Author Adam Decker

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Chapter 19

Missing

I

      Roman knocked on Carl’s door repeatedly. There was no response. If it

wasn’t for Roman’s injured shoulder he probably would’ve turned and walked

home. Instead we entered the living room—Carl’s door was never locked—and

searched every room including the cluttered basement. It was hours after the bar

closed and Carl was nowhere to be found. We even drove up and down the route

he took to and from the bar—alas no Carl.

     After a couple hour search of every side street, whorehouse, and possible

location we could think of, I drove Roman back to his house. Heather’s Mustang

sat in the driveway and I could see her fingers tapping the steering wheel

nervously. She knew Roman was okay for the most part—I called her when we

left Extravaganza—but nights such as these tend to bring out the pessimistic side

of people. Roman took two steps up his driveway and stopped. His head rose to

the perfect full moon above it.

    Me and Heather looked up as well, trying to see in that bright bulb in the

sky what Roman saw. I wondered what it was like for him to think. When I think

I can actually hear words in my head. Did Roman hear words too only at a lot

faster rate, like a speed speaker or a tape in fast-forward? Whatever the case I

knew after almost nine months of interrupting, it was best to just let him finish.

   “Carl said that around the time of every full moon he begins to feel sick,”

Roman said.

    “Yeah,” Heather started. “And that it was because the aliens cast some sort

of spell over him.”

    “He wasn’t sick at all this week. He was as lively as I’ve seen him. He

also said that that time in the jungle they asked him to go with them. Like they

couldn’t force him to go against his will,” Roman said again.

    “What are you getting at?” I asked.

    “Maybe the aliens were making him sick because he refused to go with

them.”

    “Like when they choked him in the jungle,” Heather added.

    “But he wasn’t sick at all this week,” I said. “Even tonight he was as happy

as a clam.” The image of Carl standing in front of the Tavern with his hand held

up flashed in my mind.

    “Maybe he wasn’t sick because he agreed to go,” Roman said.

    “He was talking crazy, saying his time here was up and he wouldn’t be

surprised if they came for him tonight,” Tony said. “You know what though? I’ve

had it with all this aliens and serial killers and fucking secret agent bullshit. I’m

going home and going to bed. If you need me to whip Johnson’s ass later tonight,

just give me a call.”

    Roman smiled.

    “Honestly do you think you’ll be all right? Do you need to go to the

hospital? I’ll stay here if you want me to,” I said.

    “I’ll be fine. Tony, thanks for everything. I wouldn’t be here right now if

it weren’t for you.”

    “Yeah, about twenty more nights like tonight and I’ll be even with you.”

I drove off as Heather and Roman walked into his house.

II

    As much as I wanted to go home, the Pinto had other ideas. I found myself

at Sally’s house, climbing the downspout of the gutter and hoping like hell it didn’t

rip off the side of the porch. People in the movies always seem to shoot right up

these things like they’re Spider-Man. I had a more difficult time of it—slipping

several times and falling back to the bushes on others. My determination won out

though, and I crawled along the porch roof, keeping myself invisible as I passed

under her parents’ room.

    I tapped on Sally’s window for what seemed like hours. It was a fine line I

was walking—tapping hard enough that it would wake her, but not so hard that her

parents would hear. Eventually the light came on in her room and she appeared in

front of the window. Her grogginess was replaced by anger when she saw who it

was. She opened the window anyway. We had to whisper on account of her

parents’ room right next door.

    “Is something wrong?” Sally asked as she picked up a brush and began to

comb through her hair. It wasn’t to look pretty for me—just instinct to look her

best at all times—something women are born with I guess.

    I proceeded to tell Sally the events that transpired early that night, of

Roman and Heather, Max Sheehan and Agent Johnson. She seemed to be

genuinely concerned, even wanted to call and make sure Heather was all right, but

my sad story really got me nowhere.

    “So why are you here again? Couldn’t you have called and told me all

this?”

    Why was I here? As much as I wanted to blame it on the Pinto, I knew it

was more the man behind the steering wheel. I just stood there and looked at her.

    “It’s 2:00 in the morning. If you’re not going to say anything I’m going

back to bed. I’ve got a test first hour in British Literature. 1984. Fun, fun.”

   “I don’t know why I’m here. I just felt like I needed to see you. I can’t

explain it. I’ve got stupid little thoughts running through my head. Look, maybe

you’re right, maybe I should just go.”

   “What kind of stupid little thoughts?”

   “I don’t know, like maybe I’m sorry for the way I treated you when we

were dating. Maybe I was a fool for breaking up with you.”

   “That’s just it Tony, it’s always maybe with you. You didn’t come here to

apologize. We didn’t date; it was more like you trying to get in my pants every

second of the day. And there is no maybe about you being a fool. It’s not a matter

of you being able to say the things in your head; it’s that you won’t say them.

   That’s the way it was and will always be. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m flying

back to France with Jacques the day after graduation and spending a month with

him. I’ve always wanted to see Europe.”

   “With Frenchy?”

   Sally didn’t respond to the slang term I used for his name. Instead she

walked over to the light switch, shut it off, climbed into bed, and pulled up the

covers. “If you’re not going to say what you came to say you may as well leave.”

   “I’m trying to tell you. You’re just not listening.”

