ARIANA- AGE 9
“Burdens are for shoulders strong enough to carry them.”
-Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
The screen door slammed shut behind me with a reverberating bang, but I kept running. I couldn’t take another second inside that house.
It had been my turn to sit and read to Mama.
Usually, she stared blankly at the wall with a thin line of drool running down her cheek. Every now and then, her eyes would seemingly dance around the room, focusing on my face for a brief second before bouncing off to something else. Grandmother once told me that they were just filled with the joy of God’s love, but Mama never seemed happy when her eyes were like that.
She would cry out and speak to people who weren’t there. It used to frighten me until I discovered that she was sick.
I wasn’t supposed to have heard, but I was really good at hiding and just as quiet as a little church mouse. Most of the time, people didn’t even realize I was in the room.
Papa had told Mama she was sick with sin and begged her to repent, but she’d just laid there, moaning loudly. I wasn’t sure how the sin had gotten to her when she never left her bed, but if Papa saw it in her then it must have been true.
Once he left, she’d cried until the pillowcase beneath her head was soaked with tears before calling out for me and my sisters. Her voice was too soft, like mine, so no one ever came.
The July air was thick with humidity and without even a hint of a breeze to cool things down, it was like running straight into an oven. My gray linen dress clung to my skin and each inhale felt like I was trying to breathe underwater.
I ran until I reached the hedges lining the perimeter of our small gated community before dropping to my knees with a wince. Sharp leaves and twigs compressed the old and new bruises lining my sides, scraping along the exposed skin on my arms and legs. Still, I took a deep breath and pushed forward until I was completely hidden from view.
It was the only place I knew I wouldn’t be found. At times, the house felt like a living, breathing thing peering over my shoulder. Like it was studying my every move in anticipation.
Out here, it was silent.
And right now, I wanted to stay hidden forever.
Mama hadn’t stayed quiet today.
I hadn’t even gotten through the first chapter before she reached out and grabbed my arm, knocking the book to the hardwood floor. Her grip had been surprisingly strong as she’d yanked me off the chair and into the bed beside her. The sheets were damp with sweat and smelled of sick. Mama’s room always smelled different than the others in the house.
She tucked my back to her chest and wrapped her heated body around mine. I lay stiffly in her arms, trying to recall whether she’d ever held me before.
Perhaps when I was a baby, but if so, those memories had faded long ago. As far as I could remember, she’d always been like this.
“Ari, my little dove,” she’d whispered, her breath warm against my ear. “I’ve been so naïve…about all of it.”
I’d tilted my head up and watched as she licked her chapped lips, surprised to find that her eyes were clear and focused for the first time in ages. “M-m-mama?”
“Shhhh… I’ve got you now. You’re safe.” The soft cadence of her voice had a mesmerizing effect, lulling my body into a relaxed state.
I’d settled against her with a sigh, feeling her mouth curve up into what might have been a smile against my cheek. That was what had made her next words all the more shocking.
I hadn’t been prepared for them.
“He’s going to kill me,” she’d stated simply. “I’m getting in the way of his dreams. I think… I think that maybe I’ve always been in the way because I know the truth. There’s nothing beyond that wall that doesn’t exist here.”
I’d sucked in a breath but hadn’t said a word. My heart had thumped steadily while my curiosity wrestled with Papa’s teachings.
“And I love him… maybe that’s my biggest sin,” Mama had said, her voice remaining steady and calm. “I’ll always love him, Ari. He was so charismatic—I thought we were gonna change the world together.”
“Y-y-you—you s-still c-can—”
I hadn’t meant to say the words aloud.
“Do you remember when that man came to the gate seeking help? I think you were five—maybe six? He came right in the middle of a tropical storm. The streets were starting to flood and then, there he was, under one of the lights. You could smell the booze on him from a mile away as he hollered to see Pastor James…” Mama’s words had tapered off and I’d rolled over, expecting to find her asleep again.
Instead, she was mashing her trembling lips together as if to keep from crying. “He needed help—at the very least, he needed a place to dry out and sober up. Your daddy turned him away and went back inside.
“I waited until the men disappeared before slipping out to find him. I handed him an old coat and a sack of—goodness, I don’t even remember what was in it. I just grabbed whatever I could from the fridge and pantry. Do you know what he said to me?”
“W-w-what” I’d whispered, far too invested to not hear every last detail. Thoughts of life outside our community made the hair on my arms and neck stand tall, yet sparked my curiosity in ways that no other topic could.
Mama’s lips had stretched into a thin smile as she’d brushed the hair back off my forehead. “Told me about how all he wanted to do was get back home to his boy and be a good man. Said he must have prayed the right way to be sent an angel. Do you see what’s wrong with that?”
I’d shaken my head, completely puzzled.
“I’m no angel, Ari. But that man mistook my kindness for something otherworldly. And that was when I knew that your daddy didn’t want to help people… not really. He wants to lock himself away behind the walls, turning a blind eye to their suffering. No matter what he tells you, we’re no better than they are, little dove. We’re all the same.”
I’d scooted toward the edge of the bed when Mama closed her eyes, only to be tugged right back. She’d crushed my small body to her chest, making it hard to draw a breath. As I didn’t know the next time she’d be lucid, I let her hold me just as tightly as she wanted.
“Need you to promise me something, Ari,” Mama whispered urgently before cupping my cheek with her palm. “Promise me that when you’re old enough, you’ll get out. You and your sisters run and never come back here.”
