Daria finds the apocalypse less satisfying than she expected.
Daria (and associated characters and locations) is copyright © 1997-2001 MTV Networks
This story is copyright © 2001 Mystik Slacker (firstname.lastname@example.org) and has been written for personal enjoyment. No infringement of the above rights is intended.
Written: July 2001
Either they were being quiet this morning, or she'd slept more soundly than usual. She knew that they would want her to join them for lunch if they knew she was up. Instead, she pulled on her glasses and picked up the book she'd been reading before falling asleep: I am Legend, by Richard Matheson, a short novel about the last human on Earth, beset by vampires. Although well written, it wasn't exactly her usual type of literature, and she'd been careful not to mention to Jane that she was reading it; Jane would tease her unmercifully if she knew.
Several hours later hunger set in, as well as a vague concern about her parents. It wasn't like them both to take off for the day without mentioning it. She rose, and wandered downstairs looking for a note.
Walking across the kitchen, dirt crunched under her feet. Dad and his potting soil; he was continually trying to prove he had a green thumb by bringing plants home from the store and re-potting them for his office. They all died, probably because he forgot to water them.
Daria put together her breakfast, mentally thanking her father for not leaving the table covered with dirt as he usually did. As she put the cereal bowl down, she noticed her mother's bathrobe under the table. It looked like her father had been using it to sweep spilled dirt into a pile. He did have this tendency to grab the first useful object that came to hand, rather than spend time looking for the right one. Mom would kill him if she saw it. She decided to be nice, and save him some grief.
Daria picked up the robe and shook the dirt out of it, intending to take it down to the laundry room. But when she shook it, her mother's underwear fell out. A literal chill ran up her spine. She'd never believed that expression had a physiological basis, but it did. This was just like that really bad movie that had been on cable last night, with people turning to dust because of radiation. In real life, death by radiation was slow and painful, and left a body. But why was her mother's clothing full of dirt?
She shook her head. She'd been reading a horror novel all morning, and it had her in a weird mood. There was a perfectly rational answer for this, and her parent's absence, even if she didn't have a clue what it was. She dropped the robe and walked to the phone.
Two dozen rings, and either Jane or her brother Trent should have woken up, but nobody answered. The Lanes had never felt in need of an answering machine, so Daria hung up the phone. Frustrated and worried, she hurried into the living room to turn on the TV. Even if her parents and best friend were acting odd, cable would be full of inane activity, and she needed something to reassure her that the world was fine. But it wasn't. Most of the channels were dark, with a few running cartoons that were probably pre-programmed to run unattended. The 24-hour news channel just showed an empty newsroom, with what might have been some brown dirt on the anchors desk. She turned the television off with a sour feeling in her stomach.
She ran up to the bathroom. Entering, she saw her father's suit in a pile of dirt next to the sink. She lost the little that had been left in her stomach into the sink, and sat down hard on the floor, surprised to find she was crying. She hadn't cried since she was twelve. She'd been angry, scared, bored, and just about every other emotion, but never strong enough to bring tears. But her parents were gone, dead, dust. They hadn't been the best parents by any standard, but she loved them and they were gone. She sat there and sobbed into her hands for some time.
Eventually she rose, dusting dirt, her father, off the shorts she wore for sleeping. She went downstairs and returned with a paper bag and a dustpan. Carefully sweeping all of the dirt into the bag, she placed her father's clothes on top of the pile. Then she went to the kitchen and did the same for her mother.
She walked out into the back yard with the two bags and a shovel, and dug two small holes. One of her sayings, or maybe Jane had said it first, ran through her head: shallow graves for shallow people. But they weren't shallow, merely self-absorbed, and who was she to call that wrong? She continued digging, although it was hard to see the shovel through her tears. When the holes were deep enough, she upended the bags into them, and filled them with normal dirt. She'd have to make some kind of marker later.
She looked up at the clear, blue sky. "God," she said, "I don't believe in you, and I don't think my parents believed in you, although we never talked about it, so I could be wrong. But I don't understand any of this. It makes no scientific sense. So maybe other things that make no sense are real too. Anyway, I'm just saying, they were good people, who never intentionally hurt anyone. If you're real, and there's anything to this Heaven business, you'd better take good care of them." She lowered her head, and stood there, looking at the ground.
