Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged.
Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2007
This is the 57th story in the Falling into College series.
A Star for the Window
Bundled against the cold, Jane ran up the steps to her apartment two at a time, cradling a grocery bag full of boxed tea and ice cube trays. She stopped at the landing and kicked ice and snow from her boots before going inside. The mouth-watering aroma of gourmet hot cocoa greeted her as she closed the door and hung her winter coat on the rack.
Seeing the back of two heads close together on the sofa, Jane loudly sniffed the air and said, "I know what you've been up to."
Daria turned her head and said, "At least we're dressed," before sipping from her mug of cocoa.
Going to her room, Jane explained, "Hey, how were we supposed to know that you'd be home early?"
Michael also turned and said, "I swear that Mike blushed more than you did."
"Hey, Mack's still learning to loosen up." Jane performed a clumsy pirouette. "Besides, I might try performance art someday. You can't show fear or embarrassment."
"You're not trying one for the Ice Tea Party this year?"
"Thought of it, but Mack didn't want to cooperate. He said something about he didn't want it showing up on an Internet search someday."
"Speaking of Mike, where is he?" Daria asked.
Jane crossed to the sofa and leaned over the back to see that they were dressed for strictly around the house, Daria in a baggy sweatshirt, shorts and fuzzy slippers, Michael in a worn sweater, old jeans and plaid socks. Jane smirked and said, "Mack's being a gentleman and picking up pizza for dinner. We assumed that our remaining partners in crime will be here shortly, is that right?"
"Last I heard," Daria said. "Derek is once again trying to introduce Karen to the concept of ice hockey at the Raft Castaways home game today. They'll probably swing by his apartment before coming here, but should be here soon."
Jane said, "I still say that Raft needs to change the sports teams' mascot."
Michael said, "They're too cheap to cut a marketing deal with Wilson Sporting Goods."
Jane shook her head. "How about a little creative license? Write 'Woodrow' on a volleyball and they're covered."
"I suppose that they could get blood for the hand-print face from the Med School or the Vet School," Michael suggested.
"The boy does have a bit of the creative bug in him," Jane said. "If you'll pardon me, I'm off to the kitchen to start brewing more tea for tomorrow."
Grabbing his second slice of pizza from the boxes at the center of the dinner table, Mike said, "The next thing we know, Gatorbait dives into the car window holding Delta house's giant beer stein and yelling 'Floor it!' Which, of course, we did."
"So 'Mr. Responsible' has a history now," Daria said, with droll emphasis. "Nice to see you coming out of your shell."
Hearing thumps on the landing, Jane said, "Ah, our missing children seem to have arrived."
Michael said, "And we even left them some pizza."
Wordless, Karen and Derek entered and removed their coats. As everyone watched, Karen walked to the table and said, "Sorry to spoil the party, folks. Derek found this in the mail when he got home after the game."
She placed an opened letter on the table, which Daria picked up to read.
Pvt. Adler, Derek A.
Company B, 21 Infantry Regiment
Massachusetts National Guard
By order of the Regimental Commander under the direction of CENTCOM and effective 0800 EST, 1 February, 2002, Pvt. Adler will report to Camp Edwards for active duty deployment with his unit for up to one year.
Derek plainly said, "It's a good bet that I'll be going to Afghanistan."
Mike said, "Maybe you'll get lucky and you'll get sent to someplace like Germany."
Derek shook his head. "Several of the old-timers were around for Desert Storm. They warned us that something like this might be in the works, and if things go like they did ten years ago, we'll be in the thick of it."
"That sucks," Jane said.
Derek sat and reached for one slice. "It's what I agreed to when I enlisted and took Uncle Sam's money for college."
"Damn, what about your classes?" Michael asked.
"Everything goes on hold and I'll have to pick up when I get back. I'll get Involuntary Incompletes for this semester and should be able to restart all of the classes without penalty. The hard part is that I didn't anticipate having someone important to leave behind when I enlisted."
"Karen, how are you holding up?" Daria asked her friend.
Karen sat in the chair next to Daria. "I'm scared, really scared."
"You're not the only one," Derek said, reaching over to hold Karen's hand.
Jane asked, "Can't you get a deferment for college or something?"
"This isn't the sixties," Derek answered. "I didn't think that I'd really be called up when I enlisted in the Guard, but I knew it was possible. I gave my word; I have to go."
