Story of baseball, friends, and tragedy as a Texas teen tries to make the National Team.
|Chapter 1We turned onto Lakeland Avenue carrying our baseball bags. I attempted to balance myself on the end of sidewalk but failed, stepping into the narrow, two-lane road. WHOOSHH!!! My heart leaped into my lungs watching the car that nearly hit me speed away. “Geez, Jones, do you want me to hold your hand or something?” Jason Thompson offered. “Marcus, stay out of the street! “Kyle Netherham urged.A bashful smile spread across my face. I paused to swing the bag to my other shoulder hoping to deflect the attention away from me.Joel Sussman followed closely behind giggling. His almond shaped brown eyes hid beneath sunglasses. He was the shortest out of the group with neatly combed brown hair that was barely visible from under his hat. “Boys! Good luck today!” a man yelled from across the street, peaking from behind a spiral shaped bush. “Thank you!” Kyle and Jason responded in unison. Joel leaned to me and asked, “Who was that?” “Mr. Rosner, the owner of Rosner and Sons Auto Shop on Belton Drive. My dad says he lives in his yard.”
Judging by the appearance of his lawn, that was not hard to believe. Like many on the street, his home sat back from the road. Dozens of trees comfortably hugged his house. In front, the line of vibrant flowers and shrubs seemed endless. Under one of the trees, the wooden swing beside the fountain looked like the perfect place to escape the heat.
Kyle nodded his head. “Interesting that he knows who we are.”
Jason sucked his teeth. “By now Kyle, who in Spring doesn’t know who we are?”
Despite Jason’s confidence, even if we didn’t play I knew most people in town would know who we were. In fact, it felt as if everyone in Spring, Texas knew everyone else. We were a small town that loved town gatherings and baseball. Many times, the festivals and block parties would be held on the same day as baseball games, resulting in huge crowds at our home park. Being a part of the town’s most successful team put the four of us at the forefront of a lot of attention.
“Bellaire won States last year?” I asked
Jason nodded, “Not this year though.”
Jason’s tone was only matched by his confident look. His unbutton jersey relaxed off his broad shoulders. He sported a backwards hat that he sat way toward the back of his head so that his sandy colored hair was in full view. Jason’s seemed to always beam with confidence through his large bluish-steel colored eyes.
Joel removed his green-tinted sunglasses, placing them in his back pocket. Lakeland Avenue was unlike most streets in our small town. Large plush trees, blessing the town with cherished relief from the boiling summer sun, covered the entire three-mile stretch. With average summer temperature in the mid-nineties, I was glad our field was nestled in a park just down the road.
“It might rain tomorrow,” I said.
“Not today right?” Jason questioned.
“Don’t think so.”
As we past underneath one of the four stoplights in town, I continued to swing my bag back and forth. Jason gazed over at children playing in a yard nearby. Their ball bounced over in our direction. Jason stopped it with his foot and gently tossed it back. He waved and smiled at the children. While Kyle and Jason argued back and forth about the difficulty level of today’s State Championship game, I remained silent. Jason really was my best friend out of the group. I thought about all our crazy times earlier in the summer. In late June my parents invited Jason on our vacation to Freeport, Texas. To make a long story short, Jason and I spent seven hours trying to find our way back to the hotel. I chuckled.
“What’s up Marcus?” Jason asked, looking back at me.
“Just thinking about Freeport.”
He busted out laughing, looking off into the distance.
“Didn’t you cry when the crab snapped you?” Kyle asked, already knowing the answer. “I didn’t cry...”
A couple houses down, a girl emerged and began walking in our direction. I recognized her immediately.
“Hey boys! You are going to do so great today!”
Jason reached his arm out, stopping the girls in their tracks.
“Umm, you’re going the opposite direction, Joelle. The field is that way.”
She grinned. “I am heading to Dominique’s house to hurry her up. Don’t worry, we will be there screaming our heads off.
Joelle was a little shorter than I was. Although, her long silky smooth legs always made others believe she was taller. Her long strawberry-blonde hair flowed tamely behind her impeccable body. Joelle’s mesmerizing eyes were as blue as the spring afternoons that seemed to last forever. Her skin seemed to glow as bright as the sun without the shade of Lakeland Avenue.
I snapped out of my daze, hoping she hadn’t caught me staring.
“Hey, Joelle. How are you doing?”
She smiled, “Great. You must be nervous though.”
I shrugged, “You are definitely coming right?”
I had just noticed my body swaying side to side. I took a deep breath.
“Wouldn’t miss it.”
Her sparkling eyes froze the words right on my tongue. Minutes seemed to past by.
