Number One Fan: A Short Story

 

Pregame

From the Spokesman Review:

DEMONS SELECT NUMBER ONE FAN

Following time honored tradition, the Spokane Valley Demons selected on Tuesday this year’s Number One Fan, native Wendy Brenner. Brenner, 26, was seated in seat C49 when her ticket number was called in the opening day raffle. “My father always said C-Section were the best seats in the house,” Brenner said.

While the title is honorary, the Demons’ Number One Fan comes with a number of responsibilities and acts as an unofficial Assistant General Manager. NOFs receive their own office at Hades Field, work with coaching staff and players, and can become intricate parts of the organization. Should they succeed, NOFs may stay on year after year. Previous NOFs—such as Wes Clute from 1983 to 1987 and Casey Shoals from 1991 to 1996—oversaw some of the winningest and most memorable seasons in Demons’ history.

“It’s such an honor,” Brenner said. “I’d do anything for my team.”

Last year’s NOF, Sylvia Donner left the team after the disappearance of her husband…

Opening Pitch

“It’s just that sometimes, Art, I think you don’t really want me to be successful,” Wendy said, crossing her arms over her breasts and leaning back against the wall.

Art sighed. He’d known this conversation was heading this direction, known it and been powerless to stop it. He wondered sometimes if Wendy simply liked to fight, if it was a part of her internal makeup, or if he really was coming on too strong too quickly. They’d been dating for over a year, and he’d known for the last three months that he loved her. He’d known for the last two weeks he intended to marry her, had bought the ring and carried it with him day after day, searching for just the right moment to whip it out and get down on one knee. Twice he’d been close, hand reaching for the tiny box resting there amongst the lint and loose change, but both times he’d hesitated, unsure if his intentions would be greeted with girlish applause or the jittery look of a cornered animal.

“It’s not like that at all,” he said for the fourth time.

“Then what’s it like, Art? How bout you tell me, since apparently I can’t understand simple English.”

“Look, all I meant is that it’s a big responsibility, that’s all. That we wouldn’t be able to see each other as much, anymore. I like seeing you, you know.”

“And I don’t like seeing you, is that it?”

Art sighed again. He felt like he’d done a lot of sighing lately, especially since Wendy won the stupid Number One Fan raffle. When she’d first told him about it, he’d thought the idea was quaint, the kind of minor league stunt designed to sell more tickets to the rubes and get them in the door. Really, he should have known she was serious about it. How many times had she talked about the days she’d spent with her father and brothers at Hades Field? How many dates had she cancelled or postponed because the Demons were playing a double-header? How many jersey emblazoned with Dirk the Demon hung neatly in her closet?

They stood now along the stadium wall across from the concession stands. It was quiet, almost eerily so, given that there was no game tonight. The Demons were away somewhere in Oregon. A janitor had let them in and gone waddling off to find Mr. Leroy Jonah, who was supposed to show Wendy her office and explain precisely her duties as Number One Fan. As if she needed any explanation, Art thought. She probably knew more about it than old Mr. Jonah.

“There is one way we could spend more time together, you know,” Wendy said.

Art groaned.

“What? You know it’s true. You just don’t want to. How can you say that you want to spend more time with me and then pass up a real opportunity to do so?”

“I never should have told you Mud was retiring,” Art said, suppressing another sigh. He shoved his hands into his pockets, curling his fingers around the engagement ring, and glanced away from Wendy into the darkness of the passageway leading to the stands. “You know how I feel about sports reporting.”

Art worked for the Spokesman Review. A journalist going on ten years now, he’d fought hard to get where he was, covering local and state politics. His editor gave him great leeway, but that leeway had been earned through years of covering Girl Scout bake sales and writing obituaries. If there was anything he loathed more than obits, it was sports writing, a job he’d been mostly spared by the presence of Bernard Jenkins, who had once been affectionately referred to as Malamud, given his penchant for both baseball and Jewish literature, but who went now simply by Mud. Mud was—ha ha—older than dirt. His byline graced the Review decades before Art had been born. Now in his eighties, he was finally laying his rattling typewriter to rest and walking—or shuffling—into the sunset.

“I know that you seem to think that your career is more important than spending time with your girlfriend,” Wendy said.

That was clearly below the belt, and Art was about to tell her so, when they heard the approaching steps of Mr. Leroy Jonah. Accompanying the wispy patter of footsteps came the steady clunk of a heavy walking stick. From the shadowed depths Mr. Jonah slowly emerged, a tall skeletal man dressed wholly in white. He reminded Art immediately of Mark Twain, mustache and all, except that he was unnaturally thin, as if he lived on a diet of dust and dreams. Mr. Jonah stopped at the end of the passageway and clasped his hands atop his gnarled stick and leaned forward, peering at the lovers with sunken eyes.

“Leroy Adolphus Wendell Jonah, Chairman of the Board,” he said. His voice was thin, like a whiff of air through a broken organ pipe. “But you may please call me Jonah. And you must be Wendy, our new Numero Uno.”

Wendy stepped forward and reached out a hand. Art had always been stunned by her beauty, the youthful fullness of her body, the taut curves of her hips and breasts, but these qualities stood out all the more starkly next to Mr. Jonah.

“Wendy Reilly. Just Wendy.”

“And your husband?”

“My boyfriend, Arthur.”