   “Go ahead, I’m listening.”

   I stared at her for more than a minute. “Fuck it,” I said and opened the

window back up. I put one foot out but when my second one hit the roof I slipped

and slid head first toward the edge. I tried to stop myself but there was nothing to

grab onto. I fell off and landed in the bushes a good twenty feet down. It did not

feel good. After pulling the twigs and sticks out of my clothes and skin, the front

porch light came on. I limped quickly to the Pinto, and as I drove off I could hear

Sally’s father cursing me.

III

   Part of me did not expect to see Roman again when I pulled out of his

driveway. Even though he laughed at my jokes and seemed not to be angry about

Carl’s absence, I could easily see him packing up his baseball cards and few other

belongings, and disappearing into the darkness of night. I could see him traveling

to somewhere unlikely, driven by the winds of chance and the pursuit of one Agent

Johnson.

   Over the next few weeks he proved that part of me wrong. Roman was as

carefree as I’d ever seen him. He talked more, laughed often, and put down his

never-ending stack of books to join those of us who lived in reality. He told me

that a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders because of the confrontation

with Max Sheehan. Roman would never see his parents again but at least it was

some sort of closure. It seemed to me that he traded one burden for the other—the

monkey of Max was off his back, but a much heavier Agent Johnson had just

jumped on. I suggested at one point that maybe Johnson didn’t escape the inferno

of Extravaganza, that maybe the roof fell in on him, and he burned alongside Max

Sheehan. Roman gave me the look at that comment—a gesture that told me I was

an idiot if I believed it. There was no doubt that Johnson and his NN loomed on

the horizon. There comes a point when you just have to say, “fuck it”. I think

Roman was at that point, and whether his happy face and attitude were more for us

than for him, it served everyone well.

   May to us meant baseball. It meant there were conference championships

to win and state titles to get ready for. It meant working on the baseball field less

because the monsoons of April had finally dried up. It meant trading in jeans for

shorts. It meant skin on the females for as far as the high school eye cared to look.

   You could smell graduation in the air and the classroom part of high school was on

full shutdown for us seniors. The prison guards gave up with teaching and

homework assignments—our minds were already somewhere else.

   Heather moved herself one Mustang load at a time into Roman’s house.

Whether it was the fact that she couldn’t bring herself to stay in the mansion that

Max Sheehan once haunted, or because she just wanted to be close to Roman those

final days of school, Gina did not fight her. She even sent little goody baskets

along with her daughter—food and snacks, even books for Roman. Heather who

was always looking for some cause, found one in our missing friend Carl. She

plastered the city of Collingston and its surrounding area with pictures of our odd

friend. Every gas station, barnyard, schoolyard, outhouse, doghouse, store,

convenient mart, and church displayed his likeness. I imagine that every citizen in

Collingston whether they liked it or not, knew the face, name, height, and weight

of Carl Stumot. Heather even made her mother rent several billboards around the

area. It was no surprise to see Carl’s giant face staring down at you as you drove

down the highway. When there wasn’t a response Heather only doubled her

efforts, branching out to neighboring cities and creating a website devoted totally

to finding him.

    Roman kept up Carl’s property during those days in May—mowing the

grass, cleaning the house, even making sure the bees in the basement never ran dry

on their honey. He ran with Heather every morning at six, claiming he was staying

in shape for baseball. I wondered if it was training for something else.

   Roman couldn’t lift his arm the first few days after battling Agent

Johnson. He couldn’t throw a ball the first week. By week two he was playing

light catch. By the beginning of week three he was throwing in bullpens. More

than anything, more than the gray matter between his ears or the quickness in the

weapons he called hands, Roman was a survivor.

   The Silver Streaks did falter—our perfect record was spotted with a few

losses here and there—but the guys stepped up nicely in our ace’s absence. Johnny

the Killer went a perfect 4-0 in those two weeks. Our offense got a boost from

guys like Sam Peterman in the bottom of the order. We averaged more runs in that

span than the rest of the year. It wasn’t something the guys wanted to do but had

to if they wanted to win.

   I turned over a new leaf as well—nothing but smiles for Jacques and Sally.

I never let his slick-tongued accent get to me, or let her eyes tell me our story

together wasn’t done. It was always “how are you”, “that’s great”; I even laughed

at his stupid jokes and misuse of words.

   It wasn’t until one day at lunch that my efforts were rewarded. It came in a

way I would’ve never expected. It was during one of those few and far between

moments of silence at the lunch table when all the conversations and laughter had

some how burned themselves out. Johnny the Killer had no chauvinistic jokes,

   Brunno had no stuttering business math questions, Pick and Sam weren’t arguing

over Babe Ruth’s significance, the cheerleaders weren’t comparing their newly

acquired cancer-bed tan’s, and Roman wasn’t telling us of how all mammals have

the ability to hibernate if only the right genes were turned on in their DNA. The

only sound was hungry teenage mouths chewing food.

   I bit into the piece of pizza in front of me, scanning the round table for the

next potential speaker. I worked my way around counter clockwise, searching for

budding conversation in someone’s eyes. All were blank except for one. Frenchy

was already staring at me three seats away with some slanted-ass grin like he knew

something I didn’t. I felt my blood pressure rise until he spoke.

  “Tony?”

