Out of Fashion

by Kristen Bealer

o O o

"...Gee, I guess there really aren't any suitable girls at school. Maybe the club should break up. Stacy, stop crying. Stacy!" Quinn hung up the phone with a sigh before approaching her sister, Daria, at the table. "Ice cream out of the carton?" she exclaimed with disgust. "You're going to end up like Sandi!"

Daria started to reply, but then paused. And in that pause, she considered her options. On the one hand, there was that bet with Jane over whether or not the Fashion Club would disband. She had bet that the club would survive, and the wager currently stood at forty dollars. She had already come up with a plan to win that bet, but something new had just occurred to her.

Bet aside, did she really want to keep the Fashion Club alive? She glanced at her sister. The only thing that club had done was make Quinn even more shallow and popularity-obsessed than ever, and she had seen firsthand how much it had sabotaged all of Quinn's attempts to actually use her brain.

I could push Quinn into fixing this, she realized. But should I? If she'd be better off without it, maybe it's worth giving up the forty beans.

The decision took only a few seconds, and Daria looked calmly back at Quinn. "Not at all. Ice cream has calcium, which strengthen bones. So I'm really less likely to wind up with a broken leg. But just in case, I'll be sure not to linger at the top of any stairs while you're around."

As Quinn rolled her eyes and left, Daria shrugged and turned back to her ice cream. Oh, well. I would've just blown all the money on pizza, anyway.

o O o

Quinn had just gotten to school a week later when she saw a frantic Stacy running toward her, babbling semi-coherently about Tiffany and weak round things.

"Slow down," Quinn urged her friend. "What's up?"

"I quit! I'm sorry, Quinn, but I can't keep the club going. Tiffany is just...Tiffany, and I can't do it. I'm so, so sorry!"

Stacy looked like she was about to cry, so Quinn immediately gave her a reassuring smile. "It's not your fault, Stacy. I guess it was just fate or whatever." She sighed sadly. "Does this mean there isn't any more Fashion Club?"

Covering her mouth with both hands, Stacy gasped at the realization. "I'm gonna miss it," she replied.

"Nooo mooore Faaaashion Cluuuub?" Tiffany asked, walking up to them both. The girls nodded. "Ohhhh. Weee'd betteeer teeell Saaaandi at the neeext meeeeting."

The bell rang. "We'll talk about it later," Quinn told Tiffany as they headed for class.

o O o

A peaceful rural landscape was rolling by, but Quinn barely noticed it from her seat at the front of The Tank, the "vehicle" Daria's friend's brother was driving them to the camp reunion in. She had been dividing her attention between trying to touch as little of the van as possible and thinking about Stacy, Sandi, and Tiffany.

Sandi had finally started coming back to school the previous week, without fanfare. She was still...thinly challenged...but anyone who dared come close to the subject got a hideous death glare. Quinn was constantly analyzing anything she said before it came out of her mouth, and Stacy had all but stopped talking completely. Tiffany, of course, noticed nothing different.

Quinn sighed. She'd kind of hoped that the dissolution of the Fashion Club would make things better, but the lack of official hierarchy made Sandi even more desperate to stay in charge. Not only that, but clothes shopping had become a nightmare now that everyone had to pretend Sandi wasn't trying on a larger size. Talking about dating was also a minefield since Sandi had been getting fewer dates-whether that was due to her weight or her increasingly negative attitude was anyone's guess.

"Are you coming?"

Quinn looked back to see Daria preparing to get out of the van. She turned and realized they had arrived at the camp while she was lost in thought.

"Don't get me wrong; the idea of holing up in here for the whole reunion is tempting," Daria added, "but there are no guarantees The Tank isn't infested with rats. It's a tough call."

Quinn shook her head, half-amused and half-disgusted. "I'm going." She stepped out of the van and immediately saw her old friends Tracy, Cindy, and Tatiana nearby. Crying out in happy surprise, she rushed over to greet them.

At least I get to spend one day with my innocent, uncomplicated childhood friends.

o O o

"What do you mean by that?" Tracy demanded. The girls were sitting on the grass, having decided earlier that three minutes of hiking was more than enough.

Quinn blinked in confusion. "I just said that your shirt is really cute."

"'Cute'? Quinn, kittens and babies are, like, cute. My shirt is sophisticated and chic."

"Right," Quinn said quietly. "That's...what I meant to say."

"Hm." Tracy sniffed and turned to Tatiana. "What do you think of my shirt?"

"It's super cute," Tatiana lazily replied, not paying attention.

As Tracy rolled her eyes in irritation, Cindy gasped. "Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "This morning Quinn said my shoes are cute, too! Is that bad?"

Quinn struggled to keep quiet, but all she wanted to do was scream at her childhood friends. "Do you even hear yourselves?" she wanted to yell. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

But Quinn already knew the answer to her question. She hadn't noticed it then, and even a month ago she still wouldn't have noticed it. Her friends-new as well as old-were all shallow, oversensitive, hostile jerks.

How long have I been stuck in this cycle? She looked at the other girls, all going through the motions of being friends while having no real affection for each other. How long do I want to stay in this cycle?

"I would say your shoes are very fashionable, Cindy," Tracy was saying. "Unless Quinn wants to disagree?"

Quinn sighed and stood up. "I'm done," she said simply. Before any of the others could even react, she turned and walked away in the direction of the camp.

o O o

"Quinn, it's for you!" Jake called out the next day.

"Huh," Daria commented. "It's not every day that Dad beats you to the phone." She looked over at Quinn, slouched down in a seat in the living room. She realized then that her sister hadn't even reacted when the phone rang. Slight concern appeared on her face. "Quinn?"

"Huh?" Quinn looked up at her, then over at Jake.

"It's one of your friends," Jake said, then paused as he tried to remember her name. "It's, uh, the nervous one."

"Oh," Quinn replied. She looked back down at the floor. "Tell her I can't talk right now."

Daria blinked in amused surprise. "Okay, now I know the apocalypse is nigh."

Jake walked out of the room with the phone to his ear. "Sorry, she's too busy to talk now...I don't know, she's just busy...No, she's not out with any other friends...I'm sure that's not-hey, why are you crying? Stop crying, dammit!"

Quinn continued to stare blankly into space. Daria looked at her curiously. "Okay, I give. What just happened?"

"Hmm?" Quinn focused on her sister again. "What?"

"You've been moping around all day, and just now you turned down the opportunity to tie up the phone line all afternoon. So what's going on?"

Quinn didn't answer right away. Instead she frowned at the floor in thought before finally replying. "Have you ever felt like you don't have any real friends?"

The sarcastic comeback was right on the tip of Daria's tongue. Then she saw the genuine sadness on Quinn's face and changed her mind. "Um...I guess I have a passing familiarity with loneliness, if that's what you're asking."

"Oh...yeah." Quinn nodded, a little apologetically. "But you do have a real friend now."

Daria sighed. "Quinn, you're arguably the most popular girl at our school. What's this about?"

Quinn hesitated, then her shoulders slumped. "My friends suck."

Once again, Daria bit back a smart-ass reply.

After a few moments, Quinn continued. "It's like, we used to have all this stuff in common. But now it seems like we just spend all our time getting upset. No one's having any fun."

"Ah." Daria wasn't sure what to say to this, so the two girls sat in silence for awhile. At last Daria spoke again. "Do you remember a couple of years ago, when Jane and I made that video of you?"

Blushing slightly at the memory, Quinn nodded.

"You said something back then about how you and your friends never talked about anything but guys, fashion, and cars," Daria continued. "You also said that that was okay, because it was the kind of thing you were good at."

"Uh huh," Quinn said, not sure where Daria was going with this.

"Well, maybe that's not what you're good at anymore. Or, more importantly, maybe that's not the only thing you're good at anymore."

Quinn looked at Daria through slightly narrowed eyes, trying to tell if she was serious or just making fun of her.

"Look," Daria continued patiently, "maybe there was a time when you were really shallow and self-obsessed." Quinn's eyes narrowed further, but she said nothing. "And until recently, you surrounded yourself with other people who were really shallow and self-obsessed, so you didn't notice that that was a bad thing."

Quinn brightened slightly in understanding. "You mean like how an ugly hairstyle on an unattractive person doesn't stand out, but an ugly hairstyle on an attractive person looks extra bad?"

Daria shrugged. "Okay. You're an ugly hairstyle. And now you realize that, so what do you want to do about it?"

"Ummm...go to the salon?"

"Quinn."

"Sorry!" She shrugged. "The metaphor confused me."

