Disclaimer: CBS and the creators of Numb3rs own the rights to the series and characters and I thank them for both.
Warning: There are themes involving mild child abuse (bullying), and references to drugs
Note: This story is set when the Eppes boys are in school aged, before the series begins.
Thanks to Angela and Elaine for their work and suggestions that made this better.
Don could see Charlie's smaller figure coming down the crowded hall toward him. His head down and thin, ten-year-old arms wrapped tightly around an obviously heavy pile of books and papers. Despite the fact that his brother was much slighter than the other students crowding the corridor, or perhaps because of it, Charlie was hard to miss. Don halted his task of stuffing unwanted text books into his locker to watch his younger brother's progress. The kid had a real knack for getting out of the bigger kids' way. Even though a few purposefully tried to jostle him, Charlie managed to avoid almost all the obstructions. Don shook his head in frustration as he saw his brother take an elbow to the side of the head from Scott Wheaten. Wheaten was known around school as a not-so-bright tough-guy and bully, so it didn't surprise Don in the least that he would act that way; what was surprising was that Charlie let it happen. For a smart kid, Charlie could be painfully stupid at times. Scott did the same thing every time he saw the genius. The kid really should have seen that coming; Don had. Fortunately it wasn't a hard hit so Don didn't feel compelled to do anything about it, besides he just wasn't in the mood to fight Charlie's battles today.
As Charlie got closer Don turned back to his locker and concentrated on its contents, hoping that Charlie would get the hint and leave him alone for a change.
"Hi, Don!" A young, eager voice sounded directly behind him.
Don groaned. He knew he'd been hoping in vain, Charlie never got the hint. "What do you want, Charlie?"
"Um, nothing… I just wanted to say hi," Charlie said in a much subdued tone.
"Well… you've said it."
"Oh, okay. I'll, umm, see you later then."
Don kept his focus on the junk half spilling from his locker and his back toward the younger boy, and sure enough a few moments later he sensed rather than heard Charlie leave. When the class bell rang Don found the books he needed, slammed the locker door and headed down the hall with the rest of the students. He crossed the hall groaning softly at the thought of his upcoming double math class.
"… and of course, Mr Eppes." Mr Linn handed Don back his math home assignment. "An acceptable grade, but room for improvement. Perhaps you should see if your brother Charles could provide you a little extra tutoring?"
A few sniggering laughs sounded around the room and Don could feel the heat of a blush rising in his face. The grade in the top of his paper read 66; it was one of the better grades he'd ever scored in math and it had taken a lot of work, but the teenager felt no satisfaction in the achievement. Compared to his much younger brother it was a joke. Pathetic.
Fortunately even the longest class eventually ends. The bell rang and Don picked up his gear, shoving it roughly into his school bag. A few papers slipped from the untidy pile and fell to the ground; as luck would have it one of them was his math assignment.
Scott Wheaten got to it first and, handing it back with a grin said, "Don't forget this, Eppes, and be sure to show it to your baby brother. I'm sure he'll find it funny. I can't wait until next year when you're in the same class as your kid brother. You know maybe if you wrote in crayon and sucked your thumb you might catch a little of the baby-Eppes brain power."
The group of students surrounding and supporting Wheaten snickered. Don snatched the paper back and shoved it into his bag. He was infuriated to the point he could barely think straight. His first impulse was to deck the grinning imbecile but he knew that would only get him in trouble and would make Scott look the winner.
"So, Wheaten, we all know what I got, how'd you do?"
Don didn't know what grade Scott had gotten but he was fairly confident that it wouldn't be good. Scott Wheaten was the stereotypical dumb jock, and he was notably terrible at math.
Wheaten flashed a furious glare at him and stormed to the door, but then unexpectedly stopped at the opening and turned back, a snide grin forming on his face.
"Oh, Donny… baby brother is here."
Reaching out beside the doorway he dragged Charlie into the classroom by the boy's shoulder and shoved him toward Don. Don was forced to catch his stumbling brother or the kid would have fallen to the floor.
"Aw, how cute… Daddy Donnikins and his baby bro."
"Wheaten…" Don began in warning, his temper flaring.
Scott turned his attention to Charlie. "Hey, Chucky, Don here was just telling us how he needs your help in math."
Charlie's eyes went wide with excitement as he looked up to Don. "You do? That's great! We could study together…"
Don shoved Charlie away from him, suddenly unaccountably angry with his brother. "No! How many times do I have to tell you? I don't need help, and if I did, Charlie, I would never ask you. You got that?"
