After carrying Fermat’s stuff back to the dorm, Alan hung around to say hello when his friend called home with the good news about quiz team.
“Y-Your father told me about the t-t-t… field tryouts, A-Alan.” Brains’s grin encompassed both boys. He gave a thumbs-up. “I-I hope you m-m-m… I hope you are on the t-t-team.”
“Me too, Brains.” Alan nodded, returning the grin.
A.J. walked in during the call so Fermat dragged him over to introduce him to his father.
“Hello, Mr. Hackenbacker,” the younger boy said politely. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“N-Nice to m-m-m… make your a-acquaintance, too, A.J.,” Brains responded, using the nickname Fermat and the others had already given to him. “I h-hear you and F-F-F… my son had a r-rocky start. I’m g-g-g… happy that you’re now g-g-g… that you’ve started o-over. I think you m-may have m-m-more in common than y-you think.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hackenbacker.” Andrew stood a bit straighter, clasping his hands behind his back. “I’ve never had a roommate before and I’ve got a lot to learn, it seems.”
“Y-You’ll do f-f-fine.”
Alan helped himself to a soda from Fermat’s stash and drank it while the two said their goodbyes. Last year it had been hard to watch Fermat and Brains’s warm and easy relationship. Not any more. Events during spring and summer breaks enabled him and Jeff repair the bridges they’d damaged with their constant sparring. He also drew closer to his brothers, especially John, who he barely saw because a human presence was needed in Thunderbird Five. Having him home for the entire summer while the others repaired and rebuilt the space station was a welcome change.
Repairs had been scheduled in two week stints, with the repair crew spending a week on Earth together before going up for another two weeks. John flew up for the final two week stint with orders to work solely on the computers. His injuries took most of the summer to heal; his father would not allow a return to duty until they had.
“B-Bye, Dad.” Fermat waved slightly at the screen. “L-Love you!”
Brains responded in kind and Fermat ended the call. Alan sighed. He and his dad didn’t say they loved each other very often but since the Hood’s attack on the island, they embraced more to show how much they cared. He glanced over at A.J. who lay on his bed, hands behind his head. Wonder how A.J. gets along with his dad? He said his father took him to London and they went to the Eye. That must have been fun.
“H-Hey, A.J.” Fermat’s tone was purposefully cheerful. “We sh-should clean the r-room tonight so we have a-all day t-tomorrow to g-g-g… have fun. You with m-me?”
“I suppose.” A.J. shrugged, not budging from his place or even looking at his roommate. “Except, I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll teach you,” Alan said firmly. “But don’t think I’m going to do it for you. C’mon. I’ll show you where to find the cleaning supplies.”
A.J. sighed heavily and got up, following Alan out, with Fermat taking up the rear. Fermat motioned for A.J. to put his hand up to the lock on the closet where the cleaning materials were kept. “Th-The closet’s lock is p-programmed with the h-h-handprints of those who l-live in the dorm a-and it logs when w-we open the closet. That helps k-keep t-track of the s-s-supplies and who h-h-has them.”
Alan pulled out cleaning chemicals and paper towels, handing them to the youngest boy. Fermat maneuvered a vacuum cleaner out with his good hand, dragging it along after him. While Alan showed A.J. the finer points of bathroom cleaning, Fermat vacuumed and disposed of the trash. They were required to change their sheets for Saturday inspections; since Alan was a pro at stripping and remaking top bunks, he helped both boys, giving A.J. instruction as he did.
A.J. scowled. “I never knew I’d be learning how to keep house while at school.”
“Hey, it’s called ‘fulfilling potential’,” Alan quipped, remembering parts of the brochure he’d read at the beginning of the year. “Something Wharton’s supposed to be good at.”
“H-Here I thought it w-was ‘b-building character’,” Fermat riposted with a grin. “Last year’s b-b-b… flyer said that.”
