Charlie

Tryouts are tomorrow.

It’s all Charlie can think about on his way home from school. He knows he’s got a lot of work to do tonight, but he can’t stop worrying about tryouts. It’s been his dream to make the team ever since he can remember. Back when his parents were still alive, and his dad was coaching the team to the state finals. It was the one reoccurring memory he had of both of his parents, of his lost family.

When his mom first got sick, Charlie always stayed home with her. He helped around the house and kept her company. She always insisted that he go to the games with his dad, but he wouldn’t go without her.  As the team started doing well and advancing to playoffs, Charlie eventually convinced her to go together. He knew how much she missed the family outings and he hoped it would give her strength to keep fighting. Her sickness had forced Charlie to grow up much sooner than most children, and he was capable of handling all the details even though he was only nine. He organized rides from their neighbor and packed all her stuff. He brought her extra blankets, medicine, snacks, and garbage bags, although she never needed them there. It was as if the two of them watching his father together was enough to keep her healthy, although looking back he knew he’d been too optimistic. The diagnosis wasn’t going to change, no matter how much he willed it.  When he thinks about his mom now, he knows those last few months would have been completely different had she simply stayed at home, waiting out her fate. Those games inspired their deepest conversations where she shared her hopes and dreams for him. They fantasized about what it would be like when he was old enough to play and she assured him he could do anything he set his mind to. 

She past before the end of the season that year, leaving Charlie and his Dad to channel their grief into the last few games of the season. The team didn’t win state, but they did better than they’d ever done before, and Charlie felt as if it was symbolic of his moms passing. She may not have survived in the end, but she had fought admirably till the last moment. He would remember those games forever.

It wasn’t long after she died that his Dad met Carrol. Carrol was nice, at times, and had recently lost her husband as well. Charlie guessed it was their shared grief that brought them together, because from what he could tell she didn’t make his dad that happy. She had twin boys a year older than him, who never seemed to care much about Charlie, but he didn’t mind. He focused on his books and his projects, looking forward to his one on one time with Dad. Once they got married, things didn’t change. Charlie didn’t like his “new family”, but he also didn’t have much against them. Even as Mike and Matt started making fun of him more and more, he knew they were just being bullies. He had grown up knowing it doesn’t matter what other people think, especially people who don’t add anything to your life.

On the day of the car accident, everything changed. Although the police said it was an accident, Carol resented Charlie for being there and surviving. It was evident from the moment they saw each other at the hospital. Charlie could see in her eyes that his Dad didn’t make it and his world fell apart.  Little by little, Charlie survived the days and began to accept his situation. He was an orphan, at the age of 14. He would never have a mother or a father again, and he wasn’t a part of any family, no matter what the law said. He found hope in his books, always reading the ones left in his dad’s library. These books weren’t meant for teenage boys, but Charlie felt he’d experienced so much hardship, that he wasn’t really a teenager anyway.  Mike and Matt continued to bully him, constantly taking out his bookmarks and hiding his books altogether. They’d roughhouse him, as many brothers do, but with an unnecessary meanness and unfair physical advantage. They were older, taller, and stronger, and there were two of them. They had an inherent desire to fight, while Charlie had a desire to negotiate, compromise, and communicate.  He was often finding new bruises on his body, never sure exactly when he got them, but knowing who they were from.

Tryouts are tomorrow.

Charlie hadn’t figured out exactly how yet, but he knew he had to be there. Carol had forbidden him from going, pretending to be protective of his inevitable failure to make the team. She had also reminded him that it the off chance he made the team as the water boy, he wouldn’t be able to afford the uniform. Mike and Matt had threatened him multiple times, telling him over and over again that he was too small, too nerdy to be a football player and that he needed to join the mathletes or the science squad. They had warned him that if he showed up they’d make his life even worse for him at home. But he had to try. He owed it to his parents, and he knew he was good. He’d played countless times with Dad before the accident and while he knew he would be rusty, he knew it would come back. His best family memories were and would always be watching the game at the stadium on Friday nights and  discussing the plays, failures, and successes during breakfast the next morning. He also knew he was fast, or at least faster than his brothers. As he moved through his chores that night, he worried about being caught before he actually got to try.

