A Story In Two Styles, part 2 [fiction]

The majority of the people I write about have normal lives, oblivious to the magical all around them, hidden in plain sight. Dave Evans is one of them. He is part of my small-town urban fantasy world.

I believe the urban fantasy story does not have to be rooted in the city. Urban fantasy can also roam into small towns, villages, and the countryside. There, the magic and weird stuff creep in at the edges of a world in which magic is not the norm but hidden in plain sight. Everything appears normal. The people who live there have normal lives, oblivious to the magic around them.

I know it’s a trope that has become cliché, but small-town urban fantasy is my favorite cliché and I do not plan to ever stop using it in my stories.

In this story, which is another draft of yesterday’s story, Dave’s last name is Conrad.

He is one of the first characters I created—I wrote many baseball stories about him before he had his first encounter with ghosts.

Bottom of the Seventh

Subtitled, “Keeping Love Alive”

Dave Conrad’s pleasant expression changed to one of wildness mixed with flight. The air in the dugout 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 six 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. But she was no angel. Anger and hatred burned in her eyes.

A chill entered Dave’s blue and white pinstriped uniform and gripped his back. Did anyone else see her? He quashed the idea of asking his teammates when she glared at him.

Coach Walker drew Dave’s attention when he cleared his throat and spat. The doorway at the far right end of the dugout framed his short and heavy body. “Pray we all make contact with our bats this inning and score some runs,” he said as he looked out at the visiting team on the ballfield. His Ridgewood Junior Varsity Fighting Eagles were undefeated this year. But tonight 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 Navy blue ball cap and bowed his baldhead.

The team was quiet at their seats on the long wooden bench inside the dugout until he said “amen” and took his spot along third base.

“We can hit this pitcher,” Miles Kibler said, three players down from Dave. “My fastball and curve are a lot better than his.”

“Yeah! We can hit this guy,” Jimmy Franklin, their catcher, said. He sat next to Miles and champed his bubblegum between sentences. “We’ve done it before. Come on.”

Assistant Coach Andrews stepped from the shadows at the dugout’s far end. “Stay focused,” he said. “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.

He had to focus on the game

“Stay in the zone,” he whispered.

A baseball cracked off a bat. The Ridgewood fans and players jumped to their feet and cheered as Jimmy Franklin’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 Jimmy from rounding third base and scoring.

The Yellow Jackets’ coach called for a pitcher change and Coach Walker lumbered over to Dave’s side.

“Keep the rally going,” he said, huddling close to Dave. “Get the ball into the outfield. We need you to score Jimmy from third.”

He slapped the top of Dave’s helmet before he returned to his coaching spot.

The new pitcher threw nothing but heat during his warmup pitches.

Dave’s attention waned. Where had Holly gone?

“Focus,” Dave told himself.

He had stayed away from her funeral and her gravesite. And now she had been here, giving him the stink eye. She hated him.

The home plate umpire bellowed “Batter up.”

Dave hurried into the batter’s box, dug his cleats into the dirt, and swung his bat menacingly at the pitcher.

The catcher taunted him with “No batter no batter no batter” and the pitcher nodded to his catcher.

Dave stumbled from the batter’s box, certain he had lost his mind.

The pitcher looked like Holly wearing a black and gold baseball uniform. She spat and glowered darkly at Dave from the pitcher’s mound.

“Batter up,” the umpire bellowed again.

Dave returned to the batter’s box and tried to stand tall on wobbly legs. “This isn’t real,” he whispered, then shot to the ground as a fastball raced at him and missed his head.

He glared back at Holly. “Are you trying to kill me?”

She vanished from the pitcher.

“You killed me,” she screamed in Dave’s head.

He grimaced from the blast of pain there.

He and Holly stood at the downtown playground and park 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 calling 911 on his phone and weeping over Holly lying dead in the dirt.

“I prayed for you not to be dead. But it did no good.”

“You never came to my funeral,” Holly said. “You’ve never visited my grave. You do not love me.”

“I do. It’s just that I could not bear to see you dead. Please forgive me.”

“I cannot forgive a coward,” Holly said. Her declaration was as painful to his heart as the pain knifing through his head.

His heart stopped beating. He pushed the fear of death from his mind and tried hard to keep breathing.

“You were everything to me. That is why I fell apart when you died. I stopped going to school until my parents made me.”

Darkness swallowed him. He struggled to continue.

“I love you. Always will. I’d do anything to bring you back. Even trade places if it meant you could live again.”

“You would die for me?”

“Yes.”

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 became 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 said. Her voice was like a gentle breeze to his ears.

He grinned at the pitcher who no longer looked like Holly as he readied himself for the next pitch.

It came fast, but seemed to loom large and white.

He swung his bat and the Ridgewood dugout and bleachers erupted with cheers as the ball flew from his bat and headed into leftfield, lifting high until it passed over the fence.

“Run,” Holly said. Again, her voice was like a gentle breeze.

Dave dropped the bat and hurried around the bases, meeting his teammates at home plate where they mobbed him as soon as his feet touched home with the winning run.

