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Fiction

Tie Goes to the Runner

1

The alien came to play ball. Or so I thought.

It didn’t say so outright. Not exactly. Couldn’t speak English far as we could tell. But every day that summer, it would meet us there at the sandlot. The thing would come and stand behind the dugout, which was a rusty old hope chest Willie stole from his big sister. It would stand out there, the alien, not moving or nothing. Just observing, if that’s even the right word. Then one hot afternoon, for whatever reason, the alien stopped observing.

2

We swore we’d never tell a soul about this encounter. Figured keeping our traps shut would keep our mothers safe. So we didn’t tell our parents, not our teachers, nobody knew except the nine of us there at the sandlot.

For us, back then, the sandlot wasn’t just a whole lot of weeds and stones and dust. It was older than dirt, and since God made dirt, that slice of land was our scoop of heaven. Thought we’d be there forever. Every day playing ball as the sun kept its eye on us. Playing ball till our shadows got stretched, taffy-like. It was our space, our safe haven, rocks and all. And like my boy Roy the Righteous One used to say: “It ain’t a real diamond without the rough.”

In our world, we made our own rules: If you hit a homer on your first ups, you got a penny from everybody (you were lucky); if you knocked the empty Coke bottle off the cement wall in deep right field, you got an extra run and a dime from everybody (nobody got that lucky); if you struck out three times in one day, you had to ask out Nurse Paige (we usually let that one slide). But the most important rule was about timing.

The torn squares of cardboard we used for bases were hard to make out in the dust. So when it came to making crucial calls, they all turned to me with the same quizzical look: Safe or out? I was second baseman, but also umpire because I had the best eyesight of the bunch. Whatever’s better than 20/20, that’s what I had. Nothing got past me. I could tell in that split second whether the runner tapped the base before or after the baseman caught the ball. It was always one or the other. I didn’t believe in ties. But at the same time, I didn’t believe in aliens either.

3

Only one of us could say we saw this thing coming.

That would be Gort. His real name was Buddy Fowler III, but we called him Gort after the robot in that movie. Gort was a year older than the rest of us. Moved here from D.C. when his old man got transferred for some “top secret job” Gort couldn’t talk about. What he did talk about was how we were all in danger. He was 110 percent convinced that aliens were real and that humans going out in space was against the rules. He said the aliens had plans to stop President Kennedy from putting a man on the moon.

None of us believed Gort. Especially after learning he lied about making out with Angela, that sophomore chick with the hazel eyes and good hair. But we played along for kicks.

“What kind of plans, Gort?” we’d ask him.

“I can’t say,” he would whisper, “but they’re out to get us, man.”

“Get us how?”

He said: “Just trust me on this. We ain’t safe here.”

That first time the alien showed up at the sandlot, Gort went nuts. Not because he was scared, but we had bet him twenty-five cents a pop aliens didn’t exist. Two bucks gave him the right to scream like a girl. The rest of us had no voices to speak of.

We didn’t call off the game because we had a streak going. But the “delay” lasted a good chunk of the day. We stood there watching it watching us. Not sure what move to make. If any. Gort was shaking his head, muttering to himself:

“There’s no way out, there’s no way out.”

I tried to keep cool as an ice cream truck. It didn’t seem like the thing was a threat, but I can’t lie: Everything Gort had been saying over the years came rushing in. I remembered him talking about how only a chosen few would be spared—those who knew the secret hand signal.

“Of course I know it,” Gort said one night during a camp out while swatting at mosquitoes. “But if I told you, they’d scratch my name off the safe list.”

4

The alien didn’t look like an alien was supposed to look. It wasn’t green or red or blue. It was a weird color we didn’t have a word for. No taller than we were. No shiny suit either. Just its bare, grotesque body layered with sheets of gills or eyes or something else entirely.

5

By the end of the week, we’d gotten used to the alien observing us.

The anxiety wasn’t gone all the way. But it went down enough for us to go a whole game without somebody dropping a ball or screwing up a play due to the distraction. We had no idea what it was doing or thinking or learning, but we all knew one thing: We had us a fan.

