Welp, here's a story that involves Mr. O'Neill! It's interesting how people make bad decisions like this and pick a universally hated character to write about!

But, hey, at least it's done - that's a hidden variable for my stuff, after all; you just never know if I'll actually finish what I started.

Anyways, hope you guys enjoy the story! Be sure to leave hate-mail and/or other comments so that I know whether I just ought to up and quit!


"Dwayne's bad chemicals made him take a loaded thirty-eight caliber revolver from under his pillow and stick it in his mouth. This was a tool whose only purpose was to make holes in human beings."

-Breakfast of Champions


Mr. O'Neill in...

FEAR AND TREMBLING

Setting the Scene

Timothy O'Neill had once told Daria Morgendorffer that she was, in essence, a gender-swapped version of himself from back when he was in his late teens.

Or, he'd said something to that effect—truth be told, he couldn't really remember. The exact wording of what he'd said wasn't important in the slightest (it never was, really); what mattered most—what always mattered most—was the subtext behind it: he worried about her because he'd been like her. Walk a mile in someone else's shoes, and you pretty much shared the same bunions, gross though that thought may be.

One other thing he couldn't really remember was how Daria had reacted to that statement. Probably in the same impassive way she reacted to everything, he figured—and that, more than anything, proved his point: when something affected Daria, she'd do what he had done at age 16 and simply put up a brave face. It was foolish; it was unhealthy—most of all, it was a teensy bit rude.

And that was the thought he had most as he sat at his desk and read her latest essay—one that was finished well ahead of the rest of the class, as per usual. They were scribbling away while she was reading a book (The Woman Destroyed, oh dear…that sounded violent), writing who knows what in ways that O'Neill didn't particularly care. Daria though—Daria made him care, because what other kind of message would someone be sending when they wrote the kinds of things she wrote?

('And so the point of a military is not, in reality, for self defense purposes—as those in the upper echelons of the media want us to believe. The real impetus behind a regulated militia at the beck and call of the Commander-in-Chief is to make our regular uniformed officers jealous, to the extent that they wish they were Marines instead and feel utterly stymied that a black woman in the Bronx doesn't show them as much respect as a homeless orphan in Iraq. It is much easier to force the status quo on the population when your jack-boot thugs suffer from permanent self-esteem'…oh my, is she saying what I think she's saying?)

O'Neill put down her essay and contemplated what she said: self-esteem…self-esteem…oh, and she had said self defense earlier, almost as though she's referring to the walls she's put up within herself. Dear me, this is a far more overt call for help than normal.

He stared at her—long enough that she looked up from her own book and cast a glance back.

"Eep!" he said, drawing everyone's attention his way. Slowly, he sank behind her essay—but, of course, he no longer wished to read it.

No, instead he let himself be reminded of his High School: of his teachers and classmates and feelings. He thought back to how he hid those feelings from the other two, and how he hid them from himself. He thought about how he invited misery into his life, and did nothing to prevent it from entering the lives of others.

He hadn't intended to let his eyes close, but the images became so much clearer with the aid of darkness. Timothy O'Neill had one foot far enough in the present to hear Daria's friend—Jane something—say, "Arr, looks like the Cap'n's drunk at the wheel again," before he fully let himself become Tim O'Neill again, a 16 year old kid just waiting for the year to be over.

1.

(Somewhere in America, 1976ish)

"Wow," said Shelby McLennan, leaning out of her desk at a precarious angle, "your frown's a good two, three inches larger than normal. Bad test?"

Tim O'Neill looked once at his test, looked at his best friend, then sighed like someone had punched him in the lungs. "Would you believe it wasn't my best effort?" he said.

Shelby blinked. "Um…yep. You spelt your name wrong." Her finger pointed to where he'd signed the test, Tim O'Nell.

Tim groaned. "Ohhh what I wouldn't give for someone to just knock me unconscious. Last time I got a full seven hours was when Nixon told us we hit the moon."

"Oh yeah, much easier to sleep at night with him in charge."

"Chaos is my bride. It soothes me."

Luckily, the dismissal bell rang out before that conversation could go any further. Tim really didn't feel like telling Shelby how he'd been sweating and drilling holes into his floor all while attempting to study; he didn't feel like telling her because, any time he discussed his favorite mix of noggin' chemicals and environmental stimulants, his good ol' brain would decide that a command performance of adrenaline and anxiety was just what the doctor ordered. He'd tried explaining to someone who'd been unfortunate enough to see Tim's soul flee his body—or whatever people thought happened to those suffering from panic attacks—that he was merely panicking over the prospect of having another panic attack, and a day later a priest had shown up on his doorstep offering to "cleanse Satan from this place no matter the cost."

Yeah, no, the fewer panic attacks he had in public, the more he could pass as functional and normal—or, at least, that was what the German shrink in his head told him every night.

The German shrink had a tendency to make things worse, really.

So instead, Tim shook his head, waited for the ringing in his ears to stop, and then started collecting his belongings.

"Hey," said Shelby, drawing Tim's attention for a nervous second, "that's right—we're allowed to leave. Totally forgot about that."

Tim nearly wiped his brow. "Not I, said the doomed street urchin. I need to beg for pity marks." That was why he hadn't wiped his brown—his suffering was far from over, thank you very much.

"Imagine being a teacher and having to ruin people's lives like that," Shelby said, gathering up her things as well. Tim snorted.

"Yeah, I'll have killed myself long before that happens." He looked at the front of the room, which seemed cloaked in the kind of shadows you'd see in an Army Recruitment station. "Still, you know, pray for me."

"No can do—promised the big man upstairs that I'd stop wasting his time after dad got a deferment."

(Yikes, speaking of Army's)

"Waste it on him, why don't you," Tim said instead.

Shelby said, "Well, if you're offering to pay my way into college…" but Tim had smiled and waved her off already. Nodding back, Shelby pushed her way to the front of the class and was off, no doubt, to their usual meeting place, leaving Tim and the teacher and a fifty pound bag of terror stitched into his sides all alone. He waited a second longer for the rest of the class to clear out before he shuffled his way forward. He'd done this before, and by god, it never turned out good for him—sweaty palms, prickly skin, limbs that felt hollow, that sinking feeling that you'd never get a happy and clear thought again for the rest of your life…and that was all before he even opened his mouth!

(Boy, I'd sure love to thank whoever put me together!)

All that thinking about nerves had sent a fresh round of electricity through them, which was as good a start as any. He was so busy trying to come up with a consistent reason for why he'd slacked off on his studying this time that he failed to notice a brunette girl in pig-tails was had already claimed that path. They bumped shoulders and, like a spring who'd seen its parents get murdered, Tim shot around to cover his flank.

"Eep! I'm not begging—you're begging!" he said, as dignified as a clown without pants. The girl, for her part, just chuckled.

"Yeah," she said, "unfortunately, I am."

(Ahhh…crap)

"Oh," he said, rubbing what he thought was his elbow but was actually his rib-cage. "Oh hey, whoops. I, uh, um…English. Words. Sentences." It was around this time that Tim realized he'd never seen her before.

(Hey, weird—she hasn't fled the crime-scene yet. Because she's new blood, or because an adult is watching?)

"No harm done," the new-girl said, giving a quick glance to his rubbed ribcage. Her stare only lasted a second. "You weren't the one that failed me on my first day. I say fail—let me save some face and say that I don't like getting C's."

