that I'm certain that's what's happening now, but it feels pretty damn familiar."


Daria knew that this kind of discussion could go on for hours, with neither of them making headway against the other's basic worldview; normally, she would have welcomed the game, but there were more important things right now than fun.


"Wind has to know something about this," she said.  "What the tape means; what it's doing to us.  Who he got the tape from, if nothing else.  Can you call him and ask?"


"I already tried, earlier today," Jane replied, frustrated.  "I couldn't get a hold of him; he probably didn't pay his cell phone bill.  We'll have to go see him in person.  His houseboat is usually moored in Baltimore harbor; I've been there a couple of times, so I'm pretty sure I can find it again."


"Good.  We'll take my new car, but you drive."



*  *  *  *  *



About two hours later, they were standing at a pier in Baltimore harbor, Wind's somewhat-decrepit houseboat floating in the water before them.  At their backs was the bustle of the activities of seafarers and dockworkers.  Daria wasn't a huge fan of crowds, but she could usually tolerate them; today, however, she couldn't shake the impression that someone was staring down her neck, raising the short hairs with a prickle up and down her spine.  It had to be nerves, and she told herself that the day had given her every reason to feel out of sorts.  She just wanted to get in, get the information they needed from Wind, and get out of the city as quickly as possible, back to the solitude and safety of her own room, or Jane's.


"Wind is the Lane-est of the Lanes," Jane said, surveying the floating domicile with amusement.  "Even his house is made to move around."


"And yet he keeps tying himself down with wives," Daria replied, which seemed to her to be the most un-Lane-like characteristic of all.  Vincent and Amanda Lane's absentee relationship, from each other as much as from their children, was proof of that.  But at least they've managed to stay married, in name at least.


"Well, he never was able to get life completely right," Jane said.  She stepped onto the boat and rapped on the door.


"So, who is he with right now?"


"Haven't kept up; it's time to open the wrapper and unveil the surprise."  There was no answer to her knock, so she tried again, louder and more insistent.


"Can I just keep the Cracker-Jacks instead?"


As they waited for an answer to their overture, Daria looked down into the water flowing before her feet.  The play of light in the depths, blue and violet flashes flowing and melding, was fascinating, and she felt the mysteries of the deep beckoning to her, calling to her to plunge into their depths, to be submerged in the all-encompassing embrace of deep water.  She felt a rush, and suddenly the water surrounded her; she was floating in an unknowable expanse.  But it wasn't the warm, loving experience that had been promised - she felt oppressed, entrapped, as the water quickly changed from blue to black and an ocean of darkness closed in around her.  Lost and abandoned, she opened her mouth to scream . . .




The world of light and air snapped back into place, and Daria found herself once more standing on the pier next to Wind's houseboat, both her arms firmly grasped in Jane's hands, her frightened expression only a few inches from Daria's own.


"Daria, what happened? " Jane asked with slowly-receding panic.  "I saw you about ready to fall into the water, and when I tried to stop you, you didn't answer.  Are you okay?"  Daria had to take a few deep breaths before she felt she had the strength to answer.


"I thought that I had fallen in."  It was still had to believe that she had not.  "It seemed so real, not like a daydream at all.  I thought I was going to die in black water."  The last statement didn't seem to allay Jane's worry.  "Jane, if I was going to commit suicide, I wouldn't do it by drowning; it's too clean.  I want to leave a more memorable corpse."  Daria stepped back, removing herself from her friend's concerned grip; she could stand on her own now.  "I think we've just discovered another side effect of the tape."  Jane swallowed nervously.


"We're not going to be getting information on that," she said, "at least not right away.  While you were contemplating life as a mermaid, I had a very quick chat with the lady of the house.  Looks like Wind's been kicked out again, just yesterday."


"Shouldn't that make it easier?" Daria responded.  "Won't he just show up at your place in tears?"  Jane shook her head in unfortunate denial.


"He only does that when he's been kicked out and had no money to go anywhere else; he would have turned up yesterday if that had been the case."  She sighed, knowing that the road ahead had just lengthened considerably.  "When he does make it out with some cash, he usually ends up in a bar, or lying in an alley somewhere, drunk out of his mind.  And he can do it for days on end.  Right now, he's almost certainly having a few drinks somewhere in Baltimore."


"We'll have to search for him," Daria said.  Normally, the idea of looking for a drunken Wind Lane, or for a sober one, would have never entered her list of priorities, but Daria didn't know how many of these ever-more-disturbing side effects she could take before snapping completely, or falling into the ocean and drowning.  And since Quinn (or Brittany or Mr. O'Neill or another suitable victim) would not be around to take the brunt of her psychosis after her brain did snap, she thought that was an outcome that should probably be avoided.  "Unless we're very lucky, we probably won't find him in an afternoon, and it's too far to commute to and from Lawndale every day, so we need to get a hotel room in town.  I think I've got enough saved in my Montana Cabin Fund to keep us out of the roach motels, for a few days at least."


"We might not have longer than a few days anyway," Jane said, a disturbing scenario piecing itself together in her mind.  "Right after I watched the tape, I got a phone call; it was a little girl, and all she said was 'seven days'.  I thought it was just a wrong number, but now . . ."


Daria felt her face go white, and a chill spread through her chest.


"We got the same call," she said, voice carefully level.  "Mom picked it up, and thought it was a joke.  But it would have come about the time we were watching the tape."


"Then it would probably be a very good idea to find out what's going on before that time is up," Jane said, mentally calculating the time left in her head.  "A little less than five days, if she's punctual.  Or it."


"Jane, there is no it," Daria said, determined not to fall prey to superstition, even though it seemed to have overtaken her best friend, normally the most rational person she knew.


"What else could it be?  How could any normal person know exactly when we watched the tape?"


"I don't know," Daria admitted, "but that doesn't mean there isn't a way.  Jane, even if ghosts and goblins existed, I don't think they would be able to use the telephone, or even want to.  Why not just appear in person, since they can go anywhere they want?"


"Because it's scarier this way, when we don't know what's happening."


"I think the automatic writing and the visions are scary enough, thank you.  I don't need any extra mystery to add to the terror."  Daria realized that they were once again falling into a fruitless and distracting discussion.  "Either way, I think we can both agree that we need to find Wind before this 'seven days' is up, so we can't afford to lose any time.  If we head back to Lawndale now to pack, we can have a hotel room in the city before too late tonight.  I'll just tell my parents I'm staying a few days with you; they'll be glad to have the house to themselves."  Daria never thought too hard about exactly why her parents enjoyed their solitude.


"Right," Jane said as they walked back to the car.  "Two women, one car, one mission on the road.  Partners in crime!"


"If you start to drive off a cliff, I'm jumping."



*  *  *  *  *



Daria tossed a few pairs of clean socks into her tiny suitcase, which was already nearly filled.  She felt the need to pack lightly and quickly; no reason to give Helen or Jake a chance to change their minds about their daughter's week at Jane's (though there was no reason that they should), and she wanted to get back to the city while there was still time to find a decent vacant hotel room.  No doubt, at her place, Jane was doing the same thing, while trying to drill into Trent's laconic skull their instructions to let them know immediately if Wind should show up.  Of course, that was no guarantee of anything; Trent could sleep through Wind's arrival, or intend to call and decide to take a nap first.  And that didn't even include the possibility of Mystik Spiral having a gig someplace that would keep them away for a while.  Still, he was the only watchdog they had.  But Daria didn't think he would be that necessary anyway; no doubt Jane was right, and if Wind was going to show up, he would have done so already.


Daria closed her suitcase, and, pressing down hard on the locks, managed to snap it shut, just in time.


"Daria, have you seen . . ." Quinn asked as she walked briskly through the door, then stopped cold.  "Daria, where are you going?"  Her eyes narrowed dangerously.


"To Jane's," Daria replied, as naturally as if it was the unvarnished truth.  "You were standing right there when I told Mom and Dad."


"You never pack when you go to Jane's," Quinn replied, sibling detective mode on in full force.  "You keep a toothbrush there already, and several selections from your . . . wardrobe.  Where are you really going?"


Damn, when did Quinn get so perceptive?  I don't have time for this; I'll have to settle it the old-fashioned way.


"How much?" she asked, business-like but bitter.  Quinn didn't immediately answer; instead, she looked slowly around, scoping out her environs.  She smiled, and Daria was suddenly very worried.


"I want your room," Quinn declared, as though it were the most reasonable request in the world.  "After you go off to college, I mean.  I think it has real potential, once I take down the padding from the walls and remove the bars from the windows and replace that door with the awful poetry and . . ."


"Quinn," Daria broke in, trying to nip this in the bud before her sister really got started, "I'll still need this room over the summer; you can't have it."


"Daria," Quinn replied, sounding as though she was reasoning with a person who was somewhat slow-witted, "do you really plan to move back here for the summer?  Could you enjoy Lawndale after living in Boston?"


I don't enjoy it now, Daria thought, but her sister had a point.  Living within these four walls again, after having enjoyed relative freedom, would be unbearable.


"I'll even give you an extra incentive," Quinn offered magnanimously.  "In addition to not telling Mom or Dad what you are planning, I'll even provide a distraction so you can make it out the door without them seeing you or your suitcase.  Deal?"


"Deal," Daria said, deciding that she had most of the summer to win or bargain her room back into her possession.  "I'm leaving now, so if you could provide your distraction, it would be most helpful."


Quinn nodded, and headed out the door.  A few seconds later, Daria heard her sister tell their parents something about her new older boyfriend who was coming by to pick her up on his motorcycle.  Taking her advantage, Daria slipped out of her room, down the stairs, and out the front door without so much as a sideways glance from either of her parents (though she thought she caught a quick wink from Quinn).  Then, she was off.







