‘Atlanta is down to their last at bat, Jeff. And it’s Michael Guerin in the on-deck circle. What’s Ramon’s strategy here? Does he try to jam him up inside or keep firing fastballs and hope Guerin can’t catch up?’
It’s September in Atlanta and the Braves are playing the Marlins. Every game counts as both teams vy for a spot in October baseball. Michael Guerin is a lead candidate for MVP, and he’s always a threat in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the bases loaded. The sellout crowd roars as his walk-up music begins to play.
I was born to the desert
And to the desert I’ll return
Sun-soaked and leathered
Tattered and tethered
Send me home, send me home, send me home
‘Ramon’s got that curveball, Chip. I’m not sure Guerin’s ever met a fastball he couldn’t hit. Especially in the bottom of the ninth. So, I think Ramon starts with the curveball even if that’s exactly what Guerin’s expecting.’
Michael steps into the batter’s box and takes a couple of quick practice swings, eyes wide and watching Ramon’s every move. He squares his hips and lowers his hands on the bat just a touch. It’s an adjustment he’s been working on for the past month or so with great success. Ramon lets loose his first pitch. As expected, it’s a nasty curveball and a pitch Michael has struck out on more than once during his twelve year career. But this time he’s prepared and anticipates perfectly where the bottom of the curve will land. He shoots a laser to shallow right field, and it drops in for a walk-off single. The dugout empties and everyone tackles him as he crosses home plate, one game closer to October.
Later that night, Michael sits on the tailgate of his Chevy, beer in hand and staring up at the stars like so many nights before. Several of the guys had harassed him about going out to celebrate, but he’s not in the mood. He’s never in the mood these days. The winning still feels good and the possibility of the MVP is a dream. But for a long time now, he’s felt like there’s something missing in his life. Something essential, something elusive, something just out of his reach.
The truth is that he’s lonely. It’s a truth he can admit to himself when he’s alone underneath the cosmos watching the stars blink down at him against the wide expanse of space.
There have been relationships along the way. Women he’s dated earnestly. Once upon a time, maybe even a couple he could have loved. When he was younger, there had also been a few men. But none recently. The deeply rooted homophobia of baseball to blame. Mostly anyway. It’s strange now - everyone knows he’s bisexual, a simple Google search is all it takes. But he’s fairly certain baseball collectively decided to ignore his sexuality altogether after he got called up to the majors all those years ago.
He wants to believe he’s not afraid to be seen with men. He tells himself it’s just simpler this way, less complicated. Fewer awkward questions and the focus remaining on his athletic abilities rather than his sex life. Besides, only two major league players have ever come out and they both only did so after they’d retired. He supposes maybe he counts as the third. It’s not the stuff of fairytales, and Michael had learned that lesson during his brief stint in Double-A ball.
That feels like a lifetime ago.
Alex Manes’ new album drifts through the truck’s windows. His low, throaty voice practically purring into Michael’s ears. He’s been a big fan of Alex and his music for several years now. They’re both from New Mexico and the way he sings about the desert rings true enough to Michael that listening to one of his songs sends him right back home. Despite their many issues, he misses his brother and sister so badly sometimes he can barely breathe. Alex’s music reminds him of all the things and all the people he’s left behind - for better or worse. A couple of years ago, he’d had the opportunity to see Alex perform live but he’d turned it down. He still can’t explain why.
The night stretches out before him. Beer and music lulling him into a peaceful sleep until a bright light flashes in his face and startles him awake. He sits up and raises his hands peacefully. ‘Hey, Ernie.’
‘Oh, Mr. Guerin. I didn’t recognize you. What are you still doing here? It’s past midnight.’ He clicks the flashlight off and clips it back onto his belt. ‘Congrats on the walk-off!’
Michael shrugs. ‘Thanks. Didn’t want to go home just yet. Like watching the stars at night. But I haven’t seen you in a while. The grandkids still running circles around you?’
