The batter swung hard and connected clean, sending a shot through the gap between first and second base that yanked the stadium from a three inning stupor. They were primed by an early autumn chill, cold beer, and hot bratwurst, and briefly murmured their approval with a hum that rose through the ball park only to fizzle as the runner tagged first.
Nate glanced left and saw Cheryl still gazing at her phone, paging through texts for what seemed like the fifteenth time in the last hour. Bobby mentioned she’d been a little distracted lately, since her last boyfriend cheated on her. Of course he also mentioned that she was about as much fun as an ass full of carpet tacks even when she wasn’t distracted. It was one of those things that made him think twice about accepting, but of course that was the whole philosophical predicament of the wing man, wasn’t it? From the last few hours of personal experience, Bobby had been generous with his lackluster praise. It could have been worse. She could’ve tried to talk to him.
She sighed and glanced up at the game like a fourteen year old with a penchant for with theatrical disgust. When she didn’t see anything she liked she dropped her nose right back down. Bobby’s date, Emily, looked past him to shoot an ineffectual scowl at the side of her friends head, then refocused apologetically on him.
“So did you catch the guy?”
“Hmm?” Nate was so engaged with the right center field single, he’d forgotten he was in the middle of a story.
“The convenience store guy?”
He swallowed a molten chunk of bratwurst to clear his throat.
“Oh right. Rabbit fast. Luckily, Bobby’s got Antelope in him or something. He kept after him all the way, like a gazelle, while we were all driving around like it was a parade.”
He sipped his beer as the next batter connected. The ball popped straight into the air and briefly disappeared in the window of clear blue autumn sky between the edges of the retractable roof. He didn’t even need to see the pitcher and catcher below to know it would be an easy out.
“You caught him, Bobby?” She was pretty in an earnest, Midwestern, way – freckles, longish hair, just a little too much makeup artfully applied – but there was just something about her that told him she wasn’t really Bobby’s type. If you’d asked him, though, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you what that was. In fact, he really didn’t have any idea what Bobby’s type would be. If he had to guess he would have said A Cowgirl or Calamity Jane.
“Not exactly. I’m ninja fast and all but this guy was like an NFL running back and… Well…”
Bobby was not a big guy. Not by a long shot. In a different part of the country his height and temperament would have made him a great rodeo cowboy: short, wiry and tenacious as hell.
“What did you do?”
“Well my plan, such as it was,” Bobby continued. “was to run him until he fell down and then tase the shit out of him.”
He glanced at Nate with his crooked grin.
“The rest of us in the cars were supposed to help.”
The guy in question robbed a 24 hour convenience store the night before. The first officers on the scene thought they had him but he split straight through them, stiff arming one into the parking lot before dashing into the neat rows of post-war bungalow houses behind the store. The stiff-armed cop sucked wind into his radio to call for backup. Bobby was the other one. He picked himself up and immediately gave chase.
Nate and his partner, Paris, pulled up only seconds later and caught the two of them in the headlights of their cruiser. For five blocks they watched the suspect juke like a pro, weaving through alleys, cutting the lanes between houses, hurtling gardens and garbage cans with only little Bobby Lester chasing him while they tried to maneuver into better position. The minute they thought they had it, the suspect would make a quick check and change direction like he was being operated by a bored child god playing a video game. The guy easily had a hundred pounds on Lester. From the view from the squad car it looked like a chihuahua chasing a Rottweiler. Once or twice Paris – who was driving – nearly hit little Bobby when they tried to cut them off but he was nimble in addition to being quick, and slid out of the way before becoming a good ornament.
Nate propped his door open to get ready for foot pursuit. Paris laughed gleefully.
“Look it im! Fast as a fucking cheetah!”
“Our suspect. He’s like Ahman Green fast.”
“So what would that make Bobby?”
“Umm…” Paris yanked the wheel and sped to the next corner. “Willie Mays? Except he’s not black.”
The suspect and his uniformed blue shadow shot from a gap between the houses and flashed through the lights of the squad car.
“Guess it doesn’t quite fit then.” Nate watched them pass and shoved his door a little wider but the guy cut back and away, right in the direction he’d already come from. There wasn’t much else to do but slam shut again and get ready for next time.
Robin was a hall of fame shortstop for the local baseball team, the Milwaukee Brewers. Nate grew up idolizing him. In the full summer of his youth, Robin was arguably the fastest guy he knew – and it was an argument he had often – sometimes ending with a playful but brutally serious brawl.
“Robin was a bit taller.” He said as they raced down the street till Paris could crank a quick u-turn. Nate leaned out of the car again. “But you’re getting closer. Same color hair at least.”
