The Children of the Scorn

by Kristen Bealer

"There's angel hair in the freezer, girls, and don't forget: tomorrow we're hosting the couples' workshop," Helen told Daria and Quinn. "It's Focus on Teens Night! I expect you to be there."

Quinn looked up from painting her toenails. "Sorry, Mom," she said cheerfully, "I have a date. Remember what you said on Saturday? A commitment's a commitment!"

Helen sighed. "Well, I guess I did say that. Well, I'll see you there, Daria," she continued, turning to her older daughter.

"I can't," Daria said, desperate to get out of the workshop. "I have a commitment."

Helen and Quinn both said, "You?" Helen's was mildly surprised while Quinn's was irritatingly hopeful.

Daria thought quickly about what she was about to do. I can think of about a million things more appealing to do on a Saturday night than attend a "Focus on Teens" workshop with my parents. But is baby-sitting a couple of kids so Quinn can go on another stupid date one of them? Which one is really the lesser of two evils?

In an instant, Daria made up her mind. "Never mind," she said. "I'll be there." At least here I won't have to chase after a bunch of unruly brats. Plus, I might be able to barricade myself in my room.

"Great!" Helen said with a wide smile, oblivious to Quinn's suddenly crestfallen expression. "It starts at 8, so be ready for an evening of intensive--and time-efficient--parent/child bonding!

Helen walked into the kitchen and Quinn huffed up to her room, leaving Daria alone on the couch. Oh, hell. What have I done?

At shortly before eight o'clock the next evening, the doorbell rang. Helen walked through the living room to answer it, grabbing the remote and turning off Sick, Sad World without breaking her stride.

"They're here," she told Daria, one hand on the doorknob and the other holding a stack of papers and a booklet. "Be on your best behavior!"

Daria looked at her as though she'd asked her to stand on her head and sing show tunes.

Helen sighed. "Please, just try not to offend anyone too badly, all right?"

"No promises," Daria muttered quietly as Helen swung the door open.

"Welcome, Lester and Lauren!" Helen greeted a smiling couple that reminded Daria of Kewpie dolls. "Daria, this is Mr. and Mrs. Gupty."

The Guptys? Daria recognized the name. They're the ones Quinn wanted me to baby-sit for.

Helen turned back to the couple. "It's too bad Tad and Tricia couldn't make it," she said. "Several other couples are bringing children who aren't teens yet, so it really would have been fine!"

"I'm sure it would have been fine for them," Lester replied in a friendly tone, "but Tad and Tricia have a strict bedtime."

"And we must take great care in deciding what kind of children to expose them to," Lauren chimed in.

Seriously? Daria thought with an eyeroll. What kind of horrible influences do they expect to find here?

"You suck!"

"Nuh uh! You suck!"

"You suck worse!"

"You suck times a million!"

Lester and Lauren were practically knocked off their feet by two young boys running full speed into the house. The Guptys stepped aside with wide eyes as another couple came in.

"Sam! Chris! Behave!" scolded a dark-haired woman with a perpetually angry expression. She nudged the man next to her, who echoed her words in a much less convincing voice.

"Good evening, Linda!" Helen gushed, shaking the woman's hand. "And you too, Tom!" she added almost as an afterthought to the man, who was already chasing after the boys in an attempt to stop them from knocking over a lamp. Glancing sideways at the shell-shocked Guptys, she added, "I'm so glad your boys could make it, too. But where is Sandi?"

"I'm gonna get you, loser!"

"Not if I get you first!"

"Boys! Put those plants down right now!"

"See?" Lauren muttered to a nodding Lester. "Exactly like we thought."

"Sandi had a date, of course," Linda haughtily replied, oblivious to everything but her own bragging. "With Skylar Feldman, as it happens." She smirked at Helen. "One of the most popular boys at Lawndale High. I--I mean, Sandi--would accept nothing less, of course."

Helen frowned. "I seem to remember Quinn mentioning she was dating a boy by that name," she said, clearly making a tremendous effort to remember any detail of her daughter's life.

"Perhaps," Linda sniffed. "But it seems he's decided he prefers my Sandi."

Daria recalled the boy who'd asked her about Quinn at school a few days before. Glancing at the Guptys, she muttered, "Or she had to cancel in order to baby-sit, and Sandi moved in for the rebound."

While Helen spluttered, Linda sailed past and settled onto one of the couches. Sam and Chris pounded up the stairs, with their father frantically chasing after them. Before Helen could shut the door, another couple walked in. A vaguely familiar-looking blur zipped past them into the kitchen.

While Daria craned her neck to see who had just run by, Helen was already greeting the man and woman. "Terrence, Claudia! How are you tonight?"

"Awful," Claudia snapped, glaring sideways at Terrence. "We're running late because this moron can't seem to drive faster than twenty miles an hour."

Terrence shrugged off his coat and sneered at her. "I'm sooo sorry. Next time I promise I'll drive like a maniac, so that I can rack up as many speeding tickets as you."

The sarcasm flew right over Claudia's head, and she rolled her eyes. "I kept telling you we needed to hurry, but noooo!"

"It's fine," Helen interrupted quickly. "You're right on time. See?" She pointed to the clock in the living room. "Eight on the dot."

Claudia snorted. "Or maybe you've just got your clock set wrong."

From somewhere on the second floor, a loud crash was followed by childish laughter and an adult's howl of protest. Daria hoped that whatever had gotten broken was in Quinn's room. Lester nudged Lauren and the two smirked knowingly at each other.

"Now, Claudia," Terrence said with a smirk, "Not everyone is useless with technology. We're not all like you, after all."

Claudia turned toward her husband with a puzzled frown, as if she wasn't sure if she'd just been insulted. Shaking her head slightly, she turned her attention toward the kitchen. "Anastasia Rowe! Quit being rude and drag your scrawny little butt back in here right now!"

Slowly and with obvious reluctance, a pigtailed teenage girl emerged from the kitchen. Daria recognized her as one of Quinn's friends. Stacy, I think.

Stacy came to stand behind her parents, peeking out from between them. When she saw Daria, she squeaked slightly and ducked down a little as though trying to hide.

"Coming through!" boomed a voice behind them, causing Stacy to almost shriek with fear. "Make way for the VIPs!" A middle-aged man strutted into the house with a twenty-something blonde on his arm. The woman giggled, but Daria had her doubts that he'd really been joking.

"I'm so glad you could make it, Steve and Amber-Ashley!" Helen said.

"Ashley-Amber," the woman corrected with a vapid smile.

"No one cares, honey," the man chuckled. Daria immediately hated him. He turned to look over his shoulder, and the self-satisfied smirk melted off his face. "Stop screwing around out there, you little turd!" he hollered.

A young blond-haired boy shoved past them, then looked around the house with curiosity. "Do you guys have any pets?" he asked.

