Recently, I gave myself another writing challenge: one night, while lying in bed, I decided to see if I could conjure a random opening scene: how about a kid hitting a home run? Sounded good. Next morning, I gave myself one hour to make something of it, before I had to go to work. The result: Darren’s Homer, a short little story coming in at a tad over 1200 words. Fun fun! Enjoy!
When Darren smacked that baseball clear out of the park—to all his friend’s astonishment, and even his own–it wasn’t because of an easy pitch, it wasn’t due to blind luck, it wasn’t Divine intervention.
No, Darren had practiced.
Weeks ago, he’d gone out to the back forty, to the old dilapidated barn that leaned precariously to one side just inside the rear fence line, where his dad kept all that crap he never used anymore, but was afraid to get rid of.
There, he tossed the ball, and swung. Tossed the ball, and swung.
His older brother Danny thought he was nuts. That’s not gonna work, he chided. In REAL baseball, the ball is pitched. You’ll never learn to hit the ball by tossing it to yourself.
But Darren knew better than to ask Danny to pitch to him; his big brother would never do it—especially if there was any chance whatsoever that any of his friends would see them playing together—and even if he did, he’d probably just end up throwing the ball at him, instead of pitching it to him, and he was a pretty good shot, and could throw really hard, and Darren wasn’t about to take that chance.
Danny was like that. He was a mean kid, a bully—just like their dad.
And of course he wasn’t about to ask his dad, either. Especially in the middle of a binge. His binges came and went, but in the middle, when they peaked, the reeking half-dressed man carried the bottle around with him, between fits of rage and bouts of sleep that bordered on unconsciousness. Never went anywhere—not even the bathroom—without that bottle clutched in one hand, the brown liquid sloshing. And about the time Darren decided to start practicing hitting the ball was about the time his old man was carrying the bottle. Not a good time to ask—or say—anything. For Darren knew from experience that just as his old man’s fist could bring the bottle to his lips—his other fist could just as easily be brought to Darren’s. And worse, he’d be grounded to the house at least a week, so nobody could see the signs before they healed.
Darren wasn’t sure which was worse—the beatings, or the groundings. But this summer, he had no desire to run any tests to answer that question.
Toss the ball, swing. Toss the ball, swing…
After a few hundred tosses, he started occasionally making contact. After a few thousand, he was regularly hitting the ball, the crack! of the bat and the thwack! of the ball striking the wooden slats on the front of the old barn echoing off into the woods behind the property.
Before long he began throwing the ball up on the roof of the barn, then waiting as it bounced haphazardly down the slanted roof, coming down before him in a totally random place, at a totally random speed. He learned to quickly gauge the ball as it fell from the edge; and though he had only about one second to do so, over time he got pretty good at it, successfully hitting the ball more often than not.
Day after day, toss after toss, swing after swing, for two solid weeks.
Danny may have been right—that’s not the way to learn to hit a pitched ball; but what Darren did learn, without really even being aware of it, was how to keep his eye on the ball.
So today, at the pickup game in the field across the street from McSweeny’s farm where they always played, Eric Brunes stood on the mound, preparing to pitch (he was a year older than the rest of them, and half a foot taller, and considerably stronger, so he always pitched, nobody argued this), and Darren stood poised at the plate, his own bat held up in position, as he had practiced thousands of times, ready for the ball to come down unpredictable and crazy from the roof.
But Eric made the mistake of thinking this was an easy out; so for show, and probably more to make Darren look foolish, he performed all kinds of crazy antics in the windup—prompting laughter from the kids on both teams—then, stepping forward, he at first faked a hard, fast pitch, but at the last second held up and instead tossed a high, slow floater toward Darren.
The ball came in high, just higher than Darren’s head, then suddenly dropped in front of him just as it reached the plate (pretty much just as it always dropped in front of him in practice, after tumbling off the barn roof).
The solid impact of bat against ball was so loud—like a firecracker—that many of the kids behind him jumped at the sound. CRACK!
But Darren just stood in disbelieve as he watched the ball sail well over everyone’s head and into the bright white sky. Spencer Millhouse—who was the youngest, and smallest, of the group, so was always stationed out at center field, because nobody ever hit the ball that far anyway—turned and ran toward the fence line as the ball sailed over him and down toward the trees that lined the back of the field. Running as fast as he could, but to no avail, at the last second threw his mitt into the air in futility as the ball fell and disappeared into the trees, thumping and cracking on its way to the ground somewhere unseen.
Incredulous, Darren proudly trotted the bases, all the other kids screaming and cheering. As he crossed home, they all crowded around him, cheering and patting him on the back and congratulating him on the most awesome homer they’d ever seen.
In the middle of all the ruckus, Darren heard Eric shout from behind him, “Hey asshole!”
Darren turned just in time to meet Eric’s round-housed fist with his face, sending the much smaller Darren spinning and dropping into the dirt.
The crowd of shouting kids immediately stopped, and a morbid silence spread over the ball field.
Reeling in pain, both hands clenched to his face, Darren turned over just as Eric bent over him, face flush with anger. Towering above him, he thrust a finger into Darren’s now bleeding face.
“Nobody EVER homers on me!” He shouted.
Straightening, he kicked him in the ribs. “EVER!”
He then turned and stormed off, hands shoved into his pockets, mitt clasped under one arm, not once bothering to look back at the rest of them.
Once he had turned the corner and was out of sight, the group helped Darren off the ground, murmuring their condolences and spewing profanities about Eric.
Darren brushed himself off, wiping his bloody nose with his shirttail. The bleeding stopped pretty quickly, and the pain in his ribs began to subside, and when Darren finally regained his breath—knocked out of him by Eric’s hard cleat—he knew he’d be okay.
He and his friends walked together to Spencer’s house, because his mom always made homemade ice cream, and sure enough, there was plenty for them to indulge. Soon Eric and his temper tantrum was forgotten—but the memory of Darren’s homer would live forever.
Darren may have spent a few weeks learning how to hit a baseball—but in those few minutes after he hit that homer, he learned nearly all he would ever need to know about life.