THE TEACHINGS OF DOÑA DARIA
by Galen Hardesty
"Scampered?" Daria asked, not sure she was hearing her mother correctly.
Quinn had no such doubt. "What did it look like, Mom?"
Making descriptive hand gestures, Helen said, "Oh you know. Yellow, stripes on the back, powerful hind legs, three horns up here..."
"Come on, I saw where it went!" Quinn said. She ran off, with Helen right behind her.
Daria stared after them, the possible ramifications of this unexpected turn of events still unfolding in her mind. "Okay. Remain calm. Family's gone mad. Must get them back to civilization. But no way to contact civilization because mother made big deal about cutting off all communications."
As Quinn and Helen disappeared into the trees, the forest seemed to close in on Daria, and she couldn’t help remembering that they were over twenty miles from the nearest hamlet, which she didn’t think qualified as civilization anyway. She was starting to get the feeling that this wasn’t going to be quite the relaxing weekend getaway that Doctor Helen had prescribed.
"What to do?" Her gaze fell on her mother’s backpack, and specifically on a couple of pockets on the side that looked about the right size to hold a cell phone. She knelt and unzipped the first one. Bingo. "Rely on mother’s hypocrisy to see us through this crisis."
A flushed, shirtless Jake ran up, looked around wildly, then pointed. "There it is! Behind that pack of zebras!" he shouted, and took off again.
Daria watched him go, then pocketed her camera, turned the phone on and listened. No dial tone, no sound. She hit 9-1-1, held it to her ear again. Nothing. She tried O, then 4-1-1, then Jane’s number. Nothing worked. Either the phone wasn’t working or they were in a dead area. Damn! She could really use some help right now. They all could.
A feeling of helpless dread began to grow within her. She could see the headline now. DEAD GIRL FOUND IN DEAD ZONE. The subhead would probably read: CELL PHONE CLUTCHED IN SKELETAL HAND.
Like hell, she thought. I will not be found dead clutching this useless cell phone like a clueless, helpless nincompoop. I’ll get myself out of this. I’ll get us all out of this.
She shoved the phone back in her mother’s pack. With a look of determination, she picked it up and headed back in the direction the nutcases had gone.
At the campsite, Daria dropped her mom’s pack, and then her own. She dug her compass and Swiss Army knife out of her pack. She thought briefly of her small pocket telescope that had gotten broken a few years ago, probably by Quinn. Well, it wouldn’t have been much use in these thick woods anyway. She took a sip of water, sat down on a log, and considered what to do.
She could hike down to the ranger station and get help, but that was four or five miles away, and her family could be at least that many miles away from this campsite by the time she got there, in three different, unknown directions. This was a National Forest, not a park, and it bordered a wildlife management area, and off to the west there were a wilderness area and a park. Altogether, there was nearly a thousand square miles of wilderness and near-wilderness they could disappear into. She needed to somehow keep them from running off and getting lost.
Unfortunately, running off seemed to be one of the main effects of those damned berries. Maybe that’s how they propagated- people or animals ate them, ran off several miles, pooped in the woods, new bushes grew in a new place. The great cycle of life rolled on. Daria looked around her. She was alone. Damn stupid cycle of life.
Daria shifted her position on the log to stay in the moving patch of shade. It reminded her of the passage of time, and that reminded her of her need to somehow get control of her demented family. If she could find them and catch them, she could... what? Wrestle them to the ground and hold them down till the berries wore off? Yeah, right. Maybe she could do that with Quinn, but she needed to restrain her parents too. Tie them up? Okay, provided she could find them, catch them, and wrestle them to the ground. Damn, there was that strength thing again. But they had to be somehow confined or controlled until they regained their sanity. Wait. Strike that. Until the effects of the damn berries wore off. She couldn’t do miracles.
Daria opened her knife, walked to one of the tents, and cut the guy ropes off it. Pocketing the knife, she set off down the trail the way the others had gone, coiling the ropes as she went. She’d figure out something. She usually did. She had to. "Brain, don’t fail me now," she said aloud.
Daria coiled three of the four lengths of rope and stuffed them in her jacket pocket. As she walked along the trail, looking and listening as she went, she tied a slipknot in the end of the fourth piece. She got it right on the third try, and proceeded to tie a slipknot in the other end. When she had a loop in each end that could be slipped over a person’s wrist or ankle and pulled tight, she coiled it up and put it in another pocket, then started on the next piece.
Daria hadn’t been in this part of the forest before, and she was about as far from the last familiar landmark as she was comfortable getting. She should have started marking her trail as soon as she stepped off the well-worn main trail. She stood still and listened.
Behind her, there was silence. From her left came the call of a mockingbird. He seemed to be rushing through his repertoire of imitations so he could take a coffee break or something. Ooh, did that sound good. She would about trade her birthright for a cup of coffee and a doughnut right now. Especially a filled doughnut. Just then, far off to the right, she thought she heard faint voices and sounds of running through leaves. Turning her head in that direction, she cupped her hands to her ears and listened intently. Yep, that sounded like a stampede of lunatics, all right. Daria arranged some handy pieces of dead limb in an arrow shape on the ground to mark her change of direction, and headed toward the sounds.
Stopping frequently to mark her way, and to look and listen, Daria made her way through the woods. It was mostly easy going, because wherever the canopy of foliage overhead was intact and dense, there was little or no undergrowth to impede her movement. Where a tree or several trees had fallen, though, and sunlight reached the forest floor, there would likely be a blackberry thicket or a canebrake, or some other underbrush that she might have to detour around.
Easy as the going was, though, there was little to indicate whether any of her wayward family might have passed that way. The carpet of leaves she trod might have spoken volumes to an Indian tracker, but the occasional disturbed-looking patches she could see told her nothing. They could mean that Quinn had just run past, pursued by wolves, or that a bird had recently turned the leaves over looking for grubs.
Up ahead there was a sizeable patch of bare earth. Perhaps she’d find a recognizable footprint there. Daria stopped at the edge of the dirt, surprised. There were indeed recognizable tracks... it looked like a herd of a thousand deer had been through here. She wondered if she should climb a tree before they came back and trampled her with their pointy little hooves. But by comparing them she noticed that most of the tracks were not fresh. Some, indeed, were from last winter; there were obvious frost marks inside them. The tracks that were the freshest looking, with the sharpest edges, were few in number, probably made by only two or three deer. Daria looked over the bare earth again. Aside from the deer tracks, there were a few tracks of a large bird, and a set that might belong to a possum or a coon. No human footprints that she could see. She sighed. Somewhat interesting, but not useful.
Suddenly, Daria straightened up. A sound like a squawk, or maybe a quack, had come from ahead and to the right. She caught a flicker of movement, and a sound of leaves or brush rustling. There was a clearing ahead in that direction, so Daria found another limb, made another arrow, and pressed forward.
As Daria drew closer, she could see that Helen was in the clearing. She seemed to be searching for something. She was saying or chanting something in a singsong voice that Daria couldn’t make out. Daria guessed that Helen and Jake were into some native American mysticism or folklore, if you discounted Helen’s detour into Clan of The Cave Bear and Jake’s ravings about pirates. Actually, they probably weren’t all that selective in their present condition. The way they seemed to see each other’s hallucinations indicated that they were pretty suggestible. There had to be ways to use that to her advantage, Daria thought. If she could just get inside Helen’s head enough to get some idea of what hallucination to play to. Daria crept up behind a large, smooth-barked tree and watched and listened, hoping she’d get a useable idea.
Helen was working her way closer to the tree Daria lurked behind. If Daria could tie her to this tree, she’d be safe and fairly comfortable till the berries wore off. Too bad Helen wasn’t a tree-hugger. Daria could just... hmmm. If she could get Helen to put her arms around the tree, fitting the loops onto her wrists was the work of a second or two. Daria pulled one of the prepared pieces of rope out of her pocket. But what would make Helen hug the tree? Daria could think of nothing. What did Helen want? What was she searching for? Daria thought a minute. Maybe she could just ask.
Pitching her voice up an octave, she softly called out, "Helen."
Helen turned and looked in her direction, but didn’t see her for the bushes. "Who’s there?"
"I am a wood nymph. What do you seek?"
Helen took a couple of steps in the direction of Daria’s voice. "I seek my spirit animal."
Daria wondered if that meant they’d already caught Jake’s spirit animal. A rumble from her stomach made her wonder if they were good to eat. She forced her mind back to the business at hand. Get Helen to hug the tree.
"I can tell you how to find your spirit animal, but only you must hear. Embrace my tree and I will whisper it to you," she said softly in her non-threatening wood-nymphy voice.
Helen came over to the tree. "Is this your tree?"
Crouching behind the tree, Daria held the loops ready, one in each hand. She’d only get one chance at this. "Yes. Embrace my trunk tightly and I will whisper the information you seek."
Daria saw Helen’s hands coming around either side of the trunk. Quickly, she slipped the loops around Helen’s wrists and tightened them. Startled, Helen tried to jerk her arms back, but she was now bound to the tree. She had a fair amount of slack, but she couldn’t quite reach the knot on one wrist with the other hand. "Hey, what’s going on? What are you doing, wood nymph?"
Daria recalled a scrap from her meager store of Native American folklore. She dropped her voice and tried to make it sound rough and sneaky. "I am no wood nymph. I am Trickster Coyote, and I have tricked you. If I see your spirit animal, I’ll tell her you’re looking for her. Heh heh heh." She crept quietly away, staying on the opposite side of the tree from Helen, leaving her alternately swearing and pleading for help from various supernatural entities. She felt badly about pulling such a dirty trick on her mother, but at least she would stay put until the effects of the berries wore off. Now if she could just do the same for Jake and Quinn, and maybe somehow get them gathered in one place where she could watch them...
Yeah, right. Then she’d cure cancer, old age, and tooth decay. Well, she had gotten Helen. That was something. One down, two to go. Daria headed back toward the campsite, making sure Helen didn’t get a look at her.
As Daria approached the campsite along her marked trail, she stopped every so often and listened for any sounds that might indicate the presence of the missing mad Morgendorffers. Helen’s curses had faded out a while back, and all she heard now was the rustle of a breeze through the trees, the buzzing of insects, and an occasional far-off caw of a crow.
Unless you counted her increasingly distressed-sounding wheezing, she thought. She leaned against a pine trunk and tried to catch her breath. She felt like she’d walked five miles today, and it wasn’t even ten o’clock yet. This was definitely a day that should have started out with a hearty breakfast. Unfortunately, no such breakfast had been available to her. And, hungry as she was, she was glad she’d turned town what she had been offered.
