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Publishing: "Coming Home"
anthonyjfuchs
I published my next short story, "Coming Home," over at Smashwords.

I have only myself and my trusty Motorola Bravo to thank for the cover image for this story. It's a nearly exact replication of a photograph I found online; I was unable to get permission to use that picture, so I while attending my nephew's Little League game earlier today, I stopped at one of the neighboring fields and took this picture with my cellphone. So I suppose I could thank the Havelock Recreation Center for having photogenic baseball fields that are open to the public.

This story originally started out as an excerpt from the Danger of Being Me, and some of it still does appear in the novel for the time being. I can't guarantee that this scene will survive the first edit, which I suppose is all the more reason to turn it into a more fully-realized short story of its own now. The events of the story are partially true and partially false, which is probably the best description of all of my writing that I'll ever be able to give. Several elements were added to that original excerpt, which runs 2,868 words in length, to create the 4,095-word story that is "Coming Home," making it a little shorter than "Unstuck" (now just at Smashwords). Hope you enjoy, and I welcome all feedback and reviews, positive or negative. And if you like it, pass it on.


"COMING HOME"
Copyright © 2011 Anthony J Fuchs
Cover photo by me and my Motorola Bravo

The game doesn't even matter anymore on this muggy Sunday in August.
          I stand beside the chainlink fence along the first-base line of Field 4 at the Camlann Fields Baseball Park. Dusk has turned to night over the line of trees beyond the outfield fence, but the floodlights shine over our little pick-up match. Eighteen of us started playing at ten o'clock this morning, expecting little more than a spirited bit of sportsmanship. Bud Selig announced the cancellation of the remainder of the Major League Baseball season nine days ago. That meant no postseason. No World Series. And that was unacceptable. We needed our baseball fix.
          So we took matters into our own hands. I recruited friends and family, and the lot of us settled on the third Sunday of the month for a one-game playoff that we called the first annual Prophecy Creek World Series. We came together at Camlann Fields, and split ourselves into the Natural League and the Amateur League. My grandfather threw out the first pitch at 10:19. But instead of an afternoon of friendly competition, we got an eleven-hour grudge-match, and no one wants to quit at this late hour. Tonight isn't about fun or even pride anymore. If it ever was.
          As the last heat of the day fades to a memory, I'm running on high-octane spite.
          Because my team gave up an unearned run in the top of the 42nd inning to hand over a 26-25 lead. Jared Baranski grounds weakly to second, where my stepbrother fields the slow-roller and flips it easily to first. I spit into the grass. Jared is barely out of the batter's box by the time the play is complete. He strays out of the basepath at a weary trot to head back into the dugout.
          I wear a worn-out maroon ballcap with a white Phillies emblem on the front and a Dave Hollins autograph under the bill. A pair of heavy baseball pants. A white t-shirt with my last name and the digits 19 scrawled across the back in marker. A pair of cleats my grandfather bought me two summers ago so I could try out for the Keller Vale Middle School team.
          I am fourteen and immortal as I hoist a 39-inch length of wood. I am the only batter to use lumber. Everyone else has wielded aluminum, a sacrilegious offense in my teenage mind. The word Andarta is burned into the grain of the handle, and I feel the letters beneath my palms. It was a name I chose on Halloween morning almost three years ago. Not because I knew what the name meant, but because that was what the woman in my dream had told me to name it.
          Three days after my eleventh birthday, three years ago, my grandfather took me to the park at the center of Prophecy Creek. At the center of that park, an ash tree stands 3,514 inches tall. It has many names, but on that day, my grandfather calls it the Speaker Tree.
          He led me through the gate in the wrought-iron fence that borders the Tree. We walked into the shade beneath its outermost branches almost a hundred feet from the where the trunk breaks through the ground. When we reached the base of the Speaker Tree, I craned my neck all the way back, looking straight up into the tangled warren of branches that blotted out the sky.
          My grandfather had taken me there, as his grandfather had taken him there on his eleventh birthday almost half-a-century before. This was my real birthday present, he told me: to pick out a branch from the Speaker Tree. To give that branch to Algernon Sloan, a childhood friend of my grandfather's, who worked at the Prophecy Creek Union Library. To let Mr. Sloan carve that branch into a baseball bat. Because in a workshop in the basement of the Library stands an ancient lathe that had come to this continent aboard the transatlantic ship Serenity in 1719.
