"Charlie – where are you?" Don Eppes moved through his childhood home in search of his brother. "Charlie?"
"In the garage," the mathematician's voice floated through the closed door. "Working."
Don stepped into the cool interior of the garage, his gaze quickly taking in the myriad chalkboards propped against every available surface. "What the heck…?" he muttered. In a louder tone he said, "Charlie… I've called you eight times already."
"What?" The older man's brow furrowed in confusion. "Seven what?"
Charlie turned to face him, a nub of chalk in his uplifted hand. "You called me seven times, Don. Not eight."
"You heard me?" Don asked. At his brother's nod, he went on, "Why didn't you answer, then?"
"There wasn't much point in answering before you could hear what I said," Charlie replied. "Besides… I was in the middle of something." He resumed writing on the board in front of him.
Anger welled in Don's chest. "You – you could have spared half a second to answer me, Chuck," he bit out. "I might actually have something important to say. It happens, even to those of us who aren't geniuses."
Charlie winced at the sarcastic tone in his brother's voice. Setting the chalk down on the ledge, he dusted his hands on his jeans and focused his attention on the other man. "You're right, of course," he apologized. "That was thoughtless of me."
Only slightly mollified, Don gestured to the boards around them. "What is all this, anyway?" he asked.
"My Cognitive Emergence Theory," Charlie replied. "I had a breakthrough when I was cooking supper, and…" His voice trailed off as realization dawned and his jaw dropped open. "Oh no," he whispered. "Supper."
"I shut it off. Relax," Don said with a sigh. He moved to study one of the boards perched precariously on a stepladder. "What does all this mean, anyway?" he asked.
Charlie opened his mouth to launch into an explanation of his pet project, only to snap it shut the next second. Don doesn't want to hear all that, he thought. Instead he answered, "It's me attempting to map out thought using mathematics."
Don glanced at him, his eyebrows raised. "Think that'll work, do you?"
"Yeah." Charlie watched his brother move from board to board, his eyes roving across the complex equations. "I should go see if I can salvage supper," he said at last. "Dad'll be home before too long, wanting something to eat."
"He's back from Fresno?"
Charlie nodded as he headed for the door. "Got back last night. Had the final meeting with his client this afternoon." He paused in the doorway to look at his brother, who had moved from the stepladder to a board resting against a stack of others on the floor. "I'll be back in a few minutes," he added.
Don bent to study the board, then reached out, pulling it away from its fellows and looking at the one behind it. "I'll be there in a second," he said absently. "Get me a beer, will you?"
"Sure." Charlie went through the door and headed for the kitchen. He picked up the pot Don had put in the sink, scowling at its blackened contents. "So much for creamed carrots," he murmured, setting it back down and turning the tap on. He waited until the pot was full of water before turning off the faucet and moving to the refrigerator. "Let's see," he said, opening the door and sticking his head into the cool interior. "Maybe a salad instead." He reached in, grabbed the bottle Don had asked for with one hand while opening the crisper with the other and rummaging through its contents.
A loud crash from somewhere in the direction of the garage brought Charlie upright so quickly he banged the top of his head on the upper door of the fridge. He put the bottle back on the shelf and swung the door shut, already halfway to the garage before the magnetic seal made contact with the rest of the appliance. "Don!" he called out in panic. "Don!"
Bursting through the doorway Charlie skidded to a stop just inside the garage. One of the large chalkboards that had been fastened to the exposed stringers of the wall at an angle was now lying on the floor. The board previously standing on the stepladder was also on the floor, along with the smaller ones that had been stacked against the wall. Charlie's breath caught as he recognized a familiar figure at the bottom of the haphazard pile. "Don!" he shouted, his feet moving again. He dropped to his knees at his brother's side and began removing the boards, careful not to jostle his brother's still form too much. By the time he reached the last of them, his arms and shoulders were aching from the repetitive strain. Charlie could only imagine what having the combined weight come crashing down on top of him would have felt like.
