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.
"Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars."
These Scarred Walls
by Roland 'Jim' Lowery
I've got you! I've got you . . . I'm not going to let you go. Look at me. Look at me! I'm not going to-
The dream jumped and scattered liked so many roaches fleeing from a flashlight, broken by a bump in the road. Quinn reluctantly opened her eyes and sat up straight in her seat just in time to hear her father start talking in his standard "everything is going to be okay" voice.
"Girls," Jake said, "I just want you to know your mother and I realize it's not easy moving to a whole new town. Especially for . . . "
The sentence trailed off, leaving an uncomfortable silence in its wake. A few seconds too late, Daria spoke up from the back seat. "Did we move?"
The phantom of an expression flitted across Jake's face, making it look like he wanted to laugh at the deadpan joke, but he just couldn't bring himself to do so. "I'm just saying that the two of you . . . well, you should try to make some friends this year," he said. "It's a brand new start for all of us, and we should take advantage of it, right?"
Halfway through his short little speech, Quinn had leaned forward and turned the radio up, filling the car with the harsh sounds of something that wanting to be death metal when it grew up. Jake reached out with the obvious intention of turning it off, but merely turned it down after a moment's hesitation.
"The point is," he said, voice raised to be heard over the noise, "the first day at a new school is bound to be difficult-"
Daria suddenly leaned over the seats and turned the radio back up to full. With a soft smile turned toward the window so Jake wouldn't see, Quinn reached up and brushed a hand across her sister's shoulder. Her mission accomplished, Daria settled back in her seat and shouted, "Speak up, Dad! Can't hear you!"
The school drive suddenly came up on them, causing Jake to fumble for a moment as he tried to turn off the music and pull in at the same time. After he managed to do so without wrecking or running over any of the students milling about in front of the building, he stopped the car and sighed.
"Uh, where was I?" he asked distantly. "Oh, yeah . . . look, just don't get too upset if it takes the other kids a little while to warm up to you two."
Ignoring him completely, Quinn popped her door open and virtually leaped out of the car. She heard Daria mumble some sort of vague reassurance before she slammed the door shut, and then she was out of the frying pan. Looking up and around at the brick edifice of Lawndale High School, she wondered bleakly just how hot the fire was going to be.
Just as Daria stepped out to join her and Jake drove off, two girls broke off from one of the larger groups of students hanging out and headed their way. Before they were even halfway across the grass, the girl with the dual braids threw her hands up to her mouth, her eyes wide, and turned to run away. The other tried to grab her arm before she could scurry off, but failed.
She threw Daria and Quinn a strange look that seemed to merge confusion and disdain equally, then turned to follow in her friend's retreating footsteps.
As the sisters walked up to the doors, they pointedly ignored the stares they knew they were getting. There weren't as many as they had expected from their experiences back in Highland, but they could still sense a few pairs of eyes here and there all the same.
When Quinn's step began to falter at one point, Daria reached out and gently squeezed her hand. Squeezing back, she fell back into line and the two of them entered the school, ready to face whatever might come their way.
"As you can see, our Lawndale High students take great pride in their school."
Quinn rolled her eyes while Daria simply stared straight forward, eyes glazed. While not quite as annoying as Principals Brown or McVicker had been, Ms. Li was definitely insufferable enough. Her entire welcoming speech thus far had been nothing but praise for every great and wonderful thing Lawndale High had ever done, which would have been fine except for the fact that she managed to twist it so it sounded as if she had been personally responsible every single one.
"That's why," she continued in her stuffy voice, "you'll each be taking a small psychological exam to spot any little clouds on the horizon as you sail the student seas of Lawndale High."
Daria frowned deeply. To no surprise, Quinn's hand immediately found hers, and she turned to see her younger sister almost on the verge of hyperventilating. Li and the rest of the group moved on, but the two of them stayed behind.
"Daria . . . "
"It's okay," Daria told the panicking girl. "Quinn, listen to me. It's okay. I'll go in with you when you take the test, alright?"
"Mmf." Quinn tried to push some words out past her lips, but they didn't seem to want to open properly. "What if . . . what if they don't let you?" she finally managed.
Daria pulled Quinn around so they were facing each other. She fixed her sister with a deadly earnest look and said, "Then you don't take the test at all. Period. You'll be automatically exempt. I promise."
"I promise," she repeated as Quinn slowly calmed down, knowing that everything was going to be alright.
Daria never broke her promises.
Mrs. Manson's mouth turned downward slightly when she saw the two girls sitting across the table from her. The one in the frightful green jacket looked like just the sort that would give her trouble, but the other . . . the other was simply heartbreaking.
The poor redhead looked like she would have been an example of nearly perfect beauty if it weren't for the two long, ragged scars marring her face. One of them ran just under her mouth, extending out from a wide base that sat right on the edge of her jawline. The other was even longer and came from the opposite direction, running from the lobe of her right ear, under her eye, and across the bridge of her nose to taper off along her left cheek.
Both scars were craggy, made of mottled flesh that radiated small cracks here and there along their length, as if whatever accident had caused them had tried to literally rip her face off rather than simply slice her skin. It made Manson feel sick to her stomach, and she could only imagine the psychological damage that might accompany such extensive physical damage.
But regardless of her trepidation or her sympathies, Manson still had a job to do. "Now Quinn," she said, holding a photo up to the redhead, "what do you see here?"
Quinn briefly but intently studied the photo, then fixed Manson with her piercing green eyes. "A picture," she said tersely.
"Yes," Manson confirmed, trying to keep her tone upbeat. "A picture of what?"
Withdrawn. Unhappy. Passive-aggressive. Possibly schizotypal.
Though she was still a year or two away from gaining her psychology degree, Manson still knew enough to start trying to figure out the puzzle sitting in front of her. If only Li would allow me to do more than just sort kids into that useless self-esteem class, she mused for a moment, then shook the pointless thought away. Li would never agree to anything like that, and there was nothing to be gained from trying to convince her otherwise.
"Yes," she said aloud, "it's a picture of two people, and as you can see, they're talking. Can you make up a little story about what it is they're discussing?"
Manson waited, but it soon became obvious that though the girl had technically answered the question, she had no intention of actually volunteering a story. The main reason this was obvious was the fact that instead of continuing, Quinn had pulled out a small pocket knife and started flipping it end over end between her fingers. The folded knife clacked noisily against the faux wood of the table, jarringly loud in the silence that filled the rest of the room.
"I'm sorry," Manson said, her voice trembling at the sudden introduction of a weapon - however small - into the situation. "I'm afraid knives aren't allowed in school. I'm going to have to ask you to give it to me."
Quinn's scarred face was truly animated for the first time since she'd entered the room. With raised eyebrows and a quick shake of her head, she emphatically told Manson "No."
"You can retrieve it after the school day is ov-"
"She said no," the other girl finally spoke up. Her eyebrows came together behind her thick-rimmed glasses. "She needs the knife. It helps her keep calm."
Manson, to her own surprise, found that she was now holding the photo up in front of herself more like a shield than as a psychological tool. Both girls were glaring directly at her, a cold, united wall of defense that threatened - no, warned - of reprisal should she try to crack it.
Tack. Tack. Tack.
"I'm sorry, Dara," Manson said, wincing when she immediately realized that she had gotten the other girl's name wrong. "I . . . well, I think I've got enough for now, Quinn, Daria. Maybe we can pick this up again during lunch or before class tomorrow, when we've all had a moment to calm down, yes?"
