Author Adam Decker

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Chapter 17

The Smell of Spring

I

      I remember that first game like it was yesterday. The middle of March

was an ugly time for baseball in the Midwest. The high temperature was thirty

degrees and it snowed so hard at one point we had to stop the game for fifteen

minutes. No matter how many pairs of socks you wore, it was always hard to feel

your toes.

       We didn’t fill the five thousand seats at Collingston County Stadium, but

there were a good five hundred Silver Streak faithful braving the elements that

day. There were a lot of old timers that never missed a game. Most of them had

probably been alive when the damn thing was built and for one reason or another

just couldn’t stay away. Then there were the students, people like Jack and

Brunno, who wouldn’t pass up a free opportunity to make fun of opposing teams

and yell degrading comments. And there were the parents and girlfriends of

players, people who didn’t give a shit about baseball, but would be damned if

they’d miss their loved one making some great play. All of them were bundled up

like Eskimos and sat practically cheek to cheek for warmth.

       Joliet Catholic was our opponent that day, a private school powerhouse that

always had a strong program and finished high in the state tournament every year.

Johnny shut them down for four innings, allowing only one base runner on a walk.

We were up by four runs thanks to a two out bases loaded triple by yours truly.

And then the snow came. The umpire let us play through it as long as we could but

decided to clear the field when he couldn’t see anymore. It was soft, wet snow,

with huge flakes that you could almost hear plop when they hit the ground. The air

was thick and white for a good fifteen minutes.

      Most of my teammates huddled in the bottom of the dugout during the

delay, rubbing their hands together and in some cases jumping in place for

warmth. Roman sat on one of the benches at the end, positioned with his hands in

his baseball jacket and his legs stretched out, crossed at the ankles. Demera and

Grouse argued about whether Johnny the Killer was going to take the mound after

the break or if they should bring someone new in. Grouse usually lost these

battles, but I had a sneaking suspicion that Johnny might go back out. I stood at

the top step and scanned the crowd in the stands. Most of the time I was so

focused on the game I couldn’t tell you one person in attendance. It was kinda nice

to be able to look at the crowd.

       The majority was massed together just behind home plate. It was the best

view in the park and also the least windy. Carl sat off by himself, drinking out of a

can wrapped in newspaper. The elements had still not swayed him from his drink

of choice. Mr. Buttworst had his camera strung around his neck, snapping pictures

of what he would later call “baseball in the snow.” Carl left his seat briefly to talk

to the good teacher, undoubtedly asking him questions about his camera and his

photography hobby.

      Heather sat in the middle of the crowd—pink earmuffs and all—leading her

cheerleading friends in stupid little chants and cheers that ended up in laughter.

Sally sat a couple rows in front of the main group with her coat pulled up around

her neck and slouched down in her chair. Frenchy had his puny little arm around

her with a thin jacket on and no stocking cap. His nose was as red as Rudolph’s

and even from that distance I could see him shiver. French Boy was definitely not

dressed for the occasion, and I bet he wished Sally had her arm around him instead

of the other way around. Good. Maybe he would turn into a pasty white French

popsicle. Ma and Pops sat up toward the top of the stadium, wrapped in their

matching Eskimo outfits.

     Johnny took the mound again in the fifth. The snow shower had done

minimal damage to the field. The only evidence of a delay was the wisps of white

snow here and there on the infield grass. It reminded me of the lightly frosted fake

Christmas trees of a department store. The dirt was damp but still solid on account

of it probably being frozen.

     As good as Johnny was in the first four innings, he was that bad in the

fifth. He threw his first pitch five feet over my head to the backstop and walked

two hitters on eight pitches in a row. I glanced over at the dugout to see Demera

shooting Grouse a piercing “I told ya so” glance. Coach Grouse shook his head

and in seconds the two were arguing again, hopefully about whom they were going

to bring in. I called time and walked to the mound, not really to talk to Johnny, but

to buy some time.

     I saw Roman take his jacket off and head for the bullpen as I got to the

Killer. “I’ll be fine. I just need to get warmed back up. I think my arm is fuckin’

frozen,” Johnny said.

    “You’re done, Johnny. We just have to buy some time to get Roman

warmed up. If Coach doesn’t take a trip, make sure you take a lot of time between

pitches.”

      “We’re bringing in the goddamn janitor? Shit! I can get these assholes out.

I’ve done it the whole game.”

       I continued to act like I was listening to Johnny’s rant, but all I could hear

was Bill Wright’s mitt popping in the bullpen down the left field line. The umpire

broke us up in time to save my rebuttal to the Killer.

       Batter number three of that inning reached base on an infield single.

Johnny made a good pitch—an inside fastball at the knees that sawed the hitter

off. Unfortunately the ball rolled past the pitcher’s mound and slowed so much

that Pick Bryant at short had no play on it. The only thing he could do was hold

the ball. Although no runs scored, the bases were now loaded and the tying run

was coming to the plate.

       Coach Demera called time and came to the mound—a snail’s pace replaced

the usual giddy-up in his step. People that don’t know the game get upset when all

this time out and talking shit happens, but that’s just ’cause they don’t know what’s

really going on. Demera was doing the same thing I just did. He was using his

free trip to the mound to buy Roman some more time to get warm. I don’t

remember the exact conversation on the mound between the three of us, but it had

nothing to do with baseball. Johnny kept trying to convince Coach that he could

get out of the jam, but Demera kept commenting on the weather. He stood out

there until the umpire broke us up, and when he got back to the dugout he called

time again, stating he’d changed his mind. He told the umpire he wanted the man

in the pen.

