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Curveball

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“Strike three!”

Rick jumped from the dugout where he'd been nervously leaning against the rail to run out with the rest of his team to the lanky kid on the mound. The boy who had just won his first high school baseball game.

The young pitcher was grinning with just a small show of his teeth, shy even in his moment of triumph. He seemed a bit shocked and overwhelmed by the team coming up to engulf and tackle him there on the mound.

“Way to go, Daryl!” Glenn shouted right in Rick's ear as they made it to the mound.

“Good job, buddy!” Rick grabbed the boy in a tight hug, but then toppled over as the rest of the team caught up to them, the weight of all the players too much for Daryl to handle.

Rick was laughing, Daryl was laughing, hell, the whole world was laughing. Rick had a good feeling about this kid and this team. They might even get to go to state this year. Best not think about that right now though, it was only the first game of the season.

After the appropriate time of joyous tumbling, the rest of the team started peeling off the dog pile. Rick hadn't been able to really see or hear anything for a while because he was near the very bottom. When most of the weight finally was gone and he could see, he looked to Daryl beneath him.

Daryl was looking at Rick, and only Rick. His smile was a bit dimmer now, a bit shyer. As though it was only for Rick. And Rick realized with a feeling like a kick to the stomach that not only was he laying on Daryl, he was knee to knee, hip to hip, chest to chest. A very inappropriate position to be with a high school student if you were their teacher and coach.

Rick scrambled up as soon as he was able and reached a hand down to help Daryl up. He wrapped an arm around the pitcher's shoulders and escorted him off the field.

“DQ for everyone!” Shane called out to the team, earning a shout from the team and the parents. “I'm only paying for the team!”

A few chuckles and not so few groans came from the parents congratulating their players. It was an old joke. Shane, the assistant coach, always paid for the kids after winning a game. And there were always parents trying to save a buck and get free ice cream.

While the kids and parents meander to their vehicles Rick and Shane went back to the dugout to make sure all their gear had been cleaned up and to collect all the coaching equipment.

“I'm so glad you convinced him to join the team. Just wish we could have gotten him freshman year instead of senior year. Maybe we’d have won more than a handful of games over the last few seasons,” Rick said to Shane as he threw a duffle bag over his shoulder.

They'd been teammates in high school, Rick had only played baseball, but Shane had played football too. Shane had injured his knee during a football game when the two had been in college, but he hadn't let it make him bitter. He'd even told Rick he was kind of glad because he didn't know if he could handle the pressure of a professional career.

Once they had everything squared away, Rick looked around for his new star player and saw him talking to Glenn. The exuberant kid was about the only person Rick had ever seen go out of his way to talk to Daryl. Most of the others gave Daryl his space.

Rick walked over to the two boys, gave a little wave to Daryl and said, “See ya there, kid.”

Glenn gave him a funny look that Rick couldn’t interpret before walking away.

Daryl's smile slipped a bit and he looked around sheepishly, “I ain't got any money for ice cream and I ain't got a ride.”

Rick frowned at him before looking around the swirl of people, trying to find Daryl's parents. Not that he would know what they looked like. They hadn't come for parent teacher night and he'd never seen anyone pick up Daryl from baseball practice.

“Shane's paying, no need to spend your own money. I'll talk to your parents if you think they won't let you go.”

“Ain't like that,” Daryl was already shaking his head as he looked down at his feet, scuffing the dirt up. “I don't want any more charity. And my dad's not here for me to ask.”

“Daryl, the only reason we can go get ice cream is because you won the game. And it's not charity, it's a gift for winning the game,” Rick explained to him.

Daryl had pulled away from Rick and was going to the dugout to get his backpack and gear, really just his batting helmet, glove, and the bottle of water Rick had given him before the game.

Rick could see all the other kids loading into cars, smiling and laughing.  They didn't notice the little drama unfolding right on the edge of the field between their coach and the new kid on the team. Neither did their parents, or the coaching staff, or the opposing team. Everyone else was so wrapped up in their own little world. Rick was always amazed how people could do that, not notice what's going on around them.

