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Io non so ben ridir com’ i’ v’intrai
tant’ era pien di sonno a quel punto
che la verace via abbandanoi
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Several people deserve recognition for their contributions to the creation of this story. The incomparable C.E. Forman for graciously allowing me to borrow the character of Daria’s Great Aunt Eleanor. It would have been a casting nightmare without that ex-character to draw on. And to (Ann) Diane Long for proofreading services and invaluable observations. Di’s always been there with a helping hug. Stave Five is for you, Diane. Also, a warm thank you to the denizens of Outpost Daria, and all you other Internet dwellers who give me the confidence and support I need to keep going. Last but not least, I would like to pay tribute to the singular Mr. Dickens, without whom none of this would have been possible.

Be sure to check out the notes after the story for more observations on the text. As always, feedback is greatly appreciated.

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I have always loved Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” I have since childhood, when I was both enthralled and terrified by the Disney adaptation. Now, more than a decade later, I’m still fascinated by the complexities of this tale.

Most of us have probably been exposed to this story in one form or another. There have been countless television and movie adaptations, ranging from Disney animation to The Muppets. However, I’m willing to wager that few of us have ever bothered to read the book. What Dickens brings out more than any filmed version is an inherent darkness. Like Dante, Scrooge must weather the black recesses of his own soul before he can begin his acts of self-improvement.

Therein lies the universality of the tale. What many fail to realize is that “A Christmas Carol” is not about Greed, and it is not about Charity. It is, at heart, a story about self-improvement; the identification and correction of inner flaws. Herein lies it’s marvelous versatility. Not everyone can identify with Scrooge’s miserly ways -- but every living person has flaws. Greed is not the only self-destructive motive. Selfishness wears many masks ... and extended cynicism is one of them. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.

It is this universal application that I find so intriguing about “Christmas Carol.” This story is not the first time I have endeavored to find value in the reinterpretation of Dickens’ classic. In High School, I wrote an award-winning one-act play called “A Christmas Carol Revisited” that followed Scrooge beyond the grave to find the spirits of Christmas disillusioned and depressed. I intended it to be thoroughly cynical, but it somehow morphed to an optimistic finish. I have also co-scripted a Star Trek-based spoof for me and my friends, but that’s another story. And, of course, I’m a big fan of modern interpretations like Bill Murray’s excellent movie “Scrooged.”

So why give Daria the Scrooge treatment? Simple answer: she needs it. Be realistic now. If you’ve ever been around a perpetual cynic, especially one with a handle on sarcasm, you’ve surely seen them go to far. It’s grating, it’s annoying, and ultimately self-destructive. Moderation in all things is a virtue -- attitude not the least of these. This fiction is a reminder of that, and attempts to expand on some of the themes brought up in the episode “Write Where it Hurts.”

I tried very hard not to go too far. If Daria the character is to undergo a transformation of such weight and importance, I’d very much like to see it explored in a more “ground-based” fic. Therefore, do not consider this a challenge to canonical development, but rather an isolated experiment in character. I have endeavored to maintain realism and truth of character. Despite this, I’m certain that I’ve flirted with melodrama too much to please everybody. Indeed, many will probably hate or disagree with my depictions. Very well. That’s your prerogative. In the meantime, those of you willing to take a chance on it (regardless of religion or creed) play a few holiday tunes, make yourself a mug of hot cocoa, and settle yourself down. To throw out a cliche, the season of Love is never far away if you keep it in your heart. Enjoy.

January, 2000

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Eleanor’s Ghost
The First (Two) of the Three Spirits
The Second of the Three Spirits
The Last of the Spirits
The End at Last
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Eleanor’s Ghost

Eleanor was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. The register of her cremation was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the warring siblings, and the chief mourner who was the youngest niece of the three.

Great-Aunt Eleanor was as dead as dirt.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about dirt. It teems with all sorts of bacteria, paramecium and the general sort of stuff that suffers the flowers to grow when they are not overtaken by the choking weeds, which I suppose bring death after all. You will therefore allow me to repeat, emphatically, that Eleanor was as dead as dirt.

Daria knew she was dead? Of course she did. How could it be otherwise? She’d attended the funeral after all. She’d stood by her Aunt Amy and stared into the flames with the knowledge that the dearly departed had borne the cynicism of countless generations and that she, Daria, was a part of that tradition.

The mention of Eleanor’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Eleanor was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

Oh! but she was a sharp one, Daria! a quick-witted, sly, sardonic, sarcastic, observant, intelligent young cynic! Biting and ruthless and acid-tongued. Her eyes were clever beneath thick-rimmed lenses, her hair plain and her face devoid of makeup. Her mouth was turned down in a perpetual frown, a neutral expression at the best of times, and her manner of dress was both boring and drab.

The outside world had little influence on Daria. No populist view could sway her thoughts, no conformist hope to gain her sympathies. She took no interest in the world and the world took no interest in her. At her school she was a “brain,” in her home a misfit, and everywhere alienated.

But what did Daria care? It was the very thing she liked. To edge her way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human emotion to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call “loser” to Daria.

Once upon a time -- of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve -- Daria sat busy writing in her bedroom. There was no sign of Christmas in the room, despite the day’s proximity. The poster depicting the desecration of Dante’s grave was unbalanced by any sort of holiday cheer that might otherwise have occupied the padded walls, and no ornamentation graced the windows.

It was cold, bleak, biting weather, and Daria could hear her family downstairs complaining loudly, coughing and whining about the chill. It was early evening, but it was quite dark already. It had not been light all day in Lawndale, and what glow existed came from numerous street lamps and porch lights, shining through the thick fog.

The door to Daria’s room was closed, the better to avoid accidental contact with her family. Nonetheless, her parents had refused to allow her a lock, frowning as they did on Daria’s self-imposed isolation. So when Helen knocked on the door with a quiet “Daria?” she sighed and invited her inside.

Helen walked in, frost still apparent in her amber hair and her face yet flushed from the winter air, and eyed the room’s morbid decoration distastefully as she always did, before seating herself at the foot of Daria’s bed.

“Daria, we should talk,” she said.

“Should we?” Daria asked innocently. “Doesn’t that usually create more problems than it solves?”

“Daria ...” Helen sighed in exasperation.

“Perhaps we should adopt the charade system. I hear it works well for gorillas.”

“It’s Christmas, Daria ...”

“So that’s why there’s a Santa Claus at every street corner.”

“... and I want to talk to you,” Helen finished, making an admirable effort to ignore her eldest daughter’s sarcasm.

“So we’re talking.”

“Yes. That’s good. It means we’re communicating.”

“Well one of us is,” Daria muttered.

“I want to talk to you about gift-giving this year.”

Daria shook her head and fell back against her pillow. “We discussed this already, Mom. We inevitably end up getting each other things we hate. We usually end up exchanging it, negating the whole ‘gesture’ theory. The shallow notion that a present has to be ‘picked out’ overrules the practicality of a person getting exactly what they want.”

“But Daria ... giving money ... it’s so ...” she searched for the word. “Clinical,” she finished.

“Look, I don’t know about you, but I would rather have a sure thing, as opposed to banking on the hope that you get lucky picking me something out.”

Helen frowned. “Well you certainly aren’t making it any easier on us.”

Daria smirked. “Why should I?” That was all the motivation Helen needed to shake her head and leave the room. Still, she managed a slightly bitter “Merry Christmas” as she shut the door behind her.

“Bah humbug,” Daria said to the empty room.

*        *        *
“So Daria, home for the holidays?”

“The whole family,” Daria said. “No vacation this year. How about the wandering Lanes?”

“Still wandering,” Jane said. Jane was undoubtedly used to her family being absent for most of the special occasions in her life, but Daria still detected a note of disappointment. “But don’t worry. Their nomadic habits will serve them well in the coming apocalypse. I don’t suppose you’d care to spend Christmas with your best friends?”

“Friends plural?”

“My brother counts as a friend!” Jane protested.

“Hmm,” Daria said thoughtfully. “I hate to extend myself that far. How about ‘not an un-friend?’ ”

“Damn, Daria, that’s generous of you. You’ve only known him, what, a couple of years now?”

Daria frowned. Jane was her best friend, and their chief activity was exchanging gratuitous sarcasm. But tonight, Daria could sense a touch of bitterness lacing the otherwise casual banter. It was an edge that appeared from time to time when topics of a sensitive nature arose. It left a sour taste in her mouth. Why do the ‘Holidays’ always bring out the worst in people? she wondered to herself.

“Look, Jane, I’m sorry. But my family wants me here. Maybe I could get it so you could come over here.”

“Thanks, but we’ll survive,” Jane said shortly.