Since it had taken most of the night to find a decent hotel room, they started their search for Wind bright and early the next day; at least, they had intended to start bright and early, though fatigue kept them under the covers for most of the morning.  Even with the ample sleep, Daria still did not feel rested; her sensation of being watched had not waned, and during the night she had had to continually resist the urge to flip over in bed and check if someone was standing behind her.  Though she had been terrified to see who it might be.  In the bright, fully-awake light of day, such fears seemed absurd, but the desire to glance over her shoulder remained.


The only experience that Daria had with police stations was from the incident with Mystik Spiral, out in the middle of nowhere, and she found the central police headquarters of Baltimore - their first stop - slightly different.  It was cleaner, for one thing, and the various officers and employees went about their jobs with what looked to bear some resemblance to competency.  Nevertheless, the place still felt oppressive, badly lit and close.  The man sitting at the front desk barely looked up as they approached.


"We're looking for my brother Wind . . ." Jane started.


"You can fill out a missing persons report after forty-eight hours," he interrupted in a bored, distracted monotone.


"No, it's not like that," Jane replied.  "You might have brought him in for being drunk or disorderly or passed out in the street.  Have your guys arrested a Wind Lane in the past two days?"  The officer sighed and typed at his computer a few moments.


"We don't have anyone named 'Wind'," he said, putting a particularly derisive emphasis on the name.  "Not here, or anywhere else in the city."


"What about John Does?" Daria asked.


"What does he look like?"


Jane opened her mouth to give a description, then visibly changed gears.


"Get me a pencil and some paper," she said, her voice excited, "and I'll sketch him for you."  Daria was shocked; she had been nervous at the idea of even picking up a pencil since the incident the morning before, not wanting to see what she might produce.


"Jane, are you sure you want to do this?" she asked.


"I've got to try," Jane replied, determined.  "I'm not just going to give in to this; maybe if I really concentrate, I can control it."  She gripped the provided pen so tightly that her knuckles paled.  The phone at the desk rang, and the officer answered, leaving the two of them ignored once again.


Jane started in on her work, and it seemed to be going well.  Wind's features quickly took shape under her hand, with his vapid stare and lost expression, and soon she had completed a convincing likeness, formed from just a few lines of ink.  Then, as evenly and calmly as though it was merely her finishing touch, she ran the point up and down over the face, until no features could be seen.


"Jane!" Daria said sharply, and Jane jerked her pen up from the paper with a tiny cry.


"Damn!" Jane exclaimed.  "I thought I was doing so well, too."  She crumpled up the paper with a frustrated clench of her fist.  "I'm not going to lose my art to this thing; I'll try again later."  She looked up, to make an oath to the sky above her, and stopped dead.  "Or maybe it's not just me.  Daria, look at that."  She pointed to the security monitor attached to the top of the wall across the room.  Daria looked to see the image of the two of them standing at the desk; at least, she saw two figures standing at the desk, wearing their clothes, but it was impossible to tell that it was the two of them - their faces were smeared, distorted, as though viewed through extremely flawed glass.  Daria waved her hand in front of her face; the image wavered like water, and snapped back into place.


"How courteous," Daria said.  "Identity screened to protect the innocent."


"No one else here looks like that," Jane said.  She was right; several other people were visible in the screen, and they were all normal.


"No one else here is innocent."  It was weird, to be sure, but to Daria's relief, this was the most benign symptom of the tape they had yet seen.  Daria wondered when she had reached the point when she could shrug off as minor an event this bizarre.  Still, at least it was just the two of them in the picture; the way she had been feeling, she would not have been all that surprised (horrified, but not surprised) to see a shadowy third figure behind them.  Damn, it sneaks up on you.  I don't believe in ghosts.  There's no such thing as hauntings.  I sound like the scarecrow.


The officer hung up the phone, and turned back to them.


"Well?" he said impatiently.  "Is the sketch ready?"


"I . . . um . . . don't think I can do him justice," Jane said, recovering quickly.  "I can describe him, though.  He's about five foot ten, with brown eyes and shoulder-length blonde hair.  Not very muscular.  I don't know what he would be wearing."


"We haven't had anyone like that come through here," the man replied shortly.


"Well, what about the other precincts?" Daria asked, trying to stay reasonable and not sound like she was addressing a Kevin-clone.  She longed to slip in a subtle barb, but her opponent held too much potentially valuable information for her to risk antagonizing him.  The man turned to his computer, spent a few minutes bringing up the records - leaving Daria and Jane to drum their fingers on the desk in apprehension - and then finally turned back to them.


"We aren't holding any John Does of that description anywhere in the city," he said.  Jane thanked him, and they both made a beeline to the door.


"Time to check the hospitals now," Daria said, fighting off discouragement at having come up with nothing at their first stop.


"If he's not in one now," Jane replied, her tone not a threat but a promise, "he will be after I find him."



*  *  *  *  *



From the second they entered the first hospital on their list, Jane wanted to pivot on her heel and walk out as quickly as possible.  The large, spacious building felt like a prison, the white-clad doctors and nurses who were rushing about seeming more like jailors and tormentors than healers.  She felt a horrible premonition that at any second they would take hold of her and lock her in a small, barren room where they could work their tortures at their leisure.  But she forced herself to place one foot in front of the other; she was starting to question whether such strange sensations and urges belonged to her, or whether they emanated from the enigmatic presence she now felt continuously looking over her shoulder.  She took satisfaction in allowing none of her anxiety to show as she questioned nurse receptionists in building after building, to see if they had any patients matching the description of her brother.


After a couple of futile stops, the questioning had finally borne fruit.  The woman at the reception desk had informed her that they indeed had just this morning brought in a John Doe matching Wind's description, found unconscious in the alley next to a seedy downtown bar, his wallet and ID already lifted.  Jane, as a possible relative, had been allowed in to see the man, though Daria had to wait in the entrance room; now, she was walking down a long highway, a friendly nurse leading the way.  The woman's expressions of concern for Jane's brother fell on nearly deaf ears, however, as Jane could not drag her awareness away from the fact that she was burrowing ever further into the warren of persecutors.  At every door they passed, Jane found herself wondering what horrors lay behind it, what poor soul they had imprisoned therein; these insane fears would respond to no reason she could command.  Her own fears of losing herself to this interloping spirit, as she already seemed to be losing her art, were only an extra layer to add to her apprehension.


Though the corridor looked to stretch on into eternity, eventually the nurse stopped at one open door and gestured Jane inside.  There, lying on a bed, was a man, in his early thirties, with blonde hair down to his shoulders.  Tubes in both his arms connected him to IV bags, while his heartrate was monitored through several electrodes attached to his chest.  The steady "beep, beep, beep" of the EKG reminded Jane of every movie and television show she had ever seen that was based in a hospital.  The man, though bearing a superficial resemblance, was clearly not Wind, but Jane did not tell the nurse this; instead, she walked slowly up to the patient's side, staring not at his face, but at his chest.  The tiny white circles connected to his skin fascinated her; of their own accord, her hands reached out to touch them, to trace their circumferences and feel the slick plastic against her fingers.  Then, suddenly, fascination turned to rage, and with an explosion of fury she yanked every one of them from his body in a single jerk.  The machines went haywire with alarms and protests, reading only that the heartbeat they had been detecting was no longer there, certain that the man in their care was now near death.  Jane felt herself seized from behind, but the restraint was no longer necessary; she was once again in her own mind, her body under her control, the outburst now nothing but a memory.


"Young lady," the nurse said, sounding more shocked than angry, "what do you think you're doing?"


"I'm . . . I'm sorry," Jane replied, and then stopped cold.  What could she possibly say to explain this?  What possible rational reason could she give that anyone would accept?  How could she say that the actions were not hers, that some thing had been operating through her, using her arms as though she was nothing more than a marionette for its amusement?  In the end, she said the only thing she could think of that would not make the situation infinitely worse.


"This isn't my brother.  I'll go now."


She stumbled backwards, for a few seconds unable to tear her eyes away from the sight of the nurse rapidly reattaching the monitors she had so rudely removed, then she turned and ran, out the door and down the corridor, as fast as she could without toppling over the denizens of the hospital that walked or rolled up and down the hall.  When she reached the entranceway, where Daria was waiting, she didn't even stop for explanations, but simply grabbed her friend's arm and propelled her outside.


Daria bore this odd behavior for a few seconds, then shook her off and demanded to know what the hell was going on.


"Something happened to me inside there," Jane said.  "Up until now, I've made some weird sketches, including some that I didn't want to make, and I've had some weird feelings, but it still always seemed like me who was doing it.  But I just did something in there that wasn't me at all; it was working through me.  Whatever it is, it hates hospitals and doctors and maybe machines, I'm not sure.  But for a few seconds in there, there wasn't a separation between what I was feeling and what it was feeling.  It was like an out-of-body experience.  I don't think I've been more terrified in my life."


For a few seconds, Daria didn't respond, just stared into Jane's eyes as if trying to read her soul.


"Daria, it's still me, I promise," Jane said desperately.  "For now, at least."


"I know that," Daria responded.  "I recognized the red blur.  But when you said that, I had to wonder if I wasn't hearing my own voice instead."


"Daria, what's going to happen to us?"


She had no response.



*  *  *  *  *



Daria lay collapsed on the hotel room bed, changing channels with just the merest flick of her thumb.  She had brought along Going After Cacciato in case she had the time and the desire to read, but after the harrowing day Jane and she had experienced, with nothing to show for their efforts and agonies except a few possibilities checked off their list, she was too physically and emotionally exhausted to absorb the story.  So she entertained herself through the only means left to her, the television.


At least, that had been the plan, but it seemed that the TV had other plans.  Even with the cable connection, static filled the screen as the picture rolled up and down; it was doing this on every channel.  Even the little bit of image that Daria could catch between the snow was disappointing; Daria couldn't identify a single object, but everything looked in black and white.  She was certain that she had paid for a better room than this, but there were more important things to do with their time tomorrow than make complaints.  Finally, she gave up and just turned it off, lying staring at the wall in front of her.


