The Tempest

 

the sequel to the Love's Labours Trilogy

 

A Daria fanfic by E. A. Smith

 

 

I walked through the front door of my former home for the first time in months, my bag of clothes and necessities slung over my shoulder, and sighed in relief.  My first semester at Raft was behind me, and I was glad of it; it had taken more of a toll than I had expected, for both personal reasons and academic ones, and having survived it relatively intact felt like a rite of passage.  Finals had been grueling - for the first time in my life I had actually had to study, in order to ensure I made it through the freshman weed-out classes with flying colors - and I felt drained from the experience, even with the weight now off of my back.  I had never thought to be so relieved to see the inside of these familiar walls.

 

There was no one waiting to greet me, which I was a little surprised at; I had not been home since the beginning of the semester, having stayed in Boston over Thanksgiving to catch up on all my assignments before beginning finals, and was I no more missed than this?  I couldn't believe I was actually wishing to hear Quinn's prattling or my father's ranting, but four months away from everything familiar will induce some strange cravings.  The person I missed the most was Jane, of course, but I didn't think I could expect her home quite yet; her trip with her father would probably last until she absolutely had to be back, if not a little bit longer.  Not from any parental bond reluctant to let her go, but simply because her father probably would not bother to make his way back to Lawndale until necessity demanded it.  Even then, I was half-expecting Jane to show up right before classes with a tale of skipping out on her father and hitching rides on rail and road night and day to get to Boston in time.  Either way, I doubted I would see her until January.  Until then, it was just my family and myself, with no distractions.  God help me, what have I gotten myself into?

 

From where I stood, the house looked unchanged.  There was no reason it should not be, but so much had happened to me in the past few months, so many little and not-so-little ways in which my outlook had changed, that it seemed the surroundings I had so closely associated with my old life should have changed to reflect it.  My view had broadened, my horizons had expanded, or I was at least working to make it so; shouldn't I be seeing everything with new eyes, finding new details in what had once been old?  But everything looked as bland and suburban as ever.  No new eyes here, it would appear.

 

I started to take my bag upstairs to my room, but then Quinn emerged from her own domain and walked down, conversation into the cell phone pressed to her ear never missing a beat as she made her way into the den.

 

". . . well of course Sandi looked great in those shoes I mean she's got great ankles even though her legs are a bit too thin to pull of some of the heels she wears and oh hi Daria and I really think that some of those would look much cuter on someone with better calves well thank you Tiffany I've always thought that I had good calves . . ."

 

A wave and a perfunctory greeting was all that I got out of Quinn as she breezed past me towards the kitchen, no doubt going to check on some low-fat chips or maybe carrot sticks.  My own stomach rumbled, and shrugging my bag off onto the couch, I followed her in.  I placed a couple of sugar tarts into the toaster as she rummaged around the veggie bin of the refrigerator.  Seeing the paper lying on the table, evidence of my father's former presence, I picked up the arts section and, retrieving my snack, settled in for a quiet read.

 

I was lost in reading about the new Gary's Gallery location opening in one of the ritzier sections of Lawndale, so as to make it easier for the rich and tasteless to purchase artistic credibility, and being inevitably reminded of Jane, when Quinn finally switched off the phone and joined me with a plate of celery stalks and low-fat dressing.

 

"I'm sorry, Daria," she said, and she sounded as if she actually meant it, "I didn't mean to ignore you like that.  I wanted to say hi and talk and everything, but I couldn't get rid of Tiffany."

 

"Because we all know what a chatterbox Tiffany Blum-Deckler can be." I had actually been looking forward to seeing her, and was a bit annoyed at having to play second fiddle to her sluggish friend.

 

"I really do want to talk, Daria," she continued.  "I mean, it's been months since I've even seen you.  Mom and Dad weren't very happy when you decided to skip out on Thanksgiving."  I glared at Quinn, letting her know that the guilt trip was not welcome.  I had heard enough when I had told Mom about my decision.  The truth was, I had needed time for my schoolwork, but I had also just wanted to be alone, to sort out some questions about my life, and I didn't feel like subjecting myself to family at the time.   But the time away had worn more heavily on me than I had imagined, and now I found myself welcoming my sister's company.

 

"So, how was college, Daria?"

 

"Just like school," I replied, "but with less Kevin.  I'd say that alone made it a positive experience.  Plus, some of the professors actually know what they are talking about."  A slight understatement, that; Raft was one of the finest non-Ivy League schools on the East Coast, and any comparison to the teachers I had at Lawndale High was laughable.  The sensation of actually being challenged at school was new to me, and a pleasant one, though I was still adjusting to it.

 

"Did you meet any cute guys?" Quinn asked, inevitably.  "I know it's a brain school and all, but they can't all be that bad, and you've got to have met someone who works for you by now."  Quinn was eager to hear my response, but I definitely did not want to discuss this particular topic, not with her, not yet.  James was still a sore spot on my conscience, and while I was sure that Quinn would be sympathetic, I didn't want to dredge it all up for her enthusiastic scrutiny.

 

"Actually, I'm already married," I replied.  "I was going to save the news for a Christmas surprise, but my enthusiasm is running over and I can no longer contain my happiness."  I kept my voice as flat as possible, and Quinn got the message.

 

"Okay, no boys then.  Do you do anything outside of classes?"  Quinn was starting to sound desperate.  I guessed that she had been waiting for this conversation, a chance to catch up with her sister and get a glimpse into the world she would be entering next year, and thanks to her unwitting blunders, I was giving her very little to work with.  I sighed internally, and resolved to try to be a bit more open, within reason that is.

 

"Yes, I do things outside of class.  I read and listen to music.  I watch TV.  I surf the web.  I think about things.  I lead a very rich and fulfilling life."  It sounded like sarcasm, and in a way it was, but it was also true, a very good summation of my life beyond school.

 

"Daria!  You know what I meant.  Do you do anything with people?  You haven't made any friends there at all?"  Quinn sounded surprised, and I was surprised myself at the apparent confidence she had in me.  Had she assumed that making new friends would be that easy for me once I hit college?

 

"No, Quinn," I replied, and was dismayed to have to say it, the only answer I felt I honestly could.  "I haven't really made any friends yet."  True, in a way, but very far from the whole truth; I had done things, once.  "I've been rather busy, with schoolwork."

 

"Gah, Daria, is that all college is, just studying?" Quinn was horrified.  No doubt she was starting to rethink her own application to Pepperhill in the light of this dreadful new information.

 

"No, it's not," I reassured her.  "There are lots of other things that students do, just not me.  I'm sure you'll have plenty of time for fun at Pepperhill.  You can even skip the boring parties if you want.  There's even parties as Raft; I just haven't felt like going."

 

"You should try," she urged.  "This is your chance to have fun, Daria.  If all of those other smart people there can find things to do, can't you do it with them?  See, brains can have fun too."  I knew that she was trying to be sisterly and nice, but this conversation had reached the limit of what I could take in this particular direction.  I would enjoy myself plenty in Boston once Jane was there with me, and until then, I had devoted myself to more private pursuits; well-meaning as it was, I didn't feel like listening to a lecture from Quinn.  She had obviously been spending too much time alone with Mom; they were starting to sound alike.  At least there was still one person in this household on whom I could depend for a lecture-free conversation.

 

"Is Dad anywhere around, Quinn?"

 

"I'm not sure," she replied, looking disappointed in the sudden change in topic.  "He was around when Mom was on the phone with Aunt Rita earlier, then he disappeared.  I thought he said something about birds sleeping or something like that.  It was weird, but then Tiffany called and I forgot all about it."  I knew where Dad had gone, and was tempted to join him.

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

As I had deduced, I found Dad in the garage, preparing it to be his hideout away from the coming apocalypse.  He had cleared out a spot for a bed, and was dragging heavy blankets out of the boxes in the corner.  When I walked in, he looked up and ran over to give me a hug; I was uncomfortable for a second, but I quickly returned it.  I had missed him more than I had realized.

 

"Hiya, kiddo," he said enthusiastically, and the endearment did not sound as odious as it once had.  "So you're back from college now?"

 

"No, Dad, this is just a holographic projection.  Help me, Obi Jake-enobi, you're my only hope."  He blinked, but laughed after a moment.

 

"That was a joke, wasn't it," he said, proud of his achievement.  "That was really funny."

 

"Thanks," I replied, and disengaged myself from his arms.  I walked around, surveying the cluttered garage.  There were actually a lot of memories here, boxes filled with old books and games and toys; I was tempted to start digging through to see what forgotten articles I could find, maybe something to take back with me to Raft, but that was something for later.  "So I presume the Joseph of the Barksdale family is coming for a visit?  Is she bringing her Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with her?  I don't think we have the right kind of laundry detergent for it."

 

"Who's Joseph?  Is that Rita's new boyfriend or something?"  Dad was confused, but he had learned long ago to put such statements behind him quickly enough and go on with whatever he was saying.  "Since the last time they got together ended so well, your mother thought it would be a good idea to ask Rita over for the holidays, to see if they could keep things going."  I was shocked.  I had assumed that Rita was involved somehow, but had thought that she had invited herself over, like last time.  Mom was certainly being optimistic about the situation if she had initiated the whole thing.  What could have possibly given her that idea?  Apparently, Dad concurred with my opinion.  "It's crazy, I tell you, crazy!  There's no way they can stay happy with each other for that long!  I didn't want to wait around until the shit really hit the fan.  That shrink at the spa your mother took us to that one time told me I should be more proactive, so here I am, taking control of my life before Helen and Rita send it all to hell.  You can be my contact, Daria.  You can smuggle me food and Christmas cookies, and let me know when it has all blown over, just like last time."

 

A part of me was tempted to consent to his plan, and even to join him, but I knew that I couldn't do that, especially not now.  I am supposed to be working on being more open to people now, I thought.  Admittedly, I hadn't thought that would include people like Rita, at least not yet, but it looks like it's going to be trial by fire for me.  At least once you've made it through the inferno, everything else seems easy in comparison.  And it might not be all bad.

 

"Did she ask Aunt Amy too?" I asked hopefully.

 

"She did, but I don't think she's coming.  Your aunt's a smart woman."

 

So I guess it's up to me to supply the color commentary.  Am I still allowed to do that?  Just because I'm trying to be less judgmental, does that mean I can't point out obvious idiocy when I find it?  I have a feeling this holiday is going to be very character building, and I mean that in the worst way.

 

"So, whaddya say, kiddo?" Dad asked.  "Keep your old dad stocked and informed during Rita's visit?"  He looked so hopeful, I hated to burst his bubble, but I had no choice.

 

"Sorry, Dad, you can't stay in here all Christmas.  Where am I supposed to store all the crappy presents I get from Rita and Quinn if you're taking up all the space?"

 

"Oh, come on, Daria," he pleaded.  "I can't take your mother and Rita fighting right now.  I've been really stressed at work and I'm not feeling all that great and I'm just not up to it.  I promise I'll make it up to you next year; I'll get you twice as many presents."

 

"I'm not going to help you," I replied with growing frustration.  "I've missed you, and I want to see you around during my break.  I promise, you can have all the martinis you want, and if the fighting gets really bad, we'll go out for pizza or something."  He didn't look convinced.  I was going to have to pull out the big guns.  I steeled myself for what was sure to follow.  "Don't you remember the year your father spent Christmas with his poker-playing army buddies instead of at home?  Wasn't he supposed to see you in that Christmas pageant that year?"

 

"Yeah, that's right!"  Goal accomplished.  "I was playing a shepherd, and the whole time we were supposed to be tending sheep I was searching the audience for him, but he never showed up!  'Men don't act in Christmas pageants' he said.  'Men don't wear towels on their heads and play make-believe'.  Maybe if I had gotten a little encouragement, I could have been a great actor, but did I ever get any?  Did he show up for any of my performances?  No!  Don't worry, Daria; your dad won't let you down.  I won't be like he was.  I won't let Rita drive me away from being a great dad!"  He jumped up from his pallet and ran out the garage door, while I watched, feeling very satisfied.  Dad could handle it, I was certain.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

". . . so Rita will be coming in tomorrow and staying until New Year's.  Erin can't make it; she and Brian are in Vienna for the holidays.  On Mother's bill, no doubt."

 

Mom's voice lost the forced cheer it had held while discussing her plans, and regained the irritation that had usually tinged it in previous occasions when she was recounting her niece's activities.  Then she stopped cold and looked disgusted at her own lapse.

 

The four of us were sitting at the kitchen table, talking over dinner - Dad's newest culinary experiment, some unholy combination of stir fry and pasta that Dad was insisting we try eating with chopsticks - and Mom was filling us in on the plans she and her sister had made for the holidays.  The rest of us just sat in horror, and it was an even toss whether the horror was greater over the news or the meal.  Tomorrow was the day before Christmas Eve, which meant that Mom and Rita would be trapped in the same house for over a week; and if Mom couldn't even keep the bitterness out of her voice for more than a few sentences . . .  I was beginning to find some wisdom in Dad's earlier plan.

 

"Vienna?  That sounds great," Dad exclaimed.  "Maybe they can bring back some of those little sausages."

 

"At least they would be something I could eat with these things," I muttered as I made another unsuccessful attempt to clamp down on a sliver of beef with the oversized toothpicks.

 

"Ewww, Daria."  Quinn screwed up her face in disgust.  "Don't you know what's in those things?"

 

"Pig snouts and cow hooves?"

 

"No," she replied.  "Fat.  And grease.  God, Daria, your skin could use some moisturizing but that's not the way to go about it."  She slipped another pea pod into her mouth; annoyingly, Quinn seemed to have no problem using the chopsticks.  One too many dates taking her out for Chinese, I presumed.

 

"Girls, please," Mom broke in.  "And, Jake, Erin and Brian aren't going to bring us back any Vienna sausages; if you want them so much, get them at the store yourself.  Anyway, as I was saying, Erin and Brian are in Vienna through the New Year, so they can't make it.  Amy outright told me that she didn't want to come, the stuck-up . . ."  Once again, she cut herself off, and had to pause momentarily to get the positive tone back into her voice.  "Anyway, it's just going to be Rita and the four of us.  I think we can really make this a great holiday."

 

"Honey, I don't know about this," Jake said.  "I know that the two of you made up the last time she was here, but don't you think this is pushing it a bit?  Maybe you could start with something smaller, like lunch."