And we put on airs, even though none of us would ever admit it. When the alien was watching, we’d swing that bat a little harder, dig our sneaks a little deeper, lob our snaps a little louder. We acted like the thing was an intergalactic scout, looking to recruit Homo sapiens for the biggest game in the universe. If the other guys weren’t thinking that, I sure was. Who wouldn’t want to be out there? That’s what I asked myself every night staring out my window at the stars. Every night when Pops would come staggering home, banging on the door hollering: “Let me in, let me in.”

Covers couldn’t keep out the noise, just like the lock couldn’t keep out my Pops. I kept wishing the alien would take me back to wherever it came from. Somewhere else, somewhere safe. That was my dream, my vision. And I had real good vision. But I couldn’t see far enough to stop what was about to happen.

6

It all went down on a late afternoon in July. Must’ve been mid-July, because I remember it was about a week after the church cookout we had on the Fourth. I think it was Tuesday, but who knows. What I do know is it was hot out there. Hot as the devil’s mama’s sauna. Hot as Nurse Paige in a white bikini, holding a thermometer, telling me to stick out my tongue. We almost ditched our daily game to go bust open a hydrant. But Bearded Larry’s old man got him a brand new bat. He wanted to break that baby in. We all knew good and well that a Louisville Slugger couldn’t save that cat’s batting average, but we went to the sandlot to keep the streak going.

Sweat turned our shirts different shades by the time we got there. Grime coated our faces like war paint. The wind had the day off, so we thought about swimming pools and lemonade to keep our blood from boiling over. The alien was there. Behind the hope chest as usual.

“Hope you all brought your pennies,” said Bearded Larry, taking a few practice swings. He stepped up to home plate, which was a dusty stack of placemats Willie stole from his mom. “I could use eight cents right about now. What do you guys think? Should I get a Firecracker Popsicle or—”

“Think fast!” said Don from the pitcher’s mound.

And he hurled the first pitch before Larry even got his feet set. The white ball whizzed by him and hit Roy the Righteous One’s catcher’s mitt with a smack. The rest of us were cracking up as Bearded Larry tried to protest:

“No, hold on. That’s a do-over. I wasn’t even ready, man.”

Turns out none of us were ready for what would happen next.

Gort noticed it first. He didn’t yell or nothing, but his words were loud enough for us all to hear and freeze up.

“It’s coming out.”

The alien was moving. Emerging from behind the dugout and coming toward us. It was one thing for the thing to observe from the sides, but coming out onto the field, see, that was a whole ’nother story. But we prepped for this. “Operation: Breakup,” we called it: If the alien ever stepped on the field, we were supposed to split up, each one of us running in a different direction. Then regroup at Gort’s house for Phase 2, which involved fake passports. But that plan fell apart. None of us moved a muscle. All we could do was watch.

As the alien moved, an outer layer—some kind of glass shell—began melting off. Like shedding skin or some shit. The thing got closer to home plate. Roy the Righteous One lifted his catcher’s mask, took a big step back. Bearded Larry gripped his new bat like the alien was a piñata full of popsicles.

“Uh, guys, there’s an alien on the field,” said Fat Frank a.k.a. PBP (Play-By-Play), the perceptive shortstop who smelled like bologna. “I’m not the only one who sees this, right?”

The alien stood there at home plate. Same as it had been doing over by the dugout, but now it was blocking the strike zone, holding up the game.

“Larry, tell your moms she’s holding up the game,” Willie called out from first base.

Bearded Larry didn’t answer. Probably didn’t even hear him, what with the alien being two feet from his bearded face. Then the alien let out a noise—like what it sounds like trying to talk underwater. I turned to Gort, but that cat was looking scared as all get out. I knew that “safe list” was a load of crap.

On the mound, Don said: “You think it’s trying to tell us something? Like—I don’t know—a signal or something.”

The gurgle came again, and Bearded Larry stepped back. “Did he just say ‘doo-doo eater.’“

“Doo-doo eater?” I asked.

