The Starpoint Project
Translated by William Rodarmor
Chapter 1 – Roll Call
1st foreign language:
2nd foreign language:
Perplexed, Pythagore raised his eyebrows.
The classroom was still empty. No one was around to see whether he was “fitting in.” Did she really need all this information?
Sighing, he went to work.
Last name: Luchon
First name: Pythagore
1st foreign language: English
2nd foreign language: Spanish
Major: Arts and crafts
He wrote the answer out in full: “Agrégée professor of mathematics.” That kind of detail counted for her, he knew -- or at least it once did.
Was that still the case?
His mother was at her desk going through her papers, waiting for the students. She had already taken charge of the classroom, having opened the roll call folder and wiped the blackboard clean.
This was the first time Pythagore had seen her at work in a class -- his class. He studied her sweater, her brooch, her polished shoes, her rectangular glasses, commonplace accessories he was used to seeing up close at home. He now saw them in a new light, on display on the dais. He watched her writing, conscientiously bent over her papers, her hair in a neat bun. He felt his heart give a thump, then he went back to the information sheet.
Pythagore took a deep breath, then released it.
The letters f-a-t-h-e-r danced before his eyes, then snapped to attention. Father. Profession.
Pythagore felt trapped in the tiny space between his chair and his desk. He felt as if his limbs had suddenly lengthened and he didn’t know where to put his knees anymore.
He sighed again, stood up, and to his annoyance, bumped the desk. Pulling his phone from his bag, he looked to see if Louise had answered his text.
He wrote her new one: You awake?
He waited for a moment; no answer
Then he scrolled through the Internet news:
Panic on the plane: Drunk pilot about to take off with 274 passengers.
Society: Men don’t mature until age 43.
Soccer: At FC Nantes, Pierre Major’s curvaceous girlfriend drives fans wild.
Health: Six proven ways to get rid of acne.
People: Top five singers who should retire. (Among the comments this produced was, “I find this kind of classification disgusting.”)
Dateline: Earthquake in Bretagne. A shock measuring 3.4 on the Richter scale was felt shortly before midnight.
Pythagore clicked on the article.
Temblors in the region are not unusual, since most of the Retz region sits on a fault called the Southern Armorican shear zone. According to the national RéNaSS seismic surveillance network, the epicenter was located under Lake Hauberges, 2.5 km south of Morantz.
“Epicenter,” “RéNaSS” “Richter scale.”
Pythagore liked the way these scientific terms sounded. They reminded him of the afternoons he used to spend in the OSUNA hallways when his father visited one of his old Nantes University classmates.
He glanced up.
The form was still in front of him. She was waiting at her desk.
Pythagore bent down and answered by drawing a small line: “—”
The first bell rang and students began to file into the classroom. Lucie Bonneton had dyed her hair. She came over and gave Pythagore a hug.
“Are you still contagious?”
He nodded, to see how she’d take it.
“So much the better! I wouldn’t mind skipping classes.”
Nicolas Frangin thumped him on the back.
“Hi, man! How you doing? Two weeks of extra vacation and the living is easy.”
“Yeah, that’s about right.”
“Guess who showed up at my uncle’s house during the poker game yesterday? Markarian. She walked in with her new gal pal.”
“Yeah. There were planning to go out on the lake in a glass-bottom boat, but forgot they don’t run on Sunday evening.”
Pythagore was skeptical. He had trouble believing that Louise could’ve made a mistake about the boat schedules, considering that her father was part of the lake preservation association and had fought to limit public access to certain specific days. But more than that, he had no idea who Nicolas meant by “new gal pal.”
“Yeah, lucky we were there with my brother; we drove ‘em home. The two girls looked completely out of it.”
Émilie Santon and Laure Gantier came over in a knowing flurry of hair, hands, and hugs.
“Hi, Pyth! Hi, Nico!”
Laure smelled of perfume and hair oil.
Pythagore remembered the smell of that hair oil perfectly. It had spread through her bathroom that day he broke the bottle while hiding in her shower.
Hossain Zamani, a pole vaulter at the Vieux-Lairet sports club like Nicolas and Pythagore, edged over against the wall and stuck out his hand. He was the only boy in the class who shook hands when he greeted you. He was also the only one with real whiskers, whose denseness contrasted with the frankness of his soft gaze.
“Good morning, Pythagore. Are you feeling better?” Hossain’s voice was quiet and low. “Did you feel the temblor yesterday?”
Maxence Vidal-Daguerre, who had just come in, answered for them.
