I’ve been stabbed in the chest. Literally. My eyes dart down to my bridesmaid dress, but somehow, it’s inexplicably blood-free. It’s also about four sizes too big, engulfing me in swaths of loose fabric.
“Sorry about that, honey.” Deb, the seamstress, puts a pin between her teeth and talks around it. “We just need it a little tighter up here.” She pulls at the minty green and pale blue fabric that wraps across my chest, pinching until it feels like it may slice me in half.
My boyfriend Zander’s mom, Trudy, gives me a sympathetic glance from her perch on a kitchen stool. “The first fitting is the worst. Next time will just be little tweaks.” She looks at the seamstress, who is now crouched down at my feet. “Right, Deb?”
Deb nods as she slides another pin into the dress.
It feels like I’ve been trapped in this dress for a short eternity, even though the clock claims it’s only been twenty minutes since I stripped down and traded my clothes for the eclectic floral confection that now drapes over me. Eclectic. That’s what the bride, Becca, called it when Trudy pulled it from the bag and presented it to me, one hand under it, like I was setting my eyes on a great award and not something that looks like an old watercolor painting in dress form. When Trudy slides a magazine across the counter and begins thumbing through it, I worry that maybe this is going to take a lot longer than the “quick second” she promised.
I take a deep breath and remind myself that this is what I wanted. To be in the wedding. Being in Becca’s wedding is the epitome of acceptance into Zander’s family. Wedding pictures are forever. It wasn’t a huge surprise, though. Sure, Zander and I are only juniors—almost seniors—but I’m not a regular girlfriend. The kind you meet on the first day of math class and start dating on a whim when you get partnered up for a project. The one you break up with before the first school dance rolls around. No, I’m the opposite. I’m the friend-turned-girlfriend, the one his mom has been begging him to date since way before it was even appropriate. I’m the pseudo daughter-in-law. The girlfriend who no longer gets asked to dances or out on dates, because we just know.
The door slams and I tear my eyes away from Deb—who I was hoping wouldn’t poke me while I was actually watching her—to see Becca coming through the kitchen with a small black tote bag slung over her shoulder. Zander’s sister looks like a younger version of his mom, with sandy blond hair that is always in soft curls at her shoulders and blue eyes that are soft and kind. Even when she’s curled up on the couch watching a movie with her fiancé Chad, Becca looks like she has somewhere to go.
“Oh Liv, you look so beautiful,” she gushes when she sees me. Like her mother, Becca has the ability to say that sort of thing without sounding as if she felt obligated to.
“It’s a really gorgeous dress,” I say, and for the first time I feel like it’s true.
She shakes her head as she sits down on a stool next to her mother. “It’s a really gorgeous you.” She sets the black bag on the counter and dumps out the contents, sending little squares of fabric sliding across the granite breakfast bar.
Trudy claps her hands. “Wow,” she says, fingering a few swatches. “Madeline sent all of these?” Madeline is Becca’s wedding planner, but I’ve never met her, because she lives in Indianapolis where Becca and Chad live, and where the wedding will take place in one of the loft spaces downtown on Labor Day weekend.
Becca nods. “We’re supposed to pick our top five. I’m thinking something darker for the table”—she grabs a shiny taupe fabric and sets it aside—“and lighter for the napkins. And something with some sparkle for the cocktail tables.” She holds a sequin beige square in the air and shakes it in my direction. “What do you think about this? I sort of love this one.”
“Are there going to be any colors?” I ask.
Trudy laughs. “These are colors. Neutrals are elegant.” She pats Becca’s hand on the counter. “It’s going to be so beautiful.” Trudy pushes a curl behind Becca’s shoulder, and leaves her hand there, and my heart aches for how sweet it is. I so want that to be me someday, sitting with Trudy and Becca, obsessing over fabric swatches and appetizer choices and the guest list.
“Liv.” Zander’s voice comes up the stairs just as he does, and pulls me out of my thoughts. “We gotta go.”
I look down at Deb, who shoves a pin along my hem before sitting back on her knees. “You’re good,” she says. “I’ll see you in a few months for the final.”
I look up at Zander, who is striding over to his mother and sister. He picks up a piece of fabric. “Why are they all brown?”
Becca lets out a dramatic gasp. “It’s not brown,” she says, scrunching her nose up in mock disgust. “It’s cappuccino.”
“Whatever you say.” Zander puts his hands up in surrender. “Your wedding, your poop-brown napkins.”
Becca comes at Zander with an open hand that lands across his bicep, and he breaks out into laughter. “I’m just kidding! Jeez!”
“Leave your sister alone.” Trudy’s voice is sugar, like it always is with her youngest. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I snuck in the back. Liv and I have to go to a . . . thing. Okay if I steal her?”
I don’t move, because I know how this routine goes when I’m in the midst of wedding prep. Trudy and Becca can spend hours talking over every detail of this wedding, and Zander and I have been putting on this show for months. He insists we leave. I act like I just can’t, I have to help. He insists, I give in (because Ugh, what can you do? Guys.) And then, finally, I’m free. Tonight’s performance is no different. After a few groans from Becca about needing a tie-breaker vote, the door slams behind us and we practically leap onto the back porch. And no one can be mad at me.
Zander grabs my hand and leads me down the steps toward his car. “I am a human pincushion.” I sigh dramatically, like there was a chance I wasn’t going to make it through my fitting unscathed. “I could kiss you for rescuing me.”