"Me neither, but that never stops me."

(Yeah that'll normalize the situation)

The new-girl chuckled again. "Well, maybe you need to meet with the Warden more than me."

"More than I, I think you—eep, sorry that was, wow, that was definitely supposed to be an inside thought." And to think, he'd enjoyed their brief little talk just long enough to forget about being anxious, instead kick-starting his normal, awkward personality operating system. Oh well, what are social bonds anyways?

But—and it is surely to her credit—the new-girl just smiled and shrugged. "Ah, nope," she said, "you're right—that right's probably why I got my C."

"Makes you feel any better, I'm not at liberty to discuss my grade." That time he joined her in smiling.

Her smile faded as she looked over his shoulder at the teacher's desk and the Mr. Crabtree sitting in it; in fact, it looked to Tim as though it had slipped right off her face. She rubbed the back of her neck and then—in a jerky fashion that probably popped her elbow—she swung her hand back to her hip.

"Anyways," she said, "I'll let you—err—beg? That how you put it? Fair enough name for it—I'll let you beg and get out of your hair."

Tim blinked. He almost asked himself if it was something he had said, but he stopped that thought immediately—it very clearly wasn't like that at all.

"Well," he said, "I mean, you're welcome to join—"

"I'll catch him some other time—thanks though."

"I—"

Before Tim could say anything else, he heard Mr. Crabtree call over his shoulder. Heard and felt, considering how it felt like antifreeze was running through his veins all of a sudden.

"Do you need something, O'Neill?" Mr. Crabtree asked.

Tim turned to face him and said, "Yeah hold on a sec, I—" and then turned back. Then new-girl was, somehow, gone.

Tim blinked again—hard enough that it hurt.

"Mmm—OK," he said, slowly turning to face his teacher (but keeping his voice low and private), "not asking if anyone else saw her. Not—I repeat, not—opening that can of worms."

Indeed, he did not open that can of worms for the rest of that hour.

2.

It turned out that something had caught Shelby's attention, and so Tim and his backpack pulled up a seat in the roots of a tree that both he and Shelby had decided was theirs (it dripped sap and smelled like bodies were buried underneath it, so there wasn't much in the way of competition to claim it). Leaning forward onto his knees and staring out at the rest of his High School, Tim wracked his brain for ways to dilute his anxiety—before tests, mostly, but if he could figure out a way to not be scared by the very concept of existence then, hey, that'd be a barrel of laughs too. Mr. Crabtree was under the impression that Tim just refused to study, and there were only so many times you could lie and say, "Yeah, you're right, I have no work ethic," before the utter lack of changes in test scores became suspicious.

(Suspension or telling someone the truth…wow, what a choice. Wonder if they'll give me a blindfold first)

So entranced in thought was he that Shelby might as well have teleported beside him when she finally showed up. She also very easily could have scared the piss directly out of him, but decided instead to simply kick a rock into his lap. He shook his head and looked at his friend.

"Waiting to get struck by lightning?" she said. Again, Tim shook his head.

"Don't be ridiculous. What a ridiculous thing to say. I'm trying to become one with it so I only have to worry about tree things."

"That's an extreme solution. Did a tutor kill your dog?"

"JFK had a tutor, and look what happened to him."

"He was leader of the free world for a while?"

Tim blinked. "…how dare you be optimistic like that."

Smiling, Shelby took a seat next to him (and accidentally got a strand of her hair stuck in the sap). Grunting and pulling the poor strand free, she said, "Sorry I'm late—I was avoiding some kind of census taker. So did Mr. Crabtree go easy on you?"

"Relative to what?"

"Ah," Shelby said, "OK—new question: are you gonna do what he said?"

"Disobey a direct order? Whaddya make me to be?" Besides, it wasn't really disobeying orders when orders had nothing to do with the problem, right?

Shelby tutted. "I just mean: you seem to really like watching your teacher's hairline recede. Which is weird because you're about as rebellious as a…a…uh," she snapped her fingers in the air, "…you know."

"A neutron?"

Shelby smiled. "Wait—you telling me you know stuff?"

Tim smiled too, despite wanting like hell to end this conversation (gently, of course—it was Shelby, after all). "I just need motivation, that's all. Not like I try to age my teachers. Y'know, much anyways."

"Always did want to see someone turn to dust right in front of me." Again, Shelby tutted. "But, no, me thinks you're being elusive—a slippery little cephalopod, if you will." A bandaged finger boinked him on the noise. "You ain't a trouble maker or a slacker, I knows you."

"You throw words like that around but you can't come up with a simile?" Tim said, pushing the boinking finger away. Shelby just shrugged.

"Well, maybe I was just trying to give you a pick-me-up. And maybe you should stop being slippery, you cephalopod you."

Tim's brain knew that the rest of him wanted something to say, but something gunky fell into the gears and the whole operation when kaplouie, to use a scientific term. His finger had started tapping the side of his thigh a good two or three minutes ago, and that—plus an uncontrollable urge to think of past things that Tim knew made him nervous—was enough of a warning sign that the conversation should be diverted. You know—lest something unfortunate happen, like tears.

Salvation ironically appeared in the form of the new-girl, who was scuttling her way through the afternoon crowds. Tim saw his finger rise to point at her before he was even conscious of what he was looking at.

"She's new," he said.

"And she's bipedal. Any other observations you wanna make?"

"Only that I'm lucky to have you." Looking again, Tim could see that she was walking with a conspirators limp; like one of the really bad spies from Rocky and Bullwinkle, trying to avoid eye-contact, forcing her head down, slipping quickly through the crowds—that sort of thing. If someone so much as raised an elbow, she might just bite it off.

"Scratch that, I've got another observation."

"You mean the fact that she's acting like the world's worst infiltrator?" Shelby said. Tim blinked.

(Yikes, get out of my head lady)

"Yeah—she is acting mighty conspicuous," he said instead. "Maybe we should, I don't know, expand our friend circle a bit? Give her some cover for whatever Soviet conspiracy she's clearly a part of?"

Tim expected a question—maybe a weird glare—but perhaps curiosity killed the questionnaire. After their eyes watched the new-girl duck into the school library, Shelby merely tapped her chin. "Hmm, you think we've got enough room? What with our popularity and all."

Before Tim could answer, a passing kid knocked him on the shoulder and sent him directly into the stratosphere, screaming Eep all the way there.

"Anybody given you your swirly, little Timmy?" one kid said.

"Your balls drop yet, Shelby?" said another.

The interlopers walked off laughing, leaving Tim and Shelby to glare at each other.

"Flower power," Shelby said with a shrug. "Wooh."

Tim nodded. "This world is so peaceful and kind, you just wanna bomb Cambodia, huh?"

3.

When they got to the library, the new-girl was engaged in the most egregious of crimes: school work with nary a parent nor a teacher cracking the whip. Tim nearly shuddered—what horrible thing happened to make her spend her afterschool hours like that?

"Ah, danger, Will Robinson," he said, stopping at the other end of the table she was using. "Keep reading that book and you might figure out what the hell our teachers are actually saying."

The new-girl looked up from her book, chuckled, then closed it to give them her full attention. "I think they'd have to read the book for that to happen."

"Fair point," Tim said with a smile. "Oh uh, name's Tim—this is my associate, Shelby." He jerked his thumb in her direction.

"But you can call me 'Your Highness' if you really want," Shelby said, putting on a British accent so bad that Scotland separated in embarrassment.

