She fiddled with the laces on her mitt, hooking them tight with the extra-long first joint of her finger, flexing the designer muscles of her wrists.
The din from the stands deafened Grace, and the tension in the ballpark electrified the short red hairs on her arms.
by Louise Marley
|Ricky sat alone in her private locker room, turning a baseball in her elongated fingers. The pregame had begun, and the speakers in the main locker room rattled with music and announcements and advertisements. She leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, and cradled the baseball in her palm. Just another game, she told herself. It's a long season.
But it wasn't true. Long season, sure.
Someone hammered on the door and shouted, "Arendsen! Skip says to join the guys now."
"Coming," she called back. She stood and stretched her arms over her head, her fingers ritually brushing the ceiling. She put the ball, her first major-league game ball, back into its protective cube. Lew had saved it for her, gotten it signed.
She missed Lew. No one called a better game than he did, but he had retired at the end of last year, her rookie season, his bat worn out, his knees gone. It had been tough this season without him, a different catcher every rotation, a different attitude every game. She'd lost her last three starts. The sports columns had her on her way back to the minors after two of them, and they weren't far from the truth.
Her agent tried to shield her from the worst of management's comments, but she knew her career was on the line. Three losses were a bad way for anyone to start a season. It was worse for Ricky Arendsen.
And now this. Skip had tried to warn her, in his bluff, half-articulate way. "Management took a risk on you," he had said this morning, shuffling through the scouting reports on Everett. "Not worth the grief if you aren't the best." She only nodded. She knew that already.
Now she closed her locker and tucked her mitt under her arm. She left the cramped space that was hers and walked around the corner to the other door. The official statement to the press said that Ricky Arendsen had a separate locker room for her own privacy, but Rickyand everyone elseunderstood it was more complicated than just that. Maybe the guys didn't want a woman in their locker room. More likely, they didn't want her in their locker room.
It had been the same in high school, in college, in the minors. It didn't matter that she possessed a killer curve, a hundred-plus fastball, a splitter that made grown-up men wave their bats like beginning T-ballers. What mattered, not to everyone, but to enough of them, was what she was and how she got that way.
Ricky adjusted her cap and pulled open the door with its vivid team logo.
The Skipper looked up when she came in, pointed to the bench in front of him. Raimundo grinned at her and moved over to make room. He was catching her today, which was good. She felt a bit better when he was behind the plate. She didn't have to shake him off as often as she did Baker.
"Hey, Rick," he said as she eased herself onto the bench. He moved another couple of inches over to give her space. She nodded down at him. Raimundo was a good six inches shorter than she was, just clearing six feet four.
"Hey, Ray," she said. She quirked her lips and lifted her eyebrows, pretending a calm she didn't feel. "Place is crawling with reporters."
"Whatcha get, Newsmaker." He said it with sympathy, his forehead crinkling.
"Yeah. I know."
Newsmaker was the least offensive of the many appellations attached to Ricky Arendsen when she came up to the show. The worst had been coined by a conservative preacher in a weekly newspaper column. The fans picked it up, shouting it whenever she took the mound. Lab Rat, Lab Rat, a one-two rhythm, a bit of doggerel that irritated her dreams.
She fiddled with the laces on her mitt, hooking them tight with the extra-long first joint of her finger, flexing the designer muscles of her wrists. She was a hell of a specimen, just as they said. Her thighs were smoothly muscled, perfectly jointed at the hip. Her calves were long and strong, her ankles like steel. Her eyesight was off the charts.
She wondered what Grace Everett's eyesight was like.
They were calling Everett the Natural. No engineered virus, no stem-cell modifications, no Lab Rat. Just a wiry, quick second baseman, a freckled girl with a stringy red ponytail and a wicked bat. In the minors they called her Gracie, or Little Red. Now, coming up against Ricky Arendsen, Grace Everett had become the Natural.
"Okay, guys," the Skipper said. He stood in front of the chalkboard, where someone had scribbled the lineups, a few names crossed out, substitutes chalked in. Some of the players were chowing down from the buffet, but Ricky never ate right before a game.
Skip nodded to her. "You okay, Rick?"
She gave him a thumbs-up and pulled off her cap to scratch her scalp through her short scruff of brown hair.
"Good. So," the Skipper began. "Everybody. The main thing is, don't let it all get to you today, okay? Everett's just another ballplayer. Let's play it that way. Cool and calm."
Someone standing beside the row of open lockers snorted, "Yeah, Skip. That'll work."
The Skipper shot him a heated look. "I mean it," he growled. "No crap out there."
"Hey, Skip, it's not us," someone protested. "It's the fans. Worse than New York!"
Ricky hunched her shoulders. Ray murmured, "Easy, Rick."
"It's a stunt," he added under his breath. "I hear they brought her up just to face you. She'll fan a few times, fall on her face, and go straight back to Triple-A."
Ricky turned her head without changing position. "Where'd you hear that?"
Ray shrugged. "Talk around the office."
"I don't know, Ray. Her stats are solid."