 

"Dammit, Jake," Mom replied.  "I'm trying to heal the wounds of this family, and your doubts aren't going to make it any easier.  I need everyone to pull together on this."

 

"Sorry, Mom," I said.  "I might hang together with you, but I draw the line at pulling.  Too much physical exertion."

 

"And you, young lady," she said, turning her evil eye on me, "I want you to be positive this week.  No snide remarks, no insulting comments.  I don't want you making things harder."

 

Which, of course, was the heart of my own dilemma.  The problem was, Mom laying it down as law was just going to make it all the harder to resist my instincts and actually hold to my own resolutions.  If I could figure out exactly what those resolutions were.

 

"Mom, I think it's great and all that you're trying to renew the bonds of sisterhood, but shouldn't you wait until Amy and Erin can come?"  I could tell Quinn was trying to ride that fine line between challenge and placation.  "Then you could do it all at once.  Like, the Fashion Club would have never held an important meeting when only two people could have come."

 

"Family isn't like the Fashion Club, Quinn.  We can't just break up whenever we get tired of each other." Mom sighed in exasperation.

 

"Why not?" I asked.  "It's worked pretty well so far."

 

"Yeah, Daria's right," Dad jumped in.  "I haven't seen my brother in ages, and we get along great!"

 

"Jake, never talking is not getting along great.  I refuse to set that kind of example for our girls.  Daria's already off to college, and soon Quinn will be gone as well.  What happens when we're gone and there's no more reason for them to get together on holidays?  I don't want the last time they see each other to be at our funerals."

 

"That wouldn't be the last time, Mom.  We'd still have to meet at probate hearings."  Actually, Quinn and I had gone a long way already towards avoiding the fate both Mom and Dad had suffered with their siblings.  We still sniped, but it was more old habit and mutual amusement than true hostility.  I was willing to believe that there might come a time when we went out of our ways to get together of our own free wills.

 

"Mom, don't say things like that!" Quinn protested.  "I don't want to think about it."

 

"Don't worry, honey," Dad said.  "That won't be for a long time yet; we're both doing just fine."

 

"You want your stethoscope back?" I asked.  "I think we might still have the Operation game stored away in a closet somewhere."

 

"No, Daria, chrome wouldn't go with this top at all.  And Grandma said that it would be fine as long as I married a doctor.  Are you asking Grandma too?"

 

"No," Mom said, a little too emphatically.  "I thought we should concentrate on just one side of the family at a time.  Maybe next year."  Dad looked ready to say something, but Mom stared him down, and he went back to poking at his food with his chopsticks.  "No more discussion.  Rita's arriving tomorrow and we will all be civil and hospitable.  Is that understood?"

 

"Perfectly, Mom," Quinn said.  "You know, wouldn't it be nice if Rita was to show up and see me in a new outfit I bought just for the special occasion?"  I rolled my eyes, and Mom seemed to share my opinion.  Quinn wasn't getting the credit card today.  All of us silently returned to our efforts with the chopsticks.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

The next afternoon, I was sitting on the couch, working through a volume of Tolstoy's short stories, when the doorbell rang.  Mom had been in a frenzy of holiday preparation all day, determined to transform the Morgendorffer household into a Christmas wonderland suitable for Rockwell-esque family gatherings and Christmas card photos.  Holly lined the walls, there were wreathes on every door, and even mistletoe hanging from the ceiling in the opening between the family room and the kitchen.  I had already pledged to myself to find another doorway into supper, a window if necessary.  Fortunately, she had wanted everything so perfect for Rita's visit that she had not trusted me with anything, leaving my time free for more enjoyable pursuits.  Now, zero hour had arrived.

 

"I've got it," Mom called out from the kitchen, where she had been baking cookies - slicing roughly even pieces from the tube of dough, that is - and ran up to the door to pull it open.

 

"And here I was looking forward to resuming my doorman duties," I muttered as Rita and Mom embraced, accompanied by a torrent of endearments and well-wishing.  "I need the tips for pizza money."

 

"Daria, put down that book and say hello to your aunt," Mom ordered.  "Jake!  Quinn!  Rita's here!"

 

"Coming," I heard Dad say from upstairs, his voice strangely muffled, as though heard through liquid.  Quinn bounced down into the family room, and I slowly laid my book down on the couch beside me and went to greet the incoming disaster.

 

"Hi, Daria, Quinn," Rita said.  "I'm so sorry Erin and Brian couldn't come, Helen, but they've still got several days left in Austria and getting an early flight back would be so expensive . . ."

 

"Oh, no, I completely understand," Mom replied.  "After all, I know they don't have much money and who knows when they might be able to afford it again.  I wouldn't ask them to waste so much of their hard-earned cash just to make a Christmas visit to their relatives."  Mom bit down on her bottom lip after that last line; the butter knife in her hands, with which she had no doubt been slicing the dough, was spinning through her fingers.  Just then, Dad entered the room; his face paled as he sensed the already tightening atmosphere.

 

"Oh, hi, Rita," he said nervously.  "Merry Christmas."  He seemed at a loss for what to say after that, so he just sat down on the couch and fiddled with the TV remote.  Mom looked more relieved than anything.

 

"Rita, Daria's in college now," Mom said.  Let the kid competition begin, I thought.  "She just finished her first semester at Raft, with honors.  We're so proud of her."

 

"That's great, Daria," Rita said, though she never once looked at me.  "Brian just got a new job, too, with one of the biggest real estate agencies in Charleston."

 

And how's that raging case of herpes going?  But Mom was having a hard enough time of it already, and I felt enough sympathy for her not to say anything.

 

"I love what you've done with the place," Rita was saying.  "But where do you have your tree?"

 

"That's the big surprise," Mom said.  Everyone turned to look at her in confusion.  We had always used the same tree, an artificial one we had bought shortly after I was born, and had always assembled and decorated it on Christmas Eve night.  Rita had never been here on Christmas before, so she couldn't have known, but what made it such a surprise?

 

"I want us all," she continued, "to go out and chop down a tree together, as a family activity.  A new Morgendorffer-Barksdale tradition."  A collective gasp of trepidation filled the air.

 

"Ewww; a real, live tree?" Quinn wailed.  "The sap will get all over my clothes and in my hair and it won't wash out!"

 

"Mom," I said, "do you really want to hand an axe to any member of this family?  All work and no play makes Daria a dull boy."

 

"My father used to make me chop wood," Dad raved.  "'It builds muscles', he said.  'It'll turn you into a man, instead of some pansy-ass nancy boy'.  Well, you know what, Dad?  I've got a real job now!  I don't need to chop wood to survive!  I swore I would never hold an axe again!"  I took the remote and switched the TV to the Pigskin Channel, and the screen filled with a picture of a bunch of tiny men wearing plastic slamming into each other.  "Hey, cool.  The game's on!"  He settled in to watch.

 

"Um, Helen, are you sure that's a good idea?" Rita asked.  "We've never done anything like that before."

 

"A little bit of togetherness is what this family needs," Mom declared confidently.  "Getting our own tree will get us all in the holiday family spirit.  It's not like I'm asking you to go camping or anything."

 

"Some of those berries might make the holidays go by easier," I said.  The only response I got was the stare of death from Mom.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

The wind was icy, and the few pitiful trees remaining at the Christmas tree farm did little to block its onslaught; my heavy jacket provided a little protection, but my face still quickly became numb, even with my hood up.  There was no snow yet, but the recent rains had left the ground muddy and half-frozen, and the effort it took to trudge up and down hills with the earth underneath partially giving way with every step soon left all of us short of breath and testy of mood.  It seemed an inordinate amount of work to put in for the privilege of cutting down a stunted, warped evergreen that had never done any harm to us, and then carting it back home to be grotesquely festooned with garish decorations.  And it wasn't making it any easier that Mom and Rita found it impossible to agree on a single tree.

 

"And what's wrong with this one?" Mom was asking, while standing over a specimen of flora that would have looked sickly next to Charlie Brown's tree.  It was one of the better choices on the lot.

 

"It's too short, for one," Rita replied, "half its leaves are gone, and its tip leans to the left."

 

"And you think the one you picked out was better?  Its base was all out of proportion to its tip, and half of the needles were brown!"

 

"Well, maybe we would be able to find a tree we both like if you were willing to pay for a better selection than this place has.  Last year, Mother bought us a gorgeous tree; it was perfectly symmetrical and had a base big enough for all our presents to fit under."

 

"That's easy for her to do; she no longer has a family to support with all that money, and it's not like she ever gives us any of it."  She paused.  "Look, Rita, I don't want to argue with you about this.  It's Christmas, and what's important is that we are together, not how perfect the tree is."  I think I counted three different shades of purple pass over Mom's face as she said this.  "If that last tree is the one you really want, we'll get it."

 

As we turned around to head towards Rita's choice, Mom and Rita plunged on ahead, and Dad fell into step beside me, while Quinn lagged behind, muttering about the cold and chapped skin and freakin' mud on her shoes or something, I wasn't really listening.

 

"How ya holding up there, kiddo?" Dad asked with artificial cheer.  I was sure he was as miserable as I felt, though I didn't look directly at him to see.

 

"I'll be fine, as soon as Mom gives up on her Paul Bunyan fantasy and lets us all celebrate the plastic, artificial Christmas we've always had."  I looked at the large saw Dad was carrying; actually, more like dragging with one end riding along the ground.  "You aren't actually planning on using that thing, are you?"

 

"You bet I am!  I'll chop that thing down in no time, you'll see.  I'll prove my father wrong!  I can chop wood as good as any man!"  He would have gone on, but his words were lost in heavy breathing.  I turned to get my first good look at him since we arrived, and I was taken aback by what I saw.  We were all a bit strained by the walking, but he looked as though he had just hiked ten miles; his breath was coming in gasps, his face was more pale than it should have been in the cold, and he looked as though he was having to force each step.  He was dragging the saw half the time, and the rest of the time using it as a cane.  I almost tripped over my own feet in shock.

 

"Dad!  Are you feeling alright?"

 

"Sure, kiddo, never better.  I'm just a bit out of shape, that's all.  Nothing to worry about."  He grinned widely, too widely to be genuine. 

 

Methinks he doth protest too much.  But what do I know?  I'm not a doctor, and maybe he's always been this way, but I was just too accustomed to him to notice.  He took us out camping just two years ago; was he struggling this much then?  It's probably just stress.  With Aunt Rita around, he's probably had adrenaline pumping through him for hours, if not days, not to mention all the martinis.  Anyone would be feeling drained.  But I could not shake the feeling of unease the image had given me.

 

If anything was sick around here, it was the tree Rita had chosen, though to be fair there were few better choices around.  Not all of us were so understanding, however.

 

"That tree's not cute at all," Quinn protested.  "It's short, and not very pointy.  Aren't real Christmas trees supposed to be pointy?"

 

"I would think you would be used to being around dull things by now," I said.  "She has a point, though.  It looks pretty lopsided.  I'm not sure being crushed by a toppling holiday decoration is the way I want to go."

 

"Helen, if you really don't want this tree," Rita snipped, "then just say so.  Don't use your kids to do your dirty work for you."

 

"Not at all," Mom reassured her.  "I'm sure the tree is fine.  Daria, Quinn, leave your aunt alone.  Hold the trunk while your father cuts it down."

 

"Why not?  If I lose my legs, at least I won't have to walk back."  I reached through the branches and grabbed the trunk.  Quinn did the same, but screwed up her face as though her hand had landed on something truly grotesque, like a slug or out-of-season shoes.

 

"It's sticky," she whined.  "Ewww."

 

"Watch out for the bugs, Quinn.  They love sap."

 

"Ahhhhhhh!"  Quinn shrieked and yanked her hand out of the branches; she jumped at least a couple of feet back from the tree and slapped at her hand in a panic.  I smirked; at least I had managed to get a little bit of entertainment out of this outing.

 

"Fine, Daria," Mom retaliated.  "You'll have to hold the tree by yourself as your father cuts.  Use both hands; you don't want to let it fall on him."  Wordlessly, I placed my other hand on the trunk and held it steady as Dad sawed through the wood.  Since it was a small tree, he only took a couple of minutes, and it was light enough for the two of us to carry it together.  I did my best to watch him for signs of strain, but since he was ahead of me, there wasn't much I could tell just by looking at his back; at least he wasn't staggering or giving any obvious signs of wearing out.  He's probably feeling pretty triumphant right now, cutting down a tree without any help or ridicule from his father.  Maybe that helped.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

Late that afternoon, I lay on my bed facing the ceiling, trying to distance myself from the dysfunction below.  Mom was trying, I had to give her that, trying to be forgiving and tolerant, trying not to dredge up the bitterness of the past at every reminder, but she was failing.  She would hold her tongue as long as she could, bite down on her lip and smile, but eventually Rita would say one thing too many about Erin and Brian or their mother, and Mom would lose control and take a verbal swing back, and they would be off.  And, eventually, since Mom was determined to make this holiday a time for family healing, she would retreat again and return to her forced hospitality.  She was attempting to deal with the past by ignoring it, pretending it didn't matter, and it wasn't working.  And, in the meantime, Dad's martinis were becoming a fixture in his hand, and Quinn simply watched in silent horror.  And I had retreated to the solace of my padded walls, my own private decorator's nightmare, which were feeling more fitting with every passing moment.

 

Mom's efforts were uncomfortably reminiscent of my own recent struggles.  I had spent the last few months in near-solitude while reevaluating my view of the world, the walls I had erected between myself and the rest of humanity, in the wake of the destruction those walls had wreaked on my first new friend since Tom.  I had considered the problem from all angles, trying to ascertain how to maintain my principles without using them an excuse to lock away the world.  I had evaluated my past relationships - familial, friendly, and romantic - to break down what had made the difference between my acceptance and my rejection, to spin my theories as to how to change my approach to make myself more accessible, less rigidly isolationist, for my own sake as well as for the sake of others.  But what if those theories didn't fit the facts?  What if I couldn't just accept, merely by willing myself to do so?  Mom was trying something similar, forcing herself to associate amicably with her sister, and what was it getting her?  Repressed bitterness leading to even greater outbursts, sabotaging whatever bridges she had built and traumatizing her family in the process.  And, being a lawyer, where knowledge of how to manipulate people was more a requirement than just an asset, Mom was far more inherently diplomatic than I.  If she couldn't bring herself to handle basic sibling rivalry, what chance did I have of completely changing a lifetime's worth of behavior?  But what choice did I have?  I had realized what my thorns would eventually cost me - every relationship I would ever have - and I could not live with that high a price for their protection.

