Hey everyone. I'm just here to give you all an update on the voting process. I'm eliminating 'Bully and Victim' from the choices because 'Is It Possible..?' centers around that. So I'm just letting you all know.
Also, after a week of voting, we have one front runner and a six-way-tie for second. There's still nine more weeks in the voting process, so if you have a story you want to see, the choices are posted in Chapter 17 of 'Could I Be...?' Vote for your favorite choice!
Thank you all again for your wonderful support. There are only three more chapters of 'Could I Be...?' after this one, so be on the look out. Thank you again. Here's Chapter 18 of 'Could I Be...?'
When I get back to my dorm room later, I don't sleep very much. The looks on my teammates faces when they were in the hospital with me, the way they sounded when they talked to me, it's all that's been knocking on my mind. It felt as if they hated me and were actually afraid to be around me.
It's later the same day and I'm heading over to Klein Field for the last game against University of Arizona. With Jack still in the hospital, I feel like a part of me is missing. He and I have been working together ever since I first joined the team and we formed a perfect battery together. I have this underlying feeling that something's going to go wrong tonight.
I walk into the locker room to find it completely empty. I did show up a bit earlier than I needed to, so I decide to take a seat on the bench and text Zane a little. As soon as I send the first text, I hear the door to the locker room open and see Ty walking into the room. "Hey, Ty," I say.
He sees me and I see a similar look from early this morning on his face. He doesn't respond and walks to his locker and turns his back to me. "Ty, what the hell is going on?" I ask.
I don't get a response, so I try to be a bit more forceful. I rise from the bench and grab Ty's shoulder and spin him toward me. "Ty!"
The look on his face takes me by surprise. It's a look of fear. His eyes are wide and I can feel he's shaking a little. "Ty, please tell me what's wrong," I beg.
"P-Please...stay away from me," he quietly replies.
I feel my chest tighten and my throat clenches up out of reflex. "Ty, please just talk to me..."
"I-I don't want to get hurt. I don't want to be around you if that happens again..."
I put two and two together and finally understand what's going on. "Ty, I know what happened last night was scary, but that was a one time thing. It won't happen again..."
"How do you know?!" Ty yells at me. "There could be hundreds of people like that fucking psycho out in the world, and they may do even more damage than the one last night! Jack could've fucking died last night, and you know it was your fault! You just had to be a...a faggot and put his fucking life in danger! And I don't want to be around you if it means I might die!"
I feel my skin break out in goose bumps at the word and the temperature in the room seems to drop below zero. My arms fall to my sides and I turn back to my locker, feeling a sickening pain in my chest. I open my locker and start to dress into my uniform, tossing my clothes in the locker as I slip my uniform on.
With my uniform on, I stuff my bag into my locker and grab my bat and mit and shut the metal door. I look back behind me and see Ty hasn't moved an inch. "I'll spare you the trouble of doing it yourself," I quietly say.
I grab my key and touch the metal tip to the locker door. The room fills with a high-pitched metal screech of my key running over the metal, but I don't hear it. It takes me a minute, but I finish writing what I first saw when I came into this locker room: 'FAG.'
I stuff my key back into my pocket and grab my bat and mit again and silently make my way out of the locker room, giving Ty the space he wants away from the fag. I make my way out into the dugout and set my bat down on the bench and grab a bucket of balls and walk out onto the field.
Stepping off to the side of the field, I walk to the pitcher's practice area and set the bucket by my side. I grab a ball and set myself up for a pitch, placing my left foot on the pitcher's mound and letting the ball fall into my grip. Taking aim at the small square on the wall, I pick up my left foot and bring it down hard, letting my arm circle forward.
The ball flies out of my hand, and I feel my stomach drop at what I see. The ball flies way to the right of the square, hitting the wooden fence with a loud crack and falling to the dirt a second later. A pitch like that hasn't happened to me since I first started pitching when I was a kid. Something like that is almost foreign to me.
My hand dives for another ball and I quickly find my stance on the plate. Taking a deep breath, my arm flies behind me and shoots forward, but the same feeling that something's off comes back as I let the ball fly. Instead of going to the right, the ball flies several feet above the box, crashing into the fence.
There's something really wrong here, and I don't know what. But I can feel tonight's game is going to go horribly.
About two hours later, I'm sitting on the bench in the dugout, staring at the concrete floor underneath my feet. The rest of the team is in here with me, but it feels like I'm completely alone. I can hear the rumble of the stands above me filling with fans and classmates, who are here to see a good game. I just hope I can give it to them.
I hear a clap and I see Charles standing to the left of me. "Alright, boys," he says. "This is the last game against University of Arizona. Remember, they're a good team and we managed to beat them twice already, but that doesn't mean we can go soft on them. They're here to play, and we're here to play with them.
"I know what you're all thinking and I know it's going to be different playing without Jack. But the doctor said he'll be back in about three to four weeks. We're just lucky the wound wasn't as bad as it looked and that the knife the guy had was only about four inches. He'll be out of the hospital in about a week, and then he'll have a little rehabilitation before coming back to the field.
"So pick your heads up and let's have some fun out there."
The starting members and myself grab our mits and make our way onto the field and take our spots. I can't even get myself to look at Ty anymore, and I really want to congratulate him for finally starting out in a game. But I can't. So I suck down my feelings and step onto the pitcher's mound.
With Jack in the hospital, my new catcher is Devin Kantor, the backup catcher. He's a good guy and I've pitched with him a few times during practice and in a few games, but I haven't pitched with him enough for us to understand one another. And I'm feeling incredibly nervous because of it.
Devin takes his place behind home plate and the umpire stands behind him while a Wildcats player steps into the batter's box. "Play ball!" the umpire calls out.
The batter takes his stance and holds the bat behind him, ready for my pitch. Devin gives me the signal for a curveball, and I nod my head once. I set myself up and my hand finds the grip I'm looking for and take in a deep breath. I can do this. I can do this...
My left foot lifts off the mound and my arm whips forward. I feel my shoulder, elbow, and wrist all spin and the ball sails out of my hand. But as soon as it leaves my fingertips, I know this isn't going to end well. The batter swings and I hear the metallic clang of the ball connecting with the bat.