          I could pick a broken branch out of the grass beneath the tree, my grandfather told me, if that was what I wanted to do. Plenty of them were large enough. But those were dead, he said. If I wanted a bat that would be perfect for me, I'd need a live branch. I'd have to climb.
          I needed little encouragement. The bark of the Tree was pitted and furrowed, creating all the handholds that an eager eleven-year-old would need. I scaled the first fifteen feet of the trunk with brutal determination. The going was slow. My palms were crisscrossed with scrapes and scratches by the time I reached the lowest branch and heaved myself onto it.
          From there, the climb was easy. I stepped from one limb to another with the sure ease of a child who has never suffered a thirty-foot fall. I scrutinized dozens of branches like an expert appraiser. I had no idea what characteristics would make a branch into a good bat.
          But I was going to find the right branch. I was sure of that.
          And as I reached overhead to find another handhold, to heave myself higher into the tree, I gripped onto a jagged branch. I gasped. The image of a baseball field flashed in my mind, like a memory of a dream that I didn't remember having. But I must have, because that image was as clear as if I had seen it yesterday. I looked up at the branch, an ordinary four foot length of wood. It looked like every other branch in this tangled leviathan of a Tree. But it wasn't.
          I hauled myself onto a higher limb, braced myself against the trunk, and yanked sideways on my branch. It fought me for a moment, then came loose with a quick succession of cracks like gunshots. I propped myself against the trunk of the Tree with one hand, hoisted the branch in the other. It weighed four pounds, five inches in diameter at its narrowest point. It was too heavy to use now, but once all the wood that was not bat was shaved away, it would be perfect.
          "Timber!" I called toward the ground, and dropped the branch. It clattered off a couple of limbs on the way down, then thumped into the grass. I followed it, limb by limb, with a kind of reckless glee. I shimmied down that last fifteen feet of branchless trunk, faster than I had on the ascent, and found my grandfather holding that branch. Testing it. He was smiling.
          That evening, my grandfather took me to the Union Library. We arrived five minutes before closing. We brought my branch. My grandfather handed the length of wood to Mr. Sloan, who took it without a word. If anyone in Prophecy Creek was an expert appraiser, it was Algernon Sloan. He looked at the branch for almost thirty seconds, then looked at me. Then he coughed up a thick smoker's laugh as he herded us back toward the doors.
          All he said was, "I'll call you when it's done."
          The night before Halloween, I dreamed of the Speaker Tree and the woman beneath it. I had gone to the park at the center of town by myself. The sun stared down from its noontime zenith in the dream, but the darkness under the canopy of the Tree smelled like midnight and tasted like starlight. A woman sat in the long grass, lounging against the trunk of the tree. She wore the t-shirt of a band called Chorduroy. She held up a jagged four-foot branch in the dim light.
          My branch. Who are you? I asked her.
          She didn't look at me. She stared at the branch. My branch. Andarta.
          I took another step closer. Anne Darta?
          Andarta, she repeated. Then she looked at me. She flashed a soft smile, beauteous and genuine and setting me to rights. I took another step toward her, now within arm's reach. She extended the branch toward me, offering it to me. My branch. "It is finished."
          I reached for the branch. The moment my fingers touched it, I woke into the darkness of my bedroom. I remembered nothing of my dream, but one word flashed in my mind: Andarta.
          Mr. Sloan called my grandfather later that morning to tell him that the bat was finished. We walked to the Creekside Diner, ate breakfast, then hiked back to the Union Library. Mr. Sloan led us to the workshop in the basement. The bat waited on the workbench, sanded, stained, the color of wet sand. Thirty-nine inches long, and thirty-six ounces. I picked it up, gripped the handle, held it out in front of me like a broadsword. I felt invincible holding it. Immortal.
          Mr. Sloan refused to let me take the bat out of the workshop until I gave it a name.
          I told him the first word that appeared in my mind. "Andarta."
          "Andarta," he repeated, savoring the taste of the word. Smiling. He jotted the name and the date and the bat's measurements into a dusty leather-bound register. "Good name."