 

The only relationship I had that gave me hope that matters could improve was Quinn.  Over the past few years, we had moved from bitter rivals, viewing each other with genuine suspicion and resentment, to more friendly opponents whose bickering was more habit and mutual amusement than real conflict.  But how had that happened?  Did it start two summers ago, when Quinn had finally realized that she could actually be comfortable with her own brain, and so did not necessarily have to be ashamed of having a sister with one?  Had it started with my own act of mercy, holding back my most damaging piece of footage from that film project for O'Neill?  Or was it something more gradual, a slowly-increasing détente between us?  And if that was it, what could I learn from it, if it was so gradual and natural that I hadn't even been conscious of it as it was happening, wasn't even certain of what had happened?  I wish Jane were here.  I always think better when I can talk it through with her, and I'm certain she would have a few insights to offer on the issue.  That, or an offer to immortalize my torment in art, probably something welded and particularly dense.  Rather like I feel at the moment.

 

There was a knock on my door, and Quinn's voice called in, wondering if I were here.

 

Think of the devil and you see her T-shirt.  "I'm sorry, but the door you have called is not in service at this time.  Please shut up and try again later."  As I knew she would, she opened the door and entered at the sound of my voice, long inured to the actual contents of my speech.

 

"Daria," she said hesitantly, "I was wondering if maybe you would want to go see a movie or something tonight?"

 

"Are there none of the former Fashionistas around for you to hang out with?"  Despite the question, I wasn't all that surprised by the request; in fact, I should have been expecting it.

 

"No; Sandi's spending the holidays abroad, Stacy is visiting relatives, and Tiffany . . . well, Tiffany just isn't worth hanging out with by herself."  She looked embarrassed at the confession.  "C'mon, Daria, you aren't even reading or anything.  Even you can't think that just sitting in here by yourself is fun."  She had that right; staying in here alone had not been at all fun, but I had thought that it was necessary.  And I needed to stay here a little longer, to work out these new pieces of information, before I could subject myself to the outside world yet again.

 

"Quinn, if this is about Mom and Rita's fighting, we've gone through this before.  You don't have to worry about us . . ."

 

"I know that," she interrupted.  "I mean, I was thinking about that, a little bit, but that wasn't all.  I've missed you, Daria, really I have, and I haven't had the chance to even talk to you since you first got home.  And I don't want us to end up like Dad and Uncle Esau, never talking to each other except when we have to.  I know that when I go off to Pepperhill, I probably won't see anyone from high school much anymore, but you'll still be my sister, and I don't want that to just mean that we have the same eye color and slim calves.  Once you left, I felt like I had wasted seventeen years of getting to know you, and just when I was starting to maybe understand you a little bit, you were gone."

 

I stared at her; she appeared to be completely serious.  I had realized these things myself, but I had not expected her to see them so clearly.  I felt as though I were looking at a different Quinn than the one I had left just four months before.  Had one little change in her life made such a big difference?  Or had I just not noticed it until now?  Sure, I had seen improvement even before I had left, but this was like a quantum leap forward from how my memory painted her; she was still Quinn, but a more mature version of the child I had thought that I had left behind.  Maybe spending some time with her would not be quite so strenuous after all.  So long as such time did not involve burning Georgian cities and lovable rogues sweeping Southern Belles off their feet.

 

"Please, Daria.  It's horrible down there.  Mom and Aunt Rita are acting like two supermodels having to share the same runway, and Dad is drinking and yelling at the TV or his father.  I really want to get away, but I don't feel like going alone."

 

That sparked a concern.

 

"Quinn," I asked her, interrupting as soon as she took a breath, "have you noticed Dad acting sick lately?  Tired, out of breath, that sort of thing?"  She went a little pale.

 

"You saw it too?  I tried to talk to him about it, but he said that he was fine.  Mom was too wrapped up in her plans for Rita to even listen to me.  What do you think it is, Daria?  Is Dad really sick?  Do you think he might . . . ?"  She cut off in mid-sentence with a choked sob, but I had a good idea of what she was going to say.  I wanted to tell her that he was going to be alright, to console both of us with meaningless platitudes and reassurances.  But that was not my way; I had learned a long time ago that, in the long run. it was better to face reality.  So I answered honestly, as was my wont.

 

"I don't know, Quinn."  The fear shone from her eyes.  "It might be nothing important, just a touch of the flu or something similar.  Or it might be stress; Dad's on the edge of breakdown at the best of times, and this business with Rita isn't helping.  But it might also be something serious.  Dad hasn't really done much to improve his diet or his habits since his heart attack, after all."

 

"Is there anything we can do?"

 

"Not much that I can see."  Again, I wanted to paint a more positive picture, but I was too familiar with our parents to believe in it.  "Mom's too determined for this to work out to get rid of Rita, and she's already making her best effort not to fight.  We can't force Dad to change his attitude.  That has to come from within."  And I'm not even sure how to change it from there.  "The best we can do is run interference between Dad and the Hatfield and McCoy sisters."  Maybe I should have left him in the garage after all.  It couldn't have been a permanent solution, but it might have kept him out of immediate danger.  Too late for that now, though.  Mom would search him out if he disappeared now; it would be just a little too obvious. 

 

"What does this have to do with that doctor from Star Trek?"

 

"Never mind, Quinn.  Anyway, it doesn't sound like there is very much that we can do for them right now.  If Dad's yelling at the TV, at least he's not concentrating too much on Mom and Rita, and that's the best that we can hope for.  Maybe it would be best for everyone if we did go out for that movie, on one condition: I get to pick the film."

 

"Fine, Daria," Quinn replied eagerly.  "But can you at least pick one where the people have some fashion sense and talk in English?  Reading is not what I go to the movies for."

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

Quinn and I spent most of the next day doing our best to keep the tension level in the house, and especially in Dad, as low as possible.  Quinn, being the one with more experience in dealing with competitive women, was working as a buffer between Mom and Rita; reinterpreting their words to defuse the hidden barbs and steering the conversation towards calming topics, along with interjecting some suitably ingratiating comments to soothe egos and just generally keep them both in a good mood.  From what I saw of it, it was a performance that could have kept the Beatles together, and I stood in grudging awe of her abilities; Mom and Rita were not eating out of her hand, but neither were they at each other's throats, and that was all that we required.  And even that was a miracle; since we were not planning on decorating the tree until that night, there was little to occupy their time, and the idleness weighed heavily on their heads.  Bickering was the only amusement easily available.

 

In the meantime, I had to deal with Dad, keep him calm and away from the Barksdale sisters, preferably with a low blood alcohol level.  This was not a simple task, since he had two pitchers of martinis prepared, and never wanted his glass any less than full.  My Dad with a drink in his hand was hardly an uncommon sight, and in all my life I had never seen him more than tipsy; his resistance was uncanny.  But now he seemed determined to achieve that elusive state wherein all rational thought was buried under a fuzzy carpet of alcohol.  And all he wanted to talk about was Mom and her ill-advised attempt at family unity, despite my ever-more-desperate attempts to turn the conversation to any other topic, so long as the subjects were not just a single room away.

 

"Dad, why don't you find a game on the television?"

 

"I was watching the game when your mother told me that she was inviting Rita and Amy for Christmas.  I should have put my foot down right then . . ."

 

"Dad, did you get any new clients recently?"

 

"If I had clients, I could spend all my time on the phone with them, instead of listening to your mother and Rita.  Yesterday, I even faked a phone call, but she ordered me to hang it up and 'participate in the family discussion'. . ."

 

"Dad, why don't you cook us supper tonight?"

 

"Noooo, your mother wants her and Rita to work on something together.  They can't even bake cookies together . . ."

 

"Dad, what did your father think about Christmas?"

 

"He didn't like your mom, let me tell you.  Called her a hippie communist slut.  God only knows what he would have said about Rita . . ."

 

"Dad, look at how the light comes through your drink glass.  Isn't it pretty with all the colors?"

 

"Daria, I don't know how much longer I can take your aunt being here.  Christmas is supposed to be my time to relax, but your mother and Rita . . ."

 

Eventually, I felt like yanking that glass out of his hand and downing its contents myself.  My limited experience with alcohol suggested that it would just come right back up again, but maybe that would be enough to distract my Dad.  Until Mom found the mess, that is.  No, better to just endure; that which does not kill you may make you stronger, but until it did, it just made you sick, or bored.  This was definitely bordering on the tedious side, but as long as I resisted the urge to imbibe, I think I could avoid the sick part.

 

After several hours, Quinn walked in from the kitchen, from which I could hear voices disputing over the proper way to mix eggnog; she looked haggard and on-edge, and her voice betrayed her weariness.

 

"Daria, I don't know how much longer I can take this."  She was whining, but since I shared the sentiment, it didn't bother me all that much.  "I'm exhausted.  I'm getting freakin' bags under my eyes, and I have to look cute for the Christmas pictures tomorrow.  I've done everything that I can, and they're just getting worse."

 

I pulled Quinn aside so Dad couldn't hear us.

 

"If we're lucky, Mom won't be able to take it much longer either, and she'll send Rita away.  I doubt we can expect Rita to leave herself; without a boyfriend, she has no one else to spend the holidays with, and I think she'll take this hell over being alone.  Of course, I don't believe in luck, so we'll probably have to keep this up through New Year's, but we can't give up.  Dad needs us."  He wasn't pale anymore; his face was florid, with both liquor and rage, and I didn't consider this an improvement.  He didn't have a bulging eye, but there were tells nonetheless, and every sign I could read - his compulsive drinking, his obsessive raving - told me that he was reaching his limit.  I didn't want to see what would happen once he reached it; somehow, I felt that a hallucinogenic camping trip would seem like a real vacation in contrast.

 

"Well, it's your turn to deal with Mom and Aunt Rita," Quinn said, with a note of vengeance.  "It's time to decorate the tree, so you can see what I've been dealing with for hours now."

 

Decorating the tree.  A time for memories, nostalgia, and family communion.  Memories of childhood and giving and mothers.  This wasn't a path to disaster.  It was the highway to it.

 

"Quinn, do you know how to gird your loins?"

 

"Ew, Daria, I don't need a girdle!"

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

Boxes covered the floor, boxes filled with ornaments and lights and tinsel, all acquired with the expectation that they would give joy and peace and hope to those who would view them.  All symbolic of a holiday imbued by our culture with the power to bring together distant friends and even warring enemies; one Christmas in World War I, English and German soldiers called a cease-fire, playing games and exchanging gifts during the day, before trying to kill each other on the morrow.  If the holiday could bring peace, even brief peace, to a war-torn continent, why could it not soothe the grievances of a regular, if slightly neurotic, American family?

 

"Rita, you have to distribute the ornaments evenly," Mom said.  "You have them all bunched together at the center of the tree."

 

"So sorry if I'm messing up your perfectly planned tree, Helen," Rita responded.  "You could just do all this yourself, then you could put everything exactly where you want it.  I'm sure all the rest of us can do is mess it up."

 

"Oh, no, Rita, it wouldn't be Christmas without everyone participating.  Put the ornaments wherever  you want and I'll balance everything out."

 

"Helen," Rita said later, "where did you get these lights?  They're kind of small, and won't this brand all go out if one blows?  Last year, Mother bought us some nice big lights to decorate the house with; you could see us for miles.  You should get some like that."

 

"Well, not all of us can have Mother looking out for us like that; of course, not all of us need it."  Mom didn't look away from the lights she was carefully laying on the branches.  "We get by on our own, without Mother's help."

 

"And just what are you trying to imply?  Mother likes to buy me things; I don't ask her for them, and I don't need them to get by.  You can't say anything.  Did you even call her to wish her a merry Christmas?"

 

"Mom, Aunt Rita, please," Quinn interjected.  "Does it really matter what Grandma does?  Why do you have to fight over who gets what?"

 

"Let's not bicker about who killed who," I said in a mock-English accent.  Isn't Quinn's argument a bit of the pot accusing the kettle of being a little too dark?  But it seemed to work; Mom and Rita bit their tongues and went back to decorating.  I joined in sporadically, every now and then hanging a glass ball from a branch, while Quinn tried to color-coordinate the ornament arrangement.  Dad hovered on the edge of the group, trying to maintain enough of a presence to keep Mom satisfied while avoiding her active notice.  His face was a study in apprehension.

 

For a while, we actually worked in harmony, or at least in quiet; but soon I noticed that Mom was subtly rearranging the tinsel Rita was hanging, while Rita was making faces at the older, shabbier ornaments.  They gradually became more and more obvious in their efforts, until not even Tiffany could have missed their battle.  Finally, the dam broke.

 

"Dammit, Rita, I can see what you're doing!  You know that you would be living in a slum if Mother weren't looking out for you.  You can't look down your nose at us!"

 

"Oh, Helen's so superior!  You always thought that you could take care of everything, that you always knew the best thing to do.  Well, some of the rest of us can actually live without your advice!"

 

"My advice?!  All I ever wanted to do was help you to see the error of your ways, and all you ever did was ignore me.  I was your sister, I just wanted to help you, and you just resented me for it!  You even turned Mother against me!"

 

"You did that yourself, always wanting to be the best, the brightest, the most accomplished!  Always hogging the spotlight!  None of us could stand you, not me, not Amy, not even Father and Mother!"

 

"Mom, please . . ."  "Mom, you're not helping . . ."  Quinn and I tried to break in, tried to calm things down, but they didn't even notice; all we could do was stand by helplessly and watch the carnage unfold.  There was a time I would have enjoyed it.  Not anymore.

 

"How dare you say that, you bitch!  All I wanted was for Mother to treat me the way she treated you.  You were the one who took all of her attention, not me!"

 

"I was the firstborn!  I should have been the one everyone thought was mature and special and the leader, but as soon as you showed up, no one paid me any more attention!  You stole it!  All I had left was Mother, and you wanted her too?"

 

"All I wanted was to be treated the way Mother treated you.  She bought you everything you wanted, bailed you out of every trouble you ever got in, and never once said anything about your irresponsibility!  She never once helped me out at all!  I had to excel; it was the only way I could get by without any help at all!"

 

"BE QUIET!!!"