Uncharacteristically, Daria was short for words, and found her only voice in a mumbled good-bye. Hanging up the phone, she felt a twinge of guilt. Shaking it off, she got up, resolving to see if there was any leftover food that looked edible in the refrigerator. Dammit, she reassured herself, why should I feel guilty over Jane’s family problems?

Strangely, the thought failed to comfort.

Daria had not yet made it to the kitchen when the doorbell rang. A quick glance around was enough to ascertain that her family was nowhere nearby. So she answered the door, having to squint for several seconds at the blast of cold air that assaulted her face before she could make out the two figures standing on the doorway.

“Hi Daria!” squeaked an excited voice.

“Whoa! You live here, Daria?”

Daria blinked, filled with depressing recognition. “Yes, Kevin. I live in a house. And what’s more, it’s the same house you’ve been to. Several times. Hello, Brittany. What brings you here?”

“Um ... my shoes,” Kevin answered, pointing at his feet. Daria looked down. It was only then she noticed that Kevin was still wearing his football uniform ... and nothing else. Brittany had at least had the common sense to put on a warm coat, and earmuffs nestled beneath her buoyant blond pigtails. Despite his dopey grin, Kevin was shivering. Daria frowned. It was hard not to pity someone so stupid. Hard, but not impossible.

“We’re collecting toys for poor kids!” Brittany chimed in, stepping back to reveal a cardboard box behind them, filled with toys of varying conditions.

“I see,” Daria said flatly. “And you came to me. Sorry. I don’t have any toys.”

Brittany’s face fell, the tired bags beneath her eyes suddenly apparent. “But ... I mean, Daria ... every one has toys. You’ve got to have, like, Barbies or something.”

Daria shook her head. “Not a one. Quinn might, but I don’t think she’s done with them yet. Better luck next house.”

“But ...”

Brittany did not get the chance to finish, as Daria had shut the door. She rubbed her arms for warmth as the last vestiges of the chill dissipated throughout the room. If Kevin and Brittany wanted to freeze on her doorstep, they were welcome to do so.

Now even the casual reader might suppose at this point that Daria had allowed her opinion of the duo’s intelligence to cause her to overlook the fact that they were engaging in a selfless and charitable act on this eve of eves. But as it is the season of good-nature, let us be sympathetic and take into account the fact that Daria was distracted by the sight of the Christmas tree in the living room. Tastefully decorated (chiefly by Quinn, master of all things color-coordination) it was eight feet high, and tapered from a lovely apex to a broad circumference that fanned out two feet above the ground, beneath which ... was nothing. Daria walked over to the tree, fished into her pocket, and withdrew three envelopes, which she proceeded to drop beneath the pine branches. She nodded in satisfaction. “The gift that keeps on giving,” she quoted to herself.

A pang of hunger assailed her, and once more she turned resolutely to the kitchen. The journey was without incident this time.

It should be noted that the Morgendorffer refrigerator had not been replaced since the day that had moved to Lawndale from Highland. It should more importantly noted that while very much went onto the surface of the appliance, very little was ever taken off. It inevitably happened that some cluster of post-it notes or tired magnet would drop off at any random moment. So it was that the moment Daria’s hand touched the door handle a particularly thick cluster of restaurant brochures dislodged themselves, revealing a photograph she could not recall having ever seen before.

The first thing that struck her about the photograph was that it showed her smiling -- a strange enough thing. It had been taken years ago, probably her last year in Highland judging by the black top and pendant she was wearing. It had probably been one of the first objects affixed to the door. Daria squinted at the picture. There was something else strange about it ... the harder she looked, the more defined it became, ‘til the lines on her face became suddenly harder, her eyes sharper. And then Daria started backwards with a gasp of shock, for the image that had moments ago been hers had been transmuted into the steely visage of her Great Aunt Eleanor. There was no mistake about it.

As she looked fixedly at this phenomenon it was her own face again.

Now Great Aunt Eleanor had been dead for more than a few months, and Daria did not think of her often. To say that she was not startled, or that an indescribably queer sensation was rippling down her spine would be untrue. It was with great surprise that she be confronted with so vivid an image in such an unexpected place and fashion.

Daria blinked twice, rubbed her eyes, and reexamined the photograph. It was now unquestionably her own face. She shook off the disorienting feeling and took a step back to massage her temples. Suddenly, she wasn’t quite so hungry.

She made her way back up the stairs cautiously, for the house seemed suddenly and unnaturally quiet. The first passage of  “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” sprang into her head. Not a creature was stirring ...

“Humbug!” she said aloud. The sound of her voice startled her, and she quickly slipped inside her room and locked the door. With a creepy sense of paranoia, her eyes flitted around the room. No matter where she looked, she could not help but envision the penetrating eyes of Eleanor looking back at her. Cursing herself for her irrational behavior, she forced herself to look under her bed and inside her closet.

Nothing greeted her, of course, apart from the usual clutter. Nodding in satisfaction, she gained enough confidence to dim the lights and prepare herself for bed.

It happened as she pulled on her long nightshirt. The moment before the hem obscured her vision, the room was empty; the moment her eyes cleared the neck, it was occupied. With a small cry of alarm, Daria stumbled backwards into her bed, fumbling for her glasses, which she had moments ago removed. The lenses confirmed what her mind had already told her, but what she had refused to believe. There was no mistaking the spectre that glowed transparent before her.

It was Eleanor, just as she had appeared at her funeral.

“Aunt ... Aunt Eleanor!” Daria stammered (Daria could not recall stammering before in her entire life -- a detached part of her mind registered it as a curious experience.)

“Boo,” said Aunt Eleanor. Then grinned.

Daria was briefly taken aback. “Boo?”

The spectre of Aunt Eleanor laughed; a faintly hollow sound. “Well what were you expecting from a ghost? I suppose I could rattle around some chains and call out Daaaaariaaaa, but what’s the point, my dear? All that posing ...”

“You’re ... you’re ...”

“Dead?” Eleanor snorted. “Posh. I’ve never felt better. You, my dear grand-niece, are another matter.”

“But that’s ...”

“Impossible? Yes, yes ... well you’re supposedly the bright one. Haven’t you read Dante? Dickens?”

Daria nodded blankly.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, stop gawking,” Eleanor snapped.

Daria suddenly relaxed. “You’re a dream,” she said knowingly.

“Wake up,” Eleanor challenged.

Daria couldn’t.

The spirit smirked. “Fine then. Write it off as your imagination, or repressed consciousness -- a dream if you like, but you might as well take hold of your senses! I’m not here on a pleasure cruise, you know. Honestly, I don’t really care if you ‘believe’ in me or not. I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Aunt Eleanor? It's ... it's really you?”

“Ellie, please. And I though we’d established that, dear.”

“I was at your funeral!” said Daria, still not quite certain of herself.

“I know,” Eleanor nodded. “You and Amy both. I was there, remember.”

Daria grimaced. “Well you weren’t exactly making good conversation.” She gasped and covered her mouth. The sarcasm had just slipped out. But Eleanor only smiled.

“Now that,” she said, pleased, “is the Daria Morgendorffer I expected to find.”

Daria took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Why ... why are you here?” she asked, politely as she could manage, eyes still closed. “I mean ... why come haunt me. You are dead ... aren’t you?”

Abruptly, Eleanor glided across the room towards Daria, who reflexively jerked back, trembling. The shade leaned forward with a grin that could only be described as devious. “In a sense,” she whispered. “In a sense ... I am very much alive,” Her spectral face was inches from Daria’s own. “You are closer to death than I.”

Daria turned cold all over. “What do you mean?”

“You’re quite the young cynic, aren’t you, Daria? Just like Amy. Just like me.”

Daria nodded.

“Proud of that, eh? Don’t bother answering -- I know I was. Well good for you. You should be.” Eleanor’s eyes narrowed. “But pride leads to carelessness. Vanity. Remember what Francis Bacon said -- I trust you’ve read him?” Daria nodded, mute despite this. “Excess caused the angels to fall. Let alone man. You stand at the edge of a precipice, Daria! An abyss of unhappiness! A pit dug of your own coldness!”

Something ignited in Daria at this statement; something angry and hard, and for a moment she forgot that she was speaking to her dead aunt’s ghost. “Now hold on a second! I am not the ‘misery chick.’ It’s not my fault the world is so shallow! Who are you to criticize? You said it yourself: I’m just like you!”

Eleanor’s scowl was more than a match for Daria’s. “Yes,” she said coldly. “Just ... like ... me. Drowning in your own shallowness!”

Daria gaped. “Shallow? You want shallow check down the hall!”

“Don’t get smart with me, young lady! Depth doesn’t come from books. It doesn’t come from intellect. The Human experience must be your teacher ... and you have forsaken it. That’s why you need this so much. That’s why you will be haunted this night.”