Finally completely uncovered, Charlie got his first good look at his brother. Don was lying on his stomach, his arms positioned in such a way that made the mathematician think he was lifting them to cover his head when the sky fell in. fear clutched at his throat as the sight of a large amount of blood coating the side of Don's face and the back of his head. His eyes were closed and Charlie reached out to touch the pale cheek. "Don," he called shakily, relieved to find the skin warm. "Wake up, bro." He placed his fingertips against his brother's neck, his brown eyes drifting shut when he felt a pulse, strong and steady, beneath the skin. "Don?"
Don stirred, then groaned softly. Charlie put a hand on his back, encouraging the other man to stay down. "Don?" he repeated. "Can you hear me bro?"
"…'rlie," Don slurred. He shifted again. "Lemme up."
Charlie pressed down. "Just lie still, Don," he said. "I'm going to call an ambulance."
"Don…" Charlie began, but his brother stopped his protest.
"…'m fine, Charl," Don said, struggling to push himself up. "Lemme go."
Charlie sat back on his heels, watching as Don shakily got to his hands and knees, his head hanging between his shoulders. "I really think…" he tried again.
Don shook his head, wincing at the sudden movement. "…Be 'kay, Charl… help me up." He reached out for Charlie's hand.
Wrapping an arm around the older man's shoulders, Charlie slowly helped him to his feet, biting his lip in concern when Don staggered slightly. "Don," he said firmly. "I'm going to put you on the couch…"
"…And then I'm calling an ambulance," he finished. "No arguments." He guided his brother into the house and to the couch, easing him onto the cushions and putting a soft pillow behind his head as Don lay down. "Don't run off, now," he said as he straightened up. "I'll be right back."
Don gave him a crooked smile, his eyes already drifting shut. "No pr'mses…"
Charlie looked at him in alarm. "Don – don't go to sleep, okay?" he said. "Stay awake."
Groaning audibly, Don opened one eye. "Charl…"
"I mean it," the professor answered. He pulled out his cell phone and flipped it open. "No sleeping." He quickly punched in three digits. "I need an ambulance," Charlie said quickly when the call was picked up. He gave the address and a short explanation. "He keeps trying to go to sleep," he added. The operator assured him help was only a few minutes away and urged him to keep his brother talking. Without thinking, Charlie snapped the phone shut and shoved it into his pocket. "Don? Wake up."
"What's going on here?"
Charlie looked up in alarm to find his father standing in the open doorway, briefcase in hand. "Dad," he breathed. "You're home."
Alan set the case down and moved toward the couch. "What's wrong, Charlie?" he asked, glancing down at his oldest son. "Oh my god – Don!" He looked at Charlie in confusion. "What the hell happened?"
"He – he was in the garage, looking at my work," Charlie began. He could hear sirens, growing in volume. "I was in the kitchen. I think…"
"What?" Alan repeated, his eyes flitting from the man on the couch to the one beside it. "What do you think?"
Charlie swallowed. "I think one of the boards fell on him," he whispered. "Then some other ones did, too, and…"
Alan waved at him in exasperation, turning to Don. "Donny!" he said loudly, causing Charlie to jump. Don shifted restlessly. "Donny, wake up."
"Don Eppes, you wake up this instant," his father commanded. He thought for a moment. "You're going to be late for work."
Don's eyes opened groggily. "Wha…?"
"Wake up, bro," Charlie put in. "You're gonna be late."
Just then the front door opened and two paramedics rushed in, each carrying a large bag. "Where is he?" the first one asked.
Alan stepped back and gestured at the couch. "Right here."
The paramedics moved quickly, one of them examining the wound on Don's head while the other shone a light in his eyes. "Looks like a concussion," the first one announced. Looking up at the two Eppes men, he asked, "How did he get here?"
