From: That was Everything: a novel.
So I come in, scoop up the ball, and throw on to first for the last out. Before I can straighten up, I get this Charlie horse between my calf and my heel. It's bad enough I just hit the ground and start grabbing at it. It feels like someone is punching my leg over and over. The trainer comes running out from the third base dugout. It's a new girl I've never seen before. She gets on her knees and tucks her long brown hair behind her ears. Then she pushes my hands out of the way and reaches for my leg with both hands. There's this look of intense, almost hungry, concentration on her face while she's feeling for the knot. Then she squeezes the knot gently--and the pain is gone. I mean completely. I figured I'd have to limp back to the dugout, but it's as if the Charlie horse was never there.
"Hey, thanks," I say.
"No problem," she replies. Her voice is calm and somehow quiet. "You should drink more water."
"Yeah," I say. "It's pretty hot."
She looks at me for a second and then picks up her trainer's kit. "If you think it might come back tonight, keep a bottle of tonic water on your nightstand."
Now it's my turn to give her a look.
"The quinine in the tonic water will counteract the muscle cramps."
I check her eyes to see if she's kidding. They're green and slightly luminescent, like the surf. Then she starts to study me as if she wants to cure all my hidden pains, and I worry I will start blabbing about the side-effects and give it all away. "Really?" I ask.
"Really, really," she answers and then smiles, as I try to remember where I'd heard that comeback before. "Don't try too hard," she says. "Or you'll need some tonic water for your brain."
Speaking of hidden pains and side-effects, it would be pretty easy to paint my father as the jock's dad from The Breakfast Club. I can definitely hear him saying something like, "Do you want to blow your ride, Sport?" He is obsessed with me earning a baseball scholarship to the, quote, college of my choice, unquote--which in my case is UConn. At the same time, he won't be delivering the line about screwing around and getting caught, but that's because he knows nothing. It would be nice if he had some kind of nickname like "Sport" for me--anything other than "You" all the time.
So here's an example. It's Mother's Day and we're trying to have a nice meal at my mom's favorite restaurant, which happens to be the local Thai place. My mom is crazy for Pad Thai, so that's where we go on "her day." It's a real sacrifice for my dad because, as he says, he likes to know what he's eating. And then, as soon as we get our food, he starts making up stories about missing cats in the neighborhood, giving them names and ages and he won't let up until my mother tells him to stop.
Anyways, it's Mother's Day, so I ask my mom about her gardens. She's got some raised beds and greenhouse boxes that she got my dad and me to build for her. So her eyes get all bright and she starts talking about her peppers and tomatoes and how the ones from the greenhouse boxes--which are just old windows on a slanted frame--grew much better than the ones from the store ever did because they weren't forced with chemicals and fertilizers. She's looking at my dad when she says this, as if she's thanking him for all the effort he put in--and as his assistant, I can tell you it was plenty of blood, sweat, and tears for all of us. You'd think he would pick up on that, but no. He's just waiting for her to take a breath or a bite of noodles so he can start in on me.
And when she does, he launches in, asking me how baseball practice is going--not just in general either. He wants a minute-by-minute accounting of everything my coach says and does, what I do and say, and everybody right on down to how many quarts the water boy brings me. Basically, he's got to know about anything that might have some effect on my chances at a scholarship.
"Because you know what you're up against, don't you?" he says without really looking at me. "You play in a summer league, which means by the time you finish your high school career next summer, all the scholarships at the college of your choice will already be gone. That means you can't have your best year when your body is fully developed and you have the best grasp of the game. No, you need to have your best season this year, and it has to be good enough that the coaches at the college of your choice will like what they see at the end of this summer. Good enough to for them to hold a spot for you."
Somehow he thinks I'm going to forget this between the last time he reminded me of it and the next time we happen to be in the same place at the same time. I know the whole speech by heart that evening at the Thai place. Hell, I still know it.
"Well," my mother finally says, "I'm sure Travis is doing everything he can to earn a scholarship. I think he wants it at least as badly as you do."
Even I catch her drift, but not my dad. "You better be doing everything you can," he says.
And that's when I decide there is one more thing that I can do. It's something I've been thinking about for awhile, something that requires a little reading and a little planning ahead because it's not something you want to rush into. But I have it all mapped out. I'll make a trip out to the mall and spend some of the Christmas money my mom has been making me save all these years. I'll have to hit my muscles really hard for four weeks, but that will be enough to make a good first splash, a strong initial impact, a real "hey take a look at me" statement that I can make for the college scouts who always attend our one-day tournament in the middle of June. Then I can ride out an off-cycle of four weeks, playing my usual smart, hustling game to stay on their radar until I make another little trip out to the mall, spend the rest of my Christmas money and hit my muscles hard again toward the end of the season to make the scouts pay attention all over again, get that UConn scholarship, and finally get my dad off my back.
