Chapter One

 

“IS IT St. Patrick’s Day already?” Gerald, one of Brendon’s colleagues, called as they passed each other in the hallway. Brendon stopped and glanced down at his shirt and pants. He was wearing khakis and a green T-shirt—what was wrong with that? Brendon continued walking, actually hurrying toward the department meeting. He was already late because he’d gotten wrapped up in the paper he’d been working on for the past two months, and everything was finally coming together. He hated these meetings because they pulled him away from his work and tended to highlight how he didn’t fit in with the rest of the department.

“Nice of you to join us, Dr. Marcus,” the chair of the chemistry department, Dr. Nungesser, said as Brendon stepped into the room. All eyes turned to him, and Brendon tried his best to find a seat at the back of the room and disappear. “And a happy St. Patrick’s Day to you too,” he added, and everyone in the room snickered.

Brendon turned toward the windows that looked out into the hallway of the brand-new science building and suppressed a groan. He needed to remember to look in the mirror before he left the house. Yes, he was wearing a green shirt, like he thought, but why hadn’t he noticed the huge shamrock with the dancing leprechaun on the front holding a pint of beer? His sister had given him the damned thing as a joke, and he’d stuck it in his closet along with everything else.

“Now that Dr. Marcus and his shirt have joined us, we can continue,” Dr. Nungesser stated and began to drone on about the various departmental business that was so urgent he had to call the meeting even though they’d discussed the same topics at the past three meetings and nothing ever happened.

Brendon half listened, but spent most of the time running formulas in his head for the paper he desperately wanted to get back to. Everyone else seemed to be listening intently, and Brendon wished he’d remembered to bring a pad and pen with him. It wasn’t like he was absentminded, but he’d had a breakthrough, and he knew he’d keep running the formulas over and over until he wrote them down. Until he did, a part of his mind was afraid he’d forget, so the formulas and the arguments around them kept circling, like a plane in a holding pattern.

“Dr. Marcus.”

Brendon looked up from where he’d been staring at his shoes. “Yes?” he said calmly.

“Are you paying attention? This isn’t class, where you can get the notes from another student,” Dr. Nungesser chided snidely.

“Yes, sir,” Brendon said softly and continued running his formulas in his head. He was really beginning to get excited. What had begun as a purely academic exercise on his part was turning out to be helpful in explaining why certain isotopes behaved the way they did. It wasn’t the total answer, but it was a step, possibly a leap, and Brendon desperately wanted to get back to work.

“Then why don’t you enlighten us, since your shoes seem so fascinating?” Dr. Nungesser said. Brendon hadn’t even realized where he was looking, and he raised his gaze to Dr. Nungesser’s disapproving expression. “It’s no secret I didn’t want you in my department, and it looks like I was right.” Brendon blinked a few times. “So please enlighten us.”

“You were explaining about such weighty issues as what the department was going to do as part of the campus’s upcoming Halloween charity celebrations. Dr. Gold suggested we create a mad scientist laboratory, which you all agreed was a bit predictable. Dr. Diebus suggested borrowing a skeleton from the biology department and creating an embalming studio, which is a bit more creative,” Brendon said as the formulas continued circling in his mind. “You decided to table the decision till next week, and now you’re discussing the possible changes to the curriculum for next fall.” Brendon stared at Dr. Nungesser as he turned beet red from his chin to his ears, but he barely saw him. The formulas he was working on were definitely more interesting.

“Then let’s continue,” Dr. Nungesser said after clearing his throat.

“Actually, it might be interesting to recreate Madame Curie’s lab for Halloween,” Brendon interjected. “Her notebooks are still radioactive, so we could make them glow in the dark, and we could set up some fake Geiger counters that went off after people walked by the samples of radium. Stuff like that.” Brendon quieted and heard on a peripheral level the overlapping voices of the other people in the room. They seemed to like his idea, but all Brendon wanted to do was get back to his paper. The last one of these meetings had gone on for almost two hours, and Brendon was getting itchy as hell.

