“Batter, batter, batterrrrr…. You can’t hit!! Batter, batter, batterrrr!!!”

      

       The dirt -smudged ball  sped through the shadows around home plate and 'popped' into the buckskin pillow, sending a puff of dried clay into the hot summer air. The sound reverberated through the field and Matty winced... This kid was still  throwing smoke!

       Bat in hand, Randy stood askew at home plate looking back towards the bench and Coach Jaeger... The grizzled man clapped his hands briskly and then pointed at his eyes... "Keep 'em peeled, Randy!!  Come on now... he's not so tough!"

       The blue- helmeted lad took another chew of the 'Bazooka' bubble gum and nodded at the short man, and then  refocused his attention on the 12- year- old pitcher. Their eyes met, and both boys scowled at each other, Randy gritting his teeth in a cartoonish gesture that elicited a giggle from the 1st baseman...

       "OOOO!!  Watch out Jimmy! He looks hungry! Somebody forgot to feed the batter!"

       Matty glanced at the grinning boy and suppressed a smile... He was a real chatterbox, and typical 1st baseman... Wiry and quick. Swallowed up by the oversized faded uniform like most of the boys, the pants cinched tight around the waist with a black leather belt and the jersey billowing out from the smallish frame. Their eyes met for an instant and the dark haired boy smiled. The pitcher set, and looked over his shoulder at Matty as the blond youngster took a tentative lead, shifting his weight back and forth, jittery, trying to outguess the possible throw to 1st base.

       It didn't come, at least not that time, and Matty took another step towards 2nd base as the ball rocketed from the mound and ricocheted off the powdery dirt near Randy, forcing the rotund boy back in an almost comical fashion, as his eyes widened and he almost tripped.

       Matty darted back to 1st base as the catcher controlled the errant pitch and fired the ball back to the eager 1st baseman. He barely got back as the dark-haired player tagged him at the waist in a lightening fast move that brought gasps from the 'home' bench...

       "Almost got you that time," declared the smiling boy. "Next time, maybe..."

       "Yeah, good luck," replied the tall, blond boy... "Maybe your pitcher will throw the ball somewhere near home plate, too."

       "Ralphy."

       "Huh?"

       "My name's Ralph... My buds call me Ralphy."

        Matty glanced at the boy... Was this some kind of trick? A distraction play, so that he would lose concentration? He checked on the pitcher, who was off the mound and coating his right hand with the powdery dirt there.

        "Uh... OK... Ralphy then. My friends call me Matty... My enemies call me trouble..." He snickered. It was a line he had heard in a movie that he liked and used as a joke... banter on the basepads.

        " So, your momma feed you jumping beans for dinner tonight?" Ralphy teased. "You're pretty quick for a tall guy!"

        "Spaghetti... And meatballs... Maybe if you had some, you'd be a little quicker with that tag..."

         Ralphy laughed heartily. "Hey, you're a pretty funny guy! I like that... And, your momma must be a pretty good cook. Only you might want to tell her to stop feeding you so much! Looks like you're gonna be 10 feet tall by the time you hit high school!"

         "You tell her! She says we're all growing boys and need to eat. My dad says we're human vacuum cleaners... 

         Both boys laughed at that, and suddenly a voice behind them interrupted their conversation. "Hey Ralph, enough gossip already... Let's get this guy out! Come on now!"

         Ralphy looked back at the bleachers and nodded. "Ok, coach..." He rolled his eyes and looked back at Matty and muttered, "Bet he never played a lick of ball in his life! Lotta talk, no clue."

         Matty didn't say anything but half smiled... Coaches... Sometimes he wished that he had never joined the league... Before all of this, he and his friends had always played on these same fields but without adult interference, and it had, in reality, been more fun. But, this was the preferred way to compete as the skill levels improved and just about every boy in town who had any ability found himself in the 'league' after a while. He looked back at his own coach, who was the father of one of their pitchers... He was sitting on the lowest seat on the home team bleachers and reaching down into the weeds beneath him every once in a while for the brown paper bag with the drink inside. Something that hadn't escaped the attention of the 1st baseman...

         "Drinker, eh?" the boy asked quietly after noticing the manuever. 

         "Uh... Yeah, I guess... Likes his Budweiser."

         "Fucker," muttered Ralphy under his breath.

          Matty was stunned. At the language, but more at the anger that came from the dark- haired boy, who's eyes had now changed completely. Their eyes met, and Matty saw the strange despair for the first time. But then, it was gone, in an instant.

          "Batter, batter, batterrrr..."