Did he detect the slightest hint of rebuke? Art told himself to ignore it. He was the boyfriend, after all. For now. He offered his hand. Mr. Jonah’s fingers felt like tiny rolls of ancient parchment.

“Art Mackenzie. Good to meet you, Mr. Jonah, sir.”

“Please, no mister. Certainly no sir. Just Jonah will do.”

Mr. Jonah turned and led them down the passageway to a narrow stairwell leading to the upper level. The only sound was the light scrape of feet and the steady thwack of Mr. Jonah’s stick.

“We are owned, as you no doubt know, by the community,” Mr. Jonah explained. “Managed by the Board, of course, but owned by the people. Anyone can buy stock and attend the shareholder meetings. We abide by the formalities, but it is really a very family oriented affair.”

They turned down a dim corridor. To the left Art could see the stadium seating below, row upon row of hardbacked chairs leading down to the ballfield. Hades Field was strictly minor league, not even a third the size of a major ballpark, but in the empty darkness the field seemed larger than he’d imagined, like a cavern whose end he couldn’t quite perceive.

“Here we are now.”

They had stopped in front of a small blue door. A set of jangling keys appeared in Mr. Jonah’s hand, and a moment later the door swung open. Mr. Jonah held it open with his stick.

Art followed Wendy, brushing past Mr. Jonah, who stepped lightly behind them and flicked on the lights. Art blinked, rubbing at his eyes. The office was, in reality, an owner’s box overlooking the stadium below. Tall windows lined the far wall. To the right sat two rows of bleacher seats, although these were fitted with thick cushions and extendable foot rests. Taking up a goodly chunk of real estate on the left was a long oak desk. Above the desk someone had painted a mural upon the wall: a life-size Dirk the Demon. Art was well-acquainted with the Demons’ mascot, but this version was distinctly different. The bright blue of Dirk’s cape was darker, bordering on black. Instead of the knowing smirk that usually graced his face, the artist had bestowed a tooth-filled grin that Art found, to be perfectly honest, rather ghastly. Finally, the sapphire cap which usually adorned the mascot’s head had been replaced with a jester’s hat. Art hadn’t held much love for Dirk before, but this new version (or perhaps this was the original?) gave him the willies. Who the hell would want that on their office wall?

“This was originally Mr. Vestal’s office,” Mr. Jonah said.

“You’re kidding,” Wendy said with obvious awe.

“Who?” Art asked.

Wendy looked at him as if contemplating where best to place a quick punch. “Wayne Vestal, the Demons’ founder.”

“Mr. Vestal believed that, at heart, a team’s owner was nothing more or less than its biggest fan,” Mr. Jonah said. “Hence the Number One Fan, as well Mr. Vestal’s decision to make the team a public corporation available to all fans to buy into.”

“How many Number One Fans have there been?” Art asked.

“Forty-seven,” Wendy said.

“Correct, my dear,” Mr. Jonah said. “The lottery is done, usually, every year, although some of our Number Ones have been asked to stay on for more than one year. Sometimes quite successfully so. We see it as a great source of pride that every one of the Demons’ league pennants has come under the tenancy of a multi-year Number One Fan. As have our winningest seasons. We have found, over the years, that no one is as dedicated as a true fan, and the truest fans are out there.” He waved a hand at the windows to the stands beyond.

Touching spiel, Art thought, but the whole thing struck him as being a little too much like when he was in middle school and they selected a student to be Principal For The Day. You got to hang out in the principal’s office, order pizza for you and a few select friends, maybe even cancel fourth period math homework for all the unlucky bastards who hadn’t been suddenly promoted to leader of the school. Imagine if the gimmick never ended. Imagine if the pint-sized principal couldn’t be sent back to class, but instead was the one in charge of educational decisions indefinitely. Art shuddered.

“I hope you are not easily spooked, my dear,” Mr. Jonah said. “But Mr. Vestal, bless his soul, spent his final night on earth right here in the this very room. A tireless worker, he was. I found him myself, right there at his desk.”

For a moment they all stared at the long oaken desk as if half-expecting to suddenly discover the long-dead corpse of the hardworking founder.

“Cheery thought,” Art said.

“Do you have any questions?” Mr. Jonah asked.

“Just one,” Wendy said. “Where do I sign?”

Top of the Third

“Jesus, Wendy, this is the third time.”

Art felt his hand gripping the phone tightly, threatening to smash it into a dozen very expensive pieces. He gazed around the restaurant, eyeing for the waiter.

“I’m sorry,” Wendy said again, her voice distant and tinny in his ear.

Sorry, Art thought. So sorry. So very, very fucking sorry.

“I know you’ve been waiting.”

“For over an hour,” Art said, trying to bite off the anger and keep his voice down. “Three drinks and an appetizer already. You know you can’t just sit in a place like Churchills and not order anything, Wendy. This isn’t McDonalds.”

“I know,” Wendy said. “I said I was sorry. How many times do you need me to say it? Really, I’ll keep saying it, Art. If it’ll make you feel better.” There wasn’t any fight in her voice, no edge. Instead she sounded deflated, close to tears.

“Just once,” Art told her. “Once as if you mean it.”

He knew he was being cruel, pitching sentences right there in the strike zone, as it were, but damnit this was the third time she’d stood him up. And why? Those damn Demons.

“I’ll make it up to you.”