“The ‘temblor’?” he asked in a nasal tone. “You think you’re in Japan or something?”
Nicolas Frangin spoke up.
“Well, I can say we sure felt it. We were at my uncle’s by the lakeshore, and we felt the earth move.”
“This the uncle who drinks pastis at ten o’clock in the morning?” asked Maxence.
Michel Cousin and Mickael Scottoni snickered
Nicolas gave Maxence the finger before quickly turning round to make sure Pythagore’s mother didn’t see him doing it.
The last students filed in, including Jordanie Serra.
Pythagore stomach tensed slightly in apprehension. At the end-of-year party, he and Jordanie had kissed in the Café Melisandre at dawn. It was just before she left for a month in the United States. In mid-July they exchanged some inconclusive email before Pythagore left for his sports camp in Ardèche, where his phone didn’t get a signal. He texted Jordanie when he got back to Loiret-en Retz. She didn’t answer.
Jordanie was as beautiful as ever. As annoying too, the way she walked around with her chest out and her nose in the air. One of the straps of her tank top had slipped off her shoulder, but she was pretending not to notice.
As she walked by him, Jordanie gave Pythagore a nod that sparked a surge of adrenaline, then went to sit next to Maxence.
From the dais, Pythagore’s mother was calling to him.
“Were you able to get the material we covered in last week’s class?”
Why was she talking to him so formally?
Embarrassed, he shook his head. Under his desk, he took out his phone and typed another text for Louise: Where are you?
He erased the draft.
A moment later he wrote: Want me to save you a seat?
He erased that as well, then started over: Hello where are you?
Since when had he started saying “hello” to Louise? And since when did it take him two tries before sending her a text?
Since Louise had started sending him texts that sounded like excuses. Texts with smileys ☺sprinkled all over them, to make her ☺feel better ☺.
The second bell rang and everybody settled down. Louise still hadn’t appeared.
Pythagore’s mother started calling the roll.
A muffled “Yes” was heard.
“Answer ‘Present’ clearly, please. I’m a bit deaf in my right ear, so speak up.”
Hearing laughter behind them, Pythagore turned around. It was Maxence, giggling with Jordanie. He also noticed some goings-on in the back rows. Two girls were swapping notebooks in which they had pasted bare-chested photos of Raging Stuff’s lead singer.
Pythagore’s mother didn’t seem to notice the secret life metastasizing under the desks. Seeing nothing amiss, she went on calling the roll.
Pythagore suddenly looked up. He’d never heard that name before.
“Erivan, Foresta?” his mother asked again.
“She’s not here? All right. Gantier, Laure?”
When his mother got to “Luchon, Pythagore?” he started.
Wasn’t she saying it too loudly? Or too clearly? He felt exposed.
After Pythagore it was Louise’s turn to be called, as always.
“Markarian, Louise? Not here either?”
Madame Luchon nodded thoughtfully. Pythagore had to shut his eyes. Every one of his mother’s gestures struck him as inappropriate or exaggerated. He was afraid people would make fun of her. He didn’t want anybody looking at her, but at the same time he wanted everybody to listen.
Finally they got to the end of roll call.
This time Pythagore didn’t need to turn around to see Maxence’s casual slouch, with a limp finger raised.
“Clearly say ‘Present,’ please.”
“Present,” he said with exaggerated diction.
Jordanie buried her head in her hands.
Math class was going to be torture this year.
When the bell rang, Pythagore realized he couldn’t remember anything of the class. He grabbed his things, raced down the main staircase, crossed Prophètes Hall, nearly slipped under the arcade along Médailles Hall, crossed the kindergarten play area, and passed Périclès, one of the maintenance guys, as he stowed his cart in the shed. Finally, he reached the garden in front of the cottage where Louise and her father lived.
The gate was closed, so he reached through the bars, lifted the latch, and made his way around the back of the house to Louise’s room. The window curtains were half closed. Pressing his face to the glass, Pythagore saw that the room was messy and the bed unmade, but that Louise wasn’t there.
As he was closing the gate, Louise’s father’s voice rang out behind him.
“Hello there, boy!”
Tall and lanky, Monsieur Markarian was standing very erect, feet widely set, toolbox handle in the crook of his elbow.
“So what’s up? Weren’t you going to say hello?”
He clapped Pythagore’s shoulder with a hand the size of a spade and shook him back and forth, as if to make sure he was securely anchored.
“Hello, sir,” said Pythagore.
“Good as new?”
“Yes, good as new. How about you?”
Markarian answered in English.
“Yes. All is good, boy! Perfect!”
