“The Right Field Demon” by Jason Gross
Until the night he met the demon in right field, Jack had always thought baseball was boring. And, in an altogether boring game, right field was the most boring position imaginable. Nobody ever hit the ball to right field—a fact for which nine-year-old Jack was secretly thankful. He was terrified the ball might come his way.
Jack knew he wouldn’t even be trudging out to his spot in baseball purgatory for the last game of the season if two of his teammates weren’t sick. With just nine players, that meant an automatic starting spot in the lineup for Jack. And of course the coach stuck him in right field.
“C’mon, Jack!” Coach Kenny yelled from the dugout. “Hustle out there!”
With a roll of his eyes, Jack broke into a slow jog. The first baseman, Jack’s friend Mark, was rolling grounders to the other infielders while the pitcher warmed up. “Here you go, Jack!” Mark said as Jack jogged past. He flipped the ball toward Jack, who flinched and raised his glove in a move that was more self-defense than athletic prowess. The ball bounced off the heel of his glove and rolled away.
Jack scooped up the ball, painfully aware of his parents’ eyes on him. They were sitting in lawn chairs behind the team’s dugout on the third-base side. Jack tossed the ball to Mark, doing his best to mimic the step-and-throw motion that Coach Kenny had taught them. But somehow his feet got tangled up, and the ball bounced three feet in front of Mark.
“Sorry,” Jack mumbled.
Mark picked up the ball with his glove-hand. “That’s okay.” Mark smiled at Jack and then rolled a grounder to the shortstop.
Mark was one of the better players on the team, but he never made Jack or any of the other kids feel bad about their lack of ability. Unlike the pitcher, Eric, who was the best player on the team and the first to criticize whenever someone made a mistake.
Jack passed the threshold from the dirt infield to the grassy outfield. The grass was green and lush with a sprinkling of bright yellow dandelions here and there. Jack took his place about twenty steps back from the infield, and halfway between first and second base. Eric was just finishing his warm-up pitches, and the umpire signaled the game to begin.
With the ease of long practice, Jack settled into what he liked to think of as his “game stance”. He stood with his feet spread slightly, his hands at his waist, and with his right hand tucked inside the pocket of the baseball glove on his left hand. To an outside observer, he appeared to be intently engaged on the game’s first hitter. But in reality, his mind was already drifting to thoughts of video games and action figures and comic books.
He’d learned early on that the appearance of paying attention was of the utmost importance to both Coach Kenny and Jack’s dad. As long as it looked like Jack was watching the game, they wouldn’t yell at him.
During the first few games of the season, he’d frittered away his time by pulling dandelions or chasing after a butterfly or picking at the laces of his gloves, and it had resulted in endless cries of “Pay attention out there, Jack!” or “Get your head in the game, Jack!” Pretending to pay attention was easy, and it seemed to make everyone happy.
The first hitter struck out on three quick pitches from Eric. The crowd cheered, and Coach Kenny yelled out encouraging words.
Jack hoped for another fast two outs so he could head back to the dugout. Then again, he’d have to bat during this game, and if there was anything he hated more than playing right field, it was batting. He sighed. At least the weather was nice: a warm July evening. The sun was low on the horizon behind a bank of clouds. The field lights were just coming on, creating an artificial bubble of light around the field and casting the rest of the world in a semi-twilight.
“Enjoying the game?” a deep voice asked.
Jack squeaked in fright.
He spun around in a complete circle, looking for the source, but the closest person was Tom out in center field. And there was no way that gravelly voice had come from one of his teammates.
“Jack!” Coach Kenny cried from the dugout. “Pay attention out there!”
Jack almost yelled, “I am!” But he just nodded and waved a hand to show that he’d heard. Frowning, he resumed his “game stance”. With a deep breath, he shook his head. He was just beginning to believe he’d only imagined the voice when he heard it again.
“Man, this game sucks.”
Jack glanced to his left and his right. There was no one there. “Who…where are you?”
Jack looked down. At first he didn’t see anything but grass and weeds. But then, from the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of movement to his left. There was no wind, and yet a clump of nearby dandelions wavered. When he shifted his head to look right at them, he saw nothing unusual.
But when he turned back the other direction, there was a flicker in his peripheral vision. The dandelions shifted and coalesced into a crude impression of a face, with two narrow eyes and a crooked mouth.
Startled, Jack looked directly at the flowers once more, and the image vanished. The weeds were just weeds. It was only when he glimpsed them from the edge of his vision that the face reappeared.
“Hey, you’re Jack, right?” the face asked. The dandelion-mouth twisted and writhed in conjunction with the words.
Jack moved several steps to his right. His stomach fluttered. Was he going crazy? He looked over at Thomas to see if he’d heard the voice, but Thomas had his hands on his knees and was staring at the batter.