The waiter arrived and Art handed him his Visa card. He went away, then returned a moment later. Art signed the bill and left.

“It’s not that easy,” he said. “I know this baseball thing is important to you, but so am I. Or at least I should be.”

“You are,” Wendy said.

“Well right now it doesn’t feel like it.”

“Are you going to come and get me?” Wendy asked. If she’d sounded deflated before, now she sounded like a small child being sent to her room. “I can call a cab, if you want. You don’t have to see me.”

“Of course I’m coming to get you.”

He reached his car and told Wendy goodbye, he’d see her soon. He dropped the phone into the passenger seat and took a long moment to stare at himself in the rearview mirror. Was he being unfair? Was he not supporting Wendy’s dreams? Was he mad about the Demons and this ridiculous Number One Fan business, or was he simply pissed off that it kept stalling his plans for asking Wendy to marry him?

He started the car and pulled out of the parking lot. Hades Field was a short drive, less than ten minutes away.

Three months of living with the Demons’ Number One Fan had put a real strain on their relationship. Wendy spent more and more of her time at the ballfield. At first, he’d understood it was necessary. There were lots of people to meet: coaching staff, players, trainers, all the cogs that made the machine run. And Wendy wanted to make a good impression, show that she was dedicated and took the position seriously. She was often the first person at the field on game days, and just as often the last one to leave. She studied the team’s stats endlessly and spent her weekends watching tapes of away games. Even Art found himself impressed with the range of her knowledge, which she said she came by through way of her father, who had been a lifelong Demons fan and had taught her and her brothers more about baseball than Art imagined there was to learn. But while Art admired the intensity of Wendy’s devotion, he was also starting to feel rather neglected.

The ring, like money, was burning a hole in his pocket.

Just ask her already, he told himself. What does it matter where, or how? If you’re always waiting for the right moment, you might not be engaged for another decade.

This was, he’d come to realize, one of the pitfalls of hopeless romanticism.

In spite of these recent tensions, Art recognized that he only loved Wendy all the more, a feeling that, instead of driving him to throw caution to the wind and simply pop the question, made him double-down on his intention of finding the most romantic setting for a proposal. It had even caused him to reconsider Hades Field, which he’d originally felt was entirely off the table—both as a site for proposing and as a possible angle for future stories.

A week ago he’d broken down and asked Mud about replacing him on the sports beat.

Mud might have been old, but he wasn’t slow. He had leaned back in his creaking leather chair, hooked his thumbs through his stained suspenders, and given Art a long searching look.

“You don’t even like sports, Art.”

“I like my girlfriend,” Art said. “Way it is right now, I don’t hardly ever see her unless I go to a ballgame.”

“And you figure why not kill two birds with one stone, eh?”

“Unless you got a replacement lined up I don’t know about. It’d be temporary anyway. Six months at most. Until this Number One Fan crap is done with.”

Mud observed Art the way one might observe a recalcitrant dog. “I don’t know as you appreciate what the Demons mean to this city, what they mean to folks like your girlfriend.”

“I get it. My brother’s a sports nut, too. Biggest Patriots fan you ever seen. He got a bonus last year, two thousand dollars. You know what he spends it on? Tom Brady jersey, signed. On eBay, not even sure the signature’s real, but he spends two thousand and some change. Hangs it on his wall. So I get it, Mud. I do.”

Mud shrugged as if Art had missed the point entirely. “I been writing bout the Demons for fifty years. There are more stories about that field and that team than you’d think. And not just about homeruns or whether or not the cheerleaders’ skirts are too short. There’s real stories there, if you care to look for them.”

“I’m a journalist. Real stories are what I do, no matter where I find them.”

Mud held up his hands. “Look, I don’t have a lot of say about it. I’m retiring, remember? But I’ll put in a word, let management know.”

“That’s all I’m asking.”

He hadn’t told Wendy, worried that she’d get too excited only to be let down if the Review found someone else. Driving to Hades Field now, he wondered if he’d made the right call. Let Mud blather all he wanted about the Real Stories of Minor League Baseball, it didn’t make any difference. Like his mother used to say: you could put lipstick on a pig, but it was still a pig. When Art thought of sports journalism, all that came to mind was oink, oink.

Wendy met him at the gate. He took her hand and started for the car, but she pulled him back.

“I have something for you.”

“What is it?”

“A peace offering,” she said. “And a surprise.” There was a mischievous twinkle in her eyes that was apparent even under the dim haze of the parking lot lights. She was wearing a new jersey, one he hadn’t seen before. It was too large for her, and it hung halfway down her thighs.

“I’m tired,” Art said. “Can you show me later?”

She let go of his hand and ran her fingers down his ribs, descending even further south and giving his nether regions a gentle squeeze.

“Now or never,” she said. Then she turned and disappeared through the gate.

He followed her, half-aroused and aware that she’d left him little other choice. She didn’t slow. Instead she darted ahead of him, her footsteps echoing across the empty patio with its dark shuttered concession stands. Stopping briefly at the passage leading to the field, she glanced back and he thought then that she wasn’t smiling or laughing at all, but then she stepped into the passage and was gone.

Art didn’t know what kind of game she was playing. She wasn’t the sort to play games, not this kind anyway. Wendy liked what they did together in the bedroom, but she liked it strictly in the bedroom. If he was reading the situation right—and that little squeeze at the gate seemed hard to misinterpret—this was entirely new territory in their relationship.