‘You know it! Caleb just turned five and is a holy terror. Michelle is eight going on eighteen. I can barely get a word in edgewise between the two of them.’ His eyes shine even in the darkness, crinkling at the edges.
Michael’s heart aches at Ernie’s easy, simple joy, but he manages a genuine smile thanks to the night’s shadows softening the edges of his jaw. ‘That sounds nice.’ He hops off his tailgate. ‘I’ll get out of your hair. Got an early game anyway. Need to get some sleep.’
‘Well, now, don’t let me chase you off. I don’t mind the company. It gets a little spooky at night. You can always come knock on my door if you ever need anything.’ Ernie opens the Chevy’s door for Michael and shuts it behind him. ‘All these other guys with their flashy sports cars and you in this old rust bucket. You’re a weird one, Mr. Guerin. But I like that about you.’
Michael runs his hands around the cracked steering wheel. ‘Most days this truck is about the closest thing to home I’ve got. There’s still desert dirt in the bed and an engine I rebuilt myself. What the fuck would I do with a Ferrari?’
They both laugh and Michael waves and honks his horn as he pulls out of the player’s lot. The streets are mostly empty, cars keeping to the well-lit interstate at night. He decides to stay on surface roads and take the long way home, radio softly playing old country songs. His thoughts drift to tomorrow’s game and the rookie pitcher the Marlins are starting. His own rookie year had been tough, and he makes a mental note to speak to the kid at some point during the game, ask him how he’s doing and if he’s being treated well.
The streetlights along Peachtree illuminate his path through Brookhaven. He crosses into Atlanta city limits and enters Buckhead just as ‘Lay Me Down’ by Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson starts to play through his speakers. And all too soon, he turns down his street and opens the cedar gate at the end of his driveway, parking his truck and sitting in the darkness until the song comes to an end.
Climbing out of his truck, he unlocks the front door with his telekinesis, slipping inside quietly and deactivating his alarm system. He’d bought the house in foreclosure, spending most of his money on remodeling the mid-century ranch. It’s not extravagant, but it’s the most expensive thing he owns. He’d even let Isobel fly out to decorate the place within a very strict budget, and he’d had to admit she’d done a great job - one side of his front door Atlanta, the other side New Mexico.
But even so, it has never felt like home.
The first few nights he’d spent in the house had been rough. It was too quiet and too soft and too much. More than once he’d grabbed his ancient, worn sleeping bag and crawled into the bed of his truck. Sleeping hard on the uncomfortable. ribbed metal but beneath the stars he loved so much. The morning dew waking him with the sun each morning.
These days he manages to sleep in bed at night, but only because he’d installed two skylights overhead so that the stars would always be his. And only his. He rarely brings anyone home anymore, preferring their house to his. But when he does, he takes them to a guest bedroom. None of them ever seem to mind how empty the space is or how devoid of personality. Four blank walls and a lone bed filling the room. Why would they? It’s not Michael the foster kid from the desert they’re sleeping with. It’s Michael Guerin the multi-millionaire first baseman with the single-season home run record and the aw-shucks, good boy smile.
Tonight he doesn’t bother turning on any lights. He just pads through the kitchen to grab an apple and a bottle of water, undresses and climbs into bed. He takes a large bite of the granny smith and pulls out his phone, calling Isobel.
‘Congrats on the walk-off!’ He can hear another game in the background. Isobel had never watched a baseball game in her life - including any of his - until the day he’d gotten drafted right out of high school. But now she watches all of them. Or as many of them as possible. Her scouting reports are better than anything stamped official and readily available in the team clubhouse.
‘Thanks. Didn’t really see the ball that well tonight, though. Is Max there?’ It’s stupid to ask when he already knows the answer.
‘Out with Liz. They’ve been inseparable ever since she moved back to Roswell. It’s gross and I miss you.’ The sound on her tv goes silent and he knows she’s settling in for a long conversation. ‘Tell me about tomorrow. Any surprises?’
‘No. New kid on the mound just called up. Got a mean slider. Torres has some pain in his wrist so he’ll be benched.’ Michael finishes his apple in two large bites and guzzles his water, listening to Isobel pound away at her keyboard already deep in research mode. ‘Might get me moved up to the number two slot.’
They spend fifteen minutes strategizing. It’s what they do most nights. Isobel critiquing the numbers based on intuition and her own database of knowledge concerning the human psyche, while he runs statistical analyses and probabilities in his head faster than humanly possible. Michael suggests more than once that she’d make a great scout and that maybe when he retires they can go into business together. He’s told her this a million times, but she only laughs him off and reminds him that she already has a job.
‘A worthless job that doesn’t pay you what you deserve.’ He reaches for the tv remote on his nightstand but can’t find it. Not that it matters. He switches the television on with his mind and nods his head through the channels, stopping on an old western and muting the volume.
‘Philanthropy is not worthless, Michael!’ She sighs loudly to punctuate her exasperation. ‘And my salary is not the point - the point is helping people. Besides, I have all of Noah’s money and can negotiate more pay any time I choose.’
That he believes. ‘How’d your date go last night?’ Asking Isobel about her date absolutely means she’ll push him to share something just as personal. But it was her first official date with a woman and he genuinely wants to know how it went. No matter the price he’ll pay.
‘Really, really, really well.’ He can hear the grin in her voice and it makes him smile. ‘She’s a cardiologist and very good with her hands. Valenti makes a pretty superb matchmaker. Maybe I’ll ship him your way because you could certainly use the help.’
Michael rolls his eyes and fakes a groan. ‘You can keep Valenti. Don’t you think it’s weird to have your ex setting you up on dates? Do you really think he’s the best judge of character?’
‘Kyle knows me better than most. He was my first relationship after Noah and he put up with a lot. I trust him implicitly with my heart and yours. Plus, I was the one who broke up with him.’
‘My heart is fine, thanks.’ He lies smoothly and knows exactly how she’s going to respond.
‘I can’t stand the thought of you all the way across the country in that foreign place with no one to go home to at night.’
He snorts. ‘It’s called Georgia, Iz. And I’m not home enough for a relationship to work right now.’
‘Half the guys on your team - on any team! - are married. So that’s a pisspoor excuse. You keep pushing everyone away. Don’t forget who you’re talking to. I know you, Michael. As soon as you start to feel something, the doors slam shut and you become another stereotypical lonewolf cowboy.’ Her voice is loud now, vehement and self-righteous. They’ve reenacted this scene so many times it feels very paint by number at this point. ‘I hardly ever hear a smile in your voice anymore.’
She’s right and she knows it. He used to love dating, meeting new people. First kisses and first fucks. Last kisses and farewell fucks. He lived for those moments and now he hardly ever looks anyone in the eye. ‘We have this conversation at least once a month. And nothing has changed. It’s too hard right now, Iz. I’m too known to ever really be known. Not the way I would want to be. Not in any way that I would trust.’
There’s no use arguing so they move on to easier topics. Max and LIz’s ongoing romance, details of Isobel’s date, Maria’s remodel of the Pony thanks to a very generous anonymous donation. Every word out of her mouth squeezes his heart a little bit tighter until it’s too much and he says goodnight.
Flipping onto his side, he reaches his arm out to the other side of the bed, running his hand over the cold, unwrinkled sheet. His eyes land on the empty pillow no head ever touches and tries to imagine a face looking back at him. A face that might smile suggestively or quietly murmur goodnight. But he’s unable to conjure anything beyond a blank, shapeless outline. It makes him feel pathetic so he yanks the pillow underneath his own head and forces his eyes shut, trying in vain to quiet his mind. Despite his best efforts, sleep takes its sweet time finding him.
The next morning he’s exhausted but gets to the field early. He’d woken up to a cryptic message from Isobel. There’s a surprise waiting for you after the game! Stick around this time, Michael. Don’t make me get on a plane. He’s sure that can’t mean anything good, but he attempts to put it out of his mind for now.
