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.

#

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.

#

Waxing Nostalgic, Rush [music]

If we could go back in time and if I could invite you into my home in 1974, I’d want you to listen to my brother Russ’s favorite music for a moment. It was heavy, hard, crashing, wild, and untamed at times. Raw. Energetic. Heavy metal. Thundering.

Outside, it was summer. I had just graduated 11th grade. Playing sandlot baseball was all I had on my mind. My friends and I sometimes played all day at the high school ball field . All we needed was a pitcher, a first baseman, someone at shortstop and second base, and two outfielders. Right field was forever out to right-handed hitters, and left field was forever out to left-handed hitters. And any foul ball hit after two strikes was an out and sometimes resulted in a search for the ball in the woods behind home plate and along right field.

Some days we had to head to the Western Auto store to buy a new baseball, which sometimes led us to the Ben Franklin five-and-dime store to see what new music came in.

That’s how it happened one day, late in the summer, when Russ and I perused the rows of factory sealed records. A friend told us about a Canadian group called Rush. “Heard them on a Cleveland radio station when my folks took us to an Indians ballgame.” The song was Working Man. He talked to the store manager about ordering the record.

I thought nothing more about it. School started and one day (yes, we listened to the radio during study halls) we heard it. My friends and I flipped. We had to have it. But the Ben Franklin store still didn’t have it in because of a label change within the band’s management, or something like that, which held up the order at the distributor in Canada.

Meanwhile, back home, my brother and I immersed ourselves in music. To our delight, a local FM station (WMDI, McKean PA) played LPs at night. Whole records. It’s from that tiny station that we were able to hear Yes, Cream, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin—the list is huge. There was and still is no better way to appreciate an album than hearing it first before plunking down some hard-earned cash for the LP.

One winter night, the station played Rush’s album. It moved us, reached into our hearts and souls and connected. When it was over, we knew we had to own it, to have it in our music collections. I didn’t hear the album again until three months later, on my 18th birthday when Russ handed me the LP and said, “Play it.”

I did. I still do.

Rush, released in 1974 by Moon Records in Canada and by Mercury Records in the United States and internationally

Side 1
Finding My Way
Need Some Love
Take A Friend
Here Again

Side 2
What You’re Doing
In The Mood
Before And After
Working Man

Into the New [fiction]

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

Dave

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.

*–*–*

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.

I Have A Condition Called Baseball Love

People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. —Rogers Hornsby

April has passed and May is here, marking my favorite sport’s headway into its long season.

Baseball puts off the die-hard football fans I know because the game “lacks action.” But football is too war-like for me—all about fighting for land acquisition, which is how this country was taken from the native people. Of course, in the beginning the rules were in the making; the big Euro teams were off sides a lot and often had too many players on the field. When they acquired all the land they could, however, that’s when they replaced their cannonballs with the pigskin, began playing amongst themselves, and contained the sport within several isolated chunks of sod.

I don’t mind when a baseball game stalls for a few innings. That is the best time to scrutinize the game and learn new things about the sport. American cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg called the game “an allegorical play about America, a poetic, complex, and subtle play of courage, fear, good luck, mistakes, patience about fate, and sober self-esteem.”

You can travel almost anywhere in this country and see a ballgame in action, from little kids to adults, and male and female. Girls and women play it with a larger ball called a softball. Men with beer guts play softball, too, which they do fast and mean. Even old guys play the sport with a ball so big it’s almost impossible to hit beyond the infield. They call it Mountain Ball, so it seems fitting the players are built like miners.

There are other forms of baseball, like stickball, wiffleball, and kickball. And like all forms of baseball, they can be played anywhere, from a city street to a cow pasture in the middle of Podunk. And you don’t have to be American or speak English to play the game, either. All you need is a spherical ball, something with which to hit it, and some bases to run to, whether they are parked automobiles or mom’s sofa cushions.

No game in the world is as tidy and dramatically neat as baseball, with cause and effect, crime and punishment, motive and result, so cleanly defined. —Paul Gallico, American novelist and sports writer

Kids of all ages band together in the summer to play and watch baseball. I did. My kids did. And I’m betting my grandkids will, too. Baseball has a charm—an appeal to all. Branch Rickey, the great baseball man known for breaking Major League Baseball’s color and race barrier by signing Jackie Robinson and drafting Roberto Clemente, said baseball’s charm is its “adoption of mathematical measurements to the timing of human movements, the exactitudes and adjustments of physical ability to hazardous chance. The speed of the legs, the dexterity of the body, the grace of the swing, the elusiveness of the slide—these are the features that make Americans everywhere forget the last syllable of a man’s last name or the pigmentation of his skin.”