Whatever hold she had on reality slipped and she began mumbling nonsense about the house listening in on our conversation before slipping back into her silent state. Her mouth had gone slack and the tears she’d cried clung to her lashes as she stared unseeingly toward the wall.
It was as if she were dead. I knew better, but my mind dredged up a ghost story my sister, Ashlynn, had told a few nights ago.
Since I was a completely rational child, I’d scooped up my book and bolted from the room faster than a prairie fire with a tail wind.
Perhaps it wasn’t how Mama had wanted, but I’d run… right to my hiding spot in the hedges where I was determined to stay until her desperate warning made a lick of sense.
My skin was hot and sticky, and my bladder had suddenly become uncomfortably full but I wasn’t stepping one foot inside that house until Papa and my sisters got back.
As the youngest of six girls, I had a tendency of getting stuck with the most tedious of tasks. Sister Sarai oversaw the community library but had fallen ill over the past year. When I wasn’t reading to Mama, I helped out, sorting through the book donations for appropriate additions.
Papa preferred that we only carry books that reinforced our faith in some way. Otherwise, it was as if we were giving our brains junk food.
Trash in, trash out.
Instead of burning the rejects, as was custom, I hid them in the folds of my dress and smuggled them back to my room. I’d always been a voracious reader, and these books were no exception. I kept them all hidden on top of the wooden slats of the boxspring beneath my mattress, devouring the words by the soft glow of my nightlight while the rest of the house slept.
I fell in love with Mr. Darcy alongside Elizabeth, wept with Jane over Mr. Rochester’s deceitfulness, and learned about courage and compassion through the eyes of Scout Finch. The one constant in every book was that the world was a flawed, but ultimately still wonderful place in which to live.
There’s nothing beyond the wall that doesn’t exist here.
I freed a particularly worn copy from the bodice of my dress and lay back against the earth with a shake of my head. Grandmother had warned us that we weren’t to trust anything Mama said while she was sick, yet here I was, doing just that.
Mama also thinks the house is alive… just like you.
“J-j-just a c-c-coincidence,” I said under my breath. “A s-silly little c-c-coincidence.”
At the sound of Brother Bradley’s voice, my shoulders rolled forward and I dropped my book before tucking myself into a tight ball. Beads of sweat ran down my arms, stinging the cuts left behind from the thick bushes, but I didn’t dare move.
For the most part, the church followers left me alone. Not Brother Bradley. It was as though the man had a radar that alerted him to my presence. He was always needing me to hug him or sit on his lap, things I’d grown too big for years ago.
I would have preferred to sit with Mama while she stared blankly over being alone in the house with Brother Bradley. He made my skin feel prickly, but he and Papa had been friends since they were children, so I was forced to be polite.
“Come on, sweetheart. Your mama is wondering where you ran off to.”
I tucked the book back into my dress and, keeping my body close to the wall, crawled away from the sound of his voice. Had I stayed put, I never would have discovered the hole.
It had obviously been used by animals as they made their way in and out of the neighborhood, yet had somehow remained undiscovered by the security guards.
Grandmother liked to tease that I was just knee-high to a grasshopper which meant the hole was just the right size for me. As I squeezed through, the sleeve of my dress got caught, tearing a small hole in the fabric that I’d be forced to explain later.
I stared down at it, my stomach already churning in anticipation. I belched softly, fighting to keep my lunch from coming up onto the sidewalk. “I-I-it was just a l-l-little accident.”
My hands began to tremble as Brother Bradley called for me again. I tucked them across my chest before taking in my surroundings.
There were several cars parked along the side of the street, but it was otherwise deserted. Brother Caleb was sitting in the guard booth reading a magazine. His head was down and his feet propped up against the glass, completely unaware of my presence.
“I-I-it’s not as if you’re r-run—running away,” I muttered. “Y-you’re j-just looking, so c-c-c—calm down.”
I managed to get the shaking under control after several deep breaths, enough for me to venture away from the wall. Doing my best not to trample across the flower beds, I slipped around the corner.
The sounds of laughter coming from behind a nearby copse of trees called to me. After checking for people, I jogged across a grassy field and crouched beside a chaste tree.
This was a test, plain and simple.
Papa believed that it wasn’t safe for us to be out in the world. It was the entire reason he’d developed our little gated community.
The walls are in place to keep us safe.
Either he was lying or Mama and the books were, and I was not going back in until I knew the truth.
I made it to the tree line, confident in my decision, only to freeze in my tracks at the sharp snap of a twig.
Coming out here had been a mistake.
A heat-induced madness.
Papa had warned us that the world was full of evil people— people who wouldn’t think twice about hurting us to get to him.
And I’d stupidly left behind the safety of the wall to run right into their waiting arms.
I jerked my head wildly to the left and right, hoping to spot the danger before it managed to spot me. I could explain away a torn dress, but not a kidnapping. My eyes came to rest on the broken twig beneath my shoe and I exhaled a shaky breath.
“S-s-see—see? It was you the whole t-t-time. Now, don’t you f-feel s-s-silly?”
“N-no… n-not really,” I responded with a snort before clapping a hand over my mouth.
Well, if my loud stomping hadn’t frightened the evildoers away, the fact that I was carrying on a conversation with myself should do the trick.
Another giggle broke free and I mashed the heel of my hand against my lips, completely amused by the thought of anyone being scared of me.
This time, I carefully checked for stray twigs and branches before taking my next step. I did it while keeping a firm grip on the silver cross around my neck until it left indentions on the palm of my hand.
Just in case…
Sweat trailed down my spine, leaving me irritated that I couldn’t wear loose fitting clothing like the boys did during the summer months.