"No," Helen replied sweetly. She looked at Steve and Ashley-Amber. "So this must be little Brian!" she said. "Will Brittany be here?"

Daria stifled a groan. Brittany. Of course. Because my evening hadn't quite turned into a total train wreck yet.

A very frazzled-looking Tom Griffin dragged two squirming boys down the stairs. Sam and Chris spotted Brian and the three almost immediately chased each other into the kitchen. Tom groaned and staggered after them. Lauren and Lester exchanged another look, and even Daria was starting to feel annoyed by their smugness.

"Brittany's driving here separately," Steve was saying. "She's coming straight from cheerleading practice, but she should be here any minute."

"I don't know if I can stand the wait," Daria muttered, closing her eyes and rubbing her temples; just the thought of Brittany's overly perky voice was already giving her a headache. "By all means, bring on the absolute last person I wanted to see tonight."

"Feisty!" purred a familiar voice, and Daria opened her eyes to see Upchuck standing in the doorway. From the vicinity of Terrence and Claudia, someone let out a horrified squeak.

"I had to open my big damn mouth," Daria sighed.

"What was that, son?" asked a cheerful-looking man with red hair who was standing behind Upchuck.

"Nothing, Dad," Upchuck quickly replied, putting on an innocent expression.

"Welcome, Charles!" Helen said to the man. "And your son...?"

"Charles Ruttheimer the Third!" Upchuck chimed in.

"People just call him Chuck," his father added with a smile.

"Among other things," Daria muttered to herself.

Tom shooed Sam, Chris, and Brian back into the living room and collapsed next to his wife on the couch. He frowned at her and started to say something, but she narrowed her eyes back at him and he immediately closed his mouth.

"Mrs. Ruttheimer couldn't make it?" Helen asked.

"Wouldn't," Charles corrected with a shrug. "Says it won't do any good, which is just plain silly. I mean, our marriage is going great, and we've got this fantastic kid here!" He paused to gently elbow Upchuck in the side, then looked around. "Oh, no. Are we the last ones here? I'm sorry for keeping you all waiting."

"Oh, not at all," Helen assured him. "Actually, we're still waiting on the Fletchers and--"

A squeal of tires announced the arrival of one more person, and less than a minute later Brittany appeared in the doorway. "Hiiii!" she sang out, then glanced in Upchuck's direction and froze. "What. Is. He. Doing. Here?" she asked through gritted teeth. The smile had dropped off her face and her eyes looked like those of a rabid wild animal.

Upchuck turned pale and took a step back to hide behind his father. Still cowering behind her own parents, Stacy ducked down even further. Even the boys stopped beating each other up to watch the unfolding scene with curiosity. Charles Jr. laughed and said, "The same thing you are, young lady. It's Focus on Teens Night!"

"Ohhhhh, no," Brittany said emphatically, shaking her head. "No, no, no, no. I am not going to spend even one minute around that despicable, blackmailing, slimy pervert!"

Charles Jr. looked at his son, then back at Brittany. "I beg your pardon," he replied with stiff formality. "You must have mixed up my son with someone else."

"Like I would have forgotten about that lab mouse project after just one week!" Brittany squealed in rage. "I am never going to forgive you for the way you treated me!"

Upchuck flinched but didn't respond. Everyone else just stood around in awkward confusion while Brittany stared daggers into him. At last the uncomfortable moment was interrupted.

"Hey, honey!" Jake bounded into the living room. "Is there any chance I could skip out on this whole couple's workshop crap just this...once...." He looked around and finally noticed all the people. "Oh. So that's probably a no, then?"

"That's definitely a no, Jake," Helen snapped, turning to look at her husband and freezing in place. "And for God's sake, go put some pants on!"

Jake left and returned a few minutes later, wearing pants as well as a sulky expression.

"Well," Helen said, glancing at the clock. "I suppose we may as well get started. It looks like the Fletchers are running late...again."

"Brian! Get your ass over here!" Steve bellowed at his son.

"Uh, you too," Tom called over to Sam and Chris. The boys all wandered over, still shoving each other and calling each other names.

Once everyone had settled in (or had their parents settle them by force), Helen opened the booklet and flipped to the first page, reading it briefly before she spoke. "All right, for the first exercise we'll have everyone write down their greatest fear. Then we'll put them all in a hat and someone will pull each one out and read them out loud."

"Where's the hat?" Tom asked, looking around.

"I've got a hat at home!" Brittany called out. "Want me to go get it?"

And if we're lucky, she won't come back, Daria thought, then realized that that might have been Brittany's plan. "Hey, I could go buy a hat!" she offered, clutching at the slim chance of escape. "Please?"

"There's my old cowboy hat," Jake reminded his wife. "But it might be in the attic. Or the garage. Why don't I go look for it?"

"It doesn't have to be a hat!" Helen groaned. "Just find a box or a bowl or something!"

Jake hopped up and scurried into the kitchen. "There's the cereal bowls in here, or I could get out one of the mixing bowls if you think those are too small," he called out over the sound of cupboards and drawers banging open and closed. "What about this crystal punch bowl my mother gave us at our wedding? Oooh! Here's my collectible Snoopy popcorn bowl! I've been looking for that since--"

"The Snoopy bowl is fine!" Helen snapped. "Just bring it in here!"

Jake brought the large metal bowl in and set it down reverently on a coffee table. Helen passed around some scrap paper and pens and everyone was silent for a few minutes as they wrote. Once everyone had slipped their folded papers into the Snoopy bowl, Helen reached in and pulled one out.

"'The idea that my children might one day succumb to a materialistic life of sugar-filled consumerism,'" she read out loud. Everyone glanced briefly toward the Guptys before Helen grabbed another one out of the bowl. "'That I'll continue to be dominated by my hateful shrew of a wife until the day I die.'" She turned hard eyes on her husband. "Jake...?" she asked, her voice full of menace.

Jake's eyes widened and he started to shake his head.

"Uh, yeah, Jake!" Tom suddenly exclaimed, looking a bit red in the face. "That's not a nice thing to say about your wife!"

"I didn't--that's not--" Jake sputtered a bit, then grabbed the Snoopy bowl. "Just give me that!" He took out a piece of paper and read it. "'Being forced to do moronic exercises like this one for the rest of the night.'"

Helen groaned. "Daria!"

"Isn't this supposed to be anonymous?" Daria asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Uh, yeah," Stacy chimed in nervously. "I mean, no one's supposed to know who wrote what, right? Oh God, everyone's going to know!"

"To be fair," Terrence pointed out, crossing his arms, "that last one could probably have been written by any of us."

Helen pretended not to hear him as she took back the bowl from Jake and pulled out another paper. "'Sam Griffin is a dork.'" She crumpled the paper in her hand and let out a long sigh of annoyance.

"Nuh uh!" Sam yelled, shoving his brother. "You're the dork!"