"How very optimistic of you," said Daria. "I think we're done here."
She looked over at Quinn, who nodded curtly in agreement. They both stood up, gathered their bookbags, and fairly stormed out the door.
Left alone in the room, Mrs. Manson dropped the photo, held her shaking hands over her face, and seriously considered switching her major to computer sciences.
The second they were outside, all of the bravado that Quinn had been showing escaped from her in a huge puff of breath. She collapsed down to her knees, trying her best not to let out any tears. Daria's hands were on her back as she murmured comforting words in a low voice.
It only took a few moments for Quinn to pull herself back together. "Thank you," she said.
"Anytime," Daria responded, then pulled the taller girl down so their foreheads were touching. "The bell's about to ring," she said. "We've got History next. Are you going to be okay for it? We'll go straight home if you want. Just say the word."
Quinn shook her head slightly and said, "No, I'll be okay."
With a soft smile, Daria lifted her face up and gave Quinn a kiss right above her eyebrow. The bell rang and students began to pour out into the halls, so the sisters turned and started making their way to their first class.
The teacher standing at the head of the classroom was a wiry middle-aged man with hard eyes and a hard mouth, as if he had been chipped fully from a single piece of angry granite. His name was Mr. Anthony DeMartino, if Quinn remembered the syllabus correctly.
She and Daria took two of the seats in the middle of the room, right next to each other, and waited patiently for the tardy bell to ring. Once it had, DeMartino closed the door and addressed the students.
"Class," he said, "we have a couple of new STUdents joining us today. Please welcome Quinn and Daria MORGENdorffer. Raise your hands, please, ladies."
The sudden attention on them caused Quinn to squirm a little in her chair and Daria to look as if she'd happily murder every single person in the room, but they both dutifully raised their hands.
"Well, DARia. QUINN. As long as you have your hands raised . . ." The teacher's voice was a strange staccato, almost an attack of sorts. He gave them a boxy grin and continued, "Last week we began a unit on westward expansion. Perhaps you feel it's unFAIR to be asked a question on your first day of class."
Daria's frown deepened. "Excuse me?"
"Daria," DeMartino said quickly, "can you concisely and unemotionally sum up for us the doctrine of Manifest Destiny?"
Her teeth ground down on each other, but she had to admit that it was good the attention was being placed upon her and not Quinn, at least. Both girls put their hands down.
"Manifest Destiny was a slogan popular in the 1840's," Daria recited from memory. "It was used by people who claimed it was God's will for the US to expand all the way to the Pacific Ocean. These people did not include many Mexicans."
"Very good, Daria," DeMartino said, looking genuinely impressed. "Almost . . . susPICIOUSly good. Alright, Quinn. Can you tell me which war Manifest Destiny was used to justify?"
Daria's mouth opened to say something that would probably get her sent to the principal's office or back to Mrs. Manson, but Quinn silenced her with a slight shake of her head. The look of pure annoyance didn't leave the older girl's face, but she settled back into her seat without saying a word.
Quinn cleared her throat, centered herself, and said in a clear, even voice, "Manifest Destiny was used to justify the Mexican-American War, which ran from 1846 to 1848. The US had taken the Texas territories in 1845, and the Mexicans wanted it back. It is believed that if it weren't for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, neither side would have cared so much."
"Well well WELL," said DeMartino. He fixed the two girls with an appraising eye which bulged ever so slightly in its socket. "Two correct - if SMARTASS - answers in a row. I believe this may just be a new record for this class."
"Wow, that messed up chick is pretty smart!"
All of the good nature that had built up in the teacher's expression disappeared in an instant as he turned to snarl at the speaker, a football player who was, for some inexplicable reason, wearing his full uniform including shoulderpads in class.
"Ah. KEVIN," DeMartino spat out like an epithet. "Son, that 'messed up chick' will probably end up being able to BUY and SELL whatever pitiful little team you get dumped into after college. You could stand to LEARN a little something from her and Daria." He scanned the room, taking in every single other student with his hard gaze. "You ALL could. Now, can anyone tell me the name of the treaty that closed out the Mexican-American War?"
Complete silence. DeMartino tapped his fingers together behind his back impatiently, then finally shouted, "Either SOMEone gives me the ANSWER, or I give you ALL double homework and a quiz tomorrow! I want a volunteer with the answer! NOW!"
Everyone jumped at the final bellowed word. Daria and Quinn looked around, but all they could see were worried looks and the occasional furtive peek in their direction.
With a simultaneous sigh, they both raised their hands.
Dinner was quiet as usual that evening. Though it was a new house with a new kitchen, everyone still sat in their usual spots around the table, with Daria on Quinn's right, Jake on her left, and Helen right across from her. Unhealthy portions of microwave lasagna sat before each of them, slowly disappearing bite by bite.
"So," Helen said, breaking the silence, "how was the big first day?"
"About as well as could be expected," Daria replied. "At least the history teacher seems to like us."
"Everyone else is an idiot," Quinn added, though her voice lacked any real venom. She stated it more or less as a simple fact.
"At least they're interesting idiots."
"That's great!" Jake interjected, a wide smile on his face.
He started guiltily at his wife's admonishment. "Uh, I mean-"
"Girls," she said quickly, "your father is trying to tell you not to judge people until you get to know them. Isn't that what you would want from them in return? You don't want this to be Highland all over again."
Daria scoffed. Quinn merely shrugged. The conversation was abruptly dropped as everyone went back to picking at their food. A few moments later the phone rang, and no one looked up as Helen went to answer it, mumbling something under her breath. Despite their attempts to pay no attention whatsoever, they could still hear Helen's side of the conversation clearly.
"Hello?" she said. "Yes . . . Er, yes, they're my daughters . . . I see. No, that won't be necessary. I assure you that- what? . . . No, they will not. They will not. Look, both of my daughters have been signed up for therapy sessions, and I will not have some unqualified quack screw up any progress they might make with a fully liscenced professional. And furthermore-
"What? She did, did she? Well of course she did, if you were bullying her with some sort of non-sanctioned psychological 'test'. And furthermore, she will be allowed to continue taking the knife in every day if she feels like it. If you look at her records from Highland, you'll see that she had special permission and that she never once used the knife as a weapon or anything else dangerous, and the very second she has her first session here, you can bet your job that she will be given a similar letter of permission since it is a part of her continuing therapy!
"If you want to fight us on this, feel free, but I warn you that I will be getting the best lawyer in the county to represent our case: me. If you want to check my creditials, just call Vitale, Davis, Horowitz, Riordan, Schrecter, Schrecter, and Schrecter, and tell them Helen Morgendorffer sent you!"
And with that, she shut off the phone and slammed it down hard on the base. She then took a few seconds to collect herself before walking back over to the table and sitting down.
"You girls took a psychological test at school today?" she asked calmly.
"For a certain given amount of 'took'," Daria replied. Quinn chuckled.
"That was the principal. She's apparently not happy with the attitude that the two of you had during the test. I assume you didn't take it seriously?"
"Of course not," Quinn told her, crossing her arms over her chest. "It was a big joke, except without the 'being funny' part."