Off to her side, she could hear Jane's pencil scratching.  Jane was determined to reclaim her talent, and from the second they had returned to their room from their last hospital stop she had been attempting to capture the figures and faces of the more colorful characters they had seen since coming to Baltimore Wednesday morning, at the harbor and the police station and the hospitals.  Her concentration was intense, her eyes boring holes into the paper held in her hands, so Daria had not interrupted to see how things were going.  But now, Daria noticed that the scratchings were becoming rapid and harsh, frantic even; she swung her head over to see Jane holding her pencil like a psycho wielding a knife, attacking her sketchbook with the point, first pressing down with such force that the paper buckled, and then actively stabbing, ramming the point through the leaves again and again and again.  Then, with a bellow of raw anguish, she shot to her feet and hurled the sketchbook across the room, and stood there fire-faced, chest rising and falling as she sucked in air, eyes wild.


"Training for Olympic sketch throwing," Daria said, falling back on the familiar since she had no idea of what else to say, "or are you planning on going pro?"


"My art has been hijacked!" Jane wailed.  "I can't stop it!  There's nothing left in me but that!"  She waved in the direction of her pictures, now lying against the far wall.  Daria opened her mouth to say something she hoped would be comforting and reassuring, but switched gears when she noticed a dark line on Jane's face.


"Jane, your nose is bleeding."


Jane put her hand up to her face, and her fingers came away wet with the red fluid.  Hissing an obscenity through gritted teeth, she ran to the restroom to wash her face.  Daria pushed herself up from the bed and walked over to where the sketchbook was lying open, picked it up, and began to flip through the last few filled pages.  At first, it looked as though Jane was starting to succeed; there were several renderings of dockworkers and some of the criminals they had caught glimpses of at the police station, all done in Jane's inimitable style, but in each case the face was obliterated.  Then, further on, all those disappeared, and the last few pages were filled with nothing but rings, small, large, thick, and thin, all of them scratched out with little consideration for neatness or elegance, just passion.  And, in the center, there was a single human figure: a woman whose long black hair covered her face.  The figure was disconcerting, unsettling; Daria felt that her mysterious hidden face was staring out at her from the drawing.  Nervously, she carefully closed the cover and laid it back down on the floor, not wanting to have any more to do with it.  Through the entrance to the restroom, Daria heard Jane's voice raised in irate frustration.


"I'm gonna kill Wind!"







They spent most of the next morning at the local Kinko's, designing and copying flyers.  The papers were straightforward, including only a description of Wind, their phone number at the hotel, and a cash reward for information leading to Wind's discovery, calculated by Daria out of what she projected would be left over after the hotel bill and food for the week was subtracted from her cabin fund.  She hated parting with the fruits of years of saving, but after the events of the day and night before, finding out what Wind might know was looking less and less like an option and more like an absolute necessity.  Jane hadn't said a word about her outburst since, but she had been more quiet than usual, and Daria could tell that it was weighing heavily on her.  She had tossed off a comment that it would have been nice to have a picture of Wind to include on the flyer, and had even managed to make it sound casual, but the bitter undercurrent was plain to Daria's ears.


After tossing down another large pile of cash for the flyers, Daria and Jane proceeded to spend the early afternoon plastering them up all over downtown.  Separating would have been quicker, but Jane said that the kind of places in which Wind might have ended up were not the sorts of environments two young women should be alone in, even during the day.  So they walked along together, taping up paper to poles already covered in a thick layer of it, and commenting on the contents of those older advertisements.  Once, Jane even thought she saw a fragment of the Mystik Spiral logo, but after a little digging they discovered it was a flyer for some goth-metal band named Mystikal Warriors; Jane commented that Baltimore was a bit out of the Spiral's league anyway.  Altogether, the afternoon was the closest they had come to forgetting, for a little while, the horrors that were pursuing them.


When they got back to the hotel, late that afternoon, several messages were already waiting for them.  Jane pressed the button next to the blinking red light, and routed the calls through to the speakerphone.


"Hey, dude, I saw your guy, man.  He was comin' out of a monkey's ass!"  The caller dissolved into coarse laughter, or at least as far as they could tell.  The rowdy bar noises behind him made his voice a bit difficult to make out.  Jane hit the skip forward button with unnecessary force, and the next message played.  Unfortunately, it was of the same sort, as were the three that followed it.


"I'm beginning to think," Daria commented,  "that there might be a downside to getting information from people hanging out in bars in the middle of the day."


"It's just a good thing that we aren't both using video phones," Jane replied.  "These guys are asses enough without actually having to see theirs."


Even among all the dreck, though, there were a few gems; a few callers reported what sounded like legitimate sightings, and free of charge, while a few others left their own numbers for them to call, just to make sure that money would be paid if everything panned out.  Jane contacted them, and within the hour they had a list of locations where men who looked like Wind had been spotted; of course, they would have preferred some confirmation of the possibility, but most of the callers didn't know what the man was wanted for, and so were hesitant to approach him.  Still, it was a start, and better than nothing.


They had a quick bite to eat, and were walking through the streets of downtown by nightfall.  The sun was setting, and the streets were filling up with Friday night revelers; Daria soon wearied of dodging back and forth to avoid enthusiastic and inebriated pedestrians, and wished that they had timed their search better, maybe come on a Monday night when people were too depressed by the workweek ahead to crowd the sidewalk so inconveniently.  The mass of people was not helping her now-constant sense of being watched, and her nerves were starting to fray.


After what seemed an eternity, they reached the first establishment on their list; from the line of people moving in, it looked pretty popular.  They were carding at the door, but hopefully that would not be an issue - both Daria and Jane had fake ID's, procured for them by Trent (who of course kept his source a secret, with vague mysterious hints of his "connections") so that they could get into McGrundy's Pup to see the Spiral play.  They were good enough to pass inspection there, though that wasn't a really high standard, and Daria was hoping that the bars here operated by the same principles.  And she was right; the bouncer waved them in with only a cursory glance at their credentials.


Inside it was dark, crowded, and noisy, most of the light coming from the televisions that lined every wall, showing various sporting events.  Idly, Daria wondered what would happen should a particularly sadistic person should slip the videotape into one of the broadcasts; how many people would see it, and how many would be able to handle the aftereffects.  We don't even know if we've seen all the aftereffects yet.


"Do you see anyone who could be Wind?" Daria asked Jane; she had to yell to make her voice heard over the din.  Jane looked around for a while, and then, saving her voice, wordlessly pointed to a man sitting on a barstool, his back to them.  He certainly looked like Wind, with his blonde hair to his shoulders and slight build, along with a slight slouch.  They walked up behind him, and Jane tapped him on the shoulder.  He turned around to reveal his face . . .


. . . and he had no face.  His face looked warped, melted, very much like how she and Jane had looked in the security monitor.  Daria gasped and jumped back, almost tripping on a stool.  She blinked hard, and when she opened her eyes, everything was back to normal; the man's face was completely normal, but it wasn't Wind's.  Damn nerves.  Damn tape.  Damn Wind.  Jane was already apologizing for disturbing the man; she didn't seem to have even noticed.


The next couple of stops were uneventful, then they encountered a wrinkle.  When they passed over their ID's to the bouncer, he looked both of them up and down, and gave their cards back with a scowl.


"Well, I can believe her," he said, gesturing at Jane, and then turned to Daria, "but there's no way you're twenty-one.  You'll have to stay out here."  Jane turned to leave, but Daria stopped her.


"Wind could be in there, Jane," she said, "and we can't afford to miss him.  I'll be fine out here for a few minutes."  Jane didn't look too certain, but she assured Daria she would be out soon and then ducked inside.  Daria wandered over to the side of the building; she knew exactly why she had been left out.  It wasn't hard to guess that they were both underaged; that wasn't why Jane had been let in and she left out.  But even with her eccentric dress and deliberately-odd makeup, Jane was attractive.  Not a great beauty, but certainly enough to attract male interest; on the other hand, though Daria knew she could be that way if she put the effort into it, it had never seemed important to her, so she disdained it.  Usually, that was the way she liked it, and it had rarely caused what she considered to be problems; but when it did, such as now, it rankled her.  She had been separated from her friend solely because the bouncer had been on the lookout for pretty girls, and she hated him for it.


Daria was so engrossed in her thoughts that she did not, at first, notice the approaching stranger.  He was obviously drunk, swerving left and right on his feet, his face bearing the too-wide smile of the pleasantly intoxicated.  Then he started to get just a little too close, and Daria became suddenly very aware indeed.


"Hey, gorgeous," he said, "you feeling lonely tonight?"  At least, that was what she thought he said; the individual words were rather difficult to make out.  Not that she wanted to make them out in the first place.


"I was," she replied coldly, "but soon my muscular biker boyfriend Knuckles is going to be here, and if he finds another man talking to me, he'll fly into a homicidal rage."


"We'll just have to hurry then," he said, and reached out for her.  Daria backed up out of his reach, but to her dismay found herself pressed up against the wall, with too many other people around to run very far to either side.  His hand reached up to her neck.


And suddenly there was long, black hair covering her face, and she was being choked, but from behind.  She could feel two strong hands wrapping around her windpipe, crushing the life from her body, the world growing fainter and fainter by the second.  She wanted to scream, but couldn't get the air.  The hair covering her face got into her mouth; she tried to spit it out, but whenever she gasped for air she would get another mouthful.  Panic rose until coherent thought became impossible, and all she could do was pant instinctively for air, but there was no air to be had . . .


Then it was over, and Daria found herself slumped against the wall, lungs heaving, as several people bent over her, asking if she was alright.  Others were carrying off the man who had accosted her.  Daria couldn't speak, but just kept searching the sea of worried faces until she finally found Jane's, pushing her way through the crowd.


"My god, Daria," she exclaimed, "what happened?  I heard you screaming inside the bar."  Jane's eyes were wide with shock, and she quickly looked Daria up and down, searching for wounds.  Finally, Daria found the air and the composure to speak.


