I know that sound. I can feel it in my hands. My body. I don’t even have to look up to see the ball flying out into the stands. I don’t have to look up, because by the time I hit first base, the crowd is telling me everything I need to know. They are telling me I just hit my twenty-sixth home run of the season.
Back in Little League, my coach would make us do a hundred push-ups if we watched the ball instead of running our asses off. I guess that just stuck with me. And now I know that sometimes it’s mere inches that make the difference between a home run and an out. Inches between glory and defeat.
As I round second base, I allow myself to glance over beyond left field. It’s where I always hit my home runs. My eyes rake over the crowd, looking for the cheering fan who caught the ball. I hope it’s a kid. Whenever I know a kid has caught my ball, I send an usher over to get it so I can sign it for him.
It takes a few seconds for me to realize something isn’t right. A crowd is gathering. And there is a conspicuous lack of an excited fan holding up my ball in celebration. I look up at the JumboTron to get a closer look at the situation as people rush over to the area. Fans are hovering over some seats, frantically waving park officials towards them.
Shit. My ball must have hit someone. I hope it wasn’t a kid.
After I touch home plate and tip my helmet to the rest of the cheering stadium, I go in the dugout and pick up the phone to call the team offices.
“Find out who it hit,” I say to whoever answered the phone, shaking my head in disgust knowing how much damage can be done by a hard baseball traveling at over 100 mph.
I hang up and sit on the bench, conflicting feelings of happiness and guilt coursing through me.
Sawyer puts a supportive hand on my shoulder before he picks up his bat and makes his way out onto the field. “Remember the guy I hit last year?” he asks. “Big goose egg on his forehead. He said it was the best thing that ever happened to him because he got to meet me. Don’t worry about it, Kessler. I’m sure it’ll be okay.”
I nod my head. “Yeah, thanks. Good luck out there.”
In the next inning, when I put on my catcher’s gear and head behind the plate, I look up into the left-field stands to see the commotion has cleared. Brady, who’s out on the mound, raises his eyebrows at me. I know what he’s asking. He wants to know if I’m focused. I am. I absolutely am.
I’m lucky. I’m able to compartmentalize when I play ball. No matter what goes on in my life, when I’m out on the field, I’m Caden Kessler, major league ball player, #8 on the New York Nighthawks. I’m not the kid whose mom died his freshman year of college. I’m not the guy who once knocked up a girl only to have her miscarry a week later. I’m not even the man whose sister vanished without a trace his first year in the majors.
I’m all those things, yes. But not when I’m on the field. Not when I’m swinging the bat. And definitely not when I’m catching behind the plate. Out here I’m a robot. A well-oiled machine that I’ve fine-tuned ever since I was five years old and played in my first T-ball game. Even back then, I knew playing ball was what I was born to do. And nothing was going to stand in my way.
I give Brady a nod as the batter enters the box. Then I do my job. I do it for the remaining seven innings without giving much more thought to who I hit with my ball and what might have happened as a result.
After the game, however, while my teammates celebrate the win, I track down Melanie. Melanie is like our team’s ‘Girl Friday.’ She knows everything about everything and is a woman who knows how to get things done.
She sees me coming and laughs. “Caden Kessler. Somehow I knew I’d be seeing you tonight.” She wrinkles her nose in mock disgust. “I was hoping it would be after you’d showered, however.”
I look down at my dirty uniform and shrug an apology. “Who’d I hit, Melanie?”
She cocks her head and smiles. “Only you Caden,” she says. “Anyone else who’d just had a game like you had would have me running their numbers to see how much their stats improved.”
“Please tell me I didn’t hit a kid,” I say, worried.
She searches through the folder she’s holding. “I don’t think so,” she says. “Name’s Murphy something-or-other.” She pulls out a piece of paper. “Yeah. Murphy Cavenaugh. Doesn’t sound like a kid’s name to me. More like a retired dairy farmer or something.”
“Taken away by ambulance,” she says with a sigh.
“Shit. Does it say where he was taken?” I ask.
She tells me the name of the hospital and I smile. “Good. My brother-in-law works at that one. Can you get me some stuff to take over right away? A jersey. A ball. Some pictures. Tickets to another game, maybe?”
She glances at her watch. “Now?”
