The first day of school was, as always, a day of introductions, when teachers passed out syllabi along their expectations for the class. For math, Alan and Fermat were again in the same class. Alan passed Miss Gerrick’s class the previous year by completing the 10,000 word essay she assigned over spring break and buckling down during the last quarter. The boys could choose a literature elective at this point in their studies. Fermat chose Shakespeare for the first semester while Alan decided to take Adolescent Literature. “I’m an adolescent,” he quipped. “This should be a piece of cake!”
Science also meant different classes for both boys. Fermat was already a year ahead of Alan; he was studying Chemistry, while Alan was taking Biology. The younger boy was also ahead of his older friend in Computer Science. In addition, he selected a Pre-Engineering course as an elective course while Alan opted for Strength Training. The friends shared a history course and both continued their studies in Spanish.
Throughout the day, Alan helped Fermat when he could, handing him off to other friends when they were separated. Qaeshon took over in Shakespeare and Chemistry, while Dev helped out in Computer Science. It seemed Fermat would be on his own in pre-Engineering but another friend, Jason Cunningham, stayed behind after his own class to get Fermat settled. The teacher, Mr. Feng, approved of Jason’s help; he gave Jason a pass to excuse his tardiness at his next class.
Fermat and Alan met after the last bell. “M-Man, am I t-t-tired.” Alan automatically took Fermat’s heavy book bag, carrying it with one hand while keeping his backpack slung over his shoulder. Fermat toted his laptop bag on his good shoulder; he could type one handed almost as accurately as he typed with two.
“Well, it’s only the first day.” Alan squeezed his friend’s shoulder in commiseration. “You’ll get used to it by the end of the week.” He used a hip to open an outer door, letting Fermat go through first. “So, are you going to do any extracurricular stuff? Think your dad will let you go for the academic quiz team this year?”
“I d-dunno, Alan.” Fermat shook his head. “He might n-not. N-Not after this.” He held up the cast-covered arm, wincing slightly. “Oww. I n-need some p-p-p … medicine.” The two walked in silence for a moment before Fermat continued. “I t-t-t … spoke with him last night from the h-h-h … emergency room. He w-wanted to come g-get me.”
“Really?” Alan frowned, puzzled. “Why?”
Fermat sighed. “He’s a-a-a… concerned I won’t get along with my new r-roommate. I think h-he feels I c-c-c … won’t st-stand up for myself.”
Alan gave a disgusted snort. “Fat lot he knows.”
“He h-has a p-point. I r-relied on you a wh-whole lot last year.”
“But you learned a lot this summer, too,” Alan countered. “This year is different. Different classes, different classmates. You’re a year older and a year farther along. You’re established, man. You shouldn’t have half the trouble you had last year.”
“I hope you’re r-right. The year hasn’t s-s-s … begun very w-well.”
They reached Maplewood, taking the elevator up to the third floor. Alan pressed his hand to the lock’s scanner; the door opened obediently. He took a look around as he entered, nodding with satisfaction. “He’s not here.”
“G-Good.” Fermat laid his laptop’s case on the desk, setting it on its side to slide the computer out one handed.
Alan set Fermat’s bookbag down beside the desk, slinging his own onto the lower bunk. “Where’s your painkiller?”
“The n-nurse has it.”
Alan frowned. “How come? What if you need it in the middle of the night?”
“I dunno. Do w-without, I guess.” Fermat shrugged. “I need to take it with f-food or milk. We’d better stop by the i-infirmary on the way to d-dinner.”
“You should talk to your dad before then. Sign up for extracurricular stuff is after dinner.”
“I kn-kn … I will.” Fermat pulled out his satellite phone and speed dialed a number. The connection took time, considering the recipient lived halfway around the world, but soon the sleepy face of Hiram Hackenbacker appeared.
“H-Hello, son,” he said, stifling a yawn. “H-How’s the a-arm?”
“It’s o-okay, Dad.” Fermat smiled. “I’m h-h-h … going to d-dinner soon. Alan’s here.”
“H-Hello, Alan. H-How did your f-f-f … day go?”
Alan peered over Fermat’s shoulder. “Hey, Brains. The day was okay. We figured how to get Fermat from class to class even with his busted arm.”
“G-Good. I’ll t-tell your f-f-f … dad … later.” Brains had his glasses on now. He pushed his thin brown hair out of his eyes. “So, son. Why are you c-calling n-now?”
Alan pulled back out of range as Fermat took a deep breath. “Well, D-D-D … Father, the sign up for e-e-e … clubs and stuff is after d-dinner. I was hoping you’d a-a-a … let me go out for the academic qu-quiz t-t-t … squad.”
Brains considered his son’s eager, anxious face. “I-I don’t know, F-F-F … son. I’m c-c-c … uneasy about s-security. And about you g-going to other schools, or staying out l-late. Your st-st-st … classes come first. You’re so much y-younger than the o-o-o … than the rest.”