The new-girl smiled again and stood up. "Tara," she said. Then she took a bow. "I beseech your forgiveness for not humbling myself earlier."

"Well the guillotine's in the wash," Shelby said, "so I guess I'll let you live."

Chuckles were exchanged all around. When they stopped, Tim took a glance around the (entirely deserted) library and then drew his eyes back to Tara. Hiding in the library was mutant-like behaviour, but that didn't really explain why she was trying to avoid people.

"So…" he said, gesturing around, "nobody gave you the tour?"

"What do you mean?" Tara said.

"Ah it's just, you know, not too many people hang out in the library after school."

"Probably because it should be condemned," Shelby said. A piece of plaster picked that moment to flatten a table full of history books. Tim flinched—why couldn't it have been the Classics section?

After the roof settled though, Tim said: "Meh, the asbestos'll hold. But no, just figured that, you being new and all…"

"Oh," said Tara, rubbing the back of her neck. "You mean: 'why's nobody talking to me?' Well…I'm not a huge people person."

"Same here!" said Shelby. "We should start a club."

Tara chuckled again—a good sign that she wasn't fully a mutant, Tim decided. "Hating people always tastes that much sweeter when you have an audience," she said. "Nah, I'm fine—don't worry. I just…I just, you know, move around a lot. In and out of schools…same schools sometimes. Family stuff. It takes a while for me to get settled, that's all."

Tim noticed that she had made some…interesting hand gestures just then—kinda jerky, kinda flailing in a, you know, controlled way—but he said nothing about it. Instead, he said: "Well our towns literally no worse than normal, so…err, make of that what you will."

"We started being nicer to foreigners after that incident with the Sultan."

"I wish she was making that up," Tim said.

"The welcome-wagon I've got so far is pretty nice," Tara said, "so I'm not complaining. Seriously though, the checking-in is appreciated."

Tim gave her a thumbs-up. "Don't sweat it—after all, sounds like you had a rough intro to our Supreme Overlords. Figured the beggers outta look out for each other, right?"

It was then that Tara's fingers started drumming on the side of her arm—whether she'd been doing that from the beginning or not Tim didn't know, but it was loud enough that he could hear it over the creaking roof.

"Oh…yeah," Tara said, her teeth showing at a funny angle. "Yeah um, you could say that." A forced laugh. " 'Supreme Overlords,' yeah, that's funny."

"Right up until they lock you in their testing room with a State Supervisor," Shelby said, apparently not noticing any of this. "Poor Chloe never stood a chance."

"Yeah that…that sounds horrible." Tara's foot was now tapping on the floor, and Tim could swear he saw some sweat ringing the collar of her shirt. Looking down at the fingers on his right hand, he saw that they were scratching together in a haphazard pattern.

(What trickery is this?)

Shelby continued talking. "Just hope you never get a teacher that fell in love with pop-quizzes—I heard a couple of parents tried to get a city ordinance to ban those things, and the government made them disappear."

(Pretty sure I can hear her shaking now)

"Impossible—that'd mean the government actually works," Tim said, his brain's wiring requiring him to make one last snarky comment. Something was up with Tara—something intimately familiar—and his attempt to ask if she was all right fell victim to a very special filter that he had put up in his brain.

"Hey uh, want us to sit down?" he asked lamely.

"Yeah yeah. Me? Oh yeah, yeah—totally fine!" was Tara's response, answering the question in Tim's brain but not the one he spoke. "I, uh, I've gotta, uh—you know, I've gotta…" Without finishing her sentence, Tara shakily started collecting her things.

"Right, yeah, getting late," Tim said—again, very lamely. "Don't want to miss the last bus out of here."

"No no—no I do not," Tara said, the words tumbling out. "Um, nice talking to you guys—see you tomorrow?"

"Oh we live here—you'll see us around," Shelby said. She sounded the most normal but, to Tim, even with her there was a tinge of incredulousness in her tone. Tara picked that moment to basically sprint from the building.

"Great. Yeah. Bye!" she called back, slowing her pace only slightly once she reached the library's doors. When she looked back she must have missed her book lying open on the desk (though Tim doubted it), as she was through the door just as Shelby called after her.

"Hey wait, you forgot you—"

"Ah! Too late—she's gone," Tim said, practically punching Shelby's words aside. That was involuntary on his part—nobody had consulted the little Timmy that lived behind his eyes—but as he stooped down to scoop up Tara's book, he felt more and more justified in interrupting.

"Here," he said, "I'll uh, I'll just hold on to this for her."

"But she's right there," Shelby said. "She's right outside—OK, now she's gone."

"Oh darn," Tim said.

"Coulda called her back."

"Oh how life would have turned out then," Tim said.

He ignored the look Shelby gave him—ignored it and just kept trying to jam her book into his backpack. He still refused to look at her once it was finally in there, feeling her question push down on him as though the rest of the roof had caved in on top of them.

"All right," Shelby said eventually. "Well, we actually should leave. Or we will live here."

"Yeah," said Tim, "right behind you."

As they left the library, Tim let himself percolate all the unconscious thoughts he was having throughout the rest of his mind. That was a panic attack—a big one, by the looks of it—and he'd be damned if it didn't look and act a lot like his. Everything made sense now: the meeting with Crabtree, the skulking outside the school, staying in a library-shaped death-trap—just like Tim, she was prone to having the chemicals in her brain go absolutely haywire, to make the shadows in the world grow just a tad larger and more than a little darker.

(She doesn't like getting C's…man, I bet that's just another layer of crap on top of everything else for her, huh)

Well, if they were just like his panic attacks—if she had the propensity to get just as physically sick as him whenever her heart-rate started increasing—then it was a damn good thing his unconscious mind stopped Shelby from going after her. She meant well, no doubt about it, but that's just not how these things would know; Tim would know just how much good intentions could keep you from getting away.

As they continued walking, Tim kept thinking about what might have happened had she been closed off in the library with them—how bad her anxiety might have gotten then and there. How embarrassing a full-on panic attack in public would no doubt be (and, boy, had he escaped from a few of those only by the skin of his teeth). He felt horrible for her, and deep inside himself he felt more than a little protective too: he knew what she was going through, nobody else did, and that meant he was the only person in the Tri-state region who'd know just when to shoo people away or clear a path to freedom for her if and when the shaking and the sweating started again.

He'd just have to be vigilant of people trying to stick their noses in her business—that's what.

Tim reached his house, said goodbye to Shelby, then made his way to his room. His last thought before he immersed himself in his solitary environment was this:

Welcome to my nightmare, I guess.

4.

It was a brand new day to suffer through the same old shit, and Tim O'Neill was definitely suffering. It wasn't because of his little experience with Tara—that discovery that someone else in his world could barely tie their shoes without overstimulating their lizard brain—nor was it one of his own bouts of anxiety. Nope: he'd let his mother make him breakfast that morning, and now his stomach was trying to eat itself to end its pain.

"I tell ya," Tim said to Shelby, as they were walking from her house to school, "there really are some things that should never attempt to be food."

"Makes me wonder about aliens," Shelby said. "I mean, just how tasty are we supposed to be?"

Tim shuddered; as he was want to do. "Oh god, don't make me think about being eaten by aliens. I still get nightmares from that Spielberg movie."

"Close Encounters?" Shelby said, her brow touching her hairline. "Guy, that's not even out yet."

