The crack of dawn split the frigidity of Monday morning as sunlight spilled into the frosted grass. Eagan winced at the slam of his door and squeezed his eyes shut against the piercing morning rays. The crusts on his lips stung when he ran his tongue over them and tasted iron. Blood. The socket around his right eye ached fiercely. Calder must have been the one who slammed the door, as he sensed there was no one around. His heart rattled within his ribcage. He released a groan and drew the covers over his head to drown out the sound of a second door and steps down the hall.
Rearden slipped a red checkered flannel shirt over his shoulders and buttoned it as he reached the kitchen. After pouring himself a cup of breakfast tea, he seated himself at the table and raised TheOdyssey to his eyes. The rich tea flushed him with heat from the inside out.
He raised his eyes at the sound of creaking wood, then dropped them back to the book ahead of him and struggled to swallow his laughter. The creaking approached until Liam planted his hands on the table and stared down at his brother. Rearden raised his eyes again and smothered a chuckle.
"Well, you most certainly are not Alasdair."
"No, Rearden, I am violet," Liam straightened and fastened the buttons of his golden shirt with hands tinged the shade of heliotrope. "And I smell like grapes. What is that rubbish you put in the showerhead and the shampoo?"
"Kool-Aid," Rearden answered as his brother examined his robust reflection in the toaster. He ran a hand through his darkened hair and released a sigh.
"I planned to ask a girl out today, Rearden."
"What? You never told me about any girl."
"Because I only decided to ask her today, or else I would have. Is this rubbish permanent?"
"No. A couple days at most," Rearden screwed up his expression in contemplation. "Alasdair always showers before you."
"He has reconstructed his entire schedule trying to avoid you."
"Well," Rearden raised the teacup to his lips. "That explains a lot."
"Yes, I imagine it would," Liam reached for a package of sliced bread on the counter. "Remind me to grab me flat cap before I leave."
Liam dropped two slices of bread into the toaster and pushed the handle down. Rearden returned to his book and savored his tea in silence for several seconds before he spoke.
"Although, that truly is a lovely color on you."
Liam sent him a glare. "You two aren't ever going to have a truce?"
"Did Washington consider a truce before the battle of Yorktown? I'm waiting until he surrenders."
"But I will make you a deal," Rearden laid his book down again and stood to make his way across the kitchen. "Alasdair is reasonably suspicious at my every move, but I need information on how he is changing his schedule. You give that to me, and I will grant you a warning about any more practical jokes that are intended for him."
Liam reached for the cup beside his brother's book and drained the remainder of the tea. "Deal. But do expect one act of revenge for this morning."
Rearden released an amused smile as he reached into the refrigerator. "I should expect nothing less."
"Glad we have an understanding."
The toaster erupted. Liam snatched the two slices and stormed toward the doorway as Eagan appeared and glanced him up and down.
"You look like a choked smurf."
"It's violet! A choked smurf would be ivory."
The hearty laughter was stifled as he rushed to the room he shared with Rearden and Gavin. A crystal sparkled in the glass of sugar and lemon water he had placed on the window sill ten minutes prior. With a glance at the door, he reached for it and raised it to his lips. Perhaps the luck from the potion would be enough to transcend both the chair he knocked over as he stood at dinner last night, and his color.
"Are you ready to leave?"
He nearly choked with surprise as he withdrew the empty glass from his lips and twisted around to see Alasdair at the door. "Give me a minute."
Alasdair disappeared a moment, then returned. "Do you suppose you'll go to sleep after Rearden?"
Liam stared at him. "You're going to short-sheet the mattress. Really?"
"Well, since his last prank against me obviously backfired, I decided it would only be reasonable to pay him back with a classic."
"At me expense again."
"I'll tell you what," Alasdair crossed his arms and leaned his shoulder against the door frame. "You let me do this one, and I can promote the idea at school that you were buried beneath a snow drift to explain your color."
"I can come up with a much more believable lie than that."
"All right, then I will give you an apple absolutely smothered in caramel before I do the same to an onion designated to Rearden."
"That is a deal," Liam reached for the plaid flat cap on the dresser and secured it over his head. "What are you going to do if someone else accidentally bites into it?"
Alasdair raised his shoulders. "I'll eat the rest."
"Right," Liam reached for his hunter green backpack and slung it over his shoulder. "We have to leave. By the way, when did you shower today?"
"I haven't," Alasdair answered and grabbed his own backpack from beside the door. "Some mates and I are going to play lacrosse after school. I'll shower in the evening, before supper."
