- Excerpts -
In Brigand's Woods
Oh, to be eighteen again, the fire of freedom in every step. To be young and alive while a life of untapped potential lay unfurled before you. But then circumstance pulls back the happy veil that has shrouded you lo these many years, and you find yourself running for your life through a darkened wood.
After midnight, June 6th
The sky and the ground reversed their positions and Jimmy Swansby landed hard on his back. His wind went out with a grunt. He tried to suck it back in but the oxygen had accrued mass and his constricted throat would not allow it to pass. Rolling onto his stomach he tried to catch his breath. His face and hands came up thick with the grime of the forest floor. He was panicking and that wasn’t helping him to regain his air any quicker.
Again he attempted to perform the simple function of taking a breath.
Again none came.
Through a sheer force of will he settled himself, and his lungs slowly began to accept the air he was struggling to drag into them. He wheezed and his throat burned, the immediate pain was unbearable but it receded as the air began slowly to flow, and with each labored breath he regained a bit of mental control.
He was breathing.
With that hurtle in his past he moved onto the next, the woods surrounding him and any impending threat that might be lurking therein. His eyes darted across his field of vision absorbing his immediate vicinity, processing every shred of data his overwrought brain could handle.
All was still.
He rubbed lightly at the sore spot on his chest as he stumbled to a knee then regained his feet. Every breath he now managed rattled, too loud in the still night air. Terror began its infiltration. Its appearance, sudden and feverish, preyed upon his instinct and kept him rooted to the spot he stood. Like a spotted deer. It was foolish, for in the moment that’s exactly what he was, a deer in headlights; a paralyzed target.
Jimmy Swansby had not found himself in this rotten patch of forest of his own volition, and now he was being chased; hunted. He may not know by whom, but the intentions of those pursuing him could not have been any clearer. The more time he spent standing there thinking, the more the panic crawled all over him.
It was time to move.
Directly in front of him he could see the low hanging branch that had caught him in the chest. He had been running full tilt, and in the darkened gloom it had been all but invisible. He fought down a fresh wave of rising panic and then, heedless of direction, was about to start running again when he realized the forest around him was silent. The distant shouts had dissipated or disappeared.
When he had smacked into the branch he had been running wild, driven solely by instinct. Someone had been chasing him, crashing through the brush somewhere behind him. His ears still echoed with the shouts of angry men prepared to commit violence without thought.
His fear was palpable, a thing of substance. He turned around himself, his movements awkward and jerky. His head was filled with wisps of sound, remnants of the calls of the men who had given chase. Jimmy had been running blind; terror driving him. But then the sudden pain as he was smacked in his chest, accompanied by more excruciating pain as he landed on his back amid sticks and rocks, followed by a white light eclipsing his vision as he rapped his head on the unyielding forest floor.
But now there was nothing.
Not a single human sound.
He rounded on himself again in a slow circle trying to see everything at once. Between the dense growth of the forest and the darkness around him teetering towards full, looming shapes dominated the landscape.
“Where are they?”
The sound of an audible voice speaking so close to him almost caused him to scream out loud. He realized, just in time to stifle it, that he had actually muttered the words aloud himself. He surveyed his surroundings again, this time with his ears as much as his eyes. Questions began to race through his already dizzy head. What the hell had happened? Where were the others? Could they have been caught? By whom they may have been caught was a bigger question than he could possibly consider at the moment.
There was no opportunity to formulate any answers or even reconstruct what had happened since they climbed out of the van. Oh, the van. The van felt like hours ago. In truth it couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes since he had slid the big side door shut and stood in the shadow of the old farmhouse.
A twig snapped.
Somewhere off to his right, too close for comfort. Panic returned, slamming into his heart and chest harder than the errant tree branch had. Without another thought he took off in a dead sprint, running blind into the shadows of gnarled, twisting tree limbs.
The Devil's Paddle
And breathe deep, he did, the gathering gloom.