“Are you as bored as I am, Jack?”
Jack shook his head to clear it. He refused to acknowledge the voice. If he was going crazy, then ignoring it seemed like the best solution.
The crowd cheered as the second batter struck out. On the pitching mound, Eric preened.
“That Eric kid is an ass,” the voice said.
Shocked, Jack couldn’t suppress a nervous giggle. He covered his mouth with his hand.
“He’s not your friend, is he?” the voice asked.
“No,” Jack said without thinking. He punched his glove with his right hand, reminding himself not to talk to the voice.
The dandelions shifted into a grin. “That’s good. I wouldn’t want to be friends with anyone who was friends with that kid. And I think you and I can be friends. After all, we’re both stuck out here.”
“You—you’re stuck here, too?” Jack asked, his voice tentative.
“What…what are you?”
“Heh. That’s a long story. And you’ve got only one more out before you get to leave.”
“I’ll be back out here next inning.”
The ring of an aluminum bat hitting a ball brought Jack’s attention back to the game. The opposing player had hit a slow roller down the first-base line. Mark fielded it cleanly and stepped on first base for the third out.
“That’s three outs, kid. Better hustle. You don’t want Coach Kenny yelling at you.”
“Yeah, right.” With a quick glance down, Jack jogged toward the infield. The other team was starting to take their positions on the field as Jack reached the dugout. The batting order was posted on the chain-link fence separating the dugout from the field. And, as usual, Jack was at the bottom of the order.
The boys were jostling each other with much good-natured pushing and shoving as they found seats on the bench. Jack sat on the far end, not taking part in the horseplay. He kicked the gravel as he pondered the strange voice. He thought about telling Coach Kenny about it, but he knew his story would never be believed. He wasn’t even sure he believed it himself.
Jack felt two hands drop onto his shoulders. “Jack, you okay?”
Jack looked up. “Oh! Hey, Dad. Yeah, I’m okay.”
His dad studied him. “You sure?”
“That’s good. Hey, last game of the season.” His dad mimicked holding a bat. “Remember, bend your knees and keep your hands back.”
“Okay.” His dad had told him that before every game this entire season. Jack still had no idea what “keep your hands back” even meant.
Jack’s dad tousled his hair before he returned to his lawn chair. Jack looked over at his parents, and his mom smiled and waved. Jack waved back.
Eric was the first batter. He stepped up to the plate, tapped it a few times with his bat, and settled into his batting stance. He was one of the few kids on the team who actually looked good in a baseball uniform. The team’s grey pants and navy blue shirts fit him naturally. With his pant cuffs hiked above his calf, showing off his navy blue stirrup socks, he looked like a ballplayer. Most of the kids on the team were too short, too gangly, or too skinny to fill out a baseball uniform. In Jack’s case, it was all three.
On the first pitch, Eric stroked a line drive that rolled past the left fielder. Jack’s teammates stood and hollered their encouragement, all except for Jack who sat on his hands. The first base coach, Coach Jim, waved at Eric to keep running. Eric seemed to fly around the bases, his arms and legs pumping in a smooth rhythm. Eric rounded second and headed for third as the throw from the left fielder came in. Eric pulled up at third base well ahead of the ball.
“Thatta boy, Eric!” Coach Kenny yelled.
The crowd cheered its approval. The three sets of aluminum bleachers behind home plate were almost full; in a small town on a Friday night, there wasn’t much else to do except go to the baseball game. Parents, siblings, neighbors, and teenagers all congregated at the ballpark. The small cinder-block building that housed the concession stand was doing a lively business, selling popcorn, hot dogs, and candy bars.
The normalcy of the evening was at complete odds with the bizarre dandelion-face Jack had witnessed. He kicked at the gravel again, trying to come up with a logical explanation for what he’d seen. He couldn’t think of anything though. Did that mean he was going crazy? If you were really going crazy, would you know it?
Mark was the next batter, and he hit a sharp grounder that scored Eric from third. The electronic scoreboard out in center field changed to show the home team’s first run.
The next few hitters all reached base safely, moving Jack’s spot in the lineup closer. With two batters still ahead of him, Coach handed him a batting helmet. “Get ready, Jack. Let’s keep it going, okay?”
The next batter reached base, putting Jack in the on deck circle. He stood off to the side and took a few half-hearted practice swings. Thomas was up to bat, and to Jack’s great relief he struck out for the third out of the inning, sparing Jack the embarrassment of his own inevitable strike out—at least until the next inning. He threw his batting helmet on the ground, took his cap and glove, and headed back out to right field.
Somewhat nervously, he approached his usual position in the outfield. He glanced around, spotting the clump of dandelions. “You still there?” he whispered.
There was a long pause and then the dandelions wavered. “Yep, still here. You guys had a good inning. You scored three runs.”