"Is it possible for you to be assigned to a rear area?" Mike asked.
"I'm a ground-pounder. It's my job to be at the front."
Karen pulled the topping from the corner of one pizza slice and started to nibble. "I can't imagine what it's going to be like to have Derek away for a whole year."
Daria looked at Michael and Jane turned to Mack as they tried to comprehend the idea.
Late that night, Daria stopped at Karen's door and gently knocked, entering upon hearing her friend's soft invitation.
Curled up on the bed and clutching a pillow, Karen shook her head before hoarsely saying, "No." Her eyes were red and her face was tired from crying. "Now I know a little of what you must've felt when you thought Michael was going to Italy."
"That was different," Daria said.
"In the details. Otherwise, it's the same. Derek's going to be half a world away and I'm going to feel like I've been torn in half."
"There is that."
"I don't want to lose him."
"You're not going to lose him. He loves you."
"That won't stop a bullet." Karen started crying again. "I could lose him and not be able to do a damn thing to stop it."
Cautiously, Daria inched closer. "This also has something to do with Laura, doesn't it?"
Karen nodded. "Daria, how would you feel if you'd lost Jane in high school and now faced the risk of losing Michael?"
After a moment's hesitation, Daria put her arm around Karen. "I'd be in the same shape you are."
"Thanks, I knew you'd understand."
"Karen, you've been there for me when I needed a friend. I'll do whatever I can to help. I'm sure Jane will, too."
In his small apartment, Derek angrily dropped the phone onto its cradle. "Bastard."
Sitting on the loveseat next to him, Karen said, "He won't let you out of the lease?"
"Nope. 'Sorry, a contract's a contract.' Bastard. Like I'm doing this to him on purpose."
"So, what are you going to do?"
"I guess I'll have to sublet, with all the headaches that go with it." He looked up and said, "Need a new place?"
"Sorry, but you know that I've given my word to Daria and Jane."
"Maybe they'll know somebody who can move in."
"We can ask. I'll also check with people in my classes."
He looked around. "I guess we better start looking for boxes. I have less than two weeks to pack. At least Mom and Dad aren't too far away; I can leave my stuff there instead of paying for a storage unit."
"Between my truck and your car, we should be able to get everything in a couple of trips. Maybe one if we rent a trailer; my truck has a hitch."
Derek grunted an acknowledgement before saying, "We're not even going to get to spend Valentine's Day together."
"Or your birthday. But we should be together next year...with a lot of time to make up for."
"Time. This is going to set me back at least a year, maybe more, depending on exactly when I can get reregistered for school. You'll graduate and be off to vet school while I'm still working on my degree."
Karen grasped his hand. "In that case, I'll have to go to Raft's vet school. After all, I am starting to like it here."
"So, you think I'm worth staying around for, huh?"
"You're a keeper."
Exaggerating his Massachusetts accent, Derek asked, "Even though I'm a 'damn Yankee'?"
Fully using her southern accent, Karen replied, "Tain't nobody perfect."
"That's what my mother always told me."
"She must be worried."
Derek leaned over to rest his head on Karen's lap. "So's Dad. They're also worried about you and want you to remember that you're always welcome to visit."
"I won't forget. I like them, remember?" She bent forward to kiss him. "Don't forget that I'm worried about you, either."
"As if you'll let me."
Bundled in a heavy jacket, CC meandered through the growing ice sculptures until she found Jane and Nell. "At it again, I see," she quipped at her friends.
Jane was crouched on the ground, stacking differently tinted ice cubes in a pyramid. "Hey, CC. What's up?"
Seated on a low, rolling stool, Nell chipped away at a very dark block of ice. She placed the chisel and mallet on top and said, "Decided to brave the cold, or just looking?"
"I get enough cold drafts at work. I'm only here to watch the crazy people."
Nell said, "And to score some of the hot cider inside."
"Who am I to pass up hot cider?" CC inspected the proto-artwork and said, "Let me guess: still secret?"
"Of course," Jane said.
Nell shook one of her crutches and said, "I'd have to kill you. Since I only have this, it would be slow and bloody." She paused and muttered, "Hmmm."
"You can only tint the ice with tea," Jane said, surmising her friend's thought.
"Oh, yeah. By the way, CC, what's up with you, lately?"
"Oh, about the same. Working up a new costume for my routine and trying to keep the dorm kiddies from wrecking the place."
