Summary: A family crisis throws a wrench into Daria's plans.
Legal stuff: All Daria characters owned by MTV. Please don't sue me. I don't have any money. This work copyright 2005 MsHand. Steal it and I'll hurt you.
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Shortly after 11:30 AM, Helen Morgendorffer was at her desk typing up the day's umpteenth brief and downing her third cup of coffee. It was shaping up to be a typical day. And then her assistant blew in.
"Marianne! What's going on? It's not like you not to knock."
"I hate to just barge in like this, Helen, but Line 2's for you. It's Richmond General Hospital and they say it's an emergency."
Oh no. Mother. "I'll take it in here," a visibly shaken Helen said. She picked up the receiver before the first ring ended. "Helen Morgendorffer.... yes... oh dear God. I'll be there as soon as I can. If I get started now, it should take me about four hours. Have you called my sisters? I see...."
After hanging up the phone, she raced into her office closet, where she kept a spare power suit and an overnight bag with extra toiletries for those evenings where it was easier to sleep at her desk than go home. She seized the bag and in a move that sent her colleagues looking for the remaining three Horsemen of the Apocalypse, she left work to be at Tess' side. Not only was the firm's biggest workaholic taking a day off, she was going to spend it with her mother.
As she drove to Richmond, she tried to remember a time when she and her mother had not been at loggerheads. She couldn't do it. Well, if mother hadn't favored Rita over Amy and me and spoiled her beyond all reason, or thrown a fit when I went to law school, or threatened to cut me out of the will when I married Jake, or taken every chance she could to criticize everything I do... oh, who am I kidding. I'm just as bad as she is. I criticize everything she does, I stopped speaking to her for several years... ugh. There's more than enough ugliness to go around.
It wasn't that Helen enjoyed battling with her mother. She hated it, but she'd been doing it so long that it was hard to imagine life any other way. When other women described their mothers as their best friends she was at once flabbergasted and envious. Part of her could not imagine feeling that way about Tess. Another part of her could but tried very, very hard not to.
Helen had always hoped that things would get better, that someday the rift would close. Someday, when she made partner and the kids moved out and there weren't a million and one people asking her to do a million and one things by next Thursday. Someday, she'd be able to reach out to her mother and get a fresh start.
Today, someone had thrown a rock at Helen's head, and taped to it was the message "Someday never comes."
Tess' condition was grave. The doctors weren't sure if she'd survive the night. They'd advised Helen to find any family members who might want to pay their last respects. Her younger sister Amy was flying in from Providence, her niece Erin would arrive from Boston that evening, and she'd told Jake to bring their daughters right away. The only one MIA was Rita. For fifty years, she's been sponging off of Mother, and now that ungrateful wretch can't even come to her deathbed, Helen thought ruefully. Then she shook her head as if to shake out the thought. Seething over Rita wasn't going to help anyone. With her mother unresponsive and Amy not due to arrive for thirty minutes, Helen pulled out her briefcase and set to work.
Back at the Morgendorffer house, Jake burst into the kitchen in a panic. "Daria... Quinn... Virginia... now!" He leaned against the wall, hyperventilating.
Daria was nonplussed. Her father had a history of nonsensical outbursts. Does he want to take us to Virginia see Elvis in a grilled cheese sandwich? she wondered. "Slow down, Dad," she said calmly. "Don't forget about that heart attack."
"Your mother just called. Grandma Barksdale," he panted, "she had a stroke. Looks bad. We need to go."
"Ok, I'll call Quinn's cell," she said with no change in tone. Great, now the Battling Barksdale Sisters are going to duke it out over the will. She made a mental note to find some over-the-counter antacids for Helen; dealing with her sisters tended to give her ulcers.
Twenty minutes later, Quinn arrived to find Daria and Jake chucking overnight bags into the trunk of the Lexus. "Where's Mom?" Quinn whined. "This is her mother. You'd think she could, like, come along."
"Your mother's already there," Jake said, much steadier than before. "She left work around 11:30 this morning to go to the hospital."
"Mom left work early? Man, this must be serious." Quinn dashed upstairs to get a bag, and when she returned the family was on their way.
When they finally arrived in Tess' room, they had expected to find the three sisters screaming at each other. Instead, they found Helen and Amy talking in hushed tones and Tess' bed unoccupied. Something's up, Daria thought. The Barksdale girls were never quiet.
"Girls! Jake! It's good to see you." Helen said.
Jake embraced Helen. "How are you holding up, dear?"
She sighed. "The situation doesn't look good. It's difficult to say how badly Mom's brain has been damaged. She might die, she might have only minor handicaps, or she might be a vegetable. They're operating on her brain right now to stop the bleeding. Amy and I thought it'd be best to get everyone together, just in case..."
"What about Aunt Rita?" Daria said.
Amy and Helen exchanged glances. After an uncomfortable pause, Amy spoke. "We're not sure where Rita is. The nurses say she brought Mom in, but they haven't seen her since. We asked Erin to get in touch with her - Rita's more likely to talk to her than us - but so far nothing."
Daria was incredulous. "You mean she just disappeared?"
Helen's fists tightened. God, the things I could do with that little brat. What I wouldn't give for five minutes alone with her and an ironclad alibi. "Girls, you probably know that Rita's had a drinking problem in the past."
Amy rolled her eyes. Helen was being too damn euphemistic, as usual. "Or rather, she's had a problem not drinking."
