Smoking Mirror




©2010 The Angst Guy (

Daria and associated characters are ©2010 MTV Networks



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Synopsis: After a disastrous experience in Central America, Penny Lane returns to Lawndale, her life in shambles—but with her is a dark souvenir that unravels the lives of everyone around her in terrifying ways.


Author’s Notes: Most events in this story take place in August 2001, the year in which Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane graduate high school, per the Daria movie, Is It College Yet? This movie is assumed to take place throughout early 2001, based on a reference to Dale Earnhardt’s death in one scene. The reader is assumed to have a working knowledge of the major characters from the Daria series, so personal introductions are not given in the story. More “Author’s Notes” and the Acknowledgements are given at the story’s end.












Part One


If You Multiply an Unknown Quantity by Zero

But Get a Result Greater Than Zero,

Are You Using Complex Numbers or Imaginary Ones?



Part Two


The Secret History of Jane Lane



Part Three





Part Four


In the Light of Days to Come










Part One


If You Multiply an Unknown Quantity by Zero

But Get a Result Greater Than Zero,

Are You Using Complex Numbers or Imaginary Ones?





Surely, you think, there will come a time when there will be no further heights to conquer.

This view is mistaken. You underestimate even the foothills that stand in front of you, and

never suspect that far above them, hidden by cloud, rise precipices and snow-fields.


—Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men





It is possible that you can move into the moment of a Might-Have-Been and change it.


—Madeleine L’Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet






Chapter One



       Listening to a Mystik Spiral jam session in a dive on a hot Friday night in August was one of the last things on Earth that Penny Lane wanted to do, right down there with swimming through a lake of bat excrement or accidentally meeting her former high-school phys-ed teacher. However, her younger brother Trent said McGrundy’s Brew Pub on Main Street sold all sorts of beers, even ones from south of the border, and she finally thought it worth the risk of rock-induced ear and brain damage to see what they had. Plus, there was nothing else to do in Lawndale on a Friday night. Penny had walked across deserts that held more of interest.

       She wandered into McGrundy’s just after seven that evening and asked for her favorite Mexican beers at the bar, but the bartender had never heard of Negra Modelo, Bohemia, or even Dos Equis, which was just ridiculous because everyone had Dos Equis. Even Taco Hut and Burrito Barn each served three types of Dos Equis. However, behind the bar at McGrundy’s were row upon row of Corona and Tecate and, gods forbid, the locally made Blank Check Beer, which was worse than cat piss no matter how many limes you stuck in it.

       Muttering a curse she had picked up from an old Zapotec woman in Guatemala, Penny was storming her way out of the pub when her gaze fell on a colorful label on a clear bottle at the end of one shelf. She stopped dead in her tracks. It was a Del Maguey, an Oaxaca mescal so smooth that it could be drunk straight. She dug into her pockets and bought the whole bottle, the only one that McGrundy’s had, and then she settled down to get deliciously messed up. It was at the top of her list of things she wanted to do most at this dead-end stage of her life, ranking even above trekking up the cordilleras again or watching her former phys-ed teacher roast in a gasoline-fed bonfire.

       “Here’s a glass,” said the bartender, placing one on the counter in front of her.

       “Won’t need it,” said Penny, and she took a long, slow swallow straight from the bottle. When she lowered her drink, her mouth filled with half-remembered flavors and her throat lightly burning from the alcohol, she looked right into the mirrored wall behind the bar’s stock shelves. Her reflection caught her eye for a fraction of a second: a lean, wiry, hard-faced burnout with short red hair and dull jade eyes, wearing a low-cut black tank top with white lettering across her braless breasts. Lowering her head, she pretended to study her long camouflage pants and knee-high black-leather hiking boots, hand-tooled in Mexico City. Looking at her own image was the thing she least wanted to do. It reminded her too much of that one other time she’d recently looked into a mirror. And there was nothing to see in the mirror, anyway—just herself, the nothing.

       She heard noises behind her suggesting that her brother’s band was setting up its equipment on the stage across the room. Turning around on her bar stool, Penny leaned back and put her elbows on the counter, letting her dangling legs swing free. The mescal bottle rested on her thigh, with the neck in the fingers of her right hand. Trent’s three band buddies were plugging in amps and doing sound checks. The younger brother of one was helping out. Was he Jesse, or was Jesse his older brother in the band? Penny couldn’t remember their names. She’d never been home long enough to learn them.

       Black-haired Trent sat on a bass speaker, tuning his guitar. Glancing once at Penny, he looked down at his guitar again with no change in expression. He’d spoken maybe two-dozen words to her since she’d come back to Lawndale from El Salvador the day before, acting like her arrival home for the first time in over a year was nothing big. He hadn’t even invited her to the session at McGrundy’s. The idea had actually been her younger sister Jane’s, made after Penny complained that the liquor cabinet was empty. It was likely that Jane just wanted Penny out of the house so Jane could finish a painting in relative quiet, and Trent went along with it. Penny tried not to let it bug her too much.

       Though she hated her older siblings, Penny saw Trent and Jane differently. True, she had resented babysitting them in her high-school years while Mom and Dad ran off to the ends of the earth, but Trent was rarely awake long enough to fight with, and Jane was absorbed in her art—which, Penny admitted, was pretty good, better than her own. Trent and Jane also liked each other, a miracle for any two Lanes. More power to them, Penny thought with a touch of sadness. She recalled the nightmarish fights between her parents before her photographer father began taking overseas assignments. Now, he and his wife Amanda got along smashingly for the few weeks out of the year they were under the same roof. Hitting each other with foam bats helped a little, too.

       Penny sighed in contentment, feeling the mescal spread through her bloodstream. Good thing the house is within walking distance from here, she thought. She watched Trent as he talked with one of his band mates, a skinny bald guy she thought might be the drummer, and she wondered what would become of her twenty-something brother when Jane went off to college in Boston in four months’ time. He’d probably travel more with Mystik Spiral, become another ever-wandering Lane without Jane to anchor him. The house would likely stay empty for long periods after that, unless their mother started teaching ceramics classes in the basement again when she returned from Ireland.

       Where will I travel next? When will I go? Penny wondered. She fingered the mescal bottle. Will I ever go south again, knowing what I do about me? I sure as hell can’t stay around this dump. What the hell am I going to do with my life, now that I have no life left? Does it matter? Couldn’t that whole mess with the mirror have just been a bad dream? She remembered the moment when her life had changed, barely a week earlier, and felt renewed shame. Dream or not, the message rang true—the Penny Lane in the mirror had been the real one.

       Pity that the tavern had only one bottle of mescal left. She was in the mood to drink a case of them.

       At this moment, Penny became aware that a heavily muscled guy in a T-shirt and athletic shorts was walking toward her from the left. He was about to say something that Penny knew would be a come-on. She tensed, angry that her solitude was threatened.

       The guy slowed, clearly staring at her chest—and the warning printed across her tank top. After a moment, the guy laughed and walked on by. Relief ran through her as he did. The tank top’s message was better at deflecting unwanted male companionship than a charged TASER gun.

       Raising the mescal bottle again, she took several long, deep swigs. A girl sitting two stools away on her right hummed an old Sixties song by—what was the band? Jefferson Starship? Penny remembered her ex-hippie parents once sang that very tune whenever it came on the oldies radio stations, so it automatically sucked. Still, when the girl hummed it in her measured way, it didn’t sound too bad. Depressing, maybe, but not too bad. Don’t you want somebody to love? Don’t you need somebody to love?

       As Penny lowered the bottle, her head buzzing and her muscles loosening at last, the girl sitting on her right leaned in close. Now on the stool next to Penny, she was a thin girl with long, thick black hair, candy-apple red lipstick, and eye makeup that gave her face a hyper-intense look. Below her leather and copper choker, the girl wore an ash-gray vest over an olive-green tee, tight black pants that bordered a hand-span of bare midriff, and fashionable black boots with platform soles. Penny had a half-second to absorb this before the girl said in a cheery voice, “Hey! This your first time here?”




Chapter Two



       The redheaded girl sitting two seats over at the bar looked familiar, but Monique couldn’t place her at all. One thing for sure: she looked interesting. Maybe a little weird, too. She was kind of young and kind of old at the same time; Monique guessed she was around thirty, give or take a couple years. After wandering in alone, the new girl bought the bottle of hard liquor that no one ever bought, the one shipped by mistake with a case of Mexican beer. It was clear the new girl meant to get blasted out of her mind. She probably had a good reason to do it. People who drank like that always did. Monique found herself thinking about her father, but she shook it off so she could focus on having a good time and not be depressed.

       She gently scratched the reddened base of her nose. The new girl had the strangest sea-green eyes. Those eyes had looked into dark places and not forgotten what they’d seen. Haunted, that was a good word for them. A good story lurked behind those eyes. Monique loved to listen as well as talk, if someone had something interesting to say. The redheaded girl sure would. What was written on the new girl’s shirt didn’t put her off, either. Monique liked everyone. She could deal with it.

       A jock started to walk toward the redheaded girl, who tensed as if she’d seen him in the corner of her eye—but then the jock read what was printed on the redhead’s butch tank top: I’M HERE LOOKING FOR GIRLS, TOO. The jock laughed and walked on, but Monique sensed that he was eyeing her next. Time to squelch that impulse.

       As the redheaded girl raised her liquor bottle and began chugging it down, Monique got up from her seat and moved over to the stool next to the redhead. For some reason, an old Jefferson Airplane tune from the Sixties came to mind, and she began to hum it—“Somebody to Love,” from a worn-out Surrealistic Pillow LP that elementary-school Monique played on her father’s battered stereo when no one was home at night. The jock got the hint and kept walking. Tah-dah!

       The new girl lowered the liquor bottle and took it from her lips with a sigh. She sensed Monique’s presence and gave her head a half turn.

       “Hey!” Monique said in a lively tone. “This your first time here?”

       The redhead looked at her in vague surprise, blinking. “¿Qué?” she said.

       “I haven’t seen you around before. I’m Monique. Are you here for the band or the booze?”

       The new girl looked flustered. “I’m just hanging out,” she said, a little tense. She started to point to Mystik Spiral, still setting up for its session across the room.

       “Oh, the band!” said Monique. She clapped her bone-thin hands in delight. “I know the lead singer, Trent Lane! He and I used to go out, but that was like a while ago. We broke up. He’s okay, but we didn’t have any karma as a couple, you know? We like fought all the time. We used to be like good friends, and maybe we should have stayed that way, you know? I mean, he’s like a cool guy and all, really, and he helped me get my start in music. He’s the best, I mean it. He says I have stage presence. We were in this band together for a while in high school, before he started Mystik Spiral, and then I got into this other band, a girl band called the Harpies, and I was with them for a couple years, but then I like wanted to do my own thing, you know? Start my own group? It didn’t work out, but I still sing and play bass guitar and do drums a little, too, sort of as backup for different groups when someone gets sick or something, you know? I’m multitalented or something, I guess. How about you?”

       The new girl barely suppressed a smile. “I’m Trent’s sister,” she said.

       “Oh, no!” Monique gasped in mock horror. She then got the giggles. “Oh, my God, you are so kidding me! Really? Oh, my God! You’re older than Trent, right? Are you the oldest?”

       “No,” said the new girl. “I’m la hermana media, the middle kid. I’ve got a sister and brother older than me, and a sister and brother younger than me.”

       “Oh, my God, that’s right! I remember you now! Trent showed me a picture with you in it. I thought I recognized you from somewhere, but I couldn’t remember where. Wow! This is so cool! You’re Penny, right? You were like in Arizona or Mexico or the Amazon for a long time, right? And you just came back? Wow!”

       Penny hesitated, unsure of which conversational thread to follow. “I’m back, yeah,” she said. “I was... I was just living around south for a while, doing odd jobs and selling handicrafts.”

       “So, you make craft stuff, right? What kind of crafts do you do? Trent told me that everyone in your family is really artistic, like really into arts and crafts and things, so you must be really good at it, right?”

       The smile on Penny’s face faded. She looked down at her mescal and made a pained face. “No. It was just yonque. It wasn’t any good.”

       “Oh, right!” Monique nodded and laughed. “I bet you’re great! Oh, hey, look—Spiral’s about to play!”

       Penny looked up. Trent was warming up on his guitar, but he was eyeing both Penny and Monique with concern. Penny waved at him, but he continued to look bugged and even frowned before he looked down at his guitar again. What’s his problem? She snorted, lowering her hand. Fine, be that way, then. Don’t pee on my evening. She took a quick drink from her bottle and was surprised to find it was already down by a third. The mescal buzz had deepened into a profound sense of well-being and warmth.

       “You like Spiral?” Monique asked. “They play here all the time. Well, not really all the time, you know, but like once a month or so, or like when another band falls through. I played backup bass guitar for them when Nick got food poisoning in June, but he got over it in a couple weeks, which was good, like really! I mean, he was really sick. It was weird, though, being in a band with Trent again. He was like, you know, kind of quiet and didn’t talk to me much, but he’s always like that. He doesn’t say much about anything, you know? Is he like that with you? I mean, we didn’t talk much, but I think he was glad I could help him out. He’s pretty good. Too bad we couldn’t make it together, but that’s life, right?”

       Penny shrugged, content. Her input did not seem particularly necessary. She thought it curious, given that she had wanted so much to be alone, that Monique’s presence wasn’t bothering her more. Maybe the mescal was responsible.

       “I bet you have some really good stories, you know, from all the places you’ve been. I love hearing stories. Where did you go last?”

       Penny’s cheek twitched. “Just around,” she said. Her expression darkened. “El Salvador for a couple months, then through Guatemala and Mexico up into Texas, then here. I took buses. I wanted to see the countryside on the way home, like a turista.

       “Why’d you want to leave and come back? I thought you like lived down there or something, from what Trent said.”

       Penny stared at her mescal, her good mood souring.

       “Broke up with your girlfriend?” Monique asked gently.

       Penny looked up in surprise, then caught on. “Oh,” she said, more animated now. She looked down at her tank top, her face coloring. “Oh, no. Um—” She hesitated, then leaned close to Monique and whispered, “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not really a lesbian. I just wear this thing when I want guys to leave me alone.”

       Monique gasped, then burst into laughter and pounded her knees in hysteria. Penny looked away, trying not to smile. She spotted Trent watching the two of them with clear anxiety. His band mates were looking to him, waiting for him to start the jam session, but he was oblivious to everything but his sister and his former girlfriend, and the secret thing that had passed between them that caused them to look so happy together.

       I wonder if he thinks I’m going to hit on his ex, Penny thought, and then realized, He thinks I am hitting on her, and she’s going along with it. Penny burst into laughter, too. She couldn’t help it. The mescal was in full bloom inside her. Her spirit was at peace, for this one blessed moment in time, and she felt great.

       When Monique recovered, Penny leaned over and whispered, “Trent thinks we’ve hooked up.”

       “What?” Monique looked at Trent in confusion. “Why would—oh!” She clapped a hand over her mouth as she looked down at Penny’s tank top. “Oh, you’re kidding! Is it freaking him out?”

       Penny grinned. “, it’s freaking him out.”

       “Oh, my God! That’s great!” said Monique—and she leaned back and slipped her left arm around Penny’s shoulders as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

       Penny turned and stared goggle-eyed for a moment at Monique—then on impulse she put her right arm around Monique’s shoulders, too, the mescal bottle still in her hand. She looked at Trent for his reaction.

       Trent could have been hit with a sledgehammer. He stared white-faced at his sister and ex-girlfriend, while his band mates and several members of the audience shouted his name and snapped their fingers, trying to get his attention to start playing.

       Penny laughed as she hadn’t laughed in years. The mescal made it funnier, until the joy became spiritual and lifted her soul. What am I doing? she asked herself, but then she stopped questioning the moment and simply enjoyed it. She forgot she was a failure, the laughing stock of not only the world but the heavens, too. She forgot all but her joy at a practical joke—and her joy at being close to someone who seemed to like her. Penny hadn’t had a real friend in ages, just acquaintances who tolerated her until either they or she found a reason to move on. Having a friend was a fragile thing. In her heart she knew it could end at any moment—yet it held on as if it might grow.

       Thank you for this moment, she thought in gratitude, to any higher being who could hear her. Thank you, gracias, thank you so much—but if it is your will that this joy should not last, please let me die tonight and remain happy forever.

       She did not die. She forgot herself, her arm around her friend, and laughed.




Chapter Three



       The mescal was gone an hour later. Penny had the idea that her hangover the following morning would be spectacular, but that was all right. It was a small price to pay for having fun.

       It was impossible to hear anything in the pub with everyone talking and Mystik Spiral playing, so Penny gestured toward the door until Monique caught on. They got up and walked out of the bar together, bathed in the strains of “Icebox Woman” and the interested stares of several hundred people. Penny noticed that Trent stopped singing in the middle of a stanza as they headed for the doors. She snickered and waved him goodbye, then put an arm around Monique’s waist as they went out, just to rub it in.

       Once outside, awash in the warm evening sun and the roar of rush-hour traffic, they had to stop because they were laughing too hard to walk straight. Penny wiped her eyes as she leaned against a streetlight by the pub. She could not recall the last time she had felt this good.

       “Ohmigod!” gasped Monique through her laughter, standing on the sidewalk doubled over. “Ohmigod! I’m never going to breathe! I have to stop!” She straightened, saw Penny and her tank top, then burst into new hysteria and bent over again.

       Penny pushed away from the streetlight and tugged on Monique’s arm. “C’mon! ¡Vamanos!” she said, resisting a new round of giggles. “Let’s walk it off!”

       “O-o-okay!” Monique agreed, and she staggered off with Penny. A half-block later, when they stopped at a traffic intersection, they were close to normal again.

       “God, did you see the look on his face?” Monique dabbed her eyes with her vest sleeves. “I thought he was going to die! I hope that wasn’t too mean or anything, but that was so funny! Ohmigod!”

       “Yeah.” Penny nodded, then caught herself swaying where she stood. “Oh, boy,” she said, steadying herself against a signpost. “I drank muy too much.”

       “Wow, like, what was that stuff you were drinking? Vodka?”

       “Uh-uh. Mescal. It’s a Mexican thing, like tequila. Aiy-yi-yi! That stuff was good! Do you drink?”

       “Oh, no.” Monique sniffed and rubbed her nose, suddenly sober. “No, no, I can’t. I mean, I don’t. I don’t like to get drunk.”

       “It’s fun sometimes,” said Penny, feeling light-headed. “I really needed it. Damn, that was so funny with Trent.” She took a deep breath and shook her head, flicking her ragged red hair back and forth. “I am going to be so freaking sick tomorrow, though.”

       “Oh, I hope not.” Monique sighed and straightened her vest. “See, that’s another reason I don’t drink. I mean, I don’t mind if you do, you know. That’s okay with me. I just... you know, everyone’s different. I used to smoke weed when I was in high school, and I did some E a year ago when I was with the Harpies on this gig traveling up the East Coast, just to see what it was like, but I had to quit. It was really messing me up. I had to quit everything last fall, a year ago.” She ran both hands through her thick black hair, then shook her head and blew out a breath. “Wow, I think I’m okay again. Tired, though. That wore me out.”

       “Whoops.” Penny caught herself before she stumbled and fell on the sidewalk. “I need to sit down for a minute.” She stopped and looked around, shading her eyes against a reflection of the setting sun in windows a block away. “Over there,” she said, pointing. “Let’s go across the street to the pavilion, behind the town hall.”

       “Where?” Monique looked around. Across the street she spotted a small city park in back of the ex-cathedral that now served as Lawndale’s government building. In the center of the park, surrounded by a circle of trees and shrubbery, was a domed structure on columns done in Greek style, perhaps twenty feet wide and twenty high. “Oh, sure. I’m kind of beat.”

       They made it across the street when the light turned red and a traffic jam developed, dashing between the stalled cars. Penny bumped into several, yelling, “¡Excúseme!” as she went. On the other side, she stopped beside Monique, who seemed quite tired and was doubled over again, panting for air.

       “You okay?” Penny asked, feeling her thighs and thinking she’d bruised herself pretty good a few times. Stupid cars! They should watch where I’m going!

       “Huh?” Monique gasped. “Oh, yeah, just winded. Just a sec.” She straightened, her pale face almost white.

       Bueno.” Penny led the way across the manicured park grass and through several rows of flowers and shrubs to the pavilion. The pavilion lights weren’t on yet, as it was still too bright out. No one else was around. “We’ve got it all to ourselves,” Penny announced with satisfaction. She walked up the few steps to the pavilion, went inside between two columns, and threw herself down on a varnished wooden bench. Draping her arms over the back of the bench, she stretched out her legs and waved her feet back and forth. “Grab a seat,” she said, patting the backrest of the space beside her.

       Monique sat down beside Penny and leaned back, blowing air from her lungs.

       “You look tired,” said Penny. She frowned and leaned in for a closer look. Beads of sweat had formed across Monique’s forehead. “You really okay?”

       “Yeah,” said her friend faintly. “I don’t get out enough. I was going to stay home tonight, but... this is silly, but when I heard Trent’s band was going to play, I sorta wanted to come out and hear him again. Hear them again, I mean.”

       “You still have a thing for him?”

       Monique shook her head slowly. “Nah. He’s really nice and all, but it just wasn’t working out. He was always like, I’m going to be a rock star some day, you know, and then he’d always sort of sleep on it, and nothing would happen. We had so many fights, and—” She looked, annoyed with herself. “I’m really sorry, I shouldn’t be talking about your brother like that. He’s okay, he just—we just didn’t work out. I just wanted to hear them play tonight. I like his music.” Her face relaxed. “I always did like to hear him play. Sorta helps me get centered, you know?”

       Penny snorted and looked across the park at an emptying parking lot and a distant gas station. Trees blocked the setting sun. “You didn’t offend me. I never got into his music. His lyrics were too silly and pretentious, I thought. And he really does sleep more than any human being should. If he ever got off his butt, he could make something of himself.” She exhaled. “Only one of us Lanes who’s probably going anywhere is Jane.”

       “Jane? Your little sister?”

       . I dunno, she just seems like she’s got her head together, mostly. It’s not stuck up her butt like some people I know. I think she’ll make it. Hope so, anyway.”

       “Don’t you think you’re going somewhere?” Monique sat up on the bench. “I mean, wow, you go all over the world, don’t you? You’ve seen a lot, right?”

       Penny shook her head and looked away. I saw too much. She tried not to think of the mirror.

       “Don’t want to talk about it?”

       “No. Not right now.”

       “So, why’d you come out tonight?” Monique asked. “You weren’t really looking for chicks?”

       Penny glanced over with an eyebrow raised, but Monique was grinning. She looked a little better now, though still pale. Penny smiled back and shook her head. “Trent told me that McGrundy’s had lots of good Mexican beers, but all they had was the same old mierda. The mescal, though, that was muy fantástico.

       “Yeah, but now you’re going to be sick tomorrow.”

       “Eh, so what.” Penny shrugged. “I feel pretty good now.

       “So, you got a boyfriend?”

       “Nah. A guy here, a guy there, whatever. Just a little fun, you know.” She made a face when she caught herself saying you know, just like Monique did. “Doesn’t happen too often, though.”

       “Really? That’s weird, ‘cause I’d think you wouldn’t have any problem, you know? You’re so cool. I’d think, like, traveling around, you’d meet a lot of cool guys.”

       Penny grimaced, her spirits sagging. “It’s... what it is, see, a lot of places aren’t like here. They’re just different. It’s a cultural thing. The people get pretty wound up about stuff. They don’t like it if you act like you’re liberated, especially if you’re a woman. They can get pretty tense about it.” La puta americana, they had called her in southern Mexico—the American whore—or things far worse than that. She rubbed her cheek where an old woman had slapped her. “You have to be careful about your personal life in other countries, you know?” She caught herself saying you know again and groaned, but then gave up editing what came out of her mouth. She was too drunk to care.

       Monique nodded at the sage advice she’d been given. “Yeah. I have to be careful, too. So, why are you back here? I mean, in Lawndale, you know? This place is nowhere. You could be partying around in like the Amazon or something.”

       Penny shrugged. I have nowhere else to go. “I just came back,” she said.

       “Well, where would you rather be, here or there?” asked Monique.

       A serene expression crossed Penny’s face as she looked at the distant parking lot. “The cordilleras,” she said. “I’d like to go back and see the mountains again.”

       “Mountains? Which mountains?”

       “Sierra Madre,” said Penny in a soft voice, looking away. “It’s the southern part of the Rocky Mountains, going down through Mexico into Central America, all the way to Panama. They call them the cordilleras. You can climb them. Some are volcanoes, but you can climb the dead ones. Some of the lower peaks are covered in jungle. They’re all different, each of them. I’ve gone up a few.”

       “Wow! What was that like?”

       “Oh... it’s hard, even if you have a guide, but when you get to the top and you look around, it’s so incredible. You’re standing on top of the world, and everything is down below your feet—the cities, the roads, the people, everything. Sometimes even the clouds. You can see the ocean, if the atmosphere isn’t too misty. It’s... it’s beautiful.” She sighed. “I’d love to go back.” A pause. “Maybe.”

       “When are you going back?”

       Her lips pressed together, Penny shook her head. “I don’t know.”

       Monique was uncharacteristically silent.

       “I left home when I got out of high school,” said Penny. “I was fed up with everything: my parents, my school, my stupid older brother and sister, everyone. I wanted to get out and change the world. I had this plan... oh, forget it.”

       Monique poked her in the thigh. “No, c’mon. Tell me.”

       Even drunk, it was harder to talk about it than she thought. “It... oh, I don’t know. I just wanted to change the world. I had this idea that if I could show the local people how to use their native crafts, making cool useful things, they could sell them to turistas and bring up their standard of living and get rid of all the fat-cat companies and big governments that were exploiting them, show the people how to bring themselves up from poverty. I guess it was like capitalism, though I tried not to think of it that way. I mean, capitalism is kind of exploitative, but it was capitalism for the people, I guess.” Her face tightened. “It was estúpido. I shouldn’t have done it.”

       “Why? That makes sense, what you were saying! Why was it stupid?”

       “Because everyone was already doing that!” said Penny with some heat. “They were already trying to get themselves out of poverty! It wasn’t that they didn’t understand how. It was that I didn’t understand what was really going on, how hard it was for them to do it. I didn’t really want to see it, all the troubles they were having: war and terrorism, overpopulation, bad soil, earthquakes and hurricanes, prejudice, diseases, lack of jobs, right-wing death squads, left-wing revolutionaries who murder the people they claim to help, everything!” She glared into the distance. “I was the stupid one. I didn’t understand anything. I wanted to be like some kind of messiah, I guess, walking among the peasants and making their lives better, and they’d love me for it. Instead, I just made myself look like a fool, from one end of Central America to the other. Gecko-skin coin purses—Jesús Cristo, I don’t know what I was thinking.”

       They sat together in silence, listening to the traffic.

       “I was in El Salvador a week ago,” Penny went on, “and I was trying to help these street kids in this village near San Salvador, the capital. I bought them food and gave them handouts, whatever I could. Then they stole my money in broad daylight, almost everything I had. They grabbed it and ran, and I was chasing after them, screaming at them, and then everyone around started laughing at me. Everyone in the street, everyone, laughed at me like I was the biggest fool. There was nothing I could do. I just gave up and walked off. I had enough money left to get drunk, so I went off to these really old Aztec kind of ruins, maybe a thousand years old, and I climbed one of those big piles of stone with some bad tequila and I got really stinking drunk, just totally wasted.” She skipped over the pivotal event of that night as she went on in a subdued voice. “The next day, I sold everything I had left and got on a bus and came home. I don’t have to go back there. I don’t have anywhere to go, now. The hell with it.”

       She looked down at her empty hands and wished she had another bottle of mescal. “I’m thirty years old and washed up. Twelve years I spent running around after I got out of high school, wasting my life, and here I am. A nothing—no, I’m worse than that. I’m a joke, a total joke.” She turned to Monique. “I’m sorry, but I am so damn drunk. I wouldn’t say this to anyone if I wasn’t smashed.”

       They sat quietly for half a minute more.

       “So, what’re you gonna do?” asked Monique.

       Penny turned to look at her. It was hard to believe anyone could be as thin as Monique. Did she eat three meals a day and throw up two, or just eat one?

       “I have some money left,” she said. “Is there a liquor store around here?”




Chapter Four



       The idea of visiting a liquor store caused Monique’s stomach to knot up. She remembered walking nervously behind her dad into liquor stores when she was a kid, always the prelude to a long, bad night of listening to him swear and throw things in the living room while she locked herself in her bedroom and tried to watch TV. Why am I always meeting people who either drink a lot or ignore me? “You’re not a joke,” she said at last. “Can we just sit here for a while? I like talking to you. I don’t want to go anywhere just yet.”

       For a moment, Penny looked as if she was going to get up and find a liquor store on her own. Her face worked, but she settled back with a heavy sigh. “Fine,” she said. “Maybe later, then.”

       Monique nodded in relief. “Sure. Nice evening, isn’t it? I like it like this, when it’s warm and you can like sit and listen to the world go on around you, you know? I like to sit in my room with the windows open and play my guitar and just feel really, I don’t know, like, peaceful.”

       “It’s more fun to get a little drunk,” said Penny. “You really should try some mescal. It’s incredible stuff.”

       Monique crossed her arms over the knot in her stomach. “I can’t.”

       “Can’t or won’t?”

       “Can’t.” Taking a deep breath, Monique decided to spill it and get it over with. “It’ll mess up my liver. I got sick a year ago, and it sort of screwed up my liver real bad, so I can’t drink or do anything else that would hurt it.” She glanced over and saw Penny eyeing her.

       “Screwed up your liver?” said Penny. Her eyes narrowed, her mind flipping through a long list of diseases with which she had more than a passing familiarity in her years of travel. “Hepatitis?”

       Monique looked away and swallowed, nodding. “Yeah, hep C. I didn’t even know it at first, you know, which was sort of crazy, but I got a blood test when I went to the doctor last year, ‘cause I had this nose ring and it got infected, so like I went to the doctor for some stuff, and they did a blood test and said I had hep C. They said I probably got it from the nose ring. I used to go to this guy in town named Axl who ran a tattoo and body-piercing shop, and they said he didn’t clean his stuff when he used it, so I like caught hep C from it, from some blood or something that was on the nose ring. I guess someone else had used it before he gave it to me. The health department shut him down, and then he ran off before they arrested him. I felt bad about it ‘cause I really liked him. Axl was a nice guy.” She picked dust from her vest sleeves. “So, that’s why I can’t drink. It would hurt my liver, and the doctor said my liver isn’t doing all that well anymore. I get kinda run down and have to rest sometimes, but otherwise I’m okay, I guess. It could be worse. I just have to watch myself.”

       Penny stared at Monique without blinking or speaking.

       “You can’t catch it from me,” Monique added quickly, looking up. “Seriously, you’re okay. It’s like a blood disease, so even if we were like, uh, you know, touching or anything, you still wouldn’t get it from me. I mean, you couldn’t catch it from me unless you were like, you know, touching my blood or something, that’s the only way. I mean, we can’t like share toothbrushes or anything, or razors, ‘cause like there might be a cut or something, but other than that, you know, you’re safe. It’s okay. I mean, like, when we were sort of hugging back at the bar, you know, trying to fool Trent, you didn’t—”

       “I know, I know,” said Penny softly. “Don’t worry about it. Are you taking medicine for it?”

       “No, not really. I mean, I don’t have any health insurance, you know? I can’t get any. I was like covered by my dad’s insurance when I was in school, but when I turned twenty, three years ago, it all stopped, and I never got any health insurance on my own ‘cause it was expensive. My dad helps me pay my medical bills, but he doesn’t have a lot, so I try not to go to the doctor too much. I don’t get sick very often, but now, with the hep, I can’t get any insurance. I couldn’t afford it even if they offered it to me. I don’t make enough money playing in bands or anything. I’d have to be like Britney Spears or something to get insurance now, so, no, I don’t take any medicine. I’m kind of scared, ‘cause actually I’m doing okay right now, just tired sometimes, but if it gets worse, I don’t know what I’d do. I just don’t know. I have to be real careful about what I do, so I can’t drink or anything. I like hanging around you, if that’s okay, and I don’t mind if you drink, but I can’t.”

       “Okay,” said Penny. She hesitated, then added, “I like hanging around you, too.”

       “Good,” said Monique in relief. She rubbed her eyes. “Thanks. You’re pretty cool.” Monique sniffed deeply and stopped rubbing her eyes, which were turning red. “Trent... he was cool with me playing with Spiral, like when Nick ate that bad tuna salad that got left out for a few days, but some of the other guys got sort of worried ‘cause they thought I might cut myself or something while I was on stage with them, and I don’t know if they’d ask me to come back. They told me to use my own guitar, which was okay. I understood, you know. I’ve played solo a few times at places around here, but I don’t travel around like I used to.”

       “Do you wear out a lot?”

       “Yeah. I’ve been sorta down for a while. I haven’t really wanted to go anywhere, though it... I dunno, it might be fun to try it, I guess, to go places. Somewhere away from here. I liked getting around before I got sick. I just kind of worry about it now, if I get hurt when I’m not near a doctor, you know, ‘cause I don’t know how I’d pay for it.”

       “Where do you live?”

       “Oh, I kind of like rent a room at my dad’s house, over on Disher Avenue on the south side, between the landfill and the railroad tracks. I guess he really just lets me live there, ‘cause I haven’t been able to pay him much. I make enough to get groceries, and I pick up around the house and take our clothes to the coin laundry, and he says that’s okay. He counsels drunks and druggies at Cedars of Lawndale. He cleaned himself up a few years ago, which was really great, and now he helps other people kinda like him. Like he was, I mean.”

       “Is your mom around?”

       “Ah, nah, she kind of like took off when I was in second grade. We never did find her. It’s just been my dad and me, mostly, with my aunts and uncles helping out. They live around here.”

       “Oh.” Penny became thoughtful. “Well, my parents both ran off, but they keep coming back. That’s the real problem.”

       This had the desired effect of making Monique laugh. “That’s awful!” she said, but she kept laughing.

       “Well, I’m kind of kidding, but my parents really are off in their own worlds. They left me on my own a lot when I was growing up, which always pissed me off. I wish they’d been around more. On the other hand, if my older brother and sister disappeared, that would be great. Mi Dios, listening to them whine and cry and fight when I was growing up was the pits.

       “I always wanted a brother or sister,” said Monique with a smile, wiping her eyes, “but maybe I didn’t have it so bad growing up by myself after all.”

       “Got a boyfriend?” As the words left her mouth, Penny realized it might be a dumb thing to ask.

       “Huh? Ah, nah, no one.” The cheer faded from Monique’s face. “Nah, they sort of like don’t hang around anymore. Trent was the last. It’s sort of complicated.”

       “Because of the hepatitis?”

       “Ah, yeah. That’s... yeah. That kind of...” She shrugged. “Eh.”

       “Well, screw ‘em,” said Penny. “You need a shirt like this.” She tugged on her tank top and its warning.

       “What? Oh, yeah!” Monique laughed again in relief. “I probably do! That would be funny! Sometimes it would be, I guess. It’s just that... you know, I hate having to explain it all, over and over and over again, to every new guy. It like kills everything, you know? There are certain things you gotta do, I tell them, ‘cause I got this problem, I got this thing, and they like—hey, whatever, I’m out of here, and off they go.” She waved it away but looked sad. “Whatever.”

       “Shame you can’t drink.”

       “Yeah, sometimes I think so, too. I could really do that. I probably would, if it wasn’t for the other stuff.”

       “Huh.” Penny watched the traffic pass by. “So, what do you do for fun?”

       “Oh, my guitar, you know, I play that and sing a little. When I can get a solo gig in the county somewhere, I like that a lot. It doesn’t pay much, but it helps with groceries and stuff with my dad. I want to get a job, but no one will hire me now, ‘cause of the, you know, so I do whatever. I don’t have any good job skills, I guess.”

       Just like me, Penny thought. I don’t have any real skills, either. Both of us are screwed. On impulse, she turned to her new friend. “Hey, muchacha, you wanna come over to my place? You can stay over if you want.” She hesitated—then decided to go ahead and show her the souvenir. It was risky, but it was all she had to share. “I brought back some things from down south, if you want to take a look at them.”

       Light spread over Monique’s face. “Wow, yeah! That would be great! Are you staying with Trent and Jane?”

       “Yeah. The house is about three, four blocks from here.” Penny pointed to the east, between the gas station and a light manufacturing plant beside it. “You went out with Trent, right, so you know where it is?”

       “Sure! I know where it is.”

       “Think you can make it over there?”

       “Yeah! No problem!”

       Penny got to her feet and gritted her teeth against the sudden pain in her thighs. Did I run into something and bruise myself up? She vaguely remembered bumping into some cars crossing the street a few minutes earlier, but it hadn’t seemed important at the time. She reached down to help Monique up. “Thanks,” said the dark-haired girl, and she brushed off her pants and straightened her vest.

       “I have to ask you something, if you don’t mind,” said Penny.

       “What? Oh, sure. Anything.”

       “If you don’t drink, why do you hang around bars?”

       “Oh. Yeah, well, I really wanted to hear Trent and all, but yeah, I do kind of like hang around bars a lot, ‘cause that’s where the cool people hang around, you know? It’s kind of fun there, everybody talking and stuff. And—” She shrugged and grinned “—I might get lucky there, you know?”

       “Might get lucky,” repeated Penny. She glanced down at her tank top. “You sure you’re straight, mi muchacha?”

       Monique giggled. “Yeah, but I just want someone to talk to, you know?”

       “Yeah,,” said Penny. “Me, too.”

       Penny led the way out of the Greek pavilion and across the grass to the street. “We’ll cross over there and cut through the gas station and some people’s yards. I did it all the time when I was in school.”

       Looking refreshed, Monique kept up the pace. “So, like, what kind of stuff did you bring back from South America? I mean, Central America? Or Mexico, you know, wherever?”

       Penny chewed her lower lip. They got to the road and waited for traffic to clear before crossing the street. “I kind of stole something,” she said in a low voice.

       “Stole something?” Monique stared at her with huge eyes and open mouth. “You stole something?”

       “Yeah,” said Penny. “Don’t talk about it right now. Later!” She caught Monique by the arm, pulling her across the momentarily clear highway. “¡Vamanos!




Chapter Five



       When she opened the front door at the Lane home, Penny heard Jane’s voice back in the kitchen. She motioned Monique inside, noting that her friend was sweating and panting from exertion. “You need to rest?” she asked.

       Monique waved it aside. “Nah, I’m... fine,” she huffed. “Ruh-really.”

       “Want a drink of water?”

       “Shuh-sure.” Monique nodded rapidly and dabbed at her face with her sleeves.

       The kitchen seemed brighter than Penny remembered. Someone had replaced the burned-out bulbs in the ceiling lights since her last visit—probably her little sister, who was talking on the phone. Her black bangs framing her heart-shaped face, lanky nineteen-year-old Jane sat at the kitchen table wearing a red T-shirt, a pair of black jeans, and high gray boots. A box of leftover pizza sat in front of her, beside a glass of cranberry juice.

       Jane looked up from the phone, her blue-eyed gaze jumping from her older sister to Monique and back. “Hold on, company’s here,” she said, then lowered the phone without covering the receiver. “Did Spiral blow out the fuses again?” she asked Penny. “Or did McGrundy’s lose its liquor license?”

       “Nothing happened, they’re still there,” said Penny, walking to the cabinets and getting a glass. “We left early.”

       “Hey, Jane!” Monique waved with an excited smile. “Good to see ya!”

       “Hey, Monique,” Jane replied. She didn’t wave back. “You waiting for Trent?”

       Monique shook her head and giggled. “Nah. We’re just... hanging out.”

       A strange expression crossed Jane’s face as she looked from one woman to the other. She raised the phone to her mouth. “Daria?” she said, eyeing Monique. “Can I call you back later? Yeah, and Penny’s here, too. Why don’t I call around ten? Yeah. Curiouser and curiouser. Okay. Bye.” She reached back and hung the phone on its wall hook. “‘Sup?” she asked in a casual voice.

       Nada,” said Penny, handing Monique a glass of water.

       “The two of you get bored?” Jane asked, looking at Monique.

       “Oh, no,” said Monique, who drank half the glass before she continued. “We just wanted to get away, you know!” She held out the glass to Penny. “Thanks! That’s all.”

       Penny started to reach for the glass.

       Jane was out of her chair like a shot. “Let me!” she said. She snatched the glass from Monique, put it in the sink, then flipped on the hot water and rinsed off her hands and the glass as well. “Hey,” she said, shaking water from her fingers, “you guys want the rest of my pizza? It’s only a day old. Monique, have a seat and I’ll warm it up.”

       “Hey, what are you doing?” Penny asked, looking confused.

       “Being helpful,” said Jane. “New thing for me, I know. Had to start sometime.” She grabbed the pizza box from the table and began putting slices into the toaster oven’s stained metal tray. “It’ll be warm soon. Penny—got a sec?” She shut the toaster oven and set the temperature, then turned around. “I have a sister-to-sister sort of question for you, about some things. Can we go in the other room?”

       “Jane, it’s okay, really,” said Monique. She stood by a chair, biting her lower lip.

       “What’s okay?” said Jane.

       “I told her about the hep,” Monique said softly. “It’s okay.”

       Jane stared at her. The moment drew out.

       “And we’re not hooked up,” Penny added in an irritated tone. “We’re just friends, okay?”

       “Not hooked up.” Jane looked from one to the other. Her actions noticeably slowed down. “Yeah, well, that’s not really any of my business. I was just—”

       Penny took a seat at the table. “Look,” she said to her sister, “she and I are friends, okay? We met while Trent was playing, we got to talking, and we took a walk. It’s okay.” She tugged on her tank top and its lettering. “You know this is bogus, right?”

       Jane slowly took a seat across from her sister. “I don’t see much of you,” she said in a low voice. “I really don’t mean to piss you off, but I don’t know what’s real with you and what isn’t these days.”

       Monique edged toward the door. “You know, maybe I should go,” she said. “I don’t want to—”

       “No, stay,” said Penny. “Please.” She reached over and caught Monique by the arm, gently pulling her close. “Have a seat.”

       Monique looked at Jane, who sighed and gestured to the chair beside Penny. “The pizza offer still stands,” she said. “Make yourself comfortable.”

       “You really thought I was gay?” Penny asked her sister as Monique sat down. “I thought you of all people would know me better than that.”

       “Know you?” Jane looked exasperated. “Penny, I hardly ever see you! You blew out of here before I got into first grade, and you’ve been back for a total of six months in the last decade. What am I supposed to know about you, exactly?”

