Last Game of the Summer
A Barrier Ridge Short Story:::
“Where is Lizzy?”
If Sly had asked the question once, he’d asked it ten times since arriving at the baseball field. His niece was supposed to have been there early to retrieve the equipment from the shed and get it ready for the game. But no one seemed to have seen her.
His recent question was answered by more shrugging from his players. He checked his watch again as the other team finished warming up on the field.
“Coach Malone,” a teenage girl wearing a red hat asked. “If Liz doesn’t show, who’s going to coach third base?”
He’d been wondering the same thing. He might be able to have the stats manager take his place at first so he could coach third, but then who would be in the dugout?
“Let me worry about that, Kayla,” Sly said with a smile. “Go grab your glove and get ready. You’re pitching today.”
The girl in the red hat nodded glumly. “Alright, coach. If I have to.”
He grabbed a water bottle from the pack on the bench and walked outside, eyeing the parking lot as he drank. It was the championship game and it looked like the entire city was coming to show their support. Lizzy knew just how important this game was to everyone, and she had never been the type to abandon her post.
“You picked a fine time to leave me, Elizabeth,” he muttered.
He tried calling her cell again, but the call went straight to voicemail. Now he was worried.
Sly was twelve years older than Lizzy, and he thought of her more as a little sister than his niece. He’d helped raise her, coached her in t-ball, and had been around for all the important moments. He’d broken her heart when he took the pastor job up in Washington and moved away, but this fall she’d be venturing out on her own life adventure. Today was the last time they’d see each other for who knows how long, and the twerp was late.
He was starting to call for the third time when a red Toyota sped through the parking lot, kicking up dust as it swung in up against the fence. The personalized license plate read 'Locksley’.
Sly pocketed his phone and marched through the grass, holding out his arms.
“Sorry,” the pretty blonde called, hopping out. “I’m sorry, Sly.”
“Where have you been?” he demanded.
Lizzy’s long, curly hair fell loose over her shoulders as she hopped over the fence with ease. She adjusted her sunglasses as she strode past him.
“What’d I miss?”
“Nothing yet. Where have you been?”
“I had to take care of something.”
“You overslept,” Sly replied contemptuously, following her toward the home team dugout.
“No, I didn’t. I’m sorry, I’ll explain later.”
Sly followed her into the dugout, hearing the umpire calling for the team captains to meet him on the pitcher’s mound for the coin toss.
Lizzy walked down the bench, clapping her hands as she rallied the players.
“You guys ready?”
The co-ed players cheered, their spirits instantly rising at her presence.
Sly grabbed his clipboard, still warm under the collar at his niece’s unusual behavior. Or maybe it had more to do with the fact that he was leaving in the morning and he hated good-byes.
Their team won the coin toss, and Sly called out names for the batting order. Lizzy drew her hair up into a ponytail, then bouncing with enthusiasm, took off across the field to take her place in the third base coach’s box.
It was a warm, sweltering day, the Missouri humidity turned up high, and not a cloud in the sky. The home crowd cheered as Kayla took her place at home plate. With the first pitch, the final game of the season began.
* * * *
It was the bottom of the fifth. Sly’s Sluggers were in the lead by a run, but the opposing team had a good lineup. Sly called an adjustment, then yelled as his first basemen to move up.
“Devin is too far back,” Lizzy observed from beside him, smacking on a wad of chewing gum.
Sly stepped out of the dugout, calling at Devin, waving him to move in. The left fielder heard him and jogged forward.
Sly stepped back into the shade of the dugout, grabbing the bag of sunflower seeds off the chest-high wall.
Arms folded on the barrier, Lizzy blew a bubble. “I just heard from mom. She’s still at the hospital with Mrs. Perkins so she might not make it.”
“She’s going to miss the whole thing?”
“Yeah. I told her it was fine, though. She and dad always made it to my games when I played. She can miss this one.”
Sly smirked. “You let her off easy.”
Lizzy grinned, then perked up as the umpire signaled the pitcher.
“Here we go. And the pitch…”
“Strike one!” bellowed the umpire.
“Atta girl, Kayla,” Lizzy clapped. “I taught her that throw.”
“I taught you that throw,” Sly replied, glancing at the roster.
Kayla’s next two pitches were outside of the strike zone.
“Ball two!” called the umpire.
“It’s okay,” Lizzy yelled as she clapped. “Slow is smooth—”
“Smooth is fast!” Chimed the row of players behind her on the bench.
Lizzy grinned proudly.
