Chapter 1: The Letter
Colton Gibson couldn’t win. The University lawyers had statements from players and parents. They had Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pictures. They had the NCAA and the Patriot League. They had affidavits from a half-dozen coaches on the staff, all looking to cover their tracks.
It didn’t help that the team suffered another losing season and the Athletic Department had already decided they needed turnover in the coaching staff. Colt knew the inevitable. He couldn’t fight it. He didn’t even try.
The notification of his dismissal sat on his dashboard. The logo at the top of the paper, a big, brown letter ‘L’, dominated the page like a scarlet letter. ‘L’ for ‘Loser’. ‘L’ for ‘Looking for a Job’. The memo flapped in the breeze from the air conditioning vent, then blew off the ledge. Colt watched it flitter past the passenger seat and wedge itself somewhere into a crevice in the back of the cab.
He never felt like a cheater. He hadn’t done anything that any other assistant coach across the country hadn’t also done through the regular course of recruiting. He acted on the direction of the Head Coach. He, himself, had been recruited in the exact same way. But of course, his recruitment had been different because of the identity of the Head Coach and because the team had won the Patriot League three of the previous five seasons.
Colt pondered how a winning coach could get away with the worst infractions. But then, as soon as the team faltered, the tiniest of indiscretions could blossom into unforgivable offenses.
He had been jobless for the past three months, living in his off-campus apartment with nothing to do and no prospects to coach anywhere else. He sent letters to athletic directors and coaches he had opposed through the years. He contacted former players. He even checked job boards for positions at local community colleges and high schools.
His severance could get him through another half year or so. But he needed a job. And the one he finally accepted bore no resemblance to what he wanted to do with his life.
On a sunny Friday morning, rather than getting up for early workouts followed by batting practice and his afternoon coaches’ meetings, he packed his belongings neatly into the flatbed of his pick-up truck and left the college campus he had called home for the past eight years.
The morning sun flickered like a strobe through the trees, pelting him with short intense blasts of piercing light.
The exits along Route 78 grew further apart and gave way to a winding road through the wooded hills and ridges of central Pennsylvania.
Eight years earlier, he had arrived at Lehigh University as a fresh-faced red-shirt freshman with a long resume of high school accomplishments. He made the varsity baseball team as a sophomore. And after three long years of hard work and dedication, he progressed to second team all-Patriot League – earning the honor twice, once during each of his two senior years.
His clothes fit into two jumbo suitcases, both perched and belted into the condensed back seats of the truck. Out of the corner of his rear-view mirror, they looked like broad-shouldered hitch-hikers, silently observing the scenery ahead. The passenger seat beside him contained three squared paper bags of groceries that he had raided from his now former roommate’s refrigerator. A six pack of beer sat on the passenger-side floor. And next to the cans of Budweiser, protruding from a black duffel bag full of socks and underwear, his running shoes, topsiders, work boots and flip flops gave the illusion of an eight-legged passenger stowed away beneath the glove compartment.
His laptop bag, Xbox, printer, and television lay taped in boxes in the back of the flatbed, secured clumsily with bungee cords and rolled up blankets. Beyond the pile of boxes, his bag of baseball gear, brown with a giant letter “L” stared back at him. A glove, a loose baseball and several wooden bats rolled around and bounced with the potholes in the road.
Most distinctively, like the fin of a shark, his five-foot-tall L-screen extended above the roof of the cab, tied down thoroughly to all four corners of the flatbed with strong nylon rope.
He tucked his waves of dirty blond hair, scratched his three-day old stubble and sipped his coffee while crunching a bite of a granola bar.
The embankments of the highway temporarily blotted the sun as he took the lonely exit for Springtown, Pennsylvania. He had a few months ahead of him to acclimate to the new residence and then he would start his new job.
Teaching and coaching, he thought to himself. If you can do one, you can do the other.
He never expected to put his Physical Education major or teaching certificate to use. He always figured he’d play or coach as a career. He might have had a chance to make a single-A club or walk on to an Independent league team. But scouts saw him as a medium speed lefty with too little power for First Base and limited differentiation as an outfielder.
“Can you pitch?” they all asked him, dropping their eyes and twisting their faces at his negative answer.
