That Stranger I Know So Well
by Jon Kilner
"Dammit. The one time I complete a math assignment on time and I have to go and lose it."
Daria looked up from the disheveled mound of papers before her. She'd just wasted the last fifteen minutes sorting through them and her legs were beginning to cramp from sitting cross-legged on the floor. "Well it isn't over here," she said. "Are you sure you did the assignment?"
"Of course I am." Jane tilted her head back and sniffed hard. She'd been fighting a losing battle with a cold for quite a while. "Don't you think I'd remember actually doing a math assignment?"
"Hmmm. I suppose such an unusual event would tend to stick in your mind." Daria glanced sidelong at Jane, her mouth turning up in a half-smile. "You haven't been working in papier-mache lately, have you?"
Jane was down on all fours beneath her drafting table, rummaging through months' worth of discarded papers, workbooks and art supplies. She'd ditched her red jacket in the heat of the search and was now nearly all in black; shirt, shorts and leggings. Only her grey boots upset the motif. At Daria's comment, Jane threw down the papers she was holding and backed out from under the table. Sitting back on her knees, she turned toward Daria with a sour expression. "Not funny, Daria," she said. "I worked hard on that paper and I need to turn it in. My straight C average is at stake here."
Daria lifted her hands in defeat. "Well, I can't find it."
Jane held her severe expression for a few seconds longer, then she smiled and shook her head. "It isn't over here," she said, getting up from the floor. "I'm going to check downstairs. If it isn't in your pile, then how about taking a look through that stuff?" Jane waved a hand at the open closet. "It might have crawled in there and died."
"Uugh," said Daria, looking at the overflowing closet. "It looks like the assignment wasn't the only thing."
"Okay, I'll do it. But if I uncover any human remains, I'm going to deny I even know you."
"No chance," Jane replied with a smirk. "I keep those under the trap door in the basement. Be right back."
Daria stood up and approached the closet as Jane headed off down the hallway. Jane's laundry pile was definitely the dominant force in this corner of the room. It had long ago outgrown the closet and spilled outward in search of a larger home, swallowing up bits of paper and other discarded trash in the process. "I don't really want to put my hand in there," Daria said to herself. "I might not get it back."
But in spite of her voiced misgivings and against her better judgement, Daria knelt down and started sorting through the pile. Old laundry was definitely the major contributor; t-shirts, jogging shorts, bed sheets and socks. Every genus and species of the laundry family was represented. Daria tossed them aside one by one, seeking out anything that might be the missing math paper. She didn't pause in her work until she came across a particularly infamous item.
"This brings back bad memories." Daria lifted a pink nightgown from the pile, holding it between two fingers. It was the same one that Jane had loaned her the night before they'd taken Jesse's old LP's to the flea market. It was well wrinkled from being balled up under the pile, just at it had been when Jane offered it to her that night. "It's probably been here since I wore it," Daria muttered as she tossed it over her shoulder.
But the nightgown refused to be so casually discarded. It wrenched itself free of Daria's grip and draped itself over her head. "Aaack!"
Daria would rather die than admit it, but she had a mild phobia about smothering and the nightgown's unexpected attack set it off. Without thinking, Daria gathered up the nightgown in frantic hands and threw it away from her. Unfortunately, the reason for its untoward behaviour quickly became apparent in the sound of ripping fabric. The frilly end of one sleeve had caught itself on the zipper of Daria's jacket and her forceful throw tore the lace right off.
Adding insult to injury, the balled up nightgown hit the top shelf of Jane's closet. There it struck a small wooden box, causing it to topple and fall to the carpet. The impact broke the latch and threw the lid open, scattering the contents on the floor. The nightgown, now unrolled and catching the air, fluttered down like a shroud over the damage that Daria's panic had wrought.
Shaking her head, Daria freed the lace from her zipper and carried it over to the fallen nightgown. She examined the sleeve from which it had come. Well, she didn't know anything about sewing, but it looked as if the lace had come away clean. It could probably be sewed back on with a minimum of fuss. Assuming, of course, that Jane didn't prefer to use the damage as an excuse to ditch the nightgown.
Daria gathered up the nightgown and set it aside, then turned her attention to the items that had escaped from the box. She couldn't help looking at each one as she returned it to the box. They were an odd collection; a guitar pick, a kid's drawing, an old postcard from Guatemala. Strange. Well, they probably meant something to Jane. Best to get them back where they belonged.
Daria collected the items and looked around for any she might have missed. There was one, a small plastic hoop with a clasp. Daria picked it up and looked at it. It was solid white, except for a clear bit on the outside surface opposite the clasp, like a window over a patch of writing. Under the window was printed 'Cedars of Lawndale.' So, it was a hospital bracelet.
Daria looked at the bracelet's name space. It read 'Jane Lane.' So Jane had a hospital stay back before the Morgendorffers came to town. What could it have been for? Tonsils? Daria smiled, picturing a very small Jane in a hospital gown pleading with the nurses for possession of her ousted tonsils so she could use them in an art project. Curious now, Daria looked to the date on the bracelet. What she read came as a surprise.
"It's not down there," muttered Jane a few minutes later, her boots stamping a rapid pattern on the carpet. She walked to the center of the room and spread her arms. "That means the paper has to be located somewhere within this limited space. So why can't I find it?"
Daria didn't answer, but Jane took no notice. Instead she set her sights on the desk and the mound of paper it supported. With single-minded intent, Jane stalked to the desk and started sorting through the pile.
"Ummm, Jane?" Daria began, turning toward her friend. "I never knew you were in the hospital."
"I was when I was born," said Jane, her mind on her sorting. "My mother had given up on home births by then. Other than that . . ."
"It says here you were in the hospital about a year ago."
Jane turned suddenly, her eyes wide and her mouth forming an 'oh' of surprise. Daria lifted the bracelet for her to see. "According to this, you were admitted to Cedars of Lawndale only a few weeks after we first met. How come I don't remember this?"
Jane's eyes shifted from the bracelet to the open box. "How did you find that?" she asked.
"Oh," Daria replied, glancing down. "I . . . um . . . accidently tossed your nightgown into the closet and knocked this box down. And I ripped the nightgown, too. Sorry."
"That's okay," Jane answered, her voice a bit distant. "I never liked it anyway. Why'd you look in the box?"
"The stuff spilled out when it fell. I was putting it back when I found this." Daria lifted the bracelet again. "So, why were you in the hospital? Tonsils? Appendix?"
"Yes," said Jane quickly. "Yes, that was it."
Daria smirked. "Which one?"
Jane froze, her gaze drifting to the side as if she were reviewing their last minute of conversation, looking for clues. Or a way out. "Tonsils," she said, her gaze coming back to Daria. "That's what it was. I . . . didn't tell you because I was embarrassed about it. You know, me being taken down by a kid disease and all."
"I see," said Daria, her voice dry. She glanced again at the bracelet. "And for this tonsillectomy, you were admitted to the Intensive Care Ward?"
Jane just stood there, a myriad of frantic thoughts passing behind wide eyes. Her lower lip slowly disappeared between her teeth as her hands clenched and unclenched at her sides. "Ummm, all the regular wards were full?"