 

We all turned in shock as Dad exploded; he threw down the glass he was holding and stomped around the tree, waving his hands in the air as he ranted and raved.

 

"Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet!  All you ever do is fight and I've had it!  'My mommy loved you better than me'.  'You got all the attention'.  'You got all the money'.  At least neither of you had a father who sent you off to military school just because you couldn't run a mile every morning in sub-zero weather!  Or who locked you out of the house because your shoes weren't shiny enough, or who called you a girl any time you wanted anything that didn't fit his testosterone-crazed standards!  Gahdammit, Helen, at least you can talk to your sister!  Our girls have never even met my brother!  Gah gah dammit - ow, my arm!  It hurts!"

 

He clutched his left arm and his face screwed up in pain; before any of us could react, his breath caught and his eyes bulged, and his hand was clutching again, this time at his chest.  He collapsed to his knees, and then to the floor, unconscious.  After another second of shock, all of us rushed to his side.  My heart pounded and the blood thundered through my ears, along with my mother's voice.

 

"Jake?  JAKEY!!!"

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

The emergency room at Cedars of Lawndale was chaotic as they wheeled Dad away, surrounded by a cluster of doctors and nurses starting IV's and injections.  Mom was sitting in a chair, working her way through a stack of admission forms, her only sign of stress a vertical line between her brows.  Rita was next to her, a bored expression on her face, probably wondering if this inconvenient little incident was going to take too big a bite out of her holiday.  Quinn and I were sitting together a few seats away; she was crying into her hands, her sobs interrupted only by the huge gasps of air she would suck in periodically.  I was doing my best to console her, patting her back in what I hoped was a sisterly fashion, all too aware of how stiff my motions were, my thoughts divided between wondering if there was anything I could tell Quinn honestly that might make her feel better and worry for Dad's wellbeing.  When this had happened before, we had been quickly reassured that the attack had been minor, with little damage; there was no such comfort offered to us this time.

 

All that effort, all that worry, and we didn't change a thing.  Here we are, right where I feared we would be if I didn't act to stop it, but here we are anyway.  Damn you, Dad, Mom, Rita.  And damn me, for interfering in the first place; maybe if I had let Dad hide away, at least for a little while, he might have been spared just enough of the stress and tension to avoid this.  All my actions were futile; would inaction have made a difference?  And now it falls to me to comfort my partner in futility, but no Jane is here to comfort me.  I can't do it myself; I can tell myself that everything is going to be okay, that Dad will be home by the strike of Christmas midnight, but I won't wholeheartedly believe it.  Since when does life work out that easily?

 

The cries of sick children and the wails of the wounded filled the waiting room, the hurts of others intruding on my private pain.  Almost all the rest of Lawndale was shut down for the holiday, but this place never slowed down.  The only concession made to the season was a small Christmas tree in the corner, but even it looked cowed by what surrounded it.  Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men were distant concepts in this place of perpetual suffering.  Not that I had been getting a lot of it before.

 

"Thanks, Daria," Quinn said as the wave of sobs receded.  "I'm sorry that I couldn't keep Mom and Aunt Rita from fighting.  It's my fault Dad is in here."  I was surprised and rather ashamed to hear what I had thought were my own personal recriminations coming from her mouth.  How selfish could I be, thinking that I was the only one feeling guilty?

 

"It wasn't you, Quinn," I said.  "You did everything you could, more than I could have.  I don't think anything could have stopped this; it was going to happen eventually, and there's more than enough blame to go around.  At least you tried to do something about it."

 

"Do you think he's going to be okay?"

 

I sighed, as much to buy time as from despair, though that was certainly there as well.  That was the question I had been dreading.  The only honest answer I could give was the "I don't know" I had told her before, and now I had even fewer reasons to give for hoping for the best.  I tried as well as I could.

 

"He's made it through before.  This one looked worse, but it may end up being not that different.  Maybe this time he'll actually take the doctor's advice seriously and start to really change his lifestyle.  We might start having meatless frozen lasagna for supper."  That actually got a small smile from her, which made me feel a bit less useless.

 

"I'll make sure he does."  Quinn's statement had the gravity of a vow.  "I'll learn how to make healthy meals for him, and Mom will be glad to let me do the cooking."  She paused, and the tears started to run again.  "But, Daria, what if he doesn't get better?"

 

This time, I had nothing to say.  Fortunately, I was saved the uncomfortable silence I could feel coming; a chime sounded from Quinn's pocket.

 

"I'm sorry, Daria," she said, sounding truly contrite.  "I'd forgotten I still had it."  Her gaze swiveled from my face to her pocket; her hand moved towards the sound, then jerked back.

 

"Answer it, Quinn," I said.  "It might help you feel better."  To tell the truth, I was jealous; I wanted the distraction of a friendly conversation.  Apparently, so did she, for she quickly yanked the cell phone from her pocket and flipped it open.

 

"Hello?" she said uncertainly.  "Hi, Stacy . . . that sounds fun . . . um, well, I'm not really happy right now . . ."

 

As Quinn filled Stacy in on what was going on, I returned my attention to the room surrounding me.  Mom was standing at the admissions desk, and her conversation with the nurse receptionist was becoming audible even from the other side of the room.

 

"How long do you intend to keep us waiting here?  You've had my husband in there for over half an hour, and we haven't heard a thing!  We have a right to know what's going on!"  There was a pause as the receptionist answered at a much more civilized level, making it impossible for me to overhear.  "Don't try to give me the runaround.  I'm a lawyer, and I can make things very hot for this hospital if I think you're snowing us . . . Do you honestly expect me to believe that you don't have a single person available who can at least let us know how he's doing?! . . ."

 

If I couldn't stop Dad from having a heart attack, at least I can try to stop Mom from having one too, I thought as I walked over to where she was berating the receptionist, whose near-infinite patience looked to be wearing thin.  If this keeps up much longer, she's going to call security and Mom will really flip out.  I reached out and touched my mother on the arm.

 

"Mom," I said firmly, "there's nothing you can do.  They'll let us know as soon as they have any real news."  I knew from personal experience that, completely against the Lawndale code, the Cedars actually housed some competent professionals.

 

"Not now, Daria," Mom said, trying to brush me off.  "Trust me, I know how to handle hospitals.  You can't get anything out of them unless you hound them for it."

 

"Mom, if you don't calm down, the only thing you are going to be getting out of them is a nice trip out the door, guided by big burly men angry at being called away from their doughnuts."  I gave a slight tug on her arm, and tried another tactic.  "Mom, your family needs you.  Quinn's crying over the phone to Stacy right now because you aren't around to comfort her."  Okay, maybe not strictly true, but she was talking to Stacy, and she had been crying, so it was close enough to be useful for my purposes.  And it accomplished my purpose.

 

"Oh, my baby," she exclaimed, and ran over to interrupt Quinn's conversation.  I sent a mental apology to my sister for the annoyance my necessary manipulation would no doubt cause her, then put it out of my mind.  Maybe I'd get her something disgustingly cute from the gift shop later.

 

"Do you have any idea how long it might be until we know something?" I asked the longsuffering woman behind the desk.

 

"I'm really sorry," she said, "but the doctors are very busy with your father, and there's no way of knowing how long it will be until he stabilizes.  If you keep your crazy mother away from me, though, you'll be the first to know when there's any news."

 

I thanked her, and returned to our little group of worriers.  Quinn was doing her best to wave Mom away and keep up her conversation with Stacy at the same time; I thought I heard loud sobs and a few hysterical shrieks emanating from the phone speaker.  She was able to convince Mom that she wasn't on the immediate verge of tears by the time I rejoined them, but the distraction was enough; Mom didn't return to the desk to harry the staff anymore.

 

"I can't believe your husband had to go and ruin Christmas like this," Rita was telling Mom.  "I always knew this was going to happen.  Jake's way too high strung, but he would have lasted the holiday if he had just kept his nose out of our business."  For Mom, this was the last straw.

 

"Don't you ever talk about Jake like that," she ordered Rita, her voice dangerously low and grim.  "Whatever may be wrong with him, he's ten times the man any of your husbands or boyfriends have ever been!  It's our fault that he's in here, because we couldn't behave ourselves and act civilized for even a few days!  I at least was trying, but all you did was bait me since the moment you walked through the door!"

 

"Bait you?" Rita replied, feigning wounded rage.  "The first thing you did when I walked through the door was brag about Daria, because you knew that Erin dropped out of school to get married.  You know, Daria may be a genius, but good luck ever getting her married off!"

 

"Like you got Erin married off, to some bum who can't keep a job and who gave her herpes?"

 

"Helen!" Rita exclaimed with an indrawn breath.  "How dare you bring that up, and in public!"

 

"Mom," I hissed, trying to get her attention, but the security guard got it before I could.

 

"Ladies," he said in a calm voice that nonetheless made it very clear who was in charge, "you're disturbing the patients.  If you don't quiet down now, I will remove you from the premises.  Do you understand?"  He was a large man and quite imposing, and I didn't think a lot of the weight had been put on by doughnuts.  Mom and Rita both nodded their heads and mumbled apologies, and he left.

 

"Rita," Mom said at a normal volume but in a steel tone, "I want you to leave."

 

"Fine," Rita responded, the picture of offended dignity.  "I'll be waiting for you back at the house."  She stood up, but Mom wasn't finished with her yet.

 

"No, Rita," she said.  "I want you to go home; your home, not ours.  I don't want to see you, and I certainly don't want you around when Jake gets out of here.  And if you say one more word against my husband, I don't want to see you ever again.  You can keep Mom's money, she can buy you anything your heart desires for all I care; I'll still take my life, and my family, over yours any day."

 

It's a bit late to do Dad much good, but at least she finally did it.  She'll regret her words later, of course, and she and Rita will go back to how they have always been, but she did what she needed to do for right now.  I guess there are some people that you really don't need to tolerate, people it is better to reject.  Letting some people in doesn't mean letting them all in.  I met Quinn's gaze; even in the middle of her talk with Stacy, she had kept up with what was going on, and a smile of relief had broken through her worried mien.  Now that she felt certain that she and I would not end up like Mom and her sisters, she was glad to see Rita go.  I returned her smile with my own version; less evident, but still very much there.  It was a small improvement to our otherwise grim circumstances, but it felt like a step in the right direction.

 

After calling a cab, Rita stormed out in a huff, leaving the three of us in relative silence, except for the commotion all around us, from which I at least felt disconnected.  Unlike my norm, though, I could not wholeheartedly welcome the silence; the fighting, as unpleasant as it had been, had at least been a distraction for all of us.  Now both Mom and I had to face our own thoughts, and there was only one possible subject for them.

 

"Daria," Mom said, her voice subdued.  "Is this all my fault?"

 

I was startled, even though I had heard her say something similar to Rita.  Had Rita been the only one of us who hadn't felt some measure of guilt for the event that had put us here?

 

"No, Mom," I said, absolving both her and myself with the thought.  "This wasn't your fault.  No more than anyone else.  You were doing what you thought was best for all of us; you might have carried it a bit too far, but there was no way you could have foreseen this result.  I think Dad was probably doing his best to hide his illness, maybe even from himself."  How many times in the past few days has he said he was doing fine?  Was he in denial the whole time?  "Dad could have chosen a long time ago to handle these things differently from how he did.  He could have chosen to live more healthily than he did.  It wasn't you who put him in here."

 

"Daria, are you saying that it is your father's fault that he is here?"  She did not looked pleased, and I feared that in my desire to help her to see the issue in a larger context, that I might have tread perilously close to the territory Rita had been covering just a few minutes ago.

 

"It's no one's fault.  We've all contributed to it, not just in the past few days but over years and years, but none of us hit the button that said 'heart attack' and dropped him.  You can't just blame yourself; if you have to blame someone, spread it around.  And you've taken steps to keep it from getting worse; you sent your sister away.  You've done all you can do for right now."

 

She didn't look particularly convinced, but she didn't press the issue either; she did, however, start taking glances at the front desk, and I wondered what I was going to have to do to keep my end of the bargain with the receptionist.  I was spared that particular conundrum, however, when a man in a white coat began walking towards us.

 

"Are you the Morgendorffers?" he asked.  Mom gave no verbal response, but the intent gaze she immediately fixed on him was all the answer he needed.  I heard Quinn give Stacy a rapid farewell and close up her phone, and all three of us focused on what he had to say.

 

"I'm afraid the situation is not good," he started, with the kind of practiced sympathy doctors cultivate to the point that it is impossible to determine if it is professional or genuine.  "We've stabilized him right now, but just barely.  There's been a lot of damage to the heart; we're hoping to avoid a transplant, but he might need a new valve.  The muscle has been overexerted, and it looks as though it has been under a considerable amount of stress for some time now.  That's the most immediate danger.  If we can keep it from just giving out over the next day or so, we'll be out of the worst of it.  I would say that the next twenty-four hours are critical.  If you want, you can stay here, but I would suggest at least taking the children home and letting them get a good night's rest.  There's nothing any of you can do here."

 

"If it's all the same to you, we'll stay," Mom replied, after fielding glances from both myself and Quinn that made our desires clear.  "We want whatever news you can give us, as soon as you know anything."

 

"We'll keep you informed," the doctor said, and walked back through the doors leading into the heart of the building.

 

Twenty-four hours, I thought, and checked my watch.  It was past midnight.  Merry Christmas.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

I awoke to a blurry shape filling my field of vision; fumbling for my glasses and settling them on the bridge of my nose, it resolved itself into a visage.  Straight, jet-black hair framing a heart-shaped face, big blue eyes, and a mischievous smile delineated in bright red lipstick.

 

"Jane!  You're . . . you're here!"  The smile stretched into a larger curve.

 

"Spending all that time with your family has done wonders for your keen observational wit, Morgendorffer."  She settled herself into the seat next to me as I took inventory of the various aches in my joints and muscles, brought on by spending the night sitting up in an ill-padded waiting room chair.  My mind was foggy; my sleep had been haunted by disturbing dreams, all of them dominated by the image of my father lying on the ambulance gurney, helpless, while the doctors rolled him out of my sight.  Repose had been fitful, at best, but it seemed I was going to have to struggle to shake it off completely.

 

"When did you get back?  How did you know to find us here?"

 

In response, Jane just jerked her head to the side; I followed her gaze to find Quinn grinning at the both of us, with a very satisfied air about her.  She gave a little wave, holding her cell phone in her hand, before returning her attention to the hospital's copy of Waif.

