GOD SAVE THE ESTEEM
Episode 39: Epic F Word
"I will wake up refreshed and ready to meet life's challenges. I will wake up refreshed and ready to meet life's challenges."
Even O'Neill's reflection didn't believe him.
The Maryland Teachers Convention had finally come upon them, the first one since the perfect shitstorm. All the teachers from Lawndale High gathered together in a phalanx, united for mutual protection: their hardest members at the outside and O'Neill providing the soft centre.
"Your disCRETION, Thomas," growled DeMartino, covering the rear.
Coach Sherman scanned the hotel hall with all the training of his Army days. "Two potential hostiles. Not likely to make a move without backup though. Take the right path."
A teacher sniggered as they passed, only to stop as DeMartino glared at them. And he could glare for his country.
"Coast is clear, coast is clear, coast-"
The lobby lifts pinged and began to open.
"Incoming! Move, move-"
A wave of Garrett County teachers poured out of the lift and stared.
"Sorry, we can't let you in! The insurance would never cover you guys!"
"Don't worry, I'm sure they'll give you a bye!"
"Wait, wasn't this a convention for teachers?"
Ms Defoe tried to leave but Barch pushed her back into place. "We don't give them the satisfaction."
"What's the first seminar?" asked Ms Onepu.
"Uh…" Mrs Bennett checked the brochure. Then checked it again. "Failure Equals Growth I'm not shitting you that's what it says here!"
O'Neill started to cry. Well, louder.
"So why then are we constantly urging our students to win at all costs? We should be teaching them that failure is not the end of the world. In fact it's often a stepping stone to success."
"Hey, things are looking up for you!" hissed someone behind the Lawndale crowd.
"Ignore them," growled Barch, teeth gritted so hard they were in danger of eroding themselves.
"After his first attempts at flight failed, Wilbur Wright said that "not within a thousand years would man ever fly.""
"Did he say bye?"
"We've got forty minutes to go," said Defoe, voice bleached of any hope or dreams.
"It took Thomas Edison more than two thousand experiments before he invented the light bulb. Failure is the signpost that points the way to success!"
A spitball landed on Barch.
"Oh screw it."
Screaming, she leapt over her seat and began pummelling the guilty party; the whole hall erupted in cheers and catcalls and cries to "FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT!". Finally, Steve – moonlighting a second job under the cunning alias of "Steve" - pushed his way through and held them apart.
"Stop it! Stop it! Janet, you're leaving the room and going straight to the organiser's office!"
"But he started it!"
"I don't care who started it! Go!" He turned round and glared at the battered teacher. "And I've got my eye on you, understood?"
"I didn't do nothin'!"
"Don't make me hold you back after the seminar, young man!"
Over dinner, Onepu gently suggested: "I think that could have gone better."
"It went great! I waited in the hallway until he'd left the room and then jumped him," said Barch proudly. "Baltimore County punks ain't shit!"
"We have to face facts," said Coach Nikahd. "He was only saying what everyone was thinking – actually, a lot of people are saying what everyone is thinking."
As if by narrative convenience, a Brunswick teacher walked past and called out "More like Lawngay High! Haw haw!".
"See?" said Sherman. "Hell, Tommy Sherman's only eating with you all because nobody will let him onto the cool teacher's table."
"And when I CHECKED on our PRINCIPAL, he was lying in BED – WITH his clothes ON and AWAKE. That's THREE HOURS now!"
Silence settled on them, heavy with things unsaid. Nikahd was the first one to break the silence, saying what they were all thinking:
"The school's dead, isn't it? It's still twitching but this is it. We're going to be allowed to become the crap school, and only that because it's too much of a pain to move all the students."
"We can't give up," said Onepu.
"We CAN," said DeMartino.
The teachers agreed they could.
"No!" Onepu stood up, rare steel in her voice and in her eyes. "I refuse to… to abandon our students like this, to let their school decay around them! There has to be something we can do! We're not beaten yet!"
A minute later, a policeman came along and told them that Timothy O'Neill had tried to commit suicide by jumping out the hotel window. As he was on the ground floor, this hadn't quite worked like he'd hoped.
I WIN this argument, thought DeMartino.
Bennett came back to the hospital lobby and shook her head. "Timothy is refusing to see anyone. It's worse than we thought."
"What do we do?" asked Mr Ayoade.
"Buy him some grapes, I guess," said Sherman.
"No. I mean what do we do about- I know it's insensitive, but our principal's in the hospital and last I checked, the vice-principal is still 'pending' so we don't have to pay an extra salary. Someone has to fill in until Superintendent Pascal makes a decision, right?"
"That's not funny, man," said Sherman. "Don't joke about things like that."
Bennett took a deep breath. "Someone will have to draw the short straw on this, alright? And we have to decide fast if we want to keep Pascal from running roughshod over us. We need someone who can stand up to him."
"WHY are you looking AT ME?"
"It's just a temporary thing, Anthony-"
"That's what they said about THE FIRST WORLD WAR!"
"We still have the same problem, the school's in the toilet and everyone knows it," said Barch. "Who cares who's at the top? How are they going to get us out of that?"
Ms Onepu coughed. "Um. Just a suggestion but… maybe we should approach the students on this? We could enlist their help! Appeal to their pride in their school and their more altruistic natures!" She waited for the laughter to stop. "No, I'm being serious!"
"You SICKEN me."
Principal O'Neill's suicide attempt had reached the news and the whole school knew about it by Monday. And aside from Mohammed starting a betting pool on who'd be the new principal, not a fuck was given.
