The 2020 Annual
Excerpted from The 2020 Annual by the Elizabeth River Writers
The Dead Ball by Jay Waitkus
JULIAN Williams bounded past the shrubbery encircling Mrs. Altman's yard, hopped his parents' fence, and raced inside through the screen door. Heading straight for the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator, pulled out a bottle of lemonade, and perched himself on the small step stool next to the counter. He looked through the cupboard, retrieved his favorite glass, and filled it to the brim, gulping down the contents without coming up for air. He filled the glass a second time and began drinking again, completely oblivious to his mother, who stood there watching him from the living room with a smile across her face.
"That's a whole gallon," she said. "I hope you're not planning on drinking it all."
Julian laughed as he looked toward her.
"Baseball," he said breathlessly, between three more gulps. "Big game over at Dwyer's Field."
It was early July in Cedars' Grove, and the blazing sun had settled high over the arid, cloudless sky for most of the week.
"Dwyer's Field?" the woman asked. "Is that where you and your brother have been all afternoon?"
"Good Lord, Julian, it must be ninety-five degrees out there."
"Yeah, like I said, baseball weather."
She rolled her eyes.
"Why aren't you?"
"It's hot out there," he said.
"We were almost done anyway. And besides, there was something that — something happened, that's all. I just needed a break."
"It was nothing."
"It was nothing, I swear."
"Well, good. Then you won't mind telling me about it."
Julian's expression was one of concern, with a hint of trepidation.
"Julian?" his mother beckoned, her normally reserved demeanor now sounding a little strained.
"Nicky got hurt."
"How? What happened to him?"
"He's fine, don't worry."
"Julian, what happened?"
"It wasn't my fault. It was just an accident, that's all."
"When you were playing?"
"I think you'd better tell me."
"It was no big deal," he insisted. "I was batting, right? Nicky was at shortstop. Mark was pitching. He threw a fastball and I hit it to Nicky."
"It was a line drive."
"What's a line drive?"
"See, Mom, you don't even know what I'm talking about."
"A line drive. You know, a ball hit in the air, only real fast and low."
"And you hit one to Nicky?"
"No, of course not. I just swung at Mark's pitch. I was trying for a homer. I didn't mean to hit it like that."
"And did he catch it?"
"It hit him in the head."
"No, he's fine. I mean, I wasn't sure for a minute. He went down awful hard. But he got up again. He's all-right, honest."
"Did he go home?" she asked.
"Yeah. His mom checked him out. He came back an hour later. She wouldn't let him play anymore today, though. He just sat and watched the rest of the game."
"Is this a normal part of baseball?"
"Well, not usually, but yeah, it can happen."
"Am I safe in assuming your father knows about such things?"
"Well, sure. Dad played in high school, right?"
"Yes, he did."
"Didn't you ever go watch him?"
"I might have caught an inning or two. Sewing club was more my speed. But I never saw anything like what you're describing. I never thought of baseball as all that dangerous."
"It's not dangerous. Nicky's fine. Really."
"Except for the lump on his head."
"Are you gonna ground me?"
"For what? You said it was an accident."
"Well, of course I'm not going to ground you," she said. "I may ground your father when he gets home from work, though."
"Can you do that?" the boy asked with a laugh.
"You might be surprised," she said.
"Why would you want to ground Dad?"
"For not telling me how dangerous baseball is."
"You're not going to make us quit, are you?"
"I didn't say that. But clearly it's time I got a little more informed."
"It's just a sandlot game, Mom. It's no big deal."
"Uh-huh. If it's no big deal, why were you so reluctant to tell me what happened?"
"I wanted to tell you. David said I shouldn't."
"Oh, did he now?"
"He said you'd be freaked out."
"He wasn't wrong. I think I'll have a word with him, too. When's he coming back?"
"It shouldn't be too long. They were just starting the top of the ninth. That's —"
"The last inning. That much I know. So were you winning?"
"David's side was beating us 13-9."
"You're playing against each other?"
"Yeah. Fifth graders versus fourth graders."
"Seems a little unfair for you."
"Well, your brother's a little bigger than you are."
"Not gonna let that stop me," he said. "You know, it's really too bad about that play with Nicky."
"I should say so."
"No, not about him getting hit."
