The walls of Robert’s room were covered with ribbons and banners. Most of them were from sports—tennis, badminton, and hitting—and others were in honor of his academic achievements. His newest banner was for "Outstanding Achievement in Math": His mother had given it to him earlier that morning, telling him he was getting this one because of the creative way he tried to figure out problems.
All of the pictures in Robert’s house were of him and his parents, except for the one with the dog. One was of the first time he had taken a bath, but he could not remember them that one because he was so young in it. His favorite picture was the one with the dog. It had been taken one year ago, when he was playing in the back yard. His parents had gotten him a dog a few weeks earlier, and he had been showing it around the house and the yard, but especially the back yard because that was where his swing set was. In the picture the dog was sitting in Robert’s lap while they went down the slide together. That was the only picture he got to take with the dog, because the next morning when he got up, his mother told him it had run away. She also reminded him he could never get another dog, and when they said this, he started to cry. He was not crying because he could not have another dog; he was crying because other than his parents, the dog had been his best friend. When he looked at the picture of them on the slide, he remembered how happy the dog had made him. His parents reminded him of that every time they looked at pictures together.
Soon after the picture with the dog was taken, Robert had started playing sports. It had been his father’s idea, and at first Robert did not think he would be any good, but his father told him to just try playing to see if he liked it, and then they would worry about being good later. His father told him that if he tried something and liked it, then he could always end up getting good at it, no matter what anyone else said. Robert had wondered why his father said that, but he had started playing sports anyway.
There was no school for the rest of today because his parents had to go outside and Robert did not teach himself school things, so he could do any of the things he liked to do in the house or the back yard. Some of his favorite things to do inside the house were painting, playing with his slinky on the stairs, watching birds when they came to the feeders outside, and watching some TV shows. He did not play video games.
Playing in the back yard was more fun than playing inside the house, though. Outside, he could run for a long time without stopping, dig and build castles in the sandbox, and play with balls. He could not play his favorite ball games when he was by himself, because his favorites were the ones he played with his father, but there were still some good ones he had figured out. One was where he would throw the ball as far as he could and then run and catch up to it as fast as he could; sometimes he dove to catch up to the ball, because he liked diving and was good at it. Sometimes he got dirty when he played, but his mother never got mad at him when he got back yard dirt on himself because back yard dirt would not hurt him. He also liked not having to worry about getting wet sometimes when he was in the back yard, like people did when they went outside—the roof over the back yard kept water from getting in, just like it kept the bad air out. But it did let the sun in, and he liked the sun. When he was younger, his mother had told him every day that if he went outside, the bad air would get him and he would get hurt. She did not have to tell him anymore, though, because he remembered it all by himself now.
When Robert was going past the window, he saw that some boys were playing a game outside. There was a field with grass in it next to his house; the field was like Robert’s back yard except that it was outside. The game the boys were playing looked like hitting, but they were doing other things, too. After one of the boys hit, he started running. And after he had been running for a while, he dove, like Robert did when he played the game where he chased the ball. There were lots of boys playing, more than just the hitter and the thrower—when he played with his father, Robert was always the hitter and his father was the thrower. The thrower’s job was to throw the ball so that the hitter could hit it. Robert’s father was a good thrower, but the boy who was throwing when Robert started watching was not a good thrower, because sometimes the boy who was hitting missed the ball, and the thrower’s job was to throw the ball so the hitter could hit it. When the hitter hit the ball, he started running and the other boys on the field chased after the ball and then threw it to each other. Robert did not know why they did that.
He did not know how long he had been standing at the window when the ball came through it. Usually he kept good track of time, but watching through the window was different. It was like looking at a picture, except that the things in it were moving. It was different than watching TV, too, but he was not sure how. The ball broke the window and Robert started crying, but not because the window was broken. He was crying because the bad air was going to get inside now and he was not fast enough to run away from it. There were little pieces of glass all over the floor. They sparkled when he looked down at them.
The boy who had hit the ball through the window came toward the house. He said that he was sorry for breaking the window and that they would pay to have it fixed, but Robert did not stop crying when the boy said that. The boy had thought he would, so when he did not, the boy asked Robert if something else was wrong.
"Outside’s inside," Robert answered.
The boy did not understand what that meant and asked Robert if he wanted to come out and play with them. He thought that if Robert played with them, he would forget why he was crying and stop. Robert continued crying while the boy looked at his eyes and his face.
"We really would like you to come out and play with us," the boy said. "I bet you’re really good at baseball, aren’t you?"
Robert did not know what baseball was, which meant that it was something from outside and bad, because his mother had told him everything that came from outside would hurt him. But even though he was still crying and felt bad because he was crying, the air had not hurt him yet. The only reason he felt bad was because he was crying, not because the outside had hurt him. When he was a little boy, his mother had told him there was bad air outside and it would hurt him.
"Don’t you know how to play baseball? We can teach you if you don’t. It’s a lot of fun. Wouldn’t you like to try?"
Robert started to climb through the window, because he thought that maybe it was only the air that came through the front door that was bad. His mother had always told him he could not go out the front door, but he could not remember her telling him not to climb out the window. If his mother had not told him not to do it, that must mean it was okay to do. The boy who had hit the ball told him to stop, because there was still glass in the window. He told Robert it would be easier to go out the door.
