Some reflections, and a story.

Let's get something straight. Some of you have been to my website before, you've read other blog posts, you've looked around at this little ecosystem of rambling I've dabbled with over the past year or so. Others of you, this is your first visit--You've ended up here by accident, perhaps, or clicked a link and before you knew what was happening you were seeing my face at the top of the screen. Some of you just followed the directions from a tweet or a Facebook post and well, you know the rest. 

Regardless of how often you've been to my website, regardless of whether or not you've ever read a single word I've ever written, here's the truth: I can write some pretty crazy stuff. I'm serious. People can judge the quality of what I write all they want, I couldn't care less, but they can't deny that most of the stories I share with the world are twisted, they are meant to frighten, to explore things in the dark, to make you say, "Oh I hope that never happens to me." I'm not a crazy person, quite the contrary, actually. But it's these types of stories that I enjoy reading, and subsequently, these are the types of stories I enjoy writing. 

But here's the thing, even with all the ghosts, the creatures, the murder, all the fear that I've put onto the pages, there's one story that I for some reason love more than all the others. It's unlike anything else that I've shared with you all. Is it scary? Yes and No. Is it an in your face, make you want to leave the lights on scary? A check your backseat before driving scary? No. But, I won't say there's not an element of fear. Fear about life's uncertainty, fear of losing someone special to you. Sometimes, reality is much scarier than anything I can make up.

I'm twenty-seven years old. That's a fact. And you know what scares the heck out of me? The number of my high school classmates that have died since graduation. Car accidents, motorcycle accidents, cancer, they've all played the role of antagonist in my life's story. Technically, we're supposed to have a ten year reunion next year, and should it actually happen, there'll be no mistaking the fact that there'll be people missing from among us. People who we'll never see again, people whose facebook pages have become tribute pages where others occasionally stop by and write about a fond memory. But eventually those pages are forgotten. And sometimes, so are the people. That's life.

I wrote this story about a week or two after I'd lost two classmates in what seemed like back-to-back incidents. I was closer to the second one--a fellow Duke basketball fan who I know was just as excited as I was when they won the National Championship a couple years back... only a few weeks before he was killed. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't affected by the death. I'm a pretty emotionally solid guy, and don't often wear my feelings on my sleeve, but I was shaken. Looking for some sort of outlet, some sort of release, I decided to write. It's what I enjoy doing. This story is the product. Is it the best thing I've ever written? Who knows and who cares? I might be the crummiest writer on the planet, but it won't change the fact that I go back and read this story a few times a year, just because. Are some of the elements cliche? Maybe. Again, who cares? Sometimes you need cliche, sometimes you just want to read something because it makes you feel good. In a sense, I guess I wrote this story for myself. Even if I'm just now realizing it.

Why am I saying all this? I really have no idea. I wrote the story a couple years ago, and it's been included in my collection of short stories The Teachers' Lounge for over a year now. I don't know why I'm giving you this story now, honestly I don't. But I am. So if you'd like to read it, please do. If you don't, thanks for stopping by. 

You can read Baseball and Peace Signs as a free PDF here -- or you can read it straight from my site below this post. 

Michael

 

Baseball and Peace Signs

By

Michael Robertson Jr.

 

            Keep your eye on the ball, Bill. Keep your eye on the freaking ball.

            It wasn’t much in the way of mantras, but at twelve years old, up to bat out at the old baseball field that used to be behind McCauley’s Grocery and Produce, keeping my eye on the ball was the most important thing I tried to force myself to remember to do. Life was simpler then, much simpler. Parents spend everyday trying to tell their kids that they won’t be young forever and to enjoy it while they can--hell, I tell my kids the same thing now--but lets face it; the kids will never understand these wise but forever ignored words until they’re all grown up and spend most evenings wondering just where time went.

            I loved baseball. Heck, I ate, breathed, and dreamt baseball. Whenever anybody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up the answer was always to be a professional baseball player. I’d always get a Well that’s great, son, or a Well remember, practice makes perfect. They’d smile and pat me on the head or on the shoulder and that was that. Nobody had the balls to tell me the truth, which was quite simply: I sucked at baseball.

