These pieces of you, imperfectly sewn and patched all over, blur by like a blinding pitch …
Okmulgee, OklahOma 1985
In the silent shadows of the abandoned barn, Cory Brand finished building the box that would keep their treasures safe from the rest of the world. He was eight and could already build things from scratch. Clay was only four and a half and didn’t seem to be much of a builder. He just liked to watch and giggle. Cory wished he could take his little brother’s funny laugh and lock it away in this pine box forever.
“Let me see, let me see.” Clay was always there by his side, waiting, observing, nudging to see what Cory was doing. Cory made sure the rusting metal latch he’d found worked, then he opened up the box and presented it to his brother.
“What do you think?”
Clay held the box in his arms and looked like a kid on Christmas Day.
“See, Clay? It’s all ours. Just ours.”
Cory knelt on the ground and collected the stacks of baseball cards they had carefully organized. Streaks of sunlight cut through the misshapen walls surrounding them. The old barn with the leaky roof still had that straw-and-manure smell even though there hadn’t been animals around this farm for years. Cory wondered if some smells sneaked inside the walls and never left.
“We’ll put these in here, just like this,” he said as he placed their prized possessions in the box. “Then we close it and hide it.”
“It’s our secret, okay?”
Cory knew Clay wouldn’t tell anybody, but he liked making him promise just the same. The boys had spent more time sorting and trading and messing around with those cards than doing pretty much anything else. Each card represented a distinct hope. Hope that there was more to this world than a deserted barn decorated in cobwebs and a dilapidated white farmhouse as neglected as the five acres of land it sat on. Hope that beyond this battered-down address and small Oklahoma town, a world awaited. A world full of games and excitement and potential.
Cory took the box and walked over to a wall of junk that lined the one side of the barn. He carefully slipped the box under a broken wheelbarrow with a missing handle and a flat tire. An old black plastic tarp hung over it like a baby’s forgotten blanket, hiding both the wheelbarrow and the box of treasures underneath.
“Let’s keep it right here so we always know where to find it,” he told Clay. “No one can mess with it right there.”
Clay might be only four, but Cory knew he understood. It wasn’t like they got a lot of strangers walking through their property and checking out their barn. Actually, Cory sometimes thought it would be nice if strangers did dare come on their property. Maybe they’d help them out a bit.
The box had only been hidden for a few minutes when something pounded against the decrepit wall of the barn. It felt like the entire structure shook. Clay just looked at him. They didn’t say a word—they didn’t have to. Daylight zigzagged through the open windows and the holes, but the boys still blended into the murkiness the old structure provided.
Another loud thud shook them. The question in Clay’s eyes asked what they should do.
Cory hated that look. He hated seeing fear in his little brother’s eyes.
“Pitcher’s ready,” a voice outside hollered.
Mom spoke about the fear of God, but for Cory and Clay there was only the fear of him.
Cory gave his brother a confident nod, then grabbed a couple of pieces of wood to prop up against the tarp on the wheelbarrow. Just to be on the safe side. He took Clay’s hand and headed away from the pounding to the front of the barn, where two massive wooden doors stood wedged together by a heavy beam. Cory slid it out as he’d done many times before and then pushed Clay forward headfirst.
He followed, wiggling through the entrance, hoping they had made it in time. Hoping they could escape before the monster found them.
Clay standing there like a rock told him it was too late. Cory turned around to face the inevitable.
The man standing there looking down at them claimed to be their dad, though Cory didn’t know any other fathers who treated their kids exactly like this. Mom said Cory took after his father, since he was good with his hands and could play ball, but Cory hated hearing that. There was nothing about this man he wanted to take after.
He didn’t need to see the look on Dad’s face to know. The sound of the baseballs beating the barn wall had already told him. His dad had been drinking, and drinking a lot.
His voice boomed over them. “Batter up.”
Michael Brand looked the same as he’d looked yesterday and the day before and probably the day Cory was born. His work boots were worn out, though Cory didn’t think it was from working. He wore an old baseball jersey, dirty and frayed. His jacket was as battered as his boots, and he wore it whether it was twenty or eighty degrees outside.
This day was a hot one, and Dad’s unshaven face looked flushed and sweaty under his wide-brimmed hat. Cory hated the hat. He wanted to take the hat and the jersey and toss them into a fire.
Dad hurled a bat in their direction, and it landed near Clay’s feet. The fear on the boys’ faces must have amused him, because he looked at Clay with mock surprise.
