(Kelly was written by Kelly Blanchard. Julian was written by Robyn Ford.)
The crack of a baseball bat hitting a ball met Julian as he stepped through the trees at the edge of the park. He leaned against the trunk of a tree and smoked the last of his cigarette while parents cheered for the kids on the baseball diamond. A little boy in a t-shirt that hung nearly to his knees fumbled the ball before getting his chubby fingers around it and heaving it toward first base. The ball dropped several feet short of his teammate, letting the batter get on base. In the crowd, a pudgy man with graying hair and a stick-thin woman were on their feet, clapping their hands furiously and cheering his great throw. Julian felt a pang in his chest as he watched the boy grin and give his parents a thumbs-up. There was a reason, he reminded himself, that he didn’t come out here to help with the little kids like some of the other guys did.
Ignoring a glare from one of the baseball moms, Julian put out his cigarette on the sole of his boot and threw the butt into the bushes. He wasn’t here to watch a game. He had no idea why he’d agreed to talk to some stranger, but he couldn’t do it here. It was a small town and you never knew who was going to show up to a Parks and Rec baseball game. He trudged to the overgrown diamond on the other side of the dirt road, the one that was only mowed down in the heat of midsummer when there were nearly more teams than available fields. Dust stirred under his boots and weeds grabbed at his jeans. The ancient bleachers shook a little as he made his way to the top. From here, he’d be sure to spot her. It wasn’t like she was here to watch a baseball game either.
The sun glared in his eyes and he tugged at the bill of his battered Tigers baseball cap. He wanted another cigarette but popped an Atomic Fireball into his mouth instead. The wind had picked up a little, so he shoved his hands into the pockets of his baggy hoodie and waited.
“Hello, Julian,” a voice came from right beside him that he startled quickly, but Kelly laughed. “I’m sorry! I had to do that. People don’t realize I can pop out of nowhere quite literally, and…well, I get mischievous at times.” She grinned at him then struck her hand out. “I’m Kelly Blanchard. It’s nice to meet you. How are you doing today?”
Julian stared at the woman for a moment. She definitely wasn’t from Mirror Creek. He pulled his hand out of his pocket and wiped it on his jeans before taking her hand. “I forgot she said you could do that,” he said, glad that no one he knew had that strange ability. “I’m okay.”
She settled down on the bleacher before and looked at what spread out before them. “So, tell me about yourself.” She glanced at him. “I know a little but not much.”
He clicked the Fireball against his teeth. “Huh. I guess I’m not used to anyone asking. People around here have their minds made up.” He tugged at the brim of his cap again, wondering how much to tell a stranger, especially one that could appear out of nowhere. But if he couldn’t hurt her, she couldn’t hurt him, right? “I’m a sophomore at Mirror Creek high. I play shortstop for them. I made Varsity when I was a freshman, but Coach said I’ll probably get to start this year.” He looked over at the field across the street. “Some of the guys on my team aren’t happy about that.”
“So what’s the problem? Why so much conflict?” Kelly furrowed her brows as she rested her elbows on her knees, leaning forward but looked to her side where Julian sat. “Obviously you’re distrustful of people, so you harbor a lot of anger towards them. Why is that?”
He rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. “People suck. Guys on my team say I don’t deserve to be there. That I’m Coach’s pet or something.”
Kelly shrugged. “I don’t care what others say. What’s the truth?” She looked at him again and watched him for whatever he might not say.
Julian sat up straighter. “I’m good. I know I’m good. Better than Callison ever was, even if he got them to State last year.”
“So sports is all the matters to you?” Kelly lifted her brows.
“Sports will get me out of this town,” Julian snapped. He wished for another cigarette but crunched down on the Fireball instead. Spicy cinnamon flared on his tongue. “But I’m not just some dumb jock.”
“So who are you?”
