Rated for language.
Hey readers! It's been a long time since I first started this story, so this is now my second revision. Mostly minor changes. I hope you enjoy the story!
P.S. I don't own the Smiths
Chapter one: The Assignment
"So…um…" Not good. I had no clue what this kid's name was. I shuffled through the stack of papers in front of me, desperately trying to find some helpful bit of information. My hands shook so much that the pages slipped through my fingers.
"Jeremiah!" I finally blurted out. Oh thank God. I clenched the sides of my chair so hard the cheap wood creaked. This was an infuriating waste of time.
Jeremiah slouched down more in his seat, thrusting both legs out in front of him and scowling furiously. "What?" he barked.
Oh Jesus. I was going to mess this up horribly.
It's a simple premise. Have an honest conversation with another human being. Lend an ear to someone who's clearly struggling to be heard. Talk about how to avoid the same mistakes in the future.
I wasn't capable of any of that.
My heart pounded uncomfortably. I couldn't think of a single thing to say to this kid. The Peer Mediator script in front of me was supposed to be a guideline. I was using it more as a shield to protect me from the unmitigated horror that is eye contact. Did he have to scowl so goddamn much? I couldn't stop fixating on the sound of my heartbeat pounding furiously. Was it supposed to skip around like that? Jesus, this stupid peer mediation was actually going to kill me.
My eyes skittered frantically over the words but found nothing I could bring myself to say. This kid was a total delinquent; none of that hippy bullshit about mutual respect and the golden rule would get me anywhere with him.
Why exactly had I thought I would be able to do this? I couldn't even look this guy in the eye, much less gain his trust, maintain a conversation, and help him resolve a complicated conflict.
"So…erm…" there was a long pause. Oh fuck, what to ask him? "Uh, what…inspired you to…to beat up…uh…"
"Casey," he provided mercifully.
I nodded eagerly. "Right, right, Casey. I-I thought that was it, I just…urgh…yep."
He was staring at me like I had decided to divulge a secret obsession with sci-fi action figures.
"So, anyway, why did you beat him up?" Yes! Finally, one complete and nearly coherent sentence. Maybe this would be the beginning of a wonderful new trend.
"Cause he pissed me off." Jeremiah scratched at his nose and stared absently out the window.
"Oh, well that's…erm…um…reasonable. Oh Jesus…" I buried my face in my hands.
"Look, can I get outta here already? Not like you're actually helping anybody."
I sighed. "Sure," I grumbled miserably. My head landed on the desk with a thud. I was in so much trouble.
"Reasonable?! It's reasonable for the punk to beat another student into unconsciousness with a baseball bat? Is that what you think?"
Predictably, I was getting yelled at. The situation could take some explaining. My best friend Macy was the student president of the Peer Mediators' Guild. And about nineteen other, equally uninspiring student organizations. She'd gotten me the position at the beginning of the school year by promising great and lofty things from me, which I thought was a pretty dumb thing to do, as she knew fully well that I had serious problems with new people. Or old people. Any people, really. But then, I had literally begged her to get me the position, so I guess that falls on my head too.
Looking back, I don't even fucking remember why I wanted to do it. Something about good will and a genuine interest in helping people. What an idiot.
Anyway, after the debacle that was my latest Peer Mediation, I'd told Macy the details of my horrible failure. In turn, she'd reported every last shameful adjective back to Mr. Juarez, the school counselor who sponsored the Peer Mediators' Guild.
Thus, I was being bitched out by a man so enraged that the veins in his neck jutted forward like something from a demented children's pop-up book while he assailed me with one insult and criticism after another.
But fair is fair, I suppose. Turnabout, and all that.
"Of course not, sir. Not reasonable at all," I pandered.
"Then why would you tell him that it was? Are you just stupid? Are you too much of a pansy to tell a dumb sophomore, 'It's not nice to hit other children with aluminum bats'? Or maybe you're just a glutton for punishment? It certainly seems that way, seeing as you've horribly botched every mediation I've given you! Is this a joke to you?"