“Well good luck again and I will see you at the field. Hi Joel.”
Joel and I gave identical waves as the Joelle floated past us and continued down the street.
“Joelle so likes you Marcus.” Jason smiled
“Be quiet Jason! She is right there.”
“She couldn’t stop staring at you.”
Never, had I considered myself attractive. All the attention received from girls at school could be contributed to baseball. I am not the usual Texan. I think I have my parents to thank for that. A dark complexion for one made me stand out from most other kids in the town. My dark eyes I hoped masked any accessibility to my heart. In the summer heat, I always kept my black hair short and cropped. My friends liked to call it a buzz cut, although it was just the way black people liked to keep their hair. They also liked to point out my unusually bushy eyebrows whenever a few strands went astray. Even though I was one of the tallest in my grade and one of fastest thirteen year olds around, I could never seem to outrun my own thoughts.
Kyle had stomped three houses ahead of us
“Kyle, wait up” I yelled. We finally caught up to him.
“Joelle is pretty, we all know that! You are standing there talking about them when we have a championship game in an less than an hour.”
Joel, Jason, and I sighed and began to pick up the pace to keep up with Kyle.
“It doesn’t hurt to be loose for the game,” Jason muttered.
“I don’t want to be late because you three are acting like fifth graders. Oh she’s cute! I want to go out with her! Just focus on the game.”
No one responded to Kyle’s complaining. That is where he differed from the rest of us. His ruddy face hardly ever wore a smile. Even at his age, wrinkles were starting to form at the corners of his mouth. Kyle stood taller than me, just inches below six feet. He always appeared to be towering over us with a grimace or glare, disapproving of what he called ‘juvenile’ behavior. His spiked brown hair really did not fit his personality.
The field finally began to come into view. Cars jammed the side road leading into the parking lot. The sight made my heart leap.
“Looks like the whole town is already here.” Jason gleamed. “I tell you what, this is nothing compared to what it will be like in Puerto Rico.”
“Jason! Game tonight! Focus!” Kyle yelled at him.
I smiled wide, patting Jason on the head. “You will find out tonight whether you made it or not.”
I had lost count how many times Jason had mentioned the World Championships. The tournament was scheduled to get under way in two weeks. The roster for the team representing the United States would be announced sometime after our game. Word had got out that the National Team coach would call the members of the team. It was no surprise that many considered Jason a lock for the team. His talent was unquestioned.
Jason turned to me.
“Marcus, I’m excited. You of all people know how I get. I told you back in May the summer was going to be special. We win tonight and get picked for the National Team…”
He continued to ramble despite the growing anger on Kyle’s face. Seeing his excitement, I was not about to squash his enthusiasm.
The unforgiving sun had turned the parking lot gravel into hot coals. Even through my shoes I could feel the burning, weaving in and out of traffic. The sound of friendly horns trailed me as Joel and I reached the gate and pulled it open.
“Hey Kevin!” Jason yelled to the youngest member of our team.
Kevin Jastrow brushed his curly brown hair from his face and waved back. Jason knew more about him than any one of us. He constantly brought Kevin up in conversations. The occasional greeting in school or in practice was the extent of our interactions.
I rocked to the left and then to the right.
“No reason to worry,” I tried to convince myself.
Jason came up behind me.
I shrugged my shoulders peering into the crowded bleachers. Even though large crowds were normal at our field, this beat them all by far. Win or lose, I knew the sea of black and red that surrounded our field would still cheer us. However, I wanted a championship in the worse way. Not just for me, but for the people in this town that believed in me and cared about me despite my difference. I squeeze my fingers between the chain-link fence as Bellaire finished warming up in the infield. Most of the time, the difference was minute. Many had seen me my toddler years and I had grown up in the eyes of the entire town. I played ever sport, went to public school, and covered the entire town on Halloween. Very few times, like when we played Bellaire, the difference was divisive. My grip tightened on the fence as my gaze was fixed on the field.
Jason followed my eyes to its target, “They are going to wish they never treated you that way.”
I knew they would. The blood seething through my body made me certain that I would have a huge game. There something else that was trying to seep its way in, but my anger shoved it away. My focus fell back on the suffocating crowd.
“I think everyone from our class is here.”
Jason placed his hand just above the number fourteen on my back. I let out a sigh.
“We’ve played at least a hundred games here. Just treat it like any other.”
I pulled my hat down tight. “It’s easy for you to say because you’re never nervous.”
Jason was now in front me. When my wandering eyes finally fell on his, he smiled.
“Look, Marcus. I will be out there, Kyle will be out there, and Joel will be right beside you in leftfield. It’s just like a couple weeks ago when we took on those creeps in the park. No one can beat us if we are all on the same field together.”
