Chicken Soup for the Mathematician's Soulby devra
When the numbers on the board began to blur, Charlie was positive he was sick. The headache could no longer be attributed to allergies he didn't suffer from, he was sick, with a capital "S". No time for this, he rationalized, so he cleared his throat, rubbed his eyes, picked up a red marker, blinked, forced the equation back into focus and continued. He uncharacteristically dismissed the class thirty minutes early, and kept his back to the departing students in the hopes they would read his body language and understand that today wasn't a day for questions.
Sighing, Charlie rested his head against the whiteboard; he wasn't in the mood for Larry either. He took an angry swipe at the board before turning to face his friend.
"I couldn't help but, umm, notice, Charles, that you—"
"I let my class go early, I know."
"Well, yes, there is that, but I was going to mention, excuse me for saying this, but you look like crap."
Larry nodded, crossed his arms and kept right on nodding. For a second all Charlie could think of besides how nauseated the action was making him feel, was that his friend resembled the bobble head doll in the back of his Uncle Irv's car. "Could you stop—" Charlie moved his pointer finger up and down to match the nodding. There's no way he wanted to lose his breakfast of Pop Tarts in the garbage can.
"Starting to look a little green around the—I think you should go home." Larry started to nod again then stopped and settled for an apologetic smile instead.
"I have two more classes and the department meeting today as well, Larry, I just can't..." Damn the offer was so enticing.
"You can and you will," Larry stated, waving his car keys in front of Charlie's face. "For purely selfish reasons, of course. We don't want you infecting your whole department and I for one, don't do illness well."
"Thanks Larry, but—"
"I already spoke to Amita about taking your class."
Larry glanced at his watch. "I have just enough time to take you home then turn around and get to my own class. Not that I'm trying to hurry you, you understand—" He tsk'd loudly and tapped his watch.
"I'm hurrying." Charlie stood, caught his breath a second as the room spun then began to pack up his briefcase.
"Huh?" He looked up to see Larry patting air.
"Leave your papers here. Give the numbers a rest, okay?" Larry smiled at the look of disbelief on Charlie's face. "Okay, okay," he conceded with a curt wave then a roll of his hand. "Forgive me for caring, but if you must work, make sure it's on the couch, under a blanket with a bowl of chicken soup."
* * *
Alan dragged his weary body up the steps. As much as he hated to concede defeat, Charlie had been one hundred percent correct when he'd objected and voiced his opinion that maybe today wouldn't be the greatest day to do consulting work with Stan. Charlie had begged him to wait another day or two, and stubborn to a fault, he had disagreed, loudly. Vocal enough that the angry tone of the morning had set the tenure for the rest of his day and by one thirty he decided he wasn't going inflict his bad mood on anyone else in the office, excused himself with a smile and drove home, the fact that he beat the rush hour, the highlight of his day.
He sighed as he fitted the key in the lock and opened the door. Who would have thought that last week's stupid virus would still be lingering on, making him feel like an old man? He gave himself a ke nignehore when he bragged to Charlie he never got the flu. 'Ha'! It was bad enough that Don and Charlie had fretted over him, making him feel old and decrepit, now even his body was behaving traitorously.
The October day was uncharacteristically cool, and as Alan stepped into the house, visions of his old navy sweatshirt, a hot cup of tea, and the comfort only his home could bring him dissipated the dark cloud above his head. Maybe, just maybe, he would one day mention how happy he was that Charlie had the foresight to buy this house, their home. He could have moved, hell, he would've moved, packed up his life, but the memories of the good and bad times, the sounds of his wife and his children as they grew up, would have forever stayed within the four walls. There were times in this world when having a genius son paid off.
"What the hell?" A blast furnace of heat hit Alan squarely in the face, accompanied by a cacophony of banging and thunking only an overworked, old heating system could make. "Damn it, Charlie," he hissed, obviously his oblivious, overworked son had once again forgotten to call the repair man. Just last night over dinner they had discussed it again, that maybe it was time for an actual repair and not a quick fix. Okay, Alan had discussed while Charlie had nodded in the right places. Three weeks he had been talking about it, but Alan had refused to make the call. His son's house. His son's responsibility.
Alan angrily tossed his briefcase and paperwork on the table, flung open the basement door and stomped down the steps. He tried not to take his frustration out on the old boiler, and with a few deep breaths, a few choice curse words, he fiddled until the boiler heaved an expansive sigh, burped then quieted down.
* * *
Okay, now Alan was really confused. He had checked the thermostat in the living room, shocked to see it set for eighty. Sixty five was the norm. Maybe he would have to relent and call the boiler company, but it would have to wait until he showered, because as cold as he had been before, now he was hot and sweaty, sticky and more than a bit smelly, he admitted with a twitch of his nose.