So I bring myself back to the table there at the Thai place, back from the long throws I see myself zipping over to first base and the hard line drives I see myself hitting all over the diamond, and before I can stop myself from doing it, I actually pat my dad's hand. He is so surprised he stops his lecture about hard work and perseverance, another one I can still recite by heart.
"You better be doing everything you can," my dad says again, "because it's your only chance and I don't want you to come back and blame me later."
"That's all right, Sport," I say. "I've got you covered. Let's let mom get back to telling us about her peppers and tomatoes."
And I say this with enough moxie that he just has to stay quiet. My mom swallows her laughter and then she starts back in about her garden.
"I'm going to have jalapenos and those Big Boys for my salsa ..."
I just smile and nod and enjoy my meal for the first time in weeks, months, and years. Damn, I think to myself as I dig in, I should have made up my mind to do this years ago.
So I ask around and learn her name is Astrid. No one knows too much about her. She's one of those quiet kids. Half of the seniors on the team don't know she's in their class. It turns out that she's just an assistant trainer who's filling in until we can find a regular one. After the cramp--the tonic water worked, by the way--I start seeing her everywhere: in the hallways between classes, in the parking lot after school, and at the mall. She is always by herself. I even see her one night at the beach. A bunch of us are out there one Saturday night. We have a bonfire going and a couple of guys from the baseball team are strumming guitars to impress their girlfriends.
Astrid drives up in her orange VW bug--one of those really old ones from the '70s--and I think she's going to join the party, but she doesn't. Instead, she walks down toward the water. I go over to the edge of the bluff, expecting to see her walking along the surf, but she's leaning against the lifeguard chair to strip down to a plain black bathing suit. She seems tall even from a distance. Her arms and legs are long, making her look kind of rangy, but kind of nice too. She tucks her hair into a swim cap and puts on a pair of goggles. Then she just walks right out into the ocean and starts swimming. And it isn't the sidestroke or a lazy backstroke either. She has her face in the water between breaths as she crawls out toward a channel buoy. I watch as the black dot of her swim cap gets smaller and smaller. Then it intersects with the buoy briefly before it starts coming back toward the shore.
But the return trip takes longer than the trip out. 1 start asking people if they know whether the tide is coming in or out. No one knows and when I run back to the bluff, I'm sure she isn't any closer. I run back to the group and ask if anyone knows lifesaving. No one does and Astrid is still a long ways out when I check on her again. Is she tired? Is she swimming against the tide? Is she both tired and going against the tide?
Now I feel responsible, but who could I call? The lifeguards are only there during the day. Do they have someone on call? Then I think about the Coast Guard. How long would it take them to get out there with one of those rescue helicopters? I take another look and now I'm pretty certain she's stalled about a hundred and fifty yards from the shore. I call out to our catcher as he is digging in a deep, red cooler for a beer.
"Graham, give me your phone."
The asshole doesn't look up until he's rummaged for what seems like five minutes. His long blond bangs cover his eyes.
"Your phone!" I yell, but the wind is picking up, and it's starting to feel like electricity is going through my arms.
"Last one!" he smiles and holds up the beer. Lisa, his girlfriend, comes over and they start making out like they're the last ones on earth, and it's their duty to save the future of mankind. Great.
Finally, I have to run down to the water myself. I leave my wallet and keys on the lifeguard chair next to Astrid's towel. I take two steps and then I come back for the life ring that's hanging there. When I get to the water, the tide seems to be coming in, but I'm never really sure which way it's going just by looking at it. About thirty yards in, I trip on a rock and go in nose-first. The salt burns and I choke a little, but I get up and take two more steps--only to roll over another rock and go under again. This time I wrench my right ankle hard enough that I have to gasp.
Then I feel two strong hands gripping my arm and lifting me out of the water.
"What are you doing?" Astrid asks. Her face is relaxed, but the same intensity as before is in her eyes.
"Saving you," I said.
"You better stick to baseball then," she says with a laugh, "because you're not going to earn any scholarships on the swim team."
I look at her for a second, trying to remember if I'd said anything about this being my summer to impress the coaches at the colleges I want to attend.
"Let me see your ankle," she says even before I start to limp toward the shore.
She reaches down for my knee and lifts my leg up, forcing me to put my hand on her shoulder for support. Even though my foot is still in the water, her other hand goes right to the center of the pain. She squeezes it gently and the pain is gone--just like at the ball field the other day.
"What'd you do?" I ask after I'm able to walk freely.
"Not much," Astrid says, looking away. "The pressure relieves the spasms. You might want to have your doctor check that."
Now it's my turn to look away. If I go to the doctor, he might get me to talk about the pain in my foot and that might cause me to reveal how worried I am about the side-effects. I think about them so much I'm afraid that one of these days the words are just going to slip out. "Side-effects of what?" the doctor would ask. And that would be everything.
