Authors: Celia Aaron,Sloane Howell
When I stepped up to the mound, the crowd cheered for me, but I’d never felt so awkward in my life. It wasn’t right. I was out of place. Karma, Yin and Yang, Chi—something was out of balance between me and the cosmic forces of the baseball gods. Some called it the yips. I called it being totally fucked.
Focus, Easton. Goddamn. You just need a C performance to get through this, and then figure shit out after.
I dug my foot next to the rubber and went into the stretch. Checking the runner, I waited for my short stop to get back into position before coming set. Braden flashed a barrage of signals. Slider away.
I shuffled the ball in my glove and got the grip I wanted, middle finger next to the top of the horse shoe. I glanced to the runner once more. He had a big lead.
I delivered home with a slide step instead of a leg kick, in case the runner tried something stupid, like stealing third. I released late and the ball started outside and broke way out and into the dirt.
Braden leaped to the side and managed to knock it down with his chest protector and hold the runner to second base.
Holding my glove to my face, I screamed, “Fuck!” into the leather.
The crowd quieted. I rubbed my sweaty palm down my right pant leg, as if the ball had slipped. It was a ruse. I glanced to Kyrie. She’d been reading her Kindle, but stopped when I looked over. She smiled, and I had to fight every goddamn muscle in my face to not smile back, regardless of the Rick Vaughn style pitching clinic I’d just put on.
Braden started to toss the ball back, and must’ve noticed the stupor still covering my face. He held up a hand, and when the ump yelled ‘time’ he trotted out to me.
“Just a bit outside.” He stretched out the words to emphasize it was far enough outside to have entered a different zip code.
“Yeah, thanks, dick.”
“Look man.” He peered at me through his mask. “Dead serious. You’ve done this shit a thousand times. You could do it in your sleep. This guy ain’t that great, and you’ve got, well, the best fucking shit I’ve ever seen. Okay? Trust your pitches, stop looking at the pussy, and do your fucking job.”
“You’re welcome, sweet tits.”
He trotted back behind home plate.
I went through the whole routine and brought the ball up to my glove. This time Braden called for a sinker inside—a two-seam fastball that runs in on a right handed hitter. I exploded off my back leg in a straight line toward home plate. As soon as I released the pitch, I knew it was trouble.
It came in high and tight, and the pitch moved at Johnston’s head. He hit the deck, dropping his bat next to him. Braden caught the ball right where the batter’s helmet was a split second before.
Johnston leaped to his feet. Fucker was built like a linebacker, and the veins in his neck were bulging. At six-two, two-twenty, I had some size on him, but not a lot. He turned to Braden.
“What the fuck? Do you need to go have another chat with your fucking girlfriend out there?”
“Maybe you should, tough guy.” I could see Braden’s teeth through his mask, smiling as the dickhead made a scene.
“You got a problem?” The words escaped my lips before I could stop them.
“Fellas, knock it off. Let’s play ball.” The ump set up behind Braden.
Johnston kicked at the dirt and scowled. “Don’t throw at me again or it’s your ass.” He pointed his bat at me. I caught Kyrie in the corner of my vision and turned to meet her stare. She was in the net, like the first time I’d seen her. When I thought my dick was about to get hard, I turned away. I looked back at Johnston. “Why don’t you go have a seat on the bench. It’s where your fuckin’ ass is about to end up anyway.”
He smiled, looked over in Kyrie and Nikki’s direction, and spit a stream of tobacco juice into the dirt. Nasty fuck.
I got back up to the pitching rubber and dug my foot in harder.
Fuck this guy.
Braden called for the slider away. I nodded and went through my motion. This time, I threw the pitch right where I wanted, on the outer half of the plate and breaking out of the strike zone. It fooled Johnston and he took a huge awkward swing.
The crowd erupted, keyed up from the on-field tension. Braden tapped his chest twice with his glove and fired the ball back out to me.
“Try that shit again, meat.” Johnston sneered and knocked the dirt from his cleats.
“You want to look like a clown again? It’s your funeral.”
“I’ll take that shit yard then go teach your girl over there how to grip my bat.” He slid his hand up and down the handle.
I glanced to Kyrie, her fingers clutching the net, then back to Johnston. “You’re dead, bitch.”
I got back up on the bump and squeezed the ball so hard in my throwing hand I thought I might crush it with my grip. Heat rushed into my face, my cheeks burning like embers in a fire. Each breath Johnston took only stoked the flames higher.
Braden called for another slider away and I shook my head. Hard. He tried again, to the same result. Then he called for a two seam inside. I nodded, fully aware of where this next pitch was going.
This time, instead of a slide step, I kicked my knee up high and hard, almost to my chin to get all the velocity I could behind the pitch, and exploded toward Johnston. My arm was a blur as my back leg came around. He tensed as the ball connected with his rib cage.
Johnston hobbled back a step. His initial wince turned to rage as he slammed his bat to the ground.
“You fucking bitch!”
I was already on a bee line straight at him when Braden got in front of me, the ump in front of Johnston. He was pointing and screaming unintelligible strings of profanity.
“Talk about my girlfriend one more motherfucking time, and I will put you in the fucking dirt, you cocksucker!” I fought to get past Braden, but he’d wrapped his arms around me in a bear hug and dug in his heels.