Daria raised an eyebrow slightly, impressed at her sister's better-than-expected vocabulary. "All right," she said. "That's actually a good way to put it, though. You need...a makeover." Seeing Quinn put a concerned hand to her hair, she shook her head. "A personality makeover. Figure out how you want to look on the inside and make it happen."

Quinn nodded, but still looked worried. "Daria...I don't know what I want to be like. How do I find out?"

"Pretend you don't care what anyone else thinks of you and then do whatever you want." Daria paused. "And try not to break any laws."

"Ha."

"Quinn?" Jake's voice called out from the kitchen. "Phone for you! It's...er...the slow one."

"Still busy, Daddy," Quinn replied, staring thoughtfully at her feet. "Still busy."

o O o

"...Congratulations for watching the FashionVision Humanitarian Awards! And remember, there's no better feeling than looking good, doing good. Good night!"

Sandi hit the power button on the remote, turning off the television as the credits began to roll. She tossed the remote onto the table next to the bed where she lay stretched out and tried to stop feeling so lonely.

Originally she'd planned to watch the show with Quinn, Stacy, and Tiffany, but that hadn't worked out. First, she'd had no luck getting in touch with Quinn. When Stacy found out Quinn wouldn't be there, she made a bunch of frightened squeaky noises and made some lame excuse to get off the phone. Next Sandi had contemplated the idea of spending the entire evening with just Tiffany and decided to give the plan up entirely.

A whole night of "Does this make me look fat?" thought Sandi. No, thanks. I already know what being fat looks like.

She looked down at herself, still as overweight as she ever was. Ugh. No wonder no one wants to hang out with me anymore. She glared in the direction of the stairs. It's all my stupid little brothers' fault, anyway. And then Quinn probably turned everyone against me. And-

Stop. Sandi blinked a few times, both to get rid of the tears she hadn't realized were forming and to break her focus on yet another self-defeating cycle. Just...stop.

Sandi sat up and the TV caught her eye again. "There's no better feeling than looking good, doing good," she recalled. Well, maybe I don't look good, but I'd sure like to feel better than I do now.

Playing idly with the hem of her muumuu, she tried to think of some worthy cause that might lift her spirits without ruining her manicure. She remembered the Fashion Club's disastrous efforts during last year's "Awareness of Others Week" and shuddered.

No clothing drives. But what other stuff did people do that week? Kevin and Brittany got some dumb award for doing something...what was it?

After a few minutes of thinking, she snapped her fingers. "That Better Days place!" she muttered out loud. "They were reading to old people." She thought some more. "I could do that. I can read." She wrinkled her nose a little at the thought of spending time with wrinkly people who smelled like mothballs and ointment, but shrugged it off. "Public service always comes with certain sacrifices," she reminded herself as she got off the bed and headed downstairs in search of a phone book.

While Sandi rummaged through the kitchen drawers, her mother walked in and pulled a bottle of water out of the fridge. "Oh, Sandi," Linda said in mock-surprise. "I'm so happy to see you were able to haul yourself out of bed this evening. I hope the strain wasn't too much for you. I know how difficult people of your size can find such tasks."

Sandi felt her shoulders tighten as the now-familiar string of jabs began, but didn't respond. She found the phone book and pulled it out, flipping through the pages. Where would it be? Old folks' home? Huh, guess not. Death's waiting room? No, not there, either. Oh! Retirement home.

"What are you looking for in the phone book?" Linda asked, voice innocent but with a nasty undertone as usual. "Weight-loss clinics would be in the W section, if you're wondering."

Still ignoring her mother, Sandi grabbed the phone and dialed. "Hello? Um, I was wondering if you still wanted to have people come in and, like, read to your old people? Uh-huh. Yeah, I'm free pretty much every day after school. Okay, I can do that. See you tomorrow." She hung up the phone.

"I'm sure I must have misheard," Linda said, still hiding the spite under a thin veneer of concern. "I didn't just hear you say you were volunteering somewhere?"

"Yes. I am." Sandi continued to avoid looking at her mother.

"Oh, Sandi." Linda shook her head sadly. "Don't you remember what I've always told you?"

"Yes. I do." With that, Sandi tossed the phone book into a drawer and walked back upstairs to her room.

o O o

"'...and with the thorn gone from his paw, the lion turned to the mouse with tears of gratitude in his eyes. He said, "Thank you, Mr. Mouse. I have a feeling we're going to become the best of friends."'" Sandi finished reading the story to Mrs. Lawson and wrinkled her nose. "God, that was dumb." She winced and looked at the elderly woman reclined in the bed next to her. "Um...sorry."

Mrs. Lawson laughed. "Don't be sorry, dear; if anyone's to blame, it's the retirement home for buying that crap in the first place."

Surprised, Sandi laughed along with her. "Next time I will bring something tolerable with me to read," she said. "Even my horrible English teacher would probably think the books in this place are bad."

"I'm sure there are coma patients who would think the books in this place are bad," Mrs. Lawson replied. "The people who run this place treat us all like we're children. Enforced bedtimes, making sure we eat our vegetables, and heaven forbid we watch anything more interesting than the Forecast Channel on TV."

"At least you don't have to do homework or study for tests," Sandi pointed out.

"But do you have to sit through schmaltzy movies and weekly bingo sessions?"

Sandi tossed her hair. "Demanding teachers."

Mrs. Lawson raised an eyebrow. "Condescending orderlies. With bed pans."

"Hmm. You win, I guess."

Mrs. Lawson looked at Sandi, her eyes bright with amusement. "You know," she said, "I think the two of us have a great deal in common."

Sandi eyed the older woman's crow's feet and gray hair for just a second before also noticing her surprisingly stylish blouse and expertly applied make-up. "Hmm," she said with approval in her voice. "Perhaps."

After exchanging smiles and goodbyes, Sandi left Mrs. Lawson's room and started to make her way to the front desk. As she walked down the hallway, she heard an incredulous voice behind her say, "Sandi Griffin?"

She turned to see a girl she vaguely recognized, but had no idea what her name was. She had long auburn hair and wore a pink sleeveless blouse with maroon slacks. All three clashed horribly with each other. Some nobody from school, she thought before reminding herself that she herself was now among the nobodies. "Can I, like, help you?" she asked.

"What are you doing here?" the girl demanded bluntly.

Rolling her eyes, Sandi held up the book in her hand. "Reading to old p-seniors."

"Yeah," the girl said, glaring, "but why?"

This was an unexpected question, and one that Sandi hadn't yet been able to explain even to herself. "Duh...because it's a nice thing to do."

The girl laughed, but it was a very unpleasant laugh. "Nice? Since when does Sandi Griffin do nice things for anyone?"

Sandi glared. "Ex-cuse me?" she asked haughtily. "I don't know who you think you are, but-"

"-Save it," the other girl snapped. "I can't believe this. You don't have your stupid little Fashion Club supporting you while you mock everyone at school anymore, so now you're coming here to pick on the elderly instead? That's bitchy, even for you."

"What?!" Sandi cried out, her voice echoing in the long hallway. She lowered her voice. "That is not why I'm here."

"Yeah, right." The girl continued to stare daggers into her. "Now be honest for once."

Sandi stared back at her, crafting the most devastating insult she could think of. It wove together the flaws in the girl's hair, shoes, outfit, and make-up choices while making subtle digs at her dating life and lack of manicure. She opened her mouth to speak, and then shut it again.

So maybe I win this argument. So what? What do I actually win? Yet another person who can't stand me. Another person pushed away. I've had enough of that crap.

"No one likes me." The words came out before Sandi could stop herself-she'd intended to be honest, sure, but not that honest. She covered her mouth with her hand, but it was too late. Too mortified to look her in the eye, she stared at the floor until the other girl broke the silence.

"Really?" The girl's voice was no longer mocking, and even sounded concerned.

Sandi slowly looked up. "I guess. My friends ditched me, and no one else wants to spend time with the fat girl." Glancing away again, she added, "It also seems I'm considered bitchy."

There was another long silence before the girl replied, "Uh, sorry about that. I just assumed..."

"Whatever." Feeling uncomfortable, Sandi decided to change the subject. "Why are you here? Do you volunteer, too, or...?"

She shook her head and pointed toward a nearby room. "Visiting my grandpa." She sighed. "Look, I really am sorry. It's nice that you come here to read to people."

"Uh, this is actually my first day."

"Oh." The girl shifted nervously and then took a step forward. "By the way, my name is Melissa."

