I’m shaking. Literally shaking. I can’t pitch like this.
Caden gives me the sign for a fastball. He studies the hitters. He knows where their weaknesses lie. He watches hours upon hours of tape before we play each series. I trust him.
I step off the mound because my hand is shaking too hard to pitch. I look into the stands hoping someone, anyone will do something to distract me, but all I see are people on their feet. They want to witness history in the making. I look back at Caden. He points to me. I know what he’s saying. Let’s do this.
I shake my head at him. I know he sees me trying to hold it together. He can’t keep calling time to baby me. I have to do this myself. I look up to the sky and think of the one thing I never think of when I play ball.
I think of Natalie and Keeton.
By the time I count backwards from five, I’m calmer. Caden gives me the sign for a breaking ball. He wants to end this and get the guy out. He wants to wipe the smug smile off his big hairy face. I wind up, release the pitch and watch it all the way to the plate. This is it, this is the one.
But then I hear a crack – the distinct sound of wooden bat on ball – and before I can even comprehend what has happened, I hear another crack – right before I hit the ground, pain searing through my arm from my elbow to my fingertips as I see the baseball slowly roll away from me.
Damn it, it burns. My elbow feels like I hit my funny bone times a thousand. And along with the excruciating pain, numbness is working its way down my forearm, right to my fingers.
I look up to see the end of the play. Caden must have run up and gotten the ball before throwing it to first base, narrowly missing the runner as the guy steps on the bag, beating the throw. The stadium erupts in audible displeasure. Then Caden helps me up and off the field as Cole comes out to relieve me.
Caden shakes his head as we walk off the field to where the athletic trainers and team physician are waiting to examine me. “Nothing you could do about that one, man. It was the perfect pitch, Brady. No way is that ball getting hit more than one in a hundred times. It’s not your fault.”
I look over at him, pissed at myself for letting Jarrison get the best of me. Pissed at myself for not getting out of the damn way. Pissed at myself for thinking of them. It is my fault. It’s always been my fault.
I stare down at my left arm – my pitching arm – as I hold it in my right hand, knowing that not only did I lose my perfect game, I might have just lost my whole fucking career.
Her hand feels so soft in mine. It fits perfectly. I give her a squeeze. My eyelids are heavy, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t need to see her. Just knowing she’s here with me, touching me – is everything. God, I’ve missed this.
I hear myself moan in pain. “It’s okay, Brady,” she says, lovingly. “Everything is going to be fine.”
Brady? Natalie always calls me babe. I try to open my eyes, but I can’t. My arm hurts and I’m confused.
“Nat?” I say, squeezing her hand again as I feel myself falling into a haze.
Natalie comes up behind me, jumping onto my back, wrapping her long athletic legs around me.
“Today is the day, babe!” she squeals excitedly. “The final game in the College World Series. You made it all the way. One more game and you’ll be a champion.”
I crank my head around so I can see her. “I’m not a champion yet?” I tease.
“You’ve always been a champion to me, but now the world will see you as one, too.” She punctuates her words with a kiss on my cheek.
“If we win,” I remind her.
“Oh, please. You’ll win. The University of Nebraska has the best baseball team and everyone knows it. I’m just so glad the World Series is in Omaha and we don’t have to travel with Keet.”
She slides down my back and puts her feet on the floor just as our three-year-old son comes running through the apartment swinging a plastic bat. My instinct is always to tell him not to do that. But I’m a ball player, so it would be kind of hypocritical of me. Plus, I’m hoping he’ll follow in his old man’s footsteps.
“Are you sure your sister is okay with keeping him for the entire day? If we win, there will be all kinds of celebrations.”
“When you win, babe.” She grabs Keeton’s bat before he swings it into the television. “And Katie loves watching Keeton. All she has to do today is study for her summer class. She can call me if she needs me and I can be home in forty-five minutes. You could ride the bus back if you had to.”
I laugh when Keeton pouts for a second at the loss of the bat, but then he runs in the other room to grab his tiny glove and kid-friendly baseball.
“I’m glad Katie decided to enroll here,” I say. “She’s been a huge help.”
