Written for Television by Glenn Eichler
Edited & Novelized by Adam Spradlin
"As memory may be a paradise from which we cannot be driven, it may also be a hell from which we cannot escape."
-- John Lancaster Spalding
It was the great crashing noise that woke Daria Morgendorffer the second time that morning. Her eyes struggled to focus as she pushed herself up into sitting position, a tad annoyed.
Gee, itíd be a shame if the sky fell and I didnít get to watch, she thought.
Daria straightened her glasses, gone crooked from the awkward position of her head against the desktop, and glanced back at the digital alarm behind her, straining her eyes to sharpen the blurr.
Sighing, Daria said aloud to herself, "I guess Iíve procrastinated enough for one morning." Instinctively, her eyes met her watch; oddly enough, the times did not correspond. "Or two. Damn power outages."
The gray matter upstairs suddenly remembered yesterdayís power outage. It has been the reason she hadnít finished her paper for Mr. OíNeillís class, as well as the reason for the blinking red digits on the alarm; at any rate, the alarm clock seemed to agree with her swear. Following a few simple clicks of a mouse, the inkjet printer spat out her Language Arts assignment. Taking the paper from the tray, she concluded that it was not her best work, granted, but seeing Mr. OíNeillís reaction after reading it would definitely confirm her beliefs of a job well done, in one way or another.
Provided that he hasnít run out of the room beforehand in tears, said Daria to herself, cracking a subtle smile.
Once the assignment had been carelessly shoved into the faded backpack at her feet, Daria stood up and headed through the bedroom door and down the hallway. Before making it to the bottom of the stairs, she could easily hear her motherís voice wafting from the kitchen to the rest of the house.
"Öoh Eric, Iím so sorry Iím running late. I had a household emergency."
Daria walked into the kitchen, briefly taken aback by the sight of two men huddled near the refrigerator, or more accurately, a refrigerator. Embroidered on each of their breast pockets was a plain company logo that read "Karlís Kitchens."
Assuming that the moving of refrigerators must have been the cause of the clatter, she thought sarcastically, Boy, this blows the sky falling completely away.
Helen, quite agitated, paced around endlessly fumbling with her hands. She rambled on into the receiver. "Oh, our refrigerator suddenly broke. Socket mustíve been hit by lightning last nightÖ What do you mean I should chill? Iím perfectly relaxed!" Helenís tone did not seem to concur with her statement. Next there was a short pause, then, "Oh, refrigerator! Chill!" Helen spouted a laugh at her bossís lame joke before stopping short. "Oh, I agree. Thereís nothing funny about food poisoning."
"Unless someone else gets it. Then itís frivolity city," said Daria dryly.
Dariaís crack was acknowledged with a quasi-embarrassed frown from Helen. The refrigerator deliverymen cast bewildered looks at Daria before hesitantly returning to the job at hand. "Ahem. What was that Eric?" Helen returned to her phone conversation, but not before giving Daria one last disapproving sidelong glance. At that, Daria turned on her heel and left for school, eager to be long gone before her mother got the chance to talk to her.
"Did I tell you Tomís going away for a week?" Daria said to her friend Jane Lane as they walked down the main hall of Lawndale High toward the cafeteria for lunch. Monday mornings usually werenít Janeís most talkative times... or any other mornings, for that matter... so Daria figured that she would have to start the conversations herself.
"To ĎThe Cove?í" Jane replied knowingly.
"Howíd you know?" asked Daria, a bit curious.
"Thatís the only place his family ever goes," Jane admitted. "I think theyíre training a secret militia up there."
"I wish. Thatís so much more exciting than them being too damn cheap to go anywhere interesting," said Daria.
"Hey, how do you think old money gets old?" said Jane.
"Anyway, heíll be up there for a family wedding," Daria explained. "So more time for you and me to hang out."
"Havenít we had this conversation before? Except I said what youíre saying and you said what Iím saying?" Jane asked jokingly. The subject of Tom had until only recently been a rather touchy one, as Tom had developed a liking for Daria while still having a relationship with Jane that basically had dried up. Now nearly a year later, things were for the most part back to normal. Daria and Tom were a generally happy couple, and Daria and Jane were as good of friends as ever. So, things being what they were, the "Tom thing" (as it was known between the two) could now be joked about freely. Before Daria had a chance to respond with something witty, there was a minute squelching from P.A.... not to be mistaken for Ms. Liís voice, which came on seconds afterward.
"Attention Lawndale High students. It has come to my attention that during our all-important trail mix fund drive week, some individuals have been flaunting outside snacks from non-school-affiliated sources." Oh, no, said Daria to herself, rather sardonic. How absolutely horrible. Ms. Li babbled on. "Now students, the Booster Club, Leadership Club, Chess Club, Dominoes Club, football, basketball, lacrosse, and marbles teams, as well as the Fraternal Brotherhood of Future Marketing and Promotion Executives needóyouróhelp. Iím afraid weíre going to have to institute snack spot checks!" Daria and Jane looked at each other unbelievingly. Ms. Li was getting more ludicrous by the day. Both girls thanked the powers above that they were to be graduating soon; there was only so much of Ms Liís antics that one could take, and the boiling point was not too far off for either of them. The despotic principal concluded her small speech with, "Iím sorry young people, but you abused your privileges!" And that was that.
Daria sighed. There was only one thing to say. "I hate this place."
"That reminds me. I need some chocolate," said Jane. "Unauthorized chocolate." Jane walked on ahead down the hall, leaving Daria to contemplate Ms. Liís newest ridiculous regulation as she watched her friend head toward her locker, faking an amusing evil snicker.
Suddenly, Daria heard a rather zealous voice call out her name. Before she had a chance to even think about walking on pretending she hadnít heard it, the voice, otherwise known as Mr. OíNeill, caught up with her. "Daria, hello! I want to ask you something."
Well, if I canít get away, I may as well entertain myself in miseryís process, thought Daria. "Iím not surrendering my pudding snack," she said to him, mock-stubbornly.
"What?" he said, frowning confusedly. Apparently her sarcasm had gone right over his head.
Despite herself, Daria inquired, "Whatíd you want to ask me?"
"Itís about the freshman tours!" Mr. OíNeill answered excitedly. "You know, the tours we give to students whoíll be entering school next year?"
"Forget it." Daria was not about to get herself roped into this.
"Weíre looking for bright, articulate and empathetic students to lead groups of... forget it?" Clearly itíd taken him a while to digest her response amidst his enthusiasm.
Daria crossed her arms and lifted a skeptical eyebrow. "Empathetic?"
"Well yes, Daria. With your vivid storytellerís imagination, you can really put yourself in the shoes of these young people, entering high school for the first time." He put emphasis on the last two words. "Iíd like the students to enjoy an experience much like that in your latest short story: The Truck Driverís Guide to the Cosmos." Mr. OíNeill had an unerring habit of reciting the titles of her works with great drama in his voice. This time was no exception. Into recitation, he tilted his head to the side, as if reflecting. "A work so simple, so fierce... yet so cleansing."
"Gee, I hope the moisturizer with aloe helped that rough area between your shoulder blades."
"I think that the entering students should feel as if theyíre starting on their own little adventure--" --at this, he crouched down, hands outspread as if he was sneaking up on prey-- "--ready for the ups, the downs... the thrilling plunges and corkscrews of high school life." For each word, he had an over-the-top action ready to go along with it. He was unquestionably one to talk with their hands.
"I donít think I can bring myself to say anything encouraging about a place that strip-searches for Cheez-its," Daria said, semi-sincere.
Mr. OíNeill was determined, however. He placed his hands on his hips. "Daria, this is an opportunity to polish up those people skills."
"Iím quite satisfied with the state of my people skills, thank you very much," Daria retorted. "Their quality, or lack thereof, suits me just fine."
"Now Daria, I can see where you might be tense about taking on these exciting adventures, so to speak--"
"Of course," she interrupted, deadpan.
"--but I guarantee youíll feel inspired and refreshed by this lesson in self-expansion."
"I donít know if I like the sound of that," said Daria, and then paused briefly. "Okay, Iíve made up my mind. I just flat-out donít."
"Darn it, Daria, I promised myself Iíd get you to do this." Mr. OíNeill was getting frustrated, evident by his tone, though determination still shone through.
"Why?" Would this man ever stop hassling her?
"Because I care," said Mr. OíNeill, with Ďreaching-outí affection in his voice.
Daria had had enough. "Then you need to work on your callousness skills," she told him, a bit perturbed. With that, she continued on down the hallway to meet up with Jane, leaving a weary Mr. OíNeill in the dust. She knew, however, that that would not be the end of it, which irritated her even more as she hurried away.
