Changes, Part 1
January has been a month of stepping back and observing the past, seeing what I can take with me into the new year and what to leave behind. As an artist and writer, it is also a time when I look at the parts of my art and writing I can change for the better. I write more often than I make artwork, so I spend much of my time in that area of my life. And that brings changes that I feel are necessary to make my characters strong.
David “Dave” Nicholas Conrad, 15
He is the first person I created—I wrote many baseball stories about Dave before his first encounter with ghosts, fairies and talking woodland creatures. I changed his last name to Evans for many years. But now, he’s back to his original name. Note: My Bruce Conroy comic strip character was Bruce Conrad before I changed it.
Dave is a risk-taker who lives a fast-paced lifestyle of extracurricular activities during the school seasons. He is sports active, outdoorsy and loves to hunt. He likes playing baseball, bicycling, and riding motorcycles and 4-wheelers. He is mechanically inclined and is handy at fixing small engines. Since he is the only boy in the family, he seeks out other boys with similar interests. His best friend is Kenny Douglas.
Holly and the Tattoo (A short story featuring Dave)
Dave Conrad’s pleasant expression changed to one of wildness mixed with flight. The air around him had become thin and dry, as though an unseen storm had sucked the oxygen from June’s cerulean sky over Ridgewood High School’s baseball field.
The five o’clock sun seemed to spark Holly Sorenson’s long, soft blonde hair. A halo of white surrounded her from the funeral dress she wore. Some of Dave’s classmates had said that she’d been buried in a white dress.
A chill entered his blue and white pinstriped uniform and gripped his back. Would telling his teammates about seeing Holly do any good? He quashed the idea when she glared at him.
The doorway at the far right end of the dugout framed Coach Walker’s short and heavy body. “Pray we all make contact with our bats this inning and score some runs,” he said around the customary empty tobacco pipe clamped between his teeth. He chewed on the stem and looked out at the visiting team. His Ridgewood Fighting Eagles were undefeated this year. But this evening they were two runs behind the New Cambridge Yellow Jackets as the bottom of the seventh—the final inning of the final game of the season—awaited the Fighting Eagles.
He removed his pipe and Navy blue ball cap and bowed his baldhead. Dave and his teammates waited at their seats on the long wooden bench inside the dugout until Coach Walker said “amen” and took his spot along third base.
“We can hit this pitcher,” someone said.
“Yeah! We can hit this guy,” another player said. “We’ve done it before. Come on.”
“That was before the seniors graduated.” Dave shuffled his feet, scraping the concrete floor with his rubber cleats. The twelfth graders were gone, doing whatever twelfth graders do after graduating high school.
Assistant Coach Andrews cleared his throat from the shadows at the dugout’s far end. “Stay focused,” he said. “This is your team now. This is your game. Never give up.” He called out three names of the players scheduled to bat. Dave stood, responding to the third name called. The players clapped loud and in unison for a moment as their assistant coach loped to his spot along first base.
The cheering came to a slow end and Dave’s gaze wandered again through the wire mesh of a window behind him, to the fifth row bench behind home plate, and the girl sitting there.
He looked away when Holly glared again.
“No such things as ghosts,” he whispered. It became his mantra until a baseball cracked off a bat. The Ridgewood fans and players jumped to their feet and cheered as Danny Ryan’s base hit shot between the first and second basemen.
Dave put on his batter’s helmet and took his place inside the on-deck circle outside the dugout’s doorway.
Holly glowed with a heavenly whiteness … and chilled him from the hellish anger on her face.
She vanished from view when the fans in front of her jumped to their feet.
Tyler Jones had laced a hot bouncing double between left field and center field. The centerfielder caught up to the ball and threw it to his shortstop, keeping Danny Ryan from rounding third base and scoring.
The Yellow Jackets’ coach called for a pitcher change and Coach Walker lumbered over to Dave’s side.
“Rally time,” he said, huddling close to Dave. “Get the ball into the outfield. We need you to score Danny from third.”
