On Monday, I schooled a couple of people in pickleball, but then again, so did Malton. As usual, his sidekick’s theatrics combined with Malton’s over-the-top boasting almost forced Mrs. Gladstone to say something, but to the class’s dismay, she let the circus show continue.
Midway through class, as we switched between our first and second matches, Chuck checked the tournament scoreboard taped to the wall. I studied his Neanderthal body language as he mustered the firepower to signal the abacus in his caveman brain and waited for the inevitable reaction. He spun around like a trained dog having located his master’s prey who must now seek recognition for his triumph. He rushed over wildly and not soon after, Malton tracked me down.
I swallowed, hoping to god it was about the scoreboard and not what happened – or didn’t happen – this past weekend. Malton was friends with Jessica and who knows what wildfires had spread. Acting as though I hadn’t seen him, I started tying my shoes.
“Locke,” he yelled with the force of a train barreling down an untenable slope. “Looks like you and me are going to have a throw-down next week.”
“Oh, how’s that?” I responded, holding my ground the best I could ... and by that, I mean, at least my legs weren’t shaking. It helps when you’re sitting down.
“We’re the only two who haven’t lost.”
“You mean we’re undefeated?” I said snidely.
“Yeah, smart ass ... but don’t worry, you can keep your fancy words because next week I’ll be the only one who’s undefeated.”
“Then that means you’ll keep the word, not me.”
“Are you messing with me, Locke?” His tone grew louder, but fortunately, Mrs. Gladstone blew the whistle and we all returned to the courts.
What the hell was I thinking, I asked myself, as I stepped up to the serving line. Was I looking for a beating? Regardless, the converging tension with Malton was the least of my worries.
Two things revolving around the same issue had me concerned. I had spent most of the day trying to read people’s reactions to seeing me, wondering when the sneering looks or snickering behind my back would take place. I couldn’t help but wonder if Camille had told her sister about my reluctance to go all the way. How soon before everyone started making fun of me? But much to my surprise, nothing happened – no jokes, no veiled attacks or snide remarks.
The second thing that had my stomach doing flips was the built-up anxiety – almost nausea – of crossing paths with Allison. We hadn’t yet run into each other and by lunch time I knew she was avoiding me. I guess it was a blessing in disguise that her locker was on the other side of the school. We had hated it at first, but now I was glad. That said, I couldn’t help but miss her and wondered what she was thinking.
By the end of the school day, with no Allison interaction and too much Malton, I was relieved to get out of there and happy to get to work. A normal routine was comforting after my weekend exploits. For the first time, I actually didn’t mind the killer stares impatient customers shot across the counter. I was where I belonged and nothing could replace that feeling after the hum-drum routine of life had been disrupted.
The big test occurred when Number Nine stepped through the door and my stomach willingly went along for the ride, which was unusual because it normally coiled defensively when he appeared.
“Hello, Trenton,” he began, “how’s my Number Nine doing today?” Then his right eyebrow stood on end and he continued before I could respond, “Say, I hope the other guy looks worse than you.”
Although it had been several days, the cut on my lip was still apparent. At first, it was kind of cool because it looked menacing and projected a mysterious and dangerous persona. But as the days went on, the rebel look lost its luster and now I just wanted the darned thing to disappear. Besides, it stung when I ate salty foods and anything that takes away from filling my bottomless pit just wasn’t worth it.
“I wish I knew,” I replied sheepishly and quickly checked on his order, which wasn’t ready yet. I glanced at his ticket and realized he’d shown up ten minutes early. “Your order should be ready in a little bit.”
“That’s fine. I’ve no place to go but home and I’m in no particular hurry to get there. You see, I have nosy neighbors.”
“Okay,” I said, unsure what that had to do with my ringing up his order of Chinese food.
“As I recall, last time you mentioned you were uninterested in opening your letter and finding out your glorious past, as they say. Did the temptation finally get to be too much and change your mind?”
The bell rang and I gladly spun around. Unfortunately, the customer wasn’t here yet, so I placed the order on the warmer.
