He was considered one of the toughest guys on the campus of Fond du Lac High School.

Not that that was particularly a tough thing. Growing up in a town with a whopping population of 50,000, you tended to get noticed. Especially if you had been the fat kid in elementary school, got sent off to military school in fourth grade for punching a girl, and when you came back after junior high, every girl in town was all over you.

But, not only was he one of the toughest of the Fighting Cardinals, but out of the class of 1991, if you ranked all the seniors on a scale of 1 to 10, John was pretty much The Shit. He had an IROC Camaro – and it had a CD player! – and a different girl rode off in it with him pretty much every day.

He had played strong safety on the varsity football team, and had been on his way to a third consecutive All State selection and a football scholarship to Ohio State when a knee injury had brought his football career to a grinding halt. The Air Force was apparently still interested in him, however, as they had offered to send him to Wisconsin-Madison on an ROTC scholarship.

Toward mid-April, John was surprised to be called to the office one day. For all his toughness, he was generally a pretty well-behaved guy, his worst offenses usually being leaving rubber trails in the parking lot.

"I was called to the office?" he asked the attendant when he entered. She just pointed off to the side, at the conference room.

John entered the conference room, not sure what to expect. He was somewhat surprised to see a red-haired woman inside, wearing a USAF uniform.

"John Casey?" she asked.

"Yes ma'am," he replied.

"I'm Lieutenant Colonel Beckman. Can we talk for a moment?"

He was frustrated. Incredibly frustrated.

This advanced placement anatomy class was kicking his ass. March of 1996, two months to go till graduation, and if he didn't get his ass in gear, he wasn't going to graduate with honors.

Not graduating with honors was not an option. His parents had made clear that after all the money that Notre Dame High School had received from them, he was sure as HELL going to graduate with honors.

"Dr. Weisman, I just don't know what's wrong. I look at these charts of bones, of muscles, I just can't keep them straight in my head. And I have to. I've got to get at least a B in your class, or I'm a dead man."

"Devin, let's not exaggerate too much. I understand you're concerned, but a C is not the end of the world."

"Have you met my parents, Dr. Weisman?"

Dr. Weisman sighed, and removed his glasses. Rubbing his temples, he thought for a moment.

"Alright, Devin. One of my colleagues, Dr. Rathouse, over at Harvard-Westlake, has a junior in his AP Anatomy course who he says is absolutely brilliant. I can call him and find out if she'd be able to tutor you."

"Thank you, Dr. Weisman! That would be awesome."

Three days later, Devin found himself outside a house in Studio City. He knocked on the door, and it was answered by a kid who looked to be about fourteen years old. He had acne from hell, braces, and a mess of curly brown hair that looked like wild animals perched on top of his head.

"Hi… I'm Devin Woodcomb… is Eleanor here?"

The kid stepped back from the door, and yelled, "Ellie! There's some dude here at the door looking for you!"

A moment later, a stunning brunette appeared in the doorway. The difference in her looks and her brother's was like night and day. "Hi," she said. "I'm sorry about Chuck. He's just being a typical teenage boy."

She stuck out her hand. "I'm Ellie Bartowski. Nice to meet you."

When Ellie woke up that morning in October of 1996, the house was strangely quiet.

As soon as she sat up in her bed, she realized that something was very, very wrong. Her jewelry box was open, and there was a white envelope sitting next to it that said simply, "Eleanor."

She almost panicked when she noticed the jewelry box was open. Then she took a closer look, and realized that nothing was missing, but rather… the engagement ring that her dad had given her mom was sitting in the center of the box.

"What?" she gasped in disbelief. Why was that in her jewelry box?

With trembling hands, she opened the envelope. One sheet of paper was inside, her mother's elegant script covering half of it.

My darling Eleanor,

By the time you read this letter, I will be a great distance away. It tears to the depths of my soul to have to do this – a mother, leaving her children, one of them just a few short months before she graduates high school.

And yet, I have no choice. Circumstances that you don't know about have dictated that I must leave. But in so doing, I must at the same time ensure that your future and your brother's future is somewhat secure.

To this end, I have transferred the full balance of the college savings account that your father set up into your checking account. This should more than cover the remainder of high school tuition both for you and for your brother, and should pay for at least the first year of college for each of you, provided you go to a UC or a Cal State.

I have also taken the necessary steps to ensure that you receive your father's Social Security benefits each month. This isn't much, but hopefully, it will help.

I love you Ellie, and please tell Chuck that I love him too. I will miss you both greatly, and hope that I will someday see you again.



Ellie didn't move for a moment, and then, rage overtook her. She crumpled the letter up into a ball, and with an inarticulate cry, hurled it across the room. She backed into a corner and slowly collapsed, sobbing.

A moment later, her door slowly opened. Chuck poked his head in.

"Ellie? Are you okay? What's going on?"

Ellie wiped her eyes and took a deep breath. "Chuck… Mom's gone."

Chuck Bartowski was greatly enjoying his senior year of high school.

It was good to be a senior, Class of 1999, at Beverly Hills High School. Granted, it wasn't where he'd started high school, but he was quite all right with finishing here. It was like 90210, except it was real.

