Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged.
Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2006.
This is the forty-sixth story in the Falling into College series.
Almost fearful, Lewis Berkheart looked around the counter and into the kitchen of his apartment. His roommate Michael Fulton was within, watching a frying pan on the stove and holding a spatula over it like a weapon. Scattered around the counter and stacked in the sink were various used bowls, containers and empty packages. Lewis asked, "How's it going?"
Michael replied, "Nothing's exploded, congealed into a substance harder than steel, or eaten through the cookware."
"So, you're improving."
"Dinner might be safe for my family to eat."
"Why is learning to cook so important? Lots of college students survive on ramen noodles and delivery pizza. Hell, I do it half the time."
Michael stirred the contents of the pan. "I'm almost twenty and halfway through college; it dawned on me how dependent I still was. Staying at the dorm was almost like still living at home. Someone else cooked for me, took care of the utilities, cleaned the bathrooms..."
"Hey, at least you can do your own laundry."
"After turning all my underwear baby blue when I washed them with a pair of jeans at the beginning go my freshman year taught me a lesson."
"That means you learn from your mistakes. Besides, blue is better than pink."
"There is that."
Both young men turned when the doorbell rang. Michael said, "Could you get that, please? It's probably Daria."
"Sure." Lewis crossed the modest living room and answered the door for a petite, auburn-haired woman. "Hi, come on in, your other half's in the kitchen."
"Hi, Lewis," Daria Morgendorffer said, accepting the invitation to enter. After closing the door, she raised one eyebrow. "Other half?"
"Sounds better than 'the old ball and chain'," Lewis said with a shrug.
"He's anything but that," Daria replied.
Michael greeted her as she reached the kitchen with a gentle embrace. "Thanks for coming over early."
"I like your parents, remember?" Daria said before kissing him. "And I love you."
"I love you," he quietly said afterward.
Daria asked, "Anything I can do?"
Voice showing his uncertainty, Michael said, "I think I have a handle on things."
"Okay." Daria looked past him to the cluttered counter and sink. "Don't feel bad. Some of the messes I made cooking in my old dorm room were ugly; ask Karen."
After taking a deep breath, Michael opened the door. Waiting outside were his parents and younger sister.
Samantha pounced, giving Michael a big hug. "It's so good to see you!"
"Good to see you, Mom." Looking over her shoulder, Michael added, "Hi Dad, Hi Gina."
Ron waited for his wife to let Michael go to briefly hug his son. "Hi, Michael."
As soon as her father let go, Gina grabbed Michael, pinning his arms. "Gotcha, big brother."
"Looks like it," Michael answered. "You know, I sometimes worry about you and Natalie having unsupervised run of the house all summer."
Gina released her brother and punched his arm. "Get over it. We can take care of ourselves."
Samantha stepped past and warmly embraced Daria. "It's good to see you too, Daria. How are you?"
"I'm fine, Samantha," Daria said, returning the gesture to the larger woman. "And you?"
Gina looked around the living room and said to her brother, "We should be worried about you out loose on the world, goofball."
Samantha patted her stomach. "I lost ten pounds." She then slapped her butt and added, "Now if I can lose another ten pounds here, I'll be a lot happier."
Ron lightly embraced Daria and asked, "Is Michael behaving himself?"
"Mostly," she replied.
Gina followed her father in greeting Daria, saying, "You have my permission to kick his butt when he doesn't."
"I'll remember that," Daria answered.
Spying Lewis, Gina said, "Hey, is that your roommate? He's kind of cute, though a little too old for me."
Lewis gave her a quirky smile and said, "No offense, but I don't think I'm your type, either."
Michael took the chance to say, "Everyone, this is my roommate, Lewis. Lewis, this is my mom Samantha, my dad Ron, and my sister Gina."
Lewis nodded. "Nice to meet everybody. Don't want to seem rude, but I have to get going to an Intro to Materials Science study session I have to ride herd over at seven."
After Lewis made a polite exit, Michael scratched his head and said to Gina, "Weren't you seeing Roger?"
Gina waved her hand. "Oh, we broke up a couple weeks ago. You were right, he was geekier than you."
"Wait...you just admitted I was right. Is there snow forecast for today?"
Just as Daria closed the dishwasher and stood up, Michael came up from behind. He said, "Thanks," and slipped his arms around her waist before kissing the side of Daria's neck.
Daria hummed with pleasure and leaned her head against him. "You're welcome, though putting dishes in a dishwasher is hardly a backbreaking task."
He smiled and asked, "Do you want me to stop?"
Pulling his arms tighter around her, Daria replied, "I didn't say that."
"Just making sure," he said and moved his kisses up her neck and along her cheek.
"Oh jeez, get a room," Lewis said from the other side of the counter.
Daria and Michael both jumped at his voice, with Michael saying, "We didn't hear you come in."
"Let me guess, you were a bit distracted."
Lewis chuckled at the blush on the couple's cheeks as they nodded in agreement. "Looks like your parents survived dinner; there are no signs of paramedics having gone through the living room."
"It was...chewier...than I intended, but everyone was polite enough not to say anything."
"Cool. Did they have any problems finding a hotel?"
"Dad booked one online a couple weeks ago."
"Okay, so what's the plan for the week?"
Michael explained, "After they go to church tomorrow, we'll go over to visit Daria's apartment and give them a chance to meet Jane. I'll play tour guide for them for the next couple of days. We'll watch the Fourth of July fireworks on Wednesday. By the way, the offer still stands to get you in along the bay where I work."
Lewis said, "Thanks. If my plans change, I'll take you up on it."
"After that, we drive down to Lawndale so my parents can meet Daria's."
Daria amended the statement with, "And for the scary part, his sister gets to meet mine."
Michael then said, "We'll spend Friday down there, and then everyone goes home on Saturday, spending Sunday recovering before going into work on Monday."
"And you really expect all this to work according to plan?"
Daria answered, "With my parents involved? Of course not."