I don't even have to turn around to know that that ball is long gone. The moans of the crowd tell me for me. The batter circles the bases and I look down at the mound in disgust. That was the first fucking pitch of the game, and the Wildcats already have a run. The batter steps onto home plate and picks up his discarded bat and makes his way back to the dugout.
Devin produces another ball and tosses it to me, still looking down at the dirt. The next batter walks out of the dugout and takes his place in the batter's box. Devin gives me the signal for a fastball, and I nod again. I try to aim for the brown of his glove, but I can't seem to focus on it.
Giving up, I ready myself for the pitch and tightly hold the ball in my hand. I take my arm behind me and throw it forward as hard as I can. As much I pray for the ball to fly into Devin's glove, I see it flying directly toward the batter. He tries to move his body out of the ball's path, but it hits him right in the shoulder.
The umpire steps forward. "Dead ball!" he yells. "Batter, take a base!"
The batter tosses his bat into the foul zone and jogs toward first, rubbing his shoulder as he makes his way there. I feel every eye in the stadium on me and I feel absolutely terrible. I've never hit another player with a ball before, but that's only part of the reason why I feel so bad. Mainly it's because I'm doing so horribly.
The onslaught continues the more and more I throw, by the time we manage to get three outs, the Wildcats have scored an additional five runs and my pitching is only getting worse and worse. Three of those runs were scored by me throwing ball after ball way outside the strike zone and forcing the runners to take a base.
I slowly step into the dugout, feeling dozens of eyes watching me as I slump onto the bench. A body takes a seat next to me as I'm putting on my batting gloves. "Don't worry about it, Swanson," Charles tells me. "Everyone has their off days."
"Yeah? Do you know anyone that's walked nine batters, gave the other team six runs, and hit a player in the shoulder in the first inning alone?"
"Okay, so maybe it's a really bad day for you. Is something bothering you? You can tell me anything."
I glance around the dugout and see everyone looking incredibly dejected. "I'm fine, Coach Higgins," I say, grabbing my bat from beside my foot. "The thing with Jack is just on my mind."
Charles places his hand on my shoulder and gives me a light squeeze. "I understand how you're feeling. I heard about what happened from a few of the other boys and how Jack potentially saved your life. I know it must've been hard to have seen that happen, but right now, I'm not your friend, I'm your coach.
"So I'm going to treat you like any of the other players. Get your head out of your ass and play some damn ball!"
Charles may sound enthusiastic about it, but I feel dead inside. "I'll try," I say.
I rise off the bench with my bat and grab a helmet and make my way onto the field, my body still feeling completely numb. I step into the batter's box and get into my ready position, holding the bat over my right shoulder and looking out at the pitcher with a blank look in my eyes.
My mind is telling me I'm ready to knock one out of the park, but I'm so unfocused right now that the next minute and a half is a blur. I come back to reality when I finally hear a loud thump behind me. "Strike three!" the umpire yells. "You're out!"
I'm in complete shock. And I look frantically around me. I see the catcher throwing the ball back to the batter and the umpire gesturing at me for me to get off the field. I slowly turn on my heel and walk back to the dugout, a lump in my throat growing by the second.
I step down the stairs into the dugout and walk back to the bench, passing by Andy Daniels as he starts to walk out onto the field. "Nice going, faggot..." he whispers.
Pure rage flashes through me and before I know it, I'm swinging the bat toward the concrete wall and don't even feel it as it snaps right in half. Splinters fly throughout the dugout and the broken other half of the bat clatters to the floor. I'm left with the handle of the bat in my hand and heavy breaths coming and going from my body.
I don't even have to look around to know that everyone is looking at me with surprise in their faces. "Swanson." I glance to my right and see Charles with his arms crossed over his chest. "Grab your mitt and what's left of your bat and hit the showers. You're done for the night."
So this is what's it's like to be on a team and have every single one of them against you. I exhale loudly, grab the other half of my bat and my glove, and walk past everybody and back into the locker room. My cleats echo throughout the room as I walk back to my locker and as soon as I step in front of it, my glove and bat fall to the floor.
Yeah, the word I wrote is still on the locker, but it's now got a few companions. My once bright red locker is now covered in keyed messages, every single one of them making my stomach hurt.
'OUR CAPTAIN ALMOST DIED BECAUSE OF YOU'
'GET OFF THE TEAM'
I stare at the hate-filled words for what feels like an eternity, never blinking as I look at them. I keep silently hoping that the words will just disappear, but they stay on the locker. I wipe my eyes dry and open my locker, grabbing my casual clothes and stripping off my uniform with disgust.
Getting my clothes back on, I stare down at the uniform on the bench. I once saw this thing as the greatest thing I had ever seen. Now, the excitement I felt when I first looked at it is gone. I fold up the shirt and pants and lay the red and white socks and cap on top of them, right in front of my defaced locker.
I take a seat on the opposite bench and begin to tie my shoes, when I hear the door to the locker room burst open. "Swanson?!" I hear, recognizing Charles' voice. "Where the hell are you?!"
"By my locker," I call back.
Charles footsteps echo off the tiled walls and I see him come around the corner, his face fuming. "What the hell was that?!" he yells. "I've never seen a player react that way to a strikeout in all of my life! What the hell do you have to say for yourself?!"
I finish tying my shoes and rise off the bench, swinging my bag with the destroyed bat my mitt, cleats, and batting gloves inside it. "I'm done," I say.
"What the hell does that mean?" Charles snarls.
"I mean I'm done with the Cardinal. I'm quitting the team."
Charles mouth drops open and his eyes light up in rage. "What the fuck do you mean you're quitting?! The Cardinal is having its best season in years, and you just decide to quit out of the fucking blue?! If this is because of a bad inning and a strikeout, you need to grow some balls!"
"It's not that," I say in monotone. "I'm quitting because I'm not part of the team anymore..."
Charles face softens a bit, but he still looks incredibly pissed off. "What do you mean you're not part of the team?" he asks.
I place my cap on my head forward, unable to look Charles in the face. "Everyone blames me for what happened to Jack," I say. "They're saying that if I weren't gay, none of this would've happened and Jack would have full use of his arm. So I'm quitting because I don't belong here anymore."
