©2010 The Angst Guy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Daria and associated characters are ©2010 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: email@example.com
Synopsis: A pink blossom grows from Kevin Thompson's crutch at the end of the fourth-season episode, “A Tree Grows in Lawndale.” What happened after that? This horror-story sequel starts immediately following the blossom’s appearance, so its beginning is entirely in Daria canon!
Author's Notes: In April 2005, Richard Lobinske and I took part in a fanfic-writing competition on PPMB, overseen by Isa Yo-Jo. As part of the competition, one of the three judges, Gearhead, set the following guidelines for the third round: Write a fic (length doesn't matter, but short is obviously better) where Daria attempts to get revenge on someone and completely fails and is publicly humiliated. This can take place either at LHS or after, although the revenge must be on an established character from the series.
This was my entry, based on an unpublished tale begun in May 2003 for a “fanfic throwdown” contest on the Scorched Remains MB. James “CINCGREEN” Bowman had challenged writers to do an alternate-history story about Jane as a cheerleader (a la “The F Word”), and the first part of the present tale was lifted more-or-less intact from that earlier version. However, the entire thing about Jane as a cheerleader dropped out of the story.
The tale was greatly revised in October 2003, and one chapter was published on PPMB under the title “Sudden Death Overtime,” concerning the athletic (and telekinetic) daughter of Jane Lane and Mack Mackenzie, but this fragment was eventually turned into “Anything for Jane.” When Gearhead’s challenge came, I took the original story and finished it per the rules.
Acknowledgements: My heartfelt thanks go out to CINCGREEN, Ruthless Bunny, and Crusading Saint for the seeds of this story’s genesis, and to Isabelle Young-Johnson and gearhead for its final full appearance.
Only a tricycle needs a third wheel, thought Daria Morgendorffer, sunk into the blackest of moods. Walking three steps ahead of her was her best friend, Jane Lane, hand-in-hand with a slumming rich kid named Tom Sloane whom Jane had met only a few weeks before. They were doubtless aware only of their entwined fingers and the pounding of their fevered hearts—but not in any way aware of Daria.
The trio was making a quick escape from Lawndale High’s football stadium, their ears still ringing from the wild screams and honking horns celebrating Lawndale’s 27-7 triumph over the Cumberland Woodchucks. It was Lawndale’s first football victory since its star quarterback, Kevin Thompson, recovered from knee injuries suffered in a mishap with his motorcycle. The Lawndale Lions were once again the lords of the county’s gridirons.
Not that Daria cared. Her concerns were more immediate, like the loss of her only friend, offbeat artist and fellow junior-year classmate Jane, to a too-charming, too-cool guy who wore an old gray sweatshirt and off-white Dockers, affecting the persona of a world-wise Bohemian cynic despite the solid-gold Rolex on his left wrist. Tom was suitably witty and sarcastic, Daria conceded, but then so was Hannibal Lechter. And Jane, who once cast clever barbs at the world with Daria over after-school pizza, was now frequently unavailable for any activity involving anyone other than Tom (leave a message after the beep, beep).
I, not Jane, should have captured your heart, Daria thought, glaring at Tom’s back. And I would have kept it in a jar of formaldehyde under my bed.
“Where did you say that cheerleader buried her boyfriend’s crutch so she could exorcise a ghost from the high-school’s girls’ room?” Tom asked, looking at Jane. “Or was I hallucinating that part of your story?”
“Nope, that was true, and it’s dead ahead. You get a cookie—a Jane cookie.” Jane blew him a kiss, then looked back at Daria (her first look back since leaving the stadium, Daria noted). “Shall we show him the monument of infamy?”
“Sure,” said Daria glumly. “Infamy loves company.”
Jane laughed. “You won’t believe what Daria told Brittany,” she said to Tom. “Brittany had just finished putting the crutch upright in the ground after she got it from her boyfriend Kevin, the quarterback—”
“Quarter-brain,” Daria corrected, still glaring at Tom’s back.
“Exactly,” said Jane. “So, Brittany stuck Kevin’s crutch in the ground where the Tommy Sherman Memorial Tree used to be, before Kevin ran into it on his motorcycle and broke the sapling in half, and Brittany asked Daria, ‘Why isn’t the crutch blossoming?’ And Daria said—”
“Whoa,” said Tom, looking at his watch. “Did you still want to catch that matinee at the Megamultiplex?”
“Damn, I forgot all about it.” Jane turned around. “Daria, we’re going to catch a movie. Wanna come along? It’s supposed to have this great scene with exploding eyeballs.”
