The Picture of Dariaís Rear

by Galen Hardesty

~*~

It was a sunny summer day in Lawndale. Daria Morgendorffer pulled up in front of Casa Lane, got out of her car, and headed up the sidewalk to Janeís front door. She noted in passing that the welded sculpture in the front yard was seriously in need of corrosion control treatment. She doubted it would receive any. That was kind of sad.

Daria knocked on the door, then turned to admire her car gleaming in the Lawndale morning sunshine. It wasnít new, but it was low mileage, it ran well, and it was very cheap to operate. Nearly fifty mpg on the highway, if the tires were properly inflated. And it was a beautiful metallic green. Daria loved her car.

Daria turned back to the door as her keen hearing picked up soft footfalls approaching from inside. The knob rattled briefly, then turned, and the door creaked open, revealing Jane squinting in the sunlight. "Mrrf," she greeted Daria gaily.

"And a fine morning to you, too." Daria smirked. "Wonít you come in? Thanks, Iíd love to." She squeezed past Jane while the latter was trying to decide whether and how to reply to that.

"So, are you ready to go?" Daria asked, still smirking at the shambling zombie that was Jane in the morning.

"Go. Mmmh. Need coffee." Jane shot back wittily. She turned and shambled in the general direction of the kitchen.

Daria took a seat at the Lane kitchen table to enjoy the spectacle of Lawndale Highís one-time track star barely able to walk. She knew the more Jane used her leg muscles, the more blood would reach her brain, and the closer she would come to full consciousness.

Jane opened a cabinet, pulled out a coffee can, and managed to claw the plastic lid off it. Shuffling toward the coffeemaker, she reached inside, found a scoop, and attempted to scoop out some coffee. Her squint became more of a scowl. "Arrr. No coffee. Kill Trent. Then kill me." She turned her semi-fierce countenance on Daria. "Then kill you."

Daria grinned. Attempted humor. That was a good sign. "Stay thy hand, o wrathful slayer. I bring a ransom to buy my life." She rose, removed the lid from a can she had been holding, and held it out so Jane could read the label.

The can in Janeís hand hit the floor with an empty-coffee-can-hitting-the-floor sound. Eschewing literacy, Jane seized the can Daria offered, held it to her nose, and inhaled deeply. "Ahhh, coffeee. No kill this time." She continued on to the coffeemaker and initiated her programmed coffeemaking sequence.

A few minutes later, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted through the kitchen. Jane and Daria sat at the table with steaming mugs. Jane raised hers and took a sip. "Ahh. Bleh." She scowled at the mug, then took another sip. "Hmm. What kind of coffee is this?" She squinted at the can again. "What the heck is Jebel El Mootfah?"

"Itís Arabic." Daria replied. "It means ĎMountain of the Cannon.í Somewhere on there it says itís from Yemen, where coffee was first discovered."

"Hmmf. Does Yemen have mountains?"

"I think so. Iíll check later. Dad brought this home, and we didnít quite fall in love with it. I thought you might like to try some genuine Yemeni coffee."

"Itís the best Yemeni coffee Iíve ever had, by Yiminy. So, uh, what was I supposed to be ready for, again?"

"The Farewell To Lawndale tour, remember?" Daria held up a camera. "Weíre going to ride around and bid farewell to all the fondly remembered scenes of our carefree youth."

"Oh, yeah. And wasnít this going to run concurrently with looking for markets for my artwork?"

"I do seem to recall a mention of that. So, you ready?"

Jane looked down at her sleeping togs. "As soon as I change into my artist costume. Help yourself to the coffee." She rose and headed for the stairs.

"You donít like it." Daria faux pouted.

"Itís great. Itís the best coffee in the house. Really pretty can. Maybe a little darker roast than I prefer, but..."

"Yeah, me too. Hurry up. Weíll hit Krispy Grease donuts, maybe flirt with some cops."

"You, flirt? Iíll bring a video camera."

Dariaís expertly flung plastic coffee can lid caught her in the butt before she could make it up the stairs.

~*~

Jane retrieved her camera from the hood of Dariaís car and advanced the film. "Well, we got pictures of us standing in front of the giant strawberry, us standing in front of the statue of the Unknown Guy, us standing in front of The Zen, and now us standing in front of Dear Old Lawndale High."

"In memory ever bright," said Daria as she stepped away from the Lawndale High sign toward the car. "Whatever happened to all the other fondly remembered scenes of our carefree youth?"

"Well, thereís your room, my room, and the booth at Pizza King, I guess. Other than that, I draw a blank."

"Jeez, were we that boring? What about the spot where you became a woman?" Daria opened the driverís side door and got in.

Jane snorted. "As soon as I do, Iíll be sure to get a picture of the thus-hallowed ground. I wonít bother asking you that question." She closed her door and reached for the seat belt.

"Hey, it could happen. I thought about it once, but I had to take a book back to the library."

"Thatís what I admire about you. You always keep your priorities straight."

Daria started the car. "I try. So, I take it youíre not going to leave any paintings at the mat and frame shop?"

"No freaking way! Not only did that guy want to charge me up front for leaving paintings on consignment, he handed me a list of this seasonís decorator-approved colors! Heís lucky I didnít deck him!"

"You never deck anybody when I have my camera." Daria pulled away from the curb.

"Well, you never deck anybody when I have mine, either."

Daria smirked. "Maybe when we get to Boston. I bet there are plenty of people there who need decking."

"I wouldnít be at all surprised. But if I donít sell some artwork, I wonít be able to get there till spring semester. I was really lucky they offered me that opening for fall classes, but now I need to get lucky again to pay for it. Iím going to need at least another six thousand to cover the first two semesters."

"You donít need to have the whole six thousand now, though. Youíll probably be able to get a grant or a part-time job before you run out. And maybe you can sell some paintings in Boston. Itís a much bigger market than Lawndale."

"Yeah, but itís also more sophisticated. I have no idea what theyíll think of my stuff. If I can get two thousand more this month, Iíll take a chance and go. Otherwise, Iíll have to pass the opening on to someone else and work till spring semester starts."

"What about your parents?"

"Ha. You tell me. Momís in Colombia studying traditional native pottery, and Dadís in the interior of Borneo searching for tribes of cannibals."

"Yeesh! Did they tell you where they put their wills?"

Jane knew Daria was attempting to make light of the situation, but it was something that really bothered her. Apparently, she seldom registered on her parentsí minds. "We never could talk them into making wills. They always start blithering about negative thoughts and bad vibrations. They say theyíll do it later, when they start getting old."

"Oh, man. Talking about your parents makes me appreciate my parents. Hey, I just remembered something. I read somewhere that Cedars Medical Center hangs more art by local artists than the art museum does. They have lots of hall wall space that needs decorating. You wanna try there?"

"I probably read it the same place you did. Turns out they have a six-month waiting list. I got on it, but it wonít help me right now."

"What about Art In The Park?"

"I only sold two pieces last time. I couldíve done better cleaning offices that day. The best thing to come out of that was meeting Gary."

Daria frowned slightly. Jane had made good money painting copies for Gary, and could do so again. Ten or fifteen paintings would give her all the money she needed, but what would it do to her creativity? "Uh, do you suppose he might know some places you could check?"

Jane frowned too. "He might. I guess I should ask."

Daria nodded and headed for Garyís Gallery.

As they pulled up in front of the gallery Jane wore a doubtful expression. At the door she hesitated, then steeled herself and walked in. Daria followed her. Gary looked up from his desk. "Jane Lane! I was just thinking of you! Do you need more money for art supplies, I hope? Another gazebo, maybe? Iím sure I can help."

Jane smiled at Gary. "What I need is tuition money. Iím on my way to Boston Fine Arts College."

Gary looked impressed. "Congratulations, Jane! Thatís a fine school. Say, Iíve had several requests for Picassos. Iíll bet you could do a great Picasso!"

"Thanks, Gary, but no more copies for me. It just messes with my creativity too much, and I need my creativity more than I need the money. I was hoping you could suggest some places where I might sell some of my own stuff."

Gary looked disappointed. "Yeah, I understand. Thereís Cedars Medical Center. You already know about Art in the Park. I donít think your work would sell well at the Mat and Frame shop, but you could try."

"Already tried those." Jane stared at the floor for a moment, then looked up. "How about you, Gary? Do you ever sell any original works? I can be flexible on style and subject."

Gary sighed. "I sometimes display original pieces to accommodate my artists, but, as you can see, I donít have a lot of display space. The original works usually donít sell, except for nudes. Bring me a nude in a more-or-less realistic style, and Iíll display it for you, same terms as before."

Jane sighed in her turn. "Iíve been wanting to paint some nudes, but I canít afford to hire a model, and I donít know anyone whoíd do it for free."

"Well, Iím afraid I donít have the figure for it." Gary smiled. He glanced at Daria. "Your friend here would be an excellent model."

Dariaís face turned bright red. Seeing this, Jane put a hand on her shoulder and steered her towards the door. "Itís not her thing. Thanks anyway, Gary."

"Good luck, Jane. I wish I could have been more helpful." Gary regretted embarrassing Janeís friend, but decided an apology wasnít called for, and probably wouldnít do any good anyway.

Outside, Jane saw that Daria was still blushing red. "You okay, amiga?" she asked.

"Yeah, Iím fine."

"He meant it as a compliment, you know."

"Yeah, I know. It was a compliment. I should be flattered. Iíll work on it." They got in the car. Daria gripped the steering wheel with both hands and took a deep breath. After a moment her color began to return to normal. She slipped the key into the ignition, started the engine, and pulled away.

Jane looked over at Daria. She had long known that Daria would indeed make an excellent model. Daria had a fine slender figure, though she went to great pains to conceal that fact, and her face ranged from pretty to hauntingly beautiful, depending on viewing angle. When she tilted her head down and to the right a little...

But Daria saw herself as a mind forced to inhabit a body, and she resented it. She especially resented being judged by her appearance. Daria had minimized her attractiveness for so long, as a strategy to minimize interaction with Ďnormalí people her age, as well as for philosophical reasons, that she had become accustomed to the plain-little-girl part she played, even though she had to know that she was quite pretty.

Jane had wanted to draw and paint her friend almost since theyíd first met. Sheíd done lots of quick sketches of Daria in school, mostly profiles, and Daria had grudgingly sat for a few more detailed sketches, always fully clothed, usually reading. But it was obvious that she was uncomfortable with even this, and so Jane had not shown her the portraits that sheíd later done from a couple of those sketches.

Jane ached to paint Daria, clothed, partly clothed, draped, or nude. Especially nude, especially after Daria had started that Jeet Kune Do course and her muscles had become more defined. But after one time when sheíd persisted a bit too long in her attempt to persuade, and Dariaís strained jocularity had cracked and some of her true feelings had gotten through, she had never asked again. They had both quickly apologized and made up, and both felt somewhat abashed about the incident, but Jane had understood Daria better after that.

Now, the situation was somewhat different. Jane really needed a few good saleable paintings to pay for college, and Daria no longer needed to hide her comeliness from her horny, dimwitted former classmates. If Jane asked now, Daria might say yes. But Daria didnít believe in situational ethics, and, after theyíd discussed it one evening in the dull depths of summer reruns, neither did Jane. It would be wrong of her to put pressure on her friend like that. And Jane would not risk her friendship with Daria for the sake of getting into BFAC a semester early. She would get the money somehow, or she would not. It wasnít that big a thing. Jane sighed and watched her soon-to-be-former hometown slide by.

Daria cast a sideways glance at Jane, and read her thoughts in her expression. Jane wanted her to model. She had asked many times, and Daria had said no. Now Jane really needed the money, and had a chance to sell a nude, but she would not ask again. Daria was grateful for that. She definitely did not want to pose nude, but it would be very difficult to turn Jane down now. She didnít know if she could. She was, after all, the one whoíd goaded Jane into applying to BFAC.

Daria wanted to thank her friend, but didnít want to state what for. "Hey, you wanna come over and eat some pot stickers?" she said instead.

"Some what?"

"You know, those Chinese dumpling things. Dad bought a bunch of frozen ones and a steamer set to cook them in, but he kind of made a mess the first time he tried to steam them, and now he says he doesnít like them anymore."

Jane smiled. That Jake, always good for a chuckle. "Sure. Sounds good." Jane looked away from Daria back to where they were headed, but her thoughts were elsewhere. There must be someone whoíd model for her. Quinn would be good, but she wasnít eighteen yet. There was probably some sort of law. That would rule out Stacy too. Jane wasnít sure about Sandi and Tiffany. Sheíd heard rumors that theyíd been held back a grade. Not that theyíd do it, anyway. Birthday suits werenít fashionable because they couldnít buy a new one every season.

Brittany? Naah. If Jane painted her realistically, it would look like a gross exaggeration. Jodie? She wouldnít do it, and if she did, her parents would disown her. Summer might do it, if she could get away from constantly riding herd on her four children for a few hours, and if she were in Lawndale. Penny? Jane had no idea whether she would, or where she was.

With a sigh, Jane realized she didnít know anyone else well enough to ask her to model. Sheíd tried being her own model before, with poor results.

Daria heard Janeís sigh, and felt a twinge. She cast about for something to say to distract her, and came up empty. Thankfully, they were only a block from home.

~*~

Daria placed the bamboo lid on the stack of bamboo steamer trays and carefully set them in the wok on the stove, in which water was beginning to boil. Jane was reading the label on a recently emptied plastic bag. "Why do they call them pot stickers?" she asked.

"They tend to stick to whatever you cook them in, unless you grease their little bottoms thoroughly. But the main reason is that we roundeyes canít pronounce their Chinese names."

"Oh, yeah? I bet I could. But I donít see any Chinese names on here. What are they?"

Daria cast a sidewise glance at Jane. "Even I canít pronounce them very well, but, depending on whether you steam them, fry them, or boil them, theyíre called srui chow, tsun chow, or... um, I forgot the other one."

Jane cocked a skeptical eyebrow at her friend. "And where did you learn that? Been lurking round the back door of the Good Time Chinese Restaurant again?"

Daria smiled a tiny bit. "I went with Melody to Beijing last month. She was trying to find out who Bill Clintonís handlers are, and what bank account they send his money to."

Jane feigned indignation. "Now you stop talkiní Ďbout my Billy that way! He never done none oí them awful things they say he done! Itís all lies, hearsay, and gossip!" she squawked in what she probably thought was an Arkansas accent.

Daria smirked. "Hey, why donít you ask Ms. DeFoe if she knows any place where you might sell some paintings?"

Jane froze in mid-bite. "Thatís not a bad idea." She reached for the phone book and began leafing through the white pages. "But donít think Iím gonna forget that scurrilous slander against my charming Billy!"

 

A few minutes later, the two friends were sitting at the kitchen table consuming the steamed pot stickers. Jane said, "These are good! Itís a little weird dunking dumplings in a teacup, though."

"Iím just so embarrassed that I donít have a set of those tiny little Chinese sauce dishes that are no earthly good for anything but to dunk Chinese dumplings in." Daria replied with a teeny bit of sarcasm. "Iíll get some the very next time Iím in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or the PRC. However..." She rose and opened the refrigerator, and returned with a small bottle with an oriental looking label and sprinkled a few drops from it into her teacup, then set it on the table where Jane could reach it. "Try this."

Jane picked up the bottle and read the label, then sniffed it. "Toasted Sesame oil. Mmm!" She smiled and sprinkled some in her sauce as Daria had done.