       Penny’s expression hardened, but she held her tongue for a few moments longer and softened her response. “Well, for starters, I’m not gay.”

       Jane nodded. “Okay,” she said slowly, “that’s one thing I know now,” she said. She waited.

       Penny spread her hands and looked annoyed. “¿Qué?

       Her sister leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get on your back. Perdón yo, por favor. Let’s drop it, okay?”

       “Something eating you?” Penny asked, her eyes narrowing.

       “No!” Jane snapped. “Nothing’s—” She bit off her reply and turned her head away for a moment. “Sorry, forget it.”

       “It’s not me being here at home again, is it?”

       Jane looked away with a sad smile. “No. Just forget it.” Her attention turned to Monique. “So, how are you feeling?”

       “Okay, but tired,” said Monique, trying to be cheery. “Mostly okay, though.”

       “Did you have a checkup recently?”

       “Uh, yeah, two weeks ago. Doctor said I was okay, I guess. He was a little bugged about some stuff, test results, but he said I was okay, mostly.”

       “You look good, if that counts for anything.”

       Monique brightened. “Thanks!” she said. “Yeah, I try to keep up appearances. I think it’s good for me, you know? Hey, was that your friend Daria on the phone?”

       Jane hesitated, looking tense. “Yeah. She’s packing her things. She heads off to Boston next week, to Raft.”

       “Raft, that’s a good school, I think,” said Monique. “That’s great. Trent said Daria was really cool.”

       Jane shrugged. “Yeah, she is. We’ve had our ups and downs, but yeah, she’s...” She let it go.

       You aren’t gay, are you?” asked Penny with a thin smile.

       Jane’s frosty blue eyes took in Penny for a long moment. She leaned back in her chair. “Nope,” she said softly. “Guess we’re even, there.”

       “Hey, you know,” said Monique, looking nervous, “I always wished I’d had a sister. It would have been super to have someone to talk to when I was growing up, you know? That would have been great. Sisters are great, right?”

       Penny and Jane looked at each other in cold silence. Penny finally turned to her friend. “How about we go upstairs for a minute while the pizza’s getting ready? I’ll show you what I brought back.”

       “Oh, sure! Thanks!” Monique hesitated, then got up from her chair. Penny followed suit.

       “I’ll call you when it’s ready,” said Jane in a lackluster tone.

       Monique followed Penny out of the kitchen to the stairs by the front door. They stomped up the steps together, Penny in the lead.

       “Jane’s a good person,” Monique said in a low voice.

       “Usually,” Penny grumbled as they walked to one end of the hall. “Something’s bugging her, though. She’s usually not this pissy.” She threw open the door to her room, flipped on the lights, and walked in, turning left to get into her curtain-covered closet. Monique came in behind her, looking around.

       Penny’s room was square, the hall door opening in the center of the north wall. The wood-slat floor had a large square rug in the center with a southwest-flavor abstract pattern on it. Posters, photographs, masks, chili-pepper strings, and maps hung from the beige walls, and wind chimes and planters with artificial plants from the off-white ceiling. Two windows with crystals hanging in them were across the room, with a desk between them. On the near left was a closet with a curtain door, beyond which were wall shelves lined with pottery, sculptures, baskets, and wire figures. On the near right, a bookshelf and a round table with a lamp, with throw pillows surrounding it. On the far right, a mattress laid on two-by-fours, just above the floor, with a Mexican-style wool blanket and pillow. Discarded clothing lay scattered over the floor near the closet curtain. The room smelled faintly of incense, chili peppers, and dried leaves.

       “Wow.” Monique stood in the center of the room, rotating to take it in. “Did you make all this, the masks and pots and stuff?”

       “Most of it.” Penny dragged a large, dirty duffle bag from her closet and began pulling clothes out of it. “I experiment with different crafts sometimes when I’m home, then leave the experiments here.”

       “Cool. It was nice of your folks to keep your room for you.”

       “I doubt that they’re around enough to know when I’m here, most of the time. Jane said she let a friend stay over in my room for a while a year and a half ago. I think it was that girl she was talking to on the phone. Her friend moved my stuff around, but she didn’t take anything, so I guess that was okay. Have a seat at the table over there.”

       “On the pillows?”

       “Yeah. I’m just looking for what I brought back.” Penny pulled dirty socks and underwear from the bag and threw them behind her in a pile.

       Monique sat on a purple pillow at the table. “I know a joke,” she said brightly. “All this stuff reminded me of it. Wanna hear?”

       Penny tugged out a muddy t-shirt and tossed it aside.

       “What do sheep in Mexico call Christmas?” Monique went on.

       With a pained expression, Penny looked up and waited.

       “Fleece Navidad!” said Monique with a grin. “My dad told it to me.”

       Penny groaned and went back to emptying her duffle bag while Monique giggled. “Hey, I wanted to ask you,” Monique went on, “what are your older sister and brother like? The ones you don’t like so much?”

       “They suck,” Penny said, pulling dirty socks from the bag. “I don’t like talking about them.”

       “Oh,” said Monique, looking embarrassed. “Sorry.”

       “Don’t be.” Penny let go of her duffle bag and sighed. “Oh, okay. Summer, my older sister, she’s thirty-five now. She’s a baby-maker. It’s the only craft she can do, I guess. She’s got like four kids, and they always run away because she either ignores them or screams at them. Wind, my older brother, he’s a drama queen. He can’t keep a relationship going to save his life. Women like him at first because he’s sensitive, but he’s like a big jellyfish, all mush and goo and no spine. Come to think of it, Summer’s got no spine with her kids, and she can’t keep a relationship going, either. She comes back now and then looking for her runaways, and Wind comes back when he breaks up with his latest wife or fiancée or girlfriend, whatever. Me—” Her voice became softer “—I only come back when I go broke, after my bright ideas about saving the world blow up in my face. Last time I was back, over a year ago, a volcano had wiped out my crafts stand in Costa Rica—” She gave a grim smile when Monique gasped “—yeah, a volcano, and when I came back here, I got into this big fight with my older sibs, and then I had a fight with my dad and mom, so I split. I wasn’t even here a week. And now I’m back again, broke as always. Sorta figures, doesn’t it? Predictable. Penny Predictable.”

       She looked at the floor, her dark smile fading. “I had a parrot when I was here last: Chiquito, a green macaw. He was a good bird. He liked me. I told people he was possessive, because he got upset and squawked whenever anyone got too close. It was cute. Came in handy sometimes, too. His pet carrier got lost the last time I flew into Mexico City, and I don’t know what happened to him. I looked and looked, but he was gone.” She exhaled heavily. “But that’s life, eh, muchacha?

       “I’m sorry to hear that.” Monique put down a ceramic ashtray she was examining. “Are Summer and Wind coming back anytime soon?”

       “God, I hope not. That would pretty much drive me back to the bar, if not out of the country again. We don’t get along, the three of us older kids. We never did. Wind and Summer are assholes.” She pulled a few more dirty clothes out of her bag. “Can’t say I’m any better, though,” she added.

       Monique winced. “Why do you do that?”


       “Put yourself down so much.”

       Penny exhaled. “Because it’s true. Look—” She held up a hand to stop Monique’s protests “—I know myself, all right? I’ll tell you why I think that, but let me sort through all this crap for a minute.”

       She broke off, looking at the doorway. Boot steps sounded in the hall. After a moment, Jane appeared with a tray on which were stacked steaming pizza slices and three cans of soda.

       “Yo,” said Jane, making for the round table by which Monique sat. “Sorry we got off on the wrong foot. Here’s a peace offering. Don’t throw anything sharp, okay?”

       “Jane, thanks!” cried Monique with a huge smile. “This is great!”

       Penny straightened, letting the half-empty duffle bag sink against her legs. “I’m sorry, too,” she said. “Look, I’m broke, I’m in a pissy mood, and I’m sorta drunk on top of it all. I’m sorry about everything, okay?”

       “S’okay,” said Jane. She took a soda can from the tray and headed for the door.

       “Jane?” Penny called. “Wait. C’mon back and hang out a little, if you want.”

       Jane stopped and looked back at her sister and Monique, weighing an answer. “You mean it?”

       “Hell, yeah. C’mon and sit with us for a little.”

       “Sit by me.” Monique patted a pillow within arm’s reach. “It’s okay.”

       Jane hesitated, then shrugged. “Sure,” she said, and she walked over and dropped down on a floor pillow, getting comfortable. Popping the top on her soda can, she took a sip. “What are you looking for?” she asked, indicating Penny’s duffle bag.

       “My souvenir.” Penny hauled out two more wrinkled shirts, then said, “Here it is.” From of the duffle bag, she pulled a pale linen sack that crackled as if stuffed with wadded paper. It held a flat, round shape.

       “Is that the thing—” Monique began, then glanced at Jane and stopped.

       “What thing?” said Jane.

       “It’s the thing I stole when I was in El Salvador,” said Penny, walking over. She sat down on a pillow by the small table and peered into the sack. “Hope it isn’t broken. I bet that would be some major bad luck.”




Chapter Six


       “You stole something?” asked Jane. She put down her drink. “I’m coming into this conversation late, remember, so you’ll have to—”

       “I took it out of some Aztec ruins. Had to disguise it to get it out of the country.” Penny reached into the sack. Paper crinkled.

       “Whoa,” said Monique in amazement. “It was in some ruins?

       “Penny,” Jane asked, eyebrow raised, “weren’t the ruins guarded?”

       “They were too busted up to be worth it. Everything else that was worth anything was already gone. No one cared much about them, from what I saw.”

       Jane let out a long sigh. “Oooh-kay. If memory serves, most countries have laws about borrowing their ancient artifacts without asking. I could be wrong, but I think if you get caught, they make you star in a very long and very bad B-movie about a foreign women’s prison.”

       “Send me a file in a cake, then.” From the linen sack, Penny pulled out an object wrapped in newspapers, which she began removing and throwing behind her. “It’s painted over,” she continued. “I told the people in customs it was a handmade stone plate for pizza baking. They said I should get into another line of work.”

       The last crumpled newspaper was pulled away. In Penny’s hands was a gray-painted disc about a foot across and one inch thick. It was unattractive in color, but it was also flawless in shape.

       “An Aztec Frisbee?” said Jane.

       “I have to wash off the paint first,” said Penny. She licked her thumb and rubbed it over a spot on the gray disc. The paint blurred, then came away. Below it was a polished black surface.

       “Is that obsidian?” asked Jane, pointing.

       “Yeah, the whole thing. Not a chip or scratch in it. Wait a sec.” Penny put the disc on the table, then got up and walked out of the room. “Don’t pick it up,” she called behind her as she left.

       Monique looked down at the rubbed-off spot. “It’s shiny,” she said. “I can almost see myself.”

       Jane licked her own thumb and rubbed at the spot a little more. The smeared paint came off. She leaned over the plate, gently moving Monique aside. “Damn,” she said, wiping her thumb on her pants. “That’s nice. She got this out of an Aztec ruin?”

       Penny came back in the room with a few towels and damp washcloths. “Hey, careful. Lemme fix it up.” She laid one towel on the floor and put the gray plate on it.

       “Hey!” Jane cried. “Those are my bath towels!”

       “The paint’ll come off in the laundry, so don’t worry. It’s water soluble.” Penny rubbed at the disc with a wet washcloth. The gray came off in moments and stained both towels. Jane groaned aloud.

       “They really let you through customs with that?” said Monique.

       “The air conditioner in the building was busted, and it was roaring hot,” Penny said as she scrubbed. “Over a hundred degrees, I bet. It wasn’t a dry heat, either. I don’t think anyone much cared what I had, as long as it wasn’t drugs, explosives, or guns.” She flipped the disc over and wet the backside, then rubbed it hard with the cloth.

       “Didn’t their sweaty hands rub the paint off when they handled it?” asked Jane, looking at her towels with growing distress.

       “They didn’t handle it. It was in a clear plastic bag. They looked at it, the dogs smelled it, they x-rayed it, and they let me take it.”

       Jane shook her head in disbelief. “Jeez. Anyway, remember, you’re doing laundry this time.”

       The disc was largely free of gray paint by this point. The deep, polished black of the surface was evident. Monique and Jane stared at it with wide eyes.

       “Man,” said Monique in awe. “That rocks.”

       “It’s a beauty, isn’t it?” said Penny, hunched over the obsidian plate and scrubbing it clean. “Couldn’t believe I’d found it. It’s like a mirror. The Aztecs didn’t know about glassmaking like the Europeans, but they did okay with this stuff.” She exchanged towels again and rubbed the plate down, holding it by its rounded edges without looking at the plate directly. A minute later, the black disc gleamed like a piece of starless night.

       “Oh, my God,” said Jane, staring. “I can’t believe you stole this. It’s bloody priceless.”

       Penny nodded, her fear increasing. “It’s a perfect mirror,” she said with a dry throat. Setting the cloths and towels aside, she steeled herself and picked up the obsidian plate with both hands to examine it—but found she could not make herself look into it. She kept it aimed away from her face and peered at objects slightly to the side, holding it as if it were a bomb.

       “Me, next,” whispered Monique.

       Jane frowned. Penny looked as if she expected the round black plate to explode in her hands. With trembling fingers, Penny laid the disc on a relatively clean towel, flipping the edge of the towel over to cover it. Her breath came out in a ragged sigh. “Pretty, isn’t it?” she said in a strained voice. She wiped her face. “I wonder if I was hallucinating the first time I picked it up. It looked so real, though.”

       “What was real? What happened when you looked into it before?” asked Jane.

       Penny sat back on her heels. “The first time I looked at it, I saw me,” she said. “I mean, I saw who I really was, like... like the, um... like he said I would.”

       Jane frowned. “Who was ‘he’?”

       “The... the god I thought I saw in the mirror.”

       “You met Jesus?” Monique gasped, her voice rising.

       “That would be hay-soos,” corrected Jane under her breath, glaring at her sister. “Oh, c’mon, Penny!”

       “No, not Jesus!” Penny said. “It was an Aztec god, or spirit or whatever.” She gave Jane a weak smile. “This is loco—correcto, mi hermana?

       Jane didn’t bother to answer, shaking her head and staring at the plate instead.

       Monique looked confused. “You didn’t meet God?” she asked. “I don’t get it.”

       “Not the Judeo-Christian God, no. It was some other being.” Penny gazed at the obsidian plate with a depressed look. “It was so real.”

       “You said something happened when you met this being,” said Jane, to keep the story going.

       “Yeah.” Penny carefully picked up the plate again. “I looked this mirror and... I saw who I really was. Who I really am, I mean.” Light from the nearby lamp reflected from the plate onto the walls and then her face, before she adjusted the plate’s angle to look at her image once more.

       “And who are you?” asked Jane. “The who that you saw in the mirror.”

       The life ran out of Penny’s voice and face. “I’m a nothing,” she whispered.

       Several beats passed. “The mirror said that?” said Jane.

       Penny slowly nodded. “It showed me, actually.”

       Jane raised an eyebrow. “For what it’s worth, I never thought of you as a nothing, Penny. Aggressive, blunt, and touchy, maybe, but never a nothing. I don’t—”

       “I am a nothing,” repeated her sister. “I’ve had no effect on the world. I’ve failed at everything I ever wanted to do. I’m thirty years old, almost halfway through my life, and I’ve thrown away the whole damn thing. I’m a nothing.”

       Jane’s gaze dropped to the mirror. “Sis,” she said gently, “you weren’t by any chance wasted when you had this... this vision, were you?”

       “I was a little drunk,” Penny admitted. “Well, more than a little, but that... that didn’t have an effect on what happened.


       “No, really, it didn’t. What happened—when I looked into this mirror the very first time—that was real.”

       “Look,” Jane said, “I know this revelation is important to you, but under the circumstances, I don’t know if I’d put any more stock in what you saw than if Summer had said it, if you get my drift.”

       Penny looked away. “It wasn’t like that.”

       “Can I look at myself?” asked Monique.

       “What?” Penny looked back.

       “Can I try it?”

       Penny hesitantly handed over the plate. “I don’t know if it’s working or not,” she said. “Be careful with it.”

       “I will be,” said Monique. “I won’t drop it.”

       “That’s not what I meant.”

       Monique held the plate below her face and peered into it with an intense look. “Hey, it’s like a real mirror, only dark everywhere,” she said. “Oops, I fogged it up.”

       “Smoking mirror,” said Jane. She turned to Penny. “Is that what the Aztecs called a smoking mirror? I had a history class about the Aztecs. Wasn’t there a god that—”

       “Tezcatlipoca, yeah.”

       Tez... cat, okay. Was that the god you saw? Wasn’t he something like the god of jaguars?”

       “He was the god of the night and the north. His name means ‘smoking mirror’ in Nahuatl, the Aztec tongue. He carried a polished obsidian mirror that he used to foretell the future, see faraway places and other worlds, or look into people’s minds. He used a lot of magic.”

       Jane pointed to the disc Monique held. “And this is supposed to be his mirror? That Tezcat guy, or god, or what?”

       “I dunno,” said Penny. “I found it on top of the ruins, under a flat stone. It looked like someone had hidden it after wrapping it up in leaves. I don’t know how long it had been there, but I think it was a long time. It was in some kind of painted wood frame, but it had decayed and it fell apart when I found it, leaving only this.”

       “And that night god, Tezcat-whatever, he told you where to find it?”

       “No. I found it while I was getting drunk, and then he appeared in the mirror the first time I looked.” Her shoulders drooped, and she smacked her forehead. “This gets stupider the more I try to explain it.”

       Jane drummed her fingers on the low table. “I should have both my heads examined,” she said, “but I believe you.”

       “Oh, right,” said her sister sourly. “Don’t give me that mierda.

       “You’ve never lied to me, Penny, not once. I don’t think you’re lying now. Maybe all that alcohol had something to do with it, but I still believe you.”

       Penny exhaled, taken aback. Jane sounded sincere. “Well,” she began, “I—”

       “Mommy?” said Monique in a high voice, looking into the mirror.

       Penny and Jane turned to her, startled.

       Monique laid the plate on the floor, still staring into its surface. “My mom, yeah,” she went on in a more normal tone. “Yeah, she—”

       Jane leaned toward her. “Say what?”

       Penny’s face went white.

       “I get it,” said Monique to the mirror. Her voice picked up speed. “When she ran off, and my dad didn’t pay attention to me, I thought it was my fault. I always wanted him to notice me, I’ve always wanted someone to notice me, so I pick people who don’t notice me so I won’t be the one responsib—” She looked up into space across the room, rocking from side to side. “That’s why I’ve—why I do the performing, yeah, and the piercing and the makeup and everything, and why all this time, I’ve tried so hard just to get people to notice me and make things work—”

       Monique put out a hand to steady herself, but she swayed off-balance and fell over on her side on the floor. As Penny and Jane watched, she rolled and pushed herself up on an elbow, looking back at the mirror with a dazed expression. “And then,” she said, her words slurring, “I keep picking up guys or finding friends who... one or the other, they get wasted or they never talk to me. . . I pick them because I want to undo—and I try so hard to get them to—but they never—just like Dad, they never...” She rolled on her back and stared at the ceiling, motionless.

       “Monique?” Penny scooted over quickly. “Monique, you okay?”

       “What the hell happened?” asked Jane, moving over on hands and knees.

       “I see it,” Monique whispered, staring up at nothing. “I thought it was my fault, that I was the one who drove her off, that it was me she didn’t want, and my dad, I was nothing to him when he drank. All the time I was growing up, I was like nothing, running behind him, but he wouldn’t—” Her voice faded. “I was—I was like—”

       Penny got her hands under her friend’s shoulders and heaved up. Monique was heavier than she appeared, but Penny pulled her into a sitting position and scooted up behind her, wrapping her arms around the thin girl with the long, dark hair. “Are you okay?” she asked, her voice shaking. “Monique, are you all right?”

       “Penny! What’s happening?” Jane took one of Monique’s limp hands and felt no resistance, the fingers and wrist flopping as if Monique were dead. Penny began to gently rock from side to side with her friend in her arms. Jane laid Monique’s hand on the floor, then glanced back at the obsidian mirror. She saw herself, she thought with a cold shiver. She saw who she was.

       “I’m sorry,” Penny whispered into Monique’s hair, holding her tightly as she rocked. “I’m so sorry, mi muchacha! ¡Perdóneme! ¡Estoy aquí!

       Jane pressed her fingers against Monique’s neck, above her choker, and felt a pulse. Monique still breathed, though her eyes were fixed on a distant point in space. “Yo!” Jane said in a louder voice, trying not to panic. She gave Monique a light slap on the cheek. “Hey, wake up! Come on!”

       “Jane, cover it!” Penny cried. “Quickly! Cover it up!”


       “The mirror! Don’t look at it!”

       Jane whirled around, snatched a paint-stained towel, and threw it over the obsidian disc. “What happened?” she shouted when she turned back. “Talk to me!”

       “It’s the mirror!” shouted her sister. “It’s what she saw in the mirror!”

       “Penny, for God’s sake!”

       Monique stirred, waking up. She blinked and looked at Jane with unfocused eyes. “What?” she said—then flinched and put her hands in front of her face to ward something away. She struggled violently in Penny’s arms. “No!” she screamed. “NoooOOO!

       Jane grabbed Monique’s flailing hands by the wrists and forced them down by half sitting on them. Her sister hugged the crazed young woman around the torso and buried her face in Monique’s shoulder. For a woman who barely weighed over a hundred ten pounds, Monique was insanely strong. Back arched and muscles knotted, she made a supreme attempt to break free from the sisters and strike out. She screamed so loudly, Jane’s ears rang.

       Then, with a fading cry, Monique fell back against Penny, drew a breath and began to sob. “Why didn’t you want me?” she shouted when she could breathe again, and then she inhaled and screamed, “Why didn’t anyone ever want me?




Chapter Seven



       Twenty minutes later, the forgotten pizza and drinks had reached room temperature on the little table. Penny and Jane managed to get Monique to Penny’s low bed, where she now lay on her side, her legs drawn up and her face hidden in the black waterfall of her hair. Jane sat on the bed behind Monique, ready to grab her hands or sit on her legs if she began to thrash about. The Lane sisters were not up to light conversation and merely waited.

       Monique stirred. Jane noticed and watched her like a hawk.

       “I’m okay now,” Monique whispered. “I’m okay.” She turned her head to look up at Penny through her hair. “I’m sorry.”

       No problema,” Penny whispered back. Her hand came to rest on Monique’s arm. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I shouldn’t have let you do it, muchacha.”

       “No, it’s all right,” said Monique. “I’m okay. It was just... a lot of stuff came back, and I was sorta... I had a hard time dealing with it. It’s okay.” She blew out a long breath. “I’ve been through it before, I guess. Most of it’s old stuff, wasn’t anything new. It just... it surprised me, that’s all. I’m okay now.” She cleared her throat. “I’m a little hungry,” she said.

       Jane and Penny exchanged glances. “I can reheat the pizza if you’ll be okay here,” said Jane to her sister.

       “No, that’s all right,” said Monique. “I’m okay now. I’m mostly thirsty. Maybe a little drink of something, if—”

       Un momento.” Jane got up from the bed, stretched to get the cramps out of her legs, then walked over to retrieve a soda can. She brought it back and handed it to Penny, who popped the top and helped Monique sit up to drink from it. After a few sips, Monique handed the can back to Penny, who set it aside.

       “I feel so stupid,” Monique murmured. She sat up on the bed as Penny and Jane hovered beside her. Her long black hair fell across her face. “I’m sorry about that stuff I said. I was like... it just all came up, you know, and out it went.”

       “It’s okay,” said Penny.

       Monique’s mouth tightened. “My dad put me in therapy a few times after my mom ran off, and when he quit drinking he made us both go to therapy for a while. It kinda helped, I guess. I already knew most of that... that stuff I saw. I already knew it.”

       “What you saw in the mirror?” asked Jane, sitting on the mattress.

       “Yeah.” Monique nodded. “Man, I haven’t thought of some of that stuff in years, you know? I wish I hadn’t seen it, ‘cause... takes a little while to get over it, you know? It’s kinda... eh, it doesn’t matter, I guess. I know... I know that’s what I think sometimes, but it’s not what I should think. It wasn’t...” She shook her head. “It wasn’t my fault. I saw that, too.”

       “What wasn’t your fault?”

       “Jane,” said Penny, “just let it alone.”

       “Nah, it’s okay.” Monique took a sharp breath, then said very quickly, “It wasn’t my fault my mom ran off, or that my dad drank.” She took another breath and blew it out. “Whew! Kinda hard to say it, even now. Man, that was a kick in the head.”

       “Huh,” said Penny.

       “What?” asked Jane.

       Penny swallowed. “This will sound dumb,” she said, “but I’ve never been to therapy for anything.”

       Jane shrugged. “So? Neither have I. What’s your point?”

       “I dunno. Maybe I should have. Gotten therapy, I mean, for—for stuff.”

       “Our whole family could go into therapy,” said Jane. “We’d keep generations of shrinks occupied. So what?” She peered closely at Penny. “You think therapy would have helped you when you looked in that mirror the first time?”

       Penny turned and looked back at the rumpled towel covering the obsidian plate. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m still not over it.”

       “I dunno if it would,” Monique said, looking up. “I saw stuff that I never talked about in therapy.”

       “What was it like?” said Jane after a pause.

       “The mirror? Oh.” Monique sighed. “Well, at first, it was just me looking at me, and then I started thinking about stuff, and then... this is weird, but I thought the mirror was looking at me, too. I didn’t see any god or anything, but inside my head, it was kinda like... like a soup, you know? With bubbles coming up, and stuff turning around in it while the soup boils, and suddenly things started coming out, stuff I hadn’t thought about in like years, and... it was still kind of like looking in the mirror, because what was coming up was like... like someone was looking at me and telling me who I was.” She was quiet for a moment, then added, “It said I was going nowhere.”

       “It said that?” asked Jane.

       “Well, sort of. I mean, I know I’m not going anywhere. I’m just spinning my wheels, I guess. I did something really stupid, getting that nose ring—my dad was really against it, but he hasn’t gotten on me about it since he found out about the hep, thank God. But I feel so bad for him, ‘cause he... oh, I dunno, I’m rambling. I saw in the mirror that all my trying to make people notice me sort of got me in big trouble, and now it’s gonna kill me in a few years or so, from the hep if it gets bad, and I’m still not going anywhere. I’m a big drag on my dad, money-wise, though he won’t say it. No one around here’s wanted me, except my dad, and I must be such a disappointment to him, and—” She shrugged, her face tight, then relaxed again. “That’s all.”

       It was quiet for several long seconds.

       “I have to go to the bathroom,” said Monique in a tired voice. “Can I use your—”

       “Sure,” said Jane. “Down the hall, same as always.”

       “Thanks.” Monique slowly got up. “Be right back,” she said as she left.

       Penny and Jane sat in silence until they heard the bathroom door shut.

       “I’m so sorry I let her do that,” whispered Penny. “I swear, I thought maybe I was just dreaming it or something, but—oh, damn it to hell.”

       “Did that happen to you?” Jane asked.

       Penny licked her lips. “Yeah,” she said without looking up. “It was worse than what happened to her. I freaked out. When I woke up the next morning, my throat hurt like hell. I think I screamed all night. Can’t believe I didn’t fall off the damn rubble.”

       “I’m glad you didn’t,” said Jane. She reached over and took her sister’s hand. Penny did not resist, though she did not look up at Jane. When Jane squeezed her hand, Penny squeezed back.

       They were silent a while longer before Penny got to her feet, wincing from the pain in her bruised thighs. “I’d better check on her,” she said. “Just in case.”


       “Be right back.”

       Jane nodded. As Penny walked out, Jane’s gaze turned to the spot on the floor where a towel covered a flat, round object. She stared at it without blinking, deep in thought, until Monique and Penny returned.

       The rest of the evening was a wash. They ate all the pizza, but little of importance was said. They could not bear to talk about their lives, the mirror, or anything else. It was too much. Monique fell asleep on Penny’s low bed, while Penny pulled out her sleeping bag and crashed on the floor beside her. It was warm enough in the house that blankets weren’t necessary.

       Only Jane was unable to sleep, being accustomed to nodding off at three in the morning during the summer. She went back to her room at the opposite end of the hall, and about one a.m. stood in her sock feet, staring at her current artwork in progress. It was an abstract painting of a fish. She wondered what she was trying to say with it. The original idea was that the fish was her, the inner Jane Lane, swimming through the sea of her life, but it was missing the vital element that would bring it to life and make it click. A few possibilities had been in her mind earlier in the day, but now they were gone and would not come back.

       No longer in the mood to paint, Jane found herself staring at the fish’s round, black eye. What am I not seeing about me? Is it that I can’t see it, or that I won’t?

       The black eye looked back at her. Her thoughts drifted to the smoking mirror. What would I see if I looked for the real me? What would that mirror show, if anything?

       “Mom and Dad, for sure,” she said aloud to the painting. “Being left alone in the house so often with only half-with-it Trent looking out for me, getting pushed around by kids in school who thought I was crazy or a whore or worse, getting shut out and having no friends at all, walking home alone every day, arguing with teachers who didn’t understand what I was drawing, blowing off everyone who didn’t get what I was about, everyone except...”

       She thought, but did not say, Daria.

       And mentally added, And look where that got me.

       She fell silent, feeling at loose ends. She turned away from the fish and looked around her room, noticed nothing worthy of attention, then left and went down the hall to check on Penny and Monique. They slept soundly in the darkness. On the round table near the door burned a lone candle shaped like a rattlesnake coiled into an upright cone.

       On the floor by the table was the gray-stained towel. Jane stood in the doorway and looked down at the towel for a long minute.

       With a last glance at Penny, she quietly walked into the room, knelt by the towel, and picked up both it and the heavy obsidian disc below it. She held them in her hands for long seconds, weighing them out.

       Her mouth tightened. Without a word, she rose to her feet and left the room. The smoking mirror went with her.

       Exhausted and asleep, Penny and Monique noticed nothing at all.




Chapter Eight



       Hours later, Penny became aware of light filtering through her eyelids. She stirred and yawned—then grimaced as a dull throbbing in her head pounded with growing strength. Her brain felt like it had been through a trash-compacting machine. Bright dawn came through the shades of her room windows, making her head ache even more.

       Where the hell am I? Memories slowly leaked in. She turned her head and recognized her room, then rolled on her side and saw Monique, asleep only two feet away on the low mattress.

       Even through a hangover headache, Monique was a welcome sight. Penny smiled. Mi muchacha, she thought. Strands of Monique’s raven hair vibrated around her nose. Penny wondered how sick Monique was. How advanced was the hepatitis? Was she having other symptoms? Did she have long to live? Could she could make it to Central America and climb a mountain? She’d be great company, no question of it. There was the money issue as well as the health issue, of course, but they could work their way south, Monique playing guitar on street corners and Penny making pots for cash as usual, or maybe they could—

       Monique’s eyelids fluttered and opened. She focused on Penny’s face. “Hey,” she whispered, and she smiled.

       “Hey,” said Penny with a grin. Her headache lessened. “Buenos díaz.

       “Yeah, you, too. Good to see you.”

       “Sleep okay?”

       “Yeah, it was okay. I was really tired.” Monique rubbed her eyes. “Man, I had this really weird dream. Something about a cat.”

       Penny’s smile faded in surprise. She’d had a weird dream, too, just a week ago in El Salvador. In the dream, a great black cat, like a jaguar, had come up to her as she lay on top of a ruined temple, drunk as a skunk. The cat had looked her in the face for a moment before walking off. It did not seem hostile, but it was not particularly interested in her. She thought it was looking for someone, but who it sought, she couldn’t say. It was a very large jaguar, with eyes of infinite darkness—

       Something niggled at her memory. She pushed herself up on her elbows in her sleeping bag and looked across the room. A gray-stained towel and washcloths lay on the floor where she had dropped them. She couldn’t remember what she had been cleaning with them—probably a paint spill, nothing important. She lay down again and tried to remember what had happened the night before. She and Monique had been talking about their lives, and Jane had been there, too, but there had been something else, a topic...

       Penny Lane,” murmured Monique.


       “Oh, I was just thinking. Penny Lane. It sounds familiar, like something in a song, sort of. I’m sorry if this is weird, it’s just kind of familiar, and—”

       “It was from a Beatles song, years ago,” said Penny in annoyance. “My stupid parents named me after—”

       “Oh! Yeah! ‘Penny Lane, you’re in my ears and in my—’”

       “Don’t sing it!” Penny snapped. “I really hate that song!”

       Monique stopped instantly. “Sorry.”

       I shouldn’t have jumped on her like that. “I’m sorry. It’s okay, just don’t do it anymore, please. The kids at school really razzed me about it, but the teachers were even worse. My old P.E. teacher used to yell at me about not being a joiner, and she’d sing that song every time I screwed something up. Mom and Dad would hum that damn song sometimes at home, and if I complained, then Summer would start in until I screamed. She was such a jerk.”

       “Oh. So, you hate your name?”

       Penny shrugged. “I don’t think about it much. It’s okay, most days.”

       “Do you have a nickname?”

       Penny rubbed her eyes and yawned. “Some people used to call me Roja. It’s Spanish for red. That wasn’t so great, either.” It was a hell of a lot better than la puta americana, though. ”Just call me Penny.”

       “Penny’s a good name.” Monique rubbed her face. “What a night. I don’t know why I got so upset about stuff. Guess I was just thinking too much.”

       “Thinking too much isn’t good for anyone.” Penny got out of her sleeping bag and tried to stand. Her head roared with the hangover, and her thighs hurt like unholy hell. Running into stopped cars the night before had not been the smartest thing to do. Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to her feet, wearing only her tank top and underwear, and did a few stretches to get her blood flowing. That done, she walked across the room and stared at the paint-stained towel on the floor. Was I cleaning something I brought back, like a pot?

       “Something smells good,” said Monique, sitting up in bed. “Is that coffee?”

       “Think so.” Penny kicked the towel aside, peered into the hall, then walked out for a moment. When she returned, she yawned. “Trent’s not back yet. Let’s see what’s downstairs in the kitchen.”

       “Gotcha,” said Monique, getting out of bed. She wore only her olive-green tee, black underpants, and a sleepy expression.

       The entire house smelled of strong, fresh coffee. Down in the kitchen was a hot pitcher of black liquid in the coffeemaker—and a note beside it, in Jane’s neat, all-capitals printing.














       “Okay, I’ll wash your damn towels,” muttered Penny, who still couldn’t recall how they got dirty. She put the note aside and turned to more important issues. The things in the freezer were indeed leftover cake donuts and crullers, which the microwave magically defrosted. The two settled down at the table, sitting next to each other at one corner.

       “This helps,” Penny mumbled after a long slurp of coffee. She wondered where her headache had gone. That was the shortest, easiest hangover she’d ever had. Still, that wasn’t reason enough to get wasted on mescal again. She got lucky this time, and she’d have to be more careful in the future. Drinking worried Monique, too. Maybe she should think about cutting back. A lot.

       Monique leaned across the table, squinting at Penny’s chest through her tangle of black hair. Penny looked down, then realized she was still wearing her I’M HERE LOOKING FOR GIRLS, TOO tank top. Monique pointed. “Did anyone really think you were gay?”

       Penny pulled at the stretched-out neckline of the shirt, then let it go. “Yeah. Some asshole kids in high school said I was a lesbian because I didn’t date around and I ran track. After a while, everyone said it.” Her jaw tightened. “I got beaten up a few times, but I beat some of them up, too, until they left me alone. It was what I wanted in the first place, getting left alone.”

       “They beat you up?” Monique asked in shock.

       “Oh, it’s no big deal,” said Penny, but she flinched, remembering the dry-mouthed fear those times when she was surrounded and blocked from escape, then pushed from behind until she fought back, then hit everywhere, even in the face and groin. Her voice was a whisper. “That was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter now.”

       “No one hits on you ‘cause of the shirt? I mean, don’t other girls try to hook up?”

       “Once in a while.” Penny shrugged. “I tell them to buzz off, like everyone else. They can do what they want, but it’s not for me.”

       “I can’t believe anyone would do that—beat you up, I mean. I can’t believe it.”

       Penny did not look up from the tabletop. She could still feel the punches. Some girls could hit almost as hard as the boys. No wonder she had avoided having friends for so long. No one could be trusted not to hurt her.

       “Hey,” Monique said, “can I tell you something?”

       Coming to life, Penny blew on her coffee. She let her mind go blank. “Sure.”

       Monique studied her cup for a moment. “You know,” she began, “you’re not really a failure.”

       Penny gave her an irked look. “Don’t analyze me this early in the day, okay?”

       “No, really. Listen to me,” said Monique. She looked into Penny’s eyes. “Think about it, all the stuff you’ve done in your life, going all over the place for a dozen years. Look at all the things you got to do. I mean, I’ve never done anything like that, you know? I just went around playing with bands and stuff, but it wasn’t anything big. You did all the cool stuff. To me, you’ve really done stuff, you know?”

       “Oh, jeez, stop trying to—”

       “No, really!” insisted Monique. “I know you don’t see it like I do, but think about it. See, I don’t feel like I’m really grown up yet. I have all these ideas about doing stuff, you know, all these dreams and ideals and things, but I haven’t done anything much about them. I mean, I write songs about life and stuff, but I haven’t really done anything. You know what I mean? You’ve been out there trying to make a difference. You actually did something about your dreams, you got to do stuff to help other people all these years, you met people and went places and saw things. You got the chance to do what you wanted to do, right?”

       Seeing no immediate reaction, Monique pressed on. “Well, I haven’t. I’d give anything to be like you. I really would. I want to go see those mountains you were talking about, go traveling around and actually feel like I got somewhere in the world, you know?” Her words slowed. “I was thinking about it last night and I was afraid I’d never do it. I’m tired all the time, and I’m scared of going somewhere but then getting sick—not that I guess it matters anymore since I can’t afford any medicine anyway. You’re the first person I’ve met in ages who had a dream and got to follow it, you know? I’d love it if only I could—”

       Without warning, tears ran down Monique’s face. She brushed her fingers against her eyes and struggled to get her words out. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t think you’re a failure, okay? I don’t care what anyone else says. I mean, look at me! All I wanted down deep was for someone to notice me, and I got a nose ring ‘cause I thought it was cool, but it was infected and now it’s going to kill me one of these days, and I haven’t done anything with my life! I’m dying because of a damn nose ring! I have all this music I want to write but probably won’t, and—” Her voice broke “—what am I gonna do?

       Penny came out of her trance and scooted her chair next to Monique’s, putting her arms around her friend. Monique rested her head on Penny’s shoulder and wept, her hands in her lap. They sat like that for a long time as Monique cried. It was the first time ever that Penny remembering caring about someone enough to hold her. She could hardly believe it.

       The tears finally slowed. Monique pulled away and blew her nose on her paper napkin. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I’m the failure, not you.”

       “No,” said Penny. She put her arms around Monique again. It was quiet between them this time, and Penny listened to Monique’s breathing. One day this sound will stop, she thought. How long does she have left? What is there she can do before the end, however long she has?

       “I should call home,” Monique mumbled at last. “My dad’s probably wondering where I went. I forgot to call him last night.”

       Penny let go. “Sure. Use the phone over there.”

       “Thanks.” Monique got up and went across the kitchen to the wall phone. Penny looked down at her steaming coffee, then wrapped her hands around the cup and felt the heat soak through her fingers.

       I should stay in Lawndale with her, she thought—and then, Stay in Lawndale? What the hell am I thinking?




Chapter Nine



       I’m thinking about staying in Lawndale? Penny thought in amazement. I’ve never wanted to stay in Lawndale! I’ve always wanted to get the hell out of this dump, and I’ll do it again as soon as possible—right?

       And then do what? a part of her mind asked.

       Well, maybe go back to El Salvador or Honduras. I’ve been in Belize a couple times, that was nice. Maybe stick around there for a while. Still have Panama to see, too, and all those islands, and South America—one of those places might have the spark I need to get my plans going.

       Those save-the-world plans that can’t possibly succeed?

       They might work!

       No, they won’t. That part of my life is over. I’m thirty, I’m grown up, and it’s time for something new. I still want to travel, I still love to go places, but I need to think about my life plans and how they would affect things with Monique. I can’t imagine she’s up to traveling around like I usually do. If we’re careful, though, we could go places together, lots of places. I hope.

       Penny played with her coffee cup. Running away now would be stupid. She’s the only real friend I’ve had in years, maybe the only real friend I’ve had since day one. It’s crazy, because we couldn’t be more different, really. She’s Trent’s age and cheery and bright and optimistic, and I’m thirty and burned out and old and always pissed off about something. She likes people, and I hate them. She does music, I do crafts. She’s sick and sits around a lot and might have trouble going places, and I’m healthy and like exercise and traveling—although I would like to settle down for a time, too.

       She sighed. The truth is, I don’t feel like going anywhere for a while. I need a break to get my head together about where I’m going in life, from this day onward. All my big plans didn’t amount to squat. I haven’t changed the world one crappy iota. I’m a big damn zero, and I know it, thanks to that little revelation on the Aztec ruin, whatever brought that on. Bad tequila, no doubt. Still, it was true. I’ve changed nothing, saved no one, accomplished nothing.

       But... what if I could save a little part of the world? A little part, like Monique?

       She listened absently as Monique chatted on the phone behind her. “Yeah, Dad, I’m okay. I’m at a friend’s house in town. No, just tired. Yeah, we’re having breakfast right now. No, it’s a girl, little older than me. You remember Trent? It’s his big sister, one of them. Yeah. I met her last night at McGrundy’s and we’ve been hanging out. Not much, just sitting and talking. Okay. Yeah, I’m sorry I didn’t call. Okay. Probably later today. Nothing. I didn’t have anything going on. What? Hey, that’s good. Are they going to promote you, too? Oh, hey, cool! About time, isn’t it? Yeah! That’s great!”

       Will Monique and I be forever friends, always-together kind of friends? I feel it happening. We have a weird chemistry going, even as different as we are. It could work. I’d have to hang around town for a while and put up with this mindless, plastic blunderland, maybe even meet a few bonehead former classmates or my Nazi P.E. teacher again, but it would be worth it to hang out with Monique. It all fits together, too. She wants to be noticed and feel like she matters. She needs someone to be there for her—and I’ve always wanted to be needed. That’s why I went to Central America so many times, looking for people who needed me, like Mom and Dad never seemed to. Why didn’t I ever look for only one person who needed me? Why not one friend instead of a whole country? No one would be my friend at school. I was just too different, too idealistic, too radical. After the lesbian rumors got out, nobody would hang out with me at all—but after they beat me up enough, I didn’t want to hang out with them, either.

