DOWN BY THE RIVER
A Tale of Young Daria
by Galen Hardesty
Daria struggled to hold her telescope steady on the majestic bird soaring effortlessly across the sky. Was it a Golden Eagle? Maybe even.. a Bald Eagle? Hmm.. no. Just another buzzard. The national bird of Texas. Or was that the horsefly?
"Jeez, Daria, do you take that stupid telescope with you everywhere you go? Why didn’t you ask for something you really need for your birthday, like clothes?"
"Why, am I naked? If I am, you should take this opportunity to kiss my rosy pink..."
"Daria!" Came the warning from Helen in the front seat.
"Well, I’m sick and tired of her constantly badmouthing everything that interests me, and her incessant blithering about clothes!"
"Ooh, finished eating that dictionary, huh, brain?"
"Girls! Be nice, both of you!"
Quinn sniffed and fell to examining her nails for perhaps the twentieth time since leaving the house twenty minutes ago. Daria snorted and returned to looking out her window. Seeing no further suitable targets for the telescope, she collapsed it and slipped it back in her jacket pocket. After a while, she pulled a compass from another pocket and idly checked their direction of travel.
"Aww, got yer little compass too, I see. The great explorer!"
Daria waited, then gave Helen’s seatback a little nudge. Helen appeared not to have noticed. Typical.
"Whatcha gonna do... discover the Northwest Passage?" Quinn goaded.
"My boot’s gonna discover your Southwest passage if you don’t knock it off!"
That Helen heard. "Daria! You watch your mouth, young lady!" She snapped.
"Oh, sure! Quinn can say anything she wants, but the second I open my mouth you jump down my throat!"
"Daria, are you saying that I’m playing favorites?"
"I’m saying that three times now, I’ve been minding my own business, not saying a word, not bothering a soul, and Quinn started deliberately bugging me! And three times now you didn’t say a thing until I spoke up, and then you either got onto me or acted like we were both equally at fault!"
"I didn’t hear anything like that, Daria."
"You didn’t? What did you hear?"
"Don’t get smart with me, miss."
"I’m not. I’m trying to figure out why you didn’t hear Quinn getting on my case, but did hear me telling her to knock it off, and why it sounded to you as if I was starting it when it was really her."
Quinn jumped in. "Was not!"
Helen sighed. "Daria, I’m trying to read a magazine here. You can’t expect me to hear every word you two say back there in the back seat."
"Huh?" Daria was genuinely surprised. "You mean when you read, you can’t hear?"
"Daria, my patience is wearing thin."
"No, really. What did you mean?"
Helen turned in her seat and looked her eldest daughter in the eye. Daria’s expression was one of sincere inquiry. That didn’t guarantee anything, Helen knew, but she’d have to accept it till she had evidence to the contrary. "What I mean is that when a person is reading or talking or watching TV, it takes up most of their attention, and they’re not as aware of other things. That’s true for anybody."
Daria said, "Is that right, Dad? Is that true for you? Dad? ...Dad?"
The car swerved slightly. Jake said "Huh? What?"
Daria sighed. "I guess that counts as a ‘yes’. So somebody who could walk and keep up with a conversation and listen to the radio and read at the same time would be... weird?"
"I’ll say!" said Jake.
Helen said, "That would be... unusual, certainly." She gave Daria a questioning look.
Daria thumped the seatback with her fist. "Great! I’m weird again!" She said disgustedly.
"You mean ‘even weirder’."
"Quinn, nobody asked you."
"I destinkly heard..."
"Uuuhh! Why does everybody always pick on me?! My life is a constant torbent!" Quinn crossed her arms peevishly and scowled out her window.
Ignoring Quinn, Daria said "Well, what you said being the case, could you at least switch seats with me?"
"Oh, I suppose. Jake, stop at the next place and we’ll get breakfast."
"But I was looking for a McDonalds. I want an Egg McMuffin!"
"If that’s the next place we come to, fine!"
"Dammit!" Jake mumbled. "Why can’t a man have a damn Egg McMuffin for his damn breakfast if he..."
Helen spotted a blue sign up ahead. "Jake, there’s a McDonalds at the next exit! Now give it a rest!"
Daria held the line against the rod with her finger, opened the bail on her reel, and cast again. The big lure sailed out a long distance, flashing in the sun, and hit the water with a splash. Daria began reeling, and the lure stirred and swung into action. Two metal arms unfolded from its sides and grabbed the water, setting up a ridiculous-looking paddling motion, and producing a loud glorpglorpglorp sound. The lure’s yellow color, the two big eyes painted on the front, and its sound and motion made her think of Homer Simpson drowning. It cracked her up.
Daria doubted there were any fish in this relatively small river big enough, mean enough, and stupid enough to tackle that outlandish lure. That was one reason why she was using it. Nothing like cleaning a pile of slimy smelly dead fish to spoil a fun day of fishing.
Daria had grabbed her rod and the big crazy lure (it was actually named ‘crazy’ something – the rest of the name had worn off) and bugged out for the riverbank as fast as ever she could, as soon as they’d parked. Dad was swearing and yanking at some tangled gear, Mom was cursing her cell phone, apparently out of range, and Quinn was whining about... everything. Down here, there were some smelly fish remains and two smelly fishermen, much to be preferred over the company of her loving family. They were quiet.
Her thoughts drifted away from the river to the journey here. Quinn had definitely scored a tactical victory in her struggle to make her older sister’s life hell on earth. She had managed to get several sneak attacks in under Helen’s radar, and goad Daria into angry retorts that drew parental fire. Even given the undeniable fact that Helen liked Quinn better, for reasons Daria still couldn’t pin down, this was skillful work on the brat’s part. She had exploited a weakness in their parents’ perceptions that Daria had been unaware of. Quinn seemed to have an instinct for that sort of thing that produced results equal to, and often better than, Daria’s superior brain power. Well, that same trick wouldn’t work again, and payback was a bitch. But she would need to avoid, if possible, being stuck in the back seat with the little creep, and to come up with ways to draw Helen’s attention to her provocations without coming off like a whiner or a tattletale.