"We think Mom's stroke may have pushed her off the wagon. After Dad's funeral, she went on a five-day bender and..." Helen grimaced. Lock it down, Morgendorffer, she commanded herself.
"Suffice it to say that we think she didn't wait for the funeral this time." Amy jumped in.
"So Aunt Rita's out doing keg stands while her mom is dying? That is so wrong!" Quinn cried, and for once, she couldn't have been more accurate.
What happened next surprised Daria and Quinn even more than Rita's possible whereabouts. Helen Morgendorffer broke down sobbing. If this stroke doesn't kill Mother, Rita will.
Thirty-five thousand feet above Kansas, Rita Barksdale was on her second glass of wine. At least, the flight attendants thought it was her second glass of wine. She'd had one glass in the airport bar, and for good measure, washed it down with a scotch on the rocks. With any luck, she'd be asleep soon and she wouldn't have to worry about getting thrown off the plane for drunkenness. That had happened to her twice. Maybe more, if you counted that time back in '88 when she woke up in Dubuque. She still wasn't sure how she wound up there. No matter. In a few hours, she'd be in Las Vegas, playing the slots, chasing Chippendales, and drinking enough to forget most of it. Forgetting was all she really wanted to do right now. Forget that her mom had just had a stroke and wouldn't survive. Forget that what was left of Mom's savings would be gone after her hospital stay. Forget that she was the reason there was so little left...
Never mind. She'd done her duty. She'd been there for Mom, unlike Helen, Patron Saint of Workaholics, and Amy, Queen of the Disappearing Act. Let them deal with Mom for once in their pathetic lives. I'm the one who lived with Mom all those years. I'm the one who followed in her footsteps at the Junior League, I'm the one who drove her wherever she needed to go. I'm the one who stood by her after Dad died... well, after I sobered up anyway. And now that Helen and Amy are on their way, I'm the one who ensured that she wouldn't die alone. My job is done.
Rita wanted to remember her mother as the active woman she'd been, and thus there was no reason to sit by her deathbed and weep, nor any reason to go to the funeral and weep some more. Let Helen and Amy have the negatives: the hospital, the funeral, the cemetery. Negatives were all they were likely to remember about Mom anyway; those two brats never could stop criticizing her.
Never mind, she thought. Just close your eyes, and when you wake up, you'll be in Vegas. Just close your eyes...
The doctor, an officious-looking man of about 35, arrived at 9:00 the next morning. Jake, Daria, Quinn, and Erin were sharing a hotel room a few miles away. The two Barksdale sisters had slept in Tess' room - Amy on a recliner, Helen on a cot - and were now stirring sugar into their coffee in a desperate attempt to make it palatable.
"Are you Mrs. Barksdale's daughters?"
"Yes. I'm Helen Morgendorffer and this is Amy Barksdale."
"I'm Dr. Whitney." He shook their hands. "I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that the surgery was a success. Your mother's going to live. She's very lucky; about 80% of the people who have this type of stroke don't survive."
"Oh thank God," Helen said. "What's the bad news?"
"As we discussed yesterday, your mother's faculties will be diminished once she wakes up. She'll need a great deal of care. I suggest you investigate nursing homes."
"Could she be cared for at home?" Helen asked.
"Maybe. It depends on how much brain damage she's sustained. I'll schedule an MRI for this afternoon. That'll tell us the full extent of the stroke. Here's my card; let me know if you have more questions." With that, the doctor left.
Helen stared at her unconscious mother with a look of intense concentration. I've been avoiding you too long. It's time to change that.
"What is it?"
"Nothing, yet. I just... I need to go take care of some business. I'll be back in a few hours."
"You damn well better come back. I'm not dealing with this mess alone."
Helen looked her sister in the eye. "I will be back. If I don't come back, it's because I ran into Rita and she shot first."
Helen, of course, did not run into Rita. Even if Rita had been within 100 miles of the family, she wouldn't have been caught dead in the public library, which was where Helen spent the afternoon. She wasn't looking for any book; she simply needed a few hours of peace and quiet. She returned to the hospital that afternoon with her head clearer than it had been in years. That evening, Helen explained the situation to her family over a just-this-side-of-edible dinner in the hospital cafeteria. "So the MRI said that most of Mom's brain damage is in the part of the brain that controls speech. There's also some damage to her motor centers, but she'll still have her cognitive abilities."
"Is she going to get better?" Quinn asked.
"Some stroke survivors do," Helen replied. "A few don't. But in order to get better, she'll need a lot of rehabilitation."
"What, she should join AA?" Quinn said.
"Not that kind of rehabilitation, Quinn. Physical rehabilitation. And on that note, I need to discuss something with all of you."
Six questioning eyes locked on her. I hope Jake doesn't have another heart attack. Helen sucked in a deep breath and said, "I want Mom to move in with us. And I want to quit my job so I can help take care of her."
Daria dropped her fork. "Who are you and what have you done with my mother?"
"But... but... what about money? And your mother... under our roof... you hate your mother! Can't... take ... more... battling... Barksdales!" Jake cried.
Helen wrapped an arm around Jake's shoulders. "Relax, Jakey. Your business has been taking off lately, and we've got money saved for Daria and Quinn to go to college. And Mother has a nest egg of her own we can use."
"But Mom, making partner is, like, the only thing you've talked about since we moved to Lawndale. If you quit, you can't do it."
She smiled wanly. "I really did want to make partner. But some things are more important."
