Chapter 9: Countdown
“So she’s grounded?” Kelly nodded as Mrs. Thatcher took the news in. “She could’ve told me that.”
“I don’t understand, Mrs. Thatcher. Why send me to check up on Erika?”
The theatre matriarch replied, “For starters, I think we both know that she has a very... unstable domestic situation.”
“Right... living with the Terrible Twosome can’t be healthy.”
But Mrs. Thatcher shook her head. “I don’t think you quite understand. I’ve heard an uncountable number of horror stories about how Erika is treated by them and by her stepmother.” She paused before adding, “With all of the things that poor girl has surrounding her... it’s a miracle she’s as kind as she is.”
“Okay... but there’s probably other people in the department who’ve got family issues.” Kelly reasoned. “Why focus on Erika?”
Mrs. Thatcher reached for her tea for a second, before deciding not to, instead opening a drawer in her desk and bringing out a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. “You never saw this bottle.” She took a swig before quickly returning the bottle to its rightful place and sighing. “Sorry, just needed something a tad stronger than my tea. What was I saying?”
Kelly smiled at the teacher’s antics before answering, “Erika.”
“Ah.” The teacher sighed once more before bluntly stating, “I’m very concerned for her well-being. Everyone in this department has their problems, yes, but the combination of issues that girl is dealing with is very problematic.”
“You don’t need to go into much detail about those, Mrs. Thatcher.”
“Yes,” the teacher continued, “I wish I could say that was my only reason, but there’s another motive.” Thatcher looked Kelly dead in the eyes before stating, “She’s one of the best damned actresses I’ve ever seen.”
Kelly stared back at the teacher for a moment, bewildered. She blinked before finally saying what she was thinking. “Because she’s that good?”
Thatcher took a breath before explaining. “I’m afraid that’s it. I’m not going to beat around the bush- she has more talent than most of the people I’ve ever worked with.” She licked her lips, focusing on how her motivation could be so mixed. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hand out lead roles based on who your parents are- she had to earn her keep, just like you and everyone else. But quite a bit of my time around her has been cultivating her skill, as well as helping her grow into a mature woman- just like everyone else in the department. I just had to help her out of her shell and tell her how to fine tune her performances.”
Kelly didn’t know whether to be thankful or disgusted. “So you’ve been manipulating her.”
“No no no,” Mrs. Thatcher fiercely denied, “no more so than any other instructor. I’ve been teaching her. And as one of her teachers, I have the right to be concerned about my students. It’s not like I can call a parent-teacher conference.” Both women cringed at the thought. “Ally would probably try to get me sacked for that.”
A long silence permeated the room, before Kelly finally got up. “I don’t really know what to say.” Words continued to fail her as she looked at the teacher, before finally managing, “Thanks for looking after her.”
“Please don’t think too badly of me,” Mrs. Thatcher said. “I’ve been where she’s been, more or less. And I was lucky I managed what I did. I’m just trying to be to her what I wanted when I was her age.”
Kelly nodded in agreement, thanked her once again, and left the room. As she walked away, she began to contemplate which movie she’d be letting Erika borrow later that night...
“...then you cross multiply...”
“Mmm...” Julia could barely concentrate on the worksheet in front of her, the spectacled dark-haired girl next to her all over her mind. “Sorry, what was that, Tara?”
Tara sighed as she cleaned her glasses with a handkerchief from her pocket. “I know its Friday and that this isn’t due until next week, but focus a little, please?” She slowly squeezed Julia’s arm affectionately. “Or are you looking forward to tomorrow that much?”
“I can’t really help it,” Julia admitted. “You’re a lot more appealing to me than freaking homework.”
“J-Julia!” Tara blushed as she stared at her friend. “I don’t know what to say.”
Julia flashed a rare smile at Tara. “Then don’t say anything. You being with me is enough to make my day.”
The bookworm’s mouth opened, but no words were coming out. Julia’s smile grew a little wider, the hint of a giggle escaping her lips. “You-you’re not kidding, are you?”
“I don’t crack jokes like that,” Julia deadpanned. “I really am looking forward to Homecoming.”
