This takes it up to page 24 out of 29. Last section will be posted later this week.
Putting the ball in Nick’s hands at the beginning of a game seemed like a sure thing ever since he became the top starter midway through his sophomore year. While Johnny still seemed calm and collected about it, Coach Hardwick was visibly agitated. He looked down the bench at all the players who, in his mind, were just your typical high school students who didn’t have the internal ties that Nick Cooper had. Any of these players would be off the squad in a moment if they were caught using any sort of drug illegally.
In the bottom of the fourth, Nick had already set up an expectation of dominance against Cypress. With the exception of an unearned run that scored after a throwing error in the second inning, no one on the Cypress team had advanced to even second base. Regardless, Nick looked in to get Adam Murphy’s signal, down 1-0. With a 2-2 count, Murphy called for the changeup. Nick waved him off and wasn’t happy until he got the fastball. He looked over at the bench and at Coach Hardwick and began his delivery. The ball flew past the batter at Nick’s typical ninety mile per hour plus speeds, but missed the strike zone high.
“Come on blue, that was at the letters,” Nick pleaded for the call and shook his head in disgust when the umpire gave him nothing more than a cold stare.
Nevertheless, Nick struck the batter out on the next pitch, another fastball, almost straight down the middle of the plate, but fast enough that the batter could not catch up. As the defense came into the dugout, at the change of the inning, Hardwick grabbed Nick’s arm as he went to sit down.
“Just play the game, Nick. You get on that umpire and you’re not gonna get any calls later in the game.” Hardwick was still burning inside about how Johnny had pushed him and how he had caved and let the boys off, but there were about twenty people on the squad, and he didn’t want to bring off the field problems into the dugout to possibly cost the other sixteen or so a chance at a title.
Nick looked up at Hardwick as he spoke, but didn’t even so much as give a vocal acknowledgement of the request. Hardwick thought how he should smack Nick. Just one good punch, then turn him in to the police. He didn’t even care about the school penalties. But he couldn’t do it. Not now. Not since he himself sacrificed his principles to protect this boy.
After a big inning for Coach Cooper’s squad in the sixth, they led Cypress 4-1 with only one inning to go. As Nick and the defense took the field in the bottom of the seventh, Hardwick reminded him once again, “Just play the game, you’re better than anyone they got. You play the way you can, we’re looking at an easy victory.”
“I know I’m better than any of them. Don’t worry, this game is in the bag.” Nick replied, not even looking over at Hardwick as he said it.
But two batters later, Nick looked in for the sign with runners on first and third and Cypress’s most dangerous batter waiting on deck. Nick looked in for the sign and saw Murph put the sign up for a slider. Gripping the seams, he began his wind-up and threw the ball in towards the outside part of the plate. The ball spun outside, but only about an inch compared to the normal five to six inches bite he would normally get on his slider. The batter swung hard and connected, sending the ball into the gap between the right and center fielders. The runner on third came home easily and the runner on first came around third as the ball began coming in. The second baseman relayed the ball home to Adam Murphy as the runner came barreling down the line and full speed, but the throw came down the first base line by about three feet, just enough distance to let the runner slide in past the tag of Adam Murphy.
“Safe!” came the call from the umpire at home plate.
Nick slammed down his glove on the ground, and cried at the umpire, “What the hell was that? He was out!”
“Go back to the mound and get out of my face, kid.”
Murphy grabbed Nick and pushed him away from the umpire before Nick could get any more words out. “Come on, Nick. We’re still up. We need you to dig in and stop this guy. It’s still a 4-3 game, man. This game is still ours.” Nick opened his mouth to complain, but Murphy continued, cracking a smile, “Hey, you keep complaining and I won’t give you your pat on the ass when I go back to the plate.”
Nick was still irritated at the umpire’s calls—squeezing his strike zone, the safe call at the plate—but he calmed down, took the ball from Murphy and walked back to the mound. Murphy was right, he decided. He still had this game under control.
The next batter was Cypress’s best hitter, but Nick looked in at him and Murphy with enough anger and hostility to fuel him to throw three mid-nineties fastballs right past this chump.
Murphy called for a first pitch slider, hoping to keep the batter off guard, but Nick waved Murphy off and didn’t agree with any of the off speed pitches Murphy called for. After receiving the fastball call he wanted, he checked the runner at second, who was lazily standing only a few steps off the bag, then looked in at Murphy’s glove, edged towards the inside part of the plate.
