After Larry received permission to stay at Plato’s house for dinner, he and Plato retreated to the dining room, spending a half hour on Plato’s homework. One set of problems gave the minotaur more difficulty than the others.
“I just can’t figure out word problems,” said Plato. “They confuse me and make my head hurt.”
“I don’t like them either,” Larry said, looking up from the textbook and rubbing his eyes. He could feel the strain starting to form from reading for too long.
“The words get all jumbled up. Worse than the numbers, even.” Plato stretched his arms out to his sides, the thick biceps and forearms tensing. Larry tried not to stare, forcing his eyes back on the textbooks.
“So you’re dyslexic? Not that it’s any of my business, but it might help if I knew what your learning disability is.”
“Yeah, I am, but it’s not too bad most of the time. I do very well in my English class, but when it comes to Math? That’s when it decides to warp my brain.”
“Chemistry class warps my brain, and I’m not dyslexic.”
Plato laughed. “I think Chemistry would melt what’s left of my brain.”
The front door opened, and a large, older minotaur ducked his head to enter the house. He was dressed in a pair of sweat pants that stretched out over his thick legs, and a black tank top with the logo SERIOUS MINOTAUR FITNESS clung against the width of his chest.
Larry looked back and forth at Plato and the older minotaur. The resemblance was so blatant, only a blind man would miss it.
“Hello, son,” said the older minotaur, his ears brushing against the ceiling as they fluttered. “Is this your tutor?”
“Yes sir. Larry, this is my dad.”
Larry blinked. Didn’t Plato already introduce him to his dad?
Plato caught the look. “This is my biological dad.”
“So you have two dads?” He realized how rude the question sounded, then shook his head and quickly added “Not that it matters.” He stood up and offered his hand. “It’s nice to meet you, sir.”
“You can call me Max.” He turned to Plato after shaking hands with Larry. “Is dinner almost ready, or do I have time to shower?”
“I think you have time, Dad.”
“Good. It’s nice to meet you, Larry.”
After Max left, Pluto’s eyes met Larry’s, and gave him a sheepish grin. “I guess I forgot to mention the fact I have two dads,” he said. “Sorry about that. Jordan’s been like a father to me ever since I was barely a year old.”
“It’s okay. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
Plato shook his head. “I should have told you. Again, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. I think it’s pretty awesome.”
“Most people stare at my dads during the PTA meetings.”
“I guess they do kind of stand out. How did they meet?”
Plato grinned. “Dad said he looked down one day, and saw Jordan looking up at him. It was love at first sight.”
Larry chuckled. “Wow. That’s cheesily romantic.”
“Now imagine growing up with them.”
That Friday after school Larry rode with Plato to his home. The minotaur drove a white station wagon which had to be older than both of them combined, but the interior was pristine. It even had a stereo which allowed a connection to an MP3 player, and was currently playing songs from one. Larry didn’t recognize the song, but it sounded like some kind of technopop.
“Thanks for agreeing to tutor me,” Plato said, barely louder than the music playing.
“You kept Courtland from beating me up,” Larry said. “So I think we’re even.”
Plato chuckled. “Maybe. Has he been bothering you lately?”
Larry shook his head. “He avoids me whenever I’m walking down the hallway. You really put a scare into him.”
“I don’t like bullies. He’s just lucky I’m more of a Ferdinand type of bull.”
Larry looked at Plato, who kept his calm gaze on the road. “I wouldn’t want you mad at me, and that’s the truth.”
“I don’t like getting mad either.” He glanced over at Larry, a toothy grin appearing quickly. “It’s bad for the digestion.”
They drove down a residential area, rows of houses on either side of them, and soon Plato maneuvered the station wagon into a driveway, and parked next to a cherry-red convertible. “Dad’s home,” he said, a touch a nervousness in his voice. “I guess you get to meet him.”
The house was made of up two stories and was colored in a soothing peach. Plato led Larry up to the front door, unlocked it, and called out as he entered “Hey, Dad! I’m home!”
A voice replied “I’m in the kitchen! Did you bring your friend?”