"I brought him in," Charlie began. At the paramedic's stern look, he went on hurriedly, "He was trying to get up and walk – I thought it would be better if he had help, in case…" He trailed off.
"I see," the man said. "Not the best plan, but better than chancing him falling again." He turned to his partner. "Get the gurney," he said. "And the board."
Charlie flinched. It was a board that started this mess. "Where are you taking him?" he asked.
"UCLA," the man replied shortly. "We can take one of you."
"…Don' need… hos'tle…" Don slurred.
The paramedic took a few packages from his bag and opened them, pressing pads of gauze against the wound on Don's head. "We just want to check you out, sir," he explained. "Won't take long." He began wrapping a gauze strip around Don's head.
The other paramedic re-entered, stretcher in tow. Together they fastened a cervical collar around Don's neck and slid the spinal board underneath his body, strapping him down and effectively immobilizing him. Don endured the process silently, his eyelids at half mast. "Sir?" the first medic asked. "How are you doing?"
Alan spoke. "His name is Don," he offered.
"Don," the medic began again. "Talk to me, okay?"
"Combative," the second medic announced.
Charlie shook his head. "No, no," he put in. "He's usually short-tempered when he wants to sleep."
The first medic nodded. "On three," he said to his partner. Together they managed to get Don transferred to the gurney. "Is one of you coming with us?" he asked shortly.
Alan and Charlie exchanged glances. "I am," the elder Eppes said immediately. Charlie nodded once. He felt bad enough about the situation already without having to endure the half-hour trip under his father's disapproving glare. There'd be enough of that while waiting at the hospital for Don.
"I'll follow you," Charlie said as the group headed out the door. "I'll just…" He hooked a thumb over his shoulder, intending to say he would shut off the roast in the oven, but no one was listening to him. The door closed and he was left standing in the middle of the living room.
Moving to the sidelight window by the front door, Charlie watched his father climb into the ambulance after the gurney. The second paramedic slammed the door shut and hurried around the side of the ambulance. Within seconds it was speeding down the street, lights flashing. Well, that's a good sign, Charlie thought to himself. Don's not hurt badly enough to warrant using the siren… right?
He sighed heavily and made his way to the kitchen. The oven was off, of course. Don said he'd turned it off earlier. Almost of their own volition, his feet carried him to the garage. Charlie stood just inside the doorway and looked over the chaos that had once been his makeshift workroom. He looked to where the heaviest of the chalkboards had come off its moorings. The screws appeared to have worked free of the wood that encased them, dropping the heavy slate to the floor. To Don's head, Charlie amended ruefully. What were the odds of that happening right when he was standing beneath it?
Charlie chanced a sidelong look at his father. The two of them had been riding in silence since leaving the hospital twenty minutes ago and the tension was beginning to grate on the mathematician's nerves. By the time Charlie reached UCLA Medical Center, his brother was already being examined by the doctors in the ER and his father was pacing the waiting room angrily.
"Where have you been?" Alan demanded. "I thought you were going to be right behind us?"
"I was checking to make sure the stove was off," Charlie replied quietly.
His father rubbed weary hands over his face. "Okay… alright… I'm sorry," he said in a calmer tone. "It's just that… for all I know something could have dropped on your head, too, and there wouldn't have been anyone there to help you."
Charlie opened his mouth to apologize but was interrupted by the arrival of the ER resident. "For Eppes?" the man inquired. They listened as he detailed Don's injury, insisting that the agent would be fine although they intended to keep him for observation overnight. "If you want to see him," the man continued. "He'll be moved to a room on the third floor shortly. You can go up and wait for him there."
They spent a few minutes with a much more lucid Don when he was wheeled into the room. After assuring them both he'd be fine overnight, they said their goodbyes and headed back to the house, neither one speaking. Charlie pulled his little blue car into the driveway and turned off the ignition with a sigh. "Dad…" he began.
"It's your house," Alan interrupted, staring straight ahead. "I'm not going to tell you what to do with it."