But why did the vile creature hate her so? Try as she might, Daria could not remember doing anything to it that could trigger this all-out, undying hostility. It was as if it had been programmed from birth to do and think and be the exact opposite of everything Daria did and thought and was.
And why did Mom and Dad love her more? Was being cute and bouncy that great a thing? Were brains and ability worth so little? Asking them was worse than useless. They denied any favoritism and got mad at her for suggesting it.
Daria’s attention was drawn to a ruckus upslope in the picnic area. Some larval form was screeching its lungs out, and calling forth similar sounds from its parents. Daria couldn’t make out any words because the top of the bluff, and the trees and bushes growing on it, were between her and the source of the ruckus. It sounded like the offspring was really excited about something, though.
Daria was beginning to wonder if the larva might be Quinn, even though it didn’t sound like her, when the shrieking was replaced by the sounds of doors slamming, an engine overrevving, and tires screeching. They were leaving. Must be some other family of nut clusters. Although she had thought she’d heard one of her father’s trademark ‘gah-dammit’s as they roared away... Naah. They wouldn’t leave her. They never left her alone for long, no matter how she begged. She wasn’t totally insane yet, and they were very dedicated to the task. She turned back to the river and cast again.
As she reeled and watched the lure wobble back to her across the river, Daria wondered why it was taking her dad so long to get down here. He had really been looking forward to this trip. He was a firm believer in the myth that fishing was relaxing, despite all experience to the contrary. He’d probably made a minor tangle into a major tangle, and was up there swearing and ranting and blaming fate and his Old Man and everyone but himself for it. Sooner or later Mom would yell at him and get him to calm down, and he’d untangle the lines and assemble his gear and come on down. Daria made another cast.
And it probably wouldn’t be long before Quinn exhausted whatever satisfaction she was getting out of whining about there being too much dirt in the outdoors, and how unfair it was that everything was green and clashed with her pink t-shirt with the bunny on it, or whatever, and came down here to begin tormenting her sibling afresh. Funny, she couldn’t hear anything that sounded like whining, and it wasn’t like Quinn to maintain a silence for more than seventeen seconds or so. Daria finished reeling in the crazy whatsit, secured it to the rod’s bottom line guide, and headed back up the steps to the picnic area to investigate the mystery.
Daria stood in the spot where their car had been parked, disbelief writ large on her face. They definitely weren’t here. Suddenly she was acutely aware of the forty miles that separated her from home. It was almost as if she were looking down from a great height on the roads and highways, the towns and hamlets, the farmlands and pastures, the hills and streams that lay between her and that one little room that held her books, her bed, and practically all her few worldly goods. And on that highway that ran from here to there, one infinitesimal speck, creeping along at an undetectably slow pace, held the three people who alone were her immediate family in an entire world of strangers. And here she was, an even more infinitesimal speck, standing in an empty parking space a mile off that highway, by a river, all alone.
This was different.
So that had been them making all the racket, and then peeling out in a cloud of dust and a hearty "gah-dammit!" But why? Apparently, they’d never left the vicinity of the car. Daria searched the area for clues. There weren’t any gouts or splatters of blood, no severed digits, no slain rattlesnakes with bloody fangs.
There was, however, Dad’s best fishing outfit, the one with the expensive reel. Baitcasting reel, he’d called it. Actually, he’d called it quite a few other things as well, because the line got all tangled in it about every other cast. But Jake had read an article praising the virtues of that type of reel, and implying that master fishermen would use no other, and so he had sprung for it, and endured one of Mom’s hissy fits when she found out how much it cost.
Daria considered the evidence. Quinn’s shrieking, Mom’s and Dad’s yelling, the fact that they had gone, the fact that they hadn’t come after her or even called her, Dad’s best rod and reel abandoned, no physical traces of a serious injury at the scene.
Some mishap had occurred, probably to Quinn, something that didn’t impair her vocal ability, but something serious enough that both parents had decided immediate evacuation was necessary.
Could she have fallen and fractured something? No, that wouldn’t demand immediate evac. Dad or Mom would have come and gotten her, or at least bellowed for her. Most immediately life-threatening injuries Daria could think of should have left at least a little blood somewhere in the vicinity. A venomous snake bite? That would definitely qualify. A puncture wound to the abdomen? Maybe. A bite from a possibly rabid animal? That wouldn’t require them to leave instantly, but they couldn’t be blamed if they did. If, that was, they’d killed the possibly rabid animal and taken it with them for tests. Leaving it here for her to contend with would be uncool. Daria looked around uneasily, but no mad slavering beasts were in evidence.
She looked down the narrow asphalt drive that connected the riverside recreational area with the road a mile away. Poor Quinn! She said a little prayer for her sister, and for her parents too, on the chance that it was one of them instead.
Daria wondered whether she should be surprised that she wasn’t much more frightened about being left here alone, or surprised to feel as uneasy as she did. Looking at it objectively, she’d known she was going to spend most of the day here, and she’d naturally planned to avoid her family as much as possible. So this turn of events just made it easier for her to do what she was going to do anyway.
So, she thought. She was here on her own, and probably would be for at least three hours. What to do?
Daria looked around. She stood at the edge of the parking area adjacent to the picnic area. She had nothing to park or picnic. No use standing here. In the upstream direction, the drive ended in a little circle just below the end of the dam. From there, she could clamber down the gigantic gravel that Dad referred to as ‘riprap’ to the slack water below the dam, or she could climb the steps at the end of the concrete part of the dam and see what was on the upstream side.
Below the giant gravel, a stone ledge thrust out into the channel, narrowing it and causing a large, slow eddy where the bankside current flowed upstream for a hundred yards or so.
Below that, directly riverward from the picnic area, concrete steps led down the bluff to a concrete walkway with a sturdy guardrail directly above the river. Today it was a twelve-foot drop to the water level. She’d just come from there.
