The Game Changer The Final Score
Author:L.M. Trio

chapter 4

(Luke)



As I sit here, tapping my foot on the tethered-brown, worn sofa, staring out of the dirty glass window, waiting for my ride, I try to remember the last time I felt this anxious. Maybe it was the day of the draft? Could it have been that plane ride to Georgia after the night I kissed JJ for the first time? I’m not sure, but those were the last times I can remember my stomach feeling jumbled inside and feeling somewhat excited by the feeling. I arrived at the halfway house late Saturday afternoon. Today, Monday is the first time I’m allowed out on my own to go to work.

The McKnaultys, who have always been good to me, offered me a job at the garden center. Mikey and I had worked for them since we were fifteen and it was the only job I ever had growing up. They’ve always liked us, and over the years had gotten to know my family. My dad went to them with the terms of my work release program, and they didn’t hesitate when agreeing to employ me while I finish out the remainder of my sentence. I’m approved to be signed out from seven am till five pm each week day.

I’m looking forward to getting outside and doing landscaping again; I’ve been cooped up for so long that I can barely wait to be in the fresh air each day. Plus, I’ll have the opportunity to stop home every day before heading back here, which is about a notch or two up from the cage I’ve been living in.

To be able to eat my mom’s home cooked meals, or stop in WaWa or McD’s for lunch, seems so unreal to me. I jump from my seat even before the truck has had a chance to stop.

As we drive past my old high school, I think about how much my life has changed in a few short years. I had it all back then; everyone looked up to me, tons of interviews and newspaper articles told of my success. Now, I’m a joke… or a tragedy, rather. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to baseball. I’m never going to be able to live down what happened. No matter what I do, how hard I try, or how good I am, the media will never let it go. It’ll be the first thing they mention whenever they talk about me. Who needs that? I think to myself, blowing off the idea. I decide to think of something else. I don’t want the bad thoughts to ruin my day. This is a good day. I’m free at last, at least until five, anyway.

It’s been twenty months and nineteen days since the last time I’ve been in my home. The guys were told to knock off a little earlier today, giving me extra time to spend with my family. Driving down the familiar tree-lined streets where I’ve grown up, everything looks the same, yet, feels so different. Most of my friends are gone, moved on to college.

As the McKnaulty’s Garden Center pick-up truck turns onto my street, the first thing to catch my eye is JJ’s house. I feel a stabbing pain in my chest, a pain so sharp that it takes my breath for a moment. There’s a car in her driveway that I’m not familiar with. Then again, I look across the street and there’s a car in my own driveway that I’m not familiar with,either. It’s been too long. Looking at her house, especially her bedroom window—the same one I climbed in and out of a million times—makes me briefly smile to myself, but the feeling doesn’t last for long, it’s replaced with the guilt and heartache I feel.

Does she know I’m home? Will she come see me? I’m not the same person I was then. She won’t like the person I’ve become, I think to myself.

I slowly open the door leading into the kitchen and my senses fill with the aroma of my mom’s cooking. A sense of cautious relief comes over me. I know she’ll have a million things prepared for me. My mom, dad and Mikey are sitting around the kitchen table when I step through the door, all eyes pointing in my direction.

“You guys are in the same spot I left you in. Did you ever move?” I ask, attempting to crack a joke.

My mom jumps from her seat with tears in her eyes as she runs to me, with my dad right behind. She hugs me hard and long, and then my dad joins in. I can barely breathe and feel as if I may cry myself, but am unable to shed a tear. I’ve worked so hard at not showing my emotions over the last twenty months, I assume I must have forgotten how to feel anything.

When they finally let me go, Mikey rises to greet me. “Hey, man,” I say, surprised to see that he flew home to be here. “What are you doin’ here? You didn’t have to come.” Mikey has stuck by me through everything. He’s the one person I could dump on while I was inside. I didn’t have to pretend that everything was fine with Mikey. He grabs me and pulls me into a bear hug, trying to hide his own misted eyes. “Yeah, well, I wanted to. I had to check in, make sure you’re takin’ care of yourself,” he jokes.

My mom interrupts, rattling off a hundred different things she made me for dinner. I’m feeling overwhelmed and uneasy, I’m not really up for eating, yet I don’t want to hurt her feelings. I hug her again and tell her I’m starving. I can tell it’s hard for her to let me go each time she takes me in her arms.

We sit together and eat while making useless small talk. I can feel the tension in the room. I know it’s me giving off the negative vibes, but I don’t know how to fix it. We talk as if we’re strangers.

After dinner, I head up to my room and close the door. I feel the need to be alone for a few minutes. I guess it’s something I’ve gotten used to the last couple of years. I lay across my bed. I forgot just how comfortable a bed could be. My eyes scan the room as I notice that everything is the same as when I left it. My articles still cover the walls, along with a couple of leftover drawings and paintings that JJ made me. Most of her work is kept at my condo in Florida. I spot a picture of us pinned to my bulletin board. We look happy; it was her graduation day. I close my eyes, trying to take it all in. My thoughts are interrupted by a knock on the door.

***

(Mikey)

“Come in.” Luke calls from the other side of the room.

“Hey, how ya doin’?” I ask.

“It’s crazy, ya know? I can’t believe I’m home. It sucks, man. I don’t want to go back.”

“I know, it’ll be over soon… for good. Then you can get back to livin’ the life you planned before all of this.” I say, trying to reassure him.

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can ever get there… I’m different, ya know?”

