We have to win this game. . . .
Like gotta win. No other option.
I’ve been playing base-related ball--first tee, now soft--since the minute I could hold up a bat. Just like my daddy. And his daddy before him. And his daddy before him. It’s in my blood. And I learned the meaning of “love/hate relationship” in a game situation like this one.
It’s the bottom of the sixth and we’re up by three, but the opposing team is at bat. Bases are loaded, two strikes, two outs. Any time I say something is stressful, my mama rolls her eyes and says, “You’re twelve, Shenice. You have no idea what that word means.” But this? Is stressful.
As I drop back into my squat behind home plate, my eyes scan the field, and I inhale deep. Impossible to not notice--for me at least--how different our two teams look. While every player on mine, the Fulton Firebirds, has some shade of brown skin, all of the Stockwood Sharks girls are white.
Which is the case for most teams in the 12U division of the Dixie Youth Softball Association. DYSA, if you’re feeling fancy.
Not only are we Fulton Firebirds the first all-Black team in this league--which even considering the name is a huge deal--we’re the only team in the entire DYSA with more than three Black players on the roster.
Across eight states. All of which were on the pro-slavery side during the Civil War. Something my daddy reminds me of every time he sees “DYSA.”
“It’s a weight no one your age should have to carry, but can’t ignore,” he says. And he’s right: Every win feels . . . historical.
I hate it . . . but also love it.
Victory is almost ours.
I hear the ump--a short dude whose middle is shaped like the highlighter-hued ball that gives this game I love so much its name--hock a loogie above my head. It slams into the dirt on my right with the force of a slimy bullet.
I breathe in again, though it definitely makes me feel like the hot dog I ate earlier is going to join ump guy’s blob of mucus beside me. The air has to be full of phlegm germs right now.
I gotta get my head back in the game. Yes, we’re up, but I’d be lying if I said the Sharks aren’t good.
They’re real good, in fact.
But so are we.
We have to win this game.
Their best batter is at the plate--Steph Mahoney. I know her name because of her rep as a home-run hitter. Not surprising once you see the latest Louisville Slugger LXT choke-gripped between her half-covered hands. Her batting gloves are fingerless, which I’ve never seen in our league. But considering that bat costs 350 buckaroos, it’s clear good ol’ Steph is serious about this sport.
I lock gazes with our pitcher, Cala “Quickfire” Kennedy. My “teammate” since the days of rolling one of Daddy’s baseballs back and forth in our shared playpen (though we haven’t always played on the same actual team). She’s the best, most epic fast-pitch heat thrower in the state. Likely even in all of Dixie, and maybe the whole country.
All she’s gotta do is throw one more strike.
In my peripheral vision, I see the blond, freckly-faced girl on third base take a quick peek at her coach, who tugs at his right earlobe, and then brushes a finger beneath his nose. After a slight nod, she subtly steps one foot off the slightly raised white square, and shifts into a ready-to-run stance, eyes on Cala, like a little lion cub who has decided home plate is her prey.
Steal a run? Not on my watch.
We HAVE to win this game.
I “adjust” my face mask with my left hand--my signal to Hennessey Lane, our go-to third-base girl (and a robotics champion to boot), that the ball is coming at her fast so she can pick the runner off, which would win us the game--and within a second, Quickfire has thrown a pitch. It’s wide, and Steph rightly doesn’t swing. But I was right about blondie: she takes off from third.
Good thing they don’t call me Lightning Lockwood for nothing. Before the ump can shout, “Ball two!” I’ve fired the yellow sphere at Hennessey, and the golden-haired Shark is diving back toward the base, her fingertips reaching the edge a mere breath before Hennessey tags her side, ball in glove.
“SAFE!” the third-base ump says, slashing his arms out to his sides.
Hennessey lobs the ball back to Cala, and as the LXT batter repositions herself, I use my fingers to signal my suggested pitch: rising curve, outside edge. Cala stands, centers, and whips her arm around quick as a camera flash. It hits my glove before I can blink--
“BALL THREE!” Loogie Ump barks behind me. His voice is a little phlegmy. It’s like I can feel the germs raining down on my back now.
