After all of the angst and suffering, I needed to do something light. This one-shot is about the brothers as boys, ages 12 and 7.
I do not own Numb3rs or any of the characters… just wish I did.
Charlie scuffed at the grass in the back yard with the toe of his sneaker, trying to feign disinterest. He could hear his mom's voice through the window.
"Donnie, what does it hurt to bring him along? He can watch from the dugout."
Charlie heard Don's voice, pleading. "But, Mom, then he'll want to play. He'll bug me the whole game."
Dad weighed in on the conversation. "So let him play. Put him in for an inning – what can that hurt? It's just a pickup game."
"He's too little," complained Don. "Most of the kids on the team are my age. Some are even 13. We don't allow little kids. Why can't he play with kids his own age?"
Charlie swallowed the twinge of hurt that threatened to rise. He didn't want to admit to himself that he really didn't have anyone else to play with – not baseball anyway. There was the girl down the block and Jimmy on the next street, but they didn't even approach what was needed for a baseball team. He didn't really know the kids his age at school – at seven, he was already three grades ahead of his peers, and the children in his grade, well, ignored him. He pulled his attention back to the conversation, but his mother was speaking more quietly now, and strain as he might, he couldn't hear what she was saying.
After a moment, Don emerged from the house, glowering, the screen door closing behind him with a bang. "Well," he said, regarding Charlie grudgingly. "Do you want to go or not? Get your glove."
Charlie's face broke into a huge grin and he dashed in the garage to get his glove. It was one of Don's old ones, worn and well-broken in, and was one of Charlie's most prized possessions. He tore after Don, who was already halfway down the block. His brother trudged along with a scowl on his face, Charlie scampering rings around him in his excitement.
At twelve, Don lived for baseball. He played on a regular Little League team during the week and on Saturdays, and on Sundays was normally at the park nearby, scrounging for a pickup game with the other neighborhood kids. They had developed an informal league of their own, with one subdivision playing another, and set up games from week to week depending on who could make it.
Don saw Charlie safely across the street, and took off at a jog into the park toward the ball field, Charlie trotting alongside. Don could see his team and another already gathered there, and squinted, trying to see the players. It looked like the Rivers Glen kids. Don's team was generally at the top of the informal league, but Rivers Glen was their main competition. Forgetting about Charlie, Don grinned; his eyes alight with competitive fire. This should be a good game.
He jogged into the dugout, exchanging high-fives with the other kids, Charlie trailing behind. Don glanced behind him at his brother. 'He's so doggone little, he thought. "There's no way he can keep up with us." Charlie was small for his age, and all of Don's friends had hit their pre-teen growth spurts – each one of them was easily twice his brother's size.
One of the other boys eyed Charlie with a sneer. He had been over to the house once, and Charlie recognized him. Sid. Charlie hated Sid.
"Hey, Eppes," jabbed Sid, "have to baby-sit today? What's Chuck here for?"
Charlie scowled at him. 'My name's not Chuck,' he thought furiously, and he turned away.
'Chuck,' thought Don. 'That's a good one. I've gotta remember that.' He spoke quietly to the other boys. "Aw, my parents made me bring him. He won't hurt anything." He glanced toward Charlie, who had wandered out of the dugout and was watching the other team warm up. "Charlie! Get in here!"
Charlie trotted back in obediently, and Don pulled him aside. "Charlie, you gotta stay in the dugout, behind the fence, okay? You can get hurt out there if you don't watch what you're doing. Just stay in here, and stay out of the way."
Charlie nodded; eyes huge with excitement. "What position do I play?"
Sid heard Charlie's question and snorted. "Left out, that's what you play. You can keep an eye on the bench for us."
Don cast Sid an aggravated glance, and turned to Charlie, who was frowning. "Look Charlie, this is going to be a close game, and it's your first one. You'll probably only get in for an inning. You'll get to bat once, and maybe play in the outfield."
Charlie nodded, grinning. "Okay." Barely containing himself, he found a spot on the bench and sat, swinging his feet.
The other team was up first. Don was playing first base today, Charlie noticed. He watched his brother pace off the bag and pound his fist into his glove. The first batter struck out, and the second grounded to the shortstop, who fielded the ball cleanly and threw a scorcher to Don, who caught it confidently and smoothly. Two out. Charlie grinned, and sighed with admiration as he watched his brother.
"Play's at first!" yelled Sid from center field. Unfortunately, the next play was not at first; the third batter came up and after swinging once, hit a homer over the outfield fence. Sid scrambled over the fence and retrieved the ball, and the team yelled platitudes at the pitcher. "It's okay, Justin, get the next one!" Get the next one he did, striking out the other team's clean up batter.
