The Smile Has Left Your Eyes

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Chapter Four

Aspen

“I got it! I got it!” our left fielder shouted as the baseball fell perfectly into the net of his glove.

That was the third out.

My team jogged back into the dugout to prepare for our first at-bat. I sat at the end of the bench and leisurely took off my bulky gear while our first batter stepped up to the plate. Jamey dug his foot into the box, hunching over slightly in his stance. His job was to get on base and steal when our second batter gave him an opportunity.

The third person in our lineup was Devin, the most consistent and reliable power hitter on our team. I stood in the on-deck circle behind the third base foul line, taking practice swings and trying to ignore any soreness in my muscles and joints.

Devin connected with the ball, sending it just over the second baseman’s head and landing where the dirt met the grass. That hit sent Jamey home and our second batter to third base, while Devin was called safe at first.

Now it was my turn. I placed one foot inside the box, turning my body to look at my coach for a sign. Swing away. As always. I’d held the fourth spot as the cleanup hitter in the lineup since I joined the varsity team as a sophomore. My job right now was to get the biggest hit I could to send our runners to home plate.

I let out a slow breath to focus my mind. I raised my bat, placing it above my head as I adjusted my grip on the handle. The pitcher started his windup, probably hoping a faster ball would be more likely to get me out, but the catcher’s way of thinking was too simple. When his arm came swinging down and the ball was released from his hand, I took a step with my left foot and cocked my bat.

My eyes followed the ball as it spun toward me. I didn’t blink and waited until the ball was in an ideal position. I swung my bat, making sure my form was perfect while the barrel hit the lower center of the baseball. How stupid. Calling for a fastball from a pitcher with weak control against a slugger with a high batting average. The catcher must’ve been green.

I sent the ball flying into the outfield so high it got lost in the sky, dusk encasing the sphere and rendering the baseball invisible in the purples and peaches of the darkening mosaic of clouds. I sprinted toward first, rounding the base and going straight for second. My teammates cheered as the ball landed well behind the center fielder, allowing our two runners to cross home base. It would’ve been a home run if they’d had a fence. The third-base coach flailed his arm around in large motions, urging me to keep going. I rounded second and darted toward third. The coach yelled at me, telling me to go down. I started my slide off to the side of the base just as the third baseman caught the ball. When he slammed his glove down to tag me, I glided straight past the base; the fielder missed me by a hair as I twisted my body and grabbed the white rubber with my hand.

“Safe!” the field ump shouted from between second and third.

I looked into the dugout at the gleeful guys pressed up against the chain-link fence, slapping the helmets of the runners I sent home. Rafe stood just feet away from me, getting ready for his at-bat. The proud smile on his face was enough to pump me up for the rest of the game.

We crushed them. Riverside was barely even competition for us when we were at our best. I ended the game with two triples and three doubles, Rafe getting on bases with one triple, two singles, and two walks. Our battery only allowed five of their batters to get on base throughout the entire game. It was nearly a complete shut-out, and damn, it felt good. Our season wasn’t over yet; we won our league’s playoffs, which meant our next game would be at States.

I talked to Rafe on the side of our huddled group after shaking hands with the other team; he was so animated and excited.

“Weren’t you the one who said high school baseball didn’t matter anymore?” I questioned.

Rafe gave me a coy smile. “Just because it doesn’t matter doesn’t mean it’s any less fun.”

“Understandable—” cool water suddenly gushed down my head, drenching my clothes and leaving small, partially melted ice cubes on top of my hair and between my jersey and undershirt. My body went rigid at the icy feeling, my arms and fingers pointed toward the ground as straight as possible, and my jaw hung open. Rafe took a similar position, shaking his hair out like a dog.

Our teammates and coaches surrounded us, screaming and laughing as they celebrated. They’d dumped the water from the orange cooler onto Rafe and me for carrying the game.

“Okay, okay,” Coach Gale shouted over the boisterous team, raising his hands in the air to get everyone’s attention. “Quiet down. I’m sure you’re all tired, so I’ll keep this short. I’ll be receiving our schedule in a day or two. Our first States game will be this Saturday. I’m not sure who we’re playing yet or if we’ll have to travel, so keep your agendas open and plan nothing for this weekend.”

A thrill shot through me at the prospect of being away for the weekend. It’d be a much-needed break from Alex and having to worry about him.

The coach continued his speech and explained our upcoming practice schedules. While he talked, my gaze wandered downward. My eyes widened and a slow panic began bubbling in my gut. My white sleeves had become see-through, making the unbandaged old and new cuts visible. I shifted my catcher’s bag toward the front of my body, awkwardly hugging it with my arms in an attempt to hide the undersides that hosted countless scars.

My expression contorted as the players continued to listen to Coach Gale. “It’s single elimination, so we can’t afford to lose…”

Rafe tapped the top of my shoulder and I winced; the bruise, while fading, was still tender.

My head whipped to the side to look at him. Rafe surveyed me before asking, “Why are you holding your stuff like that? Did you hurt your shoulder?”