"Yeah but this is the Jaws person we're talking about—who knows what kind of skin-melting horrors are in thatmovie!"

It was at this point that, somewhere past the fog of his imagination and all the skin-melting aliens that lived in it, Tim realized Shelby was staring at his arm. More specifically, she seemed to be eyeing the book he had buried in his armpit. It was Tara's, of course—Tim having thought that it would be the neighborly thing to bring it to school for the fellow neurotic. And being that his plan was to keep said fellow neurotic from having to live with the rest of society pointing out how little she could function, Tim deigned on the side of keeping his best friend in the dark—especially because she would want nothing more than to be helpful in a place where help did the exact opposite of what it intended, cruel through his planned misdirection might ultimately be.

But clearly, Shelby had questions, which would complicate things a tad.

"Speaking of skin-melting horror—"

Tim's mind conjured up an image that would have made John Carpenter queasy. "Eep!"

"Calm down," Shelby said, though immediately her expression turned into something that made Tim forget all about the aliens. "Or," she said, "…maybe don't."

"Eep!"

"OK, violence may be deployed."

(Eep!)

"I'll behave," Tim said instead.

Shelby pointed at Tara's book. "As I was saying: that's the weirdest way to get with a girl that I've ever seen."

(Ee—hey wait what?)

His mouth mimicked his brain. "What!?" he said. "Are you—what!? I don't—are women and men not allowed to just have a conversation—"

(Hey shut up man—you want her to know what's really going on?)

Realizing that the voice in his head was right (and that he really didn't want to think about voices being in his head), Tim shook his head and said: "I mean, err, wow, hey, you caught me. Um, damn—should I, uh, do—herm…you think we're a good fit for each other?"

(Oh yeah, she's off the trail now you master spy you)

That Shelby was looking at him like he'd just spit up a tooth more or less said that the voices were right again.

"Your silence tells me, 'perhaps'," Tim said.

"I'm confused."

"I believe they call that puberty."

"Uh-huh—two years late for that, buddy." Shelby jogged slightly ahead and turned around to face Tim. "Seriously, spill the beans."

"But then how will we eat them?"

Shelby balled a fist. "Violence."

"Eep!"

"You're not crushing on the new girl, is what you're saying?"

Tim stuttered despite himself. "Oh no—I mean, oh yes. Yes I am. Very much."

(OK, when you eventually don't get into college, I want you to look back on this day so you never have to wonder 'why?')

Shelby, who Tim was quickly realizing had far too many brain cells to be fooled by his antics, simply crossed her arms. "Right," she said, bringing the tally to Internal Voices 3, External Dumbass Behaviour 0

"For sure!" Tim said, bringing that latter tally down to -1. Yet another impassive stare from Shelby made Tim realize he ought to switch up his plan.

"What would the alternative hypothesis be?" he said.

Shelby slowed down her jog and rejoined Tim at his side. "I'm…not…sure, exactly."

"Well, simplest course of action: go with the one that I just said. There—science!"

Shelby shook her head. "I'm not satisfied."

"Feel free to mail the journal's editor, then."

"I'd love to make a joke about lack of peer-review, but we've only got a block left to go—"

Tim's gut did that thing where it and the rest of him wanted to die on the spot. "Uh-oh," he said.

"Yep," Shelby said, cracking her knuckles. "Direct approach. Tell me what's up or I start spitting."

(Woah hey there fella, you know she's not—)

Like a dumbass, Tim ignored the scoreboard and said: "Uh-huh, look, I know a little something about empty threats and—"

A glob of spit landed on the sidewalk before he could even finish his sentence.

"Eww gross..."

Another glob landed just a tad closer than the last.

"Oh god, really?"

A third glob, only this one landed directly on his shoe.

"Ah! Shoey!"

"I'm seeing phlegm on the horizon!"

"OK, OK—jeez," Tim said, unsure of whether to wipe his shoe off or just burn it. "You do work for the Goldwater campaign?"

"Don't try me bucko."

(I tried to warn you)

Quiet you, Tim thought. But the voices were, as usual, right on the money—and frankly he was getting tired of keeping this from his friend. He had to approach this carefully, of course—had to keep Tara's dignity in check, first and foremost—but Tim guessed there wasn't really much point in playing hide and seek with the truth anymore. At least not a significant portion of the truth, that is.

(Like all the parts that don't involve you anxiety?)

I said quiet heathen! Tim shouted at himself. Luckily, he managed to keep that conversation entirely inside his head—that wasn't always the case with him, unfortunately.

So Tim sighed and scratched at his neck and ran through his script and then finally said: "Fine. It's just, err, well—she uh, she was getting nervous."

A long pause waited for him on the other side of that sentence.

"…and?" Shelby said.

"You know, nervous. Anxious. I could see her trying to drum her way through the floor and all that."

Shelby tapped her chin. "Oh that's what that noise was."

"Yeah," Tim said. "And, you know, I get it. Life's uh, well, life can make some people nervous, you know?"

"I mean, sort of," Shelby said, choosing her words very carefully by the sound of it. "I…well, I wouldn't exactly say it's a horror movie or anything."

(Lucky lucky…)

"Anyways," Tim said, locking that thought away and shooting its lawyer, "she looked like she needed to get out of there, so I figured—why stop her? I'll just give Tara her book back tomorrow. Err, today, I mean."

Another pause, though this one was much shorter and finished with an understanding nod from Shelby. "OK, gotcha. And then you're gonna talk to her, right?"

Tim's turn to push up his hairline with his brow. "I thought we were past the crush-joke."

"I'm talking about her—her anxiety or whatever."

( Uh, what!?)

"Oh golly yes," Tim said, far more sarcastic and caustic than he intended. "And then I'll stick some handlebars on her shoulders and use her kicking legs to dig a trench." He immediately started rubbing the back of his neck—not only did he hate getting mad at Shelby, he was feeling a tad nervous for reasons that were bluntly obvious to him and the voices inside his head.

Shelby just blinked, however. "Huh?"

"Anxious people have their own coping mechanisms—why should we stick our noses in it?"

Another round of blinking, as though Tim had just questioned whether plane crashes were fatal. "Cuz it could help?" Shelby said.

"Yeah," Tim said, "help it flair right back up again."

"The anxiety."

"And any alien diseases lurking in her genome."

"Of the flesh-eating kind?"

"Eep!"

Shelby couldn't help but chuckle, and Tim couldn't help but flinch from the light tap he received on his arm. "C'mon, you said yourself that she had a rough time on her first day. We shouldn't leave her out to dry."

"That's not the issue," Tim said, shaking his head harder than his neck liked. "The issue is: are we going to make it worse by constantly pointing out scary things and anxious things and other…things…yeah."

(Do us a favour and never teach future children English)

You are teetering on the precipice with these comments, sir! Tim was almost sure he said that out loud, but Shelby didn't seem scared for her life—just confused.

"Is that how that works?" she asked.

He nearly said yes, but Tim clamped his mouth shut just in time.

"How should I know?" he said instead. Shelby shrugged.

"Well if that's the case, how do you know it won't work?"

Again, Tim nearly said something, nearly gave himself away. Shelby's comment made perfect sense from the perspective of someone who didn't suffer from anxiety, and if he was going to continue pretending to be a part of that group, he had to keep up appearances. It'd mean half-assing any attempt at talking to Tara though—no, not even half-assing; more like, 10% assing at max to prevent any residue adrenaline from sparking a wildfire. He'd get chewed out for being lazy, but maybe that was the only way to keep this from getting out of hand—be accused of being lazy just to keep Shelby from getting involved with Tara's brain chemicals.

