Curveball Beta

Thank you for participating in our first “as he writes it” beta team. This should be an interesting and fun experiment. Your partnership will help make our next book so much better. I sincerely appreciate each of you.


  1. What not to look for: Grammar, punctuation, etc. Dear Editor will do the heavy lifting.
  2. What should we focus on?
    • Characters: How do you like the characters? Do they make sense in the context of the story? Do they make you think or react emotionally? How so?
    • Characters: Does each of the main characters have a clear, distinct voice? In other words, can you immediately tell who’s speaking without even looking at the “xxx said” tags? How would you describe each character now that you’ve read the book? (I’m checking to see if what I intended came across.)
    • Story: Is the story easy to follow? Does it make sense and flow well?
    • Story: Is there anything you don’t like or that “throws you out of the story?” (Great writing should transport you and hold you there. Issues, such as plot errors, unrealistic characters, etc. can jar a reader back into the real world).
    • Structure: Does the order of events flow easily? What would you improve/change?
  3. Finally, don’t be gentle! The goal is to make this better, not spare my tender feelings. 😉 Send your feedback, comments, etc. to as often as you like.

Welcome to Curveball. Here we go . . .

1 | Cooper

Creating a pleasant, welcoming office environment always made sense to me, similar to how a foreign secretary might say, “That isn’t helpful,” rather than “Bite my country’s arse” when addressing a frustrating adversary. But I’ve always been baffled by the desire by many of my office mates to turn working relationships into personal ones.

I rarely allowed personal ones to be, well, personal.

Alas, a willow must bend with the wind.

I only hesitated a second before opening the kitchen door, desperate for my second cup of morning salvation, to find Dennis and Marjorie huddled about the coffeemaker, their voices low and conspiratorial.

“ . . . got a rose. I bet they did it. You could see it in her eyes when he stepped up,” Marge said.

“Come on, do you really think—” Dennis’s head snapped up faster than a walker hearing a human in The Walking Dead, and with a frighting similarity in facial expression. “Oh, hey, Cooper.”

I gave him a coffee mug salute. “Good morning.”

The coffeemaker’s offensive line was well positioned, and I paused, my gaze darting between them.

Dennis squared his Sketchers and glared. Marge pretended to take a sip, but was only smothering a giggle. Her eyes clearly giggled. I wondered if that hurt.

“Need something?” asked Dennis, now a fourteen-year-old bully on our office playground.

Dennis was junior to me in every conceivable way. We started working for our monster hospital chain’s headquarters on the same day, and, after only three years, I already outranked him by several levels. I was two years older and a solid thirty pounds thicker. He was basically a walking toothpick with patchy, carroty facial hair and the complexion of a thirteen year old. Mind you, my hair’s waves flowed brown with a dayglow of rouge. I hand no qualms with gingers in general, only this one in particular.

More important than any coiffeur, he was mediocre at his job— on his best day—and not just a little mediocre. I excelled at his mediocrity in ways that made me wonder if he could actually be decent if he put as much effort into being good rather than fiddling off all day. He was a professional level fiddler. Charlie Daniels would be proud.

The whole whatever-it-was between us confounded me. I had only ever tried to help the man, but he continued to repay my assistance with folded arms and pursed lips.

Why was I was intimidated by him?

Yet there I stood, clutching a frustratingly empty mug like it was the bloody holy grail, my eyes flirting with his feet, then drifting up to his strumming fingers.

“I’d like some coffee. I’m thirsty and it’s really early and I need to wake up or I won’t perform well and we have a meeting with Raj and I’ve been working on these spreadsheets and reports for days but they all blend together in the mornings until I’ve had a second cup and coffee would really make me feel better, perhaps with some cream, and possibly Splenda, definitely Splenda. I need a lot of cream and more Splenda. All of that. I need it, really. Would you please step aside?”

I don’t know why he made me so nervous, but I felt like I had to pee but I really didn’t but it felt that way and I wanted to do a pee pee dance right there but we were in the break room and that would’ve looked really silly.

Then, I remembered to breathe.

Marge choked out a snicker that sounded like a cat coughing up a furball.

Dennis grinned, crossed his spindly arms, and raised one rusty brow. “Well, go ahead, Rain Man. We’re just chatting.”

Intellectually, I knew he meant the moniker as an insult, but I couldn’t help taking pride in the comparison to a character with such amazing recall, even if he may have had a shrimp problem. I mean, the shrimp thing was more endearing than troublesome. I could’ve lived with that. Then it hit me that was the wrong movie and I was suddenly very uncomfortable with his name calling.

I glanced to Marge who gave me her best “He’s right, you know,” shrug without removing her mug from her upturned lips.

“Dennis, entering your personal space would be inappropriate. At the very least, it would be uncomfortable.”

“I hereby waive any HR action to which I might be entitled. Invade away.”

An awkward moment passed before Marge’s mug finally clanked against the countertop behind me.

“Come on, Coop. Get your coffee.” She stepped aside and tapped her one bedazzled fingernail against the machine. Dennis, never one for détente, remained a statue, forcing me to push my glasses back up my nose with my forefinger, as it is the only correct finger with which to upright one’s lenses, then reach around him with my mug and fiddle the buttons by memory.

The whole encounter forced me perilously deep into enemy territory.

I ducked my head to avoid getting near his face, but he blew out his breaths and humid air laden with Columbian Supreme and vanilla flavoring battered my sense. We were so close I could even smell a hint of pot he’d likely smoked in the parking lot before clocking in. It still clinging to his shirt with its tiny five-fingered nails. That tangy, pungent scent made me think of a skunk, which made cartoon reruns of Pepé Le Pew race through my head, except it was Dennis’s head on the skunk’s body as it darted about, shooting pot poop out it’s white-striped arse.

A giggle slipped out of my mouth and tumbled onto his shoulder.

“Hey—” he hopped away, banging his head into the fridge.

My giggle grew.

Marge snorted.

Pepe’s face morphed into Yosemite Sam as his fists balled and slammed into his hips in the universal tea pot pose—or is that a sugar bowl since both fists were planted—eliciting another round of merriment from the peanut gallery, but thankfully not requiring additional conversation.

Before he could gather his wits, the machine huffed, I snatched my mug, and fled the relative safety of my cubicle.

“See you in the staff meeting in five. Hope you’re ready,” Dennis called out as the door swung shut behind me.

Great. Dennis was likely planning some sort of sneak attack in front of our team. I doubt they would take him seriously, but the back-and-forth rivalry that had somehow grown horns and teeth was wearing thin on our boss. The last thing I wanted was for a jealous child like Dennis to hold me back. I liked my job.

Every day reminded me of going to the dentist. No, not the icky stick of the needle or scraping of teeth—the comfy, clean feeling as my tongue teased across freshly polished enamel that still tasted of bubble gum flavored paste. God, what could be better? Perfectly clean, orderly teeth, everything as it should be and tasting . . . happy. Yeah, that’s the taste of bubblegum paste. Happy.

And that’s how my work made me feel, all bubble gummy.

Okay, maybe days in the office aren’t quite that Disneyesque, but I loved the work.

“Cooper, are you ready? You’re up first.”

My boss’s face peered down from above the muddy fabric wall. Well, his nose and everything above it did. He wasn’t tall enough for anything else. The nostril cam was zoomed in tight, revealing nearly as many hairs as the bushy things crawling above his eyes.

“Uh, hi, Raj. Yes, I am pressing print—”

He’d vanished before I could finish my sentence.

I fast walked to the printer. There were no pages in the bin, and an angry red light was blinking. I opened and closed every drawer and door I could find, but nothing appeared stuck, so I double checked the paper feeder, then shut its drawer and stepped back and stared, as if assessing a stubborn rhinoceros at the zoo. I have no idea why the copier made me think it was a horny beast, but in that moment, it did.

I was officially late.

Raj would thank me for “joining the afternoon meeting” as I entered, then remind everyone about the importance of punctuality by regaling us with an ancient Indian legend about a beetle who couldn’t fly, or something equally obscure. It never made sense, but we all nodded like he was Yoda. Or a wise man who lived in a cave. Or a crazy one.

“Here, let me help you, hon.”

I turned to from the beast to find Marge approaching. Without her wonder twin, she was actually a very nice lady, something of the office mom. She even had the mom bun, sort of like Princess Leah, except only one gray bun positioned on top. Maybe it was more like a powdered sugar coated dough crown than a bun.

The dance with Dennis had ruined my chance to eat. I was hungry.

Three beeps, two opens and closes, and one hip slam later, the copier was purring like a rhino sized kitten who’d eaten a tree and was now spewing legal-length sheets. Thankfully, those sheets contained my report rather than oversized cat puke, so rhino-kitty was alright by me.

“Thank you, Marjorie,” I said.

She smiled and patted my arm. “Anytime, sugar. You’re late, you know.”

I nodded and snatched my copies, then Usain Bolted my way down the cube aisle toward the conference room.

“Ah, good afternoon, Mr. Hawk,” Raj tapped his watch and frowned like a disappointed father who’d caught his son stealing Goobers at the drug store. “Don’t sit. We were about to skip you on the agenda, but since you decided to join us, you may as well give your report.”

My collar itched and my glasses slipped down my nose but my hands were full and there was nowhere to sit and Raj was staring at me while everyone else in the room stared and Dennis was grinning and all I wanted was to crawl under the mahogany slab and hide.

On the outside, I said, “Everyone, please take a copy and pass the rest. As you see in the Executive Summary on the top of page one, this month was strong. Gross revenues for our division rose by one point three percent, outpacing the zero point four percent growth in the same month, prior year. We were, however, three tenths of a point below our all-time monthly record, so there is room for improvement . . .”

My portion of the meeting normally lasted twenty minutes. Dennis decided that wasn’t nearly enough stage time and peppered me with queries challenging my assumptions or questioning my math.

Thou shalt not question my math. Ever.

I hadn’t been named valedictorian of my graduating class at Gonzaga while double majoring in statistical analysis and business management for nothing. Dennis was wading in a pool far too deep for his boney little arms to dog paddle out of.

I heard a metaphorical bell ring when Raj stepped in and called the bout. It hadn’t been close. Dennis’s scant reputation lay on the shining surface of the conference table, bloodied and barely breathing. I smothered a smile, not wanting to appear too much like a vanquishing hero, you know, with a sword held high and cape snapping in the breeze. Raj must’ve sensed my burgeoning pride, because his next words yanked the superhero cape right off my shoulders. “Thank you, Cooper. Excellent report, as usual, even if you wasted the team’s time with your tardiness.”

“Uh, thank you, sir, and sorry, again, sir.” I mumbled as I finally sat and stacked my remaining copies, straightening them with my fingertips before aligning my pen and pencil in the precise center of the page.

Raj timed the remaining reports and slammed his leather folio shut at precisely eleven o’clock. He nodded crisply to no one in particular, then rose and strode out of the room without so much as a, “You’re dismissed,” or “Good meeting, everyone,” or “I can’t take you people anymore. I’m leaving.”

I might’ve been projecting on that last one. The subconscious mind is a funny thing.
When I returned to my desk, the message light was blinking on my telephone. That was odd. No one ever called me at work, not even Raj. I was the guy everyone depended on for accurate reports, analysis, and recommendations based on statistical modeling and unbiased testing and assessment. I would like to think they respected the mental challenge and immense weight of my responsibility, but the truth was likely closer to something Dennis had once said.