Helen nodded. "Good. Remember girls, outside of your actual therapist, you don't have to talk to anybody about your psychological well-being if you don't want to. Don't let anyone tell you different. Now, it seems the principal wants to put you in some sort of half-baked self-esteem class-"
"What?" Jake yelled, completely appalled. "That really stinks! I remember when my dad tried to put me in one of those classes! Well little Jakey didn't want to go! And that's when he bundled me up and sent me off to Bux-"
"Easy, Jake! Focus." Helen put her hand on Jake's arm, forestalling the coming rant. As soon as he had calmed back down, she turned back to the girls. "Anyway, I told her that you wouldn't be attending, of course. Unless . . . do you want to?"
Neither of them hid their disgust at the idea as Daria snorted in derision and Quinn sharply said, "Not a chance."
"Well then," Helen said, favoring them with a warm smile. "That's that, then."
"I'll say!" Jake added heartily.
Quinn smiled back as dinner resumed under a much improved mood.
Daria awoke to the soft sound of crying.
Adrenaline flooded her system immediately, snapping her into a fully awake and alert state. Her hand hesitated as the somewhat unfamiliar layout of her new room confused her in the dark, but she quickly reoriented and had her glasses in her hand as she vaulted up and out of the room. Without stopping to announce her presence, she stepped into Quinn's room, shut the door as quietly as she could in her hurry, and ran over to the bedside.
In the dim moonlight streaming through the nearby window, she could see Quinn in the middle of the mattress, curled around herself and shaking slightly with each sob. Every shiver of the young girl's body sent a sympathetic ache through Daria's heart.
She placed her glasses on the nightstand, then crawled under the sheets. Her body was still twitching with unspent energy, but she calmed herself enough to reach out with care, gently stroking Quinn's curved back with her hand. After a few minutes, Quinn slowly unfurled. She was still on her side but had more or less straightened herself out.
Understanding this signal, Daria scooted over and enveloped her sister in a tight embrace. She still felt the occasional sob, but they gradually became fewer and farther between. Finally, Quinn's soft, even breathing signified that she had fallen back to sleep.
With the adrenaline breaking down in her system, Daria felt herself starting to drift off as well. She loosened her hold on Quinn, but still kept the other girl close just in case she woke up again.
There were good nights and bad nights. Daria had been hoping for the former considering their first full day in Lawndale hadn't gone too terribly, but just the stress of having moved from not just one town to another but from state to state had apparently been too much.
"It'll get better," she whispered right behind Quinn's ear just as she slipped off to her own slumber. "I promise."
Lunch period on their first day had been filled with far too many stares and idiots pretending they had lost their appetite after seeing Quinn's face, so for the second day she and Daria decided to take their packed lunches out to eat on the school commons. Only a few other students seemed to do the same, so it seemed the only way they might get some privacy would be to go out into the open.
A few trees lined one end of the school property where the girls chose to park themselves. The shade felt nice given the hot weather that was still clinging about the start of fall, and they took a few moments to simply sit and enjoy it before digging into their food.
Sandwiches a la Jake were always a bit of a crapshoot, but they were happy enough with the latest results. At the very least they weren't having to pick out candied cherries or thick slices of habanero peppers, an often all too legitimate worry. As they ate, both girls leaned back against the tree they were sitting under and read books that were splayed out on their laps.
A small sniff of annoyance caused Daria to look up and then follow Quinn's line of sight. Over on the other side of the commons, she could see the girl with the braids from yesterday standing there and staring at them. After a few moments, the girl turned and ran off into the distance. At first, Daria thought that was the end of that, but Quinn poked out her chin, signaling her to keep watching.
Almost immediately, the braided girl was back. Daria couldn't quite make out her facial expression from that distance, but the way she was shuffling from one foot to the other seemed to indicate nervousness. She dismissed it as yet another gawker wanting to stare at her sister the monster but too afraid to actually get close.
"Ignore her," she advised. The two of them dropped their gazes back down to their books, immediately forgetting the girl with the braids even existed.
Unfortunately, their next visitor was a little harder to ignore.
"Hey, baby," the boy said, sleaze dripping from his every movement as he sauntered up to them. His nearly black hair was slicked back with way too much gel and his grin showed far too many teeth. Daria had a hard time imagining anyone being more of a stereotypical wannabe ladies' man.
"We gave at the office," she told him with a tone of strictest dismissal.
He wasn't deterred. "Oh, I'll bet you did," he said with a ridiculously overdone wink. "But how 'bout giving a little here at school too, eh?"
Daria looked up from her book, anger starting to cloud her features. "What in the hell makes you think we would want to do that?"
"Aw c'mon," he said with a slight shrug of his shoulders. "Two uggo babes like you? I figure you gotta take what you can get, and I just happen to be feeling generous today. So whattaya say?"
"I say that this has to be the worst attempt at a pickup line we've ever heard, and we used to get hit on by a guy literally and quite deservedly named Butt-head," said Daria. "I also say piss off, assclown."
Instead of being offended, the boy simply chuckled. "Oh, I get it," he said. "You two are like, kissin' cousins or whatever? That's pretty hot, actually. Don't worry, I'm cool with just watching."
Quinn gave him a look of utter disgust. "First off, scumbag, she's not my cousin, she's my sister. And second, even if we were . . . like that - which we aren't - like we'd let someone like you know!"
"Hey, Shaun," another voice cut across the conversation, "does Upchuck know you're using his catchphrase?"
The boy - apparently named Shaun - turned around in surprise and found himself face to face with a third girl, who was glaring at him hard with her icy blue eyes.
"Oh, it's just you," he said dismissively. "Whatta you want?"
"I want to kick your ass," the girl said, then leaned around him to address Daria and Quinn. "You ladies want in?"
Shaun turned back to see the two sisters set their books aside and stand up. He also saw that all three girls were wearing very heavy boots. The small light switch in his head suddenly flipped over, leading him to make one of the few intelligent decisions he'd ever made. He held up his hands in surrender and very quickly found somewhere else to be.
Quinn began to shake the second he was gone. Daria's arm was around her shoulders and her voice was in her ear, soothing her like usual until she realized that the other girl was still there, watching her break down. The fact that someone else was seeing her in a vulnerable state was suddenly making her feel even more vulnerable, and she was helpless to stop the vicious cycle. She clung to Daria's jacket and tried to speak.
"I . . . Daria . . . "
"Hey, are you okay?" the girl asked before Daria could answer. "Look, if I'm intruding-"
"No, it's fine," Daria quickly interjected, then she leaned her head in close to whisper into Quinn's ear. "It's fine," she told the shivering girl. "She helped us. She's fine, trust me."
"Buh-but," Quinn stammered, but Daria cut her off.
"Remember what dad said?"
The incongruity of the question caused Quinn to laugh despite herself. As much as they both dearly loved their father, they both knew that very little of what came out of his mouth ever made any real sense. The idea that he had said something pertinent to their current situation struck her as strangely surreal. Daria couldn't help but give a small chortle herself.
"I'm serious," the older girl said, trying to get back to sounding like she was. "He said we should try to make friends, right? Just . . . imagine she gave you a knife."
Quinn's hand automatically went to the outside of her jeans pocket, her fingers moving around the shape of the folded blade there. The sensation combined with her sister's words finally broke through to her, and she felt all of her pieces starting to fall back into place.
The third girl was still standing off to one side, keeping her gaze carefully aimed off into the distance to give the sisters some privacy. When she noticed in the periphery of her vision that things seemed to be calming down, she turned back to them and said, "So, I guess introductions are in order? I'm Jane. Jane Lane." She held out her hand, which Daria reluctantly shook.
"You're in our History class," Quinn sniffled as she wiped at her eyes.
