The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon 11


The truck's cab had kept her quite dry despite its lack of glass. There was a puddle on the floor around the ancient control pedals and her left arm had gotten wet, but that was pretty much it. If she had coughed in her sleep, it hadn't been hard enough to wake her up. Her throat felt a little raw and her sinuses were plugged, but those things might improve once she got out of the damned dust.

It was here last night. You saw it.

But had she? Had she really?

It came for you, it meant to take you. Then you climbed into the truck and it decided not to, after all. I don't know why, but that's what happened.

Maybe not, though. Maybe the whole thing had just been the sort of dream you could have when you were half-awake and half-asleep at the same time. Something brought on by waking up to a full-fledged thunderstorm, with light-ning flashing and the wind blowing a gale. A situation like that, anyone might see stuff.

Trisha grabbed her pack by one slightly frayed strap and wriggled backward through the driver's side doorhole, rais-ing more dust and trying not to breathe it in. When she was out, she stepped away (still wet, the cab's rusty-red surface had darkened to the color of plums) and started to put her pack on. Then she stopped. The day was bright and warm, the rain was over, she had a road to follow... but all at once she felt old and tired and zero at the bone. People could imagine things when they woke up suddenly, especially when they woke up at the height of a thunderstorm. Of course they could. But she wasn't imagining what she was seeing now.

While she slept something had dug a circle through the leaves and needles and underbrush surrounding the aban-doned truck cab. It was perfectly clear in the morning light, a curving line of wet black earth in the greenery. Bushes and small trees which had been in the way had been torn out by the roots and thrown aside in broken pieces. The God of the Lost had come and drawn a circle around her as if to say, Stay clearshe is mine, she is my property.



Top of the Ninth


TRISHA WALKED all that Sunday with the low, hazy sky beating down on her. In the morning the wet woods steamed, but by early afternoon they were dry again. The heat was immense. She was still glad of the road, but now she wished for shade, as well. She felt feverish again, and not just tired but outright exhausted. The thing was watching her, pacing her through the woods and watching her. The feeling didn't leave her this time because the thing didn't leave her. It was in the woods to her right. A couple of times she thought she actually saw it, but perhaps that was only the sun moving through the tree-branches. She did not want to see it; she had seen all that she wanted to in that single flash of lightning the night before. The fur of it, the enormous cocked ears of it, the hulk of it.

The eyes, too. Those black eyes, big and inhuman. Glassy but aware. Aware of her.

It won't leave until it's sure I can't get out, she thought wearily. It's not going to let that happen. It's not going to let me get away.

Shortly after noon she saw that the puddles in the road-191. ruts were drying up and replenished her water supply while she could, straining the water through her hat and into the hood of her poncho, then pouring it into the plastic bottles.

The water still had a hazy, dirty look, but such things no longer caused her much concern. She thought if woods-water was going to kill her, she probably would have died when it first made her sick. What did concern her was lack of food. She ate all but the last few nuts and berries after fill-ing her bottles; by breakfast tomorrow she would be scrounging at the bottom of the pack, as she had scrounged for the last few potato chips. She might find more stuff alongside the road, but she wasn't hopeful.

The road went on and on, sometimes fading a little and sometimes clarifying for a few hundred yards. For awhile bushes grew up on the crown between the ruts. Trisha thought they were blackberry bushesthey looked like the ones from which she and her Mom had picked hatfuls of fresh sweet berries in the Sanford toy woods, but it was a month too early for blackberries. She also saw mushrooms, but did not trust any enough to eat them. They weren't in her mother's field of knowledge, nor had they studied them in school. In school they had learned about nuts and not taking rides from strangers (because some strangers were nuts), but not mushrooms. The one thing she was sure of was that you would dieand horriblyif you ate the wrong kind. And skipping them was really no big sacrifice.

She now had little appetite, and her throat was sore.

Around four in the afternoon she stumbled over a log, fell on her side, tried to get up, and found she couldn't. Her legs were trembling and felt as weak as water. She took off her pack (struggling with it for an alarming length of time), and finally got free of it. She ate all but the last two or three beechnuts, almost gagging up the last one she attempted.