 

"She called me early this morning," Jane expounded.  "I got back last night.  I called you, but all I got was the machine.  I guess she heard my message, and decided that this was worth disturbing my very well-earned slumber."

 

"Quinn has been proving herself to be remarkably useful of late," I said.  Already, I felt the weight of last night's events lightening.  "I've always wanted a gal Friday."

 

"Wouldn't you have to save her from cannibals or something for that?"

 

"Well, I'd like to think my influence had a role in releasing her from the Fashion Club; they're pretty predatory."

 

"They wouldn't go so far as cannibalism, though.  Human meat is mostly fat."

 

"What about supermodel cannibalism, then?"

 

"Maybe, if they could find any meat on the bones.  Or they could just break them apart and go for the marrow."

 

"Ewwwww," Quinn broke in, her face screwed up to such an extent that it looked like it had caved in.  "God, Daria, if you're going to be that gross, at least let me know so I can get away first."  She walked off, but I was pretty sure I heard a chuckle before she left.  There might be some real hope for her after all.  The old back-and-forth with Jane felt good, but it felt even better to think that I might have gotten Quinn to smile in the midst of all that was happening.

 

"So why are you back so early?" I asked Jane.  "I hadn't expected you to make it in until right before school started, if not a little bit after."

 

"It seems that the wandering Lanes are wandering for a reason."  She sighed.  "As it turns out, Dad and I don't really have much of anything in common.  We ran out of nice things to say to each other after about a day, and then we ran out of mean things another couple of days after that.  Eventually, the silence became pretty awkward.  I got tired of lugging around Dad's cameras, and I wanted to get back to you and Trent for Christmas, so I used all the cash I had saved to ride road, rail, and mule to make it to Lawndale in time.  And here I am, on schedule, and you weren't even around to greet me.  I feel so unappreciated."

 

"It's always about you, isn't it?"  I paused for a second.  "I'm glad you're back."

 

"Yeah, so am I.  But I'm really sorry I have to come back to this.  How are you handling it?"

 

"I'm not completely sure."  I tried to piece together the events of the last few hours, order them in my head into some kind of coherent narrative, try to figure out exactly what they had meant for me.  "When we arrived, I had to comfort Quinn, then keep Mom from harassing the staff, and then from killing Aunt Rita.  I haven't really had much of an opportunity to sort my own feelings out, beyond the basics of wishing none of this had ever happened."

 

"Sounds like a good plan to me.  Why don't we get something to eat, and I can continue to distract you.  You'll have to pay, though; after making my way up from the wilds of the Amazon, I'm pretty strapped for cash."

 

"Me?" I replied with feigned indignation.  "I'm the poor college student.  What makes you think I have any money?"

 

"Here!" Quinn broke in, grabbing my hand and pressing a few bills into it.  "Go get something to eat.  Mom's asleep right now, but I promise I'll keep an eye on her if she wakes up.  But get a bran muffin or some fruit or something non-fattening, Daria; you really need to get away from sugar tarts if you don't want that Freshman fifteen everyone talks about."

 

"Thanks, Quinn," I said.  "I'll get rice cakes, or maybe just gnaw on some cardboard."

 

"I've heard they do wonders with plywood here," Jane said as we walked off.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

"So Daria Morgendorffer broke a heart.  That makes two in a row for you.  Are you trying to follow in Quinn's footsteps?"

 

"I'm trying not to follow in my own."  I stared down into the bowl of cereal on my tray, already becoming soggy with milk.  Filling Jane in on the events of my first semester at Raft, I had had little time to eat, and now my breakfast was quickly becoming inedible.  It seemed fitting.  "What happened with James gave me a vision of my future, Jane, and I didn't like it at all.  I'm really scared of what I could become if I don't make some changes, but I don't know how to do that.  I've spent the past few months by myself, thinking, trying to puzzle out how to alter my outlook on people without completely changing who I am."

 

"By yourself?  Daria, I'm not really sure that's how it's done."

 

"What else am I supposed to do?  If I just went and started trying to make friends before I had figured anything out, I would have just repeated the same cycle.  Seeing what I had done to him . . . that was hell, Jane.  I couldn't bear to do that again."

 

"So, after all that thought, what did you figure out?"

 

I sighed, and to buy myself time, stirred the milk in my bowl around with a spoon.  I hated uncertainty, hated feeling out of control, not of the world around me - which I had always known was out of my hands - but of my own life.  The only other time when I had ever felt so lost was the summer after Tom and I had kissed; thankfully, this time I now had Jane with me, had her own unshakeable self-assurance to guide me.

 

"Nothing," I finally said.  "The sole conclusion I came to is that I can't seem to find a conclusion.  The only method I could think of was to do what Mom was doing with Rita these past few days, grit my teeth and bite my lip and ignore all the things I can't stand for the sole purpose of avoiding something even worse.  Just refuse to acknowledge idiocy and mediocrity when I encounter it so that I won't drive everyone away, because eventually everyone acts like an idiot.  Even me.  Especially me."

 

"There's no way you could do that, Daria.  It's not in you," Jane said with a sardonic chuckle.

 

"Precisely," I said, relieved to be talking to someone who knew me well enough to see where I was going with this.  "Mom couldn't last two days with Rita.  What makes me think I could last two minutes?  I'd end up exploding, just as Mom did."

 

"Which is how you ended up here."

 

"I don't think my explosion would give anyone a heart attack, but I could end up doing damage of a different kind.  Like the damage Mom and Rita were doing to each other, right before . . ."

 

The nightmarish image of my Dad, clutching his chest and falling to the ground, was burned into my memory, etched there as though by acid, and just as permanent.  It had haunted my dreams, and now it intruded upon my waking; no matter how much distraction Jane may have provided, remembrance was never more than a single thought away.  I dropped my spoon into my half-full bowl and pushed my tray away, appetite vanished, and I slumped back in my chair with a sigh.  I wished we were in Jane's room, far away from here; leaning back on her bed was much more therapeutic than these hard cafeteria seats.

 

"Dammit, I thought I was distracting you," Jane said, subdued.  "Do you want to talk about it?"

 

"Not really," I said truthfully, "but it seems a bit ridiculous to talk about anything else, like ignoring the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room.  I just wish that I knew what to say about it.  What can I say, except that I wish it hadn't happened, which is a given, and that I hope that he pulls through, which is obvious?  I could talk about how terrified I am that I might lose him, and of what might happen to my entire family if we do.  I could talk about how fucking tired I am of having to babysit my own mother and father while I'm on vacation, and how frustrated I am that nothing Quinn or I did seem to make the slightest bit of difference in the final outcome."

 

I could feel a convulsion of anger and fear and grief rise up inside of me as I said the words - as the words poured out of me - and all the uncertainty and frustration of the past few days came rushing to the fore, but I held it back.  Show some restraint, Morgendorffer.  Look what happened when Mom let go, when Dad did.  There are better ways of handling the situation without letting everything just pour out of you like water through a broken dike.  Maybe if you had been in a little more control with James, you might have been able to call on him as well.  But I knew this was different; Jane would not be offended by my outburst, nor be hurt by it.  If there was any time I could express exactly how I felt with no fear, it was now.  She was sitting there across from me, not saying a word, eyebrow arched in tacit inquiry, encouraging me to go on.  But my momentum was broken, and all I could do was just sag in my seat, a burned-out conduit for my own emotions.  In my exhaustion, I felt a single tear spill from the corner of my eye.  Jane noticed it too.

 

"Do you want to go someplace more private?" she asked, motioning with her head to indicate the well-populated eating area around us.  Truth be told, I had forgotten that we were surrounded by strangers, so caught up I had been in my own problems.  But I was over the outburst now, and this was as good a place to stay as any.  Unlike the waiting room, it at least did not scream "hospital" with every glance.

 

"No, I'm fine now," I assured her.  The corners of my mouth pulled upwards in an ironic grimace.  "I guess I'm not dealing with everything as well as I thought I was."

 

"I think you're allowed a breakdown or two.  Maybe one of the doctors here will give you some nice, soothing pills.  Maybe that cute one you had the last time you were here."  Jane wiggled her eyebrows suggestively and grinned.

 

"Are you sure you shouldn't be talking to Quinn?"

 

"Hey, Daria, give me a break; I've been in the Amazon for months, my father the only male within miles.  And I still need to find a partner for my move-in day sex romp."

 

"Remind me to not help you move in."

 

"I won't need your help; I'll have the guys lining up along the street to give me a hand.  And other things."

 

"Tramp."

 

For a while, the clouds receded.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

Hospital time drags.  Once the initial rush of events and adrenaline wears off, it becomes a struggle to not think about the one thing that you really have to think about, because there is nothing else to think about.  Then you reach a point where even the recent emergency loses its power to consume your thoughts, and time really begins to make its presence known.  Other than an occasional bit of excitement from an entering emergency, there are really no distractions, and the minutes and hours blend into the white wall surrounding you.  The day being Christmas, things were not as bad as they could have been; there was a quartet of Victorian-garbed carolers providing the requisite holiday cheer to the subdued occupants.  Things weren't as bad as they could have been; they were worse.

 

The various members of the Morgendorffer and Company party found their own ways to deal with the tedium.  Jane had picked up a pencil and a pad of paper from the gift shop, and was sketching the carolers undergoing various old-style tortures, placing one into stocks, another locked in a pauper's prison, and the like.  Quinn was spending the day on her cell phone, talking with Stacy and Tiffany; whenever one would leave to participate in some family holiday activity, she would call the other.  The phone bill was going to be astronomical - seeing as how it was near the end of the month, I could only presume that she had already used up her minutes - but I didn't think Mom would begrudge her the money, this time.  As for Mom, after pestering every passing doctor and nurse for a large part of the night, one passing physician had finally given her a package of sedatives, telling her that she had to either take one every few hours, or be thrown out of the hospital.  She had resentfully complied, and now she was alternating between dozing on her seat and listening absently to the carolers.  Every now and then, the doctor would give us news, but it was never anything substantial; Dad was a little better, a little worse.  In the end, nothing ever seemed to change; it was always a waiting game.  I was really wishing that somehow, in all the commotion and panic of getting Dad to the hospital, I had had the foresight to snatch a book on the way out.

 

Finally, Quinn closed her cell phone and sat down next to me.  She had kept a faćade of cheerfulness while she had been talking with her friends, a plastic smile glued to her face, but now that it was over, she looked worn.  Her lips sagged into a straight line, and she slumped in her chair.  If one of the three J's had seen her at that moment, they might not have recognized her.  Her clothes had not been changed since yesterday, and they hung wrinkled and disheveled on her frame.  Her hair was greasy and limp, clumped together in thick strands, and save for a few runs of the hand through its locks, was untended, tangled and unkempt.  There was no makeup left on her face, and her normally bright blue eyes were dull with fatigue and worry.  She was lucky that there were no mirrors within our line of sight, but the amazing thing was that I didn't think she would care if there were; she displayed no self-consciousness towards her appearance, making no effort to hide herself from view, not fretting over what cute doctor might see her in such a state.  I felt closer to her already.

 

"Tiffany finally run out of new sentences and start repeating herself?" I asked, but instead of the smile I was hoping for, I got a sigh instead.

 

"I think she did that about two minutes after I met her," Quinn replied.  "God, Daria, I'm so tired of trying to talk to them.  All Stacy wanted to say was how sorry she was and how she hoped everything would be fine, which was nice to hear and all but she never said anything else, for hours!  When she wasn't crying, that is.  Tiffany was just worried that Christmas dinner would make her fat."  She buried her head in her hands for a moment, not weeping, just exhausted.

 

"Daria," she said after a few minutes, and there was a little choke in her voice, so maybe she had been crying silently after all.  "I know this sounds stupid, and maybe even selfish, but I can't believe this is happening on Christmas.  From now on, every Christmas we have is going to remind us of this.  How can we ever be happy on Christmas again?"

 

"Quinn, Dad might still pull through this," I reminded her, but I couldn't fault her.  Disturbingly similar thoughts had been running through my own head; the anniversary of a family emergency would be bad enough without having the entire world around us celebrating during it.

 

"I know, but even if he does, we'll always be reminded of what happened.  It's never going to be the same again."

 

"Well, it's not like our Christmases were ever that happy to begin with."  The moment the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them; I had spoken out of my own fatigue, out of my own bitterness over the situation.  My ire was not aimed at Quinn, but she bore the brunt of it anyway.  She stared at me, stricken.

 

"Daria, what are you talking about?  I've always enjoyed Christmas!"

 

"I was just thinking about how we would fight every Christmas.  You'd make some remark about whatever book I had bought you, and I would say something about the makeup kit or the shoes that you had got me, and we would spend the rest of the day mad at each other."  Saying it now, it all sounded so pathetic, so trivial.  Was this how we had wasted our time together?  Quinn looked almost as guilty as I felt.

 

"I always appreciated your gifts, Daria," she said, "because I knew that they meant that you loved me, no matter how geeky I thought they were.  But it always seemed easier to complain than to say 'thank you'.  I'm not really sure why.  But I am really sorry about that."

 

"It's not hard to figure out why," I said ruefully.  "As much as we took any opportunity to cut each other down, showing gratitude probably felt like a show of weakness.  I didn't want to show you any vulnerable spots either.  But, from now on, I promise that Christmas won't be like that anymore, not because of me."

 

Quinn looked thoughtful.

 

"I guess," she said after a moment, "it's like what that old wizard guy said in that movie we went to see, about having to do your best with the time that you are given, or something like that.  I just hope that we're given more time with Dad."

 

"So do I, Quinn."

 

Now, she smiled.

 

"Thanks, Daria," she said, and leaned over, placed her arm around my shoulder, and squeezed.  Though in normal circumstances I would have felt uncomfortable with this, no matter how healthy our relationship was, this time it felt right, almost like a completion, staving off the encroaching sense of isolation and the ever-present dread.  Then she stood up and walked over to Mom, who was sitting quietly in her chair, head bowed; she looked calm, but the pills the doctor had given her had run out, and she was methodically cracking every knuckle in her hands, I can only presume for lack of anything better to do.

 

"That looked like it went pretty well," Jane said from beside me, looking up from her latest sketch with a smile.  "Have you figured out your answer?"

