Batting Out of Order

Fifteen-year-old Jerome Howard leaned against the small wooden desk in the bedroom of his family’s Brooklyn apartment. The lamp to his right pushed back the darkness and illuminated the lone, baffling baseball card that lay before him—at least visually. In all other ways the card remained a dark mystery.

At the base of the lamp sat the rest of the cards, stacked tall and neat, the full set from 2049. Instead of arranging the cards in numerical order Jerome had grouped the players into their respective teams: the New York Mets on top, then the Baltimore Orioles, then the New Orleans Dodgers, starting with his favorite teams and descending to those he had no interest in.

To the left of the stack, directly in front of him, rested the holographic baseball card that had foretold his doom: card #874, Frank Ryan; pitcher; New York Mets. The card’s voice-over had announced that in ten years Jerome would suffer permanent brain damage at Ryan’s hands.

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There had to be some way to find out if that card was . . . was . . . what? Defective? A joke?

An impossible, unwelcome messenger from the future?

Jerome weighed the idea of sneaking back into his father’s room and using his 3-D printer to create another set of cards, wishing there were a way to print singles. Maybe another Ryan card might tell him something more helpful, more hopeful. But the computer program he’d downloaded didn’t allow for that. It was the full set or nothing.

Earlier that day he’d watched his father install a fresh cartridge of nanites into the family’s 3-D printer and then print a replacement for his broken geniusphone, so Jerome knew there were nanites to spare. The question was, could he get away with printing a whole new 1,048-card set without his father catching him? It had been risky enough to do once. Nanite cartridges were expensive, and his ex-Navy father was notoriously tight-fisted—a dangerous combination.

On the one hand, the idea of brain damage was terrifying—especially if it was going to happen by the time he’d celebrated his 25th birthday. Jerome was as good a student as he was an athlete and he’d quickly calculated that was barely one-quarter of his expected lifespan.

On the other hand, even news of his impending doom wasn’t enough to squash the excitement of the fact that the card had said he was going to be a Major League baseball player. A Major Leaguer! He’d dreamt of playing professional ball ever since his mother had put a first-baseman’s mitt on his tiny hand on his second birthday. He’d immediately grabbed a huge hunk of cake with the glove, and his mother crowed hysterically at the sight of icing all over the webbing, even as his father barked in his most commanding, military voice about damaging the leather. It was the beginning of the baseball dream.

Of course, Jerome had no actual memory of the event, but his grandfather had taken a holo-vid of the party and Jerome watched it so often that it felt enough like a memory to pass for one.

His mother was gone now, his parents long ago separated for reasons that had been kept from him. That’s why he watched those holo-vids as often as he did; he hadn’t seen his mother in a decade.

So he’d make it to the bigs. An All-Star no less. At least, that’s what the card said, right before adding that his promising career would be cut short by a fastball to the temple.

But how could the card know what would happen? Was he even the Jerome ‘Cal’ Howard the card referred to?

That last question was the easiest to guess at. Jerome’s all-time favorite player was Cal Ripken, the Iron Man, whose record of 2,632 consecutive-games-played was over fifty years old and still standing. Jerome had always planned on calling himself ‘Cal’ in honor of his hero if he ever broke into the Majors—and how many “Jerome ‘Cal’ Howards” could there possibly be?

So the card was referring to him. It had to be.

And the rest? The bigger questions? Death by fastball would have been better; at least that would be quick and clean and over with. But brain-damaged? How badly? How long did he have to live with it? He could imagine more options that were horrifying than ones that weren’t.

Jerome snuck down the hall and peered into the living room where his father was watching baseball on the wall. The Dodgers were playing the Astros, the biggest rivalry in the Gulf of Mexico Division. His dad became a Dodgers fan while stationed outside of New Orleans for three years.

Just above his dad’s new geniusphone a holographic image of a bald cartoon man in a toga said, “Pizza pizza, delivery in twelve point five minutes.” His father disconnected the call by swatting away the image with an open-handed swipe, as if he were snatching a fly out of midair.