"Hi, I guess." Sandi wasn't sure what else to say, but suddenly found herself asking, "So, the guy at the front desk says they almost never get volunteers. You could read to people, too, if you want, since you come here anyway to visit your grandfather. Plus I think all the old folks here are really lonely." In her head, Sandi added, And so am I.

She thought for a moment. "Um...maybe."

"What, you want the bitchiest girl at Lawndale High to think she's better than you are?"

Melissa couldn't help a small smile. "Fair enough. I'll think about it, okay?"

o O o

Stacy was experiencing an entirely new sensation-she was paying attention in class. Under normal circumstances she devoted half of her energy to making sure she didn't smudge her makeup or wrinkle her clothes or mess up her hair, and the other half to watching Sandi out of the corner of her eye and being very careful not to do or say anything to annoy her.

Lately, however, Sandi had stopped paying attention to Stacy. At first Stacy had driven herself nuts trying to decide if she was being frozen out and, if so, what she had done to deserve it. Then, after more time passed, she found she actually enjoyed being ignored by Sandi. So much pressure had lifted that she could swear she was floating through the school.

Right at that moment, though, she wasn't particularly happy. Their teachers had recently gone on strike, and their English substitute kept talking about his book.

"It's about a slightly older, sensitive man," he said, leaning in way too close to Tiffany, "and the love a budding woman child feels for him when she gets to know him better."

"Whaaat...?" Tiffany asked.

"See," Mr. Edwards continued, "love can be so simple when the hand of experience nurtures the budding flower to full blossom."

Stacy frowned. At first she'd thought the teacher was just blabbing on and on like teachers do, but something about the way he was looking at Tiffany bothered her.

It's like he wants to go out with her but he's too old, yuck, and anyway I'm pretty sure teachers aren't allowed to go out with students because Ms. Li is even really strict about teachers dating other teachers so what he's doing is definitely way wrong for a bunch of reasons. But Tiffany probably isn't even thinking about that and normally I'd let Sandi deal with this because she's always the one who gets rid of creeps but lately she's been really distracted or something so I don't think she's going to notice. So if no one else does anything does that mean I have to? Because that would be really, horribly, awfully-

At that moment Mr. Edwards reached out and began stroking Tiffany's hair, and the scared part of Stacy's brain suddenly shut itself off.

"Back off, you pervert!" she shrieked, jumping out of her seat and glaring at him.

Tiffany gasped at the word "pervert" and shrank back in horror. Mr. Edwards turned completely white and staggered backward. Stacy was already heading out the classroom door and running for Ms. Li's office.

o O o

That day after school, Sandi stopped by the principal's office, partly because she needed to inform Ms. Li that the Fashion Club had disbanded-she'd been putting it off for too long-but also because she was curious about what had happened in English class that day. She'd been only half-listening in class until Stacy suddenly started yelling, and after that one of the security guards came in and took their teacher away. The rest of the class turned into a study hall, and that was all she knew about it.

A more than usually frazzled Ms. Li let her into her office, and once Sandi had finished explaining about the Fashion Club she immediately asked about the English substitute.

Ms. Li growled under her breath, "Teachers are more damn trouble than they're worth." Out loud to Sandi she said, "Mr. Edwards had a...schedule conflict and will no longer be able to teach class." Grumbling quietly again, she continued, "At this rate I'll have to recruit student volunteers to teach classes. Of course, then those students would have to miss their own classes in order to teach..."

The words "miss classes" caught Sandi's attention. "You need volunteers?" she asked. "I, like, volunteer for stuff now."

Ms. Li stared at her doubtfully, but that slowly cleared and was replaced with thoughtful interest. "It would only be short-term...I hope," she muttered to herself. To Sandi she said, "Ms. Griffin, you remember your freshman and sophomore English classes, I trust?"

"Um...sure," Sandi said slowly. She chose not to add that she only remembered showing up and getting mostly Cs and Ds, but nothing about the material itself. That's what teachers' editions are for, she reminded herself. Answer keys.

The principal looked at her, uncertain, before shrugging. "It would at least be preferable to that substitute," she sighed at last.

Probably preferable to the regular teacher, too, Sandi added in her head, but said nothing out loud.

Ms. Li tapped her fingers on her desk, thinking. "Students filling in for the teachers," she murmured. "There are some interesting possibilities..."

o O o

Quinn stared in shock as her sister entered her English class. Did she just say she was going to be our teacher? Is that, like, legal?

Daria introduced herself as Miss Darlene and Ms. Li left the room. Coming to stand in front of the class, Daria glanced at the clock. "Well," she announced. "It appears we have about three minutes left before the bell rings, so I'm not going to bother trying to teach you anything today. Although," she added with a smirk, "it would probably still be the most productive English class this school has seen in years."

A couple of students laughed quietly, but most of them stared at Daria with varying degrees of boredom and confusion.

Once the bell rang, the other students trotted out of the room but Quinn headed straight for Daria. "What's going on?" she demanded. "Is this some kind of stupid joke?"

"That's a good way of putting it," Daria replied, "but I think it's being played on me, not you."

"Huh?"

Daria sighed. "Yes, I am going to be your substitute English teacher. No, I'm not doing this to annoy you. Or," she added quickly, "that's not the only reason I'm doing it."

"Ugh! Daria!"

Her sister's expression grew more serious. "Look, Quinn, you've stopped hanging out with your old friends. There's no one for me to embarrass you in front of. So why are you freaking out?"

"Oh." Quinn thought about it. "Oh!"

"There you go. Now, try to relax and enjoy a few English classes without Mr. O'Neill. Maybe you'll actually be able to learn something." She looked at Quinn meaningfully. "Seriously. Give it a try. I think you'll find learning to be a much less painful experience than you think."

"Ha, ha," Quinn replied, but she left the classroom deep in thought. No Fashion Club means no one putting me down if I actually pass a test for once. No one pressuring me to pretend I'm dumber than I am. No one acting like it's the end of the world if I can answer a question right in class. She smiled. This might actually not suck.

o O o

Sandi walked out of the freshman English classroom later that week, having just finished that day's lesson. This is kind of fun, she realized. I get to make them tell me the answers to questions, and I decide who's right and who's wrong.

"Hey, Sandi?" Jodie was hurrying down the hall toward her. "Do you have a minute?"

"Um...I guess." Sandi stopped in front of the other girl.

"I heard you've been volunteering at the retirement home," Jodie said, but it was a half-statement, half-question as she stared at Sandi in disbelief.

"Yeah."

"Wow." Jodie leaned back slightly, eyes wide, before recovering. "I mean, wow, that's really awesome of you." Sandi tried to repress an eyeroll at the obvious cover as Jodie went on. "Well, I was just wondering if you'd be interested in helping out at the soup kitchen this weekend. It's been really busy there lately and the other volunteers and I sometimes have a hard time keeping up."

"Other volunteers?" Sandi asked curiously.

Jodie sighed. "Me. It's just me." She looked desperately at Sandi. "Please?"

Thinking about her already-increasing volunteer workload, Sandi almost told Jodie to take a hike. Then she thought about her mother, who was still coming up with new ways to tear her daughter down. If I'm at the soup kitchen, I can't be at home. Good enough for me. "Sure," she said at last.

"Great!" Jodie exclaimed. "And if you know of anyone else that might be interested, please bring them along."

Other people? Sandi thought, watching as Jodie hurried away. Hmmm...

o O o

"What is Romeo and Juliet about?" Daria asked in class after she'd finished handing out the tests. "Just write what you think and back it up. Two hundred words, minimum."

Quinn looked at the paper in front of her and nodded to herself. I can do this, she decided. I paid attention in class, I took notes, and I studied. She smiled, realizing she'd done all of that without caring what anyone else thought of it. I know who everybody is and I think I remember what they all do in the play and why. Except for how Juliet planned a wedding in one day. I mean, that's not even enough time to pick a wedding dress!

She put her pencil to the paper and began writing. Only 200 words? Ugh, this might be harder than I thought.

o O o

Sandi walked through Art in the Park with Melissa and a few other classmates that they'd recruited to help out at the retirement home and the soup kitchen. They'd asked Jodie to come along, but she'd said something about being busy with French Club, the tennis team, flute lessons, and having a nervous breakdown so they'd gone without her.

"Hey, look-caricatures," said Will, a sophomore who had traded volunteer time for extra credit while Sandi was teaching his English class.

"Could be fun," Melissa remarked. "What do you think, Sandi?"