Monsieur Markarian loved speaking English. It was the only time he lost his accent.
For a moment Pythagore thought to ask him if he knew where his daughter was, but changed his mind when he realized Louise was probably cutting classes.
But then again… When had Louise started cutting classes? As far as he knew she’d never missed a single one, even when she was sick.
Pythagore headed into the science building and sat down on the bleachers to watch the arriving students.
They came and went, groups formed and broke up. Pythagore felt glad to be alive again, after fifteen days alone. He liked observing the variety of people, their laughter, the way some talked over others. He enjoyed watching without having to participate. Listening to conversations without having to express his opinion. Was it true that Anne-Laure Savoie had kissed Avril Alençon at Marie-Ange Cardinet’s party, as Amel Dali was telling another sophomore? Martin Lamy said he would pay good money to see that. A brunette with too much eye makeup said that it was just a quick peck in a game of Truth or Dare, but Amel contradicted her, adding that they’d stepped into the bathroom and continued kissing.
Pythagore looked up at the alignment of the dropped ceiling’s panels. He remembered the night when he Louise had lifted one of the panels so they could crawl above them, like in the movies, but found the space too tight. Finally they had to settle for moving the ladder along, raising panels one after another to follow the course of the wiring.
Pythagore glanced at his phone. Still nothing. He was getting worried. It would be really weird for Louise to miss a life sciences class. It was her favorite, right up there with physics.
Had something happened to her?
She never left the school grounds, not even during vacations.
He had barely sat down at a desk when Madame Solilaisse, the life sciences teacher, cornered him.
“Are you feeling better, Pythagore?”
“You really haven’t had much luck, have you? Nothing like ten days of gastroenteritis to screw up the start of the school year.”
Pythagore shrugged and smiled politely, hoping to end the conversation. Madame Solilaisse didn’t seem to realize that he was no longer an eight-year-old boy waiting for his mother in the faculty lounge.
“I stopped by your place three days ago. I wanted to find out how you were doing, but you were in the bathroom.”
Pythagore tensed, and glanced round to see the extent of the damage, see who might’ve overheard her revelations. Just then he noticed an unknown girl making her way through the crowd.
She had red hair -- a warm red, almost amber, with coppery glints.
Madame Solilaisse was still talking.
“I hope you drank a lot of water. Because throwing up causes dehydration.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said in a strangled voice.
He leaned back slightly, the better to see the red-haired girl’s face. She hadn’t been in math class earlier. She was wearing a military-style jacket with copper buttons, black leather pants, and laced boots.
She hadn’t been in math, that was for sure.
“Diarrhea can dehydrate you terribly, too.”
Pythagore stopped breathing. Had Madame Solilaisse really spoken aloud what she’d just said?
The girl turned for a moment as she draped her jacket on the chair back. Her gestures were both broad and precise. Pythagore glimpsed her features through the hair falling across her face.
He suddenly started. Someone had just tapped him on the shoulder.
It was Louise, at last.
Louise with her hair in a mess, glasses askew, out of breath, her bag full of things sticking out, holding books and notepads that should’ve been in the bag. This included a magazine -- Wild Physics -- that Pythagore had never read but which probably covered science or plumbing. Louise, in all her glory.
Madame Solilaisse retreated to her office, as if driven away by this apparition. Pythagore was smiling again. He stood up, took a deep breath, and put his arms around his friend.
“I ran here.”
“So I see.”
They looked each other over. Pythagore hadn’t seen Louise since the end of July, and realized how much he’d missed her. She had changed a little, as with every vacation. Something in her face had become more definite -- her forehead, the bridge of her nose. Her hair was as dark as ever, but it didn’t look like a girl’s hair anymore. Her eyes were no longer just brown, but were lighter, more hazel. And her eyebrows were less bushy, better tended.
Pythagore made room for her to sit down, but Louise remained standing, still holding her things.
“Are you better now?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah, much better. Where were you this morning?”
Louise continued smiling.
“Want to sit down?”
“I have to go sit with my lab partner,” she said. “We started working together last week.”
“Where are we having lunch?” he asked.
“Er, I don’t think I’ll eat lunch today. I’m not really hungry and there’s a thing I have to finish. But I’ll meet you later, at the cafeteria. Okay?”
Louise moved to leave, but Pythagore stopped her.
“Did you check out the construction work at the swimming pool?”
“Yeah, it’s terrific. I’ll show you some sketches I made of the motors and the pumps.”
“Suppose I buy myself a sandwich and we meet there around one o’clock?”
“Okay. I’ll let you know…”