No, Jerome thought. He’d better not try printing out another set of cards right now. His father would be too alert listening for the approaching pizza truck. Those trucks didn’t ever want to stop rolling, so if you met them by the curb, delivery was free; if they had to wait for you for more than thirty seconds it was an extra charge. The Howard family wasn’t poor, but they also didn’t pay extra charges. Jerome’s father saw to that.

Jerome returned to his room, to the Ryan card.

It lay there, inert, looking like an ordinary piece of plasticardboard with an old-fashioned color photograph printed on the front. Jerome picked it up and studied it.

It weighed next to nothing, was slick on both sides, and was artificially impregnated with the scent of bubblegum for a retro smell to match the 2-D retro look. The stats listed on the back were pretty standard.

  • 2046: Games, 23; Innings, 132; Wins, 6; Losses 9, Strikeouts, 144, ERA 3.55
  • 2047: Games, 26; Innings, 147; Wins, 9; Losses 14, Strikeouts, 171, ERA 5.42
  • 2048: Games, 29; Innings, 208; Wins, 10; Losses 11, Strikeouts, 195, ERA 4.33

And that was that. It was this year’s set, 2049, and Ryan had been pitching for three full seasons. He’d come up rapidly through the Mets farm system because of his 100-mph fastball, but he lost more games than he won because that fastball was his only pitch. If he couldn’t effectively move it around the strike zone, a lot of hitters would launch it out of the stadium. The announcers had even taken to calling them ‘Home Ryans’ because of their frequency. He could ring up the strike-outs, but strike-outs alone didn’t win games.

Jerome gripped card #874 between his thumb and forefinger and slapped it down on the desk harder than necessary. The embedded nanites required only the slightest impact to activate, but Jerome knew what was coming and was anxious about it.

As the nanites worked their digital voodoo, a full-color 3-D hologram of Frank Ryan sprang to life above the card.

Holographic Ryan nodded to an invisible catcher and went into his wind-up while an announcer called the play—just as it had the first time Jerome had activated the card. And just as had happened the first time—and the second, and the third—as Ryan reached full extension, the card glitched, white static and square blue digital sparks flying above his desk like a miniature fireworks display. Jerome didn’t flinch this time; he knew the square sparks were coming. This time he studied them, trying to figure out what was happening.

But he didn’t understand what occurred this time anymore than previously. The square blue sparks were too bright to look at for long, and when they subsided, a haggard and clearly older Ryan stood on the mound, halfheartedly doffing his cap to an invisible but adoring crowd. Through the cheers, Jerome heard the announcer:

“After several years of mediocrity as a starter, Frank Ryan was converted into one of the most dominant relievers in baseball history. But early in 2059, his seventh year as a reliever, Ryan put a fastball into the temple of 2058’s Rookie of the Year and one-time All-Star, Jerome ‘Cal’ Howard. Unable to shake off the effects of causing permanent brain damage and ending the promising young slugger’s career, Ryan once again became ineffective and announced his retirement before the end of the 2059 season. Who knows what records the fireballer might have broken if not for that one ill-fated pitch.”

The voice stopped, the hologram collapsed, and the card sat in plastic silence. Jerome stared at it, Ryan’s flat, unblinking eyes returning his gaze.

Impulsively Jerome grabbed a fistful of other cards—Mets players all—and slapped down one after another after another onto the desk, watching as they sprang to life. All projected as they normally did; all delivered last season’s information: 2048. Most modern holocards gave stats for the current year, updated daily through the nanite’s online link as the season progressed. Not using this year’s data was intended to be part of the set’s retro feel, but the idea hadn’t been well-received by fans—they were too accustomed to immediate updates—which is why Jerome had been able to download the program so cheaply.

More than anything else, right now he regretted buying the stupid program, because the more he watched this one particular card, the more convinced he became that the story it told was real. But what was he supposed to do? How was he supposed to react? Could he change it, stop it? What if he simply chose not to play baseball?

Jerome tried to slow his tornado of thoughts; he was getting swept away by their negativity.

