Read The Distance to Home Online

Authors: Jenn Bishop

The Distance to Home (7 page)

“Q
uinnen! Hurry up and decide! We're next!” Casey can barely stand still at the ice cream counter. Mom picked us up after the Bandits game—Hector's first game since he got hit in the face—and said me and Casey could go anywhere in town we wanted for a treat. So of course we chose Gracie's. So far this summer, I've barely come here. Just one time with Dad, when we got cones from the takeout window.

Dinner at the ballpark was just a few hours ago, but Casey's jumping up and down and scooting past the people in front of us for a better view of the flavor list. Sixty homemade flavors.

“Hurry it up, Quinnen,” Mom says. “There are other people waiting, too.”

Dad never rushes me at Gracie's, but I don't tell that to Mom.

I look up at the list. Cookie dough? Mint chocolate chip? None of my favorite flavors look that good tonight, but the lady in front of me is done ordering, and now it's my turn.

“Quinnen! I haven't seen you in so long. What do you want?” It's Haley's friend, Larissa.

“Medium mint chocolate chip in a bowl. Hey, you look different.” I stare at her, trying to detect what's changed.

She smiles real wide. “You can't tell? I got my braces off!”

“Right.” Her teeth are super-straight and white.

“How are you doing? I've missed seeing you guys.” She adds another huge green scoop to my bowl.

“Did you know we're hosting this summer? We got Brandon.”

“Sprinkles? They're on me.”

“Okay, sure.”

She spoons a heap of colored sprinkles onto my ice cream. “Brandon? No way! Can I come over? Help you with your homework? I'm dying to meet him. He's so cute. And, like, a good pitcher, too, right? You must love having him around. I bet he's giving you all kinds of pitching tips.”

“Tons,” I lie.

“Haley always loved going to Bandits games with you.” Larissa hands me my ice cream cup. She gives me a little smile, but this time her mouth is closed, and I know she must be thinking the same thing as me. How it isn't fair that the one summer we finally get a Bandits player is the summer that Haley's gone.

Larissa starts talking to Casey and Mom about their orders, so I head back to find us a booth. It's always crowded here after games. All the tables are full of families—parents and kids all wearing Bandits T-shirts and caps. I hang out along the wall, waiting for the family in front of me to finish clearing their table. I sit down and mix in the sprinkles with my spoon.

Sometimes it feels wrong even to have a cup of ice cream, knowing that Haley can't.

Back at the counter, Larissa isn't smiling as much now that she's talking to Mom. Mom liked Larissa the best out of Haley's friends. I wonder if she ever wishes Larissa was her other daughter, instead of me.

Casey comes running over with a cone that's almost as big as his face.

“What'd you get?” I ask.

“One scoop of Rocky Road, one scoop of Almond Joy, and one scoop of Mudslide,” he says before furiously licking the melted ice cream that's dripping down the side of the cone. I don't ask him if there's gluten in ice cream.

“Do you want a bite?” he asks.

“No thanks,” I say. “It's kind of slobbery.”

Casey gets pretty quiet and focused on his ice cream.

Out of nowhere, all the girls behind the counter start clapping and cheering. I turn to look at what they see. A bunch of the Bandits are streaming into Gracie's, one after another.

“From the way you guys sounded in the car, I didn't think they had won,” Mom says, sitting down with her frozen yogurt cone. “Quinnen never tells me much about the Bandits,” she says to Casey, like I'm not even here.

“You don't ask,” I whisper.

Mom gives me a funny look but doesn't say anything. She turns to listen to Casey.

“Hector had a bad game,” Casey says. “The Bandits had to score eight runs to win. But they did. The catcher hit a grand slam. It was the coolest thing ever.” He bites into the Almond Joy scoop and keeps talking with ice cream in his mouth. “At the end, all the guys ran out and jumped on top of each other. It was awesome.”

It wasn't awesome for Hector,
I think.

Brandon waves at us from his spot in line, and I wave back. I scan all the guys, looking for Hector. He's not there.

I leave my ice cream behind on the table and run over to Brandon.

“Where's Hector?” I ask.

“He's not so happy with himself right now,” Brandon says. “We tried to get him to come with us, but he said he couldn't. He said he let the team down.” He shrugs. “Hector's got to get over that diva attitude. It's about how the team does. You can't be on your A game every day.”

“Easy for you to say.”

Brandon would win every game he pitched, even if the Bandits only scored one run each time. It's hard for me to admit it, but he's that good. Best pitching record on the team. Best ERA, too.

“It's his first start in three weeks,” Brandon says. “He probably had some nerves. He'll be fine once he gets over himself.”

When I return to our table, Casey is almost done filling Mom in on Hector's meltdown—how he walked five batters in four innings and gave up two home runs. I mix my ice cream around with my spoon until it's more soup than ice cream.

“You gonna eat that or drink it?” Casey asks, peeking into my bowl.

I take a little slurp from it, and Mom shakes her head.

We're heading back out to Mom's car when I see someone wearing a Bandits jersey across the street at the playground. Number fifteen. “I'll be right back,” I tell Mom and Casey, and jog over.

Hector's facing away from me, sitting on a swing.