Yeah, Mr. Juarez had anger problems. Which was ironic, considering his career.
That was okay, though. I didn't particularly mind. No one likes being yelled at but I knew that in about twenty minutes he'd completely forget about me. And it would stay that way until I screwed up the next one. What really bothered me was that I knew I would screw up the next one. And that sucks, because it really gets in the way of all that previously-mentioned nonsense about helping people and making a small difference in someone's life.
Suddenly, as if he'd sprung a leak, Mr. Juarez deflated and melted into his seat, head lolling back. He ran one giant hand over his balding forehead, frowning sickly. "What am I going to do with you, Page?"
I was silent, thinking it was just a turn of phrase, and that until he got fed up enough to fire me, he'd do absolutely nothing.
"I'll think of something. Come back tomorrow during your lunch period and I'll have something planned out." He sat back up, folded his hands atop the desk, and glared at me for all he was worth. "Let me be clear: this is your last chance. So few students actually come to us for help that I can't afford to let you keep screwing this up. We're trying to build up a good, proactive reputation. I can't have you crapping all over that. Now, I'll think of something to get you back on track, but if you don't give it your all and make it work, you're out of here. Got it?"
"Yes sir," I responded. Although, honestly, it was hard to take someone who used the word "proactive" seriously.
In any case, I'd been honest in my response. I wanted this. I wanted to help people with their problems. But it seemed that I had to fix my own first. And that was the hard part.
"You listen to troubled kids and talk to them in order to help them work through their stupid little problems," my friend Macy instructed. "What's so difficult about that?"
I sighed. School was out and Macy and I were walking through the massive student parking lot to her car. "I don't know. Maybe it's the claustrophobia, maybe it's the responsibility…maybe it's that shit colored wallpaper…whatever it is, I can't function in there. As soon as I realize I'm alone with a stranger, I just freeze. I clam up like a scared little toddler." I turned to my (very) redheaded friend, silently begging for help. Or at least pity.
"I think even toddlers have the balls to talk to another toddler without passing a brick. You're more like an antisocial mental patient, or a squirrel."
"So now I'm a rodent. Wonderful." I pressed the heels of my hands against my eyes. I wanted this day to end.
"But you know that there's a way to evolve, right?"
She was giving me a headache. "Don't say it!"
"You've got to step outside your comfort zone!"
God I hated that phrase. Comfort zone. I also hated the frequency with which that phrase got thrown in my face. "Macy," I began to whine, but she tactfully interrupted me.
"Shush! You must evolve! You don't want to be a disgusting little rat forever, do you?"
"I thought I was a squirrel."
"Page, work with me here," she begged. I scowled at my shoes. I knew exactly where this conversation would go. She'd accuse me of being scared of life, I'd make some dumb excuse, we'd both get pissed off, and in the end I'd still suck at life and she'd still have a superiority complex the size of Montana. It was a tired little dance between us.
"You've got to live a little, take a chance or two. Jesus, for you, just meeting a few new people or making a new friend would be a gigantic evolutionary leap. Straight up to the primate level!"
"Squirrels are definitely better than rats. They don't have those horrible skinny tails."
"So not the point!"
I frowned and pinched my chin between two fingers. "Really? Cause I think we need to clear up this confusion about exactly what kind of rodent I am before we can move on to making plans for the future. Think about the distinction: lots of people are afraid of rats; that's not true for squirrels. Squirrels are a staple in Disney movies. And they don't live in sewers. And then there are all the diseases-"
"Page! Be serious for once."
I stopped walking and threw my hands down in frustration. "You know what Macy, maybe I'm happy being a rodent. Ever think of that? Maybe I don't want to be a primate or anything else. Besides which, if we were all human, being human wouldn't mean anything. How would you feel all superior if there weren't any rodents to compare yourself to? A 'thank you' wouldn't be completely out of order."
Macy shoved her hands into the pockets of her dress. "How can you think that when you've never even experienced life with opposable thumbs?! All you've ever had are your gross rat claws."