As much as I felt like vomiting, I knew he was right. What did I really have to worry about? I had played countless number of games in front of my peers at school. The mornings of hallway high-fives and hugs ran through my mind. I grinned at Jason.
“What would I ever do without you?”
He patted me on my head. “The same as always…play ball.”
“Amazing trophy Jason” Joel said.
We were the closest to Jason among the crowd of classmates who made it to my house shortly after the game ended. Jason grinned at Joel, handing him the trophy.
“You deserve it just as much as I do. Those two hits were huge.”
I doubt Joel heard most of what Jason said. He pressed his lips together, trying to concentrate on the safety of the trophy amid the mass.
“I’m just glad we pulled it out,” I added.
I took a few steps backward in the corner of the basement near the television. It was the only place I could stand out of the view of most people. Our State Championship medals were on full display on the Ping-Pong table near the center of the room. Joel walked over and added Jason’s Most Outstanding Player award to the haul. Despite having to work the next day, my parents had allowed me to have a celebration. But there were so many people, faces that were familiar but still so many. I weaved in and out of people whose hands gently touched my back. One hand grabbed my arm and forced me to a halt.
“Where are you going?”
“Upstairs for a minute,” I responded, without turning around.
Dominique moved her hand to my shoulder in a patronizing, “Joelle will be here soon if you are wondering.”
That thought had passed through my mind a few times, but at this moment my basement was closing in around me.
“I know you like her. Who doesn’t? She is really pretty.
I sucked my teeth.
“Anyway, I just got here. Congratulations on the win. You were great.”
I looked away without answering her.
Dominique’s tanned complexion showed off her passion of relaxing by the pool in her backyard across town. Her personality, however, was anything but relaxed. She was the anti-me, which was probably why she was my best female friend. One of my jobs seemed to be calm Dominique down multiple times during any given school day. In return, Dominique was the best next to Jason at solving my anxiety issues.
She fixed her wispy bangs, tossing them above her round, expressive coffee-colored eyes.
“Be back in a minute Nique.”
I heard someone enter the living room.
“Hey” I sighed.
Jason was smartly dressed in a dark blue polo shirt and tan cargo shorts. His defined arms stretched the sleeves of his shirt. The matching hat was turned backwards, again situated on the very top of his head.
“Taking a break from all the excitement downstairs?”
Jason stood over me, staring intently at my weary expression. He raised an imaginary microphone to his mouth.
“This is when Marcus feels suffocated by his success and forgets how exciting this is.”
“You know me so well” I said.
“Just enjoy this Marcus. Everyone is here because they are happy for us.”
I sat up and faced my best friend.
“Jason, you are going to be on the team. Me...i don't know. What if I don't make it? I am waiting for a call that may never come. We have built this up so much over the summer and the day is finally here. It just sucks know that you are probably going to Worlds without me.”
“I’ll let my parents get it.”
A few seconds went by.
“…Or I’ll get it!”
I ambled to the door with Jason following closely behind. I flung the door open and nearly jumped out of my skin. Joelle stood on my front step glowing at me.
Jason threw an elbow into my ribs.
“…Hi Joelle” I managed.
The tightness in my head gradually moved to my stomach.
“Where is everyone?” she asked looking around behind me.
“Downstairs” Jason pointed. “Come on.”
She was casually dress in a jean skirt and red tank top. Her toenails brilliantly matched her shirt.
Even commotion at the downstairs door failed to draw my eyes from Joelle.
“Actually, do you mind if I talk you for a minute?”
I looked over my shoulder to Jason, who looked back at me. Looking back to Joelle, I realized who she was talking to.
I could hear Jason chuckling under his breath. I failed to muster anything that resembled a word or sound. Luckily I had Jason.
“Marcus, I’ll be downstairs.”
He slipped back in and closed the large beige door. I followed just behind Joelle, making sure not to step on the back of her pearl white flip flops. I carefully monitored my steps, stopping momentarily when I felt too close.
What is she going to say?
The sun peaked over the house across the street just enough hurt my eyes. They found a more pleasing canvas. A momentarily swift gust made the end of my shirt flap in the air. Pit stains would have been horribly embarrassing at the moment. I checked just in case. Joelle looked relaxed, as she always did. Her hair swayed beneath a white headband in the warm, almost sticky draft. She too gazed across the street, me hanging on every movement. Joelle continued to walk ahead until the falling sun was too much for her.
“It’s such a beautiful evening,” she said.
I stopped, hoping Joelle didn’t think I was too stupid. I closed my eyes, trying to remember a tip that my mom had given me in the 5th grade.