Consider the possibilities, he told himself. Even if he played only one season, it would be worth millions of dollars. That would set his father and sister up for life. His father could finally stop worrying about money and his sister could go to any college she wanted, instead of the community college their dad always talked about.

And his mother . . .

He hadn’t seen her since she left ten years ago, but she’d been an even bigger baseball fan than his father. That’s where his parents had met, the baseball stadium; she was sitting near third base, while his father made extra cash by working the radar gun behind home plate. He’d abandoned his position and talked to her for two full innings before realizing how much time had passed and how much trouble he was going to be in.

His father had lost the job, but he’d always said it was worth it.

Maybe if Jerome played baseball professionally, she might come see him. Maybe he could arrange for his dad and sister to be there that day, too. Just, you know . . . coincidentally.

Yeah, right. And all he had to do was find a way to live through the next ten years, every day knowing that a fastball was going to turn him into a vegetable. Jerome wished he could be that noble, but he was too human to embrace such a fate. He was a fifteen-year-old kid, for cripes sake, not Captain America. He could imagine himself too vividly as a drooling, vacant-eyed thing, shuffling down the hall of some white-painted, semi-sterile institution, surrounded by other patients who were as likely to walk face-first into a wall as they were to find and operate a doorknob.

God, what an image. And now that he’d thought it, he couldn’t get it out of his mind.

No! This wasn’t fair! And he wouldn’t believe it! He couldn’t. It was a defective card made with defective nanites spewed out by a defective printer, telling him about a defective pitcher for a defective team that hadn’t won a World Series since 1986. Nineteen freakin’ eighty-six! Even the Cubs had finally won a World Series. But the Mets? The Amazingly Futile Mets? Two-thirds of a century of nothing.

No, Jerome would not accept this.

He walked out of his room and was partway down the worn linoleum-lined hallway when his father came in the front door with their pizza. “Kids! Dinner.”

With that pronouncement, his eleven-year-old sister, Eliza, exploded from her room. She ran past him, rounding the corner and flying into the living room just ahead of their pizza-bearing father. She launched herself into his decrepit recliner with glee, shouting, “Dibs!”

It was their weekly Saturday-night ritual, the one thing they still did from before mom had left. The rest of the year they ate hot dogs and spaghetti and frozen lasagnas, but during baseball season, Saturday night meant pizza and baseball. Eliza in dad’s chair. Dad cross-legged, leaning against the couch, slice in hand, grousing about losing his chair in a voice that no one could take seriously. For just a few hours things almost felt normal again, even if mom wasn’t pacing back and forth behind the chair, coaching the game from their apartment.

But Jerome couldn’t embrace the moment. He couldn’t get this beanball madness out of his head, and now that his wheels were turning, there were other things clamoring for attention as well.

“Dad?” Jerome said. “Why did mom leave? Why don’t we see her anymore?”

His dad paused, slice halfway to his mouth.

He lowered the slice.

Then he raised it again and took a large bite—like he did every time someone asked that question. He would chew that mouthful of pizza until it was cheese-flavored paste before he so much as acknowledged the issue. The look of sadness on his father’s face was unmistakable, but it changed nothing. It never did.

“I’m not feeling so good,” Jerome announced sharply. “I’m gonna go to my room and lay down.”

Jerome stalked back down the hall, fuming. But he didn’t go to his room; he went to his father’s. If his father couldn’t answer a simple question, Jerome wasn’t going to worry about pinching pennies. He was going to print another set of baseball cards and find out what happened in the future. He couldn’t say why, but every instinct told him that was the key: finding another card that could tell him more about what had happened. Or was going to happen. Or . . . whatever.

Inside his father’s room, he closed the door and went straight to the printer, hitting the power button. It hummed and whirred. He heard the familiar zzt-tik-zzt of the priming nanite-cartridge. He heard the nozzle emerge from its housing and center itself over top of the print zone.

He heard the doorknob of the bedroom door slowly turning.

Crap!

