It was Neil's job to interview possible candidates for the college newspaper, The Eye. Although Neil was only a junior, it was common knowledge that he was the best person on The Eye's staff. He was very smart, a great writer, and he knew how to talk to people. The editor-in-chief, Roger Cavanaugh, asked Neil to interview new reporters because Neil's instincts were always right on the mark. He was the obvious choice for the next editor-in-chief.
Neil conducted his interviews behind the large mahogany desk that had been provided for him. During the interviews, he hid his crutches under the desk, and kept his legs out of sight. Neil had long ago decided that the heavy braces covering his legs didn't command respect. He had a handsome face, with sand-colored hair and hazel eyes, and that was all he intended for the prospective reporters to see.
Neil had spent the last seven years trying to hide his braces. The winter before starting high school, he had been in a skiing accident and shattered both his legs. The doctors warned him that when the casts came off, he may not have any feeling in his legs, but Neil didn't truly believe it until he first touched a hand to the unfeeling flesh. The nurse helped Neil into what became his first wheelchair, and he spent a week in that chair until they fitted him for metal braces. Since Neil couldn't feel or control his legs at all, the braces were very heavy and ran up the entire length of his legs.
The braces made considerable noise when he walked, and he always felt like he was about to topple over. And even with the braces and crutches, his legs felt too weak to support him. He was terrified of snapping open one of his many, many fractures and having to go back into the wheelchair. Anything was better than that damn wheelchair.
In high school, Neil drew into his own little world and refused to let anyone else in. He wouldn't talk to any of his old friends, and he resisted making new friends. He didn't want anyone's sympathy. He joined the school newspaper as his only extracurricular activity, and quickly made himself at home there. He had a particular talent for ferreting out information and his stories usually made first page. His reporter's instincts were the best that crummy school paper had ever seen, even though he wasn't able to get along with anyone else on the staff. Everyone else saw Neil as a cold and grumpy son of a bitch, and tried to stay out of his way. Through his abilities alone, Neil rose to the ranks of editor-in-chief of the paper. And even his coworkers who despised him had to agree that he was the best editor-in-chief they had ever had.
Part of the reason Neil did so well on the paper was the raw time he put into it. He was always the first person to arrive after school, and the last person to go home at night. His lack of a social life lent him plenty of time to research his stories. Neil didn't need to study much to get good grades, and he was more than willing to sacrifice an A for a front page story. It got so that Neil would be so caught up in his stories that he'd skip lunch and sometimes even dinner. By his junior year of high school, he was 5'9" and weighed only a hundred pounds.
Neil got home from school well after dark and would go straight to his room to jerk off. His mother would knock on the door, and Neil would tell her to fuck off if he was in the middle of pleasuring himself. If he was done, he'd yank open the door and accept whatever food offerings she had, then slam the door in her face.
Neil's mother worried about her son. She worried that he had no friends and she worried that he was getting too thin. The last time Neil had talked to her was when he had developed a sore on his leg from the braces and needed to see a doctor for it. She worried that her son wasn't turning out right and she didn't know what to do about it.
By the time Neil graduated from high school, he was a completely different person from the boy that had gone on that ski trip in middle school. He had gained back enough weight that he no longer looked emaciated, but there was a hardness in his face that had not been there four years earlier. He seemed a lot older than eighteen years. Neil hated the world and thought he always would. As long as he had to struggle to walk in heavy braces and crutches, dealing with a pain that was as much physical as mental.
Neil got into Cornell University, but he turned them down for Kitridge, a small private school in Boston that offered him free tuition and board. He liked the idea of being independent from his parents, even though they had more than enough money to pay for tuition at Cornell. Besides, Neil figured that at a small school, he could take control of the paper more easily, which was his new ambition. And he wouldn't have to bother as much about his classes, which would probably be a lot easier than at Cornell.
The staff of the Kitridge Eye ran at the first sight of Neil. He was cold and mean, but damn good. He knew how to talk to people, so it didn't matter quite as much that nobody liked him. The friendly Eye staff tried to be nice for the first few weeks, but soon realized it was hopeless.
Sophomore year, Neil was assigned the task of interviewing some of the prospective reporters. It was usually a job done by the editor-in-chief, but everyone agreed that Neil would do the best job. His instincts about people seemed to always be right on the mark.
The fifth person Neil interviewed was a girl named Megan Hodges. When he saw her, he was immediately struck by her looks. She was pretty, by no means beautiful, but it wasn't that which struck him. It was something he sensed about her. A certain determination in her eyes as they bore straight into them. Neil could stare anyone down, but he felt himself growing uneasy under Megan's gaze.
"I'm Megan," she introduced herself.
"Megan Hodges, right?" Neil asked, peering down at the list of applicants.
"That's right," Megan confirmed.
"I'm Neil Townsend," Neil said. He didn't get up from behind the desk or even hold out a hand for her to shake.
"Neil Townsend?" Megan asked, blinking. "I…I read some of your articles…they were…brilliant."
Neil smiled thinly. "No need for ass kissing, Miss Hodges."
"It's Megan," she corrected him, her face flushed. "And I'm not…ass kissing. I really liked them. I picked up a few copies of the Eye when I came to visit Kitridge before deciding to come here. Your articles actually kind of helped me make up my mind."
Neil rolled his eyes. "How so?"
Megan realized she was on the defensive and tried to recover. "I was on the school paper in high school. I…I loved it. It's what I want to do with my life."
"You can't be on a school paper your whole life, Miss Hodges."
"I mean, I want to be a journalist," Megan said. "And…to be honest, I think I'm pretty good at it."
"Do you?" Neil asked. "A college paper is a whole lot different than a high school paper. What flies there might not work here."
