A few years ago, I had the pleasure of running into an old educator friend of mine who suggested my students might enjoy reading The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. I’d never heard of the book before, and came to learn it is composed completely of short stories by some of the most well-known children’s and YA authors on the planet. Even Stephen King and his wife Tabitha have bylines in this book. The illustrious Chris Van Allsburg is the editor, and he has a story of his own inside as well.
But the who’s who list of contributing authors isn’t what got me excited about the book, and it wasn’t even the fact that I’d been looking for a book of short stories to expose to my students (since the short story is becoming more and more of a lost art form).
What excited me about the book was the legend behind the whole thing. Supposedly (and I’m sure most of this is hype to boost book sales, and I don’t care), a mysterious figure once approached a well-known publisher with a pile of hand-drawings, all of which he claimed to have used as inspiration to write a set of corresponding stories. The publisher found the artwork mesmerizing, as you will too once you see the book itself. He requested to see the mysterious man’s written work, but the man did not have the pages with him. The publisher told the man to bring them by the following day and he decided to hold on to the man’s drawings until then. Long story short, the mysterious man never returned and the famous publisher was left with a pile of expertly-drawn sketches without any stories to print with them.
The drawings sat in a slush pile for years until Van Allsburg uncovered them and handed them out to his writer friends to complete the stories that would eventually grow from the vivid artwork.
I’ve fallen in love with both the stories and the artwork in this book, and I definitely recommend giving it a read when you have a chance. Heck, I hope you like it so much it inspires you to do what I did, simply for fun. I selected one of my favorite illustrations from the book (pictured above) and decided to give it my own twist. Over the next few weeks, I will post the story that came out of my inspiration in parts. I hope you’ll come back and read them all. Here’s the first installment:
ANOTHER RAY OF SUNSHINE
The dotted lines on Pine Street whirred past as I cranked the Huffy to its top speed. I rushed through the busy intersection at Main, and leaned into the steep curve that wound its way toward home.
I maneuvered through traffic, around trash cans, down back alleyways. They were still gaining on me—the Stingers, my teammates. I only call them “teammates” because we happen to wear the same blue and gold uniforms with pinstriped pants and high stirrups. We definitely don’t share the same interests or dreams, and certainly not the same skills on a baseball diamond. To them, I wasn’t even fit to be called a ballplayer. I was a loser. A scrub. A choke artist of the highest order.
Like today’s game. It was all tied up in the bottom of the ninth. I’d been riding the pine so long my legs were numb and the bottoms of my feet were tingling with a million tiny pinpricks. We were matched up against a team called the Molar Maniacs. There were in first place and had beaten the stuffing out of us three times already. My teammates acted kind of funny every time we played them. I don’t know. Maybe they all had their braces tightened by Dr. Bomze in town. Maybe they were tired of hearing the good dentist brag about the team he sponsored. The same team with which proudly papered—in an arsenal of 8’x10” glossy photos—the drab walls of his waiting room.
Today, my teammates had kept the score close, a small miracle I had barely noticed from my cozy nook on the bench. Somewhere around the sixth inning I figured there was a better chance of the field catching fire—the entire field—than of my cracking the lineup. See, Coach rarely found my participation to be a necessary part of winning any game, especially the close ones. But suddenly I heard him bark from the corner of the dugout, “Hey Walker, take an inning in right.”
“Sir?” I asked when I fully registered his statement.
“I said, get your butt out to right field.”
Great, I thought. That’s all I needed. Like I didn’t have enough labels at school. Why not add another? How about goat? Or failure? Or wuss? All of them would apply if the ball somehow found itself on a lazy, driving arc toward my position.
I smashed the blue cap over my tangle of brown hair and wedged a few dissenting locks from behind my ear under the sweatband. Then I charged out to the farthest recesses of right field like I knew what I was doing. And I did—but only in theory.
Matty Gibson was on the hill. He was a tall string bean with an uneven buzz-cut that seemed the result of a grisly collision between a porcelain bowl, a dull razor, and his head. With a haircut like his, I’d have sunk even lower on the social totem pole at school. But it worked for Matty. Maybe it was because he was the only boy in sixth grade whose eyes were at the same level as Mr. Brown’s, our principal. Or, maybe it was because Matty rarely waited around for opinions before doling out a quick slap to the back of the head or a well-placed punch to the gut. Or, maybe it was because he threw a wicked fastball that, from time to time, escaped his control and tracked its way toward the heads of opponents like a heat-seeking missile. Whatever it was that allowed a kid with a hideous head of hair to lord over the rest of us like an unwelcomed tyrant I couldn’t tell you, but Matty’s reign had never been in question.
I felt pretty good about having Matty on the mound. Not because I respected him—lord knows I’d taken so much abuse from the kid over the years I probably wouldn’t hand him a glass of water if he spontaneously burst into flames. But the kid could throw a baseball better than anyone I’d ever seen that wasn’t doing it for money. With him mowing down batters, the chance of a ball coming my way was slim.
Matty sent the first two batters of the inning straight back to the bench in six pitches, all of them strikes. Things were bending in my favor. If I was lucky, I’d be able to stay hidden behind the infielders and the dandelions, under the invisibility cloak that is right field. But possessing luck had never been one of my strengths, unless you count the bad.
It started with a wild pitch uncorked from Matty’s left hand. The ball scuffed the very tip of the webbing on the catcher’s mitt and skipped threes times before crashing against the backstop. Ball one. Then came another. And another. And another. Matty Gibson had lost his way, and suddenly there were opposing runners bouncing off of first, second, and third bases.
And then it happened.
Matty finally threw a strike. It hovered across the plate at belt’s height and, even from the deepest pastures of right field, I could see the batter’s eyes widen like a cartoon character’s. The bat sliced through the strike zone and CRACK! the familiar melody of our pastime set my heart to rattling around in my chest like a pinball. A heavy shadow cast down upon my position as the ball ascended into the clouds and eclipsed the fat, yellow sun. I took two awkward steps toward the infield and felt my stomach drop to my knees.
Then I realized I should have done the opposite. I staggered as I tried to turn and run toward the fence. My rubber spikes squeaked against the damp grass. The laces of my left shoe caught on the spike of my right and I felt gravity taking over. I crashed chest-first into the outfield turf and lay there in full belly-flop formation. Then I heard a dull thud on the grass a few feet beyond me. An ear-splitting and synchronized hush rang out from the stands. A few of my teammates groaned, and I knew the ball had just dropped and the Molar Maniacs were busy rounding the bases as I tried to catch my breath.
The game was over. The Molar Maniacs had bested us once again. Matty Gibson would not be happy, a fact he confirmed by aiming an ogre-like glare at me while Coach tried to cheer up the group with a post-game pep talk.
“Don’t let it bother you, Walker,” he said as I threw my glove and cap in my bag. “You have to take it in stri—“ but I didn’t stick around to hear the end of his statement. I thought it was much more conducive to my health if I hopped on my bike and got a head start on Matty and his group of toadies. They were like a pack of starving wolves that would seek me out and hunt me like a wounded deer.