Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged. Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2010.
This is a sequel to the Falling Into College series.
Michael Fulton leaned forward over the steering wheel of the car he and his wife Daria Morgendorffer had rented at the Gainesville, Florida Airport. Graduate school had gracefully matured the young couple. Not exactly fresh-faced, they still had the look of a young and ambitious couple looking to make their future.
Heavy, driving rain made visibility almost nonexistent as he tried to stay on the narrow, two-lane road. "Did a hurricane move in and somebody forget to tell us? I can hardly see where we're going, let alone our turn."
Daria pointed to a device on the dashboard. "Follow the GPS."
"And end up like one of those delivery trucks stuck between two buildings?"
"According to Karen, we're more likely to end up stuck between two horse's asses around here."
"That sounds like something she'd say."
The heavy downpour abruptly ended and the afternoon sun shown as Michael drove out of the rain band. "Whoa, that was quick."
Daria took the chance to look around at the neat pastures, moss-draped oak trees, perimeter fences and photogenic horse barns on both sides of the road. All were damp with rain but still most pleasant to see. "Nice scenery."
"I never pictured something like this in Florida."
A bland, artificial voice said, "Turn left in one quarter of a mile."
Michael looked at the GPS unit and then at Daria. "I like hearing you read a map better."
"Still a smooth-talker, I see. I guess that's why I keep you around."
"I like being kept around."
The artificial voice said, "Turn left. You are at your destination."
Michael turned onto a clay driveway flanked by wooden fences. A fair distance away was a Mission-style house and a barn large enough for two horses. Driving towards them, he said, "Looks like we made it."
Daria said, "It's going to be good to see Karen and Derek again, even if she's going to go on about how big she is."
Joking, Michael said, "She'll get over it."
Daria nodded. "Yeah, and after the baby is delivered, you know that our parents are going to start pestering us again."
"I thought our sisters were going to take care of that problem."
Daria gave him a glance.
He said, "That didn't come out the way I intended it."
Meows came from a pair of cat carriers in the back seat.
Michael said over his shoulder, "You too, huh?"
Daria looked over the seat at the cats. One was a black shorthair with white paws and nose while the other was a tortoiseshell shorthair. "No, they've figured out we're almost there and want out."
Michael brought the car to a stop in front of an open two-car garage. Parked inside were a dark blue light truck and a medium green compact car. Seeing the "If I were riding my horse, you'd be driving in something right now," bumper sticker, Daria said, "I think we know who owns the truck."
Michael opened the door and got out of the car, feeling a little stiff after the drive. The hot, humid air caused his air-conditioner cooled glasses to fog up immediately. As Daria got out of the car and experienced the same thing, he said, "I think it's muggy today."
"Really?" Daria said as she cleared her glasses on the lower hem of her t-shirt.
Finished, Daria pulled the seat forward and picked up one of the carriers. "Let's grab the brats and get inside before we melt in this heat."
"Right behind you," Michael said, picking up the other crate. Walking to the door, the couple grasped hands. Almost six years of marriage hadn't dimmed the habit. Daria rang the doorbell and they waited.
Soon, Derek Adler opened the door and said, "Daria. Michael, glad you made it. Both of you look good. Come on in."
They followed the still-fit man into the pleasant house. Right away, they saw Karen Adler, almost nine months pregnant, rising from a sofa. "Daria, thank you so much for coming."
Daria joked, "How could I get out of it?"
Karen reached Daria and hugged her. "Damn straight. I want my best friends with me."
"I'm not filming the happy event."
"I don't care if they were horses. I've seen enough deliveries that I don't want a copy of my own."
Michael shook Derek's hand and said, "How are things with you these days?"
"Not bad. I'm working for a plant pathology professor at University of Florida. Good project and the guy has a reputation for sharing authorship on papers. What about you?"
Michael sighed. "Still looking for something permanent. I'm on a one-year post-doc at the Colonial Reconstruction Project. Daria's doing part-time editing for Williamstown's literary magazine and has a couple of adjunct teaching gigs. To hear Daria talk about it, Karen's found a great position."
"A veterinarian at a horse clinic in the middle of Ocala horse country. She's in work heaven and well worth the move."
"Even with this summer heat?"
"Still getting used to that," Derek joked.
"Meow!" Bump sharply cried, attracting everyone's attention.
Karen said, "I see that Her Highness hasn't lost any of her shyness. Let them out; I've missed the little furballs."
Daria opened the first cage and Bump slowly walked out while surveying the house. She sniffed the air and, after a second, walked over to Karen and rubbed against her ankle. Karen looked down and said, "Sorry, but I'm not very flexible these days. Come on over here."
Karen went back to the sofa and sat down. Bump followed and jumped onto the sofa next her, purring and rubbing against her belly. "I knew you hadn't forgotten me."
Michael opened the other crate. "Come on, Sissy. You've met Karen and Derek before."
The cat cautiously poked her nose out of the carrier, sniffed and then came the rest of the way out. "See, it's not so bad," Michael said, reaching down to scratch her head.
Sissy enjoyed the attention for a few seconds and then bolted away without warning. Playful, she bounced up a chair and landed on a window sill that looked out toward the back of the property. She let out a loud meow and arched her back at what she saw.
Karen looked over the sofa back and saw her black mare just outside the window in the pasture. "Sissy, say hello to Elvira."
Daria watched her cat stalk back and forth on the window sill, unsuccessfully trying to intimidate the horse. "Any word from Jane?"
"On her way," Karen said. "She drove down to Mt. Dora to talk with a couple of artists so that she can write the trip off as a business expense. She called a little while ago and should be here in about half an hour or so."
Karen said, "When Jane gets here, it's going to seem like old times."
Daria nodded. "You know, I miss that old apartment."
"I love my house, but I think about the old place, too."
Derek said, "Michael, why don't we get your stuff out of the car while those two head off down memory lane."
