(Welcome to my fourth Daria fanfic. For those of you who have read my previous works, you will find this one a little different. But hey, you know what happens if you don't try something new once in a while? Nothing, that's what. And nothing is very boring.)
(I wish to extend my thanks, or my apologies, to Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis for my use of scenes and dialogue from the episode "Esteemsters.")
(And so I bring you . . .)
Jane reached out from under her covers and smacked a hand down on the radio, harshly silencing the wailing beast. Eyes closed, she rubbed the hand across her face. Morning. Time to get up. Another day. Damn.
She rolled onto her back and opened her eyes to the darkness of her room. Thick curtains were holding back the sunlight, but they couldn't keep out the day. The sun had risen and as much as she might wish to, she couldn't push it back over the horizon and return to the peace of darkness. It was 7:00 A.M. and she had to get ready for school. Yeah. As if any of her fellow students would notice if she didn't show up. The teachers would notice, but to them she would only be a block on the attendance sheet to be filled and forgotten.
Jane shoved the covers aside and swung her feet to the floor. Climbing groggily to her feet, she reached for the curtains and thrust them open, squinting hard against the intruding light. The sun was out, pasted up on a canvas of blue. A beautiful morning, some would call it, but what did that matter to her? Beauty was in the meaning of thing, not the appearance. A new day meant nothing to her. What was that line from Hamlet that O'Neill had spent so much time going over on Friday? The part where the prince had been mourning his father? 'How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world.' That was it. That was how she felt. Why bother getting out of bed at all?
Well, there was one reason. Jane turned away from the morning light and looked to her easel, setting her gaze on the canvas that had occupied her weekend. That was one thing worth waking up to. An abstract. A representation of her feelings. Vibrant swirls of color wounded by slashes of red and black. Ms. DeFoe had been bugging her for two weeks about contributing to the school art display, so let her have this. No damned landscape or portrait. No hopeful representation of the future. This work was pure Jane Lane. Her rage at an unfeeling world. Her loneliness. Her pain. Be careful what you ask for, Ms. DeFoe.
Jane turned toward her dresser and promptly tripped over an unfinished sculpture that was lying on the floor. She looked down at it, lying askew as it was. Damn. She'd nearly trashed a whole night's work. Reaching down and lifting it to eye level, she examined the strange conglomeration of bits and pieces, turning it over and over in her hands. No one would get this one. Jane wasn't even sure if she did. It was just something, a gathering of paper, glue, wire and damn near everything else she could find. A free form. No meaning. Just blankness. A representation of her world in trash. How fitting.
Jane put the sculpture down and set about getting ready for school. She couldn't be late today, as tempting as that might be. She had to drop the painting off with Ms. DeFoe before class and she didn't want to mess up the week's only high point.
"Oh, Jane. This is a real work of art." Ms. DeFoe looked the painting over with a practiced eye. She didn't glance, didn't pass a complacent gaze over it and then pass judgement. She really looked at it with the eye of an artist, someone capable of understanding. "I can feel the pain that it represents. The alienation. The raw emotion. I love it."
"Good," Jane replied, slipping easily into defensive flippancy. "I don't have time to do it over."
Ms. DeFoe took her words in stride. She knew Jane's way. "I'm serious, Jane. This will make an excellent addition to our school art display. It really opens a door into feelings of loneliness and despair." She turned to Jane, her expression open and concern behind her gaze. "However did you tap so deeply into such dark emotions?"
"Well . . . " said Jane quickly. "You know, I thought back on things that have happened in the past. We've all lived a little darkness at one time or another."
"Yes, we have." Ms. DeFoe reached out and laid a hand on Jane's shoulder. "I know you understand that, Jane. I hope you know that I understand it as well."
Jane shifted under the taller woman's earnest gaze. Something about that honest expression made her want to open up, to tell someone else how she was feeling. The words almost came, almost spilled out into the open air, but long habit sealed her lips against them. Bad idea. Never let them chip away at the wall that stands between you and the world. Never let them know just what you're feeling.
Ms. DeFoe's open expression slowly turned to faint disappointment. "Well, thank you for this painting, Jane," she said. "I knew I could count on you to put forward your best effort.
"Ummm, thanks." Jane tried to smile. She tried to let Ms. DeFoe know in that small way that she appreciated her concern, but knew that her effort fell short of the mark. Dammit. Here was someone genuinely concerned about her welfare, someone honestly appreciative of her work and she couldn't even drum up the energy for a decent reply. What was wrong with her?
Then Ms. DeFoe turned away and the moment was lost. "I'll store it with the other entries," said Ms. DeFoe, smiling. She picked the painting up and started for the back of the art room. "You'd better get going now. You don't want to be late for class."
That was debatable, but Jane turned and started for home room without a further word. As she walked, a quiet half-smile grew. Maybe Ms. DeFoe truly did understand. Maybe there was one area of this crazy life where Jane Lane could actually fit in. Some small part that she could make her own, on her own terms without compromising who she was.
"Oh, Ms. Lane? I'd like to have a word with you."
Jane's half-smile faded like smoke in a breeze. She stopped and drew in a deep breath. Thus fortified, she turned and faced her arch nemesis. "Yes, Ms. Li?"
"I've just had a very disturbing conversation with Mr. O'Neill," said Ms. Li. She paused her purposeful stride one step away from Jane. "It seems that you've once again failed to pass the self-esteem class. That makes five times, Ms. Lane. Is there something going on here that I should know about?"
"I can't think of anything," said Jane, barely containing a smirk. "Not with respect to me, anyway."
"But how can you keep failing this course? One would think that after five repetitions, anyone would be able to pass."
Jane shrugged. "I guess I'm just special."
Ms. Li pursed her lips and frowned. "Please report to Ms. Manson's office," she said, one hand gesturing in the appropriate direction. "I've asked her to give you another psychological test just to be certain. After all, we don't want to miss any . . . problems that might cause difficulties later in your scholastic career."
"Oh, perish forbid."
"Excellent." Ms. Li gestured a second time, urging Jane on. "On with you then, Ms. Lane. Ms. Manson is waiting for you."
Ms. Manson was indeed awaiting her arrival. Jane looked down at the papers scattered over the psychologist's desk as she entered the office, seeking clues about what she might be in for. Nothing helpful was in sight. All the papers were turned face downward. Oh, well. No problem. The day had yet to dawn in which Jane Lane couldn't out-think a school psychologist.
"Come in, Ms. Lane. Have a seat. I assume you know why you're here."
Jane sat down across the desk from Ms. Manson. "I assume it has something to do with my chronic lack of self-esteem."
Ms. Manson's face creased into a frown as she gathered up her errant papers. "That's correct. I find your repetitive failures in self-esteem class to be very disturbing, Jane. It could be indicative of some deeper disorder."
"Or possibly of my disinterest in the whole process," Jane muttered under her breath.
Ms. Manson continued on, oblivious to Jane's comment. "That's why you're here today. I want you to take a test that will help me further define the state of your self-esteem. Is that okay with you?"
"You mean I have a choice?" Jane started to stand. "Then if it's all the same to you, I think I'll just toddle off to class."
"No, wait." Ms. Manson raised both hands, palm outward. "That's not what I meant, Jane. I'm afraid that you do have to take this test."
Jane smirked as she resettled herself in the chair. "Oh. In that case, I guess I'll stick around after all."
Ms. Manson frowned as she reshuffled her papers and set a deck of largish cards on top of the pile. "This is how it will go," she said. "I'll show you each of these flash cards in turn. You look at them all and tell me the first thing that comes into your head."
Jane smirked, sensing a weak point. "The first thing that comes into my head after I see all of these cards. Gotcha."