Below the walkway, from what she’d been able to see, the bank was steep and unimproved, thickly grown with trees and brush. But at the south end of the picnic area, Daria thought she could see... she pulled out her telescope, extended it, and took a closer look... yes. A path led into the woods at the top of the bluff.
Daria walked up the drive a little way, to see if there was any activity just below the dam. There was one man down there. That made three fishermen here today, four, counting herself. Daria assumed there would be a good many more on a weekend. The man had a spinning outfit like hers, only much bigger. He was trying to make very long casts with it, and sometimes succeeding. She walked a little closer and sat down on a flat-topped rock to watch.
During the time when the man was retrieving his bait, Daria looked around her and found some berries growing low among the rocks. They looked and tasted like blackberries, but they were growing on vines rather than bushes. She sat and ate berries for a few more minutes while watching the man, and wondered if he’d catch enough fish to pay for his time and equipment.
Or maybe that wasn’t his primary motivation, she thought, watching him go through the elaborate wind-up portion of his cast, then abort and start again. Maybe it was for relaxation, or distraction, or to get out of the house, or... hmm. Daria wondered if that would make a good subject for an article. Interview a bunch of fishermen about why they fished. Would people want to read it? Would a magazine buy it? Would Dad take her back here to talk to more fishermen?
Where was Dad now? And Mom and Quinn? Would they make it in time? Her family should probably arrive at Highland General in twenty or thirty more minutes, if Dad managed to avoid an accident the whole way back. They’d all be much safer if Mom were driving, but it was more likely that she was in the back seat with Quinn, comforting her and giving what aid she could. Daria was mostly glad she wasn’t along for that particular ride. Dad’s driving was wild enough under ordinary circumstances. She shuddered to think how he might drive with Quinn in the back seat, seriously injured, maybe...
No! Quinn wasn’t dying! She wouldn’t even think that. Maybe it was something not serious, but painful. Maybe it was something that looked a lot worse than it actually was. Maybe... maybe it wasn’t Quinn at all.
Maybe Quinn freaked and screamed like that when she saw what had happened to Helen or Jake. Dad had been wrestling with the fishing rods when she’d left, trying to untangle them. Maybe he’d stuck himself with a fishhook. That might help explain why she’d found his best outfit lying on the ground. Daria wished she’d stayed and untangled the rods for him. She knew she could have done it better and faster. Any calm, rational human being with most of his fingers could.
But Dad getting stuck with a fishhook wouldn’t cause that level of panic, wouldn’t cause them to go roaring off and leave her here. Unless... unless it stuck in his eye.
Oh, no! That was something Daria would definitely not think about. Starting as soon as she could get that awful picture out of her head.
This wasn’t helping. Daria realized she didn’t have enough information to deduce who had been hurt, or how, or even if anyone had been hurt. There could be some other explanation, even if she couldn’t think of one. She should stop thinking about it, at least for now.
What should she be thinking of, then? She should think about what to do, what her folks expected her to do. They obviously considered her capable of taking care of herself for a few hours. Daria was pleased and rather proud of that. Would they expect her to contact them? There was no public phone here. One of the fishermen might have a cell phone, and it might work way out here, even though Mom’s hadn’t, but they wouldn’t expect her to approach all those strangers. So they would expect her to wait until they came back for her. And in the meantime, they’d expect her to stay safe and not wander off while they dealt with... oh, please be all right!
Well, since they wouldn’t be returning for a while, she might as well check out that path now. Should she take these two fishing rods with her, or hide them? Hide them. There was no one in sight at the moment. She laid them under a holly bush in the strip of woods between the riprap area and the picnic area and sprinkled some large sycamore leaves over them.
Walking across the picnic area, Daria noticed several adjacent trashcans full of trash that indicated a large-scale cookout had taken place here yesterday. Cardboard boxes that had held large quantities of hamburger and hot dog buns, jumbo potato chip bags, large baked bean cans and similar containers told of a large but basic feed. Scouts, maybe, she thought.
At the start of the path, she stopped to check her compass. As she’d thought, the path ran south-southeast, parallel to the river here. Daria entered the woods.
This patch of woods appeared to be composed only of common trees so far. Some small ferns grew out of the carpet of leaves, as did an occasional small cactus, looking out of place. She noticed some vines that were strange to her, growing vertically out of the leaf litter into the canopy of branches overhead. Daria wondered how they had managed to reach a tree branch in the first place. Some of the branches they clung to were twenty feet or more up. All the vines she could see were vertical and straight. She noticed another odd thing- the vines had no leaves. Just thin smooth green vines with widely spaced green thorns.
Beneath a large oak Daria noticed some big plump looking mushrooms growing. There were two kinds, off-white ones with toasted-looking tops up to six inches across, and others of a purplish-brown color, up to four
inches across. One of the big whitish ones had fallen or been knocked over, and Daria could see that, instead of gills on the underside of the cap, it had a greenish-yellow pad with thousands of pin-sized holes. She remembered seeing these in a mushroom book she’d browsed at the bookstore. The species was called ‘pennybun’ and was said to be edible and very tasty. The book had said that the pores instead of gills identified a family of mushrooms called ‘boletes’, and that all members of the family were safe to eat.
Proceeding on down the path, she came to a branch leading toward the river. Following it for a few yards brought her to the edge of the bluff. The way down was steep here. Daria saw that she could climb down, but would get dirty. At the river’s edge was a place where one or two could stand on the slippery clay bank, at the risk of sliding into the river. Overhanging limbs made it almost impossible to cast. Daria turned around and returned to the path.
A little further on, she was a bit startled when a large silvery-colored squirrel with black markings bounded across the path. She’d never seen a squirrel like that. It was much bigger and more graceful than the gray squirrels that lived in town. Its movements were almost catlike.