I start to try and walk past Charles, but he grabs me by the arm in a very tight grip. "Eric," he says softly. "No one on the team thinks that way..."
"Then who keyed all that into my locker?"
For the first time, Charles looks over at my locker and sees the messages on it. I see his face go completely blank and his grip on my arm loosens a bit. "Fucking Christ..." he quietly says.
"See?" I say, my voice choking a bit. "Although the one in the center is one I put to prove a point, no one wants me on this team anymore, and I don't want to be on a team where I'm not wanted. My uniform is folded on the bench, along with the cap and stirrups. I'm sorry, Charles..."
I yank my arm out of the frozen Charles' hand and make my way out of the locker room and out into the warm night outside the stadium. My mind forces me to look back at the stadium and my heart is telling me to go back in there. But I ignore all the protest and start to walk back to my dorm, never looking back.
The next ten days I don't really remember much of. For me, it's nothing but classes, assignments, and workouts. I also don't think I've spoken more than a thousand words in those days combined. The Cardinal is doing just fine without me, having won the game the night I left after a huge comeback and keeping up the undefeated winning streak.
I haven't spoken to Charles or any of my former teammates since then either. I try to avoid them at all costs, and I don't think any of them are trying to find and talk to me either. It's especially hard with Ty and Shane, who are in a few of my classes. But thankfully, I stick to the back of the class and avoid all eye contact with them.
Zane has been begging me ever since I left to go back to the team, but his cries have no effect on me. I just keep telling him that I don't trust the guys I used to call my teammates and drop the topic as quickly as it started. I appreciate him trying to help me to get out of my funk, but it's not working.
The hearing for the man, whose name is Tony Stevenson, that stabbed Jack was a few days ago and statements were taken from Josh, Leo, and me, who were all directly involved in the incident. We were all honest when our statements were taken and Jack's lawyer assured us that we wouldn't need to appear in court again and that there was enough evidence to put Tony away for a long time, which I'm grateful for.
It's now the middle of April and I'm just lying in bed, staring at the blank ceiling of my dorm room. I managed to get all my work done early and while I'd normally go to one of the campus fields and practice my pitching, I don't have the motivation to get out of bed. Yeah, depression really sucks.
As my mind drifts off into space, I hear my phone ringing on my desk. I reach behind me and grab my phone and look at the screen. On it, I see a number I don't recognize. But I decide to pick up anyway. "Hello?"
"Um...Eric?" says a familiar voice. "It's Luke. Luke Donald."
God, this asshole. I haven't heard about Luke since February, since Charles put him on probation. Charles mentioned some time ago that Luke's punishment is being let up and that he's slowly being given back his coaching position. "What the hell do you want?" I say.
"I...I was just seeing how you were..."
"Like you really care?"
"Well, yeah, I do. I'm a coach again and I need to see how the players are doing."
"I'm not a player anymore, Luke. I quit almost two weeks ago."
"Yeah, Charles told me about that. He's been really torn up about it. He doesn't seem to be having as much fun with the team lately."
My chest and stomach fill with a bit of guilt, but I quickly throw it away. "I'm sorry to hear that, Luke. But I already said I'm not part of the team anymore."
"Eric, do you know how important you were to the team?"
"Yeah, I sure felt important after the guys practically chased me off the team."
"Eric, you were the one that held the team together. Even while I was on probation, I could see how all of the guys looked up to you, even the upperclassmen. They strived to have the skill you have and they worked their asses off just so they could stand on the same field as you. And without you...the team's falling apart..."
I suddenly feel a bit concerned and sit up in my bed. "What do you mean?"
"The Cardinal is looking less and less like a team. Whenever we have a game, it's like it's nine individual people are on the field instead of a single unit. Eric, you were the one that made the team. And without you, there is no team."
"But they're still winning. How can they not be a team and still be winning?"
"They're winning, but none of them are having any fun. It's almost like they're all robots on the field, doing their jobs without any emotion or passion to it."
"So what's that got to do with me?"
"Whenever the guys saw you strike someone out or even throw a single pitch, their faces lit up with excitement at seeing how happy you were when you were playing. You made the game fun for everyone, Eric."
I take a second to take this all in and sigh to myself. "Why the hell are you even talking to me Luke? Don't you hate faggots like me?"
The other end of the phone is silent for a few seconds. "I...I know you and I got off on a really bad foot, Eric. And I know the way I treated you on that first day was horrible. But I'm better now. I've been going to anger management counseling and it's really helped a lot."
"Good for you. Should I give you a medal?"
"My point is, that I don't care that you're gay. I realized that I wasn't setting a good example for my daughter and I saw I needed to change that. I've also been going to a support group for people who are trying to understand homosexuality a lot more. I've finally seen that it's the same thing as being straight, just you like the same gender.
"I've even made some gay friends out of it and I think they're incredibly nice and wonderful people. I really have changed, Eric."
It really sounds like Luke's turned over a new leaf, but I'm going to need to see it to believe it. "Look, Luke,' I say. "I appreciate you calling me and telling me all of this, but I've made my decision. I'm not coming back to the Cardinal."
I hear Luke exhale loudly. "Well, it sounds like I'm not going to be able to change your decision, but just know that while the team isn't showing it, I know deep down that they all want you back. Please just think about it."
It sounds like Luke is about to hang up. "Hey, Luke?" I say.
"Um...how're your wife and daughter?"
The other end of the line is silent for several more seconds. "They're both doing great. My wife managed to get better hours at the hospital and Vanessa, my daughter, is going to be starting preschool soon. They're both happy, healthy, and...just great."
I feel the corner of my mouth turn a bit upward. "That's really good to hear, Luke. Um...thanks for the call."
My finger taps the screen of my phone and my phone falls onto my chest. I'm left staring at the blank ceiling, but with new thoughts on my mind.
It's Friday of the same week and I'm in the same position I was in when Luke called me. Normally Josh would be in the room, but he and Leo decided to go out on a date to dinner before heading to the baseball game tonight. Zane hasn't told me his plans for tonight, but a small part of me hopes that his plans don't involve me.
It's just before 6:00 and there's a sudden knock at the door. I'm about to get up wand answer it when the door opens on it's own and Zane walks into the room. "Get up," he orders me.
I look up at him, confused. "Huh?"