"It . . . it was another vision," she whispered, not wanting to have this conversation go beyond the two of them.  Her hands and her voice were shaking.  "When he touched my neck, I felt like I was being strangled, but not by him.  And it wasn't me, either."  She looked into Jane's eyes, and saw that her friend knew exactly what she meant.  Jane slung Daria's arm over her shoulders, and helped her to her feet; they started to walk down the street, the crowd parting before them, connected together.


"Come on, amiga," Jane said tenderly.  "I think it's time for both of us to get some rest."



*  *  *  *  *



Daria shot straight up in bed, heart pounding, as the final image of her nightmare faded into the dark hotel room around her.  Turning towards the one source of light available to her - the window, which was starting to show the grey glow of pre-dawn - she saw Jane's figure silhouetted against it, head down, staring at the hands folded in her lap.


"Jane," she said, her voice still morning-hoarse, "what are you doing up so early?"


"I had a nightmare," she said flatly, bluntly.  Her voice quivered.


"Yeah, so did I," Daria replied.  "I guess it's not so surprising, considering what's been happening to us.  What did you dream about?"


Jane took a deep, stabilizing breath, than began.


"I was standing in someplace cold and dark, and wet.  I was waist deep in water, and the ground was muddy, so anytime I stepped I had to yank my foot up.  Not that there was a lot of room to walk; there was a stone wall all around me.  I could feel it with my hands, though I couldn't see anything.  The walls were slimy with algae, and the whole place stank.  As far as I could tell, there wasn't any roof, and all I could see above me was a ring of light, just like the one at the beginning of the tape.  I panicked, and tried to climb up and out of the place, but I didn't get anywhere, and the rough walls just tore the skin off my fingertips.  Finally, just before I was going to really flip out, I woke up.  That was hours ago now."  The whole time she was talking, her gaze did not leave her lap.


"That definitely sounds disturbing," Daria acknowledged, "and I'm sure Freud would have lots of things to say about it, but why didn't you just go back to sleep?"


"Because I haven't told you the worst part of it yet," Jane replied, her tone heavy.  Then, silently, she held up her hands so that Daria could see them in the light.  The fingers were bloody, all the skin missing from each one of their tips.


"Good God, Jane!" Daria yelped, shocked out of her fatigue and any sense of restraint.  She knew this was impossible (though her sense of what was and was not possible had already come under considerable strain these last few days), but her brain couldn't deal with that yet, so it resorted to more pragmatic matters.  She jumped out of bed and ran over to Jane, taking her hands gently and examining the wounds.  "These haven't even been washed.  You need to clean these, and bandage them, right now."


"Sorry, I didn't bring my first-aid kit."


"I'll rip up some of my clean socks to use for bandages.  While I'm doing that, wash your hands in the sink."


Obediently, Jane did as she was told, but while Daria was tearing her socks into strips, she heard a cry of pain from restroom, followed by a plea for assistance.  She stepped through the door to find Jane fumbling with the soap, unable to hold it without it slipping from her blood-slicked hands.  Without words, Daria took one of her hands in hers, and with the other started to rub the bar of soap along her wounds.


"There has to be some rational explanation for this," she muttered, half to herself.  Now that the pragmatics were being taken care of, there was nothing left to distract her from the more disturbing implications.  "Maybe you clawed the wall or the bedframe while you were sleeping."


"Sorry, amiga," Jane responded, "they're clean as a whistle.  I looked."


"Well, there has to be something.  Dreams just don't become real."


"Maybe the mind makes them real."


"Great theory, Morpheus."


"Man, I wish this was the Matrix.  I could take that blue pill and forget any of this ever happened."


"There are other blue pills that can do that."


"Yeah, I can get a prescription for them, and maybe a room like yours.  Ow!"


"Sorry.  I wish we had some disinfectant."

"A bottle of bourbon does sound like a good idea right now."


"Oh, no," Daria said emphatically.  "The last thing I need right now is alcohol.  My dreams are strange enough, thank you."


"What was your dream about?" Jane asked, as Daria turned off the water and began to wrap her fingers with the strips of her sock.


"It started with me waking up in this room," she said slowly, remembering, almost reliving, the vivid dream, half-afraid of what was going to happen next.  "I needed to pee, so I went into the restroom and turned on the light, but instead of seeing my own reflection in the mirror, I saw someone else."  She shivered involuntarily.  "It was a little girl, about ten years old or so.  She was dressed in a flowing white dress, and had long black hair that fell to her waist, framing an extremely pale face.  She made me look like I have a tan.  She wasn't ugly - in fact, she was even kind of attractive - but there was something about her that seemed very wrong, very eerie.  She even looked familiar to me, like someone I had seen before, out of the corner of my eye.  I walked up to the mirror and tried to meet her gaze, but I couldn't quite make eye contact; there was something hideous in her stare, and I just didn't have the courage."  Her pulse and breathing had quickened, and Daria had to pause to take a few calming breaths.  To this point, the dream had seemed almost mundane, and yet, even in her sleep when she was experiencing it for the first time, she had already become quite uneasy.  "I asked her who she was, and she didn't answer, just kept looking at me as though she were examining an insect pinned to her card.  I asked her what she wanted, and she still didn't answer, but she smiled."  Daria stopped abruptly, and swallowed.  The memory of that smile had made her heart nearly stop, she felt.


"If you don't want to go on," Jane said, looking concerned, "that's fine."


"No, I'm all right.  It's just still a bit disturbing.  But that smile, Jane - it was like nothing I have ever seen before.  It was pure evil, hatred, malevolence; that's the only thing I can think of to describe it.  I could tell right then what she wanted - she wanted me dead, and she was going to enjoy every minute of it.  Then she reached out from the mirror and grabbed my arm, and started to pull me in.  It was like being touched by living flame; I've never felt anything like it.  I screamed, and then woke up."  Daria finished tying up the bandages on Jane's fingers, and just in time; her hands were shaking so much that she could barely finish the knots.  Jane was staring at Daria's arm.


"It looks like I'm not the only one with a souvenir from a dream," she said quietly, almost in a whisper.


"What do you mean?" Daria replied, puzzled, and not sure she wanted to know the answer.


Jane took Daria's arm and pushed up her sleeve, tilting her forearm into view.  There, formed from what looked like scar tissue from a long-healed burn, was the print of a small hand.







"Come on, Daria, after last night, you have to admit something unnatural is going on."


Daria and Jane sat across from each other, sitting at a booth in a pizza place near the hotel.  Daria welcomed the familiarity of the situation; it felt like the last support shoring up the increasingly shaky construct that was her life.  After last night, her skepticism had taken a nasty blow, and she was struggling to find some kind of rational, ordinary cause that could explain it all.  The bandages on the tips of Jane's fingers were mocking her, challenging her for an explanation; she made sure to keep the long sleeves of her own jacket all the way down, completely covering her arms.


"That girl you saw in the mirror," Jane said, "has to be the same one I drew in my book; the woman with the long hair.  She has to be the spirit behind it all.  Why else would she be trying to scare us?  Why else would you have dreamed her?"


"Probably because I saw that picture you drew," Daria replied, trying to maintain her normal monotone in the face of rising doubt and frustration.  "I will admit that the picture disturbed me, but that's all the more reason my mind would have included her in my nightmare."


"Do girls in pictures do this?" Jane demanded, and pushed up Daria's sleeve to reveal the brown handprint.  And, of course, that was the clincher, the thing that Daria could not explain, the fatal flaw in her argument.  But that didn't mean she was quite ready to concede the war.


"Just because I don't know how it happened," she said, "doesn't mean there isn't a rational cause.  There are a lot of weird things in the world that I can't explain; that doesn't mean I'm going to blame them all on ghosts and goblins.  If we did that, then hundreds of years of science would be worthless; we might as well start making offerings to the rain gods in the hopes of a good harvest."


Jane held up her fingers.


"Daria, this doesn't just happen on its own.  We both know there is no way something like last night could just happen naturally; if it could, then people would wake up wounded from nightmares all the time.  She did this to us.  She's just as real as you or I are.  And I don't think we are going to be able to stop her until you acknowledge that she exists."


"It's not that simple," Daria snapped, almost losing her temper at her friend's insistence.  She paused for a few seconds to calm down.  "This isn't a movie, Jane, where the lifelong skeptic can just see a ghost and be magically transformed into a believer.  I've lived my entire life under the assumption that this is all there is, that if I can't see it, hear it, feel it, or test it, then it doesn't exist.  There is no god ruling over us, no angels guarding us, and certainly no ghosts haunting us.  The possibility that there might be, that there is a reality beyond what I have always known, is not just a new piece of information I can stitch on to my worldview and go on as before.  If I believed that, I would have to reevaluate every aspect of my life, rethink every important decision I have ever made.  It would completely revolutionize my outlook on life.  So, before I make such a staggering change, I need to be absolutely certain of my reasons for doing so."  Jane pierced her with an assessing gaze.


"So it's not really that you can't believe," she said slowly, piecing it all together, "but that it would be a lot of trouble to change your mind."  She paused; Daria knew she was waiting for her to contradict that statement, to explain that she had it all wrong, but though Daria thought that Jane was putting too much of a negative spin on her position, she was essentially right.  "But the Daria Morgendorffer I know would never allow inconvenience to stand in the way of truth; she would believe it if it was true, no matter what the cost to her might be, or prove it to be false.  What are you going to do?"


Fortunately, the waiter chose that exact moment to arrive with their pizza, sparing Daria from the necessity of an answer to a question she had yet to be able to solve, despite having turned it over and over in her head continuously the entire morning.  Or maybe the arrival of the pizza was not so fortunate after all, for as soon as it was set down on the table, its accustomed shape sprang out at both of them; they couldn't see the greasy cheese or the steaming toppings, just the ring formed by the outer crust.


"Daria, do you see . . . ?"  Jane's voice was small.