"So what did Ms. DeFoe tell you?" Daria asked around a mouthful of dumpling.

Jane made an indistinct sound and held up a hand while she chewed. "She said the Lawndale Art Museum is going to have a juried exhibit for local artists, and thereís a one thousand dollar purchase prize. I have a week from next Monday to enter something."

So, thought Daria as she dunked another dumpling, Jane had a week and a half to pull a rabbit out of her hat and come up with a painting good enough to win that $1000 purchase prize, and then the rest of the month to pull another rabbit out of... somewhere, and come up with another thousand. Sheíd cover all bets on that.

 

~*~

That evening after dinner, Daria wound up back in her room. Removing her jacket and boots, she fired up her computer, checked her email, and visited her usual list of web sites. After answering an email from Amy and posting a few messages, she disconnected from the Internet and loaded her word processor.

Opening her Works in Progress file, Daria scanned the titles, looking for something to work on until bedtime. After browsing for several minutes and only managing to discard or refile a few stories that were no longer Ďin progress,í she turned to her Writing Ideas file. Its contents also failed to spark her imagination or interest.

Sighing, Daria moped over and fell onto her bed, staring up at the network of cracks in the ceiling. Jane and her problem were still on her mind. If Jane didnít come up with at least two thousand bucks somewhere soon, Daria would be spending her first semester in Boston alone.

It was possible that Jane would manage to come up with a painting that would win that thousand dollar purchase prize, or that some art lover would buy it, but Daria was less than optimistic. Janeís artistic vision hadnít shown any signs yet of catching on with Lawndale art lovers.

Being a gallery owner, Gary knew what would sell. Jane was very good at drawing and painting people, clothed or not, Daria knew. She remembered the poster Jane had done for that school contest, and all the sketches Jane was always doing of her and other students. Jane could paint a nude that would sell for big bucks, if she had a model. Daria thought about who Jane might get to model for her, and reached the same conclusion that Jane had earlier in the day, unbeknownst to her. She scanned the cracks for an answer. She didnít like the one that kept coming up.

"Should I model nude to help Jane pay for college?" she thought. "Would I really be doing it for Jane, or for me? Isnít the real reason Iím even considering it that I donít want to be all alone in Boston? Does the fact that I have a selfish reason invalidate the unselfish reason?

"If I were to do it, what kind of person would that make me? The kind who has high moral standards as long as itís convenient, then chucks them when itís not? The kind who takes off her clothes so she can have company? Would I be any better than a slut? Or those girls who have webcams in their dorm rooms? If indeed there actually are such girls.

"What if I donít do it, and Jane canít raise the money? Or what if she takes on a huge student loan and canít pay it back? Or what if paying it back keeps her from getting a studio and becoming a successful artist? What if it forces her to take a job she hates? What if it ruins her life?

"But what will doing it do to my life? Isnít abandoning your principles a bad thing? What principle is it, anyway? Public nudity bad? Iím practically nude whenever I wear that bikini, and Mom bribed me heavily to get it and wear it. Well, I never really considered Mom a final arbiter of morality.

"I really wouldnít be naked in public, though. Only Jane would actually see me naked. Everyone else would only see some pigments smeared on a piece of canvas. Or is that a colossal rationalization, even though itís true?

"Does it matter how many people Iím naked in front of? The more people, the more degraded I am? If thatís the case, Iím already degraded way past modeling nude. I had to shower nude with about fifty people I hardly knew every day in gym class, for the last six years. Thatís government and parent approved.

"But just because a thing is commonly accepted doesnít mean itís right. Every major religion I know of is against being seen naked. Doesnít that count for something? If so, how much?

"Am I even worrying about the right principle? Maybe the real principle is: Donít do something you think is wrong to get something you want. No, thatís not quite right. It should be: Donít do something you know is wrong to get something you want. I need to know whether itís wrong to model nude, and why.

"But what if I decide that it isnít wrong, or that it isnít as wrong as not helping Jane get to BFAC? I donít want to. I donít want to take off all my clothes in front of Jane and sit still, or lie still, for hours and hours while she peers intently at every inch of my scrawny little body and paints my likeness. And I donít want innumerable strangers looking at a picture of me naked and thinking unimaginable thoughts, or all-too-imaginable thoughts either, for years and years, maybe long after Iím dead. And what would it feel like to walk down the street knowing that any stranger I passed might have seen that picture? How much weight, if any, should I give to my personal feelings?"

As she lay pondering these imponderables, Dariaís eyes gradually closed, and her thoughts became less focussed and incisive. She fell asleep with her light on and her door open. Sometime later Helen looked in on her, smiled, turned out the light, and closed the door to the five-inch opening Daria favored.

~*~

Daria awoke with morning sunshine penetrating her eyelids. She turned away from the window and tried to pull the sheet over her head, but found that she was lying on top of it. Her legs were cold between her skirt and her socks, as were her arms. She had fallen asleep in her street clothes. Surrendering to the inevitable, she sat up and squinted grumpily at her cheerily sunlit room.

Ugly carpet with uglier throw rug, ugly gray padding on the walls, ugly nonfunctional TV hanging from the ceiling on an ugly bracket, ugly posters on the walls, ugly blanket on the bed, books and bones on the floor. Yep, this was her room, all right.

Daria rose and shuffled off to the bathroom. Turning on the hot water tap and removing her clothes, she looked at her reflection in the mirror. A short, slender teenager stared back. Her head was too big for her body, she thought, an appearance that was heightened by her thick head of hair. Dark auburn in this light, it appeared plain dull brown under fluorescent light. Afternoon sunlight brought out its coppery highlights best, she thought.

Daria looked down to the other visible tuft of hair. Not kinky, just barely curly, the hairs grew inward toward the centerline of her body and then turned downward. In shape it was like one of those early eighteenth-century style eagles with its short wings spread and its head in right profile, although missing the legs. The direction of hair growth gave the impression of feathers. In color it was slightly lighter and redder than the hair on her head. Daria smiled a bit. She thought it was one of her nicer physical features. No male had ever seen it.

Dariaís eyes traveled upwards over her abdomen. It was flat without her needing to suck in her gut. She didn't have washboard abs, but the muscles were there, and showed up in an angling light. Her navel was- well, okay, she supposed. There wasn't anything unusual or gross about it, nor was there a scar from that embarrassing incident when her hormones had overwhelmed her common sense and she'd gotten it pierced for Trent. She never had figured out why he'd wanted her to do that, and she'd be damned if she'd ask him now.

Her gaze continued upward to her bustline. It was getting hard to conceal the fact that she had a bust, but she really didnít need to anymore. She seldom ran into her male former classmates now that high school was over, and soon sheíd be at Raft where, as far as she knew, she wouldnít be seeing a single one of them. In size and shape, her breasts were about like the two halves of a grapefruit. They didnít stand out very far from her chest, which was fine with Daria. She didnít want to have to deal with the sort of guy a rack like Brittanyís attracted. Also, she noted with a bit of pride that they didnít visibly sag, even a millimeter, from the front view or the side. The nipples were a pale pink, with even a hint of lilac, an indication of northern European ancestry. A small compensation for pale, easily sunburned skin. The tiny smile returned to Dariaís lips as she remembered a scene from an old movie sheíd once rented for a Bad Movie Night. They were exactly the same size and color as Julie Andrewsí nipples.

Her hips were not wide, but they had a feminine shape, and they narrowed to a slender waist, although not as slender as Quinnís. Daria turned and looked over her shoulder. Her butt was... well, okay, she supposed. There wasnít much of it, but she definitely had one now. Up until about eighth grade, sheíd had the classic stick figure. No hips, no butt, no waist. And no bust till ninth grade. Except for her eyes, sheíd spent her early teens looking like Quinnís younger sister. Helen used to say sheíd had adult eyes from the day she opened them.

Now her butt and legs were slender but not quite skinny. Daria didnít know what characteristics boys looked for in a butt, but her legs were as good as any fashion club memberís, except for being short. She and Jane could sit side by side on a bench, and Daria would be over an inch taller. Standing, Jane was taller by nearly two inches. Daria still hoped for a late growth spurt in her legs, but it didnít look promising. Oh, well, she thought, theyíre long enough to reach the floor.

The mirror was beginning to fog up. Slightly annoyed at herself for incipient narcissism, she turned away and adjusted the water temperature, then entered the shower. Modest, unremarkable figure or no, Jane still wanted to paint her. Well, the model didnít need to be beautiful, she thought. The artist could expand things a little here, shrink a little there, stretch this, recontour that, as long as she had a model willing to hold a pose, and not covered with so much fat that the basic body shapes were hidden. Would it help Jane if I were to pose in a swimsuit, she wondered. And maybe Jane could change her face enough to be unrecognizable. Her thoughts gave way to the memorized motions of bathing, and the tactile sensations of the warm, wet pulsation of the shower spray, and of the soapy sponge and her hand gliding over her skin.

Reaching the end of the bathing sequence, Daria turned off the water, got out of the shower, and went through the drying-off sequence, still not thinking much. Even though she knew she was the only one in the house, she put on her bathrobe and tied the sash snugly for the short trip back down the hallway to her room.

Daria knew she was going to miss this room when she left for college. She didnít actually like the awful color scheme, or the small bed with the cheap mattress, but she was really fond the padded walls and she liked how the lunaticís-cell look tended to keep casual visits to a minimum. She knew it would hurt when she heard that Helen was remodeling it, and she dreaded coming home and finding a bright, cheery room with beige carpet, white trim, white ceiling with little blown-on sparkles, and freshly-painted yellow or sky-blue walls where her beloved padding now hung.

But that hadnít happened yet. She had better things to look forward to. Daria began dressing. A new and exciting phase of her life was about to begin, a phase sheíd been looking forward to for many years. Finally, as a reward for all her hard work and perseverance, she would be living in a community whose members had been selected for intelligence. There would be no room temperature IQs there. According to Dariaís research, students with IQs below 120 were exceptions at Raft. Which meant that the chance of seeing anyone from the Lawndale High class of 2000 there was small indeed, and that Daria had a good chance of finding people of similar intelligence to talk to.

Before putting on her socks, boots, and jacket, Daria did a few limbering-up exercises, then went through a Jeet Kune Do form, as much to get her blood circulating as for the practice. She made a mental note to ask her instructor if he could recommend a Jeet Kune Do school in Boston for the fall. It would be great if it was taught at Raft, but Daria knew she couldnít expect to be that lucky.

After a leisurely breakfast, Daria headed back upstairs to her room. She thought about just lying down somewhere and soaking up the solitude for a while, but there were several books sheíd been wanting to read, and sheíd had an idea for one of the stories she was currently working on. Daria was aware that her free time as a sheltered dependent was rapidly running out, and she wanted to make good use of it.

Daria pushed open her room door and walked to her desk, and noticed her motherís camera and camera bag sitting there where sheíd put them yesterday evening. Never one to be late to return borrowed items, she picked them up and headed back out into the hall.

She entered her parentsí bedroom and slid open the appropriate closet door. As she placed the camera bag on the shelf, a small cigar box was dislodged. Daria managed to catch it just as it slid off. A few photographs fell out onto the floor. Checking to make sure the camera bag was stable on the shelf, Daria turned her attention to the fallen photos. One of them caught her eye. It was a picture of a two-year-old running down a hallway without any clothes on. The child was facing away from the camera, but Daria knew that it was she. She sat on the bed and opened he box. Another photo caught her eye. She was in the bathtub, smiling up at the photographer, holding a bathcloth. It had been a long time since sheíd seen these, but Daria remembered that there were several photos in this sequence. One of them was... she dug around a little. There it was. She was standing in the hallway facing the photographer, still naked, probably laughing, apparently enjoying the attention she was getting. Full frontal nudity. And Helen had taken the pictures. And shown them to the relatives.

Daria picked out the rest of the photos in the sequence, closed the cigar box, and put it back on the shelf, making sure it wouldnít slide off again. She closed the closet door, then the bedroom door, and proceeded down the hall to her room. Spreading the photos out on her desk, she pondered them for a few minutes. Then she flopped onto her bed and stared up at the ceiling.

Several minutes later, Daria reached out, picked her phone up off the floor and dialed a number. After three rings, Jane answered. "Yo."

"Hey, Jane. Whatcha doiní?"

"Getting ready to start a painting. Or rather, to stare at a blank canvas till tiny drops of blood form on my forehead. What are you doing?"

"Iím taking off my boots."

"Uh-huh. And after you take off your boots, what are you going to do?"

"Take off my socks."

"I see. And after you take off your socks, what are you going to do?"

"Take off my jacket."

"Very interesting. Then what?"

"Iím going to take off the rest of my clothes, and then I thought I might lie on my bed and read a book or something. Grab your art supplies and come on over. The doorís unlocked."

There was a silence on the line for several seconds. Then Jane said, in a low, hesitant tone, "Daria, are you jerking my chain?"

"Nope."

"Then Iím halfway there." There was a click, followed by a dial tone.

~*~

Jane parked in front of the Morgendorffer house and removed her paintbox, easel, and canvas from the car. As she headed up the sidewalk, Daria opened the door. She was wearing her usual raw sienna pullover shirt and black pleated skirt, but no green jacket. Jane looked down and saw that Daria was barefoot. "Hola, amiga. I thought youíd be au naturel by now."

Daria relieved Jane of the easel, then stepped back to allow her to enter. She looked down at her toes. "After you hung up, I had second thoughts."

"Awww, dammit!" Jane gave the foyer carpet a bitter, disgusted glare. When she looked back up at Daria, her expression was merely one of disappointment. "Well, I donít want you to do anything you donít feel comfortable about."

Dariaís face lit up with an affectionate smile. Jane couldnít help but smile back. "Oh, not about that. About lying around naked with the front door unlocked." Daria locked the door as she spoke, then twisted the knob to make sure it was locked. "Come on up."

Jane breathed a big sigh of relief as she turned to follow Daria up the stairs. "I can still hardly believe youíre actually going to do this."

"Youíre not nearly as surprised as I am"

"I meant what I said about you not doing it if you donít feel comfortable with it." Jane said sincerely.

Daria paused at the top of the stairs and smiled down at Jane. "I know, and I appreciate that. I definitely donít feel comfortable, but youíve known me long enough to know that I donít operate on feelings." She continued down the hall to her padded room.

Jane walked in prepared to tell Daria where to put the easel, but Daria was already setting it up exactly where Jane wanted it. She smiled as she put down her paintbox and unfolded a plastic dropcloth. Daria lifted the easel for Jane to spread the dropcloth on the rug.

Jane looked at Dariaís blanket, the most hideous shade of brownish-greenish orange imaginable, and knew it would have to go. Besides being ugly as homemade sin, its reflected color would raise havoc with Dariaís skin tones. "Daria, do you have a blanket or bedspread in the green-blue-purple range we could put on your bed?"

"Iíve got a blue blanket that went slightly purplish in the wash one day." Daria opened her closet door and pointed to the blanket on the shelf.

"Thatís perfect. We can just put it on top of that other one, being extremely careful to cover it completely, of course."

"Hey, it complements the curtains."

"Anything that compliments those curtains is lying." Jane stated.

Daria smirked a little as they spread the blanket.

~*~

"So, what made you decide to model for me, if you donít mind my asking?" Jane was squeezing a glob of Alizarin Crimson onto her palette as Daria was removing her bra. "I didnít even ask you to, this time."