 

         Matty stood at the bottom of the hill near the woods as the speeding train closed the distance, and the dark- haired boy scrambled up the embankment. It was almost like a dream. A nightmare  really, as he watched in horror at the real- time action, frozen in place…

         “NOOO!! ” he screamed, as Ralphy reached the summit and the loose gravel surrounding the tracks. His cry was obliterated by the deafening horn of the approaching monster, and the dark- haired boy seemed destined for an awful fate. The blond boy reversed his direction and started back up the slope but he realized that it was far too late, and stopped again, his hands gesturing towards the dark- colored monster to stop. It was like asking for the impossible and he knew it. He didn’t know much about trains, but did understand that they couldn’t stop like cars or even large trucks… All that crushing weight… He couldn’t bear to watch but couldn’t avert his eyes either, and so he froze, and time closed his eyes and spun the thoughts through his head until  there was just fear and the look of the 1st baseman who now stood only feet from the shiny tracks, clutching a handful of traprock that he had scooped from the dull grey bed at his feet.

             The horn blasted again, in a long and angry warning and the dark- haired boy cocked  his right arm and  in a searing moment, everything happened… The screaming sound of the metal brakes and the careening mass of the demonic engine and the hurled rocks ricocheting off the side of the speeding engine, and a can, a drink of some kind, thrown from the moving monster at the angry boy with the raised fisted gesture , his middle finger extended in defiance…

             And then, the raucous laughter he recognized as Ralphy’s, as the train moved past, and the blond boy’s pounding heart threatened to break through his chest. He stood in utter bewilderment as his new -found friend nonchalantly skidded down the steep embankment and reached his side.

            Ralphy grabbed his arm excitedly and declared, “Let’s get outta here! They’ll be looking for us now!” He tugged violently at the numbed boy and repeated himself. “Come on! We have to get outta here! The cops will be coming after that!”

                The tall 12- year- old was trying to digest all that had just happened…

            “Are you NUTS?” he yelled. “What was THAT? You could have been crushed, like those coins! And the rocks! Why the hell did you throw the rocks?”

               Ralphy was still wild- eyed… “I’ll tell you later! Trust me. We have to get out of here! It only takes the cops a few minutes to get here and if they cut us off, we’ll be dead! We gotta get into the woods and back to my house… They don’t know where I live… At least, not yet!”

           “Oh my God,”  Matty said, his voice quivering. “Cops? You’ve done this before? What’s wrong with you? Are you TRYING to get sent to reform school?”

           “Later… Later… I’m telling you, we HAVE to get out of here RIGHT now!” And with that, Ralphy started to run, towards the woods and the mud flats around Piper Brook. Matty looked at the departing train, and the awful reality set in. He had participated in a crime. It hadn’t been intentional, but it was eerily similar, in his mind, to the candy machine in the police station. The memories came flooding back, and then he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up… Ralphy might or might not be known to the police, but Matty certainly was, at least to a few, and the thought that he was now on the run from those men with the .38 Colts holstered on their waists, sent chills through his body.  What would his family make of this if he was caught in some crazy, inexplicable act of vandalism and assault?

              He REALLY didn’t want to find out, and within seconds he was sprinting after the dark- haired miscreant and both were desperately trying to make the jump to the fallen tree in Piper Brook. In a moment of poetic justice, Ralphy slipped when he landed on the large limb and ended up standing briefly in the cold water of the creek up to his belt… His nervous energy kicked in tho, and in only a few seconds, he was back on the log, cursing and scrambling towards the opposite bank.

                 Matty was luckier and landed on top, but nearly slipped off on the slick area that Ralphy had created when he got out of the water, but it mattered not at all.  He was prepared for anything… This had become a terrible and desperate struggle to outrun the inevitable- the police force that would be descending on this awful place! In Matty’s mind, a place he would never return to, if he could just get away…

                    The boys had nearly reached the end of the winding path before they spotted the first cruiser.

                 The crackle of the two- way radio shattered the fragile silence of the October woods… Both boys froze and then ducked down in the bramble no more than 50 feet from the slow- moving car. Matty felt his blood run cold. This couldn’t be happening!  It had all gone so wrong! In the matter of only a few minutes, what had started out as an adventure for two boys had become a manhunt, and now he was crouched in a thorny bramble, praying for strength and forgiveness for his stupidity in getting involved in this crazy scheme… They stayed there, hidden from view, hoping against hope that the officer would stay in his car. He did. But, he only drove past the entrance to the path a short distance, and seemed to be scanning the woods for the boys. The car stopped and both boys sensed that a perimeter was forming…

              “We gotta go back!” Ralphy whispered frantically into Matty’s ear. “They’re gonna trap us… Come on! I have an escape route planned. We can sneak past them in the storm sewers!”

             “WHAT??  How in the heck are we going to get to them? ” Matty whispered. “We’re HERE. The cops are on the streets! The grates are all on the STREETS!”