"I said get up. Eric, you've done nothing but lie in bed, go to class, get food, and work out for almost two weeks now. I'm taking you to the game tonight."
Zane tries to grab for my arm, but I pull it out of the way. "Zane, the guys don't want me there, and, like I've said before, I don't want to be somewhere I'm not wanted."
I turn over and face the wall away from Zane. "Yeah, but I want you there," Zane says. "So I'm getting your lazy ass out of this bed and you and I are going to that game together."
Zane manages to grab my arm this time and, thanks to the new muscle he has, pulls my out of bed and I fall onto the hardwood floor with a thud. "Ow!" I say.
"Oh, man up. Now get up and get your shoes on. We're going to that game."
"For the last time Zane, no."
"Eric, you're really starting to piss me off with this new attitude of yours. And frankly, I really don't like it. Where's the you that used to make me smile whenever I saw him? Where's the guy that lit up my world just by looking at me?"
I look up at Zane and see his black and blue eyes looking down at me "He's right here," I say.
"No he isn't," Zane replies. "The guy I remember never gave up so easily, never looked so broken, and never seemed like such a...coward."
My blood boils at the word and I jump up to my feet. "I'm not a coward," I say down to Zane.
"You sure seem like one to me," Zane says, glaring up into my eyes.
"I'm not a coward," I say again.
"Then show me you aren't one, fucker. Show me."
I feel something inside me snap and my body moves before I even know what I'm doing. My fist flies at Zane and hits him square in the chest, pushing all the wind out of his body and forcing him back. He body slams into Josh's bookcase with a loud crash and he falls to the floor a few seconds later.
My mind comes back to me and I see my boyfriend on the floor with a few books around him and I feel my fist clenched tightly. Fear and panic rush through me and I dive for Zane. "Zane! I'm so sorry! I-I didn't mean it...!"
I try to reach my hand down to help him up, but Zane smacks it away. "I guess you aren't a coward," he growls. "But you're not the Eric Swanson I fell in love with." Zane gets up to his feet while I stand in complete shock. "I'm going to the game," Zane continues. "Talk to me again when you find the real Eric Swanson."
He starts to walk for the door and gets his hand on the handle when I grab his shoulder. "Zane! Please just wait!"
Zane spins around and I feel the searing pain of a palm smacking my left cheek. I look down at Zane in shock, about to yell at him for hitting me, but what I see breaks my heart. Two fine streams of tears are sliding down Zane's cheeks, his face hard and cold. He takes my wrist in his hand and lifts my hand off his shoulder and lets it fall to my side before walking out and closing the door behind him, leaving me alone in my room.
For several seconds, the room is completely silent. I can't even hear myself breathe. But the silence is interrupted by quiet sobs raking my chest. This is Zane's and my first fight, and it feels absolutely horrible knowing how much I hurt him. My arms circle my stomach and I hold myself while I cry.
Just as it feels like my knees are about to give out, I hear a voice from behind me. "Wow. You really fucked that up."
I look back and see Jason floating several feet above the floor, his hands casually clasped behind his head. "Jason," I say. "Did you watch all that?"
"Enough of it to know that you may have broken that little guy's heart."
My stomach continues to fill with the guilt that it's been building up for the last two weeks. "I-I didn't mean to do that," I quietly say. "My body just moved on it's own."
"I know you didn't. Sometimes, people do crazy things that they don't mean when they're upset, and it can cause some bonds to be severed as a result."
I walk over to my bed and take a seat on the edge. "I...I was just so mad at everything: the guys on the team that I thought I trusted, the people I called my friends, thinking I was some kind of danger to them, and Tony for causing all this..."
"But have you ever thought that you're also to blame for this?" Jason asks me.
I look up at my floating friend. "Me?"
"Yeah. You were the one that decided to leave the team. I know your teammates wrote all that stuff on your locker, but like the crazy things we sometimes do when we're upset, fear can make us do stupid things too. The guys were still in shock about what happened to Jack and did things they didn't mean."
"If they didn't mean it, then why haven't they come to me to tell me it?"
"Because you've been avoiding them, remember?"
"Either way, they don't want me back. So I'm not going back."
I lie back on my bed and stare up at the ceiling again, but my view is blocked by my friend floating above me. "How long are you going to wallow in your own shallow pool of self-pity?" Jason asks me.
"Fuck off, Jason."
"Not until you get your ass out of this bed and go to that baseball stadium and get on that field and pitch for the Cardinal."
I swing my legs off the bed and turn my back to Jason. "Why can't people just see that I don't want to be on a team where everyone resents me and where I'm not wanted?"
The sound of two feet landing on the hardwood fills the room. "But they do want you, Eric," Jason tells me.
I glance back at Jason, confused. "What do you mean?"
"Eric, the guys want you back because the game isn't fun for them anymore. Like Luke said, you made game fun for them. Without you, baseball is just a sport."
My body turns to face Jason. "How do I know you aren't just saying that so I'll go back? Those guys never would've said something like that out loud."
"When you're a ghost, you're able to hear things other people can't. I listen to the thoughts of the guys on the team and found them all thinking the same thing: we want Eric back."
I don't even care at this point that this guy could possibly be reading my mind right now. "Well, after that show I put on in the dugout, there's no way Charles will let me back on the team," I say.
Jason laughs to himself "Are you kidding? Pop blew a fucking gasket when the game ended that night! I thought he was going to kill someone!"
I look down at the floor in shame. "Because of what I did?"
"No, because of what your teammates did to your locker." I feel my eyes widen at the statement. "After the game ended, Pop told everyone on the team to stand in front of your locker and look at it for a solid half and hour. He threatened anyone that looked away from even a second that he'd add five minutes to the time.
"The guys stared at your locker for and full amount of time and looked back at Pop when time was up. He told them that he had never been more disappointed in a team than he had in his whole life. Their actions cost the Cardinal the best damn player he had seen the whole time coaching the team.
"Pop told the guys they were lucky he wasn't going to call the dean himself and report the team for harassment and bullying against you. He told them that they had lost his respect and that it would take an army to get that respect back. The looks on their faces made it seem that they all had been expelled from Stanford."
