I laugh at myself. Being confused as hell is the story of my life these days.
I walk over and sit down at the piano. Playing the piano is the only thing that makes sense to me anymore. I play a lot. He thinks I don’t know that he watches me when I play. He doesn’t know that he’s the reason I play so much. When he watches me, he’s not doing it because of the contract. Or to keep up appearances. Or to save his job. He watches me like a man watches the woman he loves.
Will he keep the piano when I’m gone? Will he sit on the bench and long for the times he watched me play? Or will he have it taken away, removing all traces of me from his life?
I stop playing when my phone rings. Maybe Bass changed his mind and he wants me with them.
But I don’t recognize the number. However, I do recognize the area code. It’s from Missouri.
“I’m in trouble, Aspen.”
“I have to be quick. You’re my one phone call.”
My heart sinks. “You’re in jail? What happened?”
“I screwed up, Pen. But I don’t have much time. I’ll explain later. I didn’t know who else to call. I have no one.”
“That’s not true. You have me.”
“You’ve done so much for me already.”
“You’re my brother, Den. I’ll do whatever it takes to help you. What do you need?”
“Can you contact a decent lawyer? I’ll end up in prison if I go with the public defender. I know it will cost money. Money I don’t have, but—”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of everything.”
“They won’t let me out on bail this time,” he says.
“Sit tight. I’ll figure something out.”
“They say I have to go.”
“Hang in there, big brother.”
“Thanks, Pen. I love you.”
The phone goes dead.
I look around the townhouse. The townhouse that isn’t mine. The one that belongs to the man who isn’t mine. Everything in my life is fake. Manufactured. Just like the butterflies on the walls. The ones he uses to protect himself.
I walk over and pull my favorite one off the nail it’s hanging on. The one I sit and stare at when he’s down in the basement making more. When he’s down there figuring out all the ways he can distance himself from me.
Then I walk upstairs and pull my suitcases out of the closet. Because I know what I need to do. I’ve known for a while now. Maybe it just took the failed wedding and the phone call from Denver to make me realize it.
My eyes are laser-focused on the pitcher. I watch for the tell-tale sign that he’s about to start his pitching motion. It’s different for everyone. Some of them shift their weight slightly. Some make a small head movement. Some have something as subtle as a finger twitch. But all of them do something that lets me know it’s time to run.
This guy cocks his head to the left, right before the wind-up. I take my lead and play my favorite game – the one that has him trying to throw me out even before I try to steal. And I know he’s going to step off the mound and go for me. I know because he hasn’t cocked his head to the left yet. When he goes for me, I make it back to the base. I always do. Nobody ever throws me out going back. It’s the going forward, the stealing, that’s dangerous. But it’s also exhilarating.
I’ve broken a finger more than once stealing bases. I’ve been stepped on, kicked in the face, and hit by balls. You name it, it’s happened to me on the steal. But more often than not, I win the battle and steal the base. It’s why my name will go down in history this year – the third consecutive year that I’ll hold the league record for stolen bases in a season. In ten years, they’ll be asking, ‘Rickey who?’
After the pitcher tries, unsuccessfully, to throw me out four times, he finally cocks his head and I take off for second base. I run so fast my helmet almost flies off my head. Thank God it doesn’t, because I end up diving head-first and I touch the outer edge of the base just as I hear the ball hit the second baseman’s glove.
I laugh. I had a good two seconds more before he would have tagged me.
I stand up and look down at my filthy clothes and smile. “Ninety-three,” I say to myself. I don’t dare say it to the second baseman – he’s one huge mother fucker.
The Diamondbacks pull their pitcher, and as the new one throws a few warm-up pitches, I take time to look up into the stands, hoping to catch a glimpse of Aspen, but I can’t always pick her out of the crowd when she wears the same hat and jersey as everyone else.
I know Bass won’t be here today. He’s sleeping off one hell of a hangover.
I feel sorry for the guy. The woman he loves doesn’t love him back, and the woman he settled for left him at the altar. No wonder he drank himself to within an inch of his life.