Each damp trickle set my teeth on edge, still I’d come too far to turn back and pushed through the low-hanging branches until a large body of water came into view.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t known it was there. There was a large library in the main house that overlooked it. I’d spent many an afternoon idly watching the colorful blur of boats as they zipped past, leaving rippling waves in their wake.
It didn’t hold a candle to being close enough to hear the whir from the motors.
Sunlight reflected off the surface of the water, making it look as if it was glowing. Along the shore, young children ran back and forth, shrieking as they splashed lake water at one another. I resisted the urge to join them and smiled before settling back against a large tree trunk.
As I retrieved my book from my dress, I decided that it was the perfect spot—I could see everything while still remaining hidden.
The hours passed and the sun sank lower in the sky, but I was lost in a world of cotton plantations and southern belles, completely oblivious. Perhaps if I’d been paying more attention, I would have remained ignorant to the ugliness that lurked just beneath the surface.
I initially mistook the raised voices as my own imagination before looking up to find three boys stomping across the dock. It was late and the children were all gone, along with the majority of the boats.
Even from where I sat, it was clear that they were not there to enjoy the water.
“She was my girlfriend, you son-of-a-bitch!”
I sucked in a breath between my teeth before flattening my spine against the bark of the tree. The boy who’d spoken turned and glared in my direction and I brought my hand over my mouth, pleading with my body to be silent. After what felt like an eternity later, he turned back to the other two boys.
A boy with dark hair, who I assumed was the target, stepped forward until his toes were almost even with the angry boy’s. He let out a rough bark of laughter as if seeing someone upset amused him. “You want me to believe that Blair was your girlfriend? How much did you have to drink before you called me down here?”
My nostrils flared from the exertion of keeping my breathing steady, but no one turned in my direction. The angry boy clenched the hands hanging at his sides into fists and, without so much as a warning, punched the smug one square in the jaw.
The two began to pummel each other while the third boy stood off to the side, clearly not willing to get involved. He was obviously the smart one.
Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children…
I’d heard Papa say the words more times than I cared to admit, but it was obvious that no one had ever told the smug boy.
It was best for him to take his correction and choose to do better in the future rather than to make a scene in front of everyone.
After landing a particularly rough hit, the smug one stepped back and ran a hand through his dark hair with a triumphant grin, ignoring the river of blood running from his own nose. The mistake was in not checking behind him. His heel got caught up in a pile of rope someone had left behind, propelling him backward. His head caught the edge of an abandoned metal cooler before he landed against the dock with a sickening thud.
My lips parted in a silent scream when the boy didn’t get back up. He lay completely motionless, arms splayed out at his sides. The other two looked at each in question, but it was clear that the fight was over.
“H-help him,” I urged with a whisper, sighing in relief when the angry boy bent to lift his body from the dock. Instead of going for help, he dragged him farther onto the dock before unceremoniously dropping him into the water when he reached the end.
My book fell from my lap and I had to physically mash my fist against my lips to keep from screaming.
The smart boy seemed to share my horror and raced onto the dock. “What the hell, Chris? I said I’d help you fight him, not kill him. Jesus Christ, I can’t be a part of this!”
Get him out of the water.
He made no move to rush to his friend’s aid before taking off for the beach in a dead sprint, closely followed by the one called Chris.
I continued watching the end of the dock, but the boy never resurfaced. It was now close to dusk and the sunset cast an eerie orange glow over the water. There was no beauty in this place.
“H-h-he’s not y-your problem,” I reminded myself, the words bitter on my tongue. The theology I’d cut my teeth on had collided with a new reality. If I held fast to my beliefs, I was condemning a boy to death.
But if I acted on his behalf, then it felt like I was betraying my family and my church.
Fear paralyzed my limbs, keeping me pinned up against the tree. I stayed like that until the two disappeared from view before making my decision.
“Y-you are S-Scar—Scarlett O’Hara,” I hissed through my teeth. “B-br-bravely f-facing down the Y-Yankees on your way home to T-T-Tara.”
And then, with no regard to the teachings or even my own safety, I ran toward the water.
The water cooled my sweat-drenched skin, yet worked to push me back to shore. I fought my way past the waves before diving under with a growl. The water was murky, and every blue-green shadow looked like a body until I was right on top of it.
Just as I began to lose hope, I saw him, caught under the dock. I looped an arm around his chest and tried tugging him toward the shallows. His dead weight pushed us toward the bottom and it took all of my strength to propel us in the right direction. My lungs burned something fierce, urging me to let him go and swim for the surface.
Black spots began to move among the blue-green shadows, but I kept swimming, willing my body to relax. I’d been around water my entire life. There was a pool in the community, as well as a small fishing hole. My sister and I had snuck out more than once to visit them when the heat was unbearable and sleep refused to come easily.
Sneaking out of the house after curfew hadn’t been easy, but Ashlynn and I managed to make it past the guards without being seen time and time again. She taught me to swim and later, how to hold my breath for increasingly longer periods of time.
It was training that had paid off not two weeks ago.
A guard had discovered my nightdress near the fishing hole and begun searching the grounds. Ashlynn had pulled me under as his flashlight skimmed over the water. The minutes had ticked by and my vision began to blur before the guard moved on.
When the water went dark, we’d kicked our way to the surface, desperately sucking air into our lungs. I’d been forced to sneak back into the house naked as my nightdress was long gone, but we hadn’t been caught.
You can do this.