“Mmm, no,” said Daria, even more keenly aware of her third-wheel status. “You kids run along and have fun. I’ll find a way through the valley of the shadow of death by myself.”
“Suit yourself,” said Jane. “I’ll call you tonight.” With that, she and Tom took off at a trot down a cross street. Daria watched them go, her glare softening into sorrow. Goodbye, Jane. Please don’t forget me. Please don’t forget about us.
Eyes burning, she trudged on toward home, planning to stay in her room for the rest of that Friday afternoon and evening—and probably for the weekend beyond. It was only by chance that she glanced up as she passed the spot where the Tommy Sherman Memorial Tree once stood, by the north entrance to the high school. She looked down at the sidewalk again, then completed the double-take and stopped dead to look at the crutch that air-headed Brittany had planted to replace the broken tree.
“What the hell?” she said aloud, her eyes wide.
Springing from the top of the crutch was a pink flower with six pedals, perfectly spaced. Two green leaves grew from the stem below. It appeared to be a magnolia blossom, which made its presence all the more absurd since the crutch itself was of white oak. Daria slowly walked up to the tiny fence around the six-foot-square plot of dark mulch that had surrounded the memorial tree before its untimely demise. The blossom appeared to be real, but artificial flower technology was quite advanced, so a closer look was called for. She stepped over the foot-high fence and reached for the flower’s stem—
—and jerked her hand back with a gasp. From the tip of her middle finger, a bright red drop appeared. She stuck her finger in her mouth and walked around the bloom, glaring. Thorns—she saw the narrow thorns now, growing up and down the stem. One hell of a magnolia, she thought. With great care, she put out her hand again and felt the softness of the petals. A strange fragrance reached her nose, one unlike any scent she’d ever known: overly sweet, almost cloying, almost... almost like decaying flesh.
She wrinkled her nose and moved closer, mindful of the thorns. What caught her attention then was the base of the stem. It seemed to have grown directly out of the crutch by cracking through the varnish. The tan wood around the base of the stem had turned a dark grayish color, the same color as the bark of the original Tommy Sherman Memorial Tree, which had also been a magnolia.
She figured it out, then.
“Nice one,” she said aloud. She almost smiled. “Good job, Jane. Bet you were hoping Brittany would see it later. The thorns are a little over the top, kind of nasty, but I salute you anyway. No wonder you wanted to show it to Tom.” She did smile, then. “He might have grabbed the thorns, too. That would have been priceless.”
Thinking about Tom brought a red edge to her vision, though. The smile was gone in moments. The longer she looked at the blossom, the angrier she got. All these years I’ve waited for a best friend, and she dumps me for a guy. After all we’ve been through, after everything we’ve done together, I thought we were above that. It’s not like she hasn’t done this before, though. There was Evan the runner, and that big-headed kid at Brittany’s party... and now this one, the worst of them all, rich and cute and—
The blossom stirred in the breeze, turning in her direction as if looking at her.
Infamy loves company. Yes, it does.
On impulse, she pulled her right arm back a few inches into her jacket sleeve so that her hand was almost hidden, then reached up, using the thick cuff to protect her fingers from further injury on the thorns. Her fingers gently curled around the base of the stem. Tiny needles stabbed through the fabric into her skin, but she gritted her teeth against the pain and jerked downward in an instant.
The flower and its stem were ripped away from the crutch. Seconds later, the petals were a pink smear on the sidewalk and the bottoms of her black boots.
She left for home after that, but regret sank in after she’d gone only a block farther. Jane had probably worked for hours cementing the flower to that crutch, hoping to cause a little excitement among the student body. Destroying her work made Daria feel worse about everything. It had been a selfish and stupid act. She should have let Jane have her fun. The cheerleaders would have freaked, for certain. Almost every gullible student at the high school would have thought the spirit of Tommy Sherman was changing the crutch back into a tree, for hadn’t it been Brittany’s idea to plant the crutch and appease Tommy’s “angry spirit” after the loss of the original tree? How she’d gotten the angry-spirit idea in her head, Daria couldn’t say, but it was a miracle that Brittany got anything into her head at all. It would have been amusing to see the havoc the flower wrought.
Would have been.
