Alan Tracy fidgeted impatiently, blue eyes focused on his second-eldest brother’s face on his vid-screen as John scanned the data file in front of him. “Well?”
John’s lighter blue eyes flickered up to Alan, then back to the file. A small smile curled the corners of his mouth. “Well what, Sprout?”
Alan rolled his eyes, barely biting back a groan of annoyance. “Come on, Johnny! I still have to finish the rewrites before I study for my math test! Is it okay?”
John looked up at his brother again, tempted to string him along a little more. Seeing the poorly concealed anxiety in his brother’s expression, the astronaut finally took pity on the teenager.
“It’s really good, Alan,” John assured him, straightening in his seat. He swiped his hand across the screen of his computer and entered some information. “There’s just a few grammatical things I’d clean up before turning it in, but I’d say you’ve got yourself an excellent term paper here. Solid research supported by plenty of evidence. Mrs. Callahan is going to be impressed.”
Alan beamed over the video connection. “Great! Thanks for the help, John. I really appreciate it.”
“Anytime, Sprout,” John replied, finishing his edits and sending it back to Alan. “I’m happy to help you with school. Besides; you did all of the work. You should be proud of yourself.”
Alan shrugged, uncharacteristically bashful. “It’s just a paper.”
John cocked an eyebrow. “I think we both know it’s more than that. You’ve really done a great job since Spring Break, Sprout. Joining those study groups, bringing your grades up . . . does Dad know about the soccer tryouts?”
Alan shook his head. “It’s not a big deal. Coach Harris wants me to try and broaden my horizons a little.”
John nodded. He remembered Coach Harris from his own time at Wharton Academy. The track and field coach was a good man, always looking to help his students achieve their highest potential. If Harris believed Alan would do well with soccer, then John had no doubt that Alan would be Wharton’s next star athlete.
“Still, Sprout, I expect a call as soon as tryouts are over,” the older man told Alan. “Don’t forget about me, or I’ll call you at two in the morning to find out!”
Alan let out a snort of laughter. “Got it, John. Thanks again, and I’ll talk to you soon.”
“All right.” John flashed Alan a bright smile. “Good luck on your math test tomorrow, Sprout. Don’t stay up too late.”
“Night, John.” Alan ended the call and leaned back in his chair, letting the glow of his brother’s praise sink in a little longer. It had been so long since he’d last felt support from one of his brothers that he had forgotten how it felt.
The door to his dorm room opening brought Alan swiftly back to the present. He turned in his chair to face Fermat, who shut the door behind him and immediately flopped face-down onto his bed, backpack and all.
“Long night, Fermat?” Alan asked, smirking at his friend.
“W-Why did I agree to t-t-t- help the lacrosse team in m-m-math?” Fermat groaned, his voice muffled. He lifted his head off of his pillow and glared sourly at Alan’s wide smile. “L-L-Laugh all you want, Alan. Your ch-ch-ch-science group meets tomorrow night!”
The smile was immediately wiped off of Alan’s face. “Not cool, Fermat. Besides, you’re doing great with them. I’ve heard Macken talk about how much easier algebra has gotten for him. Something you’re doing must be working.”
Fermat buried his face in his pillow again, groaning as if in pain. “Macken tried to make me t-t-t-show him how to f-factor quadrilaterals t-tonight. I-I-I’m afraid to hear wh-what he’s saying.”
Alan grinned faintly, opening the notated paper his brother had emailed back to him and making the corrections indicated. “Well, that math test is tomorrow. You’re going to find out pretty soon if the tutoring is working.”
Fermat sighed heavily and flopped over onto his back, staring up at the ceiling for a moment before looking back at his friend. “D-Do you w-w-want to go over your notes for the t-t-t-t-exam tomorrow?”
Alan looked up, surprise clear on his face. “Yeah, as soon as I’m done with my paper, I’m planning on doing that. Are you sure you’re up to dealing with another hopeless meathead?”
Fermat screwed up his face in distaste. “N-N-No way. Let’s just k-keep it to y-y-you and me, okay?”
Alan gave a slight start in surprise, feeling a small warmth at Fermat’s unexpected compliment. “Uh, okay. Give me ten minutes to make these corrections, and then we’ll get started. Hey, why don’t we bust out some snacks to fuel our brains?”
Fermat finally sat up, shoving his backpack aside. “S-Sounds great, Alan. I’ll g-g-get things set up.”
Alan turned back to his computer, scanning his paper for a final check in case he missed any of John’s notes. He was surprised to see that John had written very little; while his brother had been instrumental in developing the outline and helping to provide sources, he hadn’t actually seen the rough draft or first edit of the paper. Alan had been certain that John would have had more revisions for Alan than a few typos.
The teen had just saved his paper and emailed it to his professor when his vid-screen signaled an incoming call. Alan answered quickly, curious as to the identity of the late-night caller.
Jim Connelly grinned up at Alan from his screen. “Hey, Al, sorry for the late call. I just got in from practice.”
“Now?” Alan glanced at his watch. “Jim, it’s past eight!”
Jim shrugged. “Coach Kerry is a taskmaster; what can I say? You’ll find out soon enough; word in the locker room is that you’re planning on trying out for the team. Is that true?”
Alan nodded. “Harris thinks it’ll be good for me. I figured I might as well give it a try.”
Jim smirked. “Well, fair warning: he’ll run you hard. Actually, I called to see if you were finished with that program for me yet.”
“There’s a couple bugs I still have to get rid of, but the program is all but finished,” Alan assured the upperclassman. “I’ll have it for you by Friday; promise.”
“Cool,” Jim replied. “Talk to you then. Thanks, man!”
Alan ended the call and turned to find Fermat watching him with a curious look on his face. “What?”
“I didn’t know you w-were working on something for J-Jim Connelly,” Fermat stated.
Alan waved a hand dismissively, standing from his desk to retrieve his math notes. “Yeah, nothing big. He wanted a program where he could video conference with a group of people. You know, have multiple connections open at once. Kind of like a study group, but everyone in their own rooms. The programs available can only hold connections with four people before the signal integrity begins to degrade and the connectivity speed slows down. I worked out a system that can hold steady with a maximum of seven connections.”
Fermat raised his eyebrows. “H-How did y-y-you account for d-d-file size streaming-?”
Alan shook his head, cutting Fermat’s question off. “Later, Fermat. It’s not a big deal. I’m more worried about our math test tomorrow. It’s supposed to be worth twenty-five percent of our final grade!”
Fermat stared dumbly at Alan for a moment before allowing the topic to be shelved. He knew Alan still felt touchy about his own skills, despite his marked improvement over the last month since spring break. Fermat wondered what it would take to make Alan realize just how talented he was with computer programming.
“Fermat? Are you listening?”
The young genius mentally shook himself back into the present. Talented or not, Alan wasn’t going to listen to anything other than the quadratic formula at the moment.
“What a joke.”
Jim Connelly paused in his stretching on the side of the soccer field to look over at Henry Bishop. Following Henry’s gaze, he spied Alan running laps around the track the next field over with several other freshmen.
“Who, Alan?” Jim asked, returning to his stretches. “He’s actually not that bad. I worked with him during his orientation at the beginning of the year, and he’s doing me a favor. He’s pretty cool for a freshman.”
Henry snorted in disbelief, tearing his own gaze away from the track field. “You would say that; is Tracy this year’s new stray you’re adopting?”
Several of their teammates scattered along the side of the field snickered at Henry’s comment. Jim rolled his eyes, letting the comment wash over him. He was a senior and only had a few months left of dealing with the elitist jerk. Henry’s drive to be the top athlete and student at Wharton at any cost just wasn’t worth his time.
Jim spared a brief feeling of pity for next year’s students; Henry was only a junior, and already he strutted about the school and soccer field as though he were God’s gift to Wharton. If Alan made the soccer team, Jim had no doubt there would be serious clashes between them. Where Alan tended to downplay his father’s name and status in order to let his accomplishments stand on their own merit, Henry had no problem letting his mother’s money do the talking for him. That particular combination of personalities promised an interesting end of the year for the soccer team.
Jim straightened, tuning back into the conversation that had continued without him among Henry and several other teammates.
“ . . . more in class,” Ashton Hayes was saying. “The teachers are starting to fawn over him. It’s getting kind of sickening.”
“His grades are getting better, though,” Tristan Kent stated. “I was in the guidance counselor’s office the other day and saw the class rankings. He’s already moved into the top twenty percent.”
“Don’t forget about his older brothers,” George Sheffield added. “All of them were star athletes in their days here. Didn’t one of them win gold in the Olympics?”
“You better watch your step, Henry,” Ashton said, smiling mischievously. “If Tracy makes the team, you might not be Wharton’s best soccer star anymore.”
The look of calculated anger on Henry’s face unnerved Jim. “We’ll see. He has to make the team first.”
Jim frowned. He was just beginning to wonder if he should warn Alan when a sharp whistle pierced the air, startling the boys.
“Are we on break and I missed it?” Coach Kerry barked from the soccer field. “Get moving before I decide to increase your field sprints!”
The boys immediately ran onto the field, leaving the conversation aside in favor of obeying their coach.
Alan reached the end of his final lap and immediately slowed down, steering himself to the side of the track to begin his cool-down exercises.
“All right, gentlemen, I think that’s enough for today,” Coach Harris called out to his track team. “You all did a good job. Washburn and Adler, you still owe me three more laps for being tardy. The rest of you, hit the showers and get something to eat. Tracy, a word please.”
Alan straightened as the rest of his team scattered at their coach’s dismissal, walking over to Harris with an expectant look on his face. “Yes, Coach?”
Harris’ expression softened slightly. Never one to play favorites, he nonetheless couldn’t help but have a soft spot for the youngest Tracy. He’d known all of Alan’s older brothers in one way or another and knew how hard it was for Alan to compete with reputations like theirs. “Have you thought anymore of my suggestion? Soccer tryouts are this Saturday.”
Alan nodded. “I talked about it with John the other night. He thinks it’s a good idea too.”
Harris smiled. “So you’ll try? I know it’s a little outside of your comfort zone, but you’re a good sprinter, which I think will work to your advantage there.”
“Not to mention none of my brothers or my dad ever played soccer?” Alan asked knowingly, a small smile on his face.
Harris raised his hands in surrender, his smile widening. “You got me. Seemed like a win-win situation. But I really think you’ll be good at it. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching all of you boys, and none of them have had your speed.”
Alan shrugged. “Must be from all that practice I got running away from all of them,” he replied cheekily.
Harris let out a bark of surprised laughter and clapped Alan on the shoulder. “Must be. Now get outta here before I make you run some more laps with Washburn and Adler. I’ll see you Saturday.”
“See you, Coach!” Alan immediately took off for the locker rooms, not entirely certain that Harris was joking about the extra laps. By the time he entered the locker room, most of his track mates were already in the showers. Spotting Jim Connelly on the other side of the room, he realized that the soccer team had also finished their practice for the night.
“Hey, out on time tonight?” Alan asked, approaching Jim to say hello. “Must be a record.”
Jim smiled at Alan in greeting, throwing a towel over Alan’s head. “Hey, kid. I was gonna suggest joining some of us for dinner, but I think your stench might clear the dining hall.”
Alan tossed back at Jim. “Nice. You’re no bed of roses either, man.”
A sharp nudge against Alan’s shoulder brought their conversation to a grinding halt. Alan spun around to face Henry Bishop standing beside him, arms crossed and a scowl darkening his features. As the tension in room grew, the rest of the boys in the locker room paused in what they were doing to watch the impending confrontation.
“This is the soccer team’s side of the locker room, Tracy,” Henry stated coldly. “Why don’t you go back to your side like a good little track nerd?”
Alan bristled at the condescending tone, but took a deep breath. “When did you become border patrol? I just came over to say hi to my friend.”
Henry took a threatening step closer to Alan. “Didn’t you hear what I said? Get lost, runt.”
The tension in the room thickened. Everyone was almost afraid to breathe and break the spell that had settled over them as they watched the standoff.
Alan clenched his jaw stubbornly, but refused to move. “I’ll leave when I’m good and ready. What’s your problem, anyway?”
“My problem is little freshman who are trying to prove they’re better than everyone else,” Henry replied sharply. “What’s the matter, Tracy? Not good enough for daddy? Or is it your brothers? Everyone knows that your brothers were all better than you when they were in school.”
Henry’s words struck a nerve deep down inside Alan. Reacting more on instinct, the teen took a step forward but was immediately stopped by a firm grip on his arm from Jim.
Henry grinned in triumph, scoffing in Alan’s face. “That’s what I thought. A little boy walking in his brothers’ footsteps. It’s about time you figured it out, Tracy; you’ll never measure up to the rest of your family. You’re a joke.”
Glancing over his shoulder, he jerked his head towards the showers. “Come on. He’s not worth it.”
Alan refused to look away from Henry until long after the arrogant teen and his friends had disappeared into the showers. Jim waited until he felt the tension seep out of Alan’s arm before finally releasing the younger teen.
“Forget him, Alan,” Jim told him. “Bishop is bad news. He’s used to being top dog, and he’s worried about you knocking him down a peg. Stay away from him, okay?”
Alan looked at Jim, jaw still clenched tight in anger. His blue eyes blazed in barely suppressed rage. He felt too angry to even speak without biting someone’s head off.
Jim shook his head. “Look, go and shower back at your dorm, then meet me at the dining hall. Bring Fermat with you. We can eat dinner together and you can tell me all about how that program you’re writing for me is going.”
Alan closed his eyes, silently counting to ten and trying to quell his anger. Opening his eyes, he felt a little calmer. Nodding wordlessly, Alan retreated to his locker for his belongings.
Jim’s soft call brought Alan’s attention back to him.
Jim came closer and gently squeezed Alan’s shoulder. “We’re not all like him, you know. Don’t let Bishop’s attitude make you second guess trying out for the team, okay? I’ll invite some more guys to dinner, let you get to know them better.”
Alan nodded again, still unable to speak around the knot of anger still lodged in his throat.
“Besides,” Jim continued, moving back to his locker. “We need more people like you on the team. People who don’t kowtow to Bishop and his mother’s money.”
For the first time since Henry had interrupted their conversation, Alan felt a genuine smile begin to stretch across his mouth. “I’ll meet you in half an hour.”
Jim shook a finger at Alan. “You do that, man. See you then.”
Fermat put the finishing touches on his book report for his literature class, making a mental note to thank Jim for the advice he’d given the younger student over dinner.
Thoughts of dinner sent Fermat’s mind drifting back to his friend and how upset Alan had been after his track practice that afternoon. Alan hadn’t told him the full story, but he had been clearly upset by something that had happened. It had taken Fermat, Jim, and several other members of Wharton’s soccer team to pull Alan out of his funk and back into his happier, mischievous self.
The door opened, and Fermat watched in amusement from his desk as Alan stumbled into their dorm room and flopped facedown onto his bed in an almost exact repeat of his own performance the night before.
“L-Long night, Alan?” he asked, smirking.
Alan groaned as if in pain. “Why? Why did I think this study group was a good idea?”
Fermat chuckled softly as Alan sat up on his bed. “I th-thought you l-l-l-enjoyed going. What h-happened?”
Alan sighed heavily, scooting back on his bed until he could lean against his headboard. “We didn’t get to finish our assignment for chemistry. We got a new member tonight and had to back track over all of our notes from the year to catch him up.”
Fermat raised his eyebrows. “The wh-whole year? Th-That m-m-must have taken forever!”
“Felt like it.” Alan unzipped his backpack and pulled out his notebook and chemistry text. “The review was good, at least. I think it helped my block on chemical bonds, anyway, but I still need to finish the discussion notes on chapters sixteen through eighteen.”
Surprise flickered across Fermat’s face. “I thought th-th-that assignment w-wasn’t due until T-T-T-next week?”
Alan moved to his desk and opened his notebook. “It’s not, but I want to bounce a couple things off of John before I turn it in, which means I need to finish it this weekend.”
Fermat nodded thoughtfully. “J-J-John’s really been a b-b-big help, huh?”
A small smile broke out on Alan’s face. “Yeah, it’s been awesome having his help. He’s a really good teacher, and I don’t feel stupid when I have to ask him to explain stuff to me.”
Fermat felt a slight pang of guilt at Alan’s words, hoping that he had never made his friend feel that way.
A gentle chime filled the air, interrupting the silence that was just starting to fill the room. Alan glanced at his screen and answered the call, pleasantly surprised to see a familiar face on the other end. “Dad!”
Jeff Tracy smiled at his youngest child. “Hey, Alan. I haven’t heard from you in a while and wanted to make sure you and Fermat were doing okay. I’m not calling too late, am I?”
Alan shook his head. “Nah, I just got in.”
Jeff’s smile faltered in confusion. “Just now? Kind of late, isn’t it?”
Alan shrugged. “I got caught up with a bunch of the guys and only just got away. I’m going to finish up some more of my homework before turning in tonight.”
His father’s smile was fading more with each passing second. “Alan, I thought we’ve been over this. Hanging out with friends is all right as long as you put schoolwork first. Staying out this late and waiting until now to do your homework was not the best choice to make.”
Alan frowned in confusion. “But Dad, I-.”
“No shortcuts, Alan,” Jeff reminded him. “I was hoping to see a little more maturity from you.”
His father’s words stung. Alan clamped his mouth shut, stunned speechless.
“I won’t keep you from your homework, Sprout,” Jeff continued, oblivious to his son’s distress. “I’ll call back on Sunday to see how you’re doing.”
“Yes, sir,” Alan managed to grind out. “Good night.”
“Good night Alan.”
Alan stared numbly at the black screen. Fermat watched his friend, trying to find the words to ease the hurt that the older man had unwittingly caused.
“T-T-Tell him on Sunday, Alan,” the younger student finally said. “H-He’ll understand once y-you e-e-explain it to him.”
Alan shook himself out of his daze and curled over his chemistry notes. “It’s fine, Fermat. No big deal.”
“It’s fine.” Alan pulled out his iPod and put his earbuds in, switching his music on. Fermat sighed, defeated, as his best friend shut the world out.
“ . . . tensions between the United States and the U.S.S.R. continued to build even after the second World War. Scientists on both sides began . . .”
Mr. Wallace’s words were little more than background noise to most of the students in his Twentieth Century American History class. In his eighties, the professor was notorious for turning the most interesting topics into bland, monotone lectures that put students to sleep.
Ashton Hayes folded his note into a paper football and balanced it on once point. Aiming carefully, he flicked his finger, sending the note flying through the air and smack George Sheffield in the side of the face. George jerked in surprise, glancing down at the note before turning to glare at Ashton.
Ashton gestured at the note insistently. Rolling his eyes, George opened it and scanned its contents.
Keep an eye on Tracy
George frowned in confusion, glancing back to Ashton. Ashton nodded, a sly smirk growing on his face.
George turned to look at Alan. The younger boy was sitting two rows to George’s right, furiously scribbling in his notebook. The blond head lifted every once in awhile, as if checking the professor was still rambling on in the front of the classroom before ducking back down and writing some more. George glanced back to Ashton, who was only a few seats behind Alan, but Ashton was focusing on something on his desk.
George’s head snapped back to the front to find Mr. Wallace watching him expectantly. He felt heat staining his cheeks, and he shifted in his chair.
“Er . . . yes, sir?” he stammered.
Mr. Wallace quirked an eyebrow. “The beginning of the Space Race, Mr. Sheffield. What heralded the beginning of the Space Race?”
George desperately searched his mind for the brief scan of the chapter he had done the night before. “The, uh, Soviet launch of their first satellite, Sputnik, sir.”
Mr. Wallace nodded thoughtfully, eyes pinning George to his seat.
“Er, Mr. Wallace?”
All eyes in the room turned to the person who had just spoken. Alan was sitting straighter in his seat, hand tentatively raised in the air.
“No bathroom breaks during class, Mr. Tracy,” Mr. Wallace stated, heading to the board at the front of the classroom. “Save it for afterwards.”
Several students chuckled quietly. Alan blushed slightly but ignored them, hand still raised.
“No, sir,” Alan continued. “I mean, I don’t need to use the bathroom. The launch of the Soviet’s satellite Sputnik is widely viewed as the start of the Space Race, but many historians view the start as being in 1955 when both countries announced their intention to create and launch satellites.”
Stunned silence filled the room at Alan’s statement. Alan kept his eyes focused on his professor, unwilling to break eye contact.
Mr. Wallace found his voice. “Well, well, this is a pleasant surprise. Very good, Mr. Tracy.” The old man’s eyes slid back to George. “And a lesson to you as well, Mr. Sheffield. Skimming the book won’t get you very far in this class.”
George’s face flushed in anger and embarrassment as Mr. Wallace returned to his lecture. He shifted his glare back to Alan in time to see the blond suddenly jolt upright in his seat and smack the back of his neck.
Ashton quickly tucked something out of sight, bending over his notebook and pretending to take notes as Alan turned around, searching for whatever had hit him. Ashton noticed George watching and sent him a sly wink.
George’s ire softened as he realized what Ashton was up to. Turning back to his own book, he watched from the corner of his eye as Ashton brought his straw back out and send a second spitball flying at Alan.
Alan let out a growl of annoyance and jumped to his feet just as the bell rang to end the class period. His eyes searched through the mass of freshmen and sophomores rising to their feet, shuffling books and backpacks in the hopes of spotting the culprit.
George altered his usual path out of the room, passing by Alan and shoulder checking him roughly on the way out.
Ashton caught up to him outside the classroom, on his way to the dining hall for lunch. “What’s the hurry, man?”
George blew out a frustrated huff of air, slowing his pace to allow his friend to keep up. “Just trying to get away from the wunderkind back there. Can you believe him showing me up in front of everyone? Who does he think he is?”
Ashton shook his head. “And to think only Henry was worried about the twerp upstaging him.”
George suddenly stopped and whirled on Ashton, a finger poking into Ashton’s chest. “Watch it, man. It’s not just us he’s showing up. What’s to stop Tracy from embarrassing you in front of everyone too?”
Ashton raised his hands, palms out. “Easy, George, easy. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
George backed off, dropping his hand and continuing down the hall. “Henry was right about him, Ash. He’s a little nobody trying to prove he’s better than all of us. Something needs to be done about him.”
Ashton scrambled to keep up with him as George headed out of the building with a single-minded determination.
The shoulder check caught Alan off-balance, sending him onto his desk and knocking his books and journal to the floor. By the time Alan straightened up, the rest of the students had cleared out of the room, leaving Alan alone with Mr. Wallace.
“Everything okay, Mr. Tracy?” Mr. Wallace asked.
Alan crouched down and gathered his materials to him, shoving them into his backpack with a little more force than necessary. “Fine, Mr. Wallace.”
Mr. Wallace moved to the desk at the front of Alan’s row and sat in the first seat, watching Alan chase after his pencils. “I was impressed with your participation in class today, young man. You did very well.”
The compliment took some of the wind out of Alan’s sails, and he finished packing his backpack more calmly. “Thank you, sir,” he replied, zipping his bag and rising to his feet.
Mr. Wallace wasn’t finished. “You know, Mr. Tracy, your earlier performance this year has left you a little lower on the class rankings than you should be. I was wondering if you were interested in raising your grade through an extra credit project.”
Alan perked up slightly. “Um, sure, sir. What exactly did you have in mind?”
Mr. Wallace shifted in his seat. “We’ll be covering the Space Race over the next few weeks in class; wonderful unit, great example of human determination and ingenuity.”
“Yes, sir,” Alan nodded, waiting for his teacher to get to the point.
“I was thinking you might put together a report on the history of space exploration,” Mr. Wallace told him. “Something that would teach not only the Space Race, but where we’ve gone since then. With your father’s experience and your brother’s research, I imagine you’ll find lots of useful information to share.”
Alan’s mind whirled with the possibilities. The idea of additional work didn’t appeal to him, but to work on a project about a topic that he was interested in certainly did. “What sort of project did you have in mind, sir? And when did you want me to turn it in?”
Mr. Wallace stood. “I think I can bear to wait until the end of term, Mr. Tracy. As to the project itself . . .” The older man walked back to his desk and collected his briefcase, then turned and gave Alan a piercing look. “A young man with your particular gift with computer programs can develop something that can be used by other students for years to come, don’t you agree?”
