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Horrors at Bay




            A small smile came unbidden to eleven year-old Daria's lips as soon as she opened the front door of the new Morgendorffer residence. Succulent aromas filled the house. Her father evidently had gotten all of his cooking wares unpacked. After several days of takeout food, Daria would again have another one of her father's mouth-watering meals. It was as if she was finally coming home after all of the chaos being uprooted in the middle of the school year moving from Ohio to the D.C. suburbs upon her mother's appointment as one of the new President's Assistant Attorneys General.

            She dropped her backpack on a chair and sped for the kitchen. Her father stood before one tiled counter, humming along with the Bach keyboard concerto that was playing on the radio as he sliced vegetables. He was informally dressed in slacks and a short-sleeve shirt opened at the collar but he still looked stylish even with the bright white apron wrapped around him. A wine glass half filled with a red sat within easy reach.

            "Hey kiddo," he said brightly when he caught sight of Daria. He hugged her affectionately. "Grab a chair. One after school snack a la Jake coming right up."  

            A glass of cranberry juice and a small plate with cheese wedges and stone-ground wheat crackers materialized before Daria almost as soon as she sat down.

            "It smells good," Daria said snagging a cracker. "Please tell me it's what I think it is."

            "Gugelhopf," Jake replied.

            "Gugelhopf," Daria repeated in a dreamy voice. "I love you."

            "So all it takes to get your love is some flour and cherries, eh?" Jake chuckled.

            "No, but it does keep me around," Daria replied. "What do you have planned for the main course?"

            "Coq au Riesling," her father answered.

            "Ah, French," Daria joked, beginning out one of the running family gags.

            "That's it, you're out of the will," Jake laughed, picking up the joke.

            "I meant Alsatian cuisine, my favourite," replied Daria through a smile. Her father was very proud of his Alsatian heritage, which was German, by Jove, not French, as he was quick to point out. His grandfather, Albrecht Morgendorffer was born and raised near Strasbourg. He had fought for his beloved Kaiser during the First World War but found himself suddenly living in the French Republic after the Treaty of Versailles. He immediately immigrated to America.

            Jake patted his daughter's head before returning to the vegetables.

            "How's the new school coming along?" he asked after a moment.

            "Okay," Daria blandly replied biting into some cheese.

            Jake caught the intonation. When Daria used her monotone voice, things were not copasetic with her. He carefully laid his knife aside.

            "What's the problem, Daria?" he asked taking a chair across from her.

            "Nothing," she replied.

            "Daria, you have a choice," Jake began patiently. "You can tell me what's bothering you or I can tell your mother that you have a problem and she'll talk to you."

            Daria swallowed. "Mom doesn't talk. She interrogates. You wouldn't be as cruel as that to me."

            "Your choice, kiddo," Jake firmly said. "Me or the Morgendorffer Inquisition."  

            Daria hung her head. "You but I might hurt your feelings."

            "When it comes to your peace of mind, I'll take that chance," Jake assured her.

            Daria took a long drink of juice. "Word got around school today that you are my father."

            "Well, honey, I think that everyone already knew that," Jake chuckled.

            "No, I mean that they found out that you're also Jake Morgen," she clarified.

            Jake knitted his brow. "Yeah, so?"

            "So?" Daria replied. "Geez, Dad, the knuckle walkers at school might not have read your books but they have seen the movies made from them even if most of them have been 'R' rated."

            "Okay, you have a fairly famous father," Jake said. "That and thirty-five cents will buy you a soda."

            "Fairly famous," Daria exclaimed. "C'mon, Dad, when it comes to horror, it's Steven King, Dean Koontz, and Jake Morgen, the big three. You have a Bram Stoker award to prove it."

            "Granted, I've been successful but I still don't see the problem," Jake said.

            "They drove me nuts today with their stupid questions," a clearly frustrated Daria explained. "Everyone thought that you must be a psycho, like we had a dungeon in the cellar and mummified bodies in the attic."

            "That is an occupational hazard I'm afraid," Jake replied.

            "I kept telling them that you're a good man but they didn't believe me," Daria said with rising anger. "The slack-jawed, mouth-breathing, brain-dead, inbred drool monkeys!"

            Jake chuckled over his daughter's language. "Daria, it's not worth getting lathered over. People may have their preconceptions but once we're settled in Lawndale and they get to know us that will change. In a few months, after some PTA meetings and chance encounters in the mall and the like, they'll be embarrassed over their own foolishness for ever thinking that sort of thing. By that time, your mother will probably carry more notoriety."

            "Hardly, Dad," Daria countered.  "There aren't any policy wonks in middle school. Mom could become the Attorney General and she'll still be just a lawyer. You're the guy who wrote Scrambled Eggs and Severed Heads."

