by Waite Jorin
They called three-armed Aggie Abbot the No-Nonsense Kid. That’s what they called him in the deep of the sand pit when he was lobbing screwballs and splintering batters’ bats. Some kids rumored Aggie had a fourth arm tucked in the back of his shirt, and that each arm could pitch cheese at 105 miles per hour. Ambidextrous wasn’t the word.
The longest game with Aggie pitching lasted four innings. It depended on how many bats the other team had brought. Aggie shattered them all. There wasn’t even a catcher when Aggie pitched, just some stacked bricks because one time he fractured a kid’s hand. But the kids still bought new bats, taped the ones that hadn’t broken completely, and came out to the sand pit every Sunday to challenge Aggie.
After Aggie came to town they weren’t really playing two teams, just the one, full of dirty-kneed table setters and snot-nosed sluggers, all trying to whack out one of Aggie’s balls. They wanted to steal the legend of the No-Nonsense Kid, and in turn they would themselves become legend.
But it wasn’t just the sand pit that gave reason to believe. This whole planet was a place of dreams, of legend, of the next evolution of bipeds. It was the place where those with two arms and those with three just chose an arm and shook hands. That’s what it was in the beginning, when a billion too many filled the Earth, and the tunnel-dwellers welcomed the second manifest destiny of mankind. Strange that for so many years men and women, the very same who walked the Earth, plus an appendage each, lived under the sands of this dead, dry planet. And stranger yet, given the nature of men, that they would be friends. That’s what it was in the beginning.
That wasn’t what it was in the deep of the sand pit, the rugged, wind-ravaged baseball diamond cut from the center of one of the planet’s smaller craters. It was a half-kilometer hike down a rocky pathway to home plate. The wind howled as dust flew overhead in this hidden Neverland of secret, dire business. The sand pit was something war-torn, something darker, sometimes. Kids chewed the bittersweet dichotomy of victory and death with their bubble gum; a coppery taste from teeth knocked free.
In the sand pit, legends were not what they were in the past, or what they could become. The sand pit existed but in the present and so did everything that moved there.
In the present of Aggie’s story, it was the top of the second. The kids were swallowed in sweat-slick frustration, rage, you might say, that dripped in their tear ducts and cohered dirt and skin and cotton jerseys. That was Aggie: on the pitcher’s mound, buried in a pile of hateful stares. From the batter, the batter’s teammates on the rock-formation bench, his own basemen and outfielders. He almost hunched under the pressure. Almost. His hat sat straight forward, glove on the left hand, ball in the top right, the bottom one folded behind his back; his lucky jeans were torn on the left knee, which he raised in the air as he reeled back and pitched the ball.
It whistled past the batter’s swing and cracked a brick on the wall behind him. What sounded like a gun blast echoed the crater as the ball ricocheted and bounced in a cloud of dirty ground. The batter recovered the ball and threw it back to Aggie, with a little too much arm, and set up to swing again. The second pitch hit the tip of the bat, shattering the cup into jagged spikes of wood. The barrel remained intact, though, and the batter set up again.
It seems important to mention at this point that the batter who Aggie Abbot was about to paralyze from the waist down was Davey Johns. You do not know Davey, but if you played ball in the sand pit you sure would, as sure as the morning moon swallowed the sky in red, as sure as the evening moon shimmered amber. Davey Johns was the kid with sunny blond hair who, before the No-Nonsense Kid, clunked a homer out of the deep so hard it wedged between two rocks on the crater wall and no one could climb high enough to get it out. And, it was Johns who implemented the ‘wood bats only’ rule when NNK started playing. We’ll play timber, Johns told the griping boys, like God intended. No-Nonsense or not. And no one ever said it but to be honest Johns was like a kind of leader among the boys. He made the rules the rest followed. But Aggie Abbot, Aggie was something Johns couldn’t control, couldn’t make a rule for, couldn’t peg beneath himself. And this was war, after all. There ought to be rules to war.
Johns was restless at the plate. Maybe it was the bit of blown dirt that had scratched his cornea at the bottom of the first. Or maybe the other kids had talked too much, too long and too heatedly about how to finally hit the sweet spot off a No-Nonsense curveball, instead of the thing no one talked about anymore: trying to strike out Davey Johns.
Normally, kids knew to stay clear of home plate when Aggie Abbot pitched. And they certainly knew nothing good could come from a Hit By Pitch, no, nothing good at all. “I mean, you hear the crack when that thing hits the bricks?” they’d tell each other on the bench.
And that’s the sort of sound it made when Aggie Abbot’s third pitch hit Davey Johns in the spine, except there was more of a soft, wet thud with the twig-snap of vertebrae. Johns collapsed. First to his knees, then forward into a cloud of dust. Johns had leaned too aggressively at the plate, too close. Aggie had pitched a Ball, which he was rarely known to but it happened from time to time, and when it came at Johns he turned away in this defensive posture; even a self-proclaimed general like Davey Johns knew when he was standing in it.