By the time the scarlet van pulled into the school parking lot, teenagers were scrambling and rushing toward their classes. Alasdair darted out and slammed the door behind him, calling to a pair of kids he knew as they passed by. Liam stood so that he was at Rearden's shoulder and murmured, "Alasdair is going to shower right before supper."
Rearden smirked as Liam gave him a clap on the shoulder, jerked his brim down to his eyes, and climbed out of the van. Gavin remained silent in the passenger seat and stared at the school with a steady gaze. His brother searched his demeanor a moment.
"Are you staying here?"
"I really need to go to class," Gavin answered, but he remained in his seat.
Rearden waited a moment. "All right."
"But I don't understand any of the algebra we're learning in math right now, and the entire English class is reading a novel out loud. A lot of the students had a craic whenever I was asked to speak last week. Only Robin and Poppy ever say anything to them. Some of the math students try to take a gander at me assignments when we get them back, just to see how many corrections I have. Rearden, I make a hash of everything. I should still go."
As he reached for the handle, Rearden switched the gear into drive and coasted out of the parking lot. Gavin stared at him with a mixture of relief and curiosity.
"Sarai is gifted in math, and Jarah always reminds her that the most effective method of learning is to teach someone else. Do you suppose you would be satisfied with doing some of the physical work, and then getting some personal help with her?"
"If she is willing, I suppose that would alleviate all the guilt."
"You have got to start reading more. That is going to help combat your dyslexia. I have a stack of books with me in the back, so when you're done with everything else, read some of them."
"I have much more success with writing out ideas than reading someone else's."
"And that is why you should read more. You will learn from everything you read, and eventually, maybe you will have learned enough to get through school all right and write things that people can actually understand without asking."
He dialed up the country music playing on the radio and drove past Liam as he rushed to a class around the side of the school, returning his salute with a horn honk. He sensed several pairs of eyes on him as he past his classmates on the sidewalk. His breath came in staggered gasps as he rushed into the room and dropped into a corner seat. Hannah gaped at him in the desk to his right.
"My gosh, why are you so purple?"
Liam stared pointedly at her and gestured up and down his frame. "This is Rearden you're seeing."
Hannah smothered the giggles bubbling out of her mouth with one hand. "Excuse me. But let him know that I won't be able to do dinner tonight, but probably next week."
"That I most certainly shall."
Mrs. Rodriguez skirted into the classroom at the heels of the straggling students and dropped her book down on the podium to straighten her rectangular glasses. "Excuse my tardiness. I had to scrape the ice off my windshield right before I left this morning."
Liam attempted to clamp his teeth to smother the series of coughs he could sense ready to erupt and reached to unzip his backpack to retrieve his inhaler, vaguely aware of the sharp gasp of Mrs. Rodriguez.
"Mr. McCallister, are you all right?"
"Asthma, ma'am," he managed as he rummaged around his backpack.
"Your hands have turned purple. You need to get to the nurse immediately!"
"But—" Hannah severed her sentence when Liam shot her a glare. This would be the perfect segue to cover his discoloration. And he never even had to manipulate it.
"Miss Steadman," Liam's eyes followed Mrs. Rodriquez's finger to the petite brunette with the Minnie Mouse bow pinned to the side of her head that he had planned to ask on a date that day. "Make sure Mr. McCallister gets to the nurse without incident."
Katherine rose and met Liam at his desk. He snatched his inhaler out of the bottom of the pocket and rose to accompany her through the door. He released the coughs he had been suppressing as he rattled the inhaler in his hand, aware of the lovely brown eyes locked on him with concern.
When he sprayed the albuterol toward his throat and inhaled a deep breath, she spoke. "Let me know if I should call an ambulance instead of take you to the nurse."
He released his breath and smiled. "I should be all right, thank you. Me airways constricted and prevented the oxygen from reaching the rest of me body, but that should be solved, now."
"My cousin has asthma, but he never looked as bad as that. I mean, with the discoloration."
"This asthma is particularly severe," he lied as they curved around a corner and reached the office with the wooden sign that read NurseClaudia. "This happens on rare occasion, but it's nothing I can't handle with some albuterol. I appreciate you getting me here."
"I should probably come in with you."
"If you insist," he smiled and drew open the door to allow her to enter ahead of him. A nurse much taller than himself arrived at the door at once. She stretched an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth, seated him in a chair at the opposite side of the room, and attached the tubing to the oxygen cylinders beside them. She snatched his arm and stared at the watch on her wrist, mouthing numbers to herself.