Jane just stood quiet and crossed her arms, offering no new information. The silence grew thick between them. Finally, Jane threw up her hands. "Look, I can't find that assignment anywhere, so I'm going to have to do it over again and I'm going to need some time to myself if I want to get it done by tomorrow. So if you don't mind Daria . . ."
Jane was making shooing motions toward the door. "Wait a minute," said Daria. "I was just asking . . ."
"No time now," said Jane, her words coming quickly. "Must do my math homework. Big assignment. Very important."
Daria dropped the bracelet, sputtering incomplete questions as Jane rushed her from the room and down the stairs. She tried to make a stand at the door, only to have Jane all but push her out onto the porch. "Sorry," said Jane as she closed the door. "So much work to do. See you later."
"But . . ."
The door slammed shut, leaving Daria alone on the porch. She stared at the door for a long moment, then shrugged. Strange behavior for Jane. What was she hiding? Ah, well. Maybe by tomorrow Jane would be calmed down enough that she could ask again. Shelving her questions for the evening, Daria turned away from the door and started home.
Smooth, Lane, thought Jane as she rested her head against the closed door. Real smooth. You just shooed your best friend out the door without so much as a by-your-leave. Well done. Way to misdirect her curiosity.
Jane listened to the silence beyond the door, her eyes closed. Daria was just standing out there, probably staring at the door and wondering what the hell just happened. Now her interest would really be piqued. It wouldn't be surprising if Daria just knocked on the door and demanded an explanation. But she didn't. After a moment, Jane heard the sound of Daria's boots walking off down the sidewalk.
Jane opened her eyes and released a long sigh. Heaven knows that wouldn't be the end of it, but at least now she'd have some time to come up with a more plausible explanation for her hospital stay.
"Hey, Janey. Everything okay?"
Jane turned. Trent was standing in the kitchen doorway, one hand on the door frame and the other supporting a pot of water. "Yeah," she answered. "Everything's fine."
"Was that Daria leaving? I thought she was going to stay for dinner tonight."
"Well, you know Daria," said Jane, thinking furiously. "She thought of a project that was due this week and had to get home to finish it."
"Oh." Trent's gaze stayed on Jane, as if measuring the veracity of her words. "Okay. So I guess it's just us for dinner then."
Jane sighed. "Yep. Unless mom has made an early departure from the Yucatan."
Trent turned around and carried the pot back into the kitchen. Jane followed him in. "Got any fresh coffee?" she asked, looking over the kitchen as she entered. "I could use some before I get back to my great paper search."
"Way ahead of you," said Trent. He placed the pot on the stove and fired up the burner beneath it. "Just give me a few minutes and I'll have it ready."
"Do we have any cream?"
"What do you think, Janey?"
Jane sighed and turned for the cupboard. "I'll get the non-dairy creamer."
Trent had the coffee ready in short order. Jane carried her cup up the stairs and into her bedroom. She tried to turn her thoughts back to the papers littering her desk, but it was no use. The math assignment just didn't seem so important anymore. Not after what Daria had discovered.
Jane dropped a handful of papers and turned. The small wooden box still lay open on the floor, a silent accusation of a secret poorly kept. And of a lie told to a good friend out of desperation. The ID bracelet lay beside it. Jane walked over and picked up the bracelet, turning it over so she could peer at the writing.
Why hadn't she put this thing away someplace better, buried it deep and forgotten about it? Or maybe thrown it away? Well . . . not thrown it away. But she should have hidden it someplace where no one could have stumbled over it.
"Damn," Jane sat down beside the box and looked through at the contents. Inside lay a collection of oddities, things too useless to be needed, but too valuable to let get away. There was a folded-up picture she'd painted as a child, watercolours on a preprinted colouring book page. It had been the first work of hers to receive praise from Uncle Randy1. Her teacher had told her it was a complete mess, but Uncle Randy had smiled and told her, "You've taken the printed picture and made it better, Janey. Don't worry about what your teacher told you. It doesn't take an artist to paint inside the lines."
Jane smiled at the memory as she moved on to the other items; a chunk of her first attempt at pottery which had exploded in the kiln, the first postcard that Penny had sent home after she'd left the country, and a guitar pick that Trent had used on the night of Mystic Spiral's first gig. They all lay together, mixed with other memories and mementoes.
Jane set the hospital bracelet among them and closed the lid. Once the box was back on the shelf, Jane stepped back and stared at it, as if gauging the worth of its location. "Not that it matters now," she mumbled.
Jane shook her head, as if tossing off the uncomfortable thought. There was no use in worrying about it. Daria had seen it and that would have to be dealt with, but that was tomorrow's worry. The best thing she could do now would be to put the incident out of her mind and find her math assignment.
But in spite of her best efforts, she succeeded at doing neither that night.
"Hey, kid? I said 'two dollars and fifty-nine cents.' You listening?"
Daria paused in the act of reaching for a can of soda and looked over. The lunchroom cashier's brows were knit as she peered at Jane, who was next in line. The total was up on the register and the lady's hand was out, expecting payment. But Jane didn't seem to notice. She was just staring blankly down at her tray, as if contemplating the cosmic meaning of her turkey roll and instant mashed potatoes.
Daria smirked as she reached out and touched Jane's arm. "Step it up, Lane," she said. "There are hungry students here waiting for their chance at food poisoning."
Jane jolted at Daria's touch, as if waking from a sleep. "What?" she sputtered, her questioning gaze turning toward Daria.
Daria reached out a hand, indicating the cashier. "Pay the lady."
"Oh. Oh . . . right." Jane fished the money from her pocket and handed it to the cashier. "Here you go."
As Jane moved off toward their table, Daria stepped up and endured the sour gaze of the cashier. "That'll be two-seventy," the lady said after totaling her burger, fries and soda. "And I don't appreciate cracks like that about the food."
"Sorry," Daria answered, smirking as she paid the tab. "In the future, I'll restrict my commentary to the friendly service of the lunchroom personnel."
Jane didn't look up when Daria joined her at the table. She was busy contemplating her lunch again. "It's no use," Daria said as she sat down. "No matter how hard you look, you're not going to find any food on that plate."
Jane offered up a half smile as he raised her eyes from her lunch. "Hey. I can hope, can't I?"
"I wouldn't recommend it."
Daria watched her friend closely as she started to eat. Jane had been dragging when they'd walked together to school, but that was pretty much true of every morning. This was different. Usually Jane hit her stride by lunchtime and was ready to join the world. But today her eyelids seemed to be riding at half-mast and her eyes were darkened, as if she hadn't slept. And to top it off, she was still sniffling.
"You look wiped," said Daria, her voice dry. "You must have been up all night redoing that math assignment. Did you get it finished?"
"Nope," Jane answered between mechanically shoveled bites of turkey roll. "Never found it."
Daria smirked. "I know we never found it. I was asking if you finished doing it over."
"Ummm . . . what?" Jane looked up, her eyes as alert as she could make them. "No. No, I didn't finish redoing the assignment."
"So, you're 'C' average is a thing of the past?"
"Yep. I'm officially a 'D' student in math, but I can bring it up again on the next assignment." Jane grew a half-smile. "If somebody helps me figure out some of that stuff."