“Yeah, I guess so. At least I didn’t have to bat.”
“You don’t want to bat?”
“No, I hate it. I always strike out.”
Jack giggled. His mom always got mad at him when he said “sucks.”
The voice was quiet for a moment. It seemed to be thinking about something. Then it said, “So, what would make you happy, Jack? Hitting a home run?”
“Well, sure!” He paused, thought about it a moment, then added, “But not even that much. I just want to hit the ball once. I don’t even care if I get on base or not.”
“Okay, here’s the deal, Jack. On your third pitch, you swing the bat as hard as you can.”
“Why? What’ll happen?”
The corner of the dandelion mouth twisted into a smirk. “Just trust me.”
“Okay, but what—”
“Oops, better pay attention to the game.”
The batter hit a hard grounder that snuck past Mark at first base and rolled toward Jack. Jack ran forward to pick it up. He threw it toward Mark, but the throw went wide, rolling across the infield where the shortstop picked it up.
“C’mon, Jack!” Eric yelled from the pitcher’s mound. “Hit your cutoff man!”
“What’s a ‘cutoff man’?” Jack wondered aloud as he returned to his position.
“I thought you did good, Jack,” the voice said.
“And who cares what Eric says anyway. The kid’s a punk.”
Even though Jack agreed with the sentiment, there was something unsettling in the voice, some dark undercurrent of bitterness.
The opposing team strung together a few hits off Eric, which brought a great deal of satisfaction to Jack. By the time the other team got three outs, they’d put up three runs to tie the score. After the third out, Jack trotted in to the dugout.
Coach Kenny slapped a helmet on Jack’s head. “You’re up, Jack. Let’s get started.” The look on Coach’s face made it clear that he wasn’t holding out much hope.
Jack took his practice swings while the opposing pitcher warmed up. The ump yelled, “Batter up!” and Jack took his place in the batter’s box. His heart was pounding hard in his chest.
“Come on, Jack!” his father yelled from behind the fence. “Keep your hands back!”
The pitcher wound up and threw home. Jack closed his eyes and prayed for a ball. No such luck; the pitch dropped in for a strike. He tapped the plate with his bat, pursed his lips, and waited for the next one.
The ball sailed past his chest for a called second strike. Jack thought the pitch was high and should have been a ball, but he knew Coach would get mad at him if he complained to the umpire.
“C’mon, Jack, be ready to swing,” Coach called. “You’ve got two strikes; you’ve got to protect the plate.”
Protect the plate, Jack wondered. Protect it from what?
Shaking his head, Jack settled in for the next pitch, and he remembered what the voice in right field had told him. He blew out a breath and decided to swing at the pitch, no matter what.
The pitcher began his delivery, drew back, and threw. The ball hung in the air, the white sphere stark against the darkening sky. Jack squeezed the bat and swung.
He felt the vibration in his hands as the aluminum bat connected with the ball. The ring of the impact sounded loud and clear, like the pealing of a bell. The sound seemed to drag out for an impossibly long time.
Shocked, he saw that he’d hit the ball toward the shortstop. It wasn’t hit very hard, but it was clean, solid contact. He stared, dumbfounded.
Jack didn’t know whose voice it was. Maybe the coach’s, maybe his dad’s, maybe the dandelion-face’s in right field. Regardless, it yanked him out of his reverie. He dropped the bat, put his head down, and ran for first base. It seemed a long ways away. His heart pounded in his chest. He could see the first-base coach yelling at him, urging him on, but Jack couldn’t hear him. The only sounds were his own breathing and his feet churning up the infield dust.
The first baseman was reaching to catch the ball. The last few steps seemed to take an eternity.
And then his foot touched the base. A moment later he heard the baseball smack into the first baseman’s glove.
His ears exploded with the sudden onrush of sound. Cheers erupted from the crowd and his teammates. Mark was clapping. Thomas was shouting and pointing at him. Even Eric was smiling in the on deck circle, although Jack thought it was more of a sarcastic sneer.
Coach Jim, the first base coach, was Thomas’ dad. Grinning, he patted Jack on the back and said, “Good job, Jack! Nice hit. You must have been saving that up all season!”
“Thanks, Coach,” Jack said. He couldn’t seem to stop smiling. He looked over at his parents. His dad was still clapping.
“Okay, Jack,” Coach Jim said. “There are no outs, so make sure you tag up.”
Jack nodded and wondered as he did so what “tag up” meant.
Jack put one foot on the base and the other foot in the dirt and watched Eric step up to the plate. Eric always hit the ball, so Jack knew he had to be ready to run.
The first pitch was high and tight. Jack winced, expecting Eric to duck or step out of the way. Eric never moved though. The ball hit him on the side of the face, right beneath his helmet’s protective earflap. The ball made a sickening crunch when it hit. Eric dropped to the ground in a boneless heap.
