Bottom of the Seventh [fiction]

© 2000 by Steven L. Campbell.
(Approximately 1,900 words.)

Young Michael Stone surrendered the gaze of his deep blue eyes to one of wildness mixed with flight. The air around him had become thin and dry, as though an unseen storm had sucked the very oxygen from the pale blue sky over Ravenwood High School’s baseball field.

The doorway at the far right end of the dugout framed Coach Walker’s short and heavy body. “Pray we get some hits,” he said around the customary tobacco pipe clamped between his teeth. He only smoked after the game. His superstition dictated that he never smoke before or during the games. That’s why the Ravenwood Fighting Eagles were undefeated this year, which would have had the baseball team celebrating. But tonight they were losing by two runs to the Willow Creek Yellow Jackets as the bottom of the last inning approached.

Coach Walker removed his pipe and ball cap and bowed his hairless head. Michael and his teammates hushed from their seats on the long wooden bench inside, until Coach Walker said “amen” and took his spot along third base.

“We need a miracle,” someone whispered. Michael saw in his teammates’ eyes the wonder and concern of whether they could win the game. Assistant Coach Andrews reminded the boys of their past wins in the last inning before he called out three names of the players scheduled to bat. Michael responded to the third name and the team clapped loud and in unison as Assistant Coach Andrews loped to his spot along first base.

The cheering died and Michael’s gaze wandered again through the wire mesh behind him, to the near-empty fifth row bench in the stands behind home plate, and the girl sitting there. The evening sun seemed to spark Holly Somers’s long, soft blonde hair. A halo of white surrounded her from the gown she wore. Michael practically hugged himself from a chill gripping his back. He thought about telling someone about the ghost, but quashed the idea when she glared at him.

On the field, Jimmy Richards laced a hit over the second baseman’s head and the Ravenwood players and fans cheered. Michael tore his gaze from Holly, put on a batter’s helmet, clomped up the dugout’s steps, and took his place inside the on-deck circle.

Immediately, Tyler Jones laced a hot bouncing double between left field and center field. The centerfielder quickly caught up to the ball and threw it to his shortstop, thereby keeping Jimmy Richards from rounding third base and scoring.

“Now we’re off and running,” Coach Walker yelled to the boys in the dugout.

The Yellow Jackets’ coach called for a pitcher change and Coach Walker hurried to Michael’s side.

“We need you to score Jimmy from third. Empty your mind of everything and just relax. See yourself hitting the ball, Mikey. Can you do that?”

Michael nodded and thought about Holly watching him.

Why was she here?

Hard fingers of anxiety clawed at his throat as a likely possibility sprang to mind. He’d been unable to go to her funeral. During those months, he’d been unable to visit her grave.

And now she had come for him.

Come for revenge, he thought. But he had never known Holly to be vengeful.

He looked at her. The angry look on her face made him certain she hated him now. He looked away, ashamed.

“See yourself hitting the ball into the outfield,” Coach Walker said. “Like we’ve practiced.”

Michael at once thought of the several pop-up outs he’d made during the season by swinging too hard. It had taken months for him to enjoy baseball again and to even swing the bat like he used to.

Sharp fingers of anxiety clawed across his shoulders and down his back. He wanted to run and hide from both Holly and his at-bat predicament.

“Put someone else in,” Michael started to say before the home plate umpire bellowed, “Batter up.”

Coach Walker whispered, “The guy’s a fastball pitcher. Take the first pitch.” He returned to his coaching spot and Michael glanced at Holly’s seat in the bleachers. She had left. He looked for her within the crowd, but she remained unseen.

He shivered with chills of anxiety. Was she really here for revenge?

He longed for the days of her warmth and the good times between them. They’d almost become boyfriend and girlfriend before she died, although they had never kissed. Well, she had pecked him on the cheek last year after a Varsity baseball game when he gave her the home run ball he’d hit during the game.

“It was the perfect hit,” he told her when he handed her the ball. “I knew I’d connected because the ball felt soft against the bat. Like hitting butter … barely a feeling at all.”

The newspaper had printed Holly’s picture and obituary. He had clipped and glued both into his scrapbook he slept with under his pillow.

As Michael shuffled into the batter’s box, a Yellow Jackets fan demanded that their relief pitcher strike him out. Michael’s teammates countered with a plea for him to get a hit. The pitcher responded with a nod to his catcher and a letter high fastball.

“Stee-rike one!” the umpire yelled.

The catcher taunted Michael with “No batter no batter no batter.” Michael wondered about the taunting as he stumbled out of the batter’s box. He looked at Coach Walker who gave him a signal to take the next pitch.