Dave nodded and thought about Holly watching him. He had stayed away from her funeral and her gravesite. And now she was here, giving him the stink eye. She hated him. He looked down at the grass, ashamed.
“Hit to the outfield,” Coach Walker repeated. “You can do it. The new pitcher throws nothing but heat. Take the first pitch and study its speed. Then swing away.”
Dave nodded again.
Coach Walker slapped Dave’s helmet before he returned to his coaching spot.
“No such things as ghosts,” Dave said after the home plate umpire bellowed “Batter up.”
He shuffled his way inside the batter’s box. The catcher taunted him with “No batter no batter no batter.” Then he stumbled from the batter’s box, certain he had lost his mind.
The pitcher’s face looked like Holly’s.
“Batter up,” the umpire bellowed again.
Dave trembled as he stepped to the plate. Holly spat and glowered darkly at him from the pitcher’s mound.
The catcher taunted him again. A Yellow Jackets player demanded that the pitcher strike him out. Dave’s teammates countered with a plea for him to get a hit.
Dave swung his bat a couple of times to loosen up, then shot to the ground as a fastball raced at him and missed his head.
He choked on a scream as Holly flew at him and entered his body in a blast of wintry air.
“You killed me,” she screamed in his head.
Dave shut his eyes and grimaced from the pain. When it stopped, he and Holly stood at the downtown playground where she had pitched the murderous baseball to him last month. It had been a gloating demonstration on his part of how far he could hit the ball. But the ball had gone straight off his bat instead of lifting and sailing over the trees by the banks of Myers Creek. The ball struck her sternum and stopped her heart. His foolish showboating killed the girl he loved.
He recalled the old woman telling him to pray for the girl lying unconscious in the dirt.
I did pray. I prayed all night. But it did no good.
Darkness consumed him.
“You never came to my funeral,” Holly said from within the void. “You’ve never visited my grave.”
Dave turned in circles, trying to see Holly and pinpoint the direction of her voice. “I know,” he said. “I’m truly, truly sorry. I couldn’t bear to see you dead. Please forgive me.”
Another icy blast hit him.
“I cannot forgive a coward,” Holly said. Her voice was as painful as the chill knifing his bones.
His heart fluttered and stopped beating. He plummeted through the void and tried hard to inhale. He pushed the fear of death from his mind.
“You were everything to me. That’s why I got the tattoo.” He lifted his right arm. “Your name is inside the heart … my heart. I love you, Holly. I always will … forever.”
He struggled to tell her of when the tattoo became infected.
“I had to go to the ER. My parents were mad, but I’d do it again.”
His falling stopped. Warmth blanketed him and sweet air filled his lungs. He drank it in and gasped from the sudden euphoria he felt.
A hand gripped his left arm and pulled him from the darkness.
“Are you okay?” Coach Walker asked as he brought Dave to his feet.
Dave’s vision cleared but a headache pounded. Something like fingers massaged the inside of his skull until the headache eased to a dull throb.
“I’m good.” He dusted dirt from his uniform and picked up his bat. Then he waited for his coach to settle in the coach’s box before he stepped to the plate.
“You can do this.” Holly’s voice swirled like a gentle breeze around his head.
He grinned at the pitcher who no longer looked like Holly as he readied himself for the next pitch.
It came, large and white toward the center of his strike zone.
The Ridgewood dugout and bleachers erupted with cheers moments after he swung his bat at the pitch.
“Run,” Holly said. Again, her voice swirled like a gentle breeze around his head.
Dave dropped the bat and started toward first base, all the while watching the ball until it cleared the leftfield fence. Then he found his stride and circled the bases. His teammates mobbed him as soon as his feet touched home plate with the winning run.
An hour later, he sat at Holly’s grave and talked—mortal and spirit—until the sun slipped beneath the tree-lined slopes of Ridgewood Cemetery. A breeze stirred through the trees when he placed the homerun ball at the foot of Holly’s headstone. When it stopped, he headed home and embraced the memory of Holly’s love, knowing it would be with him … always.