"Hmmmm." Daria raised a hand to her chin and gazed upward, mimicking a posture of deep thought. "Yes, perhaps. But whom?"
"C'mon, Daria. Will you help me?"
Daria let the corner of her mouth quirk up. "Why not? By a strange coincidence, my social calender is empty for the rest of the week."
"Whoa. Who'd have guessed?" Jane punctuated her sentence with a heavy sniff.
"That cold still bugging you?"
"Yeah," Jane answered, turning back to her food. "It's getting to be a real pain."
Daria shook her head. "How long has it been now? Weeks? It's really hanging on."
"Lucky me," said Jane.
Jane turned her attention back to eating. But she seemed to slump over her meal, as if their short conversation had drained her reserves. That cold was really wringing her out. Unless it was something more.
No, Daria thought to herself. Stop it right there. Just because Jane had an old hospital bracelet sitting around, that didn't mean that something was wrong with her now. Okay, so she had been lying about the tonsils -- that much was obvious -- but that didn't mean she was hiding something serious. Maybe she'd gone in for something embarrassing. Something private. Something she just didn't want to discuss. That was her right. End of story. Besides, Jane would let her know if she had a serious problem.
Jane seemed to gain some momentum by the time they went out for their traditional after-school pizza. The snack seemed to enliven her even more and by the time they got to Casa Lane, she was raring to delve into her paints. As Jane set to work at her easel, Daria settled herself on the bed, resting her back against the headboard shelves in her traditional study position.
Language arts and math passed without distraction. But by the time Daria got into history, Jane was starting to fidget at her easel.
It began with little things; a slow rotation of the neck, a shaking of her left hand between one stroke and the next. Normally Daria wouldn't have noticed, but she hadn't quite put her worries of the afternoon to rest and she was sensitive to any unusual behaviour from Jane. As the minutes passed, her fidgeting became more pronounced. Jane stopped once and put both hands to her back, stretching her spine. A moment later, she lost herself in a truly tremendous yawn. Daria said nothing, until Jane started scratching her shoulder and Daria saw something she couldn't let pass.
"What is that?"
Jane paused in mid-scratch and turned, her right hand on her left shoulder. She smiled. "Now, Daria. Don't be an art critic."
"No, not the painting. On your arm." Daria pointed at Jane's arm and the mark that was just peeking out from under the sleeve.
Jane looked down. Her scratching had partially lifted her rolled-up sleeve. Now she pushed it up the rest of the way, revealing an impressive bruise. "Oh, that," said Jane. "Trent did that. We were rummaging around for dinner supplies last night and he left a cupboard door open. Naturally, I ran right into it."
"Ohhhh. Graceful of you."
"Wasn't it?" Jane pushed her sleeve down and turned back to her painting. She raised her brush, then paused as if reconsidering the motion. Finally she upended the brush and stuck its blunt end into a holder. "That's it," she said. "I'm too tired to concentrate. Will it bother you, Daria, if I turn on the TV for a while?"
"It's your TV." Daria smiled at her friend's exasperated expression before making herself more clear. "No, it won't bother me."
Jane seated herself on the floor, resting her back against the bed as she picked up the remote and zapped the television. The chattering box came to life. Daria paused in her work for a few moments as Jane surfed through the channels. Eventually Jane found a show about Marc Chagall on one of the educational channels and settled in to watch. The distraction of flipping channels safely curbed, Daria returned to her history studies.
Time passed unnoticed for a while, as it often did for Daria when she was lost in the written word. But somewhere between one chapter and the next, she became aware of a new sound in the room. She glanced up at the most likely culprit, the television. The Chagall program had ended and different show was playing. This one was some sort of panel discussion on the industrial revolution, not normally Jane's favorite form of entertainment. Neither was it the cause of the soft, almost growling sound.
Daria looked at Jane and smirked. She was still sitting with her back to the bed, but now her head was lolled back onto the mattress. Her eyes were closed and the sound in question was coming from her parted lips. Jane was sound asleep and snoring softly.
It wasn't like Jane to fall asleep in the middle of the day. That cold was really wiping her out. Daria let her sleep and returned to her studying, but this time she found herself distracted by thoughts of Jane's health. She tried to shake them off and concentrate, but in her mind's eye she kept seeing that damned hospital bracelet. Still, she tried to persevere.
Finally, after rereading the same paragraph three times, Daria let her gaze slide over to the closet and its pile of laundry. The pink nightgown was still there, lying over the mound. The box was back in its place on the shelf. No doubt the bracelet was inside. It wouldn't do any good to look at it again, but she hadn't really looked through the box's other items. Maybe one of them told the tale of Jane's hospital stay. Daria glanced at Jane. Her friend was sound asleep.
Daria closed her history book and set it aside, then slid herself to the edge of the bed. Ever so slowly, she lifted her boots from the bedspread and swung them to the floor. Then, anxious to cause no bedquakes, Daria slowly lifted herself off the bed and stood up. Jane never even stirred. Satisfied with her sneakiness, Daria turned for the closet.
Whether it was the small motions of the mattress or Daria's own quiet footsteps there was no way of knowing, but something penetrated Jane's restful state. Daria was only three steps from the bed when Jane's head jolted up from the mattress and she looked around. Daria caught the motion and turned in time to see Jane's bleary eyes settle on her.
"Wha'ss up?" Jane asked, sleep tainting her speech. "You leaving?"
"Uh . . . yeah," Daria replied, grabbing hold of the offered explanation. "You look beat. I thought I'd let you rest and take my studying home."
Jane smiled sheepishly as she climbed up to sit on the edge of the bed. "Yeah, I guess I did pass out there for a while. Sorry."
"So I'll see you in the morning?"
"You bet." Daria leaned over the bed and shoved her books into her pack. Shouldering the burden, she turned for the door. "Go on back to sleep. Maybe if you get some rest, you'll finally beat that cold."
"Yeah, maybe," came Jane's weary reply. "But I'm not holding my breath."
Daria paused in the doorway and looked back. Jane had sprawled herself across the bed, her arms curled around the pillow, her face turned away. She was already snoring. For the briefest of moments, Daria considered trying for another look at the bracelet. Then she turned away, shaking her head. It just didn't feel right to do so anymore.
"This is sooooo sad."
Daria closed the front door behind her, rolling her eyes as she turned to confront the horror in her living room. The fashion club was gathered around the television, watching yet another one of their puerile afternoon teen movies. The comment had been Tiffany's, but they all looked ready to burst into tears. In fact, Stacy had already done so.
"I can't believe it," Stacy blubbered. "It just isn't fair."
"Shush, Stacy," Sandi replied, an acidic gaze accompanying her words. "We'll miss what Derek has to say."
"Sorry, Sandi." Stacy turned back to the television, dabbing at her reddened eyes with a tissue.
Daria walked up behind the sofa and looked at the television over Sandi's shoulder. On the screen, a "teenage" boy was standing next to a teary "teenage" girl. "I've been diagnosed with cancer," he said, his words heavy with fake emotions. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner, Tara."
"I didn't even realize you were sick," the girl gushed. "I just thought you had the flu or something."
"That's just the early symptoms," he explained. "They're kind of like the flu."
Stacy sniffed and shook her head. "Oh, it's just too sad."