The group all looked at Sandi, who suddenly felt both surprised and a little embarrassed. Somehow she'd found herself a leader again, only this time it had happened without passive aggressive behavior, intimidation, or any kind of formal organizational structure. She thought for a moment. "Sure," she said. "I mean, if you guys think it's a good idea."

They each chipped in for the five dollar fee and sat down together. The bored-looking artist looked mildly amused at the handful of dissimilar-looking teenagers in front of him, but shrugged and got to work.

o O o

At the other end of Art in the Park, Stacy wandered around as she browsed the displays. She looked in confusion at a booth containing what appeared to be a bunch of broken seashells, then shrugged and decided it was probably one of those really deep art things she never understood.

Walking to another booth, she looked at the displayed paintings and sighed. All of the pictures were of crying clowns. "That's so sad!" she murmured. She nearly teared up a little herself, but shook off the feeling with a little frown.

Ever since she'd stopped spending time with Tiffany, Quinn, and Sandi (especially Sandi), she been pushing herself to stop getting so emotional about minor stuff. And after her outburst at Mr. Edwards, she realized that she was actually a stronger person than she'd realized. No one was trying to push her around anymore, and she liked that.

"Wow!" she exclaimed as she reached the next booth. It was full of clothes. Not the kind of stuff Stacy was used to seeing at Junior Five or Cashman's, though. These clothes were brightly colored, with unusual designs and crazy patterns.

Somewhere in the back of her mind Sandi's voice told her these clothes were unfashionable. Somewhere in the front of her mind Stacy told Sandi to shut up. The patterns and colors were far more outrageous than Waif recommended, she just couldn't stop staring at them. "Excuse me?" she asked. "Did you...make these?"

The woman in the booth, a short redhead in her mid-thirties, nodded. "Thought 'em up, designed the patterns, and stitched together every single one. Everything you see here is a Diana Morland original."

Stacy opened her purse and sadly realized she only had about five dollars in cash. "Do you take credit cards?" she asked with little hope.

Shaking her head, Diana said, "But you could always try Funky Doodle. I sell a lot of my stuff to them." She looked at Stacy's wide eyes and awe and chuckled. "All right, kiddo, I'm probably going to cost myself a ton of business by suggesting it...but you could also try learning how to make clothes yourself."

"Me?" Somehow Stacy had known that one could make clothing, but she'd always pictured poor people stitching rags together or hippies in really frumpy outfits. But these clothes looked...cool. "How?" she breathed.

Diana began rummaging through her purse. "I've got a few ideas where you can get started. Hold on and let me get a pencil..."

o O o

"Hey, we look pretty good!" Becca said as Sandi and the others gathered together to look at the finished picture. Each of them had been drawn with exaggerated features, as one would expect, but they were all smiling in the picture and looked funny rather than deformed.

As the others pointed out aspects of the picture they liked, Sandi stared at it in silence. Although her face in the picture looked pleasant, she was a bit disconcerted to see that the picture showed her with some surprising curves. I guess I should be glad he didn't draw me as a blimp, she told herself before looking down at herself.

Sandi froze. How did I not notice that? It seemed that the artist hadn't actually taken as great of a liberty as she'd thought. She still carried a lot of the extra weight she'd gained from after she'd broken her leg, but somehow all of her activity over the past few weeks had slimmed her down more than she'd realized. She couldn't call herself thin, especially not like she used to be, but nor could she truly say she was fat, either.

She blinked, suddenly hearing her name. "What?"

"I asked if you wanted me to go make copies of this so we could all have one," Melissa offered.

"Oh." Sandi looked again at the caricature. "Um...yes. I'd like that."

o O o

"Damn squirrels are nothing but rats with fluffy tails!" Jake was yelling as Quinn entered the kitchen in search of a snack for her study break. "Well, to catch a rat, you've got to think like a rat! Where's the cheese?"

Quinn watched with mild amusement as her father stuck his head in the fridge and began chanting about cheese. Her amusement turned to horror when he began wiggling his butt at the same time. "Eww! Daddy!" she protested.

"Sorry, honey!" Jake pulled his head back out of the fridge. "I'm preparing to do battle with an evil rodent who has no respect for proper sanitation conditions!"

"Huh?"

"I'm trying to stop a squirrel from getting into the garbage."

Quinn saw Daria and Helen exchange a look before Helen's cell phone rang. As her mother left the room, Quinn turned back to Jake. "Daddy, before you try to feeding squirrels poisoned cheese or whatever, can I just check something?"

Jake's eyes lit up at her mention of poison, but he nodded. "Okay."

"Thanks!" Quinn hurried back upstairs to her room and opened her laptop. A few online searches later, she bounded back downstairs to find Jake throwing small chunks of cheese in the air and trying to catch them in his mouth. "Good news, Daddy!" she said. "I ordered some squirrel-proof garbage cans online and they should be here in a couple of days. If you see a charge from on next month's credit card bill, that's why."

Jake stared at her in amazement as a piece of cheddar bonked him on the forehead.

"That was actually a good idea," Daria remarked, looking up from her crossword and not bothering to hide the surprise in her voice.

"Duh, Daria," Quinn said with a laugh. "Shopping-based solutions are my area of expertise!"

o O o

Sandi had just gotten home from her shift at the crisis center and was about to head up to her room for some much-needed relaxation when Linda blocked her path to the stairs.

"What was it today?" she asked, crossing her arms and frowning at her daughter. "Picking up trash by the highway? Scrubbing graffiti off the back wall of Cluster Burger? Or have you decided to give up all pretense and write 'sucker' on your forehead?"

Even though she was both physically and emotionally exhausted from her work at the crisis center, Sandi was even more tired of ignoring Linda's constant verbal jabs, which were growing less and less subtle every day. She took a deep breath. "I was helping people, Mother. Trying to make others' lives a little better."

Linda was momentarily surprised at getting a response, but took only a few moments to recover her disdain. "Of course, Sandi. Because your life has been going so well."

"Actually, it has been. I have more friends than I used to. In fact, I may be even more popular than ever before!"

"Popular? With whom?" Linda demanded. "Losers and geeks and outcasts? And how many dates have you had since you swelled up like a balloon? You're only popular among the unpopular, Sandi. That's not something to be proud of."

"Maybe not," Sandi shot back, "but I'm proud of the work I've been doing."

"It's not work unless you get paid. You're just letting people take advantage of you." Her mother shook her head in disgust. "What happened to the confident, fashionable young woman you used to be?" Shaking her head again, she turned on her heel and walked away without waiting for a reply.

"She discovered better priorities," Sandi whispered before sadly heading upstairs.

o O o

"Beauteous maiden, may I show you something that will astound and amaze?"

Against her better judgment, Stacy stopped on her way into the mall. "Upchuck, this better not be a set-up for another of your dirty jokes," she said with a fierce glare that she'd been practicing in the mirror.

"No!" Upchuck yelped. "No, it's just a feat of illusion!"

She looked around and noticed his flashy outfit and magic booth for the first time. Mildly interested, she decided the fabric store could wait a few minutes. "Okay, fine. But I warn you, if you try anything funny..."

"You have my word as a gentleman," Upchuck said, then ignored Stacy skeptical snort as he held up a ten-dollar bill. "Genuine U.S. currency, which I shall now tear into tiny pieces!" He ripped up the bill, and Stacy gasped in surprise.

"That wasn't really real money, was it?"

Upchuck nodded with a wink. "But wait! Through the commanding force of my virile presence, the bill is magically restored!" He held out his hands to reveal that he was now holding a completely intact bill.

"How'd you do that?" Stacy asked eagerly, forgetting her earlier annoyance.

"I wish I could quench your curiosity, my pet-"

"Cut the crap, Upchuck!" Stacy exclaimed, slapping the booth with both hands. "Tell me!"

Upchuck took a startled step back. "Okay, okay!" he said, dropping the stage voice. "How about we make a deal?" When Stacy narrowed her eyes, he quickly added, "Nothing like that, I swear!"

Stacy gave him a small smile and nodded. "Let's talk."

o O o

"Okay, let me tell you two things," Stacy told Upchuck, jabbing a finger in his face as they sat in the kitchen at his house. "First of all, I am not going to pretend to blubber like an idiot while you do all the impressive stuff. Second, and most important," she continued, jabbing another finger at his rough sketch on the table, "I am not wearing sparkly sequins or...or...whatever that thing is supposed to be on my head!"

"Fine," Upchuck said, bewildered at Stacy's continued insistence on being involved in every aspect of his planned magic show. "What do you want to wear?"