The ballpark is already bustling with activity. Michael heads into the clubhouse to change. He stops and asks Stan, their hitting coach, for some extra work before the rest of the team arrives. He’s worried about how he’s been shifting his wrists recently and wants someone else’s opinion. The adjustments he’d made last night seem to be working, but he’s worried about straining a muscle or tweaking the wrong tendon. Two of his teammates are already on the IL with wrist pain. He doesn’t want to be next, especially with the postseason race and his run at MVP on the line.
Michael finds Danny Marks asleep in one of the clubhouse’s leather chairs. He swats him on the head on the way to his locker, laughing at Danny’s loud yelp. ‘Fuck, man, you’re always asleep. How did you manage to stay awake on the mound long enough to put together two Cy Young seasons?’
‘Talent, Guerin. Talent. You should try it sometime. Maybe then you’ll win MVP.’ Danny yawns and stretches his arms over his head. Michael glares at him. ‘Don’t worry. You’re still the favorite. Our very own diamond darling. No one else is getting their own personal concert any time soon.’
‘What?’ He sits on the chair at his locker, blinking at Danny in confusion. ‘Personal concert?’ Isobel’s strange text message flashes through his head again while he inwardly groans.
‘Oh, yeah.’ Danny grins and crosses his ankles on the table in front of him, brashly enjoying the way Michael squirms. ‘Alex Manes is traveling down from Nashville just for you - baseball’s most beloved first baseman.’ He throws a toy football at Michael’s head, chuckling when it bounces off his curls. ‘He’s not bad looking, you know.’
‘Stop.’ Danny is Michael’s best friend on the team and the only one he feels comfortable enough to have this conversation with. ‘Whose idea was this? Did Isobel do something? Or was this you?’
Michael doesn’t want this. Not at all. And he can’t exactly explain why. Music is personal to him - profoundly personal. Always has been since he was nothing but an unloved kid trapped in various violent foster homes. It was music that had kept him warm at night and music that had loved him best. The only escape available to him during most of his darkest hours.
Over the years, there have been many artists he’s considered favorites. Most of them old country crooners or folk song heroes. Much like Alex Manes. But with Alex, it’s something more. Something he has a hard time vocalizing. They are both from New Mexico. Both spent a chunk of their formative years in Roswell. Michael has read or watched multiple interviews with Alex where he’s alluded heavily to an abusive father. His lyrics certainly do the same. Lots of kids grow up that way - Michael knows he’s not alone in that particular fate - but the way Alex puts that pain to music settles something inside his chest that has never been settled before.
So the thought of meeting Alex worries Michael. They say don’t meet your heroes for a reason. In his head, Alex represents a sense of safety, a sense of home. What happens when they meet and that’s taken from him? Because maybe Alex is a liar. Or maybe he’s a dick. Either possibility is very real. He’s also a vet, and Michael hates, hates, hates the military. And he doesn’t want to hate Alex. Doesn’t want to lose his music. Cannot emotionally afford to lose his music if he’s being honest.
‘Isobel apparently knows someone who knows someone who knows someone. I just didn’t try and stop her. Or Lena.’ Danny’s wife is Isobel’s favorite human. It’s the worst thing that’s happened to Michael since meeting Danny. The two of them have done nothing but make his life one unasked for surprise after another. ‘Besides, even if you hate it, the team could really use some fun before heading into the postseason. Some good old-fashioned team bonding, my friend. And this time, you don’t get to run away. The guys need to see their captain smile every once in a while.’
Michael sighs and changes into his warmups. Danny’s phone rings and he grins one last time at Michael before disappearing for some privacy. Michael decides to push Alex Manes to the back of his mind and concentrate on the game ahead of him. Stan is waiting, anyway. So he’ll focus on his wrists for now and worry about everything else later. The one thing he does do, however, is pull out his phone and send Isobel a very pointed text.
You should have gotten my permission first.
Isobel’s text response is nothing but the angel halo emoji. Michael wishes his telekinesis was strong enough to travel across state lines because he’d like to throw her phone into the wall. Since that option is not available to him, he sends Max a text instead.