After school, Daria headed straight to Tomís house to spend some time with him before his departure to the Cove. With Tom away for a week, Daria would finally be able to spend some more time with Jane, something she hadnít done in a while. It would be nice. She attempted to ignore the guilt of experience that slowly encompassed her as she thought about it on her walk to Tomís house in the rural outskirts of Lawndale. Daria could only hope Jane was keeping herself occupied and content... as well as things like that go, anyway. Tom and Daria didnít mind a bit when Jane came along with them wherever they were to go, but it was something that Jane didnít often like doing. She was never one to be the third of the crowd, and Daria couldnít blame her. Yes, it would be a nice change. Jane was Dariaís best friend, after all, though Daria sometimes thought that Jane assumed she felt their friendship wasnít as important anymore. Which, of course, could not be further from the truth. Now Daria was sitting on the sofa in the comfortable and handsomely furnished living room of the Sloane residence watching the latest Sick, Sad World episode with Tom.
Over the exceedingly dramatic show theme came the announcerís unmistakable voice: "They gave her a goodbye party at 65Ö miles per second!! 'Retirement by Rocket,' next on Sick, Sad World!"
Tom picked up the remote and muted the television as a commercial interrupted. Then he said, "So I asked my parents and itís cool with them if you want to come up for a couple of days."
Ha, thought Daria. Thatíll happen. "I canít stand to go to my familyís weddings," she said. "What makes you think I could ever go to yours?"
"Come up after the wedding," Tom offered.
"Oh, sure. So I can get there just as the marriage starts to disintegrate," she replied cynically. Tom sighed, defeated and disappointed. Daria explained, "Look, I appreciate the offer, but you know. Too many people, not enough evacuation routes. Iíll see you when you get back."
Tom was grinning a little now. "Iím worried. I donít think you can really do without me for a week."
"No, you should worry that once I remember what itís like not to have you cramping my style, Iíll want to make it permanent," Daria quipped.
Tom tilted his head slightly to the right. "Romantic."
When Daria arrived home later that afternoon, Helen was already there for the evening. It was sort of odd, considering the eighteen-hour days sheíd been working until only a couple of weeks previous. Nothing was too much for the firm, in Helenís mind. True, it was partly because she was eager to be promoted to partner, and she knew that it was at the current point pretty much inevitable. Helen Morgendorffer was, after all, one of the finest attorneys that Vitale, Davis, Horowitz, Riordan, Schrecter, Schrecter, and Schrecter had to offer.
Daria dropped her bag on the couch and entered the kitchen, where Helen was looking over the refrigerator ownerís manual and Quinn appeared to be sorting something inside the refrigerator itself. She took a box of Sugar Tarts from the cabinet, intent on having a snack before being faced with the same dinner theyíd had practically every night since Helen became a lawyer at the new firm, freezer lasagna.
As Daria opened a bag of the pastries, Helen announced, "This says the different vegetable bins are sized to fit all types of produce, from grapes to cabbage to watermelon."
"Thank God," Daria said. "I was getting worried that I might have to cram. And we all know how hard it is to thump severed heads when theyíre all smashed," Daria delivered.
Her comment went by unnoticed, as Helen and Quinn were too involved in the business with the refrigerator. Helen went on. "And here it says the bins have individual thermostats."
"That means I can have celery stalks at one temperature for their optimum crispness, and carrot sticks at another for theirs!" exclaimed Quinn excitedly as she finished her sorting.
"Just make sure they never touch," said Daria. "Or kablooey!"
"Ha," Quinn said, crinkling her nose in annoyance at Daria as she left the room.
Helen closed the manual and turned her attentions to her daughter. "What do you think of the new refrigerator, Daria?"
HmmÖ "I thinkÖ" began Daria, moving her eyes to the tall appliance. However, an object lying in the back yard out the window directly stole her attention. It was the long, tan cardboard box the refrigerator mustíve been shipped in, about six feet tall with the word 'up' accomanied by an arrow printed on opposite sides. Immediately Daria felt her heart sink and her mind become numb, though she had no clue as to why. Her eyes stared hard at the box, her brow low over them as they concentrated, compelled by the thing. It seemed to be triggering something within the depths of her brain, some strange uneasiness that made her suddenly feel as if she had to throw up. And yet, it really was only a simple cardboard box. "I think they left the box."
Helen glanced out the window. Indeed, the box had been left behind. "Oh, isnít that ridiculous. They carted off that heavy old refrigerator and left the cardboard box," she remarked. "Well, itís light. You and your sister can move it out to the curb for the trash collectors."
"Isnít that sort of brute donkey work the reason they made fathers?" quipped Daria, attempting to ignore the feelings assembling within her.
"Daria, Iím surprised at you being so traditional," Helen said to her daughter, semi-genuine.
"Iím not being traditional," said Daria. "Iím being lazy."
That didnít seem to matter to Helen. "Well, your father heard about a last-minute opening at some marketing conference and ran off, so I guess you girls will have to do it."
At that, Daria became even more uneasy. She swallowed, narrowing her eyes to almost a squint in dire suspicion. "A last-minute trip?" she said. "He didnít say anything about that."
"Well, no, Daria. Thatís because it was last-minute."
"Oh. Okay." Still, that fact didnít really help Daria feel any better. For a moment, Daria was hesitant. Then she dared to ask the question that had slowly been forming in her mind: "Did we used to have one of those when we were kids?" Daria's eyes remained glued on the refrigerator box.
"One of what?" inquired Helen, oblivious.
"A refrigerator box," answered Daria. "I seem to remember spending a lot of time playing in one when I was a kid."
"Oh, I doubt that Daria. I donít remember you doing much playing at all," Helen said, laughing. Her laughing ceased instantly as Daria sent an ĎIím seriousí glare her way. "Oh..."
Fifteen minutes later, Daria and Quinn were dragging the carton through the back yard. Daria uncharacteristically dove into conversation with Quinn right off.
"Do you remember us having one of these when we were kids?" she asked.
"Daria, Iím doing manual labor here?" said Quinn, irked. "Iím not in the mood for a stroll down memory road."
"You were probably too young anyway," Daria kept on. "I think I was around five or six."
"Daria!" Quinn shot out, dropping her end of the box. "Iím near the perspiring point!"
Daria rolled her eyes, scowling in annoyance. "Oh, come on, this thing isnít heavy. I could drag it myself--"
"Okay." Quinn quickly cut her off. "Bye."
"Wait!" Daria blurted out.
Quinn turned, still displaying her winning attitude of the moment. "What?" she said, more aggravated.
Daria didnít know why she was going to say what she was about to, but for some odd reason, felt she needed Quinnís opinion. A first and only. "Why do you think Dad really went away?"
Quinn stared briefly at Daria with her hands on her hips, puzzled. She briefly looked at Daria, looking for a hint of trickery. When she saw no evidence of it, Quinn said, "Daria, why are you so weird?" After another brief pause, Quinn turned and walked back to the house, sort of shaking her head.
She is right, Daria admitted silently. What the hell am I thinking? Last-minute trip. Yes. Daria picked up an end of the box and proceeded to the curb, shaking away her weird skepticism. Nevertheless, as she walked on staring straight ahead, she could still feel the weight of uneasiness bearing down on her shoulders.
For what seemed the hundredth time that evening, Daria walked up to the large picture window in the living room and stared out at the refrigerator box on the curb. It was very strange. Not the box, mind, but the situation. She couldnít determine why she was so compelled to gawk at it, which bothered her most. It was just a plain, ordinary cardboard box, nothing more, and yet it seemed to still be triggering some nonexistent recollection. Daria tried and tried again to scour her memory for some detail, but as her childhood was not one that could be deemed happy, it wasnít something she thought about often, if at all. Daria had played in one of those boxes, the one that had packaged the old refrigerator. That was about as clear as it got, however. No real distinct details or anything... not even a vague detail. Just that she had a box, and it was some sort of childhood plaything. Nothing else. And yet, there was something else, something that seemed to be hidden away at the back of her mind, hidden but definitely there somewhereÖ something written in a yellow folder and a heap of folders, all yellow, to checkÖ something. Something she could not remember. Or perhaps didnít want to...?
Damn it, thought Daria. This is giving me a headache. Daria turned and went over to the phone. She dialed the Sloanesí number. She hoped that Tom hadnít turned in early for the early-morning trip.
"Hi, Mrs. Sloane, itís Daria. Um, is Tom there?" Daria listened. "Oh... okayÖ No, just that I called. Thanks."
Daria hung up the phone and sighed in dejection. Slowly she turned back at to the window. Damn box, she said to herself. Dariaís ignorance was driving her crazy. What was it about that box? She felt as if sheíd asked herself that question a million times that day. And where was her dad? Dariaís suspicions were stronger than ever. This whole thing was very unnatural. Or wasnít it? Daria sighed and crossed her arms. Damn box. The still night was filled with stars. Daria stared out at them. Stared into the darkness... did not move at all... just stared.