Don's team came in from the field and poured into the dugout. "Come on guys, let's get that run back," urged Don. Charlie stood up and went to his brother, trailing behind him as he put away his glove and picked out a bat. Don turned, not realizing he was there, and almost hit him with the end of the bat.
"Charlie! I thought I told you to sit down."
Charlie scuffed his toe in the dirt, and looked sideways at his brother. "Nice catch, Donnie."
"What?" said Don, distractedly changing bats. "Oh, yeah, thanks." He ruffled Charlie's hair absently, grinning as he passed. "Go sit down."
So Charlie sat. He sat through the bottom of the first, watching Don get a nice double to drive in the tying run. He sat through a scoreless second and third inning, amusing himself by watching the pitcher and catcher of each team exchange signals, counting how many of each they were using and in what sequence, and trying to predict ahead of time which one they would use next. By the top of the fourth, he was fidgeting with impatience. He slid to his feet as Don ran in from the field.
"When can I go? Next inning?" he asked, trailing so closely behind Don he stepped on the backs of his shoes.
"Charlie, back off!" said Don impatiently. "Not yet." He strode out of the dugout to warm up with the bat.
Sid looked at Charlie with a smirk. "Dream on, bench boy. You ain't gettin' in this game."
Charlie glowered back, plunking down on the bench with his arms crossed. 'That's what you think, Sid. Donnie said I could.'
Both teams started hitting the next few innings. Going into the sixth, Don's team was ahead by one run, 5-4. Charlie made another plea to go in, "You're ahead now, right?" - but Don deferred again.
"It's still too close. Let us get a couple more runs." Charlie sat back down in disappointment. His earlier excitement was waning, and he looked down at the dirt at his feet. The other boys were oblivious to him, intent on the game, the tension apparent even in those of them watching from the dugout, gathered behind the fence. Charlie slumped on the bench and sighed.
In the top of the seventh, disaster struck. The third batter in the other team's rotation hit another homer, this time driving in a run. The score was now 5-6, and Don's team was trailing. The Rivers Glen boys went wild, and Don's team looked frustrated. Charlie watched; wide-eyed, his stomach in a knot. Don's team was able to hold the Glen boys for the rest of their turn at bat, and came back into the dugout grimly, enduring taunts from the other side.
Their half of the inning started badly. The second batter managed to get on base, but the first and third grounded out. The fourth batter made it to first on a bobbled bunt, and there were two on, two out. The go-ahead run was on, and with one out left, the tension on either side was mounting. Don was up, and Charlie's heart pounded as he watched his brother take a warm-up swing.
Don narrowed his eyes and watched the first pitch come in. "Strike!" Don gave the umpire, a kid from one of the other teams in the pickup league, a glare, and settled back in his stance. The next pitch was a sweet one, he could see it coming, and he let loose with a mighty swing. His bench erupted as they watched it sail over the fence.
"Whoa, yeah dude!" yelled Sid, and they poured out of the dugout onto the field, surrounding Don as he trotted into home, and slapping him on the head, Charlie trailing behind them. 'Eight to six, two runs ahead,' he thought, thrilled. 'Maybe I can get in now.' He circled excitedly around the group of boys, watching his brother bask in the adulation, trying to get in his own high five.
The group started to break up, and Justin, the pitcher, passed one of the Glen boys, giving him a casual hand slap. "Good game."
'Good game?' thought Charlie. 'It's only the seventh inning. We still have one out left.' He stepped in beside the boy as he passed. "Why did you say 'good game?' There are two more innings left, right?"
"That's the pros, squirt," said Justin. "We play Little League rules, just like during the week. Games are seven innings."
Charlie stopped dead, his heart plummeting. The game was over. He looked back at Don, who was still laughing and talking with some of the boys. 'He forgot about me.' If he was a little older, and understood the nuances of emotions, he would have realized that the pain he felt was not just disappointment at not getting to play, it came from the realization that he didn't fit into his brother's life – it was a chasm they couldn't seem to bridge. At seven, genius or not, he didn't consciously realize that – he just knew that it hurt.
The group broke up and Don walked into the dugout, still grinning. The grin faded when he saw Charlie's glove sitting on the bench, and he felt a sudden pang of guilt. 'Man, I forgot about Charlie.' He looked around for his brother, and concern tinged with frustration rose when he didn't see him. 'Where the heck did he go? I told him to stay here.' He scanned the area around the ball field, and saw Charlie at the other end of the park, headed home, with his head down. Even from there he could see the defeated slump of his brother's small shoulders.
"Aw, crap," he muttered, and grabbed their gloves, sprinting after his brother, yelling, "Charlie! Wait up!" 'Mom will kill me if he crosses that street alone,' he thought.
"Charlie!" He saw his brother's head turn, and groaned as Charlie defiantly took off running.