Although I'm not sure how she is doing it, Astrid is two-for-two in taking away the pain in my ankle, so I decide to make her my new doctor. "It's no big deal," I say. "I'll drink some more tonic water."
She studies me for a second and her eyes seem to fill up with the green of the waves. Then she glances toward the bonfire on the beach.
"Hey," she says, "You guys got anything to eat up there? I'm starving."
The hunger came upon Astrid like a convoluted, suffocating dream she couldn't interpret, and when it happened she went for a swim. She lived near the coast in a two-story cape, so it was a quick drive, and now that she had gotten her driver's license, she could go on her own in the VW. Her stomach growled, though she had eaten first thing when she awoke. She kept energy bars, full of carbs and calories, for mornings like this one. But eating didn't stop the hunger. Nothing did.
Astrid didn't see the world quite like most teenagers. To understand her, you had to understand the hunger, though no one did, least of all her. It wasn't exactly that Astrid was always hungry, though she was, but more like Astrid carried hunger around with her wherever she went. She carried it in her belly, the gnawing empty feeling that food filled for a short period of time but never completely took away. Hunger was a part of her life, a feeling that most people, save the very poor, never feel much of, especially in America, but to Astrid it went with her everywhere, even to the beach this Thursday morning to swim with the rising tide.
The morning sun had washed the sand lavender. She ran to the ocean like a soldier returning to her family. Her feet pulled out wet shadows of themselves. She stretched her legs in front of her and the pounding of her body jolted the hunger, fed it. There were rocks in the sand, and they pricked her skin but she didn't feel it. Her soles were tough and bruised. The morning greeted her above the ocean. The waves roared like the kids in the cafeteria where she hid food under the table for later. They were the voices of all the people in Astrid's life that she had helped in the past and that she would help in the future. She had a gift that was fed by the ocean, by that strange hunger. She saw the waves and the world in the kaleidoscope of watercolors for hurt and healing. Astrid had the power to heal, but only when she was hungry. And there was nothing she could do about it.
She was a young woman with a stringy body and light green eyes. She laughed at after-school cartoons and joke emails. But she knew she was different. When she swam, she thought about the hunger and the people she helped because of it. She thought about all those people, keeping them at the forefront of her latex-capped head, and they were like statues on the prow of a ship, slicing through the water in front of her.
The water was freezing and salty that morning, a morning unlike many others, and her body was already covered in goose-bumps, the light hair pulling at her pores. She wore a cap and a long suit that covered her to her wrists and ankles. She left a towel and jacket by the water's edge. It was cold and rocky and the cliffs were like tomahawks as she plunged headfirst into the dark spray. The rising sun reflected bursts of light on the waves. It was early spring, and a few joggers snaked along the shoreline, but were soon gone. The girl looked hungrily to the setting moon as she dog-paddled her way out a couple hundred yards from shore. She would swim parallel to the shore, with the current, for an hour or so, and then she would be done. She was a warrior. She battled every morning with the ocean, and each day was a draw, and that was just fine with her.
This morning she was thinking of how she had helped her grandmother, who had terminal cancer. She wanted to take away her grandmother's pain, but that was the mysterious thing. She couldn't heal her. Her grandmother had green eyes and silver hair and smelled of the white sharp scent of Ivory soap. Her name was Sylvia. Astrid thought about her as she tried to find a rhythm in the swaying waves. She felt pulled to her right and her left, and her right and her left, and again. She had to find a place in the waves to breathe. She had to find a rhythm, to feel a part of the gentle swelling of water, the repetition of cause and effect, of hurt and healing, of the past knocking into the future. She was fully present in the water, between waves. She swam through the hunger. The hunger found her and her stomach rumbled and she stroked, arms bent high above her head. She held her neck high, and the water stayed out of her goggles. She could see clearly. She could see nothing but darkness and light, of the thin line between sky and water, until suddenly there was no line, and it was all one, and she was swimming through it.
Of course, as Astrid swam, she thought about her day, of normal things like backpacks and braces and lockers and cute boys who smiled at her in the hallway. And there was that one guy who had thought she needed saving, the one guy who, even mistakenly, had reached out to her. She also thought often about food, about what she would eat for lunch, and how she would be able to sneak a candy bar or cheese crackers into her pocket, about drinking a soda during the five-minute break between classes. She would eat as other kids filled the halls up like sand in an hourglass and trickled into doorways before bells rang. She also thought about the spiritual world, though she wasn't always sure what her mother meant by that term or how it fit in with this gift that she held as close to her skin as her suit. She hadn't told anyone about her grandmother, of touching her grandmother's back when the pain radiated off her in a hot yellow light. Something had happened that day when the pain was the worst, and then it was a little better. But she didn't know who to thank for that. Should she thank God, or should she thank the waves that she sliced through each morning? Or was there another reason? Maybe those were the same. Maybe God was the waves and the salt and the spray. She knew that most teenagers didn't think about these things, but that was okay.