If you were to look up the word "thunderstruck" in the dictionary, you'd likely find a picture of Daria Morgendorffer's face at that moment. I feel like I've walked into an after school special, she thought.
A few hours later, Helen explained the situation to Amy. "So you don't mind my taking on Mom?" she asked.
"Mind? No! I'm grateful. I love Mom, but there's no space in my apartment for her, and my department chair has me running around like a one-armed paper-hanger until my tenure review next year. But are you sure you're up for this?"
"I did the math, and it looks like we can use Mom's savings to pay for a lot of her treatments. Plus, we'll get some money from the sale of her house."
Amy shook her head. "Mom's not going to like that."
"I don't particularly like it either. After all, that house was Mom and Dad's dream. But it'll be a long time before Mom can live on her own again - if ever - and it doesn't make any sense to pay the mortgage on an unoccupied house."
By Monday morning, Tess had recovered enough to notice her surroundings. The family had all gathered in her room. Someone had told her why they were there, but she couldn't remember what was said. She gazed over at the two girls sitting next to Erin. Are those Helen's daughters? she wondered. Lord, they've grown up in a hurry. The redhead... Quinn, yes, that's her name... she's showing a little too much belly there. But at least she's pretty. If she plays her cards right, she'll find a good husband. The brunette... Darlene? No, Daria. Rita told me the girl's an antisocial bookworm, yet stubborn as a mule. Poor child somehow got both Helen and Amy's worst qualities. Good luck finding a man for that one, Helen.
"Mom, the doctor's here," Helen said.
I can see that, you nitwit. Glad you tore yourself away from work long enough to see your mother. Did you have to get surgery to remove that cell phone from your ear?
"Hello, Mrs. Barskdale," Dr. Whitney said, pulling up a chair next to the bed. "I'm Dr. Jeremy Whitney. You're in Richmond General Hospital. You had a stroke three days ago and we're trying to figure out how it affected you. Can you understand me?"
Tess opened her mouth. "Y... uh..." Dammit, what is that word? Her face turned crimson as she struggled to remember. Giving up on speech, she merely nodded.
"Mrs. Barksdale, can you tell me the last thing you remember before you got to the hospital?"
"Um, Friday sun up, we watched... uh, Showcase Showdown, talked about the, um, meeting. Rita called... doctors." Tess was enraged. She understood the doctor and she remembered the morning of her stroke perfectly: It was Friday, just after 11 AM, and she and Rita were watching "The Price is Right" and discussing a Junior League meeting when suddenly she couldn't feel her foot. Rita called 911 and they went to the hospital. She knew it; why the hell couldn't she say it? Since when does a stroke turn you into a two-year-old?
"Grandma, what's wrong?" Erin said. She had never known Tess to be anything but direct when speaking.
Dr. Whitney then handed Tess a pencil and paper and asked her to try to write down her thoughts. The result was similar. He made a few notes, then turned to Helen and Amy. "Your mother is suffering from Broca's aphasia. She can understand everything you say, but as you can see, she's having difficulty expressing herself both verbally and on paper."
"Oh Mom," Helen said softly, tears welling up.
I'll be damned. The Woman of Steel has a heart after all, Tess thought.
"There is good news, though. Speech therapy could be a big help to your mother. Have you decided where she's going to live after she's discharged?"
This time, Tess found the words she was looking for. Two of them, anyway. She shouted, "Home! Rita!"
Jake took Helen's hand as she started weeping. Shoes shuffled. Eyes turned to the floor. What the hell is going on? Tess wondered. Suddenly, she realized that Rita wasn't there.
Amy pulled herself together first. "Mom, we don't know where Rita is. Nobody's seen her since she took you to the hospital on Friday."
Tess' brows furrowed. "No."
Erin walked over and took Tess' hand. "I'm sorry Grandma," she said, fighting off tears. "I tried everything I could think of for the last two days, but I can't find her. I left her a bunch of messages and she won't call back."
Tess softened. "You're a good um, daughter of daughter." Poor thing. What's she going to do without her mother?
"Mom," Helen said softly, "Jake and I want you to come live with us. I'm going to quit my job so I can spend more time with you."
What what WHAT?? "Hmph. I don't...think it is to be true."
Helen briefly stepped back as if she'd been slapped. Take a deep breath, Morgendorffer. Remember where yourstubborn streak came from. "Mom, I feel awful about the way things have been between us. I want to make it up to you. If you come live with me, I'll quit my job."
You'll quit your job? I had a stroke, not a lobotomy. "Hmph."
Helen shrugged. She'd hoped to do this in person so she could see the expression on Eric's smug little face when he realized he couldn't foist his work on her anymore. Oh well, if this was what it took to convince Mom, she'd do it. She whipped out her cell phone and began dialing.
"Hello, is Eric Shrecter available? Tell him it's Helen Morgendorffer. Yes, I'll hold.... Hello, Eric. When am I going to be back at the office? I will not be back at the office... STOP THAT LAUGHING! I'll fax you a written resignation later today.... I'm leaving because my mother had a stroke and my siblings aren't able to care for her. And since I don't believe in warehousing my mother in a nursing home and you don't believe in flex-time, I have no choice. Tell Marianne she's been great. I'll be back to clean out my desk on Wednesday. Good bye."
Tess blinked. "OK. Me come." That's the nicest thing anyone's ever done for me, and I forgot how to say "thank you."