Art strode into the passageway. He could just make out Wendy at the other end, and then she crossed into the stands and all he could hear was the tapping of her heels on the concrete stairs. He sped up, not wanting to lose her.

The little chase continued through the stands, down to the home dugout, and onto the field. All of the lights were out, making it difficult to navigate quickly or easily, although Wendy seemed to have no trouble. Art stumbled here and there, racking his knee against a seat, banging his wrist against the fence. Eventually he caught her, but only because she’d stopped in center field just beyond second base.

“What the hell is all this?” he asked, slightly breathless.

Wendy didn’t answer. Instead she wrapped her hands around his face and kissed him. It was not at all a Wendy kiss. There was nothing soft or loving about it. It was all hunger and need and fierceness. Art pulled back, but then all of his earlier anger, all the anger of the past few months, surged up inside him and he grabbed Wendy roughly and kissed back. Wendy moaned.

They fell to the grass. He felt the dampness of the ground soaking through at his knees, but he didn’t care. He shoved Wendy back, and she landed hard but didn’t complain. His fingers fumbled briefly with his belt, with her zipper, with the buttons on her jersey.

“Leave it,” she said, pushing his hands away.

For a moment he balked. That damn jersey, that stupid grinning Dirk, it was always between them, even now. Angrily, he looped both arms under her legs, pinned her back and pushed inside her. The pungent smell of her mingled with the scent of the grass, and beneath that a whiff of sunflower seeds and cigars. He felt the wet dirt under his nails as he gained purchase, steadying himself as he thrusted. In that instant he realized that he wanted to punish Wendy, wanted her to hurt for putting him second behind her childish obsessions and for making him pursue sports writing over real journalism, wanted her to beg him to stop just so that he could ignore her pleas and continue until he was done.

It didn’t last long.

At the peak of his climax, Art’s head snapped up and he stared out across the lightless field, and his breath caught in his throat.

There in the stands, he could make out dozens of people. They sat rigidly in seats scattered throughout the sections, darker shapes in the unlit gloom. They were there in the dugout as well, gathered shades, all of them watching intently.

“Jesus,” he choked, rolling off Wendy.

She gasped as he left her.

He scrambled with his pants, trying in vain to tug them up without tumbling sideways. “We’re not—”

But when he looked again, he saw that he was wrong. The stands were empty after all.

Wendy sat up on her elbows, unaware of his unease, satisfaction spread across her face. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” she said, and ran a hand between her legs.

Art’s gaze dropped to her, then quickly back to the stands. His chest still heaved. Threads of sweat cooled along the back of his neck. He strained to peer into the stands and into the maw of the dugout, but he saw nothing there now.

“I thought I saw something.”

As they straightened their clothes, zipping and tucking and hoisting, Art felt a tingling sense of disquiet. It stayed with him as they shuffled hand in hand off the field, as they leaned into each other in the stadium aisles, as they paused briefly to kiss in the passageway. It lingered even as they shut the gate behind them and crossed to his Honda parked under the sodium arc lights.

The feeling of all those eyes, watching.

Bottom of the Fourth

The winning streak began the next week.

It was horrible.

If Art had barely seen much of Wendy before, he almost never saw her now.

Somewhere in the minds of true sports fans, Art thought, more than a few screws had rattled loose. Wendy became convinced of two things: first, that their midnight rendezvous had somehow ushered in the Demons’ newfound talent for throwing strikes, hitting balls and all around not fucking up as they’d been doing most of the season; and second, that the streak would come to an end if she took off her new jersey.

“Shouldn’t it be one or the other?” Art asked. “I mean, if you’re going to pick crazy, shouldn’t you at least have to stick with a particular variety? The jersey or the sex, which is it?”

Such questions got him dirty looks, not answers.

As weeks passed and wins stacked up, Art became convinced that in Wendy’s mind it was the jersey that really mattered. She hadn’t asked for a repeat performance on the ballfield (a fact Art was okay with, to be totally honest, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to—ha ha—swing the lumber with the memory of all those watching shadows in the back of his mind). More importantly, she wore the jersey everywhere. To work. To bed. Far as he could tell, she wore it in the shower, a logistical maneuver he couldn’t quite comprehend.

It wasn’t even a new jersey. The fabric was thin and faded, dotted with stains no Tide pen could ever hope to remove. The buttons were real brass, not some Chinese plastic. Flipping down the collar one evening, Art found no label.

“What are you doing?”

“Just checking out your new wardrobe. Where did you find this? Surely they’re not selling these at the ballpark.”

“I picked it up somewhere,” Wendy said.

“You’re a terrible liar, you know that. It’s always written all over your face.”

“It is not.”

“Right here, in big bold letters.” Art ran his fingers across her forehead. “L-I-A-R.”

He pressed her a little more, and she finally spilled the truth.

“It’s Alan’s.”

“Who?”

“Alan Vestal. The Demons’ founder. I found it in his locker in the locker room.”

“Wait, the dead owner of the Demons has his own locker? I can’t be the only one who thinks that’s really creepy. How do you know it’s his?”

“Easy,” Wendy said. “It says it right on the locker: Number One Fan.”

“What else was in this creepy locker?”