“Everyone hates statistics, even nerds. You’re beyond weird.”

I might be fastidious, but I certainly was not weird.

One of my pens had rolled out of alignment with its brothers, and my fingers couldn’t fly fast enough to save it from embarrassment, nestling it back into blessed harmony while pressing the play button on my phone with my other hand.

“Hello,” the voice of a scrupulously professional sounding woman drifted through the speaker. “I’m calling for Cooper Hawk. This is Bethany Sands at Whisker and Riley, attorneys at law.” I snatched up the receiver and banged it painfully against my ear, then glanced around to see if anyone was near enough to have heard me receive a message from a law firm. I was a lone island in a sea of cubes, so I rewound and pressed play again.

“There is an important matter we need to discuss. I’ll be in the office all day, likely working late. Please call as soon as you get this message.”

Unexpected calls from lawyers were never good, right? They’re like going to the dentist, but without the bubblegum paste.

I scribbled the number she left, then stared at my realigned my pens a moment before reluctantly dialing the woman’s number.

2 | Cooper

I grabbed a pen, scattering the others, and began tapping it rapidly against my desk.
“Bethany Sands,” the voice from the message answered, somehow sounding both reasonably pleasant and incredibly busy.

“Uh, hi. This is Cooper Hawk. You just called me. I mean, you called me twenty minutes ago. Twenty-two, actually.”

“Mr. Hawk, thank you for calling me back. First, please accept my deepest condolences—”

“Wait. What are you talking about? Condolences for what?”

“Oh, dear.” In those two words, her voice lost its professional edge. She paused a beat.

“Mr. Hawk, I’m so sorry you’re hearing this from me, but Marjorie Polk passed away yesterday.”

I stopped tapping.

“Grammy . . . died?”

Another pause, this one several beats.

“I’m so sorry.”

I tossed my pen down, then a flush of panic flooded my chest before I could level it with the others. My OCD knew no bounds, not even in the midst of a familial crisis.

And then an ocean’s swell slammed into my chest, and breathing became a frustratingly difficult act.

“Mr. Hawk? Are you still there?”

“Yeah,” eeked out. “Sorry, I’m just . . . it’s . . . you kind of caught me—”

“It’s alright. Take your time.” The compassion lacing her voice caused the waves to roil and froth. I was sure they would spill from my eyes at any moment.

I tried to speak.

I really tried.

When a moment—or ten—passed, she tossed me a preserver. “Mr. Hawk, I know this must be very difficult, and I’m truly sorry for your loss, but Mr. Whisker, the senior partner in our firm, needs to see you as soon as you can visit our office.”

The only things I heard were the ridiculous sound of a man named Mister Whisker, and the fact an attorney wanted to see me post haste. Stuck at the center of a battlefield where humor, shock, sadness, and uncertainty stood with loaded weapons, all aimed at me, I somehow managed to ask, “Why does an attorney want to see me?”

I swear I heard her lips purse.

“Well, it really is a matter for Mr. Whisker to—”

“Please, Ms.—I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name—just tell me what’s going on so I can figure out how to get through the rest of this day.”



“My name is Bethany.” She sucked in a breath loud enough for me to hear over the phone.

“I’m not supposed to . . . please don’t tell Mr. Whisker I told you this, but Mrs. Polk named you as her executor, and she had a fairly sizable estate.”

When I didn’t respond, she asked, “Were you not aware of any of this?”

“No,” croaked out.

My mind raced.

Grammy had never said anything about any of this, and we talked about everything. At least, I thought we did. I knew she was well off. Anyone who looked at her home or cars or, hell, her jewelry, would know she was rich, but there were a million other people more qualified to handle her estate. The lawyer calling me was one of them. Then my perplexity over the executorship surrendered to the reason I even needed to think about it.

Grammy had died.

I squeezed my eyes shut and pinched the bridge of my nose, but the tears still found a way. By the time Bethany spoke again, my cheeks were soaked, and I was choking through sobs.
“Mr. Hawk, why don’t you take some time? You can call me back in an hour or two. I’ll be here. Alright?”

“Ok. Yeah, that . . . I think . . . yeah. Thanks.”

I’d never been so happy to hang up a phone as I was in that moment.

I met Mr. Whisker at his office later that evening. It’s difficult to say what I expected, but a spherical man whose head barely rose to my shoulders wasn’t it. I’d never had a thing about height or heightism—or shortness—however it should be said, but between his sharply pointed beak, the black spaghetti noodles waterfalling its way down his neck to his shoulders, I felt like I was meeting an actor who’d just walked off a set rather than an esteemed counselor.

My lawyer was a doppelganger for the Penguin from the old Batman TV show.
For the first time that day, unless you count a few self-satisfied grins at Dennis’s expense, I laughed.

“Something funny, son?” Mr. Whisker asked as he peered up at me through spectacles with round, thumb-sized metal frames.

“No . . . sir. Sorry. It’s just . . . it’s been a long day.”

Humor evaporated as my host righted his spectacles and began scanning pages in a manilla folder that lay open before him. There must’ve been two inches of paper in that folio, but I didn’t care. All I saw was a Polaroid of Grammy stapled to its inside fold. She sat in the same chair I now occupied, smiling brightly, as she did.

She was so full of life.

I sat back, desperate to quell the emotions swirling inside my chest before they erupted all over the lawyer’s office. He’d probably seen his share of grieving clients, but I didn’t want to become yet another. Grammy deserved dignity, not . . .

In an instant, my eyes fled from the image in the photo, but the one in my mind refused to retreat. It replayed, on an endless loop, the day I’d moved in with Grammy and Pop.
I was ten.

My mom had called her relationship with my dad complicated. My preteen brain thought it was fairly straightforward, in the way one human regularly beating another seems crystal clear on the right versus wrong scale. Rather than have me witness the countless interventions, arrests, and subsequent counseling, the adults decided it was best if little Cooper went to live with his grandparents.

Grammy and Pop became my world.

We lost Pop when I was fourteen. He and Grammy had been married nearly forty years and still doted on each other like teens in love. Grammy cried at the cemetery, but I can’t remember a single time she shed tears in front of me at home. I’d hear her in her bedroom, late at night, when she thought I was asleep, but she never let me see the grief that wrenched her soul.

She was the most amazing, most beautiful woman in the world.

Now she was gone.

“. . . list of people Mrs. Polk named in her will to receive various inheritances.” Mr. Whisker slid a set of stapled pages across his desk toward me. When they slid off and fluttered to the floor, I woke from my daze.

“Uh, sorry. Could you repeat that last part?”

His lips did a twisting to the side thing I thought might’ve hurt a little and spoke with deliberate enunciation. “That is the full list of named beneficiaries. Our office will contact as many as you prefer not to.”

“Wait. You want me to talk to people about whatever Grammy put in her will?”

He blew out a breath, folded his hands, and glared at me over the top of his spectacles. “It’s up to you. You can leave that to my people, but there may be some on the list you would prefer to contact. Mrs. Polk specifically requested some receive the news of her passing from a relative, and you are the closest one she had left.”

I scanned the pages, flipped once, then twice, the ten times, amazed that Grammy had so much to bequeath to others.

“Holy shit,” slipped out when I read the line about a home in the Hamptons valued at over eight million dollars.

The creak of Mr. Whisker’s chair brought my eyes up.

“I would tell you to take your time, but there is a clock on settling estates, and, with one this large, it would be best to get the initial round over with before the contests begin.”

“Contests?” I set the pages back on the desk.

He nodded. “Some cousin who thinks he should’ve received a lottery-winning’s worth will likely contest the will, say Mrs. Polk wasn’t competent or such. It’s nonsense, but we’ll have to defend against it. As executor, and one of her closest relatives, you will likely get dragged into whatever comes. Please accept my apology in advance.”

Grammy dies. I barely have time to shed my own tears before meeting with her attorney. Then I have to talk to people about stuff I never even knew she owned, and strangers—or worse, family—may come after us, for what? Stuff? Money?

I just wanted Grammy back.

The whole made my chest feel like a vice was squeezing my insides. I reached up and gripped a fistful of my shirt, desperate to suck in air.

“Son, are you alright?” Mr. Whisker shot to his feet.

“I’m . . . I just . . . I need a . . . I can’t . . . breathe.”

“BETHANY!” Mr. Whisker yelled as he waddled around his desk. The door flew open seconds later as Bethany raced into the room. They walked me over to the couch and laid me out. I wasn’t sure that was the correct procedure for a breathing issue, but for some mystical reason I’ll never understand, it calmed me, and air flowed into my lungs.
“Thanks,” I said between deep breaths. “I’m okay.”

It took another hour, for which I was sure Mr. Whisker billed Grammy’s estate an exorbitant sum, before I’d gathered myself, and we’d completed the necessary arrangements. Mr. Whisker divided the inheritor list, leaving me a total of twelve people to contact, all of whom were relatives or Grammy’s closest friends I knew well. He’d offered to contact everyone, but I thought those most special to ma grandmother should hear the news of her passing—and their inheritance—from me rather than a stranger who looked like a flightless cartoon bird.

By the time I shuffled through my apartment doorway, it was dark outside. I fell onto the couch and sleep wrapped me in her comforting warmth before I could turn on Survivor.

My cousins, Jade and Misha, stood to either side of me as they lowered Grammy’s casket into the ground. We’d only met once years ago, and I couldn’t even recall where either of them lived, but loss has a strange way of uniting people. As tears streamed down my cheeks, the arms of my distant relatives found my shoulders, and we held each other until Grammy completed her journey.

At Mr. Whisker’s suggestion, we held a private, family funeral, to be followed in a few weeks by a public memorial. Grammy was deeply involved in her community, and he thought more of her friends would be able to attend if we gave them reasonable notice. I really didn’t want to go through another service, but Grammy deserved to be surrounded my friends one last time, to know how much she was loved and admired.

My mom and dad were super religious—except for the whole beating your wife thing—but I never fully wrapped my head around what happens after we die. I wanted to believe there was more, that we became spirits or went somewhere wonderful. I wanted Grammy to still be . . . something, so she could see how people would respond to her passing.

I really missed her.

A couple days later, as I worked diligently on a pivot table inside a massive Excel spreadsheet, my phone rang.

“This is Cooper Hawk.”

“Hi, Mr. Hawk. It’s Bethany over at Mr. Whisker’s office.”

My head drooped.

“Mr. Whisker asked me to call and see how you’re doing with your inheritor list.”

Well, shit. I’d spent the last two days mourning my grandmother rather than completing the homework assignment Professor Waddles gave me. I mean, I knew it was important, and people would want their money and things, but come on. Can’t a guy have a minute to breathe?

“Um, well, I’m working on it.”

I heart papers shuffling through the pause.

“So, it looks like you have twenty-two names on your list. Mr. Whisker has . . . call it forty.”
Out of curiosity, I did a quick Google search while she dug up whatever data she needed.
“Ms. Sands?”

“I’m here. Sorry, just looking for something.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Found it.” The shuffling stopped. “Of course, but if it requires legal advice, you’ll need to ask Mr. Whisker.”

“I think it’s pretty basic,” I said. “From what I’ve read, Tennessee law gives me, as Executor, sixty days to compile an inventory for probate, then up to a year to distribute non-probate assets. Those going through probate can take longer.”

“Um, hm. That sounds right.”