“She has.” Natalie swats my behind. “Now get your stuff, you have to be at the bus in thirty minutes. We’ll walk you out. I have to pick up some snacks at the store for Keeton. I’ll drive up in a few hours and be there in plenty of time for the first pitch. And don’t showboat too much, it messes up your fastball. I know all the scouts will be there, but you have nothing to prove. By this time next week, I guarantee you’ll have gone in the first round of the draft.”
I can only dare to dream she’s right. “You’re a little biased, don’t you think?” I pull her into my arms, leaning down to savor one last kiss before we walk out. Then I ruffle Keet’s hair. “Don’t drive Mommy crazy, champ. And have fun with Aunt Katie.”
“Yay!” he screams, throwing his ball in the air and then catching it in his glove. That’s my boy.
Nat grabs her purse and picks up Keeton. She heads out to the car to put him in his seat. “Don’t forget the shirt,” she says to me from the sidewalk.
“Never.” I head out the door, grabbing my bag with my lucky shirt already tucked inside. I’m smiling from ear-to-ear as I shut the door. The next time I walk through this door, everything will be different.
“Love you, babe!” Natalie calls out to me.
“Love you more!” I yell back, walking in the other direction.
We live in married student housing right on campus, which luckily is only a ten-minute walk to the stadium since we only have one car between us. We’ve lived here ever since the little white stick foretold our future and we went to the courthouse in downtown Lincoln. Having Keeton may have moved things up a few years, but we knew when we were sixteen that we’d always be together. I find I’m practically skipping the entire way to the bus. This is it. I graduated last week. And next week, we’ll find out where we’re going. I don’t even care who picks me. I just want to play ball and have Nat and Keet by my side.
I trip on the sidewalk and fall down, pain searing through my arm as a haze comes over me.
“Brady, are you in pain?” Natalie asks.
Again with the Brady. I open my eyes successfully this time to see the ceiling lined with fluorescent lights. I’m disoriented as I turn my head and look around the large room. There are many beds, machines making noises, and a lot of people in green scrubs moving about. I look at Natalie, confused because it’s not Natalie.
Then it hits me and I relive it all over again in the span of five seconds.
Natalie’s gone. Keeton’s gone. My elbow is broken and my season, if not my career, is over.
Murphy looks at me with sympathetic eyes. She always looks at me this way, but I might have called her Natalie just now, so she looks even more pained than usual over my tragic past. She has an inkling of what happened but has never been told the details. Nobody has.
I sigh, wishing I could go back into the dream. Back to the day that was supposed to be the most perfect day of my life but turned out to be the worst imaginable. Fate has a way of fucking you over when you least expect it. And the fact that I helped it along is just another nail in their coffins.
The nurse raises the head of my bed and offers me a sip of water. “The doctor will be by to check on you soon.”
I take a small drink that makes my sore throat feel a hundred times better. “Thanks,” I tell her.
“Shit,” I say to Murphy when the nurse walks away. “I forgot what happened for a little while.” I look down at my arm that is immobilized. My elbow hurts, but what really bothers me is that I can still feel a burning, numbing sensation down around my fingers.
“They told me you’d be out of it when you started to come around.”
“How’s the game going?” I ask, needing to change the subject away from all the questions lurking in her head. I’m sure she knows exactly what the score is as my team, the New York Nighthawks, plays the Chicago Cubs. In fact, I’ll bet she was watching it on her phone while she was sitting by my bed waiting for me to wake up.
“Four to three, bottom of the fourth.”
I nod, pleased that my team is winning. “Caden score?”
She smiles. “Had a double down the third base line. Sawyer drove him in and then stole his way around the bases.”
“Nice. He steal home?”
Sawyer is our short stop who also holds the league record for stolen bases for two years running. He’s smaller than Caden and me, but he’s freaking scrappy. He gets to the ball fast, and he runs like the wind.
“How are we doing, Mr. Taylor?” Dr. Sorenson asks, coming to stand next to me.
He’s the orthopedic surgeon who works on a lot of athletes not only from the Nighthawks, but also from all the professional sports teams in the New York area.
“My fingers are numb and they burn.”
He nods, squeezing one of my fingers at the nail between a few of his. “The hope is, once the swelling from your injury subsides, you will regain the feeling in your fingers. But I have to be honest with you and reiterate that based on your symptoms prior to surgery, I feel you have significant nerve damage. With that comes intense pain and numbness down the thumb side of your forearm and into the first two or three digits.”
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