     Demera retrieved the ball from Johnny’s hand and rubbed it in his palms as

if to warm it. Johnny said, “I think you’re making a mistake.”

     “You threw a good game Johnny, but that’s why I make the big bucks, so

you don’t have to do things like think.”

      Johnny walked reluctantly off the mound, grabbed his first baseman’s mitt

from one of the subs that ran it out to him, and took his spot on the infield.

       Roman sprinted from the bullpen out to the mound, his skinny frame unable

to fill out the uniform that clothed it. He didn’t look like a ball player. But I

reminded myself he also didn’t look like he could whip an army of thugs in the

Hollow or at Freddy’s warehouse.

      Demera handed Roman the ball. “It’s thirty degrees out and you don’t have

on any sleeves Swivel. You hot blooded or something?”

      I answered for Roman. “The cold doesn’t bother him none Coach.”

      Demera just shook his head and smiled. “In case you haven’t been paying

attention we’re in a real pickle here, bases loaded, nobody out, and the tying run is

at the plate. Are ya nervous kid?”

     “A little.”

     “Don’t be, this isn’t your mess. My job as a coach is to find out what

you’re made of and apparently there’s no time like the present. We’ve got the

corners in, just try to keep the ball on the infield,” Demera said and headed for the

dugout.

     Roman looked at the ball like it was going to share some confidence with

him.

      “Look,” I said. “Johnny was getting these guys out before his arm froze

up. It’s cold and you throw hard, let’s live on the inside corner. Sound like a

plan?”

     “Yes.”

      Roman’s first warm-up pitch flew over my head and hit the backstop. The

whole Joliet dugout was smiling like Hyenas, before the kill. His second pitch hit

the plate and bounced over my head. The third pitch was right down the middle

but with no zip. Pitches four through eight were on the inside corner and

progressively elevated in velocity. Roman’s last warm up stung my hand, and the

popping sound of my mitt put a silence through the stadium as well as the Joliet

dugout. They didn’t look as anxious to step in the box as before.

      The hitter stepped in and the umpire yelled, “Play.” Roman stood on the

mound with the ball in his mitt pointed toward home. The only part of his face I

could see over the mitt was his eyes. Those brown spheres were full of

concentration and for the first time my friend—the warrior genius janitor—was an

actual ball player. He was a pitcher. I gave the old number one with my finger

and Roman started his windup without shaking his head. He lifted his left leg with

perfect balance to the point of his knee almost hitting him in the chin. His long

arms swung like a pendulum, he took a fluid stride to the plate, and in a fraction of

a second the ball hit my mitt. The batter looked back with raised eyebrows in

disbelief. The stadium was as silent as I had ever heard it. The umpire made no

call. I held the ball there waiting for him to signal something. Finally the word

“strike” came from his throat, but it was choked with amazement.

      The crowd’s disbelief ended on strike three, when the batter took a swing

after the ball was already in my glove. At first a few claps came and then they

escalated to an all-out cheer. Grouse was smiling from ear to ear and paced around

in the dugout, unable to stand still from his excitement. Roman was all business,

stepping back on the rubber every time I threw the ball back to him.

     Coach Demera’s wishes of a ground ball to the infield were far exceeded—

Roman finished the game, striking out the side in all three innings throwing only

thirty-six pitches. The opposing team touched the ball only once—a foul ball that

would have killed somebody on their bench if they hadn’t scattered.

      During the clean-up, guys were all over Roman, doing what teammates

do—pounding him with compliments and making him feel like Cy Young. Roman

only concentrated on the dirt he was raking on the mound. From time to time a

smile would break free and a “thank you” might fly, but Roman shrugged off the

praise. In his overly modest way he reminded the team that he only played three

innings and that they already had the lead when he came in. Of all Roman’s

talents, being a teammate might be his greatest. The spark of life he had energized

people around it.

      Mr. Buttworst and Carl made their way down to the fence by our dugout

and caught Roman as he was putting his rake away. The teacher had his coffee

mug in hand but set it aside to shake Roman’s hand. He held up his camera with a

cheesy-ass smile on his face. “I’ve got some good shots of you for the yearbook,

Roman. Just when I think you’re all out of surprises, you go and make a state-ranked

team look like the Bad News Bears.”

     Carl jumped in before Roman could say a word. “Say guy, you threw the

ball well eh? Had them bastards scared you did. How do ya throw the ball so

hard?”

     The question almost overloaded Roman’s brain, not because it was

difficult, but because there was no answer. After seconds of deliberation Roman

told the truth. “I don’t know Carl, I just can.”

      “Ha! That’s the first time Carl has ever heard you not be able to answer.”

“I’ll second that,” Buttworst said.

     Roman just shook his head.

     Mr. Buttworst reached in his coat, pulled out an envelope, and handed it

over the fence. “I’ve been meaning to give this to you. Read it when you get

home.”

    “What is it?”

    “Just read it when you get home.”

     “Say guy, you want to come over and have a celebration brew ?”

     “Thanks Carl, but I think I’m just going to relax at home.”

     “That means reading eh?”

     “Eh,” Roman replied and laughed.

     “Well take care,” Buttworst said as he walked off. “See you tomorrow.

     Carl, let me give you a ride; it’s on my way.”

     “Carl will make your trip even shorter, Bill. Just drop me off at the

watering hole.”

      Roman stood and watched the two as they made their way to the exit—two

men who had become unlikely friends, two men who were each in their own way

as close to a father figure as Roman would probably ever have.