   “Yes Jacques,” I rolled the J sarcastically. It was habit now I guess.

   “I would like to make an offering of peace.”

   “And what would that be?”

   “I want you to take Sally to your spring dance.”

   “You mean Prom.”

   “Ah yes Prom.”

   “What the hell are you doing?” Sally objected.

   “You and Tony should go to Prom together. I’m only an underclassmen

and don’t know of such American customs.”

   “It’s just a dance,” Sally said.

   “I have been reading in your magazine called YM. It says that you will

remember Prom date for the rest of your life. That you should go with someone

that knows how to have a good time.”

   “You know how to have a good time,” Sally argued.

   “Yes but I don’t know the customs of Prom. You should go with Anthony,

   I mean Tony, because you have been friends for a long time, no? Besides he has

no date and you will be mine for a month in France.”

   “Thanks asshole for reminding me,” I whispered to myself.

   “I think it’s a great idea,” Heather cut in.

   “Why do I feel like I’m being pimped out?” Sally said.

IV

Washington D.C.

   Agent Johnson limped into the theater room and placed his hand on the

crystal palm mold. The reflected light coming from the surface of the room began

to darken, melting into the brown and black shadows of the hologram courtroom

he had visited so many times before. He couldn’t think of a time he had been less

anxious to talk to the Voice.

   The man known as the Voice sat atop his judge-like throne. Johnson could

see the man’s hands as they typed and pushed different buttons, but his face was

black and non-existent, tucked away behind shadows. There was a long silence—

longer than Johnson could ever remember—before the Voice spoke. And as much

as Johnson prepared himself for the deep thundering boom of the Voice’s speech,

it always seemed louder than the time before.

   Finally the Voice spoke. Johnson thought the words would vibrate right

through him. “By the looks of you Agent Johnson, would it be safe to surmise that

your apprehension of Roman Swivel has failed.”

   “It would be safe to surmise that, yes sir,” the agent responded.

   “Can we also assume that our satellite images are not lying to us, that

Swivel still lives?”

   “Yes sir.”

   “The last time you stood in front of me you said that Swivel might be

more powerful than we once thought. You said that you took him for granted the

first time and it wouldn’t happen again. What is your assessment of Swivel now?”

Johnson tried to choose his words wisely, both to protect Roman and

himself. “He is remarkable. But in talking to him I can tell you he has no interest

in our line of work. In all honesty sir, I had a gun to his face, and he would rather

me pull the trigger than be captured alive. He will never join us.”

   “I sense an uneasiness with you Agent Johnson. Rest assured that Swivel

will join us. There are ways around his reluctance. Our scientists have been

dabbling in a new technology that uses electromagnetic pulses to manipulate brain

chemistry. The three subjects we have experimented on so far have no recollection

of past events in their lives, they don’t know where they’re from, they don’t even

know what their names are. But their cognitive reasoning seems to be intact.”

   “With all due respect sir, I would like to be reassigned. I’m too close to

the situation and I’m afraid my judgment is suffering because of it.”

A long silence. And then the deep bass boomed again.

   “There is no need to batter yourself over the failure to eliminate Swivel.

We are after all protectors of the peace, not monsters. Your decision may have

been wise indeed. Keep in mind that America stands because of you and me.

America stands because of our sacrifice. Though it goes unnoticed it is a sacrifice

nonetheless. We cannot jeopardize the security of the nation for the mind of one

young man. I will however compromise with you, Agent Johnson. I am putting

Agent Stenworth in charge of the mission; you will accompany him and the other

Agents in apprehending our allusive ally.

   “Other Agents?”

   “I am sending every available Agent to assist with the mission. Though it

won’t be all of our manpower, it will ensure our success. It will also make things

less messy I suspect.”

   “Forgive me sir, but I have one request. Roman asked that he be able to at

least graduate. That’s less than a month from now.”

   “And if he runs?”

   “The satellites are recording his daily movements and I placed GPS tracers

on all of his belongings. Besides I don’t believe him to be a flight risk anymore.

He feels…he thinks that he is at home.”

   “So be it. The wait will give your wounds time to heal and time for us to

gather more available Agents. You are a good man, Agent Johnson. Godspeed on

your journey.”

V

   Sally was pissed at Frenchy for his so-called peace offering. I don’t think

she really minded going with me. She was angry because French Boy, even

though his intentions were good, was telling her he really didn’t care about going

with her to the Prom. Women hate rejection, maybe more than anything.

   I’d played it cool like it wasn’t a big deal. Truth was I was happy as hell.

I don’t put much stock in all the mushy bullshit about fate and destiny, but this did

feel right. We had come a long way since that day in Heather’s pool and while a

part of me would always want her, I was just content to be going with someone I

was close to. It sure would beat going stag like Jack and Brunno.

   I decided to do one more thing where Prom was concerned. When the

ballots were cast I voted for myself as Prom king. Maybe that’s unethical. Maybe

it was selfish. I didn’t give a shit. The crown was up for grabs these days with

Johnny the Killer losing his place on the mountaintop and who deserved it more

than me? I’d put in my time. I was a nice guy. People liked me. Why not reap

the benefits for once?