"Yes, I do," Daria replied.  "Maybe we should have rethought our meal choices.  I think I've lost my appetite."


"Me, too.  You know, when this thing interferes with our pizza time, it really has gone too far."


"Or maybe it's just trying to save us from an early, cholesterol-induced death."


"So she's sort of a Casper the friendly ghost type of thing."


"Except for the visions and horrible nightmares."


"Are you going to eat this?"


"I don't think I can.  You?"


"Nope.  Let's get out of here."


Leaving their money on the table, they walked out of the restaurant and started the short walk down the street to their lodgings.  An inescapable feeling of futility overwhelmed Daria.


"We're never going to find Wind this way," she said, "not unless we get very lucky, and I think we've both seen the extent of our luck.  There must be another way to go about it, some clue that we're not seeing."  Daria tried to think of something they might have missed, some heretofore un-thought-of method of searching that might produce Jane's elusive brother, but couldn't think of anything other than to just keep on doing what they were already doing, and hope that they stumbled upon him in the next two days.


"I'll call Trent when we get back to our room," Jane replied.  "Maybe Wind showed up and he forgot to call, or just never got around to it."  Jane shrugged.  "It's worth a try, at least."



*  *  *  *  *





"Hey, Janey.  How's Baltimore?"


"Frustrating.  Has Wind come home?"


"Nah, haven't seen him.  Isn't he with you?"


"No!  We've looked all over the city for him, and we can't find him.  We've tried the jails, the hospitals, the bars . . ."


"Did you look at the cabin?"


"What are you talking about?"


"That place Mom and Dad used to take us when we were little, for those 'nature experiences'?"


"Trent, I don't know what the hell you're talking about."


"Oh, yeah, that's right; you weren't around yet.  Or maybe you were just too small to remember.  Mom and Dad used to take us to this cabin in the middle of nowhere so we could get in touch with nature, away from everything man-made.  They built it with some friends of theirs back in the late sixties, when they were trying to start a commune.  No TV or phones, and we even had to catch our own food and cook it over a fire.  They didn't even let me bring my guitar because they said it would interfere with the music of nature.  God, we hated that place."


"What about Wind, Trent?"


"Oh, yeah.  He was the only one of us who really liked it.  He told me once that he still goes up there, when he needs to get away from everything."


"Where is it?!"


"Whoa, Janey.  Be cool.  I don't know where it is.  We stopped going when I was still pretty young, and I haven't been back since.  All I know is that it's way out in the woods, a long drive from Baltimore."


"Thanks, Trent.  You've been a big help."


"Cool.  See ya, Janey."


"Bye, Trent."



*  *  *  *  *



Jane slammed down the phone switch as she quickly summarized to Daria her conversation with Trent, and immediately began dialing another number.


"Who are you calling now?" Daria asked, feeling hope for the first time in days.


"Summer," Jane replied shortly, concentrating on her dialing.  "She's the oldest, so she would probably have the best memory of where this place is.  Hi, Summer, it's Jane . . . no, I don't know where Courtney and Adrian are; the last time I saw them was the last time I saw you . . . Summer, I don't have time to chat.  I need to know where to find some cabin Trent said Mom and Dad used to take you guys to . . . yes, I guess that's the one . . . West Virginia?! . . . Fine, do you know how to get there? . . . yeah . . . uh huh . . . hmmm, I think so . . . got it.  Thanks, Summer.  Gotta run.  Bye."  She made a few more notations on the note pad she was holding, then turned to Daria, her expression nervous but hopeful.


"The cabin is in West Virginia," Daria said, stating what she knew as a fact rather than asking for confirmation.


"Yeah," Jane answered, sounding unsure.  "When my parents wanted to get away, they didn't do it half-assed.  It's about a four-hour drive, and then we have to hike the last few miles through the mountains.  The problem is, getting there and back will use up most of our remaining time, especially since we'll probably have to spend tonight there, even if we leave now.  Do we want to risk it?"


"We haven't really had much success here," Daria pointed out, "and if I never see another bar scene again, I will die a much happier person.  Plus, maybe the reason we couldn't reach Wind on his cell phone was not because he hadn't paid his bill, but because he was out of range in the mountains.  I'd say we have as good odds there as here, and I'm more willing to risk hillbillies over barflies.  I vote that we go."


"Sounds good enough for me.  Let's ride."



*  *  *  *  *



At first, the highway trip through Maryland was nothing out of the ordinary; Daria and Jane talked of normal subjects, doing their best to not dwell on the disturbing events of the past few days, or on the uncertainty of finding Wind at their destination.  But the tension didn't fade; Daria still felt like her nerves were on edge, and their situation hung over the conversation like a black cloud that neither of them wanted to acknowledge but of which both could feel the shadow.


But as the straight highway gave way to country roads and then to winding mountain trails, Daria felt her tension begin to ease up, at least a little bit.  The now-constant feeling of being watched didn't subside, but the change of scenery helped in putting the events of the last few days behind her.  Of course, she had her own bad memories of mountain county - at least, she had thought that they were bad memories, but viewed in the light of her newest recollections they seemed almost paradisiacal.  We're Lawndale's Wilderness Adventure Club, Mark 2.  Even Jane's adventurous sense of driving seemed tame in comparison.


Finally, they reached the end of the road; it dead-ended into a wooded slope, with a narrow dirt trail leading up the mountain.  Another car was there waiting for them, a beat-up old Ford.  Jane parked the car behind it, and they got out.


"Please tell me this is Wind's," Daria said, resting her hand on the hood of the jalopy.  Tom's had been in worse shape, but not by much.


"Yep, this is it," Jane said, and for the first time in days, she smiled.  "Looks like Trent had it right after all.  I'll have to get him a set of guitar strings or something.  Come to think of it, I think this place looks a bit familiar.  It's vague, but it does feel like I've been here before."  She looked around, taking in the natural scenery.  "Y'know, it's not all that bad out here.  Pretty relaxing, actually.  Wind rustling the tree branches, babbling brooks, the song of birds . . ."


"Banjos," Daria interjected.


"Maybe it's time for you to start practicing squealing like a pig."  Jane smirked, and wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.


"Sorry," Daria quipped back.  "High-pitched, inhuman squeals are Quinn's department."


Jane stared up at the trail before them.


"I would love to hear the sound she'd make at the thought of a climb like this."  She took a deep breath, and stepped onto the dirt.  Daria followed.


The climb was hard.  If her run from Glen Oaks Lane to Howard Drive Wednesday morning had shown her how much gym had kept her in shape, this ascent seemed determined to pay her back for every complaint she had ever made about Ms. Morris.  Even Jane was having a difficult time - apparently running took different muscles than climbing - and conversation soon faded out, replaced by a few murmured imprecations and a lot of heavy breathing.  Rest stops were as frequent as they could justify them, balancing the necessity of recovery with the driving desire to get to Wind as quickly as possible.  But, every time, they dragged themselves to their feet long before they felt rested, and made their way up again.


Finally, just as the sun was setting behind the trees, the path leveled off.  They were walking almost directly into the sunset, and the glow cast everything around them into a red hue.  It looked as though they were walking through a forest of fire.  Then, in so smooth a transition they almost didn't notice it, the trees that surrounded them were on fire, tongues of flame licking at their newly-bare branches, turning each bough into a torch.  They looked around them in surprise, but little shock; there wasn't much left that could shock them.


"This isn't real, right?" Jane asked, in the tone of someone who knows the answer but feels the need to say something in acknowledgement.


"I'm pretty sure it's not," Daria replied, in much the same way.  "I think we'd be dead if it were."


"Well, at least this is pretty mild," Jane said.  "If this is all she has left to throw at us, maybe things are starting to wind down.  Maybe it all wears off in seven days, and we've been worrying for nothing."


"Or this is her resting until she really throws the shit at us."  Daria realized that she had just spoken of Jane's hypothetical spirit as though she were real.  Do I think that she is?  When did that happen?  Should I just let myself slide into this paradigm shift?  Whether or not she wanted to, she didn't have the time or energy to fight it just then; she'd have to give the whole matter serious thought later on, when she could devote all her energies to the question.  For now, the only thing that mattered was to continue moving forward.


The sun was now completely set, and with the trees blocking out almost all moonlight and starlight, and no manmade illumination within miles, the trail became almost pitch-black.  The fiery trees burned on, but the flames shed no light beyond their own borders; soon, they could only make out the trail by the path it blazed through the light of the illusory inferno.  They kept walking, they didn't know how long.


Then, ahead of them, they saw another flickering firelight glow, but this one was on the ground.  The trees thinned out into a clearing, in the center of which stood an old-fashioned log cabin, looking in dire need of repair.  The light was coming from inside, shining through the open spaces between the logs, its wavering orange glow a beacon.  The door opened with a creak, and they stepped inside.


The interior was only a single room, its walls and floor glowing and flickering in time with the fire, built in a fireplace in one wall; a single figure sat in front of it, staring into the flames.  It was Wind.


He turned when they came in, his expression mournful instead of surprised.  He attempted a sickly smile.


"Janey," he said, "and . . ."  He stared at Daria, brow wrinkling.


"Daria," she quickly filled in, before he could make another humiliating guess.  He nodded absently.  He was about to say something else, but Jane didn't give him the chance.


"Wind," she said briskly, walking up to stand beside his sitting form, "did you leave a videotape at the house?"  Wind's eyes opened wide, and even through the firelight his face paled.  Jane's voice hardened.  "What is it?"  Wind swallowed nervously.


"I heard that it was made by a little girl," he said, sounding choked.  "Her mother strangled her and threw her in a well.  Her ghost made the tape to tell people what happened.  Her name was Sam . . . Sammy . . . Samantha . . ."


Samara, said a voice in Daria's ear.  The high-pitched voice of a young girl.  Chills enveloped her bones.


