Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged.

This is the first John Lane story

Richard Lobinske


A radio announcer said, "Good Morning Maryland. It's October fourteenth. Columbus Day observance for those lucky few who get the day off."

A slender young man with pitch-black hair and bright blue eyes sat on his bed and scratched his jaw just below the three silver rings in his left ear. Yawning, he pulled heavy, black boots on, tied the laces, and pulled the legs of worn, grey jeans down over them. He grabbed a red shirt, slipped his arms into the sleeves and rolled those up. The shirt front he left unbuttoned, revealing a plain, black v-neck t-shirt underneath.

"The temperature is currently fifty-six degrees. Expected high temperature is seventy-one."

After he was dressed, the fifteen-year old grabbed his backpack from beside his bed and slung one arm through the straps. He looked around his room: a bed with a large stereo over the headboard, a television on a small cart, a single easy chair. The room was dominated by a large, professional easel, and a drafting table in the corner. Assorted painted works and drawings adorned the walls and ceiling.

"Partially cloudy with no mention of rain in the forecast. In today's sports news…" The young man shut the radio off.

"Another exciting day in Lawndale," John Lane grimly muttered as he went out the door of his room and into the upstairs hall.

Walking past the adjacent bedroom door, he heard his older brother, Trent, snoring inside. John rolled his eyes and went downstairs to face the near-empty kitchen. He rummaged around in the pantry until he found a pack of ramen noodles. "Ah, breakfast, " he said. "Too bad I have to eat it on the way." He removed a can of cola from the refrigerator and popped it open, pulled the top off the pack of noodles and took a bite.

Crunching noodles and chasing them with the soda, he was out the door and walking down Howard Drive toward Lawndale High School.

Near the front of the school, he saw an unfamiliar blue Lexus pull into the drop-off circle. At a small school like Lawndale, he was familiar with most of the students, even if he interacted with them as little as possible and they returned the favor.

Moments later, he raised his eyebrows when an intensely cute girl with flaming red hair stepped out from the front passenger seat of the new car. She would make a nice subject to draw.

Within seconds, the girl was deep in conversation with that snotty freshman witch, Sandi Griffin, and her spineless lackey, Stacy Rowe. "Another victim of the Fickle Fingers of Fashion, he said as he also watched two boys approach her. "Oh, well." He shrugged and started back toward the front door, not noticing a second passenger emerge from the back seat.

Later that morning, he crawled into U. S. History class with his usual lack of enthusiasm and started to doodle in his ever-present sketchpad. After the bell rang and the students settled, he was brought back to reality when he heard the instructor, Mr. DeMartino, say, "Class, we have a new student joining us today. Please welcome Daria Morgendorffer. Daria, raise your hand, please."

At the front of the class, a small framed girl in green, with full, auburn hair, tentatively raised her hand. DeMartino said, "Well, Daria. As long as you have your hand raised…" and chuckled.

John grinned in anticipation. Fun with the fresh meat. This could be entertaining. Let's see how long it takes this chick to collapse.

DeMartino continued, "Last week, we began a unit on westward expansion. Perhaps you feel it is unfair to be asked a question on your first day of class."

The girl's reply was simply, "Excuse me?"

"Daria, can you concisely and unemotionally sum up the doctrine of Manifest Destiny?"

Oh, this ought to be good.

Without hesitation, the new girl answered, "Manifest Destiny was a slogan popular in the eighteen-forties. 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. These people didn't include many Mexicans."

Whoa. You don't see that often.

DeMartino eyed the girl. "Very good, Daria. Almost…suspiciously good."

That was entertaining.

John tossed the sketchpad into the air with a backspin, catching it in the same hand just as he opened the door marked, "Self-Esteem Class 3:30." He looked around at the array of new students. Some of these have possibilities. He grabbed a desk and sunk down into it. A few moments later, the girl who'd taken down DeMartino the day before entered and sat right in front. What's she doing here?

Within moments, she was trying to get clarifications on the teacher's drivel. After O'Neill sidestepped her question, John decided to lean forward and say, "He's an idiot who's memorized the crap. Just kick back and relax."

The girl turned and John saw her softly rounded face and brown eyes through her glasses. "How am I supposed to follow him if I don't know what he's talking about?" she asked.

"I've done the drill six times and can fill you in later."

Leaving class, John awkwardly extended his hand to the girl. "John Lane."

She calmly shook his hand. "Daria Morgendorffer."

He looked at his hand. Such a soft touch. He said, "I caught that in history. I sit a couple seats behind you."

"Oh. Mr. DeMartino seems to have taken a dislike to me."

"Don't worry; he hates everyone."

Daria faintly smiled.

John pointed forward. "We seem to be heading the same direction. Mind if I walk with you?"

"I can't stop you."

"Well, I'm sure those boots could."

"You said you could fill me in."

"Will that be a solid color or a pattern?"

Daria gave him a brief, quizzical look before saying, "Good one. I meant the class."

He handed her his notebook. "Oh, it's all here."

Warily, Daria said, "Okay," and accepted it. She rapidly read the details, as well as noting the interspersed sketches of students and numerous rude caricatures of Mr. O'Neill. After several blocks, Daria asked, "So, why haven't you passed to get out?"

John shrugged. "Gives me something to do in the afternoon, and it irritates Manson. When her eyes bug out, it looks like she's related to DeMartino."

Daria pointed to red brick house. "My stop."

"Nice place. See you tomorrow?"

"Um, yeah. Tomorrow."

After watching her go inside, John continued to walk toward his house.

Through the next day, John learned Daria was in his English, History and Economics classes, and had P.E. at the same time. John met up with Daria at her locker and headed with her to the Self-Esteem class. They walked past a boy leaning against a wall and talking to the cute redhead he remembered seeing on Monday "So... like, what do you like to do after school?" asked the boy.

She smiled innocently and replied, "Oh, nothing special. Go to the movies... or, like, a theme park... or out for a really fancy meal now and then... or maybe go to a concert, if, like, I know somebody's got good seats and is renting a limo and stuff."

John shook his head. "You hear that? He's about to go down in flames."

Daria briefly looked at the pair with a tired expression. "Tell me about it. That's my sister."

"That's got to suck."

The boy pressed on, "So, you've got any brothers or sisters?"

"I'm an only child," said the redhead.

Daria frowned and continued walking.

John looked between the two, clearly seeing the family resemblance. And that has to hurt.

When he made it home, John found a rumpled wad of dollar bills on the kitchen table next to a note telling him to have pizza delivered for dinner. "Great, band practice or meeting tonight. I didn't want to sleep."

He grabbed the kitchen phone and punched in the number, counting the money as he waited for an answer. "Hi, two large pepperoni pizzas. One-eleven Howard Drive. Yeah. Forty-five minutes sounds cool."

Task complete, he headed toward his room. He noticed the pile of accumulated mail teetering on a table in the living room. He started to pick it up, then shrugged and headed up the stairs. "Let Trent deal with it. He's supposed to be the adult." Maybe I'll ask Daria over to watch TV tomorrow.

The next day, the two were again walking home together. John said to Daria, "I can't believe you conned them into going to Pizza Forest."

"It's all in the guilt manipulation."

"Congratulations, I think I found somebody whose family is more screwed up than mine."

"Wow, thanks."

As they approached the red brick house, John said. "Um, Daria. Would you like to come over to my house to watch Sick, Sad World?"

She gave him one of her understated smiles. "John, it's nice of you to ask, but…um…I don't really know you that well. I'm not very comfortable going over to a guy's house."

John could see her unease. "That's okay."

Daria looked at him for a moment. "Wait here." She went inside and returned a couple minutes later, holding one hand in her jacket pocket. "Why don't we watch it in my living room?"

John's mood brightened. "Okay."

"Pardon my paranoia, but if you'd lived in the town I moved from, you'd understand. I've got a can of pepper spray in each pocket, and I've used it before."

John tensed at the implied threat. Must have been a rough town. "I promise to behave."

Inside was a clean and spacious living room, with three comfortable sofa sections arrayed around a round coffee table in front of a sizable entertainment center. Daria went to the table and used the remote there to start the show. She said, "I'll get us some drinks, you like Ultra Cola?"

"I can drink it."

John sat on the center section. When Daria returned, she handed him a can and sat on the section to his right. They watched and made small talk for a while.

While the Sick, Sad World reporter interviewed some acne-faced boy, Daria turned to John. "You know all the answers to the questions on the release test, right?"

"I've got them in my notebook."

"Well, why don't we just take the test tomorrow and get out of the class once and for all?"

"Now that I have a reason to get out, why not?"

"A reason?"

"Um…spending time with you?"

"Oh. Um…sure."

John dug into his backpack and retrieved his notebook. "The exit test really isn't that hard."

John got home that evening in a far better mood than he could remember. He came through the door and saw his taller sibling sitting on the sofa, staring at a sheet of paper. John went over and said, "Hey, Trent. What's that?"

Trent looked up with more worry in his eyes than John had ever seen. "I think Mom and Dad really screwed things up this time." He handed the paper to John. Across the top was written: NOTICE OF FORECLOSURE AND EVICTION.

John looked at it with shock. "What the hell?"

"Um, I did some digging in the old mail and found this." He handed over a letter from the bank, dated the week before. It stated that their parents were four months behind on mortgage payments and that if was not paid that day, the bank would foreclose and evict them.

John dropped onto the sofa with a thud. I should have checked that stack of mail yesterday. "We have to move. Nobody is here to help us, and we don't have anywhere to go."

"I guess we could stay at Jesse's."

"You can stay there. If the man could learn to take a bath more than once a week, I might agree with you."

"I wish there was some way to fight this. But, we don't have enough money to hire someone to help."

John stood up. "I met a girl this week whose mother's a lawyer. Maybe she can help."


"This says we have thirty days to move. Can you drive me over there?"

"But, we have thirty days."

"Trent. We may need all of those to fight this."

"Okay. Let me find my keys."

There was a red SUV and the blue Lexus John had seen Monday morning parked in the driveway of Daria's house. As Trent pulled his old blue Plymouth to a stop, John said, "Trent, look. I think I like this girl. Please try to behave and not piss-off her parents. Okay?" When he didn't hear a response, John turned and saw his brother asleep. He reached over and turned the engine off. "Better take the keys, just in case."

John left his brother and went to the front door. He wiped his hands on his shirt and touched the doorbell. A few moments later, a forty-something man with brown hair answered the door. After registering that a teenage boy was there, he turned and yelled toward a stairway, "Quinn! Your date is here!"

"Uh. Mr. Morgendorffer?"

The man grinned and extended a hand. "Jake, my man."

"Hi, I'm John."

A woman's voice came from the kitchen. "Oh, dear. Jake, Quinn left on her date half an hour ago. I hope she hasn't double booked."

"I'm not here to see Quinn."

Jake stepped back in confusion as an attractive woman in her forties came up. She said, "I'm sorry, young man. We're not interested in any magazine subscriptions."

John steeled his nerves and extended his hand to the woman. "Mrs. Morgendorffer? I'm John Lane. I'm a friend of your daughter, Daria."

Both parents looked utterly shocked. "Daria?"

"I hope I'm not disturbing anything."

Both repeated, "Daria?"

"Is something wrong?"

The woman shook her head. "Oh, no. I'm sorry, please come in. I'm Helen."


Jake went to the stairs and yelled up. "Daria! Your date is here!"