The growing number of ants on her hand and trying to crawl up her sleeve made her shove off from the pine tree. Why were pine trees so much more popular with ants than other trees? Were they trying to immortalize themselves in amber? Did she actually care? That last one was a definite noper, she thought, trying to get the ants out. Where was the campsite? Surely she should have been there by now.
Daria looked around her. The forest looked totally unfamiliar in every direction. Every direction but one, that is. Looking down her back trail, she could remember walking that way less than an hour ago. But the same trail was completely unrecognizable when she turned and looked in the opposite direction. That was scary.
Not many steps farther on, she sighted the hanging broken branch that was her next trail marker. Now she knew where she was. The campsite was not much further. She felt a little bit lighter as she trudged on.
Finally spotting the two tents in the little clearing felt a little bit like coming home. Not that there were many comforts here. No shower, no toilet, no running water, just a ring of stones to build a fire in and three sections of log to sit on. But from here, she knew the way to Helen and the way to the car, and she had a vague idea where the other two might be.
As she stepped into the clearing, Daria thought how nice it would be to lie down on her sleeping bag and just go limp for a little while. Then the covey of quail exploded at her feet.
As Daria’s heartbeats died down to the point where she could hear other sounds again, she picked herself up out of the weeds, brushed away a couple of things that were crawling up her thighs, and staggered over to a log. What the hell were quail doing in the campsite?
She sat in a shady spot on one of the logs, and her logical side observed, "Same thing they always do. Hunting for seeds in fields and clearings. They don’t know you think this is a campsite."
Well, she couldn’t argue with that. She looked at the grass and wondered how its seed would taste. Taking a drink of water, she was reminded again of how hungry she was. If she ever got dragged out into the wild again, she’d be sure to carry some sort of emergency rations at all times. A few breakfast bars would really go well right now. She looked around. There should be some food around here somewhere. Jake’s fantasies of living off the land to the contrary, they had packed food, and they hadn’t eaten all of it for dinner last night.
She got up, walked over to her parents’ tent, and unzipped the door flap. Inside, she spotted a familiar looking bag in a corner. She crawled over and peered inside. All right, canned goods. Rummaging through enough food to last much longer than they could stay, but which needed to be cooked, she came up with a can of chili. Good enough.
Closing up the tent, Daria sat back down, got out her knife, deployed the can opener, and soon had the chili opened. She wondered where she might find a spoon, then decided not to bother. She opened the main knife blade and studied it closely. Surely germs can’t get a good grip on polished stainless steel, she reasoned, and anyway, there was nothing on that blade for them to eat... yet. She wiped what hapless germs there might be off on her skirt and dug in.
...And as the apex predator settles down to her kill, the lesser creatures of the deep forest timidly resume their lives, safe once more... until next time. Daria smirked a little. It was good to be the apex predator. She took another bladeful of her prey.
Daria had reduced the chili level in the can to below half, and was feeling proud of herself for not cutting her lips or tongue when the yellowjacket arrived. Appearing not to be aware of her at all, it was nevertheless definitely aware of the chili. Alarmed, she moved off a distance and continued with her meal, but in a remarkably short time, it was there again, hovering around the can of chili. It seemed to have a remarkable sense of smell.
Daria ran over by the tents and waved the can of chili in the air a few times, then went to stand by her backpack and resumed eating. She’d only gotten three bladesful when the damn thing was back. Now she was angry. She laid her knife on her backpack, waited for her moment, and knocked the thing to the ground, where it quickly fell victim to the boot of doom. Well, not that quickly, actually. She had to stomp it several times with her heel before the little monster stopped moving. Picking up her knife and resuming her meal, she marveled that a thing so heavily armored could fly.
Daria tried to eat fast now, fearing that more of the vicious little creatures would show up, but it was getting harder to reach the remaining chili with her knife. Maybe she should have spent the extra time to find a spoon. Well, maybe, she thought, but only if she’d done it before she opened the can.
Another yellowjacket appeared, and then another one, homing in on the chili as if she didn’t exist. Damn them! This was her chili! She ran out of the campsite area entirely, not stopping until she was well down the trail toward where the car was parked. If it weren’t nearly two miles away, and if she had the keys, she could eat inside it. Yeah. And if she had her winged horse Pegasus with her, she could round up her family from the air.
By tilting the can and working diligently, Daria had managed to get a good mouthful of chili when the yellowjackets found it again. There were three of them this time, and their buzzing sounded angrier. As she was waving her knife to keep one of them from landing on the blade, the other two landed on the can and crawled inside. And more were coming. With an inarticulate snarl, Daria heaved the can away from the campsite, as far as she could throw it. "Take it then, damn you!" she shouted after it, "I hope the ants take it away from you!"
Angry and frustrated, Daria cleaned off her knife blade, folded it, and returned it to her pocket. She’d really wanted the rest of that chili. Some apex predator she was. She headed back to the campsite for her water, and the tents immediately caught her eye. Nice modern fully enclosed tents with integral floors and bug-proof screens.
Daria smacked herself in the head. "Stupid!" she thought. "Stupid, stupid, stupid! I’ve got to smarten up a lot, real quick, or the Morgendorffer branch of Homo Sapiens is facing extinction. Geez!" She was glad no other apex predators had seen that.
Daria listened carefully as she moved along the trail, but she was mostly looking for a specific spot she remembered from yesterday. And here it was, just up ahead. It was the entrance to a path branching off the main trail that led back to where the car was parked; one of several they’d passed on the way to the campsite. There was nothing special about this one, except that flowers grew on either side of it. And the fact that she remembered Quinn looking up this path yesterday as they’d passed it. Daria knew she was really grasping at straws here, but, out of all the ways Quinn could have gone after Daria had seen her last, this was the only one Daria had seen her show any interest in.
About to enter the path, Daria stopped. As far along it as she could see, it was covered with a mat of leaves, just like the rest of the forest floor. The only thing that made it deserving of the name path was that no underbrush grew up in it and no tree or branch blocked it. It was an easier path to walk than others one could take through there.
But right here, where it branched off the more heavily worn main trail, there was a small patch of bare soil. Daria looked at it more carefully, then came around and knelt where she could best see any shadows cast by the angling morning light. And there, faint and shallow in a thin layer of dust atop the hard ground, but definitely there, was most of a single bootprint. A bootprint that matched the tread pattern of Quinn’s boots. A bootprint that... Daria carefully placed her foot beside it... was just a little smaller than her boot. A bootprint that she could actually read. Quinn’s bootprint. And it was fresh, and it pointed down this path.
Daria smiled as she stood up. A small thing, seemingly, but it narrowed the search area, a lot. Quinn had come this way. Daria set off after her.
At first she heard nothing. Then she began to pick up the forest background noises and birdsong from the sides and behind her. Ahead, it was still quiet, though. Daria kept listening. Finally, faintly, she heard what might have been "la la la" in what might have been Quinn’s voice. Daria pulled out her compass and glanced at it. The sound had seemed to come more or less from the southwest. Daria reached up over her head and broke a small branch so that it hung down into the middle of the lane between trees she was standing in. Then, for good measure, using her pocketknife, she carved an arrow in the tree trunk pointing back toward the main trail. Satisfied, she stood and listened a little longer. Hearing nothing further that sounded like Quinn, she set off toward the southwest.
Every hundred feet or less, depending on the density of the forest, Daria broke a branch or laid out some dead branches on the ground in an arrow shape, and every time she changed direction, she carved another arrow on a tree trunk. She felt a little bad about this, but she wasn’t carving all the way through the bark, just enough to expose the lighter inner bark for visibility. She told herself she’d feel a lot guiltier if she got lost and they all died in this forest. And if she ever went into a forest again, she’d consider carrying a hatchet or a machete. A Swiss Army knife wasn’t the ideal tool for blazing trails. Better yet, she’d carry a GPS thingie. Better yet still, she’d stay out of friggin’ forests.
A flicker of movement caught her eye. Daria stopped still and looked straight at where she’d seen it, straining to pick up another movement or hear a sound. But there was nothing. Stillness reigned supreme.
Just as she was about to conclude that the movement had been a bird, a butterfly, or a leaf fluttering in the breeze, she caught another movement, far off through the trees. She hadn’t been able to focus on it quickly enough to identify it visually, but along with it, there had been a sound. A faint sound, granted, but it sounded very much like Quinn’s giggle.
Daria started off at a run toward where she had seen the movement. After a few steps, she dropped back to a brisk walk. Running made too much noise. After a few more steps, she remembered to mark the trail. Dammit, she thought, how am I going to catch up to Quinn like this? But the logical part of her mind insisted that if she caught up to Quinn but got lost doing it, neither of them would be any better off. In fact, she realized that if she got lost any time today, it could doom all four of them to death by thirst or exposure. Daria resolutely marked her trail and continued on.
The forest floor was more open in this area, and she could see farther before the greenish-gray fog of trunks and branches and leaves closed in and blocked her vision. Arrows made out of pieces of fallen limbs could be seen farther, and were quicker and easier to make than blazes on tree trunks, so she used them as often as possible. She was nearing the place where she thought she’d seen that last movement when she heard some leaves rustle not too far ahead. She froze, listening. She was starting to be able to tell leaf-rustles apart now. She could recognize squirrels scampering from tree to tree and birds searching for insects without looking. She was hoping this would be neither, but she needed to know. After a few seconds of silence, she started forward again, more quietly.
Suddenly, Quinn burst from behind a tree trunk and ran off ahead and to the right, laughing like a little girl. After her initial surprise, Daria ran after her, calling her name. But Quinn was much fresher, and after a few seconds, Daria slowed back to a walk again.
"Quinn, wait!" she called. "I need to talk to you!"
Quinn giggled and disappeared behind a tree trunk about thirty yards ahead.
Good one, Morgendorffer. Like she ever cared what you needed, thought Daria. She continued walking slowly toward the tree Quinn was hiding behind. "It’s lunchtime, Quinn. Come on back to camp with me."
Quinn peeked out from behind the tree and laughed as if Daria had just told a funny joke. Or said something stupid. Yeah, the latter. But she was staying put behind the tree, and Daria was getting closer. Daria pulled one of the ropes out of her pocket, palming it so Quinn couldn’t see it.
Quinn smiled happily and seemed to study her intently. She was only ten or twelve yards away now. Taking great pains to appear non-threatening, Daria advanced a few more steps. "Come on. Quinn, we’re having your favorite. Zero calorie pizza. You don’t want yours to get cold..."
With a little shriek, Quinn leapt out from behind her tree and bounded over to another one like a ballerina on crack, giggling insanely. Daria had the feeling she had fallen into a game of crazy fairy tag, but she noted that Quinn’s new tree was no farther away than her old one. Daria eased closer, remembering to smile.
