“Joseph,” my mom said, irritated, like she always was these days. She shook her head and bit her tongue. “Just,” she sighed, “go play outside or something. I can’t do this with you right now.”
By this, she meant my homework. My teacher, Mr. Ryan, had assigned us a family tree project. Apparently, mom didn’t know much about my dad’s side of the family. Apparently, that bothered her.
It didn’t bother me. I suggested filling in the empty lines that hovered over grandpa’s head with Wazzizname and Wazzername. “Mr. Ryan wouldn’t know the difference anyway.” I leaned over the worksheet to fill in the blanks, and I’d barely pushed the pencil into the paper when my mom slapped my hand away. The pencil went sliding across the floor.
“Hey,” I objected. I crossed my arms and glared, “It’s not my fault you know jack about dad’s family.”
The sun was out in full force, reminding me that it was still there, and it hadn’t abandoned us after all. My limbs were stiff and slow under my puffy winter coat and thermal pants. A drip of sweat slipped down my burning cheek.
“Screw this,” I said as I ripped the coat off and tossed it onto a blanket of soggy snow.
The cold tickled my shirt, but it didn’t bother me. Mom said I ran hot. She said she’d known that since the day she found me sweating in my crib in the dead of winter, but she still made me wear as many layers as a birthday cake when I went outside.
“You gonna leave that there? Your mom’ll kill you,” Jimmy poked the puffy jacket with a baseball bat. His house was just a block away from mine, and it was always my first stop when mom "invited" me to play outside.
“Nah,” I said. “I’ll get it on the way back. It weighs a ton.”
“You wanna know what weighs a ton?” Jimmy’s face lit up, and I knew I’d set him up for a home run. Dammit. “Your momma’s so fat she takes up both sides of the family tree!” He hugged his belly when he laughed, pretending the joke was funnier than it was. I just stood there, frowning. “Your momma” jokes were something like a sport to us, but I was hot, moody, and it reminded me that I still had to finish my homework.
“Aw, come on, Joey,” he put his hand on my shoulder. “I thought of that when Mr. Ryan assigned us that dumb family tree, and I’ve been saving it this whole time. It was a good one.”
I shrugged off his hand, “Yeah, not bad, Jimmy, but not award-winning, either. I’ll think of something better.”
“Oh, is that a promise?”
I shook my head and smirked, “Nah, it’s a threat. You got the ball?”
He fished a baseball from a pocket in his jacket and tossed it at me. I caught it with cold fingers, and we started walking towards the park. It was a 30-minute walk if you stuck to the sidewalk, but we knew a shortcut through the woods.
We sloshed through wet snow that sucked onto our boots. You could see steam wisping like ghosts above the pine trees, which were shaking off snow to soak up the sun. A pile of snow fell with a thud to the ground just a few feet in front of me.
“Close one,” Jimmy panted from behind me, out of breath already, even though I was the one carving the trail.
“Yeah, lucky me,” I said sarcastically. We were almost there. I’d carved this same trail after each new snowfall, and I hoped this would be the last time before tryouts. It’ll be different this year without dad coaching, I thought. Then I stuffed the thought into a messy closet that was filled with all the things I didn’t want to think about. My school counselor called it “compartmentalizing.”
“Hey man,” Jimmy said from behind me.
I took a deep, impatient breath, “Look, if you need a break, you need to get more serious about training--”
“Yeah, you wish. Nah, it’s not that,” he said, “I’m sorry, is all. I can tell you’re mad. I know you don’t like to talk about it, but I think that project Mr. Ryan assigned was stupid. He was just following the lesson plan, I guess, but he should’ve known better.”
I didn’t want to talk about it - about how my dad wouldn’t be there for tryouts this year. About how he’d taken the Outback and left us with a beat up Bronco that could hardly make it up a hill in the winter. About how he hadn’t even said goodbye for good when he’d left to ‘get some air’ after one of their fights. About how it’s been 2 months and I was starting to wonder if mom would ever be her old self again. About how I’d never know my grandparents' names. I didn’t want to talk about it, so I just kept walking, and Jimmy seemed okay with that.
The baseball field was covered in snow, which was better for batting practice anyway because the ball didn’t roll as far. It was next to the highway, so if you hit a home run, you’d cheer and listen with crossed fingers for the sound of breaking glass. We didn’t hit too many home runs, and we’d never hit a car before. We weren’t lucky or anything. The road just wasn’t very busy, since the only people who used it were heading toward the new freeway.
Jimmy hit one into the outfield, then I was up to bat. We didn’t run bases or anything, so we called it a double and traded places. He was up by four, but bases were loaded, and all I needed was the perfect pitch to catch him.
“You can’t think and hit at the same time - keep your eyes on the ball, kid” I heard my dad’s voice in my head. I held the bat by my ear, and waited for the pitch. When it came, I was ready. The bat connected to the ball with a powerful crack, and the ball went soaring through the sky. I cheered, and then I crossed my fingers when I saw where it was headed. It ducked behind a tree near the highway, and I heard the faint sound of glass shattering.
“Aw shhhhit!” Jimmy said, running up towards me. “Did you hear that? I think you got one.”
“Yeah, I heard it.” My excitement melted into the snow as I pictured all the ways I’d be in trouble when my mom found out. “I guess we’d better go check it out.”
We ran through the slushy snow towards the highway. I expected to see a pissed off driver, pulled over on the side of the road with a baseball-sized hole in their car window. But there was nobody there. The road was empty.
“That’s weird,” Jimmy said. “Do you think they left? Why would they leave?”
“Maybe,” I said, but it didn’t make sense. “Let’s look for the ball,” I said, scouring the snowbank near the road. Jimmy jogged to the other side of the highway.
“What the--” I heard him say, and I turned around to see him scrambling down the embankment.
“What are you doing?” I yelled after him, then ran across the street to catch up.
I hopped over the snowbank and looked over the edge. Jimmy was making his way down the steep hill. When I saw what he was heading toward, I froze.
We’d found the ball. It was embedded in the broken back window of a car that was front down in a pile of snow. Months of winter had kept it hidden - endless storms that made our town look like a snow globe that had just been shaken.
But the sun was back. The snow was starting to melt, and the Outback’s emblem was beaming in the spring sun.