            "You may be right," Jake conceded. "But still, getting bothered by ill-informed comments is a waste. Let them slide off your back and continue on your merry way."

            "I'll try," Daria sighed. "It's just..."

            "It's just what?" Jake asked.

            Daria steeled herself before looking her father in the eye. "It has bothered me for a long time, Dad. You're the sweetest, gentlest man alive, polite to strangers, kind to animals, a caring loving father yet you are able to write such nightmare-inducing books. I cannot reconcile the two facts. I guess that makes me as stupid as my idiot classmates."

            "You're far from stupid, kiddo," Jake said as he stood. He checked on the cake in the oven. Satisfied with its progress, he grabbed his glass of wine and sat back down.

            "You're probably old enough to understand," Jake said seriously after taking a sip. "I know that you're definitely smart enough."

            "That's an ominous beginning," Daria responded.

            Jake smiled. "You have to immediately seize your audience's attention. I'm sure you remember meeting Sue Grafton last year."

            "Of course," replied Daria energetically. "She was funny. I liked her."

            "I liked her also," Jake said. "But do you recall how she got started writing the Kinsey Milhone books?"

            Daria nodded. "She said that when she was getting divorced, she was coming up with all of these ways to murder her husband. Instead of actually doing it, she began to put the plots into the alphabet mysteries."

            "That's right," said Jake. "And my story is similar. You said that I was a caring, loving father. That means the world to me, Daria. I have tried very hard to be that sort of parent, the type of dad that I didn't have."

            Daria had her curiosity piqued. She never knew either of her grandfathers. Both died when she was still a toddler. Helen often spoke of her father, always in tones of love and respect and with regret over the pain that she caused him by the choices she made as a young woman. Jake, on the other hand never mentioned his father. What few questions Daria had ever asked about him received only the vaguest of answers.

            "Your family was dysfunctional?" Daria asked  

             "No, Daria, it was abusive," Jake replied sadly. "I never heard a kind word from my father or the tiniest expression of love. The easiest days I had were the ones where Mad Dog was indifferent to my existence. Other days were nothing but barrages of ridicule. He belittled me continuously.  To say that I developed a warped self-image would have been putting it mildly."

            "That's horrible," Daria said aghast. "Why didn't your mother stop him?"

            "Mom thought, still thinks in fact, that a wife submits to her husband, no matter what," Jake replied. "She literally could not have defied Mad Dog anymore then she could have breathed underwater."

            "She should have done something," Daria said insistently.

            "Yes, but don't be so harsh on either of them," Jake said. "Mom could not move beyond her upbringing and Dad... the thing to remember, Daria, we're talking about a man who fought across North Africa and Europe in WW II and then spent another eighteen months in combat during the Korean War. He experienced things you and I cannot begin to imagine. Unfortunately, he did not find a healthy way to deal with those experiences. He turned them inward and they twisted what was by all accounts a good decent boy into a bitter, angry man. Grandfather tried to talk to him many, many times. As someone who had seen the elephant, he knew what Dad went through but Dad wouldn't listen to him and you can't help someone who won't let you."

            "But still, he had no excuse taking his problems out on you," Daria said. "You were lucky to have turned out okay."

            Jake chuckled ruefully. "Honey, luck had little if anything to do with that happening. I was one messed up kid, timid, no self-esteem, and prone to sudden, angry outbursts.  I managed to get kicked out of three schools. It's a wonder I ever graduated. Eventually, I discovered drugs which, needless to say, expedited my downward spiral."

            Daria frowned at the healthy, intelligent, confident man that sat across the table from her. She believed that her father telling her the truth but she could not picture him as he described himself.

            "So what happened?" she asked. "Did mom turn you around?"

            "That would be the romantic answer but no," Jake replied. "Frankly, when I hooked up with your mother, she was not in much better shape then I was but what she did do was stick with me even with my problems and talked me into giving college a try."

            "So what happened?"

            Jake smiled at the eagerness of his daughter to hear his story. "When we were at Middleton, Helen and I met a girl named Quinn Hughes..."

            "Quinn?" Daria interrupted.

            "Yes, your sister is named after her," Jake divulged. "She...let's just say that her life had been a nightmare at best but she was rebuilding herself through counselling. She convinced your mother and me to give it a go. Smartest thing we ever did. It gave us the tools we needed to climb out of the pit that we were in."


            Jake gestured with his wine glass. "Mister Hamilton the counsellor was not married to any one psychological school. He believed in using many different methods as he saw fit. The most pertinent one to our discussion was using arts and crafts as an outlet for the negative feelings. Didn't you ever wonder why your mother knits so much? It's an odd hobby for a feminist."