By Wednesday evening, the Morgendorffer clan had returned to Lawndale and Daria finally had a chance to discuss the last few days events with her best friend. Over an extra-large pepperoni pizza, Daria explained the new family situation.
"So now Grandma Barksdale lives with us and Mom swears she's going to take care of her."
Jane raised an eyebrow. "How is she going to find time to do that when she's spending 90 hours a week at the office?"
"She's quitting her job."
Jane laughed so hard that she nearly choked on her pizza. After clearing her throat, she said, "Wait. You're not laughing."
"It's not a joke. Mom really did quit her job. She and Grandma have been feuding since before I was born, and Mom decided it's time to bury the hatchet."
"Whoa. Being jobless must be a shock for your mom."
"She's taking it pretty well so far. She went to clean out her desk at the law firm and when she came back, she had the biggest grin I've ever seen. When I left, she was calling occupational and speech therapists for Grandma and drawing up a new budget."
"What do you mean by a new budget?"
"Oh you know, more homemade food, less frozen lasagna, less money for Quinn to blow on clothes she'll only wear once. Why do you ask?"
"All the care your grandma's going to need sounds expensive. How is your mom going to be able to pay for that and Raft tuition when she's unemployed?"
"My folks have been putting money in my college fund since I was a baby. There's enough money to cover it. How are the wandering Lanes paying for BFAC?"
Jane shrugged. "I got a scholarship from BFAC that pays about half my tuition. When Grandma Lane heard I was going to college, she decided that she should help me make something of myself because she figures none of my siblings will. So she's covering the rest of my tuition, plus room and board."
"Wow. What's the catch?"
"I have to finish in four years and I have to live in the dorms. It's a small price to pay. Anyway, I still haven't told you what you missed at graduation."
"A bunch of boring speeches given by people I'll never see again?"
"Even better. You missed getting to give a speech!"
Now it was Daria's turn to nearly choke. "What?"
"Yeah, they gave you an award for 'academic achievement in the face of extreme misanthropy.'"
Daria waved her hand dismissively. "Sounds like a back-handed compliment. Anything interesting, like Kevin falling off the stage?"
"Kevin didn't get on stage."
"What, did he and Brittany oversleep?"
"Even better. Kevin didn't graduate."
"There is a God!"
Back in Richmond, Amy and Erin had a Herculean task ahead of them. Everything Tess had accumulated over the last few decades needed to be sorted. Some things would be sent to Lawndale so that she could use them now; others would be placed into storage in case she was ever able to live on her own again. No one dared say it, but everyone knew that the possibility of Tess regaining her independence was slim. The best she could hope for was assisted living.
Money was another issue. Someone had to find out exactly how much money was in Tess' bank accounts and find a way for Helen to be able to access it. Someone had to put the house on the market. Someone had to take care of the credit card bills. Rita had been named executor of the estate, so normally these would be her duties. With Rita nowhere to be found, the will stated that Erin should take her place. Amy wasn't required in Providence until the start of the summer term, so she offered to help Erin.
While Amy was sorting clothes in the master bedroom, Erin was in the study. Erin figured the credit cards should be her first priority. She didn't know how long it was until the next payments were due, and she knew how angry credit card companies got when you missed a payment. Grandma doesn't need that kind of stress, she thought. She went into Tess' billfold to find the actual cards - it would be a good idea to hold onto them in case Tess wanted to use them later. Gee, that's strange. Three slots for credit cards, but only two cards are here. Maybe she cancelled one.
A memory drifted up into Erin's mind. "The two things a girl can never have too many of are credit cards and gentleman callers," her grandmother had said. No, Tess would never cancel the card.
Erin decided to search the desk. Maybe the other card was only for emergencies and it was stored separately. Or maybe Tess really had cancelled it.
Or maybe my mom took it.
No. Of course she didn't. Whatever else her mother had done wrong, she couldn't have stolen the card. Could she?
Rooting through the desk, Erin found no card. But she did find the credit card statements. There was a folder for Visa statements... yes, that card was here. There was another folder for MasterCard statements. That card was here too. And there was a folder for American Express Gold Card statements. That card was missing. God, please let there be another explanation for this. Please don't let my mom be a thief. She searched the other drawers of the desk like an addict looking for drugs. Please let there be a secret hiding place or a safe deposit box key or something!
An hour later, Amy entered the study to find all the drawers on the desk removed and her niece sobbing amid a pile of papers. She knelt in front of Erin and took her hand. "What's wrong?"
"It's my mom," she wailed. "She took Grandma's gold card."
Two thousand miles away, Rita's luck was running out. She did well at first, winning $15,000 at the craps tables. She was about to cash in her chips when she saw it: Texas Hold-Em! She'd been a poker queen during her brief stint at Great Prairie State, so she could really clean up now. At least, that's what she'd thought two martinis ago. Now the alcohol was catching up, her chips had dried up, and she just wanted to lie down. Might as well put a few charges on Mother's gold card while I still can. I already put the plane ticket on here, so what harm would a hotel room do?
Then, through Rita's alcohol-induced fog came the realization that her family had access to Tess' credit card information. They may have already cancelled the cards. And if they hadn't, the Las Vegas charges would appear on the statement. No one could have taken the cards except her, and once they saw the charges, they'd know how to find her. Helen's a pit bull when it comes to getting what she wants. There's no way I could avoid her. Using Mom's cards was out. She had to find another way to make some cash in a hurry.