Within seconds the two boys were yelling, kicking, and punching each other while Brian stood over them calling out suggestions for more effective maiming on either side. Tom alternated between half-hearted threats and futile pleas while Linda examined her fingernails. The Guptys watched the scene, whispering comments into each other's ears. Finally, Helen slammed the Snoopy bowl onto the coffee table with a loud "BOOM!" that got everyone's attention.

"Hey, careful with that!" Jake protested, snatching up the bowl and checking it for dents.

"Perhaps this would be a good time for the kids and adults to separate and do individual exercises," Helen said, then glanced at her daughter. "Daria? Would you please show them up to your room?"

"My room?" Daria repeated, thinking of both the unconventional décor and her personal possessions. She hadn't forgotten about that mysterious crash from the last time the Griffin boys were upstairs. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."

"It will be fine," Helen replied firmly, handing her a sheet of paper from her stack.

Daria looked at the still-brawling boys and figured that at least the padded walls might come in handy. Bracing herself for the worst, she led the way to her room. She opened the door and held her arm out in a mock flourish. "Cell sweet cell," she announced dully.

Brittany walked in first and immediately frowned. "Is this a joke?" she demanded.

"Depends on your point of view," Daria replied as the others trailed in as well.

Clearly trying not to touch or even look too closely at anything, Stacy asked, "So what are we supposed to be doing here?"

Daria was keeping a close eye on her things. "What, you mean aside from driving each other slowly insane?"

Stacy glanced at the sawed-off metal bars on the windows and giggled nervously. "I mean our exercise or whatever. What do we have to do?"

"We don't have to do anything," Daria pointed out. "In fact, I'm going to sit at my desk and start working on my term paper." Brushing past the others, she crouched over the school bag sitting on the floor and pulled out a notebook and pencil.

"But...your mom said...." Stacy trailed off, looking at Daria with wide, frightened eyes. "We could get in trouble!"

"I seriously doubt it," Daria replied, opening the notebook and looking over her notes. When Stacy continued to stare at her in mute panic, she sighed and handed over the paper Helen had given her. "Fine. Knock yourself out."

Stacy grabbed the paper as if it were a life preserver in the middle of the ocean. She eagerly read it over and said, "Okay, so this says that we're supposed to each draw a picture of our family and describe it to everyone." She looked hopefully at Daria. "Do you have anything we can use to draw people?"

"Only if we can quarter them afterward," Daria said without looking up from her notes.


Daria sighed and held up her pencil. "I've got this and maybe a few extra pens and pencils that I'm willing to share. There're a few old notebooks over on the bookshelf. That's it."

"Do we really have to draw stuff?" Brittany whined. "I'm no good at art!"

"I like to draw," Stacy said quietly. "But the pictures won't be very interesting without something to color them in with." She looked at Daria again.

"No," Daria replied, turning back to her homework. "I do not have markers, colored pencils, crayons, finger paint, watercolors, or anything else."

"But that's gonna make this whole thing really boring!" Brittany protested.

Daria rolled her eyes. "I've got news for you: it's already boring." She shot one brief glare at the room as a whole. "I don't care what any of you do. I've got homework to do, so do whatever you want as long as you leave my stuff intact." She reached into her desk, pulled out some half-used pencils, and tossed them toward Stacy without looking away from her homework.

Stacy found the notebooks and handed them out along with the pencils. Brittany shrugged and began scribbling away, occasionally tearing out a page and crumpling it up before starting over with a new one. Upchuck worked with a thoughtful, focused look on his face. Brian, Sam, and Chris started beating each other with the notebooks and flinging pencils at everyone.

Brittany squealed as a pencil whacked her on the nose. "Daria, do something!" she exclaimed.

Daria groaned in frustration. She wasn't making any headway on her history term paper, and now it seemed the little brats were minutes away from tearing her room apart. "What do you want me to do?" she demanded. "I'm not here to baby-sit...." She trailed off as it finally clicked. Her mother had insisted that she attend, yet she'd sent all the kids off the first chance she got. "Dammit," she muttered. "Maybe I am."

It was probably her plan all along. Crap. At least at the Guptys' house I would have gotten paid for this.

Daria knew she didn't want to get stuck with an unpaid babysitting job, but she'd be damned if she'd let anyone destroy her room. She slapped her notebook shut and glared at the unruly boys. "Stop that right now!"

Although her words didn't intimidate the boys, they did stop fighting and turn in her direction, united by a new common enemy. Brian's eyes glittered as he asked, "Wanna make us?"

"Yeah!" Sam and Chris added, crossing their arms defiantly.

She kept her gaze on them as she crossed the room to one of her bookshelves and picked up the skull. Still staring at them without even blinking, she held out and said, "Let me introduce you to the last little boy who annoyed me."

Chris looked just a little wary while his older brother looked skeptical. Brian, on the other hand, brightened and stepped forward. "Cool!" he exclaimed. "Is that a real skull?" Lowering her hand, Daria shook her head. Brian shrugged and began looking around the room in earnest. "Ooooh, there's a human heart! Is that real?"

"No, just a replica," Daria replied. "Real hearts have a limited shelf life, so you have to eat them within a few days or they go bad."

"Ewwww!" both Stacy and Brittany squealed in unison. They looked at each other and shared a brief smile of mutual understanding. Then Brittany pointed at the support bar attached to one wall. "Daria, I didn't know you did ballet! Can you show us some dance moves?"

"A secret dancer? Rrrr--" Upchuck started, looking up from his drawing, but he was quickly silenced by a growled threat from Brittany.

"I don't dance," Daria said flatly, still keeping a wary eye on Brian as he wandered around her room. It was unnerving just how at home he looked with padded walls and barred windows.

"Hey, you've got a dog collar!" the boy said, holding it up. "So you guys do have pets?"

"No," she answered, "unless you count the dust bunnies under my bed."

"Can we watch TV?" Sam asked, pointing at the television set bolted to the ceiling.

"There's no remote," Daria said. "I use the one over here on the cart."

"Great!" The boys jumped onto her bed and switched on the TV without asking permission.

"You'll love his punchlines but he'll be gone in the morning! The one-night-stand-up comedian, next on Sick, Sad World!"

"Oh, that show is sooo weird!" Brittany cried, covering her ears and closing her eyes.

"I know!" Stacy agreed enthusiastically. "It's creepy and gross and I think some of the stories are even kind of made up!"

"You don't say," Daria said, but no one was paying any attention to her.

"Yeah!" Brittany nodded vigorously. "And they never talk about cool stuff like parties or cheerleading or cute animals!"

"You must not have seen their special on animal maulings," Daria commented. "The rabid chipmunks were especially adorable when they bit off that guy's hand."

"Actually," Stacy told Brittany, still ignoring Daria, "one time they did do a show about cheerleading, but it was about cheerleaders who, like, exploded during games and stuff like that."

