Scott Tracy, at 17 years of age, was a diligent scholar. No genius, maybe, but hard-working, he was already receiving literature from half a dozen western colleges and universities. He had his heart set on the Air Force Academy, though he kept the ambition to himself. More mature and pensive than most boys his age, Scott Tracy was his brothers' best friend and defender; both John, 15, and Virgil, the younger by two years. Not youngest. He'd never been able, in eight long years, to call Virgil the youngest, any more than he'd been able to call Gennine "mom".
He was a good-looking young man, with dark hair, deep blue eyes, and an arrestingly handsome face, but he was far too driven to pay much attention to girls. Scott Aaron Tracy was very conscious of a larger world out there somewhere, and his own painful need to make a difference in it. For mom's sake, and Gordon's.
Stalking toward the "fort" with Virgil ( both armed, alert, and dressed in several warm layers of flannel, wool and leather), he seemed already over-burdened with responsibility, and rather tense. According to grandad, John'd had nothing onbut jeans and a thin tee shirt. Nowhere near enough for a night outdoors, in September. The western horizon was a glory of silhouetted hills and golden fire, the house a violet shadow threading smoke into the still, cold air. Night tended to fall with a nearly audible crash up here, the atmosphere being so thin, and temperatures to drop like a stalled jet. They needed to find him. Soon.
Hopefully, John was in the little copse of cottonwoods they'd long ago taken to using as a meeting house. If not, they'd have to saddle up, or break out the four-wheelers and hunt their restless brother down.
Virgil, striding alongside, looked far more relaxed, and entirely at home. Handsome in his own blunt, dark-eyed way, he took after grandad, and Scott doubted he'd ever willingly leave home.
They reached the hollow, with its artesian seep and leafless cottonwoods. The fort. John was there, all right, seated on one of the four gnarled stumps they'd nailed boards to, all those years ago. Four seats, because three would have been incomplete. Three would have admitted a loss that no one was willing to accept. Gordon wasn't physically present, but he wasn't forgotten, either; his opinion considered, and voted on, in every important boyhood matter. (Lost, was all their father had said; swept away. He'd never been buried, like mom. So, alive he remained, until they got proof, which hadn't happened yet.)There were even surreptitious birthday parties in the fort, which grandma connived at, baking chocolate cakes (Gordon's favorite flavor, they'd decided, after due consideration) and going into town every February 14th to buy the chosen gift. Grandad shook his head, and looked the other way, but he kept the matter quiet, finding nothing of note to report to father, during his twice-weekly phone calls. Not about the parties, the missing person adverts, or John's unending school troubles.
Their brother looked up as they approached, a strange expression on his pallid face.
"Dinner's about ready," Scott said, relieved, but matter-of-fact. "You coming in?"
"In a minute."
"Good news?" Virgil inquired artlessly. He knew there 'd been a letter for John, but not who from, nor why. Still, mail was always interesting, no matter the reason.
John didn't answer directly, holding out some sort of form letter for inspection. Scott took it, held it up to the fading light, and read aloud,
"Dr. Melissa Kahn, PhD... Princeton University, Department of Advanced Placement Studies... Dear Mr. Tracy; thank you for your interest in Princeton University. It is our pleasure to inform you that your application to the advanced placement program has ... been accepted. We... look forward to..." Scott stopped reading, re-folded the letter and handed it back.
"You're leaving," he accused, very quietly.
"Princeton?" He demanded, "That's in England, isn't it?"
"New Jersey," John corrected absently, already a thousand miles away, with Einstein, and Brian Greene.
"Still out east!" Virgil persisted, incredulously. "What's wrong with UW? Laramie's only 263.54 Statute miles from here. You could visit. Princeton, New Jersey's..." the younger Tracy brother frowned down at the frosty ground, seeing maps and charts. "... uh, 1,738.32 miles away. As the crow flies. A lot further in a car! And there's no one to cook for you. You'll starve."
John cocked a blond eyebrow.
"There are planes," he said, "Phones, too. And frozen pizza. I won't shrivel up."
Undeterred, Virgil shook his head. Time to break out the big guns.
"We don't know anybody out that way."
Scott coughed a little. As he'd never been sick a day in his life, this meant he wanted their attention. His brothers quit arguing and looked over.
"Well," he ventured uneasily, "father's got an office in Manhattan, actually."
"Like I said...," Virgil muttered, "You'll be all alone."
Scott only half listened as his younger brother continued butting heads with John, like a cricket attacking a boulder. What was left of his family, he realized, was slipping away through his fingers like creek water. Soon, it might disappear altogether. Why did growing up have to mean growing apart? And losing people?
A probing wind had sprung up, from somewhere over in the Northwest Territories, felt like; bitter cold and flaying sharp. Scott shook away the cobwebs and put a hand on John's skinny shoulder.
"Promise to keep in touch, John. Anything happens, you need something, or just feel like talking, call us. You won't be more than three hours away, and I can make it in two and a half. Understood?"
John nodded silently, promising nothing, but Scott wasn't through.
"...And please? Get a damn haircut!"
For some reason, John smiled.
"Okay, Scott. I promise."