"I don't want to." Daria had been saying those exact words for over a week, but her mother wasn't paying any more attention now than she had then. It was too late, anyway; they were in the car and well on their way to her doom.
"Now, Daria, we talked about this. You're going to love dance class." Helen glanced in the rearview mirror at her six-year-old daughter in the backseat, sighing at the dark expression on her face. "Promise me you'll at least give it a chance, okay?"
"I wanna go to dance class!" Quinn called out from her seat next to Daria. "How come I can't go to dance class? Can I go to dance class too? It's not fair Daria gets to go and I can't!"
"Fine," Daria said, staring out the window. "You can go instead of me."
"No," Helen replied firmly. "Quinn, maybe you can go to dance class next year. Right now this is just a special activity for Daria." Her voice was light and cheerful, but Daria could hear the tension as easily as if her mother had shouted it at the top of her lungs.
"Whyyyyyyy?" whined Quinn.
Because you already know how to fit in with the other kids, Daria thought. Then she made herself think about something else because she did not want to think about...that.
Helen pulled the car into the parking lot at the dance studio and stopped the car. "Let's go, Daria!" she called over her shoulder as she got out.
Daria put her hand on the door handle and glanced at the bag sitting next to her. It contained her shoes and other dance stuff, and she wondered if she could get out of the class by "forgetting" to bring it with her.
"And remember to bring that bag!" Helen added as she opened Quinn's door to let her out.
Letting out a small sigh, Daria grabbed the bag and left the car.
Guess I better get this over with. Maybe if I'm lucky I'll fall and break my leg on the way in.
Unfortunately, Daria made it safely into the studio, through the check-in process, and into her assigned classroom. She changed her clothes and settled in along with a dozen other kids--mostly girls--to wait. The instructor, a smiling young woman with short hair and long legs, arrived shortly after and introduced herself as Miss Jamison.
At first the class was boring. The kids stretched, and then Miss Jamison talked about a bunch of stuff Daria already knew like what heels and toes were. Finally the kids stood up and got ready to try the dance steps.
At this point, the class got hard. Daria struggled to tap her heels and toes at the right speed to match the instructor, and she kept accidentally tapping at the wrong time. She was relieved that some of the other kids were having trouble, too, but it still annoyed her that she wasn't as good as she wanted to be.
Halfway through the class, she finally began to figure out the right pace. Then class suddenly got really easy. Miss Jamison demonstrated a couple of steps, and Daria realized that the whole thing was about counting. Tap your heels or toes this many times, then tap the heels or toes of the other foot that many times, and repeat.
That's it? Daria asked herself as she breezed through yet another step. Tap dance is just math where you move your feet around? Miss Jamison nodded at her approvingly, and even a couple of the other kids looked impressed.
By the end of the class, Daria was satisfied with her skill at dancing. She still messed up the pace from time to time, but she could handle the steps with barely any effort at all.
But dance class still sucks, she reminded herself quickly as she gathered her things in the locker room and went out to find her mother.
"How did you like your first dance class?" Helen asked as she drove out of the parking lot.
Daria considered complaining in hopes of getting out of the class, but instead found herself replying, "It was okay."
"Great!" Helen exclaimed as if her daughter had reacted ecstatically.
"When I'm in dance class," Quinn said sulkily, "it's gonna be even...okayer."
Ignoring her sister, Daria continued. "It was a little hard sometimes, but I think I get it. There's a lot of counting."
"Mm-hmm," Helen said. "Did you make any friends?"
Daria sighed. Friend stuff again. All Mom and Dad ever want to talk about is friend stuff. It's so stupid, like that night when--
She quickly turned that thought off and made herself think about something else for the rest of the car ride home.
Jake came home from work in a good mood that evening, saying something about his boss taking a sick day. He'd then muttered something about needing to be on his death bed before he could take a sick day, but he was still mostly cheerful as he and Helen put dinner together.
"Hey, Kiddo!" he said between bites at the table. "How did your class go? Do we have a Ginger Rogers in the family yet?"
"Who?" Daria asked, confused.
"Daria said it went well," Helen answered for her.
"All right!" Jake cheered. "I knew you'd wow 'em!"