            Daria glanced down at the green sweater that she was wearing, one of several that her mother had made for her. The clacking of Helen's knitting needles was a sound that Daria could recall from her earliest memories. It was so commonplace that she indeed had never paused to reflect upon it. Daria looked up as her father continued. "After a few disastrous attempts at pottery, painting, and woodworking, I stumbled upon writing and that was the winning ticket. It was so cathartic. The anger, pain, and fear just flowed from me."

            "Like the physical meaning of cathartic," Daria deadpanned.

            Jake laughed heartily. "Very much so.  Mister Hamilton was very pleased with how open I was willing to be on paper. After I started writing, we were really able to make some great strides in screwing my head on straight."

            "But where was the leap from something written for therapy to writing horror novels?" Daria asked.

            Jake sipped at his wine. "Mister Hamilton thought that my ramblings showed a modicum of talent so he conned me into showing some of it to one of my English professors, Doctor Barry. Between her proofreading and advice and the encouragement of your mother, Mr Hamilton, and Quinn, I cobbled together Demon Drive. The rest, as they say, is history."

            "That explains why you wrote one horrorfest," Daria said. "But you've written fourteen of them now."  

            Jake tossed off the rest of his wine as he gathered his thoughts. Daria was too intelligent to be satisfied with simple platitudes and he was too honest to try to fob off some half-truths on her but putting his worries into a paradigm she would understand was difficult.

            "You were pretty badly bitten when you were four, as I recall," he finally said. "How do you feel about dogs, now?"

            The girl hesitated before answering. "They're all right, I suppose."

            "Yet when a large dog comes bounding at you, there's that twinge of fear, isn't there, even when you know absolutely that the dog is friendly," Jake said kindly.

            Daria waggled her head, a veneer of discomfort on her face. "Yes, there is. I don't run away but its there."

            Her father nodded sagely. "Our experiences shape us. People talk of conquering fear but the reality is that it remains, lurking in the dark corners, ever ready to stampede through our minds, if we let it. The key, of course, is not allowing it free rein. You stand your ground when a dog approaches and I keep writing horror. We both face the pain of the past so it cannot ruin the present."

            "So you write because you're afraid of...what?" Daria asked. "Becoming that messed-up kid again?"

            Jake tossed up a hand. "I write for many reasons. I like telling a story. I enjoy the technical challenges of the art. I like not being a nine to fiver. The money is good, good enough to allow me to be a stay-at-home dad but, yes, part of it is to keep what I was at bay. I like the man I am. I shutter to think what I might have been, otherwise."         

            Daria bobbed her head slowly. "I understand," she said softly. "The drool monkeys wouldn't, but I think that I do."           

            "Good, Daria, I'm glad that I could ease your mind on the matter," her father replied. "But now two things. First, if you have a problem, please come to me. Like I said, that is the kind of father that want to be for you."

            "And the dreaded second?" Daria asked.

            "Stop using terms like drool monkeys and knuckle walkers to describe your classmates," Jake said seriously.

            "Good grief, Dad, you would not believe how stupid some of them are," Daria complained. "You ought to have heard some of their questions and comments today."

            "I've likely already heard them all, Kiddo," Jake calmly replied. "As for the brainpower of your classmates; the fact is, Daria, you are going to meet very few people in your life that are going to be as bright as you are but it is the height of arrogance and a sure road to a lonely life to dismiss people because they are not your intellectual equal. Very soon, you will know quite a bit more then I do. Are you going to turn your back on me, at that point?"

            "No, of course not!" Daria exclaimed.

            "Then make allowances for others also," Jake said. "You may be surprised by what they bring to the table; by how much they can enrich your life in ways that you didn't expect."  

            "I'll try," Daria agreed grudgingly.

            "Any of your classmates stand out from the rest?" Jake asked.

            Daria drained her cranberry juice as she mulled the question. "Jodie and Jane are bearable, I suppose."

            "Both pretty smart, too," guessed Jake.

            "Jodie is," Daria replied. "I'm not sure yet about Jane. She's rather weird. She spends most of her time in class doodling. Some of her drawings are funny, though. Jodie and I nearly got in trouble today in Social Studies for giggling at one of them."   

            Jake arched his eyebrows. It must have been a very good doodle to get his normally stoic daughter to giggle and for her to actually own up to doing so.

            "We should be completely settled in by next week," said Jake thoughtfully. "Why don't we set up something for that Saturday for the three of you? Maybe, bowling and pizza? If it helps, you can have them stress to their parents who your mother is instead of who I am."

            To her surprise, Daria found the idea of spending time with some girls her age outside of school appealing even exciting. She beamed as she hopped off her chair. She scampered around the table to hug her father. "That would be great, but I am not going to hide the fact that you're my dad. You're the greatest dad in the world and if anyone doesn't believe that they can take a long walk off a short pier."

            The latent fears deep within Jake's psyche receded even deeper as he returned his daughter's hug.