“Nope,” I replied, “it’s safe and sealed at home. Although, I do think my dad is more tempted than me.”
“I’m sure he is, but I’m certain he’s even more curious as to why you’re not.”
Now this guy sounded like Allison and I wanted to punch him, but instead, I shrugged.
“You know,” he continued, “I don’t know how your grades are or what you want to study in college, but my company gives scholarships to a few very bright and promising students.”
“But I’m sure they have to study something they were an expert in – in a past life, right?”
“Then who do you work for?” I asked and immediately realized my tone had a tad bit more suspicion steaming through it than intended. “I mean, what’s the catch?”
“You see, Trenton, you’re already showing the type of promise we’re looking for.” I threw him a curious look and he explained, “You immediately knew there had to be a catch ... that nothing good comes for free.”
“Everybody knows that.”
“You’d be surprised how many people are looking for a free lunch and are willing to get snookered.”
“I don’t know what snookered means, but I think I can guess.”
“Forgive me, I studied English in London when I was your age.”
“Okay, so what’s the catch or whatever the English call it?”
“In exchange for a top-notch education, we ask that you give us a five-year contract when you graduate.”
“It’s not as long as it seems now, believe me. Besides, there’s also a certain sense of security in knowing that your schooling is paid for and that you’ll have a job with good pay for a full five years. When jobs are tough to find that’s a wonderful feeling.”
The bell rang again. Number Nine’s order was ready and none too soon. I had a sneaking suspicion where he was going with this conversation but I wasn’t interested in finding out.
“You should consider applying for that scholarship. Your work ethic alone would compel the board to consider your application.”
“You never said what company the board belongs to and what they do.”
“Didn’t I?” he said with an upturned lip. “Romulus International. We’re a high-tech firm. Ever heard of us?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“That’s because our success allows us to fly under the radar, so to speak.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s easier to get things done when the spotlight is on someone else.”
Before I could fully digest that conundrum of an answer, Number Nine grabbed his Number Nine and shimmied out the door.
I thought about this very strange man and his even stranger way of talking until the bell rang and I was quickly hit with a barrage of ready orders followed by a host of willing customers. The next forty-five minutes was a whirlwind until the storm died down and Mrs. Han slid my Trenton Special through the window.
I ate with relish and thought of pickleball – I amused myself with the pun and quickly turned my thoughts back to Number Nine and his Romulan friends. Romulus … now where did I hear that name before, I wondered as a delicious water chestnut snapped in my mouth.
For some reason the name Remus came to mind and I suddenly remembered the brothers Romulus and Remus from history class. All I could recall beyond that was that they were the mythical founders of Rome, or at least Romulus was. Then Cain and Abel flashed through my brain and the two sets of brothers blurred into a mass of forgotten lore.
I should read more ancient mythology, I thought, remembering how fascinating the stories were and wondering at what point in the last few years my desire to read about their exploits faded and was replaced by other things like girls … now I had Allison on the brain and not soon after that her father and his insinuations unleashed a full frontal lobe attack.
After work, thoughts of Allison, the Colonel and my birth-parents bounced around my mind like a pickleball with a wicked spin. I guess there could be worse things, I realized, as I boarded the train at my usual stop. I could have had to use that other Metro station and taken my chances with Eye Patch, Spider and his gang of hooligans.
This thought led directly to my plans for later that evening. My father had arranged for me to see his friend the psychologist ‘offline’, which meant I had to see him at night at his home office. I was a little apprehensive because I still believed there was a stigma attached to people who saw quacks. I laughed at the term and relaxed a little. My father would definitely let me know how he felt if I used that misnomer around him – it was even worse than shrink.
Anyway, I hoped this guy knew what he was doing. I guess if it walks like a duck, it quacks like a duck … now I was on a roll and the stand-up comedy routine in my head was going off like gang-busters. Too bad the other passengers weren’t privy to this burgeoning talent ... that made me laugh too. I glanced at my reflection in the window just to have an audience and grinned.