What if the Morgendorffers hadnít left Highland?

 

THE UNHIGHLANDER

by Galen Hardesty

Chapter One

THE STREETS OF HIGHLAND

~~~

Daria Morgendorffer sat in the scant shade of a bush beside the cracked, crumbling sidewalk, being careful to avoid the sandburrs that grew everywhere. Highland roses, the locals called them. Daria chuckled bitterly at herself. As many years as sheíd lived, or rather existed, in Highland, Texas, she still didnít consider herself a local, and probably never would. She couldnít believe that she was now a sophomore in high school, and she was still here. She hated this place with a smoldering passion, a passion that was becoming more prone to flare-ups of late.

Looking down the dusty, trashy street again, Daria saw two familiar figures approaching. Reluctantly, she stood and picked up her sack, abandoning the hot shade for the even hotter afternoon sun of the Texas panhandle. Holding the sack in both hands and walking carefully on the dangerously deteriorated sidewalk, she set out in their direction.

Dariaís gorge began to rise as she got close enough to hear the pairís guttural chuckling. They seemed to be occupied with grabbing their crotches, attempting to pick each otherís noses, and searching the gutter for lost treasure. But then Beavis looked up and saw her. "Hey, check it out, Butthead! Itís Diarrhea! Diarrhea, cha cha cha! Diarrhea, cha cha cha!" It seemed to amuse them every bit as much today as it had that first time, so many miserable years ago. Daria knew they would never tire of it, as long as they lived.

Butthead broke off the chant first. "Hey, Diarrhea, whatcha got in the sack?"

"Heh heh, heh heh heh, you said, "sack!" Míheh, heh-heh." Beavisís sparkling wit shone forth.

Controlling her hatred of the horrid nickname with the ease of long practice, Daria replied, "Beer."

"Beer! Hey, cool! Whatcha gonna do with it?"

"Throw it away, I guess. I donít like beer. I just found it, and picked it up so little kids wouldnít get it."

"Throw it away?!" shrieked Beavis. "You crazyóOw! Dammit!" His tirade was cut short by Buttheadís backhand.

"Uhh, why donícha give it to us? Weíll get rid of it for you, and you wonít have to, like, carry it." Butthead slyly- for him- suggested.

"Huh?" Beavisís face lit up. "Oh, yeah! Well take it! Weíll make sure little kids donít get it. Míheh."

"Well, okay," said Daria, smiling a little in spite of herself. "Donít take it out of the bag till you get it home. Copsíll take it away from you." She handed Butthead the sack and continued on her way.

Beavis looked in the sack. "Hey, check it out! Itís Lone Star! Thatís, like, the good stuff!"

"Huh huh, yeah, thatís cool! Itís, like, the official State beer! Itís on the flag and stuff!" Butthead observed knowledgeably.

Daria glanced back frequently over her shoulder, observing the progress of the two low-grade morons in the other direction. Damn! They were taking the six-pack out of the sack already! She nervously fingered a small box in her pocket. They needed to get a little farther away before...

Her thought was cut short by she squeal of tires. A disreputable looking old muscle car had come to an abrupt halt abreast of the Dumbassic Duo. Toddís car. The evil bastard was saying something to them. Daria didnít need to be psychic to know what would happen next. If she waited till just the right moment, she could get all three. Ducking behind a power pole, she observed the event unfold. The right moment came and passed. The six-pack was in the car. It sped away, leaving Butthead holding a sore arm and both of them cursing. Daria slipped around behind the pole as Toddís car roared past and on down the street. Hand in her pocket, she slid a switch to the on position, and then pressed a button.

A block away, in the front passenger seat of Toddís car, a small explosive charge detonated, shattering the six beer bottles and vaporizing the gasoline they contained. Fat billows of orange flame belched out of the cockpit in all directions. Blazing like a pile of old tires, the carís remains rolled to a stop two blocks away. "Almost like a Viking funeral," thought Daria, her face expressionless, "But heís missing a dog."

Beavis and Butthead came running up, but stopped when they saw Daria. "Hey, Daria, did you see that?" Beavis blurted.

"I saw it. Was that Todd? Why do you suppose he did that?" Daria replied.

"Uhh, I dunno. Woah, thatís cool! Todd is so cool!" Butthead opined.

"Heh heh heh, yeah, Todd is cool! Todd rules!" Beavis contributed.

Daria cocked an eyebrow at the two. "Yeah, Todd is cool as hell."

"Hey, the beerís in there! Címon, Butthead, maybe we can save it!" And with that, the two went running off toward Toddís funeral pyre. Turning her steps toward the Morgendorffer house (sheíd never thought of it as Ďhomeí) Daria hummed "If everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world this would be".

 

Back at her desk, Daria pondered the afternoonís events. She had missed her first two targets, but had taken out another target that sheíd thought would be much harder. On the whole, a big success. But why had she hesitated and lost the chance to get all three? Today could have been the last time she ever heard "Diarrhea, cha cha cha!" Surely she wasnít feeling sorry for the miserable misbegotten morons. Theyíd burnt up her last drop of sympathy long ago, shortly after theyíd expended their last crumb of amusement value.

Daria had had such high hopes when her mother had gotten that offer from the law firm in New York City, but something had happened and that had fallen through. She hadnít been so thrilled at the mention of Detroit, but it had to be better than Highland. Then thereíd been an offer from San Diego, and sheíd been ecstatic, only to have her hopes dashed yet again. When an offer came from some place called Lawndale, she hadnít allowed herself to hope, and, sure enough, nothing had come of that either. More and more, it looked like her earliest opportunity to escape this hellhole would be college.

Daria had finally been driven to the conclusion that, if she was condemned to a miserable existence in the armpit of the world, she might as well try to get rid of some of the stinkiest bacteria in her immediate vicinity. And today, with help from a totally unexpected quarter, sheíd gotten rid of one of the worst.

Maybe that was why she hadnít toasted them. They might prove useful in the future as a delivery system. Or maybe as scapegoats. Or maybe it was because, as much as she despised them, as much as they disgusted her, they were still the closest things to friends she had ever had. Oh, gourd. There was a thought to push her the rest of the way over into a suicidal depression.

Actually, their relationship was more like an anthropologist studying a pair of young male apes that had been driven from their group. Probably to protect the groupís gene pool, Daria thought wryly. But they had occasionally spent time together. They had talked, sort of. They had found each other amusing, though for vastly different reasons. She couldnít say even that much about anyone else in this whole stinking world.

With gloved hands, Daria picked up a piece of typing paper with letters pasted on it; letters cut from magazines and newspapers. Letters that formed the message: "Todd was the first. The list is long. Highland Beautification League." She folded it and slipped it into an envelope, addressed it with neat but unanalyzable block letters. The stamp was difficult to handle with the gloves on, and she had to hold it under the tap in the bathroom to moisten it, to avoid giving the police a DNA sample. But she managed. Smiling crookedly, Daria got out her very most secret notebook and prepared to encipher an entry.

 