There was only one street between their house and the park, but it was a major thoroughfare through the subdivision, and saw a fair amount of traffic. It also had a higher speed limit than most of the other streets, and that, coupled with Charlie's tendency to be preoccupied with his thoughts; had prompted their parents to forbid him to cross it by himself.
Don was slowly gaining on his brother- 'Man, he's faster than I thought,' – but Charlie was obviously going to make it to the street ahead of him. Don rolled his eyes as he ran. 'I am going to be in so much trouble. This is the last time I take him anywhere.'
Charlie reached the curb. "Charlie, you wait right there!" yelled Don angrily. Anger turned immediately to panic as he saw traffic approaching, led by a Fed Ex truck. Charlie looked back; hurt and resentment on his face, and stepped off the curb. Don's mouth was open in horror, and his legs were moving mechanically. "Charlie – don't –," He didn't get a chance to finish.
Charlie was taking another step when the horn blasted. The Fed Ex truck loomed over him and he froze on the spot, shutting his eyes. Don's knees went weak as he saw the truck skim narrowly past his brother, followed by two cars, so close that the breeze they generated blew his curls around his face. Charlie opened his eyes and dashed across, only narrowly missing a pick-up in the other lane. "Jesus," Don breathed, as his legs came to a shaky stop, and he leaned over to catch his breath, hands on his knees, watching his brother run down the block.
Charlie ran into the house through the kitchen, past his mother, and through the living room, past his father, who looked up from his paper to see a vision of dark curls, surrounding a face like a thundercloud, flash past on its way up the stairs. "Oh, boy," thought Alan. "Something didn't go right."
Margaret came out from the kitchen, and yelled up the stairs, "Charlie?" She looked at Alan, as if demanding an explanation, and he shrugged. Margaret frowned and went back out to the kitchen. A few moments later, she heard the screen door slam, and turned to see another thundercloud, this one residing on Don's face. She answered with one of her own. "Don Alan, did you let Charlie come home from the park by himself?"
Don immediately protested. "He took off on me. I kept yelling at him to stop, but he just kept going. He doesn't listen."
Margaret eyed him suspiciously. "All right. I need to have a talk with him. Get cleaned up for dinner."
Don walked quickly through the living room, hoping to get upstairs unnoticed. His dad spoke from behind the paper. "Not so fast there, Donnie." Don stopped, his back to his father, and rolled his eyes. He heard the paper rattle as his father lowered it. "Why don't you tell me what happened."
Don turned slowly. "Nothing happened. I took him to the park. It was a close game, so he didn't get in. He got mad and ran home."
Alan's eyes bored into Don's. "You couldn't let him play for one inning?"
"Dad, it was Rivers Glen. We almost lost." He grinned proudly. "I got a homer at the end to win the game."
Alan sighed. "Donnie, it was just a pick-up game. It wouldn't have killed you to let him play for an inning. When you get older, you'll realize that sometimes other things are more important than winning. Now go wash up."
Don stomped upstairs, frustration churning in his stomach. 'He didn't say one word about my homer,' he thought angrily. At the back of his mind he recognized the truth of what his father had said; he had realized that first-hand as he watched Charlie try to cross the street. The fact that his father was right did nothing to improve his mood, however; neither did the guilty feeling in the pit of his stomach, nor did the realization that like it or not, his parents expected him to be his brother's keeper. He stomped into his room and shut the door. 'This isn't fair.'
Charlie lay face down on his bed, sobbing, tears generated by a mixture of hurt and anger. He stifled them with an effort as he heard his brother come up the stairs, and sat up and wiped his face. He didn't want anyone to realize he'd been crying when he went down, especially Don. He took a deep hiccoughing breath and went into the bathroom. Dust from the ball field had mixed with the tears and left muddy patches on his face. Hurriedly he washed them off, and pushed past his brother, head down, as Don came in to wash.
Dinner was a less than jovial affair. Charlie glumly pushed food around on his plate, and Don shoveled his dinner in with a permanent scowl. Alan and Margaret exchanged glances.
Margaret looked at Charlie. He looked absolutely miserable; she wasn't sure why, but she was sure that he deserved a reprimand for not listening to his brother. Fixing him with a disapproving stare, she spoke his name. "Charles Edward."
Charlie flinched inwardly. When their mom used their full names it meant trouble. He glanced up, returning her look with trepidation.
"Your brother tells me that you didn't wait for him at the park – that you ran ahead and crossed the street by yourself, and ignored him when he called for you to stop."
Charlie glowered at Don. 'Tattletale,' he thought. Don scowled back.
"Is that true?"
"Yes," said Charlie, his eyes on his plate. He raised them again. "But-," he stopped, looking at his brother's angry face.
"Nothing," he muttered, looking back down at his plate.
