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Seventh Inning Stretch

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THE YEAR before the separation and divorce, the McFarland's had gone to Florida for a week, during Pete and Trisha's February school vacation. It had been a bad holiday, with the children too often glumly shelling together on the beach while their parents fought in the little beach house they had rented (he drank too much, she spent too much, you promised me you'd, why don't you ever, yatata-yatata-yatata, dahdah-dahdah-dahdah). When they flew back, Trisha somehow got the window seat instead of her brother.

The plane had descended toward Logan Airport through layers of overcast, lumbering as carefully as an overweight old lady walking down a sidewalk where there are patches

of ice. Trisha had watched, fascinated, with her forehead pressed to the window. They would be in a perfect world of white ... there would be a flash of the ground or the slate-gray water of Boston Harbor below them ... more white ... then another flash of the ground or the water.

The four days which followed her decision to turn north were like that descent: mostly a cloudbank. Some of the memories she did have she did not trust; by Tuesday night the boundary between reality and make-believe had begun to disappear. By Saturday morning, after a full week in the woods, it was all but gone. By Saturday morning (not that Trisha recognized it as Saturday when it came; by then she had lost track of the days) Tom Gordon had become her fulltime companion, not pretend but accepted as real. Pepsi Robichaud walked with her for awhile; the two of them sang all their favorite Boyz and Spice Girls duets and then Pepsi walked behind a tree and didn't come out on the other side. Trisha looked behind the tree, saw that Pepsi wasn't there, and understood after several moments of frowning thought that she had never been there at all. Trisha then sat down and cried.

While she was crossing a wide, boulder-strewn clearing, a large black helicopter-the sort of helicopter the sinister government conspiracy guys used in The X-Files - came and hovered over Trisha's head. It was soundless except for the faintest pulse of its rotors. She waved to it and screamed for help, and although the guys inside must have seen her, the black helicopter flew away and never returned. She came to an old forest of pines through which the light slanted in ancient dusty beams like sunrays falling through the high windows of a cathedral. This might have been on Thursday. From these trees hung the mutilated corpses of a thousand deer, a slain army of deer crawling with flies and bulging with maggots. Trisha closed her eyes and when she opened them again the rotting deer were gone. She found a stream and followed it for awhile and then it either quit on her or she wandered away from it. Before this happened, however, she looked into it and saw an enormous face on the bottom, drowned but somehow still living, looking up at her and talking soundlessly. She passed a great gray tree like a hollow crooked hand; from within it, a dead voice spoke her name. One night she awoke with something pressing down on her chest and thought the thing in the woods had finally come for her, but when she reached for it there was nothing there and she could breathe again. On several occasions she heard people calling for her, but when she called back there was never any answer.

Amid these clouds of illusion came vivid flashes of reality like glimpses of the ground. She remembered discovering another berry patch, a huge one splashed down the side of a hill, and refilling her pack while she sang, "Who do you call when your windshield's busted?" She remembered filling her water-bottle and Surge bottle from a spring. She remembered stumbling over a root and falling to the bottom of a wet little declivity where the most beautiful flowers she had ever seen grew - waxy-white and aromatic, graceful as bells. She had a clear memory of coming upon the headless body of a fox; unlike the army of slain deer hanging from the trees, this corpse didn't go away when she closed her eyes and counted to twenty. She was quite sure she saw a crow hanging upside down from a branch by its feet and cawing at her, and while that was probably impossible, the memory had a quality that many others (the one of the black helicopter, for instance) did not: a texture and a lucidity. She remembered fishing with her hood in the stream where she later saw the long drowned face. There were no trout but she did manage to catch a few taddies. She ate these whole, being careful to make sure they were dead before she did. She was haunted by the idea that they might live in her stomach, and turn into frogs there.

She was sick, she had been right about that, but her body fought the infection in her throat and chest and sinuses with remarkable tenacity. For hours at a time she would feel feverish, hardly in the world at all. The light, even when it was dim and filtered by heavy tree-cover, hurt her eyes, and she talked nonstop-mostly to Tom Gordon but also to her mother, brother, father, Pepsi, and all the teachers she had ever had, right back to Mrs. Garmond in kindergarten. She woke herself up in the night, lying on her side with her knees curled to her chest, shaking with fever and coughing so hard she feared something inside her would rupture. But then, instead of getting worse, the fever would either fade or disappear entirely, and the headaches which accompanied it would lift. She had one night (it was Thursday, although she didn't know it) when she slept right through and woke almost refreshed. If she had coughed during that night, it wasn't hard enough to wake her. She picked up a patch of poison ivy on her left forearm, but Trisha recognized it for what it was and slathered it with mud. It didn't spread.

