The following short story is based on characters created and/or copyrighted by Glenn Eichler, Susie Lewis Lynn, and MTV. All other characters were created and copyrighted by Roland Lowery.

The author gives full permission to distribute this work freely, as long as no alterations are made and the exchange of monetary units is not involved. Any questions, comments, suggestions, or complaints should be sent to esn1g(at)yahoo(dot)com. Thank you.

"I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn."
-Albert Einstein

by Roland 'Jim' Lowery

With a jaunty step and slight smile in place, Ted walked up to the front door of the house and pressed the buzzer. The light sound of chimes filtered through the wood of the door as he stepped back, put his free hand down at his side, and waited patiently for someone to answer.

Only seconds later, the door opened to reveal a middle-aged woman wearing a casual business suit and peering at him through half-moon lenses. Her curly auburn hair was pulled up into a tight but slightly messy bun, and her smile was wide and generous.

"Why, hello there, young man," she said in a lightly accented voice that matched the subtle hints of Jewish heritage in her facial features. "You must be Mr. DeWitt-Clinton, am I right?"

Ted adjusted his own glasses and then bowed slightly at the waist. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "You may call me Ted, if you wish. Is your daughter ready for her first session?"

"Oh, of course, of course, come on in!" She stepped back from the door and allowed him to pass before shutting it and calling up the stairs. "She's just been dying to get started," she told Ted cheerfully as they waited. "She started picking out a dress almost two hours ago, so she should be ready by now."

Ted held his polite face with practiced ease. Though he had been out and about in the world for a few years after having been home-schooled for so long, there were still a few odd habits held by other people that still either surprised or confused him, but he had learned to hide that confusion in certain social instances. Why some women needed such long periods of time to pick out just the right outfit for even the simplest of occasions was still a mystery to him, but he took some solace in the fact that most other males he had met couldn't understand it either.

It seemed that two hours had indeed been sufficient, however, as Tiffany Blum-Deckler slowly made her way down the stairs a few moments later. Though she wasn't wearing a formal gown or the like, the teal dress that she had picked out was definitely classier than a simple tutoring session required. Still, Ted wasn't about to say anything, since he was wearing what most people would have considered two parts of a three-piece business suit. For him it was simply walking-around clothes.

As she stepped off the last stair, she glanced at her mother and then stared blankly at Ted. Her expression didn't seem to betray anything, her almond eyes a perfect study of vague blankness, as they had been the entire walk down. Ted noticed only the slightest of changes when Mrs. Blum-Deckler threw an arm around her daughter and hugged her tightly against her side.

"There she is!" the older woman fairly squealed. "My little girl, all ready to get those last few grades up so she can graduate next year!"

Ted suppressed a frown. He had seen Tiffany's grades from her previous attempt to graduate, and "last few" was a serious understatement. Out loud he said, "Thank you, Mrs. Blum-Deckler. Do you mind if we use the kitchen for our lessons?"

She released Tiffany and pointed down the hallway. "Oh, of course not! It's that way, second door on your left."

"Thank you, ma'am," he said as he began to steer Tiffany down the hall. He stopped when they were almost at the door and he noticed Tiffany's mother was following them. He stopped, turned around, and looked at her quizzically, but still smiling.

"Is there something you need from the kitchen, ma'am?" he asked.

Mrs. Blum-Deckler's expression rapidly shifted from surprise to being flustered to polite annoyance. "Well, no," she said, "I was just going to-"

"I'm afraid that I must insist that Tiffany and I be allowed to conduct our lesson without distractions," he told her firmly. "She is in good hands, Mrs. Blum-Deckler. There is no reason to worry, and I assure you that things will proceed smoothly without the need for additional supervision."

"I don't know," she said dubiously, "that Sorenson boy didn't really-"

"I am not David Sorenson, ma'am."

"Oh! You know him?" she asked, startled.

Ted nodded almost imperceptibly. "Yes, ma'am. He was a fine tutor in his own way, but he had a tendency to give up too easily." His eyes hardened a bit behind his glasses. "I do not."

Mrs. Blum-Deckler chewed on her bottom lip, caught in a moment of indecision. After looking back and forth between the blank stare of her daughter and the steady expression of the tutor, she finally shrugged and said, "Meh, I've got some papers I should be working on upstairs, why not? I better get to it anyway. Have fun learning, sweetheart!"

Once she was gone, Ted allowed himself a small sigh of relief. He hated confrontations like that and they took some measure of an emotional toll, but he had already learned from his previous tutoring jobs that an overbearing parent in the room - no matter how well-intentioned - only caused problems. Satisfied that disaster had been averted, he resumed following Tiffany into the kitchen.

Several notebooks and a few textbooks sat neatly aligned on the kitchen table along with an array of writing utensils and other small schoolwork related items. Ted got the feeling that Tiffany's mother had been the one to set everything up, as Tiffany sat down and stared at the display as if she'd never seen anything like it before.

Ted sat next to her, set his bookbag down, and began to pull out his own texts and tools. "I suppose we should make proper introductions," he said once he was done. "I'm Ted DeWitt-Clinton, and I will be your tutor for the evening."

