The Kid

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Chapter Nine

She stepped out of the limousine in the same beige dress and green hair ribbon that she had worn the last time they had met at the quiet Italian restaurant, and for a quick moment Jason wondered if he had been allowed to go back in time, given a second chance to do things right.

Except that he didn’t know what he had done wrong the first time around...

The moment passed. He stepped up to meet her, and she smiled at him but there was an obvious wall between the two, something was still very wrong and somehow he knew she didn’t want him to touch her.

What did that mean? What had he done? Jason felt like he was going crazy.

* * *

The look in his eyes shamed her, and Raven wished with all her might that she could make all of the strange feelings--and fears, especially--just disappear but she couldn’t. She had tried for a week but they refused to go.

As they walked together to a waiting table several people stopped Jason, apologizing for bothering him but wanting to tell him how great they thought he was, and would he mind?

She waited to one side while he signed several autographs, and he seemed not to be very arrogant about it, he never talked pridefully about the fame that had been handed to him...he was such a wonderful man, so handsome and tender and romantic...why was she so afraid? What was it that her heart could not let go of?

Raven felt like she was going to go crazy.

* * *

“Your father didn’t mind this meeting?”

They had ordered their meals and now there was nothing left to say...except everything. Raven heard his question and looked down. “He knows why I’m here.”

Jason was not a foolish young man. If Robert knew that Raven was meeting him, and the last thing he wanted was for them to have a relationship...“Oh, no.”

“Jason...”

“What did I do wrong? What wasn’t enough? I thought we had something between us.”

“We did--we do, Jason.” She looked up, then, and he almost wished she hadn’t. The walls were up again, although apparently it wasn’t his fault--they were still up, and he couldn’t look inside her anymore.

* * *

She knew that, and the worst part was that she still could look into Jason...could still see all of the affection and love and desire he had for her, that he just wanted the chance to pour out to her, but it wasn’t...it couldn’t... “This isn’t easy for me and it’s not something I want to do.”

“Daddy finally got through to you, huh? Made you see the light?”

That hurt worse than if he’d actually struck her. Raven sat in her seat and gaped at him.

* * *

He regretted his words immediately, but there was no reshelving them now. “I mean--isn’t that what this is all about? You’re about to break my heart because you’re afraid of your father?” That hadn’t come out right, either...when did he lose control of his emotions? Of the situation? Nothing was going right anymore and the harder he tried to hold on to the one thing that really mattered to him, the further away she slipped.

What was he going to do?

“Jason, you don’t know anything, okay?”

* * *

Her eyes were filling with tears and they were very angry. Her father might have something to do with her fears, with her doubts, but there was a lot more behind that, and what she needed and craved, just someone to love her and try to understand even if it hurt them to do so...

Raven knew, somehow, that she wasn’t going to find that in Jason Stiller.

The worst thing was that he wasn’t a jerk, he didn’t want to hurt her and yet he couldn’t be enough, he still failed to be what she needed, and there was no way that Raven could find to get around hurting him.

Because she had to say goodbye.

“Please don’t make this harder than it already is.”

* * *

It would have been the perfect time for Jason to be quiet and listen, which he was supposedly good at, but his own wants and needs were shouting louder than his conscience. “C’mon, you’re thinking too much, Raven. Why don’t we just have a peaceful dinner and then take a walk along the river, you know, find a quiet place alone? Wasn’t there anything in that room that you liked--wasn’t anything there worth investing in?”

She scowled at him. “That’s not a solution, Jason, it’s not going to make anything better and we’re both old enough to know that.”

He was...he should have been. But holding her, touching her, the comfort of that embrace was too dear to him, something he depended on way too much to step back from. He couldn’t just be her friend. Not anymore. “Am I really that bad of a kisser?”

Her only response was to bury her face in her hands, and he felt ashamed.

* * *

How awful it was...she wanted so badly to assure him that he was wrong in his doubt, that his smile and his touch and everything about him were such a gift, such a joy--or they had been, until whatever this nastiness was, churning up from the depths of her heart, came to steal that away.

Her heart and her body both wanted him to hold her but her mind had gone over and over and over the way that things were and knew that it was no solution to her problems, knew that the fears would still be there, knew it was time to grow up...at least a little.