"You bet forty dollars on this?" Daria asked Jane, as they queued to enter. "I know the odds on DeMartino are good but-"
"I went outside his house on the weekend and heard him screaming angrily about something," said Jane. "And I know for a fact there were no History essays to mark over the weekend."
"I am disgusted that I didn't think of that first."
The tannoy system squeaked into angry life: "ALRIGHT, YOU WORTHLESS FAILURES OF THE FERTILIZATION PROCESS! There's an ASSEMBLY for the whole school and you WILL pay attENtion, if that's even PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE!"
"Cheaters prosper, awww yeah."
The auditorium was packed and a sense of general disinterest filled the air.
"I hope they're not going to say something about O'Neill, that'd be a downer that'd last the whole day," said a worried Brittany.
"Nah babe, the assemblies are for important stuff."
A few seats away, Sandi peered suspiciously at an unfamiliar black man on the stage. "Who is that?"
"I recognise him, that's the superintendent," said Cindy.
"Uh, did I ask you?"
"Noooo, but I assumed it was a general question for anyone-"
"If I want the answer, I'll ask for it, Cin-deeee!"
Stacy considered this. "I think you did ask, Sandi."
"That's not important right now!" She glared at her insubordinate subordinate. "You're helping the enemy, Stacy-"
"Wait, I'm your enemy?" Cindy sounded hurt. "We've barely talked, Sandi! What the hell?"
"Don't think your social dominican will last," said Sandi, her voice low and icy. "You don't belong among the popular. Soon the boys will realise that-"
"Jesus Christ, this isn't some high school soap opera! Who thinks like that, really?"
Sandi thought hard for a response to this existential attack, and settled on: "Yeah, well… you look like a dork!"
"That's just fucking pathetic," growled Stacy. Normal Stacy.
Up at the top, the Maleficent Eleven started to chant "WHHHYYYYY ARE WE WAAAAIIIIITING."
DeMartino grumped to the microphone, Superintendent Pascal trailing him like a particularly obnoxious shadow.
"I'm keeping my eye on you."
DeMartino turned round slowly, bulging his eye as far as it would go, and grinned. Then he turned back to the mike:
"EVERYONE SHUT UP!" Ahhh, this job isn't all bad. "As you are ALL aware, Principal O'NEILL has suffered a PSYCHOTIC BREAKDOWN caused by the PRESSURES your PUTRID, LAZY SELVES and the BUREAcratic SCUMBAGS have forced on him-"
"Salary reviews," growled Pascal.
"-leaving ME as the SACRIFICIAL LAMB for every GODdamn problem the DISTRICT wants to PRETEND ISN'T THEIRS!"
"Salary reviews," said Pascal, worried DeMartino hadn't heard him the first time.
"This CESSPIT we call a school is in DIRE straits and this latest FUCK-UP-"
("Whoa, Mr D swored!" said Quinn. "Are we sure he's the Man?")
"-only makes things WORSE! My colleague ONEpu thinks that we should APPEAL to your better natures on this." He paused. "This is as likely as the SuperinTENDENT actually giving us a BUDGET-"
"Salary reviews!" yelled Pascal.
"There has to be a CHANCE OF A RAISE for that to work, HERB HOOVER! Anyway, since I think appealing to you PROCESSED SAUSAGES is a waste of VALuable OXYGEN, I'm going to differ to Ms Onepu on this."
DeMartino stepped down - Daria and Jane have him a standing ovation – and Onepu went up.
"Umm. Hello." She cleared her throat. "Now we all know that times have been hard at this school. You have not been given the opportunities you should have been. But this is still your school and we don't intend to abandon you without a fight! But we'll need your help to do this! We need you to help rejuvenate and save your school!"
The students all stared back, slack-jawed and confused, like a dog being taught quantum physics.
"But school sucks, miss!" called out Shane.
There was a general rumbling of agreement.
Coach Sherman put a consoling hand on Onepu's shoulder. "Tommy Sherman will take it from here." He took the mike. "Tommy Sherman was at the Teachers Convention a few days ago, and you know what? Teachers from another county thought you were all losers!"
The students stared back, like a dog being taught that it couldn't chase cats.
"I met some people from Baltimore and they thought you were losers!"
Angry murmurs broke out, like a dog being taught about neutering and developing the power of speech in order to protest.
"Yeah, that's what Tommy Sherman thought too! And you know who else thinks this school is for losers?" He made a strategic pause. "Oakwood."
Kevin let to his feet. "We're not losers! THEY'RE THE LOSERS! LET ME AT 'EM LET ME AT 'EM" and then he tripped over his own feet.
"That's what I want to hear! Everywhere we go now, people are dissin' us! We gonna take that? You think any of us here should be considered losers?"
Tori Jericho raised her hand. "Um, what about the people are losers, like the chess club and… y'know, Dyke Morgaydorffer."
Sherman used to be a high-school quarterback and had expected this. "Our losers are as good as Oakwood's cheerleader reserves! If Daria went to Oakwood, she'd have done cheers by now!"
The auditorium roared out their bloodlust. ("You missed your calling," said Jane.)
"So you know something? This whole damn school is gonna show those other schools they can suck it! I wanna see everyone doing something cool and rubbing it into those Oakwood jerks! USA! USA! USA!"
"USA! USA! USA!"
On the stage, Nikahd had broken into tears. "It's… it's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard…"
The students stormed out, high-fiving each other and plotting their actions:
"I'm gonna totally win the next game, only, like, winnier!" declared Kevin.
