A tale that I feel is inspirational in a deranged way. (Final Draft)
Ray Woltmann felt a terrible pain in his lower back. He winced at this sudden twinge and reached behind his body to try to ease it. He attempted to find some contortion of his limbs that would reduce the pain, but he was unsuccessful and once again was forced to ride it out. It finally subsided a minute later, and he carefully returned to his original, upright position on the sofa.
It was a recurring injury he’d been experiencing for the better part of the week. It could only be described as sharp and distinct, and not the dull, general area of pain that back injuries normally entail. The workouts before his first season of Triple-A baseball were more strenuous than anything he had ever experienced. All of those intense practices would surely do a number on anybody’s spinal comfort. Although the injury was getting exponentially more intense over the past few days, he decided that a break from weight lifting would do the trick.
Aside from the unusual aching, the night truly seemed normal. A sprinkling of snow was dispersed generously throughout the town. Flurries were still going on into the night, powered by a light but viciously cold wind. The snowflakes swirled and danced around in the breeze as nature’s ballerinas, eventually collecting about an inch high on the floor. Ray always believed that snowflakes were the Earth’s most beautiful decorations, unless of course he had to shovel, be hit with, or drive through outrageous amounts of them. That was when a continuous snowfall became a villainous army like no other, sometimes deployed if only to make thousands of people late for work.
In a valiant effort to waste time, something we as a country like to do very often, he decided to spend the night watching television instead of shoveling his sidewalk. Ray found it fascinating that somebody could expend his or her precious time watching shows that had no bearing on anybody’s lives. He couldn’t grasp the importance of learning about somebody’s ”E!: True Hollywood Story”. He didn’t want to know what was “Behind the Music.” He didn’t care.
For the sake of gathering some socially relevant knowledge and achieving something out of his indolence, he switched to CNN, the channel of the intelligent. In truth, he felt that it was more like the channel of those who desperately wanted to sound intelligent. He once listened to the second baseman explain to him that he’d watched a segment on CNN about the war and that he had formulated a plan to free Iraqis from their bondage, or something like that. Raymond Woltmann was admittedly not a genius, but he was smart enough to recognize an ass when presented with the BS it came from.
But instead of an enormous dosage of information, he got static... an enormous dosage of nothing. Loud and annoying nothing, to be exact. He pressed as many buttons as he could, but to no avail.
Then the television flickered off without his prompting. Ray tried to turn it back on, but he was denied this request.
“What the hell?” he said to himself.
Then, following suit, the cable box died. Seconds later went the lights in his living room, kitchen, and foyer, but not all at the same time. They had failed in a weird sequence instead of simultaneously, nixing the idea of a blackout. It all went off, and he was immersed in darkness and mostly in silence. There were only two sounds to be heard: the banging of the radiator, which scared the living hell out of him, and the whooshing sounds outside of his house. The ambience of the wind made him feel like he was more isolated from that world and now completely locked into this new one… this dark, radiator-banging one. His eyes adjusted to this absence of light but he was still unable to distinguish anything.
A third sound joined the mix. A creaking noise from upstairs seared through the motionless air like a bullet barreling angrily toward its unfortunate target. He at first thought nothing of it, connecting it to the unforgiving cold that blasted his humble abode. Maine winters were quite harsh. No mortal man could escape without chapped lips, burning cheeks, numb ears or some other souvenir of its merciless furor.
But then another creak erupted, this one much closer. He sat directly up, now truly alert, the twinge in his back becoming more pronounced. The origin of this noise was certainly in the vicinity of the stairway directly to his right, which was just across the threshold to the room he occupied. Still, he could see nothing.
But he felt something, and he didn’t like it. He’d had feelings before, as he bet on horses or on football teams when this imaginary reassurance inclined him to go a certain way. When he had taken those tests in school he would sometimes have a feeling about one answer when he wasn’t sure of the correct choice. It was a gut reaction, an instinct, some ethereal force drawing him more towards one option, and it obviously wasn’t always accurate. But this moment was unique. Never before in his life had he known the terribly dreadful feeling that engulfed him now.
Something bad was close to him; he was more certain of this than of his physical existence on Earth.
Then the lamp beside him clicked on, and the light illuminated a young boy. Logic told him not to be afraid, not to panic. It was only a little boy; what was there to be scared of? Ray’s mind filled with millions of possibilities but could not land on a logical one: was this kid lost? Was he sleepwalking? Did he come in here by mistake? Ray eliminated each idea and was still at a loss for explanation. Ray’s eyes attuned a bit more and he suddenly recognized the child; it was a face so familiar he was appalled that he had taken so long to pinpoint it. But a visage that should have comforted him only added to his confusion.