Her clearest memories were of lying beneath heaps of branches and listening to the Red Sox while the stars glared coldly overhead. They won two out of three in Oakland, with Tom Gordon getting saves in both wins. Mo Vaughn hit two home runs and Troy O'Leary (one very cute baseball player, in Trisha's humble estimation) hit one. The games came through to her on WEEI, and although the reception grew a little worse each night, her batteries held up well. She remembered thinking that if she ever got out of this, she would have to write a fan letter to the Energizer Bunny. She did her part by turning the radio off when she got sleepy. Not once, even on Friday night, when she was wracked with chills and fever and watery bowels, did she go to sleep with the radio on. The radio was her lifeline, the games her life preserver. Without them to look forward to she thought she would simply give up.

The girl who had gone into the woods (almost ten and big for her age) had weighed ninety-seven pounds. The girl who came blundering half-blind up a piney slope and into a brushy clearing seven days later weighed no more than seventy-eight. Her face was swollen with mosquito bites and a large coldsore had bloomed on the left side of her mouth. Her arms were sticks. She hitched constantly at the waist of her loose jeans without realizing it. She was muttering a song under her breath - "Put your arms around me ... cuz I gotta get next to you" - and looked like one of the world's younger heroin addicts. She had been resourceful, she had been lucky with the weather (moderate temperatures, no rain since the day she'd gotten lost), and she had discovered deep and totally unexpected reserves of strength within herself Now those reserves were almost gone, and in some part of her exhausted mind, Trisha knew it. The girl making her slow, weaving way through the clearing at the top of the slope was nearly finished.

In the world she had left, a desultory remnant of the search went on, but she was nonetheless now presumed dead by most of those looking for her. Her parents had begun to discuss, in a blundering and still unbelieving way, whether they should have a memorial service or wait for the body to be found. And if they decided to wait, how long? Sometimes the bodies of the lost were never found. Pete said little, but he had grown hollow-eyed and silent. He took Moanie Balogna into his room and sat her in the corner where she could look toward his bed. When he saw his mother looking at the doll, he said, "Don't you touch it. Don't you dare."

In that world of lights and cars and paved roads she was dead. In this one-the one that existed off the path, the one where crows sometimes hung upside down from branches she was close to it. But she kept on truckin. (That one was her father's.) Her course sometimes wavered a bit to the west or the east, but not often and not much. Her ability to keep moving steadily in one direction was nearly as remarkable as her body's refusal to give in completely to the infections in her chest and throat. Not as helpful, however. Her path took her slowly but steadily away from the larger concentrations of towns and villages and deeper into New Hampshire's chimney.

The thing in the woods, whatever it was, kept her company on her journey. Although she dismissed a great deal of what she felt and thought she saw, she never dismissed her sense of what the wasp-priest had called the God of the Lost; never chalked up the clawed trees (or the headless fox, for that matter) to mere hallucination. When she felt that thing (or heard it-several times she had heard breaking branches in the forest as it kept pace with her, and twice she heard its low inhuman grunt), she never questioned the fact of its actual presence. When the feeling left her, she never questioned the fact that the thing was really gone. She and it were tied together now; they would remain so until she died. Trisha didn't think that would be long now. "Right around the corner," her mother would have said, except there were no corners in the woods. Bugs and swamps and sudden drop-offs, but no corners. It wasn't fair that she should die after fighting so hard to stay alive, but the unfairness didn't make her so angry now. It took energy to be angry. It took vitality. Trisha was nearly shot of both.

Halfway across this new clearing, which was no different than a dozen others she had passed through, she began to cough. It hurt deep in her chest, made her feel as if there were a great big hook in there. Trisha doubled over, grabbed hold of a jutting stump, and coughed until tears popped out of her eyes and her vision doubled. When the coughing finally tapered off and stopped, she remained bent over at first, waiting for her heart to slow its fearful pounding. Also for those big black butterflies in front of her eyes to fold their wings and go back to wherever they came from. Good thing she'd had this stump to hold onto or she would have fallen over for sure.

Her eyes went to the stump and her thoughts abruptly ceased. The first to come back was I'm not seeing what I think I'm seeing. It's another Make-believe, another hallucination. She closed her eyes and counted to twenty. When she opened them the black butterflies were gone, but the rest was the same. The stump wasn't a stump. It was a post. On top, screwed into the gray and spongy old wood, was a rusty red ringbolt.

Trisha grasped it, felt the old iron reality of it. She let go and looked at the flecks of rust on her fingers. She grasped it again, flicked it back and forth. That sense of deja vu swept her as it had when she had turned in a circle, only it was stronger now, and somehow associated with Tom Gordon. What ... ?

"You dreamed it," Tom said. He was standing about fifty feet away with his arms folded and his butt leaned up against a maple tree, dressed in his gray road uniform. "You dreamed we came to this place."

"I did?"

"Sure, don't you remember? It was the team's off night. The night you listened to Walt."

