Back to School, Ring the Bell – Ch. 1

I’m doing something a little unusual (for me) with this story. I decided to post it in chapters. If you’re the kind that doesn’t like to start WIPs for fear they won’t be finished, don’t worry. I have about forty-nine thousand words of this baby down and am putting all my focus on it until it’s done. I just don’t want to make my readers wait that long for another story. Also, comments and feedback are truly great motivation for me to buckle down and write already. 😉

Each chapter is scheduled to post at 3pm (New York time) on Sundays, so you can check back weekly for the next part. Or if you want, you can subscribe in the sidebar and get notifications for all my posts.

We pick up shortly after Of Churros and Anger Management. Enjoy!


Zain

The flight that would bring me back to Annapolis from my last summer training block took off at a tiny regional airport. Four other people sat in the only terminal with me, all of us comfortably absorbed in our phones. One guy was bobbing his head along with music from his earbuds. As for myself, I spent the time catching up on my email.

The first was a recap from Quint of the spanking he gave Seb right after I spoke to them. It sounded like it went well. He definitely felt better, too, because he ended with, I believe things will now return to normal, which I’m sure is a great relief to you as well as myself. We look forward to hearing from you again when you are able, and seeing you in person over Labor Day weekend. Fondly, Quint. I tapped out a quick response thanking him and letting him know I’d Skype again when I got a chance.

Seb’s email from the same day talked about a sandalwood bath bomb Theo gave him, and how he’d visualized his guilt going down the drain with the used water once he climbed out of the tub. I was going to have to keep that trick in mind for the future.

He’d also written a couple of days later, just, Here are some of the houses we saw, but none of them felt right. Bad energies. Maybe we need to go together?

Lots of photos followed, of completely empty rooms, except for one that had Quint standing off to the side of a bricked-up fireplace. They looked alright to me. Seb is a better judge of that than I am, though, and it was most important for him to be comfortable in the new house. He’d be living there full-time, while I’d still be on the Yard most of the year. I wrote back, Sure, babe, if you want we can make some time when you’re down in a couple of weeks.

Then I went back to my inbox and scanned the rest of the unread messages. My glance-over hadn’t caught his name earlier, but maybe…

Nope. Not a single one from Platt. Not even a reply to the couple I’d sent to him during our Hawaii trip.

I hadn’t expected an answer then. While my leave block was sandwiched in the middle of my two training blocks, his had been scheduled at the end of the summer. By this time, though, he’d had weeks to get back to me. Worry coiled in my gut. Switching to the messages app, I sent him a text. How was your summer? Headed back to Naptown yet?

Then I called Seb. He answered on the fifth ring, with beeping, roaring traffic behind his voice as he said, “Hi, Z.”

I leaned back in the plastic waiting chair and grinned. Hearing him put the uneasiness to rest for the moment. “Hi, babe. Watcha doing?”

“Walking to buy my textbooks.”

“My scholar boy,” I said, proudly. “Oh, that reminds me, you’ve gotta send your class schedule still so we can figure out the best times to Skype this semester.”

“I will today, promise. Um… I already know when’s not a good time for me, though.”

He sounded nervous. Frowning, I asked, “When?”

“Monday nights from seven to nine,” he said, and then went on in a rush, “which I know is right through your free period. There’s this class that only meets once a week at that time, and it’s one of the cores so I have to take it to keep my credits for the transfer, or else I wouldn’t have registered for it when I saw when it’s scheduled, because I know–”

Habibi,” I interrupted, before he passed out from a lack of oxygen. “Relax, it’s fine. We’ll work around it. One night won’t kill us, right?”

I could picture him swallowing down the rest of his anxiety as he said, “Right,” in a marginally calmer tone.

“Better,” I said, cheerful. “Now take a deep breath and let me hear you exhale.” There was a faint crackle of what might’ve been an exhale, but I shook my head. “More than that. I want huffing and puffing. C’mon.”

He blew out harder, breaking into a laugh at the end.

I grinned. “Good. How long has that been bothering you?”

This time, I imagined the face he made. “Since I opened my schedule when I got back from house-hunting. Did you see the email I sent with the photos, by the way?”

“Already answered,” I replied, “and stop changing the subject. What happened to telling Quint when you’re worrying?”

“I did,” he defended. “He said the same thing, basically, about it being only one night a week. It helped a little, but I guess I just had to hear it from you, too.”