“So why are we in this big rush? We just buried my grandmother two days ago.”

“Mr. Hawk . . . Cooper, I’m so sorry. I know this must feel overwhelming, and at a time when you’re coping with such a personal loss . . .” There was another long pause. “The timeline you laid out sounds right, but I believe there’s a rule of thumb around notifying inheritors that may be different from the other rules regarding probate and settlement. Again, you’d really need to talk with Mr. Whisker about the law. What I know for certain is that Mrs. Polk’s—I mean, your grandmother’s—estate is significantly larger than most, and with more than seventy individuals and dozens of charities named in her will, this process takes on a whole different level of complexity. She was also very clear in her instructions that certain individuals should be contacted in person by a family member, if possible. Unfortunately, you are the only family member we have. The others she noted all predeceased her.”

Predeceased. That was such a tidy, clinical term. I tried not to focus on it, but the sound of it echoed in my ears long after Bethany had moved on.

“. . . okay with you?”

“What? Sorry, I was thinking . . . Never mind. I’m sorry. Would you please repeat the question?”

“Of course. How about you tackle two or three names on your list each day? That would have you full completed in roughly two week. Does that sound reasonable?”

I let my head fall back against the rest on my desk chair and stared as the ceiling fan spun above me.

“Mr. Hawk?”

“That’s fine. I’ll . . . I’ll get it done.”

“That’s wonderful. Would you mind emailing me as you complete these so I can coordinate between your list and the one Mr. Whisker is calling?”

Great. I had an accountabilibuddy.


“Excellent. Just making a note . . . and we’re done. Was there anything else I could help you with today?” she asked in a sugary tone. Hadn’t she called me to nag me about a list? How was that helping me? I bit back the bitterness rising in my throat.

“No, thank you. I need to get back to work. I’ll email you.”

I didn’t wait for her overly pleasant goodbye.

I hung up and watched the fan whirl.

There’s an expression the sales guys in our office use all the time: “If you have to eat a frog, do it first thing in the morning. That way, everything else you do that day will seem easy.”

I’ve never been sure who needs to eat frogs in our office, or why they would want to, but the principle rang true as I snatched the phone off its cradle and dialed the first inheritor. If I had to do this thing, I would get it over with.

Damn that frog.

Mrs. Bonnie Willis, a neighbor down the street from my grandmother’s house, and a lifelong friend of hers, was to receive five hundred thousand dollars. I waited an interminably long amount of time as she ugly cried into the phone, an odd maelstrom of sadness coated in elation.

Mr. David Estes was pleased with his lifetime membership to the local country club, one my grandmother used so rarely, I thought she’d let it lapse.

Several people received cars. Others more money. One son of a cousin’s neighbor’s best friend received her beach house in Sarasota. I didn’t have ages on my sheet, but the guy sounded younger than me, probably in his early twenties.

While each call forced me to recount the loss of my grandmother, which was a bit like smashing a thumb with a hammer, over and over, the “your lottery ticket hit” part of the conversations didn’t entirely suck. Most were surprised Grammy even thought of them enough to leave something, especially something extravagant.

Perhaps the inheritor I enjoyed the most was to a woman I’d never heard of, Eloise Compton. She didn’t have a number listed on the sheet, just an address whose zip code I didn’t recognize. I followed Waze’s voice across town, still missing turns despite the mechanical voice chiding me as it rerouted, and pulled into the driveway of a house, one of a long row of identically disheveled homes, in a neighborhood more akin to those in troubled lands than in the heart of Tennessee’s capital.

Life had whittled the woman who descended the rickety stairs, yet there was immeasurable strength in her eyes. She reminded me of formations in a dessert, weathered and worn over time beneath intense heat and constant wind, and somewhere in the distant past, powerful water raging over and through them. I doubted she had ever seen a yacht up close or enjoyed fine dining in a club. From the looks of things, she might’ve struggled to find enough to feed her family most nights.

Despite our differences, the moment I introduced myself as Marjorie Polk’s grandson, she wrapped me in a motherly embrace and welcomed me into her home.

“Marjorie told me all about you. My, you’re taller than she said, and a lot more handsome.”

My face flushed.

“Mrs. Compton—”

“Please, son, call me Eloise.”

“Yes, ma’am, I mean Eloise.

For the first time since I’d started on my list, nerves rattled through my head. This woman was so . . . real, and when she spoke of Grammy, her eyes lit up like, well, like mine did when I thought of her.

“How is old Marjorie? She’s a card, you know that, right?”

My lips barely twitched. I tried to smile, I really did.

“Grammy—” The words stuck in my throat. “My grandmother . . . she . . . Grammy died.”

It took a while to get through the “Grammy died” part. Mrs. Compton was the most distraught of anyone I’d spoken with, including Grammy’s best friend and neighbor. I never learned how her daughter had met Grammy. I’d never known my grandmother visited the prison nearly every week for the past eight years—with Eloise by her side. All Eloise would tell me was how kind and caring Grammy was, things I already knew, but savored hearing again.

The stories finally stilled, as each of us lapsed into our own memories. The warmth of her hand on mine roused me from my own thoughts.

“Thank you for coming all the way over here to tell me about Marjorie. I’d love to chat longer, but I need to go pick up two of the boys now.”

She made to stand, but I put my hand on hers and she settled back in her seat. “There is something else. It’s important. According to the papers the attorneys gave me, you have five children, all under the age of ten?”

“That’s right. Well, I call them mine. They’re my daughter’s. She’s the one Marjorie and I visited in prison. I do the best I can but—” Her eyes drifted from a tattered recliner to a rug so worn I could see the floorboards peering through.

“Eloise,” I waited until her gaze met mine. “Before she died, my grandmother established a scholarship fund to ensure each of your children, well, your grandchildren, will be able to attend any college or university they choose. They can go to a HSBC or to Harvard without having to worry about tuition, room, board, or any other expense.”

Her hand flew to her mouth while her other clamed into a death grip on mine. I could feel her beginning to shake.

“Oh, Jesus. Sweet Jesus.”

“There’s one more thing.”

“Oh, Lord. What has Marjorie gone and done?”

“There’s also a trust fund in your name.”

Her head cocked and her brows knitted. “My name? But why—?”

“Grammy left you one million dollars, and I quote from her will, ‘ . . . so she can get rid of that ratty old rug.’”

Eloise’s mouth fell open. I felt her hand leave mine, then both of hers flew to her mouth. Her eyes widened, then darted from me to the hole in her rug, then back to me. Her hands flew into the air, a raucous cackle filled her home, and she doubled over and wept so loudly I thought the neighbors might call the police.

It was the most beautiful sound in the world.

The neighbors may not have called the police, but they certainly came to investigate the lanky white guy making Mrs. Compton howl. She insisted I help her tell each one about Grammy paying for the kids’ college, but swept her own new fortune under the rug—one without worn spot.

I untangled myself from her arms an hour later. It was around six o’clock and traffic would be unbearable, so I glanced at my list to see who I might contact next. I’d kept tally by the most scientific method I could dream up. I drew a line through each name as I completed the visit.

There was only one name unstruck.

I was almost done.

Something deep in my gut breathed a sigh of relief at the sight. Aside from Grammy’s memorial, this would be the last time I had to have “that conversation” with anyone. I didn’t recognize the name or business, but the address was only a few minutes away. So, off I went.

I pulled into the parking space and shut off my car. I’d turned to shut my door when a deep, gravely voice nearly startled me into the next decade.

“Hi. We’re about to close up. How can we help?”

I sagged back onto my car and let my pulse slow, then glanced up. Holy shit, Mr. Raspy looked like a muscular biker dude decided to quit the road and, I don’t know, go into business or something. I couldn’t decide which made him hotter, his thick stubble, the rounded shoulders lifting his slightly-too-tight shirt, or the insanely blue eyes that kept blinking at me.

“I . . . uh. I’m, well, looking . . . hi. Um, I’m Cooper.” Unable to complete a sentence, I stuck out my hand for him to shake. His mouth quirked up at one corner, and his damned eyes glittered as he reached.

And then I saw it, and the air woodshed out of my balloon.

Well, shit.

A very shiny wedding ring glinted in the dying sun before vanishing against my palm.
“Nice to meet you, Cooper. What can we do for you?”

I reluctantly released his hand then fumbled through my stapled mass of crossed out names. “I’m looking for . . . hang on . . . here . . . I’m looking for Sam Prescott.”

3 | Cooper

“I’m Sam,” the greased-up hottie said as he hooked a thumb toward his name embroidered onto a patch above his shirt pocket.

I glanced around to find several mechanics and a few customers staring.

“Is there somewhere we can talk in private? This is, um, personal.”

Sam cocked a brow. “Sure. Let’s go into my office.”

My backside had barely hit his poorly padded chair when the door rattled and flew open.

Was every car guy in the place a cover model–or at least a cover model for a bike magazine? Holy cow.

“Sam, I’m almost—” the mechanic began. Then his eyes fell on me and darted back to Sam.

“Sorry, didn’t know you had someone in here.”

“Ty, hang on,” Sam stopped him from backing out. “Why don’t you stay for a minute.”

Then to me, Sam said, “This is Tyler. He’s me closest friend and best mechanic. Whatever you need to say, he can hear.

I wasn’t sure what to do. This wasn’t in Mr. Whisker’s script. I glanced back at the guy, Ty he’d called him, and my eyes decided to take a road trip up and down his body without bothering to file a flight plan with the controller, namely me. It was a most amazing landscape. Wow. Like really. Wow.

When my eyes finally relinquished control and rose to meet Ty’s, amusement filled his emerald orbs.

Heat and crimson flooded my neck, then crab-walked its way across my cheeks.

“Uh, ok, I . . . well . . . I guess—”

“It’s fine. Really,” Sam said.

Ty smirked, crossed his beefy arms, and leaned against the back of the now closed door. That’s when I saw his shiny gold wedding band reflecting the desk lamp accusingly back into my face.

Damnit. They’re all smokin’ hot but freakin’ married.

Then I realized they were both waiting on me because I was still staring at Ty’s ring and he was chuckling and Sam was leaned back in his chair with a really wide smile and they exchanged a look and I wanted puke.

“Marjorie Polk died,” I blurted out, unable to control whatever gremlin decided to inhabit my head.

Sam’s chair cried as he leaned forward. “Really? Marjorie?”

His face creased, and his eyes clouded. I’d delivered this message nearly two dozen times, and the impact of watching someone else grapple with the immediate pain still clawed at my chest. But for some reason, seeing Sam, this burly mechanic, moved by my Grammy’s passing—that touched me.

“How did you know her? I mean, if you don’t mind me—”

“It’s okay, Cooper. She was a customer a few years ago, brought in her husband’s old Bel Aire. God, that was a beautiful car.”

Tyler grunted his agreement.

“But, you knew her, I mean, more than just fixing her car. Didn’t you?” My voice sounded pleading in my ears. I’d hoped Sam hadn’t heard that.

He studied me for a moment, then nodded. “I met her because of the car, but we became friends, a regular odd couple, really. My partner, Miguel, has season tickets to the Sounds. We took her with us to a few games. She loved it, especially when Annie would sing for her.”

He must’ve seen the confusion on my face. “Oh, sorry, Annie has the seats in front of Miguel. She used to perform on Broadway. Marjorie, I mean, your grandmother, and Annie were a lot alike. I’d never seen two old women laugh so much as when we went to games.”