“All good, Cay!” Cala’s mom shouts from the stands. “Head in the game, baby!”
As I remove the ball from my glove to toss it back to Cala, it feels like it’s on fire. Not literally, of course. But I have no doubt Cala feels it, too: this pitch could decide the game. All she’s gotta do is throw one more strike.
I signal for a fastball, straight up the middle.
Cala lets it rip, and I position my glove and await the telltale thunk and slight throb of my palm inside my glove.
There’s a THWACK instead. Followed by a different thunk: that of the Louisville Slugger hitting the ground. Steph takes off running, her orangey-red braid swinging as cheering explodes from the visitor stands.
I shoot to my feet and yank my helmet off. Watch, unable to breathe, as our center fielder, Britt-Marie Hogan--my best girl friend--runs with everything she’s got to keep up with the soaring yellow ball . . .
She jumps, but to no avail. It flies over the fence, and the Shark fans yell even louder.
“HOME RUN!” the ump shouts behind me.
I turn away from the plate. There’s no way I can watch us lose.
The ride home is super uncomfortable, largely because no one is saying a word inside the Firebus. Usually we all love being in Coach Nat’s giant van--the whole team rides together to and from games, and the Firebus has space for all of us: thirteen players, plus Coach Nat and her wife, Ms. Erica, who never misses anything we do as a team.
Coach is the dean of a charter school in the “inner city” (she always puts that in quotes) and is an actual former youth softball national champion. She started the Fulton Firebirds two years ago at the suggestion of her mentor, a Black businesswoman we call Ms. Monica, who is the head lawyer at Coke, and who also is a former softballer. As Ms. Monica told us the first time we met her, “There just isn’t enough concentrated Black girl magic in this sport.” Coach Nat recruited every one of us from all over the city. And she and Ms. Erica take excellent care of us and are very invested in our team.
Example: they strung LED lights around the ceiling of the van--red, orange, and yellow, our team colors--and there’s a rotating softball Ms. Erica covered in square mirrors hanging at the center that makes the colored light scatter everywhere. The outside of the van is black, but it has a firebird painted on the hood, with wings that turn to flames as they wrap around the sides.
Definitely the coolest vehicle on any road in this area of town. Which is kind of funny, because even though Coach Nat and Ms. Erica would fit in around here--they’re both white ladies--we’ve all seen more than a few other white people notice who’s driving this “drip mobile,” as Coach Nat calls it, and do a double take. Makes us laugh every time.
Nobody is laughing now, though.
On a win day, we’d be talking and laughing and begging Ms. Erica to crank up the music since Coach Nat won’t (she says it’ll ruin our hearing).
We’d be singing and dancing. Celebrating.
But as we zip up the tree-lined highway out of “Sandy Saltshaker”--it’s really Sandy Springs, but according to Britt-Marie, “In a place with so few people of color, the name should reflect the folks who live there so everyone knows”--it’s so quiet, I feel like I can hear the germs from Loogie Ump’s spit crawling around on my skin.
We stop at a red light, and I close my eyes and let my chin drop. Mama would say I’m being dramatic, and my numbskull little brother would toss in his unwanted two cents and agree, but I feel like my head has gotten too heavy for my neck and I just can’t hold it up anymore.
I shouldn’t cry. I know I shouldn’t. Really, this isn’t that big a deal. This game was basically a scrimmage. It won’t hurt our record in the league or affect our standings as we head into tournament season a few weeks from now. It won’t keep us from my ultimate goal for the team this year: the DYSA 12U World Championship title (even though “world” is clearly inaccurate since the whole league is only eight states). A team with a Black player--let alone an all-Black team--has never made it through the district tournament. Even making it to State would be huge: a message that girls like us do belong on the field. We’ve definitely had some games where the opposing team’s fans suggested otherwise. Gotta love Georgia.
Going all the way--snagging that Dixie trophy--would be next level.
But to get there, we have to actually win.
I feel like such a baby about the jawbreaker lump in my throat that feels like it’s gonna dissolve and spill outta my eyes in liquid form. Especially since I know getting eaten by the Stockwood Sharks doesn’t. Actually. MATTER.
