The following short story is based on characters created and/or copyrighted by Glenn Eichler, Susie Lewis Lynn, and MTV. All other characters were created and copyrighted by Roland Lowery.

The author gives full permission to distribute this work freely, as long as no alterations are made and the exchange of monetary units is not involved. Any questions, comments, suggestions, or complaints should be sent to esn1g(at)yahoo(dot)com. Thank you.


"The repose of sleep refreshes only the body. It rarely sets the soul at rest.
The repose of the night does not belong to us. It is not the possession of our being.
Sleep opens within us an inn for phantoms. In the morning we must sweep out the shadows."
-Gaston Bachelard


Sleepwalker
by Roland 'Jim' Lowery

The little girl desperately wishes to fall asleep.

It is an almost nightly chore, the struggle to find just a few more precious minutes of sleep before she is called upon to go back out into the world to suffer its slings and arrows. It's so much easier to bear when she's gotten a proper eight hours, but those days are few and far between. Most night, like this one, continue in frustrated silence as she stares helplessly at the ceiling and hopes for a reprieve.

She has little understanding of this affliction. Mommy and daddy have sent her to doctors and clinics, spending as much and sometimes more than they can afford to find a reason if not a cure behind the insomnia, but to little avail. It is simply her unnatural condition, to remain awake when by all rights she should be asleep, dreaming dreams of far away lands of magic and mystery.

The little girl sighs into the darkness and turns to fluff her pillow. The ritual has just as much affect as it usually does, that is to say none at all. She looks around her room, picking out her toys and furniture in the dim light of the moon streaming through her window.

She has no night light. She doesn't need one. Unlike other children her age, she knows quite well that there aren't any monsters in her room. Nothing lurking under the bed. Nothing skulking in the closet. She knows because she's checked hundreds if not thousands of times. Sometimes she still does so just so she can have something to do during her sleepless nights.

Setting her stuffed cat Mr. Lumpkins aside, she swings her legs over the side of the bed and prepares to turn on the light and do some exercises. Exercising was one of the methods the doctors tried to get her to sleep, by wearing her out. It worked only rarely, but still often enough that she figures it might be worth a shot.

The light does not turn on. She turns the switch on the lamp cord again, but there is still no response from the bulb, not even a brief flicker of the filament within. She shrugs off the anomaly as just a busted light and makes her way unerringly across the room to hit the wall switch to turn on the overhead light.

It remains stubbornly dark as well, which causes the child no small measure of annoyance. Daddy payed the bill for the electricity. She knows because she helped him affix the stamp to the envelope herself. She looks back at her bed to see the soft red glow of her alarm clock sitting on the nightstand just to be sure, then frowns deeply.

The little girl asks herself, what are the chances that both lights blow out at the same time? She isn't sure, especially since math - let alone probabilities study - wasn't exactly her best subject in school. But it still seems pretty unlikely.

The small hairs on the back of her neck suddenly prickle, and it takes her a few moments to realize that she's starting to feel a little creeped out. The idea of monsters in her room suddenly seems less fanciful than before, and she almost imagines that she could be convinced a random assortment of toys sitting in the corner is really the shadow of a nasty kid-eating goblin.

But she keeps her wits about her. She ventures back across her room carefully, intent on procuring the flashlight that sits between the mattress and box springs of her bed. It is usually used for reading books under the covers late at night, but now she feels that it is necessary for a higher purpose, that being bedroom security.

A wind picks up outside the window and trees rustle as autumn leaves are torn from their limbs to gradually fall to the grass below. She tightens her courage into a hard knot and keeps moving, ignoring the horror movie quality of the sound. She's watched horror movies before. She knows she's not necessarily old enough to do so, but they never scared her before.

The little girl is definitely scared now. She reaches her bed and slides her hand under the mattress, nearly panicking when she doesn't find the flashlight in its customary spot. She shifts her hand to the left and grasps the shaft of the light in relief, pulling it out and flicking it on.

A cone of light bursts forth from the flashlight's bulb, bouncing off the goggle-like eyes of the man standing in the middle of her room.

The little girl screams, then wakes up with a start.

She looks around her room, desperately hoping that she is truly alone in the darkness.


"Jeez, Morgendorffer, you look like you've been chugging coffee for a month straight."

"Thank you, Lane, for that sterling example of friendship in action. Would you also like to tell me that I look like I hit every branch of the ugly tree on the way down?"

"Maybe later," Jane said with a half-shrug. "Seriously, though, are you okay? You look beat."

"I wish I could give you some exotic reason behind my current pallid exterior," Daria said, "but alas, it is pedestrian-grade lack of sleep. The insomnia bug has bitten, and I cannot resist its siren call."

Jane smirked. "Well now, it hasn't seemed to have dulled your penchant for pontificating in the pedantic."

"Clever."

"Thank you. Have you tried taking anything?"

