by Anne Lu, Age 15, Canada
The January fiction prompt was “ball.”
“Ball four!” The umpire’s voice was lost amidst the wave of chaos erupting from the bleachers. The batter smirked along his stroll to first base, accompanied by cheers from his team. For Eric Sine, the applause jabbed at him more sharply than did the boos from his fans. The static noise complemented the numb ache in his shoulder and spirit. Worst of all, were the unfathomable blue eyes that glared at him from behind the batter’s box. Alphonse wanted another curveball. Eric eyed the batter, took a deep breath, and pitched.
“Foul!” The umpire threw his hands up, as if directing the symphony of jeers. Eric scowled at his catcher with an I-told-you-so look. After all these years, Alphonse should have known that a tired Eric and breaking pitches were not a good combination. The catcher simply raised an eyebrow and prepared to catch another curveball. Eric glanced at first base, set his jaw, and threw again.
“Foul!” The ball landed in Alphonse’s glove and zipped back to Eric, coming just an inch closer to his face than usual. He shook out his wrist from the impact and muttered a curse at the two fingers between the catcher’s legs. They both knew the Windsor Warblers were trying to tire Eric out with the small-ball tactics; it was no secret that the Tigers were short a few pitchers this season. Knowing didn’t change a thing; he still had no choice but to pitch until either his shoulder or the Warblers broke. He just wished he had a more supportive and compassionate catcher.
The wooden bat thudded as it hit ground. The crowd shrieked as Eric dashed towards the ball in a frenzied race against the runners. It was too late when he reached it, which left him no choice but to face another opponent. This one wouldn’t bunt; batter four would go for the home run. Eric tried to forget the loaded bases and the ache in his shoulder. Sweat trickled his brow, refusing to flow down, as if holding its breath like the rest of the stadium. The air was still, suffocating.
Eric threw. His body tipped forward a little too much. The ball slipped from his fingers and floated towards the batter. Whoosh. The bat cut through the air and the ball soared over Eric’s head. The outfielders rushed after its shadow, but everyone knew it was futile. The crowd roared as the ball bounced off the big screen and dropped to the diamond. The Warblers jogged around the bases, the light from the screen and digital score counter flushing them with a particular glow.
Eric froze, gazing at the score without comprehending the numbers. His pulse throbbed in his fingertips, rang in his ears. The drumming in his chest made him want to retch. Eric flinched as someone took his hand.
“Now we’re tied,” Alphonse said. “It’s like we’re starting a new game, right from the beginning.” He rested his hand on Eric’s shoulder. The soft, warm touch alleviated the tension that had plagued his muscles for so long, even if only for a moment. Eric stared at Alphonse and realized how much he had missed those blue eyes when they looked almost soft, and that reluctant little quirk of the lips.
Eric smiled. “Do you want to play some catch?” It was always the same question, just like when they were those two boys playing in the park, or teenagers practicing instead of studying, or even when they were those rookies who broke their window during a nighttime game of catch in their dorm.
And as always, Alphonse grinned with his cobalt eyes and said, “Ready when you are.” The next pitch didn’t break. The ball zoomed in a straight line from the mound to the glove and the crowd stayed mute as numbers flickered onto the display. And then Pandora’s Box of ecstasy and invectives flooded the stadium as 101.2 mph registered. A chant rose out of the cacophony: “Er-RIC, Er-RIC, Er-RIC!” The pitcher glanced at the catcher and smiled. His favourite pitch was the fastball, because it took the straightest and shortest path to the other half of the battery, ignoring the rest of the world like it didn’t exist, like it was just another sunset game in the backyard.
Two innings later, the ball thudded into Alphonse’s glove. Half the crowd roared in triumph and the other was equally loud in defeat as the batter struck out, giving victory to the Tigers. Eric’s team crowded in to extol him for the hard-won game and he laughed with them in ecstasy, until he noticed someone missing. At the edge of the group stood the catcher, forgotten in the background as always. Eric made his way out of the centre and threw his arms around Alphonse.
“We did it,” Eric said.
“You were great.”
“No, I couldn’t have—oh, you know what I mean. I’m bad with saying these things,” he muttered. “Just…thank you. Really. You’re the best catcher I’ve ever had.” He bit his lip as Alphonse pushed him away. What had he done wrong now?
“It took you that long to realize that?” Alphonse teased.
Eric laughed and pulled his friend into a tight embrace. “Will you keep playing catch with me, then?” he whispered.
Anne writes, “I love writing because it gives us a different, more creative way to express thoughts and share ideas.”