I shook my head. "Alright, this metaphor has been dragged out way too long. The point is that I don't want to change."
Macy sighed and turned to face me. She crossed her arms. "No, the point is that you're too scared to change."
"Well, the end result is the same, okay? I don't want to meet new people, I don't want to evolve, I don't want to think about any of this!"
"Then I guess you don't want to be a Peer Mediator either."
I gave a hefty sigh and reached out for her shoulder, but she jerked out of the way. "Macy-" I began, but she cut me off again.
"No, Page. I stuck my neck out for you because I thought this would be really good for you. You said you wanted to do it and I thought that if you just tried, you could really help people. But you're letting this ridiculous fear of new people get in your way. You haven't made an effort at all; the second the situation gets difficult or uncomfortable, you give up and resign yourself to failure. And now I look like a moron because I'm the president of the organization, and the one new recruit I managed to bring in this year is completely unable to help anyone at all. Even herself."
My eyes floated down to the ground. Ouch. "That's a little harsh, Macy." My voice was calm. A minor miracle.
"I don't get it, Page. You said you wanted this."
"I do want it! I just…You want me to do everything your way, and that just won't work for me."
"I don't want you to do it my way, I just want you to do it."
"I will, I'll just…look, I'll do better next time, okay, Madame President?"
"Well, take it up with Mr. Juarez because I'm not doing damage control for you anymore."
I gave an ungrateful scoff and kept walking. "For your information, I did take it up with Mr. Juarez. He said that tomorrow he's giving me some new assignment to help me become a better mediator."
"Well I hope it works," Macy said and slung her arm over my shoulders. "And I mean that, because if you just learn how, you could really help people."
I flicked some hair out of my eyes. "Right. So, snow cone?" It was the one thing guaranteed to distract Macy when she was on a self-righteous rant.
"Nah, I've got to get home. See you tomorrow."
I was amazed. Honestly, that was the first time I'd ever heard Macy Walker turn down a snow cone. I stood there, dumbfounded, as I watched her walk away. She got into her car and drove off with barely a wave to me. I rubbed my hands over my face and started walking home.
I'd had a really, truly, veritably shitty day. I'd blown another mediation, I'd gotten chewed out by the guidance counselor and my best friend, I'd been denied a snow cone (going to the local snow cone stop alone was just too pitiful, even for me), and now I was going home, alone, with nothing to do except homework.
I plodded home, feeling pretty fucking pathetic.
I slipped silently through my front door, trying to avoid alerting anyone to my presence. I dragged myself upstairs, dropped onto my bed, and blasted The Smiths as loud as my eardrums would healthfully allow.
My stomach expertly tied itself into yet another knot. I was beginning to wonder if it would be able to straighten itself back out after this whole ordeal was over.
I was facing a serious dilemma. It was lunchtime, the next day. On the one hand, Mr. Juarez had asked me to come to his office at this time, and if I wanted to stay in as little trouble as possible, I should probably check in. On the other hand, I'd already settled down to eat my lunch and had gotten quite comfortable out in the courtyard under the warm sun, my back nestled firmly against my favorite tree in the whole damn world.
In all probability, Mr. Juarez had completely forgotten about his plan to straighten out my social woes as soon as I passed out of his line of vision. And if I moved now, someone would probably take my spot. I wasn't the only one in the school to have recognized what a great tree this was. In fact, there was one specific person who was always on the watch to steal my tree if I didn't get to it first. He was tall and terrifying and a disturbingly swift tree-stealer. On days when the lunch line was particularly long, he stole my spot and looked all-together too smug about it.
I sighed and pushed myself regretfully to my feet. I simply couldn't afford any more trouble with Mr. Juarez. In the highly unlikely case that he had some intricate plan all sketched out inside that sweaty brow of his, it wouldn't be a good idea to deny him the privilege of wreaking vengeance on my dysfunctional-mediator-ass.
So I'd have to risk losing my tree.