(Ack, there goes what's left of my stomach lining…)

Again, Tim merely sighed. "Fine," he said. "Damn logic."

Shelby smiled—content with having forced her friend to do something good for once, no doubt. "Yep," she said. "I'm a regular Bertrand Russell."

"Seriously: how do you go from spitting on my shoes to referencing the father of analytic philosophy?"

Another smile from Shelby. "Simple," she said. "Keeps my enemies off balance."

5.

Tim had gone off on his own to hunt down Tara, figuring that she'd be somewhere's around her locker. He wasn't one for getting things right—not when he could barely see the test through his twitching eyes—but on this day he had gotten lucky: there was Tara, at her locker, stuffing books into shelves that could barely handle a stack of underwear, let alone crumbling tomes about Rome or whatever. Tim would take that moment to curse future kids and their superior learning resources, but he had other things on his mind—mainly: how to make this as quick as possible. Quicker than that, if he could.

(You know, this plan sounds horrible without context)

Then focus on the context! Tim snapped back. Damn voices—his mind wasn't big enough for all of them.

Taking a deep breath, Tim walked up to Tara's locker as she was just finishing up and said: "Hey stranger! Read any good books lately?"

She wiped around like someone had dropped all their pots and pans. A good sign, of course.

"Oh!" she said, after a brief recovery. "Hey Tim. Funny you mention that, I—"

"Forgot something?" Tim held her book out with both hands. Tara smiled—it looked more like it was in relief than anything else.

"Ah," she said, "there it is. Damn, I thought I dropped it in a smelting pit by accident."

"No such luck." Tim handed her the book and returned her smile—then immediately felt said smile disintegrate off his face. He'd forgotten to come up with a plan and, boy, that was increasingly noticeable to him now.

(Ahhhhh…crap…I think I can actually smell my anxiety growing)

Feeling the intense need to wage his knees or stamp his foot or do something involving motor functions, Tim awkwardly put words into an awkward sentence he'd have preferred never to have created, and thusly said: "So you, uh, you kinda booked it out of the library yesterday."

"Oh yeah," Tara said, looking at her hands and the book she held. "Yeah…I guess I did. Sorry, that was rude of me."

"No no no," Tim said, his hands up like he was trying to stop traffic, "not at all—people run away from me all the time. Why do you think I put up with Shelby?"

Tara stared and Tim blinked.

"Kidding, kidding—she's the only decent person I know really well," he added quickly. "But, uh—

(swallow that anxiety you wimpy wimp you)

—Y'know, don't know you as well, so I figured I outta, you know, see if everything's OK and all that."

Tim could see Tara's foot begin to fidget, her eyes begin to run their way over every crevice in the ceiling. Understandably—predictably—this was exactly the kind of talk that tended to over work the lizard brain whenever it came up, especially if said person already had a lizard brain that worked overtime. He needed something to speed it along, to break the tension, to just defuse a little—"

"This isn't a come-on," he said. That he only received one of those impasse stares of Tara's was the big surprise; everything else—from the dead quiet of the school to the nosey locker diver next to them choking on his cookie—was pretty much exactly how Tim would have pictured that going down had he bothered to plan any of this at all.

But, it seemed to work: only Tim's foot was tapping now.

"I'm convinced," Tara said, though there was a hint of sarcasm back in her voice now.

"I sense that you are not," Tim said, turning the sarcasm tap on to full.

Tara just sighed, then shook her head. "All that aside, I'm…I'm fine. Just fine. Um, thanks for asking though."

Another pause, leaving Tim to contemplate the truth of her wor—"

"Ah, I knew it!" he said loudly. "Yep yep, knew you were doing good. Haha! Anyways, now that you've got your book, I'm gonna get out of here so my teacher doesn't make me read Shakespeare in front of the class! See ya around!"

As Tim sprinted away he thought: Man, even with context this seems horrible. But he didn't let that thought gestate for too long. Sure, it probably did, but the other solution? The meddling? That would be worse—much worse. That was just how these things went down; that was how the real world worked—and Tim, possibly more than anyone else his age, refused to bow to the seductive illusion that the world was fundamentally rational, that a good dead begot a good outcome.

No, much though it pained him, sometimes you just had to leave people to sort this stuff out themselves.

6.

By the time lunch had rolled around, Tim had run those thoughts through his brain so much that any doubts had long since fled. He felt a little pang of regret now and then—not least of which because he'd practically clacked his heels together before he fled—but this was tough love, right? This was making sure personal problems could have personal solutions? The hippies may've been right about Vietnam, but sometimes a good ol' fashioned stiff upper lip was what would win the day, lest you make the situation worse for the other person.

As lunch was nearly finishing, and Tim packed away the last of his sandwich into his mouth, he noticed Shelby had spent the past five minutes staring at him. Part of his stomach sank to the floor: he was going to have to explain all that, wasn't he?

The answer was, of course, yes.

"So…she said she's OK?"

"Yep!" Tim said, far quicker and far louder than he intended. "Yes ma'am—she even said it with a smile!"

"She did?"

"I dunno, I wasn't paying attention." A pause. "To her face, I mean. That'd be creepy."

(That'll hold about as well as the French Army)

Tim's predications were becoming quite accurate, because Shelby leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms over her chest. It was one of the few times Tim had ever seen her scowl at him.

"Why are you making me be the moral one?" she said.

"Hey," he said, "I'm not making you be anything—this is a free country. This building I'm forced to be in told me so."

"You didn't even try."

"Shelby," he said, slapping both hands on the table, "I swear on my Grandmother's grave: I gave it all I could."

"Your Grandma's still alive."

Another pause.

"Uh-oh."

"Tim…what the hell, man? Seriously, what the hell's going on?" Yet again, this was probably the angriest he'd ever seen Shelby. Which made sense from an outside perspective, but…

No, Tim's anxiety was trying to strangle him alive again—this wasn't good. He probably needed to be at least a little straight with Shelby—

(this is Shelby—Shelby good, friend good, talk…good?)

—though privacy, Tara's privacy, was a premium. He'd been repeating this over and over again, and he sounded more and more like a jerk every time his mind replayed it, but Shelby just didn't understand. Only a select few ever could understand—alien-like though Tim's methods may be, it was the right way to do things.

But he should be just a little bit honest.

"Look, it's complicated, all right?" Tim said, rising from the table and gathering up his things. "But the basic premise is…think about it this way: when you're sick, do your parents kinda bug you? Over and over again? Like: hey, Shelby, have you thrown up yet? Have you been to the bathroom? What's your temperature? I'm sending you to a doctor, etc etc on and on until you've gone crazy and…yeah, now you're crazy. Sound familiar?"

Shelby had gathered her things as well. "No but, boy, that explains a lot."

"It does?"

"Yeah—I'd be nuts too if I had to keep a bathroom schedule."

"Agh," Tim said, pushing open the doors to the hall, "try not to take this too literally. Or not seriously."

"I'm trying, but this seems like an 'eye-of-the-beholder' kind of thing."

"And by that you mean?"

"Seems like your parents are just caring for you, and you're being weird about it."