The papers that had rested in my lap fluttered noisily to the floor. My brain got stuck on one track and couldn’t right itself.

“Grammy liked baseball?” Why didn’t I know that?

Sam’s eyes widened, then softened in a way I didn’t know was possible for a grizzly mechanic. “She was your grandmother? Cooper, I’m so sorry.”

Those words were far too familiar now.

I nodded. “She raised me.”

The rustle of Ty’s arms uncrossing drew my gaze to him. The compassion in his eyes mirrored what I saw in Sam’s. Neither of them were anything like what I’d expected as I drove up to the repair shop. I know, I shouldn’t make assumptions. Grammy and Pop taught me better. Still . . .

“I’m really sorry about your grandmother,” Sam said. “She was a really special woman, took care of people in ways nobody knew, in ways that really mattered. There was a light around her, wherever she went. You could feel it.”

I wanted to wrap myself in his kind words, to savor a stranger appreciating the utter goodness of my foster mother, if for only a moment, but my eyes moistened, and I looked through a window that didn’t exist in Sam’s office.

“I really appreciate you coming here, telling me about . . . telling me.” Now his throat caught, and I lost it. Tears fell freely down my face. Before I knew what had happened, my head was buried in Ty’s chest as his arms pulled me close. I didn’t see Sam cry, but his eyes were soft when Ty released me, and I’d finally gathered myself.

“I’m sorry. I’ve had this same conversation twenty-one times before you and each time got easier until I came here and you two were so nice and Grammy likes baseball and Broadway and you knew her and that made me happy but also made me really sad so my brain didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or just be content that she was happy. Does that make any sense?”

Sam blinked. Ty’s mouth hung open.

“Sorry, I kind of ramble sometimes when I’m excited or sad or confused or . . . sorry, I was rambling again, wasn’t I?”

Sam’s shoulders rocked as he tried to speak through a rumbling chuckle, “Yeah, a little, but that’s okay. You babble all you like. We’ll listen.”

And he wasn’t just being nice. I could tell. People who say things without really meaning it give away their insincerity in little ways, like a twitch of their eye or quirk of their mouth, or the next thing they say contradicts the nice thing they just said. I saw all that on an FBI show, oh, and a YouTube video.

“Thanks, Sam, I really appreciate it. You guys . . . you’re great.”

Ty crossed his arms and resumed his holding-up-the-door-lean. “I’m great. That’s true. Sam, he’s just alright.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Ignore Ty. He was dropped on his head as a baby. There was nothing they could do.”

Before I knew it, I was laughing, and the two ridiculously sexy men were chuckling right along.

“I needed that, thanks,” I said. “So, there was another reason I needed to come see you.”

“Alright,” Sam leaned forward, his elbows planted on his metal school-teacher’s desk.


“You’re in Grammy’s will,” Sam and Ty exchanged a look while I flipped pages. “She left you Pop’s Bel Air.” 

4 | Cooper

Sam’s eyes widened. His mouth opened, but nothing came out. I glanced up in time to see Tyler uncross his arms, run a hand through his perfectly silky hair, and meet Sam’s dumbfounded gaze.

Something mechanical whirred inside the shop.

A horn sounded on the nearby road.

Still, Sam didn’t speak. He clamped his mouth shut and leaned back, eliciting another death cry from his chair.

I lifted the page detailing the car. “Um, the Bel Air is a 1955 convertible. Mr. Whisker and I ran a few searches and estimate its Blue Book value around sixty-seven thousand dollars. If you had it graded and certified, which we believe you could do, it could bring in excess of one hundred thousand dollars at auction. For insurance purposes, Mr. Whisker recommends a policy of one hundred twenty five thousand dollars.”

“Fuck me,” Tyler whistled.

My eyes darted to Ty.

“Sorry,” he held up both palms and flashed me the most brilliant smile.

Damn, it had been an exclamation rather than a request.

“Who is Mr. Whisker, and why does he sound like a cat wearing a tie on TikTok?” Ty asked.

“He’s Grammy’s attorney.”

“Oh,” Ty made a very round letter with his poochy, bitable, likely cherry-flavored lips.

“Why?” Sam’s voice, pulled my attention back to him. He sounded as if he’d shrunk into a vulnerable little boy version of the rugged man sitting before me. “Marjorie was a sweet lady, and we enjoyed our time together, but . . . to include me in her will? And . . . her husband’s Bel Air? She loved that car, said it felt like the only thing she had left of him, at least, the only thing still alive. It’s why she said she wanted me to fix it, no matter what it cost.”

I didn’t know how to answer that. I knew she was amazing and sweet and the kindest person to ever live. I saw that every day growing up, but Grammy had never said a word about Sam or his shop—or going to baseball games with him and his partner—or a Broadway star who’d sing to her. She liked baseball. Seriously. Grammy?

She’d never talked about helping a family while the mother of young children served time in prison, or how she’d planned to cover their higher education and ensure the woman who raised them was also cared for. She also never mentioned a half dozen of the other stories I’d heard while performing my executorial duties.

I was starting to wonder how many secrets she’d kept locked away in her overstuffed handbag of a heart.

The pleading scrutiny in Sam’s eyes made all the heartache of the past weeks bubble up in my own chest. I rifled through the papers in my lap, unsure I could even read the now blurry words, but desperate for something, anything, to save me from—

“I’m sorry, Sam,” I choked out. “I was supposed to . . . This is a note Grammy left for you.”

I couldn’t look up. I couldn’t meet his watery gaze.

I couldn’t . . . damnit, I did, and he was close to shaking.

Tyler was now squatted by his side, one arm wrapped around his shoulder. Sam wiped his face and nodded, “It’s okay. I’m okay. Go on and read it.”

A sealed envelope had been clipped to my list. I unhooked it and reached it across the desk, pausing briefly as I noticed Grammy’s flowing script in golden ink that read, “For Sam Prescott.”

“It’s sealed. I think you should—” I tossed the envelope toward Sam as if it had grown fangs and tried to bite me. He stared for a long moment, then slowly picked it up with the reverence of a priest at Mass pried the flap open. His brows knitted as he read aloud.

My Dear Sam,

I could never express how much joy you and Miguel have given me over these last few years. Seeing your love so freely expressed reminds me of the days when my Herbert and I were young. You should’ve seen us. We teased and laughed, just like you two. He was the light in my world, as I know Miguel is in yours.

It’s time I went home to Herbert, but there are a few things I would like to leave you before I go. First, a few words of advice. I know you didn’t ask for them, but I’m old, and you’ll listen politely, because that’s the man you are.

Treasure your time together. Hold him like tomorrow may never come, because it might not. Treasure him, because a day comes to each of us when those we hold dearest fade into the recesses of memory and dreams.

Cherish him, Sam. Tell him how much you love him. Every day. Every hour. Every moment.
Enough of that. Now, to the fun part.

If you’re reading this, someone has likely told you about the Bel Air. Don’t argue or fuss. Accept it in the spirit of love and admiration with which it is intended. My Herbert loved that car, almost as much as he loved me. I will rest easier knowing it’s in the hands of one who will also enjoy and care for it. For that, there is no one better than Sam the Mechanic.

I hope you don’t mind; I took the liberty of purchasing something for you and Miguel, a suite at Sounds Stadium. Upon my passing, the Liberty Tire Suite will be renamed, “The Marjorie and Herbert Polk Suite.” I want you to have it, for you and Miguel—and whomever you choose—to enjoy going to games for as long as you like. The suite will bear our name, but it will belong to you. Think of me when you hear that seventh inning song. I’ll be singing along with Annie.

Oh, I almost forgot. I paid your shop’s mortgage and purchased all of your leased equipment. Everything is in your name, free and clear.

I hope you don’t mind.

I do have one favor to ask, because I know I can count on you. My grandson, Cooper, is the son I never had. I love him with every fiber of my being. As any mother would, I worry for him. Would you take Cooper to a game sometime, you and Miguel? I don’t think he’s ever been to one, and I blame myself for that. I know he would enjoy it, and love both of you. I think meeting you boys would be good for him, too.

Thank you, Sam. You have brought joy to an old woman in ways you will never understand.

You are a good man, and an even better friend.

I’ll watch over you, always.

All My Love,


By the time he read the last few words, Sam and I were nearly drowning in tears, and even Ty’s head was pressed into Sam’s shoulder as his chest heaved.

5 | Cooper

It was almost time for kickoff, or whatever the baseball equivalent was. Moms and dads herded excited munchkins decked in the red, white, and blue of the Sounds. I felt Simba in The Lion King when he’d escaped from Scar only to get caught clinging to a limb above a stampede of raging wildbeasts. Some of those kids definitely qualified as a wildbeast.

“Cooper, hey. We’re over here.”

I followed the voice that somehow carried over the cacophony of eager fans to find Sam standing near the ticket counter, waving a hand high above his head. He wore a Sounds jersey and baseball cap, fully transformed from brawny mechanic to a six foot one inch twelve year old who couldn’t wait to enter the park.

As I headed his way, Sam turned and said something to a guy standing behind him. Both men turned toward me, and the new guy gave a ‘sup head bob, complete with an infectious smile that shone brighter than the neon above his head.

I navigated the current of incoming fans toward the ticket booth. When I got within a couple strides, Sam stepped forward and grabbed my shoulder, pulling me toward them.

“Hey, Coop. Good to see you again. This is my better half, Miguel. He’s an asshole cop, so don’t take him too seriously.”

I could see Miguel’s eyes just above and to the right of Sam’s head. The rolled faster than a ground ball through the short stop’s legs.

“You’ll have to excuse Sam. He still doesn’t know how to behave at a baseball game, or in public. Come to think of it, I’m not sure there’s a place where he does behave.”

“Last time I checked, you like it when I misbehave,” Sam elbowed Miguel in the gut, earning a grunt, then he noticed the Sounds crimson painted across my cheeks, and his chuckle added to Miguel’s amusement.

“Coop, you’re going to have to thicken that skin if you’re going to survive around us. We’re a tough crowd,” Miguel said with a glimmer in his eyes.

Sam was hot in a do-you-underneath-the-bleachers sort of way, but Miguel . . . he was compelling. That isn’t a word I’d ever used to describe a person, and it probably made more sense about an article or book or something; but that’s what he was. There was a no-bullshit set to his jaw, but compassion in his gaze, and his presence drew my eyes into him.

His eyes and smile were, I don’t know, like the last drops of water to a man lost in a desert.

He stepped out from behind Sam and I saw, for the first time, he wore an identical jersey, but in reversed coloring, a team cap, also reversed, and a tatty leather glove that looked like he’d dragged it behind his car down a gravel road.

“Um, I see that.” I barely knew Sam and had just met Miguel, yet they acted like we were old chums from the club or school or wherever boys became chummy then drank and hung out and teased each other for a lifetime. Were we chums? I’d never had chums. Wait, isn’t chum what you throw in the water—

“You ready?” Sam’s grumble washed away the murky water.

“Oh, yeah, sure. Play ball.”

Sam glanced at Miguel, and they shared a grin.

Was that the right phrase? Has I just used a tennis thing, maybe soccer? I wasn’t a huge sports fan, but I was really smart, most of the time, when calculations were involved, at least. There were stats in baseball, right? I could get good at this.

“Are you a baseball fan, Cooper?” Miguel asked, as we turned toward the entry gates.