          So on a muggy Sunday in August, I hoist the 39-inch length of wood, and I feel immortal. On the diamond, Ethan Gibson stands awkwardly at the plate. My stepfather rears back from the circle, delivering a quick three-foot arc that flashes across the plate a second-and-a-half before Ethan hacks. I swing with him, finding my rhythm. The swing earns Ethan his third strike and our team's second out. He trudges back to our dugout, his expression at once haggard and worn and delirious. "I don't know how much longer I can do this, Mike," he tells me, smiling.
          I give him a slap on the shoulder, head for the plate. "I'll see what I can do about that."
          I refit the wriststraps of my batting gloves, carve a shallow trench into the dirt with the toe of my right shoe. I hike up the short left sleeve of my t-shirt, a gesture meant to say: You think you got a gun, belly-itcher, but check out these guns,/i>. It might work if I weighed more than a buck-thirty. I hunker low and catcall: "Let's see what you got left in that arm!"
          My stepfather's lip curls back in a wicked grin. He wheels and fires off a speedpitch that screams across the plate in excess of sixty miles-an-hour. I'm only half-way around when I hear the ball smack thickly into Lexus Nestor's glove. She curses as the pitch stings her palm, but I'm fixed on the man in the circle. He laughs with more than good-natured teasing in his sneer.
          "The ball, Mikey!" a smoky baritone barks from behind the backstop. I step out of the batter's box. Over my shoulder, I spot my grandfather behind the fence, his fingers woven through the chainlinks. "Don't look at the pitcher," he tells me. "Watch the ball."
          I nod, dig my foot back in, turn back to my stepfather. I hoist the 39-inch lumber and glare into his eyes, and I feel invincible. Immortal. "That all?"
          Annoyance flashes hotly across his face. I smirk. "Nah," he says, recovering his malicious grin. "I've been saving this one just for you!"
          He squares up. Hauls back. Whips his arm in a vicious circle. I blink; my mind accelerates. The strip of celluloid that is reality stretches into slow-motion. The ball rolls off my stepfather's fingers as he puts everything in his 41-year-old arm into the pitch. The möbius strip of stitches twirls a mesmerizing pattern. I squint against the darkness and the light, and follow the ball.
          A streak of moonlight winks off the leather, and the world catches up with my mind. I turn my front foot, shift my weight. Three-quarters of a second before it would have been too late, I bring the head of that 39-inch piece of lumber across the plate. The frequency of contact rolls up my arms. I fling the bat into the grass and bolt down the dirt pathway toward first base.
          I hear my grandfather bellow one thrilled syllable: "YEAH!"
          My stepfather flips his glove for a backhand snag, and I swear that he catches it. But then I spot a flash of white behind him lacing itself through the gap. I charge down the line. My sister dives from shortstop, and the ball hops over her glove. Ray Willis hurries in from center field to cover the loose grounder. By the time he scoops it up and flips it to my stepbrother at second, I've already passed Megan Hicks and crossed first base on the run.
          My team roars from the dugout, rumbling the chainlink fence that stops them, barely, from storming the field. I pump a triumphant fist, head back to first base. I'm wheezing, doubled over with my hands on my knees. I can't wipe the fierce smile from my face. I take half-a-minute to catch my breath, stretch, unkinking my overexerted muscles. I draw a deep breath, expand my lungs. I hold it, puff my chest, exhale slowly. When the cramp finally loosens, I take a step off the base, one body-length with my left foot nudged up to the edge of the bag. I hunker low, arms hanging loose, gloved fingertips brushing lightly through the gritty dust.
          Freddy Gutierrez trudges to the lefthanded batter's box. He's a hulking teenager as close to a latter-day George Herman Ruth as any kid I know. He's my secret weapon. He waves a 30-ounce bat across the strikezone one time, then settles his front-foot to the outermost edge of the box, looking ready to sprint toward the dugout. He stares at the pitcher, and my stephfather watches Freddy in return. The rough glare of grudging respect is unmistakable.
          My stepfather reaches back and whips a tight three-foot arc that's a little too low and close to the outside of the plate for my taste. Freddy stands stolid, a living effigy to the gods of the diamond, and watches the ball approach. I can see his eyes tracking its flight path.