~~~

Chapter Two

HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH

~~~

"What kind of deal is this?" asked Daria angrily, staring at the Highland Hooraw as if expecting it to answer.

"Hmm?" replied Helen absently, opening a package of frozen lasagna.

"Drug Dealer Walks On Technicality." Daria quoted the headline of the story sheíd been reading. "The cops catch him red-handed. They read him his rights and he confesses, but then the DA lets him go when he says the cops "intimidated" him into talking before his lawyer got there. ĎPersistent questioning. Threatening facial expressions.í Sounds to me like the cops were just doing their jobs."

"Oh, that. Iíd say so too. Wannamakerís tough enough on wife beaters, shoplifters, and small time crooks, but heís strangely lenient on criminals with plenty of money."

"You mean, theyíre paying him off? Heís taking bribes?"

"I didnít say that. No one else will say that either. They may be thinking it, but no oneís been able to find any proof."

"So the police are investigating him?"

"Hmph. Donít count on any brilliant detective work from the local police, Daria. They donít seem to be very good at investigating corruption. The only one I know of whoís doing anything like that is that young WHIG reporter investigating cost overruns on the new executive office building."

"You mean the whole townís corrupt? I knew City Hall was, but I was hoping the police were just inept."

Helen sighed, shook her head, and gazed out the window. Then she said "There are good cops in Highland. Those two who caught that drug dealer, for instance."

"Yeah. But how long will they stay good, when they keep seeing the worst perps they catch go free? How long till they start taking the bribes themselves, instead of letting Wannamaker have it all? You know what they say about a fish rotting from the head."

Helen sighed again. "Maybe weíll get some better people in office next election."

"Do you really think so?" asked Daria, watching her mother closely.

Helen slid the frozen lasagna into the microwave, set the time, and started it. Her silence spoke volumes.

Daria chose her words carefully. "Mom, you donít like this town. Dad hates it. I hate it too. I canít tell you how much I hate it. Quinn... well, Quinn would be popular almost anywhere, so sheíd be happy almost anywhere. Why are we still here?"

Helen looked at Daria with genuine sadness. "Oh, Daria, you know itís not that simple. Your father and I canít just pull up stakes and go. We have to have jobs to go to."

"Sure, Mom, I understand that. But what about those offers youíve been getting from those legal firms? I remember there was one from New York, and one from San Diego. I was really hoping youíd take that one."

Helen poured herself a cup of coffee, then came over and sat at the kitchen table with Daria. "Donít think I wasnít tempted to, but so far, none of those firms have offered to pay me what Iím worth."

Daria refrained from pointing out that "what Iím worth" was a subjective concept. Still considering her words carefully, she asked, "Is Houston, Bowie, Bloodworth, Hidalgo, and Clay paying you what youíre worth?"

Helen stared into the black depths of her coffee cup. After several seconds she answered, quietly, "No."

Daria did not pursue the point further. Helen didnít need to have it spelled out. The two looked at each other, then away, then at each other again. Daria looked down at her hands. The silence lengthened. Finally Helen asked, "What are you thinking, Daria?"

Daria looked back up at her mother. "I was just wondering... what will I have to look back on?" At Helenís puzzled expression, she continued, "My first day of school in Highland, I was branded, according to Texas tradition. Diarrhea Morkendorker, geek. Iíve known for years now that Iíd never find a friend in this place, unless she just sort of moved in one day, out of the blue. And she never did. Iím in high school now. I never believed Iíd have to go to high school in Highland. Never thought weíd stay here this long. Pretty soon, Iíll be in college. Not as good a college as... well, never mind that. Then Iíll be out on my own, making a living as best I can, doing I have no idea what. What happy times will I have to look back on to lighten my load, to mitigate the drudgery?" She looked into her motherís eyes. "When was the last time I was happy, Mom, can you remember? I canít." Daria rose and sadly headed out of the kitchen. "This town ate my childhood."

~~~

Daria stood in the parking lot of the new City of Highland Executive Office Building. It didnít look particularly lavish or expensive from the outside. But Daria wasnít interested in the cost of the building right now. She had found what she was looking for this morning. The little sign in front of this parking space read "Reserved For District Attorney." The space was occupied by a shiny new BMW sports car. It must have cost over two yearsí salary for a DA in this town.

Just then Dariaís attention was attracted by a small commotion several spaces away. A young woman with a microphone, backed up by a young man wielding a TV camera, was confronting a large man in an expensive-looking blue suit and a white Stetson hat.

"Councilman Beauregard, what was the cause of the huge cost overruns on this building?" she asked him, then pointed the microphone at him.

"Well, Diane, sometimes these things just happen. Sometimes the contractor underestimates the costs." Beauregard replied with a jovial smile, while continuing toward his Cadillac.

"But what was the extra money spent on?" the young woman persisted.

"The auditors are going over the facts and figures now. Beyond that, I canít comment." Beauregard smiled as he slid in behind the wheel.

"Councilman Beauregard, what is the cause of the long delay in removing the asbestos from our school buildings?"

"That job needs specially qualified people," he replied as the door closed.

"Whatís being done about the uranium in the water supply?" the young woman shouted through the window glass.

The Cadillacís engine started. Beauregard continued to smile, pointed to his ear, shook his head, and shrugged his shoulders. The car backed out of its space and drove away.

The reporterís shoulders slumped a little and the cameraman unshouldered his video camera. They headed toward a white van with the letters WHIG TV 4 as a supergraphic in blue on the side. Daria casually headed in the same direction, making notes as she went.

"Think theyíll use any of that?" the cameraman asked.

"Only if thereís no actual news today. Same stock answers. No new information. Beauregardís good. Slick as they come in these parts. Heíll probably be the next mayor."

"Yeah." the young man acknowledged glumly. "Are we gonna come back for the City Council meeting?"

"Weíre pretty much obliged to. Not that anything actually gets decided in the official meetings. The real city council meets in the back room of the Dry Gulch Saloon, late at night. Big Jim Roach, our man Beauregard, Slater, Dirk, maybe a couple others. Thatís where city business actually gets done," the young woman remarked bitterly. Dariaís eyes narrowed and she scribbled rapidly in her notebook.

"The proverbial smoke-filled back room, eh?" the cameraman replied. "Man, Iíd love to be a fly on the wall in there!"

"Better bring your little fly gas mask. With those big black nasty cigars Big Jim chain-smokes, itíll be a smoke-filled room of the worst kind. Maybe theyíll all die from second-hand smoke before they kill the rest of us with the asbestos and uranium."

