The slight, dark-haired boy jumped up from Fermat’s chair as if bitten, sending the chair rolling backwards. He swept Fermat up and down with his dark brown eyes, noticing the thick glasses, the tanned complexion, and the angry look on Fermat’s face. For his part, Fermat noticed the slim build and equally thin, pale face, now flushed with embarrassment and possibly anger. The two stood still for a moment as they sized each other up, before Fermat spoke.
“W-Well? You haven’t answered my qu-qu-question.”
The stranger moistened his lips with his tongue, glancing quickly around the room before returning to meet Fermat’s glare. “I was just admiring your computer set up, that’s all.”
Fermat gathered the stray snacks, putting them back in his bag before hauling them to his desk. He snagged the chair from the middle of the floor with a foot and drew it back. The computer was powered up; he scowled at the asterisks which indicated a password typed into the sign-on screen. “More that j-just admiring it, I see.”
The stranger folded his arms. “Well, I wanted to see what it could do.”
Yeah, right. “And you d-didn’t realize it w-would be password p-p-protected?” Fermat retorted. He shut the computer down, making a mental note to find a way to lock it up. Turning around, his eyes widened as he saw his blankets and sheets piled in a heap on the top bunk.
“Hey! Why’d you do that?” He jumped to his feet, waving an arm at the mess. “I had f-first dibs on the b-b-b … lower bunk! Just who the h-h-h … just who d-do you think you are?”
The dark haired boy pulled himself to his full, slight height, lifting his chin with defiance and pride. “I am Andrew John Trumbull. Who are you?”
“My name is F-F-Fermat Hackenbacker.”
“Hackenbacker? I’ve never heard of any Hackenbackers in the elite. And what kind of name is Fermat?”
“It’s the name of a f-f-f … eminent French m-m-mathematician.”
“Oh. Who wants to be named after some moldy old mathematician?” The smaller boy raised an eyebrow and declared with pride. “I’m a descendent of the famous John Trumbull.”
Fermat glared at him through his glasses before asking, a challenge in his voice, “The artist?”
Andrew John Trumbull huffed, trying to sneer, “No. The poet.”
Fermat knew he’d scored a hit. He raised an eyebrow, giving a slight, audible sniff. “Oh, him. We spent a d-day or so st-st-studying him in American Literature last y-year. He was one of the C-C-Connecticut Wits.”
“Last year? What kind of elementary school teaches American Literature?”
Fermat’s eyes narrowed. He had endured a lot of teasing about his age-among other things-when he first came to Wharton, teasing that tapered off once the other boys knew that he was under the protection of the scrappy Alan Tracy. Alan’s not here, now. Not like he was last year. I guess now’s the time for me to learn to fight my own battles.
He picked up his grocery bags, moving them closer to the small refrigerator. When he opened it, he muttered a low, inaudible curse. Almost every shelf was already filled with cans of soda and packages of treats. Fermat began shoving them aside to make room for his own things. As he worked, he replied, “To answer your question, I didn’t st-st-st … learn about him in elementary school. American L-L-Literature is a required course for fr-freshmen here.”
“Just what is that supposed to mean?”
Fermat looked up at Andrew John Trumbull and replied coolly, “It m-m-means that I’m a sophomore.” Before the other boy could make the obvious comment, he added, “And I don’t m-m-mean a ‘wise f-f-fool’, either.” He finished shoving his food into the refrigerator. “Now, about the sl-sl-sleeping arrangements …” He turned to find Andrew James Trumbull sitting on the lower bunk, buttoning up his pajama top.
The boy looked up at him with a smug smile. “I’m sorry, but I don’t ‘do’ bunk beds. I’m afraid you’ll have to sl-sl-sleep up there.” He mimicked Fermat’s stutter as he indicated the upper berth with a jerk of his head.
“You’ll r-r-regret it.” Fermat pointed to his glasses. “I don’t w-wear my glasses to b-b-bed. So, if I wake up, m-my depth perception is b-b-b … not good, and I tend to fall out of upper b-b-b … levels.”
“Just don’t wake me up when you do.” The other boy lay down and curled up, pulling his covers over his head.
Not wake you up? Yeah, right. If I fall out of bed, you’re going to know about it, buster! Fermat promised himself. He huffed out a breath, shaking his head. Pulling the extra desk chair to the bed’s side, he made his bunk, not caring about being quiet or considerate, hurrying as he realized lights out was soon approaching. At last the sheets and blankets were in place, though not to the military preciseness that Jeff had originally achieved. Fermat descended quickly, moving to his wardrobe to get his pajamas.
