One Single Baseball by Rachael Costello

“You know,” Clayton said to me, “it doesn’t always have to depend on pride and/or falling head over heels for him. There is a grey area.” We were sitting alone, on a small bench outside of the park on 22nd.

“Yeah, but how do I know?” I asked. “I barely know him. Say I do fall head over heels, or whatever, who’s to say I’ll know the difference?”

Clayton bit into his apple, the crunch louder than sounds of people walking, stepping restlessly on batches of autumn leaves. He spoke through a full mouth.

“The difference,” he said, “is what you feel. There will be a physical and emotional difference in it. Feeling guilty, or feeling pity, rather, in his overactive heart will feel obvious.” He paused, laying the hand that held his apple down on his lap. “When you love someone, you won’t be confused.”

I just sighed.

“Did you feel it with Anna?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t.” He shook his head. “I think that I’ve only ever loved two people. My mother, and you.”

I just smiled. Ten years later and of course he loves me. “I love you just the same.”

He stood up with my hand in his, all dark black hair and sandy colored eyes. “A weird mixture,” I’d told him when I first met him. I was seven, he was eight. He’d just moved in next door with his mom. She was single, and his dad was virtually non-existent. He’d told me he was on his way home and that he had to hurry to let the dog out so his mom didn’t go overboard because “There’ll be pee on the new carpet.” He’d ran into me in a full-on sprint while I was on the sidewalk. He was staring off into only God knows where, and now that I think of it, that’s so much like him. “Sorry for running into you,” he said.

“It’s okay,” I told him. “Can I meet your dog?”

I was never subtle, really.

And anyway, he let me come with him.

After I realized his mom wasn’t home, and wouldn’t have been for hours, I dragged him home with me. After that, he ate dinner with me and my family every night for a year.

His mother was grateful. She said I was always allowed over, even when she wasn’t home, but my parents wouldn’t let me until we were a little older.

Then it had felt like clockwork when we’d both been ten years old and started watching the Red Sox on his small television while lying together on his bed, every week.

“I wish you were a boy,” he’d said to me. “Then we could learn to play together.”

I just sat up. “Are you serious?” I said. “I can play even if I’m a girl.”

He laughed at me. But then we took his change jar down to the small grocery store on Warwick and 4th and exchanged it all for cash. We’d found ourselves in a small sports store, buying two small gloves and one single baseball.

We practiced outside of my yard for six months, and that summer we both ended up on the community recreation league. He was short stop, and I was second base. I was the only girl on the team.

He’d defended me so many times, I remember. Once, he got kicked out of the game for all but attacking an opposing player because the boy pushed me down when I tagged him out. Thankfully his mom played the single mom card and they didn’t boot him.

“And you can’t separate these two,” she’d said. “They both stay together.”

I watched Clayton walk beside me as we headed to my new dorm at the closest college I could go to. “I didn’t want to leave my parents,” I’d said, when really I just didn’t want to leave him.

We stopped for coffee, his black and mine with too much cream and sugar. He told me once that the only reason he didn’t shoo me away half the time was because of how I made my coffee. “It balances us out,” he said.

We were at the front door of my dorm when he took my hand. “Well, this is it.” He smiled, and it felt like bile rose up in my stomach while the tears did in my eyes.

“I’m not far.” I forced a giggle, and he did too.

“When my mom died,” he said, “I didn’t think I’d get through it. But then I looked around at my empty house, her empty bed, and I saw you. I knew then that a life without you would have been a miserable one.” He paused. “But don’t think you have to do this because of me.”

“I don’t,” I snapped. “I want to stay close to home.”

“No, you don’t,” was all he said, a tiny smile and a whisper all the same. “I don’t know, Rosabella–”

I cut him off. “Look, it’s already decided. I’m here. Aren’t I?” I gestured to the doorway.

That’s when Ross walked through the corridor. He smiled at me, inching himself between me and Clayton and wrapping me in a warm embrace. Clayton just backed away, his face down and his hands in the pockets of his Levi’s. When Ross let me go, he mentioned to me of the night I’d been nervous about for days. “The best restaurant in town,” he’d reminded me, and I nodded. When he walked away, Clayton’s face was expressionless.

“Tonight?” he asked. “I thought after you got done unpacking, we were heading to the pizza place on Arch and 18th.”

I’d forgotten, truthfully.

“I’m sorry,” I half smiled. “Tomorrow?” I asked, and he nodded then, disappointed.

“And anyway, I’m going to see you every day. Don’t forget that.”

But to this day I don’t know if he believed me.

Mom called me at 2am; I was at a club downtown with Ross when I heard her whimpers through the ear of my phone. She muttered something that — this time — made bile actually rise up into my mouth, and I raced home. I ran in my tall silver heels and small red dress, running, running, running, when I saw the lights. There was blue, and then red; a lot of red lights and a lot of red blood.

There was a stretcher, and at the time I’d wondered who he could have possibly killed on his motorcycle, and why on earth it was in front of my house. It wasn’t him on that stretcher, it just wasn’t.

But when I saw his dark hair through the edges of the body bag, and pizza slices all over the asphalt, then I knew.

I ran to him, but two cops pulled me back. They’d said something about him being drunk; he’d hit a tree and spun out. “It was an accident,” I heard in my ear, but my screams drowned out their voices and everything was in slow motion, so much that I only heard them in the back of my head, as if they were my own bland and quiet thoughts.

Today, I sit with Clayton again, four years later and two weeks shy of my first son.

“His name is Clayton,” I said to his gravestone, running my fingers over his engraved name. “You will always live in my heart,” I told him. “I will never leave you.”

And so I didn’t, despite how quickly he left me.

 

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