       Shouldn’t I be looking for a guy who needs me, though?

       Well, why? What did a guy ever want from me besides sex? Any guy, anywhere? I need the sex too, yeah, and I want guys for that and I can get them, but when did I ever meet a guy who could be my friend? When did I meet anyone I trusted that much? Isn’t a friend what I really want, a companion to share life with, someone I believe in? Haven’t I wanted a real friend to love and be loved, right from the start? Is it too late to try?

       She turned around. Monique stood on one foot as she looked out a window, listening to the phone and scratching her standing leg with the toenails on her other foot. Monique, with her drab-green t-shirt, big eyes, and Victoria’s Secret black underwear. Monique, with her big raven-black hair, stick-thin figure, poisoned blood, and gravely shortened lifespan.

       Monique. Penny felt a rush of peace go through her. Don’t you want somebody to love? Don’t you need somebody to love? Wouldn’t you love somebody to love?

       “I better—” Penny whispered before she cut off the rest of her words. I’ve found what I wanted. I’ve found the friend I never believed I’d have. I can let her go like the butterfly Mom always talked about, let her go her way and I’ll go mine and head on toward age forty and fifty and sixty and death with nothing to show for it, nothing to show for my life, or I can

       Two paths diverged from that moment. The choice was upon her.

       “Hey, Monique?” Penny said.

       Monique turned around, phone still pressed to her ear, eyebrows raised.

       “Can I come over and see your place?” Penny asked, the words rushing out before she thought them through. Talk, don’t listen! “We could hang out together for the weekend. I was thinking I’d like to hear you on guitar or we could go somewhere or something, if you’ve got nothing going on. Okay with you?”

       Monique’s eyes got larger. “Dad?” she said to the phone. “Wait just a sec, okay?” She took the phone from her ear and pressed it to her chest. “Hang out for the weekend, you and me?” she asked.

       And maybe longer. A lot longer. “Yeah. You could show me around town, too. I haven’t been back for a long time and I don’t know where anything is anymore.”

       “You really want to?” Monique looked stunned.

       Penny gave her a twisted grin. “Yeah! Let’s have some fun!”

       “Hey, sure!” cried Monique. “That rocks!” She brought up the phone again. “Hey, Dad? Can I bring a friend over? She’s the sister of Trent’s, the one I stayed over with last night. Yeah, she’s cool! You’ll like her. Okay! We’ll be over later, then. Thanks! I’ve gotta go. Love you, too. Bye!”

       Penny got up from her chair as Monique hung up the phone and shrieked with delight. She impulsively pulled Monique close and hugged her, felt her thinness and her warmth and her breath and her heartbeat, how small she really was—one candle in a world of darkness, one light that might soon go out.

       “Thanks,” whispered Monique.

       “That’s what friends are for,” whispered Penny.

       Elsewhere in the house, the front door opened and shut.

       “Jane?” Penny looked up without releasing Monique.

       “Not Janey,” called Trent in a tired voice. He appeared in the doorway a second later, a black guitar case in one hand. His wrinkled clothes were stained with sweat, and he gave off an odor cloud of stale beer and cigarettes. His eyes grew huge and his mouth fell open as he took in his half-dressed sister and ex-girlfriend hugging in the kitchen.

       “Hey, Trent!” cried Monique. She pulled away from Penny and waved, excited and grinning. “You want some coffee? Jane made it. It’s pretty good.”

       Trent took a step back. Penny had never seen her brother so flustered, even after the prank the night before. “Oh, man!” he gasped, and he dropped his guitar case and ran from the kitchen to the stairs.

       “Are you okay?” Monique called after him, puzzled. “Trent?”

       “What’s eating him?” Penny grumbled. Trent had seen her in her underwear before. He’d probably seen more of Monique than this, too. Whatever, it was his problem, not hers. Penny gave Monique’s hand a squeeze, then saw that her coffee cup was empty. Her urge for donuts was sated, too. “We should go get showered,” she said. “You can use the upstairs one. I’ll use the one on this floor.”

       “Thanks! I could use it.”

       “Me, too. Wish I could remember more about last night.”

       “What about last night?” Monique called, heading for the stairs.

       “Nothing,” said Penny. Whatever had happened, it wasn’t important. Finding a lifelong friend, feeling the joy she’d always wanted bloom inside her and fill the world with its bright color—that was important. She had it, and it was hers.




Chapter Ten



       As steaming hot water sprayed in her face, Penny mulled over her future after thirty. I need to start over, she thought. I need to find my way again, but without any hurry. I might leave again one of these days—rather, we might leave, but we might not. I don’t know anything anymore. I know nothing except that I’ll never be alone again.

       Her thoughts drifted to something Monique had said, about wanting to write more songs. The entrepreneur part of Penny’s mind woke up. If that’s what she wants to do most, then she should do it, she thought, scrubbing shampoo into her brick-red hair. And why can’t she get solo gigs? If her music’s good, she can play anywhere. Hell, if a crap-ass band like Mystik Spiral can get gigs, Monique can get them. She just needs someone to push for her, open the doors, make it happen. Penny knew little about the music business, but she knew how to talk to people, how to sell them on things, how to network. It was what got her handicrafts sold, all these years. If Monique needed something, Penny knew she could deliver.

       Monique surely had some original music sitting around, but playing covers wasn’t out of the question, either. Maybe she knew a few other old hippie tunes besides “Somebody to Love,” and some catchy ways of singing them. Penny knew she could bring out whatever talent Monique had, and she suspected Monique had a lot.

       But there would be less drinking for Penny, for sure. The hangovers were too much, and she didn’t feel the need to medicate her pain as badly as before. Whatever had happened last night had set her free.

       Penny began to hum as much of “Somebody to Love” as she could remember. When the truth is found / to be lies / and all the joy / within you dies—hmm, that part doesn’t really apply to me, does it? It probably applies to someone else, somewhere, God help them, but not to me. Just the refrain, then—Don’t you want somebody to love? / Don’t you need somebody to love? / Wouldn’t you love somebody to love? / You’d better find somebody to love!

       This was the start of something big, she knew. She smiled. It was the start of something really big.



* * *



       It was impossible to believe, but someone wanted her. Monique could not get it out of her head. She stood under the shower and let the hot spray wash over her. She had the curious feeling that she was being born again, and someone was there with her, sheltering her with a great wing like a mother bird, yet letting her fly free, too.

       Someone wants me. Dad wants me, I know, but now someone else wants me, too. I think she means it. Monique massaged her face as the water fell over her in sheets. I was a nothing, but now I’m not. Someone wants me. Someone really sees me as I am and wants me.

       Part of the weariness that had dogged her for a year faded away. There was still a bit of the old fear, the old emptiness, but with it was a new thing that was scary but nourishing. She wants to hear me play my guitar, she said to herself. She’s not afraid of my illness, not afraid to hug me whenever she feels like it. I need to be hugged, need to be noticed, need to have a friend, and she does it all.

       And Penny undoubtedly had stories to tell, like the stories Monique’s father used to tell her about the places he’d gone when he was younger, the adventures he’d had, the dreams he’d dreamed before they were washed away in a liquor bottle. The bottle—that was the one frightening thing about Penny, that she liked to drink. Still, she had stopped herself from going to the liquor store when Monique asked her not to do it the night before. No one had ever done that in Monique’s experience. Her father and many other boyfriends hadn’t, so Monique had stopped asking them. Trent hadn’t been much of a drinker, but he hadn’t been much else, either. Would Penny break the mold?

       Monique rubbed her stomach to relieve a knot of fear. It’s okay, she told herself, it’s okay. She listened to me and didn’t drink. She might keep listening. I’ll play my guitar for her and show her the shoebox full of photos of me as a kid and when I started playing in that band with Trent in high school, before Mystik Spiral, and when I was touring with the Harpies and when I was doing some of my solo gigs. Maybe I could try for some more solo gigs or get back into a band that won’t mind having me. I could ask around. It wouldn’t hurt, except for being rejected, but I can get over that.

       Hardly aware of the water hitting her face, Monique picked up the soap and began to wash. A song drifted into her head from another of the records she used to play at night when she was a little girl, waiting for her father to come home from the bar. She’d have to be careful singing it around her new friend—but, for now, it was the Magical Mystery Tour album by the Beatles. The tune was the obvious one. She remembered only the refrain, which was enough.

       “‘Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes,’” she sang, scrubbing away. “‘There beneath the blue suburban skies...’”



* * *



       Trent sat on his bed in his messy room, his head in his hands. His asshole sister, fresh from terrorizing Central America for the upteenth time, had just transformed his former girlfriend, the sweet and naïve Monique, into a wretched love slave. Trent was not mourning for himself, as he already knew he and Monique were not destined to be a couple. The farther apart they kept, he correctly reasoned, the happier they would be in both the long and short run. He wasn’t upset about Penny being a lesbian, either, as it made no difference to him who she hung out with. Everyone in Lawndale knew Penny would turn out to be a dyke, anyway, and Trent had long ago decided Monique was probably bi. It was no surprise.

       Instead, he mourned for Monique, who would soon bear the searing scars of Penny’s acidic personality, her bubbly enthusiasm crushed into jellied nothingness like a hapless chipmunk caught under the steel treads of a multi-ton bulldozer. It boggled his mind. Trent could not imagine anyone who would go for Penny under any circumstances. She had all the loving appeal of a bloodstained machete. Poor Monique must have been desperate to hook up with her. It was worse than sad. It was tragic.

       “Like a chipmunk under a bulldozer,” said Trent aloud. He became thoughtful. The phrase had potential as a song lyric. He reached under his bed and pulled out his huge book of potential song lyrics, opened it to a fresh page near the back, and looked for a pen or pencil in his trash-filled room. He found a lime-green dye marker and used that to write:



You bulldozed through the forests of her primeval life

Knocked down the proud trees and gave her wilderness strife

Your engines roared loud, your poison everywhere spread

And her soul was like a chipmunk squashed beneath your cruel treads



       “Treads” was a close enough rhyme to “spread,” but Trent worried that the lyrics didn’t properly convey the soul-searing angst of the situation. That could be fixed with more lyrics, of course. He would leave the “you” in the song undefined, so it could be male or female, and also so Penny wouldn’t suspect the song was written about her, which would be troublesome, to say the least.

       He dithered for a few moments over a title, and settled on the provisional name, “Toxic Waste Love,” because he liked the phrase “toxic waste.” Perhaps he could work the word “deforestation” into the song and make a comparison with the plight of the rainforests, which—if Monique was clever enough—she might associate with Central America and the Amazon, which she would then associate with Penny, which would then reveal her predicament and allow her the chance to free herself from Penny’s relentlessly abusive nature.

       Trent nodded with growing excitement. He loved it when a song came together. He’d have to call Jesse and get some music going for it.

       It was still a shame about Monique, though. He tried to rid himself of the image of Monique and Penny in bed together, and he shivered in revulsion and horror. When his mind cleared, he bent over the book to make up the next set of verses.



* * *



       Neither Penny nor Monique ever again thought of the smoking mirror. It was still gone from Penny’s room when they returned. The customs officials who peered at it only a week earlier had forgotten it. Trent never knew about it. It was as if the obsidian mirror had never existed.









Part Two


The Secret History of Jane Lane





O tiger’s heart wrapp’d in a woman’s hide!


William Shakespeare, The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth, I, iv, 137





La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid.

(Revenge is a dish that is best served cold.)


Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782)






Chapter One



       The towel-covered mirror was heavy in Jane Lane’s hands as she walked back to her own room from Penny’s. After setting the obsidian disc on her bed, she went back to the door and listened, but Penny and Monique were still asleep. She shut her door and locked it, then walked across the room and looked down at the towel on her blanket—and the round outline of the object beneath it.

       I don’t want to do this, she thought, her nerve eroding. I don’t want to know who I really am. I don’t want to see the hidden me. It’s going to hurt, I know it, it’ll hurt like freaking crazy. I know that kind of pain. I’ve known it all my life.

       The fingers of her right hand strayed toward the towel. They pulled back.

       “But I do want to know,” she said with limited conviction. “I really do. I don’t know what’s inside me, but I want to know for sure. That self-knowledge is there sometimes—it was there when I started the fish picture—but then it went away and I can’t get at it now. I have to know.”

       The obsidian mirror under the towel did not respond.

       It’s going to hurt bad, like it hurt Monique and Penny, and it’ll probably be the thing that hurt me the most, which would be what happened with Daria and Tom. I still think about it a little, now and then, when I can’t sleep or I’m stuck in traffic or I’m painting or sculpting or doing anything. I remember how it felt to be so betrayed, to lose my heart and everything else inside me in one moment. Even after I forgave them and we got on with our lives, and even after I acted like nothing was wrong and everything was fine, it has never left me. Not for a second.

       Her fingers stroked the towel over the mirror. So, what would I see? She shook her head, blocking, more confused and nervous. I’ll see how I was part and parcel of it, how I played into the triangle and fed it. I’m as guilty as they. Her fingers pulled back and drummed against her thigh. I left Daria to be with Tom, didn’t I? Aren’t I as guilty as they? Should I not have done it, then, not looked for a lover? Should I never have dated anyone, so Daria could always have access to me? Or didn’t she ever get it, that I wanted a lover, that people have to grow up and change, and you have to flow with it? Was I wrong to want a guy who would be my own, as well as wanting Daria as my true friend for life?

       Well, I know I did other things to bring it on. I was so paranoid, accusing Daria of wanting Tom—well, that part was right on target. Can’t blame me for that. The hell with it.

       A friend and a lover, that’s all I wanted. Now that hope is gone, lost and gone and dead and buried. Daria and I have a shade of what we once shared. She still turns to me, like when she called me to that diner after she almost had that accident; she still needs me. I’ve done everything I could to keep the friendship going, I’ve hidden almost every bit of bitterness I’ve ever felt about her betrayal. I’ve pushed down and buried my rage and sorrow and everything, just so Daria could still be my friend, because I wanted it to work, I wanted it to work, I wanted it to go back to the way it was—

       But I’m talking about it in the past tense. I shouldn’t do that. I should keep going and not think or do anything about my secret plan to—


       She shook her head to clear it. “Es irónico,” she said aloud, as if nothing had happened. “I’ve always wanted to see how I looked in the world around me. That’s why I was painting this fish, me, swimming through my world but unable to see anything but the water around me. I can’t see me, what I really am. I don’t know what’s eating me. I don’t know if I want to know.”

       Her fingers stretched out and once more ran over the cotton towel over the obsidian mirror.


       She nodded absently. It was true. She was terrified. If she looked, it would tear away everything she had tried so hard to be for over a year now. It would be the end of the old Jane Lane.

       And what was so great about the old Jane Lane? Hasn’t there been enough of her already?

       It was difficult to argue against that. What the new Jane Lane would be, she could not say. Or dared not.

       She straightened and squared her shoulders. “Am I a seeker of truth?” she asked softly. “Am I an artist, or am I a coward? Am I going to look? Am I just killing time so I can talk myself out of this? What harm could it do to look, really? What happened to Monique and Penny could have been autosuggestion, self-hypnosis, or just drunkenness. They saw inside themselves because they believed they would, but I don’t know that I believe in it, so it might not work. I’ll just be looking at myself, feeling stupid and—”

       The phone rang. Startled, Jane swiftly walked over and picked up the handset, hoping to keep Penny and Monique from waking up. “Yo. Hey, Daria. What time is it? Yeah, I didn’t know it was so late. No, everything’s fine. No one’s killed anyone else. So far, I mean. No, he’s not back yet. I don’t expect him until late, as usual. Yeah, I know. It’s been weird. It wasn’t what I thought earlier, what’s up between them. It was... it’s been really weird, really really weird. Look, can I call you back? I can’t... I need a break. I have a lot to think about.” Her gaze went to the towel on her bed. “Lemme call you back tomorrow. Will you be in? Sure, whatever. I’m sure I’ll have a lot to talk about.” She kept staring at the towel. “A lot to talk about. What? No, I’m fine. Just... messed up. Yeah. Bye.”

       She put the handset down and looked at the towel. Raising her head, she listened for half a minute. No one else in the house stirred.

       It was time.

       I have a tiger’s heart, she thought. For years she had repeated this phrase to herself, during the worst moments in her life. She had no idea where it came from, but this simple phrase was all that had kept her alive some days. She nodded once. I have a tiger’s heart.

       Jane undressed and put on a black nightshirt and black short pants, throwing the rest of her clothing in a pile by the bed. After turning on two bedside lights so she could see her reflection, she gently climbed onto her bed and sat near the center. Swallowing, she reached for the towel and the thing under it and brought them to her lap. The cold plate balanced on her thighs and shins. After a moment, Jane pulled off the towel and tossed it aside on the floor. She stared at the TV set on the stand at the foot of her bed, her face blank. Closing her eyes, she then lowered her head and faced the plate.

       She did not open her eyes. Not yet.

       “What will you show me?” she asked, her voice low. She waited, then opened her blue eyes. The smoking mirror was below her face. Her reflection stared up at her from a well of infinite darkness.

       “Show me what I fear,” she whispered. “Show me who I am. Show me for the sake of truth, or for the sake of art, or just for the hell of it. Do your worst, oh god of the smoking mirror. Show me. Do your worst.”

       Into the darkness she looked.

       And the darkness opened its eyes and looked back.




Chapter Two



       A little girl with coal-black hair in a topknot ran a magenta crayon over a large sheet of paper. Six-year-old Jane was drawing a picture of the Mother Goddess. Jane’s own mother talked a lot about the Mother Goddess after going away for a week to a women’s art workshop, far from home in a place called Seattle that was all ups and downs and lay by to an ocean. The Mother Goddess came in all shapes and sizes in the many pictures of her in the books Jane’s mother brought home, but she always had huge bare boobies, which made her interesting. Jane wanted to get that part right, so she made the boobies extra big.

       The girl drawing next to her gasped. “Oh, my gosh!” Melissa cried, hands on her cheeks. “What are you doing?

       Jane looked at her best friend, puzzled and concerned. “Drawing,” she said defensively. “This is a Mother Goddess.”

       “You liar!” shouted Melissa. “God doesn’t look like that!”

       “It’s not God!” Jane snapped, getting upset. “It’s a Mother Goddess!”

       “That’s your mother?” yelled a boy in front of Jane, who had turned around to see what the matter was. His eyes popped out of his head when he saw the giant boobies. “You’re drawing a dirty picture! I’m telling!” He turned and raised his hand. “Miss Price! Jane’s drawing a dirty picture! It’s her mother!”

       Jane threw the magenta crayon at the boy, bouncing it off the back of his head. Children across the room shrieked. The boy threw his crayon at Jane but missed. She snatched up her whole crayon box, furious that anyone would insult her mother, and flung it overhand. The plastic box hit the boy in the forehead, crayons flying everywhere. Staggered, the boy grabbed his face and burst into tears. The classroom went into howling chaos, worse than when the chimp tried to escape on its tricycle at Jane’s fourth birthday party.

       “What is wrong with you?” shouted Miss Price, stalking to the back of the room. “Quiet, everyone! You’re supposed to be good first graders! Jane and Brant, stop fighting!” She grabbed Jane by the wrist and seized her picture, folding it up immediately. “I’m calling your mother!”

       “Good!” shouted Jane, red-faced. “Call her!”

       Miss Price did. The talk did not go well. “Mrs. Lane,” Miss Price snapped into the phone, “we’re not talking about letting butterflies go free! We’re talking about your daughter throwing crayons in class! And she’s drawing sexually oriented pictures that I can’t decently describe! I want you to have a talk with her about this when she gets home!”

       Jane was sent home early with her drawing.

       “Is this the Mother Goddess?” Amanda Lane asked, looking the picture over.

       “Yes,” said Jane in a sullen tone.

       Amanda raised her eyebrows. “Wonderful!” she said, which she said about everything, even if Jane was sick and had thrown up in the living room. “I’m so glad you have an interest in drawing people, and the Mother Goddess is an excellent subject for the mature mind.” She pursed her lips. “The breasts certainly are in keeping with male cultural expectations, but they could also be symbolic of fertility and parenthood. Some people have strange attitudes about drawing the unclothed body. Enforcing rules like that in schools is like trying to cage a butterfly!”

       Though unable to follow most of her mother’s artistic analysis, Jane grimaced as if she’d bitten into a bad peanut when she heard the word “butterfly.” Her mother used the word “butterfly” in most proverbs she knew. It was overkill even for a six-year-old.

       “My, and she has such a lovely face, too,” her mother went on. “Good job!” She gave Jane a look that was meant to be wise. “I suspect the actual problem is that your classmates are jealous of your artistic ability.”

       Jane nodded, though she knew that was not the case. No one had ever said he or she was jealous of Jane’s artistry. She understood that her mother was being comforting and nothing more. Jane wished her big sister Penny was here instead of trekking around in Arizona. Penny took things seriously and had an intuition about Jane’s life that their mother lacked. Her brother Trent, in middle school, was a fair replacement for comfort. However, he was usually off listening to rock music with his best friend, Jesse Moreno.

       “You know it’s not a good idea to throw things in class,” her mother went on, looking over the top of Jane’s picture. “Self-expression has its limits. No violence, all right? Throw something against a wall if you must, or you can borrow one of my foam baseball bats. Better yet, just draw out your darker impulses on paper. Use your anger to fuel your creative powers—but no more throwing things at people, okay?”

       Jane nodded again. She could afford to be agreeable, as Brant had lost the fight.

       Her mother looked at the picture once more. “Is your Mother Goddess supposed to be naked?”

       Hesitantly, Jane said, “Yeah.” Was that a problem? Nudity was hardly uncommon at the Lane home.

       Amanda Lane smiled, assuming her teacher face. “Remember,” she said, “if she’s naked, she needs pubic hair.” Amanda sketched it in quickly with a pencil she took from behind her ear, then handed the picture back to her youngest child. “You’ll love life model drawing later on. Good work!” With that, Amanda Lane went back to brushing glaze over her latest work of pottery.

       Jane took the drawing and frowned, angry that her mother had drawn on her drawing, messing it up even more. It was bad enough that it had big folds and wrinkles in it from Miss Price’s handling of it.

       And what the heck was pubic hair? She studied the mutilated picture, then got it. Her mother and older sisters sometimes wandered around the house without any clothes on when they got out of the shower, if her father or brothers weren’t home, as usual.

       Jane’s level of confusion rose. Was she supposed to draw pubic hair on all her pictures of people? Would the teacher and her classmates get mad about that, too? She suspected they would. What was she supposed to do? Who was she supposed to please? Who would yell at her next?

       Nice as her mother was, Jane knew she didn’t get it. The problem was, Jane was not like the other kids, and she knew it. The other kids knew it, too, and they didn’t like it. Whenever Jane reached out to be friends with someone, disaster always struck. It had been like this all through kindergarten, too. Jane wanted nothing more than to fit in and be accepted and have friends like everyone else. Why wasn’t it working out like that? Why couldn’t anyone accept her for who she was?

       That evening, Jane went outside and threw her picture of the mother goddess in the garbage can. Better that no one ever saw it again, which would get her into more trouble.

       It was too late to avoid trouble, however. When Jane got back to school the next day, her best friends Melissa and Robin wouldn’t talk to her. They turned their backs and pushed her away when she tried to sit beside them at morning snack. Neither would tell her why they didn’t want to be her friend anymore. Someone later took her jacket from her cubby and threw it on the floor and stepped on it, leaving big shoeprints on the back. The shoeprints looked like Brant’s. And her lunch wound up in the trashcan in the back of the room, the veggie sandwich and granola bar flattened, the apple too bruised to eat.

       The next day, even more classmates shunned her. By Thanksgiving, Jane had no friends left in first grade, or anywhere in Lawndale Elementary. She sat alone in the back of the classroom or at the end of the lunch table. No one but the teachers spoke to her.

       She stopped wearing her hair in a topknot, too. Wherever she sat, she lowered her head and let her long bangs cover her face, so no one could see her cry.




Chapter Three



       “Couldn’t Jane’s parents be with us tonight?” asked Mrs. Melrose as Jane and her blonde oldest sister Summer took their seats in the Lawndale Elementary School conference room. Jane, tall and lanky, sat by her sister, glowering at the tabletop before her and swinging her legs in the air. Her shoulder-length hair was in bangs except for a strand of braided hair on either side of her face. She wore faded jeans, mismatched sneakers, and a bright blue sweater with holes in the armpits.

       “Man, I wish,” said Summer testily. “I had to leave my baby at a friend’s house. Dad’s in India this week, taking pictures of stupid wildlife for the Smithsonian, and Mom’s in San Francisco at some idiot rug-weaving conference or something like that. I’m stuck with Short Stuff here.”

       Jane glared up at her sister. Her fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Melrose, got a weary look on her face. “Okay, Miss, um—”

       “Summer, just call me Summer,” said Summer. “My divorce isn’t over yet, so my last name it up in the air.”

       “Okay, um, Summer, I’d like for us to talk about Jane’s performance in English this semester. She started out—”

       “Mom says Jane’s always been better at visual stuff. She doesn’t get the verbal thing, you know? I mean, it’s not like she’s stupid or anything, but she doesn’t get it.”

       Jane glared at the floor. Go stuff it, Summer, she thought. Like you ever get anything, except pregnant.

       With a pained look, Mrs. Melrose leaned forward. “Jane was actually doing quite well the first couple of months,” she said, pulling papers from a binder in front of her, “but in October her performance dropped considerably.” She handed the classwork to Summer. “See, she went from making A minuses and B pluses to making Cs and Ds, and she’s not turned in her homework for two weeks.”

       Summer squinted at the papers, shuffling through them. “I hate this,” she muttered. “I don’t know dog crap about what’s she’s doing in school. I tell you, I don’t see what good grades do, anyway. Can’t you just pass her or something? I mean, she shows up, right?”

       “Well, this is a school,” said Mrs. Melrose, fighting down her irritation. “Grades are one of the ways we use to measure progress and performance. Summer, the point is that I’m worried something’s going on that’s causing Jane’s work to suffer. Do you know of any problems in her life that might be contributing to this drop in grades?”

       Summer groaned and turned to her little sister. “What’s wrong that you have to get me dragged in here like this? Spill it, would ya? I can’t be coming in her all the time, all right?”

       Jane would not look up. It was typical of Summer to think only of herself. Summer bragged about how good she had it in school, despite her low grades. Summer never had any problems getting friends. She always had good friends, unlike Jane. Jane thought of Clarissa, who once said she was Jane’s best friend before it turned out she was telling all of Jane’s secrets to Marissa and Janet and Paige and Bernadette, who had told everyone else, and they were laughing at Jane behind her back every day of the week. She thought of the boys who liked to push her down on the playground when no one else was looking, which always caused the other girls in her class to clap their hands and cheer. The girls were getting the boys to do it.

       “I’m talking to you, squirt!” Summer said, getting testy again. “Is anything wrong?”

       “No,” Jane said, her lips barely moving.

       “Well, hell’s bells!” growled Summer. “Then, why are we here?” She turned to Mrs. Melrose. “Look, I’m sure it’s just some kind of phase or something. Like my mom says, everything works out for the best in the long run. Are we done now?”

       Mrs. Melrose glanced at Jane and looked uncomfortable. “We’re not done yet, no. I’m afraid there’s more to it. Jane doesn’t seem to be herself lately.” She stopped and addressed herself to Jane directly. “Dear, are you having problems with the other children in class?”

       Jane glanced up, then looked down again without an answer.

       “I found your missing workbook,” said Mrs. Melrose softly. She pulled an oversized paperback book from the below her binder. Jane looked up again and started to reach for it, but Mrs. Melrose showed it to Summer instead, opening it to a random page. Written crudely across the pages in red dye marker was the announcement, “JANE IS INSAIN!” Mrs. Melrose flipped through a few more pages, revealing more of the same, each page in different handwriting and with various spelling approximations of “Jane” and “insane.”

       “Someone apparently took your workbook and defaced it,” said Mrs. Melrose to Jane. “I’ll get you a replacement, no charge.”

       Jane felt her face burn. It was Clarissa’s work, she could tell. Only Clarissa would have the gall to plan something like this. The changes in handwriting from page to page meant most of her fourth-grade classmates had secretly helped.

       Summer sighed, dismissing it with a wave of her hand. “Kids are like that everywhere,” she said. “They’re just being kids. They don’t mean it.” She turned to Jane. “Look, don’t take it personally, all right? They don’t mean anything by it. If you just pretend it doesn’t bother you, they’ll stop. That always works.”

       Jane’s face hardened. She already acted like nothing bothered her. It didn’t help. Notes appeared in her locker claiming that she was insane, retarded, and a “prevert.” Girls whispered and giggled when she came around, and boys acted in crazy ways, pretending they were Jane having a mental breakdown.

       The harassment was getting worse, too. Jane had learned not to bring anything of value to school, as it would be stolen or destroyed in short order. Even her personal sketchbooks were at risk. In fact, she suspected it was the theft of one sketchbook that had started this whole mess several weeks in early October, because she had drawn portraits of several fellow students when they weren’t looking. The pictures weren’t meant to be insulting, but someone had taken offense to them anyway. One of the pictures had been of Clarissa chewing on the ends of her hair, looking meditative. Bingo.

       “Jane.” Jane looked up, her reverie broken. “Jane,” repeated Mrs. Melrose, “I know you can do the work. You’re one of the brightest pupils I’ve ever had. If there’s anything I could possibly do that would help, please tell me.”

       Jane kept her face blank, but she knew the offer was worse than useless. During the previous summer, she had tattled on a girl who pulled her hair at an overnight party for local Brownie Girl Scouts, and the girl got all of her friends to pull Jane’s hair whenever possible. The lesson was learned. Rat on a rat, and all the rats will bite you.

       Mrs. Melrose sensed her offer was rejected and shook her head. “I wish there was something I could do,” she said sadly.

       “Don’t worry about it,” said Summer. “Let the kids work it out for themselves. My mom always says we have to trust kids, and she’s had enough of them, so I guess she would know. Kids aren’t devious and rotten like adults are. It’ll all work out.”

       “Hmmm,” said Mrs. Melrose, who clearly didn’t believe a word Summer had said. “At any rate, Jane is far behind the other students, except in art. She’s a marvel there. If she could maintain even a C average in her other studies, I’d feel better, but I’d still like for her to bring back those As and Bs.”

       Jane considered this. If she kept a C or low C average, Mrs. Melrose would stop bothering her. She decided she would try, but she made no promises.

       That night, Jane went to her brother Trent’s room. Trent was in high school now, a tall ninth grader who had taught himself how to play grunge music on a battered guitar he’d borrowed from Jesse. Jane knocked on the door for half a minute before Trent woke up and told her to come in.

       Jane walked in and stood by his bed. Trent liked practicing while sitting up in bed, so if he fell asleep, he could wake up and start playing again. “I’m sick of school,” Jane said.

       Trent nodded solemnly. “Hmmm, yeah.” He plucked a few strings on the guitar. “It’s hard,” he added.

       “Everyone hates me,” she went on. “I want to go somewhere else for school, or stay home.”

       “Hmmm.” Trent scratched his chin. “They hate you, huh?”

       “Yeah. They steal my stuff and put notes in my locker and call me names, and I’m sick of it.” She wiped her eyes, not wanting to cry but being unable to stop. Trent put down the guitar and helped her up on his bed. They sat beside each other, Trent’s arm around his sister, until her cry was over. Trent then put his guitar in Jane’s lap and showed her how to play a few chords.

       “I want to run away,” Jane said after a while.

       Trent thought about this for a long time. “Then they’d win,” he said.

       It was the worst news Jane could imagine, but it was true. If she ran away, she would lose, and Clarissa and the other girls would win. In order to win, she would have to stay and take whatever came her way, proving she was stronger than her enemies.

       If she was stronger. If she wasn’t, her enemies would destroy her.

       Jane went back to her room after playing a few more chords. She decided to stick it out. There was always the small chance that she might win, and she’d survived this long. Her sister Summer had already told her that because public schools were technically free and private schools cost a ton of money, Jane would never be able to go anywhere else but where she was. There hadn’t been a choice, really.

       She went back to school the next day. Two weeks later, Clarissa’s father was transferred to a job in Alaska, and her family had to move one month after that. With no driver to the anti-Jane campaign, it fell apart—but the damage was done. No one wanted to be Jane’s friend. She was too weird, too artsy, too smart, too sarcastic, too much of a loner, and none of her clothes were in style. Jane would never be popular, never fit in, never have friends.

       At least the cruel notes stopped appearing in her locker. Her things were no longer stolen, too. Jane began to tell herself that it was better to be alone. The other kids were so obviously stupid and mean, so why should she want to hang around them, anyway? It was weak comfort, but it was all she had.

       In bed at night, she wiped tears from her eyes. More than anything, she wanted a friend, someone she could trust, someone who would never betray her. She imagined that somewhere on the Earth, there really was a person who would be her friend and hers alone, forever. They would stand up for each other, defend each other, and share secrets no one else would know—loyal and true forever. And they would never again be alone.

       Where are you? she whispered into the darkness above her bed. I’m waiting for you, my amiga! Where are you?




Chapter Four



       The sun wasn’t up at seven a.m. in early January, but eight-grader Jane had been awake for over an hour, fueled by the pot of instant coffee she’d made herself for breakfast. No one else was home except Trent, who was of course asleep. Chewing forbidden gum, she headed for her locker in the halls of Lawndale Middle School, bearing a light backpack and the knowledge she’d done only half her homework. Thank heavens for a first-period study hall. Her hair had a stylish layered cut, which she’d had done at a beauty salon with her own allowance, and she wore a bit of eye makeup and bright red lipstick. Both her ears sported large, dangly hoop earrings. Of late, she liked skintight pants. And black showed off her slim figure quite well.

       Jane had discovered boys. And boys—though not one of them would dare admit it in public—had discovered her.

       When she reached her objective, she twirled the locker’s combination dial, ignoring the word “SLUT” keyed into the paint on her locker by a nameless student in November. She hummed a tune Trent had been playing on his guitar the night before, a song tentatively entitled “Refrigerator Woman.” Though he’d graduated the year before, Trent still lived at home, mowing the yard once a month between jam sessions with Jesse and the other members of his alternative band, Mystik Spiral. He kept the house going, more or less, while their parents hopped over the world in pursuit of their respective artistic Muses.

       A knot of eighth-grade girls passed behind her as Jane opened her locker. “Whore,” one of them said in a loud whisper. Jane gave no sign that she had heard. Whore was mild compared to some epithets she’d heard. She snapped her gum and took out her math and English books, preparing for the first half of her school day.

       In years past, a passing girl was also likely to reach out and shove Jane into her locker, smack her on the back of the head, or throw a paper wad at her. That ended in seventh grade, when the girls who tormented Jane found their lockers had been doused with substances such as cheap perfume or ammonia, sprayed through the grillwork. Though Jane was suspected, nothing could be proven. In fact, she always had excellent alibis. The source was never traced. Retaliation of this nature swiftly followed each physical attack until the other girls got the message: Anything more than words invited costly revenge, and sometimes words did, too. Jane was playing far outside the normal rules for adolescent female conflict, and everyone knew it, but no one could stop it. It was easier to retreat, throw insults, and keep Jane locked out of the other girls’ social mainstream. It was her eighth year alone, through two schools. She sometimes wondered if it was a record, being an outcast that long. She suspected it was not.

       Today was going to be an interesting day. A lacrosse team from Westlake Middle School was coming by for an after-school game against the Lawndale Leopards. One of the Westlake Wildcats was a tall blond guy named Chet, full of sarcastic humor and an easy, confident manner. He also had big, gentle hands and was a dynamite kisser. Jane knew that for a fact. She thought of him and smiled.

       “Slut butt,” sneered another passing girl. “Insane Jane Lane.”

       The smile held, though it grew cold. Hey, Jan. Think your locker’s going to smell funny tomorrow? Payback is a bitch, isn’t it?

       “Hi, Jane,” said a different voice, deep but feminine. “Cold enough for you?”

       Jane turned. Her smile grew warm again. “Yo,” she said to the African-American girl who had the locker next to hers—Jodie Landon. “Did you mean cold outside or inside?”

       “Inside, I guess.” Jodie opened her locker and looked down the hall after the last girl. “What was that all about?”

       “Beats me,” said Jane. “Something in the beer, maybe.”

       Jodie snorted in amusement. She began pulling books from the neatly organized stacks in her locker. “You going to the lacrosse game after school?”

       “Mmm, I might.” Jane’s smile turned secretive. “Depends.”

       “Ah,” said Jodie, but she didn’t smile. “There’s been a bad flu virus going around Westlake. Some of the team won’t be here. Mack said Chet was pretty sick.”

       Jane deflated. She swallowed and tried to look interested in her locker contents.

       A warm hand pressed against her back for a moment. “There’ll be other times,” Jodie said. She knew about Chet and Jane.

       “Not many,” said Jane in a low voice. “Chet’s folks are moving to back to Montana in June.”

       “Oh,” said Jodie after a beat. They silently got their books and shut their lockers.

       “See ya,” mumbled Jane, turning to go.

       “Jane,” said Jodie. “Wait a second. Let’s walk.”

       “Sure.” This was odd. Jodie was usually too busy with schoolwork to have time to be a real friend, but she cared. “What’s up?”

       Jodie thought for a moment as they walked, then began in a soft voice. “When I was at my last school, back in Chicago, there were some mean kids there. One of them was this really nasty little white kid who didn’t like black kids, and I knew one day he was going to say something about me to my face. He was like that. I didn’t know what I was going to do about it, but then one day we were passing each other in the hall, and cheerful as you please, he called me the n-word, right to my face.”

       Jane’s blood ran cold. She could not imagine what life would be like, having to deal with people like that. It made her own problems look small.

       “So,” Jodie went on in an even tone, “I stopped and looked at him, and he stopped and waited to see what I would do, and as I looked at him I thought, ‘This is the sorriest excuse for a human being I have ever seen in my life,’ and all of a sudden I started to laugh. That’s the truth, I really did. I laughed so damn hard I could hardly walk. All I could think of was, ‘This is the sorriest human being I ever saw,’ and it just struck me as funny somehow. He got mad, but he walked away and he never said a thing to me again. He knew he couldn’t hurt me.”

       Jane thought about it.

       “I don’t know,” said Jodie. “Thought it was worth saying.”

       “It was,” said Jane, grateful. “Thanks.”

       “Sure. See you around. Oh, and spit out your gum before—”

       “Right. Thanks.”

       After school, Jane walked home by herself as she always did. Laugh it off? That was an interesting way of looking at it. She already had the most sarcastic mouth in school. It wasn’t a stretch to see the twisted humor in her situation, and go with that instead of her rage.

       Jane frowned. She couldn’t laugh at her situation, really. It was too miserable, even if she told herself every day that everything was fine as it was. Still, she did have bright spots—Jodie, Chet and the other boys willing to trade spit on the sly, and most importantly her artwork. Jane felt something inside her come to life when she painted or sculpted, and it made the world worth bearing for one more weary day, even if her art sometimes got her into trouble. Too bad most art teachers wanted her drawings to be less violent and painful, and more like what Jane called “Mister Happy Squirrel” art.

       And there was Jesse Moreno’s younger brother, Danny. He was a high-school senior who worked part-time at Lawndale Middle School for the janitorial service. He knew Jane, and their mutual interest in Mystik Spiral and alternative rock gave them common ground. Danny’s real value, though, was that he was always willing to make a little extra money in exchange for spraying noxious substances into the lockers of aggressive girls who bothered Jane. He hadn’t been caught yet, and Jane had paid him well for a year now, using funds left by her parents for buying food and paying for utilities.

       Jane sighed. She couldn’t exactly laugh at her life, but she could get a new perspective, one with a bit more humor in it. It would give her sarcasm a gentler edge, but her life would be more fun. Jodie was right.

       It was a shame about Jodie’s life, though. She would have been the greatest of friends, but her parents were smothering her with pressure to be the best student in Lawndale’s history. I don’t even have time to play tic-tac-toe, Jodie had complained. Jane hoped Jodie’s boyfriend Mack would be transferred from Westlake to Lawndale High next year. He sounded like a great guy. Jodie deserved him.

       I wish I had a great guy, Jane thought, snapping her gum once more before she spit it into a garbage can. Girls are hard to trust, but if I could, I’d like to have a great guy and a great girlfriend. Two people I could trust with the real Jane Lane, with things I really think and feel. If I had that, everything in the world would be perfect. I couldn’t ask for anything more.




Chapter Five



       “I kissed your boyfriend.”

       Eleventh-grader Jane came to a wide-eyed stop in the corridor behind her best friend, her amiga for life. “What?” came out of Jane’s mouth—but she knew in her horror that she had heard right. The end of the world was upon her.

       “I kissed your boyfriend,” Daria Morgendorffer repeated. She stopped in the hallway, looking miserable as she faced Jane. “I kissed Tom. I didn’t mean to.”

       The earth was slammed out of its orbit by the impact. Stunned and disoriented, Jane swayed on unsteady feet. In moments, though, she focused on Daria’s face. Her blue eyes filled with tears. You betrayed me. You, my best friend ever, you actually—

       She could take no more. Daria had blurted out her confession in front of dozens of other students in the Lawndale High School corridor. Word would spread like wildfire. It was humiliation on a scale undreamed of.

       Jane ran. Getting out of the high school was hard because she kept crashing into people on the way out. The legs that had won school sports trophies and set countywide track records could not propel her fast enough. She hit the exit doors, almost knocking down a teacher, and was across the crowded parking lot like a shot.

       “I’m sorry!” someone shouted behind her. “I’m sorry!”

       Streets flew beneath her. People were blurs. She knew she looked bad and had tears and sweat and snot running down her face and was making strange embarrassing crying noises. It could not be helped.

       Why did she do it? God, why did she do it? Didn’t she care about me? Didn’t he care? He and I were having problems, but we were fixing them, weren’t we? He even said he loved me! And wasn’t Daria my friend? Didn’t I mean anything to them? Why did they do it? Tell me, God! Please tell me, why did they do it?

       A long time later, she slowed and stopped at a street corner she could not cross because of midmorning rush-hour traffic. The urge to keep running and let a speeding car solve her problems came—but went. She was breathing heavily but was a long way from being winded. Wiping her eyes and nose with the heels of her palms, she looked around and realized she had circled around the northwest side of town. She was only five blocks north of the exclusive Crewe Neck subdivision. . . and Tom’s house.