She toyed with the antique rings on her right hand. Great-Grandma Barksdale would spin in her grave if she knew what was about to happen to them. But then, she was probably already spinning from everything else Rita had done that day. Sorry, Great-Grandma. It's you or me, and I choose me.
A few minutes later, Rita walked out of the casino. The sale of the rings was just enough to cover the money she'd lost at poker. Now what? The pounding in her head was getting unbearable. She needed to sober up before she could make any more plans.
She stumbled into an alley, vomited, and dozed off. Several hours later she woke to the sound of a fistfight. Luck was on Rita's side this time because she sidled away from the commotion unnoticed. The pounding in her head was gone, but a rumbling in her stomach arrived.
I'm so tired of asking myself that. She looked across the street and saw a seedy strip club, the type of place that the frat boys at Great Prairie State used to go to when they didn't have enough cash to drive to Chicago for real fun. The place had a "Help Wanted" sign in the window. Could she? Yes. What else do I have going for me, anyway? She went back to the casino, ducked into a bathroom, rinsed her mouth out and combed her hair. This could work. It has to work.
She crossed the street fixated on the neon sign above the front door. "The Flamingo" it said. She walked in and asked about the job. The manager came in a few minutes later. Hunger made it difficult to concentrate on what he was asking her, but one question stood out.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"Thirty-five," she said. A fifteen-year lie. He believed it. She was hired. I finally got a job. Happy now, Helen?
Friday evening, Amy called her sister to explain the situation. Bad news, bad news, and more bad news. And I know what Helen does to the bearers of bad news.
After three rings, Helen answered the phone. "Hello?"
"Hi Helen, it's Amy. Are you busy?"
"No." Helen smiled to herself. Busy was having to work ten-hour days and coming home to find that Daria had mouthed off to a teacher and Quinn was getting a D in math and Eric was calling again and the only thing for dinner was Jake's kitchen sink stew. Running all over town to get Mom to her appointments and getting home by six was downright laid-back in comparison.
"Good. Um... there's no other way to say this. Erin and I have been going over Mom's financial records, and the news is not good."
"What do you mean?"
Amy fiddled with the phone cord. "Are you sitting down, sis?"
Helen slid into a kitchen chair. "I am now. What's going on?"
"Well, first the bad news. Rita stole Mom's gold card."
"WHAT??? That reprobate!! I'm going to kill her!"
"Well, good luck finding her. We spoke with the credit card company and they said that the only charge that's been made since Mom had her stroke was an airline ticket. She could be anywhere."
Helen was numb. Rita had pulled some godawful stunts over the years, but this was worse than any ten of those combined. After a long pause she said, "Tell me you at least got them to cancel the card."
"Yes, they were really good about it. They refunded the charge Rita made and gave Mom a new account number. But... that's not the worst of it."
"What do you mean?"
"Mom doesn't have nearly as much in savings as we thought she did. The account's down to around $1,000."
She felt grateful that she'd heeded her sister's advice to sit down. If she'd been standing up when she heard that, she'd be on the floor in a puddle now. The last she'd known, Tess had nearly $40,000 in the bank. "You mean Rita stole that too? Are there any depths that little shit won't sink to?"
"She didn't steal it. Mom gave it to her."
Helen put the phone down and screamed out a diatribe of obscenities that would make Larry Flynt blush. Then she picked up the phone again. "Why did Mother give her the money?" she said through clenched teeth.
Amy fidgeted. Please don't kill me. I'm just the messenger. "Erin told me that when Rita turned fifty, she had a bit of a meltdown. She was depressed about getting old and she was afraid she'd never get married again -"
"As if three times weren't enough."
"Anyway, Mom thought that plastic surgery would cheer her up."
"Exactly what did she have done?"
Amy shuffled through a stack of bills. "Breast implants, arm lift, face lift, liposuction in three places, spider vein removal, permanent eyeliner, collagen injections... and those are just the ones I know about. Erin said that Rita hired a personal trainer and spent a lot of time in spas too."
"So why didn't Erin tell anybody about this before now?"
"Because she didn't know where the money was coming from. She thought that Mom was writing checks for all these procedures, or putting them on the gold card. Please don't blame her for this. She's not her mother's keeper."
The entire household felt the wind come out of Helen's sails. She's right. Erin lives ten hours away from Mom and Rita, and her marriage is on the rocks. She can't be expected to know what they're doing every second. "Tell Erin that I'm not angry at her. But from this day forward, I have no sister named Rita."
Amy blinked. Surely Helen wasn't going to simply let this go! "That's it? No tirades? No hunt for Rita's blood?"
Helen may have been a pit bull, but she had the sense to know when she was beaten. "What good would it do at this point? We don't know where she is and finding her would take an army of private detectives. And that would take money that we don't have. Rita obviously doesn't want to be part of this family anymore, and after what she's done, I don't want to call her family. She's dead to me."
Amy sat in silence for a moment. At first she couldn't believe what her sister had said. But then, disowning everyone is pretty much what I did between grad school and Erin's wedding. Amy decided that the issue of Rita could be settled if and when she returned. Right now, there were more pressing matters.
Eager to move on, Helen asked, "Is there anything else I should know about?"
"Yes. I talked to a real estate agent about selling Mom's house. We'll get a fair amount of money for it, but not as much as we'd hoped. The roof's leaking and the siding's turning to pulp, so they'll both have to be replaced before we can sell. That'll eat into the profits."
"How much?" Helen asked.
Amy quoted a figure, and Helen's head spun. She sat in a daze for a few moments. Then Amy's voice came over the phone line as if out of a fog. "Sis, are you OK?"