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
As the camera panned out, a few tears ran down Erika’s cheek. “That was beautiful...” As had become a sort of habit the past few days, a hand rapped the window. Kelly Kingsley once again set foot in the room after Erika had opened the window. “Why did you give me such a tearjerker?”
“Because,” Kelly said, “it’s one of the best movies ever.”
Erika couldn’t disagree with that, if only because she didn’t have many other movies to compare to. “It was really, really good.”
Kelly smiled at Erika, licking her lips. She pulled out another DVD case from her backpack, setting it on the desk. “Alright, this next movie is my personal favorite- thank God I finally found it- and I’ll tell you right now, it’s a lot happier than Casablanca.” She moved it away from Erika as she began to get up. “No no, I want you to wait until tomorrow to watch it. Hopefully it’ll make up for the rest of the BS your family’ll make you go through.”
The redhead looked at Kelly sincerely and said, “I don’t know where I’d be without you.”
“Are you alright?” Kelly looked concerned. “You’re shaking.”
Erika silently thanked God that Kelly was too concerned to notice that it was her knees that were doing most of the shaking. “I’m fine. Really.”
That seemed to satisfy the ‘King’, but she was still a little concerned. “Alright. Just get a good night sleep and watch that movie tomorrow, okay?”
After Kelly climbed back down, she watched Erika wave and turn away from the window. While on her way back, she had a quick thought about the movie she’d given her friend. Maybe watching that movie might give her some ideas, maybe even give her a hint...
Meanwhile, Erika began heading downstairs to begin making dinner. On the way down, she saw Fiona talking on her cell phone in hushed voices, who stopped the instant she saw her red-headed stepsister. Fiona stared at her as she walked by, and Erika stared back, though her stare was more out of confusion than suspicion.
In the kitchen, she noticed a sticky note on the fridge.
Gone out for meatball subs. Call me so I know what to order for ya.
There was a smiley face at the end of her note, one that began ringing a bell in Erika’s mind. But she didn’t make the connection until she had finished her dinner- tomato soup and grilled cheese.
Tomorrow was her birthday... that smiley face...
The sound of vibrations began emanating from behind her, causing Erika to jump in her seat. Luckily, she found that the source was just her mother’s cell phone, vibrating because she had just received a text.
Erika walked briskly back up to her room. Now she remembered! Her stepsisters! She was going to have to do a bit of work before she went to bed.
Erika walked back into her room and got dressed for the day. After putting on her shirt and shorts, she then moved her desk chair to block the door- the lock had been broken for some time.
Today was the day. Eighteen years old... legally a woman. Her birthday had come by again, and once again, there was absolutely NOTHING to look forward to besides a birthday cake from Uncle Buck and a hug from Georgie and Morty.
She looked at the clock. All of her friends were probably preparing to get ready to start their agendas for Homecoming. She knew that everyone at her school wanted to have a good time at Homecoming, which usually involved a dinner at a restaurant, maybe a movie, dressing nice, and showing up at the event about half an hour after the doors opened.
In fact, it sounded something like an excuse for people to go out on dates to Erika. She sighed as she looked out the window, noticing that Kelly had forgotten to put the ladder away. She smiled as she thought about Kelly. Her warm smile, the way her hair moved when nodded her head, her toned legs, her voluptuous figure-
Erika took a deep breath and snapped out of it. She felt something warm on her lip, which ended up being saliva. She’d been drooling over Kelly! She’d been drooling like some horny guy over her soft skin, those ruby lips, the way she looked when she was naked-
No! Erika pinched herself something fierce. She felt very... hot thinking about Kelly. Had her crush on the popular girl turned into full-blown fantasizing?!? She shook her head as two naked Kellys began taking suggestive poses in her mind. It wasn’t helping that she’d helped Kelly shower and had seen everything... Op, now there were twelve of them beckoning her to come close-
Erika slapped herself out of that alluring daydream. Her heart was racing because of that girl. She couldn’t STOP thinking about her! She licked her lips as she tried to get her mind on something else. That DVD was still on her desk, next to the DVD player Kelly had given her. Well, she could watch the movie to pass the time.