Dariaís eyes widened a bit and she made another note. The newspeople were getting into the van now, so Daria turned her steps toward Highland High. If she walked fast, she should make first-hour study hall in time to mark herself present. If not, sheíd make up something about researching for civics class. It wouldnít even be a lie. Daria had learned quite a bit about city government this morning.

~~~

One week later, the Morgendorffers were watching the evening news.

"...And there you have it. District Attorney Wannamaker collapses earlier today in the midst of an interview with our own Diane Hunter in the parking lot of the new executive office building, and is pronounced dead on arrival at Highland General Hospital. No word as yet on the cause of death. It was at first believed that Wannamaker might have suffered an electric shock, due to his reaction immediately upon touching his car door handle, seen here in our exclusive videotape coverage. We now have an unconfirmed report that he may have come into contact with an unidentified chemical substance, though neither the police nor the hospital spokesman will comment on this. We will keep you updated on this story as it develops. This is WHIG news four, Highland. Stay tuned for more news after these important messages."

Jake hit the mute button. "Chemical substance? What kind of chemical could do that? Omigod, Helen! Do you think itís one of those chemical spills where they evacuate the whole town for days?"

"I hear some of the stuff they use in beauty shops is pretty nasty," Daria observed dryly.

"Ha! As if youíd ever get within a mile of a beauty shop!" Quinn got off a snippy non sequitur.

"I donít think Iíve ever heard of a chemical that deadly, unless it was nerve gas. But nerve gas wouldíve gotten the reporter too," mused Helen.

"Right." Daria agreed. "The Russians have a liquid nerve agent called Yellow Rain that could act like that. And thereís nicotine. Thatís all I can think of, just off the top of my head."

"Jeez, Daria, he wasnít smoking," retorted Quinn in an exaggeratedly scornful voice. "We all saw the tape. And even if he had been, you donít just drop stone cold dead like that from smoking!"

Daria gave Quinn a mild pitying look and shook her head. "Iím talking about purified nicotine. I read about a guy who got one drop of pure nicotine on his pants at work, and immediately went into convulsions, like Wannamaker did. His buddies saw what happened and got them off him and got him to the hospital. He recovered, but the next time he put that pair of pants on, even though theyíd been washed several times, he immediately went back into convulsions."

Quinn glared resentfully at Daria. "It sure is strange that, no matter what the subject, youíve always "read something" about it. Unless itís something I know something about, like clothes or makeup, that is."

"Quinn!" said Helen. "That was uncalled for."

"Well, you know how she loves to lie to me, just to see how much bull doody she can get me to believe. Whoís to say sheís not doing that to all of us? She could be pulling this out of..."

"Quinn!"

"...making it up wholesale!" Quinn finished, crossing her arms and glaring at Daria again.

"Quinn has a point, Daria. You have been known to do that." Helen said.

"Itís because she treats me like a walking encyclopedia. Not that I mind, but every once in a while I slip her a fib to encourage her to check things out for herself."

"Yeah, right," sneered Quinn. "Well, go ahead. Tell us all you know about nicotine. Tell us where to get it and how to use it. Maybe Mom or Dad will catch you making stuff up."

Daria considered just clamming up, but she knew Quinn would take that as proof that her insinuation was true, and needle her unmercifully and indefinitely about it. "Well, they used to sell it in stores. It was the main ingredient in some bug sprays and dusts, like Black Flag and Black Leaf 40. Eventually someone noticed all the people dropping dead from nicotine poisoning, and the government regulated it. Nowadays, if you donít want to fill out a bunch of paperwork, the easiest way to get it is to extract it yourself from tobacco."

"Oh yeah, easy," retorted Quinn scornfully. "If you have a laboratory and a degree in chemistry."

Daria shot Quinn a sideways glance and a corner of her mouth turned up a bit. "Nicotine is water soluble. If the murderer worked in that new office building, all he or she would have to do is pick up a bunch of Mayor Roachís cigar butts, soak them in water for a couple of days, strain the liquid, and let it evaporate in the sun till it got syrupy. Then theyíd just smear some on the underside of Wannamakerís car door handle, being careful not to get any on themselves, of course."

"Ewww!" Jake commented, paying attention for once. "Daria, how do you know all this?"

Daria shrugged. "I read, I learn, I remember."

"But why were you reading about poisons? Why were you interested in that subject?"

Daria sighed. "In this town, if I only read about things I was interested in, Iídíve run out of stuff to read years ago. Now I wander the aisles at the library, browsing, pulling out anything that looks like it might be even remotely interesting. I check out seven or eight books at a time to increase my odds of getting home with something that I can get into."

Quinn looked shocked. "Ghod, Daria! If a book isnít really really interesting, why even pick it up?"

Daria would have ignored that question, but she saw that her parents were also waiting for her answer. She looked down at her knees as if the answer was written there. "Reading is my escape from my miserable life in this awful place. I canít not read." She rose and went to her room, leaving her family staring at each other in mutual noncomprehension.

~~~

The next evening, the Morgendorffers were again watching the local news after dinner.

"Good evening. Leading off the news at six, a spokesman for Highland General Hospital has just informed the press that District Attorney Wannamakerís death yesterday resulted from nicotine poisoning. Traces of the deadly substance were found on the fingers of his left hand, and lethal levels of it were found in his bloodstream. A police spokesman said the case is being investigated as a murder but declined further comment at this time. Our mobile reporter Diane Hunter reports that Wannamakerís car has been impounded as evidence, as has the dumpster behind the new executive office building, and, strangely, the contents of all the buildingís ashtrays. Stay tuned for on-the-spot video coverage. In other news..."

Daria looked toward her father when the sound was muted. He was sitting there with the remote in his hand, staring at her openmouthed. After a second, Daria looked away, only to find Helen and Quinn staring at her too. All three of them looked like they were about to say something, but none did. Finally, Daria rose and said, "I think Iíll go read awhile." Receiving no reply, she walked back to her room and closed the door.

Once alone behind the locked door, Daria slipped on a pair of thin cotton gloves, picked up an old newspaper and a scissors and made herself comfortable on her bed. "Wannamaker was the second. The list is long. Highland Beautification League," she whispered, smiling.

~~~

Chapter Three

THE BOYS IN THE BACK ROOM
~~~

 

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up at the Dry Gulch Saloon. Well, not whooping, really, but they were definitely being naughty. They were just doing it quietly, in the back room. And no one was tickling the ivories.

 The ones who seemed to be enjoying themselves were seated in a large booth. Other than its size, the booth was distinguished by a small shaded lamp that hung by its cord, casting a pool of light onto the table that, while not bright, was adequate for reading. A whiskey bottle and some shot glasses stood on the boothís table. There were also a couple of manila folders and an ashtray containing several large black cigar butts.

 The other, smaller booths in the room were illuminated by much dimmer wall-mounted lights. A long twin-tube fluorescent fixture hung above a pool table in the center of the room, but neither the light nor the table was in use now. What light there was revealed a thick pall of smoke hanging in the air.

 Other men sat in other booths or in scattered chairs, some nursing drinks, seldom meeting each othersí eyes, waiting. Most of these men had the look of working men about them. They also looked like they would rather not be here.

 Back in the far corner, between the last booth and the wall where the darkness was darkest, two eyes glittered dimly, like frozen lakes beneath a cheeserind moon. A black-clad figure crouched there in the blackness, writing in an unseen notebook with an unseen pencil stub. In better light, the figure could have been recognized as Daria Morgendorffer.

 Daria recognized the man seated on the left side of the large booth as James "Big Jim" Roach, current mayor of Highland. He was a corpulent man in his mid to late fifties. He had the type of male pattern baldness characterized by a small roundish patch of thick black hair at the top of his forehead, surrounded by near-baldness on the rest of the top of his head. As she watched, Roach drew a long, fat black cigar from a pocket, bit off the end, and lit it from the butt of the one he had been smoking. To his left was a small bespectacled man who was shuffling papers and folders in and out of a file satchel beside him on the seat. He looked just like the picture in the dictionary next to the word "accountant." To the bespectacled manís left were three other men. Daria recognized the one on the far right as councilman "Big Bill" Beauregard. Although she could not name them, Daria knew the other two men were also on the city council. Perhaps they were the Dirk and Slater mentioned by Diane Hunter, the young newswoman.

 One by one, the waiting men were summoned to the booth by a crooked finger. Folders were opened, papers were consulted, brief discussions took place, the small bespectacled man made notations in his notebook, federal reserve notes changed hands, and the men usually left singly.

 The small man handed Roach a folder. He glanced at it, then looked around the room. His eye lit on a tanned, broad-shouldered young man with sun-bleached sandy hair and rough hands. Roach pointed, then crooked a finger to indicate that the young man should approach the booth, which he did. With a wave of his cigar, Roach indicated a single wooden chair that had been pulled up to the boothís table.

 "Sit down, Sandy, good to meetcha. This is for the concrete work on the new firehouse, right? Hmmm, I see youíre actually the low bidder on this contract. Excellent. Iím sure youíll do a fine job. The rebate will be two thousand."

 "Er, what?" Sandy said uncertainly, looking around the table.Roach lifted the folder before him and seemed to become engrossed in its contents. A cloud of acrid cigar smoke began to rise from behind it.

