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The Essay; A story in eight parts [complete]
Topic Started: Nov 21 2017, 04:13 PM (285 Views)
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10:30am, June 2nd, 2015
Fayerweather Hall, Columbia University
New York City

The crowded lecture was abuzz. Today, questions would be answered that everyone had been uncomfortably waiting for - particularly after the events of the last few days. Survival of the Fittest - the terrorist "game", as they called it, had returned, and ordinarily, this would have put a slight pall over the mood of the class, but being as this was a history class, it would open up a larger discourse regarding terrorism in a historical context. Of the some-hundred students in the hall, approximately half of them were history majors, and so the opportunity to be able to discuss an ongoing historical event was a fascinating opportunity, if not a little morbid.

What had been complicating things for everybody was a two-fold problem. The first half of the issue was their professor. A kindly, thin man of around seventy-five, he had made it very clear that Survival of the Fittest was a complicated topic within his lecture hall; to the point that on the very first day of the semester, he had explained that there would be three classes devoted to discussion of the historical context and impact that Survival of the Fittest had on the United States, and in a broader sense - the world. After that, he had then (in an uncharacteristically harsh manner) instructed them that it would not be discussed at all outside of those three classes.

According to the syllabus, today was to be the first of those classes.

When the news had picked up on the abduction of yet another class of high schoolers, the discussion forum on the class Moodle had naturally exploded. They couldn't help but discuss it. This was history, and they were living it as it happened. The only communication from the professor had been that he would address it in class on Tuesday, but that he would permit discussion.

The second issue for the students of Columbia University's UN2401 class was that they were supposed to be receiving the essay outline for this section of their course today, and the topic - naturally, was Survival of the Fittest. The essay was originally set to analyze the impact that the "game" had upon the economic, sociological, or political climate around the world - students would be assigned one of the three, and would randomly be assigned the year of one of the instances of SOTF.

Naturally, today there were a lot of questions that demanded answers.

Sitting near the top of the lecture hall, Mike Schultz found himself oddly silent. A nineteen year-old economics major, he had taken this class as an elective with a couple of his friends, and so he wasn't as invested in all of the burning questions as the rest of his classmates. The thing was - he had a econ presentation that had been occupying pretty much all of his time, and so his focus was primarily on getting this essay guideline, finding his topics, and powering through it as quickly as possible. Shaking himself out of his own thoughts, he nudged the boy sitting next to him with his elbow and leaned over.

"What d'you think, is he going to show up? Ten minutes late... that's a new one."

Smirking, Mike's friend shrugged his shoulders. Scott Weeks was known for having a dry sense of humour, and being a bit of a smart-ass. As another nineteen year-old majoring in engineering, he was even less interested in the course than Mike, but electives were electives, and he had figured that you might as well take one with your buddies. "He probably didn't want to face a hundred history kids who'd be peppering him with questions about some horrible terrorist thing. Can't say I blame him!"

Glancing down at his watch, Mike grunted. "I'll give it another ten minutes and then I'm peacing. Be great to get a prime spot in the library before all the comp-sci fucks get there."

"Count me in, though I'm gonna head to Ferris Booth and grab a coffee. What about you, Eddie? You in?"

Looking past Mike, Scott addressed the third member of their trio, who sat with a dark expression on his slightly freckled face. Edward Tough; a hell of a name, Mike had said upon meeting him, was a bit of an oddity at Columbia University. Having started at the school at sixteen, Edward was a rare example of a younger student who fast-tracked his way through high school, using advanced-placement courses and absolutely obliterating the SAT at fifteen. A Creative Writing major, Edward had aspirations of being an author; aspirations that his friends had no doubt he would accomplish. Having met Mike and Scott while in his first year, the two older boys had taken the younger one under their wing, striking up a quick friendship and acting as a bit of a guide for their youthful cohort.

Slowly, Edward shook his head, the scowl seemingly painted on. "No. No, I'm going to see this out."

"Fair enough, bud. If you do stay, you good to take some notes?" Mike's hopeful smile was betrayed a little by a small bit of concern. For a younger kid, Edward wasn't exactly always a beacon of shining light, but this Survival of the Fittest thing had really hit Edward hard. Since the news had hit the class discussion boards, the kid hadn't been his usual snarky self.

"Of course. You guys won't miss a thing."

"Amazing, you're a life-saver, E! Scotty, you good to bounce?"

Extending his fist, Edward half-heartedly accepted Mike's fist-bump, and watched as his two friends quickly gathered their belongings and made a very discreet exit out the back of the lecture hall.

Looking back towards the front of the room, he furrowed his brow and rubbed the bridge of his nose. This had not been a class that he had been looking forward to. There were a myriad of reasons that he didn't want to dredge up anything related to Survival of the Fittest, but now, that there was an active version in progress? It felt like a constant burning inside the pit of his stomach, and he wanted even less to do with discussing it now than he had at the beginning of the semester.

And the essay? There was absolutely no way in hell that Edward was going to be writing that essay.

Edward had always intended on speaking with the professor earlier in the semester, but something had always gotten in the way. Sometimes Mike and Scotty had dragged him off for food after class, and sometimes he'd gone to the history quad and stared at the door to the professor's office. All the while, he couldn't bear to knock on the door and go inside. Even for a younger student, Ed had never found issue with visiting his profs during their office hours, but this... this was different.

Many, many people throughout the years had been touched by Survival of the Fittest. Some had lost friends or family. Others had seen the horrors broadcast on the deep web by accident, and the feeling of trepidation that floated around campus lately was near-ridiculous. It had been even worse in high school, which was one of the reasons that Edward had flown through it at an infinitesimal rate. Everything he had done once he got into high school was done with the intention of getting out, as quickly as possible.

As the door to the lecture hall opened, and the professor finally entered - only seven minutes after Mike's imposed deadline, Edward thought with slight amusement. The older man slowly walked towards the desk at the front of the room, and unsteadily lowered himself into the chair, opening up his messenger bag and removing a file folder filled with photocopies - the assignment, naturally.

"His hands are shaking..."

Muttered to no one in particular, Edward felt sorry for the professor, and in his next thought wondered if his unsteady gait was the result of some liquid courage. He wouldn't have blamed him. As difficult a day this was for so many, Edward knew that it was of a particular kind difficulty for his professor.

After all, Professor Jack Serjeantson had lost his son.

As Professor Serjeantson glanced out into the sea of students, whose buzz was quickly coming to an end, Edward resolved that he would have to do it today. He would have to catch the professor after class. He could almost predict that Serjeantson was going to cancel office hours for the next two weeks, but that didn't matter to him. Maybe it was immaturity on his own part, maybe it was over-emotionality, but Edward didn't intend to sit through any more lectures on Survival of the Fittest, and again reiterated to himself that it'd be a cold day in hell before he'd write anything on it.

Not after what it had put him through.
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10:25am, June 2nd, 2015
History Department Offices, Fayerweather Hall, Columbia University
New York City

"Jack... I'm more than happy to give the lecture for you. You know that." Tim Harrison stood across the desk, concern practically radiating from his face. "I tell you this every year-"

"And every year, I tell you the same thing. I'm fine. It's a history lecture. This is history. Just because I happen to have a personal stake in it doesn't mean that I'm not qualified to talk about it." Jack Serjeantson sat at his desk chair, a stern look on his face.