“You could.” Zander is smiling when he pulls me toward him, blue eyes locked on mine, his cropped blond hair shining in the sun. His arms wrap behind me as he walks me back, until my butt bumps into the car door. Zander’s lips are warm and soft, and so sweet when they meet mine. I sometimes still think about how surreal it is that I kiss him now. That after years of thinking about it—and okay, I’ll admit it, obsessing about it—I finally get to do it. I grope around for the handle behind me and slide away from Zander before our driveway PDA gets out of hand. I’m not making out with him in front of his house, not with all of the neighbors peep-showing at their windows. I drop myself into the front seat and he does the same. As we back out of the driveway, I don’t even know where we’re going, but I don’t care. I’d go anywhere with Zander.
As we’re pulling out of his subdivision, Zander turns the music down. “Don’t be mad, but I can’t hang out tonight,” he says.
“But you just said—” What was that whole song and dance at his house for?
“I didn’t want you to be stuck with my family on a Friday night.”
“Thanks. I guess . . .” Instead I’m going to be stuck by myself on a Friday night, because there’s no chance my best friend, Emma, hasn’t already been scooped up by her new boyfriend, Mani. “Why can’t we hang out?”
“Peterson has a thing at his house.”
Tim Peterson is a senior on the baseball team—one of Zander’s teammates.
“And this is a no-girlfriends-allowed type of thing? It’s not just a party?” I say.
He doesn’t respond right away, and I wonder what exactly is happening over there that I can’t come along for. “It’s a party, sort of. But, like . . . okay, it’s a tournament.”
I’ve been to a lot of Zander’s tournaments, and none of them happen at anyone’s house.
“Peterson got the new Madden and the draft is tonight.” He looks at me like I must not understand. “You know, picking our teams.”
“I know what a draft is.” We’re pulling onto my road. “And that’s going to take all night?”
“We’ll probably just hang out after,” he says as we pull into my driveway. “I could maybe stop over after?”
When did it became such a chore for him to work me into his schedule? I think about telling Zander that it’s the second time he’s ditched me this week. But instead he kisses me, and tells me he loves me as I close the door behind me. And I don’t say anything, because he’s already said the one thing I’ve always wanted him to say.
“What’s the buzz, little bee?” Aunt Sarah flicks me on the shoulder as she passes me in the kitchen. I’m perched atop a stool at the island, and while my math book is open on one side of me, my computer is filled with words. I tip the screen down just slightly, to obscure it. “Still writing, I see.” She laughs at her rhyming. I’d roll my eyes at anyone else, but something about how much she doesn’t give a crap just makes me love her so much more. “Oh em gee.”
“Okay, just stop.” I laugh as she opens the refrigerator and pulls out the carton of lemonade.
“Sorry. When you wear that, you know I just can’t help it. Brings back memories.” She mock sighs and looks up dramatically, like her memories are locked up in a little cloud hovering overhead in our kitchen.
I look down at the yellow shirt and black leggings I’m wearing, and it does bear a slight resemblance to the bumblebee costume I was obsessed with in elementary school. It had black tights and a striped black and yellow body that looked like I’d gutted a giant stuffed animal, and inserted myself into it like a striped version of Big Bird. My mom had brought it home with her after she returned from wherever it was she had wandered off to. I didn’t know back then, but if I had to guess now, it was probably somewhere with our neighbor, Mr. Hoyle, whose wife moved out sometime shortly after. She was always scowling at our house.
Every day when I came home from kindergarten, I would pull my bumblebee outfit on, and spend the rest of the night buzzing about my Oma’s living room. Aunt Sarah would always come over for dinner when I was there—which was most of elementary school and the first half of middle school, before I moved in with her in seventh grade. She’d always greet me and my stripey legs with, “What’s the buzz, little bee?” I bet she wished I’d still been that cute when I moved in with her in seventh grade. It probably should have been weird for me to move in with her when I was twelve, but Aunt Sarah and I clicked right from the start. Probably because I never had a normal. Aunt Sarah always made me feel like she wanted me at her house, and that’s all I ever wanted.
“She called yesterday.” Aunt Sarah doesn’t have to say who, because anyone other than my mother would just call my cell phone. Normal people actually want to talk to you, because they care. My mother just wants the illusion of caring. Next time I see her—which will likely be around my birthday next spring, because she’s sentimental like that—she’ll point out how many times she tried to call me. Like I’ve got a scorecard and she’s earned some points. In reality, I stopped keeping score when I was nine and she told me she was moving back for good and then didn’t. And I stopped caring around twelve, when I moved in with Aunt Sarah and knew that the illusion of my mother figuring her crap out was officially over. I don’t even know what state she’s currently in. She seems to just pop from place to place, without a care in the world.
When I think of family, I think of Aunt Sarah and my Oma—even though she’s mostly in Florida these days—and Zander, and his family. And Emma, my best friend since kindergarten, who is walking through the back door right now, letting it slam behind her.
“I did it!” she belts out.
“I’ll leave now.” Aunt Sarah glances at Emma and her eyes go wide. It’s not that Aunt Sarah isn’t fun, she just likes her fun a little quieter. And with fewer sweeping arm movements.
“You don’t have to,” I say. Unlike me, Emma doesn’t care what people think about what she says, or how she dresses, or anything, really. Aunt Sarah’s probably worried she’s about to hear Emma’s “first time” story. That ship has sailed.
“Oh yes, I do.” Aunt Sarah says, glancing down at my computer as she passes by. “But let’s talk later, okay?”
