Davis wraps my hands in a way that I can now move my fingers a little bit. He's disgustingly sweet about it, placing kisses on my knuckles once they're free. All the time I tell him stories about the softball team and he listens intently. I know things went about as well for him with the baseball team so it's probably a relief for him to hear them. At the end of it he just laughs when I tell him that Alexa was an awful person and I'll never understand what he saw in her.
He has a matinee game he has to go to. On the way there he takes the sniffling girl home. Somehow, the house feels less awkward with her gone. I had no idea how to talk to her, which is probably why not a single world was ever passed between the two of us. Aside from her mumbled apology she said just before she left, that is. Of course she didn't even look at Barry, much less speak or listen to him.
We agree to meet up at Gaslight for Michael's concert. After poking and prodding all day long, I convince Barry to go as well and provide me a ride. He complains, sometimes saying, "Stop bugging me, I have a hangover," and other times using the excuse, "I have to go home eventually." Later in the day he's a bit more desperate to go out.
When I mention "prowling" he lights up.
"You mean girl prowling? Yeah, that'll be fun! If you can't find a sweet man to take you home just come back with me. A threesome wouldn't be so bad!"
That's not going to happen.
The concert says it'll start at 8:00PM but we end up at the venue two hours early. Part of it is because I'm desperate to do something, anything to get away from that house. Barry is just the same, eager to do something other than flip aimlessly through channels as he nurses himself back to health with sports drinks and takeout.
We arrive to find about two dozen patrons loitering about. Barry splits away from me immediately, having found a group of acquaintances at a nearby table. Whatever. I'm fairly used to hitting bars alone so it's not a big deal to me. Luckily, it's not a long walk from the door to the bar, as my foot is still aching.
I hop onto a bar stool and wait patiently for the overworked bar tender to take my order. There are only a handful of people positioned at the bar, as the rest have come with friends. There's a young couple on the far end, on some sort of a date; there's an older gentleman that looks like he's been drinking since noon; and then two seats away from me is a man about my age sipping on a beer.
All I ask for is a beer myself. I can't drink too much since I'm confident the instructions for my painkillers tell me not to drink any alcohol at all. What will a pint of beer hurt?
Well, if that wasn't a mangling of my name then… I turn to the man that's a few seats down and eye him. I don't recognize him. There's a dirty baseball cap pressed far enough down I can't really make out his eyes, as they've been shadowed over in the low bar light. I can see strands of brown hair poking out. His body is shorter than average and his body looks lean underneath his shirt and jeans.
"Um, yes?" I answer.
"Ah, I thought so!" the man says a bit louder. Calloused fingers grip the bill of his cap and he pulls it back to get a better look at me. There's a blush on his cheeks; his blue eyes are wide with excitement at the sight of me; his lips are curled into a goofy smile that leaves a dimple on his right cheek. A scar about half an inch long above his left eye shines.
I can't remember his name. He played baseball with Willie and Davis. Back then he was awkward, but cute. If I remember right, he was good at baseball, too. Never good enough to play professionally, but he was certainly good enough to play for a college team. I remember him being the second shortest on the team, behind only Willie. He played catcher in our youth and was pretty good, but eventually he was moved to first base.
"Ah, yeah! That's me! You remember!" he says, much too excited for his own good. I can see it now. He still looks young. Had I never met him, I would've assumed he had barely entered college.
"I'm sorry, I don't remember your first name," I say truthfully.
He waves me off as he shuffles down to sit next to me. "Don't worry about it. It's Trent. But you can call me Abe like you used, I'm more comfortable with it. Or the full Abel, I don't mind," he says. Now that he's closer I can see that meeting me here has given him some sort of jolt. He's lively and bouncing about. Within a few seconds he's downed his beer and ordered another one. "Let me pay for your drink. I feel like I probably owe you from way back when. Hey, are you here with someone?"
My head is whirling around at the speed in which he talks. He's so damn nervous. "Uh, yeah. Well, I'm waiting for Davis," I answer.
His face drops a bit before he assembles it back in place. The smile is pretty damn dorky, but it is definitely the cutest thing I've seen since I got back into town. I relax at the sight of it. "Ah, you and Barnes, huh?" He lets outs a low whistle, shakes his head once and says, "I guess it was a long time coming."
"Huh? No, no. We're not like, a couple or anything. We're just here to see Michael's concert as friends," I tell him. There's no change in his expression, just a quick dash of his eyes down my body and back up. I don't think he's even aware that he's done it. I ask, "What about you?"
"Hm? No. Of course not! I'm, um… very single," he admits. The blush on his cheeks deepens and grows until his ears and neck are also dyed red. I'm not surprised. He was single throughout the entire time I knew him in school. He couldn't communicate with girls to save his life.