Daria raised an eyebrow “Haunted? What do you call this.”

“By four spirits!” Eleanor continued, overpowering Daria with her tone. “Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. Spirits given form by the design of your own mind.”

“You mean like the Dickens?”

“Exactly like the Dickens!” Eleanor said with an emphatic smack of her right fist into her palm.

“Actually, I never read it,” Daria said dryly. “Too busy with other things. But I think I’ve seen enough corny TV adaptations and reworkings to know that there are supposed to be three spirits, aren’t there?”

Eleanor’s grin was decidedly sadistic. “Yes, well ... in your case, the first two couldn’t be separated. Good-bye, Daria,” she said with finality.

And abruptly, the room was plunged into darkness. Daria scrambled backwards fully onto the bed, pulling up her feet and peering into the darkness on all sides, searching for shades of grey. She found none; the darkness was absolute “Aunt Eleanor?” she asked quietly. “Ellie?”

And then there was a sound.

“Huh huh huh!”

The First (Two) of the Three Spirits
As if the darkness had never been, Daria’s desk lamp once more cast it’s glow over the small room ... and it’s three occupants. If Daria had been having a difficult time reconciling the shade of her deceased great-aunt, she was having an even worse time of it believing the presence of the two who now shared her bedroom.

“Whoa!” said Beavis. “Check it out, Butt-head! It’s, like, Diarrhea!”

“Huh-huh. Diarrhea.”

Daria blinked. She rubbed her eyes. She turned to try pounding her head against the wall, but remembered that the walls were padded. Swearing softly, she turned back to the center of the room. The duo was still there, wearing the same ratty T-shirts they had always worn; Beavis with his shock of yellow hair, and Butt-head with his tangle of brown. Butt-head still had his braces. Daria figured he’d forgotten they were designed to eventually be removed. Of all the rotten -- she though miserably. Damn, Aunt Ellie, that was a cruel joke. Of all the people from my past ... why not Mr. VanDreissen? Why not Stewart? Why not ANYone but ...

“Beavis! Check it out!” Butt-head was taking stock of Daria’s room. “Padded walls ... and there’s bars in the window ... you’ve, like, even got bones and stuff. Uh ... uh-huh huh ... this room kicks ass.”

“Yeah!” Beavis affirmed heartily, eyeing the models on top of her dresser. “It’s, like, got cheese. And there’s a skull on the floor! Mhehheh.”

Daria sighed in disgust, shaking her head at how quickly she had fallen back into the same old Highland routine. She’d though she’d left that part of her behind years ago. “They’re not real, guys. It’s an anthropological kit.”

“An-thro-po-mogical,” repeated Butt-head, sounding out the syllables.

“I think she means, like, the study of monkeys. M-heh. Sumthinlikethat.”

Daria raised an eyebrow. “Not exactly ... but still, unusually impressive ... for you.”

Butt-head was also impressed. “Uh ... huh-huh. ‘Monkey.’ Uh huh-huh huh.”

There was a long silence. Daria was the one to break it.

“Well?” The twosome responded to her question with their usual vacant stares.

Butt-head broke the silence. “Uh ... what?”

Daria rolled her eyes. “You’re here to show me my past, right? Not to stand there and remind me of how incomparably stupid it was.”

“Ohhhh yeah,” Beavis muttered. “Oh yeah. Heh heh. See the light! Mheh eh heheheh!” Beavis delved into his pocket and retrieved a cigarette lighter, and proceeded to flick a small flame into existence. “Heh heh. Fffire!”

Daria squinted. The light was surprisingly bright. “Um ... Beavis? You want to put that out before my whole room ...” In a flash, the light shot out in all directions to fill the room. “... burns down ...” she finished. The light faded as quickly as it had grown. Except the three were no longer in Daria’s bedroom. Instead they were in the front room of ...

“Highland,” Daria said with disgust. “Home again.”

“Whoa!” said Butt-head. “A party!”

He was right ... although it wasn’t a party, exactly. Rather, a small group of toddlers were milling about the living room. Daria didn’t recognize most of them, but two at least were familiar. Next to the Christmas tree, baby Butt-head was amusing himself by knocking two wrapped presents together. Over at the coffee table, baby Beavis, clothed only in a diaper, was grasping for a bottle of juice. None of the infants looked up as Daria approached, and she assumed her presence was undetectable.

Something was missing, Daria realized. It was her house ... but there was no sign of her. She had no memory of the event. So where was she?

Then she heard a cry from the kitchen. Leaving Beavis and Butt-head giggling in at the front door, she moved to investigate. It was her mother, simultaneously talking on the phone, stirring some sort of recipe, and dressing the infant who lay on the table. Her hair was longer, reaching down to mid-back, and she was dressed in casual, almost Christmasy clothes as opposed to her usual business outfit. Moving closer, Daria was surprised to find that the diapered infant on the table was her!

“What can we learn from this?” Daria muttered, in a bitter attempt to gloss over the surreal nature of the moment.

“Oh, yes, Willow,” Helen was saying into the phone. “They’re all so cute crawling around in their Christmas outfits ... oh, there’s one or two little miscreants in the bunch. It’s adorable the way they try and talk.” Helen set down the bowl and began sorting through a pile of baby clothes. Daria nodded to herself as her mother paused over a green shirt ... but was surprised when she passed over it in favor of a bright pink dress. Daria suppressed the urge to gag as her mother slipped the outfit over her infant self.

I probably spit up all over it, she predicted. Much to her surprise, the infant Daria actually gurgled in delight and began playing with the hem. Daria’s eyes widened. “Yes,” Helen was saying, “Daria’s just the cutest one in the whole bunch. Yes I will. Yes, good-bye.” Helen hung up the phone and picked up her daughter, who clapped her hands excitedly. “Let’s go meet your party, guests, sweetie,” she cooed. Daria grimaced as she followed her mother back to the living room.

Helen set Daria down and sighed as she walked over to where baby Butt-head had managed to get his overlarge head stuck inside one of the boxes he had cracked open. Nearby, Beavis had obtained the bottle of juice he had been so determined to reach, and was guzzling it down. Helen snatched it away from him. “Naughty, naughty,” she scolded. “That’s not for you! Little Stewart needs his extra-calorie bottle.”

Daria was staring in amazement at the center of the room as the other children flocked around the host of the party. The young Daria beamed.

“Hey, Daria,” Butt-head said from behind, causing her to jump. “You were, like, popular and stuff.”

Daria nodded blankly. “I don’t remember any of this. As far as I can remember, I was born bitter and resentful.”

On the floor, baby Beavis had stopped shaking and pulled his diaper over his head, gurgling maniacally to himself.

“Uh ... it wasn’t always that way, Daria,” Butt-head said. “Things changed. Huh huh. Yeah.”

“Quinn,” Daria murmured. A heavy feeling drifted over the room, and the scene before her eyes flashed forward in a distorted blur. This time her young self looked to be almost three years old. But she wasn’t in the center of the room anymore. Instead, she was sitting alone in one corner of the couch, glaring at her former position, which was now occupied by the adorable red-haired vision that was Quinn. She smiled, she burbled, she clapped her hands -- the living definition of  “adorable.”

On the couch, the toddler versions of Beavis and Butt-head clambered up to sit next to the pouting Daria.

“Hey, Daria,” said young Butt-head. “Your sister’s, like, pretty cool.”

“Yeah!” echoed young Beavis. “Maybe you could, like, bring her over sometime. Heh heh. That’d be cool. We could, like, teach her to hit stuff! Mheh.”

“Huh-huh. Yeah. How come you’re not cool like that anymore, Daria? You won’t even stomp frogs with us.”

Daria’s younger self merely scowled harder.

“Huh-huh. Bet you wish you were her right now.”

That got a reaction. “I do not!” Daria exploded. But within seconds, she was off the couch and marching across to her younger sister. Quinn was playing happily with a stuffed bear that the older Daria did recognize. “That’s mine,” she told her spirit companions. Daria’s younger self shared the assessment. Her solution was to yank the stuffed animal from her younger sibling’s clutches. Lip trembling, Quinn broke out into a loud wail that Daria knew too well. In an instant, Helen was in the room and at Quinn’s side.

“Daria!” she scolded. “What did you do to your sister?” Still bawling, Quinn pointed at the bear.

“It’s mine!” Daria said stubbornly.

Helen reached down and plucked the bear from Daria’s arms. “You can share with your sister. This party belongs to both of you.”

Young Daria’s response was to stalk angrily back to the couch. “Not my party,” she said softly. “All hers.”