Daria sighed and rubbed her eyes before answering. "I've tried taking everything," she complained. "I'm this close to ODing on virgin hot milk toddies. I'm thinking about breaking into the liquor cabinet and skipping the virgin part."

The bell rang, putting an end to their conversation before Jane could add another undoubtedly smart remark. The two girls moved with the herd chugging through the halls of the school until they reached their first class of the morning, Language Arts with Mr. O'Neill.

It seemed at first that everything was going to continue in its regular humdrum way. O'Neill attributed several bits of pop psychobabble to many poor novels and short stories that didn't deserve such shameful treatment. Kevin and Brittany contributed several wildly incorrect answers that O'Neill's questions almost certainly didn't deserve . . . maybe. Daria and Jane traded notes and sketches back and forth as they tried to stave off boredom.

But just as Daria was starting to feel like her insomnia was waning and she might finally be able to catch a few Z's before the start of the next class, the speaker sitting near the ceiling of the classroom suddenly squealed to life and began to spew forth the commanding voice of Ms. Li, the school principal.

"Attention students of Laaaaaawndale High!" she said in that imperious tone few people outside of royalty seemed to be able to muster. "Due to the outstanding performance of the Laaaaaawndale Lions in this year's football season, I - I mean, we have managed to procure a record amount of donations for the school from local individuals and organizations!"

There was some scattered applause in the classroom punctuated by all of the cheerleaders and all of the football players except Mack jumping up and down in their seats and yelling "Woo!" intermittently.

"Unfortunately," Li continued, oblivious to the minor disruptive behavior she had caused, "a certain percentage of these donations must go toward certain clubs and activities, such as the . . . ergh, the chess club and recycling night at the park. However, a nice healthy chunk somehow managed to be appropriated for field trip activities, activities who's location and purpose are under my personal purview! And so this year it has been decided that all high school grades shall be allowed to join me - I mean, the Laaaaaawndale High faculty as we spend a rollicking day at the Mid City Museum of the Sciences!

"Yes, yes, I know, but despite its name, it is actually a thinly disguised fun house with a massive gift shop filled with toys for all ages!" Li erupted into cackling laughter, but quickly got herself back under control. "But that, of course, is our little secret, and should any parents or superintendents ask, the trip is, of course, purely educational in nature. Oh, and considering Mid City's distance from Laaaaaawndale, we will also be having a stopover at a budget motel for the night on the way up. Back to learning, everyone!"

Most of the last of Li's speech was drowned out by genuine cheering. Unheard by all but a few was the brief, distant, "There, that should keep the little bastards happy. What? Oh," before the PA system finally went silent.

Jane laughed. "Wow, she must have made quite a windfall to be that up front about everything, and so generous to boot," she said. "Almost seems a little more suspicious than usual, eh, Dari-"

She cut herself off when she looked over to find her friend leaned back in her chair, eyes closed and chest rising and falling evenly with the blissful escape of sleep.


"And so the week's respite . . . is OVER!"

High-strung history teacher Anthony DeMartino's eye bulged and his nostrils flared as he crossed his arms and surveyed the mass of teenaged humanity spread out before him. Though Lawndale was not by any means a particularly large or densely populated school district, he found that trying to help herd everyone grades 9 through 12 who had managed to get their permission slips signed looked as if it was going to be just as arduous and impossible as he had been fearing over the past seven days.

"HEY! Put that poor garbage can DOWN! You don't know where it's BEEN!"

Still, despite the sisyphean nature of his task, he planned to tackle it with all his might. Hannibal had managed his elephants, and DeMartino planned to manage his own, even if said elephants took the form of several dozen giggling, squealing, shouting, arguing, troublemaking, disagreeable high school students. All he needed to do was to get them from the school doors and into the convoy of buses awaiting them without any bone fractures, fires, or international incidents occurring.

"BROOKE! CREEPY GUY WITH THE SUNGLASSES! If you do not stop making out this VERY SECOND, I will LITERALLY glue your faces together for the entire field trip! Now GET IN LINE!"

Easy.

"Now now, Anthony. There's no reason to be so cross with the children. We're all working toward the same goal."

DeMartino turned his head to glare briefly at Claire DeFoe, the school's art teacher, who despite her calm words seemed to be struggling just as hard to keep the mass contained. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her reach out and gently steer a stumbling young man back into the stampede passing by.

"Perhaps this is your idea of FUN, Ms. DeFoe," he growled back at her, "but for those of us who still haven't gotten their AFTERNOON COFFEE BREAK and will be traversing the countryside with a bunch of EMPTY-HEADED INGRATES, it leaves much to be desired and rattles the nerves a bit."

Claire smiled lightly at the tirade and asked, "So, what did Dr. Florence have to say about your blood pressure medication?"

DeMartino's face dropped and turned as pale as a sheet. "It, uh," he stammered, "well, he said that it seemed to be working okay, but uh, I should TRY . . . ahem, I should try to be a little calmer to help it along."