I gave the springy bark one last longing look and left for Mr. Juarez' office.
I took one long breath before stepping through the door. Before me sat Mr. Juarez in his usual place behind the desk, sweating away. To my left stood a guy I vaguely recognized. I took a moment to peer at him before recognition set in.
"You're the bastard who steals my tree!" I exclaimed, and completed the accusation with a childish finger-pointing gesture. My initial reaction to this realization was to be flooded with relief. If the asshole was here with me, he couldn't possibly be in the courtyard taking my precious spot.
The guy turned to me and immediately I clammed up. I lowered my hand and my eyes. The familiar fear of interacting with a stranger came over me and I froze. This was a regular problem of mine. I couldn't express myself. I couldn't even make simple conversation. And if I was in any way attracted to the stranger, said inability becomes about one million times worse. It goes so far beyond simple sputtering and blushing.
And I've got to say, this guy was attractive.
I didn't particularly buy into the bad boy stereotype. I wasn't interested in counter cultures or rebellion or the free spirit of adolescence. I wasn't turned on by angst or anger. I was, by all accounts, super, super boring. So normally I'd expect myself to be pretty unaffected by this guy. The black t-shirt, the dyed-black hair, the eyeliner, the disdainful scowl. He was expressing a pretty clear message. But despite his less-than-subtle appearance, he was…just completely beautiful. Gorgeous. Something in his posture and the shape of his silhouette made me bite my lip and fight back a blush.
A silver tongue stud flashed as he spoke. "It's not your tree."
I flushed angrily. It damn well was my tree and he had no right frequenting it like he did, no matter how ungodly attractive he was.
Mr. Juarez had been too busy popping antacids to pay any attention to us, but with that task complete, he turned to us and sat up a little straighter in his seat. "Alright, let's be blunt because I'm not getting any younger and you kids aren't getting any closer to not being completely screwed."
I winced. Tact was basically Mr. Juarez's middle name.
"Page, you're a horrible Peer Mediator." Oh Jesus Christ. "Seriously, you're the worst I've ever seen. The kids you mediate end up being more screwed up and alienated than when they came to us. I didn't even think that was possible."
I was too mortified to even cover my eyes in shame.
"Ben. You're the most rudely antisocial student I've ever had the displeasure of counseling, and that's saying something. If you don't stop being such an insufferable asshole, I'll never write you a counselor recommendation. And then it's bye-bye pre-med at Stanford."
Was he allowed to talk to students like this? I wanted to glance over to this Ben person, but the freezing-up-around-strangers-syndrome seemed to affect simple movement as well. Oh god, it was getting worse.
"The way I figure it, Page wants to help people but she's too shy, Ben wants to help people but he's too outspoken…you two will balance each other out."
That got my attention, and I let out a very intelligible, "Hunh?!"
Mr. Juarez blundered on in a bittersweet voice. "You two are going to be best friends from now on. I don't want to see one of you in the halls without the other. You will eat lunch together, you will do homework together, you will visit each other at your places of work, you will do recreational…teenager stuff together." His face flushed an angry red, his eyes bulged, and he stuttered, "Within a completely legal and decent nature, of course."
I wanted so very, very badly to sprint as fast as I possibly could straight out the door and probably out of the school so I could go home and hide my head under the covers for the next couple of days. This couldn't be happening to me.
In case you don't understand, this was my worst nightmare, come to life.
"What's more, you'll be keeping journals recording your activities together, to be turned in once a week for evaluation. You'll include details of the time you spend together, as well as your impressions of the other person and of your progressing friendship. Through these means, I will monitor your progress and make suggestions or critiques." He generously produced two composition journals from a drawer near his knee.
I had no doubt at all that he would have plenty of critiques for me. Perhaps something along the lines of "Page, it might help if you actually spoke to the boy, you idiot!"
From the corner of my eye I saw Ben moving forward, and, conveniently, he stepped into my line of vision.