The darkness was a trifle frightening. No, it was all frightening. Daria clutched the soft sheets tightly in her hands. They were shaking, her hands. Her small hands. She arched her head apprehensively against the soft pillow. She didnít want to hear it. It scared her. Made her feel bad. Didnít want to hear it, but did.
"Damn it Helen, thatís it! How much am I supposed to take?" Jakeís loud, angry shouts echoed off all walls of the house.
Helenís voice was panicky and equally loud. "Jake, sheís a child, she doesnít know any better!" she yelled back. So scared.
"Thatís what she wants you to believe!" Jake shot back.
The darkness was scary. Big and scary. Daria cringed. Her eyes never left the duckling-bordered wallpaper. She stared at it, at the darkness that it had absorbed... straight ahead. Daria blinked, afraid to keep her eyes closed too long.
When they opened, her eyes were on the box, resting there on the concrete. The mystery carton. Damn box. Daria blinked again. She finally moved, dropping her arms to her side. She swallowed, the brief but strange flashback fresh in her mind. She hadnít wanted to hear it...? Damn box. Daria was now more perplexed than ever. She opened the front door and slowly headed down the walk. The peaceful sound of chirping crickets was in the air. Taking hold of one of the flaps at the end of the large box, Daria pulled it along with her back towards the house.
At seven a.m. the next morning, Helen was wide-awake and ready to leave for work. Of course, she was supposed to be arriving at the firm at right about that time, but because of her recent good to excellent standings at work, she wasnít too worried about it. Standing in the kitchen with cell phone in one hand and coffee mug in the other, she dialed up her boss Eric, pacing around the kitchen.
"Eric? Iím running a little late," she said into the phone. "No, itís nothing to do with the refrigerator... Oh, I should chill." Obviously Eric had thought that his pun was the most clever ever to be said. Helen forced a weak chuckle. "Thatís funnyÖ Okay, bye."
She pressed down on the power button. When she looked up from the phone, her eyes noticed a familiar yet alien object outside the window. There in the back yard was the refrigerator box... the one sheíd asked Daria and Quinn to move out yesterday. As Helen brought her attentions back into the room, a tousled, groggy Quinn walked into the kitchen, yawning and stretching.
"Quinn," Helen began, "I thought I asked you and Daria to move that box out to the curb?"
"What?" Quinn was baffled, and it shone through her tired voice. "We did."
"Maybe you dreamt that you did. I want you to go out there and move it right now," Helen commanded.
Quinn looked out the window. The box was unquestionably there. Quinn's mouth hung open in speechlessness. "But Mom, I swear--"
"I donít have time to play games, Quinn," interrupted Helen, "Iím late! Bring the box out to the curb or I wonít be responsible for what happens to your carrot sticks!"
Helen grabbed her case and stomped out of the kitchen, leaving behind her coffee cup and an extremely confused Quinn.
Quinn thoughts quickly changed to those of a most livid nature as she made her way to the back door. How unfair! Daria had probably left the stupid refrigerator box behind as some stupid joke or payback. And now Quinn had to take the heat for it! How absolutely unfair! The now-fuming Quinn slid open the sliding doors leading out back and tromped outside to the box, her fists clenched tightly and her mouth pinched into a tight little scowl on her pretty face. Glaring furiously, she took a hold of one of the tabs on the end of the box.
"Stupid freakiní carton..." Quinn muttered, dragging it along with her. "Hard freakiní laborÖ Iím only freakiní human! How much can one freakiní girl take? Even an enormously freakiní popular oneÖ" She reached the sidewalk and dropped the box. Hands on hips, she muttered angrily to herself, looking down at the box. Yet the garbage collectors were not far off and there was no way she would take the chance of catching the smell of garbage. Sneering, Quinn turned on her heel and, ever-fuming, stormed back to the house.
The sound of the garbage truck braking a ways off woke Daria. She lifted her head up. I wonder what mystery appliance we'll be getting today, she said to herself sarcastically. She looked over at her alarm clock. The blinking numerals read 2:13, with the p.m. light illuminated. Crap, she thought. Sheíd forgotten to reset the alarm. She grabbed her glasses from a tall-and-growing pile of books next to the bed and put them on. Stretching a bit, Daria walked out into the hallway towards the large front window to investigate. Indeed, it was the garbage truck. She shouldíve known that. After all, sheíd taken the refrigerator box out to the curb so they could pick it up... before later rescuing it, of course.
However, regardless of Dariaís previous actions, it seemed that someone else had taken it back. Her somewhat blurry eyes confirmed this as she glanced down at the sidewalk, her heart skipping a beat. The box was again lying where it had been previously laid the afternoon before. Looking back up at the trash collectorsí truck, she could see that they werenít very far off now. At once Daria turned, scurried down the steps, and rushed out the front door to rescue the enigmatic box a second time.
Mr. OíNeill put Kevin and Brittany in charge of the Tuesday morning tour for a small group of entering LHS freshmen. From a distance, he watched as the two bubbly, popular half-wits attempted to lead their party around the school. Things were going unfavorable at very best.
"Öand thatís how you lock the locker! Who wants to try?" Brittany enunciated the Ďlockí with a squeak as she turned the dial on the example locker. OíNeill watched as an uncertain boy walked up to the locker and simply turned the knob.
Kevin thereupon piped up. "Now the next stop on our tour is the lunch room. Who here knows what people do in the lunch room?" he asked the small group. The people in the group looked around at one another, not quite knowing what to think. Mr. OíNeill sighed and turned to look for Daria. He was getting desperate now.
Daria was not far off. In fact, she was only a few feet ahead of him, walking with Jane down the hallway. "Oh, Daria!" he called, catching up with them. "I was wondering if youíd given any more thought to helping out with the freshman tours?"
Daria did not stop. "If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve," she recited.
"But Jodieís doing it," OíNeill said, hoping an acquaintance involved might pressure her some.
Daria's expression showed no trace of being impressed, an expression that concurred with the mind behind it. "Jodie does everything."
Mr. OíNeill harassed further. "Maybe you and Jane want to give some tours together!" he proposed excitedly.
Jane spoke up. "Iíd do it." By now theyíd stopped. Daria looked at her incredulously. "Hey, if Iím giving a tour, then I canít be in class. Simple physics."
That didnít seem to help either. "I told you," Daria said. "Iíd feel like a complete hypocrite telling impressionable youngsters what a great place this is when I donít believe it myself." She started walking again.
"But you donít have to tell them what a great place it is! I want them to see that Lawndale High is the sort of school that embraces all kinds of students," declared Mr. OíNeill.
His statement did not sit very well with Daria. She abruptly came to a halt, her shoulders tense, her eyes piercing yet sedate. "Whatís that supposed to mean?"
Mr. OíNeill was hesitant. "Well, Jodie and the others are sort of..." --he groped for the right words-- "joiner types." That was a good example. "And you--"
Daria cut in. "Are sort of a non-joiner type? An outcast, an oddball, a fifth wheel?" Daria was getting furious, her voice rising with each word spoken. "And you want me to tell other oddballs that life at Lawndale High will be just peachy?"
Mr. OíNeill was taken aback. "Daria! Is everything all right?" he asked.
Daria was now fully infuriated. "No! Why do I have to be pegged as the misfit all the time? I can get along with people!" she exclaimed. With that, she stomped off in the other direction.
Mr. OíNeill made a swift effort to mend the situation. "Of course you can, Daria, thatís my point!" he called to her. Then he added, "So youíll think about it?!" Daria did not answer him. She turned a corner further on down the hall and was gone from sight.
The downtrodden English teacher looked over at Jane, who still stood there next to him. Shaking her head, Jane said to him simply, "Kids."
Daria buried herself in a book the minute she arrived home from school. It seemed to be the only thing to even remotely soothe the strange emotions that had begun to erupt. As she read, however, she found it rather difficult to concentrate. Paranoia and doubt seemed to dull Dariaís senses. She attempted to ignore the prying idea that was beginning to form in her mind. It... whatever it was... was something she did not want to ponder on about. Naturally, her efforts were in vain. Sitting at the kitchen table that evening, Daria finally acknowledged the fact that it was impossible to get all the unwanted thoughts out of her mind. Looking up at the kitchen clock, she noted the time. Six-thirty. In three hours, sheíd read only twenty pages.
Sighing, Daria looked out the window into the back yard. She cursed the refrigerator box that, for the third time, lay on its side there. She thought back to her bizarre recollection of the previous night. The memory was greatly disturbing. Why had her dad been so angry? And Helen, what had she been going on about? It seemed to be something about Daria herself. The very idea made Daria feel sick to her stomach again. And that damn boxÖ how did that factor in? Daria shook her daze away. It was stupid to keep going on about nothing. Had whatever it was sheíd remembered even happened? Perhaps she was just being over-imaginative? Yes, probably so. Daria sighed and went back to her book.