While she desperately hoped Jason would understand, maybe even want to come with her, somehow Raven knew that his decision was not one she could make or even influence. In the end they were both on their own like they had always been.

His voice, across the table, was not as gentle as she had heard it before. “Why don’t I make sure we’re floating on the same boat, here. For whatever reason you’re scared, and I can’t fix that, and we’re through.”

* * *

She looked at him, then, and it was his turn to look away--because she met his bluntness, his attempt to shame her with a lowering of her defenses, the green eyes that looked at him were unguarded...but what he saw inside was new, and sorrowful like it had never been before.

He looked away and understood.

It was over.

Jason’s mind tried to collect on the sudden, churning thoughts of the future...where he wouldn’t be holding her close, he wouldn’t be looking into her eyes, where all the plans and designs and ideas that had formed were all suddenly sluiced down into a bottomless sewer along with his broken heart.

It would have been a fine moment for understanding, and compassion, and unconditional love.

For Jason there was only pain and sudden, spiteful anger. “That’s it? That’s all we can expect from the high and mighty princess?”

She sat and looked at him and did not respond.

“Come on, Raven, Miss Limousine, Miss Gets-Everything-She-Wants, why don’t we be honest? I don’t really matter to you, do I, I’m just this stupid country boy you wanted a quick fling with just for a change. Huh? Isn’t that it?” Deep inside where a bit of honesty resided, Jason knew he didn’t believe those things, knew they weren’t true.

But if she was going to hurt him...

“Thanks a lot, Miss Germane, for allowing me the pleasure of your company for these past few weeks--gee whiz, ma’am, it shore was a change from them ugly fillies we got in Ioway.” His voice got quiet, and he found himself ashamed of his own words but unable to put the cork back in. “Then again, none of them ever hurt me like this.”

She sat and looked at him and did not speak, the tears streaming down her face were the only evidence that she was even listening besides those beautiful eyes...she was supposed to get angry, she was supposed to fight back, she was supposed to make an effort and act like maybe she at least had some sort of feelings in the matter, even if she hated him at least it was better than indifference...“Isn’t that great? Now I get to be the laughingstock of the Braves, I get to hear all about how wonderfully kind Raven was to take the idiot hayseed rookie out on the town for a few short weeks, sort of a community service project.

“Maybe if I’m lucky Kip will tell all about this in the paper, perhaps the whole country will get a big laugh out of The Kid, the little baby. Thanks a lot. I hadn’t been through any real hazing--I should beat up a couple of guys on the team for not telling me it came from you, huh?

“How many guys have you done this to, I wonder? Another notch on your belt--get ’em to kiss you and then goodbye, Sally! I’m off to find somebody who’s not a loser!” Like garbage in his mouth, that he had to spew all over her before it started rotting, the words kept coming until the filth of his own mind shocked him into silence.

She was still crying and still silent.

* * *

Raven had been called worse. She had been treated worse, and in the end a kid from Iowa didn’t really know the kinds of insults that were dragging the bottom of the barrel.

But never before had she been so vulnerable, never before had she trusted someone with her heart, utterly and completely.

It was such a betrayal...apparently there were about twelve sides of Jason that she had never seen or, more honestly, never let herself believe could exist...

No-one, not even her father, had ever caused her so much hurt in her life as the man she still loved.

She wanted to return the favor. She wanted so badly to insult him, to yell at him, to make him hurt that much...but that wasn’t right, the same deep conviction that was making her pull back from him, making her go through whatever the pain was instead of letting Jason Stiller kiss it away, that same call to grow up some was telling her that she couldn’t respond in kind. That she couldn’t get mad in return, as good as it would feel.

And so Raven gathered her things, and stood up from the table, and the one thing she said to him before she left was said not out of spite or malice...but sadness, rather, the sadness that came from finally realizing the truth.

Their eyes met, and she swallowed a tear or two, and then she said it.

“You’re just like my father.”

Then she turned and walked out.

* * *

Jason Stiller sat alone at a table set for two, eating his meal and watching hers grow silently cold.

She could have said anything, and after his words, Jason knew he should have expected a similar windstorm from her end.

But she had just said that one thing--and the worst part of all...

...she was probably right.

