So that’s how I wound up here, in the middle of a high-speed bicycle chase through the back alleys and abandoned lots of our town.
I continued pedaling around the curve just past Main. Matty Gibson’s front tire nipped at the threads of my rear tire. If I could evade them for two more blocks I would be able to ghost ride my bike onto the front lawn and make a dash for the safety of my house. I could cut the distance in half by shooting through the alley beside the empty lot.
I angled the handlebars sharply to the right and pedaled into the turn. Gravel crunched under my tires and the frame fishtailed back and forth until I steadied my bicycle and raced down the path. But the Stingers kept pace.
Four bikes hugged the same turn and rumbled up the gravel path, great plumes of dust fanning out like parachutes behind them. Beams of sunlight cut through the poplar canopy and glinted off the metallic bike frames like tiny sparks. I pedaled harder, but with each revolution of my tires it seemed more and more like I was riding through a trail of chilled molasses. I could almost feel the breaths of my teammates on the back of my neck.
The end of the alley was only a few strides forward. My legs were on fire. My chest was tight. And suddenly, without warning, something shot out from behind a bush and skulked across the path. It was brown and small. Its bushy tail flicked and twitched behind it. A squirrel. Of all times to cross paths with one of nature’s most gentle creatures—one that was about to cause me great harm as I swerved to miss the small beast and felt my rear tire slide sideways over rocks and sticks and loose dirt. And then I felt my body leave the bike seat and go airborne. I crashed down on the sharp corner of a rock and bounced and rolled and slipped my way to a stop on a patch of grass. Something warm and wet trickled from both elbows and one of my knees. But I could feel no pain. I had no time to feel anything because the shadows hovered over me like circling vultures.
“Don’t think we’re about to have pity on you just because you fell and got a boo-boo,” Matty said in a low grumble. “You cost us a big game. And things like that don’t go unpunished on this team. Isn’t that right, fellas?” When no one responded, Matty jabbed Billy Gill, our second baseman, in the ribs with his elbow.
“Ohh, uhhh, yeah,” he managed to say. “That’s right, Matty.”
“So what do you have to say for yourself, Walker? Any last words?”
I never expected to have a chance to explain myself, so all I mustered was a weak and shaky, “I’m s-s-sor-ry.”
“Not gonna cut it, Walker.” And then he slugged me in the gut. I felt my insides crawl up into my throat and then I dropped to the ground luck a stuck pig. The muffled laughter of Matty and Billy Gill and the rest of the Stingers danced around me in circles like those stars you always see spinning around the heads of cartoon characters when an Acme anvil smacks them between the eyes. “Oh, and one last thing, Walker. You really suck. You’re a disgrace to the game.”
I didn’t move for a while after the boys hopped on their bikes and sped away, blanketing me in a layer of dust and rock debris. It didn’t matter that Matty had walked the bases loaded, or that Billy had struck out with men on second and third in the top of the fourth, or that Coach had sent Tyler Miller around third with two outs and no chance of beating the throw from center. All that mattered was that I had blundered on the final play of the game and that I always found a way to blunder on the ball field, and that all my teammates hated me and wished I’d never decided to pick up a bat or glove in the first place. All that mattered was that I was alone in the world, just me and my mom and not a single friend from here to the end of the universe.
It had never been like this with Pop-Pop around. He knew how to fix any problem He’d taught me everything: how to build model boats and paint them up to look as seaworthy as any vessel in the British Navy; how to ‘walk the dog’ and ‘shoot the moon’ with my Duncan yo-yo; and how to swing a bat and catch a ball. If there’d been more time, I know he would have done a better job with that last one. But he couldn’t stay.
“Every one of us has to go at some point,” he had told me as he approached the last few moments in this world. “I’ll say hello to your dad for you, Sport.” And just like that, he was gone. It seemed like most of the people I loved were better at finding ways out of my life than into it, even though at times I couldn’t help but feel their presence. Like they were just outside my window, keeping an eye on me. A silly thought, I know, but it helped me to miss them less. I only wish, if they were in fact watching me, that they’d stop goons like Matty Gibson from using my gut as a heavy bag.
By the time I finally picked myself up, dusted myself off, and pushed the Huffy quietly into the garage, the moon was a crescent-shaped outline in the evening sky. The crickets chirped their undying song and the hush of cicadas washed over the treetops like a tide.
Mom was in the kitchen chopping celery and carrots for a stew that was bubbling away on the stove. Stews were Mom’s thing. It was like she’d been put on this planet specifically to throw a million ingredients into a pot and place it over a flame for, like, two thousand hours. Beef stew, chicken stew, rabbit stew with tiny, little peppercorns floating on top—if you could dream it up, she’d probably made a stew out of it. She was basically obsessed. Luckily, she was a good cook or things would be pretty rough.
“What happened to your elbows,” she said without turning her attention from the cutting board. I had been trying to sweep by unnoticed, but there was no fooling Mom. She could probably spot a penny at the bottom of the ocean if she were standing on the bridge of a cruise ship—and that with her eyes closed.
“I fell off my bike,” I said. “Slid on the rocks riding past the vacant lot.”
“The vacant lot?” she asked as she dropped the butcher’s knife on the cutting board and swung around to meet my eyes. “Didn’t I tell you to stay away from there?”
“I don’t want to hear any excuses, young man. Now go wash up for supper.” I didn’t argue.” The last thing I wanted was for my mother to think I was some kind of wuss who got beat up by his own teammates. It was the truth, of course, but I was much more comfortable with the partial truth I’d shared with her. “And don’t get wrapped up in those models,” she continued. “Dinner will be on the table in twenty minutes.”
I cleaned the cuts on my elbows and knees with that thick, yellow medicine moms are always forcing on their kids—the kind that stinks up the room and then makes you jump through the ceiling when it touches an open wound. Then I peeled off my uniform—still relatively clean—and put on my pajamas. Since I’d washed up so quickly, I had a few minutes to glue some guardrails along the port side of the ship I was building.
This one was a merchant’s schooner. It was rounder and wider than many of the pirate ships I’d been building since the start of summer. I liked the portliness of the schooner. I’d be able to slap a few coats of paint on its bottom half to really make it ship-shape. Navy blue seemed the perfect choice, with a broad red stripe outlining the top deck and a crisp, white sail. Pop Pop would have been proud to see his star pupil turning out so many fine vessels, as he’d call them.
Pop Pop and I were best friends. I hate to admit it, but he was my only friend—unless you count teachers and bus drivers and friendly police officers… people who made it their careers to be nice to needy, lonely children like myself. Now it was just me and my boats, and the occasional game of checkers with Mom. That’s why I got so angry at Pop-Pop last summer when he told me he would have to say his permanent goodbyes. The last time we spoke I had stomped on the model we’d been building for weeks and stormed out of the room, leaving a pile of splinters and oozing glue on the carpet behind me. I only wish I could do that day over. To put the last few pieces in place on the demolished model. To toss a few more baseballs with Pop-Pop. To give him a big hug and feel his bushy whiskers tickling my ears one last time. To share a proper goodbye.
I’d never had that chance with Dad, either. If only I could tell them I wasn’t angry anymore and I understood it wasn’t their choice to leave the world when they did. But I knew it was too late for that now.