"If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." How many of us have actually taken that advice? And how hard it would it be for someone who can only communicate negatively? I guess Sandi is going to find out.

Chapter 2: In Which My Life Is Totally Over!

Ω Ω Ω

DAY ONE

When Sandi opened her eyes the next morning, the clock on her dresser said 11 AM.

How unfashionable. I never sleep that late. It is almost like my body didn't want to wake up today. I wonder why—

The events of yesterday came flooding back. Shopping. Arguing with her best friends. A lady having a heart attack in the elevator. A promise inside an ambulance.

They had arrived at the hospital a minute later, and Ms. Walker was taken somewhere Sandi couldn't follow. So she sat in the waiting room and listened to the storm outside. In a surreal moment, she found the latest issue of Waif on the table and saw the striped dress article she missed. The magazine had never seemed more artificial and meaningless. Sandi buried it under all the others. Finally a doctor with a bad hairpiece walked in to tell her the old woman had stabilized and would probably make it. Relief washed over Sandi like a tidal wave. She was happy without quite understanding why, and the confusion left her exhausted.

She called her mother Linda, who arrived with a barrage of irritated questions: why hadn't she come back with her friends and what in the world was she doing at Lawndale Hospital. Sandi was in no condition to explain, and she didn't get it herself. She nearly fell asleep in the car before they made it home, and the next thing she remembered she was…here.

She hadn't even changed for bed.

"Yick," she muttered to herself. "Gee, Mother, you could at least have—" She stopped.

"If you can't say anything nice…"

"Oh, no," Sandi lay back down on the bed. "Did I really make that promise?"

She did. It seemed right at the time, but now the other shoe had dropped and squashed her flat.

How was she going to talk to her mother? What would she say to her friends—if they were still her friends? How would she order a veggie pizza? Wait…why couldn't she just ignore it and talk like she always did?

Because it would be like mixing plaids: fundamentally wrong. She could still feel Ms. Walker's hand on her wrist.

Sandi felt like an old lady herself when she stumbled out of bed and towards her bathroom, trailing clothes until they were gone. Clothes, she thought, and froze naked in the doorway. I left all the new clothes I bought in the elevator.

Perfect. She slammed the door, stepped under the hot water and resigned herself to what would undoubtedly be the worst day—no, make that the worst week of her life.

"Hell-ooo. I mean, um…hello, how are you today?" She practiced. It came out sarcastic and accusing. On second thought, what didn't? "Good to finally see you out of bed…" Nope. That sounded like her mother on a good day, polite but not really nice. "My, what a nice jacket, Stacy! I love how it minimizes your many figure flaws." No, backhanded compliments probably didn't count. "Um, I will have a medium veggie. If you can get it here on time for—I mean, please." Better…

Sandi practiced lightening her tone as she shaved her legs. She nicked herself behind one knee, so that helped. Sitting at the vanity to apply her makeup, she tried not to scowl or smirk at everything—what was the use of saying nice things with a mean expression? But it seemed impossible. She would turn away for a moment, look again and see the same old Sandi.

It was noon when she finally chose an outfit (the same one she wore every day, that is) and ventured out of her room. She was tested instantly by the sight of her two little brothers fighting in the upstairs hallway.

Get out of my way, you little brats. Gee, try to fall down the stairs for me. Her mouth opened. "Good morning, Sam. Good morning, Chris. How are you today?" Generic and a little phony, but technically nice.

The boys stopped fighting and stared at her like she'd just arrived from Mars. "Uh, it's not morning anymore," stammered Sam. "Are you gonna tell on us, meanie?" snapped Chris, the younger one.

"Um, no. Just be careful. I don't want you to fall down the stairs like I did." Until I get the camera.

"What's up with you?" demanded Sam. "You're talking all weird."

"Yeah, are you retarded or something?" Chris made a face.

Don't use that word, you little creep. "Yes. I am fine."

They jumped up and started in on her as she walked past them. "Crazy girl!" "Cuckoo, cuckoo!" "Her makeup went into her brain or something!" Sandi was red-faced and angry before she made it down the stairs.