Alan stared dumbly at his teacher. Mr. Wallace smirked at Alan, giving him a quick wink as he headed to the door.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Tracy,” he said. “Good luck.”
By the time Alan shook off his shock, he was alone. Hoisting his backpack on one shoulder, he hurried from the room to search for Fermat.
“Wh-Wh-Why are you s-so s-surprised, Alan?”
Alan stared at his best friend in incredulity. “What do you mean, ‘why am I surprised’? Why aren’t you more surprised? How could Mr. Wallace know about me messing with computer programs?”
Fermat snorted into his spaghetti. “I-It’s not exactly a s-secret, A-Alan. A-After you wrote th-that program m-made d-display m-m-screens show the S-S-Superman l-logo and pl-play the theme s-s-song every t-time Tristan K-K-Kent walked by one-.”
“Fermat!” Alan glanced around the dining hall in alarm. The buzz of conversation and clanking of cutlery against dishes didn’t pause at Fermat’s bald statement, but Alan didn’t want to tempt fate. He leaned over the table. “No one was supposed to be able to trace that back to me!” he hissed.
Fermat shrugged, completely unconcerned. “No one c-c-can prove it w-was you. Doesn’t n-n-m-m-mean they don’t know it w-was you.”
Alan leaned back in his seat, fiddling with his fork. “I guess.” A slow smile spread across his face. “He deserved it.”
Fermat snickered around a sip of his water just as Jim Connelly appeared behind him. “Want to let me in on the joke?” the senior asked.
Alan grinned up at him. “Old news. Oh, but I do have that program for you!” He pulled his backpack onto his lap and began to dig around in one of the pockets.
“Already?” Jim asked, sliding into a seat beside Fermat. “Awesome! I owe you one, kid.”
Alan emerged from the depths of his bag with his prize and handed the flash drive over to Jim. “Installation should be pretty simple, but call if you run into any problems.”
“This is great.” Jim slid the flash drive into his pocket, then reached across the table to snag a cookie off of Alan’s tray. “Tryouts are tomorrow. You ready for them?”
Alan nodded. “I think so. I’m a little nervous about dealing with Coach Kerry. He seems really tough.”
“He can be, especially if you get on his bad side,” Jim agreed. “He’s a good coach, though. Really pushes you to your limits so you can be your best.”
A bell rang outside of the dining hall, signaling the start of afternoon classes. Jim stood, brushing his hands off.
“I’m off to Phys Ed,” he announced as Alan and Fermat hurried through the rest of their lunch. “Thanks again, Alan. I’ll see you tomorrow. Later, Fermat!”
Fermat eyed Alan as the two gathered up the detritus from their meal. “A-Are you ready for t-t-tryouts?”
Alan shrugged, walking with Fermat to drop off their trays. “Sure, why not? It’s just a tryout for a soccer team. What could possibly happen?”
“All right, gentlemen, listen up! If you’re here because you think you can join the team at the end of the season and share in our success, then walk away now! You’ll come to training and you’ll practice with my boys, but you won’t play in any games until next season. If you have a problem with that, take off.”
Alan glanced at the other boys trying out for soccer, seeing several of them shift in place. A few didn’t look happy at learning they wouldn’t get to play on the team just yet, but none moved away.
According to John, it was Wharton tradition that at the end of the school year, the various coaches and Phys Ed teachers would recommend their students to try out for the next year’s sports teams. Having spent the entire school year with their students, they were able to help make recommendations to coaches of other teams to strengthen the school’s sports department. Scott had joined the baseball team straight away, as Gordon had done for swimming, but it was Coach Harris who had seen potential in Virgil for the football team.
Unlike the other teams, however, Coach Kerry was notorious for being unwelcoming to students who did not initially try out for his team. It was no secret that he thought students trying out at the end of the year were not as dedicated to his sport, and that soccer was little more than a second choice for them. He was the only coach to refuse game participation until the next term, as if waiting for the newcomers to prove themselves to him. As a result, very few students tried out for the soccer team upon teacher recommendation. Along with Alan, there were seven other boys waiting for the tryouts to begin.
“On my team, we value hard work and dedication,” Kerry was saying. “There will be no disrespect of myself or your teammates tolerated. If you act like God’s gift to the team, or act as though you are better than your teammates, you will be cut from the team.”
Alan’s eyes instinctively flickered over to Henry Bishop and his friends, standing on the field behind Coach Kerry and waiting for the man to finish speaking. Jim had warned him ahead of time of Kerry’s policy on teamwork, but more importantly, he had warned Alan that Henry was an exception to that policy.
“As with the other team tryouts, this tryout is open to the rest of the school for observation,” Coach Kerry continued. “As you can see, we have a bit of an audience today. That shouldn’t matter to you gentlemen, since we have larger audiences when we play games. However, if I see you watching the stands more than the ball, then you’re automatically out. Clear?”
“Yes, sir!” Alan and two other boys immediately responded. Kerry scowled at them all, though Alan wasn’t sure if it was at the boys who had answered, or the ones who hadn’t.
“We’ll begin with a couple simple drills to make sure you lot won’t fall flat on your faces,” Kerry stated. “You will begin at one end of the field. Run to the other end where a soccer ball is waiting for you. You will dribble the ball back down the field and try to score a goal. Hayes is our goalie, and he’s not going to make it easy for you. After you shoot, run back to the end of the field for another ball. You will do this until I blow the whistle. How high you rank will depend on how many goals you can make. Move into position!”
Alan and the other boys began to move to the end of the field that Kerry had pointed out while the soccer team jogged to the other end, preparing the soccer balls they would need. Alan jogged to his position opposite Jim, anxious to get started. He fidgeted patiently as two boys walked to their spots, his blue eyes assessing the field and the coach.
A sharp blast of a whistle shook Alan out of his thoughts, and he took off down the field. He reached the soccer ball Jim had laid out for him, turning and carefully dribbling it back down the way he had come. It was tricky at first; though Jim and a couple of the other boys on the team had given him tips and helped him practice off and on that week, it still took a couple of yards before Alan became more comfortable with the ball. By the time he was halfway down the field, the soccer ball moved exactly how and where he wanted it.
Ashton Hayes was centered in his goal, his eyes locked on Alan and his body turned slightly towards him. Alan absently noted that he had been the first to reach the net and scooted closer, positioning himself to score a goal. Kicking the ball with his right foot, Alan put on a burst of speed and struck the ball hard with his left, sending it sailing through the air, past Ashton’s outstretched hands, and into the net.
A rush of relief filled Alan as he turned and ran back to Jim for his next ball, dodging a few other boys. He distantly heard cheering coming from the stands, but didn’t dare to look, Kerry’s warning still ringing in his ears. Scooping another ball around, Alan turned and headed back for another run at the goal.
Time passed in a blur for the boys trying out. Alan’s next two attempts failed as Ashton seemed to grow a third hand to catch his ball, but as the drill wore on, Alan became more and more confident in his movements. By the time Kerry blew the whistle, Alan had made more shots than he had missed. He jogged over to the coach, waiting for the rest of the soccer team hopefuls to join them and learn their rankings.
Kerry’s hard eyes swept over the eight boys standing before him in varying states of exhaustion. “Pitiful!” he snapped. “Jones and Kersey, you made one goal out of four attempts. There was no hustle in your movements. I don’t know why Coach Peterson thought you’d do well with me. You better straighten up, or you won’t last past the next drill.”
The two boys named exchanged uneasy looks.
Kerry consulted his clipboard. “Morton, you managed two out of five. Moving slower than I like; move faster. Cambry, three out of five. Average, but not good enough for my team. Richardson, you score two out of seven. You move fast, but have absolutely no control over the ball.”
Alan shifted nervously, waiting for his results.
“Westing, seven out of eight. Not bad. Simon and Tracy, both nabbed nine balls, both scored seven,” Kerry announced. “Both of you are tied for first in the rankings at this point.”
Alan bit back a smile of elation, glancing quickly beside him to Caleb Simon, whose dark eyes reflected the triumph and relief Alan felt.
“Next test: passing the ball,” Kerry stated. “You will be paired off and will run from one end of the field to the other, passing the ball back and forth before one of you attempts to score a goal. You will be evaluated on skill as well as teamwork on this one.”
The next two and a half hours passed in the same manner. Alan pushed himself hard, running around the field, working with the other team candidates as well as a few of the soccer team members. He was so focused on evaluating his next moves that the world beyond the field faded quietly into the background.
There were several near misses for him, too. While playing a short game against half of the candidates and a couple team members, George Sheffield deliberately tripped Alan as the younger boy ran past him. Alan tumbled to the ground, rolling effortlessly upon impact and jumping back to his feet. The spill had cost him the ball, and he had had to double time it back the way he’d come to try and retrieve the ball from Simon, who had seized the opportunity presented to him.
The second near miss had come from Henry Bishop. Half of the candidates were dribbling a soccer ball around obstacles with several members of the soccer team while the other half were blocking passes from more soccer team members. Alan, focused on dribbling around cones, never saw the ball that struck him hard in the side of the head. Alan stumbled, but remained upright. Looking for the source of the kick, he had seen Henry smirking and shrugging in mock innocence. Alan growled to himself, but forced himself to ignore the upperclassman, even though it meant finishing his tryout with a slowly growing headache.
The end of the tryout couldn’t come soon enough. On legs that felt like jelly and with a pounding headache, Alan jogged back to the coach to await his verdict with the other soccer team hopefuls.
“As I expected, not much talent to be had,” Kerry stated. “Morton, Jones, Kersey; out. Too slow, not enough hustle. “Richardson, forget it. Too disorganized. The rest of you, you’re in. Practice is Mondays and Wednesdays from three to five. See you then. Now all of you, clear out. Tryouts are over.”
It took Alan a moment for the news to register before he found himself being pounded on the back by Jim and a few other soccer players. A broad smile spread across Alan’s face, and he congratulated the other boys who had also made the team.
Coach Harris moved in front of Alan, clasping the boy’s shoulder and smiling. “Congratulations, kiddo. You did great out there!”
“Thanks, Coach,” Alan replied, feeling lightheaded with elation.
“I hate to interrupt such a celebratory moment, but there’s someone else here who’s anxious to offer his congratulations, too,” Harris continued, using his grip on Alan’s shoulder to gently turn the boy around.
Standing behind him was a young man with copper-colored hair and a very familiar grin. “Congratulations, Sprout.”
“Gordon!” Alan launched himself at his brother, wrapping the older Tracy in a tight hug. “What are you doing here?”
Gordon laughed, squeezing his younger brother. “Johnny called the other day and let it slip that you were trying out for the soccer team. I convinced Dad to let me come and take you and your friends out to celebrate.”
Alan pulled back, frowning slightly in confusion. “Celebrate? But I didn’t know I’d make the team.”
Gordon snorted indelicately. “You’re a Tracy, Sprout. When have we ever not gotten something we worked for?”
Alan felt a strange rush of warmth at Gordon’s words. It was the first time one of his brothers acknowledged that, just maybe, he was as good as the rest of them.
“Alan!” Fermat ran forward, beaming in excitement. “Y-You did it! C-C-C-Good job!”
“Thanks, Fermat,” Alan replied, slinging an arm around Fermat’s shoulders. “Guess what? Gordon’s going to take us out to celebrate!”
“Only if you shower first, little brother,” Gordon added. “Your stench could easily clear out any restaurant we walk into.”
Alan threw a playful punch at Gordon’s shoulder. “I just finished a three hour tryout. What’s your excuse?”
Gordon wrapped an arm around Alan’s neck and drew him close, scrubbing his knuckles along Alan’s scalp. Alan cried out and wriggled, trying to free himself.
“Alan!” Jim jogged up to the small group as Alan pulled himself away from Gordon. “Great job, kid! I told you you could do it.”
“Thanks, Jim,” Alan replied. “Jim, this is my brother Gordon. Gordon, Jim here helped me get ready for tryouts today.”
The two shook hands. “We’re heading out to celebrate Alan making the team,” Gordon told him. “Would you like to join us?”
“Absolutely,” Jim replied. “Sounds like fun.”
“Let’s all meet at the main building in half an hour,” Gordon suggested. “It’ll probably take me that long to sign Alan and Fermat out.”
Upon agreeing, the four began to scatter to their respective destinations when Gordon called Alan back. Alan gave Gordon a quizzical look as Gordon reached out and gripped Alan’s chin, turning the younger boy’s head to one side.
“How’s the head?” he asked quietly.
“Fine,” Alan replied, moving his head away from Gordon’s grip. “Why?”
Gordon rolled his eyes. “I saw the hit you took earlier. And I know you. You have a headache.”
“Of course I have a headache,” Alan replied. “I got hit in the head by a soccer ball.”
“Take some aspirin while you get ready, Sprout,” Gordon advised. When Alan opened his mouth to protest, he continued. “And don’t argue, Allie. Your head will just hurt more, and I don’t want you to be in pain while we’re celebrating. Do it for me, okay?”
Alan’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “Okay.” A look of mischief suddenly passed over his face. “Does Scott know that you’re trying to claim his place as biggest mother hen?”
He narrowly dodged Gordon’s swipe, laughing brightly as he jogged for his dorm.
Henry Bishop paced restlessly in the empty locker room, scrubbing a hand through his messy hair. Sensing his rising anger, his friends had wisely scattered to their respective dorms to clean up from the day’s tryouts, unwilling to serve as a convenient outlet for Henry’s frustration.
Letting out a sudden strangled cry of rage, Henry seized the nearest object and flung it as hard as he could at the lockers. The stick of deodorant clanged loudly against the unyielding metal, bursting open and clattering to the floor in pieces. Henry stared at it, feeling unsatisfied at the release.
Coach Kerry appeared in the doorway, a severe look of disapproval on his face as he crossed his arms. “I’ve warned you before about that temper of yours. Throwing a tantrum like a two-year-old won’t get you what you want.”
“Apparently neither will you,” Henry snarled at the coach. “How could you let Tracy on the team?”
“I had no choice,” Kerry replied coolly. “He performed better than the other candidates, and with an audience, I had to admit him to the team.” Kerry moved into the room, coming closer to Henry. “You’ve gotten lazy. The Henry I know would have managed to make Tracy look bad on the field with more finesse than that. A soccer ball to the head? Seriously?”
“It was the only opportunity I could see,” Henry shot back. “You didn’t exactly make things easier for me, did you?”
Kerry reached up and smacked Henry in the back of the head. “Quit acting like an infant! Anyone with eyes in their head saw that Tracy is a real threat to our plans here. He has enough skill and talent to be the real star of this team, and if you don’t wise up, that’s exactly what will happen. If you want to get your shot at the Olympic team, then you need to get your head in the game.”
Henry scowled at the coach. “He’s not better than me. There’s no way I’ll let him screw up my plans.”
Kerry stared at Henry thoughtfully for a long moment before nodding. “I had to let Tracy onto the team based on his performance today. There’s nothing saying that I have to keep him on the team.”
“What do you mean?” Henry asked.
“The way I see it, there are two options open to us,” Kerry explained. “Tracy can either leave the team voluntarily, or he can become ineligible and be removed by the administration. Either way, that leaves the road to the Olympics wide open for the both of us.”
“Tracy won’t leave the team on his own,” Henry replied bitterly. “He’s got too much to prove.”
“Then that only leaves us with one choice, doesn’t it?” Kerry said calmly. “For an athlete to be ineligible for a team, he needs to either be placed on academic probation, fail classes, or make a serious infraction on the student code of conduct.”
Henry shook his head. “Tracy’s been turning over a new leaf this last month. All around do-gooder, getting in good with teachers. Tristan’s even said he’s doing better in class.”
“So change that,” Kerry said. “When Tracy transferred here, he built himself a reputation as a low-performing student with a hair-trigger temper. It wouldn’t take much for him to return to that. Or to make the teachers think he has.”
“So, what?” Henry asked. “Pick a fight with him? I’ll become ineligible too.”
Kerry glared at the student. “Use your brains, boy! You know what’s at stake. Just find a way to make Tracy ineligible without getting caught.”
“Fine,” Henry snarked back. “What about practice?”
A humorless grin stretched across Kerry’s face. “You leave practices to me.”
Alan stuffed his hands in his pocket, hiding the sudden chill he felt as the temperature sank with the sun. Beside him, Gordon gave Alan a quick glance, but let the action go for the moment.
The younger Tracy’s thoughts skimmed over the events of that afternoon. Gordon had taken them to a late lunch, then out to a movie to celebrate Alan making the team. It had been the most fun Alan could remember having, just hanging out with his friends and one of his brothers.
Soon after the return to campus, Jim and Fermat had made their excuses and taken off, leaving the two brothers alone. Gordon had suggested a walk before he had to return to Tracy Island, and Alan, unwilling to let the pleasant day end, had readily agreed.
“So, why didn’t you tell anyone about trying out for the soccer team?” Gordon asked casually. “Well, anyone but John, but he doesn’t count.”
Alan shrugged. “I don’t know. After spring break and everything else, trying out for some soccer team just didn’t seem like that big of a deal in comparison.”
Gordon slung an arm around Alan’s shoulders, drawing him close in a half-hug as they continued to walk. “I know spring break was more exciting than any of us were expecting, but you shouldn’t measure everything against, well, that. We were all surprised to hear about the tryouts; I had to arm wrestle Scott and Virgil just to be the one to come out here. The whole reason Dad wants you here at school is so that you can do things like joining the soccer team and making friends outside of the family.”
A dark cloud passed over Alan’s face. “Dad wants me here at school to focus on my classes. I don’t think he’d be pleased to find out about me doing something that takes my attention away from that.”
Gordon tightened his hold around his baby brother. “Yeah . . . about that . . . Dad’s going to call you tomorrow, but he wanted me to apologize on his behalf.”
Alan looked at Gordon skeptically. “Apologize?”
Gordon nodded. “Yep. See, I was nearby when he called you last Wednesday and I heard what he said. The thing is, he was already kind of in a bad mood, and it was kind of my fault.”
A knowing look filled Alan’s features. “Which one?”
Gordon smirked at Alan, drawing him over to a nearby bench and pulling him to sit down beside him. “Virgil this time. I went down to the beach and found a fish washed up on the beach. I scooped it up and put it in a box, then hid it in the air vent in his room. When he went to bed, I put Vaseline on his doorknob. When the fish smell woke him up, he tore his room apart looking for the source. When he couldn’t find it, he tried to leave his room, only the Vaseline kept him from being able to open the door. Scott finally let him out when he woke up for his run a few hours later.”
Alan was shuddering under Gordon’s arm, trying to hold in his laughter. “Wh-What did Virge do?”
“The usual,” Gordon replied. “Only our timing was off, and we accidentally spilled Dad’s coffee.”
Alan froze, staring up at his brother with a look of awe mixed with horror. “You what?”
Gordon nodded. “Dad doesn’t usually get involved in our business. Grown men, and all that. Well, Sprout, take it from someone who survived the fallout; don’t ever mess with that man’s caffeine intake. I swear Scott came in just to watch and take notes; Dad’s explosion was terrifying. Virgil and I had to scrub his green monster with a toothbrush until it passed a white glove inspection. By the time Dad called you, he was a lot calmer, but still angry with us for being so immature. Trust me, Sprout; he feels bad about what he said, but he wanted you to cool down a bit and not get distracted from school and tryouts.”
Alan unconsciously leaned against Gordon, soaking in his brother’s words. A weight lifted from his heart that he hadn’t realized was there. “Huh.”
Gordon gently ruffled Alan’s hair. “I hate to break up this lovely moment, but it’s about time for me to get back to the island. Seriously, Sprout, we’re all real proud of you. Keep up the good work, huh?”
Alan stood, hugging Gordon in farewell. “Have a safe trip.”
“Oh, and one last message from home,” Gordon stated. “John wants me to remind you to call him with your tryout results as soon as you get back to your dorm room, or else he’ll make good on his threat. I was tempted to keep this message to myself just to see what John would do, but then John decided to let me know that he’d help Virgil plan his revenge. While I am not afraid of what Virgil will do to me, I know better than to cross Johnny and his temper when riled. Can you let John know I reminded you?”
Alan smiled at Gordon’s message. “I don’t know, I’m kind of curious as to what Johnny can come up with for a revenge prank.”
Gordon sent a playful swipe at Alan’s head, which Alan easily ducked. “Go on, get out of here,” he growled mockingly.
The elder Tracy waited and watched as Alan jogged back to his dorm. Only once his younger brother was safely behind closed doors did Gordon turn and head back to the main building to leave.
“So? How did it go? Don’t leave me in suspense!”
Alan grinned at his older brother’s impatient words. “John, were you sitting on the communicator? I barely started the call.”
“Sprout, I’ve been waiting all day to hear from you,” John replied. “Come on, give!”
Alan’s smile widened. “I made the team.”
“Yes!” John thrust a fist in the air and spun in his chair, much to Alan’s amusement. “Congratulations, Sprout! I’m so proud of you!”
“Thanks, John,” Alan replied. “Er, Gordon said the same thing.”
John stilled. “I hope you’re not mad that I spilled the beans. I know you didn’t want to tell Dad, but I really wanted someone to be there for you, especially since I couldn’t.”
Alan shook his head. “Nah, I’m not mad. Thanks; it was nice.”
John didn’t need any elaboration. Nice to know that, even though his family had gone through four sets of school graduations, sports teams, and phenomenal accomplishments, that Alan’s own accomplishments still mattered.
“I also wanted to ask you for another favor,” Alan continued.
“Anything,” John said readily.
Alan cocked his head to the side. “You don’t even know what I’m going to ask. For all you know, it could be about the best place to hide a body.”
John waved a dismissive hand. “Australian outback is pretty good. Whatever the elements don’t take care of, the animals will.”
Alan’s eyebrows lifted so high he was sure they had left his forehead entirely.
John smirked. “Virgil asked earlier; he needed a place to hide Gordon’s body.”
Alan let out a snort of laughter. “Good to know.”
“So what’s up?” John asked.
“Do you remember Mr. Wallace?” Alan asked.
“Is he still there?” John replied, his voice tinged with disbelief. “I was sure he’d be retired by now.”
Alan nodded. “Yeah. Pretty sure I’m getting the same lectures you and Scott got. Well, he talked to me about doing an extra credit project about space exploration.”
“And he suggested that you come to me for information,” John correctly surmised. “Well, that sounds like fun. I’d be happy to help. When do we begin?”
Alan barely noticed the next two weeks flying by. With the additional responsibilities of being on the soccer team, he barely found a moment just for himself.
With the end of the school year just six weeks away, the teachers were increasing their workloads in preparation for final exams. Alan suddenly found himself lost amid a sea of term papers, tests, and essays. His study groups were feeling just as overwhelmed, although as soccer practice began a more stringent regimen, Alan barely noticed.
There was something off about Coach Kerry, though Alan couldn’t put his finger on it. He couldn’t fault the man’s training style; he pushed the team hard, running drills until they dropped. Several times Alan found himself being singled out for errors he was making, being forced to stay and run drills until long after the sun had gone down. Watching Jim go through it earlier that year had been one thing; experiencing it for himself was quite another.
When Alan practiced with the team, Kerry spent most of his time yelling at them. Nothing they did during drills or practice games seemed to be good enough; except for Henry, the team just wasn’t as skilled as Kerry expected them to be. The other new additions to the team were rattled by the coach’s style of instruction and tended to make more errors than not. Desperate to do well and move up in Kerry’s eyes, Alan took his cue from Jim and pushed himself harder on the field.
As newcomers to the team, Alan, Caleb Simon, Tom Cambry, and Jonah Westing were kept after for additional laps. According to Kerry, it was to build their stamina and prepare them for full integration into the team in the fall. Already exhausted from the rigorous two hour practice, the boys stumbled across the field to the tune of Kerry’s rants.
Alan, it seemed, just couldn’t do enough to please Kerry. After dismissing the other three boys, he found himself alone with Coach Kerry, running from one end of the field to the other, sometimes for another hour. Kerry’s harsh words filled his ears, driving him on. If Alan didn’t know any better, he’d say that Kerry had it in for him and considered talking to someone else about it. Remembering Jim having to endure the same training, Alan kept his mouth shut, but the additional practice was beginning to take its toll.