As the sun slipped beneath the tree-lined slopes of Ridgewood Cemetery an hour later, he sat at Holly’s grave and talked to her—mortal to spirit. He promised to visit her every day. And she promised to be there for him … always.

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A Story In Two Styles, part 1 [fiction]

I love writing stories. I began when I was around eight or nine years old and I have not stopped.

I wrote the first draft of the following short story during 1972/73. It is an untypical baseball story featuring Dave Evans. When I wrote later drafts, I ended up with two that I liked. The first is below and is closer to the original draft, presented in Now and Then parts. The second story is darker—a bit menacing, which I will post tomorrow.

I like the first one for its light innocence, but the second one has a bite to it that makes it exciting to read.

Bottom of the Seventh

Subtitled, “Soft Like Butter”

Now

He is Dave Evans, a tenth-grader at Ridgewood High School. He has on his white baseball uniform with blue pinstripes. Today is the first Thursday in June and the last day of school. It is also the last regulation Junior Varsity baseball game of the season.

His team huddles at the bench inside their dugout. It is the bottom of the seventh inning, the team’s last chance to score two runs and win the game. Coach Walker reminds the players of that when Dave peeks past the wire mesh next to him, out at the blonde-haired girl sitting in the third row bleachers behind the dugout. The evening sun seems to spark a halo around her hair and white dress, making her look like an angel.

She lifts her face and he looks away to avoid making eye contact.

“Is it really her?” his friend Lenny Stevens asks from his seat next to Dave. He twists and cranes his head to get a better look at her.

“You see her too,” Dave says, glad he has not lost his sanity.

Coach Walker’s pep talk ends with, “No matter how this game ends, it’s been a great year.”

Has it? Dave sneaks another glance at Julie Sommers, then looks away and tries to focus on the game. Coach Walker, a short, heavy man who has a passion for pepperoni pizza, ambles to his spot at the third base coach’s box and gives his first batter, Alan Richards, signals. Alan watches attentively from home plate, then hurries into the batter’s box, looking eager to start a rally.

Dave leans against Lenny and whispers, “I wish this was over.”

“Do you think she still loves you?” Lenny asks.

Dave closes his eyes. “I wasn’t a very good boyfriend.”

Then

“She was the prettiest girl at that party,” Dave said to Lenny in the lunchroom at school almost a month ago. They sat across from each other and kept their voices low. “Remember? It was at my snooty cousin Lisa’s house, during a party for her fourteenth birthday. You were already there, in my Aunt Debbie’s indoor swimming pool, when I got there. She yelled at me when I cannonballed into the deep end. Lisa and some other girls were playing Blind Man’s Bluff there and they surrounded Julie who was blindfolded. She was trying to tag them.”

“Is that when I hit you with the beach ball?” Lenny asked.

“Yeah. I turned around and saw you laughing over at the shallow end. That’s when Julie stumbled into me. She fell and pulled me underwater with her. I squirmed around and the next thing I knew, we were arm in arm and face to face. She took off her blindfold, smiled at me, then pushed away and returned to her game.

“I could have kissed her—our faces were less than an inch apart.”

Lenny nodded. “You should have kissed her.”

Now

The Ridgewood fans cheer and some of them jump to their feet when Alan laces a single over the second baseman’s head. The New Cambridge Yellow Jackets shout encouragement to their pitcher.

Dave glances again at Julie. Staying focused on anything has been difficult. His grades have taken a turn for the worse. And that is when his hitting slump started, when—

“Fire in the hole,” someone shouts as players in the dugout dodge and dive around Dave and bring him out of his reverie.

The foul ball skirts past his knees, ricochets off the bench, and sails back onto the field. He sneaks another glance at Julie. Her face and hair glow more luxurious as the evening sun sinks toward the horizon.

Then

The evening sun glowed through a window inside the Pizza Hut and lit up Julie’s perfect face. She was like an artist’s finest creation. To be in her presence made Dave a nervous wreck.

He stood at the counter, gnawed on his chewing gum, and urged Lenny to hurry and pay for their pizza and go.

“You should say hi before we leave,” Lenny said.

“She’s working.”

“So?”

“I don’t want her to get fired.”

Julie picked up her tray from the table she had just bussed and headed toward Dave. Lenny had to hammer him on the back to dislodge the gum wedged against his windpipe.

When Dave could breathe again, he stepped in front of Julie before she could enter the kitchen and bumped her tray, knocking over a glass of half-finished iced tea. It spilled down the front of Julie’s uniform.

She shrieked, then hurried into the kitchen and left behind a dumbfounded Dave.

Now

Lenny pokes him in the ribs with a bony elbow and tells him he is on deck. Dave seems to float from his seat and to the on-deck circle in foul territory. He swings a weighted bat and dreams of hitting another home run for beautiful Julie Sommers.

Then

After that horrible event at Pizza Hut, Dave entered a funk and spent some time at a safe distance from Julie.

When baseball season started at school, she came to his first game. He did not know she was there until after he hit a homerun to end a tie game. She came to the dugout and asked, “What’s it like to hit a game-winning homerun?”