"Donny, I just want to help."
"You want to help me, kid? Do you really want to help me?"
Charlie looked hesitant but nodded his head.
"Then stay the hell away from me. I'm sick to death of you hanging around and turning up everywhere I go. I get more than enough of you at home. You're like a splinter I can't get rid of! Get it through your thick head I don't want you tagging around after me any more."
Don saw the effect his words had on Charlie and knew he had to stop himself before he said anything he'd really regret. Unfortunately Charlie's frustrations had stirred. Tears welled in the little boy's dark eyes but hidden under the moisture was a spark of fire. It wasn't often Charlie got truly offended by something Don said but once he was he could stay that way for days.
"I'm not the one with the thick head, Donny. You can't even solve the simplest equations."
"Oh, yeah… you know what, Charlie? That's fine. Math is useless in the real world! I may not be good at math but that's all you're good for! You're only smart here in school, out in the real world you're going to be useless. Get it?"
"No, that's not true," Charlie denied but there was a definite quaver in his voice. "Math is important."
"No, Charlie, engineering is important, science is important. Doing things is important, you playing around with your precious equations is not important. They're just numbers and you don't actually do anything."
It was a cheap shot and Don knew it. Of course, Charlie's math didn't actually produce anything; the kid wasn't even a teenager yet. Don had only said it because he was angry and knew it would upset the kid since he just about worshipped mathematics.
"That's not true," Charlie repeated but he didn't sound entirely sure about it.
Don became aware that he and Charlie were making a scene and attracting unwanted attention. He decided to end the fight, besides there was no honour in reducing a ten year old to tears.
"Look, Charlie, just go away, will you? Go solve an equation or something equally pointless and leave me alone."
Gripping his satchel tightly in both hands, Charlie did as Don asked, all but running from the room. Don sighed.
Spread out around the campus Charlie had created a number of bolt-holes, places he could go when he needed to think or escape and be reasonably sure no one would disturb him. One that he used fairly often was the janitor's closet at the far end of the second floor. After the fight with Don, Charlie ran straight there. He pretended to take a drink from the water fountain while the few students there moved away. As soon as no one was in sight Charlie dashed into the small space and closed the door.
It was dark in the little room and Charlie frantically fumbled for the pull-chain that would turn on the overhead light. The light wasn't very strong but it was enough to break the spell of fear the dark had over him. Making himself comfortable on the hard floor Charlie began to think over what had just happened. The tears that he'd denied himself bean to fall.
He found it hard to believe that Don had said the things he'd said to him. He hated it when he and Donny fought, and they seemed to fight more now than ever before. Ever since the beginning of the school year Don had done everything in his power to avoid him. He never talked to him, at least not when there were other kids around, and usually when he did talk to him it was to tell him to go away or worse. Even at home things were different.
Thinking about it Charlie realised that it had been a very long time since Donny had actually wanted to do anything with him. Lately his older brother had only played with him or let him spend time with him when their mother had made him.
Charlie thought about what Don had said. Were his numbers really useless? Everyone had told him how great it was that he could understand them so well, but Don was really smart about how the world worked. If Don was right, and he usually was, then everything Charlie could do was only worth something while he was in school. Charlie knew that his parents had spent and sacrificed a great deal to give him the things he needed just so he could learn more mathematics. Why would they do that if math was really useless? At this rate he'd be finished with school and college when he was around seventeen, then what would he do? By seventeen, an age when most people were finding out what they wanted to do with their lives, Charlie would already have finished and reached the peak of his curve. What would he do then? Where would he go? What would happen when he'd finished learning everything he could? What use would he be then? The prospect of futility and purposelessness, stretching out for decade after decade into his future, was more than Charlie could bear to think about.
'If I weren't so smart then there would always be things for me to learn. I could learn normal things, useful things, and get a normal job, maybe even have a normal life.' There had to be a solution. He would have to think about it a little more, but one thing was clear. Don did not want him around the way he was. It wouldn't take much to stay out of Donny's way at school, and then maybe he would want to at least talk to him at home. It wasn't the best solution but it would have to do until he could think of something more permanent.