"Yeah... yeah, I'm fine. I just... uh..."
"I'm sorry, I know it's a lot to take in."
"Yeah... uh... Amy, I'll call you tomorrow. I need to do some math."
Before she had quit her job, Helen felt like she spent her whole life robbing Peter to pay Paul. She stole time from her daughters to be at work, and from work to be with Jake, and from herself to do the trillion and one other things she needed to get done. But until now, she'd never felt like she was actually stealing from anyone. Now there was money involved.
To say that her sister's news had been a shock was the understatement of the year. When she'd quit her job, she thought that her mother had saved enough to cover any long-term care she might need. Little did she know that Rita's need to keep young and beautiful was more important than anything else. Not only had Rita depleted the savings, but she'd put most of her personal training sessions, manicures, and "look-at-me" outfits on Tess' cards. That coupled with Tess' home being in a greater state of disrepair than previously known meant that Helen had a hard decision to make. Mother should have been smarter than that, she thought, grinding her teeth.
Her first option was to find a part-time job and pray that she'd still have the money and time to care for Tess and send her daughters to college. That wasn't very likely; Helen had learned from bitter experience that when law firms said "part time" they really meant "we'll pay you for part time work, but if you're a team player, you won't mind working full-time hours." And it would pay less - much less - than she was making before. Besides, what would Mom do while she was working? I can't leave Mom alone until more of her speech comes back, and that could take months. What if there was an emergency? Would she be able to call 911? Would the operators understand her? There were senior centers in Lawndale where Tess could stay while the rest of the family was at work and school. But the cost would have been so high that there'd be too little left over for tuition payments, not to mention car payments and mortgage payments and credit card payments. For now, part-time work was out.
The second choice was to crawl back to her old firm, beg them to re-hire her, and put Tess in a nursing home. But if I did that, what kind of example would I be setting for the girls? Returning to her old job would send a subtle but strong message that her work was more important to her than her mother - or her children. Besides, the whole point of asking her mother to move in with her was to end the feud they'd been having for nearly four decades. If she sent Tess to the nursing home, she would kill her chances of ever reconciling with her mother.
And then there was the third choice: use the girls' college funds to pay for Tess' care. God, what an ugly option. But at this point, it appeared to be the only one. Selling her own house might help, but it was only temporary; there was no telling how long Tess would need care. Plus, the real estate market in Lawndale was in a rut. It could be months before they found a buyer.
There has to be another way. She thought of her husband. Jake may have had "fruitcake" written all over him, but he was a whiz with money. If anyone could get them out of this jam, he could.
"Yes, dear?" He said, scrambling to the table.
"Brew a pot of coffee. We have some number crunching to do."
As Jake set to work, an idea popped into Helen's mind. She picked up the phone and called Amy back. "Hi Amy, it's me again. I just have a quick question."
"Do family members of CCRI faculty get free tuition?"
"Spouses and children do, but no one else. Why do you ask?" Amy paused for a moment and then said, "Oh."
"Jake and I started a college fund when Daria was six months old. When she was that age, we never thought she'd get into a school like Raft. Plus, I was still in law school and we didn't have that much to give. Later on, we saw how bright she was and we tried to add to it more often, but Jake and I were both making a lot less money in Highland, so the balance stayed fairly low until we came to Lawndale."
"Didn't Daria get any scholarships?"
"Well, she only applied for the Wizard Scholarship and got rejected. I thought she'd be able to get some aid from Raft, but their scholarships are all need-based, and at that time we didn't qualify."
"Couldn't she have gotten any that were merit-based?"
"No," Helen sighed. "After Daria told me Raft was her first choice, I called the financial aid office and asked about scholarships. They said that anyone who could get accepted to Raft would qualify for a merit scholarship, so they didn't hand any out."
"Damn," Amy sighed. "You know I'd pay for Daria to go to Raft if I could, but CCRI just had another round of budget cuts and it looks like the raises we were supposed to get two years ago aren't coming till the next Ice Age. I do want to help, though. What's Daria's contingency plan?"
"I don't know," Helen admitted. "I wanted to go over the numbers again before I talked to her."
Amy did some mental calculations. "Well, I can definitely handle resident tuition at most state schools, so tell Daria to consider me her new college fund. It'd probably be too late for her to get into a dorm anywhere, but if she could go to school locally..."
"Yes, Lawndale State and Carter County Community College are both here in town."
"I could pay for tuition at either of those places. Or, if she didn't mind putting off college for a little while, she could live with me in Providence for a year, and then she'd qualify for resident tuition at the University of Rhode Island."
"Thank you, Amy. This means a lot to me. I'm sure it'll mean a lot to Daria too."
After Helen ended the call, she looked into the dining room. Her husband was sitting at the table, scribbling away and absolutely oblivious to everything around him. Well, he's always oblivious. Math just intensifies it. She smiled to herself. She'd always loved watching Jake do math. "Serene" was not normally a word one would use to describe Jake Morgendorffer, but when he was crunching away at a math problem, he seemed so peaceful. He was born to calculate.
Several hours later, Jake looked up. He'd finally finished, but the results weren't going to be popular. Time to go show Helen; she was much better at delivering bad news than he. He padded through the dark kitchen into the living room, wondering where everybody was. Then he noticed the clock. 2:30 already? I'd better get to bed.