      I caught up with Roman in the dugout after all the field equipment was put

away. We were the last people left in the stadium besides Demera and Grouse.

     “You need a ride a home?”

     “I think Heather’s waiting in the parking lot, but thanks.”

      “You guys want to grab a sandwich or something?”

     “I just want to go home I think. This pitching stuff is stressful.”

     “Yeah, not allowing a ball in fair territory, striking out nine in a row, real

stressful.”

      Roman grabbed his equipment bag, patted me on the shoulder, and walked

toward the gate. Heather stood there waiting for him.

      As good as our start was, as good a game as I had, as happy as I was that

Roman was a Silver Streak and did so good, something was missing. I just felt a

little empty inside. I felt alone.

II

      As much as Roman disliked Heather’s driving—the non-slowing at turns,

the constant riding of the bumper in front her, the running of yellow almost red

lights—he never said anything. It was just something he got used to and now he

read the contents of Mr. Buttworst’s envelope despite the jerkiness of the ride.

      Roman read both pages in seconds and looked out the window with a blank stare.

      “What’s wrong?” Heather asked.

      “Mr. Buttworst apparently sent my transcripts to Northwestern. This is a

letter from the admissions office accepting me into the college of mathematics with

a full scholastic scholarship.”

     “That’s great Roman.” Heather looked over noticing Roman didn’t share

her excitement. “I got my acceptance letter last week. Wouldn’t it be great to go

to the same school? In a couple of years we could get a place together. We

could….”

       Heather stopped at the glance Roman was giving her. Even if the NN

stopped hunting him, they would always haunt his dreams she imagined. Heather

rode the bumper of the car in front of her, but instead of slowing swerved to the

passing lane and accelerated the Mustang. Roman put his hand on the dashboard.

      “How long has it been since you last saw him, six months? The way you

talked, it sounded like Agent Johnson cared about you or at least respected you.

Maybe he’s just going to let you live your life.”

      “Even if he wanted to let me be, he doesn’t have a choice. He doesn’t

make the rules. He only follows orders.”

     Heather swerved from lane to lane, bypassing the slower vehicles and

making her own route. “To hell with Agent Johnson and his orders. Maybe it’s

just time to take a chance and move on. Are you going to spend the rest of your

life waiting on a guy that may or may not show up?”

    It was always a short trip with Heather, and the Mustang pulled up in

Roman’s driveway. “Maybe you should come in and convince me some more.”

   “Why Roman Swivel, what kind of girl do you think I am.” Heather batted

her eyes and laughed. A serious look came across her face a second later. “I

planned on convincing you all night but only if you teach me to fight.”

     Roman laughed as he opened the car door.

     “Come on Roman. You keep blowing me off and you promised you’d

teach me to fight.”

     “I feel like I’m being propositioned here. I’ll have to think about

it,” Roman said as he unlocked the front door.

     “Think about it too long and you’ll be thinking alone.”

III

     The Pinto was the last vehicle left in the Stadium parking lot. Demera and

Grouse had even left by then. I walked to the car with my head down and the gray

clouds overhead as my only company. Their gloomy presence conveyed the same

feeling that lived in the pit of my stomach.

     Sally stood next to the Pinto. She looked about a hundred pounds heavier

with all of her winter clothing on. I smiled, but couldn’t tell if she returned the

gesture on account of her coat collar covering her mouth. Only her eyes peeked

through. They were a lot prettier than I remembered.

     “Do you mind giving me a ride?” her muffled voice asked.

     “Where’s Frenchy?”

     “His name’s Jacques and he left with the others before the game ended

because he was so cold.”

     “Why didn’t you go with them?”

     “I don’t know. I really don’t. Something made me stay and talk to you. I

wanted to tell you what a good game you played. When you got the triple, I felt all

warm inside, like I was there running the bases with you. Like a part of me swung

the bat too.”

     “No offense Sally, but you haven’t watched a whole game of baseball in

your entire life and now you think you’re hitting triples.”

     “That was before I met you.”

     I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there and stared at her.

     “So can I have ride or what?”

    “I’m sorry,” I sat down my equipment bag and unlocked the door for her.

The Pinto fired on the first turn of the key. The heat even worked now

thanks to Roman, and Sally unzipped her winter coat and took off her gloves. “I

don’t think I’ve ever been this cold,” she said, holding her hands in front of the

vents on the dashboard.

      Sally was good looking, always had been. It was hard to keep my eyes on

the road while trying to sneak a peek every couple of seconds. There was

something different about her though. It wasn’t her hair or make up. She still had

the same perfume. Her lipstick was the same.

      “Did you do something different with your hair?”

     “Nope, I’ve worn it the same way since school started. Why does it look

bad?”

     “No, no, just seems like there’s something different about you that’s all.”

     Sally pondered the question for a moment. “Nope, nothing different.”

     There was a long silence between us; so long in fact I drove north through

the entire city of Collingston before another word was spoken. I had plenty of

stupid ideas bouncing off the walls in my head.

     I pulled in her driveway reminiscing about the fall day that her father came

home and how bad my luck had been with her in the sex department. I wanted to

speak volumes as she opened the door and stepped onto the street, but only one

question came out. “Why are you with him?”

     Without missing a beat, like she’d known the question was coming, in that

eloquent way the female species can put the opposite sex in their place time and

time again, she answered. “Because he treats me like a woman. Thanks for the

ride, Tony.”

     With that the Pinto’s door closed and Sally walked up to her front door,

gave a brief wave, and disappeared into the house.

I put the Pinto in reverse and headed for home.

