I grabbed the red and white ball in between my fingers, holding it inside of my round, worn black and brown glove as I quickly glanced at second and third base through the thick wires of my mask. It’s currently the bottom of the seventh inning and we’re winning six-to-five.
The sun shone down on all the players, the heat radiating off of the beige dirt. I would have been blinded by the reflection if it weren’t for the thick lines of eye black drawn at the tops of my cheekbones. The ends were smeared downward, sweat dripping from my hair. Salty water fell down the back of my neck, adding to my already drenched black long sleeve compression shirt that I always wore under my jersey. I stepped on the plate, throwing the ball back to Rafe who caught it swiftly, turning around in the motion and kicking at the dirt surrounding the white rubber rectangle.
I took my place directly behind the batter’s box, squatting down and balancing on the balls of my feet. I blew out a slow, deep breath of air in an attempt to calm my quickening heartbeat. The count is three-two with a runner on second and third, one more ball and the bases will be loaded. If the guy at bat gets a hit, the game could be tied and we’d have to go into extra innings. As if everyone here wasn’t already exhausted. But if Rafe gets a strike, we win and become one step closer to going to states.
Based on the batter’s past three at-bats, he likes outside pitches, which is exactly why I’m calling for a low and inside pitch. If we can jam him and direct his hit toward third, our third baseman, Jason Wright, can get the out there with a tag, and if he’s late, his throw is fast and accurate enough to get them out at first. He’s good like that, there’s a reason he’s one of our starters.
Rafe and I made eye contact, queuing me to drop my hand in between my legs, punching out a short combination of numbers on my fingers. I got a quick nod from Rafe who adjusted his slightly grey, navy blue baseball cap.
Rafe dug his toe into the dirt while settling his left foot onto the pitcher’s rubber. He adjusted the red seam of the baseball in his fingers that were hidden by his glove. He quickly found the perfect position with his pointer and middle finger on the seam and his thumb below it, the standard fastball grip.
His baseball hat created a dark shadow on the top of his face, making his dark brown eyes disappear. He cocked his hands just behind his left ear, his left hand hidden behind his glove. All with a fast and fluid motion, Rafe lifted his right leg, planting it firmly into the ground and swinging his left arm down and toward his right hip. It all happened in slow motion. My eyes followed the spinning baseball traveling at a diagonal angle, making the pitch similar to a crossfire. The batter knew the pitch was in the zone, his swing blinded my vision momentarily, but I could see more than enough of what I needed to. With the most satisfying noise, the ball slammed into the net of my glove. The batter’s eyes followed suit as he finished his swing.
The silence was deafening as my eyes focused on the perfectly delivered strike. It was on the very edge of the zone and the speed was close to Rafe’s top from the day. I waited for the umpire even though it was a done deal since the batter had swung and missed.
A loud “Strike!” bellowed from behind me and I could see the ump’s hand form a solid fist.
I jumped up from my spot and threw my mask off my face. Rafe came running toward me and wrapped a firm arm around my shoulder, causing my head and neck to be jerked downward. Jason and Devin met us halfway between home plate and the pitcher’s mound, clasping each of our hands in a quick handshake with big smiles.
“Great call, Aspen. And nice fucking pitch, Rafe,” Devin, our captain praised as our players made their way to the dugout. Devin Meyers was one of the best things that has ever happened to the Cedar Heights baseball team. Besides their lucky draw of pure, raw talent over the past three years, that is. Just an inch taller than both Rafe and I, the 6′2 dirty blonde captain was what made all the gears turn. A skilled first baseman with polished leadership skills, he was the reason we won states last year. But now, with a fresh batch of juniors on varsity, I’m hoping he’ll lead us to nationals.
As the other players packed their stuff into their bags, I sat down on the long metal bench. I unhooked my leg guards first. followed by my black and grey chest protector. I placed everything inside my catcher’s gear bag and relished in the new, light feeling of not being weighed down and the cool breeze against my damp uniform.
Our coach gave us a quick speech, congratulating us on the win and dismissing us to the locker rooms. I let the rest of the team go ahead first, it was my lame attempt at trying to avoid changing at the same time as the others. It was something I avoided like the plague for more reasons than I’d like to admit.
Rafe noticed me lingering behind. He said something to a couple of the guys who gave him a slight nod before continuing on their path.
Rafe turned around and walked back toward me, “What are you waiting for? Don’t you want to get out of this heat? It’s so fucking hot, and you’re even wearing an extra layer,” he scrutinized as he took off his hat that had a cursive CH etched into the dull blue in white thread, outlined by dark grey. Rafe wiped the sweat off his forehead, his tanned skin glistening from perspiration. He ran a hand over the top of his head, messing his hair around to fix the sharp indent the cap made on his coarse black hair.