He dove for the power button, praying it would shut down quieter and faster than it powered up, knowing full well that wasn’t how it worked.

The printer’s digital voice spoke, even as his father entered the room.

Cancelling print operation. Are you sure? Press enter to confirm.”

“Yeah,” said his father. “You sure?” His tone was calm, even, and measured—which meant he was really pissed. “I came to check on you, to see if you were alright. I guess I won’t need to take your temperature.”

“Dad,” Jerome said. “Let me explain.”

“Not interested.”

“But dad, this is really important.”

“I’m sure it is. And you can tell me all about it next week. Until then you’re going to be in your room, because you’re grounded. If you’re not at school, you’ll be sitting at your desk pondering the meaning of words like ‘privacy’ and ‘respect.’”

“But dad—”

“Your room. Now. Not another word.” He pointed down the hall. “Unless you want to make it two weeks.”

“But dad!”

His father stepped forward. ‘Two weeks it is, then.” He never raised his voice; he just grabbed Jerome by the collar with one hand and by the back of the belt with the other. Jerome stood nearly six feet tall and weighed 175 pounds. His ex-Navy father hoisted him like an inflatable doll and dragged him bodily down the hall, his stockinged feet scraping the floor all the way.

Standing him up in the bedroom’s doorway, his father patted him on the head. “See you in two weeks, kiddo.”

Jerome bit his tongue and stepped across the threshold, closing the door behind him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so disrespected, so like a child. But he wasn’t a child; he was fifteen, nearly a man.

A man who was going to play professional baseball—if only for one season.

He leaned against the door, listening as his father walked away. He wanted to rage, to tantrum, to scream at the injustice. But he knew that if his father heard so much as a peep, he’d be stuck in this room for the rest of his life.

Not fair!

He strode across the room, a hurricane building inside of him. Two weeks!

As he neared his desk, his first impulse was to grab the chair and throw it against the wall.

Too noisy. He’d get into even more trouble.

He prowled to one side of the room, then the other, then back to the desk again.

He looked at the lamp, immediately rejecting the idea of hitting it. That’s when his eye fell on the tall, neat stack of cards under the lamp. The neatness offended him, and with a sidearm swing he launched them into the air. They fluttered up and out like a flock of pigeons.

It wasn’t as satisfying as smashing the chair, but it was something.

But the relative silence lasted only a second or two. As the cards hit the wall, then the floor, the nanites activated, and one by one, baseball cards flared to life, holograms popping up, baseball players swinging at pitches and throwing them, fielding grounders and diving into the stands after pop-ups.

And one card, somewhere amongst them all—one card in an army of holographic baseball players—glitched, sending up a miniature fireworks display of square blue sparks and white static.

But before Jerome could identify which one, the fireworks ended.

His eyes flashed instantly to his desk. The Ryan card sat precisely where he’d left it. Unmoved. Unglitched. Unsparked.

On the floor, hundreds of voice-over announcers yammered over each other, demanding his attention, describing deeds heroic and mundane. Then just as quickly as it began, the cards fell silent again.

The room lingered in suspended tension.

Something in the back of Jerome’s mind told him he should be worried about his father hearing the racket that the cards had made, but a bigger piece of him focused on the place where the cards had fallen. He had no way of knowing which one had sparked, but his eyes locked onto the general area where the lightshow had come from. It might take a few minutes to find the right card, but it was only a matter of time.

He went to the spot, to the pile, to the cards scattered at the base of the wall. Picked a fistful of them up and threw one down.

Normal.

He threw another.

Not yet. Jerome remained calm and focused.

Finally, the thirteenth card—that was the one. Lucky thirteen.

He hadn’t bothered to look at what was pictured on the front; he’d just flung it. Of all things, it turned out to be a team card. The Baltimore Orioles. Under normal circumstances Jerome skipped the team cards; they were useless and uninteresting.

When this card hit the floor, a hologram of Orioles Park at New Camden Yards came to life before his eyes—literally; it was a time-lapse holo-vid of the construction of the team’s new stadium. But before it was half-completed, the now familiar display of glitch-static-squarespark occurred. It ended with a transition to an interior shot of the stadium, focused at home plate.