“It sure is.”
Joelle glanced at me and smiled. The same radiant smile that numerous times sent me into a daze in math class that school year.
“I am really happy for you Marcus. You are always so nice in school.”
“I try to be” I said, swaying from side to side.
The quietness of 63rd Avenue made it feel as if we were the only two people in the world.
“You have a good heart. Everyone can see that.”
The door opened behind us, then closed quickly.
“Any word on World's yet?” She asked.
“Nope, Jason got his call just after the game.” I said.
Joelle dropped her head. “It’s okay. You were great today. You have been all summer and at least I won't have to miss you now.”
“Miss me?” The butterflies were replaced by birds crashing into the walls of my stomach.
“Yes...If you aren't doing anything tomorrow I would love to go for a walk or something.”
“Marcus” my dad called.
He waved for me to come in. I had been away from the party for a while. Unconsciously I slipped my hand into Joelle's and came toward the house. Shivers past through me when she didn't pull away. I reached the basement door when my dad held the phone in front of me without saying anything. I took it and placed it to my ear.
“Hi Marcus. This is Coach Mike Garbey for the U.S. National Team.”
There were those butterflies again. Joelle seized my hand even tighter as she moved closer.
“Congratulations on your win today. You and your teammates were impressive in knocking off Bellaire. I was just calling to extend an invitation to the National Team. I think with your speed and tremendous ability, you would be a big part of this team.”
I couldn't move. The gigantic smile on my face told the whole story. Joelle began to jump around, kissed me on the cheek, and bolted away.
“Yes Coach. I would be glad to join the team.”
I didn't hear the rest of the conversation. My dad engulfed me in a bear hug before taking back the phone and continuing the conversation with Coach Garbey. I floated down the stairs hearing nothing. Gliding over the last step, the basement erupted. Dominique threw her arms around me. Joel and Jason jumped up and down, embracing each other. Kyle stood gleaming from ear to ear.
“I TOLD YOU WE WOULD ALL MAKE IT,” Jason boasted
Around 11:30 and three more calls later, my raucous house began to finally empty.
“So can I talk about the World Championships now Kyle?”
All of us began to crack up.
Kyle smiled broadly and said, “Yes you can, Jason.”
“I wish you wouldn’t have been so nervous Marcus. I told you everything would work out,” Jason said.
I tossed poured dozens of half full cans of soda into the sink. My mind swirled.
“I’ve had dreams about playing on the National team all summer. It would have sucked not to make it.”
Dominique threw her arms around me for the fifth time since the phone call. Her smile had never left.
“If you ask me Jason, you were a bit insensitive to his worries; not everyone can be like you…totally oblivious to others feelings” Dominique said.
This was going to get good. If there was anyone who could get under Jason’s skin, it was Dominique. Arguments between the two should have been televised. The contrast was amazing between them. Dominique had just insulted Jason with the sweetest tone possibly. This never failed to tick Jason off even more.
“I AM NOT BEING INSEN—Whatever you said! I just really think he has nothing to worry about. I know his feelings more than anyone. He is my best friend. “
We knew the next salvo from Dominique was to call out Jason’s feelings. Kyle inched closer to Jason, wearing a noticeable smirk on his face.
“Why are you getting sooo upset Jason?
A different side of Dominique was starting to come out. This version wanted nothing more than an explosion from Jason.
“HEY!” I roared.
I might as well had turned off everyone’s favorite television show.
“I think they are talking about the team.”
I seized the remote control and turned up the volume. “With the Junior World Championships only two weeks away, the American team was announced tonight by new manager Mike Garbey. Garbey, one of the assistants from last year’s seventh place team, takes over for Coach Donald Taylor.”
Jason interrupted our focus. “That’s the coach from New Jersey who won the state championship last year.”
“SHUSH JASON!” Dominique demanded. I took a deep breath and increased the volume a little more. Everyone stared intently at the screen.
“The nine-time defending world champion Cuban team will not be competing in these worlds because of a rash of injuries and illnesses. Their absence makes six-time runner up, Japan, the favored team. Chinese Taipei, the bronze medalists each of the past two Championships, looks to improve their standing while unveiling a kid who they are calling the best prospect since the great Shoo Han-Wuan. The experience of these two perennial powerhouses contrast the extreme inexperience of the Americans. Their team will be made up of first-year players, all under fourteen-years- old. No players are back from last year’s club. Garbey is looking to begin a rebuilding process, cleansing the U.S. team of internal problems that doomed the past two National teams.”
“Rebuilding process? How do they expect the U.S. to compete with all first-years?” Joel whispered.
I shrugged, “Maybe they don’t.”