   Heather and Sally made all the Prom arrangements of course. Women

always love shit like that—the planning, the dress buying, the gushing over

jewelry, Saturdays at the mall. It would take them weeks to finalize something that

could’ve been done in a day. Let’s face it, they weren’t planning a wedding.

   That was fine with me and Roman. We had more important things to deal

with, like baseball and state tournaments. The regional started without Roman’s

healthy right arm, but we managed. We won the regional, demolishing each of the

three teams we played by the ten-run rule and without Roman ever taking the

mound. Johnny the Killer pitched in the third game and had an impressive

performance, giving up only two runs in seven innings and striking out seven.

Every person in the line up had an RBI, even Sam Peterman, and our defense was

close to perfect, committing only one error in that three-game span.

     Roman worked as hard and quick as he could at getting back; spending

time with the trainer everyday after school and throwing simulated games every

three days. He was scheduled to start sometime in the sectional. Roman had

another project going also, something that took him to Mr. Buttworst’s house every

evening.

    He wouldn’t elaborate on his nightly trips. It was only after my

questioning and begging that he let me come along. I drove us up there of course

and was surprised when Roman went into the good teacher’s garage instead of his

house. Things got stranger, not only did Roman hand me a shovel upon exiting the

garage, but I found myself following him through the forest behind Buttworst’s

house.

   The woods went on forever and it seemed that we walked every inch of it.

   “Is this like the fishing, because I’m getting good grades now? I really don’t need

another lesson.”

   “No lesson,” Roman responded.

   We stopped finally at the bottom of a hill. Spread out on the ground next

to a wheelbarrow and an ax, was a large tarp. Roman walked over and lifted it up.

Underneath it was a large hole that Roman had apparently been digging for the last

couple of weeks. It was probably twenty feet in circumference and five feet deep.

Not three feet in back of it was a large rock outcropping that formed a wall and

seemed to seal us off from the rest of the forest—a mountain in the middle of the

trees.

   “So what do we have here?” I asked.

   Roman somehow answered my question without answering it. “I’ve got it

wide enough, I just need it a couple feet deeper.”

   We took turns—one of us would scoop the dirt out of the pit, the other

would empty the wheelbarrow a hundred or so feet into the woods. It wasn’t the

easiest work in the world, but Roman seemed to be in no hurry. He scraped his

shovel, putting little effort into it, as if his persistence was more important than the

pressure of the spade.

   “Feels like we’re digging a giant grave,” I said and laughed.

   Roman didn’t crack a smile.

   “So me and Sally, what do you think?” I said as I returned with the empty

wheelbarrow.

    Roman was down in the pit. He stopped shoveling at my question, placing

his hands over the knob of the handle and resting his chin above them. He leaned

on the tool and stared up at me like I just asked him to explain a black hole.

   “Can I tell you something that’s been bothering me for about nine months

now?” Roman countered.

   “Sure.”

   “Every time you refer to yourself and another person you always put

yourself first.”

   “I don’t understand,” I said.

   “For instance, you said ‘me and Sally’.”

   “Yeah. So?”

   “You should say ‘Sally and I’.”

   “What’s the difference?” I really didn’t get it.

   “It’s just correct English. If you and someone else are the subject of a

sentence you should say ‘so-and-so and I’. If you’re the object of a sentence you

should say ‘so-and-so and me’. But you should always refer to yourself last,”

Roman said.

   “Sorry, not everybody has the luxury of your brain.”

   “I didn’t mean it like that.”

   “Yeah whatever,” I muttered, as much to myself as to him.

Roman laughed.

   “So anyway, Sally and I, what do you think?”

   “It doesn’t matter what I think. What do you think?”

   Roman was a master of sidestepping questions. No matter how many

times he gave me a question as a response, no matter how many times I knew it

was coming, I always fell for it. “I don’t know what I think. I used to think she

was just some hot girl I was lucky enough to mess around with. I never thought

about her much past that. Now though it’s like everywhere I look she’s there.

Every time I turn on the radio the song playing reminds me of her. I know it’s

corny as hell.”

   “Why? You’re human aren’t you? Even the toughest guys have feelings,

right?”

   “Yeah. I don’t know. I’m not the type to open the car door for a girl, or

send her cheesy-ass love notes, or go to dinner and a movie. I’d rather kick

somebody’s ass on the baseball field and then go drink beer with the guys.”

   Roman threw another shovel load of dirt over his shoulder out of the pit

and next to my feet. He continued to work as he talked. “Look you’re asking the

wrong guy about women. I’ve only been with one you know? The best advice

I’ve ever gotten was from you actually. You stood in my doorway a couple of

days before Christmas. I believe you said I was pretty fucking stupid for a genius.

Something to the effect that you weren’t going to waste your senior year watching

me waste my life. It’s the same thing with love, isn’t it? You can be scared of it or

ignore it, but in the end it’s still there.”

   “Love,” I said out loud. “It can’t be. Where did I screw up?”

VI

    We hosted the sectional at Collingston Stadium and walked through all

three games of it. Roman pitched in the sectional championship—his first game

back—and threw a shutout against a team that averaged seven runs a game. His

velocity was back to a hundred percent, and though it took a couple of innings to

regain his pinpoint accuracy, Roman had the game in hand when he stepped on the

mound.