I stare in complete shock at Jason, whose face is completely serious. "The guys realized that they had driven you out of the team and they felt such guilt over what they had did that a few of them even cried a little," he continues. "And with every day you were gone, that guilt only grew and grew."
Jason steps a bit closer to me and places his hand on my shoulder. "Eric, those guys need you back. They're not afraid anymore. They want you to be their teammate again."
Pure and wonderful relief washes over me and I quickly wipe my eyes dry. My pocket suddenly vibrates and I reach in and see Jack's name on the screen.
'If you don't get your ass down to Klein Field within the next five minutes, some shit is about to go down.'
Feeling a sense of panic and confusion, I look at Jason for an answer. "Run like you've never run before, Eric," Jason says with a smile before snapping his fingers and disappearing.
Feeling myself smile for the first time in almost two weeks, I hurriedly grab my mit, batting gloves, and bat and slip my cap on my head before tossing all my stuff in my bag and rushing out the door, making my way for Klein Field.
Ignoring the weird stares and glances as I sprint across campus, I make it to Klein Field three minutes later out of breath and a few lines of sweat running down the sides of my face. I take in a deep breath and walk in the door of the locker room. It's not even a second before echoed yells fill my ears.
I wince a bit, unprepared for the noise level. "It's your fucking fault we almost lost last night!"
"Hey, I scored two runs for us! You were the one that was swinging at nothing all nine fucking innings!"
Those are the only two voices I can make out before dozens of other screaming voices fill the locker room. I silently walk down the hallway and peer my head around the corner. Standing in the middle of the locker room in various states of dress are all my teammates, every single one of them yelling at one another.
Maybe things were a lot worse than I had initially thought. Amidst all the chaos is Jack, who seems to be trying to calm everyone down with his left arm in a sling. He efforts quickly fail as the screaming continues. Things are getting extremely serious and it looks like someone's about to throw a punch.
I take in a deep breath and step out from behind the wall. "EVERYBODY SHUT THE FUCK UP!!"
The noise immediately dies down and everyone turns and looks at me, all of their faces in complete disarray. "Eric..." Jack says.
I look at all of my teammates. "Some fucking team you are," I say. "Look at yourselves. You're all fighting each other when you're supposed to be teammates. Comrades. Two weeks ago, this team was as close as any team could possibly be. Now, I don't see a fucking team here. I see a bunch of selfish assholes that are too proud to admit they made a mistake."
Their faces look to the tiled floor out of shame. "This isn't the team I joined almost three months ago," I continue. "The team I joined looked out for each other, helped each other up when someone was down, and trusted and cared for one another. The guys I'm looking at right now look ready to kill each other and only care about themselves.
"Where's the team I first joined and was proud to be a part of? Where's the team I joined that was just happy to be standing on a baseball field, not caring about the end result? Where are my teammates?"
All I get is silence and more faces looking at the floor. Sighing to myself, I grip my bat tightly in my hand and walk through the locker room, eyes following me as I walk. I quickly find what I'm looking for and walk over in front of it: my defaced locker. The hurtful words are still engraved in the metal, screaming back at me.
I toss my bag onto the bench and take the handle of my bat in both hands. I bring the bat far behind me and swing forward as hard as I can. The wood of my bat crashes into my locker, creating a large dent in the middle of it and sending the crunch of metal throughout the locker room.
I keep swinging at the locker, fueled by my anger and hatred, not stopping until the door breaks off its hinges and falls to the floor. I'm left breathing deeply and staring at the dented and destroyed locker door. My eyes find the shocked faces of my teammates, everyone staring at both the locker door and me.
Finally calming down, I turn and face them. "Now, where the fuck is my uniform so I can pitch tonight?"
Charles appears out of nowhere, my uniform and cap in his arms, and walks through the crowd and up to me. "I've been waiting for you to come back."
He hands me my uniform and I feel myself smile. "Thanks, Charles," I say. "I'll pay for the locker."
"Don't worry about it. I was about a fraction of a second from doing that myself."
As I start to undress, I find everyone still watching me as if I'm some kind of wild animal. "What the fuck are you all looking at?" I growl. "Get dressed. We have a game to win. Don't worry. I'm not going to come on to any of you when you start to put on your jocks."
It takes them a second, but the team finally unfreezes and moves around the locker room, none of them even looking at me. It may seem cold, but I'm okay with it. I finish getting my uniform on, welcoming back the feel of the fabric, and toss my other clothes and bag in my door-less locker before grabbing my bat, batting gloves, and mitt and starting for the dugout.
I walk onto the concrete dugout and take a seat on the bench. "You actually came back."
I look to my right and find Luke standing by the water coolers with a friendly smile on his face. He's back in the same outfit from the first day of practice, except now the shorts are much looser. "Yeah, I came back," I say. "Um...don't take this the wrong way, but you seem...a lot better."
Luke smiles even more. "Yeah, the therapy is really helping. I quit smoking about two months ago and I haven't felt the urge to smoke a cigarette since. My doctor said if I keep it up, my lungs and heart will be at 100% by December."
"That's great, Luke. Or...should I go back to calling you Coach Donald?"
"Luke is fine. And while I may have my coaching job back, I'm going to be less of a dick. So I'm going to be firm, but not going to be the drill sergeant I was. And...I still haven't really apologized for what happened back in February. I could've really hurt you and your boyfriend. So...I'm sorry."
"Water under the bridge, Luke. Right now, I just want to focus on winning tonight's game."
"Then shouldn't you warm up?"
I take my hand and rub my shoulder. "Don't worry," I say. "I sprinted all the way here and I managed to stretch out my arms while I was running. I'm ready."
And twenty minutes later, it's time to show that I am ready. We're playing University of Oregon tonight and I'm more excited than I usually am. Brandon finally made it to starter for University of Oregon and this is going to be the first game we've played against each other since Thanksgiving break.
The announcer calls us to the field and the eight starting players and myself jog out onto the field. The second I step on, I hear a thunderous roar behind me. I see the stands filled to the brim with fans, cardinal red and white filling ever seat. But what makes me smile are all the signs the people are holding.
'BRING ERIC BACK!'
'PUT SWANSON BACK ON THE MOUND!'
'WE WANT TO SEE ERIC AGAIN!'