"I'm not really here for a date."

Daria appeared at the top of the stairs. "Date? What are you talking about?"

Jake stepped to one side. "This young man is here."

Daria looked down in surprise. "John?"

He looked up and said, "Hi."

She came down the stairs. "What are you doing here?"

"I remembered you said your mom was a lawyer."

Helen's eyes narrowed to very thin slits. "I see. What kind of trouble are you in, young man?"

Jake interposed himself between John and Daria, and he clenched his fists.

John hastily unfolded the papers and thrust them at Helen. "A man came by and dropped these off with my brother today. I'm hoping you might be able to help."

Helen scanned the notice. "This looks like a fairly standard foreclosure for nonpayment. Not much that can really be done."

John dropped his shoulders and felt tears trying to rise. "Thanks, anyway. I knew it was an off chance."

Helen looked at him intently. "Why did you bring these here? Where are your parents?"

John realized he might be in trouble. "They're not in town."

"I guessed as much. Where are they?"

John closed his eyes. Damn. "Mom's in the Everglades looking into Seminole pottery techniques, and Dad is in Iceland photographing the landscapes."

"How long have they been gone?"

"Mom about three months, Dad about six."

"They left you home alone?"

"I'm with my brother, Trent."

"I see. Where is he now?"

"Uh…out in his car."

Helen turned to her husband. "Jake, go out and get him, now."

"Sure thing, Honey."

Helen turned. "Daria, why haven't you mentioned this young man before?"

"It never came up. He's in several of my classes and he's walked home with me the last couple days."


John looked around. "Look, I'm sorry to have troubled you. If there isn't anything to be done, I should leave."

Helen put her hand on his shoulder. "Young man, you're not going anywhere for the moment."

Jake came in, his face pale and his voice shaken. "John, your brother…"

"Give me a second; sometimes he's a little difficult to wake up. I promise I won't go anywhere."

John moved out of the house and took a moment to breath. "I think I just really screwed up."

He continued to the car and yanked the door open. Trent fell over onto the ground. He looked up in a daze. "What? Sorry, officer, I swear it wasn't my handprint."

"Can the excuse, you idiot, and wake up!"

"Oh, hey, John."

John grabbed his shoulders and pulled Trent upright. "Inside."


As he guided the still-drowsy Trent to the door, he said, "Trent, this is Mr. and Mrs. Morgendorffer and Daria, the girl I mentioned."

Trent looked up. "Hey."

"Everyone, this is my brother, Trent."

Helen looked carefully at the young man in torn jeans and threadbare t-shirt. She sniffed slightly and wrinkled her nose. "Okay, come on in, both of you."

Trent looked around before slouching on the sofa. Helen sat on the other end of the same unit. "Young man, how old are you?"


"I see." She turned toward the rest. "Jake, Daria, why don't you take John into the kitchen and see if he wants something to drink."

Jake clapped John's shoulder. "Come on, dude."

Jake stopped at the refrigerator while Daria led John to the table. She whispered, "John, how did that foreclosure happen?"

"Mom and Dad forgot to leave the house payments. We didn't catch the letter from the bank until after the notice was delivered today."

"You said your parents were…oh crap. John, you're fifteen, living with your underemployed brother and your house is being foreclosed."

John dropped his head on the table. "I know. She's going to call Family Services. I knew that when she asked where Mom and Dad were."

"Maybe Trent could be declared a guardian or something."

John looked at Daria. "You're kidding."

"You said that Trent's basically helped to raise you the last couple years."

"Well, yeah. Helped. I've more like raised myself since seventh grade."

Jake set a couple cans of Ultra Cola on the table. "Here you go. So, you're friends with Daria."

Daria looked at John with a hopeful glint in her eye. He said, "Yeah."

Jake said, "Daria is a special girl."

"I kind of noticed." He saw a faint blush on Daria's cheeks.

"So, what do you do for a living?"

"I…ah…go to school. I'm a little too young to get a job."

"Oh, yeah. Do you have any hobbies?"

"I like to paint and draw; it's what I hope to do for a living."

"Do you play any sports?"

Helen fast-walked into the kitchen. "John, what did you eat for breakfast today?"

"Excuse me?"

"What did you eat for breakfast?"

John looked at her. Damn, we're screwed.

Helen's eyes were merciless. "I'm waiting."

He dropped his eyes. "A slice of leftover pizza."

"I was afraid of something like that. Dinner tonight?"

"I was planning on Cluster Burger."

"At least that is something."

Helen's cell phone rang; she yanked it from her pocket and sweetly said, "Hello."

Her eyes glazed in frustration as she listened, finally saying, "Eric, I have a home situation I have to deal with. That will have to wait until tomorrow…No, this situation can't wait…I will explain when I get in…I know you expect hard work from your associates…Eric, this is an unavoidable situation…Yes, I will fully explain…Trust me, ignoring this situation will be bad for me and the firm…yes, the firm…I will explain…tomorrow morning. Good-bye." She clicked off the phone and dropped it back into her pocket. "There's going to be hell to pay for that little exchange."

Sadly, John asked, "What are you going to do?"

Helen sat at the table next to John. "I'm obliged to report this. By all legal definitions, your parents have abandoned you."

Daria leaned over. "What about his brother? He's legal age."

Helen sighed. "It looks like Trent can barely take care of himself." She looked John directly in the eye. "Tell me the truth. Do you smoke pot?"

John sunk in his chair. "You smelled it on him. No, I don't. I like to run and that's bad for your lungs."

"Okay. Young man, you need help."

"I'm doing okay."

Helen reached to him. "No, you're not. You're rail-thin. I'm sure you're not eating properly."

"I am. I think."

Helen glared at him as she would a stubborn witness.

John sunk lower. "No, I'm not."

An hour later, Daria sat alone in her room, looking at the gray padded walls. While she was still adapting to her new surroundings, she took an instant liking to them. While she normally found comfort in those walls, tonight, though, they felt oppressive. After an on-call social worker had arrived and started to interview John and Trent, Daria had been asked to stay in her room. She could occasionally hear Trent's raised voice, but not clearly enough to understand his comments.

In time, there was a knock, and her mother came in. "Daria?"

"I'm here."

"That poor boy."

"Mom, what's going to happen?"

"He'll be placed into foster care. At his age, he probably won't be adopted and will stay in foster care until he's eighteen."

"The odds are against him staying in school here, aren't they?"

Helen averted her eyes. "They are."

Daria knotted her hands together and thought hard. A moment passed before she straightened her back, steadied her nerves, and said, "Mom…we have a spare room."

"Daria, do you know what you're asking?"

"Yes. I've had plenty of time to think since you sent me up here like an eight-year old."

"I don't think that would work."

"Mom, how many friends did I have in Highland?"


"How many friends did I have in Highland?"

Helen looked at the floor. "None, that I can remember."

"Correct. I thin…I found a friend here. I don't want to lose him so soon."

"Daria, you just met him. How can you consider him your boyfriend?"

Daria sighed. "Not boyfriend. Friend."

"Oh," Helen said with a hint of suspicion

"Mom. Please?"

"We hardly know him. It wouldn't feel safe."

Daria looked out the window, past the cut off bars. "Mom, what kind of risk will there be to John if he stays here?"

"None. Why would he be at risk?"

"What kind of risk will he be at if he goes into the child welfare system of this state?"

"Higher than none," Helen quietly said.

Daria turned to look at her.

Helen scrutinized her face. "I've never seen you go to bat for someone like this. Okay. We give him a try. But, any, and I mean any signs of trouble, and out he goes."

"Deal. Thanks."

"Follow me. We need to arrange this. And I'm going to have to make an early stop at the courthouse tomorrow."

They went downstairs to find a dejected Trent sitting on the sofa as the social worker filled out forms on the coffee table. Daria immediately asked, "Where's John?"

"I had a police officer take him to his house to pick up personal belongings, the social worker said. "They should be back in a little while."

Helen said, "Ms. Collins, have you found a place for him to stay?"

She shook her head. "Not yet."

"Please give me a couple minutes; I may have an answer."

Helen went into the kitchen. "Jake, we need to talk."

Daria sat next to Trent. "Um, hi."

Trent looked at her. "Hi."

"I'm sorry about all this."

Trent bowed his head. "I guess we were fooling ourselves."

"John said you've watched out for him the last three years."


"That's kind of cool."

"I tried."

"So, you're a musician."


They sat in silence, watching Ms. Collins fill out forms.

Helen and Jake returned from the kitchen. "Ms. Collins, tomorrow morning, Jake and I will apply for temporary custody of John."

Trent looked at Helen with clear distrust.

Ms. Collins looked up. "Are you sure?"


She leaned back in relief. "Thank you. We were coming up empty. I didn't want to put that boy in juvenile hall for the night."

Both Trent and Daria were startled. Daria said, "Juvenile hall?"

"It's a bad situation, but when we can't place a minor, that's the last resort."

Trent gritted his teeth, stood, and faced Jake and Helen. "Thanks. He's a good kid."

"I have two daughters living here, Helen warned. "He better be."

John found the trip home supremely depressing. He had to ride in the back, and the officer barely spoke. "Pick up enough personal effects for a couple days," Mrs. Collins said. What a night: I go from feeling the best I can remember to being kicked out of my home. Great. I try to get help, and I don't even get thirty days.

Inside his house, John found his black, round suitcase and stuffed some spare clothes into it. He went to the bathroom and grabbed his toothbrush, deodorant, and comb. Wherever they're sending me will probably have toothpaste. Better leave ours, or Trent might get confused.

While John gathered his belongings, the officer looked around the house and photographed various rooms. The house is a wreck. This must look just great. After grabbing a stack of sketchbooks and his school backpack, John went downstairs with the suitcase. "I'm ready."

The officer simply nodded and went to the car, holding the back door open. John stopped at the front door and yelled out, "Do you mind if I leave some food out for the cats?"

The officer shook his head and muttered, "Hurry up."

John went to the kitchen and poured a large helping of dry cat food into a bowl. "I hope they don't decide to be pigs and eat it all in one sitting. I hope we can find them when we have to get out of here." He looked around and headed back to the police car, grimly setting his things in back before entering.

The trip back was just a blur of a suburban fall evening. Upon arrival, the officer opened the back door. "Get your stuff. Since it doesn't look like anyone's going to be violent, I'll get back on patrol."

Back to Do Me A Donut, you mean.

John carried his belongings into the Morgendorffer house. He shuffled in and dropped his stuff. "Okay, where the hell am I going?"

Helen came over to him. "Daria made a strong case for you to stay here. Jake and I agreed."

He sighed in relief and looked at Daria, who gave him a shy shrug. To Helen, he said, "Thanks."

Helen sternly said, "Young man. We expect you to behave like a complete gentleman around her. We're taking a big risk with you. We won't hesitate to send you into foster care."

"I understand."

"Good. Let me show you to your room." Helen led the way and John followed upstairs to an empty guest room. A sleeping bag, pillow and sheet were set on the floor amid a couple stacks of unpacked moving boxes. Helen set a hand on his shoulder. "I know you must be frightened." She looked at the sleeping bag. "We weren't planning on using this as a guest room yet. This gives me an excuse to get one to match the room tomorrow."

"Thanks." John went in and placed his belongings next to the sleeping bag.

"The bathroom is the next room over. We get up at seven. There's plenty in the kitchen, make sure you get a good breakfast."