Several of his additional trainings ran into his study group meetings. The other members were sympathetic, but only just. Feeling the strain of the approaching finals period, Alan’s absence had been felt and his fellow classmates didn’t entirely appreciate having to pick up his slack. Apologies were given, though Alan still felt forgiveness was going to have to wait until things settled down once more.
On days when Alan practiced late, he ended up missing dinner more often than not. Too exhausted to eat, he would grab an energy bar and turn his attention to his piling homework, only to fall asleep on his books. Only the fear for his grades slipping again kept him going, pushing him to wake up earlier and catch extra moments of study during breakfast and lunch.
Alan briefly considered leaving the soccer team, but that thought was quashed immediately. His father and brothers had been so proud of him for making the team, promising to make time to see some of his games next year. Alan didn’t want to quit now, proving to his family that he wasn’t ready to shoulder more responsibility.
In the end, Alan merely forced himself to class on rubbery legs, eyes dry and scratchy from lack of sleep and prayed that he could make it through one more class.
Alan jerked sharply in his chair, nearly toppling out of it. Wide blue eyes filled with shock and confusion snapped to Fermat, who was watching him in deep concern. “What?”
Fermat’s brow furrowed. “A-Alan, you were p-practically a-a-asleep just now. A-Are you f-f-f-doing okay?”
Alan pinched the bridge of his nose, then moved his fingers to vigorously rub his eyes. “I’m fine. Sorry. Where were we?”
The bell rang, interrupting the conversation. Alan glanced around, seeing his classmates gather their books and head for the door. Sluggishly, Alan followed suit.
Fermat wasn’t easily deterred. “A-A-Are you coming to l-lunch today, Alan?”
Alan shook his head, shouldering his backpack wearily. “Can’t, sorry. I’m going to the library to catch up on the chapter for English and go over my notes for Mr. Wallace’s report.”
Fermat stood, reaching a hand to grab onto Alan’s sleeve. “A-A-Alan, you can r-r-read the ch-chapter at lunch. A-A-And M-Mr. Wallace’s p-p-project isn’t due f-for awhile yet.”
Alan shook himself free. “I can’t focus in the dining hall. You know that, Fermat. And I need to go over my notes before practice tonight so I’m prepared for John’s call. I’ll see you later.”
“Alan!” Fermat called after Alan’s retreating back. Huffing a sigh of frustration, Fermat followed Alan into the hall and turned towards his dorm room. He was worried about Alan, and despite knowing how angry Alan would be at his interference, he knew Alan needed help.
Alan was so lost in thought, his mind whirling at the assignments he needed to complete by the end of the week, that he didn’t see Tristan Kent walking towards him until it was too late.
The two boys tumbled to the ground, papers and books scattering all over the floor. Alan shook his head, dazed, and sat up.
“Watch where you’re going, you klutz!” Tristan snapped, grabbing his backpack and shoving his books into it.
“Sorry,” Alan mumbled, collecting his materials. His head was beginning to hurt, and he lacked the energy for a more forceful defense. Ignoring the older student, Alan finished gathering his papers and books and climbed to his feet, continuing down the hall.
Tristan watched him go, his scowl easing once Alan vanished from sight. Turning, he spotted Henry and George approaching him, expectant looks on their faces.
“Well?” Henry asked impatiently.
Tristan smirked and pulled out a folder from his backpack, handing it to Henry. “One writing assignment, as requested. Why do you want Tracy’s homework, anyway?”
Henry opened the folder, flipping through it quickly before tucking the folder into his own satchel. “It’s not so much the homework I want. It’s the teacher’s reaction to him not having it.”
“So the teacher gives him a detention, big deal,” George said.
Henry gave him an annoyed look. “Which means he’ll miss half of practice tonight,” the junior pointed out. “Coach won’t be very happy with him about that.”
Smiles of anticipation grew on the boys’ voices as they imagined Kerry’s reaction.
Henry’s good mood carried him through the rest of the day, past all of his classes and onto the soccer field. He almost felt as if his world had shifted back into place, something he hadn’t felt since the disastrous tryouts two weeks before. He mentally congratulated himself on a job well done yet again, knowing without a doubt that it wouldn’t be long before Tracy was off of the team permanently.
The upperclassman was so wrapped up in himself that he nearly tripped over his soccer ball when he spotted Alan jogging onto the field on time with the rest of their new members.
George ran up beside Henry, no less shocked. “Hey, I thought-.”
Henry elbowed him hard, shutting him up. “Not here.”
Tristan joined them. “Guess his teacher was feeling generous today. So much for your big idea.”
Henry glared at him. “I’m not giving up so easily. He can’t get out of everything smelling like a rose.”
Across the field, Alan involuntarily glanced over at the three boys, suppressing a shudder at the sight of such cold, hate-filled glares. Their attitude towards him was beginning to chafe at him, wearing away at the control he was fighting to keep over his temper. If Alan hadn’t been so worried about keep his place on the team, he would have confronted them by now.
A stray thought floated through his mind, whispering about Henry, George, and Tristan being involved with his missing writing assignment that afternoon, but Alan brushed it aside. As grateful as he was at Ms. Morton being so understanding and allowing him to redo the assignment, he was frustrated with the time he was going to lose finding it on his computer and sending it to her that night.
The coach’s sharp whistle brought the entire team to attention, driving all thoughts about school and assignments completely out of Alan’s mind.
Kerry’s eyes tracked Alan as he darted effortlessly around several of his teammates, dribbling the ball down the field with an ease that belied his inexperience. The coach had been watching Alan carefully the entire practice, searching for a reason to keep him back after practice again.
He’d heard a few of the other teachers commenting about how worn out the young man had become in class and had to hide a smile. While the additional practice hadn’t done much in the way of convincing Alan to quit, it was at the very least wearing him thin. If circumstances had been different, Kerry might have felt admiration for the young man’s dedication and perseverance. As it was, Alan was a roadblock between him and his dreams, and he needed to be removed.
A strange movement caught Kerry’s attention, drawing his eyes to Henry. The older boy had a look of fierce determination on his face as he pursued Alan down the field. The two were playing as part of the same team, so watching Henry heading for Alan was definitely not in the playbook. Rather than call Henry back, Kerry waited and watched to see what he would do.
Henry disguised his true intent by diverting several players from the opposing team away from Alan, appearing to be helpful as Alan made a bid for the goal. Only Kerry’s sharp eyes saw Henry clearing the way for him to sabotage Alan without anyone being the wiser.
Tristan, playing opposite Alan and Henry, set up the next play perfectly. Darting in front of Alan, the younger boy was forced to stop and change directions. Henry came up from behind, pretending to block Tristan as his foot snaked around and hooked around Alan’s left ankle. Tristan moved to block Alan’s forward progress, clipping him in the side. Off balance and tangled in Henry’s foot, Alan went down hard.
Kerry saw his chance and blew his whistle, halting the game. “Despicable! You boys are a shambles out there! I expect improvement during next practice or you’ll all be doing suicide drills until you drop! Now hit the showers and get out of my sight! Tracy, stay behind!”
Alan rubbed at his ankle and climbed unsteadily to his feet as the rest of the team left the field. He shrugged helplessly at Jim’s sympathetic look and focused on Kerry, who was storming across the field towards him.
“Are you trying to waste my time?” Kerry demanded. “What was that out there? I’ve seen six-year-olds handle the ball better than you did tonight!”
Alan drew himself up to attention, wisely keeping his mouth shut. The last time he had tried to explain himself had resulted in laps around the field until the sun finally set.
“You’re going to dribble the ball around this field; twenty laps,” Kerry ordered. “If you so much as make one mistake, then you start over. Get moving!”
Alan turned and immediately began to dribble the ball to the edge of the field, stumbling when he put weight on his left ankle. Swallowing back the pain, he straightened up and pushed himself onward.
One more stumble on his third lap set him back to the beginning. Alan made it all the way to his eleventh lap when his slowed pace set him back again. By the time Kerry told him to start over for missing a step, Alan let the laps fade into the back of his mind, praying only for Kerry to blow his whistle and tell him he’d reached twenty.
The headache that had started earlier that day had blossomed into something bordering on a migraine. Nausea churned in Alan’s stomach, and he felt lightheaded not only from the pain, but from the lack of food he’d had lately. Lost in his own thoughts, he didn’t notice Kerry until he ran right into the man.
Kerry stumbled, instinctively grabbing Alan’s arms to steady himself. Alan blinked in confusion at Kerry, wondering where he’d come from.
Kerry tightened his grip on Alan’s arms, causing the boy to wince. “Are you even listening to me, Tracy? Or am I boring you?”
“S-Sorry, Coach,” Alan stammered, forcing his brain to focus.
The apology seemed to fuel the angry fire in Kerry’s face. He turned, releasing one of Alan’s arms and using his grip on the other to drag Alan back onto the field. Alan stumbled behind him, biting back the cry of pain at his coach’s grip.
Kerry shoved Alan in the direction of the locker rooms. Alan tripped over his feet, but managed to stay upright.
“You’re useless tonight,” Kerry growled. “Don’t bother coming back unless you can follow simple instructions.”
Trembling slightly in shock at being manhandled, Alan quickly hurried towards the locker room, anxious to put some distance between himself and his coach.
John paced in the control room of Thunderbird 5, his thoughts swirling like a hurricane in his mind. Working with Alan on his homework had been a great opportunity to build a stronger bond with his baby brother since spring break, but over the last couple weeks, he had begun to notice how tired Alan had become. While the workload of a student in high school, particularly one who had several extracurricular activities, tended to take a toll on even the best students, John didn’t like the growing look of despair he saw in his brother’s eyes.
The call from Fermat during the boy’s lunch period had, if anything, heightened his concern. Fermat had confirmed for John that Alan was not handling the increased class work and team practices as well as he had hoped. The younger boy had offered a few insights to John, revealing Alan eating less and staying up later to finish his work. Fermat was concerned, and John agreed, that Alan was fast approaching a breaking point that he might not be able to come back from.
John initially debated calling his father and asking for advice. He knew Jeff Tracy would be able to help Alan find a proper balance of his new workload, but he was afraid of Alan’s reaction to their interference. Already the youngest of the family, Alan was constantly fighting to prove that he had what it took to stand on his own two feet. Having John, or his father, undermine him would set Alan’s progress all the way back to square one. However John needed to handle the situation, he knew he’s need to do it with the utmost care.
The signal he’d been waiting for caught his attention. Sliding gracefully into his chair, John opened the connection to Alan’s dorm room. His greeting died on his lips when he saw his brother’s pale face.
“Are you okay, Sprout?” he asked instead.
Alan smiled wanly. “Of course. Just tired.”
“You have a headache,” John stated bluntly, blue eyes tracing the tightness in Alan’s eyes and the lines of tension in his forehead.
Alan shrugged, dismissing the comment. “It happens. I took an aspiring; just waiting for it to kick in. Have you had a chance to look at the essay I sent your way?”
John wasn’t prepared to let the situation go. “Alan, you know you can talk to me about anything, right? Not just school?”
Uncertainty flickered in Alan’s eyes. “Of course,” he replied, feigning confusion. “Why do you ask?”
“I’m a little worried about you, Sprout,” John said. “You’ve been looking kind of rough around the edges lately. If there’s something going on . . .”
“There’s nothing going on,” Alan replied quickly. “I’m fine. Just a little tired. My teachers have all decided to assign us a ton of work, and with soccer practice now on the schedule, I’m just busier than I used to be. It’s fine.”
John was unconvinced, but unwilling to push Alan much further. Triggering Alan’s temper would result in Alan shutting him out, and he knew his brother needed at least one of his brothers to turn to when the situation became too much for him. Forcefully pushing his concern to the back of his mind, he changed the subject.
“Well, your essay looks good,” John told him. “I’m sending it back now with a few notes, and a reference to a book that I think will strengthen your point of view. Do you have more notes for me for your project for Mr. Wallace?”
As their conversation drifted over Alan’s course work and updates from Tracy Island, John carefully made mental notes on Alan’s comments and behavior, filing the information away for later. John had an unsettling sensation in the pit of his stomach that he would be needed sooner rather than later.
Get to the end of the week . . . just get to Friday . . . you can make it . . .
The mantra had become Alan’s constant companion in his head, sometimes the only force driving him from one moment to the next. The combination of infrequent meals, never-ending class work, and wearying soccer and track practices was beginning to take its toll on the teen. Several times, as Alan twisted and turned in his bed late at night, he considered giving up if only for a few moments of peace and quiet. Surely nothing, not even proving himself worthy of being a part of the Thunderbirds, was worth all of this stress.
Images of the disappointment on his father’s face, on his brothers’ faces, always kept Alan from throwing in the towel. He had worked too hard and come too far to back out now. If he quit, he would only confirm for his family that he wasn’t ready to join the ‘family business’.
As tired and worn out as Alan felt, he could never allow that to happen.
Only a couple more days . . . not long now . . .
“Hey, look who decided to join us!”
Alan blinked blearily up at Jim’s smiling face. Jim’s smile fell as he took in the exhaustion clouding Alan’s face. “Are you all right, Alan?”
Alan straightened quickly and glanced around. His feet had taken over while his brain had been occupied. Evidently his stomach had weighed in on the destination, as his feet had carried him to the dining hall for lunch.
“Yeah, just been working a lot lately,” Alan replied, moving to join Jim and his friends in the line for food. He swung his backpack more securely onto his back and nodded in greeting to Sam Berren and Liam York, grabbing a tray and some silverware.
“We were just saying we hadn’t seen you much around here,” Jim was saying, collecting food as he moved swiftly down the line. “Where’ve you been keeping yourself?”
Alan absently picked up a slice of pizza and dropped it on his tray, reaching for an apple next. “Been busy.”
“You need to take it easy or else you’ll burn out long before your sophomore year,” Sam advised, giving Alan a friendly slap on the back.
Alan bit his tongue, holding in a cry of pain. He swallowed thickly, gripping the sides of his tray and praying no one noticed. Sam, oblivious, was busy sweet-talking the lunch lady behind the counter into another slice of chocolate cake.
Last night had resulted in another late soccer practice with Kerry. After the man’s rough handling during their last practice, Alan had done his best to stay out of Kerry’s way. Unfortunately, he had been so distracted on the field that he had tripped again, this time taking several players to the ground with him and earning him some one-on-one time with the one man he had been trying to avoid. That one-on-one time had left Alan with more aches and bruises than he cared to admit.
The boys moved to an empty table and settled quickly into their meal. Alan wasn’t sure he had much of an appetite to finish the food on his tray, but after a couple bites of his pizza he found he was ravenous. He inhaled the rest of his pizza in a couple bites and moved quickly to the next item on his tray.
Jim’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline. “Whoa, kid, take it easy before you choke.”
Alan blushed, slowing reluctantly. “Sorry. Missed dinner last night.”
“Yeah, we noticed,” Liam commented. “Coach has really been riding you hard. I haven’t seen him go after anyone like that since . . . well, since Jim joined the team.”
Alan’s eyes flickered to Jim. “What happened?”
It was Sam who answered. “It was Jimmy here who got all the extra late night practices after the rest of the team finished. When he joined the team, it was clear to everyone that he would be our next big star. Since that spot was already taken by Bishop, you can imagine what Coach thought of that.”
“He ran me through a bunch of extra drills,” Jim told Alan. “I think he was trying to get me to quit.”
Alan felt a righteous anger rise up in him, rejuvenating him. “That’s wrong! He shouldn’t do that!”
Jim shrugged, unconcerned. “It’s no big deal. It’s not like I have any proof. Besides, when I started slacking off and letting Bishop get more of the glory, he backed off of me. Still pulls me out from time to time to remind me of my place, but it’s fine. I don’t need the top spot. It’s not like I’ll be pursuing soccer in college. I just needed another extracurricular activity on my college application, and soccer did the trick.”
Alan shook his head. “It’s still not right. Someone should say something.”
“It’s not that big of a deal, really,” Jim assured the younger teen. “I’m more worried about you. Coach seems to see you as the next threat to Bishop’s top dog spot. He had you out there pretty late last night, didn’t he?”
Alan ducked his head, fiddling with his fork. A part of him still felt too ashamed to admit that their soccer coach was beginning to scare him. He was a member of the most elite rescue team in the world; being afraid of one man should be beneath him.
“Yeah,” he finally admitted. He looked up, fire suddenly in his eyes. “I’m not backing down, though. I won’t do less than my best just so Bishop can feel good about himself.”
Sam shook his head ruefully. “Then be prepared for a lot of late night practices with the coach, kid.”
A chill went down Alan’s spine at his words.
Jim nudged Sam. “Lay off.” He turned back to Alan. “You shouldn’t, you know. I’m not stressing myself out over it because it’s not a big deal to me. You could definitely go somewhere with the skill you’ve got, though. If you run into any problems, though, you come to one of us. We’ll help you out.”
Alan looked down at his tray again, feeling a small glow of appreciation chasing away the earlier chill. As the older teens fell into a conversation about an upcoming exam, Alan’s thoughts swirled around his practice last night.
“I see we haven’t learned anything from our little practice last time. I’ll have to remedy that.”
Kerry ordered Alan to simply run laps around the track without the soccer ball. Alan’s relief was short-lived when, after the first two laps, Kerry joined him. The older man jogged beside Alan, yelling in the boy’s ear about how useless he was to the team, and about how he was more a hindrance than a help. Alan had blocked out the harsh words, focusing only on the rhythmic slap of shoes on the ground.
The first shove was completely unexpected, sending Alan tripping over his own feet as he fought to keep his balance.
“Are you even listening, Tracy?” Kerry yelled, grabbing Alan’s arm and shoving him forward again. “Too good to bother listening to the coach, are you?”
“N-No, Coach,” Alan disagreed.
Kerry grabbed Alan again, this time steering him over to the nearest goal and shoving him into the net. Alan grabbed the pole as he fell past, using it to steady himself. Straightening, he turned to find Kerry retrieving the team’s practice balls.
“Maybe blocking goals will wake you up,” Kerry stated, lining up his first shot and sending it straight into Alan’s stomach.
Alan winced in memory, absently rubbing his stomach. The coach had sent soccer ball after soccer ball at him, yelling at him to block. Alan had done his best, flinching more than blocking under the endless assault. One well-placed kick had struck Alan just right, sending him tumbling against the pole he had used to balance himself. By the time Kerry had finally released Alan for the night, Alan was sore all over and had earned himself a few new bruises.
The memory soured Alan’s stomach, leaving him with only half of his meal finished. Alan collected his trash and, after shouldering his backpack, stood.
“I’ll catch you guys later,” he told his teammates before hurrying to dispose of his tray.
Alan had dumped his tray and was nearly out the door of the dining hall when a hand grasped his arm right over one of the bruises Kerry had left behind. Sucking in a sharp breath of pain and sudden fear, Alan whirled around and stumbled back.
Jim was standing behind him, hands raised and concern on his face. “Easy, kid, it’s just me. I wanted to make sure you were all right.”
Alan readjusted his backpack on his shoulder, his eyes darting away from Jim’s. “Sorry . . . you startled me.”
Jim took a step closer, lowering his hands. “Alan, if something is going on, you can tell me.”
The words, echoes of the ones his own brother had uttered, chipped away at Alan’s resolve. He cautiously looked up at the other boy, considering his options. He didn’t want to tell anyone that he was afraid of his coach; he wasn’t even sure that anyone would believe him anyway.
But the teen standing before him had gone through what he was going through now. He had been pulled into extra trainings with the coach. Maybe . . . if anyone would know, it would be Jim . . .
Alan gripped the strap to his backpack. “Jim . . . when you practiced with the coach . . . did he ever . . . what did he make you do?”
Jim frowned at the unexpected question. “Why do you want to know?” His eyes narrowed. “Is the coach-.”
“I’m just curious,” Alan said quickly. “Did he ever have you run extra drills?”
Jim was unconvinced. “Sure, all the time.”
Alan nodded. “Like what?”
For a moment, Alan was afraid that Jim wouldn’t answer. Jim was still watching him suspiciously, but relented. “Lots of laps. And dribbling around the field. He had me play goalie for Kent one time. I was always pretty sore by the end of it.”
“Did he yell a lot too?” Alan asked quietly.
Jim nodded. “Does he have another volume?”
Alan let out a surprised huff of laughter, loosening his grip on his backpack strap.
Jim smiled faintly at the reaction, relief sweeping through him. “It’ll be okay, kid. Just hang in there.”
Alan nodded and watched as Jim returned to Sam and Liam, then continued out of the dining room.
Jim made it through Coach’s extra practices okay . . . I can too . . . just get to the end of the week . . .
Coach Ken Harris downed the last of his coffee and stood, nodding a farewell to the few teachers who were in the teacher’s lounge. He didn’t often make his way to the lounge unless he was craving a decent cup of coffee, and after the Phys Ed class he had just had, he needed something to perk him up.
The halls were filled with students moving to their next class, some loitering along the hall and talking with friends. Harris greeted several of them warmly, shooing a couple more on their way with promises of extra laps if they were late.
A familiar shock of blond hair caught his eye on the other side of the hall. Harris frowned in concern at the utter exhaustion on the boy’s face. He had seen the energy and life in Alan drain more and more with each passing week. Any attempt at trying to talk to the teen about it was met with a stubborn look and an adamant ‘it’s fine’. Despite the worry he felt, Harris couldn’t help but marvel at the hereditary Tracy stubbornness. There were times when he could swear he was looking at Scott instead of Alan.
Alan stumbled, casting an annoyed glare over his shoulder. Harris followed his gaze, seeing Tristan Kent smirking at the boy. A frown creased Harris’ face. Sensing trouble, he started to head towards Alan.
Alan stumbled again; this time Harris could see Ashton Hayes hurrying past him to class. Harris picked up his pace. He could see the temper beginning to brew in Alan’s eyes, even from a distance.
He wasn’t fast enough to stop a third nudge. Alan reacted immediately, turning and shoving Henry Bishop away from him. Henry turned and rounded on the younger boy, using his height to tower over Alan in an attempt to intimidate him.
“Break it up!” Harris broke through the growing crowd surrounding the boys, sending the onlookers fleeing to their next class. Harris insinuated himself between Alan and Henry, facing the upperclassman.
“Bishop, get to class before I assign you detention,” Harris ordered. “Tracy, with me.”
He didn’t wait for either boy to acknowledge him, walking swiftly to the nearest empty classroom and opening the door. Alan walked inside, a mutinous look on his face.
Harris shut the door and folded his arms in front of his chest. “You know better than to fight, Tracy. What’s the story?”
Alan’s jaw clenched. “No story. I’m fine. Sorry.”
Harris studied the boy’s slumped shoulders and the dark circles beginning to form under his eyes. “Alan, you’re not fine. It’s as plain as day. Are some of the boys on the soccer team giving you a hard time?”
The sudden tightening of Alan’s shoulders told Harris he had struck a nerve. “It’s fine. Just hazing the new guy, you know? They’ll get bored soon and move on to someone else.”
Harris’ heart ached at the plaintive hope hiding in Alan’s words. “Alan . . . hazing is against school policy. If they’re harassing you, they need to be reported to their coach and the headmaster-.”
“No!” Alan’s eyes widened, pleading with Harris. “No, please, don’t do that. I can handle it. Really, it’s not a big deal.”
Harris was unconvinced. “Alan, I have a duty as a teacher in this school to report any cases of maltreatment of a student. That includes harassment. It can’t be allowed to continue.”
“I’ll deny it!” Alan blurted out suddenly. “If anyone asks me about it, I’ll say nothing is going on. They can’t do anything if they don’t have proof.”
Harris wearily sank into a nearby chair. “Alan, I’m trying to help you. No one has the right to hurt you or make you feel unsafe here at school.”
“I told you, I’m fine,” Alan insisted. “If that changes, then you’ll be the first to know. Promise. Can I go? I’m going to be late for math.”
Harris studied Alan, reluctant to let him go but knowing that he couldn’t keep Alan in the room forever. Finally, he nodded his consent. Alan immediately darted for the door, throwing it open and tearing down the hall.
Harris rubbed his face, suddenly feeling as though he had aged ten years. His instincts as a teacher screamed at him, telling him that there was far more going on with Alan than hazing, but without any proof, there was nothing he could do except keep a closer eye on the boy.