For now, she just looked like a girl who liked to swim. To those people walking along the shore--she could see them now, a woman in a white knit hat and a man, and they were her mother's age--she was just an athlete. There was not much to the swim. Just her body and the waves and the sky and the gliding movements of her hands through the water. From far away, it looked like she was doing almost nothing--just as it looked from the outside when she healed someone. She felt her stomach opening as deep and cavernous as the ocean, and suddenly she was thinking about The Nothing. It was in a movie she had seen as a kid, a fantasy movie about a boy who was trying to defeat The Nothing. The boy pointed to the dark, rolling clouds that churned across the land, eating up everything in its wake, and no one could understand or stop it, but they knew that's what it was. They couldn't even speak its name out loud. At that moment, swimming through the dark water, Astrid decided The Nothing was almost the right name for her shadowy, uncontrollable hunger. Almost, but not quite.
The first healing happened before Astrid even knew her grandmother was sick. She was twelve years old, and it was a clear, cloudless night outside of Bristol. Her mother was gone, selling little animals at a local craft fair. She knitted dozens of yarn rabbits wearing suspenders, zebras with top hats, googly-eyed cows with bows on their horns, and carried them to the stall in an old beat-up cardboard suitcase, where she priced them at five dollars apiece. Sage never sold many of the dolls, but she loved making them, so they multiplied and accumulated in their small bungalow on the beach, always popping out of desk drawers and closet shelves when Astrid was looking for something else. That night, Astrid had invited her friend Sara over without asking her mother's permission, and like always, they went out Astrid's window and sneaked onto the narrow shingled pathway of the roof that led to the garage. They would sit outside in the cool night air and talk about boys or their parents. On that night, Sara, who never dressed appropriately for any occasion, had been wearing cheap sandals, and it had rained. When they opened the ledge to climb out, Sara took one step onto the roof and was gone. All Astrid heard was a brief pebbly scrape and then a thud. Sara had hit the pavement below. Astrid felt a gnawing in her chest--then, she would have described the feeling as hunger--and she had quickly, without crying or thinking or looking, gone back out of her bedroom, retracing the steps Sara and she had made just a few minutes earlier, and out the front door. She raced around to the side patio and saw Sara sitting up, a confused expression on her face in the dim light. She looked up at Astrid, and her freckles were dark points in her white skin. Astrid thought they looked like backward stars.
"My leg hurts."
Astrid turned Sara's thin leg so it was facing her. Then she saw it--a light blue glow from the knee--and though she could tell the kneecap was scraped and bruised and most likely dislocated, she knew that the blue light would direct her to the source of the pain. She could hear the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. It was probably her mother, returning with only one or two fewer giraffes. She focused on Sara's leg. She only had a few seconds, but from somewhere, somehow, she knew what she needed to do.
"Do you see that light?" she asked Sara.
"I feel sick," Sara said. Her eyes closed and she squeezed her lips together. A tear rolled down her cheek.
Astrid cupped the kneecap with her palm, and immediately felt a chill that ran all the way up her arm. Slowly, she massaged the kneecap, feeling the blue run out between her fingers like Sara's tears until both were gone, and her friend was healed--no tear, no swelling, no pain. It was as if the knee cap had never moved.
It wasn't her mother returning from the craft fair. As she sat, kneeling down with Sara on the sidewalk, Astrid heard the sound of her grandmother cleaning off the car mats. She had many eccentricities, and one of them was that she always hit the front car mats on the side of the house before she came inside. Tonight was no different. Soon, Astrid heard her footsteps as she walked to the gate and undid the latch.
The gate swung open. Sara was staring at her healed leg.
"My goodness. What happened here?" Sylvia asked.
"Grammy, I didn't think ..." Astrid stammered. She was still in shock herself.
"I fell off the roof. And Astrid made the pain go away." Sara pointed to her knee, which only had a few light scratches on it.
"What?" Astrid's grandmother flipped on the back porch light. From all evidence, Sara looked as though she had just sat down on the concrete, though her hair was mussed and she still had tears drying on her face. Her cheeks were flushed, as though she had been sitting near a campfire.
"Is that true, Astrid? Did Sara fall off the roof?"
Astrid looked away. "Yes." She knew she couldn't lie to her grandmother. "I didn't think it would be slippery. I forgot about the rain!" She put her hand over her face. "I'm so sorry, Sara."
"It's okay. I feel much better now. You healed me! But what did you do?" Sara's face was happy and a little worried. Both she and Astrid's grandmother were looking at her strangely. Astrid and her grandmother looked at each other. She saw something ignite in her grandmother's green eyes, the eyes that her mother always said were so much like her own. But it was gone as quickly as it had flared. Sylvia leaned over to help Sara up.