 

"Quinn's matured a lot from how I remembered her," I said.  "She's actually almost tolerable now.  What answer are you talking about?"

 

"You were worried about how you should open up to people, but you seem to be doing a great job with Quinn.  Doesn't that give you a clue?"

 

"But it took years with Quinn, and it probably wouldn't have happened if she hadn't changed as much as I have.  I'm not even sure what got us to this point to begin with.  It's encouraging, but not necessarily the answer."

 

"Maybe that's part of it, just letting down your guard and letting things happen naturally.  Like you did with me, and Trent, and Tom."

 

"Tom also took a while, if you recall.  This feels urgent to me."

 

"Like Rita felt urgent for your mother?"

 

Ouch.

 

"Jane, if you're saying that I can't rush this, that may be true, but I can't just let it sit either.  I have to take some action, or nothing will change."

 

"And sitting in your room thinking was action?"

 

"It was more than I had been doing before, though I'm willing to admit that I might have taken it too far.  Jane, what exactly is it that you recommend I do?"

 

"I don't know," Jane said with a shrug.  "Despite my aura of omniscient wisdom, I don't have all the answers; I was hoping that you would pick up on something.  I just thought that I would point out how well you were doing with Quinn and see if you could figure something out from that."

 

"Jane, your confidence in me is overwhelming."

 

"But not as overwhelming as your B.O. right now.  You really need to take a shower sometime soon."  Leave it to Jane to not take even the most solemn of moments too seriously.  Thank God.

 

"In that case, I will remove my offensive self from your sensitive nose," I said, and nodded to where Quinn and Mom were sitting.  Jane waved her hand imperiously.

 

"Off with you then," she said in a really bad English accent.  "Leave the Great One to her work."

 

I walked over to where Quinn and Mom were sitting, their hands tightly clutched to each other.  They were huddled in on themselves, as if by doing so they could keep the evils of the world at bay, stave off the anxiety that had become constant in all of us.

 

"This is taking too long," Mom was saying.  "We should have heard something by now, something more than just 'we can't tell yet'.  It's not a good sign.  If there were any good news, they would have told us."

 

"Mom, you can't think like that," Quinn said.  "You're scaring me.  Can't you think good thoughts?"

 

"Oh, sweetie.   I'm a mother; I have to think about these things, even when it's nothing, so that you don't have to.  But please keep thinking good thoughts about your father, Quinn.  We all need them."

 

"I thought worrying was my job," I said as I sat down beside them.  Mom smiled sadly, or maybe it was more of a grimace.

 

"And you're very good at it, Daria," Mom replied, "too good.  You always saw too much too clearly to be completely happy, but I always wished that you could be.  So, what do you see now?"

 

"That we don't know anything yet, either way."

 

"And that's why it's so hard, Daria.  I just wish there was something I could do."

 

But there wasn't, of course, and so the three of us just sat there, each of us silently assisting the others through their own private distress; Mom fighting the drive to act because there was nothing for her to act on, Quinn vacillating between hope and fear, and I facing the anxiety of ignorance that was so foreign to my nature.  Every so often, Jane would cast a supportive glance my way, but this was a trial shared by the three of us alone, and though she was my closest friend, she was left on the outside this time.  She understood that.

 

The sound of assured, heavy footsteps approaching drew our attention.  We looked out to see the doctor standing in front of us.  He didn't need to speak; the look on his face was unmistakable.  Mom sucked in her breath with a choking sound, and Quinn began to wail.

 

"I'm sorry," he said.  "We did everything we could do, but . . ."

 

So passed Christmas Day.  So passed my father.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

I sat in the viewing room of the funeral home, feeling numb and empty, as I had been feeling for almost two days now, ever since the doctor had delivered his final news.  It seemed to me that I should be grieving, sad, overcome with some gut-wrenching sorrow, but all my emotions were walled away from me, cut off by a fuzzy barrier of disconnection.  My awareness floated above them.  It wasn't like I was drunk or high.  I was in full contact with the world around me; it was myself that I had lost touch with.

 

One feeling that did make it through the barrier was annoyance at all the people surrounding me.  The room was crowded, filled with well-wishers, mostly business associates of my parents; they would walk in, spend a few seconds looking at my father's body lying exposed in a wooden box, and then pass on to talk amongst themselves or to one member of my family or another.  Over time, two distinct groups had developed.  At the center of one stood my mother, clad in black, doing her best to carry on normal conversations with the lawyers and clients that had gathered to watch her grieve; while she was spared the odious task of having to appear happy, since no one expected that of her, she still forced herself to be pleasant and hospitable, to put on a strong face and a "life goes on" attitude.  But I could see the strain of it in her eyes, the emptiness she was feeling; none of them knew that she was crying herself to sleep at night, alone in a bed now grown far too large for her.  And so they went away amazed at how strong and resilient a woman was Helen Morgendorffer, never bothering to look beyond the surface.

 

At the center of the other group were Grandma Ruth and Uncle Esau.  This was the first I had seen of my grandmother since she had arrived, and the first I had ever seen of my uncle.  Grandma blamed my mother for Dad's death, saying that if she had taken better care of her baby, then he would have never had another attack; that was all that she had said to Mom.  She and Uncle Esau were staying at Le Grand Hotel, and would be leaving right after the funeral.  She was not angry at Quinn or myself, so I could have talked to her, but I didn't feel like it; she might have not been angry with me, but I was very unhappy with her.  As I had told Mom earlier, she bore no more blame for Dad's attack than anyone else, and to see my grandmother hit her right on her most vulnerable spot, at a time when she needed support the most, infuriated me.  Maybe I could have excused it away, say that her grief was such that she could not be held responsible for her actions, but when I felt anger at her at least I was feeling something, and I wanted to feel something right now.

 

Then there was Uncle Esau, the elder of the Morgendorffer siblings, and a man molded by Mad Dog into his own image, the man he had attempted to mold my father into as well.  His face was stern and hard, carved from ice; his military uniform looked less like a badge of honor than a warning sign, like the bright coloring of a venomous animal.  He was a man of few words; at least, he was at present.  He had shaken my hand when he entered the room, and had addressed me in a tone that had much politeness but little warmth.  Now he was standing at Grandma Ruth's side like a sentry, ready to catch her should she faint with grief or with simple overexertion.

 

For all the people in the room, the area around me was surprisingly clear.  I had tried to be as courteous and friendly as I could when people, most of whom I had never seen before, had stopped to offer me their condolences; but it must have been quite apparent that I mostly just wanted to be left alone, free from irritating intrusions into my own private desolation, and I could only assume that the word had spread quickly.  I did not want insincere consolations from people present only because their business with my parents demanded it, and at any rate, it took too much effort for me to talk.  My tongue, indeed my whole body, felt weighed down.  The only person within comfortable speaking distance of me was Jane, who sat next to me on the bench and quietly people-watched.  Her presence was welcome, and for now, her silence even more so.

 

Stacy and Tiffany were standing next to the coffin with Quinn, looking down onto my father's painted face.

 

"They really did a great job with the makeup, Quinn," Stacy said with forced cheerfulness.  "And the suit looks really good on him.  And this coffin is really nice and padded; I'm sure he'll be very comfortable in it."  Stacy was wringing her hands together, and her voice cracked nervously on the last word.  She was clearly way out of her depth, but still doing her best to give what compliments she could, her way of honoring the dead and comforting the living.  Quinn gave a sad nod in return, and a quiet "thank you".

 

"Heeee loooooks sooooo naaaturaaaal," Tiffany drawled.

 

No, he doesn't, you moron, my mind snarled.  He looks overly made-up and still, and he feels stiff and cold.  Does that seem natural to you?  For a moment, anger bloomed inside me, and I welcomed it, but then it faded back behind the wall.  Oh, hell, I can't be angry at her.  She's just repeating what she heard some other idiot say at some other funeral, in some other attempt at meaningless consolation.  She's trying, at least, like Stacy, to help Quinn feel better; misguided or not, I can't fault her for that.

 

"Eeeeewwwwww, Quiiiin, yoouuuuur eeeeeyes . . . theeeeeey're aaaaalllll reeeeeeeed."  And I wanted to strangle her again.

 

"Miss Blum-Deckler is sounding particularly perceptive today," Jane said, her voice barely above a whisper.

 

"I'm waiting for her to tell Quinn that black isn't her color," I replied, but my heart was not in the quip.

 

"Suits you pretty well, though," Jane said, eyeing the sable gown Mom had insisted that I wear.  It was choking me at the neck, and the hose kept riding up my hips, but these were distant irritations, unworthy of notice.  I simply nodded, and we returned to our silence.

 

A familiar voice sounded above my downturned eyes.

 

"Hello, Daria."

 

I looked up to find Aunt Amy standing in front of me, a somber look replacing her usual amused expression.  I stood up to greet her, and she enveloped me in a quick hug, which I found to be more comforting than I would have thought.  She let me go and sat down beside me, then turned her head to view her sister, surrounded by sympathizers.

 

"I'm guessing that you must be Jane," she said when she turned back to us.  She extended her hand to my friend and Jane briefly took it.  "Your mother appears to be handling this calmly enough.  Which one of you slipped her the tranquilizers?"

 

"I've been pumping my excess paint fumes into her bedroom," Jane said, before I felt the need to reply.

 

"Good idea; Helen could probably use a nice high right now."  Amy turned her gaze back to Mom.  "I've got to give Jake credit.  He stuck with her all those years.  Remarkable fortitude."  Her mouth curved in fond remembrance, and I knew she meant no harm, but Amy's jokes were actually getting on my nerves.  Had all the humor just been squeezed out of me?  What kind of state had I come to when I couldn't even appreciate a harmless jibe?  My feelings must have been written on my face, for when Amy turned back to me, her attitude changed completely.  "I'm sorry, Daria.  You know I didn't mean any harm; I'm just not very good at these kinds of situations.  Didn't I tell you once that sarcasm was a great way to deal?  It is, but not in every circumstance.  I should know better, too.  I was older than you when my father died, but not that much older, and I remember how much it hurt; and we knew for a while that it was going to happen, so we were at least prepared, or as prepared as anyone can be.  At the time, I probably would not have appreciated someone making jokes at my family's expense either.  So, how are you feeling, Daria?"

 

"Sick of being asked that question," I responded sharply, the words spilling out of me before I realized they were there.  But I didn't want to alienate this particular comforter.  "Amy, I'm not really feeling anything, except feeling that I should be feeling something.  And the rare times I do feel something, it's anger or irritation, never the sadness that I think should be there.  Mom and Quinn have spent a lot of the past few days in tears, while I've just stood there silently.  Mom hasn't said anything, but I'm sure that she thinks I'm being callous, and maybe I am.  There are times I've felt that grief is about to break through, but then it goes away again.  And that scares me.  I was more worried about my own problems a few days ago than I am sad about a very real tragedy that's happening right now.  But I loved my father, I know I did.  Why is nothing coming out of me?"  Then I was feeling something, but it was not the sorrow that I craved; it was pure frustration.  I felt Jane's touch on my shoulder.

 

"Oh, Daria," Amy said, shaking her head sadly.  "I understand completely.  Don't worry about it, though I know that you are going to.  I know that you're not cold, and so does Helen.  Your feelings will come in time, I guarantee it.  Some of us just take a bit longer to get in touch with them.  When my dad died, I didn't cry or anything like that for days; I felt sorry that he was gone, but it didn't really hit me for real until several days later.  Rita felt it immediately, of course; your mother held it in until she was alone, and then let it all out.  She kept me up at nights; I could hear her through the walls, crying when she thought no one could hear.  We all react differently, you see."

 

"Or I can make you feel something right now, if you want," Jane said.  "I could call up Trent and ask him to sing you a love song.  Think that would do anything?"  It had been ages since Jane had threatened me with her brother, and the joke brought back a flood of old memories of the days she and I would sit back and watch the world go by us, commenting on anything and everything that caught our fancy, never thinking that such fun would fall out of our favor.  For a moment, I was some other time and other place, and the relief - however momentary - was very gratefully received.

 

"It looks like you're in pretty capable hands here," Amy said, and shared a satisfied nod with Jane.  "Good thing, too, since I'm probably going to have to start making the rounds here soon.  I don't see Rita anywhere; has she not arrived yet?  Not that I'm complaining too much, you understand."

 

"Rita wasn't invited," I said.  "She and Mom had a fight, and they're not speaking to each other right now.  They might not be speaking to each other ever again."

 

"My God, what happened?"  Amy was shocked.  "I thought Helen was trying to patch things up with her for good."

 

"She was," I replied wearily.  These were not memories I wanted to dredge up, and knowing this, Jane took over.

 

"They were fighting when Jake had the heart attack," she said.  "Then they fought again when they were in the hospital.  Helen threw her out of the house."

 

"I . . . see," Amy said, eyes wide.  "It's too bad I wasn't there.  Maybe I could have done something."

 

"No, you couldn't," I said.  "Trust me."

 

"Amy, you're here," Mom interrupted, walking up to us.  Amy stood up and the two embraced.

 

"Oh, Helen, I'm so sorry," she said, with no trace of irony or sarcasm in her voice.

 

"Thanks, sis," Mom said.  "You've been keeping Daria company?  I'm glad to see that; I think she needs all she can get right now."  Mom turned to me.  "Honey, are you sure you don't want to come with me for a while.  It might do you good, being with people."  Might help me act more normal, you mean.  Actually, I would have welcomed Mom's company, or Quinn's, but I couldn't take being in the middle of the press of people.  I shook my head in denial.  Mom looked saddened and frustrated, but she respected my wishes, and she and Amy walked off by themselves.

 

She was soon replaced by Quinn, who sat down next to me with a slight sound of relief.  She was dressed and styled perfectly, leaving behind the unkempt look she had in the hospital, but her expression was haunted.  As Tiffany had observed, her eyes were red and puffy, with dark bags below them; her skin looked grey.  The life that had animated her features looked drained away, and her natural, effortless beauty with it.  This Quinn looked old.

 

"I'm so tired," she said, and her voice sounded it.  "I just want to get out of here.  This is just creepy, all these people coming in to look at Dad like that."  She shuddered, and wiped her eyes with a handkerchief.  "Why do they do this, anyway?  I would rather remember him as alive, not like . . . that."

 

"I don't think this is really for us, Quinn," I replied.  "I think this is to make everyone else feel better, so they can feel they've done something for us by showing up."