"Oh, 'Cheer Today, Gone Tomorrow,'" Daria said. "The one where the girl spontaneously combusted on top of the pyramid was great."

"Eep!" Brittany shrieked, covering her ears again. "That's awful!"

Stacy said, "I know, the whole episode was full of stuff like that." Her eyes widened. "I mean, not that I've ever watched one all the way through or anything! I saw it by accident and I swear it'll never happen again! I'm so sorry please forgive me!" She closed her eyes and braced herself for an insult.

"Okay!" Brittany said cheerfully.

Stacy opened her eyes again and smiled with relief.

"You lied! There aren't any bunnies under here!" Brian was half-hidden under Daria's bed. He crawled back out from underneath. "All I found was these stupid dog slippers."

"Aw, those are sooo cute!" Stacy cried, then glanced over at Brittany. "Right? I mean, unless you think they're not."

"They are cute!" Brittany cooed. "Daria, are those really yours?"

"No!" Daria said quickly, grabbing the slippers and shoving them back under the bed. They'd been a Christmas gift from her parents a few years ago, and while they looked ridiculous they were surprisingly comfortable. She glared at Brian. "Stop pawing through my stuff!"

"Then whose are they?" Brittany asked.

"Um, Quinn's I guess," Daria mumbled. "She must have left them in here at some point."

Sam and Chris suddenly looked up from the TV screen. "Quinn?" asked Chris.

"Quinn's here?" Sam and Stacy asked at the same time, Sam with hope and Stacy with horror.

Daria rolled her eyes. "No, my alleged cousin is not going to be here."

Sam and Chris looked heartbroken. Stacy looked relieved, until the boys started talking to each other.

"Quinn's the prettiest girl in Lawndale."

"No, she's the prettiest girl in the country!"

"No, the world!"

"No, the universe!"

"No, in the galaxy!"

"A universe is bigger than a galaxy, numbnuts!"

Annoyed, Daria started to interrupt but Stacy beat her to it. "Stop that! Okay, yeah, Quinn's pretty, but so are lots of other girls!" Stacy had her hands balled up into two tiny fists, and she sounded like she was near tears.

"Hey, yeah!" Brittany chimed in. "Besides, she wasn't pretty enough to steal Kevvy away from me, no matter how hard she tried!"

"Then 'Kevvy' is an idiot," Sam muttered.

"No argument here," Daria added quietly.

"You take that back!" Brittany squeaked at Sam. "My Kevvy is totally smart! Too smart to get taken in by that slutty Quinn temptstress!"

Chris lunged forward, almost knocking the TV off the cart. Daria cringed at the near-miss. "Don't you talk about Quinn like that!"

"Yeah," Stacy said, looking uneasily at Brittany. "I mean, Quinn is my friend...."

"Oh, really?" Brittany said, turning her anger on Stacy now. "I bet you were conspiring with her to take him away from me all along!"

"What?!" Stacy stepped back, shaking from head to toe. "Of course not! I would never do something like that!"

Upchuck lowered his drawing and purred, "Do I spy a catfight in the making? By all means, ladies--"

"Say one more word, Upchuck, and I'll cram that notebook so far you'll be spitting out the metal thingie," Brittany snarled.

Upchuck hid his face behind his drawing again and was silent.

"Wait, where was I?" Brittany asked, twirling a lock of hair around her finger.

Stacy quickly replied, "We were both mad at them!" She pointed at Sam and Chris, eager to redirect Brittany's wrath.

"You're both just mad because you know Quinn is prettier than both of you put together!" Chris shot back, crossing his arms and glaring at them. "That's why when I grow up I'm going to marry her."

"Nuh uh," Sam cut in. "You won't, because I'll marry her first! I'm older!"

"So what?"

"So I'm more mature! Girls like that!"

"You are not! I'm way more mature than a butthole like you."

"No way!" Sam shrieked. "I'm totally the mature one here, fart face!"

"You know," Upchuck interrupted, giving both boys a condescending smile. "If you're looking for advice on wooing fair maidens, I could--"

Both Sam and Chris snorted with laughter. "Yeah, right," Sam told him. "I bet that's why everybody calls you 'Upchuck'!"

Upchuck turned bright red. "Shut up!"

"You shut up!" Brittany yelled at him.

"Hey, why don't you all shut up?" Every head turned to see Brian standing next to one of Daria's bookshelves...with a lit cigarette lighter in his hand.

"Where did you get that?" Daria demanded, looking uneasily between the tiny flame and her very flammable books. Her muscles kept tensing as every impulse told her to grab the boy and snatch the lighter away from him, but she wasn't certain she could reach him before he lit something important on fire. Not to mention the disturbing look of manic glee on his face, which made her hesitate to come any closer to him.

"I swiped it from my dad's cigar cupboard," Brian replied cheerfully, lazily waving the lighter in circles in front of his face. "Thought it might get boring around here, and I was right. So now I'm going to make things more interesting!"

"You crazy little brat!" Brittany squealed, yanking on both of her ponytails in fright. The others just stared at Brian, too surprised or worried to react.

"What's in that padding stuff on the walls?" Brian asked, ignoring his sister. "D'you think it's fireproof or is it made of stuff that would go up like whoosh!" He raised both arms in a pretend explosion, bringing the lighter uncomfortably close to Daria's copy of Black Beauty.

"Dude, not cool," Sam said uneasily. "You could, like, torch this place if you're not careful!"

"I know!" Brian said, his eyes lighting up. "It'd be awesome!"

"Awesome?" Stacy's voice was only a strangled squawk. "You could kill us all!"

Brian looked around at everyone with a highly amused smirk. "Only the ones too stupid or slow to get out in time." He waved the lighter around a little more for effect.

There were a few outraged shouts at this, but no one dared move to stop him. Chris, staring fearfully at the lighter, scooted a little closer to his brother. Upchuck cleared his throat and asked, "So what were you thinking of burning first?"

"What?" Brian said, confused.

Upchuck gestured around at the room. "Well, the books might work, because they'd light quickly. But then they might burn up too fast and the fire wouldn't spread to the rest of the house. Which is what you're hoping for, right?"

"Uh huh," Brian said, nodding thoughtfully. "So what should I do instead?"

Daria stared furiously at Upchuck, willing him to spontaneously combust. Then he gave her the tiniest wink before turning back to Brian, and Daria understood in a moment. While Brian was engrossed in conversation with Upchuck, she caught Brittany's eye and tilted her head to indicate the girl should move closer. Brittany nodded as she tugged on Stacy's sleeve, and both girls crept nearer to her and further from Brian.

Speaking very softly, so the girls could only just hear her, Daria briefly told them what she intended to do. Brittany nodded vigorously while Stacy gave only a small and very nervous nod.

Daria checked to make sure Brian was still focused on Upchuck before slowly making her way around the room behind him. Sam and Chris watched, unmoving, from their spot on the bed. Meanwhile, Stacy and Brittany moved closer to the boy from different angles, taking care to stay out of his field of vision.