She felt a small smile tickling the corners of her mouth in spite of herself. It was nice to see her parents so happy. And it was even nicer to see Quinn pouting across the table. To her great surprise, she found she was almost--not quite, but almost--looking forward to the next class.
Maybe I'll try it for just a little bit longer. Like an experiment.
"Great job, Daria!" Miss Jamison exclaimed as she walked past, checking on the students as they practiced a new step. Some of the other girls looked over with various degrees of jealousy, and Daria could already hear the taunts of "egghead" and "brain" about to come her way. Sure enough, the moment Miss Jamison announced a break, several of her classmates hurried over.
"How do you do that?" one of them asked, still catching her breath.
"Yeah! How? This is really, really hard!"
"I keep messing it up. What's your secret?"
More girls drifted over to join them, all eagerly asking Daria for tips and advice on their dancing. Not a single insult passed their lips, and before long Daria realized she was seeing something in their faces that she'd never experienced before.
"So how was today's class?" Helen asked in the car.
Daria forgot that she was supposed to hate the class. "I did all the steps right on the first try! And lots of the girls were having trouble with their steps so I helped them figure it out."
"I drew a pink unicorn in kindergarten and Mrs. Douglas said it was pretty!" Quinn was bouncing in her seat, desperate to turn everyone's attention back to her.
Helen looked at Daria in the rearview mirror. "That's wonderful!"
"Thanks!" Quinn cried.
"She meant me," Daria told her with a hint of triumph in her voice.
Quinn pouted, and Helen sighed. "Both of my girls are very talented."
"But some girls are more talented than others," Daria added in a tone low enough that only Quinn heard her.
Daria stood at the edge of the playground, watching the other kids play during recess. Normally she spent the time wishing she had a book to read, but that day she was thinking.
The kids at dance class liked me because I could dance well. If the kids at school see me dance well, will they like me, too, or will they just make fun of me again?
She frowned and tapped the toes and heel of one foot against the asphalt thoughtfully. Maybe I should try. Like another experiment.
Taking a deep breath, Daria started doing one of the more complicated dance steps she'd learned at the last dance class. It was a little weird because her sneakers didn't make the same tapping sounds as her dance shoes, but she kept tapping and brushing and stomping without missing a beat.
She'd almost forgotten where she was, lost in concentration as she danced, when a voice interrupted her. "What are you doing?"
Daria was mildly startled but didn't miss a step. She looked up to see a girl about her age standing nearby, watching with a confused look on her face. "Dancing," Daria replied.
"Uh huh." The girl's tone showed that she already knew that, but when Daria failed to elaborate she added, "Why?"
"Because I can." Daria tried to keep most of the edge out of her voice, but a very little bit crept in out of habit. Don't mess up the experiment, she cautioned herself. Softening her tone, she asked, "Do you want me to show you how?"
"Ew, no!" The girl recoiled as if Daria had offered to sneeze on her. "Then everybody will think I'm weird, too!" She scampered off toward the swings, leaving Daria standing motionless.
"All right, class, that's it for today." Miss Jamison clapped her hands, signaling the end of the dance class. As the children started toward the locker rooms, she held up her hands to stop them. "But first, I have an announcement."
The kids wandered in her direction. "We're going to hold a dance recital next month!" Miss Jamison told them excitedly.
Some of the kids--especially the ones who were struggling with their dance steps--looked nervous.
"Don't worry," she immediately reassured everyone. "We're the beginner class, so we won't be doing anything fancy." Some of the kids, though not all, relaxed. "However, I would like to invite one of you to perform a special dance solo at the recital: Daria Morgendorffer!"
Daria's eyes widened as her classmates turned to look at her. Normally being the center of attention was a bad thing; it was usually followed by taunts and insults. This time, though, she was simply being congratulated by her peers. A few of the girls looked a little envious, but even they smiled as they wished her luck.
A solo, she thought as she followed the other kids to the locker rooms. That is so cool. A slow, small smile began to form. Quinn is going to explode.
"No fair!" Quinn exploded that night at dinner.
"Congratulations!" Helen exclaimed as she set a plate of lasagna down in front of Daria.
