Play On - Michelle Smith

chapter one

Forget Friday night lights—in Lewis Creek, South Carolina, it’s baseball or bust three nights a week. Our world doesn’t start revolving until March, when the fields are freshly mowed and the diamond’s primed to perfection. Baseball is second only to breathing, and even that’s debatable. So now that January’s here, the only thing that matters is the chill in the air. It’s a sign that official practices are right around the corner. And then? It’s show time.

On Saturday nights, there’s usually a pick-up truck parade heading toward either the river or Right Field Randy’s house for a party (and no, right field is not what you want to be known for). Tonight, my old truck follows the others out to the school’s ball field. After parking, I cut the engine and climb down from the green Chevy, grinning like an idiot. This place is heaven.

Brett Perry’s Jeep swerves into the spot beside mine. Jay Torres, my right-hand man and catcher extraordinaire, hops down from the passenger side as Brett, all 6’5 of him, heads over. I lift my chin toward them and shove my hands into the pocket of my USC hoodie, bracing myself against the night’s chill. Truck doors slam around us as I call out, “Surprised you pansies showed up.”

Brett snorts. If anyone’s going to show up to these meetings, it’s us and his brother Eric, whose truck I tailed on the way here. The only thing to keep us from an open field would be our grandmas’ funerals. Second only to breathing, remember?

“You’re full of shit, Braxton.” Jay gives me a high-five. “It’s the most wonderful time of the damn year. Can you smell it?”

I take a deep breath as we head for the field, inhaling the scent of pine, dirt, and bonfire smoke in the distance. It’s the best smell there is.

The full moon’s our only light as we hop over the chain-link fence and onto the ball field. The frost-covered grass crunches beneath my boots. I’m home. A handful of other guys from the team have already made it to the pitcher’s mound—my mound—where Coach Taylor waits for us. His blaze-orange cap is nearly as bright as the moon. All eight of us veterans made it out here tonight, which is a good sign for the season. You can tell who’s in this for the love of the game and who’s in it for the glory on nights when Coach sends out a mass text at 9:30 telling you to get your rear to the school. Glory’s all well and good—and you’ll get plenty of it around here—but heart rules on this field.

Frigid wind smacks me in the face, and I tug my beat-up Braves cap a little lower. Jay, Brett, and I join the semi-circle in front of Coach, who has the biggest shit-eating grin I’ve ever seen. I’m pretty sure this is one of his favorite nights of the year. Before I met him freshman year, I never imagined anyone could love this game more than I do. It took him maybe two minutes to prove me wrong, with the passion in his eyes when he shook my hand. He told me I was about to get my ass kicked, but it’d be the most worthwhile ass-kickin’ I’d ever get. He was right. Between three seasons of boot-camp-worthy practices and his demand for dedication, I’ve gone from scrawny freshman to one of the top pitchers in Lewis Creek High’s history.

I plan to keep it that way.

“Fellas,” he drawls, rubbing his gloved hands together. “It’s almost time to play some ball.”

Kellen, our first baseman, and Eric whoop and holler at the end of the line. Jay elbows me, and my grin widens along with his. It’s our last season playing ball in this town. I’ll be damned if I’m not ready to get on the field. Being out here tonight is only a taste, a cruel tease, of what spring has to offer.

“I brought y’all out here for two reasons,” Coach continues, “and I won’t keep you long since your butts better be in church tomorrow mornin’. Reason number one: the obvious.” He gestures to the field. “We’re going to make this clear, right here and now. For the next four months, this is your home. These guys, and the ones who join us after tryouts, are your family. You with me?”

“Yes, sir,” we say.

He nods once and crosses his arms. “Good. Next, I want to talk some business. Behavior. Grades.” His gaze flickers