Nell asked, "Got any room? My landlord sold the building and the new owner wants everyone out by the middle of next month because he wants to turn it into a condo."
Jane looked up and said, "Karen's boyfriend is looking for someone to sublet his apartment. I'll get his number for you."
"I'd kinda feel weird sharing a place with a guy I've only met a couple times."
"It's a one-bedroom apartment."
"That's even weirder."
"Derek's in the National Guard and he's been called up for active duty. He needs someone by the end of the month. Karen says that his landlord won't let him out of the lease, so he needs someone reliable to finish it off."
Suddenly cold, CC wrapped her arms around herself and said, "So much for all this fresh air, guys. I'm heading inside."
"See you later, CC," Jane said.
Nell said, "Later." To Jane, she then said, "That really sucks for him, but I'll ask about the apartment. I really could use a place. Do you know how much he's paying a month?"
"I hope I can afford it."
With add/drop well over and pre-registration still a month and a half away, the Registrar's office was quiet when Derek entered on Monday morning. The receptionist looked up from her paperback and said, "May I help you?"
Derek opened his orders and showed them to her. "My name's Derek Adler and I need to change my student status to Inactive-Returning. My Guard unit's been called up for active duty."
Empathetic, the receptionist said, "Oh, dear. I hope you're going to be all right."
"I hope so, too."
"You'll need to see Mrs. Wychurst. Your student number, please."
The receptionist typed the number and said, "Okay, please have a seat and I'll call you when she's ready."
"Thanks." Derek nodded and took a seat in the waiting room, picking up a copy of The Mast as he did. Thinking of the dangers ahead of him, the stories and concerns in the paper seemed almost insignificant.
A few minutes later, a slender black woman in her late thirties approached him and said, "Mr. Adler, if you'll follow me, please."
He stood and asked, "Mrs. Wychurst?"
She directed him into an office and offered him a chair before sitting behind her desk. "I've taken the liberty of bringing up your records. May I see your activation orders?"
He passed them across the desk and said, "Here, ma'am."
"Thank you." She quickly read the letter and then typed on her computer keyboard. "Your professors will be officially notified in writing and by e-mail. I'm sure that you have a lot to do before leaving, so I'm making the effective date today."
"You need to go to Financial Services to tell them how you want this semester's tuition payment handled. Either a refund now, or we can credit you the same number of credit hours when you return."
"Okay, anything else?"
"Nothing here. Once you contact the finance office, you'll be done. I would suggest talking to your professors; they're not always the best at reading their mail."
Twenty minutes later, Derek stepped out of Founder's Hall and looked over the Quad. Brown paths through the snow marked shortcuts across the clear space. Here and there, students hurried between buildings, while the numerous benches sat empty and dusted with snow. Raft, the focus of his life for the last two and a half years, tugged at him, as if a living entity, to stay. But another part of his mind was already disconnecting. His life would be focused on something very different soon and Raft would only be a pleasant memory.
Sitting on the stool, Nell continued to carve as the ice block started to take on the shape of an anvil partially embedded into the ground. She said, "You have your ducks in a row this year at work, don't you?"
Looking up from a seemingly random pile of small blocks, Jane said, "Jane Lane has learned her lesson about pissing off public affairs. Everything is in order, signed, dotted, notarized, sealed, stamped, folded, spindled and mutilated."
"It's cool that you're getting the kids involved again."
Jane carefully placed another cube. "I have a reputation to uphold, and besides, they really love getting to be part of a grown-up contest."
Stopping to cup her hands around a thermos of hot cider, Nell asked, "Jane, do you have time to give me a ride tonight? I can take the T if I need to, but I'm still a little nervous late at night."
"I guess. Where to?"
"I called Derek and I'm going to look at the apartment. The rent's only a little more than I'm paying now and his building has an elevator."
"A bonus for you."
"Don't you know it."
"I can give you a ride; that's what friends are for."
"He didn't say it was a big elevator," Nell told Jane.
Reading the information plate, Jane said, "Maximum capacity 800 lbs. Don't try to move a piano."
Looking at the space that might hold four people, Nell said, "Good luck fitting one in here."
"This place has stairs too, right?"
"He said that there were stairs and fire escapes. Plenty of ways for me to break my neck."
The door opened and they stepped into a hallway. Jane said, "At least it's only the second floor and not high enough for you to go 'splat.'"