Paris hit the gas and bashed a garbage can out of the way with the front bumper. They were coming up again and both men flashed so quickly through their headlights they were like deer on a lonely midnight country road. The suspect swung his head around, checking the distance between him and the oncoming squad car, then hurdled a pile of trash at the side of a crumbling garage and was gone. Bobby was just two steps behind. He was grinning and laughing as the pale headlights caught him. Nate could hear him cackling through his open door, giddy like a kid on the first day of summer.
“But you did get him right?” Emily said, bringing him back to the present. She took two large gulps from her small but expensive beer. Her eyes were wide. The next batter took a hard swing and missed completely.
“Sort of.” Nate grinned.
“They had a little help.”
“They? But weren’t you?…”
“Mmm… That’s where it gets a little complicated. You have to remember, we’ve got three or four squads that took the call and this guy was just stupid fast. So the radio is lighting up with location reports of people coming in to the chase, where they are and all that. And of course you’re trying to keep your eyes on the guy, not hit anything and figure out where’s the best place to bail or cut him off. Meantime he’s cutting lightning through people’s backyards and Bobby’s the only one REALLY on his ass. If he slips or something this guy is gone. Anyway. In all the confusion no one caught this patrolman from district two coming in. He’s not even with our district. Just some guy heading to central who decides he’s in position to take up pursuit.”
“The human wall.” Bobby added as the batter swung on and missed again.
“Right. I didn’t catch his name though.”
“Me neither. But if you look close enough his name plate might still be etched into my forehead.”
“The guy was huge. We’re talking Sasquatch huge.”
“Not that big, Nate. Just about your height actually.”
“But like two of me across.”
“Maybe one and a half.”
“I’m trying to tell a story here. A little hyperbole goes a long way.”
“Now you’re just making up words.”
“Anyway. So me and Paris make another circuit around the houses, back to the block we’d just come from and we’re cruising pretty fast to catch up, thinking they’re going to pop through again. Just like they’d done five times before. And we pull up to the spot where we expect them to be coming from but they don’t. I look at Paris and he looks at me and we’re both just dumb. Goofy dumb. Like this.”
Nate made his best dribbling idiot face to illustrate. He’d been told by his ex-girlfriend that it was a pretty good likeness of his usual expression.
“So we both bail, lights and guns out… That whole thing. I’m radioing a broken pursuit and location when I hear this little squeaking coming from one of those gaps between the houses.”
“I don’t squeak…” Bobby grinned. “Usually.”
The batter swung a third time and got a healthy chunk of it. Nate watched it pop and sail away. From his angle it was hard to tell if it had the distance or not and he could feel the anticipation pulling him to the edge of his seat just a little. The rest of the crowd was snared in the same spell, holding their breath to see if the ball had enough. Their voices rose in a tuneless chorus like rain getting heavier on a tin roof. Outfielders drifted back, necks arched and eyes fixed on the sky. They backpedaled to the outfield track when one reached up casually and snatched the ball out of the sky where it seemed to be waiting for him. The crowd went quiet like someone pulled a switch.
“So now I’m thinking something is really wrong. I come running down the alley, gun drawn and see this huge wriggling shadow. The yard had one of those backyard motion sensitive light things so all I can see is this huge silhouette. I mean it looks like something out of nightmares. Like three or four big garbage bags full of live cats or something. I swap out the gun for the taser and I’m just about to zap when I see Bobby’s scrawny little hand shoot out of the pile and wave at me and he’s squeaking, literally squeaking ‘he’s a cop! He’s a cop!'”
“Frystack! That was the guys name. A beast. I should know. He was on top of me. All 800 pounds of him.”
“Yeah. So basically the moral of the story is we had a shrimp NFL kicker chasing a running back and both of them got squashed by a Defensive lineman. I swear, I thought we were going to have to requisition a spatula to scrape him off the sidewalk.”
“Me too. It’s not even funny. I thought I was going to die. Those dude’s were HEAVY. You ever have a whale on top of you?”
“Yes.” Emily said with a sly grin. Bobby’s eyes got wider and a smile crawled across his face. “Remember Eddie Carlton?”
“Fast Eddie? Really? I? Em…? Really?” Bobby stammered, grinning and shaking his head.
“Hey. He was sweet.”
“He was a guy, Em. That was high school. Sweetness was all he had going for him.”
“Well it worked. We dated for like a year after school.”
“Ugh. Fast Eddie. That sly, massive shit.”
“Well… he was that.” Emily’s smile died with the obvious ending of the memory that she didn’t need to share.