“Yes sir, I did.” Plato moved down the hall, with Larry following closely behind. They entered a spacious kitchen, brilliantly lit by both the sunlight streaming from the windows and the lighting overhead. A long-haired human male dressed in blue jeans and a black polo t-shirt poured a bag of potato chips into a bowl.
“You must be Larry,” he said with a smile and stretched out his hand. “I’m Jordan.”
Larry shook the offered hand. “Hello, sir. This is a nice place you have here.”
Jordan beamed down at Larry, then looked up at Plato as he handed him the bowl of chips. “I like him already,” he said before looking back at Larry. “Would you like to stay for dinner? I’m making grilled chicken.”
“I’d like that, but can I use your phone to call my parents for permission?”
Jordan’s smiled broadened. “You don’t have a cell phone? I thought all you kids had one.”
“No sir, my parents won’t let me have one until I turn eighteen.”
“Huh.” Jordan looked up at Plato. “Maybe we should have made you wait. It would’ve saved us some money with all the texting you did that one month.”
Plato gave the ceiling a brief glance, as if pleading to a higher power. “I was young and crazy back then, Dad.”
“News flash, son. You still are.” Jordan gestured towards the phone on the wall. “Go ahead and call your parents, Larry.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Jordan, please. Sir is my father.”
Larry willed himself not to be under the questions. She was a doctor, a psychologist, and there had to be a purpose to them, even if he couldn’t see it. “Because they treat me like an equal.”
The doctor nodded. “Well, that’s all the time we have.” She reached over towards her desk and pressed a button on the phone. “Please send Mrs. Grant to my office, Samantha.”
A moment later, Larry and his mother were sitting by each other in front of the sphinx.
“After asking Larry a series of questions I’ve come to the conclusion that he is an exceptional person. However, I have determined there is nothing wrong with him. He has no traumas, phobias, or any maladjustments.”
Not unless you count a phobia of being beaten up by a foo dog, Larry thought.
“Larry is fully capable of flying. He chooses not to do so, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
Larry and his mother walked in silence to the van, as if in unspoken agreement. It weighed heavily on Larry, and before they entered the vehicle, he murmured “I’m not doing it on purpose, Mom.”
Lenore looked into Larry’s eyes. “I know, son. We’ll work this out.”
“So what’s wrong with you, Larry?” Freddy asked as Larry got into the van; his eyes holding a glint of eagerness. “How crazy are you?”
“Fredrick James Grant!“
Freddy wilted against the use of his full name. “Aw, Mom! I just want to know if he’s going to flip out and go postal on us!”
“Larry is not crazy, and there is nothing wrong with him.” Lenore leveled a cold stare at Freddy that could have frozen fire, and Freddy even shivered. “You, however, are another story altogether.”
“I’m not that crazy,” Freddy said meekly, tail tucked between his hind legs.
She sighed. “It’s all those horror movies,” she said, looking over at her husband. “Why do we let him watch them?”
Daniel smiled. “Because we’re not all that sane either?”
Lenore shook her head. “Men,” she muttered, as if it was the answer.
“We’ll be back in a half hour,” Daniel said. “I’ll make sure our house wrecking son behaves himself.”
Larry got out of the van and followed his mother inside one of the offices. The waiting room was spartan; the walls a cream color with pictures of flowers and butterflies. The chairs were made of plastic, hinting that Larry’s wait would either be quite short or extremely uncomfortable, perhaps both. A magazine rack stood next to the receptionist’s window. Larry picked up one of the magazines and noticed the cover date was from two years ago.
The receptionist was a raven-haired human female who advocated tanning beds, if her dark skin was any evidence. She took down their names and told them it would be a minute. Thirty seconds later, the receptionist called Larry’s name.
“I’ll be right here,” Larry’s mother said, squeezing his shoulder as he stood.
Larry would have preferred her to be with him. “Okay,” he muttered, trying to contain the fleet of butterflies in his stomach through sheer force of will and failing completely. The receptionist led him down the hall and opened the door at the end. Larry saw the name on the doorplate: Doctor Melissa Abdoul.
Larry swallowed the lump forming in his throat and walked into the office.