"Well shoot, if you donít want me to..." Daria made as if to put the bra back on.

"Nonono! I want you to! I want you to! Itís just that you never would before, and itís not..." Jane trailed off.

"Not the sort of thing Iíd do?" Down to plain white panties, Daria tossed the bra onto her pillow. The logical part of her mind pondered why she should be so self conscious about this. Her gym locker was next to Janeís. Sheíd undressed a thousand times with Jane closer then she was right now. There was scarcely a square inch of her epidermis that Jane hadnít seen at least part of, except parts of her scalp.

"Well... yeah."

"Youíre right. It isnít. But I want to help you earn that money you need for college if I can, and this was the best way I could think of that didnít involve physical labor. I had to think about it, sort out the principles involved. You know, all that philosophical stuff that makes everyone think Iím weird. Iím still not positive, but I think itís the right thing to do." Daria slipped out of her panties and laid them on top of her shirt on the bed. "And anyway, itís not like this is the first time Iíve modeled nude."

"What?"

"Take a look at that photo shoot on the desk. Full frontal." Daria pointed, smiling almost undetectably.

Janeís eyes got big and round. She moved to the desk and looked at the prints laid out there. Her surprised look turned to a grin. "Awww, theyíre precious! You were such a cute baby! No wonder you turned out so good looking!"

Daria made a rude noise. "Yeah, right!"

Jane turned back to her friend, who was standing rather awkwardly in the corner. "Daria, you are beautiful. You know it. When are you going to accept it?"

Daria shifted her feet, looking even more awkward. The start of a blush appeared on her cheeks. "Are you gonna paint, or are you just trying to see how long you can get me to stand around bare-assed before I wise up and throw you out?"

Shaking her head and smirking ruefully, Jane said, "Okay, letís start. Cop a pose."

Daria took a step toward the bed, then hesitated. "Any pose in particular?"

"Well, you mentioned lying on the bed reading. Letís try that. Thereís a practical reason most nudes are reclining nudes. This is going to take a while."

"Okay." Daria walked over to the bed and lay down on her stomach, head toward the foot end. Sheíd placed a large book at that end, and she opened it up to a bookmark. Propped on her elbows, she crossed her arms so as to conceal her breasts as much as possible. Her feet were on the pillow, her legs straight and tightly together.

Jane refrained from shaking her head. Daria couldnít have looked less relaxed and comfortable if sheíd been impaled on a barbecue spit. Jane realized sheíd have to handle the situation very carefully. "Um, how about putting your feet in the air?"

Daria lifted her feet, then moved them back and forth slightly until she found the position where they balanced over her knees. "Like this?"

"Good. Try crossing your ankles." Daria did so, then searched for and found the balance point again. "Better. Yeah, I like that. Can you hold them that way?"

"Yes."

"Great. Now can you put your hands on the book, like youíre holding the pages open?"

Daria looked down at her crossed forearms and at what they were partly concealing. Hesitantly, she uncrossed them and laid her fingers on the corners of the book.

"Good. Now this first pose will be fairly short while I work out the composition." Jane stepped forward, reached out a finger, and lifted a stray lock of hair away from Dariaís face and back onto her shoulder with the rest, then returned to her palette and easel. Daria felt herself blushing. For no good reason she could think of, that trivial contact had seemed very intimate. She gritted her teeth and resolutely began reading The Gulag Archipelago.

 

~*~

Jane very carefully drew her brush along the line of the back of Dariaís thigh, capturing that slight and subtle curve just right, and ending within the buttock area. Reloading the brush with the carefully blended range of skin tones in a slightly different spacing, she started at the lower back and, with a single stroke, laid in Dariaís left nether cheek, perfectly capturing the bluish skylight that illuminated it through the window. Turning the brush over and holding it at a slightly different angle, she touched down gently at the upper end of her previous stroke and laid in the skylit left side of Dariaís back, stopping in the middle of the shoulderblade area, so that the ragged end of the stroke would be overpainted when she put in the shoulderblade and shoulder strokes, whose ends would then be overlapped by the strokes that would define her hair.

Jane paused and looked back at her model. Daria had such exquisite lines, slender but modeled and defined by the musculature beneath her pale, somewhat translucent skin. Since sheíd begun that Jeet Kune Do class and started swimming regularly, her figure had gone from slightly out of shape to willowy to slim, taut perfection. The play of the light over her skin, with its slight rises and dips hinting subtly at the overlapping layers of muscle beneath, was endlessly fascinating. Jane knew that she could draw, paint, and sculpt her friend for years, and not begin to capture the beauty of Daria Morgendorffer.

An unpleasantly factual part of her brain insisted on reminding her that sheíd never get that chance. This one short summer, already partly over, was all there would be. Then Daria and Jane would go off to their separate colleges. Oh, there might be bits of time here and there, when theyíd have the opportunity to do it again, but there would be other claims on those bits of time too, and few, perhaps none at all, would be devoted to painting sessions like this. Jane was chagrined to feel tears start to build up in her eyes. She inhaled deeply and pinched herself to try to break out of the maudlin mood, but wound up having to blot away a tear with her jacket sleeve.

Daria was having trouble concentrating on The Gulag Archipelago. She felt so exposed lying there, so unprotected, and yet, at the same time, so strangely free. Her mind couldnít help picking at that feeling, trying to analyze it. She knew, almost instinctively, that her parents would disapprove, probably strongly. But they could no longer forbid her, because she was eighteen now, officially an adult. Maybe that was it. This was one of the first, maybe the first, exercise of her rights as an adult. She had left childhood behind and stepped through the door into... the door!

"Jane, did you lock the door?"

"No, my hands were full, just like..." realization dawned on Jane and she stepped swiftly toward Dariaís bedroom door.

Suddenly the door opened and Quinn walked in. "Daria, can I... eep!"

Daria scowled fiercely but held her position. "All right, Quinn," she said, blushing furiously, "How much?"

"How much what?" asked Quinn, sounding puzzled.

"How much do you want to keep quiet about this?"

"Oh, Daria, surely weíre past that." Quinn closed the door behind her.

Daria didnít like the sound of that. "If not money, then what?" Donít push it, Quinn."

Quinn shot her sister an irritated look that softened into a lopsided smile.

"All right, Daria, I promise not to rat on you if youíll..." she put on an evil

calculating expression. Daria controlled an urge to wince. She felt as if she were about to get stuck with a hypodermic in her bare derriere. "...lend me one of your books to read." Quinn finished, smirking.

Daria looked startled. "Are you..." "pulling my leg" wouldnít come out. "...kidding?" she finished.

Quinn gave her a slightly sad smile. "Oh, Daria. I wouldnít do something like that to you, especially now that youíre going to be leaving for Raft so soon. If I did, you probably wouldnít speak to me for a year. And anyway, I think this is great. Youíre finally starting to come out of your shell. You picked sort of an unusual way to do it, but..."

"Iíd say I was completely out of my shell, and everything else but my skin." Daria replied, still blushing. "Including my mind," she muttered.

Quinn giggled. "You spend entirely too much time in your mind. You need to get out more." Quinn had strolled over and was admiring Janeís work, somewhat to Janeís irritation, but sheíd decided not to get in Quinnís face while she was being so uncharacteristically sisterly. Daria, to her surprise, found herself appreciating Quinnís quip.

"Oh, Jane, thatís beautiful! I didnít know you could paint real looking stuff! Daria, youíre really going to like this!"

"Thatís good. Uh, Quinn, could you leave now so Jane can lock that..."

"Daria, I could use a little... what in the world is going on here?" Helen said as she opened the door. Daria fought the urge to bury her face in her hands.

"Iím reading and Jane is painting," she said evenly, moving only her head to give Helen a near-perfect deadpan stare.

"And why arenít you wearing any clothes?" demanded Helen, crossing her arms and staring back.

Daria wanted badly to cross her own arms and cover what Helen was obviously staring at, but she defiantly held her pose. "Iím in my bedroom. This is one of the places itís okay not to have clothes on."

"Not in public, it isnít."

"I wouldnít be in public if you two hadnít come barging in without knocking," Daria replied with a bit of heat. She was acutely conscious of her bare bottom shining in the north light. She was finding it very difficult to project righteous indignation while naked.

"Sorry, Daria." Quinn said softly. "Come on, Mom, letís go."

Helen noted Quinnís unusual behavior. "And what are you doing in here, Quinn?" she asked in a hard tone, glaring at her, "Waiting your turn?"

Quinn thought this was totally unfair, but held back an angry retort. "I wanted to borrow a book, and forgot to knock."

"Youíre not the only one," muttered Daria. The painting session obviously having been interrupted for the present, Daria rose with all the dignity she could muster and donned her bathrobe. She didnít notice the effect this had on Helen, who was seeing her daughter naked for the first time in thirteen years.

Helen was astounded. She had seen Daria in that too-daring bikini that Quinn had chosen for her, and had been amazed at what a fine figure she had somehow been keeping secret. But Helen knew very well how many imperfections even such a brief garment could hide or disguise. But Daria... didnít have any imperfections to hide. She had grown into a beautiful young woman. As much effort as sheíd put into hiding her figure, Helen had thought that certainly there must be something... but there wasnít. Collecting her thoughts with an effort, she walked around to where she could see Janeís canvas.

"Oh! Oh, my, thatís very good, Jane. Itís uh, much less abstract than your other work that Iíve seen."

"Uh, thanks, Mrs. Morgendorffer. I believe an artist should be able to paint a subject realistically before attempting to abstract it, and I havenít had much practice with figure studies." Jane continued to hold her temper. Didnít these people know that they were supposed to ask the artistís permission to look at a work in progress?

"So youíre just doing this for practice? Youíre not going to display it anywhere?" Helen began grilling Jane as if she were a hostile witness.

Daria stepped in. If there was going to be a fight, it was time to stake out her position. "If it turns out well, which Iím sure it will, Jane is going to enter it in the local artists exhibit at the art museum, and hope to sell it, or win the purchase prize. Sheís trying to raise money for college." She looked Helen straight in the eye.

"Sheís going to sell it?! Daria Marie Morgendorffer, I did not raise my daughters to display their naked bodies in public, and certainly not for money!"

"Again, Iím not in public. This is my bedroom."

"Donít split hairs with me, Daria. Jane is painting a very accurate likeness of you, which will be displayed in public and sold to the highest bidder."

"As I recall, you were quite insistent that I display my ninety-seven percent naked body to thousands of people at the beach, remember? Over my strenuous objections? And you took photographs of me doing so, which you donít seem to mind displaying to others."

"You were not naked at the beach, even though that bikini was smaller than I would have chosen."

"Thatís the bikini you coerced me into wearing, the bikini chosen by your designated representative." Daria pointed out. Helen shot a glare at Quinn, who looked away. "And this seems a strange time for you to come out against public nudity, after raising not one single objection to the humiliating public nudity Iíve been forced into for the past six years."

"What?! What are you talking about?" asked Helen, shocked.

"Gym class, Mother. Every school day from seventh grade on, I was forced to strip naked twice, and shower once, in front of forty to fifty girls whom I knew barely or not at all. No pun intended. How much modesty do you expect me to have left after that?"

Helen looked irritated. "Daria, donít be ridiculous. Thatís necessary. Thereís no other way to have physical education in schools. Everyone does it."

"That doesnít make it right. But if youíre going to claim that itís right in school, how can it not be right in my own bedroom?"

"Because theyíre not making a permanent visual record of it in school," Helen replied with a smug smile, a look that faded somewhat when she saw a stronger version of the same expression form on Dariaís face.

"A permanent visual record, eh? I think you just shot yourself in the foot." Daria smirked.

"What are you talking about?"

"Look at that set of photos on my desk. What do they record and who took them?"

With a puzzled and slightly anxious expression, Helen stepped to Dariaís desk and looked at what lay there. After a few seconds, her head drooped and her shoulders sagged.

"Your Honor, the defense rests." Daria said.

When Helen turned around, she was wearing a rueful little smile. "All right, Perry Mason, you win," she sighed. "Apparently our commonly accepted views on nudity are somewhat.... inconsistent. Just the sort of thing youíd pick up on, it seems. Well, youíre an adult now, and I suppose I have to respect your decisions on matters like this."

Daria smiled affectionately at her mother. "Thanks. Iím glad you were the one who said it."

"Said what?"

"That Iím an adult now. I was afraid that if I said it, you might come back with the Ďas long as youíre under my roofí argument."

Helen returned Dariaís smile. "Daria, Iím painfully aware of how short your remaining time under our roof has grown, and I donít want to do anything that might shorten it further, or make it less pleasant." She took a deep breath and let it out. "You do what you think is right. Just keep your door locked when appropriate." She turned to Quinn. "But you, young lady, are not an adult. Remember that. Get the book you wanted and come downstairs. I need an extra pair of hands." With a last look at the painting and at Daria standing there in her white terrycloth bathrobe, she turned and left the room.

Walking down the hall, Helen shook her head ruefully. What was the use of all those years of law school if her teenage daughter out-argued her all the time? How did Daria do that? Not for the first time, Helen wished she could see the world as Daria saw it.

 

In Dariaís bedroom, Jane was grinning. "Way to go, Daria Allred! Color me impressed! I was seeing my hopes of tuition money flutter away. How did you do that?"

Quinn smirked. "As Mom is so fond of recounting, Daria cut her teeth on law books. Literally."

Daria smiled a little. "Itís probably more helpful that I actually read a few. On one of those take-your-daughter-to-work days, I wound up stuck in Momís office alone while she ran from meeting to courthouse to conference all day. There was nothing to do but read law books. But I think itís mostly just having a logical mind." She turned to her sister. "Now letís find you a book and shove you out the door so I can get done with this. What did you have in mind?"

"Hmm. Do you have anything about how to stay youthful looking forever?" Quinn asked facetiously.

Daria smirked. "As a matter of fact, I do." She took a book off the shelf and handed it to Quinn. "I think youíll like it, and youíll also be getting a jump on English Lit next year."

Quinn looked at the bookís cover. "ĎThe Picture Of Dorian Gray?í Ha ha! That gives me a great idea for a title for that painting!"

Daria knew exactly what idea Quinn had gotten. She spun her sister around and pointed her at the door. "Jane does her own titles. You have to go now. ĎBye."

"ĎThe Picture Of Dariaís Rear.í What do you think? Hey, quit pushing!"

"Out."

 

~*~

With Quinn gone and the door securely locked and deadbolted, Daria hesitantly removed the robe and resumed her pose on the bed, and Jane took up her palette and brush and resumed her stance at the easel.

"Whatís that youíre reading, anyway?" Jane asked.

"Itís ĎThe Gulag Archipelagoí by Solzhenytsin."

Jane looked thoughtful. "Hmmm... ĎNude Reading Solzhenytsin.í Has a nice ring to it. I believe that would make a good title for the painting. ĎNude Reading Solzhenytsin.í Yeah. What do you think?"

Daria kept her eyes on the pages of the book. "Gee, Jane, why donít you say Ďnudeí five or six more times, and see if you can make me turn a bright blotchy red all over?"

Jane grinned. Daria was always at her funniest when she was a little bit cranky. "Come on, Daria, tell us what you really think." she teased.

"I really think you could paint faster with that long-handled brush stuck up your ass," Daria deadpanned, eyes still on the book. "I bet thatíd break you from sucking on it too. What do you think?"

"Eep! Canít talk now, busy painting!"

