"...and then, after twenty-two horrible years of waiting on that ungrateful waste of space, he just walks out like the spineless leech that he is!" Ms. Barch's voice was just as shrill as usual, but no one in the class was paying attention. The boys were sitting like statues, glassy eyes facing front, while the girls passed notes or talked quietly to each other.
"Quinn, I'm so glad your neck zit cleared up!" Stacy whispered to her friend.
"Yes," Sandi agreed solemnly. "Especially considering Waif's recent announcement that turtlenecks are out this season. Clearly your horrible disfigurement vanished just in time."
"Now, where was I?" Barch looked puzzled for a moment, trying to remember what she'd been talking about before her most recent digression. "Oh, right! The human body! You're going to divide up into groups of four to work on a project based on a specific part of the body, due at the end of the week. I've got a list here at my desk, and you can sign up for the one you want to do after class." She glared at a boy who had twitched in trying to suppress a sneeze. "And don't any of you males get your hopes up, either. The reproductive system is not on the list. I'm sure you oversexed brutes have already studied that enough for a lifetime!"
The bell rang. Eying the growing crowd jostling its way to the front of the room, Sandi made a quick executive decision. "Stacy, go sign us up for something and meet us in the usual restroom."
"We'll save you a space at the mirror!" Quinn assured her.
"Gooood luuuuck," Tiffany added.
Seventy-five percent of the Fashion Club were primping meticulously--Quinn examining her neck carefully for any sign of zit relapse--when Stacy joined them. Waving a few sheets of paper in her hand, she said, "I've got our assignment!"
Sandi plucked the papers from her hand and scanned them. "The heart?" she asked doubtfully.
"I love hearts!" Stacy said excitedly. "Especially the ones on greeting cards with the little fuzzy stuff on them that feels so soft!"
"Um, Stacy?" Quinn interrupted. "I don't think it's the same kind of heart. I think Ms. Barch means the kind of heart that pumps blood."
Tiffany froze in the middle of applying mascara to add an important contribution. "Blood...eww."
Stacy's face fell. "Oh. Oh, no! I'm soooo sorry!"
Capping her lip gloss with a decisive flourish, Sandi sighed, "Well, I suppose we will have to make the most of the situation."
Quinn gave Stacy a reassuring smile. "Hey, want to come over to my house after school to work on the project?"
Sandi nodded her approval and Stacy finally exhaled. "Sure, Quinn!"
Tiffany looked away from her reflection for the first time. "Project?"
Shortly after three o'clock, Daria and Jane walked out of the school and began evaluating their day.
"Not bad for a Monday," Jane pointed out. "We didn't get roped into any stupid school activities."
"Yeah, but there was that horrible filmstrip in Language Arts," Daria countered.
"True, but what about seeing Kevin trip and fall headfirst into a garbage can at lunch?"
"Which meant he smelled like rotten bananas and old milk all through history class." Daria grimaced at the memory.
"Oh, that was pretty disgusting." Jane thought for a moment as they continued to walk. "All right, Upchuck has stopped making jokes about us being alien love goddesses."
"Only because he ran out of ideas. And he still hums the X-Files theme whenever he walks by."
"Hmm. Well, we did at least make it through the day relatively unscathed. Call it a draw?"
Daria shook her head. "We still have to go back tomorrow."
"Damn," Jane said in mock dismay. "In the face of this crushing disappointment, I think we will require pizza."
"Then how fortunate that we've been heading in that direction ever since we left the school," Daria replied with a smirk just as they arrived at the door to Pizza Prince.
And froze in horror.
In order to serve our customers better, Pizza Prince is closed for renovations. We look forward to seeing you again when we reopen in two weeks!
The girls' eyes went straight from the sign on the door to the window above it. All they could see was a dark restaurant, deserted and silent.
"They can do that?!" Jane cried desperately.
"Apparently," Daria replied, her expression neutral but her shoulders slumped in disappointment.
"Well, there ought to be a law against it," the dark-haired girl grumbled, kicking half-heartedly at the locked door.
"Let's just hope that 'renovations' isn't code for 'the health department shut us down.'"
Jane didn't laugh. "Don't you see how bad this is?"
"Worse than eating sausage and rat dropping pizza?"
"Yes! We've got to find a new after-school hangout for the next two weeks!"
Daria shrugged. "So we stock up on frozen pizza and hang out at your house for awhile. What's the problem?"
They could hear the music from outside the house, but it wasn't until Daria and Jane opened the Lanes' front door that they could make out the lyrics.