"My friend Danny gave it to me," Wind continued, looking up at his younger sister looking lost and helpless.  "He said it was the best trip he ever had.  Kathy and I don't have a VCR, so I brought it home, but I never could get up the courage to watch it."  He drew in a deep gasp, and his eyes opened even wider, if that were possible.  "I didn't realize I had left it there until days later.  Janey, did you watch it?"  His voice rose in panic.


"Yes, we both did," she replied.  Her voice was dangerously level.  "What is going to happen to us?"


"Oh, Janey," Wind said, on the verge of tears, "you have to make a copy and show it to somebody else, or else you'll die exactly seven days after you watched it!"


Daria felt as though she had been punched in the stomach by a hand wearing an iron gauntlet.  She sank to the ground.  Die, die, die . . .  The word reverberated around her head until it had no meaning.


"Wind, how are we going to die?"


"I don't know," he said, now weeping openly.  "Nobody does.  The only person I've ever heard of who saw it happen went crazy.  She's in a nuthouse now."


"Are you sure about this, Wind?" Jane asked, fury growing in her voice.  "Do you know anyone who has actually died from this?"


Wind looked up at her in agony.


"Danny.  Two days after he gave it to me.  The paper said he died of a heart attack, but I know better."  He finally dissolved completely into tears, clutching Jane's feet.  She stood above him like an avenging angel, or a wrathful demon.


"Get out, Wind," she said, at first a whisper, then with increasing fury.  "Get out.  Get out!  GET OUT!!"  She drew back her foot, looking as though she was going to kick him, but he jumped away and ran out into the dark.  His cries and sobs faded into the noises of the mountain night.  They never saw him again.


For a minute, everything was silent.  Then Jane came over and sat down next to Daria.


"Jane, we're going to be killed by a kid," Daria said, and almost laughed at the grim absurdity of it.  "A kid who was hurt, and now she wants everyone else to hurt as well.  Everyone will suffer."  Daria had never been fond of kids; now she knew why.  "How typical."  But what if I had that kind of power, when I was at that age?  How many times did I think of hurting all the other children who teased or bullied me?  If I could have, would I have?  Just how much actually separates her from me?


"I don't think that's all that it is," Jane said, "at least, that's not the feeling I'm getting from her.  From Samara."  Daria looked at Jane in mild surprise, and then they both knew that the other had heard as well.  "I think she wants everyone to know how it felt, what it was like to be her.  I doubt that her life was a happy one."


"That may be so, but we can't help her."  Daria inhaled deeply, steadying herself to shore up her decision, the only one that in good conscience she could make.  "We can't pass this on; I can't have another person's death on my conscience.  This has to stop here."


"Daria," Jane said in surprise, "surely you can't think that our tape is the only copy?  There's probably hundreds of them out there.  Letting ourselves die isn't going to stop her.  Besides, if we copy it and give it to someone else, we'll let them know what to do with it."


"Yes, but then he'll make a copy, and the person he gives it to will make a copy, and that person, and the next, and the next.  It's exponential growth, Jane; that's her plan.  And all of those copies will be out there, each one descended from us.  And, eventually, each one of them will be viewed by someone like us, someone who doesn't know what they have.  And each one of them will die.  Jane, I can't kill off all those people, just so I can keep living; if I did that, I don't think that I could live."


Jane didn't look convinced, and she avoided her friend's eyes.


"Jane," Daria said, the words cracking, "if you want to make a copy, I won't try to stop you, or even talk you out of it.  I don't want you to die."  But Jane shook her head.


"No, amiga, you're right.  If I did that, I couldn't live with myself either, knowing what I had done.  And after all the grief you put me through about BFAC, don't think that you're going to leave me here to face it alone."  She smiled, but there was little of mirth in it.  Daria responded in kind.  "So, what now?"


"We'll stay here for the night," Daria replied, "now that your brother has so graciously made way.  Tomorrow, we'll go back to the hotel, destroy the tape, and head back home.  I don't remember exactly when I watched the tape, but I'll at least have most of the day with my family before the end.  I don't think I'll tell them about it, though; they can't do anything to prevent it, and if they try, I'm afraid they might end up in Bedlam.  Where they belong anyway, I suppose."  The joking insult was a reflex, but Daria regretted it as soon as it was out of her mouth.  Her family, usually the source of annoyance and caustic humor, was suddenly precious to her.


"I suppose I'll do the same thing; I hope Trent is around for at least part of it.  I want the chance to say goodbye."  Jane looked mournfully at Daria.  "Will you be going straight home once we reach Lawndale?"  She didn't ask it directly, but Daria knew what she wanted.


"No, I'll stay with you until the end; and if I go crazy for it, well, I won't have that long to suffer."  Jane reached over and touched her on the shoulder, and before either of them knew it, they were locked in a sorrowful embrace, each giving comfort to the other, as only best friends could.  They held each other like this long into the night.







They started their climb down the mountain as soon as they woke up the next morning.  Going down proved to be even more strenuous than coming up, so conversation was once again held to a minimum.  The trees surrounding them were back to normal, leafy branches green and lush, and the forest teemed with the sounds of a thousand forms of life.  It seemed almost a mockery of their situation, having to walk through such an explosion of life when their own lives were now so close to their ends; but it was also a comforting reminder, that though their own existence was drawing to a close, that the world would keep going, that Samara's victory was far from complete.  Though there were clouds gathering on the eastern horizon, the sky above them was clear and blue, and the sunlight reached them unhindered, making their coming demise seem distant and unreal; ghosts were creatures of night and shadow, how could one reach them in the bright light of day?  Daria knew that such feelings were an illusion, hardly borne out by their experiences, but she appreciated the relief from the heavy dread and the sense of impending doom that had haunted her night.


Eventually, after several hours of exhausting decent, they finally reached the car, parked unmolested right where they had left it.  Daria took the wheel for their drive back to Baltimore.  After just a few minutes of rest, they started to talk, but it was not of the great and terrible revelation of the night before.  Daria told Jane of her life in Highland, the armpit of Texas; she told of her isolation and loneliness, of how the only two people who came close to being her friends were two degenerate morons with whom she only associated for the sake of amusement.  She told of her parents' fights, her trouble in school, her increasing desperation at her own position.  She told her of first hearing about the move to Lawndale, of her pessimistic assumption that there would be no one for her there, since she had come to assume such a person did not exist.  Jane told Daria of her growing up almost abandoned by her parents, since they had begun to place their own muse's call above their own children; of being raised almost completely by Trent.  She told of settling into her grip of her own muse, seeing the world and the people around her as mere grist for her artistic mill.  She told of taking the school's self-esteem class month after month after month, because she had no other way to spend her time.  She told of growing up with Kevin and Brittany, Jodie and Mack, Upchuck, Andrea, and everyone else they knew; how they had started off as friends, in the manner of young children, but how age had separated them into groups, and how Jane had found herself in a group of one.


They both talked of their three years together, recounting old escapades and reviving old jokes, and recalled the stupidity and conformity of their classmates.  Of their families and their teachers and their peers, all observed through a distancing filter of bemusement and frustration.  There were no new stories here, they had heard them all before, but they found that, while these memories had once been objects of scorn, they were now fondly treasured, despite their absurdities, because of their absurdities.  Little snippets of life, with all the slings and arrows that it is heir to; they did not want to let it go.  Neither of them admitted to feeling this way, but it was growing in their hearts all the same.


But as they clouds started to roll in, and the world turned to grey around them, their minds came around once again to face what was ahead of them, instead of what was behind, and conversation stalled.  They spent some time in silence, Daria focused on the road ahead, Jane staring out the window.  Then, turning to face Daria once again, she broke the silence.


"Y'know," she said, "people always say to live every day like it is going to be your last, and I always thought that was what I was doing."  Her voice was soft, reflective.  "Carpe diem.  Follow your dreams.  Live every day with gusto, and you will have no regrets.  They think that means living every day as though you weren't going to get another one.  But now, I don't feel like any of that at all.  It was fun, but I want to spend my last day just being with the people I care about, and screw all the rest of it.  If I can spend my last few hours with you and Trent, I'll feel like I've really spent my last day well, even if I can't tell Trent that's what it is.  I'll have no regrets."  She fell silent, but after a few moments, Daria filled the hush.


"I don't think I've lived that way at all," she said slowly, heavily.  "I've been treating my life so far as a prologue, just a waiting period or a purgatory, before my 'real life' begins.  I thought grade school was just what was leading into my life, preparing me for it; but what I thought was prologue has turned out to be the whole story.  It all feels so unfinished; I feel like I have left nothing completed, neither my writing nor my relationships.  And now it's all over."  Daria felt sick, her stomach twisted in knots, and so heavy she found it hard just to make her arms move to steer.  Jane contemplated her quietly for a while, then spoke.


"Daria, what do you think is going to happen to you after you die?"


"I'll be buried in a plot with green grass and a relatively expensive headstone," she replied, her voice bitterly humorous.  "Dad will come visit me every day and spend the whole time yelling at his father about how it's his fault I'm in here.  Mom will come, when she finds the time between cases, and spend most of the time talking to Eric on the cell phone.  And Quinn will never visit, because nothing can destroy a girl's popularity faster than being associated with death."


"Really?  Personally, I plan on being stuffed and mounted."  Jane attempted a smile, but it died quickly.  "But seriously, Daria, we've never actually discussed it; what do you think is going to happen to you after you die?"


"We've never discussed it because, despite what Mr. O'Neill might think, I don't like to sit around thinking about death."  Her hands tightened on the wheel; even with the topic unavoidably in the air, she still didn't like the idea of speaking of that dark unknown which now seemed all too near.


"But you must have some opinion.  And if you're going to think about death, now's the time."


"I suppose I think that, once you die, that's it.  The brain stops working, and it's pretty much lights out.  The body decays, and in the end, it's like you were never here to begin with."


"So you don't think there's any kind of afterlife?"


"I don't see how there could be; once the brain is gone, the person's gone."