Ricky didn't want to think about Everett, about what this game must mean to her. She had to concentrate on her own problems. Three straight losses after her twelve-and-eight last year. If they sent her down, she'd never get called up again, not after all the stuff that happened last season. She needed a W today as much as she ever had in her life.
"Listen," the Skipper said. "Anybody's out of line, in the stands or on the field, security throws 'em out of the park, okay?"
"If it's not too late," someone said from the back of the room. Ricky didn't need to turn to know who the grumbler was. Center field. Ditch Daniels, they called him, because he wore a ditch in the grass between left and right. Ditch had been struck by something when she was pitching her second game, a cup or a ball or something thrown from the outfield bleachers. He was touchy and hot-tempered on the best of days, and that really tipped him over. He never had a good word for her, not even when she came in on one day's rest to save the last game of the season, propelling the team into the playoffs. Ditch knew about every death threat she'd received since she came up. As if Ricky didn't remember them well enough without his quoting them word for word when he knew she could hear him.
"Look at it this way," the Skipper said finally. "The park's sold out, even the bleachers. For a regular season game. Management's happy, which is good news at contract time, right? Let's just get this one. Let security worry about the nutcases."
The team grunted assent and filed out of the locker room and up the ramp to the dugout. Ricky headed for the bullpen to warm up.
A solid wall of sound greeted her, defeating the announcer as he read the rosters. When Ricky trotted to the mound, tossed a few pitches to Ray, the volume dissipated, gradually, like a spent wave, leaving an electric silence in its wake. A familiar prickle crept across Ricky's shoulders and up under her cap, as if something were pointed at the back of her neck or between her shoulder blades. Jackie Robinson had felt the same thing, she supposed. Like a great big target. Sometimes Ricky felt as if the mound was a bull's-eye, with her smack in the center.
Ray gave the ump a nod, and the first batter, a leftie, stepped into the box, bat describing semicircles above his shoulder. Ricky leaned forward, bent at the waist. She held the ball behind her back, turning it in the fingers of her left hand till she found just the right spot, the seams fitting perfectly between her fingers and her long, flexible thumb. Ray gave her the sign, curve down and in, and she nodded. She straightened. Her right leg lifted in the high kick, hands above her head. The windup. The throw. Strike one. Ragged cheers from the hometown fans, half-hearted taunts from the visitors, and the game was underway.
The first two innings went hitless and scoreless on both sides, despite several long at bats that went the full count and a dozen or more foul balls. Ricky rested after the second, her warm-up jacket tugged up over her left arm, her chin on her chest.
Everett would come up in the third, batting eighth in the lineup. She'd hit over .300 in the minors, Ricky knew, but otherwise the scouts hadn't had much to say about her. No one had expected Little Red to be sent up, not now, not ever.
When the second ended, Ricky stood and pulled the jacket off her arm. The crowd began to stir, a deep murmur rather than the usual calls and cheers. Camera flashes glimmered in the stadium like stars in a multicolored sky.
The first hitter grounded to third, and the murmuring grew. Ricky turned her back on the mound, walked a little way toward second, bent to tighten a shoelace. She caught some rosin on the way back. As she walked to the top and started to dig her toes into the dirt, Everett moved into the box, swinging her bat with one hand, eyeing Ricky over her right shoulder. Her red ponytail swung between her shoulder blades. Matching red freckles dusted her nose and cheeks.
She deserved to be called the Natural, Ricky thought. There was nothing unusual about her physique, except that she looked strong, a little bigger than most women. But lots of women were big, lots of women were athletic. It took a special combination of speed and coordination and eyesight, as well as strength, to make a major-league ballplayer.
Ricky shook off Ray's first sign. He wanted to surprise the batter, try the curve instead of the fastball she expected. But Everett was a fastball hitter. Ricky wanted to see what she had.
Ray extended a forefinger. Fastball. Ricky nodded, straightened, kicked, wound, threw.
The crowd's murmur broke into shouts as the radar flashed a one-hundred and five, but it wasn't the speed of the pitch that made the difference. It was that little kick at the end, the tail. Ricky's long fingers could hold the seams right where she wanted them, and her fastball was almost impossible to hit.
Everett watched it go by with just a lift of her elbows, as if she thought it might be inside. It wasn't. Ricky stared at her opponent and wondered if Everett felt like she did. Like a target. Like an outsider. Like no matter how well she played, it would never be enough.
Ray flashed the sign for the curve, and Ricky shook him off again. He tried the changeup, and she shook her head. She couldn't quite see his shrug before he extended the forefinger, but she was sure it was there. She didn't care. She wanted to play it this way.
Everett glanced at the third-base coach and then faced her again. Ricky threw. One-hundred and two. Everett's bat never left her shoulder.
She backed out of the box, shaking her head, talking to herself. She put up a hand to ask for time. The ump gave it, and Ricky stepped off the mound to shake out her arms.
The next pitch was another fastball, but Ricky missed with it, just inside, brushing Everett's thighs so close her uniform rippled. A roar of fury erupted from the stands.
