Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with the television show Numb3rs.
No matter how much he tried to push it to the back of his mind he couldn't get rid of the words that played over and over in his head.
High school sucked for me, Don.
Don Eppes stood beside the doorway of his brother's classroom and watched as the tousle-haired genius explained yet another complicated math theory to a roomful of people not much younger than himself, if at all. Charlie hadn't spotted him yet so he used the opportunity to his advantage, curious as to whether his personality was different away from home or the FBI office.
Charlie was speaking animatedly to his class while standing in front of his chalkboard. Written across the board in large colourful letters were the words: Math for Fun, Not Profit. He appeared relaxed and confident – in his element. Gone were the worry lines that creased his brow whenever he was working a case for Don. Gone were the dark circles under his eyes that appeared whenever he couldn't find a way to help solve the case.
"So you see," he was saying. "Each number – or initial seed - you try, using the rules I've given, winds down to a sequence ending in one, which then repeats. Hailstone numbers."
Noticing a student with her hand up, Charlie nodded.
"Professor Eppes," asked the young woman. "Does that apply to every number?"
"Well," Charlie replied, "According to something called the 'Collatz Conjecture' – yes. It's never been proven." His pupils exchanged glances. He continued, "But it has been true for every number tried. It is also interesting to note the patterns of the sequences found – the number 27, for example, takes the largest number of steps to reach one out of all the numbers under 100." The class began to murmur.
Don stepped back from the doorway and rubbed his eyes. He was getting a headache just trying to follow what Charlie was saying. He waited until he heard the distinctive sounds of students packing up their books and leaving their desks before stepping into the doorway. Seeing Don standing there, Charlie waved and then gestured for him to come over to his desk. Don wove his way among the departing class and finally arrived at Charlie's side.
"Hey, Don," Charlie said by way of greeting.
"Hey, Charlie," Don replied. He glanced around. "Is it my imagination, or are your classes getting bigger?"
"Well, this one tends to be a bit larger than most," Charlie admitted. "It is a bigger class than the last one you saw." Don nodded. Charlie studied his profile for a moment then asked, "What brings you here? Another case?"
Don turned to face him. "Actually, no. Is there… can we go into your office?"
"Of course," Charlie replied, concern on his face. "Is everything all right?"
"Yeah, yeah," Don answered. "I just wanted to talk to you. Through here, right?" he added, pointing to a door behind his brother. Charlie reached for the doorknob and led the way into the cluttered space beyond.
Don glanced around at the various objects on display. Moving to a nearby table, he picked up a small, complex-looking cube and examined it. Charlie watched him with growing concern.
Charlie turned to find one of his students standing in the doorway. "Yes?"
"Uh, I was hoping I could get your help on the assignment due for Thursday? The one on irrationality by infinite descent?" Charlie glanced quickly at Don, who was now reaching into the bowl of gumballs on the corner of Charlie's desk. Turning back to the young man, he said, "Actually, you know what? Why don't you come back before class tomorrow, and I'll be happy to help. Okay?" He nodded and smiled to take the sting out of his abrupt dismissal as he slowly closed the door. He turned to find Don across the room staring at a chalkboard, chewing on his newly acquired gum.
"Which one did you take?" he asked.
Don turned and gave him a puzzled look. "What?"
Gesturing to the bowl, Charlie repeated, "Which one?" He reached into a drawer for his notebook.
"A blue one," Don replied. "Why?"
Charlie stopped writing and looked up. "Why a blue one?" he asked.
"Charlie…" Don began, a hint of exasperation creeping into his voice.
"The bowl contains mostly red gumballs. I'm curious as to why you chose a blue one, that's all," he explained.
Don looked at him for a second and then shook his head. "I didn't want a red one, okay? I felt like having something else."
Charlie replied, "Very interesting." He scribbled in his notebook. Another example of how Don stood out in a crowd. Replacing the notebook in the drawer, he asked, "So, what brings you here, Don?"
Don sat in an armchair conveniently positioned nearby. "Sit down, Charlie," he said.
Charlie pulled the chair out from behind his desk and rolled it across to where Don was. Sitting, he laced his fingers together and waited for his brother to begin. Don regarded him silently for a moment.