The young woman eventually shook his proffered hand and droned out, "Iiiiiiiii'm Tiffanyyyyyyyyyyy."

"Hello, Tiffany, it's nice to meet you," he said politely, then picked up the syllabus he had typed out the previous day. "Now, from what I've gathered, you are in need of improvement in several fields of study if you want to graduate next year. Normally, I would be trying to help you through summer school, but I see your parents have decided not to go that route. On the plus side, this will give us extra time to work on getting you caught up with the rest of the class. So, no pressure . . . which I can say without irony! Heheh!"

Tiffany simply blinked back at him without any sign of comprehension. He cleared his throat and checked the paper again. "I believe we'll start simply today with a little bit of world history. What do you say?"


"We'll start with one of my favorite periods, World War I!" he said enthusiastically as he picked out one of the history texts on the table and turned it to the appropriate chapter. "A time of great unrest in several theaters across Europe, Russia, and Africa, in which a tangled web of alliances brought civilization into an explosive conflict that many believed would be the last the world would ever see! If you would please, begin reading aloud from right here."

Tiffany's eyes scanned the page until she hit upon the sentence that Ted was pointing to. After he removed his hand from the page, she started reading in a slow, deliberate tone.

"'World War Oooooooooone begaaaaaaan in Auuuuuuguuuuust of Niiiiiineteeeeeen-Fooooooourteeeeeeeen and was heraldeeeeed by many factoooooooooors. These incluuuuuudeeeed but were not limiteeeed tooooooo . . . imperialismmmmmmmmmm . . . nationalismmmmmmmm . . . a complex web of alliiiiiianceeeeeees . . . and militarismmmmmmmmmm. In this chapteeeeeeer . . . '"

Ted settled back in his chair and closed his eyes as he listened to the monotone recitation of who had been allied with who and how the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand had caused the powder keg those alliances had represented to go up in flames. Every once in a while, he would find his mind drifting, paying attention more to how Tiffany was saying things than exactly what she was saying, and he had to draw himself out of it to make sure she was reading everything right.

Still, a small part of his brain turned her slow speech patterns over and over, poking at the situation, trying to figure it out. There was something slightly familiar about it, but he couldn't quite place what it was.

Once she had reached a decent stopping point, Ted opened his eyes and sat forward. "Thank you," he said brightly, "I think that will be enough for the moment. So, Tiffany, what do you think about the causes behind the first World War?"

The girl glanced to the side and shrugged. "I dunnoooooooo," she said. "It's all complicateeeeeeeeeed. Why do I have to read this stuff for anywaaaaaaaaaay? I thought yooooooou were supposed to teach meeeeeeeeeee."

"Indeed I am," he said with a nod. "And one of the ways I intend to do that is to help you teach yourself. One of the great cornerstones of learning is possessing good study habits. Reading and comprehension of what you've read are necessary parts of the process, as you won't always have a teacher standing over you, making sure you're getting everything you need to know. Do you understand?"

After a few moments, Tiffany shook her head. Ted was about to try and elaborate when she abruptly said, "Does this dress make me look faaaaaaaaaat?"

Ted was somewhat taken aback by the sudden non-sequiteur. He glanced down for a moment, then said, "No, it doesn't. Now, Miss Blum-Deckler, if you think of studying like-"

"What about my mascaraaaaaaaaaa?" she interrupted.

He frowned slightly and looked at her eyes, noticing for the first time just how much makeup she had on. "No, it looks fine," he said. "Anyway, as I was saying-"

"I got these new heeeeeeeels todaaaaay," she cut through again with her monotone voice. "They were on saaaaaaaaaale."

The conversation came to a halt as the two of them stared at each other. There were still so many social interactions that Ted didn't fully understand, and he was beginning to wonder if his current difficulties were yet another result of his social ignorance.

"I tell you what," he finally said, "let's just go back to learning by doing, shall we? This is just our first day, and as I said before, there's no pressure. We'll just take it easy for now. Continue reading aloud from where you left off, please."

Tiffany nodded absently, turned back to the text, and dutifully began to read it off in her deep, breathy tone. Ted leaned back and closed his eyes once again, this time ignoring the words completely and simply listening to soothing drone of the young woman's voice until it was time for him to leave.

The Tiffany in the bathroom mirror stared back at her.

Her eyes were almost completely unreadable, even for her. Concern, surprise, unhappiness, excitement . . . all of them caused small changes, especially around her eyebrows, but for most part, it was just the same slack non-expression that she and everyone around her had so gradually become accustomed to.

That Ted boy hadn't become accustomed to it yet, but she felt certain that he would. Everyone did, and then they wrote her off as stupid. He would leave, just like that David boy. She would probably fail twelfth grade yet again. She would probably drop out and try to get her GED. She would probably end up becoming some trophy wife for a rich husband.

And that would be okay. It didn't really matter.

She was stupid.

Ted paced back and forth in the living room of his apartment.