Don felt good. He was rarely bothered by Charlie turning up in the halls any more, and while he regretted that it had taken a fight to make his kid brother back off and give him a little space, he had to admit that he was happy with the result. Don had finally stopped looking over his shoulder waiting for his brother to appear and embarrass him in front of his friends. For the first time since Charlie had come to his school Don didn't mind that he had a genius brother on the same campus as him. It helped that he rarely even saw Charlie, and the kid had stopped pestering Don to sit at his table during lunch. Don had occasionally seen a dark curly-haired child leaving the baseball field while he was on his way to the lockers but Don had not seen Charlie in the bleachers since the fight. It was a little odd and Don had wondered where his brother had been hiding during the practices but it was nice to know his brother was still coming to watch him play.
Today's practice had been one of Don's better days and he was very pleased with his performance, and from the notes the man had made on his clip-board during the session he suspected the coach was happy with him as well. He looked but didn't see Charlie before he made it into the locker rooms. It really had been a good day, and it was a shame Charlie had missed it. Don allowed himself a little hope that he would win the first batter position. With the cuts only days away he knew it was between himself and Scott Wheaton, who had definitely not done his best today; but still the outcome was by no means assured.
The locker room was rowdy, and Don received a number of congratulations and good-natured ribbing from the rest of the team hopefuls, noticeably missing from the high spirits was Scott. Don knew that, regardless of the positions they played or how he personally felt about the guy, both he and Scott would be on the team. It made sense to at least try to get along with him.
"Hey, Scott, there is still practice tomorrow, don't let a single bad day get to ya," Don greeted him in a soft but open tone.
Scott spat at Don's feet and Don felt his anger surge at the unexpected affront.
"Yeah, I may have had a bad day, Eppes, but at least I came by it honestly. I don't need to resort to drugs to play well!"
Drugs… what was Scott talking about? He knew Scott didn't like him and they were main rivals, but he had no idea the guy hated him so much that he would make a wild accusation like that, at least not publicly.
"What the hell are you talking about? You think I'm taking steroids?"
"I know you are. What's the matter, Eppes, can't handle the heat?"
"Look, I don't know where you're getting your information from but I am not taking anything."
Scott simply laughed. "You're smart enough to not buy them yourself. I'll give you that much, but I saw your little twerp-brother dealing with Repo myself. Just admit it, Eppes, you're a lousy cheat."
"Charlie? Are you seriously accusing my brother of buying from Repo? Are you crazy? He's not buying drugs for me or anyone else, the kid is ten years old."
"Exactly! Who would expect the boy wonder and teacher's pet of the century to be dealing drugs... it's inspired."
Anger burned throughout every fibre of Don's being. "I'll tell you this just one more time, Wheaten. My brother is not involved with Repo!"
Before the confrontation could build into physical violence, Johnny, another of Don's team-mates and friends, stepped in. "Actually, Don, Jen and I saw Charlie talking with Repo earlier. We thought it was a bit odd, and I was going to mention it to you, but I forgot."
"See!" Scott yelled in vindication.
Don chose to ignore Scott. "What? Johnny, are you sure it was Charlie?"
Johnny nodded. "Yeah, he's kinda hard to mistake. Sorry, man."
Don felt his world spin and a white hot rage, directed wholly at his brother, flooded through him as he realised that Scott hadn't been making it up.
Don had stormed out of the change room still in his grass and sweat-stained practice uniform and spent his lunch hour fruitlessly searching the school grounds for his brother. The kid always did have a talent for vanishing when he really wanted to. Charlie was almost as good at it as he was at saying or doing things to embarrass his older brother.
Although he couldn't find his brother, Don, like everyone else in the school, knew exactly where to find Repo and his loser gang. They always hung out in the little courtyard behind the administration building. Don guessed it gave Repo a sense of power for him to run his illicit business literally under the noses of the school authorities. Don approached, ignoring everyone except the one he'd come to talk to.
"Repo, I wanna talk to you."
Repo smiled at him. "Well, well, first the brains then the brawn. Business is just jumping at the Eppes' place today."
A sick sensation washed over Don as he realised the denial he'd been hoping for wasn't going to happen, and his thinly held hope that this rubbish about Charlie and drugs was all some sort of bizarre mistake was crushed. Repo was far too willing to share the fact that Charlie had been to see him for it not to be true, and the openness also meant that Charlie probably already had whatever it was that he'd been here to buy. It was obvious Repo knew Don was no threat to him. The worst of it was that the dealer was right. There was no way Don was going to turn in his own brother. If Charlie had been buying drugs he wasn't going to bring the teachers or his parents, especially not his parents, into this. He'd take care of it, and Charlie, himself.