"I will."

"Please come back downstairs when you're ready."

He shrugged, "I'm ready now. Uh, do you have anything I could grab to eat? I kind of never made it to Cluster Burger."

"There's leftover lasagna in the refrigerator. I'll get you some."

When they got downstairs, the police officer was already gone and the caseworker was snapping her briefcase closed. She said, "Mrs. Morgendorffer, I have all the paperwork filled out and will drop it off at the courthouse on my way home. Judge Tifton normally handles these cases first thing in the morning. Any questions?"

Helen shook her head. "No."

"Then, I'll be on my way." She smiled and left the house.

John sat next to Trent. "It's my fault. I shouldn't have suggested this."

Trent patted his shoulder and bitterly said, "No, it's Mom and Dad's fault."

"Yeah, but if…"

"Shut up, Johnny."

Trent got out of the seat and squatted in front of John. "We ride this out, like always."

"I'll try."

"I'm going to try to get ahold of Mom or Dad."

Following a bitter laugh, John said, "Good luck," as he reached into his pocked and handed Trent the car keys. "You might need these."

"Yeah. So, you behave. I'm going to get started."


Trent started toward the door. "I'm going to try to call my folks and stuff."

Helen came in from the kitchen with a plate of lasagna and said, "Trent, please realize that this is a legal matter now, and your parents will be likely be facing charges."

"Yeah, but they need to know. Later."

Trent also proceeded to leave, while Helen said, "Good luck, young man." She set the plate in front of John. "Enjoy."

Daria cautiously sat near him. "I hope you didn't mind my suggestion you stay here."

John looked at her and smiled. "From being afraid of going to my house, to inviting me to live with you in only a few hours. You work fast, don't you?"

"Don't get any ideas. However, you're the only friend I've had in years. Call me selfish, but I didn't want to lose that."

"Besides Trent, you're the only person who seems to want me around. I accept your selfishness."

Trent sat in his car and angrily pulled his hands back through his hair. "That…nosy bitch!" He started the engine and barely kept from barking the tires as he backed away. "She's not taking my little brother away." He drove back to his house in a rush. If any police had noticed, they would have given him enough citations to suspend his license in one go.

At home, he found the contact number for his mother. "Good." He sat on his bed and entered the number.

After two rings, a voice answered, "We're sorry, the number you are trying to reach is not in service at this time."


Trent got up and went to the kitchen to paw through the refrigerator notes for a while, "This might be it." He grabbed the downstairs phone and entered the next, lengthier number. Someone speaking in a Scandinavian-sounding language answered the line.

Trent said, "Uh, hello?"

There was a brief pause before another voice answered. "Hello. Reykjavik Grand Hotel."

"Um, hey. I need to talk to Vincent Lane; I think he's staying there."

"I may ask who calling?"

"Trent…oh, his son."

"Moment, please."

After a pause, the voice returned. "Mr. Lane climb volcano up. Next Wednesday return."

"Okay. I'll try then."

Trent set the phone down and leaned against the counter. "Dammit, they can't take Johnny away like that."

John spent the next couple of hours interviewed by Helen, with occasional comments from Jake. The latter also injected a couple of odd, confusing rants about military school that seemed to appear out of nowhere.

John said he was the youngest of five in his family. The oldest, brother Wind, had a knack for failed relationships and bad marriages. Sister Summer had four children who frequently ran away. Next was Penny, who'd spent over nine years in South and Central America. Finally, he talked about Trent, his music, and how he had tried his best after his parents, Amanda and Vincent Lane seemed to feel that they didn't need to hang around much after Trent turned eighteen.

Quinn barged in through the front door. "Ooohh! I just had the most miserable date. I should have known he was a loser when he didn't even have a cassette player in his car! And, oh my God! He took me to an Italian restaurant! What could he be thinking? All that fatty food? I mean, cheese, more cheese than you could imagine. Who the hell is that guy sitting on the sofa?"

Helen stood up. "Quinn. This young man is John, he's going to be staying with us a while."

Quinn looked in shock. "Staying? As in, staying? Here?"

Helen's hands went to her hips. "Yes, Quinn. He's a friend of Daria's and has some problems at home. You will treat him with respect."

"Mo-om! Think of my image! Two geeks living in my house? The damage to my reputation?"

Daria looked on in disgust. "Gee, Quinn. Now you can have two cousins living with you."

Quinn stormed up to her room. "Gawd! You people are trying to ruin my life!"

Helen gave John an embarrassed smile. "Quinn is a little…high strung on some things. I'm sure she'll warm to you."

Daria said, "And you'll need the heat, because Hell will be frozen over."

John said, "Mrs. Morgendorffer. It's been a busy night and I…um…haven't really had a chance to do any homework. Plus, Daria and I were going to try to test out of the Self-Esteem class early."

With a hand raised to her mouth, Helen replied, "Oh, dear. I've been keeping you from your homework. You want to test out of the class early; that's wonderful! Daria, why don't you two go upstairs and study. But, keep the door open."

The two went upstairs. John grabbed his backpack from his room and followed Daria into hers. He said, "This is cool. What's the deal? You don't get this stuff standard equipment."

Daria sat on her bed. "The previous owner had a schizophrenic shut-in living here. Mom hasn't had the time to remodel. If she keeps up her current work pace, it will be about the time she retires."

John sat next to her. "I really owe you. Summer's kids have all spent time in the system. Some of their stories are scary."

"Did you really want to study?"

"Well, it made a good excuse." He weakly smiled. "Yeah, with all that's happened, I can't be wasting time listening to O'Neill's crap."

He pulled his notebook from the backpack. "Self-esteem is important because…?

Three-twenty-six. John looked at his alarm clock on the floor and swept the sheet to the side. He got up and went to a window to look out over the back yard. What a day. Trent was right: we were foolish to think that nobody would notice. He squeezed his eyes shut in frustration. Dammit! Why couldn't Mom and Dad bother to come home more often? He looked again at the neatly trimmed yard. Well, it was nice while it lasted. John looked at the crescent over the trees. I've never seen Trent so angry except for that time I tried his pot. I hope he's all right.

He looked to his right, where he knew Daria's room was. At least…I have a friend now. I can't believe somebody else would stick up for me like that. A smile came to his lips. I saw her without the jacket; she's even cuter than I thought. Got a look a little farther up her skirt when she was standing at the top of the stairs, nice legs.

He went back to the window and stared out for a while longer before crawling back into bed.

John yelled to the knocking on the door, "Freaking hell, Trent! What are you doing up?" His eyes focused on a moving box and he remembered where he was.

Helen's voice came through the door. "Young man, it is time to get up."

He crawled over to the door and pulled himself up. As he achieved a vertical posture, he opened it. "Sorry. Forgot where I was."

Helen immediately turned her head to the side. "In the future, could you please put some pants on before opening the door?"

John looked down to realize he was only wearing the briefs he normally slept in. Red-faced, he moved behind the door and said, "I guess I'm used to only having my brother around."

"Okay, get dressed and come down for breakfast."

John sleepily nodded and closed the door. "Oh, I'm doing good. Standing around in my underwear in front of her mother." He put on some fresh clothes from his suitcase and grabbed his toothbrush and comb.

Outside, he saw Daria waiting by the closed bathroom door, wearing a loose shirt, shorts and socks. She pointed a thumb at the door. "Her highness got there first. This could be a while."

John half-shrugged and began dragging his comb through his hair. "Hi. I, um, think I may have upset your mother this morning."

"Well, she usually needs at least one good freak-out to get her going. What did you do?"

"I wasn't thinking and answered the door wearing only my underwear."

Daria's eyes momentarily widened. "That must have been good. But don't make a habit of it. She wasn't kidding about you behaving yourself."

"I got that idea."

"How…did you sleep?"

John yawned. Great timing. "Not good."

"I'm not surprised. Looks like you have your stuff with you. Why don't you use the downstairs bathroom instead of waiting?"

"Thanks, though I still need some toothpaste."

"There should be more in the kitchen pantry. Ask Mom or Dad."

"Thanks. I'll see you downstairs."

John went to the kitchen. Helen was drinking coffee at the counter and closing her briefcase. Jake was at the table, reading a paper. John cleared his throat and said, "Daria said I could use the bathroom down here, and to get the spare toothpaste from the pantry."

Helen looked up and let out a slight sigh. "I see you share Daria's habit of a single style of clothes."

"I guess."

Helen went to the pantry and pulled out the toothpaste. "Here. I'll be gone by the time you get out, if I'm to get to the courthouse first thing this morning. There's cereal in the cupboard, juice, milk and bread in the refrigerator. Just ask anyone if you need anything else."

John accepted the tube. "Thanks."

John was just opening the door back into the kitchen when he heard Jake saying, "Quinn, you're up and out of here early this morning. Big day in school or something?"

"Daddy, if you won't drive me to school, I have to get an early start so I won't be seen with them."

"But Quinn, won't it be nice to have your sister and her friend to talk to on the way?"

"Oooh! Daddy, you just don't understand. I've got to go, bye."

"Bye, Quinn."

Damn, talk about a cold brat. John jogged upstairs to drop off his toothbrush; then came back. Jake was still reading the paper as John located a bowl and poured some cereal. He went to the refrigerator and pulled out a carton of milk. After sniffing it, he added some to the bowl. Finally, he discovered the silverware drawer and dropped a spoon in.

He stood still, looking at the table, before going over and sitting down. With no visible response from Jake, he began to eat.

After several more minutes, Daria came in, fixed a bowl of cereal, and sat next to John. "Hi, Dad, John."

Jake lowered the paper. "Morning, Kiddo. Oh, hey, John. How's it going?"

John looked down in the bowl. A real breakfast. This is nice. "Uh, all right, for waking up in a strange house after being removed from your home."

A strange look appeared in Jake's eyes. "Oh, I can understand that!" Jake's voice rose to a shout. "Driven from your childhood home! Heartless old bastard! No warning, just up and on my way to military school!"

Daria reached over and touched his raised arm. "Dad."

Jake's eyes refocused and he looked at his daughter. "What? Oh, yeah."

"We don't want to frighten our guest."

"No, we wouldn't. You know, John, it'll be good having another man around. This house could use a little more scratching and belching."

Trent sat in the basement with the members of his band, Mystik Spiral, scattered around. Jesse was a well-built young man with wavy, brown hair. Max had shaved his head bald, and Nick's current hair color was brown.

"Guys, that won't work," Trent said. "I have to get out of here in a month. We need a new place to practice."

Nick said, "Hey, we could take up old man McGrundy on his offer. Clean up the place and we can practice there in the afternoons."

Trent thought for a moment. "That's…almost like work. But, we're desperate. I say we go for it."

Max frowned. "We're criminales! We practice where we want."

Nick responded, "Yeah, and get arrested, like we did when we practiced in the park."

"Oh, yeah. But, work?"

Trent was bummed. "I know. Are we in?"

Jesse said, "Cool."

Nick said, "I'm in."

Max tried to look annoyed at the other three. "Fine, be that way. We practice at McGrundy's."

Trent said, "Nick, you still got the number for that free lawyer?"

"The one from my divorce?"


"You're going to fight the eviction?"

"I'll ask, but I bet it's too late for that. This is for Johnny."

Jesse said, "Whoa. What happened?"

"He thought the mother of a girl he's started to see could help. She called in Family Services and is trying to take him away."