As they neared Brian, he started to turn his head in their direction. "Hey, can I borrow that lighter when you're done?" Sam called out nervously. The distraction worked, and Brian turned back to look at him instead.

Then, at a sudden signal from Daria, all three girls sprang forward. Daria reached Brian first and grabbed the hand holding the lighter while Stacy and Brittany each took one of Brian's arms to hold him still. Surprised, Brian dropped the lighter, which started to arc toward Daria's bookshelf.

Upchuck lunged forward and caught the lighter, his notebook sliding off his lap onto the floor. The moment he caught the lighter, it went out and everyone let out a long sigh of relief.

Brittany grabbed the lighter from Upchuck and waved it under Brian's nose. "What were you thinking?" she asked, her voice so high and squeaky it was barely audible.

"Aw, come on," Brian whined, squirming to free himself. "I was just kidding! I wasn't really gonna do anything!" Suddenly his features shifted into an expression of pure innocence. "Can I have that back?" he asked, nodding at the lighter.

Letting out a disgusted squeak, Brittany thrust the lighter toward Stacy, who stuck it in her pocket. "Keep that safe," Brittany ordered. "We're going to make sure he behaves from now on."

Brian crossed his arms and stuck out his chin. "How?"

"We could threaten to kick your butt if you step out of line," Brittany suggested. "It works for Daddy."

"Or we could tie you up!" Chris called out.

"Anyone have any chloroform?" Upchuck asked.

Daria shook her head. "We're all going back out to the living room. Away from my belongings and back to adult supervision." My term paper will just have to wait.

"But we never finished our exercise!" Stacy protested. "We were supposed to draw our families! Ohmygod I forgot to draw my family!" She scrambled around, grabbing the first notebook she could find...which happened to be the one Upchuck had dropped earlier. She looked down at the page and quickly looked away again, her face turning bright pink. She choked out, "This...I...who...." She focused on Upchuck. "Ewww!"

Confused, Brittany grabbed the notebook and looked at it. She gasped, tore the sheet out, and crumpled it up. " pervert!"

Stacy nodded her agreement. "And anyway, the exercise was to draw our families!"

Upchuck shrugged. "What can I say? I couldn't resist such exquisite models."

"But that wasn't even close to what I'd look like in a French maid's outfit!"

"And a nurse's uniform?" Stacy protested. "Ugh, don't you know nurses have to touch blood and guts and stuff?"

Daria, though disgusted at Upchuck's behavior, couldn't hold back a small snort of laughter. Both Stacy and Brittany turned to glare at her.

"You think it's funny?" Brittany asked. "You should see what he drew you as!"

"What?!" Daria was about to reach for the crumpled paper on the floor, then stopped herself. I'm sure I don't even want to know, and I've got more important things to deal with. "Never mind. Let's just get that," she said, nudging Brian, "out to the living room where he can be someone else's problem for awhile."

The group filed out of Daria's room and down the stairs, where they found the parents sitting in a circle on the floor.

"...and then the old man told me to stop crying and go bury the hamster in the backyard before it stunk up the house. He said it was alive when he bought it but the bastard was probably lying! Some damn birthday that turned out to be!"

"I'm not sure this is entirely appropriate--" Lester began to object.

"--tell that to my lousy, sadistic father!" Jake yelled. "Oh, wait! You can't! Because the no-good son of a bitch is dead and roasting in hell where he belongs!"

"Jake," Helen interrupted as Lauren turned pale, "we're supposed to be sharing happy childhood or family memories, remember?"

"That was a happy memory!" Jake argued, then muttered, "Compared to the rest of them, anyway."

"Well, then let someone else have a turn--oh! Back so soon?" Helen asked, noticing the kids enter.

Daria checked her watch. "We've been gone for over half an hour."

"Really?" Helen asked, surprised. "Well, I suppose time flies when you're having fun!" She punctuated her statement with a forced chuckle, pretending not to see the stony-faced adults sitting around her.

"Time also flies when you completely forget about your own children," Daria muttered, settling into one of the couches and crossing her arms. "So much for 'Focus on Teens Night.'"

"So whose turn is it?" Lauren asked, glancing nervously at Jake.

"I'll go next," Charles, Jr. offered. "I'll tell you all about the day little Chuckie here got first prize in the statewide spelling bee."

"That wasn't me," Upchuck broke in.

"Got every single word right, without even missing a beat."

"You're thinking of my cousin," Upchuck said.

"I'll never forget seeing him holding that trophy and--sorry, what were you saying?"

"I never won any spelling bees," Upchuck told him quietly. "That was Brad."

"Oh. Are you sure?"


"Because I could have sworn you--"

"I didn't." Upchuck's expression was growing darker with every word he said, and his father finally stopped pushing the issue.

Tom leaned forward next. "My happiest family memory was when the kids were little and we all went to Disney World. Everyone was so relaxed and happy, and it was the best vacation I've ever had." He looked over at his wife. "Remember how great that was?"

"I wouldn't know," she snapped. "I didn't go--I was at my college class reunion that week."

"Oh, right," Tom said, still smiling widely. "What about the skiing trip in Colorado a few years back? I never saw the kids have so much fun, and I had a blast the whole time! Wasn't it wonderful?"

Linda crossed her arms. "I had to go on a business trip to New York at the time."

"Did you? Huh." Tom looked blissfully around at the others, ignoring the glare he was getting from his wife.

Helen cleared her throat, nervous under the weight of so much awkwardness. "Why don't I go next?" she said. "I could talk about Daria's first dance recital, when she--"

"Don't you dare." Daria crossed her arms and shook her head menacingly.

"Maybe one of the kids should go next?" Lester suggested.

"Good idea," Claudia agreed. "Stacy. Go."

"Eep!" Stacy shrank back at the sudden attention, but at a stern look from her mother she quickly put on an insincere smile and began talking rapid-fire. "So my favorite memory that I remember--oh, of course I'd remember it since that's what a memory is, what I meant was that of all the memories I've ever had, at least of the ones I can think of right now, I think maybe my favorite is--"

"Get to the point," her mother snapped.

"Right!" Stacy's smile widened slightly, along with her panic-filled eyes. "So my favorite memory is the time we went to Disney World and I got to meet Cinderella!"

"Oh, I remember that," Terrence added, chuckling. "I also remember you tripped running up to her and almost knocked the poor woman on her ass!" He grinned at his daughter. "That was sure funny, wasn't it sweetheart?"

Stacy turned bright red but forced out a cross between a laugh and a cough. "Uh, yeah. Really funny, Daddy."

"Yeah, you were always a clumsy kid, so it wasn't really a surprise when you humiliated yourself in front of hundreds of people. I just wish I'd gotten a picture of it!" Seeing Stacy cringe, he quickly added, "Just kidding, of course!"