I relaxed, letting the waves that I’d fought against moments before carry us lazily toward the shore. Using my legs and the last of my energy, I pushed us forward until the sandbar rose up beneath my feet. It was enough for me to propel the upper half of my body above the water with a strangled gasp. After several attempts, I managed to lift the boy’s head too.
As much as I wanted to wait until I’d caught my breath, I dragged the boy’s body until we were out of the water before collapsing across his chest on the sandy beach.
The sound of waves lapping against the shore was punctuated only by the sounds of my ragged breathing. I had done all that I could. The rest was up to him.
Just as I began to fear that I’d been too late, the boy jerked violently beneath my cheek, coughing up mouthfuls of lake water.
I gripped his shirt with both hands and weakly pulled him onto his side just like I’d seen Sister Sarai do once for Mama when she got sick in the bed.
“I’ve got you now,” I panted. “You’re safe.”
His eyes remained closed and I hesitated before pressing my fingers to his jaw. A jolt of something electric arced through my body as if an errant lightning bolt had been cast down from the heavens.
If the heat I suddenly felt had always been within me, quietly simmering away, it had now grown to wildfire proportions. The blood left my limbs, focusing all of its attention on the muscular organ galloping against my breastbone.
Feeling emboldened, I shifted closer, brushing the water droplets from his long dark lashes. He was, without a doubt, the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
Up close, I realized that he wasn’t a boy, but something closer to a man. His jawline was dotted with stubble and my fingers moved down, reverently tracing the outline of it.
“It’s time to wake up now,” I whispered softly.
As much as I wanted to stay with him, I had to go back. They were all bound to be looking for me now. But first, I needed to know that he was going to be okay.
His eyelids fluttered at the sound of my voice before he managed to open them, peering up at me in confusion. Against the darkening sky, his blue eyes seemed gray. I continued stroking his cheek, enjoying the roughness against my palm.
Like sandpaper against satin.
“Are you good?” I blurted, immediately regretting the question. He was obviously a good person or God wouldn’t have placed me in his path. He would have been left to die under the dock.
He blinked a few more times before focusing on my eyes once again. Down the beach, a couple of teenage girls were laughing loudly as they jogged across the sand with their dog splashing through the water beside them.
I brushed the damp hair off the boy’s forehead, working to commit his every detail to mind before forcing out a stammered cry for help. Something tickled the back of my hand and I looked down, surprised to see his fingers moving delicately over my skin. His brows pulled together and he frowned as if he hadn’t expected me to be real.
Remembering Mama’s story, I felt the need to confess, “I’m no angel.”
He swallowed and opened his mouth just as the girls made it over. I allowed myself one final look before pulling my hand free and darting back into the trees to grab my book.
By the time I made it back into the clearing, the sun had dipped below the horizon. Not only had I missed dinner, but story time as well.
My shoes were like a damp kitchen sponge beneath my feet, squishing loudly every time they came in contact with the earth. It wasn’t until I was squeezing through the hole again that I realized I hadn’t gotten my answer as to whether Mama or Papa was right.
It wasn’t until the next day that I realized I hadn’t stuttered once when talking to the boy.
“You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
Jim Bouton, Ball Four
If there was one thing in life I was certain about, it was baseball. Unlike most everything else, there was no overthinking the fundamentals. It was as simple as throw the ball, hit the ball, and catch the ball.
Had it ended with that, there probably would’ve been more people walking around with a glove on one hand and a ball in the other. The game required strategy and skill, though, and that was what made it interesting.
Not everybody could do it.
Sure, they might’ve known that right-handed batters were more successful against left-handed pitchers and vice-versa, but the majority of the general population couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.
My mama liked to joke that I came into this world with a baseball in my hand. My father had played ball in college and spent a few years in the minors before a knee injury ended his career. When I came along, his dreams were revived and placed squarely on my shoulders.
Luckily for him, I had knack for it.
I was picked up by Houston right out of high school and spent a year with Quad Cities in the Class A league. I’d been cocky even back then. I knew that I was better than half of the guys in the majors. Unfortunately, it had taken the team a lot longer to catch on, and even then, they’d only moved me to Double-A in Corpus Christi.
When I was twenty, I was brought up to play for the Hurricanes thanks to center fielder, Austin Pineda’s injured wrist. I made my debut and snagged my first career major league hit in the bottom of the fourth. After that infield single, I was convinced they were going to bring me up permanently.
Instead, they sent me back down—not to Double-A. No, I was promoted to Triple-A. It was frustrating—ESPN had ranked me as number one in the top one hundred prospects and everyone knew that Pineda was done, but Houston hadn’t budged. Christ, I’d even been named Minor League Player of the Year, but was stuck earning peanuts until my rookie contract ran out.
I’d started the next season in Fresno until, once again, Houston brought me up; this time to replace Tony Mack. He’d been slumping badly at the plate and it was a huge opportunity for me. From there, I’d recorded my first career four-hit game and was named American League co-player of the week. I began breaking, not only Hurricanes’ franchise, but American League rookie records—and even managed to snag the AL Rookie of the Year award.
After that, I was in.
I fully expected to be smashing some records off-field when the season ended. With all the free agent chatter, the Hurricanes were going to have to step up their offer if they wanted to keep me in cobalt blue and white.
Honestly, I was looking forward to watching the bidding war unfold.
“You ready, Red? It’s all you, baby!” Chavez slapped my back and I fought back a grimace before nodding.
He’d been calling me Red since the day we met, said my name reminded him of the Irish beer. I’d almost slipped up and called him Limp Dick a couple of times, a lovely term of endearment I’d overheard his wife use when she thought no one was listening.