The faces of the trio standing there were instantly recognizable, but they weren’t baseball players. It was his family.

His sister Eliza, grown and beautiful. She was standing on the left. His father, as imposing as ever, stood on the right. And in the center was a figure he knew instantly from grandfather’s holo-vids: his mother.

She sat in a wheel chair, her torso entombed in some kind of awkward looking metal and plastic brace.

Dad and Eliza flanked her, each with one hand on her shoulder, and there was a baseball nestled in her lap. The three of them had the oddest expression on their faces, as if they’d been simultaneously laughing and crying.

The card’s voice-announcer began: “After the tragic loss of the popular young first baseman Jerome ‘Cal’ Howard in a freak accident on Opening Day, the Orioles dedicated the remainder of the 2059 season to his memory, winning the World Series in his honor. The notoriously divided, argumentative team came together in swift and unexpected fashion, and, defying all pre-season predictions, ended up winning 120 games against only 64 losses and sweeping all four rounds of the playoffs. In a moving, impromptu ceremony, Howard’s family was brought onto the field immediately following the game’s final out, with the game ball passed around among teammates who took turns inscribing it to the family.”

Jerome . . . was stunned.

He didn’t know what to think.

He picked up the team card and studied it. It looked and felt exactly like the rest of the cards, including the Frank Ryan card which had set this whole nightmare into motion.

He considered slapping it down again, watching it again. But he didn’t need to. The whole thing was emblazoned in his memory as thoroughly as if he’d watched it a thousand times; as thoroughly as the holo-vid his grandfather had taken of his second birthday party.

Jerome went to the door of his bedroom and opened it. He walked down the hall to where his father and Eliza were still watching the baseball game.

The moment his father spotted him, irritation flooded the man’s face like Noah’s worst nightmare. He popped to his feet, pizza falling upside-down onto the carpet, angry words ready to fly from his mouth like hornets. But Jerome spoke first, softly, just barely audible over the baseball game on the wall.

“How bad is it?” he said. “Is it just her legs or is it full paralysis?”

The flames dimmed in his father’s eyes for the briefest of seconds, and Jerome knew the answer.

“Was she in a wheelchair when she left?” Jerome continued. “Or did that come later? I bet it was later. I think I would’ve remembered.”

And like a Frank Ryan fastball down the middle of the plate, the pieces grooved into place for Jerome. His mother’s absence. His father’s tight-fistedness with money. His father simultaneously clinging to their Saturday night pizza-and-baseball ritual, yet steadfastly refusing to talk about their mother.

Suddenly it all made sense.

“She’s in a home someplace, isn’t she? She’s embarrassed to see us, and you’re letting her hide.”

“She’s not hiding!” his father snapped, finally breaking his silence. “She’s . . . she’s . . .”

“Are you secretly visiting her?” Jerome took a sudden, angry step into the living room, closing the distance and jabbing a finger into his father’s immense chest. “Are you visiting her without us?”

His father exploded, backhanding Jerome across his face, shouting, “She won’t let me!

As if in slow motion, Jerome felt his body lift up, off the floor and drift backward. And as he fell, the oddest thought crossed his mind. I wonder if this is what it will feel like when that baseball gets me . . .

He hit the ground, but it wasn’t so bad. It hurt—but he could handle it.

Eliza sprang from the recliner. “Daddy, no!” She threw herself over top of Jerome, shielding his body with her own.

Their father stepped back, horrified at what he’d done, yet barely able to contain the torrent of emotions that coursed through him. He put his hand over his mouth, unblinking, lost in thought. “It’s what she wants,” he said vacantly. “She wants to be left alone.”

Jerome rolled onto his back. Blood ran down his nose as Eliza climbed off him.

“Does she always get what she wants?” Jerome asked. He put a tentative finger to his bloody nose, then blotted it with his sleeve.

“Yes,” said his father. “Yes, she does.”