“That’s what it sounded . . .” Bearded Larry stopped when the alien uttered another sound, a similar wobble, but a different pitch.

“Oh, I heard that one,” said Roy the Righteous One. “He definitely said ‘date me.’”

“Doo-doo eater date me!” PBP hollered and laughed so hard he cried.

“That’s not what it said,” said Gort and everybody looked at him.

“Oh yeah?” said Willie. “What’s he saying, then, since you’re so smart?”

“To your leader, take me.”

And we all cracked up at that. What a load of crap. Gort had definitely read too many pulps. Who knows what the alien was saying. All I knew was what I could see. I saw him standing there on home plate and figured that was as clear a signal as any.

And I said: “I think he wants to play.”

7

Everybody makes bad calls.

My Pops made one when he got hooked on the bottle. Ernie made one when he beat his boyfriend senseless to prove he really liked girls. I made a big one when I told Mary I didn’t need protection because I would pull out. At the time, in the heat of the moment, bad calls might seem like good ones, the right ones. But hindsight is diamond-like.

Of course, we had to learn that the hard way, in the real world, striking out consistently as husbands and fathers and rulers at large. Swinging, missing, swinging, hitting, running, going, going, gone. Strangers longing for acceptance away from home.

I saw what I saw that day. I said what I said. If I could go back and get a do-over, maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t, who knows. But I can’t help but wonder how our lives would’ve played out had I made a different call. Maybe that day wouldn’t have been our last day at the sandlot. And we wouldn’t have split up, without regrouping. Gort never would’ve lost his arms in ’Nam. Willie never would’ve gotten himself locked up. Roy the Righteous One never would’ve got on that smack. Everything changed in that split second. It was all good, then suddenly it wasn’t. But that’s how the game goes. The Righteous One said it best: “Life ain’t fair, so it must be foul, which means we’re all fucked.” Everybody runs. Nobody wins.

I say all this now at a safe distance from that last day. A good fifty years and 2,000 some-odd miles away. Damn if it don’t feel like yesterday, though. When I close my eyes, I still feel the heat. I smell the cowhide of my oiled-down, blackened-up eleven-inch glove. I taste the salt from my peach fuzzy upper lip. And I hear the guys, throwing their voices around the sandlot, wanting so bad to be heard.

8

“I wouldn’t give up that bat if I was you,” called Gort from right field.

“Yeah, you sure you wanna do that?” Willie chimed in from first.

Bearded Larry extended the bat. “If the alien really wanted to wipe out humanity, I don’t think he’d use a Louisville Slugger.”

“Guys, Larry’s giving him the bat,” said PBP.

“How you know it’s a him, PB?” shouted Ernie from left field. “It might be a girl.”

Leaning forward, Bearded Larry held the knob of the bat between with his fingers. The wooden bat dangled from his wobbly hand in the heavy windless air.

Willie laughed. “You trying to hypnotize the thing, man?”

The alien didn’t budge.

PBP stopped fanning himself with his cap. “Guys, he or she ain’t taking the bat.”

On the mound, Don shrugged. “Forget it, then. If it don’t wanna play, it ain’t got to play.”

Right then, a tentacle grew out of the alien and wrapped around the bat. Larry jumped back with a yelp as the thing held the bat up in the sun, studying it or something.

“This is a bad idea, man,” mumbled Gort. “You got to trust me on this.”

The alien scooted off the plate. It held the bat high in the air, straight up, at a ninety-degree angle.

“Damn, Larry. At least show the thing how to do it right,” said Ernie, flexing his biceps, pretending to swing a bat.

Bearded Larry said: “He’s holding it his way.”

I can’t lie. It didn’t look natural, not by a long shot. But who were we to judge a batter’s batting stance?

“All right you guys, the rookie’s ready to rock,” said Bearded Larry, stepping out the way and clapping. “And if he hits a homerun, this still counts as my ups.”

Off second base, I crouched low and punched the shallow pocket of my glove a few times. Gort hawked up a loogie. Roy the Righteous One pulled down his mask, squatted behind the plate. Don wiped the sweat off his forehead with his forearm. Then shrugged and brought the ball to his chest to pitch. Off first, Willie started chanting, “Hey, batterbatterbatterbatter . . .”