 "Big Bill" Beauregard, at the other side of the booth, leaned toward Sandy and spoke confidingly. "Itís to ensure that your bid doesnít get snarled up in technicalities or some such. Standard procedure." He smiled and chucked Sandy on the shoulder in a good-olí-boys sort of way.

 "But- thatíll put me in the hole! Iíll lose money!" Sandy replied, almost whispering."

 Wa-a-all, cainít have that, now, can we?" Big Bill replied with a very good imitation of a friendly smile. "Here, just you raise your bid three thousand. You make a fair profit, your crewís got work, and everybodyís happy!" He slid a piece of paper over to the young man and handed him a pen. Sandy lined through a figure and wrote in another above it, and slid it back.

 "Thatís fine," smiled Big Bill. "Now, the two thousand?"

 "Oh, yeah," said Sandy. He started to reach for his wallet, then stopped, looking embarrassed. "Do you take checks?"

 Big Billís smile dimmed considerably. "No, Sandy, we donít. Strictly cash on the barílhead. But, seeinís this is your first contract with the city, you can just bring it to me at Lloydís barber shop at eleven tomorrow morning. In an envelope. Wrapped in a newspaper. Donít be late now, heah?"

 "Yes, sir. Iíll be there." said Sandy. Bill waved a dismissal and Sandy rose and walked away. Roach handed the folder to the small man and received another one. He glanced at the name on it, puffed a couple of larger-than-average clouds of smoke, pointed at an older man in an expensive suit, then crooked the finger to summon him. "Eveniní, Harry, been a while. Have a seat."

 "Youíre lookiní good, Big Jim! Glad to see ya!" The man called Harry flashed his most sincere smile and held out his hand, but Roach gestured to the chair with his cigar and picked up a folder.

 "Umm, yes, the Tumbleweed Trail paving contract." Roach rolled the cigar over to his left cheek and looked from the folder to Harry over steepled fingers. "Now, Harry, that last road you paved didnít even last a year. You laid down less than two inches of asphalt. Quite a few complaints about that."

 Harry put on a big, oily smile. "Iím sure sorry to hear that, Big Jim, but the cost of asphalt is just sky-high these days. You know how it is."

 Roach cocked an eyebrow. "íDeed I do, Harry, but this here contract calls for five inches of asphalt." He tapped the paper before him with a beefy forefinger. "We goaní need to have at least three inches measurable at all points. Tumbleweed Trail is becominí quite the upscale bedroom community, yíknow. A lot of influential folk live out thataway, and they expect a certain level of services for their tax money aní their um, contributions. Theyíre not as easygoiní as I am." He gave Harry a significant look.

 Harry held onto his smile. "Donít you worry about a thing, Big Jim. You can count on me to deliver satisfaction."

 "I know I can, Harry. The rebate for this one will be forty thousand."

 "What?! Forty thousand? Thatís er, quite a rebate, Big Jim!"

 Roach cracked his knuckles meditatively. "Yeah, well, we incurred some higher-than-expected expenses related to that last job. You know, inspections and such."

 Harryís smile was looking a bit strained. "Oh, I see. Sure. Well, um, just let me check those figures one more time, make sure theyíre correct..." Harry reached out to pull the contract toward him, while pulling a pen out of his shirt pocket.

 Roach kept his forefinger on the paper. It didnít move. "I checked Ďem, Harry. Theyíre correct." He smiled, a just-sitting-down-to-a-roast-beef-dinner sort of smile.

 Harryís smile was breaking up. "Uh, well, I sípose so... well, nice seeiní you, Big Jim." He pulled three bundles of bills from a coat pocket, winced a little, and fished a fourth bundle from an inner pocket.

 Still smiling, Roach slid the bills over to one of the other councilmen, who put them away somewhere below the tabletop. "Pleasure doiní business with ya, Harry." He knocked the ash off his cigar with his little finger.

 A door opened, and brighter light streamed in from the kitchen. An aproned figure entered carrying a cardboard box which he set on the pool table. He addressed Roach and the others. "You guys about finished? I gotta sweep and set up the craps layout."

 Roach levered himself out of the booth. "Okay, Sappy, weíre through for tonight. I believe Iíll stay for awhile and see if Lady Luck is as good to me as Lady Rebate has been."

 "Sounds like fun, Big Jim." Beauregard said. "Believe Iíll join ya."

 "Not me," said Harry. "Iím all tapped out already, donít need no help from a crap game." He rose and headed for the door, which had shelves mounted on its kitchen side. The few remaining contractors mumbled assent and followed him.

 "I think Iíll have a burger and a beer before the game starts, Sappy," said Roach.

 Sappy looked irritated at having to interrupt his sweeping, but didnít comment on it. "Sure, Big Jim. Youíll have to come up front. I canít keep the rats out if thereís even a sniff of food back here. Donít know where theyíre cominí in from."

 Daria bottled up a derisive snort. There was a hole in the wall back here big enough for her to crawl through on hands and knees. That was how sheíd gotten in. The vile stench of rats, mice, and roaches back here indicated that theyíd been living and breeding in these walls and in the capacious spaces behind these booth units for longer than sheíd been alive. Gnawed-open packets of various poisons and scattered roach and rodent corpses testified to ongoing efforts to control the infestation, but the plentitude of feces and the scratching and skittering sounds provided an irrefutable indictment of their efficacy.

 Daria risked a peek around the edge of the booth as mayor Roach followed Sappy through the kitchen door. The handle end of a black leather sap protruding from Sappyís right back pocket suggested to her that his nickname might not have to do with his softheartedness or gullibility after all.

 Well, that was probably all the graft and corruption sheíd witness tonight. It was more than enough. Mayor Roach and his cronies on the city council were definitely in need of beautification. Daria began retreating toward the hole in the corner. Her hand contacted a small metal tube running along the base of the wall. A bit of tactile exploration revealed that it ran to a large gas space heater a few feet out from the row of booths. Inspiration struck. "Why not?" she thought. "Thereís no time like the present."

 Silently moving out into the now-empty room, Daria ascertained that the heater was not in use and the pilot light was off. She turned the gas valve wide open, then backed it off a little to the point where the hissing noise would not interrupt the crap game. The reek of cigar smoke would cover the odor of the gas. Then she quickly made her way back to the corner.

 Lifting up the masonite panel that had been tacked on to disguise the gaping hole on the inside, she crawled through. Facing this direction, the cause of the decay was obvious. Through another gaping hole Daria could see that a large institutional dishwasher occupied this corner of the adjacent kitchen, and it emitted enough steam to keep the wallboard and studs constantly warm and damp.

 Daria shouldered aside a large piece of vinyl siding that had been nailed to the outside of the building. The bottom nails had pulled out of the rotted plate timber. If Sappy didnít replace these rotting stud walls with concrete or cinder block pretty soon, she reflected, this whole end of the building would collapse. Then she remembered what sheíd just done, and what would occur when Big Jim lit his next cigar. A soft chuckle floated away on the night breeze, and a shadow shifted and blended with the other shadows in the dark weedy alley. Then all was still once more.

 Daria was almost halfway back to the Morgendorffer house when an orange light from behind her lit up the houses and trees of the street down which she was walking. A loud boom rolled out across the suburbs of Highland and returned as echoes from points round about. Agitated barking arose from neighborhood dogs awakened untimely from their doggy dreams. She turned in time to see a sizeable fireball transform into a column of gray and black smoke, lit by fires from below. Fires that marked the location of the Dry Gulch Saloon. With a smile that would have sent Quinn screaming away in terror, Daria turned back and continued on her way, humming "See what the boys in the back room will have, and tell them I died of the same" and thinking of Marlene Dietrich.

