It was already the ninth inning when Buster hit the double, driving in a run to tie the game. We hated ninth inning ties. We’d rather just start the game over and switch up the teams, but the game has to be finished at the Fields. Sal had somehow ended up at third base, and with the entire left side of his face gone he didn’t have the eye necessary for fielding anything towards the shortstop side.
“Booooo,” we all cried in unison.
“E-five!” Buster shouted when he got to second base. Even he wasn’t happy about Sal’s error. I pulled my fibula free and clanked it against my tibia. It made a cool hollow sound that carried throughout the field and out into the blackness all around us.
Next up was Vin, who looked very much like a living boy, except for when he turned his back to you. He had fallen from a one-story balcony and landed on a rock that cracked his skull open leaving a four-inch crevasse where his brains bulged out like a fleshy, pink shrimp cocktail served in a split sea urchin.
Dave, who didn’t have any skin above the waist, was pitching. He had already thrown two strikes on Vin when the new kid came.
The new kid looked about our age, older than eight, way under twelve. It was customary for all the kids to gather around the newcomer. We didn’t know why, but the same had been done for each of us when we arrived.
There were about fifteen of us playing ball–kids came and went all the time so you stop keeping track after a while–and when we surrounded the new kid near home plate, several of us tried to make him feel welcome. He didn’t respond. He only looked at the ground and traced the dirt with his foot.
He was pale and had dark circles around his eyes. He had several bruised red puncture wounds where the arms bend.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“Alexander,” he replied, still not looking at anyone.
“My name’s Foxe. You ever play before?”
“No. I always wanted to. I was in the hospital a lot.”
“Sick kid, huh?” Sal said as best he could with the remaining half of his mouth.
“How’d you end up at The Fields if you’ve never played?” Vin said.
Alexander’s face cracked a smile and he found the courage to look at us–not an easy task for first timers, some of us are pretty horrid looking, but you get used to it. “I love baseball,” he said. “It’s all we’d ever watch, me and my dad. He was a lawyer, we didn’t have much in common, but when we talked about baseball nothing else mattered. It was like he’d forget I was sick.”
“Well,” Kelly said from somewhere behind us, “if you’ve never played, there’s plenty of time to learn!”
We all laughed.
No-Tongue-Harry grabbed an extra mitt and tossed to Alexander, “Pay bah,” he said.
I took Alex out to center field with me. I knew I’d have to teach him a lot, but I didn’t mind. Baseball’s a very different game when you’re actually playing it. That’s why it’s always more fun to be at the game. TV doesn’t do it justice.
I asked him what position he most wanted to play. He said what all baseball players say at one time or another: he wanted to be a pitcher.
We resumed the game from where we left off when Alexander came.
Dave took his place on the pitcher’s mound and threw a cookie down the middle–probably on purpose, so we could start a new game–and Vin whacked it to left field and into the black ether over the fence: walk-off homer.
I made sure Alexander was on my team when we reset the game. I played center again and put him over at right field.
“Foxe,” he said when we came in to bat, “I never really fit in with most kids. I’ve never even had a real friend. I don’t want to mess up out here.”
I smiled at him and patted his shoulder. I pointed down to my flesh-eaten leg. “See this?”
He nodded and squinted at the last pieces of ashen flesh sticking to my leg bones.
“Car crash. My leg was stuck between two mangled pieces of car door. The paramedic was new to the job and got a little excited about saving his first kid. He didn’t see that my leg was stuck, so when he tried to pull me out, the sharp metal sliced off my leg meat like a Ginsu through salami, shaving the flesh right off my leg.”
Alex’s eyes went wide with horror.
“It’s all right, I didn’t feel it, but I lost a lot of blood and I died.”
I could tell he was having trouble seeing my point. “See Dave? House fire. Sal? Gunshot took out half his face. Everyone here is the same as you, we’re dead and we love baseball. You have no choice in the matter; we are all your friends now, no matter how good or bad you are. You were sent to this field for a reason.”
“There are other fields?” Alex said.
“Well, yeah.” I pointed to the blackness on either side of our field. It was easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it. The hazy luminescence coming from the other fields pulsed and rippled out in the ether. “This is Mortis Field. Over there is Headstone Field. Over there is Deadkids Field. There are a bunch of fields, I think. You get sent to the one you belong in. Just the way it works. So you belong here, playing ball with us.”
Alex was straining to see the players on the other fields, but they only looked like wisps of clouds floating in the blackness. “Just relax. Have fun.”
When it was our turn to bat, we met up with the other kids in the dugout. They introduced themselves and gave him a quick rundown of their deaths.
We played baseball.
The first two times at bat Alex struck out, but the second time he went down swinging, and that’s about when he started having fun. It had been a while since we had seen someone get the itch: a bug that infects you with a pure love for the game. The newness of that joy can only be felt once, and it felt like a light breeze on your cheeks, and smelled like leather and grass, and tasted like dirt and sweat. It is glorious.