IV

     Gina opened the double doors of the Hawthorne mansion. The man stood

there in a brown Carhartt jacket, hands in his pockets, and eyes fixed on the

ground. He raised them reluctantly to meet his new employer. He was only ten or

so years younger than Gina, a rather handsome man with beautiful blue eyes. If it

weren’t for the hideously obvious hairpiece, Gina could see one of her single

friends dating him.

     “You must be John Smith. Please come in. I’m surprised that you were

able to work me in so quickly. Mr. Flowers said it might be a couple of weeks.”

John Smith only gave a shy nod and walked into the foyer.

     “Can I take your coat?”

     “No, thank you.”

     Gina brushed off the man’s odd behavior, but there was something about

him that she couldn’t put her finger on, something that was amiss. Maybe he was

just tired. “Let me show you my problem.”

     Gina turned and walked up the staircase and pointed out the two stairs that

months before Roman had commented were off a couple of degrees. John turned

his head trying to see the flaw but in the end just took a small level off of his belt

and sat it on the stair. The bubble in the middle moved slightly to the right.

She led him back down the stairs into the dining hall, where she motioned

to the wall and began to describe the fixture she would like to see adorn it. She

would leave it up to him on the details, for she had already seen his craftsmanship

first hand at The Lone Rose. She went on and on about how drab her mansion’s

dining hall had been, and how there wasn’t a single day she passed up the stairs

that the two off-kilter ones didn’t make her burn with anger. Eventually Gina’s

babbling was drowned out by another voice, a voice that John Smith hadn’t heard

in a good while, a voice that emanated from the depths of his soul. The voice of

Max Sheehan.

      Look at the dark brown hair. Isn’t it lovely? She’s very beautiful isn’t

she? Look at the way her breasts fill out her top, the way her ass fills out her

pants. Not the ass of someone her age is it John? What could you do to that?

What would you make her do?

     John Smith grabbed the necklace that hung around his neck, searching with

his thumb until he held the charm on the end of it. It was Saint Jude, a gift from

the priest down at St. Thomas’s. John rubbed the charm between his thumb and

index finger, as if the friction would erase the evil voice in his head. Gina

continued her woeful story, a tale that could complicate only the lives of the rich.

    Crimson red lips, full and wet. Her face smooth, not a blemish on it. How

soft is that neck?

    John rubbed the Saint more rapidly.

    Those beautiful eyes, you can see her soul through those eyes. And what

would that soul look like as it trembled in those precious pupils…

    “I must go,” John interrupted her. “I’ll be back tomorrow to start the

work.”

     “Oh, okay,” Gina said and walked him to the door. “Is everything all right,

Mr. Smith?”

     John looked at her but with Max’s eyes. “Just a little under the weather.

I’ll be back tomorrow.”

    John sprinted down the driveway to his truck after Gina closed the door.

    He stopped and gasped hard for air, not from the run, but from the person within

choking him. John stood at the truck door, arguing with the voice in his head, on

whether to leave or go back in and do what Max wanted to do.

      After ten minutes of talking to himself out loud, John Smith got in the truck

and drove off.

V

     Heather had given up on her calculus and now she stretched out on the

couch and put a pillow behind her head. She propped the soft cushion so she could

look at Roman as he read in his rocking chair. She watched as the pupils in his

eyes sped down one line of his book and then shot back to the beginning of the

next. It was like watching the mechanized structure of a typewriter at high speed.

    There was a slight wrinkle in his forehead, a sign of concentration for most, but

Heather wondered if Roman’s was more than that—did his line magically transport

him into the pages of the story? She watched as his serious face morphed into

brief glimpses of frowns and smiles, joy, and sorrow. His arms though thin were

defined and his dark hair was still wet from the shower. Heather now found

herself thinking of how truly handsome he was—a thought that had built over

time. She thought back to the locker row at school when she’d dropped her

grandma’s cheerleader statue to the floor. The janitor with his ugly gray uniform

and his shy personality was hardly attractive that day. It was amazing how the

inside of a person transformed the outside. A smile came to her face. There was

no doubt she was in love—very seldom does one get enjoyment from watching

another person read. It was peaceful. Heather imagined she could watch him

forever.

     Roman’s eyes unlocked from the page for a brief yawn.

    “Is it that boring?”

     “Actually I can’t put it down. I’m just tired,” Roman responded.

Heather got up, walked over, and pulled back the book to see the cover.

    “To Kill a Mocking Bird. You haven’t read it before?”

    “Amazing isn’t it. Somehow I missed this one. You remind me of Scout.

Sure she’s a lot younger than you, but you’re both strong, smart, and unsettlingly

stubborn.”

    “I’ll take that as a compliment. Speaking of stubborn, when are you going

to teach me to fight?”

    “Heather…”

    “No don’t Heather me, you promised and you keep putting me off.”

    “Why do want to learn to fight so bad?”

    “I want to be able to do the things you do. I want to be able defend myself

against people like Bobby Dukes. I don’t want to be the helpless damsel in

distress.”

     “I would hardly categorize you as a damsel in distress. I should be worried

about the rest of the people in the world, not you.”

     “Quit making jokes. You know what I mean.”

      Roman knew when he was beaten in arguments with her—unsettlingly

stubborn might have been an understatement. “Fine, but know this. The only

reason I can do the things I do is because I spent everyday of an entire year in a

padded room fighting against some of the best in the world. Some things you can’t

teach.”

     “Just the basics then. Show me how to defend myself.”

    “Help me up.” Roman stretched out his hand and Heather grabbed it. In a

second Roman was on his feet with Heather’s arm behind her back. Roman’s other

forearm was snug against her neck.