Your sister is a menace.
He pockets his phone, not bothering to wait on an answer. Max tends to be too busy these days. Not that that’s anything new really. Unless your name is Liz Ortecho or Isobel Evans, he doesn’t have much time for you.
The morning stretches by as gametime approaches. Batting practice goes well and Michael works with Stan on keeping his wrists from turning too much when he swings. His teammates have all found out about the concert by the time the first pitch is thrown and none of them will let him forget it. Each time his walk-up music begins to play, Danny leads a small group of particularly bad vocalists in a sing-a-long. All of them belting out the lyrics at the top of their lungs. Michael tries to keep the stupid grin off his face and almost suceeds.
He won’t admit it, but he actually begins to get excited. Doesn’t even mind when Max only ends up responding with a snarky text.
Try living less than five miles from her.
He’d give anything to live five miles from Isobel. Michael loves his teammates. He really does. Atlanta has one of the best team dynamics in baseball. Maybe the best. They support each other, love one another, and when they say family, they mean it. Team dinners and family outings are normal even during the off season. Michael doesn’t avoid spending time with them because he dislikes anyone - although there have been various tiffs in the past but nothing long lasting. He avoids them because he loves them enough to let his mouth loosen too much, all his secrets threatening to tumble out with no regard for his safety or the safety of his siblings.
He knows this because it has happened on more than one occasion. Years ago during his rookie years when living hard and drinker harder were his nightly norm. On any given night you’d find him at the bar, four fingers deep into a bottle of bourbon, mouthing off about moving things with his mind. It wasn’t the booze talking; it was his loneliness. The throbbing homesick ache in his chest that only Max and Isobel could smooth away. Once he knew his teammates were shitfaced, he’d let some little comment slip about his abilities. Half of them never paid any attention to the things he said and the other half merely laughed at him.
He’d told Isobel one night about the things he said and she’d yelled at him solidly for an hour. The next day he’d gotten a nasty phone call from Max and has kept his mouth shut ever since that conversation.
Keeping their secret is important. Michael understands that, but the lying exhausts him. He loves Danny and hates that the most important part of himself Danny and Lena can never know. He loves his other teammates, and he doesn’t want to hide this huge part of himself from them forever. The lying has always made him feel unclean - distant and deceptive. Back in Roswell, it had been easier. He hadn’t had many friends and the people closest to him shared the same secret. But now, the people he sees every single day aren’t allowed to know the real him. It breaks his heart in a way he could never have anticipated, making him feel truly alien.
Michael and Isobel had jumped through enormous hoops to keep his DNA secret from team doctors and drug testers. It’s the only reason he’d ever agreed to her mind influence.
A major league baseball player cannot have telekinetic superpowers, alien or not. The cheating accusations would be immediate and relentless - his career over and his name shamed forever. Regardless of the fact that he would never dream of cheating to advance his career. Besides, he’s self-aware enough - or perhaps cocky enough - to understand that his level of talent doesn’t require any telekinetic assistance. Michael Guerin is just that fucking good.
During his last at bat in the eighth inning, Alex Manes’ face flashes on the digital scoreboard high above centerfield advertising the aftergame concert. Michael concentrates on keeping his wrists tight and imagines that Alex is somewhere in the stadium watching him. He swings at the first pitch - a fastball left too high over the plate - and knows he’s gotten every piece of it by the cracking sound his bat makes. He starts a slow run to first base and watches the ball sail over the leftfield wall.
With his signature two claps, he rounds first and enjoys the cheering crowd chanting his name. Stepping on the bag at home plate, his eyes glance back up at the scoreboard, but Alex’s face has disappeared. And suddenly his nerves have returned tenfold at the realization that soon he’ll be face to face with a man he has no idea how to talk to - what to say or even if he’ll get a chance to say anything at all.
Despite the cheers and happy butt slaps from his teammates, the pit in Michael’s stomach stretches wide. In the clubhouse, he checks his phone again and one last final message from Isobel lights up his screen.
He wants to meet you first.