 Daria stealthily approached the darkened house and listened intently at the opening of her bedroom window. Hearing nothing, she silently opened the window wider and slipped in. She removed the artfully-wadded dirty clothes from her bed where theyíd made a Daria-shaped lump under the covers, threw them on the floor, and added her current outfit to the pile.

 Slipping into bed, she pictured the note sheíd send to the editor of the Hooraw. "Roach was the third. The list is long. Highland Beautification League." It had a nice ring to it, she thought, but sheíd wait for the casualty list and see if there were any other names she might want to add. An idea occured to her. She could change the last line to "The list is long, and you are on it", make copies, and send them to the Highland denizens she knew of who needed killing. Should she add "Mend your ways or die?"

 Daria realized her brain was overstimulated by her noctournal adventure. With a sigh, she turned on the lamp on her nightstand, pulled out an old, tattered copy of Better Farms And Ranches and opened it to an incredibly boring article about silage. It had never failed her yet.

 

~~~

Chapter Four

WHATCHA GONNA DO WHEN THEY COME FOR YOU?

DARIA: ...At fifteen, I start writing violent revenge fantasies...
JANE: And your parents, et cetera, et cetera. Gotcha.
...from Boxing Daria

~~~

Helen reached the end of chapter three. She stared at the page for a minute, then carefully replaced the manuscript in its hiding place beneath Dariaís tee shirts. She rubbed her arms but it didnít seem to alleviate the chill she felt. This story was disturbingly different from Dariaís Melody Powers pieces, and even from those graphic revenge fantasies that had gotten her called in for a teacher conference this Spring. Daria often used real locations in her writing, but she very seldom used actual persons as characters, certainly not if harm was coming to them. And she had never before used herself as the protagonist. But here, on these pages, was present-day Daria going around present-day Highland, killing real people she knew or knew of in ways that were apparently within her capabilities. How much of a step would it be for Daria to go from writing this to actually doing the things she had written about? Helen didnít know.

What was Dariaís motivation for writing this, anyway? Helen didn't know that either. Did she really hate Highland and its citizens as much as the Daria in the story? Helen remembered her conversation with Daria a few days ago, the one triggered by the article about the drug dealer freed by DA Wannamaker. I canít tell you how much I hate Highland, sheíd said. Daria had actually reproduced that conversation quite closely in the second chapter of the tale Helen had just read. Was Daria trying to tell her in another way? Or was she just experimenting with new ways to add realism to her writing?

Helen wished she could truly understand Daria. She had wished this many times before, but she had come to realize that it was just not possible. She remembered Daria once commenting on the saying "There is a fine line between genius and madness." "Thatís not true." Daria had said. "It just sometimes looks that way to normal people." She had compared it to a retarded personís inability to understand a person of normal intelligence. It had taken Helen quite a while to realize that Daria was being quite modest when sheíd said that. The gulf between Daria and a person of average intelligence was as great as the gulf between the person of average intelligence and a lab rat, at least according to the best intelligence-measuring tools available. Whenever she thought about that, Helen shivered at the responsibility that had somehow fallen to her.

Which brought her to the question "What should I do, if anything?" Should she take Daria to another counsellor? That had never seemed to do much good before. Unless Helen could find a psychologist as smart as Daria, she would just amuse herself by playing mind games with them, as sheíd done before.

Should she talk to her? What would she say? What approach should she take? Helen almost wished she hadnít found the thing. If she hadnít tried to put away some laundry while her lunch was warming... Lunch. Lunch break. From work. Time! Helen looked at her watch. Damn! Sheíd wasted over an hour! And it was just a story, after all. She turned to slam the drawer of Dariaís dresser...

...and saw some more papers hidden under Dariaís slips. Helen hesitated for a second, then pulled out several sheets of copier paper. They were copies of a magazine article titled "Build This Single-Channel Radio-Controlled Actuator In One Evening." In addition to the text, there was a circuit diagram, a parts list, and a photograph of a completed circuit with all the components labeled. There were also a diagram and some notes in Dariaís hand on how to connect this to a detonator circuit. Helen knew almost nothing about electronics, but she thought she could probably build this circuit by following these instructions.

Helen swayed a bit and leaned on the dresser. This was getting worse and worse. It showed that Daria was definitely capable of and interested in building remote detonators. But did she intend to actually build them? Did she have the tools? The parts? Might she already be at work on one? Helen couldnít search the whole house, much less all the other places Daria might have hidden one.

She pulled out Dariaís chair and sat down. A few bits of something on Dariaís desktop caught her eye. Examining them more closely, she saw that they were snippets of thin wire, bits of insulation that had been stripped from wire, and a couple of small electronic components similar to some in the photograph. A cold knot of dread began to form in Helenís stomach. She felt the blood draining away from her face.

Frantically Helen began searching the drawers in Dariaís desk. She didnít find any circuit boards, but sticking out of a notebook in one drawer she saw another sheet of paper , folded letter fashion. On it was written, in Dariaís handwriting, "To Mom, Dad, and Quinn". Her blood ran cold. Pulling the paper out, she unfolded it and read:

 

By the time you find this, Iíll probably be dead or in police custody. I sincerely hope it is not the latter, but I must risk it. My life here has become an unsupportable burden, largely due to those against whom I have taken up arms, so I have nothing to lose. I could not escape them and the consequences of their evil, stupid, venal acts, nor could any words of mine influence them to change their ways. Since I cannot leave Highland, my only remaining recourse was to take them out. I am not sorry for what I have done. I hope I got enough of them to make a noticeable improvement before I fell, and I hope I died with my boots on.

I am truly sorry if my actions have caused you pain, or negatively impacted your lives in any way. I donít suppose you will miss me, but I hope that someday you will be able to understand, and forgive me, and perhaps remember me kindly.

Itís not too late for Quinn. I beg you to get her out of Highland while there is still time.

All my love (and I really mean that),

Daria

p. s.- Please donít bury me in Texas.

 