“Yeah, I just wanted to reflect on the game a bit before my adrenaline dies down,” I lied, giving him a fake smile.
Rafe gave me a weary look, but the unconvinced and questioning expression on his face soon vanished, “We just finished a pretty intense game. It’s over 90 degrees out here and you’re wearing that damn undershirt again. You can change and then rewatch the game, I asked Amelia to record it.”
There was a slight painful tug at the bottom of my heart. I smiled again, slightly squinting my eyes to make it look more genuine, “Tell your girlfriend I said thanks.”
“Yeah,” Rafe patted my shoulder and I winced, but it seemed like he didn’t notice. Rafe placed himself behind me and pushed me forward, guiding me to the locker room.
He shoved me all the way to the entrance where I stopped resisting. It would be weird if I refused to go in.
I made my way toward my locker, placing my gear under a nearby bench. I was surrounded by my changing teammates that were wearing the bare minimum amount of clothing or with nothing but a towel wrapped around their waist as they headed to the showers. Not everyone rinses off after a game, but the hot weather encouraged more guys than usual. I averted my gaze, keeping my eyes to the ground or on the clean clothes I was fishing out of the locker. It’s not like I was interested in any of them anyway. Although Rafe was also next to me with no shirt on which was slightly distracting.
“I gotta take a piss,” I muttered to Rafe who gave me a small nod of acknowledgment as he slipped his dirt-stained white baseball pants off, leaving him in his tight black underwear and long greyish-blue socks.
“Is there something wrong with your bladder? Why do you always go to the bathroom when we’re changing?” He furrowed his brows as he bent down to slip off his right sock. His toned, tan abs flexed with the motion.
I gulped and turned my head away from him, “Yeah. Something like that,” I waved his comment off. It was nothing new, me going to change in the bathroom. I started doing that before high school, although there wasn’t a baseball team at our middle school so Rafe and I played on a competitive team and we only had to change with each other at long tournaments.
I closed the stall door behind me, sliding the tiny metal bar into the lock. The dark blue stall was somewhat large as I opted to go into the smaller of the two handicap stalls.
I didn’t actually have to go to the bathroom, of course. There are just a lot of things I have to hide, like me being gay. No one will know that as long as I keep my mouth shut.
But some secrets don’t need to be spoken about to reveal things no one needs to know.
I unbuttoned the front of my short sleeve jersey, shrugging the fabric onto the floor. I undid my belt and unbuttoned my pants, letting the dirty material fall on top of my jersey. I stood unclad with just my underwear and my black shirt. I tugged on the wet, sticky material that was practically glued to my skin. It’s not that I wanted to wear extra layers when I played, especially not at this time of the year.
I carefully slid my arms out of the sleeves, gently pulling the shirt over my head. With a heavy sigh, I placed the sweat-drenched shirt on the ground. I held my arms up and stared at the white bandages on my forearms. Due to the sheer heat of the day, the tape keeping the gauze on my skin was peeling up from the ends.
I should have brought some to school so I could redo it.
I sucked in a breath as I peeled the long bandage off, knowing it wouldn’t have stayed even if I left it there. The cuts on my wrist were raw and irritated, but the slight sting didn’t bother me. I was more than used to it.
I shouldn’t have done that this morning, but sometimes I just can’t help it. It’s a bad habit I picked up when I was 14 and trying to cope with my shitty life, unfortunately, it spiraled into something much more than I could handle and the inside of my thighs, my abdomen, and my arms from my shoulders to the wrist took the brunt of my unhealthy coping mechanism.
It was bad. I knew it was bad, and even when I recognized that things were getting worse, even when I noticed how the small lines on my wrist became more compact, longer, thicker, and started venturing onto other parts of my body, I couldn’t stop. Even when I wanted to. Even when I tried.
It’s something that’s completely out of my control yet at the same time gives me the control that I so desperately need.
Sometimes it bothers me during games if the marks are fresh or an old scar is acting up. I wear long sleeves whenever I play to hide it. Well, I always wear long sleeves because even if it wasn’t just my wrists that were exposed, the undersides of my arms are just as littered with swollen white and pink marks. It’s fine when it’s a cold or rainy season, but with summer approaching, the humid weather makes it almost unbearable to play with an undershirt or even just compression sleeves.
Unfortunately, there are other things that get in my way more when I’m trying to play baseball.