The tide of teenagers began to ebb. As the two teachers walked behind the students to make sure none of them tried pulling anything just because they were at the back of the line, Claire patted DeMartino's shoulder kindly.

"That sounds like very good advice," she said. DeMartino merely grumbled in return and looked as if he were ready to spout cartoonish steam from his ears.

The two rental buses gleamed silver and red in the mid-afternoon sunlight while the three regular school buses sitting behind them seemed dull and lifeless by comparison. Even through his funk, DeMartino could see the difference and guessed that Li probably could, too. He predicted that the next time the school had a surplus of funds, some of it would be going directly into wax and new paint jobs instead of where it belonged, in the budget for the teachers' raises.

The drivers were standing next to the doors, greeting the students as they boarded. Claire plucked DeMartino's shirt sleeve and pointed at the lead rental bus where there seemed to be some kind of confrontation going on.

Sandi Griffin crossed her arms and fixed the bus driver with a venomous glare. "I'm afraid," she was saying, "that you simply do not understand the extra care and - most importantly - equipment that remaining this fashionably cute requires."

"I'm afraid I do understand that all luggage was to be checked in this morning," the driver returned, "that only one carry-on bag is allowed, and that all four of you aren't getting on this bus with all that . . . stuff."

"Oh, come on," Quinn Morgendorffer wheedled as she gestured at the four bags of cosmetics and accessories hanging from her shoulders. "I'm carrying all of this myself! Surely that should tell you how important it is!"

"Yaaaaaaaah, like, give us a breaaaaaaak," Tiffany Blum-Deckler droned in support of her fellow Fashion Club members.

The driver stood his ground. "No breaks, no extra bags, no way, no how," he told them. "One carry-on only, the rest has gotta stay here."

Sandi tossed her head angrily, sending her long auburn hair flying for a second. She tapped her foot, then rolled her eyes and said, "Oh, very well. We shall simply have to suffer through these dark and trying times until the oppression of the beautiful is recognized and stamped out once and for all." She shrugged off all of her bags except a single heavy purse, then handed the excess to the mousy girl in pigtails standing next to her.

"Here, Stacy," she said, barely looking at the other girl. "Since you are currently carrying less than the rest of us as if you required fewer beauty products than we do or something, you shall have the honor of carrying our bags back to the school."

Stacy Rowe's expression fell, but only for a moment. Cheery disposition put firmly back into place, she shouldered the proffered luggage and then grabbed Quinn and Tiffany's makeup cases and overnight bags as well. "Uh, sure thing, Sandi!" she said even as she strained under the weight.

As the three other girls boarded the bus, Stacy staggered her way through the crowd on her way back to the school. She muttered the occasional apology as she bumped into people. Straps dug into her shoulders through her denim jacket and handles seemed to get heavier and harder to grip in her hands, but she persevered. It was the least she could do for her friends.

Sweat began to trickle from her forehead from the exertion, no matter how hard she tried to keep it in. One bead hit her eyebrow, raised up over the ridge, and then fell - plop! - to the ground below, mortifying her. Girls didn't sweat, especially not members of the Fashion Club, and most especially not in front of other people!

Just as the panic attack was about to set in in earnest, Ms. DeFoe's voice called out her name. "Are you alright, dear?" the older woman asked. "We're supposed to be boarding the busses now."

Stacy looked up to see that Ms. DeFoe was standing right in front of her, with Mr. DeMartino glowering just a few feet behind. "Eep!" she squeaked just before a flood of words started flowing out of her mouth. "I'm sorry I know but Sandi and Quinn and Tiffany had too much and they couldn't so I'm bringing this back that is if it's okay with you and I don't mean to cause any trouble but I need to hurry so I can get back in time to-"

"Yes, okay, okay," Claire was saying, holding her hands up to try and stop the barrage. "It's alright, Stacy. Here, let me help you with some of that. We'll take all of it back to my classroom for safekeeping until we get back tomorrow, alright?"

Stacy seemed to deflate as all the air rushed from her lungs in relief. "Thank you, Ms. DeFoe," she said, allowing the teacher to grab some of the load from her shoulders. "I'm really sorry about this, really, it'll never happen again, I promise!"

"It's not a problem at all," Claire said cheerfully. "There's plenty of time before we head out, and I'm sure the others are saving you a seat."

"Uh, yah," Stacy said, looking back at the line of buses nervously. "I'm sure they are."

The art room wasn't very far in from the main doors, making it a quick trip. Claire unlocked the door deftly and they stepped into the dim space, the only illumination being sunlight streaming in through the high windows. Small clouds of dust from chalk, plaster, and other such art supplies played fitfully in the beams of light before Claire hit the light switch and drowned them out.

"Here we are," she said. "Just set everything down behind my desk, dear, and the janitorial staff should leave it alone. You and your friends just remind me that it's here and I'll open the door for you when we get back."

"Thank you, Ms. DeFoe!" Stacy gushed as she dropped everything to the floor.