A.J. listened to the easy banter, his head turning back and forth as the two continued to joke around. This is so interesting. I’ve never had friends who I could do this with. He cleared his throat. “Are you sure it’s not … uh … ‘mastering esoteric skills’?” The other two boys stopped to stare at him for a long moment, their mouths open. They glanced at each other quickly and burst into peals of laughter.
“Was it that funny?” he asked, confused.
Alan wiped an eye. “Yeah, it was. What does ‘esoteric’ mean?”
A.J. blinked. “Uh… I don’t know, really. I found it in one of the brochures my dad read while he researched where to send me this year.”
Alan pointed at Fermat. “Brain? ‘Ey, Brain?” His faux Cockney accent sounded like a bad imitation of Parker, Lady Penelope’s roguish butler. “Wot does eso… asso… eh-sot-tear-hic mean?”
Fermat brought his voice down as low as he could. “P-Pinky! Don’t d-disturb me while I’m t-trying to … t-take over the world!”
They howled with laughter again while A.J. looked the word up on his computer. “Of or related to that which is known by a restricted number of people; see mysterious.” He shook his head. “I still don’t get it.”
“Don’t try, A.J.,” Alan counseled. “Just take my word for it, it was funny!”
“So, what’s left to do?” A.J. asked, looking around. He didn’t see much difference to the room but silently admitted how pleasant it would be to sleep on clean sheets.
Fermat indicated the windows. “The w-windows, from the i-inside only. B-But we have w-w-w… we have to do it in the d-d-daylight.”
Alan nodded, snorting softly. “Yeah. I’d better get back to my own dorm and clean my bathroom. Sugi and I haven’t discussed the cleaning schedule, but I think he’d want me to have the scut job anyway.”
“We’ll p-put away th-the stuff. Wh-When my a-arm heals up, w-we can sh-share doing the b-b-b… restroom.” He held up his cast. “But until I g-get this off, I j-just can’t d-do it.”
“I guess I can see why,” A.J. admitted, sighing.
Alan shot his empty soda can into the freshly emptied trash bin. “He shoots, he scores!” He slid into his jacket. “Gotta go. See you tomorrow, guys. I may not be at breakfast but I’ll be at the game room later. The final track roster goes up tomorrow after noon.”
“See you l-later, g-gator!” Fermat walked his friend to the door.
Fermat returned to his room to find his roommate making a phone call. He quietly retrieved a soda from the fridge and brought his computer to life.
“Hello, Chivers? Yes, it’s me. Is my father available?” A.J. waited for a moment. Fermat studiously kept his eyes on his computer screen, trying to read the email from Tin-Tin.
“Geneva? Hmm.” A.J. glanced at his watch. “Too late to call him there.” He shook his head. “No, no emergency. But if he checks in, please tell him … tell him I called? Thank you. Goodbye.”
A.J. folded up his phone with a sad, thoughtful look and put it back in its charger. He sighed once more, rummaging in the fridge for a bottle of juice before pulling out a book to read.
Fermat felt he had to say something. “Y-You okay?”
“Yes, I am. My dad’s in Geneva. I’ll call him in the morning.”
The older boy nodded as he turned back to Tin-Tin’s missive. Boy, do I have a lot to tell her!
“What’s going on there?” As he walked home, Alan noticed the reflection of blue lights flashing. Curious, he cut across the grass to join the small crowd gathered on the walk behind Oakwood dorm. Two New Ashford police cars had parked along the sidewalk, along with one of Wharton’s security team’s cars. All eyes turned as an ambulance slowly moved up to join them. Two paramedics jumped out, opening the back of their transport. Mr. Magnuson beckoned to them from the far corner of the building. One, a young woman, wheeled a gurney in his direction, while her partner, a husky older man, followed with a toolbox.
Alan spied Jason in the crowd and threaded his way through to join him. “What’s up?”
“Someone got beat up.” Jason glanced at Alan before turning his attention back to the unfolding events. “I think it was the yearbook editor, Dominic Bertoli. Somebody found him in the bushes behind Oakwood. He’s not badly hurt, but the attack aggravated his asthma … here he comes now.”