This conversation was nothing new to the two Columbia University professors. Each year, the curriculum dictated that Survival of the Fittest become the topic for at least a section of the course material. To most professors, this wouldn't have been an issue, but Tim Harrison saw the impact that rehashing this particular historical event had on his colleague. Jack Serjeantson was a lengthily tenured professor at Columbia, and in the early days of their relationship, had ended up being something of a mentor for an eager young professor, trying to change the world.

It had been back in '05, right around the time where Tim was angling for his own tenure, that Survival of the Fittest had first emerged from the shadows, casting a wide shadow over the United States (and the world, for that matter), and left hundreds of parents horrified for the fates of their children. His mentor had the ultimate misfortune to be one of those parents, and it had irrevocably changed him. Jack Serjeantson had been - not imposing, necessarily, but he had a presence about him. He had a habit of walking into a room and commanding the attention of those in it. It's why he'd been such a damn good lecturer, and it's why his history classes had such a high enrollment rate.

After? Well, when his son Eddie had been stabbed by a girl hiding in a bush, of all places, it seemed as though a large part of Jack died right along with him. His mentor was still the ever-knowledgeable history expert that he knew him to be, but the trauma aged him. His candid banter ceased, his sharp wit dulled, and his lectures became banal. Tim had tried to both keep his distance and offer his support, but it wasn't until several years - and Survival of the Fittest versions later, after Jack and his wife Samantha had separated that he finally let Tim in.

So while yes, Tim nodded in agreement that Jack was qualified; uniquely so, to talk about the topic at hand, it didn't mean that it was good for him. Especially given the current world events.

"You're right. You're absolutely qualified. But Jack, we go through this every year. You spend two weeks flipping between hiding in your office and hiding in the campus pub. It's unhealthy for-"

"For what, Tim? For a man my age? Afraid that I'm going to keel over in front of a room full of students? Don't be ridiculous." Jack scoffed. "What would you have me do? Go home and cry into a pillow every time somebody brings these bastards up?"

Tim shifted uncomfortably in the spot, his shoes making a slight squeak on the linoleum floor. "No. Of course not. You aren't a pillow guy. But Jack, this year is different. It's happening again, right now."

"You really think that I don't know that? That's exactly why I have to give this lecture. These kids are survivors, Tim. They managed to get out of high school unscathed. The lucky ones. These kids are entitled to an education, and they need to know how much of a big deal this fucking thing is."

Tim took a second to digest the words, slightly taken aback by the profanity. He'd gotten a smirk, a small snort with his pillow remark, so that was a small victory at least.

"You're right. They do. I just don't think it should be at your expense, Jack. That's all. I worry about you. I wouldn't be half the lecturer that I am today if it weren't for you. I just don't like watching you beat the hell out of yourself for two weeks. It's not what..." He trailed off. He'd almost gone somewhere that he shouldn't have, and both men were acutely aware of it as soon as the words had slipped out of Tim's mouth.

To his surprise, Jack's expression softened, but the determination in his eyes showed him that he had, once again lost the argument. "I truly appreciate that, Tim. I do. Your friendship... it's honestly a beacon for me when these things happen." He paused for a moment, contemplative. "Tell you what. You're absolutely right. I shouldn't be spending hours in the pub on my own. It's a goddamned stereotype. So why don't we head out into the city, find a real pub, and you can keep an old man company while he tries out a few different kinds of scotch. How about that?"

Tim nodded. This was a victory, indeed. They'd gone for drinks many times throughout the years, but as a general rule, Jack was almost always unavailable whenever Survival of the Fittest reared its ugly head - in the classroom or in the real world.

"Okay, deal. How does 9:00pm sound? Cheryl's away with Shauna on that gymnastics competition and my first lecture isn't until the afternoon, so I'll be ready to go find some of the good stuff."

Jack smiled. "Perfect. Now get out of here, I need to get organized and head over to class."

Tim smiled, and turned to open the door to Jack's office. As he opened the door, he paused in the doorway and looked back, the concern barely staying off of his face. "Good luck, Jack." And he was gone, the door clapping shut behind him.

Now alone, Jack Serjeantson slumped back in his chair. It had been nice of Tim to worry, and there had been times over the years that he had been tempted to let the younger man take over this particular series of lectures. But each and every time, his sense of duty overrode the hurt that gnawed away at his sides. It was his duty and his obligation to educate, to elocute on Survival of the Fittest. It was horrific, it was a travesty, and it had robbed him of everything he held dear.

Running his hands through what was left of his grey, thinning hair, Jack Serjeantson reached down and picked up his faded brown leather messenger bag. Opening his desk drawer, he removed a folder, full of photocopied assignment papers, placing the file folder into his bag. Usually he would just post assignments online, but this particular assignment demanded a verbal explanation - a warning, almost. A warning to take it seriously. Jack had always been very clear, anyone treating Survival of the Fittest with any amount of levity would fail the course, immediately. Notwithstanding any marks they'd gotten on other assignments. Thankfully, he'd only had to do it three times.

As he moved to close the desk drawer, a glint caught his eye from within the drawer. He paused, reached into the drawer, and removed a bottle. It was a Glenlivet 18-year that he'd had in there from back in 2013.

"Suppose that makes it a twenty, now doesn't it?"

He knew what Tim would say. He'd rattle on about what a walking cliche Jack was being - the old professor with a bottle of scotch in his desk. Well, so what? He was about to rip open a wound that he ripped open once a year, and he'd be damned if he was going to do it with a clear head.

Reaching again into the drawer, Jack pulled out a small glass, and then unscrewed the scotch and poured himself two fingers. Tim wouldn't have approved. Fuck him. Tim still had a beautiful daughter, who was alive. Tim could still call up his wife, and check on the gymnastics competition.

Jack tipped his head back and felt the warm, bitter rush of the liquid as it made its way down his throat. Grabbing the bottle, he bitterly poured himself another.

All Jack had was a gravestone in a suburban New York cemetery. He didn't even have a body. They'd never brought Eddie home, even after the United States military had found the island that the kids had been trapped on. Not even so much as a peep on what had happened to his body. So Tim's approval? Tim could shove his approval up his ass, for all he cared.
Jack put back the second glass just as quickly as the first, and looked up at the clock on his wall. It was 10:30 in the morning - no, scratch that. It was 10:35. Damn it - had he really been sitting there on his own for ten minutes? He was definitely now late for his own lecture, which was rich, because Jack was generally a bit of a stickler for late arrivals.

Of course, this wasn't any ordinary lecture.

With a sigh, Jack screwed the top back on the bottle of scotch and placed it back within his desk drawer, bringing the glass along with it. Finally shutting the drawer, he zipped up his messenger back and stood up. He felt uneasy, unsteady. Perhaps it was the scotch, that was now sitting warmly in his belly. Or maybe it was the inevitability that was causing him some apprehension. Inevitability to the question that somebody always asked.

"Professor Serjeantson, is it true that your son was Eddie Serjeantson?"

He said the words aloud. They tasted oakey, probably from the scotch. They also hurt like hell, a dagger right down to the pit of his soul.

With a grimace, Professor Jack Serjeantson grabbed his bag off of his desk, and started towards the lecture hall. It was time to tell one hundred students all about life and loss, about terrorists and vigilante groups, about post-traumatic-stress-disorder, and about one jovial son of a gun named Eddie that had left a hole in his heart the size of a star.
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1:23pm, June 2nd, 2015
Fayerweather Hall, Columbia University
New York City

Last name puns notwithstanding, the lecture that Edward Tough had just sat through about Survival of the Fittest was one of the more difficult things that he'd had to do in a long, long time. There were over one hundred students in the lecture hall, and the anxiety in the room was palpable - nobody had murmured through it, and not a soul wagered that getting up to go to the washroom would have been a good idea. Professor Jack Serjeantson had been uncharacteristically animated, blunt, and spoke about his subject as though he were trying to drill caution directly into their brains.