"The cows on the farm, they gotta say 'moo,'
Night owls in the trees, they gotta say 'who,'
Horses in the field, they gotta say 'neigh,'
You gotta break my heart ev'ry damn day!"
"When did Trent quit his job as a jingle writer and start working for Sesame Street?" Daria asked.
"What?" Jane asked, a hand to her ear.
"Never mind!" Daria gestured for her friend to follow her back outside.
As soon as they had reached a safe distance from the racket, Jane tilted her head. "Your house?"
The girls walked into the Morgendorffers' house and stopped dead at the sight of the Fashion Club in the living room. This wasn't an unusual sight. What was unusual--frightening, even--was that the club was surrounded by books.
"Gawd, Stacy," Sandi grumbled. "If I'd known the heart was so gross I would have had you go back and trade projects with someone else."
"I'm sorry!" Stacy said immediately.
Daria and Jane exchanged looks. "At least they aren't making farm animal noises," Jane offered optimistically.
Stacy squealed. "Oh, ick! This book has a picture of what people look like on the inside!"
"Stay-ceeee!" Sandi brayed. "I can't believe you thought we would want to see that!"
"Eep!" Stacy squeaked.
"Never mind," Jane sighed as the two turned and left the house.
Quinn barely glanced at the door as it slammed shut. Eager to head off yet another argument between her friends, she asked Stacy, "Is there anything useful in there about the heart?"
"Ummm...." Stacy tried to look at the picture without really looking at it. "It's in the middle. Well, kind of left of the middle. Left-middlish, I guess."
"Just say it's in the middle," Sandi snapped, still irritated. "It's not like it matters if it's a little to the left or whatever."
"Actually, it does kind of matter," Quinn replied. "Most people's hearts are a little to the left because the left heart is stronger than the right heart."
"Buuuut," Tiffany said, finally looking up from her magazine, "I thought people only had oooone heart."
"Yeah, but doctors call the left atrium and left ventricle the 'left heart' and the right atrium and the right ventricle the 'right heart,'" Quinn explained.
The other three girls in the room simply stared at Quinn. Sandi arched an eyebrow, forgetting Stacy for the moment. "Where did that come from?" she asked suspiciously.
Quinn froze. She knew exactly where it had come from: one of the many medical books she had studied after her father's heart attack. She hadn't thought any of the information had really stuck, but apparently she'd remembered at least a few things. Oh, crap. I can't tell them about that! All they'll hear is the word "study" and it'll be all over!
Thinking quickly, she forced a casually cheerful expression on her face and said, "I saw it on an episode of Tragic Hospital." The other girls smiled and nodded at the mention of the popular soap opera, although Sandi continued to look skeptical.
That was close, Quinn thought with relief. Who would have thought that my own brain could betray me like that?
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Jane asked the next day after school.
"It's the only other pizza place in town," Daria said, but her tone wasn't confident. "And my Dad is working from home today. Which means he's going to be making dinner. Unless you're interested in trying his 'New and Improved Kitchen Sink Stew'?"
"Let me guess: 'Now with More Jalapenos'?" Jane sighed. "Maybe this won't be so bad. We're too early for the dinner rush, so that might help."
The girls walked into the garishly-decorated restaurant.
"Round and round the cobbler's bench
The monkey chased the weasel,
The monkey thought 'twas all in fun
Pop! Goes the weasel!"
Daria stopped dead, staring in horror at the woodland creatures singing her least favorite song.
Jane laughed. "See? Not bad at all. I wonder what their pizza is like." She began to pull Daria toward a nearby table, but her friend resisted. "Aw, come on. We had to take the bus to get here, so we might as well make the best of it."
"Go. To. Hell."
"Jeez, Daria. You have no sense of--"
"John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt
His name is my name, too!
Whenever we go out,
The people always shout
There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt!"
Jane immediately let go of Daria and turned around to leave. "Okay, you win. No pizza is worth that."
The Fashion Club gathered at a small table near the back of the school library, where no one could see them except for the already-unpopular people who didn't count, anyway. A stack of books sat at the center of the table while Stacy read slowly from an open encyclopedia.
"...four valves, known as the mitral valve, the, er, tricupid valve..."
Tricuspid, Quinn thought idly.
"...the pull-money valve..."
Pulmonary, Quinn mentally corrected, and then frowned. Stop it, brain!
"... and the, um, ort--no, the...ah-oor-tic valve."
The other three girls watched with mild curiosity as Quinn closed her eyes and put a hand to her head, pushing against her temple as though trying to push something out.
"Is there a problem, Quinn?" Sandi asked with poorly-feigned concern.