Stacy grinned as she turned the notebook to a fresh page. "I've got a few ideas. Give me a pencil."

o O o

"...and now, Ruttheimer the Prestidigitator and his lovely assistant, Stacy!"

Ms. Li cleared the stage as Upchuck and Stacy walked out. As Stacy smoothed her knee-length flared skirt, she felt grateful that no one in the audience was close enough to see the sloppy stitching on the hem or notice the slight unevenness at the neckline. From a distance, the only things they could see were the bright colors and complex patterns throughout, giving the outfit a bold, dramatic flair while flattering her figure where it needed it.

Not bad for my first real effort, Stacy admitted to herself.

There was no more time to think about her clothes, though. It was time to start their first magic trick, so she brought out the chains and began wrapping them around Upchuck. "Too bad the girls can't lock you up whenever we feel like it," she called out. "Maybe that would shut you up for awhile!"

The audience laughed, and Upchuck gave her an exaggerated wink. "Ah, but no chains can hold back my admiration for the lovely ladies at this school!"

Stacy theatrically rolled her eyes in mock dismay before tapping Upchuck on the forehead with an open palm, letting him fall backward into the open trunk behind him. In a smooth motion she kicked the lid closed and latched it with a padlock. Grinning at the audience, she waved the key over her head and asked playfully, "Let's put it to a vote: do we flush down the toilet or throw it into the abandoned quarry on the edge of town?"

More laughter, and Stacy began pacing from one part of the stage to another as she came up with more and more outlandish suggestions for what to do with the trunk now that Upchuck was locked inside. She encouraged the audience to chime in with their own ideas until she heard Upchuck's signal and moved forward with the act.

"What do you think, Upchuck?" she asked the unresponding trunk. "Upchuck?" She frowned and leaned in close to listen. "Gee, I hope he didn't run out of air in there!"

At that, Ms. Li and several teachers rushed over in a panic and began trying desperately to get the trunk open. As their efforts failed and tension both onstage and in the audience reached a fever pitch, Stacy stepped back into center stage and called out, "Guys! You forgot to use the magic word!"

Everyone looked at her in confusion.

"Shazam!" Stacy crowed, kicking the trunk with her foot. The lid flew open and a stream of sparks and smoke flew out.

The spotlight swung away, and everyone turned to see Upchuck, safe and grinning, standing in the aisle. The audience applauded as he strode back onstage, and the two continued their act. With Stacy's humor and mockery to balance Upchuck's bravado, the rest of the show was a huge success, as the audience kept swinging between wild laughter and breathless amazement.

At the end of the performance, the two bowed together as the curtain came down. "Well done!" Upchuck said with no trace of his usual smarmy attitude.

Stacy, too exhilarated and shaky from her first ever public performance to speak, only grinned.

o O o

"Erin and Brian are getting divorced?!" Helen exclaimed into the phone. Jake, Daria, and Quinn all exchanged looks at the table while Helen gradually got recruited to help with the proceedings.

"Oh, God, no," Jake whimpered, listening to the conversation in growing horror.

"Don't worry, Daddy," Quinn reassured him. "We can do this!"

"We?" Daria asked, much calmer than Jake but looking just as unhappy about the situation. "I hope you're referring to the imaginary fairies who live in your purse."

"Come on, Daria," Quinn said enthusiastically. "It'll be fine!"

Daria held up a warning finger. "If you say, 'What could possibly go wrong?' I promise I will kill you."

As Jake broke down in sobs, even Quinn began to look a little nervous.

o O o

"Woooooow," breathed a familiar voice. Stacy turned around to see Tiffany standing behind her in the school hallway, staring at her outfit. "Your shirt..."

Stacy looked down at herself and frowned. She was actually quite proud of her work-an asymmetrical top with a swirl of bright colors. The bottom hem fell at an angle, and one side was sleeveless while the other sleeve went past her elbow. She'd been practicing making clothes for weeks, and this was the first time she'd created something she felt completely satisfied with.

Before she could defend her new style, Tiffany finally continued, "...it's reeeeeally cool."

"Oh," Stacy said in surprise. She gave Tiffany a tiny smile and said, "I like your new dress, too." As Tiffany opened her mouth again, she added, "It definitely doesn't make you look fat."

"Thaaaaanks," Tiffany said happily, smoothing the blue and yellow dress with one hand.

o O o

Daria and Quinn watched as Jake chugged an entire pitcher of martinis. "Hi, Aunt Rita!" Quinn greeted her aunt cheerfully. "Can you excuse us for a moment?" She grabbed Daria's wrist and dragged her upstairs and into Quinn's bedroom.

"What the hell?" Daria finally asked as her sister released her hold.

Quinn said urgently, "This is going to be really, really bad!"

"No kidding," Daria replied, rubbing her wrist. "You dragged me up here to tell me that?"

"I'm serious," Quinn insisted. "We need to talk strategy."

"Okay. I'll start digging out a bomb shelter; you gather enough supplies to last for the next couple of months."

"Daria."

Looking at Quinn's face, Daria recognized how truly worried her sister looked and sighed. "All right," she finally said. "What did you have in mind?"

o O o

"...I've gotta get out," Jake was telling Daria as Quinn walked into the kitchen. "At least until the dust settles."

"What's going on?" Quinn asked.

"Dad's bailing," Daria replied.

Jake wasn't paying attention. "Now, we're going to need a signal. Okay, when I call, if Rita is still here say-"

"Daddy, stop," Quinn interrupted. "Daria and I have this. Ready?" she asked her sister.

"No," Daria said with a small groan, but she followed Quinn into the living room, where Helen and Rita were arguing as usual.

Quinn stood next to Daria, unnoticed by their mother and aunt. She held up three fingers, then two, then one. At that moment she began speaking in a whiny, frustrated voice, "Daria! How can you stand to wear such an unfashionable outfit?"

"The same way you can stand to go out on dates with the dumbest guys at Lawndale High School," Daria said with anger that almost sounded convincing.

"You're just mad because I'm popular, and all you do at night is sit in your room studying and reading books written by dead people!" Unseen by anyone but Daria, Quinn slightly arched an eyebrow as she silently dared her sister to laugh at her intentionally bad phrasing.

Keeping a straight face, Daria retorted, "Of course I spend a lot of time studying. Some of us would like to attend a college that requires more from its applicants than the ability to form fog on a mirror."

"Ugh! You...you...brain!"

"Brat!" Daria replied, half on reflex.

"Girls!" Helen exclaimed, now fully distracted from her argument with Rita. "What's gotten into you?"

"Squabbling like a couple of children," Rita added, shaking her head in disapproval. "Erin never acts like that."

"Erin's an only child," Helen reminded her.

Speaking quickly to keep their attention on her and not on each other, Quinn said in a dramatic voice, "Wow, you're right! Sisters shouldn't bicker with each other, should they, Daria?"

"Indeed, Quinn," Daria said in a similarly insincere tone, "it's silly to get bogged down in the same stupid fight you've been having since childhood. I don't know what we were thinking."

Both Daria and Quinn turned their gazes on Helen and Rita, who after a few moments looked slightly embarrassed.

"I think you've made your point," Helen said with a sigh. "I'm sorry, Rita."

"I'm sorry, too, Helen," Rita said, reaching forward and squeezing Helen's hand.

"We now return you to your regularly scheduled divorce proceedings," Daria said, turning to walk back upstairs.

Quinn followed her. "Thanks for your help," she said.

"No problem...Shorty," Daria replied. The two shared a small smile, remembering the last time they had worked together as a team.

o O o

"Hey, Sandi," Jodie said, walking up to her at school. "How's it going?"

Turning, Sandi crossed her arms but smiled. "What is it this time, Jodie?"

Jodie chuckled. "Okay, fine. One of the paper's editors quit. Any chance you'd be interested in a new project?"

"Editor?" Sandi asked doubtfully. "Like, with spelling skills and stuff?"

"Don't worry; I proofread everything," Jodie assured her. "We just need someone to fill up some empty space on the newspaper."

"Gee, Jodie," Sandi said with a smirk, "thanks for making me feel so special."

"Come on," Jodie pleaded. "You can write about whatever you want, as long as the Editor-in-Chief approves it. Even fashion."

Sandi stopped. She couldn't remember the last time she'd actually thought about fashion. All of the copies of her Waif subscription had gone unread for months, and she noticed with only mild surprise that she was wearing something from last season-or was it the season before?