I look down at my uniform again. “Well, not right now, but as soon as I get cleaned up. Once he gets cleared to leave the hospital, I might never be able to find him.”
“You don’t have to do that, you know,” she says. “There are warning signs all over the park to watch for flying balls. It’s not like you can get sued or anything.”
I give Melanie a distasteful look. “I don’t care what the damn signs say. My ball hit someone and he could be badly injured.”
She studies me. “How is it that some nice girl hasn’t snagged you yet?”
I laugh. “Because nobody gets past my three-strikes rule.”
“Three-strikes rule?” she asks curiously.
“Yeah. You know, three strikes and you’re out. I never go out with a girl more than three times.”
I shake my head. “Not since I’ve been a Hawk. You never can tell who to trust.”
Concern brings out the wrinkles in Melanie’s forehead. “Someone must have really done a number on you.”
“I’m just being careful. That’s all.”
“Careful with what, Caden?” she asks in a motherly tone. “Your johnson or your heart?”
I shrug. “I’ve got everything I need, Melanie,” I say, looking at our surroundings.
“How old are you? You can’t be a day over twenty-four.”
She nods. “You’ve got time. It’s good you’re not in a hurry to fall in love. Those who go seeking it, rarely find it anyway.”
“Love?” I say, cringing at the word. “Love is overrated. Besides, I’ve got all the love I need. I love my sister. My nieces. My friends. And baseball—I love baseball. What more could I need?”
She looks down at her wedding ring and then smiles as if she has a secret I’m not privy to. Then she turns me around and gives me a shove in the direction of the clubhouse. “Come find me after you’ve cleaned up. I’ll send you to the hospital with a care package.”
Pain. I can’t think about anything else but how horrible I feel. My head is throbbing. Everything hurts. And I can’t see very well out of my left eye. I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck, not a tiny baseball.
Tony has been by my side since I was brought to the hospital. He and Kirsten, one of my roommates, rode in the ambulance with me. They are the ones who dragged me to the game. Said it was all part of the celebration they had planned for me landing my first big modeling job.
As my pain meds start to kick in, I begin wondering why they chose to take me there. I don’t even like baseball. Kirsten—she’s the baseball fan. She and Tony. Why didn’t they take me to SoHo or something?
Oh, my God! My job! My hand comes up to touch my tender face that feels about twice its normal size. I look around the room and then at Tony. “I need a mirror,” I say.
He winces and shakes his head. “Babe, you don’t want to see it. It’ll only upset you.”
Tears escape my eyes, burning the left side of my face where I got stitches. I guess the numbing medication is wearing off. “Is it that bad?” I ask.
Tony stares at me for a second and then looks away. He doesn’t have to answer me, I can tell by the look on his face that it’s bad.
There’s a knock on the door and then the door opens. “Miss Cavenaugh,” says a tall man in a white lab coat. “I’m Dr. Benson. I have the results of your CT scan. Shall I go over them with you now?” He looks from me to Tony with raised eyebrows.
“Yes. It’s okay, he’s my boyfriend.”
“Alright then,” Dr. Benson says, walking around my bed. “You have a zygomaxillary fracture. That’s a fancy way of saying you broke your cheekbone.”
I sigh. “It’s broken?”
“Yes. There are two kinds of breaks. Displaced and non-displaced. With non-displaced breaks, they heal on their own. But …”
I can hear in his voice that I don’t have that kind of fracture. “But that’s not the one I have, is it?”
“What does that mean?” I ask. “I can’t wear a cast on my face. How do you fix it?”
“Surgery?” I gasp. “On my face? But I’m a model. I—I can’t … this can’t be happening.”
I look over at Tony to see him shaking his head. He looks as upset as I am. “What does the surgery entail?” he asks the doctor. “And how long before she can go back to work?”
Dr. Benson flashes a weak smile. “I’ll do an open reduction and internal fixation with a titanium plate and screws.”
“Oh, my God!” My hand comes up to muffle my cry.
“How big a scar will she have?” Tony asks, now pacing the small hospital room.
“It looks a lot worse than it is. There’s a lot of swelling, and it will get worse for the next twenty-four hours before it starts to get better. That’s why we’ll wait at least a week to do the surgery.”