The mild start brought to Daria’s notice how relaxed she’d been feeling. Was it an effect of walking through this small patch of woods? The cool fresh air, the woodsy aromas, the dapples of sunlight that made it through the canopy... She was pretty sure the effect would be lost if her family were here with her. She wondered how it would feel to be here with a family that didn’t drive her nuts. She’d never know, she supposed. But who knew what tomorrow might bring? How many family members... damn! Don’t think that! Daria concentrated on picturing the strange squirrel until the unwanted thoughts subsided.
After briefly investigating three more side paths leading down to the riverbank, she came to a deep gully where a small tributary stream flowed into the river. The path appeared to end here, so she turned back and retraced her steps.
As she approached the oak under which the mushrooms were growing, she considered having a couple of them for lunch. Daria liked mushroom soup, mushroom gravy, and mushrooms on pizza. She especially liked the dark brown mushrooms in some oriental dishes. She wondered what these bolete mushrooms tasted like. If she had a way to cook them...
Daria remembered the jumbo potato chip bags in the trashcans back in the picnic area, made from aluminized plastic film. She remembered a diagram she’d seen for a solar water heater, showing how it worked. She’d heard of solar furnaces and solar ovens... Today was a sunny day. In her mind, she began to modify the solar water heater diagram. She stopped and chose some plump mushrooms, two of each kind. These and a fish or two would make a fine lunch, and Mom and Dad would be proud of her for being so resourceful. And she had something interesting to occupy her mind.
Back in the picnic area, Daria carefully opened one of the potato chip bags until she had a flat plastic sheet, aluminized like a mirror on what had been the inside. This should provide more than enough reflective surface to toast some mushrooms. But how to support it in the needed shape? Her eye fell on a cardboard box with fitted lid that had held hamburger buns. Yes, that would work.
Reaching for her Swiss army knife, her fingers encountered several small packets in a pocket. She pulled them out and found they were butter, salt, and pepper packets from their breakfast stop. Excellent. She repocketed them for the time being.
Removing the fitted top, Daria carefully cut a shallow curve out of one side of the box, and used it as a template to cut a similar curve out of the other side. She slipped the box into its top so that it was open and laid the potato chip bag over the opening. It overlapped all four sides slightly. Good. Using the back of her knife blade, she tucked the edges of the bag in between the edges of the box and its top, and replaced the curved cutouts over the bag to help shape its curve. They wouldn’t stay by themselves, so she pinned them in position with thorns. She smiled a little. This was fun.
Propping her solar cooker up against a post in the sunshine, she tested it with a small dead branch that had a few leaves on it. She found the hot spot to be a little less than two feet from the reflector. The leaves started smoldering at once, and the branch was ablaze in less than two seconds. Wow. That worked really well. She stomped the branch out thoroughly in the parking lot. Melody Powers could use a bigger, focusable version of this to assassinate the Mad Mullah, say, or evil Commisar Spazzasski from a rooftop a mile away as he stepped out onto his balcony, then break it down into innocuous-looking trash in a few seconds and be long gone before a search could get underway. Daria filed the idea away for later development.
She set her solar death ray off to the side of the picnic area behind a bush, making sure it was out of the sun, and pulled the two fishing rods out from beneath the holly bush.
Looking at them side by side, Daria thought that hers was definitely the better outfit. It was easier to use, seldom got tangled, and, she thought, was a lot prettier. Of course, she was somewhat prejudiced because she had a fair amount of sweat equity invested in her rig.
She’d acquired it when they’d gone to that pay-to-fish lake last fall. Some brat who could’ve been Quinn but for being two years older and male, had thrown it into a trashcan, while reciting a long list of its flaws, shortcomings, and sins at the top of his annoying voice. After they left, she had pulled it out, more from a desire to prove Quinn-boy wrong than a yearning for fishing gear, and had taken it home.
Quinn... what are you doing now, Quinn? What’s being done to you? No, don’t dwell on things you can’t help, she told herself. She refocused on her fishing outfit.
Daria had implemented her usual first step toward solving a problem- a trip to the library. She’d found a book with a section on care and repair of fishing gear, and stumbled onto a book about custom rod building. Daria had never imagined that such an activity existed, but the book showed in great detail how to put line guides on a rod, and she would need to do that, so she’d checked it out.
The rod was old, but that was partly a good thing. It had cork grips of good quality, something all rods used to have, but that now was only found on expensive ones. The line guides were broken, bent, and/or rusty, and it had only come with four. The rodmaking book said a six-and-a-half-foot spinning rod should have six, and showed her how to locate their proper positions. Daria had wrapped the new guides on with purple over gold thread in a moderately fancy pattern, with narrow accent wraps, just for looks, between the guide wraps. It had turned out to look sharp, indeed.
Quinn had, of course, ridiculed her for trying to repair trash. Which was logical from her point of view, Daria supposed. All Quinn had to do was ask, in that darling precious way she had, and she’d get a brand new one. No need for her to work, or learn anything. Daria wondered how far through life that approach would take her sister. Which led to the question: would it get her through today? Damn, there she went again. Daria jerked her mind back onto her previous train of thought, but not before she felt her stomach knot up once more.
Wiping the grit and old grease out of the reel, and dabbing in some fresh grease as per the care and repair book, had restored it to as-new operation. Cleaning the cork grips with soapy water and an old toothbrush completed the job, leaving Daria the proud owner of a custom spinning outfit. And, as infrequently as the Morgendorffers went fishing, it would probably never need any further maintenance.
It wouldn’t be hard to catch a few of those little bait-stealing sunfish that hung out in small schools near the bank. They had a great flavor, but were annoying and time-consuming to eat because of their small size. "Well, I’ve got the time," she thought. She picked up a piece of hot dog bun from the concrete bench of a picnic table, still damp from last night’s dew, and blew a few ants off it. Just about any bait would catch the small, always-hungry sunfish. They were in a race to eat and grow big before they were eaten, a race most of them would lose. They’d even bite a shiny bare hook.