She was not left to read in peace however, as Helen chose that moment to make an entrance. Dariaís overworked mother wore an expression of aggravation. Demanding an answer, Helen questioned, "Daria? Why is that refrigerator box in the back yard again?"
Without warning, the emotions Daria had tried to purge came flying out. She slammed her book closed, as well as a paperback could actually slam. "Why do you refuse to acknowledge we had a box like that when I was a kid?"
Helen was taken aback. The frustration in her voice went from irritation to surprise. "What? What are you talking about?"
"Whereís Dad?" Daria demanded, twice as frustrated as her mother, extremely angry and unyielding.
"I told you, heís at a conference," Helen answered, as calmly as she could. "Heíll be home tomorrow. Call him if you want to speak to him!"
"Why? So he can lie to me, too?" sneered Daria. She clenched her teeth.
The shocked Helen could not remember a time sheíd seen Daria act like this before. "Daria, are you feeling okay?"
Daria ignored Helenís question and bluntly asked what she hadnít wanted to think about. "Did you and Dad have a huge fight about me when I was little?"
Helen was very anxious now, her voice quickening. What was Daria going on about? "What?! No!" Helen replied.
A few brief seconds passed in silence. Daria looked right at Helen from her seat at the kitchen table with tight lips before standing up. "Youíre lying." Daria walked out of the room, frowning at the carpet. Helen let her go without a word, though her worries stayed with her. Something was very wrong with her daughter, and she couldnít think of a thing to do about it.
In haste, Daria ascended the stairs and walked steadily to her room, closing the door behind her. The girl took a long, deep breath. As she moved over to her bed, she began to silently scold herself and again tell herself she was imagining things, but by the time sheíd taken a seat on the soft bedspread, sheíd ceased the thoughts. In her mind, Daria knew it was ridiculous to keep doing that to herself. Obviously something had happened that night, that night that must have been more than ten years ago. Ironically enough, the vague memory was too vivid to just have been imagined. What was difficult about the situation was that while she wanted to know exactly what had happened and why, she was afraid she would not be particularly elated with what she found.
Daria lurched over the side of her bed and opened her backpack. She snatched out a notebook and flipped the pages with a thumb until she neared the middle. Noting a telephone number, the one Tom had left to reach him at his great aunt and uncleís, Daria reached for the cordless phone. It lay conveniently on its side near her bed on the floor. After two rings, a young man answered the phone. It was Tom. Secretly Daria was glad he had answered and not one of his relatives. When she was finished rushing through initial greetings, Daria got right to her point.
"So when are you coming home?" she asked him. Sheíd finally calmed down and spoke normally.
"Next week, like I said," replied Tom into the receiver.
"Can you get back any sooner?" said Daria sincerely.
"I wish I could," Tom said jokingly, and then it hit him. "Wait, are you kidding?"
Daria felt her repressed emotions coming loose again. "Do you have to make fun of me?"
"Iím not making fun of you," said Tom. "But what happened to ĎI donít care if youíre here or notí?"
"Itís changed." There was a short silence. "Listen, do you still want me to come up there?" As Daria spoke, her thoughts considered. Maybe it would be better if she went up there and relaxed, talked with Tom some, got away from the hell that was school... or Mr. OíNeill, anyway. The thought of Mr. OíNeill made Daria grimace.
Tom was honest with her. "Well, you could, but itís even duller than I thought. I mean, it would be great for me if you came up, but I think youíd have a horrible time."
Daria suddenly lashed out. "So you lied to me, too," she concluded bitterly.
Her accusation hit Tom by surprise. "What are you talking about?"
"You said you wanted me to come up. Now you say you donít," Daria responded, her tone verging on hostile.
"Thatís not what I said at all!" Tom exclaimed, attempting to reason with her. He could tell something was the matter. "Come on up, I want you to. Itíll be great."
There was another short pause. "No thanks." Dariaís tone was back to normal, but that didnít much comfort Tom at this point. He sighed. "Call me tomorrow, okay?" Daria added.
Tom tried his best to be amiable after the abuse, though he was worried. "Daria, seriously, is something wrong?"
Daria was quick to end the conversation. "Call me tomorrow, all right? Bye." She pressed the off button on the phone.
Tom tried to get in a few more words. Hastily he said into the phone, "But we can talk right now..." Midway through his sentence, there was a dull click and the connection was broken. Daria slowly dropped the phone from her ear and placed it back on the receiver. In her extreme state of discomfort, she drew her knees up close on the bed and embraced them, sighing, not knowing what else to do.
The subsequent day was a Wednesday. Daria drifted through it disjointedly, walking in a muddle through school unsuccessfully attempting to keep her mind straight, as well as doing her best to avoid Mr. OíNeill. As the day went by, Jane noticed Dariaís behavior as odd more and more. The latter quirk wasnít so unusual, but the former was. Daria normally was one to crack left and right, but that day Jane noticed very little coming from Dariaís sarcasm department. Still, Daria was prone to irregular behavior somewhat often, so Jane simply convinced herself that this day was one of those times. Nevertheless, when her friend asked her to come to her house that afternoon after school to examine some sort of box, Jane agreed with a bit of quiet solicitude.
The walk to the Dariaís house was more or less an ordinary one. Jane tried to keep up normal conversation to avoid uncomfortable silence, though she wondered if it would be only she feeling uncomfortable. Upon arrival, Daria and Jane dropped their book bags in the living room and headed out the front door, destination back yard. It was a pretty day: the sun was out amongst a few feathery clouds, the sky a deep blue; the sound of birds chirping was all around. Spring was upon them.
"Well, you spoke the truth," Jane admitted when they came upon the refrigerator box. "Itís a box, all right."
Daria gazed at the box thoughtfully and said, "Itís more than a box."
"Um, from here it looks like exactly a box," said Jane, an eyebrow cocked.
"I mean that box is trying to tell me something."
Boy, Daria was acting weird today. "If you say so," Jane replied. "All I hear is the rustle of a gentle breeze wafting through cardboard. Quite soothing, really." She half-grinned.
Daria hesitated at Janeís remark. "Youíre right," Daria said sincerely, "it is soothing."
Janeís eyebrow lifted again. "I was kidding," she said shortly.
"No..." Dariaís eyes strained a little as she spoke. "Thereís something about it." Totally unexpected to Jane, Daria dropped down to her hands and knees. Slowly she crawled into the long carton.
Jane's eyes grew wide, her mouth subtly gaping. She locked her knees and steadied herself, nearly falling forward. Her eyes blinked hard in utter disbelief. "Um, Daria?" Jane asked incredulously. She did not know whether to laugh or faint. "What are you doing?"
Her friend had reached the back of the box and sat cross-legged, hands in her lap. Her eyes were fixed on the ground, steady and calm. "Yes. This is right." Dariaís voice was strangely serene.
Bending down, Janeís eyebrows narrowed over her eyes, her lips coming back together. Her worry was no longer hidden: "Daria?"
They were being very loud. Their voices cut through the darkness and accomplished a nightmare. The darkness was, in itself, a trifle frightening. No, it was all frightening. Daria clutched the soft sheets tightly in her hands. They were shaking, her hands. Her small hands. She arched her head apprehensively against the soft pillow. She didnít want to hear it. It scared her. Made her feel bad. Didnít want to hear it, but did.
"Damn it Helen, thatís it! How much am I supposed to take?" Jakeís earsplitting, angry shouts echoed off all walls of the house.
Helenís voice was panicky and equally loud. "Jake, this isnít about you, itís about her, having a little trouble fitting in!" she yelled back. Gripping tightly... so scared.
"She doesnít want to fit in, damn it!" bellowed Jake. "Why canít you admit that?!"
"Jake sheís a child, she doesnít know any better!" Her motherís pleading screams send a shudder down Dariaís back. Made her feel bad.
"Thatís what she wants you to believe!" Jake shot back.
Daria could hardly see, it was so dark. The darkness was scary. Big and scary, more than ever. Daria cringed. Her eyes never left the duckling-bordered wallpaper, which seemed to glow dimly in the dark. She stared at it, at the darkness that it had absorbed... straight ahead. She wished that she could absorb darkness, too. Daria blinked, afraid to keep her eyes closed too long. The turbulent battle waged on. Daria held the sheets close. What did she do so wrong?
"Where are you going?!" demanded Helen. Please donít come in.
A door suddenly slammed, followed by another slam from a different source. Daria couldnít tell which they were, but they were thankfully not hers. That fact wasnít much relief. A familiar feeling of alienation followed the previous shudder down Dariaís back and it was all over. She was alone in the dark, and very much afraid. Very much afraid.
