I don't normally write Numb3rs and probably won't write beyond this story, which was originally published through Pyramid's Press. Still, I figured I might as well share it! While it's all written, there were always a few things I wanted to change and fix. So I'll do that and post as I get it done...of course, what I truly always wanted to do was come up with a decent title, and I'm still blanking on that. sigh
Oh, and when I wrote this Charlie had not re-obtained the right to drive. ;)
Charlie Eppes blew at an errant curl of hair. All blowing at it did was make his hair flop down, and it obscured even more of his vision. He wasn't making any progress on this particular formula anyway, he thought; it didn't make any difference if he could see the board or not. Frustrated, he erased the last, useless part of the chain for the sixth time. Some days, his brain fired fast and furious. Other days, like today apparently, nothing seemed to work in his favor at all. He put the chalk down on the tray with such definitive force that it broke into two pieces. At least he might get some paperwork done, and there was a huge stack of tests to grade.
Where was Don with a challenging FBI case when he needed it? He pulled out his cell and checked it for messages, even though he'd had it on all morning. He tossed the phone on his desk and ran a hand through his unruly hair. Not one but two curly locks fell into his eyes. He really should get it cut; it had been almost two months. Even trademarks had to be tended to now and again, Charlie thought, and half an inch would still leave him with plenty. It was just the distraction he'd been looking for. The thought of escaping campus and his chalkboard for a little while made him relax.
He glanced at his watch. He was done with classes for the day, and it was just late enough that he could go home straight from the barbershop. A little break from campus started to look like throwing in the towel for the day. There was nothing he had to do here that he couldn't do at home. Charlie gathered the tests into a semi-organized pile, swept them up and tucked them under his arm. If he was right, Larry would be in his office doing nothing but thinking. His friend would gladly giving him a ride, considering Charlie's hair was a frequent source of comment ever since they found out people of the female persuasion found it alluring.
The thought almost made him change his mind about the haircut. Maybe if he cut his hair, even just a trim, he'd be like a freshly shorn Samson – no power. Of course, it wasn't like he really had power and crazy old Delilah wasn't shaving his head without his knowledge. The haircut was voluntary. Charlie narrowly missed running into several people before he reached Larry's office. The hold he had on his papers was so tenuous he had to frequently grapple to keep them in his hands. He didn't know why he hadn't put them in his briefcase.
"Hey, Larry," he said from the doorway. "How's it going?"
"Ah, Charles, come in." His friend waved him in, eyes warm. As soon as he crossed the threshold, Larry cued in on the files under his arm. "Sneaking out early today, I see."
"I'm hoping to." He ducked his head, immediately causing the hair to again impede his vision. He couldn't argue with what his own follicles were trying to tell him. "I have some things to take care of."
"See you tomorrow?"
He had hoped to be subtle, not play the beggar. Like the haircut, perhaps he'd dragged out trying, once again, to get his license for a bit too long as well. Getting around without a car wasn't that big of an issue, but he lacked a certain amount of freedom by being at the mercy of the public transportation system or his friends. Charlie gave what he knew was a weak smile, still hoping the subtlety of a miserable expression would win over Larry.
"Yeah." He was going to have to go back to his office for his briefcase if he had to ride the bus. The problem on the board would then taunt him, and he'd stay as if it were a Siren's song he couldn't resist. He didn't know why he was so set on getting away from those numbers, but he just knew that anywhere else had to be better. "I'll be here."
"Did you know," Larry said, stroking his chin once, eyes narrowing slightly until Charlie gave him full attention. "Did you know that if you rub a clove of garlic on your bare foot, you'll get bad breath just as though you had eaten it?"
Like so many of Larry's anecdotes, Charlie marveled at the total randomness of this one. He wondered what point was going to be made, because there was always a point. Some of them sharper than others.
"Really," he said. "No, I didn't know that."
"It's not something most people think about, how connected everything is even within our own bodies. A ticklish spot on your ribs might mean your knee joint is in need of attention. I think we as a people have become unaware of ourselves, and as such, unaware of the things around us."
He was tempted to relate how right now his hair was most definitely telling him something, but he didn't feel like hearing Larry's thoughts on his hair vanity. So Charlie nodded and didn't say anything. He tapped the doorframe with his free hand before stepping backward over the threshold.
"Charles, if you would like a ride, all you have to do is ask."