"It sold? That's great news, Mother," Helen Morgendorffer said over the telephone. She paced around the kitchen, keeping an eye on her husband while he prepared lunch.
Jake used two spatulas to enthusiastically stir-fry the contents of a wok while odd bits and pieces escaped and fell onto the stovetop or floor.
At her home, Tess Barksdale said in return, "It's going to be strange to have someone other than family living in that old guest house, but they seem like a nice couple and their daughter is adorable."
"That sounds delightful. When do they plan to move in?"
"They're going to start over the holiday and work through the weekend."
"Sounds like we'll both have busy weekends," Helen said. "Michael's parents are on vacation. After they visit Boston, they're coming here to meet us."
"Is that so? I'd dearly love to meet them."
"I don't know if we'll have time to drive to Virginia."
"Oh, don't be silly. I'll catch a train to Lawndale. What would be a good time for me to arrive?"
"Yes honey, I promise not to make a scene by declaring my undying love for you," Jane Lane said. The slender woman was pseudo-seductively stretched out on the sofa. "Our little secret is safe."
Seated in a recently acquired chair to replace the long-overused camp chairs, Daria replied, "Jane, it's no secret that you're not in your right mind. Or left one, for that matter."
"You seem awfully calm for having your future in-laws over."
Daria made a face at Jane. "They're nice people and our place is nothing to be ashamed of, except for maybe one of the residents."
"Don't say that about our landlady. You're not worried about putting on a 'good homemaker' image for them?"
"Maybe I'll show them how to brighten a garden while disposing of a body."
"And how to color-coordinate bridesmaid dresses with the soil," Jane snapped back. "Come on, where did you hide the real Daria?"
The auburn-haired woman shrugged. "I feel comfortable around them. They welcomed me without preconditions. It didn't matter what I looked like or what my opinions were. The fact that Michael cared for me was all that they needed to know. Just like Trent and your mother; being your friend was enough."
"Except that the Fultons were awake and living on this planet," Jane said with a light laugh.
Gently smiling, Daria said, "Yeah."
Staring at one of Jane's paintings on the wall, Gina said, "This is so cool."
"You like it?" Jane asked, and then added without waiting for a response, "Keep it."
"You've got good taste, kid."
"Wow, thanks," Gina replied, taking the painting down.
"And when I'm famous, you can sell it online for an outrageous profit."
Inside Daria's room, Samantha looked at a square of grey padding attached to a sheet of plywood hanging on the wall next to the computer desk. "Is that one of Jane's?"
"No," Daria explained. "That's a piece of what used to be on my bedroom wall in Lawndale."
Samantha gave her a very strange look. "Your parents kept you in a padded room?"
"It was there when we moved in. I liked the padding and didn't do anything with it. I saved that piece when I came to Raft and Mom remodeled the room. It's...comforting."
"I'm sure these tell a story," Samantha said, touching one of a dozen tiny, silk flowers in a vase over Daria's computer.
"Michael gave me that the first Valentine's Day we were together."
Samantha paused in remembrance, thinking of when she'd dated Ron. Next, she eyed a poster of a half-buried skeleton on the wall near the closet. "Is that also a gift from Michael? It seems like something the archeologist in him would like."
"I picked that up when I was a high school freshman in Texas. Kind of a statement of my opinion of the town we lived in." Daria let slip a far-away smile and unconsciously added, "Though we do have a couple private jokes about it."
Samantha turned away and politely pretended not to hear the last comment.
Gina's voice drifted into the room. "Daria caught the bouquet! Come on, big brother. That's a hint."
"It sounds like my daughter's getting a little overly excited again."
"I'm starting to wonder about what Gina's going to be like when she meets my little sister."
"Don't worry. I have a few stories I can pass on for your defense," Samantha whispered.
Daria and Samantha stepped out of the hallway at the same time Gina smirked and pointed to Michael. "Isn't he cute when he blushes like that?"
Face almost matching his hair in color, Michael replied, "Easter of 96."
Gina's face went flat and she said, "You wouldn't...you would."
Jane moved her gaze from one sibling to the other. "Well, are you going to leave us hanging like that?"
Gina exclaimed, "Whose side are you on?"
It was Jane's turn to smirk. "Mine."
Daria said, "And don't ever forget it."
Jane turned around. "Hey, we were just talking about you."
"I noticed. Have you talked about Mack much yet?"
Michael joined in. "Yeah. When are you seeing him next?"
Jane rolled her eyes and admitted, "He's coming here to visit while all of you are in Lawndale."
Gina pounced, asking, "So...what kind of long-range plans do you two have?"
To Michael, Jane said, "Has she always been like this?"
"I'm surprised she's still alive."
"Mom made it clear that after twenty hours of labor, if anyone got to kill Gina, it was her."
Daria said, "That maternal instinct at work."
Samantha crossed her arms and, with her head slightly cocked and a knowing smile, looked at Daria.
Jane dove and rolled out of the way. "Damn! I've never seen a nuke version of 'wait until you have kids of your own' before."
Hearing the telephone ring, Daria stepped aside to answer it, at the same time feeling an odd, new connection to Samantha. "Hello?"
Helen said, "Hi, Daria."
"Hi, Mom. What's up?"
"Just calling to see if the Fultons were safely in town and if things are going as planned."
"They made it without problems and we're about to head out for lunch." Daria tapped her fingers against her thigh and asked, "Since you asked, what unexpected change of plans has occurred at your end?"
"Well, I was on the phone with Mother..."
At the conclusion of two days of sightseeing around Boston, Daria and Michael led the Fultons to Raft University's Lavell Hall Gallery. Looking over the student artworks on display, Ron said, "Not exactly to my taste, but they are different."
Holding Michael's hand, Daria said, "What's on display at any time is hit or miss. I can't say that everything I've seen here has been to my taste, either."
Gina asked, "Sounds like you two come here a lot."
Michael nodded. "It's one of our favorites. There are some good memories here."