In moments, though, Daria’s shame at ruining Jane’s work began to war with another feeling: satisfaction. The flower’s appearance would indeed have been seen as miraculous, and contributing to the belief that Tommy Sherman’s spirit could work miracles was not something Daria ever wanted to see happen. It was bad enough that so many people at Lawndale High mourned the accidental death of the big jerk, a former quarterback and twenty-something alumni who was struck by a falling goalpost during a visit to Lawndale High a year ago. Daria remembered Tommy well: a huge, broken-nosed, sandy-haired, self-centered thug who crudely propositioned every attractive female student he saw and cast ugly insults at everyone else. The last two people he had talked to on his way to see the goalpost, coincidentally named for him in honor of his many touchdowns, were Daria and Jane. It took Jane days to get over the shock. It took Daria about an hour. Maybe two. She couldn’t help feeling he had deserved it.
The planting of the memorial tree afterward had stuck in Daria’s craw, but she finally adopted a live-and-let-live attitude over it. The egotistical Tommy was dead and gone, and she knew she couldn’t control the popular delusions of the student body (the stupid body, she sometimes called it). Best to worry about other things, more important things, like her evaporating friendship with Jane.
She walked another half-block, filled with conflicting feelings and emotions, before she stopped, sighed, and turned back in a bleak funk. She knew she could not repair the damage she’d done, but she wanted to see the crutch one last time and solidify her shame in her mind. Maybe she should steal the crutch and hide it, so Jane wouldn’t be tempted to try that flower trick again. It could backfire and have highly undesirable—
Her thoughts ran down to nothing when she spotted the crutch, thirty feet away. Her gait slowed. She stopped after another ten feet and did not move.
Another pink flower bloomed from the top of the crutch, the stem springing from the same spot where the first one had been torn away. A chill run down her spine, but Daria forced herself to take step after step until she was just outside the mulch plot, staring at the flower with an open mouth. The new flower was slightly larger than the first, which Daria confirmed with a glance was still smeared over the sidewalk and her boot soles.
Had Jane put another flower up? Was she even now watching and giggling with Tom at Daria’s shock and discomfort? Daria quickly looked around, but she saw no one she recognized, and no one was paying any attention to her. In the distance, she could still hear the joyful riot at the football field. No Jane, so... what just happened?
She dared step over the low fence again, moving within two feet of the crutch. The gray area around the base of the stem was wider now, several inches across. How did that happen? What was—
Daria tilted her head, noticing something on the other side of the crutch. She walked around to get a better view.
A leaf had appeared on the end of a short stem that had broken through the clear layer of varnish over the wooden crutch. As Daria watched, the leaf unfurled, grew, and reached half the size of her open hand. She stared, unable to believe she had actually seen that—then noticed a vertical stripe of green on another part of the crutch. Moments later, the green stripe bulged out from the wood and cracked through the shiny coating. The top of the bulge sprang away. The new twig thickened, became a fat green roll, and then unfurled. Another leaf.
Daria stepped back, her mouth dry. Her boots bumped against the low fence, almost tripping herself. A fourth leaf appeared and broke free. A fifth. Three more at the same time, and another pink flower opened in her direction. Bad time to forget to bring a disposable camera along, she thought through a haze of shock. Mesmerized, she did not even think to run.
When Brittany asked me why the crutch wasn’t blossoming, I shouldn’t have told her to take the rubber knob off the bottom. This is crazy. I was just poking fun at her, I didn’t actually think that it would really... I never once dreamed that this would...
Twenty minutes later, the crutch had completed its metamorphosis and had essentially disappeared. The Tommy Sherman Memorial Tree was back, though it was now only four feet high instead of six, as the sapling had been, and it had a wider look. The trunk bifurcated into two limbs about three inches from the ground, as the crutch’s frame had, and two branches reached from one limb to another where the hand grip and underarm pads had gone, maintaining the shape of the device. Pink blossoms and leaves continued to appear on branches stretching from the twin branches, though the height of the tree did not seem to be increasing—unless it is growing more slowly and normally now, Daria thought. She looked at the base of the tree where bits of dried varnish and split rubber lay among the mulch, leftovers from the crutch’s unnatural mutation into a living thing.
Unnatural, not miraculous, was increasingly the word that came into Daria’s mind. She instinctively felt that what she had witnessed was not a miracle. It was instead something wrong, something unwholesome, something hellish that should never have happened. Tommy Sherman was not a fit subject to be creating miracles. He had been of another breed entirely.
She looked down at her right hand, noticed the reddened swelling around the spot where her middle finger had been pricked. It was beginning to itch.
Poison—a weak one, yes, but that was all it could be. Magnolias did not have thorns, much less poisoned ones. The tree had without a doubt tried to hurt her.
She looked up just as a robin flew down, landed on a branch of the magnolia, then flew away unharmed. She followed its flight to be sure it didn’t drop out of the sky. It didn’t. A bee buzzed into one of the pink flowers, stayed a moment, and left.