Ms. Manson's eyebrows knit. "What?"
"I'll look at the entire deck, then tell you the first thing that comes into my head. Right?"
"No, no. You look at each one and tell me your first thought."
"My first thought after I see them all, or my first thought after you begin?"
"No." Ms. Manson's voice was beginning to sound a bit strained. When she spoke again, it was in slow and clearly enunciated words. "Listen carefully. I will show you each of these cards in turn. As I show you each card, you tell me the first thought that comes into your head."
"Ohhhhhh." Jane said, barely containing a smile. "I get it now."
"Good." Ms. Manson turned the top card toward Jane. It was a picture of one of those weightlifting gizmos. A dumbbell. "Kevin," Jane blurted out.
"Excuse me?" Ms. Manson turned the card and looked at the picture. "Kevin?"
"Kevin Thompson," Jane explained. "You know. The quarterback of the Lawndale Lions."
"Oh, I see," said Ms. Manson. "You saw a dumbbell, thought of weight training, perhaps of sporting activities and thought of Kevin Thompson."
Ms. Manson smiled as she placed the card at the bottom of the pile and lifted the next. It was a picture of a palm tree, complete with coconuts. Jane thought quickly, then said, "Pain."
The psychologist's eyebrows knit again. She flipped the card around and looked at it. "Pain?"
"Absolutely," Jane answered. "That's a picture of a palm tree, which grows in the tropics. The tropics is also where sugar grows. I like my coffee black, but my brother likes his with sugar. Once, we ran out of sugar and Trent couldn't stay awake long enough to go out and get some, so I went to the store for him. On the way to buy the sugar, I dropped the money I had brought and had to move quickly to keep it from going down the sewer grate. I saved the money, but caught my boot heel in the grate and twisted my knee. It hurt like hell. So . . . pain."
Ms. Manson looked again at the picture, then back to Jane. Her puzzled expression nearly made Jane lose it right there, but this was too much fun to ruin with a sudden outburst of laughter. So she contained herself inside a smirk as Ms. Manson put the picture at the bottom of the pile and lifted her pen to scribble some notes. Jane peered at the words as they came out of the pen. Reading upside down was no problem. She'd once done a series of paintings depicting historical documents being reflected in a multicolor pool. Yeah, she could have turned the canvasses over and printed right side up, but that hadn't felt right.
Loose associations, wrote Ms. Manson. Possible thought disorder. Schizophrenia? The psychologist looked up. "Tell me, Jane," she said. "Do you ever hear voices?"
"Sometimes," Jane replied, suppressing a smile. "Quite often, actually."
The psychologist's look of concern alone was worth the price of admission. "And what do these voices talk about?"
"That depends on who they belong to."
The smile was becoming harder to hold down, but Jane persevered. "Well," she said. "My brother talks mostly about his band and my mother talks about her pottery. Brittany Taylor talks about nothing but cheerleading. Now, Ms. Li is always going on and on about . . ."
"No, no, no," said Ms. Manson, raising a hand to her temple and briefly closing her eyes. "I don't mean the voices of people you know. I mean voices inside your mind, voices that don't belong to any person."
"Ohhhh," Jane replied, her face a careful mask of innocence. "I see. Well, on that count I would have to go with a definite nada."
"Nary a one."
"Okay." The psychologist set down her pen and went back to the cards. She tentatively lifted the next one. "Ready to continue?" she asked.
"Raring," Jane replied.
Jane walked down the hallway alone, looking at the white slip that Ms. Manson had given her. She had been sentenced to another three weeks in self-esteem class. Make that six repetitions and counting. That had to be some kind of record. Jane pocketed the slip and strode down the hallway, head held high. I've got them all snowed, she thought. No damn test is going to plumb the depths of my psyche. Low self-esteem, indeed. I'm deeper than any of these shallow twits will ever understand.
She went into her next class feeling pretty good, but it didn't last. It never did. The mindless rigidity of the classroom system always frayed the boundaries of her defenses, grinding her down like a block of wood against a belt sander. Math class alone was almost enough to do her in. The damned teacher knew that she had trouble with this stuff and seemed to take perverse pleasure in singling her out for the most difficult problems. She endeavored to weather the storm, turning her thoughts again and again to her artwork, which would in mere days be on display before all of Lawndale. Okay, so maybe things weren't working out in math, but her painting was going to be seen and appreciated.
The classes continued, each one a brick on her back to be borne. Even lunch carved away at her, half-an-hour spent eating at an otherwise empty table. Oh, who cared. There wasn't anyone here that was worth talking to anyway. Still, it would be nice to hash out the day with someone else. Someone who could understand. Yeah. Dream on.
Next was history class and Mr. DeMartino. Jane walked past DeMartino's desk without looking up and took her usual seat behind Kevin. Say what you would about Kevin, at least he had one use. He made a good shield against the attentions of DeMartino. As the final stragglers meandered into the room, Jane got out her notebook and prepared to lose herself in doodles. History class wasn't so tough. She could freely doodle and listen at the same time.
"Class," DeMartino began. "We have a new STUDENT joining us today. Please welcome Daria Morgendorffer. Daria, raise your hand, please."
Jane looked up from her doodles. The new kid was sitting front row center. Not a good sign. On the other hand, she certainly didn't dress like a suck up. Green jacket, a black skirt and glasses. Nice combination. Very anti-fashionable. And her feet were encased in a pair of honest-to-God Doc Martens, not too unlike Jane's own. The kid knew footwear, there was no doubt about it. Perhaps she had some promise.
The new kid raised her hand. "Well, Daria," said DeMartino, sensing a new fish caught in his net. "As long as you have your hand raised . . . last week we began a unit on westward expansion. Perhaps you think it's UNFAIR to be asked a question on your first day of class?"
Ouch. That was cold. But give the kid credit. She wasn't panicking. "Excuse me?" she asked in an almost toneless voice.
DeMartino just smiled and closed the net. "Daria, can you concisely and unemotionally sum up for us the doctrine of Manifest Destiny?"
Damn. That was below the belt, asking a new kid a question like that. Why, she might get the idea that Lawndale High was a dump on her very first day. Usually new kids had a two or three day grace period before that realization sank in. Oh, well. Welcome to Lawndale High, kid.
But the new kid seemed unfazed. "Manifest Destiny was a slogan popular in the 1840's," she said. "It was used by people who claimed it was God's will for the U.S. to expand all the way to the Pacific Ocean."
Wow. Geek alert. Jane shook her head, disappointed. It just went to show that you can't judge a person by her clothes alone. This one was a brain, no doubt about it. Give her a week and she'll be sitting at the lunch table with Jodie Landon and her crowd discussing quadratic equations.
But Daria wasn't finished. "These people did not include many Mexicans," she finished.
Whoa. Sarcasm. And damned clever sarcasm at that. Witty, appropriate and well timed. And by the look of it, the cut had gone right over DeMartino's head. It was the best kind of hit, the kind that your victim never saw. There was more to this kid than just brains and a lack of fashion sense. What was her name? Daria? Yeah, Jane was definitely going to keep an eye on this one. She had potential.
"Jane, can I see you for a moment?"
Jane paused in her beeline for the exit. The day was over, classes had ended and her unneeded books were packed away in her locker. Now she had a date with her running shoes. Nothing like a long run to wash away the bitter aftertaste of Lawndale High. She wouldn't have stopped for anyone else, but the voice was Ms. DeFoe's.
Jane turned to face her. "What can I do for you, Ms. DeFoe?"
The art teacher didn't look happy at all. Her face was drawn, her mouth turned down in an unaccustomed frown. "I'm afraid I have some bad news, Jane," she said. "It's about your painting."
"What about it?"