Julian sighed and stuffed his hands into his hoodie again. His fingers brushed over his grandfather’s silver Zippo and the feel of the warm metal calmed him. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “My whole life I’ve known exactly who I don’t want to be.” He rubbed his thumb against the lighter, feeling the indentation his grandfather had left there from decades of the same habit. “I want to be a good man,” he said softly. “I want to be the kind of guy that Meg thinks I am. But I think it may already be too late for me.”
Kelly tilted her head but then spoke softly, “Why would it be too late for you?”
“Contaminated gene pool?” He waved his free hand toward the cars that were now leaving the parking lot. “Everyone in this town knows that my mother’s crazy and they’re just waiting for me to lose it too.”
“And what have you done to solidify that opinion of theirs?” Kelly watched him—keeping an open mind. She already knew who he was in this story because his author had told her, but it was never that simple in their reality. She wanted to see where exactly he stood.
“I…I get in fights.” He glanced up at her. Who was she going to tell? For all he knew, he was seeing someone that wasn’t there just like his mother talked to his dead sister sometimes. “That’s not exactly a secret. I broke Ratner’s nose last year.” He rubbed at the back of his neck. “But there’s all this stuff, you know? I feel like I’m drowning sometimes. They…they put me on meds.” He turned quickly to face Kelly and reached out, his hands stopping just short of grabbing her arm. “Meg doesn’t know that. I don’t know what kind of powers you have, but you can’t tell her.”
“I swear I’m not going to tell her. I won’t be meeting with anyone else here, so your secret is safe with me.” She gave him a reassuring smile. “You can tell me anything. No one will know. So, what burdens you?”
He shrugged. “Burden,” he said slowly. “Mr. O talks about burdens in Sunday school. I don’t know if I believe in God anymore. Meg does. She never seems to lose faith, even when we don’t deserve it.” He chucked bitterly. “I can’t believe in something that would take my sister away.” He squeezed his eyes closed. “If she were still here, things could be so different.”
Kelly nodded understandingly then sighed and looked down at her hands. “I lost a brother. He was my big brother and my protector. It’s never easy to let someone close to you go.” But then she lifted her gaze to him and gave him a small smile. “Tell me about your sister. What was she like? What do you remember most about her?”
Julian stared at her face but saw nothing but honesty there. “So you get it.” He smiled a little as he thought of her. “Hope was a little older than me, but we were always together. We even played T-ball together when we were little. She was terrible.” He chuckled. “She was my best friend. We were the Three Musketeers—me, Meg and Hope.”
Kelly chuckled. “Sounds delightful.” She wanted to ask what happened to her, but not yet. “What is your favorite memory of her?”
Julian’s smile grew wider. “It probably sounds weird, but she invited me to her slumber party once. She had a bunch of girls over, and I was playing video games by myself in my room. She and her friends barged in and said they were doing makeovers and I had to help.” He blushed. “It was crazy. I let them dye my hair BLUE.” He took off his cap and ran his fingers through his dark, sun-streaked hair. “She didn’t want me to be left out.”
Kelly laughed, but it was a warm and honest laughter, and then she grinned at Julian. “They didn’t invite you to play tea with them or something, did they? If you actually did, then you have my respect because I know how crazy a bunch of girls can be!”
Julian laughed. It felt good to talk about Hope with someone. “No, no tea parties. She liked dance parties. She even tried to teach me ballet after she started taking lessons.” He shook his head. “I may be an athlete, but this body was not made for ballet.” He paused. “Did you make your brother play tea with you?” He put up both of his hands in a mock surrender. “You don’t have to answer. It’s just…no one gets it. No one talks about her. Meg acts like I’ll break or something.”
“Oh no, no tea parties. That was never really my thing.” Kelly shook her head. “I liked playing with horses though.” She smiled. “But I didn’t make him play with me. He wasn’t around a lot, but when he came, he was always watching out for me.” She glanced down to the field before them. “I do miss him, but I know he has peace now.”