Daria softly rubbed her thumb over the back of Michael's hand. "Very good memories."
"I'm glad we have a couple locals to show us these romantic, out of the way places," Samantha said with a hint of teasing as she grasped Ron's hand.
Gina released a sigh of frustration at the two couples. "When I finally find somebody, I'm going to get even for all this."
Daria answered, "We expect nothing less."
Carrying a pair of blankets and a small cooler, Ron asked, "Are you sure it wouldn't be easier to drive?"
Stuffing water bottles into cargo pockets on his pants, Michael answered, "Positive. Traffic is going to be a nightmare and public transport is the best way to get to the Esplanade."
"And what are we going to do all day?" Gina asked. "Isn't this a little early?"
Jane said, "My boss invited me along last year. Trust me; if you want a spot in front of the Hatch Shell, you have to get there in the morning. If you want to skip seeing the orchestra, you can find a spot along the river later."
"This is probably going to be my only chance to hear the Boston Pops live. We'll just have to keep ourselves entertained," Samantha said.
"Jane's usually pretty entertaining," Daria added with a small smile.
Taking a bow, Jane suggested, "I can serenade everyone."
"On second thought," Michael quickly stated. "We could find something else."
"It's been a while since you were in the choir, but you and Gina could sing a little," Samantha said.
"Oh?" Interest piqued, Jane inquired, "Has Michael graced you with his voice, Daria?"
Cheeks turning pink, Daria admitted, "Once."
Closing the pockets and grabbing two folding chairs, Michael said, "We better get going. The crowd's only going to get worse the longer we wait."
Picking up a backpack full of supplies, Daria said, "Good idea."
Grabbing a portable radio, Jane returned, "You're not getting away that easily. Later."
Following the others, Ron wondered, "Do you think we could rent a boat and watch from the river?"
"This late, forget it," Michael called back.
"Should've brought mine," Ron said wistfully.
There was already a huge crowd gathered on the oval lawn in front of a massive band shell when they arrived. A band of mature deciduous trees surrounded the lawn and blocked a direct view of the Charles River. Jane led them to a spot about halfway to the stage along the south side of the oval, where they would have a clear view of the concert and capture a little shade from the trees. Soon after, the blankets, chairs, coolers and other supplies were in place and everyone was seated.
Sitting cross-legged on a blanket, Jane said, "You know, some water guns, party string and play slime would just complete the day."
Letting out a single laugh, Daria said, "I haven't thought about that in ages."
Michael asked, "What?"
"During the first summer I was in Lawndale, Jane and I went to a party Jodie had at the park where the city celebration was going on. Somebody started a water-gun fight with extra-messy weapons. We spent a good part of the evening cowering behind a table until the police arrived."
"When we made a quiet exit." Jane laughed a moment and added, "Daria found a pack of the slime and tossed it over a hedge. I sometimes wonder who she hit with it."
"That will have to be one of life's little mysteries," Daria replied.
Gina said, "We used to have water-gun fights when we were younger. I miss that."
"That's because you have supernatural aim," Michael said. "Nobody should be able to hit a moving target at that range."
"You're just slow."
"No, you're just a freak of nature."
"Whatever." Gina shifted her focus, saying, "Hey Daria, what kind of stuff did you and your sister get into?"
She picked at the blanket. "Not that much. For a long time, we didn't get along that well."
"Sorry. Up until the end of summer before my last year of high school, we were more like antagonists. But, we've gotten close since then."
"You must've done something together."
Daria sat back and thought back for several seconds. "When I first learned, I'd read to Quinn a lot. Mostly simple beginner's books. I think we both enjoyed it. But, when Mom started working and we started spending time at a daycare center, she drifted away with her new friends and I stayed mostly with my books. Start of a long-term trend; she was popular and I was bookish."
"I bet she'd like to hear you read one of your stories."
"Only one person ever really liked hearing me read," Daria said, the faint sadness clear in her voice.
Daria quickly turned to see her boyfriend's slight frown. "Except Michael, and you can't consider him unbiased."
Jane said, "He'd listen to Daria reading the ingredients on a can of soup."
"Guilty," Michael stated.
"So, who is it?" Gina asked.
"Theresa Blaine. I met her while doing some volunteer work at her nursing home, and I'd stop in once or twice a month to read whatever I was writing. She was a retired teacher and gave me some good advice."
"Do you get to see her when you go back to Lawndale?"
"She died just before I left for Raft. I still miss her."
"Oh." Gina quietly absorbed the information before saying, "I still think your sister would like to hear you read."
Cannon reports rolled across the oval lawn in response to the orchestra's rendition of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. To the north, multicolored lights flashed against thin clouds of smoke and through the trees as the fireworks detonated over the Charles River. Each blast of the battery caused the crowd to jump in response.
Samantha sat on a folding chair next to Ron, one hand held in his and her eyes closed. A deeply pleased smile graced her face as she let the music embrace her. Ron leaned against the arm of his chair and watched the wonder of his wife's face.
Jane sat facing the stage and waving her hands around as if conducting, though a little out of synch with the music. Gina sat nearby, people watching as she leaning back against her arms. During the thunderous finale, she nudged Jane and pointed to Daria and Michael.
Daria sat in front of Michael with his arms pulled around her waist. Her head was leaned back over his shoulder, resting against his as they stared toward the firework flashes. Neither reacted to the music, sitting still as if surrounded by silence.
"Come in, Mack," Daria told the handsome man at the door.
Michael MacKenzie entered and gave Daria a brief hug. "Hi. How are you and Michael?"
"We're good. You must've gotten up at some obscene hour of the morning to arrive this early."
He looked past Daria at Jane approaching. "A small price to pay."
Jane jumped and hugged Mack, wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist. "You're early. Not that I'm complaining, mind you."
"I'm going to take that as my cue to leave," Daria said to the pair locked in a kiss. "Have fun."
"We will," Jane said.
Mack added, "Have a safe trip."