I see every eye on me and the loud cheering continues as I look up at the crowd. But I'm only looking at one guy, and he's sitting in the front row. Zane is looking at me with a blank face devoid of emotion. I don't know what to make of it, but all I can do is smile softly at him and mouth two simple words.
Zane face cracks and he smiles back at me.
Seeing we're okay makes me grin and I turn and jog to the mound, feeling the dirt and grass underneath my feet as I step over it. When I step back onto the mound, I feel like I'm back home. The heat of the stadium lights on my skin, the cheers of the crowd filling my ears, and the rush of adrenaline I'm getting from just standing in the middle of all the action is absolutely wonderful.
I see a player step out of the Oregon dugout and I feel myself grinning at him, and I can tell he's returning it. Brandon walks over to the batter's box and squares himself up. The umpire lowers his mask and takes his position behind Devin. "Play ball!" he shouts.
My foot digs into the dirt behind me and I get my game face on. Brandon already knows all of my pitches, but what he doesn't know is how much I've improved since last November. He holds the bat tightly in his hands and kicks the dirt a few times before looking back at me. Brandon's way of mocking me is to kick the dirt a few times, like a bull ready to charge, and I accept his challenge.
I slip into a curveball grip and let the world around me go silent. Right now, it's just me and Brandon. Devin holds his glove open for me and leaves the throw up to me. Taking a quick breath, I pick up my left leg, whip my body around, and swing my arm forward, feeling the familiar rush of blood to the tips of my fingers.
With a sharp flick of the wrist, the ball flies out of my hand right toward the plate. Brandon makes an attempt to swing at it, but the ball takes its last second nosedive toward the plate. Brandon misses the ball by a few inches and Devin snags the ball in his glove. "Strike!" the umpire calls.
Devin tosses the ball back to me and I ready myself for my second pitch. My middle and index fingers rest on top of the ball while my other three fingers cradle the sides of the ball. I'm going to have to trust Devin with this knuckleball, because I don't know where this pitch is going to end up.
With an awaiting glove, I take my stance on the plate and aim carefully at Devin's glove. My leg lifts off the dirt and stomps back down, causing my body to rotate forward and my arm to follow it. The ball sails out of my hand and, right away, I see it start to take its unpredictable path toward the plate.
I see the panic in Brandon's face as he tries to follow it and Devin seems to be lost as he tries to get his glove in front of the path of the ball. Brandon swings and I hear the clang of the ball hitting the bat, but the ball flies over the heads of Brandon, Devin, and the umpire and crashes into the fence behind home plate. "Foul!" the umpire yells. "Second strike!"
The umpire tosses me a new ball and there's only one ball left for Brandon. Feeling a need to vent, I set myself up for a fastball. Brandon knows all too well I like to save a fastball for last, but the question is whether or not he can hit it. Devin holds his glove open for me and I stare straight into the dark leather.
Brandon and I exchange fiery stares and without even so much as a nod I can tell he's ready. My hand tightly grips the ball in my glove and I start to pick up my leg. Raising it a bit higher than I normally would, I slam it back down onto the mound and my shoulder rotates forward at a blinding speed.
The leather of the ball almost burns my fingers as it rockets out of my hand. I look back at the plate in time to see Brandon starting to swing for the ball, but he's just not fast enough. The ball careens into Devin's glove with a resounding thump. "Strike!" the umpire yells. "You're out!"
Brandon lets out a breath, but looks back at me with a grin before making his way back to his dugout. "103, Eric. 103!"
I look at my own dugout and see Jack standing with a radar gun in his hands and a bright smile on his face. Did he just say 103? I look down at my arm in complete surprise. I didn't even think it was possible for a 19 year old to throw a pitch like that. But I just did, and I'm freaking screaming on the inside.
But I don't have time to celebrate. I need to focus on the game. The next batter comes out and he looks ready to kill. As much as I want to strike him out, I need to remember that I can't carry this whole team. I look to my left at Ty, who immediately looks down at the dirt the second he sees me looking at him.
He probably feels bad about what he said two weeks ago, but I'm putting that behind me for now. "Ty!" I yell. "Fucking look at me!" It takes him a second, but he manages to get his head up to look at me. "Hold your glove open by your side and get ready to dive!"
Ty slowly lifts his glove right where I want it to be. I look back at the batter and get into pitching position. Devin gives me the sign for a slider and I nod at the choice. Taking a second to get my hand into the right grip, I get my foot up and throw at the plate, watching the white of the ball get smaller as it gets further away from me.
I turn and charge at first base, seeing Ty's confused as I charge at him. The clang of the ball hitting the bat is music to my ears and, in my peripheral, I see the ball coming in my direction. The ball flies right in front of my face, missing by a few inches, before continuing on the path I knew it would go to.
The ball hits the infield grass before bouncing back up and Ty dives from his position and extends his arm as far as it will go. The ball flies right into the mitt before Ty falls into the dirt. "Throw it!" I yell.
Ty collects himself in time to reach for the ball in his glove and tosses it to me. I manage to snag it and tag the base just before the batter steps on it. "You're out!" the umpire yells.
The crowd cheers loudly at Ty's play. I look down at him and see he's in a state of awe. I walk over to him and hold a hand down for him. "Nice dive, Ty," I say.
He grabs my hand and I help him up to his feet. "Um...thanks," he says. "Listen, Eric. I'm really sorry about what I said. I don't know what I was saying and I..."
"Just drop it, Ty," I interrupt. "We'll talk more after we win this game."
Ty nods a bit and I give him a soft slap on the back. He goes back to his base and I walk back to the mound. I find the next batter is already standing in the batter's box. Seeing his eagerness to hit a ball makes me want to end the first inning with a little flair. I see him and Devin are ready and I take the ball and throw at the base.
The batter immediately swings for the ball and I see the leather collide with aluminum right on the sweet spot. This kind of hit would end up in the outfield, but I'm already moving my glove right into the screaming ball's path. I quickly raise my mitt right next to my body and I feel the ball slam into my glove without my feet even moving from my plate.
The batter stops where he stands, pure shock on his face. And it's the same with Devin, the umpire, my teammates and coaches in the dugout, the Oregon dugout, and much of the crowd. But I just reach into my glove and pull out the ball and hold it high above my head as I start for the dugout.
