This story be the end result of Brother Grimace's Iron Chef challenge "Conversations Whilst Being Otherwise Engaged", which I'm pretty sure I did wrong. But oh well—a better question might be, "when have I ever done anything right?".
The challenge was this:
Take two or three activities from a list called "60 Things For Your Characters To Do When They Talk Or Think" and craft a single, self-contained scene (the idea being to use subtext and action to display character in addition to dialogue and internal thought). Did I screw up? Does this story even follow the basic ideas of "inciting action, rising action, climax, and conclusion?" Will economists ever agree on a proper theory of value?
Damned if I know.
Oh, and I promise not to make any money off of this. Pinky swear.
Down By the Bay
As I yanked a third offensive looking Hawaiian shirt from my suitcase, I couldn't help but remember a word of wisdom I had read in a book somewhere: never, ever let your parents buy you anything under the influence of alcohol. The mind behind that bit of advice was none other than myself, and I was regretting having ignored my better instincts when Mom and Dad wobbled out of our hotel like a couple of cartoon characters after a piano had fallen on them.
Jane was to my left, sitting cross-legged on my bed and surrounded by the 1.5 million photos we had taken. She held one up to the light and inspected it like it was a priceless jewel.
"Only you could stand on a volcano and look bored out of your mind," she said.
"The guides said that the lava moved too slow to be dangerous," I said, finding the bathing suit I had used exactly once. "What's there to be excited about?"
"Tropical birds don't do it for ya?"
"I get enough of those on cereal boxes."
A fourth shirt appeared—the most horrible one yet. I balled it under my arms and searched for the darkest, deepest hole I could find. Deciding that my closet would have to do, I started in it's direction and, in the process, got a good look at Jane's newest art project—our photo book (her insistence, I swear). She was engaged in it, to say the least—if I saw the kind of concentration she had then in some place like, say, school, I'd have probably called someone. Like a lettered agency out of Washington D.C, maybe.
Most of the hotel pictures or the one's where it was just the family sitting down for a meal were pushed off to the side in a pile. The rest of them—the pictures of tree-lines and ocean waves and volcanoes at night—encircled her like a National Morgendorffer's Vacation hula-hoop. In her hand was a photo of me on the deck of the USS Missouri, one of the few points in the vacation where I had actually managed to smile.
I deposited the shirt where it belonged and walked back towards my bed. I had other stuff to unpack, but mostly I felt the need to unpack Jane.
See, Jane had been unusually quiet ever since she helped me lug my bag upstairs. When she had met me in the driveway? The usual chit-chat. When my Dad stepped out of the taxi looking like a piece of salmon? Typical snarky remarks. But the moment I started unpacking—actually the moment she agreed to help sort through the mess of photos we had taken—I'd heard nary a word save for a few comments about how my big wide smiles created too much lens flare in the pictures.
The fact she agreed to do anything my Mother asked in the first place should have been Warning Sign #1, but I had chalked that up at first to a case of severe heat-stroke.
"I asked if they ever shelled the towns-folk just to keep things interesting," I said, now right next to Jane. "But they weren't willing to divulge anything."
"Hmm?" Jane said, looking up at me like I was speaking in German. "Oh. Right. Well...you know. Laws and stuff."
My brow began to scrunch. "Laws and stuff?"
"Yeah," she said. "Even Hawaii has those."
There was exactly three seconds of eye contact before her attention went back to the photos. We usually average about seven seconds before some idiot making a sitcom entrance forces our eyes elsewhere, so her sole interest being wrapped up in a picture (this one was of a tree that contained brain-eating monkeys, or so I had told Quinn) had me asking myself an assortment of questions. Namely: is something off, or am I just boring?
"Nothing's gonna pop out at you," I said, pointing to where the jungle grew darker. "Unfortunately, the hike we went on was completely safe."
"You could always add a few things," she said, putting the picture down next to one of the outside of our hotel. "Killer spiders, man-eating plants, a couple of beady red eyes. Actually," she picked it up again, gave it a glance, then just held on to it, "it'd be a nice scenery painting even without all the goodies in it."
"Well," I said, "you can take it with you if you want. Use it as a backdrop. I don't think my parents will mind—Dad seemed more interested in the hotel bar and Mom spent 97% of the trip on her phone."
