Jeff looked up as Brains came into his office. “Hello again, Brains.”
“H-Hello, Jeff.” Brains took a seat across the desk from his employer. “I j-just talked to F-Fermat.”
Jeff nodded. “And I’ve talked to Alan. Did Fermat tell you what Alan’s plans were?”
“Y-Yes, he did.” Brains adjusted his blue-rimmed glasses and rolled his shoulders a bit before looking over at Jeff. “H-He’s upset that Alan d-didn’t consult him first.”
Jeff frowned. “Hmm. Alan didn’t tell me that. I thought he would have.”
“I a-a-a… agree,” Brains said, nodding slightly.
Jeff adjusted himself in his chair, rolling it closer to the desk. “What else did Fermat tell you?”
“Well,” Brains began as the fathers compared notes about the situation at Wharton. When they were done, Brains said, “I t-t-t… said to F-Fermat that he should r-report this S-Sugimoto character for h-h-harassment.”
“I said the same thing to Alan.” Jeff frowned, his lips pursed. He sat back in his chair, propping one ankle on the other knee. “But I promised I wouldn’t interfere. Alan is eager to prove that he can take care of these kinds of problems himself, without using his fists.”
“Fermat t-told me that A-Alan did apologize for not c-consulting him and he’s g-going to support Alan’s decision.”
“That’s good to know,” Jeff replied, nodding. “Alan said he now thinks it’s a good idea that the two of them were separated. He tells me that Fermat’s roommate needed someone like your son.”
Brains smiled. “Y-Yes. I’ve t-talked to A.J. o-over the phone. He seems v-very much like F-F-F… my son was last y- year.” He gave Jeff a keen glance. “The b-boys are g-growing up and g-growing apart in s-s-some ways.”
Jeff nodded again. “They are.” He sighed. “I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t promised to stay out of it.”
“I d-didn’t. Promise, that is.”
“Would you?” Jeff thoughtfully rubbed his chin with one hand.
The scientist thought a moment before speaking. “L-Let’s see h-how A-Alan’s interview with Ms. B-Belvedere goes. Then d-decide.”
“Good idea.” Jeff smiled. “So, do you need some time off to see Fermat in one of his quiz meets?”
Brains chuckled. “H-How did you know?”
“Because I’m going to take some time and go to a couple of Alan’s track meets. Alan’s going to send me his schedule once he gets it. When Fermat gives you his, we can compare them and plan a couple of weekends.”
“S-Sounds good,” Brains replied, nodding vigorously. He pulled out a data pad. “N-Now, about those modifications to the F-Firefly…”
Jeff sat up, attentive as the two men began discussing how to provide more shielding to the dicetyline cannon operator.
“Hey, Pinky!” Alan jumped as someone put a hand on his shoulder. He glanced up; Qaeshon stood there, grinning. One of the sports fans glanced their way; the game was still on in the common room. Alan puilled out his earphones and turned off his player. He’d finished half his homework, drowning out the ambient noise with his favorite music.
“What’s up, Kay?” He turned off the player.
“Can you sign yourself out?”
Alan shook his head. “No, ‘fraid not.” As a security precaution, Jeff stipulated the only people who Alan could travel with were his family, Lady Penelope, Parker, the Kyranos, or Brains. Otherwise, neither he nor Fermat were allowed to leave campus. Though that will change when the track meets begin.
“Damn!” Qaeshon clenched his fist with a twist of his wrist as if snatching some unseen insect in mid-air. “Zave was willing to take us out to the burger joint downtown. I especially asked if you and the Brain could come so we could talk to him about what Sugi was doing.”
“Didn’t you tell him?” Alan asked, frowning.
“Yeah, I did.” Qaeshon huffed, rolling his eyes. “Not that it did any good. Sugi didn’t tell him anything. Didn’t want to get caught spreading the rumor and have it traced back to him, I s’pose.”
“Yeah. Zave’s a straight up…” Alan shook his head as he clambered to his feet. “I mean, Zave’s a … damn!” He swore in disgust. “I feel I’ve gotta pick and choose my words to avoid any double meaning crap.”