“Tell coach Walsh I appreciate the offer, but I gotta get home,” Daryl said as he came out of the dugout, slinging his battered backpack over his shoulder.

“If you need a ride, you can ride with me,” Rick offered.

Daryl blinked and looked away, staring at nothing as he contemplated the offer. He looked back over to Rick and then shook his head.

“Nah, I ...”

Rick cut him off, “It'll just be a half hour. I'll drive you straight home after. Everyone's gonna be bummed if you don't show up.”

Daryl looked away again, this time to the now nearly empty parking lot. Rick couldn't guess what was going through his mind. Was he really that shy? Everyone knew him to be quiet and a classic introvert, but he'd just won his first baseball game. Surely he'd want to celebrate?

Rick put a hand on Daryl’s shoulder, causing the boy to jump. He immediately dropped his hand; Daryl didn't like to be touched. Everyone knew that. He'd shy away from anyone who tried. Which, now that he was thinking about it, made the first few minutes after the game an anomaly. Maybe he had been so excited about winning, he hadn't noticed.

“You sure it will only be a half hour?” Daryl asked him.

“Yes, we can set the timer on my phone if you'd like,” Rick said, brandishing his phone.

“Ok, but you don't have to drive me all the way home, just to the park.” Rick was so happy he'd gotten Daryl to go, he didn't even wonder why the caveat was added.

“Great! Let's go before Shane figures out he's going to have to do this every Thursday for the season. You got a great arm kid.”

Rick walked him over to his truck, a red Chevy Silverado 4x4. He loved that truck. It was a little loud, and had a bit of rust, and the engine light was always on for no damn reason, but it was bought and paid for, and he wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Rick unlocked Daryl's door for him with the key (no fancy remote lock for his truck) before walking around and unlocking his door and climbing in.

Buckling the seatbelt and putting his left foot on the clutch pedal to start the truck was so second nature to him by now, he didn't even think about it. He looked over to Daryl to make sure he had buckled up and saw the kid look at him with a bit of surprise.

“What?”

“It's a stick.”

“Yeah, hard to find new ones with a stick,” Rick told him.

“Nobody drives a stick anymore,” Daryl said with a little awe.

Rick laughed, “Some of us do!"

“Hrmph” was all Daryl had to say to that.

“What kind of music do you like?" Rick asked him.

“Anything but country or rap.”

“LMFAO?” Rick asked.

Rick had to laugh at the disbelieving look that Daryl gave him, “Just kidding.”

He turned on the radio that was already on his favorite rock station. 'Light My Fire' by The Doors soon wafted through the cab of the truck, a favorite of Rick’s.

“Good song,” was all Daryl said.

The rest of the ride was quiet except for when Rick would hum along with the song playing on the radio. The Dairy Queen was only a few miles from the school, so it didn't take long to get there. Daryl had watched Rick shift gears the whole ride over. The gear shifter was on the floor and took up a lot of space, so when Rick got into 5 th gear, his hand brushed Daryl's knee.

Daryl had scooted back in his seat and moved his knees closer together. Rick chose to ignore the movement. If he didn't make a big deal about it, then hopefully it wouldn't make Daryl feel even more uncomfortable.

The parking lot was nearly full when they got there, so Rick had to park in the back. As they walked up the crowd sitting outside gave a cheer. Daryl turned around and looked behind him.

“That's for you!” Rick laughed and told him.

Daryl ducked his head and tried to wave off the cheers, but they continued until they got into the restaurant.

“There's that arm!” Leave it to Shane to pare down an athlete to a single body part.

“Need more than an arm to be a good pitcher, Shane,” Rick told him with a smile. It was actually an old joke between the two. While Shane had been a great hitter and a good outfielder, Rick had been an extraordinary pitcher and a terrible hitter.

“Yeah, yeah. Here's your Blizzard.” Shane knew Rick’s order never changed, always Oreo blizzard. Why mess with a classic?

“What can I get you?” He asked Daryl.

“You really don't have to get me anything,” Daryl tried again to brush off the free treat.

