Author's Note: Ahem. I just wanted to say that we are finally past the halfway marker for this story. Only by a little, but still. I'll take it. Also, things start picking up from here on out, so I think the chapters to come are going to be exciting and interesting! I look forward to writing them. Anyway, enjoy chapter 11!

Chapter 11

If the smoky atmosphere, people eating at picnic tables out in the street, and fireworks didn't sound the alert, the 4th of July had arrived. It was always an exciting day for me and the guys – it was the one time a year where we could have a full game past 9 o' clock, because the fireworks made it bright enough to actually see what was going on. We never missed it.

Since we could get together later, we had skipped our usual Sandlot meeting time, giving us all a chance to actually sleep in. It had been nice to spend the day not doing a single thing, but 9 was now fast approaching. I raced around the house, searching for my mitt which I had seemed to misplace.

"Hey Todd?" I called, peering from around the corner into the kitchen. "Have you seen my glove?"

He thought about it a second before asking, "Have you checked by the front door?"

Sure enough, when I looked behind me towards the front door, there lay my glove on the floor. Running over, I picked it up off the ground. Before I left though, I decided I might be considerate and at least ask Todd what his Independence Day plans consisted of. Walking back into the kitchen, he lifted his face from the newspaper and caught my gaze.

"What?" He asked suspiciously.

"Nothing," I said, shrugging. "Just wanted to ask you what you, and Jimmy, and dad were doing tonight."

"Well," he started heavily, turning back to his paper. "Jimmy and I are just going to go out, and eat, and watch fireworks."

"Really?" I asked, completely caught off guard by how quiet their plans were. "Neither of you has a girlfriend you could spend it with?"

Todd only rolled his eyes.

"What?" I said defensively. "I thought at least Jimmy would have one."

"Nope," Todd replied. "It's just the two of us. As for dad, I think he's got plans with somebody."

That really floored me.

"Plans?" I nearly gasped. "Dad never has plans to do anything!"

Todd shrugged. "He does tonight."

"With who?"

"It's not important."

"Oh, come on!"

"Hey Andi," Todd said looking up from his paper. He was clearly annoyed. "Aren't you late for something?"

Looking to the clock on the wall, I realized it was five past nine. I had to get going.

"Fine, we'll talk later!" I conceded, running away from the kitchen and towards the front door.

"Yeah, sure we will," came his quiet reply.

&#%!*#&(_#&# &*^#%$%&*()

The sun had sunk below the mountains, and the sky had turned a dusty orange color that faded into blue. As the guys and I raced through the neighborhood, weaving our way in between tables and fireworks, I couldn't help but notice how pretty it was. Somehow, everything always came together on the night of the 4th.

As we finally made it to the Sandlot, huge fireworks of every color began to go off in the distance behind us. It was mesmerizing, and made it hard to focus. Benny never seemed to get distracted by them, though.

"Okay, base up, guys," Benny commanded. Turning to Smalls and myself, he said a bit quieter, "You guys can hang out in left center. I don't want anyone to be excluded, but just figure out a plan so you guys aren't running into each other, okay?"

Smalls and I nodded our heads in agreement. It would be kinda strange trying to share the space with each other, but I figured we could work out some sort of system.

"Shall we?" Smalls asked, turning to me with one of those shy smiles he gave everybody.

"Certainly," I replied (somewhat mocking), and we began jogging over to left center.

We arranged ourselves about a yard apart from each other.

"So, Smalls," I began, figuring out a plan in my head, "You take the first one, and I'll take the second. If you miss it, which I doubt you will, I'll come in."

"Sounds good!" Smalls answered happily in his chirpy voice. I grinned back, before turning to focus in. The game was about to begin.

Kenny prepared his pitch, and Benny tried a few practice swings. The tension was beginning to build.

"Okay, hit it!" Small shouted excitedly beside me.

"Yeah, yeah, come on Benny!"

Staring Benny down, Ken wound up, and heaved the ball as hard as he could. It soared to Benny, who hit it dead on with a huge crack. Just at that exact moment, fireworks began going off behind us. They were huge, and probably hundreds of feet in the sky. With a bunch of loud bangs, they exploded into reds, blues, oranges, greens, and whites. They were really something.