"I agree," Daria replied, her tone dry as the desert sands. "The four of you are indeed a sad sight."
The comment earned Daria hostile glances from three of the foursome. Stacy was too far gone with grief to respond in kind. "Hey, Quinn's cousin, or whatever," said Sandi, her voice snide. "Don't you, like, have some brain thing you could be doing?"
"What?" Daria replied. "And miss all this drama?"
"Go away," said Quinn, her eyes urging Daria from the room. "We're busy here." That said, Quinn and the others turned back to the screen.
"It'll be okay, Derek," said the "teenage" girl on the show. "I'll stand by you no matter what happens."
The words sent Stacy into a wailing bout of tears. "That's beautiful," she wept. " It's just so lifelike."
Quinn and Tiffany each leaned over and put her hand on Stacy's shoulder, offering their support. Sandi turned to Stacy and crossed her arms, her eyes hard. "It's okay, Stacy," she offered, her voice too condescending to carry any real support. "Everything will turn out all right. You'll see."
Daria shook her head and turned away. She passed her father on her way up the stairs. "Where you headed, kiddo?" he asked, pausing in mid-step. "Dinner's in about an hour. Pasta Bolognese tonight."
"I can hardly wait," Daria answered in deadpan, not raising her eyes as she continued up the stairs. "Until then, I'll be in my room, searching for sanity."
"Ummm . . . okay," Jake replied.
Daria entered her room and closed the door behind her. Minutes spent on an intense scrutiny of the cracks in her ceiling washed away the inanity of her encounter with the fashion club and brought silence to her thoughts. Unfortunately, once she achieved the silence, it was quickly filled with her worries over Jane. And to make matters worse, her thoughts of Jane became mixed with the so-called drama from the television. The melange of images soon sent her on the way to a headache.
"There's nothing wrong with Jane," Daria said as she sat up and rubbed her temples. "She just has a cold. She bumped her arm. She's tired. And she was in the hospital a year ago and won't tell me why. Nothing to it. Nothing at all."
Daria paused in her rubbing as her gaze fell on her computer. Her fingers still at her temples, half supporting her aching head, she narrowed her eyes and peered at the blank screen. There it was, the possible answer to her dilemma. She could search the medical websites and find out for herself if Jane's symptoms pointed to anything serious. Then, her stupid fears put to rest, she'd be able to put it behind her and things would get back to normal. Well . . . semi-normal at any rate.
Unless . . . maybe it was better not to know.
"No, that's stupid," Daria said at last. "Better to know, one way or the other."
Lowering her hands to the bed, Daria pushed herself up and crossed the room in a few determined strides. In minutes she had the computer up and was logged on to the web. From there, she set to work. "I'm not going to find anything," Daria assured herself. "I'm just wasting my time." And for a while it appeared she was doing just that, until she logged onto one of the better medical information sites and entered the symptoms she had noticed in Jane. The site came up with an answer.
Daria sagged against the back of her chair, her eyes on the information glowing on the screen. It all made sense now. Her stay in the hospital, a long period of seeming normalcy followed by the appearance of symptoms; tiredness, mysterious bruising, a persistent cold or flu. It all fit so damn well.
Daria let out a long sigh, her unseeing gaze settling on the smooth surface of her desk. The mystery was solved. Jane had leukemia. That hospital stay must have been for testing, monitoring the disease which had been in remission. Now the remission was ending and the disease was reasserting itself, taking its toll on Jane.
Her best friend was dying.
The thought caused Daria's vision to blur, but she quickly blinked back the moisture. No. She could still be wrong. Maybe it was as Jane had said. Maybe it was just a coincidence.
Daria looked up at the damning evidence on the screen and shook her head in defiance. Evidence wasn't proof. The mystery wasn't solved yet. One thing still remained. Confirmation. Daria shut the computer off without bothering with the niceties of first closing down the open utilities. What did it matter? She had more important things to think about.
Daria walked out of her room and down the stairs, heading for the front door. "Daria!" her father called from the kitchen. "Supper's on! Come and get it!"
Daria paused with her hand extended, then finished the motion and turned the knob. She walked through the door and closed it behind her. Dinner could wait. Right now she wanted answers and there was only one place she was going to get them. At Jane's.
Jane awakened from her nap bleary-eyed, tired and very hungry. Crawling off her rumpled bed, she made her way to the kitchen and started rummaging through the fridge. What she really wanted was a sandwich, but there was no lunch meat to be found. There was bread though, and that gave her some hope. There was more to sandwiches than cold cuts, after all. Sometimes the best sandwiches were the result of making the most out of what was available.
Further scavenging uncovered a leftover pork chop, a slice of jellied cranberry sauce, half a head of lettuce, some cheese cubes, a dollop of mashed potatoes and wonder of wonders, an unspoiled jar of mayo. Gathering her find into her arms, Jane closed the fridge with a gentle nudge of her boot and turned for the table. There she dumped her treasures and set about assembling them into a first-class leftover sandwich.
She was just chopping the sandwich in half for easy handling when the doorbell rang. "Trent?" she called. "Can you get that?" There was no answer. That meant either Trent was in the basement or gone for the evening. "Of course," she muttered.
Jane set down the knife and wiped her hands on a towel. "Just a minute," she called as she crossed the living room. "I'm coming." She opened the door and found a surprise standing on the mat.
"Daria? What are you doing here?"
Daria gave her a friendly smirk, sparing a glance for Jane's rumpled clothing and hair. "Glad to see you, too."
Jane brushed a few strands of hair from her eyes and smiled. "I didn't mean it that way," she said. "I'm just surprised to see you back here tonight. Is Quinn driving you crazy or have you finally decided to divorce your family?"
"Yes," Daria replied. Then her smirk slowly faded and her expression turned serious. "Actually, I need to talk to you about something. Can I come in?"
The look in Daria's eyes awakened a queasy feeling in the pit of Jane's stomach. She had a suspicion she knew what this talk was going to be about. "I don't know, Daria," she stalled. "I'm pretty beat."
"I know," said Daria, her voice missing its usual dryness. "It won't take long. I really need to talk to you, Jane."
Oh, hell. It looked like there was no getting around it. Daria could be damned obstinate when it suited her. "Okay," Jane told her. "Come on in and we'll go up to my room. Let me just grab my sandwich."
Jane let Daria close the door as she walked back to the kitchen. She plopped her makeshift meal onto a plate and turned back, only to find Daria standing in the kitchen doorway. Her friend was eyeing the sandwich with a dubious gaze. "Don't tell me you're actually going to eat that?"
"Sure," Jane replied. She lifted the plate with one hand, offering Daria a closer view of the sandwich. "It's even healthy. All of the food groups crammed together into one quivering mass."
"Lovely," said Daria. "I suppose I can survive watching you eat it, as long as I don't get too close."
"Damn sporting of you," Jane replied with a smile. She walked around Daria and led the way up to her room. Once there, Jane sat down on the bed and crossed her legs, Indian-style. Daria followed her in, watching as Jane took the first bite of her sandwich. "Have a seat," Jane offered around her mouthful of food. She gestured toward her desk chair.