       Her now ex-boyfriend might still be home. Fielding Preparatory Academy started later in the day than Lawndale High did. It would be worth hearing the truth from his lips, before she beat the living crap out of him. It was impossible to believe that two weeks ago, he had taken her to that lovely Italian restaurant and had her favorite song played, that he had told her he loved her and had held her and kissed her, and now he was sucking face with Daria. She had to hear it from him, had to see all they had shared laid out dead and cold between them. It would not hurt so much to hear it. She could not be hurt any worse than she was now.

       Hell, after this, they can go ahead and have each other. She wiped her eyes again, this time on her red jacket. Screw ‘em both. I’ll even tell them to go out with each other. That would be perfect. Everyone at school knows by now what they’ve done. Let everyone see their shame, let the whole world know their treachery and let the Furies of their guilt haunt them day and night, if they know what guilt is. Daria does; Tom might not. Funny that I liked that about him, Mr. No Regrets. Hell, they don’t care what I think, anyway. They’ll still get a blank check from me—a parting gift from the bleeding victim, as it were—and if they cash it, I’ll know how low I really rated with them. I’ll know for sure, as if I didn’t already.

       She was calmer, though sobs still broke through. Embarrassed, she turned her back to a crowd of curious onlookers waiting for a bus. Her bangs fell forward and covered her face, as they had done in first grade.

       Oh, Daria, I’ve got to hand it to you. You really got me good. I almost admire you for it. You really taught me something today. I can’t believe I let someone that close to me, after all I’ve been through. I can’t believe I was so stupid as to think I could have a friend and be so completely open with her. I forgot everyone who came before you, and you brought them back to me, every damn one. You opened my eyes, Daria. Thank you for that. Thank you.

       She wiped her face on her jacket one more time, then closed her eyes for two seconds. In those two seconds, she made herself a promise.

       No one will ever hurt me like this again. No one, ever.

       The traffic cleared for several seconds. She ran across the street and headed south for Crewe Neck.

       No one, ever.



* * *



       Jane sat alone on her bed, in her room at the Ashfield Community for the Arts. The lights were turned off. Some art students were partying in the room above hers, playing loud dance music. At least they weren’t dancing. It was hard to tell what they were really doing.

       Jane did not care. She thought of Alison. Her elbows rested on her knees as she sat, bent over and staring at the darkness where the floor was supposed to be.

       How funny. I might to be able to laugh at this one day. I come to art camp to get away from Daria, and I meet this really great girl and we hit it off and I get this funny idea that she might be my new best friend, and—bang! She doesn’t want my friendship. She wants to get laid. All the time we knew each other, all the nice things she said and the fun we had, all that and a smuggled bottle of wine and some underage drinking just in the hopes that she could sleep with a high-school kid. I must be giving off the most intense slut vibes ever. Now she’s off banging that asshole Daniel Dotson and God knows who else in this stupid camp. She didn’t want my friendship at all. This whole freaking place sucks. My whole freaking life sucks.

       She turned the palms of her hands toward her face, hidden in darkness. I haven’t seen Daria in two months. I wonder if she and Tom are doing it, crossing their physical as well as intellectual foils. He wanted it from me. Thank God I held back. One less thing to regret.

       Buffing the bed sheets or not, Daria and Tom were meant to be. I admit it. They do make more sense as a couple than Tom and I ever did. Wonder what he really thought of me. Huh. It must have been a hell of a mutual pull for them to get started before Tom and I called it quits. Must have been both an intellectual orgy and a raging-hormone thing all mixed together. How could it miss? Whatever it was, I hate it.

       Her hands lowered again. What do I do now? I didn’t want to see Daria again, not ever, but after two months here, I find that I miss her—and I hate myself for it. I miss her wit, her sarcasm, the way she says what she thinks, damn the consequences. I always admired her for that. I liked that about Tom, too, though he didn’t face any consequences if he said what he thought. Being rich means screw being sorry about anything. Sometimes being with Tom was a little like being with Daria, though with her, it didn’t feel bad when I was just being me. She liked me as me. When I tried that with him, he didn’t like it. I guess I really wasn’t his type after all. Wrong socioeconomic class of art chick. Damn, I kind of miss him, too. I—

       Oh, Jesus, I must really be the saddest thing in the world. What am I, some kind of dog that goes back to everyone who kicks it, whining for more? This is so pathetic. How can I be friends with someone I can’t ever trust? How could I possibly be a friend to Daria after this? And Tom, what am I supposed to do about him? He’ll be around. He likes slumming in alternative-rock bars, and if I see Daria, I’ll see Tom, too. Can’t run, can’t hide, can’t deal with it.

       She slowly shook her head. I am the saddest thing in the world. I should do performance art. Jane Lane, Feel My Pain. Nah, I was never that good at theatre. Besides, I have my pride.

       The ghost of a smile came to her lips. I have my pride. I won’t crawl. If I want to see Daria, fine, I’ll do it. If I have to face Tom, I can. I can go back and be a friend—a “friend” in quote marks, the kind of friend who’s there because she has to be, because she and her ex-best-friend are stuck in the same school for one more year. What happens after that, I have no clue. Doesn’t matter right now anyway.

       I have to go back to Lawndale, so I’ll go back and make peace. I can do that. I’m big enough. I can make peace with them both, watch them go out, watch them kiss, listen to their love stories and love problems, even when it guts me like a knife going through a dying fish. I can take it. I’ve had nine years of being alone, two years of having a best friend, and the rest of my life to be alone once more. At least I know what it was like to have a true friend. That was wonderful. It was the best. l really miss it, I always will, but it’s gone and I have to move on.

       Jane stood up and walked over to flip on the light switch. She waited while her eyes adjusted to the illumination, then went over to her latest canvas. It was completely blank. She had to finish an assignment tonight for a class critique tomorrow morning at ten sharp. Chewing her lower lip, she studied the canvas with care.

       In a funny way, I’m grateful to Daria and Tom for what they did. All this stuff with Alison didn’t hurt that much after all. It hurt a little, but it was nothing. I’m grateful that the worst in my life is over. I owe them something for that. Don’t know what, but I owe them. I hope one day I can repay the debt.

       She picked up her paintbrush, dipped the tip in water, then dipped it in a jar of black paint. She raised the brush to the canvas and hesitated.

       I’ll be friends with them when I go back. It won’t be like it was before, but it will do. I’ll show them I’m big enough. They’ll probably never suspect that things are different, if I can keep my mouth shut. I’ll be the same old Jane, on the surface.

       But they will never know me again—only the surface me, nothing below. No one will ever know me again.

       The brush touched the canvas.

       No one ever.



* * *



       If there hadn’t been so many streetlights around, Jane would have been able to see the stars better. The moonless sky was clear that June evening as she walked home from Daria’s house, and the air was warm and dry.

       This is too much, she thought as she walked. Almost exactly a year ago, I told Daria I was going to art camp so she could get her budding social life going with Tom. Now she tells me she’s broken up with him. That explains their long faces in Pizza King today. Must have happened right before I caught them in the booth together. And tonight she has the gall to tell me she’s hurting. Mmm, hurting, yeah. I think I know that emotion. Hurting. Why, then, don’t I feel like I’m hurting?

       The aroma from an outdoor barbecue filled her nose. Steak, she loved steak. A dog barked in the distance. I’m not hurting inside tonight because they are. They so totally deserve this. And, funny thing, I sort of like them both again, even if I’m getting off like gangbusters on their pain. I even went back on my word to never let anyone know me, but it wasn’t a big thing. Daria helped me get myself together to get into BFAC, and now I’m on the road to doing something great with my life, something no one else in my whacked-out family has ever done. It was worth the risk, being open with her, but it was a tiny risk. Daria couldn’t screw me over with what little she knew about my problems, even when it was about that uptight dope, Nathan the Retro-Man. I’ve even dated a little after Nathan and I broke up, and it’s gone miserably but at least I tried. I’ve expanded my artistic skills. I’ve got my health and my youth and the possibility of a summer job to get me down to my college days. Strange to say it, but I’m doing okay.

       Her smile faded. Daria still needs me, though. I remember a few months ago when I met her at the diner after she almost had that car wreck in the rain. She ran up and hugged me and cried all over me, but I didn’t hug her back. I remember that distinctly. After she let go, we got back to normal, but I wonder if she noticed I didn’t hug her. Maybe she did. She calls me more often of late and asks to go places together, eat pizza together, and sleep over like we did. She still confides in me, tells me her anxieties and secrets like always, and I tell her a few of mine, the harmless ones she can’t use to hurt me. I can put up a good front when I have to. She can’t. She still needs me, and I don’t know if I want her or not, even when I say I do.

       In... one, two... six months, this December, I’ll move to Boston. Daria might help me, unless I get it done without her. I should think about that. I have been thinking about it, in fact—

       Her train of thought stopped at this point. She looked down at her ash-gray boots as she walked. I still can’t believe she dumped Tom. It was such a Daria kind of thing to do—cold, out of the blue, backed up with rationalizations she’s been forging for weeks without telling anyone. It’s so like her, but I didn’t see it coming. I figured they’d stay together. After all the crap they put me through, they should be together. I’m almost pissed that they aren’t. It’s funny, that mass of angst Daria went through about having sex with Tom—what a joke. She didn’t really want him after all. She got bored and gave him the boot.

       She raised her head. She was only a block from home now. So, Daria, was stealing Tom from me worth it? Was it worth stabbing me in the back so you could go out with my formerly best-of-all-times boyfriend for a few months before pulling another of those half-baked life swings and throwing him out on his ear? You really are the lady and the tiger, aren’t you? And all these years, I thought I was the one with the tiger’s heart. What kind of heart do I have, anyway? Kitten? Mouse? Mouse, that must be it. She shrugged. Like anyone cares. If I was a tiger, I would have teeth. Man, I wish I had teeth. Claws would get in the way of using a paintbrush.

       Her thoughts drifted back to the future—and the secret plan she so often tried to block, but now did not. Maybe I do have teeth. Once we get to Boston, things will be different. If I know Daria, she’ll want to stay close to me. She doesn’t get out much. She’s one of those one-friend-for-life types, even if she screws that friend over once in a while, and I’m the friend she’ll be counting on. If she has a rough first semester at Raft College, she’ll be glad to see Jane Lane around town... assuming, of course, Jane wants to see Daria. Perhaps Jane won’t. There is that secret plan, and— She did not block her thoughts this time —and the plan says Jane might have her own life to lead, and Daria might just have to eat her pizza alone. We’ll be in the same town, but different schools. Shutting her out will be easy. That payback thing is a real bitch, isn’t it?

       She smiled, enjoying the plan’s cold, bitter taste. It was cruel, for sure, but that was okay. What goes around, comes around. It’s a thought, anyway. What was good for me could be good for her. She told me she’s afraid of becoming a lonely spinster in an apartment full of old newspapers and too many cats. And that she might. That she might. I wonder if I’ll really do it. Man, it’s fun to think about it. It feels wonderful.

       Eh, a final decision can wait. No matter what happens to her, I’ll always be alone—but I’ll be okay. One-night stands, sure, got to fill the calendar, but otherwise on my own. It sure beats the hell out of being betrayed again. She taught me well. Being alone is fine.

       As long as I have my art, that is. If I lost my art, I’d be nowhere. Thank God no one can take that from me.

       No one ever.




Chapter Six



       Jane blinked and pulled her face back from the smoking mirror. She was back in her room, it was the August after she graduated high school, and Penny and Monique were sleeping at the other end of the hall.

       Show me what I fear, said a voice inside her head. Moments later, she heard another voice, repeating her thought from several months earlier: If I lost my art, I’d be nowhere. Thank God no one can take that from me. No one ever.

       Unnerved by a rush of terror, Jane stared at the black disk in her lap. My art! Holy Christ, it’s talking about taking my art!

       Show me who I am, she heard inside her head, her second question to the mirror.

       A different voice spoke, a bestial voice vast and deep and not from any human throat. Let us find out, it said.

       The surface of the obsidian mirror rippled under her fingers. Jane gasped, paralyzed with fear.

       In a second, the blackness in the mirror dropped out. A well opened in her lap a thousand miles deep and more. Out of the well came a breath of arctic wind that seized and shook her. Every bone and muscle rattled in the icy grip of death. Pain stabbed between her eyes and burst through her head—

       —and the wind let her go. The pain in her head vanished. She shivered on her bed, hyperventilating, gripping the cool, smooth sides of the black plate. The heavy mirror reverted to normal in her lap.

       Yet, something was wrong. She sensed it at once. Oh, God! What did it do? What did— She looked around her room. The paintings on the walls—she couldn’t understand them. The sculptures—they made no sense. The photographs, woven images, models, armatures, notebooks, sketches, scraps of paper with jotted ideas—what the hell were they about? They had been hers, but why had she done them?

       And she knew. She looked down at the black mirror in disbelief.

       You took my art!

       She shoved the mirror off her lap and jumped to her feet by the bedside.


       Without thinking, Jane plunged her right hand through the surface of the mirror. Her arm went through the blackness all the way to her shoulder. The inside of the black mirror was colder than Antarctica in winter, colder than Pluto, colder than the lowest floor of Hell. Every nerve in her fingers, hands, and arm was stabbed, flayed, and burned with frost. She screamed until her throat was raw—but she kept reaching.


       Her arm was raked and torn by unseen claws of fire. She screamed and writhed in agony, blind and deaf to all but her reaching.


       Her mangled fingers touched and closed over a formless, nameless thing. With a shriek, she jerked her arm out of the smoking mirror, expecting to see blood and bones.

       Her arm came out of the mirror looking exactly as it had gone in. Nothing was wrong with it. In her right hand was a ball of light—

       It is yours, said the bestial voice.

       The light in her hand flashed.

       Jane collapsed on the bed, then slid off and sank to her knees on the floor, then fell on her back, still trembling. She looked up at the painting near her bed, the picture of the fish in the deep ocean.

       She knew then what the fish in the painting was missing.


       I got it back, she thought in a daze. I got it back. My art is mine again, forever.

       And her art was far greater, it seemed, infinitely so, art without limits of any kind. She felt she could create anything from microscopic paintings to metal sculptures the size of skyscrapers, and her work could speak to anyone and its voice would be heard. Her work would be immortal.

       Hers, forever.

       She put her hands over her eyes and wept in unspeakable joy.

       Down the hall, Penny and Monique slept on, undisturbed.



* * *



       A long while later, Jane got up from the floor. She was tired but unharmed. Her imagination churned with a galaxy of ideas, concepts and ideas and images she had never known before. It was as if the library of the universe were inside her head, always open and ready. Even a glance around her bedroom triggered thousands of possibilities for works she had never conceived until this moment.

       Mine, forever. Her gaze lowered and stopped.

       The smoking mirror lay silent on her bed. She watched it for a long while. It did nothing.

       That was not a dream, she thought, though of course part of her wondered about that. What am I supposed to do with this thing next? I should move it back to Penny’s room, but should I touch it? What if it does that thing to me again? Do I dare?

       She straightened. What could it do to me now? Take my art away for good? She shook her head no. It wouldn’t do that—something else, maybe, but not that. I hope not, anyway. I shouldn’t look directly at the mirror, though. Now I know why Penny handled it as gently as she did. That was brave. Maybe I should put gloves on before I pick it up. Better yet, I should keep my mind blank when I touch it. If I don’t have a question or need in mind, it probably won’t respond.

       A pair of rubber gloves lay on the floor of her closet, under a mound of soiled clothes. Jane found them, then recognized them as the same rubber gloves Daria had used when she once attempted to color Jane’s hair with tiger stripes as a surprise for Tom. She left them on the floor.

       Oh, why not risk it? she though, standing by her bed again and looking down at the mirror. I’ll just pick it up with my bare hands and let it read my mind. What’s the worst that could happen? Aside from making me cut out the living hearts of Daria and Tom as an Aztec sacrifice, I mean. Her lips twisted to one side as she pictured that. Eh, nah, I guess not. I’d have to clean up afterward. And more to the point, I don’t care about it anymore. It’s over.

       To her astonishment, she knew the old triangle was over. She wasn’t angry with either of her old friends. The past was done. Her secret plan to abandon Daria in Boston was discarded. It wasn’t worthy of her, and vengeance wasn’t what she wanted, either. Did the mirror do that? Jane wondered, or did I? I think I did. I grew beyond it. She felt free and light on her feet, the weight of her anger gone. Daria and Tom weren’t evil; they had done something thoughtless and stupid, but they were sorry for it. Their lessons were learned.

       “I don’t care if I see Tom again,” she said aloud, still looking at the mirror. “I’m not angry with him anymore, but he’s in the past and I want to move on. I’ve so much to do now. At the same time, I don’t want to leave Daria behind in my life. We’ve had great times together, and being alone gets old after a while. I still want her as my best friend—but can I be absolutely sure that she wouldn’t hurt me again in some way?”

       A sad but wise smile came to her lips. “I guess I can’t. I’ll have to be like everyone else and just have faith that she won’t hurt me on purpose. I don’t like that, having to go on trust alone, but there’s no other way. I kind of wish she knew what I’ve been through. Eh, it doesn’t matter. I don’t know everything she’s been through, either. Everyone has baggage to carry around. I’ve sure got mine, she’s got hers. That’s life.”

       She shrugged and reached down for the obsidian disk. What would be the best course for us, then? she thought as her hands grasped the stone. How can Daria and I go back to being as close

       She then realized she had not blanked her mind.

       Would you have reached into Tezcatlipoca to save her, if she had been taken instead of your art? interrupted the bestial voice of the mirror, speaking in her mind.

       Jane held the mirror, less frightened by the voice than by its query. Yes, she answered without hesitation. I care about her. I would have done that.

       Would you have traded your art for her life? said the mirror.

       Would I do WHAT? came out of her thoughts faster than she could suppress it. Filled with dread, she waited to see if the mirror said or did anything more.

       It did not.

       Her breath came out in a long, relieved sigh. She sensed that it was done.

       Man, that was a crazy last set of questions. So, what do I do with this now? She turned the mirror over in her hands. Her thoughts went back to her earlier questions. And is there anything I can do to erase the damage that’s been done to our friendship?

       A second later, she came up with the answer to both questions.

       It was right in front of her, of course.




Chapter Seven



       The sun was not yet up when Jane left the house. She wore her hair pulled back and her usual running outfit of gray shorts, a red T-shirt, and battered red track shoes, but with a heavy backpack strapped on as well. Out of consideration for Penny and Monique, she left a pot of fresh coffee to brew—and a pointed note about her dirty towels. She liked those towels.

       I hope Penny won’t mind my borrowing her artifact, she thought on her way out. It’s just for a few hours. Or days. Whatever. Mom always said butterflies didn’t have private property, so why should we? Boy, that was a stupid saying if there ever was one. Like she would have given up her kiln to anyone who asked. She got to the sidewalk and began her run with a steady, easy rhythm. The backpack was pulled snug against her shoulder blades. She headed west up Howard Drive, in the direction of Glen Oaks Lane.

       Running was different today. Her earphones and clip-on tape player stayed behind in her room. The world was alive in her senses, its artistic majesty displayed in Jane’s ears and eyes for the first time. The subtle symmetry of a tree, the curves described by the tops of blowing weeds, the cry of a mockingbird—she absorbed it in awe and wonder. She was astounded to see how the human part of the world blended in and interacted with the natural, how it all formed a seamless whole in unity with the sun and sky and clouds. Scents and odors and tastes flooded her. She was becoming drunk on sensations.

       Even her running was fresh and new: the myriad changes in three-dimensional perspective as she ran, the rhythm of her feet on the sidewalk, the feel of her legs in motion and her body vibrating. I had no idea such a grand world existed! she thought. It’s a cathedral, so great an architecture and so vast, all the parts moving according to laws beyond understanding. How can I capture such glory? How can I begin to show this in my art? Her mind piled up plans for hundreds of works, though she did not despair for time to finish them. She was grateful to be as aware of creation as she was.

       Her thoughts drifts back to her current situation. Is this revenge, my taking the mirror to Daria’s? Or is it the healing she needs? Does it matter what I call it? I am paying her back, I admit it, but it’s not revenge. That’s like saying a surgeon is evil because he’s got a knife in his hand and is going to cut you open. A serial killer does the same thing, but it’s the intent and the final result that count. I’m not getting any jollies thinking of what might happen to her. I think. She’s admitted her shame to me, how it has never left her, and this is the only thing that will bury the past for good, for her. It did it with Penny and Monique, it did it with me, and it can do it with her. At least she won’t look back with so much sorrow and regret. The less useless pain, the more gain, I say. I would know.

       She reached a corner and turned right, moving at a good clip on the sidewalk. Of course, there is one problem. I don’t know exactly what the effects of the mirror will be. I didn’t react to it as Penny and Monique did. The mirror made them no offer as it did me, and I don’t know why. Who can say? It hurts like freaking hell to lose your illusions, but it passes. I’m doing great—now, at least. Daria should be fine, too. I hope. She should know herself. I want her to see it. It would be good for her, very good.

       A few minutes later, she trotted up to the front door of a large, two-story, red-brick home at 1111 Glen Oaks. Here she stopped and took off her backpack, setting it on the concrete between her battered red sneakers. She walked around the front yard and looked in the windows of the house, but it was obvious that no one was up yet.

       Unzipping the backpack, she removed a large, square box about two inches thick, sealed with strapping tape. This she placed upright so that it leaned against the front door. From the backpack, she also removed a folded note, which she tucked between the box and the door. Satisfied with her work, she stepped back, shouldering the now-empty backpack. The neighborhood was safe enough to leave a small parcel out without fear of it being stolen, and no rain was in sight. She thought about ringing the doorbell, but Daria’s parents might answer, and Jane wasn’t in the mood to slog through a conversation with them. They were on the weird side. “Enjoy the ride, amiga,” she said. She waved at the house—and at package—before she turned and ran off.

       Relieved of her burden, Jane elected to take a long tour of Lawndale. She jogged north at a moderate pace. In time she passed Lawndale Mall (formerly Cranberry Commons), reaching the Halcyon Hills Corporate Park an hour later. Swinging around, she came south again, passing a fender bender at the Seven Corners intersection before she circled Lawndale High School. Her amazement knew no bounds; Lawndale was a place of sublime beauty, if one saw it in proper perspective. There were patterns in the chaos, randomness in the tightest order, shades of color without names, interactions between light and shadow never before displayed on canvas. Even the city’s citizens, foolish as they had always seemed to Jane in the past, were marvels of character in their own right, each worthy of years of artistic study.

       At one point, Jane looked at a passing Jeep and saw the driver was Kevin Thompson—a local football player renown for his low intelligence. She envisioned using him as the model for a two-story-high athletic statue for a football stadium. Whoa, she thought, now I know I’m not in my right mind. Though he would be perfect for it. I should get him to pose nude—oh, man, I need to get home and get some rest. I didn’t sleep at all last night, and I’m getting stupid. Wonder if I should call Daria and see if she got the mirror yet—no, leave it alone. Find out what happened tonight, or better yet tomorrow, after I get some rest.

       Her journey was on its last legs. When she reached her home subdivision, she broke her pace and began to walk, cooling down before she got into the house. The walk took her down Glen Oaks again. She saw with satisfaction that the box she had delivered was gone now, and lights were on inside the Morgendorffer home (the beautiful, marvelous, incredible Morgendorffer home, ran her artistic appreciation). She again resisted the urge to drop in. Better to let things happen as they would, and not interfere.

       Still... something niggled in the back of her mind. A certain element of logic was missing in the tale of what had happened over the last twelve hours or so, or even longer, per Penny’s story about her recent exploits in El Salvador. Jane’s bland expression took on an air of puzzlement. The issue had to do with Penny’s actions with the mirror, and with Jane leaving the mirror at Daria’s. Something didn’t add up. What was it? And why did thinking about it bring a pang of distress to Jane’s gut?

       She could not get to the bottom of it, so she pushed the issue aside until later, when she had time to study the problem. Artistic projects crowded her head, each begging to be brought to life as soon as possible. First things first.

       Minutes later, she opened the front door of her family’s home on Howard Drive. Her body gleamed with sweat, and she fanned her T-shirt to cool off. The smell of coffee was still in the air. She smiled, content, headed for the kitchen before going upstairs for a shower and change of clothes.

       Trent sat at the kitchen table, laboring over his familiar book of song lyrics. A cup was by his left elbow, but it contained water, not coffee. Trent was clearly planning to go back to sleep, and soon.

       “Yo,” Jane called as she entered. She took off the empty backpack, dropped it around the corner in the living room, and walked to the refrigerator.

       “Hey, Janey.” Trent glanced up before returning to his writing. “Good run?”

       “Pretty good today,” she replied, taking out the milk. She noticed it was almost empty. Time to hit Food Lord again. She shut the refrigerator and hunted for the cereal. “Penny and Monique up yet? They still here?”

       Trent exhaled heavily through his nose. Jane recognized that as a signal he was fed up with someone. “They’re up,” he said, squinting at the book.

       The shredded-wheat cereal box was almost empty, too. “What’s wrong?” Jane asked, hunting now for the sugar bowl.

       Trent sighed a second time. “Negative influences,” he said.

       “Negative influences, right. We should get a repairman to check on those.” Jane put her cereal bowl on the table and went hunting for a spoon. “C’mon, Trent, spill it.”

       “It’s nothing. Let me finish this verse.”

       She peered over his shoulder. “‘Toxic Waste Love,’” she said aloud. “Hmm. You are such a romantic. Who’s it dedicated to?”

       When Trent didn’t answer, Jane knew something was up. “Trent? Is this for Monique?”

       He looked up, mildly irked, then returned to his book.

       “It was my intuition,” she said with a smirk. Spoon in hand, Jane took a seat across the table from her brother. “This have anything to do with Monique and Penny dropping by last night?”

       The look of concentration on Trent’s face intensified. “It might,” he admitted, looking down at the lyrics. “Had to write it down as it came to me.”

       “Gotta catch that Muse when you can, I understand that.” On the pretext of getting a cup of coffee, Jane got up again and walked over to the kitchen counter, passing Trent as she did. She stopped and peeked over his shoulder again to read the lyrics of the song so far. And she got it. “Trent,” she said, “you should spell ‘deforestation’ with only one ‘r’ in the middle. And Penny and Monique aren’t hooked up.”

       Trent crossed out one ‘r.’ “Janey,” he said with great patience, “sometimes you have to stand up and say something, or else you won’t make your voice heard.”

       Jane thought that last one through, then rolled her eyes. She poured a cup of coffee for herself. “Look, if you’re trying to say that Monique shouldn’t stick around Penny, that’s one thing, but what you’re writing makes it sound like they’re doing the four-boob squash, and they aren’t. They’re buds, Trent, that’s all.” Though I admit I got that wrong when I first saw them together, too, so who am I to talk?

       It was Trent’s turn to make a face and roll his eyes. “Musicians are sensitive to emotional states,” he said, electing to say no more about what he’d seen going on in the kitchen. “I can read moods like music.”

       “Do you actually read music, Trent?”

       “It was just an analogy, Janey.”

       “Look, I don’t get why you have a problem with Penny and Monique hanging out. They’ve both seen bad times lately. Maybe what they each need is a friend, and they look like they’re really hitting it off. They might be good for each other. And, being the sensitive musician that you are, you should know that they’re friends only.” She waited a beat, then added, “They’re not fuzz bumpers.”

       Trent flinched and dropped his lime-green dye marker. “Janey!” he said, flustered, and he bent down to retrieve it.

       “Well, they’re not. Even if they were, just leave them alone, Trent. And, following up on my original question, are they still in?”

       “No.” Trent got under the table on his hands and knees, looking for the dye marker. He coughed a few times as he moved chairs around. “They went off to Monique’s place. Something about making up a concert play list.”

       “Huh.” Jane went back to her chair, but she waited to sit until Trent had found his dye marker and was back in his own seat. “Monique’s thinking about going on tour?”

       “I don’t know, Janey. Too many negative influences to be sure.”

       Jane smiled and raised a spoonful of sugar-soaked shredded wheat to her lips.

       Penny left home without the smoking mirror.

       The spoon hovered in the air, inches from her open mouth. Jane stared into space.

       She came all the way from El Salvador, smuggling a stolen Aztec artifact with supernatural powers, a mirror I know for a fact has a powerful magical being living inside it, and she left it behind. NO! Wrong! It wasn’t even in her room when she woke up! I had it! She woke up, saw it was gone, and she did nothing!

       Jane’s face turned white. The spoon quivered. A bit of milk spilled from it back into the bowl.

       And what about me? I took the damn thing and left it at Daria’s house, and here I am sitting and eating a bowl of cereal as if everything’s just peachy keen! A mirror with some kind of demigod in it! I dropped it off and went for a run to admire nature! What in the hell am I doing? What’s going on?

       The spoon fell into the cereal bowl with a clatter. Trent looked up and frowned.

       Penny finds the smoking mirror on a heap of ruins one night when she’s half drunk out of her mind. It gives her the worst nightmares she’s ever had in her life, horrors so awful that she spends all night screaming from them, and what does she do? She brings the mirror home! Why didn’t she throw it away or run from it like any sensible person? She risked arrest and imprisonment to bring the mirror here! That’s nuts! And then she showed it to Monique and me, we freak out separately—but when I get it, what do I do?

       “Janey?” said Trent. “You okay?”

       For over a year I’ve been harboring a secret desire to screw Daria over in the worst way, the first chance I get after we leave Lawndale. I don’t know if I’d actually do it or if it’s just my special never-act-on fantasy, but I’ve been building on this plan ever since Daria and Tom smacked lips, and now I decide it’s over and all is forgiven? Just like that? And I take the mirror to the one person who has been my public best friend and secret worst enemy, telling myself that it’s for her own good?

       “Janey?” Trent repeated, waving a hand in front of her face.

       Trent,” Jane said in a hoarse voice, “did Penny say anything this morning about a mirror, before she left?”

       “A mirror?” He looked confused. “No. She said she had everything she needed. By which I think maybe she meant Monique, but maybe she—”

       “She didn’t say anything about something being missing? Anything at all? Did Monique say anything about a mirror?”

       “No. Is one missing?”

       They don’t remember the mirror! Penny’s the most possessive person in the family when it comes to the knick-knacks she gets on her trips south. How could she possibly forget the mirror?

       Unless the mirror made her forget it existed.

       The same way it made me think I was doing Daria a favor when I took it to—oh, dear God!

       “Janey?” Trent called. He got up from his chair, brushing spattered milk from his lyrics book, and surveyed the damage from his sister’s lightning departure from the kitchen and out the front door. With a sigh, he got a rag and wiped up the pool of milk and shredded wheat on the floor, threw the wet rags in the sink, and sat down with his lyrics book again.

       “Something’s really got her upset,” he said to himself. He hoped it wasn’t serious, then turned to his lyrics book again and tried to think of a rhyming word for “loathsome.”




Chapter Eight



       Jane was halfway down Howard Drive, running for Daria’s house at full speed, when she realized something was wrong. It took but a moment to discover the cause. Her enhanced artistic perception had ceased. The world was normal again in her senses. The mirror’s gift had been temporary only, perhaps even illusory. She had been tricked, blinded to her own activities with the mirror. She realized the mirror was moving from person to person, victim to victim, now that it had been brought once more into the living world. If the mirror had an ultimate purpose, goal, or plan, Jane could not imagine what it was, but she suspected it was not good. The smoking mirror did not heal—it used truth to cause harm, and those who used it had to heal themselves afterward. It had the hallmarks of a destroyer.

       And, thanks to Jane, Daria was right in its way.

       She ran faster. Don’t let anything bad happen, God! Don’t let it happen to Daria! I wasn’t really going to hurt her, not like this! Not like anything! Please, God, don’t let it do anything to her! I’m sorry! I was wrong to want to hurt her! I know that’s what I meant to do, but I didn’t mean it, I swear! I didn’t really mean it!

       Cars screeched to a stop as she shot across an intersection, cut through four front yards, and pounded up Glen Oaks Lane. She ran faster than she ever had in her life.

       I’ll never forgive myself for this! I’m done with my plan to abandon her! It won’t happen! I tried to forgive and forget when we talked it out a year ago, when Trent played “Freakin’ Friends” for us, but I still held on to my anger, and the damn mirror read my mind! It tricked me into sending it on to Daria, and if anything bad happens to her, I swear I will never ever

       She saw Daria’s house and saw a car parked on the street in front. It was a light tan Jaguar, an old model with orange rust spots. Tom Sloane’s car. No time to wonder what he was doing here.

       Jane was up the Morgendorffers’ sidewalk and grabbing for the front door handle in an instant. She moved too fast, however, and slammed into the closed door instead, bouncing off with a bruised shoulder before she rushed back and opened the door properly. The stairway to Daria’s room was right in front of her.

       As she came in, Jane saw Daria’s mother Helen standing in the family room with a tray of crackers, sliced cheeses, and soda cans. She had stopped in surprise. “Jane, did you run into door?” Helen said in shock. “Are you all right? Daria and Tom are up in—” but by then Jane was already at the top of the stairs. The door to Daria’s bedroom was slightly ajar. Jane ran to the door and banged it open, then came to a stop just inside the room, huffing like a steam locomotive.

       Daria’s bedroom was as unattractive as ever. A small stack of cardboard boxes marked “RAFT” rested against the left wall, near her computer desk. The round black mirror lay face-up on the carpet in the center of the room. Wearing tan cargo pants, sneakers, and a green short-sleeve shirt, Tom knelt on the floor on the other side of the mirror, facing Jane. His hands were pressed to the sides of his head, as if in pain or disbelief.

       Daria was nowhere to be seen.

       “Where’s Daria?” Jane gasped. Sweat fell like rain from her hair and chin. Her T-shirt and running shorts were soaked through, front and back.

       Tom looked up. All the blood was gone from his face. He stared at Jane as if she were a ghost.

       Jane heard Helen coming up the stairs behind her. She quickly shut and locked Daria’s door. “Tom, where’s Daria? Come on, tell me!”

       “You did this,” he whispered in a dull voice. “You sent this to her.”

       “Yes!” She was frightened now. “I’m sorry I did it, okay? Just tell me where she is, please!”

       “Jane? Daria?” called Helen at the door. “I have crackers and cheese for you and Tom. Can I come in?”

       “Can you give us a couple minutes?” Jane shouted. “We’ll be right out!” She looked back at Tom. “Why are you here?”

       He blinked as if awakening from a bad sleep. “I was... I was taking her to brunch. A last pizza before I went to Bromwell, Monday.” His voice faded. His gaze went down to the black mirror. “She said you gave this to her.”

       “Is everything all right?” Helen called, outside the door.

       “Fine!” called Jane. “Don’t worry!”

       “Your note said it was a mirror of truth,” Tom continued in a low voice. He continued to stare at the mirror. “You said she should hold it and look into it, and she would see who she was. It looked like it came from Mexico. I thought it was Olmec or Aztec. It’s polished obsidian, worth a fortune. I saw one like it at a museum, long time ago. Don’t know where you...”

       He stopped and looked up at Jane as if trying hard to understand something. “We were looking at it,” he said, “making little jokes about it, when it—it spoke to us. We were holding it, both of us. It spoke inside our heads, like telepathy.” He paused, his face creasing in pain. “It told us what we had done to you. It showed us everything, what we had done to you.”

       Jane’s blood ran cold. I kind of wish she knew what I’ve been through, she had said in her bedroom, a few hours ago.

       “I didn’t know,” said Tom. His voice became pleading. “I swear, Jane, I didn’t know. I didn’t think about what would happen. It was my fault. I don’t know why I did it. I’m so sorry.”

       “Daria?” called Helen in an anxious tone.

       “Five minutes!” Jane shouted. “Five minutes, okay? We’ll be right out!”

       “All right,” Helen said reluctantly. “I’ll be back in five. Is everything okay?”

       “Fine! Great! No problem!”

       When Helen’s retreating footsteps indicated she was safely downstairs, Jane looked around Daria’s room. She peered under the desk, under the bed, in the closet. “Is she in the bathroom?”

       Tom shook his head no. He let go of his head and dropped his hands in his lap, but his eyes stayed on Jane.

       “Then where’s Daria?” She walked over and looked down into Tom’s face. “Where is she?”

       “It gave her a choice,” he whispered.

       “What choice? What do you mean?”

       “It gave her a choice, when she saw what we’d done to you. She could do nothing but live with the truth... or she could take the punishment you wished on her.” His lips pulled back in a mirthless smile. “It showed me who I was.”

       Jane could easily imagine that whatever he had seen had undone him, at least for the moment. It was his problem, though, not hers. “And Daria? Where’s Daria?”

       He drew in a breath, looking away. “She took the punishment. It showed her who she was, too. She started to cry. She said she couldn’t face you again. She took what you wished on her, and she went away.”

       Jane grabbed Tom by his shirt, her face in his. “Tell me where she is, damn you!”

       Tom looked at her with lifeless, pale-green eyes. “She’s in hell,” he said.

       Her nerveless fingers let go of his shirt. “No,” she whispered. “You’re lying.”

       “She’s gone,” he said, his voice fading. “She’s gone.” He lowered his head. “And I saw who I was.” He sank down and put his hands over his head. “I saw...”

       Jane turned to the obsidian mirror and snatched up the heavy plate in her hands. “Where is she?” she hissed. “Tell me right bloody now!”

       You wanted teeth, said the bestial voice in her head. I have given you teeth.

       “I want to know where Daria is!”

       In the future you wished for her.

       “God damn you, you rotten piece of crap, I didn’t—I didn’t—” She pulled her face back from the mirror, staggered at a thought. “You... no, no, no, you didn’t—”

       She chose to go where you secretly wanted her. She is in the future you wished, without you.

       No!” she howled. “No, you didn’t! Damn you, you didn’t do it! I’m over it, goddamn it! I’m over it! It doesn’t matter! No!”

       You wanted this.

       “No, I didn’t! I would never have done this to her! You knew I wouldn’t, or else you wouldn’t have tricked me into giving you to her! If I’d really meant to hurt her, I would have done it myself without your help, and I didn’t! You know that’s true! I don’t know why I kept thinking about all the crap that happened last year, but I didn’t mean it! I was pissed, but I was getting over it! I was getting over it, and you bloody know it!”

       You have a choice.

       “I don’t want a freaking choice! I want my friend back! I want her back right freaking now, do you hear me?”

       Is she more important than your art?

       “Yes! She is! Damn it, give her back!”

       I can send you after her—but there is a price.

       “I’ll pay it! Anything! Take my art! Take my life! I don’t care! I want her back!”

       You wished to erase the damage that had been done to your friendship with her. If you find her, and she says she will return with you, it will be done.

       “Yes! Send me now! Now! Right freaking n—”

       Tom looked up. Jane was gone. She had vanished just as Daria had.

       The obsidian mirror lay on the floor where Jane had stood.

       He knew they were both gone, gone forever.

       And he knew who he was.

       Lowering his head, he wept.










Part Three







And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,

The instruments of darkness tell us truths,

Win us with honest trifles, to betray ‘s

In deepest consequence.


—William Shakespeare, Macbeth, I, iii, 123-126





Ah, that I had never suffered this treacherous kiss

And had been left in darkness forever to founder and fail.


—Malcolm Lowery, “After Publication of Under the Volcano






Chapter Zero



       She awoke at 4:02 a.m. The alarm would not go off for two hours more, but she knew she would not go back to sleep. Almost hidden under the blankets on her bed, she listened to the wind press against the walls, searching for a way in.

       It was the bottom of a new day. Every day for her was the highest mountain known. Every day she had to climb the mountain, knowing she would never find the summit. She always had to climb. There was no other choice. One shortcut to the top existed, but no one would let her take it. One foot in front of the other, over and over, without reason or end. She had done it all her life.

       Once upon a time, the pointless climb had not bothered her. She had found someone who was also heading up, someone who wanted to climb with her. Another face looked at her with affection and companionship. She had reason then to keep climbing, even when she had no will left to do it.

       Your mom asked me yesterday if you were depressed, her companion once said, laughing. I told her you were being realistic. She lay under the blankets and remembered her friend’s laugh. That laugh had filled an empty world with color.

       The world had long since lost its color, and the mountain was steeper and higher beyond imagining. I had everything I ever wanted. She looked into the darkness, seeing it all. I had everything in the world, everything that mattered, and I threw it away.

       I threw it away.

       4:03 a.m. The cold wind pressed against the walls. She lay in her bed below the mountain of the day to come. She had no will to move, no reason now to go on. Perhaps today she would find that shortcut to the top. Perhaps today she would be free of the pain of living. Perhaps today...

       No. It would not happen. It was hopeless, she knew it, but death was the only hope she had.




Chapter One



Faust: Where are you damned?

Mephistophilis: In hell.

Faust: How comes it, then, that thou are out of hell?

Mephistophilis: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:

    Thinkst thou that I who saw the face of God

    And tasted the eternal joys of heaven

    Am not tormented with ten thousand hells

    In being deprived of everlasting bliss?



       Daria Morgendorffer lowered the book and rubbed her eyes, her fingers raising her round-frame glasses above her nose. The print was hard to read, sliding in and out of focus by the second. The pills were doing it, of course, but she wondered if perhaps her vision wasn’t changing as well. She’d have to ask for an optometrist appointment soon, when her mother had time to drive.

       Frowning, Daria ruffled the book’s pages, trying to focus her blurred vision on various woodcuts and costume illustrations in other parts of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus. She gave up and let the tome fall shut in her hands. It wasn’t worth it. She looked up and searched for the proper spot where the book belonged on the shelf, but her eyes were playing tricks on her again. The titles and authors’ names of the other books wavered and faded as if they were teasing her, deliberately concealing themselves from view.

       With a disgusted sigh, Daria put the book back on the library cart beside her and took her glasses off, setting them on top of Marlowe. She put the base of her palms to her eyes and pressed in lightly, listening to herself breathe. The movement of air in and out of her lungs was the only sound in a world measuring one person wide and one person tall.

       Two more hours, and Mom will be here for lunch, she thought. Two hours from now, that’s all I have to wait. I can do it. She nodded and dropped her hands, putting her glasses back on. Sniffing to clear her sinuses, she picked up Marlowe. The book fell open in her hands.



Faust: Come, I think hell’s a fable.

Mephistophilis: Aye, think so, till experience change thy mind.



       She closed the book and squinted hard at the shelf, determined to be rid of it. M, Ma, Mar—there. She tucked the book in and reached for the next one.

       “Oh, Daria!” came a high, faint voice outside the stacks.

       Sighing, Daria left the cart where it was. She walked slowly to the main desk, wading through the long sea of the day.

       Mrs. Blaine, the white-haired librarian, smiled at her and got up from her seat. “There you are! How are things going with you?” It was the third time since Daria had been dropped off at eight thirty that she’d asked that question.