Standing before him was his 5-year-old son, Chris Woltmann.
About three months ago, he and his wife Nicole decided to take time off from each other. The situation was difficult already, and the fact that Ray was constantly away from home to play minor league baseball further exacerbated matters. The time they spent speaking with each other had decreased considerably over the past two weeks. As much as he hated to contemplate it, he felt that divorce was almost inevitable. They fought just about every time they talked to each other now, and it was always about his career.
Times were not always this bad. After learning that Nicole was pregnant, Ray proposed to her as romantically as he knew how, complete with a dinner on the coastlines of Florida and a beautiful ring. Ray was 21 when they made it official, and he sincerely loved her. They had been going out for nearly a year and a half before that special day, when Ray was in college excelling on the baseball team and Nicole was studying for a degree in English. Ray was convinced that Mrs. Nicole Patricia Falco was his one love, no matter how corny and dumb it might have been. He knew that for something to be corny it had to be somewhat true in the first place, and he believed wholeheartedly that she really did love him too.
Ray truly cared about her and their son, no matter how sick she became of his “stupid” baseball dreams, as she labeled them. He couldn’t understand why she had so much trouble dealing with it. Maybe it was that she never realized how close he was to making it to “the show,” as most ballplayers call it. He was on the verge of breaking through, making a career and a name for himself. He was only 26, and scouts were already talking about his quick bat, his amazing range at the shortstop position, and his explosive speed. If only she knew how close he was to making their lives so easy....
But his son was living with his mother… how had he gotten to Ray’s house?
It was after asking this internal question that Ray saw something different about his son. Something in the boy’s eyes set alarms off in his head. That feeling of dread had returned, and in the worst way.
Chris slowly opened his mouth as if to scream, but no sound came out. Wider and wider it gaped until passing the point of human capability, becoming an enormous hole in his face. His eyes went completely black somehow, and his skin began to pale dramatically. He was still totally fixated on Ray as all of these wraithlike changes occurred. His son was becoming a monster right before his eyes.
Ray began to sweat profusely as the apparition remained stable. There was a terrible churning sensation in the pit of his stomach and he was slowly drawing his face away. The pain in his back was on fire now, probably because he had rushed up too quickly. He felt tight and shivered uncontrollably, felt like he was staring into the face of death, which he more or less was. His legs were pins and needles, an odd numbness raging through him like a rebel army throughout his lower body.
A tear ran down the ghost’s face and dripped off of his mouth. In a flash he raised his arm and pointed a ridged and apparently accusing finger at Ray.
Ray pulled back quickly and threw up his arm to shield himself, fearing that he would be harmed. But this did not happen.
In another flash, the ghost pointed at himself and stayed in that pose for at least a minute. Its pupil-less stare was still directly leveled into Ray’s eyes, unflinching and unblinking. Its mouth was still opened to an abnormal width, but still no sound was emitted.
Ray desperately wanted to be somewhere else, and although it seemed like he was in a dreamlike state it was painfully obvious that he was not. He longed for the cover of a blanket or the cooing of his mother to go to sleep, but none of that was possible now. At this moment, he had the paranormal representation of his son, his apparently dead son, standing within a foot of him.
Suddenly and completely silently, a bullet originating from nowhere blew through the side of the ghost’s head. Ray flinched violently as blood spattered on the walls, on the rug, and on the television. Still with no sound whatsoever, the ghost fell to the floor as limp as a rag doll. Ray had been jolted so badly by this that he felt his muscles cramp up. He wanted to move or scream, but could do neither.
Again, with inhuman speed, the ghost opened its eyes and stared mournfully at Ray. It mouthed the word “nine” about five times in succession while still unfailingly focusing on him from the floor, perhaps to stress this single number. His mouth, which had closed after he was “shot,” began to slowly open again. This time, a sound not unlike the screeching feedback of speakers pounded his ears. As he covered them, the bulb on the lamp blew. Seconds later, the lights flickered back on and were joined by the chorus of the television. His son was gone. The walls, carpet, and TV had no stains whatsoever. He reached over and swung his shaky arm through the area the ghostly version of his son had been in. There was a sacred aura surrounding this spot. As his arm passed through he felt that this area was noticeably colder. The lamp cord it had somehow touched was also frigid; something had definitely happened.