"Yeah, great job, Kiddo!" Jake looked tired from work, as usual, but he grinned at his daughter with pride.
"No. Fair! " Quinn repeated, slumping down in her chair.
"We heard you before," Helen told her matter-of-factly before turning back to Daria. "What about the other kids?"
"They don't get solos."
Helen shook her head. "I know, Sweetie. I mean, what did they think about you getting such an important part in the recital?"
"Oh." Daria shrugged. "They were happy for me. It was cool."
Smiling, her mother said, "Great! You've made some very good friends in dance class, haven't you?"
Daria was about to complain about her mother's constant harping on her friends, but then realized that she was right. I've actually made friends. I like that. Mom and Dad love it. Quinn hates it. It's perfect. She looked seriously at her mother. "I guess so. Are you guys going to come to the recital?"
"Of course we will. All three of us will be there to support you!"
Jake clapped his hands together in his excitement. "That's right. Your Mom and I will lead a rousing cheer from the footlights!"
Daria looked from one parent to the other in mild surprise. She hadn't seen them this happy for a long time--at least not since they'd started having all those meetings with the school counselor, a thought that she quickly pushed away.
"But I don't wanna go to the footsteps!" Quinn was now in full-on whine mode, but no one was listening.
"Don't worry," Daria said reassuringly. "I'll dance really, really well just for you."
Quinn crossed her arms and dropped her chin down against her chest. "I hope you trip and fall off the stage and you land on your head and your head falls off and the whole building burns down!"
"What, with you inside?" Daria asked with an innocent expression.
Helen sighed. "What your sister means," she said with a pointed look at Quinn, "is good luck."
"Well done, Daria!" Miss Jamison was walking among all the students, correcting and suggesting as they all practiced their steps for the recital. As usual, she had nothing to criticize in Daria's steps.
The instructor turned to the girl next to her, and Daria continued tapping away with a smile on her face. Some of the other kids were smiling, too--especially the kids Daria had helped with their steps.
Maybe if I try helping the kids at school with homework--no. Daria decided she was done with experiments at school, and that she would just be happy having friends in dance class.
I just wish some of the dance class kids went to my school. Unfortunately, most of them went to different public schools in town. Some of them went to one of the private schools, and one girl was homeschooled.
Daria had asked the girl what homeschooling was, and from what she could tell it meant a lot more time around parents and--even worse--siblings. Ugh. No way.
She already knew that mixing her family and school never ended well. Especially when she had problems and her parents had to--
The month before the recital went by both quickly and slowly. It passed quickly because Daria was really starting to enjoy practicing her steps and life at home was better than it had ever been--especially with Quinn's still-growing jealousy. However, it also went slowly because Daria was eager to perform her dance solo in front of everyone.
She knew how good she was at dancing, and so did Miss Jamison and the other kids in her dance class, but soon a whole auditorium full of people would know, too. After spending so much time being ignored or teased for being different, she was finally going to be applauded for it instead.
The recital could not come soon enough.
The last few days seemed to take months--Daria had started crossing each one off the calendar with a big red marker--but the big day finally arrived. Quinn was in the blackest mood anyone had ever seen, but Daria was so happy and excited she didn't even take the opportunity to rub it in.
"Okay, Kiddo," Jake said as he pulled into the parking lot. "We're here!"
"Duh," Daria replied, but her tone was mild. Quinn continued glaring at the back of the seat in front of her, arms crossed. It had been the quietest car ride in Morgendorffer history.
The family walked inside and Daria hurried off to the locker room to change while her parents dragged Quinn off to find good seats.
Backstage, Miss Jamison was pacing nervously but pretending to all the kids that she wasn't nervous at all. "Everything's going to go great!" she reassured everyone for the tenth time.
"Duh," Daria muttered again. Everyone had been practicing for weeks, and the steps weren't actually all that hard. She wished Miss Jamison would stop fretting so much and let them go out and dance already.
At last, Miss Jamison looked at her watch. "Okay, everyone! Places!" It was time. Daria's class was the beginner class, so they got to go first.