"So," he said finally. "You told me you hated high school."
Whatever Charlie had expected Don to say, it wasn't this. He had made it abundantly clear that he thought the topic was pointless. Clearing his throat, Charlie replied, "Um, yes… I believe I did."
Don leaned back in the chair and rubbed one forefinger across his bottom lip. "Tell me," he said.
Charlie just stared in amazement. After a few seconds of silence, he pulled his gaze from Don's face and shrugged. "What do you… I'm not… It's not important now. Like you said – we were kids." He could feel Don staring at him, but didn't look up.
Seconds passed, and finally Don said quietly, "Charlie."
He looked up then and saw the genuine concern in Don's eyes. Charlie tried again to forestall the conversation, knowing it wouldn't work. "It's okay, Don. It was a long time ago."
Don sat forward in his chair and rested his elbows on his knees. "Charlie, I know I said…" He paused, then tried again. "I want to know, Charlie. Tell me."
Charlie let out a sigh and slumped in his chair. "All right," he conceded. Don once again leaned back in his chair and waited. Charlie lifted his gaze to the window as he brought up from his memory all the experiences he had as a young boy in a teenager's world.
The halls were very long. The first problem was the locker. They hadn't taken into account how short he was. Instead of a locker on the bottom or middle rows, they had assigned one on the top and he could barely reach the lock. He would have to ask for a reassignment later. Finding his class wasn't that difficult – he had had a walk-through with the principal and his mother the day before, when the school was closed. Even at the tender age of twelve, he knew it would be suicide to have his mother following him down the corridors.
The classroom was empty when he arrived, and he took the opportunity to find a desk – not at the front, which would have marked him a pet, and not at the back where the troublemakers usually sat. He couldn't sit too far back, though. Everyone would be taller than him, making it difficult to see. Finally he decided on the third desk from the front against the wall. The extreme angle would mean he could look between the other students at the board.
Soon the other students began filing in, talking and laughing among themselves. Upon seeing the small boy sitting quietly in the too-big desk, they immediately fell silent and took their seats. He knew it was only a temporary reprieve, however. It would only be a matter of minutes…
"Hey, Tiny!" came the first. "I think you got lost!"
"What are you doing here, squirt?" asked another. "Aren't you late for preschool?" Gales of raucous laughter followed.
Inward, he cringed. To all appearances, he might not have heard, but he felt every barb grate on his nerves. He began reciting algorithms in his head to drown out the catcalls.
It didn't get better after the teacher arrived, as he had hoped it would. Her attempts at being understanding were overshadowed by the thoughtless comments she was no doubt unaware of making.
"Can you see alright? I could ask the custodian to bring you a stool, if it would help." The snickering and coughing would start, and she would look around at the other students with obvious confusion.
He'd shake his head, hoping he wouldn't have to speak. That wish never came true, either. Then the taunting would start. "Aww! Listen to him! Isn't he precious?"
The teacher tried, she really did, but it didn't stop them. If they got into too much trouble in class, they'd just wait until the period was over and start anew.
"Poor little Eppsie! Did you want a bottle?"
"You should've gotten your mommy to bring your stroller to help you get to class!"
That much, he could tolerate. It was only a matter of time, however, before they made the connection and…
"Eppes… Hey, you're Don's baby brother? Isn't that sweet! So, does he, like, hold your hand on the way to school?"
This was the part he had been dreading – getting Don involved. He worshipped his older brother. Whereas Don had a tendency to be wound up in his own affairs, he knew the love he felt for his big brother was mutual. He didn't want to cause any more problems than he already had…
Dad had made the announcement one night over dinner. "Don, your brother will be starting at your school this fall." His tone left no room for debate. The silence that followed was loaded with tension. He stole a look at his brother. Don's fork was motionless, hovering above his plate. He was looking at their father, his face unreadable. He drew his gaze away to his mother, who didn't speak. Don then dropped his eyes to his fork and scooped up more pasta. Before putting it into his mouth, he replied, "Whatever."
After dinner, he went outside. Don was shooting baskets in the driveway: dribble, shoot, grab the ball, start again. Over and over. Like a machine. He sat on the step, his knees drawn up to his chest, arms wrapped around his legs and waited. He didn't know how long he watched his brother – he didn't care. He knew his parents' decision had hurt Don, and it was the last thing he wanted.