Stacy looked at her parents, opening and closing her mouth without actually speaking. "Get on with it, already!" her mother yelled.

"So yeah we went to Disney World and I met Cinderella and it was the happiest day of my whole life even though I mysteriously tripped over Daddy's foot and fell down." The words tumbled out in a rush, and as soon as she finished Stacy took several quick steps to the nearest chair and sat down, staring at her shoes.

It looked like either Terrence and Claudia was about to speak again, but then Upchuck spoke up. "My favorite memory is hitting my first home run in Little League."

"Oh, right!" Charles, Jr. picked up the distraction and ran with it. "I remember that day, too. You won the game for your team that day!"

"We didn't win," Upchuck said, rolling his eyes. "We lost two to fifteen."

"Really?" His father blinked at him in surprise. "I'm sure I remember...."

Upchuck just shook his head. "Next person?"

Steve nudged Brian, who had been slowly edging his way out of the room. "Do something useful, you little brat. Tell everyone your favorite memory."

Brian shot a very brief glare at his father, but stepped forward and muttered, "Playing with all our cats."

"Oooh, I love kitties!" Stacy said, looking up and smiling through watery eyes. "How many cats do you have?"

"None," Brian replied with a malevolent grin. "Wanna know why?"

Stacy, frozen by the look on his face, slowly shook her head. Brian shrugged and went back to looking bored.

"It's too bad Sandi isn't here," Linda began, "or she'd tell you all about her favorite memory, becoming President of the Fashion Club. Of course," she continued with a chuckle, "she never would have gotten that far without my help. She just needed someone to keep her focused and guide her through all the distractions and obstacles that might have stopped other girls, but my Sandi would never give up!" Smoothing her business suit, she quietly added, "Not if she knows what's good for her."

"I think it's time to move on to a new activity," Helen suggested through gritted teeth. She consulted her booklet. "Ah, I see it's sing-a-long time. Tonight's song is 'Cat's in the Cradle' and I've got sheet music for everyone."

Oh, hell no. Daria began inching toward the stairs.

"Where are you going, Daria?" Helen's eyes locked onto Daria's, and she raised one eyebrow very slightly.

"Um...I think maybe it's time for the kids and adults to do separate exercises again?" Daria tried. "We could go back to my--wait, no." She stopped herself, glancing at Brian and fearing for the safety of her possessions. "We could go to Quinn's--blech, nevermind--go to...uh, the basement?"

"Yeah!" Stacy chimed in eagerly, bounding over to stand next to Daria.

"Don't you want to stay for the singing?" Daria asked her.

"Sing? In public?" Stacy's face turned completely white, and she began trembling.

"Good idea," Claudia called over. "No one here wants to listen to Stacy's off-key singing."

"You shouldn't let her off so easily," Linda commented. "If you don't push her past her comfort zone, she'll never amount to anything."

"She won't amount to anything, with or without my help," Claudia snorted. "Besides, you'd change your mind if you ever actually heard her sing. 'Cat's in the Cradle' would be right--she sounds like someone stepping on a cat!"

"Really?" Brian asked with intense interest. "Usually cats make more of a--"

"I'll come, too," Upchuck interrupted, "although my singing is actually pretty good if I do say so myself. I also play a mean mandolin, if anyone's interested."

"We're not," Brittany, Stacy, and Daria all said at the same time.

"All right," Helen said, flipping through her papers and pulling out a few of them. "Here, why don't you each fill out a copy of this questionnaire and bring it back when you're done? We can go over the answers and, um..." she paused to read something from the booklet again, "...use the responses to empower ourselves to form a more meaningful parent-child relationship."

"Was this workshop designed by someone named O'Neill?" Daria asked suspiciously.

Helen glanced at the front of her booklet and cleared her throat uncomfortably. "Here," she said simply, thrusting the pages into Daria's hands. "Off you go!"

"Can I come, too?" Tom asked, before Linda silenced him with an elbow in the side.

Daria once again found herself in charge of a group of her peers, and all hope of finishing her term paper that night was beginning to fade. She led them all downstairs, which was mostly the storage area for all of the stuff that had moved with the family but either hadn't been unpacked or had been replaced and not yet thrown out.

Daria settled onto a musty old futon and wished she'd at least thought to bring a book. She raised an eyebrow at Stacy. "You want these?" she asked, holding up the questionnaires.

"No." Stacy leaned against the wall and looked around the basement sadly. "What's the point?"

Daria tossed the papers on the concrete floor, where they scattered apart. "None at all," she said.

Sam, Chris, and Brian sat down on some boxes and began talking about a cartoon Daria had never heard of. Brittany took great care in keeping as much distance between herself and Upchuck as possible while still keeping a close eye on him.

Suddenly, a muffled explosion of angry shouting broke out over their heads. Most of the words were unintelligible, and Daria was pretty sure that the words she could understand were giving Lester and Lauren simultaneous panic attacks.

"Huh," Stacy said without emotion. "Took them a lot longer than usual to get to the screaming this time. Thought they might have gotten enough of that on the way here."

"That's your parents?" Brittany asked. "They sound...really mad."

"They're always really mad," Stacy snapped. "I wish they'd just, like, get a divorce or something." She crossed her arms and looked down, hiding her face, but Daria had already seen the tears in her eyes. "We'd all be a lot better off."

"Maybe not," Brittany replied in an unexpectedly serious tone. "My parents got divorced when I was little and I remember it was really bad." She shook her head at the memory. "I mean, I turned out okay, but...."

She glanced at her brother, who stood up and narrowed his eyes. "But what?" he demanded.

"Um, nothing!" she squeaked, nervously twirling a strand of hair around her finger. "Everything was just great for everybody after our parents split up! So great that the neighbors' windows keep getting mysteriously broken and the pet store won't let us have any more cats!"

Brian snorted. "Whatever," he said loudly. "Only losers like you guys care about that kinda crap."

"Hey! I happen to be a cheerleader, remember?" Brittany squealed angrily. "Just because I'm stuck down here with a bunch of losers doesn't mean I am one!"

"What?!" Stacy cried. Her voice was quivering and she sounded like she might start sobbing at any moment. "Don't you call me a loser! I'm popular! At least most of the time! Sometimes Sandi even says so!"

"Yeah, I'm not a loser, either," Sam added.

"Are too," Chris muttered.

"Shut up!" Sam hissed back, and the two began shoving each other.

Upchuck raised both hands to try to calm everyone down. "Okay, okay, no one here is a loser."

"Except you!" Brittany put her hands on her hips and glared at him.

"And you," Brian added, pointing at his sister with a malicious grin.

"Nobody asked you, you little brat!"

"I'm not a loser! I'm not a loser! I'm not a loser!" Stacy was hugging herself and rocking back and forth on her feet, sounding incredibly distressed--even for her.