"Good answer," said his mother. "I don't care what happened; there is no excuse for that. You are grounded until Friday."
Don smirked a little for his brother's benefit, and was rewarded with Charlie's resentful glance, but inside he felt a bit guilty – guilty for not letting his brother in the game, and for not telling his parents the whole story, including the hair-raising episode at the street corner. 'Grounding doesn't mean anything to Charlie during the week anyway,' he tried to rationalize. 'He has tutoring sessions and homework every night.'
Charlie stared down at his plate morosely. First, Don had ignored him and didn't let him in the game, and now he was grounded. To top it off there were peas on his plate. He hated peas. He hated life. 'This isn't fair.' "Can I be excused?" he asked sullenly.
"No," said his mother firmly. "Not until you eat your peas."
Later, after the boys had gone to bed, Margaret and Alan sat in the living room. The television was on, but neither of them was watching it. Alan was poring over some plans for a meeting the next morning, and Margaret was trying to concentrate on a book. She laid it down, sighing. "I just don't understand those two sometimes. They act like oil and water."
Alan raised an eyebrow at her. "They are pretty different."
"No they're not," protested Margaret. "They're more alike than it seems. I just don't understand why they don't get along better. They should get along better – when we're gone they will be all each other have."
"Well, let's think about this," said Alan. "First of all they're five years apart. Secondly, they have completely different personalities. Third, they have completely different interests."
"Wait, stop," said Margaret. "I don't think they have completely different personalities, and I don't think they have completely different interests. Look at today – they both wanted to go play baseball."
"Yeah, and look how that turned out," sighed Alan. "Maybe we should have signed Charlie up for baseball, on a team with kids his age. Then he'd get to play, and we wouldn't have to pressure Donnie to include him."
"Alan, you know we can't do that. He has tutoring every night. He has no time for that."
He looked at the floor, pensively. "Sometimes I wonder if we're doing the right thing. Maybe this is too much – we should just let him be a kid."
Margaret looked at him. Her eyes were sympathetic, but there was a determined set to her jaw. "He has a gift, Alan," she said softly. "We can't squander that."
The week dragged on. Don had bounded down the stairs the next day, the incident from the day before pretty much forgotten, which was characteristic for him; he tended to blow up over something and get over it quickly. Charlie, on the other hand, tended to internalize things, and brood over them, and brood he did. He was quiet the whole week, avoiding his brother as much as possible, although Don would turn around occasionally to find that he was being regarded by a pair of somber wounded eyes, which would quickly turn away.
At first that irritated Don, but as the week wore on, he started to feel sorry for Charlie in spite of himself, and by Thursday, as he watched his brother drag himself upstairs at night with a huge armload of books, he was feeling downright guilty. Never mind that Charlie actually enjoyed his books; to Don it looked like purgatory. He almost felt that he should ask Charlie to come with him the upcoming Sunday, and offer to get him into the next ball game.
The deciding moment came to him that night. He had a dream about his brother; in it Charlie was standing in the middle of the road, staring at Don with big dark accusing eyes, oblivious to the truck that was bearing down on him. Don awoke in a cold sweat, his heart pounding. It was so real; he actually got out of bed, went down the hall and gently pushed open his brother's door, looking in to reassure himself that Charlie was there. Stepping back, he heard a noise behind him and turned with a guilty start to see his mother.
She looked at him, eyebrows raised. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah, I just needed a drink." He headed for the bathroom.
She eyed him speculatively for a moment, wondering what that was about, but said nothing, just ruffled his hair, as he passed her.
Sunday came. They were sitting at breakfast, eating pancakes, at least all of them were but Charlie, who was inscribing equations on one with a fork until it disintegrated, and splitting another into halves, then each half into thirds, each third into fourths, and so on until he had nothing but a pile of crumbs. He hated pancakes too. He hated Sundays. He had no doubt his brother would be off to the ball field with his friends again today.
Confirming that fear, his mother asked Don, "So are you playing ball this afternoon?"
"Yeah," said Don around a mouthful of pancakes. Margaret was about to reprimand him for talking with food in his mouth, but his next words stopped her in her tracks. Don looked at Charlie. "Do you want to come?"
Margaret arched her eyebrows at Alan with a knowing look on her face.
Charlie stared for a moment with his mouth open, then shut it with a suspicious glance and looked down at his plate. "No, that's okay." It was Alan's turn to arch his eyebrows at Margaret, who looked nonplussed.
"Come on," cajoled Don. "Look, I don't know who we're playing today, but it won't be Rivers Glen – we played them last week. I bet I can get you in a game today."
A glimmer of hope flickered in Charlie's eyes, and he looked up. His glance strayed to his father.
"Go ahead, Charlie," said Alan. "You won't get a better offer here."