As Colt wound along Main Street in Springtown - practically the only thoroughfare slicing through the town - his phone rang. Having broken a trance-like silence, the jarring staccato tones startled him. The smiling face of a middle-aged man in a brown baseball cap popped up on his phone. Coach. Butch. Dad.
Colt looked down at the phone and paused. He took the gadget into his hand. His thumb twitched and then recoiled. He flipped the device back into its perch on the dashboard and gazed out the windshield at the passing elm and sycamore trees.
“I don’t work for you anymore,” he muttered to himself.
The center of Springtown consisted of a railroad crossing at an intersection with a two-pump gas station and a twenty-square-foot post office. A block up from the intersection sat a fire station, a barbershop, a country store and a town green with a white picket fence surrounding an equally white gazebo. The American flag loomed over a plaque affixed to a large stone next to the gazebo.
Across the green, Colt spied a classic run-down diner pressed up against the train tracks. It occupied an old wooden building that looked like it must have served as the central train station in town during the Second World War.
As he crossed the tracks and passed through the hamlet, he saw the baseball field, set back behind a row of historic houses. It looked well maintained with green grass and crisp new dirt. A man in his fifties stood next to First Base with a long rake and tended to the infield. As Colt’s pick-up passed by, the man glanced up from the dirt and observed the silver metal and black netting of his L-screen as it moved out of view.
Colt’s phone chirped informing him that he would reach his destination in one mile. He looked around – only seconds after passing the last house – and saw only the green of the trees to his left and the exposed rock of a carved-out ledge to his right.
He almost missed the turn for One-Sixty-Six Main Street. A giant bayberry bush obscured the entrance to the dirt and gravel driveway and hid the mailbox. The sound of pebbles rumbled from the undercarriage of the truck and puffs of dust kicked up behind the lift gate as he entered the property where he would live for the next season until he could get back on his feet.
After a row of overgrown cedars, the yard opened to a flat multi-acre patch of yellowish grass. A two-story farmhouse with a rickety front porch and dark shutters sat at the front edge of the vast property. Thick woods bordered the wide back yard with a giant glacier-formed hill bordering the far end behind the house.
He had seen a picture in the Lehigh off-campus housing directory. But it looked much nicer. In the picture, which Colt quickly determined to be at least twenty years old, the roof looked brand new, the porch didn’t sag, the paint didn’t chip and flake and the gutters were all properly affixed. He looked for the guest house but could only see a detached two-story garage to the right edge of the property, diagonally across the gravel driveway from the main house. He couldn’t tell if the red wooden structure was meant to house a car or store grain.
He peered past the oversize barn-like garage, looking for another, nicer, more habitable building. But he quickly realized that the top floor of the garage would likely be the room he had agreed to rent.
As Colt pulled to the side of the house, he noticed a small boy in the yard by the side of the broad side of the garage. He had a baseball glove and threw a tennis ball against the windowless wall. The ball bounced two or three times. The boy successfully scooped the ball about a third of the time and repeated the drill in total focus, oblivious to the strange man who had just pulled into his driveway.
Nice form, Colt thought instinctively. Coordinated. Throws from his ear. Not much arm strength yet.
A woman about his age appeared at the top step of the porch. She wore a denim mini-skirt and big, fluffy sweater - out of place for the temperate early-April weather. She had medium length brown hair, slightly wavy, with a hint of chestnut. Her face featured a tiny little nose and big brown eyes. Colt noticed her rubbing the back of her neck as if she had just finished her housework for the day. She smiled tentatively at her new tenant and darted her eyes out to the boy in the yard as if taking inventory.
Colt exited the car and removed his cap only to realize that his hair probably looked terrible, all matted and sweaty. He promptly returned it to his head.
“He’s got a good arm for what, like a six-year-old kid,” Colt said to her before even getting her name.
“He’s eight,” she replied flatly.
“Oh - sorry.”
“You’re Colt?” she asked, extending her hand. “I’m Ellie Shaw. That’s my son Braden.”
She called to him and asked him to say “Hi” to Mr. Gibson, their new tenant. He looked up and briefly raised his hand to gesture ‘Hello’ before returning to his exercise.
“A ballplayer?” Colt asked.
