The Kid

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Chapter Ten

“Call ’em.”

Bud put his cards on the table...and Lefty, Pickens and Dutch groaned in unison.

“How does he keep doing that?”

“You’re sitting closest, Lefty, is he cheating?”

Good-natured laughter floated around three sides of the card table, but the star pitcher didn’t join in any more than he had all game.

His friends had noticed how quiet the man had been all weekend, after his formal apology to the Braves and to Jason Stiller had let him back into the baseball games. Bud Tripplehorne, they all would have agreed, was not a man who expressed emotion well...or at all, really. He had been known on more than a few occasions to withdraw into a moody silence.

But his closest friend Dutch Cattan had noticed that this particular moody silence had a different feel to it than usual. Not as if Bud was mad, despite D.G.’s rebuke and having to apologize like a schoolchild to The Kid--more like his friend was thinking, mulling over something in his mind.

As another round of poker began, he thought he might like to take at least a little stab at it...and more than that, maybe bring up for discussion something that had bothered him a little about the past weekend’s triad against the Illinois Reds.

The cards he got were terrible, and the four he replaced worse than that, so he folded. While Lefty and Pickens began raising the stakes, Dutch took a sip of his beer and then tapped his finger absently against the glass, something he unknowingly had a habit of doing when he was thinking.

When there was a lull in the wagering he dove in. “You know, guys, there’s something that’s been bothering me about the past weekend.”

“The fact that we lost?”

“No...I mean yes, but no...shut up, Pickens!” He took another sip to get his wits back and continued. “What I’m saying is that if I remember correct, we were favored to win by a few points, weren’t we?”

Lefty finally collected the small pot, and was nice enough to keep Cattan’s struggling conversation skills afloat while he collected his winnings. “Yes, by about a dozen points overall, three or four runs each game.”

“Which we didn’t do.”

Pickens agreed. “Not by a long shot.”

“Doesn’t something seem a little hinky about that? It’s not like we were come-from-behind favorites, either, the Braves have really been shining this season.” Dutch was no fool. He knew what was going on. He just didn’t want to say it. “We all thought this weekend--well, maybe it wasn’t supposed to be a walk in the park, but it was supposed to swing our way, wasn’t it?”

He let the statement hang, hoping somebody else would finish the thought, that Lefty or Pickens or better yet Bud would speak up and lay it on the table.

“Dutch, if you don’t know why, exactly why we lost those three games, you’ve been playing blind for the past three months.” It was Lefty, not Bud, who answered, and so Dutch didn’t get all of his wishes, but at least he wasn’t the only one holding the conversation up.

“Pretend I have.”

“Why?” Lefty tapped his cards on the table before looking at them again.

“What, you think they’ve changed magically?” Before his teammate could defend himself Dutch continued, “I’m just wondering if what I think is the cause of our sudden slump agrees with everyone else’s opinion.”

Apparently disgusted with his hand, Lefty tossed all five cards onto the table and turned to look at Dutch directly. “If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll do the hard part, lay out what you’ve been dancing around for the past ten minutes.

“The reason why the Boston Braves lost the last three games has to do with one young rookie who doesn’t even have a mitt, a boy by the name of Jason Stiller. Are you happy now?”

“It can’t be that simple, boys.”

“It can and it is, Pickens.” Lefty switched his cigar to the other side of his mouth, thoughtfully blowing the smoke up at the ceiling and not at any of his pals. “You were there, were you not? After the little fight--” when a quick sidelong glance at Bud produced no comment, he went on, “--and The Kid being thrown out of the game, we started playing like robots.

“Granted, losing Bud didn’t help anything.” Dutch felt more comfortable now that he knew he wasn’t alone. “But we still lost games two and three even with our star pitcher rolling ’em down the alley.

“I don’t know when we got to this place or how it works, exactly, but the Braves are totally depending on that little kid.”

Pickens looked thoughtful, and Dutch wondered how often that happened. His comment indicated more of that same thinking, which must have really strained him. “I’ve heard it from Deeg as well as Bud--it’s the pitcher that wins a ballgame, not any star hitter. They even say how many games a pitcher’s won in a season, ten, twenty, you know. How can it be Jason’s fault that we lost?”