The room was only a short distance away and they could see stairs at the end of the hall. When Nell pressed the doorbell button, the unit produced an annoying buzz. "Charming."
Karen pulled the door open. "Hey, come on in."
Empty cardboard boxes were stacked in the living room. Jane tilted her head and read the labels. "Petri dishes...tissue culture plates...pipette tips. It looks like you and Derek raided a lab."
From his room, Derek said, "I stopped by the microbiology department's supply room and asked for empties and managed to get some before they were flattened."
Nell looked at a box marked, "Escherichia coli stock cultures," and said, "I really hope that they were empty."
Derek said, "What's a little gastrointestinal flora among friends? Hi, Jane." Pointing, he added, "Nell, you're in the living room, the kitchen is crammed into that corner, the bathroom is there and the bedroom there. Go ahead and look around and ask if you have any questions."
Going toward the bathroom, Nell said, "Please, don't let there be anything embarrassing in there."
Examining the minimally furnished room, with only a pair of towels, a toothbrush, razor, tube of toothpaste, bottle of shampoo and one bar of soap visible, Nell said, "Not bad for a guy's bathroom; must be the military training."
Stepping back into the hallway, she saw Derek and Karen's faces and said, "Oops, sorry about that."
Karen said, "Not your fault."
Nell whispered, "Thanks," before looking into the bedroom. It was a bit cluttered. Several shelf units were filled with books, a couple of filled boxes were already residing on the floor and the bed was unmade. Nell worked her way through, looked into the closet and was satisfied that it was adequate for her needs. She came out of the room and said, "I'll take it."
Derek asked, "Are you sure?"
"Hey, it has everything I need."
"I have to report on the first, which is a week from Friday. I suppose you can start moving in then."
Nell said, "What about your landlord? Should I meet him?"
"I'll give him your name when I tell him about the sublet. I'm sure he'll poke his nose in soon enough to introduce himself."
"He's not creepy or anything, is he?"
"Nah, just a hardnosed ass who watches the place like it was plated in gold. Probably comes from renting to college students for too long."
"Considering my freshman roommate, I can see that."
Leaving the zoo early the next evening, Karen did a double-take at seeing CC waiting next to Karen's truck. When she was closer, she said, "CC? Why are you here?"
Sounding much more subdued than normal, CC said, "Um...I thought I'd let you know that if you need to talk with someone who understands, I'm available."
CC took a step closer. "I'm an army brat, remember?"
"My dad was with the 82nd Airborne and was sent down to Panama in '89."
Sensing how much CC was letting her guard down, Karen said, "We were what, eight?"
"I'm sure you were glad that didn't last long."
"We were. But then, my mom was deployed to Saudi Arabia late the next year."
"How long was she there?"
CC looked at the ground and didn't say anything for several seconds. "About six months."
Karen started to ask, "Didn't you once say that your mother died...dear God."
CC muttered, "Dammit, I didn't mean to bring that part up. I only wanted to let you know that I understand how scared you can be for someone."
Eyes damp, CC said, "Mom was with the Quartermaster Corps and attached to the XVIIIth Airborne Corps. After Kuwait was liberated, the deuce and a half Mom was riding in hit a land mine." CC stopped and stared at the ground. "She was airlifted to Germany but died before Dad and I could see her."
Karen reached over and hugged CC. "I'm sorry I asked."
CC said, "I hope you don't need me for that."
"Me, too." After a couple moments, Karen asked, "How did your parents cope with one or the other being sent overseas? I'm going to need all the advice I can get."
Running at an easy trot between classroom buildings, Derek called, "Hey, Michael! Hold up."
In a group of other history students, Michael said, "Just a second, everyone."
The one woman in the group smirked and said, "Some guy's chasing after you. I think we need to warn Daria."
"Funny, Clarissa," Michael said, "That's Daria's roommate's boyfriend."
Sean said, "That sounds even more twisted."
"Only if the roommate is involved, too," said Jack, pulling the collar up on his trench coat.
Michael faced his friends. "Why don't you three find a room and work off some of your frustration, together?"
Clarissa put her hands on Jack and Sean's shoulders. "I don't think that they're up to the task."
Derek said, "Michael, if I can separate you from the Lonely Heart's Club, I need some advice."
"Sure." To the others, Michael said, "I'll catch up with you later. If not, oh well, then I'll see you tomorrow."
As they walked away, Clarissa said, "I'm telling."