"We'll show those out-of-season trend-followers what real fashion looks like!" declared Sandi.
"I'm gonna go find someone from Oakwood and say I had their mother!" said Joey, and the whole football team cheered.
Daria poked Quinn in the shoulder, ducked the retaliatory strike, and said: "I think you should explain we're not losers by spraying it in big letters across the other schools."
"That is an awesome idea, Daria! Come on guys!"
"So that's how you plan to be petty and dig at the edges of this plan?" Jane asked Daria.
"No, I just thought it'd be really funny. I'll think of something petty over lunch."
"If you ever," hissed Pascal, no humour or mercy in his eyes, "talk to or about me like that in front of others again, I'll-"
That actually threw him. "O'Neill understood my threats."
"Yes, well, O'NEILL gave a FUCK." DeMartino turned his left trouser pocket inside out, then his right, and gave a sad shrug. "Oh DEAR. It seems I HAVE none on me!"
"Do you even want this jo- Oh."
"HA! Keep OR replace me as Principal, I STILL win!" DeMartino began to air-guitar. "BREAKING the LAW! BREAKING the LAW!"
The new school spirit was made clear when, in Language Arts, Ms Onepu asked "so what are the themes in The Chocolate War" and Kevin raised his hand to answer.
"Manfist destiny and the need to prevent the Vietcommies stealing dominos, miss!"
"I think you're thinking of something else."
"You did your best, Kevin!" called out a guy in the back.
"He's right," said Daria.
The Maleficent Eleven hit Lawrenceville High commando-style, pouring out of the hired taxis ("you owe me money!") and charging across the grounds.
"Go go go! Andrea, Dave, you're on that pointy thing at the front! Koichi, Spike, watch our shanks! Shaggy, Angel, start spraying! Shane why aren't you tipping that bin over IT'S A BIN DAMN IT!"
"Killer, it's the pigs!" called out Scarlett, seeing the school guards slothing towards them.
"Shit! Back fall, back fall!" She took a look at the tag they'd left, winced, and ran over to add an exclamation mark so it'd look like they'd meant to leave an unfinished tag. "Okay, job done, GO GO!"
Behind them, sprayed across the wall, was "YOU SUCK LAWN!". The guards slowed-more-down to study it.
"Now that's just inappropriate."
At lunchtime, the school grounds were a council of war for the entire football team and cheerleading squad. Every player, even unto the worst substitutes and the towel boy, was engaging in full-contact counter-tackle practice.
"READY!" barked Mack, leading the line of potential tackle victims from the front. "TACKLERS… ATTACK RUN! TACKLEES… HOLD FAST!"
As one, the line roared "COME AT ME, BRO!" at the incoming hostiles and met their strike as a wall of steel, and pushed back (except for the towel boy who'd gone down with three teeth missing).
The cheerleaders stood apart from all this, brainstorming their tactics: "We need the perfect song to show everyone we're not losers!" declared Brittany. "And I'm not sure We Like Sports is really working out."
Daria had been watching all this for any opening and finally saw her chance: "well, if you want to embody the spirit of Coach Sherman's speech, you can't go wrong with Tomorrow Belongs To Me."
"Who let you here, Daria? You're too unpopular to watch cheerleading!" Now she'd said that, Brittany was free to actually register what Daria had said. "Hmmm. That sounds like a nice song!"
"Oh yes, it's very heart-warming. People have saluted during it."
As the cheerleaders all started to think about this song, Daria walked over to Jane.
"Are you not at all worried that there might be a Hell?"
"Jane, for the past few years I've been worried I'd already gone there."
"We've tagged half of Eagleton's wall," said Shaggy, "so why are we still here?"
The bell rang for lunch and the students of Eagleton High started to come out.
"That's why," said Quinn. "HEY BITCHES WE'RE DISSING YOUR SCHOOL!"
The Eagleton students shrugged and went about their business.
"Oh." Quinn deflated. "That's just fucking weak-"
"Killer! The honour students are coming this way and they're pissed and they have those things that are like books but with those weird not-soft cover things!"
"Ah, it's enough. CHARGE!"
Erin Chambers had been working at Buzzdome for months now, and she was enjoying it because it paid her to not be in the same house as Aunt Helen for eight hours a day. But every so often, something would come along and ruin things for her. Like that time she'd misunderstood the conversations entirely and started to talk about the 80s My Little Pony show. (Erin had had a dark night of the soul that day, unsure if she was really meant to work there)
This was less socially embarrassing but far, far ickier: she had to be in contact with their client, the mysterious Pimpmaster Rutt of Ultrasuave Inc, the big, throbbing, seven-inch noise in internet porn.
"It's always a delight to talk to such a scintillating saleslady as yourself, Ms Chambers," said Rutt in his electronically distorted voice, modulated to sound low and seductive (and actually sounded like a particularly evil hippo). "So what is it you wish to, aha, flog to me now?"
She giggled (she had to, it was a sales tactic). "Oh you!" Bleurgh. "Pimpmaster Rutt, since we know about your SexEd charity festival, we thought you'd like to know about the latest streaming program we've created…"
Noah Barkman, her boss, was one of Ultrasuave's Gold Members and received the company's mailing list; he claimed this was solely for business reasons but even a blind man could see through that. Today, the list had gone out early with breaking news of the world's first charity porn-event: a pay-per-fap festival with all the Ultrasuave stars, with highest-bidder rights to decide what acts took place, and all of SexEd's proceedings to go to Lawndale High of all things. Apparently, Rutt was feeling sentimental about the dump.