"Daria?" Daria could hear Janeís voice nearby, but her eyes stayed fixed on the floor of the refrigerator box. "Come on, the neighbors are starting to talk." Janeís attempt at humor was feeble. Her mood was most positively not right for it.
Languidly, Daria lifted her head and her eyes met Janeís. After quick assessment, she responded, "Um... good. Soon theyíll progress to cave drawings and civilization will be on its way." With reluctance, she got to her knees and crawled back out of the box. When Daria stood up and brushed herself off some, both she and Jane beheld Quinn coming over to them, ardent and big-eyed, her hands outstretched in excitement.
"Daria! I remembered! You were right!" Quinn said as she came up. She prattled on speedily. "I remembered I was three or four and it was nighttime and I woke up because Mom and Dad were fighting, and then Dad was yelling and a door slammed and then I heard a car start up and he drove away."
Despite her swift speaking, Daria followed completely. Some strange part of her was, in a way, delighted with Quinnís news. "Thank you. I knew wasnít imagining it," Daria said. Then, "Do you remember what they were fighting about?"
Quinn looked up with her finger held to her chin, as if pondering. "Um... yeah..." Quinn was purposefully wavering, and Daria could easily tell. Her eyes dropped back down to Daria, a remorseful look in them. "They were fighting about you."
Dariaís eyes fell from Quinnís to the newly-cut grass. Turning, she dropped back down to her knees and crawled into the large cardboard carton. Worried looks were exchanged between Jane and Quinn.
"I think Iíll get going," Jane said quietly. "Tell Daria Iíll call her, okay?"
Quinn led Jane back to the house, leaving Daria to herself in the box. Daria could hear them somewhat as they left, though their words were incoherent and meaningless, as if they were coming from an ignored television set. Their footsteps were most audible. They weren't particularly loud, but soft: a soothing, patient soft. It must have largely been Jane's massive combat boots. The boots dragged across the grass accompanying Jane's leisurely stride, producing a gentle swooshing sound that carried Daria off with it into the depths of her mind.
Toward the center of the large, sunny office, the elementary school psychologist sat across from Daria at one end of a low, round table. In front of her, the calm lady was going through a few assorted papers and poster board signs, emitting a comforting swooshing sound as she did so. The chairs in which they sat were not very comfortable though, something Daria first noticed when she sat down. Her mom and dad sat near her, against one wall in regular chairs. Why couldnít they have just set up regular chairs here too?
The lady finished sorting through the signs and papers in front of her on the table, one of which Daria noticed was a manila folder with 'Morgendorffer, Daria 01' printed on its margin. Then, following insignificant greetings, the psychologist proceeded to hold up a set of the poster board signs. Daria saw that the first had on it a big black blot of ink. "This is a very special picture," the lady began. "Now, Daria... I want you to tell me what you see when you look at the picture."
Daria was confused. Couldn't the lady see the ink? "What do you mean?" she asked. "Thatís not a picture."
"Well, not the kind of picture weíre used to seeing. This picture lets you make up what itís about," explained the psychologist.
Her explanation did nothing for Daria. "Then why donít I just draw my own picture?"
The lady was ever-patient. "For instance," she went on calmly, "one little boy or girl might look at it and see a fire truck or a house. Another might see a herd of beautiful wild ponies running free across the plains."
Daria could not be moved to think so. "Itís just a black splotch."
The psychologist set the signs back down on the table. "Daria, whatís your favorite game to play at recess?" she asked.
Daria answered frankly, "I donít like games. I like to read."
This did not seem to sit well with the lady, nor Dariaís parents. "Donít you like playing with the other children?"
"Not really," admitted Daria. "They never understand what Iím talking about and then they make fun of me." The lady studied Daria hard, but did not say anything. Humbly, Daria repeated, "I like to read."
She didnít seem to notice her parents glance at one another, distressed: not from the usual difficult working schedules, but rather from a certain problem at hand.
"Iím just saying Daria. If you give the other boys and girls a chance you might meet someone you like. It takes all kinds," Jake said with an edge of great stress to his voice. The family was driving down the road now, on a suburban Highland street headed toward home.
From beside her in the back seat Quinn piped up, bouncing around enthusiastically, contrary to Dariaís sedate demeanor. "I like lots of kids!" she announced, little pigtails springing up and down.
Daria defended her disposition. "They call me Egghead."
Helen stayed relaxed, despite obvious anxiety. "Sweetie, itís a little hard for your father and me to keep taking time off from work to talk to the counselor. Why donít you meet us halfway and try talking to the other kids?" she appealed.
Daria crossed her arms and was unyielding as she said, "They donít say anything that interests me."
At this point Quinn cut in. "I talk to lots of kids and they talk back!" she said, continuing to bob about. The car turned into the driveway of the Morgendorffer residence. It was a small, pleasant house painted a light blue. All of Dariaís memories came from the house, but it was not all she knew. Books were her delivery.
Helen prodded on. "Daria, how do you know they donít interest you?"
Abruptly, Daria said, "Iím tired." She opened the car door and exited.
Once more, Jake and Helen exchanged a look of concern as Quinn, still bouncing in the back seat, informed them, "Iím not tired!"
Daria lay snugly in her bed beneath cozy blankets and sheets, drifting gradually off to sleep. It was late now, and with late hours came darkness. She shifted to her side underneath the bedding, the soft pillow cradling her head. It was dark all around her room. The large toy chest, the purple bureau, the wallpaper done in duckies all seemed to disregard the dark. That comforted Daria, as the darkness was mysterious to her. Daria didnít much like things she couldnít see, both in the physical and literal sense. As her eyelids drooped lower and lower promising sleep, her parentsí voices rose from within the house somewhere. Her fatherís voice was muffled at first, but was rapidly rising in intensity. Subsequent to thinking about it, she realized sheíd heard them going on for a few minutes now.
"...to get fired. This is too much for me, Helen," Daria caught.
"Well I donít know what to do. Iím at my witsí end." That voice was Helenís. She didnít sound too happy.
Daria turned over on her back and reached for the ends of the sheets. They were being very loud now, and because of that, she knew her parents were talking about her. Daria gulped. She didnít like people making a fuss over her, especially when she didnít mean to do something, especially when it was dark and late and she was getting scared. Their voices cut through the darkness and like lightning accomplished a nightmare. The darkness was, in itself, a trifle frightening. No, it was all frightening. Daria clutched the soft sheets tightly in her hands. They were shaking, her hands. Her small hands. She arched her head apprehensively against the soft pillow. She didnít want to hear it. It scared her. Made her feel bad. Didnít want to hear it, but did.
"Damn it Helen, thatís it! I go in there every day to face a psychotic boss in a job that makes me feel like a freakiní slave, then I have to come home and deal with this? How much am I supposed to take?" Jakeís earsplitting, angry shouts echoed off all walls of the house. Daria was greatly shaken up now.
Helenís voice was panicky and equally loud as his. "Jake, this isnít about you, itís about her, having a little trouble fitting in!" she yelled back. Gripping tightly... so scared.
"She doesnít want to fit in, damn it!" bellowed Jake. "Why canít you admit that?!"
"Jake sheís a child, she doesnít know any better!" Her motherís pleading screams send a shudder down Dariaís back. Made her feel bad.
"Thatís what she wants you to believe!" Jake shot back.
Daria could hardly see, it was so dark. The darkness was so scary now. Big and scary, more than ever. Daria cringed. Her eyes never left the duckling-bordered wallpaper, which seemed to glow dimly in the dark. She stared at it, at the darkness that it had absorbed... straight ahead. She wished that she could absorb darkness, too. Daria blinked, afraid to keep her eyes closed too long. The turbulent battle waged on. Daria held the sheets close. What did she do so wrong?
"Where are you going?!" demanded Helen. Please donít come in... please donít.
A door suddenly slammed, followed by another slam from a different source. Daria couldnít tell which they were, but they were thankfully not hers. That fact wasnít much relief. A familiar feeling of alienation followed the previous shudder down Dariaís back and was all over. She was alone in the dark, and very much afraid. Very much afraid. There was only one thing to do.
Cautiously Daria leaned over to the nightstand at the bedside and took up the book she was currently into. The book bore the title Black Beauty in large letters. Climbing from the bed, Daria crept across the room to the light switch. The switch-plate had a jolly-looking clown painted on its face, contradicting Dariaís present state of mind. Dropping down to her knees, she crawled a ways on the floor into the large refrigerator box sitting in a corner of the room near the light switch. Dariaíd formerly crayoned the sides of the box to resemble a house, with colorful windows and doors drawn on here and there. When she reached the back she sat cross-legged and opened up her book. About the box were a small worn blanket, a pillow, and a small stack of books, in case of an emergency. They were Dariaís favorites: Matilda... A Wrinkle in Time... Aliceís Adventures in Wonderland... The books meant comfort, as did her box. It was her sanctuary. Almost immediately after entering, Daria felt a wave of relief calm her. She was once again her normal, composed self. She was safe, safe from the screaming and the fighting, safe with her esteemed books from anything hurtful. She was safe in her box.