"Well, you see . . . each project for the art display has to be approved by the school administration . . ."
"Meaning Ms. Li."
"Right. Anyway, Ms. Li took exception to your painting. She said it was disturbing and she was concerned that displaying it might have a detrimental effect on the student body."
Jane smirked. "Big surprise."
Ms. DeFoe's frown didn't waver. "Jane, I'm afraid she banned it from the art display."
"What?" Jane's hands curled into fists at her side. "She can't do that! The art display is open to all entries. There weren't any restrictions on content."
"I'm sorry, Jane," Ms. DeFoe said. "I tried to talk her out of her decision, but she was adamant. Your painting is out."
Jane lifted her fists in front of her and squeezed her eyes shut. "Dammit! How can she do that?"
"I'm really sorry, Jane. If there is anything I can do . . ."
Ms. DeFoe reached out a hand to comfort Jane, but Jane swept it aside. "Forget it, " she said. "Just forget it."
"Please, Jane. I want to help."
Jane shook her head and let the coldness drape over her. She relaxed her hands and let them fall to her sides, burying her anger and letting her mask of imperturbability fall back into place. "Never mind," she said. "It doesn't matter. Hell, I should have expected as much from Ms. Li."
Ms. DeFoe narrowed her eyes and looked hard at Jane. "Are you sure you're okay? We could talk for a while if you . . ."
"No," said Jane quickly. She turned for the door, anxious to get away before Ms. DeFoe spotted any cracks in her facade. "It's all right. I mean, what the hell? It's just a stupid painting, right?"
Jane bolted before DeFoe could reply. She didn't want to hear anything the woman had to say. But Ms. DeFoe shouted after her. "Jane, if you submit another painting by Friday, I'll see that it gets considered."
Jane hit the door and kept going. Yeah. Another painting. Another opportunity for them to criticize her. Fat chance, lady.
Jane walked all the way home under a storm cloud of her own making, moving at a pretty good clip with her eyes on the sidewalk before her. Damn them. Damn them all. And damn herself, too, while she was at it. What the hell had she been thinking, entering one of her paintings in a school display? Did she really expect them to understand? Had she really believed that there was some tiny little corner of the world that she might fit into? No way. Never. If there was one thing she'd learned over the years, it was that she walked alone in this life. No friends. No confidants. Just herself alone. Forever.
A flash of green from up ahead caught Jane's eye and lifted her gaze from the sidewalk. It was the green jacket of that new kid. Daria. She must live nearby. For a moment, Jane was caught in a sudden longing to go up and talk to her. After all, the kid did have potential. Who knows? Maybe she was some kind of kindred spirit, another lost soul cast up on the shore of Lawndale by the unforgiving sea of humanity. Besides, what could it hurt to talk?
No. Forget it. What did she really know about this kid? Maybe she really was a brain in disguise, all facts and figures with no soul. Besides, there was no way Jane was going to open any new doors today. People were having too much fun slamming them shut in her face. Better just to let it be. Maintain a distance. Not let anyone in. Chances are the kid was a loser anyway.
Jane came home to an empty house. Well, practically empty. Trent lying passed out in his room didn't really count. Mom was gone for the week for a pottery exhibit and dad was off taking pictures of something in South America. No one to talk to. Ah, what the hell. Nobody cared anyway. She went to her room and flung her backpack aside. What she needed was a little healing. A little peace. A little art.
She tried to lose herself in her junk sculpture, using it as a barrier against the outside world. And it worked for a while, but her anger was just too strong to be kept down for long. Dammit. How could they just blow her off that way? Who was Ms. Li to say what her painting meant? Damn that woman. Sometimes it seemed that she existed only to make life hell. And she wasn't the only one. Even Ms. DeFoe had folded this time. How could she do that? She was supposed to be an artist! How could she buck under to Ms. Li's censorship that way? It wasn't right.
"Dammit!" Jane swung her left hand at the junk sculpture, sweeping it aside and sending it flying across the carpet. It bounced once and smacked the wall, disintegrating back into the pile of trash from whence it had come. A second angry swipe took out most of the supplies that had been going into the sculpture.
"Ouch!" Jane snatched her hand back and looked at her palm. It was bleeding from a nick on the fleshy part of her thumb. She looked around. There was the culprit, shining in the afternoon sunlight that was flowing in through the window. She'd caught herself on an Exacto knife. "Dammit." She picked the knife up, intending to fling it as well, but stopped herself in mid-fling. She looked at the knife. Really looked at it. Her palm hurt, but what was that compared to the pain she felt every single damned day? The loneliness. That was pain. A cut was just a temporary thing.
Maybe . . . maybe it would be worth it to trade the one pain for the other. A shallow cut only hurts for a while and then goes away. Cut deep enough and the pain, all the pain, would go away forever.
"Hey, Janey. Are you all right?"
Jane dropped the knife and grabbed her nicked palm. "Yeah, I'm fine," she said quickly, looking over her shoulder. "Just an art-related accident. You know."
Trent left the doorway and walked into the room. He glanced around as he came, his eyes lighting on the pile that had been her sculpture, but he didn't say anything about it. Instead he knelt down at her side and took her hands in his. Gently, he opened her left hand. "Oh, you cut yourself," he said. "Doesn't look too bad."
"Yeah, it's nothing." Damn. How long had he been standing there in the open doorway? What had he seen? Jane pressed down on the cut with the thumb of her right hand. "It's no big deal, Trent."
"Still, better not take any chances." Trent rose to his feet and walked out the door. He came back with a bottle of disinfectant and a clean cloth. Sitting down cross-legged at her side, he reached again for her hand and Jane let him take it. Trent took on an expression of earnest concentration as he set to cleaning the wound.
Jane blinked as she watched him work, fighting back the moisture that was threatening to escape. Moisture that was prompted by the aching familiarity of the moment. Trent cared. He'd always cared. Back when they were kids, it had always been Trent that had bandaged her skinned knees and kissed away her bumps and bruises. He'd treated scratches she'd picked up crawling through places she had no business being and pulled splinters from her fingers when she'd touched things better left alone. It had always been Trent who picked her up when she fell and he'd found her every time she'd gotten lost. Even the time she'd lost herself on purpose.
When she was seven, she'd decided to run away. She had been mad at her father and furious at her mother. God knows why. Seven-year-olds don't always need a reason. Whatever the conflict, she'd filled her backpack with as many of her art supplies as she could cram in, packed the corners with a few sandwiches and stormed out the door. Then she hid in the bushes at the edge of the yard and waited to see if someone would come after her. No one did.
Night had fallen by the time Trent came home. A few minutes after he went into the house, she could hear raised voices coming out. Some kind of wild argument was going on in there. Unable to contain her curiosity, Jane crept out of the bushes and peeked in through the family room window. There was Trent, mad as hell and yelling at the top of his lungs. "What do you mean she ran away? How long has she been gone? Why aren't you trying to find her?"
"Now, Trent," their father had countered. "Janey is just acting out her anger. Once she's had a chance to calm down, she'll come walking back through that door."
"But it's already dark outside!" Trent shouted back at him. "I'm going out to look for her!"
"I don't think that's such a good idea," said Amanda. Her voice was low and soothing. Jane had to press her ear up to the glass to catch the words. "Just let her be. Let her find her own center and she'll be all the happier for it."
But Trent wasn't having any of it. He shook his fist and jabbed a finger at the front door. "Dammit, I'm not going to just stand around while my little sister is out there somewhere! If you don't care enough to go out and look for her, then I will!"