A hook. Daria didn’t have one. She’d have to find a hook small enough to go in a small sunfish’s mouth; or else she’d have to go after something larger and harder to catch. There were plenty of hooks and sinkers on broken-off bits of fishing line all along the riverbank, snagged on trees and bushes and rocks or just lying where they had been dropped. She should be able to find a small one.
Removing the crazy whatsit from her line, she attached it to her dad’s line and hid it again under the holly bush. Then she headed for the river. Pausing by a young boxwood bush, what Gramma Morgendorffer called a ‘switch bush’, she cut a small branch just below a fork, cut off one arm of the fork to a length of about two inches, cut the other branch to eighteen inches, and stripped off the small oval leaves. It would make an adequate stringer for a few small fish.
Daria squatted by her solar grille in a patch of sunlight at the parking lot side of the mostly-shaded picnic area. Her clip-on shades were flipped down over her glasses. She was just getting ready to cook the mushrooms when a pickup truck with TEXAS PARKS & WILDLIFE on the door pulled up nearby. A man wearing sunglasses and a short-sleeved khaki shirt with a WARDEN patch on the sleeve looked out at her. "Hi there. Is your name Daria?" he asked.
"And your last name is..."
"Nice to meet you, Daria. I’m Warden Dickinson. Your parents asked me to check on you, to see..."
"Oh, please, sir, are they all right? Who got hurt? Was it Quinn? How bad is it?"
"They’re all okay, Daria. Your sister was bitten by a spider, but it turned out not to be a dangerous species. Your father is on his way back here to get you."
"Oh, thank goodness they’re all right!"
"How about you, Daria? Are you all right? Do you need anything? Are you hungry?"
"I’m fine, sir. I ate some berries earlier, the ones that grow among the rocks and taste like blackberries."
"They’re called dewberries. And you can call me Jim Bob."
"Oh, okay." Daria smiled shyly, and gained an admirer. "And I’m fixing lunch now." Daria held out the skewered mushroom caps for his inspection. "They’re boletes. See, they have the pores instead of gills."
"Yes, I see. Both kinds you have there are safe to eat, but those dark brown ones taste like inner tubes. A little worse, actually, and the aftertaste really stays with you."
"Oh, well, I guess I’m not quite that hungry." Daria removed the dark mushroom caps from the skewer. "Thanks, uh, Jim Bob."
Warden Jim Bob grinned and got out of his pickup. He squatted next to Daria’s solar grille. "Did you make this yourself?"
"Yes. My folks have the charcoal with them, so I put this together from stuff I found here."
"Oh, so you made it here! That’s even more impressive! You’re a very smart girl, Daria."
Daria smiled and blushed. "Uh, thanks." She held the remaining mushrooms in the hot spot. There was a bright flash as the concentrated sunlight hit the light-colored mushrooms, accompanied by a sizzling sound as various protruding bits and edges of the mushrooms flared and charred. She began turning the mushrooms and waving them in and out of the hot spot to keep them from bursting into large-scale flames. "Wow!" she said, shielding her eyes with her other hand. "I see there’s a small drawback to cooking with light. Oh, could you take my picture cooking on this?" Daria pulled a small black plastic box out of her shirt pocket and handed it to Jim Bob.
Jim Bob examined the worthless-looking object with curiosity, noting that its back was held on with a couple of rubber bands. "What is this, a spy camera?"
"Small enough, isn’t it? It’s one of those single-use cameras they sold a couple of years ago, the ones that used 110 film. Since they use a film cartridge, it’s easy to reload them. And once you take the wrapper off, they look so plain you can hardly tell they’re cameras. I kept three that took good sharp pictures, to use when my good camera might get lost or broken."
After a few more seconds she brought the mushrooms over to the adjacent picnic table and slid them off onto the inner surface of another large potato chip bag. She spread a little butter on them while they were still hot, then salted them. Then she slid her four little sunfish onto the coathanger wire skewer.
Jim Bob looked at the bits of green protruding from diagonal slits in the sides of the fish. "Fancy! What herbs are you using?" He was a little worried but didn’t want to show it.
"Wild garlic and that plant with the little clover shaped leaves that tastes lemony. My grandmother called it ‘rabbit tobacco.’ She said they used to chew it when she was a girl." Daria moved the skewer around until the fish entered the reflector’s area of focus. There was another blinding flash of reflected sunlight, accompanied by small popping and sputtering noises. She squinted and smiled.
Daria had managed to talk Jim Bob into eating one of the four little fish, and sneak a picture of him as he ate. They’d just finished them off when Jake had come barreling down the drive, remembering belatedly that there would be a law officer waiting with Daria. She was embarrassed by his pathetic attempt to slow down drastically without seeming to do so.
Jake parked, got out, and came over, seeming at a loss for words. He opened his arms and said, "Hey, sweetheart! How are ya?" Somewhat reluctantly, Daria hugged him. She didn’t want to embarrass him in front of a stranger, and he had refrained from calling her ‘kiddo’.
"I’m fine, Dad. I’ve been fishing and enjoying the outdoors. This is Warden Dickinson. Warden Dickinson, this is my father, Jake Morgendorffer."
As the two men shook hands, Daria went to get the two fishing rods. Jake asked the warden, "Where was she when you found her? Was she okay? Was she crying?"
Warden Dickinson said "She was right here, cooking a lunch she’d caught and gathered herself on this solar grille she made herself. She was worried about you, but she seemed to be having a fine time. You’re a very lucky man, Mr. Morgendorffer. Daria is an amazing girl." He gave Jake a pointed look. "Take good care of her." Jake, getting the point, looked sheepish.
Out on the interstate, headed back toward Highland, Daria watched the countryside slide by. The day had started poorly, but had improved quite a bit. She wished she’d been able to talk her dad into staying and fishing a while. It would at least have increased her away-from-Quinn time.
Jake was anxiously sneaking glances at his daughter. She didn’t appear to be distraught, depressed, or angry. In fact, she seemed to be in a rather good mood, although with Daria it was hard to tell. He groped for a safe topic to start a conversation.