Alan turned in his seat. "But. Even a mathematician should be able to figure out that repetitive pressure on two inch and a half-long wood screws won't hold up a chalkboard for very long." He climbed out of the car and went inside.
Charlie sat for a moment. He was right, of course. The constant banging of chalk on a board – especially one hung at an angle like that – would loosen the screws eventually. It was an accident waiting to happen. Sighing heavily, he opened the door and got out, heading directly for the garage.
When he re-entered the house some time later, he found his father sitting in one of the comfortable armchairs in the living room, reading a newspaper. Alan lowered the pages and peered at him as he walked by. "If you're hungry, there's food on the stove," he said.
"No thanks," Charlie replied quietly. "I've got some work to do for tomorrow. I'll be in my room if you want me." He headed up the stairs, his father's gaze burning a hole in his back.
Once in his room, however, Charlie didn't set to work on his lesson plans. Instead he lay down on his bed, his head cushioned on his arms, and thought about what had happened. No matter what equation he used, the results were the same – the odds of that board falling on Don were overwhelming. He gets shot at, Charlie mused. He takes down criminals – dangerous, armed criminals – and walks away with barely more than a scratch. He stops to take a look at my math and gets brained by a chalkboard. Astounding.
True to his word, the doctor released Don the next morning with assurances that the agent shouldn't feel any lasting effects. Alan asked Charlie if he wanted to come with him when he went to pick up Don, but the mathematician begged off with the excuse that he had to go to the school to pick up some work he'd forgotten. Alan stared at him silently at this pronouncement, then turned and left the house without another word.
Charlie went to CalSci, made up the lesson plans he'd mentioned the night before, then spent the rest of the day trying to make some sense of the mess his office had become. He'd just managed to straighten the last of his bookshelves when the shrill ringing of his cell phone caught his attention. Charlie quickly pulled it out of his pocket and flipped it open. "Hello?"
"Hey bro," Don's voice greeted warmly. "What are you doing?"
Glancing around his now-tidy office, Charlie replied, "Just putting away a few things."
Don was silent a moment. "Well, uh…" he began. "I just wanted to let you know it's almost suppertime."
Charlie looked at the clock on the wall. "Already?" he asked. "Oh wow – I didn't realize it had gotten that late. Is… did Dad tell you to call me?"
"No." A sigh hummed in his ear. "You can't keep avoiding me forever, Chuck."
"I'm not!" the mathematician protested. "I just had some things to do and I got caught up in it, that's all."
After a lengthy pause, his brother said, "Well, whenever you're done, there's food." Charlie opened his mouth to reply but Don had already disconnected. Surprised, he pocketed his phone, gathered up his book bag and headed home.
"Cut it out, will you?" Don said, ducking. No matter how he tried to reassure his father he was fine, the older man insisted his dressing be changed. "I told you – it's no big deal. Just a couple of stitches."
Alan frowned. "I don't call twelve stitches 'a couple', Don," he countered. "The doctor said the bandage needed to be changed, so let me do it."
"I know what he said," Don retorted. "I was there, remember?" Muttering, he added, "And I thought I was the one who got the knock on the head."
"Don't get smart with me, Don Eppes," Alan said, his tone stern. "You're never old enough to get away with lipping off to your father."
Don snorted. "Or what?" he asked. "You'll send me to my room without supper?"
"That's a very real possibility…"
"Yeah, right. Whatever."
Charlie walked through the front door at that moment. "You two are fighting?" he asked.
Both Don and Alan turned to him and began speaking at once. "I'm trying to get your brother to hold still…" "Dad won't quit fussing…"
Holding up his hands, Charlie said, "Wait, wait… I'm not getting in the middle of this." He set his bag on the floor by the door and shrugged out of his jacket. "I've caused enough trouble already," he murmured.
Don and Alan were stunned into silence. Charlie shoved his hands into his pockets and headed for the kitchen. "What's for supper?" he asked.