That dude likes to talk when he drinks. And, holy crap, he’s into Aspen. I knew he was, but I didn’t realize just how much. The guy is seriously in love with her. Sometimes I wonder if he isn’t the one she should be with. He’s a nice guy. A firefighter, no less. He’s a fucking hero every goddamned day.
But when I think about her with him, with anyone, all I see is red.
~ ~ ~
“Rick wants to see you in his office,” one of the batting coaches tells me as I’m getting out of the shower.
I shake my head. What could he possibly want now? I’ve just had my three best games of the season. But nothing good ever happens when I’m called to his office.
I dry off and put my street clothes on, eager to get this over with and go out to share the win with Aspen.
“You wanted to see me?” I ask, sticking my head into Rick’s office.
“Come in,” he says. “Close the door.”
I sit down, looking at his desk for a folder. Surely he’s not going to threaten me some more after the weekend I’ve had.
“Notice anything different in here?” he asks.
I look at the furniture – all the same. I look at the television hanging in the corner – nothing’s changed there. I look at the walls. That’s when I see it.
My jaw goes slack when I see a picture of me right alongside those of Brady and Caden and some other players who have stood out on the team. I think the photo is from yesterday’s game. I’m stealing third base. Man that was a good steal.
“Did Jason make you hang that here?” I joke.
He snorts through his nose. “No, he didn’t.” He gets up and touches the edge of the frame as if to straighten it, but it’s already perfectly straight. Then he puts a fatherly hand on my shoulder. “I don’t know what the hell changed you this year, but I have to say, maybe a bit begrudgingly, that you’re an upstanding member of the Nighthawks.” He laughs at himself. “I never thought I’d say those words, you know. But it’s true. And I believe you just might lead us to the Series this year, son.”
“Uh … thank you.”
“Why do you look so surprised?” he asks.
“I guess because the only time you ever call me in here is to chew my ass.”
He sits back down behind his desk. “If anyone had told me at the beginning of the season that you’d beat your record from the previous two, I’d have called them crazy. But you’ve done it. You’ve beat your previous records and the season isn’t even over. You’re on your way to the Hall of Fame if you play your cards right. So whatever you’ve been doing, keep it up.”
Funny when he says that, the one thing that pops into my mind is Aspen’s face. Not my teammates. Not my statistics. Not all the money I’ll make and the fame I’ll achieve. It’s her. She’s the reason I’m even sitting in this chair right now. She’s the reason my picture is hanging on Rick’s wall.
And all I want to do is go find her. I want to tell her about this moment. I want to recap every play of the game, because I know she’ll sit and listen with a smile on her face. She always does.
I look back at the wall. I’m finally worthy of being up there. Or at least Rick thinks I am. What he doesn’t know is that it’s all fake.
And right now, right this second, I realize I don’t want it to be. I don’t want a fake girlfriend. I don’t want a fake fiancée. I don’t want a contract that dictates she has to be with me because I’m paying her.
I want it to be real. All of it. I want her.
And for the first time, I know I want more.
“Is that all?” I ask Rick. “There’s someone I need to see.”
“I assume you mean that girl of yours,” he says. “Seems like a good one. You should hold on to her.”
“That’s exactly what I plan on doing.”
“Go on. Get out of here,” he grumbles in his usual fashion.
I’m almost the last one to leave the clubhouse. By the time I get out front, the fans have mostly dissipated. I sign a few autographs for the stragglers who remain as I scan the small crowd for Aspen. I don’t see her. She must have gotten tired of waiting.
I grab a cab, excited to get home and tell her everything. She’s the only one I’ve ever wanted to tell everything to.
The ride is quick and the townhouse is dark when I arrive home. And eerily quiet.
“Aspen?” I call out, walking through the living room.
Then I see something. Or rather, I don’t see something. One of the butterflies from the living room wall is missing. I look around the room. The table where she puts her purse is empty. The extra pair of shoes she keeps by the front door is gone. I walk over to the piano to see it conspicuously absent of sheet music.
I dart up the stairs to her room. The sheets have been stripped off the bed. I open the drawers to find them barren. The closet’s only contents are a few boxes that are packed and labeled and pushed to the side.
“Shit!” I shout to the ceiling.