“I don’t know that I’d call myself a fan. The game is interesting. Nashville played one hundred forty-nine games last season and finished second in their league. Five thousand twenty-nine batters stepped up to the plate during that time, scoring over eight hundred nine runs, with a slugging percentage of oh-point-four-three-three. That’s interesting because while they finished second in the league, their slugging percentage was only fifth. When you add the on-base percentage, they rise to second behind Durham, with oh-point-seven-eight-eight.”

Miguel and Sam had stopped walking, turned, and were staring at me. Both of their mouths hung open.

“What?” I shrugged. “I like being prepared . . . and spreadsheets. I really like spreadsheets. Stats are fun, too. Baseball loves stats, right?”

The guys looked at each other, then back to me.

“Well, okay then.” Miguel sounded like a parent whose child had just tried to explain the construction of a cosmic laser using Legos. “Let’s go. I’m pretty sure there’s beer upstairs. If not, we can come back down and stock up for the game.”

Miguel waved tickets, turned, began weaving through the crowd. Sam patted my shoulder, urging me forward, then followed.

Sam handed our tickets to a bored looking, jerseyed usher standing beside an unmarked elevator, then nodded back at Miguel. “He’s had season tickets for years, but we’ve never been up top. Mind giving us directions?”

The usher glanced down, then back up at Miguel. “Mr. Nuñez, welcome. I’ll show you to your suite.”

As the man reached to press the button, Sam asked, “Before we go up, can you tell us if there’s beer available upstairs?”

The usher cocked his head, then grinned broadly. “Yes, sir. You’ll be just fine up there.”

A moment later, we rounded a corner, well, not exactly a corner as the whole place was round, but a rounded section of wall that would’ve been a corner had there been any in a round building or stadium or structure. Mr. Usher stopped at a recessed door crowned with golden letter, the fancy metal kind I’d seen in the lobby of Mr. Whisker’s office. It read, “The Marjorie & Herbert Polk Suite.”

The usher opened the door and strode in. We froze, like some ancient cavemen gaping up at a spaceship hovering in the sky. I was swallowing down the lump clawing its way up my throat when the usher’s voice called from within, “Gentlemen, come on in. I’ll give you a quick tour.”

The warmth of Sam’s palm pressed into my shoulder again, this time accompanied by a gentle squeeze. I glanced over to find understanding eyes and a gentle smile.

“Feels almost like she’s here with us, doesn’t it? She’d be proud.”

I swallowed hard, then nodded as my eyes clouded. Sam pretended not to notice and turned to follow Miguel into the suite.

There was, indeed, beer in the suite—seven different brands, in fact—in both fully loaded and lite versions, all blissfully chilled and waiting for us on a bed of ice. In addition, there were three white wines, two reds, and an assortment of hard liquors and mixers. I hadn’t eaten since a meager PB and J at lunch, and he spread was a welcome sight. Sam hovered, rarely straying more than a few steps away from the food. He razzed of Miguel for eating mini quiches at a baseball game, then snuck cranberry and brie puffs onto his plate when he thought we weren’t watching. I nearly had a foodgasm when I tasted the Asian sliders for the first time.

“Sure beats bleacher food,” Sam said as his eyes rolled back over yet another puff.

I grunted through a mouthful of French fries.

Possibly as important as the food and drinks, the vents in the ceiling blasted arctic air throughout the suite, ensuring we didn’t turn into sweaty puddles like the poor folk down below. As strange as it felt to be attending a ballgame in a room named after my grandparents with guys I barely knew, it was an incredibly comfortable, if awkward, experience.

Miguel turned from watching the players warming up. “It’s nice, but there’s nothing like a hot dog and beer at a game. Or popcorn. You love popcorn, don’t you, Sam?”

Sam, with cheeks pooching out like the guiltiest thieving chipmunk, tried to glare menacingly at his partner, only to whirl around when popcorn flew from the doorway and stuck in his tightly cropped hair.

A gray-topped woman wearing a pink Sounds jersey with a bedazzled treble clef bowed like she’d just been handed a Tony Award. Sam’s face went from angry rodent to brilliant sun in a heartbeat.

“Annie!” bits of pastry flew out as he greeted the latest arrival.

She giggled and patted her fingertips to her lips. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seem such mischief and mirth in one glance.

“So, this is how the fancy people watch a game?” Her eyes scanned the room appreciatively, then landed on Miguel. “And there’s my favorite slab of man meat. Get over here and give mama a kiss.”

Sam spit the last of his puff all over the carpet as Miguel lumbered his way past us to scoop up the old woman. Her legs dangled and she wiggled her feet like any small girl being twirled in her father’s arms—which Miguel did next. Annie squealed and laughed, then slapped his shoulder.

“Let me down, you brute. I’m a lady, after all.”

Miguel didn’t need any more encouragement. He buried his mouth into her neck and made farting noises, eliciting another squeal that I thought might shatter the mirror hanging over the buffet. By the time Annie pulled away, tears streamed down her cheeks and she had to brace herself against the wall through bouts of laughter.

“Annie,” Miguel gripped her hand and turned toward me. “This is Cooper. Cooper, this is Annie, a dear friend and one of the best Broadway babes you’ll ever meet.”

My mouth opened, but I couldn’t think of anything to say to being introduced to a seventy-something year old babe, Broadway or otherwise.

Annie cackled and waved a hand. “Oh, Cooper, don’t let these boys get to you. Just laugh and roll with it. They might look big and mean, but they’re harmless enough.”

I started to thank her, to say how nice it was to meet her, that I was honored . . . all that . . . but the door flew open and two more guests joined the pregame party.

“Ty!” Miguel belted, then moved past Annie to wrap the ridiculously beautiful man in a tight embrace. He didn’t squeal like Annie had, but he did begin slapping Miguel’s meaty shoulders when the giant lifted him off his feet and swung him back and forth.

The guy beside Ty stared intently through eyes obscured by wavy brown hair that flopped across his forehead. Miguel set Ty down and reached behind him to pull Floppy into their hug.

He did squeal.

Once everyone’s feet were firmly returned to the floor, Ty stepped forward and shook my hand politely. “Cooper, good to see you again. This is my husband, Gabe. He’s deaf, but he lipreads, so just face him and talk normally.”

For the second time since my last slider, my mouth opened but no sound came out. I nodded like I understood but couldn’t stop my brain from stewing on the million or so questions and random thoughts that suddenly screamed for attention. Before I could give voice to any of them, a hand gripped my forearm. Gabe had stepped forward and was gazing into my eyes.

“Hi, Cooper. It’s good to meet you.” His voice was marbles in a velvet pouch.

“Uh, hi. You, too.”

“Alright, everybody, grab some food and a drink. Warmups are almost done.” Miguel, ever directing traffic, called above the clamor of the joyful reunion.

Sam and I made one last trip to the buffet, then joined Miguel in seats that overlooked the field along the first base line, just beyond the netting that backstopped home plate. I leaned over the railing and squinted, trying to make out the players’ faces.

“Great seats, aren’t they?”

I turned. Miguel flipped a bottle to his lips and turned it up to drink.

“Yeah, this is great.”

“You like baseball?” he asked.

I shrugged. “I guess. Maybe. Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve never been to a game, and I didn’t play as a kid. I was more, um, a reader than an athlete.”

To his credit, he didn’t make fun of that.

“Well, looks like you found your way into a gym at some point.” He reached over and gripped my bicep. It was hidden beneath the long-sleeve shirt I wore despite summer’s heat.

Fingers of a totally different fire crept up my arm at his not-so-gentle squeeze and appreciative grunt.

“Yeah, guess I started in college. I was tired of being the beanpole.”

He grunted what I think was a laugh. It felt weird talking about working out with a man who looked like he could bench press a car. I wasn’t the toothpick I’d always been, but nobody would call me muscular. I think the online term was swimmer’s build—and not the hot, beefy swimmers you see on the Olympics—more the lean, toned guys who swam for fun. Yeah, that was me. A fun swim. Fun swimmer. Slim Swimmer.

“You know,” Miguel’s voice stopped my descent down the rabbit hole. “This suite comes with more than just food. We have seats directly behind home plate.” He pointed all the way down to a row of puffy blue leather chairs. “We can go down and get a closer look, any time you like.”

“That would be really cool,” I said, suddenly eight years old again.

“Finish your food. I’ll grab Sam in a few innings, and we’ll go take a look. He doesn’t even know about those seats yet.”

Music blared throughout the stadium and the guitar shaped scoreboard flashed as one of the Sounds struck out and the third inning came to a close. Sam and I were both moaning over our tightening belts, while the others continued nibbling, drinking, and chatting, completely ignoring how our fully stuffed asses weren’t suffering.

“All right, you two, time to walk it off,” Miguel’s head appeared over Sam’s shoulder, all teeth and gums. Sam tried to pull away, but Miguel’s fingers clamped down on his shoulders as his teeth sank into one of my mechanic friends earlobes.


“You love it when we’re at home.”

“Miguel!” Sam’s face now matched the red of his jersey.

Miguel met my eyes, and we both burst out laughing.

“Traitor. I’ll remember this,” Sam lobbed in my direction.

“Don’t blame me if you have marital problems that involve teeth marks.” I stood, held up both palms, and scooted my way over Ty and Gabe toward the exit row. Ty took the opportunity to slap my ass as I passed.


He shrugged. “Gotta pay the toll. It’s the law.”

I glanced to Gabe for support, but the deaf guy had gone silent. Imagine that.

Sam finally freed his lobe and ran the same gauntlet, receiving the exact same slap, followed by the exact same silent scrutiny from a smirking Gabe.

Miguel, the perpetual sun that shone over this band of misfits, beamed as he skipped the slapping line by climbing over the seats with his long, tarantula like legs. He’d nearly made it clear of danger when a loud whack sounded, and he stumbled forward. Everyone, including Gabe, doubled over as Annie shook her hand out dramatically and feigned injury from her palm’s run-in with Miguel’s posterior.

“Et tu, Brutus?” Miguel scowled over his shoulder at the aged singer.

She batted her lashes, and waved her fingers. “Call me Cleopatra or nothing, darling.”

We could still hear everyone laughing as we shut the door behind us.

Another usher lurking in the hallway darted toward us as soon as the door clicked.

“Can I help you with anything, Mr. Nuñez?”

Sam’s eyes did that summersault thing again. Miguel simply grinned.

“We were just headed down to our seats behind the plate.”

“Seats directly behind home are normally reserved for those with Field Suites, but I believe a row of four seats were purchased as a condition of the Polks generous contribution to our foundation. This note on your tickets,” he pointed to a series of golden musical notes on the corner of Miguel’s ticket, “will get you onto the deck and seating area. I’ll take you down our private elevator. This way.” He motioned with an open palm as if we stood in a five-star hotel with a gilded ceiling rather than a Triple-A baseball stadium.

One elevator ride, two glass doors, a seven stair ascent, then another seven stair descent, and we arrived at the luxuriest of luxury seats on the front row of the whole stadium. Navy cloth draped over the chair backs was embroidered in gold with, “Reserved for the Mr. Nuñez & Friends.”

“I could really get used to this,” Miguel muttered to Sam as he settled in.

“I was wondering if they’d let us back in after everybody leaves. We could do it in these seats.” Sam made a quick show of testing the firmness of the cushions.

I coughed a laugh and leaned forward to scan the field, determined to not meet either of their gazes lest I get caught in their crossfire.