          He blinks, sighs. Then his front leg cocks in like a pitcher throwing from the stretch. His front foot drives forward, striking the dirt as his momentum carries thirty ounces of aluminum across the plate. The bat collides with the ball, casts it deep against the greasy night.
          The sharp clinck rolls out across the field like a shockwave. The barrel of the bat snaps off jaggedly, skips across the grass, cartwheels into foul territory down the third base line. The image registers for one instant, and becomes instantly etched in the registry of my memory.
          I've never seen an aluminum bat break on contact before. I've never seen it since.
          I break from the base and know that I'm stopping for nothing short of homeplate. I refuse to look up, afraid of seeing my uncle catch the fly in left, terrified of jinxing a homerun. I nearly trip myself sprinting over second base. Then I hear the musical rattle of the ball ricocheting off the outfield fence. Still fair. Still in play. Night air sears my chest as I glance up.
          Third base stretches away. The muted rumble of feverish screaming crashes against me. I pound around the corner and sprint down those last ninety feet, dredging up everything from the bottom of the tank, knowing that I have no choice but to make it to the plate before the throw.
          A disembodied voice rolls across the infield as someone yells, "COMING HOME!" I feel my legs coming unbuckled beneath me, my knees unhinging. I feel myself stumbling and push one more time one last time once for all time with the last of my infinite will. One final image flashes against the back of my skull, carves itself into the archives of my young life. A man. I'm sure I recognize him, standing behind the backstop, barking words in a smoky baritone:
          "LOOKOUTMI–"
          The rest of the sentence fades behind an explosion of everywherelight. Fire rips through my head. My eyeglasses jerk from my face, somersault through the dusty night in a kaleidospectric burst. And then I'm careening through a deepdark forever as my motor functions shut down.
          I tumble crosswise, spinning out, my body crashing across the plate. My mind collapses end-over-end, dipwhirlrushing down a smoky corridor from the force of its own absurd inertia. I convince myself that I've died. I spiral through time out of mind, a mind out of time, and as I accept the inescapability of this broad infinity, I smell midnight and taste starlight.
          I blink, and find myself sitting in the long grass beneath the Speaker Tree, lounging against the trunk. And sitting beside me is a woman wearing a t-shirt of a band called Chorduroy. Her silver hair shimmers against the shadows, and her teal eyes glimmer as she watches me.
          She laughs lightly, like she's been expecting me, and says: It's been a while.
          Anne Darta, I answer as the name presents itself to my disjointed mind.
          She flashes that soft smile, the one that's beauteous and genuine and sets me to rights. That smile ignites a warmth inside my chest. Like I've delighted her. Like I've proven my worth.
          I got a hit, I tell her. She nods, because she already knows. I think I scored.
          Then you have to get back to the game, she tells me. You have to finish.
          Why? I ask her, even though I already know the answer. I've known it since I was six, when my grandfather took me to my first Phillies game at Veterans Stadium, and I watched Al Oliver and Ozzie Virgil and Juan Samuel and Mike Schmidt lose to the Cubs in twelve innings.
          Because the game is the clockwork of the World, she tells me.
          I nod. The idea makes sense. Most because I know that when she says world, she doesn't mean the planet Earth, or the population of living human beings, or an international government agency. She means something infinitely bigger, broader, more abstract. She means the stitching that holds together all of reality. She doesn't mean the world. She means the World.
          I don't know if we can win, I say. Even though I know it doesn't matter.
          She just smiles that beauteous smile, and tells me: You can't. You're going to lose.
          I laugh. I can appreciate her honesty. Then what's the point?
          Now she turns to me. Her eyes are hard. To play.
          I nod again. That also makes sense, and has for a long time.
          It's true that it doesn't matter whether you win or lose, she continues. As long as someone wins and someone loses. As long as the innings get played, the rest will work itself out.
          How many more innings do we have to play? I ask. Even though I know it doesn't matter.
          She sighs, looks up into the branches. You've got miles to go before you sleep.
          I almost ask her what she means by that, then don't. It sounds like a fancy way of saying "a lot," and that's fine by me. We could go on playing until September if that's what it takes.
          I turn to the woman to ask her a question, and immediately forget what it is. She's still looking up into the branches of the Speaker Tree, and now I hear a distant sound from overhead. It's a faintly familiar sound, like a branch clattering off limbs on its way toward the ground. I look up, see nothing in that tangled warren blotting out the sky, then look back to the woman.