Daria picked up a small suitcase and said, "I'm not as worried about the drive as much as I am about the potential culture clash."
A soft meow directed Daria's attention downward, where her cat was rubbing against Mack's ankle. "Be nice to him, Jane and Mack are going to be the ones feeding you for a couple days."
Jodie Landon stacked papers on her desk and said, "Mr. Morgendorffer, I'll handle everything. Go have fun."
Jake let some of his tension slide away after hearing the reassurances of his intern. "Will do. I'll make sure Daria gets a chance to stop by to see you."
"I appreciate it. We haven't seen each other since Christmas break. I wish I'd been in town when Daria and Jane came down for that wedding."
Jake shut down his computer and closed his briefcase. "I'm sure you knocked the socks off those snobs at Crestmore Business School."
"I think I made a good impression."
"Don't let the place fall apart while I'm gone," Jake jokingly said while opening the office door.
"I'll try not to let that happen. B-school students would kill for internships this close to what they want to do."
"Hey, glad to help. See you on Monday!" Jake jogged out of the office, grinning and excited.
Jodie smiled and walked behind Jake's desk and looked at the three picture frames, one each dedicated to his wife and daughters and containing several photos spread over many years. Tucked into a corner of Daria's frame was a small photo of Michael. Jodie sat down and stared at them while thinking of the coldly formal family photos on her father's desk. "Jake, you may not remember what month it is, but you never forget how much you love your family."
"Sibling bonding," Michael explained as he pulled his car out onto the street. Daria was seated to his right and Gina was in the back seat. Ron and Samantha followed in their car.
Daria looked over her shoulder at the younger sibling. "Or your parents wanted some time alone."
"Either way, you're stuck with me," Gina said, arms folded.
"In that case," Daria said, turning and resting her arm on the seat back. "I guess I can start learning a little more about you. You were almost inseparable from your friend Natalie when I visited last year."
"I know it's a little early, but do you have any plans yet for college?"
"I'm almost clueless."
"That's a step up from completely clueless."
"I like music and I like to sing, but I don't want to be in a rock band or a big performer or anything like that. Some of those places beginning bands play at are so gross."
Daria smiled, thinking about the Zon. "No argument."
Gina then said, "Don't even mention teaching. I don't have the patience."
"I can vouch for that," Michael said.
Gina bounced a wad of paper off her brother's head. "I heard you."
He ducked and replied, "But, you do have Mom's knack for getting people to listen."
"I wouldn't mind being in charge of a small, local choir or something like that," Gina speculated.
"I can just see you as a crazy church choir lady," Michael joked.
"Doing music for a church wouldn't be bad, either."
"I can just see you singing at weddings..." Michael chuckled and finished the sentence, "...and having to stomach other people's bad taste in songs."
"I can't complain about his taste in songs," Daria said.
"Oooh, that sounds interesting."
Suspicious, Daria asked, "Do you really want to know?"
"He sang Everlong as we stood on the landing of my apartment after one very romantic date."
Gina said to Michael, "That was sweet, even for you, Goofball."
"I expect fifty percent" Daria said, matter-of-factly.
"Fifty percent of what Jane was paying you to get the information."
Gina pouted and said, "Damn, you're good."
"One of the things I love about her," Michael said.
Daria leaned over and kissed his shoulder. "Don't worry, you'll get your cut."
Driving along the interstate behind Michael's car, Samantha said to Ron, "It doesn't look like there's any bloodshed up there."
Resting with the seat tilted back and his eyes closed, Ron said, "It must mean that our children are growing up."
Samantha reached over to hold Ron's hand. "How long has it been since we've had a long drive together like this?"
"About twenty years? I remember you were incredibly pregnant at the time."
"And stopping every half hour for me to use a rest room. I was wondering if Michael was going to grow up to be a soccer player, with how much he was kicking."
"It doesn't feel like that long ago."
"I'll have to admit to being a little nervous about meeting Daria's parents. What about you?"
"Not really. Can't be any worse than when our parents met."
"That's why I'm worried. Your mother dumped a drink over my father's head. Not that he didn't deserve it..."
"And they've gotten along fine for years. The way I figure, someone is going to say or do something stupid, someone else will get mad, and then we'll all get over it. You and Helen seem to get along fine over the phone. Jake and I will go burn hamburgers on the grill."
"Look at how level-headed Daria is. She had to get it from somewhere. I wouldn't worry."
Formally embracing Tess, Helen said, "Mother, it's so good to see you."
"It's good to see you, Helen. It doesn't look like the Fultons have arrived. When are they expected?"
"Michael had a flat tire. It took them a little while to get it replaced, but they should be here within half an hour or so."
"I see. Hello, Jake," she said as he walked over from the living room.
"How was your trip?" Jake asked.
"Pleasantly uneventful. Can you carry my bags?"
"Sure." Jake picked up the single suitcase and started follow his mother-in-law.
Sitting at the sofas were Quinn and her friend, Sandi Griffin. Sandi quietly observed, "Her hair is almost the same tone as your mother's. I wonder what coloring she uses on it."
"Only the best. Trust me," Quinn replied. "I bet she's left instructions on how to dye her hair when she's buried."
"Hello, Quinn," Tess said, her voice slightly raised.
"Hi, Grandma. This is Sandi."
"Good afternoon, young lady."
"Um, hi Mrs. Barksdale," Sandi said.
"Helen tells me that you're staying here."
"Until I can save enough for my own apartment. I'm staying in their guest room."
"That reminds me," Tess said. "Helen, where will I be staying?"
"In Daria's old room. She'll stay at the hotel with the Fultons."
Nodding, Tess said,"I'm sure Michael's parents will be good chaperones. She is enamored with that young man."
"They make a nice couple."
"And, I'm pleased that she isn't living with him, yet."
Chafing at the old irritation, Helen warned, "Mother..."
"Helen, I'm saying that I approve of your daughter's behavior."
Quinn whispered to Sandi, "I'm sorry. I was hoping that they wouldn't start this early."