“Are you first?”
Clay began to scoot backward, but there wasn’t anywhere to go with the barn behind them. Cory stepped in front of his brother, not knowing what else to do. Dad just laughed as his eyes grew dim, the anger right behind them like a catcher planted behind a batter.
“Good idea,” Dad mocked as Cory followed him around the side of the barn. “You need the practice.”
The figure he followed wasn’t extremely tall or big, but the very idea of him put a thumb over the brightness of the sun and snuffed it out. It didn’t matter to Cory what got him so drunk, or why he needed to get this way. The only thing that mattered was that when he was in this kind of mood, he was mean. It was like he was taking the ugliness of the barn and the house and making the boys pay for it.
Sometimes Cory wondered what it would be like if he’d had a baby sister, or if Dad had two girls instead of them. The thought terrified him the same way seeing the beer can resting on the nearby tractor did. And the same way seeing his father take off his dirty coat did.
Cory swallowed, wiping the sweat off his forehead. He watched his father’s dirty hand pick up the beer can and drain it, then toss it before picking up one of the baseballs scattered around the ground. Cory took his place in front of the barn, carefully getting into the stance Dad had shown him time and time and time again.
Glazed-over eyes glanced at him in that dull, not-really-there way. Cory had seen it all before.
The batter had the body of an eight-year-old but a much older heart. A much heavier heart.
The pitcher carefully wound up and then unleashed a frightening fastball that whipped past Cory and wailed on the side of the barn. Cory couldn’t help wincing a bit as he forced himself to stay in position. There was no point in even trying to swing. All he could do—all he had to do—was stand there and take the pitches like a man.
And not get hit.
His father’s voice mocked him. For someone so unhealthy and underweight, Michael Brand could throw a surprisingly fast pitch. Today he seemed extra angry, so his pitch seemed extra fast.
Cory exhaled and rested the bat on the ground for a second. Just a second. He turned and saw Clay peeking out from a nearby tree.
Good for you, he thought. A very minor victory.
At least Clay wouldn’t get hit. Not this time.
Dad had played some ball and obviously liked the whole elaborate routine of contorting to wind back and whip a fastball Cory’s way. Cory stood his ground in the stance, eyes on Dad, making sure the ball wasn’t going to land against his ribs or knee or cheek.
Each pitch he didn’t bother swinging at pounded the side of the barn as Dad screamed out another strike. The third pitch was the fastest one yet. It soared by with fury.
“Strike three,” Dad hollered. “You’re out.”
Full of adrenaline, Cory stood there facing his father, desperately trying to hang on. He wasn’t going to cry. He wasn’t going to give the man the satisfaction of knowing he was scared. He forced himself to say nothing, to just stand there and wait. Wait and wonder what would happen next.
Another pitch ripped by, and another. Some closer than others. Cory imagined the ball splitting his temple and landing him in the emergency room. Or maybe knocking out some teeth along with knocking him unconscious.
The voice taunted and terrorized. Each pitch twisted by him and bashed the side of the barn. Strike after meaningless strike.
Eventually Cory shook his head and put the bat on the ground.
“Get back in the box,” Dad yelled.
Cory’s whole body shook. A tear streamed down his cheek. His back was drenched with sweat. What else could he do? He couldn’t outrun him. And even if he did, he’d be leaving Clay behind.
He resumed his stance, and the pitches continued. Each one tore through him even though they didn’t hit him. Not yet. Dad looked like some demon standing there, clasping at baseballs and blindly hurling them his way. Eventually he ran out of ammunition. Gasping from being out of shape, Dad turned to get his beer from the tractor, then realized he’d already downed it.
“Go get the balls, Cory.” The voice was without emotion.
Cory dropped the bat and wiped the tears off his face as he began to pick up the pieces of another shattered afternoon. He swallowed and blinked and tried to get a grip.
The good news was that Dad wasn’t even watching to see his reaction. The fun was over, and he needed another beer. He always needed another beer. But there would never be enough to fill Michael Brand’s thirst.
One of these days Cory knew he was going to hit a ball. He was going to blast one back at his father. And once he did, he vowed never to stop hitting.
The ten-year-old doesn’t want to budge. Doesn’t want to look at his coach.
He just stares at the ground, knowing he’s going to get yelled at.
“Come on, Cory.”
“I don’t want to.”
“What—are you too nervous to play?”