“I know, D-Dad, but I can handle it.” Fermat projected as much confidence as he could. “I learned a lot this s-s-s … vacation. Like how to m-make the best use of my time. And you know th-there are always g-g-g … teachers along on the t-trips. I c-can do it. I know I can.” He leaned in close to the camera and gave his father what Alan had termed “the puppy dog look”. “Please?”
Brains sighed. “O-Okay. But just the one a-a-a … club. I’ll email the p-permissions in the m-morning. Later.” He yawned loudly. “Alan, do you plan on d-doing s-something extracurricular?”
Alan returned to the phone. “I’m trying out for track and field. My new roommate suggested it.”
“I h-hope you m-make the team.” Brains stifled another yawn. “D-Do you w-want me to t-t-t … mention it to your f-f-f … dad?”
“No, thanks. I’ll talk to him later. After I’ve talked to the coach and all.” Alan grinned. “He can mention it to John for me.”
“Yes, J-John will be particularly interested.” Brains yawned again. “I n-need to go b-back to bed, son. L-Let me know th-the schedule of m-m-m … events. I’ll see if I c-c-can attend one or t-two.”
“R-Really?” Fermat’s excitement was palpable.
“R-Really,” Brains said with a sleepy smile. “Now get to d-d-d … supper.”
“O-Okay, Dad! Goodnight.”
“G-Goodnight, son. Love y-you.”
“L-Love you, too, Dad.” The connection broken, Fermat turned to Alan, eyes shining. “D-Did you hear that? D-Dad may come to a meet!”
“Well, that won’t happen unless we get a move on!” Alan grinned, clapping his hands. He rose, heading for the door. “C’mon! I’m hungry!”
The door swished open, revealing Andrew John Trumbull standing there, about to step inside. He looked Alan up and down with a look of distaste. “Who’s this? Don’t tell me he has access to our room?”
Fermat’s eyes narrowed. “This is my f-friend, Alan Tracy, and y-yeah, he has access to our r-r-r … quarters. Get used to it.” He pushed past Trumbull, striding toward the elevator. “C’mon, Alan. I d-don’t want to miss dinner.”
Alan caught up to him at the elevator door. “What burr has he got up his butt?”
“I d-dunno. I think he thinks his n-name makes him something sp-sp-sp … unique.” Fermat glanced back at his room as the lift doors swished open.
“Well, a lot of people think the same thing about me.”
“Yeah, but you don’t think it a-about yourself.” Fermat smiled, giving his friend a poke in the ribs.
But I do, Alan thought, wincing. And sometimes, I wish I didn’t.
They stopped by the infirmary, where Fermat got his dose of painkiller. He took it in front of the nurse on duty, who gave him a cup of milk to wash it down. Alan asked what Fermat should do if he needed his medicine during the night.
“He won’t. This medication will last twelve hours.” She turned her attention to Fermat. “See Ms. Bell in the morning before breakfast for your next dose, okay?”
Dinner at Wharton was a noisy, sometimes chaotic affair. The food was good; considering the money each student paid, it had to be. In bygone days, the students were assigned to tables and the food and drink were passed around family style. One “host” was responsible for each table, passing the food around and asking for seconds, as waiters, hired from local talent, brought dishes to the hosts. The goal at that point was to teach manners to an unruly group of privileged ruffians.
No such decorum prevailed these days, however. The meals were now served cafeteria style; boys moved through the lines with trays and were free to sit with their friends. An occasional food fight erupted, friendly or unfriendly; those who participated earned the job of cleaning up the entire dining room. Alan and Fermat learned this early the previous year. A friendly game of “hot potato”–played with a real baked potato–got out of hand and degenerated into a jello-slinging fest. They returned to their dorm late that night with hands smelling strongly of cherry. When they returned home for Christmas, they had an unexpected aversion to red jello which puzzled Onaha.
This evening, Alan and Jason helped Fermat with his tray, while Qaeshon held down a group of five seats. Five because Jason’s roommate, a junior named Ralph Santiago, was joining them for the meal.
“Go sit down, Fermat,” Jason said, gesturing toward the table with his head. “We’ve got this.”
Fermat joined Qaeshon, watching with bated breath as Alan balanced a tray on each forearm, letting Jason run interference. As they finally got to the table, Jason took Fermat’s tray from Alan, setting it before the injured boy.
Fermat grinned. “Thanks, g-guys!”
The couriers grinned back. Taking his seat, Jason said, “Kay, it’s your turn tomorrow morning!”
“Not a problem!” Qaeshon turned to Fermat. “I hope you like Froot Loops and skim milk, ’cause that’s all I’m carrying!”
The group laughed and Alan ruffled his friend’s dark hair.