"Okay," said Charlie, trying to be dignified about it, but he couldn't suppress a small smile. Don grinned back as he stuffed another bite of pancake in his mouth.
Margaret eyed Charlie's plate with disapproval. "Eat your pancakes, Charlie," she said sternly, but her eyes smiled at him. Charlie sighed, picked up his spoon, and dug into the pile of crumbs.
Don nodded to himself in satisfaction as they approached the ball field. Brookfield Heights was the opposing team, and Don's team had beaten them soundly all year. He played against their main pitcher, Toby Wilson, in Little League, also, and for whatever reason, Don had his number. He hit Toby every time he came to bat, and it was usually a long ball. As a result, Toby couldn't stand him, and the feeling was mutual. Don grinned to himself. Toby was whining, mean and vindictive, and Don looked forward to adding to his hit statistics. He glanced at his brother. Charlie should have no problem getting into this game, he thought.
He stepped into the dugout. Justin reached out and ruffled Charlie's curls. "Hey, kid."
Charlie ducked with embarrassment, but tossed Justin a small smile, that disappeared when he turned and caught Sid smirking at him. Sid looked at Don. "Babysitting again, huh? What a drag."
Don shook his head, ignoring him, and stashed his bag in the corner. Sid patted an empty portion of bench, with a snide expression. "Here, Chuck, come and warm my seat for me."
Charlie scowled, turning away, a flash of anger in his dark eyes, and looked out between the chain-link fence on the dugout at the opposing team. He fervently hoped he would get in today, if for no other reason than to shut Sid up. The pitcher for the other team was warming up, and Charlie saw him shoot a nasty glance at Don. He frowned and looked at his brother, who had caught the glance and was grinning to himself. What was that about?
He had his answer in the first inning. Don's team had held Brookfield Heights scoreless, and had gotten two men on. Charlie was trying to watch the pitcher and catcher signal each other, to come up with a pattern, but the pitcher wasn't getting many pitches in before Don's team members would get their bat on the ball. The third batter struck out, and then Don came up. The pitcher glowered at him as Don took a confident practice swing. On the first pitch, Don let loose with a strong level swing that sent the ball sailing. Its flight seemed endless, and Charlie watched with growing excitement as it headed for the outfield fence, and jumped to his feet as it went over.
Justin grinned. "Does it every time." He pulled Charlie over and pointed to the pitcher. "See the pitcher? That's Toby. Don hits him every time he comes to bat. Watch this now. He's gonna throw his hat in the dirt." He snickered as Toby tore his hat off and flung it to the ground with an angry kick. "Happens every time. You know, your brother is one heck of a ballplayer, kid."
Charlie grinned, and watched his brother trotting around the bases, his grin fading to a look of awe as Don rounded third, moving with easy athletic grace. He felt a sudden odd ache; a strange mixture of admiration, love, inadequacy, and anxiety. Don was in a league of his own, even among his peers – in a different plane entirely than Charlie.
Charlie felt a desperate need to prove himself, to earn his brother's respect and love, and he never felt farther from doing it as he did then. His brother was perfect. How he could he possibly measure up to that? Suddenly the prospect of standing at the plate and trying to hit a small white orb governed by variable forces didn't seem so appealing. What if he struck out? What if he embarrassed Don? He watched Don enter the dugout and his heart gave a painful leap of adoration as Don casually ruffled his hair. He sighed, momentarily content, and backing up against the bench, sat, his eyes still glued to his brother.
Charlie's apprehension grew as the game went on. He watched Toby's signals and pitches intently. He had the signals and what pitch they corresponded to memorized in short order; the problem was that Toby wasn't a good enough pitcher to deliver what he signaled all of the time. He wasn't extremely fast, though, and in spite of his unpredictability, Don's team had no problem hitting him. By the time the fifth inning rolled around, they were well out in front.
Don turned to Charlie at the top of the fifth and grinned. "Okay, buddy, this is your shot. You ready?"
Charlie's heart gave a painful lurch, but he nodded; eyes wide, and pulled on his cap.
"Okay. You're gonna replace Tommy, in left field. You'll go out and play in the field first, and then you'll get a chance to bat." Don hunkered down next to him. "If they hit it to you, don't try to catch it. Just get your body behind the ball and stop it with your glove. Then pick it up and no matter where the runner is, throw it to the shortstop. He'll be your cutoff guy. Got it?" Charlie nodded; his heart suddenly in his throat. Don grinned at him. "Okay, let's go."
They trotted out onto the field, and as Don headed for first, Charlie split off and jogged toward left field, trying to emulate his brother's confident grace, hoping he didn't look as self-conscious as he felt. Sid's smirk, which he caught when he turned, did nothing to improve his confidence. He pounded his fist in his glove, unconsciously echoing his brother, and hoped fervently that the ball stayed out of left field.