 

 

~*~

Daria wandered through the Lawndale Art Museum, not actually hunting for Janeís painting, yet not consciously avoiding it, either. There were more artists in Lawndale than sheíd thought. By mounting the works with fairly wide spacing, theyíd apparently managed to fill the whole place.

The art museum had been built, or rather, rebuilt, with the help of a grant from the Save Historic Downtown Lawndale Foundation and a fund-raising drive. It had started out as a five-and-dime and adjacent yard goods shop long ago, and had sat empty and abandoned for many years before being reincarnated as a museum; and the old Orpheum Theater next door had been taken over by a coalition of performing-arts groups. A fight was still quietly raging to determine which nearby buildings to raze for much-needed parking, but the museum seemed to be a going concern.

The interior had been laid out as a series of oddly shaped rooms connected in strange ways by wide, room-like corridors. Potted palms and cacti and the odd chair and sofa were randomly scattered throughout. It seemed fairly well suited for displaying works of art, but it was easy to get lost in. Daria was not currently lost, but the entrance was. Daria pressed on regardless.

Watercolor seemed to be the most popular medium on display, followed closely by oils. What pencil drawings there were looked amateurish and lacked strong darks, and she hadnít seen a pastel yet.

The oils werenít uniformly good, either, Daria noted. Here was a cluster of several oils of flower arrangements and flowers growing in pots whose dreary sameness left no doubt they were the work of a single artist, and over there were a number of small landscapes distinctly reminiscent of a certain how-to-paint TV show, all appearing to have the same snow-capped mountain in the background. Daria noted with amusement that in one of the paintings, the artist had actually depicted a happy little squirrel living in one of the happy little trees. Well, apparently the local art league werenít snobs, anyway.

Farther down the corridor were a couple of large-format, non-representational, gestural paintings. The artist was either attempting to express anger, or was too angry to express anything else. One seemed overworked, or perhaps beaten senseless, but the other one was somehow interesting. Daria would have liked to hear Jane's comments on these, but Jane had gone to lurk near her paintings. Daria now noticed several other people doing the same thing, most attempting to look like they werenít. She smiled a tiny bit and walked on.

It was with some relief that Daria spotted Jane walking toward her with a big silly grin on her face. She looked like she was restraining herself from dancing, and she gave no sign of having seen Daria. Smirking at the sight, Daria crossed her arms and moved to the side of the corridor to wait.

Jane would have walked right past if Daria hadnít called out to her: "Planet Earth to Jane Lane. Come in, Space Cadet Lane!"

Jane snapped back to reality. She whirled and grabbed Daria by both upper arms. Startled, Daria blurted "Kiss me and Iíll deck you!"

"It sold!" Jane bounced up and down. "It sold for two large! Iím going!"

Daria dragged Jane into a nearby ladiesí room, which turned out to be a mistake, because Jane immediately hugged her. "Thank you, Daria! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!"

Daria feigned anger. "Iíll thank you to turn me loose! What are you trying to do, start that damn rumor again?" Jane loosed her hold and Daria smiled at her friend. "Now go soak your head, and then weíll go to the lounge and get a soda, and you can tell me all about it."

The "lounge" was a small room with a few tables and chairs and two soda machines. Today it was unusually crowded. Daria and Jane stood in an unoccupied corner and sipped their sodas. "I really wish youíd seen it, Daria! I was standing sort of in the vicinity of the painting and this suit walks up and starts looking at it. Then another suit walks up, and they start talking about it. Then this third guy comes along, heís a suit too even though he wasnít wearing one at the time, and they all start discussing the painting like theyíre all collectors and connoisseurs, and I got the impression theyíd been competing with each other for a long time. Anyway, one guy says heís thinking of buying it, and another guy says heís thinking about buying it too, and the third guy says something like the other two guys are incapable of truly appreciating it, and they should just go buy a Playboy. Then theyíre all saying theyíre definitely going to buy it, and one guy says heís going to find out who to talk to. Thatís when I said, "Talk to me, Iím the artist." God, it felt so good to say that! Anyway, then this bidding war breaks out, and Iím standing there trying to look cool and keep my mouth from hanging open, and the bidding gets up to fifteen hundred, and then the suit without a suit says "Two thousand!" The other two sort of snapped out of it, so I said "Sold!" and he wrote me out a check!" Jane pulled a check out of an inner pocket and held it out to Daria.

"Thatís great, Jane! Congratulations!" Daria looked at the amount of the check, then at the signature, which was illegible, then at the printed name, which she didnít recognize. "Well, Iím glad itís no one I know. And he lives in Richland, so we probably wonít bump into each other."

"How come you havenít come by to see it yet?" Jane asked.

"I donít know where it is. Iíll find it eventually. Besides, Iíve seen it before."

Jane smirked accusingly. "This is your first time in the art museum, isnít it? Come on, Philistine, Iíll guide you."

"Let go of my hand. Iím not that kind of girl."

 

~*~

Jane led Daria into one of the rooms and toward a doorway that led to a corridor. Through the doorway, they could see that several members of the football team and some other guys from LHS were clustered around the picture. Daria hung back and listened.

"See? I told ya! Pay up!"

"Damn! That is Daria! I canít believe it!"

"Wow! Sheís a babe!"

"A major babe!"

"Sheís no Brittany, but sheís definitely got hooters! I thought she was as flat as Kansas!"

"Hey, you know what they say- any more than a handful is a waste."

"Thatís mouthful, stupid."

"Is not. Itís handful."

"Well, Dariaís definitely a double handful, and some left over."

 

Somewhat to her surprise, Daria found this fascinating. All these boys whoíd pretty much totally ignored her all through high school, with her help and encouragement, admittedly,were drawn to this painting like moths to a porchlight. Why? They couldnít see any more of her breasts than the average swimsuit would reveal, or even some prom gowns. They couldnít see any more of her front, not even her bellybuttonÖ she was lying on it. They could see her arms, her back, an oblique view of her fanny, and her legs. And it wasnít even her, just a painting sheíd posed for.

Admittedly, Jane had done an excellent job with line and form, light and shadow, proportion and composition, and all those other things a good artist took into account when painting a nude, but the painting clearly wasnít attracting nearly as much attention from the many female art afficionados here tonight as it was from her testosterone-crazed former classmates.

Daria had thought sheíd had a good read on female attractiveness to males from observing their reactions to Quinn, to Brittany and the other cheerleaders, to photos in girlie mags, and and male-female interactions in general. And she knew she wasnít ugly, that she had a trim, healthy body without any particularly unattractive features. She knew that she could make herself attractive if she wanted to, but sheíd never thought of herself as having this degree, this wattage of allure, even nude. These boys werenít looking at the painting for a minute, saying something like "Well, whodathunkit? But after all, itís just Daria," and walking on. They were arrested, fascinated, mesmerized, not by Janeís artistic ability, but by Dariaís body, and apparently by the mere fact that she was nude. The painting didnít even allow them to see the bits they blew so much money on magazines to see. Just the fact that she was showing a lot of skin, and wasnít ugly, was apparently enough. Somewhere in her mind an awareness ofÖ powerÖ began to grow. Daria felt an urge to share this insight with someone, but then that smartass little voice inside her head pointed out that every other female older than Tricia Gupty probably knew it already. Certainly Quinn had known it since shortly after sheíd noticed boys were different than girls, if it hadnít come in the package of instincts she was born with.

 

"Iíd love to get my hands on those. Damn, I wish Iídía known! Whyíd she have to dress so... ugly?" one teenage art lover was saying.

Charles Ruttheimer joined the group. "You just answered your own question. She didnít want you horndogs chasing her all the time trying to squeeze her melons, so she didnít let you know she had any."

"Aw, bullshit. As if the strikeout king would know."

"Oh, I know, all right. Not that I benefited thereby. It didnít take me long to penetrate her camouflage and see that it concealed a lovely figure. It took longer to penetrate her sarcasm and see that it concealed a really nice person. It took longest to figure out why."

"All right, Ruttheimer, why? Why hide a body like that? Quinn would look like a fourteen-year-old next to her, if she dressed normal. If you got it, flaunt it, I say."

"Well, that isnít what Daria says. Daria is a genius, you know. Probably the smartest person ever to honor Lawndale High with her presence. And she hates being judged by her looks. Thatís why she put so much effort into camouflaging them. She wouldnít give the time of day to anyone who was attracted by her body, her legs, or even her face."

"Well, hell, that would be just about every guy on earth, except queers."

"True, but there was a time, not so long ago, when men with couth managed to act like sex wasnít the first, second, and third things on their minds. Did you ever meet that guy sheís been dating this year? He has couth. I tried. I tried to be cool, suave, and sophisticated, but I think I came off more smarmy and phony. And now, I guess itís too late. Sheís off to college in Boston in the fall, and Iím guessing Lawndale has just about seen its last of her. Daria Morgendorffer is headed for the big time."

Daria couldnít help smiling a bit at that. She wondered if she might have misjudged Chuck, or if he was finally maturing. But he was ogling the painting as hard as any of them.

A little farther along the corridor, the former Lawndale High Fashion Club had stopped to study the cluster of boys and the object of their attention.

Quinn said, "See, I told you. Pay up."

Sandi stared and blinked. "Thatís not her. That canít be her. That girl has a figure."

"A really good figure!" put in Stacy.

"Yeaahhh..." observed Tiffany.

And that herd of guys certainly seems to think so, too." Stacy pointed out.

"Yeaahhh..." Tiffany concurred sagely.

Sandi gave the two a cross look.

Quinn said "Thatís Daria, all right, on Dariaís bed, in Dariaís room. I watched Jane painting it. Go over there and take a closer look. And be sure to look at the title. ĎNude Reading Solzhenytsin.í Thatís got to be Daria."

They moved closer to the painting, careful to keep away from the pack of boys, who, strangely, seemed not to have noticed them yet. Stacyís big doe eyes were bigger than usual. Tiffany was gazing at Dariaís face in the painting with a fuzzily puzzled expression. "Quinnn, thiss girlllís faace loooks kiind of liike yoour coussinn."

Quinn looked at her in disbelief. "Tiffaneee!"

Tiffany returned Quinnís look with a pixieish little smile. "Kidding, Quinnn."

As Quinn regarded Tiffany with surprised amusement, one of the boys turned and noticed them standing there. "Hey, Quinn!" he said.

"Well, finally!" thought Quinn, as she smiled slightly at him. His name was Rodney or Roger or something like that. Sheíd only dated him a couple of times. "Hi" she replied casually.

"Is that really your sister Daria?"

"Yes." Quinn replied shortly, a bit irritated to find herself not the subject of the conversation.

"Does she really look like that?"

"Thatís not a very polite question, Roderick."

"Itís Roger. I was just, uh, wondering if the artist was painting realistically."

"Yeah, sure you were. Well, the artist was."

"But whyíd she dress the way she did if she had a body like that?"

"It was one of the ways she avoided people she wanted to avoid, such as you guys. You know, Rudyard, if it takes you this long to look at one painting, youíll be here till tomorrow night." Quinn remarked pointedly, folding her arms. Roger looked away and fidgeted awkwardly.

"If she wanted to avoid guys, then why did she pose for this painting?" asked another boy.

"Think of it as her way of saying ĎHa, Ha, I fooled you.í Now, you boys move along so they can mop up the drool," Quinn said in a faux motherly tone, making shooing motions at them. Sandi, Stacy, and Tiffany laughed. The boys reluctantly moped off, throwing last looks back at the painting. Back beside the plant, Daria grinned. She and Quinn were a lot alike, after all. She wondered how long Quinn had been acting like this when she thought Daria wasnít around.

"Good one, Quinn!" Stacy giggled, watching the group slink away.

"Yeah, not bad." Jodie put in as she and Mack approached. "Uh, Quinn, Mack heard a strange rumor that there was a painting of Daria in this show. Do you know anything about that?"

"Well, thereís that one." Quinn pointed.

Jodie and Mack both started when they saw the painting. Jodie put a hand on her chest. "I see it, but I donít believe it."

"Yeah, like really. I saw Jane painting it and I almost donít believe it."

"Jane painted that? She did a great job." A suspicion showed on Jodieís face. "Is this some joke she cooked up with Daria? Or maybe a joke sheís playing on Daria?"

"I donít joke about my art." Jane said as she walked up to them. "Well, not very often, anyway."

With a knotting of her stomach, Daria realized that Jane had given away their lurking place. She could now either approach Jodie and Mack and Quinn and her friends and (oh, crap) Upchuck with Jane, and stand unabashed beside the painting, or she could run for it before someone looked through the doorway and saw her. But she had already made that decision, she knew, before sheíd taken off that first boot, before sheíd called Jane on the phone. Daria gritted her teeth, put on her poker face, and strode through the doorway.

"Hey, Jane. Excellent work." Mack said, before wisely shutting up.

"It sure is, Jane." Jodie acknowledged. "Hi, Daria. Did you really..."

"Come all the way down here just because Jane had one lousy painting in the show? Yeah, I guess I did." Daria deadpanned. Jane put on an indignant look.

"Okay, if youíd rather not talk about it, I..." Jodie began.

"Did I really pose nude? Yes." Daria interrupted her.

"Gee, you think you know someone." Jodie looked wonderingly at Daria, then at the painting again, and shook her head. "Youíre about the last person I would have expected to do that."

"Yeah, she was even voted "Least likely to model nekkid" in the yearbook." Jane quipped.

"So-o, if you donít mind my asking... why?"

Sandi, Stacy, and Tiffany quietly edged closer, anxious to hear the answer to that question themselves.

Daria shrugged. "Just doing my bit to support the arts."

Jane gazed fondly at Daria. "She did it to help me put myself through Boston Fine Arts College."

"That is so cool!" sighed Stacy.

"Yeeaahhh..." Tiffany assented.

"Yeah, that is cool... and gutsy. What do your parents think about it?"

"Dad doesnít know yet. With luck, he wonít find out till after this show is over. Mom wasnít happy, but I am eighteen now. Sheíd never admit it, but she may be a little relieved that Iíve finally done something a tad wild and crazy. Iíve been so quiet and bookish up to now, sheís probably been worrying that I might climb to the top of the giant strawberry with a sniper rifle."

Jodie chuckled. "You may be right, Daria. Hey, I wonder if my parents ever worried that about me."

"Jodie, weíve all worried that about you." Daria said. Jane nodded, grinning. Sandi said "Like, fer sure," the remaining FFCíers made assenting noises. Mack added, "Except that we figured youíd choose the roof of Lawndale High, so you could take out Ms. Li first."

"Hey!" Jodie cried over the round of laughs, putting on a wounded look. Then she smirked. "Actually, it has crossed my mind, but I just didnít have the guts. Speaking of which, coming down here to the art museum with that painting on exhibit is pretty brave, Daria. I donít think I couldíve done it."

"Sure you could. I just thought the whole thing through, decided it was the right thing to do, and did it. It would be silly, not to mention useless, to try to run away from it at this point. You stand by your decisions the same way."

Jodie sighed wistfully. "I wish that were true, Daria. If it werenít for Mack here, Iíd have let my father pressure me into going to a college I donít want, even after being accepted by my first choice school." She leaned against Mack, who smiled and put a hand on her shoulder.

 

~*~

Kevin Thompson threaded his way through the art lovers. He felt uncomfortable in Hawaiian shirt, jeans, and sandals, but his mom wanted him to quit wearing his football uniform all the time. He hated to do it, but she had a point. Even without the pads, too many people were snickering and pointing and whispering when he wore it in public these days.