A grinning Quinn peeked out at her, then with another giggle, skipped over one more tree, and peeked out again. If Quinn would only trip on something, Daria would have her. She was quite close now. Daria stepped forward again...
And walked straight into a huge spider web.
"GAAH!" Daria staggered back, pawing at her face. The strands of the web felt like they were made out of dental floss and coated with adhesive tape stickum. They were in her eyelashes, on her lips, her nose, her ears... she tried desperately to clear her eyes, aware that the spider that had spun this monster web was probably on her right now.
Quinn’s maniacal laughter rang out, accompanied by running footsteps. Daria was on her knees, feeling desperately through the leaves for her glasses. She found them and put them on, then immediately pulled them off again and wiped them on her jacket.
Putting them on again, Daria saw that they were still filthy. She stood up and looked around. Quinn was nowhere to be seen. Then her loony laughter sounded from somewhere surprisingly far away. Daria’s shoulders slumped. She had blown her chance. For Quinn’s sake, she hoped she’d get another one. "Fare thee well, my faerie fey," she said sadly, and turned back toward the main trail.
After fruitlessly trying to find a reachable spot on her jacket clean enough to wipe her glasses on, Daria unzipped it and used her shirttail. Even after spitting on them a couple of times, there still seemed to be a film on the lenses. The glue from the spider web, she surmised.
Daria glared at the glasses in her hand. She resented the poor eyesight they represented. If she’d had anything like normal vision, she’d probably have seen that spider web. As she thought back on Quinn’s actions, it seemed more and more likely that Quinn had seen it, and maneuvered Daria into it. Not unlike Quinn, although the execution was better than her average.
Daria thought about the disadvantages of her bad eyesight. Mostly, the big gap in her peripheral vision, partly from her glasses frames, but more because of the magnification effect of her lenses. Here in the forest, she was likely to miss movement others would have seen out of the corners of their eyes. The same effect was going to be an even more serious disadvantage when she got her license and started driving. Quinn (and many others) in her situation would have stamped her foot and whined about how unfair it was. Daria saw no possible benefit from this strategy. Quinn would have moped and pined and wished for better eyesight. Daria remembered something Aunt Amy once told her that her aunt Ellie used to say- "You wish in one hand and s**t in the other, and see which one fills up first."
Daria continued toward the main trail, using her glasses to find the direction marks, then taking them off for short periods to see if something might show up in her peripheral vision.
Quinn’s actions did seem to show that she was in possession of most of her mental faculties, despite the effects of the berries, whatever they were. Hallucinations, mild inebriation, fits of giggles? Something like that. Or maybe just silliness. Possibly a slight fever, too. Jake had ditched his shirt, and Quinn, come to think about it, hadn’t had her vest on just now.
Not that that was too surprising. With all this hiking back and forth, Daria was pretty warm herself. She’d leave this jacket in camp if she didn’t need the pockets.
As she walked along, it occurred to Daria that she was walking around three sides of a square here. The area where she’d encountered Quinn and the clearing where she’d left Helen were both about half a mile west of the main trail, and probably about half a mile from each other. She should be able to save a mile of walking by walking straight north from here to Helen.
Daria sat on a fallen tree trunk to consider this, then leaped up in alarm as a crashing noise came from the brush directly behind her. Searching frantically for the beast that had made it, she spotted a small grayish-brown lizard scurrying away through the dry leaves. Breathing hard, Daria clutched at her chest. She couldn’t believe a lizard had made all that racket. It had sounded like at least a raccoon. It was the dry leaves that were doing it, she knew, but it was still startling.
Cautiously, Daria eased herself back down onto the tree trunk to catch her breath. Damn stupid camping trip. Daria hoped Jake was getting really relaxed, wherever he was. She was going to need at least a week locked in her room with a tank of nitrous oxide to recover from all this "relaxation."
Daria took a swallow of water and listened for any sound that might indicate the presence of Jake or Quinn. Helen was secure for the time being, but she couldn’t be left tied up for long. There could, after all, theoretically be a bear in the area, and there was certainly plenty of other wildlife, most of which could be very annoying if it chose. Daria would want to untie her as soon as possible after the berries wore off. She got up and continued on.
After a little reflection, Daria decided not to try the shortcut. She could cross her carefully marked path leading to Helen’s clearing, and possibly miss seeing any of her marks because she’d be approaching them from an unfamiliar angle. And if she missed the clearing on the west side, there were no marks. She could just go on and on and never see anything recognizable. After she checked on Helen, though, she could just head straight in this general direction, marking her way as she went, because she’d only have a vague idea where Quinn was anyway. Reaching the main trail, she turned north toward the campsite.
After refilling her water bottle at camp, Daria headed back toward the clearing to check on Helen. Her legs were starting to protest this unexpected excessive tromping around. Daria had a feeling she’d be in sad shape Monday in school.
Helen sure seemed to love Jake, she thought as she walked along. Coming out here with him on what she believed would be a relaxing, rejuvenating, stress-relieving trip, doing most of the preparations for same, working on their intimacy...
Working on Jake’s intimacy was more like it. He didn’t seem to have trouble with the physical side of it, but there seemed to be some things... missing from his personality. One was a sort of manly I’m-in-charge attitude. Another was a desire to relate to other people. No, that wasn’t missing. She’d seen it, in clumsy, aborted attempts to talk to her or Quinn, to be a part of their lives in some ill-chosen way, in occasional longing looks. Jake had the desire, but whatever it was that was supposed to act on that desire was somehow twisted, broken. It didn’t work.
Daria wondered what could have done that to him. The obvious answer, his father, was probably a major part of it, but his brother Isaac seemed pretty normal. She didn’t know much about his oldest brother Abe, because he’d died in Vietnam. From bits of things she’d heard from Jake’s mother Ruth, Nimrod Morgendorffer had been a hard and unyielding man, although Ruth wouldn’t answer Daria’s questions. Daria hoped she’d get a chance to talk to Jake’s sister Naomi. Jake had an affection for Naomi that he didn’t have for either of his brothers, and, as far as Daria could tell, she felt close to him too. She could probably shed some light on Jake’s childhood.
Helen apparently knew Jake much better than Daria or Quinn did, which, she supposed, was the way it should be. She seemed to see those apparently missing qualities deep inside Jake, and seemed to be determined to bring them out. Well Daria wished her the best of luck, and would help if she could.
Daria was near the clearing now, and would have to slow down and proceed cautiously. If Helen saw her, she’d undoubtedly demand to be released, no matter who she might think Daria was at the time. And who knew what they would remember from this time after the berries wore off? She decided to come around to the far side of the clearing this time, because she could approach over pine needles, which were much quieter than dry leaves, and because she could observe from a more distant vantage point behind some bushes.
Daria came up to the bushes and skidded to a halt in shock. Helen was still there and still secured to the tree, but Jake was there too. But he wasn’t trying to untie her, he was... oboy. Daria took cover behind the bushes again and peeked out.
Jake stepped back from Helen, affording Daria a better view. Helen’s hiking shorts were nowhere to be seen. She still had her panties on... on her head, where they were apparently intended to serve as a blindfold. Jake was down to his boxers. Daria was dumbstruck.
"Untie me, you beast! Have you no shred of common decency?" Helen demanded in an outraged tone.
"Arr, me lady, I’m just after bein’ perlite. What kinder host’d I be if I didn’t make with the interductions, ‘ey?" Jake replied in a voice that sounded like a bad Long John Silver impression. "Now the next member o’ me crew is young Pete ‘ere. We calls ‘im Three-leg Pete, fer reasons as’ll become clear to ye presently. Say ‘ello ter Lady ‘Elen, Pete!" Then, in a dumb-english-farmboy sort of voice, he said, "Ahoy there, m’lady. Ye be a buxom young wench, bain’t ye?"
"Cutlass, you scrofulous, flea-ridden murdering pirate! My father, the Duke of Barksdale, will have your guts for garters! He’ll have a tobacco pouch made from your scrotum!" Jake moved back behind Helen. "He’ll... Eeee! No! Stop! It’s too big! Please, stop! You’ll kill me! AAAAHH!"
"What?" thought Daria. It obviously wasn’t too big.
"Ahhh, indeed! Nice ‘n cozy this’n is! Thankee kindly, Cap’n!" Jake said in the dumb-english-farmboy voice.
A light dawned for Daria. This must be some sort of bedroom RPG that Jake and Helen played. And, judging by how well they seemed to know their lines, they must have put in a lot of practice. She ducked back behind the bushes, where she could no longer see what was happening in the little clearing.
"Lord, strike me blind and deaf. Five minutes ago. Temporarily that is," she thought.
She heard, over the soft, rhythmic smacking sounds, Jake say in his Captain Cutlass voice, "Yer welcome, young Pete. Go easy though, an’ don’t wear ‘er out too bad. There’s others waitin’ ter be interduced."
Daria stuck her fingers in her ears and gritted her teeth. This was awful. But at least, Helen and Jake seemed to be all right for the moment, and they would probably stay here for a while, about as long as the pirate crew’s stamina held out. Now would be an excellent time for her to look for Quinn again. Daria quietly headed back down the trail, fingers partly blocking out Helen’s theatrical shrieks and Jake’s pseudo-piratical commentary.
Well, Daria thought as she headed back toward where she’d last seen Quinn, she should probably pencil in "aphrodisiac" on the list of those berries’ properties. No, wait. She couldn’t. Her eyeballs had fallen out.
The forest was very quiet around here. Apparently all the little forest creatures were dumbstruck too. Poor little forest creatures. They shouldn’t be subjected to that sort of thing. Nor should she, for that matter. She was undoubtedly in for years of therapy. She shuddered and walked on. She’d probably never be able to get married now. Or take an ocean cruise. Or hug a tree.
Daria suddenly pictured herself walking into Mrs. Manson’s office, plopping down on her couch, and unburdening her tortured soul of this whole sordid incident. Her suppressed giggle came out as a snort, and frightened a nearby squirrel.
She wondered how long she should leave Quinn to settle down before having another go at her. She’d need a fresh strategy. What bait should she use to capture a fairy princess? Or an air-headed sister hallucinating she’s a fairy princess? How long would the effects of those damn berries last, Daria wondered. Would there be after-effects, like a hangover? She wouldn’t be a bit surprised.
She didn’t want to wait too long, though. Quinn might meet a Sasquatch, and she certainly didn’t want to stumble onto that scene. And the possible niece or nephew didn’t even bear thinking about.
Daria checked her compass every so often to be sure she was still headed in a southerly direction. She’d had to detour around a thick canebrake in the bottom of a little draw, but overall it was fairly easy to maintain her direction. She stopped to mark her trail again with a couple of convenient fallen limbs.