It definitely did not like her.
She stood and watched another fifteen minutes, but no further changes occurred. Passers-by glanced at her and the tree and moved on, saying nothing.
A pressing need to escape took control. One last time she looked the new tree over, then went home. Seven times as she walked away, she turned around to make sure it hadn’t moved, that it wasn’t following her or sending vines after her or doing something more dreadful.
Once home, she lay on her bed with her injured finger smeared with antibacterial ointment and wrapped in a bandage. Jane had not called to leave a message. The house was quiet. She remembered the moment a year ago when she found Tommy Sherman leaning against her locker at school.
Do you know who I am? Tommy asked her when she tried to get him to leave. A crooked grin played over his face. He dropped a hint: Tommy Sherman?
I know the whole school’s turning itself inside out because of some egotistical football player, Daria had replied, thoroughly steamed. Her cup of venom ran over, and the words poured out. And I’ve seen you insult or proposition just about everyone you come across. So my guess is that you’re the football player guy. Congratulations. You must have worked very hard to become a colossal jerk so quickly.
Her little speech took him aback, but he recovered quickly. You know what Tommy Sherman’s going to do now? he said, pushing away from her locker. He’s going to go out onto the field and check out his new goal post. He’s going to read the plaque and think of all the people who admire him. But you wouldn’t know anything about that. You’re one of those misery chicks. Always moping about what a cruel world it is, making a big deal about it so people won’t notice that you’re a loser. He drew that last word out, sticking it in and twisting it. And with that, he left.
I don’t think he likes you, Jane said, watching him go.
That doesn’t bother me, Daria replied. She was accustomed to people not liking her. That he undoubtedly thought she wasn’t attractive was fine with her, too. What bothers me is that jerk is going to be treated like a hero for the rest of this life.
Jane shrugged. Well, she said, maybe he won’t live that long.
And he hadn’t. He was dead less than a minute later, killed by his own goalpost.
Daria remembered the way the leaves had unfolded as they broke free of the crutch, how the pink flowers of the accursed magnolia burst open from tiny buds and grew to the size of the palm of her hand while she watched, paralyzed by the monstrous spectacle.
It wasn’t a miracle. It was demonic.
What if someone else came by the tree and touched it?
Her finger throbbed.
What if Tom and Jane came back by the tree after the movie, and—
Though she was in a terrible hurry, she stopped in the garage before she left to get what she needed. She hoped it would do. No one in the family saw her go, her parents and sister absorbed in their own Friday-night worlds. She reached the school out of breath twenty minutes later, slowed by rush-hour traffic. The post-game party had broken up, but dozens of cars full of jubilant teenagers honked and shouted and waved beer bottles as they drove past.
One car caught her eye, a red Jeep driven by Kevin Thompson, Brittany Taylor in the seat beside him. Her arms were raised over her head as she shouted at Daria in her mania. “We won, Daria! Did you see it?”
In Brittany’s blonde hair, tucked over her right ear, was a pink, six-petaled blossom. Daria stared as the Jeep drove away, the vehicle wobbling from side to side while Kevin honked the horn.
Brittany had picked one of the tree’s flowers—and lived. And she looked quite happy to boot.
After she regained her composure, Daria continued on to the tree on the north side of the school. A boisterous crowd of students was just leaving it, pink blossoms in their hands. Pink petals and leaves were scattered everywhere on the mulch and the grass and the sidewalk and even into the street.
The tree did not lack for flowers or leaves, however. She watched it and soon understood why. It was growing them back at a fantastic pace. And no one but her seemed to notice.
It began to make sense. Tommy had always thrived on popularity. All he’d ever wanted was to be the center of attention, to have enough power to get whatever he wanted—sex, money, unearned respect and advancement, all the good things in life with no further effort required than a grin and his name. And his new form in the afterlife offered him much the same thing. Girls wore the flowers in their hair, attracted to their beautiful pink color, even stuffing them down the front of their dresses. Boys poured beer on the ground under the tree as victory offerings and sang the school song in Tommy’s name. No one seemed to mind the sickly sweet odor of rot in the air. Did Daria alone notice it?
And why was no one else being hurt by the tree?
You’re one of those misery chicks. Always moping about what a cruel world it is, making a big deal about it so people won’t notice that you’re a loser.
