Exorcise in Futility

by Kristen Bealer

"Damn clients and their damn wrong opinions," Jake Morgendorffer muttered into his fourth martini. "People like pickles. People like toothpaste. So why not pickle-flavored toothpaste?" Throwing the martini back in a single gulp, he snorted. "I even had the perfect name. PickleFresh."

The bartender kept giving him wary looks but hadn't cut him off yet. Instead, he moved down to the other end of the bar to check on the only other customers left in the Liquid Dinner that night.

"I know this must be very difficult for you, Anthony," Timothy O'Neill consoled his friend.

"Difficult?" Anthony DeMartino snapped, taking another swig of whiskey. He let out a small hiccup. "Trying to cram even the most basic information into the skull of that moronic quarterback for four years without the slightest glimmer of success is difficult! Trying to do it for a fifth year now that he's been held back is...is...." he said before choking back a sob, "...torture!"

Timothy took another sip from his Mai Tai. "Just think of this as an opportunity to start fresh with a challenging student," he suggested, his words slurring slightly. "Like getting back on a horse after falling off. Or learning to walk again after healing from a broken leg. Or getting back together with your girlfriend when you both know it's never going to work out no matter how many times you--"

"Wait, what was that?" Anthony asked, blinking at the man in confusion.

"Umm...nothing." Timothy took another nervous sip from his drink.

Back at the other end of the bar, Jake grumbled, "But why would he have liked my idea? Why would he have liked any of my ideas? Why would any client ever like even a single one of Jakey's marketing ideas?" He signaled the bartender for another martini and tossed that one back the moment it arrived.

"That's right," he continued, volume growing above a mumble as he became angrier. "It's not like anyone else ever appreciated anything I did! Or respected me! Or cared one gah-damn bit about me!"

Too far from Jake to hear him, Timothy kept talking to his friend. "Surely it would be more productive and healthy to focus on all of the talented, engaged students you have in class? There are plenty of bright, eager minds ready to take in knowledge next year!"

Jake was still working up a good rant on his end of the bar. "I guess I should have learned my lesson all the way back in military school! Corporal Ellenbogen and all those bastards at Buxton Ridge made it pretty damn clear I wasn't even worth the energy it took to spit on me!"

Anthony glared at Timothy. "I don't care if there are a thousand good students in my class next year. It doesn't give me the slightest bit of comfort thanks to Kevin Thompson, the black hole who sucks all light and joy and hope out of every room he enters!"

"Ohhhh no! Poor little Jakey never got to be treated like a human being even once! It was one humiliation after another, even when I wasn't being forced out of the safety and comfort of my own childhood home!" He slammed his fist on the bar for emphasis on the last word.

Timothy jumped slightly at the loud noise, but kept his attention on Anthony. "I'm sure it's not entirely fair to blame Kevin for his flaws. I feel I should bring your attention to his father, Doug, with whom I had an...altercation...last year at the Thompson house." The timid man grimaced slightly at the unpleasant memory.

"Not that my childhood home was any better, of course," Jake railed, shaking a fist at the wall behind the bar. "Not with that bitter old man always dragging me down and crushing my dreams! Thanks for nothing, Dad!"

Gulping down another drink, Anthony slammed his empty glass on the bar and turned to glower at Timothy. "You cannot let Kevin off that easy! Doug might be an idiot, but it's Kevin who sits in that classroom day after day, draining more of my will to live with every brainless answer." He started to shake his head, then stopped when the motion threw him off-balance. "No. No, no, no! Next to Kevin," Anthony continued, as his voice grew to a bellow, "his father is a genius and an absolute saint!"

Jake swayed in place at the other end of the bar, having heard only the part of Anthony's rant that involved fathers being saints. He turned to look at them and began shaking with rage. "A saint?" he yelled. "A saint?!" Too angry and too tipsy to come up with anything further, he only shouted again, "A saint?!" At last inspiration struck and he marched toward them, wobbling slightly as he went. "You...take...that...back!"

Anthony looked at the man through bleary eyes, unsure of what, exactly, he was talking about but fully recognizing that he was being challenged. Before he could respond, Timothy stepped between them.