Michael eased into the box and swung his bat a few times. As he set himself for the next pitch, the pitcher face changed to Holly’s. She glared at him. “I’m gonna strike you out.” She released a fastball at him.

Michael shot to the ground as the baseball missed his head. He recalled the old woman telling him to pray for the girl lying unconscious in the dirt.

“I did pray. I prayed all night.” That should have been good enough.

Holly’s face scowled. Her mouth snarled at him. Anger burned from her eyes.

Coach Walker called for Michael’s attention and gave him another take sign. Michael spat away the bitter taste in his mouth and dug his rubber spikes into the dirt. Beyond the pitcher who still bore Holly’s wicked face, Tyler Jones danced at second base. Over at third, Jimmy Richards took a big lead. The pitcher-slash-Holly assessed Jimmy’s position as the third baseman leaned toward third base and the second baseman charged second base. Nothing happened, so Michael stepped out of the batter’s box and sniffed at the dust in the air and wiped at the tears filling his eyes.

“Allergies,” he said as he stepped up to the plate and smelled Holly’s perfume drift to him from the pitcher’s mound.

A high, inside fastball blazed past him, which caught his letters for strike two.

He called for a time out and wiped his eyes with the tail of his uniform shirt.

Don’t hate me, he pleaded when he looked at her. I’m so sorry for everything.

She spat at the ground.

I love you.

Holly’s spirit tore from the pitcher and plowed into him. She grabbed his mind and showed him the baseball strike her sternum.

“You killed me.”

I’m sorry.

Michael watched that horrible moment replay in his mind. She pitched the ball to him at the downtown playground and he hit it. Hard. A demonstration of how far he could hit the ball. But the ball went straight instead of lifting and sailing over the trees down by the banks of Myers Creek. The ball struck her sternum.

“You killed me.”

It was an accident. Your parents forgave me, although your father said there was nothing to forgive. But I asked him to forgive me anyway. Please believe me.

“You never came to my funeral. You’ve never visited my grave.”

Can you ever forgive me?

“I cannot love a coward, Michael. I cannot forgive you.”

Michael felt his heart flutter. It stopped beating and he fell to his knees. He tried hard to inhale but his lungs had stopped working.

I love you.

He pushed up his shirt’s right sleeve and showed her the tattoo. Below the heart that contained her name was the word Always.

I did it myself.

There was a long moment when Michael thought he would black out. Then Holly’s voice came through the ringing in his head. “Did it hurt?”

He showed her the memory of when the tattoo became infected and had to be treated at the ER and kept bandaged for almost two weeks, and how upset his parents were that he would carelessly risk his health and inflict such pain on himself over a girl.

The memory faded. Michael’s world darkened. Then Michael saw Holly smile at him as the darkness and ringing lifted and vanished. Wonderful air filled his lungs. He drank it in and gasped from the sudden euphoria he felt.

Coach Walker brought him to his feet and asked if he was okay. Michael coughed and sputtered and nodded.

“You can do this,” Coach Walker said.

Michael nodded again, thumped at the top of his helmet and stepped into the batter’s box.

He grinned back at the umpire and catcher, and then at the pitcher no longer bearing Holly’s face. She was still inside him. Her arms swung the bat along with his arms as he readied himself for the next pitch. Together, boy and ghost waited. When the pitch came, it loomed large and white in front of them. They swung together and felt the gentle sensation of the bat making direct contact with the ball.

“Like hitting butter,” Holly said. She laughed. Her voice swirled like a gentle breeze in Michael’s head.

The Ravenwood dugout and bleachers erupted with cheering fans. On the field, Tyler Jones, the tying run, raced on the heels of Jimmy Richards; the two sped toward Michael and home plate.

“Run,” Holly said. Michael felt a slight push inside. He dropped the bat and staggered toward first base, not wanting to let go of the feeling of Holly inside him. His legs were like butter. Hot tears flooded his vision and he did not see the ball clear the leftfield fence. But he knew that he … they … had hit a home run.

Michael located the first base bag and almost tripped over it. Then he found his stride and circled the bases. His teammates mobbed him at home plate before both teams lined up and congratulated each other. Afterwards, Coach Walker stepped onto the pitcher’s mound, lit his long-stem tobacco pipe, and smoked.

A red sun in a rose and violet sky slipped behind the tree-lined slopes of Ravenwood Cemetery. There, Michael parked his car and went to Holly’s grave. They talked—boy and girl, mortal and spirit—until, in the final moments of twilight, a breeze stirred through the trees of the cemetery and Michael embraced its warmth, everlasting.

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