She fought for it and won, stretching her neck like a baby bird and double-gulping. She tamped it down (at least for the time being) with a swig of warm, gritty water.

Red Sox time, she muttered, and dug out her Walk-man.

She doubted if she could pick them up, but it wouldn't hurt to try; it would be one o'clock or so on the West Coast, a sure day game, and just starting.

There was nothing at all on the FM band, not even a faint whisper of music. On the AM she found a man babbling rapidly away in French (he chuckled as he did so, which was disquieting), and then, down near 1600, at the very foot of the dial, a miracle: faint but audible, the voice of Joe Cas-tiglione.

All right, Valentin leads away from second, he said.

The three-one pitch... and Garciaparra hits a long high drive to deep center field! It's back... it's GONE! Red Sox lead, two to nothing!

Way to go, Nomar, you the man, Trisha said in a hoarse, croaky voice she hardly recognized as her own, and pumped her fist weakly at the sky. O'Leary struck out and the inning ended. Who do you call when your WINDshield's BUSted? sang voices from a world far away, one where there were paths everywhere and all gods worked behind the scenes.

1800, Trisha began. 54...

She trailed off before she could finish. As her doze deep-ened she slid further and further to her right, coughing from time to time. The coughs had a deep, phlegmy sound. Dur-ing the fifth inning, something came to the edge of the woods and looked at her. Flies and noseeums made a cloud around its rudiment of a face. In the specious brilliance of its eyes was a complete history of nothing. It stood there for a long time. At last it pointed at her with one razor-claw handshe is mine, she is my propertyand backed into the woods again.



Bottom of the Ninth


AT SOME POINT late in the game, Trisha thought she came briefly, blearily awake. Jerry Trupiano was announcingit sounded like Troop, at least, but he was saying that the Seat-tle Monsters had the bases loaded and Gordon was trying to close the game out. That thing at the plate's a killer, Troop said, and Gordon looks afraid for the first time this year.

Where's God when you need him, Joe?

Danvizz, Joe Castiglione said. Crying real tizz.

Surely that was a dream, had to have beenone that might or might not have been mixed with a little smidge of reality. All Trisha knew for sure was that when she next awoke completely, the sun was almost down, she was fever-ish, her throat hurt badly each time she swallowed, and her radio was ominously quiet.

Fell asleep with it on, you stupid thing, she said in her new croaky voice. You big dumb asshole. She looked at the top of the case, hoping to see the little red light, hoping she had just moved the tuning by accident when she started sliding off to one side (she had awakened with her head 195. cocked against one shoulder and her neck aching fiercely), knowing better. And sure enough, the red light was out.

She tried to tell herself the batteries couldn't have lasted much longer, anyway, but it didn't help and she cried some more. Knowing the radio was dead made her feel sad, so sad. It was like losing your last friend. Moving slowly and creakily, she stowed the radio back in her pack, did the buckles, and put the pack back on. It was almost empty, yet seemed to weigh a ton. How could that be?

I'm on a road, at least, she reminded herself. I'm on a road.

But now, with the light of another day slipping out of the sky, not even that seemed to help. Road, shmoad, she thought.

The fact of it actually seemed to mock her, began to seem like a blown save opportunity, somehowlike when a team got just an out or two away from sewing up the win and then the roof fell in. The stupid road could go on through these woods for another hundred and forty miles, for all she knew, and at the end of it there might be nothing; just another scruff of bushes or another hideous bog.

Nevertheless she began to walk again, slowly and wearily, with her head down and her shoulders so slumped that the pack-straps kept trying to slip off like the straps of a shell did if the top was too big. Only with a shell top, you only had to brush the straps back up. With the pack-straps you first had to pick and then lift.

About a half hour before full dark, one of them slipped off her shoulder entirely and the pack came askew. Trisha thought briefly of just letting the damned thing fall and walking on without it. She might have done just that if there had only been the last handful of checkerberries inside.

But there was the water, and the water, gritty as it was, soothed her throat. She decided to stop for the night instead.