"Now, I really think it would be best for everyone to take a few deep, calming breaths and release some of this frustration before it becomes destructive."

Jake obediently drew in a deep breath, and as he let it out he exploded with, "My father was a cruel, bitter old man whose only joy was in making other people miserable!"

Not even bothering to take a deep breath first, Anthony immediately shouted back, "My career is a never-ending series of ego-crushing, soul-annihilating frustration and despair!"

"Nothing I ever do is good enough for anyone!"

"I'll never be free of that worthless dimwit for as long as I live!"

"I'm trapped in a loveless relationship with a domineering harpy!" The last outburst came from Mr. O'Neill, who quickly covered his mouth with both hands as his eyes widened in shock. Seeing that the other two men were still watching him with curiosity, he let out a weak chuckle and said, "That...uh...was just an example of something...er...some other person might say in this situation! I was offering it as...um...encouragement for both of you to keep venting your anger!"

Anthony peered at him suspiciously, then said, "Has it ever occurred to you that maybe--"

Still desperate to deflect attention away from himself, Timothy drained the last of his Mai Tai and said, "You know what? The two of you aren't really angry with each other, but with other people!"

"Well, duh," Jake muttered.

"Of course we are," Anthony said, squeezing his eyes shut to clear his double vision. "I just spent the last hour telling you that."

Timothy flushed, both from embarrassment and from the rum in his drink. "Yes, right, but...what I mean to say is that...you both need to find closure!"

"Oh, here we go again," Anthony groaned, leaning against the bar to keep from falling over.

Jake, on the other hand, looked interested. "Closhure?" he slurred. "What...hic...kind of closhure?"

Pleased to see an appreciative audience for once, Timothy beamed. "I suggest that each of you find a place that symbolizes your frustration and perform a sort of cleansing ritual to drive out your metaphorical demons."

"And what, exactly, is a 'cleansing ritual'?" Anthony demanded.

"Sounds like something they did back on the commune," Jake added.

Timothy wobbled a bit as he tried to remember the details, but he'd read the book years ago and his brain was feeling strangely fuzzy. "Um...I think we'll figure it out when we get there."

"Let's do it!" Jake shouted, feeling a sudden exhilaration that may have had more to do with the high levels of gin and vermouth swirling around his bloodstream than anything else.

"Fanstatic--I mean, flantastic--er, great!" Timothy eagerly replied.

Anthony sighed. The small part of his brain that was still sober was telling him this was a bad idea. The rest of him was telling him to go for it, in part because Timothy had driven them to the bar and he had no other way to get home. "Come on, then," he said. "Who's driving?"

"None of you are," the bartender cut in, having watched the conversation with mild amusement. "I took his keys when he came in," he said, pointing at Jake. "Learned that from past experience. And you," he continued, pointing at Timothy, "are handing yours over right now."

Timothy opened his mouth to protest, but the bartender gave him the glare that had been subduing drunks for decades and he quickly tossed the car keys onto the bar.

"Guess we're walking to...wherever we're going," Anthony grumbled. He picked up his glass and tried to drain it, but he'd failed to notice it was already empty. It was just as well; he'd missed his mouth by some distance anyway.

"Why don't you pick?" Timothy asked. "Tell us where you feel the most powerless and angry and we'll all go there so you can perform your cleansing ritual!"

A grin slowly spread across Anthony's face. "I know just the place. Come on."

Timothy clapped his hands, or would have if his own face hadn't accidentally gotten in the way. "Lead the way!" he said. "But, um, could you both give me a hand with the walking part? I seem to be having some small difficulty moving my legs properly."

Anthony and Jake stood on either side of Timothy and allowed him to hold on to them as they walked out into the warm mid-July night. "This is gonna be fun!" Jake exclaimed. "Hey, wait. What're we doing, again?"

Staggering part of the way, the trio finally reached their destination. With a dramatic sweep of his arm that almost made him fall over, Anthony announced, "Gentlemen, I give you...Lawndale High School!"

Timothy squinted at the building in thoughtful silence, then slowly said, "Wait, I think I know this place." He thought some more. "Oh! Don't I work here?"

Anthony nodded. "Which means you know as well as I do what a cesspool of ignorance this is thanks to the sheer number of ridiculously stupid students! Not least of which includes the football team."

"Football!" Jake cheered, not having been paying much attention. "Yeah!"

"Anyway," Anthony continued, with only a brief glare at him, "you wanted me to find a symbol of my frustration? How about that?" He pointed to a wooden crutch sticking out of the ground near the street, with a small metal fence around it and a sign that read "Tommy Sherman Memorial Tree."

"A crutch?" asked Mr. O'Neill.

"Not just any crutch," Anthony corrected. "That crutch once belonged to Kevin Thompson. A dim-witted quarterback who coasts through life on the basis of athletic ability and sheer dumb luck. It is currently being used to honor Tommy Sherman. A dim-witted quarterback who coasted through life on the basis of athletic ability and sheer dumb luck." The man smiled grimly. "Until that luck ran out."

"That poor young man," Timothy sniffled, wiping his eyes. "It was such a tragic day!"

"Um, right," Jake said, having no idea who they were talking about but still wanting to be involved in the conversation. "Poor, um...Toby."

"Ha!" exploded Anthony. "The day that goalpost fell on Tommy Sherman was the happiest day of my entire life! After years of putting up with that smarmy, useless, brain-dead excuse for a human being, justice was finally served!"

"Anthony!" Timothy gasped, horrified.

"That's right, dammit!" Jake hollered, now on familiar territory. "The bastard was dead, and he couldn't drag you down ever again!"

"Can I get a hallelujah?" Anthony shouted back with an almost feral grin.

"You got it, my man!" Jake reached out his hand and the two men slapped a high-five.

Anthony turned his gaze back on the crutch. "But even after all of that, I still have one more hellish year of Kevin Thompson to suffer through." His eyes widened in dawning horror. "Unless he flunks again! I could have two more years--or three--or an eternity of being forced to share a room with that...that... GRAHHH!!!"

With a sudden burst of rage, Anthony yanked the crutch out of the ground and snapped it in half over his knee. Without hesitating, he took one of the halves and snapped it in half, then the other. He continued to break each piece, over and over again, until he was standing amongst a pile of small, splintered chunks of wood.

Panting from the exertion, Anthony looked at Timothy. "You know something?" he asked, now calm. "I think there might be something to that new age crap after all."

"So...you feel closure?" Timothy asked nervously, still eying the kindling at Anthony's feet.

Anthony thought about it. "Actually, not quite. Maybe if--"

He was abruptly interrupted by the sound of loud and angry barking. Timothy looked over and saw several dogs running in their direction. "I didn't know Ms. Li had started letting the bomb-sniffing dogs out at night."

"Those aren't the bomb-sniffing dogs," Anthony cried, grabbing Timothy and Jake and pulling them away from the dogs and toward the school. "She's upgraded to guard dogs! Run!"

The three men ran to the nearest safe place--the high school--and yanked on the doors. They were locked but Jake, driven by a combination of adrenaline and panic, slammed himself bodily against them until they burst open. At the same instant, a piercing alarm rang out. They hurtled inside and shut the doors behind them.

"We've got to get out of here!" Timothy sounded like he was about to cry. "The police will arrive at any moment!"

Pointing at the snarling dogs now immediately outside the doors, Anthony replied, "After you."

"Oh dear," Timothy murmured, wincing at both the alarm and the savage barking. "We've got to do something!"

Anthony closed his eyes and thought for a moment. "All right, the most important thing is to remain--"

"We're all going to die!" Jake wailed, running at top speed down the hallway.

"--calm." He watched the man disappear from sight as he turned down a corridor, then turned back to Timothy. "All right, here's what we're going to do: I'll see if I can get that alarm turned off; you see if you can find something to distract those dogs. Got it?"

Timothy nodded and began wandering through the school. Just a few minutes later the alarm abruptly shut off, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, with the alarm silent he could hear the dogs even better, so his relief was short-lived.

"I also stumbled across the controls for the security cameras. I've wiped the recordings," Anthony said, finding him shortly after. "Have you had any luck with the dogs?"

Timothy held up a box of tea bags. "I left this in the teacher's lounge. It's got chamomile in it, which is very soothing. Perhaps if we brewed some and found a way to feed it to the dogs--"

"That's a truly excellent plan, and not the slightest bit ridiculous, unless of course you actually want to succeed," Anthony said sarcastically. "Here's an idea: why don't you pretend they're your students and try to teach them? Then they'll probably go right to sleep!"

Timothy flinched and set the box down again. "Okay, then how about--"

"Check out what I found!" Jake's muffled voice interrupted them, and they both turned to see a talking lion waving at them. "Look at me; I'm a lion! Roar!"

"That's my Lawndale Lions mascot costume!" Timothy said. "You take that off right now!"

"No, wait!" Anthony cut in, holding up a hand. "Don't take it off!"

"It's okay," Jake said. "I'm wearing clothes under this." Under his breath he muttered, "Learned that lesson the hard way during my mascot days at Middleton."

"I mean, that costume is made of very thick material and it covers your entire body."

"That's true." Timothy nodded. "It doesn't even have air holes."

"Which means," Anthony said, ignoring him, "that it would protect you from, for example, attacking guard dogs!"

"Huh?" both Jake and Timothy said.

Anthony sighed. "We can send him out first to lead the dogs away from the school while we escape."

"Oh!" Timothy said. "That's a great plan!"

"Yeah!" Jake agreed. "Wait...which one of us is getting chased by the dogs?" When both men looked pointedly at him, he cried, "Hey, that plan sucks! I won't do it!"

One minute later, the front doors slammed open and a man in a lion costume was tossed through them. He hit the ground running, with half a dozen dogs close behind. A short time later, Anthony and Timothy slipped out unnoticed and sneaked away into the night while distant sirens grew closer.

"I'm sorry you didn't get a chance to achieve proper closure," Timothy consoled his friend as they made their way toward the agreed-on meeting place.

"Oh, I did get my chance," Anthony corrected him, "and I took it." Chuckling, he explained, "The alarm shut-off was in Ms. Li's office, and while I was there I left her a little 'present.'"

Timothy's eyes widened. "Oh...oh, dear...." he murmured.

"Next time that spiteful tyrant tries to make me teach a sewing class or cut me off from a source of free food," Anthony growled, "I can look her right in the eye and just smile, picturing her face when she walks into her office and sees--"

"Um, I'm not sure that this is all entirely healthy," Timothy tried to point out.

"I don't care!" Anthony replied with a grin. "I feel almost...weightless. Like I could take on a million Kevin Thompsons and still emerge victorious!"

Timothy was about to respond, but he was interrupted when Jake dropped down from a tree, looking shaky but otherwise unharmed. "They chased me up here, but finally gave up and wandered off." He shuddered. "I thought I was going to be trapped up there all night. Stranded high above the ground, dangling from that damn rope, all alone with nothing but the taunts of Corporal Ellenbogen to keep me company!"

"Who?" Timothy asked.

Jake blinked a few times and snapped out of his flashback. "Uh...just someone who completely obliterated every shred of dignity I had while I was in military school."

"Oh, I remember those days," Anthony muttered darkly. "Freezing cold barracks, sadistic fellow cadets..."

"...drill instructors who love watching you fail..." Jake added.

"...unrealistic expectations that don't apply to the class favorites..."

"...ridiculously unfair punishments for imaginary crimes..."

"...disgusting food that would turn your stomach...."

"Actually, I kind of liked the food!" Jake said. "They had this thing called Kitchen Sink Stew, and I've just about mastered the recipe. You should come over and try it sometime!"

"Really?" Anthony asked, his eyes lighting up at the possibility of a free meal. "I would be happy to try it!"

Now it was Jake's turn to light up in surprise, this time at finally finding an appreciative audience for his cooking. "You...you would?"

"How wonderful!" Timothy clapped with delight. "You've taken a profoundly negative experience and turned it into something positive!"