"You're quite welcome, Stacy," Claire said graciously. "Now let's hurry back, shall we?"

Stacy started to follow the teacher out, but once again she felt the trickle of a sweat drop flowing down one of her temples. She froze in terror, then cleared her throat. "Um, actually, if you don't mind," she said, "I think I need to go to the restroom real quick. Would that be okay?"

Ms. DeFoe thought on it for a second, then nodded her head. "Of course. I'll make sure we don't leave without you, but don't take too long!"

"Yes! I mean, no! I won't take too long! Thank you, Ms. DeFoe, thank you!"

It took a few moments for Stacy to remember not to run in the school halls, but she then further remembered that technically school was out for the day, so she picked her pace up again and was at the girl's bathroom in no time. She grabbed a few fistfuls of toilet paper from one of the stalls, zipped back over to the huge wall mirror, and began to lightly dab the sweat she still had clinging to her brow.

Some of her makeup came up with it, but she resolved not to worry about it until she was back on the bus. Having to do some touching up in front of the other girls was a small price to pay to keep them from seeing that she had actually perspired. It was simply unthinkable.

After getting one last spot, she set the toilet paper aside and looked herself over meticulously. Finally satisfied that she had gotten everything, she leaned back and screamed when she saw a man with goggle-like eyes standing behind her in the mirror, staring down at her.

She whirled around, but before she could see whether or not there was really someone there, the lights went off, plunging the room into darkness. Taking no more chances, she burst from the bathroom at a full run, skidded across the hallway floor, and lit out like a rocket for the school's main doors.

The entire building was dark, the janitors having apparently shut everything off for the day. That mundane detail was lost on Stacy, however, as she pelted through the corridor, the already creepy surroundings of an empty school seeming even more menacing with every step. She felt trapped, like she was caught suffocating under miles of water.

Sunlight erupted around her as she hit the release lever on the exit door. She ran straight for the bus her friends had boarded, overjoyed to see that there were still a few other people waiting to get on. Thoughts of the strange man she thought she had seen fragmented and scattered as she climbed the steps into the vehicle and moved to take her seat.

Her relief was short-lived and turned back into horror as she saw Tiffany and Sandi sitting together in one set of seats while Quinn and Tori Jericho shared another set. Stacy suppressed a horrible thought about the obviously bottle-blonde Tori, then scanned frantically for any open seat next to a popular person, any popular person.

But there was only one seat left available in the entire bus. Stacy's heart dropped into her stomach as she saw that it was right across from Quinn's so-called cousin and her art friend, but then it dropped even further when she stepped up to the row and saw who she would be sitting next to.

"Why hello, my lost little lamb," the skinny red-head purred as he patted the seat next to him and gave her a greasy smile. "Don't be afraid. I don't bite . . . hard."

Stacy groaned and wondered briefly if she had escaped from a mirror ghost that wanted to suck out her soul only to have jumped blindly into a far worse fate.


"Heeeey, babe," Kevin Thompson said as smoothly as he could, his dopey bedroom eyes in full effect.

"Yes, Kevvie?" Brittany Taylor cooed back, her bubblepop voice turned just a couple of notches down from its usual squeak.

"I totally got something, like, extra special for this field trip."

Brittany's heart skipped a beat as visions of jewelry and other delights began to dance in her head. "Oh?" she said nonchalantly. "And what would that be, sweetie-Kevs?"

"Well, I'll show you," he said seductively, then reached up to grab his duffel bag from the overhead rack. He pulled the zipper across with a flourish, then slowly put his hand inside and pulled out a wrapped package to hand to his excited girlfriend.

"Oh, Kevvie!" Brittany squealed as she tore open the wrapper. "It's . . . it's . . . it's a paintball mask?"

She stared down at the box in her hands, the clear plastic front showing off the contours of a black and forest green facemask with filtered breathing holes, a wide visor sitting over its slightly tinted viewport, and an adjustable cloth strap in the back.

"Heck yah, it's a paintball mask!" Kevin said proudly. "Top of the line and everything. It's got, like, features and stuff!"

"Well, okay, babe, I mean, I like it, don't get me wrong or anything," she said gingerly, "but . . . why did you get me a paintball mask?"

"For the paintball, babe! Y'know, the field trip we're on? Like, right now?"

Brittany stared at him aghast. "Kevvie, that was the last field trip we were on!"

"Yah? So?"

"So not every field trip we go on is going to be to play paintball, you . . . you . . . oooh!"

Jane chuckled under her breath as Brittany started swatting Kevin repeatedly with the box he had just given her. They were too far forward in the bus for her to hear exactly what they had been talking about, but she wasn't above enjoying a little bit of slapstick comedy now and again.

Besides, she thought with a mental sigh, it sure beats the mile a minute action going on back here.

Turning her head to the right, she sat and watched Daria snore softly in the chair next to her. The bespectacled brunette was still having to get her sleep when and where she could catch it, her inexplicable insomnia still troubling her. Jane had tried to reassure her that it happened to everyone every once in a while, but since it had been over a week, Daria had started considering going to a doctor to get it checked out.