"Okay, though I was kind of hoping to wait until things cooled off a bit."
"That won't be until after nine tonight."
"Eh, better not wait that long," Michael said, reluctantly heading toward the door.
Hearing the warning, Jane slowed her minivan down to just below the speed limit to avoid unwanted attention. Not that the brightly-colored van didn't attract attention with the large "Three Art Chicks" logo painted on each side. Except for her hair worn longer and in a single ponytail, she was little different from her college days. Even the mischievous glint remained in her blue eyes.
"Just the radar detector," she said into the miniature headset fitted to her right ear. "Karen warned me about the small towns around here and I'm taking her at her word."
After listening for a few seconds, Jane said, "No problem, CC. Their gallery took all of our artwork and I've got a great stack of stuff from them to bring back."
Another pause to listen, and then Jane said, "The kid's due on Tuesday. I can stay through the following weekend, but I have to be back to Fielding Primary on Monday. So, I'll see you then. Keep Nell out of trouble."
Jane laughed and said, "Nobody can keep Daria out of trouble if she's determined. Later."
She tapped the headset to disconnect and looked ahead. Seeing a convenience store, she slowed and pulled in to park in front. On her way out of the van, she grabbed her iPhone from the center console and popped it into her belt holster.
Inside, she passed by the regular assortment of junk food found in such stores while making a beeline for the rest room. "Figures," she said when she found the door locked.
Bored, she looked around the small store and realized that half the clientele were not what she expected for a small town convenience store. "When did I walk into a medieval fair?" she asked in response to the half-dozen people in medieval costumes in the store or lined up at checkout.
Using a well-honed skill, Jane took several photos with her cell phone while waiting. It was a habit she had picked up to get a wide variety of reference photos of people in natural poses.
The restroom was soon cleared and she went about her business. On her way out, she grabbed a soda from the cooler and stopped at the cashier to pay. While the young man rang up her purchase, she asked, "What's up with the costumes I saw in here earlier?"
The young man chuckled. "Bunch of reenactors that use the 4-H camp up the road every Memorial Day weekend and, oh, three or four more times a year. They're always good for buying lots of Gatorade, ice and beer."
"Keeps things from getting too dull."
"I can see that." On the way out to her van, Jane scanned the photos quickly. "Looks like I've got a couple of good ones here. Maybe I'll sketch something out after I get to Karen's."
Jane parked her van behind the rental car and said, "So the happy family beat me here." In a good mood, she reached back to grab her single suitcase and a compact drawing case. After closing the van door, she looked around as she walked to the door. "Nice digs."
Daria answered the door only moments after Jane had rung the doorbell. The two old friends embraced and Daria said, "It's been too long."
"That's what we get for getting a life," Jane replied.
After Daria let Jane into the house, Jane saw Karen and, with a grin, said, "Now that's what I call incredibly pregnant."
Karen returned the grin and came over to Jane, hugging her. "I've missed you, too."
Jane stepped back. "So, is the little guy on schedule?"
"As much as any baby is on schedule," Karen said.
"Then hold still," Jane said, setting down her baggage and freeing her camera. "I want pictures."
Karen spread her hands and faced Jane squarely. "Shoot away. I feel as big as a horse and I don't give a rat's ass any more. The only upside to this is I'm glad I inherited these hips. It should make delivery easier."
Jane said, "Damn, motherhood is turning you into an optimist."
"I'm waiting to see either of you try to push a kid through your dainty-assed hips."
"That's why I'm staying with cats," Daria said. "Plus, I won't have to pay for them to go to college."
Jane said, "Which means we can afford to buy more toys for ourselves."
"Coming from someone who teaches art part-time at an elementary school," Karen said to Jane.
She replied, "Hey, I never said I didn't like kids. I just like giving them back at the end of the day."
To the side, Derek said, "Michael, how much does Daria spend on fresh fish for the cats?"
Michael laughed and said, "That's 'don't ask – don't tell' territory."
Daria pointed her thumb at the window to the back pasture. "Like Karen doesn't spoil Elvira. We all saw the embroidered, wool horse blanket and hood she bought."
"I only have one horse." Karen then winked and patted her stomach. "Soon, I'll have someone else to spoil."
"Enough, already," Jane said. "Can we all agree that we spoil something and get on with more important things, like pizza?"
"Pizza's good," Daria said.
"So, what kind of delivery do you have around here?" Jane asked.
With a frown, Karen said, "Sorry, only a couple of the big chains."
Incredulous, Jane said, "You moved to a pizza desert?"
"No place is perfect."
Derek said, "But, we have barbeque."
Derek smiled again.
"Okay, this place isn't completely barbaric."
Using a handful of napkins, Jane wiped golden-colored sauce from her face and hands before dropping the napkins on a large pile of rib bones in the middle of a sheet of butcher paper. She patted her belly and groaned, "I needed that."
Using the last bit of bread from his "rib sandwich," Michael mopped up the remaining sauce from his meal. "You ate a whole side of spare ribs."
"And I don't regret a single one of them."
Cleaning up herself, Daria said, "Half a side was more than enough for me."
"You're turning into a lightweight, Morgendorffer," Jane said.
Daria said, "And I'm trying to stay that way. I don't run a couple miles a day like you do. I push papers."
"All the more reason to run."
"She's got a point there," Karen said.
"You ate a whole side yourself," Daria replied.
"I'm eating for two and, besides, I wrestle horses for a living."
To Derek, Michael said, "I think we got them together just in time."
"Yeah, they were approaching critical mass," Derek said in return.
Karen flicked a rib bone onto her pile. "Jane, we were talking about kids earlier and you completely avoided mentioning your nephew, Andy. He should be starting first grade this year, right?"
"Yeah, what gives?" Daria said. "Trent and Lindy are only a mile or so from your condo."
Jane said, "Oh, he's doing great. Really great."