   The city of Collingston came out in droves. Five thousand-plus fans

packed the stands—a record to this day that has not been broken. It was to support

their local high school to some degree, but mostly I think it was because of

Roman. They wanted to be a part of the things he could do, to watch him turn

throwing a little white ball into pure magic. And maybe it was more than just his

pitching. Maybe it was to see a skinny kid with long arms defy logic, defy nature.

Maybe it was just to be around that aura of his—the intangible element some

people had in them that granddad called the spark of life.

   The scouts came crawling back as well. Most of them had written Roman

off as damaged goods when he injured his arm and now they were babbling

excuses to Coach Demera on the whys and wherefores of the their absences.

Demara, of course, no matter how stupid he thought they were, was always polite

and cooperative, never ruining Roman’s chances for stardom. Roman brushed

them off as he always had, never committing verbally or otherwise to any one

team. He did commit to one thing however, not to a scout or coach, but to

Heather. He filled out the necessary paper work to enroll at Northwestern along

side her.

   It was getting down to crunch time for me as well. Most colleges were out

of money that late in the spring. And while a couple of schools wanted me to

come and walk on, I took my chances that someone would see me in the right place

at the right time.

   School wound down for us. The last day for seniors was the day before our

super-sectional game in Mattoon. I’d spent twelve years—counting grade

school—wishing, hoping, and planning a way to get out of prison, to escape the

boredom. I remembered how several teachers the first day of that school year

commented on how this would be the best year of my life. I remember how stupid

I thought they were for saying it. As I sat at lunch that final time, I looked around

at the people, and thought of the many memories we shared that had come to be a

part of my life, and at that moment I knew what the prison guards meant. I knew

that things would never be the same, that our round table would vanish into

history, and some new group of seniors would take our place. I sat there when the

bell rang for lunch to end, watching as my friends gathered their bags and books

one last time. I waited until I was alone in that vast cafeteria and I tried to get one

final breath of it all, holding back the lump in my throat. I finally got it. It wasn’t

about the building, or the walls, or the classes. It was about faces. About friends.

   In Mattoon we walked through the super-sectional. Roman threw another

shutout in the championship and then Johnny the Killer won the first game by two

runs. The unlikely pair had become a rather formidable one-two punch. I drove in

seven RBIs in those two games. We turned ten double plays, hit .420 as a team,

and committed no errors. Sam Peterman struck out five times.

   After the game Coach Demera played off the wins, stating that everything

we had done up until now meant jack shit. Yes, there were only four teams left in

the state, and our season would be one for the Silver Streak record books. But

people don’t remember who made the final four; they only remember the

champion. Two games left. Two games that Coach Demera had spent his entire

career waiting for. Two games that would either make the Silver Streaks immortal

or allow them to fade into the background of history.

    We loaded the bus for Chicago on a Wednesday morning. The school

district sent five fan buses for students and fans. A good thousand other people

came on their own, car pooling and driving the three-hour trip north.

Johnny the Killer started the first game against Jefferson South. Roman

had thrown two days earlier and was not fully rested, although he begged for coach

to start him. But as important as the state championship was to Demera, he would

not risk hurting someone’s arm over it, especially if it was worth potentially

millions of dollars.

   Johnny threw about as well as one could hope for, but Jefferson South

could hit. By the fifth inning the score was tied at threes and Johnny was starting

to leave the ball up in the zone. He got out of the inning luckily. Jefferson South

hit a scorching line drive up the middle that would have scored two runs if it

weren’t for Pick Bryant making an extraordinary diving catch.

   Roman went to the pen on his own during our at bat in the bottom of fifth.

Despite Demera’s reluctance, there was no way he could keep Roman out of the

game. Coach never told Roman to take the mound in the sixth, he just did it.

When Demera saw that Johnny had taken his spot at first, he had no choice but to

make the lineup change with the umpire. Roman didn’t get a strikeout in those two

innings, but Jefferson South did not reach base either.

   In the bottom of the seventh, in a tie game with two outs and nobody on, I

hit a solo walk-off home run. I knew it was gone as soon as I connected with it

and to this day I can’t remember anything feeling so good.

  One game left.

   It was as close to baseball weather as you could get—76 degrees with a

slight breeze out of the southwest, and not a cloud in the sky. Every seat in the

stadium was filled, and the crowd overflowed down the fences of both foul lines.

Both teams lined up down the baselines and faced the flag in center field. You

knew it wasn’t just another game when butterflies started in your stomach during

the playing of the national anthem. You knew this one was special.

   Our opponent was the Philastro Park Yellow Jackets, a Chicago area

powerhouse that had won twelve state titles over the years, and boasted a 30-1

record coming into the game. Corey Hambrick was their ace, a six-five righty that

threw near ninety, and had his own cult following of scouts.

   Roman struck out the side in the top half of the first. Hambrick matched

him in the bottom. Even though we had our fans they paled in comparison to those

from Philastro Park. Chicagoland came out to support them, to ensure that a

downstate team would not be crowned champion. As the game went on and

Hambrick and Roman threw zero after zero up on the scoreboard, I could see a

slow change in the hostile crowd. They probably didn’t think much of Roman’s

skinny six-foot frame at first when compared to Hambrick. But when the janitor

crafted his flawless first four innings the crowd began to cheer for what they

viewed as the underdog. After six innings, the game was scoreless.