It was a filthy, disgusting thing to be involved in. But on the plus side, it gave her something work-related she could mention at dinner and everyone else might listen to her this time.
Everyone listened to Erin. It wasn't quite going as she'd hoped. Even Daria, to her surprise, wasn't snarking this but instead looked slightly queasy. (On instinct, Erin's eyes flickered to Uncle Jake's cooking.)
"This whole SexEd thing is just wrong," said Helen. "I'm very disappointed. Something like this happens, I should have been their on-call lawyer, damn it!"
"I've consulted for porn before," said Jake, sounding hurt. "I can do it again! It's been years but I'm hip to the current jive! Did… did he think I was… Oh god, I'm not turning square am I?"
"There's probably a very good reason why Upch- Pimpmaster Rutt, and I use that name under protest, didn't hire you," said Daria.
"Our name should mean something, damn it!"
"I think our name did mean something to him."
"Why, I've gotta good mind to go right to that thing and do some direct fucking marketing on him! YEAH!"
As Erin watched, Daria's face became blanker and less expressive than normal. She had to be thinking of something. This blank expression was what Daria did when she considering something and didn't want it to be obvious to others. (Erin always won the family poker games)
"I think that would be a bad-" Daria stopped and thought for a bit. "No, it's still a bad idea but it's also going to be funny for me to watch, so I'd like you to do it. Which should tell you everything."
"Bitchin'! I'm doing it!" (Uncle Jake lost early in poker)
They came in a wave, fifteen of them, Lawndale's shallowest strutting down the mall in slow motion; decked out in the latest fashions, and colour coordinated. The blue and yellow of Lawndale High, but in more tasteful and refined hues than the actual blue and yellow of Lawndale High, was moving down the aisles and showing some leg.
Men turned slowly to watch them go; girls from rival schools gave them narrow-eyed glares; an unattractive fat guy looked at them but they pretended he wasn't doing so.
Sandi felt the savage thrill she hadn't felt since she'd out-fashioned Amy at her own birthday party. This was why she'd founded the Fashion Club: showing off, being the leader of attractive girls in cool clothes, getting male attention (and wallets), totally outdoing someone else and rubbing it in. And it was for a good cause this time too!
Yes, nothing could ruin it now. Nothing.
The girls rounded a corner and saw Cindy on a date with Brett Strand.
"Sandi? Sandi, why are you leaving? Come back!" Angie sighed. "Ohhhhh… bum. Who's going to lead now?"
Fourteen pairs of eyes tried to keep a paranoid eye on all of the other thirteen at the same time.
"I need to go to the bathroom!" squeaked Stacy, falling back fast for the nearest changing room.
"I think," said Brooke slowly, "that you should lead, Angie, because you've had experience-" Deliberate pause – "of watching leaders doing things…"
Erin answered the door. Several large, rather threatening kids in hoodies and urban thug gear were at the doorstep.
"You must be some of Quinn's friends. She's upstairs."
The three-man attack squad of the Dirty Decade had expected a harsh response when they went round to threaten Quinn – nobody wrote that Oakwood "sux" on Oakwood's own walls – but they hadn't expected to be challenged to a home-turf fight. They scowled at the woman with their most menacing scowls, to show what they thought of such an obvious trap.
"Alright, alright, I know, I'm a 'square'." And then she got out of the doorway to let them in.
Now it was a direct challenge to their manhood. The Morgendorffers were cunning foes, indeed.
"Fuck it. Charge!"
They were halfway up the stairs when they heard the woman yell "Quinn, you've got friends!", and they increased their speed, knowing they'd only have one shot at catching Killer off guard-
Daria opened the upstairs bathroom door and frowned as something crashed into it. She opened her mouth to apologise, looked out and saw that three complete strangers had been knocked to the floor, and stopped caring.
Quinn came out, looked down at the strangers, then back at Daria. "Whoa! You are from this family! Let's beat them up together!"
It turned out that emissaries for all the county's rival gangs had been sending threatening messages to the Eleven. Shane and Andrea had even been jumped, Shane now sporting the battered face of a warrior and a car in the Payday parking lot sporting a face-shaped dent from where Andrea had piledrived some cunt.
"How many schools did you tag?" Daria asked Quinn.
"I stopped counting when we hit Lincoln Elementary." Quinn walked into the kitchen and opened up the utilities cupboard. "Mum, I'm borrowing the baseball bat!"
"Have fun, sweetie! Remember to go for the balls!"
"Just to reiterate: the eleven of you are going-"
"Twelve, I called Death Rowe."
"Oh, that's different. I was going to say 'the eleven of you are going to try and pick a fight with every other gang, and believe you can win', but I'm sure that one extra person will make a difference."
"Exactly!" said Quinn the snark-proof.
Death Rowe's signal (knocking out the opening riff of I Wanna Be Sedated) came over the door, and Quinn opened it eagerly – to reveal Stacy, partly dressed in her Fashion Club gear and partly dressed as Nerd Stacy.
"Fucking ready, Killer!" said Stacy's in Death Rowe's voice.
Quinn's face was blank.
"Came as soon as I heard, but I still made sure to tool up!" Stacy's held up a changing-room coathanger.
Daria had gone into Erin's room when she'd seen Stacy, and now came to the door with a punk wig (Erin kept some for when Helen & Jake were having dinner parties and she'd need to fit in). Gently, Daria placed the wig on Stacy's head; Quinn immediately came back to life.
"Sorry, got confused for a sec! Let's go!"