The arguing was giving Daria a massive headache."You're all losers," she said, rolling her eyes.

"Oh, like anyone cares what you think!" Brittany squeaked. "Anyway, I'd rather be a loser than a brain!"

"You'd need to have one first," Upchuck muttered, but not quietly enough.

"What was that?" Brittany demanded, stalking toward him ominously.


"Not a loser...not a loser...not a loser...."

"He was calling you stupid! You should--oof!" Chris helpfully informed her, but while he was distracted Sam was able to get him in a headlock.

"Yeah! Punch him in the head! Break his nose!" Brian urged, jumping up and down with a manic grin.

Brittany turned back to her brother. "Shut up, you crazy little freak!"


"Has it ever occurred to you that maybe he acts the way he does because people like you call him names like 'brat' and 'psycho'?" Upchuck asked, adding under his breath, "Or 'Upchuck'?"

"Oh, like you're one to talk about treating people right!" Brittany argued. "The guy who hides in bushes and takes discriminating photos of people to blackmail them with!"

Upchuck groaned. "Look, if it will get you off my back then you can have the stupid picture back, all right? Then you can tear it up or throw it away or--"

"--or burn it," Stacy suggested in a quiet voice. Everyone stopped and turned to see her staring at her hand, which was holding the lighter they'd taken from Brian earlier that evening.

"The hell?" Daria said. "What are you--"

"As I was saying, I'm not a loser," Stacy interrupted, eyes blazing right in front of the tiny flame. "I'm just tired. Tired of being treated like crap."

My God, Daria thought numbly. I'm surrounded by pyromaniacs. It's Highland all over again after all.

Brittany looked at Daria and tilted her head toward Stacy, her expression questioning. Daria realized she was thinking about sneaking up on the girl like they'd done with Brian earlier.

"I'm also not stupid," Stacy said without looking away from the lighter, "even if my parents think I am. Please don't try to tackle me--this is a brand-new outfit and I don't want to get it all wrinkled. Or burned."

Daria shook her head at Brittany, who had already taken half a step back. "Okay," Daria said cautiously, "then what do you want?"

"Oh, like you care," Stacy said, sounding slightly angry but too drained of energy to express it. "No one cares what I want. I'm just the one everybody kicks when they want to make themselves feel better."

"At least you don't have a humiliating nickname," Upchuck pointed out bitterly. "I'm the school's designated punching bag, remember?"

"That's because you always act like such a creepy pervert," Brittany said, but she sounded more sad than angry.

Upchuck tried to growl seductively, but then stopped and just shrugged. "Yeah, I do," he admitted. "I know I should drop the act, but when I do it then at least everybody's mocking the act instead of me." He snorted. "I already know I can't live up to anyone's ideal, least of all my father. God knows my mother gave up on me a long time ago. So why not give people a fake me to pick on instead?"

Stacy was watching him with curiosity when suddenly she squeaked. The lighter had burned her finger. She quickly put out the flame and sighed. Turning the lighter around and around in her hands, she quietly said, "I wish I had a fake Stacy that I could put on. One that doesn't cry all the time. One that people like. One that could tell her parents to just. Shut. Up!"

"At least your parents pay attention to you," Sam glumly replied. Chris nodded knowingly next to him. "Mom and Dad only seem to notice us if we're getting in trouble. Otherwise it's all Sandi, all the time."

"I know, right?!" Stacy exclaimed. "Everybody thinks Sandi's so great--"

"--especially Sandi," Brittany chimed in, rolling her eyes.

"Tell me about it," Stacy agreed. "But she's really just a...a...."

"Bitch?" Upchuck suggested.

"Yeah!" both Sam and Chris said eagerly. "Just once it'd be nice if Mom would look away from Sandi and remember we live there, too," Sam added.

"Being ignored sucks, doesn't it?" Brittany asked quietly. "My parents--I mean my dad and my real mom--used to argue so much they'd forget all about me, even when it was time for dinner or something. I learned to just find a box of cereal or whatever and hide in my room until they were done."

"Really?" Stacy asked quietly.

Brittany nodded. "They got divorced when Brian was a baby, and later my dad married Ashley-Amber. They don't argue, but I can tell they don't love each other."

"Our parents don't, either," Sam said. Chris was staring at the floor.

"Mine pretend to," Upchuck said, "but I'm pretty sure they're just waiting until I graduate to split up."

"My parents can't stand each other," Stacy said flatly. "They hate each other's guts. Sometimes I think they only stay together because they actually like arguing."

Almost at the same time, the others turned to look at Daria. She thought about her own parents, who argued but mostly were too busy to pay attention to anyone else in the family. And when they're not busy and they get the house to themselves, they...stop right now. Just stop thinking about that. Warm ocean breezes! Fluffy little bunny rabbits! A herd of beautiful wild ponies running free across the plains!

It had never occurred to her that among her peers, she might actually be the lucky one. Maybe not by that much, but seeing what the others went through was giving her a major perception shift. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and said, "My dad's clueless, my mom's a workaholic, and my sister likes to pretend I don't exist. It sucks, but I guess it could be worse. Okay?"

"Doesn't it feel so much better to share?" Brittany asked excitedly. "How about you, Brian?"

Brian crossed his arms and muttered something rude.

"Okay, this has been really nice and weird and all, but it's getting late," Stacy said, checking her watch. "Do you think we should go back upstairs?"

"Maybe we should wait and see if someone comes down," Upchuck said.

"They've probably forgotten us again," Daria said.

Stacy gasped. "You don't think they left without us, do you?"

"We'd never be that lucky," Upchuck muttered as he began trudging up the stairs.

The others followed, and the group made their way to the living room, where they found Jake sitting on a stool in the middle of the room. The other adults were seated around him on the couches and chairs, which had been moved into an approximate circle around him.

"Does it bother you that you know so little about your own children?" Charles was asking.

"Well, I--" Jake started to say, flustered.

"It probably has something to do with how clueless you are about everything else, too," Linda said. "Just like Tom over here." Tom opened his mouth to speak, closed it, thought better of it and opened it again, then thought even better of that and just gave up with a sigh.

Jake tried to protest again. "Hey, that's--"

"I wonder if it would help if you stopped letting your wife push you around all the time," Steve said. He gestured toward Helen, who shot him a look that would have incinerated a more perceptive man.

"Now, wait a--" Jake's face was beginning to turn red.

"Have you tried doing anything about your stress issues?" Lauren asked him. "I've noticed you have a very unhealthy level of anger, too."

"I don't think--"

"No kidding!" Claudia let out a sharp bark of laughter. "I've never seen anyone so bitter and angry all the time! How goddamn self-unaware can you get?" she added with a snarl.

"What's going on?" Daria asked her mother.

Helen looked just as startled to see the kids as before. "We're doing an exercise where everyone takes turns asking questions or offering suggestions to help work through each person's parenting issues."