“Please, if we could get back to the topic of our curriculum,” Dr. Nungesser said in an annoyed tone. Someone thrust a pad and pencil in front of him, and Brendon lifted his gaze. Dr. Schurr smiled, and Brendon took the pad and furiously began to scribble down his ideas. By the time he was done, the meeting was over and Brendon had filled pages and pages of the pad with notes and formulas that seemed to have poured from his mind like some sort of computer core dump.

“Brendon,” Dr. Schurr said softly as everyone left the meeting. “Can I have a word?”

“Okay,” Brendon said as he cradled the pad to his chest like a precious relic. His mind was calmer now. All the information swirling around was now safely on paper, and he could relax. Brendon followed the professor he’d first had as a freshman here at Dickinson, before going on to Cal Tech for his master’s and eventually his doctorate. They ended up in Dr. Schurr’s office, and he closed the door.

“You shouldn’t antagonize Nungesser like that.”

“But, Dr. Schurr, I…,” Brendon began.

“Call me Frank. You aren’t my student any longer. And you have to know that Nungesser will be on you constantly. Why do you think you’re teaching all freshman classes? He didn’t want you, but the dean did.”

Brendon swallowed hard. “I figured it was because I was new,” he said, sitting in one of the chairs.

“It has nothing to do with you being new. It’s because you’re a hell of a lot younger than he is and a world smarter. Nungesser got his doctorate ages ago, and he wheedled his way up to department head. And he’ll wheedle you right out the door, whiz kid or not.” Frank lifted the carafe off his coffeemaker and poured two mugs before handing one to Brendon. “Although there probably isn’t anything you can do about it either.”

“But I didn’t do anything. He asked me a question, and I answered it.” Brendon set the mug on the edge of the desk and showed Frank the pages he’d scribbled during the meeting. “Look at this. I got all the formulas to work out, and even the logic is perfect. I can prove on paper how this entire isotope family will behave under almost any conditions. Now all I need to do is prove it in the lab.”

“You’ll need Nungesser to sign off on the equipment,” Frank said, “and you know he’s going to fight you the entire way.”

“But this will be good for the university,” Brendon said. “It could lead to millions in research grants, and a great deal of prestige that will bring more students here. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?”

Frank took the pad, pulled on a pair of reading glasses, and began flipping through the pages. “You did this during the meeting?”

“I was working on it before the meeting,” Brendon said before glancing at the clock on the wall. “Shoot, I gotta go get ready for class.”

“Are you going to teach in that?” Frank asked, pointing to his shirt. Brendon shrugged. He didn’t have enough time to go home and change. Frank opened his desk drawer and pulled out an old blue polo shirt. “Put this on before you get to class. It’s probably a bit big, but you can tuck it in, and at least you won’t have the students laughing at you.”

“Thanks,” Brendon said as he took the shirt and then hurried out the door. He then rushed back in to grab the notepad and darted out again, nearly colliding with a pair of girls, who giggled and then laughed outright when they saw his shirt. Yes, he definitely needed to look in the mirror before he left the house.

Brendon made it to his tiny office and closed the door. He pulled off the offending shirt and shoved it in a bottom drawer before he put on the polo and tucked it in. Then he grabbed his laptop with his class presentations on it, picked up the stack of papers he’d been working on, and left the office, rushing as fast as he dared through the hordes of students. His phone chimed, and he reached to get it out of his pocket.

WHAM! Brendon slammed into what felt like a brick wall and ended up falling backward, skidding along the floor on his butt. His papers and phone went flying, and Brendon sat, stunned, for a few seconds.

“Sorry,” the brick wall said, and Brendon blinked a few times as the man reached out a beefy hand to him. “Didn’t see you there,” the huge man said, and Brendon shied back. He’d spent way too much of his life running from guys like this to react any other way. “Let me help you up,” the man said, practically yanking Brendon back onto his feet.

“My papers,” Brendon said, thankful the laptop hadn’t gone flying along with everything else. The man helped him gather his things, and Brendon retrieved his miraculously undamaged phone.

“I think that’s all of it,” the man said, and Brendon thanked him and then hurried on to his class. He arrived disheveled and shaken, but thankfully on time. He hooked up his laptop to the network connection and booted it up.

“Hey, Prof, what happened to the dancing leprechaun?” one of the kids in the back of the room asked.

