“Well?” Concerned at his friend’s expression, Fermat repeated his question.
Alan broke into a big grin, punching the air with a jubilant shout “Four! Four events!” He counted them off on his fingers. “High jump, long jump, cross-country and alternate on javelin! I wasn’t expecting javelin!”
“Woo hoo!” Fermat slapped his friend on the shoulder, his grin as wide as Alan’s. “C-Congratulations!”
“Yes! Congratulations, Alan!” A.J.’s face brightened with a smile. “You did well!”
“Yeah, Pinky. You did well in tryouts.” Xavion Lewis stood before Alan, his face serious. “Let’s see how well you do in competition.” He glared at his new teammate for just a moment more before his face relaxed into a smile and he held out his hand. “Welcome to the team.”
Alan took the hand and shook it. “Thanks, Zave. I’m gonna work my butt off, you’ll see.”
“I hope to. Practice starts after classes on Monday.” Xavion scanned the room. “Now, I have a few more guys to corral – and congratulate. Later, Pinky.”
The trio watched as the senior walked off into the crowd of boys. Alan turned to his companions, smacking Fermat lightly on the chest. “C’mon, you two! Milkshakes at the snack shop and I’m buying!”
“C-Cool!” Fermat grinned. “Let’s g-go!”
At the snack shop – one of the other amenities to be found in the Student Union building – Alan, Fermat and A.J. were joined by Jason and Ralph.
Grinning, Jason held out a fist for Alan to bump with his own. “Congrats, Pinky! You did it!”
Alan bumped fists with both Jason and Ralph as they each pulled out a seat at Alan’s table. “Thanks, guys!”
“Yeah, bask in the moment because now the hard work begins.” Ralph paused to lick his ice cream cone. “If Zave is anything like Sugi—”
“He’ll be busting our butts from here to Thanksgiving.” Alan slurped his milkshake, nodding. “I know, believe me. Still, if I can survive a summer with my brother Scott doing the same in strength training, I can survive Zave. After all, Zave hasn’t served in the military. Scott has.”
“Hey, can I join you guys?”
“Oh, hey! Erik! Sure, come on and join us!” Alan motioned to a seat at the long table. “I saw you made the team, too. Congrats!”
“Yeah, cross-country and 1500 meters.” Erik settled down beside Fermat. “My two best events. You got four! Congratulations! Jumping is just not my thing.”
Fermat turned to him. “I w-wonder what Xavion d-does on the t-team? D-Do you know?”
“Relays and sprints,” Erik replied. “He was a wicked pole vaulter, too, until he tore a ligament in his shoulder. I looked at last year’s record books, ’cause I was curious. Hey, there was another kid named Tracy in the books from a few years ago, on the swim team. Any relation?”
Alan laughed. “Yeah, my older brother, Gordon. The way he swims, he’s practically a fish.”
“Now I think I understand.” Xavion came around the corner and approached the group, a bag of chips in his hand. “How many brothers have you got, Pinky?” He sat down at the table without asking and popped a chip in his mouth. As he crunched, he pointed a finger at Alan. “First you tell me your brother ran track for Harvard. Next, he’s musical. Now I hear about a swimmer? Can’t be just one guy; he’d have to be Superman to do it all.”
Alan took another slurp of his strawberry milkshake. “You mean Kay hasn’t told you? I’ve got four older brothers, all of them overachievers in one area or another. Scott’s the oldest and a military man; he and next-in-line brother John ran with me this summer. John’s an astronomer, an author, and he’s the one who ran cross-country for Harvard. Virgil’s in the middle; he’s the musical one and an artist, too. Gordon went here a few years ago. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about him; he’s the swimmer. Won a lot of meets for Wharton. And then … there’s me. ” He leaned back in his chair, putting his hands behind his head with a self-satisfied smile, “Baby of the family and about to make a name for myself in track and field here.”
“As long as that name isn’t ‘Mud’.” Jason snickered. Those around the table laughed, Alan included, as he brought his chair down with a thud.
Zave leaned his chair back on two feet. “Those are some names your brothers have. I mean, Virgil and Gordon?”
Alan shrugged. “We’re all named after the Mercury astronauts. Dad thought it was cool.” He took a long pull on his straw, slurping until he reached the bottom of the cup. “Hey, you and Kay can’t talk.”
Xavion chuckled. “Yeah, I guess we can’t. Mom wanted us named after the weird letters of the alphabet. That’s why my sisters are Yvette and Zoe.”
The others chuckled at his explanation. The talk at the table turned to more general topics. A.J. watched and listened as he finished his vanilla milkshake, wondering how he could make his own mark with the group. Finally, Alan looked at his watch. “I need to call my dad. I promised I’d tell him about the tryout results.”