            It’s true, I was terrible (I turned out being not a professional baseball player but a history teacher) but hey, a kid can have his dreams, right?

            My second love was Keri Walsh, and it is because of her, and what happened to me at twelve years old--the year of keeping my eye on the ball--that I’m writing this. When I wasn’t thinking about baseball, wondering if maybe I was choking up on the bat too much on my swing, or if my curve ball was curving as hard as it should, I was thinking about Keri. Keri was the most beautiful girl in the world and I was going to marry her. That’s what the twelve-year old version of me thought, anyway. Poetic, I know.

            Keri and I had grown up together, our families living only two houses apart from each other on Dogwood Drive. That’s in the MapleWood Community, for those of you who may not be familiar with the area, also known as Snob’s Knob to some of the more envious townsfolk. It was a fitting nickname, I suppose. Expertly manicured lawns, large sprawling houses (mansions, to the previously mentioned envious folk) and German cars that you couldn’t just take down to Franky’s Garage next to the Fill-n-Go to get serviced. MapleWood was the rich part of town, plain and simple. My dad was a dentist, one of only two in town, and Keri’s parents were both lawyers. So, Snob Knob it was for the both of us.

            There was only one school bus that ran its route through MapleWood, and it was on that single bus that I met Keri on our first day of Kindergarten. I stood outside my house on the sidewalk with my mom waiting for the bus, clutching my GI Joe lunchbox in one hand and my mom’s hand in the other, and then I looked down the block and saw Keri, holding her lunch box (Betty Boop) and mother’s hand as well. I had seen Keri a few times before around the neighborhood, but this was the first time I had really seen her. She was wearing a white dress with yellow flowers on it and black shoes that seemed to twinkle in the sunlight. Her blond hair was pulled up in a neat ponytail, tied with a matching yellow ribbon. Her skin, white and delicate, looked like porcelain. She turned her head and saw me looking and I quickly glanced away, feeling the heat rise in my cheeks. I’m pretty sure my mom noticed the incident and my embarrassment, but she said nothing.

            The big yellow school bus pulled up maybe a minute or two after Keri had caught me looking at her, and my mom kissed me on the cheek, told me to have a good day, and then I climbed the steps onto the bus and found an empty seat close to the front. I looked out the window and caught a glimpse of my mother waving goodbye as the bus pulled forward all of two hundred feet and then stopped to pick up Keri. Keri’s mother did a similar song and dance as my own had done and then it was Keri’s turn to climb the steps. When she reached the top she gave the bus driver a friendly smile and then walked and sat down right next to me.

            I was stunned. MapleWood was on the outside of town and therefore one of the bus’s first stops in the morning. There were only three or four other kids onboard at the most and there were countless empty seats. Still, Keri, with her pretty new dress, freshly washed hair, and shiny shoes, chose to sit down right next to me. I froze, had no idea what to do or say. Luckily, Keri did.

            “Hi,” she said. Confident.

            “Uh. Hi,” I replied. Nervous wreck.

            She stuck out her tiny hand, the nails were painted pink. “I’m Keri.”

            “I’m Bill, but people call me Billy.” I was terrified to shake her hand, I’d never touched a girl before, but somehow I managed to offer up a quick, limp grasp.

            “I like Bill better,” she said. “It sounds more grownup.”

            I won’t say that I stopped being nervous as we chatted the rest of the bus ride to school, but I do know this. Sitting on the green leather seat of the bus, lunchbox full of a bologna and butter sandwich, apple, and a pudding cup, I developed my first crush on Keri Walsh.

            That was the day that started it all. Two kids riding together about to embark on their first day of school, instantly beginning a friendship that would last a lifetime, not knowing it at the time, but discovering at age six what some people can spend their entire lives hopelessly searching for: A soul-mate.