Once he saw that Robert would not come out through the door, the boy took off his shirt and cleared the glass from the window frame. Robert saw what he was doing and took off his shirt, too, because he wanted to help. They cleared the window together, and then the boy helped Robert climb outside.
He was standing outside and was not wearing a shirt, and nothing was hurting him except for a piece of glass that was stuck in his back. The boy saw it and took it out. Robert’s back was bleeding a little where the glass had been, but he did not notice it because he could not see it and he was outside. There were too many other things to notice now that he was outside.
The sun was warm on him, like when he was in the back yard, but it was different too. When he was in the back yard, the fence was there to keep the bad air out. It was tall, too, so no one could see him except his parents. It was okay for his parents to see him without his shirt on, but it felt different now, because other people could see him. Other than some of the people who came to visit his parents, he could not remember anyone who was not his mother or father seeing him, especially not with his shirt off. But some of the other boys were not wearing shirts either, and that made him feel better. The way the air moved was different, too. It went back and forth and all over, instead of just moving when he ran through it. He liked how the air felt now.
"I bet you’re really good at baseball," one of the other boys said. He was tall and had a black hat on his head. "We’d all like to see how far you can hit the ball. You’ll probably hit it a lot farther than any of us can."
The other boys nodded and agreed with the boy who had just talked, but Robert did not say anything because he did not know how to play baseball. They looked at him and waited, thinking that every boy knew how to play baseball, but Robert did not; he knew hitting, but that was only part of baseball, and he did not even know what to call the other parts. His father would have explained everything to him if he were there.
"Come over and stand here," the tall boy said. Robert came and stood by the boy. "Now, where we’re standing is called home plate, and straight in front of us is the pitcher," he pointed to another boy wearing a hat, "and he’s going try and throw the ball over the plate, but you’re not going to let him. You’re going to have a bat, and you’re going to hit the ball with it. Think you can do that?"
"I can hit," Robert answered.
"But that’s only half the game," another boy continued. He was wearing a green hat. "After you hit it, you have to run to the bases, and while you’re doing that, all of us are going to try and catch the ball and throw it to the base before you get there, and if we do, you’re out. It’s kind of like it’s you against all of us. But if you get to the base before the ball does, you’re safe. So, you’re going to hit the ball, run as fast as you can, and then dive into the base before the ball gets there. Got that?"
"I like diving."
"But you’re not quite ready yet," the boy who was going to throw the ball said. "If you dive without a shirt on, you’ll get yourself all dirty. Here, you can wear mine, because you don’t want to dirty, do you?"
The boy gave Robert his shirt and helped him put it on, and another one gave him a bat. Then they told him to stand next to the plate and wait for the pitch. The boy who threw the ball could throw it very fast, but he did not with Robert hitting. Instead, he tossed the ball underhand and slow, but Robert still missed the ball. He was used to the way his father threw, which was different from the way the boy threw. All but one of the boys clapped and told Robert he would hit a home run next time for sure. Robert did not know what a home run was. The one boy who did not say anything was not wearing a hat. He was the only boy who was not wearing one.
The thrower boy took some steps toward Robert and threw again, and this time Robert hit the ball. He swung as hard as he could, and the ball rolled to a stop just in front of the thrower. After he reminded Robert to start running, the thrower tossed the ball to the boy at the first base, but before he tossed it, he nodded. The ball went over first base and landed on the ground, and a few seconds later, Robert dove into the base, just like the boys had told him to do.
He stood up and stopped, because no one had told him what to do after he dove. Then one of the boys told him to keep running, to try and beat the ball to the next base, so he started running to the next base, and the ball would have beaten him, but the boy at that base dropped the ball and kicked it away, and then they told Robert to keep running again. The boy at the third base caught the ball, but when he did, he ran toward the pitcher, like he was going to hand him the ball, and then they told Robert to keep on running to home plate.
The boy at home plate was wearing a mask and a hat, but the hat was turned around. He jumped to catch the ball and caught it, but he jumped just when Robert was running past him, and by the time he landed and tried to tag Robert, Robert had already landed on the plate.
The boy who had hit the ball through the window shouted, "Safe!" and then all but one of the boys started clapping and cheering. They told Robert what a good hit he had made and how fast he could run, all of them except for the boy who was not wearing a hat.
Just at the moment when Robert dove into home plate, his parents came home. They saw him lying on the ground and dirty, and heard what they thought was laughing. Some of the boys were laughing, but the reason they were laughing and the reason Robert’s mother thought they were laughing were different. Robert’s father touched him on the shoulder when he walked past him, his hand resting there for just a second. He was going to talk to the boys. Robert’s mother made him stand up and walked him back inside. She only held on to him with one hand, because the other one had to keep her hat on her head.
Once they were inside, Robert’s mother said, "What were you doing out there? Don’t you know it’s dangerous out there? Haven’t you listened to me?"
"I was safe, Mama," Robert said. "They told me. I was safe."
"No, Robert. You were not safe. Those boys were lying to you if they said you were."
Robert thought about what his mother had told him. He said, "I don’t like people who lie to me."