Still, though: The other girls in the creepily silent van voted to make me their captain. It’s my job to keep morale up . . . and I can’t think of a single thing to say.
Because it’s also my job to lead us to victory, and I clearly failed at that, too.
The jawbreaker liquid is spilling over now. Too bad it’s not sweet instead of salty.
An arm slips beneath my left arm--the one I catch with--and hooks my elbow before something heavy lands on my shoulder.
“I’m pretty sure my eyesight is ruined from the sun glistening off all that shiny golden hair,” she says.
“I’m serious,” she continues. “They had a blinding advantage. The kajillion-dollar super bats didn’t hurt, either.”
“You’re ridiculous, Britt,” I say, smiling now.
“I’m right. And you know it.”
I don’t say anything back. Don’t have to. I just breathe out and let the trees blur by.
Sunday mornings in the Lockwood household are usually my favorite time of the week. We’re not churchgoers unless it’s Easter, Juneteenth, or Christmas, and there typically aren’t any weekly plans or activities, so my brother Drake and I sleep until eleven and wake to the smell of bacon.
And to old-people music. There’s this one group called Boyz II Men that sings a lot of sappy songs our parents seem to love dancing and being ooey-gooey to. They hug all up on each other, and they kiss. On the mouth. And while there’s technically nothing wrong with kissing--I haven’t done it yet, but a couple girls on the team have, and they seem to like it--seeing my parents do it is . . . yuck.
Especially this morning.
“Could you guys maybe get a room?” I say as I step into the kitchen. Mama is sitting on the island, and Daddy’s in front of her with one arm around her waist. They’re just smoochin’ away like nobody else lives here.
Daddy pulls back. “Last I checked, we have an entire house,” he says. “You certainly don’t pay any bills up in here.”
“Mm-hmm,” Mama chimes in. I can imagine her dark brown eyes cutting to the side, and her full lips pursing. “Freeloaders stay full of opinions, don’t they, baby?” She pulls his face back toward hers.
“They sure do, queen.”
And then they’re at it again.
“So nasty,” I grumble, plopping down at the kitchen table.
“Who pooed in your Cheerios?” My head flies forward--a result of being pushed from behind--and I swing my throwing arm. My annoying little brother, Drake, manages to jump out of the way, completely dodging the blow.
“STEEE-RIKE!” He laughs and takes the seat across the table from me.
“You’re childish,” I say. “Sneak attacks are cowardly. And who even says pooed?”
“I do! POOOOOOED!”
“I mean, I am a child. . . .”
“You’re both children, and we can tell,” Mama says. She sets plates of steaming scrambled cheese eggs, French toast, golden hash brown rounds, and fried green tomatoes on the table. Then she goes back to the kitchen and returns with a bowl I know is full of piping-hot pimento cheese grits, and a platter of thick Black Forest bacon.
I smile, knowing this bacon--the only bacon Millie Lockwood allows to touch her precious seasoned cast-iron griddle--involves a forty-seven-minute drive outside the city to a farmer’s market in what Britt-Marie would call “questionable territory.” And she’s not entirely wrong: I’ve made the trip with Mama a few times, and we do see a number of Confederate flag emblems on billboards, in yards, and on the bumpers of cars along the way.
But the farmer we buy our bacon from? Mr. Joiner? He’s one of the nicest old white dudes I’ve ever met. In fact, last time I went with Mama, he showed me a signed Satchel Paige baseball card--super old-school, and so original, he had it in a thick plastic sleeve. And he told me that if I lead my team to the State title, he’ll give it to me. To keep.
Mama puts our beverages of choice in front of our place settings: sparkling water for her; coffee for Daddy . . . as in the whole pot; orange juice for Drake (so basic, that kid); and freshly squeezed star ruby grapefruit juice for me. Then she passes empty plates around and sits as Daddy slowly makes his way over. For as long as I can remember, he’s walked with a cane, but it does seem like he’s moving slower and is in more pain than usual these days. He groans as he takes his seat.
Copyright © 2021 by Nic Stone. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.