            Keri and I were practically inseparable after that. We weren’t in the same class, which was probably a good thing for our teachers, but we got to sit with each other at lunch, and then there was always the bus ride home where we got to laugh and giggle and whisper about our day. Most days we’d share after-school snacks in one or the other’s kitchen. Our mother’s smiling and both thinking similar thoughts: Oh, look at Billy and his little girlfriend, aren’t they just adorable, or Oh, isn’t Keri cute sitting there with her little boyfriend, so precious. Keri and I didn’t protest with disgusted faces or cries of the opposite sex having cooties, instead we said nothing, probably because even at such a young age, while boyfriend and girlfriend may have been much too mature a title, we both knew that we cared for the other. Let the grownups label it what they might.

            Things continued this way for a long time--up until the seventh grade. As we both grew older and started getting heavy into our own personal interests (baseball for me, art--sketches mostly--and horseback riding for Keri), our time we were able to spend together grew slimmer, and we made more friends. I think our parents were secretly relieved at this, on both our parts. My dad’s face practically lit up like a jack-o-lantern when I asked to sign up for pee-wee baseball, silently relieved that I wasn’t gay and was going to make some more male friends. Keri told me her mom smiled and said “I’m so happy for you, sweetie,” when she asked if should could take art lessons at the DownTown Art Studio, probably thanking God her little girl wasn’t going to be some tom-boy jock who wore a baseball cap backwards and never had her hair done up in anything but a ponytail.

            But regardless of our other hobbies and social activities, we always found time for each other, were always interested in what the other was doing. We’d pass notes at school in the hallways in between classes, we still rode the bus together almost everyday, except when my mom would pick me up and take me to baseball practice, and we were often scolded for staying up past our bedtimes talking to each other on the phone. Keri showed me her sketches on an almost daily basis, and I assured her that each and every one of them were absolutely brilliant. I went three times to watch her equestrian shows, and although it was perhaps one of the most boring things in the world to watch, when it was Keri’s turn to show, I couldn’t help standing there with a big grin stretching across my face and warm feeling in my stomach.

            Keri came to as many of my baseball games as she and her parents’ schedules would allow, mostly the ones on Saturday Mid-mornings, and even though I was perhaps not the worst player on the team, but close, nothing made me happier than to step up to bat and turn to the small crowd of parents and onlookers and see Keri Walsh, hair always shining, always smiling, standing up and screaming “Come on, Bill. Knock it out of the park! Show them what you’ve got!”

            I never knocked it out of the park. Heck, I rarely knocked it out of the infield, but when I did, it seemed like I could always hear Keri’s voice above the others, cheering for me like I’d just won the World Series. Even when I struck out (more often than not) Keri would still stand on the bleachers until I reached the dugout, screaming “That’s okay, Bill. You’ll show ‘em next time!”

            When the weather was warm we’d take long walks together around MapleWood, letting the sun set on our backs and listening to the crickets begin their chirping. It was on one of these walks, one evening just before school let out for the summer after the seventh grade, that as we reached the intersection of Dogwood Drive and Honey Suckle Lane, making a right and leaving our block and the view of our houses behind, Keri took my hand in hers, lacing her fingers through mine, and squeezed it gently as we chatted the entire rest of the way. My heart thudded like a parade marching band for an instant, panic taking over about the same way it did that first morning of Kindergarten, before settling as I realized that holding Keri Walsh’s hand not only felt right, but felt like the most natural and satisfying thing in the world.

            When we circled back around the block and arrived back in front of our houses, Keri let my hand go. We stood there together, not saying anything for a minute or two. My head was still swimming with the fact that I had just held hands with the beautiful girl in front of me, and I wanted desperately to hold it again.

            “I sketched something for you. A couple days ago at my art class,” she said, almost bashfully.

            “Okay.” I had a good number of Keri’s sketches in my room already, so I wasn’t sure why she sounded different about this one.

            “Do you mind if I run and go get it?”

            “Sure, go ahead. But you could just give it to me on the bus tomorrow.”

            She chewed her bottom lip, thinking it over briefly. “No. I need to give it to you now. Here.”

            I shrugged. “Okay. I’ll wait.”

            She ran off and up her driveway and I watched as she disappeared through her front door, closing it behind her. I turned and stretched, looking up at the sky, which was fading from dark gray to black in a hurry, the first stars making their appearance. I had to pee, I’ll always remember that. The night Keri gave me the greatest picture she ever gave me, I stood on the sidewalk outside her house waiting, wanting nothing more than to get inside and use the toilet.

