Beauty and the Beast?

Adrian didn’t like middle school very much. The enormous blotchy birthmark, running down the left side of his face like some kind of blistering dark scar, certainly didn’t help his situation.

That guy. Panda. Black-eye. Beast. Though they manifested themselves in different ways, the gathered negativity of the student body always seemed to center around him. Once, on the road back home, Adrian caught a glimpse of a puddle filled with dried autumn leaves. Most were clustered together, but there was a single leaf that was caught in the whirlpool of the drain, swirling about alone, aimlessly, and without rest. Adrian felt that this basically summed up his daily school life.

The only respite he found was in his school’s “Tutoring Hour”, which lasted sixty minutes after school every Friday. It was a place where he could work in silence, protected by school policy from the taunts and jeers of his classmates. But even this safe haven was in danger of being breached. The teachers had organized a “Peer Tutoring” program within Tutoring Hour, where fellow students would be recruited to help out struggling students in the stead of the already-busy teachers in the library. That program was to be put in place today.

Adrian shuffled into his usual spot, a secluded table detached from the rest of the library. Pulling his woolen hood over his face, he pulled out a worn book from his backpack, and hoped that he wouldn’t be disturbed. Unfortunately for him, just a few minutes later, a voice began to echo from a little distance away from where Adrian sat.

“E-4, E-4…” It was a girl’s voice, one that was slowly approaching. Turning the corner, she turned her head a few times, before her eyes lit up as she noticed the laminated sticker on Adrian’s desk.

“Found it. Hi, I’ve been assigned as your tutor on Fridays. My name is -” The girl froze once she got a good look at Adrian’s face, and her voice trailed off. “It’s you.”

Wordlessly glancing away from her, Adrian turned back to his book. Somewhat unwillingly, the girl took her seat next to him, and silently pulled out a book of her own. In the following silence, Adrian had a chance to take a closer look at his unwanted guest. With a sharp face, curly blonde hair that ran down her shoulders, and a pair of gleaming blue eyes, he figured she was probably considered pretty by the other students. Certainly too pretty to be hanging around someone like him.

The girl wasn’t exactly impolite to Adrian, but there was a certain coldness to her. Not once did she raise her head to look at him, and he noticed that she was acting far differently compared to the student tutors at other tables. All she did was flip through her pages in silence, without saying a word. Sometimes, when Adrian was looking away, he thought he saw her inch her chair a few millimeters away from his. Somehow, this hurt him more effectively than any verbal insult would.

Then, when less than thirty of the sixty minutes had passed, a group of students waltzed over to their table, apparently ignoring all of the library’s noise regulation rules. 

“Hey, Carol. We’re going to the cafe, you wanna come?” The boy at the front said, waving over to the blonde-haired girl. When his eyes drifted over to Adrian, the boy flinched back a bit. “Oh, you got assigned to tutor Panda? That’s too bad.”

Another student chimed in from behind with a little laugh. “You know, I heard that he licks girls. You should probably quit the tutoring thing before he gets you.”

Adrian merely turned away, used to this level of pestering. But when the girl pushed out her chair and stood up, a spike of panic suddenly ran through him. Frantically digging around in his backpack, Adrian retrieved a crumpled form from within. He needed the girl’s signature, in order to prove that she had tutored for him today.

What was her name? Adrian thought he had heard one of the students mention it just now. As she began to walk away from him, Adrian called out to her. “C-Carol, um, could you sign this -”

“It’s Caroline.”


“My name. It’s Caroline.” Taking the form from his hands, the girl smoothed out the piece of paper, quickly scrawling her name on its surface. Then, she turned back to her friends, only pausing for a second to look back at him. “Only my friends call me Carol.”


The following few Tutoring Hours passed in approximately the same fashion. Adrian would do his work, while Caroline did hers separately. It was only during the fourth session that she finally spoke to Adrian. It was when Adrian was halfway through a page of his book that he suddenly heard her speak up from beside him.

“Hey, the rumors about you. Are they true?”

Adrian looked up, a little startled, before quickly shaking his head. Caroline raised her eyebrows, and placed a hand on her chin. “I figured. Well, that’s the answer I was expecting from you anyway.”

Still a little surprised at her sudden accusation, Adrian reached for the bookmark to his right in a daze, when his hand accidentally bumped into Caroline’s porcelain mug. There was a clatter as the mug fell to its side, a wave of yellowish liquid streaming out from within as it rolled off to the right.