“We found out later that the guy only got two packages of twinkles.” Nate inserted awkwardly.
“Yeah. We found out because they were still in his sweatshirt. They exploded all over my uniform. We get the guy cuffed and this Frystack guy comes up and scoops some of the filling off my shirt and he gives me this huge grin, winks at me and says “evidence”. Then he pops it in his mouth.”
Bobby mimicked the whole thing, including the grin. Nate didn’t see it at the time but he figured it was a pretty good likeness. He even pulled his head into his neck a little to simulate the huge cops thick neck.
Emily cackled. Her laugh was startlingly sharp and jagged and it cut the nice stadium hum, making him jump a little. He flicked a glance past her at Bobby who grinned and rolled his eyes behind her back. Nate couldn’t help but laugh. Luckily, Emily seemed to think he was just laughing with her at his own story.
The next batter dug into the dirt and Nate felt one of those terrible gaps of quiet opening between strangers. Emily seemed to wait for one of them to say something else but they were both clearly at a loss. It nervously obligated him to fill it. He looked down at the batter for something clever to say but the Batter wasn’t obliging.
Of all people, Cheryl stepped in to help.
“Hey Em. I gotta go to the bathroom.” She didn’t pry her dull eyes from the cell phone when she said it. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who she was texting and why it required a bathroom consultation.
“So go then.” Emily shot back feigning distraction with a sudden interest in baseball. It won points from the guys. Most women they knew took those sorts of bathroom calls as duty.
“Come with me.”
Nate didn’t have to see it to know that she’d bounced a disdainful expression off his cheek. He was well past the point of caring about it.
“We can go at the end of the inning. I don’t have to go yet.”
“Don’t be a bitch. You don’t even like baseball.”
“Now who’s being the bitch? For fucks sake, Cheryl. Have some class.” She shoved herself from her seat, and glared again at her friend who still hadn’t extracted her attention from the device. “Pardon me, Bobby, but I have to go drown my shitty friend in a toilet. Could you get me another beer?”
“Get me one too?” Cheryl shoved past them, not glancing up.
“Fat chance.” Bobby muttered after they’d gotten out of earshot.
“Ain’t she a piece of work?” Nate sighed.
“Emily doesn’t seem so bad.”
“Nah. She’s okay. We swung from different trees in school. But still… I don’t know. There’s just something about her… She seems to like you though. We could always swap – I could murder Cheryl and you could date Emily.”
“Ehn. Not my type either, Bobby.”
“Well… At least we get a game out of it I suppose. When was the last time we were at the ball park?”
“When was the last time we were at the ball park NOT in uniform?”
The batter swung wide and the ball socked home in the catchers glove. He always loved that sound, even the feel of it. Back in the long ago, Nate had been a pretty decent ball player – nothing outstanding – but he put his heart into it and connected on some deep spiritual level with all of it: the smell of hot dogs in brine, the crack of the bat, the quiet of the field, the way the ball felt when it found leather. He’d blown out an ankle in college which ended his playing, though he still managed a spot on the District Softball team when time allowed it.
The pitcher sank into his stance, checked the runner at first who was itchy with all of the waiting. He took a long lead off, more than he should have given his speed – but the pitcher didn’t worry over it. The guy was taking more than he could chew, practically offering himself up as the next out even if the batter hit it. The pitcher shook off a few signals before nodding and starting his wind up. Just before he finished the arc the runner committed. Nate watched, and on some level felt, the spray of dirt fly from the runners cleats. It was still stored somewhere in his muscle memory. He felt his legs tense up and the toes of his feet crunch harder into the concrete. To him, there was nothing like baseball. The only thing that came close was the scent of the city through a squad car window in the summer time, the distant thumping chaos of one of the many lakefront music festivals or the lurking foot patrol on the lake shore as the fourth of July fireworks lit up the skyline.
The batter connected again. He could tell by the tinny sound that it wasn’t solid – an easy pop fly. The outfielders meandered under it, not even giving enough respect to make the effort and the infielders were already heading in to the dug out.
That was the moment Nate thought he’d gone blind.
The ball was still in flight. Much much later, when finally turning into the precinct for some badly needed rack time, he would have the opportunity to discuss it and they would all collectively come up with much the same thing: a sound like an overloaded transformer followed by a bright flash. But it wasn’t a single bright flash. It was hundreds of brilliant, eye searing flashes all at the exact same instant, as if hooked to a timer.
Unfortunately for Nate, and most of the ballpark, one of those bright flashes came from the outfielder just under the ball. They were staring right at him when he seemed to turninto white hot light.