Winding up, he looked up at the umpire, rather than on Murphy’s glove, and throwing as hard as he could, lost control and hurled the ball at well over ninety miles-per-hour right at the batting helmet of the man in the batter’s box. The batter’s knees buckled and he tried to duck out of the way, but the ball was coming too fast and it ricocheted off the top of the helmet. The batter dropped to the ground and popped up almost immediately, the helmet having protected him from what could have otherwise been an ugly incident.
The home-plate umpire jumped to his feet and taking his mask off yelled, “You’re outta here,” making the customary over-dramatic motion to throw a player out.
“What the hell? I didn’t mean to hit him!” Nick exploded, jumping off the mound and charging towards the umpire.
“Get out of here, kid. I’m not gonna tolerate you throwin’ at players.”
Johnny then charged out of the dugout as well and also jumped in the face of the umpire. “Why the hell would he throw at one of their players? Are you fuckin’ blind?” Johnny continued to argue his case, while face-to-face with the umpire, until he was also thrown out.
Coach Hardwick looked on with disgust from the dugout, knowing that Nick could have easily gotten any one of the batters he faced out. He looked down the bench until he saw one of the more talented sophomores who was in his history class as well.
“Henderson, out to center field. Tell Johnson out there to take the mound and start to warm up.”
After Nick, there was a considerable drop off in the talent of their pitching staff though. They had a few other players capable of short stints, and a sophomore who they intended to use in the first game of their regional to save Nick’s arm for the later games, but no one really stood out. Clinging to a 4-3 lead with two men on and no one out, Hardwick knew their chances of a victory were dwindling, but without Coach Cooper and Nick there, he had to do the best he could for the team.
It was hard to tell that Nick had just been kicked out of a game in which he earned the loss in a 5-4 heartbreaker earlier that day. Johnny was irate, but transferred any irritation that should be targeted at Nick towards the umpires for the game. After a quiet dinner, Johnny retreated to his den to flip between the Cardinals game and whatever game was on ESPN that night, leaving Nick to leave the house without question of what he was doing or where he was going.
Nick escaped out of the house to meet Murphy and the other guys as they pulled into the driveway to pick him up. The passenger seat of Murphy’s Mustang was empty, while Ricky and Tony, the other two guys, sat in the back, the way it always was when Johnny let Nick go out with them.
“Hey man, whatssup?” Murphy said, slurring slightly.
“Not shit, the old man’s passed out in his den. He’d probably kick my ass if he knew I was coming out tonight, after that incident with Hardwick.”
“Fuckin’ Hardwick. Good thing he’s a big softie.” Murphy smiled as he said it.
Nick didn’t respond, but instead looked out the window as Murphy pulled off of his street. He thought about his father for a moment, and almost felt guilty for leaving unannounced, when Murphy said, “Hey, one of you get another bowl going, we need to get Nick in on this round.” Nick looked back to see a hand reaching up with a ceramic pipe being handed to him.
He thought momentarily about saying no, but accepted the multicolored pipe and the lighter that was handed to him just afterwards. Murphy pulled off the main strip of town onto a side road to give Nick a chance to smoke with fewer cars around with people who might see them. Nothing would be worse than getting spotted by a cop just a day after being caught and let off by Hardwick.
Nick bent down in his seat to hide under the dash and held the lighter close above the opening where the cannabis was packed. Inhaling the smoke deep into his lungs, he began to have his typical coughing fit that he hadn’t gotten over in the short period of time he and the other guys had been using marijuana. He passed the still lit pipe to Murphy who took a quick hit and then relayed it to the back seat. Nick could feel his lungs burn a little, but quickly reached back to the back seat to force the issue of a second round. He knew the rest of them had smoked some before they picked him up. He needed to catch up.
After they had finished all the the pipe, they pulled back onto the main strip of road, looking for the cars of other people they knew. After a few trips up and back the main road, one of the guys in the back said he knew of a party at some girl’s house that they could check out, but Murphy and Nick quickly vetoed that, hearing that the girl was no one they really cared about, figuring that there would just be band and choir geeks there anyway.
After driving around for a few hours, Nick and Murphy were about ready to give up and just go to the party, when they saw Kenny Johnson’s car, the same pitcher that eventually allowed the two runners Nick was still responsible for score, giving Nick the loss earlier that day.
“Hey, pull up next to that fucker. He blew the game for us,” Nick said, suddenly interested in what was going on around him.
