Understandings

Fermat woke up much later feeling a lot less groggy, but as he squinted and gazed around he felt apprehensive. Where am I? he wondered. I don’t recognize…

His attention was caught by a sudden motion to his right. A familiar voice called out, “Well, good afternoon, sleepy head. How are you feeling?”

“I f-feel much b-b-better, Ms. B-Bell.” He relaxed as a fuzzy dark form came up to him, opened a drawer (he could hear it), and handed him a familiar object. Before he could put his glasses on, she stopped him.

“Hold up. I want to check your eyes.” She took something from a pocket; without warning, a bright light shining flicked once, twice, three times in the right eye and then repeated in the left. “Okay. You can put your glasses on now.”

He followed her instructions and the world came into focus again. “How’s the arm?” she asked, moving his arm up and down at the shoulder.

A twinge from within the cast made him hiss, so she stopped. “Hurts a little or a lot?”

“A little.”

Ms. Bell smiled. “All right, I’m going to put you on naproxen. It should last twelve hours but shouldn’t make you drowsy. Since it’s a twelve hour medicine, I want you to take it at meals, just for consistency’s sake. Right now, I’ll give you a dose of aceteminophen to hold you over until dinner. Come by before dinner and breakfast, just as you have been, okay?”

“O-Okay.” Fermat glanced at his watch. “Hey! I might b-be able t-to make my t-t-t… my test!”

“And what test would this be?”

“T-Tryouts for the academic qu-quiz t-team!”

She handed him a tiny paper cup with two pills in it. “Well, that explains why Devdan Israni came by here about a half hour ago, asking after you.”

“He did?” Fermat dumped the pills into his palm and popped the medicine in his mouth, following up with the cup of water Ms. Bell handed him.

“Yes. I told him not to expect you, but it seems you might be able to catch him after all.”

With a grin, he hopped awkwardly from the bed to a chair, where he slipped into his loafers. “C-Can I go now?”

“Let me fill out the paperwork to discharge you. I need the names of your teachers so I can email excuses to them. Remember, it’s your responsibility to make up the work you’ve missed today.”

Glancing up from settling his sling around his neck, he nodded. “Y-Yes, ma’am.”

Fifteen minutes later, Fermat was on his way, hurrying to the second floor of the Student Union, where the yearbook and various other clubs had offices and workrooms. His heavy load of books, coupled with his computer, slowed him down, leaving him huffing as he reached room 212. “Two-oh-eight, t-two-t-ten, here it i-is!”

He peered through the door’s narrow window, hoping to catch the eye of Mr. Feng, who leaned against a desk, a timer in his hand, watching a small group of boys take a written test. The teacher glanced his way and motioned to someone else in the room, pointing in the direction of the door. A couple of boys glanced up as Devdan came to the door, opening it and speaking softly.

“Hello, Mr. Hackenbacker. We were not expecting you.”

“M-Ms. B-Bell released m-me.” Fermat kept his voice down. “A-Am I t-t-t… am I too late?”

“Late, yes.” Devdan smiled. “But too late? No. Come in.”

Fermat grinned. “Thanks!”


Alan stepped out of the shower, enjoying how he felt. The hot water had relaxed him, leaving him feeling loose, happy, and at ease in his own skin as he dried himself with a thick towel. The little doubts about making the track team had washed away with his sweat. I did my best today. I’m sure my name will be on the roster, he thought. I’m sure of it!

He opened the door between bathroom and bedroom just in time to hear his satellite phone ring. Dad!

Wrapping the towel around his waist, he picked up the phone, scrounging to find earpiece and microphone so he and his father could see each other. He then propped the phone atop the drawers in his wardrobe and answered the call.

Just as he expected, his dad smiled back at him. “Hey, Alan! How’s it going?”

“Great, Dad, just great!” Alan pulled a pair of boxers from his drawer. He put them on, keeping an eye on his father. After all, at this angle, the camera could only see his face and possibly his shoulders.

“Did I catch you at a bad time, son?” A little wrinkle of concern creased Jeff’s face. Alan’s head kept bobbing up and down, almost sickeningly so; when it stilled for a second or two, his son’s corn-colored hair was wet and sticking up in spikes.