Up ahead on the next ridge, several trees had fallen, and a blackberry thicket had grown up around them. She remembered reading in a magazine a couple of years ago that such blowdowns in a forest were evidence of microbursts from passing thunderstorms. The fact that all these tree trunks pointed in more or less the same direction agreed with that explanation. Daria smiled. It was no Grand Canyon, but she enjoyed seeing things like this, and understanding how they came to be.
As Daria detoured around the east end of the blackberry thicket, she couldn’t help noticing that there were many ripe blackberries on the bushes. Her stomach growled. Oh, what the heck. Quinn could be anywhere around here. Quietly looking, listening, and lurking near a food source was as good a search strategy as any other, at least for a while.
Daria walked over to one blackberry bush that stood a little apart from the thicket, and had a number of plump-looking ripe berries on it. She’d just reached it when there was a thrashing in the underbrush, and a hideous hairy beast burst out of the blackberry thicket only feet away.
Daria screamed and jumped back. The beast charged off in the opposite direction, along the edge of the thicket about twenty feet, then turned and hissed at her. It was a possum.
Daria sized up her adversary. She was considerably bigger, but he had way more teeth. His mouth reminded her of a crocodile’s, except for that little pink nose and the catlike whiskers. Noting that her heart rate was recovering more quickly with each of these nature encounters, and that the possum had run farther, she concluded that he was the more frightened of the two of them. Damn stupid wildlife.
The possum hissed again. "Oh, yeah?" she called. "Bring it, fuzznuts! I’ll have you for dinner and the berries for dessert. I’m an omnivore too, you know!"
The possum, seemingly disconcerted by her voice, ran another ten feet or so, then turned and hissed at her again. "Rrrrrr!" she replied. She felt it was her duty to her species to defend her place at the top of the food chain. Although to do that, she thought, she should probably actually eat the possum. She looked distastefully at the hairy little scavenger. Well, maybe next time. She had more pressing duties at the moment.
The possum stared at her a few more seconds, then turned and resumed eating blackberries. Daria considered its behavior, wondering if the fact that it didn’t run off entirely might indicate that it was rabid. No, she decided, if it were rabid it wouldn’t be eating, just staggering around bumping into things and possibly foaming at the mouth. She knew that possums were very stupid. This was probably an example of that.
Daria watched the varmint, so ugly he was almost cute, for a few seconds, then turned and began picking and eating blackberries. They were delicious, much plumper and sweeter than fenceline blackberries. She kept her ears peeled, and straightened up and looked around often, but she intended to eat her fill of berries. Everyone else had had berries for breakfast, to her great dismay and inconvenience. She felt she was entitled.
A short while later, Daria popped a last blackberry in her mouth and stood up. After the possum had moved off, she had seen or heard nothing that might have been Quinn. Daria sighed. It had been worth a shot. This blackberry patch undoubtedly attracted many forest dwellers. It might well have attracted Quinn too. Berries weren’t fattening. Checking her compass, Daria resumed her southerly course.
Having passed through the area where she’d last encountered Quinn without seeing or hearing any fresh indications of her presence, Daria was straining her senses even more. Quinn could be just ahead, preparing to lure her into a den of rattlesnakes. Or humping a crew of lumberjacks.
Daria began to look for some distinctive tree or other landmark that could be seen from a considerable distance. If she didn’t find Quinn soon, she thought, she could make a loop and head back northward. That is, if she could find something to loop around. Otherwise, she supposed, she could just go west a couple of hundred paces, then turn north. She should be able to walk north a mile or so by compass, then turn and walk east, and be confident of hitting the main trail at some point.
Daria sighed and wished she’d had some actual training at this sort of thing. It would certainly have been a better use of her time, and more interesting, than, say, color war at those stupid summer camps her parents liked to dump her and Quinn at. The only useful skills she could remember learning at camp were fire making, archery, and escape and evasion. Daria smiled crookedly. Escape and evasion hadn’t actually been taught, but she’d gotten quite good at it.
As she came to the edge of a grassy clearing studded with tree stumps, Daria stopped. She could plainly see evidence of someone’s recent passage. Daria was no tracker, but she could tell that this track was recent, because the grass was still straightening up as she watched, and that it must have been made by either a human or a bear. No other woodland creature would flatten so much grass with its passage.
The thought of walking up on a bear gave Daria pause, but only for a moment. The possibility of a bear in this vicinity was remote, she knew. She remembered reading that nine out of ten human-bear encounters ended harmlessly, with the bear retreating. It wouldn’t affect her decisions anyway, because a hypothetical bear could be anywhere around her, and could just walk up and eat her if it wanted to, no matter what she did. Daria resolutely set out following the spoor. Hey, looka me, she thought sardonically, I’m following spoor.
Ahead, at the clearing’s far edge, Daria saw something white on the ground, and also something light blue. Quickening her pace, she soon saw that it was clothing. Quinn’s clothing. And Quinn wasn’t in it.
Examining the articles, Daria noted that they were smeared in spots with mud, and stained with something reddish-purple. But there were no rips or tears, and no sign of blood. Daria carefully examined the surrounding area. She saw no signs of a struggle, just Quinn’s clothes, looking like they’d been taken off and dropped. They were next to some tall weeds bearing little blackish berries, and empty stems from which berries had been picked. Daria easily recognized them as pokeweed from previous experience.
Pokeweed. All parts of the plant were poisonous; leaves, stems, roots, and berries, except for the tender young leaves in early spring, which could be eaten as poke salad. Daria had never felt the urge to try this. She’d read about Pokeweed several years ago in Poisonous Plants of North America, ironically, when she’d first half-seriously considered poisoning Quinn.
She’d also read that the ripe and semi-ripe berries were widely used by the Pilgrims and other early settlers for inks and dyes, yielding a range of hues from wine red to deep bluish purple. Daria had used them this way herself when she was younger, by the simple expedient of placing berries on a t-shirt and squishing them. That had become her favorite t-shirt, to her mother’s annoyed amusement, until she couldn’t get into it anymore. Daria had also learned that pokeberries did a very good job of dyeing skin, also to her mother’s annoyed amusement, or maybe amused annoyance. The stains lasted for three or four days, until she’d shed that layer of skin.
But what had Quinn done with the berries she’d picked? Was she seeking some makeup longer lasting than mud? Her clothes lying here suggested that she might have experimented with body painting. Daria hoped one of these was the case. But she remembered what Quinn had said just before she’d succumbed to the effects of those other berries. "But those weren’t the Glitter Berries. You know, the Glitter Berries, the ones that fill your mouth with sparkling glitter when you bite into them! That is, until you spread your shimmering wings and fly away..."
Daria fervently hoped Quinn wasn’t eating every berry she could find, searching for the magical Glitter Berries that would transform her into a fairy princess. If she were, she was almost sure to find some eventually that would lay her low. These pokeberries were poisonous, but Daria didn’t know how many constituted a lethal dose. She picked one and bit into it, then carefully spat it out. As she remembered, they were seriously bitter. She doubted that Quinn would have eaten any if her sense of taste was still functioning normally. On the other hand, Daria thought, if Quinn does find the Glitter Berries, I hope she saves me some. I would dearly love to spread my shimmering wings and fly the hell outta here.
Daria picked up Quinn’s spoor and resumed following it through the forest, blazing her trail as she went. She almost immediately lost it on the soft mat of leaf litter, which didn’t particularly surprise her, so she kept following the path of least resistance in the direction that Quinn had last been heading. Just then that little smartass part of her brain seemed to wake up again.
"o/ For my heart knows what the wild Quinn knows, o/"
‘o/ And I must go where the wild Quinn goes.
Wild Quinn, sister Quinn, which is best,
A wand’ring fool or a butt at rest? o/"
Daria winced, shook her head and slogged on. That was bad. Sometimes she wished that little smartass part of her brain had an off switch.
A minute or two later, Daria suddenly froze in her tracks, listening. She thought she’d heard something. She stood still, breathing softly, not even making any clothing noises, straining her ears. But, other than a fly... wait! There it was again. Faintly, from ahead and to the right, something that sounded like "Dee, dee..." Daria skirted a blackberry patch, took a big step across a tiny stream, and peeked around a tree trunk.
Ahead, sunlight was streaming down through a hole in the canopy into another clearing. Many flowers bloomed in this clearing, flowers resembling daisies, but white, with yellow centers. Suddenly some of the flowers waved violently, as though some ungulant were grazing at their base. Daria cautiously crept closer.
The bunch of flowers rose into the air, followed by Quinn’s head and hand, and then by her upper torso. Daria shrank behind the trunk of a mighty Hickory and watched. Caught in the shaft of sunlight, the white flower petals glowed, as did Quinn’s pale skin. Her reddish gold hair blazed like a torch against the background of dappled forest greens.
It was now clear what Quinn had done with the pokeberries. Her body was painted with finger-width lines, swirls, and spirals, with a few palm prints in interesting places. Jane would love to have a picture, just for the artistry of the designs. One of her perky little breasts had been decorated with a spiral, while the other sported a smiley face using the pink nipple as its nose. Imaginative decorations accented other features. She danced about the glade to music only she could hear.
Damn, Daria thought. Stoned out of her mind, lost in the forest, and naked, and she’s still fashion forward.
Quinn was making daisy chains. She was wearing one on her head like a tiara, two around her neck, and one around her hips. She would occasionally stop plaiting the flowers together and dance about the clearing again, perhaps to see how the garlands moved with her. She was using some of her old ballet moves, and some that she was apparently making up on the spot because they felt good.
Deciding to try guile this time, Daria called out in a high voice, "Yoo-hoo!"
Quinn stopped and listened. After a few seconds, she called back. "Yoo-hoo! Who a-are you?"
Daria thought fast, then answered, still in the high voice, "I’m a wee tiny elfling, and I’m losted!"
"Oh, you poor little thing," Quinn replied. "Where are you, wee elfling?"
"I’m over he-ere! Yoo-hoo!"
Quinn approached the tree, stopping about fifteen feet away. "Oh, I see you... hey! You don’t look like a wee tiny elfling to me!"
Annoyed, Daria thought, "Well, you don’t look like a fairy princess either, but I’m not blowing your cover!" She thought fast again. "Well, that’s because I, um, took a bite out of the wrong side of a mushroom. It’ll wear off after a while. Can you help me find my mommy?"
"And what’s a wee tiny elfling doing with a camera?" Quinn demanded.
Oops. Daria looked down at the camera in her hand. "I, uh, found it. It was lying on the ground where the big ugly people camp. Our elfhouse is close to there. Can you please help me find my way back?"