Forcing myself back down to earth, I noticed that the game had all but stopped. Every one of the guys had paused mid-game to watch the sky light up with the magnificent fireworks show. Well, all except for Benny who was busy scoring an effortless homerun. He had run right past us all, completely unnoticed.

As he leisurely jogged into home, he turned around to stare at the rest of us, before shouting, "C'mon guys, we've got a game to play!"

$%&^&*(*(^^$%#$^)(***)^(^$$# %$^&(*&^

Around 11:30, the guys began drifting back home, one by one, until it was just me and Benny. We spent our time quietly throwing a ball back and forth. Benny didn't do too much throwing, so it was more to my benefit that we were practicing it. I had pretty much mastered the stance at this point – I just had to get more power behind my arm. Pulling back as far as was not ridiculous, I chucked the ball at Ben with all my might. He easily caught it.

"It's weird…" Benny mused out loud, looking over the baseball with a small smile.

I watched him for a moment, before giving in, and asking, "What's weird?"

He shrugged, and then tossed the baseball back to me. "We're gonna be high schoolers. It's just… I dunno, it came fast is all."

I supposed he was right – it did feel like just yesterday that we were meeting for the first time. I threw the ball back to him, considering his words.

"So," he began slowly, catching the ball effortlessly, "Do you know what you wanna do?"

I had to think about the meaning to his question at first. "What do you mean?" I asked, slowly.

"Like, what do you want to do with your life? I guess career wise."

I couldn't help but freeze up – I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Should I have known?

"Uh, I guess I hadn't thought much about it," I admitted. Changing the subject quickly, I asked, "What about you?"

He opened his mouth to speak, but I interrupted.

"Wait, scratch that, and lemme answer for you."

"Okay," he grinned, before passing the ball back.

"You want to play baseball," I answered, catching the ball. "You want to play in the big leagues."

"Yeah…"

The hesitation in his voice made me look up. It wasn't like Benny to be so unsure of something that had to do with baseball. Baseball was his life.

"What'da'ya mean, "Yeah"?" I asked, sharply. "You sound all uncertain. What's that about?"

"Andi," he mumbled, looking at his foot which was tapping away at the dusty ground. He looked to my face after a minute, and I could see the dread in his eyes. "What if I'm not good enough?"

"What?" I practically shouted. Calming myself, I decided now probably wasn't the time to just brush his fears off as stupid. It was obvious that Benny was revealing a side to me that he didn't like showing to others. It was obvious that he was even uncomfortable talking about it with me. I needed to force myself to be calm and insightful – to give good advice, and be a listener. Shouldn't be too hard, right?

"So…" I tried again, slowly gathering my thoughts. "Why do you think you're not good enough?" Yeah, the shrink roll seemed a good one to work with.

He snorted, and rolled his eyes, giving me a look of exasperation. It appeared we were both going to have trouble with being patient with one another.

"Don't give me that look," I chided softly. I sat down, and patted the ground beside me. Now was not the time to be distracted by ball throwing. "Why do you think that?"

He heaved a big sigh, before ambling over and plopping down next to me. His eyebrows were furrowed.

"You're gonna give yourself wrinkles doing that," I joked softly, poking his forehead. My mission was kinda successful, he cracked a small smile.

"It's just," he began before letting his worries flow, "there are so many people better than me out there. Here, I don't have to think about that. But what about when I get into high school? There will be guys trying out for baseball that I've never met or played against, and they could be so much better than me. What if I'm not really as good as I think I am? What if-"

"Benny," I broke in, trying to be gentle as possible. "Calm down. Take a deep breath."

He did. I took a moment to collect my thoughts. He was so worried about being the best. I was surprised to be honest – I thought that his skill in baseball was one of the few things that Benny never questioned. Not that he questioned a lot; he was a pretty relaxed guy, but… I just didn't think he was so unsure of himself. It certainly didn't show when we were at the Sandlot.

So, was Benny really a good baseball player? Duh, I couldn't help but think to myself. So then, what made him good? What was it that made his talent shine above the rest?

"Benny," I started, a slow smile spreading across my face. "You breathe, eat, and sleep baseball. Your room is like a secret shrine to the game. It's your passion. I mean, you love it right?"