Turning his back on them, Trent stormed out the door. Jane turned from the window and watched him go, barely able to see through the happy tears that his words had inspired. She let him get as far as the street corner, out of sight from the house. Then she chased after him as fast as she could go. Her brushes and paints jangled in her backpack as her sneakers slapped the sidewalk. Trent heard her coming and by the time she rounded the corner, he had turned to face her. She opened her arms wide and ran straight for him.
"Janey!" he shouted. "Where the hell have you been!"
Jane stopped short, nearly tripping over her sneakers. He was mad at her. Really mad. She wanted to turn away and run, but her legs wouldn't carry her. All she could do was stand there, her hands twitching with indecision, her tears running hot down her face.
Trent's face immediately softened, his eyes widening as he realized what he'd just done. "Oh, God Janey. I'm sorry. I was mad at mom and dad and I was shouting at them and I was so worried and when I saw you I just . . ." He knelt down and caught her up in his arms. "I'm sorry, Janey. I'm not mad at you."
"Do you . . . do you promise?"
"Absolutely." Trent pulled back from their hug and smiled at her. "I was so happy to see you that I guess I just went nuts or something."
Janey smiled through her tears. "You're always nuts."
"Yeah," he said, wiping her face dry with an open palm. "I guess I am. Come on. You want some ice cream?"
Trent stood up and took her hand. "Then lets go to the Ice Cream Shack. Maybe you can tell me why you ran away when we get . . ."
"There," said Trent, bringing Jane back into the present. He was just finishing up with her hand. "Wouldn't want it to get infected or anything."
Jane blinked and looked down at her palm. The bleeding had all but stopped. "Yeah, I guess not," she said. Then she raised her eyes to look at him. "Thanks, Trent."
"No problem." Trent looked up from his handiwork and caught Jane's gaze with his own. His eyes were unusually serious. "I wouldn't want anything to happen to you, Janey. You're my kid sister, after all. You going to be all right?"
Jane wanted to say no. She wanted Trent to stay and listen to everything she was feeling. She tried, even opened her mouth to pass the words, but the only word that came out was, "Yeah." Dammit. This was Trent, but old habits were hard to break. Besides, there was no point in worrying him. There was nothing he could do in any case. Better to keep the feelings down. Keep them inside. "I'll be fine."
Trent looked at her hard, his eyes searching hers. Then he nodded. "Okay. If you say so. Call me if you need anything." He gathered up the cloth and disinfectant and turned to go. Then he paused and looked down at her again. "And watch out for those sharp things," he said. "Don't cut yourself again."
Then Trent walked out of the room. Jane climbed to her feet, crossed the room and closed her bedroom door. Then she returned to her place on the floor and looked down, her gaze falling once more upon the knife. She picked it up and looked at it. This wasn't the answer. It wouldn't end the pain. It would just transfer it to Trent and there was no way she was going to bring Trent that much pain no matter what she was suffering. There was no easy way out. She was stuck.
Jane threw the knife aside, leaned back against her bed and cried.
The next morning passed in a fog. Jane attended each class, but she wasn't really there. Instead she spent the day inside her notebook, page after blank page begging to be filled. She ignored every part of the day, even the questions of her math teacher in favor of that inviting blankness. She filled the pages as the day passed. Abstracts, caricatures, sketches, cartoons; anything that could help her pass the day in blissful anonymity. And it worked. Until DeMartino's class. She was right in the middle of a truly biting caricature that depicted a massive DeMartino stomping his diminutive students one by one when she was interrupted.
"Ms. LANE. Are you AWAKE?"
Jane looked up. DeMartino was hovering between Kevin and the new kid, his acidic gaze centered squarely on her. He had asked something and was waiting for her to answer. "I'm awake," Jane replied, setting her pencil down and laying a hand across the drawing. Somehow she imagined that he wouldn't appreciate the social commentary of the piece. "I'm afraid I missed the question, however."
DeMartino smiled and Jane's heart sank to her stomach. This wasn't going to be pretty. "Perhaps you were DISTRACTED by whatever that is you're drawing in you NOTEBOOK." His gaze fell on the book, his head tilting to better see the picture. Without looking down, Jane positioned her other hand across the drawing. Not that she expected that to help.
DeMartino smiled even more. "Perhaps, Ms. Lane, you would consider SHARING your work with the rest of the class. Maybe we would then UNDERSTAND what it is that you find so ABSORBING about it?"
"I don't think that's a good idea," said Jane. "It's not very good."
"Why don't you let US be the judge of that, Ms. Lane. Let's see it."
Jane kept her hands firmly on the notebook. Damn. There was no way this was going to end well. DeMartino had her and he was going to crucify her for this drawing. Well, there was no way around it. Might as well face the situation head on and accept her impending doom. Slowly, she started to lift her hands from the paper.
"Excuse me. The answer is the Treaty of Guadalupe Hilalgo."
DeMartino turned his head at the new voice and Jane followed his gaze, right to the new kid. "What did you say, Ms. Morgendorffer?" he said, his voice dangerously low.
Daria looked right up at him, bearing the weight of his gaze without a hint of effort. "The Treaty of Guadalupe Hilalgo. That was the treaty that ended the Mexican War." She passed an unflappable moment of silence, then, "That was the question you asked, wasn't it."
DeMartino finally found his voice. "Yes. You are correct," he grudgingly admitted. He turned his back to Jane, intent on his new victim. "And can you tell me the terms of that treaty, Ms. Morgendorffer?"
Daria sighed. "Mexico ceded California and New Mexico to the U.S. and recognized America's sovereignty over Texas. In return the U.S. paid Mexico $15 million dollars."
"That's correct," said DeMartino, his mind now set on the lesson. "I think we can all agree that it was quite a bargain price for the acquisition of over 3 million square miles of new territory."
"Unless you factor in the 35-40 percent casualties suffered by the U.S. forces due to the fighting and rampant disease," said Daria. But DeMartino let the sarcasm pass as he returned to his usual place at the head of the class and headed off into another question for his captive attendees.
Jane let her hands fall from the drawing and sat back. The new kid had saved her. She looked at Daria, catching her eye. Daria glanced back over her shoulder, gave Jane a sort of half-smile and shrugged. Then she turned back to DeMartino.
Jane thought long and hard about Daria's actions as the day wore on toward its inevitable conclusion, but she just couldn't figure it out. Why had she hung herself out that way to help a person she didn't even know. Hell, no one else around here would have done it. Most of them would have preferred to see her get fried and the rest wouldn't have cared one way or the other. But the new kid had saved her. Maybe this Daria was worth a second look after all.
She saw her opportunity as she walked onto self-esteem class. Daria was sitting in the classroom a couple of rows back, reading a book as she waited for the class to start. Jane took the seat behind her, setting her notebook down and shoving the rest of her books under the seat. She should say something, thank Daria for saving her, but the words wouldn't come out. Damn. She'd built her walls so high that even she couldn't see over them anymore. Unable to speak, Jane sat back in her seat, miserable and alone.
O'Neill began the class as he always did, with his banal opening speech. Jane set herself to blank stare mode and settled in, but something over Daria's shoulder caught her attention. She leaned over slightly and took a closer look. Daria was drawing in her notebook, a stick figure with a wedge of cheese for a head. Obviously it was meant to be O'Neill. Not bad. A little crude, but not bad.
"Esteem. A teen," O'Neill droned on. "They don't really rhyme, do they? They don't quite mesh. And that, in fact, is often the case when it comes to a teen and esteem. They just don't seem to go together. But we are here to begin realizing your actuality."
Daria looked up from her drawing and raised her hand. Naturally, O'Neill took no notice. "When we do," he said, "each and every one of you will be able to stand proudly and proclaim 'I am.' Now, before we begin . . ."
Daria waved her raised hand. "Excuse me," she said. "I have a question."