Now, as the lecture had concluded, the professor sat at the desk at the front of the room, watching - no, staring as the teaching assistants handed out the randomly assigned essay topics, and the students filed out into the hallway of Fayerweather Hall. Most were wearing expressions of confusion, obviously impacted by their professor's words. Professor Serjeantson wore what anyone who'd read a textbook in their life would refer to as a "thousand-yard stare", and Edward could tell that the poor TAs just wanted to hand the assignments out and vacate the premises immediately.

Survival of the Fittest. It popped up and struck just about everyone who came into contact with it. Edward brushed his unkempt brown hair away from his eyes, and checked his iPhone as he waited for the other students to file out of the lecture hall. He had yet to move from his seat near the back; his plan to catch the professor on his way out, but he had to be among the last to leave. His group chat with Mike and Scotty had naturally been going off throughout most of the lecture, but he had ignored it, as Scott had been going on about some hot chick in the cafeteria commons, and Mike was yet again complaining about not having a place to study, thanks to the computer science kids playing video games. Typical for his buddies, but in the grand scheme of things, these were minor issues, small fish compared to what Edward had just sat through. Still, he skimmed through and caught the jist, replying with a few vacuous messages to keep his friends occupied.

Anything to take his mind off of Survival of the Fittest.

The guys had no idea, of course. No idea how much of an impact the topic had on him, but he preferred it that way. Being a normal student was a luxury - something that he'd fought towards his entire life, and while he was still a bit young for the traditional university experience (he'd probably graduate before he turned 21 and could legally go to a kegger), he was in a good place. Mostly. They were both good friends and would have been supportive in their own right, but Edward kept this part of him locked away in a vault. It was easier this way.

As the last gaggle of students filtered their way through the assignment line and out the double doors, Edward finally rose from his seat, flexing his legs a little as he did, his knees popping from the extended three-hour sitting session. As he had expected, the professor had almost immediately announced the cancellation of his office hours, but Edward knew that if he didn't catch him on his way out of this classroom, he would become incredibly hard to find over the next few weeks. But he knew that to navigate through the wall of teaching assistants would prove to be impossible, so he would have to catch him in the hallway.

Stepping up to the line of students grabbing their assignments, he noted that he was the second-last one in line. Pretty good odds, unless the professor left before the assignments were handed out. Judging by the vacant look on his face though, Edward felt pretty good about his odds. Stepping towards the closest empty TA, he received his assignment sheet and parsed through it, his eyes fluttering down until they landed on the line that delivered him his topic. An icy-cold feeling washed over his spine as he felt his feet carrying him towards the double doors. Of course. Why wouldn't it be this one?

Topic: The sociological impact of Survival of the Fittest in the United States in 2005/06 after the conclusion of V1 to the beginning of V2.

As he floated through the doors, barely cognizant of his surroundings, he came to a stop a few meters outside of the room, coming to a lean against a wall within full sight of the lecture hall doors. Folding the assignment sheet into a square, he stuffed the paper in his pocket and stared at the doors he'd just emerged from. "No point in ducking him now..." The words were mumbled and meant as more of an affirmation than anything. If there had been any doubt in his mind, the reception of his topic had washed it all away.

The first few times that the door opened within the next few minutes, Edward had watched as the TAs made their way quickly out of the lecture hall, all talking quietly among themselves as they went. He watched them scatter into the mass of students milling about, and did a quick mental inventory. By his count, no one should have still been in the lecture hall except for the professor. That was good enough a shot as any to speak with him, so Edward took a deep breath, and walked back through the double-doors.

His estimations had been correct, Professor Jack Serjeantson stood over his desk, slowly packing up his teaching materials. Edward couldn't help but notice that the old man's hands were still quivering. Inhaling slowly, more for his own nerves than anything, he stepped towards the professor.

"Uhh, excuse me Professor Serjeantson. I know you've cancelled your office hours, but I need a few minutes of your time. It's about the assignment."

Jack Serjeantson was slightly startled by the new arrival in the lecture hall, but a lot of that was probably induced by a combination of the alcohol working its way through his system, and the buzz of adrenaline that he always got once he finished off a lecture without breaking down. Taking a sharp breath, Jack instinctively stepped back a half-step, taking stock of the student in front of him. Brown hair, green eyes. He was dressed like any other college student, wearing a tan-green Oxford shirt and black jeans. He held a knapsack that could have carried a laptop or notepad, but what struck Jack was how young this boy looked. He'd have bet money that he couldn't have been any older than eighteen. Narrowing his eyes, he tried to place the student.

"I'm sorry, I'm not seeing students right now. You'll have to speak to one of the teaching assistants. Their office hours are posted on the course website."

Edward grimaced, but held his ground. "I understand that, sir. But I, ah... I need to speak to you about this. Not them."

Jack blinked. Young student - he sounded young, too. The face looked somewhat familiar, perhaps he'd been one of the early acceptance kids that Jack had consulted on acceptance for. "Listen, uh..." That was it. He remembered - the name had stuck out to him. "... Edward, is it? You're Edward Tough, correct?"

"It's pronounced like the hat, sir, but yeah. That's me."

Jack nodded. Of course it had. Edwards, Eddies, Eds? They all stuck out, whether memorable or not. "Right, Edward. I'm sure that you can understand my reticence to talk on the subject. The TAs have all taken the course, and they can answer any questions that you might have about the assignment. I'm not at liberty to discuss it, frankly."

"That's just it, sir." Edward paused, choosing his next words carefully. "I can't write the essay. It's... I'm not capable of it."

Jack sighed in a huff. Lovely. Just another student who thought that his tender little soul couldn't take writing about terrorism. His tone changed, becoming cold as he picked up his messenger bag, and took a few steps towards the doors; towards Edward.

"Well, if you aren't going to hand in the paper, you'll receive a zero for this assignment and it'll impact your overall grade. I'm sorry, son, but you can't pick and choose what essays you write, and which ones you don't. That's not how things are done here at Columbia. Now if you'll excuse me."

Jack started towards the doors, leaving Edward shaken for a moment, and following closely behind him, stumbling over his words as he tried to make his point. "No, sir-I mean, it's not... you don't understand what I mean. I can't write on this topic. It hits too close to home."

Those words hit Jack like slap to the face. Too close to home? It made his blood boil.

"Let me tell you something, son. Were you not paying attention, today? Did you miss the part where I talked about losing my own goddamn son to these terrorist bastards? Or were you just sleeping up at the top row, listening to a podcast on your phone, or whatever the hell you kids do now other than listen?"

Edward held up a hand to interject. "Sir, I-"

"No. You don't get to tell me that you can't write a paper because your poor little liberal heart can't stomach the thought. There are horrible things that go on in this world today, Mr. Tough. People who are evil exist in the world. It is our responsibility to break down what they have done so that if we have the opportunity to prevent more terror, we can. We owe it to the victims to remember them, and what they stood for. If I can sit here and lecture for twelve hours a year on Survival of the Fittest, I think that you can find it within yourself to write a two-thousand word paper. Good day, Mr. Tough."