At this point he was looking me in the eyes. Earnestly, he replied, "More than anything. Baseball is life."

I couldn't help it – there was a tiny part of my heart that ached when he said that. But I had already known that Benny's heart was preoccupied with baseball. So, I pushed on.

"That's what's going to get you far," I answered honestly, giving him the best reassuring smile I could.

"You aren't bullshitting me?" He asked quietly, his hazel eyes still boring into mine.

"No."

"Thanks, Andi."

"Of course."

We both sat in a contemplative silence for a while after that. I really hadn't thought about the future much, and to be honest, that scared me. The idea of even going to high school in just a few months had me anxiety ridden. The future was full of questions and concerns – what if the guys and I ended up going our separate ways? What if they make new friends and I'm left alone? What if Benny meets a girl, and falls in love, and, and –

I shook myself. I wouldn't think about that. I couldn't. It hurt too much. But then again, had I ever given Benny reason to think that I liked him? Had I ever dropped any hints? No. I had just given up – decided that he was too far out of my reach, despite the fact that he was the one person I saw nearly every day. I had decided that he would either find someone else, because he could, or he'd stick with baseball the rest of his days. I had given up, because I felt like I was the closest I'd ever get to him – his best friend – and I didn't want to mess that up.

When had I become like that though? I never just gave up on anything, and yet with Benny, I immediately deemed myself unworthy and moved on, even though I didn't know if that was really the case. This was pathetic! I at least needed to try.

Suddenly, I felt this sensation building in my vocal chords. I wanted to tell him so badly. I had to. It didn't matter if he rejected me – at least I would know his answer, and I could die satisfied that I had at least had the guts to try. Quickly, I turned to Benny. I opened my mouth –

"Hey," Benny said with a smile, not knowing he was totally cutting off one of the hardest things I would have to say, "We may as well head back. It's pretty late."

"Oh," I said, my voice coming out all breathy, as if I had been holding in air for the last two minutes. "Yeah, l-let's head out."

The moment had been ruined. My focus was lost, and I didn't have enough courage to try again that night. I wanted to punch Benny in the ribs for interrupting, and making things so difficult for me, but I knew it wasn't really his fault. He didn't know the effect he had on me.

Standing up, I brushed myself off hurriedly, before stumbling to the road and down the street. It was smoky still from the fireworks, and the smell made it hard to walk straight. I could hear Benny calling after me, and running to catch up.

"Andi," he said, putting a hand to my shoulder when he had finally caught up. "Slow down, Andi! There's no hurry. Hey, are you alright? Your face is kinda red."

He was totally oblivious. I wasn't sure whether I was angry or thankful for that.

"Red? You don't say," I mumbled, raising a hand to my face in hopes of hiding it.

"Yeah! Hey, wait a minute, sit down for a sec," he said, clutching my shoulder just a tad bit tighter. "You're kinda stumbling. I don't want you to faint on me or anything."

"Sit down here?" I said a bit flabbergasted. Not only were we very close to our houses now, we were also in the middle of the street. Sure, it would be bad if I fainted. It would be worse if we were hit by a car.

"It's okay, Andi," he reassured, reading my thoughts, "It's late. No cars are gonna be out this time of night."

I'm not sure why… But with the stress of having almost told Benny that I loved him, getting cut off, and him still being clueless, I sorta cracked. I needed to do something lighthearted to take my mind off of all this heavy stuff. I didn't want to feel so weighed down, and knowing that I had the street all to myself – which I could lay down on, dance, just walk wherever – gave me a sort of freeing feeling. The kind that I needed right then.

Before I knew what was happening, I was chuckling. Slowly, those turned into little giggles, which progressed into a laughing fit so huge, my whole frame was shaking. Benny watched me with timid confusion and curiosity. My laughter must have been contagious though, because Ben's mouth began to stretch out in a wide smile that showed all his pearly, white teeth.

"What?" He asked, beginning to chuckle a bit himself. "Something on my face?"

Trying to calm down, I managed to gasp, "No!" My fit of giggles continued, and my stomach began to ache.

"Then what?" He asked, still smiling.