Tim sputtered and nearly stopped in the hall. "Um, yeah, hi? Do you want to be reminded that you're sick all the friggin time? Do you want to have people telling you your stomach's acting weird and stinging liquid is going to shoot out of it?"

"Not really."

They stood in front of their classroom, the door wide open. This needed to be wrapped up quickly.

"Yeah," Tim said, "so—why would someone want to be reminded by other people that they're pushing a solid 130 rpm?"

"So they can get the anti-nausea-equivalent for anxiety? Or chicken noddle soup?"

"That's not how this works—trust me."

There was a pause on Shelby's end, then a knowing look. "Guess I'll defer to the experts, then."

And like that, Tim's heart-rate hit 130 rpm. "What's that mean?"

"Hey guys—how goes?" this came from Tara, who had magically appeared behind them just in time to catch Tim on the cusp of an anxious wave. In a dignified and mighty voice, Tim said:

"Eep! I mean—fine! I mean—wait, did I just say fine or—"

"You said fine," Shelby said.

"Final answer!"

"Hmm," Tara said, "sounds like a game-show catchphrase." Tim made a face.

"God I hope not."

Shelby made a move that looked like she was going to speak, and Tim's lizard brain snapped into action. Or, it would have, had Mr. Crabtree not called forth in his grating monotone to all the students congregating in the hall. Like a steel blast door, any and all things life related stopped before the might of a teacher made entirely out of contempt.

"All right," he said, "take your seats please. It would be best for everyone if you're sitting down."

Tim, Shelby, and Tara sat, with Tim and Tara giving one another apprehensive looks. It felt like Hoover had just caught them burning their draft cards, or laughing around an American flag.

And standing at the front of the class was Mr. Crabtree. Behind his jacket he clenched his hands, and behind his glasses his eyes stared into everyone's soul's simultaneously. Contempt was one thing, but the look on his face seemed far worse, far more cutting. He looked…disappointed.

"Good, he said. "Good is a word I would use to describe your following of orders. Good is not a word I would use in conjunction with your test scores, I'm afraid." He began to pace—a warden on the Green Mile. "It seems that no matter how I structured the data, the average from last test came out far below acceptable standards, and I am forced to conclude that this class is woefully unprepared for any form of learning what-so-ever."

"The monotone really isn't helping," Shelby said, leaning over. Tim and Tara just nodded.

"Only one of you decided to see me after class, and this particular person has a history of obviously ignoring my advice."

(Oh I'm definitely writing a negative review in the bathroom about you—mark my words)

"Therefore," Mr. Crabtree continued, "I am further forced to conclude that this class is woefully unwilling to achieve better grades, for which the only solution is to put the fear of God and, perhaps, Satan into you, through the application of a pop-quiz."

All the air, warmth, love, and hope in the room drained out through a hole in reality. Shelby's eyes darted to the side of the room with Tara and Tim.

"Uh-oh," she said.

"Ohhhh…shit," said Tim.

"Mrpfff," gargled Tara.

"We will begin immediately," Mr. Crabtree said. "And, please: though it may be tempting to hate me for this, understand that I am only an instrument of knowledge. And knowledge is rather pissed off at the lack of brain cells in this class."

"Good God, man," Shelby whispered.

"Ohhh…shit," Tim said.

"Margbla," Tara marglbaed.

Mr. Crabtree scooped the bone-white papers that contained the children's future into his arms, and slowly—torturously—began distributing them. Tim's heels began to pound their usual divots in the floor as his eyes moved over to Tara—she was looking at nothing, possibly trying to become nothing if she was feeling as anxious as he was. Looking over at Shelby, he saw that she was looking at Tara too—clearly worried, clearly and totally unsure of what to do. When her eyes moved over to Tim's with that same expression Tim did the only thing he could think to do: he shrugged impassive and mouthed, "What the hell am I supposed to do?" His eyes fell to the paper that had made its new home on his desk and in his life so that he couldn't see her reaction, and his focused solely on his name to drown out the feeling of his heels smacking against the ground.

He sharpened his pencil once, then twice, then broke the lead, then sharpened it again—and just as he was beginning to fill out his name, he felt a single bead of sweat roll down the bridge of his nose, to land just on the corner of the paper where he needed to put his name.

He thought, Oh god, and then became acutely aware of the sound of his and Tara's feet under the desk.

7.

Tim was, in fact, very good at math—physics too, especially if it involved all the weird nonsense that was coming out of the quantum world. He'd never claim to understand much of it, or even a good chunk of it, but he could tell you without much trouble what the Uncertainty Principle meant and how to break down any field affecting a particle. And conics—counterintuitive though the equations may look, he loved him some conics.

But he could barely see the pencil he was holding in his hand; he could barely think of anything beyond the fact that he could barely think of anything. All of those highly necessary functions that help you fill in the right bubble—let alone actually solve the equations—had fled at the first sign to trouble. And the first sign of trouble was: he had spelt his name Tim O'Nell yet again.

This wasn't good—this was yet another chapter in the reoccurring nightmare known as Tim's wasted education. And worse of all, he seemed to be banging his feet and no-doubt drawing attention to himself more than ever befo—

Wait, that wasn't—oh, right, Tara. God, poor Tara—he didn't want to try and make eye-contact (that'd no doubt make it worse), but she must be—

Hang on, she stopped? And now there's—

There was shaking—a lot of shaking—coming from the spot where Tara was sitting. Tim tore his eyes away from the test that would further stake him in the heart and saw that the shaking was because Tara, on pale limbs made of rubber, was trying to stand.

(Oh no what?! Tara, what are you-)

"Mr. Crabtree," she said, her voice nearly slurry with spit. I-I think—I mean, I n-need to go to the bathroom. Please."

Everyone was looking now, and most of them were snickering. Seeing his omnipresent fear of public ridicule come to live around him made Tim—who was already caught between feeling nervous and feeling so so sorry for Tara—all the more of an emotional hurricane. His pencil clattered to the floor; he wouldn't even attempt to get it.

And at the front of the class, Mr. Crabtree said: "No talking."

"Sir," Tara said, "I-I really—"

"No talking." Mr. Crabtree's finger seemed to keep pushing her back to her spot, preventing her from moving. She was now starting to plead.

"Please I—"

"The 'no talking' order has not ended."

"Sir—"

"Talk not, please."

"I—"

"One last chance to stop, and then I will—" But Mr. Crabtree's voice caught in his throat, for the same reason that Tim had stood up fast enough to knock his chair into the desk behind him. Tara was swaying, and she was paler than Tim had ever seen anyone get before.

"Miss," Mr. Crabtree said, "are you—"

Then Tara dropped. Tim actually saw his arm shoot out to try and grab her, but his feet had refused to move; he might as well have been trying to catch her from the other side of a football field. Tara's tumble took her directly towards the desk in front of her, and as the bridge of her nose connected with the hard wood edge the snickering in the class vanished completely. The room was perfectly quiet; everyone was taking Mr. Crabtree's physics class could hear with absolutely clarity the moment Tara's nose shattered in two.

Mr. Crabtree and Tim and Shelby nearly gave each other concussions as the rushed to Tara, and a general panicked chatter loudly echoed off the walls around them. Crabtree called for a nurse, Shelby called for paper towels, and Tim just knelt and stared.

He was still staring at the pool of blood that had formed on the floor when the nurse lead the now-conscious Tara away from the class. Everyone was pale—everyone including Mr. Crabtree.

And yet, somehow, Tara and Tim managed to be the palest of them all.