“I don’t know, Pickens. I can’t imagine some young rookie becoming the heart of a team...” and then he said it even though it pained him to say it again, “but we sure as shooting lost three games we were supposed to win.”

Dutch wanted somebody, anybody, to have a rebuttal for that, but unfortunately he was all too correct, at least as far as his fellow cardplayers figured things.

And through it all, the opinion he was most interested in he did not get...as Bud Tripplehorne sat and played cards at the same small table, and yet was somehow a thousand miles away.

* * *

Gertrude Muldowney had never had the answer to her prayers come so quickly or conveniently as that Monday afternoon, when Raven Germane knocked shyly, hesitantly, on the door of the house she had run and played and lived in at times not so long ago...and a lifetime before.

When she opened the door to the pleasant surprise of her goddaughter, Gertrude’s mind zipped through a jumble of images--a roly-poly baby with her mother’s eyes; the gap-toothed girl, her husband’s little Raccoon, caught with a grubby hand in her cookie jar; the young lady in a pretty white spring dress at Raven’s thirteen-year old birthday dinner; and then seven, eight years of almost no contact, just flashes of sorrowful eyes and blank smiles...

...and finally, two recent images that sparred for approval in Gertrude’s mind. The excited, happy young lady thinking about the handsome gentleman in her life--and the scared woman contemplating a future she didn’t know if she could survive.

The smile she gave her friend was the brightest she had. “Hello, Raven.”

Raven couldn’t match her smile, but the girl’s countenance lifted just a bit. “Gertie.”

The scared woman, that was the one Gertrude found at her door...the naked anxiety that the young lady’s godmother had not been able to talk to all the way home, just a week or so before. That had been hidden very deep inside, yet was still available for one who knew where to look. “Won’t you come inside?”

“I would like that, I think...Gertie, he’s not here, is he?”

The older woman knew that the younger was not speaking of Dennis G. “No, Raven, he’s not here.” She thought somehow that this news might be a good thing.

It was. “Well, okay, if it’s not any trouble...” Raven sounded more shy than the situation deserved--and very desperate, too, under that.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, child,” ushering the girl inside before she could get away, “The day you become trouble to have around is the day I change my name to Fred, you hear me?”

Raven didn’t respond, but there was a slight--and better yet, honest smile on her face.

Gertrude Muldowney felt some of the anxiety in her heart slip away. The real Raccoon, the beautiful little girl, she was in there...somewhere.

The two women found their way inside just before a gentle rain began to fall over the greater Boston area.

* * *

Raven Germane stood in the dining room of the Muldowney home having similar thoughts to Gertrude’s without realizing it. Remembering Christmas celebrations, summer picnics, school homework and projects...

That last thought, school project, suddenly tripped one of the triggers that were set like booby traps around the worst memories. Around all of the thoughts and feelings and emotions that were connected with that night.

Unfortunately there were many booby traps, many triggers that could set it off. Hearing her father’s angry voice, driving by an unexpected drugstore, even--a horrible discovery one afternoon--the smell of carpenter’s glue, the glue she had been using to try and frantically finish that stupid, worthless science project.

And now this. It was too late to find something else to focus on, too late to put up her guard. As she stood in the dining room and the trap sprang up around her Raven had no defense against remembering it all again.

* * *

Gertrude found her sitting in one of the chairs, sobbing like the world had crumbled to pieces around her.

She grabbed the closest chair and then reached out to the young lady, who clung to her and wept.

Over and over Raven said “Mommy,” into Gertrude’s shoulder without even realizing it.

It was a long time before the flood came to an end. Even after it had, even after the wellspring of emotions had run dry Raven knew she would be okay--maybe not well, but okay--if she leaned back, stepped back, moved back from this place and these feelings...yet the young lady was so tired of running, so tired of fighting against the things that mattered most to her that she stayed where she was, allowing her godmother to hold her as long as could be.

* * *

Now that her goddaughter had actually revealed that the little girl still existed inside, Gertrude Muldowney was in no hurry to let go.

The older woman had not known her Lord for very long, but in a short time she had read much about Him, learned much about His ways and His will...and she knew that if all other avenues were closed off, she could still pray.

She could always and forever still pray.