* * *
The warm water of the shower washed away remnants of his battle with the old furnace and with a sigh of appreciation, he slipped into old sneakers and an even older pair of jeans and his sweatshirt. He was heading down the stairs when something caught his eye, something strange—well not strange, just abnormal for this time of day. Charlie's bedroom door was open. And not even a little crack open, but *wide* open. His young son *never* left the door open when he wasn't home, which based on the condition of the room, was fine as far as Alan was concerned. In his teens or in his twenties, Charlie had kept his room in a state that actually resembled a crime scene, and Alan had thought on a number of occasions to actually borrow a strip of the yellow tape from Donnie and string it across the doorway, but for some reason he didn't think Charlie would find the humor in that.
There was a familiar squeak from Charlie's room. And then another one. A sound that should have required a squirt of WD-40, but even almost a year after Margaret's death, Alan couldn't bring himself to play fix-it man. The squeak was a signal that Charlie was in bed, trying to get comfortable.
And Alan remembered how Margaret would lie in bed at night and listen for that squeak as intently as a parent straining to hear a car pulling into the driveway or a key in the lock. It meant Charlie's brain had slowed down enough that he could drag himself to bed and Alan recalled with crystal clarity his wife's sigh of contentment as she would glance at the bedside clock. In the darkness he would see her outline as she shook her head at the time followed by the inevitable soft 'tsk' before she would finally relax for the night.
The squeaking bed in the wee hours of the night in the Eppes' household was normal, and to be honest, Alan admitted with a slight, embarrassed shrug of his shoulders, listening for it was a tradition that he still carried on, but the sound of a squeaking bed from Charlie's room at three thirty in the afternoon wasn't.
He cautiously stepped over the threshold and picked his way around the various piles of papers and books scattered on the floor. Alan's own weight as he sat on the bed forced another squeak from the protesting springs.
Charlie was turned, facing the opened door, but the blankets he had pulled all the way up to his eyes obscured him from Alan's concerned gaze. His fingers hovered over the edge of the blanket before grabbing the corner and gently tugging it down. "Ahh, Charlie."
His son was pale, his coloring matching the whitish tone of his pillow case and in direct contrast, twin spots of color stood out obscenely on his cheeks. Even in sleep, Charlie looked uncomfortable, his eyes shut tightly, fine lines of pain feathering out from the corners, his brow was furrowed as if he were in deep concentration and his breathing was faster than normal, and shallow.
Alan sighed and shook his head, trying to pull from memory a time in the recent past where Charlie had been ill. He had seen his son work himself into exhaustion, but sickness drew a blank.
Alan was the first to admit that he wasn't great with offering comfort to Charlie and there were times that his gestures had been rebuffed. Charlie's brilliance had awed Alan, and it still did, but during his son's formative years his care and feeding had fallen to his wife, and now with Margaret passed on, he was trying to establish his footing in Charlie's world.
There were boundaries. Born into a tactile family, even now, Charlie still had trouble adjusting to impromptu hugs and touches, unless he, himself, initiated them. Little by little, he and Don were managing to break those barriers down.
Alan wouldn't consider himself fearless in the way that Don was fearless, but he was a father of two challenging children and he pretty much felt he could handle more than the *average* parent. Except when they were sick. He felt incompetent in the face of dealing with a sick child. And a sick Charlie to boot. The child who always managed to make his parenting skills feel more than a tad off kilter on a normal day.
"Charlie." Alan gave the shoulder under the blanket a gentle shake.
Charlie opened a single eye in response to the prodding. "Dad?"
"The one and only," Alan quipped, pushing a stand of hair off Charlie's forehead.
Charlie curled away from Alan's ministrations then grimaced as the fever-induced headache must have kicked up a notch. He flopped onto his back and cupped his hands over his eyes.
"Yeah. Which is increasing exponentially every time I move." He nodded. "Ow. Like that."
"I see. Don't nod." Alan replied sympathetically, laying the back of his hand against Charlie's flushed cheek. "Can I interest you in some Tylenol? Tea? Soup?"
"No. No soup. A few thousand Tylenol would hit the spot. Thanks."
* * *
Charlie was sitting up, listing against the wall when Alan walked into the room. He gave him a grateful smile, a hoarse 'thank you," and downed the pills and the glass of water while Alan looked on.
"Well?" Alan reached for the empty glass.
Charlie cleared his throat. "Well what?" he whispered.
"And I'm not going to have to tie you into bed to make sure you rest?"