8.

Tim O'Neill sat under his tree, watching a crowd approximately three times the size of the town finally disperse from the school's entrance. There was a throbbing bruise someplace on his body from where his method of navigating life got thoroughly sucker punched. That thought made him shake his head: Tara was the one with a broken nose; under no circumstances should he be trying to bask in the 'injured student' glory.

She'd regained consciousness almost immediately after the fall, which was good. What was less good was how all the pain receptors in her nose were on full alert just as she woke up—or, at least, that seemed to be the case, judging by the pained wail she let out and the haymaker she delivered into the desk that nearly killed her. But she was up, she was conscious, she wasn't dead. She also, understandably, didn't want anyone anywhere near her as she was escorted to the ambulance, which naturally meant that an audience that'd make the football team jealous followed her the entire way. Tara didn't have to worry about Tim being a part of the crowd though, no siree. He could do that much—especially since he had no idea how to even begin a thought, let alone make sense of what he'd seen.

(I know it's my fault and yet my brain won't let me get father than that—and it won't let me get that far because it's not sure how it's my fault. Great, maybe I do have a concussion…)

Enough with the self-inserts here, Tim said to himself. There wasn't much of a harsh tone in that thought though—Tim was acutely aware that he felt exhausted above all else.

He let out a sigh as he heard footsteps—Shelby's, obviously—approach him from behind. Without saying a word, she took up residence in the spot of grass right next to him. A second of silence passed and, knowing how this was going to go, Tim gave her a look—the kind that says, Say it already—I've got moping to do. Shelby nodded.

"So," she said, "you wanna not talk about it?"

"Sounds about right."

"OK."

A pause.

"Should I not not talk about it?" Tim said.

"Couldn't hurt."

He grunted. "Figured you'd say that."

"OK," Shelby said, giving him a much less pleasant look, "and we're using that tone because…?"

"Nothing." Tim then caught a glimpse at exactly how moody he was being. He sucked in a breath, tried to compose himself, then realized that just sucking in breaths wasn't going to help him in the slightest.

"I'm being moody," he said, unable to think of anything else to say. His brain rattled off a Wow, ever think about a career in anthropology? comment before it went back to being confused.

Shelby decided to play along. "It's a little noticeable," she said, keeping her tone even.

"Sorry."

"Meh, you're feeling things right now. I get it."

"Thanks." A thought dawned on him, one that got his brain away from confusion and back into the production of unbalanced chemicals. "Wait, what feelings am I feeling exactly?"

"You don't know?"

"No I—don't do that, OK?" Tim said, trying to squash her tone before it spread. "I mean: what do you think I'm feeling?"

"Well I'm starting to think 'anxiety' might be one of them."

"Just call it neuroticism and get it over with."

Shelby snapped her fingers and, upon looking at her, Tim noticed a distinctly angry look crossing her face. "Oi," she said, "let's watch the tone there, huh? And don't assume things so quickly—it'll get you into trouble later in life."

And almost like that, Tim barely stopped himself from shooting off his own foot. He quashed the Thanks Mom comment and said instead: "You're right—sorry."

There was a moment where Tim wasn't sure how Shelby might react—having never seen her get truly angry and all that—but eventually she shrugged and went back to leaning on her hands. "S'fine," she said, though she wasn't done by the looks of it. "What I also think you're feeling is—"

"Complicated," Tim said, raising a hand. "It's complicated, all right?" Another pause from him. "Sorry, tone."

"Less important now," Shelby said. "It's complicated—gotcha. I bet. So—"

"So it's complicated." Tim could feel anxiety working its way back into his system, making him feel less of the numbness that, for once, had been at least something of a blessing. He also felt some agitation in there, and somewhere deep in the thought-producing part of his brain, Tim started sending out cease-and-desist orders to all other parts that might quarantine that anger off before it got carried away. The question was whether or not the soup his brain was swimming through would help it get there in time or not.

Tim looked at Shelby, who definitely looked like she wasn't done yet.

(Ahh…shit, this is going to get bad)

"Perchance you could help me understand, then?" Shelby said.

His agitation slipped through the net like it was algae. "Perchance you could realize that I might break my nose on something harder than a desk if I get too much into it? Which, you know, here you are…"

"That's not what happened to Tara. Which, by the way, it's not really your—"

"What happened, Miss Duchess of Placidity Island," Tim said, now fully angry for the first time in months, "is the end result of runaway brain chemicals. You ever read Breakfast of Champions? Well now you don't need to—you just experienced it firsthand. Like what's going to happen to me if we keep yammering on about things that make my knees wobble. So, please, let's—also what are you going to say: 'it's not really my fault that she's short a working nose, but it kinda is'?"

(First time in months…first time ever in front of Shelby…)

Shut up brain, he told it. Tim could feel his grey matter giving him the finger.

Looking over at Shelby again—now feeling a new layer of anxiety as he anticipated her reaction—he saw her try to say something, stop, then take a deep breath. She paused like that for longer than Tim wanted to know, then simply stood up. Her face was impassive, but Tim could practically smell something brimming behind the mask.

"All right," she said, brushing off her pants, "this was a disaster."

"Thank you oh so very much."

(Warning, warning: breaks are shot, I repeat, breaks are—)

Shut the every-loving hell up, Tim told himself again. He shook his head and looked at Shelby again.

"I'm sorry Tim," she said, "but they don't teach classes on how to handle 'runaway brain chemicals.' I'm trying buddy—I'm really trying—but we've already had one girl lose her nose today so I'd better leave while I can still smell."

"Well I hate to say it Shelby, but some peace and quiet was all I was asking for." As Tim said that, he became more aware than ever before how much he didn't want her to leave. But it was out, it was said, and it had been what his runway brain had pushed for since the beginning. Besides, talking about what he was feeling…anything might be worth avoiding that.

Looking at Shelby yet again, he scanned for hurt in her eyes. He couldn't find any, and it took all his willpower to avoid the unpleasant thoughts that wrought and instead focus on pushing her away.

"Yeah," Shelby said. "Asking. Right. Come find me when I'm speaking to you and not your penal gland or whatever." She turned around and began trudging down the hill, her face now completely obscured from Tim's eyes.

"That's not how that works!" Tim blurted out.

"Evidence please!" Shelby called over her shoulder.

"Don't need it—I just know you're wrong!"

Shelby suddenly turned around. "Speaking of wrong: I've read Vonnegut, I love Breakfast of Champions, and he's being satirical!"

"Oh I'll be sure to remember that when I'm teaching friggin English!"

Shelby turned around again, and this time she didn't stop walking until she was out of view. But Tim finally saw something on her face this time, some indication of sadness. It ate away at him, chipped away at the mask he had formed, and very soon Tim felt the awful urge to start crying. He couldn't remember the last time he felt like crying, but now…now the feeling was almost overwhelming.

But he was alone. Guess there's no reason to be embarrassed anymore—no one else was around.

Except that wasn't completely true: the crowd from earlier had dispersed from the school entrance, that was true, but they'd been loitering around the various grassy parts of the campus for his entire conversation with Shelby—still were loitering, in fact. With a brain that was on the verge of burnout, Tim sat on his knees and people-watched.

It didn't last long.