       “Fine,” said Daria blandly. “I’m not dead yet.”

       “Mercy!” Mrs. Blaine shook her head with a nervous smile. “How you come up with such things to say is beyond me! Would you be a dear and watch the desk? I have to use the ladies’ room. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”

       Daria nodded. I shouldn’t have said that. Mom talked the doctors into letting me have this job only because they don’t think I’m suicidal. Let’s not push it. As she walked to the desk, she caught a glimpse of herself in the tall glass of the library’s front door: a small, slight figure in a beige vest and skirt, a white blouse, tan stockings, and sensible shoes. Her brown hair was rolled in a tight bun on the back of her head. Only her round glasses frames were the same as in high school. She took a seat at the desk and ran her tongue around her mouth, swallowing. That bad taste was back. It had been around for several years, since her second psychiatrist got her started on tricyclic antidepressants. It was a side effect and couldn’t be helped. She fought a yawn, then surrendered to it and covered her mouth.

       9:58 a.m. One hour down, almost. Six to go, not counting lunch from noon to one, then home again at five. Another day of no consequence gone.

       Perhaps an earthquake will swallow me up. Unlikely, she knew. She was sorry that Lawndale did not lie on a fault line. Perhaps an asteroid will fall on Lawndale, and I will see its flash before I am vaporized and be free at last. I can always dream.

       Her gaze wandered down to the items on the desk. A cartoon-decorated calendar noted that today was the third Saturday in December, the 17th of the month in the year 2005. A week and a day away was Christmas. She squinted at the new cartoon for the day, but it was not funny. None of them had been funny.

       I am twenty-three years old, and my name is Marian the Librarian, she thought. Her face remained impassive and expressionless. I am very lucky to have this job. It’s a good and honorable job, perfect for my small world and for me. I am surrounded by books—what more could I ask for? Other than fame or money or independence, but I can’t have those. And my sanity is half gone. That’s okay. I should focus on the bright side, like Dr. Mukamal said—or was it Dr. Lewis? Dr. Connors? Whatever. Find the bright spot and stare at it as long as you can, until you go blind. No, they didn’t say that, of course, but—

       She shook her head, clearing it. Her train of thought was not always on the proper track. The pills were not to blame, however. Where was I? The library, me being lucky to be here, actually working when no one else would have me around. I am lucky, that’s true—I can’t argue that. I could have nothing now. I could have nothing.

       I do have nothing.

       She took a breath and attempted to mount a counter-argument. Being a librarian is a good thing, though. I’m not a real librarian, but it is still an honor. It was an honor in ancient times to tend the library at the Pharos of Alexandria, so this job is honorable, too, even in Lawndale. This is my Pharos, and Lawndale my Alexandria. There is no shame in working here. I can be proud of it, be proud of me, even though I’m not. No shame in being here, none at all, except for the little footnote about being a failure at everything else—friendship, work, life, love (can’t forget that one, that’s what got me here)—but that’s okay. It’s okay to fail. Mr. O’Neill taught us that back in high school. I knew it would happen, sooner or later. It’s okay, now that it has. It’s not so bad.

       She looked down at the gold-painted nameplate pinned over her left breast, which read: D. MORGENDORFFER, LIBRARY AIDE. It did not say that she was an unpaid volunteer, a charity case.

       It’s okay. It’s a good job. I’m doing well. I could sit here at my desk and read all I want, if only my eyes would focus. Even without that, this is a good job. It keeps me busy, though it pays nothing. It’s good to be here, and one day, before too long, I will be free in death STOP STOP STOP IT stop it stop it stop it stop it— She shook her head violently, blocking, and swallowed. She could not afford to be free in thought. Too often of late, she gave voice to her thoughts without being aware she did.

       A door opened in the back of the library. Daria heard a toilet end its flush, water running in a sink, then footsteps. She looked up as if nothing had happened at all.

       “I need to make a few phone calls from the office,” Mrs. Blaine called in her high voice. “Let me know when the package truck arrives, would you, please?”

       Daria nodded without looking at the library office or the smiling old woman in the doorway there.

       “Thank you, dear!” said Mrs. Blaine. Daria heard a door gently thump shut. You trust me far more than you ought to. That relieves and frightens me. Not to worry, though. No changes will be made for now.

       The silence slipped in again. It was a slow weekend. No one was present in the library but Mrs. Blaine and Daria. It was often like that on Saturdays, when school was out and the weather was bad. Daria took a deep breath and looked around the vast, glassed-in lobby. Outside, a cold wind from a gray sky scattered leaves and waste paper across the library grounds. In the center of the lobby on a pedestal was a small bust of the library’s namesake, Alfred Joyce Kilmer, a poet killed in the First World War. For the thousandth time since her family had moved to Lawndale seven years ago, Daria wondered if anyone understood the twisted irony in leveling a small woodlot to build this particular library, and in keeping the library grounds treeless except for a struggling maple near the entrance. She doubted that anyone did but her, even with Kilmer’s most famous couplet right on the pedestal:



I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.



       And here was a building full of poems, with no trees but one for a hundred yards around, so everyone could see the nice pseudo-Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. It was such a Lawndale kind of thing to do.

       The phone rang, jarring her from her reverie. Mom, Daria thought. Her gaze went to her watch, which she held close to her glasses. It was 10 a.m. Right on time, like clockwork. She let the phone ring twice, then reached for the receiver and picked it up on the third ring. “Kilmer Public Library,” she said, keeping her voice steady. “Daria speaking.”

       “Hi, sweetie!” cried Helen Morgendorffer. “How are you doing?”

       Why do you even ask? “Okay, Mom, same as when I woke up.”

       “Great! Where would you like to go for lunch today?”

       Daria sighed heavily. She had no appetite anymore, even for pizza. “Mom, I don’t know if I’ll be—”

       “Why don’t we go to that new Oriental place that opened downtown, Fit to Be Thai’d? Linda says it’s wonderful, but she warned me not to try the spicy dishes until you work up to them. She heard the aftereffects were dreadful. Probably discovered that on her own, ho ho. Want to try it?”

       It was pointless to argue. The goose shielded her troubled gosling with an iron wing. “Sure. If I screw up my digestion, it will at least give me something new to think about. My treat this time.” With the money you give me for a weekly allowance, as if I were a kid again.

       “Oh, no! Let me. We’re going to celebrate! I got a bonus! It was from that wrongful dismemberment case I told you about over in Oakwood, where that young man got caught in the—”

       “Mom, Mom, it’s okay! Stop! My stomach’s not as tough as it used to be, when I was in high school. Don’t talk about work, please.” Daria put a hand over her mouth, suddenly queasy. Spicy food she could handle, but not this. Damn pills!

       “Daria, I’m sorry! I forgot! Oh, listen, Quinn called this morning before she went to classes. She had a question for you about a book, if you have time.”

       Sigh. “Sure. Just a moment.” Daria reached for a pencil and a pad of paper. Her memory was not as good as it had once been. Probably the pills to blame, but possibly—

       Whispers of the end filling my ears.

       “Daria? Did you say something?”

       “No. Go ahead, Mom.”

       “Before she comes home next week, Quinn said she needs to write a report about a book in which, um, let me remember how she said it, a book in which something goes wrong, like in that quote about the best laid plans of mice and men, however that goes. A disaster book, I guess, but one in which it was human error. She needs it for a business class. I don’t remember which one right now. Wait—oh, it’s for her business-management class. That was it.”

       “A report on a human-created disaster? Doesn’t she get the news on the TV or Internet?”

       “Oh, Daria, try to help her out. I know you’ll think of something. Do you have her number?”

       “It’s programmed into the cell phone you gave me.” She had already thought of a book that might be suitable. Working in a library did have its advantages.

       “Oh, you’re right. I can’t wait to see her again, can you?”

       “Yeah, I guess.” Quinn was supportive and caring of her older sister, but it was hard to take her abundant successes.

       “She said when she graduates Pepperhill next spring, she might do it summa cum laude! Isn’t that marvelous? I don’t know if she’ll be home for the summer, though. She says she’s—oh, I can’t tell you that yet. I was going to tell you over lunch.”

       Tell me what? “Sure, whatever.”

       “Oh! Wait, I have another call coming in. Can you wait for a few seconds?” Before Daria could answer, her mother put her on hold. Daria sat unmoving and waited. In an alternate universe, I would be in my first year as a graduate student, turning in term papers and preparing for final exams, pulling all-nighters in the library the way I did when I was a freshman at Raft until just before spring finals, when I stopped getting out of bed and my roommates took me to the campus hospital and called Mom and Dad, and I was out of school for good and couldn’t work up to talking for weeks, and the world got very small and dark


       Daria flinched. “Wh-what?”

       “You were mumbling. I came back, and you were mumbling about getting out of bed. Are you all right?”

       “F-fine, Mom. I’m all right. Uh, someone came in and asked me something. Distracted.”

       “Oh, I’m going to tell you the good news anyway! Quinn just got her acceptance letter for graduate school in business at Bromwell, starting the summer of next year! Isn’t that great?”

       It took a moment for the news to register—and produce shock. She blinked, not sure she had heard correctly. “Mom, did you say Bromwell?”

       “Yes, dear! She got in on a first-year scholarship! We’re going to celebrate when she gets here!”

       Daria opened her mouth but nothing came out. Quinn is going to Bromwell? The school I couldn’t get into as an undergraduate?


       “That... that’s great. Uh, good for her.” She took a quick breath. “I can’t believe it.” It was the truest thing she had said in weeks.

       “Neither can I! Oh, your father would—” Helen cut off, too late, then gamely went on “—he would have been so proud. He was proud of both of you. He loved you so much.”

       It would have helped if he’d actually said he loved us and was proud of us before his second heart attack. I would have liked to have heard that instead of his ranting. “I know,” Daria said without emotion. I wonder if my second hospitalization brought on the attack. He died while I was on the ward. Still can’t believe he’s gone. “The, uh, Thai place is fine.”

       “Great! I’ll see if they take reservations. Oh, I have good news about your cousin Erin and little Jewel, too, and something about the divorce settlement with Brian. Do you have a moment?”

       Daria glanced around the empty library. “Some people just came in,” she said. “I have to go. Can we talk at lunch?”

       “Certainly, dear! Call me if you need me. I’ll see you at a quarter to noon. I love you! Bye-bye!”

       “Bye, Mom.” She put the phone on its cradle and sat back in her seat, looking out the windows.

       Mom’s a full partner at the law firm. Quinn’s going to Bromwell. And I’m here. God, I can’t believe that. Bromwell. How did she—I don’t get how she could—oh, forget it. Doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Nothing.

       She looked out the window. The branches of the leafless maple shook in the wind.

       I wonder how Jane’s doing.

       She didn’t want to think about that, but it was impossible not to. Where is she today—east coast, west coast, north, or south? Is she painting? Taking pictures? Making movies or sculptures? Will she think of me today? Does she ever? Was she glad to put the distance between us as she did, making that final break with me after she finally told me what I’d done to her when I kissed Tom after I promised I wouldn’t, how much she suffered when I betrayed her with her boyfriend? Did she ever forgive me? Does she know where I am? Does she think of me ever?

       Outside, the cold wind chased a thousand leaves across the dead grass. Daria watched them in her blurred vision. The dark leaves flew like ashes from a dead fire.

       I’ll make it up to you, Jane. I’ve lost everything, and you were right to dump me, but I’ll make it up to you when I find my way to the mountaintop. I hope it will be soon.




Chapter Two



       The book she thought might be of help to Quinn was in nonfiction under K, for the author, Jon Krakauer. Daria forced her eyes to focus.



...attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.



       So ran part of the introduction. Daria raised her glasses and pinched the top of her nose. Forcing herself to focus gave her headaches. Large-print books weren’t quite so bad, but this wasn’t one of them.

       The book she held was a tale of real-life tragedy from the previous decade: Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. When her vision cleared, she closed the book and looked at the photo of the world’s highest mountain on the cover. I climb a mountain like that every day, she thought. That counts as irrational, perhaps, but it is not what I desire. I weary of it. It has gone on too long. She shrugged, knowing her opinion did not matter. So it goes.

       This was probably the sort of reference Quinn was looking for. Daria wondered what elements from it her sister would use in writing that business-management class report. She laid the volume on a low shelf and took out a pencil and piece of paper to write down the author and title. Her mind wandered. When it did, she often began to explain her life and behavior as if to a sympathetic listener. It relieved a bit of her loneliness, though ruminating drove her deeper into the blues.

       My life’s been a disaster since I left high school. It’s always been a mess, but at least I could cope with it. Things were already sliding when I realized Jane wasn’t around after graduation as much as I had hoped, always working on art projects when she wasn’t at one of her part-time jobs. I didn’t think she was pulling away from me, though, or I didn’t want to see it. Mom badgered me into that summer job as a checkout clerk at Food Lord, which sucked even if I did earn a little college money. The manager finally laid me off two weeks before I went to Raft, and I thought my troubles were over.

       She finished her writing and licked her lips. The medication left her mouth dry, and the central air system had a dehumidifier that made the library slightly less moist than Death Valley, if more livable. The scrap of paper was tucked into a pocket in her vest. She hoped she wouldn’t forget it.

       And then, right when I was ready to leave for college, the bottom fell out of everything. Jane came over and told me she didn’t want to see me when she came to Boston in January. I couldn’t believe it. It almost seemed irrational, but I could tell she’d thought about it for a long time. I had no idea she was still angry with me over Tom. Her mouth tightened. But I really had no idea how much I’d hurt her, either. She told me everything. Nothing was spared. And when I finally knew what I’d done to her, she left.

       She shoved the memory aside with difficulty. Stone faced, she again flipped through the pages of Into Thin Air and remembered reading the book years earlier, a first-hand account of the May 1996 tragedy when several climbing expeditions were caught on Mount Everest by a surprise storm. She had not thought of the book until someone returned it two weeks ago, and she had to put it back on the shelf. In this manner, she had become reacquainted with many of the books she’d once read. Library work had its advantages. If so much else in her life had not gone wrong, if she could at least have focused her vision long enough to take in more than a few pages of text per hour, the position would have been welcome. As it was, it reminded her of how far she’d fallen from her dreams, how dependent she was on the charity of strangers.

       Closing the book a final time, she tucked it into its proper place on the shelf. The task was made easier because she had marked the spot by turning the volume next to it on its side. She straightened, her mind still adrift.

       College was so hard. I thought I was as ready for it as anyone could be, but after Jane dumped me, I lost my way. It wasn’t exciting anymore. I overdid it, studied too late and tried too hard, got too upset over little things. I burned out. Friends would have helped, but I didn’t want them. It was easier to reject than open up. There would never be another Jane. I couldn’t take that kind of hurt again from a break up—and I couldn’t stand to know I might hurt someone as much as I’d hurt my only real friend.

       I’ve known for years what a pain in the ass I can be, but until that incident with the refrigerator box I never knew how destructive it was to be around me. Mom and Dad fought and separated once when arguing about the problems I was having in grade school. I was frightened by their shouting and hid in a box I used for a playhouse. When I was a senior in high school, a refrigerator box showed up and brought back all those memories, and I found out that my parents almost went nuts many times from trying to deal with me. I probably shortened my dad’s life by being so impossible. So I ran off and nearly had a car wreck, then poured out my heart to Jane and... oh.

       Daria grimaced in embarrassment. I wonder if that was the beginning of the end. She must have thought I was a complete baby to call her up and drag her out in the rain to talk to me. I’d never thought of that—but I never do think, do I? I remember I ran over and hugged Jane when I saw her, but she didn’t hug me back. She just stood there. I felt so stupid and ashamed. I must have looked like such an idiot, soaked to the bone, complaining about everything as I always did, and all the while she thought of how I’d screwed her over with Tom, and now this. No wonder she dumped me. She must have—


       She blinked and realized she had wandered from nonfiction into the periodicals section. Mrs. Blaine peered at her from the front desk, a pen in one hand and paperwork before her. “Daria?” she repeated.

       Oh, no. Not again. “Yes?”

       “Is someone there with you?”

       Daria shook her head. “N-no. Just me.”

       “I heard you talking and thought someone else was here. Is everything all right?”

       “Yes. I’m sorry. I was... thinking... about a story I read.”

       “Oh.” Mrs. Blaine’s face reflected doubt. “Well, would you be a dear and make sure the children’s section is tidied up?”

       “Certainly.” Daria felt her face burn as she walked away. It was mortifying to know that she could not keep her thoughts to herself. People probably thought she was crazy. Maybe I am crazy. All I really am is depressed. Duh. I have MDD, major depressive disorder, which I know because I read the copy mom had made of my psychiatric chart, after I came home from the hospital and Dad was gone. Mom wasn’t paying attention to anything and left it lying around in her bedroom. The chart said a lot of other things, too, so maybe crazy is a better word for me than depressed.

       She put a hand over her mouth as she walked, fearful she’d been talking again. Stop saying things aloud! It only makes things worse. How could it be any worse than it is? I have nothing. I am nothing. I’m at the bottom of my life. The only reason I have this job is because I used to read stories to an old woman named Mrs. Blaine at the Better Days Nursing Home, when I was a junior in high school. I came in one day to read to her and found she had died, and it hurt a lot, but I got on. Then my mom goes asking around town two months ago for a volunteer position for me, and she asks here, and the head librarian is Mrs. Blaine’s sister-in-law, also named Mrs. Blaine. She remembers me because I was the only visitor besides her that the other Mrs. Blaine had, and here I am. It doesn’t matter how grateful she is to me, though. She should fire me. She probably will. She can’t have me around scaring people, acting like a nutcase.

       The children’s section needed little attention. Daria forced herself to stop thinking for a while, and she moved the small chairs against the tables and put several books away. For a few moments she stood by the pile of pillows that the kindergarteners sat on while they read.

       I never really thought about having children of my own. Well, that’s not true. I did think about it when I was going with Tom. And I remember thinking about it when I was mooning over Jane’s brother Trent, all those years ago. I haven’t seen Trent around for ages. Not a library person, I guess. I wonder if he still plays his guitar. I wonder if he’s seen Jane around. Okay, time to stop thinking about that.


       Thinking she’d been overheard talking to herself again, Daria prepared to confess to a mental breakdown just so she could go home, go to bed, and stop embarrassing herself in public.

       “Daria?” Mrs. Blaine called again. “Do you mind if I turn on the radio?”

       The tension ran out of her. “Uh... no. That’s fine.”

       “All righty! We could use a little easy-listening music, I think.” The white-haired librarian got up from her desk with a cheery smile and walked off toward the main office.

       A deep sense of exhaustion swept through Daria. She slowly pulled one of the children’s chairs from under a table and sat down, staring at the floor with a hand over her mouth. I can’t go on. I’ve tried, I’ve really done my best, but I can’t go on. I’m sorry. When Jane told me what I’d done to her, I knew then who I was. I knew I’d always made my own trouble. No one else made wrong decisions for me; I made them. I built my own Everest, and all I needed was one stupid act—betraying Jane—and one block of bad luck—a predisposition to major depression—and I was down the mountainside like an avalanche. Getting back to the top used to mean achieving success. Now it means putting an end to it all, only I’m too afraid of failure there, too, not to mention physical pain. If I could only find those pills Mom gives me, the Paradizine, that would do it. Tricyclics are lethal in overdose. I’ve been good for a while now, I’ve never talked about hurting myself, and maybe she’s gotten a large supply. I looked up the pills in the library’s PDR, and it would be a hard ride, but they’d do it. Sorry, Mom and Quinn. My time is up, and I have to go.

       Paradizine, paradise. Funny, now that I think of it. They don’t seem to be working as well as they once did. I never used to think so much like this, or be this depressed. Switching me off Elavil in July probably wasn’t a good move. Or maybe it was. Depends on how you see it.

       Orchestra music, primarily strings, floated through the air. Daria recognized the song as the theme from an old James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. She got up, almost smiling. No, thanks. Once was quite enough for me. Time for a break. Though she had done little work, the struggle to keep moving through her depression was wearing her out. She walked back to the front desk, where Mrs. Blaine was opening mail.

       “Excuse me,” said Daria. “Do you mind if I read something, over in science fiction?”

       “Oh, sure! Go right ahead, dear! Is everything going okay?”

       “Fine, thank you. I’ll be in the L section.”

       “You go right ahead. I can handle things here.” Mrs. Blaine gave her a gentle smile and a wave.

       For the last week, Daria had been working her way through an SF novel she had always wanted to read. Once deep in the stacks, in the science-fiction and fantasy section, she meandered over to the L section and bent down to the second shelf up from the floor. The book she wanted was pulled out an inch from the ones around it, just as she’d left it. With a sense of relief, she pulled it out Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. She was near the end of chapter one, where Kelvin the researcher had reached the space station above the enigmatic planet/life-form for which the story was named. Kelvin was being warned by a computer expert, Snow, about the nightmarish conditions on the station.

       Removing the yellow Post-It note that marked the page where she had left off, Daria closed her eyes a moment and cleared her head. In the background, she heard one of the library’s front doors open. Someone had finally come in. Good thing Mrs. Blaine was there. Taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes and began to read. For some reason, her vision was less blurred than usual, and she got two-thirds of the way down the page. Snow was warning Kelvin the narrator that people might unexpectedly appear on the space station, and he should be ready for it.



     “Who could I see?” I flared up. “A ghost?”

     “You think I’m mad, of course. No, no, I’m not mad. I can’t say anything more for the moment. Perhaps... who know?... Nothing will happen. But don’t forget I warned you.”

     “Don’t be so mysterious. What’s all this about?”

     “Keep a hold on yourself. Be prepared to meet... anything. It sounds impossible I know, but try. It’s the only advice I can give you. I can’t think of anything better.”

     “But what could I possibly meet?” I shouted.



       A sound at the end of the aisle told Daria that someone was standing there, probably waiting to get her attention. She exhaled in defeat. “May I help you?” she asked, turning around with the book still in her hands. An instant later, she gasped aloud and dropped the book. She staggered back, knees wobbling and her hands gripping the metal shelves on either side of her for support.

       The tall, lanky figure at the end of the aisle wore a running outfit of a red T-shirt, gray shorts, and battered red track shoes. Her sweat-drenched black bangs framed a heart-shaped face. Blue eyes widened in shock as they took Daria in from head to foot.

       “Daria?” whispered Jane Lane. “Is that you?”




Chapter Three



       Jane—or whoever it was at the end of the aisle—took a step closer. “Daria?” it said again.

       Daria backed up, her heart in her throat. She put out a hand to ward the apparition back. God, no! That can’t be Jane! She looks just like she did the day she told me she never wanted to see me again, in her running clothes and everything! Am I having hallucinations on top of everything else? Is the medication doing this, or am I really losing it?

       The apparition appeared anxious. “Are you all right? I didn’t mean to scare you.”

       “I’m—” Daria began, then cut herself off. Don’t talk to hallucinations, stupid! Someone will hear you! Wait—maybe she’s really Mrs. Blaine, or a visitor looking for a book. Say something to her so she thinks you’re only startled and not crazy or—oh, hell, I am crazy. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know anything. Shivering with fear, she put a hand over her eyes. This is the end of me, the real end. My mind’s betrayed me as I betrayed Jane. I have nothing left at all. I can’t go on.

       “What’s wrong?” The being came closer. “Are you angry with me?”

       Daria’s breathing grew ragged. “I give up,” she said, exhausted. Holding a shelf to ease herself down, she sat on the carpeted floor next to the book she had dropped and put her back against the shelves. “I can’t do this anymore,” she said, looking at the hallucination’s red track shoes. “I want to go home. Please call my mom.” She closed her eyes. “Please call—”

       Someone walked over and knelt on the carpet beside her. Two long, cold arms pulled her head into a damp T-shirt that smelled of... Jane. It was Jane. Daria had smelled that scent a thousand times in Jane’s room, on her clothes, in her P.E. locker, everywhere. She had never forgotten it. Her heart leaped. Was it really Jane? The apparition felt and smelled and looked and sounded so real, but—

       “I’ve been hunting all over town for you,” said the being as it held Daria close. “I came to get you out of here. I want you to come back with me, right now. Just say that you’ll go, and we’ll be gone. I promise.”

       It felt good to be held. Daria reached up and put her arms around the apparition. It felt warm and real. Daria felt a thrill pass through her. She felt wonderful all the way through, holding someone like Jane, although she knew it wasn’t the real Jane. The real Jane would never hug her. The real Jane hated her—but it was still the most wonderful feeling, to be so close to someone like her after so long a time.

       “You won’t believe this,” said the being, “but I reappeared in your room a little while ago, right where the mirror was on the floor. I made it send me after you. I went downstairs, but I accidentally set off some kind of security alarm, wailing all over the place. Didn’t even know you had one. Sorry. Anyway, I ran outside before the police got there, then I froze my ass off running back to my parents’ house, only to find no one was home except some vagrants in the basement. I don’t think anyone in my family has lived there in months. My room was cleaned out, Penny’s too. The rest was a mess.” The apparition pressed her face to Daria’s forehead. “How long have you been here?”

       The remark about the mirror meant nothing. Daria had no mirror in her bedroom. It had once been used by the schizophrenic mother of a previous owner (how appropriate for me, Daria often thought), so the walls were padded and the décor was dreary, devoid of breakable things like mirrors. Daria always used the mirror in the hall bathroom, anyway.

       “Daria?” said the being again. “How long have you been here?”

       She licked her lips again. “S-since... two thousand two. July, three years ago.” Not counting my second hospitalization in 2003, but that was for only two months.

       “Two thousand two? The year two thousand two? Didn’t you just get here a little while ago?” The apparition pulled back and looked Daria over. “Where’d you get the suit? And your hair—” The being stopped. Its blue eyes glazed in shock. “No,” it said. “Oh, no, I forgot. This is your future. The future without me, like the mirror said. God, what did I do? What did I do to you?”

       “I’m sorry,” whispered Daria. She remembered now what Jane had said so long ago, about the hurt, and she was ashamed. “I’m really sorry.”

       “You didn’t do anything,” said the being in a strained voice. “Don’t say that. I screwed up really bad, and the mirror made it worse. Daria, tell me you’ll come with me. We’re going back to August, two thousand one. None of this will ever happen. Just say you’ll go with me. All you have to do is say it.”

       Go back to August, two thousand one. Go back to August, two thousand... one. Go back—she wants to go back to the day she told me she didn’t want to see me again.

       “Don’t hurt me,” whispered Daria. She laid her head against the apparition’s chest, too drained to cry. “I’m so sorry I hurt you. Forgive me.”

       “Shhh,” said the apparition. Tears ran down its cheeks. “That’s over and done, but I did the terrible thing, not you. I did a terrible thing to you, Daria. We’re going home together, you and me, and we’ll make it better. Tell me you’ll go with me, and I’ll take you home. Please tell me now.”

       It came to Daria then, what was really happening. The being was Jane—but Jane was an angel now, the sort of angel Quinn occasionally liked to talk about and imagine followed her around, taking care of her. Daria was having a religious experience, the kind in which anything could happen—and anything usually did. It was crazy, yes, but it was the only solution that was even marginally reasonable, given the facts.

       If that were true, then “going home with Jane” meant—

       Oh. Daria felt a strange sense of relief, mixed with a profound sadness. Her deepest desire was coming true. She looked up. “What took you so long?” she whispered.

       The being—the angel—burst out in laughter. The brightest of colors flew across an empty world. “That’s better,” it said, sniffing back tears. “That was the Daria I remember. Let’s go home.”

       “I can’t go yet,” said Daria. “Not yet.” She was regaining her senses. Now that she knew what was happening, she could handle it. She even felt better. Her depression was easing.

       The angel pulled back and looked down at her in surprise. “What?”

       “Let me do a few more things first, please. Mom wanted to have lunch with me today. I feel bad about leaving her, and I can’t go without seeing her one more time. Let me do that, at least.”

       The angel appeared stunned, but it nodded after a moment. “Uh, sure. Are you feeling okay?”

       Daria nodded. “I’m better. I’ll be all right.” She pulled away from the angel and got back on her feet with a little assistance. “Thank you,” she added, brushing herself off. For the first time in years, she felt in control of her life and almost... normal.

       “I’m sorry I did this to you,” said the angel. “God, if there’s any way you can forgive me for this—”

       “You did nothing wrong,” said Daria. “I’m glad you’re here. I thought I’d never see you.”

       “I swear, first thing after we get back, I’m going to smash that mirror into powder. I’ll get a sledgehammer and smash the freaking—”

       “What mirror?” Daria asked, straightening her sleeves and vest.

       The Jane-angel hesitated, then sighed and rolled its eyes. “Oh, right. You wouldn’t remember. No one else remembers it by this time, except me and... well, he won’t remember it for long, I bet. Forget it, then. We’ll go back as soon as you’re ready.”

       Daria nodded, then checked her watch. “Mom will be here in a little while. Can I have lunch with her alone? One last time? It would mean a lot to me.”

       The angel nodded. “That’s fine.” It looked around the library. “So, this is two thousand five. Looks sort of like two thousand one.”

       “Only on the surface,” said Daria. “Scratch it, and the monsters come out. It’s been a really lousy twenty-first century. Do I look okay?”

       The angel was on the verge of asking something, but Daria’s last comment caused it to give her a curious stare. “Do you look okay? Are you really asking me that?”

       “I have to look good for the public. I’m a volunteer here.”

       “Oh.” The angel blinked, then gave Daria a closer look. “Yeah, you look fine. A volunteer? What else do you do?”

       “Nothing. This is it.” Daria bent down and retrieved the fallen copy of Solaris, putting it back in its place on the shelf. She pushed the book all the way in. There would be no time to finish it. A small regret, as it had so much promise. “I should see if Mrs. Blaine needs any help. There’s still an hour to go until Mom comes to get me.”

       The angel appeared to have some trouble understanding what was going on. “Your mom brings you out here?”

       “I can’t drive because of the medication. It screws up my vision and reflexes. And I don’t have a paying job because not many people around here want to hire someone with a big-time mental illness and past hospitalizations. I’m not complaining about it—not too much, anyway. Doesn’t matter anymore.” Daria ran a hand over her brown hair, checking the bun. “I’ll be right back after I talk with Mrs. Blaine. You can wait here or do what you like.”

       “Daria?” said the angel. A frightened look was on its face. “What are you talking about, mental illness? And the medication thing, what’s with that?”

       Daria looked back at the angel, surprised that it would not know everything about her. Curiouser and curiouser, the real Jane occasionally said. She debated over what to say about it, then shrugged. “It’s been a lousy twenty-first century,” she repeated. “I’ll explain later.” She started to turn away, then looked back once more. Her face was serene. “Thank you for coming for me. I mean that.”

       The angel didn’t answer. It stared at Daria in confusion and growing fear, then watched as Daria walked away.




Chapter Four



       Mrs. Blaine was on the phone in the main office when Daria left the science-fiction section. No one else was in the library. It was the slowest Saturday Daria could recall in the two months she’d been there. She walked back to the office and waited outside the door until Mrs. Blaine looked up and noticed her.

       “Excuse me for a moment, would you? Daria’s here.” Mrs. Blaine cupped a hand over the phone’s mouthpiece. “Yes, dear?”

       “I wanted to see if you needed me for anything,” Daria said.

       “Oh, no, nothing right now. Mercy, there aren’t many people out today, are there? Must be the weather. We’re likely to fall over from boredom before the day’s through.”

       Daria started to tell her about the angel’s coming, then decided the wiser choice was to say nothing. Mrs. Blaine had obviously not noticed, but that made sense. Perhaps only Daria could see it. “I’ll be near the lobby in case someone comes in,” she said.

       “Certainly, dear.” Mrs. Blaine peered at Daria closely. “You look like you’re feeling better,” she said.

       “I am. Miracles do happen.”

       The librarian smiled. “Bless you, dear. You have a good time.” She waved Daria away and resumed her chat with a friend about a backgammon tournament at the Lawndale Mall.

       Soft music played in the background. Daria wandered back to see how the angel was doing. She had to admit that an angel in a track outfit was pretty odd, like something out of the movie Dogma. A corner of her mouth twitched. That would be great, she thought. The afterlife turns out to be Lawndale on a higher plane. Good thing I lived the adventure first and was ready for it. I hope the Jane-angel stays around. Among other things, my psychiatric chart said I had dependency issues with the live Jane. I guess I did. Nothing went right after she was gone. Mom and I got closer, which was good, but it wasn’t the same.

       The angel was in the periodicals section, leafing through magazines. “Catching up?” Daria asked as she approached.

       The angel looked up. Her face was blank with horror. In her hands was a year-in-review issue of a news magazine for the year 2001. It was open to color photos of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

       “What the hell happened?” asked the angel. “Are we at war?”

       Daria nodded, a bit puzzled herself. Maybe angels don’t have time to catch up with human news. Perhaps this one was on the other side of the galaxy for a while.

       The angel looked down at the magazine, then dropped it back among a pile of others whose covers reflected world events over the past four years: terrorist attacks in America and abroad, agonizing foreign wars, worldwide security fears, bitter political battles, everything. “I can’t believe it,” said the angel. “I can’t believe this started one month after we... right after...” It waved a hand at the magazines, robbed of speech.

       The remarks were probably the kind of sad commentaries on the human condition that angels were prone to make. Daria nodded in agreement. “We can’t believe it, either. Wish we hadn’t screwed it up. Would you like to stay for the afternoon? I get off at five, when Mom comes by.”

       The angel drew its attention from the magazines and regarded for her a moment. “Daria,” it finally said, “why don’t you come home with me now? We should get out of this awful place and be happy together. Why do you want to wait?”

       “I want to settle things out with my mom,” said Daria by way of apology. “She’s put up with me through everything, with me flunking out of Raft, my depressions, and everything. She came through for me even after Dad died. I owe her one more day together, then we can go.”

       “Flunking—wait! Your dad died?” The angel appeared more stunned than before, if that was possible.

       “Yeah, but I couldn’t go to the funeral. I was in the psychiatric ward of Cedars of Lawndale for the second time. I think that’s what gave him his last heart attack.” Daria gave a quick summary of the last four years of her life, since that fateful day in August 2001 when she lost her only friend. “So, here I am,” she concluded. “And here you are, and I’m glad this is over with. Whatever comes next can’t possibly be this bad. At least, I hope it won’t be.”

       The angel was white faced as it stared at Daria with its mouth open.

       “Will we be together, you and I?” Daria asked. “I mean, after we... go? If it’s not a problem, I mean. I was hoping that maybe—”

       “Tezcat set me up,” said the angel. Its voice was hard and bitter. “That bastard. The smoking mirror showed you all my pain, and now you’ve shown me yours, and what I did to you was a billion times worse than what you did to me. I can’t believe I wanted this. I must have been insane.” The angel closed its blue eyes and stood without moving. “God damn me to the bottom of hell. I deserve to suffer, not you. And God damn Tezcat, too. I’m going to kill him. I’m going to smash that freaking mirror into atoms.”

       Daria frowned, trying to follow what the angel was saying. Someone named Tezcat set this up? Why did that name sound familiar?

       “Will we be together?” Daria whispered, afraid.

       Tears ran down the angel’s face. After a moment, it wiped them away. “Sure,” it said, its voice rough. “I don’t know why you’d want to be with me after this, but we’ll be together, if you want. I’ll be with you forever. I owe you.”

       A great weight was lifted from Daria’s shoulders. This was the best news possible. She did not want to ask if the angel’s Jane form was its true shape or a guise it assumed when it came for her. She wouldn’t ask yet. Later, yes. Perhaps it wouldn’t mind keeping that shape.

       The angel opened its eyes again, but it did not look Daria in the face. “I’ll go back to the house and see if there’s any clothing left that I can wear,” it said. “It’s really cold outside.”

       “I didn’t know you needed clothing,” said Daria, curious. “Or is that outfit a disguise?”

       The angel looked up, taken aback. “What? Oh, I didn’t have time to change. I came as soon as I knew... that you were... oh, forget it.” It sniffed and smiled. “You sound more like your old self all the time. I know you won’t believe me, and I’m a fool to say this, but it’s so good to see you.”

       Daria smiled back. It was the first real smile she’d had since she could remember. “It’s good to see you, too. More than you could possibly know.”

       This last comment seemed to sadden the angel. It took a step in Daria’s direction and hugged her, burying its face in her shoulder. Daria hugged back, as light as air.

       “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” the angel whispered. “Have a good lunch with your mom.”

       “Please take my coat,” said Daria. “It might be a little small, but it’s too cold outside to—”

       “No,” said the angel. “That’s okay. I’ll be fine.” They held each other for a long moment, then let go. The angel walked to the library doors. It looked back before it left, gazing at Daria’s small figure alone in the lobby. The angel’s face worked; it seemed to be on the verge of tears. It then pushed open the door and ran out into the cold wind and was gone.

       Daria swallowed back the lump in her throat. The angel was so much like the Jane she had wanted to see for so long. It might be only the result of wish fulfillment, but she wasn’t going to complain. She was grateful that they would be together after she had left this world behind. Perhaps she would meet the real Jane in the afterlife, if this angel wasn’t her, and they could make amends. She hoped it would be so. She exhaled heavily and walked back to the checkout desk, wiping her eyes on her blouse sleeves.

       Something occurred to Daria then, and she stopped. Tezcat. Where had she heard that name before? It sounded like the shortened name of a Central American god, Mayan or Aztec. After some thought, she walked toward the reference section. The mythology books there were primarily for Greek, Roman, and Norse gods, but she knew one book that would probably have everything she was looking for—if this library had a copy. Very few did, and she had not bothered to check before now.

       To her surprise, the book was there. The old tome was thick and heavy, but she pulled it from the shelf and carried it with both hands over to a table, taking a seat before it. The dark leather cover had a musty odor to it that made Daria wrinkle her nose.

       Opening the volume with care, she flipped through the yellowed pages until she came to the T’s. She found what she was looking for in moments. Skimming over the specific details of the deity’s appearance, deeds, priesthood, and mythic relatives, she came to the commentary at the end and studied it. Odd, she thought, how the book referred to all its subjects in the present tense. And odd, too, that for a while her vision was less blurred than usual.



     Tezcatlipoca is a difficult being to assess. Possibly the most powerful of the Toltec/Aztec deities, he is a law unto himself and follows a moral code we struggle to comprehend. He is unpredictable and dangerous, yet essential to the functioning of the universe—a necessary evil, some would say. A simple summary would say he is the wicked jaguar god of the Aztecs. This is like saying the sun is bright, but it is nothing more.

     Tezcatlipoca’s nature is a maze of contradictions and contrasts. At his core, he is a symbol of change and conflict, destruction that brings about renewal. A study of him confuses more than it enlightens. How does one reconcile that he is simultaneously representative of the sun and the night, temptation and heroism, war and beauty, warriors and magic, truth and deceit, nobles and slaves, mental cunning and physical might, annihilation and creation, death and rebirth? Evil he may seem, but he befriended and protected the first humans. He is both the enemy and ally (as the moment requires) of his brother Quetzalcoatl, the god of light; they joined forces to create the world, yet Tezcatlipoca tricked his brother into performing deeds of great evil. He toys with humans as if they were marbles rolling in his great palm. He does as he pleases, yet he is not amoral; his actions bear their own logic and values.

     Tezcatlipoca might manifest himself though one of his obsidian “smoking mirrors,” for which he is named. Such a mirror is omniscient across time and space. It destroys enemies, foretells the future, reads minds, and reveals the true nature of anyone who views it. Restraining or destroying a smoking mirror is not advised, but might be impossible in any event.

     Of his interactions with humanity, it is his role as a tempter and tester that intrigues most. Though he poses horrific challenges, he does not value wickedness or cowardice. He rewards those who please him by their displays of courage, but to be caught in his machinations is not to be wished on anyone. Suffering might not be a guarantee of later favor. Ruin and desolation might serve a greater purpose than the ruined thing is capable of appreciating. A slight encounter with him will be life changing; a prolonged encounter could be more so, if it is not quickly and terrifyingly fatal.

     Your shortcut is in view, Daria.



       Daria blinked, squinted, then rubbed her eyes under her glasses and looked again. Strange—for a moment, it seemed there was a final line in the entry, something addressed to her and mentioning a shortcut. Nothing of the sort was there now.

       She thought immediately of the shortcut she wanted to the top of the Everest of her life. The angel was probably here to take care of that, though.

       She shrugged and closed the large tome, placing it back on the shelf. This sounds more like Dogma all the time, she thought. Absently, she patted the great book as if it were a friend’s shoulder. “Thanks, Tobin,” she said, and then went off to the checkout desk to await her mother’s arrival and lunch out.




Chapter Five



       Wearing a navy-blue power suit and a cheery smile, Helen appeared at the library a few minutes later and swept Daria away for lunch at the Thai restaurant agreed upon. Daria put on her coat and followed her mother outside to her new car, a champagne-gold Avalon, but she found it difficult to concentrate on anything that went on around her, even the chill of winter. Her thoughts were focused on the coming of the angel (Jane? not Jane? question not relevant?) and what it meant for her life, which at this point would apparently end whenever she gave the word.

       The more Daria thought about the angel, however, the more the entire episode seemed like a realistic fever dream. Had she been hallucinating? If so, was it the medication, or was her mind slipping away at last? No, the angel had been quite real to the touch. She was sure of it.

       Had it been an angel, though? Sight, sound, touch, scent—all sensory input said it had been Jane, the real Jane Lane, or a damn good copy. Daria wondered if her medication, her secret death wish, and the shock of the moment had screwed with her perceptions and thinking. What if it had been the real Jane Lane after all, come to visit her and make amends? Stunned by the thought, she paused with one hand on the passenger door handle of the Avalon, looking at the dreary library grounds and surrounding community. Jane was nowhere in sight. Did she fly away or run away?

       “Is something the matter?” Helen stood on the other side of the car, peering at her daughter with concern.

       “What? Oh. Uh, no.” Daria looked around once more, then got into her mother’s car, buckled in, and made herself relax. Clearing her mind, she tried to push everything out of her thoughts except memories of the experience itself. Yes, she was sure someone who was stunningly like Jane Lane had appeared in the library. She had trouble believing it was really Jane, however, despite first-hand evidence supporting that possibility. Why would Jane appear dressed in that running outfit, the exact same clothes she’d worn when she broke off their friendship four years ago? Wasn’t Jane in college now? Daria was unsure; she’d gotten no reports whatsoever on Jane from anyone, and the few attempts she’d made in Boston to see her former friend had ended in failure. The Jane in the library had apparently not aged, either. What was going on?