Daria raised an eyebrow. "This certainly seems like a healthy way to carry out that activity."

Helen looked like she was about to argue, but then her shoulders sagged and she just shook her head. "It's...gone a little off-track."

"...and then there's your hair," Ashley-Amber was saying to Jake.

"ENOUGH!!!" Jake screamed. Daria was surprised to see actual tears in his eyes, and her stomach twisted with sudden anger at the other parents. Not just for how they were treating her father, but because she'd spent most of the evening learning about how they treated their own children.

"But we've still got another minute and a half before it's time to switch!" Terrence whined.

Shut up, Daria thought bitterly. She wanted so much to tell him off, and in fact to tell every single one of them exactly what she thought of them. Not that they'd listen to me, if their kids can't even get through to them. She was just gathering up the courage to speak, but her father spoke first.

"So you all want to play the 'Who's the Worst Parent Game'?" Jake yelled. "Fine!" He pointed at Terrence. "You like to chip away at your own child, laughing while you destroy her happiness." He turned and pointed at Claudia next. "You criticize her constantly and harp on every tiny, insignificant flaw just to make yourself feel superior."

"Excuse me--!" Terrence tried to interrupt, but Jake steamrolled right onward. Claudia, meanwhile, just opened and closed her mouth in shock.

"You," he continued, jabbing his finger toward Steve, "always yell at your son instead of paying attention to what he actually needs from you." Glancing toward Ashley-Amber he added, "While your wife just ignores the problem and pretends everything is just fine."

Steve clenched his jaw but seemed too surprised to respond. Ashley-Amber giggled nervously.

Jake turned to point at Charles. "You set unreasonable standards that your son can never live up to, and make sure he feels like a total failure when he inevitably doesn't measure up."

Charles just looked away, pretending Jake was talking to someone else.

Next Jake turned toward the Griffins. "You push your children too hard--or rather, one of them," he told Linda. "Your sons you neglect completely." Looking at Tom, he added, "And you watch it all happen without doing a single thing to stop it. You're just an enabler!"

Now Jake was starting to gain momentum. "In fact, I don't think a single one of you actually loves your kids. You're all so self-absorbed and heartless you don't even care what happens to them!" Jake began jumping up and down. "Mad Dogs! Mad Dogs! Every last one of you is a goddamn Mad Dog!" Suddenly he brightened. "Hey! Isn't that one of those things that are the same backward and forward?"

Daria cleared her throat and quietly said, "Palindrome."

"Yeah! Cool!" Jake exclaimed. Then he looked back around the room. "But everybody still sucks."

As most of the parents looked at each other in confusion, Lauren and Lester began applauding. "Bravo!" Lauren cheered. "It's about time someone put those awful people in their place!"

Jake spun around to scowl at them. "You," he said. ", you guys just plain piss me off." His anger finally spent, he dropped back onto the stool with a satisfied grunt.

Even Daria was speechless. Way to go, Dad, she thought. You finally figured out how to use the power of ranting for good instead of evil.

A minute or two passed in silence before Helen cleared her throat and got to her feet. "Well, it's just about ten o'clock, so we should bring this to a close now. I think we've made a lot of progress tonight. See you all in a few weeks?"

Everyone gathered their possessions and their children and left with only a few muttered good-byes before the door shut behind them. Daria watched them leave, then turned to see Helen heading for the stairs. "Just a moment," she called to her mother.

Helen stopped and looked at Daria with weary eyes. "It's been a long night," she said. "Can it wait until--"

"I'll bet you any amount of money that my night was worse than yours," Daria snapped. "And speaking of money, it seems to me that baby-sitters are generally paid for their services." She waited expectantly.

"Baby-sitters?" Helen echoed in poorly-feigned confusion. "You weren't baby-sitting! You were participating in a group workshop designed" She began to flip through the booklet in search of the correct buzzwords, but Daria plucked it out of her hands and threw it over her shoulder.

"I was baby-sitting," Daria said emphatically, holding out her hand. "And you're incredibly lucky the house is still standing."

For a few minutes, Helen looked like she wanted to argue with her further. Finally she sighed and pulled out a handful of bills, slapping them into Daria's waiting hand.

"Pleasure doing business with you," Daria replied as she briefly counted the money and put it in her pocket. "Now, if you'll excuse me--" At that moment, the doorbell rang. Helen just shook her head and continued up the stairs, leaving Daria to answer it. She opened the door, saying, "Look, if you left something behind it will be mailed back to you...unless I can get a good price for it on the black market."

But instead of one of the families that had just left, she found three very unhappy-looking people she'd never seen before: a man, a woman, and a boy who looked about ten or eleven years old.

"Hi," the woman said, more of a sigh than a greeting. "We're the Fletchers. Sorry we're so late, but we were having an, um, discussion--"

"--argument--" interrupted the boy, who wore large half-moon shaped glasses and a fierce scowl.

"--and lost track of time. Did we miss the workshop?" Mrs. Fletcher continued without even glancing at the boy.

"Of course we missed it," Mr. Fletcher said, his voice somewhere between a shout and a whine. "I told you we shouldn't have even bothered!"

"For once I agree with Dad," the boy muttered.

"Link, that's enough!" Mrs. Fletcher snapped. To Daria, she asked, "Has everyone already left, then?"

"Yes, tonight's workshop has ended, leaving everyone even worse off than they started. I'm sorry you missed it, but I'm sure you can find someone else to shout incoherently and hurl abuse and crap on you. May I recommend the monkey house at the zoo?"

Then Daria closed the door on the family, but not before she noticed the amused smirk on the boy's face.

"Daria," Mr. DeMartino said as Daria and Jane left his class on Monday, "Your paper was intriguing, particularly with respect to your theory that a properly belligerent attitude can effectively resist cult-like techniques."

"Not that he would know anything about belligerent attitudes," Jane remarked as they walked away. "But I'm curious--what, exactly, was your paper about?"

Before Daria could answer, Stacy walked by in the other direction, trailing behind the Fashion Club. She and Daria made eye contact, and Stacy lifted her hand very slightly to give Daria a furtive wave. Daria returned the greeting with a slight nod.

"Did she just--" Jane started to say, but then they passed Brittany, who had just closed her locker door and turned around. She saw Daria and grinned.

"Hiiii!" she said cheerfully, waving at Daria enthusiastically.

"Hey," Daria replied, less enthusiastically but also without sarcasm.

"Now this is getting--"

"Good afternoon, Daria," Upchuck said as he passed. There was no trace of a leer on his face, and his tone was nothing but courteous.

"Hi...Chuck," Daria said with only slight hesitation.

Jane stared at her friend in silent shock as they continued down the hall. Finally, she cleared her throat. "Sooo...what exactly happened at your house last night?"

Daria smiled faintly. "Focus on Teens Night," she answered. "Funny how different certain teens can look if you change your focus just a little."