I gripped the red-and-white ball between my fingers, holding it inside of my worn glove as I glanced at second and third base through the thick wires of my mask. It was the bottom of the seventh inning and we were winning six to five.
The sun shone down on all the players, heat radiating off the packed dirt. I would’ve 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 smeared downward. Sweat dripped from my hair, salty water trickling down the back of my neck and adding to the already-drenched long-sleeve compression shirt 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. Taking my place directly behind the batter’s box, I squatted, balancing on the balls of my feet. I blew out a slow, deep breath in an attempt to calm my quickening heartbeat. The count was three-two with a runner on second and third; one more ball and the bases would be loaded. If the guy at bat got 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 got a strike, we’d win and become one step closer to going to States and then Nationals.
Based on the batter’s past three at-bats, he liked outside pitches, which was exactly why I was calling for a low and inside pitch. If we jammed him and directed his hit toward third, our third baseman, Jason Wright, could get the out there with a tag. If Jason was late, his throw would be fast and accurate enough to get the out at first. He was good like that. There was a reason he was one of our starters.
Rafe and I made eye contact, cueing me to drop my hand between my legs and punch out a short combination of numbers on my fingers. I got a quick nod from Rafe, who adjusted his greyish navy-blue baseball cap.
Rafe dug his toe into the dirt while settling his left foot onto the pitcher’s rubber. He twisted the red seams of the baseball in his fingers, quickly finding the perfect position with his pointer and middle finger on the seam and his thumb below it—the standard fastball grip.
His baseball hat cast 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. 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. The ball slammed into the net of my glove with the most satisfying ‘thwack.’ The batter’s eyes followed suit as he finished his swing.
The silence was deafening as my eyes focused on the flawlessly 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!” was bellowed from behind, the ump’s hand forming a solid fist.
I jumped up from my spot and threw my mask off. Rafe came running toward me and wrapped a firm arm around my shoulder, causing my head and neck to jerk 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 had ever happened to the Cedar Heights baseball team. Besides their lucky draw of pure, raw talent over the past three years, that was. Just an inch taller than both Rafe and me, the six-two dirty-blonde captain 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 hoped he’d lead us to Nationals once again.
As the other players packed their stuff into their bags, I sat 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 the new, light feeling of not being weighed down as the cool breeze blew 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 steer clear of changing at the same time as the others. That was something I avoided like the plague.
Rafe noticed me lingering behind. He said something to a couple of 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 damn hot, and you’re even wearing an extra layer,” he said as he took off his hat that had a cursive CH etched into the dull blue in white thread. 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 downturned corners of his mouth soon vanished. “We just finished a pretty intense game. It’s over ninety 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 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.”
“Sure.” Rafe patted my shoulder and I winced, but it seemed like he didn’t notice.
He placed himself behind me and pushed me forward, guiding me to the locker room, gently shoving me all the way to the entrance, where I stopped resisting—it’d be weird if I refused to go in.
I made my way to my locker, placing my gear under a nearby bench. My changing teammates surrounded me, wearing the bare minimum amount of clothing or nothing but a towel wrapped around their waists as they headed to the showers. Not everyone rinsed 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. I wasn’t interested in any of them, anyway. Although Rafe’s naked torso 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 socks.
“Is there something wrong with your bladder? Why do you always go to the bathroom when we’re changing?” He furrowed his brows, bending down to slip off his right sock. His toned abs flexed with the movement.
I gulped and turned my head away. “Yeah. Something like that.” I waved his comment off.
It was nothing new, me going to change in the bathroom. I’d 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 only changed with each other at long tournaments.
I closed the stall door behind me, sliding the tiny metal bar into the lock. The dark-blue cubicle 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 were several reasons that I hid. No one would know I liked men if I kept my mouth shut, but some secrets were more visible, yet just as dangerous.
I unbuttoned the front of my short-sleeved jersey, shrugging the fabric onto the floor. Undoing my belt and pants, the dirty material fell on top of my jersey, leaving me clad in my underwear and black shirt. I tugged on the wet, sticky material that was practically glued to my skin. It wasn’t that I wanted to wear extra layers when I played, especially not at this time of the year, but I didn’t really have a choice.
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. Because of the sheer heat of the day, the tape keeping the gauze on my skin was peeling up from the ends.
I should’ve brought some to school so I could redo them. Stupid.
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 couldn’t help it. It was an abysmal habit I’d picked up when I was fourteen and trying to cope with my shitty life; unfortunately, it’d spiraled into something much more than I could handle, and the insides 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 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 was something completely out of my control, yet at the same time, it gave me the control I so desperately needed.