Jane was content to leave her best friend to her slumber, but in the meantime it meant she was going insane from sheer boredom. Even trying to get some sketching done had lost its allure after the first few hours of the ride, especially considering how rickety the bus' suspension seemed to be.

She tapped her fingers on the side of her chair for a few moments before finally resorting to her last hope for entertainment. She turned slightly in her seat, leaned across the aisle, and hissed, "Psst!"

Stacy had been staring into space when she heard the whispered summons. She stiffened, realizing immediately who was trying to get her attention, and quickly closed her eyes, pretending to be asleep. Jane was not so easily put off, however, and soon the artist's thin fingers were plucking at her jacket sleeve.

"What?" she asked out of the corner of her mouth.

"Just thought you might like to talk or something," Jane whispered. On Stacy's other side was the sleeping form of Charles "Upchuck" Ruttheimer III, notoriously the worst skirtchaser in the entire school, and she had no desire whatsoever to stir him.

After gulping down the knot that had suddenly formed in her throat, Stacy said, "Um . . . no, I don't think so. Sorry."

Jane snorted. "What, worried your fellow fashion fiends might see you sharing conversation with someone less popular than you?" She jerked her head to the front of the bus. "Look at 'em. They're not even paying attention. And come ooooon . . . you've gotta be just as bored as I am!"

Stacy leaned out a little into the aisle to see that Jane was telling the truth. Sandi, Tiffany, Quinn, and Tori were all locked deep in their own little world, probably talking about all the current fashion faux pas to avoid without her, meaning that she was almost certainly going to commit one or more fashion crimes over the next month simply through ignorance.

Realizing that she was indeed quite bored and already in her own personal popularity hell anyway, Stacy sighed, "Okay, I guess. What do you want to talk about?"

Jane started making faces as she tried to rummage up some topic that the two of them might have in common. As she racked her brains, she berated herself for not thinking that far ahead. She'd been fairly certain that she'd be completely rebuffed and that her only entertainment would be bothering Stacy for a few moments.

"Uh," she said after a while, " . . . what's your favorite color?"

Stacy's entire face lit up and she reached across the aisle to grab Jane's hand. "Oh, there was this cute little bright cerulean top I saw at Cashman's the other day!" she jabbered as quietly as she could manage, her voice occasionally hitting high-pitched squeals in excitement. "It was just that perfect shade, you know, and it had this neat little fringe just a few inches from the bottom, just high enough to sit over the belt line so you can still tuck the hem in if you want, and-"

"Uh-huh," Jane said intermittently as Stacy continued to drone on. "Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh."

Aw, jeez, she thought as she began looking back at her previous boredom with the fond longing of nostalgia, what did I just let loose?

"-but anyway, you just can't get a stain like that out, no matter what you use, not even with my super secret bleach and ammonia formula. And that reminds me of this one time I ended up in the hospital with this weird poison ivy rash, but I hadn't been near poison ivy in, like, years, so-"

Everything seemed to dissolve into a haze in which it seemed Stacy took neither a break from talking or even a breath in between sentences. Her words all flowed into one another as time itself began to lose all meaning and Jane found herself beginning to note each and every contour of that great cosmic navel.

She blinked a few times to clear the glaze from her eyes when she realized that the other girl had eventually stopped speaking and was looking at her expectantly.

"I'm . . . sorry?" she mumbled slowly. "What was that?"

"I asked what your favorite color was!" Stacy replied cheerfully.

"Oh," Jane said, then thought for a second. "Um . . . black."

Stacy blinked rapidly. "Black?" she repeated.

"Uh . . . yes. Black."

"Oh. Well. It goes with everything, I guess?"

"Yep. That it does."

"Yes."

Jane and Stacy smiled briefly and awkwardly at one another for a few seconds, then turned forward in their seats and remained silent for the rest of the trip.


Nick's Inn and the Erbie Motel occupied an unusual but, for the weary travelers from Lawndale High, helpful location.

The town of Erbie itself sat on a highway exit just a little past halfway between Lawndale and Mid City. It was extremely small, as it served almost entirely as a tourist trap for those traveling to or from Mid City, offering only three gas stations, a diner, a small post office attached to an enormous souvenir shop, and the two motels, which sat right across the road from each other.

It was difficult for any of the teachers or students to tell if anyone who worked in Erbie actually lived there, since there didn't appear to be any houses nearby, just endless stretches of flat, mostly grassless plains blocked off by long lengths of barbed wire. Looking out the windows of the buses, some of the students claimed they could see cows off in the distance, but as no one else could make out these phantom cattle the subject was quickly deemed boring and was dropped.

The sun had nearly gone down by the time the convoy pulled into Erbie Motel's parking lot, which was completely spare except for an old model sedan and a large van that looked as if it had been painted over with house paint. Nick's Inn, as far as anyone could see, was completely deserted, and both motels stood as evidence that tourist season hadn't started yet and probably wouldn't for at least a few more months.