Ray’s mind was frozen. His ears still hurt from the terrible ringing, but he knew it was over. The pain subsided, CNN was blaring, and the lights were in perfect working order. A temporary calm had finally swept over his body.
The vision still mortified him. He could not have a more lucid picture of what he had just seen burned into his unsuspecting retinas. The only problem was that his son was not dead.
Or was he?
He picked up the phone and dialed his wife in a blind rush, wondering what the encounter had meant. Nobody answered the phone. Not after three rings, not after four, and not after five. He tried again. Five more rings, still no response. His mind swirled furiously with terrible images of their lifeless bodies.
He had to go to their house and see them, make sure he hadn’t witnessed a representation of what had already happened to his little boy. He threw on a pair of shoes and the heaviest coat he could find. It was going to be hell out there; he knew that. One could just peek out the window and know that this wind wasn’t screwing around.
He zipped his jacket as far up as he could and put gloves on. His jacket felt enormous enough to deflect an incoming cruise missile off of his body. He stepped out the door, keys in hand, sensing some urgency to get to his wife’s house.
He ran around to the driver’s side door, wind whipping him around now. The light breeze of before had obviously picked up some, becoming a more potent flake-driving force. It covered Ray’s short brown hair with a bit of icy snow.
After some struggling with the door, he finally slid into the sanctuary of his car and keyed the ignition. He thought about letting it idle and get warm for a minute, but he somehow knew there was really no time for that. He instead pulled cautiously out of the spot in front of his house, windshield wipers working tediously to sweep the falling snow out of his view.
He looked in the rearview mirror as the snow in his hair started to melt. Little drops ran down the sides of his head, some of them leaking onto his neatly trimmed goatee. He went to turn the radio on but decided against it; he preferred to ride in silence and to think about what the hell had just happened.
Most people know that the possibility of a ghost defies human logic, and most people refuse to believe that they exist. He’d heard plenty of stories about ghosts. A very small number of them had any credibility whatsoever as far as true science is concerned. And this scientific evidence usually was restricted to an audiotape, where Ray was sure that random sounds were confused for laughably short phrases, like “Hello.” A ghost’s mortal lover is standing near them, it gathers all of this concentrated supernatural power to make noise, and all it has to say is “Hello.” It just didn’t make sense to him.
But that was before tonight. That was before his son was killed right before his eyes. That was before a ghost confronted him.
He couldn’t grasp the specter’s message. What significance did the number “nine” have? Was it even what he’d tried to say? Could he have said something sinister? And why did he point at him? What was he accusing him of? Was he saying, “You killed me?” Ray was, for lack of a better phrase, confused as hell.
His thought process switched to his wife. What would she say? He hadn’t seen her since the start of workouts and they talked sparingly. He was sure it would be difficult.
Why hadn’t she answered the phone?
The terrible images again swept through his mind.
What if they’re already dead?
He imagined his wife and son lying in their own blood, staring lifelessly at him and wondering why he didn’t protect them. “Where were you Daddy?”
He pressed on the accelerator.
Trees went by faster and faster. He was not thinking of himself anymore. He couldn’t care less about the icy roads and treacherous conditions. This was all about his family now. They came first.
Suddenly, he was at her house. Had he gone that fast? It was only 8:47. His trip had taken just under 20 minutes, a drive that usually ate up a half hour or more. He realized he must have been doing over 50 miles per hour on some parts of the road. It was a miracle that he hadn’t slipped off of the street, through a guardrail and into a ditch, or something to that effect.
Then again, seeing a ghost might also have been a miracle of some insane sort. He didn’t know what to think at the moment. His brain was clouded enough.
He stopped the car and looked down. He washed away the visions of before as best he could and focused on talking to his wife and child. It was still snowing quite heavily, coming down in large spurts. He stepped out and ran up the covered pathway, trudging through at least four or five inches of snow. He reached the door and rang the doorbell, both hoping that she would answer and also that she wouldn’t. He wanted to know she was OK, but he wasn’t sure he was ready to face her again.
He didn’t panic immediately, but he was ready to burst in. In that moment, his back pain acted up again, this time a bit more severely than the last. The numbness again went through his legs as he wobbled and nearly fell. He rubbed his sides. He really would need to see a doctor if this kept up.
He rang again.
For better or for worse, Nicole answered the door.
She looked at him with those clear blue eyes, not sure what to make of him. Her hair was up in a bun, the way he had always loved it. He was a brave man, but he truly hated confrontation. He was more docile than his baseball demeanor would suggest.