"Let me get this straight," he began, and his voice was a true thing of beauty: all silky and spiky at the same time. "You're using my application recommendation as blackmail to get me to team up with some braindead student-shrink reject? You're out of your fucking mind."
What a sweet boy. I was beginning to see what Mr. Juarez meant.
"Well, now that we know Mr. Whiteside's opinion, what do you think of this little experiment, Page?"
Mr. Juarez was staring at me, all sweaty expectance and sadistic grinning.
It was all I could do to swallow, and I congratulated myself for the feat. I wasn't sure if he actually wanted to hear my opinion or if he was just making a point. But I was having trouble just remembering how to breathe, so if he did want it, he was shit out of luck.
Ben's eyes shifted to me and mine immediately found the floor. Have you ever really, really wanted to just stare at a guy because he's so very, very pretty, but been unable to peel your pupils off your sneakers? Frustration at its most crazed.
"I'm supposed to…hang out…with her?" Ouch. "Oh come on, Mr. Juarez! What have I done to deserve this?!"
I was getting a headache. Or maybe that was just my manifested desire to slam my head against a wall.
"How about when you mouthed off to your biology teacher yesterday? What did you call him? Never mind, it was too heinous to repeat. Or how about when you beat the hell out of that wrestler? Or when you publicly humiliated that poor lovesick freshman instead of simply asking her to leave you alone? I'm restricting myself, of course, to events of the past month alone. Oh, and there's that time you-"
"Alright, alright!" Ben wisely interrupted. One got the feeling Mr. Juarez could go on for quite some time with that list. "But that still doesn't make holding my future for ransom in any way a decent thing to do."
Mr. Juarez openly laughed at that and (with much strain) lifted himself from his desk chair to fill a little paper cup at the water cooler bubbling in the corner. The jug gurgled angrily and Mr. Juarez pounded the device twice before any water would come out. "Like you've ever been 'decent' to anyone, Ben."
Ben pounded his hands against Mr. Juarez' now vacant desk. "This assignment is ridiculous! You can't just order two complete strangers to spend all their time together."
Mr. Juarez finished off the last of his water and crumpled the sad paper affair with a sigh. "I never said you had to do it, Ben."
Ben quietly muttered something which sounded suspiciously like "goddamn right."
"You can walk out of this office right now and never think about the assignment again, if you like. But if that's what you choose to do, you can forget about that recommendation letter."
"That's not fair!" Ben yelled, leaning forward over the desk. "You're playing with my future to amuse yourself!"
"No, I'm seriously considering whether or not you deserve this particular future. Right now I'm leaning towards…'no.'"
The room was silent for a moment. Mr. Juarez slid back into his leather chair. Ben fumed, straightened his posture, and curled his hands into fists. I watched Mr. Juarez' temperamental water cooler.
"Fine," Ben finally declared. "To be clear, if I spend all my time with this loser, you'll give me the recommendation?"
I bit the inside of my cheek. Why are the hot ones always such colossal jerks?
"No, Ben. If I think that you've made an honest effort in this project and that I've seen a significant change in your attitude, you'll get the recommendation you need for your application. The deadline is in ten weeks. And that's cutting it close."
Ben rubbed a hand over his face and brushed some hair out of his eyes. He hesitated for a moment before speaking again. "Fine. I'll do it."
"Thank goodness." The sarcasm in Mr. Juarez' voice was penetrating and sour. I was glad that, for once, I wasn't on the receiving end of it. "Page? You've been typically silent. So do you agree to this experiment?"
I beat myself to a pulp with a mental fist, panicking, urging myself frantically to respond. And then, a miracle occurred. My throat opened up and I choked out something resembling an English sentence. "Can-can I…erm…think about it?"
"I doubt you could if you tried," Ben offered helpfully.
Mr. Juarez took pity. I never would have thought he was capable. "How about a trial period? You two take today to get to know each other and come back at this time tomorrow to give me your final answers. Then the actual test will begin."