The darkness around him stood in stark relief to the small pool of light in which he stood. The majority of his body was tensed, his dominant arm pinned tight behind his back, his hand clutched tight around the contents therein. His left arm, the weaker of the set, an issue with which he took much umbrage, was not tensed but hung loose at his side.
He stared into the black beyond the netting.
The aforementioned netting was strung tight on all sides. Taut like chain-link, it spread across the entirety of his field of vision. Remnants of old duct tape that had once formed a target upon the surface still clung to it. The top corner of one of the few remaining pieces of tape was peeling and hung down askew with its back showing. It was marred, black with crud, long stuck to the formerly tacky surface. But the tape and its intended purpose was nothing to him. It was a crutch meant for amateurs. His focus was pin-point and finite and instinct would guide his hand as it had a thousand times before, he would need nothing more.
The babble from the radio behind him disappeared into the night air unheard for the moment. When the broadcast returned from commercial so too would his interest in it but now all was lost to him but the sweet spot beyond the netting.
The outside world encroached and his concentration broke.
Not broken by the radio but by voices from the house. He looked in that direction but the single floodlight that supplied him his small swath of light shone into his eyes eclipsing all else. He chose the spot he stood intentionally, the feel of the light helped to achieve the atmosphere he strived for, but now he wished that he could see into the kitchen. He had been distracted by the voices from that direction because the cadence and intensity of the conversation had spiked.
His dad and Lisa were arguing.
An occurrence that was not exactly rare as of late. His dad had told him that they weren't fighting, he said that he didn't even like to use the word 'arguing'. What was going on between them was not necessarily combative. It was much more complex than that. So, his dad had said, but to a ten-year-old boy it seemed like fighting. Or at the very least, arguing.
He put his dad and Lisa and their complex adult issues from his mind and returned his focus to the task at hand. The arm behind his back had not slipped but the tension had drained. He rotated the ball in his hand and replaced his fingers on the raised seams. Then he waited. He waited for the radio.
Major League Baseball had recently gone to the new wildcard format for the playoffs and his favorite nine, his Boys of Summer were playing game 163. A one game playoff to see which wildcard team would advance. And now he waited for his favorite player, his Closer to take the mound in the top of the ninth and put an end to someone’s season. To salt away a one run victory.
The darkness that surrounded him outside of his little circle of light and beyond the patio at the back of the house was, in actuality, a large darkened forest. But he could not see the outline of a single tree. To him the encompassing woods had ceased to exist. In his head he could hear the crowd up in Minneapolis, not quite a roar yet, but building to it as the moment approached. He could smell the ballpark, the brats, the peanut shells, even the beer. He thought that beer was gross but it was part of the experience and he wouldn't strike it, not even from an alternate atmosphere created solely in his mind.
Then the radio was back.
The roar of the actual crowd coming through the radio mixed with the din coming from the crowd in his head. Provo and the Dazzle-Man cracked the microphone and announced that Jack Mavis had taken the mound. Both crowds ratcheted up the volume another notch. The guys did some light radio analysis while Jack finished his warm-up tosses. He adored Jack Mavis. Jack was the best pitcher that he'd ever seen. He rotated the ball that was in his own hand one last time, realigning the seams and placing his fingers appropriately across them. Now he waited for Jack.
The Dazzle-Man wrapped up his analysis and Provo took up the call.
He heard every word that was said and yet he heard nothing. He shook off the first sign put down by the catcher in tandem with the description of what Mavis did on the mound. Everything he did, every piece of his ten-year-old mechanics was based on Jack. He nodded again in perfect time with the call and in unison they went through their wind-up and let the fastball fly. His follow-through pulled him forward off of his imaginary mound. He immediately set his feet and whipped his glove up in front of his face.
"Swing and a miss!" came the call from the radio.