That, and maybe put a bug in Jeff Tracy’s ear.
Ashton flashed a thumbs up at George, who responded in kind. At Henry’s nod, George casually reached up to the fire alarm beside him and pulled it down, then moved away. The air suddenly filled with a raucous buzzing, accompanied by classroom doors swinging open and students pouring into the hallways to follow their fire escape route.
Henry and Ashton watched from around a corner as George joined his classmates, moving out of the building as if he had been with them all along. Once the last teacher had cleared the hall, the boys darted out and into an empty English classroom.
“Are you sure about this?” Ashton asked, watching as Henry headed straight for the teacher’s desk and began shuffling the papers on top of it.
Henry sent Ashton an annoyed look. “Of course I am. Now get back to the door and keep an eye out. We’ll only have a couple minutes.”
Ashton rolled his eyes, but obeyed. “You stole his assignment last time, and the teacher gave him a slap on the wrist.”
“That’s because he just didn’t have it,” Henry replied. Finding what he was looking for, he folded the essay and tucked it into a pocket, replacing it with another paper. “This time, he’ll have turned in his assignment. The teacher might ignore being unprepared, but the school can’t ignore an act of plagiarism. That’s it; let’s go.”
Shaking his head, Ashton stepped aside to let Henry proceed him into the hall, then followed his teammate to meet up with the rest of their friends.
Alan supposed he should have expected the summons to the headmaster’s office.
It had been barely two days since Coach Harris had cornered him in the classroom, threatening to undo all of Alan’s hard work. Alan regretted the confrontation; he admired the coach, and had known him for a long time. Lying to him felt as wrong as lying to his own family.
He had no choice; he had to prove to everyone that he could handle whatever came his way. As a member of International Rescue, he couldn’t let petty hazing or an overbearing teacher defeat him.
The headmaster’s secretary waved him along, clearly expecting him. Alan hesitated in front of the solid oak door, mentally bracing himself for whatever awaited him on the other side before raising his hand and knocking.
Alan turned the knob and pushed the door open. He had taken all of two steps into the room before stopping, stunned. “Dad?”
Jeff Tracy was seated in front of the headmaster’s desk. Upon Alan’s entrance, he stood and moved over to his youngest. “Alan.”
Alan welcomed the hug, fighting the urge to tense up in his father’s arms when he inadvertently put pressure on Alan’s fading bruises. He looked up at his dad, confusion plain on his face. “What are you doing here?”
“Your headmaster called me,” Jeff answered, an arm around Alan’s shoulders steering the teen to the other chair across from the headmaster’s desk. “Dr. Williams was filling me in on some things that have been going on.”
Alan realized that they were not the only ones in the office. Standing to the side of Williams’ desk was his English teacher, Sarah Morton, as well as Coach Harris. An uneasy feeling began to churn in the pit of his stomach. “Wh-Why am I here? What’s going on?”
Don Williams sat forward, leaning over his desk and folding his hands. “Alan, I’ve been explaining to your father how you have been doing some wonderful work these last couple months, which is why we are giving you the chance now to come clean.”
Alan’s eyes jumped from one face to the next, utter confusion in his face. “Come clean about what?”
Ms. Morton stepped forward. “Alan, as you know, it’s school policy to run all students’ papers through a specially designed program to detect any signs of plagiarism. We want to make sure that our students’ work maintains the highest levels of integrity.”
Alan nodded, still not understanding.
Ms. Morton sighed. “Alan, your paper came back as having been written by another student a couple years ago.”
Disbelief flooded his features. “No, that’s not possible,” he denied.
“The student in question admits to having sold you his paper,” Ms. Morton continues. “Though he claims that he believed you were going to use it as a reference.”
Alan was shaking his head, eyes falling to his father’s expressionless face. “No, it’s not true. Dad, I didn’t do it. I did the paper myself, I swear.”
“Who is this student?” Jeff asked Ms. Morton.
“We can’t release information about other students on campus,” Williams interjected, sounding apologetic. “Privacy, you understand.”
Alan felt tears burning in his eyes and tried to force them back. “I’m telling you, it’s a lie!”
“Coach Harris also reports that Alan was nearly involved in an altercation with another student,” Williams continued. “He was there and managed to stop it, but this raises some serious concerns.”
Alan ducked his head, face flaming in embarrassment. The adults’ conversation washed over him, falling on deaf ears. All of his hard work, all of the time he spent suffering in silence; all of it was for nothing.
Alan lifted his head, meeting his father’s concerned eyes. Dimly, the teen was surprised not to see any anger there, but then told himself it was only a matter of time before his father realized just how useless he really was.
Jeff Tracy was momentarily stunned speechless at the absolutely distraught look in his youngest child’s eyes. He had never seen Alan look so defeated; not even when he was trapped on the island and fleeing the Hood. The idea that something much worse was affecting Alan sent a thrill of fear through him.
“Alan,” Williams spoke up, drawing the boy’s attention once more. “Based on the information provided me by your teachers, not to mention Coach Harris, it’s clear there is something more going on here than we are aware. Will you please tell us your side of the story?”
Alan studied Williams’ grave expression, considering his words carefully. What could he say? ‘Some of the older boys are picking on me because I’m good at soccer. Coach Kerry picks on me because I’m better than his favorite’. Even in his head, it sounded ridiculous.
“I don’t know what happened with my paper,” Alan stated carefully. “I swear to you, I didn’t buy it from anyone. I worked on it myself. You can ask my brother John if you don’t believe me.”
Beside him, Jeff gave a slight start. “John?”
Alan turned to his father, then found himself unable to meet the man’s eyes. Focusing on his father’s collar, he explained. “John’s been helping me with some of my assignments. I’m not very good at writing; at least, not as good as I’d like to be. I’ve been asking John to edit my papers and help me with a couple projects. He explains things to me in a way that makes it interesting, and it makes a lot of sense. He looked at my paper and sent it back to me earlier this week.”
Jeff made a mental note to call and speak with John as he turned to the headmaster. “I’d like a copy of this paper you claim Alan turned in, then I’ll be signing Alan out for the weekend.”
Williams nodded as Ms. Morton handed over the requested paper. “Of course, Mr. Tracy. Normal school policy would dictate that, in this instance, we suspend Alan for a period of time. However, due to the obvious extenuating circumstances, not to mention the glowing reports from his teachers on his recent behaviors, we will forgo that at this juncture. Please understand me, Mr. Tracy; we will get the bottom of this situation on our end.”
“See that you do.” Jeff stood, scooping one hand under Alan’s elbow and gently urging him to his feet. They had just cleared the office and were moving to the exit to the building when a call halted their progress.
“Jeff!” Harris jogged over to catch up to the two Tracys. “Can I have a word before you go?”
Jeff nodded and turned to Alan. “Al, go pack something for the next couple of days. You and I are going to spend the weekend in our New York apartment.”
Alan nodded wordlessly and turned to obey. Jeff watched his son walk away, his concern climbing another notch at the listless way his boy moved.
“Jeff.” The older Tracy turned to the man he’d known for close to thirteen years.
“Ken.” Jeff reached out and shook Harris’ hand. “Thanks again for your call yesterday. Can you tell me anything more?”
Harris glanced behind him at the door to the headmaster’s office, then gestured for Jeff to proceed him out of the building and onto the walking path that led towards Alan’s dorm. “Not much, I’m afraid. School policy is pretty clear; I’m not allowed to talk about other students with you. Same as if another parent wanted me to tell them about Alan.”
“I understand, but surely you can give me something,” Jeff insisted.
Harris hesitated. “I don’t have any proof. Just suspicions.”
“Ken.” Jeff drew to a halt on the walking path, turning to fully face the coach. “I’ve known you since Scott came through here. You’ve been a good coach and a good friend to me and my boys all these years. I promise, whatever you might have to say, I trust you. Just think of it as pointing me in a direction to investigate.”
Harris took a deep breath. “Alan’s been doing okay at school; really starting to shine, you know? I didn’t notice anything wrong until a couple weeks ago, after he joined the soccer team.”
Jeff listened carefully to the little Harris was able to tell him, filing every word into the back of his mind for when he had the chance to sit down and have a long overdue conversation with his youngest son.
Silence permeated the air from Wharton Academy all the way to New York City. Any attempts by Jeff to engage Alan in conversation fell short; Alan spent the entire trip lost in his own thoughts, staring out the window into the distance.
Years ago, when Jeff Tracy’s business grew large enough to move from Kansas to New York City, Jeff quickly found a need to lease an apartment in the city for his increasingly frequent business trips. The apartment had come in handy, more than worth the cost, as each of his boys in turn had come with him to spend time with their father once his business had been completed. Jeff had since purchased the property, slowly turning it into a small home away from home, open to any of his boys in the event they needed to travel to New York on their father’s behalf.
Set in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the Grand Tier was an impressive building nestled between Lincoln Center and Central Park. Jeff appreciated the round the clock service the complex offered, though it didn’t stop him from inputting a few security systems of his own.
Pulling into the parking garage, Jeff claimed the first spot he found and turned the car off. He turned to speak to Alan once more, only to find Alan already jumping out of the car and heading to the trunk to claim his bag. Heaving a sigh, Jeff followed suit.
Alan led the way through the main lobby and to the elevator, avoiding his father’s eyes and any attempts to speak. There was nothing he could say that would convince his father of his innocence. Ever since his father had asked for the paper and taken Alan out of school, Alan knew without a doubt that his father believed the headmaster. He hadn’t even defended Alan once in the office; he had just sat in his chair and let the headmaster and Ms. Morton say those terrible things about him.
The instant the elevator reached their floor, Alan squeezed out between the opening doors and hurried down the hall to their apartment door. Jeff caught up to him, laying a hand on Alan’s shoulder and stopping him.
“Alan, please stop for a minute and look at me,” Jeff said quietly.
Alan turned, but kept his head down.
Jeff reached out and gently cupped Alan’s cheek in one hand, gently lifting Alan’s chin until he could look into his son’s eyes. His heart broke at the unshed tears he could see swimming there.
“Alan, please, talk to me,” Jeff pleaded. “Whatever is going on, I want to help you.”
Alan jerked his head away from his father’s grasp. “You didn’t even stick up for me.”
Jeff frowned, confused. “What?”
Anger flashed in his son’s eyes. “In the headmaster’s office, when he accused me of cheating. You didn’t even say anything. Just asked for a copy of the paper. You think I cheated too.”
“Alan, no,” Jeff replied. “That’s not true.”
“Then why didn’t you say something?” Alan wanted to know. “Why didn’t you tell them that I’d never cheat?”
The door to their apartment suddenly opened, halting their conversation. Scott Tracy stood in the doorway, arms folded and an eyebrow raised. “Maybe you’d prefer to finish this conversation in private? I think the whole floor can hear you.”
“Scott, what are you doing here?” Jeff asked as Alan disappeared into the apartment.
“John thought you might need some support and suggested I join you guys,” Scott replied, stepping aside to allow his father room to pass. He shut the door behind them.
Jeff raised an eyebrow. “He thought I needed support? Or Alan?”
Scott shrugged. “I’ll never tell. Besides, I haven’t seen the Sprout in a while and wanted to see if I could help out. What’s going on?”
Jeff’s eyes strayed to one of the bedroom doors that had shut firmly, isolating Alan from his family. “Short version? Alan’s having trouble at school, but it isn’t his fault. Listen, I need to go call John and get some more information from him on this situation. Can you see to Alan? Maybe get him to eat some dinner?”
“FAB, Dad.” Scott gave him a quick grin and moved to the closed door as Jeff turned and walked into the small office on the other side of the apartment.
It had been a long time since John Tracy had been on the receiving end of his father’s disapproving glare, and he had hoped to go longer without reliving the experience.
“You knew Alan was having trouble and didn’t bother to tell me?”
John swallowed manfully, forcefully reminding himself that his father was currently about three hundred miles below him and couldn’t actually reach him from Earth. Knowing that didn’t dispel the anxiety he felt. “Is Alan okay?”
“That remains to be seen,” Jeff replied. “Report, now. Everything you know.”
John quickly told his father everything; about keeping in contact with Alan regularly since spring break, about Alan joining study groups and writing computer programs, about his extra credit project for Mr. Wallace, about helping Alan with his schoolwork, and about how Alan had been looking more and more worn out since joining the soccer team.
“Is that all?” Jeff asked once John had finished. Despite the irritation at his son’s struggles being kept from him, he couldn’t help the burst of pride he felt at not only how far Alan had come since the Hood, but at how willing John had been to help his brother.
John cleared his throat. “Not exactly. Fermat called me about a week ago. He told me that Alan’s been skipping meals to complete homework assignments, and that he’s been staying up later, causing him to nearly fall asleep in class. He said it’s because of the extra soccer practice his coach is making him do. The last time I spoke to Alan was after one of his practices, and he looked like he was shaken up but trying to hide it.”
Jeff’s frown deepened as he added John’s words to the information already swirling in his brain.
“Dad?” John said tentatively. “What’s going on?”
Jeff glanced up at his son and sighed heavily. “Alan’s school called me. It seems that a paper he turned in for English this week was plagiarized. A student is claiming that Alan bought it off of him.”
John’s face clouded over in anger. “That’s a lie, Dad! Alan wrote that paper himself! He would never-.”
Jeff held up a hand, cutting off John’s flow of words. “I know, son, I know. The question is, who wants to frame Alan, and why? Listen, I have the paper the school claimed Alan turned in. If I send it to you, do you think you can hack into their system and track down the original author?”
John’s eyes glinted dangerously. “Just try and stop me.”
Scott knocked gently on his brother’s bedroom door. “Alan? Can I come in?”
“Go away, Scott.”
Scott frowned at the door. “Come on, Sprout. You didn’t even give me a hug, and I know for a fact you hugged Gordon when he saw you last. What am I supposed to think?”
“Just leave me alone.”
Scott decided to change tactics. “Look, Allie, I’m not going away until you let me in. I want to help. Please?”
Silence, then the sound of movement on the other side of the door. Finally, the door opened, revealing his youngest brother on the other side looking more haggard and worn than Scott could remember seeing him.
“Oh, Allie.” Scott stepped forward and wrapped his younger brother in a tight hug. After a brief hesitation, he felt Alan relax and return the embrace.
“Okay, who do I need to beat up?” Scott asked after a moment.
Alan tensed up and pulled back. “Wh-What?”
Scott raised an eyebrow. “You can’t fool me, Sprout. Something’s going on with you. So tell me who I need to beat up so I can fix the problem.”
Alan smiled sadly, moving out into the living area and sinking onto the couch. “I don’t think this is a problem even you could fix, Scott.”
Scott sat down beside Alan, slinging an arm around his baby brother’s shoulders. “Let me be the judge of that. Tell me about it.”
Alan leaned against Scott’s side almost instinctively, letting himself be wrapped in the familiar warmth. “The school thinks I cheated, and Dad believes them.”
“Why do you say that?” Scott asked.
Alan scowled at his knees. “He didn’t say anything! He just let them accuse me and asked for the paper himself. He’s probably talking to John right now, getting proof that I didn’t lie.” Alan shrank into himself. “He doesn’t believe me.”
Scott rested his chin on Alan’s head, considering his next words carefully. “I was there when the school called him, you know. Do you want to know what he said?”
“Not really,” Alan admitted.
“Sure you do,” Scott said, jostling Alan lightly.
Alan let out a light huff. “Fine.”
“He said, and I quote, ‘There is no way on this Earth that any one of my sons, least of all Alan, would do anything so reprehensible as cheating’,” Scott replied.
Alan looked up at Scott, his eyes wide. “He said that?”
“Scout’s honor,” Scott replied. “Ask Virgil; he was there too.”
Confusion filled Alan’s face. “But . . . why didn’t he say anything in the office?”
Scott shrugged. “You’d have to ask Dad, but it’s possible he already had it out with the headmaster before you got there, and he just didn’t want you to see him like that.”
“Oh.” Alan fell silent for several moments, thinking back over the events of that morning.
“So what else is going on?” Scott prompted.
The denial was right on the tip of Alan’s tongue. He was tempted to keep the rest to himself, but sitting there with Scott, feeling relaxed and protected for the first time in so long, he found unable to hide anymore.
“Some guys at school are giving me a hard time,” he mumbled.
“Oh?” Scott’s voice was deceptively calm.
“They don’t like that I’m on the soccer team,” Alan admitted, feeling weight lifting off of his heart with each word he uttered. “They want me off the team.”
“Why?” Scott asked, genuinely curious.
Alan shrugged one shoulder. “Jim, my friend, he thinks it’s because I could be as good as them. He says that they don’t want me to outshine them, so they’re picking on me.”
Scott swallowed the instinctive need to go out and find the boys who had driven Alan to this state. “You should never feel ashamed for being good at something, Sprout. Never let anyone make you shine less.”
He rubbed Alan’s arm, his hand moving the sleeve of Alan’s shirt up a little higher. A flash of bluish-green caught his attention, and he sat up suddenly. “What’s that?”
Alan tensed, the content feelings of only moments before slipping away. He pulled away from Scott, pulling his sleeve down. “Nothing. I just ran into a goal post. No big deal.”
He tried to stand and move away, but he was no match for Scott’s lightning-fast reflexes. Scott snagged his wrist in one hand, holding Alan in place as he used his other hand to lift Alan’s shirt sleeve higher up his arm.
Alan’s upper arm was peppered with bruises, some clearly older and fading while others looked to be much newer. Scott’s eyes hardened as he took them in, tracing what looked, very clearly, to be a handprint.
Someone had grabbed his baby brother strong enough to leave a bruise on his arm.
“Alan,” Scott said, fighting to keep his voice even amidst the anger that threatened to overtake him. “How did you get this bruise on your arm?”
Alan had seen quite a few scary things in his life. His father without caffeine was one of them. Gordon’s accident definitely rated up there. He couldn’t even remember being more scared than he had been during Spring Break, when his family was about to die and the Hood was hunting him and his friends down to finish them off.
Never in a million years did he think he would ever see anything as terrifying as that.
Until he looked into his big brother’s eyes at that moment and saw the promise of death to whoever had put that bruise on his arm.
Alan tried to twist his arm free, his heart suddenly racing. Scott refused to let go, moving to the other arm and finding more bruises there.
“Alan, who did this to you?” Scott demanded, too caught up in his rage to notice his brother’s distress.
“Scott, let me go!” Alan cried.
“What is going on in here?” Jeff Tracy’s voice suddenly boomed.
Startled, Scott released Alan, who ran back to his room, slamming the door shut behind him and locking Scott and Jeff out.
Jeff turned to Scott, stunned. “What on Earth . . .?”
Scott’s expression was dark, his fury barely contained. “There are handprints . . . on Alan’s arms . . . and bruises . . .”
Nausea rose in Jeff’s stomach, riding on the crest of sudden anger and disbelief. “What?” He stormed over to Alan’s door and twisted the knob, then pounded on the door. “Alan. Alan, open this door, right now!”
Alan didn’t answer.
Jeff pounded again. “Alan, let me in. Please.”
“You’ll just make it worse.”
Jeff drew back, stunned at the strange response from the other side of the door. He exchanged a bewildered look with Scott, who stepped forward to take Jeff’s place at the door.
“Sprout?” he asked, forcing himself to calm down. “I’m sorry I scared you. Please come out. We need to talk about this. I promise I won’t lose my temper again.”
The lock clicked, and the door opened a crack. Wary blue eyes gazed out at the two elder Tracys. “It’s not a big deal, okay?”
“It is a big deal, Allie.” Scott rubbed a hand down his face. “Someone hurt you. Someone grabbed you and gave you those bruises.”
“Let me see,” Jeff ordered quietly, wanting to and yet not at the same time.
Alan opened the door wider, slipping back out into the living area. Carefully, with trembling hands, he pushed his sleeves higher up his arms.
Jeff swallowed back the nausea that rose in his throat, brown eyes tracing each and every bruise on his child’s arms. “Are . . . are there others?”
Alan pushed his sleeves back down and nodded. Slowly, he lifted his shirt over his head and turned. He clenched his eyes shut at the gasps that were released upon seeing the bruise from the goal post across his shoulder and upper back.
Fixing his shirt, Alan turned back to face his father and brother, shame driving his eyes to his sneakers. He didn’t want to see the look of disappointment on his father’s face, knowing that he had been unable to defend himself.
He was, therefore, completely unprepared to be drawn into a fierce hug that nearly drew the breath right out of his lungs. Arms flailing slightly, Alan finally wrapped them around his father, burying his face in Jeff’s shirt and squeezing his eyes tight against the tears that started to overflow.
Jeff held his youngest close to him, unable to do anything else. He felt Alan shake slightly in his arms, felt the warmth of tears start to seep through his shirt and tightened his hold.
“I’m so sorry, Sprout,” he whispered into the top of Alan’s head. “I’m so, so sorry.”
As if a dam had been released, Alan sagged in Jeff’s grip and began to sob. Weeks of stress, of being harassed by his teammates, of no sleep and lack of food, and of being shoved around by his soccer coach came tumbling out of him in a torrent of tears that refused to be stopped. He leaned against his father, trusting his father to catch him as he fell.
Jeff felt tears of his own prickle his eyes. He looked over at his eldest, seeing Scott making himself busy by putting blankets and pillows on the couch, making a nest for Alan. Jeff smiled faintly; there was no way either of them were going to let Alan out of their sight that weekend.
Rubbing his hand carefully along Alan’s back, Jeff continued to hold his son, prepared to wait for however long it would take for Alan to come back to them.
Alan had lost weight.
This was Jeff’s first thought as soon as Alan quieted down in his arms. Sagging heavily against his father, Jeff gave in to the impulse to scoop his son into his arms and carry him to the nest Scott had built for him on the couch.
John’s words from earlier rang in Jeff’s ears. Skipping meals . . . sleeping less . . .
Jeff settled Alan down on the couch and pulled a blanket over him. Gently brushing a hand over Alan’s hair, he rubbed his thumb up and down the middle of Alan’s forehead.
“Go ahead and sleep, Sprout,” he said quietly. “Scott and I are here. We’ll take care of everything.”
Almost against his will, Alan’s eyes slid shut. Jeff kept massaging Alan’s forehead, hoping to ease the headache he knew would be building due to his crying jag. Within minutes, Alan’s body relaxed into a deep sleep.
Leaning down, Jeff brushed a kiss on Alan’s forehead, then stood and waved Scott to the other side of the room where they could talk without disturbing the teen.
Scott’s entire body was tensed for action, his eyes blazing with the need to find and punish the person responsible for his brother’s pain. The need was no less intense within Jeff, but the older man knew that they needed to tread carefully if they wanted retribution for Alan.
“Get your brothers on the line in the office,” Jeff ordered quietly. “John too. They need to be told first.”
Scott nodded and turned to obey. Jeff lingered in the living area, eyes drawn to his slumbering child. He thought of Alan’s excitement at finally becoming a member of International Rescue. He recalled Alan’s determination to do better in school. He remembered the absolute devastation in Alan’s face when the truth had become known.
The ache in his heart for his son hardened his resolve. Whoever was responsible would regret the day they’d ever met Jeff Tracy.
“I’m coming out there.”
“Get in line! I’m coming too!”
“Oh no, you’re not,” John told Gordon and Virgil. “I need one of you to come up here and get me first. We can all go together.”
“Boys, right now, no one is going anywhere,” Jeff stated.
Three identical looks of disbelief and mutiny met his statement.
“Dad, Allie needs us,” Gordon pointed out.
“The world needs us too,” Jeff reminded him gently.
“Alan’s family, Dad,” Virgil insisted. “We need to be there for him too. He needs to know he’s just as important.”
“The last thing Alan will want is to be overwhelmed by all of us,” Jeff said. “He’s having a hard enough time with just me and Scott here. I promise, once the situation is resolved and Alan is feeling up to it, you have my permission to smother him till your heart’s content.”
“We have witnesses!” Gordon exclaimed.
“I’ve got it recorded,” John added.
“So what’s the plan, Dad?” Virgil asked. “Do you know who’s responsible?”
“We have a few ideas, but Alan hasn’t said anything yet,” Jeff replied. “I’m going to let him sleep tonight, then we’ll talk tomorrow. I hate to do this to him, but we need a doctor to examine him, and a police officer to take his statement.”