Nick said, "Aw, man. That sucks. I'll get you the number."

Max said, "But, Johnny seeing a girl. That's cool."

Trent shook his head. "I don't know. This girl seems to be playing people."

Nick said, "How?"

"Her mom and the social worker talked about putting him in foster care. The mom went upstairs to tell the girl. When they came down, Mom was all, 'he's going to stay here.'"

Jesse said, "Sounds like she likes him."

"I don't trust her."

Nick said, "Johnny better be careful. He doesn't need to end up like me. Damn child support."

Max nodded. "Yeah, you think this chick might try to get knocked-up or something?"

Trent looked down. "I don't know. But, I'm keeping my eyes open."

Mr. O'Neill noticed Daria and John staying after class. "Hi! Did you need clarification on something we covered today?"

Daria said, "We feel really good about ourselves."

John nodded toward the notes on the desk. "We want to take the graduation test."

Mr. O'Neill smiled with pride. "Well! I'm glad your self-image meter is on the uptick! But there's still three more weeks of class left."

Daria said, "This first week has been a real eye-opener. It must be the way you teach."

Mr. O'Neill looked down as if flattered by the comment, "Oh, well... thank you very much." He looked at John. "You know, you look familiar somehow..."

Daria persisted. "So can we take the test?"

"Well, it's not the way we usually do it, but...I guess so." After picking up the test from his notes, he said, "Okay, question one: Self-esteem is important because..."

Daria rolled her eyes back. "It's a quality that will stand us in good stead the rest of our lives."

"Very good. Now, the next time I start to feel bad about myself..."

John crossed his arms and shifted his weight to one hip. "Stand before the mirror, look myself in the eye and say, 'You are special. No one else is like you.'"

With more enthusiasm, O'Neill said, "You two really have been paying attention! Okay, there's no such thing..."

John droned, "As the right weight."

Daria continued, "Or the right height."

John picked up again. "There's only what's right for me."

Daria finished with, "Because me is who I am."

Mr. O'Neill beamed with joy. "I don't think we have to go any farther. I am really pleased! I think the whole school needs to hear about this at assembly!"

John shook his head. "I don't think that's a good idea."

Confused, O'Neill asked, "Why?"

"Think of the shock to our self-esteem if you point out to the whole school that we had low self-esteem."

Daria picked up on the thought. "Yeah, it could destroy all your hard work."

O'Neill's hands rose to his face. "Oh, dear. Oh, dear. I hadn't thought of that. I'll make sure you get your passing grade and will mail the certificates to you. I need to change the entire completion ceremony now." He started shuffling through his notes, clearly forgetting that John and Daria were there. "Oh, dear. How many students have I humiliated?"

John spun and said, "I think that's our cue to get out of here."

"I'm with you."

Daria looked at the blue Lexus. "Dad's home."

John said, "Somehow, I'm not surprised."

Daria looked at John. "I'm not, either. I don't get it: they let Quinn go out on dates every night, and don't trust me to spend the afternoon with you."

Jake greeted them from the sofa, "Hey, Kiddo! Hey, John."

"Hi, Dad."

"Hey, Mr. Morgendorffer."

Jake looked at the two. "Say, what do you want to do?"

John thought a moment. "Could you drive us over to my old house, so I can get more of my stuff?"

"I thought that's what the policeman did last night?"

"I was only able to grab a few things. Most of my art supplies and clothes are still there."

"Oh, I guess I can. Let me get my keys. They're up in the bedroom."

Jake walked up the stairs as Daria said, "What are you up to?"

"Getting my stuff. Unless somebody does laundry often, I'm going to get pretty smelly. I was only able to pack three sets of clothes."

"Okay, I get the idea."

"And, I really want to do some painting or something. It helps me deal."

"Like my writing."

John noticed the black van parked in the driveway as they approached. "Looks like Trent's band is here, or at least the drummer."

Daria leaned over from the front seat to ask, "Trent has a band?"

"Yeah, Mystik Spiral."

"Sounds like a Doors cover band."

"They wish they were that good."

Jake developed a slightly dreamy look. "The Doors." He began to hum the tune of L.A. Woman, very poorly.

John tapped Jake. "Pull in behind that black van."

"No problemo."

"Give me a few minutes."

Daria held her hand on the door handle for a couple seconds before saying, "I'll go with."

"Save a trip, sure."

Inside the house, John said, "The band's probably in the basement, asleep. If they were practicing, you could have heard them a block away. I want to check on Trent before we leave."

"Sure. He seemed like he was worried about you."

"At times, I think he worries about me more than he worries about himself. Follow me, and watch your feet. You never know what might explode."

Daria followed, making sure to heed his advice.

John stopped at the door, looking around. Daria stopped behind and asked, "Are you okay?"

"I just realized. I'm not going to see this again. This is the only room I remember having."

"Hey, I thought I heard something," Trent said, coming up the stairs.

John stepped back and turned. "Trent, good to see you. Were you able to get a hold of Mom or Dad?"


"Crap. Figures."

"Johnny, how're you doing?"

"I'm okay. The Morgendorffers are being nice to me so far. I came by to get some more clothes and stuff, since it looks like I'll be there a while."

"I'll give you a hand. The band just left."

John grimaced. "I hope they don't scare Mr. Morgendorffer. He's waiting outside."

Daria said, "He'll get over it."

Trent looked Daria up and down. "Yeah. I talked to Nick's old lawyer. The house is gone, nothing we can do."

John frowned. "That's what Daria's mom said. Where are you going?"

"I'll find a place, don't worry. Maybe Monique's."

"You two break up every couple weeks. What about Jesse?"

"His scented candles stink. But, don't worry, I'll find something. Here, let me help."

Nervous, Daria began to help the brothers move loose clothing (some desperately in need of washing) and his art supplies. Jake stayed at the car to help get things loaded. After a couple trips, Daria and Trent were alone in John's room.

Trent stopped her and said, "I don't know what you're up to, but I'll be watching."


"I'll be watching." Trent balanced the stereo speakers on the system and carried them downstairs.

John came in the room right after, as Daria stood still, watching the door. He waved a hand in front of her. "Daria?"

"Sorry, just thinking."

Using Trent's car, they had managed to get everything of his that was worth bringing, in one trip. His clothes were mostly put away, except the large pile waiting to be washed.

The drafting table had been a challenge, but had made it. The old easy chair had been abandoned in place. "I'll miss it," he said, "but I don't think Mrs. Morgendorffer would have allowed it to stay."

The Morgendorffer's leftover moving boxes had been transferred to the attic and his possessions moved in. Most of his old artwork and wall hangings were still semi-neatly stacked on the floor. The stereo was assembled and working. The TV was hooked up to the basic cable feed in the room; more channels would have to wait for the cable installer on Monday.

John sat on his new bed and stared at an open sketchpad. The bed, along with a dresser, had been delivered to the Morgendorffer's soon after their return from his old home. The drawing that grew was disjointed and fractured. Different images were juxtaposed across the page at odd angles and most only in pieces.

He flipped the page and started on another. A dark and somber image of his old house appeared, falling apart and sinking into the ground like the House of Usher. He yawned widely and stretched. Okay, I'm also feeling the lack of sleep. A soft knock helped to wake him. "Come in."

Daria approached, leaving the door open several inches. She had on her usual black skirt and mustard colored shirt, but the jacket was gone and she wore only socks on her feet. Without the jacket, a bit more of her feminine form was noticeable. "Hi, can I talk with you a bit?"

John patted the bed. "Have a seat." He flipped to a new page and began carefully drawing.

Daria sat on the bed, but not close enough to touch. "Holding up?"


"Been some week, hasn't it?"

"You got that right."

"I…meant what I said last night. That I think you're a friend."

He lowered the pad for a second and smiled. "Thanks. Same here."

"It looks like Dad is looking forward to having another guy around the house. I think he's been a little uncomfortable in a house full of females."

"I got that impression. Um, you people aren't going to form a lynch party if I leave the toilet seat up, are you?"

"Well, I have enough sense to look first, but Mom or Quinn…it would be a good idea to train yourself fast."

"I guess I better. I want to stay on your Mom's good side."

"She's torn between her old hippie conscience to help and her mother bear instincts to protect."

"I hope she doesn't keep feeling she needs to protect you from me." John looked at the slightly older girl. "I don't think I could hurt you."

Daria looked slightly to the side. "Oh, uh…thanks."

Sensing her discomfort, John said, "What do you think of Lawndale High?" He drew out the school name in imitation of the principal, Ms. Li's voice.

Daria began holding up fingers. "Let's see. O'Neill is so whimpy, he makes my old teacher, Mr. Van Drissen, look like a pit bull. DeMartino is borderline psychotic. Bennett draws things on the board that have no relation to what she's discussing, Morris is your typical sadist gym teacher, and Barch…I think militant feminist is too soft a term for her. All in all, a step up from Highland High."

John lowered the pad. "Lawndale is a step up?"

"The water is safe to drink, and you don't have students pulling their shirts over their heads and searching for toilet paper."

"That sounds too weird for clarification."

Alone again, John looked at the drawing of Daria he'd made that evening. One advantage of being an artist: you don't have to wait for film developing. It was a three-quarter view portrait that John had worked on during the entire conversation. I hope I can get her to pose for something better.

Placed in the room corner, the bed allowed John to face toward Daria's room when he sat up in it. He lowered the drawing and looked at the wall. This sucks. I find a girl I want to ask out, and I can't. I know Mrs. Morgendorffer would toss me into foster care the instant I did anything like that. Crap.

He looked in the direction he estimated his old house to be. I wonder what Trent is up to? I know he feels responsible for me, and this has to be eating at him. I hope he doesn't do anything stupid.

Daria sat on her bed, reading her diary entry from earlier in the week.

Started school this week. It's reassuring to know that no matter where you go, kids are the same…stupid and shallow. Shockingly, Quinn fit in immediately; now she's managed to convince her new friends that it's just a coincidence that two girls named Morgendorffer happened to start school on the same day. I kind of admire her for that. The way you'd admire Attila the Hun for being focused.

Daria began to write.

Not everyone here is friendly and popular. There's this one boy named John who is snide, antisocial and resentful. Finally, a friend. He'd invited me to watch Sick Sad, World at his house. Since I wasn't comfortable going over there, I grabbed the cans of mace I had from Highland and invited him in to watch here.

That is when life became strange. While we were watching TV, eviction papers were served on his home. His parents have been gone for a couple months and forgot to leave the mortgage payments. They've been out of town for most of the past few years, and his brother Trent has looked after him (sort of - I get the feeling John also had to look after Trent).

Mom's old social services experience kicked in and things went from there. Now, John is staying down the hall in what was to be the guest bedroom with Mom and Dad as temporary, and very paranoid, guardians. I don't think Trent likes us, and seems particularly to distrust me.

After John left yesterday (before everything hit the fan), I started hoping he would ask me out for a date. Damn. If we do anything like that now, Mom would have a cow. Although the visual effect might be entertaining, the fallout would not. Just my luck. Quinn goes out on two or three dates a night. The one guy I might go out with, I can't even consider.

Early Sunday afternoon, John woke and scratched his chin. He proceeded to feel the whiskers on his throat and cheeks. "Damn, knew I would forget something." He dressed in his running gear of white shorts and red t-shirt and went to the bathroom.