“Well, at least someone does.”

Jerome bolted down the hall to his room, but before he could get through the doorway Eliza materialized right behind him.

“It’s not dad’s fault,” she said gently.

Jerome stepped back, startled. “What?”

Eliza pushed him into his room, looking over her shoulder for their father. “You’re supposed to be in your room,” she said in her high-pitched voice. “Two weeks. Remember?” Jerome always grew uncomfortable with how quickly she became protective over him. He was supposed to be the big brother, not the other way around. Yet here she was, looking out for him again.

Eliza said, “It’s not dad’s fault that mom’s gone.”

“Who said anything about fault? I just want to know what happened.”

His sister shook her head. “If you’re going to be mad at anybody, be mad at me. It’s probably my fault.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Think about it; she left right after I was born. Something must have gone wrong with the pregnancy. A complication or something.”

Jerome was taken aback. “How long have you been thinking this? I can’t believe you’re blaming yourself . . .”

Eliza rolled her eyes. “Doofus. I only found out five minutes ago that she’s in a wheelchair. How did you figure that out, anyway?”

Jerome didn’t know what to say, but before he could even think, Eliza went surprisingly quickly to a dark, brooding place.

“Still, mom did leave right after I was born.”

“So you have been blaming yourself.”

Eliza’s gaze wandered the room, looking at everything except her brother. She shrugged a tiny shrug. “Who else could it be?”

Jerome didn’t know. But that was kind of the point; they couldn’t know.

Except in this case, he did. He knew. Not how it began, but how he could make it end well. End right for Eliza.

He embraced it. It was time for him to be the big brother that he should have been all along. He would do this for her. He owed it to her.

Jerome hugged his sister. “It’s going to be okay,” he said. “I promise.”

Eliza wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. She didn’t say a word, but somehow, the longer she squeezed, the more it felt like her hug were saying, If you say so.

Jerome took a deep breath, let go of his sister, and went to his closet.

He got out his two favorite bats, one wooden and one carbon-fiber composite. Then he put on his Orioles cap, the one his father gave him for Christmas two years ago but he’d never worn.

He walked out of his bedroom.

Down the hall.

Through the living room and up to the apartment’s main door.

And as he put his left hand on the door knob, two bats propped on his right shoulder, his father barked, “Where the devil do you think you’re going? You’re so grounded that a dozen Harrier drones couldn’t get you off the flight deck. Do not even think about opening that door.”

Jerome stopped. After tonight he’d probably be grounded for more like two months than two weeks, but at this moment he had to act. If he didn’t take this first step, right now, he might still chicken out.

He looked back.

“I need you to trust me, dad,” he said. “You can ground me for the rest of the year if you want, but for just this one night, I need you to trust me. There’s an indoor batting cage that’s open late, and I have to practice. I have a lot of work to do.”

Jerome looked hopefully at his dad, feeling the tightness from the dried blood around his nostril and upper lip even as he tried to put on his bravest smile.

Dad studied him: his new O’s cap, his resolute eyes, his bloodied nose.

And the giant man softened. “You’ve never defied me before. Not like this.”

“Nothing has ever been this important.”

“Nothing?”

Jerome shook his head.

“Someday you’ll tell me what this is all about?”

Jerome shrugged, and the baseball bats rose and fell with his shoulder. He said, “I think someday, when the time is right, you’ll know. You’ll look back on tonight and it’ll be like a fastball down the center of the plate. When that happens, hit a home run for me, okay? One perfect shot that brings everybody home again. Will you do that for me? Bring ‘em all home?”

Dad nodded like he understood what Jerome was asking him to do. Exactly how he’d pull all the pieces together wasn’t something Jerome would ever know for sure—because it wouldn’t happen until after he was gone.

But he could live with the uncertainty.

In fact, he kind of preferred it that way.


Edmund R. Schubert is an award-winning author and editor of seven books, including one novel, two short story collections, three anthologies, and one non-fiction book about writing, How To Write Magical Words. His most recent short story collection is This Giant Leap.