* * *

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“Really--I need you to forgive me for acting like such a jerk. I was wrong.”

“Like I said, it’s okay. Consider yourself forgiven.”

“Thank you.”

Kip Gumbo clapped his friend on the shoulder as they sat together in the Braves dugout.

Jason had thought very hard over the weekend about what she had said, and had been able to find little correlation between his actions, childish though they might--might--have been, and the jerk that called himself her father. He no longer thought she was right after all...after a great deal of thought Jason remembered how snooty she had been at first, how uptight and self-righteous and it became easy for him, as he kept working on it, to be angry at her, to deny that he felt anything for her, to just be a strong, tough guy who didn’t need anyone.

He remembered who his true friends were. So The Kid had made sure to call his sportswriting friend, the same guy he had been angry at the week before, and invite him to the next game. Kip didn’t sound too excited about being there, but after Jason had gotten a chance to talk about it and apologize, the writer was his friend once more.

And he was even nice enough not to say “I told you so,” sticking with “That’s a rough break, Stiller. Really it is.”

“You told me it would happen.”

“It was just a feeling, that’s all, and I am very sorry that it proved true.”

“Not as much as I am.” His eyes darkly watched the playing field, and Jason sighed, frustrated most of all with himself. Females, women, they were supposed to be strange, they were supposed to screw around with your heart and make you miserable--wasn’t that why sports existed in the first place? To forget about women?

Except that it wasn’t working. His favorite venue, his dream, lay in front of him but Jason didn’t care. It would soon be his turn to bat, but while his eyes looked at white lines between whiter bases, his mind refused to be switched away from the green of her eyes... “I don’t care,” he whispered furiously. “I don’t care!”

“You say something?”

“No.”

Kip let it pass. Jason was glad to have him back--glad to be around other guys, his own kind, folks who would understand and approve of him, tell him he was worth something in the world despite other...rejections.

Jason watched the ballgame taking place in the hot sun of a late July afternoon and felt awful.

* * *

Dennis G. had a vague idea of what had happened upstairs that one afternoon, the week before...someone had said or done something wrong--probably The Kid, D.G. knowing how the world worked and that it was always the man’s fault no matter what--and now nobody was talking to nobody, and as expected his friend Jason had returned to what he knew, what was comforting.

His friends, his skills, the beautiful and constant game of baseball.

That day’s game, the three games over that weekend were important--the Braves vs. the Reds had most people talking about a preview to the pennant race that was quickly approaching. The Braves needed to pull together and give Illinois a good trouncing. D.G. needed The Kid to be behind that.

The inning ended, the Braves began running through the batting order, and just before Jason went up on deck D.G. put a hand on his arm. “Go out there and get ’em, Kid. We all believe in you.”

The look he got in return was not in the least filled with vigor and encouraged hope. Jason moved past without speaking, carrying his bat like it was a sledgehammer and he was sentenced to rock-breaking labor in Alcatraz.

“She’s just a dame, kid,” the manager of the Braves muttered under his breath. Sure, the female species was nice and all, but Dennis hated to see one of those womenfolk get so under a man’s skin that he couldn’t enjoy the holy game of baseball, fer cryin’ out loud.

A home run or two, that would cure him. Surely.

“Slug one out of there, Jason.”

His favorite player didn’t turn to acknowledge the call.

* * *

D.G.’s frustration mirrored The Kid’s, though neither was aware of this.

Jason was annoyed at his own mind, or perhaps at his heart, that refused to let go. That would not acknowledge the indisputable fact that it was all over, that all he had to do was move on, start talking to any of the dozens of cute girls that were always on hand, always around, always batting their eyelashes at him and begging for autographs...easily three in every dozen were very attractive, very nice, would be wonderful to wrap one’s arms around and forget about the problems of the world.

The Reds pitcher would later brag about his prowess, knocking three big ones past the best batter in the league...but it was chestnut hair, and green eyes, and that laugh like no other that knocked out The Kid. Strikes one, two, and three came and went in as many minutes, and it was the third out and the bottom of the inning began.

Shaking his head, Jason walked away from home plate, passing Bud Tripplehorne halfway to the dugout.

* * *

D.G. was standing where he had been, trying to think of something to say to The Kid that would buck up his spirits, and he was the third person--besides Jason and Bud--who heard what the star pitcher said to the best hitter as they passed one another.