But no one had time to think about all that. Aggie’s throws defied the eye’s perception, and by the time any of it got to the brain the whole thing was over. Batters were watching Aggie’s arms when they swung, not the ball. Basemen and outfielders waited for the sound–was it the sound of brick or wood? They positioned themselves accordingly, in case a bat survived the onslaught of Aggie’s pitches, though they never did.
Now everyone stared at each other, not quite sure about what it was they’d heard. That didn’t sound like brick, the third baseman said to one of the outfielders. Well I didn’t see the bat break, the outfielder said. What do you suppose that means? But everyone shut up when the dust cleared and what had really happened solidified in the air. You could feel Davey Johns’s stillness.
No one spoke about what happened; Sundays saw the sand pit an empty wasteland, like some freshly-abandoned battlefield. The kind that still smelled of gunpowder and decay, with a twinge of deep, tranquil quiet, like God had asked for a moment of silence. Davey Johns ended up in a wheelchair after he came out of his coma.
The No-Nonsense Kid had, in much less than a second, metamorphosed into a different legend. The tragic hero disappeared from the schoolyards and the public parks. He severed contact with everyone from the sand pit. He didn’t visit Johns in the hospital. Kids knew it wasn’t because he didn’t understand the ramifications of what he had done, not because his veins weren’t thick with contrition, but because his presence there would have been an unwelcome one; he had, he decided, done enough harm and should leave Johns be.
A whole year passed on the planet before Aggie caught wind that there would be another game in the deep. It was the thing no one dared suggest until now, though it was the thing on everyone’s mind, all of the time, which ached and trembled in the calcium of their bones, and escaped their bodies in the stifled beginnings of phantom swings or pitches, which they played off as yawns or fidgets.
But now there would be another game at the sand pit. And, as if anyone had to ask, Davey Johns had suggested it. The No-Nonsense Kid filled the silence of their pauses with the deepest kind of legendary stuff. He existed in the moments he was not spoken of. No one said his name after the accident, and when Johns commanded that NNK be made aware of the game, that his presence at the pitching mound was not only an idle hope but a solid expectation, he said only this: “Get him there.”
If not for the dropped hints and well-placed whispers around the city, stating “he” was expected to pitch at the first game at the sand pit in over 442 days (who else could “he” be?), Aggie Abbot would not have shown his face. If not for the mention of Davey Johns suggesting he pitch, he would not have even considered going back to that place. Ever.
His legend would not have died once and for all in the jagged rocks of his childhood, and even before that he would not have dragged his feet through the gauntlet of pregnant stares, the first indication that this was not a baseball game.
The bat was there. Only one bat. When they grabbed him and laid the arm across two boulders, the forearm like a bridge between the rocky surfaces, he did not cry out or plead. It would have changed nothing. He stared forward; he must have known what this was before he came, somehow. So why had he come? Was it the guilt, the end of his beginning, the balance of things? His destiny, perhaps? That sick thud, that sound Johns’s spine had made a year ago, echoed through the crater. But it was not Johns’s spine. Aggie looked down at his shattered forearm; it bent into a clumsy “v” hung between the rocks, and his hand draped limply. When he looked up and met Johns’s eyes the hate in his enemy faded into something else–something intangible, like, finality. Johns tossed the bloody bat into the sand, turned around and wheeled away. With no words, the other kids followed, the No-Nonsense Kid a dead memory and Aggie Abbot left bleeding in agony in the dirt.
You know and everyone on two whole planets knew Aggie Abbot would never touch a baseball again in his life. And surely that was a great loss of the sort we might never truly learn to appreciate. But the story of the No-Nonsense Kid was one of synchronous orbit, as our stories so often are.
Three of the planet’s years after the abandonment of the sand pit, war broke out between the two-armed people and three-armed people, and soon enough the two-armed people showed the three-armed people the story of how they split the atom, and everyone knew this was the part every kid dreaded. Those two words uttered finally before a book snaps shut.
When the planet split into burning chunks and drifted sadly away, at least a billion lives were lost to each of the peoples. Some of them those who bombed one another, some the kids who used to play ball in the sand pit, some their parents, who pretended not to understand the importance of that place so its specialness would not be spoiled.
Some people, very few, escaped the dying planet and migrated back to Earth. Only two-armed people. Except, maybe, for one.
His hair looked different, like he had dyed it black. Maybe grown a beard and gained some weight. He only had two arms, but he might have had the third one tucked beneath the back of his shirt. Who could tell if it really was him; it had, after all, been twenty-six years since the day I helped hold Aggie Abbot’s third arm between two rocks. I was the one on the end, holding down his hand. He didn’t even squeeze my fist when it happened, and that more than anything made me realize, I am guilty. We all are. Not just the kids in the sand pit; every man and woman and kid who coveted not one but two planets, an extra arm, a legend. It was a snowy January midnight when he might have passed me on the sidewalk. I looked at my shoes as he came near. I didn’t look up. What would have been the point? Whatever it was that had shined so brightly, whatever brightness we had envied so violently and so destructively for so long that our humanity obliterated it completely, was now just a black pocket of vacuum. All any of us could really do was remember what it was that was so hot and bright that we had no choice but to break it.
© 2012 Waite Jorin
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.