Don smiled with satisfaction as he took his place a few steps from first. They were ahead by nine. If they held their opponents, and scored another run in the bottom of the fifth, they could run-rule Brookfield Heights. The rule was; if a team was ten or more runs ahead at the bottom of the fifth, the game was called early.
A run-rule win would really tick off Toby, he thought. His eyes narrowed as he caught one of the boys in the dugout point toward left field, and saw the other team members turn and look at Charlie. Don's jaw clenched grimly; he knew what they were thinking. They planned to try to hit the ball to the weakest link – his brother.
The first batter was the last of the Brookfield batting order, and Justin struck him out without a problem. The top of the order was another story, however. Even though none of the hitters managed to get one out to Charlie, they all managed to get on – one by an error, one by a legitimate single, and one by a bunt to third. Don's team was a little rattled – Brookfield Heights had not done this well all day, and there was a sinking sense among Don's team members that the tide was turning, that they were losing control. Justin was now facing the other team's clean-up batter, the only one who had done any real hitting in the previous innings.
The boy squared up at the plate, and pointed his bat cockily at Charlie. Charlie looked nervously at Don, but his brother was focused on the batter. Justin let loose with a nice fastball for a strike, and Charlie breathed a small sigh of thanks. His relief was short-lived however, the next pitch exploded from the hitter's bat, transcribing a high arc against the blue sky as it sailed toward left field.
Don groaned. 'There goes the run-rule,' he thought, as he watched the ball rise and float toward his brother. It was on the far left of the field; too far away for Sid, in center field, to help. Charlie stared at it a moment; then turned and streaked toward a spot just inside the foul line. Even though it was only the second out, the base runners were not waiting to see if the ball was caught; they were confident that it wouldn't be, and they motored around the bases as Don's team watched helplessly.
Charlie reached the spot just as the ball did, and Don noted grudgingly that his brother had somehow picked the exact place at which the ball would come down. Catching it would be another story completely, however, and Don shut his eyes to ward off the sight of his brother's inevitable failure.
Along with Charlie's innate abilities in math came superior skill with spatial concepts. He had stood for a moment and calculated the trajectory of the ball; then headed directly for the exact spot where it would come down, not even realizing that that was something that not everyone could do. As he got there, he instinctively put up his glove, fighting off a gut-twist of panic, and as the ball connected deep in the mitt with a thunk; he stared at it in disbelief.
Don's eyes flew open as his team members screamed, and his jaw dropped as he saw his brother heave the ball toward the infield. Charlie had meant to try to hit the shortstop, just as Don had told him, but to his consternation, and unwitting good fortune, the ball veered toward third base. The runners were madly scrambling, back-tracking to tag up, but they had no chance of getting back in time. The third baseman fielded the ball on one bounce, and smugly stepped on third for out number three. Charlie stood rooted to the spot for a moment, not realizing the top of the inning was over. Justin waved him in, and his legs began to move again, a slow grin starting on his face as he jogged in from the field.
Sid rolled his eyes at him, but the rest of the team mobbed him as he came in the dugout, and Charlie, his eyes shining, received a high-five from his brother. Don smiled and gave him a bemused shake of the head. "Great job, buddy. I'm not sure how you pulled that off, but it was awesome." Charlie's heart soared.
He stood for a moment, basking in contentment, and then realized with a start that the team was getting ready to bat. He was third in the lineup that inning, and as Don handed him a bat, his elation faded and was replaced by a twinge of anxiety. His mood wasn't improved as he turned and caught Toby glaring at him. He swallowed and followed his brother around behind the dugout to take some practice swings. This wasn't over yet; if he embarrassed himself at the plate, he would wipe out everything he had done in the field.
Don stood behind him and positioned him. "Cock your elbow a little, open your stance, bend your knees. Not that much. Okay. Take a swing." Don stepped back, and Charlie flailed with every ounce of strength that he could muster. Don moved forward and started to position his arms again. "Okay, that was a little too hard, a little too wild. If you hit the ball on the sweet spot, you really don't have to swing that hard. And keep it level – you're swinging up." Charlie took a few more swings, and each time Don made more adjustments. In no time, it was Charlie's turn at bat, and as he realized it, panic seized him.
He looked at Don anxiously. "I'm not ready. Show me again."
Don shook his head. "Can't, buddy. You gotta get up there. Just do your best, okay?" He followed Charlie around the dugout, taking in the tense set to his brother's small shoulders. Charlie stepped up to the plate, awkwardly. 'He looks so little,' thought Don again. His brother barely even topped the catcher, who was squatting.