Jack finished lambasting the taken-aback student in front of him, and bounded through the doors, exploding through them with ferocity. Professor Serjeantson wasn't one to explode on his students like that, but he also wasn't usually half out of his head on scotch, either. After a moment's hesitation and shock, Edward bounded through the doors after him, and before Jack could manage to escape into the hallway full of students, he called out after him.

"Professor Serjeantson, my brother was in Survival of the Fittest with your son!"

The words stopped Jack dead in his tracks.

That couldn't have been possible. Jack was a historian - he would have known the names and histories of most of the dead even if his own son hadn't been among them. But since Eddie had been one of the deceased? He didn't remember anyone with the last name of Tough, nor anyone who even had a step-sibling or a half-sibling that had it either. So he'd either missed something, or this student of his had just brazenly crossed a line by invoking his dead son's memory in a lie. Slowly turning around, he closed the gap between him and Edward, until he was looking down on the young student, nose-to-nose with fire in his eyes.

"You'd better have a damned good explanation for what you just said, because there wasn't anybody with your name in that version."

Edward held his breath. He did, in fact, have a great explanation. It was just one that he didn't discuss in public. Except, he supposed, for right now. Taking a breath, he met the professor's fiery gaze and lowered his voice.

"You're right. Nobody with my last name participated in Survival of the Fittest. Not my current last name."

He slightly shook his head.

"I was just a kid, seven years old. But after everything that happened, my... my parents wanted me to try and have a normal life. That would never have been possible had I kept my real name."

Edward quickly glanced around. Nobody was in earshot - anyone close enough to hear had headphones in.

"Sir, my name hasn't always been Edward Tough. My real name is Oliver Edward Dodd."

Jack instinctively took a step back, and his vision narrowed until the only thing in the world was the student in front of him. It made sense. Adam Dodd had two brothers, and when Survival of the Fittest had come into his life, one of them had been seven years old. It was 2015, and so that would make him...

"Oh my God."

That was where he'd recognized the face from. The eyes were the same. The face? Older, obviously, and more world-weary than most seventeen year-olds, but he saw it now. As far as the name change? That added up, too. Considering what had happened the following year, and the monstrosity that the Dodd cousin; this kid's namesake abducted had ended up being.

This changed everything. The professor's shoulders slumped, and his body language seemed to deflate. Of everybody to lecture about not understanding, this was probably the last person in the world who he should have been aiming at. In fact, this student in front of him probably understood better than most. He exhaled.

"Okay, let's... let's go and speak in my office. We'll have privacy there."

The student in front of him nodded and said nothing more. He didn't have to. The look on Jack's face, the understanding had said it all. Together, the two walked towards the history quad, towards a conversation that Jack couldn't help but feel wholly unprepared for.
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1:37pm, June 2nd, 2015
History Department Offices, Fayerweather Hall, Columbia University
New York City

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

Professor Jack Serjeantson sat across from the student that he formerly knew as Edward Tough, and had been staring a hole through the seventeen year-old's chest. No words had been exchanged since the two had walked across the hall and into the old professor's office. Neither had known how to proceed, how to start. This was a conversation that Jack had been unable to fathom having, and one that Edward - rather, Oliver had been dreading.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

The clock on the wall was ignorant to the tension and anxiety that filled the room. It simply kept about its business, measuring the seconds as they passed - and each one that did unsettled the two men in the room even more.

Professor Serjeantson was the first person in a long, long time that Oliver had disclosed his true identity to, and on first glance, it had affirmed the fears that he'd long had regarding his name. It was a burden, a curse. The way that the professor had suddenly seen him, not as an annoying student, but as his brother, or his cousin? It was exactly what he'd been trying to get away from.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.


Oliver broke the silence. The professor blinked and gave his head a small shake, breaking from his dark reverie.

"Ah, yes."

The two men continued to stare at one another.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

"You understand..." Oliver started, a little uncertain. "... this paper? I can't write it. It just... brings back too many hard memories."

The professor blinked in surprise. The paper. He'd nearly forgotten about the whole reason for the conversation - at least, the surface reason. He dismissed the notion with a small wave of his hand. "Of-of course. Don't give it another thought."

Oliver nodded. "I appreciate that. I've worked... really hard to move past all of that." He grimaced. "At least, as much as I can with it happening over and over again."

"A constant reminder. Of what- of whom we've lost." The professor sighed, and said nothing more.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

That damned clock again.

Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, Oliver was starting to wonder if this had been a good idea. The professor seemed to be a little less snarly, and he'd gotten what he had been looking for: a way out of revisiting his own family history in written form, but the cost had seemed too short. He had expected to have to-

"You would have been seven then, wouldn't you?"

There it was.

He nodded. "Yeah. Just. My birthday's in February. I barely knew what was going on, just that Adam wasn't around, and that my parents were sad, and that all of these strange people kept coming by."

"That's right. I was one of them." The professor sounded the last couple of words out, almost as though he were trying to remember how to speak the language.

"Oh, I didn't know that."

"You wouldn't have, being that age. A lot of us; the parents, we tried to form a support group. Barry Coleson didn't exactly have a close-knit community, but you'd see the same folks at football games, at hockey games. It made sense. That was, until..." Jack trailed off, but Oliver picked up what he was selling immediately.

"Until your friend's son or daughter ended up killing yours. I remember. Suddenly I wouldn't be able to play with certain friends anymore, and I'd never know why."

At the mention of murder, the old professor shut his eyes for a moment. Ten years later, the wounds never really healed. "It tore the community apart, of course."

Oliver nodded. "We weren't around to see the aftermath, but I'm not surprised. I got bounced back and forth to my grandparents in Canada a lot. And after Adam came back..."

The words sat in the air, unspoken: my brother came back, your son didn't. Both men knew that wasn't Oliver's intent, but it was a fact, one that demanded attention.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

"Your family was the talk of the town. The envy of everyone. Your family got their kid back. That was difficult for a lot of people to take."

Oliver's lips pursed together as he searched for the right way to reply to the professor's cold, almost mocking words. He couldn't find any.
"No one was surprised when your family moved away. For a lot of us, it was good riddance. Adam was a reminder to all of us of what we couldn't have. What we would never have again. A lot of people blamed him; blamed your parents for how they'd raised him. People said that it fit. They already had one lunatic son, why not two?"

That finally got a rise out of Oliver.

"Are you kidding me? I've read the reports and the recaps, and I've even seen bits and pieces of the old footage out of morbid curiosity. My brother wasn't a saint, by any imagination, but he did what he had to do to try and survive! That wasn't on my parents, it never was. If anything they gave us an appreciation for life and what was in it. How dare you infer otherwise."

The young man stood, pointing his finger at Jack across the table to punctuate his words.

"... and that 'lunatic son' that you just mentioned? Well, that 'lunatic' is not only a high-functioning member of society, but I think that his wife and two daughters would resent the implication that he's anything but what he is: a hard-working man who's struggled with mental illness. The hell with you for suggesting as much!"

There was silence again, but as Oliver's temper lowered back to Earth, he realized that the old man wore a wry smile on his face. Of course. He had walked right through the door that the professor had laid out for him. They both needed this conversation - that much was evident as soon as the chips had been laid on the table, but both of them had walked in on the defensive. One of them would have to lay the first salvo in breaking down the mental barriers, and Jack had laid the path down for Oliver to do it.