The seats were ridiculous. If I stood and took one step forward, I could touch the netting that protected us from foul balls. The on-deck circle, which was more of a suggestion in the dirt than an actual marked sphere, was close enough for me to hear the player’s heave breaths as he swung the bat. I estimated home plate to be twenty yards away.

It had been one thing to watch the game from the comfort of our suite. From up there, we could see everything and could even hear the crack of the bat and pop as the ball hit the catcher’s mitt; but none of that compared to sitting within arm’s reach of the field. I could hear the coach talking to a player, the ump chatting with the catcher and batter, and even the silly banter of the teams in their dugouts. It was like we were part of the game, and I loved it. I wasn’t sure I loved baseball as a sport. Other than the stat’s I’d studied in preparation for this night, I didn’t know anything about it, but being this close, sandwiched between the energy of the crowd behind and the intensity of the players only strides away, gave me an appreciation for the game I hadn’t known possible.

My heart beat a little faster as I watched the batter adjust his grip, then dig his toe into the dirt. I could calculate the angle formed by his bat and wrists and knew the power he’d soon unleash on the poor, unsuspecting ball.

Sure enough, number ninety six blasted a shot over the left field wall, and the crowd erupted as the Sounds took a one run lead.

I don’t remember when I stood, but Sam spun me around for a high-five, then leaned back so Miguel could get his palm slapped. I missed his hand and had to do it again. A woman in the row behind us leaned forward with her palm raised, so I gave her a good whack, too. My palm stung, but she seemed pleased.

“Next up, from Broomfield, Colorado, number five, Naaaaaaate Stringerrrrrrr,” the announcer’s voice boomed over the cheers of thousands.

The batter’s back was facing me, so I peered across the field at the giant guitar. Nate Stringer’s name and stats appeared where strings normally stretched, while a massive image of the player himself appeared in the body of the guitar. He looked cute enough with deeply tanned skin, polar white teeth, and several days of black stubble that clung to his chiseled jaw.

Then Miguel yelled, “Give ‘em hell, Nate!”

The batter stopped before entering the box, said something to the ump, then knelt to fiddle with his shoe lace. While bent, he glanced back toward where we sat and winked.

“Quit screwin’ around and bat, will ya?” Miguel yelled through cupped hands.

The catcher turned and craned his neck around the ump. I could see his grin through his mask.

The batter, Nate, actually laughed, then rose and saluted in our direction with two fingers to the brim of his helmet.

Then, for the briefest moment, his eyes found me. I wanted to look away or down or anywhere else, but he’d frozen me in place with that gaze, and I couldn’t move.
He flashed a brilliant smile, then turned and stepped into the box. 

6 Cooper

“Who is that?” I asked to no one in particular.

Miguel had been focused on his heckling and hadn’t noticed my stare down with the batter.
“That’s Nate Stringer. He’s their second baseman and a good friend. He played college ball at Vandy. When I didn’t go pro, the best way I could stay close to the game was to help with my old program. I’m an unofficial mentor to some of the guys. Nate’s only a few years younger than me, but they stuck us together. He’s a good kid.”

I snorted. “Some kid.”

He grunted. “It’s hard for me to think of him any other way. When they put us together, he was a solid player, but really awkward around the team, unsure of himself. He’s still pretty reserved, but is more outgoing than he used to be.”

“Strike one!” the up barked as Nate whiffed on a sinker in the dirt.

“Come on, Nate. Don’t swing at that crap,” Miguel grumbled.

“Wait. You were going pro? As in, professional baseball?”

Miguel nodded as the pitcher thew a fastball wide.

“Was gonna get drafted. Everybody knew it. I had one of the best batting averages in the NCAA.”

“Ball,” the ump called another fastball wide.

“Good eye, Nate. Hang in there,” the palm slapper behind us yelled.

“So what happened?”

“Welcome to The Tunnel,” the usher said as the doors slid open.

Team spirit slammed into our faces from every direction. The mascot grinned down at us, swinging a guitar like it was a bat at a ball adorned with frightened eyes and fearful teeth.

Further down the eternal hall, images of current and past players swinging, throwing, pitching, fielding, and standing in every other imaginable pose ushered us toward a destination. The whole thing felt like one of those murder mysteries where I could feel a twist coming, but hadn’t quite figured out the wife was really an evil demon spawn killer, not that I expected one of the players or staff to have horns, spit fire, or spank me with their tail, though, if the batter I’d seen wanted to spank me . . .

“Miguel!” A voice echoed from down the hall where a cluster of two players and three civilian-looking guys stood chatting. One of the players waved for us to join them. Miguel barreled into the guy’s arms, lifting him off the ground as he’d done, well, pretty much everyone I’d seen him greet lately. I guess it was his thing. This time, though, it was impressive. Nate, the player getting air-lifted, had to be six-one or six-two. For Miguel to lift him off the ground so his feet dangled was, well, nuts. The other player laughed and patted Miguel on the back, but the civilians stepped back to avoid getting kicked.

Nate had changed into a team tee, but he still wore his uniform pants and cleats. Both bled rusty streaks from the infield’s red clay.

“It’s good to see you again, Smiley. Damn, it’s been what, three years? Maybe four?”

Miguel stepped back and slapped Nate on the shoulder. “I’ve seen you pretty much every week from the stands, but yeah, it’s been that long since we hung out. Guess making a run and having friends was just too much for ya. Eh, Big Time?”

Nate blanched, and his eyes fell.

“Dumb ass. I’m giving you shit,” Miguel said, wrapping his arm around Nate’s neck and pulling his head into him. “Come here. I’ve got some people I want you to meet.”

Nate shot a glance over his shoulder at the others he’d been standing with, “Sorry guy, he’s bigger than me. Interviews will have to wait.”

“Shit, I’m sorry—”

“Don’t be,” Nate whispered up at Sam. “I was trying to escape anyway.”

Sam and I were now only a pace or two away, so Miguel did his best Vana White wave and said, “This is Sam, my far better looking other half.”

“You got that right.” Sam grinned and took Nate’s outstretched hand. “Good to meet you, Nate. Nice game.”


“And this,” Miguel said, shifting toward me, “is Cooper, a new friend of ours.”

Nate turned, and I . . . I . . . I didn’t know what to do.

For a split second, I swear something caught or froze or paused. I don’t know. It was weird and amazing and crazy and . . . all at the same time. My pulse went from resting boredom to canter to gallop in the space of one or two eye blinks.

And he didn’t even blink.

His steel-gray eyes, with their veil of the faintest blue around the edges, were all I could see. He took a step toward me, and, in my mind, I saw him lean down, wrap me in his arm, and kiss me right there in the tunnel while romantic, baseball themed music echoed from hidden speakers and someone in the locker room released doves or pigeons or whatever a baseball bird should be.

“Nice to meet you, Cooper,” was all I got as Nate extended his hand for me to shake. “Be careful of these two calling you a friend. You wouldn’t want to damage your reputation.”
Sam and Miguel laughed.

I stood there mute, clutching his hand.

“Hey, Coop,” Sam whispered loud enough for everyone to hear. “He’s gonna need his glove hand back before the next game.”

How long had I stood there gripping his palm?

I yanked my hand back and held it to my chest like Nate had burned it with a lighter or cigarette or match—or some other burning device he carried in his pocketless player pants.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to . . . It’s just that . . . I mean—”

“He’s never met a pro player,” Sam offered.

Nate grinned, like he probably did a hundred times a day as fans dogged him for autographs or selfies or the simple pleasure of shaking a player’s hand.

“Baseball fan, then?” Nate asked. I hadn’t expected a conversation. He was just shaking my hand to be nice. A whole sheep’s worth of cotton wriggled into my throat, and my brain decided to take its seventh inning stretch.

“No, not really. I mean, I like the stats. Baseball has some really cool stats. They’re all online. I did research before meeting Sam and Miguel tonight, and it’s amazing how much data they keep on everything. It’s not just team stats. They track every time a player does anything—or doesn’t do anything. There’s been twenty-two-thousand-eight-hundred-fifty-four players in the major leagues so far. That’s incredible. Oh, you’re in the minors. I don’t know if they count you guys, not that they shouldn’t. You’re great, and your pros and all, but you’re not, you know, in the big leagues or majors or whatever you want to call them.”

Nate finally blinked.

A faint curl formed at the corner of his mouth where his lips kissed stubble. I couldn’t tell if he was amused, irritated, or some combination of the two. The color and heat that had battled on my face earlier shifted to all out war.

“Sorry, I got a little excited—”

Nate’s mouth spread wide in a warm, toothy grin, then he stepped forward, placed a hand on my shoulder, and said, “It’s alright. Stats are cool.”

7 Cooper

“Welcome to The Tunnel,” the usher said as the doors slid open.

Team spirit slammed into our faces from every direction. The mascot grinned down at us, swinging a guitar like it was a bat at a ball adorned with frightened eyes and fearful teeth. Further down the eternal hall, images of current and past players swinging, throwing, pitching, fielding, and standing in every other imaginable pose ushered us toward a destination. The whole thing felt like one of those murder mysteries where I could feel a twist coming, but hadn’t quite figured out the wife was really an evil demon spawn killer, not that I expected one of the players or staff to have horns, spit fire, or spank me with their tail, though, if the batter I’d seen wanted to spank me . . .

“Miguel!” A voice echoed from down the hall where a cluster of two players and three civilian-looking guys stood chatting. One of the players waved for us to join them. Miguel barreled into the guy’s arms, lifting him off the ground as he’d done, well, pretty much everyone I’d seen him greet lately. I guess it was his thing. This time, though, it was impressive. Nate, the player getting air-lifted, had to be six-one or six-two. For Miguel to lift him off the ground so his feet dangled was, well, nuts. The other player laughed and patted Miguel on the back, but the civilians stepped back to avoid getting kicked.

Nate had changed into a team tee, but he still wore his uniform pants and cleats. Both bled rusty streaks from the infield’s red clay.

“It’s good to see you again, Smiley. Damn, it’s been what, three years? Maybe four?”

Miguel stepped back and slapped Nate on the shoulder. “I’ve seen you pretty much every week from the stands, but yeah, it’s been that long since we hung out. Guess making a run and having friends was just too much for ya. Eh, Big Time?”

Nate blanched, and his eyes fell.

“Dumb ass. I’m giving you shit,” Miguel said, wrapping his arm around Nate’s neck and pulling his head into him. “Come here. I’ve got some people I want you to meet.”

Nate shot a glance over his shoulder at the others he’d been standing with, “Sorry guy, he’s bigger than me. Interviews will have to wait.”

“Shit, I’m sorry—”

“Don’t be,” Nate whispered up at Sam. “I was trying to escape anyway.”

Sam and I were now only a pace or two away, so Miguel did his best Vana White wave and said, “This is Sam, my far better looking other half.”

“You got that right.” Sam grinned and took Nate’s outstretched hand. “Good to meet you, Nate. Nice game.”


“And this,” Miguel said, shifting toward me, “is Cooper, a new friend of ours.”

Nate turned, and I . . . I . . . I didn’t know what to do.

For a split second, I swear something caught or froze or paused. I don’t know. It was weird and amazing and crazy and  . . . everything all at the same time. My pulse went from resting boredom to canter to gallop in the space of one or two eye blinks.

And he didn’t even blink.