   In the seventh, with Johnny the Killer on second and two outs, Sam

Peterman came to the plate. Demera wanted to pinch-hit for him—I could see it in

his eyes—and so did the rest of the team. Peterman was 0 for his last 15 at bats,

and had struck ten times. Demera stayed with him for some reason—one of those

coaching moves that seem to go against all logic and reason. With two strikes

Peterman doubled to the right center gap, scoring Johnny and giving us the lead.

   Pick Bryant grounded out the next at bat but we were now three outs away from

the state title.

   The leadoff hitter for the Yellow Jackets got a little duck snort—that’s a

blooper to you—over Scotty Jakowski’s head at second. Roman made a real nice

pitch on the outer part of the plate. The hitter stuck his ass out with some excuseme

swing and accidentally made contact. The next batter bunted him over but we

got the out at first. One out, man on second. Roman sawed batter number three

off at the handle, but the ball rolled down the first base line, stopping halfway up it.

Neither Roman nor Johnny had a play on it and the runner was safe at first. One

out, runners on first and third. Coach Demera called time and brought the entire

infield to the mound.

   “Look, no problem here. There’s one out and we’re going keep the double

play in order. If they steal we’re going to throw through. The guy at first is an

average runner. You can throw him out no problem Tony. We’re one pitch away

here. The pressure is on them.”

   Roman threw the fist pitch to the batter as the runner on first stole. The

batter swung but missed, and I caught and fired to second in one motion. The

throw was right on target. Pick caught it right above the bag, swiped a nice hard

tag on the runner’s feet—but the umpire called him safe.

   Demera shot out on to the field faster than anybody ran that entire game. In

a second he was in the umpire’s face arguing the call. The umpire claimed the

runner beat the tag, and there was no way he was changing the call. Demera

commented on how poor his eyesight was, among other things, and continued for a

solid five minutes. The umpire listened to more than he should have probably—a

sign that he knew he blew the call. Demera finally left the field after the other

three umpires escorted him off. Coach gave the choke sign, which wasn’t for the

umpire but for us. A signal for the infield to play in on the grass. There was one

out, runners on second and third. The play was at home.

   Roman struck out the next batter on four pitches.

   One out away.

    Roman got two strikes on batter number five of that inning.

    One strike away.

   It was their nine-hole hitter who had struck out his previous at bats and

had a relatively weak swing. I called for a high inside fastball, something out of

the zone, which the batter had no chance of touching at ninety-plus miles per hour.

Roman delivered the pitch right where I wanted it. The batter took a tomahawk

swing at it and somehow made contact. The ball rolled at average speed on the

right side of the diamond. Johnny dove for it and missed. Scotty dove in the other

direction and missed. The Yellow Jackets couldn’t have rolled the ball out in a

better spot. The baseball had eyes. The runner at third scored easily, tying the

game.

    The ball rolled into right field as Sam Peterman charged it. The runner

from second (the winning run) was now rounding third. Peterman fielded the ball

cleanly; crow hopped, and threw a frozen rope for me at home. The runner was

five feet away from home plate.

   The ball took one bounce into my mitt.

   I applied a hard tag to his chest as his feet slid into my shin guards.

   I knew I had beaten him to the plate.

   There was a collision. We fell over each other.

   A hush was over the entire stadium.

 “Safe!” the umpire yelled.

   Safe? How could he be safe? As I lay in the dirt I looked to my right. The

ball was in the dirt next to my mitt. We had just lost the state title.

VII

   I slept for over twenty fours. My mind could not bear to exist in reality, to

replay that ball popping out of my mitt. Mom said Roman had been by the house

three times already, wanting to make sure I was all right. And I would be

eventually. What was it that Roman said? Time doesn’t heal all things, it only

dulls the pain.

   After the collision at the plate everything was sort of blurry, surreal like a

dream. I remember Roman picking me up out of the dirt. I remember listening to

Coach Demera’s post game speech and thinking how ironic it was that every game

we won during the year he had something negative to say, but now that we’d lost

the most important game of our lives and of his career, he was nothing but

positive. He talked of what a team we were, of how proud he was of us, of how he

would never forget us.

   I remember nothing of the bus ride home, or the reception they had for us

when we got back to town. I was a zombie, too afraid to come back to the real

world because I knew what would be waiting for me there. I thought maybe if I

stayed in bed long enough, maybe I would just wither up and die.

   It took a phone call from a man I barely knew to jump-start my rise out of

depression. My mother brought the cordless phone in and held it to the pillow

covering my head. After arguing several minutes about whether I was going to be

speaking on the phone, my mother won as usual.

   “Hello.”

   “Hi Tony, Coach Blaylock from Collingston Community College. I just

wanted to call and see how you were doing. I was at the game yesterday. Tough

break.”

   “Oh, yeah sorry you had to witness that.”

   “There’s nothing to be sorry about Tony. One play doesn’t make a ball

player. Nor does it break a ball player. We’d like to offer you a full tuition waiver

if you’re interested in playing for us. I know you have a lot on your mind with

graduation and all. Take your time and get back to me whenever you can.”

   “Thanks Coach, I really appreciate it.”

   I hung up the phone to see Roman standing in my doorway. He was

wearing a black tux and his hair was slicked back in a way I’d never seen it. My

friend the former janitor was all of the sudden James Bond.

