It's summer, and Charlie Thomas is seven years old. The air is thick and humid, and the promise of rain is at the horizon's edge.
Charlie grips the bat in his hands, his body tensing in anticipation, and swings.
He connects bat to ball with a satisfying crack, one of his favourite sounds in the world. He drops the bat in the dust and takes off toward first base. He can hear the crowd shouting and whistling over the roar of his pulse and the desperate gasp of each breath.
Somewhere up there, his mom and dad are cheering him on.
They walk home while the sidewalks are still hot, but the sky has darkened and thunder is rolling through the cloud.
"Is my son gonna be a star, or what?"
Charlie feels another leap of pleasure in his stomach as his father claps a gentle hand to his shoulder. He looks up and grins.
Dad grins back at him. "First home run, kid. How does it feel?"
"Awesome," Charlie breathes happily.
Dad ruffles his hair. "Yeah," he says. "You made your old man proud."
It's summer. Charlie Thomas is ten years old, and the house – which felt a little too full, at times, just a couple of months ago – feels much too empty now.
Sometimes he sits on the front porch with his ball and glove, playing out little fantasies in his mind, where Dad strolls in the front gate and gives him a wide grin.
Sorry, kid. Business trip from hell. Never did have time to tell you all where I'd gone. Want to hit some fly balls?
But the cold reality of an empty chair at the dinner table and his mother's stifled sobs at night tell Charlie there's no excuse for this absence.
One morning, Charlie is on the porch, listening to the muffled echoes of Bugs Bunny cartoons Sam and Kristy are watching inside.
Mr. Spier leans his arms on the fence between his house and theirs, and calls quietly. "Charlie, would you help me with something for a moment, please?"
"Sure," Charlie says. He hastily pushes his glove into the shadow of the porch, as though he's been caught doing something he shouldn't, and rounds the fence.
Mr. Spier's car is parked in the driveway. The hood is up.
As he's shown how to check and change the oil, how to change a flat, how to check the radiator, and a dozen other little things he has never before given thought to, Charlie ignores that Mr. Spier obviously needs very little help at all.
"Where'd you learn all this stuff?" he asks, forgetting that he's always been just a little afraid of Mr. Spier.
"My father taught me," Mr. Spier answers. He, like Charlie, has grease and dirt on his hands, and Charlie marvels for a moment at seeing him so unlike his usual self. "He used to be the mail-man around here," he adds after a moment. "He rode a bike, most of the time, but during the winter he'd have to take a car. He showed me how to keep it in fine running order."
He closes the hood gently, and Charlie feels a slight sinking in his stomach as he realises the morning's lesson is over.
"I'm too busy to do these things a lot of the time," Mr. Spier says after a moment. "I was wondering if I might ask a favour of you."
Charlie feels his face warming, and a swell of hope and anticipation curls inside him.
"I was wondering if perhaps I could rely on you to do some of these things for me," Mr. Spier says, passing Charlie a rag for his hands.
"Really?" Charlie asks breathlessly. Sparks of excitement flicker in his chest. "Sure!"
"I'd contribute to your allowance, of course," Mr. Spier says. "I'll talk to your mother about it."
Charlie beams at him. "Thanks, Mr. Spier."
Mr. Spier taps his cheek, indicating a grease spot. Charlie scrubs at his face with the rag.
"I'll take a look whenever you want me to," he says hastily, looking longingly at the car again.
"Come by next Saturday," Mr. Spier says, wiping his own hands. "I'm sure I'll find something that needs to be done."
"No problem," Charlie says eagerly.
"I'll show you a few things again," Mr. Spier says. "Changing a flat can take practice, you know."
They seal their new agreement with a handshake.
"Good work today, Charlie," Mr. Spier says, smiling down at him kindly. "You should be proud of yourself."
It's summer, Charlie Thomas is seventeen-years-old, and he's still holding his college acceptance letter in his hand.
Rain pours off the back porch, and the air is a little sharper, a little clearer, than it was an hour previously.
He reads the letter again, though he knows it by heart already, and his cheeks pull and hurt a little when he grins to himself – which he has been doing all day.
The back door closes softly, and Charlie looks up to see Watson's beaming face.
"Your mother told me you got a letter today," he says.
Charlie grins and passes his step-father the letter, which is softened and slightly creased due to constant handling.
He watches the smile on Watson's face grow as he reads the letter. When Watson looks up at him again, it's with misty eyes.
"I'm so proud of you, Charlie," he says.
Charlie can feel a lump in his own throat. "Thank you," he says, rather gruffly.
Watson reaches up to pat his shoulder, squeezing gently, and then quietly pulls Charlie into a firm hug.
Charlie rests his brow against the top of Watson's shoulder for a brief moment.
When they pull apart, Watson swipes at his eyes hastily.
"You should be proud of yourself, as well," he says, looking down at the letter again. "You worked hard for this."
Charlie smiles at him. "I am proud," he says, finally admitting it out loud. "Thank you, Watson."