"Look, I'm not here to hassle you. I just want to know what my ten year-old brother was buying from you."
Don took care to make sure his stance was non-threatening, he really didn't give a damn about Repo's business, he just wanted to know what Charlie was doing. The other teenager stared at him for a long moment before suddenly relaxing with a smile.
"I got to tell ya, Eppes, I like customers like your brother. Pay fast, no hassles and knows exactly what he wants." He laughed. "Kid even had a list!"
Don closed his eyes, not sure if he wanted to hit something, scream or just throw up. When he spoke his voice was tight with tension. "What did he buy from you?"
Still grinning, the dealer dug into the pockets of his jeans and pulled out a note, handing it over. Don recognised his brother's handwriting as soon as he opened the folded paper. The list was far longer than he expected, with over a dozen items on it. He didn't even know what all of the items on the list were but the ones he recognised were not amateur stuff, these were hard core items his brother was getting into. Don put the note in his pocket.
"Do yourself a favour, Repo, and don't sell to my brother again."
The other boy's apparent good humour abruptly vanished. "Supply and demand, Eppes. You got a problem, get rid of the demand."
Don left determined to find and sort out his idiot brother.
Charlie looked down at the seemingly innocent package he held in his hand. It had cost him every cent he had, and the ten dollars he'd stolen from his father's wallet that morning, but he had everything he needed. It would still take him a day or two to finish the preparations and get the combination exactly right but he was ready. Weeks of intensive work had gone into his calculations. A few vaguely worded questions to one of his tutors expressing an interest in medicine had garnered him dozens medical papers. He didn't really have an interest in medicine but it had help him gather the information he needed and he was at last certain he had the best possible solution to his problems and the small bag of chemicals in his hand was the key. Still, the process itself scared him. He'd never liked taking medication, not even for the violent headaches he sometimes got. The thought of taking these drugs scared him so much that he'd almost not gone through with it, but yesterday had changed his mind and firmed his resolve. The memory was still vividly fresh in his mind.
Charlie had been leaving the library, intending to grab his lunch from his locker and find somewhere quiet, away from the cafeteria and the other kids where he could eat in peace, maybe even put the finishing touches on the calculations he'd been doing for Don. He took the long way through the seldom used, narrow alley between two buildings while he considered what was left to do to the equation. Engrossed in his thoughts he didn't see Scott Wheaten until he'd nearly walked into the back of him.
Charlie stopped short before bumping into the older boy and began to back away, hoping Scott wouldn't notice him. He was out of luck. Scott, who'd been digging about in his school bag, spotted him and, before Charlie could turn and run, had grabbed him by the arm.
"What are you doing here, runt? Are you spying on me for your big brother?" He shook Charlie hard enough to rattle his teeth.
"No, let me go," Charlie tried to squirm from the other boy's grip but couldn't break free.
"What did you see?" Scott demanded shaking him again.
Charlie had no idea what Scott was talking about and could feel his breath coming faster and faster gasp in response to his fear. He knew he was in real trouble. He hadn't seen anything at all, and if he had seen Scott in the alley there was no way he would have gone down it in the first place.
Scott lifted him bodily from the ground and slammed Charlie against the wall, his back and shoulder taking the painful impact. Fear and adrenaline spiked through Charlie's system.
Since his fight with Donny the school bullies seemed to know that he was no longer protected by his tough and popular brother so had been less wary about how they treated him. In the last few weeks Charlie had his money, books, bag and even his lunch taken from him repeatedly, usually accompanied by a punch or two to the gut, a shove or a few kicks.
It shamed him that he was too weak, too useless, to fight back. If Don knew he would be even more ashamed of him, but of all the people at the school that Charlie feared, he was most afraid of Scott. Even when Don had been protecting him Scott had still taken every chance to push him around. Usually it was only a tap or a shove in the hallway, and Charlie let him do it because to fight back against Scott would only mean far worse treatment the next time. So since the fight, the younger boy had taken great care to never be in close contact with Scott Wheaton. Now he was alone with him and Scott was angry. The first punch to his gut, when it came, was not unexpected but it stole what little breath Charlie had.
While Charlie gasped for air against the pain, a strange thing happened. Without wanting it to, or being able to exert any control over it, his mind began to form calculations. Basic trigonometry provided him the time of day from the angle of the building's shadow on the ground... then he calculated the exact number of bricks that made up the wall and estimated its total area. The numbers came thick and fast, and Charlie found he couldn't stop them or block them out of his thoughts. Scott was still yelling at him and he realised that the older boy had actually hit him a few more times without the blows really registering. With a final shake Scott let him go and, muttering disgustedly, walked off.
Since Scott had left and the danger was over Charlie expected to be able to control the strange flow of numbers through his mind but to his dismay that didn't happen. Actually the flow became exponentially worse until he was tracking multiple number streams at once and finding both the factors and root of each. Charlie couldn't keep up and discovered he could no longer breathe at all. He struggled to stop the surge of number but couldn't. The edges of his vision tinged in grey and still the numbers flew at him. He'd never heard of anyone dying like this before but he had no doubt that was precisely what was happening. He felt sorry that he wouldn't be finishing Don's calculation but even more sorry that he'd waited too long. He'd worked out the perfect plan but had hesitated too long to implement it and now it was too late. He could have made things good between him and his brother, but he'd lost his chance.
I'm sorry, Donny, he'd thought as the grey darkened to black and Charlie collapsed into a boneless heap.
That he hadn't died felt like a miracle and Charlie knew he'd been given a second chance to do what he had to do. He wasn't really sure how he'd survived yesterday's attack but he was pretty sure he wouldn't live through another one. Scott's beating had left bruises all over his back, stomach and right side but as scary as that had been, the attack from his own mind had been far more frightening. He didn't want to be insane. Maybe once the numbers were gone so would the insanity.
There was so little time left and he still had a lot to do. According to his calculations, if he ingested and injected exacting quantities of each of the drugs he had purchased from Repo in a specific order a single dose would be enough. After a short period of illness, he'd wake up and the numbers would be gone forever. There were risks, of course, and Charlie had calculated those in detail, doing his best to minimize the worst and reach an acceptable level. Executing the solution still frightened him but he knew he had no choice. If Donny ever found out he was insane he'd want nothing to do with him. Once it was over things would be better. Don might even like him; besides it might not hurt at all, or at least not much.
Don couldn't remember ever being this angry. Each heartbeat thudded through his body rocking him slightly with its power and his breath came and left with a hard sharp hiss. Despite the rage, outwardly he appeared calm as he leaned against the pillars guarding the steps to Charlie's building. He knew Charlie would have to come down these steps to get to the library, as the boy did every afternoon; Don had chosen a position where he would be able to see his brother long before he himself was seen. At last his patience was rewarded and a slight frame topped with a mass of curly dark hair appeared at the top of the steps and started down. Halfway down Charlie caught sight of Don. Easy to read emotions flashed across his young face. First surprise followed by pleasure, then finally a guarded look which dissolved into apprehension. Don pushed off from the wall and stalked up to his brother grabbing him by the arm and pulling him back up the stairs and into the building.
"Come here, you little brat, you and I are going to have a talk," Don growled.
"Oww, Don, don't, you're hurting me!"
Don didn't respond or ease his grip in the slightest. If Charlie thought he was going to whine and plead his way out of this he was sadly mistaken.
Dragging his brother into the nearest room Don shoved the boy against the wall, holding him in place with one hand while he closed and locked the door with the other. Knowing Charlie couldn't get away from him Don released him.
As soon as he was free, Charlie began to back away. Don followed, saying nothing but letting his proximity intimidate the younger, smaller boy. Eventually Charlie had backed himself into the corner, far away from the door. Don reached out and grabbed a fistful of Charlie's shirt and pulled him close until his brother's face was only inches from his own.
"Give them to me. Now! And I mean all of them," he growled, shaking Charlie none too gently to reinforce the threat.
"What…" Charlie began in a small innocent voice.
The sound of it enraged Don. The kid was actually going to stand there and try to pull an innocent act on him.
"The drugs, Charlie! Hand 'em over, right now or so help me I'll pound you into next week!" Don shook his fist in Charlie's face.
"No, no, Donny, don't. I need them. I'll…"
"You need them? I can't believe you, Charlie! You have everything you need and you're given everything you want. You ungrateful little brat, you just throw it all away for what, a few minutes of fun? Is that what you need, Charlie?"
Charlie began breathing in sharp uneven catches, and his eyes started moving frantically from side to side in a jagged ceaseless motion. Don could feel the thin body shaking through his grip on his shirt. Disgusted, Don pushed him away.
"You're high now, aren't you?" he demanded.
Charlie didn't answer; his panting increased as he slid down the wall to the floor, hugging his knees to himself. Don rubbed a hand hard over his face and looked at the pathetic bundle at his feet; this was just going to kill their parents. A number of times in his life he'd been jealous of Charlie and the attention everyone gave him and on occasion he'd even resented him but never before this moment had Don actually hated his brother.
He turned away from him and tried to get a grip on his anger. The temptation to leave Charlie to his destructive choice was strong, but Don knew he couldn't do that and ever face his parents again. He could hear a soft gasping mutter and turned back. Charlie was rocking slowly backward and forward now in the grip of his drug-induced high. Kneeling down he grabbed the boy by the shoulders and turned him to face him. He was a little surprised to hear Charlie chanting numbers in a nearly breathless voice but the thing that stunned him the most were his brother's eyes. They were clear, not glazed as he would have expected from drugs, but more than that they were swamped with intense panic.
A gaze of not just fear, but an unspeakable terror, found his and Charlie grabbed his wrist in a hard grip. "D...D…Donny… 14 squared… make it… 196… stop! By 26… 5096…"
Charlie's voice faded out as he stopped being able to suck in any air. The small body began to heave and struggle for breath and, although Don wouldn't have thought it possible, the amount of fear in his eyes amplified. Don didn't know what was happening to his brother but he had a pretty good idea it had nothing to do with drugs.
Even though Charlie could no longer speak Don knew the numbers were still coming. Acting on instinct he grabbed both sides of Charlie's face, bringing it close to his own, and stared deep into his brother's frantically searching eyes and willed himself to be calm.
"Charlie, look at me. Look at me, Charlie!"
His brother looked at him. Holding his gaze Don spoke clearly and firmly. "Look, Charlie, there's only one of me. One, Charlie. Look at me, Charlie, there's one… just one…" He repeated it several times and slowly saw the panic fade a little.
Taking shuddering breaths Charlie stared at him softly repeating the word "One." Any time the other boy's gaze began to wander Don would order him to concentrate and reinforce the fact that there was only one. Finally the worst of it was over and slowly Don released the tight grip he'd held on his brother's face.
"You okay?" he asked at last.
Charlie, still breathing in broken shudders, nodded. "Thanks, I thought it was going to kill me this time."
Don felt a growing unease, "This has happened before?"
Charlie nodded and slumped against the wall. Don moved to sit next to him and on impulse put his arm around Charlie's shoulders. Charlie rested his head against his shoulder seeking reassurance and Don could feel him nod his head. "Once, yesterday, but it didn't stop that time. It went on forever. I thought I was dying. Everything went black and I woke up a long time later with a headache."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
Charlie tried to pull away but, reacting quickly, Don held him steady against his side. Either because he didn't really want to leave the comfort or because he was too tired to fight, Charlie stayed where he was on Don's shoulder.
Charlie shrugged and sighed, "I didn't want you to know I was going crazy."
"You're not crazy, Charlie," Don said firmly. "Can you tell me what just happened? Do you know?"
"Sort of, but I don't think you'll understand."
Another sigh and a moment of silence followed and Don waited patiently for Charlie to find the words. "It's the numbers, Donny, most of the time I like them. They're fun but sometimes I want them to stop but they never do. Usually I just ignore it, block them out, and I'm fine. But sometimes they just come so fast. I can't stop them. There's nothing I can do…"
"Hey, hey, calm down, it's all right. You're all right now." Charlie had begun to tense and speak faster until Don interrupted him and gave his shoulder a squeeze. "And, for the record, I still don't think you're crazy."
Charlie muttered something Don couldn't hear but it sounded like "No, just useless." He didn't call his brother on it; there was time enough for that talk later. Right now he had something more important to sort out.
"Charlie, is that why you bought the drugs… to stop the numbers?"
"Let me keep them, Donny, please."
"No, Charlie. There's a better way. We'll work on it together, okay, Buddy? It'll be all right, you'll see."
Charlie seemed to deflate. "I'm so tired."
"Then rest, Charlie, I'm here."
"You don't have to do this, Donny."
Don was confused. "Do what?"
"Be nice to me. I know you don't like me."
"Charlie, you're my brother, I love you."
Charlie sighed and wrapped his arms around Don's waist, pulling into a more comfortable and closer position. "I know you love me, you have to, but if you weren't my brother would you like me?"
