a oneshot inspired by tragic news in today's headlines
Disclaimer: With relief, I bow to Heuton, Falacci, CBS et al
Charlie sat in the informal grouping of couch and chairs that took up almost one-third of his office space. When Ross Mayhew had arrived a few minutes before, Charlie had been standing at his white board, designing a q-series partition theory hypothesis for his upper-level combinatorics students to chew on for a few days. Throughout his teaching career, he had tried to be fully present for any student who came to him during his office hours. As difficult as it always was to abandon a project mid-thought, Charlie smiled at Ross, capped the dry erase marker in his hand, and headed for his desk. "Mr. Mayhew," he greeted the graduate student.
"Dr. Eppes," Ross answered quietly.
Halfway to his massive oak desk, the despondent tone of Ross Mayhew's voice registered with Charlie. He veered toward the seating area, deciding on the spur of the moment that a more congenial meeting might be in order. Charlie sank into an overstuffed chair, still holding the lemon-scented dry erase marker. "How's your thesis going? You haven't stopped by my office in quite some time."
Mayhew shuffled to the couch, and perched on the edge, facing Charlie. He shrugged, gazing at a spot somewhere over Charlie's head. "Not so good," he admitted.
Charlie was both surprised and dismayed. "Really? You seemed quite excited by additive number theory; Goldbach's conjecture in particular. When the thesis committee approved your proposal, I was pleased to assigned as your advisor. I've been looking forward to evaluating your work on additive decompositions." He cleared his throat and settled into the chair, crossing one leg over the opposite one and abstractly tapping at his knee with the marker. "Frankly, I've been wondering why you haven't been to see me in almost three months."
The student dropped his gaze to meet Charlie's, reddened, and averted his eyes once more. This time he stared at his feet. "I've had to work," he mumbled.
Charlie frowned. "I assumed you had some type of financial aid..."
Mayhew sighed. "Yeah, I got some grants. Some student loans -- I'll be paying those off until I'm retired -- but I have to use that money for school, I can't give it to my mother. She's been...sick. Breast cancer."
Charlie's fingers numbed and the dry erase marker dropped unnoticed to the floor. Reluctantly, he remembered the days of his mother's own battle with cancer. Regretfully, he remembered how, in the end, he had let her down. He pulled himself from the dismal memories with some difficulty. "I'm very sorry to hear that," he said sincerely.
"She can't work anymore," Ross said, flicking non-existent lint from his jeans. "Gets welfare, and Medicaid...but it's not enough. My father died a few years ago, so she's alone; I've been trying to send her as much as I can."
Charlie rested his elbows on the arms of the chair and tented his fingers in front of his chest. "Perhaps you should apply for an extension."
Mayhew's head shot up and he finally looked Charlie in the eye. "I need to finish," he answered, a little desperately. "It's not just for me," he added defensively. "When I have my Master's, I can start teaching, or...I don't know, but I'm sure it will pay better than what I make as a waiter. I'll be able to help my mother more."
Charlie was silent for a few moments as he considered. "Why don't you show me what you have so far?" he finally suggested. "That way I can get a better idea of what we're up against."
Ross blinked, then looked away, this time toward the door. "I...don't have anything."
Charlie leaned forward a little in the chair, dropping his hands to his side and both feet to the floor. "Excuse me?"
Mayhew looked back at him, briefly, before dropping his gaze back to his feet. "There was...an incident...with my girlfriend. She left...but not before she destroyed all my work, including my back-up copies. I've been trying to start over, but..."
Charlie was flummoxed. It took him a moment to find his voice. "Everything?" he confirmed.
Ross looked at him, and his expression had changed. Mr. Mayhew was no longer a disheartened graduate student. He was cold, resigned. "Every. Last. Word."
He held Charlie's gaze until this time, the professor looked away. Charlie watched two students pass by his open door and cleared his throat. "The thesis committee will have a copy of your proposal," he ventured.
The student stood. "I just got a letter from my landlord. The building is going into foreclosure, I have to be out of the apartment in 30 days."
Charlie looked up at him. "I really think you should apply for an extension," he counseled. "Just six months..."
Mayhew smiled down at him. "Until things are better?" he asked. "Until my mother is dead, maybe?"
Charlie was shocked, and climbed to his feet as well. "No, no, of course not! You can use the time to find a new place to live, and begin your thesis again without any time pressures." He was starting to feel a little desperate himself. "I'll help in whatever way I can."
Mayhew kept smiling as he reached into his jacket pocket. When he withdrew his hand again, it contained a .38 special.
Charlie instinctually took a step backwards and raised his hands. "Ross..."