The game might have gone on forever in that incipient ecstasy if the jerks from Headstone Field hadn’t shown up.
Big Linda and her crew walked onto our field. Our team gathered by the mound to face off with them.
“What do you want, Big Linda?” I asked with suspicion.
But I knew what she wanted. It looked like Headstone had a full team now. They must have finally got someone new. They’d be itching for a game.
“Wanna play?” she asked all sweet and innocent. The permanent gash that ran across her neck mimicked the wide smile on her face.
“We already beat you like a million times!” Dave said.
“That was before, and that wasn’t for keeps,” Big Linda threw back.
“What do you mean for keeps?” I asked.
Linda looked down the left field line. All the way at the end, where the foul pole joined to make the corner, there was a gap in the fence. “Losers move on.”
“That’s crazy! No one comes back from the Gap!” Sal said.
“OH-AY” No-Tongue-Harry said shaking his head.
I threw down my mitt and kicked dirt at Big Linda. “Some of us aren’t ready to stop playing! It’s not fair to ask us to go through the Gap. Why don’t you go walk through the Gap at your field?”
“Well, you don’t have to play us,” Big Linda taunted. “I mean, if you’re afraid of losing that badly, then we’ll just go back to our field.”
“LOSE!” Kelly said. “We’ve never lost to you.”
“Like I said, that was before.”
“Before what, Fat Linda?” I said.
She shrugged off my insult and in a few moments I saw why she was acting so smug. A massive hulk of adolescent muscle and perfection strode his way to the front and stood next to Big Linda. He was tall and lean and twelve. You could just tell he was a marvelous player. His baseball aura would have been flawless except for the multiple stabs wounds you could see through his torn up, blood stained shirt.
“Well?” Fat Linda said.
I turned to face my teammates. It’s weird to look upon your friends who are dead and grotesque and see on their faces a kind of fear that has nothing to do with the horrors they see around them. Rather, we were all terrified of how good Headstone’s new player was and of having to go through the Gap if we lost. To me the beyond wasn’t that scary. I just didn’t want to stop playing. The thought of it made my heart sink into my stomach.
“Well crew?” I said to everyone on our team.
No one answered. I had to think quickly. I could see out of the corner of my eye the satisfaction spreading on Big Linda’s face. She thought we were scared. We were, but I couldn’t give her the pleasure of knowing it. So I took the coward’s way out and dumped the decision on the new kid.
“Alex, you’re the one who’s got the most to lose. You just got here. If we don’t win, baseball’s over for you; for all of us.”
He looked like an abused puppy. I could see what I had done to him, but I just stood there and waited for an answer.
His eyes wandered and then his whole body went still as if he had transported himself into his own memories. The time he spent there made flashes of happiness and pain and longing sweep over his face several times.
He looked right into my eyes, unaware that both teams were pressing for a reply with their stares.
“My dad hated losing,” he said. “What’s the point in playing if no one actually wins anything? I’ve never won something before. I want to feel it. I want to know what it’s like to be normal, to play for something my dad called ‘the glory’. Let’s murder them!”
It was a funny choice of words, since many of us had been murdered, but we knew what he meant and our cheers would echo through the ether for eternity. We were going to play for keeps–for the glory.
It was a total blowout. The worst game I’ve ever played in. The Headstone’s hotshot, Luke, went 3 for 4. He would have had a cycle but he sac-flied to bring in a run. We got a few hits. Alex hit a blooper that landed in shallow right field. It was his first hit ever. That was the highlight of the game. We lost 12 to 3.
Everyone, with the exception of Alex, had lost a game before, but none of had lost a game in which the loss meant we’d never play baseball again. Even if some of our hearts were still hidden by our flesh, all of them were broken.
When we faced off again at the mound, none of us could make eye contact with the Headstone’s. Man, I hated that Big Linda. But we had lost fair and square and all wagers must be honored at the Fields.
“Well, I guess that settles it,” Big Linda said. She was holding her head high, giving us all a peak at her throat and neck muscles.
“I can’t believe this,” Sal said. “I don’t want to go.”
“We have to go,” I said. “We all know it.”
Some of the Headstone’s didn’t look that happy about winning. They felt bad for us. They loved the game too and no good sportsman wants to see anyone forced to quit.
In unison, we turned our backs to the winning team and started shuffling our way toward the Gap.
“That can’t be it,” Alex said halfway there.
I felt bad for him. He’d only just arrived at the Fields and I had made him decide our fate.
“It’s over, Alex,” I said. “We have to go. If we back out we’d be unworthy of the game. We could never play it with any amount of innocence again. That’s not right. Baseball is pure. We’re the ones who lost. We gotta take our medicine.”
“Just one more chance,” Alex said.
I tried to stop him, but he had already turned around and headed back to the mound.