“Tie it up, and get us into the play-offs, man,” Chavez pleaded as he looked up into the stands, no doubt searching for Gabrielle. To my extreme regret, I followed his gaze and found her almost immediately.
I tried looking away, but not before she caught me staring. She winked and ran a hand down her chest as if brushing away invisible crumbs. I rubbed at the back of my neck and avoided making eye contact with Chavez, hoping he hadn’t noticed.
As her husband’s teammate, I shouldn’t have known that her tits were as fake as a Nigerian prince offering up half his fortune via email. I also should have been ignorant to the sounds she made when she was coming.
And the award for Biggest Douchebag of the Year goes to…
Killian Reed, ladies and gentlemen.
In my defense, I never set out to sleep with my teammate’s wife. At the time, I hadn’t even known she was married. A year ago, Gabrielle approached me at a team after-party and we fucked in a bathroom.
End of story.
When she’d shown up at the next practice, I’d chalked it up to another cleat chaser gone stage 5 clinger. As I watched her saunter across the field house, I’d known exactly what she was thinking. It had been written all over her face. She’d convinced herself that out of all the women in the world, she’d be the one to tame me.
I was so sure that was where things were headed that I opened my mouth, prepared to rattle off a speech I’d perfected over the years—“It’s not who I am…I thought you understood…don’t cry.”
Instead, she’d stalked past me, without so much as a fuck you very much, leaving a cloud of Chanel in her wake. I’d watched in utter confusion as she embraced Chavez before putting two and two together.
Once I did, I realized just how badly I’d screwed up. If that had been the first time, I would have chalked it up to a temporary slip up and moved on.
But, it wasn’t the first time.
Before Gabrielle, there was Elliana, Carlos Cabrera’s wife. I hadn’t escaped that one unscathed either. I got a broken nose and Cabrera got traded to Seattle.
Coming up to the majors was like being invited to an all-you-can-eat buffet. I had access to all the willing women I could ever want, but it had become increasingly obvious that my dick was only interested in the unavailable ones.
Around that time, Sports Illustrated had rated me number one in baseball. It was the exact wake-up call I needed. I could’ve waxed poetic about the subtle differences between a screwball and a circle changeup, but when it came to women, I was completely lost.
As I wasn’t willing to throw away my entire career on another instance of bad judgment, I was left with one option.
It was only supposed to be for a month, something that had initially seemed impossible. If I wasn’t dodging rabid female fans after the game, I was forced to endure heated looks from women almost everywhere else. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d gotten a cup of coffee that didn’t have a phone number hastily scrawled on the side of it.
In my infinite wisdom, I’d let it slip that my dick was on hiatus, something that Bailey, my teammate and best friend, found equal parts amusing and disappointing.
“Delayed gratification is for the poor schmucks who can’t do any better. Not us.”
He was right, of course. With the kind of money we made, the world was at our fingertips. Instead of giving up my vow and going back to business as usual, his words had the opposite effect.
I began to consider the possibility that women weren’t throwing themselves at Killian Reed.
They wanted the player.
Late one night, after a few too many beers, I came to the decision that I wasn’t going to take another woman to bed unless:
A) I could testify under oath that she wasn’t married, engaged, or otherwise spoken for.
B) I clearly saw a future with her.
Twenty-one-year-old me would have promptly choked on his beer and told me I didn’t deserve to own a penis.
Still, I held strong as one month stretched into two, taking matters into my hands at home when the going got tough. That was a year ago, and I’d yet to meet a woman who didn’t see dollar signs or a tabloid story when she looked at me.
But, I was still on top where it counted.
My first love had always been the game, and we had a long life ahead of us. The rest was just details.
The ancient PA system crackled to life as the announcer informed the stadium that I was up. The Hurricanes’s play-off chances rested in my hands. Completely in my element, I swaggered up to the plate with “Walk on Water” by Thirty Seconds to Mars blasting through the ballpark speakers.
This was it.
We were down by a run with Jimenez on second and, thanks to Chris Harms chasing three straight pitches into the dirt, we now had two outs.
This was game seven at home. Against the Kansas City Bears, for crying out loud. We’d dragged it out long enough. It was time to give the fans what they wanted.
I cut my eyes over to the dugout and got the sign from the manager to take the first pitch.
The Bears’ pitcher, Adam Coley, wound up and sent a fastball in on the inside corner. It was a good pitch, but I knew I could’ve turned on it and at least pulled it into the outfield.
Behind in the count, I had to watch for his curve. He had a good fastball with a bit of movement on it, but his curve was downright nasty.
Coley knew I could hit and, just as I expected after the first pitch, threw a curve way outside. The catcher kept it in front of him, preventing Jimenez from advancing to third. His next one was more garbage outside.
I was given another sign to take the pitch, but decided to disregard anything other than a sign to swing away. My hunch paid off when Coley threw a hanging slider. I was already moving when I realized my error.
That’s no hanging slider, it’s a goddamn breaking ball.
The momentum from my swing pushed me forward and I ended up chopping it. Out of options, I began hauling ass to first, knowing the ball was fair without even looking.
It was identical to my first Major League Hit, with the minor exception that I now had six additional years on my legs. My cleats pounded against the dirt, each steady thump matching my heart rate.
The crowd’s roar became deafening as the announcer shouted, “And he’s hit a high chop down to third. Sanchez bare hands it—”
Fucking Sanchez. For a rookie, he’d been killing it all season.
I could leg it out.
I’d almost hit it right off the damn plate.
