Lunch started off as a blur. Alan and Fermat kept glancing around to see if anyone seemed to be talking about them or giving them strange looks. Finally, Jason rolled his eyes and said, “You two better stop it. I mean, I know that nothing travels faster than rumors, but for Pete’s sake! It’s been… what? Two hours, maybe three? And it’s not like it’s a weekday. Most everyone keeps to themselves on weekends, especially on Sundays.”
Fermat sighed. “You’re r-right, Jason. Th-Thanks.” He applied himself to his meal.
“Hey, there’s Zave,” Qaeshon said. He stood up, his arm raised as if to wave his brother over. “Let me see if I can… damn!” He sat down suddenly. “Sugi got to him first.”
Alan groaned. “I am going to be so dead tomorrow afternoon.”
“No, man, you won’t.” Qaeshon shook his head, emphatic. “I’ll catch him later and see what Sugi said to him, then tell him all the details.”
“Are y-you going to call your d-dad, Alan, and t-tell him what’s g-going on?” Fermat asked.
Alan nodded. “Yeah, but I’ll have to wait until four. That way everyone should be up. I want to talk to Gords especially, see if he’s okay.”
“What happened?” Jason asked. “Is one of your brothers hurt or something?”
“Well, sort of,” Alan explained. “My next-oldest brother, Gordon, got overheated yesterday. But Dad took him to the doctor and he’s fine now.” He shrugged. “I just like to know for myself.”
“How’d he get overheated?” Dom asked, curious.
“We live in the tropics, so if you’re out too long or you overdo when the sun is hot, it’s easy to get that way.” Alan shook his head. “Gords must have been out running or something. I’ll get the whole story out of him when I call. Do you want in on the call too, Fermat?”
Fermat swallowed a bite, washing it down with milk before speaking. “I th-think I’ll c-call my d-dad the same time you c-call yours.”
“Do you live together or something?” Dom asked, frowning slightly.
Fermat nodded. “You c-could say that. You see, m-my dad is Mr. Tracy’s head engineer and d-designer. Mr. T-T-T… Alan’s dad likes to k-keep him close so they c-can c-conference whenever they n-need to. So we h-have our own little h-house where the T-T-T… where Alan’s family lives. It’s more c-c-c… it’s easier that way.”
“Oh, okay.” Dom’s frown eased a little but he still sounded hesitant.
“It’s cool, Dom, really,” Alan responded with a weary smile. He looked around the table. “Everybody else finished?”
There were multiple calls of “Yeah” and “I’m good”. Qaeshon said, “Just waiting on you, Pinky.” The boys got up and took their trays out to the dishwashing area. Alan took Fermat’s; the younger boy walked to a spot near the exits. His skin crawled as he imagined the other students watching him, whispering behind his back. He focused on where his friends had gone, refusing to look into the dining hall.
The little group met up with him, all but Qaeshon, who crossed to the table where his brother sat. The others watched him speak to Xavion briefly, though they were too far away to hear what he said. They noticed Qashon glare fiercely at Lee and Trey Makenzie, who sat with Xavion. He rejoined them as they left the dining hall.
“The rumor is getting around,” Alan growled, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets. “That creep at the tray return tried to make a comment.”
“P-Pierce?” Fermat asked as he fell into step with his friend.
“I don’t know.” Jason’s carrot red brows almost met in a deep frown. “Is that his name?”
“Maybe.” Fermat shrugged. “That’s what S-Sugi c-called the guy on d-duty this m-morning.”
“Hmm,” was all Jason replied, nodding slowly.
Alan turned to Dom, who was tagging along behind the group. “Hey, Dom, I just wanted to say that regardless of how this all turns out, you’re welcome to hang with us whenever you like.”
“Thanks, Tracy,” Dom replied. “I appreciate it.” He glanced to his left. “Right now, I see a couple of my friends waving at me. I’d better go see what they want. Tomorrow at lunch, right?”
“Right.” A real smile spread across Alan’s face. “We beard the dragon in her den during lunch.”
“Good stuff. See you all later.” Dom gave them a wave as he walked off to meet his friends.
“It’s a lion,” A.J. piped up as he fell into step with Alan.
“What’s a lion?” Alan asked.
“What you beard in a den. A lion.”
