A bright sun shined in the sky but was obscured by a thick cloud cover. The players’ clothing was sticking to their bodies and the air was heavy and difficult to breathe. Dan breathed in slowly and sighed lightly after making each warm up throw. His warm up partner Joe threw the ball into the ground and it skipped by him. Dan shook his head and turned around slowly to get it. After trotting over to where the ball had stopped rolling Dan snapped it up with his glove and jogged back to his throwing position. Dan thought Joe was a goofball. There was something he couldn’t stand about his fun-loving nature. The baseballs were snapping into the gloves across the outfield. Dan’s movements were wiry and sharp and matched his features. He and his team were warming up for a Saturday practice and had five days until their next game. The boys finished their warm up throwing and Joe jogged over to Dan.
“Good toss, Dan-O. Nice and warmed up, man? Ready to go?” Everyone on the team had a nickname. The boys had been together their entire lives and had grown up playing baseball. Twelve seniors were on the team and they knew almost everything about each other.
“It only took a hundred throws to get you warmed up,” replied Dan. He chuckled a little bit and looked sharply at Joe.
“It, uh. always takes me a lot of time. I need a lot of throws,” said Joe.
“I’m aware of this,” said Dan.
They tapped gloves and jogged over to the bench where the rest of the team was waiting for them. Every day they were the last to finish throwing and every day the team waited for them.
“Gather round guys. I know it’s only Saturday but we have to work hard.” said Coach Gates. “Take this practice time to get better today. Our next game isn’t until Thursday but I’m telling you they’re going to be ready for us. This is a big game on their calendar too. Come on, guys. Work hard today. Everyone bring it in.”
The players gathered around, and put their hands in. “Go Wildcats on three,” said the coach. The team yelled and dispersed to their practice stations. Joe and Dan began jogging lightly to the outfield.
“You ready for some fly balls?” asked Joe.
“Sure,” said Dan.
“He’s always the quiet one, man. Dan-O is stealthy and quiet,” said Smitty. “Gotta watch out for the quiet ones.” All the outfielders laughed except one. Towards the back of the group Dan tried to laugh but just didn’t have it in him.
“What’s wrong, Dan-O?” asked Joe.
Thinking he had done a good job of laying low Dan looked at him in surprise.
“I’m fine you dumb ass. Just keep jogging,” said Dan. Joe just kept jogging and they took some fly balls. The baseball was traveling high and far. The outfielders ran down one after another and caught them with two hands. They fired the ball back into the catcher who flipped it to an assistant coach.
Afterwards the outfielders ran to the hitting cage behind the backstop.
“I’m gonna throw you some spinners, guys. You gotta be ready for them. I’m not going to tell you when they’re coming. This team is going to throw a lot of them at us,” said coach Gates.
Dan was the first one in. He cracked the first few curve balls hard, right back at the L-Screen. The next pitch was a hard fast ball on the inside corner of the plate. He swung hard and fought it off. The coach threw him the same pitch and he swung and missed at it.
“Come on, Dan-O. You’ll break out of this slump. Let’s start right now,” said Coach Gates.
Dan missed again and stepped out of the cage.
“What’s wrong, Dan?” asked Joe.
“You don’t talk much,” said Joe.
“You talk too much,” replied Dan.
They continued on with hitting practice and finished a half hour later. They gathered together for a water break and started talking.
“Guys, I got some good news,” said Joe.
“You, good news? You never have good news,” said Dan jokingly. The group laughed and Joe just looked away from them.
“I got an open house tonight.”
“Oh shit,” said Smitty. “Party at J’s, man. Party at J’s.” Everyone laughed and there was a small commotion. Dan stared at the grass and towards the field.
“What’s wrong, Dan-O, you don’t like to drink?” asked Smitty.
“I like to drink,” said Dan. He let out a light sigh and fixed his cap.
“I’m in like Flynn,” said another friend named Big D.
“I’m all in boys. It’s gonna be a ripper,” said Smitty.