"No." Charlie's lips moved though no sound came out. He tried again, then attempted to clear his throat.
"I promise. No reading. Writing." He grimaced when he produced more of an adolescent squeak than his normal voice.
"No, son," Alan sighed. "Just stop talking."
Alan got a slightly crooked smiled and a yawn in response.
"Good boy." He held up his hand. "Don't move. Can you do that?"
Charlie opened his mouth to talk.
"No talking!" Alan admonished.
Charlie closed his eyes then nodded.
"I'll be right back with the thermometer."
Charlie's eyes popped open. "No!" His voice barely there, it was still enough to stop Alan in his tracks.
"No?" Alan took two steps towards the bed. "It's not a rectal, don't worry, it's one of those ear thingies."
"No thermometer," he replied adamantly.
"You're being ridiculous. You're sick. Sick people get Tylenol, their temperatures taken, and if they are good boys, Jell-o."
"No thermometer 'cause we broke it." Charlie pulled the blanket it and wrapped it around his shoulders.
"You broke it?" Margaret had bought that thermometer just before she had gotten sick and he had laughed, saying their kids were grown, when were they going to use a thermometer? But he had, countless times, keeping track and recording Margaret's temperature for the oncologist. Many times he himself had wanted to throw it against the wall in frustration.
"When you were sick, Don and I…"
Alan had to laugh. His two sons, both with extremely high IQs, somehow managed to destroy a digital thermometer. "It's okay, Charlie. I'll use the tried and true method passed down from generations—" He leaned forward and kissed the hot, dry forehead. "Yup, got a fever."
"Thank you, Dr. Eppes."
"You're welcome, Dr. Eppes." Alan tugged the blanket away from Charlie and held it up. "Now scoot down. Close your eyes. Sleep."
"I hate Jell-o."
"I'll let you in on a little secret. No one likes Jell-o."
Charlie huffed at his father's joke, tugged at the blanket with enough force to undo all of Alan's hard work and cocooned himself in the quilt.
* * *
He didn't care if Charlie hated Jell-o. Everyone loved the stuff when they were sick so Alan prepared two batches and stuck them in the fridge to set. He turned on the TV then went to check on Charlie, who was still sleeping, still feverish and still batted away his attempt to pull the blanket down.
* * *
He put the plate of grilled cheese and chips on the side table. Two bites into the sandwich and he found himself contemplating going back upstairs to check on Charlie when the phone rang.
Alan smiled at the familiar, nervous voice at the other end. "Hello, Larry."
"I'm just—I apologize for not calling sooner, but there was a—is Charlie feeling better?"
"How did you—"
"I overstepped my boundaries and ventured into the medical profession. The nurse here on staff is a very nice woman but I don't believe he—one could see just by looking at the poor boy that he shouldn't have been in school so I—his bike is still here, by the way."
"Thank you, Larry." Alan wondered when in hell he'd learned to follow Larry's train of thought. His son's mentor and friend always made him feel a touch of guilt at how well *he* seemed to know Charlie, which only increased Alan's feelings of inadequacy at always missing something important about his son. He was learning, though.
"Please convey to Charles that he is not to worry about his class schedule. All will be taken care of… not to say that he can be replaced, that's not what I'm inferring."
"Of course not. I understand and I'm sure Charlie will not only understand but will appreciate everything."
"Tell him we're thinking of him and I'll call tomorrow to see how he's doing. Oh, and Alan, I ordered Charles to give his numbers a rest and drink chicken soup while resting on the couch."
A soft chuckle escaped before Alan could stop it. "I can manage the soup and the couch, but for the numbers, that would take a miracle."
Larry's snort carried over the telephone lines. "Well, one cannot blame us for trying. Just tell him I called."
"Will do. Thanks for calling, oh, and Larry, thank you for being a good friend."
* * *
If the grilled cheese was barely appealing before, it was now cold and nauseating, and the only place it belonged was in the garbage. He picked up the plate, put it down and decided to check on Charlie first.
"Charlie?" Alan had made the turn into the stairwell and didn't get beyond touching the banister when he noticed his bedraggled son coming down the steps.
Charlie blinked at Alan in surprise. "I heard the phone. Is Don okay?"
"Don? Of course Donnie's okay. Why would you thing—oh, the phone? That was Larry, just asking how you were."
Alan climbed the stairs and stood on the step in front of Charlie. "What are you doing out of bed? Do you want something?"
Charlie cocked his head to the top of the steps. "I had to use the bathroom. I heard you on the phone and… Dad?"
He closed his eyes and sighed. "I don't think I feel well."
"Larry and I came to the same conclusion, son. Come on, let's get you back to bed."