“A.J., my man, have you ever met Ms. Belvedere?” Alan started to put a conspiratorial arm around A.J. but thought better of it.
The younger boy frowned in concentration. “No, I don’t think I have.”
“Well, I have, so you can take it from me, dragon is the operative word here.”
“Okay,” A.J. said, rolling his eyes. “I’ll take your word for it.”
His comment made Alan laugh and for the first time all day, some of the tight ball of worry and apprehension in his stomach eased.
“Good morning, Dad,” Scott said as he came to the breakfast table. “Hi, Onaha!”
“Good morning, Scott,” Jeff replied without looking up, focusing on his morning paper.
“And a good morning to you, too, Scott.” Onaha set a cup of black coffee beside him. “What kind of juice would you like?”
“Oh, just good old o.j. will do.”
“I’ll refill the pitcher then.” She poured the last of the orange juice from the carafe into Scott’s empty glass. “Be right back.”
Scott reached across to snag two biscuits from the basket in the center of the table. He buttered one as Onaha came out again, the carafe filled to the rim with freshly squeezed orange juice.
“I have scrambled eggs, small sausage links, and bacon this morning.” Her recitation was more of a question as she finished filling his juice glass.
“Sounds great, Onaha. Some of everything, please,” he replied before taking a big bite out of the fluffy biscuit. The housekeeper nodded and went off to dish up his breakfast, leaving the juice behind.
“So, Dad. Has anyone heard from the sprout this morning?” Scott asked between bites.
“Not yet.” Jeff set his paper down. “John spoke with both him and Fermat yesterday, though, so they know about Gordon.” He chuckled. “Seems John has a fan in Fermat’s roommate.”
“Why?” Scott sounded puzzled. After a moment’s thought, comprehension dawned. “Oh! The books!” He shook his head. “Sometimes I forget that John’s got a life outside of the island.”
“He does?” Virgil asked as he came into the dining room. “What life?” He sat down, motioning to Scott. “Please pass the juice.”
“As a popular author.” Scott finished buttering his second biscuit, held it between his lips as he passed the juice to Virgil, then bit down on it, catching the remainder before it hit his lap.
“Ohhh, yeah. That life.” Virgil nodded sagely as he poured juice for himself.
Onaha came in at that moment to bring Scott his plate. “John’s books are very good,” she commented. “I’ve read every one, more than once, and learned something new every time.” Turning to Virgil, she repeated the menu. Virgil decided to pass on the sausages. She smiled, poured him a cup of coffee, and went back to the kitchen.
“I expect we’ll hear from Alan this morning,” Jeff said, returning to the previous topic. “He’ll want to talk to Gordon himself.”
There was movement at the dining room door. Jeff glanced up to see Gordon, followed closely by Brains, come into the room. “Should you be out of bed?” he asked, rising to offer his still pale son some support.
“It’s o-o-okay, Mr. T-Tracy,” Brains said. “G-Gordon was hungry a-and it didn’t seem r-r-r… it didn’t seem fair for h-him to be a-alone in the s-sick room.”
“Besides,” Gordon said, his tone weary as he eased himself into a seat. “I was getting bored.”
“No one wants a bored Gordon,” Virgil quipped. “That’s when he comes up with his most inspired pranks.”
“All right, son. If Brains says it’s okay for you to be up and about, that’s fine with me. But I do expect you to rest for most of the day,” Jeff admonished, sitting back down again. “Eat breakfast, then you can wait until Alan calls, as he’s bound to do. After that, back to the sick room you go.”
“Do I have to stay in the sick room?” Gordon whined as Virgil poured him some orange juice. “I’d sleep better in my own bed.” He turned to his brother. “Thanks, Virge.”
The two older men exchanged glances; Brains nodded fractionally. Jeff smiled. “I guess you can rest in your own room, as long as resting is all you’re doing in there.”
Gordon smiled, his face brightening a little. “Thanks, Dad.”
Onaha came out with Virgil’s plate and took orders for Brains and Gordon, clucking her tongue over the latter’s still pale complexion. She disappeared into the kitchen again and Kyrano appeared.
“Good morning, Kyrano.” Jeff took a sip of his coffee. “What have you been up to?”