He slumped back down in his chair, an almost embarrassed look upon his face.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

Still wearing the wry smile, Jack leaned over and opened the drawer of his desk. He pulled out the bottle of Glenlivet and the glass he'd drank from earlier, and spent an extra moment rifling around within the drawer for a second glass. Finding it near the bottom, he placed the glassware on the desk, opened the bottle, and delivered a healthy portion of the liquor into each. Capping the bottle, he pushed the clean glass towards Oliver.

"Do me a favour? Don't tell anyone that I'm aiding in the delinquency of a minor."

He smiled that wry smile again, and took a sip of the scotch. Oliver nodded, still slightly sour that he had been played so easily. He didn't touch the drink in front of him.

"Two daughters? Wow. That's wonderful."

Oliver's face softened. Naturally with the name change, he didn't discuss his family much. Once his surviving brother had rejoined society after his therapy, he had done the same. There was a pretty substantial age gap, but over the last couple of years, they had become closer.

"Yeah, he's... he's doing really well. He's in Canada still, Calgary. He went to school up there, met someone, and stayed." Oliver smiled. "He's an accountant now. His daughters are hilarious. Jacqueline and Kerry. Probably the most precocious kids I've ever seen."

Jack matched Oliver's warmth with a nod and smile of his own, but it fell away a few seconds later. "I apologize. I spoke harshly. Ignorantly."

Brushing away the apology, Oliver picked up the glass in front of him and examined the liquid. "It's fine. I've heard worse. I just get a little defensive, that's all."

"Perfectly understandable, given the circumstance. I have to ask... how are your parents doing?"

Oliver's silence spoke volumes.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
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1:51pm, June 2nd, 2015
History Department Offices, Fayerweather Hall, Columbia University
New York City

Oliver swirled the amber liquid inside of the cup around and around. He had yet to take a sip of the alcohol offered to him by the older man who sat across the table. It wasn't that he was afraid to drink alcohol - hell, with friends like Mike and Scott, that was virtually a fact of life, but drinking in front of an adult wasn't something he was comfortable with just yet. At just seventeen, he felt like he'd lived more life than most his age, and yet still... he was seventeen. He wouldn't be of age to drink in a bar until he was done at Columbia.

But the question posed to him filled him with the increasingly overwhelming urge to swallow the amber liquid in one gulp.

He didn't.

Instead, he sat the glass down on the table, and looked at the professor. His expression had shifted several times during their conversation - mainly it had been sadness, anger, and an almost arrogant look of control at times for how he'd skillfully guided the conversation. But now, he sat, waiting expectantly and saying nothing.

Oliver had been silent for almost two minutes. He'd been prepared to rip off a lot of different band-aids throughout this conversation, but this hadn't necessarily been one of them. What had happened to Adam had been horrible, twice over even, but that had been in the past. He'd been but a bystander to that. But his parents?

He'd had a front-row seat to that.

"Losing your son once is... well, you know how that feels." Oliver broke the silence, choosing his words ever-so-carefully. "Losing him twice...?"

He shook his head, absently scratching his forehead.

"They were so against Adam moving to California. I never understood it, myself. My brother went away, made everybody sad, and then came back, and now he was leaving again? But I just didn't get it. I was what, nine?"

Jack nodded in understanding. The siblings, the parents - while Survival of the Fittest claimed the lives of the students in its grasp, the families were collateral damage. He said nothing and let the teenager continue.

"All I knew was that one week, I had my silly, goofy older brother. Then he was gone for a couple of weeks, and when he came back, he was a totally different person. He was suspicious of everybody. He didn't joke around anymore. Nothing was fun. He'd fly off the handle at any moment. He even chewed me out a few times. Me! A nine year-old kid!" Oliver threw his hands up in the air.

Jack furrowed his brow. Obviously, the winners came back changed, most with a form of PTSD or some other sort of emotional trauma. He took a second to wonder: had Eddie come back, had his boy been the one to return - how would it have changed him? His son had been a loud, boisterous, athletic teenager, and how would Jack have reacted were he to return, battered and broken? Oliver continued before Jack had the chance to fall deeper into thought.

"So he left. At that point, I was happy to see him go. And then..."

This time, Jack jumped in, as Oliver hesitated to put the words together.

"... it happened again. They took him again."

Oliver nodded. "That's right... and this time, he never came home."

The words hung in the air. Oliver finally reached forward and took a sip of the drink in front of him. It burned going down - it was more expensive whiskey than he usually was ever able to get his hands on. Taking a second to compose himself, he looked at the glass again. It would be too easy to dive into the bottle to cope with your feelings. The man sitting across the table from him was proof of that.

"I think my mom always looked at it like she lost him three times. Once to the terrorists in '05, then again when he moved to California. Then again when he was taken for the second time in '07. Once the transmission cut out and he was declared dead..."

This time, it was Oliver who wore a thousand-yard stare, albeit for only a moment.

"I think it was... maybe two or three weeks after they officially declared him dead. She just went to bed one night, and never woke up."

Jack sat back in his chair sharply. The words stung, like a slap. After Eddie died, his marriage had collapsed - every time Samantha had looked at him, she had seen Eddie, and that was too painful for her to bear. It was painful for him, but he understood why they had separated. He could never blame her for that. But for all of the hurt that he'd suffered, Sam still lived. She had moved to a small Michigan suburb. They still talked... rarely. But Oliver was missing a brother, no longer had a mother.

"My God... I'm so sorry, Oliver."

Grimacing, the young man nodded, and took another drink. This was not an easy conversation for him.

"After that... well, it helped a little when Luke moved back home, but... we both saw Dad's withdrawal from society coming. The second Mom died, it was... Dad pretty much checked out. He was still there for us, of course. We were still alive." He paused. "But I didn't exactly have much in the way of boundaries while I was growing up."

Professor Serjeantson didn't know what to say. His grief at a lost child aside, this poor kid in front of him - and he had to remind himself, Oliver was an early acceptance student, so he truly was still just a kid, had suffered more loss than a lot of people could even imagine. The next question escaped his lips before he even realized that he was saying the words, and he instantly regretted them.

"Is your father still alive, or has he... passed as well?"

To Jack's surprise, the student in front of him smiled, warmer than he would have expected. Relief flooded through him at the reply.

"Oh, yeah, Dad's still going. He was a wreck for a long time, but... when Luke got married, it really roused him from his own misery. Kind of... brought him back to life, I guess. Then he had his girls, and..." Oliver's smile widened. "... well, he spoils the hell out of his grandkids. But those two girls saved his life. My brother, who's had his own hell of a road... he saved my Dad. He really did. Once Kerry was born, Dad moved up to Calgary to be closer to them."

Jack returned the smile, taking a long gulp of his own drink at the affirmation. Happy endings were possible. At least for a few of them.

"I'm glad to hear that. That's a very familiar story. I can identify with a lot of that. Especially feeling like you've got nothing left to live for."

Jack let the last few words slip out, and this time it was Oliver's turn to feel a pang of guilt. Yeah, he had hurt and some skeletons in his family's closet. No doubt about that. But Jack Serjeantson had lost someone too, and by all accounts, it had dramatically changed him. Before Oliver had taken his class, he'd looked him up, of course. He made a habit of doing that for any class he considered taking - especially the electives. Oliver had been conscious of the connection, but he'd assumed that the Survival of the Fittest portion of the course would be short and easy to skip.

Considering where he was and what he was doing, he'd royally bungled that assumption.