Ricky caught her breath at the sound. She had learned to tune out the jeers that greeted her trips to the mound, but this surge, when the fans thought she might have hit Everett, was staggering. Lew had talked her through it all the first few times, and by the end of her first season she hardly heard the chants and catcalls. But this was different. She glanced up into the colorful mass of people, banners waving, hands in the air, hand-lettered signs dancing here and there. Were they hoping Everett would show her up, or hoping Everett would fail? Was there anyone out there just rooting for their favorite team, the way they used to?
She caught sight of a placard with her name on it, and beneath it a circle with "Jackie Robinson" inside, a black line crossing the circle. Ricky Arendsen is no Jackie Robinson. She'd seen it before.
Lew had told her to laugh it off. "They're right anyway, kid," he had said. "You're no Jackie Robinsonyou're bigger, faster, and stronger than he was. You'll show 'em."
Now Ray was jogging out to the mound, and she'd lost track of time. Not like her, to let anything interfere with her concentration.
"Hey, Rick," he said. The two of them turned their backs to the plate, and Ricky dropped her head to hear. "What's the matter? You got two strikes, one ball, you're ahead in the count. Nothing to worry about."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. I just
" She breathed deeply, adjusted her cap, and then shook her head. "I'm okay. Sorry, Ray."
"Let's go with the splitter now, okay? Quit messing around?"
She shook her head. "No. Fastball. I can get her. Let's do it."
He frowned and tugged at his mask. "Well, Rick, you're the pitcher. Don't lose her though, or Skip will be pissed."
"I won't lose her."
Ray slapped her back with his mitt and jogged back to the plate, pulling his mask down as he went.
· · · · ·
Grace Everett chewed on her tongue, trying to get some moisture into her mouth as she faced Ricky Arendsen once again. Arendsen didn't look like someone whose career was in trouble. She looked unbeatable, her long form perfectly proportioned, her face calm, her eyes like steel. And the fastball!
Grace wished she'd taken the bubble gum someone had offered her. Her mouth felt like a desert. She stubbed her toe into the dirt, wiggled it, set her foot. She'd hit a hundred-and-five before, she reminded herself. Just the other day, down in Triple-A. Today was no different. Just another ballgame, the beginning of a long season
But still, as she faced the Newsmaker, her heart pounded in her throat. She glanced up at the coach and saw the signs. The splitter: he thought Arendsen would throw the splitter. It didn't seem right to Grace. She looked back at Arendsen, at the poker face, the forward-leaning posture, the hand hidden behind the back. Well, the coach was the coach, and this was her first game in the bigs. It was no time for independence. She lifted her bat from her shoulder, let it describe small, tight circles, watched Arendsen straighten, kick, wind, and throw.
At least this time Grace had a swing at it, but she was looking for the splitter, and the fastball surprised her. It smacked into the catcher's mitt before her bat crossed the plate. With a grunt and a gritting of her teeth, she turned and marched back to the dugout, her cheeks burning.
She didn't look at the coach or her teammates. She didn't know them yet, didn't know what their expressions meant, what they might be thinking. Just thinking about their own at bats, probably. She took off the batting helmet and picked up her mitt. She pulled her cap out of her belt as she trotted out to second base. Arendsen was walking in the other direction, to the home side, her lanky height making Grace feel like a half-pint. She pulled on her cap and settled into her place between first and second.
So she struck out. Everybody struck out once in a while, right?
But you only get this chance, Gracie. This one chance. She sighed and smacked her fist in her mitt. She knew they'd only brought her up to face Arendsen. Her Triple-A coach told her so.
"You're playing great, Little Red. None better. But it took guts for those guys to take Arendsen on. It's cost 'em plenty. Extra security, vandalism to the stadium, bad press. Only way they got through it was they made the play-offs. Our guys don't want to risk all that."
She had protested. "I'm hitting .326!"
"Yeah, but we're not the show, Gracie."
"So what, they're giving me one game, and that's it?"
"Depends, Red. You do well, get a couple hits, they might give you another shot."
"A couple hits? Against Ricky Arendsen? That's hardly fair."
"You're right. It's a stunt, is what it is, but I couldn't talk 'em out of it. Arendsen's a fastball pitcher, and you're a hell of a fastball hitter. And the boss is an old-fashioned guy. I think he wants to prove you can't do it, that the Natural can't cut it in the bigs."
Grace had pounded the cement floor with the heel of her spikes. "I hate that name. They only call me that because Arendsen"
"Yeah, yeah, I know, kid. Tough breaks all around."
"And so what, the boss wants me out?"
The coach shrugged. "All I know is, he's been whining to the commissioner ever since Arendsen signed. Doesn't believe in women in baseball. Not in the majors."
Grace stood up and fixed the coach with a direct stare. "Arendsen's a great ballplayer."
He stood up too, and grinned. "Damn straight, Gracie. And so are you."
· · · · ·
Neither team scored until the bottom of the sixth, when Ray manufactured a run by stealing second and then scoring on Smitty's double. Ricky gave him the thumbs-up as she shrugged out of her warm-up jacket. He grinned, pulling on his chest protector and reversing his cap. As he pulled down his mask, he said, "Hold 'em now, Rick, okay?"