Still, it could be fun. And, Sandi realized suddenly, writing for the paper could give her the opportunity to pull in new volunteers for the retirement home, the soup kitchen, the crisis center, the hospice, and everything else. Like free advertising. And it's another excuse to get out of the house and away from my mother.

"Okay, sure," Sandi said. "But I reserve the right to leave if I get spread too thin with all my other activities."

"That sounds eerily familiar," Jodie said with a knowing smile. "Thanks. Come by the Lowdown office after school and I'll introduce you to everyone."

o O o

Quinn woke up, realizing right away that she'd fallen asleep at her desk, face resting on an open textbook. She stretched her aching back and glanced at the clock-it was past four in the morning. She knew she'd been staying up too late studying recently, but the STATs were coming up and she had to be ready.

She stood up to change into pajamas and go to bed when she froze. She'd just heard the squeaky step on the stairs-the one that many nights coming home past curfew had taught her to avoid-creak loudly.

Oh no it's a burglar or a murderer or a serial puppy kicker and we're all gonna die oh no what do I do?!

Quinn realized she'd been holding her breath, and let it out. With it came common sense, and she realized it was far more likely her father heading downstairs for a snack or her mother leaving super-early for work. Still, she wouldn't be able to get to sleep until she'd found out for sure.

Slipping quietly out of her room, she crept down the stairs, careful to avoid the creaky step. As she reached the bottom, she saw Tom reaching for the front door. Tom? But it's four in the morning-oh. Oh! Ohhhhh...Daria!

Before she could think about-or force herself not to think about-anything else, she turned to see Jake coming out of the kitchen. Acting purely on instinct, she jumped forward and ran to intercept him. "Daddy!" she cried, seeing a panicky Tom out of the corner of her eye as he struggled before tugging open the front door and bolting out of the house.

Jake swayed slightly on his feet as he looked at Quinn. "Quinn?" he said slowly, and Quinn could smell something alcoholic on his breath. "What are you doing awake?"

"Me?" Quinn exclaimed. "What are you doing awake? Do you have any idea what time it is?"

Jake peered at his wrist for a minute before finally registering that he wasn't wearing a watch. "Um...no."

Quinn shook her head and wagged a finger at him. "Straight to bed, Daddy, right this minute! And no arguments!"

"Yes, Mommy," Jake mumbled, shuffling toward the stairs. "Sorry."

Quinn breathed a sigh of relief and followed him up. She watched him close the bedroom door behind him before turning to go back into her own room. As she turned, she saw Daria peeking out her own door at her, wide-eyed.

"I don't wanna know," Quinn whispered to her. "But don't worry; Daddy didn't see him."

Daria relaxed. "Nothing happened," she whispered back, "but thanks."

Quinn never knew for sure if it was real or if she was hallucinating from sleep deprivation, but she could swear she saw her sister give her a genuine smile just before she shut the door.

o O o

"...afraid we're going to have to institute snack spot checks! I'm sorry, young people, but you have abused your privileges!"

The PA system clicked off, and Stacy stopped in her tracks. "But that's not fair!" she cried, startling some of the students walking past her in the hallway.

Stacy thought about all of the fundraiser snacks that were sold at Lawndale High. She never bought any of them, because they were full of sugar and grease and other stuff that would totally ruin her figure and/or complexion. Instead, she often brought carrot sticks or other low-calorie snacks to school, and now Ms. Li was telling her she couldn't do that anymore.

Darn that Ms. Li, Stacy fumed. She's always telling everybody what they can and can't do, and she's just a great big...bully! Part of her knew that her anger was completely out of proportion to what was going on, but mostly she was just furious at the idea of somebody-anybody-trying to push her around. Those days are gone, she swore to herself grimly. I'm not going to sit around and let this happen!

o O o

Walking toward class, Sandi also heard the announcement and then noticed a slight commotion further down the hallway, but before she could go see what was going on, Mr. O'Neill hurried up to her. "Sandi, hello! I want to ask you something."

Still distracted, Sandi said out of not-quite-extinguished habit, "That shirt is the wrong shade for your hair and your shoes are really lame."

"Oh!" Mr. O'Neill looked down at himself, considering her advice. "Um, but what I really wanted to ask is whether you'd be interested in giving tours to the students who will be freshmen here next year."

Sandi wrinkled her nose. "Freshmen?"

The teacher clasped his hands together. "It's just that you've been such a great example to other students here, and I think you'd really be an inspiration to those young minds just starting a new chapter in their academic lives."

"Chapter?" Sandi asked, thinking about her volunteer work at the retirement home. "Am I going to read to them, too?"

Mr. O'Neill's enthusiasm dropped, but only a little. "You'd just be showing them around and telling them about the school." He smiled. "Passing on your wisdom and experience to a new generation of students!"

Sandi thought about her already-full schedule and sighed. "Do I get out of class for this?"

o O o

"But you can't do this, Ms. Li!" Stacy cried, standing in the principal's office after school. "It's too restrictive, it's a violation of our rights, and it's...it's... mean!"

"Be that as it may," Ms. Li replied, unperturbed, "the rule must remain in place to ensure that those teams and clubs can reach their financial goals!"

"Can't the school budget be used to make up the difference?" Stacy asked, a small suspicion gnawing at her thoughts.

"Negative!" Ms. Li said, a little too quickly. "All of our funds have already been allocated!"

And I can guess where they went, Stacy thought darkly, remembering that even more security cameras had recently been installed. Out loud she protested, "You aren't being fair!"

"I'm sorry you feel that way," Ms. Li said, not sounding even remotely sorry, "but my decision is final. Good day!"

Shoulders slumped, Stacy trudged out of the office in defeat. "Excuse me, Miss Rowe," said a voice behind her. She turned to see Mr. DeMartino standing next to the doorway, watching her with interest.

"I don't have any snacks on me," Stacy said tiredly. "So leave me alone."

Mr. DeMartino stepped toward her. "Actually, I thought I'd offer my assistance in your new quest."

Stacy frowned in confusion. "What quest?"

"Your mission to take on the pant-suited dragon in there," he replied, nodding toward Ms. Li's office, "and your goal of reinstating outside snacks." Grumbling, he added under his breath, "Especially for those of us who can't afford the exorbitant fundraiser prices."

Still not understanding, Stacy asked, "You want to help me?"

He gave her a grim smile. "And gain an ally against that woman? It would be an honor."

Stacy smiled back and reached for her backpack. "You know, I might have been lying about not having any snacks."

Mr. DeMartino's eyes widened hopefully. "I think this will be a very successful partnership."

o O o

"And here are the bathrooms, but I recommend that the girls use the ones on the other side of the school whenever possible because the mirror in this one adds, like, two pounds." Sandi shuddered as she led the middle school students down the hallway. "It's awful." Continuing on, she said, "Down here is the cafeteria. They have a lot of fried food and greasy stuff, but their salad options are okay. Just don't get the raspberry vinaigrette dressing."

Most of the kids looked predictably bored as they followed Sandi around the high school, but a few of them actually seemed interested in what she was saying. Maybe it could be fun to do something that helps kids with stuff, she thought. As she went on with the tour, she remembered the previous year when Kevin had become a motivational speaker at the local grade schools.

I could see if the grade schools and middle schools need volunteers for anything, Sandi thought. Downside: increased contact with my stupid little brothers. Upside: less time spent at home with the Queen of Passive-Aggressive Insults.

As she continued showing the kids around, Sandi began to mentally go over her weekly schedule to see if she could fit any more activities into it.

o O o

Stacy stood her ground in Ms. Li's office, occasionally consulting her notes but focusing most of her attention on the principal. "...and not only that, but you could actually get in a lot of trouble with any students who have dee-ah...die-buh...diabetes!" she finally managed, checking the pronunciation guide Mr. DeMartino had helpfully included in the margin.

Ms. Li sighed, worn out by Stacy's relentless onslaught of arguments. "Very well, Miss Rowe," she said at last. "Perhaps we can find some sort of compromise?"

Glancing at the list of demands, Stacy began negotiations. "Snacks will be allowed between classes, but not during."

"During lunch and before and after school only," Ms. Li countered.

Nodding curtly, Stacy went on. "All fundraiser snack options must include at least some low-fat and/or low-calorie options."

"Agreed," Ms. Li said after some thought.

"Finally," Stacy said, "individual students can be given exceptions to the no-snacks rule on a case-by-case-basis."

"Fine," Ms. Li said, "but I will make the final determination!"

"Okay," Stacy agreed, "but I'll be paying attention to your decisions!"