He snagged his sweatpants and t-shirt, heading for the en suite bathroom just as a masculine voice proclaimed, “Lights out in five minutes.” Feeling harried, he changed clothes, stuffing his dirty things into a mesh laundry bag, one of two hanging behind the bathroom door. Once he accomplished his nightly routine, he hurried back into the bedroom. He slipped off his glasses, laying them gently on the desk. His world turned into the familiar, disturbing fuzziness of his unaugmented vision. As he scaled the bed’s ladder to his bunk, he grumbled beneath his breath. Alan had perfected a running jump landed him to the top bunk without banging head or body on bed or ceiling. Right then, Fermat desperately wished he could do the same; between his bad vision and shorter legs, it was a lost cause. Besides, he hadn’t needed such a cool technique until now.
He managed to keep from banging his head on the ceiling, and reached his mattress when the room suddenly went dark. Startled, he straightened. “Ow!”
A barely-stifled snicker rose from below. Rubbing his head and muttering curses under his breath, he wriggled his way between the sheets. As he tossed and turned, he thought, Just wait, Andrew John Trumbull. You’ll find Fermat Hackenbacker is not a man to be trifled with.
The tall teen stopped dead still in the doorway as it slid open. One of his friends peered over his shoulder and groaned.
“You are so screwed, Sugi. You’ve got Tracy for a roomie!”
Alan looked up from his computer game, blinking in surprise. He slowly removed his earphones. “You’re my roommate?”
Sugi pulled back to look at the room number, as if not believing he was in the right place. He stepped into the room, shaking his head. “How’d I end up with you, Tracy? Why aren’t you rooming with your little friend, Hackenbacker?”
“Ms. Belvedere split us up.” Alan was surprised. Lee Sugimoto was one of the school’s top athletes. A senior, he was on the basketball, track, and golf teams and was captain of the year’s soccer lineup. On top of that, he was a good student, and popular. Very popular.
Lee’s friend gave him a mocking grin and a playful nudge with his elbow. “Maybe she wants you to reform him.”
“Shut it, Mackenzie.” Lee looked around before studying Alan for a moment. “Glad to see you took the upper bunk.”
Alan shrugged. “You were here first. And I’m used to it.”
Mackenzie nudged Sugimoto again. “C’mon, Lee. We’ve got a few more minutes before lights out. Let’s play some poker.”
Lee turned to him. “Not tonight. I’m tired and I report to the coach at six. See you later, okay?”
“Yeah. Besides, I need to lay down a few ground rules to my new roomie here.”
“Okay, man. Talk to you in the a.m.” The two older teens touched closed fists and Mackenzie left.
Lee stood there for a moment, looking Alan up and down again. Alan sat still, returning the gaze before puttting his earphones back in, prepared to return to his game.
Alan pulled the earphones off again. “Yeah?”
“Rule number one: don’t hog the bathroom or the fridge.”
Alan shrugged. “Okay.”
“Rule number two: stay out of my stuff and keep your friends out of my stuff, too. If you need something, ask first.”
Lee frowned. From Alan’s reputation the year before, he figured the boy would put up a stink. “Rule number three: knock before you come in.”
“I’ll do that for you if you’ll do the same for me.” Alan reckoned Lee expected some reaction from him; he decided to show this big man on campus he was cool.
Lee frowned again. “I suppose that’s fair enough. Who do you have programmed in?”
“Fermat and my dad. Not that I’ll be seeing much of my dad, but Fermat’s okay. He won’t touch your stuff. You?”
“Mackenzie and Lewis.”
“Just do me a favor? Keep them out of my computer, will you?” Alan gestured towards the item in question.
“Okay. I can do that. Rule number four: anything you see going on in here is private. You don’t tell a soul.”
Alan sat back and folded his arms. “Why? Do you do illegal stuff?”
“No,” Lee shot back. “But sometimes … let’s just say that sometimes there are things going on that the administration would frown on. From what I’ve heard, you understand all about that.” He finally stepped over to his wardrobe. As he pulled out his sleepwear, he asked, “Why’d the admins split you and Hackenbacker up, anyway?”