“I don't have to do anything but pay taxes and die. Now I want to buy you an ice cream. Pick something out,” Shane said as he gestured to the menu hanging above the counter.

Daryl looked over the menu carefully. It occurred to Rick that he hadn't been here before and that made his heart hurt a bit. He looked over to Shane and saw he must have been thinking the same thing because he had a small frown on his previously jovial face.

“I'll take a small vanilla cone,” Daryl finally ordered.

“Like hell,” Shane wasn't about to let him get away with a something so plain.

“It's fine, I gotta go eat dinner in a bit and I uh, don't want to ruin my appetite,” Daryl attempted.

“It's a special occasion, and you're a growing boy. Ain't never seen a teenage boy turn down a meal. Now pick what you really want,” Shane said, leaning back on the counter and crossing his arms.

Daryl had his hand on the edge of the counter, rubbing a thumb back and forth, catching his nail on the marred trim on the way. He sighed and looked up at the menu again.

“A medium cone,” Shane made a noise in his throat, “dipped in chocolate.”

Shane's eyes met Rick's and he raised an eyebrow. Rick shook his head slightly, now was not the time to delve into whatever the kid's problems were. They had all season to work on that. Being a high school baseball coach was more than just batting averages and running bases.

As soon as Daryl got his cone he turned and walked outside, eating it in big bites as he went.

“You'll get a brain freeze!” Shane called after him, laughing.

The coaches followed Daryl outside to see him trying to fold in on himself, working so hard to be invisible while the folks there wanted to laud his win. Hiding his face behind his long and shaggy hair, he worked on eating the cone as quickly as possible, obviously wanting out of the spotlight.

“Poor kid. I bet he's never had so many people looking at him all at once,” Rick said.

“He's shy s'all,” Shane replied.

“Maybe,” was all Rick could say.

By then Daryl'd finished his ice cream and was looking around for Rick. He walked over to where Rick had been wrangled by one of the single moms and cleared his throat.

“Can you take me home now, Coach?” Daryl asked.

“Sure thing, Daryl,” Rick nodded to the clingy woman and motioned Daryl to walk ahead of him.

Daryl waited next to the truck for Rick, biting his thumb nail and looking anywhere but at the crowd of people laughing and enjoying the beautiful spring day.

Rick needed to work on his best pitcher's confidence, he planned on getting him to college on the talent the kid had. At this point he had great potential, but if he doubted himself or his talent, he would be dead in the water, never getting past playing in high school.

"Hey, you deserve their praise, Daryl." Rick said as he put his key in the passenger side door to unlock it.

"Don't like people looking at me," Daryl protested as he waited for Rick to open the door.

Rick stayed in front of the door, blocking Daryl from getting in the truck. Now was a good a time as any to start working on that confidence.

"You're a great pitcher, a good student, and all around decent guy. There is no reason for you to not hold your head up," Rick said with as much conviction as he could.

Daryl bit his lip and looked at Rick through his bangs, like he wasn't used to people pointing out the good things about him.

"I gotta get home," Daryl avoided the subject, looking pointedly at the truck door behind Rick.

Rick sighed and moved out of Daryl's way. Small steps, he reminded himself.

Rick unlocked his door and slid into the driver's seat. He looked over to Daryl and was startled to see the boy's intense gaze directed at him. He smiled at Daryl in hopes of making the unassuming kid feel more comfortable, but his smile seemed to do the opposite. Daryl gasped and turned red, quickly dropping his gaze and pulling into himself again.

Sighing and shaking his head, Rick started the truck and put it in reverse. Or tried to, he couldn't get it to stay in gear. It was always a little hard to shift the truck into reverse, maybe that was why the engine light was on. He really didn't want to deal with this now, most of the team and their parents were sitting just a few yards behind him, and Shane would be watching too. Shane would never let him live it down if he couldn't get the truck in gear, or worse, stalled it.

"Try putting it in first and rollin' forward a bit," Daryl suggested after Rick had tried shoving it in gear for the third time.