The paramedics came back, a dark haired boy strapped to the gurney with an oxygen mask over his face. Mr. Magnuson followed. The professionals loaded him into the ambulance. The security chief climbed in after them. The young woman took the wheel and the transport pulled away, lights still flashing, the siren blaring once as it headed back down the access road.
“Okay, boys!” Mr. Culp, one of the regular, uniformed security officers, appeared in the ambulance’s wake. “You’ve seen what there is to see. Time to move along!”
Alan glanced at Jason. “Let’s go.” The two friends returned to the sidewalk in front of Oakwood and walked toward Birchwood. “This is the second attack on a student.” Alan jammed his hands in his pockets. “Maybe now the police will take things more seriously.”
“I hope so.” Jason nodded. “I’d hate for my folks to pull me out. This was going to be a good year.”
Saturday breakfast was normally sparsely attended, mostly because the boys were either sleeping in or frantically cleaning in preparation for the weekly inspections. However, Fermat was up and about. He left A.J. sleeping in their room, stopping at the infirmary for his medicine before hustling on to the dining hall. He liked getting up early on Saturday; he usually found a seat with a different group of boys than those he sat with during the week. He often got a different perspective on things that went on at the school and, at that particular meal, students seemed open to newcomers as well.
Fermat got his food, glancing around to see if anyone he knew could help him with it. He didn’t see anyone at first, so he tried to balance his tray between his abdomen and free hand until he heard a welcome, familiar voice. “Having trouble, Brain? Hold on. Let me put my tray down.”
“Thanks, Kay.” Fermat smiled gratefully. Qaeshon set the tray he carried on a table–one where his brother, Xavion, sat–before returning to fetch Fermat’s meal. Fermat followed; Xavion greeted him and introduced him to the others.
One of the boys, Erik Tolbert, paused his eating long enough to ask, “You were Alan Tracy’s roommate last year, weren’t you?”.
“Y-Yes, I was.” Fermat nodded as he cut up his pancakes with a fork.
Erik smiled. “He’s a good runner. He and I were both trying out for cross-country yesterday.”
Fermat’s eyes widened as he made the connection. “O-O-Oh! You’re th-that Erik! Alan t-told me about y-you. Nice t-to meet y-you.”
The boys fell quiet as they ate until Qaeshon broke the silence as he cut up his sausage. “So, did you all hear about Dominic Bertoli?”
Fermat shook his head. “I d-don’t know him. W-What happened?”
“He was attacked last night.” Xavion’s voice was dark and angry. “Seems someone decided he was an easy target, kinda like Kay the other night.” His brows furrowed and his lips set in a hard line. “He wasn’t hurt much, but the whole thing made his asthma flare up bad. They took him to the hospital.”
A student from the next table leaned his chair back to speak with Fermat’s tablemates. “I hear the administration’s considering it an isolated incident of bullying. The police aren’t taking it very seriously.”
“They should.” Xavion’s scowl got deeper. “The more this happens the more it’s gonna happen, if you get my drift.”
There were general murmurs of assent from the others at the table. The topic shifted to the previous evening’s soccer game, which Wharton had won in overtime.
Fermat and Qaeshon exchanged glances, the latter looking worried. “You think these creeps have something against yearbook people? I mean, I’m on the staff and Dom’s the editor.”
Fermat chewed it over in his head for a bit. “I-I don’t know, K-Kay. You said th-they told you that y-you should be going out f-for sports, right?”
“Yeah, they did. But what has that got to do with anything?”
“D-Dominic has always i-i-i… seemed to m-me to be a s-s-sports oriented kinda g-guy.” Fermat took a sip of milk. “I-I was s-s-s… taken a-a-aback that he didn’t g-go out for s-sports, but n-now I know wh-why. His a-asthma must be pretty b-bad to k-k-keep him from p-playing.”