    Heather tried in vain to pull free. She tried to slip out underneath. She

tried to kick him in the genitals with a back swing of her leg. She even tried to bite

his arm. All of her efforts ended in failure.

    “By the time you try all those maneuvers you’re out of oxygen,” Roman

whispered in her ear. “I’m pulling back so why are you trying to go forward?

Which way should you go Heather?”

    Heather stopped her struggle for a moment, gathered her thoughts, and took

a deep breath. She stepped back against Roman, grabbed the forearm around her

neck, flexed her shoulders forward and angled down. Roman rolled over her and

slammed against the hardwood floor.

   “Not bad,” Roman said.

    “Wow. I can’t believe I just did that.”

    In the next hour Roman showed Heather the basics of combat—the rules

from Ninja echoing in the caverns of his mind. He taught her how to step into a

punch, what the most vulnerable points on her opponent’s body were, and a few

joint locks that would bring the biggest of men to their knees.

     Their combat session ended with Heather pushing Roman backward onto

the bed, with Roman telling her that this particular fighting style would be an

ineffective tactic, with Heather silencing the last of Roman’s lessons by putting her

lips against his.

    The winds of March blew themselves out eventually, turning the indecisive

weather into a ritual of semi-daily rain showers and a constant climb in

temperature. This was April, and though the moisture came in mist and sometimes

sheets, while the trees started to bud and the grass became green with life, Silver

Streak baseball was also on a crescendo to fever-pitch levels.

    Roman was moved into the starting rotation because of his performance in

the snow that first game. He took the mound every fourth day and annihilated

every batter and team that stepped into the box against him. Teams tried to scout

him, but it was useless. After all there wasn’t much to scout—Roman threw the

ball over the plate at ninety-plus miles per hour. He didn’t have a certain way he

pitched you or some magic potion he took before the games. Sure he would

change speeds and throw an occasional off-speed pitch, but there was no need to

slow the ball down for their bats. The magic was in his arm, either you could hit it

or you couldn’t. Most could not.

     Roman made my job behind the plate very easy. If no one ever got on base

it was hard for them to steal. A sore hand the next day was the only trouble I ever

had. And while Roman was sending batter after batter back to the dugout, I was

sending ball after ball flying. I hit over six hundred during that first stretch,

pounding out ten doubles, three triples, and two homeruns.

      Johnny the Killer found success as well. With Roman facing the tougher

opponents Johnny mowed down the abilities of the second tier teams. He was

more relaxed and didn’t erupt one time on the mound. Johnny was a very strong

number two pitcher, maybe the strongest in the state. Instead of being jealous of

Roman taking his spot, he seemed to like his new role, and supported his former

enemy in every aspect of the game. There was some kind of unspoken respect

growing between the two of them. Maybe they would never be friends off the

field, but both were competitors, and both became very close teammates.

    Pick Bryant at Short and Scotty Jakowski at Second were near flawless up

in the middle. I never really trusted middle infielders. They were liars—a mold

that fit Pick perfectly—deceiving runners and worrying more about how pretty

they looked than the actual outcome of their actions. But I tell you they were

something to behold: their soft hands and lighting-quick actions turned the art of

the double play into pure magic.

    Sam Peterman tracked down many a fly ball in the outfield, gunned down

runners trying to stretch singles into doubles, and got his share of hits, but still

struck out way too much, especially with runners in scoring position. Roman

continued to throw him a good half-hour of balls in the cage after every practice.

    The small mass of people bundled behind home plate that first game had

grown steadily with each victory. Now every home game was sold out to standing

room only. They came to watch the skinny kid from Iowa chuck the pill at high

velocity. It seemed every strikeout added more people to the crowd. Our local

newspaper, the Collingston Current, covered every game, home or away. The

radio sent a pitch-by-pitch rundown over the airwaves. It didn’t take long for the

sports reporters to find that Roman was on pace to break just about every pitching

record kept by the state athletic association. After ten games we were undefeated,

ranked third in the state, and only one game went more than five innings on

account of the ten-run rule. Roman had not given up a single run.

VII

Washington D.C.

Agent Johnson sat in the back of the cab as it rolled by the Washington

Monument. No matter how many times he strolled through the nation’s capital, a

sense of pride always fluttered in his stomach seeing its monuments, buildings, and

memorials. It was that pride that had kept him at his job this long. Those

structures were more than just granite and stone, they were America. And America

still stood in large part because of contributions he made to its security.

    It wouldn’t be long now until he reached Andrew’s Air Force Base. He

would board the cargo plane with his luggage because ghosts couldn’t fly with

normal people, military or not. In umpteen hours he would be in Baghdad meeting

informants that were close to the enemy. He would extract their information,

determine if any of it was credible or relevant, and report back. A menial

assignment such as this didn’t bother him. It was just part of the bigger battle and

someone had to do it. It was a slow month for terror if there was such a thing. If it

weren’t, Johnson’s assignment would be quite a bit more difficult.

     His cell phone rang just miles away from Andrew’s and Johnson flipped

out the all-important device. It was a call from someone with the NN.

    “You might as well turn around. There have been some developments,” his

long time partner Stenworth said.

    “Developments?”

    “Did you do a search with Bots awhile back?”

Johnson thought a moment and then responded, “Yes; why?”

    “They turned up something about a day ago. Do you have your laptop with

you?”

    “Yes.”

    “Turn it on. I’m going to download some pictures our satellites took as

well.”

    “Thanks.” Johnson shut his phone and unzipped the bag next to him. He

opened the laptop and accessed the NN’s search engine via satellite link. The

results came in seconds.