Charlie stopped, giving Larry a lopsided smile. "I don't want to pull you away from anything."
"I'm contemplating putting garlic on the bottom of my foot. I think a break might do me some good. Where are you off to?"
"Home," he said with a laugh. He needed to drop off his work rather than lug it around with him. From there, he could take the bus. "I figure I can grade tests at home just as well as in my office."
Larry shook his head and grabbed his keys. Within moments, they walked side by side. Charlie couldn't help himself. He leaned toward the other man and sniffed loudly a couple of times, really exaggerating the action. Larry took a lurching step away from him, directly into some poor girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Excuse me," Larry said, reaching out a hand to steady her. "I didn't see you there."
The girl nodded and shrugged away from Larry's hand. She glanced at both of them, murky hazel eyes filled with an emotion he couldn't quite determine as stunned or annoyed. Charlie smiled at her, and she blushed. She hurried away without a word. He stared after her for a moment, struck by a feeling he should know her but unable to solidify it into anything more than a fleeting sensation. Everything about her retreating figure spoke of plainness. Plain brown hair. Plain jeans. A simple grey T-shirt. He had the frightening and cold impression that she didn't really exist. She disappeared among the other pedestrians in the corridor, and immediately the odd sensation she provoked faded. He and Larry started moving again.
"For your information, I haven't tried the garlic clove yet and I had nothing but benign foods for lunch."
"Mashed potatoes, white bread with mayonnaise and cottage cheese?" Charlie said.
"Not only does a monochromatic assortment comfort me, but I'm also spared the terrors of the rest of the cafeteria food."
"You do have a point." Larry was known as the most eccentric person on campus, a feat surprisingly difficult to attain. Professor Lawson in theology was apparently pretty unique herself. Charlie brushed his shoulder against Larry's as they walked. "But the beef stroganoff isn't nearly as bad as it looks."
"I'm content to take your word for that."
Charlie nodded a little and smiled. As they exited the building, he squinted against the sunlight. For once his shaggy hair came in handy, as it fell back over his eyes. He glanced left and right before studying the stairs as he trotted down them. Campus wasn't bustling like it usually was at this hour. Maybe everyone else felt as itchy as he did. It seemed that kind of day to him; he'd woken up wishing it were Saturday. Wednesday just lacked the same appeal. He did look forward to his community ed class tonight, though.
"Has Don approached you with any cases lately?" Larry said. As usual, the guy had managed to find the best parking space, for which Charlie was grateful. The folders under his arm seemed to have minds of their own, jutting out and nearly falling to the ground the further they walked. "I haven't seen him around."
Or Megan, Charlie thought. He knew something was going on between Don's co-agent and the estimable Doctor Fleinhardt. He just couldn't figure out what…or how. He didn't comment on this out loud, of course, choosing rather to clamber into the car.
"No," he said with a sigh when Larry slid behind the wheel. "He's been busy, but apparently with cases that do not require mathematical assistance."
He hadn't seen Don for over a week, truth be told, and he admitted to himself that he missed his brother. Their relationship wasn't solid by any means, but it was a simple fact that he'd become used to the frequent visits Don made to the house. If his dad had noticed the cut back, he hadn't said anything.
"That's too bad."
"Yeah, it's funny you should mention it. I was actually kind of hoping something would come up soon. I find helping him gets my juices flowing all across the board."
"Ah, so that explains your early departure today," Larry said. He eased out of the parking lot, and they were on their way. "Trouble concentrating?"
"I'm having an off day."
"Well, we all have them from time to time. You'll have to find a different remedy than waiting for your brother to need your help, though."
"Yeah," Charlie agreed. "I always did before, I will again."
He looked out the window at the blur of sidewalk and trees and other cars. He didn't really feel like talking about that subject anymore. He was well aware he was a bit more dependent on Don's attention than Don was on his. Strides had been made and he'd like them to continue, true, but if he had learned anything it was not to push. And not to be needy. Charlie closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the rest, suddenly tired and melancholy. The rhythm of tires on the street and the hum of the engine lulled him into a slight, hazy languor, so that he didn't even notice when the car slowed.
"Charles, we're here."
"What?" he said, straightening up. He blinked blearily out the window. "Oh, we're here."
"Are you feeling all right?" Larry said. Charlie glanced over at his friend and shrugged. "You don't seem quite yourself."