“Sorry! Sorry, t-that wasn’t – I was just -” Adrian stopped before he could finish his stuttering sentence, pulling out a wad of tissues from the side of his bag. Kneeling down, he frantically tried to wipe the expanding puddle of tea dry, while mopping up the wettening carpet beneath him. Looking up fearfully, he braced himself for the inevitable verbal outburst from the girl sitting to his right.

To his surprise, though, Caroline’s face didn’t exhibit any signs of anger. Merely holding her book away from the lightly steaming puddle, the look in her eyes was more curious than anything. Grabbing ahold of one or two of the remaining tissues, she knelt down as well, drying the other side of the puddle Adrian had yet to cover. Then, she spoke again. “You know, you don’t really seem like how the rumors describe you.”

All Adrian could do was to give a small nod, pushing the stringy black hair from his face. They didn’t speak again for the rest of the Tutoring Hour.


A month had now passed. That meant four more Fridays of tutoring, and the end-of-quarter exams were gradually drawing closer. Math was never Adrian’s strong suit, and it continued to serve as a problem this year. Scribbling and scratching away at his worksheet, the problem sheet gradually began to blacken, as eraser residue built up on the table beside him.

But the thing that puzzled Adrian most, even more perplexing than the math problem he was working on, was Caroline. She was silently reading as usual, but Adrian thought he saw her continually peek over to him, glancing back down to her book the moment Adrian lifted his head. This cycle repeated itself a number of times, until she finally seemed like she couldn’t take it anymore, and spoke up.

“It’s positive.”

Adrian tilted his head in confusion. Furrowing his brows, he leaned over and stared intently at his pockmarked piece of paper, though he was ultimately unable to figure out what Caroline meant.

“The problem.” Picking a pencil off the table, Caroline tapped the space under Question 1 with the eraser at the pencil’s end. “It’s negative here and here, see? When you multiply them, the answer becomes positive.”

Sucking in a breath of comprehension, Adrian scrawled down the problem again. And sure enough, the answer that came out made far more sense, and he looked up at Caroline with an awed expression. She frowned in response. “What? That problem isn’t even that hard. Have you been doing all your homework like this?”

Adrian retrieved his binder, tugging out the homework from last class. Snatching the paper from his hands, Caroline’s eyes widened as she scanned through the problems. “These are basically all… don’t you get your parents to help you?”

“I-I don’t get to see my mom. Um, at least, not on normal days. Only vacations.” Staring down at the fuzzy library carpet, Adrian took the homework back from her. “And my dad is… um, he doesn’t care. He won’t help me anyway. And he’s also, sometimes, scary. A bit.”

Sixth graders don’t know how to express terms like “chronic alcoholic”.

“Okay, then. I’ll help you through the first few problems, since I finished this worksheet yesterday.” Setting down her book, Caroline placed Adrian’s worksheet back down on the table. “Only the first five, though. You should be able to figure out the rest on your own.”

They ended up finishing the entire worksheet together anyway.


Even if it was gradual, the shared Friday afternoons began to change, ever so slightly. The pair would continue to sit in near silence, Adrian scribbling away at his work and Caroline flipping through the pages of her book, but the initial frostiness between them seemed to melt away a little with every session. More often than not Adrian would appear to struggle with his homework, particularly in math, and Caroline would momentarily look up from her book to provide some form of basic assistance. It wasn’t exactly friendly, or even very effective, but the sixty minutes allocated on Fridays finally began to resemble actual tutoring. And whether it was a conscious choice or not, Adrian developed a habit of saving all his math homework for Fridays.

Then, one Friday, Caroline arrived at the table carrying something different in her hands. Rather than the usual novel or textbook, it was quite a large volume, bound at one end by a row of shiny black rings. Adrian began to work through a few problems like normal, but a couple of times he thought that he felt a pair eyes on him. Finding it rather hard to focus, after twenty minutes or so, he finally mustered up the determination to confront Caroline.

But as he turned to face her, Adrian saw that Caroline wasn’t reading the book in front of her at all, and that she was instead sketching on it. Craning his neck, Adrian peered into the contents of the sketchbook out of curiosity, and suddenly felt his face redden. “W-What -hey!”

There, etched into the cream-colored paper in thin graphite strokes, was a half-finished portrait of himself. Quickly leaning out of his chair, Adrian made a desperate grab at the sketchbook, but Caroline pulled it away at the last second. “Erase it!”