"Walt ... ?" The name was only vaguely familiar, the significance of it totally lost.

"Walt from Framingham. The El Dopo on the cell phone."

She started to remember. "And then the stars fell."

Tom nodded.

Trisha walked slowly around the post, never taking her hand off the ringbolt. She looked carefully at her surroundings and saw that she wasn't in a clearing at all, not really. There was too much grass-the high green grass you saw in fields or meadows. This was a meadow, or had been once, a long time ago. If you ignored the birches and the bushes and let your eye see the whole thing, you couldn't mistake it for anything else. It was a meadow. People made meadows, just as people planted posts in the ground, posts with ringbolts on them.

Trisha dropped to one knee and ran a hand up and down the post-lightly, mindful of splinters. Halfway around it she discovered a pair of holes and a twisted ring of old metal. She felt below it in the grass, found nothing at first, and dug deeper into the wiry undergrowth. Down there, caught in old hay and timothy, she found something else. Trisha had to use both hands to rip it free. It turned out to be an ancient rusty hinge. She held it up to the sun. A pencil-thin ray fell through one of the screwholes and put a brilliant pinhead of light on one cheek.

"Tom," she breathed. She looked toward where he had been, leaning back against the maple with his arms crossed, thinking he would be gone again. He wasn't, though, and although he wasn't smiling, she thought she saw a hint of a smile around his eyes and mouth. "Tom, look!" She held up the hinge.

"It was a gate," Tom said.

"A gate!" she repeated rapturously. 'A gate!" Something made by humans, in other words. Folk from the magic world of lights and appliances and 6-12 Insect Repellant.

"This is your last chance, you know."

"What?" She looked at him uneasily.

"it's the late innings now. Don't make a mistake, Trisha."

"Tom, you-"

But there was no one there. Tom was gone. Not that she had seen him disappear, exactly, because Tom had never been there in the first place. He was only in her imagination.

What's the secret of closing? she had asked him-she couldn't remember exactly when.

Establishing that it's you who's better, Tom had said, her mind perhaps recycling some half-heard comment from a sports show or maybe a postgame interview watched with her father, his arm around her shoulders, her head leaning against him. It's best to do it right away.

Your last chance. Late innings. Don't make a mistake.

How can I do that when I don't even know what I'm doing?

To that there was no answer, so Trisha once more walked around the post with her hand on the ringbolt, as slowly and as delicately as a Saxon girl in some ancient courting ritual of the Maypole. The woods which enclosed the overgrown meadow revolved before her sight the way things did when you were on the merry-go-round at Revere Beach or Old Orchard. They looked no different from the miles of woods she'd already been through, and which way? Which way was the right way? This was a post but not a signpost.

"A post, not a signpost, " she whispered, walking a little faster now. "How can I know anything from it when it's a post, not a signpost? How can a numbwit like me. . . "

She had an idea then, and dropped back onto her knees. She banged one shin on a rock, started it bleeding, hardly noticed. Maybe it was a signpost. Maybe it was.

Because it had been a gatepost.

Trisha found the holes in the post again, the ones where the hinge-screws had gone. She located herself with her feet to those holes, then crawled slowly away from the post on a straight line. One knee forward ... then the other ... then the first

"Ow!" she cried, and yanked her hand out of the grass. That had hurt worse than barking her shin. She looked at her palm and saw little beads of blood oozing up through the caked dirt. Trisha leaned forward on her forearms, pushing aside the grass, knowing what had stabbed into her hand, needing to see it just the same.

It was the ragged stump of the other gatepost, broken off about a foot out of the ground, and she'd really been quite lucky not to hurt herself any more than she had; a couple of the splinters sticking up from that post were a good three inches long and looked as sharp as needles. A little beyond the stump, buried in the white and wiry old grass underlying this June's aggressive new green, was the rest of the post.

Last chance. Late innings.

"Yeah, and maybe somebody expects an awful lot from a kid," she said. She unshouldered her pack, opened it, yanked out the remains of the poncho, and tore off one of the strips. This she knotted around the stump of the broken-off gatepost, coughing nervously as she did it. Sweat ran down her face. Noseeums came to drink it; some drowned; Trisha didn't notice.

She stood up, reshouldering the pack, and stood between the remaining upright post and the blue strip of plastic marking the downed one.

"Here's where the gate was," she said. "Right here." She looked straight ahead, in a northwest direction. Then she about-faced and gazed southeast. - I don't know why any one would put a gate here, but I know that you don't bother unless there's a road or a trail or a riding-path or something. I want . . ." Her voice trembled toward tears. She stopped, gulped them back, and started again. "I want to find the path. Any path. Where is it? Help me, Torn."

Number 36 didn't reply. A jay scolded her and something moved in the woods (not the thing, just some animal, maybe a deer-she had seen lots of deer over the last three or four days), but that was all. Before her, all around her, was a meadow so old that it could now pass for just another forest clearing unless you looked closely. Beyond this she saw more woods, more clenches of trees she could not name. She saw no path.