Then she shook her head. This wasn’t about her, but she sensed Julian could relate, and it helped him open up. “So, tell me more about her. You can tell me anything. Obviously you loved her so very much, and her passing hurt you greatly.” Kelly glanced to him. “But you cared about her a lot, and it’s okay to talk about her. She was in your life for a reason—even if it was just to create happy memories for you.”
“Yeah.” Julian swallowed hard and shoved his cap back on his head, pulling it so the brim shadowed his eyes. “She was my safe place. My father isn’t…my father and I have never really gotten along. I’ve never been who he wanted me to be.” He let out a shuddering sigh. “And I still have no idea what that is. But Hope got me, no matter what.” He looked down. “You laughed when I told you about the blue hair. Do you know what my dad did?” He heard his voice getting loud and sucked in a deep breath. “He shaved my head. ‘boys don’t have blue hair’ he said.”
Kelly shook her head and frowned. “I’m sorry. He sounds like a very difficult man to live with.” But then she looked at him, considered him for a moment, and smiled, “But I bet you rocked the bald look.” When Julian gave her a look, Kelly shrugged. “Not many can get away with it, but I bet you did—although you didn’t think of it at the time.” Then she took a deep breath knowing she had to delve deeper, even if it renewed old pain within him.
Softening her voice, she asked, “So what happened to Hope?”
“She got sick.” He clenched his hands into fists and pressed them against his thighs. “She got sick and my parents didn’t tell me anything. My grandpa told me there was something wrong with her heart.” He swallowed. “She started having trouble breathing and one day they took her to the hospital and she never came home.”
“So…you blame God? Blame your grandfather? Your parents? Or who exactly?” Kelly watched him closely. She suspected this would get his his defenses up, and she respected that but talking it out could help him.
Julian glared at her. “Don’t you ever say anything bad about my grandfather. He was a good man!” His legs ached to get up and pace but there was no place to go. “There’s nobody left! Do you get that? There’s no one left who loves me. Meg thinks she does, but she wouldn’t…she wouldn’t if she knew the truth.”
Kelly furrowed her brows. “The truth about what? You having a bit of a violent streak? Your sister? What?”
Julian bent over and pressed his face into his hands. “This is so messed up,” he moaned. “We promised Hope we’d take care of each other. We promised to tell each other everything. But I haven’t. I can’t.”
Kelly watched him. Her heart went out to him, but she understood a thing about death and coping with its loss. “You’re right. You can’t take care of her, but she’s in a better place. A place where she won’t get hurt or sick or anything. Now though…” She waited until he reluctantly lifted his head. “Do you think your sister would be happy with who you are today?”
Julian pressed his palms against his eyes. “She’d think I really screwed up.”
“So, do you think you can change that—change into someone she’d approve of? Someone that would make her laugh and smile if she were to see you?” Kelly kept her voice soft as she asked these questions.
Julian stared at her, his bottle green eyes shiny. “I can’t take it back,” he said, his voice rough. “I can’t make it stop. Not until I get out of this town. Then I can forget everything and start over.” He looked down at his hands and whispered, “Two more years until I graduate and then I can get out of here and forget all about this place.”
“But until then, you have choices to make, and those choices will make you.” With a sigh, Kelly rose to her feet and looked down at him. “Unfortunately, my time here has come to an end. I do appreciate you talking with me and trusting me with all you have said.” She gave him another reassuring smile. “I won’t breathe a word to anyone here. They will never know. However, you might like to know that I don’t think you’re a bad person. You have just been through a lot. You can change, you can become a better person if you really, truly wanted to. There is no happiness in anger–only anger. Learn to let it go, don’t let the opinions of others bother you, and simply try to do what you think your sister would want you to do. That is why she came into your life in the first place–to be your shining light even after she’s gone. You just need to see that.” Kelly then glanced around once more and sighed. “I must go. Thank you again.” And with that, instead of vanishing away, she made her way down the bleachers.
Robyn’s story is titled ‘The Shoe Tree’, and has no set release date. To keep up with her, you can find her on social media: