"... of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'"
-- John Greenleaf Whittier
based on characters created by Glenn Eichler
and situations created by Diane Long
The bulk of this story is set approximately six years after the events depicted in Undone. The frame story takes place two weeks following the events of Restoration.
It was the breeze that woke Daria up in the middle of the night. Having long since grown accustomed to the omnipresent din that was New York City, to the point where it settled dimly into the back of her mind and she no longer really "heard" it, Daria was not adverse to sleeping with the window open if the weather required it. That night the uncommonly placid weather had required it.
The breeze was cool. It smelt of the street, and of people. Urban perfume. But Daria did not mind. She'd been around worse in the past few months. Compared to her living arrangements of mere weeks ago, the pleasant draft that was currently motivating the curtains' hypnotic sway was an olfactory delight. It was a heady rush: redolent essence of the metropolitan organism. This had been Daria's world for the better (and worse) part of her adult life, and she had learned to embrace it.
The wind had picked up over the course of the night. Awake, but eyes closed, she felt the air's smooth caress across her cheek, causing her scalp to tingle with fresh awareness. The moment was quiescent, and oddly relaxing. She wriggled her shoulders and felt her head sink back further into the soft pillow. The breeze was colder, but not cold enough to warrant ruining the exquisite physical nirvana she had obtained amidst the blankets. Resolving to return to slumber, she snuggled deeper into the mattress.
The motion caused Trent to stir. Like a vast child, he sprawled across the bed to Daria's left, adjusting his position to account for the shifting bed-sheets. He pivoted onto his stomach, shaggy head floundering momentarily over his pillow to face Daria. She opened one eye at the disturbance and looked over at her unconsciously motile paramour. He finally stilled, releasing one cough-like snore as his muscles relaxed, and curling a fistfull of fabric in his large hand. She grinned despite herself. It really was adorable.
Daria closed her eye and returned to her thoughts with a small sigh of happiness. How had she managed to survive the past year? How had she been able to deny herself this? To deny him this?
"Dominic," she thought with a discomfiting chill. That had been her response to the disastrous break-up of twelve months ago. An internal wreck, she had focussed all of her energy on her increasingly insubstantial career. She had ignored any opportunities for reconciliation, her emotional cancers all but consuming her. It seemed ridiculous after the fact, now that her career had come crashing down around her head and left her with practically nothing.
But she had Trent. She had him back, he had her, and that meant everything. Dominic be damned. With mental resolve, she banished his image from her mind, focussing in stead on the devoted man beside her. Best friend, provider, musician, lover, soulmate... Trent was all of these things and more. She couldn't picture it any other way.
She'd had her doubts in the past, of course. How could she not have? He had hurt her, more than he initially understood. It didn't matter what role the conniving Monique Levinson had played in the break-up... it had taken Daria a year to deal with the consequences of her self-serving manipulations. And if she hadn't...
Daria didn't want to think about what might of happened. The past held more "what ifs" than she could count. What if Trent hadn't had the courage to make his feelings clear all those years ago in Lawndale? What if her father hadn't been there to help her through her insecurities? What if Trent had not survived the separation? What if Jane's recent fall had broken her neck, instead of just her leg? Would there have been anything left of her psyche to be even capable of seeking a resolution with Trent?
And what if the last year hadn't happened? That was the biggest question... the year she wanted most to forget. She had almost done a lot of things twelve months past. She had almost done a lot of things out of pain instead of love. She had almost gone back to Lawndale. She had almost gone back to Trent. But, stubbornly, she had clung to her wounded pride. And how, oh how it had cost her.
But the past was precisely that: the past. She couldn't start second-guessing it now. Not when happiness was hers once again. She smiled. She had never forgotten his touch. The way he could be gentle and full of energy at the same time.
They hadn't been together that way in a very long time. They had come close the night of the near-fatal premier. Trent had come to her in the hours before his Broadway debut. He had kissed her. He had held her. She had been ready then, to forget it all, all the stress and frustration of the past quarter. They would have made love, right then and right there, for what would have been the first time in weeks and the last time in many months.
But Monique had arrived early, and Trent had been obligated to leave her. Suppose Monique had arrived thirty minutes later? Suppose her cab had been caught in traffic, or her subway train stalled on the tracks? It was New York City -- such things happened every day, every hour. What might have taken place then, alone in Trent's apartment, with all inhibitions gone?
Daria stifled a yawn. Suppose, suppose, suppose... hypotheticals were no way to put oneself to sleep. If she wasn't careful, the fruitless mental question-and-answer session would lead to insomnia. No... better to sleep. Let her dreams play "what if?" until the dawn came.
After all, she thought as she felt herself drift off, what were dreams for?
Trent Lane had come home.
Not the place he had called home for the better part of the past decade. That had been his home because he had made it. He had reached into the ravenous tumult that was New York City and carved himself his own personal niche. It had been more than a home then. It had been an empire.
But not anymore.
He had lost it. First he lost Daria, then he lost his sister, then he lost his job. It had been six long years since the night he, in a drunken stupor, had thrown his life off track, setting in motion an inexorable slide into the gutter. Two months later Daria was gone. He never knew why she left New York; she didn't tell him, and Jane had been remarkably silent on the matter. Daria hadn't even thought to inform him that she was leaving.
And as the months had gone on Trent had begun to feel more and more isolated, shrinking into his own little world. Growing more and more distant, until his usual routine became sitting in front of the television between jobs, dumbly consuming whatever he could forage, waiting for his sister to call -- if she would call.
Jane. She was as good as lost to him. He wouldn't even know where to begin. After her scaffolding accident, he just hadn't been able to cope. Alone in New York, barely holding his own in an industry he had once come close to dominating, he had been unable to look after her. She had been moved back to the old Lawndale homestead, where he was told she had been cared after by various siblings. When she had come back to New York and resumed her business, he'd made no effort to contact her. What could he have said? What could he have done? Shame and pride had kept them apart for the subsequent five years, while he continued to drift.
He had found some purpose in wresting control of his last musical production away from the treacherous Monique. But once he had weaned every ounce of vindication from her destitution, he found himself once more without direction. Without a collaborator or a reason to become inspired, his art suffered, and his career began the steady decline that had brought him back to Lawndale.
The old house was virtually derelict after all the years without a caretaker. Dirt caked the beige siding, and the painted highlights had long since faded. The lawn was almost completely overgrown, and even from the end of the driveway, he could tell that the roof was leaking. He was surprised his parents had remembered to keep paying for the property at all. Perhaps they had set up an automatic payment system and then forgotten about it. It wouldn't surprise him -- his father was clever, but could be terribly absent-minded.
Tall and foreboding, the two-story structure seemed even more imposing in the dimness of the evening. He looked away at the scraggly lawn as his battered car crept slowly along the driveway, rising and falling with the cracked asphalt. He was almost reluctant to approach the house. It was if it stood surrogate for everything and everyone he had betrayed over the years. Given the choice he would have gladly remained in New York. But without a job, there was no money for rent. This house was the last refuge he had, short of going to Daria and begging her for help. That was something he refused to do. He would beg her for forgiveness. He would beg her for closure. But he would not beg for charity. He'd sooner starve than degrade himself to that level.
Daria... that was another reason he had stayed clear of Lawndale. Six years was a long time, true... but could he bear to face her again? Would she be angry? Sad? Anything at all? And what about him? Depression and a defeatist attitude had provided him with some fairly effective emotional calluses, but he no longer knew his own self as a result. Would his old wounds be stripped raw the moment he saw her? It was not a question he wanted to answer. The potential for pain and despair was too great.
With a heavy sigh he turned off his car, letting the engine sputter to silence before exiting and heading up the stone walkway. His eye caught the eclectic sculpture that had been positioned on the lawn since Jane was in High School, and raised a curious eyebrow. Not only had the oddity not been reclaimed by the lawn, but it was almost spotlessly clean, with the small patch of grass around it cleared and flattened.
Shrugging to himself, he turned and inserted his old key in the front door, hoping that it still fit. It did. Mustering what courage remained in him, he twisted the knob and pushed the door open.
Without warning, a wild blur of fur and claws shot out of the gap in the doorway, cutting between his legs with vicious speed. Startled, his balance lost, Trent spun his arms wildly for a moment before falling backwards and landing hard on his backside. The back of his head hit the hard earth, causing stars to flash briefly before his eyes.
Heart pounding, he tilted his head and propped his torso up on his elbows, only to be flattened again by a second whiskered dervish.
After a moment, he regained the presence of mind to push himself to his feet. "I guess Zachary and Taylor are okay," he thought with a rare touch of wry amusement. But cats were resourceful, and such an unkempt home would doubtless be rife with vermin. "At least I won't have to hire pest control," he mused, and stepped inside the house.
He was relieved to find that the interior light still worked. Running a cautious eye up the stairs he moved into the living room. More than once, the house had become the unwilling home of vagrants and squatters. He wanted to make sure the place was empty before he took up residence himself.
The living-room lamp was burned out, but enough glow bled in from the doorway to reveal that, requisite clutter aside, the room was empty. Encouraged, Trent walked into the kitchen. Not only did the light work, but he was pleased to note that the refrigerator was functional. Empty, unfortunately, but a waft of cold air greeted him when he opened the door.
That left the basement. With trepidation, he opened the door and began the descent, snatching a flashlight from the counter. By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs he was reasonably confident that the space was empty. The chain for the solitary light-bulb was still functional, confirming that the room was indeed free of unwanted guests. There was a loose flap of screen on the door to the backyard; the matted fur along the rim revealing it as Zachary and Taylor's private entrance.
Trent looked around the gray-bricked room, a sudden sadness filling him. There were the old crates and boxes where the amps had rested, when he and Jesse had spend hours on end filling the house with their music. He could still see the dent in the floor where they had propped the wobbly microphone stand. And there were the places where Daria and Jane had occasionally sat, sometimes laughing, sometimes commenting, and, once and a while, been content just to sit and listen. Those had been the times he enjoyed the most: when he felt like he was actually communicating something personal -- something private. The closeness that brought was what had drawn him to Daria in the first place.
In a flash, his heart knotted up, a lump forming in the back of his throat. For a brief moment, time had been stripped away beyond the last six years and beyond the six before them. He closed his eyes, wincing at the pain the memories caused. Silently, he reached up and switched off the light, losing himself in the enveloping darkness, hoping the emotions would subside.
They didn't. So he closed his eyes, swallowed the pain, and waited.
After a time, he wasn't sure how long, his desperate vigil was interrupted by a sound from upstairs. "Trent?" called a cool voice from the kitchen. "You down there?" It was Jesse's voice. He'd arrived with the van containing Trent's meager possessions and audio equipment. Trent used the excuse to snap his mind out of the grim reverie.
"Yeah, Jess, I'm here," he called back, switching on the flashlight and quickly ascending the stairs. Jesse was standing in the kitchen, running a thick finger over the cracked enamel on the counter as if appraising the room.
It was still hard for Trent to imagine his best friend as a businessman. A far cry from yesterday's "space cadet," Jesse now wore his trademarked vest over a simple button-up shirt with khaki pants. The collar was undone, but far from slovenly. Trent smiled, recalling the day he had presented the shirt to Jesse. It had been a farewell present upon the dissolution of Mystic Spiral, canceling a long-standing one-shirt debt. It was still probably the only shirt Jesse owned.
Jesse's long, chestnut hair was now pulled back into a ponytail, revealing the beginnings of a receding hairline. He now sported a thick moustache that made him look his age. Jesse turned to face Trent. His eyes, while they could not be described as "sharp," were certainly more world-wise.
While Trent pursued his fortunes in New York, Jesse had stayed behind, finding some small success as a musical coordinator for the Zen and surrounding nightclubs. When old Harry, the Zen's proprietor, had gone into retirement with a heart condition, Jesse found himself in a position to make a bid for the establishment. Harry, grateful for the years of quality service, signed over ownership at a reasonable price. Jesse had since managed to keep the Zen both functional and thriving. Whenever he had been in town, Trent had been sure to favor the stage with his patronage. Now he was hoping to collect on the favor.
"Business is tight, man," said Jesse as the pair hefted boxes and bags from the driveway to the living-room. Frequently, the cats would pounce from the tall grass to bat at their ankles, prolonging the job and making it that much more hazardous. Trent kicked at the animals, but they would merely scamper back to the safety of the lawn, where they would regroup and mount the next assault.
"But you got a place for me, right, man?" Trent asked as he set down the long box containing several of his guitars, the ones he hadn't been forced to pawn.
"Sure," Jesse said assuredly. "It's just, you know, I got contracts an' obligations, right? I give leg-ups to a lotta bands come through Lawndale. I give 'em the kind of advantages we never got, know what I mean?"
"Yeah," Trent grinned. "You're a regular Samaritan."
Jesse laughed. "Man, you picked up a vocabulary from that chick a yours, huh?" He failed to notice as Trent's features went slack. "See, thing is, I gotta lot of commitments. I don't know how long before I can schedule you in."
Trent frowned. "Hey, Jess. It's me, remember? All those times I helped you out?"
Jesse raised his hands defensively. "Yeah, man, I remember, an' I appreciate it. But I got responsibilities, now, y'know? Now don't worry. I'll take care of ya. No way am I gonna turn down my man Trent. It just so happens, I got a nice opening bussin' tables."
"A waiter?" Trent said sharply. "If I wanted an apron job, I'd have gone to Chez Pierre."
Jesse shook is head, smiling. "They wouldn't take you, man. They ain't that desperate." He placed a comradely hand on Trent's sagging shoulder. "But hey, don't worry, it's not so bad. It's only 'till I can get you some gigs lined up, 'lright? You're Trent Lane, man. You come from New York. You got chart albums. Someone in this dump 'f'a town gonna want you, huh?"
Trent nodded slowly. "I guess you're right. Sorry, Jess. You're a good friend, y'know?"
"I know," Jesse said sagely. "I know. I'll even spot you a fifty in advance, okay? Help you get back on your feet."
"Sure, Jess. I appreciate that."
"I know you do. Now let's finish haulin' your crap, 'kay? I left ol' Jeffy in charge, I wanna get back before he burns the place down."
Running a thoughtful hand through his rough-hewn beard, Trent realized he needed a shave and headed for the personal hygiene aisle. Then he slowed to a stop, remembering his wallet and the solitary fifty-dollar bill within. He inspected the contents of the shopping-cart: mostly nonperishable food items, with a few household essentials like replacement light-bulbs and soap. There was no way he was going to be able to afford an electric razor. He sighed. He'd have to make do as best he could with a pair of scissors. Besides, who did he have to look presentable for, anyway? Perhaps he should just shave the damn thing off. Facial hair could be more trouble than it was worth.
Remembering that he needed an extra pair of socks, Trent headed for the clothing department of the store, resolving to hang onto whatever cash was left for a later time.
He got as far as the children's clothing aisle when Daria Morgendorffer stepped out in front of him.
Gawking, he stopped short, the cart squealing to a halt. Caught off-guard, she stood where she was, absolutely still for a moment, staring at him incredulously. He wasn't quite sure whether to believe it himself. She looked not much different from when he had last seen her. She wore a simple green wrap over a pastel-blue, long-sleeve shirt. Her hair was combed back, and the small lines on her face were more pronounced, but there was no mistaking those eyes. For a moment, her defenses down, he caught a hint of familiar warmth, vulnerability even.
The moment passed, and before he could speak, Daria gathered up her bags and disappeared back into the forest of discount racks. Trent blinked slowly, then lurched forward in an attempt to catch sight of her once more, but she had vanished between rows of clothes. Slapping his forehead and cursing his stupidity, Trent grabbed his cart and hurried directly to the front of the store and into the nearest available checkout. She was nowhere to be scene, and he waited impatiently for his turn at the counter.
Handing over his cash to the register clerk, he elbowed the bagboy out of the way, quickly sweeping the items that were bankrupting him into two large bags. Seizing his change, he hurried out to his car. Still no sign of Daria. He scanned the parking lot for several seconds before finding what he was looking for. "She still drives that old thing," he thought as he recognized what had to be Daria's car. There was even a faded NPR bumper-sticker still attached to the back.
Trent hurried to his own vehicle, a rush of adrenaline subsiding somewhat once he reached the car and Daria had not yet emerged from the store. Part of Trent was relieved that things had gone the way they did. The last thing he wanted was a hasty, unplanned confrontation, especially in public. But there were so many questions, and seeing Daria, actually standing next to her brought them rushing to the forefront of his thoughts, all gnawing at his mind at once. It was maddening, he thought as he sped home, resisting the distracting urge to begin composing song lyrics about the experience.
Once home, the grocery bags sat untouched on the kitchen table as he sat with his head between his arms, lost in his thoughts. What was she thinking right now? What was she doing? She was thinking about him, that much was certain. Or was she? Had she moved on to the point where he could be dismissed so easily? No, she couldn't have... could she? Then why hadn't she said anything? Had she been angry? Afraid? Both? "And what is she even doing in Lawndale, anyway? She had a good thing going in New York. What happened to that?"
Elbows on the table, temples squashed firmly between his upper arms, Trent realized that he was cutting off the circulation to his face. In mental frustration, he reared back and slumped down into the chair. So many questions and no answers. He couldn't go on like this. Not here. Not back in Lawndale. It was too much.
Breathing deeply, he composed himself. He still had a few hours before he'd promised to help Jesse unload his latest stock shipment. Maybe there was a way to get some answers without actually talking to Daria.
Head lowered almost to the steering wheel, barely visible above the dashboard, Trent edged forward onto Glen Oaks Lane. He felt ridiculous, but he didn't want to be seen. Not until he was certain Daria had left her house -- if she was even at her old house. But she wouldn't recognize his car. He'd traded in for the battered Acclaim the previous year. The old junker had been the best he could afford, and he hoped she wouldn't notice the state of the car and jump to the conclusion that it belonged to him.
A block down from what he knew used to be the Morgendorffer residence, Trent pulled up to the curb and turned off the car. He checked his watch. It was almost noon. Now all he had to do was wait.
He squinted at the distant driveway. That was her car, alright. There was also a Lexus parked next to it. The sudden horrid thought occurred to him: what if Daria was married? A sickening feeling rose in the pit of his stomach. He hadn't anticipated that. It had never even occurred to him. What if she had a brand new life without him -- a family even? He hadn't prepared himself for that!
Sweat broke out abruptly as the door to the house opened, and he reflexively jerked downward into his seat. But it was only Daria who exited the house... alone. He squinted harder as she walked stiffly to her car. Was she carrying a lunchbox? Before he could get a better view, she ducked into her car and promptly pulled out of the driveway. Trent prepared to dive beneath the dashboard, but Daria turned and continued in the opposite direction. Within seconds, she was out of sight.
Heart-rate settling somewhat, Trent got out of the car and locked the door. The slow walk down the sidewalk was sheer torture. Who would open the door? More than once, he entertained the notion of abandoning the whole plan and running pell-mell back to his car. Then he could go home and forget all about it.
Except he couldn't forget about it. He knew he couldn't. He'd been trying for six years to forget -- and he hadn't been anywhere near her. No, forgetting was not an option. Even if he believed he could drown the memories in alcohol -- which he had learned, by now, didn't work -- he didn't want to. Look what had happened the last time he gave into that urge? He couldn't afford it, in more ways than one. So he kept walking.
It took an eternity for the walk down the block to end, and every moment was a torture unto itself. But when he stood at the doorstep, as he had so many times in the past, poised to ring that bell, it seemed like no time had passed at all. Steeling himself, he pushed the button and prepared for the worse.
An older woman answered the door, red hair shot through with gray. Her eyes widened, and she froze, stopping short of opening the door beyond more than a few inches. It took him a moment to recognize her as Helen. Inwardly, relief flooded him. Of course -- Daria was living with her parents. The house was big enough. Pushing the revelation aside, he frowned slightly. Helen had refused to widen the entrance, and her piercing glare was making things uncomfortable. He cleared his throat awkwardly.
"You," Helen said. Her voice was hard, laced with ire. Trent involuntarily took a step back. "I should have known you'd come crawling by eventually," she snapped. "Does Daria know you're here?"
"No'me," Trent muttered, surprising himself with the force of his reaction to this woman after all these years. "I mean, yeah. She..." He frowned. "Didn't she tell you?"
"No, she didn't. Why? Did you already see her? What did you do to her!"
Trent sighed. This wasn't going to be very helpful. "Listen, I was hoping I could come in and talk..."
Helen snorted in exaggerated disdain. "Absolutely not! I think you've done quite enough damage here, don't you think? I'll thank you to leave." She abruptly disappeared and the door began to close. Without thinking, Trent jammed his hand into the gap, only to have the hard edge slam into his fingers. He yelped in pain and jerked it back. But it was enough for those piercing eyes to return momentarily.
This was getting him nowhere. "Look, is Jake -- er, Mr. Morgendorffer -- here. I need to talk to him."
"He's still at school," Helen muttered. "Now, please, if you want to avoid screwing up again, you'll turn around and go back to wherever you came from. Trust me, you do not want to go up against me in a court of law. Good-bye!" This time, he didn't dare try and stop the door from slamming shut. It was followed by the damning click of a lock.
Shoulder's slumped and hands in his pockets, Trent walked slowly back to his car. "School?" he thought. "But what would Jake be doing..." Curious, Trent began to jog, past his car and to the corner, where a phone booth stood. He slid inside. The directory book was still there. Thumbing through the yellow pages, he confirmed what he had suspected. Jake Morgendorffer Consulting was nowhere to be found.
Trent checked his watch. He still had plenty of time. It was time to play out a hunch.
Trent sat uncomfortably outside the office of Principal Barch. It had been ages since he had walked through the halls of Lawndale High. This room, with its deceptively pleasant colors and stiff chairs, still seemed oddly ominous. He looked up. Perhaps it was the name above the door. He didn't know how the old witch had clawed her way from science teacher to principal, but the portrait of "Our beloved Superintendent Li" beside the door gave him some ideas.
At least the atmosphere was lightened somewhat by the presence of the cheery young secretary. As he looked up, she gave him a reassuring smile. He narrowed his eyes. She looked familiar. One of Daria's sister's friends, maybe? He couldn't remember their names. The pigtailed one. As the door opened, she returned to her typing, and Trent looked up, prepared for the worse.
The smiling face, however, caught him off guard. "Mr. O'Neill?" he asked in surprise.
The man laughed, eyes sparkling. "Oh, my... 'Mr. O'Neill'... I haven't been called that in a very long time!"
Trent was confused. "But the sign above the door..."
"A wedding gift for Janet," Timothy O'Neill -- Barch -- gushed. "After all, why should women be the only ones forced to give up their maiden names? Oh, but if you remembered... you must be one of my old students? Forgive me if I don't recognize you..."
"Trent Lane," Trent offered.
O'Neill -- Barch's -- eyes lit up. "Ah, yes... you're Jan Lane's brother?"
"Oh, of course." He smiled sheepishly. "Please forgive me. We get so many students through here, and my memory's not quite what it used to be... Yes, I remember Jane. The artist. Please -- come inside." O'Neill (Trent had given up trying to think of him as Barch) stood back, ushering Trent inside the office with a wave of his hand. Trent moved towards the chair in front of the desk, but O'Neill raised a hand to stop him, gesturing towards the large plush seat behind the desk.
"Please, sit there. After all, I'm here to serve you." Trent raised a skeptical eyebrow, but O'Neill had already seated himself happily in the smaller seat facing his own desk. Trent shrugged and moved around to the larger chair. "Why not?" he thought.
"So," said O'Neill eagerly. "What can I do for you, Brent."
Trent opened his mouth to correct him, but decided it wasn't worth the effort. Instead, he said "Actually, I'm looking for Jake Morgendorffer. I know it's a long shot, but I was told he was here at the school... I didn't see his name on the directory outside..."
"Oh, yes," O'Neill said, head bobbing. "He's not here."
Trent's face fell. "Oh. I see. Um... thanks, I guess." He rose to leave, but O'Neill motioned for him to sit.
"No, you misunderstand me. He's not here here. But he is part of the Lawndale Public Schools team." O'Neill was beaming with pride. Trent just looked confused.
"Jake Morgendorffer is the newest member of our Elementary School staff," O'Neill explained. "A valued member of the Pre-K team." A sudden vision flashed before Trent's eyes: Jake, attempting to entertain his daughter on her 19th birthday with infantile noises and balloon animals. Of course. It made perfect sense.
"So he's at the Elementary School," Trent said.
O'Neill nodded. "Actually, his afternoon class is just getting out. If you go right now, you should be able to catch him." His face lit up. "Say, do you need a ride? I have my two-person bicycle in the lot. Don't use a car, myself..."
"Um, no, thanks," Trent said hastily. "Think I'll just walk."
O'Neill looked crestfallen for a moment, but then perked up. "Ah, yes, nothing like a vigorous walk for the circulation!" His face lit up with a flash of inspiration. "Here!" he exclaimed, rummaging through a desk drawer. He pulled out a small circular object the size of his palm. "Take this, as a friendly reminder of Lawndale High!" He thrust the small oval at Trent, who reached up and took it. It was a smiley-face button.
Trent left the man's office in a hurry. Barch or no Barch, the man just plain disturbed him.
As he crossed the street to the newer, smaller Elementary building, he reflected on what he was going to say to Jake. "Excuse me, sir, remember me? I'm the guy who destroyed your daughter's life. I'm the reason she left her high-profile, successful career and moved back in with you. Your daughter avoids me, your wife hates me, and I'm probably somehow responsible for the failure of your consulting business. I'm just here to tell you that, through my own incompetence, I'm stuck in close proximity to you all, and I've decided that it's impossible for me to avoid you without getting the answers I don't deserve. To that end, I've been stalking you all, and here I am at your workplace, in public, ready to tear open all your own wounds for my own personal gratification. So how 'bout it?"
By the time he reached the front walk of the Elementary school, Trent's confidence level had plummeted. What was he doing? Helen had been right. He had absolutely no business walking into their lives after all these years. It was ridiculous! It was stupid! He'd been so distracted and depressed, he'd been acting on pure emotion; playing out his selfish whims without bothering to consider the consequences. It was illogical. It was irrational. It was... exactly why he needed Daria.
He stopped, eyes downcast, a yard short of the entrance. He was defeated. Trapped. He couldn't in good conscious go forward through those doors. But he couldn't go back, either. He just couldn't. In quiet desperation, he fingered the button O'Neill had given him. The unconditionally happy grin seemed to be mocking him as it glinted in the sunlight.
And then it was gone, yanked from his long fingers in the blink of an eye. Trent looked up in surprise. The mysterious bandit was quick -- he had only enough time to glimpse a tussle of jet-black hair, pulled back into a pony-tail, disappearing through the doors at about thigh-height, and then she was gone.
Trent blinked stupidly for a moment before instinctively propelling himself through the doors. "Hey!" he cried out as the child ducked inside an open classroom door. Trent skidded to a halt in the doorway. "Give that... oh."
Trent was looking in at what had to be a pre-school class. Everything was out, from blocks to crayons to large plush animals. The assortment of children playing around the room (most of whom were too lost in their own little worlds to take any notice of him) looked to be anywhere between the ages of three and five. In the far corner, his young privateer hunched back against the wall, clutching the button defensively in her hands. He finally got a good look at her. She was wearing blue overalls over a pink shirt. Her pony-tail had come loose in the pursuit, causing her hair to swing up around her shoulders in jet-black ringlets. An assortment of lopsided locks of hair hung over her forehead, partially obscuring her firmly set jaw and defiant eyes.
But the girl only drew his attention briefly. Within moments, his eyes had become fixed on the man in the center of the room, who was still squatting somberly on the floor where he had been cleaning up spilt milk. The man looked at Trent for a moment, then a broad grin slowly split his face. Trent cursed himself silently, and took a step back, but the man gestured for him to wait. "Just a moment," mouthed Jake Morgendorffer, and he winked. "Emma?" he asked, turning to the young firebrand in the corner.
Even as Trent complied with the old man's wishes, he was raging inwardly. Why had he done that? Gone barging into an Elementary school after a girl who couldn't be more than five. Over a button? A stupid button? He hadn't even wanted the damn thing! But it was too late now.
The girl, "Emma," was reluctant to obey her teacher at first. But after a hesitant look in Trent's direction, she moved away from the wall and walked casually over to Jake.
"Now, Emma," Jake said gently, "what did we talk about?"
Emma frowned, holding up the button and staring at it. "But it's perfect." Her voice was almost unbearably cute.
"I know it's pretty, kiddo, but..."
Emma made a kind of a "gack" noise and twisted her face in disgust. "It's not pretty, it's nauseating." Trent raised a surprised eyebrow. Impressive vocabulary for an evident five-year old. "Mom says they make good centerpieces," the girl continued.
Jake chuckled good-naturedly. "If my daughter listened to her mom all the time, she'd be a miserable wreck. And if I listened to her mom, I'd still be wasting away in a cubicle instead of being here with you. And if I listened to my dad..."
Emma considered this. Before she could respond, Jake took the girl by the shoulder and turned her towards Trent. "Now, you see that man?" he asked. Emma scrutinized him with large, intelligent eyes. Trent squirmed uncomfortably. "What do you see?"
Emma gave a small laugh. If it hadn't been so blasted cute, Trent could have sworn it was a snicker. "He looks like he needs it more than I do," she declared.
Jake grinned even wider, rising as the girl walked up to Trent. "Here ya go, mister," she said, thrusting the button at Trent.
Trent shook his head, embarrassed. "Naw, it's okay, you can keep it," he said quickly. Emma's face quickly coalesced into a pout, but her hand did not move. "What's the matter?" she demanded. "It's a Mister Smiley!"
Above her, Jake shook his head in amusement. "I think you'd better take it," he said quietly. Eyes flitting between the unlikely pair, Trent carefully took the button and slipped it into his pocket, muttering a hasty thanks. Jake nodded in approval, shooing the girl back into the room. "Now go play," he said, "while I go talk to this sad fella, huh?" Emma gave Trent another skeptical glance, then turned and ran back into the room.
Jake stepped out into the hall, motioning for Trent to follow. "Tricia?" he called down the hall.
A youngish intern with blonde hair and an oval face popped her head out of a nearby office. "Yeah, boss?"
"Watch the class for the last few minutes, will you? And keep an eye on Emma. She snuck out again."
Tricia rolled her eyes. "Sure thing, Mr. M." She smiled cheerfully at Trent as she passed, then entered the classroom, shutting the door behind her and leaving Trent alone with Jake. Trent swallowed nervously as the old man's grin faded. But the more serious expression remained amicable.
"Walk with me, Trent," said Jake. He began strolling down the hall towards the back of the building. Uncertain, Trent stood motionless for several seconds. Jake looked back over his shoulder expectantly, and Trent hastened to catch up. Jake nodded and resumed walking, Trent keeping pace.
Trent's throat was bone-dry. "I'm sorry, Mr. Morgendorffer," he rasped. "I didn't mean to..."
Jake shook his head. "You don't have to apologize to me. I'm too old to be listening to other people's apologies. I've got enough to be sorry for without increasing anyone else's misery."
Trent flushed in embarrassment. "I didn't have any right to come here," he said softly. "I saw Daria. I didn't mean to..."
"Hey!" Jake said gleefully. Trent looked up in surprise. Jake had temporarily forgotten him, sparkling eyes fixed on the heavy door that was propped open at the end of the hall. "Someone left the back door open. No wonder she got out." He turned to Trent mischievously, a hint of that old spontaneous abandon creeping back into his voice. "Let's go outside!"
"Sure," Trent said. "Whatever you want."
The sun was almost directly overhead of the small courtyard at the rear of the school, but the pair found comfortable shade under a large elm. Jake amused himself by twirling a large leaf between his thumb and forefinger as he spoke.
"You know, I expected you to turn up sooner or later," Jake said. Trent listened attentively. "Didn't really know when. My wife may not feel the same way... but I always hoped it would be sooner rather than later." Trent bowed his head in shame, but Jake elbowed him in the side. "Don't be so hard on yourself. Daria told me what happened. It doesn't matter now." He turned and looked at Trent pointedly. "Do you have any idea how long it took me to figure out that the past doesn't matter?" He sighed. "Six years ago, I was so caught up in the past, I almost lost everything. Daria changed that when she came back. She gave me a new reason to value the present."
Trent waited for Jake to elaborate. Indeed, he seemed like he was about to go on, but then fell silent again, seemingly lost in the fine intricacies of the solitary leaf he held. "How did she do that?" Trent prompted after a moment's silence.
Jake waved a dismissive hand and shook his head. "It's not important. Well... maybe it is important. But that'll depend on you two." Trent frowned in confusion. "The important thing is," he continued, "I looked around at myself for the first time in years. You know... really looked at my life. And do you know what I found?" Trent indicated he did not. "My life stunk!" Jake exclaimed, pounding a fist against the earth.
"My past? I was letting it come between me and my girls. My career? I was letting it come between me and happiness. Until that moment, I didn't realize what I wanted out of life. So I cut my losses, packed up my office, and left the consulting business." His expression turned wistful for a moment. "I was good, though," he whispered, almost to himself. "I was damn good. Maybe someday I'll go back. I've got this neat idea..." He trailed off, looked back at the school. "But right now I have more important things to worry about.
"That's what I want you to realize, Trent. The past will never matter as much as the future. I won't be around forever. I don't want to leave my little girl alone."
Trent looked at Jake expectantly, but the man was staring into space, his thoughts drifting far away. Following suite, Trent leaned back, searching for words, for something, anything, to say. He didn't find it.
They spent the next half hour in contemplative silence.
Trent hadn't visited Dega St. in many years. As the more alternative sector of the Lawndale commercial district, he'd spent a great deal of time there during his high-school and post-high-school years. During hot Spring days such as this one, it always seemed more like an Arab Bazaar than any American marketplace. The extravagant shops remained garish in the clear light of day, neon signs glazed over in the dust and the hot sun. The air was filled with street chatter, underscored by the latest alternative grooves. The sidewalk was littered with vendors and display racks, creating a labyrinth of wares that protruded into the street on occasion. Needless to say, traffic was slow. Where could you park, anyway? No, you went to Dega St., you walked.
So Trent walked, instinctively navigating through the maze of shoppers, the surrounding din fading easily to the back of his mind. After New York, it was second nature -- Dega St. was both quiet and spacious by comparison. It was easy, therefore, to get lost in his thoughts, which was precisely what Trent was after.
He did note how the amount of people occupying the district had grown; probably along with the population of Lawndale. Occasionally, he would catch a glimpse of a shop he recognized, but more often than not, the old familiar locations were gone, replaced by newer, gaudier properties. He supposed it was inevitable. And since he wasn't going anywhere in particular, it didn't really matter.
He checked his watch. He was already late. He'd told Jesse he'd be at the Zen by four O'clock, and there was no way he was going to make it there on time. "Well Jesse can wait," he thought irritably. There were more important things.
His conversation with Jake had changed things. The elder Morgendorffer's reaction had come as an honest surprise. Was it possible that Jake's newfound grip on life was an inadvertent result of Daria leaving Trent? And did that mean that it was possible that there had been positive as well as negative consequences to his mistakes of the past? Jake had certainly implied as much. The notion made Trent rather uncomfortable. He didn't like the notion of glazing over the horrible consequences of his actions with a cliché "silver-lining" metaphor. It didn't feel right. But at the same time, he couldn't deny the hope it gave him. It meant that perhaps there was something good left between him and Daria after all... something salvageable.
The implications of that statement were very important to him. Because if they were true, he hadn't been approaching this the wrong way after all. Jake had all but encouraged him to attempt some sort of resolution... which meant that maybe, just maybe, Daria wasn't happy. Had the old man really picked up on something? Or was it just a product of naive optimism? Trent didn't know... but as long as there was the slightest possibility that he was still needed, he had to try.
As Trent reached this decision, a sign caught the corner of his eye, and he stopped and turned. He was standing in front of "Axl's Piercing Parlor." He smiled. So the old pirate had managed to stay in business for all the years Trent had been gone. He remembered when he had taken Daria to get pierced at Axl's. It had been over a decade ago... back when Daria was just his sister's friend... back when he didn't know what words like "love" and "commitment" meant, for as much as he'd written about them. What must that day have meant to Daria?
With a flash of inspiration, he knew what to do next. Dipping into his pocket, he checked his wallet. Fifteen dollars. It wasn't much, but enough for a token gift. It would be more symbolic than anything else.
Axl himself was behind the counter. Spiky black hair unchanged, face pierced at every available opportunity. Trent smiled to himself. Axl would fit right at home in New York. Noticing his latest customer, Axl shifted in the stool behind the counter. His eyes flickered in lax recognition.
"Oh, Trent. Hey. 'S been a while. Good to see you." For a man who Trent hadn't been face to face with for years, Axl sounded about as excited as a tomato. "So what can I do for you? We've got 'a new thing goin' where I insert a ring into the tattoo design."
"Sounds interesting, Axl, but maybe later. Hey, I'll take a look at your earrings, though. Whad'ya got?"
Reaching beneath the counter, Axl pulled out a thin box and opened it up in Trent's direction. Inside were a wide assortment of earring pairs, lined up in rows on black velvet. Trent ran a finger over his beard, considering the options. Half of them were too gaudy, half of them too large. Then his eye caught hold of a simple silver ring. He smiled to himself, recalling the day he'd first brought Daria here. "Little silver ring," he'd said, pointing at her navel. "Right here. It'd look hot, Daria."
"I'll take those," Trent said aloud, pointing to the plain bands.
Axl turned the box and eyed the selection with aloofness. "You sure, mate?" he asked uncertainly. "You know, the spiral bands are all the rage nowadays..."
"I'm sure," Trent replied, going for his wallet. "Honestly, I can't afford much anyway. How much are they?"
"Thirteen dollars, cash," Axl said, reaching over and plucking the bills from Trent's hand. "You need s'more piercings to go with those?"
Trent shook his head. "It's a gift."
A plastic bag and a handful of quarters later, Trent was happily outside the store, heading back to where he'd left his car. As soon as he could, he picked up the pace. Jesse would be getting impatient by now. With his resources stretched so thin, he couldn't afford to be much later. But he couldn't help whistling to himself as he maneuvered through the crowd. It was turning out to be a pretty good day.
It was the whistling that lured her back to consciousness, tossing fretfully amidst the debris and clutter of the thin alley where she had passed out in a drunken stupor. Snarling in disgust, she peeled some sort of vegetable rind from where it had grafted itself onto her arm, sticky liquid still clinging to the fine hairs on her skin.
What was she doing in the alley anyway. In silent anger, she realized that her so-called date must have left her on the street, too inebriated to get herself home. Enraged, she seized the nearest empty bottle and hurled it violently against the brick wall, leaving a speckling of glass and amber drops. There was still a bitter taste on her tongue. She wiped her mouth in disgust, looking around to see if anyone had seen her. But she was far back in the alley, and the crowd outside was thinning out.
Then she tuned in to the whistling again, realizing she recognized the tune. "Icebox Woman," she thought in surprise. Without hesitation, she ran for the front of the alley. But she'd been laying in an awkward position, and the circulation had been cut off to about half her right leg. Limping, and dragging a sour-smelling tangle of trash behind her, she reached the corner and peered around. She couldn't get a very good view beyond the people in the immediate area, but she could have sworn she saw a familiar shape disappear around a bend.
Uncertain, she whipped her head around in the other direction, looking up the street. No familiar forms, but there was Axl's place. Still limping, she made her way to the door, trying to ignore the stares of revulsion she got from passersby. She snorted in disgust. As if they hadn't all been in the exact same place. But she still ran a self-conscious hand through matted black hair.
Axl looked up in surprise as she shoved her way inside the door. "'Ello, Monique," he said blandly, as the door swung shut. "You been sleepin' on the street again?"
"Was it him?" Monique asked, voice ragged. "Was that him I saw? Did he come in here?"
"Who, Trent?" Axl asked. "Yeah, what for it?"
Monique closed her eyes, the sting of humiliation burning once more into her brain. The memories seethed and raged inside of her like they hadn't in the past few years. He was back. He'd embarrassed her, ruined her, and left her out to dry. A tear ran down her dirty cheek. How had that tramp ever meant so much to him? She was only a girl! A stupid brainy snob! Try as she might, she couldn't comprehend it. Her thoughts flitted back to that time, six years past.
It wasn't enough that he'd broken off their relationship. That had been bad enough. Without a collaborator, she'd lost half of her connections in the New York music industry. But no, he had to shame her as well. To embarrass her in public, to get the press involved! How could he have expected her to recover from that? He'd made her the laughingstock of the New York music scene. She'd lost job after job, contract after contract, until she'd been forced to sell her share of the musical they had co-written, just to survive.
It hadn't worked. She'd been forced back here, to Lawndale. And try as she might, she knew she was never getting out. No matter who she bribed, no matter who she slept with, the word in the industry was that Monique Levinson had failure written all over her. In many ways, the stigma was worse than the shame. She was a hopeless case. And Trent had done it to her. Him and that bitch.
"Ah, Monique, luv?" She opened her eyes. Axl was looking at her strangely. "You okay?" She wasn't. She would never be okay. But she nodded anyway, wiping at her nose.
Axl made a gesture at the floor beneath her. "You picked up a little something, there." Monique looked down. Somehow, the broken plastic rings of a six-pack had become hooked into her sock. At the other end of the plastic, beer or caramelized soda had picked up a crumpled sheet of newspaper. Her eyes widened at the newsprint face that stared up at her from the ground with that blank, expressionless stare she remembered so well. Screaming in fury, she lifted her heel and smashed the paper into the floor.
Axl raised an eyebrow. "Say, luv, you want to take that outside?"
Monique shot him a nasty glare, then turned haughtily and limped out to the sidewalk with as much dignity as she could muster. Once there, she proceeded to viciously shake the offending debris off of her leg. The quick, jerking motions of her foot caught the shin of a passerby. The young man jumped back, startled. When no apology was forthcoming, he opened his mouth with a ready volley of curses and a raised fist. But the look in her eyes persuaded him to move on.
Monique gave one last scowl for the people who had the gall to be staring, then she whirled on her heel and stalked away. She had to get home... see if anything had been stolen or vandalized in her absence. The thought angered her further. The ramshackle, second-story apartment she called "home" was the last place she wanted to go right now, but in it was every possession she had in the world. She still couldn't shake the image of Trent. His face floated phantomwise before her eyes. Her teeth gritted together painfully. She had to walk away, for now. She still needed more information, anyway. And soon, very soon, she would see that she obtained it.
No matter what it took.
Eight hours after his departure from Dega St., Trent was ready for sleep. More than ready, in fact, if the challenge of driving home had been any indication.
His optimistic euphoria had evaporated shortly after arriving at the Zen. Walking through the mess of tables and customers, he had considered with some trepidation the nights he would soon be spending among them. And his ears still rang with the harsh sound of some of the newer guitars the kids had been using. He winced in reflection. While Jesse had at least found talent (if not ingenuity) the more modern sound was hardly the kind of atmosphere he was looking for. Not that he was complaining.
Beggars, after all, could not be choosers.
The night was uncannily quiet as Trent fumbled with his keychain to lock the doors of his car. His hands were still numb after the hours of backbreaking lifting he'd done. And he'd already spent his first paycheck! He tried to sigh, but it only turned in to a yawn. The action called up fond memories of his mattress upstairs, and he drowsily turned and shuffled to the house.
That the front door was unlocked was his first clue that something was wrong. Hand frozen in mid-twist, Trent frowned at the doorknob, narrowing his bleary eyes in recollection. He was certain he had locked it. Indeed, with his every possession contained within the house, security had been foremost in his mind.
Perhaps he hadn't twisted the key all the way. Or had he, in his near-stupor, routinely unlocked the door and immediately forgotten? He didn't know.
Cautiously, he finished twisting the knob and slowly pushed the door open. The house was dark. A movement in the living room caught his eye, and he spun, hunching reflexively into a defensive posture. But it was only the curtain on the front window. "Wait a minute," he thought suddenly. "I know I locked the window."
Stealthily, Trent extended his upper torso into the darkened room and craned his neck. The room was empty. Throwing a nervous glance back over his shoulder, he quickly and quietly stepped over to the window sill. His eyes ran sharply over the frame, no longer heavy-lidded the adrenaline flowing through his veins had more than woken him up by now. Sure enough, the clasp had been jimmied open. The light from outside revealed a dark footprint impressed upon the paint.
Trent felt his heart lurch within his chest. There was an intruder in the house. "Why tonight," he muttered, startled at the sound of his own voice. He had to call the police. Possibly he could handle the situation himself... if they were vagrants or squatters. Non-ambitious vagrants or squatters, that was. They could just as easily be thugs. They might have seen him moving in the previous day and decided to invade while everything was still nice and boxed up and ready for the taking.
Hurrying to the stand next to the couch, Trent reached over with one sweaty palm and picked up the telephone.
The line was dead.
Suddenly, there was a sound behind him, and a blur of motion in his peripheral vision. He didn't have time to turn around before the hard clay urn shattered around the back of his skull. Reeling from the blow, Trent flopped sideways, the telephone receiver spinning from his hand to clatter against the floor. Jaw clenched at the dull pain, he twisted his back around so that his shoulders rested on the base of the couch and his head lolled against the cushion. Turning his jaw up, Trent saw his assailant.
Poised with the broken and jagged neck of the urn aimed squarely at his face, the form reached over deliberately and switched on the lamp next to the sofa. Light washed over her features, dark hair framing her blazing eyes, and Trent gasped in recognition. She was the last person he expected to see after all these years...
"Janey?" he blurted.
Jane's eyes widened in surprise. "Trent!" she hissed vehemently. The shock fading, her lips curled into a vengeful grin, and she thrust the broken clay at Trent. Gaping, he jerked out of the way just in time. The remainder of the urn broke, rough bits scattering across the left end of the couch. Jane looked at him in disappointment.
Then she slapped him. Hard. Trent felt stars explode before his eyes as the pain in the back of his head compounded. As Jane advanced, he scrambled to his feet. "Janey," he spluttered. "What the hell is going on?"
Jane gave him a forceful shove, and he toppled backwards onto the right end of the couch. "Don't you 'Janey' me!" she shouted.
Trent gasped for breath. "Jane, it's me..."
She reached down and seized him by the collar of his shirt, pulling back hard and lifting his shoulders off the couch. Her face moved close to his. He could almost feel the anger resonating off of her. "I know it's you," she seethed. Her lower jaw stuck out defiantly, her eyes boring into his. It was as if she was daring him to protest, to struggle.
But Trent met the challenge by remaining limp. He wasn't about to lay hands on his sister, regardless of how she might feel on the matter.
"Good," she said slowly, dropping his shirt. Trent fell back against the arm of the couch, then moved himself into a sitting position. "At least you're not a complete idiot after all these years." She turned and walked over to the window, lapsing into a sullen silence. Casually, she adjusted her black jacket where it had come loose over the red shirt she wore underneath.
Trent took the opportunity to sit up, brushing the clay dust off his shoulders in an attempt to reclaim some of his dignity. "So," he said in his most aloof manner, "I guess you thought I was a burglar, huh?"
Jane gave a small, bitter laugh. "You're lucky I did. If I'd known it was you, I might have gone for Dad's Elephant gun."
Trent paled. "I... I wasn't expecting to find you here. And the phone was dead..."
"I put the cords in the kitchen. No one calls, and the mice just chew through them anyway."
"But the window..."
"I left my house key in New York," Jane said shortly. "I didn't want to bother Daria, so I used the window."
"Daria has a house key?" Trent thought. "But how did you get here?" he asked out loud. "Wouldn't your car..."
"My car's in the garage."
Trent's eyebrow lifted in mild surprise. "The garage door works?"
Jane turned to fix him with an icy glare. "I had it fixed five years ago. I visit Lawndale often. Of course, you'd have known that by now if you ever bothered to call, or write, or even show up!"
"Janey," Trent began.
She cut him off with a violent slice of her hand through the air. "Dammit, Trent!" she yelled. "You abandoned me! I know it never even ocurred to you that I might need you. That doesn't bother me so much. I've survived worse. But did you ever consider, just for a second, that maybe you needed me?" She began pacing, anger and distress flowing out of her like a pot boiling over.
"Don't say a word!" she continued. "I know, I know it all. You didn't feel good enough. You didn't feel capable enough. No money. No energy. Well dammit Trent!" She rounded on him. "That's a hell of a lot of God damn self-pity!"
Trent flinched, the words striking a guilty chord. "I was in no condition to do anything," he protested softly. "I knew you were getting taken care of. Wind and Penny..."
"I wanted you, Trent!" Jane said, her tone beyond accusatory. "They used to live in this house once upon a time, but I grew up with you. All those years we were in New York, I kept thinking the things we shared would never go away. That there was some sort of special 'bond.' God, was I naοve."
Trent's shoulders sagged in despair. "It wasn't like that," he said weakly. "After Daria..."
Jane's fury welled up afresh. "Don't you dare bring Daria into this! She stuck by me, Trent! More than Penny or Summer or Dad... there were so many things I just couldn't deal with. That was a really bad year, and you have no idea..." For a moment, she seemed like she was about to continue. But she merely shook her head, hands clenching into fists. "No," she said. "You don't deserve to know."
"Look," said Trent, "I know what I did was wrong. And I'm sorry. You don't know how sorry I am."
"And that's supposed to make it all better?" Jane shot back.
Trent clenched his jaw defiantly, then relaxed it. "No," he said. "It's not."
For a long moment, Jane stared out the window, her back to Trent. "Go," she said at last. "I want you to leave, Trent. I don't know why you're here, and I don't care."
"I don't have anywhere to go," Trent said softly.
Jane gave a small, bitter laugh. "Figures."
He didn't bother to elaborate. He knew he didn't need to. "I just want to... I want to do what's right. By you... by Daria..."
Jane laughed again, louder. "You want to do what's right, Trent? Now? Then I'm telling you keep out of my way, and stay the hell away from Daria Morgendorffer."
"Her father disagrees."
Jane twisted her neck around to give him a skeptical look. "What, you talked to old 'wise-man' Jake? Take my advice the man's crazier now than he's ever been."
Trent frowned. "He didn't seem..."
"I know, I know, mellow, at peace with himself and the world. Well maybe for now, but it's a phase. He ruined his business with his gambling, you know that? And he's sure not at peace with Helen. Daria tolerates him because it's good for... the family."
Trent shook his head. "It doesn't matter. I can still help things. I can still help Daria."
Jane turned around, hands on her hips. "Wake up, Trent! Daria doesn't need your help! Regardless of what you may or may not believe, she's been just fine for the past five years without big, strong Trent Lane to protect her! She has a good life and a good job, writing for the Sun-Herald. She's got her life working again, Trent. The last thing she needs is you coming in and shaking it up again."
Trent sat silently, digesting this new information. "It doesn't matter," he concluded at last. "You might be right. Daria may not need me. But right now, I need Daria."
"Well, gee, Trent, that's real noble of you," Jane said scornfully. "You've hit bottom, so you're going to take her down with you."
"Look, Jane, we all have to do what's right for us. Right now, what's right for me is seeing Daria again. And if that's not right for her, then I won't make her suffer. But if there's even the slightest chance, any chance, that just maybe she needs me too... I have to find out, Janey. I have to find out, or I'll never be able to move on, to find new dreams."
Jane's shoulders slumped, and her eyes looked suddenly weary. "Trent," she said softly, "I'm telling you. That chance doesn't exist."
Trent met her eyes with a resolute stare. "And I'm telling you that this is something I have to find out for myself."
"Trent," Jane said, an ounce of sisterly concern creeping into her voice. "Can you honestly tell me you're prepared for the worst?" She waited, but he was silent, suddenly unsure. She shook her head. "I didn't think so."
Without another word, she walked away and up the stairway, leaving Trent sitting alone on the couch. He sat there for several minutes, thinking, absorbing the silence. Then, without a word, he got up and began the long and arduous task of cleaning up, collecting the shattered clay piece by broken piece.
Trent didn't see his sister in the morning. Maybe she didn't want to be seen. He looked dimly at the half-eaten bowl of soggy corn-flakes. Not that there was anything worth getting up for. Setting down his spoon, he flirted with the guilty idea that perhaps Jane would bring home better food for them to eat. Or at least some real coffee.
Stifling a yawn, Trent gave up on breakfast. He wasn't really hungry. He didn't need coffee, either, if the butterflies in his stomach were any indication. The knowledge of what he intended to do today had been enough to drain him of both sleep and appetite. It would catch up with him later tonight, probably midway through work. That was the least of his worries, he mused as he cleared the table.
He ran an exploratory hand through his newly washed hair and trimmed face. Then he checked the collar on his shirt and shrugged on his jacket. A reassuring pat confirmed that the tiny package was secure in the right coat pocket.
Trent walked to Daria's house in mental silence. He'd given up hours ago on rehearsing what he was going to say. Nothing sounded right. And he knew, he knew that any words he could have constructed would have fled his mind the moment he laid eyes on her. No, he had to speak from the heart. Improv. That was the only way... the only chance he had.
The first sight of Daria's house in the distance gave him pause. A shiver ran down his spine that had nothing to do with the chilly air of early-morning. But he forced himself to put one foot in front of the other and kept walking.
Part of him desperately hoped that her car would not be in the driveway. More of him desperately hoped that it would be. It rapidly became apparent that the latter was true. It didn't make him feel any better.
In what seemed like no time at all, he was there at the sidewalk before the Morgendorffer house, the doorway looming closer and closer with each passing second. And then he was there, reaching stiffly for the doorbell. He paused just before his finger touched the button, then knocked instead. On the chance that Daria was downstairs, it was better, he considered, not to wake the whole household.
The first knock was hesitant. When there was no answer, he tried a second time. He was just about to give in and ring the bell when the door cracked open. A single lensed eye peered out at him critically. Trent's heart clenched in his chest. He opened his mouth to speak, but found his throat was too dry. Nervously he swallowed, searching for what to say. Finally, he managed a tentative and throaty, "Hey, Daria."
Stupid. The door moved shut, but Trent moved faster. Quite literally, his foot was in the door. Daria's solution was to swing the door wide and slam it shut even harder. Trent cried out in pain and stepped backwards. The door slammed shut with a sharp click. "Daria!" he shouted, surprised at the fervor in his voice. Suddenly nervous, he looked around to see if anyone had seen. The street was eerily empty.
Confused and distraught, Trent stared at the closed door. But as hard as he stared, it wouldn't open. Numbly, he turned around and sat down on the welcome mat, hands curled around his knees, chin tucked down. Jane was right. He really hadn't been prepared for this. What would he do now? Where would he go? His mind was a total blank. Rationally, he knew he couldn't just sit like this on Daria's doorstep forever. But rationale meant little at the moment.
Then, without warning, the door creaked open behind him. Turning his head, he stared up blankly. It was Daria, standing there in her bathrobe, peering down at him with heavy eyes through the gap in the door. His muse. His goddess. He knew he should look away, look down, look somewhere, anywhere else other than those eyes. He had too much shame... too much guilt. But somehow, he could not look away.
And neither did she. Her gaze was restrained, even impassionate, but it held. It was not cold and dead, as he had feared, as he could not have accepted. It was not warm or loving, but at the least it was alive, and that made all the difference.
Never mind if there was a sadness in those eyes, or a glimpse of what might be pity. Those things were only to be expected. They chafed him, and shamed him doubly... but after the time that had passed, all of this was tolerable.
The only thing that gave him pause was a freedom of regret; the presence of contentment. There was nothing of desire or need in her aspect. Nothing to show that the unrelenting void that he had struggled so long and so hard to deny was present in her. A void he'd known she'd had. He had dared to dream that he might return to that empty place. Could he bear to think that it might no longer exist for him?
And if not for him, for who?
It was an awful lot of emotion and thought to burden a single stare with, and Trent chastised himself for jumping to conclusions. He would not, could not now allow his fears and insecurities to get the better of him. In one fluid motion, he turned and rose, so that his eyes met Daria's more-or-less straight on. He didn't need to be prostrate to convey supplication. He'd never been very physically expressive, but he knew that Daria could read him. Like an open book.
Trent's mouth worked silently. "Hello," he managed. Then coughed. A ghost of a smile appeared on Daria's face, and Trent felt warmth trickling up through him. He stepped forward, capitalizing on the moment. But the door was not wide enough for him to enter, and Daria held it firm.
"I'm sorry, Trent. I can't let you in."
Trent didn't flinch. "I know," he said softly. He wasn't surprised. How could she be expected to react any differently? It was enough that she was speaking to him. "I just wanted to see you."
She nodded slowly.
"And to say... that I know it means nothing now, but... I'm sorry." The words came out hard, choked.
Daria's eyebrows turned upward in genuine empathy. "You're right, it means nothing now. But not the way you think. You don't need my forgiveness, Trent. You've had it. I'm not the one who needs an apology. Let's leave it at that."
He frowned, puzzled. "You mean... Jane? I..."
She shook her head with a heavy sigh. "No, Trent. Just forget it. It's not important right now. If you want my forgiveness, you got it years ago. I honestly hope that's enough for you, because you won't find anything more here."
Trent was suddenly conscious painfully so of the awkwardness of his situation. How could she expect so much of him when he knew so little. There were so many more specific questions to be asked, but he could not find the voice for them. Only one thought became articulate. "I don't understand," he said quietly.
"Then I'm sorry, Trent, but it's the best I can do right now." Another uncomfortable pause. "You really have to go."
Then the door was shut. And Trent went.
Daria pushed shut the door and turned around. Her mother was standing behind her, arms crossed over her nightgown.
"That was too much," Helen said harshly. "You gave him too much time."
"I told him what I needed to say, Mom."
"It was too much information. He'll just keep coming back."
"Not if I tell him not to."
"I have a restraining order all ready to go. You just say the word and we can make it impossible for him to live in this town."
Daria sighed. "I don't think that's necessary."
There was a noise from the upstairs bathroom, followed by the sound of footsteps padding across carpet. Helen looked up over her shoulder towards the source of the noise. "You think so? How long do you think it will be before he finds out? Maybe he knows already. You need him out of Lawndale, the sooner the better!"
There was a loud rustle and bang from the kitchen. "Dammit, Helen!" came Jake's voice. "Let the girl live her life!"
Helen rounded towards the kitchen, eyes blazing, and Daria used the opportunity to slip past her mother and start for the stairs. Perhaps Helen was right. Perhaps she had said too much. But it was done now. And as much as it would appear to simplify things, making an exile of Trent wasn't the answer. Besides, he wouldn't leave now... not even if she ordered him to. He would stay. He would stay and fight to win her back, because... because...
Daria dropped the thought. There were some questions she wasn't ready for.
Monique squeezed her eyes shut and sank her forehead against the steering wheel of her battered vehicle. The plastic sheath stuck to her skin, stretching it elastically. What am I doing? she thought miserably. Sneaking around, following people like some street-trash stalker. This isn't me. This isn't who I am. I'm not the bad guy. I'm an artist!
She heard a door shut and looked up. Through the tree on the corner of Glen Oaks Lane, Trent had gotten into his car.
Has he thought about you at all these last six years? Does he even know you still exist? Would he care if he did?
With a heavy sigh, she turned the key in the ignition. The engine sputtered twice before settling into an unhealthy rumble. The car wouldn't last much longer. So why waste my time, she thought as she turned the vehicle around. If I know what's good for me, I'll forget this ever happened. I'll turn around, forget he ever existed and get on with my life. It's the right thing to do.
But that thought didn't stop the sick feeling from rising up inside of her. It was comforting to think that she could go home, go to bed, wake up and all that was past was past, and the future was on her own terms. Butdeep down inside, she knew that she'd long ago passed beyond that point. She wouldn't change. She was hopelessly, tragically entrenched in the downward spiral of habit, where comforting, cliché rationale meant little.
It was far too late for anything else.
Halfway through his shift, leaning over a table as he scrubbed it clean, Trent became conscious of a small weight pulling down his shirt, and realized that he'd forgotten all about the earrings. "Dammit!" he hissed. Another dumb mistake. But before he could lapse into another round of self-pity, he was verbally accosted from behind.
"Hey, asswipe! Some service over here! Mheh!" Trent turned slowly. A few yards away, two degenerates were hunched over a corner table, their ratty clothing threadbare, almost falling from their bodies. One was balding, overweight. The other was bony by contrast, thin except for a beer gut. They were both missing teeth and patches of skin. The thin one was quivering slightly. "You heard me!" he stammered. "Beer. Now. The good stuff!" The fat one snickered.
Trent sighed. He didn't want to deal with it. "Jeffy," He said, beckoning the twenty-something bartender who was passing by. The scraggly-haired youth approached, eyeing the grotesque pair nervously. "Get these guys some of the good stuff."
Jeffy blinked in confusion. "Sir?"
"You heard me," Trent snapped in irritation. "You know where it is."
Jeffy's eyes narrowed. "Umm... I..." His eyes flitted to the side.
"Is there a problem?" Jesse had walked up behind them.
Jeffy indicated the corner table. "Trent says give 'em the good stuff."
"Give 'em the usual," he said. Jeffy nodded and scurried back towards the bar. Jesse turned Trent around and moved him away from the disgusting pair. "Highland trash," he whispered. "Wouldn't know the good stuff from stale cider. So that's what we give 'em."
Trent grimaced. "Sorry, man."
"Hey, no problem. Look, take care of th' old rummy in the corner there. I got a go close a deal." He indicated a figure slumped over against the wall.
Trent approached the old man with trepidation... he wasn't sure why. He'd spent plenty enough time in places like this and worse back in the days of his youth, and never given the atmosphere a second thought. Drink, smoke, the faint scent of various narcotics, a stain about the place that caused the very air to smear... he'd grown immune to their presence long ago. So why should he be bothered now? What part of him thought he was better than all this?
The man lay face down on the table, one end of an old tie lying limply off to one side, the other end curled loosely around the back of his upturned collar. Trent hesitated as he drew nearer. Was the man asleep? Passed out? He considered turning around, but his presence must have been detected. That salt-and pepper hair shuffled and reared back, revealing a blotchy, angular face, deeply creased, especially around the eyes. "Whiskey," the man rasped, his voice a dry and throaty rattle. Then, as Trent nodded and made to leave, he held up a withered hand. "Wait..." Trent turned back, apprehensive. The saggy eyes narrowed. "I believe I recognize you ..." An unnatural grin split his face. "Mr. La... MISter LANE!"
The man's eyes widened, and his mouth cracked wider. A sudden flash of recognition coursed through Trent. "DeMartino?" he thought incredulously. "This old boozehound?"
DeMartino held his broken gape for a moment longer, then collapsed into a series of deep, drunken howls and attracting curious glances from the other patrons. Trent hurriedly leaned forward to silence the old man, but DeMartino would have none of it. His large eyes squinted shut, and he continued to snigger hysterically. It was a horrible sound, dry as sandpaper.
After a minute, the laughter began to die down, and those cracked eyes opened to glare at Trent with manic intensity. "You're," DeMartino wheezed, "YOU'RE the one who's responsible for the TERror of the eleMENtary school! Hah HAH!"
A queer feeling came over Trent, and he remembered Jane's words. "Jake?" The idea ran through his mind. Old Man Morgendorffer? "What do you mean?" Trent asked softly.
DeMartino didn't seem to hear him. He slumped backwards against the wall, head banging against the solid wood wall with a hollow thud. His eyes drooped shut, and his laughter faded to an airy whisper. Trent leaned forward and gave the old man a tentative poke on one shoulder. The only response was a stream of amber drool.
He was looking for answers, but he didn't expect an epiphany. No one does. Such rare events are sudden by definition. One may suspect them or predict them on occasion, but who ever expects their lives to be changed in an instant? Not their day, not their attitude, but the shape and thrust of their very existence! This is stuff to be read about in trashy romance novels and apocalyptic fiction. Even if one were to accept their existence as an integral part of the Human experience, they could not simply study the phenomenon with an objective eye and hope to be prepared.
When Trent saw them standing there, he experienced such a transformative moment. A flash of recognition, of understanding and he simply knew. It was so perfect. So natural.
Jake was there too. He had been there when Trent arrived at the school the afternoon after the encounter with DeMartino. He had smiled and stood with Trent on the sidewalk outside the front doors. He had talked about the weather, his arthritis, and the "Barney" video he held in his hand ("Kids love dinosaurs!" he'd explained. "Can't beat the classics!") And Trent was just getting around to broaching the subject of the "terror of the elementary school" when she arrived. Daria.
And her daughter.
He knew it was so the moment Daria got out of the car. She walked around, opened the door, and out hopped that pint-sized wonder that had somehow been drawn to her father the first time she had seen him two days ago. She remembered him. Trent could tell by the look she gave him. Quizzical recognition.
Daria's look spoke volumes as well. "So now you know," her eyes seemed to say, calmly, sincerely. Trent nodded, to her, to himself. It made perfect sense. He was conscious of Jake leaving, walking back into the school, but his eyes never left the scene before him, as mother reached for daughter with a tender smile. Changes! Oh! what changes! Things would never be the same again. His mind was working a mile a minute. Making decisions.
Daria kissed the little girl's unruly black locks. "Have a good day at school Emma. Try to learn something."
Emma arched an eyebrow, looking eerily like Jane for a moment. "Mom, they watch BARNEY here."
Daria hugged her. "Too bad kiddo. Them's the breaks."
Emma wiggled out of the hug and regarded Trent seriously. "See ya, mister." She bounded into the school, her bright red back pack, a size too large, jostling across her shoulders.
Trent sat down heavily on the curb. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Daria looked guilty. "I'm telling you now, Okay? I didn't find out that I was pregnant until a few months after I moved out. Can you understand how I felt?"
Trent nodded, and then covered his face with his hands. "Can I have a role in her life? Please? I don't want her to be like me. I want her to KNOW her father."
Daria sighed. "Trent, do you have any idea how much this is going to shatter her world?"
"Then let's take it slow. You and me." He looked at her longingly. "Let's set things back on track."
Daria sat down next to him. With hesitation, he reached out his hand. She took it, her grasp gentle but confident.
"I've decided that I'm going to think about it, Trent. I seriously am. I'm not going to pretend it hasn't been hard without you." She turned to look him straight in the eye. "And don't think I'm referring to me, Trent. What happened between us in the past... it's in the past. I'm over it. I don't think you could hurt me now, Trent, not even if you wanted to."
Trent's face fell and her gaze softened. She kneaded his hand softly between her fingers. "Try not to think about it that way. I'm talking about Emma. It hasn't been easy for her, growing up without a father. Jake's done his best. But I often found myself wishing you were there... even if just for her sake." He looked up hopefully. Her lips twitched upwards in a familiar half-smile. "I wished you were there for me sometimes."
Trent began to smile, but the knowledge that he hadn't been there caused another wave of guilt to wash over him. Daria could see it in his face, and she cupped his chin in her hand, turning his head so that their eyes met.
"I know what you're going through, Trent," she whispered. "I can see it written in your eyes. I won't tell you that you shouldn't feel guilty. It's your guilt that tells me there's still something there that's worth thinking about. And I'm not going to pretend that I don't feel a little guilty myself. For not telling you."
"I'm to blame," Trent said softly. "You did what you had to do. I don't know... don't know what the news would have done to me."
"But the point is we're here now. And like I said, we're going to think about it."
"Together?" he asked earnestly.
Daria stood. "Together. But not now. Now, I've got to get to work. Why don't you stop by the house tonight. Around seven. And I'll make sure Helen doesn't get in the way. If I have to leave a chum trail of portfolios into the upstairs closet, I'll do it." A briefly sarcastic grin broke through, and Trent couldn't help but smile. That was the Daria he'd fallen in love with.
"I almost forgot," he said, reaching into his pocket. Standing, he pulled out the jewelry box.
Daria took it gingerly, looking inside. A warm smile spread over her features. With a suddenness that surprised both of them, she threw her arms around him, enveloping him in a warm embrace. Their bodies pressed close for at least a minute. Trent almost cried. It had been so long since he had felt her against him. At her touch, it seemed as though years of pain were washing away, receding like the tide after a bad storm, evaporating like mist beneath the sun.
It was heaven, pure and simple.
That night, Daria found her father sitting at the kitchen table going through the paper.
"Hey, kiddo! Take a look at this! It's a moustache trimmer that works on dogs."
Daria smiled. "But you don't have a moustache."
"I might if grow one if I had a trimmer that worked on the dog!"
"We don't have a dog."
"I might buy one if I had a moustache!"
Daria was about to rebut, when she noticed his wink. She shook her head and sat down at the table.
"You're looking good, Daria. It's good to see you looking good."
"I feel good."
"What time is Trent stopping by?"
"Seven," Daria said. She looked at the kitchen clock. 6:30. "I've got a little time."
Jake nodded and returned to the paper. "You know, I'm proud of you," he said as he flipped idly through the pages.
"It's not easy to patch things up in a relationship. I know you and Trent still have issues. But you're trying to pull together for the sake of Emma."
"Right," Daria said, her voice losing some of it's energy. "For Emma."
"Your mother and I went through a lot, you know. Sometimes you kids were the only thing that kept us together."
"Well it's nice to feel wanted," she said dryly.
Jake began to scowl into the paper. "Damn divorce rate gone up again! Remind me to hide this from your mother."
Daria reached forward with a comforting hand. "I know I didn't always show it back in my school years, but I always appreciated the way you guys would stick your neck out for me."
Jake smiled gratefully. Then the doorbell rang. "That'll be Trent," he said, looking at his watch.
"What?" Daria looked at the kitchen clock. "It's... still 6:30?"
Jake turned. "Oh, that? Damn motor's broke again. Thanks for reminding me."
The doorbell rang again.
"Damn!" Daria's hands flew to her face. "I'm not ready."
Jake shrugged laconically. "What's to get ready?"
She gave an annoyed frown. "Emma's in the living room watching Animal Planet. Go take her upstairs, will you?"
"You're the boss, kiddo."
Daria retrieved her new earrings from her pocket, putting them on as she walked towards the door. "God, I'm thinking like Quinn circa 1999. How far down is that?" Just for good measure, she mussed up her hair.
Trent stood in the doorway, hands in his jacket pockets, a sheepish grin on his face. "Hey," he said, his cool tone betrayed by a hint of nervousness. "Mind if I come in?"
Daria smiled and pulled him inside, helping him out of his coat. She shook her head. The stiff way he stood, that hesitant smile on his face... Trent was behaving like a teenager on their first date... and Trent had never been that way on any date she could recall. This was something new. Something different.
He knew it too. "So..." he said, a mischievous glint in his eye. "Is Daria home?"
She swatted him across the head and went into the kitchen. "Coffee?" she asked.
They talked for hours. At first, they avoided the past. They talked about their jobs, their co-workers, interesting projects they had worked on over the years... In New York, Daria had been a small fish in a big pond. But in Lawndale she was the most preeminent writer the town had. As long as she contented herself with small-scale work, work was plentiful. And rewarding.
"It was great being able to reach so many people in New York," Daria said, sipping her coffee. "But sometimes I felt like I was spreading myself too thin. Being local has its advantages. Sometimes I feel like I have too much power."
"Not that I'd ever let my worshipful cadre of sycophants catch on, of course," she finished.
Trent was careful to let Daria do most of the talking. His career hadn't exactly taken off after the break-up. He was too embarrassed to dwell on the fact that his old habits, which he had tried so hard to suppress for the sake of their relationship, had so quickly and easily resurfaced.
Once, Trent made a half-hearted attempt to bring up the subject of marriage. But Daria shied away, and he silently realized that neither of them was at a stage where they were ready to give the matter serious attention. Instead, the conversation turned to fatherhood issues... specifically Trent's.
"We ought to get my Dad in here," Daria joked. "He could tell you something about paternal neglect."
Trent shook his head. "I know your dad had some problems. But you're lucky, Daria. Lucky Jake stuck around. I mean... my dad was alright when he was there. He was a decent guy. Y'know... always provided for us okay. But I never really had a male role model. Closest thing to that was Jesse." That prompted a grin from both of them.
"That's why this is so important to me," he continued. "I swore the day I started dating that if I ever had a kid, they'd know who their father was."
Daria's little finger tracked idle circles around the rim of her mug. "You stopped caring about things like commitment and other people's opinions. A self-defense mechanism so life wouldn't hurt so bad. I know a little about that..."
"Be honest with me, Daria," Trent said, staring into her eyes. "What are my chances. Tell me Jane was wrong."
Daria sighed. "That's entirely up to you, Trent. I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt, but ultimately you have to live up to your responsibilities. If you tell me you can do that, I promise I'll try to believe you."
Both adults turned in surprise. There, in the kitchen doorway, stood Emma, bleary-eyed and wearing a long pink nightshirt.
"Emma!" Daria exclaimed.
"What are you doing up?" Trent asked. "It's..." he looked at the clock. "6:30?"
"It's 11:00 PM," Daria said, looking at her watch.
"I couldn't sleep," Emma said with a yawn, toddling forward towards the table.
Trent smiled. He was suddenly possessed of several peculiar feelings, sensations which he had never experienced before. The sight of the little girl his little girl standing there had stirred latent emotions he hadn't been aware he was capable of. With sudden spontaneity, he knelt down and swept up Emma in a tight embrace.
Her eyes peered skeptically over his shoulder, glancing up at her mother. "Mom?" she whispered. "Why is this man hugging me?"
Daria looked down with a bemused expression. "Beats me, kid. But I'll allow it... just this once." Trent pushed back with a smile, releasing Emma. "This is your Aunt Jane's brother," Daria explained.
"Oh," Emma said sleepily.
"Is that all?" Daria asked sternly.
"I guess so. Guess I'll go back to bed."
"You do that."
Emma turned and padded away into the darkness.
Daria turned back to Trent. "Scared yet?"
"But you get used to it after a while, right?"
Instead of sitting down, Daria gather up the empty coffee cups and took them to the sink. "While I'd love to stay up all night, I don't have as many years of practice as you do, and I do have work tomorrow."
"Yeah... uh, sorry to keep you so late."
"Don't worry about it. I'm glad we..."
The phone rang.
Daria looked at it quizzically before picking it up. "Who would be calling at this hour?" she whispered, holding the receiver up to her ear. "Hello? Hello yes, Mom, I've got it. I said yes, you can hang up. Hello?" There was a long pause, and Trent didn't think it was his imagination when Daria seemed to turn pale for a moment. "Um... hi!... Yes... No, no, that's fine. I was up. Talking to... well, actually, I was talking to Trent." There was another pause. "Yes. He's here. He was... What? To... well, I don't... I guess I'll ask."
She turned to Trent. "It's Thom," she said. "Thom Sloane. And he wants to talk to you."
Trent had just finished cleaning the living room when Jane came downstairs.
"Hey," she said, surveying the room. "Wow. We have carpet?" She walked into the room, hands on her hips, taking it all in. With a small grunt of satisfaction, she dropped onto or, more accurately, into -- the couch.
"Hey," Trent protested, "I just straightened... ah, to hell with it." With a long sigh, he fell down next to her.
"Now that's the Trent I remember," Jane declared. She looked at him appraisingly. "You know, I hate to admit this, but I'm sorry about trying to kill you the other night."
"It's okay," Trent said, burrowing deeper. "It was bound to happen sooner or later." They both smirked. "You sure you're okay with letting Thom stay over for a few days?"
"Sure. Just so long as he doesn't gnaw on the upholstery. It'll be good to catch up. It's been a while."
"Yeah," said Trent. He paused. "You know, about Thom, I was wondering..."
"Don't ask." Jane said bluntly. "Daria may have forgiven you for now, but don't press your luck."
"Okay, okay... it's just, it was really weird having him call while I was at Daria's, that's all."
"Karma," Jane said, turning away.
The doorbell rang.
"I'll get it," said Jane, bouncing up. "Sit up straight. You'll look less like a dead fish."
"Hey," Trent said defensively as he sat up, "I don't have anything against Thom. Said he could stay over, didn't I? Didn't complain when Daria went to pick him up at the airport alone, did I?"
"Sure, sure," Jane said, waving him back. She threw open the door. "Thom!"
A small form rocketed through the door and caught her in the knees. She staggered backwards, falling against the wall. "Emma! You little tiger!"
Thom and Daria followed. Trent's first thought was that Thom hadn't changed much. His face was still the same, except for a neatly tailored Van Dyke. He was wearing an expensive business suit and carrying a briefcase. Daria, by contrast, was wearing a simple green pullover. The contrast could have been plainer.
Upon seeing Jane, Tom gave a broad grin and threw his arms wide. "Honey, I'm home!"
Jane's response was to rotate Emma towards the door. "See Mr. Armani over there?" Emma nodded. "Kill him."
Jane grinned wickedly as Emma ran into Thom with enough force to send him bumping against the doorframe.
"Oof!" Thom laughed, feigning pain. "You got me, kid!"
Pleased with herself, Emma retreated to her mother's side.
Thom turned to Trent with a friendly smile. "Hey. Been a while. Good to see you."
"Yeah," Trent echoed, coughing slightly. "Sure has."
"Consummate the reunion with some pizza?"
"My treat," Daria said.
Trent shook his head. "I'd really love to, but I gotta get to work."
Thom smirked. "Doesn't sound like the Trent I know."
Daria laughed, and Trent tried to suppress a flash of indignation. "Save me a slice, okay? I won't be that long."
So while Thom and Jane exchanged greetings and Daria herded Emma into the kitchen, Trent gathered his jacket and his wallet and left.
The day went longer than he had hoped it would no more leads and a keen awareness of what he was missing back at home made the degrading work excruciatingly drawn out. Table blended into table, menial chore into menial chore. He grew restless... unable to concentrate. Jesse noticed the change in his behavior, and commented on it. But Trent could offer no explanation. It was there, tugging at the fringes of his mind, and his frustration only increased when he was unable to pinpoint the source.
After what seemed like forever, 5:00 came. It was with a sort of adrenaline-charged anticipation that he drove back to the house.
By the time he reached the front door, however, the euphoria had worn off, replaced, as so often happens, with an inexplicable sense of depression. It was a heavy hand that turned the front doorknob. Not even the lightness of Emma's laughter from where she was playing on the living room floor was enough to lift his spirits. On the contrary... he found himself possessed of a fierce anxiety. Hunched over, almost guiltily, he turned into the kitchen.
The three broad smiles that greeted him should have been enough to dispel some of his gloom, but this was not the case. He settled into a chair with no appetite for the food they offered, and responded to their inquiries with a thin smile and a slumped posture to indicate fatigue. So they ignored him and began discussing Thom's latest business ventures.
Trent wanted to care. Thom had been his friend, after all, after a fashion. And they hadn't seen each other in more months than he could count. Wasn't absence supposed to make the heart grow fonder? Whatever his feelings, they certainly didn't warrant rudeness.
But the longer they talked, the more their words became so much noise. Chatter. Their smiles warped and insincere. Trent knew the feeling, and it disturbed him. It was like those flashes of artistic inspiration that came to him sometimes... only perverted somehow, making monsters of those who loved him, and whom he was trying desperately to love.
At last he could bear it no longer. Mumbling something vague about a headache, he excused himself and walked out into the hall. But once there, he found he had no place to go... no particular destination that made sense. So he walked to the top of the stairs and sat, staring off into space.
He finally concluded that the current state of mind he was in was an unhealthy, unproductive one that probably resulted from stress, and had just resolved to solve the problem, as in the good old days, by way of a long sleep, when Thom appeared at the bottom of the stairs.
"You alright?" he said, climbing up to Trent's level.
Trent rose to meet him at the top of the stairs. "It's cool, man. I was just going to get some sleep."
Thom sized him up. "That's probably a good idea."
Trent bristled. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Whoa." Thom held up his hands defensively. "Take it easy. I only meant that you haven't been looking well tonight. And you've been awfully quiet."
"I'm always quiet."
"Look, Trent, give me some credit. I'm a pretty smart guy, you know. Own my own company and everything." There it was again... that patronizing tone. Sarcasm wasn't so bad, but the novelty wore thin after a while. "If there's anything wrong," Thom continued, "and I can tell that there is... I'd like to talk about it. I know things haven't been the greatest between you and Daria these last few years. But far be it from me to stand as an obstacle to your future. If there's anything you want to know, just ask me and I'll be completely honest with you."
Trent lifted his chin up, considering Thom's offer. "Alright," he said at last. "Tell it to me straight. Did the two of you get back together after... you know, after she and I broke up."
Thom sighed and looked down. "I thought you might ask that. In all honesty..." He tugged slightly at his lower lip. "Yes."
Trent turned away, cursing slightly under his breath.
Thom reached out a brotherly hand. "Please don't blame her. It was a really hard time for both of us. And I swear, she didn't know she was pregnant yet..."
Trent's jaw dropped. "Wait a minute... you mean you two..." Thom nodded.
Without warning, Daria materialized behind Thom, Emma at her side. "What's going on?" she said, a puzzled expression on her face.
Trent looked down at the girl, his expression emotionless. Something inside of him had just clicked into place. "Send her downstairs," he said flatly. "We need to talk."
Daria didn't ask any questions. "Emma, go down and help Aunt Jane with the dishes." She turned to Thom. "Now what's this all about?"
"He knows," Thom said. "He knows about us. The week after..."
"Jesus!" Trent swore. "The week?"
Daria turned away. "Oh, God..." she muttered, face to the wall. "I was hoping this wouldn't come up..."
"Wouldn't come up? Wouldn't come up?"
Daria whirled around. "It wasn't like I wasn't justified doing what I did, Trent! After the way things ended, after how you..."
"This isn't about me anymore!" he snarled. "Did you have her tested?"
"Emma! Did you have her tested? Was it Lane DNA?" He shot a hard look at Thom. "Or Sloane?"
Daria looked down in shame. "I never had her tested. I don't know why. Guess I wasn't thinking straight. I thought... that is, I was sure..."
"And you thought that was good enough for me? Why should it be?"
"Look," Thom said, intervening, "The past is the past."
"Past hell," Trent said coldly. "I'm thinking about the future. How can I build a future on a maybe?"
"I wanted to have the DNA test when the baby was born!" Thom protested. "As a protection to secure its possible future investments. But I trusted Daria's judgment."
"How could you stand not knowing?" Trent snapped, his tone bleeding accusation. "Indulging her belief that you weren't the father so it wouldn't hurt you in the bank account if it turned out you were responsible!"
"It wasn't about the money," Daria said tightly. "It was never about the money with Thom. Don't even think that! He didn't ask to inherit the family business. It was... it was selfish, I'll admit it." She turned to Trent, shame filling her eyes. "A totally selfish decision on my part. I guess I just wanted to hang on to you somehow... to keep at least one tie. I was going through a rough time too, you know. And Emma... well, having Emma to care for and look after... it saved me."
Her look was one of such exquisite sorrow and regret that Trent felt the cold lump that had been developing inside begin to melt. "I..." his voice was choked, broken with emotion. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "You weren't to blame for that."
"But I should have told you when you came back," she said. "The moment you accepted responsibility for my child, you had the right to know."
"Look," Thom said, his voice quiet and surprisingly smooth. "There's no reason we can't settle this once and for all... tonight. The hospital where Emma was born has been keeping blood samples for every legal resident of Lawndale for the last ten years, remember? With the new technology, they can do the test and match in two hours or less. We can go down there right now."
"No," Trent said. "You stay. Stay here with Emma and Jane. Daria and I will go. Right?"
Daria looked reluctant for a moment, then nodded. "Mea culpa," she mumbled. "Right."
They met Jane at the foot of the stairs. "What's going on?" she asked as Trent and Daria pulled on their coats.
"I'll explain everything," Thom told her.
Jane looked to Daria for conformation. "He'll explain everything," she repeated.
The ten-minute drive to the hospital was made in total silence. Trent's first words were to the receptionist as he filed the request. Daria opened her purse and procured the necessary identification.
"I guess you'll need to take a blood sample," Trent said. "How soon can you have it done?"
The woman behind the counter smiled. With her dark hair framing her face, she looked a little like his sister. "It's not necessary, sir. It would take until tomorrow evening to process anyway." She looked down at her computer screen. "Is your sister Jane Lane?" Trent nodded. "We have her listed as the authorized family donor. And we've got a blood sample from six years ago."
Trent turned to Daria. "Jane was in the hospital?"
"Her leg," Daria said.
"Oh. Right. Okay." He turned back to the clerk. "Use that."
"It'll be about two hours."
They were silent in the waiting room too. But as time went on, Trent became uncomfortable. It was hard to justify the silence. Especially with so much to talk about. So much he wanted to clear...
"It was a tough time for Jane, back then, eh?"
"You don't know the half of it."
"I should have. I should have been here."
"Thom was here. That was good for her. They'd been seeing each other on and off, you know." She paused, as if unsure whether to continue. "It was off, of course, when we..." she trailed off.
"I always wondered," Trent said slowly. "Why did you choose me? Over Thom, I mean."
Daria took off her glasses and shut her eyes. "I used to ask myself that same question. But you know how it was... he had to look after his family's interests. I know he got pushed into the world of cutthroat capitalism kicking and screaming, but the fact is he went. It's not like I was that surprised. People change, after all... people drift apart. Get bored with each other. Happens all the time.
"You changed too. Woke up. Got smarter, I don't know. Didn't hurt that I'd used to have a crush on you." She opened her eyes and turned towards him. "But you know what? That's really not important. The fact is, I did choose you. And for better or for worse, I committed. And now that we... may have a child together." She paused and took a deep breath. "That's a pretty good reason to keep trying, isn't it?"
Trent looked at his shoes. "But you don't think... that maybe Emma would be happier with... you know... and you wouldn't have to worry about money..."
Daria waved a dismissive hand. "My family's not exactly poor, Trent. Lord knows my mother isn't. And as for Emma... trust me on this one. I don't care what the test results are... she's a Lane at heart."
He saw her wistful grin and allowed himself to reciprocate. "Maybe that's enough."
"You know," she said carefully, "I lied about something else." Quickly, she reached up with one hand to smooth away the lines of concern that appeared on his brow. "When I said you couldn't still hurt me... that you didn't have that power any more..." Tears glistened in her eyes. "I was wrong."
On impulse, Trent pulled her close, and she fell into his embrace with a desperate gratitude. He held her tightly against his chest, and they sat that way for a long time.
So it was Trent alone who saw the receptionist approaching with the sealed envelope. Silently, he took it, breaking the seal with his thumb and folding back the paper, eyes scanning the text.
Bliss shot through his veins; liquid ecstasy, and he tilted his chin down, lips pressing gently against her warm hair. He inhaled deeply. The fragrance of strawberries tickled his senses. "Daria..." he whispered. "It's Lane DNA."
A small sob escaped her lips, and he rocked her gently back and forth, together in their solitude.
The next day, Daria let him accompany Emma to the park. They ran together, on the slides, on the merry-go-round... Daria was mostly content just to sit back and watch. Trent was conscious of the feeling of being evaluated, and it made him more than a little uncomfortable. But it was easy to forget about that when Emma was squealing in delight on the swing set.
At last, Trent was beaten. "Go on..." he gasped, breathless. "Play on the jungle gym. I'll be along."
Emma laughed again... a sound as sweet as church bells... and ran off.
Trent sat down on the bench next to Daria, exhausted. "Now I know why you're in such great shape!"
"I'll take that as a compliment, Mr. Lane."
She reached into her purse and offered him a small water bottle, which he accepted gratefully.
"This is good," Daria said seriously. "You and her interacting like this. That's what I want."
Trent handed her back the empty bottle. "When do you think we should tell her?"
"When the time is right."
Trent shifted. "How do we know when the time is right?"
She regarded him with a raised eyebrow. "Relax. There's no rush. After all, you're in this forever, right?"
"Yeah..." Trent said, trying to match her flippant tone. "Guess so."
Daria took his hand sympathetically. She leaned forward to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. Trent felt a shiver of surprise run through him. Had it been so long since he'd last felt her lips? "Don't worry," she told him. "Things are looking up."
A week later, things were still looking up.
Emma had come over to play with Jane, and to that end they had set up twin easels in the living room. The medium of the day was finger paint, and Jane had lost none of her joy for it. Trent sat sprawled on the couch with his old acoustic guitar, observing the process. Jane's style had always been good, but there was no mistaking natural growth and improvement. As for Emma, it was all fun to her, and she was catching on fast.
Idly, Trent began strumming chords. Things were looking up at work, too. Jesse had finally followed through on his promise to get Trent something resembling real work. A free evening had opened up, and Trent had taken his guitar to the microphone for some simple standbys and improv. It was gratifying to see that he could still work a young audience. One of Jesse's professional constituents had noticed. He'd taken Trent's number, and Trent was sure it was only a matter of time before he got a call.
His eyes returned to Emma. They hadn't told her yet. On an intellectual level, he agreed with Daria... that it was better that she got to know him naturally before they muddied the waters with issues that were really too complex for a little girl to understand. He'd go along with the plan without hesitation, because he knew he wanted it... that it was something worth dedicating his life to.
Of course, it wasn't an entirely good feeling. All that responsibility... all that sacrifice. The ramifications were staggering. He was slowly but surely coming to terms with the fact that nothing would ever be the same again. He had woken up several times in the middle of the night through the past week, a completely weird feeling settling over him like a blanket of fog. Sometimes he felt like throwing up.
But all these things he dismissed as secondary. He had every right to feel weird, and even a little afraid. This wasn't the way life was supposed to work, after all. His music his art had always come first. Daria had understood that. They'd both been consumed by their work. Career had to be a top priority, even now. And with all the crap you go through building a relationship, self-expression was a necessary out. That was just the way things were, so it oughtn't interfere with the raising of a child. Oughtn't it? Trent honestly didn't know. He had zero experience in the matter.
He heard the front door open, and a moment later Thom appeared. "Hey, Trent."
"Hey." Thom had come across as nothing but supportive during the last few days. Trent didn't entirely buy his sincerity, but it made him more tolerable, and helped Trent be civil when he came over to see Jane, or to play with Emma, which was frequently.
"Hi, kid," Thom said, leaning over to ruffle Emma's hair. "Watcha up to?" Emma giggled, but did not respond.
Losing interest, Trent returned to his thoughts. He didn't have exactly zero experience, he reminded himself. He had been an important stabilizing presence in Jane's early life, after all, what with parents and pesky siblings rarely around. He smiled and gave his guitar another strum. It would be just like with Jane, only this time he was even wiser and more learned in the ways of the world. He looked at Emma closely. She really did almost look like a miniature version of his sister. The same eyes, the same hair... and with that paintbrush in her hand, it was downright uncanny. He smirked to himself, watching Thom play with the girl. Why if he'd walked in on the three of them right now, with no knowledge of Daria's involvement, he would have assumed...
The guitar chord he'd been on ended with a sudden harsh twang. He didn't like the thought he had just ended on. Didn't like it one bit.
No. It was ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.
"Janey," Trent asked casually, "Were you ever in the hospital for your leg?"
Jane frowned. "What kind of question is that?"
"No reason. Just curious."
She shook her head slowly. "Nnno. No, it was all good old-fashioned home care. Why?"
But it wasn't nothing. It very definitely wasn't nothing. Trying his best to appear unconstrained, he set down the guitar and walked into the kitchen. Inside, he had turned icy cold. He couldn't make the thoughts stop, and voices flashed through his head.
"Jane was in the hospital?"
"That was a really bad year, and you have no idea... you don't deserve to know."
"You don't know the half of it."
"They'd been seeing each other on and off, you know."
"I was going through a rough time too, you know. And Emma... well, having Emma to care for and look after... it saved me."
"It's Lane DNA."
"There were so many things I just couldn't deal with."
"Trust me on this one... she's a Lane at heart."
With a trembling hand, he reached out and dialed the phone. It rang once before picking up.
"Hello, Lawndale Public Hospital, can I help you?"
"This is Trent lane." His voice felt hollow. The inside of his mouth was as dry as stone. "From last night. I had a blood test done."
"Ah... yes, I have you listed. Was there a problem?"
"It was my sister's blood. You told me you got the sample six years ago. That she was in the hospital. I need to know what happened."
"Why she was in the hospital."
There was a pause. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Lane, but I can't disclose the details of her file..."
"I don't need to know the details." There was a growing anger in his voice that surprised him. "Just tell me why she was there."
Another pause. "You honestly don't know?"
"Your sister was in the hospital due to pregnancy, Mr. Lane."
"Mr. Lane? Mr. Lane, are you there? Because if you want any information, I'm really going to have to insist..."
He hung up the phone.
He turned. Jane stood in the doorway, a worried expression on her face. Trent realized how he must look to her. He was furious. He didn't care.
"You lying bitch!" he snarled with unbridled vehemence.
Her eyes shot wide in horror. "What?"
"She was yours! She was yours all along!"
Jane stepped forward, eyes narrowing. "What are you talking about? Who?"
"Emma!" Trent slammed his fist against the counter. "Thom is the father, not me!" he continued. "But it's Lane DNA, alright! Your DNA!"
Jane's expression continued to be one of shock and incomprehension. "You're not making any sense..."
"Not making any sense? Here's sense for you! I called the hospital! I know you were pregnant six years ago!" That sparked a genuine panic in her eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but Trent would not be silenced. Not this time. Not ever again.
"You were pregnant with Thom's baby!" he continued. "But you didn't want to deal with it! You couldn't deal with it!"
"You're raving!" Jane screamed.
"Am I? But it makes so much sense."
"I was pregnant, I can't deny that now, but let me explain!"
"No, let me explain! You couldn't deal with it because you knew about Thom and Daria. But it was easier to forgive Daria than Thom, and she needed someone to look after... to help her get over me! So she moved to Lawndale and she took in Emma." His hatred of the thought could not be contained. "You used me! You all used me! Made me feel guilty! Made me responsible!"
Jane was quivering with fury now. "You selfish bastard! You selfish, petty bastard! Did you really think we'd do that to you? Is that how little you care about us?"
His eyes blazed with cold fire. "What about you?" he cried. "What does that say about how you feel about me?" He pointed a condemning finger squarely at her. "But what would you know about pain? What would you know about loss?"
"Trent! I was pregnant! At the same time as Daria, damn you!" Tears were streaming from her eyes, her hands wrapped around her chest as if in intense pain. "I had a miscarriage."
"What's going on in here?" Thom appeared in the doorway just in time to see Jane crumple, falling to her feet in a convulsion of agony and tears.
Trent gaped, speechless. What had he done? What had he done?!?
Thom didn't even ask any questions. He ignored Trent completely. He scooped up a broken, sobbing Jane, set her on her feet, and together they hurried for the door, calling for Emma as they went.
The door slammed shut. A car started and drove away.
It all seemed to happen in a blur for Trent. He couldn't move. For the second time in his life, his world had turned upside down in less than five minutes. For the second time in his life, he was utterly, totally alone.
Emma may have been only six years old, but she wasn't stupid. She could tell when things weren't right. And things were definitely not right. People didn't just start screaming and crying and run away for no reason. It wasn't every day that she got shut upstairs with Grandma and Grandpa for hours and hours at a time while angry voices floated up through the floor.
No, Emma was certain something was wrong. Even if Grandma and Grandpa told her that everything was fine, and that nobody was angry with her. Something was most definitely wrong, and she was going to get to the bottom of it.
That meant getting away from her current guardians. They were arguing, as usual. At first they'd pretended to be interested in what Emma wanted to do. But they weren't really. Before long, she was doing the puzzle all by herself, and the adults were arguing. Not loudly... not in front of her. And they didn't mention names. Just said a lot of "she ought to have known better" and "he was confused" without saying who he and she were. It was quite puzzling.
And asking them was no good. She'd tried. The response had been a sudden halt in the argument, two nice big smiles, a pat on the head... and no new information. It was plain that if there was any new facts to be collected, they wouldn't be found in the Morgendorffer master bedroom. This left Emma only one course of action. She was going to sneak.
"I have to use the bathroom," Emma said, loud enough to hear.
Grandma Helen turned. "What?"
"She said she had to use the bathroom!" Grandpa Jake snapped, sounding irritated.
"I know what she said! You have to use the bathroom, sweetie? Go right ahead. But you come back right away, understand?"
Emma nodded obediently, then left the room, careful to close the door behind her. Sneaking was no good if they could hear. As fast as she could move without making noise, Emma ran to the top of the stairs. Beyond the first few steps she would possibly be visible down below. But hunched over where she was, she could hear pretty good. And if she heard the door open, and Grandma or Grandpa were coming out, she would stand up quickly and pretend she was coming from the bathroom. And if they asked to see her hands to see if they were wet, she would say she had forgot to wash and would go do that now. It was a good plan. She knew because it had worked before.
The first voice she recognized belonged to Aunt Jane.
"Damn it, Daria!" Naughty words. This was serious. "It's history repeating itself all over again! Can't you see? And you're talking about forgiving him..."
"I never said I was going to forgive him!"
"Good! And I hope you don't get any dumb ideas about taking him back for Emma's sake. She doesn't need him any more than you do!"
Now Emma was intrigued. Who didn't she need? It was a he, and that made it either Uncle Thom or Uncle Trent. Unless they were talking about Grandpa.
"I know my brother! You ought to too after all these years."
Uncle Trent, then.
"So what do you think, Daria?" That was Uncle Thom's voice.
"I... I don't know."
"Well I was there, and I can tell you he was out of control. What he said to Jane..."
Aunt Jane was crying now. Just like she had been in the car on the way home. The sound made Emma feel weird all over.
"I'll tell you what I think," he continued. "I think Trent was so hell-bent on avoiding responsibility, on keeping out of any sort of internal commitment, that he'd do anything to get out of it... even if it meant believing the worst about his family and friends. And don't try to excuse him. He didn't even bother trying to get the truth. He just started flinging accusations."
"He didn't stop to think about the possible consequences of his actions before, Daria," Aunt Jane choked. "Or who he might hurt. And now he's done it again. You want to put Emma into that kind of situation?"
"He's her father."
THIS was new information! Too new. Emma didn't dare think about it. She was too intent on listening.
"He's my sister."
"He's my... he's my..."
"Well you can keep him. I'm going back to New York. Tonight. I'll send for my things."
"I'm going with her."
Emma jerked backwards as Aunt Jane and Thom appeared in the kitchen doorway. Breathing hard, she pressed up against the wall, hoping they hadn't seen her and they wouldn't come upstairs. They didn't. The front door opened and shut, and she didn't hear her mother leave the kitchen. She heard sounds, though. Quiet ones.
In the silence, Emma curled up against the wall, arms around her knees. Her father? Her real father? Like on TV? Like the other kids at school? That was something new. Something very important. Important enough to talk about it. But her Grandparents were probably still fighting. And her mother was probably crying. None of them would tell her anything, anyway.
Besides, there was only one person to really, really talk to. She needed a plan.
Scrambling to her feet, Emma ran to the bathroom. She wet her hands in the sink, then ran back to the master bedroom. Grandma and Grandpa were sitting on opposite sides of the bed.
"I'm done," she announced.
"Did you wash your hands?" Grandma Helen asked.
She held up her glistening hands. "I want to go to bed now."
Grandpa Jake checked his watch. "It is her bedtime. Want us to come tuck you in, kiddo?" Emma shook her head no. He sighed, with a small smile. "Big girl, huh? Just like your mother."
Emma pretended to be embarrassed, but willingly reached up for the usual hugs and kisses.
Once back in her room, with the door shut, she knew exactly what to do. She'd been to Aunt Jane's house often enough... she knew the way by heart. And it wasn't far. She'd walked farther on school field trips. Plus, she'd be very responsible. She'd take a coat, and her flashlight with the light-up Garfield on the end.
Carefully, she arranged her stuffed animals in the bed so it looked like she was under the covers. She'd tried this trick before once, when she hid downstairs to watch TV late at night. Her mother had caught her in the living room, but never checked the bedroom and assumed she'd snuck out. It would probably work again. It was a pretty good trick.
When she was through, and she was dressed and ready to go, she peered out into the hallway. Her Grandparents had still not come out. Good. The real challenge, of course, was going to be getting down the stairs and out through the garage. But her mom was probably still too sad and distracted to notice any small noises.
Her prediction came true. She went down the stairs without making any noise and no one came out to see. And when she opened the door to the garage, she was very careful to turn the knob very carefully and push very slowly. Within a few minutes, she was outside and happily on her way.
The chill night air stung her cheeks, but she didn't mind. It was all part of the adventure. An adventure all the more exciting because there might be a father waiting at the end of it.
Trent Lane defined misery. For hours after his family had left (his family had left!) the reality of what he had done had become more and more plain to him. He hadn't turned to alcohol to solve his problems in a long time, but now the bottle of wine at the end of the couch sat two thirds empty.
It didn't help. Not this time. So, unable to bear the pain of it any longer, he turned to that other refuge: sleep.
He didn't know how long he slept. Dreams eluded him. Peace eluded him. Perhaps it was not sleep at all, but some form of stupor. He didn't care. He didn't want to care. So he sat there motionless, phasing in and out of reality. Shadows came and went, time ceased to exist, and sensation lost all relevance.
So he wasn't sure exactly when he realized that there was someone else on the couch with him. Someone else's hands on his chest... someone else's breath on his face...
"Daria?" he whispered, not daring to believe, and opened his eyes. "Oh, God..."
"Shhh..." whispered the shape, holding up one thin finger to his quivering lips. "It's okay. I'm here."
"Monique!" Trent made a half-hearted attempt to rise, but she was all over him, pressing him downward into the couch, her touch gentle yet firm.
"It's okay," she soothed, her hands running lightly, sensually across his upper torso. "I know everything. I've been waiting. Watching. I know what they've done to you."
A sob caught in Trent's throat. "What I've done..." Her lips covered his, cutting off the words in his throat.
"You like that, yes?" she breathed huskily. "Another?" She kissed him again. He only tasted wine.
"Please..." he whispered.
"We're both fallen angels, huh, Trent? They'll never accept you know. They think they're so perfect!" she sneered. But her revulsion was squarely directed at 'them.' For Trent, her wide, black-rimmed eyes held nothing but worshipful sympathy. "But I don't care, Trent. What have I got to lose? What have either of us got to lose? Nothing. I'll accept you. I'll accept you like they never can. Trust me. It'll be just like old times. Trust me..."
Her voice had a melodic, hypnotic affect, and Trent found himself letting his eyes close and his body grow limp beneath her weight. What did it matter? What did anything matter anymore? She was right. She was dead-on right. It had finally happened. He had lost everything. Even hope.
Sensing his response, Monique let herself fall across his body, showering his unshaven face with dry kisses.
Trent sank even deeper into the couch, lost in her spidery embrace. Her lips met his, their moisture mingling sponge-like. And when he felt her hand move to his belt, he didn't resist...
Monique pulled back. "What's wrong?" she demanded.
Grimacing, Trent reached back between the cushions to retrieve whatever it was that had poked him. Fishing the flat object out, he brought it up to eye level and stared at it in wonder.
Monique frowned. "What the hell is that?"
It was the button he had received in O'Neill's office. The yellow button with the smiley-face. The one his daughter had given back to him.
His daughter... Emma...
"No," Trent rasped. It was no more than a hoarse whisper, but there was force behind it.
Monique drew back in angry shock and rose to her feet. "What?"
Trent clenched the button in his fist. The edge bit into his palm. The pain fed his rage, and his rage fed his strength. "Get out!"
Confusion appeared in Monique's eyes, and something approaching fear. "You selfish bastard!" she hissed.
Trent stood. Drawing himself up to his full height, he towered over her. "Get out," he repeated, smooth and deadly calm. "And don't come back."
For a moment, her posture was stiff and defiant. But once it became plain that he was not moving, and that the hard look in his eyes were backed up by a resolute will which she had not expected to find, she began to wilt.
"I'm all you've got left..." she whined.
And then something else appeared in his dark, obdurate eyes. Disgust. Pity. She recoiled from that, like she had recoiled from nothing else; had she been bitten or stung she would have welcomed it when placed against what she saw. In those eyes was her own reflection. And for the first time in her life, she understood it.
It wasn't every day you experienced an epiphany.
It was one of the most horrible sensations she had ever experienced. That any creature could inspire such a loathsome response... and that that creature was her. She wanted to deny it. Every last shred of self-respect she had railed at her to deny it. But somehow, in the face of such unmistakable surety as Trent was projecting, she was unable. She had come expecting to confront him, yes. But she was in no way prepared to face down herself. So she did the only rational thing.
She fled the house.
After she had gone, Trent sank back onto the sofa. This time, he stretched out lengthwise. Leaning his head back, he held up the button, watching it gleam in the reflected light from outside the window. "Monique was wrong," he thought. "Even if I lose everything else, I've still got this. I've still got me. Damned if I'll let her take that."
Then, closing his eyes, he drifted off to a better sleep than he had enjoyed in weeks. And when he dreamt, he dreamt of Daria, of Emma, and of a house standing tall and proud amidst summer fields.
He didn't know how long he slept, but it couldn't have been long, because the room was still as exactly as dark as before when tiny hands pulling at his face roused him back to consciousness.
Twisting, he saw that the hands were attached to tiny arms, and the arms were attached to Emma.
Startled, he sat upright. "Emma... what are you doing here?"
Unhesitatingly, she hopped up on the couch next to him. "I heard my mom talking," she said. "I wanted to talk to you."
"But how did you get here?" he asked. "And it's so late."
"Mom drove me," she said, adding quickly, "I tried to sneak out."
He turned and squinted. Sure enough, a car was waiting outside, barely visible in the dim light. The form behind the wheel turned when she saw that he was looking.
"She didn't want to come in, huh?"
Emma shook her small head. "She was pretty mad."
Trent sighed. "So what did you want to talk about."
"Are you my dad?"
His eyes widened. The question was so earnest... so direct. "You get that common sense from your mom?"
She shrugged. "You gonna answer my question?"
He smiled weakly. "I guess you heard them talking."
"Is it true?"
Mustering up all his inner courage, he nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, it's true."
Her eyes grew even larger, filled with wonderment. Her eyebrows turned up slightly. "Why haven't I seen you before?"
"I... I wasn't around. I've been living somewhere else for the last few years."
"Oh," she said, looking down. "I guess you didn't want me, huh?"
Trent's heart almost burst. He reached forward and swept her into a fierce hug. "Don't ever think that. Never. I didn't know, honey." Hot tears rolled down his cheeks. "I swear, I didn't know."
Emma wiggled out of the embrace, still looking hurt. "So why didn't mom tell you?"
"She wanted to," he said, wiping his face dry. "I know she wanted to. She just didn't know how to... how to find me."
She blinked. The answer seemed to satisfy her. "Are you going to come and live with us now?"
"I hope so, kid," he confessed. "I really hope so." He meant it.
Picking her up, he set her on the floor and tousled her hair. "Now you'd better get going. It's past your bedtime." She smiled, and that simple act warmed his soul beyond its stature.
As she closed the Lane's front door behind her, Emma was quite pleased with herself. Everything had worked out perfectly. And it was true! She had a dad! A real live dad, who was going to come to the house and live with mom, and stay forever.
The only problem was, it was cold. She shivered slightly beneath her jacket. It was colder than she had thought. And the walk had been longer than she'd thought. Her legs were hurting, and she was more tired than she wanted to admit.
Tromping down the driveway, she noticed the car again. It was lucky that the car had been there. She'd forgotten about thinking up something to tell Uncle... her dad, so he wouldn't be angry with her. Her line about her mom driving her was only a small lie. But as she got closer to the road, she could see that the woman in the car didn't look anything like mom. She was paler. And her hair was black.
Emma paused, confused. The woman was beckoning her to come closer.
Feeling slightly anxious, she walked closer to the car. She wasn't afraid of much not the cold and not the dark. But she'd been told many times to be careful around strangers. Even so, it was important to be brave.
"Hi there, little girl," the woman said, a big smile on her face. Emma grimaced. Her lips were painted black, and the makeup around her eyes was all wet and runny. "You look like you could use a ride home."
Emma shook her head. "I'm not supposed to talk to strangers."
The lady laughed, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a flat, square object. She handed it to Emma. "Take a look, squirt."
Emma examined the picture. There was her mom... she recognized her, even though she looked a little different. There were less lines in her face. And there was her new dad! And Aunt Jane, and a few other people. Off to one side was the woman who had given her the picture.
"My name's Monique. I'm a friend of your parents. See how happy they look?"
They did look happy, Emma thought. But she wasn't convinced. "I'm not supposed to be here," she said, feeling slightly guilty.
"Aw, that's okay," Monique said sympathetically, still smiling. "It's a long walk home. I'll just take you there and drop you off. Okay?" Emma considered. "Look, your mom is going to find out you were here when she talks to your dad anyway. So you might as well come. At least you can tell her you were with someone she knew. Then maybe they'll decide not to punish you. You can even blame me, if you want."
That clinched it. Emma had gone through too much to get her parents more upset.
"C'mon," Monique said, leaning over and opening the passenger door. "Your secret's safe with me."
Emma happily ran around and climbed in, reflecting that she was very lucky to have so much go right on a single night.
The second the door was shut, Monique took off.
"Hey!" Emma protested. "You didn't give me time to put my seat belt on!"
Monique ignored her. Emma looked out the window, watching her dad's house retreat into the night. A thought occurred to her. "We're going in the wrong direction."
"Shut up, kid, I'm trying to think."
Suddenly, Emma felt sick. Something was wrong. She hadn't wanted to be afraid, was determined not to be afraid. "Where are we going?" she asked in a small voice.
Monique shot her a glance. Her eyes were hard and empty. "We're gonna go to my place first. I got some things I need to do."
Helen retrieved her cup of coffee before she woke anyone else up. She was never her best in the morning. Sipping deeply from the bitter pool, she padded up the stairs, struggling to balance in her oversized slippers. Reaching the top, she yawned, checking her hair curlers in the mirror as she walked down the hall. She stopped at Emma's room and knocked on the door.
"Emma, sweetheart, time to get up."
There was no response.
"Emma, if you want breakfast, you've got to get up now, honey."
Again, nothing. Perturbed, Helen pushed the door open with her foot. The sunlight had already invaded Quinn's old room, but the lump on the bed wasn't stirring.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, dear, join the rest of the world." She reached out and turned over the sleeping child...
"Oh!" she screamed, and dropped the coffee cup on the floor.
Only a stuffed giraffe lay where the sleeping child ought to have been.
Trent was snapped into waking awareness by the phone ringing. Groggily, he checked his watch. Seven-thirty in the morning. He lunged for the phone.
"Where's Emma?" her voice was hard-edged.
He raised a surprised eyebrow. "Emma? She's not with you?"
"You mean she's not with you? Oh God..."
There was an undisguised desperation in her tone. "Is she missing?" he asked hurriedly.
"I can't find her anywhere! She wasn't in her bed this morning, and she's not in the house! I've worried myself sick! We called the police..."
"Waittaminute... you're saying she wasn't there this morning? Where did you take her last night?"
"Last night? What are you talking about?"
Trent felt what was surely his bone marrow freezing. "She was here last night..." he said carefully. "You brought her. I saw you in the car."
"Trent!" Her voice was strained, panicky. "I didn't go anywhere last night!"
The air rippled before his eyes. "Oh, God..." he breathed. "Monique."
"Monique?!" Desperation turned to shock and terror. "Monique Levinson has my little girl?"
"Call the police," Trent told her, trying to keep his tone calm and failing at it. "But she might have an unlisted address, and there's no time to waste. We'll find her ourselves. I'll come for you right now."
"Hurry, Trent, hurry. Oh, God please, hurry!"
Axl was aroused from his slumber by an urgent, heavy pounding. Lurching up from his cot behind the desk, he squinted to make out who was banging on his door.
It was Trent. And that girl of his. The journalist. Annoyed, he struggled to his feet and staggered to the door. "We're closed!" he shouted, his face inches from the glass. He jabbed the sign hanging outside for emphasis. "Come back when it says 'open.'"
"We need information, Axl, fast! Open the god damn door!"
Axl looked at the woman. To his chagrin, her eyes informed him that they were dead serious. With a heavy sigh, he fumbled for the keyring. "Wot's it all about, then?" he asked as he swung open the door.
Trent stepped inside, flushed and breathless. "It's Monique, man, I need to know where she's living."
Axl regarded him skeptically. "Monique, huh? Trust me, mate, she's in a bad way. You don't wanna get messed up with her."
"It's too late for that," the woman pleaded. "Please... can you tell us where she is?"
Axl grunted, searching his memory. "Wealthy St." he said at last. "Old white brick apartment, second floor I think."
"Thanks, man!" Trent gushed. "I owe you."
"Yeh," Axl agreed. "You do."
He shook his head as they raced out the door, practically jumped into Trent's car and tore off down the street. Now what could possibly be so important that it required depriving an honest businessman of his well-earned rest?
It was warm in the car when Emma woke up. Her neck felt funny where she had rested it on the cracked seat. She looked up and out the window, but there was nobody there. She tried to open the door again. It still didn't work. Just like the Monique-woman had said it wouldn't.
"Just wait here," she'd said the previous night. "I'll be right back. And don't think about doing something stupid getting out and running away. I got the electronic lock on. It only obeys my key-chain here, see? You wouldn't get far in this neighborhood anyway. So sit still and keep out of sight. Got that?"
Emma had gotten that. But she'd tried all the doors anyway. When it hadn't worked, and the lady hadn't returned, she found she was too tired to stay awake, in spite of her fear. And the crack Monique had left in the window was much to small to even consider climbing through. So she'd slept.
She felt her stomach growl. She was hungry, and there was no food in the car. Sighing with frustration, she leaned up and peered over the dashboard. The car she was in was parked high up on a hill. Through the windshield she could see cars flowing through a busy intersection at the bottom. What was wrong with this street that nobody was turning? She looked around. In daylight, the buildings looked even worse than they had at night, and she thought she knew the answer to her own question. No cars turned because nobody lived in those buildings. Nobody would want to.
With no food and nothing to do, she slumped back down into the seat. She knew she had done something wrong for this to happen to her. Very wrong. Her mother and father would be upset with her when they found out what had happened. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried not to think about it.
Eventually, she dozed off.
The sound of a car, very close woke her up. When two doors opened and shut, she was definitely very awake. Clambering to her knees, she crawled across to the drivers seat and looked out the window. Mommy! And daddy! But they weren't looking at her. Their backs were turned, and they were running inside the door that the Monique-lady had gone through the following night.
Emma sank back down to chair level. They were probably visiting. They would talk about what a bad girl she'd been, and then they would come downstairs and punish her.
Dejected, she turned to look for a distraction and her eyes fell on the odd stick that was sticking out between the seats. It was a funny little thing, poking up from the car floor like a tent-pole. She'd never seen anything like it in a car before. There was a sort of rubber cap on the top, with lines and numbers, also the letters "N" and "R." She couldn't imagine what it was for. Perhaps it was a puzzle? Perhaps it was a game?
Her situation temporarily forgotten, she reached for the odd device. Perhaps she could make it work, and see what exactly it was that it did.
"Is this the place?" Daria asked.
"Gotta be," Trent breathed.
She looked down the corridor, closed door after closed door. "Which one is hers?" she whispered.
Trent shook his head. "I don't know. Guess we'll have to do it the hard way." He raced from door to door, trying the doorknobs, pushing inward. But his search only turned up empty room after empty room.
Daria began at the other side of the hall. The fourth door she tried was locked. "Over here!" she hissed.
Trent was there in a second. He pushed at the frame, testing it for strength. "Stand back."
Cracked on the surface, the wood turned out to be rotten on the inside. One solid kick and the door burst open. Daria was at his side the moment I was through. Emma was nowhere to be seen, but there, amongst the filth and debris of a squandered existence hypodermic needles, broken bottles, discarded condom wrappers Monique lay clutching a large knife.
It was pointed squarely at her own throat.
"Trent!" she laughed, with hysterical whimsy. "And Daria! Good! I wanted you to see this." Her clothes were ragged, her hair was a mess, and her eyes were so wide and bloodshot it seemed as though they might pop from their sockets at any moment.
"Where's Emma?" Trent roared. "What have you done with her!"
"I'm going to kill myself," Monique continued, as though she had not heard the question.
"Monique..." Daria said, horror and pity rising up as one, "I don't know what brought you down this far, but it doesn't have to end this way. Please." A strange calm descended over her. "Tell me where my little girl is. Please..."
The bedraggled woman's head jerked back and forth, from Daria to Trent. "It didn't have to happen this way," she whimpered. "I wasn't evil. I was in love. Love!"
"Please," Daria said. "We can help you. But we need to find our daughter. Please. Put down the knife." She took a step forward, arm moving toward Monique's right hand, which held the knife. The woman was clearly insane. And if she had done something to Emma and died without revealing it...
Monique recognized Daria's intention to intercede. "No! Stay back!" she screamed, pressed the edge of the blade against her throat.
"Daria, no!" Trent cried.
But Daria would not be stopped. Even as Monique moved to slit her own throat, Daria darted out her hand and caught the handle of the knife. She jerked it back, so that the violent slice only caught the top layer of skin. Monique shrieked in fury, wresting the knife from Daria's control. Brandishing it, she lunged forward.
Daria felt pain lance through her body, and she staggered back. Her hand flew to her left arm where the knife had gone through. Hot blood turned her dark blue jacket sleeve a slick black. Stumbling back towards the door, she tripped over Monique's discarded purse and fell to the ground. Wailing like a banshee, Monique dove at her, hatred etched across her face in a gruesome rictus.
The interval between the stab and the dive was all the time Trent needed. While she was focussed on Daria, he leapt forward, delivering a crushing kick to her gut. The knife flew from Monique's hand, and she went careening backwards to crash against the wall. Hitting the ground, she collapsed into a shivering wreck. Insane laughter filled the room as she struggled to breath.
Daria woozily rose to her feet, clutching her arm in a feeble attempt to stop the bleeding. It hurt worse than anything she could imagine. "The closet..." she told Trent through clenched teeth. "Check the closet."
He was there in an instant, nearly pulling the door off its frame in his haste to get inside. Frantically, he dug through the boxes and rotting cloth.
But something else caught Daria's eye. There, at her feet... a key-ring. "Trent!" she called, bending down to scoop it up. She tossed it to him. "The car!"
From outside the window, there came the sound of tires crunching on pavement. Trent ran to the window and looked out, his face contorting into a terrified mask. "Oh, God, it's moving! EMMA!"
Three steps and he was out of the room. She tried to follow, but it was becoming difficult to walk. All she could hear was the terrible hysteria behind her and the frantic sound of stumbling feet on stairs from where Trent had disappeared through the door. Her vision swam and her head felt like it was about to explode, but she forced one foot in front of the other. And again. And again. And again.
Daria stopped at the top of the stairs, reeling. Everything was all happening at once. Everything all too slow, and far away. Monique's laughter, the hollow echo of the truck's horn, the shrillness of the brakes, the warm wetness of the blood running down her arm to drip thickly on the floor. Then the sound, the horrible sound of metal on metal, of the world coming to an end. Somewhere in her mind, Trent's horrible cry hit home, and she staggered. The air twisted in a hazy distortion of reality, and she vaguely felt her body go tumbling down the steps, the back of her head striking hard against the bottom stair. She didn't feel the pain. She only felt numb, consciousness slipping helplessly away. Vision meant nothing. There was Jake. There was Helen. Was that Trent standing over her? It was all coming together now... sight, sound, texture, dreams, future, past... all coming together... all relative... all... fading...
She sniffed and looked at him questioningly.
A true smile bloomed on his lips. "You said you still loved me. Did you know I still love you, too?"
A look of heart-rending relief crossed Daria's face and her watery smile matched his own.
Still smiling, Trent held her shoulders gently and lowered his lips to hers in a gentle, salty kiss. It lingered as they silently agreed to give things another try.
After a long time they broke apart and embraced, taking in the sensations of being so close again.
"Will you please come home now?" Trent whispered in her ear.
Daria handed him the brief letter typed on Dominic's letterhead. She had been officially cut free. "I'm broke. How can you be sure of my motives, particularly now?"
Trent smiled. "I'm sure. If we had kept out heads about us a year ago, this wouldn't have happened at all. Consider it a bad dream."
"The worst nightmare of my life."
Trent kissed her again. "Then it's time to wake up..."
Daria woke up cold. Her eyes fluttered slowly. The draft from the window had intensified over the night. She lay still for a moment, letting her surroundings soak in. Next to her on the bed, Trent lay curled around the twisted covers, tucked into a fetal position.
Daria felt her skin prickle, and not from the chill. She'd been so afraid of losing him. So very afraid. But not anymore. She saw him, lying there, and she was filled with a quiet certainty. She would never be alone again, no matter where the wind took her. There were endless possibilities. "Lawndale..." she thought to herself with an involuntary mental chuckle. It was certainly something to think about...
The curtains rippled, ushering in another gust of chill air. Taking care not to disturb Trent, Daria swung her feet over the side of the bed and padded softly over to the window. The pane was icy, and she could feel the skin around her fingertips tighten briefly as she slid the window shut and locked the coldness out.
Reaching out a hand, she brushed back the drapes. Through the glass, enough moonlight stretched past the busy streets to highlight her against the enveloping gloom of the bedroom. She stood there for a moment longer, examining the city. It twinkled back at her like a sea of stars: vast and magical and more than a little intimidating. Inside, she felt something tighten up into a hard knot at the prospect of facing that hot-and-cold world. It was a challenge she would have to meet on her own terms. Trent could stand with her, but he could not stand for her. Closing her eyes, she searched deep within herself, looking for the strength to face her future.
She found it. She smiled, then; a small, private smile, and placed one hand over her belly. The skin was warm beneath the nightgown.
Emma was a beautiful name.
Wasn't that a great story? I cannot say how utterly and absolutely flattering it is to have someone even be interested in borrowing one's univerese and charaterizations. Then to have them do so, and spin such a delightful tale is beyond words to describe the pleasure. I have always had a soft spot for John and his writing. He and I were made 'Featured Authors' on the same day, and so have a connection. Add to that his wonderful way with words and characters, and a soft spot is made. Of course, meeting him im Europe, and sharing a pizza pie Daria style was even better. He gave me the first half of this fic at that point and I have been just dying to read the ending. And now that I've had the pleasure, I have but one thing to say: "And they call me the Drama Queen? Say hello to the King."