"No, I mean, of course I didn't want him to get hit. What I meant is, it could have cost us the game."
"Why is that?"
"We had two runners on base. And Nicky never caught the ball."
"Except with his head."
"Right. But that doesn't count. You got to catch it in your glove. It would have been a hit. It could have loaded up the bases. But when he went down, the whole game just stopped. I never ran to first, and no-one fielded the ball. We all just ran over to check on Nicky."
"I would hope so."
"Yeah, but it wrecked the play. Once Nicky got up we realized it. David said it's called a dead ball. Since we didn't know what would have happened, we did a do-over of my at-bat."
"And did you get on base?"
"No, I popped up to short. That was the last out of the inning. We never got any more runs. At least not that I know of. Unless they're getting some more now."
"Well, finish your lemonade," she said, with a smile. "And go wash up when you're done. You're kind of dusty."
"I slid into home plate in the third."
Julian's mother left the room, and he poured himself another glass. He sat down at the kitchen table, sipping slowly now, his thirst finally abating. He was still sitting there half an hour later when his brother walked in, carrying a bat in one hand and a catcher's mitt in the other.
"You left your glove on the bench, Julian," the older boy said, sounding mildly annoyed.
"Here," David replied, tossing the glove onto the table.
"Is the game over?"
"Don't we always?"
"Well, today we did. You got one more run, but that was it."
"We'll get you tomorrow."
All of a sudden, though, David's expression turned serious, almost grave.
"Julian, I —"
"I'm not sure if there's gonna be any more games."
"Why do you say that?"
"Is Mom around?"
"She went upstairs."
"You didn't tell her about Nicky, did you?"
"You did, didn't you?"
"Yeah," the younger boy conceded. "I told her."
"I knew you would. You shouldn't have said anything, Julian."
"What difference does it make? He's okay."
"That's just it, though. He's not."
"Yes he is. I saw him come back. He was fine."
"No, Julian. Look, there's no easy way to say this. I wasn't gonna tell you, but I guess you'll find out anyway."
"Tell me what?" Julian demanded.
"We never finished the game."
"But you just said —"
"I didn't know how to tell you this. But I have to, because you're gonna find out. So will Mom and Dad. And the cops are gonna want to talk to you, too."
Julian felt a chill run up his spine.
"What? No! It can't be."
"He was just sitting there watching us. But then he — I don't know, he just collapsed."
"No! You're lying!"
A wave of panic surged through Julian. He looked intensely at his older brother, whose expression remained solemn and mournful.
"You really think I'd lie about something like that?" David asked. "I'm sorry, but it's true."
"Are you sure?" Julian whimpered, as tears began to well up in his eyes.
"I was right there when it happened. He said he still felt a little dizzy. And then he just — he just fell over. We tried to wake him up, but he wasn't moving. And he was cold."
"Mark and Tommy went to get his mom. But by the time she got there, he was gone. I'm sorry, Julian, but —"
"I killed him!"
"It was an accident."
"But it was my fault!"
"It wasn't anybody's fault."
Julian was sobbing now, a combination of guilt and dread churning inside him. He'd killed his friend. Everyone would hate him. He was going to jail. Life as he knew it was over. Nothing would ever be the same again. He turned back toward his brother through a veil of tear-filled eyes.
But David wasn't somber anymore. A wide grin had burst out through his visage. Then he began laughing hysterically.
"You're such a doofus," he said. "You actually believed me?"
"You were lying?"
"Well, duh. Do you really think I would come home telling you about the game if somebody died? Such a doofus."
Julian took a moment to process the information, wiping away his tears. For a second or two, all he felt was relief, replaced quickly by a visceral, almost violent, surge of anger at his sibling, who couldn't stop laughing and didn't seem to want to.
"You should have seen your face," David taunted. "Wait'll the guys hear about it. Even Nicky's gonna think it's funny!"
"Nicky may be okay," Julian said, "but you won't be when I get my hands on you!"
He sprang from his chair abruptly, and charged at his giggling brother, chasing him back out the door and down the road.
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Publication date: 6/30/2020
Publishers: Elizabeth River Press, Arzono Publishing
Editor: Stella Samuel
Foreward: Charles Cooper III
Authors: The Elizabeth River Writers (32 contributors)
Cover image: Jonas Mayes-Steger of Fantasy & Coffee Design