“Not that it’s any of your business or anything, but Belvedere told my dad she thinks I’m a ‘dubious influence’ on Fermat and I lean on him academically.” As Alan put his earphones back in, he shot a glance at the taller boy, realizing how much his new roommate sounded like Scott.
“Hey, I was just curious.” Lee took his clothes to the bathroom, but stopped before entering. “You can keep quiet, can’t you, Tracy?”
Alan nodded. “As long as it’s not illegal, I can keep my mouth shut.” I know what keeping secrets is all about.
“Good. This might not be so bad after all.” Leee entered the bathroom and shut the door.
Alan took advantage of Lee’s absence to change into sweatpants and t-shirt. Slinging his sneakers to the floor of his wardrobe, he wadded up his dirty clothes, laying the tight pile on his desk until Lee came out.
“It’s all yours.” Lee hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “We can talk tomorrow about who cleans what and when.”
“Sure.” Alan took his turn in the bathroom. He stuffed the dirty clothes into the empty bag on the back of the door before performing his usual bedtime routine. The five minute warning sounded just he left the lavatory. Lee was already in bed, thumbing through a sports magazine.
Time to dazzle him, Alan thought. He moved over to the far corner of the room, near the door. Getting a running start, he leaped into the air. Startled, Lee poked his head out as Alan’s body left the ground, landing with a thump in the bed above him. He didn’t say anything for a few minutes, trying to figure out exactly how the younger boy had made that leap. As the lights went out, he called up to his new roommate.
“You ever think of trying out for track and field?”
“Wha?” came a sleepy voice from the bottom bunk.
Fermat cradled his left arm in his right, biting his lower lip and fighting back tears of pain. Just as he feared, he’d fallen from the top bunk, half asleep. He’d probably have landed on his head except somehow, somewhere, rudiments of the martial arts training Scott Tracy had drilled into him came to the fore. He’d twisted, slamming his arms down to take the brunt of the fall. The jarring shock burned up and down his arms like electricity, leaving the nerves buzzing from the sudden, violent jolt. He’d rolled over, coming to a sitting position while closing his eyes against the disorientation. He swore audibly when it became evident something was very wrong with his left arm.
“G-G-Get up!” he hissed through gritted teeth.
“Why?” Andrew’s whine told Fermat his new roommate had turned over and away from him.
“Because, d-d-dumbass, I think I’ve b-b-b … fractured my arm! You’re going to g-g-g … fetch the hall monitor.”
He heard the covers rustle before a foot stuck out, nearly smacking him in the face. “Oh, all right. Where’s this stupid hall monitor anyway?”
Fermat tried to remember where the hall monitor’s single room was located on that floor. “Turn right when you go out our d-d-door … four doors down, there’ll be a s-s-sign …”
He said nothing more because Andrew John Trumbull was already gone. Fermat shifted, hissing with pain as he put the lower bunk at his back to support him. It seemed an eternity before the door slid open again. A tall youth of obvious Indian extraction walked in. He put a key into a slot under the light switch, turning on the overhead lights. Fermat squinted up at him.
“Hello there, Mr. Hackenbacker,” the young man said cheerfully. “I see we have a problem here.”
Fermat recognized him as Devdan Israni, a fellow classmate from his advanced computer class of last year. “Yeah, D-D-Dev. I seem to have fr-fr-fr-fr … injured my arm.”
Dev knelt down beside him, a medikit over one shoulder. He inspected Fermat’s arm, which was swelling alarmingly. “How did this injury happen?” Pulling out a chemical cold pack, he snapped it taut with both hands before applying it gently to the swollen spot.
Fermat shot a poisonous look at his new roommate, who was sitting at his own desk to stay out of the way. “I f-f-fell out of th-th … bed.” He pointed upward with his right hand.
Dev raised an eyebrow. “You must be careful in such beds, my friend. They say that the first step is a doozy …” Fermat snorted a laugh, making Dev smile. “Where are your glasses?”
“On my d-d-d … over there.”
“Ah.” Dev fetched the specs and handed them over. The younger boy slipped them on awkwardly.
“I fear we shall have to call in some more experienced personnel, my friend.” Devdan rocked back on his heels, shaking his head. “This may mean a trip to the emergency room.”
Fermat groaned. “My dad is g-g-g … will be so … so …”
“Angry?” Dev suggested.
The younger boy shook his head. “Concerned. He r-r-rarely gets angry at me.” He let his head droop. “He’s just so f-far away.”
