I watched red-hot embers flake off wood and float into the sky. There were times when I loved the idea of dating Tobey, when I warmed to the Grants’ not-so-subtle push of us together. There were times he loved the idea of dating me. Those times just never managed to line up, our occasional make-out sessions never enough to convince each other that a dedicated relationship was worth pursuing.
One wife trickled over to our group, her curvy body draping over Cook’s lap. She was a new one; his last had had an issue with prostitutes, and his use of them. This one had been around for two years. I had a side bet with Dad that she wouldn’t make it to five.
“Love has its own timeline, Tyler. Remember that.”
He told me that in the moment before he took the field, the crowd roaring to their feet, swallowing my response. I was upset over Tobey, my frustration hidden behind fifteen-year-old attitude, my sunglasses masking any flash of irritation his occasional presence sparked. He’d walked into the stands, moving sideways down the row in Section 17 with a girl. Some tart in cut-off shorts and a tight tank top, her hair straightened, enough makeup on that I could see her eyelashes from my spot by the first baseline. Dad must have caught my look, my quick glance away. He stayed silent for two damn hours before slapping my back on his way out to the mound, his advice tossed out gruff and concise, no opportunity for discussion, the game needing to be played, strikes needing to be thrown, teenage feelings muffled.
It hadn’t been the greatest advice in the world. And for me, a confused teenager who wasn’t even sure I liked Tobey, it was useless. I asked Dad about it later that night, in a booth at Whataburger, the restaurant empty, one employee mopping the floor.
“You said that love had its own timeline. Was that the problem with you and Mom?”
He wiped his mouth, setting down his burger, his brow furrowed in his glance at me. “Problem? Why would you ask that?”
“You just weren’t around a lot.”
“You know this life, Ty. It’s not one for a baby.”
“So … before me, she came on the road with you?”
He nodded, lifting his coffee cup to his lips. “She did.”
“I’m sorry.” I busied myself with the edge of my burger’s wrapper. “For messing that up.”
“Don’t be. She came with me because we couldn’t really afford anything else. Once I moved to the Majors, she would have stayed home anyway. Even without you.”
“And missed all this?”
He chuckled. “Yeah, Ty. And missed all this.”
He thought I was joking, our 2 AM fast-food dinner not exactly high-living, despite what we had in the bank. But I wasn’t. For me, everything about our life, from the long hours, to the hell of a schedule, to the sweat and smells of the locker room … it was all magic. I couldn’t imagine ever walking away from it.
I felt a nudge against my foot and looked up from the fire, Dad’s eyes on mine. He tilted his head to the house. “They’re putting dessert out.”
I stretched, pushing to my feet and grabbed my empty Sunkist bottle. “Want anything?”
I headed to the house, my flip-flops loud against the deck, and I tossed my bottle toward the trashcan, movement in the side-yard catching my eye.
At the private airport, the setting sun glinted off the tail of the Citation jet. Chase Stern stood by the back of the car, waiting as men loaded his bags into the plane, his phone out, fingers busy.
“Ready, boss?” the pilot stopped before him, and he glanced up.
“Yeah.” He looked back at the car. “Got everything?”
“Then let’s roll.” He stepped toward the plane, his long legs eating up the space, and he was up the steps and into a seat too quickly, his head still playing catch-up with the fact that this was it; he was leaving Los Angeles and headed to New York, to the place he’d dreamed about since he was a kid, to wear a jersey that had, for so long, seemed unattainable. This would be his future, where he would stay, his jersey hung next to the greats, his number retired, records forever broken and kept in his name. He glanced out the window, the driver already back in the car, no crowds recording this moment, not a single soul showing up for his exit. Not that he’d broadcasted the news, but it was in that moment, the airport rolling by, that he realized how few connections he had made in Los Angeles. Maybe it had been intentional—the push away from others, a part of him knowing it wasn’t a permanent situation, stopping the dig of emotional roots.
Still, as the plane gained speed, the engines roaring beside him, it would have been nice to have someone there to see him off. He had a brief thought of Emily, and his heart tightened. Not that she’d have been holding a sign. No, she’d have been in the seat next to him, catching his eye with a smile and toasting his future before they even lifted off.
He tasted like peppermints. I opened my mouth wider, and his tongue moved faster, an excited dart of flesh pushing against my gums, the clash of teeth brief, then he pulled back a little. We were on the side of his house, a palm tree beside us, my back against the brick. In the dark, only the moon lit his face, pale highlights on his lashes, the tip of his nose, and bruised lines of his lips.
“I’ve got to go back,” I said, breaking away, Tobey’s hands sluggish in their drop from my waist. “My dad—he’ll be looking for me.”
“Okay.” He smiled shyly, and it was Tampa all over again. The meek boy with the pushy tongue. The one who slipped notes under my hotel room door and then dirty-danced with girls down by the pool. I didn’t know why I’d followed him over here. I’d seen him standing in the shadows, his phone out, a beer hidden down by his leg, and had veered off course. And then … somehow … my hello had turned into this.
There was a shout from the house, one picked up and carried by the wind, almost lost. But a few people heard it and turned. I tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear and took a step away from Tobey, to the edge of the deck, where I could hear better. And there, in the float of conversation carried, I heard his name.
I didn’t glance back at Tobey, my feet launched me down the steps and toward the house. I ran, the wind whipping my hair, and couldn’t help but smile.
I knew it would happen. He was born to wear our pinstripes.