    The screen read: “12 query hits for Roman Swivel.”

    Johnson clicked on the links, noticing all were web links to the same site,

the Collingston Current. He didn’t read, only scanned for the most relevant

information. The words that stuck out: Roman Swivel, Collingston, and Illinois.

Johnson opened his email to find Stenworth’s pictures already in it. The chance

that this was the wrong Roman Swivel was put to rest by the images that now

shown on his screen. They were Roman walking in front of school, Roman in a

yard in front of a house with a girl, and finally Roman standing on the mound in

his uniform ready to deliver a pitch.

     “I’ll be damned,” Johnson whispered to himself. “You couldn’t stay

hidden after all.”

     “Did you say something?” The cab driver asked.

     “Turn around please, there’s been a change of plans.”

VIII

     It didn’t take long for rumors of Roman’s arm to spread—not only was it

all over the media, but the baseball world as well. It started with a coach from the

local community college to see the second time Roman took the mound. A few

weeks later every baseball person from the University of Illinois to the New York

Yankees was in attendance. All of them to get the once-janitor to sign on the

dotted line.

     Roman was uninterested at first. He wouldn’t even speak to the scouts and

coaches. I’m sure it was too farfetched for that genius mind of his to grab hold of,

not because he thought he couldn’t perform at those levels, but because just like

every dream he dared to conjure, in the background was Agent Johnson always

there to stop him. Eventually the scouts’ insistent pursuit wore Roman down. And

he did talk to them, but never committed to anything. He told them that he wanted

to leave his options open.

      The hysteria Roman’s arm created was evident the day we played our

archrivals Bloomington. The Purple Raiders were ranked fourth in the state, and

we were now second. They had a lefty on the mound who threw in the mid-eighties

with a great change-up. The scouts were foaming at the mouth at the

potential matchup. There were more of them than I could count on brief glances to

the stands on my way to and from home plate. All I could see was a sea of radar

guns pointed toward the mound, a wall of people from the top of the bleachers that

overflowed from one side to the other, and camera flashes from our fans who knew

they were witnessing something at Collingston Stadium that they might never see

again.

    Neither pitcher failed to disappoint. In six innings, Steve Minks,

Bloomington’s Ace, gave up no runs, five hits, walked two, and struck out ten.

Roman was even better, matching the blank score, giving up one hit, walking none,

and striking out twelve.

    I had only struck out twice all season up until that game. Minks sent me

back to the dugout three times. I grounded out once and struck out twice, both

times swinging through that change-up of his.

    We were scoreless after six, and Roman took the mound again in the

seventh. His pitch count was low and he had only allowed one base runner.

Bloomington was at the top of their order and although they looked hungry, I knew

deep down they weren’t anxious to see an arm that still had not dropped in velocity

since the first pitch.

     Roman hit the leadoff man in the head, knocking his helmet off, and damn

near killing the poor bastard. Even though the guy was Bloomington’s best runner,

they had to put in a sub because after several minutes he still didn’t know where he

was. The second batter attempted to move the runner over to second by bunting.

This time Roman hit him directly in the chest as he squared. There was a hollow

thumping sound that silenced the crowd into fear of fatal injury. Another pinch

runner was entered. I called time and ran out to the mound. Coach Demera was

standing in front of the dugout with his arms crossed thinking of taking a trip

himself.

     “What the hell’s a matter?” I asked. “All of the sudden you got control

problems? Your arm all right?”

      Roman took off his hat and rubbed his forehead like he was trying to get rid

of a terrible headache. I could see his fingers trembling. “My arm is fine. I just

can’t concentrate. There’s someone in the stands…”

      “You’ve pitched in front of big crowds before. Even if you lose this game

the scouts are still going to want you. A strikeout and double play and we’re out

of…”

    “You don’t understand. Agent Johnson is in the stands.”

     I turned and scanned the mass of people under the roof of the stadium;

there were thousands, and even if I did know where to look, I had never seen

Johnson before. My job as a catcher was to keep my pitcher focused and that

instinct kicked in automatically. “Even if he is up there Roman, he’s not coming

after you in front of a couple thousand people during a baseball game. Let’s get

out of this thing and go hit. Don’t let him screw this up for you too. Right?”

    “You’re right.” The nervousness was replaced with the competitive face I

had grown accustomed to seeing.

     Coach Demera walked out to the mound. “Everything all right?”

     “Just a little setback Coach, he’s fine,” I said.

     “Sorry Coach. I’m okay.”

     “That’s good, just don’t let there be anymore setbacks or we’ll be down a

couple of runs.”

    T he three-hole hitter hadn’t touched Roman all day, and as we suspected he

attempted to bunt. Roman threw the first pitch hard chest high down the middle of

the plate. The batter fouled the ball straight up. I caught it and fired the ball to

second base because the runner failed to get back to the bag. Roman struck the

next guy out on four pitches.

    Sam Peterman led off the bottom of the seventh. Even though he had

struck out three times already Demera let him hit. Peterman took two of the ugliest

swings I’ve ever seen, but with two strikes on him he worked his way back to a full

count. Minks threw the payoff pitch just outside and Peterman walked. Pick

Bryant attempted to bunt but was called out after bunting the ball foul three times.

   That brought me on deck, and Scotty Jakowski to the plate. I looked at Roman

who was standing on the top step of the dugout looking into the crowd. “You all

right?”

     Roman smiled. “I think my imagination just got the best of me out there.

I don’t see him anywhere now. Do me a favor and end this thing so I don’t have to

go back out.”