"Yeah!" Jake cheered. "It makes up for the years of nightmarish abuse and neglect heaped on me by the gun-wielding adults that I had trusted to keep me safe during my tender childhood!" He frowned. "Hold on. No, it doesn't! I still hate those bastards!" His face was turning red and his breathing was irregular as the rage began to build again. "Rot in hell, Corporal Ellenbogen!"

"Eep!" Timothy covered his head with both arms, frightened by the sudden explosion. Peeking out from under his elbows, he timidly said, "I think perhaps you should choose our next destination and perform a cleansing ritual to purge some of that anger and stress."

"I'm not stressed!" Jake roared, a vein bulging from the side of his head.

"Yes, clearly you're as relaxed as it gets," Anthony replied sarcastically.

Tentatively lowering his arms, Timothy asked, "Then why don't you tell us where you feel the source of your...um, emotional demons might be?"

"Buxton Ridge Military Academy," Jake said without hesitation.

"And where is that?" Anthony asked.

"Er...about five hundred miles from here," Jake admitted.

"Unless you feel like taking either a very long walk or a very expensive cab ride, I suggest you find a good alternative."

Jake groaned. "But where am I going to find a place nearby that offers senseless violence, simulated military conditions, and the potential for utter humiliation?"

Anthony thought about it, then snapped his fingers. "I know exactly where we'll find it."


"Oh, I remember this place!" Jake exclaimed as they got out of the cab.

"I think we all do," Timothy said, looking around nervously. "But it seems to be closed for the night."

"What a terrible shame," Anthony said, approaching the door to the office and pulling out a pocket knife. "It seems we came all this way for nothing," he continued, opening the knife and wiggling the blade around between the door and the frame. "I suppose we'll just have to turn around and--oh, look, the door appears to have mysteriously popped open."

The door swung open, revealing a huge supply of paintball guns, capsules, grenades, and other assorted gear.

Anthony grinned and walked in. "On second thought, why don't we stick around and have some fun?"

Timothy was shaking with fear. "I really don't think this is a very--"

"You want Jake here to perform his weirdo whatsit thing, right?" Anthony interrupted, taking down some of the paintball guns and starting to load them.

"Um, that's 'cleansing ritual,' actually..." Timothy paused to think, then shrugged. "Well, I suppose a quick, light-hearted game wouldn't hurt, as long as we all remember that we're working together as a team to resolve--"

"Great!" Leaning over to Jake, Anthony handed him a gun and whispered, "Pretend he's Corporal Ellenbogen. Go have fun."

Jake looked down at the paintball gun, and then slowly raised his head to stare at Timothy with a sinister expression. "Start running."

Jake ran through the woods, heart pumping in time to the thud of his footsteps, as he searched for his prey. Timothy had been coated with paint and had fallen into one of the underground tunnels within seconds of starting the game, but Anthony was still out there somewhere.

He rounded a sandbag placement just in time to see a shadowy figure disappear behind the crumbling Hanoi Hilton shelter. He grinned, feeling the surging adrenaline that told him the game was almost his. He threw himself around the corner, gun blazing.

Blam! Blam blam blam BLAM!

"Ow! Those paintball thingies hurt!" Anthony complained, but the gleam in his eyes showed that he was having just as much fun as Jake was. "Well done."

"Thanks!" Jake punched the air with both fists and began a victory dance. "Thought I'd never be able to win a fight, did you, old man? Thought I'd always be useless in battle, right, Corporal Ellenbogen? Well, look at me now!"

Smiling, Anthony watched him celebrate. "Yeah, it does feel pretty good, doesn't it?" he asked. "Maybe there's something to that cleansing ritual garbage, after all." He chuckled. "Don't tell Timothy I said that, though."

Jake halted in mid-jig. "Hey, where is he, anyway?"

The two men began wandering around the paintball arena in search of him, and they were just about to give up when they heard a strange sound coming from one of the tents set up on the edge of the field. Coming closer, they peeked inside to see Timothy curled up in a ball and sobbing.

"Cheer up," Jake said. "You didn't do all that badly!"

"Liar," Anthony muttered under his breath.