"That didn't tell us anything," Daria said. "For example, are they sending him to Lawndale Elementary?"
With Quinn-like speed, Jane said, "I'm using my faculty tuition stipend to get him into Fielding Primary Academy."
Michael snickered while Daria held up her hand. "Did you just say that he's going to Fielding Primary?"
Jane sighed and nodded. "Hey, it is a good school, even if most of the parents are stuffy. I'm not going to be using my tuition stipend any time soon, so I'm just getting my money's worth by giving it to Andy. No big deal."
Then, Daria laughed. "A Lane at Fielding. Promise me you'll record Trent meeting the PTA."
Jane smirked. "Nah, I'm waiting to see Lindy tear into them. They're not going to know what happened."
Michael said, "So you're teaching again next year? What about Nell and CC?"
Jane nodded. "We're managing to keep the gallery in the black, but none of us are giving up our second jobs."
"I feel a little guilty," Karen meekly said.
"Don't," Daria firmly said. "You worked hard for what you've got and you've earned it. Michael and I are only a year out of grad school and, honestly, unless you're in a hot field, nobody gets a permanent position at our level right away. We knew what were getting into."
"And I'm still running my own gallery with two of my best friends. No kissing someone's ass to get my art shown and no changing my art to get it shown."
"Okay," Karen said.
Jane stood up. "Good. Now, what's for dessert?"
Sprawling, mature live oaks dotted the lawn around the Mid-Florida Equine Veterinary Center. Set amid a manicured lawn surrounded by green pasture, the building was large and spacious. Behind it was a climate-controlled horse barn with enough space for twenty patients. Seated in the passenger seat of Jane's van, Karen pointed to a parking spot around the side of the building, saying, "There. We don't close until five on Saturdays, so there's plenty of time to show you around."
Jane pulled into the spot and saw a small sign that read, "Reserved for Dr. Karen Adler, DVM."
"Now we know why you went to school all those years," Jane said. "Reserved parking."
Sitting behind Karen, Derek said, "And she doesn't even have to pay for it. Unlike me."
"Sucks being undereducated, doesn't it?" Jane joked to him.
He patted his chest, puffed it out and said, "With three Doctors in the car, someone has to be the Master."
Karen awkwardly turned and gently slapped his hand resting on her seat. "That was horrible."
Jane also slapped his hand. "Besides, you stole half of my punchline. Now, I'll have to settle for being the resident Bachelor."
Amused, Michael said, "Nobody's lost their touch."
Daria shook her head. "We should have our own TV series."
Opening the door, Jane said, "You're the writer."
"I could write it, but nobody would believe it."
"Dr. Amherst, I'd like you to meet some of my best friends from college: Daria Morgendorffer, her husband Michael Fulton, and Jane Lane. Daria and Jane were my roommates through most of my undergrad years. Dr. Paul Amherst is the director."
Dr. Amherst completely looked the part of a refined country veterinarian. Years of treating some of the finest thoroughbreds in the country gave him an air of surety and polish. His hair was pure white, as was his mustache. Despite nearing retirement, he was a spry and healthy man just as comfortable in the stable as in the office. "Good to meet you, everyone. Karen has spoken well about you and all that you've accomplished. Very impressive. But Dr. Adler, I'm a little confused. You said that Dr. Fulton was Dr. Morgendorffer's husband. Did I hear that correctly?"
Daria said, "Please, let me explain. When we were married, I was already a published author as Daria Morgendorffer, so I didn't want to lose that connection. Then, I didn't want to fit something as long as Morgendorffer-Fulton into those too-small name boxes on every form under the sun, so I simply kept my name as it was."
"Oh, that's very - practical."
"We thought so," Michael said.
Dr. Amherst smiled and said, "Sometimes, us old farts can be behind the curve."
Jane said, "Karen, are you always this formal, calling each other doctor?"
"The formality comforts the horse owners. To them, too much familiarity can sound unprofessional. So, we keep up the formality even in private so that we don't slip."
"Oh. But how did he know about Daria and Michael's degrees?"
"I've talked about them." Karen put her hand on Jane's shoulder. "We're not trying to single you out. I've talked about your gallery, too."
Dr. Amherst said, "Ms. Lane. Don't be intimidated. Some of the best horse people around these parts don't have degrees at all."
Jane nodded. "Sorry. Sometimes, little Janey gets intimidated by all the brains, but then I remember that they can't draw worth a damn."
Standing in the main examination foyer, Karen had almost finished with the tour when a technician entered and said, "Dr. Adler. I hate to disturb you, being on maternity leave and all."
"Mrs. Noland is here with Guinevere. You know how much she prefers you."
"It sounds like Guinevere stepped in a gopher tortoise burrow."
"I'll take a look at it. Excuse me, everybody. Susan, bring them in and get the X-ray machine ready."
Susan jogged away and, a minute later, a woman wearing medieval heraldic livery led in a limping horse fitted with a matching caparison.
The woman said, "I'm so glad you're here, Dr. Adler. I thought you were on maternity leave."
"It's your lucky day," Karen said. She pushed a wheeled stool over to the horse and carefully sat down on it so that she could examine the horse's leg. "I don't feel any obvious breaks, but I want an X-ray to be sure."
"Come on," Derek said. "Karen's going to be here a while, so let's get out of the way."
Following him out of the exam area, Jane said, "Looks like she's with the people I ran into earlier today."
"Some of the guys I work with at the Colonial Center would probably like to see them. They look neat," Michael said.
Closing the door as they exited, Daria said, "One of Karen's regulars?"
"She's a local," Derek said as they walked to the waiting room. "Only has the one horse, not like a lot of the other farms. Guinevere is more like a child to her family."
Jane said, "We don't know anybody like that, do we?"