She knelt down on the crown of the road, slipped off the pack with a sigh of relief, then lay down with her head on it.

She looked at the dark mass of the woods to her right.

You just stay away, she said as clearly as she could. Stay away or I'll dial 1800 and call the giant. Do you understand me?

Something heard her. It might or might not understand, and it did not reply, but it was there. She could feel it. Was it still letting her ripen? Feeding on her fear before it came out to feed on her? If so, the game was almost over. She was nearly out of fear. She thought suddenly of calling to it again, of telling it she didn't mean what she'd just said, that she was tired and it could come get her if it wanted. But she didn't do it. She was afraid that it might take her up on it if she did.

She drank a little water and looked up at the sky. She thought of Bork the Dork saying the God of Tom Gordon couldn't be bothered with her, that He had other fish to fry.

Trisha doubted if that was exactly so... but He wasn't here, that seemed certain. Maybe it wasn't couldn't so much as wouldn't. Bork the Dork had also said, I must admit he is a sports fan... not necessarily a Red Sox fan, however.

Trisha took off her Red Sox capnow battered and sweatstained and smeared with bits of the forestand ran her finger across the bent brim. Her best thing. Her father had gotten Tom Gordon to sign it for her, had sent it to Fen-way Park with a letter saying Tom was his daughter's favorite player, and Tom (or his accredited representative) had sent it back in the stamped, self-addressed envelope her father had provided, autographed across the visor. She guessed it was still her best thing. Other than some murky water, a handful of dried, tasteless berries, and her dirty clothes, it was just about her only thing. And now the signa-ture was gone, blurred to nothing but a black shadow by rain and her own sweaty hands. But it had been there, and she was still herefor the time being, at least.

God, if You can't be a Red Sox fan, be a Tom Gordon fan, she said. Can you do that much, at least? Can you be that much?

She dozed in and out of consciousness all night, shiver-ing, falling asleep and then snapping awake, sure that it was there with her, It, that it had finally come out of the woods to take her. Tom Gordon spoke to her; once her father also spoke to her. He stood right behind her, asking her if she'd like some macaroons, but when she turned around no one was there. More meteors burned across the sky, but she couldn't tell for sure if they were really there or if she was only dreaming them. Once she took out her radio, hoping the batteries had come back a littlesometimes they did, if you gave them a chance to restbut she dropped it into the high grass before she could check and then couldn't find it no matter how much she combed her fingers through the tangles. Eventually her hands returned to her pack and felt the straps still threaded snugly through the buckles. Trisha decided she had never taken the radio out in the first place, because she never could have refixed the buckles and straps so neatly in the dark. She hacked her way through a dozen coughing fits, and now they hurt way down in her ribcage.

At some point she hoisted herself up enough to pee, and what came out was hot enough to burn and make her bite her lips.

The night passed as nights of deepening sickness always do; time grew soft and strange. When the birds at last began to chirrup and she saw a little light beginning to strain through the trees, Trisha could hardly believe it. She lifted her hands and looked at her dirty fingers. She could hardly believe she was still alive, either, but it seemed she was.

She stayed put until the day was light enough to see the ever-present cloud of bugs around her head. Then she got slowly up and waited to see if her legs were going to support her or give way and spill her back down again.

If they do I'll crawl, she thought, but she didn't have to crawl, not yet; they held her. She bent and hooked a hand into one of the pack-straps. When she straightened back up again, dizziness roared through her and a squadron of those black-winged butterflies clouded her sight. At last they faded and she managed to get the pack on.

Then there was another problemwhich way had she been going? She was no longer entirely sure, and the road looked the same in both directions. She stepped away from the log, looking uncertainly back and forth. Her foot clipped something. It was her Walkman, all tangled up in the ear-phone cord and wet with dew. Apparently she had taken it out after all. She bent down, picked it up, and looked at it stupidly. Was she going to take off the pack again, open it, and put the Walkman back inside? That seemed too hard on a par with moving a mountain. On the other hand, throwing it away seemed wrong, like admitting she had given up.