Murphy pushed down the gas pedal as far as it went for a brief moment, letting it kick into a higher gear, as he sped up to about fifty-five to quickly catch up to Johnson. Murphy rolled down his window as they got up beside the car.
“Hey! You fuckin’ loser! Why don’t you learn how to pitch?” Nick yelled out the window at Johnson, who just then noticed the belligerent and inebriated group of fellow baseball players in the lane next to him. “Hey, fuck with him a little bit, Murph.”
Murphy swerved his car several times into Johnson’s lane. Johnson got an aggravated look upon his face as he swerved his own vehicle into the turn lane each time as Murphy came at him. Nick then extended his arm past Murphy, extending his middle finger towards Johnson. Murphy and the other boys in the car laughed as Nick kept his finger extended, even as Johnson’s car slowed down and fell behind its side-by-side position with Murphy’s car.
“Oh shit!” Murphy’s voice resonated in Nick’s ears and as Nick looked ahead, he saw the rapidly approaching intersection, with the stoplight reading red. Nick tried to brace himself for impact, but there was no time, and Murphy’s Mustang collided hard into a van going through the intersection at the time. The Mustang’s front end collapsed as it thrashed through the driver side of the Chrysler minivan. Nick’s body lunged forward before the seatbelt took hold and shook him back into his seat violently. He was completely disoriented for a brief moment, before he looked next to him at Murphy who looked in about the same state of confusion he was in just moments before. In the back seat, the two boys were taking inventory of themselves, but were generally alright.
Nick then looked forward to see the smashed in side of the minivan they had crashed into while not paying attention. The driver was a thirty-something father, who looked incredibly shaken, as he looked back into the back seats of the car frantically. He tried to open his door, but the Mustang had slammed into it just far enough forward on the car that the door was impossible to open, while most of the damage was further back on the car.
The father finally crawled over to the passenger door and opened the back up. Nick watched the man as he crawled into the car and picked up a young girl, obviously his daughter, the left side of her head bleeding badly. The man was hysterical. Carrying his daughter, he ran from the middle of the intersection where the accident happened to a bench on one of the corners, where he laid her down and began crying for someone to help his daughter. As Nick got out of the car, he heard the man cry out that she wasn’t breathing, as a couple onlookers rushed up and began checking the girl’s pulse.
Nick’s eyes held in them a detachment from what he was seeing. Completely unmoved, he approached the scene on the street corner and watched as the father looked on helplessly and the two onlookers ran to call 911.
Looking up at Nick, the girl’s father got up from beside the bench where he kneeled beside his daughter and started walking towards Nick.
“This is because of you. You took away my little girl. You killed my little girl.” The man’s words cut through the detachment in Nick’s consciousness and Nick’s look went from detachment to withdrawal. He stared blankly towards the girl laying on the bench and her father, who returned to her side, crying as he held his daughter’s hand. An ambulance rushed up to the scene and Murphy finally came up beside Nick, watching the scene as the paramedics began trying to revive the girl.
Within ten minutes, police officers were everywhere and the girl’s body was being loaded into the back of the ambulance, covered by a sheet. Paramedics tried to tend to the girl’s father, but he pushed them away as he followed the stretcher carrying his little girl into the back of the ambulance.
Coach Cooper’s car pulled up into a corner parking lot and Johnny jumped out of the car, running towards Nick and the other boys.
“Nick, are you alright?” Johnny shouted while still running towards him and the other boys.
Nick didn’t even look up at Johnny, but instead held his eyes tightly downward.
“Nick.” Johnny repeated, and started to continue when Nick finally answered.
“Yeah dad. I’m fine.” Nick then looked up into Johnny’s eyes and Johnny walked up to Nick and hugged him tightly against his body.
“What happened?” Johnny finally asked, as he continued to hold onto Nick’s shoulders, but pulled him far enough way from his body to look his son in the eyes again.
Finally, several of the police officers working on the accident walked over to the boys and told them that they would have to come to the station while they finished up.
“All of them?” Johnny blurted out towards the officers, “I understand Mr. Murphy needing to go as the driver, but…”
“Yes, all of them,” said one of the officers. Johnny opened his mouth to question why all the boys had to go when Nick stepped in front of his father.
“Dad. We were high.” The words were spoken quietly but with a conviction that brought Johnny’s attention immediately back to Nick.
Nick then lowered his eyes and turned to go with the police officers, leaving Johnny standing there on the street corner, stunned.