As he washed his face and brushed his teeth, he noticed a bright pink razor on the counter next to the bathtub. He spat out the toothpaste and grabbed the razor. "That should work." He soaped up his face and removed the last few days' growth.

When he got downstairs, he saw that Jake had fallen asleep on the sofa while watching a football game. He didn't immediately see anybody else. Patting his pocket to make sure he had both house keys, he went out the front door and began a jog to the west. Might was well head over and see if Trent's still at the old place and see how he's doing.

He picked up a harder pace about halfway there. The beat of his footsteps soothed his mind. As he approached, he noticed the driveway was empty. The front door was unlocked and he yelled inside, "Trent!"

With no immediate answer, he went inside. Angry howls from two striped cats, one orange, the other gray, greeted him. I bet Trent forgot to feed them. "Taylor, Zachary, come on." The cats followed him into the kitchen, where both bowls were empty. He filled one with water and set it down; the cats went to it right away. He poured dry food into the other, and the cats changed their opinion on what was more important.

While the cats ate, he went upstairs to Trent's room. To his annoyance, his brother's belongings were gone. John went down to the basement; the band's gear was also gone. Frustrated, he went back to the kitchen. There was a stack of mail on the table, with a note beside it.

I'm staying with Monique for now. Found a letter from Mom, she'll be back end of next week. We need to get together then to find a place for everyone's stuff. Sorry I haven't been by, I miss you. I'm still working on things, don't worry.


PS Monique's place doesn't allow cats. Need to find a home for them.

"Well, I guess I better find out if the Morgendorffers like cats." He sat on the floor between them and scratched their heads. "Looks like you're getting new homes soon, too."

John pushed harder on his run back to Glen Oaks Drive, the last fifty yards at a sprint. After pausing a moment at the door to catch his breath, he went in. Jake was still asleep on the sofa and the game was in the halftime show.

He went to the kitchen and pulled a pitcher of water from the refrigerator. He tilted it back and drained half the contents in a series of rapid gulps. Still breathing hard, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and noticed Helen watching him from the table.

"John, around here, we do not act like barbarians. We drink out of glasses."

"Oops, sorry. Been out for a run and was thirsty."

"Still, drinking from the pitcher is not acceptable."

"I'll try to remember. With just me and Trent around, we didn't worry too much about things like that."

"You're still trying to adjust. I understand."

"We didn't have many rules before. Well, except the one about not starting fires in rooms without fireplaces."

"Somehow, I don't doubt that. However, you have been well behaved."

"No offense, but I know my staying here rides on that."

Helen observed his sweat-soaked clothes. "Are you on the track team?"

John laughed. "Put up with Coach Morris? No way."

"I'm starting to see you're as much of a joiner as Daria. No wonder you two get along."

"That could be it. By the way, do you like cats?"

John was still behind the curtain after finishing his post-run shower when he heard the bathroom door open. Crap! Forgot to lock the door.

Outside the shower, he heard Daria say, "Oh! Sorry, I didn't know you were here. The door wasn't locked."

He poked his head around the shower curtain. "My fault."

Daria's cheeks were pink as she turned away from his nude form blurred by the shower curtain. She quickly said, "Um, I'll let you finish," and bolted out of the room.

He toweled off. After changing into fresh clothes, he gently knocked on Daria's door. She answered, "It's open."

By quickly learned habit, he left the door mostly open when he entered. I don't want Mrs. Morgendorffer charging in again. "I should've locked the door."

"Let me guess: you're not used to having a working lock on the door."

He laughed. "Yeah."

"I…um, hope I didn't embarrass you."

"I think you were more embarrassed."

"That was the closest I've ever been to seeing a guy naked."

"Almost your first, I'm touched."

Daria groaned. "Thanks so much for your sympathy."

"Oh, I forgot my razor and used the pink one in there. You might want to change blades; I had a lot to hack away."

"That's Quinn's. I have an electric. She claims that they don't get as close, but it works fine for me."

"Should I tell her?"

"Nah, I will."

That evening, John and Daria were in the living room watching television with Jake, who asked, "John, who's your pick for the Super Bowl this year?"

John gave a one-shoulder shrug. "I don't follow sports."

Jake looked down. "Oh."

"I run. I follow that some."

A piercing scream came from the upstairs bathroom. Jake bolted upright and ran up the stairs. "Quinn!"

"What happened to my razor? Quinn yelled. "Argh! I won't be able to wear a short skirt all week!"

Daria snapped her fingers. "Darn. I knew I forgot something."

John raised one eyebrow. "Such sisterly devotion."

A gray striped cat jumped in his lap and stuck its nose in his face. John scratched the cat's head and said, "Taylor, you beasts better be on your best behavior, too. We're still on probation."

Jake grinned at the feline. "I'm glad you brought the kitties over. I wanted a cat as a boy." Jake's eyes narrowed to slits as his voiced raised quickly. "But, no! My foul-hearted father wouldn't allow it. 'Dogs are for boys. Cats are for girls.' Not that he would even let met get a dog! Probably because it would be too much like family for him."

Taylor looked at Jake and back away, under John's arm.

"Apologize I must, Sir. Mr. Lane checked out today," said the Icelandic desk clerk.

"Dammit. Where'd he go?"

"Do not know."

"Fine. Bye."

Trent dropped the phone on the cradle. "Mom will be here Friday."

John stood next to Daria while she sat on his bed, browsing a sketchbook. The afternoons were a little more relaxed since Jake and Helen accepted the reality that Jake couldn't keep coming home from work at 3:00 every afternoon.

Daria said, "These are really good. I didn't know you studied life drawing."

"Yeah, last summer."

Daria stopped at one page, surprised. "Oh. I'm a little surprised that they would have models like that."

John smiled. "She was a bit top heavy. I think she had them overdone."

"I meant, well, nude models."

"It was a life drawing class."

Trying to change the subject, Daria said, "Brittany invited me to her party."

"Speaking of overdone boobs. Are you going?"

"Sure, and after that, I'll swallow glass. Why, do you want to go?"

"Oh, no. I'd much rather stay here under the watchful eyes of your mother. I bet I could get some great sketches there."

"I'm sure there'll be plenty of people posing." Daria looked down at herself. "But, I don't think you will be able to pass yourself off as me."

He reached over and removed her glasses, putting them on. In an imitation of her voice, he said, "Hi, I'm Daria. Go to hell." He took the glasses off and handed them back to her. "It won't work. My face is too expressive."

"And you're a little tall."

Over dinner, Quinn complained to Helen, "Tell Daria she can't go to Brittany's party. My popularity is at stake."

Helen said, "Now, don't begrudge your sister a chance to expand her circle of friends."

"Maybe now she'll have two."

Momentarily impressed, Daria said, "Touché, Quinn."

Quinn said in frustration, "And don't think you're confusing me with that French. You should ground her because...her room is a mess!"

"If I go down for that one, I'm taking you with me."

"Wait, here's something worse. I asked her to do my homework for me, and she made me pay." After noticing the dirty looks from her parents, she added, "Never mind."

Helen smiled at the siblings. "I think it's great that you two are going to be spending time together. Dad and I would be happy to drive you to the party and pick you up."

Daria and Quinn said in unison, "No!"

As she got up to leave, Quinn said, "Thanks, but I'll find some other way to get there."

After Quinn was out of the room, Helen said, "Daria, I'd like it if you'd keep an eye on Quinn at this party."

"I don't know what I did, but it couldn't have been that bad."

John sat back and watched the exchange in mild amusement.

Helen proceeded with her case. "I mean it. And she doesn't have to know about it."

"Is this your way of acknowledging how much more mature and trustworthy I am?"

"It's my way of saying if you won't do it, I'm sending you both with a babysitter."

Jake perked up. "Hey, why don't we send John with to help?"

Helen stopped in confusion. "What?"

"Two eyes are better than one! Send John with to help keep an eye on Quinn. What do you say, there, John, my man?"

Okay, this man is more oblivious than Trent is. John kind of smiled and said, "Sure, I didn't have anything planned for Saturday." You're setting me up for a date with Daria, how could I say no?

Helen glared at Jake.

Jake grinned. "Okay, deal."

Helen's face sunk into her hand. "Jake."

"You know, babysitters are usually older than their charges," Daria said as she went upstairs with John.

Behind them, Helen's barely restrained voice said, "Jake, just what in the hell were you thinking about?"

John gave Daria a smirk. "Now, make sure you mind me. We don't want you getting into any trouble."

"Try that attitude again, and you'll need to have my boot surgically removed."

At the top of the stairs, John stopped. "I hope you don't mind that I agreed."

Daria suddenly felt shy. "I…guess not."

Immediately after getting back to the Morgendorffers' house after school on Friday, John changed into his running gear. He poked his head into Daria's open door. "I'm going for a run over to my old place. Hopefully, Mom will be there with Trent. We need to figure out what to do with everyone else's stuff."

Daria turned away from her computer to face him. "John, isn't it going to be awkward telling your mother that my parents have temporary custody?"

"Maybe, but I'm half-betting that Mom will give her butterfly speech."


Imitating his mother's voice, John said, "You know, if you try to hold a butterfly tightly in your hand, it will die. You have to let it go, and if it comes back, it is truly yours…"

"If it doesn't come back, hunt it down and kill it?"

"Good one."

Daria gently put a hand on his shoulder. "Please be careful."

"What's there to worry about?"

"Trent…when we were moving your stuff, he made it clear to me that he didn't trust me."

"I thought he was friendly enough."

"It happened when we were the only ones in your room. He said he'd be watching me."

"Oh. He's being protective. He'll come around."

"I hope so."

"But, I'll be careful."

John kept to an easy pace during his jog. He noticed Trent's blue Plymouth out front. One down. He went inside and yelled, "Trent, Mom!"

Both entered the living room from the kitchen. Amanda Lane was in her late forties, with light brown hair, and an aura of peace around her. "John." She lovingly embraced her youngest son. "How are you?"

John returned the embrace. "Okay, considering."

"Oh, yeah. Trent said you were visiting a friend."

John steadied his temper. Why does it seem like I'm the only adult around here? "Mom, Family Services is involved this time. A judge has granted the Morgendorffers temporary custody of me. I'm not visiting, I'm living with them. I don't have a choice."

"Oh, that's interesting. Are you enjoying yourself?"

Don't you get it? "Yes, they're nice people, and I've been better fed than I can remember. But, it isn't home."

Amanda looked around the room. "Well, this won't be home much longer. I never thought we'd stay here as long as we did."

"Mom, we still need to figure a place to move everyone's stuff."

"Oh, I know. Donna at the Ashfield colony has wanted me to stay for ages. We can take everything there."

John said, "Are you sure that's what she meant?"

"She'll understand."

"That's great. But, what about me?"

"There will be plenty of room for you."

Frustrated, he said, "Mom, didn't you listen? The Morgendorffers are my temporary guardians. I can't go with you."

"Oh, well then, I hope you can visit."

John dropped his head. "Fine, I'll try." We wouldn't want you to.

Amanda clasped her hands together. "Wonderful."

Trent saw his brother's expression and pulled him to the side. "You know how Mom can be. But, I've got a plan."

John looked at Trent blankly. "A plan, yeah."

"When I talked to Nick's lawyer, he said we could fight for custody. I can be your guardian."

"Nick's lawyer?"


"From his divorce?"


"The one that cost Nick the shirt off his back?"


"I know you want to help…"

"Johnny, they're trying to take you away!"