Almost an hour, and several pet magazines each later, Karen joined them. "I'm sorry about that, but Mrs. Noland is a nice lady and I really like her and her horse. They're going to be okay. Guinevere strained some tendons, but no serious damage was done. A soft splint and easy going for a couple of weeks will fix her right up."
She placed both hands at the small of her back and stretched. "But sitting on that stool was hell on my back. I hope you don't mind, but I need to get home and rest for a bit."
Daria said, "You're the boss."
Derek left his bedroom and softly closed the door. In the living room, Daria and Michael were on the couch with the cats. Derek noted that Bump clearly preferred Daria's company and Sissy was closer to Michael. Jane had set up her portable easel and was quickly sketching the scene.
Derek said, "Karen's fine; she just needs a little rest. You know how stubborn she can get."
Jane said, "Oh, we know. Almost as stubborn as Daria."
"Nonsense," Daria said. "I think we established long ago that Karen is more stubborn."
"She stuck around for me," Derek said.
"You're a good catch," Jane said. "That shows that she's smart, not stubborn."
"Between my health problems, fights with the VA over treatment and the stress she felt in vet school. Trust me, she's stubborn."
"You seem to be in good health," Michael said.
"I'm still short a kidney and a spleen, with all the problems that causes. Plus, it's a good bet I suffered a concussion in the explosion that wasn't diagnosed at the time. I'm lucky that as university staff, I can go to the teaching hospital on campus, plus there's a big VA hospital literally across the road from there."
"Oh," Michael said.
Derek sat down. "I have a lot to deal with, but I've also had a lot of breaks. The Guard paid for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. When I want to go for my doctorate, I can get a tuition waiver for my classwork and only have to pay for dissertation hours."
Jane said, "How did we ever get to know such an optimist?"
"Complete accident," Daria said.
Seated at the dining table while Derek prepared breakfast, Karen said, "Jane Lane. What are you doing up so early?"
Hair as rumpled as her t-shirt and shorts, Jane said, "Having to get to school at 7:30 has made me a morning person, dammit."
"But not a very cheerful one," Karen said.
"You can bet your sweet ass I'm not cheerful about it. Coffee?"
Derek took a mug off a hook under a cabinet and poured a cup. "Milk is in the fridge and sugar on the table."
"Thanks," Jane said, taking the mug and preparing her coffee. "I smell something good."
"Sausage gravy and biscuits," Derek said.
"You know that Daria's still watching her fat and cholesterol, right?"
"Don't worry. I have to be careful myself," Derek said. "We have a local butcher that makes extra lean sausage for us."
Jane said, "Karen, are you still using your mom's biscuit recipe?"
"Then when is breakfast?"
"About five minutes," Derek said. "Why don't you wake up Daria and Michael?"
"That can be dangerous," Jane said.
"Oh come on. It's pretty quiet in there, so we know that they're not up to anything," Karen said.
"Then you go."
"You're going to put a pregnant woman to work?"
Jane said, "Okay, the guilt trip worked. But if I'm permanently, emotionally scarred, you're paying for my therapy."
Jane sipped more coffee and then set the mug on the table. "No sense in risking perfectly good coffee," she said before going down the hallway to the guest bedroom. There she lightly knocked on the door. After a second, she cracked it open and looked inside.
Daria was on her left side, asleep with Bump curled up next to her stomach. Immediately next to her, Michael was sleeping on his back with Sissy curled up on his chest. She opened one eye and gave Jane a warning meow that was just loud enough to be heard while not waking up Daria or Michael.
Jane grinned and stepped back. Silent, she went to the other bedroom, stepped past the inflatable mattress on the floor and picked up her phone from where it was resting with her wallet and other personal items piled under a crib. She stood and took a moment to look around the soon-to-be-born girl's room. She chuckled and said, "You've got good parents, kid."
Jane snuck back to the guest room and looked in to see things unchanged. Before Sissy could meow again, Jane took her picture. "Sorry, kiddo," Jane said. "But I'm hungry and I know you're not going to complain about breakfast yourself. I was with Daria when we stopped at the grocery store on the way back yesterday."
Daria murmured something and Bump meowed at being woken up.
"Wakey-wakey, folks," Jane said, louder.
Michael sat up, causing Sissy to complain and hop aside before stopping to stretch. He said, "Morning, Jane."
"Food in five. I'm hungry, so don't be late."
Still not having moved, Daria said, "Was that Jane?"
"Yes," Michael replied.
"Bright and hungry," Jane said.
Daria sat up. "Okay, okay. I knew better than to expect bright and cheerful."
Derek watched the two cats while he and the others ate their breakfast. "Red snapper for Fishday. Good to see some things don't change."
"Red snapper is a change for them. It's too expensive up in Virginia," Daria said.
Working on her second helping, Jane said, "You mean that there is a limit to what you'll spend on them?"
"Yeah, the bank insists on it," Michael admitted. "They just refuse to understand the divine imperative of our feline overseers."
"Besides, Michael has the habit of liking to eat, too. So, I have to leave some for him," Daria said.
Michael bent down and addressed the cats. "For which I'm grateful."
Sissy gave him a quick meow and returned to her meal.
"You have pleased your goddess," Jane said.
Michael nodded. "Practice."
"Speaking of practice," Karen said. "How up to speed on horse riding are you two?"
"Not so much, lately," Daria admitted.
"Then I think we need to fix that." Karen turned to Jane. "And since you missed it when I first got Daria on a horse, I'm going to get you on one, now."
"Um," Jane said, immediately wary.
"Jane," Daria said. "You've done crazier things. If I can get on a horse, you can."
"Look, Elvira's mellowed a lot and she's real gentle. I've had to take it easy lately, so she's feeling a little left out."
"You know Daria can ride a horse. You saw the picture," Michael said.
"Okay, I'll give it a try. After we've let breakfast settle. I don't think your horse would want me to hurl on her back."
"Not really, though you're the one who would regret it more than her."