"I… I don't know," I answered honestly, calming my laughing while wiping tears from my eyes. "Hey!" I said suddenly, "You know what I wanna do? I want to spin!"

And so I did. I stretched my arms out, and began twirling further into the street, getting dizzier by the moment. I could hear Benny laughing now.

"You're really weird, you know that Andi?" I could hear him calling after me.

"That's cool, Benjamin."

Finally, I had spun so much that I had to sit down. Everything was spinning and running into each other - throwing up was not a part of the plan. I vaguely thought I saw Benny moving towards me, but that just made it worse, so I laid down. Asphalt wasn't the most comfortable, but I'd take it. With my eyes closed, I could feel my mind beginning to right itself, and after a few moments, I began to feel better.

"Andi?" I heard Benny's quiet voice ask. "Are you okay?"

I kept my eyes closed, but gave him a small smile and nodded, just to reassure him. Resting my hands on my belly, I laid like that for several more minutes. I could feel Benny sit down beside me, but he didn't say anything. He probably knew that I was trying to regain my composure.

Finally, I decided I was okay enough to open my eyes, and I was greeted with the most beautiful sight. Hundreds of thousands of little lights across a deep blue background glittered and glowed. It was so rare for me to notice them all, and an even better treat I realized, to be lying on my back while watching them. It was almost disorientating how many there were.

I released a long, "Wooow," before smacking Benny's arm a few times, and saying, "Benny, Benny, you have to lie down! The stars look amazing!"

"Okay," he replied simply, shrugging his shoulders. He joined me, and we lied arm to arm on the asphalt.

Following in my steps, Benny let out a low whistle, before agreeing, "Wow. That's really something."

"Isn't it?" I agreed quietly, before continuing, "Look how they glow. They have that pretty way of lighting up…"

We remained like that a while, just staring at the stars. I hoped that maybe we'd see a falling star, but no such luck. Benny shifted beside me, and I realized that our heads were nearly touching. It was nice being able to share this with him.

"I've got it!" Benny suddenly said, sitting up. Surprised, I sat up as well.

I looked at him questioningly before asking, "Got what?"

"Starshine!"

"Starshine?" I repeated, confused by why he was suddenly saying things like that. Well, we had been staring at the stars, but still.

"Yeah," Benny said excitedly as if I should know what the hell he was talking about. "Remember? I was going to figure out what it was about your eyes? Well that's it! Starshine! They're filled with it!"

I stared at him shocked. I did remember now – the night I had been crying about my mom, and Benny had stayed the night with me. Realizing that he had still been thinking about that weeks later, I felt an immediate heat rise to my cheeks and I looked away to mask my true feelings.

I rolled my eyes and snorted, saying, "Benny, I think you mean starlight. Starshine isn't a word. And besides, it sounds girly."

"No, it's starshine. Like... You were just talking about how the stars have this way of lighting the sky around them? That's what's in your eyes."

I'd be lying if I said that the things he was saying weren't pulling on my heartstrings, but it was frustrating. I wasn't in the mood to talk about feelings anymore; I didn't want him to see how badly I was blushing. So as usual, I fought back.

"Still not a word. And still girly as hell."

"Since when has Hell been described as girly? And no," Benny began. "It's definitely starshine. Maybe it's girly, but I like my word better anyway." And with that, he jumped to his feet and began walking down the street.

"Hey!" I called, jumping to my feet as quick as I could, and running to catch up. "What was that about?"

"I dunno," Benny called from over his shoulder. "I just felt like moving."

"You're so weird, Benny."

"That's cool, Andrea."

I snorted. "Haha," I said sarcastically, knowing he had gotten me.

"Ready to head home?" Benny asked, beginning to walk backwards so that he could see me.

"Yeah," I grumbled reluctantly. "I guess it is pretty late."

"Lemme walk you to your door," Benny offered.

I knew he wanted to make sure I got home safe, but we were already pretty much at my front yard.

"Benny," I sighed, rolling my eyes, "We're here."

"Okay, okay. I'll watch you walk inside."

"Oh, give it a rest."

He rolled his eyes, but he was smiling none-the-less. He mumbled his defeat, and then came up to give me a goodbye hug. His arms wrapped around me, and I felt the safest I could ever hope to feel.