Jane's crimson painted lips parted in a pleased grin. "Hey, good eye! Guilty as charged," she confirmed. "So obviously I already know you two. You'll have to forgive Mr. Dee. He's mean and crusty on the outside, but once you get past that, you'll find that he's mean and crusty on the inside too. You don't have to forgive Shaun, though. He's just a grade Z ass."
"We'll keep that in mind," Daria said as all three of them sat down on the cool grass. "So what brings you to our neck of the woods? Is threatening boys kind of a hobby for you?"
"Eh, well," Jane said with a shrug, "I did see a couple of damsels in distress and thought I'd lend a helping hand, but I've actually been meaning to talk to you two since yesterday. You're smart, something that's in pretty short supply around here, and I could stand some intelligent conversation for once."
"Well you won't get any of that from Daria," Quinn said, playfully nudging her sister in the side. "Her GPA is only 3.9!"
"My dark secret, revealed at last," Daria deadpanned, causing Quinn and Jane to laugh.
Though they only had about ten minutes left to talk before the next class period, the three girls managed to cram as much into those ten minutes as they possibly could. As they chatted, Daria would look over at Quinn every once in a while and be surprised to see how easily she was taking part. Even with the few people they could relate with down in Highland, she had always been more than a little reticent.
When the bell rang, calling them back inside, they all stood and swiped loose grass and dirt from their clothes.
"So hey, what's your next class?" Jane asked.
Daria consulted her memory as they started back toward the building. "Art with Ms. Defoe," she said.
"Oh, no way!" Jane exclaimed, her face lighting up. "Me too! Best class ever. Jane seal of approval. Guaranteed. I must not have noticed you guys past my own canvas yesterday . . . I get kind of caught up in my work."
"Are you any good?" Quinn asked brightly.
"Ah, the question no artist knows how to answer," Jane sighed, mock painfully. "I like to think I am, but I guess you'll just have to see for yourself. If we hurry, we can get some spots right next to each other. And if we don't hurry, we can just shove people aside to make room."
"The paint brushes have pointy ends, right?" Daria asked. "I'm sure we can make that work to our advantage."
Quinn laughed, high and clear, and to Daria it was the most beautiful sound in the world. She had promised Quinn that things would get better. She never would have guessed her promise would come true so quickly.
Jane was indeed good. In fact, Daria and Quinn both agreed that her painting could rival many they had seen in museums. The fact that the subject matter had absolutely nothing to do with what they were supposed to be painting did not dull their opinions whatsoever.
The bright smile on Ms. Defoe's face when she saw the canvas confirmed that she felt the same way. "Oh, Jane, wonderful as always," she said. "I assume that the dinosaur represents the violence that seems to permeate our modern lives so thoroughly?"
"Nah, he's just there to eat babies and set fire to things. But thanks for making me feel deeper than I really am," Jane said with a smirk.
"Very good, Quinn, excellent use of texture," Defoe said as she studied the other girls' paintings. "And Daria, you . . . um, put some paint on the canvas, at least. That's good!"
"I call it I'm A Writer, Darnit, Not A Painter," Daria told her. "Just wait until we get to calligraphy. Don't bother wearing socks that day. They will be blown off."
The teacher laughed gently and left them to their assignments. Dabbing up a bit of paint each, they put their brushes back to work as they talked.
"So, the reason behind the 3.9 surfaces," Jane joked. "I'll tell you what, kid. I'll take you under my wing, teach you everything I know. And then someday, I may ask a favor of you in return . . . "
Daria snorted. "Worst Godfather impression ever detected at Lawndale High School today. Film at 11."
"Aw, that's okay, Jane," Quinn comforted the other girl. "I thought you were convincing as an overweight Mafia boss with possible glandular problems."
Jane flicked a bit of black at each of the girls, which precipitated a short paint fight that left their jackets and shirts spotted with various colors. Those who hadn't already been glancing over at the three strange girls before had begun to definitely stare at them with this new bit of weird behavior.
But for the first time in what seemed like forever, neither Daria nor Quinn noticed or even gave a damn.
To their amazement, it turned out that Jane shared two more of the last three classes of the day with the Morgendorffer sisters, leading to self-reassigned changes in the seating arrangements. Despite having only met a few hours prior, the three girls felt as if they had been sitting together in class for years, and it made the drudgery of the entire process far more bearable.
But sadly the day had to come to an end eventually. Jane waved at Daria and Quinn as she left for the very same after school self-esteem class that they themselves had just narrowly avoided. After she was gone, they shoved the books they didn't need for homework back in their lockers and set out for home.
Just as they were getting down to the sidewalk, however, they were suddenly stopped by none other than the girl with the braids.
"Uh . . . hi!" the girl said. "I just . . . what're your names?"
Daria and Quinn blinked in mild shock. As they watched, the braided girl squirmed where she was standing, her eyes never seeming to stay still on any particular thing. As the silence between them dragged out, she started to glance from side to side as if in panic, a wide grin frozen on her face.
Daria put her hand around Quinn's upper arm and started to silently lead her away. The whole situation smelled of a setup for some kind of awful prank. She'd seen it enough times in Highland to know that there had to be some other people lying in wait somewhere, having sent out this poor soul to reel her and her freak sister in for some private group teasing.
Genuine panic set in when the girl saw them start to walk away, and she quickly moved to follow. "Wait, wait!" she called out, "I'm sorry! Come back! Please? I don't . . . "
Daria looked back over her shoulder to see the brunette bitch that Stacy the Nervous Girl had been with the previous day. "We are going to be late," the bitch said in her bitchiest tone, barely glancing over at Daria and Quinn as she berated the other girl. "If you are ka-uite done talking to those weirdos, Tiffany and I would like to get to Cashman's before the sale ends, thank you very much."
Fury flooded Daria's senses and she considered going right back and pummeling the bitch's head in while yelling Who's the weirdo now? Quinn's step faltered, however, snapping her out of it and reminding her of her priorities. Quinn needed her, and that was the only thing that mattered.
"So, what do you think?"
Quinn looked up from her textbook. "About what?"
"She's nice. I like her."
Daria nodded, and they went back to work. The only sound for the next few minutes was that of pencils scratching quickly across paper.
"So you don't think she just wants something from us."
"I'm just saying-"
"Gawd, Daria!" Quinn huffed, leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms. "Weren't you the one who said we should try to make friends?"
Daria quirked an eyebrow. "Actually, Dad said that."
"Whatever. Come on, seriously, Jane's the only person that's been nice to us so far except the teachers, and most of them are all, 'Oh, look at the poor little girl with the scars, it'll make us feel like we're helping out the less fortunate if we're nice to her!'"
"I don't remember any of them using those exact words."
"You know what I mean," Quinn said, jabbing her pencil in her sister's direction. "And stop trying to avoid the subject. You're the one who brought it up, and you're the one who's suddenly having doubts. What's the deal?"
Daria shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "I guess . . . " she started, then tried again. "It's that Stacy girl. I just think . . . maybe Jane's doing the same thing she tried to do, only she's playing a slightly longer game."
"No," Quinn said. Without even noticing that she was doing so, she pulled the knife from her pocket and started turning it in her hands. "She wouldn't do that."
"We don't know that. We don't really know anything about her."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Look, Quinn, I'm just trying to protect you-"
Daria put her hand across the table, but Quinn jerked away from it, clutching her knife and looking down at the appendage as if it were a slimy fish that had been slapped down before her.