O'Neill turned to her. "Sorry. Question and answer time is later."
"I want to know what 'realizing your actuality' means."
O'Neill actually seemed to think about it for a moment, but not for long. "Look," he said. "Just let me get through this part, okay? Then there will be a video." Then he returned to his monologue.
Daria shook her head and started scribbling in her notebook. Without thinking about it, Jane leaned forward. "He doesn't know what it means," she told Daria. "He's got the speech memorized. Just listen to the nice man's soothing voice."
Daria turned her head. "How am I supposed to follow him if I don't know what he's talking about?"
The kid definitely had brainy tendencies. "I can fill you in later," said Jane. "I've taken this course six times."
Wait a minute. Had that just happened? Yes, it had. She'd actually promised to meet Daria after class to talk. She'd even offered to help her out. Damn. How had that happened?.
Unfortunately, her offer did little to calm Daria down. Daria continued to scribble away as O'Neill droned endlessly on. After class, she stood up and turned to Jane. "Look at this," she said, pointing at a page of her notebook. "Realizing your actuality. Framing your sense of self. Learning to nurture the youness inside. How are we supposed to make sense of this? The man speaks only in gibberish."
"Wow. You've only been here two days and you've got him pegged already." The levity did little to lighten Daria's mood, so Jane toned it down. "Look, it's no big deal. C'mon. Let's head home and I'll fill you in on everything."
"I don't get it Jane. You've got the entire course memorized. How come you can't pass the test and get out?"
"I could pass the test, but I like having low self-esteem. It makes me feel special."
Daria gave up a half-smile. "Good one. But seriously, don't you hate losing the time every afternoon?"
Jane shrugged. "It's not like I've got anything else to do. Besides, its really beginning to get to Ms. Li and Ms. Manson and I like that aspect of it."
"I can understand that," said Daria. "They seem pretty clueless."
"You don't know the half of it. But far be it from me to spoil your opportunity for discovery."
"Thanks a load."
Jane stopped walking and glanced toward the house. "This is me," she said as Daria stopped beside her. Jane hesitated, the next words almost catching in her throat. "Do you want to come in?"
Daria's eyes widened, as if the invitation had caught her by surprise. "Ummm, okay," she said slowly. "I guess so."
"Unless you have some place else to be," Jane offered. Then she mentally kicked herself. Good one. Way to backtrack.
"No, that's okay." Daria glanced over her shoulder, toward her own house perhaps. "No one will notice if I don't show up for a while."
So Daria was alienated at home, was she? And alienated at school. And was a brain. And liked to draw. This kid had more facets to her than an Escher print. "Okay, then," said Jane. "C'mon."
Daria looked around as they came though the front door. As usual, the place was empty enough to return an echo. "Nobody home?" Daria asked.
"Not usually," said Jane, directing Daria upstairs. "My folks are out of town most of the time, so there's only me and my brother." Jane pointed a thumb to the disaster that was Trent's room as they stopped outside his open door. He was face down on the bed, barely discernable amid the dirty clothes that cushioned his rest. As usual, he was sleeping to the thumping beat of some cd or another.
Daria peered into the darkened room. "Is he alive?"
Jane smirked. "Only for a couple hours a day, near as I can tell. He spends most of his time in a state of hibernation, surviving off the food he manages to consume during his short active period."
"Interesting," Daria said, raising a hand to her chin. "Is it catching? And if it is, can I bring my sister over so she can catch it?"
"Hyperactive, is she?"
Daria shook her head. "Nope. But we get along a lot better when she's asleep."
Jane smiled. "C'mon. Let's leave sleeping beauty to his rest. If he gets less than twenty-two hours of sleep a day, he gets cranky." Jane hooked a thumb over her shoulder. "I'll show you my cave."
Daria said nothing as she entered Jane's room. No empty compliments or quick coverup jobs of her opinion. Instead she just took a moment to look around in silence; at the paintings, at the sketches taped to the drafting table, at the clothes all over the floor. She did a double take on the smashed sculpture that was still lying against the wall, but said nothing. Finally Daria ended up at the stack of canvases that were leaning against the wall. She thumbed through them and took a moment to look at each one. "These are really good," she said at last. "Are they yours?"
That could be taken two ways, but from the tone of her voice Jane knew that Daria was asking if she'd painted them herself. "Yep."
Daria worked her way back through the stack. "I like them," she said. "I like how you used a realistic style to get your point across on this one. It's almost photographic in it's detail and I really get a feeling for her sadness. Then on this one, you used a very abstract style to bring out the same feeling, but I think it indicates a sadness on a larger scale, like sorrow over the state of the world or over life in general."
Damn, this girl was good. "Do you paint?" Jane asked. "You seem to know what you're talking about."
Daria shrugged. "I've tried from time to time, but I'm really not that good at it. I usually don't progress beyond sketches."
"Hey, sketches are cool. I do a lot of sketching; pencil on paper, charcoal on canvas, that kind of thing."
"I'm strictly pencil and paper." Daria gave a self-depreciating half-smile as she looked down at another canvas. "Nothing this good, certainly."
"It's not how good you are, you know," said Jane, trying to sound encouraging. "That's only other people's opinions and that doesn't matter. What counts is that you get your feelings out on the canvas or the paper. Or the walls. Whatever."
Daria glanced up from the canvases, then quickly back down before Jane could read her eyes. "I don't usually deal with my feelings that way."
"Then how?" Jane watched Daria closely, seeking hints. "Sculpture? Graffiti? I figure it's got to be something art-related."
Daria opened her mouth to reply, but stopped herself suddenly. Then she half-smiled. "Come over to my place sometime. I'll show you."
"Okay, I will. I have a feeling that this is something I want to see."
Daria's smile faded and she looked up quickly. Her eyes were wide, as if she was already regretting having made the invitation. Wow. She must have some pretty thick walls around her psyche as well. But the look only lasted for a second, then Daria turned her eyes back to the paintings. "Have you entered any works in the art display I've been hearing about?" she asked, covering her reaction in words. "You should."
Jane almost blurted out what had happened, but quickly did some covering over her own. She raised a hand, palm outward. "Nah. School displays aren't for me. What do I care what anyone in that place thinks of my work?"
"Oh." Daria was silent for a moment. Damn. This one was too clever to be put off in such an offhand manner. She knew there was more to it than that. But to Jane's surprise, Daria didn't pursue the subject. Instead she turned to the drafting table and asked about the sketches there. Jane sighed and joined Daria at the table, gratefully turning the conversation to less painful subjects.
"Ready for our allotted time in hell?"
Daria nodded as she left her last class of the day and joined Jane in the long walk to self-esteem class. "Ready as I'll ever be."
"Now, Daria. How do you expect to grow some healthy self-esteem if you don't show some enthusiasm for the class and it's helpful, but clueless teacher?"
"I don't know. Maybe Ms. Manson will approve electric shock treatments. I hear they really boost your self-image."
"They sure do," said Jane. "How do you think O'Neill got the way he is?"
Daria smiled. "Another mystery solved."
Daria seemed content to walk the rest of the way to class in silence, so Jane turned to listening to the conversations of others as she walked. It was an interesting hobby and useful in gathering information on her fellow students, thus fueling her desire to isolate herself from them. The pickings were slim today. Just the usual run of after-school plans, pickup attempts and mindless chatter. Nothing interesting. At least not until . . .
" . . . I like to go to the movies. Or, like, a theme park. Or out for a really fancy meal now and then. I like to go to a concert if I, like, know somebody who's got good seats and is renting a limo and stuff."
Listen to her go. Jane didn't know this little redhead, but she sure sounded full of herself. "You hear that?" she asked Daria. "He hasn't got a prayer."