"Sara, I think it would be best if you went on home. You are a very lucky girl not to have gotten hurt from the fall"--she looked at Sara pointedly--"and I would advise you to learn from this lesson to be more careful. Roofs and little girls don't mix."
Sara turned and slowly walked out the back gate that led to the driveway. She stopped and turned, and Astrid and Sara looked at each other. Then Sara left.
"Astrid, let's go in the house now," Sylvia said. She pushed open the back door.
Astrid stepped through and sat down at the kitchen table. She assumed her grandmother would follow her lead, but Sylvia took off her coat and made her way across the living room to her bedroom.
"Grammy, what happened? There was this blue light, and ..."
Astrid's grandmother turned, and, strangely, her lips trembled. Astrid couldn't tell if she was happy or sad.
"I don't know. It's late, dear. We'll talk about it another time." She had gone in her room and closed the door. The next morning came and went, and her grandmother didn't bring it up. Astrid convinced herself she had imagined the blue light. It was the last time Sara and Astrid ever played together, and the next day when Sara came over to return Astrid's goggles, she said, "My mom doesn't think we should hang out anymore. She thinks you're weird." With those few words, Astrid stopped telling people about her gift for a long, long time.
She had been swimming for about an hour, not moving too far along the shore, for the current was pretty strong, and she wasn't feeling overly ambitious. She had actually been thinking about her run-in with Travis, the cute boy who had been dehydrated on the field the other day. He was an idiot, of course, one of those guys who thought that sports and competition was everything. But there had been something in his eyes, an understanding of sorrow that she knew even he didn't know about. She suspected that he had seen the hunger. And she was thinking about Travis and she was watching the couple walking down the shore, and suddenly the man was lying down, and the woman was leaning over him. And the woman was turning and yelling, and though she couldn't hear what the woman with the white hat was saying, Astrid knew that she had to help. The dark clouds of the Nothing were churning in her abdomen, telling her that something was wrong and that she had to at least try to help.
Astrid turned toward the shore and waited for a wave to sweep her forward. She tucked her chin to her chest and clasped her arms above her in the streamlined position. Then she waited for a wave to pick her up, and she dove down and kicked as hard as she could. She felt the surge. She was carried toward shore underneath the blackness. It was cold and loud and she wondered if she was even going to get there in time. But then the sand was there in her face, and she could put her hands down in to the grit and push herself up. There was a strong pull at her ankles, but she braced herself like a person getting off a roller coaster. She swayed a little and noticed that the sun had risen a bit, but it was still early. She surveyed the sand and headed out of the surf toward the couple. She picked up her jacket where she had left it. A pink mist was rising off of her as she ran, and she could see that the man was kneeling in the sand, leaning over as if he would throw up.
Astrid ran to him. She could see he was in pain. He had ears like lanterns. They radiated a bluish heat. He was panting softly and groaning. His eyes were blinking rapidly, and one side of his mouth drooped.
"El ... e ... phant," he slurred. He was trying to stand by pulling on his wife's coat.
"Ask if he can see you," she said to his wife in the hat. "We have to get him to lie down."
"He grabbed his arm," the woman said, as they eased him down, and pulled his legs out straight. "It's a heart attack."
"I don't think so," Astrid said. She could feel the salt drying tight on her hands as she placed them on the man's carotid artery. He had a faint pulse.
"Don't touch him," the woman said. She tried to push Astrid's hand away, but Astrid locked her arms as she cupped his ears. The blue light filled her hands but didn't escape. She knew that somehow she had to keep the blue light in. Her hands glowed for a few seconds, then the light faded. The woman leaned over him.
"Richard. Richard. Get up and let's go home now."
Placing one hand on his forehead, Astrid pulled the phone from her jacket and gave the dispatcher directions to the beach. She could hear her stomach growling. The Nothing would help her know what to do.
"I'm a trainer at my high school," she said.
"Yeah, so?" the woman said. "What in the hell good does that do?"
"Did he have a headache?" Astrid asked, her face flushing. She could feel warmth coming from her fingers and she pressed her palm to the man's forehead. The woman was in shock. She sat down on the sand with a thump.
"Do you have any aspirin?" Astrid asked, leaning down and pronouncing the syllables clearly.
"No," she finally answered. "What are you doing?"
"He may be having a stroke," Astrid said. Her hair was dripping in cold tangles around her face. She was starting to wonder if she had just imagined the scenes with her grandmother and the boy on the field. She would have to do it. She stuck her fingers into the man's ears. His pain filled her and seemed to be transferring onto her hands. She knew that it was weird to even think that, to imagine that powers like that even existed anymore, healers, that maybe she was a witch doctor in a previous life or a medicine woman. She wondered why this gift would be transferred to her now, when her life was so boring and normal and teenage. She went to her classes. She did her chores. She tried to make friends. She swam. But maybe she could learn something more about the hunger.