I love that Aunt Sarah doesn’t ask about my writing. I guess maybe it’s out of habit, since when I started, it was a journal my therapist gave me. At first I wrote about my mom, because I thought that’s what they wanted, but they never asked to look at it. So eventually I just started jotting down little thoughts I’d have. Usually it was a note about my life—something I wanted to change, a wish I had for how things actually were, something I felt bad about. But eventually they turned into little stories. My own little world where I controlled the outcome. And I suppose maybe that was the point all along.
Unfortunately, tonight I’m not writing anything. I’m staring at my blank screen, trying to think of a topic for a “dynamic personal essay” that doesn’t require me to splash my family problems across the page, but could still win me an internship at a major teen magazine next summer. Which would be a very exciting step up from the job I have lined up this summer at our local tourist magazine, Lake Lights.
“What are you working on?” Emma does not have a problem asking me about my writing. Or anything.
“It’s an essay contest for this—“I pick up the magazine from the counter next to me, the lead actress from my favorite book-to-screen adaptation smiling on the cover. “The winner gets an internship this winter.”
“Oh my god, in New York or something?”
I wish. “No, remotely. But it would look amazing on my college applications.”
“True story.” She sets a pile of red and white fabric on the counter in front of me. “I have news, too.” She smiles. “I got the job at The Cherry Pit. You’re looking at one of Riverton’s newest worst-dressed waitresses.” She pops her hands up to her shoulders and dips in a little curtsy.
“Congrats,” I say, and I mean it, because it’s not easy finding a job in a small town when all of the college kids swoop back in for the summer.
“So what are you going to write about?”
I stare at the screen, filled with completely unrelated paragraphs that are all dead-ends. Usually I write short stories—love stories. But this? I don’t feel like I’ve actually experienced anything worth writing fifteen hundred words about. “I have no idea.”
Just put it in his mitt, and you can get off of this field. When I stand on the mound, that’s what I think about now. When I’m standing on the mound, or sitting in the dugout with moon dust caked on my pants. Or when I’m riding my bike, wishing I were still behind the wheel of my car. I played summer league when I was a kid, and I don’t remember wanting to get off of the mound as badly as I do now. I’d think about the way the sweat and dirt would make my face red and scratchy. How the short stocky kid who played right field always lost his white uniform socks and would come in his dad’s black dress socks. When I was twelve, I’d think about impressing the girls who had come to watch us play. Or I’d think about the motions I was about to go through. About how I needed to present the ball for just long enough. Shifting my weight at the right moment, squaring up to the batter after releasing the ball. I don’t remember my dad’s yelling back then, but I’m sure it was always there, like a soft static that was drowned out by all of the other thoughts. The girls and the pizza after the game were louder than he was.
But now, standing on the mound, the ball sticky in my hand, all I hear is my father, saying out loud all of the things I’m thinking. He’s standing behind the dugout fence, his brow almost as wet as mine. At least mine is hidden by my Hornets hat. His is shining red, matted with damp brown hair.
“One more, Emerson!” he screams, his voice getting a little hoarse from the last eight innings. “Make it count!”
The ball leaves my hand and I can feel the verdict before the plate ump delivers it. “Ball two!”
My father’s hands slam against the wire cage in front of him. “No! Head in the game! You’ve got this, Emerson!”
There’s something really weird about my dad calling me by my last name. I think it’s a habit that carried over from little league, when he was my coach and wanted to treat me like the rest of the team. I can’t blame my dad for yelling today. He’s just saying out loud what I’m thinking:
What are you doing, Aiden?
Get this over with already!
I’m the fastest pitcher in our district, by just one percent. And if I could simply focus—do what my dad is begging of me—this game could be over.
Focus, focus, focus. I squint my eyes against the glare of the sun, and cock my head to the side. Better.
I wipe my fingers down the side of my blue pants and pat my palm against my thigh. Left. Right. I crank my neck back and forth, as if that’s going to fix the knot in my arm, the pain in my head, or the real problem—the blurriness as I stare straight ahead at the worn brown glove of my catcher, Zander. He’s clad in black and blue gear, flashing me a two, then four, then two, with his fingers between his knees. Two is my curve ball, and I shake my head at him, telling him it’s a no-go. I don’t trust myself today. He flashes it again and jerks his mitt to where he wants the ball, close and inside.
“Two up, two down!” Mani, our shortstop shouts to our teammates, letting them know we’re going to get these next two outs. We’ve got runners on first and second, and a tied score, in our last game of the regular season. The last win we need to take us into regionals. Back-to-back-to-back titles could be ours.
I bring the ball to my chest and feel the power charge through me as I release it toward the plate. I can feel that one percent. Feel it racing through my arm, feel it slip past my fingertips. This. Is—
I hear the unmistakable groan as leather meets skin. A grunt, a lurch, as the batter crumples to the ground, the ball falling off of his bicep down to the plate.
The ump stands. “Take your base,” he yells in a booming voice. There’s a special tone that umps save for pitchers who hit batters. There’s always a warning to that particular command: Don’t do it again.
“Emerson!” My dad yells, the metallic clang of the fence in harmony with him. His voice has an edge of knowing sympathy. “It’s just muscle memory! Focus!”
Zander throws his face guard back and puts his hands in a T over his head as he trots out to the mound. I jab my toe into the hard dirt.
“Shake it off, Bud.”
Despite his best efforts, Zander and I really aren’t buds. We’re more of a codependent two-person ecosystem. Without me, he can’t do his job. He can’t be amazing until I am. You can be an amazing catcher, but without the right pitcher, you’re just catching the ball. With a bad pitcher, you’re chasing the ball.