"Daria, I was wondering, why did you ask for that compass, telescope, and pocket knife for your birthday? I mean, instead of something else, like dolls or clothes?"
"Instead of something normal, you mean?"
"Oh, no, kiddo! I didn’t mean it like that!"
"Yes, you did." Daria thought. She said, "Well, I wanted the Swiss army knife because it’s so handy for so many things, and it’s so well made. The magnifying glass and tweezers alone make it worth carrying, and those little scissors are the best I’ve ever used. The compass and telescope are useful too, but I also wanted them because they were such important inventions. The compass changed navigation and started an age of exploration and geographical discovery. The telescope changed astronomy, and other sciences indirectly, and started an age of scientific discovery. And I kind of like anything that helps me see better."
Jake looked down at his daughter in her big round glasses, and felt a pang of sorrow. They’d gotten her her first pair when she was three. He remembered how she’d looked so like a little baby owl. Daria had never known normal vision. He realized he had almost no idea what that meant to her. "I wish I could give you perfect vision, kiddo. You know I would if I could."
Daria looked up at him and smiled a little smile. "Yeah, I know, Dad."
Jake beamed. Quinn’s smiles were beautiful, but Daria’s made the world go away. They were like emeralds, all the more precious for their rarity. Daria had just made his day.
Daria continued "I think I’m too big for dolls now. Anyway, I just never did get dolls. I mean, I know I’m supposed to pretend I’m a mommy and the doll is my baby and stuff, but... it’s like, why would I want to do that? Maybe it’s because when I think of babies, I think of Quinn. If I pretended my doll was baby Quinn, I don’t think the doll would last very long."
"What about pretty clothes?"
"Clothes are something you need, not something you want for your birthday. If my shoes wear out or my jeans get too small, Mom gets me some new ones. A present should be something fun, something you want, not something you’d get anyway because you have to have it. Don’t you think so?"
"Yeah, I guess. But don’t you want to dress up and look pretty?"
"For what? To go to church and sit on a hard pew for two hours and be told I’m going to die and go to hell? To go to some party and be made fun of, or get pushed down in the mud? To go visit some old people you say are my relatives, who pinch my cheeks and say my how I’ve grown, and then have to sit for hours with nothing to do and nothing to read in a house full of stuff I can’t touch? Why would I want to do that?"
"Not for any particular reason. Just to look pretty."
Daria looked at him as if he were speaking Martian.
"Uhhh... Hey, wanna stop and get something to eat? And a milkshake?"
"Couldn’t eat a bite. I had broiled sunfish with herbs, and a side of toasted mushrooms."
"Wow, sounds delicious! You cooked them on that solar furnace thing you made? How’d you know how to build that?"
"I remembered the diagram in that solar water heater brochure you brought home a while ago, how the curved mirrors concentrated sunlight onto the water pipes to heat the water. I changed it a little, into something I could build with the stuff I found, something that would cook food."
Jake was impressed. "And it worked? Just the way you intended it to?"
Daria smirked a bit. "It almost worked too well. It was kind of like trying to cook with a laser beam. Fun, though."
"And you caught and gathered and prepared all that stuff all by yourself! I am really proud of you, Daria. Very proud!"
Daria smiled again. "Thanks, Dad. I’m proud that you and Mom trusted me enough to leave me by myself. That means a lot to me."
Jake looked stricken. Daria looked at him in puzzlement, then concern. When the guilt started to show in his expression, she knew. Now it was Daria’s turn to look stricken. What an idiot she’d been. What a fool. They hadn’t trusted her. They hadn’t had confidence in her. They had forgotten her.
They rode on in silence for a while, Daria staring into the gloom of the footwell and trying to grasp the meaning of that fact, Jake staring at the road ahead and trying to think of something to say. Then Daria noticed Jake’s mouth beginning to move, and one hand beginning to make abortive little conversation-type gestures. Before he could actually say something, she unbuckled her seat belt and tumbled into the back seat, then scrunched down in the floor behind the driver’s seat, effectively vanishing from Jake’s view.
The rest of the way home, except for a minimum of monosyllabic responses, she ignored his feeble attempts at conversation. She had a lot of thinking to do. She made a mental note to ask the librarian for a book on seeing things the way they really were.
Daria was seated on her bed when Helen walked in. She rose and stood with hands clasped in front of her, eyes on a spot just in front of Helen’s feet.
"Daria, sweetie, we’re so sorry! Are you okay?"
"Yes, Ma’am, I’m okay." Daria said softly.
"We were just so worried about Quinn, and she was so afraid, that we just..."
"Yes, Ma’am, I understand. I got the message."
"Message? What message?"
"Be grateful for what you’ve given me. Be grateful I have a place to live. Don’t talk back to you or Mister Morgendorffer or Quinn. Don’t expect equal treatment. Quinn is loved, I’m merely tolerated. Don’t offend you or be inconvenient, because I could disappear very easily."
"Daria! What are you talking about?"
Daria cringed. "Nothing, Ma’am. I meant no offense. Uhh.. Ma’am, could I ask a question?"
"Well, of course, dear."
"If I were to... forget... If I did something... wrong, would it be quick, or would you... give me time to think about it?"
"Daria dear, what do you mean?"
"Would you put the chains and the weights on me while I was still alive, and make me think about it all the way to the river, and then just throw me in, or would you... do it here, and dispose of the body later?"
Helen fled the room.
About an hour later, Helen approached Daria’s room again. The door was closed, as she’d expected. She was about to knock when she heard the music coming from within.
In the middle of the night I go walking in my sleep
Through the valley of fear to the river so deep...
Quietly, Helen turned and retreated back up the hall. Half an hour later, she came back. Music was still playing. This time Helen heard:
I hear a neighbor tellin’ my father
He says a girl name of Patches was found
Floating face down in that dirty old river...