Art ran his hands over the jersey. It hardly fit Wendy at all. Alan Vestal must have been a large man. And a sloppy eater, Art thought, judging by the stains. He tried to imagine wearing a dead man’s jersey day and night, decided this was more evidence that sports fans were aptly named: only fanaticism explained such behavior.

“Just the jersey. A box of old cigars. That was it. I asked Mr. Jonah about the jersey. He said I could wear it.”

“And the cigars?”

Wendy made a face and turned away, but later Art wondered. Some days he came home to their apartment to the lingering smell of sweet acrid smoke, a scent that also permeated Wendy’s Buick. He could almost have believed the smell was second-hand, caught from spending time around Mr. Jonah, who prized thick old stogies and tried to pawn them off on Art whenever they saw each other. But there were other signs. Abandoned bags of half-eaten ballpark hotdogs crumpled on the Buick floorboard, for example, a truly odd discovery in the car of a vegetarian. Coffee mugs full of seed shells from jalapeno sunflower seeds, also bizarre considering Wendy’s distaste for both spicy foods and spitting. A wadded-up bag of chewing tobacco with a label Art had never seen before, which he found in Wendy’s coat pocket. Had she not refused to kiss him or make love to him until he had broken his own chew habit at the start of their relationship?

Yes, Art wondered. He wondered a lot.

Wendy was changing, subtly and in ways Art didn’t quite understand. Or maybe it was nothing more than jealousy, that most common of reactions from men who suddenly have to compete for the attention they once received without effort.

The streak rolled on, and Art found himself spending more time at work. Wendy had taken to traveling with the team on away games, and Mud had finally made his retirement official. Management plugged Art into the hole Mud left behind, no questions asked. Only temporary, sure, but for the time being no one was looking for a new sports reporter. The job was Art’s as long as he wanted it.

He didn’t want it. What he wanted was for the season to be over, for this Number One Fan business to end, for the courage to ask Wendy to marry him to spring up inside him. No, it wasn’t the courage really. He was prepared to ask. Nor did he much care any longer about waiting for the perfect romantic moment. No, what he worried about these days was that he just might get down on one knee and take the ring from his pocket and Wendy might simply not notice him at all. The Demons had become her entire life, her reason for existing. Art felt like little more than an afterthought.

And then, one afternoon, he found the scrapbook.

Seventh Inning Stretch

“You must be kidding. What do you mean, a book?”

Art tapped the cover of the scrapbook with a single knuckle. “It’s all here, Wendy. Mud wasn’t joking when he said there were more stories in that stadium than I’d believe. He’d been collecting them for years, and he kept them all right here. The only real question is why he didn’t want to write it himself.”

They had finished dinner: spaghetti Art had made from scratch, rending and tearing the tomatoes with his hands as he thought about how to tell Wendy the truth about her beloved ballclub. They’d pushed the plates away, Wendy’s only half-eaten (her appetite seemed lacking as of late, where she’d once eaten heartily now she was a nibbler), and Art had filled their wine glasses for a second time.

“Maybe because he loved the Demons,” Wendy said. “No fan would write…this.”

Art tried to keep from smiling and failed. “I’m not a fan. I’m a journalist.”

“But this isn’t even news,” Wendy said. “This is stuff that happened decades ago. Most of these clippings are fifty years old. Older. What would be the point?”

Art reached over his wine glass and flipped the scrapbook open. “Right here. Delaney Johnson, found dead in the stands. That was two years ago. And here, Carla Neggers. Missing. Her husband said the last time he saw her, she was heading to a ballgame. They even found a concessions kid who says he saw her there. One of those kids selling peanuts or popcorn or whatever. Knew Carla from where she worked at the high school. Four years ago. She was never seen again. And this one.” He flipped a few pages of the scrap book, found the page he was looking for, and stabbed his finger on it like a lawyer presenting a final piece of damning evidence at a trial.

Wendy looked ill.

“Michael Donner, husband of last year’s Number One Fan. His wife says they went to a home game together. He left to get, as she put it, some of those awful jalapeno seeds, and just never came back.”

“I just don’t see what any of that has to do with the Demons.”

Art leaned back in his chair. “Are you being obtuse, or do you just not want to see it?”

“See what? What is it you want me to see, Arthur? Hades Field has been around for sixty-eight years. Of course people have died there. I’d be surprised if they hadn’t. In seven decades with all those thousands of people coming and going, I’d be shocked if no one had ever suffered a heart attack or choked on a hotdog. Those are tragedies, Arthur, but I don’t see what’s so special about them.”

“I tallied them up,” Art said. “Counted them twice, just to be sure. I even went through the morgue at the Review to make sure all the clips were legit. You know how many deaths there have been in those seven decades? How many disappearances?”

Wendy looked away. She didn’t want to hear it. Instead, she fumbled with the brass buttons on Alan Vestal’s jersey.

“Thirty-six,” Art said. “Thirty-six deaths.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Twenty-three disappearances, if you count the people who were seen in the parking lot or the people who said they were going to the ballpark but, as they like to say in the police blotter, never arrived at their destination.”

“You’re inflating the numbers,” Wendy said. She rose and left the table. Her purse dangled from the coatrack by the door. She opened it and removed a pack of Swisher Sweats. She lit one with a shaky hand.