Sometimes it bothered me during games if the marks were fresh, or an old scar was acting up. I dressed in long sleeves whenever I played to hide it. Well, I always wore long sleeves because even if it wasn’t just my wrists that were exposed, the undersides of my arms were just as littered with swollen white-and-pink marks. It was fine when it was a cold or rainy season, but with summer approaching, the humid weather made it almost unbearable to play with an undershirt or even just compression sleeves.
Unfortunately, there were other things that got in my way more when I tried to play baseball: My left shoulder sent dull, aching pains throughout my entire body, the bruise the size of a small bowling ball and all sorts of deep purples and blacks. But it would fade with time. They always did.
I hastily put on a loose, black long-sleeved shirt and a pair of black shorts that stopped just above my knees, slipping on a pair of crew socks and a pair of black, battered Vans, the plethora of dark colors setting the mood. Gathering all my dirty clothes into a pile, I slipped my old, bloodied bandages into the middle so no one could see when I walked out.
I passed a trash can on my way back to my locker and discreetly tossed the two long white-and-red pieces into the grey bin.
I shoved my baseball clothes into my bag as Rafe placed his foot on the bench, tying his shoes, asking, “Are you ready to go?”
Rafe was my ride practically everywhere, carting me to and from school every day. There was a car I was supposed to share 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 toward one of the many sinks that lined the wall. I watched him from behind, his muscles flexing underneath his tight shirt. He threw his used paper towels into the trash can. Eyes narrowing for a split second, his thick brows tightly knit together as he turned his head, glancing at me and then looking back into the trash.
He lightly clenched his jaw and quickly made his way toward me. “Did you throw out those bandages covered in blood?” His voice was stern, 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 had a bloody nose earlier.” Dodging questions and making up reasonable lies had become a very handy skill I’d developed over the years.
Rafe stared at me. His whole body tensed and he let out a huff of air. “Fine. Okay. Let’s just go.”
The walk to his car was silent besides the scuffle of our sneakers against the gravelly concrete. But Rafe was used to it. I wasn’t a particularly talkative person. Well, I used to be.
I opened the passenger side door and slid onto the soft, faded fabric covering the seats. Rafe stuck the aged key into the ignition. The engine roared and quieted down, repeating the same thing three times before a beeping noise filled the air and the vehicle finally started. It was his dad’s old car and it barely worked, but a car was 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 wasn’t interested in staying home alone.
“No, just…” I trailed off.
“Just not your house?” He finished my sentence.
“Yeah,” I murmured.
I didn’t let him come over anymore, especially not if my brother was home. Alex was a sophomore at a local college and always came home at unpredictable times. It wasn’t that I wanted to keep Rafe away from my brother, but more so that I needed 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 didn’t blame him. You see, depression had 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, and added essentially nothing 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? Life had me numb and he was the only person who made me feel. I knew he was bored of me, and I knew he was tired of me. But unless I heard those words straight out of his mouth, I’d 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’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’s face fell. “Actually, let’s just go to my house. My mom’s making pozole tonight.” He pronounced the dish with a Spanish accent.
“Sounds good to me.”
Rafe only lived about six minutes from our high school, so he pulled 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, 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, announcing that he was home.
The familiar scent of Mexican laundry soap permeated the air of the relatively small, two-bedroom, two-bath house with a decent-sized living room and small kitchen, all visible from the front door. I looked up at the familiar white of the popcorn ceiling, pulling out a chair from the old wooden table and sitting down as Rafe went straight to the white fridge. He scanned the contents, seemingly unsatisfied.
His mom 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’m already cooking dinner! Why are you looking for food? You’ll spoil your appetite!” She was about half a foot shorter than Rafe, her body slightly pudgy, with 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 wrinkles forming around the corners of her mouth and eyes. She was from Mexico; her first language wasn’t English, but if I ignored her thick Spanish accent, she was completely fluent. Although Rafe’s dad was born in the states, all of his grandparents were from Mexico as well.
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 still raised in the air. “Oh! Aspen, I didn’t know you were here.” She gave me a warm smile, glaring daggers at Rafe before moving away from him. “I’m glad you came. I made an extra portion for you.”
“Of course!” she cooed. Besides the fact that we’d known each other since Rafe and I first started playing baseball together when we were four, I think the reason she liked me so much was because I kept Rafe out of trouble. “Dinner’s not ready quite yet, so you two should wait in another room so I can have a bit of space.”