Another child would have lost interest and went off to play. Not him. Working for days on a single mathematical problem was not unusual – sitting on the step, waiting for Don, was easy.
Finally, Don grabbed the ball and bounced it hard off the pavement. It eventually landed in his mother's begonias. Don shrugged his shoulders and rolled his head from side to side – to get rid of tension, he knew. He scooted over on his step to make room. Don came over and sat on the next step down.
"You knew about this?" he asked.
He nodded. "Mom and Dad were talking about it last week – actually, they were arguing."
Don looked up at that. "They were fighting?"
"Yeah," he drew his knees up tighter against his chest. "They thought I was in the garage."
Both fell silent for a moment, then Don asked, "So… why my school?" He knew there was more to the question than had been said. Don was really asking, "Am I supposed to look after you?"
He shrugged. "It's close. And free." Don looked at him, but he was staring at a spider's web on a nearby bush. Nearly perfect, geometrically speaking. The spider must be really meticulous…
Don interrupted his thoughts. "Free?" he asked.
"Well," he replied, shrugging again. "Maybe not totally free, but they can't afford the tutors anymore. And I can't get into university unless I take actual high school courses."
He turned. "At first, I'll be a freshman, but I'll be challenging the levels. I don't know where I'll be eventually."
Don kicked at a tuft of grass growing through a crack in the cement. "So… you could end up in my class?"
He sighed. He had seen this coming. "Maybe. One or two. No more than that, though, I don't think."
His brother fell silent, nodding. After a long pause, he began, "I hope you don't think…"
He interrupted, "I don't want you to do anything. I can fend for myself."
Don looked at him, surprised. "You're just a little kid!"
He shrugged again. "In high school," he said.
There was an unspoken agreement between the two of them after that: he would stay out of Don's business, and Don would make sure the people he hung out with left him alone. It was no mean feat – Don was extremely popular, both with boys and with girls. But there were still some who weren't part of the group, and those were the ones he had to avoid.
There were times when he almost broke. More than once he caught himself looking for Don in the halls, wanting to tell his big brother about the latest injustice he'd had to endure. He always managed to stop himself just as he caught sight of him. Something about seeing Don, surrounded by a large group of teenagers, always brought him back to reality: he had to tough it out alone.
And he did. He challenged exam after exam, and by the time the semester was over, he found himself in the same grade as his older brother. True to his word, he'd rearranged his schedule so he only shared a couple of classes with Don. In class, he made sure he didn't sit next to his brother, and made a point of asking other people to be his partner when needed.
But the taunting and the gibes never stopped. Added to that, now that he had made it to grade twelve, there were some kids – the stupid ones, in his opinion – who resented his intelligence and were determined to beat it out of him. They usually made a point to hit him where the bruises wouldn't be obvious – only his mother saw them. He had begged her not to say anything about it to Don or his father. He'd managed to convince her that it was a one-time thing. He said he'd lost his temper at some kid he'd been paired up with in Trigonometry class who was too thick to understand the formulas they'd been using, and he'd shot his mouth off. His mother had given him the standard lecture about 'if you can't say something nice…' and let it drop. He'd hidden his injuries after that.
Once, though, the kid who beat him up wasn't so discriminating. He suspected the boy hated not only him, but Don as well. He'd been pounded on badly enough that moving afterward was something that had taken four tries and all of lunch hour to achieve. He hadn't realised, though, that the bully had hit him in the face until his lab partner, Val, took one look at him and gasped, "What happened?" His brilliant reply consisted of the single word, "What?"
"Your face!" she said. "You've got a huge bruise on your cheek!"
Only then did he realise the side of his face was stinging. He covered it with his hand, just as Don walked into the room, surrounded by his crew. "Switch with me," he said in a low voice.
He slid down off his stool. Gently. It didn't go unnoticed. "Switch places with me, please?" he asked.
Val shoved her books over without comment and perched on his stool. Once he had carefully seated himself, she leaned in close to whisper to him. He couldn't help but notice how nice she smelled. Like lilacs. "You should tell Don!" she said, a hint of anger in her voice.
He looked at her in shock. "No!" he said. "Don't tell him. Please?"
Her eyes softened at his pleading tone. "Charlie…"
"Val, please. Don't tell him, okay?" He didn't want Don involved. She had to understand.
Apparently, she did, because she smiled sadly and reached for her textbook. "Okay, Charlie," she said. "You win. I won't tell him."
He let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Thanks, Val. You're the best."
She was the best. She wasn't the only one who was nice, although most were indifferent toward him, but she was the only one who didn't ruffle his hair, or call him 'kiddo'. Val always treated him like just another high school senior – who happened to be her lab partner. They never hung out together socially, of course, but if she happened to see him passing by in the hall she'd always call out, "Hey, Charlie!" She never seemed to worry about what other kids thought of their relationship. Classes with Val were his best memories.
Of course, the beatings continued. As did the taunting. Less frequently, to be sure, but they did continue. It was becoming more and more difficult to hide from his family, but somehow he managed to pull it off. Perhaps his preoccupation with that and school was the reason he hadn't noticed Don and Val becoming more friendly toward one another…
It was late afternoon. He had been working on a paper he planned to submit to Princeton for scholarship when he heard his father say, "What's gotten into you, Don? You're grinning like the cat that ate the canary!"
He looked up to see Don standing in the hallway with a big smile on his face. His father was by the stairs and his mother entered the room from the kitchen drying her hands on a towel.
She looked at her older son with mild amusement. "What is it, Donnie?" she asked. "What happened?"
Don could barely contain himself. "She said yes!"
"Who?" Alan asked. Apparently their mother already knew. "Oh, Don, that's wonderful!"
He couldn't stand the suspense any longer. Putting his papers on the coffee table, he stood and approached his brother. "What's going on?"
Don addressed their father. "I asked Val to go to the prom with me, and she said yes!"
He felt his body go cold. The prom. It was two weeks away. He had intended to ask Val himself in class tomorrow. But Don had beaten him to it. He watched as if through someone else's eyes as his father congratulated Don and patted him on the back. His mother, too, was thrilled for her eldest son. She gave Don a huge hug before turning to him.
"Isn't that great news, Charlie?" she asked. The sight of her smiling broke some kind of barrier inside. He was no longer feeling cold. Now rage poured through him like molten lead. Popular Don! Super athlete Don! Normal Don! Val's-date-for-the-prom Don!
His fury was such he almost missed Don's next statement. "I gotta get going. I've got tryouts for Stockton on Friday, and I'm getting together with some of the guys for practice." He headed out the door with a bounce in his step.
He caught up to him halfway across the front lawn. Shoving him hard in the back, he screamed, "How could you?"
Caught off guard, Don stumbled before regaining his footing. He turned, bewilderment written plainly on his face. "What the hell…?"
He shoved him again. "I was going to ask Val! How could you, Don?"
Don grabbed his arms and held him at a distance. "What are you… what's your problem, Charlie?"
He struggled to get free, but Don's grip on his forearms was tight. "You knew I wanted to ask her to the prom, so you went and asked her first. You're always doing things like that! Why couldn't you have just left her alone?"
Surprise caused Don to loosen his grip. "Wait a minute, buddy. I didn't know you were even going to go to the prom, let alone ask Val. How…"
He wrenched his arms out of Don's grip and began pounding on him with every ounce of strength he had. "Don't call me 'buddy'!" he screamed. "I'm not your buddy! I never was! I don't want to be!"
Don tried to deflect the blows, but the anger inside him made him stronger and faster than anticipated. He landed quite a few good, solid punches. "You're always pretending I don't exist. Hoping that I'll disappear if you ignore me. You're always parading around with your friends, acting like you haven't got a care in the world! Like everyone will bow at your feet if you want them to! Well, I've had enough! I was going to take Val to the prom, not you!" He took a step back and levelled a murderous glare at his brother. "I don't know why she'd want to go with you, anyway. You haven't got one atom of intelligence in your entire body." He turned and stalked away, leaving his brother standing immobilized by the unreality of what had just happened.