"Uh, no, it's just a headache," she replied quickly, dropping her arm to her side and opening her eyes. "Now, Stacy, what were you saying about the aortic valve?"
"The what valve?" Stacy asked, staring down at the encyclopedia in confusion.
"Whaaat's a vaaaalve?"
Quinn dropped her face into her hands. Our grade on this project is going to suck. And even worse, I care that it's going to suck. God, what the freaking hell is happening to me?
"Well, at least no one is singing," Jane pointed out. Pizza Prince had been closed for two days, and she and Daria had already resorted to sitting on hard plastic chairs at a small table covered with crumbs and ketchup smears. Between the two sat a greasy cardboard carton of cheese fries and a handful of tiny napkins that were too thin to be useful.
"We're still in the mall," Daria said, eyes darting around nervously. "The natural hunting ground of the most dangerous creatures on the planet."
Jane scanned the Cranberry Commons food court with interest. "Mimes?"
"Worse. My sister and her friends."
"Mmm," Jane said thoughtfully. "Too close to call. Both plaster their faces with makeup and annoy innocent passersby."
"Yes, but mimes are silent."
Jane acknowledged the point with a slight nod and replied, "It's still better than my house. Wind came home last night, and he won't stop whining about how foam rubber bats ruined his marriage or something. If you listen closely, you can probably hear him sobbing from here."
Both girls fell silent for a moment, but that silence was immediately filled by the sound of children shrieking. Daria and Jane looked over at the nearby children's play area and sighed.
"Well, it drowns out the pre-teens flirting with each other," Jane pointed out, tilting her head to indicate a group adolescent girls giggling theatrically near a group of adolescent boys, who pretended not to notice while theatrically shoving each other in the girls' direction.
"Yes, but oddly enough, it doesn't cover the music." Daria rolled her eyes toward the speakers built into the ceiling, where the latest Boys 'R' Guys tune was assaulting their ears.
At last, the children's voices died down and the roving adolescents moved on. The music remained, but that could be ignored with little effort. Daria and Jane finally relaxed...just in time for the next lap of the mall walkers, track suits swishing and voices raised in conversation loud enough to be heard on the other side of the mall.
The girls sighed in unison and stood. Jane stopped to grab the cheese fries as they left. "No point in wasting food," she informed her friend. Then, glancing dubiously at the carton in her hand, she added, "Or food-like substances."
Quinn was muttering angrily under her breath as she entered the Morgendorffer house, replaying the earlier after-school conversation in her head. "'It's called the superior vent-tickle,'" she said, mimicking Sandi's drawl, "'so that means it's better than the inferior vent-tickle.'"
Slamming the door behind her, she collapsed face-first into the nearest couch and shouted into a pillow, "'Ventricle'! It's 'ventricle'!" She sat up again and groaned. "But I don't care! I don't care I don't care Idon'tcareIdon'tcare!"
"Neither do I," said Daria as she walked in the front door.
Quinn cried out at the sight of her sister. "Maybe you can help me!"
"I doubt it," she replied. "At this point, I'm not sure even a trained professional--"
"--This is no time for your scholastic comebacks! I'm having a crisis!"
Daria paused in thought for a moment, then shrugged. "Okay, I'll bite. What's wrong?"
Quinn waved her over. "Listen, have you ever had to spend time with people who said stupid things, but they made fun of you or thought you were weird if you tried to correct them?"
Daria's expression didn't change. "Yes. Yes, I have."
"What do you do?"
"Usually I try to avoid people like that, but sometimes they corner me in the living room and force surreal conversations on me."
"Ha." Quinn rolled her eyes. "Seriously, I could use some advice."
"Fifteen. And I agree not to tell any of your friends that you were screaming at furniture when I walked into the house."
"Ugh! Fine!" Quinn pulled a few crumpled bills out of her pocket and counted off three fives before holding them out to her sister.
Daria accepted the money and sat down on a nearby couch. "First of all, be matter-of-fact. If you know you're right, say so with confidence. Anything else just looks weak."
"Oh! Like that time I accidentally wore something that had gone out of style, but I convinced everyone it was actually retro?"
"...Okay. Also, make people think you're stating the obvious. Be careful, though, because to most of our classmates, even things that actually are obvious can seem complicated and mysterious."
"I...think I get it. Any other tips?"
"Don't wear all black and write poems about fries."
Quinn shuddered. "After last week's turtleneck marathon, I think I'm through with black for, like, ever."
The Chez Pierre maitre d' looked at the two girls standing before him with dismay. "I am afraid zat we cannot accommodate you," he said quietly, trying to keep his voice stern while not causing a scene.