Trisha stood where she was for three minutes or more, looking down at the little radio-tape player with her fever-bright eyes. Throw it away or keep it? Throw it away or keep it? What's your decision, Patricia, do you want to stick with the waterless cookware or go for the car, the mink coat, and the trip to Rio? It occurred to her that if she were her brother Pete's Mac PowerBook, she'd be throwing up error messages and little bomb icons all over the place. She was startled into a laugh at this image.

The laughter almost immediately turned into coughing.

It was the worst bout by far, doubling her over. Soon she was barking like a dog with her hands planted just above her knees and her hanging hair swaying back and forth in a filthy curtain. She somehow kept her feet, refusing to give in and fall, and as the coughing fit was tapering off, she real-ized that she ought to clip the Walkman to the waistband of her jeans. That was what the clip on the back of the case was for, wasn't it? Sure, you bet. What an El Dopo she was.

She opened her mouth to say, Elementary, my dear Watsonshe and Pepsi sometimes said that to each other and when she did, something wet and warm came slobber-ing out over her lower lip. She wiped up a palmful of bright red blood and looked at it, her eyes widening.

I must have bit something in my mouth when I was coughing, she thought, and immediately knew better. This had come from deeper inside. The idea scared her, and fright brought the world into sharper focus. She found herself able to think again. She cleared her throat (gently; it hurt too much to do it any other way) and then spat. Bright red. Oh jeez, Louise, but there was nothing she could do about it now, and at least she was clearheaded enough to figure out how to make sure of her direction on the road. The sun had gone down on her right. She turned now until the rising sun was winking through the trees on her left, and immediately saw she was pointed the right way. She didn't know how she could have been confused in the first place.

Slowly, gingerly, like someone walking on a freshly rinsed tile floor, Trisha got moving again. This is probably it, she thought. Today's probably my last chance, maybe even this morn-200 ing's my last chance. I may be too weak and sick to walk by this afternoon, and if I can get on my feet after another night out here, it'll be a blue-eyed miracle.

Blue-eyed miracle. Was that her mother's or her father's?

Who gives a rat's ass? Trisha croaked. If I get out of this, I'm going to make up some sayings of my own.

Fifty or sixty feet north of the place where she had spent that endless Sunday night and Monday morning, Trisha realized she still had her Walkman in her right hand. She stopped and went carefully and laboriously about the task of getting it clipped to her waistband. Her jeans were absolutely floating on her now, and she could see the sharp jut of her hipbones. Lose a few more pounds and I'll be able to model the latest Paris fashions, she thought. She was just won-dering what to do with the headphone attachment when a sudden rough rattle of distant explosions split the still morning airit sounded like a puddle of soda being sucked up through a giant straw.

Trisha cried out, and she was not alone in her startle-ment; a number of crows cawed, and a pheasant exploded through the brush in a ruffled whir of indignation.

Trisha stood, wide-eyed, the forgotten earbud headphones penduluming at the end of their cord by her scabby, dirty left ankle. She knew that sound; it was the rattle of backfires through an old muffler. A truck, maybe, or some kid's bucket of rods. There was another road up there. A real road.

She wanted to run and knew she must not. If she did, she would blow out all her energy in one burst. That would be dreadful. To faint away and perhaps die of exposure within actual sound of traffic would be like blowing the save when the opposing team was down to their last strike. Such abom-inations happened, but she would not let it happen to her.

She began to walk instead, forcing herself to move slowly and deliberately, listening all the while for another series of those rattling backfires, or a distant engine, or a horn. There was nothing, nothing at all, and after an hour of walking she began to think she had hallucinated the whole thing.

This hadn't seemed like a hallucination, but...

She topped a rise and looked down. She began coughing again, and more blood flew from her lips, bright in the sun, but Trisha took no noticedid not even put her hand up.

Below her the rutted track she was on ended, T-squaring into a dirt road.