Don glanced at the bases. While he'd been working with Charlie, one of the other batters had gotten on, which meant there was one out. Don frowned. Barring a miracle, Charlie would be out number two. They would have one more shot at getting in the man on base in order to get to ten runs ahead. If they didn't, the game would go for two more innings. After last inning, no one on Don's team wanted to chance that. His eyes narrowed as he noticed Toby fire a nasty look at him and then turn to face Charlie.
Charlie stood at the plate, Don's instructions whirling through his head. Cock the elbow. Open the stance, bend the knees. Oh God, here it comes! He swung awkwardly as the ball whooshed past him, his bat well behind the pitch.
"Choke up on it, Charlie!" yelled Don.
Charlie nodded and moved his hands up the bat. Yes, that felt better. He kept his head level, and felt a shock as he connected with the next pitch. He started to run; then heard the umpire call "Foul!" He trotted back, and took his position at the plate.
Several pitches later, he was still there. He had fouled three more times, and Toby had thrown two balls - pitches so wild that even Charlie knew not to swing at them. The last pitch had been another foul, and Don's team had yelled encouragement. "That's it, Charlie, just straighten it out."
Even Sid got in on it, but he was more interested in razzing Toby than encouraging Charlie. "Hey, Toby," Sid sneered. "You suck. Even the little Eppes has your number."
Don snorted with laughter, and Toby glared at him with pure hatred. Charlie recoiled a little as the glare was transferred to him, but squared his shoulders, waiting for the pitch. He saw the signal, and set himself. That one usually meant that Toby was going for an outside corner. He was completely unprepared for the pitch that came.
With a black look Toby heaved the ball as hard as he could. Charlie stepped into the plate a bit, expecting the pitch to be outside, but realized belatedly it was coming inside; in fact, it was coming straight for him. He tried to straighten and twist, his arms coming up in an attempt to dodge it, and it connected with his rib cage with a nasty 'Thwack!' Charlie felt the air leave his body with a whoosh, as his sneakers left the ground and he tumbled at the catcher's feet.
Don was on the field immediately, his face dark with fury, headed for Toby. "What are you doing, you jerk?!" he yelled. His teammates rushed after him and grabbed his arms, trying to hold him back.
Toby sneered at him. "The little twerp doesn't belong here anyway – you should have left him home."
Charlie rose slowly to his feet as he regained his breath, listening uncertainly to the argument. The blow to his chest had brought tears to his eyes, and he blinked them away, looking at the umpire. "Should I take a base?"
The umpire, a tall lanky boy, was watching the argument with an amused expression. "Not yet. This game might be over."
Charlie looked at him, stunned. "Over?"
"The rule is; if there's any fighting, the game stops where it is and ends up a tie. No one wins. Everybody agreed to it last year, because a couple of guys on the Westfield team kept picking fights, and the park administrator threatened to kick us out."
Charlie swallowed hard. If Don started a fight over this, his team would lose the win – and Charlie would be the cause of it all. He felt panic rising, and he looked at his brother pleadingly, trying to catch his eye. "Please Donnie…"
He saw Justin jockeying for position, and saw him speak urgently in his brother's ear. Don tore his eyes away from Toby with an effort, and turned his head to look at Charlie. Charlie fixed him with his eyes, silently beseeching him to stop, and positioned himself as if he was ready to run to first, trying to convey that he was okay.
Don turned back to Toby, and scowled, but his shoulders relaxed. He pulled away from his teammates' hands and turned back toward the dugout, tossing a jab over his shoulder. "Just watch yourself, jerk." The groups broke up and drifted back to their positions, and Toby scowled at Charlie.
"Okay, kid," said the umpire. "Take your base."
Charlie took off toward first, scampering excitedly in spite of the pain in his side. He was actually on base. He glanced over at second base, eyeing the other base runner. Two on, one out.
Don watched the pitcher with a scowl. He knew that Toby had hit his brother on purpose, just to get to him, and the thought made Don furious. He was a little taken aback by how angry it had made him; at the protective instinct Toby's actions had generated. He didn't realize himself how strongly he felt about his little brother. That thought didn't register consciously in his twelve-year-old mind; it merely lurked at the edges, riling his gut and setting his jaw. He didn't really connect the feelings with Charlie; all he knew was that he was angry beyond reason with Toby.
His attention was drawn back to the game. They still needed one more run to get the run-rule. Things were looking a little better, with only one out, and two on base. His eyes wandered to second base. Bobby was on second and he was quick. A good hard single would bring him in.
Don's head jerked back to home as the crack of the bat resounded, and grimaced immediately. The hit was a weak grounder to third, and the baseman fielded it cleanly, stepping on third for the force out. Bobby trotted off the field, shaking his head. Don sighed. Two out, and Charlie, now on second, was the go ahead run. Their chances had deteriorated with one swing of the bat.