Principal Angela Li was the first to step down onto the cracked asphalt. She took a few steps forward and inhaled a deep breath of the fresh spring air, then exhaled it back out into the cooling evening sky. She then turned to the row of buses behind her and held her hands into the air dramatically.

"All ashore, everyone!" she called out, motioning to the drivers and teachers to start getting the children disembarked.

Getting several dozen teenagers out of the over-sized tin cans naturally proved to be much easier than getting them in. Ms. Barch, the science teacher, remarked on how the flow of the human mass seemed quite like the organic movement of an explosion, then used that to segue into a rant about how men were ruining the world with their bombs and their guns and their horrible action movies. The other teachers around her suddenly noticed several other places in the parking lot they needed to be and quickly moved to them before she really got started.

"Alright, listen UP!" Mr. DeMartino shouted, getting everyone's attention once the buses were empty. "We have reserved ROOMS for everyone at BOTH of these fine establishments. It has been DECIDED that everyone will be split into TWO GROUPS! EVERYone with last names starting with the letters A through M, you shall be staying HERE at Erbie. N through Z - if by some Godforsaken chance we HAVE anyone who's uncaring parents gave them a last name STARTING with Z - will be staying at NICK'S!

"FOUR TO A ROOM, PEOPLE!" he continued sternly. "All MALE and all FEMALE only! As amusing as Jerry Springer may BE, we don't want to see any of OUR STUDENTS making appearances with their baby mamas or daddies in tow! Are we CLEAR?"

As people began moving to the main offices of their respective motels, Stacy stood in the middle and did some quick mental calculation, then did it again and again just to make sure she wasn't mistaken. Right on the verge of hyperventilation, she approached DeMartino and tried to clear her throat to get his attention. All that came out was a strange combination hiccup and squeak.

"Hmm?" the teacher said distractedly as he kept a watchful eye on the departing students. "Oh, Miss Rowe. How can I HELP you?"

"Well, um, it's just that, you know . . . "

"NO, Miss Rowe, I'm afraid I do NOT know," he said testily.

The threat that he might actually turn his head and look at her with that one huge bulging eye loosened Stacy's tongue. "It's just that all my friends are going to be over here because of their last names and I'm going to be stuck over on the other side of the road all by myself!"

"Yes, that's quite UNFORTUNATE, my dear," he told her with what sounded like pity at first but eventually turned into snarling sarcasm, "but I do not MAKE the rules, I merely APPLY them with complete and utter disdain for the feelings of all involved!"

Stacy twisted the toe of her shoe into the ground nervously. "I know, Mr. DeMartino," she said, "but I was just wondering if maybe I could stay over here for toni-"

DeMartino's head snapped around so he could glare at the irritant at his side, but by the time he'd finished the move, Stacy had already turned tail and fled back toward the buses.

Jane and Daria moved out of the way as the Stacy-rocket tore up to the side of the bus, grabbed all of her bags from the luggage compartment, and then blasted off again in the direction of Nick's Inn, moving almost fast enough to leave a blue denim blur behind her as she ran.

"Wow, that was hard to watch," Jane said as she and Daria resumed tugging their own backpacks out. "I might even feel sorry for her if she hadn't tried to drill my brain out with that story about the sky blue sweater or whatever."

"I'm sorry I missed it," Daria said, sounding as if she wasn't sorry she'd missed it at all.

"Yah, yah," said Jane. With their packs finally dislodged from the mass of nylon wedged into the bus' side, they began their trek to the main office to grab their key. "So how are you feeling after your little power nap, anyway?"

"Completely and utterly awake," Daria groused. "I'm starting to think it's less insomnia and more that my circadian rhythm has done a complete 180. There's no way I'm getting any sleep tonight."

Jane raised her eyebrows in sympathy. "Bummer," she said. "But hey, I tell you what. Just this once, I'll let you play the best-friend card and stay up with you all night so we can both be tired out of our heads tomorrow. Y'know, if you want me to."

"I dunno, aren't you gonna miss all that wild fun and excitement at the Museum of Science?"

"Meh. Four or five hours of having to listen to Ms. Barch try and take the whole trip seriously in between accusations of male hypocrisy? I think sleeping the trip away in the museum lobby is the more rational choice."

They arrived at the office to find Ms. DeFoe standing out front, handing keys out to passing students. The art teacher's face broke into a warm smile when she saw Jane.

"I'm sure you and Daria would like to have a room together, wouldn't you?" she said, pulling a key attached to a giant wedge of plastic from the batch in her hand and giving it to them. "Well, I believe we can accommodate that."

"Can we also accommodate the other two people out of our room and into another?" Daria asked with little hope.

"I'm afraid not, Daria," Claire said sadly. "But you'll be staying with Andrea and Jennifer. You're friends with them, right?"