    “I’ll do my best.”

    Demera tried to hit and run with Scotty Jakowski, but he lined out deep to

the right fielder. Luckily Peterman was able to get back to first without being

doubled off.

    I came to the plate with two outs, tie ballgame, and the winning run on

first. There was no way Minks was going to strike me out again, not this time.

    I took the first pitch at my knees. It was low and away but the umpire

called it a strike. Minks made a mistake with the second pitch and threw it right

down the middle. It surprised me since he had been so good all game. I just

missed it and fouled it straight back behind me. I wish I could have that one back.

You gotta protect here, two strikes on ya. Protect but don’t chase. Minks reached

back and popped the third pitch up there harder than the first two. It was high and

I took it for a ball. Throw me that change-up again. I’m not going to swing

through it this time. I’m gonna wait and knock it off that right center wall. Throw

me that change-up.

     Minks delivered, and just as I guessed, a change-up on the outside corner. I

waited this time…and crack. The ball jumped off my bat, a frozen rope to right

center. The right fielder dove for the ball but missed. The center fielder picked it

up as Sam Peterman reached third. Demera was waving him all the way. The

center fielder launched the ball like he had a cannon for an arm. The ball was low

to the ground on a straight line, passing over second and then the mound. The ball

bounced. Sam slid. The catcher tagged him just as he crossed the plate. The

umpire looked at the play for a second. “Safe!” he yelled. “Safe!”

    Our dugout emptied and jumped first on Peterman at the plate and then on

me at second. There was a pile of bodies on top of me, and for a few brief

moments we were a single mound of pure joy. The Bloomington Purple Raiders

looked on with sullen faces of envy as they waited to shake our hands. The

excitement and the crowd slowly dwindled away and after about an hour it was just

Roman and me, sitting a couple rows back in the stands, watching a guy mow the

outfield under the stadium lights.

IX

    Carl joined us in the bleachers just minutes after we sat down. He carried a

twelve pack of beer and smoked his pipe. “Mind if Carl joins you fellas?”

    “Sit down and pass me a cold one,” I said.

    Carl threw the can through the air; it looked like a knuckle ball because it

had no rotation as it traveled. It was a maneuver that Carl had undoubtedly done

many times over. “Say fellas, that was one hell of a game you played there.”

     “Thanks,” Roman said and smiled.

     “Sitting with the two heroes I am, future major leaguers.”

     “Maybe Roman will, Carl; there’s really nobody beating down my door

right now.”

     “Stupid bastards they are then.”

    “Thanks,” I said and slammed my beer into Carl’s. He sat down behind us

and leaned forward between our seats.

    “Beautiful scene in front of us, isn’t it, Carl?” Roman commented.

    “Aye, ’tis my friend, beautiful indeed.”

    A thin fog formed just above the freshly-cut grass and swirled around from

the south breeze, like the essence of a ghost dancing over the floor of a haunted

mansion. The air was still warm and the smell of lilac was almost overwhelming.

The stadium lights bounced off the wet blades of grass, casting a supernatural glow

on our ball field. You could see the perfect rows made by the lawn mower that

made a crisscrossed pattern in the outfield. The moon shone overhead, but unlike

that night in the Hollow, it was warm and full of life.

    I took in a deep breath, bringing in the smells of lilac, warm wind, and old

fumes of peanuts and beer. “My granddad used to call it the smell of spring.

Something you just couldn’t describe, but everyone knew what you were talking

about. It made your heart skip a beat, just to remind you that hope is never a bad

thing, he’d say.”

    Roman shook his head and smiled. “Give me one of those beers would you

Carl?”

    “Ha! What’s gotten into you?” Carl said and opened the beer for Roman.

    Roman threw back his head and took three swallows. He let out a sigh like

he just drank the nectar of the gods. “If there was ever a time to drink a beer this

would be it. It’s all over for me now. It won’t be long before Agent Johnson

stumbles across my name somewhere in a paper or on the Internet. Ironic isn’t it?

I managed to hide myself for a couple years and then by just playing the game I

love, I sealed my own fate.”

    “That’s the thing though about a baseball field,” I said. “No matter how

bad your life’s going, no matter if you’ve got problems, if your bills aren’t paid, or

your dog shit on the carpet, this place makes all those things go away. For a few

hours every day all that matters in the world is that little white ball and all the

sounds, smells, and battle scars that go along with it. For a little while we’re

immune to everything outside these walls.”

    Roman shook his head again and smiled.

    “Well put guy.” Carl said and chugged his beer. In a second he popped

another and looked up at the moon.

    “Carl’s time is almost up here as well. The full moon is back and I can feel

those bastards watching me more each day. If they came for me tonight, surprised

I wouldn’t be.” Carl took a long drink and smiled. “It matters not. I’ve lived a

good life, I have. Not giving a goddamn what people thought of me, or intruding

into anyone’s business. I woke everyday and tried to be happy and make other

people happy and that’s what a person’s supposed to do. They’re supposed to live

their life not sit back and watch it go by.”

    Roman raised his beer.

    Carl’s moon watched as we toasted as friends. It would be our last toast

together.

X

    Heather opened the wide double doors to her family’s home, exposing the

freshly revamped staircase that her mother had insisted on having fixed. Gina rose

from her relaxation room and met her daughter in the foyer. To the left, Heather

could see into the dining room, where her mother’s hired help was grinding,

sanding, and cutting the wood that would eventually be a giant mural covering the

entire west wall of the room. Heather could also hear music in that room, the

many voices of a choir singing hymns from the speakers of a small portable CD

player.

