For fans of Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Rita Williams-Garcia, Jenn Bishop's heartwarming debut is a celebration of sisterhood and summertime, and of finding the courage to get back in the game.
Last summer, Quinnen was the star pitcher of her baseball team, the Panthers. They were headed for the championship, and her loudest supporter at every game was her best friend and older sister, Haley.
This summer, everything is different. Haley's death, at the end of last summer, has left Quinnen and her parents reeling. Without Haley in the stands, Quinnen doesn't want to play baseball. It seems like nothing can fill the Haley-sized hole in her world. The one glimmer of happiness comes from the Bandits, the local minor-league baseball team. For the first time, Quinnen and her family are hosting one of the players for the season. Without Haley, Quinnen's not sure it will be any fun, but soon she befriends a few players. With their help, can she make peace with the past and return to the pitcher's mound?
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Jenn Bishop is a former youth services and teen librarian. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago, where she studied English, and Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Along with her husband and cat, Jenn lives just outside of Boston, where she roots for the Red Sox. Visit her online at JennBishop.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I used to think if you got woken up in the middle of the night, you needed to watch out. In movies and books, bad things only happen in the middle of the night.
But it’s not true. Something bad can happen in the middle of a perfectly sunny day.
When Dad starts up the truck, the red numbers on the dashboard clock surprise me. It’s nearly 2:00 a.m. He hums to himself, lost in his own world. He didn’t used to be like this. Sometimes it seems like Dad from last summer and Dad from this summer are two totally different people.
Dad from this summer doesn’t tell me where we’re going or why he told me ten minutes ago to get dressed and meet him outside. Only that it was a good surprise. Whatever that means. It’s been a long time since we got a good surprise.
After a few minutes of quiet, Dad turns on the radio. In the middle of the night out here, there’s never much on except for After Midnight, this show where people call in to dedicate songs to people they loved until something went wrong.
“Our caller tonight is Abby,” the DJ says. “Tell us your story.”
“Sure. Two years ago, I met the love of my life in line at the grocery store. How cheesy is that? I know, right? We spent every waking moment together, and six months later he proposed. We were supposed to get married this weekend, but Trevor had a heart attack when he was running a marathon two months ago.”
Dad reaches his hand out to turn the radio off. “Don’t,” I whisper. He puts his hand back on the steering wheel and sighs.
“He didn’t make it,” Abby says. “I miss him so much. I think about him all the time. Can you play Bette Midler’s ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’ in honor of him?”
“Going out to Trevor, wherever you are, from Abby,” the DJ says, and the song starts to play.
I found the radio show one night when I couldn’t sleep. Dad and Mom don’t know that I plug my headphones into the old stereo in my room and listen after they go to bed. It helps, hearing other people’s stories.
“The song won’t bring him back,” Dad mutters under his breath.
It’s not supposed to, I want to tell him. That’s not the point. But we never talk about this stuff anymore. It feels like Mom and Dad think I’m done talking about it, after my appointments with Miss Ella and her cracked orange leather chair and that plant she always forgot to water. But I wasn’t ready then. I barely got started.
I tap my fingers on the side of the door along with the song. “Where are we going?” My voice is shaky, like I haven’t used it in a while. Which I guess is true. There’s no one around to talk to anymore after Mom and Dad go to bed.
“The Millers’. We’re getting a boy this summer.”
Dad doesn’t answer me at first.
“What do you mean?”
“The players got in late tonight. They flew into O’Hare, and Jim—I mean, Mr. Miller—just got back with them. We’re going to host one this summer.”
“We’re getting a baseball player?”
“Yup.” Dad raises his eyebrows in that mischievous way he always used to, and for a second it’s as if Dad from last summer is back.
Our town is the home of the Tri-City Bandits, a minor league baseball team. The players don’t make much money here, and won’t until they reach the big leagues, so for the summer they stay in people’s houses for free. Mostly retired people who have extra bedrooms, but sometimes people who still have kids at home.
“One of the Bandits is going to stay in our house?” My voice gets higher with each word. I can’t help it. My sister, Haley, and I always wanted one of the players to stay with us. Every summer, Haley would beg Mom and Dad, but they always said no. They were too busy.
