The first time Will Sterling saw Nora Clarke, he could barely see at all.
In the cool shade of the large maple tree he leaned against on that bright summer day, the whole world looked blurry to him—the leaves above him green but shapeless, the patio furniture to his left dull black but soft-edged, the building in front of him tall and sand-colored, the back doors for each apartment little more than dark, smudgy rectangles leading out to wood-built balconies whose slats looked wavy unless he squinted.
He'd gotten used to it, the blurriness, or maybe he'd never really had to get used to it. He couldn't quite remember a time when he didn't have to narrow his eyes to bring things into focus, though he knew it'd been getting worse. He knew that sitting in the second row of most of his classes didn't cut it anymore; he knew that last year he sometimes left third period—AP Lit, his only class with Caitlin, who liked to sit way in the back—with a thudding headache. He knew the dull white leather of the baseball had become the most important thing about it, that he saw it best against the bright blue of a clear sky, that he was more likely to get chewed out by Coach on cloudy days.
He knew he couldn't always tell anymore, unless he was really up close to her, whether his mother was smiling.
But...glasses? Will Sterling in glasses? Out on the field, in those huge, sweaty-looking sports goggles Brandon Tenney wore?
He couldn't come around to the idea, not yet. So all last year, he'd dodged the school nurse when she did eye exams, took notes off the person next to him instead of from the board or the projector screen, always asking—politely, he hoped charmingly—first. He crossed his fingers for sunny days.
He let his unreliable eyes drift back to the smudgy black rectangle he'd been trying his best to watch most closely, the one from which he'd made his unceremonious exit barely twenty minutes ago.
"Wait outside," his mother had said in a sharp, unfamiliar voice, once it'd been clear that things weren't going according to whatever plan she'd had when the day started. A two-and-a-half-hour drive into Chicago, a city Will had never been to before, a promise not to tell his father, and not a single word of preparation for that moment when they'd stood in the dim first-floor hallway of this apartment building and she'd knocked on the door with a determined insistence that had almost felt rude.
"This is your uncle," his mother had told him when a short, barrel-chested, wholly unfamiliar man answered. Will was close enough, eye level enough, to see the way the man's mouth had dropped open slightly and briefly before he'd closed it and set his jaw against them both.
"My brother," she'd added softly, a crack of emotion in her voice.
'You have a brother?' he'd thought, confused, blurry in his head, too, but still he'd stuck out his hand for the man—his uncle—to shake.
"I'm Will," he'd said automatically, politely, glad that his own voice had mostly stopped cracking over the last few months since he'd turned fifteen. It came out, to his own ears, sounding more grown-up and unsurprised than he felt inside.
But the man—his uncle, his uncle he'd never heard of—hadn't taken his hand. Hadn't looked at him at all. Instead, he'd stared at Will's mother like she was a ghost, or maybe like she was alive, but back from the dead.
Inside the apartment, which smelled like cigarettes and the same furniture polish his mother used at home, no one had moved to sit down; no one had spoken. His uncle—Donny, his mother had finally supplied, since the man himself had shown no interest in further introductions—stood beside a brown recliner (lumpy but undefined, to Will's unreliable eyes), his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his jeans. His mother had stayed near the door, and so had Will. She'd been waiting, he thought, to be well and truly invited in.
But even Will could see that wasn't going to happen.
"I won't do this with your kid here," Donny had said finally, the first words Will ever heard him say.
Your kid, Will had repeated in his mind. He'd always been a good listener, at least, and he got the message. Maybe this guy Donny was Will's uncle, but he sure didn't intend to be any kind of family, and Will tried to tell himself that was fine by him anyway. After all, he was an only child, and up until this moment he'd thought his parents were only children, too. Other kids in his school had grandparents, cousins, big gatherings at the holidays. But the Sterling household, it was a small unit. Just the three of them. Not even a dog or a cat or a goldfish to complicate things.