“Nah, it’s cool, Dad. Just got out of the shower after my tryouts.” Alan tried to sound like he had tryouts every day of the week.

“Tryouts? For what, son?” Jeff sat back, startled as a large red blob seemed to swallow Alan whole, spitting out only his son’s head, his damp blond spikes now plastered down in spots.

“Hang on a sec, Dad.” Alan’s phone, precariously leaned against a sock ball, fell from the dresser. He caught it nimbly, setting it back in place. “There, that’s better.”

Jeff, who for the past few moments had been subjected to a dizzying, jerky picture dominated by red, propped his head up in one hand, elbow on the arm of his chair, shading his eyes with that hand. He shook his head slowly. “Alan, you could have told me you were getting dressed. I would have waited.”

“Nah, Dad, it’s cool! I’m almost done.” Alan’s head kept bobbing up and down as he slipped into a pair of clean jeans. With a little hop to settle the jeans around his hips, he fastened the fly. “There!” He picked up the phone, grabbed the supporting sock ball, and took both to his desk.

Jeff chuckled. Now his son’s picture was stable but the background was not until Alan set the phone on his desk, bobbing down to put on his socks. “Alan, you haven’t answered my question. Tryouts for what?”

“Oh, yeah!” Socks donned, Alan sat back in his chair. “Track team. I’m going out for track.”

This brought a smile of genuine surprise and pleasure to Jeff’s face. “Track team? Good for you! What events are you thinking about?”

“Well, high jump for one. Long jump, too. Today was the cross-country trial. I came in second!” Alan beamed.

“Way to go, son!” Jeff’s experience with John’s cross-country career taught him a second place finish was far from failure. “When do you find out if you made the cut?”

“Tomorrow afternoon.” Alan rubbed his hands together. “I can hardly wait!”

“Want me to pass the word along to John? You know he’ll be interested.”

“Yeah, that’d be great!”

Jeff nodded, settling back in his chair. “How are classes going?”

“So far, so good. Fermat’s helping me with math and I think I’m getting the concepts we’re studying. But … I’m taking strength training and so far it’s a bore. We’re studying the muscle groups and equipment. It’s like a beginner’s course. I’m afraid I’ll lose all the muscle tone I gained over the summer.”

“Well, reviewing the basics won’t hurt.” Jeff stroked his chin. “Why not tell your teacher you did some weight training over the summer? Maybe he can give you permission to work in the weight room outside of class.”

Alan looked thoughtful. “That’s a good idea, Dad. Thanks.”

“Are you getting along with your new roommate?”

Alan nodded his head eagerly. “Oh yeah! My roommate is Lee Sugimoto, the biggest athlete and most popular guy at school! He suggested I go out for track. He’s got an away soccer game right now or I’d introduce you. We’re getting along just fine.”

“So you’re not missing Fermat?” Jeff smiled a little, the corners of his mouth subtly quirking upward.

The boy’s expression turned thoughtful again. “Well, yes and no. I mean, Fermat’s roommate was a pain in the ass at first. If we’d been sharing a room, Fermat wouldn’t have broken his arm. We could have kept up with that last rescue, too.” He shrugged. “On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t have gone out for track if Sugi wasn’t here. Know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I think I do.” Jeff nodded. He shifted in his seat. “You said Fermat’s roommate was a pain at first. What changed your mind?”

“Fermat did. They came to some kind of agreement; sort of started over. Now A.J.’s part of the gang. He’s still learning how to fit in, but he’s trying and so are we. Oh, hey! Tell John he has a fan! A.J. loves John’s books. In fact, he asked me this morning if I was John’s brother! That was a switch!”

“Who do people ask you about otherwise?” Jeff was already sure that he knew the answer.

Alan rolled his eyes and snorted. “Daaaad! The multi-billionaire and astronaut hero, Jeff Tracy, of course.” He bounced his head around as he said it, acting like he’d heard it so much he was reciting by rote, ending the line by leaning in to give his father a mock glare.

“Oh! I didn’t know it was so tough being my son,” Jeff retorted with a half-smile and a facetious tone.

“It can be.” Alan suddenly sobered. “It can be when people want to be your friend because of who your father is instead of who you are inside. When people compare you to your father and you…” He sighed. “You don’t come up to their expectations.”