Daria remained standing. She hesitated, her eyes betraying a reluctance to broach the subject that had brought her here. Jane had a good idea what that subject was going to be, but she didn't offer to start the conversation. She wasn't exactly eager to talk about her hospital stay and maybe, just maybe, Daria has something else on her mind.
Finally Daria crossed her arms and matched Jane's gaze. "It's about the bracelet I saw the other day," she said.
Damn. Jane tried to keep her face impassive as she set her sandwich back on the plate without looking down. "What about it?" she offered.
"Look," Daria began. "I've known you for some time now and I think we've learned a lot about each other in that time. When something is bothering me, you pick up on it pretty quickly. Well, the same goes the other way around."
"Okay . . ."
"What I'm saying is," Daria continued, "ever since I saw that hospital bracelet, I've been noticing some things. I've been putting those things together and I think I've come up with a pretty accurate picture of what's going on. Of what you've been trying to keep from me."
Jane's eyes widened. "You have?"
"I think so," Daria replied. She finally turned to the offered desk chair. Pulling it up beside the bed, she sat down facing Jane. "And what I want to say is, you don't have to hide it from me anymore."
"Whoa." Jane lifted a hand to her head and lowered her eyes. "I can't believe you figured it out. I thought I'd been so careful. If it hadn't been for that damned bracelet . . ."
"You never would have told me?"
Jane looked up, meeting Daria's gaze. "I don't know. Maybe."
"Why not?" Subtle hints of pain were beginning to creep into Daria's normally stoic expression. "Didn't you think I'd want to know?"
"I don't know," Jane repeated, her voice going quiet as she thought back to another time. "It was such a close thing, back in the hospital. When it was over, I just wanted to leave it all behind. I knew I couldn't, of course, but I tried. I guess it isn't that easy."
Daria's eyes changed in that moment. It was a subtle difference, one that would have gone unnoticed on anyone else's face. But Daria Morgendorffer wasn't anyone else. For her, the tiniest change of expression spoke volumes. What others might express in tears, Daria was conveying with a slight widening of the eyes, an almost imperceptible raising of her eyebrows. Whoa. So Daria hadn't been certain at all. Now she was dealing with having her suspicions confirmed.
A bit frightened by Daria's display, Jane tried to lighten the mood by offering up a half-smile. "To be honest," she said, "I'm kind of glad you figured it out. I guess I should have known better, but I was afraid you'd draw away from me if you knew that I . . ."
"I'd never do that, Jane," Daria interrupted. "No matter what. I . . . want you to know that."
Jane smiled, offering up unspoken appreciation. It seemed to brighten Daria a bit, but the sadness was still there. Well, maybe that was understandable. It was a lot to digest, after all.
For a few moments the two of them sat in silence, neither sure what to say. Then Jane looked back down at her sandwich and sighed. "Look, Daria," she said. "I really am beat. I think I'm gonna finish my sandwich and crash for the night. Hope you don't mind if I chase you out."
"No," Daria replied. "I understand. So, I'll see you tomorrow morning?"
Daria stood up and walked out of the room. Jane watched her go, then let herself sag into a comforting slouch. Whoa. That could have gone a lot worse. But then again, maybe not. After all, if anyone was capable of understanding her problems, it was Daria.
Jane pushed herself back on the bed until her spine was resting against the headstand, a much needed support for her tired slouch. She reached out and dragged the plate after her. Wrapping her hands around the sandwich, she put the situation out of her tired mind and concentrated on more practical matters. First the sandwich, then back to sleep. And tonight it would be a sleep untroubled by worries of a secret she no longer had to guard.
Gravity seemed to take a firmer grip on Daria as she left Jane's room behind and descended the stairs. Her gaze fell to the stairway before her. Her legs took each step as if they no longer had the will to carry her forward. Her shoulders hunched into a wearied sag, as if burdened by a new and unsupportable weight. The weight became unbearable as Daria reached the bottom of the stairs. She stood there, her feet together and one hand resting on the newel post, trying to gather strength for the long walk home.
To her left, a soft measured thumping spoke of boots crossing the kitchen floor. The faucet opened up and ran, the water sounding a peculiar echo as it filled a metal pot. A few more footfalls and the pot scraped onto the iron gratings of the stove. A soft whoosh announced the birth of flame beneath the pan. Trent was making coffee.
Daria hesitated for a moment, then turned toward the kitchen. She needed to talk to someone and there was certainly no intelligent companionship available at home. Maybe it would help to talk to Trent.
Trent was standing at the kitchen table when she walked in, eyeing the mess that Jane had left behind. His hands were on his hips and he was shaking his head.
Trent's head jerked up. She'd surprised him. "Oh, hey Daria. I didn't know you were here."
"I'm kind of on my way home. Jane left a mess, huh?"
"Yeah, that," said Trent, as if she'd pointed out something he hadn't noticed. "And she ate the pork chop that was in the fridge. Man, I could just taste that chop."
"Oh." Daria felt a smile somewhere deep, but it didn't reach her face. "Mind if I come in for a few minutes?"
"Sure, Daria. Sit down. You want something to eat?"
Daria eyed the empty containers. "Ummmm, I'm not hungry."
Trent tilted his head a bit as he peered at her. "You look tired," he said. "You feeling okay?"
"I'm fine." Daria sat down in the nearest chair, letting her weight fall into it as if unable to hold herself up any longer.
"You sure, Daria? You look like something's got you down."
Daria let her head hang for a moment, then sat back in the chair and met Trent's gaze. "I found out about Jane's hospital stay last year," she said. "Jane and I were just talking about it."
Trent's eyes widened. "Whoa. I didn't think she was going to tell anybody about that."
"I sort of found out on my own."
"Oh, that makes sense. She never wanted anyone to know." Trent smiled. "In fact, she threatened me with grievous bodily harm if I ever told anyone."
"That sounds like her," said Daria, almost smiling herself. "But I would have thought she'd want to tell me, at least. I am her best friend."
"Well," said Trent. "It is kind of a private thing, Daria."
"Yeah, I suppose it is." Daria sighed and let her almost-smile fade away. "I'm just glad I found out before it was too late."
Trent's eyes narrowed and he raised an eyebrow. "Too late for what?"
"You know. Before she becomes too . . ." Daria paused, the words catching in her throat. She tried, but she couldn't make herself say it. "Well, you know. Anyway, Trent, I want you to know that I'll do whatever I can to help Jane make the most of the time she has left."
"Okaaay . . ."
Daria swallowed her fears and sorrows and looked Trent square in the eye. "If it isn't betraying a confidence or anything, could you tell me how much time we're talking about?"
"Ummmm . . ." Trent looked uncomfortable.
"I'm sorry," Daria said quickly. "I shouldn't have asked. This must be even harder for you. You don't have to answer."
"No . . . well . . ." Trent glanced at the open doorway and the stairs beyond. His gaze moved quickly to the pot on the stove before settling back on Daria. "Listen, Daria. Could you watch that water for me? I have to check on something."
Oh, damn. She'd hurt him. "It's okay, Trent. You really don't have to . . ."
"No really, Daria. It's nothing, but I've got to check on something. Be right back." Trent turned and walked briskly out of the kitchen and up the stairs.
"Good one," Daria mumbled to herself after he was gone. She leaned forward and rested her head in her hands. "Now I've upset them both. No wonder neither of them wanted to tell me."
