“Two Strikes”

When I was fourteen, I killed my friend. Since that day, I’ve struggled with terminology and sentence structure. For instance, I know the word “killed” is accurate, but I’m not so sure about “friend.” Rival? Competitor? Classmate? I’ll use his name instead. When I was fourteen, I killed Adam.

I was required to see a school psychologist, Miss Denvers, after it happened. She compared the situation to a storm. “Accidents are out of our control. There’s no one to blame if a house is struck by lightning.”

Shortly after I killed Adam, my parents had me transfer to Saint Barbara High School – they didn’t like the idea of me facing Adam’s (and my) friends on a daily basis – and life went on in typical adolescent ways. Studied hard, got honors. Received three letters of recommendation, got a scholarship. Attended prom, got a blowjob.

I’m out of New York now – a junior at Gettysburg College – but I’m constantly finding myself back on that baseball field in Central Park. I don’t even have to close my eyes. Sometimes, when I’m lying in bed or sitting through a lecture in Middle English, I’ll blink and I’m there. Fourteen again. Wearing that pinstriped polyester uniform. Kicking out the sand in my cleats. Removing the doughnuts from my bat, surprised by how light and free the aluminum feels in my hands. I gaze across the fresh cut March grass, past Nick in right field, at the cold, sharp Upper West Side architecture jutting clear into the sky.

I wait for Jimmy to strike out. Adam’s pitching a strong game, and when I step onto the sand I tap the plate twice with my bat; this brings luck, I had read somewhere. I can make out Adam’s glare – those dark brown eyes that narrow just above the glove that covers his mouth like a hockey mask. I want a double, at least. Something to show I can profit off of him.

The ball flies past the plate. Strike one. I take a breath and relax my shoulders, as Coach James instructed.

A second pitch. Too far outside. The umpire calls, “Ball!”

On the third pitch, I feel an impact – that familiar hollow electric ringing reverberating through the nerves of my left hand, something I’ve felt a hundred times before – and I drop the bat, positioning myself to run, run, run. Yet before I can move, I notice that the airborne projectile flies low and straight. Into Adam’s skull. Slightly above his left eye. He falls like a thrown sandbag, his glove and hat scatter in opposite directions. There’s no blood. Had there been, Adam may have lived… if the red had spilled out onto the green instead of pressing, pressing, pressing against his left frontal lobe.

Parts change upon each resurrection: the number of people in the stands (sometimes less than a dozen, sometimes more), the coaches rushing over (or was it just Coach James?), the exact look on my teammates’ faces as they hold the chain-link fence (were they watching him or me?). But my smile – my smile never wavers. I smiled when I killed Adam.

Now it wasn’t exactly a smile. Not a grin either. Definitely not a smirk, not a leer, not a sneer, not a gloat, not a laugh. My teeth showed, and my eyes narrowed. That was all. I can feel the expression, even now. I never try to replicate it, but I have noticed wrinkles in the affected areas when I stare long enough into the mirror. My smile only lasted seconds, maybe even tenths of one, at the cartoonish fall of this guy who had kissed my girlfriend a year prior, this guy who had cheated off me on a sixth-grade fractions test, this guy who had not invited me to his birthday party at the paintball field the previous October. Adam fell. I made it happen. I smiled.

*          *          *

I shouldn’t have gone to college. Is it fair to blame education on my perceived culpability and depression? I do. For instance, I never before thought about the way my father hugged me the night I killed Adam, as though someone told my father that he really should. I never thought about the way my mother avoided the topic altogether and shook her head and slammed her fork down if, Goddamnit, Adam came up. And I never thought about that smile. My smile.

One of baseball’s greatest legends involves Babe Ruth’s “called shot” from Game Three of the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field. Can a player know where a baseball will land after it strikes a bat at seventy-five miles per hour? Can he point it out to the audience? For most, the stakes are low. For me, it defines accident, manslaughter, or murder.

Miss Denvers ordered me to say “accident,” so I told myself this last night when an April thunderstorm swept over the town of Gettysburg. Sky, black. Rain, pounding. I’m talking real apocalyptic shit. From my dorm room, I could see the bolts of lightning, the thick veins pulsating against the curved night sky.

I watched for only a moment and then found myself, without understanding or predetermination, moving down the creaking stairs of my dorm and out the side door. Into the night. Then running. Bare feet slapping against the pavement until I reached the wet, grassy fields just east of the college. I walked onto the former battlefield and continued up the sloped hill, far away from the trees and buildings, into the blackness. I wanted to be the tallest object. I wanted to be the rod.

Inhaling the static ions, I stared up at the white explosions overhead and waited for the strike. Complete darkness and blinding flashes. One or the other. I stood on my toes, arms stretched high. Reaching. Reaching. Reaching.

*          *          *

When I was shorter – much shorter – in fourth grade, my first sleepover was at Adam’s apartment on 82nd Street, a place much nicer than where I lived. We ate pizza rolls on the kitchen barstools while Charlie told us a “scary story” about a chainsaw-yielding lunatic loose in Queens. Adam shot soda out his nose during Nick’s impersonation of our teacher, Miss Sanders.

There was a thunderstorm that night, too. Adam’s mom turned off the lights and brought us to the fire escape. Pointing beyond a rooftop water tower on an adjacent building, she had us count the seconds between the light and the sound to calculate the storm’s distance. I turned and watched Adam, still in the kitchen, pouring soda, needing both hands to grip the two-liter bottle. He didn’t join us… maybe he’d played this game before. Maybe he was still afraid of storms.

I played last night. Light. I counted. One. Two. A startling crack. Crickets chirped. Then light again. One. Two. Three. Four. Fi-

A faint rumble in the distance.

I let my hands fall, open at my side. I looked to my dorm at the base of the hill and then out at the storm clouds in the opposite direction.

I stood there. I stand there still.

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About Matt Paczkowski

Matt Paczkowski writes both fiction and creative nonfiction. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals including Welter, Riprap Journal, South 85, Embers Igniting, and Narrateur: Reflections on Caring. He also teaches English at The City College of New York and holds an MFA in writing from Hofstra University.