Daria, Michael and Jane watched while Derek fitted saddles and tack onto the two black horses under Karen's supervision. Daria said, "Elvira and Elisha. You're not going to be the kind of parents who use the same first letter for their children's first names, are you?"
"It never occurred to me," Derek said. "I named him after General Elisha Hunt Rhodes, a Civil War veteran and autobiographer."
"Isn't a Yankee name a little dangerous down here?" Michael joked.
"Only the Civil War buffs get it and they think it's pretty cool."
Eying the horses, Jane said, "Don't these things come in smaller sizes?"
"Yeah, but I don't have any," Karen said, leading Jane to Elvira. "Come on and say hello."
Derek stood next to the horse. "I'll help you up. Grab the saddle there and put your foot in the stirrup there. Then pull yourself up and swing your other leg over the saddle."
Smirking, Jane said, "Usually when someone tells me that, the context is completely different." She followed directions and was seated with little effort.
"I don't think we have to worry too much," Derek said and then went over to Elisha to easily climb up onto the saddle.
Karen said, "Just remember what I told you, Jane. Elvira's well-behaved."
"You also say that you're well-behaved," Jane said.
"At work, maybe, but never to you."
Derek rode up next to Jane. "Follow me. We'll take an easy walk around the paddock."
Following the signal, Elvira started to follow Derek and Elisha at an easy walk. "Ah!" Jane said as she was gently bounced by the horse's gait. "I thought these things had shock absorbers!"
Riding the horses, Daria and Michael had reached the far end of the pasture when her cell phone rang. She gave him a fast, "Don't say it," look when she took the phone from the holster. She saw the ID and answered, "Hi, Quinn. How's Napa Valley treating you?"
Her shoulder-length hair set in a subtle, elegant wave, Quinn sat on the back porch of her home, looking out over a small back yard. "Still great. Q visited the best boutique winery last week. I'm going to send you a bottle when you get back from your trip. So, how's Karen?"
"In much better spirits than I would be in her condition," Daria said.
"Spirits. Ugh, Daria, you're still at it," Quinn teased.
"It's a gift."
"And it's still giving. Is she excited?"
"Never could tell. Well, except for the whole massive growth inside her stomach thing."
"Have they decided on a name yet?"
"They haven't told us."
"They haven't picked one out yet?" Quinn said, shocked.
"No, they haven't told us."
"You'd think that they'd want to tell everyone."
"You would, but not me. Karen and Derek are, well, Karen and Derek. They'll let us know at the right time. Which – will probably be when they introduce us."
"Are you going to be in the delivery room with her?"
Daria said, "Are you kidding? Karen still thinks she might convince me to have kids of my own."
"She knows that seeing the whole process in its messy glory will only convince me that I made the right choice. The yelling and screaming part won't help, either."
"Now it's my turn. When are you and Q planning on making Mom and Dad grandparents?"
Quinn sputtered and said, "Daria!"
"Oh yeah, you're still working on the getting married part."
"These things take time and we want to be sure."
"Nobody can accuse you of rushing into anything."
"Now that we've gotten the teasing out of the way, how's work these days?"
"Great. I finally talked the design geeks to come up with paintable nails on the prosthetic hands and feet."
"Lots of girls like to paint their nails, though you wouldn't know much about that. Why should they have to do things halfway just because they wear a prosthetic?"
"You've got a point, there." Daria gently laughed. "You know, only you could make them fashionable."
Quinn also laughed. "It's a gift."
The old friends watched an old Sick, Sad World episode on a big-screen television in the living room. The announcer said, "This is just astounding! Here you are, blind, deaf, and barely able to walk, yet you conducted simultaneous affairs with three members of the Royal Family!" followed by the same voice, slightly older, saying, "And the Royal Family must not be able to smell because he reeked!"
Laughing, Jane said, "I love the commentary tracks on these DVDs."
The reporter continued, "That man's body odor could've stunned Sasquatch at thirty feet."
"Tell us what you really think of him," Karen said.
Jane said, "You know, I'm still bummed that they didn't track us down for the Season Three release. We were Alien Love Goddesses!"
Daria said, "I'm glad we remained 'unidentified young women.' Jane, you realize that they would've tried to make us wear those costumes, right?"
"We'd look damn good in them."
"That's not the point."
Jane smirked. "Michael would love to see you in one."
In response, he innocently whistled and looked away.
"'Fess up," Jane said, and then noticed the smile that momentarily broke through his composure. "Wait a minute."
He continued to look away.
Jane pointed a finger at Daria. "You! You know a professional costumer."
"Yes..." Daria said.
"Dammit! Why didn't you get her to make me one?"
"You didn't ask."
Karen looked at Derek, started to say something, stopped and then said, "We'll talk later. After I recover."
Looking at the university campus map laid out on the table, Daria said, "Leave it to a bunch of veterans to plan things out so thoroughly."
Derek shrugged. "We do it well."
Michael said, "Are you sure you want us to join in? I feel like I'd be stepping out of bounds."
"Of course we want you to join," Derek said. "Memorial Day is for everyone to remember. Not just us veterans."
Karen said, "Daria?"
She nodded. "I'm in."
"I'll do the best I can."
"Well, um...we were always the black sheep of the family. I don't even really know if any Lanes were in the military."
Derek said, "Anybody?"
Jane thought a moment and said, "I think I got it."
"Cool," Derek said.
"Do we need anything?" Michael asked.
"Bring water. It's going to get hot."
"And an umbrella," Karen said. "It's probably going to rain."
"This all sounds fun," Jane said. "But are you sure you want to be up and running around like that the day before you're due?"
Karen patted her stomach. "She'll come when she's ready. I'm not going to hide away waiting for that to happen. This is a big deal for Derek and his friends, so I'm going to be there."