Daria closed her eyes, shutting out the whole day. Across the room, the water began to boil.
Jane popped the last bite of sandwich into her mouth and set the plate aside, leaning over the bedside to set it on the floor. Sitting up again, she started to work on loosening the laces of her boots. It was time for this day to end. Last night's sleeplessness had made this day a total loss. The best thing to do was pack it in and hope that she'd be more awake tomorrow.
Jane smiled as she worked at a pesky knot. At least tomorrow would be easier to face in one respect. She should have known that Daria wouldn't judge her harshly for what had happened a year ago. All that worry for nothing. Well, no matter. Daria was okay with it, so end of story.
Dropping her boots beside the bed, Jane got up and walked to the dresser. She opened the top drawer and started rummaging for a t-shirt and pair of running shorts that hadn't run in yet. The laundry hadn't been done in a while, but there had to be one clean pair she could sleep in.
Jane stopped rummaging and looked over her shoulder. Trent was standing in the open doorway. "Yo," she answered. "Don't bother asking for money, Trent. I'm broke."
"No, I wasn't going to." Trent started to say something more, then glanced over his shoulder as if fearful of being overheard. He stepped inside the room and quietly closed the door behind him. Then his eyes came back to her. "I think we need to talk, Janey."
"Okaaay." Jane let her double handful of clothing fall back into the drawer and turned. "What about? You're acting strange."
One corner of Trent's mouth quirked up a mite. "Stranger than usual?"
It was a pat answer, his move in their age-old game. But Jane didn't feel like playing. "I'm tired, Trent. What do you need?"
Trent turned serious again. He walked across the room and sat down on the edge of the bed, motioning for her to join him. "I was just talking to Daria," he said. "She told me she found out about your hospital stay."
"Yeah," said Jane, a half-smile growing as she sat down heavily on the bed. "She kind of bumped into my old hospital bracelet. But it's cool. We talked about it and she understands."
"You told her?"
"Well, no," Jane answered, pausing for a long sniff. "Actually she figured it out herself. But she did say she was okay with it."
Trent shook his head. "I don't think she figured it out at all."
"What do you mean?"
"Daria's still here, in the kitchen. She was telling me what she found out." Trent reached out and put a hand on Jane's shoulder. "Janey, she thinks you're dying."
Jane's eyes went wide. "What? That's crazy!"
"Well, she said . . ."
"You must have heard it wrong, Trent," Jane countered, cutting him off. "She told me herself that she figured it all out. She understands, dammit! It's over!"
"What did she actually tell you, Janey?" Trent continued. "Did either of you come out and say it?"
"Noooo," Jane answered, drawing the word out as she ran the earlier conversation in her mind. "She kind of beat around it. So did I. Even after all this time, it's still not an easy thing to talk about for me. It can't be easy for her, either."
"Then neither of you actually used the word?"
"No, we didn't," Jane huffed. This conversation was getting old. "But we knew what we were talking about."
"Maybe," said Trent. "But I think you were talking about two different things."
"What do you mean?"
"In the kitchen," said Trent, "Daria said something about her finding out before it's too late. And she talked about helping you make the most of the time you have left. Think about it, Janey. Maybe I'm wrong, but what else could she be talking about?"
Jane opened her mouth to reply, but nothing came out. Finding out before it's too late? Too late for what? Her hospital stay was a year ago. It was over and done with. Making the most of the time she had left? That didn't have any connection at all with what happened. It made no sense. In fact, it only made sense if Trent was right and . . .
Jane leaned forward and rested her head in her hands. "Awwww, damn," she said quietly. "How did she come up with an answer like that?"
"I don't know," Trent answered. "But you'd better go down and talk to her. You can't let her go on thinking you're dying. She's really hurting."
"Yeah, I'd better do that." Jane stood up and started for the door. "I've got to tell her I'm okay."
Trent caught Jane's arm before she could get away. "Yeah," he said. "And you'd also better tell her what really happened."
Jane turned and met his gaze, eyes wide and eyebrows climbing into her hair. "What? Look, if she still doesn't know, than maybe it's better to . . ."
"No, it isn't," Trent answered, his voice firm. "Think about it, Janey. You know Daria. After you tell her she's got it wrong, what do you think will happen next?"
"Nothing. That'll be the end of it. Period."
Trent raised an eyebrow. "You really think so?"
Jane let out a long sigh. "No, I don't. If I know Daria, she'll start digging all over again until she finds another explanation and this whole thing will start over again. "Jane sighed and shook her head. "I'm going to have to tell her. Damn, I thought this was all worked out."
Trent released her arm. "Want me to come with you?"
Jane raised her eyes and offered him a tired smile. "No. I'd better do this myself. Thanks for the offer, though."
"Anytime, Janey. I'll be in my room if you need me."
Jane found Daria standing at the stove, killing the flame beneath a pot of boiling water. "Yo."
Daria turned quickly, surprised. "Oh, hey. I was just . . ." Daria gestured at the stairs behind Jane. "Did Trent . . .?"
"Yeah," Jane answered. "He did."
Daria nodded, blanking her face again. "Listen," Jane began. "I think we need to talk. You want some coffee?"
"Okay. I was just taking the water off . . ."
"I'll get it," said Jane. "You just sit down. You're going to want to be sitting when you hear this."
Concern lined Daria's face as she sat down at the kitchen table, but she said nothing. Jane crossed the kitchen, her stocking feet padding quietly on the linoleum. But instead of walking to the stove, she stopped at the table. Jane spread both hands on the tabletop and leaned forward, looking at Daria over the wreckage of her earlier sandwich preparations. "There's something you should know, Daria. I'm not dying."
Daria Morgendorffer was not an easy person to surprise twice in one night, but that did it. Her eyes went wide and she actually drew back a fraction of an inch. "What do you mean? You don't have leukemia?"
"No, I don't." Jane straightened up and crossed her arms, trying to pour reassurance through her gaze. "Nor do I have a tumor, Ebola or the plague. I'm disease free, Daria. I am not dying."
For someone who was already seated, Daria gave a good impression of someone collapsing into a chair. "I don't believe it." Then Daria narrowed her eyes and looked up at Jane, a slight tug pulling the corner of her mouth. "You wouldn't lie to me, would you?"
"No, Daria. I'm perfectly fine." Jane smiled herself, then sniffed and turned to the stove. She talked over her shoulder as she set to work on the coffee. "I've gotta ask you something, though," said Jane. "Leukemia? How in the world did you come up with that?"
"That sniffling, for one thing," Daria answered.
"Never heard of the common cold, have we?"
"There were other things," said Daria. "That bruise on your arm, for one. Then there was your being so tired. And evasive. Mostly, it was that hospital bracelet. I put them all together and that's what my research turned up."
"I told you how I got the bruise," Jane chuckled. "As for being tired, I was up all last night."
"And the bracelet?"
"Yeah, well . . . that's what I was up all night worrying about." Jane poured out two mugs of coffee and carried them to the table. She offered one to Daria and sat down, cradling the other cup in her hands as if warming them. "I'll tell you what the bracelet is all about, Daria. I owe you that much, after the worry I've put you through."