“Allie’s going to hate that,” Scott agreed.
“It needs to be done,” Jeff said. “I want to throw the book at this person. As soon as we hang up, I’m calling Chris in on this. He should have a good idea how to start.”
The boys all nodded their agreement. They all knew Chris Barrow, Tracy Enterprise’s head lawyer from when they were younger. Chris was just as protective of the boys as Jeff was, and would see to it that the person who had hurt Alan would pay.
“John, anything yet on that paper?” Jeff asked.
“Not yet,” John replied. “The program is still searching. I did call Fermat, though, and updated him on the situation. I also asked if he knew the names of the boys giving Alan a hard time.”
“Good thinking,” Jeff praised him. “Does he know?”
John shook his head. “It seems our baby brother, surprise surprise, has been unbelievably tight-lipped about this whole situation, even with Fermat. But Fermat has some suspicions, and he gave me a couple names to run. He also told me that we might get more information from Jim Connelly. He’s Alan’s friend, who’s been helping him out this year with soccer. They met during freshman orientation.”
“Hey, I know that kid,” Gordon spoke up. “He came with us to celebrate Alan making the team. He’s a good kid.”
“Well, that’s a good place to start if Alan doesn’t give us any names,” Scott said.
“You don’t think he’ll tell you the truth, now that you know?” Virgil asked, concerned.
Scott’s shoulders slumped in sudden weariness. “To be honest, I don’t know. He’s got it in his head that he can handle this whole thing by himself, when really, he doesn’t have to. He’s got us; that’s what being on a team is all about.”
“Then we’ll just have to remind him,” Jeff said.
“Just go easy on him, Scotty,” Gordon warned.
“Me?” Scott asked, stunned. “What do you mean?”
Gordon and Virgil rolled their eyes, and John smirked knowingly. “Scott, you’re already in search and destroy mode right now,” Gordon pointed out.
“So?” Scott challenged, folding his arms defiantly.
“Scott, do you remember when you were about ten, and that stupid teenager across our street tried to set off a bottle rocket in his front yard? Only it went way off target and it shot across the street to where you and I were playing?” John asked.
Scott frowned, unsure where John was going with his story. “Yeah.”
“Do you remember how the rocket clipped you and set the bushes on fire?”
“Do you remember Dad’s reaction when he came out and saw you on the ground, singed, and our bushes on fire?”
Scott winced. The fury in his father’s face had been a sight to behold. “Yeah.”
John grinned smugly. “You’re about ten times scarier when one of us gets hurt, especially when it’s Alan.”
Scott opened his mouth to deny it, but Gordon and Virgil were nodding emphatically. He turned to his father, stunned to see a look of amusement on Jeff’s face. “Dad?”
Jeff shrugged. “You helped me raise them, Scotty. Makes sense to me.”
“So remember that when you’re talking to Alan,” Gordon told Scott. “He’s got to be feeling vulnerable right now, and you coming off like Captain America is going to make him think he did something wrong.”
Scott rolled his eyes. “Fine.”
“And with that, I think it’s time I call Chris,” Jeff announced. “You boys be careful if any calls come in.”
“Keep us updated, Dad,” Virgil said. “As soon as he’s feeling up to it, can we call and talk to him?”
“Absolutely,” Jeff replied. “Good night, boys.”
Alan blinked heavy eyelids open, feeling more rested than he had in a long time. He remained still, relishing the feeling of peace that had settled over him like a blanket. At the moment, he had no memory of anything up to that point, and he closed his eyes to hang onto the feeling for a little bit longer.
The smell of coffee and bacon drew him further out of his self-imposed shell. Opening his eyes again, Alan took in his surroundings.
Memories of the night before crashed over him, chasing away the feeling of peace. Alan’s heart began to speed up, his breaths coming in quicker as he fought down the panic upon the realization that his father and brother knew . . . they knew . . .
Scott sat on the couch beside his brother, a soft smile on his face and a plate of food in his hands. “You hungry, Sprout? Dad made breakfast.”
Alan opened his mouth, intending to apologize, or deny whatever he’d said last night, but what came out was, “Dad cooked?”
Scott’s grin widened even as their father’s voice called out to them from the kitchen.
“I can cook!” Jeff insisted, carrying two more plates. Alan sat up, accepting the plate Scott handed him and looked down.
“Bacon, eggs, toast,” Jeff stated, setting his and Scott’s plates down on the coffee table and returning to the kitchen to retrieve his coffee. “I was a bachelor at one time, you know. I have been known to feed myself from time to time.”
“Yeah, but the last time you cooked, you set a dish towel on fire,” Alan pointed out, digging into his eggs.
Jeff raised his eyes to the ceiling. “One time. One accident, and they never let you live it down.”
“Onaha banned you from her kitchen,” Alan continued, wolfing down the rest of his eggs and moving on to the bacon.
Scott eyed the speed with which Alan consumed his breakfast. “Do you want more, Alan? I think there’s still some bacon and toast in the kitchen.”
Suddenly self-conscious at how fast he was eating, Alan forced himself to slow down. “No, sorry. I’m just really hungry.”
“You skipped dinner last night,” Jeff said lightly. “You were sleeping so soundly, we didn’t have the heart to wake you.”
Alan chewed on his bacon, his eyes carefully avoiding Jeff and Scott.
Scott sighed. “We have to talk, Sprout.”
Alan lowered the piece of bacon back onto his plate, feeling his hunger begin to wane. “I know. I just . . .”
“What, Alan?” Jeff prodded quietly, setting his plate aside.
Alan let out a frustrated huff. “It’s so stupid! All of it! And I’m supposed to be able to handle it!”
“Says who?” Jeff asked.
That pulled Alan up short. “Um . . .”
Jeff moved to sit on the coffee table opposite Alan as Scott shifted closer to Alan’s side on the couch. Jeff waited until he had Alan’s undivided attention before speaking.
“Alan, harassment and hazing are nothing to take lightly,” he said firmly. “We’re not talking about name calling or teasing. We’re talking about you losing sleep, and not eating, and getting bruises on your body because someone is abusing you. It’s not just a physical battle; it’s psychological, designed to make you feel singled out and alone. Whatever else you think, Alan, you are never alone. You have me and your brothers; we will always be there for you, no matter how stupid you think a problem is.”
“We want to be there for you now, Allie,” Scott added quietly. “Think of it this way; if this was happening to Fermat; if he was in your place, what would you do? Would you think it’s stupid? Should he handle it by himself?”
Alan’s eyes widened in defiance. “No!”
“Then why should it matter less if it’s you?” Jeff asked.
Alan slumped against his brother. “Did I screw up?”
Scott drew Alan to him, kissing the top of his head and gently rubbing his arm. “No, Sprout, you didn’t screw up. You just had a problem you didn’t know how to handle. But we’re here, and we’re going to help you.”
“Chris will be here in about an hour with a doctor and a police officer,” Jeff told Alan. At the storm brewing on Alan’s face, he hurriedly continued. “I know you don’t want to make this into a big deal, Alan, but the bruises need to be documented, and you need to make a statement to the police. Only once that’s taken care of can we arrest whoever is responsible.”
Alan looked back and forth between his father and brother. “Will you be there?”
“Of course,” Jeff replied, smiling. “Besides, short of nuclear blast, I don’t think anything is going to pry your brother from your side until this whole thing is settled.”
“You got that right,” Scott muttered.
Alan had to admit that the meeting with the doctor wasn’t as bad as he had expected. Dr. Raymond Attebury was around Jeff’s age with a couple teenagers of his own, and according to his dad’s lawyer, was highly recommended for documenting child abuse cases. As promised, Scott and Jeff had not left Alan’s side as Dr. Attebury had carefully examined each bruise and taken pictures for his file, all the while chatting comfortably about the latest version of Batman that had been released barely a few weeks before. Alan found himself at ease with the doctor, commenting openly on the the upsides and downsides of each version of Batman that Hollywood had released. Before he knew it, the exam was over and Dr. Attebury had cheerfully excused himself to the kitchen to finish taking his notes.
By comparison, the interview with Chris and the police detective he’d brought was much more difficult.
Sandwiched firmly between his father and his brother, Alan had looked wearily at the detective. On the arm chair opposite them sat Chris, tablet in his lap, preparing to take notes.
“Alan, my name is Tony Rivera, and I know what I’m about to ask you is not going to be a lot of fun,” the detective began. “If at any time you need a break, just let me know, okay?”
Alan nodded. On his left, Jeff gripped his hand in support.
Detective Rivera nodded back and flipped open his notebook, pen poised at the ready. “Okay, I understand you’ve been having some problems in school. Go ahead and start at the beginning.”
Taking a deep breath, Alan told the detective everything that had been happening with his soccer teammates, starting with his first altercation with Henry in the locker room. No one interrupted, allowing Alan to tell his story at his own pace. Alan was grateful for that, and by the time he finished explaining about his near-miss in the hallway that Harris had broken up, he felt drained.
Rivera nodded, taking notes as he went. “Sounds like you’ve had to put up with quite a lot from those kids,” he said gently. “A lot of what you’ve mentioned should definitely be brought up with your school’s administration; I can’t imagine any school allowing something like this to continue.”
“Oh, we’ll be informing them,” Jeff promised.
“Can you tell me where the bruises on your arms and your back came from?” Rivera asked. “None of the instances you’ve mentioned involved any sort of altercation that would result in those types of injuries.”
Alan tensed; he had deliberately left out his soccer coach’s unusual ‘training methods’. It was one thing to talk about another student bullying him; it was quite another to admit that an adult had mistreated him.
“Alan?” Scott murmured. “Do you want to take a break?”
Alan shook his head, fixing his eyes on the detective. He could feel the eyes of every adult in the room, but somehow admitting the truth to a relative stranger made the words easier to say. “My . . . my soccer coach did it.”
The teen faltered at the suddenly tight grip his father had on his hand, enhanced by the brief jerk of surprise from Scott on his other side, but he pressed forward. “He drills us all during practice. Then he finds something wrong I did; something I screwed up, and he makes me stay after everyone else has gone. At first, he just made me run extra drills until late, but the last couple times, he grabbed me and shoved me around the field. It . . . it really hurt, and I was so surprised.”
Alan’s eyes were locked on Rivera’s face, unable to look at his family. Rivera’s expression was one of sympathy and understanding, easing a little of the strain Alan felt. “And the bruise on your back? How did you get that?”
Alan swallowed thickly. “Last time he kept me late, last Wednesday, he grabbed me again and shoved me into the net. He made me practice blocking goals. Coach kept kicking them at me, really hard. I . . . I don’t know if he was trying to score goals or if he just wanted to hit me with the soccer balls. I couldn’t tell. The last one he kicked hit me weird and knocked me off balance, and I fell into the goal post pretty hard. He let me go after that.”
Rivera nodded again, adding to his notes. “Is there anything else you want to tell me?”
Alan thought for a moment. “I . . . I feel so stupid now, I mean . . . it’s so obvious that what Coach Kerry was doing was wrong, but at the time . . .”
Rivera closed his notepad with a snap and leaned forward, meeting Alan’s eyes with an intense sincerity. “You have nothing to feel stupid about, Alan. Your coach is in a position of authority, and you trusted him to do the right thing by you. He abused his position and confused you. What you did just now, telling us the truth, was a very brave thing to do.”
“Doesn’t feel brave,” Alan muttered, his eyes slipping to his knees.
“Hey.” Rivera ducked his head, catching Alan’s gaze once more. “Admitting you need help, admitting that a problem is bigger than you can handle; that takes a lot of courage. And because you took this first step, we can fix it so that this guy can never hurt you or anyone else again.”
Something flashed in Alan’s eyes, catching Rivera’s attention. “What?”
“My friend, Jim,” Alan said suddenly. “I-I asked him the other day about Coach Kerry. Coach used to make Jim stay later after practice a lot too. He said it was because he was better than Henry too, and Coach wanted to punish him for that. He never said Coach hurt him, but if he had to stay late too . . .”
Rivera opened his book again and wrote another note. “Jim? Last name?”
“Connelly,” Alan replied.
Rivera finished scribbling the name and closed his notepad, looking back up at Alan. “I’ll look into it. I promise, Kerry won’t hurt you or your friends anymore.”
Alan nodded, sinking back into the couch.
“Scott, why don’t you and Alan go out for a little while?” Jeff suggested, wanting to get his youngest out of the apartment. “Maybe go and see that new exhibit at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum? Call me when you’re through, and I’ll meet up with you boys for lunch.”
“Sounds like fun,” Scott replied. He looked at Alan. “What do you say, Sprout?”
Alan sighed and stood. “Sure.”
Jeff waited until both of his sons had left the apartment before turning to Rivera, Barrow, and Attebury. “Gentlemen, thank you again for coming here and helping us with this.”
“I wish I could say our pleasure, Jeff,” Chris Barrow finally spoke up. “Instead, I think I’ll go with, ‘anything for the boys’.”
“You’ve got one heck of a kid there, Mr. Tracy,” Rivera stated. “He held up like a champ. I’ve conducted several of these interviews, and a lot of the time these kids won’t admit to who’s behind the abuse.”
Jeff rubbed his hand wearily over his face. “I thought it was the other kids at school causing all the problems. I didn’t even consider one of his teachers was involved . . .”
“Who would?” Dr. Attebury asked pointedly. “Teachers are supposed to care for and look out for the children in their care.” He turned to Rivera. “I’m just about done with my report for your file. I have a few more things I need to add once I get back to the hospital, but I’ll send the file your way this afternoon.”
Rivera nodded. “Thanks.” He turned back to Jeff. “As soon as I have that file, I’ll be heading up to the school to talk to the headmaster and the students.”
“I’d like to be there with you when you do that,” Jeff stated. “I’ll be speaking with Alan about returning to school; I’d rather he not have to deal with that coach or these boys for a second longer. It’s up to him, but if he chooses to go back to school, I’ll be taking him back tomorrow. Will that be soon enough?”
“I’ll call this afternoon and set up the appointment,” Rivera agreed. He stood and held out his hand to Jeff, who shook it. “I’ll be in touch.”
Jeff shook the doctor’s hand, saving Chris for last. “Chris, thank you.”
“Anytime, Jeff,” Chris replied, grasping Jeff’s hand firmly. “I’ll be tagging along with you gentlemen tomorrow so we can get the ball rolling on some of these charges.”
“Whatever it takes, whatever the cost,” Jeff told him.
Chris smiled grimly. “Way ahead of you on that.”
Alan fidgeted nervously in his father’s office chair, waiting for Scott and Jeff to return so they could call his brothers. While both men had assured him that his brothers were merely worried about him, he still felt nervous about speaking with them himself.
The vid-screen on the desk in front of him suddenly lit up, causing Alan to jolt in surprise. With only a moment’s hesitation, he reached out and connected the call.
John’s face met him, Alan’s surprise mirrored on his face. “Alan! Hey, Sprout, how are you doing?”
Alan shrugged one shoulder, feeling awkward. “Fine. Scott took me to the Intrepid today. That was pretty cool.”
“I wanted to go there!” John exclaimed, his enthusiasm putting Alan more at ease. “Did you take the guided tour?”
“If you mean, did we skip the museum’s tour and Scott acted as my personal tour guide, then yeah, we did,” Alan said, a grin growing on his face. “That was fun. By the time we finished, we had a few people following us around and asking Scott questions. The museum staff weren’t very happy.”
John snorted. “I bet they weren’t. Hey, is Dad there?”
“I’m here, John.” Jeff entered the office carrying a mug of coffee and a glass of soda for Alan, which he set on the desk in front of the boy. Scott was right behind him, carrying his own glass of soda. “Have you got some answers for us?”
John nodded, assuming a more businesslike mien. “Yeah, a couple of things, actually.”
Scott cleared his throat. “Alan, maybe you should wait for us in the living room?”
Alan fixed Scott with an annoyed look. “I’ve been dealing with this whole situation for the last few weeks, Scott. I deserve to know what’s going on.”
Scott looked ready to argue, protective instincts fully in control, but Jeff raised a hand, quieting the two. “Alan can stay. John?”
John glanced at his younger brother, then turned back to his father. “First, the paper the teacher gave you. It came back as belonging to a student named George Sheffield, who is a sophomore at Wharton.”
“Who’s also one of the boys who’ve been harassing Alan,” Scott added darkly. There wasn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that Scott knew the full names of every person Alan had named in his interview that morning.
John nodded in confirmation. “He wrote the paper for his freshman English class last year, which is why the school’s plagiarism checker picked it up.”
“That’s one more for the list,” Jeff stated. “What else?”
“Now this was a surprise to me, and I had to double check my sources,” John said. “I ran a history on one William Kerry, checking to see if he had any other instances in his past similar to what he’s been up to at Wharton. As it turns out, about seventeen years ago he was married to a high society deb named Flora Bishop, mother of one Henry Bishop.”
Shock colored Alan’s face. “What?”
“Ms. Bishop comes from a family with very old money,” John continued. “Tracy Enterprises has had dealings with her family in the past. All those stereotypes about high class, upper crust, flaunt my wealth in your face kind of people? They are the very example. When Ms. Bishop’s parents found out she had eloped with a working class stiff, they threatened to disown her and toss her out. Ms. Bishop got an annulment and went back to her family, but not before finding herself pregnant with a son. Henry Bishop.”
“That couldn’t have sat well with Kerry,” Jeff observed.
“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer person,” Scott added under his breath.
“There’s no other record of Henry and Kerry being connected except for the birth certificate,” John admitted. “Near as I could tell, Henry grew up under his mother’s influence, attending the best schools and having the best of everything. He’s shown some aptitude for soccer and has had private lessons. Nothing outstanding, but he’s not terrible.”
“Did you cross-check Kerry’s known locations with Henry’s over the last seventeen years?” Scott asked.
“Of course,” John replied, feigning offense. “Henry spent his formative years bouncing between Chevy Chase, Maryland and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Kerry was based in New Bedford, Mass at the time he met and married Flora Bishop, but moved away shortly after the annulment. He turned up in Bethesda right around the time Henry started sixth grade. It’s possible he could have driven out and met up with his son during that time, even going so far as to arrange it so Henry could attend Wharton by ninth grade. As soon as Henry was enrolled, Kerry applied for, and got, the coaching position there.”
“I can understand wanting to get some time back with his son, but to what end?” Jeff wanted to know. “Why would he want to hurt Alan?”
“The Olympics,” Alan breathed.
All eyes turned to him. “Alan?” Jeff prompted.
Alan looked up at his father. “Something one of the guys mentioned a while back; he heard Henry talking to his friends about trying out for the Olympic team. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but Henry wants to stay ahead of the rest of us for when he tries out.”
“So Kerry thinks what; that getting his kid into the Olympics will somehow boost his own status?” John asked in disbelief.
“Worked for Gordon’s swim coach,” Scott pointed out.
“Yeah, but would Kerry seriously jeopardize his own career and harass students just on the off chance his own kid could make it that far?” John pressed.
“Being tossed aside like yesterday’s garbage by the woman he married might have made an impact on him,” Jeff said slowly. “He could view this as his opportunity to show his ex-wife’s family, and the world, that he could make something of himself without them.”
“Not anymore,” Scott stated. “His coaching days are over.”
“Agreed,” Jeff said. “Good work, John. I’ll pass along the information to Chris later.”
“Let me know if you need anything else,” John replied. “Alan, I’ll talk to you later, okay? Remember; we still have Mr. Wallace’s project to finish.”
Alan smiled and nodded. “Okay, John.”
John winked at his brother and ended the call. Jeff gripped his youngest son’s shoulder.
“Before we call your other brothers, I want to ask you something,” he said seriously.
Alan narrowed his eyes. “That sounds ominous.”
Jeff didn’t smile, telling Alan more than words could. The teen unconsciously braced himself.
“Alan, I’m going to Wharton tomorrow with Chris and Detective Rivera to talk to your headmaster about all of this,” he began. “It’s my hope that we can resolve this whole thing quickly. Now, this is entirely your decision, and I- we-,” Jeff amended, shooting Scott a warning look, “-will fully support whatever you choose, but I need to know if you would like to return to Wharton or not.”
Alan blinked, stunned at the question. “Why would that be a problem?”
Jeff crouched down, meeting Alan at eye level. “Your teacher hurting you, and those boys harassing you, shook your sense of security at school. If you don’t feel safe going back there, then I can find another school for you, or I can even have you home schooled on the island.”
“Oh.” Alan took a deep breath. “Actually, Dad, I think I’ll be okay going back. I want to finish what I started; school’s gotten easier for me with John’s and Fermat’s help, and I’m finally feeling like I’m settling in there. If Henry and Coach Kerry are gone, then I don’t see any problems with going back.”
Jeff squeezed his son’s shoulder and smiled, letting the pride he felt in Alan shine through his eyes. “Okay, then Scott and I’ll take you back tomorrow when we meet with the headmaster. Now, are you ready to face the music?”
The vid-screen on the desk began signaling an incoming call at that moment. Alan smirked.
“Doesn’t look like I have a choice,” he replied, reaching out to connect the call.
Virgil and Gordon’s faces crowded the screen, looking anxiously out at Alan. “Sprout! Finally!” Gordon called. “How are things going? Has Scott let you go to the bathroom without an armed escort yet?”
Scott rolled his eyes and threw his hands up in the air as the rest of his family laughed.
Henry Bishop jogged down the walking path that snaked around the grounds of Wharton Academy, dodging students here and there out roaming around on a calm Sunday afternoon. He ignored several greetings and requests to slow down and hang out, barely giving himself time to cast glares at the less complimentary remarks. His intended destination, the Field House that held the offices of the Phys Ed and sports team coaches, was the only thing on his mind.
That, and the message he had to pass along.
The Field House was deserted on Sunday, as usual. Henry let himself into the building and continued to the stairwell, running up to the second floor where his father’s office was kept.
Kerry was seated at his desk, checking his emails at his computer when Henry burst through the door. The older man raised an expectant eyebrow as Henry all but fell into the lone chair he kept in front of his desk.
“Well?” he asked impatiently. “I got your text. What was so important that you couldn’t tell me over the phone?”
Henry took a deep breath and straightened in his seat. “Ashton and I just saw Jeff Tracy go into Main. He had a couple police officers and some other guys with him.”
Kerry’s other eyebrow rose to join the first. “Really?”
Henry nodded vigorously. “Yeah. We went in after them to see if we could find out why they were there. Apparently, they had an appointment with the Headmaster.”
Kerry leaned back, folding his arms over his chest. “Well, it stands to reason that the great Jeff Tracy himself wouldn’t sit idly by while his kid was getting his just desserts.”
“What if it’s about the paper we switched on him last Thursday?” Henry asked, panic creeping into his voice. “What if they’re here to arrest me? Oh God, my life will be ruined! I’ll never get into Harvard, my spot on the Olympic team is as good as gone . . .”
Kerry rolled his eyes. “Get a hold of yourself!” he snapped.
Henry fell silent, but it was plain to see that his minor panic attack had merely moved into his head.
Kerry observed his son for a long moment while he considered this new information. To be honest, he wasn’t all that surprised to hear that Jeff Tracy was on the grounds. For all that the media and the gossip rags claimed about the man, there was no doubt that he was clearly devoted to his five sons. To hear about police accompanying him, on the other hand, was surprising and not entirely welcome.
Just what exactly had Alan told his father?
Brief flashes of memory passed before Kerry’s eyes . . . grabbing Alan . . . kicking soccer balls at the boy . . . Could that be the reason the police were here on campus?
Kerry shook his head, as if physically dislodging the thought. He’d been rough with Alan, yes, but no rougher than he would have been on his other boys. Alan was just too sensitive, Kerry decided. Probably never had someone say a harsh word to him, or knock him around for stepping out of line.
Returning his attention to Henry and what was clearly a frantic re-cobbling of what had transpired over the last few weeks, Kerry cleared his throat. “Henry. You knew going into this that there might be consequences if you were caught. Wharton’s own policy on hazing and bullying s very clear on that.”
What little color there was in Henry’s face drained away. “What do I do?”