“Thanks for nothing, mama’s boy.”

The manager heard the comment and without even really registering it made a mental note to rebuke Tripplehorne concerning team spirit later...he had heard such comments often enough that no special attention needed to be paid anymore.

But D.G. did keep his eyes on the rookie Brave, on the young man who had become the bread-and-butter of his baseball team, and he saw his friend wince, saw his step slow until The Kid had stopped dead. Jason was still a few yards away from the dugout fence, but not so far that his manager couldn’t see the look in his eyes.

D.G. had not seen such a look of rage in a long time, but before he thought to say anything it was too late.

* * *

Bud Tripplehorne’s little comment struck Jason a fairly insignificant blow, compared to You’re just like my father, it really wasn’t much...but the remark brought to mind all the little things from the past months; the jibes, the pranks, the pointed fingers and rude comments and bloody nose...and Jason Stiller was not in a very self-affirming place at the time anyway.

He let the comment fester and build within him, let the anger grow until he could stand it no longer.

And then, with a sharp growl, he turned and sprinted at the pitcher, who was walking towards his mound proudly--unaware of his danger.

Forgetting where he was, who he was, and the fact that Bud Tripplehorne outweighed him by at least sixty pounds, Jason pounded towards the bigger man, yelling “You stupid JERK" just before he slammed his left shoulder into the small of Tripplehorne’s back.

Caught by surprise and completely off guard, the star pitcher of the Boston Braves folded like a house of cards in front of seven thousand, two hundred and five people, all of whom were apparently shocked into sudden silence.

Jason didn’t notice how quiet things had become, he didn’t hear when D.G. began yelling or even when the crowd itself started making noise again, getting into the fight, cheering for one player or the other--he just kept hitting and hitting and hitting Bud Tripplehorne until three of his fellow Braves dragged him off the man.

Then several more players were required to keep Bud from lunging at Jason; a good five minutes were wasted hustling both players off the field, assuring the umpire that something in the water must have caused it and it would of course never happen again, and getting a relief pitcher in to do Bud’s job.

Jason heard all of this going on vaguely around him, but at that moment it was much more important to revel in the sudden, savage joy of victory, revenge, over an enemy. His vanquished foe.

It came as a complete surprise when his manager climbed down the stairs to the dugout, walked over to where he was sitting, and slapped him sharply across the face.

* * *

D.G. figured a good whack was just what the doctor had ordered--at least it knocked the smirk off The Kid’s face. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, young man, but I have never seen such a pathetic or childish display of bad sportsmanship in my entire life. What do you have to say for yourself?” He didn’t expect an apology.

He wasn’t disappointed.

“Aw, for crying out loud, haven’t you seen the stuff he’s been doing to me for ages? The--the jokes, the pranks, always poking fun at my expense, always doing everything he can to make my life miserable--”

Jason was just warming up to his subject, gesturing at the silent, glowering pitcher sitting across from him, when D.G. cut him off at first base. “Shut up, Mr. Stiller, I have heard enough out of you for one day. Either you can hack it or you can’t, kid, remember me telling you that?

“I am very sorry that you and Mr. Tripplehorne have decided to be childish but by all that’s holy I do not have to sit around and let your little tiff ruin this baseball team, do you hear me?”

There was a game going on outside, somewhere close by, but the Braves that were sitting uncomfortably in the cool dugout were not looking out at the world...D.G. kept reminding himself to keep his temper in check for the sake of the team. The boy boxer hadn’t answered his question, but D.G. made an effort and managed not to raise his voice any further when he repeated it.

“Yes, sir, I hear you.”

Bud Tripplehorne decided to throw his two cents in. “I was just giving the rookie a hard time, it’s not like--”

D.G. whirled on his old friend. “You can just put a sock in it too, Francis Dean. Don’t tell me you weren’t doing your part to get this mess started and keep it going. I guess I’ve waited too long to say something.” He stepped back and regarded both players. “So I’m speaking now. Tripplehorne, we’ve already got somebody out there pitching for you--not someone as good, not someone that I would like to be counting on today, but oh well. If you don’t need to see a doctor for any cuts or abrasions--” the pitcher waved this away, “--then you can just sit there and think of all the ways you’ve been harping at Jason Stiller since March. If you can come up with one that in any way benefited this baseball team, you’re welcome to play tomorrow.