“I’m not,” Art said, watching her puff at the mini-cigar. He’d never seen her smoke before. She seemed to have had some practice. “If anything, I’m downplaying them. I didn’t count half a dozen cases that I probably should have. Fifty-nine is a conservative estimate. Some years there’s nothing. Everything’s hunky-dory. Other years…” He threw up his hands.

“These are accidents,” she said, waving at the Swisher’s smoke. “You want to write a book about a bunch of accidents and unsubstantiated claims about people disappearing at Hades Field. You want to…smear the Demons. That’s really what you want to do? Because that’s what this is, Arthur. A smear job. I thought you were better than that.”

“I thought you didn’t smoke.”

Wendy’s eyes darted to the Swisher, growing wide momentarily as if she hadn’t realized it was in her hand in the first place. Then she returned her gaze to Art. He realized he’d never seen her look at him in that way, with so much anger and hate.

“I’m a full grown woman,” Wendy snapped. “I can smoke if I want to.”

“And eat hot dogs,” Art said. “And chew tobacco. And eat sunflower seeds. You can do whatever you want, Wendy.”

“Stop trying to change the subject. We’re not talking about me. We’re talking about your…I don’t even know what to call it. Hatchet job? Is that what they say in your business?”

Art felt the need to stand and cross the room and shake her. Shake her until she snapped out of whatever fog was banking in her brain. Couldn’t she see what was happening here? Couldn’t she see how much she’d changed? Couldn’t she see that this ballpark was dangerous? Instead, he stayed in his seat. In his experience, shaking people senseless wasn’t a good conversational tactic. He crossed his arms, feeling the tension tightening in his body, and tried to speak calmly.

“Wendy, this is a story. I’m not trying to smear the Demons, or run some kind of hatchet job, as you put it. This is a real story. Can’t you see that? People have died in that park. People have disappeared. Do you know what the murder and disappearance rates are in a city this size?”

“I don’t care.”

“Do you know how much higher those rates are in Spokane because of Hades Field?”

Wendy slammed her hand down on the kitchen counter. “These are accidents!”

Art dug his fingers into his arms. “May fifth, nineteen sixty-two,” he said, keeping his voice level. “Marshall Yates strangles his fiancé in the women’s restroom during the seventh inning stretch. Police found him eating a hotdog during the ninth inning, right back in his seat, like nothing had ever happened. Reports say he didn’t even know why he was being arrested until he got to the police station. He stated at his trial that he didn’t remember anything after the fourth inning, that everything after that felt like a bad dream.

“July seventeenth, nineteen seventy-three. Bill Klepp stabbed all three of his children to death. Did it right there in the stands. It rained that day, and there weren’t hardly any people in attendance. Police reports revealed that he took each child in his lap, used a switchblade knife he carried for protection, stabbed each kid a single time in the chest, puncturing the heart, then just set them back down in their seats. At his trial he said the same thing: he didn’t remember anything after the first rain delay, except that his kids wouldn’t stop whining about the weather. They were three, five and six.”

Wendy stared at Art as if seeing him for the very first time, as if he had peeled off a particularly convincing mask and revealed the hideous grinning skull beneath. Leaning back against the kitchen counter, she shook her head.

“Cherry picking,” she said. “That’s all you’re doing. Cherry picking to suit what you want to believe.”

“There’s plenty more,” Art said. “Landon Barnes in fifty-eight, shot five people with a gun he said he found in his Cracker Jack box. He said, and I quote: ‘I’d never got no prize like that before.’ Louise Drippet in eighty-three, bludgeoned her husband to death with a flyball she caught in the sixth inning. Michael Harding in eight-five—”

“Enough!” Wendy shouted. She stabbed the Swisher into the sink. “You hate me, don’t you? You’ve never wanted me to be successful on my own. You say you do, sure, oh Wendy, I support you, I’m here for you, but the minute I get something of my own what do you do? You have to go and tear it down. You know what I think? I think you’re jealous. I think you can’t stand the idea that maybe I’m more of a success than you are. Who the fuck reads the newspaper, Art? Flatulent old men and their nagging biddy wives, that’s who. Nobody cares about local politics, or haven’t you figured that out yet? People just want to vote for president every four years and then watch Seinfeld reruns. But you know what people do care about? They care about sports. They care about their home team. And you can’t stand it, can you? You can’t stand it because you’re still that nerdy kid in high school that none of the girls would talk to, the scrawny little boy who wasn’t good enough to be a jock so instead he had to spend all his time finding ways to tear jocks down. You wanna know what I think? I think you’re bitter. I think you’re pathetic. And I’m not going to stick around just to be some emotional piñata you can whack every time you’re not feeling man enough to put down your pen and get a real job.”

With that, she whirled and stormed across the room, opened the front door and fled through it. The door slammed with finality behind her.

Art sat for a long time, finishing the bottle of wine and thinking about the ring in his pocket.

Bottom of the Ninth

The next time he saw her she was on television. KHQ ran a news spot about the winning streak, which three weeks after Wendy stalked out of his apartment still hadn’t come to an end. The clip included a thirty-second interview with Wendy, who spoke about the devotion of the team and the intensity of the fans, blah blah blah. If she was deeply bothered by their sudden separation, it didn’t show on television. Too much makeup, perhaps.

She was still wearing that damn jersey.

When she called shortly after the interview, Art was surprised. He’d told himself that he would wait her out, make her call him. After all, he’d done nothing wrong. Deep down, he felt both justified in his actions and dubious of the success of this plan. Wendy was nothing if not stubborn.