"'Protect me'?" she repeated, her voice harsh. "If getting me to open up just to try and shut me down later is 'protecting me', then you can just stop!"
Brown eyes behind thick glasses opened wide. Quinn's words were like a harsh slap, and Daria was stunned from the blow. They sat, Daria with her arm forward and Quinn bunched back in her chair, for several minutes, still and silent.
"I'm sorry," Daria finally said as she pulled back, making herself look even smaller than she actually was. "I shouldn't have said anything. You're probably right. I just . . . worry."
"Yeah, well, that's one of the reasons we're in therapy, isn't it?" Quinn snarled, then immediately winced at her own vehemence. "I . . . I'm sorry, too," she said more softly. "I don't want to fight about this."
Daria sniffed. "Neither do I. I guess we'll just see how things turn out."
"I guess we will."
Soft pencil scratching filled the air again.
"So what'd you get for number fifteen?"
"Hola, amigas!" Jane called to the sisters as she wrapped her thin arms around their shoulders. "So, are we ready to take on the big, bad school system on this glorious day or what?"
"That depends," Quinn replied. "Are you actually going to be able to join us for some after-school-system activities today? We found this great pizza place not too far away-"
Jane sucked air through her teeth. "Aw, man, the Pizza Palace?" she asked. "I love that place! But I've got the whole self-esteem workshop for losers today. How about we meet up there after five?"
"No can do," Daria said, shaking her head. "Mom wants us home before then. I think she's wanting to take us on some kind of mother-daughters bonding ritual. I'm afraid it might involve hot coals and branding irons. Or if we're particularly unlucky, clothes shopping."
"Bummer," Jane said sympathetically.
"Tell me about it."
"So why don't you just skip the whole self-esteem thing?" Quinn asked.
Jane shrugged. "Eh, reasons. If I miss even a single class, I've gotta do the whole thing all over again. I've already taken it like six times already, and I think the glamor is finally starting to wear off. Though I dunno . . . I do kinda like having low self-esteem. It makes me feel special."
The bell rang for homeroom, effectively ending the conversation. The three girls filtered their way over to DeMartino's classroom with the beginning of amusement already playing across their minds. If nothing else, the History teacher's unusual delivery always made listening to the morning announcements interesting. Quinn particularly liked when he would get to the lunch menu for the day.
The short period passed quickly, followed by the first class of the day, Language Arts. The girls sat in the back of the room and talked in quiet voices, paying only just enough attention to the teacher to know more or less what was going on.
"I can't believe you get taught self-esteem from this guy," Quinn said of Mr. O'Neill. She made a face as his syrupy voice hit a particularly sickly sweet note as he talked about what kind of tree would represent F. Scott Fitzgerald. "I mean, I don't think he even teaches this right. Does he even know what self-esteem is?"
"I don't think so," Jane agreed. "He's just got all the speeches memorized. I spend most of my time just sitting back and enjoying the nice man's soothing voice."
Daria had been quiet for the past several minutes when she suddenly turned to Jane and asked, "You said you've taken the course six times, right?"
"So you already know everything there is to know?"
Jane gave her a shrug. "Yeah, pretty much. Why?"
"Hmm. Just an idea," Daria said after a moment's hesitation. She then turned back to the front of the class and settled down in deep thought.
Jane greeted Daria and Quinn with a look of sheer horror. "'Just an idea'!" she echoed Daria's words from the previous day. "'Just an idea', she says!"
Daria and Quinn glanced at each other. "Did it not work?" Daria asked.
"Oh ho ho, it worked alright!" Jane told her. "I've tested right out of the self-esteem class, and now Mr. O'Neill wants me to make a speech in front of the whole school!"
"Ooooh," the sisters groaned at the same time.
"Darn right 'oh'!" The poor artist ran her hands up her face and through her hair while taking in a deep breath. "No, okay, this is fine. I can do this. I've had this dream before. Usually I'm wearing pink taffeta, but that's fine. I can roll with it. Daria, Quinn, I'll see you on the flip side."
With that, Jane turned on her heel and stalked off toward the auditorium. They slow trailed behind her as the PA system came to life and called everyone in for a morning assembly in place of their regular homerooms, an announcement that was met with general apathy.
Daria quickly found them seats near the front. It normally wasn't a place either of them would have preferred, but she figured - and Quinn agreed - that it would probably be for the best if they were somewhere Jane would be able to easily spot them.
Several teachers were seated in plastic chairs along the back of the stage, while Principal Li stood behind a podium, carefully watching every single teenager that came in the doors and generally looking as if she expected a school shooting to happen at any moment. Jane was seated on one end of the plastic chair line, and when she saw her friends out in the audience, she waved and then gave a quick "I'm spazzing!" expression.
As they waited for everyone else to filter in, Quinn pulled out her knife and idly swung it around. Li noticed the movement and was quite obviously unhappy about it, but kept quiet. Daria wasn't sure how long that would last, figured that the principal would probably try and corner Quinn after the assembly was over, and started drafting in her head exactly how she was going to tell the stuffed shirt off.
The seat immediately to Quinn's right was suddenly filled, much to her astonishment. With an affected look of boredom she glanced over to see who was brave or ignorant enough to sit by her and was further surprised to find that the girl in the other seat was looking straight at her.
"Hi!" she said, her wide smile a slash of perfect white surrounding by coffee-colored skin. "I'm Jodie. You're Quinn, right?"
Jodie offered her hand, but Quinn didn't take it. She automatically recognized the hollow nature of the exchange and turned disinterestedly to the front. "Meh," she said indistinctly.
"I'm sorry I haven't gotten a chance to welcome you to Lawndale yet, but I've been a little busy lately," Jodie continued as if they'd shaken hands warmly. "I'm president of the school council-"
"-and you heard there was a physically and possibly mentally deformed new student, so you want to make sure you appear sensitive to others," Quinn finished for her. "I get it. Look, I'm sure you're, like, a genuinely nice person and all underneath it, but it's way too early in the morning to deal with the phony act, okay?"
"Stop bothering my sister," Daria said without looking over. Her voice was even lower and more dangerous sounding than usual, and Jodie heeded its warning, a sad expression crossing her face.
Once everyone was in, the assembly started. Several minutes were wasted as Li read the morning announcements that nobody particularly cared about, the last of which had something to do with bake sales and DNA samples. Daria hadn't been paying close enough attention and hoped that none of the possible connections between those two things that had popped into her head were true.
"Now, Mr. O'Neill has exciting news about our after-school self-esteem class!" Li said, then acceded the podium.
"Thank you," said Mr. O'Neill as he shuffled a few sheets of paper. "You know, self-esteem is a little like your car's brake fluid. You may not even know you're low on it until one day, you go to shift gears and nothing happens!"
One of the students off in the back shouted "That's transmission fluid!" which caused sweat to pop out on O'Neill's forehead.
"That's . . . what I said," the teacher mumbled. "Anyway, I'd like you to meet a student who has completed our self-esteem course faster than anyone ever before! Please join me in congratulations as I present this certificate of self-esteem to-" he looked at one of the papers "-Jane Lane!"
Daria and Quinn joined in on the underwhelming and scattered applause as Jane stood up and walked over to the podium. O'Neill handed her the certificate, shook her hand - which she then wiped on her shorts - and stepped aside to let her speak. She put her hands on either side of the stand and cleared her throat.
"I just want to say how proud I am today," she said. "Knowing that I have self-esteem gives me even more self-esteem."