Daria's face became even more impassive, if that was possible. "Tell me about it," she said. "That's my sister.
"Ohhh. Bummer." No wonder Daria liked her better when she was asleep. It was probably the only time that she didn't talk about herself.
The boy leaned a touch closer to the redhead, obviously interested. "So," he said. "You got any brothers or sisters?
"I'm an only child."
Daria looked back over her shoulder at her sister, her face twisted into an expression of distaste. Ouch. That had to hurt. Jane couldn't imagine what it would feel like to be so casually disowned by a sibling, not that Trent would ever do such a thing. There must really be some bad feelings between them for Daria's sister to do such a hurtful thing. But Daria didn't say a word. She just turned away and walked into the classroom, hiding her pain under a veneer of seeming imperturbability, pretending that it didn't exist. Jane didn't have any trouble recognizing the tactic. It was all too familiar.
Self-esteem class was all too familiar as well, but this time Jane took the seat at Daria's side and they whiled the class away passing drawings back and forth. Caricatures all, they ran the gamut of Lawndale High's authority figures; Ms. Li, Mr. DeMartino, Ms. Manson. Daria came up with a stick figure of Mr. O'Neill with an ice cream cone for a head, but it definitely needed something. Jane thought a moment, then added a dog licking the ice cream cone and an alligator biting at the legs. Finished, she passed it to Daria and settled back to listened to ol' ice cream cone head himself.
"Now, guys," said O'Neill. "I've got a little challenge for you. Today we talked about turning your daydreams into reality. Tonight I want each one of you to go home and do just that. What do you say? Ummm . . . you."
Daria looked up from the caricature, realizing that he was pointing at her. "What's a daydream that you'd like to see come true?" he finished.
"Well," said Daria. She seemed to actually be putting thought behind her answer, or at least doing a good job of simulating it. "I guess I'd like my whole family to do something together."
O'Neill seemed delighted. "Excellent," he said.
But Daria wasn't finished. "Something that will really make them suffer," she finished, a half-smile on her lips.
Jane turned to O'Neill. He looked ready to swallow his chalk. "Well, uh," he said, searching for words. "It's healthy to air these feelings. I think." The class bell rang, saving O'Neill's day. "We'll talk more about this tomorrow," he said quickly. "Class dismissed."
Jane couldn't contain her smile as the class got up to leave. "Nice one," she told Daria as they walked out of the room."
Daria was smiling herself. "Thanks."
"Of course, you realize that O'Neill is going to call your parents and tell them what you said about your family doing something together."
Daria stopped in her tracks in the hallway. "Oh, god. Please tell me you're kidding."
"Nope." Jane felt her smile grow as she watched O'Neill emerge from the room and scoot off down the hallway. "He's probably heading for the office right now to look up your home number."
Daria watched O'Neill disappear around the corner, then turned back to Jane. "Well, I can't stop him now. I'll have to come up with a way of turning this to my advantage. Maybe I really can make my family suffer." She lifted a hand to her chin. "But how?"
"Well, what about having them take you to a school football game," Jane offered. "That seems pretty harmless."
"No," said Daria. "They'd probably like that. The only one suffering would be me and that just won't do."
"What about getting them into a situation which they have no chance whatsoever of fitting into?"
Daria thought for a moment, then smiled. "I think I have an idea."
"You made them take you where?"
Daria was smiling. Not a full smile. Just a half-smile. The kind of expression that let you know that she was pleased with herself in a pseudo-evil way. "To Pizza Forest," she said. "You know, the place with the singing goofs in animal suits."
"Wow. And they actually took you there?"
"Sure," said Daria. "Remember, they're very concerned over the state of my self-esteem right now. If I could somehow make it come from O'Neill, I could probably get them to take me to Hawaii."
"So you used their parental concern to maneuver them into a totally humiliating situation." Jane couldn't keep from smiling herself. "Remind me not to get on your bad side. You're wicked."
"Not wicked. Merely inspired. Whoops, show's back on."
Jane used her clicker to mute her stereo and turn up the TV sound. Sick Sad World was on and as it turned out, Daria was an aficionado of fine television. They'd been watching since Daria had left her family to recover from their humiliation and come over. Daria had thought it best to get out of the house for a while. If her plan had any aftereffects, she wanted to be well away from them.
The Sick Sad World crew was just getting into a story about UFO conventions when Daria clicked it silent and turned to Jane. "You know all the answers to the questions on the release test," she said. "Right?
Jane kept her eyes on the silent screen. "I've got them in my notebook."
"Why don't we just take the test tomorrow and get out of the class once and for all."
Boy, Daria really hated being in that class. Maybe she had things to do and the time was cutting into her studying or something. But Jane didn't have anything better to do. "How would I spend my afternoons," she asked Daria, only half joking.
"Now you're talking." But flip answers aside, Jane wasn't certain she was ready to give it up. "I don't know. I kind of like having low self-esteem."
"Well, mostly because by being a person of interminably low self-esteem, I make myself a constant thorn in the side of Ms. Li. And I think I'm only a few psychological tests away from doing Ms. Manson permanent damage."
"Oh, I see," said Daria, nodding. "Laudable goals, I must admit. But think about it. Is either one worth the kind of time you're spending in that class? From what I can see, neither of them is worth a second glance, let alone a repeating class. Besides, aren't you afraid that exposure to Mr. O'Neill twice a day could have a lasting effect on you?"
"Hmmm," said Jane. "You may have a point."
"So, what do you say?"
Jane thought about it for a moment. Why was she in that class, anyway? Before it had been boredom, plain and simple. Spending time in that class, bad as it is, was still better than spending all of her time alone. But she wasn't alone anymore, was she? She had a friend now. But was Daria really a friend? Daria was still a brain, even if she was an outcast brain. Who's to say that she wouldn't eventually get in with the brainy crowd and leave her new reject friend behind? True, Jane couldn't really see Daria as part of that crowd. Besides, wasn't the opportunity to have a real friend, a confidant and ally, worth taking the chance?
Jane reached over the side of the bed and lifted the notebook from her backpack. "Okay," she said. "You're on. Here are the answers to the release test."
The next day they passed the release test with flying colors, but their celebration was short-lived. O'Neill flipped over them graduating two weeks early and came up with a truly insidious suggestion. "I think that the entire school should hear about this in assembly."
Daria looked at Jane, who looked right back at her with a matching expression of horror. "I don't think that's necessary," Jane said, turning back to O'Neill.
"Right," said Daria, quick to join in. "Just knowing that we have self-esteem is reward enough."
"But this is more than just a reward, girls," said O'Neill, who was crossing quickly into ecstatic mode. "Just think of the how others in the school with low self-esteem will view your accomplishment. They'll see it as a sign of hope. A beacon that lets them know that they aren't alone in their fight for self-esteem. They'll know that there are others who have succeeded and they can succeed, too." He turned for the door. "I've got to talk to Ms. Li."
"Wait . . ." But Daria's desperate plea came too late. O'Neill was already out the door. Daria turned back to Jane. "Did what I think happened just happen?"
"I'm afraid so," Jane replied. "You and I are destined to appear before the entire school tomorrow so that they can applaud our acquisition of self-esteem."
"Great. And here I was afraid that I wouldn't get in my usual quota of humiliation for this week."
"No problem there," Jane assured her. "C'mon. Let's get out of here."
They left the room together and started down the hallway. "Your place?" Daria asked.
"No," Jane replied. "I don't think that's a good idea. Trent is planning to practice a new chord today. Let's go to your place instead."
"Well, okay. My parents will probably be at work for a while yet, so it should be safe. If you see my sister though, try to look inconspicuous. Sometimes that throws her off."