"Trent, I've gone a mile down the road, and they haven't tried to stop me from coming here."


"Please, don't try to do anything yet. We need to deal with…" A hard realization hit John and he spun to face Amanda. "Crap! Mom, you can't stay here."

She innocently asked, "Why?"

"If Family Services finds out you're in town, they might arrest you!"

"Oh, like when your father and I were arrested during those protests years ago? Sounds like fun."

"No, it won't be fun. Mom…Oh, forget it." He turned to Trent. "Please, get her on the way to Ashfield as soon as you can."

"The band's got gigs all weekend. It'll have to be Monday."

"Damn. Mom, stay with your kiln. Don't go out and around. Trent, don't tell anyone Mom's in town."

"The kiln…did I leave it on?"

John sighed. "I turned it off for you."

"Thanks." Amanda smiled again and headed for the basement.

No wonder I seem to get along with Mr. Morgendorffer. "Um…Trent. Could I ask a favor?"


"Can you give me a ride to a party tomorrow, over at Crewe Neck?"

"Whoa. Bet they have good munchies. Sure thing."

"Thanks, swing by about five?" I hope two hours lead is enough.

"I'm there."

"Cool. We better start getting this stuff packed."

"I bet we could use all those liquor boxes Old Man McGrundy throws out."

"Sounds good. We'll go get some now, and I'll come over tomorrow to start packing stuff. You get here…whenever."

Several hours later, it was starting to get dark and the air was turning chill. John set a fast past to keep himself warm, although the frustration helped with that. Abandoned. It does feel like that. I know Mom loves me, but it's like I'm barely in her thoughts. Hell, sometimes, I wonder if she has thoughts.

John cranked up the pace a little more. Did everyone else feel like this? Is that why they've scattered so far? Faster, he turned the corner onto Glen Oaks. The Morgendorffers may be screwy…but they do feel like a family. The red brick house came into view and John again sprinted the final distance. I want to stay with both.

John spent much of Saturday at his old house, packing the family belongings with a little help from Amanda and Trent. Wind and Summer were called and they agreed to pick up their remaining belongings the next weekend. Penny was still out of worldly contact; her stuff would have to go to Ashfield. John took one look at the garage and said, "No way am I going in there. If I don't mention the garage, I bet nobody else will."

While John was gone, Helen entered Daria's room and said, "Can we talk?"

Daria looked up from the bed, where she was reading. "I haven't figured out a way to stop you."

"Daria, about your date tonight."

"Clearly a new definition of 'date' that hasn't made it into the OED yet."

"Daria, I saw how John's eyes lit up. He's attracted to you, and I'm sure he's looking at it that way."

"Mom, okay, maybe it is a date. Quinn goes on two or three a night. Do you lecture her?"

"Well, no. But…"

"But, she's not going out with someone who lives here?"

"She's…not going out with a person who means something to her. I'm not blind; I can tell John means something to you. That can bring on…very different temptations."

Daria sighed in exasperation. "Please don't start the puberty speech. Do you trust me?"

"Of course."

"Okay. I trust him. We're alone here for a couple hours every afternoon. We damn well know better than to try anything. He is paranoid of doing something wrong and getting sent away."


"Plus, at the party, we will be in the company of several dozen others."

"But, parties tend to generate an atmosphere of excess."

"Except for sarcasm, have you ever known me to do anything to excess?"


"Remember also, we're going there to watch Quinn. I'd never forgive myself if I didn't take every opportunity to embarrass her."

Helen groaned. "Daria."

"Mom. I promise not to let anything happen. Worst case, I learned to fend off the Debauched Duo of Highland. Remember?"

"I've never heard of somebody successfully using two cans of mace on different targets at the same time."

"Aversion therapy works. They never tried again after that."

Trent parked in front of the Morgendorffer residence at about 7:10 that evening. About a minute later, John and Daria came out and approached the car. Trent muttered, "I should've known he'd be going with her."

John opened the door for Daria. She cautiously entered and sat in the middle of the front seat, then John entered and closed the door. "Thanks, Trent."

Daria nodded. "Yeah, thanks."

Trent mumbled, "Hi."

Daria tried to start a conversation. "Uh…John said you two succeeded in packing most of your old house today."


"Do you have any plans on where you are taking it?"


Daria inwardly groaned. I can see this is going nowhere.

The rest of the trip went in silence. Trent stopped outside the guard booth. "I have a problem dealing with authority. I'll let you off here."

John and Daria stepped out of the car. As Trent drove away, Daria said, "Nice conversation skills he has."

"He's got a lot on his mind. Um, I think you should know. I talked him out of trying to sue for custody."

"Custody? Where would he get money for a lawyer?"

"He didn't. He was going to use a free lawyer…who's not very good. That's why I talked him out of it. I didn't want any bad blood when he lost."

"Thanks. But it does confirm that…"

"He's worried about me. And confused. Give him time."

"If you say so."

"He's not a bad guy. Trust me?"

Daria sighed. "Deal."

She said to the waiting guard, "We're here for Brittany Taylor's party."

Bored, the guard looked at a clipboard. "Names?"

"Daria Morgendorffer."

After checking, the guard said, "Okay, and you? What's your name?"

"John Lane"

"Nope. Not on the list."

"I'm Daria's date."

"Well, Miss Taylor didn't remember to include your name."

Daria said, "Sir, how familiar are you with Miss Taylor?"


"Do you really think she has the capacity to remember all of the names of those coming to her party?"

"Hmm. You've got a point there. Well, Miss, you were on the list and a date makes sense, so go ahead."

Daria said, "Thank you."

A few minutes later, they were crossing the Taylors' front lawn. Daria looked uncertainly at the door. "You really want to do this?"

Getting to be with you is making up for how much the last two days have sucked. "You know, just because people are cliquey and snotty is no reason not to like them."

"Or hate them."

"Chin up, nose up, let's go."

Daria looked skyward in disbelief.

John grinned. "I've always wanted to say something like that."

The interior of the house looked like a demented attempt at an adventurer's club. Stuffed and ceramic wild animals were in great abundance. Brittany Taylor was an energetic girl with blond hair and highly noticeable proportions. "Daria, you're here, she squeaked. "I'm so glad. Now we're even!"

Underwhelmed, Daria said, "This is John. He wasn't invited."

"Oh, Daria! You found a date. Wow! Come on in!"

After that lukewarm welcome, the two were left by themselves. While they contemplated the relative merits of flat or ridged chips, a gawky, red-headed boy had approached Daria, but veered away when he noticed John. The same happened when two guys began to approach, one of which had a 'head too big for his body' look. Daria observed John from the corner of her eye. He makes a good moron repellent. A definite plus.

As the evening progressed, Daria enjoyed following and tormenting Quinn, making sure the three boys she had arrived with knew they were sisters, and shared some special sibling memories with them while Quinn was in the bathroom. Daria even managed to make a few dollars in bribe money off of an increasingly exasperated Quinn.

John yawned. "Why don't we wander a bit before making an unfashionable exit? Quinn isn't as interesting as I thought she would be."

"Sure. We haven't poked around the house enough yet. Who knows what other animal sacrifices decorate this abode?"

"Now, you're talking."

Over time, they opened a door to find the laundry room. A laundry hamper was tipped and clothes scattered on the floor. Daria rubbed her temple. "Headache." She closed the door behind her and sighed in relief. The reduced noise eased her pain.

John looked at the door. "Daria, do you realize that this is the make-out room?"

"I don't care; it's quieter." Daria looked at John with concern. "Oh. Um…please don't get any ideas."

"Can I have the ideas if I don't act on them?"

Daria relaxed at the humor. "I suppose you can." She leaned against the washer and closed her eyes. John stayed a couple feet away and waited.

It can't hurt. He moved over and carefully put an arm around her. She stiffened at first touch, before relaxing and leaning slightly against him. They stayed like that for several minutes before the sounds of fighting erupted in the house.

Daria roused and pulled away. "That doesn't sound good."

John cracked the door open and peeked out. "It looks two of Quinn's dates are pounding each other."

"Somehow, I'm not surprised."

"That exit I mentioned earlier? Now may be a good time."


The party's attention was diverted to the brawl between all three of Quinn's dates, Joey, Jamie and Jeffy. She sat on the stairs with a dreamlike grin on her face. "Guys, stop," she murmured.

John and Daria skirted around the crowd apparently unnoticed and made a quiet exit.

As they neared the guard booth, one of the residents was yelling at the Guard. "There's a wild party going on at Deerview Court! What are you going to do about it?"

The guard poked his head out. "About the same thing you could do on your own. Call the police. I'm not a real cop, you know. I've already turned away half a dozen kids trying to get in."

The man stormed away while the guard whistled and dialed. "Hey, Danny? Steve. Yeah, we got neighbors complaining about a party…Deerview Court…the Taylors' again…someone will be here in a few?…Thanks."

Daria nodded to the guard as they passed. "Couldn't help but overhear your call. Better ask for backup."

John cued in, "It's really getting out of hand. That's why we left."

The guard groaned. "Damn. Thanks. It's a pleasure to see some of you kids are still responsible."

John asked, "So, have fun?"

"Well, I didn't talk to a whole lot of new people, I made Quinn want to throw herself down a well, and we got extra cops called in to break up Quinn's riot." Daria cautiously moved her hand over to hold John's. "And you didn't try out any ideas. All in all, a great night."

John felt the warmth of her hand. A great night. A small tan sedan drove by and he said, "Wasn't the passenger in that car your sister?"

"Looked like it."

"What's she doing riding with Upchuck?"


"The redhead by the chips. Lawndale High's version of a small, leg-humping dog, and about as popular."

"I don't know, but it should be interesting finding out."

John looked down at their hands. "Uh-oh. If she saw this…"

Daria looked down. "Don't worry. One, threatening to tell Mom that her three dates beat each other up and she had to get a ride home from a fourth should keep her silence. Two, if this Upchuck is as unpopular as you claim, she'll never want word getting out she accepted a ride from him."

"Remind me not to get on your bad side."

"Three, Mom knows we like each other. I don't think she'll freak out if we hold hands, providing we otherwise behave."

Just before making the turn to get on Glen Oaks Drive, John stopped. "I have a question."


"Are…you the type to kiss on the first date?"

Daria's eyes flared in surprise. "I…um…no."

"Oh." John began to walk toward the house.

Daria stopped him. She had a mixture of reluctance and excitement crossing her face. "But, I would consider an invitation in to watch Sick, Sad World a date. So, this isn't our first."

It took several seconds for the information to register. John leaned down and gently kissed her. She softly kissed him back. They lingered for several seconds with eyes closed.

John caught his breath. Wow.

Daria blushed and stammered, "I…um…don't believe I just did that. But, I'm glad we did. But now, we better behave."

John walked beside her and inwardly beamed. Life just got even more complicated. Why aren't I worried?

Sunday morning, Vincent Lane paid the cab driver and hefted his luggage as he walked toward the front door of his home. As he reached the door, he heard a car in the driveway. Turning, he saw a police officer exiting a cruiser.

The officer said, "Vincent Lane?"


"Please stay where you are. You're under arrest for child abandonment."

Confused, Vincent stood still, smoke drifting up from his pipe. "Child abandonment?"

"Sir, please place the luggage on the ground and keep your hands where I can see them."

Vincent set the suitcases down and complied. The officer handcuffed him and removed the pipe. "Is your wife home?"