Daria's arched an eyebrow, curiosity getting the better of her control, but she said nothing. She seemed to understand how hard this was for Jane and that silence would be the best contribution she could make.
Jane closed her eyes and gathered herself. Then she opened them and matched Daria's gaze. "I was in the hospital that time because I tried to . . . kill myself."
Daria said nothing, but her gaze drifted off just a bit. Thoughts were racing behind those eyes and Jane wished that she could hear them. But she couldn't and Daria herself was offering no clues. Daria's face was so blank that even Jane couldn't read it. That worried her. Daria only slammed the wall down that hard when she was deliberately hiding her feelings; when she didn't want anyone to see her fear. Or her anger. Or her feelings of betrayal.
"It was stupid," Jane continued, breaking a silence that was becoming uncomfortable. "I realize that now. I let my problems get to me and tried to solve them all with a handful of pills. Almost did it, too."
Daria said nothing
"I was in therapy for a while after that," Jane went on. "Remember those so-called sculpture classes I was taking for a while on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons?"
The question hung in the air between them, but Daria gave no sign she'd even heard it. Her gaze was still lost over Jane's left shoulder. Her walls showed no sign of crumbling.
Jane sighed and set her cup down. She reached out, letting her hand come to rest on the table a few inches from Daria's arm. "Say something, Daria," she said. It was almost a plea. "Talk to me? Please?"
Daria's eyes focused, like those of a daydreamer suddenly awakened. Their eyes met for just a moment, then Daria quickly looked away. Her gaze shifted to the stove, to the doorway, to the floor. It rested nowhere long. And it didn't return to Jane. Finally, Daria settled for looking down into her mug, a safely neutral object. "I'm glad you're not sick," she said at last. Daria drew breath to say more, but stopped herself. She released the breath without a word.
"I'm okay," Jane offered. Then she forced a smirk, trying to lighten things up. "Except for being stuck with this cold for the rest of my life."
Daria didn't respond to the attempt. Her defenses set firmly back in place, Daria looked across the table at Jane. "I think I'd better be going," she said. "It's getting late and you're tired."
"Hey, I'm okay if you want to talk . . ."
"No, I don't think so." Daria set her half-emptied cup aside and got to her feet.
"Sure." Jane offered a hopeful smile. "I'll see you tomorrow. Remember, I still need some help on my math."
"Yeah. See you tomorrow."
Jane felt like her soul was melting as she closed the front door behind her friend. Rarely had she seen Daria hide herself so completely. It was a tactic she usually saved for her family, those being the people who could hurt her the most. This was the first time Jane had been on the receiving end. It was not a comfortable feeling.
Daria arrived right on time the next morning, but she was unusually quiet during the walk to school. Jane tried to draw her out, commenting on the various people they passed. Daria offered a witticism or two in return, but they weren't up to her usual standard. Her heart obviously wasn't in it. Things didn't improve in class. As usual, she was O'Neill's go-to student on the hard questions and Daria answered them with ease, but she didn't spear O'Neill once with her usual sarcastic observations. Jane offered one of her own, just to start the ball rolling. She was rewarded with a smirk, but Daria remained in her shell. Lunch period was a virtual study in the laconic arts. Even the antics of Kevin, Brittany and the fashion club failed to inspire comment. By the time DeMartino's class rolled around, Daria was barely even answering the questions put to her. The walk home that day was long.
"So," Jane offered as they approached her house. "Want to come in for a while? Maybe help me with my math?"
"Not today," Daria replied. "I've got to get home. My mother has been on a rampage lately. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Ummm, okay. Tomorrow then."
Jane watched her friend walk away. Tomorrow. Yeah, maybe tomorrow Daria would be back to her old self. Maybe she just needed a day to digest the revelation that her best friend once tried to end her own life. Hell, one day of readjustment wasn't too much to expect, was it? Tomorrow then, Daria.
But the next day was no different. Daria was even more withdrawn. By Thursday she was barely talking at all and Jane started seeing less of her between classes. Was Daria trying to avoid her?
The situation weighed heavily on Jane. She couldn't concentrate in class and her teachers were not lax in noticing this. They called on her more often than usual. Math was the worst. The latest assignment, the one she had to do well on, was due tomorrow and she hadn't even started it. What was the use? She was behind before and this week had been a total bust. It was as if the teacher was speaking in a different language. The only good thing that happened in math was the ringing of the dismissal bell.
Jane stood with the others. She gathered up her papers, crammed them into her math book and headed for the door.
"Jane, can I have a word with you for a moment?"
Damn. Jane pretended not to hear, averting her eyes from the teacher and hurrying the flow of traffic into the hallway. He called again, but Jane didn't look back. She didn't stop until she reached her locker. Into it went her math book, slammed home with considerable vehemence. Then she dug out the books for her next two classes and slammed the door shut.
The opening of another locker door caught Jane's attention and she looked to the right. It was Daria, standing alone and trading books between her backpack and the locker. Jane shouldered her own pack and started toward her. Maybe she could brighten this day a little. "Hey, Daria," she called out.
"Aack!" Daria jumped, dropping a book that had been on its way into her locker. She turned, her eyes wide. Her mouth opened, but nothing came out. Something was holding back the words.
Jane bent down and lifted the book. "Sorry," she said, handing the book back to Daria.
"S'okay." Daria accepted the book and shoved it into her locker.
Whoa. An actual word spoken. Almost two! Maybe . . . "Only two more classes to survive," Jane continued, hoping for the best. "How about pizza and TV this afternoon. I'm starting to suffer from Mozzarella withdrawal."
Daria looked up. "Ummmm . . . I don't think I can . . ."
"Awww, c'mon," said Jane, swinging an encouraging fist at empty air. "You need pizza, Daria. I need pizza. It's an essential element of life. Meet you after class?"
Daria drew a breath, the ghost of an accepting smile on her lips. Then a shadow swallowed the expression whole, leaving behind a hint of regret and . . . was it . . . fear? "I can't," she said at last, her voice low. "I've got an English essay due and a paper for history to work on. You know."
"Yeah, I know." Jane let her enthusiasm wane and her face fell to match. "Maybe tomorrow?"
"Maybe tomorrow." For a moment it looked as if Daria wanted to say something more, but it didn't get past her wall. Finally, Daria let out a long breath and turned away.
Jane went for a run after school. She needed some time to herself, some time away from her thoughts. Jane ducked into her house and changed her jacket and boots for running clothes and sneakers. Then she headed outside, ready to put some pavement beneath her feet.
It was hard finding her pace at first, but it came together before the opening mile was completed. Her strides fell into a rhythm and her breathing slowed to match. The small protests and twinges that the first mile had awakened in her legs vanished as if they'd never been, smoothed over by an overall sense of strength and well being. The world vanished and Jane disappeared with it, leaving nothing but the run. No future beyond the next turn in the road, no past but the miles gone by. No worries. Blessed nothingness.
Until she found herself on Glen Oaks Lane.
The image of Daria's house burned through Jane's runner's high and fouled her easy pace. Jane stumbled and caught herself. She mumbled a vague curse as the nothingness flowed out of her, forcing her to slow to a walk. But she kept her feet moving at a brisk pace, intent on returning to the run.