After several seconds of his breathing in the oxygen, she crouched down to meet his eyes.
"Your pulse is normal. I was called to alert me that you were coming. If you are comfortable, you can remove your mask to answer this: are you still struggling to breathe?"
"Not as much as I was," he answered as he drew the mask away and attempted to steady his breathing. Although the urge to cough was no longer present, he was aware of the raspy wheeze that accompanied his short breaths.
"You are still purple and short of breath, but there is no apparent weakness and less coughing. I am going to call you an ambulance. There may be more to this than asthma."
"Wait," he caught her arm as she darted toward the back of the office. "I already know what the problem is, so there is no need."
"What is it that you have, then?"
"COPD – Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Me parents are avid smokers, as well as some of the brothers, and along with the asthma, well," he released a wry smile and raised his shoulders.
"Right," she mused as she studied his emerald eyes. "Have you been diagnosed with emphysema?"
She touched his chin to tilt his head upward and searched his visage with knitted brows. Then she reached to remove his hat and straightened with a triumphant smile.
"I have seen many attempts to evade class, but this must be the most innovative."
"What are you talking about?" Katherine demanded. "Look at him!"
"If you want the chance to explain yourself, Liam, this is it."
Liam sneaked a glance at the concerned girl beside him and cleared his throat. "Me brother Rearden accidentally dyed me violet this morning when I showered. The entire class would have never let me live it down if I lacked a reasonable explanation, and I only had a limited amount of time to search online for a disease that matched the symptoms, or else I would not have made me mistake. What gave me away, before I said I never had emphysema?"
"Your eyebrows and hair are dyed as well."
"That's right," he ran a hand through his previously golden hair with consideration. "As I said, me research was limited."
Katherine glared as she shook her head with pursed crimson lips. "I am going to tell everyone what really happened!" she snapped and stomped out of the office. Liam stared helplessly after her and buried his head in his hands.
"I am going to kill me brother."
"Somehow, I get the impression the two of you give payment where payment is due," Claudia crossed her arms with a knowing smirk and made her way to the phone at the back of her office to report to Mrs. Rodriguez what had transpired.
Liam rose and stepped outside the office, slipping the cell phone from his pocket to dial the brother one year his senior. He paced up and down the hall to suppress his pleasure when the rich voice of Rearden answered on the opposite line.
"Hello. Why aren't you in class?"
"Asthma attack. Gave me an opportunity to let you know that Hannah returned your message about going out tonight. She asked you to meet her at the grill around six. She said she would pay, since she cancelled your last date."
"Beautiful. Go raibh maith agat."
"I'll see you after school."
"Hold on," Rearden started suspiciously. "Hannah has ballet until right before six."
"Yes, she said her mother would drop her by the restaurant on the way home. She scheduled them as close together as she could so that her mom would not have to drive up here twice. So I suppose if she runs late, you should wait a bit."
He squeezed his eyes shut as he anticipated a positive reaction.
"Much obliged, brother. I appreciate the intel, and I will see you later."
Rearden replaced the phone in his pocket and drove the pitchfork beneath another pile of manure to dump into the bucket outside the stall. The chill that bit his lips and gnawed at his cheeks made him consider the temperate climate of Éire. He craved the sight of wildflowers through the mist in the hills. And yet, when he straightened at the glimpse of snowflakes drifting down to the already coated pasture through the window, he smiled and realized he would yearn for this, too, when he returned to Ireland.
The aroma of cider greeted him when he entered the kitchen that afternoon to see Sarai and Gavin seated at the table and deliberating over the pair of math textbooks and sheets of equations.
"Remember, you have to do the part in the parenthesis first."
Gavin groaned and dropped his sky blue eyes into his arm. "I hate math."
Rearden ladled cider into a mug and raised it to his mouth. He made a gurgling choke sound when the searing liquid scalded his tongue and left it the texture of sandpaper. He smeared the back of his hand across his mouth and grimaced.
"Jarah said we could do a trail ride in fifteen minutes," Sarai raised her eyes as she reached to close her book. "He went out to saddle up with you a minute ago."
He set his mug down on the counter and dashed across the kitchen and out the door. He rushed to the barn, where he discovered Jarah standing in the aisle swinging a saddle onto Cop.
"How did we pass each other?"
Jarah chuckled. "Don't know. But the sooner you saddle up Mister, the sooner we can all go riding. By the way," he added as Rearden started toward the tack room. "Gavin seems much more comfortable than he was this morning."