       Maybe it had been Jane, repenting of her breakup with Daria long ago—but what was it she said about going back to August of the year 2001, when their friendship hit its final rocks and sank? Time travel wasn’t possible, and if it was, Jane was not the sort of person who would have access to it. Maybe Jane (if not an angel) spoke of going back in time as a metaphor, meaning they could go back to being friends and forget the mess, as if that were possible. Or (if Jane was an angel) it was a metaphor for death. What were her exact words again? We’re going back to August, two thousand one. None of this will ever happen. Just say you’ll go with me. All you have to do is say it. But Jane had not known of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That and her outfit suggested she had been transported intact, into the future, from August 2001. Moreover, Jane had said: I forgot. This is your future. The future without me, like the mirror said. God, what did I do? Aside from being impossible, going forward into time to fix a mistake in the past made no sense. And there was more talk about this mirror, and that Aztec deity, Tezcat—

       Tezcatlipoca might manifest himself though one of his obsidian “smoking mirrors,” for which he is named. Such a mirror is omniscient across time and space. It destroys enemies, foretells the future

       Groaning, Daria shook her head and rubbed her temples. This was way worse than Dogma, entirely too much to absorb. She thought for a moment she was close to an answer explaining what was happening, but now her thinking was confused again—and her mouth tasted bad as well. Damn pills! Defeated, she lowered her hands and stared out the windshield at the passing scenery. She hadn’t even noticed when her mother had started the car and driven off. Her thoughts rambled on. Perhaps the apparition had been the real Jane, but Jane had suffered some sort of mental breakdown herself. Perhaps Jane was crazier than Daria, now. The idea was upsetting, but it made more sense than the angel or time-travel options. It was simpler, anyway.

       Unable to puzzle it out, Daria turned to look at her mother. Oblivious to Daria’s preoccupied state, Helen drove through noontime traffic and rattled on about a product-liability case she was handling, something to do with exploding tires on tractor-trailers. Included was side commentary about the questionable honesty of tire manufacturers and how it related to last year’s presidential elections, a connection Daria did not follow. No matter. Helen was obviously happy at being able to fill her weekends with her corporate legal work. If she avoided talking about the gross details of personal injuries, lunch would go well.

       They found the new restaurant in short order, went inside, and were seated at a table near the hallway leading to the restrooms. Though the Paradizine, like the Elavil before it, had suppressed Daria’s appetite almost as effectively as her depression did, today she looked over the menu with a spark of interest. She settled on a glass of water and a bowl of chicken phad thai with extra peanut sauce and a spiciness level of medium. Experience had shown she could tolerate that without much trouble, though an antacid tablet would help.

       I’m not even sure why I’m bothering to eat, if I’m leaving the world tonight, she thought. On the other hand, I might not be dying today after all. All that I do know is that I’m hungry. Better to eat, then.

       She put down the menu and looked across the table at her mother. It was a comfort to see her mother’s confidence and strength, even when so much had darkened their lives. After a moment, Helen noticed and looked back. “Is something wrong?” she asked her eldest daughter.

       That was a hard question to answer. Again, Daria elected to skip mention of Jane—angel, madwoman, hallucination, whatever. “I was just thinking,” she said, then felt a clarification was needed. “I was thinking I haven’t thanked you for everything you’ve done for me,” she said.

       “For what? What everything?”

       “Being there for me, when everything screwed up.” Daria drew a long breath. She wished she could talk to her mother about what was happening, but it would just make things worse. “I’m sorry for the burden I’ve been for you, for all the—”

       “Dear,” her mother interrupted, “you’ve never been a burden. Why would you think such a thing?”

       Daria could not resist rolling her eyes. She looked down at the table as she continued. “My memory isn’t that bad, Mom. You know what I mean. Seriously, I want to tell you how much it’s meant to me, to have you stick with me. If anything were to—” No, don’t go there “—if, uh, anything, you’ve kept me going when I never thought I would make it from one day to the next. I don’t believe I’ve said it enough, how grateful I am to you.”

       She glanced at her mother’s startled face before looking down at her hands in her lap. “I love you,” she added. Relief flooded through her. It’s true, she realized. People who believe they are about to die want nothing more than to tell their loved ones that they are loved. No matter what happens, even if I live on forever in this awful world, I’m glad I did this.

       Helen was momentarily speechless. She swallowed, then took her napkin and used it to dab her reddened eyes. “I love you, too,” she said at last, holding her napkin crumpled up in her lap. “You’ve never been a burden to me. You were always worth it to me, whatever I could do for you. And you always will be.”

       That did it. Daria inhaled. She was going to spill everything. “Mom,” she began, “there’s something—”

       “Helen! Daria! Imagine meeting you here!” It was Linda Griffin, a tall brunette in a gray, executive-style pantsuit, sunglasses perched on top of her head. “Excuse me for interrupting for a moment, do you mind?”

       “Not at all!” said Helen, looking from Linda to Daria and back. “We were just—”

       Linda fished in a side pouch of the briefcase she carried. “Here we go,” she said, pulling out a stapled sheaf of papers and handing them to Helen—folding them in half first. “Here’s what I called you about this morning. The city attorney in Middleton faxed it to me at the office an hour ago. I had to chase everyone else from Marketing out of the room so they couldn’t see it. Don’t tell anyone about this, of course. Some people in this burg would love to see me get dragged through the dirt.”

       Helen took the paperwork and opened it just enough to peek at the first page. “I see,” she said in a low voice, glancing apologetically at Daria. She moved to put the paperwork in her purse. “I’ll take this home and give you a call as soon as—”

       Alas, Linda had already pulled up a chair. “That little tramp!” she hissed in a loud whisper, sitting down at the table and leaning toward Helen. “Sandi doesn’t have the sense God gave a retard. She knows I’m a media vice president, a major public figure, and she can’t pull stunts like this at college and expect it won’t get out on the eleven o’clock news, if I can’t beg or bribe the station manager not to put it on ours! Does she think for a second what it’ll do to me? I told her last night she’s not seeing another frickin’ red cent for her tuition, she could consider herself thrown out on the street for life, and she said—” Here, Linda mimicked her daughter’s haughty drawl “—‘Fine, Mother, I make more than enough with my business to cover my educational expenses,’ and I swear to God, I could have reached right through that phone and slapped the living goddamn daylights out of her! I might drive out to Middleton and do it tonight, I’m so frickin’ pissed! Can you believe she’d do something like this to me?

       Helen, pale as a sheet, tried to pretend everything was normal in case anyone in the restaurant was listening in—which, Daria noticed, many people were doing. “Linda,” Helen said, “let’s wait until after work to talk more about—”

       “And she had the gall to use our family name on her business!” Linda snatched back the paperwork and opened it to the second page. “Our name! I could have died! And get this, right here: The city attorney said she used her position as president of her sorority to con other girls into joining her escort service, which she says is actually a professional date-finding service for people too busy to date, or some other bull, as if she thinks people are too stupid to know she’s selling ass! Oh, Jesus, if I could just get my hands on her, she’d be—”

       Daria cleared her throat and pushed back her chair, reaching down for her purse. “Restroom,” she said to her besieged mother. “Be right back.” Linda only glanced at her before continuing her tirade about her daughter. Daria knew she was invisible to Mrs. Griffin, who doubtless felt Daria was so mentally damaged as to be unable to appreciate any part of what was being said. It was perhaps the worst slap she could possibly have been given—had it come from someone other than Linda Griffin.

       As Daria walked to the hall toward the women’s room, Linda’s voice echoing down the hall behind her, she managed the first smirk she’d had in years. So, Sandi Griffin had joined the ranks of Heidi Fleiss and Sydney Biddle-Barrows? It was predictable, in retrospect: Sandi running a new Fashion Club with a more practical purpose. Well, dating with style had been the whole point of the old Fashion Club, hadn’t it? Daria wondered how much the escort service was pulling in, and if Sandi would escape jail time with community service—as if servicing the community in her own special way wasn’t trouble enough.

       Though she didn’t have to, Daria remained in the women’s room for a good eight minutes. She occupied her time by looking through her purse, seeing what was in it. After years of carrying a wallet and numerous odds and ends in jacket and skirt pockets, she still had trouble believing she owned a purse. It was not something she’d ever imagined she would do. It had been her mother’s idea to make her daughter look more professional, or at least more ladylike. Daria had lacked the will to refuse. Still, she admitted a purse had its advantages. So much junk was in there now, it would make a great weapon if swung by the straps.

       Picturing herself whacking a hapless mugger in the head brought another smile to her lips. I must be getting better, she thought. She rubbed her mouth to wipe the smile away, then checked herself once more in the mirror, shouldered her purse, and quietly opened and closed the door as she left. The noise in the dining area had increased, masking the sound of her footsteps as she walked back to the table. If she were lucky, Linda Griffin would be gone.

       Her luck did not hold. Ten feet from the end of the corridor, she heard the voice of a calmer Linda. Daria slowed, hoping to catch a few words to know if it was safe to return.

       “—worried about, you know, an overdose or something,” Linda said. “That would make me nervous. Although maybe an overdose would do Sandi some good. I should borrow some of those pills when I see that little wretch next.”

       “Oh, don’t say that!” Helen gasped. “Paradizine is quite dangerous!”

       “Well, does the doctor give you just a few every couple of days, in case she—?”

       “Oh, no, no. I get a bottle with a month’s worth of pills now.” Helen’s voice lowered. Daria crept closer to the end of the hall to catch her mother’s words. “I don’t have time to keep going back to the pharmacy, so I had a carpenter come in a month ago, when she was at the library, and he put a false back wall in one of the top kitchen cabinets. I can’t even tell it’s there myself. I put the bottle there, and... wait a minute.” A chair scooted and someone stood up.

       Daria fled back down the corridor, moving as quietly as she could. She went into the women’s room again and dodged into a toilet stall, locking the door behind her. Hearing the restroom door open, she flushed the toilet and pretended to adjust her clothing. When she stepped out and saw her mother, she made her eyes widen as if surprised. “Oh!” she said, then went to wash at the sink. She tried to hide the trembling of her hands. I know where the Paradizine is. I finally know. “Is—is Mrs. Griffin still at the table?”

       Helen sighed, though she looked relieved. “I’m afraid so,” she said. “I came back to check on you, that’s all.”

       “Sorry I took so long.” The Paradizine is behind a false wall in a top kitchen cabinet. No wonder I never found it. What do I do about it? What now?

       “Not a problem!” Helen walked back to the table with Daria. Linda was on her feet again when they arrived.

       “I have to meet clients,” said Linda. “Sorry to talk and run. Try the duck. Best I’ve ever had. Thanks again, Helen!” A quick hug later, and Linda was gone.

       “I won’t ask,” Daria said, taking another look at her menu to remember what she’d wanted to order. She wasn’t hungry now, but she had to keep up appearances.

       “I won’t tell,” her mother responded, taking a sip of water. “There’s our waiter. What did you want to get?”

       Your shortcut is in view, Daria.

       “Daria? Sweetie? The waiter’s here.”

       She lowered the menu, seeing the heavy tome on the library table before her instead. Your shortcut is in view. As foretold by a supernatural agency, the shortcut to the summit was revealed. She could reach the mountaintop if she dared. Her suffering would end. She would be free.

       Was this the path Jane had talked about, the way back to August 2001? It seemed so. The talk about returning to August 2001 was just her way of saying that after death, they would return to the friendship they had once shared. Had Jane died regretting the loss of her friend, and been given a chance to return as an angel to gather Daria to the afterlife? Jane might even have killed herself, a ghastly possibility but one that now made a lot of sense. If Jane had died in August 2001, it made perfect sense she would know nothing of Daria’s future. It made perfect sense that Jane would come back to accompany her best friend into the next—and, one hoped, better—world.

       So much was not clear. Jane and Tezcat were apparently enemies, but the paths they outlined seemed very much the same: an end to Daria’s life of misery. And there was the nagging detail that, according to every religious authority she knew, suicide was a direct route to eternal damnation—not that the existence of Hell had mattered much to the agnostic Daria before now. Could any Hell be worse than this terrible life?

       “Daria? Honey, is something wrong?”

       “I’ll have the chicken phad thai,” she said without inflection, staring at a spot in the middle of her mother’s chest. It was her mother’s heart, she realized. “Moderate spice. Extra peanut sauce, please.”

       It will be hard. A Paradizine overdose is a hard way to go, but it will get me there. It makes sense now. It’s all the same plan, not two different ones. Jane is dead, but she’s come back for me. She did care, after all. She had the courage and will to come to Earth and get me, so we would always be together.

       Can I leave my mother and sister behind in their grief, in exchange for paradise with my only friend? Do I have the courage to take this last step?

       “And to drink?” asked the waiter.

       “Ice water,” she said. She looked at her mother’s worried face. Fear not for me. Fear not for me. “Thank you,” she said again with feeling. Thank you—and goodbye.




Chapter Six



       As Helen hunted through her purse for an errant credit card at lunch’s end, she muttered, “There it is!” and pulled her cell phone from the purse’s depths. “I turned it off this morning after Linda called so I could get some work done, then I couldn’t find it again,” she told Daria, who was putting on her coat. She turned the phone on, and it beeped to indicate a missed call. Thumbing in a callback, Helen put the phone to her ear and waited. “Hello? Oh! Lawndale Police Department? This is Helen Morgendorffer. Someone from there called my cell phone earlier today, and... someone broke into our house? Oh, no! When was this? Yes, I had my phone turned off. Oh. You didn’t find the ones who did it?”

       Daria paused in the middle of buttoning up her coat. She remembered Jane’s comment that she earlier had appeared in Daria’s bedroom and accidentally triggered the house alarm on her way out. So, angels could take physical form but had unpredictable entry into real space and time? Interesting. It didn’t make sense, but it was interesting.

       “I’ll go right over there now,” Helen went on. “Yes, officer, I will. Yes, I’ll be right there. Listen, can you—hello? Hello?” Helen looked at her phone, groaned, and dropped it back in her purse. “Battery died. That was the Lawndale police. I’ll drop you off at the library, then I’m going home to meet an officer and see what happened. Apparently the security siren went off, and one of the neighbors walked over and found the front door was ajar. Someone must have tried to pick the lock and set off the alarm. She couldn’t tell if anything was stolen. People these days, I tell you. You lock up the criminals, and more sprout like dandelions. Let’s go—I’ll pay the check with cash and look for my credit card later.”

       Daria mulled over this news as they left the restaurant. No one had yet seen Jane. Was she invisible to human eyes but not electronic ones? Or was Jane lucky so far to have avoided being seen? Daria shook her head. She’d have to learn how this afterlife thing worked in detail when she and Jane were together at last—which wouldn’t be long now.

       Helen dropped Daria at the Kilmer Public Library, then roared off in her Avalon to find out what condition the house was in. Daria smiled to herself as she went inside. If Jane the angel were anything like Jane the human, the refrigerator would be missing most of its contents. Did angels have to eat in human form? Go to the bathroom? And where did they get their clothes? Not from Cashman’s, she hoped.

       A mother and her small son were in the library when Daria entered, but they had finished checking out a pile of children’s books and left in moments. “They were the only ones in today,” said Mrs. Blaine to Daria. “Maybe there’s a football game on. I’ve never seen it this empty before.”

       “Do you have anything for me to do?” Daria asked. She became aware that her stomach was having a little problem with the spicy phad thai. Time to fish in her purse for the antacids.

       “No, dear. Just find a good book and have a seat and listen to the radio. Call me if you need me. I’ll be in back ordering new audiotapes.”

       Mrs. Blaine left Daria at the checkout counter, where Daria perched on a stool. A brief search of her purse provided the antacid tablets she needed, and she took two. The easy-listening radio station began another song, a strange, sad, old one Daria recognized from childhood. The honey-voiced singer, she recalled, was Dusty Springfield.




Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel,

Never ending or beginning on an ever-spinning reel,

Like a snowball down a mountain or a carnival balloon,

Like a carousel that’s turning, running rings around the moon,

Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes on its face,

And the world is like an apple spinning silently in space,

Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind.



       With the image in her mind of an apple rotating against a starry backdrop, Daria absently reached in a pocket of her vest in search of a tissue. Her nose was running from being out in the cold. A scrap of paper, not a tissue, greeted her fingertips. It was her note about the Mount Everest book she meant to describe to her younger sister Quinn.

       Daria took out the note and studied it after finding a tissue under the checkout counter and blowing her nose. I think I see now what Quinn could do with this in a business-management class, she thought, remembering the book. Poor planning, problem personalities, a dangerous environment, and bad luck collided to kill a lot of climbers. She could create a presentation about the same, in a nonlethal way, happening in a business project. It makes sense. I should call Quinn anyway, all things considered. It might be my last chance to talk to her.

       She reached in her purse and pulled out her cell phone. The sad song by Dusty Springfield continued in the background as Daria thumbed in the speed-dial number for Quinn’s cell phone. Pepperhill, a San Francisco university, was three hours behind Lawndale time. Her sister was long up, according to their mother, though she might be in a weekend class or partying with friends. Daria guessed the latter. The phone rang twice before it was picked up.

       “Quinn here, talk to me,” said a pleasant, feminine voice.

       “Hi,” said Daria. “Mom said you wanted a book?”

       “Daria! You caught me in the campus library. How have you been? I haven’t heard from you in forever!”

       Campus library? Was this really Quinn, the one-time anti-intellectual fashion queen of Lawndale? “Nothing new.” Nothing I can tell you about, anyway.

       “Hey, I’ll be flying home in a few days. I can’t wait to see you! I’ve got some good news.”

       “If it’s about getting into Bromwell, Mom’s already told me.”

       “Damn! I’m going to have a talk with her about keeping family secrets.”

       “She hasn’t told anyone about you working for the CIA, except me and the neighbors, so don’t worry about it.”

       “Oh, you!” cried Quinn. “Hey, are you feeling better? You sound different, maybe a little... upbeat.”

       “Uh, I guess. Must be one of my off days.”

       “Well, good. I hope you have more off days like this. Oh, that book, right. I have this class in executive management, and I need to give a report about a real-life event that holds lessons for people about avoiding disaster. Mom told you about it?”

       “Yeah. Got a pencil?”

       “Sure do. Go ahead.”

       Daria read off the information she’d written down about the Mount Everest book. “I think it will work for your project. I read it a few years ago. It was good.”

       “It must be great if you give it any praise. I’ll hunt it down in a minute. Is Mom there?”

       “No. I’m at the library. She... she went back to work, I think.” Skip the stuff about the house for now. And about Jane, of course. “Not much happening.”

       “Okay. Listen, I’m going to go get that book. Thanks, Daria. I really appreciate your help.”

       “Sure.” Daria gave in to an impulse and said, “Quinn?”

       “Oops. Almost turned off the phone. What’s up?”

       For a moment, the words would not come out. Daria closed her eyes, took a breath, and said, “I love you.”

       Silence. A silence that stretched uncomfortably long.

       Why didn’t she answer? Daria waited another beat, feeling nervous, then shrugged. “Bye.”

       “Wait!” Quinn yelled. “Wait just a minute! What did you say?”

       “Don’t shout in a library, Quinn.”

       “No, not that! What did you say?”

       Daria grimaced. “I said... I said, I love you.”

       Another pause.

       “Daria,” said Quinn with a strange note in her voice, “what’s going on?”

       “What do you mean?”

       “You heard me. Is something wrong? Are you okay?”

       “I’m fine. Nothing’s wrong.”

       “Why did you say that to me, Daria?”

       Daria pulled the cell phone from her ear and looked at it in mild irritation—and budding fear. “Why did I say it? Because I... why does it matter?”

       “Because you’ve never said it before. I know you feel it, I know that’s what you really think, but you never say it. Are you sure you’re okay?”

       “I’m fine,” Daria said, getting anxious. She hadn’t expected Quinn to be this sensitive and on-target. “I just said it, that’s all. Nothing’s wrong.”

       A pause. “Okay,” Quinn said, her voice full of doubt. “Daria, I love you, too. I mean that. You take care of yourself, okay? I want to see you alive and well when I get in next week. You hear me? You’re going to be there to see me fly in, right?”

       Daria opened her mouth to say, Certainly I’ll see you, Quinn. Don’t worry.

       What came out of her mouth instead was a rushed: “I love you.”

       She lowered the phone and hung up, her face coloring with embarrassment and anger. Crap, I blew it. What’s wrong with me? She knows something’s not right for sure. Why did I have to say that, anyway? And to her, of all people? Of course I love her, but I didn’t have to say it on this day of all

       Her cell phone rang. The screen showed the caller was Quinn Morgendorffer.

       Daria thumbed down the turn-off button. The phone shut down. She dropped it in her open purse with a sinking feeling. She really knows something’s wrong if I don’t answer my phone. Damn it. Now she’s going to call Mom, and—oh, right. Mom’s cell phone just lost its battery. That’s a relief. Maybe Quinn will let this go and forget about it. I’ve got to be more careful if I want to keep this plan going and be with Jane.

       Speaking of which, where is Jane? I thought she’d be back by now. Maybe she’s still at her old house, looking around. I could see that. Angels get curious, too. I wonder how she died. I’m in no hurry to find out, though. I have enough problems with my own passing.

       She sat in renewed depression for a few moments, then roused herself as the library phone rang. Was it Quinn? She picked up the handset with nervous fingers. “Kilmer Public Library,” she said in a hoarse voice.

       “Hi, dear!” said her mother on the other end. “I’m at home, but I’m leaving now. Everything’s fine, nothing’s broken or missing. The alarm must have scared off whoever it was.”

       “That’s good.” I’m not going to say that Quinn called. “Are you going back to work?”

       “No. I need to make a stop at the law library at Lawndale State on the east side, looking for resources to help Linda. I left my cell phone in the kitchen to recharge, so don’t call me. I might be a while.”

       “Okay,” Daria said with relief.

       “Pick you up at five, then. Oh, would you mind dinner out, too? I have so much to do tonight at home, I thought we’d just avoid cooking altogether.”

       Great, finally she sees the light and stops microwaving that damn lasagna, and I won’t be around to enjoy it. Oh, well. “Sounds good, Mom. See you at five.”


       “Bye.” Daria hung up. After a moment’s reflection, she picked up the phone base, examined the bottom of it, then flipped a small switch and set the phone down again. The ringer was now turned off. If Quinn got smart and called the library, Mrs. Blaine would not hear it. Mrs. Blaine wouldn’t see any calls come in on the little flashing lights on the main office phone, either, Daria noted. From where she sat, Daria could see Mrs. Blaine had fallen asleep in her office chair. Her phone’s ringer would be off, too. It was always off so she could doze when she wanted and let Daria answer the calls coming in.

       The afternoon passed slowly. Jane did not reappear. Neither did any other library patrons. It was an unusual day for that alone. At four-forty, with her mother only twenty minutes away, Daria became worried that Jane would not know where she’d gone. Angels seemed to have their limitations in human form. After some internal debate, Daria decided to leave her cell phone behind in a large manila envelope addressed to Jane, sitting on the checkout counter. If Quinn called, it wouldn’t matter if Jane got it. Jane was on Daria’s side. The library would be open until six, so Jane could get the phone that evening, if she hurried.

       Daria made sure the phone was off, packaged it per her plan, and tucked a note inside the envelope as well, telling Jane to expect a call that evening when Daria was ready to go. Almost finished tying up the loose ends, Daria wrote. Sorry it took so long. We’ll have eternity together, so a little delay won’t make a difference. See you soon.

       With this taken care of, Daria walked restlessly around the library, waiting for her mother. For some reason, though a different song was playing on the library radio, the image of the apple rotating in space returned to her mind. The apple was the symbol of forbidden knowledge, she recalled, as well as a symbol of life. The apple darkened as she imagined it, however, and it became a black sphere, then flattened into a black disk with a mirrorlike surface. The disk slowed, then stopped rotating and faced her. It was like the pupil of a gigantic eye. Was it watching her? The image was familiar somehow, but where had she seen it?

       Not fully aware of how she got there, Daria found herself in the Religion & Philosophy section. She studied the stacks around her, then closed her eyes and picked a book off the shelf at random. She then opened the book to a random page. When she opened her eyes, she saw with a start that she’d chosen a Bible. It was open to Ecclesiastes 7:17. Her blurry vision did not bother her when she read what was there.



Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?



       Daria’s throat went dry. That was not the sort of advice she had expected to see. She tried to put the book back on the shelf, but it slipped from her hand and fell to the carpet. She bent down to pick it up. It had fallen open to a place near the end: The Book of Revelation, chapter 20.



15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.



       She quickly shut the book and put it on the shelf. Was this a warning not to take her life? Was it just an accident? Her long existence as an intellectual agnostic was being severely tested.

       “But I want to be with Jane,” she whispered aloud, and she knew she said it. “I want to be with her again. I can’t go on living like this. I have to do it. I have to. I can’t go through another eon of misery like the one I’ve been in for the last four years. I can’t do it. I’m sorry, there’s just no other way.”

       The front doors of the library squeaked opened. “Daria?” called her mother. “Daria, I’m here. I got back early. Ready to go out for dinner?”

       “Wait a second!” Daria called. She hurried out of Religion & Philosophy, grabbed her purse, made sure the envelope was ready for Jane, waved goodbye to a sleepy-eyed Mrs. Blaine in her office, and fled her Pharos for dinner in her downtown Alexandria.

       The image of a vast flaming lake stayed in her mind, however, and it would not go away.




Chapter Seven



       Service at The Settlement was slow, but what made Daria most uncomfortable as she waited was the knowledge that this was the restaurant at which, five and a half years ago, she confessed to her mother that she had kissed Jane’s boyfriend, Tom—the falling-domino event that precipitated every subsequent disaster in Daria’s life. By the time her mother’s dessert arrived at half past seven, old guilt had frayed her nerves.

       “Daria? Sweetie, look at me.” Helen leaned across the table, almost getting the front of her power suit in her cherry-covered cheesecake. “Are you feeling well? I’ve never seen you this agitated. Do you want to go home?”

       Daria took a ragged breath and tried to stop the jittering in her legs. “It’s just nerves,” she said. She kept her hands in her lap. Having no appetite, she had skipped dessert. “I keep... I sometimes think about... I just worry about the future. That’s all.”

       “It’s time for your medicine, but maybe the medication’s responsible for your nervousness. The side effects can be—”

       “What? Oh, no! The medicine helps!” Please don’t throw it out! Not tonight! “I’m getting better, Mom. I’m sure of it. I just want everything to turn out right. I think about things sometimes and I get... a little upset. That’s all. It’s nothing big.” Well, nothing big in a cosmic sense, anyway.

       Giving her daughter a dubious look, Helen put down her dessert fork and reached into her purse for a small pillbox. She emptied the contents of one of the box’s four compartments into her hand and handed Daria a tiny yellow-green disk: Paradizine, 50 milligrams, to be taken each day at dawn and at nightfall. Daria examined the pill for a moment before popping it into her mouth and taking a sip of her water. She swallowed quickly, remembering how bitter the pills tasted if they stayed for more than a few seconds on her tongue. Bitter as the knowledge that my mind failed me, bitter as the knowledge that I deserved it.

       But no bitterness after tonight, only an end to suffering—and eternal freedom with my best friend.

       When they left The Settlement, night covered Lawndale and the temperature had fallen into the single digits. A frigid wind burned Daria’s face. As she buckled herself into her mother’s car, she realized she could not remember what she’d eaten for dinner. It didn’t matter. The fog of her breath curled in the air before her. If all went well, she had a minimum of one hour of life to go, one hour before she reached the summit of Everest and ascended into the heavens.

       Saturday night traffic through Lawndale was worse than usual. They arrived home after eight. Helen parked in the driveway by the street, then made Daria stay in the car while she walked around the house with a flashlight to make sure no intruders were about. As she waited in the dark, Daria wondered idly if Jane had gotten her package at the library. It was too late to call the library and—

       The phone! Quinn might have called on the house phone! I’ll have to get in first and make sure Mom doesn’t get the messages!

       Helen returned, satisfied that all was secure, and pulled the car into the garage. They got into the kitchen through the utility room a minute later. Trying to look nonchalant, Daria speed-walked to the portable telephone on the kitchen counter—and then saw her mother’s cell phone attached to its recharging cord, over by the oven. Crap! That one, too! She walked over, picked up the cell phone, and turned it on. Seventeen unanswered calls registered since five o’clock. Her plan was in jeopardy. Quinn, stop screwing this up for me! She turned the phone off again. Stop it! I have to do this!

       The portable telephone rang. Daria turned and lunged for it—but her mother, who was standing beside it while undoing her coat, got it first.

       “Hello, Morgendorffers,” Helen said. Daria cringed and waited, expecting the worst. Helen glanced at Daria and rolled her eyes, smiling. “Hi, Linda. Yes, I just got in with Daria. We were out at The Settlement. Oh, I had the herbal chicken. It was excellent. I think they have a new chef. Listen, can you hold on a moment? I’ll go up to my bedroom get the phone there. I’ve got all the paperwork by the bed. Half a minute, tops.” Helen thumbed the “hold” button and put the portable phone back on its stand. “I’ll take it upstairs,” she said to Daria. “I won’t be long. I hope.” She gave Daria a hug and a kiss on the forehead, then left the kitchen at a brisk pace.

       Just like that, Daria was alone. She listened to her mother’s footsteps marching upstairs and heard the bedroom door shut. It was time. After a moment’s hesitation, she walked over to the utility room, picked up a small folding stepladder from its space by the washing machine, and walked back into the kitchen. In her mind, she was leaving the base camp on the lower slope of Everest for the final time, and heading up fast.

       She began on the right side of the line of kitchen cabinets, closest to the dining nook. Listening for the sounds of her mother’s return, she unfolded the little stepladder and carefully climbed to the top step to see into the highest shelf of the cabinet. The stepladder wasn’t high enough. At age twenty-three, Daria was only five foot, three inches; her mother and Quinn were noticeably taller than she was. She got down from the ladder, kicked off her sensible shoes, and climbed the ladder again—but then gripped the bottom of a cabinet and stepped up onto the kitchen counter. This gave her the height she needed to see into the top shelves without trouble, though the possibility of a fall made her nervous.

       Clutching the cabinet to keep her balance, Daria opened a door and peered into the first set of top shelves. She had to push aside a muffin warmer, a popcorn popper, and a pile of plastic bowls, but alas, no false walls were visible. Her mother had thought the false wall was hard to detect, so Daria poked the back wall of the cabinet with a meat skewer. The wall appeared to be solid.

       Next cabinet to the left. Her foot bumped the coffeemaker on the counter, and she gently moved it aside with her stocking toe. The Paradizine tablet she’d taken at dinner was generating side effects now. A wave of dizziness went through her; she held on to the cabinets and waited for it to pass. Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, she looked into the top shelf. Old plastic cups, paper plates, party supplies from childhood. She poked the back wall with the meat skewer. Solid.

       Next cabinet. She was close to the sink now. Her mouth was dry, and the bad taste she hated was back. She looked into the top shelf—

       —footsteps upstairs, floorboards creaking. Her mother was walking around in her bedroom. Daria froze, looking up at the ceiling, and waited. Could she get down in time?

       A bed creaked, and no further sounds came from above. Her mother was probably still talking with Linda but getting comfortable at the same time. Relieved Daria looked back into the top shelf at a row of collectable glasses with the images of fashion models on them—a legacy of Quinn’s childhood—a broken rice cooker that her father had dropped years ago and never gotten around to fixing, and...

       Daria squinted. That was odd. The back wall of this cabinet was a lighter shade of color than the rest of the shelving. Blurry as her vision was, she could still distinguish colors. She moved the broken rice maker aside—and spotted a small knob on the back wall. A poke with the meat skewer caused the back wall to move slightly.

       Her breath caught in her throat. Daria took the rice cooker off the shelf and lowered it to the countertop by her stocking feet. She then reached into the shelf, standing on tiptoes, and caught the knob with her fingertips. A slight tug pulled an eighteen-inch section of the back wall away. Gripping one of the lower shelves for support and balance, she took the false wall out, careful not to bump it against anything.

       Behind the false wall, pushed against the real rear cabinet wall, was a two-inch-wide, three-inch-high white plastic bottle with a pharmacy label on it.

       Carefully placing the false wall on top of a row of drinking glasses on a lower shelf, Daria reached in and touched the bottle, turning it so she could read the label. Her vision was too blurry to make out the small letters, so she caught the bottle in her fingers, pulled it out, and brought it up to her face.














       The prescription date was three days earlier. The bottle felt heavy. She shook it gently. It was almost full.

       Top of the world, Mom. Top of the world.

       Swallowing, Daria looked down to the floor, felt dizzy again—

       I could jump

       —but, holding a lower shelf with a fearful hand, she scooted over to the stepladder, stepped down from the counter, and went step by silent step to the safety of earth. Even descending, however, she knew she stood on the summit of her life. She had won. She could see over every mountain and every cloud out to the ends of the earth. Above her were the universe, the stars, and the night.

       I will never go down from this mountain again. I will never go down and suffer. I will go skyward, and Jane and I will be together again, friends for all time.

       It was important to do this right. She was so close to her goal, there was no room for error. Daria put the bottle on the kitchen island and went to the refrigerator to retrieve a pitcher of cold water her mother liked to keep handy. Shutting the refrigerator door without letting it thump, she walked back to the island and put the pitcher down, got a plastic drinking glass from a shelf, and filled it. She put everything down and stared at the pill bottle and the water. All was in readiness.

       She closed her eyes and let out her breath. Though she meant to give a prayer of thanks that she was finally able to do what she had long wanted, no words for such a prayer came to mind. Instead, she had never felt so lonely in her life. She had long feared spending her last years as a hated pariah, dying alone and friendless, and now she really was. No one could love her after what she’d done, no one could love her for who she was. Depression shrouded her senses. There was nothing to celebrate.

       Not yet.

       No more mistakes. No more screw-ups. This is for Jane.

       Gripping the bottle with her left hand, she put her right hand on the plastic lid of the medicine bottle, pressed down, and twisted. It came off. The bottle was almost full of yellow-green antidepressants, waiting for her. She poured a half-dozen pills into the palm of her left hand, looked them over, and steeled herself. Quickly, so that she didn’t have time to think about it, she cupped her hand to her mouth, tossed the pills in, then took a drink from the plastic glass to wash them down. A thrill of fear went through her, but she was brave. She took an extra drink to get rid of the bad taste, which caused her to grimace and shiver.

       “Better get used to it, kid,” she whispered. She poured out a second handful of pills and took them with more water. A third handful. She choked and coughed on the fourth, but she swallowed twice and got it all down. The taste was the worst ever, like eating raw powdered chemicals.

       “I’ll be feeling this pretty soon,” she said aloud. Her stomach was already churning. “Overdose effects should be like the PDR said. Should have gotten a beer or something, goofed myself up.” She shook her head. “No. Better this way. Take it straight. I always took it straight. I can do it.”

       Another handful, and another. She lost count of the pills she was taking. The bottle had many round tablets left. I’ve got to keep going. I can do this. I can’t let Jane down. Not this time.

       Several more handfuls later, her stomach lurched in violent protest. She’d hoped the little food she’d eaten for dinner would sooth the effects, but perhaps she had not eaten enough. Her heart was beating unusually fast, and she was sweating. Her thinking wasn’t clear, either. The overhead kitchen lights stung her eyes. Her mouth and throat were parched as a desert, and the skin on her face and arms crawled. Was it getting hotter in the house, too, or was it her?

       Her left hand shook with an uncontrollable tremor, so much so that she dropped some of the pills she poured into it. Pain rapidly filled her gut, spreading outward into her chest. She would have to wait a moment before taking more pills.

       “Jane,” she gasped. The word had popped into her head out of nowhere. “Call Jane.” That sounded like a good idea. Time to get the angel here. She should have called earlier. Nodding as if someone else had suggested it, she walked over to her mother’s recharging cell phone, unplugged it, turned it on, then tapped in the number to her own cell phone. She had to do it three times, her fingers shook so.

       Someone picked up on the other end after the second ring. “Hello, Daria?” said Jane. Her voice echoed. “Is that you?”

       “Jane?” Daria said. She gasped and gritted her teeth in pain. Her stomach was in serious distress, but she didn’t feel she was about to throw up, not yet. She shut her eyes against the painful glare of the kitchen lights. Were they getting brighter?

       “Are you finally home now?” Jane’s voice rose in irritation. “Goddamn it, what the hell is going on? Why didn’t you go with me when I got here? I was over at my parents’ house at noon getting some clothes and the freaking police came and arrested me with all the damn vagrants in the freaking basement because they thought I was one of them, and it took over five damn hours for them to finally figure out I was supposed to live there even if everyone else in my freaking family’s run off, and I get back to the freaking library right before it closes and you leave me the phone and this crazy message about being late for eternity, and your damn phone’s almost out of power, and your sister’s been calling me and telling me weird stuff about you and she’s scared to death you’re doing something bad, and where the hell are you? Are you home?”

       The phone shook in her hand. Jane was furious with her. Everything was going wrong, coming apart.

       “Daria! Are you home? Answer me! Can I come over now so we can get the hell out of here?”

       A frightened whisper: “Yes.”

       “Are you okay? Quinn was worried about you doing something to yourself. You wouldn’t do that, would you?” The pause drew out too long. “Daria? Hey, Daria?”

       Daria looked down at the nearly empty pill bottle and the pitcher and the empty plastic water glass.

       Daria? Hang on, someone else is trying to call me. You must have call waiting on this phone. I bet it’s Quinn. Wait.”

       Daria started to say no—but Jane had already put her on hold. Eyes stinging, Daria looked down at the empty glass, her thirst raging now. It took both hands to pick up the pitcher and hold it steady, so she nestled the phone between her ear and her shoulder. She spilled most of the water over the island counter, put down the pitcher to clean up, then almost dropped the cell phone. She knocked over her half-full glass of water in the process, spilling it everywhere. Her hands and arms weren’t working properly.

       The phone clicked. “Daria,” said Jane, “Quinn’s on the line, too. I’m leaving the house now and heading for your place as soon as I can find a coat.”

       “Daria?” It was Quinn. “Are you in the kitchen? The kitchen at the house?”

       “What?” It was hard to follow the conversation. She put a hand to her sweaty forehead. She was burning up. Her chest ached hard across the top of her lungs.

       “Are you in the kitchen?”

       A whisper: “Yes.”

       “What are you doing there?”

       Daria’s chest hurt worse with each deafening thump of her heart. Overdose effects. Hurts bad.

       “Daria, talk to me!” yelled Quinn. “Is mom there? Let me talk to her!”

       “She’s—” Daria whispered, then a burp came up that almost turned into something else. Her stomach knotted, and she cried out in pain.

       “Daria? Daria! What are you doing? Jane, get over there right now!”

       “I’m going!” Jane snapped. “It’s freakin’ cold outside, and I can’t find a coat!”

       Get over there now!” Quinn shouted. “Now now now!


       “Mom put Daria’s pills in the kitchen, and I think she’s taking them all!”

       Silence for a beat.

       “She’s doing what?” Jane’s voice registered disbelief. “She’s taking her pills? You mean an overdose? Daria, is that true? Are you doing that?”

       It was hard for Daria to draw breath. Terror was squeezing out her lungs, and now her upper chest hurt in one long spasm of pain that forced tears from her eyes. “Jane?” Daria whispered. “Please... be with me.”

       “Be with you? You mean now?”

       So hard to breathe, so hard to breathe with such pain in her chest. “When I die,” Daria whispered through her teeth.

       One second of silence went by. “Daria!” Jane shouted. “Stay right where you are! Don’t move! Did you take those pills? Answer me! Answer me right now! Oh, Jesus, you shouldn’t have done that! Did you do it?

       Curled over the island with her cheek pressed to the cool countertop, Daria forced her eyes open and looked at the bottle. Almost all the pills were gone. Her skin crawled, radiating heat like a bad fever. “Hurts,” she gasped.

       Daria!” Quinn screamed over the phone. “Jane, get over there! Go now! Damn it, get over there!” She sobbed and screamed at the same time. “For the love of God—

       The sounds of someone running through a house came through the phone. “Daria!” Shoes ran down a flight of stairs. “Stay right where you are, Daria! Don’t you dare move! Don’t you dare move a single freaking muscle until I get there! Do you hear me? I’m coming!

       Daria shut her eyes, teeth clenched together. Sweat soaked her clothing through and ran down her face, her arms, and her legs. Everything in her chest hurt in one mighty knot. And Jane was mad at her. She had screwed it up again. She and Jane would not be together for eternity. She would die, and die alone. It was getting very hot, intolerably so, as hot as—

       the lake of fire

       Daria, answer me!” Jane screamed from the phone, lying on the counter by her head. A door opened. The quality of sound over the phone changed as if Jane were outside. Someone was running very fast over pavement. Wind roared over the line. “Daria!” There was a loud noise like an impact—

       —and the line went dead.




Chapter Eight



       Daria waited for Jane or Quinn to speak, but nothing stirred the silence from the telephone. Long seconds passed. Had Jane dropped the cell phone Daria had left her? Had there been an accident? Was Jane coming after all?

       She turned her dripping face to the countertop, clinging to the kitchen island with nerveless fingers. Rivers of perspiration and spilled water pasted her blouse to her skin. Her quivering legs neared collapse.

       A new pain speared through her chest, then spread into her left shoulder. Her breath hissed out between her clenched teeth. She lost all feeling in her left arm. Heart arrhythmia? Heart attack? Paradizine does that in overdose. I knew it would hurt, but it hurts worse than anything—God, does it hurt! Soon, I should be hallucinating, too. I don’t want to do that! Let me keep my mind! Let me live! I’m scared to death of dying! I don’t want to die! Jane said I did the wrong thing, I wasn’t supposed to do this, but I was sure this was the way to be with her. Am I damned? Is she coming to get me? Can I go with her like this? Will she be with me after? Everything has gone so wrong, and I’m scared! Don’t let me die—but isn’t this the end I chose? Isn’t this the fate I wanted?

       The pain in her chest lessened so she could breathe. Her eyelids squeezed shut to keep out the hurtful light, Daria raised her head a fraction of an inch, aching lungs heaving in oxygen. Hidden memories began to surface and fall into place. I chose to end my life, but there’s more, something else, something—I chose this fate because I saw what I’d done to Jane, with Tom—I thought Jane told me of her pain, but she didn’t, she never told me—I saw it, I saw it in a mirror—the black mirror that Jane sent to me before I went to Raft, the mirror that the angel Jane talked about! How did I forget it? It told me what I’d done to her, it showed me her suffering, all the secrets about her life I didn’t know. Guilt and shame overcame me; I couldn’t face her again, but—what more is there? How could I have forgotten it?

