Following is a oneshot based on a challenge left on the Calling All Authors forum. We have a thread in which we challenge each other to weave entire stories around a particular few words, or a quotation. It's really quite fun. One of my favorite oneshots — "Phantasmagoria" — resulted from this thread. Anyway, here we go.
Disclaimer: All things Numb3rs owned and formerly operated by CBS, Heuton, Fallaci, et al. Since the boys are not busy right now, I respectfully borrow them.
Everything Is Numbers
Charlie was late.
Sighing in frustration, Don checked his watch again. He had been waiting twenty minutes; much longer, and he wouldn't get any lunch at all. It had been difficult enough to force himself out of the office — they were still completing the paperwork on the money laundering case, and he suspected that the Banks murder suspect Colby had in the box was going to crack, if Granger had anything to do with it. Trenton would most likely try to broker some kind of deal; that's what they were counting on, anyway. In reality, he wasn't even a strong suspect in the Banks murder — but Trenton knew where a lot of bodies were buried, both literally and figuratively — if they could turn him into an informant against the syndicate, there was no telling how much they'd end up with. Don almost growled thinking about it — he wanted to in the bullpen; he needed to be there, backing up Colby.
Five more minutes, and he was ordering something to go. He would take a sandwich back to the office. Hell, he'd take enough for everybody. He never should have let Charlie talk him into this. Don had offered to come by the Craftsman after work, but Charlie had sounded so…disappointed. The two brothers had been speaking over cell phones, but Don could hear the nervousness when Charlie asked him to meet for a quick lunch, and he could hear the disappointment when he tried to put his brother off. Even though he could not physically see Charlie, the spectre of the wounded puppy facial expression that usually accompanied that tone of voice was all-too-easily imagined. In the end, Don had agreed to 45 minutes at the deli located one block from the office.
He was standing to approach the deli counter and order some sandwiches when Charlie blew through the door, a bundle of nervous energy clutching a laptop, a book — and a pair of sunglasses, on one of LA's few overcast days. It had been raining for two days straight. Charlie's gaze automatically went to his brother, and he attempted a smile, which came off more like a jack-o-lantern grimace. "Hello," he breathed, walking rapidly toward the table. "Hi," he repeated as Don sank back into his own chair. "Thanks for meeting me. Did you just get here?"
Don raised an eyebrow and didn't even wait until Charlie was settled. "No," he replied emphatically. "You're late." He began tapping the fingers of one hand on the tabletop. "Let's get something to go and take it back to the office. Why the hell do you have your sunglasses?"
Charlie perched on the edge of his chair, still clutching his precious armload. He reddened slightly. "I found them on top of my head," he admitted. "I don't know how long they were there."
Don rolled his eyes. "Why do I ask?" he murmured.
Charlie cleared his throat. "I'm sorry I was late. I...I left on time, I know I did. Maybe there was traffic?"
Don's mouth gaped open for a moment before he responded. "You're asking me?" he asked. "Charlie…"
"No, there was," Charlie interrupted. "I remember now. Sorry."
Don started to push himself up again. "What do you want to eat? I'm taking something back for everybody. You can help me carry."
Charlie just sat still, his face falling in disappointment. "Really? Can't you talk to me at all? Am I that late?"
Standing, Don crossed his arms over his chest — protection from wounded puppies. "Yes," he answered firmly. "You are. I told you I don't have time for this today."
Charlie's voice rasped in protest as he looked up at his brother. "Well…can't we at least talk while they make the sandwiches? Turkey."
Don blinked. "Did you just call me a turkey?"
A genuine smile spread across Charlie's face. "No, idiot; I want a turkey sandwich. Nikki likes pastrami — she always gets that."
Don shook his head and grinned, motioned for a waiter and let himself descend to the chair once more. "Did you at least remember the cookies? You said Dad was making cookies."
Charlie looked down at his laptop, which he raised to set on the tabletop. "It doesn't look like it," he answered, and Don sighed. Charlie hurried on before his brother could speak. "We'll get a dozen here; even Dad likes the cookies here. A little."
Don suppressed a grin and turned his attention to the waiter, who had just arrived. Don placed his to-go order — one pastrami and swiss for Nikki, roast beef for Granger, chef's salad for David, two turkeys for Charlie and Liz, ham and cheddar for himself, and two dozen chocolate chip cookies — then looked at Charlie while their waiter returned to the kitchen. "Spill," he ordered. "You've got 10 minutes, tops."
Charlie opened and closed his mouth, looking like one of his koi, but didn't say anything. He hitched his book up so that he was holding it with both arms, close to the chest.
Don leaned forward in his chair a little. "Seriously," he said. "You're more distracted than usual." He nodded toward the book. "What is that, some new release high on the math charts?"