Dev looked around with a puzzled expression before spying the slim boy sitting at the desk. “But where is Alan? Why are you not rooming with him?”
“It’s a long s-story.”
Dev nodded as he pulled out a cell phone. “I will call for whoever is on duty at the infirmary first. They will decide if you go to hospital or not.” He pressed a couple of buttons to speed-dial a number. As he waited for someone to pick up, he asked, “Shall I get Alan?”
Fermat shook his head. “N-N-No. I’ll be o-o-okay.” Alan’s probably as tired as I am. Better let him sleep.
The hall monitor started to say something, but whoever he called had finally picked up the phone. As Dev talked to the nurse on duty, Fermat put his head back and closed his eyes. The pain had subsided to a dull throb; it stayed that way as long as he didn’t move his arm. I hope this will convince Mr. Andrew John Trumbull that I need to have the bottom bunk. And just wait until Scott hears about this. He’ll be on my case about not falling properly.
A voice came from behind Dev. “Can I go back to bed now?”
The older boy put up a forefinger to indicate that the speaker should wait. He finished his call, turning to Andrew. “I do not think you will be sleeping anytime soon, young Mr. Trumbull. I should make myself comfortable were I you.” He turned to glance back at Fermat. “You shall have to tell me, my friend, how it came to be that you are sleeping on the top bunk.”
Fermat smiled. It was good to have friends.
“C’mon, Fermat, c’mon!” Alan shivered a little as he waited outside the dining hall. The September morning air was cool and breezy. He dug his hands deeper into the pockets of his securely fastened uniform jacket. Standing on tiptoe, he scanned over the heads of schoolmates streaming past him, looking for his friend.
“Hey, Pinky!” Qaeshon Lewis, dark-skinned with black hair in dreadlocks, approached.
Alan grinned to see him. “Hey, Kay!” He held out his hand and the two shook, letting their hands slide apart slowly, pressing their middle fingers together so when their hands finally parted, the result was a crisp snapping sound, just as if they had snapped their fingers individually. It was an African greeting, or so Kay had told him.
“Where’s the Brain?” Kay asked. Alan’s group of friends had a running joke: if Fermat was the brains of the operation, then Alan must be Pinky. More than once, Qaeshon had tried to explain the old cartoon his father still chortled about, but Alan didn’t get it. He put up with the nickname among his friends, but God help anyone else who tried to call him Pinky!
“I don’t know.” Alan got up on his toes to look again. “I’ve been looking for him …”
“Why? Didn’t you come over here together?”
Alan shook his head. “No, we’re not rooming together right now. Belvedere split us up.”
Qaeshon’s mouth dropped open. “No Pinky and the Brain?”
“Nah.” Alan turned to his friend, his eyes shining. “But do you know who my new roommate is? Lee Sugimoto!”
“Yeah way! He thinks I should try out for track.”
“Cool! Hey, there’s the Brain.”
“Fermat? You look like hell, man! What happened to you?”
Alan and Qaeshon hustled down the stairs to meet a tired and pale-looking Fermat, his left arm in a bright blue cast and a sling. He smiled up at his friends as they gathered around him, pulling off his book bag and laptop to carry them for him. “I f-f-fell out of b-b-bed and f-f-f … broke my arm.”
Alan stopped, looking puzzled. “How’d you break your arm falling out of the bottom bunk?”
“I w-w-wasn’t in the b-b-b … lower bunk.” Fermat’s eyes narrowed behind his glasses as they lighted on the back of the slight, dark-haired boy who climbed the stairs in front of them. Alan’s gaze followed Fermat’s and he frowned.
“My r-r-roommate,” Fermat replied. “He, uh, ap-ap-ap … took over the bottom bunk while I was out.”
Alan’s face flushed with anger. He started to go after the boy, but Qaeshon held him back. “No, man. Not now.”
Fermat smiled, a smug expression. “Don’t w-w-w-worry about him.”
“Why not?” Alan paced Fermat on his left.
“You remember D-D-Dev? From m-my computer class l-l-last year?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“He’s my hall m-m-monitor. He made it very cl-cl-clear to Andrew J-J-J… to him that I’m t-to have the b-b-bottom bunk … because I c-c-can’t climb a ladder with a br-br-b r… cast.”
“All right!” Alan put up his hand; Fermat awkwardly slapped it. Together, they caught up to Qaeshon, who had gone ahead. “Let’s get breakfast. I’ve got some interesting news about my new roommate.”