He grabs my head in his hands and pulls it toward him. Zander loves these big shows. The whispers of, “Look at him, bringing Emerson back down, getting him focused.” People love the idea that we’re some sort of dynamic duo, on the field and off. “Shake it off. He had it coming. He leaned into it, man.” I know he didn’t, I know I was off, too tight, too wild. I shouldn’t have tried for inside. I told Zander. I don’t say it, because this is a show, not a conversation. “You’ve got this next guy. You hold them here.” I twist my head and pull away—I don’t like his little shows. I nod, because I know he won’t let up until I do.
My best chances for a strikeout are now on first, second, and third, and the top of the lineup is striding out to home plate. He stops behind the plate, rolls up his sleeve, and pats his bicep. He’s inviting me to hit him, egging me on, mocking me. The all-state pitcher who just nailed a batter. All they need is one run and it’s over. I grit my teeth, and remember what my dad said.
Muscle memory, muscle memory, muscle memory.
I lock my eyes on Zander’s mitt and lean back. I try to relax, let my arms and legs do their thing. The same thing they’ve done for the last ten years. Thousands of batters, tens of thousands of pitches, probably.
I let the sticky leather roll around in my hand, squeeze it tight, and let it roll off the tips of my fingers. When I was a kid, I had to remind myself what to do after the ball left my hand. I’d count it out step by step: present . . . cock . . . knee up . . . release . . . pivot . . . so much of it is natural momentum. But at the end, when you bring your body back to the center, position your glove in front of you, and stand ready—that takes thought. But even that is muscle memory now. I’m not even thinking as I let my weight shift to my left leg; as my right comes down and swings to the side. There are no thoughts as my glove comes up to my chest and my leg pivots out. Not a single thought as the white blur of leather leaves the bat and makes contact with my face. No thoughts as I hit the ground, my mother’s shriek hanging in the air.
Baseball games are so not my thing. The uncomfortable metal bleachers, the bees that always seem to be hovering around the concession stand, following me and my ritual sixth-inning hotdog. We’re all squished into this one tiny set of bleachers, and I have to make a conscious effort to keep from grazing the hairy dad-arm next to me. Gross. Why couldn’t Zander have picked basketball—or any sport, really, that doesn’t take place out in the blazing sun? Of course the only thing worse than sitting in the hot sun, watching his back while he catches a ball, is sitting in the cold, watching as he’s pummeled again and again on the football field. Oh, the joys of fall.
“He needs to chill.” Emma jabs her head in the direction of our dugout, where Mr. Emerson has taken his usual spot along the fence outside. If she had ever gone to games before this year, when she started dating the shortstop, Mani Flores, Mr. Emerson would be background noise to her by now. I don’t even hear him anymore; I’m sure the coaches don’t either. It really does drive Zander nuts when he gets like this, though.
Next to me, Emma shakes her head, her brown eyes squinting at the middle-aged man who bears a striking resemblance to the Hornets’ star pitcher, Aiden Emerson. The chain-link clangs every time his open palms slam into it, screaming “Come on, Emerson,” or “Focus!” Which has been a lot this game—Aiden is struggling. He’s been struggling for weeks—ever since he showed up to a game with an unexplained black eye. The black eye is gone now, but it seems our all-state pitcher has disappeared along with it.
I hit Emma’s knee with mine. “Emma.”
“Olivia.” She draws out my full name, long and slow.
Emma doesn’t turn away. “How is anyone supposed to concentrate with all the yelling?” Her voice is loud enough that I expect Mr. Emerson to look at her—to come tearing into the stands toward us, to shake us like he does that poor fence—but his eyes stay glued to his son, out on the mound. We’re background noise to him, too. The woman in front of us looks back at Emma with annoyance in her eyes. “Not you,” Emma whispers, with a sweet smile and shake of her head. Emma’s boyfriend, Mani, turns from his spot between second and third and looks at the outfielders. He yells, “We got this, two up two down,” just as Em screams, “Nice butt, Flores!” He smiles and she laughs, amused with herself.
And I wish I could magically sink down under these bleachers. I shake my head and Emma smacks my leg with a smile. “Your boyfriend’s isn’t bad, either.” She winks one blue eye at me. “Wouldn’t kill you to get into the spirit of things.”
“I don’t think the objectification of players is the ‘spirit’ of baseball.” I take a sip from my water bottle—it’s unseasonably warm for Memorial Day weekend in Michigan.
I groan, and it sounds like there’s a baby bear stuck in my throat. I’m not telling my boyfriend he has a nice butt—which he does—in front of a bleacher full of students, teachers, and parents. His parents. My head instinctively tips toward their location two rows behind us. I sat with the Belles before Emma started coming to games. Those were quieter, less embarrassing days.
Just as Zander takes his spot behind home plate again, Emma does what I won’t. “Nice butt, Belle!”
Zander shakes his head as his mitt stretches in front of him, readying himself, and I can’t help but wonder why he puts up with me and my shameless plus one.
“Ball two!” the umpire yells, eliciting more screaming from Mr. Emerson and glares from Emma.
“Two up, two down!” Mani yells, once again reminding everyone on the field that only two batters might stand between them and regionals. There are runners on first and second and a tied score. Please let this be over soon. Zander’s mom, Trudy, catches my eye and gives me a little wave as she passes a paper bag of neon yellow popcorn to her husband, Dean, sitting behind her. I give a little wave to Becca. I would be surprised by most college juniors driving three hours to watch their little brother’s baseball game, but not Becca. There is nothing average about the Belle family. Which is what I love most about them.
Smack! Another ball hits Zander’s mitt, pulling me out of my thoughts.
My phone buzzes, and a white box pops up. It’s a text from my Aunt Sarah, who was supposed to be here an hour ago, taking the place of Hairy-Arm Guy, who is still disturbingly close on my right.