If Jimenez made it to third, we still had a shot.
The wind whistled in my ears as I sprinted, drowning out the crowd. With each inhale, the scents of childhood flooded my nostrils.
I breathed them in, all while knowing that most people would kill to be in my cleats. Inside this chalk baseline, I was king and there was no better feeling in the world.
It was going to come down to a bang-bang play at first. I just had to pray the ump ruled in my favor. I heard the smack of ball on leather just as I hit the bag, but instead of being called out, it hit the heel of the first baseman’s glove and rolled back toward the dugout.
I risked a glance to my left and watched as Jimenez rounded third, heading for home. The first base coach threw up the sign and told me to stay, but I knew I could make it to second. One more base hit and then I’d score the winning run—no extra innings needed.
I was the hero.
With adrenaline coursing through my veins, I planted my left leg to cut toward second base. For a fraction of a second, I thought I had it.
Then, I felt the pop.
The pain was like a freight train, stealing the breath from lungs and taking my legs out from under me. I exhaled a low groan, coming down hard on my left side.
“And Reed is down as he turns to second,” the announcer helpfully reiterated, on the off-chance the fans had their eyes closed during the play. “It looks like they’re going to tag him, but he’s hurt.”
I tossed my helmet, gritting my teeth as I writhed in the dirt, worthless as a sidesaddle on a sow. The Bears’ first baseman, Kelly, somberly walked over and dropped down to tag me.
“Your knee?” He nodded toward where I held my leg in a death grip.
I squeezed my eyes shut and nodded, knowing I’d be making today’s edition of ESPN’s Not Top Ten. Thoughts of my father filtered through the haze of agony as the team closed in, rapidly firing questions at me that I had no way of answering.
Not in my current state.
Unable to handle the sudden silence that had descended over the ballpark, the announcer continued his long-winded rambling. “There’s certainly some confusion over on first base. I think Reed thought he had an opportunity to leg that one out—and it appears they’re calling for the stretcher. After reviewing the replay, it looks as if his knee goes inward. Killian Reed is down just after making the turn at first base and it looks bad, folks.”
One of the trainers helped me into a sitting position, but the movement sent shockwaves of white-hot pain radiating throughout my leg and damn near forcing me back down.
I was just getting started—what if this was it?
“I’m jus’ pain covered with skin.”
-John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
I was dreaming of the boy again.
Over the years, the details had faded to little more than a shadowy figure with blue-gray eyes and sun kissed skin, but I knew it was him.
The moment I went into the water, I broke the rules and found goodness where none should have existed. It was also, coincidentally, when I discovered there was truth in the old adage, ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’
My father hadn’t believed for one second that I’d simply fallen into the fishing hole, especially when Brother Bradley informed him that I’d been missing for hours. In the end, I accepted defeat and took my punishment in stoic silence.
I’d saved a life, and though the boy had never answered me, I wholeheartedly believed that he was good. Perhaps if he hadn’t been, things might have played out differently.
Maybe then I would have been able to do as my father commanded and set my mind on things above, and not the things of earth.
Ten years later, the boy with blue-gray eyes was the one fantasy that hadn’t been tempered with a harsh dose of reality. Night after night, he haunted my dreams, leaving me aching for a life I could never have.
I was dreaming of him again, only this time we didn’t reach the shore. Angry waves battered our bodies and dragged us down into the icy depths. The pressure was like a band around my chest, increasing until I was certain my ribs were going to snap. I inhaled the frigid water, desperate for relief from the ever-increasing pain.
Relief that was just out of reach.
Instead of waking with a pounding heart and sheets soaked in sweat, I found myself in a living nightmare where my body remained suspended in a dream-like state.
Consciousness came to me in waves, piercing the surrounding darkness with flashes of color and the soft sounds of whispered conversations before dragging me back into the abyss.
I’d resigned myself to a life spent stuck in-between two worlds when I found that I could make my eyelids flutter by directing all of my attention to them.
It took every ounce of focus, but I did it over and over again until at last, my eyes opened. The sensation of drowning hadn’t fully gone away, but seemed more bearable now that I was awake.
“Ariana, squeeze my hand if you can hear me,” a disembodied voice encouraged from somewhere above me. “You’re okay, you’re safe. Right now, you’re at St. Michael’s Hospital in Houston.”
Fatigue weighed on me like a heavy wool blanket, but I managed to squeeze the hand wrapped around mine in response. The rest was harder to process and I blinked slowly, as if doing so might bring the words and the room into focus. A doctor was paged from somewhere nearby, but in here it was quiet, allowing me to think.
I stiffened when the word permeated the fog surrounding my brain. Only sick people went to the hospital.
Was I sick?
The pounding in my skull gave a resounding yes, as did the waves of dizziness that left me searching for a trashcan. Even the scent of illness hung over the room like an unwelcome house guest, dragging long-forgotten memories of Mama to the forefront of my mind.
Somewhere nearby, machines began to beep loudly, each high-pitched tone a solemn reminder of how life could change in an instant.
During the holidays, the church held a toy drive for the local children’s hospitals, but with the exception of a routine tonsillectomy, I couldn’t recall ever being a patient in one.
“Ariana, you are safe,” the disembodied voice said loudly, slowly enunciating each word as if I were hard of hearing. I wondered if all medical personnel were trained to repeat things like that.
Were there patients who actually believed that it was perfectly normal to wake up in a hospital?
Maybe I was the only one who thought that if I was bound to a hospital bed with a splitting headache then the odds were probably pretty good that I was about as far from safe as one could be.