This is your last chance, you know.

Trisha turned, walked northwest across the open space to the woods, then looked back to make sure she had held a straight line. She had, and she looked forward again. Branches moved in a light breeze, casting deceptive dapples of light everywhere, creating what was almost a disco-ball effect. She could see an old fallen log and went to it, slipping between the closely packed trees and ducking under the maddening interlacing branches, hoping . . . but it was a log, just a log and not another post. She looked further and saw nothing. Heart thumping, breath coming in anxious, phlegmy little bursts, Trisha fought her way back to the clearing and returned to the place where the gate had been. This time she faced southeast and walked slowly once more to the rim of the woods.

"Well, here we go," Troop always said, "it's the late innings and the Red Sox need base-runners."

Woods. Nothing but woods. Not so much as a gametrail-at least not that Trisha could see-let alone a path.

She pushed in a little further, still trying not to cry, knowing that very soon she wouldn't be able to help it. Why did the wind have to be blowing? How could you see anything with all those little puppy-shit dots of sunlight spinning around? It was like being in a planetarium, or something.

"What's that?" Tom asked from behind her.

"What?" She didn't bother turning. Tom's appearances no longer seemed especially miraculous to her. "I don't see anything."

"To your left. just a tiny bit." His finger, pointing over her shoulder.

"That's just an old stump," she said, but was it? Or was she just afraid to believe it was a

"I don't believe so," said Number 36, and of course he had baseball player's eyes. "I think that's another post, girl."

Trisha worked her way to it (and it was work; the trees were maddeningly thick here, the bushes heavy, the going underfoot littered and treacherous), and yes, it was another post. This one had rusted nips of barbed wire running up the inside like sharp little bowties.

Trisha stood with one hand on its eroded top and looked deeper into the sun-dappled, deceptive woods. She had a dim memory of sitting in her room on a rainy day and working in an activity book Mom had bought her. There was a picture, an incredibly busy picture, and in it you were supposed to find ten hidden objects: a pipe, a clown, a diamond ring, stuff like that.

Now she needed to find the path. Please God help me find the path, she thought, and closed her eyes. It was the God of Tom Gordon she prayed to, not her father's Subaudible. She wasn't in Malden now, nor in Sanford, and she needed a God that was really there, one you could point to when - if - you got the save. Please God, please. Help me in the late innings.

She opened her eyes as wide as she could and looked without looking. Five seconds went by, fifteen seconds, thirty. And all at once it was there. She had no idea what, exactly, she was seeing-perhaps simply a vector where there were fewer trees and a little more clear light, perhaps only a suggestive pattern of shadows all pointing the same way-but she knew what it was: the last remains of a path.

I can stay on it as long as I don't think about it too much, Trisha told herself, beginning to walk. She came to another post, this one leaning at an acute angle; one more winter of frost and freeze, one more spring of thaw and it would fall and be swallowed in the next summer's grass. If I think about it too much or look too hard, I'll lose it.

With that in mind, Trisha began following the few remaining posts of those planted by a farmer named Elias McCorkle in the year 1905; these marked the wood-drag trail he had made as a young man, before the drink got him and he lost his ambition. Trisha went with her eyes wide, never hesitating (to do so would give thought a chance to creep in and likely betray her). Sometimes there would be a stretch where there were no posts, but she did not stop to hunt through the heavy underbrush for their remains; she allowed the light, the shadow-patterns, and her own instinct to guide her. She walked in such steady fashion for the rest of the day, weaving through heavy clumps of trees and high bramble-chokes with her eyes always on the faint trace of the path. She went on for a good seven hours, and just when she was thinking she'd be sleeping again beneath her poncho, huddling there to keep the worst of the bugs at bay, she came to the edge of another clearing. Three posts, leaning drunkenly this way and that, marched to the middle of it. The remains of a second gate still hung from the last of these posts, mostly held up by the thick twining of grass around its lower two crossbars. Beyond it, a pair of fading ruts grown over with grass and daisies headed south, curving back into the forest again. It was an old woods road.

Trisha walked slowly past the gate and to where the road seemed to begin (or finish up; it all depended, she supposed, on which way you were pointing). She stood still a moment, then dropped to her knees and crawled along one of the ruts. As she did it she started crying again. She crawled across the old road's grassy crown, letting the tall grass tickle beneath her chin, and went up the other rut, still on her hands and knees. She crawled like a person who is blind, calling through her tears as she went.

'A road! It's a road! I found a road! Thank You, God! Thank You, God! Thank You for this road!"

Finally she stopped, slipped off her pack, and lay down in the rut. This was made by wheels, she thought, and laughed through her tears. After a little while she rolled over and looked at the sky.

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