Authors: Tim Green
For my beautiful girls, Illyssa, Tessa, and Tate
JOSH WONDERED WHY EVERY time something really good happened, somethingâ¦
“I'M NOT,” JOSH SAID, his heart dancing in his throat.
JOSH SAID NOTHING, BUT he began to back away. Whenâ¦
WHEN HIS FATHER FINALLY noticed Josh, his thick, black eyebrowsâ¦
JOSH'S FATHER SLAMMED THE phone back onto its hook andâ¦
THE NEXT DAY, JOSH stuffed his baseball mitt, cleats, andâ¦
JOSH SPRINTED OUT ONTO the baseball diamond, leaving the algebraâ¦
“COACH, COACH, COACH,” BENJI said, stepping between Josh and Coachâ¦
JOSH FELT LIKE A dog bone.
JOSH KEPT UP WITH the others. He fielded the ballâ¦
ROCKY'S OFFICE OVERLOOKED THE green plastic field. Rocky's desk, likeâ¦
“OKAY,” JOSH SAID.
JADEN LOOKED AT JOSH'S father's face for a moment, andâ¦
BART PITCHED HIS CIGARETTE down onto the sidewalk. It rolled,â¦
“I THOUGHT WE WERE all running,” Benji said with allâ¦
JONES BUMPED INTO HIM hard, striking Josh's sore shoulder andâ¦
“NOTHING, COACH,” JONES SAID, stepping in front of the fallenâ¦
JADEN STARTED SITTING WITH Josh and Benji at lunch everyâ¦
“NO,” JADEN AND JOSH said at the same time.
AT LUNCH THE NEXT day, Josh got his milks linedâ¦
JOSH COULDN'T SPEAK. HE clamped his mouth shut, glaring atâ¦
THE LAST BELL FINALLY rang, and Josh sprinted for theâ¦
“BOBBY PERKINS,” ROCKY SAID. “Sorry, Perkins. You tried your best.”
THE TITANS GOT ON a bus at 2:30 the nextâ¦
“I'M TAKING THE WINDOW.” Jones was already laid out onâ¦
BEFORE HE KNEW IT, Josh found himself on the baselineâ¦
THE TITANS DUGOUT ERUPTED, and Josh's heart swelled on hisâ¦
THE BAT CRACKED. THE pitcher jumped as if he'd steppedâ¦
THE ALARM WENT OFF. Josh rolled out of bed andâ¦
“HI, JOSH,” SHEILA SAID, splitting open a carton of milkâ¦
JOSH FELT THE BLOOD return to his face, red hot,â¦
IF THE TITANS THOUGHT Rocky would ease up on theirâ¦
WITHOUT ANOTHER WORD, BART grabbed a handful of Josh's sweatyâ¦
JONES LOOKED DOWN AT the spray of blood on hisâ¦
THE COACHES BROUGHT THE team back to Mount Olympus Sports,â¦
JOSH POPPED THE KICKSTAND and walked his bike to theâ¦
JOSH GOT ON HIS bike and waved good-bye to Tucker.
JOSH SPUN AROUND AND stared up at Jaden's father, hisâ¦
WHEN JADEN LOOKED UP, Josh could see that her eyesâ¦
JOSH STARED AT HER. Mittens hopped down onto the floorâ¦
“DAD,” JADEN SAID. “HI.”
“JADEN?” JOSH SAID, ANSWERING the phone and seeing that itâ¦
“CRAZY?” BENJI SAID, OUTRAGED. “You're the crazy one. Dude, thatâ¦
WHEN HIS DAD PICKED him up for practice after school,â¦
DURING DINNER LATER THAT evening, Josh's father asked, “You takeâ¦
JOSH LOOKED AT HIS watchâit was just after sevenâand asked,â¦
JOSH REACHED OUT AND grasped Jaden's hand.
JOSH HAD NO IDEA Jaden was that fast. He trailedâ¦
THE NIGHT HAD ADVANCED far enough to show stars aboveâ¦
“WE'LL STICK TO OUR plan,” Josh said. “We have to.
WHEN JOSH WOKE THE next morning, the idea didn't seemâ¦
THE YELLOW RUBBER BALLS in the batting cage zipped byâ¦
JOSH'S STOMACH FLIPPED NOW, rising up, and he hurried forâ¦
JOSH THREW OPEN HIS bedroom door and ran down theâ¦
JOSH FELT NAKED IN the middle of the hallway andâ¦
A VOICE WAILED INSIDE of Josh, a voice crying outâ¦
“ARE YOU HURT?” JOSH said, climbing through the hole, slidingâ¦
THE POLICE LET THE three of them sit together inâ¦
DR. NEIDERMEYER'S FACE WRINKLED in confusion and he asked, “Whyâ¦
TWO MONTHS LATERâ¦
JOSH WONDERED WHY EVERY
time something really good happened, something else had to spoil it. It had been like this since he could remember, like biting into a ruby red apple only to find a brown worm crawling through the crisp, white fruit. For the first time since he'd moved to his new neighborhood, he had been recognized, and his unusual talent had been appreciated. So why was it that that same fame had kicked up the muddy rumor that got a high school kid looking to bash his teeth in?
For the moment, though, riding the school bus, he was safe. The school newspaper in Josh's backpack filled his whole body with an electric current of joy and pride, so much so that his cheeks burned. He sat alone in the very front seat and kept his eyes ahead, ignoring the
stares and whispers as the other kids got off at the earlier stops. When Jaden Neidermeyer, the new girl from Texas who'd written the article, got off at her stop, Josh stared hard at his sneakers. He just couldn't look.