            She was back quickly, half walking, half skipping back down the driveway, meeting me on the sidewalk. She had a standard size sheet from a sketchpad held against her chest. I couldn’t see the picture on the other side.

            “So we were doing still-life in class the other day, we had a bunch of pictures to choose from to take back to our desks and try and replicate. I don’t know why I picked this one, there were much prettier, and much more challenging pictures to choose from, but for some reason I just felt this one was for me.”

            I said nothing.

            “Anyway, as I started sketching I started to really look at the picture I was drawing. Like really look at it. Do you know what I mean?”

            “I guess.”

            “Well, when I started looking, and as I kept sketching, all I could think about was you, Bill.”

            Again I said nothing, not sure what to make of what Keri had just told me. Curious as to just what the picture was.

            “So then I finished, and my teacher said that it was terrific, that I had captured the image with better energy than the original, whatever that means.

            “I brought it home and the more I looked at it, and the more I thought of you, the more it made sense.”

            She pulled the picture away from her chest and turned it so I could see.

            It was a hand, a human hand, the sex indistinguishable, and Keri’s teacher was correct, it was perhaps the best thing I had ever seen Keri produce. The detail, the shading, the shadowing, it was all completely perfect. It was as if the hand on the piece of paper was only a moment away from gathering the strength to jump off the page and join us in the real world. The hand, the perfect hand, had its thumb and last two fingers closed, pointed downward, leaving only the index and middle finger raised. A peace sign.

            “That’s us, Bill,” she said, pointing at the hand. “Do you get it?”

            I didn’t.

            “Forget the fact that it’s a peace sign, I’m talking about the fingers. Every time I look at this picture, I think of those two fingers, the two raised up, as you and me.”

            I was beyond confused at this point, but then Keri brought it all together for me.

            “Look,” she said tapping the hand on the paper with her finger. “There are other fingers on the hand, there always will be. You and I have other friends, and always will. But you see these two fingers here?” She tapped the index and middle finger, raised above the others. “These two are us, Bill. We know the other fingers are there, and we get along with them, sure, but the two of us stand up among the others. We’re side by side, everyday, and always will be.”

            I grasped what Keri was trying to say and my heart fluttered a bit. It was hard to put into words, as Keri was discovering as she tired to relay her emotion to me, but I got it. Boy did I get it. We were the raised fingers, Keri and I, always next to each other, always together. No matter what other things were going on, no matter what else we had to do, we would always be together. Gosh, did we believe that.

            For the next month things were bliss. School let out and freed Keri and I to do what we did best; spend time with each other. And after the night that Keri gave me the picture and told me that we’d always be together, our time together was that much more special. Things didn’t change really, no. We did the same things, told the same jokes, watched the same movies, but there just seemed to be this extra...warmth between us. A fire that had perhaps been waiting for the right, and inevitable, time to ignite and was finally allowed to spark. We still hadn’t labeled ourselves--

            Oh, look at Billy and his little girlfriend, aren’t they just adorable.

            --but come maybe eighth grade, or maybe ninth--High School--we both knew that the labels would come to grow meaning, and we’d welcome it.

            Which brings us back to where I started, with me trying to keep my eye on the freaking ball.

            It was the second week of July, shortly after all the barbecues and fireworks and watermelon that accompany the fourth, and it was hot. Very hot. I was out at the baseball field behind McCauley’s Grocery and Produce, a big patch of dirt and grass that opened up into an expanse of farmland that, once we added a few old bases that the City Recreation Department was going to toss into the garbage, became the perfect summer spot for any young boy in town that loved a good game of ball. Me and a handful of other guys from school who had all played together on various Rec teams through the years were in a heated game. We’d been at it for hours, seriously, as only young and stupid kids can do in scorching heat with only a few bottles of Gatorade to pass around between them, and we’d decided that enough was enough and the next run would be the game winner. My team was up to bat.