Trisha walked slowly down and stood upon it. She could see no tire tracksit was hardpanbut there were real ruts here, and no grass growing down the middle. The new road ran at right angles to her road, roughly east and west. And here, at last, Trisha made the right decision. She did not turn west for any other reason than that her head had begun to ache again and she didn't want to be walking directly into the sunshine... but she did turn west. Four miles from where she stood, New Hampshire Route 96, a patched rib-bon of hot-top, ran through the woods. A few cars and a great many pulp-trucks used this road; it was one of the lat-ter which Trisha had heard backing off through its ancient exhaust system as the driver downshifted for Kemongus Hill. The sound had carried better than nine miles through the still morning air.

She began to move again, and with a new feeling of strength. It was perhaps forty-five minutes later that she heard something, distant but unmistakable.

Don't be stupid, you've gotten to a place where anything's mis-takable.

Perhaps so, but...

She cocked her head like the dog on Gramma McFar-land's old records, the ones Gramma kept up in the attic.

She held her breath. She heard the thump of blood in her temples, the wheeze of her breath in her infected throat, the call of birds, the rustle of the breeze. She heard the hum of mosquitoes around her ears... and another hum, as well.

The hum of tires on pavement. Very distant, but there.

Trisha began to cry. Please don't let me be making it up, she said in a husky voice that was now down to little more than a whisper. Aw, God, please, don't let me be making that u

A louder rustling noise commenced behind hernot the breeze, not this time. Even if she might have convinced her-self (for a few cruddy seconds or so) that it was, what about the snapping sound of branches? And then the grinding, splintering sound of something fallinga small tree, prob-ably, that had been in the way. In Its way. It had let her get this close to rescue, had allowed her to come within actual hearing of the path she had so casually and carelessly lost. It had watched her painful progress, perhaps with amuse-ment, perhaps with some sort of god's compassion that was too terrible to even think about. Now it was through watching, through waiting.

Slowly, both with terror and with a strange sort of calm inevitability, Trisha turned to face the God of the Lost.



Bottom of the Ninth:Save Situation


IT EMERGED from the trees on the left side of the road, and Trisha's first thought was: Is that all? Is that all it ever was?

Grown men would have turned and run from the Ursus americanus which lumbered out of the last screen of bushes it was a fully grown North American black bear, perhaps four hundred poundsbut Trisha had been prepared for some awful horror torn from the underside of the night.

There were leaves and burdocks caught in its shiny fur, and held in one handyes, it had a hand, the clawed rudiment of one, at leastwas a branch from which most of the bark had been stripped. It held this like a woodsy wand or scepter. It came to the middle of the road, seeming almost to paddle from side to side. It remained on all fours for a moment, and then, with a soft grunt, rose to a stand on its rear legs. When it did, Trisha saw it was not a black bear at all. She had been right the first time. It looked a little like a bear, but it was really the God of the Lost, and it had come for her.

It peered at her with black eyes that were not eyes at all 205. but only sockets. Its tan muzzle scented at the air, and then it raised the broken branch it held to its mouth. The muzzle wrinkled back, revealing a double row of huge, green-stained teeth. It sucked at the end of its branch, reminding her of a little kid with a lollipop. Then, with great delibera-tion, the teeth clenched upon it and tore it in two. The woods had fallen silent, and she heard the sound its teeth made very clearly, a sound like splintering bone. It was the sound her arm would make, if that thing bit down on it.

When it bit down on it.

It stretched its neck, its ears flicking, and Trisha saw it moved in its own small dark galaxy of minges and noseeums, just as she did. Its shadow, long in the morning light, stretched almost to Trisha's scuffed sneakers. They were no more than sixty feet apart.

It had come for her.

Run, called the God of the Lost. Run from me, race me to the road. This bear's body is slow, not yet filled with a summer's forage; pickings have been slim. Run. Perhaps I'll let you live.

Yes, run! she thought, and then, immediately came the cold voice of the tough tootsie: You can't run. You can barely stand up, sweetheart.

The thing that wasn't a bear stood looking at her, ears flicking at the bugs which surrounded its big triangular head, sides shining with healthy fur. It held the stump of its stick in one clawed paw. Its jaws moved with ruminative slowness, and little shredded splinters dribbled out between its teeth. Some fell, some stuck to its muzzle. Its eyes were sockets lined with minuscule buzzing lifemaggots and wriggling baby flies, mosquito larvae and God knew what else, a living soup that made her think of the swamp she had walked through.