"Oh, Jane. Can I speak with you for a moment?"
Jane stopped and turned. "What is it, Ms. DeFoe?" she said. "I'm on my way out."
Ms. DeFoe walked up to join the two of them. "I wanted to ask you if you're working on a new painting for the art display. And I wanted to apologize for the way your last painting was rejected. It really wasn't fair, but there wasn't anything I could do once Ms. Li made her decision. So, are you working on something?"
Jane sneaked a look at Daria, but her face was impassive as ever. "No," she said, turning back to Ms. DeFoe. "I'm not."
"Oh, but I really think you should make a contribution, Jane. You're the most promising artist in the whole school. There has to be something you can do."
"I don't paint just to supply works for display," Jane told her. "I paint what I feel. And right now, I don't think Ms. Li would want to have anything to do with the way I'm feeling."
Ms. DeFoe's hopeful expression faded and she shook her head. "I'm disappointed, Jane. But I think I understand. I am sorry the way things turned out."
"It's not your fault," said Jane, turning away and Daria with her. "Like I said, it's no big deal."
They left the school together in silence. Jane waited for Daria to broach the subject of the rejected painting as they walked home, but Daria never did.
"Daria! If the phone rings, don't answer it. It'll be for me."
Daria and Jane barely got through the door of Daria's house before they found themselves under red-headed assault. Daria's sister was sitting in the family room, holding vigil by the cordless phone. She hadn't even turned to speak to them. Daria just shook her head. "That's a shock," she told her sister, her voice dry. "Imagine, you interrupting your studies to wait for a phone call."
The redhead got up from the sofa and walked across the room under a full head of steam. "I'm serious, Daria. The weekend is coming up and I've had two boys ask me out for Friday night and three for Saturday. They're all going to call and I have to decide which two I want to go out with." The redhead turned, seeing Jane for the first time. Her face crinkled with distaste. "Ewww. You dress just like Daria. Who are you?"
"This is Jane," said Daria, her voice even drier. "Jane, this is my sister Quinn."
Quinn glanced at Jane, then turned back to Daria with a smile. "What's going on here, Daria? Are you trying to start a club for unfashionable losers or something?"
"Not that it's any of your business," Daria replied. "But Jane is my friend."
Whoa. Her friend? Really? Jane looked over at Daria. Daria looked back, her eyes wide as if she'd only just realized what she'd said. God, maybe she would take it back now. Maybe Daria would slam down her wall and hide behind it, go cold and wait for Jane to go away. The moment hung in midair, an eternal second. Then the corner of Daria's mouth quirked up, a barely perceptible signal. As if she had examined her own words and found them to be truthful.
Quinn missed the whole thing. "You don't have any friends, Daria," she said, and she turned back to the waiting phone. "But far be it from me to disturb your little fantasies. Just remember what I said about the phone."
Jane turned to Daria. Sarcastic intent provided her with words. "You're right. She would be far more likable when she's asleep."
"Asleep or unconscious," said Daria, eagerly falling back onto more comfortable ground. "Either would do. C'mon, let's go to my room and get out of range."
"Wow," Jane said as they entered Daria's room. "This is without a doubt the coolest room I've ever seen." And that wasn't just talk. The walls were actually padded. There were nubs around the window sills where bars had been sawed off. And to top it off, Daria had excellent decorating instincts. Posters of bones and skeletons were on the walls. She had models of a heart and a brain on her shelves and there was a box with a partially assembled human skeleton on the floor. Definitely cool.
Jane walked over to the window and rubbed a thumb over the saw marks on one of the bars. "This is really something," she said. "You sure know how to decorate."
Daria shrugged. "The padding and bars were here when we came. Apparently the previous owner kept a schizophrenic in here."
"You shouldn't have sawed off the bars."
"Yeah, I know," Daria answered. "The previous owners did that before they moved out. I would have much preferred to keep them. Sort of as a representation of my life among my family."
"Yeah. It would have been perfect if your parents are anything like your sister." Jane looked around the room. "But I don't see any art around here. Apparently you don't express yourself in a very visible way, unless you've gotten your works hidden someplace."
Daria gave up a half-smile and walked to her desk. Opening the top drawer, she lifted out a neat stack of papers. "Here you go," she said as she carried the pile over to the bed and set it down. "The expressions of my inner torment. My angst, if you will."
Jane walked to the bed and leafed through the pages. They were filled with essays and stories, original works all. There was even a few poems mixed in. "So you're a writer," she said, sitting down next to the pile. "Mind if I read a few?"
"Not at all, since you let me look at your paintings. Just don't hold me responsible for any bouts of depression you may experience over the next few days."
"Yeah," Jane said, smiling. "As if I'd notice any difference."
They spent the next couple of hours going over Daria's writing. She was a true writer, that much was clear. It was amazing the themes that came out in her works. Some of them were loaded with sarcasm so biting that it was surprising they didn't draw blood. Others were piercing looks into the darkness of the human soul. Some were pure emotion, full of the feelings you bleed when your psychic defenses are rubbed raw by an unfeeling world. It was all good and Jane told Daria so. Daria brushed the compliments off, of course. But sometimes, when Daria didn't know she was being watched, Jane could see the satisfaction Daria was feeling in having someone else understand her work. Jane recognized the feelings clearly. She'd felt the same thing just yesterday, when Daria had been commenting on her artwork.
"Dinner will be ready in a few minutes, Daria. You should come down and . . . oh, my."
Jane looked up from the poem she was reading to see a middle aged woman in business attire standing in the doorway. The woman was staring right back at Jane, her eyes wide in surprise. Daria immediately threw herself into the silence. "Hi, mom. Did they let you out early today?"
The woman turned her eyes to Daria. "My late meeting was canceled, sweety." Then she looked back to Jane. "I don't believe we've been introduced."
Daria stood up and raised a hand toward Jane. "Mom, this is Jane. Jane, this is my mom, Helen Morgendorffer."
Jane offered up what she hoped was a friendly smile. "Hi, Mrs. Morgendorffer."
"Why, hello Jane."
Jane set the poem on the pile and pushed herself up from the bed. "I really should be going if you guys are going to eat." She picked her jacket up from the floor and slipped it on. Then she reached for her backpack.
Helen edged a bit toward Daria as Jane got her stuff together. "You know," she said in a quiet voice. "You can invite your little friend over for dinner if you want."
Little friend. Jane couldn't hold back her smile at Daria's look of mortification, but she quickly threw into the fray. "No, that's okay," Jane said. "Thanks and all, but I've got to get home and make sure my brother doesn't starve to death."
Helen's mouth turned down in disappointment. "Oh, that's too bad. Maybe some other time, then."
"Sure. See you later, Daria."
Jane found her way back down the stairs. Miss America had vanished to parts unknown, so Jane was spared a second confrontation. But she still didn't make it all the way to the front door. "Hey, kiddo," came a voice from behind her. "Hope you're hungry. It's spaghetti night."
Jane turned and saw a head poke out from around the corner. The man saw who he was addressing and his brows raised in surprise. "Oh! Do I know you?"
"I'm Jane Lane. Daria's friend from school."
"Daria's got a friend?" The man left the kitchen behind and walked out to meet her. Jane smiled at his 'kiss the cook' apron and the sauce-coated wooden spoon in his hand. "Boy am I glad to meet you," he said. He extended his right hand, which was still holding the spoon. "I'm Daria's dad, Jake Morgendorffer."
Jane looked down at the spoon. Jake followed her gaze and laughed. "Whoops." He changed the spoon to his other hand, unmindful that he was dripping sauce onto the carpet. When he reached out again for a handshake, Jane accepted. "Why don't you stay for dinner, Jane-o," he said. "It's spaghetti night."