Erika stopped where she stood as the door knob twisted a little bit. Someone was trying to enter her room! The door began to open, but the chair that Erika had placed stopped it from opening enough for anyone to get through.
“Erika,” Fiona asked, “why won’t the door open?”
“Um, it’s broken.”
Evidently, Erika’s ability to lie was far worse than her acting. “That’s bull, Erika. Open the door.”
“No! Uh, I’m naked!”
Erika knew that saying that was a mistake the instant she heard it coming out of her mouth. “Right... I’m busting the door down.” A great slam shook the door, but the hinges held it in place. “Dang, that thing’s more solid than I thought it’d be.”
“Hey, Erika.” Jade was apparently behind the door as well. “We just want to give you a birthday present.”
Erika knew that was a blatant lie; her stepsisters had made an art of ignoring her birthday. “Maybe later, guys.”
“No,” Jade reassured her, “we mean it Erika! We want to do something special this time!” Erika was still very doubtful, especially since Fiona tried busting down the door again. “Fiona! You’re not helping!” The fact that an all-too familiar vibrator had been turned on from that last attempt wasn’t helping her either.
Erika frantically began piling more things against the door.
“Kat, remain perfectly calm.” Mary rubbed her temples as Kat ran around the room in a tizzy.
“But I can’t!” Kat was running around the room, high on sugary cereal and anxiety. “Today’s the big day! We’ve gotta get our hair done, do our make-up, buy tickets to the movie, double-check our reservations-”
“There’s a reason why I’m taking care of the plans, Kat.” Mary remained calm, though she took some ibuprofen to alleviate her headache.
Kat took a deep breath and nodded at her ‘husband’. “No wonder you’re always the stage manager. You’ve always got a cool head.”
It was at that moment that Mary’s cell phone began to ring. “For the love of- Oh my God.” She grit her teeth as she looked at the caller ID.
“What is it, Mary? You look like all the color’s gone out of your face.”
“It’s Erika,” Mary stated. “She’s using the football phone.” Kat’s eyes widened as Mary answered the phone. “Hello?”
“Mary? Oh, thank God I got ahold of you. I need to get out of Dodge, stat!”
“Calm down, Erika. Give me the short story. Right... Okay... What? WHAT?!?” Kat had never seen Mary so angry, there were veins popping out of her head and her eyes looked like giant glasses of milk with olives in the middle. “Alright. Call that Buck guy and tell him you’re on the way. We will be too. Just find a way out of there.”
Mary hung up the phone and turned to her lover. “Get the dresses, the shoes, and the hair stuff. I’ll start the car.”
Back at Erika’s room, she was finishing up her call to Buck. “Thank you so much.” She looked back at the door- that chair did NOT look like it was going to hold up much longer.
“Alright, Erika. We’ve got a freaking battering ram. Now open the goddamn door!”
“NO!” Erika shouted. But she was still in a pickle- that door was the only way out besides jumping out the window. The window! Kelly had forgotten to put away the ladder last night!
Erika quickly got her backpack, and chucked the DVD player into it- she was NOT giving her step family any more ammo against her if she could help it. She also picked up the DVD, and took a quick look at the title- ‘Black Holes’.
Her gaze lingered slightly on the people depicted on the box. For a moment, she was experiencing déjà vu. “No way. That’s- that’s impossible!”
The door was nearly split in half. Erika stuffed the box in her pack and made a break for the ladder.
“I can’t freaking believe this,” Fiona growled as Jade drove the car. “How the hell did she know we were coming?”
Jade kept her eyes on the road, but still shook her head. “Hell if I know. Look, we’ve just gotta make sure that she doesn’t get to that stupid black guy before we do.”
“African-American,” Fiona corrected.
“To hell with being PC,” Jade yelled. “We got lucky that Erika didn’t call the cops on us for catching us with Kelly. Let’s just take care of business, hm?” The car came to a quick stop in front of Buck Daniel’s house. “Great. Those two crazy drama dykes are already here.”