“He bit the dust,” Brendon said and began his lecture. He followed the text for the class, but when he had been in school, the best instructors were those who went off the script a bit and added their own insights, so that was how he taught, and before he knew it, the fifty-minute class was over. Of course, students talked to him after class, stopping to ask questions before heading on their way to their next class. Brendon was always grateful he didn’t have back-to-back classes, so he hung around until the students had left. Then he gathered his things and headed back to his office.

Once inside, he placed his laptop on his desk, booted it up, and began going through the stack of jumbled papers he’d gathered off the floor. “Where is it?” Brendon asked himself as he sorted through everything. The notepad with everything in it for his paper was gone. He looked everywhere. He hadn’t meant to take it with him to class, but he must have grabbed it with the other papers, and when he fell it had gone flying. Brendon shook as he plopped in his chair. He’d put all his ideas in those notes. Since writing them, he hadn’t thought about his formulas or how everything fit together, because it was all in his notes. Sure, he could try to replicate the information, but he wasn’t in the same place mentally, and it would take hours for him to recreate everything and then check it all over again. He needed those notes. Brendon sorted through his office again, putting everything in its place just to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. He hadn’t, so he left his office and hurried back to where he’d dropped his papers. Nothing. The hallway sparkled, without any papers or notebook. Then, without any other recourse, he went back to his office and turned to his computer, opened a file, and began to try to remember what it was he’d been thinking.

An hour later, he didn’t have much. His frustration was blocking his thought processes, he knew that, but he was so angry at himself. And to make matters worse, the text he’d received that had caused the whole collision earlier was some marketing thing from his service provider. Texting and driving was dangerous, Brendon reminded himself, but he shouldn’t walk and text at the same time—it could be detrimental to his research.

A knock sounded on his door, which Brendon ignored at first because he was just starting to make progress. It sounded again, and he reached behind him and opened the door before returning to his typing. “Can I help you?” Brendon asked as he finished getting down one of the ideas he’d had.

“I’m sorry, but I think you dropped this earlier.”

Brendon turned to see the huge man he’d collided with in the hall holding the notepad. Brendon nearly snatched it out of his hand and then looked through it.

“Thank you,” he said with a relieved sigh. It was all there, and as soon as he saw his writing, the ideas he’d had flooded through his mind once again.

“I found it halfway down the hall, and it took me a while to locate you. I kept looking for a student,” he said, and Brendon glanced up to find the man looking him over. “I’m Joshua Horton. And no, I’ve never heard a who.” Brendon looked at him blankly, wondering what he was talking about. “Dr. Seuss, you know.”

Brendon shook his head. “Never read any of that stuff.”

“No way,” Joshua said. “How could you have missed that?”

“When other kids were interested in things like that, my mother was helping me read Treasure Island.” Brendon put down the notepad. “I’m Brendon Marcus,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m an associate professor of chemistry.”

“My friends call me Josh or Freight Train. I’m the new assistant football coach,” Josh said as he pumped Brendon’s hand hard. When Josh released it, Brendon’s hand tingled, and he wondered where that had come from. Maybe Josh had caused nerve damage or something. “Sorry I bumped into you and spilled all your stuff. Did you get everything back?”

“I did now,” Brendon said with a smile of relief. “Thanks again. I had a bunch of ideas in there, and it was going to take a lot of time to try to recreate them.” Brendon wondered exactly how long he had to chitchat before he could return to his work. Eventually he began to shift in his chair. “Um, I need to get back to work now.”

“Okay. I should be going, then,” Josh said, and Brendon turned around and returned to his computer, but he didn’t hear Josh leave and eventually he turned back around. “Is there something I forgot?” He started to run through the social conventions his mother had taught him. Brendon never seemed to understand other people. He didn’t read facial expressions well, and vocalisms like sarcasm were simply beyond him. Lots of people thought he didn’t care, but he did care—he simply didn’t understand. Should he have offered Josh coffee? He didn’t think so. They really didn’t know each other. He reached for his wallet. “Do you need a reward?” He already had his wallet in his hand when Josh touched his arm.

“No,” Josh said.