After she left, he glanced around and carefully parted the lips of his backpack's zipper. Without removing the newspaper, he stole another glance at the headline,
, and the picture of him with a bat and the caption underneath: “Grant Middle's best hope for its first-ever citywide championship, Josh LeBlanc.”
The bus ground to a halt at his stop and Josh got off.
As the bus rumbled away, Josh saw Bart Wilson standing on the next corner. The tenth grader pitched his cigarette into the gutter and started toward him with long strides. Josh gasped, turned, and ran without looking back. A car blared its horn. Brakes squealed. Josh leaped back, his heart galloping fast, like the tenth grader now heading his way, even faster. Josh circled the carâthe driver yelling at him through the windowâand dashed across the street and down the far sidewalk.
He rounded the corner at Murphy's bar and sprinted up the block, ducking behind a wrecked station wagon at Calhoon's Body Shop, peeking through the broken web of glass back toward the corner. Breathing hard, he slipped the straps of the backpack he carried around his shoulders and fastened it tight. Two men in hooded
sweatshirts and jeans jackets burst out of Murphy's and got into a pickup truck; otherwise, Josh saw no one. Still, he scooted up the side street, checking behind him and dodging from one parked car to another for cover.
When he saw his home, a narrow, red two-story place with a steep roof and a sagging front porch, he breathed deep, and his heart began to slow. The previous owner had three pit bulls, and so a chain-link fence surrounded the house and its tiny front and back lawns, separating them from the close-packed neighbors on either side. The driveway ran tight to the house, and like the single, detached garage, it was just outside the fence. Josh lifted the latch, but as he pulled open the front gate, a hand appeared from nowhere, slamming it shut. The latch clanked home, and the hand spun Josh around.
“What you running from?” asked Bart Wilson, the tenth-grade smoker.
“I'M NOT,” JOSH SAID,
his heart dancing in his throat.
Bart leaned up against the gate, blocking Josh's path to the front door and folding his arms across his chest. He stood nearly six feet tallâno bigger than Josh, with arms and legs skinny as a spider'sâbut his big, crooked teeth, shaggy hair, and snake tattoo crawling among the veins on his arm scared Josh silly.
“You think you're something, don't you?” Bart asked.
“Then why you talking to Sheila? She's my girl.”
“I'm not,” Josh said, his eyes flickering up at his house, half hoping to see someone to help him and the other half hoping to avoid the embarrassment of being bullied.
“She sat next to me at lunch is all,” Josh said.
“I'm here to kick your teeth in,” Bart said, standing tall and reaching out to give Josh a poke in the chest.
“I don't want to fight,” Josh said.
“You have to,” Bart said, balling up his fists.
“No,” Josh said. “I don't want to.”
“Come on,” Bart said, giving him a shove. “You're gonna fight me.”
“No,” Josh said, shaking his head and looking down at his feet. “I don't want any trouble.”
“You should have thought of that when you started going after my girl.”
“You're some baseball hotshot, I hear,” Bart said. “You think you're cool?”
“'Cause you're not.”
JOSH SAID NOTHING, BUT
he began to back away. When he got to the corner of the fence, he sprinted up the driveway, away from the tenth grader and the fight. His mom popped out the back door and he ran smack into her at the side gate and spilling the bag of garbage she meant to take to the trash cans beside the garage.
“Josh!” she said. “What?”
Josh glanced back, expecting Bart's menacing face but seeing only an empty driveway.
“Hi, Mom,” he said. “I'll take care of that for you.”
“Thank you,” his mom said, but her voice sounded distant and her eyes swam with worry. She twisted her hands up in her apron. “I'llâ¦I'll see you inside.”
His mom flung open the door and disappeared. Josh wrinkled his brow but sighed and bent down. He picked
up the bag, stuffing the garbage back inside before taking it out to the trash can. Through one of the dusty square windows in the garage door, Josh noticed that his father's car sat inside the garage. His stomach twisted into a fresh knot.
He took slow steps back toward the house, thinking of what it could mean.
The only other time Josh had seen his father home from work during baseball season had been to announce a move. Nothing but that or a game could take his father out of the daily routine of practice. In Josh's twelve years they'd moved six times, and, despite Bart Wilson, Josh didn't want to move again. He didn't have a lot of friends, but he'd never had a better one than Benji Lido, and he expected once baseball season began tomorrow, he'd begin to have a lot more.
The screen door had no screen, but its metal frame still guarded the cracked wooden door that led to the kitchen. He swung them both open, one after the other, and stepped inside. In the corner, his little sister lay asleep in her playpen, rolled up in her favorite blanket with a thumb in her mouth. His mother sat at the small, round kitchen table with a cup of coffee in front of her, still clutching her apron. Next to her sat his dad, a big, square-shouldered man with jet black hair who made the wooden chair and, in fact, the whole room seem smaller.
In his father's ham-sized hand was the lucky baseball
he'd used to throw the no-hitter in the Pennsylvania High School State Championship. It was the game, his father always said, that had made him the seventeenth player selected in the Major League Baseball draft, the game whose celebration led to Josh's birth, and to his parents' being married. As Josh watched the ballâworn smooth and shiny through years of worryâroll in his father's huge, undulating hand, he also felt a pang of embarrassment that dwarfed what he'd felt on the school bus.
Neither of his parents noticed him. They both stared up at the phone on the wall beside the stove, waiting for news that Josh knew couldn't be good.