I haven't grown up in the slightest. There's no stopping my rude remark from leaving my lips. "Still a virgin, huh?" I tease, my smile hidden behind the glass of beer as I take a sip.
Instantly his face manages to get even redder. He doesn't look offended, merely embarrassed. "N-no. Not technically," he mumbles. It's his turn to take a drink of his beer, but he nearly downs the entire thing.
One of my bandaged hands finds itself on his back as I lightly pat him. I can feel his muscles through his shirt. This guy is ripped, I think as I feel the tension slowly ease out of him. "Just giving you a hard time, kid," I tell him with a wink. He laughs uncomfortably at the action. My hand leaves his back and returns to the bar as I ask, "What are you doing these days?"
"Uh, well I play baseball! Just for some tiny independent league. I coach at the school, too. Both baseball and football. It's fun!" he says. His voice is clear of any nervousness by the end. Of course it would be; baseball is easy for him. It's a familiar subject. I'm impressed in a lot of ways. So far, it seems like Abel is the only one doing what he said he would when he was in high school.
"I'm really proud of you," I say. It came out in a tone that made it clear I was sincere. For a moment he just stares at me, surprised by either the statement or my earnest attitude. Slowly, I watch as his expression softens. The nervous tint on his cheeks has turned into something more comfortable.
"You know, you were really scary to me back in high school," he says. I laugh, and he says, "It's true! You nearly gave me a heart attack a few times."
September 2nd, 1998
The nerves were getting the best of him. Innately he was an anxiety ridden kid, but of course his body went into overdrive on this particular day. His first day going to public school. At some point his parents decided that homeschooling was too much work, that it'd be easier for him to adjust if he got into public school now instead of later, that… Well, whatever their reason, there he was.
Afraid his voice would fail, he only nodded to people that greeted him. Kids were loud, obnoxious, and had no notion of personal space. It made him uncomfortable. During recess he passed the time tossing a ball against a wall and letting it ricochet into his glove, something he had done his entire life to pass the time when alone. No one bothered him.
When it was over he promptly returned to his seat, his glove and ball tucked away inside his backpack. He was the first one back, and felt uneasy as the rest of the class filed in. He was the only one there when they entered, the object of their eye as they shuffled in, the only thing for them to look at.
Of course, no one really paid him any mind, but his mind didn't see it that way. Instantly his palms felt clammy, his breathing got shorter, and sweat threatened to fall. All of his energy went into calming his mind. Yet he couldn't. The girl that was assigned to the seat behind him – what was her name? – was staring right at him as she neared her seat. He wasn't imaging it. She looked angry.
Avoiding her gaze, he shifted his eyes to the dirty and dingy desk. Doodles from generations past littered the rough surface. Marks of students that had survived this environment lay before him, evidence of their existence. It was like a greeting from people he never met. So much easier for him to digest than interactions with real people.
Something pinched his shoulder and he yelped. Twisting awkwardly he turned to find the hellish girl sending him a nasty glare. He shivered.
"You play baseball?" she asked.
Frightened, he struggled to speak. "Ye… yeah…" he mumbled.
"What? I can't hear you. Speak like a man," she demanded.
"Yes ma'am!" he squawked.
April 26th, 2002
This was the one place he had always felt at peace. There was something tranquil about the ballpark. It was a diamond – a precious jewel, the strongest of the gems, something to be treasured. Other boys played football, but he couldn't stand the aggressiveness of it all. Baseball had finesse to it. It had a history of legends that defined any entire nation. Every play made him feel like he was a part of that, part of something greater than himself.
"You play like crap!"
Then there was her. He was at an age where he was becoming more and more aware of the difference between boys and girls. That was making him more and more nervous. Only two girls had made it this far with the boys, and their mere existence had tilted his delicate scale the wrong direction.
At least it was getting easier to talk to that rough and rowdy shortstop of theirs. Really it was just her yelling at him and him apologizing in an odd stutter or meek squeak. Despite being on the same team and in the same class for the past two years, he hadn't had the guts to really talk to her. Not that he particularly wanted to. Being around her more than necessary would kill him.
Unfortunately, he had just been moved by the coach to first base permanently. The other girl – the sweet, amazing, beautiful Lorie – had taken his position at catcher. The coach wanted her to get more experience before moving into softball, and he was alright with that. His only regret was that the mask covered her face.