Daria understood now as she stared lost in thought at the ground in the refrigerator box. The truth was painfully clear.
Jake Morgendorffer walked up the footpath from the sidewalk to the front door of his house from a Lawndale taxicab. On his shoulder was a sizable overnight bag, and in his fist was a plastic-covered suit on a clothes hanger. He was quite hungry after the plane ride, which offered not much else than some lousy peanuts and bitter coffee. Jakeís travelling items were still with him as he entered the kitchen, intent on diving into the new refrigerator. By now heíd mostly calmed down about the expense Helen had informed him of over the phone two days previous, but he was glad to have gotten away when he did to avoid with the hassle of ordering and delivery.
The new refrigerator was similar to the old one, with few minor differences. As he passed the window on his way to it, an article lying on the grass in the backyard distracted his attention. It was long and cardboard, lying on its side. Assuming it to be the forgotten box the new refrigerator had been delivered in, he set his bag and suit on the table and left out into the yard to dispose of it. Taking a hold on one flap, he hunched down to make sure it was completely empty. He was quite dumbfounded to see his eldest daughter Daria sitting at the back of the box, motionless and incoherent.
"Oh! Hey kiddo!" Jake said cheerfully. He stood up, disregarding his plans to get rid of the box for the time being, when it suddenly occurred to him that it was not natural for someone like Daria to be sitting in a refrigerator box like a child. In addition, she hadnít said a thing, not even a grunt of acknowledgement. Jake turned back around and peeked into the box once more. Daria was in the exact same position she had been in before, as still as a mannequin. Wrinkles formed more definitely on his forehead as Jake raised his brow in confusion. Almost timidly, he spoke again. "Um, Daria?"
"But whatís she doing in there?"
Jake had returned to the house and gone inside to seek his wife, hoping to find some sort of explanation for Dariaís erratic behavior. Nothing much had come from his pursuit, as the equally stupefied Helen had already observed the sad sight of Daria deep in negative thought in the box and knew no cause for her behavior. Jake now stood with Helen looking out the kitchen window at the very box that inexplicably held their daughter. His current question didnít seem to have an answer, either.
"I don't know," Helen said. "She's been acting so strangely. I'd have called you but by the time I got home and saw her, you were already in the air."
Quinn approached them in the kitchen, a bit taken aback by the sight of her father. "Oh, hi, Dad. How was the Band-Aid conference?" she asked him, nonchalant.
Jake looked at Quinn in an odd manner. "Branding. It was a branding conference," he corrected her.
A look of compelled horror crossed Quinnís face. "Branding? Oh no, those poor cows!"
Her parents ignored her misconception. "Quinn, do you have any idea why your sister is outside sitting in that ridiculous box?" asked a hopeful Helen.
Quinnís brow raised slightly. "Is she still out there?" Then she paused. "Um, it's about that fight you two had."
Her justification met ignorant ears. "Fight? What fight?" Jakeís question was genuine.
Helen added, "We didn't have any fight."
Their daughter illustrated further. "Back when we were kids, in the old house. You know, you had a big fight about Daria, and then Dad stormed out? It was very traumatic. The scars are with me to this day," Quinn clarified, her hand meeting her chest. "Do we have any diet soda?" Traumatic, indeed.
Jake and Helen departed to the back yard and looked into the box. Daria was in the same position, though it appeared that she had shifted somewhat. Helen leaned her head into the box. "Come on, Daria. Come out of the box," she cajoled. "We want to talk to you."
"Yeah, come on, kiddo," added Jake, using his familiar epithet for Daria. "Weíll all have a nice talk."
"No," Daria stubbornly uttered.
"Daria, you can't spend the rest of your life in there," Helen said. Her words were blunt.
In spite of her predicament, Daria managed an attempt at humor. "I can once they put in my high-speed internet connection," she jeered.
"Daria... please come out?" Jake urged. Daria looked up at him, hearing the distress in his voice. The looks on his face, as well as Helenís, elucidated it.
Daria considered briefly. Then she said, "All right. But you have to promise to be completely honest with me."
It was Helenís turn to consider. "Um... uh... okay," she stammered, deciding that it was best to be honest anyway.
Jake, however, didnít. "Helen, is that such a good idea?"
Quickly, Helen snapped, "Jake!"
He turned from his wife to Daria with an instant smile. "Honest it is!"
By the time theyíd settled in in the living room, the sun had set and the dusk was fast to dissolve into night. Daria sat on one of the twin loveseats alone, while her parents sat obliquely from her on the sofa, close to one another. Daria took a deep breath and began the Ďnice talk.í
"When I was six years old, did you have a big fight about me?" Her voice was flat and direct.
Simultaneously, her parents answered her, but with contradictory answers. Helen had said Ďyes,í while Jake had said Ďno.í Receiving Helenís rankled stare, Jake hesitantly changed his answer to Helenís. Satisfied, Helen turned back to Daria.
"I'd forgotten all about it," Helen admitted. "Quinn reminded us." Subconsciously, she further admitted that sheíd forgotten by choice. It had not been an affair to remember.
"Why were you fighting?" Daria asked.
Helen sat back on the sofa pillow and said, "Daria, you have to understand. We kept getting calls from the school. You wouldn't talk to the other children. You wouldn't play with the other children. We knew how smart you were. Talking to you was like talking to a miniature adult. But you wouldn't engage with the other kids."
"They didn't interest me." Eleven years later and still Daria maintained her position.
"That's what you said," Jake told her.
Helen proceeded. "Your father was in a job he hated, with a really sadistic boss."
"Lousy mini-Mussolini..." grumbled Jake angrily.
"Jake!" Helen sent him a look that let him know that now was not the time.
"Tense, Daria. I was very tense," he declared, his mini-rage disappearing in a flash.
Meanwhile, Helen went on, "I was trying to resume a full-time workload and still raise two young girls. We were all tense. Your problems at school were sort of the straw that broke the camel's back. We had an argument, your father stormed off, spent the night in a motel--"
"A crappy motel," Jake interrupted.
"--and the next day, we made up and carried on." Helenís tone was convincing. The edge to her voice was that of integrity.
Daria felt guilty, no matter what. "So I caused a big marital rift," she said, acknowledging her suspicion, talking more to herself than to her parents.
Jake defended his daughter. "Not a rift, Daria."
"We had a fight one night. You happened to be the topic. Not the cause," Helen assured her.
Daria sat in silence, evaluating the situation for a moment. She had not been assured by Helenís claim. Looking over at their eager faces, her mind seemed to detect that they were only being nice about it and were tweaking the story so everyone could forget the whole thing and move on with their miserable lives, and so that Daria could be spared the guilt. It did not help... her heart seemed to hit the floor. She felt awful, worse than ever.
Mechanically, Daria jumped up from the couch and crossed the room toward the front door. Her parentsí heads turned to follow her. "Daria?" Helen said, but received no answer. The front door opened and closed. Daria opened the door to Helen's red sports utility vehicle and started the engine with her key. By the time Helen and Jake had scurried to the door and were looking out into the evening air, Daria had backed out onto Glen Oaks Lane and was gradually pulling away. Gaining speed, Daria watched them in her rear view mirror, the uneasiness in their expressions, until they no longer be seen.
Driving steadily, Daria tried not to think about the box and the fight and everything, if only for a little while. She needed to talk to someone she trusted. Never in her life could she remember needing to talk to someone so urgently. Turning onto the highway, Daria reached with one hand into the glove box for Helenís alternative cellular phone, kept there in case of emergencies. Thinking her problem at hand no less than one, she turned it on and dialed. She would take Tom up on his offer.
Luckily, the number to Tomís relatives had the same digit repeated in the suffix, so she was able to recall the phone number from her previous dialing. Holding the phone up to her ear, she listened intently as she drove with the traffic.
"Hello? Mrs. Sloane? Is Tom there?" Daria asked Tomís mother on the other end of the line. Apparently, however, Tom was not there, but Daria was too desperate to let the chance pass her up. Breaking through her normally timid constraints, she said, "Well, would it be okay if I took you up on your offer to visit?... Yeah... I can be there in about four hours." Daria silently sighed in relief. "Thanks very much, Mrs. Sloane."