He had known tutoring wouldn't be an easy job. Teaching those who either had trouble learning or simply refused to learn was frustrating, but he believed that everyone deserved an education, and besides, it helped pay the bills. His job at the newspaper was fairly low-grade, but it was the best he could find right off the bat.

He stopped pacing, sighed, and rubbed a hand across his face. It was the best he could find because he hadn't been actively looking for a job that soon anyway. He was supposed to be-

But it hadn't happened that way. Due to decisions that he sometimes considered regretting, he was still in Lawndale, and he had dedicated himself to helping others avoid that fate themselves. There were better things out in the world, and he was going to help Tiffany Blum-Deckler find those things.

But how? he asked himself.

Two weeks containing four more sessions since that first day had passed, and Tiffany had made no progress whatsoever. She didn't seem to be capable of remembering any of the information that she had taken in on previous lessons, and her grasp of what she had already managed to learn from school was tenuous at best.

She had no problem with dictating what she was reading, pronouncing words correctly and keeping the grammar intact, but she continued to saw her way through each sentence like a lumberjack sawing through a redwood log. Slow, methodical, and with a repetitive burring sound. Ted was already starting to wonder if the droning sound of her voice would eventually drive him mad, particularly since something about it seemed so awfully familiar.

I could probably handle it at least if she was only-

Ted stopped mid-thought and stared wide-eyed at nothing in particular. "That's it . . . " he said quietly to himself.

With an excited grin, he ran over to his computer, opened the internet browser, and started rapidly opening pages.

" . . . and when X is divided by fiiiiiiiiiiive, the variable integeeeeeeeer will-"

"So, how long have you been a stutterer?" Ted asked suddenly.

Tiffany looked up from the textbook in front of her. For the first time since they had met, Ted thought he could see some sort of real emotion bubbling up from inside her. He was saddened but not horribly surprised to note that it looked like fear.

She lowered her head and cut her eyes to the side. "I don't stutteeeeeeeeeeer," she said quietly.

Ted tilted his head down so he could look her in the face, then gave her a gentle, sympathetic smile. "We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to," he said. "Maybe it was a bit rude and presumptuous of me. Would you like to continue with the lesson?"

With a hand that shook only slightly, Tiffany reached up and ran her fingers along the page, trying to find where she had left off. Seeing this, Ted felt a sharp pang of guilt and wondered if perhaps he had made a bad decision after all. When she lowered the hand and her body spasmed with the attempt to suppress a sharp sob, that feeling became even more acute.

"Oh, no," he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry! Really, I am! I shouldn't have said anything. I'm sorry."

Tiffany shook her head violently at this, sending her glossy black hair flying. She sniffled, then looked up at him with eyes threatening to spill over with tears.

"Iiiiiiii don't stutteeeeer . . . anymoooooooore," she said. "Buuuuuuuuut . . . "

"You know there's something still wrong," Ted finished for her. She nodded and looked back down. "Do you want to talk about it?"

She nodded again, took a deep breath, then said, "After I was adooopteeeed, my moooooom sent me to a doooooctooooor. He saaaaaid he could help me stop stuuuutteriiiiiiiing. He taaaaaught me to talk slooooowlyyyyyy, and it helped me stoooooooop."

"It's a fairly common technique," he said. "You think about each word before you say it to help smooth out the brain/mouth disconnect. But that's just for use in the speech therapy sessions. After you get that down, you're supposed to learn to gradually speed up to something closer to a standard speech pattern. What happened?"

"My moooooooom," she told him. "When I stopped stuuuutteriiiiiiing, she said I was fiiiiiiiine and we stopped goooooiiiiing."

Ted grimaced, having suspected as much. Even after having been firm with her the first day of tutoring Tiffany, Mrs. Blum-Deckler still had a habit of trying to muscle her way into the sessions and give advice on how her daughter should be taught. He had been considering raising the price of his services in protest, and hearing about the cancellation of speech therapy made him feel even more inclined to do so.

"Did you want to stop going?" he asked.

"Nooooooo," Tiffany said sadly, shaking her head. "But she saaaaaaid it was for the beeeeeeeest . . . "

Ted took in a deep breath and expelled it. He had figured it had been something like that, but he'd still hoped he would be able to avoid saying what he was about to say.

"Sometimes . . . " he told her in a soft voice, "sometimes mothers are wrong about what's best."

She looked up at him, tears trickling down her face, as he continued.

"I was accepted into Crestmore University my senior year," he said. "I don't know if you've heard of it, but it's a very tough school with very high expectations of their students, meaning it's extremely difficult to get in, especially if you don't have a high track record of extra-curricular activities. Well, since I was home-schooled most of my life, a lot of my extra-curriculars either weren't appropriate for a transcript or simply went unrecorded for one reason or another. I was able to get on with the yearbook staff and later the school newsletter when I transferred to Lawndale, but it wasn't quite enough to make me fully eligible.

"But they took me anyway, based purely on my academic achievements. It seemed their board had done their research and concluded that if I had been at the public school the entire time, I would have easily beaten Jodie Landon for the position of valedictorian. I was not only accepted, I would have gotten a rather hefty scholarship to go along with it."