Brendon looked at him, confused. “I need to go back to work, but you’re still standing here. Therefore I must have forgotten something, but I can’t figure out what it is.” Brendon was becoming agitated as he twisted his seat around and stared up at Josh, the Freight Train guy.

“You didn’t forget anything, String Bean. I was just trying to figure out how to ask if you might like to get some dinner or something?”

Brendon blinked. “No, thank you. I’m not hungry and I have to finish my work.” Brendon turned around to face his computer again. If the man didn’t leave now, he didn’t know how he could get him to go. He heard nothing from behind him, and for a second he thought Josh might have left, but then he heard laughter. “I don’t think I said anything funny,” Brendon said, looking over his shoulder.

“I wasn’t asking you to get dinner now. I thought I could come back here about five o’clock, and we could walk someplace nearby to get something to eat.” Brendon felt Josh place his hand on the back of his chair. “You do eat, don’t you?”

“Of course I eat,” Brendon said. “Everyone has to eat.”

“Then would you have dinner with me tonight?” Josh asked.

“Okay,” Brendon said and then turned back around to go to work. “But I don’t eat squishy food or fishy food.” He began typing. “Or stringy meat.” He shivered at the thought of eating any of that stuff. “It all feels funny.”

“Okay,” Josh agreed. “I’ll meet you here at a little after five for a nonsquishy, nonfishy, no-stringy-meat meal.” Brendon nodded and continued working. “Okay, I’ll see you then,” he heard Josh say, but he was already descending into his work and he barely noticed when the door closed. Brendon continued working for about five minutes and then stopped, resting his fingers on the keyboard. He was having dinner with someone. Like, as a friend. Without thinking, he brought up the Internet and began searching for articles on the right social conventions for a situation like that. Did he need to bring a gift? Should he have money to pay? The sources he found said he didn’t need to bring anything unless he was going to someone’s home for dinner, in which case he should bring something small, but it also said he should be prepared to pay for his own meal. He decided he could handle that, so he went back to his work.

Brendon worked like a fiend. His mind was firing on all cylinders, and with his notes, the ideas formed on the screen as quickly as he could type. For minutes or hours—time had little meaning to him when the ideas were flowing—Brendon worked with his head down, until a knock sounded on his door. He ignored it and continued working, typing like a madman. He was so close, and if he got the last of this down, he’d have it. The knock sounded again, and this time he felt a breeze as his door opened.

“You know I can hear you typing through the door,” Josh said, but Brendon didn’t speak, he just continued typing furiously.

“Almost…,” Brendon said as he kept typing, adding the final formula to his document, “there.” Brendon pressed save, then grabbed a flash drive and stuck it into one of the USB ports. After waiting for the computer to register it, Brendon saved the file to the flash drive and then removed it and placed the small memory stick in his backpack. Then he pulled out his keys, unlocked his desk drawer, and pulled out an envelope. From inside the envelope, he pulled out another flash drive and placed it in the computer.

“Don’t you think one backup is enough?” Josh asked with a slight chuckle.

Brendon whirled around in his chair. “What if my laptop is stolen and the flash drive gets corrupted? Then I’d have lost all that work.” He turned back around and saved the file to the second drive. Then he placed it back in the envelope and put it inside the desk drawer before locking it up. Brendon sighed in relief.

“You’re a funny man,” Josh said as Brendon closed his laptop and placed it in his bag.

Brendon paused before closing the zipper. “I don’t think I said anything funny.” Brendon went over the conversation with Josh word for word and couldn’t find anything humorous.

“Never mind,” Josh said. “Did you still want to go to dinner?”

Brendon tried to remember the last time he’d eaten, and he realized it was probably the cereal he’d had for breakfast. “Yes.” He got his jacket and ritually made sure his chair was in position at his desk, his papers were all in their places, his drawer was locked, and even that all his books were on the bookshelf in their proper places, organized by subject and then by author. “We can go now,” Brendon said, but when he turned around, he was alone. Josh was so huge it wasn’t like he could disappear. “Oh,” he said softly.