The prayers she had been sending up for Raven ever since the first day of her new life had apparently had effect...the girl was in her house, in her embrace, crying her eyes out in a way that Gertie knew, knew, was more healing than trial. Whatever she was facing only the Lord knew, but Gertrude was certain that things went much deeper than Jason Stiller...much deeper. Prayers worked, they had to, and Gertrude Muldowney loved Raven Germane much too much for there to be any stopping now.

So she prayed as the girl cried, and prayed as she quieted, and prayed while she wondered what would come next.

Gertrude couldn’t decide anything for Raven, whatever would come of the day had to be the girl’s choice--but could she face her past? Could she possibly start walking in her own shoes once again?

She prayed while she wondered what would come next.

* * *

Unlike the embrace of her man, there was no fear or worry in that place--like a little child Raven knew that she could stay as long as she wished, as long as was necessary...and the girl, too, wondered what came next.

“Gertie, I’m tired.”

“Of what, dear?” The quiet reply flowed over her hair from above.

“Of running away.”

After a pause, the soft Southern voice spoke again. “What is it you’ve been running from?”

Raven didn’t know. No, wait...she didn’t want to know, she didn’t want to face it, didn’t want to acknowledge what the real problem was.

Her mother. That night.

Somehow her heart let it through, allowed a bubble of painful truth to escape and find the surface. “I miss her so much.”

* * *

Gertie’s breath caught for a second. When she spoke, Raven’s voice sounded almost like the twelve year-old girl again. Like the past eight years had faded away, right back to where everything had gone wrong.

She wondered if that was good or not, and prayed for wisdom. “I miss her too, Raven.” A thought came to her, and a little push seemed worth the chance. “What happened that night wasn’t your fault.”

* * *

Raven didn’t answer that, not right away.

She had never believed it, no matter who had told her or how often, she had never believed that it might be the truth...and yet she didn’t know why.

Part of her knew that in the end, that awful evening when her mother was murdered was just life, just one of those things, something very unfortunate and wrong but not something she could have stopped...it was the man with the gun, it was his fault, not hers.

But part of her refused to believe this, part of her...needed it to be her fault, so she could be both angry and guilty for that night forever.

She ran that over again in her mind, and when she knew how to put it into words Raven said as much to her godmother.

Gertrude thought about it and responded. “Why would you choose to be angry and guilty forever? What is it...what don’t you want to let yourself feel?”

* * *

She knew that Raven had this answer inside, and somehow was sure that the girl herself knew the answer well enough.

Would she admit it? Would she let it go? Gertrude had a feeling inside her as if something dark and ugly that had been wrapped around her goddaughter’s life for eight years...like that thing that had ensnared her heart was loosened, was fighting to get its grip back, and in the next few minutes either Raven would let it win again like she had before, would go back inside her shell, let false guilty pain be substituted for the real loss...

...or maybe...

She didn’t know what to think, or what to pray, or have any course of action besides pleading for the Lord Jesus to help the child. Over and over she prayed, in the eons it seemed to take before Raven’s answer.

* * *

It seemed impossible that there could be more tears after the flood she had so recently been emptied of, but Raven knew they were coming--knew that facing the truth would hurt, a lot, all the more so for pushing it away time and time again.

But for whatever reason, for perhaps nothing else in the end but because Jason Stiller had gotten so far in, had worked so hard at loving her...Raven knew there was more of that in life, knew it could be found somewhere.

And as much as the truth would hurt, at least...it was the truth.

As if the gentle storm drumming the roof had found its way inside, Raven felt a pair of hot, cleansing showers slide down her face, spotting the simple flannel shirt and overalls she was wearing.

She wondered in that moment which was more real--the pretty, dressed up princess, who knew what to say and how to act and always did what was proper...or the grubby little girl with skinned knees and bright eyes who could be felt smiling even from the inside. She didn’t know which was real, which was Raven Germane.

But she did know...whoever Raven Germane was, that woman and no other was going to face the truth once and for all.

Ignoring the spots, ignoring the pain, Raven fixed her striking green eyes on the far wall, reaching as deeply inside herself as she ever had. What exactly had her godmother asked?