“Hello, Larry,” the doctor said. She was curled up on a pile of satin pillows, and gestured at a smaller pile in front of her. “I’m Doctor Abdoul, but if you like, you can call me Melissa.”
Larry sat down on the pile of pillows, and found them to be quite comfortable, the satin cool on his furry legs. The nervous tension in his chest eased up a bit, but it was still there.
The doctor smiled; it made her look friendlier. More human. This wasn’t hard to pull off, since she was a sphinx. She brushed away a lock of brown hair from her forehead, letting the rest of her hair cascade down her leonine shoulders. She had a pair of bracelets on her forepaws, but otherwise she was nude.
“If my lack of clothing bothers you, I can wear a glamour,” she said.
“No, I’m used to my brother walking around with nothing on at home. It’s okay.”
Doctor Abdoul nodded. “Shall we begin?”
Larry fidgeted on the pile of pillows. “I guess.”
“Don’t worry, Larry. All I want to do is ask you some questions. If at any time you feel uneasy, you don’t have to answer them.”
Larry wondered if he would answer any of them, then. “All right.”
She asked him questions about his family, his school–even questions about his favorite brand of ice cream. But one question in particular caught him off guard:
“Why do you like playing soccer?”
Larry gave it some thought, turning the question over and around in his mind. “I guess because it’s fun.”
“Why is it fun?”
“Well, because I’m good at it. I like basketball, but I’m too short compared to the guys on the team to be any good.” He recalled several times how Osaze would intercept his jump shots. “I also like my teammates.”
“Why do you like them?”
Daniel Grant, patriarch of the family. was tall, regal, and had the airs of a professional, even when dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt with the slogan All This AND Brains Too! His emerald-green eyes never missed any details and while they couldn’t see into one’s soul, they were better than any lie detector, much to the lament of his sons.
“Hello boys,” he said. “Get changed because the faster we get out of here, the sooner we can eat sushi.”
Larry and Freddy changed shirts, preened their head feathers, and were soon bundled up in the van. Larry buckled up in the backseat while Freddy simply curled up in the compartment behind him.
“Mom, why is Freddy coming with us?”
Larry’s mother regarded him with blue eyes, the same color he’d inherited. “Because we do things as a family,” she said with as much parental authority as she could muster. Which was quite considerable, as Larry didn’t dare reply.
Larry’s father, on the other hand, did dare. “And if we hadn’t taken him with us, he’d have wrecked the place.”
“That only happened once!” Freddy squawked in protest.
“Once was enough,” Daniel said firmly.
“I promised I wouldn’t do it again!”
“You did, and we’re making sure you keep that promise.”
“Really, Daniel, would it kill you to learn some diplomacy around our children?”
“Honest is the best policy, Lenore,” Daniel said, beak opened in a grin. “Our little hatchlings need to learn that most important lesson of life. Dishonesty will just get in the way.”
Lenore shook her head, eyes rolled up to the ceiling. “What about the lesson of the truth hurts?”
Daniel didn’t even hesitate. “That’s the second most important lesson of life.”
Lenore looked over her shoulder towards her sons. “Boys, your father is the biggest goober in the world,” she said with a wink.
“In the galaxy,” Daniel said with a bob of his head.
The van drove into a parking lot in the business distract of downtown, and it was then Larry started feeling the butterflies in his stomach. “Mom,” he said, “do you really think this will help?”
She looked over her shoulder before unbuckling her seat belt. “It can’t hurt to try,” she said, reaching behind her to pat Larry on the knee.
“Only the bank account will suffer, and we can afford it,” Larry father said. There was a serious tone to his voice, one that Larry rarely ever heard. The contrast from the usual fun-loving gryphon patriarch to this was jarring, and didn’t help the butterflies within Larry.
“Even if we can’t afford it, we’d do it anyway to help you.
“Geez, ” Freddy said, “you guys sound like an after school special.”
“Maybe you should take Freddy in my place,” Larry said, shooting Freddy an annoyed look. “He needs it a lot more than I do.”
“I don’t think our bank account can handle that much suffering,” Daniel said.
“Come on, Larry,” Lenore said as she stepped out of the van. “Let’s go inside.”