“I saw you on the news,” he said, trying to keep his voice upbeat.

“They cut out the best parts,” Wendy said. She sounded tired and resigned, like a woman who has come to a decision only after many sleepless nights. “But that’s television, right? They edit out the good shit and leave you sounding like a moron.”

“I didn’t think it was so bad.”

“Well that’s one person, anyway.”

He wanted to ask her how she’d been, if she’d changed her mind, why she hadn’t answered his texts, what she saw in their future. He wanted answers, but he forced himself silent. She’d called him. She must have something to say.

“I’m pregnant, Art.”

He was so focused on not saying anything that at first he wasn’t sure he’d heard her right.

“Are you going to say anything?”

“You’re sure?”

“It’s a pee test, Art. It’s not rocket science.”’

The anger inside him suddenly became unmoored, like a hunk of glacial ice cracking and sliding away into the ocean. Everything felt disjointed. The order was all wrong. They were supposed to get married first, then have a baby. But he realized he didn’t care. What he wanted in that moment wasn’t the well-executed Plan of Their Life, but simply Wendy. Just Wendy.

“Marry me,” he said.

“Little hasty, don’t you think?”

“I’ve had the ring for four months. I knew I wanted to marry you longer than that. A year, at least. I love you, Wendy. I want to marry you.”

A long silence floated across the phone line.

When she finally spoke, Art could barely hear her. “Yes,” she said, and then a choked sob echoed in Art’s ear.

“It’s just marriage,” Art said. “It’s not rocket science.”

That elicited laugh. “I miss you,” Wendy said. “I wanted to call you every day. I just…I don’t know. I wanted you to call me first. Then when I knew about the baby, I couldn’t wait any longer.”

“I should have called you the day after left,” Art said. “Where are you? I want to take you out for a real dinner and do this right. Down on one knee and everything.”

“Oh, Art, I look like hell right now. I haven’t washed my hair in God knows how long.”

“It’s only five. Plenty of time to get ready.”

“I’ve got so much to do here,” Wendy said, her voice cutting out slightly. “Maybe I could get ready, though. Nothing fancy. The locker room should be empty. Could you pick me up? Six-thirty? I’m not going to look spectacular, so don’t get your hopes up.”

“As long as you take off the jersey,” Art said, and the instant the words left his mouth he was sorry. Did he really need to bring it up, now of all times? Jesus, couldn’t he just keep his mouth shut instead of always pushing, pushing? What was he hoping to accomplish?

But she surprised him yet again.

“Sure,” Wendy said. “For tonight, why not? It’s served its purpose.”

He wasn’t certain exactly what purpose the jersey had, but he didn’t dare ask. He felt like a man who just stepped on a land mine only to discover the bomb was a dud. Only a fool would jump up and down on it to test his luck.

“Six-thirty, then.”

“I’ll be ready. I love you, Art.”

“Love you, too.”

Then the line was dead and Art stared at his phone and wondered if somehow he’d imagined the entire conversation. Replaying it in his mind, he thought it was possibly the worst proposal he’d ever heard of, but what did it matter? She’d said yes. What else mattered besides that?

I’m going to be a father, Art thought. For the first time, the idea truly hit him, and when he tried to stand a wave of dizziness flooded over him. He steadied himself. I’m going to have a child, he thought.

Holy shit.

It was only when he was halfway to the ballpark that he asked himself if that had been Wendy’s intention all along. They’d always been so careful before that night in the outfield. The few times they’d slipped up, Wendy had always dutifully purchased Plan B from her pharmacist and taken the pills right away. How many times had she told him that she refused to have a child out of wedlock? He let such thoughts go. What did they matter, even if they were true? He’d wanted to marry her, and surely deep down she must have known that. Besides, what good would come of believing his future bride guilty of such a conniving scheme?

It wasn’t a game night, but the front gates to Hades Field were unlocked nonetheless. Art slipped through and hurried across the patio and through the passage and up the stairwell to Wendy’s office. He tapped the door lightly and twisted the handle. The office was empty.

Must still be prettying herself up, he thought. Let’s hope punctuality is inherited from the father.

He hadn’t been in Wendy’s office in over a month, and he had never been there alone. Wendy hadn’t done much with it. It looked no different than when Mr. Jonah had given them the tour. Art shook his head at the thought of that skeletal old man. He must know the truth about this place, Art thought. He knows and he never told us. Christ almighty.

Gazing past the oaken desk and the hideous mural of Dirk the Demon, Art noticed something else on the wall: dozens of small picture frames. In previous visits, he’d somehow missed them altogether. He guessed he’d always kept his attention focused on the game outside the windows and ignored this back wall. Stepping closer, he saw that they were photos of individuals covering decades, each picture taken right here at Hades Field. Most of them showed men standing at home plate or in the dugout, but there were women too, and scattered throughout were shots taken in the stands, even a few here in Wendy’s office.

Then it hit him.

These were the Number One Fans. He could see it now, the creep of time from the top left corner across the rows all the way to the bottom right. The hairstyles changed and the quality of the photography evolved. One thing stayed the same: that fucking jersey. They were all wearing it. Every one of them.

Art snorted and rolled his eyes.

There was an empty frame at the very end. Waiting for Wendy’s picture, no doubt. Pay your dues and you’re part of the club.