“Cleaning out the pool, Mr. Tracy. The wind last night knocked several large palm fronds in both levels,” Kyrano explained. “I pulled the bigger pieces out; the filters should take care of the smaller bits.”
“Sounds good.” Jeff looked at his watch. “Onaha? One more cup of coffee, please. I’ll take it to my office.” He regarded his second youngest. “Join me up there when you’re through, Gordon. I expect Alan will want to talk to you. So will John when he checks in this morning.”
Gordon, his mouth full of biscuit, nodded. Onaha filled Jeff’s cup again and he rose from the table. “Thank you, Onaha. Breakfast was delicious, as always. Scott, Virgil, maintenance on One and Two. I’ll be down later to help. Gordon, in my office as soon as you’re done. Brains, see me in a couple of hours. I want to discuss some modifications to the Firefly. Good morning, all.”
Jeff strode off, leaving the rest of his family to finish their breakfast.
The rest of the afternoon seemed to drag as Alan waited for four o’clock to roll around. Four was the earliest time he could call home and find his father in his office. Any earlier and he would interrupt breakfast on the island. He could call later in the afternoon and often did, but today he wanted to speak to his father as soon as possible.
He tried to focus on his homework, taking his books to the common room so he wouldn’t encounter his roommate. Between his own worries and the baseball game some other students were watching, he didn’t get much done. Instead, he gathered the thoughts and arguments he wanted to present to his father. He knew his dad would understand about the room switch, but he wasn’t sure he could convince his father to stay out of the whole mess. He also wanted Jeff to visit and figured he needed some arguments on that matter, too.
Four o’clock had almost rolled around when Alan headed out to the same spot where he’d rested during his last call home. More of the golden leaves cluttered the still green grass despite the best efforts of the grounds crew. Brushing a few stray leaves aside, he settled on the moist lawn, speed-dialing home. As the call connected, he plugged in the earpiece.
Two rings and Jeff answered the call. “Hey, Alan! How’s it going?”
Alan mustered up a smile. “It’s okay, Dad. How are things there? How’s Gordon?”
“You can ask him yourself.” Jeff adjusted the camera so it pointed at Gordon, reclining on the office sofa.
Alan felt both relief and concern when he saw his closest brother. Gordon’s complexion was paler than he remembered and his brother’s short-cropped, dark hair stood out against his skin. Gordon raised a hand in greeting and said, “Hey, Al.”
“Hey, Gords.” Alan replied, smiling and trying to sound upbeat. “How’re you doing? I heard you got a little ‘overheated’. What went down?”
“I got a little too up close and personal with the heat of a forest fire. But I’m okay, just still feeling a little wrung out. The doctor said I needed more rest and plenty of fluids, that’s all,” Gordon replied. “How’s life in the wilds of Massachusetts?”
“It’s okay,” Alan said, his concern easing as he heard his brother admit that he needed rest. “I made the track team.”
“So I heard,” Gordon said, a real smile lighting up his face. “I want to come out and see you at a meet sometime.” He glanced over at his father. “That is, if Dad will let us come.”
Jeff said something off-screen and Gordon nodded. “Dad says we’ll make arrangements once he gets the schedule of meets.” He pointed a finger at Alan. “Better send it soon.”
“In the email as soon as I get it myself,” Alan promised. He sighed. “I think I’d better talk to Dad now. I’m glad to see that you’re okay, Gords. I was really worried.”
“Ah, relax, will ya?” Gordon drawled. “A couple days of rest and I’ll be my old self.” He glanced over at Jeff again. “Yes, sir.” Turning so his eyes were back on the screen where Alan’s picture rested, he said regretfully, “Now that I’ve talked to both you and John, I’ve been ordered to bed. I’ll talk to you again soon, Sprout.”
“Yeah, later ‘Minnow’,” Alan said with a smirk. Gordon glared at him, sticking out his tongue. The camera swung back to focus on Jeff. There was movement in the background as Gordon left the room, then it was just father and youngest son.
“So, is everything going smoothly?” Jeff asked.
Alan glanced away, then sighed. “Not exactly, Dad.” He told his father about the situation with his roommate and his roommate’s friend and what he planned to do about it.
Jeff scowled. “Alan, what he’s doing is harassment. He needs to be reported. So does this other boy, because he’s breaking the rules.”