Butt-head nodded in agreement. “This couch sucks. Come on, Beavis. Let’s go get Stewart and make him climb the Christmas tree.” He turned back to Daria. “It’s like, a good thing you don’t care about being popular an’ stuff, or you’d, like, suck pretty bad.”

But as the unseen witness, Daria saw the look in her younger self’s eyes and knew it wasn’t true. “I did care,” she whispered. “My God, I really did care.” Daria saw tears welling up in her counterpart’s eyes, and she turned away ...

... to find herself in a darkened hall.

I’m still in Highland, she realized. She looked up at the hall clock. It was past midnight. And she was alone -- no sign of Beavis or Butt-head. But what ...

Just then a door creaked open. It was her own door, from her old bedroom. Sure enough, her young, pajama-clad self peeked out into the hall, looking back and forth as if to make sure the coast was clear. Daria’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. What was this?

The young Daria eased into the hallway and tiptoed down to where Daria herself was standing. The girl stared for a moment at the door next to hers, and pushed it open quietly, slipping inside. Intrigued, and more than a little uneasy, Daria followed.

Inside, the room was ghostly still: a congress of shades and shadows. A little moonlight shone through the window; enough to illuminate Quinn, sleeping in her crib, and Daria felt a sudden fear that perhaps the girl she had been was invading thus in the middle of the night with the intent of committing some violence against her sister. Indeed, the girl approached her sleeping sibling with a certain deliberate posture that bespoke hostility. Daria’s heart clenched.

Quinn turned in her sleep, sucking on her thumb. The moon bathed her in a soft glow, making her seem even more a heavenly creature. And there was little Daria, rising from the darkness, her small features distorted by the shadow of the moon through the crib bars. Daria held her breath, powerless. And then ...

“I hate you.” It was a whisper, and Daria was shocked by the vehemence of it. “I hate you,” she repeated. “You can have them,” she continued. “You can have my friends and my toys and my things. I don’t care. I’ll keep going without them.” She leaned in close to the crib, her voice even softer, eyes filled with pain. “But you won’t. That’s my Christmas wish.” Her lip trembled. “You’re just a spoiled little brat, and I hope you stay that way forever!”

No ...

A cloud covered the moon, and Daria’s vision dimmed. Forever ... forever ...

Oh my God. I wanted this.

*        *        *
When the light returned, Daria was back in her room, lying in her bed, staring into the darkness.
The Second of the Three Spirits
Seconds passed. They were long, lonely seconds as Daria reflected. Sadness and disbelief welled up as one. There it had been, reenacted before her very eyes -- the grain of sand that had been nourished over the years into a pearl of bitterness. It galled her still, after all these years; worse, for the size of it.

She was interrupted in her reflection by a gentle sound. Daria groaned to herself and turned to the center of the room, prepared for the worst.

Instead, she got Jodie Landon. She was dressed in her usual neat ensemble, and her face wore a kindly expression. Daria let out a sigh of audible relief. The dark-skinned future valedictorian was one of the few points of sanity in her High School existence. Always there with a kind, supportive word; always sympathetic ... had Jodie asked then and there, Daria would have signed up for any number of extra-curricular activities out of sheer relief.

But Jodie did not ask, and, shaking off that dampening of the senses that accompanies the newly awakened, Daria belatedly realized that this was not the Jodie Landon of her High School. This was the Jodie Landon of her mind, acting out a role that Daria’s own subconscious had chosen.

“Hello, Daria,” Jodie smiled.

“You’re the ghost of Christmas Present.” Jodie nodded. Daria sighed. “Here we go again.”

Jodie cocked her head. “You don’t sound very happy.”

“I’m sure not happy about unsolicited haunting on Christmas Eve, if that’s what you mean,” Daria snapped.  “I’ve already seen enough tonight to depress me through New Years. So if you don’t mind, we can skip this and go straight to the moral of the story.”

“And what is the moral of the story?”

Daria opened her mouth to speak ... but the words would not come, so she closed it and settled on the silent-defiance approach to drive her newest tormentor away.

It didn’t work.

“Let’s see if we can’t help you find it,” Jodie continued, and with a wave of her hand the pair was outside.

Daria’s first instinct was to shiver. They were ankle-deep in snow, and Daria was still dressed for bed. But the cold did not touch her, and so she suppressed her initial reaction and observed her surroundings.

It was night. The snowfall had ceased hours ago. Most of the haze had melted away under the sharp light of the stars. The pair were standing on a sidewalk, and although the landscape was almost uniformly blanketed in white, the majority of the large sign before her was clearly visible. Lawndale High School.

Daria stood blankly for a moment. “The school is closed,” she said flatly. “Why bring me here.” In response, Jodie pointed to the left, where a car was approaching. It pulled around the sidewalk and into the parking lot. It was not alone, Daria noticed. Several cars of varying sizes occupied the faculty parking spaces. As she pondered this, she was surprised to see that Mr. O’Neill was the new arrival. He was wrapped in a large jacket, and several brightly-decorated packages filled his arms. They were the right size for books -- they probably were, considering they were coming from an English teacher.

Daria and Jodie hurried to catch up with O’Neill as he carefully made his way to the entrance, and began fumbling with his key, attempting to get the door unlocked while simultaneously balancing his armload of presents. Oblivious to Daria’s invisible presence, he somehow managed to release the lock and push his way inside. Unfortunately, the door was not yet willing to release the hapless educator from his struggles, closing on his scarf. Jodie smiled to herself, and pulled the door open again. The scarf slipped free and O’Neill staggered forward, barely maintaining his balance. With a sigh of relief, he moved on, giving the wavering door one last puzzled glance as Daria and Jodie slipped inside before it clicked shut.

“I thought we couldn’t touch anything or anybody,” Daria said smugly.

Jodie shrugged. “You can’t. I’m a spirit, remember? It never hurts to help.” Daria grimaced.

The pair followed Mr. O’Neill to the faculty lounge. “Must be the annual staff holiday party. Bet that’s a blast.”

“Many of your teachers aren’t able to spend Christmas with family, Daria. Their colleagues are the best friends they have in Lawndale.”

“I wonder if it ends in comedy or tragedy.” Jodie frowned. “What?” Daria protested. Jodie shook her head and ducked into the lounge behind Mr. O’Neill. Daria followed suit.

It looked a rather pathetic scene to Daria. The drab colors and sparse furniture in the room were limply strewn with “holiday cheer” ... a ragged wreath against the far wall, a plain holiday centerpiece of nuts and dried fruits, surrounded by several half-eaten fruitcakes. A tiny clutch of mistletoe hung from one of the ceiling panels. The room was sparsely occupied; only four members of the Lawndale High staff were there to greet Mr. O’Neill’s arrival. Principal Li and Ms. Morris stood by the drinking fountain, no doubt haggling over the Physical Education budget. Ms. Barch sat alone at one corner of the table, her bitter posture losing some of its edge at the arrival of the only male she did not despise.

On the opposite corner of the table hunched Mr. DeMartino, glaring up from the handful of crushed nuts in his palm. “Ahh, TIMothy!” he said with his customary gruffness, and an edge of sarcasm. “So NICE of you to drop BY. Perhaps NOW we can begin the FesTIVities.”

“Oh dear,” said O’Neill. “I hope I haven’t inconvenienced anyone. I got delayed shoveling my neighbor’s driveway ...”

Ms. Barch smiled benevolently. “Not at all, Timmy. It’s not like we have anywhere else to be.” DeMartino opened his mouth again, but hastily closed it again as Barch fixed him with her dagger-like stare.

“But you are here,” Ms. Li pronounced authoritatively, as if an important decision had been reached. “And bearing gifts, no less! How appropriate.” O’Neill smiled weakly. “Ms. Morris was good enough to bring the centerpiece,” Li continued, “Mr. DeMartino took care of the decorating ...” (That explains it, thought Daria.) “... and Ms. Barch brought the punch.”

“Better check it for poison,” Daria said aloud. “Oh, wait. This is Ms. Li. She already has.” Again, there was no reaction from Jodie.

“A toast,” said Ms. Li as Ms. Morris distributed the punch. “To seventeen glorious days.”

DeMartino grinned devilishly into his drink. “Genuine WEEKS without a SINgle boorish supplicant to CODDLE in the hopes that they will  VALIDATE your existence by retaining ONE OUNCE of knowledge!”

“Come now, Mr. DeMartino,” Ms. Li snorted. “Surely not all your students are that bad ...” She trailed off as DeMartino’s haunted look told her otherwise. “Hmmph. In any case, it is refreshing to have security concerns limited to holiday break-ins.”

“Now Anthony,” said O’Neill optimistically, “Lawndale High has some excellent students. Let's see ... For example, I’m sure Daria Morgendorffer always passes with flying colors.”