“No,” Caroline responded bluntly, holding the sketchbook in the air away from him. “You’re telling me to erase the drawing I’ve spent so much time on?”

“Well, n-no, but… that’s embarrassing!” Adrian shook his head, making another failed attempt at the sketchbook. “Why would you even -”

“Your birthmark.” Reaching a slender finger up to her face, Caroline tapped the area under her left eye. “It looked like it would be interesting to draw.”

Slowly closing his mouth, Adrian shrunk back into his seat, seeming to realize that his efforts to take the sketchbook would be fruitless. Feeling that the best option available to him would be to ignore her, Adrian tried to keep on working through his worksheet, but found that his eyes were unconsciously being drawn to the sketchbook. Now that he was more level-headed, Adrian began to appreciate the drawing a little bit more. Everything, from the wrinkles of his hoodie to his curled black hair, was replicated in astonishing detail. Of course, the jagged blotch of discolored skin on his face was what stood out the most. But even something like that, when sketched out onto a piece of paper, seemed to possess some kind of strange charm.

“It’s… really good. Your drawing.” Even though he had tried to suppress it, Adrian found that his voice still carried a touch of admiration. “You could… be a professional artist, or something like that.”

Hearing those words, it was Caroline’s turn to have her cheeks flush a little red, as her hand froze above the paper. Feeling as if he’d said something wrong, Adrian looked slightly startled, raising a hand in alarm. “Um, a-are you okay?” 

“Sorry. Sorry, it’s nothing.” Turning a little away from him, Caroline shook her head. But after a few moments she began to talk again, even though Adrian hadn’t spoken. “My… mother. She always tells me to quit my art, saying I should focus on my studies more. My friends don’t really care either, and most of them just laugh when I say that I want to do something art-related in the future, saying that artists can’t make money.”

Lowering his hand, Adrian slowly sat back into his seat, as Caroline continued to speak with a dry smile on her face.

“I mean, I understand that better than anyone. I know that being an artist most likely won’t be a stable job. You might be the only one without the common sense to warn me about something like that, since you’re not used to talking to other people. But… even so, hearing someone tell me something like that…” Caroline squeezed the sketchbook a little more tightly, a sunny look in her glimmering turquoise eyes betraying her otherwise emotionless face. “It still makes me feel happy, for some reason.”

The rest of the session came and went, and nothing particularly noteworthy occurred in those next thirty or so minutes. But when Caroline stood up to leave, Adrian thought that she might have been smiling. Or maybe it was just his imagination.


Caroline started bringing the sketchbook around more often since then, and she defaulted to sketching instead of reading. It felt a little weird to admit it, especially after so many years of isolation, but Adrian found himself not minding, even enjoying to some extent, the company of another person.

Along with her familiar mug of tea, Caroline apparently now felt comfortable enough to bring snacks to the sessions. Today, as her hands composed a graphite landscape, she munched on a few crisp slices of peeled apple. Adrian tried to keep his eyes away from the tantalizing morsels, but a full day of classes was enough to make him stare.

Caroline’s hand paused halfway up to her lips, and she looked up at Adrian. “Are you hungry?”

“N-No,” Adrian spoke almost automatically, angling his head down. He didn’t think that he really needed a snack, especially since he had gone on just fine without in the weeks prior. However, as if on cue, his stomach let out a muted groan. His face reddening, Adrian hunched down even further.

“If you need to eat that badly, why don’t you just have your parents pack you something to -” Her voice cut off, and Caroline shook her head. “Oh, right. Well, I guess… wait here for a second.”

Pushing off from her chair, Caroline stepped away from the desk, to Adrian’s confusion. She returned a few minutes later, holding something in her hands. She handed it off to Adrian, and as he received it, he came to realize it was a pretzel wrapped in a thin paper bag. Food from the school’s cafeteria.

“I bought too much for lunch yesterday, so I still have this as leftovers.” Returning to her seat, Caroline nonchalantly continued to work on her sketch. “You can have it, if you want.”

Gratefully turning the paper bag around in his hands, Adrian gave a small nod of thanks. Pulling out the pastry, he noticed that it was still a little warm to the touch, exposing the tiny stamp on the underside of the paper bag as he quietly set it onto the table.

Pretzels: Made fresh every Friday.


“You’re still here?”