"Oh, for goodness’ sake!" This wasn’t getting any better. Helen tapped on Daria’s door, then pushed it slowly open. Daria shut off the music, stood up, and brought her eyes back to the floor in front of Helen’s feet. "Honey, you’ve got to stop this! We love you just as much as Quinn!"
"Daria!" Helen stepped forward, arms open. Daria whimpered and flinched away.
"Sweetie, stop that! You have to believe me, we love you every bit as much as we love Quinn!"
"Yes, ma’am." Daria straightened up somewhat, but her head was still turned partly away, as if she were expecting a blow.
"Daria darling, look at me! What do I have to do to convince you?"
Daria slowly brought her gaze up, stopping at Helen’s chin. "Well... it would need to be true. And it isn’t."
Helen stared at Daria, mouth open but at a loss for words. Then, hoping a change of venue would help, she said, "Come into the den, sweetie. We need to talk this out." She waited till Daria walked out the door, then followed.
Once they were seated in the den, Helen began, "Daria honey, I understand how you feel, but you need to understand, too. We were just so afraid for Quinn and we wanted to get her to the hospital as soon as possible."
Daria’s tone was quietly bitter. "Yes, ma’am, I understand. Quinn went into histrionics and you immediately dropped everything and..."
"You mean ‘hysterics’."
"I said what I meant. So you abandoned scruffy little CinderDaria and rushed Princess Quinn..."
"Daria, she was bitten by a spider!"
"Did you see the spider?"
"Yes, it was a really big one."
"Was it a Black Widow?"
"Was it a Brown Recluse?"
"Well then, so what? Those are the only two spiders in North America whose bite is dangerous to people. All the others are harmless."
"But how do you know that?" asked Jake.
"It’s common knowledge, freely available. I read it in one of your River and Woods magazines."
Jake looked sheepish. Helen looked sideways at him.
Daria turned to Helen. "I also read it in one of your Better Houses and Shrubberies magazines. I even read it in the Highland Hooraw."
Helen looked sheepish in her turn. Quinn said, "Ghod, Daria, is that all you ever do is read?"
"Quinn!" snapped Helen.
"Well, ghod, Mom! All she ever talks about is what she knows and what she’s read! I’m sick of hearing about it!" Quinn whined.
"Quinn! Go to your room! And quit saying God like that!"
Quinn fake sobbed/flounced/marionette walked off down the hall.
"And Daria, you could be a little sympathetic. You might see it a bit differently if you’d been bitten by the spider."
"I’ve been bitten by spiders several times."
"But you never said anything! Why didn’t you come and tell me?"
"For the same reason I don’t come and tell you every time I get bitten by a mosquito or stung by an ant. It’s no big thing, and there’s nothing you could have done about it, and I’m not trying to hog every scrap of your attention for myself like Quinn is. So anyway, was it before or after you paid the bill that you remembered you had another daughter? Or should I say, another young girl you claim is your daughter?"
"Daria! What are you talking about?!"
"Where are my real parents? What are their names? Did they abandon me too? How did you get me?"
"Daria, darling, we’re your real parents! Why are you saying these things?"
"You wouldn’t treat me this way if I were your own flesh and blood. You spend way more time with her than with me, not to mention money, and she gets your undivided attention any time she wants it, where I practically have to be bleeding all over the floor!"
"Daria! That is not true! It may seem that way to you, but we do our very best to pay equal attention to both of you."
"How about last week, when I was telling you about what I did in school, and Quinn came in, said "Hey, look at me!", did a really bad pirouette, and you two started oohing and aahing all over her, and forgot I was even in the house?"
"We’re sorry, kiddo, I guess we thought you were finished." Jake offered.
"No, you didn’t. As soon as Quinn came into the room, you completely forgot about me, just like you did this morning."
Jake and Helen exchanged a guilty look. "Well, why didn’t you say something, sweetie?" Asked Helen.
Daria looked angrily back at her mother. "I did, several times. But Quinn was spinning around bumping into things, and you two were going gaga over her, and you didn’t hear a word I said. After a few minutes, I couldn’t take any more. I gave up and left."
"Oh, honey, we were just trying to be encouraging to Quinn! We didn’t mean to ignore you. What did you want to tell us?"
Daria opened her mouth to speak, but choked up. After two more false starts, she managed "I... won a... an art scholarship... to the University of Texas."
Helen gasped. Jake said, "That’s great, kiddo!"
Daria continued, near tears. "It was just for the summer, and just for one class, but it was a scholarship. And I won it based on my ability, not on how cute I am or how loud I can say ‘Look at me!
"What do you mean ‘was’? You’re going to go, aren’t you?"
Daria squeezed her eyes tight shut. "It’s too late. The application had to be turned in by last Friday, and you didn’t sign it."
"Oh, no, sweetie! Why didn’t you come back with it later?"
Daria glared at her mother. "Why didn’t you tell Quinn to wait her turn? Why didn’t you let me finish what I’d already started telling you? I have a little pride, and I have this weird idea that I shouldn’t have to compete with Quinn for a few seconds of your attention every now and then. I’ve tried that, and lost, and now I realize that I’ll always lose. I know I’m not pretty or precious or bouncy, but I can’t help it. If I’m not worth some of your time, put me up for adoption and give me a chance with some childless couple!"
A grim silence settled in the den. Helen, Jake, and Daria each stared at some random spot around the room, expressions of great sadness on their faces. At length, in a rare moment of insight, Jake said, "Gosh, honey, it sounds like you’re more upset about this attention thing than you are about getting left behind."
Daria looked at her father with surprise and a bit of respect. "Yes! Yes! Exactly! I didn’t mind being left at the river. I figured one of you needed immediate medical attention. I was proud that you trusted me to look after myself. I even thought you’d be proud of me for building that grille and finding food and cooking my own lunch." She looked down at the floor. "That is, until I realized I’d been deluding myself. The truth is, as soon as Quinn started screaming, you forgot I even existed. That’s what hurts." She lowered her head into her hands.