"And you're also saying..." Helen stopped with her fists clenched.
"Helen, I didn't approve of your college living arrangement back then, and I still don't."
Sandi whispered back to Quinn, "Don't worry. You should see my mom and grandmother go at it."
Driving along Glen Oaks Lane, Gina said, "Admit it. Having a flat on the interstate freaked you out."
"Mom asked us to let you drive some for practice," Michael said from the back seat.
"If I was freaked out, I certainly wouldn't expect your driving to calm me down."
"Considering you just ignored a stop sign, I think he has a point," Daria said.
Whipping her head back to look, Gina exclaimed, "Damn!"
Gripping the arm rest, Daria asked, "Gina, could you please watch the road in front of us?"
"Oh!" Gina looked back and corrected the car's path to avoid hitting a dog.
Daria looked back at the familiar bulldog and said, "That mutt has a charmed life."
Pounding on the steering wheel, Gina said, "Damn, damn, damn. I'm going to hear it from Mom."
They passed by six or eight blocks before Daria pointed and said, "That's it, the brick house ahead on the left with the red and the yellow cars in the driveway."
"Got it." Gina pulled in behind Sandi's yellow convertible. She sat still in the car, both hands on the steering wheel.
Samantha drove up and parked behind Quinn's red Vexxer. She stepped out of the passenger door and crooked a finger at Gina. The teen frowned, nodded, and got up to follow.
Michael leaned forward and said, "Having a safety manager as a mother makes learning to drive a little stressful."
Daria replied, "Considering the way you drive at times...I don't think all of it stuck."
Using a voice that was even, insistent and commanding, Samantha scolded, "You didn't see that stop sign at all, did you?"
"No, Mom. I was talking and got distracted," Gina answered.
"What have I told you about that?"
"Don't let conversations take your mind off driving."
"Good, you remember. Do you also remember that everyone's safety inside that car is your responsibility?"
"Yes. Mom, I'm sorry."
"Too many young people get hurt and killed that way."
Michael said to Daria, "I suppose. But, your road paranoia gets almost as bad."
"It's not paranoia if all the other drivers are out to get you."
Inside the house, Helen rushed over from the large front corner window. "They're here." She adjusted her casual, but nice, blouse and asked, "Quinn, does this look okay?"
"It's fine, Mom."
Tess said, "Yes, Helen. You're starting to sound like Rita."
Jake hurried to the door. "I'll go help them get the luggage."
Ron was almost to the front door when Jake opened it. "Hey! You must be Ron, I'm Jake. Glad to meet you."
Ron accepted the handshake and said, "Hello, Jake."
Jake moved close and said privately to Ron, "You might want to tread a little lightly. Helen and her mother are not having a good day."
Samantha was now talking to Michael. "And you shouldn't have been distracting an inexperienced driver like your sister."
Sensing the mood in both families, Ron asked, "Jake...can you make a couple martinis?"
"Mothers can be such...mothers," Gina grumbled as she flopped back on Quinn's bed.
"I hear you," Quinn agreed.
"They can make you swear off having kids." Seated on the floor next to the bed, Sandi idly petted a white cat purring on her lap. "If there's any chance I'd end up like mine...I couldn't do that to a kid."
Gina abruptly sat up. "Oh, I'm sorry, Sandi. I wasn't trying..."
"I know. Just let it go."
Still uneasy, Gina said, "Um...sure."
"Why don't we change the subject?" Quinn suggested.
"My goofball brother and Daria interrogated me the whole time we were in the car." Gina grinned. "Got any fun dirt I can use on her later?"
"I know this is going to come back to haunt me, but I can't resist. Excuse me." Quinn walked out of the room for a minute and returned holding three thick photo albums. "I'm sure we can find something."
Sitting at the dinner table between Helen and Tess, Samantha said, "Raising two children was plenty of work. Raising three daughters must have been a real challenge."
"All three of them could be challenging at times," Tess said, shooting Helen a quick glance. "But in my day, I was home all day to raise them."
"Not everyone had a choice back then," Samantha replied. "I remember my mother needing to work while I was growing up, just to make ends meet."
Helen said, "Mother, not everyone was as fortunate as we were."
Squeezing a can of lighter fluid and directing the liquid at the pile of charcoal, Jake said, "Gas grills are for amateurs."
Ron finished off his glass and said, "Exactly. There's an art to building a proper fire and cooking on it. With a gas grill, you might as well stay in the kitchen."
"And the meat never tastes right from a gas grill. It's missing something." Jake pointed a long-tipped grill lighter at the pile and pulled the trigger. After several tries, a flame popped out from the lighter and touched the soaked charcoal.
"Whoa!" Ron exclaimed, watching the fireball rise and spread out in a small mushroom cloud. "That was some good lighter fluid."
Jake reached over to the small table near the grill and picked up his martini glass. "You should've seen the stuff I used to get in Texas. That could light anything."
"Okay, then. I'm glad you don't drive like my father," Daria said to Michael.
He pulled the car into a parking space in front of Morgendorffer Consulting. "And I'm glad you don't backseat drive like my mother."
Daria released her seat belt and opened the car door. "We're making compromises. Does this mean we're turning into an 'old' couple?"
Michael stepped out and closed his door. "Maybe. But, it beats the alternative."
"Since the alternative was me beating you senseless, I can see that."
They met at the front of the car and Michael put one arm around her waist. "Hmm. If you have to administer a beating to get me senseless...does that mean I have some sense now?"
"A little, but don't let it go to your head," Daria said with a faint smile.
Opening the door to the office, they heard Jodie say, "May I help...oh, hi Daria. Hi, Michael."
Jodie came around her desk and greeted them at the door, hugging both at the same time. "Thanks for stopping by to see me. How are your folks getting along with each other?"
Daria said, "So far, so good, between families; but within family tensions...could be better."
"She is sooo cute!" Gina said, looking at a photo of eight year-old Daria. She was wearing a white and lavender Easter dress and asleep against a tree with a small wicker basket of eggs beside her.