"Do my best."
Ricky knew her pitch count was already at eighty-four, but that didn't concern her. Among the gifts her mother's engineered virus had bestowed on her was stamina. In her first season she'd pitched five complete games, to the astonishment of the coaches and the envy of the rest of the pitching staff. Now, in the top of the seventh, she sent down the first batter on four pitches. She was beginning to breathe easier, feeling as if her season could turn around at last. The ump was giving her the called strikes, keeping the hitters honest, unlike the earlier games of the season. She didn't let the last batter of the inning rattle her, though he got a single and advanced to second on a fielder's choice, then stole third while she was dealing with their cleanup hitter. She eyed him before her last pitch. Ray flashed the splitter, and she nodded. It was her signature pitch, fast and smooth, toppling out of its trajectory just as it reached the plate. No one could read it, not even the umpire half the time.
This time the pitch was perfect. The hitter spun on his heels as he tried to adjust, but he was about an hour too late. Ricky grinned at Ray as they headed back to the dugout, feeling a burst of confidence. It felt like last year, with Lew. "Good work, Catch," she said as they stepped down into the shade and she folded her lengthy frame onto the bench. She pulled the warm-up over her arm.
Ray said, "Yeah. Some long at bats, Rick, but you can get six more."
The Skipper glanced over at her. "How you holding up, Ricky?"
He indicated the pitch counter with his chin. "You're at a hundred and three."
"I'm fine." She looked across the field to the bullpen. The relievers still sprawled on the bench, none of them throwing, which meant Skip was going to let her stay in.
She knew what would happen as her pitch count went up, into the eighth, into the ninth. A hundred and twenty. A hundred and thirty. The catcalls would grow louder, more frantic. Lab Rat, Lab Rat.
Had her mother known, when she was perfecting her virus? When she was injecting it into her own womb, targeting her unborn child's stem cells?
It could have failed, after all. Ricky Arendsen could have been some sort of monster. The othersthe other experimentshad all had terrible problems. She was the only success, out of a dozen modified fetuses.
Involuntarily, Ricky glanced out at the infield, where the Natural danced between first and second. She wondered if Everett knew what it was like to be Ricky Arendsen. She might even have preferred to be like her, to have her genes modified within days after conception, her body engineered to be bigger, stronger, faster. If today was Everett's only chance at the bigs, her only shot
that was tough.
Ricky hunched her shoulders and slid further down on her long, pliable spine. She didn't want to feel sorry for Grace Everett. She had to work hard enough not to be sorry for herself, not to be wounded by the nasty articles, the placards, the threatening letters.
It didn't matter now. Let them yell what they wanted. She would turn it off. Tune it out. Just six batters, and the whole season would turn around.
· · · · ·
The rancor of the fans stunned Grace when she came out for her third at bat, at the top of the ninth. She read the sports columns, of course, like everyone else, but even those criers of doom hadn't prepared her for the insults that were shouted at Ricky Arendsen, for the hysterical screams of fans waving signs that said things like "Baseball, not biology." She'd spotted one that read, "Put the balls back in baseball," but security had escorted the bearer of that one from the stadium before the first pitch. The din rose at her own appearance, rhythmic shouts of The Natural, The Natural, at a volume that banged inside her helmet as if someone were beating it like a drum. There had to be supporters in the stands, people shouting encouragement for Ricky Arendsen, but Grace couldn't hear them. Hate had a stronger voice.
Something unwelcome and surprising twisted in her belly, and she recognized it as a surge of sympathy. She thrust it aside. Her team was down two to zip, ninth inning, one down, one on. And Grace's gut told her, in a cold voice, that this was it. Now or never.
And yet, if Ricky Arendsen weren't out there on the mound, she, Grace Everett, would still be riding the bus with the Triple-A team. No big league team ever gave a girl a chance before Arendsen. Ricky Arendsen stood alone on the mound, awash in antagonism, when all she wanted was to play ball.
Grace wanted to play ball, too. She swung her bat as she walked to the plate, trying to push away the useless thoughts. The coach was flashing her signs, and she nodded obediently, but it was a sham. No point now in sucking up. Her opportunity was slipping away. The coach didn't know what Ricky Arendsen was going to throw. Grace thought she just might.
It was because they were facing each other, she thought. Arendsen could get her with the splitter, that evil slicing arc that made veterans look like Little Leaguers. Or she could fool her with her changeup, that looped over the plate like a turtle on Valium. But Arendsen had thrown her nothing but fastballs. She wanted a test, head to head, the Lab Rat against the Natural. And she would do it again.
Grace dug in her toe, lifted her bat above her shoulder, flexed her thighs in her stance. Arendsen bent at the waist, nodded to the catcher, and went into her high kick, that incredible kick that made her look like a seven-foot ballet dancer.
Fastball. Grace swung, pivoting on her heels, the bat whistling. Miss.