The man with the lantern ears was breathing a bit easier. His eyes were turning from gray to brown and his skin wasn't so white. He blinked, and his eye no longer drooped on the right side.
"Let me up," he said.
Astrid could hear sirens echoing off the cliff walls. She was going to be late for school.
"You should stay down," she said. "I have to go."
The woman was frowning at her.
"What did you do to him?"
"I have to go," Astrid said. She could see the paramedics making their way down the sand with a stretcher. They were wearing red. Everything would be okay.
She stood up quickly as they approached and started walking in the opposite direction toward her car. The woman in white yelled, "Wait!" but then she turned back to her husband. The next time she remembered the strange girl who had come from the sea, the beach was empty.
When Astrid got home, her mother, Sage, was waiting in the kitchen. There was a macrame owl hanging above the stove where she flipped a pancake on a hot burner.
"Sorry I'm late," said Astrid,
"No worries, honey," her mom said. "Are you going to school today?" Like it was a choice. Astrid's mom was the last of the hippies, and she had settled on the east coast of all places.
Astrid nodded. "There's a baseball tournament after school, but it's in town, so I should be home before eight."
"Breakfast?" her mom asked, smiling. She knew Astrid never turned down food.
"I'm starving," Astrid replied, smiling back. She wouldn't tell her mom about the stroke victim and his wife. What would she say? It would sound like a script from a bad movie. She took a quick, hot shower and sat down to her mother's breakfast. She concentrated on pouring the maple syrup. She remembered the man's ears again, the pink whorls of flesh perfectly formed like the inside of a seashell she had once found halfway buried in the sand.
So when I get to the tournament that afternoon in the middle of June, Astrid's already there and she's more distracted than ever. She's got her assistant trainer's kit and she's ready to go, but the look in her eyes is miles and miles away.
"Hey," I say, "the seltzer water helped."
"Huh?" she says. It seems to take her a moment to recognize me. When she does, a little smile comes to her lips. "That's good. Make sure you drink plenty of water today."
"All right," I say, "you're the doctor."
I mean this to be funny, but she frowns and gives me a searching look.
"Should I forget about asking you to buy me a six-pack of Gatorade then?" I ask, hoping to make her laugh because I like her better when she isn't so serious.
That does it, even though it's a little forced. The smile comes back, bigger than before.
"Save your money," she says, "and buy yourself a brain."
With anyone else, I might be insulted by that remark, but somehow I know she's mostly kidding and the rest is because she cares. Usually, I'm not one to be tuned into things like that. Around Astrid, though, I tend to pick up on what she means better.
"What would I do with one of those?" I ask. "Coach says I only hurt the team when I think."
When Astrid laughs, it's like a spring day in the middle of January and it almost makes me want to chuck baseball and go into stand-up comedy.
"You stole that from somebody," she says.
"Yeah," I say, "and that somebody stole it from somebody else all the way back to Abner Doubleday."
"Who really didn't invent baseball," she says.
Before I can be impressed with Astrid's knowledge, Coach comes up.
"Hey Perfessor," he says, "history class is over. Get your butt on the field for warm-ups."
It's our annual one-day tournament with the three closest schools in our conference. The winners of the first two games meet in the championship game, which is played under the lights. It's win and play again, and if you lose in the first game, it makes for a long day of watching from the bleachers. That's what happened to us the year before and, let me tell you, it's pretty embarrassing to wander around your own park for four hours while your arch rivals are still playing on your field. So we're determined not to let it happen again. Plus I have reason to believe there are college scouts in the stands, making me really want to have a good day.
So we go through the usual pre-game stuff: stretch this, warm up that. Batting practice is okay--when you are actually hitting. Standing around while everyone else takes his turn is hell. Same with infield practice. I'm okay when it's coming to me. The rest of the time I'm in agony. It's all part of the game, of course, but it isn't the game, so I don't have any time for it. Plus it's also the time the coaches feel compelled to hammer at everything you do--or don't do. And you have to listen, along with everyone else in the stands. They hammer at you during the game too, but it's easier to ignore them then.
I am just into a down cycle but I am still feeling really strong. I actually have to take a little off my throws from third to keep from knocking the first baseman's mitt off his hand. And I am absolutely pounding the ball hard enough to dent it. I am batting a cool .600 with three doubles, a triple, and two homeruns. When anyone asks I say I've been hitting everything pretty hard. They think I'm talking about the ball or the weights and I let them.