The crowd comes back with a thunderous roar and much of the Oregon dugout shakes their heads in amazement. I toss the ball to the third base umpire and walk into the dugout, where I find everyone still in a state of disbelief. "Where's the team I came back to?" I ask.
This unfreezes everyone within a second and I'm surrounded by my grinning teammates and coaches, receiving numerous back and butt slaps. I finally get to the bench and take a seat, feeling an incredible high. "Welcome back, Eric."
Charles is standing in front of me, a smile on his face. "Good to be back," I reply.
"I hope you're ready to kick some Ducks ass. There's a home run that's yet to be hit with your name on it."
I reach over and grab a helmet and slip it on my head before starting to put on my batting gloves. "Looks like I'm going to have to take that home run for myself."
And five batters later, it's my turn. And luckily for me, the situation could not be more perfect. Ty, Shane, and Peter are all on base, while Alejandro and Charlie had their hits caught. So it's up to me to get us on the board. I grab my bat and rise from the bench and step out of the dugout, hearing the tremble of the crowd behind me.
I stretch my arms and back out as I walk to the plate, staring the pitcher down as I walk into the batter's box. "Be careful."
The voice came from the catcher. "Excuse me?" I ask.
"You're a friend of Brandon's, right?"
"So I'm warning you to be careful. Cliff, our pitcher, is a huge homophobe and I don't think he's afraid of throwing a ball or two your way. He's been warned a few times before, but it never gets through that fat head of his. So watch yourself."
I glance out at the pitcher and see he's still glaring at me. "Thanks for the warning," I tell the catcher.
I raise the bat behind my head and ready myself for whatever's coming my way. Cliff bares his fangs at me and sets himself up and I feel myself trembling both in anxiety and excitement. He lifts his right foot up and brings it down hard, letting his left arm fly forward. I don't even have to blink to know that it's coming for me.
My body reacts out of instinct and I dive backward for the ground. The ball flies over me and I fall into the dirt right onto my back. "Strike!" What?! The crowd agrees with my reaction and begins booing loudly. I look up at the umpire in surprise and he looks down at me. "Sorry, kid. You swung the bat over the plate when you fell. It counts as a swing."
I sigh to myself and rise back up to my feet. "Yeah, I felt that," I tell the umpire. "Good call."
He looks out at the pitcher and points a finger at him. "Watch it, kid!"
Cliff rolls his eyes and steps back on the plate. If there's one thing I hate more than a guy who intentionally tries to hurt a player, it's a guy with no respect. Frustration start to make my blood simmer and I return Cliff's hard glare. I step back into the batter's box and reassume my position with squared shoulders and feet.
Taking a few deep breaths, I ready myself for the next throw. Cliff quickly goes through his throwing motion and releases the ball, and I know its path already. Ready this time, I lower my bat and hold my right hand in front of my face. The white leather ball flies right into my palm, but I don't feel the pain it brings.
The crowd flies into a rage-filled mob, screaming insults at Cliff. The umpire takes off his mask and starts to storm past me, but I grab his arm. "Strike two for me," I say. Now it's his turn to be shocked. "I swung the bat over the plate when I grabbed the ball, which counts as a swing. Strike two."
"But he aimed..." the umpire starts.
"I know he did, but getting angry isn't going to solve anything. I want to take him down my way, and you ejecting him won't let me do that. So keep him in the game for one more pitch. If he throws it at me one more time, you can do what you want. Anything else is for me."
The umpire stares at me for a second before turning to Cliff. "You've got one more warning, kid! You throw one more pitch at a player, you're out of this game!" He slips his mask back on before going behind me and the catcher. "Strike!"
The crowd and my dugout immediately boo at the call, but I can't hear them. Right now, it's just me and the ball. Cliff tosses the ball up and down a few times, mocking me, before catching it a final time. He gets into position and rests his left foot on the pitcher's plate and glaring at me again, his stare unrelenting.
I merely grip the bat tightly and wait for the pitch. Cliff brings his right foot up, brings his left arm behind him, and flings the ball forward with all his strength. The ball immediately starts coming for me again, but I was expecting this. I watch as the ball gets closer and closer to me in slow motion, so slow that I can count the number of seams on the ball.
I jump back and feel myself starting to swing for the deadly ball. My bat swings around me at a blinding speed and I feel and hear the sweet crack of the wood of my bat connecting with the white leather. My feet find the dirt and I watch the ball fly into the dark sky, getting further and further away from me with every passing second.
But the ball isn't heading for the fence. No, it's going much higher and farther than that. The ball is flying straight for the field lights, and I know what's coming next. The ball crashes right into the lights, and every single baseball movie I watched when I was a kid flashes before my eyes.
A brilliant shower of sparks rains down from the lights and the crowd erupts into a frenzy at seeing something that will probably only happen a once in a million times in all of our lifetimes. A grand slam hit that crashed into the stadium lights and caused sparks to fall to the field? Oh yeah. This is one of the highlights of my life right here.
I toss my bat aside and start to circle the bases, hearing the crowd and my teammates cheering me on. As I circle second, I feel a pat on my back from an Oregon player. "You still got it," Brandon says.
"Sure do," I reply with a grin.
I round third and standing at home plate are all of my teammates and coaches. My mouth turns to a shit-eating grin and with a few more strides, I step onto the white of home plate, feeling dozens of arms encircling me. Yeah, it's good to be back...
Eight innings later and the game comes to an end. Final score: 13-1, with us being the winners. The one run came from after I was subbed out in the sixth inning, when the backup pitcher, Trevor Harkin, accidently let a Duck hit a double and brought another player in from third (the Duck who hit the ball was Brandon).
We thank the Ducks for a good game, I catch up a bit with Brandon, and make my way into the locker room with the guys and the coaches. Things are pretty quiet when we walk into the locker room, but I accept it. I never expected things to go back to the way they were so quickly, despite how well things were going during the game.
After taking a quick shower, I walk back to my open locker and quickly change back into my normal clothes, sending a quick text to Zane, Josh, and Leo. As I'm trying my shoes, numerous pairs of bare feet stand in front of me. I'm met by my teammates looking down at me, all of them wearing towels around their waists and Jack off to the side in his clothes and sling. "What's up, guys?" I ask.