            Keri was sitting in the grass along the third base line, far enough away to avoid any foul balls (hopefully), her sketchpad in hand, pencils moving in rapid motions against the page, creating her next masterpiece. She hadn’t been there for the whole game, only arriving perhaps twenty minutes earlier. She was meeting me there so that we could go down to Packer’s Drug Store and get a bite to eat and maybe a root beer float. With the heat as brutal as it was, a root beer float seemed like it would be a gift from God himself. When Keri saw the game was still going on, she gave me a quick wave and then found her spot in the grass, waiting patiently. When me and the guys decided on the whole “next run wins” idea, I jogged over quickly to her and explained, letting her know that it wouldn’t be much longer, and that I’m sorry she had to wait like she was. She only flashed me a smile and said, “Bill, Packer’s isn’t going anywhere. And besides it’s a nice day, I don’t mind waiting.”

            That was Keri for you. It was at least nintey-four degrees outside, probably hotter, and to her it was simply “a nice day.”

            So, my team was up to bat, all of us eager to get the game over with and get inside to some air conditioning, but none of us willing to back down. No, the team in the field, despite the heat and long hours of the game, would still do their best, play their hardest to keep from losing. That’s just the way boys are.

            Matt Lowry was up first, and Ben Henburg was catching for the other team. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure Ben whispered something to Matt as he approached home plate. If he was trying to get into Matt’s head it worked, because Matt struck out on three pitches, all what appeared to be fast balls. Sam Bolton was up next, and he whiffed one that was inside and low before grounding out on the next pitch.

            And then just like that, I was up. As I walked over to home plate, prepared for any trash talk that Ben Henburg might have to offer, I glanced over to Keri. I had kept an eye on her when Matt and Sam had been up to bat, and her nose had been buried in her sketchbook, only once glancing up at the sound of Sam’s bat making contact on his ground out, probably just to see if that was going to be the end of the game. But now, now that I was up, Keri set her sketchpad beside her in the mostly dead grass and folded her hands under her chin, ready to watch me in action.

            Now, I know it’s going to sound odd, or perhaps it’ll sound like I’m trying to fabricate a bit in order to embellish my story, but honest to goodness this is the truth. As I mentioned, I was never a great baseball player, and although I loved the game and found it to be endless fun, I was not confident at all. Not one single bit. But for some reason, as I took my position in front of a squatting Ben Henburg with my Louisville Slugger draped over my shoulder, I took one more look at Keri sitting there in the grass, her legs curled underneath her and one hand now saluting over her eyes to help block out the glare of the sun, and I thought to myself, I’m going to win this game for her. I’m going to win this game for Keri so we can go get our root beer floats.

            The first pitch was high and outside and I swung with just about everything I had in me.

            I missed everything, the only sound that of the bat slicing through the thick, humid air.

            The second pitch looked almost perfect, until it got just close enough for me to swing and then it curved sharply downward. I resisted the urge to try and knock the stuffing out of it and let it pass. One ball, one strike.

            As the pitcher--I think it was Mike Hensley, but I’m not positive--prepared for the next pitch, my sweet little mantra thumped in my head over and over. Keep your eye on the ball, Bill. Keep your eye on the freaking ball.

            The third pitch was a fast ball and it came right down the middle. I swung with every ounce of strength my twelve-year old body could summon and was almost surprised when I felt the thud of the ball against the bat and then a split second later the CLACK! sound that echoes from every ball park all over America. I looked out, a look of half astonishment still on my face, and watched as the ball soared through the air, over the head of the pitcher, and out of the infield.

            “Run!” somebody shouted (I think it was Sam).

            That jump started me. I bolted down the baseline, headed towards first, all the while watching the ball as it continued to fly. I knew I had knocked it good, and, assuming nobody caught it, I knew I was going to get a double out of it. But, as I rounded first base and headed towards second, I realized what was about to happen.

            The ball was on target to land in a gap in between left and center field. Both outfielders were running full speed, one from the left and one from the right, heads cocked to the sky, gloved hands held out ready to make the play. Neither of them called it. Just as I was about to reach second, my sneakers kicking up puffs of dirt as I pounded my way down the line, the two outfielders collided, slamming hard into each other and then collapsing into a tangled heap in the grass, the ball landing behind them and rolling a few feet before stopping.