Exchanging a silent glance, the two elder men followed him into the other room. "It's chili," Alan replied, heading for the cupboard. "I'll get the bowls."
"I'll get the cutlery," Don said, heading for the counter.
Charlie watched them in silence for a moment. "I guess I'll get the bread, then," he said to no one in particular.
The meal was eaten quietly, none of them wanting to be the first to speak. Don pushed his food around the bottom of his bowl listlessly, alternating between looking at his brother and his father. Finally he dropped his spoon with a loud clatter, causing the other two men to jump. "Somebody say something!" he said. "It's like a tomb in here."
"What do you want me to say?" his father asked.
"I don't know… what did you do today?" Don turned to his brother. "What about you? What did you do today?"
Charlie shrugged. "Worked," he said simply. "Not much. Tidied my office a bit."
Don growled in frustration. Pushing back from the table, he got to his feet. "Where are you going?" Alan asked in alarm.
"Home," Don said shortly. "At least there I know why it's quiet." He headed for the front door.
Charlie got up as well. Picking up his dishes, he headed for the kitchen. Alan looked from one son to the other. "All right," he said suddenly. "Both of you – stop right there."
Don paused in the act of putting on his jacket, Charlie in opening the swinging door to the kitchen. "What?" Don asked.
"Both of you come back here and sit down," the older man commanded, setting his own bowl aside. "We need to talk."
Charlie looked at Don, who shrugged. They both resumed their seats slowly. "Well?" Don asked. "What are we talking about?"
Alan looked at Charlie, who was studying the wood grain in the tabletop. "Charlie," he began. "You're blaming yourself for what happened?"
"Why not?" he asked, not lifting his gaze. "You said so yourself – I should have known that board would fall."
"I did," Alan replied thoughtfully. "And I shouldn't have. I was upset. I'm sorry."
Charlie snorted. "You don't think I was upset too? It was my chalkboard that fell on Don's head."
Don held up a hand. "It was my head that the board fell on – I'm upset, too." He looked from his father to his brother.
Alan smirked slightly, then lifted his gaze to Charlie's face. The mathematician wasn't smiling. "Charlie…" he began. "It was an accident."
Charlie nodded once and got up from the table. "I know," he replied simply. "I'm going to bed." He headed upstairs, taking the steps two at a time.
Alan looked at Don helplessly. "I don't know what to do about this," he said at last.
"Leave him be," Don answered. "He'll snap out of it."
Shaking his head slowly, his father said, "He took them down."
"The boards," Alan replied. "In the garage. They're gone."
Don's eyes widened in shock. Rising from the table, he headed for the garage, his father close behind. The two of them stood in the open doorway, staring into the interior. "I don't believe it," Don whispered.
To one who didn't know the Eppes, the garage looked like any other storage area-cum-laundry room. There were a few stacks of boxes lying about, but the chalkboards that had so completely covered every available surface were gone. The only evidence of their existence was a few chalk-dusty square outlines on the bare wood.
"Where are they?" Don asked.
Alan pointed. In one corner they could just see a row of wooden frames, tucked behind a large stack of boxes. "He put them all away," he said sadly.
"Because of what happened… because of what I said… how he felt… who knows?" Alan shrugged. "I don't know what to do about this," he repeated.
Don rubbed his chin with one long finger thoughtfully. "You know," he mused. "They were fastened on there pretty good."
"Not that good."
"Well," Don replied. "Now it doesn't matter, does it?"
Charlie glanced up from the book he was reading. "Don!" he said in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
Taking off his sunglasses, Don surveyed the room before replying. "Seeing what you were up to," he said. "You weren't kidding, were you?"
"About what?" The professor glanced around. "I just… tidied it up a bit."
His brother frowned. "I'd say you more than 'tidied it up', Charlie – this office looks positively sterile."