“So, Ralph, what’s shakin’ with you?” Alan asked as he began cutting his meat. “I hear you made first string soccer.”
“Yeah, I did.” Ralph rolled his eyes. “My dad made a big fuss about it, too. Thinks I’m professional material. Had to come a week early for practice.” He took a bite from his tray. “Sugi’s been busting our cases ever since we got here, though. Wants us up and out by six to run and drill.”
Alan picked up his water glass, taking a big gulp before commenting. “Explains why he was already settled into the room when I got here.”
“Sugi’s your roomie?” Jason asked, incredulous. “No way!”
“Yes way! Boy, was he surprised to find me sitting there!” Alan’s eyes shone. “I dazzled him with the old Alan Tracy vertical lift maneuver, so he said I should go out for track!”
“Cool!” Ralph grinned. “What would you go for in track? Field events or running?”
“I’d like to see what I can do with the high jump and maybe the pole vault. Oh, and cross country. I spent a lot of time with my brother running the beaches over the summer.”
Qaeshon groaned. “Which brother this time?”
Alan put up a finger as he took another gulp of water. “John. He was home almost all summer long. He used to run track for Harvard.”
“How many brothers do you have, anyway?” Ralph asked as he cut his roast beef up into smaller pieces.
Alan rolled his eyes. “Four, all older.”
“And where does the Brain over here fit into all of this?”
“M-My dad is Mr. T-Tracy’s top aeronautic engineer,” Fermat replied. “W-We live with the Tracys so they can w-work together on projects without having to t-travel long distances.”
Alan could see that Ralph was having trouble processing this bit of information. “Hey, man, it’s cool. We live out in the middle of nowhere; going places is a pain in the ass. Fermat and his dad have a house at our family compound so my dad’s got his top designer on hand to discuss new ideas.” He shrugged. “It works for us.”
Ralph gave Alan an I-don’t-quite-believe-you look. “Sounds like you live out in the middle of the ocean somewhere.”
Alan and Fermat exchanged glances, before stating in unison, “We do.”
The conversation was interrupted by Lee Sugimoto and his friend, Xavion Lewis, Qaeshon’s older brother. He stopped at their table tapped Alan on the shoulder. “You coming to sign up for track?”
“Yep,” Alan replied eagerly. “I’ll be there.”
“Come as soon as you’re done. I put a good word in for you with the coach.”
“You’d better be there, too, Kay,” Xavion said, giving his brother’s head a playful push. “We need you.”
Qaeshon batted his brother away. “I’d rather be in orchestra and on the yearbook staff, thank you very much.”
“A waste of your talents, bro,” Xavion retorted. He jabbed a finger at the younger boy. “Be there, or else.”
The older boys moved away. Qaeshon glanced at his friends, who looked concerned. “He’s big on threats but lousy on follow through. I’ll do what I want. No way am I living in his shadow.”
“Too bad, Kay.” Alan paused to eat a forkful of mashed potatoes. “It’d be great to have a friend on the track team.”
“That’s assuming you make the cut, Pinky,” Qaeshon shot back. He relaxed. “I hope you do.”
“Thanks!” Alan grinned. He finished his last bite of dinner roll.
Jason turned to Fermat. “So, Brain, are you going out for something or does your dad think you’re still too young?”
“I’m tr-trying out for academic qu-quiz team!” Fermat’s happy smile reached from ear to ear. “D-Dad gave his permission!”
Ralph swallowed a bite, wiping his mouth. “Hey, that’s great! I hear Israni’s the captain this year.”
“Is he?” Alan gave Fermat a wide-eyed excited look. “Then you’ll be in, pal. No sweat!”
“Yeah, I hear that’s the only thing he’s doing outside of hall monitor. He’s taking a heavy course load. Some AP stuff, too, to give him a boost in college,” Ralph continued.
“He can handle it.” Qaeshon sounded confident. “He’s only the smartest guy in school.” He glanced around at the empty trays. “You guys finished? I am.”
As they were all ready, the five boys rose from their seats. Fermat piled his dishes onto Jason’s tray and the older boy took both off to the tray return area. He jogged back, catching up with his friends as they were halfway out the dining hall doors.
As they left, Fermat noticed his roommate sitting alone at a table, looking very small and very uncomfortable. Their eyes met for a split second but Fermat turned away quickly, returning to the conversations that were going on around him.
“So, Tracy. You want to join the track team?” Coach Evans folded his arms as Lee Sugimoto guided Alan to the track coach. He was standing by a table on which perched a sign that said, “Athletics”. It was covered with tablets and styluses, each marked with a different sport.
“Hey, Coach.” Alan nervously extended his hand. “Yeah, I want to try out for track.”
Coach scrutinized Alan closely, ignoring the outstretched hand. “I remember you from last year. You weren’t too shabby in my classes but I hear your academic studies didn’t go as well.”