“Hm. Alright.” Quint couldn’t be a substitute for me in every situation, it was true. I let that go and brought up the second most important reason for my call, apart from simply talking to him: “Speaking of emails, have you heard from our little Platypus at all this summer?”

There was a pause. “No,” he said, like he’d only now realized it. “Well, some right after Herndon, but not since. I thought he was in training?”

“He was, but not the whole summer.”

“Oh, gods, I didn’t email him at all either,” Seb said. “He must think I’m a terrible friend.”

I snorted. “How can he, when he did the same thing?”

“Do you– you don’t think something happened with his mom or uncle?”

That was exactly what I feared, but I didn’t want Seb getting more worked up right after I’d just wound him down. “Or he forgot, like you,” I said, lightly. “I’ll find him tomorrow and ask.”

“Okay. Let me know,” he said, still concerned.

“I will.”

An announcement began over the PA system. I held the phone away from my ear for a second so I could hear it, and caught my flight number.

With regret, I said, “Babe, they’re boarding my plane. I have to hang up.”

“It’s alright. Don’t let me keep you.”

I smiled fondly. “You’d better keep me. No one else would be able to handle me.” Then I changed my tone to inject a little more command. “Listen, if this bookstore you’re going to has any coloring books, pick up a couple.”

“Zain, I have plenty.”

“Buy a couple more,” I told him, unperturbed. “I get the feeling you’re gonna need them.”

He sighed. “D’accord.”

“Thanks. Talk to you soon, okay? I love you.”

Je t’aime,” he said, and I hung up to make it easier for him, not having to do it. Before I began gathering my things to go to the gate, though, I checked for a return text from Platt.

Nothing.

*

The Yard was full of activity as all the mids returned and started the mad scramble of getting settled in and preparing for another academic year. I strode through Bancroft Hall, thinking how nice it was not to have to square my corners and shout “Go Navy, beat Army” all the time like a plebe. Soon, I reached my new company area and found my room.

JJ sat inside, rummaging through his bag on the deck in front of him. “Mo!” he said, getting up to slap me on the back as I walked in. “How’s it hangin’, bro? How’s Seb?”

“Doing good,” I said. “He’ll be visiting for Labor Day, with Theo and Quint. Sup with you?”

He filled me in on his summer and family as we unpacked. Then he suggested going to Drydock, the restaurant in Dahlgren Hall, before we picked up our books.

“Do you ever think about something other than food?” I asked.

Grinning, he said, “Sure. Sex.”

I laughed. Following him out into the passageway, I asked, “Have you seen Platypus?”

“No,” he said, with a surprised glance backward. “Figured you’d’ve talked to him by now.”

That makes two of us, I thought. The kid still hadn’t answered my text. “I’m sure we’ll run into him soon,” I said. “It’s not that big a school.”

“Remember how big it felt when you first saw it? Man, I thought I’d be getting lost every day.”

I remembered our Induction Day, standing beside Seb looking up at the Chapel Dome and contemplating the time without him near. Was it really only just fourteen months ago? We hadn’t even known Quint and Theo then. I hadn’t met Platt yet, either.

I was lost in thought about that when we stepped into the sunshine outside and JJ nudged me with an elbow. “Look,” he said, in a voice of hushed excitement. “Plebes.”

Yep, a small group of them were gathered by one of the umpteen cannons scattered around the Yard, clearly enjoying their end-of-Plebe-Summer liberty. With their plebe haircuts, they all seemed ludicrously adolescent. I veered towards them, away from Drydock, with JJ a step behind. They fell silent as we drew near. Uncertainly, a few of them came to attention.

I offered a smile and shook my head. “We’re not detailers. Relax. What company are you guys?”

They glanced at each other. Then a young woman wearing glasses said, “I’m sixth, and some of us are eighteenth or twenty-third, sir.”

“Well, I’m Mohyeldin, and this is Jacobson.” I pointed to JJ with my thumb. “Both twenty-first company, room 8013. In case you haven’t learned your insignia yet, we’re youngsters, so we’re living proof that plebe year ends and you can make it through with your sanity. Well….” I glanced to JJ pointedly. “Whatever sanity you started with, in any case.”

A couple of smirks flashed across their faces, quickly stifled. I didn’t expect much more than that. They were all clearly waiting to see if this was some kind of trap.

I went on, “Listen, it’s part of upperclassmen’s jobs to push you, so you can see what you’re capable of. But.” I paused and made sure I had their attention. “If anyone breaks regs and calls it training, you tell someone. Doesn’t have to be me, since you don’t know me, but tell someone. We don’t put up with hazing. Alright?”

“Yes, sir,” they said, nearly in unison.

“If you do want to tell me, it’s Mohyeldin, twenty-first company, room 8013,” I repeated. “Share that with your friends.” Then I grinned again. “Oh, and good luck.”

“Thank you, sir,” said the same one that spoke up first.

Satisfied, I turned to leave. JJ stayed behind, saying, “Or just ask around the youngsters for Dad. And, in case you couldn’t tell, they don’t call him that just ‘cause of his awful jokes.”

“My jokes are spectacular,” I shouted without looking back. “Except my pizza jokes, which are extra cheesy.”

The plebes’ startled laughter carried all the way to me as JJ jogged up. He shook his head and slowed to a walk on my right. “You gonna adopt all the ducklings?”

“Nah, a platypus is enough.”

Though it’d be nice if I could find him. Platt wasn’t at Drydock or in the Mid Store getting books. I left it with a sick feeling of anxiety. What if he hadn’t come back to USNA at all? Worrying over it, and over how I was going to update Seb as promised when I had no update, I started to return to my room, dodging through other midshipmen.

Barely ten seconds later, a commanding voice said, “Mohyeldin!”

I backed up and looked down the emptier passageway I’d just walked by. “Oh, hey, Myrick! How was your summer?”

My former squad leader’s eyebrow twitched as I came to stand in front of him. “You might still call me ‘sir,’” he said. “I am a firstie and a Brigade officer.”

I’d noticed that the second I saw his new shoulder boards, of course. Smirking, I said, “Fancy. I think you maybe just like being called ‘sir’ too much.”

He gave me a flat look with his deep-set eyes. “Yes. Isn’t that why we both joined the military?”

If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was making a joke. My humor was short-lived, though, because then we both asked at the exact same time, “Have you seen Platt?”

I blew out a breath. “Guess we don’t need to answer. I haven’t heard a peep from him all summer.”

Myrick frowned. “Not even after his training cruise?”

“Nope. You?”

To my utter surprise, he said, “We shared that cruise. I saw him several times during it. We haven’t been in contact since.”

“ …And?” I asked after a moment. “What happened during it?”

Myrick inhaled as if he were getting ready to speak, but then sighed. His poker face cracked just the slightest bit, letting me see the concern underneath. “You should ask him that.”

Now I gave him a flat look. “I would if I could.”

“He and Nakamura are assigned to room 8120,” he said. “You might start there.”

I didn’t bother demanding to know why, if he’d had that information, he wasn’t there himself looking for the kid. At this point, I thought I’d get a better answer from Platt. “Thanks,” I said. “I will.”

I left him standing in the passageway, dropped my bag of books off at my room, and went right around the corner to 8120.

Nak answered my rap on the door. “Yo! C’min!”

Platt wasn’t anywhere I could see when I stepped inside, but the sound of running water came from the shower/sink cubicle curtained off to my left. I pointed towards it and mouthed, Platypus?

“Yeah,” said Nak.

Grinning with relief at finally finding my target, I spoke below the volume of the water. “Don’t mention it’s me. I want to surprise him.”

Well, more than that, I wanted to see his unguarded reaction to finding me in his room.

“Sure,” Nak agreed easily. He went to sit at the desk on the left side of the room. The right-hand one was obviously Platt’s. I saw the lion drawing Seb gave to him pinned to its bulletin board, and when I got closer and sat on the edge of the desk, I noticed the picture below it was of Platt and his mom. It looked like it’d been taken the day of the Herndon Climb. Platt proudly wore his admiral cover, while Sharon beamed.

Nak was chatting about his summer cruise. I could barely pay attention. Whatever had been going wrong in Platt’s life, I hoped it didn’t involve his mom. She seemed to be doing so well then.

The shower turned off, and the curtain rattled and scraped as Platt pulled it back to step into the sink area, still hidden from view. Nak fell quiet, grinning in anticipation.

A few seconds later, the kid emerged. I had a moment to study him before he saw me. He’d grown again—at least an inch, I estimated—and his limbs had a sort of stretched look, without enough muscle mass to fit his new frame. His hair was a few shades darker, too, though just because of the wetness. The skin I could see—which was quite a bit, given his only covering was a towel clutched around his waist—looked pale as ever, and unblemished. That’s something, I thought.