"And what about this last week?  What about that girl that Wind says was murdered, the one that supposedly made the tape, the one you and I have both seen?  You act like you've accepted her existence.  Doesn't that change your mind?  If there is an afterlife, don't you think there might still be a way to complete everything that you don't think you've finished?"


For a long moment, Daria was silent.


"I don't know.  But I don't think I would want to be part of an afterlife with such creatures as her in it."


The rest of the drive was mostly silent.



*  *  *  *  *



They arrived back in Baltimore by early evening, stepping wearily into their hotel room.  Daria wanted nothing more than to see the end of this place and return home to the family that now felt to precious to her.  But she wouldn't see them for a while yet; they had decided that the Morgendorffer family would have enough on their plate with Daria's death.  Having Jane die in their home just a few hours earlier would be too much to ask them to deal with.  So they would stay at Jane's place, the two of them and Trent, until Jane's death the following morning.  Only then would Daria go home, to spend a few final hours with her family.


But she was ready to take the initial step - the night drive back to Lawndale.  They both packed their things quickly.


"Don't forget to make sure you still have the tape," Jane said.  Daria turned to look at her in surprise.


"I thought you had it."


Their eyes widened as they realized what had happened.


"How could we have done that?" Jane exclaimed.  "I thought for sure that you said you were going to bring it."


"I thought you were going to," Daria replied, and then clarity hit her.  "It's Samara.  She wants the tape to keep moving on.  She's the one who made Wind leave it for us, and now we've left it for . . ."  She sucked in her breath in horror.




Jane ran for the phone.



*  *  *  *  *



"Hey, Janey.  Did you find Wind?"


"Yeah, we found him, for all the good it did us.  Trent, have you seen any videotapes lying about?"


"Yeah, mostly around the VCR."


"Yes, I know about those.  Have you seen any others, any unmarked ones?"


"Yeah, there is this one.  I found it when I went into your room looking for CD's.  I was going to put it in, but I took a nap instead.  Should I watch it?"


"NO!!!!  Sorry, Trent.  I need you to promise me that you won't watch that tape."


"What's on it?  Is it dirty?"


"Nothing like that.  It's nothing important, but I need you to promise me you won't watch it.  I want you to put it in Mom's kiln and bake it until it's a puddle.  Trent, swear to me you'll do it right after we get off the phone."


"Janey, you're acting really weird."


"I know, but this is a matter of life and death.  Please, Trent, please destroy it."


"Okay, I'll do it."


"Right after we get off the phone.  Swear it."


"Fine, Janey.  I swear."


"Good.  I'm very glad to hear that.  We're coming home now; I'll see you in a few hours."


"Nah, the Spiral's got a rehearsal tonight, then a late gig in Swedesville.  In fact, I should have already been there, but I fell asleep.  We'll crash there, so I probably won't be home until tomorrow afternoon.  I'll see you then, though."


"Yeah, I'll see you then.  Goodbye, Trent."



*  *  *  *  *



Trent put the duck back onto its base.  Janey had sounded pretty stressed; he wondered what the big deal was.  She should learn to just take life as it came, learn to take it all in stride.  Be cool.


He told her that he would destroy that videotape, but he really had to go; Max had nearly gone ballistic the last time he'd shown up two hours late for a pre-show rehearsal.  He should learn to cool down too.  He'd destroy the tape when he got back.



*  *  *  *  *



Jane hung up the phone.  Daria had been impressed by how normal she had sounded talking to Trent, but as soon as the connection was cut, Jane fell on her knees.  She didn't yet know what had happened, but Daria held her grieving friend in her arms as she wept.



*  *  *  *  *



Daria and Jane finally stepped through the door of the Lane home late that evening.  No lights were on, and the place was steeped in shadow, the only illumination coming from the streetlights seen through the window.  The house was vacant, but it was not empty; it was filled with a palpable presence, brooding and malevolent, awaiting its time.  Now that Daria knew she was being watched, she no longer had the urge to constantly check over her shoulder; in fact, she had become, not comfortable, but accustomed to this ever present consciousness.  But now, back in familiar surroundings not associated with the horrors of the past week, it was like she was feeling Samara's presence for the very first time, and the hostility she sensed in it made her insides quiver.  Were you always like this, Samara?  Were you born with this evil inside you?  Or, at one time, were you just a scared child, wondering why your Mommy wanted to hurt you?  No answer was forthcoming.


Daria followed Jane to her bedroom, where everything was as they had left it: the defaced older works in a haphazard pile, the Samara-induced paintings scattered across the room as though flung about in a frenzy, and at the epicenter of it all, the mutilated white canvas emblazoned with a dark ring.  The insignia Samara had taken as her own, a silent reminder of the influence she now held over them.  Wordlessly, Jane took out the embedded brush, and grasping both sides of the hole she had made, ripped the painting apart in a feat of furious strength, then hurled the ruined frame against the wall.  The frame broke, and it fell limp to the floor.


"She may take me," Jane said, and it sounded like a vow, "but she won't control what it is I leave behind.  She won't take my legacy."  And with that, she took up a hammer and walked around the room, systematically destroying every painting she had made while under Samara's influence.  Daria just watched in silence, knowing Jane was doing what she had to do.  Finally, they both stood in a room full of ruined works of art; the hammer dropped from Jane's nerveless fingers.


"Listen to me, Samara!" she declared to the air surrounding her.  "I am going to paint.  I may not be able to control myself if you take me over, but I won't stop trying to create my own work.  I will fight you every inch of the way.  I am Jane Lane, artiste extraordinaire.  And that is what I will be until the brush drops from my dead fingers."


She picked up a blank canvas and set it on the easel.  Taking up a brush, she began to paint.






Daria was awakened the next morning by a gentle shake from Jane.  Before she even opened her eyes, she could hear the sound of heavy knocking and an angry voice being filtered through the front door.  Daria was lying sprawled on the bed, having finally given into exhaustion after spending hours watching Jane paint with a vengeance,  starting new works time after time, and then discarding them as soon as the first hint of Samara's influence became noticeable.  Her efforts had yielded no clear successes, but there were no complete failures either; there were no faces anywhere to be seen, and there were many images of wells, ladders, horses, and rings.  But there were also many pictures Jane had nearly completed before detecting such intruders, and these were enough to keep her going without fail, determined to not just give up and let Samara win this battle as well.  Jane was still working as Daria's eyes slowly opened, standing at her easel, brush in hand; from the number of new paintings scattered about, it was clear that she had worked straight through the night.  She smirked at Daria; the voice coming through the door was clearly that of Helen Morgendorffer.


"Sounds like we've been found out, amiga," she said, her voice raspy from the early hour.


"Ignore her and she'll go away," Daria replied.  Jane didn't know the exact time she watched the tape, but it was sometime in the morning, and Daria didn't intend to leave her friend's side until that moment.  The yelling and pounding continued unabated, Helen calling for her daughter to come out and explain herself.  Jane turned her head towards the door for a moment, and then looked back to Daria.


"Go on and talk to her," she said, jerking her head towards the door.  "I don't think she's just going to go away.  I'm sure that she's noticed that your car is here."


"Are you sure?"  Daria was nervous about the idea of leaving Jane for even a few moments.


"Sure," Jane responded.  "I'll be fine by myself for a couple of minutes.  Besides, do you really want your mother angry at you today?"  She was right; this was the last day that her mother would see her alive, and Daria didn't want to her spend it cross.  That wasn't the kind of final moments she wished to have with any of her family, and she didn't want Helen to feel guilty afterwards.  She levered herself up off the bed, and set off to answer the door.


From the looks of her mother as she opened the door, the chance of Helen getting out of this with a cool head was pretty slim.  Her face was red, partially from exertion, but also, Daria thought, from pure anger.  Helen didn't give her a chance to speak; as soon as they made eye contact, she started in on her.


"Daria Marie Morgendorffer," she exclaimed, and Daria knew that this would have a bad ending, "what the hell have you been doing the past few days?!  Where have you been?!  I've called and called over here and never gotten an answer; I drove over and your car was gone, every time!  You disappeared for almost a week; do you know how scared I was?  And then, finally, we got out of Quinn that you had gone to Baltimore?!  What the hell possessed you to do that, without even telling us?"  Daria had no chance to interject anything into her mother's tirade, but when Helen reached out to take Daria's arm she shook it off.


"Young lady," Helen continued in righteous anger, "you are coming home this instant, and I assure you Family Court will not look favorably on you trying to get out of it."


"Mother," Daria finally managed to get in, "I can't leave Jane right now.  I promise, I'll be home in a couple of hours, but right now I have to stay."


"You do not get to plea bargain here," Helen replied.  "I know you think that you're independent, now that you've graduated high school and are off to college soon, but as long as you live in my house you'll obey my rules, and my rules say to come home with me now."  She reached out once again to take her arm, and Daria stepped back further into the house.


"No, mother," she said as calmly as she could.  She couldn't believe that her last day with her loved ones was starting so badly, and every second she was away from Jane felt like an eternity during which anything could happen; she had to fight down a rising sense of panic, of everything spinning out of control.  "I'm sorry, I really am; I don't want us to fight like this.  But I made a promise to Jane, and I can't leave yet.  But I swear I will come home as soon as I can, and I will take whatever punishment you give me without reply.  But, please, don't force me to come with you."  Helen's anger seemed to recede slightly as she heard what Daria was saying.


"Why can't you leave yet?" she asked, the heat still there but tempered with a measure of curiosity.  "What's wrong with Jane?  Why does she have to have you around right now?"


"I can't say," Daria replied.  She wished she could tell her mother everything, pour it all out to her and ask for support and comfort for all of them; but Helen couldn't know what was really happening, not and remain safe.  She'd try to stop Samara and possibly be driven insane, or demand to see the tape herself.  (At the back of her mind, Daria wondered if Trent had actually destroyed the tape as he had promised, but she couldn't afford to dwell on that issue right at this moment.)  It was obvious that her simple and uninformative reply did not improve Helen's mood, but she made no further move to physically budge her daughter.  After a long, tense moment, Helen spoke again.