Helen looked at Jake in confusion. Jake told her how Daria had foraged and prepared her own lunch. Surprised, she turned back to Daria. "Don’t tell me you just picked some mushrooms and ate them! If you ate the wrong ones, you could die!"
Daria jerked her head up, startled and indignant. She stared open-mouthed at her mother for several seconds, then let her head hang again in despair. "As if you cared. After you disposed of me in an unmarked pauper’s grave, you could get Princess Graceless a chambermaid. Or a lady in waiting, whichever she preferred."
"Daria! What brought that on?"
"You did. You just proved my point. I didn’t just pick some random mushrooms. I’m quite capable of finding edible mushrooms, and lots of other wild foods, too. I could catch rabbits or squirrels if I needed to. I could build a shelter if I had to, just like I designed a solar grille that I could build with materials on hand, that would cook the food I had. But you don’t care about any of that, any more than you care how well I do in school, or what my interests are, because I’m not cute and perky and popular, and that’s all that matters to you!" Turning her face away from her parents, Daria ran to her room and shut the door.
Jake said, "Jeez, Helen, at least I told her I was proud of her."
"Yes, it’s just what I wanted. It’s very nice. I’m going to enjoy using it."
Daria stared at the computer as if it were a signed death warrant. Jake and Helen had tried to give her as much attention as they gave Quinn, and had failed miserably. They’d really tried, and they couldn’t do it. So she had given in and let it be known that she wanted the computer, as a way to let them off the hook. She blinked, then blinked again, then blinked twice.
"What is it, honey?"
"Oh... nothing." There was a slight quaver in Daria’s voice.
"Come on, sweetie, is there something we can do for you?"
"Well..." Daria turned slowly to face Helen, hoping against hope. "Can you take me someplace where the people are like me? Just for a little while?"
"Daria, honey, you’re a very special person. You’re very bright, and perceptive, and..."
"And there is no place where the people are like me." Daria blinked again and a tear slid down her cheek. She turned rapidly away, as if resenting this display of weakness.
"...Too perceptive. Daria, there are places like that. There are special schools for gifted children, and there are colleges and universities for the best and the brightest. But there are no schools like that anywhere near Highland. I’m sorry."
Daria paused, then continued. "Oh. I thought maybe there were little towns or neighborhoods where smart people lived. What I wouldn’t give to have just one person as smart as me to talk to. Oh, who am I kidding? This is Texas." She returned her gaze to the dark monitor screen.
Jake gazed sadly at his daughter. The loneliness in Daria’s eyes was heartrending. Then he had a thought. "Maybe you could find some smart people to talk to on the internet, punkin. There must be lots of ‘em on there!"
Slowly, Daria’s face lit up. "Of course! You’re right, Dad! They must be there, and if they are, I’ll find them!" She was on the floor in a second, rummaging through all the literature that had come with the computer for Internet information. Smiling relievedly, Helen made shooing motions at Jake, and then quietly followed him out the door.
Later that night, in the master bedroom, Jake stared up at the ceiling. "Helen, do you really think she thinks she’s smarter that we are?"
"Oh, Jake. She doesn’t think it, she knows it. And she knows we know it."
"But the really sad thing is, I’m afraid she feels inferior to Quinn in spite of it. And I don’t know what to do."
"Maybe if one of us took her somewhere she wants to go, spent a day with her. Just Daria. No Quinn."
Helen rolled her head on the pillow to look at her husband. She laid a hand on his arm. "That’s a good idea, honey, but the places she wants to go are all in big cities, like museums, or places like Carlsbad Caverns. They’re all so far away. She hates Highland."
"Yeah, so do I."
"And we have so little free time these days."
"....Yeah." Silence for a moment, then "I guess she’ll be on the internet a lot for a while, but I think we should ask her anyway. Where she’d like to go, I mean. I’d kind of like to go to Carlsbad Caverns myself."
Helen chuckled. "I won’t fight you for that one, dear. If she wants to go to a cave full of bats, you can take her."
Daria lay in bed, idly scanning the childish decorations running along the tops of her bedroom walls by the dim illumination of the night-light. She ached to repaint those walls, but her mother had done the decorating herself, and still thought it was ‘precious’. Daria hadn’t yet decided on a plan of action, and anyway, the time wasn’t yet ripe for it. She’d ask nicely a few more times.
Time. So precious, so scarce. Daria still wasn’t getting anywhere near an equal amount of her parents’ time, and probably never would. Not that she needed or wanted that much. Too much of their attention would be as bad as or worse than not enough. They were at least making an effort now. And Daria had come to realize that her parents weren’t getting as much time as they should for themselves either. That was probably why they hadn’t read those articles she’d cited in their magazines or the paper. They were lucky if one of them could get off after just eight hours to check on her and Quinn, and they often had to work Saturdays. They didn’t seem to be doing it just because they wanted the extra money. But they were grownups. No one could make them work if they didn’t want to, could they? Especially not overtime, surely. She should ask them about it.
Her keen hearing told her that her parents were in bed and had finished talking. Apparently they weren’t going to start a discussion or an argument, or that other thing. She sat up and turned on the light on her nightstand. Rearranging her pillows to support her in a semi-sitting position, she picked up the book the librarian had helped her find. Harriet had stopped remarking incredulously on Daria’s book selections, but Daria suspected she still didn’t totally believe she was actually reading them. Opening The Encyclopedia of Philosophy to the bookmark, she soon finished the relevant parts of the section she’d been reading. Cognitive Relativism wasn’t what she was looking for. Those people obviously did not want to see things as they really were. Turning the page, she started on the next section, Cynicism.
La la LA la la.
I’d like to thank my beta readers: Renfield, Kermie, Thea Zara, Robert Nowall, Wyvern, Brother Grimace, Mman, and Ben Breeck, for all their contradictory advice. Seriously, this story is a lot better because of them.
"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.)
Galen Hardesty [gehardesty@yahoo com]