A collective gasp went up from the crowd. Coach Kenny raced out of the dugout to Eric’s side. The pitcher had his hand over his mouth and looked like he might start crying.
Mark’s dad ran from the bleachers onto the field and knelt next to Coach Kenny. Everyone knew that Mark’s dad worked as an Emergency Medical Technician. The crowd murmured as the two men attended to Eric who was now sitting up and holding his jaw. A few anxious moments passed. Finally, Coach helped Eric to his feet. The crowd clapped as Eric jogged slowly down to first base. A vivid red mark was visible along Eric’s jaw line.
Jack knew Eric was lucky the nine-year-old pitcher didn’t throw very hard. Otherwise, Eric would probably be on the way to the hospital.
“Go on to second, Jack,” Coach Jim said.
Jack ran to second base. The crowd settled down, and the umpire motioned for the game to continue.
Over the next few batters, Jack was able to come around and score. He stomped on home plate as he crossed it. It felt good to be returning to the dugout having scored a run, rather than having struck out. A few of his teammates greeted him with high-fives, but most of them were preoccupied with watching Eric. Coach Kenny barely even looked at Jack; he was staring out at third base where Eric was still rubbing his sore jaw.
Jack’s dad came over to the bench. “Nice hit, son! I knew you could do it. You just gotta keep your hands back, like I told you.”
His dad squatted down next to him. “Looks like Eric is okay. That was scary there for a minute.”
Jack nodded. It struck him as unfair that mere moments after the highlight of Jack’s entire baseball career, all the fun had been sucked out of it with Eric’s injury. He knew Eric hadn’t gotten hit on purpose, but some small part of his mind still railed at the injustice of it.
The inning ended with Jack’s team scoring two more runs. The scoreboard showed the home team leading five to three as Jack trudged out to right field.
Jack eyed the patch of dandelions as he settled into his game stance. “How did you know I should swing at the third pitch? Did you do that?”
The dandelions wavered, looking almost like a nod. “Sure did, Jack. How did that feel to finally get a hit?”
“It was awesome. But…then Eric got smacked in the face, and nobody cared about my hit anymore.”
“Yeah, I may have gone a little overboard there. Heh, sorry ’bout that. I really can’t stand that kid.”
An unpleasant thought wormed its way into Jack’s mind. “What do you mean? Did…did you do that, too? Make Eric get hit?”
“Of course. That’s the way these things works.”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Jack. I know you’re not dumb.”
The voice’s cheerful good humor was gone; Jack sensed annoyance and perhaps anger. He edged away a few steps. “I didn’t make a bargain with you,” he whispered.
“Ah, but you did, Jack-o. I offered to help you hit the ball, and you accepted. In exchange, Eric got beaned in the face.”
Jack’s stomach twisted. He felt nauseous. “But…but I didn’t know. You didn’t tell me that would happen!”
“Sorry that wasn’t clear. I assumed you understood. You see, for something good to happen to you, something bad has to happen to someone else. There has to be balance.”
Jack was quiet for a moment as he pondered that. The inning was getting ready to start. Eric had shifted over to first base, and Mark was pitching now. He’d finished his warm-up pitches, and the lead-off hitter for the other team was stepping into the batter’s box.
“But why?” Jack asked. “Why does something bad have to happen?”
The eyes in the dandelion face fluttered, giving the clear impression of a frustrated eye-roll. “Because that’s how I survive. Sadness, pain, despair—it’s what I live on.”
“You mean it’s like…food?”
“Sure, you can think of it that way.”
Jack felt the first tendrils of fear wrapping around his heart. Before, the voice had made jokes and said things like “sucks” to make Jack laugh. Now there was something ominous, even threatening, in that deep, bone-rattling voice.
“What are you?” Jack asked, not sure he wanted to know the answer.
The voice laughed. The sound was horrible. Jack wanted to clap his hands over his ears to drown it out. The thing’s laughter was cold and cruel. It made the hair stand up on the back of Jack’s neck.
“That’s a hard question to answer, Jack-o. I’m old. Older than you can imagine. My bones are the very earth itself. My name is etched in every petty, vengeful thought ever conjured by the mind of humankind. I’ve spent millennia swallowing misery, gnawing on fear.”
Jack wanted to run away. He wanted to jump into his parents’ laps. He wanted to bury his face in his dad’s chest and feel his mom’s protective arms wrap around him.
“I don’t want to talk to you anymore.” Jack’s voice sounded small and pathetic, even to his own ears. He fought to keep the tears that were welling in his eyes from spilling down his cheeks.
“Suit yourself. I’ll be here when you change your mind though. Just remember how good it felt when you got that hit.”
Jack shuffled to his right, closer to the centerfielder and farther away from the creature’s mocking grin.