Michael shook his head and said, "They're not usually that bad...often they're worse. So, what's going on?"
Putting on her jacket and winding a scarf around her neck, Karen told Daria, "I'll be back Sunday night."
Lying on the couch with her notebook computer on her lap, writing, Daria said, "Are you two going to swing by to see Jane's entry tomorrow?"
"Yes, we'll be there, mother," Karen replied. "Not only to see Jane, but it'll be a good time for Derek to drop off a key with Nell."
"I see. Without divulging any unnecessary details, what do you two have planned?"
"We're going to pack and move most of his stuff to his folks' place. Between his car and my truck with a rental trailer, we'll be able to get most of it in one trip on Sunday. And...a few other things."
"Well, don't do anything Jane wouldn't do."
Karen mock-grimaced and said, "I don't even want to try to consider what Jane wouldn't do."
"I'm sure she's not really as adventurous as she claims."
"I bet. What are you going to be up to?"
Daria held up the computer. "It's nice to have time to write again. Michael has some library research he wants to get out of the way tonight, so I'm going to be a slug and stay here."
"You, too. Oh, Karen?"
She nodded and said, "I promise," before stepping out of the door.
Daria kept her eyes on the closed door for a moment before going back to the computer. She stared at what was written and found that new words failed to appear. She shook her head, saved the file and shut down the notebook. When the process was complete, Daria carried it into her room and placed it in its case before starting to search through a rack of CDs. When she found what she was after, she inserted it into her desktop computer and started her player to hear:
"Oh, hi. Sure, I guess I can talk to you. Not like they'd let us corporals know anything important." The following laugh also sounded like her father's.
Mr. Simon asked, "Well, let's start with your name."
"Corporal Nathan W. Morgendorffer."
"Meow," Bump softly said before jumping into Daria's lap, seemingly listening.
"Cpl. Morgendorffer, tell us a little about yourself."
"Well...I...married my sweetheart, Ruth, right out of high school, and was drafted a little over three years ago. Got two sons. Bruce is two years old, Jacob is eight months."
Daria gently stroked her cat's head. "That's my grandfather."
Bump gazed up at Daria's face. She leaned over to rest her cheek on the cat's forehead. "I never met him. Did you know any of your grandparents?"
"Raow," Bump purred and rubbed against Daria.
"How are you feeling about going ashore soon?"
"Scared to death. Don't let them tell you otherwise, most of us are. Except a few of the old timers who'd made through landings like Saipan or Iwo."
"Any messages to send back home?"
"Can I say something to my family?"
"Go ahead, son."
"Ruth, I love you. I promise to take care of myself and get back to you. Bruce, Jacob, I love you. Damn, I hate being not being able to see them. I miss all of you."
"Grandma and Grandpa must've gone through the same thing Karen and Derek are going through now."
Daria stopped the recording. "I don't think hearing the rest of that will be a good idea." She scratched the top of Bump's nose. "I expect you to behave around Karen for a while; she doesn't need your usual attitude."
Bump tilted her head and purred, eyes closed.
Arms around Daria, Michael looked over her shoulder at the seemingly random, but somehow organic, form of small blocks that swirled around Jane's space and said, "Fractal Child; I can see the fractal but...I'm not seeing the child."
"You can bet the children at the hospital were somehow involved," Daria said.
Standing with Jane, Mack said, "You're going to love this..."
Animated, Jane waved her hand over the sculpture. "They picked where every block went. I posted a grid every day in the classroom and they marked where they wanted their blocks. The only rule was that it had to touch another block."
Standing with Derek and holding hands with him, Karen said, "So, how are you going to split an Award of Merit with a roomful of kids?"
"They get their pictures taken with it for all kinds of freebie publicity, and then the award stays on display at the hospital for a year."
"Sellout," Daria joked.
"I decided that I like being a fed artist," Jane said, rubbing her stomach.
At Nell's station, Daria smirked and said, "The Coyote's Lucky Day. I like that, though I'm sure it offended a few."
Nell sat next to the anvil, partially buried in the ground with two large, pale yellow bird's feet apparently sticking out from under it. She said, "I remember watching the cartoons as a kid. After a while, I really started to root for the coyote. That roadrunner was too damned smug."
Stepping past Daria and Michael, Derek looked closely at the anvil. "I see the good ol' Acme trademark. Nice."
"It's the details that'll make the difference," Nell said.