“Dad,” Alan said, trying to reason with his father. “I know what Sugi’s doing and Mackenzie, too. But I have to take care of this myself, in my own way.” He looked down then back up to meet his father’s eyes again. “You’re not always going to be there to fight my battles for me. I need to learn to fight them myself and not always with my fists.” He shrugged. “Besides, I’m not in this alone. My friends are going to help.”
A corner of Jeff’s mouth went up in a small smile as he listened to his son. Damn, but the boy is growing up. And making me proud in the bargain. He nodded, saying, “Okay, Alan. I won’t interfere–not unless it gets out of hand. I’m going to trust you to not let it get that way and to tell me truthfully if it does. But I want you to remember that there’s another person involved in this: Fermat. You need to keep an eye on how this situation develops with him, too. In a way, he’s more vulnerable than you are and I don’t want you so busy dealing with your own problems that you can’t stand up for him when he needs it.”
“I’ll keep an eye on him, Dad. I promise,” Alan said, relieved. “I’m glad you understand why I’m going to ask for this transfer. A.J. needs someone like Fermat as a roommate. They’re two of a kind in a way.”
“So I gather.” Jeff smiled for real this time. “I guess this means I don’t have to come out and speak to the board of directors next month.”
“No, you don’t have to, even if I don’t get my room assignment switched. But I’d still like you to come and visit. Come out and watch me in a meet, or come for no reason at all. I miss you guys.”
“And we–I miss you, too, son,” Jeff admitted. “You send me a list of your meets and I’ll make arrangements, okay?” He leaned forward as if imparting some big secret. “Maybe we’ll even bring John down for the occasion.”
Alan grinned. “That’d be cool, Dad! And come more than once, okay? That way everyone can see me in action!”
“All right, Alan,” Jeff said with a laugh. “We’ll plan on more than one visit.” He paused for a moment. “What do you want me to tell Brains?”
Alan moistened his lips with his tongue. “I think Fermat’s supposed to call his dad and explain the situation. At least, that’s what he said he’d do.” He looked at his wristwatch communicator. “He said he’d call at the same time I called you.”
“Okay. Brains and I will get together and compare notes.” Jeff glanced at his own watch. “I’d better sign off, son. Get me that schedule as soon as you can. Call me after you talk to Mrs. Belvedere and know if you’ve gotten your room changed.”
“I will, Dad,” Alan affirmed again. “Love you, Dad. Talk to you later.”
“Same here, Alan,” Jeff replied, smiling. That’s twice he’s said it. “Bye for now.”
The connection was broken and Alan smiled. It actually felt good to tell his father that he loved him and missed him. It felt even better to know he was loved and missed. I guess things are getting better between us. He put his phone in his jacket pocket and rose to his feet, brushing dirt off of the seat of his jeans. Better get back and finish my homework. I hope Fermat’s call to his dad goes as well as mine did.
Fermat glanced over at his roommate, who was playing spider solitaire on his own computer. He wanted more privacy to talk with his father but didn’t feel comfortable asking A.J. to leave. The year before, privacy hadn’t been a problem. Alan had understood.
I guess I’d better find someplace else, Fermat thought. He pulled his phone from his desk, plugging the earpiece in while he had the desk to work with, then told A.J. he’d be back soon. The younger boy glanced up, nodded, and went back to his game.
He walked down to the stairwell at one end of the hall. There were two, one at either end. The narrow stairs zigzagged as they rose, with a landing halfway between each floor. One window per landing meant that the stairwell was rather dark, and the wooden steps had been worn down in the center by decades of passing feet. The steps also climbed a half-flight beyond the third floor to a dead end landing. A trap door there opened into the crawl space just beneath the roof and from there one could access the rooftop itself. But Fermat wasn’t interested in going up quite that high. The landing itself was the spot he wanted.
The wooden floor was free of dust, as the janitorial staff was charged to keep it as clean as the other landings. He sat down cross-legged before the window so light from without would shine on him and called his father.
Brains had retired to the lab after breakfast, intending to anticipate Jeff’s request about modifications to the Firefly. When his phone rang, he was deep into studying the plans of the vehicle and didn’t notice it at first. But at last the strident ring (he had never been able to decide on a musical ringtone) drew his attention and he picked up the device, flipping it open. The word “Fermat” blinked on his screen. He smiled, putting is own earpiece in to answer the call.