Alan fidgeted a little, still smiling nervously. “Yeah, that’s true … but I buckled down and brought my grades up last quarter.” He rubbed his hands together. “I’m gonna work hard in school this year, too. No shortcuts.”
“Hmm. But will you work hard in track?” Coach asked, eyeing Alan’s constantly moving body. “Sugi says you’ve got a jump that, with work, could be an asset to the team. Anything else you can do?”
“I ran a lot of cross-country with my brother this summer. Got up to five or six K.”
The grizzled man nodded, consulting his datapad. “We might be able to use you … if you’re any good. You taking phys. ed. this semester?”
Alan nodded. “Yeah. Strength Training with Mr. Beccara.”
“Good.” He looked Alan in the eye. “First try outs are tomorrow at three-thirty … sharp. Dress out and come to the field. We’ll see how you do.” This time, the coach extended his hand. “See you tomorrow, Tracy.”
“Right. Three-thirty, sharp.” Alan’s smile widened as he shook the coach’s hand. He turned to go, took a few steps, and swung around, walking backwards as he pointed at the coach and Lee. “I’ll be there!”
In another part of the auditorium, Fermat was painstakingly signing his name to a computerized signup list. He jumped as Dev Israni came up behind him without warning.
“So, you are going to try out for the academic quiz team?”
“Y-Yeah, Dev.” Fermat set the tablet down. “My D-Dad has given me p-p-p …” He paused and took a deep breath. “He says it’s okay.”
“Good! I foresee no problem with your inclusion. Do you, Mr. Feng?”
Fermat wasn’t surprised to find his pre-Engineering teacher was the team’s advisor and coach. “No, I don’t see any problems here either, Dev.” The tall, skinny Asian held out his hand. “Welcome to the team.”
The boy shook the man’s hand. “Th-Thanks, Mr. Feng. I’m r-really e-e-e … h-h-h …” Another deep breath, then, “I’m really g-glad to be part of this.”
“We’ll have to see what we can do about that stutter.” Mr. Feng’s voice held a touch of amusement. “You’ll have to try out, of course. But I think that will be a mere formality in your case, Mr. Hackenbacker.” He raised his eyes to Dev. “I’ll be back in a few minutes, Devdan. Someone’s at the chess team table.”
Devdan nodded as Mr. Feng walked away. He rubbed his long brown hands together, grinning, his teeth white against his brown skin. “Now we will have a truly powerful team, made up of the best minds this school has to offer!” Leaning in, he spoke quietly with Fermat. “Has young Mr. Trumbull given you any more trouble?”
Fermat shook his head. “Other than b-being a snob, n-no.”
“Good. Perhaps you should know, my friend, that Mr. Trumbull is as young as you were last year, and Wharton is merely the latest in a line of boarding schools he has attended.” He put an arm around Fermat’s shoulders. “Perhaps you should … cut him some slack, also.”
Fermat sighed. He gazed up at Dev with a long-suffering expression. “I’ll t-try, Dev. Promise.”
“I require no promises … but I am glad you will try,” Dev replied, removing his arm. He pointed to a spot several tables down. “Look, there. He has interests in music.”
Indeed, Trumbull stood before the music director, who oversaw both the orchestra and the chorale. He was putting his name down on a sign up tablet just like the one Fermat had used.
“Interesting. I hope that if he has an i-instrument, he uses one of the pr-practice rooms, and not our r-r-r… quarters.”
“He shall be reminded of that social nicety should he try to disrupt the harmony of our hall,” Dev assured him. “Now, you look as if you are sleepy. Perhaps you should return to the dormitory and go to bed.”
“It’s the p-p-p … medicine,” Fermat admitted. “It makes me drowsy. Plus I was up so late last night …”
“Then go, and sleep well.”
Fermat walked out of the auditorium, yawning widely. His arm didn’t hurt, but he could feel the beginnings of a chafed spot on his neck where his sling rubbed against it. He grabbed the loose side of his jacket, drawing it close over the immobilized arm. The night was breezy and cool and he felt slightly chilled. He looked up through a clear space where the leafy oaks did not obscure the night sky. “Hello, J-John. How’s life a-among the stars?”
He walked slowly along the paved path, smoothed and patched where the unruly roots of oaks broke through the concrete slabs. The breeze blew through his hair, mussing it, while oak leaves, so soon to turn a bright yellow then fall off, rustled above him. He smiled, feeling peaceful for the first time all that very busy day.
As he passed Oakwood dorm, which stood perpendicular to Maplewood, he heard loud laughter. A familiar voice called out, “Let go of me, you bastard!”
There was the sound of cloth tearing; an unfamiliar, older voice mocked, “Whoops! Didn’t mean to do that!” The jeering laughter sounded again, from more than one person.
Fermat stood stock still, frozen to the spot by indecision. What do I do? What can I do?