She stepped out of the batter's box and took a couple of swings. Arendsen circled the mound, bent to the rosin bag, stretched her shoulders. Grace saw the coach flashing signs at her, and she nodded again. He wore a glum look, and she knew he thought the game was already over. The runner took a long lead at first. Arendsen glanced at him from under her cap, but didn't bother with a throw. Her eyes came back to Grace, gleaming with determination across the sixty feet and six inches' distance. Grace paused at the edge of the batter's box. She felt the ump's questioning glance, but she was transfixed by Arendsen's gaze.
She knew all about the Newsmaker's stem-cell modifications, her incredible speed, coordination, the flexibility in her hips and knees and shoulders. She knew her height was enhanced, her musculature, her vision.
But Ricky Arendsen's mother's patent had failed. The other recipients of the engineered virus had been failures. One child was born with a beautiful body and incredible strength but with a brain that never matured. Another grew so fast in infancy that her bones deformed. One volunteer gave birth to twins who became implacable competitorswith each other. They had to be institutionalized when they were five.
Ricky Arendsenand only Ricky Arendsenhad grown into a superb athlete, with a mind to match. But the gleam Grace saw in her eye was all hers. No virus had made her the competitor she was. She was a ballplayer. A gamer.
And so was Grace.
Grace's nerves vanished as if they never were. As if this was just another game, another ballpark, one in a long season. The din seemed to fade from her hearing as if someone had turned down the volume on a radio. She nodded to the umpire, glanced briefly at the coach, turned her face to Ricky Arendsen. She wantedreally wantedthat fastball.
The second pitch missed way outside, and Grace raised her eyebrows. Arendsen tiring? The catcher fell to his left, barely spearing the ball before it escaped to the wall. The runner dashed to second base. Scoring position.
Grace grinned and lifted her bat, painting air circles. The coach stared at her, eyes hopeless. She watched Arendsen shake off her catcher's signs, one, two, three.
She'd thrown nothing but fastballs to Grace. But now it was the ninth inning, a runner on, only one away. Would she do it again? Grace dug her feet into the dirt and eyed the pitcher.
The kick, the windup, Arendsen's impossibly long arms high over her head
Time slowed, in that way it sometimes did, that way that let Grace Everett know the pitch that was coming was all hers. Great ballplayers, she knew, saw pitches differently, understood their speed and trajectory and spin in a way no ordinary mortal could. Grace didn't know if she had it in her to be a great ballplayer, but once in a while she experienced that perfect moment of perception, that pinnacle of sight and sense and instinct. This pitch, turning seam over seam on its sixty-foot-six-inch path, was no fastball. Grace couldn't have said how she knew, but she knew. It was the splitter, Arendsen's famous, nasty pitch, that fell over the plate as if it had run into a wall.
Grace's heels braced, her gut tightened, her thighs flexed as she wheeled on that ball. She knew exactly where it would be. And she connected.
She felt the impact from her shoulders to her toes, that sweet, hard jolt that sent the baseball leaping for the infield, bouncing in the base path, dodging the shortstop as if it had eyes.
Grace didn't watch it go. She knew. She tossed her bat away and dug for first base, head down to hide her grin.
As she approached first base, she looked up and saw the coach waving her on. She spun on toward second, seeing Ditch Daniels scoop up the ballher balland heave it toward home plate. She could hear the fans again, the shouts of dismay, the yells of approbation. She pulled up on second, panting, grinning. A double. An RBI. Whatever happened now, she'd had her chance, and it felt great. She felt like she had wings on her heels.
She flicked a quick glance at Arendsen.
Ricky Arendsen stood, baseball in hand, watching Grace. She lifted the baseball with a flick of her wrist. A salute. Then she pulled down her cap and turned to face the next batter.
· · · · ·
"You think I don't know what you're up to?" demanded the Skipper, glaring down at Ricky. She sat with her head back against the dugout wall, her cap tipped up, her legs stretched out to their full length.
"What, Skip?" she asked languidly.
"You wouldn't take Ray's calls, you wouldn't use the curve or the change. You just had to see if she could hit your fastball."
"I threw the splitter, Skip. She got lucky."
"Well, now the damned game is tied, and their closer's out there. We'll probably go into extra innings. You're already in trouble, Ricky! What did you think you were doing?"
She pulled her cap over her eyes. "Just playing ball, Skip. I'll get 'em next inning."
"You will not." He wheeled and stamped away to the bullpen phone.
Ricky abruptly sat up. "Skip, no! Don't take me out. I'll get 'em, I promise."
He stopped and glared back at her. "Oh, yeah? You know what your count is?"
"I'm fine. Look, I'm sorry." Ricky stood up and went to stand beside the manager. "I just" She shrugged. "I wanted to see what she's got. This may be the only day she gets."
"It's a fuckin' game, Rick," the Skip said with disgust. "It's not tea and crumpets."
She stiffened, and her cheeks flamed. "Come on. I get enough of that from the stands."
He hesitated, and then his stiff stance relaxed. "Yeah, yeah, I know, Rick. Sorry. It's been tough on you. It's tough every time you go out."