Daria and Jane glanced at each other. "I guess sharing a room with them is better than a kick to the head," Daria reasoned.

"And by strange coincidence, Andrea will probably be giving out kicks to the head sometime tonight!" Jane added mock cheerfully. "Don't worry, I'm sure we'll be fine," she reassured Claire when she saw the teacher's stricken expression. "The goth and the burnout meet the brain and the art chick. We'll be in Outcast Heaven, trust me!"

As the two girls moved on and the next group of students came up looking for their keys, Claire reflected solemnly on her own position as the art chick in her own little group, three similar outcasts from her college days that still roomed with her in her loft and basically sucked everything - particularly money, time, and patience - out of her on a regular basis. She was reasonably sure that she hadn't, but some small part of her still imagined that she may have sent Jane and Daria to a similar if shorter termed doom.

She tried to put on her best happy face as the last of the students, the school's Fashion Club, stepped up to her. She gave them the last of the keys and was about to go on to her own room when Sandi cleared her throat loudly and insistently.

"Excuse me, like, Ms. DeFoe or whatever," the girl said forcefully, "but you have given us only two keys. Where are the other two?"

"Oh, I'm afraid that this is all the office is allowed to give out," she told them. "The only other keys they have for the rooms are reserved for their housekeeping staff. You'll just have to stick together and be careful not to lock anyone out."

"In that case, I believe I should be the one to hold both copies," Sandi said, turning to the other girls and holding out her hand. "As president of the Fashion Club, I am hereby instating a fashion lockdown until the morning. I believe it is prudent under the circumstances. This town is so unfashionable and dusty that it may cause irreparable damage to both our clothing and our senses. Agreed?"

Quinn turned the second key in her hand a few times, her entire body seeming to twist slightly under pressure, but finally gave it up to Sandi with a cheerful look of defeat. "Of course, Sandi!" she said as the transfer of power took place. "I was just about to suggest the same thing, but it's much better that you said it."

"I'm sorry to interrupt, girls," Claire suddenly said, "but I just noticed . . . where is Stacy? Isn't she a part of your club?"

Sandi tossed her hair back and stuck her nose up in the air. "Yes, well, due to the capriciousness of fate or whatever, Stacy Rowe is taking an involuntary fashion sabbatical at the other motel."

"And thank goodness, right?" Tori interjected with a nasty laugh. "I mean, it's a real shame," she added quickly if insincerely when she saw the looks Claire and Quinn were giving her. "But rules are rules, and her last name starts with an R!"

As the girls trotted off to their room, Claire watched them go then turned to look at Nick's Inn in the distance. All of her worry about Daria and Jane had dissolved, replaced by a new concern. She briefly considered walking across the street and making sure Stacy was alright, but Ms. Li had wanted all of the teachers to meet after the students had been settled in, and the temperamental principal could be more than a handful if she was kept waiting.

With one last glance over at Nick's, Claire turned and started walking back to the buses for the undoubtedly tedious and pointless meeting ahead.


"Oh, hello, Stacy! How are you this evening?"

The sickly-sweet tones of Timothy O'Neill's voice hit Stacy's ears like sticky tree sap. She walked up the shallow stairway to the entrance of Nick's, sighed, and said, "I'm fine, Mr. O'Neill, thanks for asking."

"Oh my goodness!" he said, severely distressed at her tone. "It doesn't sound like everything is fine! Is there anything I can do for you? You know, I was just reading about this great form of therapy that involves banging a drum while talking about your problems and innermost thoughts. I think I can find a drum if-"

"No no, Mr. O'Neill!" Stacy said quickly, eyes wide and hands up to defend herself from having to hear about the latest of his unending pop therapy ideas. "I'll be okay, really! Just . . . can I get the key to my room, please? I think I just need to lie down for a while."

O'Neill nodded, his face a too-sincere mask of sympathy. "Of course, of course," he murmured as he handed her a key hanging from a toy alligator, the mascot of Nick's Inn from the look of the garishly lit sign sitting next to the road. "And if you need anything, don't be afraid to come by the teacher's room in 103 and ask for me. I might even have that drum by the time you stop by!"

Please don't on my account, she thought but neglected to say as she hastened to make her getaway.

The Erbie Motel had been painted a bright blue, almost the exact shade that she had tried to tell Jane about earlier, but she could see in the waning light of the sun that Nick's was a filthy brown color that almost but didn't quite resemble mud. The red trimming didn't help any, and in fact looked almost like blood. She stuck out her tongue in disgust and almost bit it in surprise when the parking lot lamps snapped on overhead.

Checking the door numbers against the number on the toy gator, she estimated that her room was located almost at the end of the row. Nick's, just like Erbie across the way, was comprised of three separate buildings forming a U shape, all one story and with a bit of space between them at the corners. She counted herself lucky that she was at the near corner at least instead of the far one. As the lamps gradually warmed up, it became apparent that they washed out everything in their sodium light. She was having a hard enough time as it was that someone needed to see her under suboptimal lighting conditions.