“Courtland was going to beat you up?” Sampson said.
“If Plato wasn’t there, I would’ve been a pulped gryphon,” Larry said.
Sampson’s eyes flicked back and forth from the road to Larry. “Huh! I wouldn’t have hired Plato as your bodyguard. I thought he had the Ferdinand Complex.”
“Can you please keep your eyes on the road? And what’s a Ferdinand Complex?”
“Relax, Larry Bird.” Sampson patted the gryphon on the thigh. “Have I ever told you you have very silky fur?”
Larry’s heart beat in rapid succession from Sampson’s touch, and only slowed down when he moved his hand away from Larry’s thigh. “I don’t think so,” he said, feeling light-headed. “And don’t call me–”
“Anyway,” Sampson interrupted, “a Ferdinand Complex is when bulls are passive no matter what the circumstances. They just won’t fight back.”
“But Plato’s on the football team.”
Sampson grew quiet, his eyes locked on the road until he looked at Larry. “Huh! I guess you’re right!”
“Eyes on the road! Please!“
Sampson put the car in neutral after pulling alongside the curb in front of Larry’s house. “You want to come over for dinner tonight? Dad’s making lasagna.”
Larry would’ve said yes, as he had a weakness for Sampson’s Dad’s lasagna, but he shook his head, albeit reluctantly. “I can’t tonight. My family’s celebrating the soccer win.”
It wasn’t the complete truth, but Larry wasn’t about to admit the real reason the family was going out on a school night.
“All right,” Sampson said. “See you tomorrow!”
As Larry watched Sampson drive off, he wondered if he should confess his feelings to his teammate. What if Sampson didn’t feel the same way? What if he did? Either result would alter the dynamic of their friendship, for better or for worse.
Knowing his luck, it would be for the worse.
Larry would wait until soccer season was over. Having decided that, he turned around to walk to the house and instead bumped into his brother. Freddy didn’t budge, but Larry stumbled back a few steps, lost his balance, and fell on his butt.
“Freddy! Stop doing that!”
“Stop doing what? You ran into me.” Freddy trotted over to Larry, offering a forelimb which Larry accepted. “You should pay more attention.”
“Sorry,” Larry said, then wondered why he was apologizing. “I was lost in thought.”
“Worried about tonight?”
Larry shook his head. “Not really.”
“Worried about what Courtland might do to you?”
Larry’s ears flattened against his skull. “How did you find out?” he said, his heart seizing up with fear.
“Word gets around. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell Mom or Dad.”
Relief flooded through Larry, helping start up his heart. “Thanks, Freddy.”
“No worries. Now let’s get ready. I hear Dad’s taking us to sushi.”
“Sorry I’m late, Mister Kimbrell,” Larry said as he entered the classroom. He felt the weight of everyone’s eyes as he approached his desk. “I had to really go to the bathroom.” It was the truth, even if it wasn’t all of the truth.
Mister Kimbrell, a tall, whip-lean man with shocking red hair and equally shocking freckles, smiled under his walrus mustache. “Next time hold it until study hall,” he said after the classroom’s snickers died down.
Larry tried to keep his focus on the lesson–something about formulas with imaginary numbers–but his thoughts were going through the possibilities of Plato’s payment. What could he possibly want from Larry, and what if Larry couldn’t pay him?
The answer was easy: Courtland would renew his license to bully Larry. Maybe for a lifetime!
When the bell rang, signaling the end of the period, Larry was slower than usual to reach his locker. Apprehension weighed him down during his walk, and when he saw Plato waiting for him, he also froze like a deer caught in the headlights.
“Hey there,” Plato said, smiling.
“Hi.” Larry briefly debated the merits of turning tail and running, but decided it would not only be cowardly, it would probably be very rude. After all, Plato saved him from a beating.
“I’ll get right to the point. You need help with keeping Courtland off your back, and I need help with one of my classes.”
Larry blinked. Could it be that easy? “What class?”
Plato shifted from hoof to hoof. “Promise you won’t laugh?”
“I promise.” After seeing how Plato handled Courtland, Larry would be the last gryphon on Earth to laugh at him.