Ms. Li swallowed nervously as she looked at the young woman standing in front of her, arms crossed and glaring in defiance. "I believe you."

Stacy bounced out of the office with glee, eager to tell Mr. DeMartino the good news. She was also eager to ask him for advice on making neater hems on her clothes. Ever since he'd let slip that he'd once taught a sewing class at the school, Stacy had been desperate to get his input on her work.

She'd even picked up a couple bags of beef jerky to bargain with, just in case he was reluctant to share his wisdom.

o O o

"Quinn! I want you to come downstairs and explain yourself!"

Wasting no time, Quinn hurried to see what her mother was so angry about. At least she knew it wasn't her grades.

"What's this six hundred dollar charge from the Bookworm Boutique?" Helen demanded the moment Quinn entered the room.

"Oh, that," Quinn giggled. "Well, first there was this desk lamp that's supposed to reduce eyestrain and prevent wrinkles. Then I found a super cute desk chair that goes great with my eyes. Oh! And then there was that adorable pink calculator that I just had to get! And did you know you can still buy those retro blotter things?"

"What are you going to do with a blotter?" Daria asked.

"Blot stuff. Duh," Quinn said, rolling her eyes. Turning to her still-fuming mother, she added, "It's all school things! For studying. So it's totally important, right?"

Helen sternly shook her head and gestured at the credit card bill. "If it's so important, you can pay this bill off."

Quinn's mouth dropped open in shock. "What? How?"

"I think the traditional method is to get a job," Daria remarked, "but I could go see if the debtor's prison has any vacancies."

"Muh-oooom!" Quinn wailed. "A job? But you always say that schoolwork comes first!"

"You'll have to find a way to make time," Helen said. "If you have time to shop for unnecessary studying accessories, you can find time to work."

"Fine," Quinn huffed. "But I'll need a new computer, a job coach, and some resume software." Seeing her mother's glare, she shrank back and quickly amended, "Or I could just ask for job search help at the library."

"Wow," Daria said. "You are getting smarter."

o O o

Quinn looked dejectedly at the librarian behind the counter. "What should I do if I want to find a job?" She immediately added, "I don't want to work at a pet store."

"Um...okay," the librarian said. "Well, I can point you to some job search websites, unless you'd rather look through the classified sections of the newspapers, which are over there. And just in case you're interested, we're also looking for a new shelver here at the library."

"A shelver?" Quinn asked.

"We hire kids about your age to put books away." The librarian rolled her eyes. "If you can put books in the right order without singing the alphabet song out loud, you'll be better qualified than the last one was."

Quinn looked around the room. It was quiet, the work didn't sound too hard, and best of all, there were no animals to be seen. "Can I get an application?"

o O o

Stacy stared in shock at the letter in her hands. She'd been accepted into the summer program at Ashfield Community for the Arts. When she'd found out the art colony included courses and workshops on fashion design, she'd taken pictures of some of the clothes she'd made and sent in a portfolio. She'd thought it was a long shot; she'd never really expected them to accept her.

And yet here it was, a letter informing her that she was officially invited to spend two months working on her skills as a fashion designer. Two months with real, live artists!

While she reread the letter, she realized she was beginning to hyperventilate-something she hadn't done in months. She forced herself to take a few deep, even breaths and calm down. Okay, so maybe you're just a beginner. But you're good enough that they accepted you. And the whole point is to learn how to be even better, right?

She still didn't feel any better. I need to practice. She'd learned all she could from Diana Morland, Funky Doodle, and Mr. DeMartino, and she was out of ideas. If she wanted to make sure she didn't completely humiliate herself over the summer, it was time to do some serious research.

o O o

"Ugh!" Quinn groaned as she found yet another book out of place. "How did a Danielle Steel book end up all the way over here in the 'F' section?" she asked herself with irritation. She'd been working at the library for almost two weeks, and she'd already dealt with wildly out-of-place books, random garbage (yuck!) left on the shelves, and that one creepy old guy who came in every day and told her the exact same knock-knock joke each time.

She sighed and turned back to her cart to see which book was next. Then she realized she could hear a familiar voice floating over from the other side of the library. "'...Peter was most dreadfully frightened; he rushed all over the garden, for he had forgotten the way back to the gate. He lost one of his shoes among the cabbages, and the other shoe amongst the potatoes.'" There was a small groan of disgust. "Like, that's probably just as well. Those were some ugly shoes."

Several childish giggles rose up at that, but Quinn wasn't paying attention to them. I know that voice...and that judgmental attitude about shoe styles!

Quinn hesitated, listening to the voice as it continued the story. Finally, she made up her mind, abandoned the shelving cart, and made her way to the children's section, where the voice was coming from.

"'...But Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail had bread and milk and blackberries for supper. The end.'" The exact moment Quinn saw the reader, the reader looked up and saw her. Sandi closed the book quickly and said, "Okay, let's all take a few minutes and pretend we're bunny rabbits just like Peter and his siblings." Looking sternly at some of the excited-looking children, she added, "Quiet bunny rabbits."

She set the book aside and strode over to Quinn. "What are you doing here?" Quinn asked in surprise.

"I read to the kids every Saturday morning," Sandi answered. "One of the people at Lincoln Elementary told me they were looking for someone to do story time."

"You weren't here last Saturday." Quinn hadn't intended to sound so accusing, but she'd been caught off-guard and wasn't sure how to react. She'd been avoiding Sandi and the others for so long, she wasn't sure if they were friends, enemies, or something in between.

"I had laryngitis," Sandi said, warily looking back at her. She'd been almost too busy to think about what Quinn had been doing lately, but suddenly it occurred to her to wonder why she'd been ignoring her for so long. "What are you doing here?"

"I work here." Quinn was starting to feel defensive, and the slight sharpness in Sandi's voice didn't help. "That's right; in a library. I guess that makes me a brain, huh?"

"Well, you're being paid for it," Sandi countered, hackles rising. "Since I'm doing this for free, does that mean I'm some kind of a doormat?"

"Yeah, right! Like Sandi freaking Griffin would ever allow that to happen."

Sandi narrowed her eyes. "What, so I can't do something nice for people?"

"I don't know." Quinn crossed her arms. "Can you?"

"You're the brain; you tell me!"

Sandi and Quinn were glaring at each other now, both struggling to keep their voices down but unable to contain their anger.

"Excuse me, but do you have any books about fashion-eep!"

The girls turned to see a girl in pigtails and a brightly-colored outfit with crazy patterns. "Stacy?!" they asked at the same time.

"Omigod I didn't recognize you until you turned around and I didn't mean to interrupt I was just-" Remembering herself at last, Stacy stopped herself in mid-sentence. She took a deep breath, straightened her spine, and started over. "I mean, I didn't expect to see either of you here. What's up?"

"Job," Quinn said, blinking in surprise at Stacy's confident tone and demeanor.

"Volunteer," Sandi added with the same amazement.

"That's cool," Stacy said. "Um, could either of you tell me where the books on fashion design would be?"

Quinn thought for a moment before shaking her head. "I'd have to look it up," she said, then giggled. "Oh, that's a disgrace for a former Fashion Club Vice President. I guess it should have been the first thing I learned, huh?"

"I don't know, either," Sandi admitted. "I guess we've been distracted by other stuff lately. Stacy's the only one who kept fashion as a priority." She glanced at Stacy's outlandish clothes and looked like she was about to comment. Stacy stiffened and raised her eyebrows in a silent challenge, and Sandi kept her mouth shut.

Quinn glanced at her watch. "You guys, I'm off work in half an hour. Maybe we could get together and...talk?"

The three girls looked at each other uncomfortably at first, but finally Sandi and Stacy nodded in agreement.

o O o

"Two whole months?" Quinn asked Stacy in surprise. "That's, like, almost the whole summer!"

The three girls sat side-by-side on the bench outside the library. The conversation had started out awkward, but after a short time they'd relaxed and began catching up with each other.

Stacy looked both excited and nervous. "But it's going to be a great experience, I know." She swung her legs back and forth on the bench. "Well, I hope." She looked at Sandi. "I guess you're going to be at least as busy as I am, huh?"

Sandi let out a deep breath and nodded. "God, I hope so."

"What do you mean?" Quinn looked over, surprised at her vehemence.

"Oh." Sandi shifted uneasily and stared at her feet. "My mother."

The other two girls sat in silence for a few minutes, thinking about what they knew of Linda Griffin and fitting the pieces together. "Yeah," Stacy finally said, and Quinn nodded.