My left shoulder sent dull, aching pains throughout my entire body, the bruise the size of a small bowling ball was all sorts of deep purple and black. But it would fade with time, they always do.
I quickly put on a loose, black long-sleeve and a pair of black shorts that stopped just above my knees. I slipped on a pair of crew socks and a pair of black, battered vans. I gathered all my dirty clothes into a pile, slipping my old, bloodied bandages into the middle so no one would see them when I walked out.
I passed a trash can on my way back to my locker and I discreetly tossed the two long white and red pieces into the grey trash bin.
I shoved my baseball clothes into my bag as Rafe placed his foot on the bench, tying his shoes.
“Are you ready to go?” I asked. Rafe gave me a ride to and from school every day. It’s not that I didn’t have a car I could use, I was supposed to share one with my older brother, Alex, but the day I got my license he made it very clear that it was his car and bad things would happen if I were to use it.
“Yeah, just let me wash my hands real quick,” he replied, straightening his back and heading towards one of the many sinks that lined the wall. I watched him from behind, his muscles flexing underneath his tight shirt. He then proceeded to throw his used paper towels into the trash can. I saw his eyes narrow for a split second, his thick brows tightly knitting together as he turned his head, glancing at me and then looking back into the trash.
He lightly clenched his jaw and then quickly made his way toward me, “Did you throw out those bandages covered in blood?” His voice was stern and he was looking for a clear answer.
“What?” I laughed nervously. “Of course not.”
“I saw you throw something in there earlier and those bandages were the only thing in the trash can.”
I dismissed his subtle interrogation, “I just had a bloody nose earlier.” Dodging questions and making up reasonable lies had become a very handy skill I developed over the years.
Rafe just stared at me. His whole body was tense and it looked like he had more to say. He let out a huff of air, “Fine. Okay. Let’s just go.”
The walk to his car was somewhat silent. But Rafe was used to it, I’m not a particularly talkative person. Well, I used to be.
I opened the passenger side door and slid onto the soft faded grey fabric that covered the seats. Rafe stuck the aged key into the ignition. The engine roared and then quieted down, repeating the same thing three times before a beeping noise filled the air and the car finally started. It was his dad’s old car and it barely worked. But a car is a car and both Rafe and I were thankful for it.
“Is there anything you want to do?” Rafe asked. It was Friday night and the social butterfly that was my best friend was not interested in staying at home alone.
“No, just...” I trailed off.
“Just not your house?” He finished my sentence.
“Yeah,” I spoke quietly.
I don’t let him come over anymore, especially not if my brother is home. Alex is a sophomore at a local college and he always comes home at unpredictable times. And it’s not that I want to keep Rafe away from my brother, it’s more that I need to keep my brother from seeing me with another guy. Alone with another guy, especially Rafe.
Rafe sighed once again. He was probably getting tired of me, and I don’t blame him. You see, depression has this way of sucking the personality right out of you, leaving its victims nothing but a shell of their former selves.
I didn’t talk a lot. I had nothing interesting to say. I didn’t add anything to conversations. I was simply there. A boring shadow that followed Rafe around like a lost puppy. But what else was I supposed to do? My life had me feeling numb and he was the only person that made me feel. I know he’s bored of me. I know he’s tired of me. But unless I hear those words straight out of his mouth, I’ll just keep being that burdensome shadow.
“We could go to Jason’s house? A bunch of the guys are going over. Apparently, his mom’s making dinner for anyone who shows, and you know that his mom’s cooking is better than Gordon Ramsey himself,” Rafe licked his lips at the thought.
It was something I couldn’t deny, Jason Wright’s parents were both professional chefs, damn good ones at that.
“If you want to,” I replied with a low chuckle while giving him my signature smile, making sure to flash my dimples.
Rafe frowned at me, “Actually, let’s just go to my house. My mom’s making paella tonight,” he pronounced the dish with a Spanish accent.
I nodded my head in approval, “Sounds good to me.”
Rafe only lives about six minutes from our high school, so he was pulling up next to his house in no time. He parked his car on the street just in front of his house, his parents’ cars occupying the small driveway.
We went in through the front door, taking our shoes off and placing them on a small shoe rack, and setting our bags down just past the entryway.
“Mamá, estoy en casa,” Rafe shouted to his mom in her mother tongue as we made our way toward the kitchen.
The house was somewhat small, with two bedrooms, two baths, a decent-sized living room, and a small kitchen. But it was more than enough, at least there was no wasted space. I looked up at the familiar whites of the popcorn ceiling, pulling out a chair from the old wooden table and sitting down as Rafe made his way to the white fridge. He scanned over the contents, seemingly unsatisfied.