 

"They're not all like that, Daria," she protested.  "Stacy and Tiffany really wanted to help me feel better, and Jane really wants to be here for you.  And it was nice to see them."

 

"But it would be nicer to see them somewhere else."  She couldn't deny that.

 

"Yeah, it would be."  She was quiet for a minute or so.  "Daria, how do you do it?  I haven't been able to stop crying for the past few days, except for every now and then, and I hate it.  It helped a little at first, I guess, but now it just makes me feel even worse.  I know you're sad, Daria; how do you keep from crying all the time?"

 

If you only knew.  Here you are trying to find out my secret, but my only secret is that I'm envying you.  Before, I had walls that held out other people; now that I'm trying to tear them down, I seem to have developed walls to hold out myself.  Which is worse, I wonder?  And can I ever really do anything about either?  But it helps to know that she doesn't believe that I'm cold; she assumes that I'm sad, even though she doesn't see it.  She has that kind of faith in me.  That's something, at least.

 

"It's nothing, Quinn," I said aloud.  "Nothing you could replicate, and nothing you would want to.  Be glad that you can cry; I feel like I never could."

 

"You can cry, Daria," Quinn said, sounding quite certain of herself.  "You're not a bad person.  You'll cry when you feel ready, I'm sure."

 

"You and Aunt Amy think remarkably alike, Quinn."

 

"I thought that you were the one who thought like Aunt Amy.  I guess I really am smart after all."  Her mouth curled into something that came closer to a smile than I had seen on her for hours, if not days.

 

"I'm starting to feel inferior, sitting with all you smart Morgendorffer women," Jane said.

 

Quinn sagged onto my arm, resting her tired frame, while Jane and I sat and watched the people pass by, the three of us defining a space all our own.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

I was in my bed a few hours later, unable to sleep.  My guilty conscience would not let up, berating me for my lack of feeling, my inability to grieve my father's death, and the voice in my head made repose impossible.  I tossed and turned for over an hour, then reluctantly gave up on the effort; the deathly silence of the house made the voice in my head far too loud to ignore.  If I were going to gain any respite, it would have to be some other way.

 

I hauled myself out of bed and over to my bookshelf, looking for the volume of Tolstoy I had been reading before . . . everything had happened.  It wasn't in its usual spot, nor anywhere else I usually kept whatever book I was working on at the time.  I strained my fatigued brain to remember where it might be, and I remembered the last place I had read it.  On the living room couch, right as Rita had walked in the door for the beginning of her visit.  I guess I must have gotten caught up in all the commotion and left it there.

 

I made my way down to the family room, walking as softly as possible to avoid disturbing anyone; they needed their rest.  As did I, but one takes what one can get.  I found the book shoved halfway underneath the couch, but with no real damage inflicted, and rather than drag myself back upstairs, I sat down where I was to begin my reading.  Then, to my surprise, I heard voices coming from the kitchen; after a second, I could tell that it was Mom and Amy, having a late-night talk.  At first, I ignored them, but then I heard the mention of my name, and by instinct, my ears pricked up.

 

". . . Daria told me in the hospital that I shouldn't blame myself," Mom was saying.  "That I wasn't any more responsible for Jake's death than anyone else, but I just can't absolve myself that easily."  Her voice was flat, broken.  The mask was gone.  "Dammit, Amy, I could have done better.  If I had just had a little more self-control . . ."

 

I wanted to console her, to reassure her once more that Dad's blood did not lie on her hands.  But that impulse felt wrong to me; this was a moment between sisters, and I had only recently begun to realize just how special those moments could be.  So, amazed at my own brazenness, I eavesdropped.

 

"Come on," Amy responded, "you know what Rita is like.  She would try the patience of a saint; and you, Helen, are no saint."

 

"I don't need you to tell me that.  She's horrible, I know, but I should have held myself back more.  Not that I'll probably ever need to worry about it again; after the things she said at the hospital, it'll be a cold day in hell before I'll want to hear her voice."  Mom's voice sounded aggrieved.  "And she's not even the worst one; Mother's coming in just in time for the funeral tomorrow, and then she's leaving right after!  Has to be back to see Erin and Brian in from their flight tomorrow night.  Can't let them think she's forgotten about them, after all.  And here I am, a grieving widow . . . Oh, god, Amy, I hadn't used that word before.  I'm a widow, a widow with two teenage daughters!  How am I going to handle that?"  Her voice began to rise before she forcibly lowered it again, no doubt to avoid waking Quinn and myself.

 

"Helen, you don't need to worry about that," Amy said in soothing tones.  "Daria's grown into a wonderful young woman, really, no matter how she may scare you at times.  And Quinn's really growing into herself as well.  You've already done a good job with both of them.  And very soon, Quinn will be away like Daria, and your job will be done."

 

"Oh, Amy," Mom said, and I could almost see her shaking her head at her sister.  "I don't think it works that way; you don't stop being a mother just because your children move away and grow up.  But I don't even know how to deal with them right now.  Quinn spends her time crying; that tears my heart to pieces, but at least I can understand it.  Daria, though . . . I'm really afraid for her.  Ever since Jake . . . passed on, she's just been in a shell.  Her eyes look dead to me.  I'm so scared that this might have pushed her over an edge."

 

"Helen, trust me on this.  Daria's going to be alright.  Remember how I was after Father died?  She's dealing with this in her own way, and she'll show her grief eventually, in her own time.  Don't worry about her, just be there for her."  When she had told me this earlier, it had been nice to hear; but this time, maybe because I knew she wasn't just saying things to make me feel better about myself, it had the ring of truth.  It was no guarantee that this cursed numbness would ever give way to anything more comforting, but it was at least a reason to believe it might.

 

"I hope you're right, Amy.  And thank you, for everything you said about both Daria and Quinn.  They've both turned out better than I could have imagined, and soon they'll both be gone, and then it will just be me here."  The voice cracked.  "I don't know if I'll be able to handle that, Amy.  It's hard enough now, when Daria and Quinn are still around to occupy my attention, to make the place seem a little less empty.  But I already can feel the hole.  No offense to you, sister, but you can't understand what it's like to lose someone like this, someone you've lived with, loved with, for over twenty years.  He became a part of me in a way that I never knew could happen with another person, and now that he's gone . . . it's like a part of me has been stripped away.  Not a part of my body, but of whatever it is that's inside that body.  He's gone, and I don't think I can ever feel whole again."

 

For a minute, there were no words.

 

"Amy, I know you never understood why I married him . . ."  Mom's voice was hoarse.

 

"Helen, don't . . ."

 

"No, it's okay.  I know that you and Rita and Mother never really got what I saw in him.  There were times I didn't either."  A pause, as if to collect herself or her thoughts, then, "but . . . he was a good man, Amy.  He had such a caring and loving heart, such a passionate heart.  That was something I needed.  Admittedly, sometimes that passion was misdirected, expressed as rage against his own father or his military school; but he also loved our girls fiercely, and was completely committed to us as a family.  I knew there was nothing he wouldn't do for us, nothing that would stand between him and our happiness and welfare.  It was when I saw that side of him that I knew I could not have chosen a better man with which to have children, or spend my life."

 

I sat there, silent and amazed.  I had never known that Mom had seen that in Dad, never known that the trait that could drive us all crazy was also the very reason that she had loved him.  Indeed, there were times I had wondered what had kept them together all these years.  This was seeing my father through new eyes indeed.

 

"Plus," Amy's voice added, "the sex was pretty good, too."

 

"Yeah, there was that . . ."

 

I beat a hasty retreat to my room.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

I stood beside my father's grave, staring down at the earth below me, as the minister read empty words of comfort from his little black book.  The hollowness inside me had not yet passed, and so I found myself wishing that this ritual would just end, that we could bypass this absurd attempt at hope and just commit my father to his final resting place, where he would stay for as long as I lived, until one day I joined him.  A part of me almost longed for that, an eternity of feeling nothing with no guilt attached to the lack; as opposed to the nothing I felt now that tormented my conscience.  Even more so now, when I was surrounded by people visibly mourning a loss I should have felt more keenly.

 

On my left side stood Mom, her face impassive, but her hands clutching at her skirt, as though by holding on to her clothing she could hold on to her control.  She was wearing the face she always wore in public since Dad's death.  There were no tears on her cheeks, no heaving in her chest; but her body was trembling slightly, a constant tremor like a man having to carry a weight that was a little too heavy for him to bear.  I doubt anyone sitting farther away from her than I could have even noticed.  I didn't know whether to be proud of her control or fearful that it might eventually slip.

 

To my right was Quinn, who had no such conundrum to face.  Her face was wet, her makeup running down her cheeks, and every now and then her body would convulse with another sob.  Her appearance and general demeanor had improved little from the day before, when we had all sat in the viewing room together, though she was crying less now.  There had been few words exchanged between us since then, though I had several times held her wordlessly as she cried, and even now her hand would occasionally reach out and briefly clasp my own.  I wished I had more and better solace to give her, but the little I had been able to provide had seemed to be of benefit to her, and had become my one assurance that I might not yet be completely hardened.  Now she was drinking in every word that the minister was saying, staring at him as though he were a man offering her water after a long sojourn in the desert, and so I had to concede that even if his words meant nothing to me, they might be of some use after all.

 

Arrayed throughout the small gathering around the rectangular hole in the ground were several other familiar faces, and some that were not so familiar.  Aunt Amy was on the other side of Mom from myself, and Grandma Barksdale next to her.  Grandma Ruth and Uncle Esau faced us from the other side of the coffin.  Grandma looked frail beyond human endurance, and Esau was holding her up; otherwise, it looked as though she might stumble into the hole before her, and maybe not by accident.  Esau was impassive, his only apparent concern being the welfare of the old woman beside him.  From the little I had heard, he had been the favorite of Mad Dog, while Ruth had favored my father, but he seemed to hold it against her far less than Dad had held Mad Dog's favoritism against him.  But then, I found it hard to believe that the inequalities in Grandma's treatment had been nearly as severe.  Or maybe it was simply the military training, discipline above all else, certainly over personal feeling.

 

Further down from me, on my own side of the gathering, were Jane and Trent, each clothed in what passed for them for solemn attire.  Every now and then, Jane would catch my eye, conveying a silent offer of support, or an inquiry into my condition.  I did my best to let her know that her offers were appreciated, but that there was little right now that I needed that anyone else could provide.  My father's empty body lay not five feet in front of me, shielded from human view by a wooden shell, and there was nothing anyone could do to change that.  I longed to mourn for him, but there did not seem to be anything that could be done about that, either.  So I just kept staring at the ground below me, and waiting for it all to end.

 

The minister had ceased his reading about the valley of the shadow of death, and commenced his eulogy for my father.  He praised him for his devotion to his family, for his goodness and his passion for life.  For his love for his fellow man.  The very vague, general nature of the speech revolted me.

 

I can count on my fingers how many times we've gone to church, how many times I or my father has ever seen this man.  And now he thinks he has the right and the experience to tell me the kind of man that he was, to act sorrowful as though he had lost a dear friend, when to him Dad might as well have been a stranger off the street?  A few Christmases and Easters spent in this man's captivity does not make him an expert on my father's psyche, no matter what kind of collar he wears.  What arrogance it takes for him to do this!

 

And how are you any different?  The accusing thought, from some buried part of my own mind, nearly staggered me.  You spent eighteen years living with the man, breathing the same air, sharing the same food, experiencing the same family turmoils and strifes, but how much did you really know him?  Time after time, you turned away, frustrated by his rants and annoyed at his childishness, and you never even bothered to push through that to find the man underneath.  Unnoticed by me at the time, a tear rolled down my cheek.  When you did have the opportunity, you turned it into a joke.  When he made the effort, however uncomfortable and uncertain, to reach out to you, you gave him your shoe size in return.  You were amazed when you found out why your mother loved him, because you had never found out for yourself.  You loved him as a father, but did you ever value him as a man?  Another tear, a twin to the first, emerged from my other eye.

 

Oh, god, what have I done?  I've had a lifetime of opportunities, chances to learn who my father was, chances to see beyond the exterior and truly know his inner self, and I wasted almost every one.  I distanced myself from my family, and especially him, because I feared disappointment, feared that he would make too many demands, take too much work.  I was frightened by his rages, frightened that whatever tolerance I may have had would be shattered if I got too close, and so I never saw him as much more than a caricature.  My face was slick with salty water.  I loved him, but only as a father; I could never have loved him as a person, because I never knew him as a person.  And even as I have worked recently to let others in, I never really thought about letting him in.  It was always and forever the same with us, doting but unhinged father and loving but distant daughter.  And that's all that it can ever be now.

 

I heard a sound; a sniff, followed by a stuttered gasp.  It took a few moments before I realized that it was coming from me.  It was followed by another, and another, and almost before I could realize what was happening my eyes were streaming with tears and my breath was coming in sniffs and broken by catches in my throat.  It felt miserable; it felt wonderful.  And then an arm was around my shoulder, and I was leaning into my mother's coat, face turned into her body to hide the tears from the prying eyes I felt on me.  As the minister droned on, Mom made quiet, comforting noises, reassuring even though they made no literal sense.  Another, smaller set of arms encircled me from behind.  Quinn.  She said nothing, but I felt comforted nonetheless.  All the emotion, the grief, the sorrow, that had felt so distant and unreal before now flowed through me in a cleansing wave, leaving me feeling hollow and drained, but whole.  My father was gone, and I would never have the chance to make amends for a lifetime of dismissal; wisdom, as is far too often the case, comes too late.  And I wept for the loss, both of my father and of time itself.

 

Slowly, the tears subsided, and I untangled myself from the web of limbs holding me upright.  I saw the minister stepping away from the grave, and my father's coffin being slowly lowered into the hole.  It sunk further and further away from me, but the distance seemed not to be so much physical as spiritual; I could feel my father's presence becoming ever more distant, and soon his physical remains would be covered in earth, and that presence would be gone forever.  Never before had I encountered such certain and total loss, and no longer did it seem unreal.

 

As I stood there, I felt a new presence next to me, and I looked to see Jane standing there.  She said nothing, but placed her hand on my shoulder.  Mom took her handful of dirt and tossed it into the grave, her movements slow, fully aware of the weight of symbolism behind her action.  As she walked away, the crowd dispersed as the professional gravediggers took over.  Most people headed quickly back to their cars, anxious to escape this reminder of mortality.  A few hung around to exchange pleasantries and condolences.  Mom and Quinn and Amy and Jane stayed close to me, and Trent walked up to join us.