This had happened before. He was always too smart and got wrapped up too deeply in his own mind and projects. He’d had friends—or, he guessed more accurately, potential friends—before, but they’d never worked out. His mama used to say he was too much for most people. Brendon left his office and closed the door, making sure he had his keys in his pocket and his backpack over his shoulder before locking it. “Are you ready to go?” Josh had been leaning against the wall in the hallway, and he pushed off before striding to where Brendon stood.

“I thought you left,” Brendon said softly.

“It takes more than you being really anal to get rid of me.”

“I’m not anal, I just don’t like to forget things, and if I don’t do things the right way, I forget stuff,” Brendon explained.

“So you’re the absentminded professor,” Josh said, and Brendon once again stared at him a bit blankly.

“My mind is never absent,” Brendon said with a smile, and Josh began to laugh again—a deep, hearty, resonant laugh that Brendon could feel rumble through his body like a big truck did when it went past on the road.

“I didn’t mean it that way. I meant you’re forgetful,” Josh said, and he motioned Brendon down the hall.

“I never forget anything,” Brendon explained. “I remember everything I learn and everything that happens to me. For example, I remember that the day before my sixth birthday, my mother made me French toast for breakfast with butter and powdered sugar. I can almost taste that, and the next day she made me blueberry pancakes, but she burned them. The only time I’m ever able to stop remembering everything is if I write it down. Then my mind stops and sort of relaxes. But then I worry that I’ll lose what I write down, like today.”

“So you always make extra backups,” Josh said.

“Yes. Now I can have dinner without the work running through my head the entire time,” Brendon said. “I used to lie awake for hours every night with things running through my mind. My mother had the idea for me to write things down, and that helped. Once I stayed awake for three days before she was able to help me.”

Josh stopped walking. “So you’re really smart,” he said.

“Yeah, I guess,” Brendon said. He knew he was, but he’d also found out a long time ago that people didn’t want to hear about it. In fact, he should probably stop talking about himself. “What do you do? You said you were the new assistant coach. Is that for football?”

“Yeah, how could you tell?” Josh asked.

Brendon stopped walking. “Based upon your size,” he said evenly.

Josh laughed again. “You don’t understand sarcasm, do you?” Josh asked, and Brendon shook his head as he started walking again.

“I try, but most of it goes over my head. I end up taking most things literally, and that sometimes pisses people off. I don’t mean to, but it happens.” Brendon figured maybe it happened more than he knew.

“It’s okay. I understand now. No sarcasm.” Josh smiled and lightly clapped Brendon on the back, causing him to stumble slightly. “Sorry,” he said and shoved his hands deep into his pockets. “We’re really trying to build up the program, so they created my position to try to add some energy to the offense. We’ve won our first two games, and the team’s working hard.”

“Yeah, I know. I was at the first game,” Brendon said.

Josh stopped. “You like football?”

“Yes,” he answered simply. He wasn’t going to explain that he went because the movement of the players fascinated him, as did the way they looked in their uniforms. The way he felt about… that… was something he kept very much to himself, when he allowed himself to think about it at all. He wasn’t a social person, so he figured he’d never actually find someone to be with. Not that he didn’t want to—he simply didn’t know how to go about it.

“That’s cool,” Josh said, and Brendon faltered for a second.

“It is?” Brendon asked. “I don’t think I’ve ever been cool in my life about anything.” They reached the stairs and descended to the first floor, then headed toward the front door.

“Dr. Marcus,” Dr. Nungesser said from behind him, and Brendon turned around. “It seems your little outburst in the meeting has taken on a life of its own. The department likes your idea for the Halloween celebration, so I’m putting you in charge of it.”

Brendon took a tiny step backward. “No, thank you,” he said politely. “I have many other things to do for the next couple of months. But thank you anyway.” Brendon turned toward the door to leave.

“I wasn’t giving you a choice,” Dr. Nungesser said, and Brendon stopped with the door held open, studying the department head’s expression, trying to understand it.

Josh growled from next to him, and Dr. Nungesser took a step back.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Nungesser, this is Joshua, the new assistant football coach.” They shook hands, and Josh seemed to get bigger and more formidable.

“We’ll talk about this more tomorrow,” Dr. Nungesser said after the two of them released hands, and Brendon left the building with Josh following right behind.