          Now she's looking at me, almost apologetically, and tells me: This is going to hurt.
          I nod for the last time. I'm not surprised. Not even a little. Will I ever see y
          The rest of the sentence fades behind an explosion of everywherelight. Fire rips through my head, and I flash fiercely frontwise into my own head. My eyes snap open all at once alive.
          A hazy face swims into view, a scarlet garniture framing delicate features. The girl moves her mouth, forms words. I blink, and she resolves further, and I hear the soft lilt of her voice as she says, "holy shit, Mike, are you okay?"
          I don't answer. I'm too busy getting reacquainted with the odd sensations of a body that lies folded across five-and-a-half feet of smeared dirt. Then my thoughts are overridden by a fitful twinge shooting through my right arm. I'm lying on top of it. I try to move, feel the weight of the World piled inside my head. I wince, and see that redheaded girl above me.
          "MICHAEL!" she barks at me. Then, closer, "Can you hear me!?"
          "Is this Heaven?" I ask finally, hesitant, my voice a whisper.
          I hear several people trying not to laugh. I conclude that this is probably not Heaven. "No," she says, and I see Lexus Nestor's sarcastic smirk. "It's Iowa."
          I grin back, and untwist my right arm. By the time I squeeze myself all the way back into my skull, I'm able to get my feet back under me. I push myself shakily upward. Ethan flanks my right while Lexus patrols my left. Halfway up, I see a grizzled hand in front of me. I follow the arm to find it connected to my grandfather. He smirks softly. "Get up, tough guy."
          I smirk back and take his hand. He pulls me out of the dirt to a smattering of applause. My head feels full of lead, a dull throbbing beating inside my brain. I look to Freddy, still in the basepath between third and home, and ask him, "what happened?"
          "Your cousin pinged you from third," he explains, impressed.
          I find Miriam nearby. Concern still stitches across her brow. I grin. "Thanks for that."
          "Anytime," she says with a relieved laugh.
          My convoy passes through the swinging gate, and a girl watches me from the grandstands. Everyone watches me, but this girl stares at me. Spellbound. Speechless. Like she knows me, or thinks that she should. Like she remembers dreaming of me once before, in another life, even though her rational mind knows that she's never seen me before. I try to look at her, to see if I recognize her. To remember her. I only get one brief look as my team shuttles me back to the dugout. I see silver hair and teal eyes and nothing else. Whatever else there is to see is eclipsed by those two features. I couldn't pick her out of a line-up to save my life.
          Then we're in the concrete bunker of the dugout. I slump onto the wooden bench, lean against the cinderblock wall with Ethan to my right. Jared and Dawn and Lexus and Dale Tippens – Dale who we started calling "Foul" after a twenty-two-pitch at-bat in the 19th inning – mill distractedly. Jeromy takes a few hacks in the on-deck circle, then steps to the plate.
          A curious mumbling rolls and ebbs around me. Never substantial enough to understand. Constant. Immutable. Jeromy swings wildly and misses a ball around his knees. Dale reminds him that we're playing softball, not golf. I squint into the lights, now brighter and sharper than I remember. I shake my head to clear that static whine.
          "Look on the bright side—" Ethan starts.
          "Right now," I answer before he finishes, "all the sides are bright." The observation strikes me as inexplicably hilarious, and I laugh.
          Ethan grins at that, hiding his concern. "You got us back into the game."
          I cough up a dry laugh. At least some good came of my soaking. "There's that."
          Then out of that curious mumbling I hear a woman's voice, distinct and strangely separate. Like a voice out of a dream from another lifetime, creeping in from the edge of dusk.
          You got a hard head, kid, she tells me, smiling. Beauteous. Genuine. Setting me to rights.
          "Yeah," I laugh. I wonder who this new commentator in the pressbox of my mind is, then dismiss the question as meaningless. I miss the look of confusion flicker across Ethan's face, and we've both forgotten by the time the next pitch reaches the plate. Jeromy connects with his best homerun swing, rocketing the ball deep and forgotten into the midnight infinity.
          Megan catches the pop-up two feet into foul territory.
          The game rolls over into the 43rd inning.
END

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