What was it that she could not allow herself to feel? What was it that anger and shame were used to shortcut and hide away?

She knew the answer. It took several tries but her voice worked in the end, if only as a whisper. “Anger and shame and just numbness have always been my escape, my way of avoiding what I knew someday, sooner or later, I would have to face.

“As long as I could be angry with myself, or with my father, as long as I could feel guilty and shameful, like it was my fault she was killed,” and now it got to the place that really hurt but she would not, she would not stop now, “I wouldn’t have to face the fact...the fact that my mother is...that she’s dead! Okay?” She screamed not at her godmother or at herself but at the world, at whoever had taken her mother away and let her grow up alone--no longer spiteful, Raven let the good anger come and go and even when that was followed by a fresh, redoubled wave of pain she refused to quit, refused to let go. “She’s dead and I never got to know her really and I just...I miss her so...” and the twelve year-old girl clung to the safety of her godmother’s arms and cried until her heart and her soul were empty.

* * *

Gertrude made some tea while she thanked the Lord for His mercy and grace, and prayed for the next step, again not sure if it was the right time to broach the subject.

Raven had been through a great deal within the hour, and yet her godmother knew from experience that instead of being sick or anxious the young lady was probably experiencing the most delicious peace she had felt in a very long time.

* * *

Accepting her tea, Raven was glad that her godmother knew how to be quiet.

She wanted somehow to express what she was feeling...and at the same time, sensed that perhaps the older woman knew from a firsthand basis.

It was strange, something the world couldn’t really explain or reason with, which was probably why it wasn’t a normal solution--but in the minutes since she had let go, since she had taken down all of her walls and just let the truth come barging in...

Since Raven had come to the point in her life where she would rather face the worst pain imaginable rather than another round of deception, lying to the world and to herself--the pain had been indeed tremendous, and yet on the other side...

There was an other side! That in itself was amazing, and worth contemplating, for the girl had long believed that if she really faced her mother’s death the pain might kill her. It couldn’t possibly be something she could survive.

Yet there was an other side, and once past the slew of emotion there was...peace. Not a little, either, but a river, a flood of peace throughout her being, as Raven Germane sat at her godmother’s dining room table remembering her mother. Somehow the memories didn’t hurt so much, nothing like before.

Despite all that had come before yet another pair of tears sprang to her eyes when they met Gertrude’s. “I’m really going to be okay, aren’t I?”

* * *

Gertrude would have been lying to say that her own eyes weren’t rather misty at that point. “Yes, dear, you will indeed.”

Should she mention the rest? Should she try and introduce her goddaughter, the beautiful flower, to the Master Gardener?

“Raven...do you know where this peace you’re feeling comes from?”

The young lady thought about it. “I’m not sure. Do you?”

Gertie smiled. “Yes, sugar. Would you like to know?”

Too much? Too soon? The sounds of the summer rain rang through the house in the resulting quiet as the young lady looked at the old woman, silently considering her answer.

* * *

Not all of God’s creatures were smart enough to get out of the rain that afternoon.

Even as Raven Germane was knocking on the door of Gertrude Muldowney, Gertie’s husband D.G. was leading two of his ballplayers in a small parade, headed in the direction of Deeg’s favorite fishing pond.

The boat was right where he had left it, and nicely soaked as well, to say nothing of the three fishermen who clambered in and worked out seating arrangements.

D.G. thought to himself that it might make a lot more sense to have the strapping young man working at least one of the oars, but somehow he and Bud Tripplehorne ended up moving the boat through the water while Jason sat up at the bow, looking out over the rain-swollen lake.

The Kid had said nothing to him or, apparently, anyone since he had been thrown out of the stadium--except for one quiet request to be allowed to play again, which the manager of the Braves had said that he would consider.

He had considered it for several days, and come to the decision that it would take more than just the request for Jason Stiller to return to the Braves.

Yet at the same time, D.G. knew there was more to the situation than just Jason being difficult. The Kid had been hurt, he wasn’t sure what to do next, and seeing as how it was the team manager’s job to keep everybody working together...

“The rain falls on the just and the unjust,” D.G. commented dryly, his wit being the only dry thing in the boat by then.

“Which are we, Deeg?”