Quinn planted her fists on her hips and frowned at Daria. "I don’t think you’re a wee tiny elfling at all. I think you’re that evil wizard Gargle-something, and you’re trying to catch those little blue guys. Well, I am a friend and protector of all the little cute things in the forest, and I’m not gonna help you find them, cause they’re cute and you’re not, mister giant wee elfling with a camera!" And with that, she spread her imaginary shimmering wings and flew away.
Disgusted and frustrated, Daria watched Quinn skip off between the tree trunks, flapping her arms semi-gracefully. She’d never gotten within lunging distance. Trying to run her down now would be futile, and risked chasing her far away. For someone so stoned that she was flapping naked through the forest thinking she was a fairy, Quinn certainly was a stickler for detail. Dammit, it’s not fair, she thought. They all go along with each other’s hallucinations. They all see the spirit animals. They all see the herds of zebras. But do I get to make up something? Do I get to be a wee tiny elfling? Hell, no! Daria pocketed the camera and, muttering darkly, headed back along her marked trail to check on the old ones.
Helen was still in the clearing, still tied to the tree, but Jake was gone. As Daria approached, she could see that Helen was struggling to free herself.
"Oh, please don’t let the girls find me like this," Daria heard her say.
Daria lifted the panties off Helen’s head. "He hasn’t been answering mine today either," she said in a sympathetic tone.
Helen looked at Daria with something like horror in her eyes. Then, with a visible effort, she collected herself somewhat. "Untie me, Daria. Or shoot me. Whatever."
"Look me in the eye."
Helen brought her face as close to Daria’s as she could, glaring. "Daria, this is a very bad time to mess with me," she said in a dangerously calm, frayed-around-the-edges voice.
Daria refrained from remarking the obvious- that while Helen was naked, lost in the middle of the forest, and tied to a tree, was an excellent time to mess with her. "Looks okay," she said. She moved to the other side of the tree and began working on the knot. "Do you remember what happened? You guys ate those berries Dad picked and then flipped out? I just needed to check your pupils to see if you're over the effects."
"Starting down the trail with Quinn this morning is the last thing I remember clearly, including how I wound up in this... condition. What do you mean, flipped out?"
"You started saying strange things and running through the woods."
"About tribes and tides and spirit animals and... Captain Cutlass and his men."
Helen froze. Daria surmised she’d either recovered a memory or put two and two together.
"Oh, no. Were we... were you...?
"Traumatized into involuntary lifelong celibacy? Probably. No child should ever... Ah, here we go." Daria pulled at a loop and the knot came undone.
Helen did not wait for Daria to untie the rope from her other wrist, but immediately put on her panties, then grabbed her hiking shorts from a nearby bush and put them on too. A few minutes of searching, and she was fully dressed once more, although still a bit wild looking with all the twigs twisted into her hair, not to mention funky-smelling. "Didn’t the berries affect you?" she asked.
"No. I’d never seen berries like that before, so I didn’t eat any," Daria replied. "Do you have any idea where Dad is?"
"I couldn’t see which way he went. He yelled something like "I’ll get you this time, old man! I know where you are!" and ran off," Helen replied, coiling the rope and putting it in her pocket.
"I know where he’s going, then. Down that closed trail with the bridge washed out. Come on, we have to go this way to get to the main trail."
"Let’s go," Helen said grimly, picking up Jake’s hiking shorts as she passed them.
They set off through the forest, Daria navigating from trail sign to trail sign, Helen following Daria with no idea where they were. Daria seemed deep in thought, and Helen didn’t feel like chatting. As they neared the campsite, Daria spoke up.
"I have a suggestion. If we gang up on him and tie him up way down there by the bridge, that’ll leave us an awful long way to have to carry him somehow. It’s almost three miles from there to where the car is parked, and it’s uphill most of the way. It’d be a lot easier if you drove the car down here, at least to the campsite."
They stepped into the little clearing where they’d set up camp, seemingly so long ago. Helen considered this. "It sounds tempting. But these are just hiking trails, and they’re clearly marked, ‘No vehicles allowed.’
Daria sighed as she gazed down the trail. "Yeah, but you can tell that the Forest Service occasionally brings a pickup in here to maintain the campsites. They’re going to have to bring big trucks in soon to rebuild that bridge. How much damage can you possibly do?"
Helen considered the logistics of the situation again. "On the other hand, what’s the use of having an SUV if you can’t go off road with it when you need to?"
Daria smiled. "Good. I’ll keep Dad away from the bridge and try to lure him back this way. You follow the trail that way, and it’ll lead you straight to the car. Watch for Quinn, and blow your horn every so often. Last I saw of her was over in that direction, about half a mile." Daria waved in a southwesterly direction. "She might be recovering from the berries now, too."
"You’ve seen her? What condition was she in?"
"Physically, she’s in fine shape. She thinks she’s a fairy, but she seems to sort of recognize me."
"What do you mean, she seems to sort of recognize you?"
"She acts like she knows me, but she thinks I’m an evil wizard trying to catch little blue people, or something. That’s probably why she wouldn’t let me get near her. But she had the common sense to keep her socks and boots."
"Oh, that Jake and his damned berries! Wait, what do you mean, she kept her socks and boots? What didn’t she keep?"
"Well... everything else."
"Oh, no! My baby! How could you leave her like that?"
Daria looked sad. "I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t want to, but she’s flighty. I found her twice, but she wouldn’t let me get close enough either time to make a grab for her, and if I chased her, there’s no telling how far away she’d end up. I decided it was best not to chase her."
Helen’s expression softened. "It’s okay, Daria. You were on your own, and you had to make the best decisions you could in very difficult circumstances. And you were probably right."
Daria smiled. "Try not to worry, Mom. I haven’t seen her enjoy herself this much since that ballet recital when she was the head swan and I fell into the orchestra pit. I’m going this way. If you come past here with the car, about a quarter mile down, the trail forks, and one fork is blocked off with a sign saying the bridge is out. That’s probably as far as you should take the car."
Helen seemed to reach a decision. "No, Daria, I’ll go after your father. I wouldn’t want you to meet up with him if he still thinks he’s Captain Cutlass. You go find Quinn."
Daria looked down at the ground, dejected. "I failed. Twice."
Helen smiled and laid a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. "Daria, you found her twice. I couldn’t have done that. I have no idea where or how to even begin. You can do it. I know you can."
Daria looked up at her mother and smiled a little. Her shoulders straightened fractionally. "Okay, Mom. I’ll do it. We’ll be back to help you with Dad." Daria turned and strode off southward down the trail.
Helen’s smile widened. "I know you will, sweetie."
Quinn wore a fifth garland of flowers now. She had invented a way to hang flowers on low tree branches, and was decorating a charming little dell she’d discovered. She sang a la-la song as she worked.
Quinn’s head came up. She looked all around her, searching for the source of the voice. Seeing nothing, after a few seconds she called out, "Who are you?"
"I am Titania, Queen of the fairies," the ethereal, yet dignified voice replied. "Your efforts to protect the little cute things of the forest have found favor with us. We have observed you and found you worthy. I have decided to grant you the power to change into a fairy, whenever you wish."
Quinn gasped, and a look of delighted wonder lit up her face. "Will I be able to fly?"
"Yes, Quinn, when you are a fairy, you will have beautiful fairy wings, and you will be able to fly anywhere you want to go. And you will always know where the fairy revel will be held that night."
Quinn was enraptured. "Oh, thank you, Queen Titania, thank you! I’ll be a good fairy, you’ll see! Uh... how do I turn into a fairy?"
The voice said, "I have sent you the magical Glitter Berries by my servant, the troll maiden Darga. Once you have eaten them, you will be able to change into a fairy, and back into a human girl, whenever you wish. Farewell, Quinn. I’ll see you soon."
"Wait, Titania, don’t go! I have so many questions! ...Titania? ...Queen Titania?" Quinn looked all around, and listened intently, but saw and heard nothing. "Uhh... troll maiden?"
Leaves crackled to Quinn’s right front, and a female creature stepped into sight. She was rather plain looking, and her clothing was coarse and drab and very unfashionable. She walked with a heavy tread, carrying a sky-blue pillow with something on it. She might have been considered good-looking among trolls, Quinn thought. The female stopped, then spoke. "I am Darga. These are for Quinn."
Quinn cautiously approached the creature, who remained where she had stopped. She saw now that there were about a dozen dark berries on the sky-blue pillow. "Are these the Glitter Berries?" she asked. "Do I eat them now?"
The female called Darga stood stolidly, holding the sky-blue pillow in front of her. "These are for Quinn," she said.
Quinn hesitated for a moment, then said, "I am Quinn. Should I eat these now?"
"I am Darga. These are for Quinn." Darga stood there, saying nothing further. She might be a good servant, Quinn thought, but she evidently wasn’t very bright. Quinn wished she could talk to Titania some more. Titania had said, "I’ll see you soon." She’d probably meant at the fairy revel tonight. She’d said Quinn would know where it was. But that was only when she was a fairy. And to be able to change into a fairy, she had to eat the Glitter Berries.Titania had said she’d sent the Glitter berries by her servant, the troll maiden Darga. Here was Darga, and here were the berries. "I guess I’d better eat them," she thought.
Quinn walked up to where the troll girl stood and reached out a hand to take a Glitter Berry. Suddenly the berries and the pillow flew up in the air, and Quinn felt something tighten around her wrist. She tried to jerk back, but couldn’t. There was a rope around her wrist, and the other end of it was around one of Darga’s wrists. "What are you doing?" she cried.
"Keeping you safe." Darga replied.
"You fool! You’ve spilled the Glitter Berries!" Quinn wailed. She looked down and saw the pillow, with two berries still on it. She quickly knelt, grabbed the berries with her other hand, and popped them into her mouth. "Hey, these are blackberries!"
"Yeah.. Couldn’t find any Glitter Berries."
A light came on in Quinn’s head. She looked closely at the troll maiden’s features. "Daria! You! You’ve ruined everything, you, you...troll! I hate you!"
"I know." Daria actually looked sad when she said this.
Quinn began tugging wildly at the knot on her wrist as she rose to her feet. Daria knew that it was possible for her to loosen the slipknot and pull her wrist free, and put a hand on the knot to prevent it. Quinn struggled more fiercely, trying to fight Daria off.
Suddenly Daria cried out in pain and put her free hand to her cheek. It came away with blood on it. The struggle halted abruptly. Daria stared at the blood on her hand and then accusingly at Quinn.
Quinn seemed shocked that she’d actually drawn blood. She looked at her own hand and found a jagged nail, then back at Daria with regret. "I’m sorry... but let me go, dammit!"
"I’m not going to do that, Quinn, because pretty soon the effects of those berries are going to wear off completely, and then you’re going to realize that you’re naked and lost in a very big forest. And when you do, you’re going to want someone to show you the way back to camp. I can’t keep hunting you down again and again until that happens. I’m too tired."