Charlie's eyes opened. "No bed."
"Couch. Too uncomfortable to lie down in bed anymore." He gazed at his father in confusion. "That sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? Too sick to lie down."
"Unless you've moved all the furniture, isn't the couch downstairs?"
Alan smiled as Charlie's voice regressed into pre-puberty tones. "Couch it is."
* * *
"Drink it," Alan ordered.
Charlie gazed at the glass suspiciously.
"Oh, come on. It's only tea with honey, honest."
"Aunt Sarah's recipe?" Charlie rasped.
"Yup. See?" He raised the cup. "Glass. Spoon. Honey…"
"More than is healthy for you. Drink." He kissed Charlie's forehead when he bent down to hand him the tea.
Alan shook his head. "You still have a fever. Even *after* the Tylenol."
Charlie blew the steam away from the glass. "I could have told you that."
"Well I'm going to call Paul."
"Aww, Dad, please don't call Dr. Scott. He's a pediatrician."
"A doctor who happens to be a close family friend. I'm just going to ask him, Charlie, I'm betting your fever is over 102… I'm just concerned. Okay?"
"Okay with the concern, *not* okay with telephone call."
Alan ignored the "if looks could kill" glance from Charlie who then focused his attention on the tea.
* * *
"You want any more?"
Alan plucked the glass from Charlie's hands, frowning at the amount left behind. "I'm putting it right here. On the table, in case you want it later. Paul said to make sure you were hydrated."
"What else did he say?"
"There's a virus going around. Fevers, malaise, chills."
Charlie smirked. "I knew that."
"And he wished me luck, because he remembered how bad a patient you always were."
* * *
Charlie was stretched out on the couch, seeing but not watching TV. Alan had brought down his pillow and blanket and Charlie had burrowed underneath it, contrary to his wish of not lying down, but his silence was a better gauge than the fever as to how rotten he felt.
Alan exchanged the sandwich and chips for a bowl of cereal and added a bottle of water next to Charlie's unfinished tea. He glanced over and felt a bit little better when Charlie snaked an arm out from under the blanket, reached over, grabbed the bottle and took a sip. Then another. Alan ate the cereal, watched television and made no comment as Charlie nursed the majority of the water.
Alan brought his dish to the kitchen, came back and took the water bottle dangling from Charlie's fingers and used that excuse to lay his cheek against Charlie's hot one.
"You're obsessing, Dad."
"Not obsessing. I'm being a father. There's a difference."
"You could've fooled me."
"Sorry? Why? Did I miss something?"
Alan waved his hand the length of Charlie's body. "You're sick because of me. I was sick and now you're—"
"Dad? Do me a favor and put your guilt away, alright?" He cocked his head at the empty chair. "Sit. Read. Watch television. Go to bed. I'll be fine."
Alan tucked the blanket under the couch cushions. "And what are you going to do?"
Charlie yawned, then closed his eyes. "Silence the numbers."
* * *
Both the clock on the wall and his watch read six thirty, but Alan swore it was closer to midnight. The night was too long for his taste and he was too antsy to do anything but move from room to room, nothing holding his attention for more than a few minutes. Even he had to admit he was obsessing on Charlie and stopped checking him for fever after the last time when Charlie, in a fever-induced dream, murmured "mom?" as Alan placed his hand against Charlie's cheek. The scenario was a little to painful to revisit at the moment so he just left sleeping professors sleep.
* * *
He hadn't wanted to call Charlie in on this case, he had hoped that the statisticians and computer experts within the FBI would be enough to crack the case, but as Don picked up the box of paperwork from the front seat of his truck, he once again had to concede that his little brother was what they needed to pull it all together. Don shifted the box as he traveled up the walk, actually glad he had decided to drag the mountain to Mohammed and maybe get dinner in the process.
"Dad? Charlie?" He dumped the box by the door, loosened his tied, slipped it off, then crumbled it up and stuck it in his pocket. The stain of taco sauce from this afternoon's lunch had already signed the tie's death warrant.
Don stepped into the well-lit kitchen, a bit confused with the center island filled with vegetables and other foodstuff. He picked up a sliver of celery and took a bite. "Dad? Cleaning the fridge?"
His father popped his head up from behind the opened fridge door. "Nope." He stood, closed the door and dropped two carrots and a bottle of seltzer next the celery. "Making chicken soup for Charlie."
"Charlie? Chicken soup? It's almost seven o'clock, you worked today, didn't you? Why the hell does he expect you—"
"Quiet," Alan shushed. "Charlie didn't ask me to do anything. Quite the contrary." He opened the oven to check on whatever was cooking. "Needs about another twenty minutes."