Primarily though, Oliver took the class out of a morbid sense of curiosity. Reviews on Professor Serjeantson spanned back years, almost to a point before he'd even been able to walk and talk. The reviews on this particular professor were frankly spectacular. Pages and pages of reviews on how the lectures were fiery and entertaining, the material came alive in the hands of "the Sarge". That was how it had been. Until the reviews had suddenly changed. A few made reference to his loss, but as the years went on, his rating steadily dropped until he was viewed as little more than sub-par. It had piqued his curiosity, mainly to see if that fiery lecturer was still in there. He'd seen few traces of him, sans when he had jumped down Oliver's throat when he mentioned Eddie.

With a sense of caution, he tip-toed into those waters once more. "Professor, I ha-"

"Jack. I think we can drop the formalities here, Oliver."

The young man straightened in his seat and eyed his glass briefly. He had a point.

"Uhh, sorry. Jack. I have to ask you... what kept you going? My Dad had my brother and I. But after..." He grimaced. "... after Eddie died, what stopped you from giving up?"

The old man was taken aback at the question. What did keep him going? Once Sam had left, there wasn't much more to do aside from lecturing and drinking. Instantly uncomfortable, he deflected.

"You know that your mother didn't give up on you, right? Grief has a physical impact on the body, and sometimes after a trauma like that... the heart just can't take it."

Oliver's eyes widened at the clumsily-dodged question, and he bit his lip to keep from shouting back at the professor. He wouldn't be baited so easily this time. Clenching his teeth, he picked up the glass and took another slow sip out of it, waiting for his blood pressure to lower.

"I've taken intro to psych, thanks. I know the stages of grief." He took another breath. "My Mom didn't give up - her heart gave out. Why didn't yours? I've watched you walk into class half-cocked at least three times this semester. You look like a shell of a person. I read your old Rate My Professor reviews. You used to be dynamic."

Oliver stopped, and then delivered a final, calculated strike.

"Your son died on that island, Mr. Serjeantson, but it looks to me that for all intents and purposes, you did too."
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2:16pm, June 2nd, 2015
History Department Offices, Fayerweather Hall, Columbia University
New York City

Jack Serjeantson was rarely at a loss for words. While the older man no longer felt the same vigor that he had in his youth, his silences were almost always intentional, intended to draw people out, let them speak when it wasn't needed. While damaged, he was still a highly intelligent man and could at least offer something to most discussions, even if he didn't choose to.

But Oliver's words had stabbed through all of his shields. They'd cut through any self-assuredness that he had. Oliver Dodd had just verbally cut as many holes in his body as Daphne Rudko had cut through his own son ten years prior.

The proclamation had eviscerated his soul, because he knew that the youth in front of him was right.

Why the hell was he still going?

Absently, Jack picked his glass up from the table and shot the Glenlivet down his throat, barely pausing to taste the bitter liquid. On instinct, he poured himself another glass - this one fuller than either of the ones he'd poured for himself or for Oliver. The liquor didn't help clarify the thoughts swirling around in his head any, but it would dull things. Eventually.

Why hadn't he killed himself after Eddie died? Selfishness, of course. But for a man who preferred living to the alternate, he certainly didn't do much of that anymore. Unless drinking in a dingy pub and falling asleep to shitty Netflix movies was what constituted living anymore. Had he really been fooling himself for that long?

"The guilt..."

The words tumbled out of his barely-clenched lips, almost unconsciously. Oliver, who was ever-so-slightly starting to regret the harsh words that he'd picked, perked up but said nothing.

"I was so hard on him. Unjustly so."

The words came out almost whispered, and the old man looked to be somewhere else entirely. Awkwardly, and softer in tone than his prior attack, he carefully pressed. "How so, Jack? How were you hard on him?"

"Eddie loved history." Jack climbed over the words, as though he were remembering how to speak. "It was his passion. He was athletic, and popular, sure... but he loved combing through history textbooks. I'd catch him up late watching documentaries on the great wars. He could tell you all about the Archduke Ferdinand's last ride through Sarajevo or why the Brits and Canadians burned down the white house in 1812. It was all he'd talk about around the dinner table."

At this point, the old man's eyes were glistening and tears were running down his face. Oliver shifted in his chair, uncomfortable. This had not been his intention when he'd walked in the door. It was a bad habit of his; Oliver's defense mechanism. Usually instead of getting mad and yelling at someone, he'd quip back with something hurtful. It was a personality trait he wasn't proud of and tried to refrain from doing, but often he couldn't stop it before he did it. His comments weren't fair, as truthful as they might have been, so he knew that he owed the old man his ear.

"Sounds like the apple didn't fall very far from the tree?" It was a shitty idiom, but Oliver supposed that it made sense - he followed in his own father's footsteps of being good with technology, as had his late eldest brother.

Jack scoffed, but it was more of a self-flagellating expression. "And you would expect his history professor father to have cultivated that interest, encouraged him! But what did I do? I shut him down. I insisted that he focus upon sports. He was athletically gifted, so why waste those gifts? I was ANGRY with him about that. Can you imagine?"

Oliver visibly winced and let him continue. It really was a fairly odd juxtaposition.

"Samantha and I fought about it all the time. She was completely on board him focusing on his studies. He kept saying to us - 'why would I want to get hurt and have no knees by the time I'm thirty-five?' Jack's eyes pained at the number - an age his son would never reach.

"Do you think I ever listened? Of course not. I was so focused on the fact that I thought he was throwing it all away. Throwing away opportunities that I never had when I was young. Opportunities that my father would never have allowed me to explore. I was trying so hard to make sure that he could set himself up - with a scholarship, with an education, maybe with a career in athletics! But he never saw it that way." He took a long sip of the liquor. The couple of glasses that he'd had earlier were well within his system now, and the one that he'd been sipping since he came into the office was well on its way to spreading alcohol throughout his blood stream.

"Eddie and I got into a screaming match the week before the trip. He insisted on staying back to focus on his last couple of essays. I told him that we'd paid good money for the trip, and that he'd regret it for the rest of his life if he missed it. He called me a shit-head. Told me that he couldn't wait until I was no longer running his life anymore."

Jack finally looked at Oliver, a manic stare that sent a chill down Oliver's spine.

"He didn't have to wait very long for that, did he?"

Looking away, Jack downed the rest of the whiskey in the glass, and filled up for a third time. Oliver noted that the bottle was getting close to expiring. The professor was likely going to pay for that tomorrow. Taking a second to collect himself, he realized that his anger had really subsided. Instead, all that remained was pity. This old man had been beating himself up for ten years, somehow rationalizing to himself that it was his fault that his son was dead.

That was a ludicrous notion, but that is what grief does to people.

"Sir... Jack. I'm no therapist. Hell, I've never even seen one, even though it'd probably do me some good. But you have to know - as a learned man: this wasn't remotely on you." Oliver paused. "I think you know that, in your mind. But your heart is hurting so much, and you don't want to blame anyone but yourself. I think you've convinced yourself over the years that if only you hadn't made him go on that trip, he'd have lived."

Jack peered back through his tears at the young man sitting across from him, eyes narrowed as though he were seeing Oliver for the very first time.

"My Dad felt the same way. My parents paid for Adam to go on that trip. He gave them the option to say no, but they wanted to do something nice for him. I'm sure that maybe Eddie didn't want to go at that moment, but he was the one who asked to go, wasn't he? What red-blooded American teenager doesn't want to vacation on a tropical island with his buddies?"

