The lights are dim. The room is filled with cigarette smoke. This isn’t the counseling office, I think to myself, it’s the back room of a pool hall. The other kids are sitting next to me and giving me questioning looks as they fill out their questionnaires.
What did we do wrong? they’re no doubt thinking.
I cough. Secondhand smoke’ll kill you worse than smoking the actual cigarette, but Mrs. Thrailkill doesn’t seem to care. She just sits there watching us squirm, smiling crookedly, a smoldering butt in her hand. The ashtray on her desk is overflowing.
One of the others is trying to get my attention. He’s fat, wearing this ridiculous-looking T-shirt that has “Empire Slam” printed on it. Underneath, a basketball player is slam-dunking his own head. His name’s Ernest, as I recall from when Thrailkill made us all shake hands. (Beside him, the bodybuilder boy with the accent and the jogging suit girl are sitting quietly. The girl is sneaking glances at the boy, but he doesn’t seem to notice.)
“Yeah?” I whisper, trying to look buggered.
“What’s this mean?” Ernest asks, and points to one of the questions on his worksheet.
I glance down at the paper, recognizing the question about going steady. “These things are for kids who are older than us. Just put ‘yes’ if you’ve been dating anyone for more than a month.”
“Oh.” Ernest snickers. “I knew that.”
I can tell he’s lying, but I don’t say anything. I’m trying to breathe as slowly as possible, trying to pretend my lungs aren’t being smoked like a Christmas ham.
After several minutes of silence, we turn in our worksheets. Mrs. Thrailkill slides them into a folder.
“Let’s be honest, shall we?” She folds her hands on the desktop. “You four are in over your heads. In deep shit.”
Did she just say the “s” word?
“Good grades might have gotten you here, but if you’re going to stay, there’s going to have to be some sort of adjustment. Academics are no substitute for a natural evolution of social skills that can only be acquired through incremental leverage against your peers—but seeing as how you’ve skipped past your middle school careers, we’re going to need to use alternative measures.”
“What are you saying?” asks Jan. “Are we, like, autistic or something?” He seems genuinely concerned, though he somehow does it without once looking Thrailkill in the eye.
She smiles, takes a drag from her cigarette. Oh, the upperclassmen are going to eat you up! her expression reads. “No—although that is a charming scenario.”
Eva pipes in: “Then…you’re saying we’re, um, socially-challenged?”
“In a way, yes, though it’s not of your own doing. You’re intelligent, privileged in the academic sense. But you’re also much younger than the other freshmen. They can’t help but look at the lot of you as junior siblings, lackeys, nuisances. You’re either going to get in the way, or you’re going to be ignored completely. In the adolescent world, there is no middle ground. So, yes, in that sense, you’re socially-challenged.”
Ernest laughs nervously and shakes his head. “Did you call us in here just to scare us?”
“I’m not telling you anything you wouldn’t find out on your own if given a few weeks to bumble around here at Boca Linda. My job is to prepare you, to prime you, to alleviate any false assumptions regarding free blowjobs in the boys’ restroom.”
Did…did she just say blowjobs?
“Hmf,” Ernest snorts. Half amazed, half grossed-out.
Thrailkill pauses a moment, looks us over, amusement playing across her weathered features. I think she’s waiting for one of us to say something—but just as I clear my throat she finishes her cigarette and says, “I have an idea.” She picks up a ballpoint pen and scribbles something in her notepad. “Do you four have Internet access at home?”
We all nod.
“Good.” She turns away, starts rummaging in her file cabinet.
“God damn,” Ernest breathes into my ear—a disturbing feeling considering we’ve only just met. “She’s just like everyone said. Worse, even.”
I push my glasses up the bridge of my nose. “You think it’s legal for her to be smoking in here?”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. I heard she has five husbands, and they all live in her garden shed. She keeps them locked up, and she feeds them table scraps once a day.”
“That’s obviously an urban legend,” I whisper.
Ernest shrugs. “I thought having a chain-smoking guidance counselor was an urban legend too, but here we are.”
I look at Thrailkill again. She looks like a man-eater. Must be six feet tall, with a formidable bone structure that’s held up well considering the fact that she must be approaching sixty.
She faces us again.
Eva is caught halfway to asking Ernest and me what the hell we’re whispering about.
We straighten, mouths shut, palms tingling.
“I have a homework assignment for you,” says Thrailkill.
An instinctive groan escapes Ernest’s mouth.
“Rest assured, Mr. Goodale, it won’t affect your dinner schedule.”
Eva smiles, shoots Jan a knowing look (which he misses).
“Your assignment, children, is to spend half an hour chatting with each other online. I want you each to learn five useful facts about your companions, and I want you to write them down. You can make a list or do a paragraph including what you’ve learned. You’ll turn this in when we meet again tomorrow.”
I glance at the others, trying to be nonchalant. Ernest is annoying; he acts like he’s already friends with me. Jan just looks like he’d rather be anywhere else than here. Eva is kind of bug-eyed, but cute (I wonder how she answered the “going steady” part of her questionnaire?). I don’t see how we’d ever have a reason to spend a single minute talking to one another, much less thirty minutes. But that’s the assignment, and Mrs. Thrailkill is already handing us our hall passes and telling us “good day.”
We leave the counseling office; a cloud of acrid smoke follows us out, hovers over our heads as we exchange screen names.
“How did you like Mrs. Thrill-Kill?” asks Ernest.
“I can’t believe she’s our counselor,” replies Eva.
“I can’t believe she’s a counselor—period,” I say.
Jan nods, plays with a rogue thread on his sleeve.
We look at each other a moment. I know I want to say “goodbye,” or “nice meeting you,” or something like that—but I don’t want to sound too friendly. So, I nod, wave, and part ways with my assigned partners, my predetermined friends.
My social life has been handed to me; I don’t know if I should be relieved, or if this is the start of something truly awful.