All thirty-four of them look down at the floor for a second. "Eric," says Jack, "the guys have a few things they want to say to you."
Jack steps to the side and looks back at everyone else. "Eric, we're really sorry about how we treated you after Jack got hurt," says Alejandro. "We were all really scared by what happened and we just reacted in a way we thought was right."
"But it wasn't right," says Peter. "We all unintentionally felt like you were the one that stabbed Jack. And because of that, we treated you horribly and ostracized you from the team."
"It was probably really hard for you," says Shane. "But none of us even thought about how you felt while it was happening to you and we just let it happen."
"I felt horrible after what I said to you," says Andy. "And when I saw the way you reacted to it, I knew how much it had hurt you."
"And you and I have been friends since even before we joined the team," says Ty. "But what I said to you in here, coming from a guy who was supposed to be your friend, probably destroyed you. I guess...what we're all trying to say is how sorry for are for how we treated you. And...the locker..."
I see all the guys involuntarily flinch at the word. "We...we don't even know why we did it," Ty continues. "But we just did. And when we saw what we actually did to your locker and how Coach Higgins told us it cost you as a result, it was the worst feeling in the world. Eric...we're so sorry for what we did to you. Do you...think we can be a team again?"
The guys of the team start to plead with me and I look at every single one of them. "Do me a favor," I say. "You all go shower, and I'll have my answer by the time you're done."
They all look at one another before making their way to the showers. Jack starts to follow them, but I grab him by the arm. "I'm going to need your help with something," I whisper to him. "Get Charles."
He looks confused for a second, but walks over to Charles' office and sticks his head in. Charles walks out a few seconds later. "Eric, what's going on?" he asks.
"Two things," I say. "First, do you have a key to all the lockers?"
"I have a few."
"Good. And two, do you have a really big duffel bag?"
"I should. Do you need it for something?" I quickly whisper to Charles and when I look at him again, I see a devilish smile on his face. "Oh, I need to be a part of this."
He goes back into his office. "What're you doing?" Jack asks me. I whisper the same thing to him as I did to Charles and I get the same grin in return. "You're fucking evil, you know that?"
Charles comes out of his office with Luke and a very large duffel bag in tow. "I already hold Luke about your plan," Charles says. "Let's do this quickly."
He hands out keys to everyone and drops the duffel in the middle of the locker room. We all quickly disperse throughout the locker room, unlocking every team member's locker and we start reaching in and grabbing the clothes we find. "Take everything but the socks, shoes, and underwear!" I loudly whisper.
The guys follow my lead and we start piling the clothes into the duffel, a mountain of clothes quickly forming. After a few minutes, we get the last of the clothes in the bag and manage to zip it shut. "Let's hide this in your office," I tell Charles. "The best part is coming up."
Charles and I pull the duffel into his office and close the door. "Now, leave all the lockers open so the guys can get their stuff quickly I have the best part of the plan right in my pocket."
What the guys didn't see was that I swiped every room key of every team member and connected them all on one big key ring in my pocket. "You really are evil," says Luke.
"Now you three go outside the locker room and keep the door open for me so I can get out easily, and prepare to die of laughter. Get your phones ready to record."
They all grin and make their ways out of the locker room. I grab my bag and feel my pocket vibrate three times. I pull out my phone and find Zane, Josh, and Leo have all replied to the text I sent earlier.
'The whole art department is outside. What's going on?'
'I got the guys from the football team and as many other sports teams as I could find. Care to explain?'
'I rounded up as many random people I could find, telling them to go to Klein Field to see something amazing. Please don't make me look like an idiot...'
Everything's set up. I slip my phone back into my pocket, grab my bag, and wait for the guys to finish their showers. And right on time, I hear the showerheads start to go off one by one. The guys come out of the showers, dried with their towels around their waists. They see me standing by the exit hallway and stop. "So...do you have your answer?" asks Ty.
I look at everyone and see they're all looking at me with the same desperate expression. "Yeah," I say. "I have it. But let me tell you all one thing." I reach into my pocket and pull out the key ring with the dozens of keys on it. The guys stare wide-eyed at the keys while I grin at them. "These are your room and apartment keys. Catch me if you can."
I turn and sprint down the exit hallway, hearing the chaos behind me unfold. "Hurry!"
"Fuck! Where are my clothes?!"
"Who cares?! Just put on what you have before Swanson gets away!"
I see the end of the hallway and see Jack holding the door open for me. "Are they coming?" he asks as I run out of the locker room.
"Yeah!" I look up and see that Zane, Josh, and Leo did their job perfectly. There must be hundreds of students here, all looking really confused. "Everyone! Get your phones out and hit record! You're about to see some prime baseball team beef!"
Everyone quickly reaches into their pockets and pulls out their phones, mischievous smiles on their faces. I look behind me at Charles. "Charles! When they come out of that locker room, lock the door so they can't get back in!"
Charles nods and gets his key ready. The air is deathly silent for several moments before I start to hear a low rumble from the door. And a few seconds later, thirty-four baseball players burst out of the locker room, all of them wearing nothing but their shoes, socks, and underwear.
Within ten feet of charging out of the locker room, the guys all stop in their tracks and immediately turn bright red. I'm actually surprised by the amount of variety in the underwear. Various colors, styles, and patters cover the team's...you know where I'm going with this. Everyone watching laughs at their misery, recording every second.
I reach into my pocket and pull out the key ring and dangle it in front of me. "You guys really feel bad about what happened?" I call.
"Yes!" they all yell, trying to cover their exposed skin.
"I can't hear you!" I goad.
I smile to myself and slide all the keys off the ring into my hand. Just when they think I'm going to hand them back to them, I toss the hand full of keys high above me and let them fall to the concrete, scattering everywhere. "Now we're even!" I yell.
They all moan before they start to move toward the keys, still bright red. "Hey, Charles!" I call over to him. "Do you think we should tell them their clothes were in your unlocked office the whole time?"
"FUCK YOU, SWANSON!!" the guys yell as a whole.
My almost naked teammates start to scour the discarded keys, trying to find which is theirs. But on their faces, I see giant grins. And it's not long before they all start showboating their bodies, causing me to laugh hysterically along with the crowd. Yeah, we're a team again...