As he walked down the hall to the master bedroom, he noticed that Daria's bedroom door was ajar. Stealthily, he opened it a little wider and peered in at her. I wish I could do better for you, kiddo.
The next day while Jake was at the office, Helen called a family meeting. Daria, Quinn, and Tess gathered around the kitchen table where Helen stood looking like someone had just kicked her puppy.
"Everyone, I'm afraid I have bad news. There no easy way to say this, but... the money situation is a lot worse than we thought. Rita spent most of Mom's savings on plastic surgery, and as a result, the sale of her house isn't going to be enough to cover her treatment. Daria, Quinn, I'm afraid we have to use your college funds to pay for your grandmother's care."
"WHAT??" Daria squawked. "Why didn't you tell me this sooner? I would have applied for more scholarships if I'd known!" I'd have sold my bodily fluids to get out of this teenage wasteland.
"Daria," Helen said in the calmest tone she could muster, "we didn't find out about this until last night."
Daria's head fell forward onto the table. This cannot be happening. This absolutely cannot be happening. I did not just spend four years busting my ass to get into a good school only to have it ripped away from me at the last second by a relative I barely know.
"Oh my Gawd, does this mean I have to go to community college? You can't even join a sorority at community college!" Quinn cried.
Don't worry, Quinn, Tess thought. You don't need a sorority to find a good husband. Lord knows the one Rita met through her sorority was a bum.
"Quinn, you have another year before you start college. If you make the most of it - bring up your grades, get more involved, bring up your test scores - you might be able to get a scholarship somewhere. And maybe by then we'd qualify for more federal aid," Helen said.
"So what about me? Are you just going to let me rot in Lawndale?" Daria demanded.
Helen brightened a bit. "Daria, there is some good news. Amy's offered to help you with college. She'll pay for you to go to school locally, or you can take a year off and live with her, and then you'll be able to get resident tuition at URI."
"Why can't I just enroll at URI now?"
"Because you have to live in Rhode Island for a year without taking classes in order to get residency. Out-of-state tuition at URI is almost $18,000 per year, and that's a hardship for Amy right now."
Daria folded her arms. "Nobody seemed concerned that not being able to go to Raft would be a hardship for me."
Helen was enraged, but before she could react, Tess spoke up. "You should be happy."
Helen looked at her mother quizzically. "Happy?"
Tess frowned. "Er... Thanksgiving?"
"Oh, you mean thankful?" Quinn said.
"Yes," Tess replied. "Hardship is having a... brain thing. Hardship is not knowing whether, uh... daughter... is OK. Hardship is not this." Lord, this girl is spoiled. See what happens when you don't pay enough attention to them, Helen?
"Your grandma has a point, Daria..." Helen began, but she was cut off.
Oh no, it's an after school special again. "It's nice to know who's really important around here. I'll be at Jane's."
"...so that's the way it is," Daria explained, seated on Jane's bed. "The College Adventures of Daria and Jane aren't going to happen."
"Damn, that sucks. What are you going to do?"
"Kill my grandmother?" Daria joked.
"Good luck getting into college with a murder rap. Second choice?"
Daria sighed. "I just can't decide right now. Getting good grades and getting into a good college has been the focus of my life since I was 14. I knew that if I just worked hard enough, sooner or later I was going to get out of here. Now it comes out that I could have goofed off half the time and still be in the same situation I am now - going to a state school."
Jane thought for a moment. "Daria, I know how you feel -"
"No you don't. Getting rejected from a school is being told you can't cut it. Raft said I could cut it, but I'm not good enough for them without $50,000 a year for the next four years. You didn't have to worry about paying for BFAC."
Jane snorted. "Getting rejected was not the only reason I didn't want to apply to BFAC. I really was afraid I couldn't afford it. If I hadn't gotten that scholarship -"
She would bring that up. "And how did you get a scholarship anyway, with all those C's in math?"
"It's not a merit-based scholarship. It's a scholarship for students who demonstrate financial need."
"You heard me. Think about it, Morgendorffer. My mom makes ceramics and my dad's a freelance photographer - emphasis on 'free.' Things are a little better now, but back in middle school Adrian and Courtney and I had to dig through the couch cushions to find money for dinner."
Daria's anger dissipated like fog at midday. She'd known the Lanes were shiftless, but she didn't realize it had ever been that bad. "I'm sorry, Jane."
Jane shrugged. "It's not your fault my folks are irresponsible."
"No, I mean about the way I acted. I was rude."
"It's OK, Daria. You are now obligated to put up with one of my tantrums." Jane smiled.
"It's a deal." Daria returned the smile. "But I still don't know what to do about college."
"Give yourself a few days to think about it. Lawndale State has rolling admissions, so you can apply there any time."
"That's a good idea. In the meantime, I think I better go apologize to Mom. I was almost as nice to her as I was to you."
"Okay, amiga. Give me a call later."
Daria returned home to find the rest of the family gone and note from her mother saying that she had taken Tess to physical therapy, Quinn was out with friends, and they all expected to be back before dinner. Might as well start looking at L-State and URI's websites, she thought resignedly. I can't make a decision without knowing anything about either school.
Two hours later, Helen knocked on Daria's door. "Mind if I come in?"
"No. Have a seat."
"Daria, I just want to say that I know how disappointed you are about Raft, but it's not the end of the world. Lots of successful people went to state schools. Believe me, we'd send you to Raft if we could. But your grandmother can't go out and get a job to help pay for her care. You, on the other hand, can get a job to help with school, or apply for scholarships next year."