“Darned if I know, Bud. Darned if I know.” D.G. had been hoping to get some sort of rise out of Stiller with his joke, but The Kid didn’t oblige him. “At least this oughta bring the fish to the surface, huh?”

“Best time to go fishing.”

“Ain’tcha gonna even bait a line, Kid?” Three separate fishing poles had come along for the ride, but only two looked like they were going to be of any use.

Finally Jason Stiller turned his head away from his important wave contemplation. “I don’t really like fishing.”

“I never heard of any--”

D.G. cut Bud off before whatever insult the pitcher had planned drove his missing player further away from the team. “I guess you don’t have to if you don’t want to, Kid, but isn’t that what we came out for?”

“Somehow I doubt it.” And again the young man turned away to look out over the lake.

The manager of the Braves decided it was time to see if he couldn’t be a little more direct, maybe chip away at The Kid’s armored shell, find his friend--if that man was still inside anywhere. “You just don’t care for fishing, or you won’t give it a go because there’s a chance you can’t be the best fisherman in the boat? Or in Boston?”

Even through the rain, D.G. knew he saw the tips of Jason’s ears go a little pink with embarrassment, though his friend didn’t turn around. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’m not blind, Kid. Come to think of it, maybe I almost am--it took me a good three months to catch on.

“But it should’ve been obvious really early, and now that I think about it I can’t believe I missed it.” D.G. reeled in his line and sent it out again before continuing. “For whatever reason you have to be the best at absolutely everything, have you noticed that?” Beside him, Bud grunted--a sound that made D.G. think a little mystery had just been uncovered.

This time no reply whatsoever came from the bow.

D.G. was not deterred. “I can understand your desire to be the best hitter, even the best player on the Braves. That’s even expected.

“But if the team runs laps, you’ve got to run the fastest. When we have a candy circle you’ve got to score the most sweets. I’ve watched you play cards, checkers, backgammon, rummy...and if you can’t win, if you can’t prove to everybody that you’re the best, you either rush off in an angry huff or you refuse to play. Come to think of it,” D.G. warmed to his subject, glad to finally at least be talking to his friend once more, “you’ve refused to play chess every time anybody ever asked you to. Tell me it’s because you don’t know how to play?” He didn’t expect an answer.

He was surprised. “I can play.” With a sigh, Jason swung his feet around to sit facing the two older men. “I just can’t win.”

“You’re saying that I’m right.” It sounded petty but D.G. couldn’t help it.

“I’m saying that you’re right.”

“Any explanation as to why? Why it is that you have to be the best at everything?” Again, he didn’t expect an answer, and this time Jason did not disappoint. The Kid just sat in the rain, looking at him, his expression not defensive, or angry, just sad.

D.G. had thought quite a bit about his friend, about the young man who had come to mean more than he would let himself notice, over the course of the summer. Dennis G. had decided that if it might help Jason to open up about his past, his manager and landlord could start the ball rolling. “I think the two of us are more alike than you know, Jason.”

The bow remained silent, but at least the young man didn’t turn away.

D.G. cast his line a time or two while he thought about how to begin.

* * *

Jason hated that he couldn’t tell his friend what was going on--he didn’t know himself, not really.

It scared him a lot deeper than he cared to admit, being found out like that. Sure, he knew himself that he had to be the best at everything, even had trouble with it sometimes. He had tried to mellow out, to calm down, to be a graceful loser...but if he couldn’t be a winner he couldn’t be anything. It was just the way it was.

The fact that others had tumbled onto this spooked him badly, and it would take a lot more than good observation to bring out the past.

It would take a lot more to get Jason Stiller talking about his father. Those years were buried in his deepest vault of Hatred, padlocked and triple-sealed.

They would stay buried.

Jason “The Kid” Stiller sat miserably in the rain, his discomfort not coming from the cold or from the wet.

* * *

“I hadn’t had a bit of luck getting into baseball before the war, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

“Without complaining, or telling sob stories, I will admit to those of the Braves that are with me in this boat that I was no scholar--and not much of anything, really, growing up.” D.G. worked at a wad of gum while he thought about it, watching his fishing sinker bobbing along between raindrops. “If I really be truthful about it...and since it’s just you two and the fish to hear me I will, I wasn’t really that good at baseball either.”