"Woooooooow," Tiffany said, eyes wide. "Did you goooooooooo?"

Ted's expression soured slightly. "My parents hadn't liked the idea of me going to a public school in the first place," he told her, "and they were definitely against the idea of me getting pumped through a cookie-cutter university. They were afraid I'd come out the other side as a completely different person, indistinguishable from all the other shallow people in the world.

"What I didn't realize at first and what they still don't realize is that people outside of their bubble aren't that shallow. Not all of them. I've met some amazing people with a great deal of depth to them, a fact I only stumbled upon when I discovered that despite all I had been taught, intelligence did not automatically equal depth, and that just because some people focus on different things than I do doesn't mean they're any worse than I am.

"Anyway," he said, shaking his head to clear it, "the point is that they didn't want me to go. And so, in order to please them, I didn't. And here I am a year later tutoring kids on the side of working a menial mail room job so I can have enough money to keep the lights on at my apartment. I know my parents meant well, but . . . sometimes meaning well doesn't lead to what's actually best."

A long silence stretched out after he'd finished talking. Feeling emotionally exhausted from having shared so much, he simply sat and watched Tiffany as - to his surprise and delight - she actually seemed to be thinking over what he had said. Her eyes were truly alive for what seemed to be the first time, and her mouth creased downward at the edges from time to time from the intensity of her concentration.

"How did you knooooooow?" she finally asked. "That I used to stutteeeeeeeeeer?"

"I didn't at first," he explained, "though in retrospect it should have been obvious. Though the repetition of sounds is one of most common forms of stuttering, some people merely stretch out certain sounds in words, such as saying 'nnnnnnnnnnnnice' instead of just 'nice'. It's usually consonants instead of vowels like with you, but I figured it was still a possibility. Still, that along with the fact that you speak so slowly the rest of the time had me considering the half-finished speech therapy angle, though I wasn't sure about it until you told me.

"What cemented the idea for me, however, was the fact that you have a stock group of sentences you say from time to time, particularly asking if something makes you look fat. I might have dismissed this as mere self-confidence issues, but over the past few weeks it's seemed to me that you primarily pull those stock phrases out when a conversation gets out of your comfort zone, like you're afraid you might start stuttering if you don't steer clear of more complicated speech."

"You aaaaare smaaaaaaart," Tiffany said, half embarrassed and half in wonder.

"Thank you," he replied. "And just so you know, I think you're quite fit and that you have nothing to worry about, considering nothing could ever possibly make you look fat."

Wiping away drying tears, the young woman smiled back at him in silent thanks. "Soooooooo," she said, "could yooooooou . . . teach me how to talk betteeeeeeeer?"

Ted rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, now, I've done a little research into the subject," he said doubtfully, "but that's probably something that should be left to a professional . . . "

He trailed off when he saw the desperate look starting to form. Before she even spoke, he knew the objection . . . her mother would never let her. With a grunt of irritation, he also knew that if he broached the subject, it would likely be the end of his time tutoring Tiffany as he and Mrs. Blum-Deckler weren't on the best of terms about his methods. And having just reached what could possibly be a breakthrough point, he wasn't sure he'd want to risk leaving Tiffany to someone else.

He briefly considered trying to borrow some money to help send Tiffany to a speech therapist himself. She was, after all, eighteen years old. As a legally recognized adult, she could go to the therapy without any need for her parents to get involved at all. But he quickly discarded that notion. The only people he could think of to borrow that money from would be his own parents, and he didn't want to involve them in the situation at all.

"Okay," he finally acquiesced. "But not today. We still need to keep on trying with the regular lessons, but I'll talk to your mother about stepping things up, adding a day or two each week to our schedule. Just . . . don't expect too much, okay? I'm not a licensed speech therapist by any means."

Without warning, he suddenly found himself in a tight embrace. He wasn't sure what to do at first, but slowly his tensed muscles began to relax, and he placed one hand on Tiffany's back, briefly returning the hug. The soft skin of her cheek pressed against the side of his neck and her fragrance filled his nose, but what he noticed most about her closeness was the intense feeling of relief that seemed to be radiating from her body. He hadn't been sure what he had been expecting to come from confronting her about her problem, but he was pretty sure this wasn't it.

She sat back after a few moments, wiped her eyes, and the two of them returned to the algebra text.

The Tiffany in the mirror looked back at her with a wide grin

It looked strange to her, but it reflected exactly how she felt. Ever since she had been pulled away from her therapy sessions, she had felt as if she were incomplete, a work in progress that had stopped progressing. The mere idea that she might finally start again filled her with a sense of almost manic contentment, if such a thing were possible. She felt as if she might be able to do anything and, in fact, it had seemed as if the rest of lesson had actually sunk in a bit.

And Ted . . .

Her eyes unfocused as she began to think about Ted. At first she had thought of him as just another brain, just like back at school, but there was something different about him. He didn't look down on her like others did. He didn't make her feel stupid just because he was smart. He didn't lose patience with her like even her friends did sometimes.

And, she had to admit, he had a sort of bookish charm about him. Not that she was considering going out with him or anything. Her friend Quinn had told her what had happened with that David boy, and she wanted to avoid a disaster like that herself.