“Oh!” A.J. started, reminded of his own father. “I should call my father, too. The time zones are favorable.”
“You have that problem, too?” Alan grinned as he got up.
“At the moment, yes. My father’s in Geneva right now.”
“C’mon. We can walk back to the dorms together,” Alan offered. “Fermat, you coming?”
The bespectacled boy shook his head. “N-No. I want t-to play some p-p-pinball.”
“Okay, that’s cool. See you later, Brain. Bye, guys.” Alan raised a hand in farewell, and so did A.J.
The boys at the table said goodbye to them both by name, and A.J. felt good. It’s like I belong.
Alan glanced over at A.J. as they walked. “So, your Dad’s in Geneva?”
“Yes, that’s where the world courts are. He’s a lawyer specializing in international law.” He looked up at the taller boy. “What does your father do?”
Alan laughed. “What hasn’t he done?” Putting out a hand, he counted on his fingers. “He’s walked on the moon, been a decorated hero, started his own company, and right now, he makes money, lots of money.” He glanced down at A.J. “Ever heard of Tracy Industries?”
A.J. frowned a bit, thinking this over. Suddenly, his face cleared. “Ohhh! That Tracy Industries!” He looked Alan up and down. “Hmm. You don’t dress like the son of a billionaire.”
“Oh? And how should a billionaire’s son dress?” Alan raised an eyebrow, smirking.
The question took A.J. by surprise. “I don’t know. I guess … all the latest fashions and gear. Designer labels plastered on your clothes and shoes. Things that scream, ‘Hey! Look at me! I have money!’ You don’t dress like that.”
“Nah.” Alan shook his head. “My dad wasn’t raised that way, so he didn’t raise us that way. I mean, our clothes aren’t rags, but Dad likes a good value for his dollar. Besides, if I dressed in all that designer crap, I’d be worrying too much about my clothes. Who wants to worry about that?” He shrugged. “If I looked like a billionaire’s son, people wouldn’t be interested in me for myself, but my dad’s money. I don’t need toadies for friends.”
A.J. looked thoughtful. “Hmm. Interesting point-of-view.” He put his hands in his pockets. They were nearly to Chetwood. “You always talk about your father. What about your mother? Doesn’t she have a say in what you wear?”
Alan sighed, looking straight ahead. A.J. couldn’t help but notice the sad expression on his face. “My mom–” The older boy cleared his throat. “My mom died when I was little. In an avalanche. I don’t remember her much.”
“I’m sorry.” A.J.’s tone was sincere. “I didn’t realize.”
“I know. Ever since then it’s been my dad, my brothers, and me.” Alan swallowed, then changed the subject. “What about your mom? Fermat told me your parents are divorced.”
It was A.J.’s turn to look straight ahead, lips pressed together in distaste. “My mom might as well be dead for all the attention she gives me. She’s always flying off to the latest hot spot, cuddling up to some man she expects me to call ‘Uncle’ when I visit; never the same man twice, it seems. I only see her at Christmas; she lives not far from my father – when she’s home – and I have to see her then. Court order.” He sighed. “The rest of the year; not much. Maybe a card and a gift at my birthday if I’m lucky. She never realizes how old I am or how much I’ve grown.” They stopped in front of Chetwood. “Did your mom love you?”
Alan nodded slowly. “Yeah. She did.”
“Then I’d say you had the better bargain,” A.J. replied softly. “See you around, Alan.”
He walked away, fists jammed in his pockets. Alan watched him go before turning to take the dorm steps two at a time, a sudden, intense desire to talk to his dad welling up inside.
Alan knocked on the door as Sugi had asked him. He could hear something shuffling around inside. Shifting from one foot to another, he waited, mulling over in his mind what he wanted to say to his dad. He didn’t notice how long he stood outside his own room. Finally, he realized someone was in his room but he’d had no answer. He knocked again with a bit more force.
“It’s okay. Come in.”
Alan frowned as he put his hand up to the door’s scanner. When the door opened, Lee’s friend, Trey Mackenzie, pushed past him with a muttered, “Hey, Tracy.”
“Hey, Mackenzie.” Alan’s greeting trailed off. He turned to enter his room and was virtually yanked inside by Lee.
“Don’t just stand there, Tracy. Get in here!”
Alan shook off his roommate’s hand and stared around at the room. A curious haze hung in the air, while an acrid smell made his nose wrinkle. The room was cooler than he liked, too, probably because Lee had the windows wide open.
“What the hell’s going on?” Alan scowled. “Who’s been smoking in here?”
Lee glared at him. “Keep your voice down, Tracy.” He ducked into the bathroom, pulling out a can of air freshener and spraying it around. “Mackenzie.” He raised a finger in warning. “It’s not illegal. He’s eighteen and can smoke if he likes.”