Mayhew's smile faded as an expression of genuine sympathy came over his face. He waved the gun dangerously close to Charlie's curls. "Don't be alarmed, Dr. Eppes. This isn't for you; you've always been an inspiration to me, and a very fair teacher." He reoriented the gun so that the muzzle kissed his own temple. "I just stopped by to say thanks."
Charlie opened his mouth to speak again, just as Ross Mayhew's life exploded into Charlie's face.
Don had been expecting it, but still, the sight of the yellow crime scene tape strung across Charlie's office door hit him in the solar plexus with the force of a sledge hammer. He actually had to stop walking for a moment, until he could breathe again.
He was close enough to look over the heads of several Pasadena police officers and observe his brother, sitting docilely behind his desk. His face was still spattered with blood. Don winced, felt around in his pockets and found nothing. Before entering the office, he traversed the corridor for a few feet until he found a men's room. There, he moisted a paper towel, which he took back to the office with him. The FBI credentials attached to the waist of his jeans gained him immediate access, and he ducked under the yellow tape. He kept his gaze on Charlie as he approached the desk, but it was impossible to miss the body -- or the bits of bone and brain matter that now decorated Charlie's expensive leather furniture. He ignored it all, moving to stand behind Charlie's desk, between his brother and the gruesome scene just a few feet away.
He offered Charlie the moistened towel and spoke quietly. "Here, Buddy."
Charlie didn't seem to hear him. At first Don suspected shock; then it occurred to him that maybe Charlie really didn't hear him. A gun had just gone off a few inches from his head, after all. Don nudged Charlie's arm with the paper towel.
Charlie looked up, startled. "What are you doing here?" he asked, loudly. Then he grabbed at the towel and started scrubbing his face. "My ears are ringing."
Don smiled sadly. "I'm sure they are," he remarked.
Charlie paused in his scrubbing. "There's a purr in your car?" he asked, confused.
Don shook his head and leaned over to speak directly into Charlie's ear. "It'll clear up in a few hours," he said distinctly.
Charlie nodded, and resumed scrubbing. Once, he looked up at Don with haunted eyes. "Do you have a toothbrush? I need to brush my teeth."
Don stayed with Charlie most of the afternoon.
His brother had already given his statement to the officer in charge; the statement was corroborated by a letter found in one of Ross Mayhew's pocket. Soon after Don arrived, he was allowed to take Charlie out of the office. Amita had taken some students to the Los Alamos observatory; while Charlie was throwing up in the first-floor bathroom, Don called to let her know what had happened. Of course she wanted to rush back right away, but Don convinced her to take care of her students -- he would take care of Charlie. Alan was at his new job; while Charlie was throwing up again in the parking lot beside the SUV, Don repeated the unpleasant phone conversation, almost word-for-word.
Then he took Charlie home, where his brother brushed his teeth until his gums bled, and Don made him stop. Charlie cried then, huddled in the circle of Don's arms, shaking. Don just held on tighter, rubbing his back with one hand. His own heart was filled with sadness. He had never met this particular student, but he had been a cop long enough to see this story played out before. Worse...or maybe, better...he had been a big brother long enough to know how much Charlie's students meant to him -- and how this experience would wound him. Charlie would be shadowed and haunted by this afternoon for as long as he lived, that much Don understood. He also understood what that was like -- and, that he would support Charlie any way he could, for as long as it took.
When Charlie finished sobbing and pulled away from Don, Don spoke at a normal volume. "Do your ears hurt? I can take you to a doctor."
Charlie sniffed, and shook his head. "I actually heard most of that," he answered. "You were right; it's clearing up."
Standing next to Charlie in the upstairs bathroom, Don placed a hand on each of his brother's chipmunk cheeks, forcing Charlie to look at him. "Then hear this, too," he started emphatically. "What happened was not your fault. You're a good teacher. A good man."
Even though he had just finished crying, Charlie's eyes filled with tears again. "So was he," he whispered brokenly. Don let go of his face, and Charlie looked toward the mirror. "He just didn't have what I do," he continued.
Don nodded, but he didn't really know what Charlie was talking about. "What's that?" he finally asked.
Charlie looked back at him gratefully. "A family," he answered simply, and Don's heart filled with hope, pride...and love.
He smiled and reached out to ruffle Charlie's curls, pulling his hand back when he spotted blood in Charlie's hair. "Damn straight," he answered. He glanced toward the bathtub. "You..uh, want to take a shower?"
"Yes," Charlie exhaled vehemently, reaching to pull his sweater over his head.
Don started to back out the door. "Thinking you can handle that on your own," he teased lightly. "I'll be waiting for you downstairs."
Charlie dropped the sweater on the floor and pierced Don's armor with his dark, expressive eyes. "Thanks, Donny," he said.
Don shrugged. "This is what family does," he answered, and he pulled the door shut behind him as he left.