Daria turned off the cell phone and dropped it beside her in the passenger's seat. As her eyes concentrated on the road ahead, she noticed that rain had begun to fall from the sky. Switching the wipers on, Daria realized through the turmoil of mixed emotions that it made sense: it had been very still when sheíd left home. At first, the rain was light and scarce, but it soon developed into a thick sheet of droplets. Indeed, it did reflect Dariaís personal crisis at hand.
Daria still could not believe it, and moreso that she couldnít previously remember the disturbing events. All this, all of what had happened... all the time just being herself, she mustíve indirectly been doing a wrong. Daria had been a burden, been the reason for a gargantuan fight, been making her parents, whoíd normally been nothing less than decent to her, miserable. Daria shook the thoughts away and stared ahead, not even the slightest hint of any emotion on her face.
Just donít think, she said to herself. Thereíll be a time for that. Just watch the road.
However, it was getting more and more difficult to watch the road at all. The shower of raindrops was like a viscous transparent syrup falling from the dark clouds above. Daria leaned closer to the windshield and squinted to see better. She loosened up on the accelerator, as the pavement was getting very slick, and switch on her high beams, hoping not to blind the car ahead of her through its mirrors.
All of a sudden, Daria heard brakes squealing a couple cars ahead, saw the brake lights flash on in front of her and their source decelerate instantaneously. Instinctively, eyes enormous and hands clutching the wheel, she turned it to the right as hard and fast as she could manage, all the while lowering her foot on the brake. Doing so, she distinctively heard the sickening sound of one auto smashing into another, and then another less intense crash, and for a split second expected to hear a third, but did not. Safe on the shoulder, Daria trembled in shock, her hands so tight around the steering wheel that her knuckles were white. The near-accident plus her personal crisis was just too much. The moments seemed like hours, and yet when she later tried thinking back on them, they were vague and unclear and seemed almost as if theyíd never even happened. The sound of a manís voice and his nervous pounding on her window brought Daria out of her daze.
His voice was subdued through the glass, but Daria could hear what he was saying. "Miss, are you all right? Miss! Miss!"
The rain-soaked man was on-edge when Daria snapped out of it. Daria clumsily rolled down the window, still shaking.
"Yeah," Daria managed to respond, her voice frail. "Yeah, I'm okay."
It was too early in the year to have air conditioning running. That was the first thought Daria had as she sat down at a window booth at a nearby roadside diner, Momís. She was almost completely drenched and very cold. Her hands had developed slight wrinkles, something that Daria couldnít remember ever happening to her by merely standing in rain. As her luck would have it, the moment Dariaíd entered the diner, the rain had stopped. Hands in her lap, she stared at the table. Her mind was a mess. She was no longer fixated on her childhood dilemma; she was simply too weary. Still, she knew she would be explaining in detail very soon for someone who genuinely wanted to know what was going on. Daria felt no regrets for making the phone call.
Jane pulled Trent's rust-mobile off of Route 6 and into the ancient cracked parking lot of Mom's Diner. Being car-less, Jane was required to use her brother's, which was modest to say the least. As she scoured the lot for a front parking space, Jane fondly remembered the first summer she'd spent with Daria in Lawndale when the two had gone along with Trent and his friend Jesse to the Alternapalooza festival in Swedesville. On the drive there they'd eaten at this truck stop, and as she brought the car to a stop, she wondered with a smile if Daria had deliberately chosen this place to meet her. Daria's shaken up voice had not sounded very good on the phone minutes before, so Jane doubted her theory, but it was an interesting coincidence that they'd settled on meeting here.
Daria was sitting at a window booth, in clear view of Jane. Jane flashed her brights before turning the car off to get Daria's attention. The engine sputtered to silence as Jane exited the car. When she looked back into the diner, she noticed that Daria was no longer sitting at the booth. Her first thought was What the hell?, and her second thought was much the same, as upon entering the glass double doors of the truck stop she saw Daria wildly running toward her. Daria wrapped her arms around Jane and securely held them there, while Jane, in disbelief, silently hoped her eyes wouldnít bug so far out from their sockets that theyíd fall to the floor.
When the initial shock wore off, Jane followed Daria to her booth and joined her. After ordering and receiving two cups of coffee, the girls delved into discussion. Daria hid nothing as she went through the events that led up to the incident on the highway, as well as her recollections from childhood that were the very cause of the whole thing. Jane sat patiently and listened, and when Daria was more or less finished for the moment, she gave Daria her two cents.
"I'm not quite getting this," Jane began, her hands wrapped around the mug, absorbing its warmth. "You ran off because of a fight your parents had eleven years ago?"
"It's not the fight. It's the sudden realization that all these years, when I thought they were torturing me, in reality I was the one torturing them," Daria explained regretfully.
Jane did not agree with Dariaís conclusion, and was not about to let her own opinion go unspoken. "First of all, I don't think it's either-or. From where I'm sitting, you and your folks have done a great job of torturing each other. And second of all, you mean to tell me you don't know when you're busting them?" said Jane, bringing the coffee cup to her lips and taking a drink.
"Yes, I know when I'm busting them. What I didn't realize is what a pain I've been when I thought I was just being me," Daria said.
"Huh?" Jane did not follow. She took another drink.
Daria was straightforward. Her arms crossed on the table, she said, "At age six, I decide I don't need to talk to other kids ever again; my parents are the ones who get called into school. At twelve, I decide to try out some Shakespearean insults on my teachers; my parents are the ones who get called into school. At fifteen, I start writing violent revenge fantasies just to get a reaction--"
Jane cut in. "Your parents, et cetera, et cetera. Gotcha. But I never got the idea that they minded that much," she offered.
"Yeah. Which just makes it even worse," declared Daria.
Jane had no more pearl drops of wisdom to offer her friend. "You really need to discuss this with them," she said. Lifting the mug, she took another swallow of the black coffee. It was almost gone. It wouldnít be long before both girls were gone as well.
"I know," said Daria, "but first I had to talk to someone I could trust."
"Yeah, I'm sorry you didn't make it to the Cove."
Daria looked her friend in the eyes. They were the eyes of an eccentric, sardonic, mischievous girl, but also those of a caring, funny, reliable one. As she spoke, Daria felt content for the first time in days, as well as extremely fortunate. "I'm not. It would have been good to see Tom. But this way, I got to talk to the person I trust most." A true smile crossed Dariaís face. It was an understanding smile. Looking across the booth at her best friend, she received the same.
By the time Daria returned home that evening, it was getting on to ten oíclock. Quinn was still out with tonightís date, but Helen and Jake were much too distracted with their situation with Daria to even notice her gone. They sat quietly on opposite sofas, waiting restlessly for the return of their eldest daughter. Dariaís call had come scarcely an hour ago, but already Helen was worried that something else had happened to her daughter, other than a near-collision with three other cars.
Jane had trailed behind Daria the whole way to keep an eye on her, as Daria was still a tad shaken up. Daria hadnít gotten very far to the Cove, and had only been a few miles out of town when she spun off the road, so the drive home was a short one. As Daria pulled into her driveway and slowed to a stop, Jane did the same at the curb, tapped the horn and gave a wave out the window. Then she continued on down the street to her own home, her worry now at ease.
In the meantime, Daria opened the garage door and parked the SUV. Walking back out to the front door, she closed the garage with the keypad at a side panel. She readily opened the front door and stepped into the living room. At the sound of its opening, Helen and Jake bounded from their seats on the sofas and ran in a frenzy to embrace their daughter.
"Oh, thank God!" Helen exclaimed as both she and Jake wrapped their arms around Daria at once.
Helen directed Daria to the kitchen and poured her another cup of hot coffee without a word. Jake stood a few feet away in the kitchen doorway, watching. The weary Helen scooped sugar into the cup as if sheíd just waken from a twelve-hour sleep. Daria took the cup from her, nodded in thanks, and took a sip. She wasnít really all that thirsty, as sheíd just had coffee, but accepted it with gratitude. Both parents looked intently at her, relief still clearly showing in the lines of their faces. They really had been worried.
"So..." Daria really couldnít think of what to say, an unusual concept for her. Jake and Helen still looked upon her dotingly. She stood and thought for a minute. "Um, you... still want to talk?"
"Oh, Daria," Helen said, "you donít have to talk to us now. You donít have to do anything you donít want to."
"Weíre just so happy youíre all right, kiddo," Jake added.
"Itís okay," she replied. Daria looked at Helen, then at Jake, and back at Helen. Sighing, she added, "I want to."
Not long after, the three were back in the living room, Helen and Jake on one couch and Daria on another. Daria took a swig of the coffee and began, "Look, I really didnít mean to worry you guys."
"But Daria, why did you have to run away when you heard that story about getting called in to school?" asked Helen.
"Yeah, we used to get called in to school all the time!" said Jake.
"Jake!" Helenís voice was filled with commanding irritation.