Quinn said, looking over Gina's shoulder, "She wandered off and my folks were freaking out trying to find her. For a week after, she tried to convince me that the real Easter Bunny left the eggs."
"Wow, Quinn. Your sister really was cute," Sandi added while looking over Gina's other shoulder.
"We are sisters, you know."
"That sounds like a lot of responsibility," Tess said to Samantha. "Please go on, I'm sure things don't always go the way that they should.
Samantha said, "No kidding. In those situations, I get to do the prep work when some idiot hurts himself through his own stupidity and hires a bottom-feeder lawyer to sue the company anyway."
Eyebrows arched sharply, Helen said, "Bottom-feeder?"
Holding a bottle of hot pepper sauce over the hamburgers cooking on the grill, Jake shook a single drop onto one. "Think this is enough?"
Ron stroked his chin and closely examined the meat patty. "Uhhh. Nah, go for broke."
"Good thinking, man." Jake proceeded to liberally apply the sauce to every burger.
"Oh, my God! Mack got drunk? And you were there?" Jodie incredulously asked.
"Just as drunk, and boy did I pay for it the next day." Michael said. "Hangovers suck."
Daria had walked around the side of Jodie's desk and tilted a picture frame to look at a photo of a young man. "It looks like your life hasn't been uneventful, either."
"His name is Levon. I met him when I went up to Crestmore to visit the Business School. Seems like I keep getting into long-distance relationships, but at least we'll be in the same school this fall."
Daria reached over to Michael's hand. "Being close has its advantages."
"I can see that."
Daria asked, "How are things coming along with you working for Dad?"
"Great. A lot of my classmates have laughed at me for working in a small company while they go off to big corporations, but I'm getting real consulting experience while they're basically gofers."
"I'm a little jealous," Michael said. "You two are getting direct experience and I'm still a groundskeeper. But, at least it pays the bills."
Daria looked sidelong at him. "How many colonial-era historians and restorationists have you met?"
"Um...several. I suppose that is a good start, if I shift my area of study to that from ancient history."
Quinn put a bookmark in place and closed a photo album. "My friend Lindy has a fancy scanner and all kinds of cool stuff like that. She can even put them on a CD for you."
Gina grinned. "Thanks, Quinn."
Hands on hips, Tess said to Helen, who was still at the dining table. "That was a good start at getting along with your potential in-laws."
Helen gulped down her drink and said, "Just about as well as you get along with Ruth. I guess we share something in common after all."
Thin trails of smoke drifted away from the hamburgers as Jake moved them from grill to platter. "I think they might be a little on the well-done side."
Ron said, "Don't worry. You can get Salmonella from undercooked ground beef. It's better that way."
"We better go home," Daria said. "I'm not certain how long our families can be together unsupervised."
"It's been good seeing both of you," Jodie said. "Have a safe trip home tomorrow."
"We'll be careful," Michael said. "Bye, Jodie."
Daria hugged Jodie. "Good luck at Crestmore. Good bye."
Jodie waved as they left and then went back to her desk to sit down. She started reviewing the contract wording she'd been working on before Daria and Michael's arrival, but couldn't concentrate. She looked at the door and said, "Mack never cut loose like that around me."
"I don't like the look of that smoke coming up behind the house," Daria said as they neared home.
Michael said, "Don't you think it's odd that the smoke is coming up in puffs and not continuously?"
"You're right, that is very odd."
Michael parked the car and said, "I've got a feeling we better check this out."
They walked around the right side of the house and looked into the back yard. Jake held the lid over the grill for several seconds before quickly raising it. A plume of smoke billowed up, only to be cut off when Jake dropped the lid back in place.
Standing on the other side of the grill, Ron chewed on a burnt hot dog and said, "Jake, I don't think they're listening to us."
Jake asked, "You got any other ideas to get them to let us in?"
Michael shook his head, "Our mothers have locked our dads out of the house."
"This is starting to turn into a real Morgendorffer moment," Daria said. After walking over to their fathers with Michael, she eyed the empty drink pitcher, confirming that both were drunk. "Dad, what did you do?"
"Oh, hi Kiddo! We, uh, kind of overcooked dinner."
Ron said, "And, I think we may have gone a little overboard on the pepper sauce."
"Oh yeah. That's why your wife was drinking out of the milk carton."
Michael picked up the hot sauce bottle and read the label. "Colonel Cutter's Conflagration Concoction?" He put a drop on a fingertip and tasted it. "Ow."
"Careful son," Ron advised. "That stuff's pretty potent."
Daria said, "We're going to head inside and see if we can spring you."
"Good luck," Jake said. "You'll need it."
Ron added, "Samantha and Helen are madder at each other than at us."
Daria and Michael looked at each other and sighed.
Daria used her key to unlock the sliding glass door and Michael followed her inside. Helen was leaning against the kitchen counter, talking on the telephone and clearly not in a good mood. "That's right. Three large pizzas. One pepperoni, one garden delight, and one cheeseless."
Looking in the other direction, they saw Samantha sitting in the living room, intently staring at the television.
Daria said, "Hello? We're back."
Helen waved and said to the phone, "Forty minutes. I'll be expecting it."
Samantha turned and said, "How was your friend?"
Daria said, "She's doing well and excited about going to Crestmore next year."
"Crestmore. That's impressive."
Michael asked, "Mom, how long are you going to leave Dad out there?"
"Until he and that other imbecile sober up."
Daria said to Helen, "Mom?"
"Until your father is no longer a threat to anybody else."
"He's making smoke signals from the grill. He's a threat to himself."
"I'm not worried about him."
Daria shuffled and said, "Um...what about you and Mrs. Fulton? You seem a little...tense."
"We're not talking to each other."
"Mind explaining why?"
"I won't put up with those kinds of comments about my work in my own house."
"I don't want to talk about."
Michael said, "Mom?"