Jeff nodded in sympathy. “Believe it or not, son, I do understand. All your brothers went through the same thing, some more than others.” He paused. “I can’t help being who and what I am, son. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me. But you? You can be someone unique all on your own. Problem is, first you have to figure out what that is. You don’t have to live in my shadow, Alan, not unless you want to.”

“Yeah, I know.” Alan shrugged. “You’re right about one thing: I’ve got to figure out who I want to be on my own.” He drew in a deep breath. “Y’know, I never thought about it like this before but maybe being away gives me the space to do that.” He looked down and was silent for a moment; when he glanced up again, Jeff could see he was trying hard to control his emotions. The boy shrugged one shoulder, attempting to look nonchalant. “Sometimes though … I guess I miss you guys.”

His father smiled. “You sure it’s us you miss and not the ‘Birds?”

Alan snorted a laugh. “Well, maybe I miss both.” He paused for a moment, gazing at his dad, trying to gauge what kind of answer he would get to his next question. “Hey, Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“If I make the track team, will you … will you come to a meet?”

Jeff sat back at the question and slowly nodded. “If you make the team, send me the schedule, and I’ll see what I can do. You know what life is like here; we never know from one moment to the next what’s going to happen. Still, I will try, that much I can promise.”

He was pleased to see his son smile widely. “Great! That would be fantastic!” Suddenly Alan looked away. “Someone’s at the door, Dad. It might be Sugi. Can you wait a minute?”

“Sure, son. I can wait.”

“Come in!” Alan shouted, forgetting about the boom mike he was using. Jeff winced at the shout, taking his earphone out to put his pinky in his ear just a bit, wiggling the digit around.

The door opened and Fermat all but burst into the room. “A-Alan! I m-m-m-m…”

“Slow down, Fermat!” Alan turned back to the phone. “Hey, Dad, it’s Fermat.”

Jeff waved. “Hello, Fermat!”

Alan relayed the message. “Dad says, ‘Hello’. Why’re you so hot and bothered?”

“N-Nothing! It’s j-j-j… I made the team!” He turned to the picture of the man in the office chair. “I made the team, M-Mr. T-Tracy!”

“Dad, he said…”

“I heard him, son. Tell him congratulations for me!”

“Dad says, ‘Congratulations!'”

Fermat made motions with his free hand as if to leave. “I-I’m gonna h-h-h… rush back to my r-r-r… quarters to t-t-t… inform my d-d-d-DAD! Wanted you to b-be the f-f-first to know!”

Alan laughed. “Hey, thanks, Fermat! Want me to help carry your stuff?”

“W-Would you? I’d a-a-a… be thankful!” Fermat replied.

“Okay.” Alan turned to his father. “Dad? I’m gonna help Fermat get his stuff back to his dorm. Talk to you later?”

“Sure, Alan.” Jeff said with a grin. “Tag’s on you, now.”

“Roger that! I’ll call tomorrow and tell you the news about the team, good or bad. Promise.”

“Okay, son. Looking forward to it. Have a good evening.”

“Have a good day, Dad. Bye!”

The call ended. Alan sat back with a satisfied sigh and put his phone away. He pointed to the closet. “Get my sneakers, please?”

“Have a g-g-good conversation with y-your d-dad?” Fermat asked, his head in the closet, looking for Alan’s everyday athletic shoes. He found one and tossed it without looking to Alan, who fielded it handily. He did the same with the other, smacking Alan in the knee. It bounced off, landing some distance away.

Alan got up to fetch it. “Yeah. He said that if I make the track team, he’ll try to come to a meet!” Returning to his desk chair, he donned the second shoe.

“C-Cool!” Fermat kicked the remaining shoes back into the wardrobe and closed the doors.

Now shod, Alan got up and grabbed Fermat’s bookbag. “Come on. Let’s get you back to Maplewood so you can tell your dad your good news!”

“Yeah!” Fermat shouldered his laptop bag. “A-And you can t-t-tell me about the c-cross-country r-race.”

Alan turned out the lights on his way out. As they entered the elevator, he was heard to say, “When did you get out of the infirmary anyway?”

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