Chapter One

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I stepped off the pitching rubber and ground my cleats into the dirt mound like it was the face of my worst enemy. But, all I needed was a good mirror to find the real bad guy.

 The tangy smell of fresh-cut grass mingled with the rich odors of hot, buttered popcorn and moist, tilled earth drifted on a subtle breeze. Sunlight, just strong enough to warm my face but not make me sweat, filtered down between a few lonely clouds. The first insects of spring buzzed around my ears. Although I’d blocked most of the distractions to a distant part of my mind, the chant of my name coming from the crowd in increasingly insistent, pulsing waves of sound created a different kind of buzzing in my stomach.

My closest friends—both eager and nervous—cheered for me, and I recalled a line from a Robert Frost poem I’d read before the game:

Not far, but near, I stood and saw it all.

This was a perfect moment, on a perfect day.Yet, I knew the dark cloud that had followed me most of my life was still there, waiting to unleash one hell of a storm.

I slapped my mitt against my thigh. Fuck me.

My concentration slipped. The excited hum of the stadium turned into a calamity of voices.

“Time!” The umpire’s bellow cut through the racket.

I crammed the baseball back into my mitt, glared at the sky, and waited for the pointless intervention. My mind was made up. This would be my moment of inglorious failure, my final act of defiance. I felt relieved.

Junkyard would be the first one out to see what the hell was going on inside my head. Every good catcher was Freud to his pitcher’s crazy, and Junk was a damn good catcher.

When I finally lowered my gaze, Junk trotted toward me in that awkward badger-like gait only catchers could master. Oddly enough, Junkyard kind of looked like a badger, too. He had compact, bowed limbs and a constant, fierce sneer plastered on his face. With his gear on, I wagered he was as wide as he was tall. He also sported a bleached yellow faux-hawk—a terrible look for a man as consumed with courting the opposite sex as Junk was. But Junk didn’t give a shit, and that was why we got along.

Junk stopped at what I was sure he deemed a safe, manly distance away from me. He spat a few sunflower seeds onto the mound. I could feel his earthy, brown eyes searching my face for clues.

 “Hawk,” he said at last.

My nickname sounded as familiar to my ears as my own name. I touched the bill of my cap in reply. He smiled, revealing the gap between his two front teeth I’d gotten so accustomed to seeing over the years.

“You’re thinking about all the tang we’re going to get back at school when they hear we’re going to the championship, right?”

I took off my hat and brushed away some imaginary sweat on my forehead with the back of my glove. The leather was velvety smooth from constant use. The hide was a thicker version of my own skin, something I’d always envied.

“Not exactly,” I said.

He nodded as if he could read my mind. I doubted he’d be so hopeful if he could. The pages in my head were filled with dark deeds and wicked thoughts. I’d once called my dying mother a bitch because she didn’t let me get a letter jacket like the rest of the guys on the team had. Granted, sixteen year-old me hadn’t known how expensive chemo was, but I wasn’t expecting a get out of bad luck free pass from the karma police to show in my inbox anytime soon.

“You’re nervous, I get that. You’re running a perfect game—that’d make any pitcher sack-up. We’re up one to nothing, and all you need to do is throw two strikes to get us to the show.” He slapped me on the shoulder and shifted his weight from foot to foot in a near-prance. “The fucking show, Ernie.”

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