“From what I understand, it is. He’s on a couple of different medications for it as well as an inhaler that he uses a lot. You may be onto something there, Brain. I hope this doesn’t happen again, but if it does, we’ll have to see if one or the other of the patterns fit.” Kay snorted a laugh. “Listen to us. We sound like we’re in some detective thriller.”
Fermat chuckled, too. “Y-You’re right, we do. Hackenbacker and L-Lewis, p-private eyes.”
They laughed again, drawing glances from the other boys at the table.
The games room in the Student Union was usually crowded on Saturdays and this one was no exception. Freshmen learning their way around stopped by for a quick game of foosball or air hockey. A handful of chess team members played, watched by their teammates, and by Mr. Feng, the room’s official faculty monitor at that point of the day. The pinball and vid games made their usual racket. The ping pong and pool tables saw heavy use. Short lines of players waited their turns at the four VR stations. Players for the VR games had only twenty-minutes at a time. No matter how far they got in the game by that point, the game stopped, saving automatically so players could later pick up where they left off. It took a lot of memory to keep track of it all. Fortunately, Wharton had the best in computer servers. They had to; computers were a staple of life in the 2020s. Parents expected the school to have top of the line systems, especially considering how much tuition they paid.
Alan played foosball with Jason, one of his fiercest competitors. He also kept half an eye on the time, which interfered with his concentration. Jason noticed and took full advantage of the situation. He brought the ball down past Alan’s defense. With a savage spinning “kick”, he drove it into the goal for the winning point.
“Awww!” Alan put both hands over his face, throwing his head back and stomping a foot.
Jason jeered. “Drama queen.”
Alan grinned and shrugged. “Yeah, but you love me anyway.” He made kissy lips and noises in Jason’s general direction.
“Get out!” Half annoyed, half facetiously, Jason waved a hand as if to push Alan away. “Okay, who’s next?”
Fermat walked in, A.J. at his heels. The younger boy gazed all around him, his mouth slightly open. Fermat noticed. “Was there a-anything like this wh-where you went to school b-b-b… last year?”
“Well, yeah, but it wasn’t this … noisy. Or big. And there weren’t so many people—”
“Th-Things are different h-here. The g-games room opens every d-day. Hours are p-p-p… listed on the d-door. The pool is almost the s-same, except it’s r-r-r… saved for the swim t-team after classes and there’s a m-meet every other F-Friday night. To m-make up for it, there are e-e-e… more hours after d-dinner on Sunday.”
A.J. seemed suddenly interested. “What else is there to do around here?”
“There are u-u-u… almost always pick-up b-basketball games at the g-gym or the o-outside hoops and the t-tennis c-c-courts have hours p-posted.”
“Golf? Is there any golf?”
Fermat stopped to think. “I’m n-not sure. You should ch-check the b-b-b… boards over there.” He pointed in the direction of a series of large bulletin boards, covering nearly a whole wall. “Hey, here comes Zave!”
Xavion strode into the room, folder in hand, weaving his way through the crowd and picking up a following as he did so. Alan saw him come in and hurried over to the bulletin board.
“Looks like the t-t-track team roster is g-going up.” Fermat nudged A.J. “Let’s g-go see.”
Xavion put up five pieces of paper, standing in front of the sheets, shielding them from sight with his body. The crowd pushed in behind him; at one point he turned and barked, “Back off. I need room!” The boys all took a step back, a few of the older ones putting out their arms to help push back the crowd. Finally, he finished pinning up the lists and nimbly got out of the way as the boys surged forward.
The lists were for basketball, swimming, wrestling, track, and a final roster for soccer. Alan kept bobbing up and down, trying to see over heads, hoping to spot his own name. At last he made his way to the front. He located the proper list and scanned down it. He frowned and looked again, reading it more carefully. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open.
Fermat, who had managed to squeeze past some of the boys still checking the rosters, poked Alan in the ribs. Alan turned to him, his face still a study in surprise. “W-Well?”