His steel-gray eyes, with their veil of the faintest blue around the edges, were all I could see. He took a step toward me, and, in my mind, I saw him lean down, wrap me in his arm, and kiss me right there in the tunnel while romantic, baseball themed music echoed from hidden speakers and someone in the locker room released doves or pigeons or whatever a baseball bird should be.

“Nice to meet you, Cooper,” was all I got as Nate extended his hand for me to shake. “Be careful of these two calling you a friend. You wouldn’t want to damage your reputation.”

Sam and Miguel laughed.

I stood there mute, clutching his hand.

“Hey, Coop,” Sam whispered loud enough for everyone to hear. “He’s gonna need his glove hand back before the next game.”

How long had I stood there gripping his palm?

I yanked my hand back and held it to my chest like Nate had burned it with a lighter or cigarette or match—or some other burning device he carried in his pocketless player pants.  

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to . . . It’s just that . . . I mean—”

“He’s never met a pro player,” Sam offered.

Nate grinned, like he probably did a hundred times a day as fans dogged him for autographs or selfies or the simple pleasure of shaking a player’s hand.

“Baseball fan, then?” Nate asked. I hadn’t expected a conversation. He was just shaking my hand to be nice. A whole sheep’s worth of cotton wriggled into my throat, and my brain decided to take its seventh inning stretch.

“No, not really. I mean, I like the stats. Baseball has some really cool stats. They’re all online. I did research before meeting Sam and Miguel tonight, and it’s amazing how much data they keep on everything. It’s not just team stats. They track every time a player does anything—or doesn’t do anything. There’s been twenty-two-thousand-eight-hundred-fifty-four players in the major leagues so far. That’s incredible. Oh, you’re in the minors. I don’t know if they count you guys, not that they shouldn’t. You’re great, and you’re pros and all, but you’re not, you know, in the big leagues or majors or whatever you want to call them.”

Nate finally blinked.

A faint curl formed at the corner of his mouth where his lips kissed stubble. I couldn’t tell if he was amused, irritated, or some combination of the two. The color and heat that had battled on my face earlier shifted to all out war.

“Sorry, I got a little excited—”

Nate’s mouth spread wide in a warm, toothy grin, then he stepped forward, placed a hand on my shoulder, and said, “It’s alright. Stats are cool.”

8 Nate

It was late when Cal and I finally walked into our apartment. We only lived a few blocks from the stadium, but that walk, especially after a game, always felt like an uphill marathon.

“I’m wasted, and we have to be on the bus at six,” he said, tossing his backpack against the side of the couch. “I’m gonna pass out. See you way too early, Bean.”

Cal was our first baseman and had been my roommate since he’d moved from L.A. to join the team a couple years ago. He might have his image on baseball cards one day, but it belonged in the dictionary beside the listing for “surfer dude.” Everything about him, from his rebellious blonde hair to his half-stoned cadence screamed beach bum. The guys called him Tutu on account of his overly dramatic ballerina splits he did when fielding a throw from third. I reserved use of that particular nickname for times I really wanted to get under his skin. He hated it.

I’d made the mistake, like a lot of the guys, of assuming he’d be half-assed or whatever, on account of him being a wave-riding, happy-go-lucky Cali guy, but he turned out to be the hardest working player on the team. He was usually the first to step onto the practice field and the last to leave it. Most days, he ended up in the batting cage after the players had left and only the staff remained to ready the stadium for our next game. In lightspeed, he’d gone from questionable newbie to an unofficial leader of our motley crew.

He’d also become my best friend.

“Night.” I flopped onto the couch and turned on the TV. As tired as I was, my brain wouldn’t shut off until it had a good numbing by the boob tube. I flipped past the Tonight Show and then three news stations, landing on Antique’s Roadshow. It caught my eye because Rick was gently turning a guitar over on the display counter, scrutinizing its wood for imprints or imperfections, I couldn’t tell which. The patina on the instrument’s wood was rich and lustrous, with just the right amount of cherry peeking through its brown tones. A quick glance at my old strings in the corner made me wish I could reach through the television and swap pieces with the seller.

I kicked off my shoes, then padded into the kitchen to grab a drink, half-listening as Rick asked the seller questions about where he acquired the guitar, whether anyone famous had played it, and a dozen other queries aimed at determining its value. By the time I flopped back onto the cushions, a lowball offer was made, rejected, reiterated, then accepted. Rick rarely lost a negotiation.

My phone buzzed as I lifted a glass of iced tea to my lips.

Miguel Nuñez: Hey, bud. Thanks for meeting the guys tonight. It was great seeing you again.

Me: You, too, old man. You and Sam seem to be doin’ great. I figured you’d end up with an asshole.

Miguel Nuñez: Ha, ha. I think he lost that one, getting stuck with a cop.

Me: No shit. Who’d want that? All those handcuffs and stuff?

Miguel Nuñez: I’ll have you know he loves my handcuffs—really loves my other stuff.

Me: TMI (putting my hands over my ears)

Miguel Nuñez: Are all you baseball players dumb? We’re chatting. There’s nothing to hear. Put your hands over your eyes if you don’t want to see how amazing I am.

Me: Why did I ever let you mentor me? Please, baseball gods, explain that to me.

Miguel Nuñez: Those gods and I haven’t been on speaking terms in years. You’re on your own there, bud. Anyway, I won’t keep you up. It’s late. Just wanted to say thanks. Let’s not wait years before we hang out again.

I started to tell him I good night, but then a question popped into my head.

Me: Hey, before you go. Who was that guy with you? Cooper? He was kind of funny.

Miguel Nuñez: Good guy. Marjorie Polk’s grandkid.

Me: Oh, shit. Sorry. Front office told us about her and her donation to the foundation. That was a big one.

Miguel Nuñez: You have no idea. She was loaded. She and Sam had also become pretty close. She asked us to watch out for Cooper, take him to a game, stuff like that.

Me: Aww, look at you taking in baby birds and shit.

Miguel Nuñez: Fuck off and good night, String Bean.

Me: God, I hate that name.

Miguel Nuñez: Yep, and that’s exactly why it will live forever.

Me: I used to like you. Tell Sam hi for me.

Miguel Nuñez: Will do. Catch ya later.

I smiled at my phone a moment before tossing it onto the couch beside me and grabbing the remote. Rick was now haggling over a pair of earrings I didn’t care about, so he had to go. A few polaroid flashes later, I settled on a nature show about dolphins . . . or whales . . . I wasn’t sure. There was a hot guy swimming around in a wet suit that showed off every piece of fish bait be had, and that was worth getting sleepy with, regardless of what fish or mammal was being filmed.

A massive shark entering the frame made me question my aquatic crush’s choice in careers when my phone buzzed again.

“Jesus, Miguel. It’s nearly midnight,” I grumbled as I dug between the cushions where my phone has slid. I finally freed it from my couch’s evil clutches, held it up to my face to unlock the screen, and flipped the notifications down. There weren’t any new text messages, but Instagram has sent me a note.

“Hey, fan mail.”

The only fans who sent me anything regularly were three old ladies who lived together and spent every waking moment thinking about baseball and food, and not necessarily in that order. There was usually at least one photo of a casserole or roasted beast, along with a detailed recipe and a note telling me how I looked thin and needed to eat more. Outside of my gals, the fans generally flocked to Cam or a few of our flashier players who’d probably finish the season in a major league uniform, leaving the rest of us in the dust, eating casserole.

The shark made an ominous sound, or maybe that was Waldo, the baby whale he was chasing, I wasn’t sure. Either way, I ignored all the fish and punched open the app. There were three messages from Helen, one detailing a tuna dish she made for “her chicks” over the weekend, and two follow-ups asking if I’d tried to make it yet. The only other message was from a handle I didn’t recognize: HawkEyeBB.

HawkEyeBB: It was really great meeting you today. Sorry, I vomited all over your uniform. You hit really well. I mean, nobody scored off your double or anything, but it was a pretty shot, almost went over but that yellow part made it bounce back and then they stopped you at second and struck out the next guy sending you back to the dugout. It was still a good hit and you have a nice grip. Your handshake, I mean. I don’t know how you grip other things . . . with your hands . . . not other parts. I’m doing it again. Sorry. Nice meeting.

Vomited all over my uniform? What the hell? I’m pretty sure I would’ve remember that, and the only people I saw after the game were two reports, Sam, Miguel, and that guy, the rich lady’s grandkid . . .

NateStringerOfficial: Cooper?

HawkEyeBB: Oh, hey. I didn’t expect you to be awake after the game and with your early start tomorrow. Yes, it’s me. I mean Cooper. I Google sent me to your team website which sent me to your Insta page where I messaged you. Sorry if this seems creepy. I’m really not creepy. Promise. We met today in the tunnel after Miguel made your feet dangle.

I actually laughed into my phone. Where had Sam and Miguel found this guy? He’d meant word vomit, not puke vomit. And yes, he had word vomited all over the whole tunnel, not just my uniform.

Still, he was cute, with that wavy brown hair with just a hint of ginger that curled at the tips, and those dimples. Jesus. When he smiled, his whole face lit up. And he smiled almost as much as Miguel, which is impressive—and slightly frighting.

Then my heart skipped a beat.

What if he’d clocked me? I’d spent the last five years in the minors without anyone knowing I was gay. Hell, Cam didn’t even know. I’d worked so hard and was on the cusp of moving up, of finally getting my shot at the majors. The last thing I needed was a media circus over the new gay guy in the minors. I couldn’t let anything get in the way of my dream.

I glanced at my phone, still lit up and waiting, and started to shut it down for the night, but decided to ask one last question.

NateStringerOfficial: It was nice meeting you, too. How did you know we have an early start tomorrow?

HawkEyeBB: When I was looking at your Insta, there were pics of some of your teammates, so I clicked on them and went to their Insta and they had posts about how much they hated early morning bus trips but how they looked forward to tomorrow because they would be with all their friends and traveling to a great city.

My head hurt a little reading his Charles Dickens sentences—sans punctuation—but I couldn’t help myself. The guy cracked me up.

NateStringerOfficial: So, I’ve got to ask, what’s with the name? Isn’t it kind of suggestive?

HawkEyeBB: Huh? Really? My last name is Hawk, so I got called Hawkeye as a kid, and I’m a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. What’s suggestive about that?

Well, shit. A black belt. That’s pretty bad ass. I hadn’t seen that one coming. And thanks to the diver on TV and the impressive harpoon protruding from his rubber suit, I’s been thinking about a totally different contact sport where the initials BB most clearly did not not involve a belt, unless you were into that sort of thing.

NateStringerOfficial: Oh, that makes sense. Sorry, was just confused. Make sure Miguel brings you down to the tunnel next time you go to a game with him, okay? I’ll get you a jersey or something.

There was a long pause before his next message popped up.

HawkEyeBB: That would be really cool. I mean nice. You’re nice. And handsome. And I like your eyes. And teeth. You have good teeth.

I actually snorted reading that last bit.

9 | Nate

Cal and I sleep-walked our way up the bus isle to two empty seats about midway back. The guys were usually quick-witted and sharp-tongued, but it was five-forty-five in the morning. We were barely coherent and moving. I tossed my pack underneath the seat in front of me and nested against the window with my cap pulled down over my face.

Sleep had almost wrapped my in her embrace when Coach Sabro’s voice boomed from outside the bus door.

“Where the fuck is Santi?”