Then comes the first pitch and I'm into the game: on my toes for every delivery, paying attention to where the catcher sets up and how the pitcher is gripping the ball in his glove. And I do all this stuff without thinking because it's instinct. When the ball comes to me, my muscles take over. Kingston's lead-off hitter squares around to bunt and it's charge, reach, glove, grip, and throw. Only this time there are two differences: one is that my arm is strong enough to get the runner on that kind of play for the first time and the other is that I feel a tug just above the back of my shoe on my right foot. But this is baseball, so I make sure of the out and then I think about the heel. There is a bit of pain and I glance over toward our dugout. Astrid is taking a power bar out of her kit. "So that's what she keeps in there," I think. Before the next pitch, I make a mental note to tease her about it between innings.
The next two hitters go quietly--strike out and pop fly behind second if I remember correctly. Astrid is giving me a funny look when I come into the dugout. With the power bar wrapper still in her palm, she points toward my lower leg.
"Are you okay?" she asks. "Looked like there was a little hitch when you came in for that bunt."
"Hitch?" I ask. "I ain't got no stinking hitch."
She frowns again. I am hoping for another laugh, so I try even harder.
"The only hitch I got is for my trailer," I say.
"All right," she says quietly. "Just checking."
I point toward her trainer's kit. "Do you have anything else in there besides power bars?"
This doesn't get the desired response either. The guys on the team think it's funny, but Astrid just pushes the kit under the bench with her heel. Her cheeks go red, and I notice, with a similar surge of surprise, that she is almost shy when other ballplayers are around--and not nearly as sharp with her replies.
The pain is back when I walk out to hit. It's there when I kneel in the on-deck circle. And I have to resist the urge to grab at my heel when I hit a ball so hard that it caroms off the fence right to the center fielder, forcing me to slam on the brakes after rounding first base. I feel it again when the next hitter singles into short right and it's still there when I round second. It barks at me harder than ever when I break for home on a passed ball. But I clap my hands as I come up out of my slide and yell for the rest of the team to follow my lead. After the high fives and the helmet slaps, Astrid comes up and wants to take a look at my heel.
"It's bothering you, isn't it?" she asks.
"No," I say. "It's just a twinge."
"It's probably some tendonitis," she says. "Or maybe it could be from taking a strong antibiotic."
"I was taking one earlier in the year," I say, as a big group of guys start to gather around us, "but I don't see how that matters."
Astrid gets a little shy when she realizes everyone is listening to her. "Strong antibiotics can weaken tendons," she says, "at least that's what I've been reading."
"I'll keep an eye on it," I say, "and let you know if it gets worse."
And that pretty much shuts her up. Just in time too, since Coach comes over right afterwards to tell me to stay on my toes in case they try another bunt.
As I sit there in the dugout, I think about how I've been on my toes since Mother's day and my little visit to the guy I met at the health food store in the mall. And I think about how I've been sleeping deeply because of all the heavy workouts and the sneaking around. Sometimes I'll wake up and have no idea where I am and I can't feel my arms. Cold white light filters in over the tops of the curtains above my head, but that doesn't help much. When I try to sit up, I become aware of the dead weight of my arms, followed by sickening jolts of pain and a sense of fear that I'm experiencing some kind of rare side-effect they don't tell you about. Then the reality of what I have been doing to myself comes flooding back. This is my life for the last couple months and there is no way out of it. That's usually when the urge to use the bathroom hits, forcing me to think about navigating my way through the dark with tingling arms. By this point my heart is racing and my mouth is dry and I'm pretty sure I won't be able to get through the next two minutes, let alone the next two months. I want to cry out, even though I know it wouldn't do me any good. My dad wouldn't do anything more than yell at me to turn on my light. My mom might actually get up and try to help me--and somehow the thought of that is even worse.
They never say anything about the panic attacks in health class. The warnings about steroids are all about the side effects: liver damage and kidney failure and shrinking testicles, male breast development and mood swings--but nothing about the feeling of being trapped inside a secret where every twinge makes you worry. The funny thing--if you want to think of it that way--is that the stick was the easiest part if you can close your eyes and forget the needle is six inches long and the point is the size of a pencil lead. On any given day while I was in the middle of a cycle, I'd finish my breakfast, put my dishes in the sink, and tell my mom I was going upstairs to do some reading for world history. The bag from the guy at the health food store is in the box that holds my baseball cards. I pull down my wind pants and use an alcohol wipe to clean the area. The guy at the mall didn't say anything about using an alcohol wipe, but I was paying attention in health class. I fill the disposable syringe like he showed me. I hesitate for a second and then think of a kid with diabetes giving himself insulin shots every day and then stab away. The pain isn't so much. What surprises me is the amount of resistance once it goes in. I imagine hitting bone, but I figure there would be a lot more pain in that case, so I push the plunger and feel a cool drip spreading from the tip of the needle. Pulling it out actually hurts a bit worse because there's a tearing sensation, which they say is the reason for scar tissue. Then it's a matter of bending the needle in half with a pair of pliers and wrapping the syringe in an old sock. I laugh at myself for being such a considerate drug-user.