Quashon grimaced. “Yeah, that stinks. Listen, I’ll ask Zave if we can get pizza and eat in the Birchwood common room, or my room or somewhere. The snack shop would be too crowded tonight.”
Alan nodded. The dining hall provided a cold sandwich buffet for the boys on Sunday evenings; it was relatively easy to set up and clean up. But it wasn’t popular, so most students repaired to the snack shop for their choice of junk food.
“I can bring some soda and chips,” he offered.
“That’s cool. Meet me over at Birchwood in twenty minutes, okay?” Qaeshon ordered. “We need a strategy meeting.”
Alan laughed and saluted. “Yes, sir! On my way, sir!” He paused. “What about Fermat?”
“Hmm. Can you get him? A.J., too? I’ll take care of Ralph and Jason.”
“Sure, no problem.” Alan began to gather up his books.
Qaeshon started to leave, then suddenly he turned around again. “Hey, Pinky? Anything in particular you like on your pizza?”
“I’m cool with everything but olives,” Alan replied. “And Fermat loves anchovies.”
“Anchovies? Blech!” Qaeshon stuck out his tongue in disgust.
“Hey, he says they’re fish. Fish is brain food.”
Qaeshon shook his head. “Man, if I had to eat anchovies to get smart, I’d rather stay dumb!”
Alan laughed again and waved as his friend hurried off. Walking down the hall, his steps slowed as he came to his room. He wasn’t sure if Sugi was there or not and he’d rather spend as little time as possible with his roommate. Soon to be ex-roommate. I have to believe that. He knocked on the door and received no answer, so he unlocked it with the palm scanner and walked in.
The bathroom door was closed and Alan heard the sound of water running.
Good, he’s in the shower. Maybe I can get what I need and get out of here before he finishes. Alan piled his books neatly on his desk, putting his current homework on top so he would remember it. He put his music player and earphones in one of his desk drawers, the one that had a thumbprint lock. Then he grabbed his backpack, pulled out his notebooks and laid those on his desk chair. He ran through the people who should be at the strategy meeting and pulled eight cans of soda from the little fridge. It nearly depleted his stash, but he was sure Fermat would contribute a couple of cans to the meal. He made a mental note to place an online order with a local supermarket, one that delivered to Wharton. At the beginning of the previous year, he’d gone hog wild with the account his father had set up for him at the store, but about three weeks before spring break the money had run out and his father refused to give him any more.
“Consider it a lesson in budgeting, Alan,” Jeff had said. It was a lesson he had learned, or hoped he had. He’d also found he’d gained a bit of weight and not due to growth, either. It had taken time to work off that little soda pop belly, so he swore he’d never do that again!
He added a bag of spicy tortilla chips to his book bag, oblivious to the fact that the water had stopped until the bathroom door opened and spilled steam into the living quarters. Alan turned and straightened as Sugi, a towel wrapped around his waist, walked out.
“Got a hot date with your special friend?” the older boy sneered. “I expect he’s told you what’s going around the school.”
“Yes, and who started it,” Alan replied coolly. He closed up the backpack and hefted it over one shoulder. “Don’t think it will stop me from going to Belvedere.”
“It wouldn’t matter now if you did or didn’t, would it? The rumor’s going around and you know what they say about scuttlebutt. Faster than light.” He moved over to his closet. “This is just a taste of what’s going to happen if Trey gets booted. I have plans for Dom, too; don’t you worry.”
“I won’t,” Alan replied curtly. He made a wide berth around Sugi as he walked to the door.
Sugi started to say something else but Alan hurried out into the hallway. He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, then left to find Fermat and A.J.
The group of friends, plus Qaeshon’s older brother, sat on the floor in Qaeshon’s room. His roommate went off to watch TV in the common room after accepting a slice of pizza. Xavion took a gulp of soda and asked, “So, Pinky. What’s going down with Sugi?”