Everyone scurried to the spots they'd been assigned to in rehearsal, and stood still with smiles on their faces. Well, some of the kids squirmed a little and most of them were squinting more than smiling because of the bright lights, but they were more or less ready when the curtain came up.
Daria tapped along with her classmates during the main part of their routine, which was kind of boring, but she knew her solo was coming up soon. And there it was: her cue. The music changed a little and she moved forward with pride. Okay, everybody. Get ready for this!
She never knew if the floor was slippery, or something was wrong with her shoe, or if somehow she'd just plain screwed up even after all those hours of practice. Whatever the reason was, just as she was brushing her foot forward, she stumbled and fell forward.
Flat on her face.
In front of the audience, Miss Jamison, her classmates, and Quinn.
Daria lay there, frozen, for what felt like hours. She was afraid to get up or to even lift her face, too embarrassed and dreading what the reaction would be.
Unfortunately, she didn't have to look to find out. She could hear the sound of a high-pitched giggle, and didn't have to see the person to know that it was Quinn. Her voice carried all too well in the otherwise silent auditorium.
Keeping her face down, she scrambled to her feet and rejoined her classmates. The music changed again, and she mechanically tapped in unison with her classmates while staring at the ground. She didn't make a single mistake during the rest of the routine, but all she could think about was the ruined solo.
"Well done, Sweetie!" Helen beamed at her daughter as she hurried up to her after the recital. Jake followed close behind with an identical grin, pulling a still-gleeful Quinn behind him.
"Nuh-uh," Daria said with a glare. "I fell in front of everybody. I bet they're all laughing at me right now."
Quinn bounced up and down and started to say something, but Jake hushed her. "Say, Kiddo," he said reassuringly. "Did I ever tell you about the time I played Guildenstern in college?"
"I don't think this is the time, Jake," Helen interrupted quickly. Turning to Daria, she said, "Okay, yes, you fell. But you got up and finished the recital, and that's really the important...."
Daria had long stopped listening. She was scanning the crowd, and saw several of the other dance class kids standing with their parents. Several were grinning and laughing with their families, and Daria had no doubt whatsoever that she was the topic of the conversations.
I should've known better, she thought glumly. They always make fun of me in the end. All of them.
Turning back to her mother, who was saying something about a swim team, she flatly stated, "I want to quit dance class."
Helen looked at her with surprise. "But, Sweetie, think about all the fun you had! You made so many friends and--"
Daria just shook her head. "I want to quit dance class."
Quinn hopped in place. "Can I take dance class instead, then?"
Jake and Helen exchanged a look that Daria knew meant they were going to talk about it later, when there wasn't a bunch of people around. "It's been a big day, and you're tired," Helen said soothingly. "Maybe we should go home."
They hurried the girls out to the car and drove home, making light but tense conversation the whole way. Before Daria knew it, she and Quinn were being tucked into bed in their rooms and the house was dark and quiet.
"But Helen, she said she wants to quit!" What started as a barely-audible murmur suddenly rang out loud and clear as Jake raised his voice somewhere else in the house.
"I know she did, but it was probably a knee-jerk reaction. She was embarrassed, but she'll get over it." Helen's voice was a bit quieter, but her insistent tone made it carry well enough to Daria's room.
"But what if she really does want to quit? Dammit, I won't force her to stay in an environment where she's miserable because we're too heartless to pull her out when she begs and pleads--"
"Jake! It's not military school."
"What? Oh, right. But still, Helen. We can't make her do it if she doesn't want to!"
"Of course not! Do you think I don't realize...."
Daria didn't get to hear the rest of the argument, because by that time she was pulling the flaps of her big cardboard box shut.
It doesn't matter what I do, she thought miserably as she reached for a book. If I don't talk to other kids, Mom and Dad fight. If I do talk to other kids, it all goes wrong eventually and Mom and Dad fight.
She opened the book in her lap, but didn't look at it right away. It's better to not try at all, she decided. Anyway, Quinn's better at this stuff than I am. She can do the talking to kids stuff, and that'll make Mom and Dad happy.
Looking down at the book, she sighed. I don't need to talk to other kids ever again. I already know what happens if I do.
Thank you to RLobinske for beta-reading.