"Thanks Andi," I felt him say into my hair.

"For what?" I asked, and I couldn't help but laugh. What was the boy thanking me for now?

He thought about it a moment, before saying, "I guess for being my best friend."

I pulled back so I could look at him. "Well, I could thank you for the same thing!"

He gave me a big smile. I thought maybe he'd say his goodbyes, and then pull away after that, but he didn't. He just kept smiling, and staring at my face. Well, it was more like into my eyes. And very softly. Almost tenderly? My heart began speeding up in my chest.

"What?" I said, exhaling.

He shrugged, and finally looked away from my face. I could have been wrong – I mean, it was dark outside – but his face almost looked a little rosy.

"It's just," he said, sounding flustered, "Your eyes are really pretty. Like, really, really pretty. Starshine, you know? Um," he let his arms fall, and then stepped away. "I'm gonna go now, but this was fun. We should watch the stars some other time."

"Okay," I answered quickly, my voice lined with bewilderment.

"Bye, Andi," he said with a shy smile, before shoving his hands in his pockets and walking across the street to his own home. I watched his retreating figure, even after the door had closed behind him, in complete confusion. Benny wasn't usually so bashful in front of me – at least, he hadn't been since we first met.

Yet, despite the fact that it was confusing, I couldn't help but feel like something really good was going to happen. I wouldn't allow myself to speak it, or even think it, but maybe things were going the way I could only ever dream of them going. I knew I shouldn't, but I couldn't help it – I hoped. Feeling light as a feather, I rushed up the steps to my house, and opened the unlocked door.

I was greeted by a very strange sight. Dad was out of the hole. His face was clean shaven, his hair was combed, and smoothed, and he was actually dressed fairly nice. He still had those dark bags under his eyes, but aside from that he looked normal. Strangest of all, he was smiling. Teeth and all.

My breathing halted when I saw his hand rested on the shoulder of a woman I had never seen. She looked to be about his age, maybe a little younger. Her hair was a pretty orange color, and her eyes were a soft brown. Freckles dotted her high cheek bones, and slender nose. The mysterious woman wore a simple, blue dress, and some low heels. She was very pretty.

I hated her.

They had been talking amiably before I barged in, but now my dad turned his smiling face to me.

"Hey Andi," he greeted. I didn't like how cheerful he was. "I'd like you to meet Cindy. Cindy, this is my daughter, Andrea."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Andrea," Cindy said in a sweet voice. She offered me a smile, and extended her delicate hand. "Your father has told me lots of good things about you."

I stared at her hand. I wasn't sure what to think of this, all I knew was that I didn't like it. I could hear my dad clear his throat, signaling me to do something.

"It's Andi," I finally mumbled, but I still didn't take her hand. Hesitantly, she lowered it.

"Andi," my father said cheerfully, though there was now a dangerous edge to it, "Cindy works at that little diner in town. I think you and the boys have stopped in there a few times."

"Yeah, I guess so," I answered, quietly. Louder, I asked, "May I be excused?"

I could tell dad was pissed at me – his expression had darkened considerably – but I had embarrassed him enough that he allowed me to leave. As I was reached the top of the staircase, I could hear him reassuring Cindy that I was, "just feeling tired." I snorted quietly to myself. No, I wasn't tired. I was angry, and I needed answers.

Walking to the end of the hall, I shoved open Jimmy's door, without knocking or anything. Jimmy was just lying on his back, staring at the ceiling like an idiot. He looked over to me questioningly, but didn't move from his spot.

"What, Andi?" He asked.

"You knew," I growled.

He turned away, a bit of a smirk on his face.

"Knew what?"

"You knew about this Cindy lady!" I said angrily, my voice rising. "Why didn't you tell me? How long have she and dad been-?"

"Whoa there, Andi," Jimmy said gently, "Yes, me and Todd knew. Dad met her a while ago. They're "dating," or whatever you call it for old people."

I couldn't say a word. Dating?

The smile fading from his lips, Jimmy said slowly and precisely, "Yes, Andi. Dad is moving on. It's time the rest of us did, too. Mom is dead, and she ain't coming back."