"I don't care about that, Skip, you know I don't. But let me have another inning."
He shrugged. "What the hell. It's early in the season." He pointed a thick finger at Ray, listening from the bench. "But remember, you pay attention to Ray's calls, okay? Your losses are mine, too, and the rest of the guys'. No more grandstanding."
Ricky grinned at him and touched the bill of her cap with her forefinger.
· · · · ·
In the bottom of the ninth, Grace watched the closer mow down the batters in order, one, two, three. She hardly had to move her feet. In the tenth, Ricky Arendsen was still pitching, unbelievably. Her shaky start seemed to have evaporated with Grace's double, and she, too, started mowing down batters.
In the dugout, the manager groaned, watching her. "She oughta be beat," he said. "There oughta be nothing left in that arm."
Somebody swore. "That's Arendsen for you."
Somebody else said, "Too bad we don't have our own Lab Rat."
Grace stiffened at that, but the player closest to herthe left fielder, a veteran who'd been one of her heroes when she was in high schoolpatted her shoulder. "We're doin' okay with Little Red, here," he said gruffly. "Game'd be over if it weren't for the Natural."
Two or three of the guys added their compliments. Grace blushed and ducked her head.
She didn't have another at bat until the twelfth. They were still tied at two. Arendsen had settled into a rhythm, and since the ninth, no batter had looked at more than five pitches. There had been two hits, three guys on base, but no one scored. Arendsen's count was high, but it didn't seem to matter, to her or to her manager.
The fans seemed to have fallen into a rhythm, too. When Grace appeared in her batting helmet, the chant of Natural, Natural washed out across the field. The stands were still full. No one, it seemed, had left the ballpark. They'd bought tickets to see the Natural go against the Lab Rat, and they were getting their money's worth.
Arendsen had stopped trying to tempt her with the fastball. This time she threw a curve, a change, a splitter that missed outside, and then another change, that also missed outside.
Grace stepped out of the box to catch her breath. Two and two. She had that feeling in her gut again. One last chance.
She heaved a deep breath and stepped back in. She lifted her bat and met Ricky Arendsen's cool gaze across the expanse of grass and dirt.
· · · · ·
Ricky rolled her left shoulder. Her arm, at last, was starting to tire. Heat ran from her shoulder to her elbow, and she felt the warmth in her ribs and in her wrist as well. When Ray flashed the sign for the splitter, she hesitated. He looked at her for a long moment and then called time and trotted out to the mound, pushing up his mask as he went. She stepped down to meet him, and they turned their backs to the box.
"You okay?" Ray asked.
"Getting tired," she admitted.
"Wanta call in Baxter?"
Ricky glanced out to the bullpen and saw that Baxter and one of the middle relievers were both up and throwing. She scratched her neck. "No," she said finally. "No, I want this one, this inning. Get this over with."
"Yeah. But you don't want to risk letting Everett get another hit."
Ricky looked back over her left shoulder, where Everett was swinging the bat and squinting out at them. Shadows stretched across the infield now, fingers of darkness pointing away from the setting sun. "What do you think, Ray? You think the splitter?"
She nodded, and he jogged back to the plate. She bent at the waist, then straightened. Everett's blue eyes glittered slightly as they met hers.
She lifted her left knee, high, and brought her hands above her head. She threw the splitter, but it got away from her. Chin music, they called it. It sure wasn't anywhere it was supposed to be. It didn't drop, but spun directly at Everett's face.
The rookie spun backward, landing on her butt in the dirt, her bat dropped, her helmet gone. The screams of the fans intensified, an eruption of rage.
Ray called time again and sprinted to the mound. When he got there, Skip was there, too. Ricky turned her back, pulled off her cap to rub her fingers through her hair, and ducked her head to hear what the Skipper had to say.
· · · · ·
They were shouting it now, Natural, Natural, against the screams of Lab Rat. But they were wrong, Grace reflected. This wasn't about modified genes, about great eyesight or elongated fingers or a designer skeleton. This was about desire.
Grace wanted it. She didn't want to walk; she didn't want to get on base by being struck by a pitch. She wanted a hit. She wanted to win, not because of Arendsen, not because it was her first day in the big leagues, not to prove the Natural could do it. She wanted to win because it was baseball and she was in the game.
She lifted her bat to her shoulder and met the Newsmaker's eyes once again. Ricky Arendsen straightened her shoulders, dropped her chin. She wasn't looking at her catcher now. She was looking at Grace.
Grace looked back. Her bat circled above her, and time slowed down.
It should have been something crafty, of course, another splitter, or the curve, or the change. But she knew in her bones the fastball was coming. She would have to anticipate, to be there before Arendsen was, to see it barreling toward her
And she did. This time the crack of her bat made her wrists ache, drove her heels deep into the dirt around home plate. The ball exploded from her bat, a long, high arc that had nowhere to land except in the left-field bleachers, far beyond the reach of the outfielder, into the outstretched hands of the fans. A roar greeted her as she jogged around the bases. Arendsen watched her, tossing a new ball in her hand, turning on the mound as she made her circuit.