"Dad? What the heck is going on?"
He flashed Don a quick smile. "Thanks to me your brother is sick."
"Thanks to you. Oh… the virus you had. I understand, kind of." Don grabbed a carrot and took a bite, contemplating his father's practiced moves as he prepared the vegetables. "So because Charlie's sick—this is guilt-laden soup?"
"No!" Shocked at the mere suggestion, he glared at Don then rolled his eyes. "Okay, you caught me. Guilt-chicken soup."
"Oh, you're going for grandma's recipe then?" Don ducked the dish towel his dad chucked at him. "Where's Charlie?"
Alan, pointed to the living room. "Couch. He's sleeping. Or he was as of ten minutes ago."
* * *
Charlie wasn't sleeping. He didn't look too awake but he wasn't sleeping. He was sitting sideways, his head and left side of his body propped up against the back of the couch. Don maneuvered his ass between Charlie's feet and the end of the couch and squeezed his brother's calf in greeting. He got a limp wave and a minute smile in response.
"You look a bit rough around the edges."
Charlie just nodded and sighed. With his foot he pushed at Don's thigh. "Don't get too close," Charlie warned in a barely audible voice.
"Dad's in the kitchen making enough chicken soup to feed the entire block. There's more than enough to go around in case I get sick."
"The good kind," Don whispered conspiratorially. "Grandma's."
"No, not yet. And I'm starving."
"Jell-o." Charlie chuckled hoarsely. "I'm sure Dad made Jell-o. You can always have a cup or two of that."
"Me too," Charlie agreed, "told him so, but I'm betting he still made it."
"Hate orange. Hate blue even worse."
"Blue Jell-o? There's such an animal? Dare I ask—"
Charlie yawned. "Blueberry." He dropped backwards onto his pillow. "Where are you going for dinner?"
"The Eppes' kitchen?"
"Nothing interesting. Believe me, I know. I had breakfast there."
Charlie squirmed. "No. Though I wouldn't mind Chinese."
"Chinese? I really don't think that's the food of choice for—"
"Egg drop? Extra noodles."
Don stayed a few minutes longer, watching as Charlie fought then lost the battle with staying awake. He had the strangest feeling that they would be heating up Charlie's egg drop soup sometime later tonight.
* * *
Alan was back rummaging through the fridge when Don entered the kitchen. "Dad, I'm going to go get some Chinese food. Want anything?"
"Want. Damn, no I need more..." He slammed the door shut, hard enough for the bottles on the door to rattle. "Oh, Donnie. Sorry." Alan scrubbed a hand through his hair. "I could have sworn—did you say Chinese food?"
"Charlie mentioned egg drop soup." He pointed to the pot on the stove. "I figured it would be awhile, so—" It was actually easier to blame his food run on a sick Charlie than to have his father fuss over feeding him.
"I have an idea. You call Lu's Kitchen. Order. I'll pick it up. I need to run to the store anyway."
"No, Dad." Don shook his head. "*I'll* go to the store and pick up the Chinese food."
Alan was already stuffing his wallet and keys into his pocket. "No, by the time I tell you exactly what I need, I could be to the store and back. 'Cause if they don't have what I want, I can substitute, you on the other hand will—"
"Okay, I get the picture." Obviously he was never going to live down the time when he was twelve and he'd brought home cabbage instead of lettuce. Hell, he was a kid and they were both green and round. Worked for him. Worked for mom, too. Big deal, they had stuffed cabbage instead of tacos that night.
Don followed his dad to the door. "What am I ordering for you?"
"I don't care," Alan answered, already distracted. "Surprise me."
Don shook his head at the closed door. "I hate when he does that."
He jumped when the door opened again and his father peeked his head in. "Do me a favor? Leave the chicken in the oven; it'll be finished by the time I return. The soup is on a low flame. Just stir it occasionally. Do not add salt, pepper or anything else in the kitchen that strikes your fancy."
* * *
The crumbled menu was stuck to the side of the fridge, but Don really didn't need it to order, just for the number. Not in the mood to be adventurous, he ordered the usual, replaced the menu then lifted the lid on the simmering soup, took a sip, added a touch of salt and balanced the cover to allow steam to escape. "Needed salt."
"Whatcha going give me if I promise not to tell dad you added—"
"Ah jeeze, Charlie." Don jumped and the spoon he still held in his hand fell to the floor. "What are you doing out of bed?" He retrieved the spoon, tossed it into the sink, then wiped the spill up with a wad of paper towels.
"Theoretically, I wasn't in bed. I was on the couch."
"Sleeping. You were sleeping." He was around the island in two strides, grabbing Charlie's elbow. "You can barely stand upright. Sit."