The two ran to the door and knocked. “Here’s hoping that we get lucky.”
The door opened to reveal George and Mortimer Daniels. “Hello,” Jade said, “have you seen our stepsister?”
“Nope,” Georgie replied with a straight face. “Have you seen your front teeth?”
“What?” In an instant, Georgie punched Jade in the face, sending the mastermind to the dirt.
Fiona retaliated by throwing a right hook at the bald freshman, but her attack was blocked by Morty, whose fist connected with Fiona’s stomach. “You have eight seconds to get you and your sister off our lawn before I really start kicking your ass.”
Jade sat up and rubbed her chin. “You’ve gotta be kidding.”
Morty’s features hardened and he barked out, “ONE!”
The two began scurrying away, managing to climb into their car by the time Morty was about to shout ‘seven’. As they drove away, George commented, “You know, I SHOULD feel bad for punching a woman in the face.”
Morty nodded, before saying, “How do you feel?”
“I feel freaking fantastic,” George smirked. “And I know you feel the same.” His brother sighed as the two closed the door and returned to the kitchen. The room had become sort of a makeshift meeting room, with many more people sitting around the table than usual. Erika and Buck were there as always, but so were Kat, Mary, Julia, and Tara. “Alright, Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun have left the building.”
“Now’s not the time for jokes,” Julia remarked. “Erika just went through a VERY traumatic experience. Two, if you count what they tried to do to Kelly.”
“True,” Mary agreed, “I knew those two were horrible human beings, but this is beyond their usual brand of mayhem.”
Julia disagreed. “Please, I’ve been warning you about those two for weeks.”
Kat was enraged at Julia’s tone. “And that’s only because they almost did your sister!”
“Enough!” Everyone calmed down at Buck’s command. “We’re not here to point fingers at how this could’ve happened. We’re here to support Erika in her time of need.”
Tara, who happened to be sitting next to Erika, sighed. “Are you alright? Would you like some of my orange juice?”
“I’m not really in the mood for OJ,” Erika mumbled.
“Okay.” Tara seemed resolute to do something. “I’ll make you some hot chocolate. Would that be better?”
Erika nodded. “That’d be nice.” Tara nodded and turned to Julia. “I’ll be sure that you get some too, Julia.”
As she walked away, Julia licked her lips. “God, I love that girl.”
Kat took a deep breath before reasoning, “Alright. I’m not really sure where to begin.”
“It might be better to talk about something else.” Georgie looked at Mary, who continued, “It might as well be ignoring the elephant in the room, but it’s better than awkward silence.”
Erika nodded, finally deciding to bring something up that’d been bothering her. “Uncle Buck? I got a question for you.”
“If you want to take it to court, we’re gonna have to-”
“No.” Mr. Daniels looked surprised at her interruption. “I want some answers.”
Buck looked fairly confused as all eyes turned on him. “I’m not sure I follow.”
Erika dug around in her backpack until she pulled out the movie. “This.” She slid Kelly’s copy of ‘Black Holes’ across the table, watching Uncle Buck pick up the DVD box. “Explain,” she said, taking her old picture of her parents out of her pocket.
Buck’s face looked several shades paler. “How did you get ahold of this?”
“Kelly lent me a movie to get me through the day.” She sat up in her chair and asked rhetorically, “Who are the people on the cover?”
No one spoke for a good two minutes. Tara walked in, two piping hot cups of cocoa in her hands. “Sorry it took me so long.” She handed the cups to Erika and Julia, and then lightly pecked Julia’s cheek. Julia couldn’t stop smiling for half a minute.
Buck looked at his grandsons. Georgie closed his eyes and took a deep breath, while Morty shook his head. “Today IS her eighteenth birthday, right? There’s no harm in telling her.”
The eldest Daniels struggled with his words, which was shocking, considering his profession. He opened and closed his mouth, trying desperately to find a good place to start. “Erika, pass your picture to any person at the table, and I’ll pass the DVD to that person.”
After a moment’s thought, she passed the picture to Tara. Another few second passed, then handed the movie to the new girl. Tara cleaned her glasses before analyzing both items.