              “Naww… Trust me. Home field advantage. I know this place like the back of my hand. They’re playing in MY backyard now! Back near the creek, there’s a storm drain that I’ve used before when they trapped me. It doesn’t get us back to my house, but that’s OK… The cops can’t cover EVERY street in the area! It’ll get us out of here and we can come back later, when they finally give up…”

                  “You’ve done this BEFORE? Been trapped BEFORE?”

               “Only once… It doesn’t matter. I know it works. But, we’d better get there before one of them spots us and they get their lazy asses out of their cars or even worse, sic the dogs on us!”

                   “Dogs? They have dogs? Like tracking dogs?”

                Ralphy shrugged and looked at Matty… “Geezz. I thought you were a little smarter! Yeah, they got dogs… Well, just one, really. His name is ‘King’. A big German Shepherd. He’s stupid though, and lazy like the whole bunch of them! He was chasing a guy one time and decided to stop and make out with this back yard sheep dog…”

                “Cripes!” Matty interrupted, “First cops and now cop dogs! Any other nice surprises you  wanna tell me about? Just what I need… If the cops can’t find us, ‘Rin Tin Tin’ will have us for dinner.”

                    Ralphy tugged on his sleeve again. “Naw, I told you, he’s a lazy mutt. I’ll just give him a candy bar if he shows up and maybe he’ll fetch a few sticks for us… Come on now, stay low… Let’s get to the storm sewers before they cut us off.”

               Matty had heard enough. This was more than he had ever imagined and he cringed at the notion that he was now on the wrong side of a police hunt and following the lead of an apparently experienced delinquent, but it was his new reality and he soon found himself scurrying through the tall, dried autumn grass and the surrounding bramble, hunched over to escape detection.

                 And not a moment too soon, as the crackle of a second police radio echoed through the woods and reminded the boys of their tenuous freedom.

               The storm sewer culvert  was a welcome sight as the two boys scrambled from the nearby woods… It emptied into a small collection area where the water pooled and then drained  off down a minor grade to join the larger creek that was Piper Brook. The water was barely trickling on that autumn morning and Matty thanked God for that and then immediately felt guilty for mixing his faith and this devious escape in the same thought and decided that there would be lots of time later to put all of this in the proper place, if they ever escaped.

                  Ralphy led the way into the dark interior of the pipe and turned to Matty to reassure him that he knew where they were going. “All right, just follow me, M… I’ve been in here a LOT exploring and all, and I always come prepared. ” On cue, the shorter boy pulled a nickel cased cigarette lighter from his pocket and pivoted the lid opened. He muttered something under his breath as the first attempts to ignite the flame failed, and Matty remembered the dunk in the creek and groaned, but just as it seemed hopeless the flint sparked a third and then a successful, forth time and they had their light!

              Coincidentally, this was NOT the 1st time that the blond boy had been in the storm sewers in town, altho he and his new friend, Bobby, had explored those in the central part of the small town as the recent road construction had exposed the system to many of the curious boys in the same age group. Matty had laughed one day, thinking about the adventures that had become commonplace for a lot of boys and at one point, the storm sewers had become like a giant maze of underground caverns for teenaged and younger boys… On hot summer days, sometimes dozens of boys disappeared in the tar coated, corrugated culverts, only returning after long hours of back hunching adventures, often bypassing groups heading in opposite directions…

               It was innocent fun, but frowned upon , and the word was slowly leaking out and getting back to the authorities who had started to warn the kids to stay away. It seems that they had an aversion to chasing kids around underground…

               Today, none of that mattered tho, and the tall boy followed his shorter companion into the underground maze and spent the better part of a half hour, following him and trying to keep his Converses from total ruin as the water level changed occasionally from one section of pipes to the next.

               Both boys took to checking their progress by peering out of the street storm drains, trying to ascertain their approximate location, but Matty finally gave up. He didn’t know this area that well, and peering out of a grate at street level was a disorienting exercise. Everything looked different from that low, so he had to trust Ralphy to know where they were going.

                Just about the time he was losing confidence, the wiry boy made the announcement. “We’re HERE!! “

          And so they were! Ahead of them the darkness lifted and the path to the outside was illuminated. Matty was VERY relieved. He still had NO idea where they might be, but he sensed that they had followed a fairly straight path and had definitely been walking a long time, so they couldn’t be anywhere near the scene of the crime! And, thankfully, there had been no barking or sightings of large, German Shepherd dogs either!!