"Mum, I'm going to Jane's, i.e. far away from here for at least the next twelve hours," called Daria.
After the kids were gone, Erin turned to Helen and protested: "Look, be honest, they could have been some of Quinn's friends."
In Pizza Prince, Kevin was crushing beer cans against his head – Robert, Miguel, Joey, Jeffy and Johnnie all cheered (Mack-Daddy wasn't cheering but he must've been thinking about something captainy). Kevin threw up his arms in a victory pose.
And then, whoa, the main players of the Oakpine Native Americans came in, heading right for the table! Cool!
"You didn't miss it, dudes, I've got another empty can!"
"We're here to send a message about people from loser schools tagging our school," growled the Oakpine quarterback.
"Aww man, someone did that?" Kevin was disgusted. "That sucks, bro."
Kevin didn't know why, but that seemed to really piss the guys off and then one of them hit him! Acting with great cunning, Kevin smashed the beer can on that guy's forehead.
He hoped they'd believe his He Started It excuse now it was true…
On reflection, Sandi realised she shouldn't have bought quite so many dresses in one go – but damn it, she'd been so angry only a window-shop could calm her and that led to normal shopping, one of those vicious bike things.
"Well, well. Sandiiii Griffin."
She froze. Five other girls had surrounded her, none of them from Lawndale. She recognised some of them. Eagleton girls. Queen Bees, the lot of them.
"You hear there's some loser school going around messing up their betters? And we have to look at their little mess. It makes us really angry, Sandiiii."
"Very, very angry."
They'd been moving towards but now stopped: Cindy was nearby, and looked like she could see them.
"We could still-"
"No! I heard about her rep, we can't go up against that sort of popularity. We leave it for n-"
"NO!" roared Sandi. "What are you thinking? Look at her, she's a dork! She dresses smart-casual on a date, for Gok's sake! You shouldn't stop attacking me because of her! Carry on!"
Pause. "Aha, no, you're not getting us into that trap-"
"I AM POPULAR AND I DEMAND YOU HIT ME!"
"What's that you're really stirring in your tea? Honey, or bee vomit? Animal secretions that make us say yum! Tonight, on Sick, Sad World."
Jane leaned forward with the popcorn. "Oh, I've been looking forward to this one. Your aunt told me there's alligator secretions. And what secretion it was."
"As long as she's not sending you my baby photos, I'm happy."
"She hasn't." They'd been video clips.
Right after that tantalising cold-open, the episode cut off: "We interrupt this program for an emergency broadcast for Lawndale County: A gang fight that has been described as 'effing massive' has broken out at Romberg Street in Lawndale. County police are advising people to avoid the area, and state police tactical is already en route. Colonel Rawls will be personally-"
"How did you do this?" asked Jane.
"Honestly. Whenever anything turns into utter chaos and destruction around here, it's always 'blame Daria'. Aren't friends supposed to claim their friends aren't guilty? I am guilty but the principle, you understand." Daria sighed. "I told Quinn she should tag other schools-"
The news continued: "reports are also coming in of outbreaks of youth violence across Lawndale, though we cannot confirm if there is any link yet. Lawndale High quarterback Kevin Thompson told reporters this was unprovoked: 'he totally started it, bro!'"
Daria blinked. "Well I didn't mean to do that, as Archduke Ferdinand's assassins said when Belgium was invaded."
"Ah, you meant to cause a controlled mayhem."
"Mmm. It'd be pretty stupid to say 'yes' now, wouldn't it. Ah, maybe it'll blow over. Possibly. Maybe."
Next morning in Annapolis:
Pascal followed State Superintendent Pryzbylewski down the hall like a particularly annoying dog, yapping away with rabid abandon:
"…for student safety to collapse that dramatically under DeMartino, well, at this point the situation is beyond me. I have no choice but to escalate the matter to you. He may, and I hesitate to pass blame on this, may be responsible for so much of the History budget being missing-"
The State Superintendent woke up. "There's a big budget shortfall in Lawndale County? The reports, the last ones we got, they all showed an improvement?"
"It seems that someone was fiddling the books to cover it, and I take full responsibility," said Pascal, and he wasn't even lying. "I've also found complaints about him, going back years: severe anger issues..."
"Yes, um, we'll look into that, Mr Pascal, you can count on it."
The man beamed like a traditional-values politician in a male brothel, and departed. Pryzbylewski breathed a sigh of relief – my office needs to stop telling people where I am when I'm out – and continued on, into the chamber where the Lawndale Incident Commission were in emergency summit.
Governor O'Malley was sweating like a turkey on Christmas Eve. "Please tell me you have some good news, Roland."
"No, sorry," he said apologetically. "In fact, the schools may be worse off than we first thought."
"I have good news," said Colonel Bill Rawls. "I'm here and not still in Lawndale. The state police itself, on the other hand…" He chuckled. "Playing 'stop hitting yourself' with the Quick Response Teams, that's almost admirable of those punks."
"This again shows the problems with the LCPD and the county's whole approach," said Secretary of Public Safety Maynard. "We've had incidents going on for two years, not to mention the Metalmouth killings, and the county police are still inadequate. We need a purging."
"We also need a permanent National Guard base in Lawndale itself," said Brigadier-General Hinz. "We've been there six times already, we might as well face the inevitable."
O'Malley turned to his Press Secretary. "Does that still look bad, Alma?"
"You wish," she replied. "Before yesterday, I did some covert polling and sixty percent of Lawndale residents were in favour. Only sixteen percent said they had faith in the police – that's discounting the police, if I ask them too it's only twelve percent."