Charlie shook his head — rainwater flew out of his curls and onto his fellow diners, but he didn't seem to notice — and lowered the book almost reverently to the tabletop, where he placed it gently next to the laptop. "It's poetry," he said.
For the second time since his brother's arrival, Don blinked. "It's what?" he finally asked, looking askance at the book, as thought it might bite.
"Poetry," Charlie repeated. "Actually, a biography of a poet which includes some of his work. e.e. cummings, to be precise."
"Ohhhhkaaaay," Don said. "And you're carrying this around because?"
Charlie quickly picked up the book again, and began to thumb through the pages. "I wanted to show you something," he said. He found the page he wanted and slammed the book to the table in front of Don, pointing with his index finger to a yellow highlighted line." His voice was excited. "What do you think of this?"
Don searched his brother's face for a moment before dropping his gaze to the book. He read the highlighted line aloud. "It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are," he read. He looked back up quickly. "Charlie?"
Charlie closed the book and dragged it back to his own side of the table. "Never mind," he almost whispered.
Don frowned. "Charlie; dude. You can't seriously be applying this to yourself? I mean, you're been who you are since you were three years old and helping Mom balance her checkbook."
Now Charlie frowned in confusion. "What?"
Don felt a pit of dread start forming in his stomach. Had they all pushed Charlie into this life? Had they assumed that his genius defined his reality? Maybe Charlie's gift was only supposed to be part of who he was. "Charlie, Mom and Dad always did what they thought you wanted. All the tutors, the special camps, Princeton at 13…they weren't trying to force anything on you, they were just embracing who you were!" Don was growing more upset by the moment, as if Charlie had accused the family of some sort of abuse. Don leaned back in the chair and ran his hand through his hair. "Maybe I was jealous of all the attention — fine, I'll admit I was jealous — but I was just a stupid kid, Charlie! I'm proud of you. I always was."
Charlie didn't look any less confused. More, if that was possible. "D-Don," he stuttered, but Don interrupted. "Who do you want to be?" the older brother asked. "What are you looking for the courage to become?"
Charlie stared at Don blankly for a moment, looked away toward another diner, then returned his attention to his brother, who watched him expectantly. Charlie blushed. "I...well...I guess I've made a mistake."
The pit in Don's stomach grew larger. "Charlie, no!" He leaned forward and spoke earnestly. "I mean, even if you think you want to try something new, that doesn't mean your life's work has been a mistake! You've changed the face of mathematics on an international level. You've used math to help countless people, just at the Bureau. Never think your life has been a mistake, Buddy. Never."
Charlie swallowed nervously. "Not my life, so much," he answered. "Just maybe this lunch."
It was Don's turn to look confused. "Beg pardon?"
Charlie swallowed again. "Well, when I called you this morning, I just wanted to get together to talk about Dad's birthday — we only have a few days left to plan something. Then, then, I started reading some underclassmen's essays, and one of my sophomores submitted hers with a copy of this book, and her theory is fascinating. The mathematics of poetry. She includes examples of logorithmic spirals, algebra, analytic geometry, applied mathematics. My only problem with the essay is her obvious bent towards cummings; I mean, with Wallace Stevens, Howard Nemorv, Rita Dove, and so many others to choose from, why focus on cummings?" Charlie scooted his chair away from the table a bit, not appreciating the darkening cloud of Don's face. His voice faltered a little, and he finished his diatribe weakly. "The, the student is not a math major; I just wanted to get a civillan's opinion of cummings." He scooted the chair back more — he was now almost a foot away from the table — and waited for Don to speak.
Don found that he almost couldn't. He opened his mouth, and nothing came out. He growled low in his throat. Finally, he managed a menacing, "I hate you."
"I'm sorry," Charlie answered quietly, contritely. "I didn't think…" He flashed a brief smile. "I appreciate all you said, though. Really."
"I hate you," Don repeated. "I can't believe you, sometimes."
Charlie saw the waiter approaching them with several bags of food. "Maybe on the way back to the office, we should discuss Dad's birthday," he suggested.
"I'm sure he'd love a book of poetry," Don said sarcastically, and Charlie winced. The waiter arrived, and deposited the food on the table. Don stared at Charlie, challenge in his expression. "You've got this, right?"
A look of surprise passed over Charlie's features, but soon enough he began fumbling for his wallet. "Oh. Yeah. Sure."
Don waited until the waiter left the table, Charlie's credit card in his hand, before he loosened the hook. "Don't think buying my team lunch makes up for forcing me to be nice to you. Or for forgetting Dad's cookies."
Charlie's mouth relaxed in relief. "Certainly not," he assured his big brother, "on either count." Risking Don's renewed wrath, Charlie added a coda. "For the record — you're the most courageous person I know."
Don smiled, and solemnly winked. "Thank you," he said. "You're still paying."
Charlie smiled back. "Wouldn't have it any other way."