Racked with sobs, Helen collapsed onto her forearms on Dariaís desk.

~~~

After some time, Helen had forced herself to gulp a few mouthfuls of soup, fix her face, and go back to work. All the way there, her mind kept going round and round the question: Was Daria serious? Did she really mean it? Was she really that desperate, that distraught, or was she just trying to persuade her parents to move out of Highland? Helen sincerely hoped it was the latter.

What did she know? Daria hated Highland. With good reason, Helen had to admit. She had no friends, the schools were poor, the library was small. The town was dirty, ugly, hot, and dry. The people were stupid and corrupt. Well, it seemed like many of them were.

And there was that other theme cropping up again. Since she was trapped here, the only other thing she could do was kill the people who did the most to make it so bad for her.

Okay, so letís say sheís desperate.

The murders Daria had written about, none of them had actually happened. No one had died... yet. Was she desperate enough to actually start killing people, or just desperate enough to want Helen to think she was?

Then Helen realized that it didnít matter for her present purposes. Daria was desperate enough to learn to build bombs, desperate enough to plan murders, desperate enough to write what was essentially a serial murder confession/suicide note. Helen would not wait for the bodies to start dropping. She would treat it as a cry for help.

At the offices of Houston, Bowie, Bloodworth, Hidalgo and Clay, Helen called and made sure Daria was in class. She was surprised to find that she hadnít been missed here at work. She held her courtroom face on tightly as she thumbed through her rolodex. Sheíd discretely run several fresh copies of her resume, and now she needed to decide where to send them. It occurred to her that it had been much too easy for her to make those copies unnoticed. She should have a secretary or an aide to do things like that, or at least an intern! She should look out of place doing drudge work. She was a lawyer, after all, and a damn good one, even if no one had heard of Middleton College!

Jake should be doing this too, she thought. She picked up the phone and dialed his number at the agency. Jake had joined a consulting agency during the last recession when his independent business had dried up to a trickle, but he wasnít happy there.

Jake picked up on the first ring, and sheíd barely said hello when he began a rant on the latest round of slights, insults, and abuses he percieved himself as having suffered. Helen broke in as soon as she decently could, saying "Jake, honey, I completely agree. Those people donít deserve you. In fact, I was just thinking that itís time we should both be moving along, or at least getting ready to. Iím sending out resumes, and maybe you should too."

"Resumes? I donít need no stinking resumes! Iíll never work for another man again, Helen, you hear me? Never again! Iíll go back to being an independent consultant! Be my own boss again! Donít you worry about me, Helen, Iím ready whenever you are! Just drop a hat and olí Jakeyís outta here!"

Helen hung up, a bleak look on her face. "God help us, weíre going to starve," she thought. "Theyíll find our emaciated corpses clutching empty dog food cans, huddled around the fireplace containing the ashes of our last stick of furniture." Just then Bloodworth came by, dumped a stack of folders on her desk and said "Come on, Helen, youíre falling behind. The Salty Greasy Snack Foods case goes to trial next Thursday." The stack immediately fell over and several folders fell to the floor, scattering their contents. Bloodworth turned and walked off, pretending not to notice.

Helen scowled at the folders, then at the departing back of Bloodworth, and her expression hardened into grim determination. "If we starve, we starve. Weíre getting out of this hellhole!" she muttered.

Helen thought about the law firms who had made offers in response to her last mailing. The money hadnít been what she was looking for, but some of those firms were located in nice parts of the country. Perhaps she should raise the value sheíd placed on quality of life in her evaluation process. And perhaps she should make a few follow-up phone calls. But first, a call to Highland High. Helen picked up the phone again.

~~~

 Daria finished loading her book bag as other students flowed past her. She closed her locker door and spun the knob. The note hadnít said why Helen wanted to pick her up at school. It was possible, she supposed, that Helen was going shopping and wanted Daria to serve as her porter, but she didnít think so. It was much more likely that Helen had found some or all of the stories and other things that Daria had carefully hidden for her to find. If so, she hoped they had the desired effect. She pictured Helen finding and reading the story and the note, and examining the detonator plans.

As she headed for the front door, it dawned on Daria that her creative efforts had gone beyond portraying her as terribly unhappy and desperate to get out of Highland. They painted her as a homicidal maniac, a serial killer taunting the police, a psycho going postal, or about to.

Daria would have smacked herself in the head if sheíd been alone. This was a fine time for this to occur to her, when it was probably too late to do anything about it.

Dariaís stomach began doing things that internal organs shouldnít do, especially if they were supposed to be hooked up as part of a system. She was probably about to find out whether sheíd gone too far, and if so, how much too far. She might well be going to see a shrink, and it might not be just an office visit. She may have written herself a ticket for an indefinite stay in a padded room. Nervously, Daria looked down at her boots, and it hit her that she might not see another bootlace for a long time.

Helen was parked at the curb in front of the main entrance. Swallowing, Daria approached the suddenly menacing looking SUV.

"Hi, Mom. Uh, whatís up?"

Helen smiled. "Oh, not much. I just have some good news I wanted to share with you. Weíre leaving Highland."

Caught off-guard for once, Daria stared straight into Helenís eyes like a starving child staring at a hamburger. "Mom, please donít joke about a thing like that," she said softly.

"Iím not joking, Daria. Iíve accepted a position with another law firm. Your father is going back to being an independent consultant."

Dariaís face lit up with a joyous smile, startling Helen. She couldnít remember ever having seen that expression on Dariaís face before. "Where are we going? San Diego? New York?"

"Lawndale. I made some follow-up calls and Vitale, Davis, and... whoever increased their offer. Mr. Davis even mentioned a very nice house one of his clients is anxious to sell. Well, donít just stand there. Hop in."