Jake gave him a quick jab in the side with his elbow. "What do you say we play again, and this time we'll go easy on you?"

"No!" Timothy shouted with sudden vehemence. "I've had more than enough of this place!"

"Was it the tunnels?" Jake asked. "They're pretty bad, but--"

"Not that," Timothy grumbled. "This very tent is where Janet and I first...um...started dating."

"Oh," Jake said. "Uh...congratulations?"

"Ha!" The bitter shout actually knocked Anthony and Jake back half a step. "I didn't know it then, but that was the biggest mistake of my entire life!"

"Really?" Anthony looked surprised. "But I thought you liked being with her. I didn't understand why, but you both seemed happy...in a weird, twisted kind of way."

"I thought so, too." Timothy was starting to calm down, but the anger hadn't faded much. "It's just that ever since our near-engagement got broken off, I've started to wonder if maybe Janet isn't just a tiny bit domineering and bad-tempered. Honestly, there are times when I fear she doesn't even respect me very much!"

"Hmph," Jake snorted, "do I ever know that feeling! Like when Helen pretends she wants my input on dealing with the girls, but the second I open my mouth she cuts me off!"

"Yes! Janet does that, too. She'll ask me where I want to go for dinner and if I even try to suggest a place that I like she dismisses it and chooses something she wants."

"I know, right? Hey, do you ever try to do something nice for her, and then all she does is complain about what you did wrong?"

"All...the...time!" Timothy looked up at him in astonishment: at last, a kindred spirit. "I mean, I like to think of myself as a caring, compassionate person. But sometimes, when she really gets going on one of her tirades about her ex-husband, I start to just tune her out. Do you have any idea how exhausting it is to listen to someone rant about the same thing over and over again?"

"Uh...yeah, I suppose that would get on your nerves after awhile," Jake mumbled.

"But it isn't just Janet," Timothy said. "Lately I've been feeling as though some of my students don't respect me, either. Sometimes I even have this vague notion that they might be laughing at me behind my back." He looked up at them. "Isn't that strange?"

Anthony coughed and looked away. "Maybe. I don't know. Look, shut up, okay?" He nudged Jake. "Change the subject!" he hissed.

"Right!" Jake said. "Hey, I think you need to do one of those...what were they called? Cleaning routines?"

"Cleansing rituals," Anthony corrected him. "And that's an excellent idea!"

"Really?" Timothy asked. "You don't think it's just a lot of wishy-washy hokum?"

"That's exactly what I think it is," Anthony replied without hesitation, "but it might do you some good anyway."

"Come onnnn," Jake said. "Think--where's a place that you remember feeling really powerless, like everyone was against you and you couldn't do anything right?"

"You mean aside from all the time?" Timothy snapped. Then he stopped to think. "Actually, there is one place...."

"A storage unit?" Anthony asked as the cab stopped outside a unit at one of Lawndale's self-storage facilities, called Stow It!

Timothy paid the driver and climbed out, followed by the others. He twirled the combination lock and opened the unit, revealing piles of supplies and dozens of cardboard signs and cutouts. "After last year's disaster, I probably shouldn't even have bothered to keep all this stuff," Timothy said with a sigh, "but here it is."

"OK to Cry Corral," Jake read off a sign leaning off to one side. "Oh, is this like some kind of western-themed thing? I love westerns! Cowboys and shoot-em-ups and The Duke!" He grinned and said in a passable John Wayne impersonation, "Well, pilgrim--"

"No, no," Timothy broke in. "It was a camp where children could get in touch with their inner selves and find personal growth...or rather, it was supposed to be," he finished with a slight whimper. "Turns out I wasn't doing them much good, after all."

"Now, Timothy," Anthony argued. "Don't be so hard on yourself. The children enjoyed their hike--"

"--which I wasn't invited on--"

"--and freed themselves of the camp bully--"

"--which I had nothing to do with--"

"--and I rediscovered the joy of teaching--"

"--which you lost again within your first week back."

Anthony thought this over. "Okay, maybe it did kind of suck."

"That's right," Timothy said. "And that's why I've decided to do my cleansing ritual here."