Helen and Samantha each purposefully turned away, leaving Michael and Daria alone. Daria said, "Want to go upstairs and see how bad things are going among everyone else?"
"We might as well get the complete experience."
Upstairs, they neared Quinn's room and heard Tess saying, "The style was about a more subtle femininity. The padded shoulders and wide skirt made the waist look slimmer and the tailored fit accented the bust and hips."
"Now that you mention it," Gina said. "I can see that."
Quinn said, "There is a classic feel about the style. I wouldn't wear clothes like that on a date, but they would make good business attire."
Daria stopped and grabbed Michael's hand. "My grandmother is bonding with your sister."
"I'm more worried that our sisters are bonding."
Sandi said, "I agree. That style has a lot more elegance than current business attire."
"And Sandi." Daria advanced to Quinn's room and looked in. Quinn, Gina, Sandi and Tess were seated on the bed, watching a 1940's era movie on television. Daria said, "Hi, we're back. Did they chase everyone up here?"
Quinn said, "Hi, Daria. Yeah, Mom and Mrs. Fulton got really scary. They even ran Grandma off."
Tess said, "It was clear that they were not interested in my insight."
Which I'm sure you offered with grace and tact. Don't need to go there right now, we have enough to deal with downstairs without starting something else. Daria said, "But you seem to be getting along fine up here."
Gina said, "Yeah. Your grandmother's fun."
Tess smiled and said, "Michael, you're lucky to have such a delightful young lady as a sister."
"She can be...at times."
Gina innocently smiled and said, "And I've told them such wonderful stories about you."
"I'm sure I can share a few about you," Michael retorted.
Bringing the subject back on topic, Daria said, "Meanwhile, Dad and Ron are locked outside while Mom and Samantha are stewing downstairs."
"Speaking of our dads," Gina said, "Do we have any alternate plans for dinner?"
"Mom called for pizza delivery, so you're not going to starve. And Quinn, one of those was cheeseless."
Michael said, "We should start thinking about getting our fathers inside, before they do some real damage to themselves or the neighborhood."
"You're right." Daria agreed. "But first, Grandma, can you tell me what happened?"
"Well, we were discussing what all of us do for a living..."
Quinn, Sandi and Gina kept the door open a crack to watch for Daria and Michael emerging from Daria's room, where they'd gone after hearing Tess's explanation.
Swiftly, the door opened. "I don't believe it." Daria loudly sniffed at the air. "Can you smell the estrogen? They're trying to prove who has the biggest ovaries."
"Two alpha females fighting for dominance," Michael said. "Just what we needed."
Quinn and Sandi looked at each other knowingly and shrugged, their old rivalry long set aside.
Daria shook her head as she walked steadily toward the stairs. "An whose bright idea was this?"
Michael followed, "Mine, I know. But you thought it was a good idea, too."
Suddenly shocked, Quinn, Sandi and Gina quietly followed, stopping at the top of the stairs to listen.
Helen stirred from her chair in the kitchen upon hearing Daria's sad, quiet voice. "This isn't working."
Coming downstairs with Daria, Michael said softly, "I don't know why we thought it would."
Daria stopped partway down the stairs. "We thought it would give us incentive to keep trying, remember?"
Samantha leaned to the side to listen better.
"Yeah, but even that plan fell on its face. It's only making things harder," said Michael.
"The best laid plans..."
Michael lightly touched Daria's cheek. "I'm sorry."
Helen quietly moved into the living room from the kitchen and stood behind the sofa Samantha was sitting on. Samantha looked back, her annoyance at Helen fading.
"Don't be," Daria replied, gently moving his hand away. "You're a kind, quietly romantic gentleman who has done nothing wrong."
"Part of me understands that it's nobody's fault...but I still feel that someone like you deserves better."
"Still sweet, though you really think too much of me."
"I'm the one out of my league."
Samantha got up and asked, "Children, is there a problem?"
Shrugging, Daria and Michael looked at each other.
Stepping up beside Samantha, Helen said, "We're your mothers and you know you can't hide something from us."
Michael sighed heavily. "It's just...things seem so overwhelming."
Samantha remembered the many times she and Ron felt the pressures of life and said, "We know what you're feeling. It happens to all couples."
"How do you keep going?" Daria asked.
Helen thought of the good times and bad with Jake, and the spark that always kept them going. "Your love will give you the patience...if you let it."
Daria said, "You make it sound too easy."
"It only sounds that way," Samantha replied. "Trust me."
Helen directed them toward the kitchen. "I'll fix some coffee, and then we can talk."
After Daria and Michael went back upstairs, Samantha and Helen remained at the kitchen table. Helen rolled a coffee cup between her hands. "Michael's a pretty good actor."
Samantha set her cup on the table. "So is Daria."
"If they'd tried that on anyone but us, they'd have been completely convincing."
"You have to admit though; they succeeded at what they wanted."
"That, they did. You know, after years of fighting with my sisters, you'd think I'd have learned not to get upset so easily. We've talked on the phone so many times, I knew you weren't like that."
"After how many times I've told workers to think before they act, you'd think I'd have learned to think before I spoke. On the way here, Ron even joked about someone making a stupid comment. Looks like it was my turn." Samantha softly laughed, saying, "Looks like they got even for us helping them get back together last year."
"It says something that they want us to get along."
"I haven't seen somebody as glassy-eyed as my son since I was dating Ron."
"Nor I like Daria...since I looked in the mirror when I was dating Jake."
"Speaking of our husbands...think we should let them back in?"
Helen nodded. "They've had a couple hours of martinis, lighter fluid and overcooked meat. They're probably best of friends by now."
Samantha stood. "What is it with guys and fire? You get two of them together...boom."
Helen also rose and the two women walked to the sliding glass door to the back yard. "I sometimes think it's a burnt offering to some obscure god of male bonding."
"Maybe. Let's hope the burnt offering wasn't their eyebrows. Ron's a little protective of the hair he has left on his head."