"It's the volunteer thing," Sandi explained, still looking down. "And my weight. She's...well, she's being my mother."

Without a word, Stacy and Quinn put a hand on each of Sandi's. She finally looked up, her expression full of surprise and gratitude.

"I wish you could come with me to Ashfield," Stacy blurted out. "Not just to get away from your mom," she added, "but then I would at least know someone else there."

"Well, maybe we could come visit you," Quinn said. From habit her eyes darted over to Sandi to seek both approval of the idea and forgiveness for suggesting it without permission, but Sandi was nodding eagerly at Stacy.

"Oh!" Stacy exclaimed. "That would be so, so cool!" She shrugged. "Anyway, I guess it'll be like practice for next year, right?" Seeing two questioning faces looking back at her, she added, "When we all go away to college?"

"College." Quinn said the word flatly, staring off into space. "Oh, no!"

Sandi looked at Quinn, confused. "With all your studying, I'm sure you'll get in," she said.

"No, it's not that," Quinn replied. "I just realized...Daria. My-" She stopped herself and giggled self-consciously. "-my sister is leaving for college in a few months." Her face grew serious again as the realization sunk in fully. I'm actually going to miss her. When did that happen?

Stacy and Sandi looked at her sympathetically, but neither could think of anything comforting to say. "Too bad we can't keep her here and send my mother away," Sandi joked at last.

Quinn cracked a smile, then stood up. "Sorry, you guys, but I kind of want to get home and talk to her."

Sandi looked at her watch. "Yeah, and I've got to go or I'll be late for my shift at the soup kitchen."

"And I really do need to do some research." Stacy looked at the two of them, and a nervous look came over her that reminded the others of former days. "We're going to see each other again soon, though, right?"

Sandi thought about it. "Jodie invited me to her graduation party. Will you be there?"

Quinn snorted and rolled her eyes. "It's Jodie. The whole school will be there!"

o O o

When Quinn got home, she found her parents were out of the house and her sister was sitting glumly on the couch. "Daria? Is something wrong?"

Daria didn't look up. "I just broke up with my boyfriend."

Quinn dropped onto the couch next to her. "What? Why?"

"Because I felt we'd come to the end of our relationship, for a bunch of reasons, and we should both move on," she rattled off, as though she'd been going over this in her head for some time. Quinn realized that was probably the case.

"Okay," Quinn said, trying to think. "So why are you so sad? I mean, you dumped him, right?"

Daria glared sideways at her. "Not everyone treats members of the opposite sex like toilet paper. Some of us actually have a conscience and the ability to feel pain."

Quinn was about to defend herself, but realized that now wasn't the time to start an argument. She took a deep breath. "You're right."

"What?" Daria looked over at Quinn, surprised.

Quinn thought back with a slight pang to all the times she dumped or dismissed guys without caring about their feelings. She thought about Kevin and Brittany breaking up and making up every other day. She thought about their cousin Erin and her awful marriage that probably should have ended after all.

At last she figured out what she wanted to say. "I mean it does make sense that you're sad. Not just because you hurt Tom," she explained. "You actually had a real relationship. That's more than I can say, no matter how many dates I've been on. Lots of people flirt or date or even get married like it's just something fun to do. But you're not like that. You actually wanted it to work out, right?"

Daria nodded slowly, expression still miserable.

"And now it's over. So of course you're upset. Who wouldn't be?"

For a few minutes, neither of them spoke. Finally, Daria nodded again, this time with more confidence. "Thanks," she said simply.

Before Quinn could reply, the doorbell rang. Daria stood and walked over to answer it, and found Jane standing outside. Quinn slipped upstairs, glad to leave Daria in more capable hands than her own.

o O o

Sandi was ladling out portions of soup to a long line of homeless people when she noticed Melissa and Will talking to a man holding a cordless microphone. Her mild curiosity skyrocketed when she saw her two friends turn and point directly at her, and the man began walking her way. "Can I talk to you for a moment?" he asked.

Melissa hurried over after him. "I'll take over," she told Sandi, taking the ladle from her.

Stepping out from behind the counter, Sandi followed the man over to a quiet corner. "I'm Henry Matheson, a TV reporter doing a story on the recent surge in teen volunteerism in the area," he explained. "Everything I've heard says that you're the driving force behind it all."

"Me?" Sandi gaped at him at first, but years of practice kicked in and she composed herself quickly.

Henry checked some notes. "The Better Days Retirement Home say you've been reading to seniors for months, your principal gave us a glowing report of your activities, the library says you're the most beloved storytime reader they've ever had, the crisis center-"

"Okay, okay!" Sandi was mortified to find that she was actually starting to blush.

"The point is, we were wondering if we could get an interview." He pointed to a cameraman who was now also heading in their direction.

"Oh! Um, sure." Sandi finally noticed the logo on the side of the camera. "KSBC? My mother works for that station." A sudden hope rose.

Henry looked again at his notes. "Griffin? Linda Griffin is your mother?" Sandi nodded. "Damn, and we found out about this story from the retirement home. I can't believe an experienced newswoman like your mother missed a fantastic story unfolding right under her own roof! Family modesty, I guess." He smiled. "Still, I bet she's very proud of you."

"Yeah, you'd think so," Sandi muttered, staring blankly at the floor in front of her. She'd felt one brief, shining moment of joy in the thought that her mother had finally seen the value in her daughter's work. Now that it had been snatched away, all that remained was a deep sadness that was all too familiar to her during the past few months.

So that's it. Nothing I do will ever be good enough for her. She'll never accept me because I'm no longer exactly like her. She felt a faint tickle at the corner of her eye where a tear was just starting to form.

As the cameraman began setting up equipment, Sandi looked around and saw her friends working at various parts of the soup kitchen. Each of them frequently glanced her way and waved or smiled encouragingly, and even some of the regulars among the homeless recognized her and nodded their appreciation for her work.

She looked around at all the people who actually liked her for the person she was, rather than the person they thought she should be, and swiped the tear away. You know what, Mother? She truly smiled for the first time in days. Screw you.

o O o

"Four hundred." The man behind the counter at Funky Doodle finished looking over the box full of shirts, dresses, skirts, and other clothes that Stacy had set in front of them. He looked at her, bored, waiting for her reply.

"I'm not letting them go for less than six," Stacy replied, planting her feet and looking him straight in the eye. She still needed almost five hundred dollars to buy the high-quality sewing machine she'd been saving up for.

He sighed and looked through the items again. "Four-fifty, and that's being generous."

Stacy raised an eyebrow at him. "Five-fifty. No lower."

He glanced at the box and back at her, shifting uncomfortably. "Four-seventy-five. Last offer."

In a moment, Stacy saw it. That spark in his expression that was only there for a flash, but it was long enough for her to recognize. He wanted those clothes. Now she knew it. "Five-twenty-five, or I walk." Emphasizing her point, she picked the box up from the table and began to step back. She kept her face completely blank, using every last bit of self-control she had to keep him from seeing how nervous she was.

There was a long, terrible moment of suspense. At last the man waved her back. "Five-twenty-five," he agreed. "You drive one hell of a bargain."

"Thanks!" Stacy replied with a grin, already wondering what she'd buy with the money left over once she'd bought the sewing machine. Maybe I'll wait and see what kind of toys the other people at Ashfield have, she thought. No way I'm going let myself fall behind on the latest trends!

o O o

"Gee, Quinn. Don't tell me you still believe in arriving fashionably late to parties!" Sandi's scolding tone was familiar, but the playful smirk was still new to Quinn.

"Late? Ha," she teased back as she crossed Jodie's backyard. "Maybe you're just early!"

"Actually, I am," Sandi admitted, pushing a lock of hair behind her ear. "Jodie said she needed some help setting up before the party, so-"

"-so you volunteered," Quinn finished with a grin. "Of course." She looked at her friend thoughtfully, watching her set out drinks and put up decorations. She's changed so much, she reflected. Then again, so have I.

"Ohmigod, am I the last one here?" Stacy exclaimed, hurrying over to stand next to Quinn. Before Quinn could reassure her, Stacy nudged her with her elbow and added, "Good. Now the fun can really start!"

Quinn shook her head, amused. We've all changed, I guess.

"Are weee having a Faaaashion Club meeting?" asked a slow voice behind them. They all turned to see Tiffany staring blankly at them.

As Stacy stifled a laugh and Sandi covered her face with her hand, Quinn sighed and moved forward to try to explain the situation to Tiffany. Okay...maybe not all of us.

o O o

Thanks to RLobinske for beta reading.