Kevin had been wandering aimlessly around town, rudderless without football and alone without Brittany, when heíd run into Alvin from the team. Alvin wouldnít stay and talk; he said he was going to the art museum, of all places, because heíd heard there was a nude painting of one of the senior girls on display there. Alvinís attempts to relay the description heíd gotten of the girl made her sound like Daria, but that was stupid. It couldnít be Daria. But Kevinís curiosity had been aroused, and, having nothing better to do, he had headed off the way Alvin had gone.

Wandering through the maze of weirdly shaped rooms with walls covered with weird yucky paintings, Kevin at length heard familiar sounding voices. Following his ear, he spotted a group of guys he knew from Lawndale High, looking at and discussing one particular painting. Then the guys started to move off, but Kevin saw Mack heading that way, so he headed that way too.

As he got closer, Kevin could see that Mack and Jodie were talking with Jane and Quinn and some other chicks from school, and they all seemed to be looking at that one painting. Kevin walked up and looked at the painting too. He couldnít believe what he saw.

"Damn! Daria!" he exclaimed.

"Damn. Kevin," said a familiar monotonal voice behind him.

Oops! Had he said that out loud? He turned, and, sure enough, there was Daria in the flesh. Flesh. Ha, ha. That was funny. "Hey, itís Daria in the flesh, huh huh. Uhh, lookiní good, Daria, ha, ha," he joked wittily.

She looked at him with that strange look she had, like she was looking right through him and saw a bug, or something. Someone should tell her not to look at people like that, he thought. But did that look mean she was interested in him? He had detected some interest there once, he was pretty sure. Of course, heíd been the QB then, heíd had Brittany, and he couldnít be seen with a brain like Daria. Oh, now he remembered. Sheíd tried to make a move on him once when Brit was being weird about something and had broken up with him. Wanted him to take her to a school dance. Even then, there had been lots of popular girls he could fall back on before he got as low as Daria, theyíd just all had to wash their hair or read a newspaper that particular night. Heíd tried to let her down easy, though, as he recalled.

But now... perhaps he could lower his standards a bit. He currently had an opening for a babe, and Daria was looking pretty good all of a sudden. She couldnít possibly say no to a trophy hunk like him. And sheíd be so grateful to him sheíd probably jump right out of her panties. She was probably even still cherry. Kevin dug cherry chicks. Maybe she could see him through the lean times until school started again and Coach or Ms. Li could figure a way to get his football eligibility back, and he could claim whatever cute, popular chick was head cheerleader next year. With a lot of luck, maybe sheíd be cherry too.

But Kevin was smart. He knew not to just come right out and say that. Chicks couldnít be realistic about things like that; you had to flatter them, even when you were doing them a huge favor. He strained his intellect to pay her a compliment. "I ahh, just, um, wanted to say that I, uh, never knew you looked that good naked!"

Daria gave him a kind of angry, not-flattered look for a second. Then it changed to a look of earnest inquiry, with maybe the faintest hint of hero worship. She took a small step forward and looked up into his eyes. "Really, Kevin? And what did you think I looked like naked?"

Knowing that whatever was coming was bound to be good, Charles stood by quietly, hands behind his back, wearing his evil Upchuckian grin, and Jane struggled to maintain her sardonic smirk and not burst out laughing too soon. Jodie felt Mackís muscles tense up as he started forward, but her restraining hand on his arm caused him to stop and wait.

"Oh, cool, she likes it when I talk dirty," Kevin thought. "She wants to hear more." He put on what he thought of as his most charming, sexy leer, the one with the cocked eyebrow. "Uhh, well, you know, you didnít have any, ahhh, you know, potatoes before, and probably not enough butt to get a good grip on, you know, but, uhhh, it looks like youíve, you know, filled out pretty good, so, uh, I was thinking me and you could, ahhh, you know..."

Daria continued to stare into his eyes. "Thatís very... interesting, Kevin. Now go over and tell Mack how you think he looks naked."

"Are you kidding? Heíd kill me!"

"Thatís right, Kevin. And so will I."

Kevin looked into Dariaís eyes, and saw death crouched there, preparing to strike. He tried to turn away, but Dariaís gaze held him like a sparrow hypnotized by a serpent.

Jane started to chant. "Kill...Kevin. Kill...Kevin."

Charles and Quinn took it up. "Kill...Kevin. Kill...Kevin.

Daria took a step toward him; her gaze still locked on his.

Now Kevin began to remember other things heíd heard about Daria, scary things. Some said she had strange mental powers. Kevin remembered times when Daria had said things in class, and Mr. O had burst into tears or run out of the room, or Mr. D had nearly stroked out. In sophomore year she had almost killed Ratboy. Kevin had been a wreck for days over that. Mr. O had said that Daria was an atomic communist from Mars. Government agents had come looking for her, but she had used her mental powers and they had captured Mr. D by mistake. And sheíd had something to do with Ms. Liís mysterious mental breakdown last winter. With a chill, Kevin remembered that strange snake-eyed look on her face as she stood by the door, with Jane and the Superintendent of Schools at either hand like henchmen, and watched as the men in white coats carried Ms Li away. That same strange snake-eyed look... she was looking right now... at him. Mack and Jodie took up the chant: "Kill...Kevin. Kill...Kevin.

 

With all of his will power, Kevin took a small step backward. They were probably kidding him, he told himself. He never could tell when they were kidding him. He did his best to smile and laugh, to show that he got the joke, but that didnít seem to work. The terrible chant continued. "Kill...Kevin. Kill...Kevin."

Kevin took another step back. Daria took another step forward. She didnít look like she was kidding. She looked like she was building up her mental power to strike him down. Suddenly something cold and unseen hit him from behind and he was falling... falling...

Delighted, Quinn and the former fashion club watched Kevin trip over the tall cylindrical ashtray and go down. They took up the chant: "Kill...Kevin. Kill...Kevin."

Daria was looming over him now, but the blow to the head had freed him from her evil spell. Summoning all of his QB speed and agility, he scrambled to his feet and dashed away, running broken field through the artsy people.

As Kevin ran whimpering for his life amid a cloud of cigarette ashes, all those gathered in the vicinity of "Nude Reading Solzhenytsin" broke into peals of laughter.

Smirking, Daria watched him go. "That was just too easy. We should be ashamed."

Jane cocked an eyebrow at Daria. "Are you saying youíre ashamed of headgaming Kevin?"

The corner of Dariaís mouth turned up. "Well, no, but it seems like I should be. Iíll try again later. Maybe." A more serious expression crossed her face. "Um, Jane, Iíd like to get a picture of us standing on either side of the painting, okay?"

"Sure, fine with me, but we donít want to let the museum staff see us."

Daria pulled her little camera out of her pocket and looked around, thinking who to ask to take the picture. Charles Ruttheimer timidly raised a hand.

Daria hesitated a second, then handed him the camera. He was generally known to be a good photographer. "Frame it tightly," she said.

She took a position on one side of the painting, then glanced over at Jane.

"Jane, quit grinning like a possum in a persimmon tree. This photo is for my dad."

"For your Dad? Is it his birthday?"

Daria shot Jane an annoyed look. "I have to tell him before he finds out some other way, and he has a right to see the painting, but I donít think itís a good idea to bring him down here, at least not unprepared." She gave Charles a nod and he snapped a picture, then one more.

Just then Quinn stepped past Jane and laid a hand on Dariaís arm "Daria, Tomís coming!" she whispered.

Daria looked down the corridor where Quinn was discreetly pointing, and sure enough, there was Tom, slowly browsing towards them. She thought of what he would probably think when he saw the painting. She thought of what he might say when he saw the painting. She thought of the possible conversations that might ensue if he saw the painting and her standing here next to it, and she realized that she did not wish to participate in any of those possible conversations.

Daria quickly left the corridor and moved back into the room the way she had come, with Jane on her heels. They circled around a large potted plant at the left side of the doorway and took up a position on the other side of it. A second later, Quinn stepped through the doorway, conversing in low tones with one of her friends who remained in the corridor.

Quinn looked over at Daria. "Heís alone," she said, then looked back into the corridor again, then back. "Heís just looking. Doesnít seem to be hunting for anything in particular." As Daria and Jane watched from the cover of the potted plant, Quinn backed a little further into the room, then took up a position on the right side of the door. She looked toward them again and whispered "Heís close."

Daria waited, looking at Jane, then back at Quinn, then casually about the room, trying to look like she wasnít playing hide-and-go-seek. Quinn peered through the door and grinned, then turned towards Daria and mimed big, bulging eyes and a stunned expression. Daria and Jane grinned back. Quinn backed farther from the door. Suddenly Daria was startled by a loud thumping noise that seemed to come from just on the other side of the wall she stood against. She looked over to Quinn, who could evidently see what was going on. The thumping became repetitive. Quinn pointed to someone or something in the corridor on the other side of the wall, and then at her forehead, looking highly amused. Then they heard a matronly voice from the corridor saying, "Sir, I must ask you not to beat your head on the wall." Smirking, Daria slipped away, leaving her ex-boyfriend alone with his thoughts of what might have been.

~*~

Daria made her way out the doors of the museum. Looking up at the starry sky overhead, she inhaled deeply of the fresher night air. Dimly illuminated by the small floodlights lighting the steps, a face turned toward her, then back away. It was the face of Charles Ruttheimer, who had been sitting on the bottom end of one of the balustrades. A short silence ensued, which Daria felt compelled to break.

"That was nice, what you said about me to those jocks in there, Charles."

Momentarily shocked to receive a compliment from any girl, much less Daria, Charles managed to collect his wits. "It was just the truth, or what I believed was the truth."

Another short silence followed, then Daria said, "It was pretty close. Strange that you saw it when almost no one else did."

Charles looked down at his hands, clasped on one knee. "Maybe not all that strange, Daria. I think you and I are somewhat alike in that way. I used my ĎUpchuckí persona as a Ďmoron repellentí, as it were, to discourage interaction with dumb people, sort of the way you used that, um, singular outfit and your remarkable talent for sarcasm." He sighed and looked up at the sky. "It seems I overdid it, though. There were a few girls, you first among them, who I really wanted to get to know better."

Daria was surprised at the note of genuine sadness and wistfulness in his voice. "Maybe we both overdid it. After I met Jane, I pretty much quit trying to make other friends for a while. Having a friend was so great, compared to having no friends..." embarrassed at her unintended candor, she let the sentence trail off incomplete.

"NO friends? I find that hard to imagine. Did your father run a lighthouse on an island or something?"

Daria chuckled bitterly. "I wish. That would have been so much nicer than Highland, Texas."

"You mean there exists an American community that would not fall at the feet of one as beautiful, charming and brilliant as yourself?"

Daria made a face. "Youíre doing it again."

"But I assure you, lovely lady, I am entirely sincere."

"If you are, that makes me even more uncomfortable. You know I donít like being judged by my physical appearance. Besides, I was neither beautiful nor charming in Highland, and you know as well as I do that popularity is inversely related to intellect."

He sighed. "Sad but true. But I was just trying the best I know how to be polite and chivalrous."

"I sort of thought as much, although itís hard to tell with you. When youíre trying to be Upchuck you sound like an early James Bond novel, or Mike Hammer. When youíre trying to be charming, you do courtly, and it sounds like imitation Arthurian Legend. You need to just be yourself."

Charles smiled ruefully. "Easier said than done. Weíre all products of our experiences, and I donít have any experience talking to ladies and not being run off. Thatís why I tried to borrow from literature."

"Well, just talk to a girl like you talk to your friend or your cousin or whoever."

He shrugged and smiled ruefully. "Like I said..."

"You donít have any sisters? No female cousins? No..."

Charles shook his head slowly.

"Oh." Damn, she thought, heís as bad off as I was in Highland. Poor suffering bastard.

He seemed to make a decision, then looked back up the steps at her. "Uh, Daria, I was going into the city Friday to the library, and maybe a couple of bookstores. Would you like to come with me?"

Not bad, she thought. Not smarmy at all. "Well, I do have some books I need to return, but theyíre due Thursday."

Slightly encouraged, Charles smiled. "Uh, Daria, I was going into the city Thursday to the library, and maybe a couple of bookstores. Would you like to come with me?"

Daria smiled back. "Why, yes, I would," she replied.

 

~*~

On the way home from the art museum, Daria turned to Jane in the passenger seat. "So, what happens now if you win the purchase prize, and the painting is already sold?"

"Someone else won the purchase prize. The jury awards that before the show opens to the public, so they can hang a ribbon and a sold sign on the winning work." Jane saw a familiar little strip mall coming up on the right. "Hey, you wanna stop for pizza? Any toppings, on me."

Daria steered into the parking lot. "Sure. Iím not going to pass up any more stops at Pizza King. I hear thereís nothing to eat in Boston but baked beans."

They ordered the pizza and took their drinks over to their customary booth in the back. As they were picking up their pizza, Quinn, Sandi, Tiffany, and Stacy came in. They got their customary diet drinks and cheeseless pizza and took their seats at their customary high-visibility table by the window.

As Daria bit into her first slice, Jane said casually, "I got tentative commissions for two more paintings. Two thousand apiece, just like this one."

"Thatís great, Jane! What do you mean, tentative?"

"Well, theyíre from those other two suits I told you about. Each one approached me later, by himself. They each want a painting similar to the one the other suit bought. I told them Iíd have to check with you."

Daria swallowed. "You mean they each want a painting of me."

"Yes."

"Nude."

"Yes."

Daria looked at her slice of pizza, put it back on her plate, and took a sip of cola instead. "They specifically asked for me?"

"Well, they donít know your name, of course, but they said Ďof the same model.í" Jane said, watching Dariaís face anxiously. "Iíll split the money with you, fifty-fifty."

Daria seemed not to have heard that last part. "Thatís kind of... creepy, donít you think?"

"Actually, no. You saw the painting. Youíre beautiful, Daria. Youíre a damn good model. And besides that, youíve got... something."

Daria tried to lighten up the conversation a bit. "Something? Where? Itís not that damn rash again, is it?"

Jane choked back a laugh and shook her head.

"Last time I checked, I just had the usual things, in the usual places and quantities." Daria took a nibble of pizza.

"No, seriously, you have something extra, Daria, something that makes people want to look at a painting of you again and again, and not get tired of it, something that says ĎIím a real person, not just a model, and I donít usually do this.í Something kind of like... innocence."

Daria cocked an eyelid. "Kind of like innocence? You mean like I kind of like never had sex, just maybe once or twice and didnít enjoy it?" A corner of her mouth turned up.

Jane fought to keep from laughing soda up her nose. "Give me a break, Daria. There probably isnít a word for it. Itís like... Itís as if people could tell by looking that youíre really smart and are gonna do great things one day, and itís a real privilege to own a painting that you modeled for."

"Oh, come on, Jane. You donít think it has anything to do with the fact that youíre a damn good artist, and you made me look better than I actually do, and people can tell that some day every painting you ever did will be worth a fortune?"

Jane was silent for a moment, gazing hungrily into her friendís eyes. "Oh, God, Daria, I hope so. Thatís my lifeís ambition. But as for making you look better then you actually do, no. If Iíd done the best painting I possibly could of Brittany or Dawn, I doubt it would have sold, not to mention pulled in those extra commissions. You really do have that extra something, and Iím lucky toíve captured some of it, even if I canít describe it." Jane took a sip of her soda, and looked back up at Daria. "So, will you sit for those other two paintings?"

Daria meditatively chewed a mushroom longer than necessary. She wiped her fingers and mouth on a napkin in a thoughtful manner, then looked up at Jane. "You say youíll split the sale price fifty-fifty?"

"Yes."

"No."

"No?" Jane was surprised. "How much, then?"

"Well, how about fifty bucks apiece?"

Jane let out a breath and smiled. "Daria, thatís really good of you, but one or both of those other paintings might well take me a lot longer to complete. Itís not like Iíve been cranking them out for years. You might wind up posing for minimum wage or below. Take forty per cent."

"I couldnít do that. Youíre the one with all the talent. Youíre the one doing the work. I usually lie around reading for free. I might take a tenth, but Iíd feel guilty."

Jane smiled around a bite of pizza, thinking how lucky she was to have a friend like Daria. "Daria, I donít have much experience with models, mostly at that art colony last summer, but Iíve heard stuff and read stuff. Youíre a treasure as a model. You hold a pose like a rock, even when youíre talking, and even long poses. Thatís rare. Not to mention that youíve got a physique a lot of pro models would kill for. At least take three eighths."

Daria colored slightly. "Yeah, not to mention... please. Even if thatís true, Iím still just lying there. And youĎre the one who needs to raise the money. If I took a quarter, would you let me eat my pizza?"

"Daria, learn from my situation. You never know when the money you were counting on will suddenly vanish, unless itís in your very own bank account. And Iíd never have sold that painting and landed those commissions without you. At least take a third."

Daria smirked wryly and shook her head. "You never were that good with fractions in math class. Well, I intend to take as little money from my parents as possible, because I have a feeling Quinn is going to need all the help she can get. All right, Lane, you twisted my arm. Iíll take a third. Now stuff some pizza in your piehole or I might stuff something else in there."

Jane grinned happily at her friend around her slice of pizza.

 

~*~

A few minutes later, a couple of boys came in. One was Corey somebody, whom Quinn had briefly dated in her freshman year, the other Daria didnít know, except that he was in the same year. They got a drink and a slice each, and took a seat at one of the round tables near Daria and Janeís traditional booth.

"And you thought this trip would be a total waste," Corey laughed his squeaky porpoise-like laugh. "ĎA nude painting of Daria Morgendorffer- who in their right mind would believe that?í you said. I told ya we should check it out, though, didnít I?"

The other boy, whose nose ring seemed to accent his dimwitted expression, replied, "Yeah, you told me. And you were right for once. But sheís about the last chick on earth Iíd expect to do something like that. Whaddya think it means?"

"It means sheís ready for it, dude! She wants it! Sheís tired of being an old maid. She wants some guy to make her a woman!"

Back at their booth, Dariaís expression didnít change noticeably, but Jane could see storm clouds moving in. Silence descended on the former fashion clubís table, as Quinn and her friends watched and listened intently.

"Ya think? Just any guy, I wonder, or a certain kind of guy?"

"Well, Iíd say that when a chick advertises like that, sheís willing to take on all comers!" Cory replied, in that squeaky voice that made people wonder if her was related to Brittany Taylor.

"Hey. Look over there in that booth... thatís her!"

"And that weird art chick is with her- I bet sheís the one who painted it."

"Aww, jeez, you think theyíre lez?"

"Naah, they both date boys. Watch this, Don. Iím gonna be the answer to her maidenís prayer!" Cory turned in his chair toward Daria and Janeís booth, and in a voice reminiscent of a dolphin in great pain, called out, "Hey, sweet thing, havenít I seen you somewhere before?"

Daria looked at him like something sheíd just stepped in. "Yeah, you have. Thatís why I stopped going there," she riposted, drawing a smirk from Jane.

"Hey, honey! Just being friendly! Whatís your sign?" he persisted.

"Keep off. Trespassers will be shot." Daria fired back.

Stacy was grinning and scribbling rapidly in her notebook.

Don decided to take his shot. "Hey, beautiful, your place or mine?"

"Both. You go to your place, and Iíll go to mine."

"Come on with me, sweet cheeks, and Iíll make your fondest dream come true!"

Dariaís expression hardened. "What, youíre going to burst into flames? You can do that right here."

Seeing his wingman shot down even worse than heíd been, Cory felt emboldened to try one more time. "Ha, ha, thatís funny, but you know you want it. Iíve got just what you need. Come on over, Darla, and park that fine fanny on my nice warm lap!

Daria stared unbelieving at the two boys. Could they really be that dense? Or had they just decided that, if they werenít gonna get any, theyíd be as annoying as possible? Well, perhaps she could put it a little more clearly. She rose and headed toward the boysí table, her hips swaying slightly, as Janeís eyes got big and round. So did several sets of eyes at the FFC table. "Oh, Corey, is your lap... really warm?" Daria asked breathily, batting her eyes.

There was a sheen of sweat on Coreyís pimply face, and a bulge- a small one- in his shorts. "Oh, yeah, babe, itís hot... for you!"

In the same breathy, sexy voice, Daria cooed, "Oh, poor baby. Let me make it better." And she deftly poured Coryís full-to-the-top, icy cold soft drink into his lap.

Quinn and Stacy clapped their hands at this, Stacy adding a "Way to go!"

Sandi shot Stacy her patented bitchy look. "Well, gee, Stacy, why donít we just vote ourselves the Daria Morgendorffer Fan Club?"

But Stacy wasnít playing by the old rules anymore. "What a great idea, Sandi! All in favor say aye!" she smirked as she stuck her hand up.

"Aye!" crowed Quinn and Tiffany as they waved their hands in the air and grinned at a scowling Sandi.

Corey jumped up and brushed away as much of the cold, sticky liquid as he could. "Jeez, Darla, whyíd you do that?"

"Why? Why are you two talking about me like Iím a bitch in heat, loud enough for everyone in the place to hear you? Believe it or not, Corey, not everything a girl does is a secret signal to guys that she quote, "wants it", unquote. My reasons for modeling for that painting had nothing to do with sex."

"But... you posed nekkid! What else could it mean?" Cory whined, his face a mask of cluelessness.

Daria looked at Corey and shook her head. His intelligence dropped several notches in her estimation. "I did it for two reasons. The first was to help my friend. The second... well, you probably donít want to hear the second reason."

"Yeah, we do!" Don exclaimed. Cory added, "Yeah, really, tell us, Darla!"

Daria looked from one to the other, came to a decision, and sat down at the table, causing several sets of wide eyes to get even wider. "I did it as sort of a memorial to my youth, to remind my future self that once I was young and healthy and not too bad looking and everything worked," she told the two.

"Huh? I donít get it." Cory squeaked quizzically.

"You will one day, sooner than you think. It creeps up on you. You donít even notice at first. There are these minor aches and pains, trivial, really, until you notice that they arenít going away any more. Some joint or other starts making noises like Rice Cracklies. You have to hold the TV listings farther and farther away to read it, until your arms are too short and you have to go and get glasses.

"Pretty soon, you start losing parts. Maybe it starts with your teeth. The dentist tells you that one in back thatís always bothering you canít take any more fillings. He has to grind it down to a stump and put on a crown. Thatís expensive, and it wonít last, but you donít know that yet. Maybe you hurt your back, or your knee, or some other joint. They operate and fix it, and itís better, but itís never as good as before, and itíll hurt for the rest of your life. Maybe you get a hangnail, and maybe it gets infected. They have to surgically remove your toenail. Itíll try to grow back, but itíll be all twisted, guaranteeing you a lifetime of pain and aggravation. And, of course, youíll start to go bald, your hearing will start to fail, and youíll get fat and wrinkled. One morning youíll wake up and ask yourself how many years itís been since you woke up with a hard on, and you wonít be able to remember."

"Aww, that stuff isnít going to happen to me. I take care of myself," Corey boasted in his annoying squeaky voice.

"Do you know what DHEA is? Deprenyl Citrate? Melatonin? Methyl Sulfonyl Methane?"

"Uh, no."

"Then you arenít taking care of yourself. And even if you were, it only delays the inevitable. Your body is programmed to run down and die, Corey. Itís in your DNA. Every strand of it has a timer built in. When the timer counts down to zero, that cell stops reproducing itself and dies, even if thereís nothing wrong with it. Thatís what makes really old people get smaller and smaller before they die. How old are you, Cory?"

"Seventeen."

"Well, before you hit twenty-seven, youíll know itís true. When you get to thirty, youíll be going downhill. When you hit the big four-oh, itíll be so obvious, you wonít be able to deny it, even to yourself. Ask any old person. Theyíll tell you. The rest of your life, youíll be watching yourself die, feeling yourself die, bit by bit, piece by piece. The aches will turn to pains, the pains will get worse, and thereíll always be new aches starting up. And I wonít even try to describe what will happen to your digestive system. Just listen to the noises old people make sometime. Steal a year for yourself sometime soon, Corey, and take a little bit of early retirement, because by the time you hit retirement age, youíll be too old and feeble and decrepit to have any fun. Youíll just nap all day in your old grubby easy chair in front of your old dim TV set and wait to die."

"That is the true nature of life, Corey. When youíre a child, it seems youíre never going to grow up. Then one day youíre grown, and you immediately start to die. Before you figure out what you want to do with your life, the best part of it is already gone. Thatís why I let Jane paint that picture of me, so that when Iím old and feeble and wrinkled and my mind is starting to go, I can look at it, and it will help me remember that once I was young, and once life was sweet, and once it didnít hurt to move, or breathe. Go get yourself a picture made, Corey, while you still have all your hair and teeth, before you get too fat. Take your friend there with you. And be sure to make it a big picture, because your eyes are the first to go." Daria got up and went back to her booth. Corey and Don stared after her, thunderstruck, and then stared at each other, wondering why their vision was so blurry all of a sudden.

 

~*~

Quinn and her friends watched as Corey and Don stumbled out, tears streaming down their faces. "Gee, Quinn, Iíve turned lots of guys down and they never burst into tears over it," Sandi remarked, puzzled. "What did she do to them?"

Quinn was watching through the window as Corey fumbled vainly with his keys. "Damn, she must have told their future. Thatís brutal." She turned back to her friends. "Daria has some sort of strange power, Sandi. She can talk to people and mess their heads up, make them do stuff. Sometimes all she has to do is look at them."

"Oh, pish. Thatís ridiculous."

"But Sandi, remember when you were going to talk to her about Quinn wearing all black?" Stacy said. "You walked up to her, and she just looked at you, and you made a few funny noises, and then you just turned around and walked away."

Sandi cringed inwardly at the memory of Dariaís deep green eyes, eyes that seemed to look right through her eyes and into her brain. She was trying to think of a rebuttal or an excuse, when Tiffany spoke.

"Yeaahhh, annd remember Binng and the Spattula Mannn? They took offf liike scalded do-oggs."

Jane slowed on her way to the door and listened.

"And you saw what happened to Kevin tonight," Quinn added.

"Oh, come on, you guys, you sound like you think she has a mental death ray or something." Sandi shot back scornfully.

An evil smirk flitted across Janeís features, and was gone. She laid a hand on Sandiís shoulder and leaned closer to their table. "Actually, thatís a good working assumption when dealing with Daria. Remember Tommy Sherman? He insulted her. He called her a... well, something bad.í" Her voice took on an ominous tone, her eyes flicked from one former fashion clubber to another. "Those were the last words he ever spoke. Twenty seconds later, he was dead." And, with a meaningful look to the girls at the table, she departed.

~*~

Daria silently drove homeward. Jane turned to her and said, "That was beautiful to see. You even had me thinking you were gonna sit in that creepís lap, right up until you cooled him."

"Maggot." Daria muttered under her breath. "Heís lucky I didnít stomp him into roadkill. I was about to, but I remembered you didnít have your camera."

Jane looked over at her friendís face. "Youíre having regrets, arenít you? Youíre wishing you hadnít done it."

After another short silence, Daria murmured, "Yeah."

Jane gazed at her friend with real regret. "Sorry, kid. I should have insisted you think about it more. Is there anything I can do?"

Daria pulled into the Lane driveway and stopped. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and turned to face her friend. "Jane, you wouldnít believe how much I thought about it before I decided to do it. I knew thereíd be times like this, when Iíd feel like Iíd given up something I could never get back, when Iíd wish I hadnít done it, when Iíd feel like the whole world was seeing me naked no matter how much clothing I wore. I figured on all that, and I decided to do it anyway. You have nothing to blame yourself for. But there is something you can do that will keep me from feeling this way."

"Anything, Daria. Name it."

"You can kick butt at BFAC. You can learn everything they have to teach you. And when you graduate, you can become a successful artist. You can have a good life, doing what you always wanted to do and making lots of money at it. Then, if I ever get to feeling like this, I can just think of you, and Iíll know that I did the right thing, and it wonít bother me."

An affectionate smile lit up Janeís face, and her eyes began to get misty. "Damn, Daria, you donít want much, do you? Do you have any idea what the odds are? How few artists really make it big?"

"Yes, Jane, I do. Itís the same as the percentage of writers who really make it big, and itís pretty small. Thatís why I want your word that youíll do it. Donít be like your flaky parents, or like your goofoff brother, no matter how much you love him. Promise me that youíll make it, no matter how hard it is, and have a full, rich, happy life, and you will. Because Iíll hound you unmercifully till you do."

"You will, wonít you? All right, amiga, I promise you Iíll be successful, and have a great life... if youíll promise me the same."

Daria smiled. "All right, Jane, I promise." And there in the night, in Dariaís little car, they shook on it and sealed the deal.

 

~*~

After talking in the Lane driveway for a while, Daria headed homeward with a smile on her face. All in all, it had been a very good evening. Jane selling the painting for enough to go to BFAC was the highlight, of course, and Jane getting two commissions was pretty cool too, even if it meant she had to model for them. Daria and Jane would be together in Boston for fall semester, even if they werenít at the same college. And thirteen hundred thirty three bucks wasnít chump change, even though sheíd have turned it down if she werenít doing it to help Jane.

Messing with Kevin had been fun, although, at some level, she couldnít help feeling sorry for someone that close to being officially mentally handicapped, especially knowing that his brief glory days were now gone and he faced a life of low-wage drudgery. Still, the arrogant muscleheaded jock had had it coming for a long time. It still burned her to think that he had believed she could have ever been attracted to him, and it bothered her even more that he had thought that he was too good for her. She imagined how much evil, vicious fun it would be to make him crawl and beg forgiveness for his hubris and arrogance, but hubris had its own punishment. Kevin would spend the rest of his days being slapped in the face by life with his true value to society. She didnít need to do anything.

And Charles... Daria found it a bit hard to believe that sheíd accepted a date with Upchuck. But wasnít she being somewhat shallow to thus accept othersí evaluations of him? She certainly no longer needed to worry about what a date with Upchuck would do to her reputation, not that she ever had... had she? He might well turn out to be an interesting person that she would wish sheíd gotten to know earlier. Just in case, though, sheíd make sure that others knew where sheíd be, and that she was prepared to take public transportation home if she found it necessary to part company with him. And sheíd be sure he understood that she wasnít looking for any romantic entanglements so close to leaving for Raft. But she didnít really expect a problem. He seemed to be much less Upchuckish than he used to be. At worst, she could use the socialization practice. At best, it would be good to make another friend.