       I see now. The mirror hid it from me. I chose this fate because this is the world Jane secretly wished on me. She struggled with her own anger at Tom and me; she wanted to dump me almost as much as she wanted to stay friends. She would not have sent me here, though. She would not, but after I truly saw what I had done to her, I took this fate. I chose my own suffering as I have done since childhood. When I thought other kids weren’t being nice to me, I ignored them. When I thought my parents or teachers were acting stupid, I mocked them. I built up walls instead of reaching out, I buried myself to keep from living. And for my punishment, I chose to see my life broken into pieces, everything I valued about myself ruined and gone. I’ve taken my life, dying to keep from living with my shame.

       And the angel—that was really Jane. I see it now, why she was so human and had no supernatural powers. She came out of the past, through the mirror. She meant to save me, to make amends for sending the mirror and hurting me. No angel, but what matters the difference? She came for me—and look at me now.

       Am I remembering this because I’m about to die? Is this the end? She would have taken me out of this nightmare, but I’ll be dead when she gets to me. If I hadn’t done this, I could have gone with her, back in time, and none of this would have happened. She came because she cares about me, as only a true friend would. She came for me out of love. And I threw it away.

       I threw it away.


       The spear of pain returned. Breathing was almost impossible. An iron band pulled tighter around Daria’s chest with each second. Her right hand alone, slippery with sweat, gripped the countertop—but the pain was spreading into her right shoulder now, and her hand right trembled as it lost feeling.

       Forgive me, Jane. Forgive me, I beg you. I can’t

       Someone slammed into the front door of the house. Two-fisted blows rained against the wood in a fury. “Open the door!” Jane screamed outside, her voice hoarse. “Open it now! Open this goddamn door before I kick it down! Open it!

       The bed shifted upstairs; a beat later, a phone receiver slammed down, and footsteps moved across the floor. Her mother had heard and was coming to investigate. Help me! Mom, Jane, someone, help me!

       The pounding at the front door stopped. Upstairs, footsteps reached the top of the stairs and came down. “Daria?” her mother called. “Daria, is someone at the front door?”

       She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see. She fought to get a word out. Nothing came.

       It’s time, someone whispered into Daria’s left ear. She could not turn her head to see who it was, but she knew. It’s time. Let us go.

       The glass sliding door by the kitchen table exploded.

       Thousands of glass shards sprayed inward across the kitchen, clattering off the walls and tile floor in a wild shower. Daria jumped and tried to see what had happened. Light stabbed into her brain when she opened her eyes, but she caught a moment’s view. A large red and blue object flew at the front of the glittering spray. When the object hit the floor, the kitchen shook. The red and blue object rumbled over the floor toward Daria, rolling to a stop by her feet. It was a concrete garden gnome from an outside flowerbed.

       A tall, gangly figure in dark sweatpants, red tennis shoes, and an ill-fitting black jacket kicked out what was left of the glass at the bottom of the shattered door. The figure then stooped and came through the door into the kitchen. Freezing winds poured in after her. Please let her be real, not a hallucination, please

       Daria!” Jane yelled as she ran over, shoes slipping and crunching on glass. She grabbed Daria under the arms to hold her up, pulling her back from the island. “Jesus, what did you do? You’re burning up! Spit ‘em out! Spit ‘em out now!

       “Oh, my God!” Helen stood in the doorway between the kitchen and living room, her face white. “What—what—Jane! What are you doing here? What happened?”

       “She took all of her pills!” Jane shouted. “She overdosed! I lost the phone and couldn’t call you!”

       The pressure of Jane’s arms wrapped around Daria’s upper abdomen did what Daria could not do on her own. A bubble of sour bile rose from her stomach into her mouth, the vilest taste she could imagine, and she spat it out over the counter, onto Jane’s sweatpants and sneakers, over the tile floor and her own feet. Jane dragged her to the sink, held her head down, and shouted at her to keep spitting. Abruptly Daria felt her stomach surge, and she threw up into the sink, kept on her feet only by the strength in Jane’s arms. She gagged, choked, and threw up again and again. Behind her, her mother shouted into her cell phone for an ambulance to come to 1111 Glen Oaks, the Morgendorffer residence, as fast as possible.

       Say you’ll go with me!” Jane shouted in Daria’s ear. “Say you’ll go back with me! Hurry! Do it, and we’ll be out of here! Say it! Say you’ll go! Say go, damn it! Go!

       In a momentary pause when her stomach stopped heaving, Daria tried to inhale so she could speak. A massive shiver ran up and down her spine. Her arms were useless and numb. She got a breath of air—

       Pain exploded in the center of her chest, a fireball of agony beyond endurance. Heart attack, like Dad— A convulsion nearly threw her out of Jane’s grip. She screamed the name of her only friend, then the pain doubled, tripled. Her body jerked in a massive spasm. Her legs went out. She felt herself go over backward, a great fist crushing out her heart and lungs. She caught a glance of Jane reaching for her with blue eyes wide as planets. Then Daria’s vision went black and she fell into infinite darkness—

       Where is the floor? Where is the

       Head over heels, she pitched down a freezing well of night. The darkness parted, and she tumbled out of control in a thundering wind, falling from a tremendous altitude as if from the highest of mountains. She roared out of the blackness into superheated air that scalded her face and skin and mouth and lungs. In flashes of vision as she spun through the air, she saw a yellow geyser burst out of an ocean of living flame far below her. The night around her was filled with millions of other living people, all hurling toward the sea of leaping flames that stretched from horizon to horizon, half the universe. The millions who fell with her, men and women, screamed and twisted and howled for mercy. She struggled, grasped at air with her fingers, shrieked and raved, pleaded to every being for deliverance, continued to pitch and fall toward the monstrous lake of fire that grew nearer and filled her vision. Behind her was only the starless black—

       —but against the infinite black, she saw a light. She saw it, rolled and screamed, saw it again. It was closer and was moving. She rolled again, and it had a face. She fell over again and saw it had Jane’s face and outstretched arms and a white robe that snapped in the hurricane of wind. Then she rolled again and saw Jane was upon her, and she had wings.

       With a violent shock, Jane snared Daria in her arms, shouting her name. Two gigantic swan’s wings stretched from Jane’s shoulders, hammering the air, fighting to slow Daria’s fall. Jane put her ear next to Daria’s mouth, then put one hand on Daria’s forehead, the other under her jaw, and covered Daria’s mouth with her own. She blew, forcing air into Daria’s lungs, then pulled her mouth back and let Daria breathe out. Her mouth came down again in the kiss of life, breathed a second lungful of air in, let the air rush out. One of Jane’s hands pressed down over Daria’s upper chest, feeling for a heartbeat.

       How can she do this? Daria wondered. How can she hold me and do this, too? How many arms does she have, how many feathered wings? She is an angel after all, she really is, so I guess she can have as many arms and wings as

       Her great wings thundering overhead, Jane put her clasped hands over Daria’s breastbone and shoved down hard: one, two, three, four, shouting the number of times she pushed on Daria’s heart to restart it. Still they fell toward the lake of fire. A hellish wind filled with the stench of roasting flesh and the shrieks of the damned roared around them. Daria felt someone grab her left foot, jerking her hard. She turned, dazed, and saw the face of a minister she remembered from a cousin’s wedding years before. The minister had tried to hit on Quinn, tried and failed to convince her to go away somewhere and have sex with him, and here he was now, collar and robes and all, crying for salvation. Jane lashed out and kicked him in the face without breaking count—nine, ten, eleven, twelve. He fell away with a long shriek, moving much faster toward the lake of fire than Daria was under the thrashing wings of the angel who held her.

       Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. Jane bent down and put her mouth over Daria’s again and blew, filling her lungs. The breath ran out. Mouth over hers again, air forced in, mouth back, air rushing out.

       Say go, damn you!” the angel screamed in her face. “Say go!” She rose up, hands over Daria’s motionless heart, and thrust down hard on her ribcage: one, two, three, four, five, six—

       The lake of fire was no longer far away. It was very close. Jane’s titanic white wings were not enough. Daria could smell her hair burning, her clothes scorching. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen—Jane’s mouth over her own, air in, air out, air in, air out. “Hurry! Do it! Say it! Now!” One, two, three, four, five—

       Daria saw the minister hundreds of feet below her. He turned into a human-shaped flame, his skin burning off as he writhed, and when he hit the lake of fire, his skeleton turned white-hot—and it kept moving, dancing in mindless torment. It went under the sea of flame with a yellow splash, arms reaching upward, stretching, clawing as it sank into the eternal fire below and was gone forever.

       Now her skin began burning, and the burning made the agony of the heart attack seem like nothing at all. She was mad with pain, but the angel still thrust down on her chest, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. Jane’s mouth covered hers, air in, air out, air in—

       Now, damn you, now!” screamed the black-haired, blue-eyed angel. “Now!

       As the second breath of air came out of her, she came to for an instant as the lake came up at them both and she said—








       In a place that had no name, under a twilight sky, rose a four-sided, flat-topped pyramid the size of Rhode Island, made of stone blocks mortared with blood. Lying on its side on the dusty plaza on top was a black jaguar. The jaguar was as long as a New York City block, slowly twitching a tail that could have knocked over a loaded bus. Through half-closed eyes as dark as a cave at midnight, the great cat watched a lone figure approach across the open plaza. The figure, a young woman with short dark hair, showed no fear. The jaguar raised its nose in approval.

       The figure stopped short of the godlike jaguar, surveying its silent majesty. It then lifted a hand, palm up, and extended it toward the jaguar. In the palm was a ball of light.

       “Payment,” said the figure.

       After a beat, the jaguar uncurled a lazy paw in the direction of the figure, claws up. The figure tossed the ball of light, which flew a great distance before landing exactly in the open paw. The jaguar looked down without moving its head and rolled the ball of light around in the center of its paw, studying it. With an amused snort, it snapped its paw to one side and flipped the ball of light away. The light faded in the distance before it went over the side of the pyramid and was gone.

       It wasn’t very good art, as such talent goes, said the jaguar with its thoughts. Its telepathy caused the pyramid to rumble as if a mild earthquake were passing through. It was no loss to you. Better to discard your pretensions now than be snared by them later, like the rest of your family.

       The figure stared up at the jaguar with wide blue eyes and an open mouth with red lips. She then closed her mouth, her eyes glazed with shock and sorrow, and she turned to leave.

       You have no art, but you have teeth, said the jaguar. Your courage will serve you well in your new life. You have no need of any reward greater than what you have already won—or any blessing greater than what you possess inside you.

       She stopped, letting that last part sink in, but she did not look back. Straightening her shoulders and raising her chin, she walked away... and vanished before she had taken a hundred steps.

       The jaguar was pleased. Bravery of any kind pleased him. She would not remember him or the smoking mirror when she next awoke. Her life from now on, however, would be better—and if he chose to send a little luck her way when she needed it, so be it.

       Her friend with the glasses had teeth, too. Though he had toyed with her friend, she had enormous courage, despite her tendency to be self-defeating. She also would have a better life, eventually, and the two of them would never lose their friendship.

       They were lucky. The others—they could make it or not, it made no difference to him. He merely gave out a little truth and watched the results. It kept him amused in these latter days when there was not much else to do.

       He closed his eyes. When he opened them again, each eye was as black as an obsidian mirror.

       Who will be next? he wondered. He enjoyed this game, and humans made such entertaining pawns. Who will be next?




Chapter Nine



       She had no idea what time it was, though judging from the bright sunlight coming through her closed eyelids it was close to noon. Her eyes fluttered and opened slightly. She was puzzled for a moment to find herself lying on the carpet in her room in the middle of the day, and more puzzled to see Jane lying on the carpet next to her, black bangs draped over her face, still sound asleep—and in a running outfit, too.

       Daria blinked. Her memory crept in. She had been talking with Tom, who had wanted to take her out to lunch, when Jane appeared in a great hurry. In an outpouring of words Daria could barely follow, Jane had opened up and talked about how much their friendship meant to her, and how important it was that, though Daria was leaving shortly for Boston and her first freshman semester at Raft, the two of them never lose touch. Jane admitted wrestling with her anger over the love triangle that had almost destroyed what they had shared, struggled with it far longer than Daria or Tom had guessed, but she had finally put it aside. She was done with it forever. And then Jane said that she loved Daria, that Daria was the best friend she had ever known or would ever know, and she wanted Daria to hear it from her then and there.

       Jane’s impulsive soul-baring had caused Daria to reveal the shame and guilt she still suffered for her part in the affair, but Jane had brushed it aside. It was past and done. Only their friendship mattered. They’d had a good cry without meaning to, and Tom had become uncomfortable and left. Perhaps he’d felt a twinge of guilt over his part in the love triangle, or he didn’t like to see girls cry, but more likely he’d left because he wasn’t being included in the conversation. He could be like that, Daria knew. Without looking from where she lay, she could tell that Tom was gone, and she and Jane were alone in Daria’s bedroom. When Tom was gone, Daria and Jane had talked a while more, then—emotionally exhausted—had fallen asleep on the floor. How strange.

       Daria shrugged it off and looked at the sleeping face of her best and only friend. She suspected that at college she would make other friends, and her social life would develop beyond the zero it had been in high school. It was logical enough it would occur. But there would never be another Jane.

       She looked down. One of Jane’s hands was very close to Daria’s face. With great care, Daria brought one of her hands up and placed it on the carpet next to Jane’s. She wanted to hold her friend’s hand, but she was afraid of waking her up. Later, maybe, she would do it. Maybe she would even hug Jane. She had hugged Jane once, when she had been badly stressed and acted out of impulse. Maybe this time Jane would hug her back. She hoped it would happen. For some reason, though it made no sense, she felt she had not seen Jane in many years. The odd feeling persisted, and she wanted to touch her friend and be comforted.

       And there was the other odd feeling. For the first time in her life, Daria Morgendorffer felt a dreary burden she had carried with her since childhood was gone. She had so often felt she was climbing an endless mountain, struggling alone through the pressures of each day and hurting herself with her refusal to open up to others—but now that feeling was gone. The world would go on, true, and she would have many days of hardship and turmoil to plow through, but it would be different. Jane would be with her. They had reached the summit of their hardships. Above them were the sun and the infinite blue of forever.

       Overcoming her hesitation, Daria reached out and covered Jane’s hand with her own. One day, she hoped she could say it aloud. For now, she dared only think it.

       You are my only hope that there is a future, and that it will be good. I love you, Jane. I will always love you.

       Daria closed her eyes. She was on top of the world.










Part Four


In the Light of Days to Come





Nothing endures but change.







       “Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

       Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

       “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.”

       The Spirit was immovable as ever.


—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, “Stave 4: The Last of the Spirits”






Chapter One



       A tired and depressed Jane walked in the front door at Casa Lane later that Saturday afternoon, half-stuffed with cheese, crackers, and sodas that Daria’s mother had prepared in the belief that Tom was still in Daria’s bedroom. Helen had the idea that Daria might, in the presence of a boy and a bed, be so overcome by raging teenage hormones as to do something rash, such as what went on between Helen and a stunt-car driver when she was a similar age. She did not understand, as Jane did, that the chance of Daria committing a rash act of this magnitude was less likely than the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.

       Trent was still in the kitchen, but he had fallen asleep at the table with his head on his arms. Beside him was a half-empty glass of water and his open songwriting book. The lyrics to “Toxic Waste Love” were incomplete, through he did have twenty-one lines finished. He had apparently stopped writing when he failed to come up with a rhyme for “ecoterrorist la amor,” which didn’t sound like proper French, but it was Trent’s song so it didn’t matter.

       Jane smiled and ruffled her older brother’s hair before walking upstairs to her room. She heard guitar music drifting from Penny’s room at the other end of the hall, but she wasn’t in the mood to investigate. Monique was probably giving a mini-performance for an appreciative audience of one. Perhaps the rumor was true, that Monique planned to get back on the local concert circuit. Was Penny going to be her manager? It might work. Penny was a loner, but Jane knew from her experience with Daria that sometimes loners were just people looking for one true friend.

       She stopped at the open door to her room. The unfinished fish painting dominated her vision, though her gaze also took in the clay and metal sculptures, the solarized photographs, the computer with the special graphics package, the paint stains on the floor, the drafting table jammed in the door of her closet, and everything else having to do with the world of art that had been the center of her life since she first put a Crayola to an unblemished wall. For a moment she felt as if she’d walked into someone else’s room and not her own.

       What the hell was all this about? she thought, looking around. What did I do it for? Why did I hang on to it for so long, and why it fade out on me so suddenly? Art and a bad attitude were the only things that helped me survive this far in life. Here I am, on the verge of attending one of the top fine-arts colleges in the nation, ready to carry on the Lane tradition of inarticulate self-expression, and I’m sick of it, sick of it all. Talking to Penny and Monique and then to Daria just broke it—though I’m not exactly sure how the topic came up.

       I do know what I think of it. I can copy paintings for cash, I can do silly caricatures until the end of time, but is it worth it? Is this really what I want to do with my life? Or am I having another teenage identity crisis that will blow over in a few days? What good is it to glue pottery shards to a wall and pretend it’s a kiln explosion? What am I saying with all this crap, really—that I don’t know how to hold down a job and have a life, that I want to be a self-absorbed failure like the rest of my family? I don’t know. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing anymore. I’m going to Boston with Daria, that’s for sure—it’s the only reason I even tried to get into BFAC, to be with her and blow this town, and maybe make something of myself—but what else is there for me to do, if not art? Be a stock clerk at a discount store? Telemarketer? Rent-a-cop? I dunno, that last one could be a hoot. My own nightstick and stun gun... hmmm.

       It took several seconds for her to realize she had at no time said, my art. When she did, she knew the divorce was final. She felt it in her bones: she was done with being an artist. It made sense, in a way. She’d never settled on one form of artistic expression, instead skipping from one to another without an in-depth investigation of any. Though she could create passable works in any medium and could copy work like a Xerox machine, nothing she had done stood out as proof—in her mind—that she was artistically gifted and could create a masterpiece. She was better than average at almost any art or craft, but a master of none. Only people like her mother or her neo-hippie high-school art instructor, Claire Defoe, the queen of handmade wind chimes, lavished Jane with praise. Know yourself by knowing your fans, someone had told her at a science-fiction/fantasy convention. How tragically true.

       How am I going to explain this to everyone? she wondered, then shrugged it off. Daria would understand in time and accept it. Trent might catch on, though he’d be unhappy about it. It wasn’t worth trying to cue in the rest of her family. Better if she just dropped it and moved on.

       But that was the issue: move on to what?

       She showered, changed into a yellow T-shirt, black shorts, and sneakers, then left the house for a walk. Running was too much effort. She bypassed Daria’s house and didn’t think of where she was going.

       To her surprise, in twenty minutes she found herself back to her old high school. She skirted the main building and went around to the athletic fields, and then she knew she was heading for the running track where she’d won countywide acclaim for a brief period as a sophomore. She’d done it because of a boy, a handsome if stuck-up runner she’d had a crush on. What was his name, Evan? If he hadn’t been such a jerk, and the school hadn’t had such a questionable morality about athletes and academics, she might have... who knows? She could have been popular. She could have been a sports hero. She could have even kept Daria as her friend, perhaps. That was the key right there. Instead... well, too late to worry about it. At least she had her best friend. Still... she sighed and shook her head.

       She stood by the track, wondering if she should try a lap for old times’ sake, when she looked up and saw someone in the distant football stands. Squinting, she realized it was Michael Mackenzie, Mack to his friends, Jodie Landon’s boyfriend and a fellow graduate. He sat by himself in a blue-and-gold Lawndale Lions athletic shirt and jeans, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, staring out at the gridiron with a sad expression. Is he doing what I’m doing, already thinking about his glory days and wondering where he’s going? Jodie must be at a summer job again. Damn, she was lucky she got him early on—the only hottie in Lawndale who was good all the way through. Probably the only football player in school history who got As in trigonometry, whatever the hell good that will do him. I haven’t seen him since graduation. Should I stop by and see how he’s doing? Check in on things? Risk getting a little close since Jodie’s not in sight? Hands off, of course. Jodie’s my friend, even if I haven’t seen her in weeks. He wouldn’t touch me anyway, the only football player I knew who never cheated on his girl. What a smile. And those eyes, ooo... Damn, Jodie’s lucky. I could almost hate her. Should I see him?

       Her internal debate lasted a second more before she set off in Mack’s direction. He saw her a few moments later and waved. She climbed the stands with long-legged ease. “Hello, stranger,” she said with a grin. Thank God I remembered my deodorant and put on fresh lipstick. And forgot my bra.

       “Hey,” he said, smiling back. He still had his dreadlocks, but he was growing a mustache and goatee as well. “Who are you calling strange?”

       “Mind some company?”

       He waved a large brown hand at the otherwise empty stands. “Grab a seat, if you can find one. Nothing going on.”

       Jane plunked herself down next to Mack. She rubbed her chin, looking at his goatee. “Looking good.”

       He grinned self-consciously. “Thanks. Working on my Klingon thing. I need to get a bumpy head and some knives, and I’ll have it down cold.”

       “Jodie working for that congressman again?”

       Mack shrugged. His face tightened as he looked out at the football field. “Probably. How are you doing? Ready for college?”

       Leaning back against the seats behind her, Jane made a face. “Not really. I’m supposed to start classes at Boston Fine Arts College in January, but I don’t know if that’s what I want to do anymore.”

       “You mean go to college, or just that particular college?”

       Jane sighed. “I mean... everything. I don’t know what to do.”

       Mack turned to look her over. “You’re going to paint, right? Turn the art world on its ear?”

       After a beat, she shook her head.

       “Seriously,” said Mack, his grin fading.

       She nodded, looking out at the field as Mack had done. He stared at her in disbelief. She noticed and took a breath. “It’s a long story. The short form is, I’m giving up being an artist. It’s... it’s a long story.”

       His disbelief changed to concern. “I thought you were really good at art. Everyone said so.”

       “They were wrong.” She squinted at a distant office building. “It finally hit me, what it was all about. Everyone in my family did it, so I thought I had to do it, too, but—” She stopped herself. “Long story,” she finished.

       “I imagine,” he said. “You sure you’re all right?”

       “I’m okay,” she said. “Sort of. Bummed out, but okay. If I’d done this a week ago, I’d have called it PMS. I guess it’s just reality settling in.”

       “What are you doing about college?”

       “I dunno. I still want to go to Boston. I was thinking about going in a couple of weeks, finding a job around there and seeing if I still want to dump the art thing. If I do, I don’t know what I’ll do about BFAC. Get a refund, find something else to do, something like that.”

       “Daria’s still going to Raft, right?”

       “Yeah. She knows what she wants.”

       “What’s that?”

       “To find her voice as a writer. Communicate to the world. Tell everyone what she really thinks of them.”

       This brought relieved smiles to Jane and Mack alike. “Can’t wait for that to happen,” Mack said. “If she writes a book, any book, I’ll buy it, if it doesn’t burn my eyes out reading it.”

       “So,” said Jane, eager to change the subject, “where are you heading again? You told me once.”

       Vance University. Business school. I have some kind of stupid idea about starting my own business. I just have to settle on what kind of business I want. Probably have to work for other people for a while before I sort that one out.”

       “Vance is supposed to be pretty nice.”

       “Yeah. I’m hoping so. A little cold in the winter, but pretty good.”

       “You got a scholarship, right?”

       He nodded. “Shocked the hell out of me when I got it. I think my parents were happier about it than I was. I was just surprised. I was sure I’d be going to State. Couldn’t afford anything else.”

       “I’m not surprised. You always got good grades.” Jane laughed. “You did a hell of a lot better than I did.”

       He gave her a good-natured sneer. “Come on. You’re smart, and you know it.”

       Jane’s smile passed, and a bitter edge crept into her voice. “If I’m so smart, why did I waste my life throwing paint on a canvas instead of doing something really useful?”

       Mack stared at her, an eyebrow raised. “Damn, you’re really eaten up about this.”

       She looked away. “I am.”

       “Care to talk about it?”

       She pondered the question and shrugged. “Sure. Maybe talking about it will get it straightened out in my head. The downside is that you’ll have to listen to me whine like a kid with an empty cookie jar.”

       They said nothing for a moment, then at the same time they turned to each other and said, “Want to go get a pizza?” When their astonishment passed, they both laughed.

       “That settles it,” said Mack, standing up. “My treat. Pizza King okay with you?”

       “Anytime. Daria’s packing, so she can’t come. Want to call Jodie and have a threesome?”

       Mack’s good humor faded. He looked down and shoved his hands in his jeans pockets. “It’ll be just the two of us,” he said. “Jodie and I aren’t seeing each other anymore.”

       Jane’s eyes widened as her jaw dropped. “You’re kidding me, right?” she said, knowing he would never kid about this.

       “No. We broke up at the end of June. I talked her dad into letting her go to the college she wanted, and I thought we had it sewn up. Then she decided she had—because we were going—” He broke off and rubbed his mouth with a broad hand. “Different colleges, different parts of the country, different backgrounds, she said it wouldn’t work and made a clean break.” He kicked at the bench in front of him, his jaw clenched. He then forced himself to relax, a little embarrassed. “Sorry. Long story.”

“I see.” Jodie, you moron, what were you thinking? “You and me, then. We’ll take turns talking and see who gets bored with the other one’s problems first.”

       “Sure.” He looked up and nodded to the running track in the distance. “You were great. I don’t think I ever saw anyone beat you.”

       Jane began to smile again. “They didn’t.”

       “Damn. You still running?”

       “Yeah, every day. I try to stay in shape.”

       Mack looked her up and down, eyes lingering on certain areas of her anatomy, then flinched and looked away. “Staying fit for your art?” he said, embarrassed again.

       You want to look? Look all you want. See something you like? “Not for my art, no.” She reached out and took him by the arm. He’s built like a Marine action hero, but he’s all soft and cuddly inside. Look at those hands. I wonder if his beard scratches. He might like a backrub; I hope I remember how to do it. Jodie, Jodie, Jodie, you poor misguided thing, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Her grip on his arm tightened. “Let’s go complain about the world over pizza, shall we?”

       He broke into a smile again. “Okay.”

       As they descended the stairs from the stands, Jane gave in to an impulse. “Seeing anyone?” she asked—and instantly regretted it. He was going away to college in just a few days. There was no chance of anything—

       “Nah. Kept myself busy. Helped me get over things. Spent the summer working in an office at the railroad yard.” He laughed briefly. “Jodie’s little sister made a pass at me, though. That’s all I need, some jail time on my resume.”

       Jane laughed in spite of herself. “You should have girls all over you,” she said in a light voice. And if you do, I’ll scream. No, I won’t. It wouldn’t matter anyway.

       “I get a few phone calls. Not interested in dating cheerleaders, even from our school. Especially from our school.”

       Jane stopped on the steps and looked back. “You know I almost became a cheerleader, right?”

       Mack pulled up short. “You’re kidding.”

       “I thought you knew. Junior year, when Mr. O’Neill had us do that ‘failure’ project? I almost made the squad.”

       If a flying saucer had landed on the football field, Mack could not have been more shocked. “No way.”

       “Way. We’ve got a lot to talk about.” She turned and started down the stairs again, her shoulders slumping. “Shame we can’t get together and talk once you go.”

       “What do you mean?”

       “You’re going to Vance.”


       She stopped on the stairs again. “What?”

       “Why’s that a problem?”

       Jane frowned. “Well, I’m going to Boston with Daria.”

       “And Vance University is in Worcester, about thirty minutes west of there. What’s the problem?”

       She stared at him. Oh, my God. Oh, my God, YES! “Right,” she said. “Right. I knew that. I just thought, uh, with all your schoolwork, we might not...” She let her voice drift away. He kept looking at her eyes. She kept looking back at his. They passed a milestone, and the world was suddenly different.

       “Pizza,” she finally said, breaking eye contact. Her thoughts were in a jumble.

       “Yeah,” he said. “No rush. Good day for a walk.”

       “Good day,” she said.

       They went down the rest of the steps together.




Chapter Two



       Forgettable. That’s what the obsidian mirror had called Tom Sloane to his face. The word didn’t upset him at first as much as the other things the mirror had shown him, but the bad part that had reduced him to tears was past. Daria and Jane had come back from the mirror, laid out safe and sound and asleep on the floor of Daria’s room. He knew their pain was over. They had been made whole, healed of what he’d done to their friendship when he’d triggered the love triangle. The knowledge of the harm he’d brought them had torn him apart for a little while, but he had recovered, too. Once they were back in the room, he knew he could leave, and he did.

       And he took the obsidian mirror with him.

       Forgettable. The word hovered over him as he drove through Lawndale, intending to go home but not making the proper turns to do so. His plans for lunch out with Daria were of course ruined. He was too wrung out to think about where he was driving. How could the mirror say a thing like that, calling him forgettable? How could it look inside him as deeply and thoroughly as he knew it had, sift through his entire being, all that he was and had been and could be, and spit out that word? Forgettable. It might just as well have called him a nothing. Perhaps it had. Of all the nerve.

       The mirror had said more than that, of course. The words rang inside his head as he pulled up to a stoplight. Though you possess commendable and noble qualities, you possess them in shallow amounts. Your promise and your sins are equally petty. Despite your intellectual pretensions, you are ignorant and inexperienced even for a youth, guided by half-read books and word of mouth without the tempering of the real world. Suffering is what you see on television, hear in a song, or read in a history book, not what you know firsthand. Your favorite affectation is that of an easygoing rebel possessing secret insights and truths, but you wear conformity like a second skin and parrot the wit of others. Your dreams of glory are stained with mediocrity. For all your intelligence, wealth, and fortune, you are forgettable and always have been. You are vulnerable to the fear that others will see you for what you are: a barely remembered face in the crowd, a background figure, unremarkable in every way. Your potential is both minor and wasted.

       “That’s not true!” he snapped. “That is just not—” A car honked, startling him. The traffic ahead of him at the light had moved on. He gunned the old Jaguar and took off, tires squealing. He grimaced, seeing a police car to one side, but the officer ignored him. Did the cop think he was forgettable, too? Did everything think this of him? Did everyone smirk behind his back?

       He shivered. What had possessed him to take the damned mirror with him when he left—and then, worse, put it in the trunk of his car? God only knew what sort of things it was capable of doing. How Jane had gotten hold of it was beyond him. Maybe she dabbled in sorcery. More likely, she found it at a flea market. The mirror was supernatural and wicked, without a doubt. For all he knew, monsters came out of it at night. That Jane would deliberately leave it for Daria to find took his breath away. He’d never guessed she was capable of that, despite what she told the mirror later. Thank God he’d never slept with her. She might have cut his throat and blamed the knife.

       One thing for sure: the mirror did not care much for him. It had not told him any mind-stunning secrets, nor parted the curtains on a ghastly past or forbidden secret desires. It had looked him over in detail—then dismissed him in contempt, stoning him with popcorn as if he were not worth the use of actual stones.

       Forgettable. How dare it.

       “I’m a good person,” he said aloud, driving by reflex. “I’m not Superman, but I have a lot of good qualities. I’m not like other people. I don’t deliberately hurt others, for instance.”

       You have a smidgeon of empathy, but you are insensitive to the hurt you cause others. You can be thoughtful and kind when it suits you, but your own needs come first. Your love life is proof of that.

       “That’s a lot of crap! Daria—Jane and I were—that’s just not true!”

       And there’s more. For all your paltry merits, you lack the drive and ambition that would make you great. You are without strength of character. You lack the will to rise above the mundane. One day you will try to wear your father’s shoes, but you will find them roomy. Your attempts to take his place in the world will prove that you are not he. Though born well to do, he dared better himself so that others would see him and not merely his money. He had the courage to be greater than he was. His virtues grew in corresponding fashion, and he tamed his inner demons. You snicker at him because he wears old shoes. He is an aged lion with a tattered mane, but a full set of teeth. You are not the man he is, nor the man he was, nor the man you pretend to be. Your father built your home and safeguards your family, gives richly to charity, is fair in business and kind to family and friends. You, a purebred cur, dismiss the lion with a curled lip and think him your lesser. You are not fit to walk his path. What is your planned contribution to the world, Thomas Sloane? What will your legacy be? Who will remember you when you are gone?

       Without thinking, Tom put on the brakes and stopped behind a truck at another stoplight. He looked inside himself for an answer. It came easily enough. “No one,” he whispered.

       No one. Wisdom can be so simple, can it not?

       Tom started to reply—

       He blinked. “I’m still talking to you,” he said, reality catching up at last. “I locked you in the car trunk, but we’re still—we’re—”

       Indeed. If monsters come out of me at night, what is to stop them from coming out in the daylight, too?

       He felt a terror he had not imagined possible. It took everything he had not to unbuckle his seat belt, throw open the door, and run from the Jaguar like a madman, as if a great cat sat in the seat behind him, its yellow teeth only inches from his neck.

       The truck in front of him pulled away. Tom took his foot from the brake and followed it automatically, white-knuckled hands gripping the steering wheel. Cold beads of sweat ran down his face. “So,” he whispered, his voice hoarse, “what are my... good points?”

       Your good points. The words burned with almost visible scorn. Let us feed scraps to your ego, then. You are well read, polite, bright, socially adept, confident, easygoing, well connected, and have a subtle sense of humor. You are respectful on the surface to your parents and relatives, except perhaps to your sister, and are supportive of your friends without being sycophantic. You enjoy the free interchange of ideas, occasionally even those that are not your own. You keep yourself in good health for one with lazy habits. You are not spoiled, though you are accustomed to getting your own way, and you can wait your turn if you must. Your senses of entitlement and superiority are moderate at worst. You seek balance, though it feeds your lack of ambition. Your grades are excellent. At the next stoplight, look at yourself in the rear-view mirror.

       Tom did as he was told. When he stopped the car, he reached up and adjusted the mirror to look at himself: brown hair, tanned skin, pale green eyes, green shirt. He half feared he would see a creature in the back seat, but he was alone in the car.

       You are handsome, too, by the standards of your time. No visible disfigurements, no obvious flaws. But look carefully. Who will that person be in the future, the one you see in the mirror? Look at him well. Who will he be, Thomas Sloane? Will he be distinguished for his deeds and works, remembered for his wisdom and bravery, hailed for his charity? Will he be unforgettable?

       Or will he be like you?

       Tom’s face was a bloodless white. He swallowed with a dry throat, sweat running down his forehead.

       Will he be you?

       “If you hate me so much, why don’t you just kill me?” he whispered to the mirror.

       I don’t hate you. I barely think of you at all. What fun would killing you be?

       “Then why do you talk to me like this? Why are you wasting your own time with me? What do you want?”

       You amuse me. You have so much potential, and every bit of it will be squandered. The education you will receive would shame an emperor in any past century of the earth’s history, yet the knowledge will roll off your mind like rain on a duck’s back, put to no use but wisecracks. What is it that you want to be? What will you do with the wealth of knowledge you will receive? What will you leave behind when you die?

       Another car honked at him. He touched the gas, then abruptly turned down a half-familiar side road and drove through a wooded area until he reached a vast parking lot. Coming to a stop in an empty section of the lot and turning off the car, he sat back and stared out the window.

       “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”

       That was when he knew he’d had enough.

       He got out of his car and walked to the back. Though he half expected to open the trunk and be seized by undead spirits or unspeakable monsters, he merely found and removed the box with the obsidian mirror in it and sat it on the hot, dark pavement. Let it be someone else’s problem. Wiping his hands on his cargo pants, he shut the trunk, gave the box a last look, got back in the car, and started to drive off. It was then that he realized he was at the Winged Tree Country Club. He had no idea how he’d gotten there.

       Instead of leaving, he pulled around to the clubhouse. The parking lot was packed here. He left his Jaguar in a distant spot and walked to the clubhouse doors, passing numerous golfers and tennis players as he did. Once inside, he went to the executive lunchroom, got a cold soda, and sat by himself in a dark corner. He put a hand over his eyes, but whether to think about or forget what happened, he couldn’t say. Maybe he just needed rest. Maybe he should think about medication. He would stay away from Jane and Daria from now on, for sure.

       “Oh, hi, Tom!” cried a shrill, cheery voice. “You’re Daria’s boyfriend, right?”

       He looked up blankly, then gave a silent groan. “Hi, Brittany,” he said. Without letting his gaze wander over Miss Taylor’s amply endowed chest, barely covered by her low-cut tennis outfit, he gave a half-hearted wave and focused instead on the tabletop. “And no, I’m not Daria’s boyfriend. We broke up a couple months ago.”

       “Gosh, that’s too bad! I broke up with my boyfriend a couple months ago, too! That’s a real co-inky-dinky, isn’t it?”

       For a moment, Tom wished with all his heart that he were back in the Jaguar with the obsidian mirror tearing bleeding chunks out of his soul. “I guess it is,” he said without enthusiasm, popping the top off his soda.

       “Wow, you know, it’s such a small world, you and me suddenly unattached and everything! It’s like someone sent us a message!”

       Tom closed his eyes and wished someone would shoot him. Not fatally, but just enough to stop the conversation.

       “Oh, and you know who else broke up with her boyfriend two months ago?”

       Brittany,” said a deep, feminine voice in a warning tone. “Let it go.”

       Tom looked up, did a double take, then belatedly got to his feet and extended a hand. “Jodie,” he said. “Good to see you.” He shook hands with the attractive African-American girl at Brittany's side, also in a tennis outfit, then with Brittany, just to show he had nothing against dumb blonde teenagers with huge boobs.

       “Hey, I’ve got to run!” Brittany squeaked. “The other Lawndale cheerleaders and I are going to a house party tonight to celebrate!”

       “Celebrate what?” Tom said, wishing he’d just shut up instead of being polite.

       “We’re going to college, silly!” Brittany gave Jodie a quick hug, waved to Tom, and took off at a trot, her front jiggling like Jell-O bowling balls.

       Tom knew of a thousand sarcastic things he could say about Brittany’s last remark, but he wasn’t in the mood. The moment spoke for itself. Besides, he knew Brittany and Jodie were long-time friends. He looked Jodie over and noticed she looked quite tired. “Too much tennis?” he asked, taking his seat again.

       “Too much of everything,” she grumbled. “I can’t wait until I have a real summer vacation.” She pulled out a chair on the other side of the table and sat down, putting her tennis racquet on the tabletop. “Mind if I crash, or are you drinking alone?”

       “If you don’t mind being in forgettable company, be my guest.”

       Jodie glanced at Tom, then looked around them. “Forgettable? Who?”


       She tilted her head forward, giving Tom the eye as only she could do. “Are you on a philosophy kick, or did you get turned down for a credit card?”

       That brought a smile to his face. He and Jodie had adopted a pleasant, take-no-prisoners banter in the year since their fathers began meeting for golf together at the country club. “Nope. I just spent the last few hours being told that I don’t know what suffering is, that all I am is wasted potential, and if I were smart, I’d take up drinking. I’m kidding about the last part. Sort of.”

       “Someone said all that? Pretty damn insightful. He couldn’t have been from around here, then. Or was it a she?”

       He shook his head. “I’ll be smart this once and not say who, but he—it—whatever, he would know.” He leaned forward in his seat and lowered his voice, as if sharing a secret. “Do you know, I’ve been pretending for years to be something I’m not? I didn’t realize it until this afternoon. No, sorry—that’s not correct. I knew I was pretending all along, but I didn’t want to see it. I act like I know how the world really works, but it’s all teenage theater, high-school make-believe. I don’t know how the world works; I haven’t been out in it. I work in my dad’s office off and on each summer, but that’s not the real world.” He looked at Jodie intently. “Do you know where the real world is? Seriously? Can you tell me?”

       Jodie stared at him with an unreadable expression. “You spent all day listening to someone tell you this?”

       He nodded, leaning back in his seat. “Not all day, but yes, I did. I learned a lot more, too, but basically it boiled down to, ‘Tom Sloane is an asshole.’ Well, forgettable, anyway. I’m not sure I’m memorable enough to be an asshole, except to a few people.”

       Though he fully expected Jodie would agree with that assessment, she said nothing and kept staring at him. “So, what do you think about it?” she asked. “What this person said about you?”

       Taking a deep breath, he spread his hands and smiled. “When you’re right, you’re right.” His smile went away as his hands dropped. “As for what to do about it, I guess I don’t know yet. I’m still reeling.”

       Jodie nodded her head slightly. “This wasn’t Daria, was it? Who said all this?”

       “No. It would have made sense if she had, and she would have been within her rights to do it, but no.”

       “Did this person offer any solutions? Take up Hare Krishna, work at a soup kitchen, run for office?”

       He looked down at his soda can. “Run for office. Who would remember me long enough to vote for me?”

       Sighing, Jodie tapped the tabletop with a long fingernail. “You know something? I’ve thought, almost since the day I met you last summer, that you’d do well in politics. I’m serious. You’ve got the right manner, you’ve got the brains, you know how to work people, and I know for a fact you’ve got a million things percolating in your head about how things should be. You—hey, look at me, Tom.” She extended a sneaker-clad foot under the table and poked him in the leg, then leaned forward. “When my dad was a kid, he wanted to be an astronaut. Don’t ever mention it to him; he’ll go for hours if you get him started. A couple of years ago, he took me to see John Glenn speak, the former senator and astronaut, and the part I remember best was when he talked about public service and civic responsibility. I didn’t care about all this astronaut stuff, which I already knew from listening to Dad rant about it throughout my childhood. When he talked about serving your government, I heard every word he said.”

       “John Glenn? I thought your dad was a Republican.”

       “He’s a Republican convert who’s addicted to astronauts. He also uses his brain. He doesn’t play politics twenty-four seven, like some people. Anyway, forget all that. I really got fired up listening to Senator Glenn talk about doing things for your community, how people like you and me need to think about where our country is going. He nailed it. If I didn’t actually know how dirty and empty politics really is after working like a field hand in Congressman Sack’s office two years running, I’d think about making a career of it, too. You know what I’m saying?”

       He nodded, intrigued in spite of himself. To his surprise, her advice dovetailed with some thinking he’d done about politics himself. Until now, he had not believed that it would have anything to do with his life other than provide fodder for cynical jokes about Stalin, Nixon, Clinton, and Machiavelli.

       “I don’t know who it was that bitch-slapped you today, but I can’t say I’m sorry it happened.” Jodie’s voice dropped, and she leaned closer. “Tom, you haven’t listened to a thing I’ve said to you these last few weeks about where your life is going. Whoever set you straight did you a big favor. Tell him thanks from me. I really want you to—”

       “Jodie!” came a young girl’s voice, rising over the chatter in the lunchroom. “Jodie, Mom wants to see you! She’s by the pool with Mrs. Klein!”