“Mom knows?” I ask.
Dad clears his throat. “Your mother and I thought this would be a good thing for us. And for you.” He glances over at me, like he’s waiting for me to agree.
Maybe if there’s someone else around the house, Mom will have someone else to hover over. Busy Bee Mom, Haley called her. She’d joke about how Mom would knock on her door five million times every night with questions about school and Haley’s friends and then buzz her way over to my door to check in on me and my homework. Back and forth, back and forth. I could picture Mom like that at the community college, too, where she used to teach English. Buzzing from one desk to the next.
Now she has no one else to buzz to. Only me.
But not anymore. Not this summer, anyway. Me and a baseball player.
I stare out the window at all the cornfields, but it’s more like I’m playing a movie in my head. I can see it already. There’s a super-tan guy living in our house for the whole summer, taking me and my neighbor Casey out for ice cream after the games. We can sit in the seats right behind home plate and shout out our player’s name. And he won’t just be a name off the roster, some guy who signed a foul ball I happened to catch. He’ll be my friend.
I want to tell Haley all about it. To have her sitting in the spot next to me, the spot in the truck that was hers.
I blink my eyes real fast so tears don’t have a chance to form. We pull into the Millers’ driveway, and Dad puts the truck into park. I dig under the seat for my glove. It’s got to be in here somewhere.
“You coming, Quinnen?” Dad is already at the Millers’ front door.
“I’ll be right there!” My fingertips touch the worn leather. I reach my arm in deeper, until I have a good grasp on it.
When I pull the glove out, it has dust all over it from being in Dad’s truck so long. I slide my hand in, but my fingers hit up against the leather. It’s too small. I’ve outgrown it. I squeeze my hand into it anyway and look at the Millers’ house. Dad has already gone inside.
I run up to the front door and have just put my hand on the doorknob when someone inside opens it for me.
“Hey, little lady. Isn’t it way past your bedtime?”
“Little lady?” Come on. “I’m eleven.” I have to crane my neck way back to see his face. I thought I had grown a lot lately, but this guy is super-tall. His skin is really tan, and his hair is so blond it’s almost white.
“Did you have a bedtime the summer you were eleven?”
“Sorry,” he says, but he doesn’t sound sorry. “I didn’t realize eleven was so mature.”
He’d better not be the one we’re bringing home.
“Do you know where my dad went?”
“They’re getting things sorted out downstairs.” He turns and walks down the hallway. Maybe he really has to go to the bathroom or something, but he could at least say “Excuse me.” Good thing I know where the door to the basement is.
I hear lots of voices as I make my way down the stairs. The Millers must’ve had the basement redone since last summer. It seems like everyone’s house has one of these basement den places except mine. There’s a big flat-screen TV up on the wall, with ESPN on mute and a bunch of gigantic guys sprawled out on the couch in front of it. There are so many that some of them have to sit on the floor.
Maybe I don’t want a basement den after all. The place stinks. It smells like that one time we picked up Casey’s big brother and his friends from football practice. Stinky cheese and feet and the garbage, right before Dad takes it out.
There have to be at least two dozen ballplayers down here, and no windows open to let in some fresh air. A few of the guys look sleepy, and I kind of feel bad for them. My dad is talking to Mr. Miller, who keeps pointing at the different guys and scribbling stuff down on a notepad.
I scan the room for Katie Miller, and I find her before she sees me. She’s sitting on one of the couches, between two of the ballplayers. I pretend I don’t see her and head straight for the piano. Even though I don’t know how to play, I lightly tap my fingers along the keys.
“Do you play?” He has an accent, but I still understand the question.
“Piano?” I ask, turning my face up toward his.
He’s two or three heads taller than me, with dark brown skin and brown eyes. He has what my dad calls a five o’clock shadow. I don’t know what that means exactly, but his face looks like it could scratch you if you touched it.
He shakes his head. “No. Baseball.”
He points to the glove, still on my left hand. I am the worst liar ever.
“I used to play.” At least that’s not a lie.
“Why don’t you play now?” he asks.
But there are too many reasons, and I don’t know where to start. I open my mouth and shut it. I do it again. I probably look like a fish.
Finally I say, “It’s a long story.”