Jane paused for the barest fraction of a second, and Daria could swear she saw the artist wink at her and Quinn. "What-?" she murmured softly, catching Quinn's attention.
"On the other hand," Jane continued, "having all of you know that I had low self-esteem makes me feel . . . " She trailed off, then gulped hard. " . . . well, kind of bad. Like . . . a big failure or something. I, uh . . . I want to go home!"
As the audience cracked up laughing, Jane let out a pathetic cry of despair and ran from the stage, bashing her way through one of the side exits. O'Neill watched her leave, his mouth a perfect O of surprise, then quickly followed. As one, Daria and Quinn stood and pushed their way through the legs of other students on their way to the aisle. Once free of the crowd, they also ran out in pursuit of their friend.
O'Neill was jogging down the hall, calling something that approximated Jane's name through his oversensitive sobs and apologies. Daria and Quinn took off after him, but pulled back when they heard someone call out "Psst!"
Jane waggled her eyebrows at them from the alcove between the lockers where she had hidden herself. "Enjoy the show?" she asked.
"Oh thank Gawd," Quinn breathed in relief. "You had us worried for a second!"
"What, that?" Jane scoffed. "I had to do something weird. Can't let them think their little conformist factory actually works, right?"
Daria grunted in her agreement, her former worry forgotten. "But that just means they'll try and put you back in, won't it?" she had to point out.
"Oh, yeah . . . " Jane scratched her chin. "I may not have thought this through well enough."
"Eh, that's okay. I didn't really want to use it, but I do have a Plan B," Daria assured her. "In the meantime, I say go ahead and start skipping the class anyway. It shouldn't be around for too much longer anyway."
"That right? How do you figure?"
Daria gave her and Quinn her best Mona Lisa smile. "I'll just need to contact my lawyer," she said, "who just so happens not to be very enamored of the self-esteem class anyway."
"But before that, Pizza Palace!" Quinn added. "You in? Or are we going to have to drag you out of here after our last class?"
Jane looked back and forth between the sisters as a smile slowly lit up her face.
"So, what do you think?"
Daria pushed a bit of hair out of Quinn's face. "About what?"
With a heavy sigh, Daria leaned back to use her sister's stomach as a pillow. They were lying on Quinn's bed and had been preparing to say their good nights when Quinn had suddenly brought up the difficult question.
Jane was certainly fun. Things hadn't been boring with her around, that was for sure, and they had been having a great time going out for pizza for the past few days after school. And during the whole self-esteem assembly debacle, Daria had to admit that Jane had had a perfect opportunity to pull some juvenile stunt by mentioning Daria and Quinn on stage. If she had been looking to humiliate the two like so many others before her, the moment when she had the entire student body's attention would have been the ultimate.
But she hadn't.
Further, she was great with Quinn. She hadn't ignored the fact that the younger girl's face was scarred, but she hadn't drawn attention to it either. She didn't stare. She didn't obviously pretend not to notice. To Jane, Quinn was just another person and had been right from the start, with no need for a period of adjustment like some people.
And so Daria decided to give Jane the highest seal of approval she was capable of giving. She tilted her head to look at Quinn's expectant expression, and she said three very important words.
"I trust her."
Quinn took her hand and smiled. "Thank you," she whispered.
Daria pulled herself up and kissed Quinn on the cheek. "Good night," she said, then turned the light off and walked over to her own room.
Everyone in the Morgendorffer household slept peacefully that night.
"Ugh," Quinn muttered in disgust. "It's that girl again."
Jane looked up and around. "Huh? Which one?"
Quinn pointed over at the other side of the commons where Stacy was pacing back and forth in between glances in their direction. Every once in a while her lips would move and she would shake her fist vehemently, as if she were working herself up for something.
"Oh, her." Jane waved a dismissive hand Stacy's way. "She's harmless."
"She's been trying to lure us into something," Daria said stonily.
"No way. Sandi wouldn't let-"
Jane trailed off when she noticed that Daria had already gotten up and was stomping angrily across the field. She and Quinn quickly jumped to their feet to follow her. "Hey, wait up!"
Stacy was so engrossed in her own self-pep talk that she didn't notice the short, angry girl coming up on her until it was too late to run and hide. A small shriek was strangled halfway out of her throat, and she seemed almost ready to throw her arms over her head for protection.
"Okay, out with it already," Daria demanded, crossing her arms. "What the hell do you want?"
As freaked out as she had been already, Stacy looked like she simply wanted to die when she saw Jane and Quinn come up on either side of Daria. "I- I just- I mean-" she stammered, her shoulders held high, her eyes wild.
Quinn put her hand on her sister's arm. "Daria, maybe we shouldn't-"
"Oh God, you're just so cool!" Stacy suddenly gushed at Quinn, causing the other girl to jump back a few inches. "I mean, I'm sorry that I freaked out when I saw you the first time, but I just freak out so easy, it's kind of what I do, and I didn't mean to be so freaked by your scars but I was, but your clothes are just so cute and I wanted to say hi but I couldn't and then you guys didn't want to talk to me when I actually tried and I thought no I knew I'd screwed everything up and I really shouldn't keep trying because Sandi doesn't want me talking to unpopular people but you and your sister and even Jane just seem like such nice people when I'm not screwing things up and making you angry at me or other people are bugging you so I really should have known-"
"Breathe!" Jane yelled, cutting her off. Stacy stopped, sucked in a massive gulp of air, then panted heavily for several moments.
"And that's all I really wanted to say," Stacy told them. "I'll just go now . . . "
"Wait!" Quinn called out to her as she turned to go. "You . . . really think my clothes are cute?"
Looking down at herself, Quinn couldn't really see it. She was just wearing one of her regular outfits. Scuffed boots, ratty blue jeans, and a dusty peach men's button-up shirt that she had stolen from her dad's closet. Nothing special, but the look in Stacy's eyes was one of adoration.
"Well, maybe not the clothes so much," the nervous girl admitted. "Sandi's always having to correct me about what's fashionable, but . . . you wear them so well!"
"And you really think Daria and Jane are cool?"
"Um, not in the way Sandi keeps telling me is cool, but . . . yeah!"
Having mentioned the other girl's name a third time in such a short period, Stacy suddenly jerked her head around as if afraid she had accidentally summoned her into their presence. "Look, uh, I really should go," she told them. "Can I maybe . . . talk to you guys later or something?"
Jane and Quinn looked at Daria, who looked back at them. Jane gave a tiny shrug, then Quinn nodded after a moment's hesitation. Daria blew air through her nose, then decided, "Okay. But Sandi's not invited. Ever. Got it?"
The three girls figured they couldn't have made Stacy happier if they'd presented her with a million dollars worth of store credit at a jewelry boutique. Jumping in place and nearly squealing with glee, she said, "Yes! No! Of course not! Thank you so much! I'll talk to you later! Bye!"
And then she was gone, rocketing across the commons and back to the school's main building.
"Well," said Daria as they walked back to their tree. "That was the weirdest thing that's ever happened."
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Quinn asked as they approached Casa Lane.
"Absolutely," Jane said, her tone resolute.
They turned in at the walk up to the house, and Jane opened the door which was, as usual, unlocked. The Lane philosophy seemed to be that if anyone could find anything actually worth stealing inside, they were more than welcome to it. So far no one had.
As they made their way toward the stairs, a lanky young man wandered out of the kitchen, a half-full liter of soda held loose in his hand. He scratched his chest idly and blinked sleepily at the three girls.