O'Malley dragged the skin of his face down from his eyes. "Do we have any good news? Anything?"
MEMA Director Ruth raised his hand. "Nothing's exploded yet."
"I like that yet, fills me with confidence-"
"Oh fuck you, Bill."
"Any solutions?" said the governor, very loudly indeed.
Business Secretary Bell raised his hand.
"No, Russell, we are not selling the whole county off to developers."
"Actually, I was going to suggest burning it this time. For the insurance."
"I think," said Pryzbylewski slowly, "that we should watch and see if things manage to calm down, before we decide on any action. Things may settle down again."
The Maryland chapter of the Hells Angels roared into the grounds of Lawndale High, scattering students left and right.
Steve narrowed his eyes and turned to his guards: "Only one person can go on break now."
The lead biker drove up to the steps and called: "We've got an appointment to see DeMartino about a sponsorship deal!"
Even without looking, Daria knew Jane was staring at her. "This one's not on me, it's on Erin. She mentioned the 'SexEd' charity benefit, Dad decided he'd drum up some charitable funding for the school too… I have nothing to-"
Stacy walked past with her paintball mask on. Daria silently pulled it off her.
"Ta muchly, guv," said Jock Stacy in Fashion Stacy's clothes. "Fuck yeah!"
"I think you should go home," said Daria.
"Oh, I couldn't do that! Learning is much too-" She saw the bikers. "aaaaaiiiiii heeeeeh-hnnn"
"Yeah, I think you win that one, Daria," said Jane,
Stacy blinked, let herself tense up and her face take a more aggressive look. "Get fucked, you – hang on."
She stormed off to where Sandi was. On instinct, Daria took off after her, trying to catch up, not entirely sure why and what she planned to do-
"Someone should really tell those bikers that the 80s are over and-" Sandi looked over to Stacy. "Ah, Stacy, we were wondering where-"
The headbutt caught Sandi unprepared, knocking her to the ground with a split lip. All talk died across the school grounds.
"That's for being a cunt, you cunt!" Blink. "Oh my god, Sandi, what happened, oh my god did I um why is everyone staring why-" Blink. Ramrod straight, face hard.
"Wuh-wuh-wuh," babbled Sandi, terrified, desperate to move but limbs like lead.
Daria caught up far, far too late. A thousand sarcastic lines ran through her head and she struggled not to say them, to leave her shields down. "Stacy." No response. "Death Rowe." Nothing. "Goggle-Eyes?"
Stacy turned to her.
"I need you to come with me for a second."
Slowly, unsure, Stacy began to move. The grounds, and everyone on them, stayed silent, watching. The calm would not last and the storm would break, but if Daria was lucky it would last until she could get the girl to Steve, who could get her to Nurse Chase, who could get her… Who could get her whatever came next. The calm just had to last that long.
Stacy looked over the grounds and saw Jeffy, scared and uncomprehending.
A low, strangled noise came from her throat and her eyes rolled and she fell over, and then the grounds were not silent at all.
The ambulance had taken Stacy away and nobody knew where it had taken her to. Sandi had gone home, in hysterics over the whole thing. Within the hour, the whole school – even the students at the other side of it – had 'been there' when it happened and the tale was growing more outlandish, and under all the gossip was an undercurrent of genuine unease. It came out that DeMartino had been seen with his head in his hands, and that the superintendent was on sight with a gleam in his eyes.
Within the hour, Jane dragged Daria into the bathroom:
"This isn't on you, got it? You're not responsible for Stacy."
"You sure about that?" Daria's face was pale. "On a scale of quantum physics to Trent being asleep at 3PM, where does this rank on things you're sure about?"
"You barely talk to her-"
"I've seen her with these problems, you know I have, damn it! I could have, should have, said something-"
"What and to who? Other people should have seen it, okay? And you didn't cause it. Damn it, Daria, not everything bad that happens is because of something you started!"
She smiled, but there was no mirth in it. "Elemental debating mistake. You're admitting there are other things I am responsible for. Like half the football team walking around with bruises because I sent Quinn off. And how much did I contribute to O'Neill-"
"Oh since when have you given a damn about O'Neill and football jocks, come on! Now you're just trying to wallow in angst."
"Yeah, not caring about people certainly isn't damning-"
"Knock it off!" Jane threw her hands up in despair. "Stacy's thrown you, alright, I get that, but you need to get past that. Everything's going to work out, trust me. It has so far."
"I could overlook your… unorthodox approach to sponsorship deals on its own," said Pascal, making no attempt to hide his pleasure, "and I'm sure if I didn't you could argue it down. But that poor girl, dear me. She's been a student for two years and one of yours, no less, right? And you never noticed?"
DeMartino didn't speak. He kept a sullen eye contact and his fingers gripped his hair like a drowning man on driftwood, but he didn't speak.
"The buck is going to stop here, Anthony. I'm going to have to go back to the State Superintendent – oh yes, he's already aware of what you've been doing. And strange, I don't see you saying all that fine talk about winning if you lose your job. Or was it how you lost it that would count?"
"Don't act like you care about Ms Rowe," DeMartino hissed. "That you care about any of them."
Pascal smiled. "Now you're just getting desperate. I'd advise you resign before the inevitable, but oh dear, there's nobody to take the principal job yet is there? Better come up with one soon."