“I like stories. But right now, I like piano.” He pulls out the bench and sits on it, patting the spot next to him.
I look around to see who he’s trying to get to sit with him, but then he pats the spot again. I sit down and watch as he spreads his hands across the keyboard and starts playing. Softly at first, but then louder. His hands bounce along the keys. Unlike me, he knows what he’s doing. I look up at his face and he’s smiling, with his eyes closed.
When Haley played flute, I’d sometimes catch her practicing with her eyes closed. Her body would sway to the music. I never told her I watched her. I’m sure she would’ve been embarrassed.
But this guy whose name I don’t know is playing with his eyes closed in front of everyone. He’s not afraid or embarrassed. He looks both happy and sad at the same time, if that’s possible.
Mr. Miller yells to get everyone’s attention, and the guy stops playing. Everyone quiets down and looks at Mr. Miller, who’s still scribbling on his notepad. “There were some last-minute changes, but I’ve got you all paired with your host families. These kind folks are putting you up for the whole summer. That means putting a roof over your head, not putting up with your shenanigans. None of that partying you might’ve gotten used to in college. We’re expecting you to obey the house rules.”
A few of the players sitting on the floor smile at each other, almost starting to laugh, and then put on straight faces.
“I’m going to read off your names and the names of the families you’ll be spending the summer with. Some of these nice folks came out in the middle of the night to pick you up. The others will stop by in the morning. If they’re here for you now, they’ll wave and find you later. Please raise your hand so they know who you are.” He flips through a few pages.
“What’s your name?” I whisper to the piano-playing baseball player.
“I’m Quinnen.” I don’t say that I hope he’s going to be staying with us, but I do. All the other guys? Maybe some of them are nice. But are they smiling-with-their-eyes-closed-while-playing-the-piano nice? I don’t know.
“Quinnen. You have a nice name.”
Dad looks over at me and Hector sitting next to each other, and I think I see him smile. It’s only for a second, but I really think he does.
Mr. Miller finally starts to read off the list. “David Hernandez. You’ll be staying with me and my family.” A chubby guy with a buzz cut raises his hand. I put my money on him being a catcher.
“Timothy Scott, you’re gonna be with Ken and Cathy Montross.” Phew! That one has lots of tattoos and big, veiny muscles. I’d be scared to run into him in our upstairs hallway at night.
“Hector Padilla,” Mr. Miller says. Hector doesn’t stick his hand up like he’s supposed to. I nudge him and whisper, “Raise your hand.”
Please, us. Please, us.
“You’re with the Farrells,” Mr. Miller says. The Farrells live up the street from us. I look over at Dad, but he’s busy talking to one of the players. He doesn’t even care which guy we get.
I listen carefully, my eyes darting around the room as Mr. Miller reads out one name after another. One by one, the players raise their hands and smile, like they’re happy to be with these families they don’t even know.
“Only a few left now, and you’ll all be on your way.” Mr. Miller flips to the next page.
The annoying blond guy who let me in raises his hand.
Not us. Not us, I chant in my head.
“You’ll be staying with the Donnelly family.”
Dad waves his hand and catches Brandon’s eye.
“Are you tired?” I ask Hector while Mr. Miller finishes reading off the last few names.
“Sí,” he replies. “Very tired.”
“Where did you come from?” I ask.
I’ve looked it up on the map before, since so many good baseball players come from there. “That’s really far away.” No wonder he’s so sleepy.
“Hey, man.” I look up and see Brandon walking right toward us. “Hey, little lady. Guess we’re going to be seeing a lot more of each other.”
I slump on the piano bench. “Yeah.”
David Hernandez comes over and says something to Hector in Spanish. Hector stands up. “Are you coming to Opening Day?”
“Always,” I say. “See you there. Bye, Hector.”
“Good-bye, Quinnen. Maybe sometime I can show you how to throw a slider.” He points at my glove. “You’re a pitcher, no?”
How does he know?
Something flutters deep inside me, like a knuckleball, but by the time I open my mouth to respond, Hector and David are walking over to their host families and I’m alone with Brandon.
“What position do you play?” I ask Brandon.
I cringe as he cracks his knuckles. I hate when boys do that. “How fast’s your fastball?”
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