“He loves baseball,” she replied taking notice of the L-screen in the back of his truck. “You must be a ballplayer too?”
“I played at Lehigh,” Colt replied. He withheld that he had also coached for three seasons after graduating.
“I’m sorry,” Ellie’s eyes flared. “You won’t be able to live here.”
“Why not?” Colt asked. “I thought the campus housing department contacted you. You knew my name and everything? What happened? Did something fall through?”
“No,” she said, stepping toward Braden and then turning back to grin at Colt. “I went to Lafayette.”
As night fell, the pervasive din of crickets and cicadas filled the air. The forty-foot trees that lined her yard grew taller and arched inward, creating a claustrophobic cocoon. Ellie folded Braden’s laundry while watching a show about B-list celebrities vying to survive in an exotic jungle. After folding a few items, she moved to the kitchen to put away the dishes. Then she folded a few more clothes and watched a minute or two of her show before returning to the kitchen to scrub the frying pan.
Each time she entered the kitchen, she strained to see if the light in the upstairs apartment was still on. She had only inherited the home outright from her aunt a year earlier. And while she had no mortgage to pay, she still had a hefty debt from the estate taxes that she owed. The guest apartment provided a steady source of income to defray her costs of living, cover taxes and pay down her debt. But it sat empty for the past six months. The elderly man who had rented from her aunt since the late nineties finally moved out to take residence at a retirement home in Hellertown. His absence left her $750 short of her previous monthly cash flow.
She pushed her financial concerns out of her mind. She could keep herself up all night worrying about money, but tonight, her precarious economics did not cause her edginess. She worried about the strange man whom she had allowed onto her property.
She climbed her creaky cedar stairs to check on Braden. Though his room didn’t exactly face the garage apartment, she pulled the window shade up, surveyed the property below and then slid it back down flush with the window sill.
Her phone rang like a shriek in the night. She bolted down the stairs making remarkably little noise and grabbed the phone from its cradle.
“Hey Ellie,” said the cheerful the voice on the other line. “How’s the new tenant? Is he cute?”
“Jeez Andrea,” Ellie caught her breath, glancing out the kitchen window again. “You scared the crap out of me. I was up in Braden’s room tucking him in.”
“He’s a graduate, so he’s probably a little more mature than an undergrad. Does he have a girlfriend? Is he a party animal? What’s the deal? Spill.”
“I don’t know,” Ellie pondered answers to Andrea’s questions that had not occurred to her until just then. “He seems alright. He paid me first, last and security. Cash. That’s a good sign.”
“Is he the snooty smart type? A rich Ivy brat? Nerdy? Is he fat?”
“I don’t know. I barely looked at him. He’s renting an apartment from me. He’s just kind of normal. He’s a baseball player.”
“Ooh, a ballplayer,” Andrea cooed. “Must be in good shape?”
“I guess,” Ellie peered out again. “Tall. Right now, I’m just wishing I hadn’t contacted the University. I knew I should’ve found another senior citizen. I don’t know anything about this guy.”
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Andrea sobered her tone. “He’s a college graduate. He had references. There’s no reason to be worried. You want me to come over tonight after my shift at the diner? I could stay over. I’m sure Ed’s already asleep in front of the TV.”
“No,” Ellie replied. “I’ll be fine. I need the money and the people I spoke to from the University Housing office all said he was a great guy.”
Andrea teetered, paused and then blurted.
“Seriously, Ell,” she said. “Is he cute or what?”
At that, a shadow moved across the window above the garage. And then the room went dark. Ellie stared at the blackness. A blue imprint in the back of her eyelid flashed just beyond her peripheral vision – the only reminder of the yellow glow that had just disappeared.
“He’s probably just some loser Lehigh frat boy,” Ellie replied after a short delay. “I bet he’ll be stumbling across my driveway at all hours of the night, parading bimbos in and out.”
“I guess,” Andrea answered before being cut off in mid-thought.
“Oh my God,” Ellie’s nerves frayed. Her face reddened like a sudden hot flash. “What’s wrong with me? I have a little boy upstairs that I’m supposed to protect. And I just let some strange guy move into my house - just because I need the rent? What kind of mother am I?”
“I’ll cut out early…” said Andrea. “… and come right over.”