Daria sighed. "I know that, Mom. And I'm sorry I yelled at you earlier. But... I worked really hard to get into Raft, and all that work came to nothing."
Helen hugged her daughter. "I know how much effort you put in, sweetie. Your father and I have always been proud of your dedication to school. And I know how much it hurts to devote yourself to a task and have it come out poorly. I felt that hurt every time I lost a case. But whenever I lost a case, I'd allow myself a certain amount of time to be upset about it, and then I'd get back up and start working on the next case. Dwelling on disappointment will only you into a bitter recluse, and you're too young for that."
"Well, I was hoping to get an early start," she said with a Mona Lisa smile. "But you're right."
Helen started. She hadn't expected it to be this easy. "Who are you and what have you done with my daughter?"
Daria smiled. "I talked to Jane earlier today and I realized that I'm actually pretty lucky."
Note to self: thank Jane, Helen thought as she glanced over Daria's shoulder. "Is that L-State's website on your computer?"
"Yeah. I think I'd like to go to school there."
"Really? I thought you'd jump at the chance to live in Rhode Island with Amy."
"Rhode Island is nice, but L-State has a creative writing program and URI doesn't. Besides, if I took time off from school, I'm not sure I'd want to go back."
"Okay, sweetie. Call Amy later and let her know what you've decided." Helen kissed the top of her daughter's head and left the room.
Amy Barksdale flopped onto the couch of her Providence apartment. She'd just returned from Richmond and she was exhausted. If Daria moves in with me, I'll have to clean out that spare bedroom for her. As if cleaning out Mom's house wasn't bad enough. She groaned. Tess was an incredible pack rat, and Amy had inherited the trait. I shudder to think of what I'll have stockpiled when I'm her age.
Amy was about to crack open a beer when the phone rang. She considered letting the machine pick up, but Helen's number displayed on the caller ID. Better see what she wants.
"Hi Aunt Amy. It's Daria. Are you busy?"
"No. What's going on?"
"Um, I want to say thank you for paying for me to go to college. It occurred to me that it's probably not easy for you to scrounge up the money for that, and I'm really lucky to have you for an aunt."
Amy grinned. "I'm lucky to have you as a niece. Have you decided where you're going to go school yet?'
"Um, yeah, that's part of the reason I was calling. I'm going to go to Lawndale State. It's not that I don't want to live with you, it's just that L-State has a creative writing major and URI doesn't."
Yes! Cleaning averted! "That's OK, Daria. It doesn't make much sense for you to go to a school that doesn't have the major you want. Besides, I'm not exactly easy to live with - just ask your mom." And I like my privacy just as much as you do. We'd both go nuts living in close quarters.
Daria smiled. "She'd have similar things to say about living with me."
"Anyway, this is good news. I know it's not exactly your first choice, or even your tenth, but hey - you're going to college! Even though you'll be in the same town, it's really a different world. You're going to love it." Don't tell her the truth. She'll crack.
"Thanks, Aunt Amy. I have to go; there's some stuff I need to take care of."
"Okay, Daria. Talk to you later."
Daria set down the phone and pulled her chair up to the computer. Opening up a new document in the word processor, she began to type.
Dear Raft College,
Due to circumstances beyond my control, I will not be matriculating this fall.
At that point, the screen became blurry. Daria first thought there was something wrong with the monitor but no, the monitor was working perfectly. Her eyes had filled with tears.
Thirty minutes and nearly as many tissues later, she had the letter signed, sealed, and in the mailbox. Now there was only one more chore. Daria made her way into the living room and found Tess at her usual spot on the couch.
"Um, hi Grandma. Mind if I sit down?"
Tess glowered at her granddaughter, but nodded.
"Uh, I just want to say that I acted like a real jerk this morning, and I'm sorry. Not getting to go to Raft is a huge disappointment, but um... I realized earlier today that a lot of people are a lot worse off. And... um... that it's actually pretty selfish of me to want to go to Raft when you need the money for treatments."
Tess gaped at Daria for a moment, then smiled. Perhaps there's hope for you after all, she thought. "Niceness... uh, I mean, thanks..."
"Apology?" Daria squeaked.
"Yes," Tess smiled. "Apology accepted. Want to watch Humphrey Bogart?" Tess clicked on the TV and flipped to the Classic Movies Channel, where "Casablanca" had just started.
"Sure," Daria said. I could get used to this.
And for the rest of the evening, peace reigned in the Morgendorffer household.
Author's notes: Thank you to PPMB members Angelboy, Angelinhel, The Angst Guy, Nemo Blank, brnleague99, Decelaraptor, Derek, Stephen Galloway, Greystar, RLobinske, Orpheus, Prince Charon, psychotol, Gregor Samsa, Sleepless, E.A. Smith, Lawndale Stalker, Staren, Wormbait, and Mike Xeno for beta reading and encouragement. If I left anyone out, give me 50 lashes with a wet noodle.
Out-of-state tuition rate at the University of Rhode Island was retrieved from their official website: www.uri.edu
This story was inspired by a thread at the PPMB entitled "Bad News, Daria," where there was a discussion of what would happen if Daria couldn't afford to go to Raft. I thought the story had potential, but since the Morgendorffers seem well off, I first had to find a way to make that scenario plausible. From there, the dominoes began to fall. Two sequels to this story are planned. One will focus on Daria's adjustment to Lawndale State and the other will be Rita-centric.