"Do THIS and the schools CLOSES! You know-"
"Ever since Li left, I have busted my ass to keep the school from closing and fucking up the rest of my district, but now? Now this whole mess is at state level! My ass is Teflon. Once I get the marching orders, it's over. No more grade scandals, no more fucked-up charity missions, no more court cases, no more running battles against the guards – I wave bye-bye and it's all on you." Pascal paused, the triumphant mask slacking for a second to show blessed relief. "It's going to end."
Tori Jericho was the school's top gossip factory and Ed "the Head" Parker was the school's top man at being completely ignored by the world. She'd slipped him money now and then to spy on people for her, but getting him to hang outside the principal's office had been a masterstroke.
Within minutes, everyone knew what was facing Lawndale High.
"This is bullshit!"
An emergency staff meeting was being held but every teacher knew what was coming before they came in – they followed school gossip too. Sherman was making his feelings clear before DeMartino had even spoken.
"They ain't giving us a chance! The kids are actually trying, have been since Tommy Sherman's speech – you've all seen that, right? They're trying harder, they're showing the colours… We ain't even reached the game Saturday yet! If we can show the town-"
"And that's why they'll close us before Saturday if they can," said Mrs Bennett, tired – she'd only come back to the job in the last month. "You can't claim something needs to be shut down if you let it improve. I've seen it all the time in the business world and school politics both."
"We're just gonna take it?"
"The STATE government is looking at us," said DeMartino. "I DOUBT we have any friends at that LEVEL."
"So unless a damn miracle comes along, we've wasted our time and we're all at new schools, if we even get new schools," spat Nikahd. "I'm not even thinking of the lack of space or Lawndale's reputation-"
"You're thinking we've pissed off the bosses, right?" Barch drew her lips back into a bared grin. "I wish I'd done worse, if I'm going to be hanged anyway."
"There's SOME good news," said DeMartino. "We won't have to get up at FIVE AM anymore."
"Man's got a point," said Sherman.
"Hey, I'm no longer hearing 'this isn't on you'," said Daria. "I win. Woooo."
"Yeah, fine, part of this is on you," said Jane. "But even if we took you out-"
"If we take me out, none of this would have happened at all. It all started when I went to the press about-"
"No, no, no. Don't you dare think that you shouldn't have exposed Li's system. Don't be that damn selfish. I was balls-deep in it and it was corrupt and degrading, and I got threatened to stay there or Morris would kill my whole future, you think that should have stayed?"
Daria shook her head.
"Well, there you go!"
"I'm also glad Colonel Gaddafi is gone, but you'll note that Nato didn't nuke out Tripoli and then send in cyborg rapists with Rage virus infections. They sat down and thought 'gee, maybe there should be some Libya left afterwards'. You know what I thought? I thought 'I want Morris and the track team to hurt' and I didn't think about what else might happen. I should have thought things through but I didn't care.
"Ever since then, maybe ever since I stood up to Grandma Barksdale and decided the consequences didn't matter, I've been playing My Little Chaos God with the events around me and, okay, yeah, sometimes that's been a good thing. Other times? Other times I just got lucky. I've been a drunk who decided to go street racing, it's all really impressive until the inevitable fucking crash that takes others with her."
Jane was silent for a while, and finally said: "Okay, yeah. But I still say better that than if you just ignored things. Better an unstable mess than more of Li."
"You say that, but you don't know where you're going to school next. There's one thousand, four hundred, and forty students. Where are they all going to go? Answer: wherever they get damn well told. You might…" Daria looked away. "You might be in a different school to me. And neither of us is popular at any school in the county for what we've done."
The unspoken threat hung in the air.
"So I have some damage control to do," said Daria.
The first thing Daria did was to stop her father from finding out about Upchuck's 'business interests' – and thus preventing yet another scandal – without having to give a reason: she sent an anonymous email to Upchuck saying SexEd's location was going to be raided by the police and let him move it at the last minute, so her dad couldn't get there.
(Coincidentally, there really was going to be a raid and when it only turned up Jake in an empty building – "you need any consulting done?" – a search was done for a mole, which turned up an unrelated mafia informant)
The second was to dispose of Stacy's paintball mask, and get to Stacy's locker before it was emptied and 'vanish' anything else related to the Goggle-Eyes vigilante.
The third was to go to Quinn and say "I will pay you to not start any fights with other schools until Monday".
"What if they start them?"
"You can't pay me enough for that, bitch! You'll owe me a favour and I'm collecting it in advent!"
Daria sighed. "What is it?"
Quinn's bravado collapsed. "I dunno where they took Stacy."
"Oh." Daria swallowed. "Sure, sis. No problem."
"Mr Pryzbylewski, there's a Steve on the line for you."
"All I got was Steve, sir."
Pryzbylewski sighed and took the call. "Hello?"
"Remember at Tilghman Middle when Class 8B stole a whole vending machine?"
"…oh, you're thatSteve. Didn't you owe me some money?"
"Yes. I'm working at Lawndale High now and there's something I want to pass on about Superintendent Pascal…"
Hospitals and care homes would not give out confidential information to complete strangers. However, Aunt Amy had done some research at the local asylums for a follow-up story on Metalmouth; Daria made sure to call the contacts Amy had made and drop her name about. Networking had its uses.
"Stacy's at the Brookside Rest Home," she told Quinn. "They have her under observation and she's calm."
"And we know why people in the funny farm are calm, don't we?" spat Quinn. "I should've- I mean, duh! Stacy was Stacy, why didn't I get that? What sort of friend am-"
"Don't think that, Quinn." Because I honestly don't know how to argue the opposite. "You didn't put her there and you're trying to do right by her now." And I've helped cover up part of her psychosis, which may deny her some of the help she needs, because I decided the rest of Lawndale High was more important. So what does that make me?