"I’ll have you know I’ve been doing just fine, thank you, and I’m not naked, I’m natural! This is the way we were born, you know, and it’s very comfortable! You oughtta try it sometime! Now let me go!"
This was Quinn’s strangest symptom, Daria thought, her most bizarre behavior. Quinn loved clothes. Whatever mental quirk the berries had induced in her contrary to that should be easy to overcome.
Daria replied, "Maybe I will, as soon as we get home and I get into the shower. Nice body painting, by the way. The linework is lively but not sloppy."
" I like your use of line to lead the viewer’s eye to your pubic area."
Quinn covered her pubic area with a hand. "Hey!"
"And that smiley face on your left boob is so cute! Especially the way you use your nipple for the nose. Makes me want to beep it."
Quinn covered as much of her bust as she could with her other hand and arm. "Daria! Quit staring at me!"
"Why? You’re not naked, you’re natural! Oh, and those palm prints! A lot of girls would have overdone those, but you didn’t. Those two on your butt are especially intriguing. It looks like someone stood face to face with you, reached around and grabbed your ass and pulled you right up..." Daria made illustrative motions.
Quinn realized she’d run out of hands. "Daria, stop it! That’s mean! Can’t you see I don’t have any clothes on?"
Daria suppressed a smile. "Why, yes, you’re right, Quinn. You don’t. You took them off and left them in the forest somewhere."
"Oh, hell. And I don’t even remember where." Quinn whined, looking around her very unhappily. "How far is it to camp?"
Daria let a little of the smile out. "About a mile and a half, following my marked trail." Quinn looked even unhappier. "However..." Daria picked up the blue pillow and handed it to Quinn. "Here are some clothes I found lying in the forest."
Quinn suddenly looked very happy. "My clothes!" Her look changed to iritation as she tried to figure out how to unfold the ‘pillow’. "What... everything is stuffed into one leg of the jeans! And they’re folded like they’re trying to swallow themselves! Why’d you do that?"
"To make it look like a pillow, of course. You’re welcome, Quinn. Happy to be of assistance."
A seemingly interminable time later, Quinn was finally getting her shirtsleeves rolled up just the right amount. Daria was preventing herself from fidgeting by sheer will power. "Come on, Quinn, you’re a vision of loveliness, for cryin’ outside."
"Yeah, right. Well, I guess I look good enough for you and squirrels. This would have gone a heck of a lot faster if you hadn’t insisted on keeping a rope on me all the time, like I was a wild horse or something. I know you just did it ‘cause you’re mad about having to chase me," Quinn said resentfully.
Daria frowned. "No, I did it because your eyes are still dilated, and I don’t want you to have to spend tonight in this forest, lost and alone." She paused a second, then added, "Your crying and screaming might keep me awake, if you were too close to camp."
Quinn disregarded that last statement out of long familiarity with her sister’s brand of sarcasm. She looked at Daria and felt a little bit sorry she’d said that about Daria being mad at having to chase her, especially when she saw the bloody scratch on Daria’s cheek. Daria hadn’t even mentioned it, much less tried to retaliate, as she would have when they were little. "Um... yeah, I guess," she said, and looked away.
Quinn looked around the little dell once more, and her eye fell on the flowers hanging from the tree branches, and the garlands that she had worn, now lying abandoned on the carpet of leaves. She blinked rapidly and made a little hiccuppy noise. Her shoulders shook.
Daria laid a hand on her shoulder. "Come on, Quinn. I know how you feel, but we need to go."
Angrily, Quinn shook off the hand. "You couldn’t possibly know how I feel!"
"I couldn’t possibly know how it feels to be awakened unwilling from a beautiful dream into ugly reality? To ache for what can never be? No, I guess I couldn’t. I don’t have a heart or a soul. I’m just a brain," Daria replied bitterly.
Shocked, Quinn looked at her sister. Daria turned away. Suddenly, for an instant, she was back in the enchanted forest, flying beside a beautiful fairy princess, glittering gloriously in the magical moonlight... and it was Daria. Then the vision vanished like a burst bubble. The rope jerked at her wrist, and she had to follow her sister on foot through the gloomy forest of reality.
"What did you mean about my pupils being dilated, anyway?" Quinn asked.
Daria replied, "I was looking to see if the effects of those berries were wearing off. Your pupils are still a little too wide, so they haven’t quite worn off yet."
"Berries? I only ate two blackberries. Surely..."
"No, the ones you ate this morning, the ones Dad found."
"Oh. So you think there was something wrong with those berries? And that’s why Mom and Dad were talking funny?"
"Oh, yeah, there was definitely something wrong with those berries. I’ve been running myself ragged all day trying to keep the three of you in the same county."
"But if they were dangerous, wouldn’t the Forest Service warn us about them? Like they do about poisonous snakes and stuff?"
"You’d think so, wouldn’t you?"
Quinn looked around. "Hmm. So, anyway, now we have to walk a mile and a half to get back to camp? I don’t see anything that looks like trail marks."
"We’re not following the trail I marked. If my sense of direction is any good, we’re pretty close to the main trail, only about two or three hundred yards. So we’re just walking straight east till we cut the trail. It’ll be much shorter this way."
"Daria, how sure are you about that? It sounds kind of risky."
"Well, my distance estimate could be off, but as long as we walk east, there’s no way we can miss intersecting the trail from the parking area to the campsite, unless we cut the road to the parking area, which is just as good."
"Daria, if you get us lost, you know I’m gonna bitch about it for the rest of our short, miserable lives."
Daria pointed. "Guess you’ll have to file that in your ‘shattered dreams’ bin, Quinn. There’s the trail just up ahead."
Daria and Quinn pushed their way between a couple of bushes and emerged onto the trail. Looking south, Daria could see part of Helen’s red SUV in the parking area off the paved road. She stood for a moment in thought.
Quinn felt the rope tighten on her wrist, and turned back toward Daria. "Come on, Daria, camp is the other way,"
"Right, but we might need the SUV if we have to restrain Dad."
"But Mom’ll have to come get it. You don’t have a set of keys... do you?"
Daria started walking toward the car. "No, but maybe I can boost it." She walked up to the front passenger side wheelwell, reached inside the fender, felt around a bit, and pulled out a small box. Opening the box, she brought out a key, which she held up for Quinn to see.
Daria removed the rope that bound Quinn to her, then unlocked the doors and opened the one on the driver’s side. Quinn opened the front passenger door, and they both waited a few seconds to let the worst of the heat escape. "Why did Mom tell you about her hidden key, Daria? She didn’t tell me," Quinn remarked as she slid gingerly onto the hot seat. There was a trace of resentment in her voice.
"She didn’t. I guessed."
Quinn cocked an eyebrow. "Oh, come on, Daria, you went straight to it."
"A reasoned guess. Mom usually wears skirts when she goes out, so she’s not going to want to bend over too much in a parking lot to reach the key. I figured the top of the driver’s side wheelwell would be a little too obvious, so I went straight to the second most obvious place, and there it was."
"Oh, that’s so simple!" Quinn replied, and forgot about it. Daria choked back her irritation.
As Daria started the SUV, she remarked, "Mom usually keeps breakfast bars in the glove compartment, to eat on her way to work."
Quinn had it open before Daria had finished the word "compartment", and was tearing the wrapper off a bar. Daria smirked as she wolfed it down. "Hey, chew it a couple of times! You’ll give yourself a bellyache!"
Quinn said nothing, but went fractionally slower on her second bar. "Um, say, Jaws, if there are any left, I’d kind of like one," Daria said as she backed the SUV up and headed it cautiously up the path.
Quinn still said nothing, probably because her mouth was full, but managed to look abashed for a second. She pulled another bar out of the glove box, handed it to Daria, then, seeing that Daria was driving, pulled it back and unwrapped it before handing it to her again.
"Ghod, I had no idea I was so hungry, until you mentioned food!" Quinn gasped when she’d regained the power of speech. "And now I’m dying of thirst!"
"Water bottle in my pocket," Daria said, concentrating on staying on the trail, which was thickly overhung with brush in spots. "Don’t rip the pocket off."
Quinn lost no time getting to the water bottle, which wasn’t quite half full. She drank eagerly, but stopped before she’d drunk it all. Somewhat reluctantly, she offered it to Daria.
Daria smiled a bit. "Go ahead and finish it. There’s more water at camp."
Quinn didn’t need to be told twice. She tipped the bottle up again, and didn’t lower it till it was empty. "Thanks, Daria."
"Sure." Daria smiled briefly, but maintained her concentration on the trail.
Helen was sitting on a log at the campsite, drinking water and looking anxious. She didn’t look entirely pleased that Daria had driven her toy up here through the brush, but her face lit up when Quinn got out.
After being hugged thoroughly by Helen, and assuring her that she was fine, Quinn went for her water. Helen turned to Daria and hugged her too, before she could get out of range. "I knew you’d bring her back. How did you do it?"
"Well, once it dawned on me that I should tell her something that she’d want to believe, the details fell into place pretty quickly." Daria told Helen how she’d lured Quinn close enough to get a rope on her. "How is Dad?" she asked.
"His eyes aren’t as dilated, but he’s fixated on his ‘Old Man.’ I talked him out of trying to jump the ravine, but he won’t let go of the idea that the ‘Old Man’ is around here somewhere and this is his chance to track track him down, or wrestle him, or beat him at something."
Quinn came back, carrying two water bottles. She handed one to Daria. "Here, Daria, I refilled your bottle. Ah! I feel so much better!" Her brow furrowed a bit. "Uh, Mom, where’s the toilet paper?"
Helen pointed. "The paper is in the top of my pack, and the camp shovel is leaning against that tree."
Quinn got the roll of toilet paper, wnd went to get the little folding shovel. "I hate this" she muttered.
They watched Quinn head off toward where they’d dug the latrine, then Helen turned to Daria. "How are you doing, Daria? And what happened to your cheek?"
"It’s nothing, I scratched it on a broken branch. I’m okay, just tired. I’ll be sore as heck tomorrow, though. Dad will be too, I’m thinking."
Just then Jake trotted past the edge of the campsite, passing within feet of where Quinn was crouched, apparently noticing neither her, Helen. or Daria. He had his hiking shorts on again, but he was still shirtless, and still flushed.
Daria watched him go with a worried expression. "He’s getting ‘way too much exercise today. I think we need to settle him down somehow. Tie him up, knock him out, give him what he wants..." there was a subtle change in Daria’s expression. "Hmmm. I have an idea."
"What are you thinking, Daria?" Helen asked.
"He needs a self-esteem boost, and he wants to beat his Old Man at something. How about if he rescues Quinn?"
"But Qu... hmmm. Hmmm. Go on."