I parted my lips to say something when the woman’s face finally came into view, only to be overtaken by a sudden coughing fit. The hoarse, soupy cough rattled my aching ribs and triggered my gag reflex. I blinked back the tears and swallowed until the urge to vomit passed, wondering again where they kept the trashcans.
Incidentally, I also began to wonder why I’d fought against unconsciousness.
In the chaos of my hacking, something popped off my throat, flying across the room before landing with a solid ping.
“Whoops, we’ve lost your speech valve. Let me grab another one.”
When she turned her back, I reached up to my face, brushing my fingers against a thin tube protruding from my nose. Thinking it might relieve the excruciating pressure in my skull, I had the bright idea of tugging on it. That led to another coughing fit
“Oh—no, no, no,” the nurse chastised as she pried my fingers away, forcing my hand back down to my side. “We don’t want to use the restraints again.”
What kind of hospital were they running?
And how had I ended up in it?
I remembered eating one of Sister Rebekah’s famous lemon pies, my lips puckering at the tartness. Maybe she’d poisoned it with the intention of killing her surly husband, Brother Benjamin, but had mistakenly sold it to me. My temple throbbed like a drum beat in response, and I scratched poison off the list.
Headache due to reading by the nightlight for years?
That didn’t seem serious enough to warrant a trip to the hospital. Maybe my horse, Pepper, had finally gotten her revenge after years of being forced to compete in equestrian sports. I couldn’t rule it out entirely. She had gotten sassy in her old age.
I shifted against the pillow beneath my head, hoping to alleviate the ache at the back of my nose. I couldn’t think about that now, though.
Having run out of clever ideas, I began to search the room for clues. A white piece of paper hung from an IV pole beside my bed, and I squinted at the blurred words until they shifted into something resembling a sentence.
Right bone flap out.
Which meant… absolutely nothing to me.
Wait, I had it. It was like that children’s song.
How’d it go?
The right bone’s connected to the—nope… still means nothing.
Obviously my sense of humor was still intact, or what passed for humor when it came to me. But I was still missing key information that would explain how I’d landed myself in the hospital. I tried, but couldn’t recall a catalyst any more than I could solve an algebraic equation off the top of my head.
It soon occurred to me that perhaps my mathematical difficulties weren’t due to any injury or illness, but a lifelong aversion to putting the alphabet into number problems. Maybe not the earth-shattering revelation I’d been hoping for, but it was a step in the right direction, nonetheless.
My nose twitched again, begging me to reach up and yank the tube out.
Just one tiny pull and the headache would be gone.
Having fallen for that trick once already, I tucked my hands under my thighs, prepared to wait it out. A marker board hung from the wall closest to the bed. As I read the date, the chirping from the machines intensified, along with the fluttering in my chest.
The severity of my condition was spelled out in large black numbers. I’d been trapped in a void of nothingness for three weeks.
Billions of minutes—just gone.
Again, math hadn’t exactly been my best subject.
When I lost something, I could usually find it by going back to the last place I remembered having it. As crazy as it seemed, maybe I could do the same thing with my fractured memory, retracing my steps until I pieced it back together.
While the nurse busied herself with something across the room, I closed my eyes and began sifting through the rubble. Steering clear of the detours involving lemon pies and fussy horses, I concentrated solely on what I knew to be true. If I listed enough concrete facts, the answer was bound to come to me.
My name was Ariana James. I was nineteen years-old. I lived in Houston, Texas with Tristan and my mama—no, that wasn’t right.
I am in the hospital because—what I needed was right there, but it was as if the film my head had suddenly hit a brick wall, leaving behind a fragmented mess of memories. Everything else lay just out of reach on the other side.
It only hurts if you let it…
Those six words hadn’t failed me in nineteen years. I was just going to give my brain a little break and try again later. Indifference replaced irritation and I reopened my eyes and pulled my hands free as footsteps approached my bed.
“Here we are,” the nurse said, attaching something to my neck. “Good as new.”
I could ask her. It was just a simple matter of writing the question out in my head and reciting each word slowly and clearly. My stomach churned in obvious disagreement, but it was better than not knowing.
Taking a deep breath, I drew myself up tall and opened my mouth.
“I got here as soon as I heard.”
I withered instantly at the sound of his voice, my rehearsed words fleeing into the night. A shudder worked its way down from the base of my skull to the area between my shoulder blades.
He’s going to kill me.
Mama’s warning had chosen a most inopportune time to pop in, but there was no stopping it now.
“I’m here—I’m here now.” His fingers brushed against my hair and my back involuntarily arched off the bed. The sudden movement sent a searing pain through the center of my chest, where it sparked and pulsed like a downed power line.
When I was a child, I’d experienced periodic episodes where I would wake, only to find myself unable to move or speak. I was forced to lie against my pillow, completely helpless, until my brain and body were no longer opposing forces.
That in and of itself wasn’t terribly frightening. It was what happened during those moments of paralysis that left me quaking in fear.
This didn’t feel like a hallucination or the trick of an overactive mind.
This monster was real.
“Did you hear that, Ariana? Your father is right here with you.” The woman’s mouth stretched into a wide grin that I couldn’t quite return.
Once people realized who my father was, I became someone worth knowing. The disinterest in their eyes was always quickly replaced with star-struck wonder.
Despite what the world believed, growing up the daughter of a megachurch pastor hadn’t exactly been smooth sailing.
By the time I could walk, I knew how important Tristan James was, well beyond the walls of his church. He’d written books that were instant bestsellers, given interviews with all the major news outlets, and appeared every Sunday morning on televisions across the country.