Upstairs, Daria and Michael met Quinn, worriedly leaning out into the hall from her room and whispering, "Oh my god, what happened? Are you...?"
Daria said, "Relax, Quinn. It was an act."
Relieved, Quinn said, "Damn, Daria. You two almost had us crying up here."
Beside her, Gina elbowed Quinn. "What do you mean, almost?"
"Yeah, Quinn," Sandi added, looking over Gina's shoulder. "You went through more tissues than both of us."
"Our mothers' guilt was already getting to them, that's why they didn't want to talk about it. Michael and I figured that if we could get them to start talking, they'd admit that they both overreacted," Daria explained.
"But, we had to be careful." Michael added. "If we seemed angry at each other, they might've taken sides and make things worse."
"A very convincing performance," Tess said, still seated on Quinn's bed. "And, it's been very pleasant to see two mothers supporting their children's relationship." Unnoticed by the others, she folded her hands on her lap and looked down in contemplation, thinking of Jake's mother, Ruth.
Holding hands with Michael, Daria said, "I guess I did earn that 'A' in theater last summer."
"But, how does that explain my performance?" Michael asked.
"I've learned that you have many hidden talents," Daria said with a wry smile.
"That is way too much information!" Quinn said, holding her hands over her ears.
"Nonsense," Gina said. After a look of disbelief at Quinn, she said to Daria, "Come on, we want details."
Standing in the parking lot of Do Me A Donut after breakfast the next morning, Jake said, "We'd love to visit! We can have another cookout!"
"I'll introduce you to Uncle Ray's Nitro Juice," Ron said, already planning ahead.
"Dad, isn't that the stuff you use to clean the lawnmower's carburetor?" Michael asked.
Daria whispered in his ear, "You realize that we've created a monster, don't you?"
"Honey," Samantha said, "Remember what I said about bringing that stuff in the house?"
Ron hugged his wife with one arm. "Don't worry; I'll keep it in the garage fire cabinet."
Samantha kissed his cheek and said, "I'm still thinking about picking up a Nomex suit for the next time you cook on the grill."
"Hmm. You still love me," Ron said as he and his wife started to get into their car.
"Do you see what I have to put up with all the way home?" Gina teased.
"Would you rather put up with us again?" Daria asked.
Gina closed the car door and said through the open window, "Tempting...but I want to get home to my bed."
Samantha said, "Daria, it has once again been a pleasure to see you."
"Thanks, Samantha. And you, Ron."
Ron waved. "Take care, and try to keep my miscreant son out of trouble."
"I'll try," Daria said, faintly smiling.
"Mom, Dad, I'm glad you had a good time."
Samantha said, "We had a wonderful time. Thank you, and drive safe going home."
Standing next to Quinn's car, waiting for a ride to the train station, Tess said, "It has been very interesting meeting you. I hope you also have a safe trip home."
Samantha waved and called, "It's been a pleasure. Enjoy your trip back, too!"
Helen hugged Samantha through the window. "It's been delightful finally meeting you."
"The same," Samantha replied. "We have a lot in common."
As they gazed over at Daria and Michael, Helen said, "Yes, we do."
"Try not to drive Mom and Dad too crazy, brat," Michael said.
"I wouldn't do that. I want to keep them 'just right'," Gina said.
Amid multiple good-byes, the Fultons pulled away and headed toward the interstate. Daria said, "Good-bye, Grandma."
"Good-bye, Daria, and you, Michael. Helen, Jake, you take care, also."
"Thanks, Mother," Helen answered.
Jake also answered, "I'll try to keep her out of trouble!"
Helen raised one foot over Jake's. He quickly moved it away and both traded knowing grins.
Once Tess and Quinn settled into the red sports car, Helen said, "Drive careful, Quinn."
"I will, Mom. Daria, Michael, see you later."
They waved back and then Quinn drove away. Finally, Daria hugged Helen. "Thanks for having them over. It meant a lot."
Michael nodded and said, "My thanks, also."
Helen hugged him and said, "It was a pleasure. It was great to finally meet your parents face to face."
"And thanks to you and Mom for helping us," Michael said.
Helen smiled and said, "You're welcome. It's in our interest, you know."
Jake hugged Daria next and said, "See you later, Kiddo. I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you, Dad. Try to keep Mom sane."
Amid more waves and good-byes, Michael and Daria left the parking lot and started home for Boston.
Looking back at her parents, Daria said to Michael, "Another disaster averted."
"Yep. Daria, have you noticed that our parents seem to act closer to each other when we're around?"
"Hmm. Now that you mention it, yes. Does this mean we're being a good influence?"
"Now, that's a scary thought."
Home from their long drive, Gina went straight to her room, giving only a quick, "I'm beat. See you in the morning," to her parents.
Ron and Samantha went to their room to start unpacking. Samantha stopped and grinned before looking through a box of old cassette tapes. She chose one, put it in the stereo, and put one arm around Ron's waist. "Remember this?"
This thing called love I just can't handle it
This thing called love I must get round to it
I ain't ready
Crazy little thing called love.
This (This Thing) called love
"Bye, Mom! Sandi and I will be back by eleven!" Quinn called as she and Sandi left.
Helen waited a couple minutes after her daughter left before stepping over to start the CD player. She returned to the sofa and sat next to Jake, smiling. "Remember this?"
When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now,
Will you still be sending me a Valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I'd been out 'till quarter to three, would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four?
Reading the note Rita had left on the table, Tess sighed and said, "Hope springs eternal." She placed her luggage on the floor and went to the telephone, hoping the idea she had on the train ride back would work.
Tess flipped through her address book and found an old number written there, badly faded after many years. She dialed, waited patiently for a "Hello?" on the other end, and then said, "Ruth? This is Tess Barksdale. Do you have a little time to talk?"
Lyrics for Crazy Little Thing Called Love by Freddie Mercury
Lyrics for When I'm 64 by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Thanks to Kristen Bealer, Ipswichfan and Mr. Orange for beta reading.