Don was quiet as he thought over his brother's words. Did he only like Charlie because he was family? The kid drove him crazy and annoyed the hell out of him consistently. The thought brought forward dozens of moments from his memory when Charlie was nothing but a pain. Little hands touching and breaking things that didn't belong to them, a needling voice whining when Don wouldn't do what it wanted and a pouting face that always got its own way. Then other thoughts and images, too many to count, crossed his mind. Charlie bringing the best from dinner up to him after Don was banished to his room; Charlie sitting on the grass beside him listening as Don worked through a teenage problem, unable to help but offering his silent support anyway, and a dark curly head sneaking away from the practise field after loyally supporting a brother who had openly rejected him.
The boy's voice was soft. "It's really okay, I don't think I like me either."
"Charlie, stop it. You didn't let me answer. It's an important question, I was thinking it through and yes, I like you. I like you a lot. You're always there for me even when I don't treat you very well." Don took a deep breath and sighed. "You drive me nuts, you know that? I get so mad at you, and I always seem to tell you when you're annoying me, but I'm sorry that I never remember to tell you when you're not and I need you to know that I like you… because I do, lots of the time."
"Buddy, let me tell you a secret, all right?"
Charlie's head nodded in answer.
"I even like your math. I like that you're smart, that you're special. I like what you can do with numbers. I don't always understand it but I like that you do. I like that people listen to you when you talk about math. I'm sixteen and no one listens to me!"
"I listen, Donny."
Don laughed. "Yeah, but when you're sixteen you won't."
"Yes, I will." Charlie's voice was still soft but there was a steel of conviction under it.
They were quiet for a while before Charlie spoke again. "Can I tell you a secret too?"
"The numbers, I understand them better than anyone knows. Sometimes I make mistakes on purpose."
That confused Don. "Why?"
Charlie shrugged. "So they'll watch me less. People are always watching me and I don't know what they want. Even Mom and Dad watch, you're the only one who doesn't. I thought it was because you didn't like me."
"I told you already that I do, and I promise you I always will."
"Really, you promise?"
"Yes, but I want a promise in return. You hand over the drugs you bought and then no more drugs, Charlie. Never again, you got that?"
After a long hesitation Charlie nodded. "Okay, I promise."
One thing about Charlie was that he always kept his promises. Don had been trying for years to get the kid to promise to stay out of his room but so far no luck.
"Don… Can we stay here for a while?"
"Yeah, as long as you need, Buddy."
At last Charlie began to settle, his rest only occasionally broken by a hitched breath. Don kept his embrace at a constant firm pressure, there was no way he was letting the kid go anywhere for a while and he didn't want to give him any false signals. Don realised he'd never really thought about how life looked from Charlie's point of view. All he'd ever seen was the attention and encouragement his brother got, but he'd never really looked at the intense pressure and observation Charlie was under all the time, from everyone he met. With no one his own age he could trust or relate to, there was an oppressive element of isolation Don had never recognised before. After thinking about his own rejection of Charlie a few weeks earlier Don realised his brother had no one. There was little doubt in his mind that Charlie had begun to have these panic attacks and consider drugs, at least in part, because of him.
It was an uncomfortable feeling knowing that he was partially responsible for the type of anguish he'd just witnessed, and it sickened him to know that Charlie had endured an even worse version alone. At first he'd wondered why Charlie hadn't told anyone, but the more he thought about it the clearer he understood that Charlie didn't have anyone to tell. The kid really was all alone in the world, separated from everyone by the combination of his age and intellect. Without Don in his corner, Charlie had been left to fight on his own. Don tried to put himself into his brother's position and think about how he would have handled it. It was a little humbling to realise that he would have done no better than Charlie. Don could even see how an escape through drugs would be appealing.
With a single shuddering sigh Charlie fell asleep, his arms still hugging Don's waist. A notebook, earlier spilled from Charlie's dropped backpack, caught Don's eye. Open at a page near the back of the book a series of incomprehensible calculations, surprisingly detailed diagrams and messy lists of figures in Charlie's distinctive scrawl filled the visible pages. But it was the heading at the top that caught his attention. It was simply labelled, "For Don." Don picked up the book and looked at the work, amazed at the detail and obvious effort that had been put into it. He noticed a scribbled reminder in the margin. Since Charlie had eventually learnt to write notes to himself in his notebooks his terrible memory had been less of a problem. It took Don a few tries to interpret the appalling handwriting. "He won't want it but don't forget to leave it for him."