By the end of practice everyone knew about the party. Even some of their friends who weren’t on the team knew about it from having passed by the field. As they were walking away Joe caught up to Dan. He was wearing headphones and the music was loud. The beat was slow and methodical and the voice was vehement. His words were crisp and incisive. After being tapped on the shoulder Dan turned around sharply. He removed one ear phone.
“What’s up?” asked Dan.
“So, you comin ova tonight?” asked Joe.
“Sure,” said Dan. “Don’t have anything else to do,” he said glumly.
* * *
Big D was able to secure a couple thirty racks and handles from his older sister in college, Smitty made all the phone calls, and Joe prepared the house. Joe gathered all the most fragile items and put them in his parents room upstairs. The cats were put in a room with their food and the door was locked. Their friend Francis burned some mix CD’s from the internet and Joe had them ready in the six disk sound system. Beer was stacked in neat rows in every section of the refrigerator and all the food had been stuffed into the very back. The frozen food had also been moved from the upstairs freezer to the downstairs one and it was replaced with handles.
Joe lived on a residential street where the houses were several hundred yards apart and the neighbors didn’t talk much to each other. His driveway was filled with cars by 8:30. The music was blasting and everyone was drinking. The kids could feel the deep bass notes from the stereo system pounding in their chests. Some of them were dancing and moving to the beat. Shots were being passed around and the beirut table was already occupied by a couple of teams. A list was made and placed on the side of the table; Joe and Dan were at the bottom of it.
“When you gettin on that ruit table, Dan-O?” Smitty yelled over the music.
“I dunno.” Dan took a long drink of Rum and everyone cheered as they watched the liquor slowly move out of the bottle. When he came up for air everyone yelled even louder and cheered.
“Full moon tonight, boys! You know what that means,” yelled Smitty.
Everyone started laughing. “What’s it mean, Dog?” asked Big D.
“Some crazy shit’s goin down. Like me knockin down that last red cup to win this game.”
Smitty took the ping pong ball, lofted a long shot across the table, and drilled it. The place erupted in cheers and laughter. The player on the other team shrugged and then laughed. He picked up the cup and downed it quickly.
“Pretty crazy, huh big Dawg?” said Big D to Dan.
“Sure,” he said. Looking at the red cups he stared blankly at the kitchen drawer. He took a long swig of his handle and walked to the other room. Joe crossed his path.
“What’s wrong?” asked Joe. “You wanna talk?”
“I fuckin told you already. I don’t wanna talk about anything.”
“Oh, um. Sorry,” said Joe. He walked out of the kitchen and went into the dining room where a group of people were hanging out.
As the night went on the party got louder. Eventually almost everyone was in the basement. Dan was towards the back of the group. He looked at his black shoes and then at the moon through the rectangular basement window. A big crowd was standing around a table playing flip cup with a few rows of people surrounding them. Dan took a step back and slowly moved away from the group.
“Where you going, Dan-O?” asked Smitty.
He jumped slightly and looked away. “Just gettin some fresh air.”
Smitty looked at him for a second. “Okay, come back soon.”
Dan could barely nod his head and dragged his feet. It felt like he was wearing cement shoes and each step seemed higher than the next. He walked into the kitchen and checked to see if anyone was there. Dan was alone and opened the drawer. He looked around once more. Several knives were sitting in neat rows but he opted for a pair of scissors. With the scissor in hand he made his way to the front door.
“Hey, Dan-O. What are you up to?” asked his friend Jamna.
“Just getting some air,” he said.
“Okay. Come back soon.”
Not a word was spoken. He swung the door open, pushed the screen away, and stepped into the night. Dan looked up at the bright full moon. Dim moonlight cast a pale shadow over the lawns. Trees were stretching as high as the heavens and the grass was thick and pulled at his feet as he walked away from the house. The bushes were trembling slightly in the breeze. Tears came into his eyes as he lifted his sleeve. He brought the scissor to his arm, looked away, and ran the blade down his skin creating a long cut. Dan was shivering in the wind while blood trickled down his arm, off his fingers, and dripped to the ground. He took a few steps and held the scissor firmly. Step by step he made his way slowly to the top of the hill further and further from the house. He was several hundred feet away.