9

That first pitch was low. Crazy low. Skidding off the dirt, past Roy the Righteous One and into the tangle of overgrowth behind the field.

The Righteous One pulled up his mask. “What was that, man?”

Don lifted his right hand. “I’m feeling the thing out, that’s all.”

The Righteous One went to retrieve the ball from the bushes. Tossed it back.

The next pitch was high, just inside.

The alien swung, but the timing was off. It hit a whole lot of air, but nothing else.

“Whoa!” said Willie, backing off from first. “He’s trying to knock it out the park.”

I stepped back, too. We all did actually. None of us would ever admit it, but we all wanted to be the one to catch the pop fly. We all wanted that stat. Among us guys, those bragging rights would be priceless. How many in this country can say they got an alien out?

On the mound, Don pulled the ball up to his chest. Adjusted his cap. Shook his head twice, then nodded like the Righteous One was giving him a signal, but the Righteous One wasn’t giving him no kind of signal, except: “Just throw the damn ball. My social security check’s coming soon.”

The alien did his wind up like the bat was a helicopter propeller.

Don fired a pitch that started inside, then curved out. The alien swung, a hair late, but nicked the bottom of the ball. We watched the white sphere fly up and come crashing back down, its fall broken up by outstretched gloveless branches. Foul.

Roy the Righteous One shook his head. He went to get the ball again. While he was back there sifting through thorny shrubs, the alien started acting real peculiar.

It stepped back from home plate. It held the bat in the dirt, then put its head—or what we guessed was a head—on the knob and started sliding its body, spinning around the bat. Spinning and spinning and spinning and spinning and spinning.

We stared, slack-jawed. We never did this around the alien, so where’d it pick this up? And why? Roy the Righteous One came back and he was like: “What on Earth?”

I looked at Gort, who didn’t say nothing, but kept looking around like he was expecting an invasion to commence. The alien was still spinning, kicking up a dust cloud. This must’ve went on for at least five minutes. Finally, when it stopped, it moved back to the plate and did its overhead wind-up again. Didn’t seem dizzy or nothing.

Roy the Righteous One tossed the ball to Don.

Don looked back at PBP. “What’s count?”

“One and two,” said PBP.

Don nodded. He kept a straight face, but I could tell on the inside that cat was smiling, Cheshire-like. He already knew the count. He always knew the count. He asked for our benefit. The rest of us hoped to be legends for catching the fly ball, but Don had his own plan for immortality: to be the boy who struck out the alien.

Right then, the alien stopped winding up and pointed toward the falling sun.

“What the hell’s he doing now?” said Willie, turning to Gort. “Is that the signal? He signaling the mothership?”

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” said Gort.

“I think he’s calling his shot,” I said.

“Man, get out of town,” said Ernie. “Like the Babe?”

PBP said: “Yeah, he’s pointing to the Coke.”

We all looked back to the wall in deep right field, a good 230 feet away from home plate. The empty Coke bottle was sitting up there like always, snatching splinters of fading sunlight.

“No way he’s hitting that,” said Willie, eyes wide with hope and doubt. “No way, man.”

Bearded Larry said: “But if he does, this still counts as my—”

“Think fast!”

Don launched that ball so fast, so hard, comet-like. None of us were ready. But, somehow, someway, the alien was.

In one quick motion, the thing brought the bat down and swung. There was a loud thwack that echoed across the whole field. The bat connected with the ball. The ball came blasting out of that batter’s box like a goddamn missile. A vicious line drive straight to right field. Fair.

The alien grew more tentacles. They all reached out at the same time. Slapped down into the dust like octopus arms. The thing dragged itself across the dirt toward first base.

Gort darted forward, full speed. Scooped the ball off the ground with his bare hand.

“Throw it! Throw it!” Willie hollered, stretching his lanky frame as far out as possible while keeping his toe on first.