Charlie eased himself into a kitchen chair.
"Are you *trying* to get me in trouble?" He turned on the faucet, let it run, then presented Charlie with a large glass of water. "Getting yelled out for adding salt would be nothing compared to how angry Dad would be if you fell while I was babysitting."
"Babysitting?" Charlie's snort of indignation over Don's teasing turned into a harsh, deep cough and Don slid the glass of water closer to his brother.
"You sound great."
Charlie smiled tightly, then downed half the glass before pushing it to the side. He crossed his arms then lowered his head into the pillow they created. He blinked at Don. "Where's dad?"
Which to Don sounded more like "'eres ad" and it took him a second or two to wrap his head around what exactly Charlie was asking. He refilled the glass and stuck it in front of Charlie's face. "Drink. You sound like—"
Charlie snarled at Don, cleared his throat then drank only half the glass. "Better?"
The voice was still, raspy and tough, but understandable.
"Better," he agreed. "Dad's at the store picking up who the hell knows what along with the Chinese food."
"Want to tell me what you brought for me to look at?"
"Look at?" With Charlie's voice being barely above a whisper, filled with breathy, high pitched stops and starts, Don wasn't sure he had really asked to see what Don had brought.
"You did bring something you needed me to look over, didn't you?" He rubbed his face along his forearms. "A case?"
"Why would you think that?"
Charlie squinted at the microwave. "Because you rarely come over *just* to visit."
"That's not true. So not true." He snatched the half-empty glass and placed it in the sink.
Charlie fisted his hands, placed one atop the other, then rested his chin on them. He coughed, the fists wobbled and he adjusted them, digging his chin into the crevice created by his thumb and pointer finger. "Okay, maybe you come over for brisket."
Don had to smile when Charlie innocently blinked at him. "More than brisket… I also come over to…"
"Do your laundry?"
"Of course, how else will I pass the time waiting for dinner to be cooked?"
"Don," he whined, shifting positions. "I'm bored."
"The paperwork I brought is even more boring." He touched Charlie's forehead with the palm of his hand.
"You're obsessing, like dad," he hissed, jerking his head to side.
Don ignored Charlie with a soft exhalation of air. "You still have a fever."
"So I'm feverishly bored," he groused.
* * *
Don was watching some horrible sitcom. Relaxed. Sprawled on the chair while Charlie added the background noise of snores. Charlie looked horrible and sounded even worse. Fever glazed eyes, darkened shadows across the planes of his face, but he had been annoyingly insistent about seeing the files. So Don had played his game under the condition that Charlie would review the documents from the couch.
Charlie had fought valiantly and had managed a total of ten minutes before he drifted to sleep, still holding his pencil in one hand and an open folder in the other. Don had removed both, turned off Charlie's laptop which wasn't even warm to the touch then covered him up, chuckling at how well he really did know his brother.
"Don't move anything," Charlie mumbled before he turned over. "I'm not finished."
"Sure," Don agreed. "Everything's staying right here."
* * *
Alan could feel his older son watching him as he shredded the chicken. "What's the matter," he asked without turning around.
"Your food's getting cold."
"That's why God invented the microwave." Alan tossed a disparaging look over his shoulder when he realized that Don was sitting there without opening a single container. "Eat," he ordered. "I'm almost done. See?" With a flourish, Alan threw the last of the chicken pieces into the simmering pot, deposited the leftovers in the garbage and left the pan in the sink to soak. "As promised. All done." He sniffed the air appreciatively while wiping his hands on a towel. "Smells good."
"Smells great," Don corrected as he began to open the containers.
"What smells great? The soup or the Chinese food?" Alan teased. He snatched up a few cartons. "Let's go eat in the dining room." He nodded to the soup pot. "A watched pot never boils. Come on," he urged when he noted Don was still sitting.
* * *
Alan paused mid-forkful when he noticed Don was once again staring at Charlie's restless, sleeping form. "Is there a problem?"
Alan knew that "hand in the cookie jar" smile. The 'who me'? lift of the lips that really didn't reach his older son's eyes. This was the look that had won Donnie many a hand at poker.