She was the last person on earth he had spoken to before he died. Jane had thought it was her off-the-cuff comment that Tommy might not live long that had magically jinxed him; she’d worried she had in some mysterious way been responsible for his death. No, no, Daria realized now, it had been her, Daria Morgendorffer, who had done the trick. She had been Tommy’s misery chick all along, his angel of death. Were it not for her cutting comments and his need afterward for a little ego-boost, he’d be drinking and shouting and rutting with the rest of them. He’d still be alive.
. . . just maybe...
. . . he still carried a bit of a grudge about that.
No one else was around for the moment. Steeling herself, Daria walked toward the tree. It had grown since earlier in the afternoon, she saw with disquiet. It was now as tall as she was, just over five feet. It was probably still growing, powered by its otherworldly connection to its undead namesake.
This is nuts. This is totally, completely nuts. I ought to see a psychiatrist.
But before I go to la-la land...
She glanced down at her right hand. A plastic two-liter bottle with a screw cap dangled from her fingers. It had no soda in it now. Just kerosene.
Fifteen paces from the tree, a breeze seemed to stir the branches. She stopped, took a deep breath, then moved in with a rush. The bottle’s mouth tipped, aiming for the ground at the base of the tree, as her other hand fumbled with the cap to unscrew it and drive it into the mulch upright, the kerosene to gurgle down into the soil afterward, into the roots, poison for poison, an eye for an eye.
It went wrong in an instant. Branches lashed at her face and pain signals swamped her brain. Razorlike thorns raked her cheeks, forehead, mouth, nose, and neck, tangling her hair. Whiplike branches tried to force their way past her glasses to get at her eyes. She let go of the bottle and forgot it, flailing at the branches with her arms as she tried to scream and backpedal, but she hit the low fence around the tree and fell, thorns ripping away her hair and skin and glasses. The slashes across her face caught fire. She rolled and made incoherent noises and clutched her face with blood streaming down her hands. When the screams came out they did not stop even when the bystanders got to her.
* * *
“Do you remember what happened?” her mother asked when her family arrived at the Cedars of Lawndale emergency room. “Did you run into that tree? Have you been drinking, Daria? Tell me the truth, were you out drinking?”
“What’s wrong with a little cuttin’ loose, Helen?” her father interjected. “She probably just went out with some friends and had a little too much to—”
“She doesn’t have any friends except Jane, Jake! And look at her! Just look at her! Stay out of this! Daria? Just tell me what happened to you, okay? Daria? Talk to me, damn it!”
Daria said nothing, shivering from the burning agony that covered her face. Who would believe her? What was the use?
Most of the injuries to her face and hands were superficial, but a few were deep enough that she was warned they might leave scarring later. The scratches were inflamed and swollen, hurting until Daria thought she would go mad, but the doctors gave her a shot and a prescription for pain pills and an ointment that helped a little. The students who brought her in had brought her glasses, too. The lenses were scratched in a hundred places.
After two hours in the ER, she was sent home with her family. Her sister was so grossed out by her dreadful appearance, she covered her eyes and wouldn’t even look at her. When they got into the house, Daria went to her room and locked the door and said nothing to anyone about what had happened. She threw out her glasses and used her spare pair. For two days, she came downstairs only for meals, staying in her room on the bed in a pill-induced fog otherwise. Her mother gave up trying to find out what had happened, but she made it clear she wanted to talk with Daria about responsible drinking use later, even if the doctors said Daria had no trace of alcohol in her bloodstream.
No one mentioned the bottle full of kerosene. It had probably been disposed of as trash. The attack had been a failure from start to finish.
And Jane didn’t call.
Until Sunday night.
“Hey, Daria!” Intermittent knocking came from her bedroom door. “It’s me. Come on, open up, Daria. Your mom said you got hurt, and I came right over. Okay, okay, I’m sorry I didn’t call before now, I screwed up! Please open up. Daria? I know you’re in there, so come on. Okay, that’s it, I’m going to sit out here and tell Tom stories until you—”
Daria unlocked and opened the door.
Jane gasped and put her hands against her own face, shocked speechless.
After a moment, Daria left the door open and went to sit on the edge of her bed. Jane came in after a beat, shut the door, and rolled the desk chair over to the bed. She sat facing Daria, their knees almost touching.
“What happened?” Jane’s quick wit had deserted her. She spoke softly and urgently. “Talk to me, amiga. Did you do something because Tom and I were—”
Furious, Daria shook her head violently and almost got up, but she restrained herself and only looked away.
“Okay, sorry! I had to ask! I’m sorry. Okay, was it an accident?”
No response for a while, then a shake of the head. No.
Jane’s voice was very low, almost a whisper. “Daria, amiga, did someone do this to you? Did someone hurt you?”