Kerry slammed a hand on his desk. The loud crack jolted Henry, knocking out some of the panic seeping into his eyes. “First of all, grow a pair! You’re embarrassing yourself, and me!”
Henry flushed and nodded, his shoulders hunching forward slightly at the rebuke.
“Second,” Kerry continued, softening his tone, “you have the entire Bishop fortune and influence behind you. It’s time you learned how to wield it properly. Listen very carefully and do exactly what I say, and you’ll be just fine.”
Henry nodded and leaned forward, eager for whatever advice Kerry had to offer.
Jim Connelly knocked nervously on the door to the headmaster’s office. He flashed a nervous grin at the secretary just as the door opened.
“Mr. Connelly, please come in,” Dr. Williams called from his desk.
Jim stepped into the room and glanced around. Two police officers were standing just inside the door, their expressions grim. The officer who had opened the door for him nodded and closed it behind him. Jim glanced over to Dr. Williams, who was sitting behind his desk; the teen couldn’t recall the older man looking quite so weary.
In front of the headmaster’s desk were several chairs arranged in a semi-circle, designed to give the people seated there a sense of a group discussion. Jim rather thought it looked more like the wrong end of a firing range.
Two of the chairs in the circle were already occupied by men in business attire. One man looked vaguely familiar to Jim, though at the moment he couldn’t place him. The other man had no expression at all on his face, as though he was waiting to hear what Jim had to say. A third man in a suit that looked considerably less expensive than the suits the first two men wore was standing beside Dr. Williams’ desk, a notepad in his hand and a pen poised to record the impending discussion.
“Mr. Connelly, please have a seat,” Dr. Williams said, gesturing to an empty seat in the circle.
It took every ounce of courage Jim had not to simply turn tail and run as fast as he could in the other direction. If the two police officers hadn’t been standing right by the only exit, he might have given that option a shot. Instead, Jim moved to an empty chair and gingerly sat down.
“Er, Dr. Williams, what’s this all about?” he asked.
The man who looked so familiar to Jim spoke up, turning to the boy and offering his hand, which Jim shook. “Mr. Connelly, may I call you Jim? My name is Jeff Tracy. I understand you and my son have become friends this year?”
“Mr. Tracy!” Jim exclaimed. “Yeah, I mean, of course, sir, you can call me Jim.” Now that Jim knew who he was, the identity of this man seemed blatantly obvious. He could see Alan’s determined jaw and the shape of his eyes in his father’s face. “Alan’s been great; I’ve really enjoyed working with him!” Jim remembered the police officers and other men in the room and immediately became filled with concern. “Is Alan okay?”
Something unreadable flashed in Jeff’s eyes too quick for Jim to catch. “Alan’s fine, son. But something’s come up recently that we’re trying to get to the bottom of. We’d like to ask you some questions, if that’s okay?”
“Sure,” Jim replied, unable to mask his confusion.
The man standing beside Williams’ desk stepped closer, offering a handshake to the teen as well. “Mr. Connelly, my name is Detective Rivera. I’d like to ask you some questions about your soccer coach, William Kerry.”
“Coach Kerry?” Jim echoed. “Okay . . .”
“Alan has told us that there were several instances where you were singled out for practice after the team practice was over,” Rivera stated. “Can you tell us about that?”
Still confused, Jim complied. “Um, well, he had me running extra drills till late; probably anywhere from one to two and a half extra hours. Made me feel like my legs were going to fall off,” he added, smiling nervously.
The joke fell flat. “Did he ever tell you why?” Rivera asked.
Jim shrugged. “He always said my performance was pitiful, that I needed more practice so that I didn’t hurt the team. He’s never really made it a secret how horrible we do during practice.”
“Has he ever done more than make you run drills?” Rivera pressed. “Has he ever grabbed you, or become physical with you in any way?”
Jim frowned. “What? What’s this all about?” Rivera’s words sank in. Dawning horror grew on Jim’s face. “Oh my God . . . Alan?” He turned to Jeff. “He hurt Alan? Is Alan all right?”
Sympathy filled Jeff for Jim’s obvious concern. “Alan’s fine, Jim. Can you answer the detective? Did Kerry ever hurt you?”
Jim shook his head absently, seemingly shrinking in on himself. “No . . . nothing like that . . . he ran me around like crazy and yelled a lot, but he does that during practice too.” He looked up at Jeff. “Mr. Tracy, I knew Alan was having a hard time, but I never thought . . . if I’d known . . .”
Jeff gave Jim a faint smile. “I know, Jim. Alan’s lucky to have you for a friend.”
“Can you think of anyone else who might have been placed in Alan’s situation?” Rivera asked. “Someone else who might have been singled out like you were?”
Jim shook his head. “He mostly just picked on me this year. I told Alan that I backed off on the field, quit trying to stand out, and he backed off of me. After Alan joined the team, it was always Alan. Before that, I don’t know.”
Dr. Williams cleared his throat. “Thank you, Mr. Connelly, for your help. I need to have a word with these gentlemen for a few moments, but we have some more questions for you about another matter. Can you wait for us in the next room?”
“Yes, sir.” Jim stood and exited, his thoughts spinning in a completely different direction from when he entered.
As soon as the door was closed, Williams spoke. “Mr. Tracy, I’m still uncomfortable with proceeding here. Accusations of abuse against a teacher are very serious; they can color a person’s reputation for life. If no one else is aware of any abuse-.”
“Stop right there, Dr. Williams,” Jeff said, his voice hard enough to cut diamonds. “I did not come here with my lawyer and the police on a whim; that man abused my child, and on your grounds, on your watch. You will proceed with this or I will add you and your school to my lawsuit for failing to keep my son safe.”
“Mr. Tracy, there’s no need to act rashly,” Dr. Williams tried again.
“Act rashly?” Jeff echoed. “My son has bruises on his arms in the shape of handprints; how, sir, do you expect me to act? That man harmed my son; you can see with your own eyes in that file Detective Rivera handed you when we arrived. I will have resolution here, and I will have it today.”
“Let’s at least give the man a chance to defend himself,” Dr. Williams pleaded. “He deserves that much; he has a spotless record with us over the last few years.”
“By all means,” Jeff agreed firmly. “I would very much like to hear his reason for grabbing my son so hard he left bruises on him.”
As the headmaster reached for his phone to call Kerry, he prayed that the coach would answer his summons quickly. Jeff Tracy was out for blood, and if didn’t get a hold of Kerry soon, there would be nothing stopping the billionaire from coming after him.
“Scott, for the last time, I’m fine. You don’t have to follow me around like a puppy.”
“A puppy?” Scott managed to look offended by the idea. “That’s the best you could come up with? A puppy?”
“I a-a-agree, A-Alan,” Fermat added, grinning. “S-Scott’s way scarier than th-that.”
Scott grinned at Fermat. “Thank you, Fermat,” he said.
“B-Besides, he r-r-reminds me more of one of th-those momma d-d-ducks that ch-chase a-after her d-d-d-babies,” Fermat added.
Alan snorted at the look of mock outrage on Scott’s face.
Scott, Alan, and Fermat were lounging comfortably in the boys’ dorm room, having returned there as their father headed to the headmaster’s office for his appointment. True to his word, Scott refused to leave Alan’s side until he knew Jeff had resolved the situation, leaving Alan with a temporary but very intimidating shadow.
They had just finished filling Fermat in on the events of the last few weeks. While John had let Fermat know about the accusation of plagiarism, he had left it up to Alan to share the truth about Kerry’s abuse. Alan had been reluctant to share the story again, but felt that, after everything else the last few weeks, he owed Fermat the truth. Though he would never admit it, having Scott nearby had made the retelling much easier than he expected.
Having been cooped up over the last few days, Alan had not had the opportunity to go for a run. He was itching to do just that, but Scott had brought up the dilemma of Alan going for a run without him, as he hadn’t brought any appropriate clothes for that activity.
“Scott, seriously, I’ll be fine,” Alan insisted. “I’m at school; I’m perfectly safe.”
Scott’s face reflected what he thought of that statement. “Sprout, you were at school when your coach hurt you. I’m not leaving until Kerry does, end of discussion.”
“Wh-What if you r-r-ran on the t-t-track instead of the j-j-jogging trail?” Fermat suggested. “S-Scott could s-sit in the s-stands and w-w-watch you, and you c-could still r-run.”
Scott smiled. “That sounds like an excellent solution. What do you say, Sprout?”
Alan sighed. “I say you’re being ridiculous, but if it lets me run, then let’s go for it.”
Coach Kerry stared at the phone on his desk as his rang, the piercing noise shattering the silence. The display on the set told him that the headmaster himself was trying to reach him, but rather than answer, Kerry let it ring. Within moments, the ringing ceased, shrouding the room in silence once more.
So Alan told his father about his mean old soccer coach, Kerry mused. He wondered what had been said.
He pictured the Tracy brat, used to getting everything he ever wanted, just standing before said father and crying about the one man with the guts to stand up to him and tell him no. Tell him that he wasn’t good enough. That his father’s money and reputation wouldn’t fly with him.
God, how he loathed people like that, throwing their money around while people like him had to work their tails off just for a piece of the pie. Those stuffed shirts and rich boys wouldn’t know hard work if it smacked them upside their heads.
Oh, but their children would. Kerry would see to that. Not one of his students would ever use their parents’ money to get past hard work on his watch.
One stupid elitist family had already cost him the love of his life, and his chance for a happy family. There was no way Kerry would allow another to cost him his chance at his dreams of success. Earned the hard way- the right way.
His phone rang again, the headmaster trying to reach him once more. Kerry stood and left his office, ignoring the summons. He’d meet with Williams and Tracy eventually, he had no doubt. But he would do it on his terms.
Dr. Williams hung up the phone again, his reluctance to tell the very angry parent of Alan Tracy that his attempt to reach the soccer coach was unsuccessful slowing his movements. “Well, gentlemen, it seems that Coach Kerry is unable to be reached by phone at this time.”
“Then you will have campus security escort me and these two officers to his residence and his office,” Detective Rivera stated. “When we find Mr. Kerry, we’ll all return to your office for a nice chat.”
Unable to come up with an excuse to avoid that plan of action, Dr. Williams depressed the button to the intercom that connected him with his secretary. “Sheila, can you call Cal and have him send two of his guys to Main?”
“Yes, Dr. Williams,” the secretary replied crisply.
Dr. Williams turned to Rivera. “They’ll meet you out front. Please be respectful of Coach Kerry, and keep in mind that we haven’t heard his side of the story yet.”
“I can promise you, Dr. Williams, that I am more than capable of assessing the level of respect each person deserves, and giving them exactly that,” Rivera replied thinly, nodding at the officers that he had brought as they moved to the door to the office.
Jeff hid a small smile behind his hand, darting a look beside him and meeting Chris’ amused eyes.
If Dr. Williams was confused by the comment, he showed no sign. “Thank you,” he replied to Rivera. Turning to Jeff and Chris, he continued, “Now, I understand you also have allegations of bullying that you want to bring to my attention?”
Chris nodded, taking over control of the conversation. “I’d like to hear what Mr. Connelly knows, but it has come to our attention that Alan has also spent the last few weeks being harassed by members of his soccer team. We believe that this most recent accusation of plagiarism by the school is, in fact, the latest incident in several that have resulted in Alan’s declining health, safety and well-being.”
“I’ll allow you to be present while we speak with Mr. Connelly, but you are aware that I can’t have you in the room while I speak with the students you are accusing?” Dr. Williams asked.
Jeff looked ready to argue the point, but Chris raised a calming hand. “Mr. Tracy understands the school’s need to maintain the privacy and security of its individual students, and he will abide by that policy. However, as I am also representing Alan’s best interests in both situations, I will be present in the room for that discussion.
Dr. Williams sighed. “If this is as serious as you say, we may need to involve their parents in this discussion. It may take some time to get someone here for each of the boys in question.”
“Then by all means, make your phone calls,” Jeff replied curtly. “I have nowhere else to be and am in no hurry.”
“We can speak with Mr. Connelly and Mr. Hackenbacker in the meantime, as well as anyone else who might have witnessed the harassment occurring as we wait for the boys’ guardians to arrive,” Chris added.
Dr. Williams picked up a pen and pulled a sheet of personalized stationary towards him. “Give me the names of the boys and I’ll begin to make those calls.”
Alan felt peace descending over him as he pounded out a rhythm on the school’s running track, barely listening to the music that was pouring into his ears from his mp3 player. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, he felt as though his entire world was back in balance.
Spying Scott out of the corner of his eye, lounging in the stands and occasionally glancing down at his phone, Alan amended his thought.
Almost back in balance . . . but that was still better than what it had been.
Alan marveled at how his family had responded to the situation. He knew his father and brothers loved him; they kind of had to. But to see them angry on his behalf, comforting him and telling him that they were proud of him . . . that had filled Alan with a warm glow that he hadn’t realized he’d been missing since he was very young.
A part of him felt ashamed at every having doubted them; sure, they gave each other a hard time. The teasing and joking was relentless. It happened so often, it was easy to start believing in it. Now, though, after speaking with each of his brothers and his father, Alan knew that he could go to any one of them for help in the future. And if Alan were completely honest with himself, he liked knowing that he had four protective older brothers and his father as a safety net.
Not that he would ever admit that out loud. A guy had to some secrets, after all.
Alan was so lost in thought that the hands suddenly grabbing him and yanking him off of the track took him completely by surprise.
Kerry stepped out of the Field House and into the waning sunlight of late afternoon. His attention was immediately drawn to two members of Wharton’s security staff walking away from the building that housed the headmaster’s office, the blue and yellow in their uniforms sticking out against the campus’ sedate green landscape and red brick buildings. They were closely followed by a man in his later thirties wearing a dark suit and two uniformed police officers. The campus security guards were leading them down the walking path towards the housing section of the campus where most of the school’s teachers resided.
The slow burning flame of anger in Kerry’s heart was stoked at the sight, correctly surmising that the officers were on their way to find him.
Apparently Alan Tracy’s poisonous lies were more serious than he realized if they were sending cops after him. Kerry gnashed his teeth together, his jaw clenching tight. If he were to have a fair chance at defeating the brat’s accusations, he would need the help of a good lawyer.
His decision made, Kerry abruptly turned towards the faculty parking lot where his car was parked, mentally running through law offices he could consult in town.
He was halfway to the parking lot when more movement nearby caught his attention, distracting him from the story he was neatly cobbling together in his head. His eyes glanced automatically towards the track, spying a student with blond hair completing another lap.
Realization jolted into Kerry, bringing him to a stuttering halt. He stood, his rage building as he watched the very source of his vexation jogging around the track, completely unconcerned that his lies were causing more trouble in Kerry’s life.
That his inability to deal with real life and hard work was costing Kerry his opportunities; his goals.
Kerry was almost to the track before his brain caught up with his feet. Positioning himself at the base of one of the stands, he waited for the moment when Alan’s next lap brought the boy within his reach.
The instant Alan was near, Kerry darted out and, grabbing the unsuspecting teenager by his arms, dragged him off of the track.
Scott’s eyes lifted briefly, tracking his baby brother’s progress around the track before returning his attention to the conversation he was having with Virgil via text message.
I told you, Virge, I’m not getting involved.
Virgil’s reply was instant. Come on, Scott! Dead fish and Vaseline on the doorknob? I can’t let that go unpunished!
Scott smirked down at his phone. As I remember it, you trying to punish Gordon resulted in the two of you cleaning TB2 with toothbrushes. I don’t want any part of that.
Scott let out a chuckle and glanced back up to check on his brother. The laugh died on his lips when he realized he could no longer see Alan on the track. Shoving his phone in his pocket, Scott jumped to his feet and ran down the stands and onto the field.
“You worthless brat! You’re going to cost me everything!”
Scott’s head snapped over to the source of the angry words. Partially hidden by the stands was his little brother, being held firmly in the grasp of an older man who was roughly shaking the teen. Seeing Alan’s wide, terrified blue eyes triggered an almost primal reaction in Scott.
With a barely controlled cry of outrage, Scott flew down the track and tackled Kerry in a move that would have made the best defensive lineman proud. Kerry, Scott, and Alan tumbled to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.
Adrenaline and the drive to protect his brother fueling him, Scott tore Kerry away from Alan and, grabbing the older man by the front of his shirt, drew a fist back and punched the soccer coach as hard as he could. Kerry’s head snapped back at the force of the blow, but the coach forced himself to retaliate, reaching up to claw at Scott’s face.
Alan rolled onto his hands and knees, shock momentarily freezing him as he watched his brother unleash his fury on his soccer coach. Scott’s rage was a sight to behold.
The fight was beginning to draw the attention of the few students who were walking nearby. Struggling to his feet, Alan threw himself at the fight, trying desperately to separate Kerry and Scott.
“Scott, stop!” he cried, trying and failing to push his brother away.
One of Kerry’s hands swung out, striking Alan solidly against the side of his face and sending the teen sprawling back onto the ground. Scott snarled at the move, lifting Kerry and slamming him back down against the ground in response. Kerry grunted, gaining leverage and rolling over until Scott was pinned beneath him.
Alan shook off the blow and rejoined the fight, wrapping his arms around Kerry’s throat from behind and trying to pull him off of his brother.
“Alan . . .” Scott grunted out. “Run . . . get out of here . . .”
Kerry twisted against Alan’s grip, briefly releasing Scott to grab at the younger boy. The coach pried Alan’s arms away from his throat and pulled Alan around, wrapping one beefy hand around Alan’s throat and squeezing.
Scott’s hand shot out, grabbing the thumb pressing tightly against his brother’s larynx and pulling it back until a loud snap sounded. Kerry cried out in pain, releasing Alan and falling back.
Pushing Alan firmly behind him, Scott forced Kerry onto his back once more and wrapped his hands around Kerry’s throat.
“Scott, stop!” Alan cried hoarsely, pulling uselessly at his brother’s iron grip.
Scott ignored him, eyes burning as he glared at Kerry’s reddening face. “You son of a bitch,” he growled fiercely.
“Scott, you’re going to kill him!” Alan exclaimed.
Scott’s eyes glinted dangerously.
“Please, Scotty,” Alan pleaded. “Let him go. You’ve made your point.”
For a moment, Alan was afraid that Scott was beyond reason. Kerry’s face was changing from red to purple, and he was desperately trying to suck air into his lungs. After an eternity, Scott finally relented, releasing Kerry and leaning back on his heels. Kerry immediately coughed and gasped, turning partially onto his side as he gulped in lungfuls of air.
“Step aside! Move aside now!”
Detective Rivera pushed through the few students who had begun to gather nearby, leading his officers and their two campus security escorts. Rivera paused by the two Tracy sons as the rest of his party descended on Kerry.
“Is everyone all right?” Rivera demanded, eyes jumping from Alan to Scott, then sliding to Kerry.
Scott stood and pulled Alan to his feet. “I’m fine. Alan needs to be checked out, though.” Gently taking Alan’s chin in his hand, he turned Alan’s head to the side to get a better look at the bruise darkening the side of his face by his right eye. Scott’s eyes dropped to the reddening marks around Alan’s throat, knowing that bruises would soon appear there as well.
“What happened here?” Rivera asked.
“I’ll tell you what happened!” Kerry yelled, climbing to his feet with the assistance of campus security. He started to move towards Scott and Alan, but was blocked by the police officers. “That man is a maniac! He broke my thumb! He attacked me and tried to kill me! I want him arrested!”
Scott drew Alan behind him, shielding his brother from the enraged coach. “I saw that man attacking my brother. I acted in defense of my brother and I want that man behind bars.”
“If anyone deserves to be arrested, it’s him!” Kerry insisted, trying and failing to shake off the officers’ hands.
“Coach Kerry started it!” Alan called, trying to move out from behind his brother.
Kerry snarled and tried again to lunge at Alan, but didn’t move so much as an inch past the men holding him back.
“All right, enough!” Rivera thundered. “Everyone, listen up! We are all going to head to the headmaster’s office to sort all of this out. Officers Larson and Pierce, please escort Mr. Kerry there now, and have the school nurse come out to take a look at everyone; I’ll be along with Scott and Alan in a moment.”
The police officers moved immediately to comply, anxious to defuse the situation as soon as possible. Rivera turned to the two campus security officers.
“Gentlemen, if you could please escort anyone who witnessed the fight to a conference room in the main building, I would appreciate it,” he said. “I’d like to speak to them about what they saw. I’ll try to be as quick as possible so as not to take up more of your valuable time.”
Turning to the Tracys, Rivera quirked an eyebrow. “Shall we?” he asked, gesturing down the path.
Scott slung a protective arm around Alan’s shoulders and guided him forward. Alan looked up at his brother, worry coloring his face, then turned to Rivera.
“Scott’s not going to get into trouble, is he?” he asked the detective. “He was telling the truth; Coach Kerry started it when he grabbed me off of the track.”
Scott gently squeezed Alan’s shoulders comfortingly as Rivera answered Alan’s question.
“I have to follow procedures,” the detective told the boy. “Though, between the report your father filed on your behalf and the bruises on your face and neck, I’m pretty sure he’ll be fine.”
Alan nodded and glanced down, an involuntary shiver running up and down his spine. “Coach was so angry . . .”
Scott pulled Alan closer to him. “He’s not going to touch you ever again, Sprout,” he said in a tone that Alan had no choice but to believe.
The small group was nearly at their destination when the front door to the building slammed open and a familiar figure came racing out. Pausing only long enough to scan his surroundings, the figure turned and took off in their direction. “Boys!”
“Dad!” Alan barely had time to call out before he and Scott were swept into a fierce hug.
Jeff pulled back, his eyes quickly cataloging the various bruises and marks that adorned his sons’ faces. “Are you boys okay? The police came back with Kerry and said something about breaking up a fight.”
“We’re fine, Dad,” Scott assured him. “Mostly bruises.”
“Coach Kerry came up and pulled me off of the track when I was jogging,” Alan informed his father. “He didn’t get the chance to do much. Scott got to him really quick.”
Jeff couldn’t help the smile at the poorly disguised hero worship in Alan’s tone as the group continued back to the headmaster’s office. He reached over and squeezed Scott’s shoulder, expressing his pride and gratitude in that one simple gesture.
The tension in the office was thick enough to cut with a knife once the Tracys and Rivera returned. Chris was pacing impatiently on one side of the room while Dr. Williams stood over Kerry, shaking his head in disappointment when the Tracys and Rivera walked in the door. Kerry was sitting in a chair at one side of the office, his injured thumb being delicately wrapped by the school nurse. The minute Kerry spotted the Tracys, he shoved the nurse aside, leaped out of the chair and began to move angrily towards them before being grabbed by the officers standing guard over him. The officers manhandled Kerry back into the chair with some difficulty, leaving their hands on his shoulders to keep him planted.
“I want to file charges against that man!” Kerry demanded, pointing at Scott. “He almost killed me!” He waved off the nurse’s repeated attempts to finish wrapping his thumb. Frustrated, the nurse threw her hands in the air and moved away.
“You attacked my brother!” Scott shot back, clenching his fists.
Rivera guided Alan and Scott to chairs away from Kerry and waved the nurse over to examine Scott. Turning to the youngest Tracy, Rivera offered him a small, comforting smile. “All right, Alan, we’re going to start with you. Go ahead and tell us what happened just now.”
Alan nodded and immediately complied, telling the room about his decision to go for a run, about how he and Scott had gone to the track, and about how Kerry had grabbed him off of said track and began shaking him, screaming something about telling lies and ruining his life. All the while, Chris took a copious amount of notes, seemingly recording every word Alan spoke.
“I’m not going to just sit here and listen to you slander my good name!” Kerry snarled suddenly, breaking the thrall that Alan’s story had cast over the room. “All you kids are the same; no idea of the consequences of your actions!”
Jeff tensed, about to make a move towards Kerry when Rivera stopped him.
“Mr. Kerry, you will get your turn in a moment,” the detective stated. “In the meantime, be quiet.”
Kerry scowled, but fell silent. Rivera turned to Alan and nodded, encouraging him to continue his story. Alan obliged.
When he came to the part about the fight between Scott and Kerry, he hesitated.
“It’s okay, Alan,” Rivera assured him. “Go ahead and tell us what happened next.”