"Je suis très désolé," Daria replied without missing a beat, "mais nous ne parlons pas anglais."
"I--what?" the maitre d' said, his fake French accent beginning to slip.
"Don't mind my friend here," Jane said. "Her mother was a hamst--"
Nudging Jane slightly, Daria interrupted. "Table for two, please."
The maitre d' shook his head. "I'm sorry, but we have a dress code."
Jane shrugged. "No one's perfect. We forgive you."
He sighed and pointed to a discreet sign that read, "Jackets required."
Glancing at herself in red and her friend in green, Jane frowned. "We are wearing jackets."
"Look, you can't come in dressed like that, okay?" The accent was completely gone, and the maitre d' was almost begging.
"Okay," Daria said. "We'll take a pizza to go, then."
"We don't serve pizza here."
"Probably because it doesn't wear a jacket," Jane muttered to Daria. To the maitre d' she said, "Cheese fries? You've gotta have that--French fries plus cheese. France is really big on cheese, right?"
His shoulders slumped in defeat. "Will you go away if I give you some free rolls?"
The Fashion Club had gathered at Sandi's house on Thursday afternoon to finish their project, and Quinn replayed Daria's words in her mind while Stacy read back the notes.
"...and then the heart pumps the...ox-ee-jen-ate-ed blood--" Tiffany wrinkled her nose for the twentieth time that afternoon. "--out to the rest of the body."
"Okay, but then what?" Sandi asked, trying to sound like she was quizzing Stacy rather than asking for information she didn't know.
"I guess the blood--" Another nose wrinkle. "--comes back to the heart?" Stacy offered.
"Right," Sandi said with a definitive nod. "So it goes out to the rest of the body, and then it, like turns around and goes back to the heart."
"Um." Quinn's voice barely rose above a murmur, yet all three girls turned immediately to look at her. "Blood doesn't flow backward." Tiffany was too distracted by the interruption to remember to wrinkle her nose again.
"Oh?" Sandi said with just the slightest edge in her tone. "Is this another thing you learned from 'Tragic Hospital'?" She didn't physically make the sarcastic air quotes, but they may as well have been there.
Showtime. Quinn sat up a little straighter and cleared her throat. "Oh, Sandi. You probably found out long before I did that blood--all right, Tiffany--that it only goes in one direction. I hope you don't think I was implying you didn't already know that! I was just reminding you."
Sandi blinked a few times as she found herself forced to change gears. "Ri--right. Of course."
Stacy paused nervously, just in case the fireworks might still go off, then resumed her notes. "And the reason the heart pumps is--oh, shoot, I forgot to write that part down."
Stepping in to pre-empt any further nonsense from Sandi, Quinn said, "Electricity. The heart, like, makes its own electricity and that makes the heart pump." Seeing Sandi narrow her eyes, she quickly added, "I'm sorry, Sandi, I'm sure you were just about to say that. I didn't mean to cut you off, but I thought I'd answer this one and leave the hard questions for you, since you're so good at this!"
After another brief short-circuit, Sandi replied, "Er...good plan." She frowned slightly, trying to figure out what happened before giving up. "Stacy, please continue."
Quinn leaned back in her chair and finally began to breathe again. If I can keep this up, we might actually have a decent project to turn in tomorrow. She gritted her teeth. Not that I care, of course.
"Look, you're the one who suggested going to these UFO conventions in the first place," Jane pointed out.
Daria rolled her eyes. "As an alternative to Mr. O'Neill's self-esteem class. And to torture my family. This serves neither purpose. And there's no pizza."
"Yeah, but it does suit our 'something to do after school' needs. Besides, we're kind of running out of ideas. Unless you want to start hanging out at the Dutchman Inn."
"Do Dutchmen make pizza?"
"I think the flying ones do," Jane replied, "but there's only one way to find out." When Daria didn't respond, she added, "Think of the giant clog!"
Jane huffed and looked around the convention. "I wonder if they've got an Alien Love Goddesses exhibit here yet."
"I see someone who would probably know," Daria replied, pointing at a red-haired man wandering excitedly through the convention.
As Artie neared the girls, he spotted them and came to a halt. Brow furrowed, he approached and asked, "Don't I know you from somewhere?"
"From somewhere, yeah," Jane answered. "In fact, you might remember--"
Daria stopped her friend, quietly muttering, "You really want to set him off again? Who knows what Sick, Sad World would come up this time." To Artie, she said, "You probably recognize us from when you used to work for Pizza Prince. We eat there a lot. Or at least we did before it closed for renovations."