A spark ignited Rearden's enormous brown eyes as he disappeared into the tack room. The trail ride was primarily a method of ensuring fences were maintained and no horse was loose where he or she should not be. The snowflakes kept drifting to the ground, and the only audible sound aside from the occasional voice was the crunching of hooves in the snow beneath them.
By the time the horses were put away again and Rearden checked the time, it was late afternoon. "We have to go," he mentioned to Gavin. "Supper will be ready soon."
Evening showers were often chilly when the heat was regulated to the minimal temperature of fifty-six degrees. Alasdair watched the clear water shoot from the showerhead and stepped into its presence.
He squinted against the spray and savored the temperate water streaming down his chest. He ran a hand through his sudsy hair and shook the excess out. The creak of the door startled him static, and the dreaded sound of a flush sent a searing torrent of water into his body. He shrieked and leapt out onto the bath mat as Rearden reappeared with a smirk and a bowl of flour in his hands.
"No!" Alasdair cried, but the flour exploded into the room and coated him in moistening powder. He could not breathe with the density of the air and the granulation in his eyes, and he burst into the hall to hack and gasp for breath. As tears cleared his eyes, he realized Eagan was standing beside him.
"This is the worst greeting I have ever received," he said. "Along with the time Molly caught me kissing her sister."
"Where did he go?" Alasdair rasped with a glare.
"Somewhere with a camera."
Eagan moved aside with raised hands as Alasdair rushed past him, then returned and darted back into the bathroom and slammed the door.
"Glad you remembered you're naked," Eagan called. He made his way toward the kitchen as the voices of his family emerged into audibility. When he emerged into sight, his mother straightened with a flicker of surprise across her gentle blue eyes.
"You're awake. Come and eat."
She drew another chair across the room with a scraping sound.
He started with surprise when he glimpsed himself in the mirror beside the hall. His bloodshot eyes and creased expression resembled someone else – someone similar to him, but aged in a manner that reveals degeneration without the refinement that accompanies the wisdom of accumulated years.
"Your father is working later tonight," Abigeál continued as she seated herself. "Soda bread and stew, since we have such a cold night ahead."
Five of her sons seated themselves around the table as Alasdair emerged, dressed in pajamas and determined not to make eye contact with Eagan as he sat at the end. Calder ate about two spoonfuls before he cleared his throat.
"Ma, I hate to ask this, but may I be excused to study for me exam tomorrow?"
"Well, yes," Abigeál answered reluctantly as she spread her napkin over her knees. "But can you not wait until after supper? I doubt we should be terribly long here."
"Appreciate it, Ma," Calder rose and closed the book beside him.
"You know," Callum said softly when he met his eyes, "you don't have to get an A on every Calculus exam."
"That is your opinion," Calder gathered his papers and bowl in a rush and stormed out of the kitchen. He poured his heart and mind into every class he attended, and he would not get any less than an A.
Callum stared after him, then returned to the remainder of his family. "Has anyone seen Rearden?"
Alasdair and Eagan exchanged glances before the latter replied, "I saw him run out of the house with a crisp shirt his girl gave him, so I imagine they're out somewhere."
Liam smirked to himself as he tore away a bite of soda bread and reached for the apple juice. By this time, Rearden would have arrived at the restaurant.
He scanned the restaurant as a waitress led him to a booth near the middle. He smiled as he ordered a Coke and garlic bread to start with. As the waitress returned to the kitchen, he sneaked RomeoandJuliet from beneath the table and spread it before him.
Seconds ticked into minutes. He swallowed the remainder of the garlic bread before it cooled to an unpleasant temperature. The last of his Coke gurgled as he slurped it past the ice and drained the glass.
Eventually, he dialed her cell phone number with his own and secured it against his ear with his shoulder as he sawed his steak apart.
"Good evening. Are you close by?"
"Close by… where?"
The blood drained from his cheeks as hissed, "Dangit, Liam!"
"Rearden? What did you say?"
"I'm sorry, Hannah," he regained his composure with a strained smile. "It seems I should have dialed someone else. But I plan to see you soon, all right?"
"Sounds good to me. Love you."
The moment he tranquilly hung up the phone, he started frantically dialing again and pressed the phone to his ear. After several rings that gave him the opportunity to steady his breathing, a smooth voice met his ears.
"Callum! Hello, there. I wanted to ask you a small favor. May I borrow some money until tomorrow? Only, you cannot let Liam know."