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Friday Fiction – The Raven and the Pitcher

1 August 2014 No Comment

Hometown boy makes good, but not even local heroes can escape New Bedlam’s most twisted resident… and Tommy Johns, star pitcher for the New Bedlam Ravens, is certainly no exception.

The Raven and the Pitcher

© 2014 Jodi Lee, all rights reserved
Written for the Hint Fiction and Genre Stretch Challenges
National Novel Writing Year
Image credits, FreeImages
Pitcher – Justin Taylor
Raven – Lena Pautina

ravenpitcherFar above him, the bird was circling. He knew it was there, he could see the shadow on the grass around him. Circling, circling… never flying off, never making a sound. Never doing anything but circle above him.

It was driving him bat-crazed insane.

He couldn’t let it bother him. He wouldn’t let it distract him any longer. There was too much riding on this; if he didn’t strike this one out, his record would be broken. All season he’d been pitching no-hitters, and there were only four games left in regular play. This was his last on mound play for the game. He had to strike this guy out.

Why does my last pitch of the night have to be the Sailors best hitter? Fuck.

He took a deep breath and held it as he pulled his knee to his chest, threw back his arm then sending it forward, like a piston. The ball left his hand gently, but flying at a speed even he was shocked to see. He exhaled.

The batter smirked, swung… and missed.

“Strike!” the ump cried.

He waited for the catcher to return the ball. As he caught it, he watched his colleague signal what ball to throw next. He shook his head at the first suggestion, nodding to the second.

At the last moment, just as the ball was about to leave his fingertips, he pulled back slightly, slowing it considerably and giving it just a tiny spin.

Again, the batter swung and missed.

“Strike!” the ump cried.

The catcher didn’t offer a suggestion for the third pitch, only raising his thumb. Still he nodded, as though there had been some influence, some nudge in a direction unknown to the batter.

He took another deep breath, holding it as he threw the last ball. He closed his eyes and waited; he didn’t want to see the outcome.

“Striiiike three! Yer out!”

The pitcher exhaled, a smile spreading wide as he opened his eyes. His team mates crossed the field at a run, slamming into him on the mound and nearly knocking him to his knees. Finally they released him, and he made his way to the dugout, where he sat until the end of the game. He didn’t even need to get up for his final bat.

The New Bedlam Ravens won the game, putting them in the top position for the finals. Tommy Johns won most valued player of the season, setting a record for pitching straight no-hitters through season play.

He went out that night and got drunker than he’d ever been.

* * *

Tommy Johns stared at the ceiling above his cot, counting the dots on the tiles and waiting until sleep would take him back to the diamonds where he’d played his heart out. He’d taken enough sleep enhancers to knock out a donkey, he was sure, but still Morpheus was elusive, hiding just around the corner of his mind.

Outside, he could hear the fluttering wings of a bird, and he knew in his heart it was the same one that had been near him for the last five years. Ever since he’d been hired to play with the Ravens, he’d had his own personal mascot; a massive hooded raven.

Damn thing was a distraction.

Tommy rolled over, facing the wall. Counting sheep didn’t work. Counting strikes didn’t work. Exercising didn’t work. Nothing he was doing was letting him sleep. He was exhausted. Finally he decided if he wasn’t sleeping in twenty minutes, he would go run the track.

And he waited. And he waited. Rolling over to his other side didn’t help, either. That put his room mate in his line of sight, the room mate who couldn’t help but fall asleep the moment his big fat head hit the pillow. Tommy wanted to get up, cross the room, and punch the fucker in the face.

A loud CAW startled him, every muscle in his body contracting, the hair rising on the back of his neck and all along his arms. He blinked; when he opened his eyes, it was morning, and the room mate was already gone.

Did I sleep? I don’t feel like I slept.

Tommy got up, pulled a towel and his shaving kit out of the cubby on the wall, and headed to the shower room. No one was around, probably already out on the track. He turned around and went back to the room, tossing his stuff on his bed and heading out to the track himself.

“Johns! You’re late. Set your alarm for half an hour earlier tomorrow, boy… you’re gonna run an extra mile.” Coach Williams smacked him on the back as he ran past.

Do that again, asshole, and I’ll rip your arm out of the socket.

Tommy ran the track until his anger and stiffness wore off, then joined the rest of the guys on the outfield for callisthenics. Coach called an end to it after an hour, and everyone headed to the showers, and then the cafeteria for breakfast.

The rest of the morning was filled with interviews and strategy sessions, and Tommy had a meeting with a physiotherapist who wanted to check his throwing arm for any stress. By the end of the check-up, they had plans to meet for dinner and a movie.

“Good luck at practice this afternoon. And don’t do anything to that arm, Tommy. We’re counting on you!” she said as he buttoned his shirt. “I think this is the first time I’ve ever known of, that the Ravens made it into the finals.”

“This arm is my bread and butter, babe. I treat it like I treat my women. Gently, and like a princess.” He grinned, winked, and smacked her backside as he left the room. Before the door closed, he heard her giggle.

You’ve got it, boyo. She’ll be putty in your hands by midnight.

He did only as much as was necessary during practice, a feat not unnoticed by the coach. When he called Tommy on it, he shrugged and reminded the older man who had gotten them into the finals to begin with. “No worries, it’ll be ready to go at game time.”

* * *

Tommy took the PT girl to Easthaven for dinner, vowing no restaurant in New Bedlam could even come close to La Grille de Bohème. He was right of course. New Bedlam was a small town, and although established at much the same time, Easthaven had grown, and become home to the elite. Still, Tommy was a hero even there, since the Ravens were the closest minor league team in the area. In fact, their dinners were comped, the manager having been so excited to have him there, he paid for them out of his own pocket.

The girl, Alexandra, was quite impressed.

Brownie points!

Tommy scored more brownie points when he told her he’d reserved the VIP theatre at the multi-plex. Instead of having the regular seats, the room had twenty reclining love seats, ottomans, and fluffy throws for their legs if one of them felt chilly. Popcorn and drinks were served as they would be at home, in bowls and glasses. Tommy had called ahead and requested red wine, and two different popcorn flavours; salted toffee and chocolate.

You’re getting laid tonight!

The pair settled in together, waiting for the preview reel to show on the screen. In no time, Alex was nuzzling against his neck, running her hand up and down his thigh. He couldn’t wait for the lights to go down… but they were alone, so what the heck? Tommy angled his mouth to hers, and slowly kissed her, starting gently. He teased her, nibbling her lower lip, moving to run his lips over the pulse in her neck.

On the screen, a large raven appeared, startling Alex. Tommy drew away at her gasp, turning to the screen. As his focus settled, the bird opened its beak and cawed.

Tommy blinked, and when he opened his eyes, a young man was leaning over him, asking him to please leave the premises. Alex was gone, and his lap was full of cold, sticky red wine.

What the hell? Did I… did I fall asleep?

* * *

Tommy checked his cell phone as he got in the car. There were five angry voice mails and as many texts, all from Alex…

…never been so humiliated…

…fuck you, asshole…

… and on and on. Tommy felt bad, but in truth, he was more confused than anything else. He had no idea what happened. None. He could only assume all of the lack of sleep and the heavy meal and wine had caught up to him.

He decided to wait until morning to call Alex and apologize. He started the car, and tore off down the street, narrowly missing hitting a merging bus and a block later, a pedestrian.

Back at the camp, he quietly he stripped down so he didn’t wake his room mate, and walked to the showers naked, carrying only his towel and shampoo. As the water ran hot, down his back to the drain below, he remembered one thing. The raven on the screen, and the cawing noise it had made. Now why would that ring a bell?

The shower finally began to dull his senses, and he shut the water off. Somewhere off down the hall, he thought he heard the flutter of wings. Your mind is going, man. Get some decent sleep, apologize to Alex, and get on with it.

The walk down the hall to his room was… different. The shadows seemed longer, darker, stranger. The sounds seemed off as well, with more echoes and higher tones. Nothing felt right. Entering his room, he discovered his room mate had packed and gone, the cot stripped down to the mattress, the cubbies empty. I’m sure he was there before I went to the showers, what the fuck? What the hell is going on?

Outside the window, a figure flapped past the moon, casting a fluttery shadow and drawing his attention. Looking out onto the roof of the offices below, he saw a very large raven, strutting purposefully across the tiles. It stopped, tilted its head to look up at Tommy’s window, opened its beak and…

Tommy ducked.

What the hell what the hell what the hell?

He pulled open the drawer and grabbed the packet of Sleep Aides. Popping three from the blister pack, he dry swallowed them, and crawled onto his bed. Pulling the cover over his head, he closed his eyes and tried to force sleep to take him. When I wake up, everything will be back to normal.