It was the truth. Every book on the shelf was lined up precisely according to height, every stack of paper or sheaf of files put away. The various sculptures and games Charlie had had lying about his office were all gone. Even the infamous bowl of gumballs wasn't in evidence.
"What did you do with it all?"
Charlie lifted his shoulders in a small shrug before turning back to his book. "Storage, mostly," he replied shortly.
Don looked behind the door. "No mobile?" he asked. He peered around the corner. "No dart board?" He looked at his brother in concern. "This isn't you, Chuck."
"It is now," Charlie replied. "And don't call me Chuck."
Pulling up an armchair, Don lowered himself into it gingerly. He was still sore from his mishap. "It isn't – and it shouldn't be," he announced. "This won't help."
"'A clean office is the sign of and orderly mind'," Charlie quoted. "Or something like that."
"Right." Don glanced at the washed chalkboards. "And how much math have you worked on with this 'orderly mind' of yours?" he asked. "Finding it easier without the clutter, are you?"
Charlie snapped the book shut and stood. "I don't need you psychoanalyzing me, Don," he retorted. "What did you come here for, anyway? Just to criticize? Or was there something else?"
Holding up his hands defensively, Don said, "All right, all right. I get it." He sighed. "I came to ask you if you wanted to grab some lunch."
"No thanks." Charlie put the book carefully back on the shelf. "I've got classes in a few minutes I need to prepare for."
"Okay," Don replied slowly, getting to his feet. He watched as the younger man busied himself at his desk. "So… see you later, huh?" he asked.
Charlie glanced up. "You're coming over?"
Don's eyes narrowed. "Not tonight, I don't think," he answered. "But I'll see you around, okay?"
"Sure." Charlie averted his gaze.
A suspicion forming in his mind, Don left the room without another word.
"Sure, it's possible," Megan replied. "Your being there could make Charlie very uncomfortable in light of what happened."
Don nodded. "I thought so," he said. "He seems to be on edge whenever I'm around."
Megan leaned back in her chair. "A constant reminder of what happened?" she asked. "I wouldn't be surprised." She shrugged delicately. "That would explain the boards in the garage, too."
"And his office?"
"An extension of his paranoia," she said. When Don frowned, she added, "Don't act like the word 'paranoia' means 'psychotic'. It just means 'fear'."
Rubbing a hand through his close-cropped hair, Don said, "So… all of this… is just Charlie's way of coping?"
"No." Megan shook her head firmly. "He's not coping – he's avoiding. In order to cope, he's got to come to terms with the fact that what happened was an accident – a fluke." She sighed. "But you know Charlie… he doesn't believe anything is random."
"So what do you suggest?" Don asked. "That he work out a probability algorithm on the chances of it happening again?"
Megan pulled off her glasses and tapped the earpiece against her teeth as she thought. After a moment she answered, "No. The best way to overcome a fear is to confront it." She leaned forward, placing her elbows on her knees. "You need to get him back in the garage with his chalkboards – and you – to show him it's perfectly alright."
"Kinda hard to do when he took them all down," Don said wryly. "And his office?" He waved a hand in frustration. "The place doesn't even look like his office anymore, Megan. It looks… I don't know… not Charlie."
"You know him better than anyone else I can think of, Don," Megan said. "You and your dad. I'm sure the two of you can come up with something."
Don pursed his lips in thought before glancing up at her, his eyebrows raised. "I certainly hope you're right."
She reached out and playfully slapped his arm. "Haven't you learned anything yet, Eppes?" she countered. "The woman is always right."
"You want me to what?" Amita's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "You're joking, right?"
Don glanced around to make sure they weren't being overheard. "No, no, I'm not. Look…" He grabbed her elbow and steered her down the corridor towards Charlie's office. "How often do I ask you for a favor?" he asked. When she didn't reply he amended, "I mean, directly?"
"I can't think of…"
"Okay, so you'll do it?" Don looked at her hopefully. "Please, Amita – this is Charlie we're talking about."