Then he saw me and nearly dropped the towel.

I watched closely. Following the surprised expression was… fear. My gut clenched. He was afraid of me? After all the work I put into getting him to trust me? Why? I thought back, trying to figure it out, as the fear morphed into his usual cover of anger.

“Hey, Platt,” I said, gently as greeting a skittish animal. “How’ve you been?”

He gave me a classic Platt scowl. “I need to get dressed. Without an audience.”

“Okay.” I turned my head to look out the window, catching a glimpse of Nak’s slightly-mystified expression as he did the same. Clearly, he didn’t understand his roommate’s mood any more than I did.

Cabinets opened and cloth rustled behind us. Then Platt curtly said, “I’m done.”

I looked back. He was hanging up his towel to dry on the hook inside his closet. The PT sweats and USNA hoodie he’d put on made him seem younger.

Nak stood up, saying, “I’m gonna go find Diaz,” before leaving with an air of someone gladly escaping the tension in the room. Once the door shut behind him, I waited in silence for Platt to quit messing with the towel.

Eventually, he closed the closet. But he didn’t look away from it. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to see my friend?” I said. “That’s you, by the way, in case you forgot.” I swung my foot back and forth against his desk as I continued, “Like you’ve been forgetting to answer my emails and texts. Seb told me you haven’t contacted him all summer, either.”

Platt’s head ducked. “Didn’t feel like it,” he said, sullen.

Scratching the itch in my palm, I asked, “How’s your mom doing?”

He shrugged as he traced a line in the woodgrain with his index finger. “She says she’s been sober since Herndon. I think she’s telling the truth this time.”

“That’s great!” Cross number one off my list of What’s Bothering Platypus. “See much of your uncle?”

“No, he was out of town for most of the time I was home.”

Cross number two off. Number three, I wanted to approach with more caution, so rather than mention Myrick, I casually asked, “How was your cruise?”

His head snapped around to glare at me. “Why are you asking?!”

Ding ding ding! We have a winner!

I hid my triumph with amusement. “I’m trying to catch up. Friends do that. Why’re you so prickly today? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were scared of answering.”

“I am NOT scared!”

Whoa. I was trying to use reverse psychology, but I hadn’t expected quite such a strong reaction. His fists were now clenched by his sides, while his chin jutted out defiantly at me.

Carefully, I started, “Platy–”

“Just because I don’t want to talk to you doesn’t mean I’m scared,” he snarled. “Maybe I don’t want to be friends with you anymore!”

Now I felt fear. Did I push him too hard? Why was it always so damn difficult to judge the right distance with him? Not crowding, but not so far away he could ignore me, either. He needed persistence and patience, and I was only really good at one of those things.

“Well, that’ll be awkward,” I said, calm as possible, “because I don’t give up friends that easily. Sorry, but you’re stuck with me and Seb for the foreseeable future. But if you don’t want to talk right now, I’m not gonna force you.” I slid off his desk. “I’ll go.”

As I stepped forward, he relaxed his shoulders the tiniest smidge and bit his lip. Encouraged, I put on my pouty face. “Even though that makes me a sad Zain.”

He didn’t respond.

“Here I go,” I said, walking slowly to the door. He turned to watch me, but still said nothing. I turned the handle. “I’m leaving. All sad.” I pulled it open, stood on the threshold, and sighed dramatically. “Guess I’ll have to eat the cookies Maeve sent allllll by myself.”

The next second, I nearly fell into the passageway as he slammed the door. Every midshipmen in eyesight gaped in my direction. I shrugged. “Not a fan of Disney karaoke, apparently.”

Most of them laughed and went back to what they’d been doing, leaving me to contemplate my next move. Maybe Seb would have an idea.

10 thoughts on “Back to School, Ring the Bell – Ch. 1”

  1. Can’t wait for the next chapter. We have a platypus mystery on our hands, and I need to know what it is!
    And I want extra cheesy pizza (Loved the pizza joke). Zain’s so cute when he’s being Dad. 🙂

    Thanks for the chapter! 🙂

  2. I am in sort of agony because I am used to reading it all in one go so I don’t have to feel this curiosity pain. I am so mystified! What happened with Platt? Zain and Seb still adorable as ever.

    Kris

    1. Thanks for commenting, Kris! I know that pain of curiosity. I promise you’ll find out what happened and be able to read all the way to the end. 🙂

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