The top of the inning ended, and Jack followed his teammates into the dugout. Their opponents had picked up another run, closing the gap to 5-4.
Jack was due up third, which meant there was no way he’d avoid batting this inning. The first two batters reached base, bringing Jack up with runners at first and third with nobody out. Coach Kenny patted the top of his helmet. “Just like last time, kiddo.”
With a heavy sigh, Jack settled into the batter’s box. This at-bat would definitely not be like last time—Jack would make sure of that. He stood motionless with the bat on his shoulder, gripping the bat handle in his sweaty hands. If getting a hit meant that somebody else would get hurt, then Jack refused to comply.
The pitcher lobbed three strikes across the heart of the plate, none of which Jack even saw because his eyes were closed. The ump called him out, and Jack retreated to the bench with a profound sigh of relief.
“You gotta get that bat off your shoulder, Jack,” Coach Kenny said.
Jack nodded but said nothing. He took his spot on the end of the bench and waited for the inevitable third out, after which he’d have to go back out to right field.
Eric was up next, and he smacked a clean single past the second baseman, bringing in the run from third. He seemed to be feeling fine after his fastball to the ear. Jack’s teammates cheered while Jack kicked at the gravel.
“Hey, Jack, you okay?”
Jack looked up to see Mark standing in front of him. “Sure. Why?”
“I don’t know. Just asking.”
Jack considered confiding in Mark, but then changed his mind. There was no way anyone would believe his story, and he didn’t want to sound like a lunatic who heard imaginary voices. “Nope, I’m fine.”
“Okay. Hey, that was a good hit last time.”
When the inning ended, Jack entertained a pleasant fantasy of pretending to be sick to avoid taking the field. But he knew that would leave his team with only eight players and they’d have to forfeit the game. Like a condemned man walking to the gallows, Jack crossed the infield. The coach yelled at him to hustle, but Jack ignored him.
He spotted the patch of dandelions. The bright, yellow flowers were a jarring contrast to that deep, cruel voice. With an angry growl, Jack stomped on the dandelions, twisting his cleats. He ground the weeds into a mushy pulp, feeling very satisfied with himself as he settled into his game stance with a smile on his face.
“Jack, I’m disappointed in you.”
The voice seemed to come from everywhere. Jack’s smile vanished. He whirled around, his heart pounding..
And then he saw it. Behind the chain-link backstop, near the top row of the middle bleachers full of spectators, were two dads sitting several feet away from each other. They both wore dark shirts that set them apart from the brightly colored clothes of the rest of the crowd. When viewed from just the right angle, in Jack’s peripheral vision, the two dark spots looked like eyes.
And across the bottom row of bleachers sat four teenage girls, all wearing red sweatshirts. Centered as they were below the two “eyes”, the red line looked a tiny bit like a mouth.
“Do you think you can avoid me that easily?” The four girls shifted in their seats in sequence with the voice’s words. Then the girl on the far right end stood up, twisting the mouth into a sneer.
Jack wanted to hide his face in his hands, to shut out the looming face. “Just leave me alone,” he whispered.
The two girls sitting on either end bent over at the waist, and the face seemed to frown, almost pout. “I guess we’re not going to be friends after all. That’s too bad. I had high hopes for you, kiddo.”
The sudden crack of the bat tore Jack’s attention from the bizarre visage. The opposing team’s batter hit a line drive over the second baseman and directly at Jack. Jack ran in toward the ball, missed it when it bounced over his glove, and had to double-back to pick it up. By the time he threw it in to the infield, the batter was standing on second with an easy double.
“Tough play, Jack. I could have helped you with that, you know.”
“I don’t want your help.”
“Ah, you’re just feeling a little guilty is all. But why? You don’t like that Eric kid. Why do you care what happens to him?”
Jack returned to his position, crossed his arms, and said nothing.
“I’m giving you a chance to be the big hero! How can you pass that up? Just think how happy and proud your mom and dad will be. I bet they’ll take you out for ice cream after the game.”
Jack had to admit that sounded pretty good. He narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “And what’ll happen to Eric?”
“Ah, you don’t need to worry about that.”
“Just because I don’t like him doesn’t mean I want something bad to happen to him. What will you do?”
The face in the bleachers seemed to look up, as if gazing thoughtfully at the darkening sky. “I don’t know. Maybe a sprained knee sliding into second base. Maybe a broken arm colliding with another player.” The mouth twisted in a chilling mockery of a smile. “I like to keep it spontaneous, you know?”
Jack shook his head. “No,” he whispered.
“Jack! Jack-o-lantern! Jack-in-the-box! Try to keep an open mind about these things!”
Jack stared at the crowd in the bleachers. He’d realized that when he focused on the “face,” it disappeared, as if unable to withstand direct scrutiny. The eyes reverted back to just a couple of men in dark T-shirts. The four girls in red sweatshirts were just some older girls, whispering and giggling among themselves.