A dark shape stepped out of the shadows into her path and leaned up against one of the supports for the building's overhang. Her heart nearly leaped out of her chest before she saw who it was.

"Oh," she said softly. "Uh, hi, Kevin."

Kevin's eyes dropped down a bit as he struck what he undoubtedly thought was a sexy pose. "Hey, babe."

Stacy looked around her briefly, then said, "Um, Kevin . . . I'm Stacy. Not Brittany."

"Yah, like, I know, babe," he returned, undeterred. "Brittany's not here. That's, like, kind of the point, y'know? Just you . . . and me . . . and the moths . . . "

Looking up, she could see that moths were indeed starting to congregate around the lot lights. "Moths . . . aren't really that romantic, Kevin," she said. "And you've got a girlfriend. And there are strict Fashion Club bylaws which state-"

As she tried to move around him, Kevin quickly sidestepped back into her way. "The Fashion Club in-laws aren't here either," he said. "So why don't you and me go back to my place and . . . you know."

Stacy felt disgust run through her entire body as he waggled his eyebrows and leered at her. With a force born of that disgust, she looked him right in the eyes and flatly stated, "Kevin, no."

The football player deflated immediately, every pretense of romantic intent gone. "Aw, really?" he said. "Aw, man, that, like, totally blows!"

"Yes, but I'm sure that you'll learn to live with it someday," she said as she walked around him and breathed a sigh of relief.

Night was coming down even quicker than before with only deep red surrounding a few swaths of purple indicating the location of the sun on the horizon. Stacy picked up her pace, feeling more desperate than ever to just get inside, set her bags down, and fall into a nice, deep sleep, but once again she found her path blocked, this time by a skinny blonde cheerleader with massive pigtails. Creases of anger showed on the other girl's otherwise flawless face as she stared Stacy down, hands on hips.

"You stay away from my Kevvie!" Brittany squeaked furiously.

"What? No! Look, Brit, I'm sorry, but he came on to me," Stacy found herself trying to explain, the words running all over each other in the effort to come out of her mouth. "I didn't try anything, I promise! I told him no! You have to believe me!"

Brittany simply crossed her arms and turned her face up and away. "Well I don't believe you, because my Kevvie would never ever do such a thing! We're in a deep committed relationship!"

"What about all those times you guys cheated on each other?"

Stacy nearly dropped her bags to the ground in an attempt to slap both of her hands over her mouth. She couldn't believe that she had just said that, and from the expression on Brittany's face, the cheerleader hadn't expected it either. But try as she might, Stacy couldn't manage to make the words rewind back into her mouth.

"Look, Brittany, I'm sorry!" she babbled. "I didn't mean to say that! I don't know what came over me!"

"No! Nuh-uh!" said Brittany. "It's too late, I hate you forever now, and I never want to see or hear from you ever again, ever! Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to my room."

With that cold proclamation, the blonde girl turned on her heel and walked away. Stunned but unable to think of what else to do, Stacy hitched the straps of her luggage back up onto her shoulders and went back to searching for her own room.

Moments later, she and Brittany stared at each other in horror as they found themselves standing in front of the same door. They both held up their key chains at the same time, checked and double checked both them and each other's, and then groaned in shared misery.

"This isn't fair!" Brittany pouted. "I can't share a room with you! I hate you now! It would never work out!"

Stacy leaned against the wall beside the door and covered her face with her hands as a few sobs escaped her chest. She felt almost certain that where Brittany was staying, there had to be two other cheerleaders lying in wait. And with one of them already hating her, it was just a matter of time before all three were.

Ever since she had gotten off the bus, everything had seemed to be moving way too fast for her to assimilate properly, and she finally felt like she was reaching her limit. Even the stress of being the secretary of the Fashion Club and under the constant pressure of Sandi's thumb for most of every day hadn't prepared her for the constant barrage of the field trip from hell that, technically, hadn't even truly begun yet.

Raking her fingernails lightly down her face while trying to simultaneously wipe away some of the tears that had sprung up, Stacy took a deep breath and then handed her key to Brittany, who looked down at it in confusion.

"Go ahead, take it," she said, shaking the gator insistently at the other girl to show her sincerity. When Brittany finally reached out and grabbed the key from her hand, she said, "Just . . . if you would, look for someone to switch rooms with me and make sure they bring their key to me before disappearing in there with you, okay? I'm just . . . I think I'm just gonna sit down for a little while."

Brittany looked at her with a worried expression, but simply nodded and started walking the line of doors, knocking on the next one down. Meanwhile, Stacy wearily dragged herself diagonally across the parking lot until she was around a fourth of the way along the back building of the motel. She turned around, dropped her bags to the asphalt, and sat on one of the cracked concrete wheel stops.

She wasn't sure exactly how long she had been there before she heard the crunching of rocks as Brittany approached, pressed a key into her hand, and left without saying a word.