Still, she figured it wouldn't hurt to fantasize for a moment about running her fingers through his perfectly combed blonde hair.

Ted sat on the couch and tried his best to concentrate on the novel he was reading.

The past few sessions with Tiffany had gone extremely well in his opinion. Though he had had his doubts, he had to admit that she had already shown some minor improvement after a few of the simple speech exercises that he had devised. Their time working on actual schoolwork had shown a definite upswing as well as she stopped concentrating so much on how she was saying things and more on what she was saying and what was being said to her.

But it wasn't the gradual progress that was distracting Ted from his reading. After noticing that he had read the same paragraph five times in a row, he set the book to the side, closed his eyes, and brought the problematic thought to the forefront of his mind.

Immediately he could smell her all over again, the subtle scent of shampoo underlying a perfume reminiscent of roses. And more than that, he felt the tightness of her arms around his shoulders, the warmth of her upper body up against his. He found it somewhat disconcerting that he could pull up the memories of the hug so many weeks after it had happened, especially when Tiffany had not shown any other sign of physical affection toward him since. In fact, she had seemed to be very careful about staying at least a short distance away from him at all times.

He wasn't sure what to do with the feelings he was having. He certainly couldn't act upon them by any means. He was the girl's tutor, a professional relationship only, and he knew it would be horribly inappropriate for him to try and initiate any sort of romantic encounter with her.

No matter how beautiful those once-blank eyes had become after she had let her true personality shine through.

"Amiiiidst the miiists and coldest frooosts, with stoutest wriiists and loudest boooasts, he thuh-uh-rusts his fiiists against the pooosts and still insiiists he sees the guh-ghosts."

"Very good," Ted said approvingly. "Again."

Tiffany took in an uncertain breath and repeated the sentence, slowing down at the points she had stuttered on previously to keep from making the same mistakes. Ted then called for her to repeat it three times in a row, slightly faster each time.

"-he thruusts his fiists aguh-ainst the poosts and still insiists he suh-sees the ghoosts."

Noticing that she had begun to shake visibly with the last repetition, he decided to give her a break. "I think that's enough for the moment," he said. "Would you like something to drink?"

Shaking her head, Tiffany slumped down and almost seemed to want to sink into the bench and disappear completely. Though she had been progressing steadily over time, that progress had been somewhat slow and nerve wracking for the girl. It was one of the reasons that Ted had insisted they start taking their speech lessons outside of her house, with their current session taking place in a secluded section of the local park. Without the chance that Mrs. Blum-Deckler might walk in on them and discover what they were doing, Tiffany wasn't quite as wigged out as she would have been.

But as the tremors became more and more pronounced, it slowly dawned on Ted that she was still entering a critical state. "Hey," he said gently, "it's okay. You did great, and you're getting better all the time."

"Nuh-no!" she cried out, her face twisting up in anger. "I duh-did awful! I'm nuh-never going to geh-get this! I'm juh-just tuh-too stuh-stuh-stuh-STUPID!"

The flash point of meltdown hit, and she threw her arms over her head as she leaned down to hyperventilate between her knees. Ted sat with one hand in the small cooler sitting next to him on the grass and felt panic began to rise in his own chest as he watched Tiffany begin to freak out. Over the past couple of months, she had fortunately only broken down twice, but on both occasions he hadn't had any clue as to what to do about it. Tears dropped down to the concrete walk, and he stared at them, unsure of what to do to stop them.

He cursed himself yet again for not knowing what to do in so many social situations. Sometimes he felt so stupid himself, as if there was some part of human existence he couldn't get and would never be able to get for as long as he lived. Further, it seemed that the more time he spent with Tiffany, the more sharply he felt that way whenever she became distressed.

Logic and rationality, which had for so long been his guiding stars, failed him in this kind of situation. And so he decided finally that the most logical and rational thing to do was to abandon those concepts and just follow his instinct.

Dropping the bottle he had picked up back into the ice, he stood up and walked over to sit down next to the sobbing girl. Without stopping to think about what he was doing, he put a hand on her back and started rubbing it back and forth between her shoulder-blades.

She almost immediately sat back up and pressed her face against the side of his chest. She wrapped her arms around his midsection and clenched tight enough to make his ribs creak. He looked down at her uncomfortably for a moment, then relaxed and put his own arm around her shoulders. The position was a little awkward, but it didn't seem to matter.

"You're not stupid," he murmured softly to her.

"Yes I am!" she bawled into his shirt.

"No, you're not," he insisted. "You just lack self-confidence, is all. I'm not going to lie to you and say you're going to be winning Nobel prizes for physics anytime soon, but you are a bright girl. You've been improving with every lesson, both with your speech and with your studies. I have complete faith that you're going to be ready for the new school year and that you'll graduate with flying colors. It's going to happen."

"Huh-how can you be suh-so sure?"