Alan sighed. He wanted to tell the older boy about Trey but didn’t know how approach the subject. “Let’s just say that he and I have had a big argument and I want out. I’ve made plans to see if I can switch rooms with Trey Mackenzie–move in with Dom Bertoli–and Sugi is not happy. He’s threatened to make my life, and Dom’s, a living hell.”
“But why Trey?” Xavion pressed.
Alan looked toward his other friends. Fermat nodded, and Qaeshon said, “Tell him, Pinky.”
Shaking his head, he replied, “I… I can’t.”
“If you don’t, I will,” Qaeshon warned.
“Is this about Trey’s smoking?” Xavion suddenly asked.
“Yeah!” Alan responded, puzzled. “How’d you know?”
Xavion huffed out a breath and looked down. “It’s only the worst kept secret in our group of friends.”
“Did you know that Sugi’s letting Trey smoke in his and Pinky’s room?” Qaeshon asked in a challenging tone.
The senior shook his head. “No. But it doesn’t surprise me. Trey and Sugi are pretty tight.” He took a bite of pepperoni pizza and chewed on it. “We all know that Trey smokes but none of us is willing to rat on him, y’know? With us, it’s… I dunno… kinda ‘one for all and all for one’. We all watch each other’s backs. To turn him in would be betrayal; whoever did it would lose his status.”
“In other words,” piped up Ralph, “whoever ratted on Mackenzie would be shunned. They’d be tossed from the group. And considering that your group is the cool one, that’d be a blow.”
“You s-sound like you kn-know all about it,” Fermat said.
Ralph shrugged. “It was that way at my old middle school. The popular kids had their own little group and almost everyone wanted to be part of it.” He picked up a piece of pizza and took a bite. Through his chewing, he said, “Sugi… he’s asked me to eat lunch with him and the seniors on the soccer team. Just being asked makes me feel special, like I belong with the elite.” He washed down his food with a sip of soda and sighed. “I’m not sure what do. I mean, I like you guys. I don’t wanna make a choice, y’know?”
“Well, I don’t get it,” A.J. piped up, a frown on his face. “If he’s doing something wrong, why doesn’t anybody speak up?”
“Because he’s part of the group, kid,” Xavion replied. “You don’t rat on your friends.” He paused, sitting back against the bunk beds and looking up at the ceiling. Licking his lips, he glanced over at Alan. “Listen, Pinky. If it’s worth anything, Sugi didn’t tell me this rumor and even if he did, I wouldn’t believe it. I don’t know you very well yet, but… my brother does. If he tells me you and Fermat are cool, I believe him.”
“Thanks, Zave. It’s worth a lot. I really appreciate it,” Alan said gratefully.
The older boy jabbed a finger in Alan’s direction. “Don’t think for a minute, though, that I’m not gonna bust your butt at track practice!”
The group laughed, and Alan replied, “Not even for a second, Zave.”
There was a general silence as the boys turned their attention back to the food, a silence broken by Xavion again. His face was thoughtful and he looked down into his can of soda as he spoke.
“Tell the truth, Pinky, I think something’s up with Sugi. He’s… He’s not the same guy he was last year. He gets angry quicker and is more sarcastic. He’ll make fun of people at the drop of a hat. No one says anything though.” He took a deep draught of his soda, emptying it of the last drop, then crushed it in his hand. “I suppose I should say something.”
“To who?” Jason asked. “To him?”
This brought the senior up short. “I guess so. I was thinking of talking to the others, telling them all that I don’t like what Sugi’s doing.” He shrugged. “But that’s hard to do. It’s a lot easier to just keep quiet and say nothing.”
” ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’,” A.J. intoned. He blushed as everyone looked at him with varying degrees of curiosity or incredulity. “I, uh, heard it in a history class last year, I think. I can’t remember who said it, though.”
“B-Burke,” Fermat said, nodding. “It’s a-attributed to Edmund B-Burke.” He glanced around at the other boys, whose expressions now ranged from open-mouthed shock to eye-rolling I-can’t-believe-you-just-said-that. “What? What?” he asked, indignant. “Just b-because I r-r-r… don’t forget what I r-read…”
“That’s why we call you the Brain,” Qaeshon said, shaking his head. “I can hardly wait to see you in quiz team. You and Dev are going to kick butt.”