As long as Jack looked directly at them, the face couldn’t bother him.
“I know what you’re doing,” the voice rumbled like distant thunder. It sounded amused. “You can’t get rid of me that easily.”
“Leave me alone.”
“Better pay attention. The next one’s coming your way. How does a nice diving catch sound? Your parents would love that, especially since the other team has the bases loaded. You’d save a couple of runs from scoring.”
Before Jack could answer, the opposing hitter swung and lofted a high, lazy pop-up toward the right field foul line. “That’s yours, Jack!” Coach Kenny’s voice sounded like it came from a thousand miles away.
His stomach churning, Jack ran toward the foul line. The ball seemed to hang in the air for hours, but Jack felt as if he were running in slow motion.
“Just say the word, Jack-o…” the voice said. Jack was looking up at the ball and couldn’t see the creature’s face, but he imagined it was smiling at him.
“Okay,” Jack whispered.
“Done.” The smug satisfaction was clearly audible.
The ball dropped in a long, smooth arc. Jack ran at a full sprint, his glove hand extended. He could hear his coach yelling, “Back up! Back up, Jack!”
The ball landed in Jack’s glove with a heavy thud. He dropped to his knees and slid forward several inches before coming to a stop.
He almost didn’t want to look, but there was the ball, nestled inside the pocket of his glove.
The crowd cheered.
“Jack!” Eric yelled from first base, waving his arms. “Throw it to me!”
The base runners were advancing. Jack heaved a throw that actually got fairly close to Eric who then caught it, turned, and fired a throw to home. The runner from third had already crossed the plate, but the boy who’d been on second base when the ball was hit was just now rounding third base and lumbering home. He was a big kid who ran with his head down.
Mark was now playing catcher. He was standing on the plate as Eric’s throw came in. Mark caught the ball a heartbeat before the opposing runner crashed into him, sending Mark sprawling backward into the dust. The ball rolled away. The ump spread his hands, signaling that the runner was safe. The other boy jogged toward the visitor’s dugout to his teammates’ cheers.
Behind him, Mark still hadn’t moved.
“Oh my God,” Jack whispered.
The crowd gasped as they realized what had happened. Again, Coach Kenny ran onto the field followed by Mark’s dad.
“Oh no…” Jack ran his hand over his face. Guilt twisted at his stomach, making him nauseous. He stared at Mark’s prone figure. The exhilaration of catching the ball was gone, replaced by the gnawing terror of what he’d done.
The crowd murmured as they watched. Jack’s stomach was a knotted ball of fear and anxiety.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Mark sat up. The coach had taken the catcher’s mask off, and Jack could see his friend’s face was splotchy with tears. With the coach’s help, Mark stood up. Jack felt a flicker of hope: Was Mark going to be okay?
Mark’s dad leaned in close to his son. Jack saw his friend nod. Coach Kenny handed him the catcher’s mask, and Mark slid it over his head.
The crowd applauded as Mark took his position behind home plate. Jack leaned forward with his hands on his knees. He felt like he was going to throw up. The rest of the half inning passed quickly, but Jack never saw any of it. He stared down at the ground, too scared to look up at that sneering face. The voice said nothing the rest of the inning, for which Jack was grateful.
When he reached the dugout, Jack was greeted with a few slaps on the back and high-fives from his teammates on his catch, but most of their attention was devoted to Mark.
Mark stripped off the catcher’s gear. He was moving somewhat gingerly. Jack approached him, feeling sick with guilt.
“Are you okay?”
Mark’s eyes were red and he’d clearly been crying, but he smiled. “My arm hurts, but Dad said it isn’t broken. I didn’t want to leave the game because then we’d have to forfeit. Hey, that was a great catch out there!”
“Thanks.” Jack looked at the ground and scuffed the gravel with his toe. “I…I’m sorry.”
Coach Kenny interrupted their conversation. “Hey, Mark, you okay, man? That was a big-league block of home plate!”
Spared from having to come up with an explanation for his apology, Jack slinked away, feeling like the worst friend in the world. He’d known the creature’s bargain, and he’d accepted it. The first time, when Eric got hurt, Jack could claim ignorance of the terms of the deal. But not the second time. He’d known.
Jack’s turn in the lineup wasn’t due for a while, so he left the dugout to see if his mom had brought an extra water bottle.
“Hey, Jack,” his mom said, handing him the bottle, “nice catch!”
“Yeah, that was really great,” his dad said, beaming.
Jack didn’t trust himself to answer without bursting into tears, so he just nodded and gulped down the water, spilling some on his chin.
“You see what happens when you pay attention out there instead of spacing out? You were right on that ball.”
“Is Mark okay?” his mom asked.