After a long time, she walked back into the house. She should go do the same for Jane and Trent, and her sister, but right now she couldn't face that. And she was hungry. She didn't think she could keep much down, but she made some toast and forced herself to eat it. It sat like a lump in her stomach. Preparing it had made her realize how little food was left. She should gather food, and plan how she was going to survive once the canned stuff ran out. The electricity couldn't last forever, sooner or later the generators would run out of fuel, or wear out. Probably soon.
She drove her mother's SUV down to the supermarket, and loaded it up with things that appeared to have a long shelf life, and toilet paper. Starving to death would be horrible, but running out of toilet paper seemed worse somehow. Thinking of things biological, she visited the drugstore across the plaza from the supermarket, and stocked up on antibiotics, cold medicine, and other necessities.
As she finished loading the car, she noticed the gun shop a few doors down. She'd seen it before, but never paid much attention. Just because she hadn't seen anyone yet, didn't mean that there weren't other survivors, who might be less than polite about acquiring supplies, or worse. She walked in.
Several hours later, after reading most of the magazines on the shelves, and a couple of books, she walked out carrying a shotgun, and with a handgun in a shoulder holster under her jacket. She went back and returned dragging a large, and very heavy, carton filled with ammunition, cleaning supplies, and several spare weapons of the same type she carried.
She drove to the quarry on the edge of town, and practiced with some targets she'd brought from the store. At first the noise and recoil scared her, but after a while she became used to them, and could hit the target reasonably well if she took the time to aim the pistol. She wasn't sure she'd have the time in a real fight, and resolved to use the shotgun if she couldn't run away.
She drove home cautiously, thinking that all the noise she'd made would have drawn out anyone in town. But she saw nobody.
At home, she stored the supplies in a dark corner of the basement, just in case there was anyone left to be looting. When she was done, she looked around the empty living room, and decided that she couldn't stand to be alone here right now. Funny, she'd often wished the rest of the world would go away and leave her in peace. Well, her wish had been granted, and she wasn't enjoying it at all. Solitude was fine, as long as there were other people around, and wasn't that a fine thing to discover now? She grabbed the shovel, and headed over to Stacy's house in the SUV. It was time to take care of her sister.
Once there, she made her way up to the bedrooms, shotgun slung over one shoulder, wondering which one was Stacy's. It was obvious when she opened the door to the second room. It looked just like her sister Quinn's room, only less pink. On the floor dirt was scattered, and four sets of clothing could be seen, but there were no neat piles; an open window had blown the dirt all over the room. She searched the house until she found a vacuum, put a fresh bag in it, and returned. In life, the four had been inseparable; it seemed fitting that they should be buried together.
Tamping the dirt down, later, she thought about her sister. Quinn was, had been, annoying, conceited, and an embarrassment, but she missed her terribly. Not with the deep grief that she felt for her parents, but with a sadness that they'd never find out if they could be friends. Recently, Quinn had been showing signs of growing into a real person, and not some kind of cardboard cutout fashion doll. Now she'd never get to know that side of her sister.
She walked out to the car, and drove slowly off. She really wasn't looking forward to visiting Jane's house, but they'd been best friends for years, and she thought she owed Jane and her brother Trent a decent burial. Heh, Jane would have told her she was being sentimental, and then used the pile of dirt for an art project. She was really going to miss Jane.
She parked the car in the Lane's driveway, and climbed out. She left the shotgun on the passenger seat: she still hadn't seen anyone, and it was awkward to carry anything else while lugging it around. She walked up to the door, and out of habit knocked on it. The door swung open, unlatched. That was normal enough: they never locked the door, and didn't always close it securely. Nonetheless, she stuck her head in, nervously, and called out.
"Jane... Trent... anyone home?"
Silence greeted her, and she shrugged. Of course they weren't home, they were dead, just like everyone else she'd ever known. She hadn't even seen any birds in the sky, or stray dogs. She wondered briefly how long it would take for the plants to die if every animal on earth was gone. Maybe starvation wouldn't be a problem after all; she'd die of carbon dioxide poisoning when the plants went. There was a thought to brighten her day.
She walked upstairs, and down the hall to Jane's room. Inside she could hear the television playing softly, a familiar, comfortable, sound. It made opening the door all that much harder. She pushed the door open, and a figure on the bed turned to her.
"Jane!" she screamed, and then realized that it wasn't.
Charles Ruttheimer the third, Upchuck to all who knew his lecherous nature, turned towards her and stood up. "Daria! You're alive!"