"Uh, sis? You kinda spaced out there. You okay?"
"That doesn't even deserve an answer." I'll be adequate if what I've done helps. Please let it help.
The next day.
Superintendent Pryzbylewski had come down from Annapolis and Pascal was grinning like the cat who'd invented cream-flavoured mice, but DeMartino refused to show weakness. He could at least have his pride for a bit longer.
"I've been talking to Governor O'Malley," said Pryzbylewski. "What happens in this county is of great concern to him. And we looked at all the evidence and information we had, and we've come to a… difficult decision."
"I SEE," said DeMartino.
"I doubt it." Pryzbylewski turned to Pascal. "We had another look at these financial irregularities and that led us to some very tangled paperwork. Ploughing through that would be really difficult."
"I apologise, Superintendent Cartwright left a mess-"
"I'm really good at tangled paper trails."
Pascal didn't respond.
"Now, obviously we don't want another scandal in this county's school system. The arrest of the superintendent – again – for fraud, blackmail, things like that, we'd rather avoid that if we can. But I think you're going to take early retirement, and I also think that, as long as it stays calm, Lawndale High will stay open and it won't answer to your office for a while. Are we clear?"
"Oh YES," said DeMartino, smiling.
Friday came and went without incident, and was actually one of the most peaceful days of all and had a record number of students doing work. Everyone knew the stakes.
As the day ended, Daria let herself relax. The week was down. As long as next week was uneventful too, the school could last until the start of summer – and if it did that, inertia would have set in and the government would let it continue on. She'd cleaned up the mess she'd made.
"You realise what all this means," she asked Jane.
"That this school sucks like the love child of Paris Hilton and an industrial vacuum cleaner," said Jane.
"Aside from that. I now have to use all my skills to keep the school open and prevent issues."
Across the grounds, the Maleficent Eleven and the sad remnants of the Fashion Club eyed each other warily. In the end, it was Jackie that brokered the truce:
"You going to see Stacy later?"
"Yes," said Sandi. "I suppose you could follow if you wish."
Saturday was a minor game between the Lions and the Oakpine Native Americans, but the stands were crammed full of Lawndale students and staff members, all decked up in the colours and cheering their heads off as the team went on the pitch. They had something to prove: that they were down but not out. Never out.
As the emotion built to a fever pitch, Brittany nodded to the other cheerleaders and prepared to do the best cheer routine of her life:
"The sun on the meadow is summery warm/The stag in the forest runs free…"
Daria was watching TV with Jane when suddenly, horrible, she realised that she'd forgotten about the cheerleaders.
"Damn it! Damn it! Stupid, stupid-"
Jane grabbed hold of her. "Amiga! Calm down! Whatever it is, just calm-"
"I cleared up all these things except the one in front of half the town! Remember the cheerleaders gag?"
"Me neither! A little throwaway gag because I didn't think! All I've – I got the cheerleaders, after a big fiery speech from one of our teachers, to do a pro-Nazi song in public and not in the context the original musical intended, so it's just going to look like-"
"Shit-" Jane recovered fast. "Maybe it won't be that bad. Maybe-"
"Oh, it's going to be bad, half the stadium will burn to death as a direct result and then locust swarms will descend on the town! I screwed the pooch with a strap-on chainsaw this time!" Tears started to form in her eyes and she blinked them away furiously. "I don't know how bad this will get, I just know it's – going – to – be – bad. And it's all on me this time."
"There really is no way to spin this," said Alma. "The students either look grossly ill-informed and ignorant, or they look crass and a different type of ignorant. On its own, that would be bad but with everything else – it's too much in too short a time."
"Any objections, Roland?" asked O'Malley.
"No," said Pryzbylewski. "They had their chance, I'm sick of dealing with it. Let's at least arrest Pascal while we're at it."
"Agreed. Full purge. It's all over for them."
NEXT: This Is No Fun
AUTHOR'S NOTES: The series has been leading up to this point for a while now. Originally, I had vague ideas of a different event kicking it off but when I rewatched The F Word, I realised that was too fitting to not use.
The names of the other schools and the Oakpine Native Americans comes from the old Daria websites.
Onepu, as ever, is borrowed from the Not So Different series by J-D. A number of the Maryland government characters are real, the others are borrowed from The Wire. Tomorrow Belongs To Me is from Cabaret and a very, very sinister song (especially when Spitting Image used it for a skit on the 1987 Conservative re-election in the UK…)
MEANWHILE, SIDEWAYS IN TIME…
Helen entered the room, dumping her briefcase: "There's angel hair in the freezer, girls, and don't forget, tomorrow we're hosting the couples workshop. It's Focus on Teens night! I expect you to be there, Quinn."
"Can't!" said Quinn. "I've got a date! Remember what you said on Saturday? A commitment's a commitment."
"Yes, I guess I did say that," said Helen. "Daria, I've left fifty dollars on the kitchen table; as long as you're far away from the house tomorrow, I don't care what you're doing."
There was no swearing, spitting, or general unpleasantness in response.
"Quinn, did your sister come home today?"
"Uhhh… I dunno, I haven't seen her since…" She thought about it. "Was she at breakfast?"
The two found Daria still in bed, drooling, two empty bottles of vodka on the floor. On her bedside table was a note: "Mr O'Neill was going to do another self esteem lesson in homeroom. I have taken the necessary precautions. See you Friday."