Just then Quinn returned and replaced the toilet paper in Helen’s pack. She glared frequently in the direction Jake had gone. "I hate this effing place!"
"Relax, Quinn," Daria said. "He didn’t see you. He didn’t even see us."
"I don’t care! I want a bathroom, with no bugs and a lockable door! I’m not a damn bear! I don’t wanna sh..."
"We get it, Quinn," Helen replied, holding up a warning finger. "Maybe if you help us out here, we can leave a little early. Daria, tell us what you have in mind."
"Quinn goes off a little way along this trail I marked," Daria pointed, "toward that clearing where you were. We find Dad again and tell him we need him to help find Quinn. We split up, making sure he’s the one who goes in Quinn’s direction. Quinn, when you hear him coming, you make like ‘Oh, deah, I’m lost in the forest. What shall become of me?’ and make sure he finds you."
"You mean like "Yoo-hoo! I’m a wee tiny elfling, and I’m losted!" Quinn smirked. Daria glowered at her.
Helen looked puzzled. "Well, lose the part about the elfling."
Daria added, "And don’t try to con him out of his gold card." Quinn glowered at Daria.
Helen said, "I’m sure you wouldn’t do a thing like that, would you, Quinn?"
"Of course not!" Quinn continued to glower at Daria.
"Of course not. Meanwhile, Mom and I will be shadowing him on the right and left, staying just close enough to see and hear. If he tries to do anything other than rescue you, we’ll close in and go to Plan ‘B’." Daria held up a short piece of rope with loops in each end.
"Sure, I can do that. I’m pretty good with Dad," said Quinn.
Helen held up a hand. "Hold on. It sounds good, but it also sounds like a good way to get us all lost in the forest. We don’t have a whole lot of daylight left."
"Well, I’m not gonna get lost. I’m almost familiar with this part of the forest, and anyway, I’ve got my compass. All I need to do is walk straight east till I cut this trail. And Dad seems to be pretty familiar with this patch of woods too."
"What about Quinn? And me?"
"Quinn is going to be following my marked trail, and she’ll only be going a hundred yards or so. If any of you gets turned around, I’ll blow the horn to guide you back to camp."
"It still sounds risky."
"Coming out here in the first place was risky. We did it because we thought it’d be good for Dad. I’d rather not end the trip with him beating himself up over endangering his family. Not if we can make him feel like he did something good, something worthwhile. But it’s up to you."
Helen stared into the circle of stones where the fire had been. "All right, we’ll do it. I’ll go find Jake. Daria, be sure Quinn knows where she’ll be and how to read your trail signs. Any questions?"
Daria looked down the trail to the remains of the little bridge. The part of it on this bank of the ravine was more-or-less intact, but there were only a few splintered logs left on the other side. The center section was gone. The gap was clearly too wide to jump, and there was no good place to land on the opposite bank.
Helen stood at this end of the bridge, blocking it, talking to Jake. Jake was using a lot of arm gestures. Helen stood firm, arms crossed. Jake turned off the trail and headed toward the ravine, holding onto the bridge timbers as he went. This didn’t look good.
Suddenly Jake was making with the arm gestures again. No, he was batting at something, and retreating back up the bank as fast as he could. Now he was running back up the trail, straight towards her, with Helen right behind, also batting at something. Inferring the presence of wasps or yellowjackets, Daria looked around her.
There were some tall thin weeds growing by the path here, a kind that looked like dusters. Daria quickly opened her knife and cut a couple. As Jake ran up, she said, "Stop. Turn around," and brushed him off with the weeds. She knocked one red wasp off his back, and quickly stomped it. Helen didn’t have any on her, and the wasps hadn’t followed them this far.
"Darn you, Old Man! You’ll have to do better than that! A few wasps aren’t gonna stop me!" Jake shouted, shaking his fist at the sky. He turned back toward the bridge.
Daria managed to get in front of him. "Are you saying that your father has the power to control insects from beyond the grave?" she asked him.
Startled, Jake stopped dead and stared into his daughter’s eyes. "Well, when you put it like that... I’m sorry, honey, your old man’s just a raving idiot! Got no more sense than a goose, just like..."
Daria interrupted, to keep him from going into another rant. "Dad, we need your help. Quinn’s lost in the forest, and we need your help to find her."
Jake looked down at the ground. "Aww, hell, I’d probably screw it up, just like..."
Seeing that Helen was about to rip a strip off him, Daria tried one more time. She took hold of his arm. "Dad, Quinn needs you," she said.
A look of determination slowly formed on Jake’s face. "Come on, let’s go," he said, and strode off up the trail.
Daria set off behind him, half-trotting to keep up. "Dad, we need you." That doesn’t work. "Dad, Quinn needs you." That works. I’m not even gonna think about that. Daria shoved the thought firmly out of her mind.
"Okay, Mom, you stop here, where you can still see the trail. When you hear Dad yell "Go," turn left and walk south, keeping the trail in sight all the time. Come on, Dad." Daria pointed south, then she and her father continued on into the woods.
"Come on, Kiddo, let’s hurry," said Jake as he lengthened his stride through the forest.
"I can’t, Dad. My legs are short, and I’ve been going all day. I’m really tired."
"Oh, I heard that! That’s what I used to try to tell the Old Man when he’d drag us off into the woods for ‘Field Exercises!’ Fat lot of good it did me! "Keep up, boy!" he’d say. Fall behind and they’ll find your bones next Spring, if you’re lucky!’" The more Jake ranted, the faster he walked. "Damn him! I was just a little kid! I didn’t have long hairy legs like..."
"Well, you’ve got ‘em now, and I don’t! Have a heart, Dad!" Daria wailed.
Jake stopped dead and turned around. He had a stricken look on his face. "Aww, gee, Kiddo, I’m sorry! I was doing just what my rotten Old Man used to do! Damn you, Old Man! Look what you’ve done to me!" he shook his fist at the sky again.
Daria wondered why Jake thought Mad Dog was up there. She put a hand on his arm. "It’s okay, Dad. You stopped, he didn’t. You’re better than he was." The genuinely happy smile she got in return made her wish everything else in life were that easy.
"Okay, this is far enough. I can just see Mom from here. Remember, Mom is staying in sight of the trail. You stay in sight of Mom, and I stay in sight of you. Move closer to her if you need to. Just wave to me so I can close in too."
"Okay, Kiddo. I got it."
"I’m gonna go on farther now. When I holler ‘Go,’ you relay it to Mom, and then walk south." Daria pointed with her arm directly toward where she knew Quinn waited, then headed off further into the forest.
Daria didn’t try to get to the maximum distance she could see her Dad from, just far enough to look good. Her job was to make sure Jake found Quinn, and that neither of her parents wandered past her, deeper into the forest. Then, Stout Fellows all round, and haul freight for home. It couldn’t be soon enough for her. She looked to her Dad, made a ‘forward ho!’ gesture, and shouted "Go!"
Jake took off, then remembered to yell "go" to Helen. Daria noticed that, if she was looking at just the right moment, she could catch an occasional glimpse of Helen. She yelled, "Slow down, Dad! Keep a straight line!" Quinn couldn’t possibly fail to hear them coming, she thought.
Daria trudged along, turning her head back and forth, trying to keep track of both her parents, and at the same time avoid tripping, running into something, or otherwise hurting herself. Walking was twice as tiring this way, because she couldn’t spare the attention to watch her footing like she normally would, and often had to recover from slips and trips. The spring had gone from her step long ago, and her tired legs sent frequent jolts up her spine to her tired brain. She would probably give her whole Montana cabin fund to be in her bed at home right now.
She entered an area where the large trees had been logged off and saplings left to grow up and replace them. Quinn should be on the other side of this area, and she should start making some sort of noise when Jake got a little closer. Visibility and hearing were better here than in thick woods, but Daria was finding walking somewhat more difficult because of all the brush, grass, and weeds that grew here where large trees didn’t block out the sun. Daria wondered what Quinn would do to attract Jake’s attention without seeming like that’s what she was trying to do.
Suddenly, up ahead, several birds burst upward from some brush, followed by an ""Eee!" and some muffled expletives in a voice that sounded very much like Quinn’s. Very good, thought Daria, kick up a covey of quail. That’ll work nicely. Daria smirked. She’ll probably even try to claim she did it deliberately.
"Quinn!" Jake shouted. "Hang on, kitten! Daddy’s coming!" Jake broke into a run, tripped and fell, got up, and settled for a jog.
Damn, thought Daria. There went any hope of keeping a straight line. Daria broke into a jog herself to try to keep Jake in sight.
Damn, thought Daria. There went any hope of keeping a straight line. Oh, well. The game was afoot. Daria broke into a jog herself to try to keep Jake in sight. Something suddenly burst out of a bush into her path. Hairy, beady eyes, lots of teeth... a possum. It scurried off in Jake’s general direction.
"Gaah! Git, you varmint!" she shouted after it, her heart pounding. She tried to pick up her pace again.
Ahead and to her right, Jake yelled, "Gah dammit!" and waved his arms. A fresh fear gripped Daria. Jake’s heart didn’t need any close encounters of the possum kind, especially right now. He stood still for a few seconds, apparently catching his breath, then continued on, more slowly. Daria closed up on him, and tried to catch sight of Helen.
It didn’t take long. Daria turned at the sound of a shriek and saw Helen’s upper torso bobbing up and down, her arms in the air. She heard "Oohhh! something Beast! something something." Daria grinned. Either that possum was a very bad decision maker, or very unlucky, or it had a strange sense of humor.
Daria was expecting Quinn to start calling to Dad, to guide him in, now that he’d heard her and called out to her. She didn’t intend to do any hollering herself. She wanted Jake to feel like he’d done it himself, as much as possible. She slogged on quietly, keeping Jake in sight, but giving him as much room as she could.
Quinn didn’t wait long. Daria heard her full-throated cry, "Eeeek! A giant rat!" and saw her suddenly appear several feet up the trunk of a tree not far ahead. Jake shouldn’t have any trouble finding her now, nor Helen either. Daria collapsed against a fairly sturdy sapling and tried to muffle the laughter she couldn’t choke back.
A minute or so later, having returned to almost-normal breathing, Daria looked up and listened. The celebration was already underway, it sounded like. She’d best go and add her huzzahs to the roar of the crowd. Damn, she thought, I’d give a lot for a good clear photo of Quinn up that tree, just at the time she shrieked ‘giant rat!’. She’d give even more for a video, especially with sound. Oh, well. Life sucks, and then you die. Muffling a few last chuckles with her sleeve, she staggered through the wild wood toward her family.
13THE CALL OF THE WILD
Back at camp, the Morgendorffers were striking their tents and preparing to steal away into the night. Or late afternoon, to be more accurate.