Tryouts are today.

Charlie hardly slept, work up early, and left for school before the rest of the house was a wake. He knew if he saw them, he’d give something away. He had rarely lied to them, and he knew from experience, that he wasn’t very good at it.

The school day ticked by slowly. He spent all hist breaks lingering behind in the classroom talking to the teachers and his lunch face down in a book, rereading almost every sentence twice to retain the information. When the final bell rang, he knew it was almost time. He stayed behind again to talk to a teacher, trying to wait out the rush of the other students. He was so distracted. He kept glancing at the clock and reminding himself to pay attention. After what seemed like hours, he realized the tryouts had just begun. He causally ended the conversation and ran to the locker room. He found the locker room empty, and suddenly realized he’d been holding his breath. His whole body was sweaty and his heart felt as though it was going to explode. He quickly changed, took a deep breath, and put his helmet on.

He ran out to the field and snuck into one of the receiver groups. He began running through the drills, smiling through the mouth guard. He felt proud, resilient, and encouraged. He thought about his parents and remembering all the fantasies and conversations they’d had together. He could hear his heart beating in his chest as he ran his sprint, so caught up in the moment he didn’t even look at his time. His cheeks began to hurt, but he couldn’t help but keep smiling. He felt exhilarated. When he caught the ball on his first attempt, he didn’t even celebrate, trying his hardest not to draw attention to himself from the other players, just the coaches.  Throughout most of the afternoon, he stayed to the back of the group, quiet and observing. When the coach called everyone in for a debrief, he snuck away, sprinting back to the locker room to change and get home before his brothers. 

When Mike and Matt got home they were pissed. Apparently there had been some mysterious player at tryouts that had really impressed the coaches. The coaches couldn’t figure out who it was and had asked repeatedly for the athletes to be on the lookout. Matt called the mystery athlete a coward and a fake, claiming he was only doing so well because he had been late and missed all the running and conditioning. Charley laughed to himself, knowing full well he barely missed one lap around the field and that he was pretty sure the coaches hadn’t noticed. Mike complained saying it was probably a prank put on by someone from the community college, claiming no one who was actually that good would want to remain a mystery.  As Charlie pretended to read his book he had to force himself to keep a straight face, wondering what would happen next.

During dinner, the phone rang, and as usual Carol made Charlie get it. He answered, fully expecting a junk caller, and was surprised when the caller asked for him.

“Hello, is Charlie there?”

Charlie paused “Yes, I’m Charlie”

“Charlie, were you at football tryouts today? Was that you that snuck off to the locker room before we were officially done?”

Charlie paused again, “Yes sir, that was me”

He could feel his hart racing.

“Charlie, I had no idea you wanted to play football, I’m head coach Brooks, I was assistant coach to your father, before the accident. Of course we want you to join the team. And after today, we might even want you to play Varsity. Your Dad, Charlie, he always said you had a special insight into the game, I know you tried out for receiver, but based on what we saw, and what your dad used to say, I want to explore training you to be quarterback. I know you’re small, but your smart and you understand the game like a coach. If you can keep a sound mindset in a high stress situation, I think you can really succeed.”

Charlie couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Quarterback?

“Coach Brooks” Charlie stumbled…

“Oh Charlie, I’m just so glad you want to play. All of us coaches have been worried about you since the accident. You're dad was a great man and we would all love to help look after his son.”

“Coach Brooks, how did you know it was me?”

Through soft laughter, Brooks replied “Charlie, I recognized your dads taped up cleats immediately, those things should have been trashed years ago. I knew it had to be you from the moment you ran onto the field. What do you say? Will we see you tomorrow?”

Charlie took a deep breath as he started to realize his life was about to change.

“Of course coach. And this time, I’ll be on time.”

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