Daria opened her hands and looked down at the scars over her fingers.
“Did someone hurt you, Daria? Will you talk to me about it?”
Daria closed her hands, then got up from the bed, got a tablet of paper and a pencil, and returned to sit again. She wrote two words on the top page and handed it over to Jane.
Jane read the note, blinked, and looked up. “Daria... he’s dead.”
Looking at her hands, Daria nodded in agreement.
Jane abandoned that line of inquiry. It was too crazy. “Can I do anything to help you? I’ll do anything, Daria, just tell me.”
Daria reflected on this, then wrote a sentence and gave over the pad.
“‘Stay away from Tommy Sherman’s tree’?” Jane read. “What are you talking about, that new tree Ms. Li put in, the dumpy looking one? I think she had it done Saturday. Someone took Kevin’s crutch, and there’s this—”
“Stay... away... from it,” Daria said, gritting her teeth against the pain. Her entire face hurt if she spoke a single word. She took back the pad and carefully drew something on it, then tore out the sheet, folded it up, and handed it to Jane. “Keep... this.”
After a moment of hesitation, Jane took the folded paper and put it away. “Okay, I’ll keep away from it. I promise. Are you going to be in school tomorrow?”
A shrug. Daria looked at her lap, her face aching fiercely.
Jane took Daria’s hands and looked at them. Most of the scars ran across the backs. She tried to imagine what could have done that, other than running through briars. What the hell happened to her? “Will you call me if you need anything? Or make someone around here call me? Seriously, Daria. I won’t blow you off. I’ll be here if you need me, Tom or no Tom. I’ll be here.”
A shrug, then one grateful nod.
“Will you promise to tell me what happened, when you think you can?”
Daria started to shake her head no, then shrugged and made other bodily gestures that left the issue ambiguous.
Jane bit her lip. She stayed for a half hour more, making small talk before she gently hugged her friend, which she’d never done before, and headed for home to finish her much-delayed homework.
When she was alone again, Daria shut her door and lay on her bed. She thought for a long time about her friendship with Jane. It was a relief to know that Jane had not forgotten her, even if it took her a while to remember. Jane still cared. They still had something.
Jane had been the second-to-the-last person to speak with Tommy Sherman, before he died. Tommy Sherman had hinted Jane might make a suitable bed partner if he was drunk enough. Revolted, Jane had offered to throw up on him in return.
Tommy might have a little grudge against Jane, too. Perhaps Jane’s comment did have a little affect on the cosmic wheel of fate. If Tommy Sherman could be reincarnated as a poisonous magnolia, anything could happen. Anything at all.
She looked at her hands, remembered what her face had looked like in the mirror with the bandages removed before her mother put fresh dressings on.
And she knew she had something she had to do. Unfinished business.
It was hard not to think of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. The memorial tree was on school property. Bad things happened to people who pulled crazy stunts on school grounds. She could be looking at a long time in jail or a psychiatric hospital away from Jane and family, if she survived.
It could not be helped. The unfinished business was more pressing.
This is revenge for myself, but it is more. It is revenge for all those you abused and hurt in life, but it is more. It is revenge for what you might have done to Jane, but it is more. It is revenge for all you might yet do, to Jane and to others, but it is more.
The Rune of Saint Patrick began to run through her head, but the last few lines came out differently.
I place myself between my only friend and the powers of darkness. You will come no farther. You will harm no more.
She checked something on her computer, printed off a page, wrote a note, then went to bed and slept fitfully until the alarm got her up. She washed herself with a small cloth, dried off, dressed, brushed out her hair, collected her notes and books and put them in an old, ratty backpack, then slipped out of the house, ignoring the messages her mother left ordering her to remain in bed for another few days until her next doctor’s appointment. She went straight to school without stopping first at Jane’s.
The tree was now over seven feet high. Tens of thousands of pink petals were scattered up and down the street from it. Half the student body wore flowers in their hair or had them sticking from shirt pockets or in the cleavage of their blouses. The air was thick with the odor of death. No one but Daria noticed.
Everyone noticed Daria, however. She ignored the boys’ cries of alarm and their laughing catcalls, the girls’ screams and whispers and disgusted looks, the way her sister and friends ran the other way when she appeared. She wasn’t just an outcast now. She was the crazy half-blind girl who got drunk or took drugs and ran into Tommy Sherman’s Memorial Tree on Friday night and scratched herself up worse than Frankenstein’s monster.
It didn’t matter. It would all be over soon, or made worse by a thousand times, so it didn’t matter.