I don't want to scare him. It's pretty dark in the park, except for right under the streetlamps at the edge of the playground.

“Hector?”

He kicks at the wood chips under his feet. He's way too big for the swing. Even with his legs bent all the way, both feet are touching the ground.

I sit down on the swing next to him. Even my feet drag on the ground. Have I really grown that much?

“Do you want to talk?” I ask.

He sniffs. I don't look at his face to see if he's crying or if he just has allergies. It doesn't seem right. “I want to pitch good.”

It's
well, I think.
You want to pitch
well. But the last thing Hector needs right now is a grammar lesson, so I zip it.

“You will,” I say. “That was only one game.”

“No. Two games. Two times I failed. Two times I pitched bad.” He kicks at the dirt again.

“No one's counting that first game. What happened that day, it wasn't your fault.” A breeze comes over the park. I shiver and wish I had my sweatshirt.

“This game, though? This game
was
my fault.”

“But you guys won. You won anyway. That's what teammates do. They help each other out.”

I think about the Panthers. How last summer it was all of us around the table at Gracie's.

That's what we did to win, too. We always helped each other out.

“I've disappointed my family. My family needs this. My brother, Victor, he used to play baseball for the Pirates. But he wasn't good enough. They kicked him off the team.”

I hold on tight to the chain, turn my head, and listen.

“All Victor wanted his whole life was to play baseball. That was his dream, you know? After they cut him, he had to move to New York City and start a whole new life without baseball. My mother, she expects…she expects big things from me. I want to give my family a big house and a car. I want to give my mother everything she wants, everything she deserves. To do that, I need to be good. No—I need to be great.”

“But they know you got hurt, right?” I think about what Brandon said back at Gracie's. Of course Hector was nervous being up on the mound for the first time after what had happened. Nerves happen sometimes, even to the very best players.

Hector doesn't answer me.

“You didn't tell them?”

“I didn't want them to worry.”

“What about your sister, Mikerline? Did you tell her?”

He swings slightly. He doesn't answer that question, either. “You used to play baseball, right? Did you love it?”

The feeling of the packed dirt of the mound beneath my feet. The butterflies in my belly when I had to pitch to a really good hitter. High-fiving all my friends on the team. The crack of the bat when I sent the ball soaring, soaring, soaring over an outfielder's glove. The post-win ice cream trips with Coach Napoli and his super-long beard. Did I love baseball?

I swallow hard and nod. Of course I did.

“Why did you quit?” Hector asks.

I pick at a bumpy piece of the metal chain. I don't know where to start. “I let them down—my team. I made this big mistake and then…”

“What if this is how I'm going to pitch from now on? What if my best days are already behind me? Maybe I should just quit now while I'm ahead.” He stares down at the ground as he says it. I can't tell if he's kidding or not. Quitting when he's made it this far?

“Quit? No—you're crazy—what are you talking about?”

“I pitched badly. Don't lie, Quinnen. Today, I was throwing everywhere but the strike zone. I walked three batters
in a row.
Do you know what my ERA is right now? 27.00.
27.00!
I've had bad games before, but I've never seen a stat line like that. Not with my name next to it.”

I remember what I told Casey when we were watching from the stands, what I noticed. It's the kind of thing I'm sure the manager noticed, too, but maybe he didn't have a chance to talk to Hector about it yet. “You slowed down a lot between pitches. Starting with the second inning today. In the first inning, you didn't wait long at all before throwing the next pitch. But after that, you did. Like you were overthinking it. You lost your rhythm.”

“My rhythm, huh?” He says it slowly. “You're pretty smart about baseball.”

I used to be.

“Thanks,” I say.

A horn honks, and I turn and see Mom and Casey waving at me. They're waiting for me. But I don't hop off the swing. Not just yet.

I can't let Hector quit. I can't let him give up on himself, let one bad game stop him from doing the thing he loves. “I have an idea,” I say. “What if when I came to your games, I yelled something out? To let you know when you're slowing down too much.”

Hector stares off into the distance, thinking over what I've just said. “My sister, Mikerline, she always sat in the same seat behind home plate, where I could see her. Maybe she was my good-luck charm. Could you sit in that seat?”

“Of course.” I don't tell Hector he's being ridiculously superstitious. He's a baseball player, after all. That would be like telling a cat it's furry. “We'd need some kind of code word for me to yell. Not something obvious; we don't want the other team to know. What could I say?”

Hector doesn't stop to think about it.
“Mofongo.”

“Ma-what, now?”


Mofongo.
My favorite food. You don't know
mofongo
?”

I shake my head. “I haven't seen it on a menu before. I'll have to try some.” I try to say the word again.
“Mofongo.”
I don't even know how to spell it.

Mom honks the horn longer this time and flicks the car lights. I slide off the swing.

“Wait,” Hector says. “You're too nice to do this for me. I should do something for you. Do you want my tickets? To come for free?”

I shake my head. I love the Bandits—I always will—but I'm sick of only watching from the sidelines. If I ever want to be a Panther again, I need to be good, really good. Larissa had the right idea, but she had the wrong person. Brandon would never understand what happened last summer. He couldn't help me. But maybe Hector could.

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