“Well? What are you doing here?”
“I haven’t seen you two in a while. I just wanted to check up on you. You didn’t answer the phone you know.” She turned away from him, which apparently was the invitation to come in. He accepted, taking off his gloves and unzipping his jacket.
“How long do you plan on staying?” She took a glass from one of the cabinets and filled it with water, preparing to take an aspirin. The more they fought, the more aspirin she bought and used. He wanted to tell her it was bad for her liver but he was afraid she would snap at him.
“Not too long.” She looked at him, trying to figure him out. She couldn’t understand why the hell he was there. To some extent, Ray wasn’t sure either.
“Where’s Chris?” he asked.
“Watching TV in his room.” To his surprise, she didn’t sound too angry at his presence in her house. He had readied himself for the worst and quite possibly had received the best. He was at least thankful for that. Ray spun on his heels and walked through two corridors to get to Chris’s room. It was painted a dark blue, his favorite color. There were a few toys scattered about, all ideal for a five-year-old: toy trucks, a game boy, etc. He passed his boy and sat down on the bed next to him. His eyes lit up like they would on Christmas morning. He had those deep blue eyes like his mother had and the puffy little boy cheeks, perfect for grandmas and aunts to grab and wiggle cheerfully.
The vision of the ghost sitting in the real Chris’s place passed through his mind: that hole in his head, the black eyes, and the open mouth. He immediately got rid of it. It still terrified him.
“What’s up buddy?”
“Not much daddy, watching some cartoons.”
“Can I watch with you?” He nodded.
“Sure!” Ray knew how happy Chris was to see him, and that fact absolutely killed him inside. He felt goose bumps traverse his whole body. He never realized how much he loved Chris until now. His days without him and Nicole were just empty. Baseball, as much as he loved it, could never replace the feeling he had experienced when he first held his little boy. That feeling of wholeness, that feeling of meaning so much to and having so much influence one small person was one-of-a-kind. All of the homers in the world couldn’t touch that.
Ray rubbed Chris’s head, this time thankfully without a terrible wound.
“How come you don’t over come that much anymore?” he asked in his innocent voice.
“Daddy’s busy trying to make everything easy for us. One day you can watch him on TV.”
“It’ll be better than cartoons, right?” Ray loved him so much.
“Yes, much better,” he said with a smile. Nicole appeared in the doorway. She was wearing her silky red pajamas, the ones he’d bought her for their first Christmas together. Memories of the passion they’d shared flooded back to him. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” she asked in a slightly irritated tone.
“I think that’s a good idea. Hold on a second.”
He stood up from the bed and bent over to kiss his only child on the head. He vowed to never let anything happen to him. He would never leave his buddy’s side, no matter how much trouble he went through with Nicole. This was going to work.
As he looked away from his son, the dim red numbers of the clock caught his eye. The electronic digits flickered from 8:59 to 9:00. At that very instant and not a millisecond later, the glass of the window Ray stood in front of was smashed. He felt a bullet plunge into his back. He fell to the floor with a loud groan, slamming hands first. He felt warmth spreading across the back of his shirt and a terrible stinging pain.
Suddenly, everything he had seen made all the sense in the world. The ghost pointed at him and then at itself: “You or me, Ray? You… or me?” The pain in his back, the number nine... it all came together, and in the most horrible fashion. He was meant to stop that bullet from hitting Chris. He wasn’t sure how he knew that, but he did. And he figured it out to the concerto of screams that surrounded him.
Three days later…
Ray woke up still in a very drowsy state. He slowly scanned his surroundings and figured out that he was in a hospital. Luckily during his 72-hour hiatus from consciousness he had only dreamt about hitting that game-winning homer or catching that World Series-clinching fly ball. His mind was too tired to put into perspective the events that had transpired the other night.
Nicole was asleep at his side, and she looked quite angelic. Her hand rested in his, right below the IV tube that penetrated his skin. He squeezed her fingers and called her name, to escort her out of her own land of dreams and back into reality.
“Nicole, I’m up. You can kiss me now.”
She slid up slowly and saw that he was awake. Still, she seemed utterly depressed. Her eyes were red and had lines underneath them, showing that she’d been awake for some time. “Hi, Ray.” Her lips met his.
“Well,” he said wearily and whispering, “has anybody taken the time to find out why I’ve been shot?” She lowered her head a bit and wiped her eyes.