       Jodie’s face fell, and she swore under her breath. She then turned and called back, “I’ll be there in a minute!”

       “Hurry up!” Jodie’s younger sister, Rachel, waved at Tom, then ran out the door toward the swimming pool.

       “We can talk later,” said Tom. “Cell phones.”

       Jodie picked up her tennis racquet, but she did not get out of her seat. “Think about what I said, okay? You have so much potential, I swear you do, I’d hate to see it go to waste. Politics might be the thing you need. I am so serious about that. We need people with common sense in public office, not screamers, liars, cheats, self-righteous jerks, and Hitler-wannabes.”

       Stunned, Tom pulled back. Jodie’s warning about his potential was identical to what the obsidian mirror had said earlier. She’d never said that before. “Okay,” he said faintly. “Call you after ten?”

       “Yeah.” Jodie stayed in her seat, looking at Tom without blinking. “You leave Monday for Bromwell?” she asked softly.

       He nodded. “You leave Tuesday for Turner in Atlanta?”

       She nodded. “We don’t have much time left.”

       They fell silent. Tom’s gaze roamed over Jodie’s beautiful face. He swallowed, remembering how she looked when she was very close, and remembering the scent of her hair, the silky feel of her skin, the taste of her mouth, her breasts, her entire body. She was like no one in existence.

       “Not much time,” he said, his mouth dry.

       “Can you get away for a little tonight?”

       He thought about it. “Some old classmates are having a party. I can drop by, sort of, till maybe two a.m.”

       “I have unfinished work in the congressman’s office. Might have to do it late.”

       “Call you after eight, then? Pick a place?”

       “Okay.” She rose to her feet, racquet in hand.

       He stood up, too. “See you.” Those words were not enough, but they were all he could say in public.

       She nodded and walked out of the lunchroom without a look back. Playing the part as best he could, he sat down and took a drink of his soda, as if nothing at all had happened. It took forever to set the vision of her aside and consider what she’d told him.

       Politics? He liked the idea of public service, but he’d never considered it to such a degree. Yet, where else would he find a platform to air his views like the one politics would provide? He considered himself a very moderate Republican, but he knew the center was not a popular place to be in the increasingly partisan squabble of the times. He feared that even if a common enemy were to appear—as if that were possible over halfway through the first year of the twenty-first century—the rancor of American political debate would only get worse until it was like Yugoslavia, nothing but micro-states and bitter savagery. A moderate Republican would indeed be a rebel, someone who would rise above the name-calling and backstabbing that passed for civil discourse at present. There was still room for bipartisan cooperation, or so he hoped. There would have to be if the nation had any future at all. Tom liked dealing with facts instead of ignoring them, being his own man and not playing dittohead to radio personalities. Even if he parroted clever sayings. Even if he wasn’t his father’s equal.

       Funny, though, that a moderate Democrat like Jodie would encourage him to think of running for office. He stared down at his soda. She again arose in a rush of memory, all of her. He’d run up a fortune in hotel bills for the two of them. They were using each other, he knew; it was just for the sex. He had lost Daria, she had dumped Mack, they had too much champagne in his parents’ kitchen while the ‘rents were at a party of their own... it had worked beyond their wildest dreams. They fit like puzzle pieces. It wasn’t chemistry; it was alchemy. It was elemental fire that burned them to their bones.

       You can be thoughtful and kind when it suits you, but your own needs come first. Your love life is proof of that.

       His face reddened in shame. It was true. Rather, it had been true, before he met Jodie, before they—well. Now it was different. Or was it? Was he still as self-centered and egotistical as Daria once accused him of being? Was he everything the obsidian mirror said he was? Was that what Jodie thought of him, too? From what she’d said before she left, he feared that she did. Did she think he never considered her needs, never listened to her, never took her seriously? In only days, they would part forever. Was that what he wanted?

       “No,” he said. No one heard him. What did he want from her, anyway? Was it really just the sex? Was that all? They were at each other so hard, with so much need, he thought that everything they touched would blacken and smolder.

       He looked up in the direction Jodie had gone. She wasn’t in sight. He missed her.

       I love her, he thought. God in Heaven, I love her. What am I going to do? Did she love him? He couldn’t imagine she did. She knew what kind of person he was, but she sought him out anyway. It had to have been for the sex. He had nothing else to offer her. Nothing.

       Would she forget him when she went to Turner College?

       He got up from the table and walked out of the lunchroom. The pool was outside on the south lawn, not far from the lunchroom. It took only moments to find Jodie, standing by the table where her no-nonsense mother and the aged Mrs. Klein relaxed with drinks under a large umbrella. Jodie spotted him coming and raised a curious eyebrow, but she did not signal a greeting as he walked up.

       “Mrs. Landon, Mrs. Klein,” he said, smiling broadly. He made it up as he went along; he had no idea what he was really saying. His gaze stayed on Jodie. “I apologize for interrupting. Jodie suggested something to me a little while ago, and I had to tell her that she was absolutely right.”

       Mrs. Landon gave Tom a narrowed-eyed glare, then glanced at Jodie. “What was this about?” she asked, but she was asking Jodie.

       “A change in my life,” said Tom quickly. “A wake-up call. She got me to do something no one else ever did.”

       The three women looked at him expectantly.

       “She got me to think,” he finished. His gaze went to Jodie, who only stared. What he’d said was lame. He knew it was lame, but it was too late to take it back and not look like a fool. “I wanted to say thank you. I’m sorry to bother you, but it had to be done.”

       “What is this all about?” Mrs. Landon said again to her daughter. Her tone demanded immediate truth.

       “I told him he should go into public service,” said Jodie, without looking away from Tom.

       “Politics,” Tom corrected. It was still lame. He couldn’t believe how lame it was. “I want to make this a better place. It’s the only way I can do it. I’m going into political science at Bromwell and see what happens after that.”

       That part was lame, he knew, but there was something in the way he said it that made it less lame. When the words came out of his mouth, they sounded as if he believed what he said. To his surprise, he did.

       “Anyway,” he finished, “I should go.” He looked at Jodie once more. “Thank you.” A winning smile to the older women. “I’ve got some things to do at home, then I’m off to Bromwell. Have a great afternoon.” He waved, then walked away. No one behind him spoke. He felt his face flush. He’d been a fool. What was the whole point in doing what he did? He didn’t know. He wanted only to get out of here as soon as he could and go home and forget he’d done it.

       A minute later he was halfway across the parking lot, heading for his car, when he heard someone call his name. He turned. It was Jodie. She ran up to him, still wearing her tennis outfit. “I told Mother I was going to make sure you weren’t drunk,” she said as she came up. “Are you?”

       “No,” he said. He waited until she stopped, just out of reach. They were alone.

       “Why’d you do that?” she asked.

       “Because I love you,” he said.

       She stood stock-still. She didn’t move a muscle.

       “I love you,” he repeated. He didn’t think about making it sound sincere; he just said it. He wanted to add, I’m sorry, but he wasn’t sorry, so he didn’t.

       She didn’t say anything back. The pause drew out. He knew then that the evening together was blown. She would not see him again. He knew it.

       “I have to go,” he said. “If you don’t want me to call later, I understand. I had to say it. You were right, about the politics, but I... I had to say it... about you.”

       She still said nothing. He wasn’t even sure she was breathing.

       “I don’t even know why you... why you’d want to be around me,” he said. “You know what I’m like. I have nothing to give you. I used to be this guy who didn’t think of anything but himself, and then there was you, and everything I was began to break down, and that talk I had earlier with whoever about what a mess I am, that threw me off, and then seeing you here... I’m not who I was. I mean, I am, I know what I’m like, but...” His shoulders slumped. “I love you. I’d better go.” He waved and walked away without looking back. When he found his Jaguar, he got in and drove off, but instead of going home he went out into the country to a lookout by the roadside, on top of a hill, and he sat on the hood of his car for an hour looking over a valley and cried into his hands until he was blind and hoarse. The affair was over. When he was done, he went home and sat in his room and listened to his sister argue with their mother in the next room about an upcoming dance and why his sister had nothing to wear to it.

       Jodie didn’t call that night. He slept in his clothes on the carpeted floor. He woke up very early, showered, changed into casual clothes, and skimmed the Sunday morning Lawndale Sun-Herald without actually reading any of the stories. His family was taking him to brunch at eleven, but he had no appetite. He knew he would have to fake it. I love you. It was impossible to believe he’d actually said that to her. All the self-realization he’d had earlier in the day—he had been talking with someone, but he couldn’t remember who it was now—all that thinking must have unhinged him. I love you. Nothing was left inside him. He’d given all he had to Jodie in three words, and now he was empty.

       At eight fifteen a.m., the doorbell rang. He got up to answer it, just ahead of his mother, who was still in her bathrobe.

       It was Jodie. She wore the power suit she usually wore when working at the congressman’s office. Under her arm was a load of books. “Good morning, Tom,” she said. “Glad I caught you awake. “ She looked over his shoulder. “Hi, Mrs. Sloane. Sorry to bother you on a Sunday like this.”

       “Oh, that’s fine,” said Mrs. Sloane. “Call me Kay, would you? Come on in. Have you had breakfast? We’re going out for brunch later, but I can get you something—”

       “No, I’m fine,” said Jodie. “Thank you. Can I see Tom privately for a few minutes? I have some things to go over with him. Political stuff. He said he had some ideas for me, and I’m going to drop off some things at the office before we head for church.”

       “Sure,” said Mrs. Sloane. “Tom’s all yours.”

       He felt his face color and wished his mother had not said that. In silence, he escorted Jodie upstairs. He let her into his room, then shut the door behind them.

       As soon as the door shut, Jodie dropped the books on the floor and turned around. “So, you claim you love me,” she said, hands balled into fists on her hips. “I don’t know whether to slap you or just knock your damn head off. Where did that come from? You tell me. Where did you get that? And don’t say it’s from where I think it’s from.”

       The emptiness inside him grew, but he did not retreat. “Where did I get that? I got it from knowing you. You’re the only person I’ve ever met who was exactly who she said she was. With apologies to my own family, you’re the only decent person I’ve ever met.”

       She didn’t say anything to that, though her stance relaxed slightly.

       “When you left me yesterday,” he said, “I wanted you to sit with me and talk about things. You’re—” He hunted for words “—you’re the only person in my life that I listen to. I haven’t listened to anyone else since I don’t know when. I feel like you’re the only person in my life other than me.” He sat down on the edge of his bed. “I haven’t always listened to you, I know, and I wonder now if I’ve really been that good for you. I’ve been going nowhere for so long, and suddenly it hit me that all the... everything we’ve had, it meant something to me. It was more than what it was. I realized I had to go somewhere with my life, and that somewhere was you.” He paused. “I do love you. This is a hell of a time to realize it, right before we’re going away to opposite ends of the east coast, but I do.”

       Jodie’s hands fell from her hips. She crossed her arms in front of her instead and regarded him in silence.

       “It would help if you said something,” he said.

       “I don’t know what to say,” Jodie said at last. “I...” She dropped her arms and sat down in a chair near his bed. “God, after you left, I was in a daze. I didn’t know what was going on with you, but then you unloaded that bomb on me, and my mind went blank. I don’t even remember what I did after you left. I went home to bed, but that’s all. I think I just sat around like...” She exhaled heavily. “Look, I don’t even know what to say to you. I told you I broke up with Mack because we weren’t going anywhere. He’s a sweet guy, but... there wasn’t any future with him, you know? I wanted to go to Atlanta, forget about Lawndale, maybe loosen up a little. I wanted to see the world, see who I wanted, not feel like I have to be Miss Perfect all day long. I wanted to see anyone I pleased. You know that.”

       “Which is sort of where I came in,” said Tom.

       “Well, yeah,” she said. “Damn, I know that didn’t come out right, but yeah.” She had been looking at the floor, but she glanced up at him. “It was good, too. Don’t think that it wasn’t.” She looked down again. “Damn, but it was good.”

       Was good. He understood. “I want to see you,” he said anyway.

       She snorted. “How? I’ll be in Atlanta, and you’re—”

       “God gave us airplanes, didn’t He?”

       “Well, yeah, but—”

       “I’d like to come down and see you, after you get settled in. Maybe give us each a couple weeks, see how we’re doing. Then I’d like to fly in and... see where we are.”

       She didn’t say no. “Where are you going to stay?”

       “Hotel. I can get all sorts of low rates, as always. Family ties. May as well use them.”

       Jodie was looking at him now. “I don’t know what to do, Tom,” she said.

       “I don’t either,” he said, “but I know that I want you.”

       She rubbed her hands together, then looked at the floor again. After a long pause, she said in a low voice, “Part of me wants you, too. Part of me isn’t sure, and part of me just wants to run off screaming, but... I need to think. I need time to think about this.”

       She wanted him? Had he heard that right? He stopped himself from saying anything, and only waited.

       “There’s a lot of stuff going on,” she said. “My parents would blow sky high if they knew. My dad might get over it, but my mom would kill you.” She put her head in her hands, covering her eyes. “I have to think about this. This isn’t what... oh, Christ.”

       Again, he made himself say and do nothing.

       “Ball’s in your court,” she said, looking up.

       He thought about it. “I don’t know why you would want to be around someone like me,” he finally said. “After having you in my life, though, I want to be a better man. I hate to say that, because I can’t expect you’ll trust anything I say. You know me better than that.” He paused for a moment, then added, “All I want in the world is you, and if I become a better man for it, then so be it. That’s it.”

       She was staring at him again, not breathing. He slid off the bed onto his knees, right in front of her. When he took one of her hands and kissed it, she let him do it. “I love you,” he said. His face was very close to hers, but he didn’t force a kiss. He waited again. God, her eyes—he had never seen anyone so beautiful in his life.

       Jodie closed her eyes and bowed her head. “Oh, God,” she whispered. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but this wasn’t at all what I thought would happen.”

       He understood all too well. She’d thought he was safe. Here was a guy who had a blind spot when it came to sex and interpersonal attachments; she had seen how quickly he went from Jane to Daria, so there was no arguing about the issue. He wasn’t particular about who he was with and was available for a summer romp with no strings attached, a doorway to a little sexual freedom and experimentation, and best of all he knew when to shut his mouth. Now it turned out he wasn’t as amoral about sex as she’d believed. Strings were attached all over the place. He would have been offended by what she’d said if it hadn’t also been the truth.

       “Think about it,” he said. He couldn’t help himself then, and he reached up and kissed her hair. She raised her face. His fingers glided down her cheek.

       They leaned forward, eyes closing. It was a light kiss, barely more than brushing lips together.

       “I have to go,” she whispered.

       “Okay,” he said, but she didn’t move fast enough and he leaned in again, and this kiss was deep and long.

       A minute later they were on their feet and clenched together like doomed lovers saying goodbye on the deck of a sinking ocean liner. It took both of them to get up the strength and willpower to push themselves apart and hang on to each other in space, everything interrupted, and get their breath because they knew they were about to do it, but they couldn’t do it in Tom’s bedroom with his sister next door. They made too much noise for that, way too much noise.

       “I have to go,” she said, and they finally broke apart and she left. He sat down on the chair, unable to move, and stared at the books on the floor. It took five minutes before he realized they were her books. He wondered how he would get them back to her, or if they even mattered. He was spent.

       It came to him then that he might not be forgettable. Why had he worried so much about that? Before Jodie, forgettable was all he was, except for the bumps and bruises he brought others. It also came to him that it didn’t matter if he was forgettable. Only Jodie mattered. He would never forget her. For the first time, there was someone inside his head other than him. It was agony and joy and chaos, it was suffering and ecstasy, it was thoughts running madly about and bumping into each other with no plan for the future, nothing certain except the craziness.

       Almost nothing. I want to be a better man. That, at least, was for sure. No matter what happened after this, he would be a better man. He felt it in his bones. Wherever things between them led, he would not go back to what he had been. He would go into politics and make himself a force that counted. He would leave a legacy behind him that would be remembered. Jodie—he could only pray for that. She was the lynchpin to everything in the future. He could only pray.

       And pray is what he did.




Chapter Three



       “No more mistakes,” said Daria Morgendorffer. She sat alone in her room at her computer desk, staring into space as she talked to herself. On the desk before her were a pencil and a scrap of paper with notes written in a code that no one in the family had yet translated. “No more mistakes,” she repeated. Her path was clear. She had finally figured out the solution to her worst current problem.

       For Daria, the problem was simply put: Love is dangerous and unavoidable. She took the statement as gospel thanks to first-hand knowledge of the hazards. Falling in love made you stop thinking and do stupid things instead, like kissing your best friend’s boyfriend or imagining that interpersonal problems had a way of magically working out without ever discussing them with one’s partner. Love was worse than cutting your throat, in Daria’s view, because cutting your throat ended your problems, whereas love multiplied your troubles to infinity.

       Daria knew that falling in love would eventually strike her again, and she might even be deluded enough regard it as desirable, no matter what she did to stop it beforehand. It happened to everyone, like death and taxes and getting letters in the mail from Ed McMahan. It was thus essential to ensure that love did the least possible amount of physical, mental, and emotional damage to all concerned when you slammed into it face-first.

       “No more Toms,” she said to herself. She nodded. This was for sure. The long talk she’d had with Jane a while ago had sealed it up forever. She would never again start any relationship that had any chance of hurting her best and only friend. Jane was her other half. She would do anything for Daria—share a roll of cookie dough, buy her a pizza, invite her for sleepovers, listen to her problems, bring her back from the dead—

       Daria frowned. Whoa, where did that come from? Still, it sounded true enough. Jane was the rare sort of friend who would do that. However, as long as there were guys around that lonely cynical intellectual girls and their friends looked upon as hotties, there was always the risk that a Tom-style triangle would happen again, and one more of those meltdowns would destroy everything worth living for.

       That is, the risk existed unless one looked at the problem logically and clearly. Daria had just finished doing that. The solution was on the scrap of paper before her. She stared down at the one-word solution—not written in code—then tore the paper into tiny bits, put it in her mouth, chewed it until it was unreadable, and spit the soggy wad into her garbage can. Let her nosy mother or sister try to read that. She then went downstairs. There was one thing left to do before she put her plan into motion, though it was something she did as rarely as possible because the consequences were unpredictable and often undesirable.

       Her mother was in the kitchen, taking a piece of leftover apple pie from the refrigerator. “Hello, dear,” Helen said, giving her eldest child a warm smile. “I’m sorry Tom couldn’t stay. Did you and Jane have a good talk?”

       “Yes,” said Daria. I finally told Jane I loved her as my best friend, even though I was so embarrassed I could have died—but I’m glad I did it. And Jane hugged me back. That felt incredible; it was the best hug ever. Wish I hadn’t cried when we did it, but it was okay. All is right with that one corner of my world.

       Helen waited for more information, then realized none was forthcoming. “I’m sorry I missed her when she left,” she went on. “Want some apple pie? I can split this one with you.”

       “No, thanks.” Daria roused herself and prepared for the trial to come. “Mom? I need some advice. May I ask you a few questions?”

       Helen gave her daughter a long, puzzled look but nodded assent. “Of course, dear. What’s on your mind?”

       Daria hesitated long enough to think over her questions a second time, taking on a nervous expression. “I’m not sure how to ask this without making it sound weird or possibly insulting,” she said. “Consider yourself warned.”

       Helen smiled. “Well, I’ve been your mother for almost nineteen years, and I think by now I’m used to the kind of questions you ask. Try me.”

       “Okay. How do you manage to stay married to Dad?”

       Helen’s fork stopped in the middle of cutting off the tip of the pie. She gave her daughter a killing glare and put down the fork. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she snapped.

       “I didn’t mean it like that!” Daria said quickly, though of course she had meant it like that. “I meant, how do people stay married, like you and Dad? For instance, how do people deal with each other’s... um, personal quirks, year and year out? Like when Dad talks about his father or his childhood. That sort of thing.”

       “Oh.” Her mother subsided and gave her a pained look. “Perhaps I spoke too soon when I said I was used to your questions. Let’s have a seat, shall we?” Walking over to the table in the dining nook, she sat down in her chair and put her pie plate and fork down in front of her. Daria followed and took Quinn’s seat as it was closest.

       “How do people manage to stay married, like your father and I?” Helen shook her head. “Why on earth would you ask me a question like that?”

       Daria had prepared herself for that one. “Well, I had the shocking insight that one day I might be married, too, and things like this would be good to know beforehand.” Seeing a startled look on her mother’s face, she hastily added, “I’m not planning to get married right now. Certainly not to Tom, anyway. I just wanted to get some advice, in case the issue ever came up, like at college or grad school or something.”

       “I see.” Helen blew out a long breath and sat back in her seat. “Of all the things you could ask me, that one really... Well, to begin with, no one is perfect. Once you accept that—and I mean, really accept it—you’re a long way toward your goal. You fall in love with someone and get married because, first, the things you like best about your partner make staying together worth it, and, second, the things you like least about your partner can be tolerated for the sake of having the things you like best. My own mother always told me that all men were trouble, and you simply had to find one who was the least amount of trouble—or at least had the kind of trouble you could live with.”

       “And you can live with Dad.”

       Her mother smiled. “I can indeed. He loves me, he loves you and your sister, and he works hard for our family. It’s just that—well, in your father’s case, he needs to maintain certain illusions about his life in order to keep functioning. Perhaps that’s a cruel way of saying it, but he had a very hard childhood, and he needs to know he is doing a better job as a husband and father than his own father did, even if he is slightly off the mark once in a while, as most men are.”

       “Is that an illusion, then? That he’s doing better?”

       “Er, no. He really is doing a better job of it than his father, as far as I know. I admit I never had the chance to meet ‘Mad Dog’ before he died, but even your grandmother Ruth rarely has anything good to say about him. I can’t explain why things didn’t work out between your father and his father, but Jake has tried very hard to be good man, and I believe he’s succeeded. His illusions are in the department of... I don’t know if this is good to say, but he might have a slightly inflated view of how well he—let’s say how effective he is at solving certain family problems. He can’t be perfect, and I keep my expectations of him on a reasonable level. I know in his heart he’s devoted to our family, and I can count on him most of the time to do the right thing, even if I have to remind him of it repeatedly.”

       “What about that time when we were going through family counseling at The Retreat, and the two of you had to imitate each other, and you got into that big fight—”

       “Right,” said Helen quickly, cutting her off. “I remember, I remember.” Looking uncomfortable, she rubbed her face, shielding her eyes from Daria. “If memory serves, we were each supposed to talk about things that bothered us about the other, or something like that, and it got a little out of hand. I could have killed him. Anyway, you’d better know right now that no couple exists in the world in which each partner is perfectly happy with the other one. We’re no exception.” She exhaled and was silent for a moment. “I know Jake thinks I’m a workaholic control freak, and I probably am, and I think he rants too much about his father, which he certainly does, but those are—” She dropped her hand and looked at her daughter directly “—Daria, impossible as it is to believe, those are things we can live with. I’m sure we have moments when we would each gladly choke each other, but we would never consider divorce.”

       “So, you’re saying that murder is better.”

       Helen hesitated only a moment. “Yes,” she said with a certainty that took Daria aback, “murder is better. We’re in this for the long haul, Daria. You have to be, otherwise there’s no point in getting married at all.”

       Daria felt her cheek twitch. Her mother’s evaluation of Jake and herself was close to target, though Daria felt her mother’s and father’s flaws also interlocked. Neither one was happy to confront the other about possible shortcomings, for fear of having one’s own shortcomings pointed out. The disaster at The Retreat was proof enough of that. Given their mutual avoidance of personally threatening topics, their love for their children, and the great sex they seemed to share (to Daria and Quinn’s horror), they would be together for many years to come. Whether that was a good thing or bad thing remained to be seen. Daria took a deep breath and plunged on. “How much do you think logic and reason have to do with marriage?”

       Helen gave Daria a look that mixed sadness and pity. “Not a lot, dear,” she said, her voice softer. “People are fond of saying you have to follow your heart, but they also say love is blind. You can’t plan everything out. I think you do have to use your head as often as you can, however, or else things will get away from you. People who don’t think things through make terrible mistakes, like falling in love with abusive people or failing to keep their commitments. You get the idea.”

       Despite the first part of her mother's advice, the last bit was good news. It vindicated Daria’s plan, or seemed to. “You work a lot on keeping things going with Dad, planning getaways and counseling and evenings together and so forth.”

       Her mother nodded. “Well, that’s true. I do put a lot of time into it. Someone has to. Planning for time together is very important in any relationship. It sounds a bit unromantic, but if you make sure you have the time to be romantic, you will be. It takes a load off your mind. Trust me. You have to put time and energy into those things that matter most to you.”

       If you’d only done that with parenting, Daria thought, but she didn’t dare say it. The issue was moot now. “Was there ever a time when you wondered if you were really in love or just deluding yourself?”

       Her expression growing weary, Helen drummed her fingers on the tabletop. “I’ll have to ask you where that question came from, if you don’t mind.”

       “Tom,” said Daria, having carefully prepared for this one, too. “I thought I was in love with him, but now I don’t think I was. I guess I don’t think I know very much about what love is.” She looked away, dredging up her prepared speech. “When I kissed him that first time, I... I wasn’t thinking at all, and it was a total nightmare afterward. And when I did start to think, I thought our relationship would last—but it didn’t. Now I don’t know if it’s even worth trying again. Quinn seems to think so, but I don’t know.”

       The sad look came back into her mother’s face. “Oh, Daria, you’re so young. You hate to hear that from me, but you are. You have thirty years to go, more or less, until you get to my age, and I don’t feel like I know everything, either. Sometimes things don’t work out. I know that’s been true with me. God, when I think back on all the men I dated in high school and college who were creeps or jerks or mama’s boys... hmmm, how many would that be?” She began to count rapidly on her fingers.

       Daria was appalled to see her mother count until she switched hands—and keep counting ex-boyfriends and bad dates without slowing down. “Okay, Mom! Stop!” she cried. “I get the point!”

       Helen was in the mid-teens, heading for the twenties at high speed, when she shrugged and quit. “Anyway, I think your original question was about deluding yourself. Yes, it happens. You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.”

       Daria silently vowed she would never repeat that phrase to her own children, if she ever had any. Given her father’s undeniable shortcomings, she could not imagine the kind of men her mother had rejected beforehand, and in such large numbers, too. I really could have done without that knowledge, she thought. If I need therapy for this, Mom’s getting the bill.

       “Is that it?” asked Helen.

       “I had one more question. Maybe two.”

       Helen closed her eyes for a moment. “Ask away,” she said without enthusiasm.

       “Do you have illusions you need to maintain to keep the... um, to keep things working? With Dad, I mean?”

       Her mother opened her eyes and gave Daria a sharp look. “Not about your father, no. I have no illusions about him at all. I accept him as he is, except for the times I have to remind him of certain things he needs to do. In his heart, though, he’s a good man.”

       “I meant illusions about yourself.”

       Helen’s eyes widened. “Do I have any illusions about me? Oh.” She shrugged. “I suppose I do like to think that I’m in control of whatever goes on. That helps me feel better about the world and myself, even if sometimes it’s not exactly correct. Maybe I pretend to be in control of life’s loose ends more than I should be, but... well, it helps me get through the day.” She rubbed her temples, feeling a headache coming on. “Will that do it for you?”

       Do you have to be in love in order to get married? Daria discarded that question. It would queer her plan completely to even ask that. She nodded. “It helped. So, it’s till death do you part.”

       “Yes, but which one of us goes first depends on who snaps first.” Helen forced a nervous laugh. “Just kidding, of course.”

       “Of course.” Boy, I wish you hadn’t said that. “Thanks, Mom.”

       “Anytime, dear—but perhaps it’s best if we didn’t have any other questions like those for the rest of today. I think I need a rest.”

       “Sure.” Daria stood up and put her chair back under the table. “I’m going out shortly. I shouldn’t be long.”

       “Fine,” said her mother in a monotone. “Have fun.” As Daria left, she looked back and saw her mother sitting with her chin in one hand, looking down at her pie with no visible appetite.

       Daria went upstairs to her room, sat at her computer desk again for several minutes, then got up and went to the bathroom, locking the door behind her. Standing in front of the mirror with all the lights on, she examined her face and general appearance. A quick look through the drawers brought up a nice pile of lipsticks and other cosmetics that her sister Quinn had left for emergencies. Steeling herself, she pulled her long brown hair back into a ponytail, fastened it with a barrette, then reached for a lipstick in a pink shade. She considered eyeliner, blush, and the like, but decided not to bother. Less is better, she thought, and she lifted the lipstick to her mouth.

       The lipstick stopped short of her lips. After a long pause, she recapped it and put it away. She then took the barrette out of her hair and set it aside. I have to be me. If I’m not me, it won’t work.

       In the end, she brushed her hair out fifty times, cleaned her glasses, and then brushed and flossed her teeth. It would do. She went downstairs and left the house.

       The walk was uneventful and shorter than she anticipated. She rehearsed the array of strategies she had worked out, depending on who was home. This was the first step. The fate of her happiness—and Jane’s—depended on her success.

       The house appeared. She walked up to the door and knocked, then waited. Her nerves jangled; she had to close her eyes once and take a deep breath to calm herself.

       Someone shuffled up to the door on the other side and opened it, rubbing sleep from his eyes. He looked like he’d slept in his clothes and doubtless had. The aroma of stale beer, cigarettes, pot, and old sweat drifted from his unwashed body. Blue Maori-style tattoos were visible on his arms and chest under his stained T-shirt. He was broke, often unreliable and irresponsible, unmotivated to get a real job, and had delusions that one day his music would fire the world. He might even have a weird STD.

       But she’d had a crush on him once, and she hadn’t cared about that at all.

       “Hey, Daria,” said Trent Lane—the only man Jane loved but would never date herself, the only man Daria could logically date without fear of losing her best friend. He yawned, forgetting to cover his mouth. His breath smelled awful. “Sorry, Janey’s not home right now.”

       “That’s okay,” said Daria. She swallowed. Remember when he held your hand when you got your belly button pierced. Remember when he told you how cool you were. Remember what you once felt for him—and bring it back. Use your head this time, and not your heart. “May I come in?”

       “Uh... sure thing. C’mon in.” He held the door for her as she walked inside, then closed it behind them. It was very quiet in Casa Lane for the rest of that afternoon.




Chapter Four



       Brittany Taylor walked out of the Winged Tree Country Club with a sigh. She had lost most of her tennis matches to Jodie, but that was okay because they always had fun playing together. Winning wasn’t important next to getting out with a smart friend like Jodie and talking about life. Today’s topic had been about being “single” again, now that each of them had ditched their long-term boyfriends. It was obvious why Brittany had dumped her moronic boyfriend Kevin, who couldn’t even graduate high school. That Jodie had dumped a cool guy like Mack was unbelievable, but that was Jodie’s business. True, nothing lasts after high school, but... oh, well. Too bad Mack wasn’t going to Great Prairie State, like Brittany and the other cheerleaders. He was to die for.

       The sigh Brittany gave was actually for the vehicle she had to use for the weekend. Her stepmom had taken the Porsche for a trip to see a girlfriend in Oakwood, her father had the family Mercedes on a business trip to Washington, D.C., and her high-school graduation gift from her dad—a white Mustang with gold trim that was just about the cutest thing on God’s earth—was in the shop because the gold trim was peeling off, and the something-or-other-under-the-car broke so the car made a loud horrible noise when it drove. Her dad, of course, was paying to have everything fixed, but Brittany was still stuck driving the family’s gigantic red Ford Explorer.

       A big, smelly old Explorer wasn’t as much fun as a hot Mustang with that fresh new-car scent, but it was okay. Brittany liked being able to look down into other cars, which could be fun or gross depending on what you saw people doing when they didn’t think they were being watched from above. Plus, there was that undeniable feeling of raw power, like driving a tank without the dirt and claustrophobia. It was cool.

       In a stoke of good luck, Brittany had managed to find a space in the shade of a tree when she’d arrived at the country club, so it was relatively cool inside the Explorer when she unlocked the door and got in. She tossed her tennis racquet into the floor of the passenger side, started the SUV, and poked the radio knob. One of her favorite Christian rock songs was just starting, so she closed the windows, flipped on the A/C, and pulled out of the parking space with a welcome feeling of pleasure.

       Except for the Mustang’s recent problems, luck had been with Brittany ever since she’d returned home from her three-week trip to Mexico in July with Nikki, Lisa, and Angie, the other senior Lawndale High cheerleaders. Her ex-boyfriend Kevin had stopped trying to get together again after she broke up with him in June. Her dad had stopped fooling around with his secretary and straightened out his life, and her stepmom Ashley-Amber had stopped running up her dad’s credit cards in revenge. Brittany’s demented little brother Brian was away at camp until the week after Brittany left for college, so she wouldn’t have to deal with him. Her birth mother in Los Angeles had even come to visit. And everyone—after an initial shock—had gotten over Brittany’s announcement that she was taking Bible study classes and considered herself Born Again, though her father later said it should have been enough to be born the first time.

       What would her father say if he knew Brittany had gotten Ashley-Amber to go to Bible study with her? She was pretty sure he wouldn’t like it. Lisa and Angie had also gone with Brittany, though Nikki hadn’t gone because she was Jewish, and Lisa was Catholic and wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be reading a Bible in Carter County Christian Church, but that was fine, too. The four were still best buds and next week—fresh from the beaches of Cancun, Acapulco, and several other south-of-the-border resorts—would be in classes at Great Prairie State and preparing for the future, whatever it would bring.

       This went through Brittany’s head because she was looking with fondness at a souvenir of her summer vacation, hanging on a silver chain from the rear-view mirror of the Explorer. She hung it in every car she drove for good luck, because the old woman who sold it to her on a street in a nameless Mexican village said it was a good symbol. Though it wasn’t a cross, it looked like one if you squinted while looking off to one side. It almost looked like that medical symbol with the snake wrapped around the stick, but the old woman had said it wasn’t that. It was an ancient being who did good deeds, a snake with wings called something like Pretzel Coddle. What kind of name was that?

       Brittany was almost out of the country club’s parking lot when she spied Tiffany Blum-Deckler, who would be a senior when Lawndale High started in two weeks, walking by herself across the parking lot away from the country club. Having a sudden impulse to do a good deed and find out if Tiffany needed a ride home, she swung the SUV in her direction. Tiffany turned around as the Explorer approached, looked down at the Explorer’s route toward her, then looked up again and started to wave Brittany away.

       She was a second too late. Brittany pulled up beside the Asian teenager—and heard a loud crack! when she did.

       “Uh-oh,” Tiffany said in her slow monotone. She looked down at the SUV’s front left tire. “You ran over it.”

       “Was that my tire that popped?” said Brittany in an anxious tone, lowering her window. “Is it flat?”

       “No, you ran over it,” Tiffany repeated. “The box.”

       Brittany climbed down from the SUV and saw what looked like a large pizza box, smashed by the heavy SUV’s tire. She knelt and pulled it from beneath the truck, then opened it.

       “Uh-oh,” said Tiffany again. “You broke a mirror. Seven years of bad dates.”

       “Oh, no! I hope it wasn’t expensive!” Brittany looked at the shattered black mirror. It seemed to have been made from a shiny rock that was almost like glass. “I wonder if it fell out of someone’s car.”

       Tiffany reached down for a piece of the black mirror, which had broken into curved shards.

       “Careful!” said Brittany. “The edges look really sharp. Let me take it over to that garbage can and get rid of it.”

       Tiffany bent down over the shattered disk and looked at her reflection in the largest piece. “It was pretty,” she said sadly, then stood up. “Wish I could have used it. Black is such a slimming color.”

       With great care, Brittany shut the box and lifted it, then carried it to the nearby garbage can. She talked a squeamish Tiffany into taking the top off the can so the box would fit inside, though the latter immediately became obsessed with the number of germs she had picked up in doing so. Tiffany quickly left to wash up at the country club before going home, her sunbathing by the club pool done for the day.

       Brittany got back in the front seat of the Explorer. Her gaze fell on the winged serpent hanging from the rear-view mirror. “Guess you weren’t much of a good-luck charm, were you?” she said sadly. She remembered that she had been curious enough to go to Lawndale’s futuristic-looking library (just once) to find out the snake’s name. In a musty old book by someone named Tobin she found it by accident: Quetzalcoatl. She had to write the name down four times to get it right. He was an old-time god who constantly fought his brother, a big mean black leopard. No one paid much attention to Quetzalcoatl anymore, a shame since the book’s picture of the deity was quite beautiful. The little silver souvenir had the snake’s wings straight out at its sides, with its head raised and long wavy body hanging below, so it did have a crosslike appearance. Interesting.

       She started the Explorer. The pendant of Quetzalcoatl swung as the vehicle turned onto the main highway and took off. A mile down the highway, she stopped at a light and let two women cross the street ahead of her. One had short red hair and a face that was kind of young and kind of old at the same time, maybe thirty give or take, and a lanky, tanned frame. The other was stick-thin with big hair, long and black, in her early twenties. She was pale and appeared tired, but was content. The red-haired woman glanced into the cab of the SUV and spotted the tiny pendant hanging from the mirror.

       “Feathered Serpent,” she said in surprise, but she continued walking.

       “What?” asked the black-haired girl.

       “That car back there had a little necklace hanging up with an Aztec symbol on it,” said the redhead. “Funny. It’s a snake with wings, an old god.”

       “Oh.” The black-haired girl sighed. “I’d love to see Mexico. I bet that would be great fun.”

       “It is. We could do that.” The redhead fell silent. The winged figure got her to remember what her mother always said about letting butterflies go, giving them the chance to stay or leave. She turned to look at her companion. I’m never letting you go, the redhead thought. It hurt to see myself for what I was, but I’m glad I did it. Truth and pain make us want to reach outside of ourselves, I guess, make us reach for something greater. Worked for me. I found you, and you’re the only real friend I might ever have.

       The black-haired girl looked up and caught the redhead looking at her. “Penny for your thoughts,” she said with a grin.










Author’s Notes II: Penny Lane appeared in only one Daria episode, “Lane Miserables,” but minor references to her are scattered through other episodes and the two MTV Daria books. Her bedroom at the Lane home appears in the episode, “Fire!” Monique is seen and mentioned in only two episodes, “Pierce Me” and “Lane Miserables.” The physical layout of Lawndale and the route to the Lanes’ home from McGrundy’s Brew Pub appears in The Daria Diaries, “Welcome to Lawndale.”

       Much valuable background information for this story was provided by Rachel Simmons’s startling psychological studies in the book, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and its sequel, Odd Girl Speaks Out: Girls Write About Bullies, Cliques, Popularity, and Jealousy. These books are especially revealing to those who have little knowledge of the social lives of school-age adolescents, and the process and consequences of becoming an outcast, little of which was covered in the show. Jane Lane’s early life story was much influenced by these sources.

       This story makes use of an essay about the Lane family, “Jane and the Lanes: an Essay about the Lane Family of Lawndale.” It is found among other places at:


       The quote at the start of Part Three, Chapter One is from Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus (New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1966), scene III, page 17. The later quote in this chapter is from the same work, scene V, page 30. The quote at the start of Part Three, Chapter Two is from Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster (New York: Anchor Books, 1998), xvii-xviii. The song lyrics in Part Three, Chapter Six are from “The Windmills of Your Mind” (the version sung by Dusty Springfield on her 1969 Dusty in Memphis album), written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Michel Legrand.

       Mrs. Blaine the librarian is derived from a character that appeared at the Better Days Nursing Home in the third-season Daria episode, “The Old and the Beautiful.” Sandi Griffin’s future was based on her rather naught future-ego image at the end of Is It College Yet? Tobin—actually, Tobin’s Spirit Guide—is from the movie Ghostbusters.

       Two other fanfics by me are assumed to be connected with this one, though they were not originally intended to be so. “In the Beginning” (about Brittany’s born-again faith) takes place before the story starts; “The Secret Life” (about Tom and Jodie’s love affair) takes place some time afterward.


Acknowledgements: James Bowman is responsible for directing my attention to Penny Lane as the subject of a story, and he and Ruth “Ruthless Bunny” Margolis further enhanced the tale by suggesting the addition of certain other Daria characters to the cast. The idea of Penny’s return was suggested by a reading of “Beneath the Blue Suburban Skies,” a fine Daria fanfic by Jill Friedman, but this story takes the idea in a different direction. The most excellent Brandon League pounced upon errors in an early version of this tale. My thanks to you all. The failures of this story are my own.

       The layout of the Morgendorffer home used here was based in large part upon Steven Galloway’s excellent essay and drawings from, among other online sources, Sick Sad World: “My Take on the Morgendorffers’ Residence”; see table of contents at:



       In-depth studies of Tom Sloane’s character were extremely valuable for Part Four, Chapter Two. In particular, three superb essays about him influenced this tale’s telling:


“The Other Side of the Kiss: An Examination of the Infamous ‘Love Triangle,’” by Kara Wild, at:



“Anatomy of a Tom Hater: Why There Is So Much Anger Towards Tom Sloane,” also by Kara Wild with help from Alan Benard, at:



and, “The Fall of Tommunism,” by James CINCGREEN” Bowman at:


       Part Three of this tale was originally a chapter from a much longer work, unpublished and incomplete, called “Bipolar II.” This early work (from 2002) is being cannibalized, each chapter modified from its original form and turned into its own story—or, in this case, added to another story. This chapter was the best way to conclude the “Smoking Mirror” trilogy: first a look at the present (at the time of Is It College Yet?), then the past, and now the future, at least from the time of IICY?

       The seeds that germinated the original work, “Bipolar II,” were planted by Renfield and Galen “Lawndale Stalker” Hardesty, in an exchange of old PPMB messages concerning the future of Daria Morgendorffer. From that bit, the idea came to me for “Bipolar II,” a collection of alternative futures (some good, some bad) involving best friends Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane. Later commentary and encouragement from Renfield, NomadX, Galen Hardesty, and THM greatly added to the original story’s development—and indirectly to this one—so my gratitude goes to them all. The limitations of this story are my own.

       Three earlier fanfics (“April Is the Cruelest Month,” “The Omega Jane,” and “Where No Light Breaks, Where No Sea Runs”) were also derived from chapters in “Bipolar II,” but they are no longer connected with each other or this work. “Everest” was originally the core chapter of “Bipolar II.” I confess I forgot about this part of the work until early last year, when Nemo Blank mentioned a story idea that reminded me of this one. Finally, thanks also go out to Thea Zara and Takfa, for locating the curious name of Lawndale’s public library from the episode, “See Jane Run.”





Original: 06/24/04, modified 12/24/04, 12/25/04, 10/01/06, 7/13/07, 07/26/08, 05/19/10