“You never told me that,” Bud commented, watching his own line and not looking at his manager.

“I never told anybody but Gertie that, Bud. Feel privileged, not left out. You and Stiller are the second and third people in the world to hear that from me.

“And I do wish it wasn’t true. I wish I could have pitched the ball like somebody I could name who is in this rowboat, or batted like somebody else I could name who is also along for the ride.”

* * *

Jason considered his petulance, refusing to help row the boat out onto the lake, and was ashamed. He also felt embarrassed for his manager, wondering what had forced the man to bare his soul in such a manner. Nobody had asked for it, had they? Who could talk about such things?

And it wasn’t like it didn’t hurt Mr. Muldowney to say it, either. Jason knew the man well enough to hear how difficult it was.

Yet he went on. “So whatever I was put on this earth for, I must’ve missed a turn along the way, maybe I was sick the day they explained it, because there’s no special talents, no magic tricks, nothing I can point to or rely on besides the sweat of my brow and I guess a little luck along the way.

“It was definitely luck that I wasn’t tossed out of the Braves on my ear. As it was, after the War--you’ve heard Gertie’s story about patching me up over in Germany, haven’t you Bud? I know Jason has--after the War I went up and down the East Coast begging all the baseball teams I could find to give me a spot, at least a chance. And only one team gave me a chance, and frankly the Braves were a lot nicer than I deserved.”

* * *

“And I still didn’t cut it. I was a terrible fielder, a worse hitter, and that was about it for me, or maybe it should have been.” D.G. felt that admission sting as it slid past his teeth. He hadn’t thought about such things, not honestly anyway, in many years.

Perhaps too long. Never good for a man to forget his place in the world.

Dennis reeled and cast for a minute without remembering where he was, caught up in sour memories. “Uh, where was I?”

“You were crapping out with the Braves.”

“Thanks, Kid.” Trust the young to be nice and tactful. Well, it wasn’t like Jason had started this story, was it? “So by all rights I should’ve been tossed right out on my ear, and then who knows where or what I’d be today.

“But good old Wes Gress, who both owned and managed the Braves, somehow, for a good twenty years, he decided the team could use an assistant manager. Considering all he had to do, it wasn’t very surprising. The surprising part was that he let me, the know-nothing War veteran take over some of his duties. Kept me scrambling the first few years, too...and then soon enough I was manager, and he just the owner.” D.G. sighed with just the weight of all the years. “And then Bob Germane stopped by in, oh, 38? Maybe 39, bought up the Braves, and in ’41 our illustrious pitcher--” Bud bowed as gracefully as he could, which was nothing much, “--came aboard, and just a few months ago I got to witness the birth of the greatest hitter I know I’ve ever seen. So. Where does that get us?”

He got fairly blank looks from his players. “Uh,” Bud tried, “you’re asking us?”

The Kid was no more helpful. “Out in the rain, with no fish biting?”

D.G. was not an impatient man by nature, but he hated it when one of his stories went awry, especially for no apparent reason. He spluttered for a moment, trying to find the thread he had been following up, the point of the story which had gotten lost in old thoughts and remembering.

There it was. “I was explaining how we two are alike, Jason. By which I mean we’re both very serious about our love of baseball, and we both really hate losing.

“The difference is that you’ve got real talent, a lucky star if you will...maybe a whole dadblamed lucky constellation. I’m wishing I could understand what the reason is behind your needing to be the best at everything, what it is you have to prove that you haven’t already accomplished by getting that amazing batting average, the one that’s currently...” he searched his memory.

“.393 as of last week.” The admission came not from the bow, but from D.G.’s side, where his star pitcher was looking after his fishing line.

Both The Kid and The Kid’s manager sat in the rowboat with their mouths open. D.G. could only guess at why the offered information was so shocking to the boy--for his own sake, he had never known Bud Tripplehorne to give a darn about any statistics besides his own. “Yeah, that’s what it was. There are thousands of guys in this country who would commit amazing acts of mayhem if they could get that kind of an average, but you--” he warmed back up to his subject, letting the strange moment go overboard, “--you’re willing to throw all that away because somebody called you a name? Because you got your shoelaces tied together? You don’t make any sense to me, Kid, not anymore.”

