“Girl germs,” Billy Smythe sneered. It was a kindergarten taunt, just plain dumb, but his buddies snickered as Billy pulled a bandana out of his back pocket and made a big show of wiping down the bat I had just dropped.
I pulled my cap lower over my forehead and gave Billy my best Evil Eye. He gave me one back.
“Don’t count on a career in comedy, Smythe,” I said.
Billy sneered at me again. Touching his right nostril with his upper lip was his favorite thing to do with his face. But I’d rattled him. Our pitcher tossed a ball so easy it might as well have been underhand; Billy swung. Missed.
“Good! Swing! Billy!” puffed MacKenzie Wheeler, Tiffany Daniels, and Selena Jones, the Three Most Popular Girls in Junior High, as they swung their legs in a complicated cheerleading kick.
“Nice form, kid,” said Coach Foster.
“Did you consider hitting the ball?” I asked.
The coach glowered at me. Billy shot me a look full of razors and knives, and the rest of the team discussed assassination.
I’d been putting up with this abuse for a solid month now. My father and I had moved over to South Highwater last fall, but I’d missed Junior League registration (this town was a little old-fashioned—the information didn’t go out to girls). By the time I signed up, the only spot left was on the Highwater Hardwares. At school I heard rumors. The coach was a badass. Kids would play for a few weeks and then quit. The ones who stayed were there because their truant officers made them.
So I figured they’d be thrilled to have me. I had two Golden Gloves and a spot on last year’s Willamette League All Stars team to prove my ability. But the coach took one look at my sandy hair and my braids and screamed, “Over my dead body!” It took a personal visit from the county sheriff to convince Coach Ronald Foster that there was a girl on his team.
Nothing could be as hard as what I’d gone through lately, though, so I was optimistic. Sure, I trash-talked Billy, but I was going to prove myself to these guys. For three straight weeks I’d been playing my all-time personal best. Two days ago I had three hits and five RBIs. Still . . . no high-fives, not one slap on the back, not even a faint “whoopee” from the dugout. They only had eight players; still they didn’t want me.
One thing kept me psyched: Steven Chauppette, my best friend from third grade was on the team. He’d moved to L.A. two years ago, but this spring, after his parents’ divorce, he and his mother had moved back and settled in South Highwater. With all that unpacking, Steven had missed registration and got stuck on the Hardwares, too. Every time I got discouraged, he was there with a thumbs-up and a smile. He’d walk me home and we’d swap memories about our old team, the Rosewood Grocery Baggers. He said not to worry, the Hardwares were good guys, really, and if I kept on playing so well they’d have to accept me.
But that didn’t happen. Today was proof.
“Coach, I have some team business.” A big kid called Mozzie Meeker struggled across the field towards our pre-game warm-up, waving his hand in the air. Little Blast Neukum hustled along beside him.
Hootie held his pitch and Billy settled the bat on his shoulder. Coach Foster nodded. “What’s up, son?”
Mozzie wriggled happily. He was a soft, flabby kid nick named for his high-pitched, whining mosquito’s voice. “Well, Coach, I was reading the Highwater Junior League Manual last night, and there’s a rule in there that says all members of any team must wear an athletic supporter.”
Foster looked mystified. “Yes,” he agreed. “Are you asking for an inspection, Moz? I think I can trust you boys to know what to put on under your pants.”
Blast snickered. “Oh, you can trust us boys.”
I shot Steven a look. He gazed at Mozzie and Blast, perplexed.
“Oh . . . I see,” Foster said. “I guess what you boys are trying to tell me is that some members of this team—” and here he turned to smile at me for the first time, ever, “—may not be complying with the letter of Highwater Junior League laws and by-laws. Is that correct?”
“Yeeeeee . . . yeeeee . . . .” Mozzie couldn’t even squeeze out a “yes.” Blast collapsed onto Mozzie’s arm and hung there, weak with laughter.
Then I got it. They wanted me to wear one. The hinge on my jaw failed.
“Hey,” Steven said. “That’s not fair!”
Coach Foster smiled. “Sure it is. Rules is rules, kids. Fran Cullers, if you aren’t dressed completely and fully in the uniform required by league rules, I’m afraid that we won’t be able to let you continue to play. Unfortunately, we’ll have to scratch you from the lineup today.” He withdrew the score book from under his arm with a flourish and pulled the pencil from behind his ear.
Billy waved farewell with his bandana.
“I demand to . . . ,” I started. But I couldn’t demand to see the rule book. I knew it from cover to cover. There was a clause requiring an athletic supporter for every team member, but naturally—I mean, considering nature—I thought I was excluded.
It was going to be a long, discouraging summer.
“Okay, so I’ll wear one,” I said, my voice sour. Coach Foster looked disappointed until Billy said, “Gee, Fran, I can’t let you borrow mine. It’s being used. Any of you guys want to lend Fran your jock strap?”
One boy was so overcome he started to hiccup. Two more crumbled to the ground beside Blast, who was now so weak he was lying on the grass laughing. Quoc Nguyen covered his mouth and giggled.
In any other league I would have had the last laugh, because without nine players the Hardwares would have to forfeit. But South Highwater rules let us borrow a player from the other team. He’d be their worst, some guy the Kernels would be happy to dump on us. But just because I’m a girl, the Hardwares would rather have him than me.
“I demand proof that every guy here is wearing a jock strap himself!” I yelled.
“I’ll vouch for the team,” Foster said, grinning.
“Visible proof!” I insisted, but it was useless. I threw down my mitt. Then I pulled off my hat and threw that down, too. I glared at Billy, before roasting Mozzie with a long, burning stare.
“EEEEeeeeeeeee.” He still couldn’t catch his breath.