"I'm aware," Megan said. "But I think…I can learn. I…I brought some of my articles from high school, if you want to look…"
Megan began shuffling through her bag and Neil held up his hand. "No need. You can go, Miss Hodges."
Megan's jaw dropped open. "But…but you didn't even give me a chance! This isn't fair! I'd be great! The best reporter you ever had…"
Neil gave her a hard look. It was a look that usually made people do exactly what he said. "I told you that you can go."
"No," Megan crossed her arms. "I refuse to leave this office until you hear me out. I know how to get a story. I could make this the most read college paper in the country. I'm not leaving until you act sensible."
Neil put down the pen and paper he had been holding. "You have some nerve, Miss Hodges, speaking to me like that. It is my job to hire reporters and I don't like being told what to do." Megan jumped slightly at his harsh words, but she wouldn't budge. "I have good instincts. I know a good reporter when I see one and I can tell when someone isn't going to work out. I don't need to see fifty articles you wrote or say one more word to you. I know you're a good reporter. But since you're impatient and need to hear it now instead of next week when we post the list, you're hired. Okay, Megan?"
Megan's face flushed. "Oh…I…"
"You're sorry, fine," Neil muttered. "I have a lot of other people to talk to, so I'd appreciate it if you'd move along."
Megan put her hands on his desk and leaned in close enough that he could smell her shampoo. He felt his breath catch in his throat. If she had leaned forward another few inches, she would have seen his crutches on the floor. "If you're so busy," she said in a low voice, "you could have just told me I had the job. I think you liked making me feel bad."
For a second, Neil felt like he couldn't speak. Then his hard voice came back, loud and clear. "You're right. I'm a real asshole. Now get out before I change my mind."
"You won't," Megan said with a smile.
Two weeks later, Neil was working at a desk, writing up one of his stories. This was a front-pager and he wanted to get it done by the end of the day. He was irritated when the editor-in-chief Roger Cavenaugh came to him with Megan at his side.
"Hey, Neil, wanna give the computer a rest for a minute?" Roger said.
Neil shot him a look and Roger took a step back. "What is it, Roger?" Neil barked.
"This is Megan Hodges," Roger told him. "She's just starting out here and we've assigned her to you to be her mentor."
"Mentor? I don't remember having a mentor."
"It's a new program I came up with," Roger said proudly. "I think it'll help."
"What do I have to do?" Neil asked in an irritated voice. "Babysit? Make sure she doesn't watch too much television?"
"You can show her around, for starters," Roger suggested. "Then just show her the ropes. Anyhow, that's your problem. I have work to do."
With that, Roger breezed off to his office and Megan was left standing in front of Neil's desk. "So…" she said.
"I'm working on an article," Neil said curtly. "I have to get this done by tonight."
"What's it about?"
"The new policy on taking final exams."
"That doesn't sound very interesting."
"How observant of you."
Megan looked around. "So are you going to show me the place or not?"
"Roger said you were supposed to."
"Roger would say anything to get you to fuck him."
"He didn't make a pass."
Megan smiled. "He won't get very far. Come on, Neil, show me the wonders of the Kitridge Eye."
Neil narrowed his eyes at her. Finally, he pushed his chair back and pulled his crutches from under the desk. He lifted his right leg and locked the knee, then repeated the same process with his other leg. Then he used the desk and one crutch for support as he struggled to his feet.
Megan's face had gone stark white. "Oh…I didn't realize…"
"That I'm crippled?"
"No, that's not what I was going to say."
"But it's true," he said, staring into her green eyes. "So what the fuck do you want to see first? The fucking water fountain? The fucking bulletin board?"
"Um…" Megan was trying to compose herself. "I don't know…"
"Well, I'll just stand here waiting while you decide."
Megan shook her head. "You know, you don't have any reason to talk to me like that. It's not my fault you're crippled, and it's not Roger's fault either. It doesn't give you the right to be a complete asshole."
"I don't say this to girls much," Neil said, "but fuck you."
"I bet you say that to anyone who will stick around long enough to listen," Megan said. "And I bet there aren't many of those people."
"Why don't you find another mentor?" Neil suggested. "I don't have time for this crap."
"I ought to," Megan said. "But you're too damn good a reporter. No, I'm here to stay."
Neil tried to stare her down, but it was impossible. He was beginning to regret having hired her. This girl was going to be a pain in the ass.
"I'll be back tomorrow," Megan told him. "And you better have something to teach me, Mentor."
With that, she stormed out.
Megan came to the Eye after her last class the next day and found Neil pounding away on his keyboard as usual. His crutches leaned against the side of his desk, no longer hidden out of sight. Megan waited for him to acknowledge her, but he gave no sign that he even realized she was there. "I have a good idea for a story," Megan finally spoke up. "It's about-"
"Listen, Megan," Neil interrupted her. "I was just thinking…I'd really appreciate it if you found someone else to mentor you."
Because I can't keep on being mean to you. "I'm too busy for this," Neil told her. "I can't give you the attention you want. I can't listen to every dumb idea you have and critique it."
"My ideas are not dumb," Megan said. "The story I want to do-"
"I don't care," Neil said firmly. "I really don't. I'd just like you to leave me alone, if you don't mind."
"I do mind," Megan pressed. "If you can give me a good reason why you don't want to do it, then fine. But so far, I'm not convinced."
"You want to know why?" Neil said. "Because you're reckless and I don't want to deal with it. You think you can make up for bad journalism by jumping in front of traffic and you can't. You're too reckless to be a reporter."
Megan wasn't used to losing her composure, and she had lost it twice in as many days with Neil. "How do you…"
"I told you, I have good instincts," Neil muttered. "Now will you get the fuck out?"
Megan stared at him for a minute, then burst into tears. Neil watched her helplessly as she ran out of the room clutching her face. Shit, he thought, rubbing his braced legs self-consciously.
to be continued...