“… Here are the players coach Mike Garbey has selected to represent the United States: from the Panhandle of Florida: Jeff Boutwell, Heath and Camden Anderson, Clete Thomas; two players that Garbey has coached for three years in New Jersey: Todd Frazier and Scott Fisher; Washington’s Duke Welker …”
“Do you know any of these boys?” Dominique asked.
I shook my head.
“… Cypress, California’s Cory Campbell. The Woodlands, Texas will send Mark Sauls and Bill Bailey to the team. From nearby Spring, Texas ...The most outstanding player of today’s National Championship game, Jason Thompson, will be looked to as one of the leaders of this team. Joining him will be: Joel Sussman, Marcus Jones, Kyle Netherham, and Kevin Jastrow …”
Joel shook his head repeatedly, “I still think this is a dream.”
Dominique yawned, “I know. It's amazing. But guys get a move on. I have to get home. I doubt my mom will let me spend the night.”
We all looked at each other strangely.
“No way you’re spending the night!” Jason remarked.
I agreed, “Sorry, he’s right. That will never happen. You’re just not one of the guys.”
She rolled her eyes, “Lucky me!”
By midnight everyone went their separate ways. Jason lingered in my backyard. I joined him staring at the cloudless night sky. Stars sparkled in every corner of the heavens.
Jason shook his head and approached my fence.
“What?” I asked him.
“Two weeks we’ll be staring at this same sky in beautiful Puerto Rico.”
He cleared the fence effortlessly, like he had down countless number of times before.
“It’s going to be amazing,” I responded softly. I headed toward my backdoor.
“You know what Marcus?”
I turned back to him.
“You are my best friend in the whole world. Against us, the rest of the world doesn’t stand a chance.”
I grinned. “No they don’t.”
Even after a second deep, long breath, the uneasiness remained. Going to sleep late last night, my brand new cellphone, presented to me by my parents even earlier had not stopped ringing in the few hours it had been in my possession. The constant phone calls had also forced me to realize of what being picked to the National team actually meant. In the past minute I had turned every which way in my soft bed, trying to find a comfort spot.
This is going to be wild. Two and a half weeks in Puerto Rico with my friends.
My phone came to life again. The attention embarrassed me. Even though my dream had come true, I was beginning to feel a burden of all of my friends and family. I wanted so bad to do well for them. My parents wondered why I had appeared so unexcited when presented with the brand new cell phone. The selection to the National team was a huge deal to me; I just did not want everyone else to make a huge deal about me.
I forced my eyes open and was nearly blinded. From next to my computer, the glare from National Championship trophy nearly matched the brightness of the sun flooding my room. I struggled out of the bed, almost falling over a shoe in the middle of the floor. How would I explain that injury? American Marcus Jones misses Worlds due to broken leg suffered by tripping over a shoe.
An entire list of chores stared me in the face when I came downstairs to find breakfast.
“So much for special treatment,” I groaned.
My initial plan for the day was to call Joelle and see when she wanted to hang out. Those arrangements would have to be put on hold until I finished my duties.
“Vacuum the living room, mop the kitchen, dust, clean the bathroom.” The list went on and on.
I ran to the door and opened it. Slight disappointment was evident on my face.
“Expecting someone else?”
I chuckled, “More like hoping. I’m thinking about calling her today.”
Jason took off his hat and leaned against the doorframe.
“You should. A little later though. Let’s go to the park now, get ready for Worlds.”
I sucked my teeth, “Sorry, buddy. My mom left a list of chores I have to get done.”
He rolled his greyish- blue eyes, not in the least bit convinced.
“Come on Marcus. We need to be sharp for when training starts. You can bring Joelle.”
I approached him and said, “J, maybe later. I have to get these done. It will take me a few hours though. I’ll call you when I am done.”
He sighed, putting back on his hat. “Okay. Just give me a call.”
He extended his fist. I promptly pounded it with mine and watched him walk out the door. I got started right away on my chores. Part of me yearned to blow off my chores to go with Jason, but I knew I could not. So my determination to finish the work in record time was now the main focus.
I scrubbed the tub repeatedly to no avail.
“Geez, I need a power blaster or something.”
Even though two hours had passed, a number of jobs still remained on the list. I was beginning to become frustrated.
I searched for the house phone. It continued to ring. I finally located it under a pile of dirty clothes waiting to go into the washing machine. I grasped the phone and pushed the talk button. I attempted to flush the frustration out of my voice with one deep breath.
“Hello,” I said calmly.
The sound from the other end of the phone was very faint.
It almost sounded like Kyle’s dog breathing into the phone.