He couldn't get the image of Tara breaking her nose out of his head, couldn't forget about the way she wobbled as Mr. Crabtree held her captive. He told himself to forgo the figurative language, but that was what happened, wasn't it? She wanted out—she needed out—and yet there was no earthly way she could get past the iron will of the man in front of the class. Maybe if Mr. Crabtree had been more sensitive…

Maybe if Tim had been more sensitive. That was what this was mostly about, he knew. He'd screwed the pooch, he'd dropped the ball, he'd done whatever other metaphor there was for royally fucking up. Shelby was right and she was wrong—it was his fault, because he should have talked to her more thoroughly, he should have spoken up for her, he should have done whatever he could to help her.

But dammit, he just got so nervous.

Tim sighed and focused in on some of the people scurrying about. How many of them were suffering through the same thing he was—the same thing Tara was? How many of them were wasting days and nights in worry without a single hand to support them? How many of them were a Mr. Crabtree away from breaking their nose or leg or future on something hard, possibly sharp? Probably too many of them, Tim began to realize. Probably far too many of them.

And he could reach right out to them—be that supporting hand—but he just got so damn nervous all the time, every time, that he'd be out unconscious almost the moment he opened his mouth.

(Hmph…wonder if Shelby has this problem too)

Wait a second, he told himself, and before Tim's fear of social embarrassment could take over he was standing again and pacing around the tree. He had an idea.

Shelby…

He wasn't always like this—wasn't always a nervous wreck—when Shelby was around. In fact he was rarely a nervous wreck—more like a functioning alcoholic who had a buddy that kept them sober until the evening. Shelby obviously didn't know she was like that, but that had been Tim's plan all along, right? Be inconspicuous, blend in with all the normally balanced people out there in the world. Without consciously realizing it, Shelby had been the anchor that kept Tim from going over the water fall.

A friend…people needed a friend.

But a different friend. Yes! That was it! Tim nearly clacked his heels together like he'd just graduated into the space program—

(Space, yikes)

—or like he'd just solved the world's hardest riddle. If Shelby had managed to help Tim as much as she had just by simply being there, imagine what a more, shall we say, present friendship would do, one with the drive to pull out those problems, point them in the direct of the nearest motel, and tell them to get lost or the cops'll certainly be called.

Tim imagined, and his stomach churned with anxiety. He realized very quickly this would be a learning experience—that he'd be growing just as much as the friends that needed him—but he'd sat on his hands long enough. He hadn't been there for Tara and look what had happened: anxiety be damned, he was going to be helpful for a change.

And he'd grow as a person in the process. He too would learn something from everyone he helped. Right?

(Right?)

Right, he decided. He would. He had to. For their sake, as well as for his own.

He'd help that football player that seemed so worried about his grades; he'd help that school newspaper writer who seemed so worried about her latest article; he'd help that popular kid who no doubt seemed unable to truly fit in; he'd help them all.

And he'd help Tara.

Charging off that hill like Teddy Roosevelt had set up a military base, he walked in the vague direction of the hospital, intent on setting things right. His anxiety ebbed and flowed, fighting against and mixing with his excitement; his brain closed in on his idea and massaged it until it seemed ready for action. And as he walked onto the bus that, in theory, took him to the hospital he knew—just knew—that he'd made the right decision.

It was the start of a new world—a new O'Neill—and by the time he was done, even if it goddamned killed him—

(better watch the language then, I guess)

—he'd make the world a better place.

So help him god, he'd do it.

Ending the scene

He never really saw Tara again after that, Timothy O'Neill reflected as he stared mindlessly at Daria's essay, and that was understandable enough. She was overwhelmed by it all no doubt, needed a whole new environment with a whole new Tim, someone who hadn't failed her before. It left a ringing pain in his heart, but he understood—fresh starts were good for everyone, were they not?

Come to think of it, he really didn't see many of his old friends much after that. He didn't have many to begin with, but the few he considered to be close compatriots sort of…grew up, he guessed. Became different people. Moved on. Shelby was one of those people: he missed her but understood, just like Tara, that people needed to switch things up on occasion. He'd been as good a friend as he could be to her—better than he had been, no doubt—and maybe that helped her move on. Maybe, lonely though it could be, he was destined to open the paths of those who he helped, frequently leading his friends and family away from him but towards greatness. He supposed making the world a little brighter came with that burden—that was probably why so few people actually did it.

But Shelby was still with him, in a way—he included Breakfast of Champions in the reading list every year, even though the book made less and less sense to him as he grew older. It wasn't M. Scott Peck's work, that was for sure—oh how Mr. Peck had spoken to him! He'd changed Timothy's world almost as much as Tara had.

Oh and when he went to that seminar by—

The dismissal bell rang and out came a high-pitched eep from O'Neill. The class didn't even look at him as papers flew in every direction—paper's that were devoid of markings except for.

Ah, yes—Daria. Why he'd been day-dreaming in the first place. Silly him—his mind wandered so much sometimes.

Daria and her friend—Josh? No, that was a boy's name—rose from their seats and prepared to leave, sending inaudible mutters in each other's directions as they did so. O'Neill cleared his throat in order to—gently—send it over the ruckus in the room. He used a warm tone, unlike Crabtree—yes, unlike Mr. Crabtree indeed.

"Um, Daria?" he said. "Can I perhaps see you up here for a minute."

Daria and her friend looked at each other. Oh how he recognized those looks—it was disappointing that he still had yet to convince them that he was their friend, not their enemy.

(I suppose I'll need to try harder then, hmm?)

"Please Daria," he said kindly. "Only for a moment, I swear."

Another look between her and her friend.

"I'll wait in the bushes," her friend said.

"If I'm frowning when I come out," Daria said back, "club me with my own textbooks. That should be quick and painless enough."

"And since you're always frowning…"

"Yeah."

Her friend smiled. "Coward."

And then Mr. O'Neill was alone with the student whom he had seen so much of himself in over the past…no wait, that sounded horrible. He should start again—the student that—

"You wanted to see me?" Daria said. O'Neill let out a startled cry again, then composed himself.

"Um, yes Daria," he said. "Only for a minute."

"Can I time you?"

He let out a strained laugh that hurt his throat. "Ah—so, your essay."

"Rest assured, I meant every word of it."

"And that's what worries me Daria—no one your age should have that much on their minds."

Daria's voice and face were completely even. "I recognize that school's supposed to drain all the feeling out of you but, dammit, they keep showing up anyways."

(Oh dear, this is not going well…)

"But Daria," O'Neill said, "schools supposed to help you express yourself!"

"As opposed to execute myself."

(What?)

"What?"

He watched Daria turn, ignoring him and the worried question. "I should go, Mr. O'Neill," she said. "I'll try and be more bland and conformist on my next essay."

"Well if you prom—no wait, Daria that's not what I…" But she was gone—the classroom was empty.

(Dear…it's so cold in here today…)

Well, that hadn't gone well, but that was OK—that was expected. Daria was so much like he had been at that age, and he knew just how hard a nut these types of people were to crack. No, not crack—something non-violent—but the idea was the same: he'd have to work at it, have to really present himself as someone who wanted to help no matter what. Through thick and thin, good days and bad—be the helpful hand that so few people got in this world.

No, if his childhood was any indication, Mr. O'Neill thought, she'd come around eventually. She'd open up.

Sooner or later, he'd get what ailed her out.

Fin


And that's all she wrote! Hope you guys enjoyed it - let me know, as always, so that I can figure out just how torturous my prose actually is.

And, y'know, have a good day and all that. Try to keep your heart rate even!