Soon the whole process is just another part of my daily routine. I pick the time when my mom is least likely to feel the need to come upstairs and check on me. It is almost too easy. I don't even have to look away and close my eyes for the stick after awhile. Hell, I think to myself as I watch the inning unfold in front of me, I could keep making my little visits out to the mall and keep doing four-week cycles for football season. Other than the weird dreams where both of my arms have been cut off, I have slight mood swings on occasion, but no shrinkage and no breast development--as far as I can tell through periodic checks in the shower. There is no mistaking the strength from the new muscle mass and overall sense that I am doing everything I can to succeed.
That's the thing about baseball. You're only as good as your last play. In other words, you're never there, you never arrive to where you can say "that's enough"--unless you're shooting steroids in your gluteus maximus. Baseball isn't the only thing like that, but baseball is what I know. It makes you think you're never quite good enough. You might be the best player in your school and maybe the best player in your conference, but somehow that's not enough--especially if you're a late bloomer, like me. In that case you need college to continue to develop and maybe grow six inches and put on twenty-five pounds of muscle so you can get drafted a few years down the road. Until then, you need an edge. Plain and simple. And you aren't the first to find one and you won't be the last. When the college scouts are in town for the tournament, you can't let a little tendonitis stop you.
And I don't. I go two for three plus a walk, two runs scored, and a run batted in for the first game, starting the winning rally with a lead-off double in the bottom of the seventh. Coming around third to score that tying run, I slip because the pain is there again. It's a definite grab at the back of my ankle, but it's not enough to keep me from using the championship game to prove to the scouts that the first game wasn't a fluke. It is enough, however, that Astrid insists on taking a look at it after the game. How she knows when no one else has any idea it's bothering me is a mystery. We have to clear out of the dugout for the second game, so she leads me over to the end of the bleachers. Some of the guys are giving me a hard time--you know, the usual guy thing. Astrid doesn't pay any attention to them. She points toward a bench behind the grandstand and then tells me to put my foot on the seat.
"I've been drinking lots of water," I say. "In fact, I need to--"
She cuts me off by squeezing my heel. I inhale sharply and take my foot away.
"That doesn't look like nothing to me," she says in her quiet way.
"It only hurts when you squeeze it like that," I say.
"And when you kneel in the on-deck circle. And when you run the bases," Astrid adds.
"It's not enough to keep me from playing," I say, glancing up at the stands to see if anyone--especially one of the college scouts--is watching.
"Let me see it again," she says. "I won't squeeze it." When I am slow to respond, she says, "I promise."
This time she reaches toward my heel with both hands. Her touch is cool and whisper light. I feel the pain rise out of my heel and go into her fingers. In that instant, I get a pang of empty sadness that reminds me how I've been waking up feeling lost and meaningless every morning since my off-cycle started, like days when I don't have practice or a game--except this feeling is a hundred times worse. I cringe, but then all of the pain is gone, along with the feeling of being blown away.
"I can wrap it for you," she says. "It might not protect you, but it will remind you to take it easy on that foot in the second game."
"No need," I say. "I mean, thanks, you cured it."
"I don't know about that," she says. "I just massaged away the pain momentarily. You could still land on it wrong or twist it somehow."
"I'll stay off it between games," I say. "It'll be all right by the first pitch."
"I don't know," she says. "I'd really like to wrap it."
But I'm already putting my shoe back on. "I'm all set," I say.
I do stay off it between games. And Astrid keeps an eye on me just to make sure.
The team from our rival school wins their game, setting up a real grudge match for the championship. It is set up to be the kind of game that you go all out for and I smile as I take my position at third because I couldn't have scripted it any better if I had written it myself. Their lead-off man is even speedier than the one from the opener. As he is getting set in the batter's box, I glance into the dugout and see Astrid grab two power bars from her kit. I make a note to tease her later about being a two-fisted eater.
The bunt is a beauty--right along the dirt cut-out, hugging the chalk line. You couldn't roll it out there any better. I know right away that it isn't going to spin foul and that my only chance is to bare-hand it and make a hard throw--a throw I know I have the strength for now. I know all of this before I make my first move.
Unfortunately, it is also my only move.
I push off with my right foot to charge in. There is a jarring, grinding sensation above my heel, like someone just jumped on it in the hallway to give me a flat tire. There is a thumping noise that 1 feel in my stomach, making me want to throw up. The pain is white and hot across my eyes, even though they're open. Then I wake up on the ground. Astrid is kneeling next to me. Both of her hands are on my lower leg.
"I'm so sorry," she says.
I follow her gaze to where my calf muscle is rolling itself up toward the back of my knee like a window shade.
Without looking toward the stands, I know the college scouts are glancing at their watches and drawing big heavy lines across their notes. And that's when the pain really hits.