The office door opened. Art turned, expecting Wendy, but instead he saw a young man entering. The kid’s head swiveled, and when he spotted Art he smiled.

“You must be Arthur.”

“Guilty.”

“Wendy sent me. She said she’s almost ready, but that you should wait for her down at the field. You can watch the game.”

“The game? I didn’t know there was a game tonight.”

The kid’s smile widened. “There’s a game every night. Not an official game, of course. But we all play anyway. Come on, I’ll show you.”

There was something slightly off about the kid. He looked no older than seventeen, but Art sensed the boy was older than that. Something in his face looked tired, worn out, like he’d seen a little too much of the world in too short a time and wasn’t sure what to make of humanity any longer. He wore a grubby baseball uniform and a hat skewed just off center. Dirk the Demon grinned above the bill.

“Lead the way,” Art said.

They descended down the stairwell and through a different passageway than the one Art had used coming in, and when they popped out in the stands Art was surprised to see that the kid had been right after all. There was a game going on. There were even people in the stands, a couple dozen from the look of it. How had he missed them? He hadn’t heard anything from Wendy’s office, but here they all were.

“You say it’s like this every night?”

“Pretty much.”

“Are you on the team?” Art asked.

“Oh, we’re all on the team,” the kid said, and then he rushed ahead, skipping down the steps to the field. He hopped the fence with the ease and grace that youth affords, and then jogged out onto the field. The other players acknowledged him with a few catcalls which Art couldn’t make out, and then the kid sauntered to the outfield.

A man was coming up to bat, knocking dust from his cleats with the end of his bat.

“Knock it out of the park, Mikey!” a woman shouted from the first row.

Art scanned the crowd and the field, but he didn’t see Wendy anywhere. She’ll be along, he thought. He decided to take a seat and wait. You couldn’t rush a woman. It was like trying to spur on the tide.

As he descended the stairs, faces in the crowd turned. Women smiled. Men nodded. Some tipped hats. Even the children gave him a wave.

“Hey there, Arthur,” said a man in a derby hat.

“Good to see you, Art,” said a woman in a flannel dress.

“You want any peanuts, Mr. Rainey?” said a boy with a baseball glove. “I got plenty extra.”

Art didn’t know how any of these people knew his name. He’d never seen any of them in his life. Had Wendy told them all that he was coming? Made some kind of announcement? Maybe these were family members of the players, and they knew he and Wendy were getting married. Wendy never was very good at keeping a secret, Art thought.

When he reached the first row, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned slowly and found himself staring into the face of a heavyset man huffing a cigar the size of a railway car. Dark glasses shielded the man’s eyes.

“Arthur! My man, good to see you. Glad you could finally join us! Heard all about you.” The man held out a hand. Art took it. The man’s hand was cold and dry. He gave Art a strong one-two pump. The railway car puffed copiously clouds of sweet smelling smoke.

“Glad to be here,” Art said lamely. “Have you seen Wendy?”

“Sure! Sure! She’s around.” The man waved a meaty hand toward the field. “How bout this game though. Can’t beat it. No other game like baseball. No sir.”

Art had a nagging suspicion that he’d seen this man before. And then it struck him.

Impossible, Art thought.

“Nothing’s impossible, friend,” Alan Vestal said beside him. “Take a seat. Stay awhile. We got a good game going.”

Art stared at the field, but the men had all stopped. The pitcher held the ball, whacking it into his glove. The batter lugged the bat onto his shoulder. The fielders stood motionless. All of them were watching. Watching Art.

Art looked back to the dead man, the man who couldn’t possibly be there, because when you were dead you didn’t get up and walk around or go to ballgames or do anything. Dead was dead. That was all there was to it.

Alan Vestal removed his glasses. His eyes were two black orbs.

“Take a seat, Arthur. Enjoy the game. Looks like we might see extra innings.”

Art felt his knees wobble. He sunk into the nearest chair. Beside him he saw three small children, each holding bags of popcorn. Red rivulets of blood streamed from small puncture wounds in each of their chests.

That ghostly hand returned to Art’s shoulder. Art gazed away from the dead children to the ballfield.

This isn’t happening, he thought. None of this is real.

“Play ball!” Vestal called.

Extra Innings

Wendy straightened the picture frame, lining it up properly with all the others on the wall.

“My hair looks a mess,” she said.

Mr. Jonah disagreed. “You’re a beautiful young woman. Besides, we didn’t ask you to stay on for your physical traits, my dear. You have something more important than looks: a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good.”

Wendy stepped back and placed her hands on the swell of her belly. There, now everything was right as it should be. Her face beamed from the photo at the bottom right corner.

“Sometimes you have to take one for the team,” she said.

Postgame

From the Spokesman Review:

SPOKESMAN REPORTER STILL MISSING

Spokesman Review reporter Arthur Rainey is still missing after his sudden disappearance three months ago. An ongoing police investigation has revealed no evidence of foul play. Rainey’s car was found deserted in the Hades Field parking lot, where his fiancé, Wendy Brenner, works. Brenner, who is pregnant with Rainey’s child, says they were going to marry in the fall.

“We were waiting for the season to end,” Brenner, who is the assistant manager of the Spokane Valley Demons, said. “Art said he didn’t want to interrupt the winning streak.”

The Demons haven’t lost a game since…