"But we’re going to have to vacuum them and air them out before we put them away," Daria pointed out reasonably. "Packing them now is a waste of time. Let’s just put them in the back of the car."
"‘Anything worth doing is worth doing right," Jake said, chewing on a grass stem as he supervised. "Fold them up neatly, and pack them in their bags."
Daria turned away so her father couldn’t see her expression. She’d bet every cent she had that that was a direct quote from Mad Dog. The new, more self-confident Dad wasn’t quite an unqualified improvement over the old one.
She and Quinn were working out which way to fold their tent next when a possum waddled into the campsite with a can on its head. As it staggered nearer, making little noises that sounded eerily like cursing, Daria could see that it was the chili can she’d thrown away earlier in the day. The possum evidently didn’t have the brain power to use its front paws to push the can off its head. "Eek! Mad possum!" Quinn squealed.
No, just pissed off, thought Daria. Guiltily, she realized that this poor possum’s predicament was her fault, and that it might actually die before it could get free of the can. As its drunkard’s-walk course was bringing it past her, she stepped swiftly in front of it, reached down, and grabbed the can.
The possum stopped dead for a second, and then it backed up, which was all it took to get its head out of the can. Once free, it stood on its hind legs and tail and wiped its eyes with its front paws. Its head was liberally smeared with chili, which contained quite a few ants and a couple of yellowjackets. Daria couldn’t help but grin at the sight. Good thing it was mild chili, she thought.
Once it had cleared its eyes, it looked around, and saw Daria looming over it, holding the chili can. It made a noise between a sneeze and a snort, turned and fled the campsite as fast as it could trot. Daria made a mental note to look up whether or not possums had the ability to gallop. "Haha! Sorry!" she laughed at its retreating backside. Then she looked around.
Jake, Helen, and Quinn were standing as if rooted to the spot, staring at her. "Did you see that?" Quinn inquired, of no one in particular. "She just ran up and grabbed it!"
Daria looked at them, surprised. It had been obvious to her that the possum was harmless and easy to catch with a can on its head, and that, once free of the can, it would flee the humans. So she’d helped it a little. They seemed to think she’d done something remarkable.
Suddenly, that wicked little voice was whispering in her ear. She stifled a grin, and put on something more like a surprised, wondering smile.
"Hey, that was kind of fun. That was kind of... exciting! Really, this whole trip was kind of exciting! It was like finding your roots, you know, finding out who you really are! Where you came from!"
Smiling excitedly, Daria walked up to them, talking to each of them in turn , with reaching, grasping hand gestures. "Oh, man! I feel the veneer of civilization cracking and falling away! I feel the old ancestral memories awakening!" "The primitive instincts stirring!" she half growled. Flinging wide her arms, she shouted to the forest, "I feel The Call of The Wild!"
Helen, wide-eyed, nudged Quinn. "Throw everything in the back. We’ll fold it later."
"Right," said Jake and Quinn.
Daria turned to the others, who were hurrying to the car with armloads of camping gear. "Hey, let’s stay another night, you guys. Naah, never mind, you guys go on home, and I’ll stay. Pick me up in a week or two."
"Quickly!" urged Helen.
"Right," agreed Jake and Quinn, heaving packs and bags into the back of the SUV.
Smiling dreamily, Daria strolled toward the forest.
"o/ In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight... o/" she sang softly.
Helen took hold of her upper arm and gently steered her toward the SUV. "Daria, why don’t you have a seat, sweetie? We’re just about finished here." Daria allowed herself to be cautiously helped into the back seat. Helen closed the door and leaned against it while she gestured at Quinn and Jake to hurry up and get in.
Daria smiled and let herself sink into the upholstery. That little piece of guerilla theater might come back to bite her later, she reflected, but it had been fun. Ooh, this seat felt so good.
As the SUV started to roll, Daria turned to her window for a last glance at the campsite. Was that a possum, sitting at the edge of the clearing, rubbing its eyes? "Hey, look, Quinn, your little friend came to see you off. Aww, I think he’s crying!"
Helen turned off her cell phone, still looking somewhat irritated. "So, are you gonna sue Smokey the Bear’s hairy butt off?" Daria inquired.
"No, I guess not. The ranger said the psychotropic and aphrodisiac effects of those berries have only very recently been discovered, and they’ve got warning posters on order. They can’t really be said to be negligent. And anyway, you can only sue a federal agency if they let you."
"What was all that other stuff you two were talking about?" Daria asked.
"Well, after I told him I wouldn’t answer any more questions about the berries’ effects on the phone while driving, he said we’d gotten off pretty easy. He said that yesterday they had to med-evac a party out to have their stomachs pumped. The chopper flight alone is going to cost them fifteen thousand dollars, and hospital expenses will be at least a couple thousand more."
"Fifteen thousand dollars!" Jake exploded. "Dammit, that’s an outrage! How dare the government treat taxpayers like that? We pay their salaries, dammit! We paid for that damn helicopter!"
"Calm down, Jake, before you blow a blood vessel in your other eye!" Helen replied.
And if not for me, that could’ve been you, thought Daria. That is, if you got out at all. She wouldn’t mind being thanked effusively, or maybe being awarded ten percent of what she’d saved her family, but she wasn’t going to hold her breath, this being Build Up Dad day and all. Daria sighed and crossed her arms. A thought came to her. "Hey, Dad, are you hungry?"
Daria elbowed her way out the rusty screen door of the tiny dilapidated gas station. The back door of the SUV opened, and she handed part of her load in to Quinn, who’d remained in the car with Helen. Sure, send Daria. She doesn’t care how scruffy she looks. Probably doesn’t even know. She shook her head and looked at the western sky. It looked like it was going to be a beautiful sunset.
She hiked her tired butt up onto the seat, closed her door and settled back. Dad got in the front, and after some unwrapping and arranging, Helen started the car and got under way again. The refreshment selection here had been extremely limited, but it was the first place they’d come to that had anything edible at all, and no one even thought of passing it up. She’d take a Moon Pie, a bag of peanuts, and a Nehi Orange, and be glad to get them.
Monday morning as they emerged from Mr. O’Neill’s literature class, Jane caught up to her friend. "Hey, Daria. You don’t look so good. You okay? How come you were late?"
Daria fumbled sleepily with her lock, then got it open. "I’m exhausted. I overslept. I feel like I spent yesterday falling off a cliff, climbing back up, and falling off again."
"You wouldn’t happen to know why Quinn’s wearing a long sleeved turtleneck and gloves, would you?"
"She had a reaction to some plants she came in contact with in the forest."
"And where’d you get that scratch?" Jane asked, pointing to Daria’s cheek.
Daria closed her locker door. "In the forest."
"Well, duh. How did you get it? Were you attacked by a bear?"
"No, a drug-crazed madwoman." Daria headed for class, with Jane trailing along.
"What? Really? What did she do? What did you do? Are you all right?"
"I’m fine. We struggled, I subdued her, tied her up, and, er, turned her over to the authorities."
"You subdued her! Are you serious? And you turned her in to the police? Who is she? Was she wanted? Was she on the Ten Most Wanted list?"
Daria stopped at the classroom door and barred it with her arm. "Forget what I said. It was a branch, okay? A tree branch scratched me. I was kidding about the madwoman." The bell rang, and the two hurried inside.
Fifty-five minutes later, the bell rang again. Students emerged from the classroom, among them Daria and Jane.
"Come on, Daria, what really happened? Don’t give me that branch stuff," said Jane.
"Why not?" replied Daria. "It was a forest. There were lots of branches. Many more branches than madwomen."
"Tell me the truth, Daria. Tell me about the drug-crazed madwoman."
"It was a tree branch. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it."
At lunch, Daria was sitting at her usual table, with Jane and Jodie.
"Come on, Daria, we’re your friends. You can trust us," said Jodie.
"Yeah, come on, Daria, tell us about the drug-crazed madwoman. We swear we’ll never tell a soul. I’ll even tell you how Trent and I stole a car yesterday. Then if I tell, you tell, and I go to jail!"
Jodie turned and stared at Jane. "You stole a car?"
"You might go to jail, but I’d be killed." Daria replied. "Rubbed out. Offed. Terminated. Stabbed and slabbed."
"AHA! I knew it wasn’t any stupid tree branch!" Jane crowed. "Come on, Daria! Spill it!"
"Aaarrgh!" Daria buried her face in her hands. "No! Nonononono! I want to live!"
The last bell rang. Almost immediately, students began pouring out the doors of Lawndale High. After a minute or two, Daria emerged from the main doors, with Jane, Jodie, and Mack trailing after her.
"I’m not telling anybody anything!"
"Fine! Just come to Pizza King with us," said Jodie. "Have some pizza."
"We’re having a jumbo Supreme, with extra sausage and black olives," said Mack.
"Drinks are on me," put in Jane.
"Well, okay but I’m not discussing the camping trip."
"You don’t have to, Daria. We just enjoy your company," said Jodie, winking at Jane over Daria’s head.
In the booth at Pizza King, Daria sipped her cola and looked at the last slice of the jumbo Supreme pizza with double sausage and black olives. That had been one fine pizza. "Hey, you guys mind if I eat this last slice?" she asked.
But answer came there none. Jane, Jodie, and Mack were trying vainly to wipe away the tears that were streaming down their faces. They were laughing so hard they probably hadn’t even heard the question.
"Well, guess I’d better be getting home. See you at school tomorrow. Thanks for the pizza." Daria slid out of the booth. Taking her cup in one hand and the slice in the other, she headed for the door. The others didn’t see her go. Their eyes were squeezed tightly shut from laughing.
Pausing at the door, Daria looked back. She hadn’t even told them half the story of their camping trip. She wondered if she could stretch the rest into two more trips to Pizza King. Hey, if Sheherezade could do it, so could she. Daria bit the tip off the slice she was holding. Mmm. Excellent pizza.
Walking down the sidewalk in the afternoon sunshine, Daria smiled a little and took a sip of her cola. Life was sweet. Too bad she had to die now. Sooner or later the story would make its way to Quinn’s ear, and then Quinn would kill her. Oh, well. Everybody had his fate. Everybody had a date. She popped the last bite of pizza into her mouth. Maybe Quinn would miss on her first attempt and she’d have a chance to run for it. Amy might take her in. Daria’s smile returned. Hell, for that story and a set of prints, Amy would probably put her through college.
And speaking of a set of prints, she wondered how much money Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie could scrape together. The thought brought an evil grin to her lips. Naah, she wouldn’t do that. Nor would she be telling any pirate tales anytime soon, not while Mom and Dad were still alive. Not for any amount of pizza. She had to save something to brighten up her old age, in case she lived that long.
La la LA la la.