Jane looked over at Daria's house as she came abreast of it. Her pace slowed even further, as if the house had some power that wasn't finished with her yet. She stopped at the mailbox and looked up at the windows of Daria's room. Daria was probably up there right now, stewing in whatever had been bothering her the last few days. Whatever that something was, it had been getting worse.
Jane turned and started up the sidewalk. Daria wasn't one for talking out her problems, but talking worked when things had come between them in the past and it might work again. Certainly the matter wasn't going to be settled by continued silence. Even running was only a temporary fix. They needed something more. Jane walked up to the front door and rang the bell.
Jake opened the door, wrapped in his 'Kiss the Cook' apron and wiping his hands on a dishtowel. "Hey, Jane-o. How's it going?"
Jane smiled. She just couldn't help it around Jake. He was such a natural goof. "Not bad, Mr. Morgendorffer. Is Daria home?"
"She's upstairs." Jake's face lit up. "Hey, I've got a meatloaf in the oven. You're welcome to stay for dinner, if you want."
"Maybe," Jane answered. "I have to talk to Daria first."
"Sure." Jake stepped back and motioned toward the stairs. "Go on up."
Daria's door was closed, naturally. Setting her face in a determined expression, Jane closed her fist and knocked. "There's nobody home right now," came Daria's reply. "You have five seconds to leave before I release the hounds."
Jane smirked as she quietly opened the door. Daria was inside, lying on her bed and staring up at the ceiling. "Hey," Jane offered. "It's me."
Daria's eyebrows arched as she brought her gaze down from the ceiling. She quickly levered herself up on one elbow. "Sorry," she said. "I thought you were Quinn."
"I'll try not to take that personally."
A hint of Daria's old smirk appeared, then vanished. "Look, I don't really feel like getting together today."
"Well, too bad." Jane stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. "We need to talk, Daria. You've been avoiding me and I think I know why."
"I don't . . ."
"Just let me talk for a minute, okay?" Jane moved into the room and sat down on the desk chair before Daria could protest. "Look, I realize that knowing I once did something so crazy can't be an easy thing for you to handle." Jane let her gaze fall to the floor. "I wouldn't blame you if you thought I was still crazy."
"I don't think you're crazy."
Jane looked up. Daria was sitting up now, her legs swung over the side of the bed. "Really?"
"I know you're not crazy," Daria answered. "I never thought that."
"Then why are you avoiding me?"
Daria's gaze fell and a look of discomfort fell over her features. She got up from the bed and walked to the window. For a moment she just stood there looking out, her arms tightly crossed. She gazed at the horizon as her answer finally came. "Because I'm not sure what I did to make you . . . want to kill yourself."
"You did it right after I came to town," said Daria, her voice low, but steady. "Right after we became friends. Cause and effect. And whatever I did, I don't want to do it again."
Jane stood up and walked to the window. She reached out and put a hand on Daria's shoulder. "It wasn't you, Daria. For crying out loud, you saved me."
Daria turned. "What do you mean?"
"I was unhappy for a long time before you came to town, you know." Jane turned and sat down on the bed, looking up at Daria. "I even thought about ending it once2. Then you came to town and for the first time I had a real friend. I thought all my problems were over."
Daria shook her head. "Then why the suicide attempt?"
"My problems weren't over," said Jane, shrugging. "And when I realized that, it hit me hard. I'd finally found something I'd always been missing, a true friend. But that didn't make everything else work out. When I realized that the world hadn't changed for me, I didn't take it well."
Daria's face fell. "Then I was the cause, in a way."
"No." Jane threw up her hands. "It was me. All me. My problem, not yours."
"But I was the catalyst . . ."
"No, you weren't. It would have happened anyway." Daria said nothing, but she didn't look convinced. "Listen," Jane continued. "After it happened, my counselor told me that the first thing I had to do was forgive myself for making the attempt and I did that. Your job should be even easier. All you have to do is forgive yourself for something that was never your fault in the first place."
A crack appeared in Daria's defenses. Just a slight change behind the eyes, but Jane caught it. "You can't blame yourself," said Jane, anxious to widen the crack. "It had nothing to do with you."
"But," Daria countered, struggling gamely. "Maybe if I'd . . ."
"If you'd what, Daria? Done something? Not done something?" Jane's mouth turned up in a grim half-smile. "That's some power you have. The ability to keep your best friend happy. What a burden that must be to carry around."
Daria sighed and looked over at Jane, the corner of her mouth quirked up. "I guess it does sound a little egotistical, when you put it that way."
Jane lifted a hand, holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart. "Maybe just a little."
Daria shook her head, the half-smile coming through clearly now. "So I guess I've been acting like a jerk." Jane said nothing, but she smiled and repeated her 'just a little' gesture. Daria shook her head. "So I'm sorry. Okay?"
"Well," said Jane. "You thought you were protecting me, so I guess I can't complain. Much. This time."
Daria uncrossed her arms. "So, you're really okay now?"
"The past is past and I've never been better." Jane offered a sheepish grin. "Unless you count the math."
Daria smirked. "Oh yeah. Well, I guess I could help you with that tonight, if you want."
"I want, I want," Jane answered with emphasis. She stood up. "You want to come over? My math stuff is at home."
"As is a fresh set of clothes, I hope," Daria countered.
Jane pulled at her running shirt and sniffed, her congestion apparent. "Funny," she said. "I can't smell a thing."
"I can." Daria nodded toward the door. "Let's go."
"Hey, kiddo?" came a muffled voice from the first floor. "Dinner's on!"
"Oh, god," said Daria, her voice dry. "My father's meatloaf. I forgot."
"And he invited me, too." Jane looked to the window. "Think we can both climb down your trellis without being noticed?"
"I don't think so," said Daria. "Besides, I already told him I'd be home for dinner. That's why he cooked. I'd better stay. You can make a break for it if you want."
"Nah," Jane countered. "I'll stick around. If for no other reason than to see the wonder that is Jake's meatloaf."
"You're a glutton for punishment, aren't you?"
"You know me too well."
"Come on, then," Daria said, turning for the door. "But don't eat too much if you value your stomach lining. We can go out for pizza later."
Jane smiled as she followed her friend out of the room, feeling better than she had in days. "You're on, partner."
** My gratitude goes out to Diane Long for her much valued editing and encouragement. Thanks again, partner. And many thanks those who have sent their feedback on my previous stories. I value it all.
** I welcome all feedback, comments and constructive criticism. You can reach me at Sehala@Aol.Com.
1) Jane's Great-Uncle Randy was introduced in "On the Outside."
1) As seen in "The Last Days of Solitude."
(Disclaimer: Daria and her cartoon cohorts were created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis and are trademarks of MTV Networks, Inc., a division of Viacom International, Inc. All rights reserved by trademark holders under U.S. National and International Law and Convention.)
("That Stranger I Know So Well" is a work produced purely for fun, not for profit. The author will be quite vexed if it is distributed in any way that creates a profit for anyone. This story is copyright © 2000 by Jon Kilner. It may be distributed freely to Daria fans everywhere, provided that it is distributed in unaltered form and the author's name and e-mail address remain intact.)
(This is a work of fiction. All characters, settings and situations are fictitious. Hence the name 'fiction.')
(Whew. That should about cover it.)