Leave it? What was that supposed to mean. Where was Charlie planing to go? Confused, Don flipped the book to the beginning. He was no math genius, he wasn't any sort of genius at all, but he didn't need to be to figure out what was being said on the first page of that book. Don had seen enough of Charlie's analysis sheets to recognise this as one, but the list of objectives were what really caught his eye. It looked as though Charlie was branching away from pure mathematics and into medicine, specifically the biochemistry of the human brain. The thought floored him. After flipping through a few more pages, Don's blood began to run cold. Charlie's research notes had a definite theme building and it was one he didn't like.
Don began to pay more attention to each page as he looked through the book. As he began to understand what he was looking at his grip on his sleeping brother tightened convulsively. The notebook was a horror novel, page after page listed scenarios designed to cause a significant amount of damage to the cognitive brain functions of a ten year old boy. Listed in highly detailed mathematical terms were variables such as body weight, height and age that described his brother in clinical detail. The insight into the way Charlie's mind worked was both fascinating and appalling. The kid had come up with almost a dozen ways to cause himself permanent brain damage.
As Don read, he saw that some potential solutions were discounted quickly as either having too many variables to control or having too low a survival and/or success rate. One solution was summarised in greater detail and marked as the best potential solution, despite a staggeringly low initial survival rate of 42. The solution outlined the effect a sudden and massive dose of specific drugs would have. After that, the remaining pages were filled with calculations and probability lines of incredible detail. Don was only slightly comforted to see that by altering the ratio and combinations Charlie had calculated a survival rate of better than 80. Orderly rows filled with Charlie's characteristic scrawl filled several pages with calculated statistics under horrifying headings such as degree of retardation, physical handicap, stroke, blindness… Unable to look any more Don closed the book and laid it gently on the floor.
In his state of rest his brother looked every bit the child he was. Ten years-old and considering self-destruction. Don swallowed hard against the rising nausea.
How close had he come to losing his brother? Don felt a chill run through him as he realized Charlie had gone way past consideration; he'd bought the drugs. His little brother had seriously intended to harm himself. What had the kid been thinking? Did a child of ten have any real idea how truly horrific the contents of that notebook were? Did Charlie have any clue how many lives he would have ruined had he been successful? To Charlie's very young mind his terrible solution had probably seemed like a good idea, logical even.
Don recognized a fundamental mistake he'd been making for a very long time in his treatment of his brother. Charlie was smart, far in advance of most adults but emotionally he was still a little kid. Don knew he'd fallen into the trap of treating the boy as a teenager, equal to himself emotionally. He wasn't. He only had one brother and because of is callous indifference he had nearly lost him. Don resolved that it wasn't going to happen again.
His bat contacted the ball with a sharp crack. In that instant Don knew the hit was a good one. Flinging his bat aside he began to run for first base. He could hear the cheering increase as he rounded second, and one voice screaming, "Go, Donny!" rose above the others. He was still in the clear as his foot slapped third base, and he kept running. People were standing in the bleachers now as they watched the action. Don had a momentary view of Charlie's excited face. To either side of the boy were their parents, all three on their feet. The ball was on its way back from the outfield and Don pulled out all his reserves to run just that little bit faster.
Charlie had stopped jumping up and down; his hands had found and tangled into his hair, the way they did when he was really worried about something, so Don knew the play had to be close. Just as he slid toward home he saw the ball flash past him, and then his hand was sliding across the middle of the plate.
It seemed to take an eternity before the umpire made his decision but in reality it was only a few seconds.
The stands erupted into cheering, and again the voice of his brother seemed to carry clearly above the rest. Don waved a salute to the stands, but for his brother he offered a smile. The victory was partially Charlie's. It had been his equations that had worked out a better swing for him; without his brother's help Don wasn't entirely sure he would have hit that last ball with anything close to the power he had.
They'd talked about that day, but not in great detail, the word "drugs" had not been mentioned. Neither had said a word to their parents, and Don doubted they ever would. Charlie seemed to need to put it into the past, and Don was more than willing to go along with that as long as the lessons they'd learned weren't discarded as well. To his knowledge Charlie hadn't suffered another attack since the one he'd witnessed, but Don wasn't sure his brother had seen the last of them. Charlie still annoyed the hell out of him, but things were better between them. For the first time Don could see that maybe, just maybe, he and his brother might finally get it right. Someday… maybe.