He got his hands up to his face only after the flash subsided. He shut his eyes tight but ghost images of the flashes were leopard spotted everywhere on the inside of his eyelids. There were so many he was afraid of opening them for fear there would be nothing to see – just never ending blankness.
“Jesus! What the hell was that?” He yelled. Already the sound of the crowd was increasing. They weren’t panicked yet. He hoped they wouldn’t be – maybe it was just some sort of electrical malfunction – but something was telling him that wasn’t the case at all.
“Can’t see, Nate.” Bobby said. “Don’t know. Wasn’t a bomb. Flashbangs maybe? Can you see?”
“No bang, Bobby. Sounded like a transformer blowing.”
He blinked a few times, trying to soften the spots. Then he heard the first scream. It hooked his attention automatically even though the great blind spot obliterated whatever was directly in front of him. There was another scream, and then another. Out of his periphery he could see movement on the far side of the stadium.
“This doesn’t sound good, Nate. Can you see?” Bobby said again.
“Still mostly spots. Every time I try to look all I see is spots.”
“Me too. Try using your periphery. Look away.”
He could see it – it was as though someone had thrown stones into a calm stream of people. They were rippling away from each other evenly, some ripples crashing into others and rising up, all rushing away from central spots in the stands. It almost looked like a new form of cheer, an adaptation of the old tried and true ‘wave’ only with much more panic and screaming.
Someone reeled back into him. He shoved back reflexively but his brain was already telling him it wouldn’t help. If he didn’t do something quick or join the crowd he would be quickly crushed. He’d done crowd control before and knew that crowds were organisms. They responded to stimuli but they responded in unison, without thought or consideration. Fear spread like a virus and resisted all rationality. He felt it creep into him, clutching at his heart and stopping up his thought as thoroughly as a clogged artery stops blood.
Far out on the other side of the field, another ripple went out. At first it was almost pretty: slow and concerned and almost rhythmic. But then it got faster, frantic. He saw people jammed up onto the backs of others, arms up, legs churning. He saw one person fall and get devoured by the gnashing legs of those behind them, desperate, unknowing. The trampled obstacle only serving to trip others who spilled down the sides of the great bowl of the stands like ghastly, tiny, people-shaped grains of sand.
“Pull your legs up, Bobby!” He yelled against the stampede which was already pushing against him. “Pull up and hold tight! Don’t move! Cover up!”
He didn’t know if Bobby could hear him or not. He didn’t even know if it was the right thing to do, but it seemed right plus it would let him get at the ankle pistol he carried.
“Did you bring a piece?” He yelled.
Already, the stream had started to shove past him. It was like being in a lane between herds of passing buffalo. They hammered him repeatedly in the shoulder.
“Got it!” Bobby yelled.
They crammed past him but he didn’t look up. He kept tucked, and tried to prop his feet up onto the seat but it wasn’t much use. Nothing he did would get them to stop hitting him. They grunted and yelled unintelligibly at each other but no one could hear – they were beyond the capacity for listening. The sounds of panic was in him too, chipping away at his sense and rationality. The only thing that helped was keeping his head down and his eyes shut firmly against it.
I’m going to die. I’m going to die. His brain whimpered. Get up and run. Get up and run.
But there was a cooler, almost malicious voice in there too and it told him he’d already made his choice. Whatever came he would live or die right where he was. He’d survive or he wouldn’t.
And that part was right. Whatever happened, he was not getting up. The force of the crowd was too strong. They’d become a solid string of heavy, churning bodies: a single destructive entity without no mind guiding it. They pounded like crashing surf towards what they hoped was the exit. Away from danger. A mob didn’t need to see or know danger to know it was present. It just abided by the will of it’s own sustaining fury and used terror as fuel until it was exhausted in rage, distance or death. Nate made a decision to oppose the mob. He hoped to live through it and see the other side of it, but hope was all he had left.
He vaguely heard Bobby yell something but he couldn’t make out what it was.
“See it?” He heard. But there was more to it than that. Moments ago he thought he was going blind but now going deaf seemed more likely. The crowd bellowed like cattle. ‘Move’ and ‘go’ were frantic mantra’s that sounded more like animals in a herd than any language he remembered. Someone stepped on his back, and then another. It would have kicked him into the stream of people in front had there been any space. As it was it just put his head in position to be bludgeoned by knees and desperate fists, unaware he was even there. He felt himself teetering on the seat sideways and threw his arm out to the armrest to steady himself. One more good pop to the side of the head or a boot to his neck would be all it would take. Any second now.