            “Go, Bill! Go!” It was Keri this time. I jerked my head in her direction and saw that she was hopping up and down in her spot behind the third base line, waving her arms frantically, signaling me to run. So I ran. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me, and when I reached third base, I didn’t even think about it, I had made it that far, I might as well go for the gold. I rounded third and heard the voices of the others on my team screaming their heads off for me to run. Ben Henburg was standing, glove open and out, ready to receive the Hail Mary heave that was surly on it’s way in attempt to throw me out. When I was maybe ten feet from home, somebody yelled, “Slide!”

            I did. I lunged, throwing all my momentum forward and slid the rest of the way on my belly, arms out in front of me. Just as my fingers touched the base, I looked up to see Ben jump up and then miss the catch completely, the ball going over his head. I was safe, and the game was over.

            I was suddenly engulfed in a barrage of cheers, hollers, and screams, my team rushing around me and picking me up off the dirt.

            “Damn, Billy, didn’t know you had that in ya!”

            “Billy, you shoulda seen yourself, what kinda slide was that?”

            “You made those two out there look like fools, Billy!”

            I stood, hands patting me on the back and ruffling my hair. I looked down at my shirt which was originally a faded white and was now smeared with a combination of sweat and dirt from my collar to my belly. Both my forearms had scrapes on them, droplets of blood popping up and then trickling down and dropping off onto the dirt.

            “Bill!” I heard her voice and turned around just in time to catch Keri as she jumped into me, wrapping her arms around my neck. “Bill, that was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen!”

            The other guys, done with their congratulatory remarks and ready to get the heck off the field and out of the heat, had already dispersed and left me and Keri alone, still standing on home plate. With her arms still wrapped around me, seemingly uncaring to the dirt and blood that covered me, Keri’s face was inches from mine, her breath smelled like bubble gum.

            “I’m so glad I was here to see that,” she said.

            “I know, me too, otherwise you’d never have believed me.”

            We both laughed, but her laughter died off before mine, her face turning serious and looking me in the eyes.

            “What?” I asked.

            She smiled then, hesitating only a second. “I’m proud of you, Bill.” Then she did another one of her patented watch-me-blow-Bill’s-mind-again moves. She leaned in quickly, before I even knew what was happening, and kissed me.

            It wasn’t a long kiss, but not short either. We were twelve, and passionate just isn’t something a twelve year old’s kiss can be, but to this day I still consider that brief, innocent peck on the lips to be the greatest, most memorable kiss of my entire life. Almost as memorable as what she said to me next.

            “I love you, Bill.”

            Of course, I told her I loved her, too. It was perhaps the most truthful thing I had ever told anybody. After holding each other a little while longer, still having our own personal celebration on home plate, Keri noticed the baseball lying in the dirt a few yards behind us. She let me go and ran over to pick it up. She brought it back to me and then dug a pen out of her pocket, no doubt one she had been using for her sketches. She held the ball out to me. “Sign it for me, Bill.”

            “Sign it?”

            “Yeah, sign it. This ball is a memory and I want you to sign it for me.”

            I felt silly, but Lord knows I would do anything for Keri. I took the dirty, worn ball from her and then the pen, scribbling my first name in a spot between the lines of red laces and then gave it back to her. She examined it, almost as if to make sure I had done it right, and then she took my hand and we went to get our root beer floats.

            Eight days later Keri died.

 

#

 

It was a long, long time ago--more years than I even care to count--but I still remember the awful smell of the funeral home where Keri’s service was held; that dreadful combination of too many flowers, pine, tears and sorrow. I sat in the third row, squished between both my parents, wearing my only suit, and crying an endless stream of tears through the entire service. I never heard any words spoken, the entire world seemed to have stalled around me. Every time I thought I was going to get a hold of myself and shut off the tears, I’d look forward and see the casket at the front of the room, surrounded by bouquets and made of wood that seemed to shine too brightly for anything as negative of a sign as it was. Keri was in that box. She’d never draw another picture, she’d never ride another horse, and worst of all, she’d never again flash me that mesmerizing smile. The one that had caused me to love her so, even at age twelve. Then the tears would start all over again.