She found her mother in the kitchen—not cooking, of course, but looking through the cupboards for something. "Damn it, I know all of his stuff is already out of here. That lawyer of his can go straight to…hello, darling," she broke off when she saw her daughter. "It's good to finally see you out of bed."

Did she know her mother or what? Sandi would have come back with her own abrasive greeting, but… "Thanks, Mom. How are you?"

The businesswoman's eyebrows shot somewhere into the stratosphere. "Er…very busy. In case you were still too sleepy to notice." Okay, maybe it wasn't a good day. "Can you believe your father? I just don't know when he's going to move on." She shook her head airily and turned back to the shelves.

Sandi felt a familiar rush of anger. How dare she complain about him in front of her. But then, hadn't she always? "Mom, you don't have to spend a holiday like this. Can't you just relax and forget about that?"

As she usually did when other people spoke politely, Ms. Griffin lost interest and went back to what she was doing. "You are still such a child, Sandi dear. You will understand when you're older."

Oh yes, Mother. You are being such a good role model for me. Sandi had to bite her lip. "Okay. I just thought I would ask."

Ms. Griffin glanced at her again, this time like she was some kind of rare insect. "Darling, are you feeling sick? I would hate to think you caught something during your little adventure in medicine."

Yes I did, Sandi thought desperately. Take me back to the hospital for a week. With my own room, so I do not have to speak to anyone else. How would she ever last seven days like this? It took only a few minutes for her mother to make a comment so insincere that it could only be answered with something equally sharp…and she couldn't bring out the hatchet.

For the first time Sandi noticed the radio was on. "This is the story of how one night can weigh a ton," someone sang. No kidding.

"I am going to lie down for a while!" she practically fled the kitchen.

Her mother didn't even look up. "What an exciting change of pace for you, dear."

Thankfully the upstairs hallway was now empty. Sandi locked her door and leaned against it, breathing like she'd just run a marathon with one of those tacky numbers on her chest. She felt frail and exposed, like the last of a dying species…not even a cute and fuzzy one.

Was this how it felt to be a "nice" person? How did they get out of bed in the morning? No wonder her family wasn't like that—it saved them a lot of trouble. But then how come they didn't seem happy?

What about me? Am I just like the old woman said? Before that artificially coiffed doctor came into the waiting room, was I happy?

Sandi didn't want to think about it anymore. Your brain could drive you crazy if you gave it a chance, and then you had to spend all your time thinking, like Quinn's weird sister. She looked around for something to do but came up empty. There was nothing good on TV yet, there was nothing to read except old fashion mags, and her makeup and exquisite brown hair were already done to perfection.

With great reluctance, her eyes came to rest on the phone.

Ω Ω Ω

No one was short of things to do in Chez Morgendorffer. Helen was on her cell phone as usual, pacing around the kitchen yelling at her boss about having the nerve to call her on Labor Day; Jake seemed oblivious as he gleefully stirred up a pot of a horseradish stew for lunch. Daria winced at the noise (and the smell) as she tried to watch Sick Sad World in the living room. It didn't help matters when the phone rang right next to her head.

"Damn it," she sighed. "Quinn? Quinn! Phone!"

The evil machine continued. Daria snatched the receiver. "Morgendorffer Psychiatric Ward. Can I help you?"

A rich, halting, oddly accented voice answered her. "Um…hi, Quinn's cousin or whatever. Can I talk to someone here? Like, please."

"Is this a trick question?" Definitely one of the fashion drones.

"Okay, I mean can I talk to Quinn. It's kind of an emergency." The girl sounded as though she were reading from a script.

"Theoretically, yes. Unfortunately, the fact that you're talking to me means that—" Daria stopped, hearing footsteps on the stairs. "Hold on. I'm detecting signs of superficial life."

Quinn didn't look at her sister or the mildly amusing show in the kitchen. She made a beeline for the front door with purse in hand.

Daria held out the phone. "Um, Quinn. Trouble in fashion paradise."