“Yeah, he’s okay.”
“That’s a relief.”
Jack nodded his agreement, then returned to the dugout.
His team went down in order in the bottom of the fourth, so Jack was spared having to take his at bat.
“C’mon, guys, last inning!” Coach Kenny yelled. “We gotta hold ’em!”
As he returned to his position in right field, Jack glanced out at the scoreboard—his team was winning six to five. If they could keep the other team from scoring, the game—and this seemingly never-ending baseball season—would finally, mercifully be over. The thought brought a smile to Jack’s face.
Jack reached right field and turned around to face the infield. He was relieved to see that the four girls with the red sweatshirts had left. The face in the crowd was gone. Had the creature finally left as well?
“Pretty exciting game, eh, Jack-o?”
The deep voice reverberated in Jack’s skull. Startled, he glanced around, trying to find its face.
And then he saw it. Behind the bleachers, the clouds on the horizon had moved closer, promising rain later. Lit from below by the setting sun, the clouds were a gloomy dark grey and purple—the color of a painful bruise. Etched into the surface of the clouds was a horrifying image of a narrow, cruel face with a slyly grinning mouth. The eyes were black pits.
Terrified, Jack wanted to curl up in a ball on the ground. How could nobody else see that face looming over the ballpark like some demonic giant?
“That was a heck of a catch. Must have made your folks pretty proud.”
“You hurt Mark.” Jack’s voice was very quiet, but the monster still heard him. It laughed, sending chills down Jack’s spine.
“Yeah, I did. I can’t pick on Eric all the time, can I? Gotta mix things up, you know?”
The creature laughed again. “Nah, just hungry, Jackie. I gotta eat, just like you do. So, that means I gotta inflict some pain. Spice it up with a little fear, some bitterness.”
“Leave me alone. I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”
“Now, don’t say that. You’re gonna hurt my feelings. And in the last inning of a close ballgame, you’ve got a chance to be the big hero. Think of it—”
“No. I don’t want to be the hero. I don’t want my friends to get hurt. And even when I do something good, nobody notices because of whatever horrible thing you do afterward.”
“Hey, that’s the way it works. I didn’t make the rules, I just live by them.”
“Just shut up.” Jack felt brave for saying this, and he wondered if the creature was going to get angry with him.
But it just winked and smirked at him. “Whatever you say. But just think about this—if you should happen to come up to bat in the bottom of the last inning, maybe with two outs and the bases loaded and your team down by a run…well, you know where to find me. You don’t even have to say anything. Just a little nod, maybe. A little thought in my direction. I’ll hear it. And blammo! A game-winning blast from Big Jack!”
Jack shook his head but said nothing.
“You don’t have to decide now. Think it over. And if you change your mind, I’ll be here.” The terrifying face in the clouds winked at him again, and then it faded away.
Jack signed in relief.
While he’d been focused on the monster, the opposing team had put runners on second and third base. The next batter struck out for the second out of the inning. Jack popped his glove with his fist a few times, frantically wishing this game would end.
The next batter hit a sharp grounder to Eric who was now playing shortstop. Eric scooped up the ball cleanly and then bobbled it trying to pull it out of his glove. The runner on third bolted for home. Eric picked up the ball again and fired a desperate throw to first. The ball sailed over the first baseman’s glove into foul territory. Both runners scored easily, putting the visitors ahead seven to six. The crowd groaned. The visitors’ bench clapped and cheered.
For the first time in the game, Jack’s team was losing. Jack thought back to what the monster had said, about Jack coming up to bat in the bottom of the inning with his team down by a run.
When the next batter struck out to end the top of the fifth, Jack trotted back into the dugout with a sinking feeling in his stomach. He somehow knew the monster’s prediction would come true.
Coach was talking to Eric, who was clearly furious at himself for bobbling the grounder and letting the go-ahead run score. Eric shook Coach’s hand off his shoulder and threw his glove into the chain-link fence.
Coach gathered the team around him. “All right, boys, this is our last at bat. We need some runs.”
Two singles and a strikeout later, Coach motioned to Jack to put on his batting helmet. Thomas was on deck, and Jack was after him.
With a sense of inevitable dread, Jack watched as the batter struck out for the second out of the inning. Thomas stepped into the batter’s box with two on and two out. It came as no surprise to Jack when the pitcher, who had previously been throwing strikes, suddenly couldn’t find the strike zone. Thomas stood and watched as four pitches either bounced across the plate or soared two feet over his head.
The crowd cheered as Thomas trotted down to first base with a walk, loading the bases for Jack.
Jack usually never used swear words, but as he stepped from the on deck circle toward the batter’s box, he muttered several under his breath.
Coach clapped his hands. “C’mon, Jack, just like before. If the pitch is there, you gotta swing.”