“HELLO!?” I shouted the frustration returning. I had a lot of chores that needed to get done and had no time for this.
Suddenly the breathing was replaced by the terrified shriek.
The panic startled me. I had a guess of who it was on the other side of the call, but no brain cell in my head wanted to be right.
“PLEASE GET HERE!”
“Where? Dominique, please calm down.”
“THE HOSPITAL. MARCUS, ITS JASON! PLEASE GET HERE QUICK”
I could barely understand her last words because uncontrollable crying joined her hysterical plea. Every muscle in my body had turned to ice.
“Hospital? What was happening? Why was he in the HOSPITAL?
I dropped the phone and bolted out of the door. A million thoughts raced through my head as I tore down the street.
“Jason can’t be hurt. He can’t be. Please God may my best friend be okay”.
Normally it would have taken me an entire fifteen minutes to reach the hospital. However, some unknown force darted me in and out of yards, over fences, and through gardens, and I made it there in shorter time. I had no idea which door so I randomly chose one of the three. Bursting through the glass door, I searched for anything familiar. I pushed open an adjacent door and bolted through an empty hallway. Just as I noticed a nurse sitting at a desk near another pair of glass doors, I noticed a kid laying on a row of chairs. Reluctantly approaching I began to see others. Kevin lay alone with his shirt covering his face below his eyes. Kyle slouched in a pool of despair. Three chairs in front of Kyle, Jason’s parents embraced each other tightly. I stumbled just short of Dominique. Her usual tanned-color face was covered in auburn blotches, sparkling with the remnants of tears. Dominique’s phone vibrated continuously at her feet. She remained completely still.
“Kyle…what is happening? Where is Jason?”
My words went right past him. Not even an eyelid moved. My entire body began to tremble. Everything around me was unnervingly quiet. I was completely invisible walking through time. The unrest, paired with the stale aroma of the hospital made my stomach churn. I could feel my knees getting weaker.
“Marcus. I need you to listen to me. I want you to go back and see Jason. It’s very important that you do that.”
Tears were beginning to form in my eyes.
“Mrs. Thompson. Please tell me what is going on.”
Her face looked ghastly white.
This could not be real.
Kevin began to cry into the cushion of the seat where he rested his head.
What was going on?!? Jason had just come to my house a few hours ago!!!
She took me to a nurse who led me down a dim corridor. The two of us came to a stop in the doorway of a room near the end of the shadowy hallway. The nurse left me. I did not want to see what was inside. I unconsciously peaked to see Jason propped up on his back, staring so blankly toward the ashen gray ceiling. I took one more terrified step, causing Jason to slowly turn his head toward me.
My legs wobbled weakly. I struggled to his bedside, tears streaming down my face.
The stale, heavy air surrounding the bed seized control of me, pulling me closer to my best friend. I noticed only grey in his gaze. The glittering sapphire was missing.
“How can this happen? We were supposed to win the gold medal together.”
Jason let out a faint breath. “JJ, you will still win the gold medal and I will still be there with you.”
Jason grimaced as he attempted to turn his head. He gave up. A tear rolled down the side of his pale, discolored face.
“Marcus I don’t want to die” he whispered.
“Die? You can’t Jason. I can’t do this without you”
“Do what?” he whispered
“Anything” I gasped. “You have always been there for me. When people are making fun of me, when I needed help, you were always there. Please, you have to fight.”
I covered my face and bawled. He too began to cry.
He put his cold hand on mine.
“Marcus, listen to me.”
I struggled to quiet myself.
“I will always be here for you. And don’t worry; you will win that medal in Puerto Rico. Even if you don’t, you will always be a champion to me. Just no matter what, never settle. You can be as great as you want to be.”
Jason took an enormously deep breath.
I moved closer to him and sobbed, “I will never forget you Jason. You are my best friend in the whole world.”
He again tried to turn his head but could not.
“Never even a question... But remember, you have a gold medal to win...”
At that moment, Jason started to hyperventilate. I nearly leaped out my skin. Jason frantically tried to regain control of his breathing. He squeezed my hand with tremendous force. I would not let it go. I would not let him go.
“NURSE! NURSE! PLEASE!”
All of a sudden, the intense pressure from his grip disappeared. He stopped hyperventilating and ceased breathing all together.
The nurses rushed into room and led me aside. With no desire to keep my balance, I crashed to the floor. My tears made pools on the cold cement floor. I could not hear any of the commotion going on in the room. The only words I heard were...
“We’ve lost him.”
Those words cut my heart out. I curled into a ball, never wanting to leave the floor. Jason lay motionless. He was no longer moving, smiling, laughing, or joking around with me. Jason was dead. The best friend I had ever known was dead. The nurse tugged on me, attempting to return me to the waiting room. My feet were anchored to the floor. I did not want leave Jason.