In the seat Cheryl vacated he heard a solid crack, almost like – but entirely unlike – the crack of a baseball bat against a ball when it gets all of it. Someone in Cheryl’s seat screamed helplessly into his ear but he couldn’t risk picking his head up from his knees to look. Then there was another crack, this one much more sickly and wet sounding. From a bad memory of a bad accident he remembered the sound. It was the sound his brothers arm made when it hit the tree while they were sledding. He’d never wanted to feel that helpless again but here it was, and it was somehow even worse.
“Bobby! Gun! We’ve got to get them off of us!”
Bobby must have heard because the gun went off. At this point it didn’t even matter if Bobby hit anyone. They could fix all of that later, when – and if – they were still alive. The gun went off again. And then again. And instantly there was a break in the stream. He poked his head up and opened his eyes a little, in time to see shocked people tumbling over the metal tombstone teeth of the seats away from him. He didn’t spend a second worrying about them. He knew they would be broken, limbs off kilter, shattered, but he could only do something about that if he was still alive.
He glanced left to where the scream came from. The crowd was thinning, leaving he and Bobby in it’s wake but there was also a woman, in her early fifties maybe, at a strange angle in Cheryl’s seat. She was staring at him with horror, fear and pain, her face upside down. She was crying and she could see the waning panic being slowly replaced with unbelievable pain. He looked down at her. Her leg had been swept along by the crowd and was at a horrible angle with bright bone poking through a horrendous gash.
He watched her lips move.
“Help. Me.” She choked.
In his right ear he could still hear the thunder of the stampede, finally making it to the exit and getting clogged there. People would die in there. He was sure of it. But there was almost nothing he could do about it right now. His brain was rapidly shifting to triage mode.
“We’re going to get you out of here, ma’am. Just sit tight. Try to keep calm.”
“Help.” She mouthed again.
“Bobby?” He glanced right. Bobby was already standing. He looked almost unharmed. Maybe a little tussled but he figured his own much larger form had shielded his friend from much of the abuse. Bobby had his cell phone and was trying to dial with the gun still in his hand. He was staring at the crush of people trying to get into the exit tunnel.
“Can’t get through, Nate. Got no signal. What are we going to do about them?” He pointed at the crush.
“Nothing we can do, Bobby. Not from here and here is where we stay. We’ve got to help the people we can help. You get me? Keep trying the station. When you get through tell them there’s been an incident at the stadium and we need support.”
“You see any security anywhere?”
They both looked around the stadium. Down below, on the field, ball players from both teams seemed to be cautiously converging on something in the outfield. Many of them had bats in hand. He scanned around and spotted a few of the yellow shirted event security standing around, pointing and yelling at each other.
“There’s a few. Go talk to them. Get them organized.” He told Bobby.
The woman clenched his arm hard, her nails digging in, unconscious in her sense of pain. He glanced at her again, wincing and noticing a thin stream of blood trickle down his arm. He grabbed her hand to pry it loose.
“We’re going to get you out of here. Just stay…”
But his voice trailed off as he saw something beyond her in the stands.
It was a good thirty feet away.
At first, he thought it was a bear. Insofar as that made no sense whatsoever, it made perfect sense. What else could so completely panic a whole baseball stadium? It was easily as big as a bear, huge in the shoulders, and seemed to be trying to crawl up the stadium seats by grappling the back rests with it’s feet on the seats. But it was the feet that gave him pause. They were in boots.
Nate blinked, unsure of what he was seeing. Maybe they were still stung from the flash, or maybe he’d gotten hit or something. What he was seeing was clearly not a bear. Not unless bears had somehow become a strange shade of turquoise and wore shoes and… a shirt? That was a shirt wasn’t it? It couldn’t be.
He closed his eyes and shook his head out, like they do in cartoons when someone’s taken a particularly nasty jolt to the head. The way his brother did when he thought he was being funny. When he opened them again the blue, shirt wearing bear was still there. It clambered up another row, gazing around, it’s huge head swiveling on an ursine neck. It turned, glaring at him. It’s expression was oddly human – snarling and bear-like – but somehow human. It’s eyes locked on his in fear, rage, and confusion.
Nate reached for his gun.
The thing stood up on the seat, ripping out the seat back as though tearing a sheet of paper from a book, then flung it out behind him where it sailed out onto the baseball diamond like a strangely shaped frisbee. It curled its huge head back till it was pointing at the retractable roof and howled into the open mouth of the perfect blue autumn sky.
Nate had never heard a more mournful sound in his whole life. It was the sound hearts make when they’re breaking.