"Do I only come over to—do I just come over to just shoot the breeze?" He was twirling the lo mein abstractly with his fork. "I mean--Charlie mentioned--do I just come and *hang out?* Or are my reasons purely self-absorbed reasons." "You come for brisket." Don laughed. "That's what Charlie said." He sobered quickly, and Alan didn't miss the quick glance over his shoulder at Charlie. Alan tapped his fork against Don's plate. "Eat." Obediently, Don stuck the forkful of food into his mouth. "I'm just glad you come to visit. Selfishly enough, I don't *care* what the reason is." Alan contemplated his peppered steak, pushing aside the overabundance of onions. "Hate that they do that, who could possibly like that many onions," he said with an annoyed sigh of exasperation. "Charlie's your brother. He has always known every single way to burrow under your skin, as you do to him. It comes from familiarity--" "Familiarity breeds contempt." Alan inclined his head. "It also breeds love and understanding." He chewed the slice of peppered steak, then wiped his mouth with the napkin. "Charlie is happy to see you here any time you arrive. Thrilled. Overjoyed, for whatever the reason is you show up on this doorstep, but remember, *you* are his big brother and he'll do *anything* to goad you along, to get the upper hand. It's called sibling rivalry. Hell, it's possibly the only *normal* thing about this family, and I love to see it in action."
* * *
The drone of the TV cut through his light sleep and Charlie slowly opened his eyes. He ached, to the point that even his hair hurt. Grown men don't whimper, he rationalized as he forced his body into an upright position. He stayed there, counted to ten then hastily grabbed a pillow and shoved it over his face, cringing at the low, harsh cough muffled by the pillow.
"Not sure. Could be just a sinus infection."
Charlie hesitantly lowered the pillow then peeked over the top at two pairs of concerned eyes. "What time is it?" His voice was just barely there and he could see in the dim light of the room it took his father and brother a moment to register what he had just said.
"At night?" His sense of time was really skewed. Charlie had thought it was either way later than it was or way earlier, like next day earlier. Morning earlier. He did have to smile when Don and their dad bumped hands as they simultaneously rushed to touch his forehead. "Don't bother," he replied, blocking their advances with the pillow. "I'm still sick. I still have a fever." He coughed again into the pillow. "And I now obviously have developed a *new* symptom as well."
So many parts of Charlie's body were warring for attention. His head was battling with is empty stomach. His stomach was vying with his bladder. His bladder was arguing with lethargic limbs. Ever methodical, he performed a mental calculation of order of importance, and relieving his bladder won by a landslide.
He must look horrible. It was a scary thought that he must have looked even more horrible than he felt, because neither his father nor Don moved away from the couch. Charlie tossed the pillow to the side and glanced with unmitigated humor as the two men both offered their hands for assistance. "I can manage on my own," he croaked, standing. "I just need to use the bathroom."
Upon his return to the living room, Charlie wasn't surprised to see them still hovering around the couch. Actually, he had been a little shocked that they hadn't been waiting outside the bathroom door. "I've been toilet trained since three," Charlie said, trying to assuage the look of worry on Alan's face.
"Don't be a smart aleck," Alan warned, pointing to the couch. "You want anything to eat?"
Charlie declined all offers of food with a slight shake of his head, but accepted the two Tylenol and glass of juice Don produced, while his Dad watched in true smothering fashion, nodding his approval when he finished the juice down to the last drop.
Bed. Sleep was beckoning, but the mere thought of Don and his dad following him up the stairs and tucking him in like a child was a bit over the top, so he patted the couch, grabbed the pillow, shoved it behind his head and turned towards the cushions, cutting off their concern and murmuring his appreciation.
* * *
One minute he was sleeping. The next he was up. Awake. Hungry. His stomach growled in protest after being ignored all day. He shifted positions, coughed into the pillow and tried to find comfort and go back to sleep. But his stomach had other ideas, grumbling and rolling in a not-so-gentle reminder.
He grabbed the back of the couch, then pulled himself into a sitting position, once again counting to ten before sliding his legs to the floor. Charlie ran through another set of numbers then stood, followed by another set before gaining his equilibrium and shuffled towards the kitchen.
The house was dark, his father was fast asleep in the chair by the TV and his loud snores accompanied Charlie's trek through the house and he stood in the doorway leading into the kitchen, and contemplated his reason for being there.
"Hey!" He jumped, startled at the hand that dropped heavily onto his shoulder.
"Tag you're it," Don whispered into his ear.
Charlie grabbed onto the doorjamb. "You scared the crap outta me."
"Sorry. I didn't mean to." Don slung an arm around Charlie's shoulder. "Hey, you know, you've still got a fever." He offered up a sympathetic sigh. "Do you know what this means?"
"Dad's gonna make me go to the doctor tomorrow?"
* * *
He managed three spoonfuls of reheated egg drop soup before his stomach decided that it was full, and much to Don's consternation, which he ignored, Charlie pushed the dish away. "I need to sleep," he mumbled, smacking his lips, then turned and squinted at the microwave clock. "It's late. What are you still doing here?"