All of us ran back after him.
Big Linda held up her hand before Alex had even said anything.
“You won,” Alex said to her. “I get it. But I want another chance.”
“No!” she shouted. She began to yell and scream many things, all very mean, but her teammates calmed her down.
“Just hear him out, Linda,” they said.
“You can’t alter the terms. Even if I could take it back–and I wouldn’t–it doesn’t matter. The game is over.”
“I don’t want to alter the terms,” Alex said. “I just want an amendment.”
“A what?” someone from the Headstone’s said.
“I just want to add to the contract,” he explained. “Perfectly legal and acceptable.”
All of us looked out into the blackness as if asking for the ether’s blessing in the matter. No one was struck by lighting so we continued.
“What are you thinking?” Luke the all-star said.
Man, that kid was cool.
“One pitcher, one hitter,” Alex said. “If our pitcher strikes out your batter, we don’t have to go through the Gap.”
“So if your team strikes him out, we have to go through the Gap?” Big Linda said rolling her eyes.
“No. If we strike out the hitter, everyone goes back to their fields and we all play ball.”
The Headstone’s all thought this was a fair deal. They really didn’t have anything to lose. Big Linda, however, hated it. I could see it in her chubby little face. She didn’t want to ever lose to us again. She wanted us gone.
Whatever her real feelings were, she didn’t say anything. Everyone but her wanted to give us another chance.
“Fine,” she said at last. “We pick Luke to hit.”
Our team got excited and I had to calm them down. We had to pick a pitcher, but before I even opened my mouth Alex spoke up.
“This one’s mine,” he said.
I tried to be nice. “Alex, you’ve never pitched before. You’ve only played a few innings of baseball…ever! Please, let someone else pitch.”
“I have to do it, Foxe. My dad will never get to see me play and for some reason I feel like I could be the son he always wanted if I could just prove that I have something in me.”
I knew what he meant. That something that he wanted was the intangible spirit of greatness. He wanted to know that he could stand up to a giant and find enough courage within his own soul to at least face him and stave off the natural instinct that compels all of us to run away from trouble. Alex wanted what we all want at some point in our lives: to know that he existed.
“Okay,” I said.
The others gave their blessing and patted him on the back, giving him the old lines, strike him out, he’s got nothin’, be a pitcher, etc.
Alex took the mound. After a few warm up tosses, Luke stepped into the batters box.
The first pitch was outside by three feet: ball one.
All of us in the dugout gave out a little groan. We tried to pick up our chatter and encourage Alex. He didn’t seem to hear us.
The next pitch was up and in: ball two.
Alex took a few moments before settling himself on the mound again. I could tell he was going to throw his absolute hardest. Unfortunately, Luke picked up the same signal. When Alex slung the fastball, Luke licked his lips as it was coming down the middle of the plate. He took a wicked swing at it and hit it a mile. We all sighed as we watched it fly foul: strike one.
The next pitch wasn’t even close: ball three.
It turns out our Alex had picked something up in all those years of watching baseball. The next pitch was a slow change up and Luke swung way ahead of it: Alex had fooled him and got his second strike.
The count was full; three balls, two strikes. I was shaking now. So was everyone else.
The next pitch decided our fates. It broke my heart when I saw it. Alex threw a fastball. He had thrown it so hard the ball started to curve upwards. Luke reached back and swung the bat as hard as he could.
He missed the ball entirely: strike three. Alex had done it.
Our bench cleared and we dog-piled on Alex at the mound. He had saved our team from the Gap.
I looked back at Luke just in time to see Big Linda throw her mitt at him. She knew what I did; Luke had struck out on purpose.
I removed my fibula and struck my tibia. The woody, hollow tone rose above the cheers and our team quieted down.
I replaced my leg bone and shook Alex’s hand. “Thank you,” I looked at him earnestly.
“It was an OK pitch. I thought he was going to rip it–”
“Not for pitching. For showing me what it means to play the game.”
I could tell that the team was puzzled by my tone.
“Fellas, it’s been a pleasure,” I said to them.
“What are you doing?” Vin said.
But he knew the answer. Perhaps they all did. I had given the game all I had, but it had given me far more. Something in me had stirred as I watched what Alex did, and I suddenly understood something about myself and about the game and about passion, about true existence. I had taken enough. It was time.
I started walking toward the Gap. They didn’t stop me.
Halfway down, Luke the all-star caught up with me. His stab wounds were opened wide enough in places to see his muscles move underneath. He worked just like the rest of us, I remember thinking.
“What’s through there?” Luke said nodding to the Gap.
“It’s where you go when the game’s over.”
He stopped, looked back at Alex who was taking in a new round of congratulations.
“We were really good,” Luke stated.
I grabbed his shoulder to turn his eyes back to the Gap. We started walking towards it and I said, “Yeah, we were good.”