“DAN!” yelled Smitty. “DAN! Where the hell are you?!!” Dan looked back towards the house and could see some figures in the moonlight. Smitty and Joe were outside.
“Dan, come back!” yelled Joe. Smitty and Joe looked around the house. Dan watched them walking out into the night. Finally they spotted Dan’s silhouette and immediately took off in a full sprint. He felt compelled to run but his legs were flimsy and he dropped in a heap. He began hyper-ventilating and crying and held fast to the scissor. By the time Joe and Smitty arrived his shirt was stained red. Turning away from them he attempted getting up but fell back down. They jumped on him and wrestled the scissor out of his hand. Smitty threw it as far off into the woods as he could.
“What did you do, man?” asked Smitty.
“I just. I can’t take it anymore!!!!” yelled Dan. He was crying and yelling at the same time. While sobbing and doubling over he gasped for air.
“We have to get you to the hospital.”
* * *
Several days later, Dan was sitting in a chair outside the office of his new psychiatrist. The walls were painted a light tan. His chair was comfortable and he didn’t feel like moving. His long sleeves pressed against his forearms and his cut still caused him some pain. The office door creaked open and a tall figure stepped into the hallway. He motioned for Dan to come in.
“Hi, I’m Dr. James. Come on in.”
Dan didn’t say a word. He slowly raised himself from his chair and dragged his feet into the office. The doc swung the door shut quietly.
“Have a seat,” he said.
Dan sat down in the chair nearest the door, crossed his arms and legs, and leaned back as far as he could.
“I–”. Dr. James was cut off.
“I have nothing to say to you,” said Dan.
Dr. James’ facial expression remained calm and he looked across at Dan. “I know it can be difficult to talk sometimes, but it can be really helpful.”
Dan still hadn’t said anything. He looked at the clock with the intention of having the doctor notice.
“I’ve helped a lot of people,” said Dr. James.
“How the hell can you help me?”
“I’m a talk therapist,” said Dr. James lightly. “I help people by talking with them.”
“That’s a crock.”
“I’m here to help you,” said the Doctor.
“Why the hell would you want to help me?” asked Dan. “No one wants to help me. My life is awful.”
“Your folks wanted to help you,” said Dr. James. “They brought you here.”
“You don’t know my parents,” said Dan. He glared at the door out of the corner of his eyes.
“You’re right. I don’t.”
There was a long silence as Dan stared at the door and Dr. James collected his thoughts.
“Let’s talk about anything. Anything you want. Baseball, girls, TV.”
“This is pointless.”
“You’re a baseball player, aren’t you?”
“I’ve heard you’re one of the starters,” said Dr. James. “Isn’t the team pretty good?”
“They don’t God damn need me. They just act like they need me.”
“Your folks said your friends were really concerned for you. A bunch of them have reached out I’ve heard.”
“So what?” Dan said defiantly. He looked at the doctor. “It’s not going to fix anything.”
“What is it you would like to fix?”
“Everything, my life is awful. My parents are awful, I don’t have a girlfriend, I’m always depressed. I am always friggin depressed and I have no idea why.” As Dan spoke his last words tears ran down his face. He hunched over and put his head in his hands. “I don’t know why?!!” he said.
Dr. James sat concernedly as Dan cried and sobbed. “Would you like some water?” asked the Doctor.
“I don’t want to talk about anything!” said Dan. “It doesn’t help.”
The doctor collected himself and spoke carefully. “Sometimes traveling West brings us East.”
Dan sniffled loudly and stopped his sobbing. “What the hell does that mean?”
The doctor handed him the tissue box. “It means talking and exploring our minds can bring us peace.”