“I’m having problems with Math.”
“But you’re a Senior, aren’t you? Shouldn’t you get someone in your grade to help you?”
Plato looked at the locker, then closed his eyes. “It’s Remedial Math. You know, for students with…learning disabilities.”
“Oh.” Larry didn’t know what else to say, except: “Well, I can try to tutor you.” Was he qualified to tutor someone with a learning disability?
Plato met Larry’s eyes, and his own eyes brightened at Larry’s answer. “Really? Thanks!”
“When do you want me to tutor you?”
Plato gave that question some thought. “How about my place this Friday? After school?”
Larry couldn’t think of anything he needed to do that day except for hanging out with Osaze, so he nodded. “Sure. Give me the directions to your place later.”
“All right, Larry. See you then.”
As Larry watched Plato walk down the hall to his next class, a thought struck the gryphon:
The minotaur was really cute.
“You let him go first, Courtland,” a soft voice replied.
Once free of the foo dog’s claws, Larry scrambled away to what he hoped was a safe distance.
The minotaur from the hallway held Courtland’s wrist in what must have been a painful angle, given how the foo dog wasn’t fighting back.
“Are you all right, Larry?” The minotaur looked down at Courtland, who was starting to grimace in pain.
“Y-yeah, I’m okay.”
“Did he hit you?”
Larry shook his head, and the minotaur nodded before releasing Courtland’s wrist.
“I don’t want to see you near Larry again, Courtland,” the minotaur said, stepping between him and the gryphon. “Do you understand me?”
Courtland massaged his wrist, then glared up at him. “Why’re you butting in on my business, Playdoh?”
“Because it’s my business to keep Larry safe from bullies like you.” He pointed at the door, giving Larry a moment of deja vu. “Get out of here. Now.”
Courtland slowly stood up, glared at Larry and “Playdoh”, and for a moment Larry feared the foo dog was going to throw a punch at his new found protector, even though the minotaur was bigger. Instead he left the bathroom, leaving Larry and the minotaur by themselves.
“Osaze told me about your problems with Courtland,” the minotaur said. Now that the excitement was over, Larry noticed how the minotaur filled out the blue polo shirt he was wearing, not to mention the upper part of his black slacks. His mane was styled in two short braids kept together with a gold ring at the ends. They didn’t quite touch his broad shoulders, but it was close. As he approached Larry, his hooves were muffled by the rubber pads on the bottom. “My name’s Plato,” he said, offering a hand.
Larry took his hand. “Thanks for saving my furry butt from a beating.”
Plato pulled Larry to his paws. “I don’t like bullies, so it’s my pleasure,” he said, his long tail swinging lazily behind him. A red braided band close to his tail tuft glinted in the light.
“How do you know Osaze?”
“From playing basketball. I just started. Keeps me in shape after football season.”
Larry remembered Courtland was on the football team. “Oh.” A sudden feeling of dread kept him from saying anything else.
Plato smiled. “I know what you’re thinking. I might catch some heat from Courtland’s friends on the football team. That is, if he had any friends.”
“He doesn’t have any?”
Plato shook his head. “Nope. Everyone pretty much hates him.”
“That’s…that’s really sad.”
Plato nodded. “We have to get to class. I don’t know about you, but if I flunk, I don’t graduate.” He clapped a hand on Larry’s shoulder. “We’ll talk after class. I’ll meet you at your locker.”
Larry heart was seized by sudden fear. “Uhm, I really don’t have much money.”
“That’s okay, I was thinking of other ways you can pay me. We’ll talk later.”
As Larry followed Plato out of the bathroom, he wondered exactly what kind of payment the minotaur wanted, and could he afford to pay it?
“Oh, really?” said Sampson, smirking. “Which team is it?”
“He’s going to say basketball,” Larry said.
Osaze nodded. “The shrimpy one is correct.” A sly grin began to form on his long, slender muzzle. “We basketball players are a family.”
“Courtland’s not on the basketball team,” said Larry.
“Your grasp of the obvious is outstanding.”
“So you think there’s someone on your team that would help me?”