Located next to the old married student housing on the University of Florida campus, Flavet Field was named after the many veterans who stayed in those apartments after WWII. In honor of that heritage, the Florida Veterans Association held the annual observance there every year. Hundreds had gathered for picnic lunches in front of the podium or wandered around the display of current and historical military vehicles.
With the temperature quickly rising and the humidity what she'd learned to expect, Karen had no reservations about using her condition to obtain the use of one of the few wooden tables set up on what were normally intramural athletic fields. Derek and Michael cooked chicken on a portable grill while Karen, Daria and Jane commented on the relationship of human males, dead animal parts and fire.
Nearing the end of their lunch, they watched as a patient was loaded onto the stand-by ambulance. Derek said, "I hope they're okay."
The others agreed as they watched the vehicle drive away and then each reached for their drinks.
With a tired sigh, Karen rose and said, "Excuse me. Somebody's kicking my bladder again."
"Good thing we grabbed a spot near one of the real bathrooms and not the port-a-potties," Jane said.
"You said it," Karen replied. "Back in a few minutes."
Derek listened to the current speaker on the podium and shuffled some notecards. "Don't take too long. I'm up next."
"I'll be back; don't worry. If I'm a little late, just shift me to later in line."
After she left, Derek said, "Everyone ready?"
"Sure," Daria said.
Michael nodded and gestured to show that he was being polite by not speaking while eating.
Jane said, "I think so."
"Just to be certain, this is all voluntary," Derek said.
Finished with his food, Michael said, "It's a good thing to do."
A couple of minutes later, Karen had not yet returned when the speaker finished and the emcee returned to the stage. He was a balding man in his fifties, wearing old Navy dress whites. "Thank you. The event staff has asked me to remind everyone to be careful with the heat and drink plenty of fluids. Next, to lead our personal remembrances, is one of our young leaders. A veteran of Afghanistan and bearer of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, I'm pleased to introduce 1st Lieutenant Derek Adler of the Florida National Guard."
Fitting the occasion, Derek was wearing his dress uniform. He saw Karen making her way back and gave her a quick wave before walking up on stage. Daria, Michael and Jane rose and stood near the stairs.
"Good afternoon," he told the crowd. "Here's your chance to share your stories about friends and loved ones that served their country and are no longer with us. My thoughts are with everyone who ever served in the 21st Infantry Regiment, Massachusetts National Guard. From its inception as the 21st Massachusetts Volunteers in 1862 to those currently on station in Iraq. All of you are my buddies."
He stepped back and motioned to Daria to step forward. She crossed the stage and had to pull the microphone down to be heard. "I'm thinking about my grandfather, Nathan Morgendorffer. He was a Marine that landed at Inchon in the Korean War and was later wounded at Chosin. He was...he was never the same afterward."
Derek saw that Karen had reached the stage and had gotten in line behind Jane. Others in the crowd were starting to line up behind her.
Michael followed Daria to the microphone. "My grandfather was Keith Fulton and a cook on the LST-689 during the fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He spent all his time below decks cooking, but he was there doing his job."
Jane went to the microphone and paused for several seconds. "The only veteran in my family that I ever really met was my maternal grandfather, Pete Lodzyck. He never said much about his time in the army, only that he built bridges for General Bradley."
Starting to look pale, Karen slowly took the stage behind Jane. "I remember my Grandpa Henry. He was a waist gunner on a B-17 that flew a full tour with the 918th. I also had the honor to fly the star that my grandmother flew for him while my husband was deployed. Thank you."
Instead of walking off the stage, Karen went to Derek and whispered, "Honey, we need to go."
"When I went to the restroom, it was, well, more than I expected. A lot more."
Eyes wide, Derek said, "You're in labor?"
Trying to be quiet, she said, "Yes."
Derek stepped to the emcee and said, "Commander, I need to leave."
"Your wife?" he asked.
"I'll cover for you. Go, young man. Do what you need to do."
Derek guided Karen down the other side of the stage to where their friends were standing. Karen said, "Sorry folks. How's this for timing?"
Daria said, "You're kidding. No, you're not kidding."
"You're never going to get to where we parked in this crowd," Jane said before glancing over to where they had watched the ambulance leave earlier. "Oh, damn. The ambulance is gone."
"I'll walk if I have to," Karen said. "The hospital is on the edge of campus."
"We'll find something," Daria said, looking around for an idea.
"What about that?" Michael asked, pointing to the military vehicle display.
"That'll work," Derek said, breaking into a run toward the vehicles and their attending guardsmen.
Karen guided them around the corner of the stage and away from the activity. "I don't want to make a scene."
Moments after Derek reached the display, several troopers took off at a sprint. One climbed into a humvee ambulance and didn't hesitate to start it up. A second ran to a humvee fitted for MP duty and, in a second, it was following the ambulance across the field.
The third ran to a campus police car and, after a short exchange, the police car was on its way over, too.
Watching, Daria said, "I think you're going to make a scene."
Karen covered her eyes. "Oh, god."
Michael said, "We'll take care of all the picnic stuff."
"Thanks," Karen said, still looking at the approaching vehicles in shock.
"We'll catch up with you later," Daria said.
By the time the impromptu convoy reached Karen, a dozen of Derek's fellow guard members had joined them. Putting her hand on the high edge of the ambulance door, Karen said, "How do you expect me to get up there?"
A First Sergeant stepped forward from the squad and said, "That's what we're here for, ma'am."
A medic opened the ambulance and pulled a stretcher out. As soon as he unfolded it, four troopers grabbed the handles and held it at waist height for Karen. The sergeant said, "Ma'am."
Carefully, she sat on the stretcher and turned to bring her legs up onto the support.
"On three," the sergeant ordered. "One, two, three."
The troopers lifted the stretcher and expertly slid it into the ambulance. The medic followed and reached one hand down to Derek. "Sir?"
Derek used the assist to climb up and into the vehicle. The sergeant closed the doors and shouted, "Ready to go, sir!"