It sounded like a better plan than trying to just forcing it in gear which wasn't working. Rick followed Daryl's direction and the truck shifted smoothly into reverse. Flashing Daryl another big grin, he backed out of the parking spot.

“I never thought of that. How did you know that would work?” Rick asked in amazement.

“Miss Rose that lives a few houses down from me drives an old El Camino and it has the same problem. She sometimes asks me to drive her to the store.”

“That's awful nice of you, Daryl.”

“Nah, I get to drive a classic car, even if it is mostly rust,” Daryl finally smiled a small smile at Rick.

Rick laughed at Daryl's cheekiness and pulled out of the parking lot. It was nice to see him open up a bit. Maybe talking cars would be Rick's 'in' with the shy kid.

The radio was playing 'Love in an Elevator' by Aerosmith. Rick couldn't help but sing along, but when it got to 'going down?' he stopped and looked over to see if Daryl was even paying attention.

Daryl wasn't paying attention to what Rick was singing, he was staring at Rick's hand on the gearshift, seemingly fascinated by the actions of shifting the truck.

“I think I'm going the wrong way,” he said to Daryl.

Daryl's head shot up and he looked out the window, taking in their location, “We can still get there from here, just turn up there at the gas station.”

Rick shifted lanes and turned down the side street.

“Sorry about that, kinda went into auto-pilot and just started going home.”

“Happens,” was Daryl's brief reply.

Rick wasn't sure which way to go from the direction they were now going, he looked over to Daryl again to ask for the next turn.

“Where's the next turn?” he asked after a moment.

“Jus' go straight 'til we get to the on ramp for the highway. It's the next turn after that.” Daryl answered.

Rick nodded his head, he knew where the on ramp was, he'd just never gone this way to get there. They were on a side road that looked to be long past due for a repaving, with potholes and and rough patches. He had to slow down to avoid causing them to bang their head each time he hit one.

'The Lemon Song' by Led Zeppelin came on the radio and that made Rick blush, he reached to turn the station, but Daryl interjected.

“You are not turning off Led Zeppelin.” Daryl was actually giving him a steely eyed glare.

“The lyrics are pretty suggestive, I'm not sure it's appropriate,” Rick said.

“I've heard the song before, Coach.”

Right, of course he had. That didn't make Rick feel any more comfortable sitting in the truck with a student while Robert Plant sung about someone squeezing his lemon.

“How 'bout we turn it down and you can tell me how come you're just now playing senior year.” Rick suggested.

Daryl bit his lip and turned to look out the window, “Didn't have the money before.”

Rick almost asked why he had money now, but figured it would be a touchy subject.

“You must have been practicing that fastball for quite a while.”

Daryl looked back at Rick and nodded his head, “ ‘Bout a year.”

“I'd like to teach you how to throw a sinker and a slider before we play Woodbury.”

“Do pretty good with the fastball,” Daryl dissented.

“Yeah, but if that's all you throw, then the batters will learn to adapt. They other coaches can start watching for your tell and letting their team know how to time the hit.”

Daryl must not have ever thought of that because he got an introspective look on his face, “A'right.”

Rick gave him another full on smile, making Daryl blush and look away again. Rick was getting the impression that maybe Daryl might have a little man crush on him. He'd dealt with girls before, but not any guys. And Daryl really didn't seem the type, but what did Rick know, more people were accepting nowadays, so more people were coming out. Things had changed a lot since he was in school.

“Stop here.” They were at the trailer park that sat between the highway and the train tracks. Rick pulled over and put the parking brake on. Daryl was pushing the door open as soon as the truck had stopped.

“That was a good game, Daryl.” Rick wanted another minute to talk to the boy, try and work on his confidence, “We can work on your slider next practice. Your fastball's great, take somebody's eyebrows off...but it's nice to have another pitch in your pocket.”

“Sure, Coach,” Daryl was holding onto the door, not looking at Rick, but back at the park, eyes darting around as though he was looking for something.

Rick felt bad for keeping him now, “Ok, see you in class tomorrow.”

Daryl slammed the door and was gone into the trailer park before Rick could get his truck in gear.