DeMartino rolled his eyes sarcastically. “Ah yes, Miss Morgendorffer ... isn’t SHE a bright spot in my day. Just BRIMMing with enTHUsiasm!”

O’Neill chuckled nervously. “Yes, I’ve, ah ... noticed that. But at least she displays an enthusiasm for the material ...”

“Just try getting her to show any enthusiasm in my class,” Morris blurted out. “She goes beyond not participating. I’d go so far as to say she deliberately places herself in the way. She’ll take any excuse to sabotage a coordinated effort.”

O’Neill began to frown. “We all have room for growth ...”

“I’m afraid,” said Li shortly, “I’ve given up on that. Miss Morgendorffer has proven time and time again that, despite the hooonor she could bring to Lawndale High, she would much rather sabotage my every effort.”

“Face it, Timothy,” DeMartino said objectively through a mouthful of cashews, “You’re HOPElessly naive.” O’Neill blanched at this, and Barch jumped to his rescue.

“Leave him alone, you testosterone-corrupted waste of flesh!” She seized O’Neill’s hand. “Imagine, letting one girl with a bad attitude stereotype the entire female gender!”

O’Neill sighed dejectedly. “No, Janet, Anthony has a point. I’ll admit I always try to look for the best in people. But ...” and his voice grew very soft, “sometimes dealing with Daria ... well, I hate saying this, but ... sometimes I just want to give up.” His lip quavered as if he were about to burst into tears.

That and DeMartino’s triumphant grin were the last things Daria saw before she whirled around and passed through the solid door. A second later, Jodie joined her in the empty hall. Daria rounded on her.

“I’ve had enough!” she snarled. “What makes you think for one moment I care about what they -- or anybody -- thinks of me? I don’t owe them anything. So what if my gym teacher hates me? She’s as corrupt as Principal Li! And if you ask me, Mr. O’Neill could use a dose of reality now and then -- before he dies of optimism! Do I look like I care?”

“You wouldn’t be this worked up about it if you didn’t care,” Jodie pointed out.

Daria frowned. “Okay, so I don’t like being badmouthed. Who does? There’s got to be somewhere everybody isn’t taking my name in vain.”

Jodie nodded, and with a wave of her hand, they were back outside, the school nowhere in sight.

The street and its houses were hard to recognize under the snow, but when Daria turned around and saw the “Calvin and Hobbes” style snowman impaled on its own ski pole she knew she was standing in front of the Lane’s house.

“That’s strange,” Daria said aloud. “There are cars in the driveway. That would mean ...”

“Come,” said Jodie, moving towards the front window.

Daria wondered what would happen if she refused ... if she just turned around and walked home. She certainly deserved a break after putting up with so much. But despite herself, curiosity triumphed over rancor, and so she followed.

She suspected the truth before she saw it through the ice-frosted living-room window. It surprised her nonetheless.

The wandering Lanes had come home for Christmas.

The look on Jane’s face said it all. Here was a Christmas present to be remembered! Her parents, her three travelling siblings -- even her niece and nephew -- all arranged around the living room -- not arguing, either! Miracle of miracles, there was a smile on every face. Even Trent wore a relaxed grin as he examined a new guitar pedal. Wrapping paper lay strewn around the room. Every limb, every face was in bright motion. The outside air did not chill Daria in her present state, but the warmth emanating from the room made her feel cold through simple contrast. Walking haltingly towards the pane, she was surprised to feel the glass unyielding beneath her hands. She pressed again, but the window remained firm beneath her touch. It did not even flex or make a sound under the rapping of her knuckles. She was cut off from the picturesque scene within as surely as if the glass had been strongest steel.

“You can not join them,” Jodie said sadly. “This is the milk of familial warmth, of which you have cut yourself off. But look!”

Daria did look. As she peered through that frosty plane, her eyes met those of her best friend. Jane slowed in her motion, for only an instant, as if she had seen Daria outside in the snow. Jane smiled, and Daria saw her lips form her name. The scene in the room took the shape of laughter. For an instant, Daria was sure she was being scorned. But something in their posture and expressions communicated their good humour. There was no bitterness or spite here. In his chair Trent raised an eyebrow, smiling, but saying nothing.

“There is room in their hearts for you,” Jodie told Daria, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Try finding that in my family,” Daria said bitterly. “Dysfunctional as the Lane’s are, they’ve still got one up on me.”

“Don’t sell your family short, Daria,” Jodie cautioned. “Perhaps the problem isn’t completely with them. Perhaps you’re underestimating them.”

“I’d like to see that.”

“Very well.”

Before Daria could object, the deed was done. In less than an eyeblink, her surroundings changed once again -- from standing outside in the snow, to indoor carpeting. She blinked. She knew the bright swashes of yellow and pink all too well. She was in her sister’s bedroom.

Sure enough, Quinn was standing not two yards away. In front of her mirrors.

Daria frowned. Jodie opened her mouth to speak, but Daria cut her off. “Let’s examine the evidence before us,” Daria said hotly. “My sister is in her room on Christmas Eve holding up outfits to her reflection and talking on the phone. And look.” She walked over to Quinn’s makeup table. “A bunch of photos with my face cut out of them. Same old Quinn, same loving old sister.”

“Daria ...”

“Don’t patronize me!” Daria snapped at Jodie. “What’s the point in showing me this? You want me to despise her even more?” She jabbed a finger at the mutilated photographs. “That’s supposed to help me be more self aware? This is exactly what’s wrong with my family. Quinn ... my parents ... they try to understand me and they just don’t get it. They can’t accept me as I am. The only way they’d ever accept me is if I change who I am!”

“There can be no growth without change.”

“Then maybe they need to change if they’re ever going to grow to my level!” Daria growled.

“And where is your level?” For the first time that evening, Jodie seemed genuinely angry. “Just tonight I’ve seen you slaughter optimism, envy your friends and reject your own sister offhand. Did it even occur to you to look beneath the surface? You’re so good at that!”

Daria was taken aback by the sudden tide of accusation. Beneath the surface? She turned to reexamine Quinn, but Jodie spun her around.

“I’m sorry, Daria. I gave you the chance to see something true. You rejected it. Do you think this is a fairy tale? Moments pass. Some opportunities only come once. You may consider yourself fortunate that this one may come again. For now, we are done here.”

“Wait ...” Daria blurted, an inexplicable panic betraying her earlier sentiments. “I’m sorry ... I’m ... please, give me another chance.”

Jodie narrowed her eyes and looked down her nose at Daria in a manner that made her feel suddenly uncomfortable. Alien chills ran up her spine. This was not Jodie Landon.  At once, Daria realized that she had just placed herself at odds with the very spirit of Christmas.

“Your parents,” Jodie said. Her look dared Daria to forsake this last chance.

Daria nodded reluctantly. “My parents.”

If Daria had felt uncomfortable during the night’s previous experience, the discomfort increased tenfold at the prospect before her. When she was very small (she had just learned to take herself to the bathroom at night) she had gotten up and, padding past her parents closed bedroom door, had overheard an argument. She didn’t remember what they had been arguing about. The truth was, it didn’t matter. She’d recognized the tone they were using. It was the tone they only used on her when she’d been very naughty. She had never before heard them turn that displeasure on each other. Daria had been petrified with fear, and her parents had been surprised to find her with wet bedsheets the following morning.

Of course at seventeen she had heard more than her fair share of parental arguments. Indeed, she had long since weathered the emotional ramifications that come when wondering about divorce, separation or violence. But the loss of innocence that long-ago night represented still haunted her. The master bedroom remained a place of powerful memories. It was alternatively sacred or forbidden; she was nestled in her parents arms or she did not belong -- and the days of nestling were long since past.

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that Daria swallowed her fears and followed Jodie down the hall to her parents room.

Jake was reading the paper. Helen had a portfolio spread out in her lap. They were both in bed. Daria relaxed slightly. With any luck the “moment” Jodie had spoken of would be quick and painless.

Several moments passed in silence. Daria was about to complement Jodie on her timing when Helen spoke.

“It certainly does give us more time to ourselves Christmas Eve,” she commented. When her significant other remained significantly elsewhere, she gave him an annoyed kick beneath the covers. With a small yelp of “Cold feet!” Jake dropped the newspaper and went on the defensive. But Helen was already looking away, wistful. “I remember when I was up until four in the morning, making sure everything was just perfect for when the girls came downstairs. Wrapping presents, stuffing stockings, writing little notes, cleaning up ...”

Jake’s face lit up. “And I ate the cookies! You know, so they’d think Santa had come. I’d eat the cookies and I’d drink the milk, and Quinn would get so cute, she’d say ‘Look, Daddy, just the crumbs! Just the crumbs!’ And little Daria with her fingerprinting kit ... Boy, those were the days! Hey! I almost forgot! I better get down there before it’s too late!”