 

"How are you feeling now, amiga?" Jane asked in the quiet tones one naturally adopts at a funeral.  The small upturn on one side of her mouth showed that she had already guessed the answer.

 

"Better, I think," I said, my voice still rather thick.

 

"That's good, honey," Mom said, her voice sounding not very dissimilar.  "I was beginning to worry about you."

 

"I wasn't," Amy declared confidently.  "I knew she would be fine, given time."

 

"I was worried too, Mom," I said, surprised at how much everyone else seemed to have picked up on what I thought was my private fear.  "But, I feel better now, in some ways."  In other ways, I feel worse; but that is my own fault, my own shortcoming, and something I will have to work on myself.  No reason to burden all of them with it.  "And how are you doing, Mom?"  Amazingly, I didn't think I had asked her this question in days, so wrapped up I had been in my own guilt.  But after last night, I was worried about her as well.

 

"I'll be okay," she said, "in time.  It will be a while before things are back to normal for us, but we'll get there eventually."

 

A little overly optimistic, possibly, and maybe just bravado on her part, but I hope that it's true, whatever 'normal' means anyhow.  But if that means things just going back the way that they were, I don't think I want to return completely to 'normal'.  I've had one missed opportunity made all too obvious to me; how many others have I missed and never even noticed?  I can't just close my eyes to them anymore.  Is this possibly the real first step towards tearing down my wall, just being aware of the possibilities for relationships that pass me by because I'm too aloof or afraid to pursue them?  And if I am aware of them, don't I have to try for them as well?  Maybe Jane was right, and that to change things, I'm going to have to act first and think later.  Some of the time, anyway.  That's a scary thought; isn't that what I've always despised the most in other people, the lack of thought that goes into their actions?  But maybe it has its place, so long as it doesn't completely take over my life.  Dad, if I can do this, then I'll do it for you.  My memorial, to treat others as I should have treated you.  God, I hope I can.

 

We left the land of the dead, and went home, to face the world of the living.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

A few nights later, I lay on my bed, staring up at the ceiling.  Save for me, the house was empty.  I hadn't seen much of Mom since the funeral; she had buried herself in her work, leaving early and coming home very late, sometimes after I had already retired.  I wished that she would spend more time at home, but I understood her reasons why; work was her distraction, the panacea she needed to get through the day, to push to the back of her mind the image of the empty bed that lay ahead of her every night.  And so she was doing now.  I could only hope that she would not completely lose herself in her work, that when the necessity for continual distraction eventually faded, she would return to her normal schedule and the remaining daughter who needed her presence at home.

 

And Quinn needed someone; she had become the ghost haunting the hallways, doing little but sitting alone in her room or watching TV.  But I did see one cause for hope.  She and I had only had a few conversations in the last few days, at her lead never venturing beyond the mundane, but she seemed to have enjoyed them; they were the only time I had seen her even remotely approach the animation with which she had formerly embraced her entire life.  But I would be departing for Boston tomorrow morning, leaving Mom the only one in the house with her.  She still had her friends - she was out with them even now - but it seemed to me that she needed more now.  She needed family, and in Lawndale, Mom was all she had.

 

I myself had spent a good deal of time at Jane's, reacquainting myself with this vital presence in my life that had been too long absent, her companionship beginning to heal the wounds I had suffered.  I had told her about what had happened to me at Dad's funeral, the realizations I had come to there; she had listened, sagely, and encouraged me, and made a joke whenever she felt it was time to lighten the mood.  But we had done normal things as well, chatted about Sick, Sad World or her newest artworks, and listened to Trent and Jessie jam in the basement as they tried to put together a sound for whatever new band they might start, since the Spiral had recently dissolved.  We had talked about the upcoming semester, and made plans for living together in Boston.  Though thoughts of Dad were never far from my mind, I found that they did not always have to be in the forefront; there were times I could forget myself in what Jane and I were doing, and for a while it would be as though nothing had ever happened.  And when those thoughts did rise up, Jane was there for me.  But, as my departure time had drawn closer, I had spent more time at home, unwilling to just abandon my family before leaving; though I missed the time with Jane, after seeing what even those little talks had done for Quinn, I did not regret my decision.  And now, for the first time since I had come home for the holiday, she was out with friends; I hoped she would be able to take comfort from them as well.

 

Which is why I was so surprised when there was a knock on my door, and Quinn's voice, subdued but clear, asking for admittance.  I was so surprised, in fact, that for the first time I could remember, I gave her a simple "Come in", with no joke or quip attached.

 

Quinn opened the door, and she looked as tired as she ever had, as tired and as lonely.  I sat up as she walked over to the bed.

 

"Daria," she asked, "do you mind if I sit in here with you for a while?"

 

"No, that's fine.  What happened with your friends?"  Quinn's shoulders slumped, and she sat down on the bed beside me.

 

"It just wasn't the same," she replied, "or maybe, it was exactly the same, but I was the one who had changed.  Sandi said that she was sorry for me, but soon all she wanted to talk about was Europe, all the cute guys she had seen and the expensive clothes she had bought.  Of course, Stacy couldn't say no to her, and Tiffany just went along with them.  And there's nothing wrong with that, and Sandi should be excited about her trip, but it all just seemed so stupid to me.  There just didn't seem to be any point in it anymore.  Compared to Dad . . . what does any of that matter?  And I really hate to say that, because they're my friends and they're just doing the same thing we've been doing for years, but the whole time I couldn't stop thinking that I wished that I was with someone different."  She paused, and looked right at me.  "Daria, I was thinking that I wanted to be with you."

 

"With me?  Instead of the Fashion Club?"  I couldn't believe my ears.  Yes, we were closer now than we had ever been, but I would usually choose Jane's company over hers, and even when she had wanted to do something with me before, it was because all her friends were otherwise engaged.  When had I become the most important person in her life?

 

"Former Fashion Club," she corrected.  "Daria, you're my sister, and I want us to start to get to know each other like sisters should.  I remember I had friends in Highland who had sisters, and they were best friends as well, and I always envied them.  I didn't think you and I could ever be like that.  But now, after . . . finally, I'm starting to feel like that's what we're becoming, and I really like that feeling, Daria.  And I hate that you're leaving tomorrow, just as I'm beginning to figure this out.  I know that I'll see you again, but I don't want to have to wait that long."  Quinn looked so lost and abandoned that I wished that I could just stay, forget college and be here for her; I wanted to do my best to fill the hole that we all felt, not create a new one.  But, of course, the world does not work like that.

 

"Quinn, I want that too, and I promise you that we will do that, the very next time I come home."

 

"And when will that be?" she demanded, and for a moment her grief-induced lethargy gave way to anger.  "Another few months, another semester?  Daria, I want to see you before that; I missed you before, and I'm going to miss you even more now.  Can't you come home before the summer?  I know you're working hard at school, but can't you get some time off?  Even though I could understand why you would want to stay away."  The last sentence shifted her mood back, and she made a gesture that took in all our surroundings; I knew it was intended to encompass even more.

 

"Quinn, I don't want to stay away," I said as tenderly as I could.  "I want to get to know you better too, and seeing you would far outweigh any sadness I might feel being here.  It's a six-hour drive from here to Boston; that's a bit awkward, but it's doable every few weekends.  I promise I won't stay away that long again."  This is one opportunity that I didn't miss.  Somehow, even after everything we've done to each other, I didn't let this one go.  Or she didn't let me go.  Her, and hopefully Mom as well.  I will not pass them by.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

I stood at the front door of the Morgendorffer household, bag slung over my shoulder, ready to make the trip back to Boston, with Mom and Quinn there to see me off.  Mom's presence encouraged me; she had skipped work to be here.  She showed up for this, so she's not completely gone.  I can only hope she remembers what she told Amy, that Quinn needs her presence every day as much as I want it right now.  Quinn was trying her best to be brave, to look cheerful instead of forlorn, and though she had very little success at it, I loved her for the effort.  I once again felt guilty about leaving her almost all alone in this house of memories, and it was possible that Raft would have allowed me to take the semester off, but I felt that it was necessary for me to move on with life; the world does not stop for the tragedies of its inhabitants.  Staying at home would do me no good, I was certain.  And now here I was, ready to drive off, first to pick up Jane, and then to the apartment in Boston she had found for both of us. 

 

"Be careful on the roads," Mom was saying, "and drive carefully.  Don't be talking to Jane the whole time and ignoring the cars in front of you.  And call me when you make it; I want to know you're okay.  Just . . . be safe, Daria."  She stepped forward and hugged me tightly, clutching me as if frightened that if she let go, I would float away forever.  It felt . . . good, comforting, safe.  I realized how much I didn't want to leave either of them, how much I would miss them when I was gone.  Before, I had been too consumed with my own problems to think much about my family; those days were gone.

 

"Mo-om," Quinn said, after Mom had held me for over a minute, "you're hogging her.  Let me have her for a bit."  Mom handed me over to my sister, and Quinn's embrace proved even firmer and more desperate than my mother's.  "Remember your promise, Daria," she said into my ear.  "Promise you'll come see me; I want us to hang out like sisters."  So do I, Quinn.  Just like sisters.  Like friends.

 

I had to pull myself out of the hug before I was able to respond.

 

"Don't worry, Quinn," I said, and to my embarrassment I found I had to clear my throat before I was able to speak clearly.  "I'll come home soon.  And you can always come visit me, you know.  I want you to."

 

"I'll do that," she said, and I knew it was a promise.

 

But the pick-up time for Jane was fast approaching, and farewells to loved ones could not last forever.  I said my good-byes, swore that I would come back soon, and then I was out of the house.  The door closed behind me with a mournful thud.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

The apartment in Boston was small, but there were two bedrooms, and enough space for us to fit our most crucial possessions.  Certainly, it was better than the dorm in which I had spent my first semester at Raft; Jane was lucky, as she would be starting BFAC without ever having to go through that particular hazing ritual.  But the collection of boxes and odd furniture we had scattered about was familiar enough, and already I could feel myself settling back into the college mindset, finding the holiday and all that had happened during . . . not behind me, but at least in less of my conscious thought.  The mindless work of unpacking, started the morning after we arrived, helped as well, as did the friendly conversation during it.

 

All this was interrupted by a knock at the door.  I looked up in surprise; no one in Boston yet knew where we lived, and while I had invited Mom and Quinn up for a visit, I was pretty sure they would not have taken me up on it this quickly.

 

"Who could that possibly be?" I asked Jane rhetorically, and was again surprised to see a too-knowing grin on her face.

 

"Why don't you answer it and find out?" she said with noticeable glee.  "Better hurry, before they think no one's home."  I hesitated, but she waved me on with such urgency that I moved without thinking, all the while wondering what Jane could possibly have up her sleeve.

 

I opened the door to find James standing behind it.

 

For a few uncertain, unstable seconds, neither of us spoke; I looked at him in utter shock, while he stuck his hands in his pockets and made awkward shuffling motions with his feet.  Finally, he took in a deep breath, and looked me straight in the eye.

 

"Hi, Daria," he said, simply enough, though his voice trembled.  He was nervously pale, bringing to my mind the time when I had reciprocated his dating invitation, but since this time he was the one showing up unexpectedly at the door, he looked a little less befuddled.  Only a little, though.

 

"How . . .?" was all I could say at first, then the answer became very clear.  I turned to find Jane standing behind me, grinning like the Cheshire cat, and about as mischievous.

 

"Hey, you're college students," she said, as though that made it obvious.  "No information about you is private.  Or me, either, now, I suppose."  Jane looked to be nearly jumping for glee, though I couldn't tell if she was laughing with me or at me.  With me, I hoped, though I wasn't laughing yet.

 

"Jane e-mailed me," James said, "which I must say was quite a shock."  He chuckled nervously.  "Anyway, she told me what had happened with your father.  I'm so sorry, Daria; that's really horrible."

 

"Thanks," I mumbled, but was too blown away by the suddenness of it all to say more than that.

 

"She told me I should come over," he continued.  "I have to admit, I didn't want to at first; I was pretty mad.  But as she filled me in on everything that happened, all my anger started to seem really . . . petty.  It was all so insignificant compared to what you're going through, and I felt like an absolute jerk trying to find excuses to stay mad at you.  By the end, I was more worried that you would be mad at me for how I acted, too mad to want to be friends again.  And I really think that I'm ready to be your friend again, Daria.  I want to be your friend again."

 

I looked back and forth between Jane and James, and then Jane mouthed one word at me, before disappearing into her room.  Opportunity.  And I suddenly realized what she was doing.  She was showing me that, while I had been mourning missed opportunities, not all of those opportunities had to stay missed.  Here was one where, thanks to her, I had the chance to pick up those pieces and glue them back together; it might be a while before the glue dried, and until then it would probably be fragile, but I had a chance to make this relationship whole again.  Here was my first step towards tearing down that wall, staring expectantly at me from across a doorframe; my first opportunity regained.

 

Lose a father, but gain a friend.  It wasn't a fair trade, not even close.  But it didn't have to be; James was not intended to be a replacement for my father, not some weak attempt at consolation, but a whole new relationship to be explored, if I had the courage to pursue it.  I was frightened, terrified that I would screw it all up again and inflict more pain; but James seemed willing to take the risk, and I realized that this was one of those times where I would have to act first, and worry later.

 

"So, can I come in?" he asked, uncertain and apprehensive of my reply.

 

I waved him through the door.  I waved him back into my life.

 

Dad, maybe you don't have to worry about me anymore.  Thank you for everything.  I love you.

 

 

The End

 

 

Acknowledgements:  I would like to thank everyone who commented on this fic at PPMB:  Ranger Thorne, Mr. Orange, RLobinske, The Angst Guy, Gregor Samsa, Decelaraptor, MrMagnum, Steven Galloway, Mike Nassour, ipswichfan, Sleepless, james_anatidae,  and Scissors MacGillicutty.  An extra-special "thank you" to Kara Wild, whose many excellent and detailed critiques improved this work considerably.

 

And, of course, my biggest thanks to the creators of Daria.  I hope I have lived up to your legacy.

 

Legal Blather:  Daria and all associated characters are the property of MTV.  This story is my own.