Osaze shrugged. “Anything’s possible.”
“I just remembered something. You offered to…how did you put it? ‘Slam dunk him’.”
“And then we agreed he’d just spin it so that it’d look really bad on you.”
“So how is having a bodyguard any different?”
Osaze’s grin vanished, replaced by a frown. “Because Courtland’s escalated it. He almost beat the crap out of you. He’d tear you to shreds in a fair fight, so we have to make sure the odds are against him.”
“Maybe Courtland won’t bother him anymore,” Sampson said.
“And maybe I’ll win the lottery.” Larry shook his head. “Osaze is right. I need all the help I can get. Courtland’s going to stay out of trouble, but sooner or later he’ll be up to no good.”
“So cynical at such a young age,” Osaze said.
“I just turned sixteen, what’s your point?” Without waiting for a reply, Osaze continued. “Let’s get back on track here. Sampson will make his futile attempt at recruiting one of the football players, and I’ll succeed at getting one of my teammates to guard you.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you have a huge ego?”
“You’re the first, Sampson,” Osaze said. “Maybe that’s why I’m so tall. So it can hold my ego.”
An hour later, Larry walked down the crowded hall by himself, his mind dwelling on the subject of a bodyguard. Did he really need one? Was Courtland that much of a problem?
As if in reply, a heavy hand grabbed his shoulder.
“You got me in trouble, asshole,” said Courtland.
Before Larry could face him, the foo dog’s claws sunk lightly into the gryphon’s shoulder, making him wince. It wasn’t enough to penetrate his shirt, but the threat was there.
“Just keep walking.” Courtland was guiding him down the hall.
Not wishing to make a scene, or perhaps to afraid to make one, Larry was guided down the hallway, past his next class. Aside from a fellow student, a minotaur leaning up against a locker and watching them, they were all alone.
“Get in there,” Courtland growled, shoving Larry into the boy’s bathroom, despite the gryphon’s struggles. Once inside, Courtland pushed him to the floor. The smell of bleach burned his nostrils.
“You’re going to get suspended,” Larry said. Before he could belly crawl away from Courtland, the foo dog grabbed him by the neck.
“After what my dad’s gonna do to me, kicking your ass is gonna be worth it.”
Larry squeezed his eyes shut in anticipation of the foo dog’s fist to wherever it might land on his body. Instead of the awaited punch, he heard something unexpected:
“Let me go!”
“You need a bodyguard,” Osaze said, folding his hands on the lunchroom table.
“He’s right,” Sampson said in between bites of his pizza slice.
“Do either of you want the job?” Larry asked, poking a claw tip at his fish filet sandwich.
“Being your best friend makes me too much of an emotional liability,” Osaze said, emphasizing the last word with a wink.
“I don’t think you even know what emotional liability means.”
“Courtland would rip right through me,” Sampson said. “I’m built for speed. He’s a tank.”
“How sure are you he’s going to do anything?” Osaze asked.
“What would you guys do if you had his temper and got caught?”
“I’d want revenge on the turkey-cat,” Sampson said, smiling.
“What Sampson said, only minus the lame attempt at insulting your gryphon heritage.”
“Thanks, Osaze,” said Larry.
“No problem. I’d just call you a feather duster.”
“Why are you my best friend again?”
“Because I’m taller than you and can reach the shelves you can’t, shrimpy.”
“So if neither my best friend and my best teammate want to be my bodyguard, then who will?”
“Duh, Larry. Somebody who’s bigger than Courtland,” Sampson said.
“Maybe someone on the football team,” Osaze said, his eyes drifting over to the table “reserved” for said players.
Larry followed Osaze’s gaze. The table was filled with most of the varsity team and their cheerleader girlfriends. “I don’t know any of them.”
“I do,” Sampson said.
Larry looked at him. “Do you think they’d help me?” He then remembered a crucial fact. “Wait, Courtland’s on the football team!”
“So we just find a player that doesn’t get along with him.”
“Never going to happen,” Osaze said. “Football players are like a gang.” He paused for a second, lost in thought, then continued. “In fact, all high school sports teams are like that, with one exception.”