Alan’s scowl deepened. “Maybe he can, but why is he smoking in here?”
Having finished with the air freshener, Lee exchanged it for some fabric deodorizer, spraying the fine mist all over his bedding before shoving the bottle into Alan’s hands. “He’s smoking in here because he can’t smoke in his own room. Dom Bertoli’s his roommate. He’s got asthma; smoke would aggravate it.”
“So, why can’t he go smoke outside somewhere else? Like in his car, if he has one?”
“If you’re not going to use that, give it back.” Lee snatched the bottle from the younger boy again. He spritzed the draperies, pulling them across the window to get all of the fabric. Stopping for a moment, he pointed a finger at Alan. “He does smoke in other places. In his car, in the woods, wherever he thinks he won’t be found. But it’s getting colder and pretty soon he won’t be able to smoke outside without freezing. So I’m letting him smoke in here.”
“What happens when the administration finds out?” Alan folded his arms across his chest. “You know the rules about smoking on campus!”
“I’ve got it all worked out.” Lee handed the deodorizer to Alan again. “Mackenzie will provide us with sprays to freshen the air and the bedding. Opening up the windows clears the smoke out quickly. He’ll only smoke in here three times a week and only after inspection. The other days, he’ll find other places, other friends. We can wash our bedding every time there’s laundry day.” He rounded on Alan, his face hard and his voice harder. He poked a finger in the younger boy’s chest. “In fact, the only way the administration is going to find out, Tracy, is if you tell them.”
“What? You think they’re stupid? You think they won’t notice?” Alan poked his finger right back. “You think I want to walk around smelling like a cigarette butt? No way!”
Lee grabbed Alan’s shirt, pulling their faces close together. “When you and I became roommates, I told you up front there might be things going on in here that the administration frowned on. You said you could keep quiet as long as it wasn’t illegal. Now I’m calling you on that! What Trey is doing isn’t illegal; he’s of age. So you keep your mouth shut, or else.”
“Or else what?” Alan’s expression hardened as he looked into Lee’s eyes.
“Or else I will make your life hell on earth.” Lee smiled, a savage expression. “I’m on the track team. I have sway with Coach and Zave. I’m popular; people will believe what I say about you. I can start a rumor that’ll sweep the campus. I’ll turn your friends against you and not even all your daddy’s money can stop it from happening.”
There was a long, tense silence between them before Alan slid his hands between Lee’s wrists and shoved outward. “Hands off!” Once free of Lee’s grasp, he walked over to his computer. Swiveling around, he threw the bottle of fabric spray back at the older boy. “Here. He’s your friend and you’re letting him smoke in here. You can do all the work covering it up, including my bed. I’m outta here.” Picking up his satellite phone, he picked up his jacket and stalked out of the room.
Alan strode to the grassy quadrangle around which the dorms were arranged. It was sunny but cool; he was glad for his jacket. He sat down with his back to one of the giant oaks which peppered the grassy rectangle. Looking up, he saw the sun glinting through the yellowing leaves. The lawn was covered with a sprinkling of such large, golden flakes. He watched as one floated down on a light breeze to land on the grass some distance away. Letting the far off sounds of birds and breeze calm him, he plugged in his earphone and dialed home.
The vidphone in the office rang. Jeff turned his chair to reach for it. He was pleased to see the call was from Alan.
Jeff was surprised to see how sober and tired his son looked. “Hello, Alan! What’s up? What’s the news on the track team?”
“The track team?” Alan brightened a bit. “Oh, yeah! I made the team. Four events: cross-country, long jump, high jump, and I’m an alternate on javelin.”
“Hey! That’s great! Congratulations!” Jeff smiled. “I didn’t know you’d tried out for javelin.”
“I did, but I wasn’t expecting it.” Alan’s conversation trailed off; his father frowned in concern.
“You don’t seem too happy about it. What’s the matter?”
Do I tell him about the smoking? No, this is one thing I have to deal with myself. Having made that decision, Alan flapped a hand. “Oh, I’m happy about track, believe me! It’s just – it’s Fermat’s roommate, A.J. We walked back to the dorms together earlier and talked a little about our families. He asked about Mom and I told him about her, and then he told me about his mom. She and his father are divorced; A.J. doesn’t see her except on Christmas. The rest of the year, nothing. Maybe a birthday present.” He puffed out a breath. “On top of that, his dad’s out of the country a lot. I think they don’t talk much.”
“Sounds like he’s pretty lonely.” Jeff’s voice was quiet.
“Yeah. I think he is. I’m glad Fermat brought him into our group. Maybe we can help.”
Jeff nodded. “Maybe you can. So, tell me about the rest of your day.”
Alan shrugged. “Not much to tell. Jason Cunningham beat me at foosball before the team roster went up. I treated Fermat and A.J. to milkshakes to celebrate. A.J. and I walked back to the dorms after that. Fermat wanted to play some pinball, so he stuck around the games room.”