“If for some strange reason you can’t complete that task, then a formal apology to me, the team, and Mr. Stiller will be equally acceptable.”

Bud glowered but said nothing.

D.G. turned around. “Kid, I want you out of this dugout right now.”

“What?”

“You heard me. You want to watch this game, buy a ticket and watch from the stands, but as of now you are hereby suspended.”

Jason looked like he had when D.G. slapped him, only worse. “I--until when?”

“Until next week in Philly, and only then if you’ve proven that you have a place here.” The manager of the Braves looked at the concrete floor, wondering as he often did if he was doing the right thing.

He heard, rather than saw, the desperation his star hitter was feeling. “C’mon, Deeg...I’m sorry, okay?”

Dennis looked up then, his eyes boring into Jason’s, and what the older man had to say hurt them both. “That’s Mr. Muldowney to you, young man. Only the players on this team call me anything else, and that’s a right you have to re-earn.

“Now scat.” D.G. turned away from The Kid, from his players, from everything, standing unconsciously right where Jason Stiller had stood not long before, looking out at the same baseball game without really seeing it. Knowing somehow that thanks to his decision the Braves were probably going to lose every game that weekend against the Reds...and yet it wasn’t the lost games, or the foreshadowing of a possibly lost pennant race that made him frown.

Dennis G. stood in his dugout wondering what really bothered him more, the Braves’ dependence on The Kid...or having to rebuke his friend.

He didn’t hear when Jason left. After waiting several long minutes he turned around, and the boy was gone.

* * *

Raven had been sitting in the fifth row, near third base, but despite being across the infield had seen the entire fight--and watched D.G. yell at Jason down in the dugout. She saw Jason disappear through the clubhouse door, and knew--because she knew him--which way he would probably leave the stadium.

But because she did not know herself, she couldn’t find anything inside that would let her go to comfort him.

So she sat where she was, watching a game she cared nothing for...not when that one player was missing.

* * *

Bud Tripplehorne sat with his back to the game, not caring who won or lost or how well it was pitched, not if he couldn’t do the pitching. It took only a minute or three to decide on how his apology would go, how he could make it sound official--it wouldn’t mean anything to him or anybody else, but D.G. would feel that his star pitcher had decided to be a team player and blah blah...a nice fake apology would take care of things.

Then for a moment, remembering how it had been when he had first joined the Braves, remembering being The Kid’s age, Bud allowed himself to walk a few feet in Jason Stiller’s shoes, wonder at how the hayseed might be feeling.

He didn’t like himself very much, didn’t think Missy would be very proud of him, or the children either.

Bud Tripplehorne sat with his back to the game, wondering about that a little.

* * *

Robert Germane had been absently watching the game from his usual box, more concerned with the market than with who was at bat...although his calculating, analytical mind kept running through what he knew of Jason Stiller and what he knew of Raven. The thought of her daughter making a life with some dirt grubbing, tobacco chewing baseball player...it disgusted and frightened him at the same time.

When the big fight happened Robert was a little too busy to notice, thinking of men that he knew, men that he respected, who might be called upon to provide his only daughter with a more suitable match...now that things were getting that serious.

* * *

Kip Gumbo had been forgotten in the corner of the dugout, not only by the players and their manager but by The Kid himself. He hadn’t known whether or not to follow Jason so he hadn’t, thinking his friend might wish to be alone.

He thought for a long time about the fight, about the hazing that had led up to it, and about how interesting a story it would make--how happy his editor would be to receive it, and about the fat check that would come with the sale. Kip even spent the last two innings of the game writing up the story in his little notebook, getting it as good as he was able.

Then as he talked with Beanie the devoted fan afterwards, Kip got to thinking about Jason’s dedication, and his courage, and about how much he had forgiven a dumb sportswriter for already.

Taking his leave from Beanie for a moment, Kip ripped the pages out of his notebook and threw them away.

* * *

Other writers, other interested parties had seen the fight as well, and plenty more heard the eyewitness report and wanted to know more...

...but Jason Stiller proved unavailable for comment.

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