Before she reached home, the manager was on the mound and the catcher was on his way to join the conference. Grace touched the plate and turned to the dugout, the chant following her. Natural, Natural. The coach met her, grinning, and swatted her rear as she passed him.
· · · · ·
Ricky said, "No, Skip. Just this inning."
"Hey, Rick, I gave you more time than I should have. You lost her."
Ricky stared down at him, her jaw clenching. "I didn't lose her. She hit the fastball. Just like she hit the splitter. There's a reason she hit over .300 in Triple-A."
Ray grunted, "True, Skip. It was a great pitch. They both were."
The Skipper glared at them both for a long moment, and Ricky saw movement over her shoulder as the umpire started out toward the mound to break it up. "Okay," the Skipper growled, half under his breath. "Okay. But this is it, Rick."
"Right. Thanks, Skip."
The last two outs were easy. One batter fanned on the curve, the other on the splitter. Ricky walked with deliberate slowness back to the dugout, letting the catcalls fall around her like warm rain. She stretched her arms, her shoulders, and reached for her batting helmet. It was the bottom of the order, and she was the bottom of the bottom. She had never hit .300, not even in high school. It didn't help that she made such a big strike zone.
Ditch Daniels singled to right. Ray came next, waging a long battle at the plate, but it ended with Ray flying out to short, not even advancing the runner. Williams, the third baseman, grounded to third. And then it was Ricky's turn.
The closer smirked at her, expecting an easy out, anticipating the W. Ditch poised just off first base. At second, Everett half-crouched, mitt at the ready for Ditch's steal attempt.
Whenever she came up to bat, Ricky thought of her father. Her mother, the doctor, the research scientist, had never forgiven him for encouraging Ricky's enthusiasm for athletics. When she decided baseball was her game, he spent hours lobbing balls to her, playing catch, and later, catching her first pitches. When the virus failed in every case except her daughter's, Ricky's mother hoped that Ricky's achievements would prove her right after all, validate her tireless, all-consuming endeavors. But Ricky's fatherwho had spent six years in the minor leagues in his youthfound her athletic ability his only consolation for what he regarded as betrayal by his wife. It was when the two of them divorced, and Ricky overheard their last bitter argument, that she learned her mother had injected herself with the engineered virus without telling her father. Ricky was already determined to be the first woman to play major-league baseball. She felt no resentment, but her father never willingly spoke to her mother again.
What she remembered when she came to the plate was her dad laughing that as a hitter she made a great pitcher.
The closer's first pitch was a low strike, a neat fastball just at the knees. It was in the zone. She swung, but it dropped away over the plate. She missed by two inches. The catcher threw hard to second, but Ditch was in there, standing up. Tying run in scoring position.
The next two pitches Ricky let go, seeing before they reached her that they would be outside, tumbling off to the catcher's left. The fourth pitch was a slider, the pitch Ricky hated the most. It came inside just at belt level, a nasty height for a batter with long arms. She bent back away from it, and the umpire called a second strike.
The closer tried to tempt her with the change, but Ricky knew by his stance, a slight hesitation at the release point, what he was throwing. It dropped too soon, bouncing right off the edge of the bag. Ditch was on it, tearing to third before the catcher had his mask off. Full count. Runner ninety feet away. A little spark of hope flickered in Ricky's belly, and she called time to eye the coach's signs and ponder what the next pitch might be.
As she stepped back in, she glanced out to the infield. Everett looked back, her cap pulled low, that skinny ponytail flopping over one shoulder. The infield was fully in shadow now. Game time.
Ricky lifted her bat, loosened her shoulders. Okay, she wasn't the hitter Everett was. But she could keep the game alive, get something. She eyed the closer. What would she throw, if she were on the mound and the game were on the line, the stands packed, the press box jammed? She wouldn't take a chance walking the batter and facing the top of the lineup. She'd throw her very best pitch and locate as if she were doing surgery. This guy didn't have a splitter, but he had a mean slider, if it didn't miss.
The pitch looked as if it would be outside, but she knew it wouldn't. It would turn, whip across the plate at the last moment, slide across the corner, jam her hands. She watched the pitch come, seeing it so clearly she could almost see the seams revolve. She thought of Everett, poised just beyond the infield. Okay, Gracie. Try this.
· · · · ·
The din from the stands deafened Grace, and the tension in the ballpark electrified the short red hairs on her arms. Lab Rat, Lab Rat. Did they ever shout for Arendsen?
Arendsen slapped at the last pitch, and it spiked between Grace and the shortstop. The shortstop leaped to his left, but the ball bounced just beyond his reach. Grace launched herself like an arrow, arms extended, torso parallel to the ground. She hit with a mighty grunt, rolled, closed her mitt tight, and hoped for the best.
As she bounced to her feet, the roar from the crowd had changed somehow. Cheers blurred the chant as Ricky Arendsen loped to first base. Ditch Daniels charged, head down, toward home. Grace opened her mitt, found the ball in it, seized it, and threw.