“You’re not different. You just feel different because you’ve been in that shithole for so long. You just need some time to adjust.”

“Ya think?”

“Yeah, I do. Let’s go back downstairs, your mom and dad would like to spend time with you.”

“I know. I’m tryin’ not to be an asshole. I don’t want to put them through any more than I already have. I’m feelin’ overwhelmed, ya know?”

“Don’t worry about it, they get it. They’re not goin’ to push.”

We head downstairs and watch TV in the family room with his mom and dad. I’m trying my best to find the right words so that he doesn’t feel so bad. I know it wasn’t easy for him the last couple of years, but he’s got to believe that he can turn this around. Just as he’s about to get somewhat comfortable, he glances at the clock and realizes he’s once again faced with reality. I offer to drive him back to the halfway house in order to make his five o’clock curfew.

“Whose car?” He asks nonchalantly, nodding his head in the direction of JJ’s house.

“I think it’s David’s,” I respond, glancing in his direction. He stares straight ahead. I take that as a hint that he doesn’t want me to make more out of it but, I ask anyway, in case there’s more that he wants to know.

“Is that it?” I ask.

“Is that what?” He replies playing dumb.

“Is there anything else you want to know?”

“No, I’m good. How long are you here for?” He asks, quickly changing the subject.

“I’m flyin’ back tomorrow night, I got a six forty-five flight. I’m on a two day break, but I’ll come back as soon as I can.” I answer, letting him drop the subject. I’m hoping he’ll talk when he’s ready.

“You don’t have to keep runnin’ back and forth, it’s too much. You need to focus on what you’re doin’. Man, you must have dropped a boat load of money on me the last couple of years, flyin’ back and forth.”

“You’re right, I did and I expect you to repay me. So, I need to keep checkin’ on my investment, making sure he’s workin’ hard to pay me back.” We both laugh. “Seriously though, how about tomorrow when you’re done working, we throw some balls around?” I ask.

“Nah, man. I don’t think so. I probably don’t even remember how to throw a ball.”

“I’m sure it’ll come back to you,” I reply sarcastically, rolling my eyes at his negativity.

‘No, not yet. I’m not sure if I still want to.”

“Like I said earlier, you just need to adjust.”

“We’ll see,” he answers flatly, hinting that the subject is closed as he exits the car.

***

(Luke)

I check in and retreat to my dreary room on the second floor. It’s disheartening to have to return to this crummy place after spending time in the comforts of my own home and breathing in the fresh air all day. The metal springs from the old mattress claw at my back as I lie staring up at the ceiling, trying to remind myself that this is almost over.

“Well, it’s a lot less crappy than where I spent the last twenty months, but it’s still crappy none the less,” I mumble to myself as I close my eyes.

In the days following, I look forward to waking up each morning and getting picked up for work. Being outside, getting the fresh air, brings me a bit of relief. My family and lawyer are working at getting me on a house-arrest program so that I don’t have to return to the halfway house each evening.

During the hour or two that I do get to spend at home each day, I make sure to spend a good bit of time at the docks. I try gathering my thoughts about what it is that I want and how in the Hell I’ll go about getting there. There’s not a question about who I want, but not like this, it wouldn’t be right. Being away took its toll on me. I’m fucked up and I know it. Mostly I feel unstable, but I’m trying my best to hide it from my family. I don’t want to cause them more problems than I already have. I stare at the blue-green water like I used to, hoping to find answers.

A million thoughts race through my mind. One day I feel as if I’m ready to get back to playing ball and the next, I’m thinking, screw it, why bother. I could care less if I ever play again. On one of those bad days, I run into David on my way back from the docks.

Later that evening, back at my temporary home in AC, I breathe in the stale air of smoke and focus on the crack in the yellow stained ceiling while replaying the conversation with David in my mind. He seemed as if he was happy to see me at first, at least he pretended to be, but then I probably blew it the second I opened my mouth when he asked if I was ready to go back to playing ball. Instead of just playing it off like I was fine, I proceeded to tell him how screwed up I am, and that I didn’t think I’d ever get back to playing. I’ve always had this problem with spilling too much to David. No wonder he never mentions JJ’s name to me, come to think of it, no one does.

I know they had the fundraiser not that long ago. I overheard my mom talking to Deanna about it on the phone. And I’d bet my life, Mikey was there as well. They must all know I’ve lost it, that’s why no one mentions her name around me.

***

As the months pass, I admit to myself that by now I had hoped she would have come to see me, but she doesn’t, which in turn pisses me off. Screw her. I don’t want to see her anyway. She’s probably moved on, either that, or they all know that I’m fuckin’ crazy and they warned her to stay away. It drives me insane thinking about it. Why the hell can I not ask Mikey about her? Then, a staggering thought enters my mind. What if it’s Mikey that she’s with now? They live in Florida. I’m sure he looks after her. After all, he’s been the one that’s been there for her the last couple of years. All this time, I’ve been thinking to myself that just maybe there would be a chance for us again. I’ve never considered the obvious. Maybe he’s been trying to tell me and I’ve been ignoring the signs.

My heart begins to pound so hard that I can see it popping out of my chest. My mind swirls with unwanted thoughts. I’ve never had contact with her since that night. No one mentions her name to me. I can’t believe I never gave any thought that she may have moved on with my best friend. How do I deal with that? I feel as if I’ve been hit by a Mack Truck; my eyes begin to blur as I drift in and out of a stormy night of sleep.