“Some asshole kids shooting at a tree in the woods. They missed, heard the glass break and ran off. The cops found them but it was totally an accident.”
He couldn’t help but wonder why this had happened to him.
“But do you understand what went on, Ray? You don’t come over for nearly two weeks,” she said still with a wavering and sad voice, “and then you find yourself in front of the bullet that....” She couldn’t finish, close to tears.
“I know what went on, Nicole. I’m happy that I’m still alive. I’d rather be dead than lose him.”
Ray tried to move his legs to sit up, but he couldn’t. There was a stinging pain in his back. A raging numbness. He could not summon the strength to move them.
“Oh God, Nicole,” he said suddenly. She looked alarmed.
“What Ray?” she said squeezing his hand painfully hard.
“I can’t move my....” he said as he struggled. There was terrible depression and anger in his voice.
“Honey, I know what you feel right now. It’s OK. Listen....”
“To what?!” he shouted. His throat tightened and tears welled up in his eyes.
“Just hold on, the doctor’s coming. We don’t know yet Ray.”
He would have to forget baseball. This alone almost made him cry. All those years of loving the game and learning it and working so hard all came to this moment. The moment he became a cripple. The moment his life as an upright man was over. It made him wonder which punishment was crueler: death or paralysis? Surely destiny had it in for him, a hilarious joke that only Fate could laugh at.
At this moment in time, suicide sounded like an excellent alternative to wheeling around. He was sure he could overdose on something and take this pain away. He knew he’d said that he’d rather die than lose Chris, but he wasn’t sure if he’d meant it. Maybe he’d just rather die than live this way.
He’d always scoff at people who attempted suicide, feeling that they were weak-willed people. That they didn’t have the soul strength that he had.
But now he had no legs.
Now he had no strength.
Now he had no reason to live.
Through the silence broke the sound of the TV flickering on. Somebody in the bed across from him had turned on the television, trying to drown out his conversation. On came “E!: True Hollywood Story.” He remembered thinking about how stupid and pointless it was in comparison to the rest of life. At that time, he wondered how one person could waste time watching something that was so unimportant, so unrelated to what was really important in society.
That was the moment when things finally became clear. Baseball was a game. A stupid game. His son was his legacy, not his homers or his double plays or any of that stuff. His son and his wife. They came first. He knew that now, even though it took a bullet, a ghost, and a mundane television program to help him realize this. He turned back and stared into Nicole’s engrossing eyes.
He still wondered why she had put so much distance between the two of them.
“What happened Nicole? Why were you so opposed to baseball?” he said in a soft, calm tone.
“I wasn’t,” she replied. “I’ve always loved you, but I’m so insecure. I was afraid that you would be too busy with that and not spend time with us. Then one day after you’re away long enough you sleep with some whore. It happens all the time. That possibility drove me crazy.”
“I’d never let that happen. You mean more to me than anything. I’d give it up if it meant saving our marriage. Without you and Chris, I have nothing. But why didn’t you tell me this before? We could’ve talked it out and not had to go through that break.”
“I was too scared, Ray. I’m sorry. I’m not sure if I was ready to admit my weakness. But I still love you.”
She was being genuine. Ray knew that feeling.
Dr. Neil Stevenson entered the room with Chris, who ran to his father’s bedside. “Daddy!” he screamed with both terror and joy. Ray stopped himself from crying just enough to turn and receive the love of his life in his arms.
“Hey buddy. How’s it going?”
“I was so scared.”
“I was too,” Ray replied in a whisper.
The doctor stood with clipboard in hand. He waited to get everyone’s attention before he spoke.
“Hello Raymond, I’m glad you’re awake. Now don’t get alarmed, I’m sure you feel some pain and some numbness, but that’s to be expected. You should, barring some disaster, be able to walk after some rehabilitation. You can even get back baseball if you work hard enough, as your wife tells me you love to play. So don’t worry. You’ll be out of this place soon enough my friend. The paralysis is temporary.”
The wave of relief that washed him over was infinitely enormous.
Nicole looked at him, and she was ecstatic. But on the other hand, she was still a bit pensive.
“This doesn’t change anything, does it? We still come first?” she said as they hugged.
“Of course. I told you, it’ll always be about you and Chris. I’ll take you to every game if you want. I never want you to leave my side.”
Ray took Chris in his arms along with Nicole. Many things were going through his mind, and too many to focus on a single idea. But after some thought, considering all of the trials and tribulations and doubts and fears he’d suffered, he allowed himself to ponder one joyful question: would this story make CNN?