On one hand, she had a tattered picture. Buck Daniels was in the center, with a strangely familiar man to his right. His sunglasses were raised above his brown eyes, and his brown hair was held up by hair gel in the front. His chin was so strong that it seemed to be chiseled from stone. He was wearing a leather jacket, and he had that proud look in his eye that Erika had committed to memory.
The mother was nearly a spitting image of Erika- her red hair was only shorter to Erika’s, but everything else- especially her eyes, were exactly the same. That specific shade of blueish-green.
Tara then looked at the box art for ‘Black Holes’, starring Jackie Daniels and Cheryl Long. She blinked, cleaned her glasses again, and looked at both images again. “They look exactly the same.” Tara paused as this fact dawned upon her. “That-that would mean that Jackie Daniels and Cheryl Long would-”
Buck nodded, confirming Tara’s suspicions. “Yes. They’re Erika’s parents.” All around the table, people were shocked, confused, or at least hid those emotions well. “Erika, I’ll answer yer questions now.”
Erika blinked. “ANY question?”
“Any question. I can’t get in trouble now.”
Mary piped up first. “How? How is that possible? And how the hell did we not see the resemblance?”
Buck thought a moment. “Well, you probably never thought about those two the same time you were around Erika. Their story is a little more complex. They met on the set of the movie, after Kyle Kingsley and myself helped take care of a major lawsuit. I introduced her to Jackie, and things just happened from there.”
Kat was next. “That makes sense... Cheryl was supposed to have died from childbirth complications. But why didn’t anyone hear about it?”
“Well, that was hard to arrange. Jackie wanted things to be kept quiet. But the media wouldn’t have any of it- the tabloids, more respected papers like the Times... they all wanted to talk about it. Eventually, I got a gag order placed on anything involving Cheryl’s death. Had to fight tooth and nail to do it, had to give out a few favors to some of the more... determined reporters. Like Kroenke, Bracco, and Dixon. It took a while fer people to stop paying attention.”
Julia drank the last of her cocoa before asking, “But if Erika’s parents are those two, wouldn’t that make her richer than all of us?”
“Technically, yes. But because of the way Jackie’s will was written, Erika could not legally assume ownership of the money he made off his albums, his movies, Cheryl’s movies ‘til she was eighteen. Meanwhile, his step wife could, which is why she isn’t living in a slightly less opulent house. Oh, that reminds me...” Buck ran to his study for a moment, returning with a formal piece of paper and a pen. “Sign this please.”
While doing so, Erika inquired, “What’s this?”
“This document states that you accept anything and everything that came from your father’s will. The money, the cars, the stocks, the house you’re living in... everything.”
Erika gulped as this news came crashing down upon her, along with another new question. “My dad’s real last name was Daniels, then. ...Were you and he-”
“Stepbrothers?” Erika nodded her head. “No. Daniels is actually a fairly common name, Erika. Though it’d be easy to assume that, considering how close we were.”
“I just can’t believe it,” Erika said, taking a sip of her cocoa. “My dad was- is THE Jackie Daniels?!?”
Morty chuckled. “Even without seeing any of the movies or hearing any of his songs, people know his name. He’s that famous.”
Erika took a deep breath before taking another sip of her cocoa. She looked at her friends, who all seemed to have been looking at her with some mix of respect and amazement. Even Mary, who always prided herself on remaining calm, looked generally shocked.
“And now,” Buck said, “I think that’s all the questions you’ve got-” As if to say, ‘not a chance’, that familiar red phone began to ring. “-Should’ve seen that coming.”
Erika stood up out of her chair. “Uncle Buck, just what is that phone?”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to answer that question later today,” Buck sighed. “I really have to take this call. What you all can do is take that movie, put it in the DVD player in the TV room on the other side of the house, and watch it.” He then said, “I think you’ve got some catching up to do.”
As Buck picked up the phone a little bit later, the deep, masculine voice rang out over the line. “Ready to work a little magic, old buddy?”
Buck laughed at his joke. “Just wait another hour or two. Then I think she’ll be ready.”