“H-Hey, Dad!” Fermat said, smiling to see his father.
“H-Hey, F-F-F… son. How are y-you?”
“F-F-F… I’m okay, D-Dad. You?”
“F-Fine, son.” Brains cocked his head to one side a bit. “Y-You look a bit t-troubled.”
Fermat sighed. “I am, D-Dad. There’s something g-going on here you should kn-know about.”
When he was done unburdening himself about the situation with Alan’s current roommate, he said sadly, “Alan d-didn’t even a-ask if it was o-okay with me. He just w-went and m-made these arrangements and t-told me after the f-f-f… afterward, and only wh-when I c-c-confronted him about it.” He dropped his eyes and sighed again. “He a-apologized but it still b-bothers me.”
“I c-can understand that,” Brains said, nodding his head. “What d-do you intend to d-do about it?”
The boy shook his head. “I d-don’t know. I guess s-support Alan in what he’s t-trying to do. And do my b-best to ignore the r-rumors.”
“I think y-you should r-report this S-Sugi character for h-harassing you.” Brains leaned against an elbow, fingers splayed against his brow. “There’s n-not much you can d-do about the roommate situation, though. Y-You’ll have to let A-Alan handle that.”
“B-But what do I t-tell the administrators if they a-ask me why S-Sugi is spreading this r-rumor?” Fermat cried. “B-Besides, it’s m-my word against h-his,” he added, looking down. “He’s a ‘b-big man on c-campus’. I’m n-not.”
“His c-comment was w-witnessed by that k-kitchen worker,” Brains reminded his son. “H-He could b-back you up.”
Fermat shook his head. “No. Sugi seemed to b-be pretty ch-ch-ch… friendly with him. H-He even knew the g-guy’s name.”
“But the k-kitchen worker m-made a comment to y-your friends,” Brains said, trying to come up with some way to get Fermat to go to the administration. “That’s h-harassment, too.”
Fermat shrugged. “I d-didn’t hear it and it d-doesn’t prove that Sugi s-started the rumor.” He gave his father a pleading look. “Let’s ch-change the subject, huh?”
“O-Okay,” Brains agreed, still unhappy with his son’s predicament. “I guess I w-won’t be coming to t-talk to the administration about ch-ch-ch… you moving in with Alan, w-will I?”
“N-No,” the boy answered. “But will you c-come see me for a quiz t-team meet? We s-start practice tomorrow after classes.”
“I’ll see what I can d-do.” Brains removed his glasses to clean them, squinting at the small screen as a result. He put his glasses back on, asking, “How d-do you practice for qu-quiz team?”
“We’re going to g-go over the f-format and the r-rules and p-practice how we’re s-supposed to r-respond to a question,” Fermat replied, smiling a little. “D-Devdan will select who is m-most likely to answer a c-certain type of question. For example, I’m b-better at m-math and science, but someone else would be b-better at languages or literature.”
“Ah! I s-see,” Brains responded. “You’ll answer the qu-questions according to your st-strengths.”
His son nodded and Brains smiled. He noticed that the picture of Fermat was getting darker. “S-Son, I think we’d b-better say goodbye now. The light is failing on y-your end. S-Send me the schedule of meets and I’ll s-see what I can d-do about coming to one.”
Fermat looked up and noticed that his father was correct. “O-Okay. I’ll email the schedule wh-when I g-get it. I hope you can c-come.”
“I’ll t-try my best,” the father said with a wider smile. “Now, g-get back to your r-room and r-remember what I said about this Sugi character. H-He’s harassing you and should be r-r-r… you should tell.”
“I’ll r-remember but I d-don’t think there’s m-much I can d-do,” Fermat said glumly.
They were quiet for a moment, then Brains said, “Son?”
“I l-love you.”
Fermat smiled. “I l-love you, too, Dad. T-Talk to you later.”
“Right. Bye for n-now.”
The screen went blank. Fermat groaned as he got off the hardwood floor. He took his earpiece out and wrapped the cord around the folded phone, then plodded back down to his room.
Brains contemplated the blank screen for a few minutes, lightly biting his thumbnail. Then he picked up the plans for the Firefly and headed up to Jeff’s office. He had a lot to talk over with the Tracy patriarch.