Alan took a deep breath. “Scott tackled us to the ground and made Coach Kerry let me go. Then they started fighting with each other. I tried to help Scott, to stop the fight, but I couldn’t. When he grabbed my throat and tried to choke me, Scott had to break his thumb to make him let me go. That’s when Scott started to choke him back. But he stopped before the police got there.”
Rivera nodded. “Thank you, Alan.” He glanced up at the nurse who had finished her examination of Scott and was waiting patiently for Alan to finish his story. At his nod, the nurse moved forward.
“Scott, do you have anything you want to add?” Rivera asked the elder brother.
Scott shook his head. “No, Alan summed it up pretty good. I was texting our brother when I noticed that Alan wasn’t on the track anymore. I moved onto the track and saw that man over there,” he nodded at Kerry, “shaking and yelling at Alan. Everything else happened just like Alan told you.”
Rivera thanked Scott and moved over to Kerry, his expression hardening. “Now, Mr. Kerry; let’s start with the fight just now. Care to share your side?”
Kerry clenched his teeth. “What’s the point? You’re going to take their side; cops like you always take their side.”
“I assure you, Mr. Kerry, that I am interested in hearing your side of the story,” Rivera assured him, though nowhere nearly as comforting as he had been with Alan. “I’ll make this easy for you. Did you find Alan Tracy on the track and physically assault him, unprovoked?”
Kerry folded his arms carefully over his chest. “Are you going to file charges against that maniac for attacking me?”
Rivera let out a huff of frustration. “Right now, Mr. Kerry, all I can see is a case of self-defense. From what I understand, you came after a defenseless teenager and physically assaulted him. Scott Tracy was acting in defense of his brother, which is not a crime.”
“I knew it,” Kerry muttered.
“Bill, please,” Dr. Williams spoke up. “Just tell them what happened.”
Kerry fixed a baleful glare on Rivera, ignoring the headmaster. “Since you’ve already decided I’m guilty, I won’t say another word without my lawyer present.”
Rivera shook his head at Kerry. “That’s your right. Based on the evidence we have so far, William Kerry, I am placing you under arrest for child abuse and assault. Officers?”
Officer Pierce moved to face Kerry, reciting the Miranda Rights crisply and clearly as Larson helped the coach out of his chair. Kerry cast one final threatening glare at the Tracys before being led out of the room.
Rivera turned to Jeff and Chris. “I’m going to head back with them to make sure nothing happens as he’s being processed into the system. Once the charges are filed and the arraignment is scheduled, I’ll let you know. If you’ll excuse me, I have a room of rubber-necking high school kids to speak with.”
Jeff stood to shake Rivera’s hand. “Thank you, Detective. We’ll be in touch.”
Rivera nodded and, with a farewell nod to Scott and Alan, followed Kerry out of the office.
Dr. Williams moved closer to Jeff. “Mr. Tracy, please allow me to apologize for the events of this afternoon, along with any grief your son has suffered these last few weeks. If there’s anything I can do . . .”
Jeff was unimpressed by the simpering apology. “Dr. Williams, we are not yet through. The situation with Mr. Kerry was only one side of the coin. We still need to deal with the bullying and accusation of plagiarism that my son has experienced. As soon as I have ascertained the health of my sons, we will be taking care of that issue.”
Dr. Williams nodded. “Of course. You have our full cooperation.”
Chris inserted himself into the conversation, sensing Jeff’s rising irritation with the headmaster. “Dr. Williams, let’s discuss our next steps, shall we? Now that we have testimonies from one of your other students, let’s take a look at your school’s policy on how to proceed from here.”
Jeff felt relief wash over him as his friend deftly guided the school administrator back to his desk and turned to the nurse who had just finished examining Alan. “How are they?”
The nurse, a young woman with red hair pulled back into a tight braid smiled at the worried father. “Your boys are both very lucky. “No major injuries; just bruises. They’ll be fine in no time, though Alan’s throat will be sore for a couple of days. I’d recommend going easy on talking until it doesn’t feel sore anymore.” She turned to face Alan. “If at any time you find it difficult to breathe, you will contact me or a teacher immediately, understand? I’ll be talking to all of your teachers about this as well.”
Alan nodded obediently, knowing better than to argue with his father and older brother looking so concerned.
The nurse made her excuses and left the office. Scott turned back to Alan with a slight smirk on his face.
“Hey, Sprout; feel like feeding your puppy some well-earned kibble?” he asked.
Jeff didn’t bother to hide his confusion as Alan burst into laughter.
By mid-morning on Monday, there wasn’t a soul on campus who hadn’t heard about Coach Kerry’s arrest. Wild rumors flew through the hallways, passed along in hushed whispers from person to person. The few people who had witnessed the fight between Kerry and Scott relished being in the know, describing parts of the confrontation in great detail.
Alan hunched his shoulders as he headed to his next class, glaring down at his shoes and gripping the strap of his backpack tightly. The frequent glances his way, the suddenly hushed conversations, the open gaping of the bruise that had blossomed on the side of his face as well as the ring around his throat . . . Alan had not had a peaceful moment since setting foot outside of his dorm room. No one had been brave enough to approach him just yet, but the teenager knew that it was only a matter of time.
“Alan! Hey, Alan!”
Sighing wearily, Alan paused and turned around to face the person who had called his name.
To his surprise, Jim Connelly was jogging up to him, his face a mask of concern. “Hey, kid, I tried calling you last night.”
“I turned off my phone,” Alan mumbled.
Jim nodded, suddenly looking uncomfortable. “Look . . . I wanted to apologize.”
Whatever Alan had been expecting Jim to say, that hadn’t been it. He frowned in confusion. “What? Why?”
“You came up to me last week and asked about Coach’s extra training,” Jim explained. “If I gave you the impression that . . . I mean, I don’t want you to think that it was okay . . . what he did. ‘Cause it wasn’t. He didn’t do anything to me. And I’m sorry I didn’t notice anything, or help out.”
Alan was floored by the apology. “Jim . . . it’s okay, man. I don’t blame you. I didn’t tell anybody what was going on. You’ve been a good friend to me. Please don’t worry about this.”
Jim nodded. “Okay. Just . . . okay. And if you have more problems, you know . . .”
Alan nodded. “Thanks.”
Jim smiled suddenly. “Hey, did you hear that Coach Harris is taking over for Kerry? He’ll be running the team until the end of the year, then they’ll hire someone new.”
Alan grinned broadly, feeling relief flood through him. “That’s great!”
“Right?” Jim replied. “Well, I gotta head to my next class. See you at lunch?”
“You bet.” Alan welcomed the friendly punch to his shoulder, then turned and continued down the hall to his next class. Suddenly, the stares and whispers didn’t seem so pronounced.
Alan had nearly reached Mr. Wallace’s classroom when something suddenly tugged on his backpack, pulling the teen across the hall and around the corner into a rarely used alcove. He felt himself being shoved into the wall, and he grunted at the impact. Straightening quickly, Alan braced himself for another fight.
George Sheffield was blocking the only exit, arms folded across his chest and a fierce scowl on his face.
“What do you want, Sheffield?” Alan demanded, injecting a bravado he didn’t entirely feel into his voice. “You know Mr. Wallace won’t appreciate tardiness.”
“You’re ruining everything,” George stated, his voice slightly uneven. Anger glittered in his eyes. “Everyone was happy, and everything was going fine, then you had to decide to be the teacher’s pet and the new soccer star.”
Alan quelled the sudden rush of indignance; losing his temper would not serve him well here. “The only thing I decided was to apply myself to school and do better. It’s not my fault if you’re feeling threatened by that.”
The expression on George’s face darkened, and he took a step forward. “Quit the soccer team, Tracy. No one wants you there. You’ll only end up getting hurt.” His eyes traced over the bruise on Alan’s face, and he smirked. “Well, more hurt.”
Alan clenched his fists. “Back off, Sheffield.”
George quirked an eyebrow. “Remember what I said, Tracy,” he stated, turning and walking away.
Alan took a steadying breath, waited a moment until he felt calm enough to face everyone, then hurried on to class.
Dr. Don Williams studied the four students seated before him in his office, his face reflecting the seriousness of his mood. He had waited until after lunch before summoning the boys, and while their parents and guardians weren’t scheduled to meet with him until later that afternoon, Williams wanted to appeal to their better natures and give them each the opportunity to confess.
“Gentlemen, do you know why I’ve asked you here?” Williams began.
Henry Bishop sat, perfectly poised, with a slightly inquisitive look on his face. To his left sat George Sheffield, who wore a slight scowl. On Henry’s right, Tristan Kent was shaking his head, confusion plain on his face. Williams’ eyes were unerringly drawn to Ashton Hayes, sitting on George’s other side and squirming uncomfortably.
“Headmaster, is this about Coach Kerry?” Henry asked. “If so, we already heard the rumors, and we don’t believe them. Coach Kerry has been nothing but good for our team. Whatever Tracy is saying, he’s lying.”
Williams tore his eyes off of Ashton’s telling behavior and met Henry’s steady gaze. “That’s part of it, Mr. Bishop. Let me assure you, the incident with Coach Kerry is being handled by professionals. Don’t concern yourself with this issue; though I am glad to hear that Coach Kerry treated you boys well.”
Henry nodded. George sat a little straighter in his chair, his scowl fading.
Williams steepled his fingers over his blotter, focusing on his right index finger as he gathered his thoughts. “There had been a report of bullying levied against you gentlemen, and I’d like to hear the story from your side.”
Tristan gave a start, but it was Henry who answered. “Bullying, sir? Whoever said that must be mistaken.”
“That’s what I’m hoping,” Williams admitted. “The boy in question claims that you all have, at one time or another, shoved him in the hall between classes or targeted him on the soccer field. I will point out that a teacher observed you, Mr. Kent, and you, Mr. Hayes, shoving this student in the hallway between classes. Overall, this student feels that you four have engaged in a series of intimidating and threatening behaviors that have made him feel unsafe at school. This is something that we take very seriously here at Wharton. I would like an explanation, please.”
The four boys exchanged glances. “Sir, we play around a lot,” Henry stated, clearly the voice of the group. “We don’t mean anything by it; if it seemed to this person that it got out of hand, we’ll apologize. We didn’t mean for him to feel that way.”
Relief colored Williams’ face. “That’s what I thought. I’ve asked this student to be here this afternoon with his father; I have also called your parents to join us. We’ll meet together here at five-thirty this afternoon to clear the air. Please come back at that time. Mr. Sheffield, will you please stay for a moment?”
Henry, Ashton, and Tristan all stood and moved to the door. Henry sent George a look that Williams couldn’t interpret before he left. Once the door had closed firmly behind the boys, Williams turned to George.
“Mr. Sheffield, I need to ask you a question, and I need your complete and total honesty,” he stated.
“Of course, Headmaster,” George replied.
“Last week I asked you about the paper you claimed to have sold to Alan Tracy to use as a reference for his paper,” Williams said. “Mr. Tracy is insisting that that isn’t the case; that he was never sold your paper. Would you care to explain?”
George frowned. “Sir, I sold it to him weeks ago; honest! I swear, he told me he wanted to see what Ms. Morton looks for in a paper. He’s my teammate, so I agreed.” He bowed his head. “I know it was wrong to sell it to him, but he swore to me he wouldn’t use it for anything else. If I had known, I never would have agreed to selling it.”
Williams watched George for a long moment, as if assessing the truthfulness of his statement. Finally, he nodded.
“All right,” he said. “You may go. When we meet this afternoon, we’ll straighten this situation out as well. In the future, Mr. Sheffield, please refrain from sharing or selling your old school assignments. Wharton frowns on that sort of thing, and you will not like the consequences.”
George nodded and stood. “Yes, sir.”
Williams watched the boy leave and leaned back in his chair, frowning.
George hesitated on the last step down from Main and glanced to his right, spying Ashton waving at him from around the building. Rolling his eyes, George obediently approached Ashton.
Henry and Tristan were around the corner; all three boys were waiting for him. “Well?” Henry asked. “What did Williams want?”
“He asked about that paper we planted for Tracy,” George replied. “I told him Tracy bought it off of me. He wants to get Tracy to admit it tonight when we meet.”
“With our parents,” added Tristan, spitting out the word as if it were distasteful. “First Kerry, now us . . . Tracy’s making it his goal in life to destroy our team!”
“Then we need to stop him,” Henry said.
“How?” Ashton asked. “Every plan you’ve had so far has just made everything worse. Do you know what Williams will do to us if Alan tells him what we did with our parents standing right there?”
“He’s not going to do anything,” Henry assured him.
“How do you know?” Ashton pressed. “If they find we have been bullying him, we can get suspended, or even expelled! My dad will kill me if that happens.”
“I told you, nothing is going to happen,” Henry repeated calmly. “Look, Williams wants Tracy there so he can hear all sides of the story, right?”
The other three boys nodded.
“Then it’s simple,” Henry continued. “We’ll just make sure that Tracy doesn’t make it to the meeting.”
George and Tristan grew thoughtful, considering Henry’s words. Ashton, on the other hand, began to shake his head.
“This is getting to be too much,” he said. “I was okay with picking on the kid, and I even went along with messing with his assignments. But this?”
“What do you mean by him not making it to the meeting?” Tristan spoke up.
“Simple,” Henry replied. “We just make sure that Tracy is held up somewhere until the meeting is over. If he doesn’t show up, we can twist his accusations around to seem like we were just horsing around. We can even say that he knows we’d catch him in a lie, and that’s why he didn’t show up. Then, by the time he gets out, Williams won’t believe him or take him seriously.”
“I’m in,” Tristan said.
George nodded. “Me too.”
All eyes turned to Ashton. Ashton looked at each of the other teens, clearly unhappy. “I just want this to be over, guys. We’re letting this get out of hand.”
“It will be over,” Henry told him. “We just need to get past this meeting this afternoon, and we can go back to normal. It’ll be fine; you’ll see.”
Ashton glanced from Henry to Tristan, to George, then back to Henry again. Resignation passed over his face, and his shoulders slumped.
“Fine,” he relented. “I’m in.”
Ken Harris stood on the side of the soccer field, arms folded as he studied the members of Wharton’s soccer team.
Alan was standing with Caleb Simon, the two of them kicking a soccer ball back and forth between them as they waited for practice to begin. The other two new members of the team were on the ground, watching the ball and chatting with one another. Harris frowned; while he didn’t know very much about soccer, he knew that no coach worth his salt would approve of his or her athletes not warming up.
Several more of the upperclassmen were on the field directly in front of him, stretching. Liam York had another soccer ball and was bouncing it from one knee to the other in what Harris had to admit was an impressive display. He’d been at it for close to five minutes that Harris could tell and hadn’t missed a beat once.
Henry Bishop and his friends were on Harris’ left, also stretching in preparation for their practice. To Harris’ eye, they were in the middle of what appeared to be an intense conversation, though the coach couldn’t say for certain what the topic was.
Considering the depraved actions of their former coach, the soccer team overall didn’t look to be in bad shape. Harris allowed himself a small feeling of optimism as he stepped forward and released a sharp burst of sound from his whistle.
“Good afternoon, Gentlemen,” he announced, drawing the teenagers’ attentions effortlessly. “I’m sure you’re all aware by now that I have agreed to step in for Coach Kerry for the rest of this year.”
Several boys glanced over at Alan, who colored slightly in embarrassment and ignored the blatant glances.
“I will admit now that all I really know about soccer, I learned from ESPN’s coverage of the last World Cup,” Harris continued, pulling the attention back to himself. “As such, I will be relying on you all to help me prepare you for next year. Now, having had the pleasure of working with most of you in Phys Ed, I’ve decided to call on a few of you to help organize our practices. Mr. Connelly, Mr. York, and Mr. Hayes; step forward.”
Jim, Liam, and Ashton did as they were told, glancing at each other.
“From what I’ve observed in the last few minutes, it occurs to me that we are getting a little complacent,” Harris continued, eyeing the two boys who had been relaxing on the ground before practice. Westing and Cambry blushed. “We’re going to start with running some laps, then we’ll move into some basic drills on passing, and then we’ll finish up with a mock game. You three gentlemen will be in charge of deciding how we will go about doing that.”
Henry’s hand shot into the air. “Excuse me, Coach? Why do they get to choose? I mean, shouldn’t you consult your top players?”
Liam and Jim merely rolled their eyes, Liam shaking his head. Ashton, however, colored in embarrassment. A flash of irritation sparked in his eyes, but was hidden before anyone other than Harris could see.
Harris looked at Henry, meeting the boy’s expectant gaze with a flat expression on his face. “I believe that’s exactly what I’m doing, Mr. Bishop.” Ignoring the sharp gasp from a player in the middle of the crowd, Harris turned back to the three players he’d chosen. “Gentlemen, if you please.”
Jim turned to Liam and Ashton, a slight smile on his face. The three boys conversed in hushed tones for all of a minute before coming to some sort of agreement and facing the rest of their team.
“First up, we’re going to do a three-line warm-up drill,” Jim announced. “We’ll start with a jog, then we’ll do short sprints, then side skips, then jog backwards. Liam, Ashton, and I will lead the way and call out each move. We’ll go from goal to midfield, then back.”
A couple of the boys groaned quietly. Harris nodded his head, taking the sound as an affirmation that he’d chosen the right three boys to help.
“After we do a few rounds of that, we’ll do two passing drills,” Ashton picked up where Jim had left off. “The first one will be the Numbers Passing drill; we’ll break into three groups again and number off. To make it interesting, we’ll start with two balls per group, then move up to three.”
Harris could see the competitive edge come over most of the players in front of him. He allowed himself a small grin at the sight.
Liam spoke up next. “Then, to finish passing drills, we’re going to play Defend the Ball.”
Broad grins of anticipation painted most of the boys’ faces at the announcement. Harris himself was looking forward to learning more about the drills his assistants had chosen.
“After that, number off and play a game,” Jim finished. “Losing team cleans up the equipment.”
The three assistants turned back to Harris. “Does that sound okay, Coach?” Liam asked.
Harris nodded. “Sounds great. Let’s see what you boys have got.” He blew his whistle, sending the players scattering onto the field for their first drill.
Alan bent nearly in half when he heard Harris’ final whistle, breathing heavily as he braced himself on his knees. He felt worn out from practice, but for the first time since he’d joined the soccer team, he felt as though he had done a good job.
Jim, Liam, and Ashton had been tough taskmasters, but fair. Alan had felt himself pushed to the limits of his abilities several times during practice. Soccer practice had actually been enjoyable for a change, and Alan hoped that it was a sign that the tide, for him, was turning in his favor.
An added benefit of being worked hard had been that everything else had completely slipped out of Alan’s mind. He had been so focused on his next goal, or his next drill, that all the stress from Henry and Kerry had found no room to roost in his brain. Alan appreciated that more than he could say.
Henry and his friends had been kept too busy to bother Alan, though with Harris’ eagle eye on the field, they wouldn’t have had any opportunity to try anything. Alan hoped that, after the meeting with the headmaster that afternoon, they could finally bring that particular chapter to a close.
“Good practice out there today, but a deal’s a deal, gentlemen!” Harris called out. “Winning team, hit the showers and get something to eat. The rest of you, clean up the equipment before you do the same. Westing and Cambry, see me for a moment. Connelly, when your team is done putting the equipment away, I’d like to speak with you.”
Caleb Simon picked up a nearby soccer ball and tossed it to Alan. “Don’t forget this one, Tracy,” he called as he smirked and jogged off to the locker room.
Alan hefted the ball as though he was going to throw it at Caleb’s head, then laughed and lowered it when Caleb made as if to duck. Shaking his head, he joined Jim and the rest of his team in gathering the soccer balls strewn on the side of the field.
Alan’s head snapped up, looking over towards the stands. A broad smile creased his face as he recognized his father and brother standing off to the side, and he quickly jogged over to them.
Scott reached out and ruffled Alan’s hair. “Hey, Sprout. We caught the end of your practice. Looking pretty good out there.”
Alan scowled slightly. “Not good enough, apparently. We didn’t win.”
Jeff chuckled and laid a hand on Alan’s shoulder, gripping it affectionately and gently shaking him. “Looked impressive from here, Alan. Make sure you let us know your schedule next year so we can come and watch a game or two.”
Alan nodded, a warm glow blooming in his chest. “Okay. I have to help put the equipment away, then I have to shower. Meet you at Main?”
“We’ll be waiting for you there,” Jeff assured his son, releasing him. Scott winked at his youngest brother and followed his father off of the field.
Reenergized, Alan jogged back onto the field, scooping up a couple of errant soccer balls on his way to where Jim was opening the bag they kept their soccer balls in.
Jim held open the mesh bag as Alan dropped his soccer balls inside. “Save me a spot at dinner?” he asked.
Alan smiled apologetically. “Sorry. I have a meeting with the headmaster after I clean up, then Dad and Scott are going to take me out to dinner before they head back home.”
Jim studied Alan seriously for a moment. “Is it about Kerry?”
Alan shook his head. “Nah, Chris, my dad’s lawyer, pretty much has that covered. The headmaster wants to talk with me and Bishop, Sheffield, Hayes, and Kent about what they’ve been doing the last few weeks.”
Alan moved further down the field and collected the rest of the pinneys that the winning team had thrown onto the ground in a pile, putting them back into the box with Berren and Cambry. With half the team collecting equipment, it took hardly any time at all before they were moving off of the field.
Alan hefted the box of pinneys under one arm and held out a hand to Jim for the soccer balls. “I’ll take those and put them away for you so you can meet up with Coach Harris sooner.”
Jim raised an eyebrow, but handed the bag to Alan. “You sure?”
Alan rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t have offered if I wasn’t. These are all going to the same place in the Field House. Seriously, it’ll be fine.”
Jim shrugged. “All right. Thanks, kid. Call me later and let me know how the meeting went, okay?”
Alan shooed Jim away with a smile, then turned and made the lone trek back to the Field House.
Henry glanced out the window of the Field House, finally spotting a familiar blonde figure approaching. He grinned humorlessly, seeing the boy alone and weighted down with the soccer equipment from that afternoon. Turning around, he eyed his friends. “He’s coming. Ready?”
George and Tristan nodded immediately, a gleam of anticipation in their eyes. Ashton, more reluctant, nodded as well.
“Remember what we talked about,” Henry reminded them. “Tristan, as soon as he comes in, cover his head with the bag so he can’t see us. George, got the duct tape ready?”
George held up the roll of tape, waggling it. Tristan opened the black nylon cinch sack he had snatched out of the locker room earlier in the day.
The door opening down the hall drew their attention. The four boys quickly ducked into the equipment closet and quietly shut the door, taking positions just inside.
They only had to wait a few moments before the closet door opened again. Alan stepped inside, dropping the bag of soccer balls to the floor as he walked over to the space on the shelf that was reserved for the box of pinneys. As Alan raised the box and slid it on the shelf, Tristan moved soundlessly behind the younger boy and forcefully covered Alan’s head with the cinch sack, pulling the ties closed and wrapping it to the back of Alan’s neck.
Alan’s reaction was instantaneous. His hands immediately moved to the sack and he began to thrash wildly in Tristan’s grip, yelling to be released. Prepared for it, Henry and Ashton moved forward and grabbed his wrists, forcing them behind Alan’s back. In close quarters, and with Tristan holding the sack over Alan’s head, the position was awkward.
George bit off a long strip of tape and wound it around Alan’s wrists, immobilizing him. Another strip of tape secured the bag around Alan’s neck to prevent him from sliding it off.
Dragging the boy to a chair that Henry had dragged into the closet earlier, they forced him into it and wound several feet of duct tape around Alan and the back of the chair. Alan tried to twist out of their grip, but with so many hands restraining him, he was unable to move. Changing tactics, he lashed out with his feet, one connecting solidly with Tristan’s groin.
Tristan let out a squeak of pain, dropping to one knee. Henry and Ashton pounced onto Alan’s legs, holding them steady as George taped them to the legs of the chair.
The entire process had taken less than ten minutes. The four boys stepped back, Tristan slightly hunched over, and admired their handiwork.
Alan continued to yell, his voice muffled. As Henry led the way out of the closet and shut the door, Alan’s voice could barely be heard in the hallway. With the locker room on the floor below and most of the team already gone to dinner, no one would find Alan in time for the meeting.