Daria parked in her assigned spot at the end of the driveway, well to the right so her parents would have no problem backing out around her little car. She got out and headed for the front door, thinking of the reactions of her former classmates to Janeís painting. It was kind of... interesting to hear what all those boys thought of her body, as long as they didnít know that sheíd heard it, so she wouldnít feel obligated to respond. Or retaliate. Even though physical appearance was meaningless in the grand scheme of things, it was nice to know that males her age found her attractive. One day she might meet some male worth attracting, and although he must first and foremost be attracted to her inner self, she wouldnít mind too much if he found her outer self a pleasing bonus. Smiling at the thought, Daria entered Schloss Morgendorffer.

Jake was sitting on the sofa watching a baseball game. The team he was rooting for was losing, as usual. Daria could make big money betting against Jakeís picks, she thought idly. Helen was sitting beside him, writing in a notebook, a legal brief open on her lap. She got up and came to the front door as Daria entered, a trace of concern in her expression. "Are you all right, dear?" she asked.

Daria appreciated her motherís concern and didnít feel irritated by it. "Sure, Mom, Iím fine," she replied.

Helen looked more closely at her expression. "What have you been doing, Daria?"

"Just having pizza with Jane on the way home from the museum."

"Pizza with Jane doesnít usually make you look like that."

Just then, Quinn flounced in, looking irritated, and handed Daria several sheets off the notepad by the phone. "These guys all want to speak with you and itís all very important. Plus there were three hang-ups, who I suspect were Joey, Jeffy, and Jason. Maybe you should get your own phone line. And an answering machine."

Daria smiled at her sister. "Now you have some idea how I felt these last few years, taking all those messages for you."

"How you felt? But, Daria, you didnít want to date these guys! You still donít want to date these guys!"

"No, but it wouldíve been nice to date someone."

"Oh."

"You still havenít answered my question, Daria," said Helen. "Why did you come floating in here with that strange smile on your face?"

Daria sighed and looked at Helen. "Oh all right. I lurked and listened to what people said about the painting."

"And what did people say about the painting?"

"Well, lots of stuff, mostly favorable. Well done, intriguing, dynamic composition, painterly brushwork..."

"Which stuff, specifically, were you smiling about?"

Daria hesitated a second, then mentally shrugged and said, "Guys think Iím a babe."

Helen got a strange expression on her face. Daria recognized discomfort and a bit of anger among other, less identifiable emotions.

"Mom, could I talk to you a minute? Upstairs?" Daria asked, glancing toward Jake.

Helen followed the direction of Dariaís gaze, said "Sure," and headed up the stairs.

Daria followed Helen into the master bedroom and stood aside as Helen closed the door. Before she could speak, however, Helen began.

"Daria, you know and I know that youíre a very pretty and attractive young lady, but I know you used to be very uncomfortable about being compared to others based on your appearance. I just hope that this new... experience isnít going to send you off on a..."

Daria held up a hand. "No, Mom, I still donít like to be judged by my looks, although I think Iím beginning to come to terms with it. Thatís not to say Iím going to start dressing like Quinn or Jodie Landon. But thatís not what I wanted to talk about right now."

"What is it, then?"

"Dad. Someone needs to tell him about the painting, and I guess it should be me. Iím really afraid of what might happen if someone just casually mentions it to him, or he finds out some other bad way. You know, with his blood pressure and all."

"Iím glad you thought of that, Daria. I wish youíd thought of it sooner."

Daria looked down. "Yeah, I do too. I would have done things differently. Looking back up to Helenís face, she continued, "So, how do you think I should go about it?"

Helen gave her daughter an affectionate little smile. "The question is, ĎHow should we go about it?í Weíre a family, and weíll handle this as a family. I believe we should tell him straight out, but we should wait till heís very relaxed."

Daria nodded. "But we donít want to wait too long, and take a chance on him finding out by accident. If he thinks weíre keeping secrets from him, thatíll make it worse."

"Thatís a good point, Daria. There may be a chance for me to tell him tonight... depending. If not, you should plan to tell him in the morning at breakfast, after heís taken his blood pressure medication, but before he gets wound up to rush off to work. In fact, you should tell him anyway. Donít even worry about whether I told him or not."

"Yeah, good idea. Thanks, Mom. Well, I guess Iíd better get on the phone. I have a lot of date offers to politely decline."

"Good. Oh, Daria, when you said that youíre coming to terms with your attrac.., uh, looks, did you mean that youíll be putting that jacket away, at least for the summer?"

Daria resisted her first impulse to give a sarcastic answer to that question, and thought about it for a few seconds. She had graduated from Lawndale High. The need for this outfit no longer existed. It was illogical to be wearing it in the middle of summer, not to mention uncomfortable. "Yes, I guess it does. And maybe a few other things."

Helen Morgendorffer waited until Daria had turned and started down the hall to her room. Then she smiled a big fat smile.

 

 

~*~

Next morning, Daria descended the stairs and turned toward the kitchen entryway. She fingered the slight stiffness in her jacket pocket with trepidation. It was the photo of her and Jane standing beside the painting. If Jake was in a calm mood, and if heíd taken his pill, and if she could find or make an opening, this might be the time to tell him. She almost hoped heíd be ranting about something. She dreaded having to tell him, but she dreaded the thought of him finding out by accident even more. If her posing for Jane led to her father having another heart attack, sheíd never forgive herself. She wished yet again that sheíd insisted that Jane alter her features in the painting.

She entered the kitchen. Jake was at his place at the table, drinking coffee and scanning through the arts section of the Lawndale Sun-Herald. He sometimes did that before laying that section at her place and going to the business or sports section. Daria smiled.

Jake looked up at her approach. "Good morning, Kiddo. Hey, guess what? Thereís another Jane Lane in Lawndale, and sheís an artist too! Listen to this!" He turned back to the paper and began reading. "In her groundbreaking work, "Nude Reading Solzhenytsin", artist Jane Lane breaks with the traditional interpretation of the reclining nude as a passive, defenseless, idealized feminine form. Laneís nude proudly proclaims the modern feminist ideal. The book she reads,ĎThe Gulag Archipelago,í declares her powerful intellect, while alluding to past oppression; the sundered bars of her window symbolize her hard-won freedom, and the combat boots beside her bed bespeak her formidable power and her determination to fight on until she has won the equality that is her birthright. Ms. Laneís sensitive, almost lyrical handling of the female figure and her masterful use of symbolism bid fair to propel her into the top rank of todayís American artists." Quinn was listening as Jake read this with a hint of awe in her expression. And more than a hint of nervousness.

Forcing herself to look calm, Daria fixed herself a cup of coffee and a bowl of King Sugar Tut cereal and sat down at the table. "Sounds like sheís a really good artist," she replied cheerfully but noncommittally.

"Uh, honey, did you take your blood pressure medication this morning?" Helen asked Jake, a hint of worry in her voice.

"Sure did, honey, first thing. Thanks for putting it out for me. Hey, Daria, you should tell your friend Jane about this other Jane Lane. Maybe they could get together and she could pick up some pointers. This looks like good work, as best I can tell from this little bitty photo in the paper." Jake covered his right eye and squinted at the paper with his left, holding it at armís length. "Yíknow, itís a funny thing, but that girl in the painting looks a little like... naah."

Daria noted that Helen was whispering something in Quinnís ear. Quinn nodded. Daria was about to gradually lead into her revelation with the fact that the Jane Lane in the paper and her friend were the same, when a rapping on the windowpane behind her made her jump. Turning, she saw a near-manic Jane dancing and gibbering outside, pointing at a copy of the paper clutched in her hand. Heart pounding, yet relieved at the interruption, she opened the patio door.

"Daria! Didja see? Didja see? Iím groundbreaking! Iím sensitive! Iím masterful! Iím almost lyrical!" Jane crowed as she capered about the Morgendorffer side yard.

"Youíre going to be propelled into the top rank of that American Holly bush if you donít take a chill pill!" Daria mock threatened, smirking at her friend. "This is a respectable neighborhood! Get in here before the neighbors form a committee or something."

As Jane entered, Daria put an extra chair at the table for Jane, between her chair and Jakeís, then brought her coffee and cereal, before resuming her own seat.

Jane was stoked. "I still canít get over this review! Usually this guy canít write his way out of a paper bag, and when he can, he thinks heís obliged to be snide and sarcastic and vicious. You donít often see a complimentary review from him."

"Yeah, youíre right about that," Daria replied, mostly succeeding in suppressing a grin. "Well, you certainly deserve it."

Her attention drawn to Dariaís expression, Jane now studied it minutely. "Saaayyyy, do I detect the hidden hand of a certain evil genius of my acquaintance at work here?" Something in Dariaís face confirmed her suspicions. "I believe I do! Come on, Daria, fess up! What do you have to do with this?"

"Oh, nothing, really. He happened to walk by while I was taking a last peek at the painting, and I just sort of... suggested some things to him."

"Sort of suggested?"

Daria smiled a tiny smirk. "You know, like Obi-wan Kenobi sort of suggested some things to that Imperial Stormtrooper in Mos Eisley. Weak minds really are very suggestible, you know."

"Good grief, girl, you are going to take over the world one day, arenít you?" Jane marveled. "Will you save me some wallspace in your Imperial Palace?"

Dariaís smile grew a little. "I guess I could do that. But no nudes." Then, seeing the expressions on her parentsí faces, she added, "Oh, come on. Itís not like I slapped a Vulcan Mind Meld on him or anything. He had a mini tape recorder in his hand, looking at the picture, trying to think of something to say, and I just mumbled a few comments, like I was talking to myself. He dictated something into the recorder and walked on. I didnít know whether heíd used any of it until you read it, Dad."

"Oh, I see," said Helen. "So how close is what the Sun Herald printed to what you mumbled?"

Daria looked down and stirred her now-soggy cereal with her spoon. "Well, he didnít miss any points."

Quinn stared at her sister for a second, mouth open slightly, shaking her head, then said, "My sister the Jedi Master. Obi-wan Morgendorffer."

Daria looked up and gave Quinn a small smile, then turned to Jane. "Sorry it was just me, Jane," she said.

Jane grinned at her friend. "Sorry for what? Itís in print under an art criticís byline, and it sounds genuine, and itís a rave review! It counts, Daria! I want you to do all my reviews!"

"Anyway, he wouldnít have typed it up and submitted it if he didnít agree with it," Quinn put in.

"Unless he came in tired or hung over and couldnít think of anything else, or just didnít care," Daria thought to herself. ""Right, Quinn," she said.

Jane was rereading the article and shaking her head in wonderment. "Daria, I donít think you realize how far a review like this can take me. Most of the arty illuminati look to take their lead from anyone who sounds authoritative. What with modeling for me, and now this, you may have single-handedly jumpstarted my artistic career! And Iím not even in BFAC yet!"

Jake was looking at Daria strangely. "You... modeled for this?"

Jane turned to Daria, a stricken look in her eyes. She clapped a hand over her mouth, too late.

Daria put a hand on Janeís forearm, looked past her at her father. "I was just about to tell you when Jane showed up. Yes, I did."

"GAAAH! Thatís it, Daria! I wonít tolerate any more of this wild behavior! Youíre grounded until youíre eighteen!"

"Yes, sir," Daria replied contritely.

"Sheís already eighteen, Dad. OW!" Quinn reached under the table for her shin and glared across the table at Daria, who glared back.

"She is? Oh, yeah, of course she is! All right, then, Daria, youíre grounded till you graduate high school!"

"Yes, sir," said Daria again, and gave Quinn a warning glare.

"Jake, you..." Helen dropped the descriptive terminology in deference to Janeís presence. "Sheís already graduated! She won an award! She made a speech! You were there, for crying out loud! Well, your body was, anyway!"

Daria glared at Helen, but kept her boot to herself.

Jake looked stunned. He looked from Daria to Helen. "She has? She did? And I forgot? Aww, gee, Kiddo. Iím sorry!"

Daria returned Jakeís gaze sadly. "Itís okay, Dad," she sighed. "It was a short speech."

Jake turned to Helen. "So, should I ground her till sheís twenty-one, then?" he asked hopefully.

Helen buried her face in her hands for a moment, then looked back up at Jake. "No, Jake. Daria is an adult now. We canít ground her anymore."

"B-but we canít just let her run around town naked, Helen!" he replied.

"Dad! I wasnít running around anywhere! That was painted entirely inside my room!" Daria retorted indignantly.

"But itís wrong! Oh, God, this is all my fault! I havenít been paying enough attention to my little kiddo, and now sheís gone astray and turned bad and run amuck! Well, itís not too late! From now on, weíre gonna have strict discipline around here, you hear me, young lady?"

Helen shook her head. "I told you, Jake, Daria is an adult now. Sheís entitled to decide for herself whatís right and wrong. Iím not totally happy about it either, but she was doing it to help Jane," replied Helen.

Jane turned to Jake, aware that he was much less likely to go off on a rant right in her face. "My folks didnít set up a college fund for me like you and Mrs. Morgendorffer did for Daria and Quinn. Daria was helping me earn the money I need to go to college," she added, searching Jakeís face for understanding.

"By modeling n-naked?"

"Nude. Thereís a difference." Daria replied.

Jane jumped into this opening. "The nude has been considered a legitimate subject of fine art since antiquity. Itís socially acceptable. Thereís no stigma involved, for the model or the artist."

"The painting is hanging in the Lawndale Art Museum. The cultural elite of Lawndale approve of it," Daria added.

""B-b-but, but, kiddo, anybody can just come in and l-look at you, all..."

"Dad, thatís not me. This is me. Iím here, fully dressed. What they can look at is Janeís painting. Just some pigments smeared on a piece of canvas." Daria was watching very closely for the appearance of the vein in Jakeís temple. It hadnít shown up yet, but Jake was definitely distressed. "Please donít be upset." Daria gave him her best puppy-dog eyes.

"But honey, youíre my kiddo. I donít want people to see your, your..."

Quinn pulled a bottle of sunscreen out of her purse and handed it to Jake. "Dad, pictures of fannies are okay. Theyíre cute. See the girl on this label? This girl, her dog, and her fanny have been this companyís trademark since before any of us was born, and everyoneís okay with it. Janeís painting doesnít show anything more than that. Shouldnít we all just be happy for Jane?"

Jake looked at the picture of the cute little girl on the bottle of sunscreen, then at the picture in the paper, then back at the bottle, then at Quinn. He smiled a little. "Yeah, youíre right, Kitten. We should be happy for Jane."

 

~*~

It was a solemn occasion. Jane was in attendance to offer Daria her support. Daria began speaking.

"Farewell, old friend. Long and well have you served me, but you just canít handle the load anymore. You held up faithfully till the end, and now it is time to retire, time to lay down your burdens." Jane struggled to hide a smirk. Solemnly, Daria laid on the fire-scarred stones a black, wrinkled, misshapen old sport bra. Solemnly she sprinkled the garment with charcoal lighter fluid, and solemnly she struck a match and lit it. "No longer do I need you to hide me from the randy rabble of Lawndale High." She and Jane gravely looked on as the flames consumed the last of the old sport bra. "May angels sing thee to thy rest." Jane wiped away a faux tear.

Daria picked up the grating from where it was leaning against the leg of the Morgendorffer barbecue grill and replaced it over the fire stones. "One task is completed, but another yet remains." She looked at Jane. "Feel like a ride?" At a nod from Jane, they headed out of the back yard toward Dariaís car.

~*~

A flash of red and green movement in her peripheral vision interrupted Quinnís examination of a pair of faux-ostrich zip boots. She looked up and to the left. Oh, just Daria and Jane. Her gaze returned to the boots. Then it hit her. Daria and Jane... there?