The ump pushed back on Johnston. “Get to first base. Now!” He flipped around. “You’re out of here!” He twirled and slung his finger out toward the right field bleachers to a chorus of ‘boos’ roaring through the stadium.
“It was a fucking accident. The ball slipped.” Even as I said it, I wanted to knock Johnston’s teeth out.
“The fuck it was. You’re gone!” The umpire shook his head and pointed to my dugout.
I stopped fighting and let Braden push me away from Johnston.
“Walk off.” He held his palm to my chest, warding me off from doing anything else foolish. “Don’t make a scene. Stay cool, Easton.”
I nodded. A ball of nerves filled my stomach as I walked with my head down toward the dugout. Kyrie was staring at me, I knew it, but I couldn’t look up at her. I wanted to be invisible.
I walked down the steps past Coach. “Sorry.”
He didn’t say anything, didn’t even look at me.
I went to the locker room, composed until I was out of earshot. Then I let it out.
Grabbing a water jug, I turned and hurled it into the wall, ice and water exploding everywhere. I tipped over a bench, and screamed until my voice nearly failed. A wooden bat called my name from Braden’s locker, and I grabbed it and started hacking away on the corner of the lockers until the handle snapped in my hand and I slung the remnants of the bat at the wall. I wasn’t done.
I grabbed two batting helmets and slung them across the room, effectively destroying both of them and then grabbed a trash can and slung it for good measure, littering the floor with baseball wrappers and empty cans of dip.
Then I sat down, and dropped my head into my palms. “Fuck!”
My heart was beating a mile a minute, and I forced myself to take deep breaths. I hadn’t been thrown out of a game since my first year in the league. Now here I was, sitting in the locker room and throwing a temper tantrum like a three-year-old.
I leaned back, letting my head loll onto my shoulders. The fluorescents above me hummed a quiet reproach for my bad behavior, and I was glad no one else had witnessed it.
I sat for a long while, trying to get my thoughts in order and replaying my fuckup. I knew where I’d gone wrong—hitting Johnston, even though the fucker deserved it. And I knew why—Kyrie. When he’d talked about touching her, I couldn’t function rationally anymore.
I was so fucked.
The minutes passed as I heard the strains from the speakers, though I couldn’t make out the words. I wanted to go back out, just to see what was happening, but I couldn’t show my face. Finally, I heard the sound of cheers and felt the vibration of thousands of stomping feet. It meant we’d pulled it out.
“Thank god.” I let out an anxious breath.
Braden was the first through the clubhouse door. He froze in his tracks and scanned the destroyed room. “Jesus Christ, Kylo Ren.”
By that point, I’d composed myself, and chuckled. “I may have gotten a little carried away.”
He walked over and put a hand on my shoulder. “Fuck Johnston, that guy’s a prick.”
I stared up at him. We both knew Johnston wasn’t the problem. “What am I gonna do, man?”
He slapped the brim of my hat and sent it tumbling to the floor. “We’ll figure it out.”
After showering and doing all I could to avoid the press, I finally made it to the relative safety of my truck. I checked my phone. One new message. My heart did a ridiculous flip when I saw Kyrie’s name pop up.
. I swiped my thumb over it.
Hey, you okay?
I typed back.
Yeah, I’m fine. Just got carried away out there.
I fired up the truck.
What are you doing?
I looked around at the parking lot.
Sitting in my truck. About to head home.
I wanted to tell her I was sorry for the way I behaved, but I couldn’t find the right words when my phone lit up again.
You want company?
But her company?
I had to see her. I wanted to hold her, kiss her; I couldn’t say no. I pulled out of the parking lot and sped toward the cross street. My phone flickered on.
See you at your place. :)
Kyrie stood by my door. I couldn’t stop staring at her long legs in her dress, and then up to her hair and smile.
Don’t be an asshole.
“I’m sorry about that,” I said as I walked up.
“It wasn’t one of my finer moments on the field.”
“I was just happy to see you. Even if it was short lived.” She smirked.
I faked a smile and her amusement faded. “You didn’t have to stand out here in the hall. They could’ve given you a key at the front.”
“I didn’t mind. I haven’t been here long.”
I stuck my key in the door and opened it to let her in. She stood there, staring.
Fuck, I should’ve hugged her or something. Kissed her?
I needed to remedy the situation. She started to walk through the door and I reached out and stopped her. I ran my hand down her side and pressed my fingertips into the soft curve of her hip.
Hesitation seemed to run through her, but a hint of anticipation as well. I used my free hand to push a few locks of hair behind her ear. Her eyes sparkled though her nose crinkled as if she were uncertain about me. Running my hand from her hair to her cheek, I leaned down, pressing my lips to hers. She tasted like fruity lip gloss. For a brief moment, I forgot about everything that happened on the field.
Her mouth parted and our tongues met in the middle, slowly twisting around each other.
She leaned back, severing our connection. “What was that all about anyway?”
“Nothing.” I responded too quick.
She fidgeted with the hem of her dress. “It didn’t look like nothing. He said something to piss you off. What was it?”
I wasn’t about to tell her what he said. I damn sure wasn’t about to tell her that I called her my girlfriend in front of forty-thousand people, whether they could hear it or not.