He'd transferred to BHHS after his sophomore year at Harvard-Westlake. A large part of the reasoning had been so that Ellie wouldn't have to worry about money while she was at UCLA, but a more significant part of it was that he'd needed a place to live, and Ellie's apartment just south of the UCLA campus happened to be within the Beverly Hills Unified School District.

And the best part of all was, he'd just opened the letter saying that he'd been accepted to Stanford. He was going to have to take out student loans up the wazoo to make up the difference between the scholarships and the total cost, but it was STANFORD.

As he was reading over the letter in glee, his polar opposite came stumbling up to the picnic table he was eating lunch at, and slumped onto the opposite bench, dropping his backpack on the ground. "Yo, Chuck."

"Morgan, check this out – I got into Stanford!"

Morgan Grimes took the letter from Chuck and read it over. "That's great, Chuck, it really is," he replied, trying to sound enthusiastic, and failing.

Chuck looked at his best friend with worry. "Dude, are you okay?"

Morgan shook his head. "I got a letter of my own."

He handed over an envelope that said "California State University – Northridge" on the outside. It had clearly been crumpled up, and then unfolded again.

Chuck pulled out the letter.

Dear Morgan,

Having reviewed your application to California State University-Northridge, and having reviewed your academic qualifications, we regret to inform you that we are unable to offer you admission at this time.

It is our hope that you seek out other opportunities for higher education, and that you will re-apply to be a student at CSUN next semester. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact the Office of the Registrar at the number listed below.

Chuck looked back up at Morgan. "Dude, I'm sorry."

Morgan looked like he was about to burst into tears. "The only place that accepted me is L.A. fucking City College."

"Dude, there's nothing wrong with going to a community college," Chuck insisted.

"Easy for you to say, Mr. Stanford."

Chuck sighed. "Come on, Morgan, don't get down on yourself. You're gonna do great things."

"Yeah, right," Morgan shot back.

"I'm gonna be stuck at that goddamn Buy More for the rest of my life at this rate."

Beth Reynolds was one of the top students of the Class of 2000 at Boston Latin School. She had scored a 1540 on the SAT, had a 4.28 GPA going into the final quarter of her senior year, was a varsity cheerleader and an All State softball pitcher, and had been the homecoming queen to boot.

However, for as good as her life at school was, her home life was practically the polar opposite. Her father had served in Desert Storm, had come home with post-traumatic stress disorder, and it showed on a regular basis – only exacerbated by the fact that he refused to retire from the Army. Her mother had dropped into a maelstrom of clinical depression and eating disorders. From time to time, her parents would lock horns with each other, and it usually ended up being an utter disaster.

Beth had sought a refuge from the storm, and had found it not in alcohol, not in drugs, but in sex. Though her reputation with the staff of Boston Latin was set in stone, and her full scholarship to the University of Massachusetts was secure, one single, solitary word followed her around the school:


She couldn't stand it, either. She couldn't bear to think of herself that way, but she knew, deep down, that's what she had become. The fact that, were she to put notches in her bedpost, there would be one for half the members of the varsity football team, among others, simply served to drive that home.

One day, about a month before graduation, a mysterious man named Art Graham had come to see her. He had said he worked for the federal government, and that with her SAT score and the fact that her ASVAB scores were off the charts, his branch was very interested in her coming to work for them.

Beth seriously considered the option. It would give her an escape from Boston, from Massachusetts, from this life, an opportunity to start anew. But at the same time, she couldn't just leave, leave her parents behind, leave the opportunity she had at U-Mass.

She politely declined. He had left his business card with her, along with a code name on the back to give if she should ever be interested.

Beth graduated. She headed off to U-Mass, and was, to an extent, able to put her high school reputation behind her. She sought counseling, started attending meetings for sexual addicts, and by the end of the first semester, had pretty much cut her addiction down to nothing.

Everything was good for the next few months. But then, 9/11 happened, and her father just about went off the deep end. Beth thought about withdrawing from U-Mass for the semester to come home and help make sure everything was alright at home, but her mother had insisted that she stay in school.

Then, during finals week of that semester, her world had shattered. She got a call from her parents' next-door neighbor, telling her she needed to come home, right now.

When she got home, she had discovered her father, nearly catatonic. Two police officers were interviewing him.

It turned out that he had had a earth-shaking argument with her mother the night before. He'd gone out and gotten rip-roaring drunk.

He hadn't come back that night, and in fact, didn't until the early afternoon. When he arrived home, he had found Beth's mother, lying in bed, pale and cold, a half empty bottle of Ambien next to her.

He had immediately called 911, but it was far too late. Beth's mother was gone.

Beth couldn't sleep that night. She couldn't sleep the next night, or the next.

She managed to make it through one more semester at U-Mass, but struggled with insomnia for most of it, and was beginning to flirt with alcoholism by the end of the semester. A change had to be made.

Following her last final that semester, Beth wrote a letter of withdrawal from U-Mass. After dropping it off at the registrar's office, she had dug out the old business card she'd received from Art Graham, and called the number on it.

"May I speak to Art Graham, please?" she'd asked when the operator answered.

"Who may I tell the Director is calling?" the operator replied.

Beth turned the business card over, reading the code name that Graham had written down for her to use.

"Tell him… tell him that this is Sarah Walker."