I turn to make my way out of the bleachers.
“More hot dogs?” Emma doesn’t wait for my answer before starting to make her way to the aisle. “These baseball games are serious business, I’ve gained ten pounds this season.”
I follow her, trying to keep my eyes on the game as we walk to the bright blue two-story stand that holds the concession area down below and the announcer’s nest overhead. Just as we reach the counter, I hear a loud grunt, and gasps fill the stands.
“Did he just hit a batter?” I say to Emma, who is craning her neck to see over the man behind us. I haven’t seen a pitcher hit a batter in years. I’ve never seen Aiden hit a batter.
The Ump stands. “Take your base,” he yells in a booming voice.
Zander throws his face guard back and puts his hands in a T over his head as he trots out to the mound. The two stand on the mound, Zander clearly giving Aiden the pep talk he needs.
Next to me, Emma sighs. “I adore concession-stand nachos.”
My eyes are still on Zander making his slow-walk back to his spot. Giving Aiden every extra second he can. I catch his eye as he reaches the plate and smile. He meets my eyes but he still looks angry. Even so, it’s a little barb that he can’t just suck it up and smile back.
Aunt Sarah appears at the metal counter just as I’m given my pop and gumballs. She fidgets with her phone, then quickly shoves it into her pocket. I hand her a can of Diet Coke and am turning back for the bleachers when a tug at my wrist stops me. She pulls me a few steps in the opposite direction and looks at me nervously. “I have to tell you something, and I’ve been meaning to, but then there’s never a good time.” She rambles nervously. “And I’m going to be gone this weekend, so . . .”
“Tell me what?” I pop a piece of baseball-shaped gum into my mouth, my eyes still fixed on the back of my boyfriend’s head, over Aunt Sarah’s shoulder.
“I got an amazing job offer. In Arizona.” The words make me flinch. My eyes dart from the batter to my aunt, standing in front of me looking like she’s about to throw up all over my shoes. The feeling is so mutual.
I’ve never heard Aunt Sarah mention Arizona before. Or wanting a new job. “Why would you want a job in Arizona?”
“Well, it pays better, and it’s with a bigger company. And there are more opportunities for me if I get out of Riverton.” Okay, I guess I have heard that before. Aunt Sarah is a programmer, and rural Michigan is not a technology mecca.
“Do I have to move to Arizona?” I can’t. Not my senior year. Not with Emma and Zander here.
“We’ll . . . figure something out,” she says, but she doesn’t look as optimistic as she sounds.
Behind her, the whir of the bat catches my eye. Arizona?
The ball flies, and from our spot behind the fence it almost looks as if it’s going straight for Aiden. But he’s not moving, and when I see it happen—the way the white leather deflects off of his perfect cheekbone—I can’t help but gasp. He crumples to the ground and it feels a lot like I’m right there next to him—both of us victims of something we didn’t see coming.
When I enter the locker room on the last day of school a week later, the sour smell hits me like a line drive to the face. I wish I didn’t know what that felt like, but my face still says otherwise. I’m lucky all I got was some serious bruises and broken skin, and that my eye didn’t explode, or something. Has it always smelled this bad? It’s lunch hour on the last day of school, so the locker room is empty, but I know Coach Martinez will be here. He teaches freshman algebra, and is always in his office during lunch time. It’s usually open tutoring time, for guys with at-risk GPAs. Not at risk of not graduating, just dangerously close to being kicked off the team. But those guys are usually cleared out by now, making their way toward classes. They’re not sticking around one second longer than they have to.
“Hey Stevens,” I say to our third baseman—the biggest asshole on the team—who is leaving Coach M’s office as I come down the dark tiled hallway. He nods as he passes me, and keeps walking. Everyone acts like this is all my fault, and it’s hard to even argue. Losing the game meant the end of practices, so aside from the occasional side-eye from Zander in our physics class, I’ve gotten off pretty easy.
I knock on the window before I step through the door. Coach M is sitting at his desk, a Riverton Hornets hat pulled over his shaggy black hair.
“Emerson, you’re just in time.” A giant grin fills his face; if the loss is getting to him, he hasn’t let on. “We’ve got a few minutes. You need a quick session?” He laughs, because I’m far from needing tutoring, and he knows it. Our team was academic all-state last year, thanks to GPAs like mine pulling up slackers like Stevens.
His eyes drop to the pile of blue in my hand, and scrunch up in confusion. “Problem with your uniform, Kid?”
I swallow, trying to make the words come out. I’ve played baseball since I was four. Summers of tee-ball, then little league, then three years of varsity. I have a shelf around my ceiling, lining my room with metallic trophies—red and green and blue—all topped with bat-wielding gold or silver men, ready to swing. Now I’m standing here, after the last game of my junior season, and I can’t say the words that I know I have to. Even though it took me fifteen minutes to force myself into that smelly hallway. Even though I feel like I might puke all over the tiled floor.
“Emerson?” Coach M tips his head and perks his brows. He looks nervous, like maybe I’m about to tell him I decided to run track and I’m going to miss a few games. That shit really pisses the coaches off. There’s nothing they like less than a guy who’s lacking 110 percent allegiance. God forbid anyone be multitalented.
“I’m . . . out,” I mumble, not sure that the words were actually audible.
Coach M looks around him, like he’s missed something. “Out of what?”
“Out of baseball.” I set the uniform on his desk and look at the clock. There’s exactly ninety seconds until the bell sounds. Ninety seconds until I have to flee, no matter what. I’m not an idiot, there’s a reason I skated in just under the bell. Because I can’t take being berated about this. I’m maxed out on guilt.