Sly eyed his niece as he spit out sunflower seed shells. She had just turned eighteen and had that young glow about her. She hadn’t been one of the popular girls in school but had carved out her own following. The underdog’s champion, she stood up to the bullies, never one to shy away from a fight. She was starting college in the fall, and had hopes of joining the police academy. But Sly was worried. She had spunk and zeal, but she was still young and naive.
The last couple of years had really opened Sly’s eyes to the world outside of the innocent, moral circle he’d been living in. Pastoring a church of young believers who were used to playing by their own rules had presented challenges. And he was all on his own up there. Lizzy wanted to be a cop in the city, chasing bad guys and keeping the peace, but she was only eighteen.
“You know, Lizzy, you can still change your mind about college.”
Her eyes moved across the diamond. “No, I can’t. I’m already signed up.”
“Well, yeah, but there’s always next year.”
“I’m not moving to Barrier Ridge, Sly. I’m moving to Cincinnati.”
He sighed. “I know.”
She glanced at him and grinned. “I’m going to miss you too.”
Two more strikes, and the girl at bat went back to the away team’s dugout, shoulders hunched. Sly and Lizzy cheered.
“Come on, Kayla. Do it again!”
“Who’s up next?” Lizzy asked
“Number 12, Orion Bentley.
Lizzy blew a bubble and it popped. “He’s gone the whole season without getting struck out.”
Sly dropped a handful of sunflower seeds into his mouth, then referred to his clipboard. “Kayla’s ready. She’s perfected her curve ball this season.”
“Yeah, but she’s easily intimidated.”
“She’ll be okay.”
Lizzy rolled her eyes. “The eternal optimist.”
“Ball one,” bellowed the umpire.
Lizzy clapped her hands. “Let’s go, Kayla! Heads up!”
On the pitcher’s mound, Kayla read the signs from the catcher, then ran her hand along the brim of her hat.
“Sinker!!!” the opposing coach shouted, seeing the second basemen get ready for the potential grounder.
The plan revealed, Sly and Lizzy both removed their hats and held them up over their heads. Kayla saw the change up, flicked her wrist, then turned to the side and drew her glove to her chest.
All eyes on Kayla’s windup, no one noticed the new spectator slipping up to the fence, back behind the visiting team’s dugout. A baseball cap hid his face, and the baggy black shirt and pants were out of place in the July summer heat, but no one noticed.
Kayla threw the curveball, and Number 12 swung. The ball and bat connected with a thwack! and the crowd cheered as the ball soared threw the air. Number 12 took off as the ball flew over Kayla’s head, just out of reach, and on toward third base. In the stands, parents and kids were on their feet. In the away team dugout, players and managers were screaming excitedly as Number 12 ran with all his might for first base. He stepped on the bag and turned for second, but his coach called him back. The third basemen had caught the ball in the air.
“Yeah!” Sly roared, giving his third basemen a thumbs up.
Out of nowhere, firecrackers exploded, and the cheers and groans cut off, turning to confused murmurs. Someone screamed.
Like everyone else, Sly and Lizzy looked around for the source. Two more blasts rocked the baseball field, and then a tall figure dressed in black started walking out onto the field.
Lizzy’s eyes widened as she straightened up. “Gun!”
Others in the stands cried out the same revelation, and the confusion turned to panic, then mass hysteria as people started running for cover. A bullet caught Kayla in the shoulder, and she fell to the ground. In a heroic move, the third base coach charged at the gunman, only to get shot in the stomach for his efforts.
Sly and Lizzy grabbed the players down off the bench and pushed them to the ground as more shots rang out. The gunman laughed, making his way across the field.
“Stay low!” Sly wheezed, shielding a young girl with his body. Lizzy was beside him, her body slung over the backs of the three older boys.
“Lord I plead the blood of Jesus over us,” Sly prayed, keeping his eyes open. “You are our refuge and strength. Shield us with Your wings. Help us, God.”
There was a moment without gunfire, and Lizzy lifted her head to peer back over her shoulder. “What the heck?” She breathed. “Did you see him?”
Sly shook his head. “I didn’t see anyone.”
“Get under the bench,” Lizzy said, and the boys scrambled to get under cover. Sly urged the girl to follow them.
Free to move, Lizzy got her feet underneath her, leaning on the bench as she turned to Sly. “He came out from around the other dugout,” she hissed. “Big kid.”
“I want my mom,” a small boy whimpered. Sly dropped to his stomach, reaching for him.
“Hang on, Tristin, we gotta stay put.”
The boy squeezed his eyes closed as tears spilled down his cheeks. The older teen lying beside him put his arm around his friend’s shoulders, his own eyes wide with fear.
Another gunshot rang out, followed by nerve tingling silence.
“Where are the cops?” Lizzy wanted to know. “I saw two cars when I pulled in.” She slid over to the wall, and despite Sly’s hissed protest, popped her head up over the edge. She stayed up there a few seconds, then dropped down and shuffled back over.
“His back is to us. We should get these kids out of here.”
“No, we need to stay put,” Sly argued.
“Is it my brother?” They turned to see a tan-faced girl poking her head out from under the bench. “Is it Patrick?”
Lizzy shook her head, knowing Patrick from last season. “No. Too tall.”
“But Patrick is tall now. He’s taller than Mr. Belton.”
Sly moved down onto Perry’s level. “Sweetie, why do you think it’s your brother?”
She looked at him with wide, hopeful eyes. “He said he was coming after me.”
Sly frowned. “What do you mean?”
“He wants us to be together. After they sent him away, he said he would find me so we could be a family again.”
“It’s not him, Perry,” Lizzy said, frowning apologetically.
Perry looked crushed.
Lizzy touched Sly’s shoulder as he rose back up to his knees.
“I’m going out there,” she said. She was calm, in control—and completely out of her mind.
“Like hell you are,” he growled.
“No cursing, coach,” Perry whispered.
“Sorry, Perry…” He turned back and grabbed Lizzy’s arm. “There is no way I’m letting you go out there without cover. And I don’t have a gun, so…”
“But Kayla and Mark…”
Sly gritted his teeth, tightening his hold. “No."
Lizzy lifted a finger to her mouth. “Wait. You hear that?”
Sly listened, looking up to the rectangle of blue sky he could see. “I don’t hear anything.”
“Exactly.” Lizzy stayed on her feet, poised to move if needed, eyes watching the opening of the dugout.
“Malone,” a low muffled voice said, followed by a knock on the back wall. “Malone, you hear me?”
“Dad!” Tristin exclaimed, scrambling forward.
Sly kept his hand on the boy as he wiggled out. “Dennis, I hear you.”
“When I tell you,” Dennis replied, “send the kids out around the corner. We’ll get ‘em.”
Dennis was a retired cop, and Sly was inclined to trust him. However, not knowing where the gunman was, Sly didn’t like the idea of going out the door, nearest to where the last gunshot had come from.
“Which side?” he called softly.
There was a pause, then he heard some shuffling and a knock on the furthest end of the back wall, on his right.
“Over here. Send them over the side.”
“Alright guys,” Sly said to the teens, “come on, let’s go. Stay low, now.”
He got to his feet, staying in a crouch, and ushered the kids past, keeping himself between them and potential gunfire.
“Send them over,” Dennis said from the other side of the half wall, his voice much clearer now.
One by one, Sly helped the kids over the side.
“You too, Malone.”
Sly grabbed Lizzy’s hand and squeezed it. “You first.” He jutted his chin upward.
“Oh no you don’t,” she shot back. “I’m not leaving you.”
“Okay, fine. We go together.”
Something hit the front wall with a harsh thud, and a shadow fell over Lizzy’s startled face. She gasped.
Spinning around, Sly saw the game’s umpire, still wearing his mask, slumping over the wall. Blood dripped from under his mask and down his neck as he groaned and tried to speak.
A spray of bullets pierced the wall overhead, the gunshots sounding close. Sly lunged forward, reaching for the man’s arms. Lizzy joined him, and in a slow-motion scramble, the umpire managed to get over the wall and fell in a heap on the dirt floor inside the dugout.
Sly pulled the large mask off the man’s face. His eyes were wide, his cheeks and face red from the summer heat.
“Get me something to stop the bleeding, Liz,” Sly said, covering the hole in the man’s neck with his hand.
Lizzy scurried away and snatched a towel off the bench, then slid back and tossed the towel to him.
“Malone,” Dennis hissed, “what’s going on?”
He started to yell back a reply but cut himself off.
“Here,” Lizzy said, “I got him.” She wadded up the towel and slipped into place as Sly got up. In a slow crouch, Sly hurried back to the side wall.
“The umpire’s been shot in the neck. We can’t leave him.”
Dennis cursed. “Alright, stay low. The police are here. I’ll send help as soon as I can.”
“We’ll be here."
Sly crawled back to the middle of the dugout, regretting that he hadn’t stolen a look at the field when he had the chance. It was unsettling not knowing what was happening, or where the gunman was at.
“How is he?”
Lizzy shook her head as she struggled to keep the wadded-up towel pressed to the umpire’s head. “I don’t know. He stopped responding and went limp. The bleeding won’t stop.”
Sly felt numb. He couldn’t remember a single thing he’d learned in first aid. He wanted to hide, to run and look at something other than his niece covered in blood. Internally, he shouted a weak, desperate prayer.
“Open your eyes,” Lizzy said. She was leaning over the umpire, one hand holding the towel in place, the other cupping the man’s face. “Wake up, George.” Tears spilled down her cheeks, her lips quivering as she hovered over the man she barely knew. “You’re going to be okay. In Jesus’ name, you live, George.”
Sly immediately snapped out of it. Hope rushed through him, urgency causing him to act.
Getting up on his knees, Sly stacked his hands on the umpire’s chest and started pumping. Lizzy shuffled around to above the man’s head, adjusting the towel so she could maintain pressure from her new position.
The background noise changed, and somewhere in the back of Sly’s mind he knew the police were handling the gunman, but his attention was on counting chest compressions.
“Is if fifteen or twenty pumps?” he asked.
Lizzy stuttered, shaking her head. “Fi-fifteen, I think.”
Sly stopped and moved to pinch the umpire’s nose, then breathed into his mouth. Another breath, and nothing changed. George remained unresponsive in their arms.
With new enthusiasm, Sly restarted compressions, this time counting each one out loud.
Outside the dugout, there was the sound of wheels passing through the sand, indistinct voices shouting and talking. Another set of wheels clattered by, but no one came into the dugout.
“In here!” Lizzy shouted over her shoulder.
“God, save this man,” Sly prayed, staring at his hands pumping the man’s chest. “Have mercy on his soul.”
Lizzy was saying her own prayer now, eyes closed as she cradled the man’s head.
Sly stopped compressions to breathe into the man’s mouth, imagining that with every breath, the umpire’s lungs were filling up with air and causing his heart to beat—or however that all worked.
“Jesus,” Sly prayed, “make it all work the way it’s supposed to. George, stay with us. You’ve got three little girls that need you to walk them down the aisle someday. Come on.”
He kept praying with every chest compression.
Finally, help came. Paramedics crowded in the dugout, edging Sly and Lizzy out of the way as they took over.
They put a breathing thing over George’s face and started squeezing, while another medic checked for a heartbeat.
“I’ve got a rhythm,” the woman said, snaking the stethoscope around her neck.
Sly put his hands on his hips as he watched, Lizzy leaning her head on his shoulder. Turning his head, he looked out over the diamond. A gurney sat out on the pitcher’s mound. Kayla was sitting up, talking to the medics. A few feet away, near third base, a sheet covered a body in the grass. Sly turned and ran out of the dugout, sprinting across the sand.
She held out her good arm as he ran up to her and hugged him.
“I was so scared!” She sobbed into his shoulder. “He just kept shooting.”
“I know, baby, I know.”
Sly held her tight, then finally forced himself to let her go and took a step back.
“I did what you taught me,” she said, wiping her dirty, tear-stained face. “I just kept praying and praying, and he walked right on by me. He started shooting into the air and dancing like a maniac. I think he was drunk.”
“You did good, Kayla. I’m so glad you’re okay. I’m sorry I couldn’t get to you.”
“It’s okay,” she sniffed. She looked over to where medics were helping Kenny near second base. Lizzy was with him, holding his hand as the medics treated his leg.
A fresh gust of wind washed over Sly, cooling the back of his neck. It felt like he was in a dream. There were others being treated all around the diamond and in the away team’s dugout. It didn’t look like any of the casualties were from his team, and for that Sly was thankful. But his heart went out to the other team.
“Where’s the gunman?” Sly asked the older medic helping Kayla.
“Cops took him away.”
She nodded. “He surrendered.”
Out in the parking lot, Sly found the rest of his team. The second they saw him walking up, the teens broke away from their parents and families and ran to him. He was so relieved to see them all safe and alive, and hugged every last one of them.
Tristin’s dad, a big black man with a beard and mustache, approached the group and caught Sly’s eye. They shook hands.
“Glad you made it.”
“Thanks for the help,” Sly said. It sounded like a weak statement, but he meant it.
“You put your life on the line for our kids,” Dennis said. “We’re in your debt.”
Sly shook his head. “You did too. Those kids needed out of there and you made that happen.”
“It was a team effort,” Dennis said, a smile lifting the corner of his mouth.
* * * *
Later that night, a mixture of parents and players gathered around home plate. A couple of the parents had asked Sly to lead them in a moment of prayer. Sly wasn’t sure if it was appropriate or right, but they had to be there anyway until the police cleared them to leave. And this traumatic day needed to end on a good note.
As the cicadas chirped and bugs flew under the bright lights, everyone took hands and formed a circle.
Holding his niece’s hand on one side, and Perry’s in the other, Sly prayed for the players who had been injured, for the family of the coach who had died, and for George the umpire, who was still in critical condition. Sly also asked God for help and peace in the days to come.
The police had told him that the troubled teen who had done the shooting had been from up north, mad about being kicked off the team. Drunk and angry, he’d stolen a gun and came planning on killing Coach Garrison, and anyone else he could. They’d found a suicide note in his car; he’d obviously not planned on being taken alive.
Sly prayed for him too, then squeezed Lizzy’s hand for her to take a turn.
When everyone that wanted to had a chance to pray, Sly said amen and put his hat back on.
“Hey, coach,” Perry asked. “Do you think we could do something before we go?”
“What’s that, Perry?”
“Can we walk the bases, or something? You know, just to…I don’t know…”
Sly nodded. “Yeah, Perry, that’s a good idea. Why don’t you start us off?”
Taking her foster mom’s hand, Perry started up the foul line toward first base. The other players and their families followed. Sly wished that Kayla could have been there too. It would have been good for her. The opportunity to be on the field again after the day’s violence felt akin to getting back on the horse. It was hard, and there were quite a few tears, but the walk felt like a chance for healing to begin. Sly’s sister and brother-in-law, Lizzy’s parents, were there, too, having come as soon as they heard what had happened
Back at home plate, everyone hugged, said their good-byes, then headed for the parking lot. Closing the gate behind him, Sly saw his older sister hugging Lizzy by the bleachers, then wave as she and her husband stepped away.
“This isn’t how I expected our last game together to go,” Sly said as he walked over.
Lizzy took a seat on the bottom bleacher seat, staring out at the field. “No, not in a million years.”
Sly waved his hand at the mosquito buzzing his face. “Still think you want to be a cop?”
She pursed her lips, then slowly nodded her head.
He eased himself down next to her on the bench, putting his arm around her. She leaned into him, wrapping her hands around his waist.
“I was really mad at you, you know,” she said.
“Because I wouldn’t let you go play hero?”
“Are you still mad?"
She rose up so she could look at him. “All I wanted to do was run out there and tackle the guy.”
“Funny,” Sly said, looking down at his hands. “Me too. But then I also wanted to crawl into a ball and cry.”
Lizzy faced the ball field and rested forward, her elbows on her knees. “Me too.”
They sat there in silence for a moment, staring at the dark field. It looked so ominous, so dangerous and quiet.
“I felt really helpless,” Lizzy said, breaking the silence. “I never want to feel that way again.”
Sly bobbed his head.
Lizzy shifted to the side and picked up a bag off the ground. She handed it to Sly. “I got you something,” she said. “It’s why I was late today.”
“Is it a bullet proof vest?”
She smirked. “Next birthday.”
He opened the bag, peered inside, then turned it over. A heavy object fell out into his hand.
“It seems pretty silly after today,” Lock said, “but since this was our last game…”
It was a baseball with ‘Sly’s Sluggers’ written on it in red, with ‘Champions’ and the date.
“I love it,” Sly smiled. He gave it a gentle toss in the air. “A little morbid in retrospect, but…”
Lizzy chuckled. “We didn’t win, but I know we would have if an idiot with a gun hadn’t ruined everything.”
“I got you something too,” Sly said. He stretched out his leg and dug a small bag out of his pocket.
“You had it with you the whole time?” Lizzy asked as she took it. She opened the bag and drew out the necklace chain. On it hung a baseball bat charm along with a tiny pistol.
She laughed as she hung it up to the light.
“It’s so you don’t forget me while chasing your future,” Sly said, then shook his head. “Cheesy, I know.”
Tears in her eyes, Lizzy leaned over and gave him a hug.
The mosquitoes and humidity finally got to be too much, and they got up to go join Lizzy’s parents. Walking to the parking lot, Sly prayed another prayer of thanks. He had a deep-down feeling that this wasn’t the last time he and his niece would be thrown into the middle of a crisis. But by God’s grace, they would handle whatever might come.