            I had been sitting alone at the kitchen counter in my house, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and reading a comic book, when the phone rang on the wall next to the stove. On the second ring I thought about hopping off my stool and answering it, but then it stopped. My mom must have picked it up from the living room. I continued to eat.

            She came in quietly behind me, I didn’t even hear her, and laid a hand gently on my shoulder. “Billy?”

            I spun around, startled, and then became worried. There were tears dried on my mom’s cheeks and her mascara had run into little black puddles below her eyes.

            “Mom? Mom... what’s wrong?”

            She took me by the hand and let me into the living room, sitting me down on the couch. Then she told me.

            The doctors said it was a brain aneurysm. Nobody bothered to explain to me what this was, but that’s probably because I never asked. It didn’t matter the cause, the only thing that mattered, the only fact that stuck me through the heart and into my soul like the blade of a jagged, rusty dagger, was that Keri was dead. Keri. The girl who had become my first and best friend by sitting next to me on the bus, both of us heading off to our first day of school, the girl who had always confided in me and I had done the same with her, the girl who held my hand as we walked around MapleWood together on countless warm spring and summer evenings, the girl who had been present when I had my most amazing hit ever and then leapt into my arms with a kiss and told me she loved me, the girl who, in a few years, would have been my prom date, dressed up in a way that I can’t even imagine how beautiful she would have looked, the girl that might have one day been my wife. That girl was gone. Cruelly robbed from me, and everybody else.

            For the days leading up to Keri’s funeral, I don’t remember anything except the tears. That and the constant sick pain in the pit of my stomach, one that I was certain would never go away.

            When the funeral was over I begged my parents not to make me go to the burial. I just didn’t think I could take it, witnessing the box that held the girl that I had loved being lowered into a dark, wormy hole in the ground. They thankfully obliged. We drove home, rolling down a Dogwood Drive that seemed significantly less alive than it always had to me, and then we all ate lunch together in near silence in the kitchen.

            I had come to realize that as long as I was awake, I was constantly hurting. The only escape from the pain seemed to be sleep. So, that night after the funeral, I turned in early, telling both my parents that I loved them and then crawling under the covers around eight-thirty.

 

#

 

Bill.

            It sounded like Keri’s voice. I was somewhere in between dreamland and reality, swimming in that fuzzy haze of uncertainty.

            Bill. Wake up.

            It was Keri alright, her voice loud and clear in my head. I jerked awake and sat up in my bed, looking around my dark room and then stifling back a scream. I had to still be dreaming, I thought. I just had to be.

            Keri Walsh was standing at the foot of my bed. “Ke...Keri?”

            It’s me, Bill. Don’t you recognize me?

            Her lips didn’t move, the sounds not coming from her mouth. I heard her words only in my head, like she was in my ear and whispering.

            “Uh... Of course I recognize you, but...” I thought about earlier that day, the funeral. “You can’t be here. You...” I felt the tears start to tingle in my eyes. “You died, Keri.”

            She stood there, wearing what looked like a white night gown that reached down to her ankles. Her feet were bare. Her hair, which had always been sleek and shiny and clean, hung loosely down around her face and shoulders, almost seeming to glow. Her creamy, white skin shimmered in the moonlight making its way through the slats in my window blinds. Her whole body seemed to have a glowing translucency, mixed with a bit of a sparkle.

            Yes, Bill, I died. That’s why I’m here. I knew you’d be upset. I knew I had to come talk to you, come help you. That’s what we always do for each other, right? Help. Be there. You think I’d let up on my end of the bargain?

            I heard this and then watched as she smiled.

            “Help me?” I asked. “How?”

            By letting you know that you don’t need to cry anymore. I’m fine, Bill.

            “You’re gone, Keri!” A tear fell as I yelled.

            Her smile didn’t waver.

            Bill, you have no idea how beautiful it is where I am now. I can’t describe it, and you wouldn’t be able to understand if I did. Nobody would, unless they could see. It’s... heavenly.

            She gave me a wink and I wanted to jump off my bed and rush and hug her, wanted to hold her tight against me and not let her go. But something inside me told me not to, not to try that.