“Exactly how do you ‘kick butt’ in academic quiz?” Jason quipped.
The train of conversation, now totally derailed, degenerated into various smaller conversations and joking. As the last piece of pizza was eaten and the last chip crumbs were shaken out of the bag, Alan said, “Well, we haven’t talked much about strategy, have we?”
Ralph shook his head while chewing on his pizza crust. His mouth finally empty, he replied, “No, we haven’t. What should we do? What should our strategy be?”
“I think we need to show that we don’t believe the rumor,” Qaeshon said. “Stand behind Pinky and the Brain while this whole thing is going down.”
“Yeah, and behind Dom, too,” Alan added. “He’s going to be harassed just as much as I am.”
“D-Do we tell the administration about T-Trey?” Fermat asked.
The room fell silent and each of the younger boys looked toward the oldest. Xavion glanced around at the expectant faces and sighed.
“I… I’d rather you didn’t. Trey’s a good guy, he really is, once you get to know him, and I know he’s gone out of his way to make sure he doesn’t smoke or anything around Dom. I bet that if he was asked if he wanted to change rooms with you, Pinky, he would be okay with it.”
“Dom and I agreed telling Ms. Belvedere would be a last resort,” Alan explained. “I mean, getting Trey kicked out of school would help Dom and would keep my room from smelling like a cigarette butt, but I’d still have to deal with Sugi.”
“M-My dad says I sh-should report Sugi for h-harassment,” Fermat said quietly.
Alan nodded. “My dad said so, too.” He turned to the older boy. “What do you think, Zave?”
Xavion scratched his head. “I don’t know, Pinky, I…”
Qaeshon cut him off. “What would you tell me to do if I were in the same situation?”
The elder glared at the younger for a moment. “I guess I’d tell you to nail his butt to the wall and if you didn’t, I’d do it for you.” He turned back to Alan and Fermat. “Whether or not you report him is up to you. If he goes around spreading the rumor in my hearing, I’ll go as a witness. But it’s hard to track a rumor back to its source. And Brain? It would be your word against his. He could always say he’d heard it somewhere else.”
“I kn-know,” Fermat admitted. “I told my d-dad that, t-t-t… also.”
“So,” Jason summed up. “We stick with Pinky and the Brain, let people know that they’re still our friends and we counter the rumor wherever we can. We leave Trey for Dom and Alan to decide and don’t rat him out ourselves. What else can we do?”
“I’ll have a talk with Sugi myself,” Xavion said. “Try to find out why he’s acting this way.”
“Sounds like a plan to me,” Qaeshon said. He looked at his watch. “We’d better clean up and you guys had better clear out. It’s getting late.”
“You n-need a place to st-stay tonight, Alan?” Fermat asked. He glanced over at his roommate, who nodded. “You c-can stay with us.”
Alan shook his head. “Thanks, guys, but I think I’d better sleep in my own bed tonight. Hopefully, it will be the last night I sleep there.”
“O-Okay,” Fermat replied. He levered himself off the floor, a difficult feat with only one hand.
The boys took that as their signal to wrap things up. They collected all the trash; Ralph offered to make the run down to the dumpsters with the bag. They picked up the larger chip crumbs but Qaeshon said that he’d vacuum the next day. They started to say their goodbyes and thank yous, then all but the brothers left.
Once outside the building, Jason and Ralph started off to their dorm, waving goodbye to Alan. Fermat and A.J. lingered a bit.
“Y-You sure you’ll b-be all right?” Fermat asked, a concerned frown on his face.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” Alan motioned with his head in the direction that Ralph and Jason had taken. “You two better get back to your dorm. I’ll see you for breakfast.”
“Breakfast. R-Right.” Fermat patted Alan on the upper arm then he and A.J. turned to follow the other two. Alan put his hands in his jacket pockets and started off in the opposite direction, walking slowly and reluctantly back to Chetwood.