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Chapter One

HardBall
by
CD Reiss
© 2016 All rights Reserved
Flip City Media Inc.
This book is a work of fiction.

Any similarities to persons living or dead is purely because at the core of each of us, we all want the same things and there’s a universal difficulty getting those things.

This is an ARC

Stuff might change. Not that much. But if you see a typo, assume I’m going to fix it. If you see a huge story inconsistency, please let me know. There’s time to make it right.

Thank you to Steven Weinberg for help with the Yiddish and Rose He for corrections to the Spanish. If it’s messed up it’s because I misunderstood.

I hope you enjoy.

CHAPTER 1.

Vivian

God save me from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

No.

God save the LAUSD from me, because if I found an actual human being to choke for this ridiculous clusterfuck, I’d have to be peeled off them.

“It’s right across the street,” I said to the Ursula, the school bus driver. “I can see the park from here. I can throw you and hit it.”

“Girl,” she said with a twang, looking me up and down, “you couldn’t even pick me up.”

I looked back at Jim, the phys ed teacher in charge of the field trip. He was wrangling back into the bus four third graders who had been hanging out of the windows. He was a bruiser, and patient as a saint, but we could only wait for the repair-and-tow for so long. I’d heard at least Iris complain that she had to pee, and we had at least three boys with unmedicated ADHD who were going to turn into clouds of hyperactivity if we tried to keep them seated much longer.

“It sounded like the battery,” I said. “It’s not dangerous.”

Not any more dangerous than riding in the bus in the first place. The yellow clunker was a classic 1970s patch job that had escaped clean air laws and defied the principles of entropy. It had stopped dead a block from Lemon Grove Park, where the Los Angeles Dodgers were on the public field they maintained, signing balls for the underprivileged children of East Hollywood.

“Now you know the rules.” Ursula waved at me. “If the bus breaks down, the children stay on the bus until another one comes or the bus goes on fire.”

“Do you have a match? I’m sure I can set a notebook on fire.”

“I am not losing my job because you got your little yellow hairs in a twist.”

“Try to start it again.” I pointed at the ignition. “If it’s the starter, it might catch.”

Ursula rolled her eyes.

“Miss Foster!” Iris stood in the aisle, legs crossed, silver-capped teeth clenched. “Tengo que ir al baño.

I spoke Spanish but encouraged the kids to use English by answering in it.

“You can go to the bathroom when—” I stopped mid-sentence as her light pink tights got dark on the inside of her legs.

Goddamnit.

I was just the librarian in a school that was lucky to have books. I wasn’t qualified to manage a freaking urinary crisis.

Breaking every rule in a rulebook that made the Holy Bible look like a pamphlet, I reached for the ignition and twisted the key. The engine made the same grinding sound, but I kept the key turned, even when Ursula grabbed my wrist.

And the stupid thing started like an elephant poked awake.

“Go, go!” I shouted. “One block!”

Ursula was a bureaucrat and stubborn as hell, but she wasn’t stupid. She put the bus in gear, looked both ways, and drove a block until she was behind the last bus—close enough to the park to let the kids out. She opened the front door with a whoosh, and the dry January cold blasted in. Seatbelts clicked open. Jim barked orders. Iris was crying. And amazingly, through it all, I was looking forward to the trip to Dodgers Dreamfield at Lemon Grove.

***

Iris was crying, half naked, bare feet on the damp concrete bathroom floor. Every tear cracked my heart. I wrung out her tights for the tenth time. Hairline veins of white bubbles spiraled and dripped.

Note to self—hand soap isn’t meant for laundry. Iris was missing the event, and drying the tights under the hand dryer would be another wait.

I crouched in front of her until we were at eye level. I rubbed her tears away with my thumb. She hitched a breath. Touching her calmed her down. She didn’t need new tights. She didn’t need to be cleaned up. Not as much as she needed me to stop taking care of the practical things and look her in the eye.

Nice work, Vivian.

I slung the wet tights over my shoulder and took her hands. Iris had almond-shaped black eyes and a soft heart. She was easily hurt and took it on herself to right any wrong she saw. Such a small body. So much weight.

“It’s okay, chiquita. Podemos dejarlas secar en la biblioteca.

“Can you talk English to me? So I learn?”

“We can dry them in the library. It was an accident.” I spoke slowly and deliberately. “Not your fault.”

“Everyone saw.” She looked as though she was about to burst into tears all over again.

I wanted to remove here memory of the incident. Physically remove it and burn it. “We can say you spilled soda.”

“But that’s a lie.”

“It is.” I took her shoes from under the sink and put them in front of her, opening the mouths and getting the tongues out of the way so they didn’t smush in. “If you don’t want to lie, you’re going to have to own it.”

“Own it? En espanol?”

I was about to give bad advice. I already wished I could take it back. Third grade girls were relentless, and this lovely girl was already the butt of their attention because of her teeth, which were capped with stainless steel from a combination of bad diet and genetics. I didn’t want her to own it. I wanted to keep her in the library all day and teach her to read.

“It’s easier to say it was soda.”

“My mother says not to lie.”

Her mother was a rigid Catholic who often took Iris to clean offices at night because she couldn’t find child care after six. I’d have let her stay with me, but that Bible-sized rule book wasn’t a joke. Teachers didn’t babysit. End of. So I let her come into the library at recess and sleep by my desk.

And she wanted to take ownership of her incontinence. She was going to be a wonderful woman, and I felt a swell of pride, as if I’d had a small part in the creation of something beautiful.

“All right,” I said. “Then if anyone asks, you say you peed and tough nuts if they don’t like it.”

“I give them the finger?”

“No!” I tried to be very serious, but I was laughing. “Just say, ‘Too bad if you don’t like it,’ okay?”

“Okay.”

“Give me a hug.”

She wrapped her arms around me. I nearly fell over from the velocity of her affection, but I caught my balance and squeezed her.

***

I hustled the third graders onto the field where tables and lines waited. It was a zoo but a contained one. My kids lined up in front of Jack Youder, the veteran second-baseman. Of the twenty-five-man roster, seven players had shown up, including the mysterious Dash Wallace, who never showed up to anything. He was the one of the five I needed. The rest were easy-peasy.

I let the kids go first, staying at the back of the line while Jim guided the kids with autographs to the back of Charlie Finnegan’s line. If the kids had nothing to sign, the player gave them a glossy stadium program. Three of my kids had brought a hat. Iris had brought an old ball.

“And how old are you?” Youder asked when I got to him.

“Twenty-four.” I didn’t get the joke because I was pulling Diego from under the table.

“And what grade are you in?”

I smiled at Youder once Jim had control of the rambunctious child, and I handed Youder my dad’s birthday ball. He rolled it around, looking for a space.

“Just finished grad school, sir. Hoping to be a grown-up someday.”

He smiled at me. At forty, he was in his last years of play, and they’d been good to him.

“Me too.” He found a space and signed with a Dodger-blue Sharpie. “I hear it’s a drag though.” He blew on the signature so it wouldn’t smudge.

“You’re a free agent after this year,” I said. “Are you staying or going?”

“You’re really up to the minute, aren’t you?”

“Sorta.”

“Well, we’ll see. I don’t think anyone’s looking for maturity on the field right now.”

Youder was always a charming presence at press conferences, with a warm smile and ready wit, but he took half a beat before the word maturity, and he looked suddenly rueful. I felt stupid for asking. It was like asking a woman how much weight she’d lost.

“We love you,” I said. “You should stay.”

He handed me the ball with dry ink. “I’ll think about it.”

“Thanks!”

I had Finnegan, Flores, and Jackson already. I got Trudeau and Bonneface while constantly counting kids in yellow Hobart Elementary hoodies. As I was about to get on Wallace’s line, a whistle sounded.

A voice from a bullhorn followed. “Everybody to the tables for lunch!”

Suddenly the space in front of Dash Wallace’s table was a ghost town, and I stood there with my ball in my hands and my heart in my throat.

Here’s the thing about Dashiell Wallace.

He was physically perfect. Six two and a half. Proportioned by DaVinci and sculpted by Michelangelo. In the middle of summer, he rolled up his sleeves and the roped muscles of his tanned forearms twisted and tightened when he handled the ball. This perfection was apparent on the TV whether he was standing still or flying through the air. Nothing got past him. The space between second and third was his domain, and three Golden Gloves into his career, Dodger pitchers made it their business to make sure the batter pulled left, and the opposing batters tried to thread the first base line for all it was worth just to avoid him.

He was magical. And there he was. Right there. In uniform. Three feet from me, looking at me face to shoulders and breasts to hips with sky-blue eyes and black hair even more perfect than the TV could contain.

¡Señora Foster!” a child cried from behind me. “¡Necesitamos su firma para que nos puedan dar el lunch”

Dammit. She wanted my signature. I was the sponsoring faculty and I’d been the one to do the paperwork, so I was the one who had to release their hot lunches.

I held the ball out to Wallace. “Hi, this is for my dad, but I’m a huge fan.”

“You’re a teacher?” He looked me up and down again.

“School librarian. You’re the second-to-last one I have to get.”

He took the ball, turned it around, then locked his eyes on mine. “You have the whole roster on this thing?”

Another voice. “¡La necesitamos!

¡Ya Voyí!” I snapped. They needed me, but I couldn’t move. Dash Wallace had asked me something. What was it? I tried to remember as he rolled the ball in his perfect, strong hands. I tried not to think about how they’d feel on my body or anything at all except for making a sentence.

“It’s for my dad. He’s the most loyal living Dodger fan.”

He found a spot and signed while he spoke. “You brought all these kids out here to get this signed for your dad?”

He handed the ball back without blowing on it. I’d wanted to see that. I’d wanted the little second of delay it would cause, and the warmth of his breath on something I was going to touch.

But even in the time it took for him to hand me a ball with wet Sharpie ink, I absorbed what he said. Was he accusing me of arranging a field trip for my own ends? It wasn’t that simple. Jim had the budget for a PE field trip and I was a fan, so I’d agreed to chaperone, but who the hell was he to assume I’d dragged forty kids ten blocks in a broken-down school bus to get his damn signature?

I didn’t say any of that. Somewhere, I had a really snappy joke about something and he’d smile with those teeth—which were perfect except for the left front overlapping the right just a tiny bit—but the joke got swallowed before I could process it.

“Thank you. If it was too much trouble to sign without an insult, you shouldn’t have bothered. My dad probably wouldn’t notice it was missing.” I turned my back on him before I could be more of an idiot.

I pocketed my ball and ran to get the kids their lunch. When I looked around, he was gone. Good thing. There was nothing more offensive than a man blessed with looks where he should have been given courtesy.

[Go to Chapter Two]

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