Amita smirked. "Special Agent Don Eppes begging me for a favor?" she said. "Do I get that in writing?" At Don's withering look she went on, "All right. I'll do it. On one condition."
She tossed her hair over her shoulder. "If this blows up in your face, you tell Charlie it was all your idea."
Don smiled. "No problem," he replied. "He'd never believe me if I said it wasn't anyway. He thinks you can do no wrong."
Amita smiled and ducked her head. "You're full of it, you know that?"
"It's in the job description."
Charlie stepped into his office, his attention on a file in his hands. He moved automatically to his desk and set the file down before lowering himself into his chair. A group of students passed by the open door, chattering noisily, and he glanced up for a second.
What he saw made him do a double-take.
His office, once pristine and almost sterile in its order, was now well-constructed chaos. Charlie slowly regained his feet and moved around his desk, noting for the first time the stacks of assignments, files, periodicals and books that littered the desktop. The bookshelves, so meticulously ordered, now contained piles of books lying on their side, interspersed with the occasional sheaf of notes. The mobile, dartboard – even the massive drum Larry had moved into a corner of his office a few weeks ago was back. A quick scan above eye level revealed the return of his mathematical sculptures and the inimitable bowl of multicolored gumballs. A smile quirked at the corners of Charlie's lips. Pulling out his cell phone, Charlie punched in a number and waited.
"Don," Charlie said. "How did you…?"
His brother's harried tone cut him off. "Can't talk right now, Charlie – can it wait?"
Charlie blinked in surprise. "I… I guess so…"
"Good," Don said immediately. "I'll call you back." The phone hummed as the connection was broken.
Thoroughly puzzled, Charlie replaced the phone in his pocket and set about reorganizing his shelves. My notes on 'continuous but nowhere differential functions' should be next to the paper containing an article on the Banach-Tarski Paradox, he mused. Not deep-set theory and continuum hypothesis…
His mind wandered happily as he browsed, the file on his desk forgotten.
"There you are!" Alan exclaimed as Charlie walked through the front door, a trace of his earlier contented smile still on his face. "Supper's almost ready. Have a good day today?"
Charlie nodded absently, dropping his bag by the door and shrugging out of his jacket. "It was fine," he said. "What's for supper?"
"Lemon chicken," his father replied. "And rice."
"Oh." Somewhat taken aback, Charlie chewed on his lip for second before asking, "Umm… you know I'm not that fond of lemon chicken, right?"
Alan flapped a dishtowel at him as he headed into the kitchen. "I know that, but your brother is."
Charlie blinked. "Don's here?" he called after the older man.
"In the garage."
Tension coiled in the pit of Charlie's stomach. The garage… Don was in the garage… "Alone?"
Alan poked his head out the door. "Of course he's alone," he retorted. "Who else did you think was here?" He disappeared back into the other room.
Charlie moved woodenly to the door connecting the garage to the house, his hand reaching for the doorknob of its own volition. There was no sound coming from the other side. It's okay, Charlie thought. The boards are gone – there's nothing in there to hurt him…
He let out an audible gasp as he entered the garage. His traitorous chalkboards were back up on the walls – all of them – and his brother was paying them no heed as he sprawled on the old sofa situated directly underneath the largest of them, one arm thrown across his eyes as he attempted to rest. "Don!" Charlie burst out.
Don was on his feet in a second. "What is it?" he asked in alarm. "What happened?"
"You – you shouldn't be in here," Charlie stammered. "It's… it's…"
Sighing, Don relaxed, letting his shoulders slump. "Geez, Charlie," he admonished. "Damn near gave me a heart attack." He dropped back onto the worn cushions. "What's a guy gotta do to get some peace and quiet around here, anyway?"
Charlie was nearly frantic with worry. "Don, you have to get out of here," he said. "Those boards… they could…" He waved his hands helplessly.