That sentence caused Devin to snap his neck toward us. He brooked his weight right next to Rafe, so it wasn’t difficult to overhear.

“Aspen, is your arm hurt?” Devin took injuries blisteringly seriously because if someone played on one and made it worse, there was a chance they could ruin their chances of playing in the future.

“No, of course I didn’t. Rafe was just asking why I didn’t have my bag on my shoulder,” I explained.

Devin took my words with a grain of salt as he crossed his arms over his chest and hesitantly placed his focus back onto our assistant coach who was talking about the highlights of our game.

“So?” Rafe spoke, pushing me to answer his question.

“Am I not allowed to hold my bag in my arms? Why are you being so nosy?” My words came off harsher than intended.

Coach Gale dismissed the team and people either headed to their cars or the guest locker room.

Nosy? I’m worried about you!”

“I’m literally just holding my bag! What’s the big deal?” I didn’t understand why our conversation was escalating. I could guess that it was because Rafe was tired of my roundabout replies, tired of me.

“All I wanted to know was if you were hurt! Why are you getting all defensive?!”

We were yelling at each other, but after our lengthy celebration, the other team had vacated the area, leaving just me and Rafe in the giant backyard of their school.

“I’m not!” I shouted back.

“You are, Aspen! You made it painfully obvious that you are the second you got defensive over a simple question!” His arms flew around, a more-than-livid look on his face

“It’s a fucking bag, Rafe. Get. Over. It,” I seethed.

It’s not that I didn’t understand where he was coming from. I did. It was that I couldn’t have him invading my psyche like this. He’d never understand the consequences. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d fought or even argued. Rafe was always putting up with me, despite how tough I made everything. I should’ve been thankful. It was a wonder he’d lasted this long.

“Is it that difficult to tell me what’s wrong?” Rafe’s voice cracked, as if he was wounded.

I looked at him apprehensively, but stayed silent.

“Fourteen years, Aspen. It’s been fourteen years and you’re getting mad because I asked you what’s wrong?” His raspy tone was soft and low-pitched.

“It’s because nothing’s wrong. You’re being annoying. There’s no need to overreact.”

Overreact? Fucking overreact? You’re the one who’s overreacting! I was worried about you so I asked a question and all I get for that is being called annoying?” Rafe said, exasperated. “If you’re so fine, then prove it. Just put the bag where you usually do and I’ll forget you said that.”

Holy shit, Rafe. I called you annoying. Stop acting like I actually did something to offend you!” I took an unsteady step backward, my heart pounding in my chest.

“If you don’t let go of that fucking bag, then I’m going to assume you’re lying and are injured. I won’t stand for you ruining your dream because of a damn high school team.” He took a threatening step toward me and I took another back, nearly tripping on the grass behind me.

“I told you I’m not injured! Why won’t you just believe me?!” A lump formed in my throat, the one that always warned me when I was about to cry.

Rafe was scaring me.

“It’s a bag! Why can’t you just do what I’m asking! I never ask for anything from you! Ever! Just this once, I’m asking for a favor. Please,” Rafe begged as he got even closer to me.

I clutched the gear tighter, knowing the dripping fabric encasing my arms revealed everything from my wrists to the base of my jersey sleeve.

Rafe reached an arm out to snatch the bag.

“JUST FUCKING BACK OFF!!” My shout echoed around the empty field, my eyes squeezed shut.

His hand froze, hovering just above my catcher’s bag. I slowly peeled open my eyes, Rafe hesitantly retracting his arm. The look of hurt that flashed across his face pained me, but I didn’t have a choice. Rafe didn’t give me a choice.

The corners of his mouth quivered, and the ends of his eyes seemed to droop downward in defeat. “I’m sorry that worrying about you makes me such a shitty friend.”

“Come on, Rafe! Don’t pull this bullshit! I set my boundaries loud and clear and you chose to ignore them.”

“I just don’t understand why you need those boundaries in the first place! You don’t tell me shit about your life! With how you’ve been acting, it feels like we aren’t even friends anymore.”

“... not friends?” I muttered, staring daggers into the ground as my vision clouded with salty water. Those words muddled my mind. My thoughts became muggy and all I could hear was Rafe’s voice on repeat, as if it was stuck on an endless loop.

He let out a deep, aggressive puff of air, like he was dumbfounded by my presence. “I can’t deal with you right now.” His words were like a stab to the heart. Rafe threw his frustrated hands into his hair, glancing from me to the distant parking lot. “Fuck this.” He turned on his heel and left me behind.

I watched Rafe chuck his gear into the trunk of his car, not looking back once as he got into the vehicle and drove away.

He left me.

He left me in Riverside all alone, with no way to get home. No money and a practically dead phone.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cried; a numbness had taken over years ago, forcing certain emotions to become foreign. But today, tears pricked my eyes. A single drop slid down my cheek, followed by a plethora of others. I didn’t cry out, but I wept in my own, silent way.