Hesitant, but realizing she had no viable options at this point, Daria got into the car, shut the door, and fastened her seat belt. Helen seemed somewhat more pleased at this latter action than usual. She put her SUV in gear and pulled out into the street.

~~~

At the Morgendorffer house, Helen followed Daria back to her room. "Daria..." she began.

As Daria set her backpack down in its customary place, she noticed her suitcase sitting open on her bed, partially packed.

Helen continued. "Daria, I did accept that offer, verbally. But I havenít resigned yet from Houston, Bowie. Before I do that, I have to make a decision."

Daria saw that the suitcase contained socks, underwear, pajamas, robe, and slippers. No street clothes. Only things she might wear in a psychiatric ward. A sudden numb feeling came over her. Feeling it was expected of her, Daria asked "What decision?" She was pretty sure she already knew. Her scalp began to sweat.

"One good thing about my benefits package here is that it has good medical coverage for the whole family, including... mental health care. Before I give that up, I need to ask you some questions."

Daria realized that Helen had laid out the suitcase as a prop to symbolize the consequences of the decision sheíd spoken of. It did that very well. She put a hand to her stomach. Sheíd never realized that dread alone could cause such physical pain.

"S-Sure, Mom. Go ahead." She replied, with some difficulty.

"Why did you write that... story?"

So, thought Daria, that confirms she found it. "Mom, you know Iím not good at talking about... feelings and emotions and stuff."

"You certainly donít have much trouble writing about them."

"Exactly. Thatís why I wrote it. I was trying to convey to you how unhappy I am here, and how much I want to leave."

So, thought Helen. That confirms she intended me to find it. She glanced over at Daria, her carefully-controlled expression nevertheless showing concern. "So thatís the way you really feel?"

"No. I feel like that might be the way Iím headed. Iím afraid I might get that way. I was trying to give you advance warning."

"And that... goodbye note?"

Daria looked down at her feet. "I was hoping you hadnít found that. I shouldnít have written it. It was over the top. I got carried away." She looked up at her mother. "I was going to tear it up when I got back."

Helen looked into Dariaís eyes, searching. Daria returned her gaze openly, not trying to control her expression. This resulted in an "Iím sorry, please donít kill me too much" look.

"If you ask me, the whole thing was pretty over the top." Helen kept her gaze locked with Dariaís. "So youíre saying you donít want to kill those people?"

Daria shook her head very slightly, not breaking eye contact. "No, I donít want to kill anyone." She paused, then added "Thatís not to say that I wouldnít be pleased if they went far, far away."

The analytical part of Dariaís brain told her that Helen had largely decided to leave Highland, and did not seriously believe that she was insane. But she could still blow it, Daria knew. Helenís legal training demanded she go through some sort of fact-finding process, and Daria must make sure she found only the right facts. And even if they moved out of Highland, a wide variety of possible punishments hung over her head, and there were surely mental treatment facilities convenient to Lawndale.

Helen relaxed a bit and allowed herself a hint of a smile. "Yes, well, you probably wouldnít be the only one. However, I need to be convinced that youíre not a danger to the public, even those whom you think need killing. Texas doesnít really have a ĎHe Needed Killiníí murder defense, you know."

Daria smiled back slightly. "I know, but being desperate implies being desperate enough to do something, and those were some things I thought I might do if I flipped out. As to convincing you, well, say I did rub out a bunch of corrupt city officials and school administrators, and various thugs, morons, and other annoying people. Say I got away with it, which is extremely unlikely. When the smoke cleared, Iíd still be here. Iíd still be going to Highland High, scrounging through that pitiful little library, walking these filthy streets and broken sidewalks, and vainly trying to avoid the tumbleweeds, stickerweeds, sandburrs, scorpions, and fire ants."

"I donít want to kill those people. Iím perfectly happy to leave them to each other and their chosen way of life. I just want to leave."

"And anyway, if I were really going to do something like that, I certainly wouldnít start by writing it all out in such gruesome detail and "hiding" it where youíd be sure to find it. None of you has ever found my diary, and I know Quinn has really searched."

Helen asked, "What about the circuit diagram?"

"I copied it out of Electronics Hobbyist magazine at the library. It went with the story. I wasnít going to build the circuit."

"No? What about those components and bits of wire on your desk?"

"Iíll show you." Daria got down on her knees, reached under her bed and pulled out a dark gray object about the size of a large soap bar. Helen recoiled slightly and reached for the doorknob.

"Whatís that?" she demanded.

Daria looked surprised. "Itís okay, Mom! Itís just a radio."

Helen hesitated, hand still on the door handle, staring at the unidentifiable object in Dariaís hand.

"Or it was. Itís smashed. I found it in the street." Daria let the case fall open and displayed its innards to Helen. "I got those components out of here. Those and the circuit plans are two other things I wouldnít leave lying around if I were serious."

Helen looked at the trashed radio, relaxed somewhat, rested her forehead in one hand, and shook her head slightly. "Throw it out," she said. Without comment, Daria dropped the thing into the trashcan. Helen sagged against the door and stared wearily at the rug.

 Daria hesitated , then asked, "Whatís the matter, Mom?"

Helen rubbed her forehead as if focusing her thoughts. "Leaving Highland would be a big step for all of us, Daria, pulling up stakes and moving to another state. We were staying here because we wanted to give you girls a stable environment, not move all over the country and take you away from your friends and familiar surroundings."

"But you know now that Iíve never had a friend, and that I never will as long as I stay in this town."

"Yes, I know that now. But Iím worried what this will do to Quinn. She has lots of friends."

"No, she doesnít. Surprisingly, sheís almost as bad off as I am. She has acquaintances and cordial rivals, but no actual friends. Iím not sure she understands what a friend is."

Helen stared at Daria for a few seconds, then turned to stare out a window, a surprised look on her face, obviously thinking. "You know, you may be right." The surprise began shading into sadness and maybe guilt. "Where did I go wrong?"

"Itís not your fault, Mom. Itís this town. The people who live here arenít like us. Theyíre the ones that didnít have the gumption to leave."

Helen turned back to Daria, puzzled. "What do you mean?"

"The kids in Highland High today are the children of the people who didnít move on when the government closed the Dead Coyote Flats facility, who are the children of the people who didnít move on when they closed the training base after World War Two, who are the children of those who didnít move on when the oilfields played out, who are the children of those who didnít move on when the railroad extended the tracks and this wasnít the trail head anymore. These just arenít ambitious, hard working people, by and large. These are people who just wait for something to come along, and get by any way they can till it does. You and Dad werenít raised like that, and you didnít raise us like that. Iím not going to find any friends here, and I doubt if Quinn will either."

Helen looked stunned. "My God. Thatís something Iíve sort of been feeling for years, but couldnít quite put my finger on, and you come along and just lay it out like itís the most obvious thing in the world. And, now that youíve pointed it out, it is obvious. How do you do that?"

Daria thought, "With my large, powerful brain." But that brain also told her this wasnít the best time to say something like that. She just shrugged and smiled a tiny bit.

Helen was once again reminded of what huge potential Daria had, and how great her responsibility was as Dariaís mother. She needed to live around more achievement-oriented people, in a town with good schools and libraries and a more culturally rich environment. As did Quinn, of course. "Well, itís obvious we donít belong here. We need to move on. Tomorrow weíll get boxes from the movers and start packing."

There was that strange joyous smile again. Daria took a hesitant step toward Helen. Her arms lifted from her sides a little. Helen returned the smile, held out her arms, and enfolded Daria in a hug which, for once, Daria willingly reciprocated.

After a moment, Daria looked up at her mother. "You know, there are loads of boxes behind SavMorMart. We can at least get enough to get started."

Helen gave Daria a quizzical look. "Come on," Daria urged, "We can get a shake or something on the way. My treat."

Helen knew she should get back to the office and at least make a start at tidying things up. She was about to demur, when it occurred to her how rare and precious moments like this with Daria were. With a wry smile, Helen allowed Daria to pull her out into the hall and toward the front door.

~~~

Driving from Dairy Cowboy towards SavMorMart, Helen realized she felt better than she had in a long time. She smiled contentedly and leaned back a little. Glancing to her right, she saw that Daria was watching her, and smiling too. "Donít you get too comfortable, young lady," she said, trying to look severe. "Youíre not out of the woods yet. At the very least, you exercised poor judgment writing that goodbye letter and leaving those plans and components lying around. Iím holding you responsible for every gray hair I find on my head for the next two months. And Iím going to be keeping a very close eye on you for potential serial-killer tendencies."

Dariaís smile widened a little. "Being in the woods beats the heck out of being in Highland. And youíd be wasting a perfectly good close eye trying to find serial-killer tendencies in me. Murder is too much like work."

Helen turned a gimlet-like close eye on her daughter. "Ha. ĎDaria? Such a polite girl. Very quiet. Never caused any trouble. Kept mostly to herself. Kind of a loner.í You couldnít fit the profile any closer without being male."

Daria had a great comeback on the tip of her tongue: "Thatís the profile of a sniper, not a serial killer," but decided not to use it.

"When we get to Lawndale, youíre going to lose that Ďlonerí persona. Youíre going to choose some activities to get involved in, or they will be chosen for you. I will not have my photograph plastered all over the world media above the caption ĎMass Murdererís Mother.í"

"As a way to meet people and make friends, you mean, right? Not just to burn up my free time?" Daria glanced sideways at her mother.

"Well, of course, Daria." Frowning slightly, Helen glanced sideways back at Daria. She did want to commit a large part of Dariaís free time to social activities. The amount of reading that child did was totally unnatural. But she knew that to come right out and say that would provoke a contest of wills, even now when Daria was trying to be extra conciliatory. Sheíd have to boil that frog very gradually.

Daria looked away and blanked her face. Social activities rears its ugly head again, she thought. Well, maybe there were some tolerable activities available in Lawndale. A writing club might be good, or possibly a chess club or an astronomy club. Hmmm, an excuse to stay out all night. She could work with that. But Helen was more likely thinking something like band, glee club, or Up With People. If so, of course, that would mean a fight to the death. Best to put that off as long as possible.

As she gazed through the windshield at the mean streets of Highland for, well, pretty close to the last time, Daria seemed to see old Diogenes glaring at her with disapproval. "You should know" he seemed to say, "that no situation is so bad that it canít get worse."

Daria thought about it. "Philosophically you are, of course, correct," she imagined herself replying to the ages-dead founder of Cynicism, "but if you were a contemporary American and knew Highland, youíd agree that the odds of my landing in a worse place than this are pretty slim."

The shade of Diogenes said nothing, but seemed to stare at her with an unpleasant, knowing smirk. Breaking out of her reverie, Daria looked to her left at Helen, behind the wheel. "So tell me," she said, "Where is this Lawndale place?"