Don groaned as he once again climbed off the sofa. "Charlie," he said, his voice holding a note of exasperation. There was a subtle glint in his eyes the mathematician couldn't quite decipher, though. Don reached up and grabbed the frame of the mammoth slate. "It's alright – see?"
Charlie's eyes widened in panic. "Don! Don't…!" he began, rushing forward. He stopped suddenly when he realized Don was tugging on the edge of the frame and smiling. "What…?" His gaze traveled up to where the other man's hand rested. A large L-shaped metal bracket was holding the board in place. Moving closer, Charlie could see the other end of the L was securely fastened to the wooden stringer behind it.
"See?" Don asked, letting go of the chalkboard. "Nothing to worry about."
All of the boards on the walls were attached in similar fashion, Charlie noted. The tops of the frames had metal plates bolted to them, which were in turn bolted to the roof's rafters, while the bottom corners were fastened back with the L brackets. "When did…?" The remaining portions of the walls also had chalkboards secured to them like impromptu paneling. Each board was fitted closely to its neighbor so the whole section of the garage resembled a finished room. "You?" he managed at last.
"Dad, mostly," Don said, pointing. Charlie looked over his shoulder to find his father standing in the doorway, a look of anticipation on his face. Charlie turned back as Don continued, "I helped a bit – when I could."
Charlie thought for a moment. "My office?"
Don averted his gaze. "I… had help there, too."
"I am under no obligation to reveal my… accomplices," Don intoned with a grin.
Nodding, Charlie stepped closer and reached a tentative hand upward. "May I?"
Don moved back, allowing his brother room to test the security of the chalkboards for himself. Gingerly at first, and then with more force, Charlie pulled at the wooden frames, unconsciously hunching his shoulders at the anticipated cataclysm. When none appeared, he let out the breath he'd been holding and stepped back.
"Do they pass, Professor?" Alan asked from his position in the doorway.
"Yeah," Charlie replied softly. In a stronger voice he repeated, "Yeah, they do. They're on there pretty good, aren't they?"
Don clapped a hand on his shoulder. "They won't be going anywhere for a long time, buddy."
Charlie turned. "I'm sorry about…" he began, but his brother cut him off.
"Listen, Charlie. Accidents happen. That's why they're called 'accidents'." Don sighed. "I'm sure that somewhere in your theorems and formulas you'll find something that says it could have been predicted, but…" He shrugged. "The fact of the matter is – it was an accident. Nobody's fault."
"He's right, Charlie," their father put in sincerely. "Nobody is to blame for what happened. I'm sorry for what I said to you before."
Charlie thought for a moment. "He's wrong about one thing, though," he said at last.
Don's eyebrows went up. "I am?" he asked. "About what?"
"It's 'formulae'," Charlie smirked. "Not 'formulas'."
Rolling his eyes, Don slung an arm over the younger man's shoulders and steered him towards the door. "Whatever, Chuck. Let's eat. I'm starving."
"It's also 'formulas', genius," Alan supplied, stepping away from the entrance and heading to the kitchen. "Either one is correct."
Charlie ducked out from under his brother's arm. "Don't call me Chuck," he said. "And it's 'formulae', Dad," he called out.
"Sure thing, Chucky," Don needled. "We're definitely going to trust your grammar skills." He pulled out a chair at the dining room table and sat down. "Since you're such an expert."
Pausing in the act of taking a sip of water from his glass, Charlie countered, "And I suppose your math is good enough to say I'm wrong… Donny-boy?"
"Boys! Enough!" Alan commanded as he re-entered the room carrying a casserole dish. "I swear – one of these days you two are going to send me right around the bend."
Don grinned. He mouthed the word 'egghead'. Charlie mouthed back 'gorilla'.
Setting the dish on a hot mat Alan warned, "Don't make me send you both to your rooms."
Exchanging a crafty look, the younger men chorused, "Yes, Father."
Sighing heavily, Alan muttered, "I knew I should have gotten that condo."