Charlie danced nervously on the bag, and took a little lead off like he had seen the other base runners do. Toby turned suddenly and heaved the ball toward second; Charlie's eyes widened and he dove for the base, his rib cage complaining as he hit the ground. He felt the bump of the glove on his back, and lay still with his hand on the base. "Safe!" yelled the umpire, and Charlie heaved a sigh of relief and got shakily to his feet, covered in dust. He looked at Don for reassurance.
"That's the way, Charlie," called Don. "Just stay close to the bag." He watched Charlie nod, and took a deep breath. That was close. Charlie really needed a lead off if he was to make it home on a single, but since he didn't know much about base running, it was safer to keep him close to the base.
Don regretted his instructions with the next swing of the bat. Pete Meyers was up and hit a nice solid crack out to right field; that cleared the infield before it hit ground. The outfielder got his glove on the ball and heaved it toward home, and Don turned to hold up Charlie at third. To his dismay, he had underestimated how fast Charlie was; his brother had cleared third and was headed full tilt toward home plate. Don groaned; there was no way Charlie was going to take out the catcher; the boy was almost three times his size.
Charlie raced desperately toward home, the catcher looming like a mountain in front of him, squatting in front of the base with his glove extended. There was no way around him; Charlie realized with a sinking heart as he caught the flash of the ball in the corner of his eye. Charlie wasn't big enough to plow into him and knock the ball loose like he had seen other players do. There was only one way to go – up. Just as the ball entered the catcher's mitt, Charlie took a flying leap and dove for the space over the catcher's back.
The catcher was beginning his turn for the tag, and rose slightly as Charlie's flying body reached him. His shoulder bumped Charlie's and Don watched, his mouth open, as his brother executed a combination flip-somersault over the catcher's back, connecting with an elbow along the way, and landed with a thump on his back, right on top of home plate, a cloud of dust rising from the impact. The catcher spun with the ball, looking for the tag, and hit Charlie with his glove, a split second after he landed. Both teams froze, looking at the umpire.
Charlie lay on his back, stunned, looking up at the umpire as noise erupted around him – yells from Don's team, arguments from the Brookfield team. He felt hands lifting him, patting him on the back and head, and a grin slowly came to his face as he caught his brother's smile.
Don shook his head as he put an arm around him. "Charlie; that was the stupidest thing you could have done. You should have stayed on third – but I'm darn glad you didn't."
Charlie grinned up at him, and Don frowned. There was a goose egg forming on his brother's forehead under a tangle of curls. "What happened to your head?"
Charlie touched his forehead tentatively and winced, but it was immediately replaced with a grin. "I think I hit the catcher's elbow. It's okay." They moved in a group toward the dugout, Charlie still receiving pats on the back from the team; that generated puffs of dust every time a hand made contact.
Even Sid coughed up a grudging compliment. "Pretty stupid, Chuck, but I have to admit, the flip thing was cool."
"Don't call me Chuck," retorted Charlie, his eyes flashing with new-found confidence.
Don stifled a grin as Sid's mouth dropped open, and put his arm around his brother. "Come on, let's get you home."
Charlie looked at him in confusion. "There are two more innings."
"No, man," said Justin. "We run-ruled 'em. You were the tenth run. You just won the game for us."
Don watched the realization, followed by pure excitement, creep over his brother's face, and he grinned. "Let's go, hero," he said softly, and was rewarded with a look from his little brother that he would never forget.
Alan heard the back door slam and jumped from his chair at Margaret's exclamation. "Oh, my God, Charlie, what happened?"
He headed for the kitchen, stopping as a small dusty apparition entered the room, followed by his wife who was bending over him, fussing over the lump on his forehead. Alan relaxed as he saw the grins on both of his son's faces.
"That's nothing," crowed Charlie proudly. "Look at this!" He lifted his shirt, displaying a huge purple spot on his rib cage. He was covered in dust; his curls, his face, clothes and shoes were caked in it, and his eyes were shining with excitement.
Margaret groaned, and headed for the ice tray, and Don caught his father's eye and grinned. "We run-ruled 'em, thanks to Charlie. He flipped right over the catcher for the winning run."
"And I made this awesome catch," added Charlie excitedly
Don poked him teasingly and Charlie swung around, his back to the sofa. "Don't let your head get too big, Chuck."
"Don't call me Chuck!"
Don grinned and advanced on him. "Chuck!" He reached for him and Charlie backed into the sofa, hitting the cushions with a plop.
"Stop it! Not Chuck – no, no tickling! Stop!"
Margaret appeared in the doorway. She winced as she saw her two dust-covered sons wrestling on her clean sofa, and then her eyes met Alan's. They smiled, sharing something unspoken, as peals of laughter rose with the clouds of dust, into the Sunday evening air.