The sharp ping of the bat echoes through the air and I immediately crouch down in a ready position. Next to home plate, Libby Kemp, the best softball player in our grade—probably in the entire state—throws her bat to the side and sprints toward first base.
I relax the teensiest bit when I see that the ball isn’t heading in my direction, but I still stay alert. That’s my job playing third base. Actually, that’s my job as a part of this team. I have to keep my eye on the ball, whether I’m at bat or in the field. Especially when we’re down two runs at the top of the last inning.
Get her, get her! I mutter under my breath. The hit was a ground ball to first base, and my best friend, Claudia, easily fields the ball and tags the base.
The stands immediately erupt into hoots and hollers. I hear Claudia’s mom doing one of those whistles where she puts both her pointer fingers in her mouth and basically shatters the eardrums of everyone around her. I catch sight of Claudia’s little brother, Jamie, doing his adorable victory dance—the one that looks more like something a chicken would do than anything that would come from a human being. And I imagine my mom up there, cheering and screaming along with everyone else.
There’s no time for me to celebrate, though. No time for me to rest, either. Because after she makes that out, Claudia barely takes time to think before twisting around and whipping the ball across the softball diamond to third base.
That’s where I’m standing, my mouth set, my glove held firmly in front of my chest. The ball barrels toward me, along with the second-base runner, forced by the player behind her to advance to third. It’s all a matter of what’s going to reach the base first.
In a movie, the camera would pan between the runner and the ball, then back again. It would zero in on the expression on my face and show everything else in slow motion—the dust floating through the air, the ice cream– truck guy dropping a Popsicle as he watches the ball zoom across the diamond … even the individual seams of the softball rotating in space.
In reality, I act on instinct.
Claudia throws and before I know it …
The ball lands neatly in my glove. Barely a millisecond later, I reach out and tag the runner.
“Yer out!” the third base referee bellows. (The third base referee being Libby’s dad, who sounds way too disappointed to be making a call for our team. Also, since he has a cold, his bellow sounds more like a frog with a megaphone.)
“Yes!” I pump my fist in the air and try to stifle the massive smile threatening to spread across my face. It’s my first double play all year, but I don’t want to be one of those braggy girls who go around saying how awesome they are at everything. Libby Kemp is like that. Everyone knows that she trained with the All-Star Travel Softball Team last year, because it’s the only thing she’s talked about since. Seriously. I complimented her on her haircut one day and she told me she’d thought about getting that specific haircut during the spring and summer she’d trained with the All-Star team.
“I wasn’t old enough officially, but they still let me go to practices.” Then Libby swished that new haircut over her shoulder. “It was such a relief to practice with older kids.”
I join the rest of the team jogging toward the dugout and give Claudia a high five. “Nice work!”
She shakes her arm out, her face a mix of pain and exhilaration. “Thank God you caught that. I threw the ball so hard my shoulder almost fell off.”
“I … don’t think that’s possible.”
Claudia shoves me. “You know what I mean! But seriously, I think all that extra practice we’ve been doing with your mom is paying off.” She points between me and her, then back again. “We’ve got a connection, Veronica.”
I giggle. “You sound all woo-woo. Have you been getting psychic readings from your aunt again?”
“No. Well, once…” Claudia trails off. “She babysat me and Jamie the other night and I was so annoyed about Mom and Dad thinking I needed a babysitter in sixth grade that Aunt Nina gave me a reading. Usually she says I’m too young to ‘access the grand powers of the universe’ or whatever.” She holds her hands up in air quotes.
“And she said…?”
“That the future is looking bright and the people I love won’t let me down.” Claudia grabs my gloved hand and holds it in the air like I’m a champion boxer. “And see? You came through for me! For us!”
“I did.” My heart is still pounding, but Claudia’s fortune—or her “message from the universe”—makes my stomach drop a bit. It makes my eyes flick toward the stands for the billionth time in the past hour, even as my feet automatically lead me toward the dugout, where the rest of my team is waiting. I’m third in the batting order this last inning, and I know it’s time to shift my focus. We have to score more than two runs to win the game.