He spent nearly all of his time and energy on his work, after that. He knew his parents had witnessed the fight but he didn't care. Don took Val to the prom as planned, and he had stood outside, in the shadows, watching them. They looked like they were having a great time. He pedaled back home and shut himself up in his room. Don attempted repeatedly to make amends, but he just couldn't bring himself to forgive him.
At school, he limited his conversations with Val to perfunctory phrases. After class, he'd throw his books together and all but race from the room to avoid any awkward questions.
Of course it didn't take long for the other kids at school to realise something was going on between him and Don. After testing the situation and finding Don's attitude toward him aloof at best, the teasing and bullying grew in intensity. No longer could he walk down the halls without having someone knock him into a locker. If the perpetrator happened to have been seen, they would invariably claim ignorance. "I didn't see him there! Sorry about that!" Once the authority figure turned the corner, however, if he hadn't made his escape, he'd wind up getting shoved again.
The beatings got worse, too. They'd lie in wait in the locker room, or by the equipment shed, and grab him as he went by. There'd be one holding each arm, while another would punch him several times in the stomach until their arms got tired. Then they'd switch. He'd withdraw into himself to avoid the pain, willing his mind to focus instead on mathematical formulas and expressions. Once, the beating had gone on long enough he'd managed to calculate the entire surface area of the gymnasium wall opposite in square centimetres.
Eventually the school year dragged to a close. The relief he felt when accepting his diploma wasn't so much due to the fact that he was done high school. Princeton had sent him an acceptance letter the week before, and he was fairly certain school would play a major part in whatever vocation he chose. No, he was relieved to be able to get away from the nightmare this school had become for him. In some small corner of his mind, he knew he was partly responsible for how things turned out. If he hadn't been so angry and resentful, it may have been different…
Charlie's voice trailed off. He was still looking out the window, but hadn't seen anything during his monologue. When the silence remained unbroken for several minutes, he said, "Now you know."
Don stood and walked to the chalkboard at the back of the room. With his back to Charlie, he replied, "Yeah."
Anger welled up in Charlie at his brother's cavalier remark. He stormed across the room and grabbed Don's arm roughly to spin him around. "That's all you…" He stopped when he saw tears on Don's face. "Don," he whispered.
Don turned away, rubbing his face with one hand. He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry," he said. "I never paid enough attention when we were in school. I know that." He looked at Charlie. "I never realized how my not doing anything at all could hurt you so much."
Charlie shook his head. "No, no. It's not…"
"Don't, Charlie," Don interrupted. "There's nothing I can do about all that now, except to tell you I'm sorry – more than you'll ever know."
"I have to know," Charlie said softly. "Why did you ask Val to the prom?"
Don sighed. Walking back to Charlie's desk, he picked up an ornament and examined it. "It wasn't to spite you, Charlie. It never occurred to me that my twelve-year-old brother would need a date for the senior prom. I guess I was too self-centered to realize it." He put the ornament down and turned to Charlie. "To be honest, I don't think it really sank in until that day on the lawn."
"That you were… more than just…" Don trailed off, at a loss for words.
Don stared at the floor as he thought. Finally, he lifted his head and looked Charlie straight in the eye. "You were more than a little mathematical machine. More than the 'genius child prodigy'." He paused. "You were a person, and I never saw you that way."
It was Charlie's turn to wipe away tears. "I'm sorry, too."
Don looked surprised. "What are you sorry about?"
"For all the time we lost." He gestured at the room around them. "For allowing all of this to separate us."
Don said, "This is who you are, Charlie. Just like my job is who I am. Don't ever be sorry for that."
Nodding, Charlie replied, "Yeah. You're right. I can't imagine my life without it."
"Then don't." Don turned and headed for the door. Putting one hand on the knob, he turned to Charlie and asked, "Coming?"
Charlie went to his desk and grabbed his briefcase. "Where are we going?" Throwing papers inside, he snapped it shut and joined his brother.
Don opened the door and stepped to one side to let Charlie pass. He replied with a smile, "First, we're going to get something to eat."
"And then?" Charlie asked as Don turned the thumb-lock and closed the door.
"Then," Don answered, throwing his arm around Charlie's shoulders, "You and I are going to go out on the town."
Charlie allowed himself to be steered out the door. "We are?"
Don nodded. "Just you and me."