"Go for it!" Jake called out. "What's the plan?"

"First, I'm going to need to borrow your lighter, Anthony."

Anthony automatically started to reach for his pocket, then stopped and peered at him with suspicion. "Why?"

Expression completely neutral, Timothy replied, "I'm going to burn everything in here. Right now."

Pulling his hand away from his pocket, Anthony took a step closer to Timothy. "I strongly advise against that."

"Why not?"

"Because you're talking about committing arson!"

Timothy crossed his arms and glared. "Oh, so now you're squeamish about breaking the law?"

Anthony groaned. "Look, destroying that crutch and breaking and entering are one thing. If you light this stuff up, the entire unit, plus possibly a good deal of the facility, could go up in flames along with it! Possibly including us!"

"Yeah!" Jake added. "And the fire department gets really annoyed with you when you set stuff on fire." He gulped. "Not that I would know, of course."

Ignoring him, Timothy jabbed his finger at Anthony. "I helped you with your cleansing ritual!" he protested. "The least you can do is help me with my own demons!"

"Not if it means mass destruction and maybe even loss of life!" Anthony insisted.

"Anthony, give me that lighter this instant!" Timothy yelled, holding out his hand.


He stomped his foot and threw his head back, howling, "Stop trying to tell me what I can and can't do, Janet!" He froze, then covered his mouth and stared at Anthony with wide eyes. "Oh, my."

Anthony put an arm around Timothy shoulders and quietly said, "Maybe it's not the OK to Cry Corral you're mad at."

Timothy let out a long, shuddering sob and replied, "I'm so sorry, Anthony. Of course you're right. Setting all of these things on fire won't actually solve my problems."

"So you're not going to burn everything?" Jake asked. Timothy shook his head. "Great! Then can I have this cardboard cactus?"

"Um...sure." As Jake being dragging the six-foot-tall cactus out of the clutter, Timothy turned back to Anthony. "This stuff isn't what's holding me back, is it? It's Janet."

Anthony looked at him warily. "If I say yes, are you going to light her on fire?"

"No, I'm going to break it off with her. I should have done it a long time ago, but somehow I just didn't have enough confidence in myself to do it." He chuckled darkly. "Maybe I've got self-esteem issues." Nodding to himself, he continued, "But my mind is made up now. I'm going to tell her that it's over, and this time for good."

"That's the spirit!" Anthony pounded him on the back, prompting a pained wince from the other man. "You can do it!"

Jake took a break from trying to free the cactus and leaned in close to Anthony. "You think he's really going to go through with it?" he murmured.

"Not a chance."

The three men (and the cactus) emerged from the storage shed just in time to see the sun start to emerge on the horizon. "Look at that," Timothy said in an awed hush. "A brand new day, and it brings along with it a new chance at healing and growth."

"And a new chance to get some sleep," grumbled Anthony with a badly-suppressed yawn.

"And a new chance to--oh crap!" Jake cried out. "I told Helen I'd be back in an hour!"

"Really? How long ago was that?" Anthony asked.

Jake checked his watch. "Just over ten hours ago." He cringed. "Helen's going to kill me."

"Look on the bright side," Anthony suggested. "You're bringing home a seven-foot-tall cardboard cactus as a surprise. She's sure to love it."

"You think so?" Jake asked hopefully.


Timothy finished locking the storage unit and rubbed his eyes wearily. "I think it's time for all of us to head home."

Jake nodded and began hauling the cactus down the road toward his house. "I've got a relationship to try to salvage."

"And I've got one to end," Timothy added, heading in the direction of his apartment.

Anthony waved at them both and began walking, too. "And I've got..." he said, thinking for a minute, "...two months before I have to face that brain-dead quarterback for yet another round of pointlessness."

As he walked down the street, he pulled a small chunk of wood out of his pocket. It was a piece of the Tommy Sherman Memorial Crutch. Maybe it'll be my lucky charm against the moron. He began tossing it in the air and catching it. And if not, I can always shove it down his worthless throat.

And with that happy thought, he whistled the rest of the way home.

Thank you to RLobinske for beta reading.