Oliver was very aware the irony at his last question. He had been vehemently against the notion of a graduation trip with his class. Hadn't even considered it. Graduation trips weren't all that common anymore, but his school had taken a lot of precautions. It had gone on without incident - his class had flown to a resort in the Denver area, and he'd heard the stories for the rest of the time he'd been at high school.

It had sounded fun; in fact he'd been told it was a hell of a time, but the idea of a trip just wasn't for him.

"The fact is, Mr. Serjeantson... you need to stop crucifying yourself for this. If you look at it far enough, then yeah. Absolutely, you're responsible for your son's demise." Jack's mouth opened in shock at the words, but Oliver held up a hand - he wasn't finished. "He's your son. You raised him, enrolled him in that school. You taught him how to behave, how to act. You were the one who let him go on that trip, and you were the one who drove him to the bus station. So yeah, if you want to look at it that way? Totally your fault."

Jack's shoulders slumped. This armchair psychology was transparent, but Oliver was right. He'd been beating himself up over this for years. It had cost him his marriage, it cost him most of his friends, and had he not been fortunate enough to have tenure at the university, it would have cost him his job. Wiping the tears away from his eyes, he nodded sharply.

"I'd give... absolutely anything to have him back, Oliver. We may have fought, but I was so proud of him. He was going to be such a damned good man."

Oliver smiled sadly. He knew the feeling.

"I miss my brother, too. I was seven... feels like I never really got to know him. I have a feeling that we would have gotten along as adults. Plus... I think him and my mom really would have loved Luke's kids. His youngest's first word was 'erection'."

Oliver grinned at the memory, and Jack couldn't help but laugh himself. "What? How does a little girl even... ?"

He shrugged his shoulders and chuckled. The laughter wasn't forced, and seemed to deflate a lot of the tension that had filled the small office. "It was the damndest thing. Luke and I were sitting in his living room watching a movie, and I think one of the characters said it. His daughter then just stood up, looked at us, and blurted it out."

The laughter was starting to come even harder now. It really had been a ridiculous afternoon.

"We... we couldn't help it, we started laughing. So she started repeating it and laughing. It... it was so silly."

At this point, Jack had started to laugh as well, and the two of them were laughing at the ridiculous mental image of a thirteen month-old child saying 'erection'.

"His... his wife was so unimpressed."

Laughter being the proverbial best medicine, it was truly having a beneficial impact on the two damaged men sitting in the office. As it subsided, the two men sat in silence for a few moments, both lost within their own heads.

For once, Oliver wasn't thinking or worrying about his studies, dreading a lecture about Survival of the Fittest, or feeling anxious about anything in particular. Instead, he thought of those two little girls, the hilarity it was at picturing his brother trying to raise two young girls. He thought of his father, and how he insisted on taking his nieces trick-or-treating, them as princesses and him as a dragon on a leash. He thought of the future.

Conversely, Jack was thinking about the past. But instead of ruminating, he fondly recalled the times where him and Eddie would sit for hours, pouring over historical works and talking about the odd pieces of trivia that they'd both find about famous historical figures. He remembered the visits to museums, and how proud both him and his wife had been when he'd realized that his teenaged son was his intellectual equal. He'd spent so much time mourning his son, he'd never found time to celebrate him.

Glancing at his watch, Oliver realized that it was starting to get late. He'd shut his phone off upon entering the office, and while the conversation had been intense but necessary, he was suddenly starting to feel exhausted. He surmised that the liquor probably had something to do with it.

His glass was still slightly full, and so Oliver picked it up, thought for a moment, and held it out in front of him, the professor blinking his way out of his own thoughts in turn.

"To absent family."

Jack smiled softly as he picked up his own, fuller glass.
"And to the future."

Oliver nodded at that, and clinked Jack's glass. To the future, indeed. He downed the rest of the liquor and again blanched at the taste of the aged whiskey as it warmly made its way down his throat. Naturally, Jack threw back the contents of his glass with far more ease than Oliver did. He'd had a bit more practice.

Placing the glass on the desk in front of him, Oliver unsteadily stood up, trying not to betray that the small bit of alcohol that he had drank had gone straight to his head.

"I really appreciate you having this conversation with me, Jack. If it's all right with you though, I think I'll probably keep calling you Professor Serjeantson." He shrugged sheepishly. "Just feels a little weird. You get it, right?"

Jack nodded. Most of his students called him "Professor" or "Sarge" anyway. "Of course. I... this was not an easy talk for me to have, Oliver." He blinked, slightly longer than normal. The alcohol was starting to hit him. "But I'm very glad that we did. You said some things to me... that I think I needed to hear."

Oliver nodded, grimacing slightly. He still felt bad, even though he could see that the old man had taken it in a good way. "Oh, and, uh, sir. I'd really appreciate it if you would continue to call me Edward. Nobody here knows my real name and I'd prefer to keep it that way. I really don't want to draw any attention to myself."

He smiled.

"I just want to live my life, you know?"

"Of course. Edward. Edward Tough. Last name like the wool hat." The professor smirked at the remembrance. "I'll make sure to remember."

Oliver extended his hand to the professor, still seated behind the desk. It was time to go.

"Thanks, Professor Serjeantson. I'll see you in class."

Jack took the young man's hand - it was a surprisingly firm handshake, on both ends, and Oliver turned towards the door, stopping to push the chair back to its original position as he walked past. He'd almost made the door, when Jack called out at him.

"Oliver, wait!"

The young man turned around, a quizzical expression on his face.

"I've changed my mind. The essay? I want you to write something after all."

Oliver's eyes widened. What the hell had he just spent hours doing, if this fucking asshole was just going to ma-

"Don't worry. I don't want to read another essay about Survival of the Fittest. I want to read something that'll make me feel good. Something that will refresh what faith in humanity I have left. You're a creative writing major, right?"

Oliver's eyebrows cocked in surprise. He hadn't been expecting that.

"Uhhh... I am, yes."

The old man smiled at him, a smile filled with as much kindness as it was sadness. But in his eyes was a different look - one that Oliver had never seen before in his particular teacher.

It was a faint glimmer of hope.

"I'd like you to write a piece on someone who inspires you. On someone who you consider a hero. Can be anybody. Just tell me why they're your hero, and what role they played in your development as a person. I just..." He smirked. "... it'd be nice to have a break from reading formulaic undergraduate essays about death."

Oliver nodded - names and faces flashed through his head, but this paper? This would be easy.

"You've got it, sir. Same due date as the rest of the papers?"

Jack nodded at his student. "If you wouldn't mind."

"Cool. That, I can do. Have a nice night, Professor."

Opening the door, he took one last glance back at the fairly-intoxicated Professor, and tried to shake the cobwebs out of his own head as he left the office, leaving Jack Serjeantson and his demons behind him.
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3:48pm, June 2nd, 2015
History Department Offices, Fayerweather Hall, Columbia University
New York City

It had been ten minutes since the student formerly known as Oliver Dodd had exited Jack's office, and in those ten minutes, a lot of things were swirling around within his mind. Naturally, there was also a lot swirling around within his gut. Jack felt a little queasy, though he couldn't be certain that it had been from the alcohol. The conversation with the student had caused him to face some extremely unpleasant truths about himself.