Lost in his thoughts he failed to hear the loud "ping" of a ball hitting a metal bat. His vision cleared a mere blink before the ball drilled him right above his eye. The impact shattered his face and he felt the sting instantly. It also sent the ball flying back into the air, and his mind went into to pure baseball instinct. In a flash his glove was out, the ball was caught, and he leaned back to the bag to tag up the runner. A double play.
Aware the half inning was over he felt the adrenaline leave his body. Suddenly the ache from his head became too much, and he wasn't getting back up. Just before everything went black, he saw the face he least wanted to see.
Kristy had sprinted to him, afraid he'd bobble the ball and not trusting the pitcher or second baseman to back up properly. Yet somehow, he surprised her and made one of the most impressive – and probably painful – plays she'd ever seen.
At his side, she knelt next to him, a grin bigger than she'd ever given shining in his hazing vision. "Nice play, Abe!" she said.
It was one of his favorite memories from that time.
November 1st, 2007
God, it was noisy. Between the terrible music that was pounding in his ears to the screaming match some girls were partaking in, he was not having a good time. This wasn't his thing, anyway. Absentmindedly he swirled the remaining bitter drink in his cup around, wishing it would just magically disappear. He'd sworn not to drink – he didn't like it back then – but Ochoa had forced a red plastic cup in his hand and demanded he pound it. He'd finished it, despite wanting to spit it out, then promptly had the empty cup replaced with a full one which he pounded. This repeated for three more.
Since then he'd scurried away from everyone. Parties sucked. Why were they doing this? He'd heard something about how their football team had secured a spot in the playoffs, but he hadn't made the team that year. Or the year before that. Or ever. He should've focused more on baseball. Maybe he'd be as well-loved as Ochoa or Waechter. Maybe he'd have more schools lined up, rather than the two or three he'd talked to.
If only he'd been born better. Quicker. Stronger. Smarter. Whatever the hell it was he was lacking. "This is why I don't drink. I'm messed up," he said to himself. He sighed. Setting the cup down on a table littered with beer cans and shot glasses, he wiggled his way out of that small house and into the night.
Outside, the first thing he did was take in a breath of fresh air. It turns out having fifty people shoved into a three bedroom farm house made for a gross atmosphere. Certainly the alcohol and vomit didn't help.
A sound caught his attention. A ball hitting the garage and then smacking into a leather mitt echoed in the quiet of the outdoors. Instantly he turned to the noise. There, he spotted his feared female companion, tossing a ball against the wall and catching it just as he had done years prior. For a few minutes he merely observed, watching as she made most plays but struggled due to others, her knee never quite where it used to be.
"I miss playing baseball with you," he said.
She caught the ball and turned to him. It was the least stuttering he had ever done around her. Their relationship since their last game as teammates had been odd. There was a deep comradery they had developed for each other during those endless hours under the hot sun, playing the game that they loved so much. Yet there was a tension, too. Friendship was something they couldn't achieve. They were too different.
Before he could blink the ball whizzed by his head. Instinct had him reach up and catch it barehanded. The alcohol in his system prevented him from feeling the sting that sent shockwaves up his arm. Without a word, he tossed it back.
"I heard you got an offer from South Carolina," she said as the ball hit her glove. She lobbed the ball toward him.
He caught it with a grunt and said, "Ah, yeah. And UW, and Oregon State."
"You gonna commit?"
He eyed the ball in his hand as he processed her question. Scuff marks from years of use and abuse marred the perfect white orb. Red stitches were becoming frayed from weather and age. Yet it still served its purpose, never once failing in its duties to the game. It was the singular dot that connected every player on the field and sometimes the crowd, too. The object of every batter's eye, every fielder's glove, every fan's obsession.
"Eventually. I… I want to keep playing. I want to play as long as I can. I'm… not good enough… to go pro. Like Willie and James. But… I want to cherish this game. And enjoy my time, while I'm fortunate enough to still play," he said.
Hesitantly, his eyes went to her. There was pity there in those ocean blue orbs of his. She'd never said anything to him on the matter, but he could sense how much it pained her to not be on the field. He couldn't imagine never once being able to return to that haven. His most treasured gem. Unconsciously his eyes went back to the ball still in his hands.
"Hey," she called out to him.
Oh, no. Was she mad? Had he said something weird? Offensive? Was it the ball? She wanted the ball back, of course. Why was he still holding it – it wasn't his. It belonged to her. He should just give it back.
"Go get your glove. Let's play catch!" she said. There was a smile there, perhaps the first time she'd ever given him a genuine, heartfelt, friendly smile. It was then that he realized the ball didn't belong to her. It didn't belong to him. It belonged to both of them. And Willie, James, Davis, Lorie… it belonged to everyone that had ever admired the gleam of his favorite gem, the diamond.