"Oh, it's open now," Artie replied cheerfully. "I just dropped my application off there earlier today! I'm sure they'll hire me back once they see how level-headed I've become." He gestured at the booths. "I've made my peace with all of this! I finally feel safe and calm and ready to take my place in normal society!"
"Well, good luck to y--hold on, did you just say Pizza Prince is open?!" Jane cried.
"Uh huh. I guess the renovations didn't take as long as they expected or something."
Daria leaned toward Jane to say in a low voice, "Someone finally paid off the Health Department." Louder, she said to Artie, "Thanks for letting us know."
Jane glanced briefly at her friend before adding, "Yeah, and in gratitude for your help, we'll even consider giving you back your real skin."
Artie froze, staring at the girls for a few seconds before recognition finally dawned. "You!" he screamed. "Dr. Millepieds said you weren't real! He promised! Oh, God, he must have been one of them!"
Daria and Jane watched as Artie knocked several displays over in his haste to escape from the convention center. As the shrieks and howls faded into the distance, Jane looked at Daria. "See? This was fun."
"Yes, but now I hear a large sausage and pepperoni calling my name."
Jane nodded in agreement. "Just let me get my picture taken with the Atomic Communist Martian first."
"Ms. Barch?" Quinn poked her head into the science classroom after school.
The teacher looked up from her desk with a flash of irritation that immediately vanished when she saw that her visitor lacked a Y chromosome. "Yes? What can I help you with?"
"Um, I was just wondering if you'd graded our projects yet."
Barch chuckled quietly. "You only turned it in a few hours ago," she reminded the girl, "but I did get a chance to look over it earlier."
Quinn stepped forward nervously. "And?"
"A surprisingly good effort, worthy of any woman in my class." Barch flipped through the packets on her desk and pulled out the one her group had turned in. Paging through it, she said, "A somewhat simplistic review, but accurate from what I've seen of it so far."
Quinn nodded, remembering how many times she'd had to dumb down the information but feeling relieved that she'd managed to catch all--or at least most--of the Fashion Club's major errors. "Thanks," she told her teacher.
Barch nodded and set the packet back down on the pile. "Of course, a truly detailed project would have reflected on the apparent heartlessness of the male of the species, with a side note about the devastating effect said males can have on the hearts of the females...."
Quinn nodded through Barch's tirade, but her mind was on other things. It's not like I needed that good a grade on the project to pass the class, she thought. So there's no reason for me to care how I did. So why does it matter?
"To pizza!" Jane announced as she lifted her flimsy paper plate, overloaded with three slices, in a toast.
"To appreciating what you've lost," Daria replied with a small smile, imitating the gesture as she sat across from her friend at their usual booth.
The friends each took a bite of their pizza, and their enthusiasm quickly faded.
"To...too much grease," Jane groaned. "I think this pepperoni is actually floating."
Daria nodded. "And something tells me this crust was going stale before they closed."
After a moment of sad reflection, both girls shrugged and resumed their meal. "Still beats singing animals," Jane said through a full mouth.
"Or dress codes," Daria agreed.
They raised their plates once again. "To lowered expectations!"
Still lost in thought, Quinn made her way home and was halfway up the stairs before she realized her father was home. Turning around, she came back downstairs and went into the kitchen to find Jake standing at the counter with a large drinking glass in his hand.
"Hi, Quinn!" he greeted her. "I just heard the best news. Did you know that red wine is really good for your heart?"
Quinn watched as he filled the oversized glass from a wine bottle, resulting in more wine in the glass than remained in the bottle. "Um, Daddy? I think only a little bit of wine a day is good for your heart. Too much, well, isn't."
Jake looked at her with dismay. "Really?" He looked back at his glass, then at the bottle, and finally opened a drawer and started rummaging around. "I think I'm going to need a funnel."
Seeing the disappointment on his face, Quinn added, "But you know what else is really good for your heart?" Jake looked up. "Blueberries. I'm pretty sure we've got some in the freezer. Want to make some muffins?"
"Hey, muffins!" he said with a grin as she pulled a bag out of the freezer. "Great idea!"
She dug an old cookbook out of a cupboard and started to flip through it. "But we have to stick to the recipe. No chili peppers!"
Jake sighed. "Okay, but I get to decide how many blueberries we put in!"
"Sure, Daddy. Besides, the more blueberries, the better for your heart!" Quinn smiled as she thought about the article on heart-healthy food she'd read while doing research for the project. She hadn't really thought about it at the time, but now she was glad she'd remembered it.
So that's why it matters.
Thank you to RLobinske for beta-reading.