At that moment, everything else around me blurred up. There was nothing else in the world. No heat. No sweat. No time. No threats of nuclear war. No drunk fathers. No bruised mothers. No lost boys searching for home outside of home. All that was gone. Nothing existed except Willie’s tawny mitt with the torn web and the tattered cardboard base.

Everything changed in that split second.

Seconds after my decision, Gort was scolding me. “What? Are you blind, man?”

He was rushing over to first base, where we all were gathering, except Roy the Righteous One who ran off to take a wiz. The rest of us were taking off our gloves, debating what just happened. Even though there was no debate. I made the call.

“I ain’t blind,” I said. “I saw what I saw.”

“No way,” said Willie. “You were looking dead at me. I got him out.”

Bearded Larry said: “You can’t argue with the ump.”

“Like hell we can’t if it’s a bad call,” said Ernie, puffing up.

The alien was standing on first base in the middle of us. Not moving at all. Still holding the bat with one of its tentacles. I doubted he knew what was going on. Gort snatched the bat from the alien and started pacing, pissed off. I could damn near see the smoke coming out his ears.

Willie said: “Look, either the ball beat the runner or it didn’t. I was there and I say it did.”

“Too bad nobody cares what you say, booger breath,” said Bearded Larry.

“Nobody cares about you, pubic face,” Willie fired back.

“Ask your big sis how I got this beard,” said Bearded Larry, rubbing his chin.

“She already told me you like to eat out your moms,” said Willie, pretending like he was munching an invisible cob of corn. “It’s snacky time.”

Before Bearded Larry could snap back, Roy the Righteous One came over, zipping up his fly and asking: “What’d I miss?”

PBP said: “Some people don’t care too much for the call.”

“What was the call?” asked the Righteous One.

“The wrong one,” said Willie.

“Safe or out?”

“The call was safe,” said Monte, the third baseman with a skin disorder.

“Shut up and go put on some steroid cream, Monte,” said Ernie. “You’re not even supposed to be out here.”

“If anything,” said Don, wiping his forehead, “and I’m not saying this is true, but from where I was standing, it looked like the ball and runner got there at the same time, which means he can’t be out because you’re only called out if you get beat.”

“You lost me,” said the Righteous One.

I said: “Tie goes to the runner.”

Gort pointed the bat at me. “That’s a bullshit rule and you know it.”

I slapped the bat away. “Get that fucking bat out my face, man.”

PBP said: “So is he safe or out?”

Gort glared at me. I glared back. His age didn’t scare me. His conspiracy theories didn’t scare me. Nothing scared me at that point, on the brink of our adolescent apocalypse.

I can’t remember who swung first. I want to say it wasn’t me, but who knows. I do know Gort threw his fist so hard into my jaw, I nearly fell over. It was pretty much all hell from there. Didn’t know who was on whose side. We were all out for ourselves. Nothing fair. We’d fought before, but never like this. Ain’t no coming back from this. And I remember wrestling in that sandlot, trying to rip that bat from Gort. But he had the better grip and he jabbed me in my gut. Then he got up, spit out a glob of blood and went to the alien, who’d been on first base the whole time, observing. Gort wound up, then swung the bat with all his might into the alien’s body.

The hit didn’t make a single sound, but small cracks spread out from the point of impact. They were there for only a second before a filmy substance oozed out from everywhere, hardening over everything. With all the chaos, nobody else caught that. Gort was above me, kicking me over and over, breaking one of my ribs. And in that split second before I got knocked out, I saw the alien running—running from the sandlot, his shadow stretched by the setting sun, going, going, gone.

Russell Nichols

Russell Nichols is a speculative fiction writer, poet and endangered journalist. Raised in Richmond, CA, he writes about race and other man-made myths. His story about a black vampire on trial in Boston was included in the Best of Apex Magazine: Volume 1. His short science fiction play about police brutality will premiere at Houston’s Fade to Black festival. In 2011, he and his wife left the States to wander the world indefinitely, vagabonding from desert villages in India and the Himalayas to Panama and the Caribbean during hurricane season (current location: Puerto Rico). Look for him @russellnichols and russellnichols.com.