Helen sighed. “Jake, there are no cookies!”

His face fell. “No cookies?”

“We stopped doing that years ago, sweetie. Besides, it’s like Daria said. We’re going to be mature about Christmas this year.” Despite the admonition, there was distaste in her tone.

“What was wrong with opening presents?” Jake complained. “I liked opening presents! You never knew what you were going to get.”

Helen tried to laugh. “Well, now you just get to guess how much money you get. That’s what the girls want.”

Jake colored in anger. “Money,” he spat. “It’s aaaaall about the money! I remember when Christmas was sacred! A joyous time of peace, and goodwill towards reindeerkind. Santa Claus isn’t just a person, you know! He’s an idea!”

“Jake, please, you’re getting all worked up,” Helen cautioned.

But Jake would not be deterred. “Worked up?” he shouted. “Worked up? This isn’t ‘worked up,’ Helen! Worked up is getting a lump of coal in your stocking for having the nerve to ask for a puppy for Christmas! Worked up is slaving away day in day out to please that selfish bastard so he’d stop tormenting you in front of your friends, and waking up Christmas and getting Lincoln Logs! Dammit, I wanted Tinker Toys!” He shook his fist at the ceiling. “Ya hear that, old man? Tinker Toys!!!

“Jake!” Helen, growing slightly alarmed. “Remember your blood pressure!”

But Jake ignored her. “Don’t we love them, Helen? Don’t we give them every advantage we never had? And all they can do is bleed us for every penny we’re worth!” He jerked up violently. “Well I won’t stand for it! I’m going to the store right now, and when those girls wake up they’ll have all the Tinker Toys they --”

Jake froze. His breath caught in his chest, and his words died with them. Eyes wide, he lurched forward, arms flailing.

To Daria, the moment was frozen; surreal. It was as if the world had stopped, and only her father remained in motion. That had to be the case, because she did not panic, she did not attempt to move; there was nothing to be done, because this was not happening.

But it was. And time moved beyond that first terrible second. Jake fell back against the headboard, suddenly pale. Before he hit, Helen had snagged him and was shouting his name. Then Jake breathed, and he turned to his wife and managed to smile.

“I’m okay,” he whispered. “Just got a little worked up. Nothing to worry about.”

For several moments, Helen held Jake tight, allowing the weak assurance to carry them into a quiescent calm. But the expression on her face and the tension in her frame belied any illusions of peace or relaxation.

“I am worried,” she whispered.

Jake slumped wearily back into his pillow. “Me too, honey. Me too.”

Daria had had enough. Desperately fighting tears (she could not remember crying before in her life, and she wasn’t about to start now) she spun herself away. Her mind was filled with a thousand angry, confused thoughts; some for her parents, some for Jodie, but most for herself. But her parents were unreachable, and she was to busy raising mental blocks to start tearing them down, so it was Jodie who she turned to with dire intentions.

Jodie was not there.

Daria stormed through the bedroom door. Jodie was not in the hall. Daria felt her anger and sorrow sink slowly and deliberately to the pit of her stomach. What now? She moved carefully to her bedroom door. Was this it? Had she been returned to the Present? Seen what she had been meant to see? “That I’m a plague on my parents?” she muttered. The sound of her own voice startled her. Talking to herself was a sure indication that she was spooked.

And why shouldn’t I be? Daria thought. I’ve been through enough, haven’t I? I’m here outside my bedroom on Christmas Eve. I’ve probably been sleepwalking. Nightmares like that ... who wouldn’t be spooked? She pressed her boot into the carpet, sliding it forward and feeling the texture of it; rubbed her palms together and felt the warmth beneath the skin. She realized that her throat was dry and her tongue felt tangibly rough. She almost smiled at the tactile sensation. She was thirsty.

Bad dreams, she thought again, and decided she needed a glass of water from the kitchen.

At the top of the stairs looking down, she saw the hooded figure.


The Third of the Three Spirits

In less than an instant, all thoughts of dreaming had fled Daria’s mind, replaced by a gut-wrenching sense of terrible reality. The spectre at the foot of the stairs was clothed in a tall dark robe, with a long hood obscuring any sign of the face within.Daria waited, frozen, for several interminable seconds. At last, when the shade made no motion or sound, she mustered the courage to offer a tentative “Hello?” There was no response. The figure was silent, displaying none of the familiarity of the previous spirits.

A bell tolled. Daria sprang like a mousetrap. No sooner had she landed on her feet than she was startled by another noise from behind. She whirled around to face whatever it was, gaped in shock, and took a step back. Standing as she was on the edge of the hall, she half stumbled, half fell down the stairs.

In a daze, Daria heard another knelling. Head in hands, she realized that the tone came from the front door. “That’s not our doorbell,” she muttered. But then, the figure who was coming down the stairs before her was not exactly her mother. That is to say, not the mother she recalled from not two minutes ago.

Helen was old. Her hair was white -- elegantly shot through with silver. Her face was creased with lines deepened by time and loss. Her frame was diminutive. She wore a pleated, dark-red robe and navigated the stairs with the aid of both the banister and a cane.

Picking herself up, Daria willed herself to turn around -- in part because it was morbidly hard to tear her eyes away from the ancient figure her mother had become, and in part due to the unbearable panic that followed the sudden recognizance that something very bad (or at the least fearsome) was standing directly behind her.

Sure enough, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come towered before her. It did nothing. Disturbed yet somewhat calmed at confronting the apparition, Daria searched the narrow hood for any sign of human occupation and found none. She took a deep breath.

“Well, since you’re not gesturing or groaning or anything, I’ll just assume you want me to watch this.”

There was no response. Daria reluctantly turned her back to the ghost, then thought better of it and shifted back and to the right to stand next to it.

Daria had once written a short story for Mr. O’Neill’s English class. The assignment had been to utilize people she knew from real-life as characters in the story. She had tried valiantly to compose something meaningful ... something true. A conversation with her mother had helped convince her that her difficulty lay not in being honest about what she saw, but honest about what she wanted. Daria had thought about that. She had looked into the future and envisioned her family as she wanted them to be.

Now, staring at her wizened mother, the memories of that day came flooding back. Indeed, when Helen answered the door and Quinn walked in, Daria was surprised at the accuracy (or consistency) of her imagination. Quinn was taller, her red hair bound back, and with a more mature face. There was a depth to her eyes that, while appropriate for the face, seemed out of character with the Quinn that Daria remembered.

Helen’s eyes lit up. Quinn, who looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties, set down several suitcases and stepped into her mother's warm embrace.

“Did she come?” Helen whispered, hopeful.

Quinn smiled and stepped to one side. “Yes.”

“Cue me,” Daria told the spirit. “This doesn’t look so bad.”

Jane walked into the room.

To say Daria was surprised would be to describe water as “wet.” Daria was shocked. Her best friend, her sister and her mother ... together ... by choice ... on Christmas Eve. Of all the people ... it didn’t add up. The math refused to work, no matter which way Daria looked at it. She moved closer for a better look.

It was definitely Jane. Taller, older, of course, hair longer and tied back. Quinn helped her out of her long coat, revealing a simple blue sweater and pants. Jane thanked Quinn, and turned to Helen.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Morgendorffer.”

Helen smiled beatifically. “Jane, it’s been decades. Call me Helen, please.”

Jane returned the smile. “Merry Christmas ... Helen. Sorry we’re late. You know how holiday traffic can get.”

“It is late,” Quinn said, hanging up the coats on the coatrack beside the door. “I’m surprised anyone’s up at all.”

“It’s Christmas Eve.” Helen answered, beaming for a moment. “Where are my manners? Come on in to the living room -- I’ve got some fresh egg-nog ready.”

Nodding, Jane and Quinn slipped out of their snow-encrusted boots and followed Helen into the living room. Daria trailed behind, shaking her head in disbelief, all but ignoring her mysterious companion.

Helen seated herself in a large easychair, motioning for her guests to sit on the couch. There was a pitcher and two glasses on the coffee table. “Help yourselves,” she said. “I made it fresh this afternoon.”

Jane accepted, leaning forward to pour a glass, which she offered to Quinn. Quinn declined with a polite smile. “Morning sickness,” she explained. Jane gave a knowing smirk and sampled the drink herself.

“It’s excellent Mrs. -- Helen,” she said. Helen was still fixated on Quinn’s delighted grin. “I suppose I should make it a toast...”

“Quinn, you’re pregnant!” Helen blurted out. “Oh!” For an elderly woman, Helen was out of her chair like a rocket, catching a surprised Quinn in a hearty embrace. Tears streamed down her face. “I’m going to be a grandmother!” she whispered. Quinn laughed and moved closer to Jane to make room for her mother on the couch.