Rafe and I 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 messy and random papers lay around his room. Next to his closet were 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 knickknacks here and there.
He lay 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 band-aids 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 have a cut on my ankle from when someone slid into me.”
“Yeah, let me grab you one.” Rafe picked himself up and sifted through the bottom drawer of his desk, handing me a single, 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 said.
“No, I’m alright. 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.
When I turned to leave the room, Rafe’s voice had me glancing over my shoulder. “Is this also something you have to hide in the bathroom to do?”
We made eye contact. His gaze bored into mine, filling me with a sense of discomfort. Eye contact was a dangerous thing to do. When I laughed, I could fake smile lines. But when you truly looked into someone’s bare orbs, nothing remained hidden. There’s a saying that eyes are the gateway to the soul, and in many ways, that’s true: Eyes are the essence of a person. They tell a million stories, 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 hanging from the hooks on the door and the sink. I set the band-aids on the counter and rested my hands on the edge of the sink, my shaggy bangs falling over my eyes and obscuring the man I saw in the mirror. I didn’t necessarily dislike my appearance… it was just hard to look at myself at times because I never recognized the person staring back.
I knew that some people found me attractive, but I didn’t really get it. I’d been told it was because of my dimples. I had one on each cheek, deep and heavily defined, and most prominent when I smiled. They were charming, apparently. Distracting. And that was why my dimples were my favorite feature: They drew attention away from my eyes. They used to be a vibrant green, with specks of gold littered around the pupil, but now they were nothing more than a dull, ugly grey. When you stared at them too long, you could tell something was… off.
I wondered 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 realized I didn’t care about them—about anything? Would my sexuality completely overshadow the lies? When it all came to light, what would they do to me? Jump straight to blackmail 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’d never have to know what would happen if more people found out.
I chewed on the inside of my lip, rolling up my sleeve and grabbing as many large band-aids I could find. Rummaging through the cabinets until I found a spare pair of scissors, I cut the sticky ends off half the band-aids, attaching another one to the top to make them bigger while keeping the part that sticks to the skin off my cuts. I covered large portions on both my forearms and threw all my trash into the tiny bin next to the toilet, filling it to the brim. I grabbed the box and went back to Rafe’s room, placing the plasters on his desk.
“Why’d that take you so long?” His eyes didn’t leave his phone when the words left his mouth.
“I went to the bathroom, too.”
He hummed in response, only paying half attention to what I was saying.
“Is there anything you want to do?”
“Not particularly,” Rafe said absentmindedly, probably annoyed that I was here. He wanted to hang out with the other guys from the team, after all.
I didn’t enjoy being around them. Sure, they were great at baseball and we were part of the same friend group at school, but I knew the second they found out I was gay, not a single one of them would still be my friend. If their homophobic slander was anything to go by, then I was truly fucked. Not just by them, but by everyone. I was just so lucky to have been born in a town where I hadn’t met a single person who didn’t talk about gay people like they were scum walking the earth.
I didn’t hang out with people unless Rafe was there; there was no point otherwise. They included me in plans, but I tended to flake out when there was no promise of alcohol or weed.
“Do you want me to leave?” I struggled to keep my voice even.
“No. Don’t go. We can watch a movie or something.”
Come on, Aspen. Stop holding him back. “You should go to Jason’s house. I wanted to look over the tapes today, anyway…” I practically whispered.
“Or, you could come with me.”
I looked down and fiddled with the hem of my sleeve. A silent answer.
“I don’t get why you don’t like them.” He shook his head, his thumbs moving speedily on his screen, probably letting them know he was coming over.
Of course, he didn’t get it. And I hoped he never would.
“I do like them. I’m just a little tired from the 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 became raw and jagged, joining the other parts of the pink skin I’d 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 isn’t like Rafe really wants me around...
I’d been in love with him for as long as I could remember. Literally. I couldn’t remember... Before I knew it, I was already head-deep in an unrequited love that would never be returned.
The thing about having been depressed for so long was that I’d become hyper-observant. I noticed every little thing. Body language or slight changes in tone, and I took those things and analyzed 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 the giant, tender bruise and swearing as the wiring 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. “Shit!”
“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 can 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 plays,” I reassured him with no actual plans of going home—not this early at least. I didn’t know if my brother was home or not.
“Okay,” Rafe sounded unconvinced.
“Well,” I slipped my shoes back on, “bye.”
Maybe Rafe was happy to see me go.