Escorted by the MP vehicle and the police car, with lights flashing, the ambulance rolled away.
Jane said, "Boy, is she going to have a great story to tell her kid."
Daria said, "Yeah, she is."
As the automatic doors of Shands Hospital slid closed behind them, Daria wiped sweat from her forehead, saying, "I'm glad I've continued walking across campus."
Michael let the cool air wash over him. "This heat will keep you in shape."
"I'm impressed at you academic slackers," Jane said. "You were able to keep up."
Daria said, "Tennyson is just as congested as this place. I don't have a choice but to walk."
"I spend half my time in the field," Michael said. "You're the one that has to make an effort to stay in shape. We don't get a choice."
"Hey, it's not effort, and wait until you get a nice, cushy faculty job somewhere," Jane said.
"We can only hope," Daria said. "Though the market sucks big time."
One of the guardsmen that had escorted Karen and Derek to the hospital joined them. "Excuse me. Lt. Adler asked me to look out for you. Follow me, please. We need to go up to the fourth floor."
"Lead on," Daria said.
At the Birthing Center, they found the medic and the ambulance driver in the waiting room. The nurse at the duty station said, "Friends of the Adlers?"
"Yes," Daria said.
Jane said, "The military escort tipped you off."
The nurse chuckled. "That, and Mrs. Adler is the only woman in labor."
"Ah," Jane said. "That too."
"How is Karen doing?" Daria asked.
"Everything is proceeding normally. At the rate she's going, you're probably going to be here for a couple hours. Get comfortable. I'll let them know that you're here."
Derek came out about half an hour later. "Thanks, guys. Karen's doing great, though she's wishing things would go faster. Any problems getting here?"
"Not really," Michael said. "And so you don't have to worry, everything's packed in Jane's van."
"Is she blaming you yet?" Jane said.
"She's made it clear that if I ever get my own lab – I'm going to research male surrogacy."
Jane said, "Smart girl."
"I know how she can get," Daria said. "Has she frightened the staff yet?"
"Oh, with about every other phrase that comes out when the pains hit. I think even the OB received an education."
"Ouch," Michael said.
Daria said, "I've always thought that she could moonlight with you and teach drill sergeants creative cussing."
"Not after she embarrassed one of our platoon sergeants."
"Oh, that must've been a good one."
Proud, Derek said, "Oh, it was very special. But then, he deserved it. Speaking of the subject, I better get back before I'm the target of her wrath."
"We'll be here," Daria said.
"Or down in the cafeteria," Jane said. When the others looked, she added, "Hey, they said we're going to be here a while and I'm sure we'll get hungry."
About mid-afternoon, a young blonde entered the room. She was smartly dressed and carried a video camera and tripod on a sling over one shoulder. "Excuse me," she said. "I'm Trina Mallory with WUFT, the university television station. Are you here for the woman who went into labor at the memorial ceremony?"
Daria said, "We are."
"Would you be willing to answer a few questions?"
Michael said, "Karen's going to hate us if we say anything on camera."
"So we've got to," Jane replied.
Trina got the implication and said, "Give me a moment to set up."
Daria said, "Is the station too cheap to provide a camera crew?"
Trina said, "That's entry level TV. Solo operations are becoming common across the country. With how light and cheap automatic cameras have become, there's less of a need for operators under most conditions."
"In other words, too cheap."
The girl laughed. "Well, yeah. We're not even called reporters anymore. We're called multimedia journalists. Between shooting stories, putting content on our website and social media pages, we keep pretty busy."
Trina was fast and made the setup look effortless as she set the tripod, mounted the camera and ran a check against a white card. She then set the camera to film all three and said, "Can you please say your name, slowly?"
Jane said, "Make sure you call them doctor."
Michael said, "No. We're PhDs."
"Thank you," Trina said, and then asked Jane, "And you are?"
"Jane Lane – artist extraordinaire."
"And you are friends of..." Trina checked a small notepad before continuing, "Karen and Derek Adler?"
"Yes," Daria answered.
"Is my information correct that Karen is a veterinarian in Ocala and Derek is a microbiologist here on campus and is a First Lieutenant in the National Guard?"
"Also correct," Daria said.
"Is it true that they evacuated her from Flavet Field in a military ambulance with police escort?"
Daria nodded. "That's right."
Michael said, "The on-duty ambulance had taken a heat-stress patient away just a couple of minutes earlier. Derek's friends in the National Guard brought over the military vehicles and rounded up the police escort."
Trina said, "Lt. Adler must be popular with his men."
Jane said, "He's earned their respect, as well as from a lot of other people."
"How do you know the couple?" Trina said.
"We all met as undergrads in Boston," Daria said. "Karen was my first roommate."
"You were also the big cheeses at each other's weddings," Jane said.
"What brought you into town?"
Daria said, "To be with her."
"Was she expecting her baby soon?"
"How did they react when Mrs. Adler realized she was going into labor?"
"Calm," Daria said.
"A lot calmer than I would've been," Jane said.
Daria said, "Karen finished her remembrance before telling Derek what was happening. Derek was in charge of that part of the ceremony and she didn't want to spoil anything."
Trina smiled, knowing that would make a great quote for the broadcast. "It sounds like they'd do a lot for each other."
"It's not the first time," Daria said.
"Any other examples you'd like to share?"
Jane said, "There is that whole wedding story."
Michael smiled and said, "Jane, Karen's going to kill you."
Trina slung the camera over her shoulder and said, "Thank you. We're too late for the Six O'clock News, but the story should run at eleven. With a little luck, she'll have her baby and we can include the good news."
Jane said, "Can we get a copy?"
"You can download it from our website."
Trina said, "Have a nice day," before she left.
Michael said, "Karen is so going to kill us for that."
"Nah," Jane said. "She's going to be so gooey with new motherhood, she won't even notice. It's the only time we'll be able to get away with it."