But I can’t stop myself from looking for her, even though I know, deep down, that she’s not coming.
She promised she’d make it, though.
“Who are you looking for?” Claudia nudges me in the side as we settle down on the bench inside the dugout.
“Mom.” The word pops out before I can help it. Usually, I’d make something up, like that I thought I saw a dog running by or a cute boy in the stands. (I’m not super into boys yet, but lately the mere mention of cuteness gets Claudia’s attention.)
Claudia would probably have believed me, too. My voice would have been steady and convincing and I would have held eye contact for as long as necessary.
I’m good at sneaky stuff like that. I haven’t always been, but you develop a skill when you’ve been practicing for months: The laughs, the smiles, and the excuses all get better and way more natural.
“Is she okay?” Claudia gets that squinty “Oh, you poor baby, what’s wrong?” look, the one that Aunt Jessie gave me the time Mom totally ruined her Christmas party.
“Fine. Fine,” I hurry to say. I feel like a rock climber who’s accidentally lost her grip while doing something totally stupid. Something totally preventable. I need a safety harness for my mouth.
“Mom’s totally fine. I mean, she practiced with us last night, right?” I think about the three of us after dinner in our backyard, Mom at one end of the yard with a bat while Claudia and I took turns fielding ground balls and fly balls and line drives. Mom was smiley last night. Mom was friendly last night. Mom was … herself last night. I bet it helped that even though it’s only February, it’s been in the sixties all week—perfect softball weather in Georgia!
I sneak a look at the bleachers again, then at the path leading to the parking lot. Maybe she had an emergency meeting at her law firm. Maybe that’s what’s going on—instead of Mom going out to a bar before coming home. Like the last time she didn’t show up.
She promised, though.
She promised she wouldn’t drink after work again.
“Yeah.” Claudia shrugs, the “poor baby” look disappearing from her face. “Okay, cool. Just checking. You looked upset.”
“Me? Nah.” I wave my hands in the air so wildly I probably look like an orchestra conductor and put on my best “Who me? Nothing’s wrong here” face. (Another thing I’m good at now.) “Mom’s good. Just busy at work.”
It’s the truth. Just not the entire truth. (And maybe I’ll manage to convince both Claudia and myself.)
“Claudia! You’re up first!” Coach Robertson waves from his spot in front of the dugout and Claudia jumps to her feet, then grabs her favorite bat.
“Go get ’em.” I give Claudia a thumbs-up and try to brush the dirt off my pants (which is basically an impossible task).
I should get ready, too—take a few practice swings and get my mind back in the game.
I can’t help myself, though. I look back at the stands again, like there’s a super-strength magnet pulling my eyes over there.
Of course Mom’s not there. It’s not like my fairy godmother appeared and granted my wish in the past few seconds. Fairy godmothers can’t change the past, anyway. They can’t change the decisions people make.
Who people are.
Dad’s still the only one there, sitting behind Claudia’s parents and younger brother on the right side of the stands. I wave, but his face is buried in his phone. Even from my spot in this shadowy dugout, I can tell that Dad’s upset. His forehead is furrowed, and he keeps shifting back and forth, like he has ants in his pants.
Or he’s worried about something.
Dad finally looks up and waves, and I paste a smile on my face, even though my stomach feels full of bees and the smile keeps wibbling and wobbling at the edges.
Dad wears a matching fake smile. Anyone looking at us would see a loving father and daughter, connecting across the softball diamond.
“Good job, Veronica!” he mouths.
“Thanks!” I mouth back.
So at least he saw my double play. His phone wasn’t more important than that. That’s something, at least.
But it’s not everything.
Because even though I’m glad my dad is here, and even though the ridiculous-looking neon orange hat he loves so much makes me groan and love him more at the same time, that bit of normalcy isn’t enough.
Maybe I’m selfish to want both my parents here. I know that not everyone on my team has two parents. I know that parents have lives. Parents have to work. Parents have to do all that important grown-up stuff.
Copyright © 2021 by Jen Petro-Roy