            Somehow, as if by design, tho Matty has never been certain, the two boys exited the cavernous system near the Sears store in the nearby town. It was part of a large complex of stores and surrounding businesses and across the street from an open expanse that would soon become the largest mall in the area. But now, it was a haven. Potential food for two hungry and relieved boys, and time for one to think about what had just happened… The other one seemed unconcerned and actually quite invigorated by the whole adventure.

         There was that element that Matty couldn’t deny- the excitement; the terror and the anxiety all rolled together in a confusing tangle that left him exhausted and confused. On one level, he felt grateful to have escaped and now that they had, both boys stood side by side and relieved themselves into the trickle of water that formed a stream to the northwest… But, there was also a feeling of sadness that he had been involved in this kind of thing. That no good could come of this, and that to his new friend  it was acceptable, something that Matty did not understand. It seemed to come from a place of despair and anger and was almost uncontrollable… Predictably unpredictable.

          One thing WAS  certain. There was a lot about this boy that he hadn’t known. He had sensed that something was a little off in the past week, but had chosen to look past it. After all, he had witnessed some things that made him feel compassion for his new friend. No kid should have to suffer what Ralphy was enduring. But now, a big question loomed. As much as he liked the boy on one level, he was equally terrified on another, that if this didn’t stop, it would all end in tragedy of one type or another…

          The dark- haired boy led them out of the watershed area and to an area behind the Sears complex as Matty grew quiet and pondered the questions in his mind.

        Ralphy noticed, about the time they became stymied by a towering brick wall, that formed a barrier between the commercial buildings and the woods behind it.

        “So, cat got your tongue?”

        “Just thinking…”

        “Bout what?”

        “Us..”

        “Uh oh… This sounds familiar!  How about thinking about how we get over this wall?”

         “I figured you would know. Home field advantage and all…”

       “Actually, I do. Over here.”  The boy led the way, to an area where the wall stepped down and was only four feet high. Behind it, Matty could see the loading docks on the back of the buildings, and a Sears trailer truck  backed into one area. There was no apparent activity, so the boys vaulted over the concrete capped wall and found themselves standing on an asphalt surface that covered the entire area behind all the buildings. ‘Lovely’, thought Matty. Ugly was more the reality.

              “Now what?” asked the blond boy. “We must be a mile from your house, and 3 or 4 miles from mine…”

               “That’s what they call freedom in my book,” Ralphy replied, smirking. “But, since we’re here, we can do the final test. “

               “Huh? Final test? As in proving myself to you… still?”

         ” Well, you gotta admit, you were pretty scared back there, with the cops after us!  Maybe you DO have something to prove… Even if I don’t think you’re a coward, maybe you can prove it to yourself!”

            Matty turned to the dark- haired boy and looked him squarely in the eyes. “You know Ralph, I don’t know what goes on inside that skull of yours, but if you think that throwing rocks at a guy on a train or running from the cops, makes you a brave guy, you’re CRAZY!  I do know what goes on in MY head, and it doesn’t include running around getting into stupid stuff like you seem to like, where dumb things can happen for no reason, and kids can end up in real trouble! I thought you were smarter than that. That you would be fun to be around. After today, if anyone has something to prove, it’s YOU, not me!”

          Ralphy looked at the tall boy and  tears started to form in his eyes… He blinked them away, and looked to his left suddenly, at the beat up bike, leaning against the brick wall about 25 yards away. He looked back at Matty defiantly…

               “Crazy? You want to see crazy? Watch THIS! “

                With that, he turned and walked quickly to the rusted bike and snatched it angrily away from the wall.

                “Hey! That doesn’t belong to you! Put it back! Someone put it there… Maybe someone who works here… Put it back!”

                “I’ll put it back, as soon as I show you how crazy I am!”

              It had  come to this, and Matty shuddered. There was nothing except physical force that could stop him, and that would only be a temporary measure. Without his father’s love, this boy would never understand.  He stepped back, as the 12 year old adolescent with the tear- filled eyes hoisted the bike onto the wall near a steel guardrail and mounted it once he climbed up. He glared at Matty and started to pedal it, until he reached the next step, which was about  a foot and a half higher. He managed to jump the bike up the step, almost falling off the side of the foot- wide cap and proceeded to the next step and the next,  and the next…. until he was nearly 10 feet up, and heading for  the highest part of the long, brick barrier.

             The blond-  haired center fielder  could watch no more. It was over and he knew it in his heart. He turned and walked away as a terrible sadness filled him  and wrenched the tears from deep inside. He felt as powerless as he had at the most vulnerable times in his life.

              He would not return to the little red cape that he called home that day, until he could cry no more for the 12- year- old boy who had touched his soul. He would never forget, but he also knew that only God could help. He prayed for that as he drifted off into a restless sleep that night, listening to the mournful wail of the faraway train…

                   It haunts him to this very day.

tman<3

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