The one thing D.G. really wanted to know was if all of the troubles had something to do with Raven...he was no dummy. But he had no right to ask that, especially not in front of Tripplehorne. Would Jason ever open up? Was he willing to lose everything he had in Boston over his own silly pride?

* * *

Was it that serious? Okay, he had blown up at Tripplehorne, but Mr. Muldowney had even admitted, more or less, that it was deserved...what was all this?

It sounded to Jason like his own manager didn’t know whether he belonged on the Braves anymore or not. And it didn’t sound like a simple apology was going to take care of things.

Jason closed his eyes, turned his face away from the fishermen though he continued listening to the lines zinging out over the water, the plop of the landing all but lost amidst the falling raindrops.

Why did he have to lose his temper? Why did Bud have to pick on him, and why couldn’t Mr. Muldowney see that it was all the pitcher’s fault?

How was he going to even survive now that Raven had run away?

That thought, at least...that thought had to be put away for another time. It was baseball that mattered out on that pond, not women. With a conscious effort Jason gathered up all of the thoughts in his mind that had anything to do with green eyes, with chestnut hair...and he locked them away in his second deepest vault, right next to the one that held all of the thoughts that had anything to do with his father and mother.

But after the clean-up had been finished, when Jason was free to consider what path he was going to walk, he still didn’t know what to tell his manager.

He couldn’t lose the Braves, the applause...not after everything else, he couldn’t lose baseball. He couldn’t go back home a complete failure. Panic gripped at Jason’s insides, and he was afraid, and wanted to cry...except that he still didn’t know how to do that...

But he had, hadn’t he? No! He couldn’t remember the time spent with her, couldn’t let that come up anymore, couldn’t, couldn’t!

* * *

D.G. was not a mind reader, but frankly the look on Jason’s face--it had to be scaring the fish away. What was the boy going through, and for the love of Babe Ruth, why wouldn’t he share it with anyone?

“Kid?”

The sound, the word brought Jason’s head up sharply. “I just want to play ball, De--Mr. Muldowney.”

Considering what his friend had almost just called him, D.G. remembered his harsh words and was ashamed of himself. To add to the kid’s troubles after everything...hadn’t he wanted Jason to call him Deeg? And then to rebuke him for doing it?

Could the boy call him that now? If it hadn’t been right that day...in the end the older man just sighed and pretended he hadn’t heard the slip. “Kid, I want you to be behind home plate as much as you do. But I can’t do what’s best for one person, not even if I care about that person as much as I care about you.”

He hadn’t meant to say that, didn’t seem like the sort of thing a man was supposed to say out loud, and he hoped neither Bud nor Jason saw his cheeks redden in the rain.

Yet it was still true, which made the rest of what he had to say so much worse. “My responsibility is for the entire team, and I just don’t know, Jason, if you are a good thing for the Braves or not.”

“I thought I was important.”

Now D.G. was suddenly exasperated. “You are, blame you! That’s one of the worst things about this--doing what I believe is best for the team means taking their hopes away, taking the brass ring we’re all reaching for and yanking it skyward about a hundred feet.

“But if you keep this up, if you keep going out there for nobody but you, leaving behind a hated enemy in your own dugout--” he looked at Bud, who wouldn’t meet his eyes, “--then the baseball team I happen to manage just might be destroyed by it.

“And I won’t let the Braves fall apart, not even for a World Series title.” Should he say it? It seemed petty, but... “If you want personal glory and attention, talk to Bob Germane.”

The response was immediate, and D.G. wondered how he knew it would be. “I’m not like him!”

“I didn’t say you were, Jason.”

A nasty, heavy silence thundered across the rowboat, drowning out the soft rainfall. Heaving another sigh that did nothing to dissipate the surrounding gloom, Dennis G. Muldowney reeled in his fishing line and put the pole away. Francis “Bud” Tripplehorne did the same. Neither man had caught a thing.

The same plaintive request was much quieter this time, although D.G. caught every word. “I just want to play ball, sir.”

Taking an oar each, the manager and star pitcher of the Boston Braves started pulling for shore.

“I’m sorry, kid.”

And he really was.

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