"I just got here; I don't know. What is all this?"

"I'm only serving the warrant. You can ask the D.A. for details."

As he put Vincent into the back of the car, Amanda opened the front door. "Hello?"

John placed the sketchbook down and took the phone from Daria. "Trent. What's wrong?"

Trent said, "They've been arrested."

"Crap! Dad, too?"

"Both of them. Look at what your girlfriend has done, now!"


"If you hadn't gone over here, none of this would have happened."

"How was I supposed to know? We were already being evicted. Somebody would have figured it out. I thought I was getting us help."

"Some help."

Getting angry, John snapped, "If you hadn't misplaced the mail, we would have found that notice sooner and I could have forged Mom's signature on a check. Don't give me any of that."

"Maybe, but you made certain."

"Trent, get it through your head. I was abandoned! They haven't been home more than a few months each in the last three years."

Helen rushed into the living room from the kitchen. "What is going on here?!"

John held a hand over the phone. "Mom and Dad were arrested."


He held still for a moment, gathering his thoughts and trying control his emotions. Back to the phone, John said, "Trent, can they get out on bail?"

"Not a chance. The judge wants a twenty G's each. Flight risk."

"I'm sorry. I really didn't mean for anything like this to happen." He fell back on the sofa in frustration, clutching the phone tight to his ear. "I only thought I was helping. I don't want them in jail."

Trent calmed himself. "Dammit. I know. They really are at fault, too. I just hate to see this. They're not cut out for prison."

Helen said, "May I?"

John tentatively handed her the phone. She said, "Trent, this is Helen Morgendorffer. Do your parents have a lawyer?"

"They have a public defender."

"Okay. Don't do anything. I will make some contacts tomorrow to find out what the situation is. Promise me."

"Yes, ma'am."


After Helen turned off the phone, John croaked, "We have to get them out."

Helen said, "We would need to get Family Services to drop the charges. That's going to be hard with the facts in the case."

Daria said, "Is it possible for them to plea bargain in some way?"

"With what? The case against them is damn clear. Unless the D. A. or Family Services has a reason to bargain, they won't."

"I might have an idea," Daria said.

John breathed out and said, "Let's hear it."

"I…it may be hard for you and Trent."

"Tell me. That's my folks in jail. I know that they haven't been around much lately, but I still love them."

"You mentioned butterflies earlier."


Daria swallowed. "In exchange for dropping charges and Trent not pressing his suit."

"I talked him out of that."

Helen responded immediately, "What suit?"

John told her, "Trent was thinking about suing you for custody. I talked him out of it."

Daria pressed her case. "The D. A. doesn't know. In exchange for that…" She swallowed again. "Your parents…agree to let you go."

In a raised whisper, John said, "What?"

"My parents become your permanent guardians. In the eyes of Family Services, you will end up in a secure home."

John looked down.

"From what I've heard from Mom and from what I've read, finding a solution without a trial is preferred. Hopefully, Family Services will be more concerned with your welfare than punishing your parents."


"They'll still be your family, just not the one you live with."

"Daria…you're asking a lot."

"I know. However, you'll be able to see them at times other than visiting hours."

John sat still in thought.

"And…you can stay here." In a whisper she added, "Close to me."

John touched her hand. "You drive a hard bargain. Now, convince everyone else."

Helen watched them intently before saying, "Daria, that could work…if we can get everyone on board."

"I hope so."

Helen picked up the phone and went into the kitchen, where she read a number off of a note on the refrigerator. "I'm calling that Mrs. Collins from Family Services, to see if we can get her cooperation."

John sat back on the sofa. "Jail. I know they must look awful, but they're not. They're just…themselves. I've always been kind of afraid to find out, but I think Mom," He tapped his head, "isn't all there."

Daria looked at him for a minute before she put an arm around him. He leaned against her and rested his head on her shoulder.

After Daria brought her other arm around, John felt some of the tension ease away. He closed his eyes and just sat still.

Helen meanwhile finished her conversation with, "I'm glad you agree. It has been an adjustment for all of us, but he's a good kid. Thanks. Bye." After turning off the phone, she went back to the living room, but stopped when she saw the two teens. It looked like Daria had just gently kissed the top of John's head as he rested in her embrace.

Oh, my! I need to be careful; she sincerely cares for this boy. Helen felt apprehension at seeing Daria attracted to him, but she was also pleased that her daughter hadn't turned into the cold, walled-off girl Helen had feared she would.

I haven't seen that tender look on her face since she was seven and rescued that baby bird. Even then, she knew how to do the right thing. She convinced Jake to ignore the old wife's tale and help her put it back in the nest. She watched that nest from her window until the chick was old enough to fly away.

Helen backed out of sight and intentionally kicked a cabinet before saying, "Dammit."

Daria gently shook John and whispered, "I think Mom's done on the phone."

John sat up and moved a couple inches away from her.

Helen started walking again and said, "Okay, we have the case-worker ready to help your plan. According to her investigation, it looks like the rest of your family isn't suitable, either."

John closed his eyes and shook his head. "Not really."

"I guess we have to convince Trent, next."

John got up from the sofa. "I better handle that. Besides, I'm the only one here that knows where Monique lives. I'll run over and…"

Helen waved a finger. "No. Jake will drive you over. I don't want you gone too long."

With a tilt of his head, John said, "Fine."

Helen went to Jake, who was sleeping on the remaining sofa section with Zachary purring on his stomach. Helen carefully moved the cat away and whispered, "It's for your own good." She then shook her husband. "Jake, wake up."

His eyes popped open and he jerked upright. "Sir! I…um…I didn't hear Reveille…I swear!"

"Jake…I'm not Corporal Ellenbogen."


"Yes, Jake."

"Must have dozed off."

"Jake, can you please drive John over to see his brother? It's important."

Daria asked, "Can I go with?"

Helen half-rotated and commented, "You can be convincing when you want to be. Okay, but I will talk to you later."


After they had left, Helen picked up John's sketchpad to look at the partially-finished portrait Daria had been posing for. It looks like he feels the same for her.

Jake parked in front of the small apartment building on the south side of town. The building was modest and clean, featuring small units for singles and couples. John and Daria went to one of the doors and knocked.

A tall, slender woman with black hair and numerous piercings answered. "Hey, John. Sorry to hear about your folks."

"Hi, Monique. This is Daria."

"Little Johnny's new girlfriend."

Daria sighed.

John said, "This is Monique. Is Trent here?"

"He's not in a good mood."

"We're hoping to improve it."

"Cool. Even me trying," Monique stopped herself before going into any detail, "never mind. I haven't been able to cheer him at all."

Trent sullenly sat on the threadbare sofa in the apartment. Furniture was sparse, but musical instruments, equipment and posters filled much of the space. He looked up and mumbled, "Hey."

John squatted in front of his brother. "Trent, we have a plan to get Mom and Dad out of jail, but we need your help. Please listen."

"I'm all out of ideas. Shoot."

Daria carefully explained the plan to Trent. He started to get agitated, but he calmed down as she explained. When Daria was done, he scratched his chin. "You say Johnny won't be stopped from seeing them or me?"

"That's what we want to work out."

"And you think this can get Mom and Dad out of trouble?"

"I hope so."

Trent looked at his brother. "I have to admit, the skinny little runt has packed on some weight already."

Daria pressed the point. "Trent, what'll be changed is his legal status. John will always be your brother. He still loves you. He's not going anywhere and, with luck, this gets the charges against your parents dropped."

"All this was your idea? To help our folks."


Trent viewed Daria in a new light. "You're pretty cool, for a high schooler."

Relieved, she said, "Thanks."

"Mo-om, I know you sent them to keep an eye on me at the party." Quinn faced her mother, who was sitting at the kitchen table.

Helen concentrated on her coffee; she already had enough on her mind.


Exasperated, she replied, "Yes, Quinn. I did."

"They didn't do a good job of it."

"Quinn, since when have you been worried about how well you were supervised?"

"Mo-om! They hung out in the make-out room and left when that big fight started. I had to find a way home by myself." Quinn shuddered. "Ugh, that Charles was so gross."

Helen looked up and set her teeth firmly together. "Did you say 'make-out room'?"

"It was really the laundry room, but that's what it was being used for…so I was told."

"Did you say a fight?"

"Yeah, a bunch of football players got in a fight and the police were called in. It was very traumatic."

Helen digested the information. "I'll have to talk to Daria, later."

"Good. She and that boyfriend of hers need a good talking-to."

"Quinn…why did you need a way home?"

"Because…" Quinn closed her eyes in frustration.

"Was your ride home involved in this fight?"


"I see. Now, tell me the rest of what happened."

Jake's voice announced their return. "I wrote a song once, back in military school."

Helen inwardly groaned. Oh, God.

His voice rose. "But, no! It wasn't good enough. As if songwriting started and…"

John interrupted. "You haven't heard Icebox Woman. I'm sure your song was better."

"Really? I'll have to see if I can find it for you."

"Sure, whenever you have time."

Jake jogged up the stairs. "I think I know where it's still at."

Daria looked up the stairs. "John, you may have created a monster."

"Oh, well." John looked back to the living room. "Trent likes the plan."

Helen walked over with a stern expression. "Good. Daria, I want to speak with you, now."

John sidestepped Helen's approach. "I'll…go raid the 'fridge."

Helen led her to Daria's room and closed the door. Turning, she said, "What's this about a make-out room at that party?"


"Start talking."

With a sigh, Daria said, "We found the laundry room and I closed to door to get some quiet; I had a headache. John reminded me it was the make-out room."

Helen's eyes opened wider.

"Before you ask, the only thing he did was put his arm around me."

"Is that all?"

"Yes." This looks like a time for pre-emptive information. "One the way home from the party…" Daria felt her cheeks warm with a blush. "…we kissed. Once."

"We'll deal with that in a minute. Now, what about this fight?"

Quinn. You will pay. Daria's faced hardened. "Quinn's three…yes, three…dates got into a fight. While she sat on the stairs, watching and grinning like an idiot. John and I decided to leave and walk home."

"Quinn and I have already discussed that little aspect of her evening, don't worry."

Sounds like Quinn opened her mouth a little too much. I'll have to remember not to give her as much credit for self-preservation.

Helen's mood turned blacker. "Let me understand correctly. You left her there? When you knew that a fight was going on."

Daria looked down. "Yes."

"Daria, I asked you to watch her. Walking away at the first sign of trouble is not what you were supposed to do. I'm very disappointed. Yes, I do expect you to be more responsible than your sister."

Daria frowned. "You got me there. I…damn." Daria's face scrunched in anticipation. "I wanted to walk alone with John."

"I wondered." New firmness entered Helen's voice. "I need to know, did John coerce you in any way?"

Daria shook her head. "No. He asked if he could kiss me. I said yes." Daria felt the blush returning. "Because I wanted to."

Helen put both hands on her daughter's shoulders. "Daria. I'm serious. Be careful. Despite your maturity otherwise, you're moving into completely new territory here."

"Mom, I think…"

"Daria. It's very easy, even for someone as intelligent and mature as you, to let emotions overrule clear thought in situations like this. You may find yourself not thinking."

"What about Quinn? She's going out all the…"

"Quinn is going out to be seen with arm candy. Those boys don't mean anything to her. But, I'm worried about her, too. Especially after this party."

"Mom, still. It was one, count it, one, kiss."

"I heard what you whispered to John, about staying close to you."