   “What time is it anyway?” I asked.

   “Time for you to get your sorry carcass out of bed and get ready. We’re

supposed to meet the girls in forty minutes.”

   It was Prom night.

VIII

    Sally was absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. She had on a blue dress—that

exact same shade as her eyes—and wore her hair up in some fancy style. The

diamond necklace made her neck irresistible.

   Heather wore a white dress that glittered every time it touched a spec of

light. The material stuck to her like an hourglass. She wore her hair down—

because that’s the way Roman liked it—and her lips were glazed light pink.

   We ate at Santangilo’s—just like we did for Homecoming. Last time I

had to sit and listen to Johnny the Killer and act like I wasn’t bored. This time I

had my best friend as my wingman, but I still couldn’t get into the party mood. I

just nibbled at my food. My stomach still wasn’t ready to feel happy yet. For the

first time in the history of meals the ladies put up a better effort than me.

   The dance was at the Collingston Country Club, a step up from the high

school fieldhouse. Our class had raised enough money to host the dance at the

expensive banquet hall. Three giant chandeliers cast a soft light over the ballroom

and the floor sparkled with silver glitter. The walls were decorated with white

satin sheets that had vine branches interwoven every so often with red roses. Fifty

or so round tables draped in white sat in the back next to the punch fountain and

snacks. The ballroom floor was located in the middle of the room and a stage was

set up for the DJ and emcee on the far side, across the room from the entrance.

   Sally was as nice to me as she had been in months, seducing me—on

purpose or not—with her eyes. It all went by the wayside though. I just kept

reliving the play at the plate. I kept thinking of how many lives I’d ruined just

because I couldn’t hold on to the stupid ball.

  There would be six or seven songs that played before the emcee, Mr.

Buttworst, was ready to announce the king and queen. Sally begged me to come

dance, but I refused. I sat at one of the tables and sipped the tart punch, aimlessly

watching the people dance. Seeing Roman try to fast dance did bring a brief smile

to my face.

   Mr. Buttworst stepped to the mic at the end of the last song. “All right

ladies and gentlemen. We want to thank you for coming tonight and wish

everyone a safe time. The faculty wants to remind you to play it safe tonight and

avoid any alcohol.” There were a few boos in the crowd to this. I could see

Brunno with his hands cupped around his mouth.

   “And now let’s get down to business.” A student handed Mr. Buttworst

an envelope and he tore it open. He didn’t look right in a Tuxedo but he played the

master of ceremonies to a tee. “This year’s Prom queen is none other than Heather

Hawthorne.”

   Big surprise there. Heather walked up and last year’s Prom queen came to

meet her on the stage and put the crown on Heather’s head.

Another envelope and Mr. Buttworst had to look from beneath his bifocals

at what its contents read. “Interesting. This might be the closest vote we’ve ever

had. This year’s Prom king by one vote…is Tony Falcone.”

   I didn’t realize he’d called my name until Pick nudged me so hard I almost

fell out of my seat. I walked up to the stage, looking around at the people in

disbelief. I walked up the stairs and whispered to Mr. Buttworst. “Who came in

second?”

   Mr. Buttworst had a half smile, half frown on his face. He mouthed the

person’s name.

  “Unbelievable,” I said to myself.

   They sat the crown on my head as clapping and cheering came from the

students on the dance floor. The people in the back even stood up from the tables

and gave me an ovation that lasted a lot longer than it should have. They should

have been booing me for loosing the state championship.

   “Here is your king and…”

   I put my hand over the mic. “There’s something I need to say,” I told Mr.

Buttworst.

   “Tony would like to say a few words.” Mr. Buttworst handed me the

microphone.

   “There’s not too many times that a person has the power to do the right

thing. Well, tonight I do have the power. And I want to recognize someone that’s

been makin’ things right for a lot of people over the last nine months. Someone

who has done more for me than he will ever know. I beat this person by one vote

for this crown. I’d like to change my vote. Roman Swivel, please come up and get

your crown so you can dance with your queen.”

   Roman walked reluctantly up the stage stairs as the crowd went hysterical.

I shook his hand and put the crown on his head. His cheeks were flushed from

embarrassment. I leaned toward his ear. “It feels good to finally catch you off

guard for once.”

   “It only took you nine months,” Roman said and laughed.

   Heather and Roman owned the dance floor for that first song, as Faith Hill

and Tim McGraw’s It’s Your Love” flowed through the speakers. Sally and I

joined them at the end. Thirty seconds later there was no place left on the dance

floor.

   Sally pulled me off the floor and led me outside. She didn’t say a word as

we walked through the parking lot. “Where are we going?”

   “I want to show you something.”

   Our journey continued onto the golf course, past the first two holes. We

stopped at number four green and now I found myself lying on my back looking at

the stars. Sally undid my pants and pulled them to my ankles. “What are you

doing?”

   “Something we should’ve done a long time ago.”

   “I didn’t bring any condoms if you can believe it. I didn’t think with

Frenchy and all in the picture, that I would have a chance.”

   Sally reached in her purse. “Don’t worry I did bring condoms and what

Jacques doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

   Sally ripped open the condom package with her teeth, clothed the

necessary participant, and straddled me. I now knew what people meant by the

phrase “emotional rollercoaster.” Finally. Finally.

