"Graduation is coming up soon," Watson said.
Charlie hadn't thought much of it when Watson asked him for a ride to the store. Sure, Watson had his own car -- two, in fact -- but he had asked it so casually, and only now did it seemed strange to Charlie to have his millionaire stepfather riding in the front seat of his car, so aptly named the Junk Bucket.
"Yeah," Charlie replied slowly. He glanced over at Watson for just a moment, trying to gauge where this was going, but he got nothing before turning his attention back to the road.
"A lot of kids, the kids in our neighborhood, they get cars as graduation gifts," Watson said.
And as Christmas gifts and birthday gifts, to show they were lucky enough to be born into the right family gifts. So when they crash their overpriced sports cars, their daddies can get them another one with a better engine and less regard for the rules that don't apply to them.
Charlie was surprised at his own bitterness. He liked his car and had never really cared what the rich kids had that he didn't.
"Do you want to buy me a car?" Charlie asked.
"I was thinking about it," Watson replied. Again, casual. Watson wasn't stuffy or formal, but usually he was a little bit more dorky than this. Suddenly, he chill and smooth. "I talked about it with your mother and she thinks a sensible car, something with good gas mileage, would be an appropriate gift. I know you like the Junk Bucket, but I'm not sure it would make the cross-country drive to USC. And Sam will be driving next year, he could use it."
Yes, Sam driving the Junk Bucket seemed like a good idea, and getting a new car, that sounded good, so why did something feel wrong?
Charlie pulled into the A&P parking lot and found a spot near the front. He turned off the car and turned toward his stepfather. "Watson, I... thank you, but I don't know if I could accept a new car from you."
"Why not?" He sounded genuinely curious.
"It's a big gift."
"Graduating is a big accomplishment."
"But I'm not--" your son. The words were on the tip of his tongue, and it dawned on him. The bitterness wasn't from his rich neighbors' entitlement, but the dads they had to buy them expensive sports cars.
Watson was a good stepfather. Great, even. Charlie knew how happy his mother was with Watson, and the way he'd really made all the Thomases feel like part of the family. Not only that, but that they had become one family. Watson loved them, and Charlie knew it. But Charlie was the oldest. He was the one who remembered the most. He was the one who was going to be in the house for the shortest amount of time. He was the one most resentful of the father that wasn't there, for as much as Patrick could be called a father. A new car wouldn't fix that.
But that wasn't what Watson was offering. He never tried to be a replacement father. He just wanted give Charlie something nice. Something that he would give his own kids. It was more than any other father had ever done for him.
"Are you sure you want do this?" Charlie asked instead. "If you give me a car, all the others will expect them, too."
"And they'll get them," Watson said with a smile. "I just wanted to be sure you thought it was okay. By the time Sam and Kristy graduate, I think it won't be so strange to receive such a large gift from me, but you and I haven't been at this as long. Sometimes, I don't know how this stepparent thing works."
"I don't know how the step kid thing works, either," Charlie said. "And you're right. It won't be weird for them to accept it, and it shouldn't be weird for me, either. Thank you, Watson. It means a lot"
"You're welcome." Watson's smile spread into a grin. "I don't know about you, but I don't really need anything from the A&P. But there is a dealership in Stamford, if you wanted to take something for a test drive."
Charlie grinned too, and he started up the Junk Bucket again. It'd be fun to do something with the parent that was here. "Let's go."