Dan could hear his ears ringing from the silence. He took a kleenex and blew his nose. He stared at the floor for several minutes without saying a word. The clock ticked loudly and seemed to be the only thing Dan could hear. There were still thirty minutes left in their appointment. He wasn’t going anywhere.
“Everyone always expects things from me.” Dan paused and felt a lightness he hadn’t felt in years. It reminded him of his childhood but felt uncomfortable. “This feels strange. I feel really weird.”
“It’s always strange at first, but you’ll feel better.”
* * *
Dan had been out of school all week attending out-patient rehab and talking to his new therapist. No one was expecting him to attend the game, never mind play it. Twenty minutes before first pitch he crossed over the small stone bridge which separated the parking lot from the field. He was wearing his gray and blue uniform with long sleeves underneath. His friends were excited to see him cross the bridge with his bat over his shoulder and his glove attached to it. Dan walked slowly and methodically but had strength in his step. The team made an effort to greet him the same way they normally would. Some players did well while others were awkward and quiet. Dan was a little uneasy but he had a gleam in his eye.
“Okay, Dan-O, you ready to play today?” asked Coach Gates.
Dan nodded his assent and punched his fist into his glove.
“Go warm up with Joe. We got to get that arm ready. We’re glad to have you back, Dan.”
“Thanks, coach.” The coach put his arm on Dan’s shoulder and held him lightly.
“Just go out there and have some fun, Dan-O. Just play your game, man.”
Dan nodded and jogged over to the side of the field to warm up with Joe.
“You have some more throws in that arm, right J?” he asked.
“Yeah. I can always throw more,” said Joe.
Dan walked seventy feet away, turned, and fired the ball towards Joe. It hit his glove chest high and made a resounding pop. They warmed up until the coach called the team in.
“Okay guys, this is a big game. It’s going to decide a lot in the league but we’ve got these guys. We just need to play our game and stick together. Everyone bring it in now. Come on. WildCats on three!” The team yelled their chant and took the field.
A bright blue sky reigned over the diamond that day as the Wildcats took the field. The air was cool and a calm breeze swept lightly across the field from left center. It had rained that morning and the grass was greener than usual.
The game went back and forth during the first several innings. Their opponent took an early lead and kept it until the fifth inning. In the bottom of the inning the Wildcats came back and tied the game. After seven innings it was still tied and the coaches met at home plate to talk. Neither team wanted a draw because it meant they would both fall behind the Hornets. They decided on extra innings.
After three and a half innings of scoreless, extra inning baseball the game was still tied in the bottom of the eleventh. The sun was setting and darkness was creeping in. If they didn’t finish now, the game would be called a draw. There were two outs and the score was still tied.
Dan walked to the batter’s box with a bounce in his step. The pitcher was tall and strong and had been throwing harder than anyone the team had ever faced. His hat was tilted downwards casting a shadow over his eyes and he held his glove over the bottom of his face as he stared at his opponent. A black shadow fell behind the dark figure on the mound.
The first pitch was released and was heading straight for Dan. His knees buckled but the pitch turned in for a strike. The crowd groaned but recovered with supportive comments. He stepped out of the box to collect himself.
Dan tightened his batting gloves, straightened his helmet and dug his feet into the batter’s box.
The pitcher took the signal and began his windup. His left foot went back, then swung up towards his chest. He pivoted around his plant foot and mustered everything he had. A fastball went whizzing towards the inside of the plate.
Dan brought his hands inside and turned on the ball. A loud ‘whack’ resonated from home plate. The ball jumped off the bat like it was shot out of a cannon. It shot into the air, gaining altitude quickly. Both benches rose to watch. The ball nearly disappeared as it soared majestically through the sky of purples, pinks, and blues. Their left fielder stopped running but the ball kept going and sailed over the fence.
He yelled as loud as he could after he knew it was a home run and his friends mobbed him when he arrived at home plate. Joe was on the outside of the mob looking in.