Once upon a time, I loved playing baseball in the yard with my dad. I loved the crack of the bat as it bit the ball and sent it soaring out past the cornfields. I loved the way he lifted me over his head and spun me after I'd rounded home plate. My father smiled at me with his clear blue eyes and exclaimed, "Ellie, you're the best player in Texas!" But once upon a time was a long time ago; and now all of those things are dead. The corn. My father. Even baseball. The war brought the whole world back in time. No internet. No phones. No malls. Billionaires with offshore accounts were just as poor as the rest of us. Digital money didn't matter. We saw the return of bartering in order to conduct trade. And, in some instances, the return of slavery. At least, that’s how I feel. While the foreign threats had been subdued, here in America, we faced the barbarism of desperation. Men and women were starving. Every major city had been bombed and shelled, and the survivors were without basic necessities like clean water and an adequate food supply—in addition to the various other commodities they'd come to rely on. My father had been a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army. He fought in many wars but rarely brought the burden of the battlefield back home to Rock Ridge. He let me keep my childhood of princesses, castles, knights, and fairy tales. The savagery of war has stolen all those loves from me. It was just after my tenth birthday that my father met Theresa. She was beautiful, tenacious, and smart. Her ambition drew him to her. He told me a few times that she was a fighter, and that with the way things were going, we needed that sort of spirit. The first time I saw her, I remember wondering if she was a model of middle-aged southern belle. Her two daughters looked so much like her, but the idea of sisters overwhelmed me. Brothers seemed more fun, but she only had girls. Two of them. Apparently, Theresa was some pageant winner in her hometown Knotwood, a few miles south of us. Her lovely, perfect red hair framed her heart-shaped face. The only wrinkles on her face came out of her eyes from constantly smiling. Or so I’d thought. My father had only been dating her for a few weeks when he got the urgent message that he had to deploy again. It wasn't easy having him gone so much. If I didn't love him, it would have been great. I'd have had his money and the ranch and the house and the stories to brag about. But none of those mattered when he was gone. Rock Ridge wasn't the same without him. As soon and he left, Theresa kindness and beauty transformed into hateful, spiteful meanness. It didn’t take long for me to learn that as beautiful as she was on the outside, she was just as ugly on the inside. And now my dad was gone for good. Sometimes, when the day has been especially hard, my arms become riddled with fresh purple bruises from all the work, and my stepmother’s tongue has no leash at all, I close my eyes and go back to that “once upon a time”. "Violet!" Savannah called. I walked into the front living room slowly—partially because I was sore from planting all day, and partially to irritate her. When she and her younger sister, Cheyenne, first started calling me "Violet" because of my bruised arms and legs, I resented it. But not anymore. Violet is more of my name now than Ellie ever was. My father called me Ellie, so they have no right to. My two step-sisters stood in the front room, striking silly poses in the huge mirrors along the north wall. I knew they were attempting to be seductive models. I stifled a chuckle. "Button me up," Savannah demanded, before turning her back to me. Obediently, I started slipping the mismatched buttons into the buttonholes in her handmade dress, careful not to pull any of her long, red ringlets. "Please?" I muttered sarcastically to Savannah, forcing my shaky, sore fingers to cooperate. Savannah had taken bits of frilly pink fabric and beige lace and stitched it together in an attempt at what I can only guess was her attempt to re-create Victorian fashion. She looked absurd. "Don’t be jealous!" Savannah twitched her shoulders at me. "Even if you had made a dress, you'd still look like a man with your hideous hair." I had to roll my eyes. The fact that she insulted my pixie cut again meant she'd run out of material. Fortunately, I hadn't run out of patience. Not yet. "Do mine now!" Cheyenne demanded, pulling her shoulders back. Cheyenne had adorable dimples and clusters of freckles on her cheekbones, even when she was following the family tradition of scowling at me. I suppressed a snicker as I saw the "dress" she'd been working on for the past week. Scraps from her older sister's trash pile lined the edges, but for the most part, she'd haphazardly tried to make an old patchwork quilt into a ball gown. The end result was downright hilarious. Without warning, Theresa bustled into the room. I tried not to cringe but old habits prevailed, and I ducked my head. "Don't bother asking if you can come again," Theresa barked at me. She turned and I zipped up the back of her dress. I have no idea where she got it, but it appeared to be an old wedding dress she had dyed deep purple. It was lovely, but too low cut in the front for a woman over fifty. "I don't even want to go anymore," I confessed. "You'd miss the opportunity to see a war-friend of your father’s? Not the ‘angel of a daughter’ he thought you were then, are you?" Theresa lifted her eyebrows, as if daring me to talk back. She always did that after delivering an insult, like she wanted me to test her and engage in some battle. Talking back didn't take bravery or courage—biting my tongue did. I began counting my breaths in an effort to diffuse my anger. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. I slowly drew my fourth breath. In. Calmly, in as composed a tone as I could manage, I delivered my response. "It's nothing to do with him. I'm just not one for galas." I shrugged, thinking of how I would spend my time with them away. A grin crept across my face. Savannah narrowed her eyebrows. "You really don't care about Captain Jackson Wyatt?" I shrugged again. "I care about him. I mean, I'm glad he is home safe. From what everyone says, he was quite the hero out there, on the battlefield." As I tried to picture him in his army uniform, decorated with ribbons and medals, the only image that came to mind was the ten-year-old boy that me and the neighborhood kids used to play baseball with. That was before his dad left again and his nanny became so strict about his education that he was almost always confined to his house. That was five years before the draft sent him to war with his father. I would love to see Jackson, but he wouldn’t remember me. We played on opposite teams, and he spent any free moments he had flirting with the other girls. Theresa and her daughters moved out of the front room to the entryway, just in front of the door, waiting for me to open it. "Isn't that a little ridiculous?" I said, looking at the door. "Each of you are perfectly capable of opening it yourself." Theresa's finger shot out, nearly jabbing me in the eye. "Don't get sassy with me. It's not about whether or not we can do it. It's about respect." I knew very well that it was about respect and that respect was a one-way street in my house. Or, what used to be my house. "Please give Colonel Wyatt my regards," I said. My late-father would have wanted me to be friendly to his battle-buddy. Even though I never heard from them anymore. "If he asks, I will tell him you said hi," Cheyenne said, climbing into the old car. I hitched our two horses to the front and removed everything that wasn't essential for its structural integrity. Gasoline was rare and expensive, and since their feelings of superiority forbade them from walking like most people, my stepmother and sisters rode in a horse-drawn car with four flat tires to the gala at Mayor Wyatt's mansion. They were just out of sight just as Johnny limped out from behind the rose bushes that grew like crazy on the side of the house. "You don't look ready at all," he said, propping himself up on the baseball bat he was using as a crutch. "Five minutes," I smiled and I raced back inside. Three minutes later I had on my lucky orange baseball jersey. While it was far too big for me when my dad first bought it, it now fit me like a glove. Wearing it, I felt like the best player in Texas. Johnny and I walked slowly across the wide stretch of dirt and brush toward the stadium. Fortunately for him, the stadium wasn't very far. And if I'm being completely honest, it’s a bit unfair to call it a stadium. Certainly nothing like Fenway or Yankee Stadium used to be. Had it been any bigger, it would have been a target for the enemies. Instead it was mostly intact, except the seats behind the field which had been nearly leveled. Johnny hobbled on his left foot, still using the bat for a crutch while I listened to him tell me about his day. "Mayor Wyatt is hiring again. I was outside his house today while he gave a little speech to the applicants. He said he hires so many servants because he doesn't believe in something for nothing and won't give handouts. Says people have to learn to work or humankind will die off. He blames the earlier generations for getting too dependent on technology." Johnny nudged an empty can out of his way before turning back to me. I kicked the can back to him, aiming for his head, and he ducked behind a wide telephone pole. The wires hung like Christmas lights that had been in the box for too long. Tangled. Twisted. Useless. "You think he's right?" Johnny asked. "Probably," I said. "Austin Wyatt is a smart man. He knows more about this world than I ever will." Johnny nodded. "Seen more of it too." I hate it. Johnny always brings up the draft in subtle ways like that as if it's his fault he didn't go to war—like it's a bad thing. Not that I can't understand him; I wanted to go to war too. Sitting home wondering when we were all going to get invaded, blown up, or catch the plague-du-jour couldn't have been easier than fighting for something. But since the war and the aftermath brought us all back in time, women couldn’t go to war for the same reason you couldn't hunt female deer. I mean, now that everyone is starving, you can shoot and eat whatever you want. No one will stop you. Basic reason being that men can't get pregnant or nurse babies. But I wasn't in any position to get married and have kids. I wanted to fight for my country. I chopped my hair short like a soldier to try and get drafted even though I knew I'd get caught. I also knew that if I didn't at least try to fight, I'd never be able to forgive myself. I’ve never regretted cutting my hair, and have kept it short ever since. It's easier to do the work around the former-ranch this way. Besides, long blonde hair doesn't really suit my personality. A few minutes later we reached the stadium. As we stepped through the broken doors and onto the field, a sense of peace came over me. We'd managed to clear the smaller pieces of cement and metal off the field, but some blocks of cement couldn't be moved by me and Johnny alone. A patch of persistent weeds kept trying to hide third base. But I'm winning that battle. I'd bring my horses down and let them draw the cement off the field, but I'm used to how it looks now. And I wouldn't want Theresa coming to look for the horses and tarnishing this place with her presence. Everywhere else in this world had issues; distractions. But here I lose myself in the game. Forget all the troubles. I sprinted to home plate while Johnny hobbled to the pitcher's mound. Doing this at least three times a week kept me sane. Though Theresa didn't bring me a brother, which probably ended up being a good thing based on how terrible her daughters were, fate brought me one. Johnny's basically my brother now and baseball is one of the only things keeping me from abandoning Rock Ridge all together. We couldn't play baseball on a team–there were none. Besides, the stadium wasn't really in good shape and now most people spent their time ensuring survival; not seeking entertainment or having fun. There was no major league baseball. No crowds of cheering fans, armed with hot dogs and peanuts, beers at their sides, ready to watch their team compete on the field of battle. No. The American pastime was dead—killed in the war. But here in the dead stadium with Johnny, I could resurrect the memory of it, if only for a little bit. First pitch was a ball—Johnny admitted it himself. Second was foul. On the third swing, I felt the hit clear through my shoulders. "It's outta here!" Johnny shouted, as we watched the ball soar out of the stadium. It was only that feeling right there, the home run, that made fetching the balls later worth it. I dropped the bat and took to the bases. In that moment, all that mattered was baseball, and I believe the simplicity of that joy is part of what used to make America great.
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