She had fifteen minutes before homeroom started. She went to the science lab. Ms. Barch was shouting at the boys in her homeroom class, but she turned and hurried to Daria when she appeared. “Oh, my heavens! Does it hurt much? Can I do anything for you? Hey! You young Neanderthals in back—shut your faces or I’ll take you to the office right now!”
Daria had her note prepared. Ms. Barch read it, and her heart turned to mush. “Why, of course! I had no idea you were thinking about a career in teaching! Why you’d take up such a thankless job dealing daily with hoodlums and morons is beyond me, but certainly you can take a look through the storage room and my books and—hey! I told you young thugs to shut your faces! Now! Stuff a sock in it right now if you want to see tomorrow!”
Ms. Barch left her alone in the chemical storage room. Daria worked quickly. Ms. Barch was nothing if not efficient, and all the contents were alphabetized on the shelves. Ms. Barch was also not one to keep extremely unsafe chemicals, however, and item after item on Daria’s list of potentials failed to turn up. She was near despair when she found a small dusty jar with a faded label, hidden behind the others, a forgotten legacy of the days when school chemistry labs kept things they should never have had access to in the first place. The last sweep by the school’s staff had missed it. Lucky me.
When she left the science lab, the jar went in the backpack with her. Her textbooks stayed behind to make room. She didn’t wear her backpack on her back, but held it in her arms instead. Her green jacket was inside, wrapped around the deadly prize.
Daria jumped and turned, her heart in her throat.
“Different look for you today,” said Jane, eyeing Daria’s amber T-shirt closely. “Jacket went in for dry cleaning?”
A quick, frightened nod. Jesus Christ, Jane, keep away from me! You don’t know what I’ve got here!
“Are you okay?” Jane leaned closer, concern written large over her face. A passing student brushed by. Daria looked around, saw how many people were near, knew she had to get away from here immediately.
She looked up into the eyes of her only friend. I have to go. I hope I see you again when this is done. I forgive you for Tom. I forgive you for everything.
The first bell rang, deafening them both. Daria jumped again, unnerved.
“We’d better get to class,” said Jane. Her gaze dropped to the backpack. “Why are you carrying your books like that? I know you love to read, but—”
“Jane,” Daria croaked. Her face began to catch fire as the wounds pulled open. “I will... catch up... in a minute.” She clenched her teeth and fought down the pain.
Jane’s gaze went to Daria’s face and settled on her eyes. They looked at each other for a long moment.
“It’s about that tree, isn’t it?” Jane said softly. “I saw it this morning.” A beat. “The trunk does look like a crutch, like in your drawing. Is this about that?”
“I... have to go.” She flinched from the pain. “See you.”
“Please.” She took a shaky breath. “Let... me go.”
Jane searched her face, came to a decision. “Okay,” she said softly. “Hurry back, amiga.”
Daria nodded and turned and walked away as quickly as she could. She did not notice a determined Jane following at a distance. The second bell rang. She went downstairs and out the north door of the school. It was a warm day with light clouds and a hazy sun. Street traffic was very light. No students were around.
The Tommy Sherman Memorial Tree was on her left, waiting. The branches stirred, the flowers turning in her direction. There was no wind.
She steeled herself and marched toward it, then stopped fifteen feet short, well out of limb reach, and sat the backpack on the ground with care. The jacket came out, and she put it on after checking it over. It would offer a little protection, but very little. The only thing left in the backpack was the water-filled glass bottle with the waxy-looking whitish lump on the bottom. Delivery was the only problem left. She had to open the bottle, get it to the trunk, and get the hell out of there, all within the space of two or three seconds. She could not leave the bottle behind like the soda bottle full of kerosene. It had to go to ground zero, lid off, water out, boom, in one shot. It was the only way.
This game should have ended long ago. We’re in overtime now.
“Hey, Tommy!” Daria called to the tree, ignoring the pain. She reached down, unzipped the backpack, and caught the jar by the lid. “Up for a little... football?”
She started to step closer to the tree to get a better throw after she unscrewed the jar’s lid—but she could not lift her feet. She looked down and saw the problem. Black roots crawled over her boots like glistening pythons, anchoring her feet to the ground. More roots crawled upward toward her bare legs. She screamed and tried to run, but she couldn’t move an inch to save herself—and saving herself was everything.
She turned, almost losing her balance. Jane was coming out of the north door, the white visible all around her blue eyes as she stared at Daria’s boots and the monstrosity that pinned her in place.