"Flirted with everyone in the US Pacific Fleet. And then some."
She smiled weakly, and held onto the photo as she scanned through another set. "Hmm," she said. "I'd bet they had at least a little bit of fun."
Alright, every day of my life I face one central battle: do I get involved, or do I just let the world run it's course in the hope that the gears get clogged and the whole thing comes tumbling down? A lot of the time, the 'getting involved' option requires some assistance from my favorite Founding Father. With Jane though, it's never a question of money.
Something was up and I would rather not have had Jane go around town acting like she was in the second act slump of a bad RomCom. Considering what she had said, and the pictures she was looking at, and the fact that she seemed to be pulling beauty out of a picture of the volcanic equivalent of Abe Simpson, I had a feeling I knew what it was. I'd hit myself extremely hard if I said it out loud though, and no matter what I knew that Jane would be more than justified in having these thoughts (past experience tells me my comments are a double-edged sword that I'm more than willing to fall on), but all the same, embarrassment was sure to follow of the both of us. So I attempted to smother it while still pledging to get Jane to talk about the funk she was in. Talking heals, the sadists of the world say.
But...direct action isn't exactly my favorite thing in the world—my tongue clamps up and I take on the appearance of a dog going to the vet. So I walked back to my suitcase, jammed my hands inside, and fiddled around the remains of my clothes like I was trying to find my secret stash of contraband.
"What's this fun and who do I sue to get it?" I said, trying to imitate my Mother's voice.
"This guy?" Jane said. I looked over and saw her holding up a picture of a muscular luau dancer slathered in oil. Even from a distance I could see the reflection of my sister taking his picture in his chest.
"Too low on the totem pole," I said. "We'd need to go higher—find the man behind the man."
"Maybe he hides out in that volcano you hated," she said, and down went her eyes again, lost in the pictures on my bed. The word hated echoed around my mind, loud enough that I abandoned my suitcase to it's yellow and orange death.
"If it was Mount St. Helens circa 1980," I said, turning to face her, "I might have enjoyed it a little more to be sure. But hating a sadly inanimate is a little too exhausting for me."
She stared at me, again like I just given the Gettysburg address in Swahili. Something flickered behind her eyes, and her questioning face turned very apologetic—something that was absolutely forbidden in my room.
"Sorry," she said. "Didn't mean to make you sound like the summer-time Scrooge."
"I'll forgive you on account of your alliteration," I said, keeping my face blank. "But you owe me a slice of pizza."
"I do?" she said, sliding around to face me directly as well.
"Well, we can negotiate that," I said. "But we might as well take a break—"
(now ease into this—think Apollo 11 and not the Challenger here...)
"—I know I always need pizza if I'm doing something that makes me feel miserable."
That flicker must have caused a backdraft, because her eyes lit up like an oil field and her mouth hung open. Immediately I knew I'd blew it, and immediately I began to tattoo my ass with the sole of my boot.
I went to say something, but Jane cut me off.
"Right! Yes! Pizza! I love pizza! Let's get pizza!"
I frowned. "Hold on a second—"
"Why wait?" she said, leaping off the bed and sending the pictures fluttering into every crevice in my room. "When you have a hankering for a pizza you have a hankering for a pizza, and boy oh boy would it be cruelto delay our cheese-covered reunion any further!"
She stopped and blinked. I was blinking too. Anyone looking in my bedroom window at that moment would have blinked also, after wondering what the hell kind of spider-bite causes that kind of reaction.
Still blinking, I said, "Did that sound convincing to you? Or do you need your ears cleaned?"
Jane sighed, and I saw her shoulders slouch. "Oh it sounded convincing alright," she said. "If I was in a kindergarten play."
More silence followed, since words were hard to come by for the both of us (I told you direct action isn't my strong-suit). Eventually, Jane crossed her arms, and with a regretful tone said, "So you think I'm miserable now, huh?"
I sighed and felt my head tilt back. "I am beauty. I am grace. I am Miss United States," I said. Jane gave me a look.
"I'm just finishing up the thrashing I was giving myself," I said, and after rolling my head around to get out a kink I didn't have, I continued, "I could tell something was up, I just didn't know how to ask you without..." I gestured to nothing in particular, "...this happening."