"Oh, hey Janey," he said, his voice low and raspy. "Daria. Quinn. Wassup?"
"Hi, Trent!" Quinn greeted him back. Daria just mumbled something into her own shoulder, trying not to look directly at him.
"Trent, could you please put on a shirt?" Jane admonished him. "You're going to make Daria's head explode!"
The girl in question mumbled something else, this time directed at Jane and far less cordial than before. Trent, meanwhile, looked down at himself, his eyelids going up to three-quarters mast in surprise.
"Oh, I'll be damned. Sorry 'bout that. Didn't know we were havin' company today." He took a quick chug straight out of the bottle, then disappeared off into another room, presumably to find a shirt if he hadn't already forgotten he needed one.
As Jane led them up the stairs, she said, "Sorry you had to see that, Quinn." When the seconds dragged on without a direct apology to Daria, Daria lightly punched Jane in the back of the leg. She and Quinn both laughed good-naturedly, which merely made Daria grumble threats of even more violence upon them.
When they got up to Jane's room, Daria and Quinn took their usual seats on the bed and at the desk respectively. Jane herself opened up the closet door, rooted around for a bit, and came back out lugging a box covered by a heavy section of dropcloth. She set the box on the bed and pulled the cloth away to reveal six canvases and a small stack of sketchbooks and three-ring binders.
She carried a few of the books over to Quinn while Daria started pulling the paintings out one by one, then she stepped back and watched them while twisting the tips of her boots into the carpet nervously. Though Daria seemed to be surveying each piece of art dispassionately, Quinn greeted almost every turn of a page with a small gasp of delight or an encouraging word or two.
"Jane, this is beautiful!" Quinn said, holding out a sketch for Daria to look at. Though it was only half-finished, the dark pattern that was emerging from the surreal scene was obviously crafted with a great deal of skill and care.
"I have to concur with my colleague," Daria agreed. "But a lot of these . . . they're kind of personal, aren't they?"
Jane nodded. "That's why I've never showed them to anyone before," she said. "You guys are the first. I don't care if anyone sees the junk I make in Art class or whatever, but these are kinda special."
"Thank you," Quinn said solemnly, which Daria echoed. "But . . . why are you showing them to us?" she asked. "I mean, we're friends or whatever, but we haven't really known each other that long . . . "
Jane's level of uncomfortableness seemed to shoot up several more notches. "It's a little stupid," she said, "but . . . it's kinda because of Stacy."
"That might be more than a little stupid." Daria paused and considered what she had just said. "Hmm. That was rather harsh, wasn't it? Sorry, force of habit. I retract my previous statement. So why . . . ?"
At first it didn't seem that Jane was going to be able to say why. She moved her hands in random circles for a bit, as if she could somehow forced the words out of herself by turning imaginary cogwheels. Whether it was that or she simply decided to just dive on in, somehow she managed to open her mouth and start talking.
"I guess . . . it's how she kinda came clean to us today, right?" she said. "She might not have done it in the best way, really, but she said what was on her mind, and I haven't really been doing that. I mean, it hasn't really been about the scars, right?" She stopped, shook her head, then tried again. "What I'm trying to say is, I've been doing my best not to make either of you uncomfortable, right? And . . . have I? Made you uncomfortable?"
Daria leaned forward, scrutinizing Jane darkly as if she were trying to somehow divine where the conversation was going and wasn't sure she liked it, but Quinn immediately assured both of them, "No, of course not! You've been great, really."
"Oh, good. Whew!" Jane sighed in relief. "It's just, I was telling you the truth before, that I wanted to talk to both of you because you seemed smart. I mean hell, you're both way smarter than me, that's for sure. But I did come over to you for another reason . . . "
Daria stood, her expression one of conflicted emotions, her friendship with Jane and desire to protect Quinn crashing together like two ships caught in a storm. Jane noticed this and prepared to back off meekly, but she heard Quinn call out Daria's name. The elder sister balked at whatever she had been about to say, the side of her lip twitching, and a little of Jane's confidence returned.
"No, please, it's nothing like that!" she told Daria, holding her hands up in defense. "I . . . the second I saw Quinn . . . I just . . . I wanted to paint her."
The conflict disappeared to be replaced by surprise and confusion. "You . . . what?"
"Not like put paint on her, of course," Jane said, sounding close to babbling, "but, like, paint a picture of her. And it wouldn't be something to show off to people, it'd be like the stuff I just showed you guys . . . something personal."
Daria sat back down, and silence fell as each of the three girls fell back into their own thoughts for a moment.
"But why would you want to paint me?" Quinn asked in a sort of wonder.
Jane threw her head back and shuffled her feet. "Ah, jeez," she whined at the ceiling. "There isn't really a way to say this without sounding like I'm hitting on you or something, but . . . " She looked back down, fixing her gaze to Quinn's. "You're beautiful."
Everything was quiet again until Daria finally broke it with a monotone "Aaaaaawkwaaaaaaard."
"No kidding," Jane giggled nervously, then felt her heart drop into her feet when she saw Quinn had her knife out, flipping it slowly between her fingers.
"I'm . . . not beautiful," the younger girl said quietly.
Daria was on her feet in an instant, but Jane managed to get there first, her hands cradling Quinn's face and turning it up so they would be looking into each other's eyes. A tear gathered in Quinn's right eye, then streamed down across her cheek. Jane wiped it away, running her thumb right across the thick, mottled scar.
"You are," the artist told her. "I'm sorry I upset you. I didn't mean to. But you are beautiful. And I want to paint that, to preserve it. Is that . . . can I do that, Quinn? Please?"
Quinn looked up at her sister uncertainly. Daria responded by putting a comforting hand on her shoulder and giving her a slight smile. With a laugh despite herself, Quinn wiped her eyes and nodded.
"Okay," she said.
"Thank you." Jane ran her fingers across the scar on Quinn's chin, then touched her just as gently on the smooth flesh just above it. "Though I'm thinking maybe a sculpture might be better," she added with a grin. "For now, I'd like to get a quick sketch to start with, if we've got time?"
Daria checked her watch and confirmed that they did, so Quinn nodded happily. After pushing some of the other girl's bangs back out of her face, Jane grabbed one of her sketchbooks, sat on the bed, and studied her subject for a few moments before laying out the first line. Daria sat next to her as she worked, peeking over her shoulder occasionally to see how it was coming along. Approximately ten minutes after she had started, Jane stopped and leaned her chin into one of her palms, a curious look on her face.
"Stop me if I'm crossing the line here-"
"Too late for that."
"Ha ha, Funny Daria, how did you get so funny?" Jane asked in a deadpan, playfully elbowing her in the arm. "Seriously, you don't have to answer if you don't want, but how did you get the scars anyway?"
"No, it's fine," Quinn assured her. "But Daria tells the story better than I do. I hardly remember most of it."
As Daria began to talk, Jane went back to sketching, taking it slow so she wouldn't be distracted from any of the details. Daria's voice was a little lower than usual, but throughout the tale her tone remained carefully neutral, almost as if she were telling a story about something that had happened to other people from somewhere far away.
"It was about five years ago," she said. "Back then, Quinn and I weren't very close. In fact, we downright hated each other most of the time, but we'd still go out and play together every once in a while. Sometimes because Mom made us, and sometimes just because we felt it was the sort of thing sisters were supposed to do.