Karen said, "I still think you should've won something."
Nell said, "I pissed off a couple sticks in the mud; I'm happy. Besides, I'm still getting exposure, and not just to the cold."
Jane rubbed her hands together and then put one arm around Mack. "Speaking of cold, want to head out for dinner somewhere...warm?"
Nell said, "I'm in."
Daria and Michael looked at each other and shrugged. Michael said, "Sure."
Daria asked, "No hamburger sculptures unless it's cooked and served as a meal."
Jane said, "Hmm, have to try that sometime."
"Which means that I'll have to eat it," Mack said in mock complaint.
To Karen and Derek, Jane said, "What about you?"
"We have plans," Derek explained. "But thanks."
Jane said, "Okay, you want to go and be all romantic. Don't let me stand in your way."
Looking out of the restaurant window at the brilliantly lit skyline across the Charles River, Karen joked, "This almost feels like a honeymoon."
One hand fumbling in his pocket, Derek gulped and said, "Interesting take. Um...You're trying hard not to show it, but you're really worried about me coming back. I promise that I'm going to keep my helmet on and my head down. I want to come back."
She reached across the table to his free hand. "I know you will, but I can't help it. Sometimes keeping your head down isn't enough."
"I know, but somehow, I also know that I will be back. And..." He pulled a ring tied in blue ribbon from his pocket. "...That's why I'm doing this. Will you marry me?"
The slender gold band was set with two small diamonds that shimmered under the table's candlelight. Karen felt as if her heart had stopped while held it up and became lost in thought as she considered what she'd most wished, as well as what she most dreaded. After an agonizing minute for Derek, she said, "On one condition."
Miriam Adler sat in an armchair in the living room of her central Massachusetts home so that she could watch the driveway through a window. At times, she nervously twirled one of her brunette curls around a finger as she also tried to read the paperback in her lap. Finally, she saw Derek's car pull into the driveway and Karen park her pickup and trailer along the street. Miriam called out, "Tony, Jason, they're here!"
Hands in pockets, Tony entered from the small den and joined his wife as they waited by the door. Though sporting a pot belly, he was still a muscular man from years working as a welder and metal fabricator.
A fourteen year-old boy flew down the stairs two and three steps at a time while gliding his hands along the rail. Jason wore a surplus army BDU shirt as he shot past his parents and opened the door.
Karen and Derek met on the small front lawn and walked hand in hand toward the door. Jason ran out and playfully punched his older brother's arm. "Ready to ship out and kick some major ass?"
"Jason! Watch your language," Miriam corrected from where she had stepped out onto the porch.
"I'll kick yours if you don't watch it," Derek warned.
Running away, Jason taunted, "If you can catch me."
"Later." Stopping in front of his parents, Derek said, "We have something to tell you. Karen and I are engaged."
Miriam beamed and hugged Karen. "That's wonderful!"
"Congratulations, son," Tony told Derek, shaking his hand.
"It was earlier than I'd planned, but I knew that I would ask her someday," Derek said.
"It's beautiful," Miriam said, looking at the ring.
"Thanks," Karen replied. "Though I understand he had a little help in picking it out."
"I asked Karen's roommate's fiancé for some advice, since he just did the whole proposal thing a couple months ago," Derek admitted.
Jason said, "At least I'm too old to be a stupid ring bearer like I was for our cousin's wedding."
"You don't have furry feet, either," Derek said.
Miriam asked, "Have you told your parents yet, Karen?'
"I called them before we left. My mom and dad got to hear the news first and you get to see us first. Things balance out that way."
Miriam started herding the others indoors. "No need to stand around out here in the cold. Come inside and get warmed up before you start unloading the cars. I'll make some nice hot cocoa for you."
Karen and Derek giggled at each other and followed Miriam, who asked, "What's so funny about hot cocoa?"
Preparing to go home, Karen said, "Thanks for dinner. I need to head out if I'm going to get to bed at a decent hour."
Tony said, "Drive careful."
Miriam said, "Good night, Karen. We'll be thinking about you."
"Good night." Karen, followed by Derek, waved and stepped outside, closing her coat against the chill wind. She stopped by her truck and turned. "Glad I was able to drop off the trailer here in town instead of taking it back to Boston empty."
Derek held her and said, "I love you."
"I love you. I'm sorry I have to run, but I have class tomorrow. I hope you enjoy staying with your family tonight."