Daria stood in the doorway, looking at him, stunned. She'd wanted company, but not Upchuck. She noticed he was walking through a pile of dirt topped with Jane's signature red jacket. He didn't seem to notice. In fairness, it was impossible to walk across Jane's room without stepping on something, but it still made her angry.
"Upchuck, what the hell are you doing in Jane's house?" she snarled.
"Why sweetness, I'm doing the same thing you are, looking for survivors," he replied, with a smug smile. "And I've found you!"
"I'm not looking for survivors, you moron, I'm burying my friends. One of whom you happen to be standing on right now."
"Oh!" he looked down, surprised, and stepped quickly to one side. "That's what all the dirt around town is. I'd wondered."
"Charles, you can't possibly be that stupid."
"Dear Daria, you called me Charles!" He smiled.
"A slip of the tongue. Now, why don't you get the hell out of here, so I can bury my friends in peace."
"I'll help you."
"No, I don't want your help. This is personal. Go loot a Victoria's Secret or something, just stay away from me."
"But Daria, we're the only people left. We need to work together for survival."
"If that's what survival takes, I'd rather be dead. Go away, Upchuck, and don't come back."
"But, but... You're the only one left. I've been all over town. We're Adam and Eve. Without us, the human race is over."
"It was more a march of lemmings than a race anyway. Good riddance. Besides, you and me? Not even if you really are the last man on Earth," she snarled the last, disgust plain in her voice.
"Daria, you don't mean that!" he said, with a note of desperate pleading. "It's fate, we're meant to be together!" He started to walk towards her, arms held out.
She pulled the handgun from under her jacket. "Stop, Charles! I'm not kidding."
He stopped. She held the gun, aimed carefully at his face. He stood still for a brief time.
"No!" he yelled. "This can't be happening!" He lunged forward. She fired. His corpse slammed back onto Jane's pile of dirt.
"Damn. Sorry about that Jane. Spending eternity with Upchuck's blood mixed in with you wasn't what I'd intended."
He needed a shower; a long, hot one. And then he needed to find some way to convince Daria he really was a nice person. Obviously, the suave approach wasn't working. She was too smart to fall for an act, and he was too inept at it anyway.
Maybe flowers would work. Lots of flowers. He staggered off to the shower, trying to decide if she'd prefer roses, or something else.
Well, that was a bit more depressing than usual. I suppose in part it reflects my sadness that the TV series has ended. Hopefully getting this out of my system will allow me to go back to writing the more upbeat stories I prefer.
The genesis of this story is that I woke one Saturday morning with the germ of an idea for it, and since I didn't have to get up immediately, I lay there trying to assemble the rest of it. Any idea was welcome: I've been short on inspiration lately. It started out as idle speculation, not something worth writing down, but when I realized how to end it, I knew I had to write the actual story. I got up and started typing.
This story owes nothing other than the title and a vague concept to the 1971 movie The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston. I haven't even seen that movie (a lack I plan to correct shortly), although I know the general plot. But the idea of a lone, post-apocalyptic survivor has been a staple of science fiction for years, and can probably be traced back to Robinson Crusoe, if not some older source. The movie itself was based on a short novel, I am Legend, written in 1954 by Richard Matheson (which I read after writing the first draft of this story). Another film with a similar plot is an eighties B-movie, The Night of the Comet, where radiation from a passing comet turns most of the Earth's population into piles of dust, except for a pair of valley girls and a few others. This was the movie Upchuck had seen the night before, and it's one that I saw on cable many years ago, so it's a probable source of inspiration.
One staple of these stories, and others like them, is that not everyone dies, some become inhuman monsters (vampires in the original story, flesh-eating zombies in 'Comet). I deliberately tried to build in some suspense along those lines with Daria's concern about other survivors being hostile, as well as the mention of Matheson's story. Discovering that the "threat" is merely Upchuck may seem anticlimactic to some, but I wasn't trying to write a horror story, so a more melodramatic climax is unnecessary.
To me, the story is really about Upchuck, for all that the majority of it revolves around Daria. It's his dream, and his own insecurity that turns fantasy into nightmare. It's also a character study of Daria, or rather a slightly idealized Daria as seen through Upchuck's perception (and is that really any different from how most of us fans treat the woman we call Our Heroine?). She's often wished to be alone, in one form or another, but even as antisocial as she is, she probably wouldn't really enjoy eternal solitude if she found it.
Anyhow, maybe now I can finish that sequel to True Cynicism that's been half written for the last three months...