Quinn paused nervously with her hand on the doorknob. "Who?"

"I think it's the one you're always sucking up to."

"Tell her I'm not here." Quinn glared as she shut the door behind her.

Daria blinked and brought the receiver back to her ear. "Sorry. All evidence to the contrary, it seems she is not here."

There was an exasperated sigh on the other end. "Gee, thanks a lot, Quinn's…I mean, thanks anyway."

Ω Ω Ω

Stacy sat cross-legged on her bed, studying her purchases from the day before and wondering what to wear for the first day of school tomorrow.

Hmm…the red turtleneck sweater is soooo nice but it might be too warm for this time of year and it doesn't really hide my shoulders as well as I thought and I just know someone will notice so never mind that for now. What next…OHMIGOD there it is. The Forbidden Dress, the one Sandi was so against the other day but Quinn told me to buy anyway and I did and I tried it on and loved it and it did make up for the shoulders which is always important, but what if Sandi saw me wearing it, and on second thought maybe the world wouldn't end if I did something Sandi didn't like because it was her own fault for not seeing it in the magazine not that I would ever tell her that but she's going to be so angry at me after yesterday so maybe I shouldn't make it worse when she sees me tomorrow—

RING.

"Eep!" Sandi jumped, even at the familiar sound of her phone. She took a deep breath and reached for the receiver as if it might bite her. "Er…hello?"

"Stacy? I—"

"Ohmigod I'm so sorry Sandi!" Stacy cried in panic. "I got the dress you didn't like and I yelled at you yesterday but you were being so mean and I know it hurt your feelings but please forgive me OH GOD OH GOD I'll never do it again!" She dropped the phone and ran out of her room crying.

"Hello? Stacy? Um, hello? …Damn. I was being nice and everything."

Ω Ω Ω

Due to no small amount of desperation on the caller's part, Tiffany's phone rang next. Unfortunately she was out, and the answering machine picked up.

"Helloooo. This iiiiis Tiffanyyyy…Blum-Decklerrrrr. I caaaaan't come to the phoooone." Pause.

"I'm…probablyyyy out shoppinnnnng…or somethinnnng." Longer pause.

" If you're calliiiiing to talk aboooout…fashionnnnn…please press onnnnnne. If yooooou're…"

Click.

Ω Ω Ω

Lawndale Hospital was aptly located north of the high school, with its undersized football team and accident-prone faculty, and west of Seven Corners, Lawndale's most confusing and dangerous intersection. Its staff was surprisingly competent. But they had to be in a city that was itself a haphazard place, from its uncertain history to its awkward and sprawling construction. Ms. Walker had never had much use for it aside from occasional shopping trips like the one yesterday.

And look how that ended up, she said to herself grouchily. But things could be worse. She was alive, the doctors were nice, and her health insurance was valid. Now if only these people could remember an old woman's name…

"Here you are, Ms. Walker," chirruped a nurse as she came in with a lunch tray. She looked impossibly young.

"It's Clinton, dammit," Ms. Walker insisted, more in weariness than anger. "Mary Anne Clinton. Why can't anyone get my name right in this establishment?"

"Sorry, Ms. Clinton. One of our medics got that name from the girl who came in with you last night, and I guess that's the one that got around."

The woman sat up in bed to accept the tray. "Ahh, yes…I remember her. Now why would she call me Ms. Walker…" She stopped and remembered her walking aid. "Oh. That little smartass."

The food was edible, especially the jell-o. Visiting hours started right after lunch, but she doubted anyone would show up to harass her. The suburbanites around here didn't leave themselves much time for acts of random compassion, and as for her family…they probably didn't even know she was here and that was just as well. Maybe she could finish that romance novel today.

But her hopes were dashed when another nurse gently rapped on the door. "Good afternoon, Ms. Walker. You have a visitor!"

Must be some mistake. Not bothering to correct the misnomer, she sighed and looked up from her book. "Who is it?"

She was taken further aback when a familiar girl with fashion model hair and an uppity voice walked in. "Um…like, it's me."