“I have to stay with him,” I whispered, staring blankly at the bed.
“You must leave now,” she motioned.
“No, I need to stay with him!” I argued.
Another nurse joined her; “We have to take you back to the waiting room.”
They pulled me back through the corridor. I did not fight it. My eyes remained fixed on the dim light at the end of the hallway until it faded away.
Even if I wanted to move, I couldn’t. Complete paralysis kept me attached to the bed. Sitting on the desk a few feet away was my Championship medal. The night before, glare of the gold medal had given me an over attention that I was trying to flee from from peers. Now, the polish of the award tortured me in a very different and cruel way. I inspected every inch of the room for an escape. Somehow I had to get away. Jason’s magazine sat neatly atop the computer next to the foggy window. Pictures of Jason and I in Freeport waited join our sixth grade trip pictures on the wall at the foot of my bed. Jason had to be at home.
There were two knocks at the door.
“Go away!” I cried
The past few hours had to be a terrifying delusion. No way this was even happening.
Then why was I shaking?
The door opened slightly.
“Marcus? Are you awake?”
I slowly turned to see Dominique leaning in the doorway.
Minutes past before Dominique made a move toward me. With each step tears dripped onto the beige carpet. Strands of hair became trapped in her tears and stuck to her face. The girl, who never failed to cheer me up, looked as if she would quit any minute. Dominique cried hysterically into my chest. Her body shivered in my grasp. Hours fell way before we retreated from our embrace. The tears only stopped for a moment, just long enough for me to make one desperate plea.
“Don’t ever die Dominique, please don’t leave me.”
She gazed up from my chest with her tear-laced eyes tacitly asking the same of me. It was unbelievable how a day earlier my friends and I sat atop the world. Now, Jason’s death had a chance of killing us all inside.
I lifted my head slightly, and then let it drop back to the damp pillow.
KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK
Dominique had stopped crying long enough to fall asleep about an hour ago. The covers were in a mess on top of her, with only the bottom of her ivory legs showing. The odor of old tears was inescapable. Only when the door slowly creaked open in front of me, letting in cool, unspoiled air, did I take my first deep breath in almost twenty-four hours. I glanced toward the bed to see if Dominique had been stolen from her haven. The sheets engulfing her rose and fell calmly.
“How are you doing son?”
I stared directly through my dad. He kneeled down, rubbing my back for a few moments. I turned away. A wayward shade above the bed allowed a tiny beam of light through, turning the grey room slightly orange.
“Marcus, Mike Garbey is on the phone for you,”
I continued to staring, wondering how it would be not to exist anymore.
He calmly placed the cordless phone beside me and left the room, leaving the door wide open. Against my better judgment, I rolled the phone over on its side, and put my mouth next to it. He must have heard my heavy breathing.
“Hi Marcus. This is Mike Garbey, your coach for the National Team.”
Dominique began to squirm in the bed above me. My dark blue Rangers sheet fell to the floor revealing everything except her face. Dominique wore the same white shorts and black tank top she had arrived the night before in.
“I am just truly sorry about what happened. Jason was such a special kid.”
I already wanted so much for this conversation to be over. I had managed to fall into a dreadful sleep, only to be woken up minutes later as if it was any other morning.
“You were chosen to represent the United States because I believe in your ability to help this team in the long run. You are under no commitment to play in the World Championships. Even if you don’t play, you will still be under consideration for future tournaments.”
Just the idea of leaving Spring made me crying again.
“Coach, thank you for calling” I managed through the tears.
I abruptly hung up on the coach, not feeling the least bit sorry about it.
“Was that your coach?” Dominique mumbled from underneath the remaining cover.
She sat herself upright, tossing the red-trimmed sheet beside her. Her face was two sizes bigger than usual with eyes as red as freshly picked tomatoes. Dominique ran her hands continuously though her hair, which resembled her dog Ginger’s scraggly coat more than anything.
“I think he was trying to see if I still wanted to play.”
“So?” she said.
“Are you really asking me that?”
I laid in the same spot for about thirty minutes before the unexpected arrival of the three who were also chosen for the National Team. I closed my eyes, not even daring to look at them. I didn’t want to see the hurt. However, the awful silence was too much to ignore.
Dominique had her feet tucked under, staring out the now open blinds. The brightness of outside had flushed the darkness away, but the gloom remained. She looked so small, like a kid helplessly waiting for her parents return from an endless journey. She had tried to restore her face but she still didn’t look like Dominique.