The ball rocketed off the netting of the pitch-back and thumped solidly into the glove that was set right before his eyes. He dropped the glove, switched the ball back to his throwing hand, and stepped back to his makeshift mound. He resumed his stance and again waited for Jack. He waited while the batter stepped out, adjusted his gloves and stepped back into the batter's box. The batter dug in and he and Jack set their stance.
And then they were in motion again.
"Swing and a miss! Strike two."
The ball rebounded and smacked his glove again in the exact same spot as the previous pitch, right in front of his eyes. He went back to the mound. Set his stance, and waited.
"Strike 3! Mavis blew it right by him!"
Thump. The carom hit his glove again.
He switched the ball back.
Three strikes on three pitches. Up in Minneapolis Jack was feeling it, here in Lisa’s backyard, he was feeling it. They were in the zone. He went back to the mound to wait. The next batter stepped into the box and it began anew.
"Swing and a miss, Mavis touched ninety-eight on that fastball."
Thump. The ball hit his glove.
"Strike two! He chased on the slider."
"Locked him up! Called strike three! That's two down on six pitches!"
He switched the ball to his throwing hand but didn't return to his makeshift mound. He walked around it instead. Here in the backyard, some fifty miles south of the ballpark he could feel the pressure. He couldn’t even fathom how guys like Jack could handle it. It must be intense, but that was what made the game great. He devoured anything that had to do with baseball and he knew what an immaculate inning was. Three strikeouts on nine straight pitches happened, but it was rare. It was like being witness to a triple play, or an in-the-park homerun.
But he was getting ahead of himself.
In the time that he had been roaming around his makeshift mound the opposing manager had opted for a pinch hitter to avoid the lefty on lefty matchup and now the new hitter stepped into the batter’s box and dug in. Along with Mavis, he took his own place and prepared to pitch. In unison they took the sign, nodded, and went into the wind-up.
"Another swing and a miss!"
The intensity of the crowd kicked up yet another notch, they were on their feet but he didn’t need the radio to tell him that. He could see it. His fantasy had blended with the reality seamlessly and Lisa’s backyard was no more.
Jack went into his motion. He did the same.
"Strike two! Mavis elevated the fastball and Escobar swung at a pitch that was up in his eyes!"
Again, he stepped off the mound. He removed his ball cap and wiped his brow with his forearm. They were one strike away from not only an immaculate inning but moving on in the playoffs as well. He replaced his ball cap and fought down the excitement that was trying to engulf him. He took his spot and waited. Provo announced to him that Jack toed the rubber and shook off the first sign again.
Together they shook off the second one.
"Come on Hardy, give him the fastball." He muttered into the night air.
"Hardy sets the sign and Jack gives him the nod, and here's the pitch."
They went into their wind-up. They kicked their legs in tandem, their arms come over the top, and then the ball was in flight.
As the pitch came out of his hand, Danny Boyd knew it wasn’t right. Time slipped and it took forever for the orb to travel the 60 feet to the plate. He could hear the crowd roaring through the radio. The entirety of the world stood still and the rubber band that was time, stretched. It stretched right up to the breaking point, but it held, it did not fracture. And then it shot back into true and the ball crossed the plate.
"Strike three! Strike three!” Provo screamed through the radio. “Mavis burned him with the flamethrower! We're moving on and Jack Mavis just tossed an immaculate inning to make it happen!"
Danny’s own ball hit the pitch-back wrong.
It had dropped from high to low in the strike zone and missed the sweet spot. It rocketed up in the air and over his head. He whipped around and watched it go, like a homerun ball, sailing off into the darkness of the woods.
He walked, dazed, out to the edge of the throw of light and stopped.
Provo and the Dazzle-Man were going nuts on the radio behind him but now he felt detached. He was excited, and glad there would be another game in a couple of days but that last pitch altered him somehow, blunting the enthusiasm that he should be feeling. He looked back at the radio, at the pitch-back, at his imaginary created environment, and then he returned his gaze to the woods.
He stared out into the dark, into the heart of the night, a land of shadows.
And then he stepped out of the light.