His mom then came bounding into the room, her feet making thumping noises on the bare tiles. She rushed over to her son, whacking him on the head and releasing a string of curses that I couldn’t understand.
“I am already cooking dinner! Why are you looking for food, you will spoil your appetite!” She was about half a foot shorter than Rafe, her body was slightly pudgy and there was a red apron tied around her waist. Rafe’s mom had greying hair that she re-dyed black now and again and there were small, aged wrinkles forming around the corners of her mouth and eyes. His mom was from Spain, her first language wasn’t English but if her thick Spanish accent was ignored, she was completely fluent.
Rafe’s dad was also from Spain, but he moved here when he was young so I can barely hear his accent when he speaks.
Rafe raised his hands, trying to protect himself as I laughed at the amusing situation.
The noise garnered his mom’s attention and she craned her head to see me, her open palm that was about to hit her son was still raised in the air, “Oh! Aspen, I did not know you were here,” she gave me a warm smile. She glared daggers at Rafe and then moved away from him. “I am glad you are here, I made an extra portion just for you.”
“Of course!” She cooed. Besides the fact that we’ve known each other since Rafe and I first started playing baseball together when we were four and our parents were friends, I think the reason she liked me so much was because I kept Rafe out of trouble... as far as she’s concerned. “Dinner is not ready quite yet, so you two should wait in another room so I can have a bit of space.”
Rafe and I quickly removed ourselves from the cramped kitchen. He headed straight to his room and plopped himself onto his double twin bed. The dark blue covers were somewhat messy and he had random papers lying around his room. Next to his closet, Rafe had numerous shelves full of trophies, medals, and signed baseballs on display. I had a lot of the same awards. On the other side, he had a brown, rectangular desk with a laptop along with random nick nacks here and there.
He was lying on his back with his arms spread like a starfish and his legs bent at the knee, hanging off the end.
I stood just past the doorway, “Do you have some bandaids I can use?” After I threw my bandages out, the burning sensation turned into an intense itch as the newly forming scabs continued to rub against the fabric of my sleeves.
“Hmm?” He mumbled, bending his neck upward and moving into a sitting position. “What do you need a band-aid for?”
“Oh, I just have a cut on my ankle from when someone slid into me,” I lied.
“Yeah, let me grab you one,” Rafe stood up and went into the bottom drawer of his desk, handing me a singular, normal-sized plaster.
“Can you just hand me the box?” I asked softly.
“Yeah, I guess...” He paused, looking down at the socks that covered my ankles. “I’ll get something to disinfect it, let me take a look at the cut,” he gestured for me to take off the crew sock.
“N-no, that’s okay. I can do it myself,” I sputtered.
“Is it on the outside or inside?”
“If it’s on the outside it’ll be kind of awkward for you to reach it,” he explained.
“Oh, no, it’s fine. It’s on the inside. I can reach it just fine.”
“Okay...” Rafe sounded unconvinced. He handed me a large box that had multiple different sizes.
I turned to walk out of the room and Rafe’s voice had me glancing over my shoulder, “Is this also something you have to hide in the bathroom to do?”
I made eye contact with him. His gaze bored into mine, making me slightly uncomfortable.
Eye contact is a dangerous thing to do. When I laugh, I can fake the smile lines. But when you truly look into someone’s bare eyes, nothing remains hidden. There’s a saying that eyes are the gateway to the soul, and in many ways that was extremely true. Eyes are the essence of a person, and if you know someone well enough, they can reveal everything. I averted my gaze, not replying to him before walking to the bathroom down the hall, clutching the box in my hands.
I shut the bathroom door behind me, sandwiching myself between the towels hung from hooks on the door and the sink. I set the bandaids on the counter and rested my hands on the edge of the sink. I looked into the mirror, staring at my face. My skin had a slight golden tint from being exposed to the sun, but under my clothes, I was much paler. My nose is slightly more mature than a small button nose, but the bridge was straight, not high nor low. My ash brown hair was slightly too long for my liking. It covered the upper half of my ears, but it was heavily layered so I thought I looked somewhat okay. My bangs fell into my eyes, but I wasn’t mad about that. I didn’t particularly like the way I looked, it just is.
But my favorite feature? My dimples. I had one on each cheek, they were deep and heavily defined. Most prominent when I was smiling. They were my saving grace, the reason I was popular, the thing that attracted girls to me, and the only thing that kept people out of my business. I’ve been told that my dimples make me appear more innocent, pure even. Hot, cute, adorable, perfect, suitable, there’s a long list used for people that think my dimples are attractive.