“How much homework do you have?”
“Some. I’ll get it done, don’t worry. Track practice starts after classes on Monday. I understand that Xavion Lewis, the team captain, will be busting our butts.” He gave his father a wry, lopsided smile.
“Hm. Lewis. Is he related to your friend Qaeshon?”
“Yeah, they’re brothers. Zave is two years older and looks like he’s two feet taller.” Snorting, Alan added, “I think he’ll be almost as tough to please as Scott.”
“I’m sure he will.” Jeff grinned. “Hey, I see you’re outside. Enjoying the sun?”
“Yeah, I am.” Alan shrugged. “My roommate is entertaining a friend. Didn’t want to intrude.” Now if he’ll just buy that—
Some little nuance in his son’s speech told Jeff things weren’t what they should be. He chose his words carefully. “That’s polite of you, son. Just don’t let your roommate ride roughshod over you. It’s your room, too.”
Alan glanced away for a second. “Yeah, I know. It’s just – it’s not someone I particularly get along with.”
“I see.” Jeff tried to keep his voice neutral. His instincts told him there was more to it, but he wasn’t sure if he should pursue it. Over the summer, he found trying to probe too deeply made his youngest son put up stronger walls. He’ll tell me in his own good time, Jeff decided. He shifted his chair, absently rolling his shoulders, still a bit bruised from his adventure in the snow.
Alan caught the motion and frowned. “You okay, Dad?”
“Yes, son. I’m okay. Just took a little tumble the other night.” Jeff waved a dismissive hand.
How could I have forgotten to ask? The teen lowered his voice. “At the rescue?”
“Yes, but I’m okay, really. I was pinned under a collapsed tent and a hell of a lot of snow. Scott pulled me out and I’m fine.”
“How did things go overall?”
“Not as quickly as it should have. Thunderbird One nearly iced up in the weather. But we got the victims out to medical attention and that’s what counts.”
“Anybody else hurt?” The more they discussed the rescue, the more tense Alan became.
Jeff shook his head, smiling. “No, just a couple cases of frost nip for Gordon and me. We were all thawed out by the time we got home.”
Alan let out an audible, “Whew!” His shoulders relaxed. “I’m sorry I didn’t ask earlier, Dad.”
“Hey! You’ve had a lot on your mind! New roommate, track tryouts, Fermat’s arm, classes; I don’t blame you for forgetting.” He pointed to the screen, grinning. “Now that it’s happened, I doubt it will happen again.”
Alan chuckled for the first time during their conversation. “Yeah, I think you’re right.”
Suddenly, a loud klaxon went off in the office, making Alan grimace as the sound reached his ears. “Speaking of rescues—” Jeff pressed a button, and a tray slid out, a hand-shaped depression on its surface. He put his hand on it and the room began to change before Alan’s eyes.
Virgil came pelting in, saw Alan’s face on the vidphone screen, and waved. “Hey, Sprout!”
“Hey, Virge!” Alan waved back.
“Gotta go, son,” Jeff said, regret in his voice.
“I understand, Dad.” The youngest Tracy nodded decisively. “Be careful, huh?” He paused for a moment, moistening his lips. “One last thing, Dad.”
“Yes, son?” The room was almost fully transformed from office to control center and Jeff was changing from father to commander along with it.
“I love you.”
Jeff stopped what he was doing to look Alan full in the face. “I love you, too, Alan. Talk to you later.”
“Later. Tag’s on you.”
“Right. I’ll remember that. Goodbye, son.”
“Bye, Dad. Bye, guys!” His other brothers had finally arrived, so he waved at them. They waved, calling hurried greetings back at him before he reluctantly ended the conversation.
He leaned back against the tree, gazing upward, unseeing, his mind thousands of miles away. His eyes shut tight as a sudden longing for home snatched at his heart. Inhaling deeply, he thought of the pool pulling back and the sleek rocket plane shooting into the sky, white contrails following. A smile touched his lips as he imagined the cliff opening, disgorging the green workhorse. It trundled out, stopping at the end of the short runway. Massive clamps clanked into place, holding the giant still as it was tipped up forty-five degrees. The engines fired, red and hot, pushing the craft up and into the air, like some insect that wasn’t truly meant to fly. He envisioned his brothers sitting in the cockpit of the red rocket. Above them, the silo roof opened. Sections of the library parted, making room to launch that powerful red spaceship into the atmosphere and beyond.
He allowed himself to savor the images a moment more before sighing and opening his eyes. His vision was filled with the yellowing leaves again, so he removed his earpiece, putting it and his phone in his jacket pocket. Levering himself to his feet, he headed back to the Student Union. Gotta go find Fermat.