The ball smacked into the catcher's mitt just one split second after Daniels crossed the plate. Ricky Arendsen, one foot on first base, grinned across the diamond. Tied again.
Chagrined, Grace ducked her head, brushing at the infield dirt on her uniform.
The next batter smacked a double into right field, and the closer, getting desperate, threw the next man four straight balls. The third man in the order hit a long, looping fly ball that dropped into left field, and Arendsen galloped easily into home to score the winning run.
It was over. Over for the night. Over for Grace.
Her feet felt like lead as she crossed the infield. She kept her eyes down, not wanting to look at the fans, to look up into the now-shadowed bleachers, at the flashing scoreboard with its garish ads and celebratory displays. It was over. Her big chance. She allowed herself one glance at Arendsen before she stepped down into the dugout.
Arendsen was surrounded by press, a microphone in her face, the lights of television cameras shining on her as she pulled off her batting helmet, pushed a hand through her hair. Someone ran out with an ice pack and wrapped it around her arm as she answered questions.
Grace paused. The Newsmaker, as if sensing her, looked up, past the clutch of reporters. Grace nodded to her and touched two fingers to her cap. She hoped Arendsen understood that it was a gesture of respect. And of farewell. Surely Ricky Arendsen understood that Grace's moment had passed.
She made her leaden feet move then, down the steps, away from Arendsen's triumph.
· · · · ·
"So, Ricky, the season's looking a lot better now, isn't it?"
Ricky nodded to the reporter, though she couldn't see him past the glare. "Yeah."
"Nice hit you got. Did that surprise you?"
Ricky laughed. "Yeah. Yeah, kind of a surprise. Wasn't very pretty."
"Hey, Rick." She turned her head, searching for the sportswriter. He grinned up at her, gestured toward the visitors' dugout. "Did you see the Naum, did you see Everett's dive?"
"No. Was it good?"
"Fantastic. What did you think of them bringing her up to face you? Just a cheap trick?"
Ricky turned all the way around at that, putting her back to the television camera. "Why do you say that?"
"Well, you know, Ricky. Because you're the only woman in the big leagues."
Now Ricky recognized his face from the grainy photo at the head of his newspaper column. He had been the first to predict her own trip back to the minors. She squinted at him. "I'm not the only one," she said flatly. "Not now."
"Hey," he said, with a scornful laugh. "No way Everett's gonna stick after this loss. It was all about the novelty."
Ricky stared at him for a long moment, her jaw tight. He stared back, unabashed. Slowly, she swiveled back to look directly into the television cameras. "The girl can play. Hit, field, run. Management's nuts if they don't keep her. They deserve to lose."
She spun on her heel then, ducking her head as she moved down the dugout steps, on to her locker room. At the door she paused when she spotted the Skipper. "Hey, Skip. Anybody get Everett's ball for her? The homer?"
"Nah, it's gone," he said. "It'll show up on eBay tomorrow. We got the other one, though, the grounder."
"Get it for me, will you?"
· · · · ·
Grace leaned against the outer wall of the locker room, arms folded, waiting for the men to finish so she could use the showers. Family members and friends of the players lounged about the door, talking with each other, obviously trying not to stare at her. The other ballplayers emerged one by one, and the little crowd began to diminish. Grace slumped against the wall and closed her eyes.
Grace opened her eyes and shot upright.
It was Ricky Arendsen, still in her uniform, standing in front of her with a baseball in her left hand. She stuck out her right, and Grace could see those incredible fingers up close, the sculpted wrist, the powerful forearm. She said, "Ricky Arendsen."
"Oh!" Grace said, inadequately. "Oh. Wow. Ricky. Hey, it's great to meet you, really great." She put out her own hand and shook Arendsen's.
"This is yours," Arendsen said, holding out the ball. "The homer's gone, but this was your infield hit. I signed it. Hope that was okay."
Grace took the ball and turned it in her hand. In blue ink, Arendsen had scrawled, "First hit in the bigs," and signed her name and the date. Grace felt her cheeks burn. "This isthis is so nice of you."
"Nah." Arendsen shrugged. "No problem."
A camera flashed, and they both looked up. Someone had snapped a picture of the two of them together.
"'Spose that'll be on eBay tomorrow, too," Arendsen said.
"Do you think so?"
Arendsen grinned. "Oh, yeah. First time we faced each other."
Grace made herself smile. "Probably the last, Ricky."
Arendsen shook her head. "Nah. You'll be back, Gracie." She raised an impressive forefinger. "And I'm gonna get you on the splitter next time."
Grace's heart lifted. She said, laughing, "We'll just see about that."
Ricky Arendsen clapped her on the shoulder and then turned and left, stopping once or twice to sign autographs. Grace went in for her shower, nodding to the security guys beside the door. Arendsen was right. She'd be back. She'd gotten her hits, made a good throw. If this team wouldn't have her, she'd get her agent to put her someplace else. She'd face Arendsen again, one way or another.
But she was going to watch out for that splitter.