“Are you sure he’ll be okay like that?” Ashton asked as the four boys headed down to the locker room to clean up before their meeting.
Henry rolled his eyes. “Of course he will. Besides, it won’t be for long. We’ll find a way for him to be found later tonight.”
Or maybe later than that.
Dr. Williams glanced at his watch for the third time in five minutes and sighed.
With the larger number of people involved in this meeting, Williams had decided to hold it in the conference room down the hall from his office. The room wasn’t very large, but it didn’t need to be. Most of the room was consumed by the long table made of polished mahogany that could seat up to sixteen people. Plush black office chairs surrounded the table, over half of them claimed. The wall behind one end of the table held a SMART projector screen that was currently switched off. The wall opposite held a whiteboard that Williams had made sure to have cleaned before their meeting; no sense in non-staff members observing the school’s raw data in regards to promotion and retention rates for its students.
Along the side of the table to Williams’ left sat Henry, George, Ashton, and Tristan, separated each by a parent or guardian who had come to speak on behalf of each boy. Henry’s mother had made the trip herself, to Williams’ surprise. He knew she had a social engagement scheduled for that night in New York City.
George and Ashton’s fathers were present, as was Tristan’s stepmother. All four parents were quietly speaking with their children, hoping to wheedle more information out of the boys. On Williams’ right sat Jeff Tracy, bracketed by his oldest son and his lawyer. Jeff checked his watch again as well, the frown on his face growing deeper with each passing second his youngest son remained absent.
“It’s been fifteen minutes,” Richard Sheffield pointed out to the group. “Can we begin?”
Williams glanced over to Jeff. “I’m afraid we’ll have to start without Alan, Mr. Tracy,” he said.
Scott stood. “I’ll go and see if I can track him down,” he offered.
Jeff nodded his assent, grateful yet again that Scott had decided to stay and help him deal with the situation.
“You said on the phone that my son has been involved in bullying another student,” Walter Hayes stated. “Ash has never been the type of student to be involved in something like that. What exactly can you tell us about this situation?”
Williams carefully laid out the facts that he had been told, conscious of not offending or outright accusing anyone, along with making sure to provide some validation for Alan’s own statement so as not to offend Jeff.
“I had hoped that, by bringing all of you here together, we could get to the bottom of the situation and come to some sort of peaceful resolution,” Williams concluded.
“Where’s this boy accusing mine of bullying?” Richard demanded. “Seems to me that if he were serious about his accusations, he’d be here to defend them.”
Jeff tensed involuntarily at the slight against his son. Years spent in the Air Force, flying in space, and in vicious board room discussions had trained him to keep his poker face in any situation, however. “Hopefully, Alan will be here shortly.”
A slight movement from one of the boys across the table immediately drew Jeff’s eye. The boy, who Jeff overheard to be Ashton Hayes, quickly straightened and pasted on an expressionless look.
Suspicion crowded Jeff’s mind, and he made a mental note to keep an eye on Ashton. His instincts sensed a weak link in the chain.
“What is Alan saying our boys are doing?” Flora Bishop spoke up, her voice soft with a thread of steel running through it.
Chris Barrow consulted his tablet, pulling up the notes he had taken during Alan’s interview with Detective Rivera. “Pushing and shoving in the halls, targeting him on the soccer field, provoking fights, to start. There’s also an accusation of plagiarism involving Mr. Sheffield.”
Richard Sheffield bristled. “My boy does not cheat,” he stated, each word as sharp as the blade of a knife.
Chris nodded, neither accusing nor apologizing. “Perhaps your son could shed some light on the matter, then.”
Richard leaned back in his chair, folding his arms and turning to Jeff. “He tells me that your son bought the paper from him. Why would he lie about that?”
“Why indeed.” Chris opened another file on his tablet and shared it with Williams. “I have the paper that Alan originally turned in; one of his brothers had a copy of it that he graciously sent to me. As you can see, Dr. Williams, the topic and content are nowhere similar to one another. Yet somehow, Mr. Sheffield’s paper is the one that ended up in the teacher’s hands.”
“What are you saying?” Monica Kent asked, frowning in confusion.
Chris fixed her with a firm stare. “What I’m saying, ma’am, is that at the very least Mr. Sheffield is involved in exchanging Alan’s original paper for his own in order to get Alan in trouble. To what end, I can only speculate.”
“This is ridiculous!” Richard Sheffield thundered, his face turning red. “I don’t appreciate you coming in here and accusing my son of dishonest, bullying behavior!”
“Mr. Sheffield, please,” Williams spoke up, handing the tablet back to Chris. “I’m sure we all appreciate the sensitivity of the situation. These are very serious allegations that, if found to be true, can result in suspension, or even expulsion. Let’s have all the facts out on the table before we do anything.”
Richard Sheffield was clearly less than pleased, but he held his tongue.
“Dr. Williams,” Flora Bishop said, “we have already heard our sons’ versions of the events. Clearly the pushing or shoving can be attributed to the rowdy nature of teenage boys. That Alan took it to be more than that is regretful, but I’m sure that, now that our boys know they took it a little too far, they can better monitor their behavior in the future. If Alan is not here to give us his side of the story in person, then perhaps he himself has realized his error in reporting them as bullies. Can we not simply let our sons go with a warning?”
Jeff’s sharp eyes caught the flash of triumph in Henry’s eyes, and he frowned. His instincts were screaming at him that something was very wrong here.
Williams glanced at Jeff. “Without Alan here, I don’t see how I have a choice . . .” he began.
An epiphany struck Jeff so suddenly that he nearly jerked in his seat. He stiffened his spine, sitting straighter. “Before you decide, a moment, please,” he stated. Gesturing for Chris to lean in, he turned his back on the rest of the room’s occupants.
“Jeff, without Alan here, there’s not much we can do,” Chris told him, pitching his voice low so as not to be overheard.
“That seems kind of convenient, wouldn’t you say?” Jeff asked him, matching his tone. “Alan suddenly not showing up when the boys who have been bullying him are about to be punished?”
Chris frowned. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that these boys know where Alan is,” Jeff told him. “I think they made sure he stayed away from this meeting so that they could be let go with a slap on the wrist.”
Chris eyed him doubtfully. “I don’t know, Jeff . . . that’s a stretch. They are just boys, after all.”
“Boys who have something to lose,” Jeff reminded him. “We need to know what they did with Alan.”
“How are we going to get them to admit the truth?” Chris asked. “If they’re willing to do something to Alan to prevent him from being here, chances are they’re good enough to keep quiet about it.”
A predatory gleam entered Jeff’s eyes, sending shivers down Chris’ spine. “They may be good, but I’m better. And if they’ve somehow done something to my boy, then I’m invincible.”
As they turned back to the rest of the room, Chris couldn’t help but feel a slight pang of sympathy for the teenagers across the table.
He quashed it.
Scott’s first stops had been to the soccer field, and then to the dorm room. Neither place yielded any sign of his youngest brother. As each attempt failed, Scott felt his worry mounting.
Fermat hadn’t seen Alan since their last class of the day, before soccer practice. They tried Alan’s cell phone, but it went straight to voicemail. Fermat agreed to help Scott search for Alan, taking the library and a few of the dorm buildings as Scott headed for the dining hall.
Dinner was just coming to a close, the hall only a quarter filled. Scott scanned the room and sighed when he saw no trace of his brother.
“Um, excuse me? Are you Alan’s brother?”
Scott glanced to his left, finding a teenager almost as tall as him, with sandy brown hair and dark eyes looking at him in concern. “Yes, I am, and I’m looking for him. Who are you?”
The boy held out his hand, which Scott shook. “I’m Jim Connelly. We haven’t been officially introduced, but I’ve seen you around. You say you’re looking for Alan?”
Scott nodded. “Yes, he was supposed to come to Main for a meeting with the headmaster, but he never showed up. Have you seen him?”
Jim shook his head, frowning in concern. “Not since practice. He was taking the equipment back to the Field House, last I saw.” He turned and beckoned to a few boys who were watching their exchange. The boys stood from the table and approached.
“What’s up?” Liam asked Jim.
Jim quickly introduced Liam, Sam, and Caleb to Scott. “Alan’s missing. We’ll cover more ground if we work together.”
“Caleb and I’ll search Galbreath Hall and Ferguson,” Liam said. “Maybe he ran into a teacher and lost track of the time.”
“Scott and I’ll hit the Field House and see if he got held up there,” Jim replied. “Call if you find him.”
“Thank you,” Scott said to the teenagers, gratitude bleeding into his tone.
Jim gave Scott a serious look. “Alan’s our friend. We want to help. C’mon, let’s check the locker room first and see if he made it there.”
“When was the last time you boys saw Alan?” Jeff asked the four teens sitting across the table from him.
Henry, unsurprisingly, was the one to answer. “At practice this afternoon,” he replied promptly. “His team lost our game, so he had to stay and help pick up the equipment.”
“How was practice?” Jeff asked. “I imagine it was different without your regular soccer coach there.”
“Is there a point to this?” Richard demanded, but Williams hushed him with a raised hand.
Henry shrugged. “All right. Our old coach was better, though. Ran the team the way it should be run.”
Ashton shifted in his seat again.
“What happened to Coach Kerry?” Walter asked suddenly, looking at his son.
Flora Bishop gave a slight jerk in her seat. Her eyes darted to her son, but she remained silent.
“Coach Kerry has been dismissed from his duties,” Williams said diplomatically.
George scowled. “He was arrested yesterday because Alan said Coach hit him.”
The reaction of the four other parents in the room was identical. Each turned to their own sons, concern and confusion warring in their faces.
“He did what?” Monica demanded, her voice clashing with Walter’s and Richard’s similar yelps.
“There’s no way,” Tristan insisted to his step-mother, aware that the other adults were listening in. “He would never do something like that. He was a good coach!”
Jeff forcefully reminded himself that he was dealing with teenagers, and that throttling them for calling his son a liar would be frowned upon.
“What is this?” Richard demanded, eyes jumping from Williams to Jeff and back again. “This boy accuses a teacher of abuse, then turns and does the same to our sons? What’s your angle, Tracy?”
“Let’s ask you sons, shall we?” Jeff fired back. “Why would four upperclassmen feel the need to single my boy out and torment him? I guarantee if someone had done to your sons what yours did to mine, you would be asking the same questions.”
“This is preposterous!” Richard scoffed. “My son is not a bully!”
“My son is a good boy,” Walter added, oblivious to said son shrinking slightly in his seat. “He wouldn’t do something like this.”
Flora’s question was random enough to cool their tempers. “Dr. Williams, would that be Coach William Kerry?” she asked coolly, staring at her son.
Dr. Williams nodded. “Yes, it is. Why do you ask?”
Flora pursed her lips, her displeasure plain on her face. “Henry?”
Henry met his mother’s gaze, but soon lowered his eyes. “Mother?”
“What difference does it make?” Richard demanded.
Jeff met Flora’s eyes across the table. “It matters because Coach Kerry and Henry have been working together to advance Henry’s career in soccer, and by default Coach Kerry’s. When my son joined the soccer team, they saw him as a threat to those plans and did what they could to try and get Alan removed from the team.”
“What proof do you have of this?” Walter asked, his tone less confrontational than Jeff expected.
Flora was the one to answer. “That sounds exactly like the William Kerry I knew.”
Henry’s head snapped up, staring at his mother with a look of abject betrayal. “Mother!”
Flora gave her son a severe look, causing him to clamp his mouth shut. “There was a reason I left him, Henry. William was only ever interested in advancing his status in the world, and he tried to use me to do it.”
Henry shook his head in denial. “You loved him . . . he said that Gran and Grandfather made you leave him.”
Flora’s eyes softened, but only slightly. “I did at the time, Henry. But your grandfather has better eyes than I do. He saw William for who he was and made me leave him. I resented your grandfather at first, but after a while I came to see the truth for myself. Which is why I never wanted you to have anything to do with your father.”
Three teenage heads jerked up, looking to Henry in shock. “Your father?” Tristan exclaimed.
“Coach Kerry was your father?” George echoed.
Henry looked at them. “Yes, but it doesn’t matter! He got fired, and it’s all Alan’s fault!”
“You used us,” Ashton accused, anger slowly flushing his cheeks. “It was never about the team. It was all about you, wasn’t it?”
“Ashton, shut up,” Henry hissed.
“Henry Wallace Bishop, you had better tell us the truth this instant, or so help me God,” Flora stated.
Henry folded his arms. “I already said what I have to say. Yes, I pushed Alan around, but I thought it was all in fun. I had nothing to do with the plagiarism; it was George’s paper.”
George glared at Henry. “What? You’re throwing me under the bus?”
Henry met his gaze evenly. “What bus? It was your paper, right?”
Jeff glanced at Chris, then sat back to watch the scene unravel right before his eyes.
“It was your idea to switch the paper, just like it was your idea to swipe his assignments to get him in trouble,” George shot back.
“That wasn’t me,” Henry denied. “Tristan was the one to swipe that assignment.”
“You son of a-,” Tristan snarled.
Williams slammed his hand down on the table, the loud sound jolting everyone into a stunned silence. All eyes turned to the headmaster, who was looking more angry and forbidding than anyone in the room had ever seen.
“It seems we have some additional information to hear,” the headmaster said, his calm tone belying the raging storm in his eyes. “However, there is one question I think I’d like to hear the answer to before we continue.”
He looked hard at each of the four teenagers, making sure he had their full attention before continuing.
“Where is Alan Tracy?”
Scott opened Alan’s locker, scowling when he saw his brother’s clothes and cell phone still waiting for their owner. Picking up the phone, he illuminated the screen, seeing the missed calls waiting for Alan. Putting the phone in his pocket, Scott shut the locker and turned to Jim.
“Where else could he be?” he asked.
Jim frowned in thought. “The guys are covering all the places Alan usually goes. I just find it hard to believe that Alan would simply get caught up and forget about your meeting.”
“Me too.” The thought that had been growing in Scott’s mind was too big to ignore any longer. “I hate to say this, but I think Alan going missing wasn’t entirely voluntary.”
“You think someone took him?” Jim asked.
“I think it’s more likely that those bullies did something to him to keep him from coming to the meeting,” Scott stated. “Let’s track Alan’s last steps. He was on the soccer field collecting equipment, right? Where would he have gone next?”
“The storage closet upstairs,” Jim answered promptly. “He was putting the soccer balls and the pinneys away for me so I could meet with Coach Harris. Alan would have had to drop off the equipment there before coming down here to clean up.”
“And since he obviously never made it this far, then that sounds like the next logical place to start,” Scott said. “Lead the way.”
Jim turned and jogged out of the locker room. Concern for his friend put wings on his feet, and he ran up the stairs and down the hall to the equipment closet, Scott close behind.
Reaching out, Jim turned the knob and pushed the closet door open, only to have it stop after a couple feet by something on the other side.
“That’s weird,” Jim mumbled, pushing harder against the door. He looked down to see what had blocked it.
The familiar mesh bag filled with soccer balls had been sitting just behind the door, clearly out of place. Jim opened his mouth to tell Scott that Alan had made it that far when he felt Scott suddenly push past him with a strangled cry. Looking up, he felt his jaw drop in shock.
Alan was twisting wildly in a chair, wrapped securely in duct tape with a cinch sack over his head. Scott was already kneeling beside his brother, laying his hands on Alan’s shoulders. At the touch, Alan began to jerk harder, yelling at them to let him go.
“Allie, Allie, it’s me, Scott,” Scott was saying, gently unwinding the tape from around his neck. Loosening the string, he pulled the bag off of his brother’s head.
Alan’s red-rimmed eyes immediately latched onto Scott. Rather than fear, which Jim was expecting, there was a fiery rage burning brightly, making the blue in his eyes shine.
“Allie, are you okay?” Scott asked, quickly getting to work on the tape. Jim knelt down on Alan’s other side and set to work on one of Alan’s legs.
“I’m fine,” Alan replied shortly. “Just get me out of here, okay?”
Within minutes, they had Alan free. Scott helped Alan to his feet, steadying his brother before releasing him.
“Who did this to you?” Now that his younger brother was no longer in danger, the familiar wave of promised retribution was crashing through Scott.
Alan stormed out of the closet, leaving Jim and Scott scrambling to catch up. “I didn’t see anything, but I know exactly who’s responsible.”
“Alan, maybe you should get the nurse to check you out,” Jim suggested, not liking this strange, new side of Alan.
“Later,” Alan replied, exiting the Field House and heading towards Main. “I have a meeting that I’m late for.”
“In the Field House,” Ashton admitted to the room.
Jeff’s cell phone was in his hand instantly as he stood and moved to the door. He dialed Scott’s number, swearing softly when it went to voicemail.
“Ashton!” Henry barked.
“No, Henry,” Ashton replied. “I told you I’ve had enough.” He turned to Williams, carefully avoiding the look of disappointment on his father’s face. “Headmaster, what Alan told you is true. All of it.”
“Ashton, shut up!” George barked.
“In light of all of this, maybe it’s best that we meet individually,” Williams suggested. “Mr. Hayes, Ashton, if you’ll stay here, I’ll be with you shortly. Ms. Bishop, Mr. Sheffield, and Mrs. Kent, if you and your sons will come with me, I’ll find you somewhere private to wait.”
Henry jumped to his feet and clenched his fists, glaring at Ashton. “You keep your mouth shut, Ashton,” he warned.
“Or what,” Ashton replied. “You’ll lock me in a closet?”
Henry’s face colored at the response. His mother grabbed his arm and moved him away from Ashton, joining the rest of the assembly in the hall.
The group had barely moved two steps away from the conference room when they heard the doors to the building slam open. They paused when Alan suddenly appeared in the hall, walking quickly towards them with Scott and Jim barely keeping up. Jeff was so relieved to see his son that he missed the look of fierce determination on Alan’s face.
George and Tristan paled when they spotted Alan, but Henry’s face grew redder.
“You!” he yelled, moving to intercept Alan. He ignored his mother’s warning cry. “This is all your fault! I’m gonna-.”
He never got farther than that. The instant he was within reach, Alan drew back a fist and let it fly, punching Henry solidly in the nose. The force of Alan’s blow sent the older teen stumbling back and onto the ground, blood pouring from a very clearly broken nose.
Teenagers, parents, the headmaster, all looked down at the unconscious teenager, then back to the heavily breathing Alan who was clenching and unclenching his fists in an effort to calm his raging temper.
Alan closed his eyes for a brief moment, taking in a deep, cleansing breath before opening his eyes and looking directly at his shocked headmaster.
“Sorry I’m late, Headmaster,” he said in an unusually calm tone. “Is there still time for us to meet?”
Wednesday evening found Alan once more fidgeting impatiently in front of the vid-screen, waiting anxiously for his brother John to finish looking at the program he had just sent up to him. “Come on, Johnny! Don’t do this to me!”
John smirked, not lifting his eyes from the screen as he carefully navigated the program his brother had created for Mr. Wallace’s extra credit assignment. “Patience, Grasshopper. I’m almost done.”
Alan rolled his eyes and glanced around his dorm room for something to hold his attention while he waited. Unerringly, his mind drifted to the events of the last few days.
Rather than dragging Alan into the conference room right away, Williams had summoned the school nurse to come and look over both him and Henry. Henry’s nose, as expected, had been broken by Alan’s punch. Alan, on the other hand, had suffered no ills by being grabbed and locked in the supply closet. If anything, he had been more injured by punching Henry than he had by being taped to the chair. Still, a popped knuckle was more than worth it.
To his great surprise, Ashton Hayes had come clean about the entire situation. With his disapproving father watching, Ashton had admitted to everything; to pushing Alan around and intimidating him, to pulling the fire alarm so they could switch his paper, and to stealing his homework assignment in an effort to get him into trouble. That last admission had surprised Alan; he’d had his own suspicions for the missing assignment, but hadn’t realize the depths to which his former teammates had been willing to sink to get him off of the team.
Williams had told all five boys that, while the bullying was grounds for suspension, the rest of their actions, in particular trapping Alan in the closet, was more than enough to justify expulsion from Wharton Academy. George and Tristan argued at the decision, and Henry even tried to threaten an appeal with a lawyer, but their parents weighing in stopped them cold. While none of them wanted to believe that their sons were capable of such acts, the boys’ admissions, along with Alan’s account, had swayed them to the truth. Only Ashton seemed truly remorseful, and he’d accepted his punishment without a word. By Tuesday morning, all four boys had been packed and removed from campus.
“Hello? Ground control to Alan Tracy, come in!”
Alan shook himself out of his daze and raised an eyebrow at his brother. “Ground control? Really?”
John shrugged. “Just trying to see if you’re paying attention. Where were you just now?”
“Just thinking,” Alan replied.
John gave him a knowing look. “Thinking, huh? How does it feel to have those particular monkeys off your back?”
Alan smiled brightly. “Better than I could describe. It’s like I can breathe again, you know?”
John leaned in closer to the screen. “Look, Alan, I know that it’s hard for you, being the youngest with four overprotective older brothers. I know you feel like you want to make your own way, and you want to show to us that you can take care of yourself. Just promise me, brother to brother, that if anything like that ever happens again, you come to me, or Dad, or even Gordon.”
“I promise, Johnny,” Alan said quietly.
“Good,” John replied, leaning back. “I mean, I’m good for more than a homework checker, you know.”
Alan grinned mischievously. “Play to your strengths, John.”
John raised his eyebrows. “You forget that I’ll be home when you get there for the summer. Keep up with that smart mouth and I’ll throw you in the pool.”
“Gotta catch me first,” Alan replied smugly. “Are you done with the program yet?”
“I am,” John admitted.
Alan waited. “Well?”
John grinned. “It’s brilliant, Sprout. Very interactive and user-friendly. Mr. Wallace is going to love it. It wouldn’t surprise me if he took your program and incorporated it next year for his students to use to learn about the space program.”
Pride gleamed in Alan’s eyes. “You think so?”
John’s smile grew fond at his brother’s eagerness. “Of course I do. Let me know what he says, okay?”
“You bet.” Alan thought for a moment. Coming to a decision, he asked, “John, have you heard about how the case with Coach Kerry is going?”
John nodded. “I just got off the phone with Dad before you called, actually. Kerry pled not guilty and is being held over for trial. It’s not due to start for another six weeks or so, though. Chris told Dad that with the evidence he’s gathered, plus your statement, he’s not worried. You might have to testify, though. You feel up to that?”
Alan’s initial reaction was to tell John that, yes, he wasn’t afraid of Kerry. A moment’s extra thought, however, convinced him that repeating his story in front of a group of strangers wasn’t going to be as easy as he thought. Looking at the concern shining out of his brother’s eyes, Alan knew that, with his family’s support, he’d be okay.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Alan told him. “Just . . . if I have to go, can you come with me? I’m afraid if Scott comes with me, he might try to attack Kerry again. Once was enough for me.”
“Of course I’ll come,” John said. “I make no promises on not attacking him myself, though. Fair warning.”
Alan chuckled. “Noted.”
“Of course, making Scott stay on the island while you and I go to the courtroom will be a harder task,” John continued. “How did you get Superman to go home Monday night before those kids left?”
Alan smirked. “After he saw me punch Henry, Scott wasn’t all that worried about me defending myself anymore.”
John laughed. “Wish I’d seen that myself. What did Dad say about that?”
Alan’s smirk grew wider. “He took me aside later and showed me how to punch someone without popping a knuckle.”
John opened his mouth to reply, but an alarm began to sound on Thunderbird Five. Glancing behind him briefly, John turned back to his brother.
“Duty calls, Sprout,” he said. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Good night, John,” Alan replied. “Stay safe.”
John winked just as his image switched off. Alan sat back in his chair, lost in thought.
The door to his dorm opening drew his attention. Fermat trudged in, wearing the familiar exasperated look that Alan had come to associate with an intense study session with Macken.
“Rough night?” he asked Fermat.
Fermat gave him a weak glare. “D-Don’t ask.”
Alan waited until Fermat flopped bonelessly onto his bed before speaking again. “The Thunderbirds just got a call. Want to go to the common room and watch?”
Fermat shot upright on his bed, giving Alan a wide-eyed look. “Wh-Why didn’t you s-s-say so? L-Let’s g-g-go!”
Laughing, Alan and Fermat jumped to their feet and raced out the door.