Intrigued and simultaneously bamboozled, Daria made her way to the chair Helen had vacated and fell into it.

Helen wiped her eyes dry. “And where is the father?” she pretended to scold.

“With his family,” Quinn fired back with a broad smile. “That’s why we can only stay tonight. Besides, I have to get Jane to Trent’s before tomorrow, or his in-laws will be very disappointed.”

So where am I? Daria thought in confusion.

“A Grandmother,” Helen breathed again, eyes twinkling. “You know, after Daria ... left us, I’d almost given up hope I’d ever see the day.”

Daria felt her heart clutch in her chest. She looked back at the spirit, but it had not changed it's stoic posture.

“Although,” Helen continued, brow wrinkling in mild distaste, “I never did care much for Charles. I can’t imagine him raising my grandchildren.”

“Trust me, Mrs. M,” Jane said, setting down her glass. “No children was the best thing about that marriage.”

“I don’t know what she saw in him,” Helen sighed.

Jane spread her hands wide. “Isn’t it obvious? It disappointed you and shocked us. What do you think she was aiming for? She gave up on happiness years before she married him. Hardest thing I ever had to do was accept that.” Jane patted Quinn on the shoulder. “Fortunately, there are always alternatives.”

“Amen,” Quinn echoed. “Sandi’s on her fifth marriage, I think ... and still no kids. You’re beating out Linda in grandparenthood.”

Helen gave a nonchalant shrug. “Oh, I don’t care about those old rivalries.”

Quinn grinned deviously. “Of course not.” They both laughed.

“Speaking of old news,” Jane said, a touch of wry sarcasm showing through, “I heard from Lord Ruttheimer last week. Can you believe it -- I think the little pervert was actually hitting on me.”

“Some people never mature,” Quinn sympathized.

“I couldn’t decide if he was genuinely looking for consolation or just prowling, hoping for a rebound.”

Helen yawned. “Oh my,” she exclaimed, looking at her watch. “What would your father say if he knew I was up this late, gabbing like a goose. I’d better show you to your rooms.”

Daria sat motionless as Helen stood and bustled her sister and her evidently ex-best friend off the couch and up the stairs. She turned to the ghost, anger written on her features.

“What’s going on?” she demanded. “Jane best friends with Quinn? I married Pepe le Puke -- just to piss off my parents?!” Daria rose and took a bold step towards the spectre, no longer concerned at the proximity. She was too angry to be scared.

“What’s happening?” she yelled, balling her hands into fists. “Where am I???

The next thing she knew, she was stumbling on the rough ground. She fell to her hands and knees, making soft impressions in the loamy earth. She struggled to her feet. Attempting to wipe the smears off of her nightshirt only made it worse -- her hands were caked in the rough dirt. Daria looked up.

She was in a graveyard.

It was a picture right out of a horror movie. A lonely hill, a crooked tree, the sky dark and fierce. There was a distant rumble of thunder, as if to warn that at any moment the sky would burst, unleashing the torrents it held captive. Tombstones littered the ground around her, and she turned to see the grim spirit, framed by a jagged burst of lightning that split the sky.

Daria was ready to scream at the shock of it, or maybe laugh at the worn cliche. She suppressed both urges. The spectre was pointing towards a solitary tombstone. Daria felt something knot up inside of her. She didn’t move. “Is this the same Christmas we just left at my house?” she asked softly. The ghost nodded.

Daria stumbled forward, but her eyes were fixed on the shade, not the tombstone. “What?” she rallied. “I’m DEAD? Is that what you’re saying?”

The ghost pointed.

“What can I do DEAD?” Daria screamed over the rising wind.

The ghost pointed.

With a thunderflash, the rain broke, sparing Daria the trouble of wondering whether or not she was crying. She stumbled forward again, and the ghost continued to point, stabbing a solitary finger through the air like a dagger. She wiped her at her eyes, forgetting that her hands were covered in filth, and she cried out in pain as grit scraped across her cheeks.

She didn’t want to look at the tombstone. She couldn’t bear it. All the philosophy in the world could not have prepared her for this moment. But the presence of the third spirit weighed upon her. She fell to her knees before the grave, but did not want to look up. She raised her chin, but did not want to see those words. How could she accept the tangible sight ... to look at the stone and see the name ...

“Jake Morgendorffer,” she whispered in horror. “1950 to 2003 ... No!” She ripped her gaze away from the headstone, head jerking frantically up to the ghost. “NO!!!” she raged, the rain whipping her hair back, streaming down her face. “GOD DAMN IT, WHY?” she howled over the storm.

In one smooth motion, the ghost reached up and pulled back it’s hood. Daria found herself staring into the bitter, accusatory eyes of her own aunt Amy. Daria shrank from the penetrating glare. “Look,” Amy sneered. “Look what you threw away!” Stooping, she reached down and seized Daria by the back of the hair, wrenching her neck around and brutally shoving Daria’s face into the hard stone ...

... and with a jolt, Daria was surrounded by quiet. She felt herself curled into a ball on a flat surface. There was no rain beating on her face; no sound of storm. She realized that her eyes were squeezed shut. For several moments, she breathed without moving, letting her heart rate settle. When at last she was sure nothing was happening to her, she breathed a long sigh of relief and opened her eyes.

She was not in her room. Daria stood up, dazed, looking without comprehension at the night sky. She looked around. No streets save the long one she was standing on. No houses. No spirits of any kind. She was completely and utterly alone.

“I don’t understand,” she whispered to herself. “It’s supposed to end here.” But a nagging voice inside of her would not be silenced. It’s not over, the voice sang. The other spirits -- they left too, and they left you! She chilled inwardly and turned around. Behind her, was a small hill, topped by a lonely house. A solitary path led up to the front door. Daria stared at it in wonder. She was inexorably drawn towards this place.

And then, her feet began to move -- seemingly of their own volition. They walked towards the path. They walked towards the house. Daria was afraid, but she could not stop moving. It was as if some alien force had seized her body. Besides, she resigned herself, there’s nowhere else to go.

There was a curious freedom that accompanied the inevitability of motion. Her brain seemed to detach itself from her body, demanding to be heard.

“I understand,” she whispered to herself as she walked up the front steps. “It’s about a problem with my story.”

She entered the front door.

“The story of my life, as I wrote about it, as I wanted it.”

Inside, her body turned to the right. There was flickering firelight from an open door.

“Everything was perfect because everybody changed. In my hopes and my dreams everybody changed to fit me. Quinn changed. She gets mature. Dad changes. He calms down. Mom isn’t worried.”

The room that cast shadows was a small parlor, sparsely decorated. A large-backed chair faced the crackling fire.

“But I didn’t change. I stayed exactly the same.”

She moved towards the chair.

“What, did I think the perfect world would just happen? That all my dreams would fall into place without me? I got mad when they didn’t change.”

She walked around in front of the fire.

“I got mad because I couldn’t change them, except I can’t change them, I can only change ...”

She turned around ...

“... myself.”

... and stared into a pair of eyes so cold, so dead, so completely devoid of hope and bereft of all humanity that it froze her soul. It was a face out of Neitzsche’s nightmares.

The face was her own.

And Daria Morgendorffer woke up.

The End at Last
It was the warm glow of sunlight, shining crystal-clear through the window to spread the breadth of the room, that greeted Daria’s waking eyes.

Then the night’s memories came rushing back to her. Bolting upright, her head a whirlwind of emotions, Daria grabbed for her phone and dialed.

“What day is this?” Daria demanded, not caring who had answered the phone.

“Why, it’s Christmas Day!” Jane declared, playing along under the assumption that her best friend had not gone insane. “That was easy, give me a tougher one.”

Daria heaved a giant sigh of relief. “Merry Christmas!”

There was a pause as Jane rethought her assumptions about Daria’s sanity. “If that’s a question, the answer is yes. You’ll never believe ...”

“Your family came home last night,” Daria interrupted.

There was another pause. “How come Santa didn’t bring me any psychic powers?” Jane complained at last.

Daria stifled a laugh (a laugh!) “Lucky guess,” she told her friend. “Listen, I’ll call you later. Right now I need to go check on my family. Wish Trent a Merry Christmas for me!”

“Sure,” Jane said. “And hey, come on over this afternoon, we’ll go out for ...” She was talking to the dial tone.

Daria, meanwhile, had leapt out of bed and was struggling into her usual outfit. After a moments thought, she ran over to the top drawer of her dresser and fished out the old pendant she kept for special occasions. “It’s Christmas,” she reasoned, and slipped it on.