Tristan loved being in the spotlight, and with his gravity-defying dark hair and piercing aquamarine eyes, the media just loved him right back.
Tristan James: America’s sexiest pastor.
As if that was even a real thing.
Everyone he encountered crowed about how he looked much younger than his forty-six years to which he’d respond that doing the Lord’s work kept him young.
I pushed my trembling fingers beneath the white sheet, hoping no one noticed. I’d been doing so well, reading my Bible and praying more… just like he wanted.
After thousands of mistakes over the years, I had it down to an almost exact science and could sense when the world was close to slipping off-axis. If I stepped up at the right moment, I could keep him happy and the façade was preserved.
As far as anyone knew, we were one happy family.
It was only when the world slept that I found myself wanting something I couldn’t put into words—this desire to be seen as more than Tristan James’s daughter.
I wanted freedom.
“Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for that call?” He asked, his mouth tipping up in a smile that conveyed nothing.
Was he angry?
Did he know how I’d ended up here?
As if he’d been granted a direct line into my thoughts, Tristan gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head. The nurse continued beaming, completely unaware of our silent conversation.
No to what—both? One?
Tell me! I wanted to scream.
“Melanie,” Tristan stated before turning his attention back to the nurse, signaling the end of our discussion. “Would you mind if I prayed?”
Melanie readily agreed, jarring the side of the bed with her hip in her hurry to reach Tristan’s side. I winced as the pain in my head expanded like an overfilled balloon. Instead of fading to black, the room seemed to grow brighter.
Or maybe that was just Tristan’s unnaturally white teeth.
Silently, I added my own prayer. Obviously, it had been too much to ask for freedom. At this point, I was willing to settle for unconsciousness.
The rhythmic beeping from the machines made tuning out his words easier than I imagined. The nurse might have believed differently, but if he was here, then I was not safe.
And all the prayers in the world wouldn’t take away from the very real possibility that this time, he’d gone too far.
As he spoke, he reached for my hand, letting his dark beady eyes search my face. I’d seen this look more than once, this unspoken reminder to stick to the script. Suddenly afraid of what he might see reflected in my eyes, I turned away from his probing gaze.
Knowing I hadn’t said a word was one thing. Convincing him of the fact was a completely different animal.
Tristan’s voice cracked in the middle of his impassioned monologue and I glanced up, surprised to see that he wasn’t looking at me in suspicion. Not at all. Moisture pooled in his blue eyes and I watched in a sort of horrified fascination as it spilled over onto his lower lashes.
Tristan James did not cry.
Even on the morning that Mama passed, his eyes had remained completely dry. He’d seemed almost relieved to be free of the invalid wife and her accusations.
The memories cropped up sporadically, but my thoughts were still very much jumbled together like skeins of yarn in a wicker basket. Tugging on the string of one fact didn’t lead to the next. It only seemed to further entangle the threads of the others. Mama had been gone for years, but the memory of her death was as clear to me as if it had happened yesterday.
Pushing down the rising panic, I looked down to where my hand joined with Tristan’s, studying every line until I became convinced that I was, in fact, still an adult. For reasons I couldn’t explain, the past had taken a firm hold over my mind, distorting reality.
“And Father, we—we just need—” Tristan tried covering his mouth, but he was too late.
What happened? I knew my lips were moving, but I couldn’t hear the sound of my voice.
“Ariana.” He squeezed my fingers with a hiccuped breath. “You were driving the convertible and lost—you lost control, sweetheart.”
I shook my head. No, I wouldn’t have—
It only hurts if you let it…
Heat spread through my esophagus, yet I remained silent. I pulled my hand from his and rubbed frantically at the base of my throat.
Tristan’s face crumpled again and he dropped his eyes down to the sheet. “You… you didn’t have a seatbelt on and your head—” His words trailed off in a sob of fragmented sentences before Melanie intervened.
“Ariana, you hit your head and the doctors had to remove a piece of your skull to help with the swelling. But if the pressure on your brain remains low, I expect they’ll look at scheduling a surgery soon to replace it.”
Why can’t I talk? I mouthed, resorting to hand gestures when she didn’t seem to understand the question.
“Well, you were on mechanical ventilation for a little over a week before the doctors were able to perform a tracheostomy. So, right here…”
Taking my hand, she gently guided my fingers up my throat. “You’ve got a little hole. Now, with that speech valve on, you can talk. It’ll just take some getting used to.”
I touched the circular valve again, waiting for some sudden burst of clarity. She’d handed me the missing puzzle pieces, yet I still couldn’t seem to make them fit together.
As the rough sounds of Tristan’s sobbing filled the room, I was forced to confront an alternative truth. Maybe the reason he wasn’t telepathically urging me to stick to a narrative this time was because there wasn’t one.
It only hurts if you let it…
Without a doubt, I knew my name and basic information. If I focused, I could even recall the live worship night we’d hosted at the church back in May, down to what I’d been wearing.
Simple black wrap dress. No shoes.
The filing cabinet of my mind had kept a diligent record of every major event in my life, save one. As I glanced back to Tristan, I saw the truth of Melanie’s words in his wounded expression.
He wasn’t responsible for my accident.
That meant only one thing.
I’d done it.
I’d finally done it.
I’d taken my mother’s advice and run, only to prove that Tristan had been right all along. The world was full of evil people and, given where I was now, it was clear they’d wasted no time in bleeding the last bit of hope from my veins.
~End Sneak Peek~
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