I killed the deer. I watched you, and drew my circle around you.

Run from me. Worship me with your feet and I may let you live.

The woods lay silent all about them, breathing their sour urgent scent of green. Her breath rasped softly in and out of her sick throat. The thing that looked like a bear gazed down on her haughtily from its seven feet of height. Its head was in the sky and its claws held the earth. Trisha looked back at it, up at it, and understood what she must do.

She must close.

It's God's nature to come on in the bottom of the ninth, Tom had told her. And what was the secret to closing? Establishing who was better. You could be beaten... but you must not beat yourself.

First, though, you had to create that stillness. The one that came from the shoulders and spun about the body until it was a cocoon of certainty. You could be beaten, but you must not beat yourself. You couldn't serve up a fat pitch and you couldn't run.

Icewater, she said, and the thing standing in the middle of the dirt road tilted its head so it looked like an enormous listening dog. It cocked its ears forward. Trisha reached up, turned her cap the right way around, and pulled the curved visor low on her brow. Wearing it the way Tom Gordon did.

Then she pivoted her body so it was facing the right side of the road and took a step forward so her legs were apart, left leg pointed at the bear-thing. Her face remained turned toward it as she stepped; she fixed her gaze on the eyesock-ets looking through the dancing cloud of bugs. It all comes down to this, Joe Castiglione said; everybody fasten your seat-belts.

Come on, if you're coming, Trisha called to it. She pulled the Walkman off the waistband of her jeans, yanked the cord free, and dropped the earbuds at her feet. The Walkman went behind her back and she began to turn it in her fingers, looking for the right grip. I've got icewater in my veins and I hope you freeze on the first bite. Come on, you busher! Batter-fucking-up!

The bear-thing let go of its stick and then dropped back onto all fours. It pawed at the hardpan surface of the road like a restless bull, digging up clods of earth with its claws, and then moved toward her, waddling with surprising, deceptive speed. As it came, it laid its ears flat against its skull. Its muzzle wrinkled back, and from within its mouth Trisha heard a droning sound which she recognized at once: not bees but wasps. It had taken the shape of a bear on its outside, but on the inside it was truer; inside it was full of wasps. Of course it was. Hadn't the blackrobe by the stream been its prophet?

Run, it said as it came toward her, its big hindquarters swaying from side to side. It was weirdly graceful, leaving clawed prints behind and a scatter of droppings on the sur-face of the packed earth. Run, it's your last chance.

Except it was stillness that was her last chance.

Stillness and maybe a good hard curveball.

Trisha put her hands together, coming to the set. The Walkman no longer felt like a Walkman; it felt like a base-ball.

There were no Fenway Faithful here, rising to their feet in the Boston Church of Baseball; no rhythmic clapping; no umpires and no batboy. There was only her and the green stillness and the hot morning sunshine and a thing that looked like a bear on the outside and was full of wasps on the inside. Only stillness and now she understood how someone like Tom Gordon must feel, standing in the set position in the silence of the cyclone's core, where all pressure falls to zero and all sounds are shut out and it all comes down to this: fasten your seatbelts.

She stood in the set position and let the stillness spin out around her. Yes, it came from the shoulders. Let it eat her; let it beat her. It could do both. But she would not beat herself.

And I won't run.

It stopped before her and stretched its neck up so its face approached her face as if to kiss. There were no eyes, only two squirming circles, wormhole universes filled with breeding bugs. They hummed and squirmed and jostled each other for position in the tunnels that bored toward the god's unimaginable brain. Its mouth opened and she saw that its throat was lined with wasps, plump ungainly poison factories crawling over the remains of a chewed stick and the pinkish lump of deergut that served as its tongue. Its breath was the muddy stink of the bog.

She saw these things, noted them briefly, then looked beyond. Veritek flashed the sign. Soon she would make her pitch, but for now she was still. She was still. Let the batter wait, anticipate, lose his timing; let him wonder, begin to think his guess about the curve was wrong.

: 2015-09-15; : 6;

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