    “Home so soon, dear? I thought you would be out celebrating after the

victory.”

    “Roman wanted to hang out at the stadium with Tony for awhile. Some

kind of male bonding thing I guess. I have a lot of studying to do anyway. What’s

with the gospel music?”

    “John likes to listen to it while he works. He says it helps him concentrate

better. He’s an odd man, but very nice and well mannered. Handsome too if it

weren’t for that hairpiece. I was thinking of fixing him up with Cynthia.”

  “Why would you do that to the guy? Cynthia would drive him mad. I’ve

got to get a bite to eat before I study.”

    “The kitchen staff has already retired for the evening, but I could whip you

up a sandwich or something if you don’t mind my company.”

    “That’s fine. Peanut butter and jelly with some Fritos. Actually make it

two PB and J’s.”

XI

    John Smith worked with his back to them but he knew they were there. He

could smell their perfume as they sat at the dining room table several feet away.

   The mother did most of the talking. It must be nice to come home and have

someone actually care about how your day went. The soothing sound of

   “Amazing Grace” flowed through the room and for a moment as he sanded, John

Smith felt like he was at home.

    You didn’t think that awful music would keep me away did you?

   John ignored the voice in his head and continued to sand, seeing the words

of the song in his head, and rubbing St. Jude with his free hand.

    Ignore me. I don’t care. I want to do the talking anyway. I know you can

smell them, that sweet innocence just glides through the room like it was meant

only for you. The daughter is more beautiful than her mother is, don’t you think?

Too bad we don’t care much for blondes. I think we could make an exception, a

two for one deal? Imagine it, having your way with the daughter, while mommy is

tied up in the corner, begging you to stop.

    John walked over to his CD player and turned up the volume, drowning out

the voice in his head but also the conversation at the dining room table. He noticed

as he walked back. “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to disturb your conversation. This

song is just a favorite of mine.”

    “It’s quite all right John,” Gina said. “My daughter would like to eat

instead of listen to her mother rant and rave anyway.”

    “Hungry, John? Do you want something to eat?” Heather asked.

    “No. No thank you.” John turned back to his saw and began to cut along

the fine curving lines he had drawn on the wood earlier. The music of his new

master sang, the women talked, the saw made its chaotic noise, but still he could

hear Max’s voice.

    Don’t you know what you could do to them? How you could pit their love

against one another? How they would beg for it, if you would spare the other.

How their fearful eyes would tremble at your power. Fuck the daughter first and

then watch the mother’s eyes as you choke the life from her child.

    “No stop it,” John said out loud. At that instant the saw strayed off its path

and nicked the top of his free hand. John let out a grunt of pain and grabbed his

arm, dropping the saw to the floor and knocking the cord from the CD player out

of its socket. The music was gone, the saw was off, and there was a brief silence

until Gina and Heather ran to help him.

    Blood dripped from his hand and the crimson stain already made its way up

John’s long sleeve. He held his injured arm with his other hand. Heather pulled

out one of the chairs from under the table, turned it around, and sat the carpenter

down. To Heather’s surprise John had no scowl on his face or wince of pain. He

only breathed hard.

   “Go get the med kit and a wet towel,” Heather said to her mother.

    “Shouldn’t we take him to the hospital?”

   “We will, just get those things first,” Heather said as she pressed down on

the top of John’s hand. It was hard to know where to apply the pressure—the

wound was covered in blood, like John had dipped his hand in a bucket of crimson

paint.

   Gina ran as fast as she could to the bathroom closet down the hall on the

south side of the house. The trip was quick—nothing she didn’t experience in her

daily workouts—and Gina was back in a matter of moments.

    Heather took the wet rag and wiped the blood away, exposing a one-inch

cut that must have severed one of the veins in his hand. “It’s just a tiny cut, but it

looks to be pretty deep. We should call an ambulance.”

   “No hospitals, just do the best you can with it,” John responded.

   “You need stitches, maybe vascular surgery.”

   “If it bothers me tomorrow, I’ll go. For now just do the best you can with

it, please.”

    “Just do as Mr. Smith wants, dear. I’m sure he’s had accidents before.”

Heather shook her head and dabbed up more of the blood. When she had

the area halfway clean she pressed down a cotton ball on the open wound and

wrapped a bandage around the entire hand as tightly as she could. John Smith did

not show any sign of pain.

    Satisfied with her bandage job, Heather began to clean up more of the

blood that had made its way up John’s arm. She unbuttoned his cuff and began to

role back the sleeve. John tried to pull back.

    “It’ll only take a second, I’m almost done.”

    If it were any other time John would have fought her, but he was injured

and felt a little lightheaded. Besides she was like a beautiful angel from above,

taking care of him.

    Heather wiped away the now dry blood on his arm. With each swipe she

uncovered more of the tattoo that decorated it, like the excavation of a relic

brought back to life by the fine strokes of an archaeologist’s brush.

    The full image was apparent now, the naked beautiful form of a female in

the middle of a spider web. Heather was transported back to the night of the

hollow, when Roman told his story. It was Roman’s words she heard now in her

head. There was a tattoo of a spider web with a naked woman in the middle of the

arm that imprisoned my father. I see that tattoo every time I shut my eyes. His

eyes wide and open, blue as the ocean.

    Heather swallowed hard and took a deep breath, trying to maintain her

composure and not panic. She continued to wipe the arm as if nothing was wrong.

She couldn’t help but look up at his face.

    There, looking back at her, were the piercing blue eyes of Max Sheehan

 

 

           


 

 

 

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