“Like hell you are, son.” Coach M is out of his chair, two hands planted on the desk, leaning toward me like he’s trying to keep himself from lunging. His face is already turning red, the way it looks when he screams “Gimme one more” as we run wind sprints—third base line to the mound and back, first base line and back, right field fence and back, our arms pumping until they’re tingling and almost numb. Only he doesn’t scare me then, because all I have to do is run. Just run, run, run and the screaming will stop. Run, run, run and eventually you get to go home. But I can’t run now. There’s still sixty seconds until that bell sounds, and even when it does, I don’t know that he’s going to let me leave. “You’re our starting pitcher. Have you lost your fu—” He looks around like he forgot he was in the school. His voice gets just a hair softer but it’s just a different kind of yelling. When it comes to yelling, it’s actually about tone, not volume. That’s what people don’t get about my dad yelling. I know what my dad sounds like mad; really mad, like I’ve done something wrong. It’s different from the frustrated yelling I hear from behind the fence every game. “Have you lost your mind, Emerson? You’re not quitting right before your senior year.”
“I just did.” The bell sounds, and I feel like a racehorse just set free, the metal gate pulled away. Except that I’m not running toward anything, I’m being chased—by everything I could have had. I turn to the hallway and walk away as Coach M slams something in his office behind me. I exit the locker room hallway and head into the bright expansive gym. There are signs plastering the gym walls, left over from the last pep rally. The blue walls are spotted with white rectangular blotches. Banners, likely filled with player names and numbers, and notes reading good luck, you can do it and we’re #1. By September they’ll be gone—everyone will have forgotten the last game and the big loss. The same way they’ll have forgotten about me, and everything I could have been. I hope.
When the final bell of junior year rings, the hallway is filled with excitement. Locker doors are slamming and feet are pounding as everyone darts outdoors. Everyone has somewhere to go. Usually I’d be headed to the gym to lift weights. Even on the last day of school. We wouldn’t get much done, but we’d still sit on the equipment, lifting half our usual and shooting the shit. Martinez would come in to lecture us about being responsible over the summer and not getting soft and worthless, laying at the beach and eating concession hamburgers. The guy always has something to say about concession food. So who has the real problem?
Zander passes me with a nod, and I know he doesn’t know. For now. Because no chance he’d let me just pass by if he did, and no way Coach M doesn’t fill everyone in. I guess the guys will get a different kind of warning this summer. Eat all the hamburgers and nachos you want, just don’t lose your shit like Emerson.
When I close my locker, I look down the quiet, almost-empty hallway. It’s my last time standing here as Emerson. In three months I’ll come back as a senior, and I won’t be Him. Emerson, the Golden Boy of Riverton Baseball. I’ve already noticed the change the last week, as I’ve navigated the hallways with my mangled face. I’ve had to wear my failure like a mask.
I push the doors open and walk into the courtyard where the bike racks are. My yellow Schwinn is the only one left. It’s still dusty and scratched from two years of sitting in the backyard shed since I got my permit and abandoned it. I brush off the black handlebars and give it a squeeze in my palm. It’s just you and me this summer. As I roll out onto the sidewalk I can see a few of the guys out by the double doors leading out of the gym, at the opposite end of the building. They’re looking out into the parking lot.
When Stevens’ eyes meet mine, I know they know. I hear my name in a loud shout, not angry, just loud, and steer myself in the opposite direction. They can’t fix this. And I don’t want to hear about how I’m letting the team down, or ruining senior year, or driving away scouts. I know I’m doing it. I let all those thoughts infest my brain for the last week, until it got so messed up I had to let them out. I’m used to baseball being on my brain—games, scouts, college plans, all of it. But not when I can’t have it. Not when I know it’s out of reach.
Because there’s no such thing as a legally blind pitcher. Even if it’s just one eye. I close my left eye as I pedal, and watch everything get soft and shaded like a watercolor painting. I can still see the road—the dark strip stretching out in front of me. The grass and trees are all shades of green, blended together, lights and darks, like little puddles of paint against the blue background of the sky. I close my other eye as well, just for a second, feel the breeze against my face, warm sun in my hair. My shoulders suddenly feel so much hotter.
I jerk as a rush of air goes by me. My eyes whip open as the car flies by me down the country road, my tire sliding just off the shoulder into the gravel, crashing me down to the ground.
“Fck.” I push myself up, pulling my bike with me. My forearm burns, covered in dirt and tiny pieces of gravel, the blood starting to seep out in thin lines and splotches. Fantastic. Because I didn’t look like enough of a freak show with my mutilated face. My mom’s going to lose her shit when she sees this. She’s already convinced I’m going off the rails. That I’m being hasty quitting the team. Things will get better, she says. Which is probably true, but what she doesn’t understand is that baseball isn’t going to wait for me. That the idea of a baseball flying in my direction is fucking terrifying now. That even before I took a line drive to the face, I flinched every time Zander lobbed the ball back at me in practice. I knew as soon as I left the ophthalmologist’s office a month ago that I probably shouldn’t play, but I’ve let my parents’ optimism keep pushing me forward. Until the hit. I knew that hit was the end of more than just our chance at regionals.
My phone is buzzing in my pocket and there are only three possibilities:
1. The guys, ready to trash me about baseball
2. Ellis, my cousin and best friend, making sure I survived
3. Dad, checking in about River Depot
When I finally pull up to the house and take my phone out, it turns out I was three for three.
Zander: WTF Emerson!!!