"Fine," she said briskly, and gave a short nod of her head.  "You can stay, for now, but I want you home by noon.  Do you understand?"  Daria nodded and gave her word, and Helen strode back to her car and drove away.


Daria closed the door with a sigh, and leaned against it for just one moment, grateful to have finally seen one thing in this terrible week go her way.


Then, from Jane's room, she heard it: a piercing, blood-curdling scream, the sound of pure terror.  It pierced her ears and reverberated through her brain and her bones, turning her heart to ice.  For a moment, she was frozen in horror, then her legs were moving towards the sound, no real thought in her mind other than that Jane needed her, and the horrifying feeling that she was too late.


She dashed through Jane's door, almost falling headfirst in her haste.  Then she stopped; at first glance, everything looked normal, exactly as she left it.  She saw Jane lying on the bed, face pointed the opposite direction; she looked like she was merely resting, with no signs of terror or any kind of struggle.  Daria wondered if maybe, somehow, through all the stress, she had imagined the whole thing; if maybe Jane had finally just succumbed to fatigue.  She walked over to the reclining form; her boots splashed through a puddle of water on the floor, but she didn't even notice.  She took hold of Jane's shoulder and rolled her over to see if she was okay.


And Daria saw Jane's face; she saw what had been her face.  Now it was horribly disfigured, green and bloated, the skin hanging off the skull like it was already rotten.  Her hand jerked back of its own accord, her conscious mind shut down; wanting to close her eyes and refuse all that she had seen, but feeling them open ever wider in shock and horror, Daria backed away.  Her whole body was seized with an icy grip, her arms and legs vibrating with the instinct to flee as far away as they could; her heart felt constricted, and she couldn't breathe.


Then her vision clouded over, and she knew no more.



*  *  *  *  *



Daria regained consciousness wet and with a sore head.  She was lying in a pool of water, and using her hand to probe the back of her skull she found a painful lump; she must have hit her head on the floor when she blacked out.  Damn, what time is it?  How long have I been unconscious?  Opening her eyes to see Jane's ceiling above her, at first she wasn't sure of what had happened, why she would be lying out cold in Jane's room.  Then memory came flooding back to her, and in shock she bolted upright, which her head immediately protested.  She barely noticed, for the first sight that met her eyes was Jane's ravaged face; she rapidly averted her gaze, and felt like she was going to be sick.  Jane.  Oh, god, Jane . . .  Then she was sick, but when it was over and her stomach was empty, it still did not compare to the void that was her heart.  She wanted to stay here, to slowly absorb what had happened and grieve for her friend, to guard her body until she was ready to let her go; but the clock on the wall said that it was past four in the afternoon.  That means I've got about an hour, maybe less.  I can't stay here; I've got to get home.  Keeping her eyes on the door, she stood up and slowly walked out of the room, still a bit unsteady on her feet.  When she reached the door, she paused.  Farewell for now, my friend.  I don't know where you are, but wherever it is, I'll be joining you soon.


The rest of the house was empty; either Trent had not yet returned from the gig, or he had already come and left again, without knowing what had happened.  Daria knew that there was one more thing she had to do before she left; she called 911 and anonymously reported a death on Howard Drive.  All she could do now was hope that the paramedics arrived before Trent did; she didn't want him to remember his sister like that.  Then she left for home.


When she stepped into the Morgendorffer house, the first thing she saw was her mother, standing in the den with her arms folded, furious.  Daria had been expecting this, but that didn't make it any easier; she didn't want to fight, and she knew her mother would regret it later, but she could see no way out of it.


"You gave me your word, Daria," Helen began, her voice hard, "and I trusted you, because I've never known you to go back on a promise.  But you're over four hours late, on top of going missing for almost a week, and I don't know what's come over you.  Family Court will meet later to discuss judgment, but I think it's safe to say that you will be grounded for a very long time, and don't even think that you can bore us out of it.  But for now, I want you to go to your room and stay there until supper."  She pointed up the stairs.


Supper would be around six or seven; Daria knew that she wouldn't make it that long.  Daria wanted to beg for a reprieve, to ask for the chance to spend her final precious minutes in the company of her family, but she knew that the situation was too far gone for that; her mother would never listen.  But she couldn't let those words be the last exchanged between them.


"I love you, mom," she said calmly, masking an overflowing heart, and then walked up the stairs to her room, not waiting to see Helen's reaction.  As she walked up the stairs, she heard sirens in the distance; her 911 call was bearing fruit.  She hated to think that soon the sirens would be coming much closer.


Inside her room, she looked around, examining the place where she had spent so much of the past three years.  The padded walls, the barred windows, the broken TV bolted to the ceiling, the door with the insane poetry - these were all reminders of the former occupant, these were the marks she had left on the space that had been hers.  But what have I left?  Once my things are packed away to storage, what will remain to let people know I was ever here?  Determined to leave some concrete evidence of her own existence, she took a key out of her pocket, and scratched on the wall the first lines that came to her head.



Here we go

The world is spinning

When it stops

It's just beginning


Sun comes up

We laugh and we cry

Sun goes down

And then we all die



Once she was finished, she examined what she had written.  Is that my work?  Is it Samara's?  Is it some blend of the two?  Whichever it is, I like it; I think it sums up what I'm feeling right now pretty well.  It'll do for a memorial.


It was that moment that Quinn chose to burst into the room, nervous and contrite.


"Oh, Daria," she began in rapid-fire speech, "I'm so sorry about telling.  I didn't mean to, I swear I didn't, but Mom and Dad were all on me to tell them if I knew where you had gone and it was like the Spanish Intermission and I finally just couldn't take it anymore and I hope you don't want to hurt me and . . . gah, what are you doing?!"  Quinn's train of thought was derailed at the completely unexpected sensation of being wrapped in a firm embrace by her sister.  Daria knew she didn't have much time left, and didn't think that Quinn would give her the chance to verbally express her feelings, so she took the one formerly-unthinkable avenue left to her.  Quinn was frozen in surprise for an instant, then started to squirm.  "Daria, what's wrong with you?  Are you trying to scare me?  Is this some kind of weird, geeky revenge?  Ewww!"  She finally wriggled free and ran out of the door, leaving Daria alone.


I'm not going to get the chance to say a proper goodbye to any member of my family, anyone I care about.  But I can't just leave them without letting them know how I feel; I've spent my life too isolated to just assume they know.  And I want them to know how I died, that Jane and I didn't have some weird suicide pact or something.  Not that there were many ways to commit suicide that would leave a corpse like the one Jane did or Daria very soon would . . . she cut off that train of thought, not wanting to be reminded.  Then, she realized what she had to do.  Sitting at her desk, she picked up a pen and a sheet of paper.  The written word was her chosen medium, her greatest talent; it was only appropriate that her final message to the world be conveyed through it.  She would tell Jake, Helen, and Quinn all that they had meant to her, individually and together, and how much she valued them, even though it had not often seemed that way.  She would tell them all that had happened in the past week, and warn them to avoid the tape at all costs, no matter what steps they had to take to do it.  She would let them know that she was, not exactly happy, but proud to sacrifice her own life to stand in the way of such an evil, and there was no better end to her life that she could have asked for, even if it was coming too soon.  She set to work with greater passion than she had ever possessed before.


She was so engrossed in her work that she didn't notice when her TV clicked on, first with static, then the picture of a well . . .







BALTIMORE, MD (AP)  The investigation continues into the deaths of Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane, both 17, of Lawndale, MD.  The two teenage girls were found dead in their homes last Monday, of still unknown causes.  The time of death for Jane Lane is approximated at 10:30 AM, and for Daria Morgendorffer at 5:00 PM.  The cause of death was initially diagnosed as cardiac arrest, but this diagnosis has been rescinded due to the presence of additional symptoms that do not fit this conclusion.  Their deaths are now tentatively believed to be the result of an unknown biological agent; symptoms include interruption of cardiac activity and rapid necrosis of the skin, especially that of the face.  Documents left behind by Miss Morgendorffer also suggest the onset of dementia and hallucinations prior to death.


To combat the possible spread of contagion, both the Morgendorffer and Lane houses have been declared off-limits by the CDC, and the Morgendorffer and Lane families have been placed into quarantine under Level 3 biohazard conditions.  Because the two girls were known to have spent several days in Baltimore prior to their deaths, where Daniel Corbett, 37, recently died of what are now believed to be similar symptoms, additional quarantine measures are being considered for the city and the surrounding suburbs.  Inhabitants of these areas are advised to stay in their homes and limit contact with others; visitors are discouraged.


Experts are considering this incident as a possible case of bio-terrorism; however, citizens are urged to remain calm and not spread rumors that could lead to a panic situation.  Other rumors that this condition is not biological but supernatural in origin and spread by a cursed videotape are considered harmful to the public health, and the CDC is asking anyone who hears such rumors to disregard them and continue to abide by the health regulations that have been set up.



*  *  *  *  *



"The police say it's a new kind of terrorism, but we'll talk to a man who says that Baltimore syndrome is something far more sinister. See the tape and decide for yourself! When video vixens kill, next on Sick, Sad World!"




The End



Acknowledgements:  First of all, I would like to thank everyone who commented on this story on PPMB - The Angst Guy, james_anatidae, nmorgendorffer, Kristen Bealer, Mr. Orange, Sleepless, Decelaraptor, jedah, Orpheus, Gregor Samsa, Ranger Thorne, Roentgen, et alia, and Dave the Insane.  I didn't have beta readers per se, but I think you guys qualify.  Thanks for the encouragement and suggestions.


And many thanks to the creators of Daria and of the various incarnations of The Ring mythos.


Legal Blather:  Daria and all associated characters are the property of MTV.  The Ring is the property of Dreamworks SKG.  The story is my own.