He squeezed her against him for a moment, then rubbed her shoulder. "Because I believe in you," he said. "At first, it seemed like you might be incapable of learning anything, and quite possibly totally against even trying. But you've come so far, farther than anyone else probably ever thought you could. You will get your diploma, and you will be able to thank them for it without tripping over your words, because I know you can do it."

Soft sobs still came from the girl clasped around him, but they were becoming softer and more infrequent. He wasn't entirely certain if it had been his words that had calmed her or if she had simply run out of steam, but either way he was glad that the episode was coming to a close. He hated seeing her in such emotional pain, and it hurt his heart to think of all the time it might have been building up over the years before they had met.

She shifted her position so that they were sitting more even, then she gave him another quick hug and thanked him before retreating to the far side of the bench. He asked if she was feeling better, and when she answered in the affirmative, he decided they should take the rest of the day off and simply enjoy the natural beauty around them.

But despite his suggestion, he found himself ignoring the sky, the grass, the trees, and the birds flitting amongst the branches. Instead he ran his fingers along the side of the neck where he thought he had felt Tiffany kiss him during their hug, so fast and so gently that he couldn't be sure it had happened at all.

The Tiffany in the mirror looked horrified at what the real Tiffany had done.

Ted was her tutor. Her teacher. And students weren't supposed to hug teachers, and they definitely weren't supposed to try and kiss them. She couldn't for the life of her fathom why she might have done that. No matter what Ted had told her, that move showed that in at least some small way, she was stupid.

It had been a mistake. She wasn't used to being so emotional. She was used to burying her feelings, hiding them away. She had just gotten carried away in the moment, and he had been saying such nice things to her, and he'd been so close . . .

The memory of his arm around her came to her mind unbidden, and she pushed it back down violently.

She had to talk to someone about it. She had to figure out what to do. She knew she was getting better, but she was still very much aware of her limitations. The situation was rapidly spinning out of her control. But who could she talk to? Quinn was already in the process of moving to California so she could start attending Pepperhill in the fall, and for some reason she hadn't spoken to the rest of the ex-Fashion Club for several months. Sandi and Stacy were still nearby, but it had gotten through to even the normally oblivious Tiffany that they were wanting to be left alone for a while.

Thinking on the way she and her friends had drifted apart only served to make matters worse. Her entire life had become something she no longer recognized, and the changes were rushing straight past uncomfortable and entering painful territory.

She didn't know what to do, and the Tiffany in the mirror held no answers for her.

Ted took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

The headache still came, but still he rubbed. Several sessions had come and gone since the almost-kiss, and for a few of those, Tiffany had seemed to shrink back into her shell a little. She'd stuttered less, but only because her speech had begun to slow back down again. She had started having more trouble concentrating on her studies and had seemed more interested in talking about fashion than Francis Bacon. They had both powered through it, however, and she was once again improving.

But at what cost? he thought.

The attraction that the two of them held for each other had become painfully obvious to him. Thinking back on it, he should have seen it coming. Since his liberation from home-schooling, he had taken to watching all kinds of movies that he had missed growing up, including romantic comedies. Though ostensibly comedic for the most part, it seemed to Ted that the major romantic elements popped up more often in sections of the story with emotionally-charged drama.

And trying to teach Tiffany had definitely ended up being emotionally-charged drama, which seemed to be helping along their romantic feelings, but then that started interfering with teaching her, which caused more emotionally-charged drama, and so on in a vicious cycle. Avoiding their feelings for each other seemed to help break that cycle . . . but then doing so caused Ted's heart to ache.

The logical and the emotional sides of him warred with each other. He knew that he had to continue teaching her properly, that he had to maintain a professional attitude toward her, or she could end up a high school dropout and worse off than how he had found her. But he also knew that they felt something for each other, he so dearly wanted to give that something a chance, and he was afraid that if he waited, it might eventually disappear without a trace.

He had to talk to her about it. He had to. But not yet. There were just a couple of weeks before Tiffany went back to Lawndale High to give her senior year a second try. They had to concentrate on getting her ready.

He only hoped that he would be able to keep going that long.

"'He wrote hurriedly, in scrabbling handwriting: When I saw her in the light she was quite an old woman, fifty years old at least. But I went ahead and did it just the same. He pressed his fingers against his eyelids again. He had written it down at last, but it made no deh-'"

Tiffany looked up in terror, but Ted merely gave her a reassuring nod and motioned for her to continue. She nodded back and quickly found her place again.

"'-but it made no deh-difference. The therapy had not worked. The urge to shout filthy words at the top of his voice was as strong as ever.'"

Looking slightly relieved, she closed the copy of George Orwell's 1984 she had been reading aloud from for the past few sessions. Her diction and clarity had taken great strides forward, partially due to the work she had Ted had put in, but he was well aware that if the foundation for it hadn't already been set years beforehand, they still would have been where they had been months back.

As it was, even though she was able to speak much more quickly than she had before, her tone was still monotonous and deliberate, a trait that he had warned her she might always have. She also still had the occasional stutter, and it clearly annoyed her.