"Lucky us," Michael said.
Daria checked her watch. "Is anyone else hungry?"
Jane smirked and said, "Told you."
Daria, Michael and Jane had found the food court without a problem and were pleased with the selections offered in addition to the cafeteria fare next door.
Jane said, "It's good to see we can still indulge in some junk food. With all the healthy stuff we've been eating, I was getting worried about us picking up canes and yelling at kids to stay off of our lawns."
Daria nodded and, after a bite of burger, said, "All things in moderation, including healthy food."
Holding a burrito, Michael said, "Balance is the key."
Grabbing another slice of pizza, Jane said, "Philosophy of junk food consumption. Only you two."
"Not just us," Michael said. "The proper proportions are the subject of heated debate in certain circles."
Daria said, "Namely, grad students vying for free food at seminars."
"Ah. So that's where you professor types learn your table manners."
"You found us out," Michael said. "But we'll never tell you how we learn professorial penmanship."
A nursing assistant approached them and said, "Are you here with the Adlers?"
Daria said, "Yes. Any news?"
"They have a healthy daughter and would like to see you now."
"Let's go." Jane pulled out her phone. "This thing is so much better than a Polaroid."
Michael said, "She'll understand if we finish our dinner."
Jane stuffed the rest of the slice in her mouth and mumbled, "Finished."
Seeing Karen holding the tiny, blond-haired baby and Derek beside her, Jane said, "Aww, you're almost too cute," before taking a picture.
"Make sure to send me copies," Karen said.
Michael and Daria entered the room and stopped next to the bed. Daria said, "Looks like everyone came out all right."
Michael covered his face. "I can't believe you said that."
Karen said, "I can. Now that all of you are here, say hello to Eve."
Jane took another photo and said, "Starting your own species?"
"First born among friends."
"Was that a hint?" Daria said.
"No, just an observation."
"Good." Daria's smile softened. "Congratulations. She's beautiful."
Karen looked down at her child. "Yeah, she is."
Jane said, "How are you holding up?"
"I hurt in places that I never thought would hurt, I'm tired, and I'm hungry."
"So, end of a typical day?"
Karen laughed. "Only I was at the other end of the deal."
Michael said, "How long are you going to be here?"
"Barring anything unexpected, two days. Everything was okay during my prenatal checkups and delivery was unremarkable."
"Derek," Jane said. "Are you going to be able to get time off from work?"
"I'll have to swing by the lab and fill out my leave form tomorrow morning, but otherwise, things are cool," he said.
"Great. Oh, and Derek," Jane said.
"Keep an eye on her if she watches the news tonight."
Holding Eve and waiting in a wheelchair while Daria sat in another chair in the room, Karen said, "It's been great having everyone take turns staying with me."
"We didn't want you to get bored. Some of us know what happens when you do," Daria said.
"I've got someone to keep me in line now."
"She's got a big job ahead of her."
"I think she's up to it."
Daria sat back and watched mother and child for a while. "I can see Eve growing up with lots of science toys, right?"
"Of course," Karen said. "And she's going to get a chance to write and to paint."
Daria smiled. "So we rubbed off on you."
"And I didn't even clean it off."
Derek entered the room, along with an attendant nurse. He said, "You're all checked out and ready to go. Michael's bringing the van around."
The nurse unlocked the wheelchair brakes and said, "Mrs. Adler, it's been a pleasure."
"Home," Karen said.
Derek held up a DVD and said, "As promised."
Karen took the disk and, with a sly grin, said, "Thanks."
Daria said, "Is that the broadcast interview?"
"Not just the interview," Derek said. "But also the unused footage."
"What? How?" Daria said.
"Oh, the wife of a biologist I know over at Forestry is a Broadcast Journalism student who knows the reporter. A favor here, a favor there..."
"Jane is going to die," Daria said.
Karen said, "That's the idea. By the way, where is she?"
"She's at the Harn Museum. We're going to have a hard time prying her away from there."
"Good. Then she can give Eve a tour in a couple of years."
Very gently, Karen laid her sleeping daughter in the crib. "Sweet dreams," she whispered as she left the room.
Karen caught up with the others out at their cars. She went first to Jane and said, "Thanks so much for being so understanding about the room."
"I've slept on plenty of couches, no problem," Jane said. "Expect art supplies in the future."
"We'll be waiting."
Next, Karen hugged Michael and said, "Keep an eye on her. She still needs adult supervision."
"We're screwed then," he said. "I'm still waiting for my official adult card."
Finally, Karen hugged Daria. "Don't make me have another baby to get you back down here."
"Find us jobs down here and you'll see more of me that you can stand."
Derek said, "We're looking for you, but..."
Michael said, "Yeah, we know."
Karen rubbed her eyes. "Let's not drag this out. My hormones are still out of whack and I don't need long, emotional goodbyes."
Jane got into her van and started it. "It's been a lot of fun and congratulations. I'll do my best to swing by on my next trip down here. Daria, Michael, I'll see you in Lawndale next month."
Daria sighed. "See you then, Jane."
Jane waved and backed up the van before turning and driving away.
Karen said, "Next month?"
"Ugh. High school reunion. Jane still consults with Jodie, so she can't avoid it, so I can't avoid it."
"Hey, at least you won't have a newborn to carry around like I will."
"You always found the bright side of things."
Daria nudged Michael toward the car and said, "We need to turn in the car before catching our flight." Meows from within the as Michael climbed in the car made her add, "And it takes extra time to check in with carry-on pets."
The women hugged once again. Daria got behind the wheel of the car and started it. She gave a wave before turning and driving down the road.
Karen rested her head on Derek's shoulder as she watched. Derek put his arm around her. "It helps to have good family."
Karen brushed away tears. "There's nothing like sisters."
Thanks to Louise Lobinske, Kristen Bealer and Ipswichfan for beta reading.