Stevens: Come on man, get your ass back here
MISSED CALL: Dad
Ellis: You alive?
Still have all your beautiful teeth?
Your face needs all the help it can get at this point.
I laugh out loud, because Ellis is obsessed with the current status of my face. A few days ago he tried to put concealer on my eye, and he’s already looked up the area’s best cosmetic surgeon, in case—his words, not mine—my face doesn’t “pull together” soon. It’s not really that bad. The swelling is gone and in another week the bruises will hopefully be gone completely. There’s a healing cut on the outside of my cheekbone, but the little white strips across it look kind of badass. Like I was in a fight or something. By the time I throw another bandage on my arm, the look will be complete.
When I pull into the driveway, Dad’s giant red truck is in front of our massive garage. Most people would just call it a pole barn, but to me it’s always been the garage. Except it’s the kind of garage where you winter fifty canoes, a hundred kayaks, and piles and piles of life jackets. Even now, with the season getting started, a third of the space is still covered in red, blue, and green boats.
My car is sitting in the unopened bay at the far end of the garage, and even though I can’t see it, I can sense it like a cosmic pull. I can almost feel the worn leather interior, like a phantom limb.
“Aiden.” My name rings across the yard as I dump my bike in the grass.
“Hey.” I make my way toward the porch where my dad is coming down the steps in his unofficial summer uniform—khaki shorts, Birkenstocks, and a riverton t-shirt. My dad owns every t-shirt River Depot sells. This one says salt-free summer fun with an outline of Lake Michigan, and riverton across the bottom. It’s so weird to live in a place where people buy everything from shot glasses to kid’s slingshots with the town’s name slapped on it. It’s not like we’re New York or Chicago or Paris. I doubt some dude overseas visits the Eiffel Tower and then thinks, “Now all that remains is to see Riverton, Michigan, and I can die happy.” It’s a nice enough place, though, if you like the water, which my family does. We’ve spent most of our summer free time outside for as long as I can remember. Canoeing and kayaking; hiking in the dunes along Lake Michigan.
“Help me load up?” Dad nods toward the garage. “It’s good practice for you.”
“Sure.” I toss my backpack onto the porch and make my way to the garage. Dad looks at my wrist, then holds it up in his hand. “What’s this?”
“Bike ride home.” I lightly brush at the dirt still stuck to my arm. “Wiped out.” The blood is starting to dry and it’s going to hurt like a bitch when I finally get a chance to wash it off.
“You’re killing me with this stuff.” Dad laughs softly, but I can tell he’s irritated. “Throw your mom a bone and try to be more careful, okay? I’m tired of hearing about how you’re mangling the body she spent nine long months growing.”
“Limb by limb,” I mutter, and Dad laughs. I look down at my arm, barely bleeding at all but clearly not looking great. Life has been more dangerous lately. “Sorry.”
Dad grabs one end of a canoe and I grab the other. “How’d it go?” he says, as we make our way to his truck. “Martinez give you crap?”
I hoist my end of the metal boat up onto the rack that sits atop the bed of my dad’s truck. “It was fine.” I don’t know what else to say. This isn’t the kind of talk we usually have about baseball. Dream colleges and major league pipe dreams is our usual thing. Stuff that’s less depressing.
He nods but doesn’t say anything else about it. We load five more canoes onto the rack, and then start shoving oars in the empty cavity of the truck bed. Dad climbs into the driver’s seat and hangs his elbow out the open window. “You’re sure you’re up for this?”
I know what Dad means—you’re sure you want to work at River Depot? Sure that after all these years avoiding it with baseball camps and pitching clinics and extra workouts, I’m not going to let him down this summer? I won’t be in charge—I don’t know enough now to do anything other than grunt work. Ellis starts training me this weekend, getting me up to speed on all the things I didn’t learn the last four years, while he was working there without me.
I’m excited to work with my best friend. Excited I’ll mostly be helping tourists who don’t know me, and not locals who will ask questions. A three-month break from teammates, classmates and coaches sounds like a best-case scenario. This summer I need to figure out who I am without baseball, and I don’t need to be reminded of who I was with it.
“I could stay here.” I turn my eyes from the ceiling and look into Zander’s blue eyes. It’s the first day of summer break, and I’m lying on his bed in a post-lunch food coma.
“In my room? You’re not supposed to be up here to begin with.”
I think of what Aunt Sarah would say, and snort a little. Even when we were in middle school and just friends, I always had strict instructions not to be in Zander’s room. I’m not sure what the goal was, because Aunt Sarah is far from conservative and I wasn’t even thinking about sex back then—I certainly wasn’t about to do it with his parents down the hallway. Maybe it just made her feel more like a mother figure? I had just moved in with her full-time, and she was still getting used to the whole pseudo-parent thing. Sometimes I think she still is.
“Your parents don’t care,” I say.
“I guess.” Zander doesn’t sound convinced. He sounds indifferent. He’s been weird the last week, ever since I told him I was potentially moving. Weird, because he’s taken a temporary hiatus from ranting about his baseball woes, and is now talking about almost nothing. Potentially, because I still have no intention of actually leaving. Aunt Sarah seems to be open to options, so now I just need some options.
It’s true about his parents, though. They really don’t care. As far as they’re concerned, my joining the family someday is just a technicality. They’ve introduced me as their “other daughter” for as long as I can remember; since I was the sometimes-neighbor girl at Oma’s house down the street. Then in ninth grade, when Zander had his first serious girlfriend, I didn’t come around as much. It was hard, seeing them together. Even harder getting the side-eye from Ellie Henderson. It won’t last, his dad said to me with a wink, when I found myself early to his house one night and Ellie and I crossed paths. She glared at me from across the kitchen as I sat at the island with a glass I’d gotten myself from the cabinet. I wanted to cry then, thinking about how I wasn’t The One. But six months later Ellie was gone. And his mom said, “It’s always been you” when we told them we were officially together.