Only he didn’t sleep that night, or the next.

Early morning training sessions also began taking a toll on Tommy. To him it seemed he’d almost get to sleep, and the alarm would ring. He’d drag his ass to the track, run his miles, do the callisthenics and eat breakfast… he was stumbling through everything he needed to.

Every time he caught site of the raven, a chill would go through him and he’d panic. Every time the raven cawed, he lost time.

Something was going on, he just didn’t know what.

It picked at him. Over and over. He felt like soon his stress was going to reach the limit, and it’d spill over. It was like water dropping drip by drip until the container is full… and then overflows. He pictured it that way, actually. Little by little, day by day.

If only he could get some sleep.

The night before the first of the final games, Tommy took five Sleep Aides with a bottle of vodka on an empty stomach. An hour later, he was stumbling around the rooms, trying to get someone to listen to him about the crazy bird that was chasing him through days and nights and dreams and everywhere he looked there it was and oh my god why won’t someone help me?

He took a swing at the first baseman, and that was it. Tommy felt the other man’s fist connect with his nose, heard the crunch and felt the pain; a delicious blackness fell over him and he knew nothing more until he awoke in the hospital, an IV stuck in his arm, and restraints holding him down.

* * *

Tommy Johns missed the first two games of the finals. The only reason his no-hitter record attempt extended was that Coach Williams felt sorry for him, and had the team doctor sign him out with “stomach flu and severe dehydration.”

Tommy was grateful, swearing to the coach he’d take better care of himself.

On his first night out of the hospital however, he took six Sleep Aides, downed with an herbal tea concoction one of the player’s wives gave him.

It didn’t work, and at 3 AM, he stared out the window, watching the raven in the moonlight. This time, when it turned to stare back, Tommy didn’t duck. The bird cawed, and just as before, Tommy lost time.

At least he almost felt rested when he picked himself up off the floor the next morning.

* * *

Tommy pitched four of the nine innings in each of the third and fourth games of the finals, all no-hitters. At each game, the raven circled above the pitcher’s mound, but only when Tommy stood there.

Unfortunately, the teams remained tied, and the finals moved into a fifth game. Due to scheduling, the game was two weeks away, and in Hampshire Falls.

He bought more Sleep Aides, and talked to the team doctor about something stronger. He explained as best he could, without bringing the raven into it. He was sure it was a hallucinatory coincidence, and knew the doc would think he’d lost his mind.

Hell, I think I lost my mind.

The doc couldn’t do anything, but did suggest that Tommy stop taking over the counter remedies for it. “Sometimes, my boy, the best thing you can do to get some rest is over-exert yourself. Try it, maybe it’ll work.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Come and see me after the game, and we’ll discuss options then.”

Tommy slammed the door to the office on his way out. That night, he took ten Sleep Aides, drank a slightly smaller bottle of vodka, topped that off with the sleep-inducing tea that hadn’t worked before, and waited.

The sun rose before he began to feel drowsy, but still he couldn’t sleep.

As he headed out for practice, he was shaking. Nothing appeared the way it should, everything seemed wavy at the edges. He couldn’t even hear things right, everyone was mumbling or squeaking. He tripped three times as he ran the track, dodged the raven every other step. It swooped down over him as he tried a few practices pitches, and he’d wave it away. The coach hollered at him more than once to cut it out, concentrate, pay attention, wake up.

How could he wake up if he hadn’t been sleeping for months? Fuck you, Coach. Fuck you.

He was sure the moment was finally coming, he could feel tears building as he took the mound for the first time during the game. The raven was back.

Far above him, the bird was circling. He knew it was there, he could see the shadow on the grass around him. Circling, circling… never flying off, silent, for now. Circling, circling…

It had driven him bat shit crazy insane.

He shook his head, trying to concentrate. He raised his knee to his chest and stumbled backwards. When he regained his footing, Tommy tried again. As the ball left his hand, the raven above cawed one last time.

Tommy Johns landed face-first in the soft sand of the pitcher’s mound. The container had finally spilled over the edges.

Morpheus rose from his seat in the stands, and slowly walked down the stairs as the Ravens took to the field to see what had happened to poor Tommy. He brushed past them, no one really noticing the dark man with the quiet smile. He knelt beside the fallen hero, touched his forehead, and whispered one word.


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