 

La la LA la la.

~~~

Chapter Five

GIT ALONG, LITTLE DOGIE
or

EPILOG

~~~

Daria was taking a short break from packing. She looked over the document on her screen and smiled a Mona Lisa smile. Satisfied, she sent it to the printer. As she watched the pages emerge, she hummed a snatch of what might have been an old cowboy song.

 Quinn stopped at her door, holding an armload of clothes. "Daria, what do you know about this Lawndale place weíre going to?"

 Daria closed down the word processor and turned toward Quinn. "Not much, just that itís a suburb and itís in Montana."

 Quinn looked surprised, in a not-good way. "Montana! Youíre kidding, right?"

 "Nope. Big sky country, here we come!"

 "Thats, uh, north from here?"

 "Oh, yeah. Right on the Canadian border."

 "No. No! AAAaaaahhh!" Quinn ran to her room and slammed the door. Her muffled vocalizations remained quite audible. Dariaís Mona Lisa smile returned as she resumed taking books down from her shelves and packing them away.

 After a couple of minutes, Quinn reappeared at Dariaís door, looking touseled and put out. "A suburb of what?" she demanded.

 Daria was stuffing wadded-up newspaper into the box of books sheíd just filled. "Of a town called Frozen Bear. Itís about a hundred miles north of Great Falls."

 "Eeewww! So how big is Frozen Bear?"

 As near as I can tell, itís about a quarter the size of Highland."

 "Dammit! I suppose that means itíll have a little dinky high school."

 "Probably, but that wonít matter to us. Weíll be going to Lawndale High."

 Quinn was silent for a moment. Then, as if afraid to hear the answer, she asked "How big is Lawndale High?"

 "Well, they emailed me some information. Letís see if it says." Daria picked up the papers from her printerís output tray and began to scan through them. "Here it is. Twenty-seven students, four teachers. The gym teacher is also the school nurse, the counsellor and the principal. The other teachers are the custodians and whatever. It says there are seven boys and three girls in my grade."

 "And... my grade?"

 "Uhh, five girls." Daria looked somewhat sympathetic.

 "And how many boys?"

 Dariaís expression became somewhat more sympathetic. "None."

 Quinnís expression became that of someone receiving a surprise enema. "What? Nine, did you say? You better have said nine!"

 "Sorry."

 "No boys! NO-O-o-o-o!" Quinn shrieked, and disappeared. Daria heard her door slam, then a "whump!" sound as she threw herself onto her bed, followed by thrashing, thumping, and muffled screaming sounds, as of someone attacking a pillow with fang and claw. Daria hoped it was Quinnís Barbie pillow that was taking the thrashing. She lay back on her own bed, laced her fingers behind her head, and smiled contentedly.

 A minute later, the sounds of combat died away, and Daria heard Quinnís footsteps approaching. She flung open Dariaís door and whined, "But why canít we at least go to Frozen Bear High? It canít be that far away, if Lawndaleís a suburb!"

 "Well, it doesnít say in the printout, but I can guess. Montana is very sparsely populated, Quinn. Towns are few and far between, even suburbs. And there arenít many paved roads because of the small tax base and the harsh winters. Just about everyone gets snowed in a lot. Frozen Bear High is probably just too far away in Montana winter conditions."

 "Oh, jeez. Oh, hell. This is horrible." Quinn sank to her knees, then sat back on her heels. She put a hand over her eyes for a moment, then looked back up at Daria. "Well, go ahead. Tell me the rest."

 Daria rose from her bed and sat back down at her desk. She picked up the papers and looked through them again. "Hmmm...the junior high and the grade school are in the same building as the high school. So are the public library and the town hall. I kind of like that about the library. I just hope they have some books that I havenít read."

 "Oh, God, shoot me now. Itís Little House On The Prairie. In Hell. Frozen over." Quinn buried her face in her hands, allowing Daria to release a long-suppressed smirk.

 "Itís not all bad. They seem to be a fun-loving bunch. Apparently they have lots of sleepovers. It says here every student is required to keep at school a sleeping bag and sufficient clothing, emergency rats, and personal hygeine articles for a seven day stay."

 "RATS?!"

 "Rations. Food."

 "Well, why would they want us to stay seven days?"

 "You know, the snow, the roads... weíre talking Montana here. It says ĎIt is not feasible to close the schools during Montanaís frequent, severe, and long lasting snowstorms. Students are required to remain in school for the duration of these events in order to finish the school year on time.í Hey, look on the bright side. We must get really big lockers to hold all that stuff." Daria smiled cheerfully at her sister.

 "Hey, yeah! Really big lockers! That makes up for everything! The perfect place to stash your body till I can drag it out and bury it in a snowdrift!" Quinn replied with a vicious sarcasm that drew grudging admiration from Daria. "Got any more bright side?"

 "Well, we get to see the Northern Lights. And Lawndale usually has the national low temperature several days each year. And hereís something interesting. The sun sets on December fifteenth and doesnít rise again till December twenty-ninth! Wonít that be neat?"

 "No daylight for half of December? Yeah, that would be neat- if I were a frigginí Arctic mushroom!" Quinn stormed out yet again.

~~~

 As Helen entered, the first thing she heard was Daria singing, not too badly, "Whoopee ti-y-yo, git along little dogie, for you know that Montana will be... your... new... ho-o-ome!" the second thing she heard was Quinn screaming "Shut UP, Daria, or Iíll cram your mouth full of Momís dirty underwear and duck tape it shut!"

 "Quinn! Youíll do no such thing!" she shouted in her best mother voice.

 Quinn came running down the hall into the den. "Oh, Mom, pleease donít make me go to Lawndale! I donít wanna see the Northern Lights! I donít wanna set low temperature records! I donít wanna stay in school for seven days and nights! I donít wanna live where the sun donít shine! And I canít go to a school with no boys at all! I canít live like that, Mother, I just ca-a-a-anít!"

 "Quinn, what in the world are you talking about?"

 "Daria told me! She said whenever thereís a snowstorm we have to go to school and stay there seven days and eat emergency rats and there arenít any boys at all in my grade and the roads are all dirt and itís a hundred miles to a shopping center and..."

 "And you believed that? Really, Quinn!"

 Quinn returned Helenís look with shock and dawning realization, then shot Daria a dirty look and stamped her little foot.

 Helen turned to Daria also. "And you, Daria! how could you mislead your sister like that?"

Daria tried unsuccessfully to look repentant, then gave up. "How could I not?"

La la LA la la.

 

~~~

 

This is my 19th Daria fanfic, after The Whole Truth, Emancipation, Blood Oath of Patriots, Blood Oath of Patriots, Part II: By Any Other Name, Smackdown, The Beaches of Barksdale, Le Dejuner Chez Daria, Reindeer Bait, A Date With Death (a poem), Brainworms From Outer Space, On A High Note, The Warrior Awakens, Scanner, Itís In The Cards, Down By The River, Ah, Sweet Mystery, and Watch For Falling Rock, in that order. If you got this far, please email me and tell me what you think, good, bad, or so-so. You know, reviews are the closest thing to pay we poor fanfic writers get. Thanks.


  Galen Hardesty [gehardesty@yahoo.com]

 

Disclaimer

 "Daria" and all related characters are trademarks of MTV Networks, a division of Viacom International, inc. The author does not claim copyright to these characters or to anything else in the "Daria" milieu; he does, however, claim copyright to all those parts of this work of fiction which are original to him and not to MTV or to other fanfic authors. This fanfic may be freely copied and distributed provided its contents remain unchanged, provided the author's name and email address are included, and provided that the distributor does not use it for monetary profit. (as if.)