“Are you listening to me?” I flick his hand with mine. “I’m serious. Maybe I could stay in Becca’s room.”
“She’s coming home for the summer. She’ll need her old room.”
He’s right, of course. “But she’s getting married at the end of the summer. And she’ll be moved into their new place before that . . . so maybe I could stay here.” I look around his room, at the posters and trophies and dents in the wall I know by heart. “You’ll be gone most of the summer, anyway. I could stay in your room while you’re gone, and then move into Becca’s before school starts.”
I’m proud of myself for thinking on my feet. Though I wonder how the Belles—or Aunt Sarah—would feel about me being in the house alone for so long.
“I’ll be gone all summer,” he corrects me.
No one knows better than me how long my boyfriend deserts me each summer, when he pilgrimages to his family’s lake house five hours north. Leaving one beach town for another—ridiculous. For ten weeks every summer I’m at the bottom of the state, and Zander is at the top. And for one glorious week in the middle, I get to stay at the lake house with him—with all of them. The Belles. Becca lying out on the float until she’s an unnatural shade of red, Zander’s mom, Trudy, making elaborate meals every night, and her husband Dean manning the grill.
The lake cabin is just the right mix of new and old and the lake is always rippling gently with the light shimmering across it like tinsel on a Christmas tree. I’m always there during the Fourth of July, when the little town puts up flags and buntings. Like a freaking Norman Rockwell painting. Just thinking about the lake house makes me giddy with anticipation. Zander and I used to share a room with twin bunk beds when we were up there, but when I had gone from best friend to girlfriend that summer after freshman year I was promoted to the spare bed in Becca’s room for the week.
“I’m staying the whole summer this year.” Zander shakes his head, and his blond hair falls across his forehead.
He doesn’t say anything right away, just stares up at the ceiling. When I push myself up and sit on the edge of the bed, he closes his eyes. “Does this have to be a thing?”
“That I’m possibly leaving, and you’re not going to see me all summer?”
He shakes his head. “If you’re leaving, what’s the point of the summer?” he mumbles.
Ouch. It had never crossed my mind that my moving would mean that Zander and I were over.
“So you don’t want to waste your summer with me if I’m going to be moving . . . but you also don’t want me to move in, which would keep me here? That sounds like us breaking up either way.”
Zander doesn’t say anything, and I can feel the tears pricking at my eyes. I don’t say anything, because talking about feelings is hard. It was hard when I was in therapy, talking about my lousy mother, and it never got any easier when I had to start talking to Zander.
“Maybe we should, Liv. I mean—” His voice is soft but rough, and the words stick into my ribs like they were wrapped around the blade of a knife.
“Fine.” I don’t know what else to say when it’s clear he’s over this. That he’s fine with leaving me for the summer, and for forever.
Zander rolls off his back and sits on the edge of his bed, his back to me. I’ve spent so much time in his room, I almost forget it isn’t mine. That I’m the one who has to retreat from this match. “I still want to be friends . . .”
“Unbelievable.” I push myself up from the bed and don’t glance back as I make my way out the door. Of course Zander would think he could have it both ways. I was the friend, and then finally when it was convenient I was the girlfriend, and now the tides have turned again.
The hallway that runs along the upstairs balcony feels endless as I pass the doors to his parents’ room and his sister’s. I can’t believe I was thinking about moving in here while he was ready to dump me. He’s just done? It doesn’t make any sense, and the irrationality of it all gives me a certain sense of calm. Tomorrow he’ll text. I’ll wake up to “Love you”—Zander’s version of an I’m sorry—and all will be right. Because serious relationships don’t end like this. They don’t end without tears or yelling. Over the years my mother’s boyfriends just left. One day they were there and the next they were gone. Zander isn’t some guy I met at the grocery store and brought home on a whim. Why did he have to kiss me?
I had almost gotten used to him and Horrible Ellie Henderson, to the idea that we’d never get together. I had a crush on Joey Hammond that spring. He had just started texting me, and showing up at the ice cream shop after my shifts. But then Zander broke up with Ellie, and we sat on his bed, and he kissed me. He changed everything. Now I wish he had just left me in my little bubble, loving him in secret. We wouldn’t have anything to lose. But no, he just had to go and kiss me.
As I make my way through the kitchen I give Trudy a quick smile. She’s leaning her hip against the counter, hunched over a notepad as she scratches at it with a pen. Her hair is long and blond and everything about her is soft-looking. Not like my mother, who is all sharp angles, straight lines, and cropped dark hair. Trudy has always felt like what I thought a mother should be. Not just soft, but warm. I want to stop, to tell her what a jerk her son is, but it’s embarrassing to admit how dysfunctional we can be. Plus it isn’t fair to her. Or to me. Because she’d march me right back up there and somehow fix this. I’m not sure if I’m ready for it to be fixed.
I want the text.
I want to ignore it for a few hours, to make him wait and wonder. I want to be on the other end for once. I never realized how much I needed it until this moment. I’m out the door before Trudy can even say a word. And as I walk out of Zander’s house, along the brick walkway and down the driveway, where the family’s speedboat sits, waiting to be hauled five hours north, I realize that my problems have only multiplied since I arrived. I still don’t have anywhere to live next year.
This isn’t how I imagined summer starting.