"Don't worry about it," Ted told her warmly. "Just remember that not everyone can speak perfectly. Most people stumble over the occasional word, and it's no big deal. If you just keep going as if nothing happened, then I assure you that no one is even going to notice. All getting flustered will do is make you stutter more, which will make you more flustered. If you have a slip-up, just stay calm and everything will be alright."

She nodded gratefully. "Thank you," she said. "For . . . everything."

"You're welcome," he returned, then pointed at the book. "You can keep that, by the way. I've got two more copies at my place."

She laughed and thanked him again as they stood and started walking to the park's edge. It felt good to hear her laugh, a sound that had become more genuine and more frequent over the past week. Her progress had taken leaps and bounds forward as she threw herself into every assignment he handed her, and he felt that she could never be more ready for the first day of school, a mere two days away.

As they walked, she slid her arm around his, another event that had been making more appearances. It did make Ted slightly uncomfortable, but he had managed not to say anything for fear that it might cause a relapse in Tiffany's attitude. So much could change from saying just the wrong thing, he knew.

But with the conclusion of their last tutoring session before the start of the school year, he also knew that it was time to say something, whether it was wrong or otherwise. Once they reached the sidewalk running along the length of the park, he pulled his arm from hers and turned so they were facing each other.

"Tiffany, we need to talk."

Her latte-colored skin nearly drained of blood, but all she said was a strained "Okay."

"I know how you feel about me," he said, taking her hands into his. "And I'm pretty sure you know I feel the same way."

Her hands hung like limp rags on the end of sticks. All of her concentration was locked onto his eyes, and she looked almost like a statue. Inhaling a deep breath, he pushed on.

"I'm going to be honest. This isn't the first relationship I've been in. I dated a girl back in high school for a short time, though 'dated' may be a bit strong. I'm pretty sure that's how she saw it, but I was still locked in my own little world back then, completely head over heels about the outside world over everything else. And then later, for a few months before graduation, I was seeing a boy on the football team. That one didn't work out because I was concentrating so hard on my studies so I could get into a good college.

"Even with the huge number of two significant others under my belt, I know you're a lot more experienced than I am in the whole dating scene. Everybody at Lawndale knew about the Fashion Club, I think. But I think that what we might have could be something bigger and better than either of us has ever had. Please, correct me if I'm wrong."

"No," Tiffany said, her eyes watering up, then she shook her head slightly. "I mean, no, you're not wrong. No one has ever been as kind to me as you have. I thu-thought at first it was just because you're my tutor and you're supposed to care about everyone you teach, like Mr. O'Neill but not as creepy . . . but you've done so much for me. Even muh-more than you were getting paid to do. Buh-but . . . "

"Yes, 'but'," Ted echoed sadly. "We may not be doing these lessons as often as we have been this summer, but I'll still be tutoring you through at least the first semester and possibly a bit of the second, making sure you're still keeping up with your study habits and really learning the material. I really want to be the one to help you with that, but in order for me to do so-"

"We can't be together," finished Tiffany, a tear falling across her cheek.

Ted nodded slowly. "You need to concentrate on school right now, and I don't want to be a distraction from that. I know that things might end up like they did with Robert and me, but I won't be the reason you fail twelfth grade a second time. I cannot allow that to happen. Do you understand?"

"No, I don't understand at all," she said, tears flowing freely now. "I don't understand why it has to be like this. If I were just smuh-smarter, if I could find someone to teach me that's as smart as you . . . it's just not fair."

He drew her close, taking her into his arms.

"I'll wait for you," she said, holding him tight. "All year. Even longer if I have to. I'll wait for you."

He wanted to tell her that she shouldn't make promises she might not be able to keep. He wanted to tell her that at the end of the school year, she would have forgotten all about him. He wanted to tell her so many things to keep her from holding false hope, from believing in something that would probably never happen.

But in the end, he told her the only thing he could stand to tell her.

"I'll wait for you, too."

Tiffany wanted to scream at the Tiffany in the mirror.

She wanted to tear that other Tiffany down, smash her across the counter, and scatter her all across the floor.

Seeing Ted every other week was tearing her up inside. All she wanted was to reach across the table and touch him, but she couldn't. Instead, she concentrated on the work he assigned her, bottled up her feelings, and then shoved them like a psychic knife at her own reflection.

It wasn't as cathartic as one might think.

Tired of the nasty glare that the mirror Tiffany was giving her, she left the bathroom to go lay on her bed, imagine what Ted's lips might feel like, and cry herself to sleep.

Ted paced.

And paced.

And paced.

And paced.

And paced.

"Tiffany Blum-Deckler!"

The girl jumped a little at the sound of her name being pumped through the amplifiers sitting on the tiny stage. Her thoughts, so engrossing mere moments ago, scattered aimlessly as she drew herself up from her seat and made her way up to where Principal Harrison was waiting to hand over her diploma.

Just before taking the first step up, she looked over at the stands of the football field and found her parents sitting halfway up, waving their hands wildly and cheering. She waved back briefly and considered scanning the rest of the seats for the tenth or eleventh time, but that wouldn't make the person she really wanted to see magically appear.