"Highland was never the greatest of towns to explore or anything, but there were a few interesting places here and there. One of them was a dam in one of the nearby creeks. It wasn't like Hoover Dam or anything, of course. Just a small little thing, barely twenty feet across and little more than a concrete stopper that kept the lower part of the creek from flooding too badly during heavy rains.
"It was also cracked and old and usually had a pretty heavy current running over the top of it, making it pretty dangerous. Mom and Dad told us to never play on it, so even though she thought the dam was totally gross, that was exactly where Quinn wanted to go play one day. You know little kids."
Daria chuckled at her sister's bemused exclamation. "Anyway," she continued, "I knew that if Quinn got hurt I would probably catch just as much blame for not watching over her, and since I couldn't find a way to stop her, I tagged along. The water was rushing over the dam that day, so we took our socks and shoes off and started wading across. It was only ankle deep, so we both figured it would be okay.
"There was a lot of stuff that collected at the top of the dam, little bits of trash, crawdads, minnows, and tons of algae. The stuff was everywhere, turning the grey concrete a dark green and making the footing a little treacherous. A little too treacherous, of course . . . I heard Quinn scream and looked over to see that she had slipped and fallen on her belly. Her legs and feet were hanging down the slide to the lower part of the creek, and she just barely had a grip in a crack in the concrete.
"I ran over as quickly as I could, but the green junk was just too slippery. I dropped down onto my stomach so I wouldn't get carried off too, then I slid over to grab her hand. I had her, and I told her that I wouldn't let her go, but . . . I couldn't keep my hold. I watched as she shot down the slide and dropped into the water at the bottom.
"Now, I said that the dam was old and cracked. That especially included the bottom, which had completely broken apart over the years, leaving huge chunks of jagged concrete sitting just underneath the water's surface. I ran down to the bankside there, thinking I was going to have to jump off into that minefield to save her, but a few seconds later she pulled herself up out of the water and onto the bank. The entire front of her body seemed to be nothing but a mass of cuts and scratches, but her face . . . while we can only guess that while she was thrashing around under the water, trying to get upright, she must have dragged her face across one of the big chunks of concrete.
"She couldn't stop screaming and crying, and at first I panicked, didn't have the faintest clue what I should do. Then I guess the adrenaline really kicked in, because I ended up picking her up and running all the way back home with her in my arms. Dad called ahead to the emergency room while Mom cleaned Quinn up and I cried my head off. At the hospital, the nurse treated all the regular cuts with iodine while a doctor stitched her face up as best he could. It felt like it took forever, but that might've just been the worry eating me alive.
"Anyway, when we got home, I promised Quinn that I would watch over her better from that point on. I'm never going to let her fall down another dam again. Ever."
Jane closed her sketchbook and set it aside. "Wow," she said. Then, after a long pause, "It wasn't your fault, you know. From the sounds of it, she just slipped."
"I know," Daria said, turning her face away. "But knowing it isn't the same as feeling it. We're working on it with the therapist, but . . . "
"I go too," Quinn told her. "It's why we can't hang out much on Thursdays. I was . . . " She swallowed hard before continuing. "Before the accident, my whole world kind of revolved around being pretty and popular. When my face got ruined, that got ruined, too. Almost nobody at school wanted to have anything to do with me anymore, and those that did usually just wanted to pick on me for being ugly. Daria helped protect me from a lot of it, but she couldn't always be around, and . . . "
"That's just horrible," Jane said, her lip turned up in disgust. "And people wonder why no one has faith in humanity anymore."
Quinn shrugged helplessly. "Anyway, Daria wasn't really popular in the first place, so we ended up being pretty much the only friends we had. We started hanging out all the time, doing everything together. Including homework, which she helped me with. When I started bringing home straight A report cards, I asked Mom and Dad about skipping a grade so I could spend even more time with her, and they said yes."
"Oh! Well that explains why you're in the same grade, then," said Jane. "I thought maybe you were twins or something."
"Nope, she's just a little rugrat that rose above her station," Daria told her.
Jane grinned, then said, "So you've got a therapist. Are they the one that gave you the knife? No offense, but that seems kinda weird."
"Heh, no. There were these two kids back in Highland named Beavis and Butt-head," Quinn explained, "and yes, those are their real names. After I got the stitches, they were just about the only kids at school who didn't try to pity or pick on me."
"They pretty much worshiped her after that," Daria added. "Just made them even more annoying than they usually were, in my opinion."
"Well, Butt-head was still kind of a jerk," Quinn agreed. "But Beavis . . . he was actually pretty sweet once you got him away from the other guy. He gave me the knife one day just 'cause he thought I was cool, and I've had it ever since. I kinda miss him a little."
"Huh. Neat." Jane picked up her sketchbook and turned it in her hands. "So, you wanna see it?" she asked.
The question was barely out of her mouth before Quinn was next to her on the bed and Daria was crowding in close on her other side. She put her finger around the book's cover, then slowly opened it to reveal her handiwork.
The drawn bust was amazingly detailed for the short amount of time that had been spent on it. Quinn's long hair was spread out behind her head as if a soft wind were blowing it around, her eyes were bright and full of life, and even the scars were breathtaking and seemed almost natural, as if by comparison anyone who didn't have them had something missing.
Quinn covered her mouth and looked like she was about to cry again. "It's beautiful," she whispered.
"I told you, you're beautiful," Jane countered. "I just drew what was already there."
As Quinn threw her arms around Jane's neck and thanked her over and over again, the artist looked over at Daria and saw in her eyes a look of hope renewed.
The second Daria and Quinn entered the house and announced their presence, Helen came out of the kitchen, beaming and holding her arms wide.
"Girls!" she called to them. "I have wonderful news!"
"You found out how they cram all that graham?" Daria asked.
"Even better," Helen said, completely unfazed by her daughter's sarcasm. "Lawndale High School has voluntarily agreed to shut down the self-esteem program! You can tell your friend Jane that she nor anybody else shall ever have to worry about being forced into that meat grinder course ever again!"
"Oh my Gawd, that's great!" Quinn cheered, rushing forward to give Helen a hug, which was heartily returned.
Daria smirked appreciatively. "How'd you manage that?"
"Well, as it turns out, the woman who was running the test and putting people in the class was just as unhappy about it as we were," Helen explained, "so when she heard about the possibility of an investigation, she got in touch with me and said she would be more than happy to testify that it was all 'just a big scam perpetrated by an over-paranoid principal with too much power,' to use her words. And when Li caught wind of that, she folded like a deck of cards."
"So, sometimes the system works after all," Daria said. Feeling generous after the day's events, she walked over and allowed Helen to hug her as well. "Anyone ever tell you that you're the best mom in the world?"
"That's what my coffee mug at work says," Helen said, then took a moment just to enjoy having both of her children in her arms. "So," she said, rubbing their shoulders briskly. "It's been almost a month now. What do you girls think of Lawndale so far?"
Quinn pretended to think it over for a moment, then smiled and said, "Eh, I think it'll work for now."
"It's better than having a limb removed with a chainsaw," Daria added.
Just then Jake came down from upstairs. "Oh hey!" he said brightly. "Are we havin' a family group hug? Well I think ol' Jakey'll be having some of that!"
Quinn sighed happily as she enjoyed the moment. She had her family, she had Jane, and in time she might even allow a few others in. Her walls might be scarred, but as long as she had such good people helping her keep them upright, she knew they would always stay strong.
Roland 'Jim' Lowery
May 11, 2011