"And you thinking something was up was exactly what I wanted to avoid," Jane said. She shrugged. "Good thing I kept you in the dark, or this might've turned into a mess."
"So you are miserable?" I said. "You're not..." I stopped, and let a thought surface that I had been trying to drown for the entire escapade we just had. I regretted saying it immediately, but I said it anyways: "You're not jealous or anything, are you? I mean, I saw the photos you were looking at...and the comments you made...and..."
"No no," Jane said, but I heard no conviction behind the words. "Well, alright. Yes. But not in a 'God I can't believe that Morgendorffer family and their spoiled-ass kids' way. Just in a whimsical, 'Man I wish I could do stuff like that too!' kind of way. Not that it's any better..."
"It is," I said, and I meant it. Even if it had been the first, I'd have understood—Jane's my best friend, she has to put up with me on a daily basis. She'd have earned the right to shaking her fist at me several times over.
"I donno," she said. "Trent and I don't get to go anywhere except places with no area codes to visit relatives who hate us. You and Quinn have been all over the place. It's nothing personal—and if some of my comments made it seem like that then I'm sorry. Snark mixes poorly when I'm fantasizing of sticking my easel in the mud of a rainforest."
Jane seemed extremely sheepish, and I needed to put a stop to that quickly. The fate of the world was at stake. Like I said, I understood where she was coming from, as in my day-to-day misery I'm constantly reminding myself how thousands more deserving (well...one or two more deserving, Jodie and Jane really) would make better use of the gifts I'm given. So, with all that in mind, I figured that it would be the perfect time to reveal to Jane something I had been saving since the day I met her in Mr. O'Neil's class.
(but if you tell her that I'll kill you)
I walked back over to my closet and dug around, flinging clothes to mix with the scattered pictures. Jane walked slowly over as I remained submerged in the left-overs of past vacations and torn apart green jackets.
"Uh...you alright, Daria?"
"Don't talk," I said. "It'll ruin the moment."
"Moment? You mean we're supposed to be celebrating you diving head-first into your clothes?"
I said nothing, for in my hands I had a large briefcase bespeckled with locks and warnings of severed limbs. I stood up and held it out for Jane to see. Even with the severed limbs, she wasn't immediately impressed.
"You own a briefcase, I see," she said. I couldn't help but smirk.
"It's a little more than that."
"Do I have to ask what's in the box? Because I really don't want to do that."
"Settle down and I'll tell you," I said. "I get a weekly allowance, and as you can guess, it's probably a little more generous than it needs to be."
"I don't have any reason to spend it, since my weekly expenses are more or less covered by my bribes, so I shove the majority of it in this briefcase under what I affectionately call The Montana Cabin Fund."
Jane didn't say anything—she just eyed me inquisitively.
I continued, "As of late though, I've had to start doubling my contributions-including bribes and a couple of tall tales spun to empty my parent's wallets a little more. They can afford the missing green, you know."
At this point, Jane caught on.
"So...what your saying is..."
"When this gets full enough—and by my calculations I'm only a couple weeks away from that—you and I are going to take a trip where ever you want for as long as you want, so that the both of us can get enough time away from Lawndale to preserve whatever's left of our sanity. Because I've wanted to treat you to something like that for a while." I tried my best not to smile, and did a half-decent job at it. "You're not allowed to object to it or feel guilty about it—I made this choice a while ago for this reason among many others."
Then Jane sniffled, and the moment was ruined.
"No!" I said. "You're not allowed to get sentimental."
"Well you're making it kinda hard Daria!" Jane said back, and now I was sure she sniffled again.
"Just think about all the teenagers we can murder in the outback until you come to your senses," I said. And after a seconds pause, the chances of waterworks went down enough to let me feel comfortable again.
Slowly, Jane stepped forward, and calmly, she wrapped me in a hug. I tried to pull away, but I felt her arms begin to squeeze me.
"I don't get to feel guilty, then you don't get to worm out of a thank-you hug. Deal?"
"Mffp. Erm. Fine," I said.
"So, thank you Daria." She hugged a little tighter.
"Yeah yeah yeah, you big lug. You just wait until I find some way to use your emotions against you."
"But still," I said, "you're welcome Jane."