"I will. And I'll try to calm Jason down a bit, but, he's still a kid and doesn't realize how dangerous his big brother's adventure will be."
"I'm sorry that his excitement bothers me, but I can't help it. Thanks."
"I'll see you tomorrow when you pick me up."
Karen reached up and cupped his face before kissing him. "Good night."
He returned the kiss. "Good night."
"I'm back," Karen said. She closed the apartment door and hung her coat on the rack. "Can you guys come out here for a minute?"
"What's up?" Jane said, wiping paint from her hands as she came from her room.
Daria appeared a moment later. "Well, did you do anything memorable?"
Karen held out her hand to show the ring. "I think so."
Caught by surprise, Daria croaked out, "Okay, that's memorable."
"Cool." Jane then sarcastically asked, "Did Michael rub off on Derek or something?"
Without a pause, Karen said, "You know, these things can be contagious."
As Karen and Daria looked at Jane, she stepped back while waving her arms. "Oh, no...no, no you don't. Mack and I are very happy with the way things are. You don't need to go there...don't go there at all."
"Nervous?" Daria asked.
"No!" Jane said. "Yes...when you two start looking like that, things happen."
"Don't worry," Karen said. "It's not like we're going to strong-arm Mike or anything."
"No, you just set bad good examples."
Karen said, "Look, I won't be around this week to set any examples. I'm going to grab some stuff tomorrow morning and stay at what's left of his place. I want to spend as much time with Derek as I can. Besides, he's leaving his car with his parents, so he'll need a ride Friday."
Early Friday morning, the alarm drew Karen's stomach into an icy knot. She rolled over in the sleeping bag and tightly held onto Derek. She whispered, "I didn't want this week to end so fast."
He tapped the snooze button on the alarm and then pulled her arms closer before saying, "Me either. Even if we've been living off of the floor in an empty apartment...it's been great."
"Let's stay here another couple of minutes."
He half-rolled and embraced her. "I wish it could be hours."
In a fresh uniform with a duffle bag over his shoulder, Derek shivered as the cold Cape Cod wind worked its way to his skin. He held Karen close as she cried on his shoulder. Tears trying to flow from his eyes, he rested his cheek against her head and said, "I love you, Karen." Around them in a parking lot of Camp Edwards' headquarters, variations of the same scene were repeated by other soldiers and their loved ones.
Sniffing, she said, "I love you," as she gently pushed herself back. Wiping her eyes, she said, "I can't make it through a long good-bye."
Derek held both of her hands and kissed her. "We'll make up for it with a long hello when I get back."
She nodded and whispered, "Okay."
"You take care of yourself, too. Promise?"
After a long, last kiss, he said, "I love you."
Her hand lingered in the air as he stepped back. "I love you."
The young couple watched each other as if memorizing how the other looked, and then they turned and parted. Self-conscious, Derek blinked his eyes and rubbed his hands over them before entering the building. Immediately inside, he turned, came to attention and saluted the lieutenant waiting at a desk, saying, "Private Adler, Derek A. Reporting for duty, sir."
Karen climbed inside her pickup, grateful to get out of the wind. She leaned forward against the steering wheel and let out a sob. Blinking and wiping her face with the end of her scarf, Karen said, "Keep it together, girl. You're his anchor to home."
Red-eyed, drained and emotionally exhausted, Karen missed the rack when she tried to hang her coat after returning home that evening. Not bothering to pick it up, she went to the sofa and dropped onto it, staring at the window.
Hearing someone, Jane stepped out of her room and picked up a package waiting on the dining table to carry over to Karen. "This was in the mail for you."
Listless, Karen looked at the return address. "From Grandma?"
Using her pen knife, Karen cut the binding strings and opened the package. She gasped and removed a small white flag, red-bordered with a single blue star in the center. The fabric was yellowed and the edge slightly frayed. "Oh, my God."
Jane scratched her head. "I give, what is it?"
"It's the serviceman's flag Grandma had for Grandpa when he was overseas in B-17s. These were hung in the window to show how many loved ones were in harm's way."
Returning home from shopping, Mrs. Lyndon noticed something different in one of her tenant's windows and took a closer look. She remembered the flag in the window for her older brothers, her eternal gratitude that they came home, and that Karen's gentleman was in the military. "Dear God, please protect him."
Thanks to Louise Lobinske, Kristen Bealer and Ipswichfan for beta reading.