   Not twenty seconds into it, water started belting us from the golf course

sprinklers. We both laughed until we heard the electric engine of a golf cart

getting closer. “Who’s out there?” A voice yelled.

Sally jumped off me and ran with her high heels in hand.

   I took off with my pants around my ankles, tripping over the sand trap,

and running for dear life.

IX

    Johnny the Killer stood at the backdoor to the banquet hall, sipping out of

a silver flask. Sally ran by him laughing with mascara running down the sides of

her face and water drops all over her dress. I was drenched and sand blasted.

   “What the hell happened to you two?” Johnny asked.

   “Let’s just say we hit the showers a little too early,” I responded.

   “Want a nip?” Johnny held out the flask.

   “What is it?”

   “John Daniel’s.”

   “You mean Jack Daniel’s.”

   “If you know him as well I do, you call him John.”

   We both laughed. “Nah, I don’t want any.”

   “Suit yourself,” Johnny said throwing back another swig. “Ya know there

was a time that I thought I would never be able to face the crowd again. After

Swivel beat my ass that night in the Hollow, I prayed that God would just let me

die. Things always seem worse when they’re in the moment. Looking back on it,

that ass beating did me a favor. You’re a good ball player Tone, the best I’ve ever

played with. You can’t put us losing that game on your shoulders alone. We all

had opportunities to do something. We could’ve scored more runs. Swivel could

have struck the guy out. The piece of shit umpire could’ve not blown the fuckin’

call. What’s coach say? The great ones dust themselves off and try it again. You

better get to dustin’.”

   “Thanks Johnny. I appreciate it. Maybe I will have just a swig.”

Johnny handed over the flask.

   The whiskey burned going down.

X

    Post Prom was at none other than Scotty Jakowski’s house. You guessed

it—his parents were out of town. Even though graduation was tomorrow Mr. and

Mrs. Jakowski made a short overnight trip to Indianapolis for a little party of their

own. Prom dance was just the appetizer really. The post party was what everyone

looked forward to.

   Scotty came through with flying colors, keeping intact his impeccable

reputation as the greatest host of all time. I imagine a lot of that had to do with his

uncanny ability to provide loads of alcohol. He really outdid himself this time—

three kegs, and bottle after bottle of hard shit.

   I found myself starting on the second pint of Jack Daniel’s around

midnight. I stood (more like swayed) in a circle of about ten of us. I remember

hearing nostalgic stories—bits of history that would never fully die in the minds of

our group. My head was spinning now and it wouldn’t be long until I passed out.

I saw Heather and Roman walk off toward the stairs to the boat dock. It wasn’t

long after that Sally came and got me.

   “Should I take you home, Tony?” Sally asked.

   “Why not?” I walked with her to the driveway.

   It was the last thing I remember.

XI

   Roman rowed the last couple of strokes until he was satisfied that they

were in the middle of the lake. Heather turned around and leaned back against

him, his arms around her and her hands on top of his where they rested on her

stomach. She looked up at the stars and thought how clear the night was.

   “Well, where are they?” she asked.

   “You have to have patience, remember?”

   “I forgot.” Heather said and then changed the subject. “Do you have your

speech ready for tomorrow?”

   “Right here.” Roman pointed to his head.

   “I was thinking on the way over here, what kind of idiot schedules

graduation the day after Prom? Half these people will never make it up in

time,” Heather said.

   “Sounds like something Hartman would do. To try and take the fun out of

the dance.”

   “Probably was that asshole. Remember how pissed he got when you

played “Here Comes Santa Claus” as he walked down the auditorium aisle?”

   “I remember when he tried to walk up onto the stage and bounced off a

barricade named Boss Chatterling,” Roman laughed.

   Heather turned her head and kissed Roman. She pulled away as if

something had just barged into her mind. “Roman.” Heather turned around and

faced him, taking both of his hands.

   “Yes?”

   “Let’s run away. Graduation is just a formality anyway. Let’s just pack

up what we have at your house and go and disappear. Let’s just drive all night and

wherever we end up, we end up. Leave all this NN stuff behind us.”

   “I can’t expect you to leave your life for me. To lose your family and

friends. And what about school? I can’t take the place of your dreams.”

   “You are my dreams, Roman. Isn’t that what two people that love each

other do anyway? Don’t they give up everything in the world for each other?”

   “Say we run. And then what? Are we going to have a family and careers

only to be looking over our shoulder every second to see if Agent Johnson is

behind us? To pack up and leave at a second’s notice? It’s no way to live a life,

and I would never put a family through it. I have to fight them if I want my

freedom.”

   “Does that mean kill them?”

   Roman looked at the sky. The stars twinkled, looking almost as if they

were winking. “I don’t know what it means. I don’t know.”

Heather turned around and lay back against his stomach. The boat moved

side to side, almost tipping over. Heather laughed. “Do you think we could do it

in this boat.”

   Roman thought about. “There’s only one way to find out."

   Roman kissed her neck.

   Above that boat, in the middle of the lake, stood the bright speckled

background of outer space. A flash of light split the black backdrop from horizon

to horizon. It was a single comet streaking across the sky, fading as quickly as it

had sparked.

 

 

           


 

 

 

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