“Run, Jane!” Daria shrieked. She nearly fell a second time. The jar was in her hand, the backpack overrun on the ground with roots and rootlets. Cold, moist serpents wound around her thighs and slithered toward her underwear.
She forced herself to stand steady, ignoring everything else, and twisted the thick lid. It didn’t turn. A surge of hysterical energy went through her, the lid came loose, and she flung the jar at the tree as hard as possible. The jar spun like a football through the air, the water flying out, then shattered on impact against the upper trunk. The waxy white lump stuck for a moment to one of the limbs, then dropped to the ground at the base of the tree. Then the lump and everything it had touched began to smoke.
Daria felt Jane grab her from behind, then heard Jane shriek as the thick slimy roots snagged her boots as well. Flailing at the tentacles under her skirt, Daria tried to turn so she could pull Jane free.
A light brighter than the sun flared out of the smoke whirling around the base of the tree. Tommy Sherman’s Memorial Tree shivered and twisted, its branches violently lashing the air. The roots withdrew into the ground. The two girls fell, then scrambled to their feet and fled in panic, hand in hand. Their shadows were thrown out clear and sharp on the sidewalk ahead of them, and the blast-furnace heat struck their backs from the pillar of white fire that rocketed into the sky, consuming all around it.
And fire with all the strength it hath, thought Daria, a fragment of Saint Patrick’s Rune. I place myself between my only friend and the powers of darkness. You will come no farther. You will harm no more.
Behind them in the blinding fire, Tommy Sherman died a second time.
* * *
Covering it up was the first order of business for the school’s principal. There was no way Ms. Angela Li would let it be known that her prize science teacher had failed to dispose of a bottle of pure white phosphorus in the science lab’s storeroom. The penalties for both of them would be far too high. Before the fire department began its investigation after extinguishing the blaze, the two girls were brought in (identified on a tape shot by a remote camera at the north door) and an alibi was worked up. They each then received month-long, in-school suspensions and after-school work cleaning the cafeteria for being tardy to class and leaving school grounds. Their punishments were announced over the intercom, to the vast amusement of the student body, as well as the news of their cowardly flight when the Tommy Sherman Memorial Tree was destroyed after someone (probably from a rival school) threw a fire bomb at it. Neither was able to offer useful information on the man who did it—Ms. Li made sure they had their stories straight before they were interviewed separately by the police. The tape from the north door was destroyed, its VCR being “out for repairs” and unable to help the investigation.
The meeting in the principal’s office afterward was brief. “I should have you both thrown into prison, and I still could. You’d both be behind bars until your hair was gray.” Ms. Li was so angry, she didn’t even glare. She was beyond that. “If you didn’t like the damn tree, you could have just written a letter to the school paper and complained about it. This was going too far.”
“It wasn’t Jane’s fault!” Daria began for the fiftieth time. “I—”
“Shut up! On the good side, I’m going to milk this for all its worth in the media. The story will be, ‘Lawndale High was wronged.’ We’re going to suck up sympathy like we never could before. I bet I can get the superintendent to double our budget for repairs. I could use the extra cash in special projects. This might work out better than I thought. And Janet Barch loathed that tree anyway, since it was for Tommy and she hated his guts, but we’re not going to go there. You’re going back to class, you’re going to work like dogs for me for a month, we’re going to pretend this never happened, and the next time I have any serious trouble with either of you—” She drew a finger across her throat.
Daria and Jane mumbled agreement. They could tell when sarcasm would be suicidal.
“Good. Get out of here.” The girls left, and Ms. Li sat back in her chair and rubbed her eyes under her glasses. Those damn girls had balls to pull this off, she said. I’d better be on them like a hawk from now on. And Janet Barch had better keep her damn storeroom under lock and key from this day forward, or she can clean the hallways with the janitors. Damn her for laughing about this anyway. It isn’t funny at all.
A stray thought came to mind, though, and Ms. Li chuckled. It was kind of ironic, in the end, how it turned out. The original Tommy Sherman Memorial Tree was gone forever—but once the burned grass was replaced, the landscaping contractors she had hired would get to work. The Lawndale High School campus was getting a makeover.
She turned in her chair and smiled at the sun streaming in through the window. It had been a smart thing for her to take so many cuttings from that beautiful magnolia before its untimely destruction. Come this time in a few years, twenty little magnolias would be in bloom.
“The Tommy Sherman Memorial Forest,” she said aloud. It had a nice ring. Maybe Miss Morgendorffer would return to her old alma mater one day, and then let everyone see how she liked that!
Original: 08/05/05, 09/23/06, 07/06/08, 05/06/10