"Yeah, I've heard." Jane withdrew her hand and glanced at the still dripping sauce. "But I've got to get home. Maybe some other time?"
"Sure thing. Any friend of Daria's is welcome anytime. Need a ride home or anything?"
"No. I'm not that far away. See you later."
"Yeah, later." Jake changed the spoon back to his right hand and noticed for the first time the sauce that had escaped him. "Uh, oh." He immediately turned away and ran the spoon back to the kitchen. Jane took the cue and got out. She heard footsteps on the stairs as she went out the door, but didn't turn around. It was just as well.
"Jake!" It was Helen, her voice carrying quite clearly through the closed door. "What are you doing? Just look at the mess you've made out here!"
Jane turned away and started walking home. What a family. It was a miracle that someone as normal as Daria had come out of such a menagerie. Funny how they'd all reacted to Daria finding a friend; Helen's surprise, Jake's delight and Quinn's outright refusal to believe it. It sounded like Daria had moved away from a very lonely life, back wherever she had come from. Like the lonely life Jane had been living, until recently. No wonder Daria's parents were so pleased that she'd found a friend.
Jane stopped in her tracks. Were they really friends? Daria had said it, she had even meant it, but did really that make it true? Jane shook her head. How was she to judge? It had been so long since she'd had a real friend that she wasn't sure what it felt like anymore. Maybe it had happened. It sure felt like it, but only time would tell. Jane started walking again, her steps strangely lighter.
The house was almost silent when she got home. Trent was in his room, quietly strumming his acoustic guitar. He called out to her as she walked past. "Hey, Janey."
Jane stopped and looked in. "What's up, Trent? I thought you'd be peeling the paint off the basement walls with your new chord."
Trent shrugged. "I got tired of it." He looked up from his guitar and met her gaze squarely. "I just wanted to know how your day went. You know. How's it going?"
"Surprisingly well," she told him, unable to repress a smile. "Things might actually be looking up for a change."
Trent matched her smile. "Glad to hear it."
Jane looked around her room as she walked in and dumped her stuff. Her roving gaze fell upon the remains of her trash sculpture, still lying in a heap against the wall. It was about time to get rid of that thing. She carried her trash can over to the heap. Laying the can on its side, she pushed the remains inside. Then she gathered up the bits and pieces her anger had scattered and threw them away with the rest.
Something was missing. Jane looked around. There it was, sticking out from under her desk. The Exacto knife. She picked it up and looked at it, holding it in her open palm. Then she tipped her hand and let the knife fall into the trash can. Good riddance.
The trash sculpture now firmly behind her, Jane set a fresh canvas up on her easel. She readied her acrylics and selected a few brushes, humming to herself all the while. It was time for a new work. One that would express how she was feeling right now. She felt good. For the first time in who knows how long, she really felt good and she had to put it all down before the feeling had a chance to fade. Feelings could be ephemeral things, after all. There was no knowing if her's would be the same tomorrow as they had been today. Maybe they would be. Hopefully they would be.
With the ghost of a half-smile lighting her face, Jane dipped her brush and started painting.
The next day, O'Neill made good his promise to include them in the weekly assembly. He got up in front of the entire school and told everyone about their courageous fight for self-esteem. "Please join me in congratulations," he said at last, "as I present these certificates of self-esteem to Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane."
Jane shrugged. "Ah, what the hell?". She got up and walked to the podium, followed by Daria. Jane accepted her certificate from Mr. O'Neill and turned toward the class. "I just want to say how proud I am today," she said. "Knowing that I have self-esteem gives me even more self-esteem.
Inspiration struck at that moment. Jane looked to Daria, a smile on her face. Daria didn't react, but she saw and she understood that something good was coming. Jane turned back to her waiting classmates. Okay, guys, she thought. You want a show? I'll give you a show.
Jane worked up a quick look of disquiet, bordering on outright fear. "On the other hand," she said, putting a quaver in her voice, "having all of you know that I had low self-esteem makes me feel kind of bad, like a big failure or something." She lifted her hands to her face, miming a person falling apart. Now for the big finish. She whimpered, just a bit. "I . . . want to go home," she said. Then she threw her head back, raised one arm to her brow in a pose of desperate histrionics and fled the stage with a pitiful cry.
Jane caught Daria's half-smile as she ran past. Beautiful. She'd pulled it off perfectly. O'Neill even got caught up in the act. He ran off the stage after her, calling "Daria." Jane didn't stop running until she was clear of the auditorium, down the hallway and around the corner. There she stopped and looked back in time to see O'Neill come flying out the auditorium door. He turned the wrong way and headed straight for the exit at the far end. Then he was out and gone. Beautiful. She would have some damage control to do with him tomorrow, but for the moment everything had turned out perfectly. Now to make the week complete.
Jane made a quick stop at her locker, then walked into the art room, a canvas under her arm. "Ms. DeFoe?" she called into the empty room. "Are you still here?"
Ms. DeFoe emerged from the supply room in the back. "Oh," she said, wiping her hands on a cloth. "Hello, Jane. I suppose you've come to collect your painting?"
"Well, yeah. I can do that." Jane set the canvas down on the floor. "But I really came to find out if it's too late to get a new painting into the art display."
Ms. DeFoe smiled. "Of course not. I promised that you could bring one in today. Is this it?"
"Yep. I just did it last night." Jane set the canvas down against the wall, facing outward. "I think even Ms. Li will approve this one for the display."
Jane looked it over again as Ms. DeFoe paused to take it in. It was a fairly simple work, the black of deep space dotted with stars and colored by distant nebulae. At the center lay two bright spheres, stars that had traveled long through the vast emptiness alone. But now they had come together and each was feeling the tug of the other's gravity, deep fathomless wells which drew each toward the other. A chance meeting in a universe so empty. A meeting that lay frozen in time on the canvas. But the canvas didn't tell the end of the story. That was still unknown. Maybe the stars would meet and pass, bringing only a brief respite to their loneliness. Perhaps they would join in a mutual orbit and burn brightly together for a while. Who could say? That was a story yet to be told. But it was the moment that counted. For now, for right now at the very least, the two stars were companions in the dark of night.
"This is lovely," said Ms. DeFoe as she turned to face Jane. "I'll see that it gets into the art display. Even Ms. Li can't refuse this one. But if you don't mind my saying so, this is something of a departure for you. What made you decide on this particular subject?"
Jane shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I was just inspired."
Ms. DeFoe held her gaze for a few seconds more, then smiled. "I think I understand. Why don't I go back and get your abstract so you can take it home. I just have to dig it out from behind some other works in the back."
The school bell nearly washed away her last words. From down the hall came the hurried sound of students escaping the assembly hall and heading out for the weekend. Before Ms. DeFoe could turn away, Jane raised a hand to stop her. "No," Jane told her. "Don't bother with it right now. I can pick it up next week."
"Are you sure, Jane? It won't take a minute."
"I'm sure. I have to be going." Jane hefted her backpack and turned for the door. "I've got to go
meet up with my friend."
** I offer up many thanks to Diane Long for her insight, input and honesty on this project.
Diane, it might have been written without your help, but it wouldn't have been as good.
Hope you enjoyed the show. I welcome all feedback, comments and constructive criticism. You can reach me at Sehala@Aol.Com. Thanks to all those who sent me their feedback in the past.
If you liked this story and want to read my earlier works, look for these titles on the Outpost Daria website:
"The More Things Change . . ."
"Don't Know Jake"
"On the Outside."
(Disclaimer: Daria and her cartoon cohorts were created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn 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.)
("The Last Days of Solitude" 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 © 1999 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.)