It wasn’t like I expected him to stay forever. I knew that one day we would separate from each other and go our own ways. I was well-aware that I was nothing more than a troublesome shadow following Rafe everywhere he went. It’s just a matter of time. That was what I kept telling myself.

I sniffled, pushing my bag back to my shoulder and wiping my runny nose. I pulled my phone out of my backpack and pressed call on Devin’s number. He usually drove a bunch of guys to games so they could all save gas, but he didn’t pick up. I assumed it was because he was driving, but Jason and Jamey didn’t pick up either. I decided it would be best to convince myself they were just blasting music so loud they didn’t notice I called them. It’d make me feel better that way.

I pulled up my GPS, punching in my address. I let the device in my hand fall to my side when I started lifting my feet.

A two-hour walk...

My battery wouldn’t last that long. I’d probably get lost, too.

I closed all the open apps on my phone except for the navigation, turned the brightness down, and pressed the Low Power Mode button. As I was doing so, my phone began to ring.

It was my mom, who was supposed to get home yesterday. I hurriedly wiped the tears off my face despite knowing she wouldn’t be able to see me.

“Hi, mom,” I answered the phone, raising the tone of my voice to get just the right amount of happy inflection.

“Hi, Aspen! How was your game?”

“It was great, we won!” A phony smile appeared on my face. It helped to get into character.

“Congratulations, sweetheart! I’m so proud of you!” I heard her whispering something to someone else in the background before asking me another question. “Are you home yet? Did Rafe give you a ride?”

“Yeah, I’m in the car with him right now.”

“Okay, okay. Tell him I say hello.”

“Will do,” I chirped.

“No, Jessica! I told you this has to be done in a larger font, our client is older and will have trouble reading this.” She paused for a second. “Sorry, Aspen. I know I said your father and I would be home Monday, but we had an emergency at our office in Turin, so it looks like we won’t be able to come back until Thursday or Friday.”

“Oh.” Crap. “That’s fine. I can manage on my own, I’m not a little kid.”

“Ask your brother to bring home some dinner if you’re not going out with friends. Even if you spend all your time with Rafe, don’t keep mooching off of Teresa. You can rely on your brother a bit more since we’ll be gone for a couple of days this time,” my mom rambled on. “If you go into the fridge, you’ll find some—” the phone cut off.

I pulled it away from my ear; the screen had gone black. I sighed and put my phone in my back pocket. I ogled the sky; I somehow always found myself walking home and away from Rafe whenever the sun was disappearing.

I knew the general direction to Cedar Heights, but there were so many turns along the way that it’d be impossible for me to remember the specific roads I needed to take.

***

I’d been right. I got lost. Thirty minutes into my walk in the grueling heat and I was already met with a view I’d never seen before. I’d definitely never driven past this block of houses, and the surrounding streets were unfamiliar. Overall, I had no clue where the hell I was. I had no choice but to go back the way I came and try a different route, hoping something might look familiar while I tried to avoid getting mugged.

The sky turned black as nighttime approached. There were no visible stars in the sky due to the heavy pollution in the city. I couldn’t tell how much time had passed when I finally got to the major intersection just blocks from my house. My feet ached and I shivered from the chill, bits of dew collecting on my socks as I treaded through grass.

The main issue arose when I saw the sun peek out from behind the clouds to the east. My lack of sense of direction really came to bite me in the ass. I couldn’t say I was particularly surprised. It didn’t feel like I’d been out all night—my endless thoughts had this strange way of making time pass.

If the sun was up, then it was probably just before five a.m. Even though I was frustrated and upset that Rafe had left me to find my way home, I couldn’t find it in me to be mad at him. It was my fault anyway. Every time I went the wrong way, I decided to backtrack, which added several unnecessary hours to the trek.

He probably assumed I’d be able to catch a ride from one of the guys or even my brother. Maybe he thought I could take the bus, and there was also the possibility that he’d forgotten that I had the sense of direction of a newborn baby that hadn’t even opened its eyes.

If I was going to lose my best friend, I’d rather it be from something like this than going through the pain of him finding out I was gay, let alone in love with him.

Would he call me a creep? Disgusting? Would Rafe be repulsed and dread the fact that he’d changed in front of me?

The natural light made my fatigued eyes burn. Alex’s car wasn’t in the driveway, so I assumed he’d stayed out again. No complaints here.

I made my way up the stairs sluggishly, tossing my bags into the corner of my room and throwing all of my clothes into my laundry basket. I lumbered into my bathroom with a fresh towel wrapped around my waist.

It was like it was calling my name, that drawer.

What was the point? I’d pushed away the only person keeping me alive.

He hated me… thought I was annoying, nothing but a nuisance.

Do I really have anything left to live for?

What about baseball? No... I played baseball because it was an excuse to stay close to Rafe. I’d lost interest in the sport long ago, around the same time I’d lost interest in everything else that used to make me happy.

Should I just... do it?

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