But most importantly, they draw attention away from my eyes. They used to be a vibrant green with specks of gold littered around the pupil, but now they are nothing more than a dull, ugly grey. The happiness in my eyes disappeared the day I lost my will to live. They’re dead... my eyes, that is. And they put all of my secrets on display for anyone interested in looking. I can smile all I want, but when you look into my eyes, everything becomes all too obvious.
I wonder how everyone would react if they knew it was all fake. All our friendships, all the shared smiles and laughs... Would they be mad when they realize I don’t care about them... about anything. Would they forget about how I lied when they find out I’m gay? What would they do to me? Would they blackmail me like Alex? Would they beat me too? Probably.
Would Rafe join in with them?
I glanced down at my arms. I could always just try to kill myself again. Then I would never have to find out what will happen if more people discover my secret.
I chewed on the inside of my lip, rolling up my sleeve and grabbing as many of the large band-aids I could find. I rummaged through the cabinets until I found a spare pair of scissors. I cut the sticky ends off of half the band-aids, attaching another one to the top to make them bigger while keeping the part that sticks to the skin off of my cuts. I covered large portions on both my forearms and threw all my trash into the tiny bin next to the toilet, completely filling it up. I grabbed the box and headed back to Rafe’s room, placing the plasters on his desk.
“Why’d that take you so long?” He asked, not looking away from his phone.
“I went to the bathroom too.”
“Hmm,” he hummed, not paying attention to what I was saying.
“Is there anything you want to do?” I asked him.
“Not particularly,” Rafe said absentmindedly. He’s probably annoyed that I’m here, he wanted to hang out with the other guys from the team after all.
I don’t like being with them. Sure, they’re great at baseball and we’re part of the same friend group at school, but I know that the second they find out I’m gay, not a single one of them will still be my friend. If their homophobic slander is anything to go by, then I’m truly fucked. Not just by them, but by everyone. I’m just so fucking lucky, I was born in a town where I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t talk about gay people like they are scum that walks the Earth.
I don’t hang out with people unless Rafe is there, there isn’t a point otherwise. They include me in plans, but unless there’s alcohol or weed involved, I tend to flake out.
“Do you want me to leave?” I struggled to keep my voice even.
“Up to you. If you leave I’ll probably head over to Jason’s house.”
“Oh... If you want to, that’s fine,” I practically whispered.
“I don’t get why you don’t like them,” he shook his head, his thumbs moving speedily on his screen, probably texting the guys that he’s going to go over.
Of course, you don’t get it. And I hope you never do.
“I do like them. I’m just a little tired after today’s game. Uhm, I guess I’ll see you later then?” I asked in a hopeful tone.
“Sure,” Rafe’s voice was monotone, his lack of excitement evident.
“Okay,” I chewed on my cheek even harder, penetrating the skin and drawing a small amount of blood. The flavor of iron invaded my taste buds and the walls of my mouth becoming raw and jagged, joining the other parts of the pink skin I had accidentally gnawed off.
I slowly made my way out of his room, my steps sluggish as I scolded myself internally. I shouldn’t have suggested leaving. But It’s not like Rafe really wanted me around anyway...
I’ve been in love with him for as long as I can remember. Literally. I can’t remember... before I knew I was already head deep in an unrequited love that will never be returned.
The thing about having been depressed for so long is I’ve become hyper-observant. I notice every little thing. Body language or slight changes in tone, and I take those things and analyze them, especially with Rafe. What does it mean? Does he hate me? Should I stop talking now? Does he know...
I slung my bag over my shoulder, momentarily forgetting about the giant, tender bruise and swearing as the back of my catcher’s mask pushed against my back. I choked on a cry and quietly muttered, needing to release the feeling of pain in some way, “Fuck!”
“What’s wrong?” Rafe came jogging out of the hallway.
“Nothing, I just stubbed my toe.” I looked him up and down, “Why’d you come back out?”
“I forgot to ask if you needed a ride home.”
“Oh. No, I’m good. I’ll just walk,” I gave him a small smile, avoiding his eyes.
“But your house is a thirty-minute walk from here...”
“I’ll just use it as some time to go over some plays,” I reassured him. Actually, I had no plans of going home, not this early at least. I don’t know if my brother is home or not.
“Okay,” Rafe sounded unconvinced.
“Well,” I slipped my shoes back on. “Bye.”
“Yeah. Bye...” Maybe Rafe was happy to see me go.