It was a beautiful afternoon in August; it was slightly breezy and there wasn’t a cloud in the baby-blue sky. School started in two weeks and the kids in my neighborhood were going all out, trying to squeeze all the fun they could into those last precious hours in the park. The kids in sixth grade were especially outrageous. You weren’t allowed to play in the park as soon as you entered middle school. It was an unwritten law set down by years of sun-streaked kids coming and going.
This was my last summer. My friends and I woke up early each morning and came home late each night. Dusty, tan and happy, we’d crawl into our beds without bothering to change.
It was softball that I was most interested in. Softball. We were obsessed. No matter how many times we’d been told to by well-meaning mothers, we wouldn’t change our interests to something more feminine, like makeup, or clothes. The mothers would sigh and shake their heads, hoping that we would come down to earth by the time middle school rolled around.
There were five of us; me, Amy, Francine, Kath, and Becca. Amy was short with red hair and tons of freckles. She was short-tempered, but if you got on her good side, she was as kind as could be. Francine had long blond-brown hair that fell to the middle of her back. She was the quiet one among us, though compared to most people she was incredibly loud. Kath, or Kathleen, with brown hair cut close to her head, was the sports player among us. We all played softball, but she played every possible sport that she could. Becca, with black hair that was always pulled back into a ponytail, was the intellectual one. For some reason, she had been born with a gift for math, something that none of us understood. We were best friends, and we thought that we would never accept another person into our group.
The softball field that we played on was old, so old that our grandparents remember playing on it. There had been several suggestions to tear it down and build a couple of soccer fields in its place. They had been solidly refused, not only by us, but also by more than half the adults in the town, people who had grown up with it there.
There were no dugouts like the newer fields, but it didn’t matter to anyone. The grass was mostly brown with scattered bits of green mixed in; cigarette butts were more common than either color grass. The dirt that formed the diamond had not been replaced in a while, making the ground as hard as cement. All in all, the field was a waste of space, but it was perfect for our purposes.
Today we were, like all other days, playing softball. It was windy and dirt was getting thrown up in our eyes. There were enough of us only to have one pitcher, one batter, a first baseman, a shortstop and an outfielder. This wasn’t enough, especially toward the end of the summer, when we’d had two and a half months to practice, but we worked through it all, adapting the rules to fit our purposes.
We were years older than anyone else, most of the kids having already adjusted into the normal world according to their proud parents. We were labeled The Outcasts and spit on by kids three years younger than us. We didn’t mind the spitting or the names, but if a kid ticked us off, a bloody nose solved matters temporarily.
Today Amy was pitching and I was supposed to be batting, when I saw a figure coming toward us. I turned to look, stunned. Nobody, absolutely nobody, ever came to see us. We were used to it.
This was someone new. It had to have been, I thought. A ball whizzed by my head and I turned to glare accusingly at Amy. She shrugged, then laughed.
“Served you right!” she called.
I stuck out my tongue and turned back around, letting go of the bat. It slid to the ground with a soft tap. The figure was closer now and I could tell it was a girl. The rest of my friends saw what I was looking at and walked toward me. We gathered around home plate, all glaring at this newcomer.
The girl was tall, over five feet, an accomplishment in us since we’d all been born into short families. Her hair was dark brown, pulled back roughly from her face and tied in a ponytail. The baseball cap that was shoved on her head was dark blue. She was wearing a dark pink tank top, with light pink shorts.
It was Francine who spoke first. “Nice outfit.”
Amy spat rudely at the new girl’s feet. “I think the mall’s that way.” She gestured with a tip of her head.
The new girl stared steadily at them with dark brown eyes, reminding me of a trapped deer.
“My name’s Adrian. I came to play softball.” Her voice was quiet, but she sounded self-assured. For some reason, I wanted desperately to save this girl from the fate that she was accepting unknowingly.
“OK, you can bat,” I said quickly. Francine looked at me strangely, but I shrugged.
Francine shrugged too. “Why don’t you play catcher, then?” she suggested. I nodded mutely.
We walked back to our positions. I crouched behind the plate. Adrian picked up the bat I’d dropped. She clamped her hands around it, squeezing hard until her fingers were striped red and white. Her fingernails were painted a light green, but it had started to chip away.
Eventually, she shuffled up to the plate. Amy threw the ball perfectly. It was going to be very hard to hit, I thought. I doubted Adrian would even swing. Adrian looked carefully at the approaching ball, then swung powerfully.
With a resounding crack, the ball met the bat and it flew farther than we’d ever, in five years, hit a ball. It flew over the brown wood fence that bordered the softball field and toward the house nearby. There was the sound of splintering glass and a female voice yelling at the top of her lungs.
Adrian tossed the bat aside and loped carefully around the bases. We all stared at her as she crossed home plate. She blushed red.
“What?” she murmured.
“Hey,” I said finally. “My name’s Sammy.”