Daria was frowning in concentration when she felt a hand on her shoulder. "Well, hi, Daria!" Quinn exclaimed from behind her. "What are you doing here?"

Dariaís expression as she turned around was less than joyous, and she shared it with Jane before answering Quinn. "Iím conducting antigravity research," she replied in her customary near monotone.

"Antigravity research?! Daria, this is the lingerie depar... Oh!" Quinnís grin of delighted comprehension did not evoke a like expression on Dariaís countenance. "O-oh! Come with me, Daria. I can help you."

Daria cast a mute appeal for rescue over her shoulder as she felt herself seized. Jane merely shrugged helplessly in reply as Quinn dragged Daria away into the darkest heart of the brassiere section.

~*~

Jane waited for Daria. She sensed that Daria could better cope with the humiliating experience of having her boobs sized and graded by her kid sister if there were no witnesses She wanted to be nearby, ready to respond to Dariaís screams, if it came to that, but not so nearby that Quinn might start in on her boobs. She turned and began casually browsing the womensí boots.

"Jane Lane! I am so proud of you! And here I used to think you werenít paying attention in my class!"

Jane whirled around just as Janet Barch seized her in a bear hug. She was shaken back and forth and her breath was crushed from her lungs, then Barch slacked her hold a little.

"But you were taking it all in, werenít you? Maybe not all the science stuff, but you heard what I was really saying! Oh, Jane, knowing that just one student got it makes all the blood, sweat, and tears worthwhile!" And she was smooshed anew to Barchís ample bosom.

"Ms. Barmph! Wrblrgm you talgrphng aboup?" Jane almost managed to get out.

"Your painting, dear! Your Ďmasterful use of symbolismí! ĎJane Lane breaks with the traditional interpretation of the reclining nude as a passive, defenseless, idealized feminine form. Laneís nude proudly proclaims the modern feminist ideal,í Ďdeclares her powerful intellect,í Ďsymbolize her hard-won freedom,í Ďbespeak her formidable power and her determination to fight on until she has won the equality that is her birthright.í On behalf of Georgia OíKeefe, Helen Frankenthaler, Harriet Frishmuth, and Mary Cassatt, let me just say, Ďyou go, girl!í Only, next time, forget about winning equality. Go straight for absolute supremacy, I say! Look, dear, Iíd love to stay and talk, but I gotta go find Skinny before he gets lost and starts crying again. Men! Canít live with em, and ya canít shoot Ďem, right, Sister?" and with a sisterly pat on the back that knocked Jane into a display of hairy-monster-feet house slippers, she was gone.

Jane was extracting herself from the monster feet and looking dazedly after Ms. Barch when another teacherís voice behind her said, "Jane, Iím so proud of you!"

"Gaah!" Without looking this time, Jane ducked around behind the display of slippers. Then, seeing that it was her favorite teacher, Jane looked sheepish.

"Oh, hi, Ms. DeFoe. Youíre not going to bear hug me too, are you?"

Ms. DeFoe looked puzzled. "Huh? No, Jane, I just wanted to tell you how very impressed I was with your painting you entered in the Local Artistsí show! Of all your work that Iíve seen, that has to be the best. The surrealism! The symbolism! Itís almost...Dali-esque! I wish I could claim that I taught you how to do that!"

Jane smiled a bit sheepishly. "I know what you mean. I wish I could claim that I did it."

"But, Jane, you did do it... unless youíre saying you had a collaborator?"

"Well, now that you mention it- I guess I did. The same one as on that poster last year. Daria."

"You mean she thought up the symbolism, the way she thought up the message on the poster project?"

"Well, yeah, she did, but itís more like Daria herself is kind of surreal, you know, and her room reflects that. I just painted what I saw. You recognized her boots, of course. Theyíre the same ones she wore almost every day of school. As for the book and the window, all I did was move the window to the right for compositional purposes.

"You mean there are really sawed-off steel bars in her window casements?"

"Yes, there really are, and she really was reading The Gulag Archipelago while she was posing. She derived all the symbolism after the painting was finished, and slipped it to that art critic somehow at the museum."

"But... it all fits so well, it seems as if you must have put it in there deliberately."

"Yeah, doesnít it? It even seems that way to me, and I know damn well I had no such thing in mind when I was painting it. I wish I did. Do you think I should fess up?"

Ms. DeFoe pondered. "Umm... no, I donít. You donít have anything to confess to. If that critic wants to admit that those werenít his ideas, you canít stop him, but I doubt he will. Besides, like I said, it fits so well. If you like it, go with it, I say."

"Yeah, I think I will. I just wanted you to know how it really was. Thanks, Ms. DeFoe."

"Nice to see you, Jane. Good luck at BFAC. Email me," Ms. DeFoe said as she walked off.

Jane looked at her watch, then over into the lingerie department. She decided to sort of wander by, just in case.

 

~*~

Daria sat on her bed, leaning against the padded wall beside the window, reading. Her right leg lay straight out in front of her, her left knee was bent at a right angle, her left foot on the bed. Skylight fell on the pages of the book that rested on her knee, supported by her left hand. The book was The Complete Works of Fyodor Dostoyevski. Daria was without apparel. "Are you sure you canít see anything I donít want seen?" she demanded through immobile lips.

"Not from this angle, nothing that canít be seen in innumerable pantyhose ads," Jane assured her. She was standing against the far wall of Dariaís room, her easel in almost the same spot as it had been for the first painting.

"Itís a bad sign that that reassures me, isnít it?"

Jane smirked. "All part of my evil scheme to gradually corrupt you. Before long, youíll be posing nude in the park at midday."

"Over your dead body," Daria ventriloquized back, changing neither pose nor expression.

Following a short silence, Jane ventured, "You know, Daria, no one is going to be offended at those two little pink spots on your dorsal surface."

Dariaís eyes shifted from Dostoyevski to the two little pink spots Jane meant. Apropos of nothing current, she fleetingly wondered if a baby would ever nurse there. "Whatever do you mean, Jane?" she inquired innocently. "I didnít have any pink spots on my back, last time I looked."

Jane looked at her blankly for a couple of seconds, then smacked herself in the forehead with the base of her palm, leaving there a splotch of green and a streak of gray. "Crap! Ventral! I meant ventral surface!"

Daria released the smirk sheíd been holding back. Seeing that Jane wasnít painting now, she allowed herself to move her face and head. "A little vocabulary knowledge is a dangerous thing. The correct term is nipples. So tell me, Jane, according to the timetable of your evil scheme to corrupt me, how long after I yield up my little pink spots do you figure itíll take you to badger me into a full frontal?"

Jane looked horrified. "Oh, hey, no, Daria, I was just kidding about corrupting you! I hope you donít really think I would ever ask you to pose like that! I know it might look like I was gradually trying to get you to show more and more, but thatís the farthest thing from my mind, really, and, and..." Jane looked closer at Dariaís expression, what little of it there was. "...and youíre just rattling my cage, arenít you?"

"Yeah."

"Aargh! Darn you! You had me going there for a second!"

"I believe it was seventeen seconds at least," Daria smirked.

"All right, you got me. I was just trying to say that, you know, thereís really very little difference between male nipples and..."

"You were trying to say, without actually saying it, that you want to include mine in your next painting."

"Well, uh..."

"But if the third suit gets something extra, so to speak, wonít the first two suits get mad at him? And you?"

"Hmm, I didnít think of that," Jane admitted.

"Other than that, though, I guess Iím okay with it." Daria thought for a second, then added, "Darn you, Lane. Your evil scheme to gradually corrupt me is working after all."

"Mu-u-ah-hahaha! Thanks, Daria. Maybe in the painting after next."

"Youíre only going to have time for three more of these, at most, before Iím off to Raft, even if you leave the backgrounds unfinished till later. What then? Itíll be two more weeks till your classes start at BFAC."

Jane smirked somewhat more wickedly. "Well, now that Iím famed locally as a master of the female nude, it wonít be so difficult to find models. This is highly confidential, but Iíve been approached secretly by several local beauties, including the former members of the fashion club."

"All the former members?"

"You canít breathe a word of this to anyone, Daria, seriously. Theyíre even keeping it secret from each other."

"I swear. Now spill."

"All but Stacy, and sheís thinking about it."

Daria snickered. "When she finds out Quinn or Sandi has done it, sheíll follow you around naked all day!"

"You realize what this means, donít you, Daria? You started a fashion trend!"

"Oh gourd, no. Kill me now."

"Sorry, no can do. Iíd have to start this painting all over. Or else paint Sandiís body under your head."

Daria threw Jane a dirty look. "You wouldnít."

Jane grinned. "Hey, these canvases cost money."

"Umm, these local beauties are aware, I suppose, that there wonít be another of these local artist exhibits, wherein their undraped beauty may be guiltlessly displayed to potential admirers, for another six months?"

"Well, I donít recall whether it came up in conversation, but Iím sure theyíre all familiar with the local cultural calendar," Jane smirked.

"Iím sure thatís true." Daria was silent a minute, then sighed, "You know, somehow I pictured the summer after graduation as being slightly more fun than this. Sitting in my room naked all summer is kind of like an unusually draconian grounding."

"Youíre right. We should go somewhere."

"And do something." Daria added sardonically.

"Something that causes fun-having. Seriously though, we should. I know! Whaddya say we go to the beach?" Jane suggested.

"Been there."

Jane gave a slightly annoyed little smile. "Youíre allowed to go more than once, Daria."

"I burn easily."

"They have sunblock now that lets vampires go to the beach."

A corner of Dariaís mouth turned up slightly. "Well, hell, if itís overrun with vampires, Iím not going."

"Címon, Daria. You know you want to. Who knows, you might meet Tom, Dick, and Harry again."

Daria was silent for a few seconds. "On two conditions."

"Name them."

"You wear a bikini no bigger than mine. None of that shorts-and-halter-top stuff like last year. And leave the easel at home."

 

~*~

In the mists of dawn, Daria and Jane stood face to face and toe to toe. Dariaís cool gaze measured her adversary.

"Jane, we agreed, no easel." Daria stood at the front door of Casa Lane in khaki cargo shorts, a red and white striped midriff tank top, which she filled out quite nicely, and sandals.

"Awww, come on! It goes everywhere with me!" Jane pleaded.

Daria was unyielding. "Not in my little car. It wonít fit in the trunk, and itíll tear up the back seat. Sketchbook, okay. Pencils and pens, okay. Watercolor pencils, okay, as long as you stick to dry techniques inside the car. But no oils, no acrylics, no alkyds, no pastels, and no easel."

"Huh? Why no pastels?"

"Theyíre too messy and too hard to get out of the carpet and upholstery."

As a grumbling Jane hauled her oil paints and easel back up the stairs, Trent turned to Daria. "Thanks, Daria," he said.

"For what?"

"For being such a good friend to Janey. I know it was hard for you to pose for that painting, and I know you only did it to help her pay for college. Iím gonna be heading out to LA and take one more shot at the music bigtime when she leaves. I wonít be able to take care of her like I have been, but Iíll feel a lot better knowing youíll be with her in Boston.

Daria blushed. "Yeah, well, sheíll be taking care of me as much as the other way around." She looked down at her toes. "You... saw the painting?"

Trentís smile got bigger. "Yeah, I drove her down to the museum with it. Lookiní good, Daria. Lookiní really good. Youíre still the coolest teenager I know." He kissed her lightly on the forehead. Dariaís blush deepened to crimson, and she couldnít stop herself from smiling a big sappy smile.

Jane came down the stairs with a couple of sable brushes and a little plastic peanut butter jar filled with water, presumably to use in conjunction with her watercolor pencils. When she saw Daria, she broke out in a huge grin. "Whoa! What happened here? Gee, Daria, howíd you get sunburned so fast? That looks like a second-degree burn, maybe third. Weíd better get you to a doctor!" Trent gave her a disapproving glance.

Daria gave her a venomous look. "Fine, right after we drop you off at the proctologist, asshole. Load up or get left!"

Still grinning, Jane grabbed up her stuff and headed out to Dariaís car. Daria picked up a couple of remaining items and followed her. Trent leaned against the doorway and watched them go, shaking his head and smiling.

 

 

~*~

Daria adjusted her sun visor to block the early morning sunlight out of her eyes. She smiled as she settled her hand back on the padded steering wheel. It felt good. Her bucket seat felt good. The smooth dark asphalt of the Interstate felt good. Her little carís engine was a bit noisy at cruising speed, but she didnít mind. She and Jane were headed to the beach, and soon she and Jane would be headed to Boston, and she felt good. She carefully pushed the accelerator down another fraction of an inch.

Daria thought back on the last weeks, and modeling for Jane, and the painting being displayed at the art museum, and being sold, and the other connected events, and pondered their significance and possible consequences. Was she a different person now, she wondered? She didnít feel different. But wait. Yes, she did, a little. She wasnít bothered about being seen on the beach in her little blue-green bikini. She might even get to tease Jane about her shyness. She had lost some of her modesty, she realized. Or was it shyness? Daria pondered this. It was shyness, she decided, as long as it inhibited her from doing things that were okay to do, and modesty when it more virtuously inhibited her from doing things she shouldnít do. Having thought it all through before sheíd done it, she had decided that modeling nude for a work of art was okay, so therefore, sheíd merely lost some of her shyness, which was good.

 

Her mindís eye peered ahead into the future. In less than a month, sheíd be in classes in a highly ranked college, beginning the final phase of preparation for her lifeís work... and she didnít even know what that was going to be.

Daria fully expected to do quite well in whatever classes she took, and in college generally. She felt almost as if this was what she was born for. But if she didnít decide on a fun, exciting career soon, and work really hard and smart to achieve it, she might well become one of the many unhappy people for whom college had been the best part of their entire lives.

Not that she wasnít expecting college to be a very good time in her life. She remembered how it seemed like just as sheíd sort of gotten a handle on grade school, she was a seventh grader just beginning junior high, and everything was different. And just as sheíd learned the ropes in junior high, she was in high school, starting at the bottom again, painfully shy, friendless and alone.

When she started at Raft, sheíd start friendless and alone again, but she was no longer painfully shy. She could handle herself, and she could handle others, too, and sheíd make new friends. She had a new self-confidence, part of which had grown out of her recent modeling experience. She wouldnít be needing her mousy geek disguise any more.

Daria knew there were millions of college students who hadnít yet decided on their careers. At least she knew sheíd be majoring in journalism and literature. She knew she was well positioned and had lots of time. Sheíd done about as well as possible in high school, sheíd gotten into her first choice college, and she was fairly confident sheíd be able to choose the right career when she set her mind to it. And for right now, life was good.

 

La la LA la la.

 

Iíd like to thank my beta readers: Kara Wild, Kemical Reaxion, Cynigal, Wyvern337, Roger E. Moore, and Deref, and everyone who offered suggestions on ff.net.

 

 

Disclaimer

 "Daria" and all related characters are trademarks of MTV Networks, a division of Viacom International, inc. The author does not claim copyright to these characters or to anything else in the "Daria" milieu; he does, however, claim copyright to all those parts of this work of fiction which are original to him and not to MTV or to other fanfic authors. This fanfic may be freely copied and distributed provided its contents remain unchanged, provided the author's name and email address are included, and provided that the distributor does not use it for monetary profit. (as if.)

  Galen Hardesty [gehardesty@yahoo com]