“…The news broke late last night. The mayor arranged a memorial service to remember Jason. He has asked that you, Joel, and I speak at the memorial service…”
Kyle’s voice was shaky. He slouched below Dominique on the floor with his back resting against the wooden bed frame. I stepped over Kyle before scooting right against Dominique. As soon as I sat down, she began to get up
“I will be downstairs.”
I put a hand on her leg, forcing her back to the bed.
She stared into my eyes. I wanted so much to hug her.
“I just thought with the big decision you have to make…”
“Decision?” I asked.
Kyle’s eyes stayed glued to the floor, still trying to look like the mature one.
Kevin was sprawled across the middle of the floor, nearly touching Kyle’s feet. His eyes never left the glistening medal on my desk
“There is no way…” Kevin said.
I didn’t realize that my hand was still firmly grasped around Dominique’s leg. Joel stood in the corner next to my dresser, the furthest away out of all of us. Tears streamed from beneath his foggy glasses.
“He cannot be dead. It’s impossible”
Kyle leaned back resting his head on the edge of the bed, staring through the ceiling. Kevin buried his face into the beige worn down carpet and cried. Dominique slid to the floor and whispered in his ear. She helped him to the bed, where he rested his head on her free shoulder and cried even harder. This was not fair. Jason was dead and we all were still here.
“I can’t play,” I said, shaking my head. “Not now. Not after Jason was so excited. Now he will never know…”
Dominique shook her head repeatedly, not wanting to believe any of it. Temporarily stemming his tears, Kevin found enough strength to say something that threw a wrench into everything.
He wiped his face and turned his head slowly toward the group. Kevin tapped Dominique gently on the leg and softly spoke.
“Do you think Jason would want us to play?”
In an instant, everything fell silent. We all looked at each other. I could no longer hear anything from the outside. The entire world fell way and we were the only ones left. The steady drum of car engines had gone mute. The sun seemed to be right outside the bedroom window, beaming in on the five of us.
Kevin cleared his throat and leaned forward so that Dominique was no longer in between us. His eyes were the color of the sand at the beach in Galveston. They were much lighter than I had ever seen.
“With all that has happened, would he want us to still be on the National Team?”
A wildfire erupted inside my chest. Feeling everyone’s despair, I tried my hardest to suppress it. Dominique stared wildly at me as I began to shake.
For the first time, Joel stepped from the dresser he had been resting on. He stared at me…everyone stared at me. The flames were agonizing.
The piercing of four sets of eyes caused me to quiver even more violently. Tears slid down my chin and landed on the side of my leg, where a miniature puddled had steadily grown.
“How do you kn…?”
“He told me.”
I failed to consider the abruptness of my response. The emptiness in Kyle’s eyes said it all.
“When?” Kevin asked.
Suddenly, I saw it. I was peering down the dark hallway to a faint light at the end. Floating down the hallway, I could smell the stale air. There was Jason; the scares, the undeniable hurt, the appalling reality.
Dominique clutched me tight as I screamed into her body. She shuddered.
“When Mrs. Thompson sent me back to see Jason, he told me that we have a gold medal to win. He told me to never settle and I could be as great as I want to be…”
As much as Dominique rubbed my back, hugged me, and whispered reassurances, I could not stop crying.
“He told me that I was his best friend in the entire world. And…”
Dominique put the death grip on my arm, causing me to jump and fling her hand away. Her eyes were as large as saucers.
“Where you there…?”
Before she finished I nodded slowly, squeezing my eyes so tightly together. The next twenty minutes stretched out for an eternity. No one said a word as I bawled into my hands.
“I guess that answers our question”, Kyle finally said when I exhausted everything I had. “We have to play.”
“No we don’t” Joel said.
Dominique and Kevin agreed with him.
“Don’t you think that was kind of his last wish … for us to play in the Worlds?” Kyle responded.
“We can’t let him down.”
“How in the world will you be able to?”
No one had an answer for that except for me. At least I thought I did.
“I guess just knowing that Jason is counting on us” I sobbed. “I don’t know…we are all feeling the same way. Maybe if we stick together, we could help each other.”
I wasn’t sure where that answer had come from but it looking at my friends, they seemed to be considering going along with it.
“Let’s make a pact,” Kyle decided. “Promise that no matter what, we will always be supportive, unselfish, and loyal to each other, just like Jason would have wanted.”
I appeared to be the most reluctant out of anyone. It had just occurred to me that by agreeing to this, I would be doomed to spend two and a half weeks hundreds of miles away from Spring. I shivered at the terrifying thought. Even with my intense fears, I gave a subtle gesture, agreeing to the pact and committing to the team once and for all.