"I mean... we were used to it!"
Another wrong answer, unsurprisingly. "Jake!"
"Jake!" She frowned at him, silently telling him to not even bother. Count on Jake, she thought to herself, but as the thought ran through her head, Jake amazingly showed tact.
"It was part of the deal. It was the other side to you being so smart and perceptive," he said gracefully, as if he always showed as much intuition.
Helen smiled sheepishly. It took a while sometimes, but she could count on him. "Oh."
Daria was unsure. "What do you mean?" she inquired, hands fidgeting over the mug.
"Daria, you can't have a child with your kind of intelligence and expect her to fit in easily with other kids," explained Helen. "We weren't happy to be called into school because we knew it meant you weren't happy."
"But we were never unhappy with you," Jake said, keeping on his streak of insight.
Daria thought about this for a moment. "Oh. Well, that's good," she replied. Then: "Um... do you think I'm a misfit?"
A frank Helen answered, "Daria, you make your choices. We understand that."
"Yeah!" Jake agreed. Leaning inconspicuously to Helen, he muttered, "We do?"
"Choices?" asked Daria.
"Yes. Like deciding not to visit Tom while he was away, or to give those student tours. You choose not to interact and we understand. It doesn't make you a misfit," said Helen.
"It just makes me antisocial," Daria remarked. Helen and Jake shrugged their shoulders supportively. "That student tour thing is a matter of principle."
"You know, if I could interject here--" Jakeís interjection was silenced by a sharp stomp on his foot by Helen, who kept her eyes on Daria the whole time.
It seemed as if everything that needed to be said had been said. Daria stood up. "Um, I'm gonna go to bed."
"Good night," Helen bade as Daria started toward the stairs.
"Good night, kiddo," echoed Jake.
But everything had not been said, and Daria realized this as she approached the stairs. She turned back around to her parents.
"I just want to say... it occurs to me that maybe I wasn't the easiest child in the world to raise," Daria said. "And, um... perhaps I'm quite lucky to have you for parents." And with that, she headed on up the steps.
Helen turned to her husband thankfully. "Thank you for knowing when not to speak," she said with affection, tilting her head down and looking up at him, smiling.
"I think you broke my toe," complained Jake, devoid of any other feeling than physical pain.
Upstairs, Daria reached her bedroom at the end of the hallway and opened the door. When she flipped on the light, she was surprised to see the refrigerator box from the back yard sitting towards the back of the room. Curious, she walked to the box and saw a cutesy piece of stationary printed with hearts and flowers lying on the top. She picked it up and read the note aloud.
"Didn't know if you'd need this, but just in case. Quinn." Dariaís hand fell to her side at the realization of Quinnís thoughtfulness, something Daria knew was few and far between. She grinned.
For the rest of the week and into the weekend, Daria took it easy. Helen and Jake gave Daria her space and let her be, while Quinn went out of her way to prevent a squabble. Her afternoons consisted of Sick, Sad World at Janeís, pizza at the Pizza King, and of course, reading. With the remainder of her week spent relaxing, Daria had plenty of time to think about her little crisis, but didnít. It wasnít very difficult to come to terms with it after talking about it with those she cared about, and it hardly popped into her mind. Daria, after all, had something else to think about.
Monday morning, Tomís modest old car was waiting on the curb of the Morgendorffer household to take Daria to school. Heíd only returned home the day before, and hearing about everything that had been going on the past week through another vague phone call the previous evening had him eager to know the details. As the two drove down the neighborhood road to Lawndale High, Daria attempted to flesh things out.
"Anyway, sorry I wasn't home when you called," Tom told her when she was through. "And I'm real sorry you never made it up there, although I think that last checkers game between me and my uncle is still going on."
"Hey, you had no way of knowing I was going to want to drive up," said Daria.
"I mean, if I'd had any idea that you'd end up in a horrific multi-car crackup, whispering my name over and over in a desperate bid not to slip into a coma--"
"Horrific crackup?" Daria smirked, amused by Tomís exaggeration. "I spun out on the shoulder."
Tom was adamant. "You tell it your way, I'll tell it mine," he said.
The two glanced at each other, both smiling. Tom pulled up into the front turn-around at the school and put the car in park. "Well, Iíll see you. Try not to have too loathsome of a day, now," Tom remarked.
"See ya." Daria got out of the car and watched Tom drive off, waving. Then, turning to face the school, she sighed. Not so much at the prospect of going to school: that she had grudgingly grown accustomed to over time; rather, at the decision that had kept her mind busy the last few days. Swallowing what was left of her pride, Daria half-reluctantly entered the school building, not knowing if the day ahead of her was something to look forward to or not.
"Now over hereís the lunchroom."
Daria stood stolidly in front of the cafeteria amidst a hallway of Lawndale High. She pointed behind her announcing the obvious to the small group of junior high students, as the double doors she pointed at were capped with a sign that read Ďcafeteria.í She went on, "As middle school veterans, you already know that this is the center for spitballs, laughing milk up through your nose, and food poisoning of every variety."
As she spoke to the students, Daria couldnít help but reflect on her current post as freshman tour guide, still in slight disbelief that sheíd agreed to be one. The previous Friday, Daria had been forced to add that she meant just one tour when Mr. OíNeill consequently booked her up for three of the remaining five tours left to go. Perhaps her principles had changed some over the course of the last week. Dariaís confusion over her very way of being had nonetheless changed her in some way. Granted, she hadnít been the best child in the world, but at least she hadnít made her parents terribly miserable. And in reality, they hadnít really been all that bad themselves.
Daria wasnít exactly sure how the experience led her to change her mind about the tours, considering there had been no bribe from her mother involved. Maybe the fact that her parents didnít mind if she did it or not and understanding why if her final decision had been the latter had factored in somehow. Or, maybe it was simply to prove to Mr. OíNeill that she wasnít the misfit heíd pegged her down as, and that she could get along with other people. Daria really wasnít sure. One thing was for certain: there was no way Daria was going to praise Lawndale High in any way, and if anything, she would do her best to expose and poke fun at the ridiculousness of it all. That was, after all, something Daria did best... with Janeís help, of course.
Jane, who stood next to Daria helping to lead the tour, was quick to amuse herself. Adding on to Dariaís comment, she said, "Who here wants to slip me a twenty to point out the popular table so you can start fighting for a seat now?"
Suspiciously, the group of kids looked around at each other and then back at Jane. No one said a thing. Daria stifled a smirk, and as there was not really much else to say about the cafeteria the students didnít already know, she could think of nothing to do but lead them onward, overcoming the urge to add on to Janeís joke. There were plenty more opportunities for that to come, and she did not want to waste them all at once.
"Okay," Daria said. "Let's move on to Hell and Purgatory, also known as the gym and locker rooms."
Again, Jane could not resist. "Where, for twenty bucks, I'll show you which showers haven't been peed in," she mock-bribed, before feeling inclined to add, "To my knowledge."
The suspicious faces of the students suddenly twisted into those of surprise and appalled disgust. This is wrong, Daria decided to herself. "My friend is just kidding you, of course," she said to the group. "They've all been peed in." Daria looked over the stunned group with satisfaction. Thatís better.
The two proud outcasts turned and beckoned their group to follow. As they walked down the hall elaborating the circumstances becoming of the students that would soon take their place at the school, Daria heard a noise, perhaps like a squeak, and realized that she'd unintentionally left something. She momentarily stopped and looked behind her, behind the pack of students, briefly glancing about for something she may have left. Then she realized it, and when she looked back at Jane, whoíd stopped and looked as well, she saw that she was not alone. The girls exchanged a knowing glance, both half-smiling. They spun back around and continued on down the hall, their group quietly following.
"Now," said Daria, "as we head for the gym, take special note of the fine industrial-grade lockers, which make the perfect noise when you bang your head against them..."
Giving the tour could not suppress the feeling both Jane and Daria shared: relief. Graduation would soon be upon them, and neither felt any regrets. Through their years at Lawndale High, theyíd managed to stay sane among the shallow and the idiotic, those whose talents and knacks would be forgotten through the years as more shallow and idiotic people would come to take their place: the QBís, the student council fanatics, the cheerleaders, the fashion critics. The road had not been an easy one, true enough. It was not easy to be smart and keen and astute, and perhaps those who bashed their cynical correctives would never understand that. Theyíd made it though, through embarrassments and fights and tabloid television and growth and crisises and good times, as every friendship endures in its own way. And without any extra effort, Daria and Jane, the "misfits" of Lawndale High School, would be of the rare elite to do something that the cute, perky, popular crew of the norm would not do. Behind them, theyíd left their mark... and not just the size 6 1/2B boot scuff on the shiny linoleum floor.
"Two roads diverged in a wood and I-- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."
-- Robert Frost