My ability for speech was very apparently temporary and I shook out a nod. Ben gave a careless one-shouldered shrug and, in response, Mr. Juarez very happily held out the two composite notebooks. We took them reluctantly and tucked them away in our backpacks. "Fabulous. Now get the hell out of my office."
We did as we were told.
I was too distraught even to stare at Ben's ass as he left the room ahead of me.
The door swung shut behind me and as soon as it did, Ben whirled to face me.
Suddenly I was pressed up against said door, both arms pinned to the cheap wood by very strong hands. Ben was bending so his eyes were even with (and very uncomfortably close to) mine.
My brain burst into frenzied activity as I tried to process the proximity and the contact and the fear and the incredible blue of Ben's eyes.
"I understand that you're probably incapable of forming your own coherent opinions without a little guidance, so let me tell you what's going to happen. You will agree to this stupid experiment," Ben informed me. "And not only that, but you will write in your journal like a good girl and not bother me. If you don't do these things, I'm going to have to find some alternative way to convince you. And I can promise that you won't like the alternative. Do you understand?"
My eyes shifted downwards and I nodded mechanically.
"What a relief," Ben gushed mockingly. He released me, but then performed the most annoying action known to man. He placed his rather large hand on top of my head and tousled my hair. It was the kind of action appreciated only by seven year old boys desperate for approval. I was not seven, a boy, or desperate for Ben's approval. In fact, the only desperation I attached to Ben at all was to be out of his presence. And, if I was going to be really honest with myself (which I certainly wasn't), to stare at his ass.
But at this point Ben was gone and I dashed back to the courtyard to reclaim my spot and catch the tail end of my lunch period. I concentrated on breathing as I walked, waiting for my heart to return to a pace that somewhat less resembled the seconds before a heart attack.
"Where were you?" Macy asked, kicking me in the shin upon my arrival. Good old Macy had guarded the tree in my unfortunate absence.
"Receiving my assignment from Mr. Juarez." I flopped down next to her, overwhelmed by exhaustion.
Macy's eyes widened with a flash that said she already knew all about my new task. "What was it?"
"Well, Mr. Juarez just wants me to be his sex slave for the next couple of weeks. To be honest, I'm a little concerned, but very flattered."
"Very funny. What reallyhappened?" Macy flipped the bright red bangs from her eyes and took an overly dainty bite of her cafeteria hamburger. The action was rather at odds with the disgusting dish.
I gave a sigh and propped myself up against my tree. "I have to be best buddies with this guy Ben Whiteside and keep a monitored journal about all our interactions. Which is going to be difficult, as Ben has already made it quite clear that we'll be spending absolutely no time together, and if I try to actually fulfill the assignment, he'll cause me bodily harm." My head thunked against the trunk. This was hopeless.
Macy was stunned. "Are you serious?!" she shrieked through a mouthful of that pseudo-hamburger. So much for those delicate manners of hers.
"Oh don't act like you didn't know all about the assignment, Macy. Mr. Juarez tells you everything." I stole a fry from her tray, finally realizing that I'd never actually bought food.
"Well, yeah, I knew he was going to make you work with a partner, but…Ben Whiteside?! Do you know who he is?!"
"I do now," I mumbled, taking advantage of her distraction to grab a handful of fries before she noticed.
Macy took it upon herself to reiterate, despite my response. "Ben is the most foul, angry, violent guy in our grade! His list of indiscretions is longer than any other kid's in the school; he's rude and arrogant and my god is he gorgeous and Page if you don't put at least four of those fries back, I'm going to beat you senseless."
I shoved the fries into my mouth.
Macy sighed and joined me with her head resting against the comfortable bark. "You're going to die," she surmised.
"Because of Ben Whiteside or because I ate your fries?" I mumbled through a huge mouthful.
"Because of Ben Whiteside."
I agreed with a muffled, "Yep."
"What do you think are your chances of hooking me up with him before that happens?"
I rubbed my eyes against my palms. This was going to be a long ten weeks.
A/N: So there's the first chapter (re-revised)! Hope you enjoyed! I always appreciate reviews, and thanks for reading.