Truth was, Jack had known it all along. His wife hadn't left him because of Eddie's death. His wife had left him because he was a drunk. He couldn't handle the trauma, couldn't handle the constant dwelling on the past that Jack was prone to. Samantha had been unable to reconcile Jack's guilt, and wasn't willing to be a party to Jack drinking himself into an early grave.

But here he sat, half-cocked once again (probably fully cocked, he mused to himself), but this time... with clarity. Tim had been screaming it at him for months, years even, but Jack hadn't been equipped to listen. Tim couldn't have understood, even as much as Sam couldn't have understood. She felt the loss, but had managed to move forward from it. She didn't have the guilt, didn't have the agony that seemed to never leave Jack.

And Tim? Tim still had his family, so what did he know? But Jack knew, now more than ever, that hearing the same base message from someone who wasn't even in his life but as a periphery character, that maybe... just maybe it was time to stop looking into the past.

If Edward Tough was able to have lost his brother that many times and come out as well-adjusted as he seemed to be, then really... what was Jack's excuse?

Reaching over to pour himself another glass of the Glenlivet, he suddenly looked at the bottle in his hand. Was this really doing him any good at all? He'd been using liquor to numb his feelings for years, but was that really what it was doing? Or just amplifying the negative emotions that he'd been clinging to?

Fuck this.

Grabbing the cap for the liquor, he popped it back on the top and then threw the bottle in the trash. Enough of this. That was a great first step. So what was next? He grabbed his cell phone, and sent a quick text message to Tim, cancelling on their drinking plans for the evening. The younger professor would inevitably bombard his phone with questioning text messages, probably worried sick that the old man would drink himself to death in a ditch somewhere without his nagging young colleague, but that was not on Jack's agenda. Not anymore.

Shutting his phone off as it started to buzz as predicted, Jack then stared at his desk phone. There was a voice in his head that screamed at him. This was a terrible idea. He was half-drunk, and those conversations never went well. But this time...

His hands were shaky as he picked up the receiver, and started to key in a number - unfamiliar and yet one that he had committed to memory as soon as he'd learned it. The tenth digit took some internal convincing to press, but he jabbed at it before he could talk himself out of doing otherwise. A voice picked up the other end of the phone on the third ring, sounding both questioning and tired.

"Hi, Sam. It's Jack."

The woman on the other end of the line was hesitant, and Jack knew that she probably wasn't expecting to hear from him - the last time he'd phoned her in a drunken stupor, she'd hung up on him after he'd exploded on her when he mentioned their son, and they'd not spoken for weeks, months... he couldn't remember. Sure, he was drunk again, but... this time? It was different.

"I think that I'm ready... I'd like to talk to you about Eddie."
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5:23pm, June 2nd, 2015
Edward Tough and Mike Schultz's Apartment
W 107th Avenue and West End Avenue
Bloomingdale, New York City

Mike Schultz couldn't believe his ears, but even if his friend was full of shit, it was a fucking great story. His young pal and roommate had called him an hour prior, telling Mike that he needed to meet him back home, and he needed to be ready to have a couple of beers.

An oddity for Edward Tough to be the one to suggest getting rowdy on a Thursday night, but hey, Mike was in university and that's how things tended to go. He'd had some preliminary discussions earlier with Scott about coming by for some drinks and video games anyhow, so that Edward of all people was ready to get the party started, Mike had been all for it. He'd busted his ass all day working on his economics presentation anyway, so a couple of afternoon drinks felt like a great reward to him.

So it had been much to Mike's surprise when he'd walked into his apartment to find his roommate already bombed out of his mind, spinning a ludicrous tale of drinking aged whiskey with Professor Serjeantson, of all people. Mike had immediately called him full of shit, but Edward had been earnest about the whole thing, and for a creative writer, he wasn't one to tell a tale very often.

So here they sat, Mike on his long, ugly brown couch and Edward against the wall, each grasping their second can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Shitty beer, but as an underage university student, what was one supposed to do? Still, he was trying to get the details on just how on Earth the most boring professor at Columbia University had managed to get his seventeen year-old friend blasted.

"So you're just having an intense conversation about fucking Survival of the Fittest, and he pulls out a bottle?" Mike shook his head. "You're full of it. You've been reading too many stories."

Edward laughed, taking a long sip of his beer. He was nicely buzzed already.

"Stories, sure. But this one is a TRUE story. I swear. He kept a bottle of whiskey in his desk. I must have had... two glasses? Maybe it was three, I can't remember."

Rolling his eyes, Mike scoffed at him. " You? Three glasses of whiskey? You'd be on the fucking ground."

"I am on the ground!" Edward burst into giggles. Mike couldn't help but laugh. He had him there.

He took a sip of his beer. "So why the long conversation? The lecture was THAT good?"

Edward's expression hardened, but then reverted back to normal. Mike noticed and made a mental note to ask Edward about this again later.

"Naw... I can't make the next few, I've got a, uh, writing project that's gonna get in the way. So I had to explain it to him, and... he was okay with it. But now I don't have to write the essay, either. He wanted me to do something else, and wanted me to focus my energies on that."

Mike's eyes went wide in disbelief. Wasn't coming to class AND got out of the essay? What kind of a horseshoe did his buddy have up his ass this week - that was unheard of for the Sarge.

"Well, shit. What'd you do, blow him in his office?" Edward smirked and flipped Mike off. "No, but seriously. How'd you manage that?"

Edward composed himself a bit. He'd quickly decided what topic he was going to write on for his essay for the Professor. That had been simple. He'd had all kinds of people who'd made a difference in his life. He could have gone with any of them for the essay.

He could have chosen his father. Paul had suffered a great deal, but had never given up on his remaining sons, even after his wife died. He had gone through a difficult patch, but had never left Oliver wanting.

Luke and his family would have been prime subjects. He'd said hours before that his brother and his family had basically brought his father back from the precipice, and it'd been true. His brother was proof to the rest of them that normal was possible for a Dodd.

Hell, at one point Oliver had given a half-second thought to writing the essay about Mike and Scotty. Goofballs they were, they were the two best friends that he'd ever had, and had made sure to take care of a boy who was almost too young to be in University. Oliver did have a normal life as Edward Tough, and those two were a huge part of that.

He suspected that Professor Serjeantson would have guessed that he was writing his essay on his late brother, Adam. Time had wavered on the heroism of his brother's deeds during Survival of the Fittest, but the fact had always remained that he'd tried to keep those close to him safe, and were it not for some monster's vendetta, he at least managed to come home himself once.

Edward looked at Mike, and took a drink of his beer. Cold beer always felt so much better going down than warm beer - or bitter whiskey, for that matter.

"Sarge wants me to write a piece on my own personal hero. Someone who shaped my life and helped me be the person that I am today." Oliver nodded a few times, confirming his own choice almost as he said it out loud to Mike.

"So I get to take the next three weeks and write an essay on my Mom."

Mike sobered immediately. He didn't know a ton of details on Edward's home life, aside from the fact that he'd lost his mother a few years before getting into university. Mike wasn't great with a whole lot of emotional talk, either, so he did the only thing that he could think of.

"Oh, shit. Well, man... here's to your Mom." He raised his beer can, and Edward emphatically met his cheers. "Sure as hell beats writing about kids dying."

"Amen to that, man. Fuckin' eh."

Edward laughed out loud, and finished the rest of his beer, dragging himself up and towards the fridge in the kitchen, another PBR in his future. He knew that it would be the easiest essay he'd ever write, and much like the future, he looked forward to every word of it.

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