"I actually was just leaving when I noticed you standing by the kitchen, a bit bewildered as to why—"
"I wasn't bewildered," Charlie defended. "I was contemplating between egg drop soup or chicken soup. Not bewildered," he protested, pulling the sweatshirt up around his ears and the sleeves over his fingers. "I need the folder I was working on." He flapped a sweatshirt-covered hand at Don. "The case—"
"I put it away."
Charlie buried a cough in his shoulder. "I told you not to touch it."
"Was that before or after you mentioned that I never just come over to visit without an ulterior motive?"
"I didn't!" Charlie blinked at Don as he felt the heat of embarrassment coloring his cheeks even more than the fever.
"I did," Charlie sighed, slumping back into the chair. He scrunched his face up. "I don't remember. Maybe it was the fever talking?" he asked hopefully.
"No," Don said, standing and stretching. "Maybe it was the truth." Charlie watched Don take his bowl of soup to the sink, then turned, leaning one hip against the counter. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Charlie hurriedly added, clearing his throat. "Don't be," he said, adding a little more clarity and weight to his voice. "There's dinner, and poker games." He smiled a little.
"Those visits are in the minority." Don shook his head, returning to where he had been sitting. He slowly lowered himself into the chair, his eyes downcast. "That's wrong."
"But you're here," Charlie answered with a shrug. "That's what matters to dad—and to me," he added hastily. "Hey, it goes both ways, nothing's stopping me from calling and doing dinner, or lunch. I won't let you hog all the blame, it isn't right."
Don laughed. "Yeah, you say that now, but where were you when I was fourteen and I broke the window in the solarium because *you* wanted to work out the specific arc of a—"
Charlie gave a cavernous yawn in the face of Don's memories. "Sorry," he apologized, scrubbing at his eyes with his fingers. "I would love to reminisce—"
"I know, I know. You got out of it that time as well, something about—"
"He had the chicken pox," Alan added from the doorway. "*You* were supposed to be keeping an eye on him while your mom picked me up from work when my car broke down." Alan walked over to Don and kissed him on the head. "Parents have very long memories." He pointed to Charlie. "You should be in bed and *you*, he said with a squeeze to Don's shoulder, "need to get some sleep also. You can stay if you want."
"Nope. Need to get on home."
Charlie coughed, the type of cough that hurt, deep within his chest, and he fought valiantly not to rub his ribs when he finished. He didn't need to add any more fuel to their worry. "I'm okay," he answered to the question they didn't even ask.
"Sure," Don answered, patting Charlie's head as he passed his chair. "Doctor. Tomorrow. Dad, do me a favor, call my cell, I'll help you carry—I mean, drag him to the doctor."
"Better bring the cuffs along, the last time we tried—"
"I was a kid," Charlie protested hoarsely.
"Your point?" Don added. "Go to sleep, Charlie. 'Cause if you don't, then Dad will be up all night walking the floors."
"He's right, you know," Alan agreed innocently.
"So Dad's insomnia will be my fault? I'm sick."
"You tried that when I broke the window, you don't get a second chance to use that excuse."
* * *
Alan placed the glass of water on the night table, smiling as a heavy-lidded Charlie tracked his movements.
"Thanks," he whispered.
Alan bent and kissed the still too-warm forehead, pulling the blanket up around Charlie's shoulders. "I wasn’t kidding about the doctor."
"I know. Wake me up by seven so I can call in—"
"I told Larry when he called… actually I believe Larry told me that he was telling the appropriate people—Charlie?" Charlie was already sleeping. "I'm here if you need me," Alan whispered to his son. "And just so you know, Don was wrong. Doesn't make a difference if you're sleeping upstairs or down—you're sick and I'm a parent." He pushed the curls off of Charlie's flushed cheek. "Sleep is out of the question whether it's chicken pox or a sinus infection. Whether you're nine or twenty nine. Parenthood shows no distinction on age. A child is a child.
"Which means, no REM sleep for me." He stopped and listened to Charlie's mathematical muttering, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder, staying his position under the murmuring faded off. "Just as a precaution, I'm gonna have the doctor give a quick once over of your brother tomorrow." He tucked the blanket even tighter around Charlie as he remembered his oldest son's cough and handful of sneezes before Don left for home. "Contrary to popular belief, you guys always manage to do *everything* together."
Author's Comments: Thanks to jo for the beta and for more reasons than I have space for in this zero post. And always to Marcia, my bubbala, for the constant encouragement. Ah yes, the word that Alan uses "ke nignehore" means not to tempt the evil eye and I have to thank the knoshmosh site, because while my grandma may have drummed the meaning into my head, she sure didn't tell me how to spell it.
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