Jack nodded, but the words barely registered. He glanced behind home plate, up at the sky, but there was no face leering down at him from the clouds. He knew the monster was there though, listening.
No, Jack thought, I don’t want your help. I won’t do it.
He gripped the bat and waited for the first pitch. The ball flew past.
“Strike one!” the ump yelled, throwing his right hand in the air.
“That was a good pitch, Jack!” the coach said from the dugout.
A sudden vision appeared in Jack’s mind, as bright and detailed as the most vivid dream. In it, Jack was being mobbed by his teammates, having crushed the game-winning hit. Coach was grinning proudly and slapping him on the back. His parents were clapping and smiling. In the bleachers, the four older girls in the red sweatshirts were jumping up and down and cheering. Even Eric was there, pumping his fist and telling Jack what a great hit it was.
“Just say the word, Jack,” a deep voice whispered in his ear, “and it’ll happen…”
“Strike two!” The ump’s call abruptly dispelled the vision.
Jack stepped out of the batter’s box to try to calm his pounding heart. He took a few swings with the bat, and as he did so, he came to a decision.
I’m going to swing, he thought clearly, somehow knowing the monster could hear him. But it’s MY swing. Not yours. I don’t want your help!
As Jack stepped back in, he could hear the crowd behind him hold its breath. All the anxiety and guilt and fear seemed to drain away, leaving Jack feeling strangely calm. The pitcher reached back and threw. The ball looked as big as a grapefruit.
The aluminum bat connected with the ball, feeling like a hundred bee stings in the palms of his hands.
The ball flew off his bat, a sharp liner toward the second baseman. Excitement burst in Jack’s chest like fireworks. He started running for first.
He’d barely gone three steps when the second baseman jabbed his glove up…and snagged the line drive.
Jack stumbled to a stop. The crowd’s cheers switched to groans.
The game was over.
The opposing team ran over to mob the second baseman in a cruel parody of Jack’s vision.
“Great hit, Jack,” Coach Kenny said with a smile as Jack reached the dugout. “That was just bad luck that you hit it right at him.”
Jack nodded. He wasn’t sure how to feel. His teammates were dejected, but they weren’t mad at Jack. They all complimented him on his at-bat. Mark gave him a high-five.
Even Eric shrugged and said, “Tough one, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Jack glanced over at his parents. They were both smiling at him. His dad gave him a big thumbs-up.
Coach called the team together on the bench. “That was a crazy game! But you guys played really well, and I’m proud of all of you. We had a great season.” He paused and pulled a gleaming white baseball, fresh from the packaging, out of his jacket pocket. “Tonight’s game ball goes to…Jack! He hit a single, he made a great catch in the outfield, and he came about two inches from winning the game for us.”
The coach handed the ball to Jack, who took it with awe. He’d never gotten the game ball before. He barely heard his teammates’ cheers all around him.
Coach Kenny dismissed the team, and they all scattered to find their parents. Jack’s mom wrapped an arm around him. “I’m so proud of you, Jack!”
“But I got the last out.”
“That doesn’t matter,” his dad said. “You played a great game.”
“I could have won the game though.”
His dad shrugged. “Maybe. But like the coach said, you had a single and you made that great catch! That’s a big game. You really improved this season.”
Jack wanted to tell his dad it was all a lie. He hadn’t improved. The creature, the demon—whatever it was—had done those things. Jack was still the same lousy ballplayer he’d always been.
But he didn’t say any of those things.
His parents folded up their lawn chairs, waved goodbye to the other parents, and walked along the sidewalk toward home. Jack shuffled along after them. The game ball in his hand felt impossibly heavy.
It was all a lie. His friends had gotten hurt because of him.
Still trailing a few steps behind his parents, as Jack walked past a big metal trash can, he flipped the game ball into it. It clanked against the side as it dropped out of sight.
Feeling much better, Jack glanced up at the cloud bank on the horizon. He scowled at it. If the monster saw him, it didn’t give any indication.
His parents stopped and turned around. “Yeah, what is it?” hid dad asked.
“Do you think I could try a different sport next year?”
About the Author
Jason Gross was born and raised in a small town in central Illinois, just a few miles down the road from the Middle of Nowhere. When he graduated high school, he decided to go someplace new and exciting! Someplace far away from the sleepy small towns of the Midwest! And so he went to Drake University in… Des Moines, Iowa.
Jason graduated with a Bachelor’s in English, and like so many English majors before and after, he next tried to figure out what the heck you do with an English degree. He stumbled into a career as a Technical Writer. He gets paid to write, which is cool, but the material is pretty dull. Writing fiction on the side gives Jason a much-needed creative outlet, without which he’d likely lose his mind.
Jason lives in the Chicago suburbs with his amazing wife and two (very soon to be three) children, who keep him endlessly amused and entertained.