Daria looked down. "I was afraid you would. But, I wanted to reassure him."

"And, I saw how you looked, comforting John earlier today. He obviously means a lot to you. I also saw how he looked at you while working on that portrait. You mean a lot to him. That adds an emotional level that you haven't dealt with before."

"Mom, I…yes. I'm aware of some very new feelings for me. They are confusing at times. But the thought that John could get sent away scares me more. That keeps a lid on things."

"Daria, if your plan goes through, we won't be able to do that. Your father and I will be responsible for him. What then? I may need to reconsider your idea, in light of this new information."

Daria didn't have an answer.

Helen pulled her into an embrace. "You're not quite sixteen and more mature than most of the adults I work with. However, I know…" Her voiced dropped briefly. "…from experience…that emotions can overrule thinking. The boy you find attractive is living only one room down the hall. You're facing a level of temptation few ever deal with. Yes, I'm worried."

Daria considered the situation and ran many different possible outcomes through her mind. She hesitantly moved her arms around her mother's waist. "Mom, even though the thought of being…intimate…with someone scares the hell out of me, I…wouldn't mind some help with this. He does mean a lot to me. Please let him stay."

"Come in!" John called to the knock on the door. He looked over to see Helen enter. She just spent a lot of time with Daria. This may be bad. He cleaned his brush and set his palette down carefully.

Helen said, "John, we need to talk about last night."

"Mrs. Morgendorffer, it was all my idea. I…"

"Daria filled me in. But, she was a willing participant."

John looked around the room. Way to blow it, Lane. He felt sick to his stomach. "I'll start packing my stuff." He moved to get his suitcase.

Helen stopped him. "Not yet."

He looked at her expectantly.

"I'm going to take a huge risk on you and still try for the plea bargain to help your parents."

John visibly relaxed, but stood still, incredulous.

"I've seen that you are mostly a good young man. I cannot deny the attraction between you and Daria, and damn well know that trying to keep you apart will make matters worse. So, here's the deal."

Already dressed for school the next day, John waited for Daria to exit her room. "Morning."

"Morning," she said as she exited, also ready for school.

They both went downstairs, where a disconsolate Quinn waited at the kitchen table. Jake was hidden behind the paper and Helen was eating a bagel at the counter. They exchanged greetings with Jake and Helen, while Quinn stayed utterly silent. Each poured a bowl of cereal, sat at the table and began eating.

Helen kissed both girls and said, "Have a good day. John, I'll be meeting with Family Services today, and hopefully discuss things with your parents. Good bye."

"Good luck Mrs. Morgendorffer," John said in return.

Several minutes later, John and Daria picked up their backpacks and Daria said, "Okay, Quinn. Let's go."

Quinn pulled her long, red hair up under a cap and donned dark sunglasses. After picking up her backpack, she said, "Let's go. If I'm lucky, nobody will recognize me."

John and Daria allowed Quinn the lead as they walked to school. Daria whispered to John, "I wonder how long it will take anyone to realize that the girl in shades walking to school with us every day wears the same clothes as Quinn."

John chuckled. "With some of her friends, it could take a while."

Quinn complained, "Do you two have to walk so close?"

Daria said, "Yes, Quinn. That's the deal. We have to keep you under surveillance on the way to school. You go straight to your new babysitting job with the Guptys' after school."

Quinn produced a grim smile. "At least I'm not the only one."

Daria looked at John. "The price I'm paying to be with you."

He looked back. "The price I'm paying."

After school, Daria stood outside a door to one of the Lawndale High rooms. After my experience in Highland, I swore I would never do this again.

She gritted her teeth and went inside. Several students were gathered around tables, and Jodie Landon was sitting at a desk. Daria walked up to her. "I'd like to sign up to work on the school paper."

John stopped outside another office door. This is going to suck. But, it beats the alternative.

He knocked on the door. A woman's voice called, "Enter."

He walked in and said to the brunette woman inside. "Coach Morris, I'd like to sign up for fall track training."

Helen sat in the meeting room with Mrs. Collins. Next to her was the Lanes' Public Defender, Mr. James, a rotund man with black hair and a worn suit. At the far end of the large table was an Assistant District Attorney, Mr. Everett, a distinguished looking man in his fifties.

The Lanes, dressed in baggy orange jumpsuits, were brought into the room and seated in between. Vincent studied the room with unease. Amanda was visibly frightened and looked like she hadn't slept since her arrest.

"Now that we're all here," said Mr. Everett, "let's start the meeting. Mr. and Mrs. Lane, your counsel and a representative from Family Services would like to discuss a possible plea bargain with you. I'm going to step out of the room, so please let me know when you reach a decision." He nodded to all and left the room.

Mr. James spoke to the Lanes. "Amanda, Vincent. This is Mrs. Collins, the Family Services representative who handled your son's case. The other lady is Mrs. Morgendorffer, who, with her husband, has been granted temporary custody of John."

Vincent nodded to them.

In an incongruously calm voice, Amanda asked, "How is John?"

Helen said, "He's doing well."

"Oh, that's good. I hope he hasn't been a bother."

"Nothing I haven't been able to handle."

Vincent said, "I still want to know why we're here. John was left in the care of his adult brother, Trent. He was never abandoned. Our occupations require frequent and lengthy travel."

Mrs. Collins said, "John was not being supervised or fed properly. Are you suggesting that we should arrest Trent Lane instead?"

"No, I…" He looked around. "…don't want that."

Mr. James said, "We are preparing a deal. If you plead to a misdemeanor Child Neglect charge, with time served…" He looked at Helen. "…and sign guardianship of John Lane over to Helen and Jake Morgendorffer, the felony charges will be dismissed."

Vincent said, "Why should we do that?"

"As your counsel, I'm giving you my advice. Unless you have an utterly brain-dead jury, you will be convicted and John will be assigned to foster care or a group home anyway."

Mrs. Collins stepped in. "Mr. and Mrs. Lane, pending a judge's approval, the agreement will have no restriction on visitation rights. However, John's welfare will become the Morgendorffers' responsibility, not yours. Right now, his welfare is my primary concern."

Vincent shook his head. "How can you do this?"

"Because the D. A. is being very generous," Mr. James said.

"Was Trent doing that poorly of a job?"

Helen said, "He tried, but yes. Trent is a good brother, but not a good parent."

Vincent pounded the table, "Damn it all!"

Amanda jumped up at the sound and shrieked. Vincent followed and held her. "It's okay."

Amanda's eyes were pleading as she whimpered, "Get me out of here! I'm scared. They're mean."

Vincent held his wife and sat her down. "Take it easy."

"I don't want to go back there!" Amanda sobbed onto her husband's shoulder.

Vincent held his distraught wife until she settled down. He whispered, "Wait here."

Vincent moved over close to the others and said in a low voice, "Amanda has always been fragile, and she isn't taking things well. This is one horrible choice you're giving us, to allow my wife's psyche to be destroyed in prison or let our son go. Can't you keep John in the family? Have him stay with one of our other children?"

Mrs. Collins consulted a sheet of paper. "As I told Mrs. Morgendorffer when she proposed this deal, I'd already investigated your family, looking for a permanent home for John. Your son Wind is wanted for bigamy in two states. Your daughter Summer has been investigated by child protection agencies in three states, and currently two of her four children are listed as runaways. Daughter Penny's whereabouts are unknown, possibly in Nicaragua. Son Trent is underemployed and living with his girlfriend in an efficiency apartment with nowhere near the financial capacity to support a third party. His paternal grandmother outright refused custody, and his maternal grandparents are dead."

Vincent dropped his head to the table. "Do any of you know how expensive it is to raise five children?" He looked up. "We were so far in debt; when Trent turned eighteen, we started taking every job we could, no matter where it was. We thought, with him at home to watch John, things would be okay." He dropped his head again. "We really haven't been good parents, have we? Maybe we were just running away."

Amanda quietly joined them, an odd look of peace in her eyes. "We love John." She looked down at her cupped hands, resting on the table. "But, we made mistakes." She opened them again. "So, we must let him go." A tear rolled down her cheek.

Vincent looked into his wife's eyes, and then at her hands. "We agree."

"It helps to imagine my track spikes landing on Ms. Morris's backside with each step." John's hair was still wet from his after-practice shower as he held hands with Daria on the way home from their after-school activities.

"I'll have to remember that. At my end, I had to ask Jodie, 'Do you really want me talking to the public as an official representative of the paper?' She quickly agreed to let me write a column instead of doing any actual reporting."

"Good one."

Daria shook her head. "Talk about your unintended consequences."

"Yeah, who would've thought a simple kiss would lead to extracurricular activities?"

"Wholesome ones, that is."

"This certainly isn't giving us time for 'unwholesome' ones."

"John, I'm a little glad for that. Mom was right; we could have done things…without thinking."

"I can deal with having to wait. I'll admit that running helps to wear off some frustration. As long as I can still have ideas."

She gave him a slim smile. "So will I." Looking ahead, she saw both cars in the driveway. "I see Mom and Dad are home. This could be good or bad. Better be prepared." Daria looked around. After seeing nobody visible, she quickly gave John a kiss. "For luck."

"You better not turn out to be my long-lost sister." He kissed her back. "Thanks."

They continued and entered the house. John smiled with pleasure to see his parents sitting in the living room with Jake and Helen. "Mom, Dad."

Helen was on her cell phone. "I'm sorry, Susan. We can't make it over tonight…It's a long story…Yes, I'm sure Ramona misses seeing everyone…Bye."

Amanda and Vincent came to him, Amanda giving him a hug. "I'm sorry, John."

Vincent laid a hand on his shoulder. "It wasn't easy, but we accepted the deal. This weekend, we'll take everything to Ashfield, to live there. You'll stay with Jake and Helen. We think you'll be better off. I'm sorry we weren't there for you."

John was relieved and disappointed. "I'm glad you're out of jail. I just wish it never had to come to this."

Amanda held his cheeks in her hands. "We'll come back to see you. We're still yours."

"I'm still yours."

Amanda looked at Daria. "Hi."

She said, "Hi, Mrs. Lane. Too bad we couldn't have met under better circumstances."

"We met the way we were meant to, and my youngest butterfly has a new home."

After saying goodnight to everyone, John closed the door and stuffed a towel along the bottom edge of the door to prevent any light from shining out of his room. His muse was kicking, and he knew better than to deny it. He set up a fresh canvas and prepared his palette.

In the dim hours of the morning, he cleaned his brush and stepped back. In the darkness, a butterfly rested on a slender branch, illuminated by a shaft of light from the rising sun.

He heard a soft knock on the door. Shoot. He quietly opened it.

Daria was outside, wearing one of her t-shirt-and-shorts combinations for sleeping. Her hair was mussed and uncombed. "Are you okay?" she asked.

John stepped back to let her in. "Yes. Just doing some painting."

She looked at the painting and understood. "That's beautiful."

John moved his arm around her. "So is life."

Dialog from:
Esteemsters by Glenn Eichler
The Invitation by Anne D. Bernstein
The Road Worrier by Anne D. Bernstein
Lane Miserables by Anne D. Bernstein
One J at a Time by Ron Corcillo and A.J. Pouli
Based on transcripts available at Outpost Daria.

Diary quote from The Daria Diaries by Anne D. Bernstein.

January 2005

Thanks to The Angst Guy, Kristen Bealer, and ipswichfan for beta reading.