“What a prick,” Josh said. “Who is he, anyway?” Josh strode until he was right next to Brendon, close enough that Brendon could smell his cologne.

“The head of the department. He doesn’t like me,” Brendon said factually and descended the stairs. He’d gotten to the bottom before he realized Josh was still standing at the top, glaring inside the glass-fronted atrium. After a few moments, Josh joined him. “Where are we going to dinner? I stay away from the places around the campus most of the time.”

“Don’t worry, I have the perfect place,” Josh said and motioned toward the main intersection of campus. “It’s just a few blocks.” Brendon nodded and walked next to Josh. It didn’t take long before he thought he’d figured out where they were going.

“Café Belgie?” Brendon asked, and Josh stopped and smiled.

“Is that okay?” They were standing under one of the many trees that lined the streets in Carlisle.

“I like it there,” Brendon said and prepared to continue walking, but Josh just stared at him without moving. Brendon got this jumpy, jittery feeling in his stomach, and at first he thought he must be hungrier than he’d realized, but it didn’t feel like that. “Is something wrong?” Brendon looked down at his clothes, wondering if he was dressed right, and he tried to remember if he’d put the green shirt back on. He hadn’t, but….

“Brendon, I think you’re really cute,” Josh told him, and Brendon tilted his head slightly to the side, watching Josh shift from foot to foot. He was nervous, but Brendon wasn’t sure why. Josh’s breathing was becoming rapid, and he seemed bigger, like when he’d puffed up in front of Dr. Nungesser.

“Are you okay?” Brendon asked, and Josh took his hand. “Are you sure there isn’t something wrong?”

“No, there’s nothing wrong. But I want to ask you something.” Josh moved a little closer. “Can I kiss you?”

Brendon blinked a few times and then looked away. “No one’s ever kissed me except my mother, and that was, well, my mother.”

“Is that a yes?” Josh asked.

“Okay, but why?” Brendon asked.

“You want me to tell you why I want to kiss you?” Josh asked. “I mean, I’m gay and I think you’re really cute, and I thought you were gay too, but maybe I was wrong.” Josh backed away.

“Is this a date?” Brendon asked.

“Yes,” Josh answered.

“According to the Internet, when you date someone, a kiss is usually expected. It comes at the end of the date, usually, but I don’t think quibbling about it is necessarily a—”

Josh lightly cupped Brendon’s cheeks and kissed him. Brendon didn’t know what to expect from a first kiss, but his head felt swimmy, and Josh’s lips tasted a bit like coffee, only better—much, much better. Then the kiss ended.

“Didn’t you like it?” Josh asked. “You didn’t kiss back.”

“Oh,” Brendon said, and Josh kissed him again. This time, Brendon moved his lips the way Josh had, and soon Josh had him wrapped in his arms, pressing their bodies together. Brendon felt warm and flushed, his heart was pounding, and everything, well, everything stood up and took notice. A car passed by on the street, and Josh broke the kiss and stepped back. “That was nice,” Brendon said with a smile. “Can we do that again?”

“God, you sound like a kid who just ate chocolate for the first time,” Josh told him. “And yes, we can do that again, but after we eat.”

“Okay,” Brendon said, and they walked down the block to the main street of town. They passed the bakery, A Slice of Heaven, and Brendon couldn’t help pausing to peer into their windows. “Mama used to tell me I would eat cake at every meal.”

“Me too,” Josh said. “I’ll walk a mile for a slice of chocolate cake.” Brendon turned away from the window and saw Josh simply smiling at him. He didn’t know quite what the smile meant, but it made him warm inside, and he wanted to believe that smile was for him, but maybe it was for the cake. Then again, maybe after that kiss, or two kisses, to be accurate—and Brendon was all about accuracy—he wasn’t wrong, and the smile was for him.

“Should we eat?” Brendon asked, but he made no effort to move. He liked being looked at that way, like he was important and not just some nerdy kid who happened to be smarter than everyone else but made everyone uncomfortable because of it.

“You’re hungry, huh?” Josh said.

“I haven’t really eaten since breakfast,” Brendon said. “I had some crackers at my desk this afternoon.&rdq