A boisterous group of voices broke the silence of the library, and Adrian shied away from the group that had noisy barged in. Beside him, Caroline turned up to face the group of students in response, quickly sliding her sketchbook back into her bag. “I tutor every Friday at this time.”

“I’m surprised you haven’t stopped this tutoring thing yet,” the boy at the head of the group said with a smirk. “Well, whatever. Wanna come with us? We’re heading out again.”

Caroline fixed her gaze on the boy. “There’s still twenty minutes left of Tutoring Hour.”

“Yeah, but… you know, it’s him we’re talking about.” The boy gave a subtle nod in Adrian’s direction, though certainly not subtle enough to escape Adrian’s attention. “Nobody’s gonna blame you.”

Opening her mouth, Caroline looked like she wanted to say something, but she closed it again without speaking. She stood up from her seat, and wordlessly followed the group out of the library.

Adrian didn’t feel particularly hurt or anything. Just being near him for too long would probably hurt Caroline’s reputation at school, so he understood her actions. In the first place, it wasn’t like the two of them were even friends. Nevertheless, as he left the library, his face looked a little more solemn than normal, as his fist tightened around the pen in his right hand.

But as he made for the school’s exit, a bout of laughs echoed from around the corner. Recognizing them as that same group of friends, Adrian pressed himself flat against the wall on instinct. Why were they still at school? Didn’t they say that they were going to go somewhere? 

“Hey, why are you still tutoring on Fridays?” A voice questioned. “We have to wait, like, half an hour for you. Even though you signed up, it’s not like you’re forced to show up!”

In the corner of his eye, Adrian saw that Caroline was silent. He knew he couldn’t just show himself at this point, so he decided to wait until the group had left.

“And, I mean, it’s that Beast you’re tutoring! Wouldn’t you want to spend as little time there as possible? Has he tried to lick you yet?”

“No. He isn’t like that.”

At that, the gaggle of students seemed to momentarily quiet down. And then, when they did speak back up again, their laughs were fiercer than ever. “Did you fall in love with him, or something? Is that why you’re spending so much more time there?”

“She has a crush on Black-eye!” Another female voice jeered.

“No, of course not. Don’t be stupid,” Caroline responded calmly.

“What is it, then?” The boy snickered. “If you keep this up, Panda’ll actually think that he can make friends! He’ll run back home to his mommy and tell her that he made a new -”

“Stop it!”

Caroline’s voice echoed off the corridor walls, and the laughing mob suddenly fell silent. Her cry wasn’t particularly passionate, nor was it very loud, but for some reason the group around her quieted down for good this time. For a second, the only sound that could be heard was that of Adrian’s pen unconsciously slipping from his grasp, lightly clattering onto the polished school tiles.

“Okay, okay. Sorry, jeez.” Sounding a little abashed, the boy turned the subject of his conversation to something else, and the voices of the crowd quickly adjusted to the new topic, filling up the empty corridors once more.

But Adrian could no longer hear their conversation anymore. He could only hear the sound of his own muffled cries, as his entire body shook, streams of warm tears flowing nonstop down his face.


Adrian didn’t know how to approach Caroline the next Friday. He found her sitting at their desk like any other session, quietly sketching another picture. Awkwardly, Adrian shuffled into the seat next to her, pulling out his math textbook. Several times he tried to speak up, tried to turn and say something to Caroline, but to no avail. He couldn’t open his mouth, and they sat next to each other in silence, all the way until the bell in the library chimed out and signaled the end of Tutoring Hour. But as Adrian was stuffing his books into his bag, Caroline spoke. “Hey, aren’t you going to thank me?”

Adrian jerked his head backwards in surprise. Did she know he had eavesdropped on her?

“After all… I did go through all the trouble of returning this to you.” Pulling her hand out from within her bag, Caroline drew out Adrian’s thin ink pencil, holding it out in front of him.

Adrian turned white, then red, then angled his face towards the ground. With a deep breath, he managed to force the words out. “Thank you… Caroline. F-For the pen.”

But for some reason, Caroline didn’t look entirely satisfied with his response. Reaching down, she pulled out a sheet of paper, writing something down on it with the pen in her hand. As he received it, Adrian realized that it was the sign-off form for their weekly Tutoring Hour. But as his eyes scanned down to the bottom to what she had written, he glanced up with a stunned expression.

She looked back at Adrian, and seeing his bewildered reaction, gave a little smile.

“Just Carol is fine.”

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