Dave was speechless. His mouth seemed to petrify.

Why was she here, talking to him?

“I’m the sports reporter for the school paper,” she said.

It felt like several long minutes had passed before he could work his voice again. Julie had turned away and was speaking to Coach Walker when Dave blurted, “It’s such a wonderful feeling when a batter connects with the ball and hits the perfect hit.”

“And what is the perfect hit?” she asked, turning back to him.

“It’s when the ball feels soft against the bat when a batter makes contact. Sometimes there is barely a feeling at all.”

“How soft does it feel?”

“Really soft, like the ball is made of…” His mind scrambled to think of the right word.

“Soft like rubber?” she asked.

“Softer. Creamier. Smoother.”

“Like butter?”

Yes. Like hitting butter. She was perfect.

“Would you like to go on a date?” she asked.

Again, Dave’s mouth seemed to petrify.

“You can let me know at school tomorrow,” she said with a smile before walking away.

Now

Dave puts on a batter’s helmet. The scoreboard behind the centerfield fence shows two outs. He wonders if Petey Jackson, his teammate at bat, will be the final out. Petey answers his question by placing a hot bouncing double between leftfield and centerfield. The center fielder is quick to get to the ball. He throws it to his shortstop, keeping Alan Richards from rounding third base and scoring the tying run.

The Yellow Jackets’ coach calls for a pitcher change and Coach Walker is quick to get to Dave.

“Forget about those last two strikeouts,” he says, which causes those last two strikeouts to loom large in Dave’s mind. “Just relax and make contact. Like hitting butter.”

Dave steals a glance at Julie. Coach Walker places a beefy hand on Dave’s thin shoulder. “You can do this. Empty your mind of everything around you and focus only on the ball.”

Dave nods and tries to ignore the anxiety dancing across his back.

“Like hitting butter.”

Then

“A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter,” Dave and Lenny sang out as they walked beneath the gentle May sun to Maynard’s grocery store downtown. Lenny held out his mom’s shopping list of bread, milk and butter, which the boys found hilarious since it mimicked one of their favorite segments from television’s Sesame Street.

“You should go out with her,” Lenny said.

“Who? Julie?”

Lenny laughed. “Of course. I hear she’s really into you.”

Dave forced his fists into his jeans front pockets. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Come on, you have to do this while she still has feelings for you. But if you keep turning her down, you’re going to lose her.”

Dave shook his head and Lenny continued his campaign.

They carried on for several blocks to downtown until an ambulance screamed past them toward the hospital. A female police officer guided them across the street at Main and Elm intersection where broken glass from an accident still littered the street. A tow truck drove away with one of the cars from the accident. Another police officer directed traffic around the other damaged car still in the intersection.

An elderly woman at Maynard’s told them that a car had run a red light and hit another car broadside. The drivers from the cars were okay, she said. However, a young girl in the second car was in critical condition.

Dave and Lenny reflected on their own mortality. It frightened them to think about death coming suddenly and taking one of them away.

Now

Dave looks one more time at Julie, enters the batter’s box, digs his cleats into the dirt, and swings his bat menacingly at the replacement pitcher.

“No batter no batter no batter,” the Yellow Jackets’ catcher taunts.

The pitcher nods to his catcher, checks Alan Richards taking a big lead from third base, glances at Petey Jackson stepping away from second base, then delivers a letter high fastball that blows past Dave.

“Stee-rike one!” the umpire bellows.

Coach Walker gives Dave a nod and raises his thumbs.

Dave steps back in the batter’s box. The pitcher eyeballs Alan who steps off the bag as the third baseman leans toward third base. Nothing happens, so Dave steps out of the batter’s box and sniff at the dust in the air. And Julie’s rosy perfume.

She has vanished from her seat.

“Butter pitch,” she says; her voice is like a small echo in Dave’s ears. “Let’s hit the ball and end this game.”

Dave shivers from the strange sensation of Julie’s soul inside him.

“Batter up,” the umpire says.

Dave gulps, nods, and enters the batter’s box on wobbly legs. The pitcher nods to his catcher and throws a chin-high fastball. He knows not to swing at it, but an unfamiliar urge forces him to swing anyway.

The bat strikes the baseball.

“Like hitting butter,” Julie says.

The ball shoots high above leftfield and clears the fence.

Dave circles the bases, a hero who is unsure of what happened. His teammates mob him at home plate.

He retrieves his baseball glove from the dugout and slips away from Lenny and the others as he heads away from the high school. Ridgewood Cemetery sits across the street. The sinking sun plays shadows across the gentle hills of tombs and headstones. He stops at a large, pink marble headstone at a fresh grave. A breeze stirs through the trees and he enjoys its warmth, which is so like Julie’s love.

He speaks quietly to her soul still inside him. They talk—boy and girl, mortal and spirit—until, in the final moments of twilight, a cool breeze stirs through the trees of the cemetery and he leaves Julie behind.

But before he goes, he embraces her love one last time.

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