            Bill, listen to me. There’s no pain, no fear, there’s no worry. Evil and all its allies can’t touch where I am. There’s nothing but...happiness, goodness. Bill, you have to listen to me. Don’t cry for me anymore. You’re my best friend and I’m asking you this favor. No more tears. Can you do that for me, Bill?

            Tears were still coming down my cheeks, but I listened, and then, knowing it would be the hardest promise I had ever made Keri, I nodded my head.            

            “Yeah,” I said through sniffles. “Yeah, Keri. I can do that for you. I’d do anything for you.”

            She nodded her head and her smile grew larger.

            I know you would. I love you, Bill. Remember that.

            Then she turned and started to walk towards the door, her back to me and her hair shining brightly.

            “Keri! Wait!”

            She stopped.

            “What... What am I supposed to do with out you?”

            She was motionless for just a second and then turned slowly back to face me. I waited for the answer, waited for the words in my head. No words came, though. Instead, she gave me an answer that required nothing but her hand. She raised her right hand, the pale skin glowing, and then raised her index and middle finger. A peace sign.

            The fingers, I thought. We are the fingers. Together forever. Right then I knew, Keri might have left this earth too young, but she would always be with me. Always.

            And then she was gone.

 

#

 

I woke up early the next morning to the sound of rain on the roof. The sun was peaking through the clouds, though, and I thought that maybe by lunchtime me and the guys could go get a game going. I changed out of my pajamas and pulled on some shorts and t-shirt. As I was dressing, I realized that I felt better than I had since I had found out about Keri’s death. Then I remembered the dream I had the night before and smiled.

            Keri.

            Keri had come and made me realize that I didn’t need to cry anymore. That she was in a happy place and that I didn’t need to worry. She had told me that she loved me.

            I was going to be ok. I was going to be just fine.

            As I headed out of my room, on my way to get some breakfast, my appetite returning in full force, I noticed something sitting on my desk in the corner. I rarely used the desk and the items sitting atop it hardly ever moved or changed, so I knew something was different. I walked over to look at the thing that had caught my eye.

            It was a baseball. Once white but now a dirty brown from many uses, well worn, it sat next to an old notebook of mine. “Now how did that get there?” I asked myself. I figured maybe I had left it around the house somewhere and one of my parents had come across it and laid it there. I shrugged my shoulders and picked it up.

            That’s when I saw my signature. There, scrawled in my horrible handwriting, in the spot between the red laces, was my first name. I almost dropped the ball in shock, my heart beat thumping in my chest. It was the ball I had signed and given to Keri after winning the pick-up game a little over a week earlier. She had taken the ball home and I hadn’t seen it since. All that was shocking enough, the fact that this ball was now sitting in my room, but what had caused me to jump and nearly drop the ball, was that now, underneath my signature, there was another name. This one, written in a neat flowing cursive, was the most beautiful name in the world.

            Keri.

 

#

 

So that’s the story of Keri and I. I’m much older now--much older--and although my memory isn’t as sharp as it once was, I never forget any details about those first early years of my life, the years I spent with Keri.

            My life continued on with a fairly normal path after the night Keri came to visit. I graduated High School and then College, got a job, started a family--a wonderful, loving wife, and three boys, all grown now--and then retired. I spend most days fishing or playing golf, and come baseball season I always watch as many games as I can with the MLB package on the satellite. I’m happy.

            I don’t think of Keri everyday, haven’t for quite some time. But I do often find my mind floating towards her time and time again, sometimes when I’m alone and it’s quiet, sometimes in the most unexpected places, such as standing in line at the grocery store. Whenever I do, she always brings a smile to my face.

            I don’t know how much longer I’ll live, I’m pretty healthy, and with the advancement in modern medicine, who knows. But when my time comes, I won’t have many regrets, and I’ll be ready.

            I don’t know if there are baseball teams in Heaven. But if there are, I surely hope they’ll let me play. It’s been a long time since I’ve swung a bat, but I’ll try my best to at least get one rolling. And I hope that when I do, if I should happen to get a hit, I’ll be able to look up into the crowd and see Keri Walsh, jumping up and down, smiling and cheering for me once again.