Principal Harrison handed over the rolled up document with her name on it while simultaneously shaking her other hand. It was a maneuver that she had thought had looked strange and unwieldy from her seat amongst the other students, and she was unsurprised to find that it felt just as strange and unwieldy in action as well.

She also reflected that around that time the previous year, she never would have given something like that a second thought, purely due to her general obliviousness to everything around her.

But despite her old shortcomings, she had done it. She had graduated high school against all odds. With the tassel on her hat moved to the other side and diploma in hand, she stepped down from the stage and walked back down to her seat. She brooded as she waited impatiently for the ceremony to finish up.

She hadn't seen him in almost three months. His visits had become more and more infrequent as the school year had worn on, mostly due to her continued improvement in all areas. When it became evident that his services were no longer needed, he had stopped showing up entirely. Tiffany had cried herself hoarse every night during the week after his last visit.

On a few rare occasions, she had tried to find him. She had checked the phone book, but he either didn't have a phone or it was unlisted. Her parents were of no help whatsoever. Just as she had thought might be the case, her mother didn't want her having anything to do with him after he had finished with the tutoring. She had been apoplectic when she'd learned he had been giving Tiffany speech lessons behind her back and had point-blank refused to give any information she might have had concerning his whereabouts or how to contact him.

Her heart threatened to tear in two as the thought that he may have forgotten about her crossed her mind. She had stayed away from other boys. She had stuck to her studies. She had improved her grades. She couldn't stand the possibility that after having done all that, he would be taken away from her. It would be unspeakably cruel.

The graduation finally wound down, ending when all of the students stood and tossed their caps into the air. Carefully retrieving hers from amidst all the stomping feet, Tiffany tucked it under her arm and started walking over to the bleachers. To her surprise, she was intercepted by two young women, one of whom squealed and glomped onto her in a huge hug.

"You did it you did it you did it!" Stacy screamed, her voice blaring in Tiffany's ear and her leather collar digging slightly into Tiffany's neck.

"Congratulations, Tiffany," Sandi said in a surprisingly sincere tone as she joined the embrace. "I knew you could do it."

"Thanks, you guys," said Tiffany as they all stepped back. "I'm glad you managed to make it. Is Quinn . . . ?"

Stacy looked crestfallen while Sandi seemed to regain a small measure of her old imperious air. "I am afraid not," the stately brunette told her. "Though I'm quite sure she sends her regards from Pepperhill."

"Oh, but speaking of which," Stacy interjected, trying to sound upbeat, "now that you've graduated, what college are you going for?"

"I . . . hadn't really thought about it," Tiffany admitted. "I've just been concentrating so hard on getting here that I haven't had the time to decide what to do next."

"Oh, well, I'm sure you'll figure something out," Stacy said, waving her hand in the air. "Anyway, I think your parents are waiting for you, so hey! We'll talk later, right?"

Tifanny smiled and nodded. "Sure," she said. "I'd like that."

Moments after leaving her two friends behind, Tiffany was covered in hugs and kisses from her over-enthusiastic mother while Mr. Blum-Deckler stood aside and beamed at her. All together, the three of them walked along the side of the football field, slowly making their way over to the parking lot and talking about how great it was that she was finally all grown up and ready to go out into the world.

Tiffany found the whole thing emotionally exhausting in the extreme. Meeting with her friends and the adulation of her parents was nice in its own way, but she was starting to feel overwhelmed by all of it. Once they were at the edge of the field, Tiffany asked her parents if it was okay if she took just one last look around on her own before leaving.

The sentimentality of the request was at just the right level, and her mother tearfully gave her okay. She and Mr. Blum-Deckler moved off, leaving her behind to stare out at the rapidly emptying field. After only a few minutes, the only people left besides herself were a couple of custodians busying themselves with breaking down the stage and collecting the chairs on the fifty yard line.

The sound of cars revving up and pulling out of the lot behind her filled the evening air. The sun was settling down for the night, searing the sky in the distance several shades of yellow and red, leaving the rest a burnt combination of black and hazy purple.

It was a night of endings, she reflected, and wondered if school and the day were the only things coming to a close at that moment.

She turned around and was startled to see someone standing behind her. He looked back at her with a mingled expression of hope and trepidation behind small wire-rimmed glasses. His blonde hair was combed back meticulously, and he was wearing what looked to be two-thirds of a three-piece suit under his jacket.

"Hi," he said, somewhat lamely.

Tiffany swallowed hard and tried to catch hold of the snaking line of emotion that was suddenly curling and slithering its way through her chest.

"Hi," she returned, somewhat huskily.

"I'm sorry I'm late," he said, then stopped to clear his throat nervously. "I had to . . . anyway, I'm sorry."

She took a hesitant step forward. "That's okay," she said.

"Oh, good. Good." He began to fidget a little. "But I'm here now. And that's good. That I'm here." He coughed again, then finished, " . . . right?"

She stepped forward again, then again, quickening her pace until she rushed forward and flung herself into his arms. They embraced tightly, relief washing over both of them as they poured themselves into the moment, and then their lips touched in a sweet yet passionate kiss.

It had been worth the wait.


Roland 'Jim' Lowery

August 19, 2010