"I'm fine." He was fine. He had been fine. He was being morose for no good reason, and if he couldn't come up with something tangible in his own head…it was just this day. "I kind of wish I had stayed in bed today."
Larry nodded and switched off the engine. They sat there for a few minutes, until Charlie wondered what was keeping him in place. He unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the door.
"Thank you for the ride. See you tomorrow."
"Would you like me to come in for a while?"
"No, that's okay. You have things you need to get back to."
"Yes, garlic on the foot. It just goes to show that it really is all physics."
Charlie waved with his free hand, and then shut the door. He stood and waited while Larry started the car and drove off slowly, as if reluctant. Okay, he was being moody but not that moody, he thought. He shook his head and went for the mailbox. All bills, of course. He moved up the sidewalk and into the house.
"Dad?" he called.
There was no answer. Sometimes he had to remind himself that his father, too, had a life of his own. Dropping the tests and the mail off on an end table in the den, Charlie went to the kitchen for a bottle of water. He took a long swallow before he wandered back through the house and out the door. Once back out in the bright sunshine, he decided a walk might do him some good, clear his head a bit before he cleared some of the hair off of it.
Instead of stopping at the closest bus stop, he carried on to the third. By the time he reached it, he was sure he'd exceeded his minimal exercise requirement for the day. He checked the schedule, and noted that for once today something was going right. The bus was due in a matter of minutes. Charlie sat down on the bench and tried very hard not to think about that problem on his board, or how it coincidentally might come in handy for Don one day. Face recognition wasn't something he bet his brother considered very mathematical at all, but he couldn't be more wrong. No, no, he thought, do not start thinking about this right now.
Almost right on time, the bus screeched to a halt. Charlie got to his feet and waited to make sure no one was exiting before he climbed the stairs. He pulled the pass from his pocket and swiped it through. The bus was almost empty, which was pretty unusual. His only company consisted of an old woman who looked at him briefly and then away again, a man in a rumpled business suit, two teenagers making out in the back and a young woman who looked oddly familiar to him, and yet not. He picked a seat in the middle of the bus.
It'd been so long since his last haircut he wasn't sure where to get off anymore, so he remained alert for the whole ride. Great Clips was as good a place as any, and when he saw the big red lettering for it on one of the stores in a strip mall, he pulled the stop cord and got off the bus. Charlie almost changed his mind when he saw there were three people ahead of him; waiting wasn't his forte. But the simple fact that he'd finally got himself there made him go up to the counter and give his name. Then he plopped down and picked up a magazine filled with one hundred percent inanity, most of which he couldn't understand at all.
He wasn't entirely sure it was anyone's business that celebrity A was apparently pregnant with celebrity B's baby, while celebrity B was married to celebrity C. The invasion of privacy revolted him. Charlie shuddered and put the magazine back down. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone standing at the window of the shop. He started to look, but then his name was called and so he wandered after the short Asian man who'd be his barber today.
The haircut wasn't the answer he'd been looking for after all, he decided fifteen minutes later. Oh, it was about an inch shorter and definitely felt better on a completely aesthetic level, but he realized too late he hadn't been looking to change his appearance so much as something else. That something he couldn't name. He'd have been better off just waiting for tomorrow, because as someone he was sure he should know once said, the sun would come out tomorrow. Figuratively speaking, he thought as he stepped back out into the afternoon sun.
The bus home was standing room only. Rush hour had begun. After forty-five minutes with his face in the unfortunate position of being stuck in a construction worker's sweaty armpit, Charlie fairly leapt from the vehicle before it had fully stopped. His collar itched from the little barbs of shorn hair caught there and the smell of sweat wouldn't leave his nose. He figured he probably smelled too, and a shower was so in order. He walked quickly as the sun finally started to fade in the western sky.
None of the lights were on, which meant Dad wasn't home yet. He vaguely remembered golf being mentioned, and he wished he had taken the whole day off and joined in the game. Even if he hated it, it sounded so appealing now. He let himself in and had his jacket off in a heartbeat. He draped it over the sofa, plopped his keys on top of it and headed upstairs. Charlie was halfway up when a knock sounded on the door. He sighed, but then perked up when he thought it might be Don. The lights were still off, so his brother wouldn't know he could just come on in.
"Hey," he said as he opened the door. Then he stood there in a bit of confusion, because it was not who he'd expected. Charlie stared at his guest for a moment, not quite sure… "Oh, it's you."