I stalked away across the diamond. “Hey, it’s our turn to warm up,” complained the pitcher for the Karson Kernels, but I pushed past him. The center fielder stood aside as I marched across the outfield; it wasn’t until I reached the parking lot that the Hardware’s hooting and giggling and gargling and snuffling faded behind me.
I turned the corner of the junior high school and started to run. Down Bryant Avenue to Alder. Down Alder to Division. I smoked around the corner of Center and flamed down the sidewalk, straight through the open door of Davidson Drugs and Sundries.
“Afternoon.” Grey Davidson, old Mr. Davidson’s handsome teenage son, glanced up from the magazine he was reading. He looked at my flushed face. “Can I help you, miss?”
“No,” I choked. “I’m just here to buy something. Something, uh . . . for my brother.” Grey looked at me expectantly. Oh no! I thought, now he’ll want to know if he knows my brother! “Uh, my little brother.” Grey nodded and smiled. “So I’m going to go look at the boy’s stuff,” I said. “Is that okay?”
His green eyes, hedged with thick lashes, stared at me.
“Like, men’s . . . well . . . boy’s . . . underwear.”
“Sure, kid. Aisle six. Towards the back.” He looked down at his magazine. I stood watching him, trying to catch my breath. Grey looked up again. “You’re here to buy, we’re here to sell,” he said, and smiled. “Store motto.”
“Okay.” I walked down the candy aisle and pretended to shop for M&Ms. When I peeked up at him, Grey smiled.
The bell on the front door tinkled. Someone walked in and Grey turned to help. I hurried down the aisle and tiptoed along the back of the store, turned down aisle six and hustled past fields of women’s panties. I sidled over the border into the men’s section. I wasn’t sure what a jock strap looked like, but I was fairly certain I’d know it when I saw it. On the shelf under the briefs and boxer shorts, kind of hidden away-there they were. Small, medium, and large.
I snatched a package from the shelf. Now I was going to die. I crawled up to the front of the store and slid the package onto the counter.
“Your brother’s in Little League?” Grey asked, looking at my uniform.
“Yeah,” I lied.
“And you’re . . . .?”
“Thirteen. I’m in Junior League,” I said, pulling a five-dollar bill out of my pocket; I didn’t dare look up.
“That’s cool,” Grey said and handed me my change. “Go get ’em, kid.”
I bounded out the door and rocketed back to the field. Top of the first, I figured, seeing George Andrews at bat.
“I asked for extra-large but they said there wasn’t a guy in this town man enough to need one,” I snarled as I pulled the jock strap from the bag and waved it at Coach Foster. I was so mad I bit into the package and ripped the plastic off with my teeth; a piece stuck to my tongue. I walked over to the trash can and spit it in. Billy glared at me from second and Mozzie frowned at me from the dugout. Steven was on first, blushing.
“Eye on the pitch,” Foster reminded George, and then he turned and looked me up and down with his killer’s eyes. “You’re up next, Cullers,” he said. “And you’d better be wearing that thing.”
“Oh good,” Billy shouted. “Put it on, Fran!”
“Wearing it,” Coach Foster warned grimly as Mozzie struck out. I strode towards the batter’s box, dangling the cup from its elastic straps in front of me. Halfway to the plate I stopped, turned, and smiled at Foster. I felt like I had in third grade when some kid dared me to peek into the boys’ bathroom and I’d surprised a fifth grader zipping up his pants—like an outlaw.
“What’s going on?” a bewildered Karson Kernel asked behind me.
“Hey, Coach?” I asked. “How do you put this on?”
He glared at me. “Quit holding up the damn game, Cullers.”
The umpire looked sympathetic. “Well kid,” he said, “put your right leg through one loop and your left leg through the other loop and hike the whole affair up around your waist.”
“Oh, c’mon,” Steven’s mother yelled from the bleachers, but everyone ignored her. The Karson Kernels were laughing now, too.
“Fran, Fran, Fran,” Billy sighed. “Now you’ll never get a date.”
“Is this all it takes?” I asked Foster as I lifted the strap behind my head and wound it around my pony tail. I wouldn’t let him take baseball away from me. Life had thrown me some real beanballs lately-fired them straight at my head. Baseball was the one thing I had left.
“Fran . . . ,” Foster warned.
I tied the elastic securely in a big bow, then jammed a batting helmet down over my hair. “Wearing it!”
“That’s not what the rules say!” Foster bellowed.
“The strap is on her body,” the ump said. “Looks legal to me.”
Foster shook the wire backstop in frustration.
“What’s the count?” I asked.
“One out, man on first and second,” the ump said.
I surveyed the Kernels. I knew their pitcher from last year’s state All Stars team; he had no tricks up his sleeve, just a hard straight fast ball. It’d be easy to drive Billy in from second.
But he’d had his chance. He and the Hardwares—they blew it.
I hailed the third baseman. “Ready?” I called. “This one’s yours.” He stared at me suspiciously. I stepped to the plate and shot him another smile. “I’m serious, get ready now.” He still didn’t believe me and almost didn’t catch the easy grounder I smacked his way. He woke up just in time to tag Billy out.
“Now throw it to first!” I suggested. The Karson Kernels stared at me in open-mouthed confusion as I inched in slow-mo towards first base.
Then the pitcher got it. “Double-play!” he screamed at the third baseman. “She’s giving it to us! Throw the ball, man!”
“Franny! What are you doing, Franny?” Steven wailed.
I was destroying the Highwater Hardwares, that’s what.
Excerpted from MY 13TH SEASON by Kristi Roberts.
Copyright © 2005 by Kristi Roberts.
Published in 2010 by Square Fish.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.