Cautiously, Daria peeked out into the hallway. Her parents bedroom door was closed. Mom and Dad, check. She could hear water running in the bathroom. Quinn, check. Still, she walked stealthily towards the stairs.

One heck of a dream, she thought to herself. Even so, an impulse grabbed her as she walked by Quinn’s bedroom. The door was ajar, and she couldn’t resist peeking inside. There was something on the floor by the mirror. Moving inside, she bent to investigate. There, spread across the carpet, were several fashion magazines. And on every page, her own face looked back at her, having been cut out and pasted atop those of the models. She checked Quinn’s dresser-top, and, sure enough, it was covered in mangled photographs. She smirked in amazement. For me ...  she was trying on clothes for me!

A movement outside Quinn’s window caught her eye, and she walked over and looked down to see Kevin and Brittany walking back. Quickly, she fumbled at the latch and raised the window high, ignoring the blast of cold air on her face. “Hey!” she shouted. The pair looked up. “What are you doing? Wait! Don’t answer that! Come to my front door, I’ve got something for you!”

Daria dashed back to her room and dove halfway under the bed, grasping for the cardboard box she knew was there somewhere. Finding it, she forced her fingers under the lid and yanked it out, dragging several pairs of socks and an old pair of headphones out with it. She opened the box and smiled. Inside were books from her childhood. Winnie the Pooh. Paddington Bear. Dr. Seuss. They were well-loved, but they were perfectly readable. Scrambling to her feet, she ran back out into the hall and down the stairs.

Kevin and Brittany were waiting at the front door, shivering from the cold. Kevin was still wearing nothing but his football uniform. He had set down the box full of toys, to which Daria deposited the contents of her own box.

“Thanks, Daria!” Brittany squeaked. “We were just on our way to the donation center.” She examined the new contributions, picking up a Clifford book. “Wow, Daria, I didn’t know you had such good taste in literature.”

“Hey!” Kevin exclaimed between chatters, examining the cover. “He’s got a Frisbee! Coool!”

“They’re for the kids,” Daria cautioned. “You want a copy, ask the nice lady at the mall information booth to show you where the book store is. You can put some of that money you made working at the nut stand to good use.”

Kevin grinned. “Hey, thanks!”

“Say, Daria,” Brittany said, twirling one long pig-tail around her finger. “I’m having a party for New Years, and I don’t think I’ve invited a literary consultant yet. Do you want to come?”

To her own surprise, Daria didn’t instantly dismiss Brittany. “I’ll think about it,” she said, and meant it. “And Kevin? Next time, put a coat on.”

Kevin managed a thumbs-up before he bent down and picked up the box. “Oh, Kevvie, you’re so strong,” Brittany gushed, and then they were gone.

Daria closed the door and turned around to find Quinn at the foot of the steps, her parents right behind. Daria stiffened, full of conflicting emotions, not sure what to say or what to do. Amending things with Kevin and Brittany were one thing. But her family ...

Quinn made the first move. “I woke up Mom and Dad,” she said, eyes brimming with excitement, oblivious to her older sister’s discomfort.

“Merry Christmas, sweetie,” Helen offered with a smile. Next to her, Jake smiled and nodded in his usual manner. It appeared a night’s sleep had done him good.

As Daria struggled for a response, Quinn had rushed over to the Christmas Tree and was tearing open her envelope with unbridled enthusiasm. She unfolded the card and gave a squeal of delight at the contents. “Daria, how did you know?” she exclaimed, waving the green bills in the air. “God, I was so afraid you’d try and buy me clothes.”

“Um ... don’t mention it?”

“Here,” Quinn said, procuring a package from behind the tree. “This is for you.”

Slowly, Daria walked over and took it. Deliberately, she unwrapped the box, unfolding the paper and preparing for the worst. To her surprise, she did not recoil at the first sight of the dark-blue dress. It was elegant in a certain way that appealed to her, with none of the excesses of design that Daria despised.

“I know you don’t like big floppy dresses,” Quinn offered hastily, “I mean, who does? And I know you’re kind of attached to that thing you wear, but I figured, I mean, I know you don’t go out or anything, at least not for dressing up, but if you ever do want to go out, I mean really go out and look nice, that is to say, better, then now you have something to ...”

She acted on impulse. It was something she could not recall ever doing before, as far back as she could remember.

Daria hugged her sister.

Quinn fell instantly silent at this uncharacteristic and out-of-the-blue show of affection. A million thoughts blazed through her mind, phrases rising to the tip of her tongue. “What are you doing?” “What’s wrong with you Daria?” “Ewwww!” “God, what would the Fashion Club say!” “Daria, puh-leeze! Not in front of the parents!” But Quinn said none of them. To her great personal surprise, she actually found herself returning the gesture.

To Helen, arm clasped in Jake’s, the embrace seemed like it would last forever. The sentiment might not outlive the day, she knew from experience, but for a few short hours that simple act of love would bridge a gap that a decade of bitter sibling rivalry had sundered -- a gap she had feared was permanent. “It’s the best Christmas present we could have!” she whispered to her husband, a single tear threatening to escape her eye.

Jake could not disagree. In that singular moment, his heart was full to bursting, and it was stronger than ever. The paradox did not bother him. For once in his life, he was sure nothing could bother him. It was in that impenetrable moment that his naive joy outweighed all his adult sensibilities and imagined dignities. It bubbled up inside him and defined his every feature. In a sublime quirk of fate, time stood still as the love he felt miraculously resonated between his wife and his children, nothing held back. It was a first; a bond forged that would never be broken; a moment that would stand through time undiminished as the years flew by, he was as certain of it as he had ever been certain of anything in his entire life.

“God bless us,” he declared to himself, to the world. “God bless us, every one!”

And that is one wish, dear readers, that always comes true.

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The quote at the beginning of this document is taken from The Inferno of Dante, Canto I,  lines 10-12. John Ciardi translates it as “How I came to it I cannot rightly say; so drugged and loose with sleep had I become; when I first wandered from the True Way.” I chose it because it represents the act of recognizing error -- the underlying theme of his Commedia, and the core theme behind Christmas Carol (see Introduction.)

I want to make it plain that by using Christmas, I am NOT proposing a religion for the Morgendorffers. While I have my own views on the subject, the ambiguity is essential and the debate not worth my time. They DO, however, celebrate Christmas to a certain extent. At least, Daria did during the Beavis & Butt-head years -- as demonstrated in several episodes and comics.

As it relates to the original Dickens, this story contains many intricacies. The entire opening passage, for example, is a careful paraphrase of the original Dickens opening. However, the simile was impossible to extend completely, nor would it have been appropriate to do so.

The careful reader will note many parallels between the events witnessed by Daria, and the original events witnessed by Scrooge. Brittany and Kevin are the charity collectors who Scrooge threw out. Both Daria and Scrooge witnessed a party, symbolic of happier times. Scrooge’s rejection of his fiancée finds its reflection in Daria’s rejection of her new sister. The meeting in the faculty lounge evokes the cruel party guests of Scrooge’s nephew Fred, whose devotion to his uncle is represented in Jane’s unconditional friendship. Daria’s own family takes the role of the Cratchit family, with Jake standing in for Tiny Tim.

A few words on the casting choices. Believe me, it was difficult, and I expect that any controversy or difference of opinion will arise over the casting of the three (four) Christmas spirits. During the pre-production of this fic, when I asked for suggestions, I received many calls for Jane, Daria’s family, or members of the Lawndale High Faculty. There are a lot of good ideas for casting there, and a lot of fun and appropriate roles. But this fic is not primarily a comedy. Since all of the aforementioned people are focal points of the story, I didn’t want to confuse the roles of subject and object. In other words, I wanted the spirits to be isolated from the examples they were pointing out. Fortunately, the cast of Daria is diverse. Beavis and Butt-head were the perfect link to Daria’s past; Jodie Landon, always looking for the best in people, and strong of character, was the perfect expression of the confident optimism necessary for the part of Christmas Present; and Amy, with her sarcastic outlook, and one of the few adults Daria actually respects, nicely stood in to demonstrate Daria’s future. So there you have it: my reasoning, no apologies.

I honestly did want to slam the pathetic Christmas spirit from “Depth Takes a Holiday,” but there was no easy way to work it into the text, and there’s no way I was disrupting the pace of my story for that loser. Consider this his derision.

In conclusion, there were too many ideas along the way to fit into this fic. In fact, my original premise was a looser, more cynical, comedy-oriented story, and was going to be written in script-format. Truth be told, I still want to write this version someday. Perhaps next Christmas. In the meantime, I hope this stands as a more reflective (if you can get past the emotional saturation) testament to the spirit of Christmas, and more importantly, the spirit of renewal and personal growth. Happy Holidays! And God bless.

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