I grabbed my phone and flicked it to life. It was six o’clock, on the dot.

Precisely two minutes later, Santiago Abalos, our shortstop and resident trickster-in-chief, lumbered up the stairs. Coach trailed a step behind, practically climbing into his back pocket.”

“Get the fuck on this bus, Abalos. When we get to Atlanta, you’re leading the team in thirty minutes of slingshots, and if I catch you half-assing, it’ll turn into an hour. Don’t you ever hold up my bus again.”

For once, Santi kept his mouth shut. Nothing good ever came of pissing off Coach Sabro, especially when he was already a not-so-pleasant mood. The class clown did, however, treat us to a series of ridiculous facial expressions that had several of the guys smothering chuckles. I hid my face again, hoping Coach didn’t see the smile that had bloomed on my face. Getting caught mocking him was a sure way to end up doing conditioning drills until game time. Coach didn’t care about winning a single game in a season of a hundred-seventy contests, not nearly as much as loved making a point stick.

Once Santi settled into the back, Coach Sabro and his assistants filled in the front few rows, and the bus lurched toward our first stop, Atlanta. Technically, we were going to Gwinnett County to play the Stripers, the Triple A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves. The team wore pinstripes like a fairly well known major league club up north, and were called The Stripers, but Gwinnett was all Atlanta. Their nickname and stripes actually came from a striped bass and linked the team to the popularity of fishing in the area. To further clarify matters, they stitched a bright green, mouth-agape bass on their logo. He was supposed to look angry, but I always thought he looked constipated.

The roadie’s schedule called for us to play the Stripers tonight and tomorrow night, then travel to Jacksonville for two nights against the Jumbo Shrimp (yes, the minors love their seafood), then spin the bus around for one more game in Gwinnett, then trek for six hours to Charlotte to play twice before heading home.

Charlotte had the good grace to call themselves the Knights, ending our streak of hostile seafood opponents. Although, Knights didn’t make much more sense than naming a team after aquatic creatures. My memory of medieval history pinned armor wearing warriors to somewhere east of Charlotte . . . and across an ocean . . . a really, really big ocean.

Seven night games in three cities, four if you count Gwinnett twice, in seven days. And yes, there was a home stand of four consecutive nights immediately upon our return. There were no days off. Ever. Certainly not during the season.

We were perpetually tired, sore, and hungry.

But none of that mattered.

This was minor league baseball, and we did whatever made kids smile and parents buy more tickets. If that meant wearing poop-challenged fish heads on our caps, bring on the brine.

Life in the minors wasn’t the glamorous existence every Little Leaguer dreamed of, and the pay was so meager most of the guys had two or three roommates and lived on fast food and junk food. The poor married guys struggled to keep things afloat, and those with kids . . . I don’t know how they even paid the bills, but we got to play a game we loved. More importantly, we were on the path to becoming major leaguers, and that was very much in all of our childhood—and adult—dreams.

We should’ve pulled into the parking lot of Coolray Field around ten o’clock, but the perimeter around Atlanta was a twelve-lane parking lot. It wasn’t even rush hour when we tried to cut across the city’s northern arc, but it sure felt like it. The doors finally opened at eleven fifteen, and Coach was still in the same good mood from his earlier encounter with Santiago.

“Alright, listen up.” He didn’t need the intercom to be heard. I think he just liked using the little walkie-looking thing. “We have the field from twelve to two.”

A chorus of groans rippled welcomed that news. He hadn’t told us we would practice today.

“Yeah, yeah. Did you see our game last night? We need the work. I’m sorry Atlanta traffic put us behind and you didn’t get to lounge before practice, but life’s tough. Get suited up and be on the field at eleven-forty-five to stretch and warm-up. Santiago, don’t be late.”

A few guys sitting near Santi punched him playfully. One tossed a glove at him. We never missed a chance to give each other shit.

“Oh, I forgot,” Coach’s voice cracked over the speakers again. “We have a guest today.”

This got everybody’s attention. Injured major leaguers were often sent down to the minors for a game or two after the body part they’d injured had recovered. The league called it rehab. What we really cared about was the tradition that came with a rehabbing player which dictated they bought dinner for the entire minor league team playing host to their injured ass. The best part was how the major guys bragged about how their meal was the best, creating a competition to spoil us more than the last guy unlucky enough to hurt something.

Most of the players took the easy route and paid for a meal at a local restaurant, but a special few got creative. One guy had Outback cater steaks and bloomin’ everything at the ballpark. Another hired a professional sushi chef. We didn’t care, as long as it didn’t come in a paper wrapper with a side of fries. For a group of guys subsisting on greasy burgers and peanut butter crackers out of vending machines, these meals were cause for celebration.

Coach let the excited murmurs die before breaking the news. “Tofer Grace will practice and play with us while we’re here in Gwinnett. Sorry, Perry, he’s on third. Enjoy your nights off.”

Tofer was one of the rising stars on the Atlanta Braves. He was young, hungry, and immensely popular. All of which bode well for our hopes of a memorable meal.

“What’s for dinner?” someone shouted.

“Yeah, and is he buyin’ both nights?” another called out.

“I want mine medium rare,” Santi barked, earning a round of grunts and claps.

“You don’t even know what’s on the menu,” Luis, our catcher, said from a few rows in front of Santi.

“Doesn’t matter. Medium rare. No burning my shit, please.”

Another round of chuckles and chatter.

Coach held up a hand and cracked his first smile of the day. “I’ll let Tofer tell you what he’s got cooked up. It’s a good one. And yes, he’s feeding your sorry asses both nights.”

A hearty cheer drowned out whatever Coach said next. He shook his head, handed the mic to the driver, and stepped off the bus. Three assistant coaches did their best baby ducks following daddy duck routine while the rest of us placed bets on what we’d be eating after the game.

The Atlanta midday sun hammered us for the full two hour practice. Coach was on a mission to eliminate the fielding errors that had plagued us over the last few games. He made Tofer bat for a solid thirty minutes, urging the senior league’s top hitter to “knock the infielders off their feet.” He nearly succeeded a few times, as he rocketed balls at one baseman, then the next. Our best pitcher struggled to beat him with more than a pitch or two. Even the sound as the bat punished the ball was different, somehow louder and more emphatic.

Then he jogged out to third and showed us what infield is supposed to look like. Perry, our regular guy at third, is a solid player, but Tofer made everything look easy and smooth, and he did it all with a smile on his face. He’d earned the painfully obvious nickname “Tofu” in his first year in the majors, but watching him play, I thought the guys had missed a more obvious play on his last name, Grace, because that’s what I saw when I watched him. On top of his ridiculous skill, he made a point to encourage our players after nearly every play, shouting a “nice one” toward Luis at short, or a “great stretch” to Cal. I wanted to hate the guy for blowing the talent curve for the rest of us but couldn’t get past how nice he was to let jealousy take root. Class and grace, that was Tofer.

Although, in a few hours, he’d be Chef Tofer to a bunch of starving guys. That thought made my stomach growl so badly I fumbled an easy popup and earned a, “Fuck, Stringer, what the hell?” from Coach.

“Sorry, got distracted.” I raised my glove and squatted into the best ready position I could muster. There was nothing he could yell if I looked like my head was back in the game, or so I hoped.

True to form, Coach signaled the end of practice at precisely two o’clock. Trained to avoid the scathing pain of his ever-present eye, we trotted in to the dugout like Little Leaguers eager for the post-game McDonalds run.

The bus drove us to our hotel, a ramshackle dive a few blocks away.

“Holy crap. I think they look for the worst places they can find, just to toughen us up,” Cal said as he swiped the keycard and stepped into our room. Faded gold and brown floral wallpaper matched the faded brown and gold drapery, all of which looked like it belonged on a grandmother’s lamp rather than a hotel wall. The beds were covered with a similar, but not quite matching, floral pattern whose colors had long since washed out. Fortunately, I only counted two holes on my comforter.

“As long as the bed doesn’t droop and the TV works, I’m good,” I said, though I wasn’t feeling any better about our accommodations than Cal was.

He grunted and tossed his pack on the floor. He waved a hand in front of his face as dust misted up from where his pack now lay.

“They don’t feed us or pay us shit. You’d think they’d at least put us up somewhere nicer than this dump.” He flopped down onto his bed. “I can feel the coils. There’s wire in my back.”

There wasn’t anything I could say to make the room better, so I pivoted to a topic that always cheered Cal. “I’m starving. Want to walk around, see what’s out there?”

“Good call,” he popped up like a Jack-in-the-box. “We don’t have to buy dinner the next two nights, so let’s do something better than fast food for lunch.”

I grinned. “Mid-tier slightly-slower-than-fast coming right up.”

A thin, lumpy pillow bounced off my shoulder.

“Bean, you’re an idiot. You know that?” His smile had returned. “Lemme hit the bathroom, then we can go find food.”

As he vanished into the restroom, it was my turn to test out a mattress. I couldn’t quite feel wire stabbing my rear, so I took that as a hopeful sign for a couple of restful nights, even if Cal suffered.

I hadn’t checked my phone all day, so I thumbed it to life. There were no emails or text messages waiting, but Messenger displayed a tiny number.

 HawkEyeBB: How was the bus? You in Atlanta yet?

His message had arrived at nine twenty-seven. I was a little surprised to hear from Cooper so soon—and so early in the morning—but smiled at his face grinning up at me in its digital sphere.

NateStringerOfficial: We’re here. Just wrapped up practice. Bus trip was long.

The media team regularly drilled us in posting etiquette. They told stories of text messages gone bad—and public—when players failed to exercise good judgment or thought their electronic conversations would remain private. They lectured us on our responsibility to the team and league, and to all of baseball, to be good role models and stay out of headlines for off-field activities. Those messages hit home even harder for us minor leaguers trying to make it. The last thing any of us needed was bad press killing our burgeoning careers. It made conversations like this one with Cooper a bit clinical or distant, but that was just part of the territory.

HawkEyeBB: You probably can’t text much. I get it. Media relations and all. Such a burden to be famous.

NateStringerOfficial: Wow. You picked that up fast . . . though, I’m not sure how famous I am.

HawkEyeBB: That’s true. Triple A might be the big leagues of the minors, but it’s still the minors, and with your batting average, you don’t get much time in the spotlight.

HawkEyeBB: Sorry, that sounded really terrible. You’re a great player and look really good in your uniform. I mean, you fill out your jersey well. Crap. I meant your arms tug at your sleeves just right. I’m wasn’t talking about your butt. I wouldn’t. I mean, I guess I would. It does look amazing in those pants, but I wouldn’t say that because we barely know each other that that’s an awfully forward thing to say about a butt . . . or a guy.

I couldn’t help myself. This was too good.

NateStringerOfficial: Ouch. So, you’re not complimenting my butt?

HawkEyeBB: Sorry, yes, I am. But I’m not. No, I’m not. I can’t, I mean, it’s your butt, and it’s a really nice one, I mean hot, a really hot one. You have a hot ass, especially in your uniform pants. They grip it just right, or hug, should that be hug, I think it should but hug sounds like its got tiny arms and I doubt your butt has arms. That would be weird.

I was laughing so loud Cal shouted from the bathroom.

“What’s going on out there?” he shouted.

“Nothing. Just a friend back home making fun of me.”

“At least he’s got easy material.”

I chuckled. “Thanks a lot. Can you shake it so we can go? I’m starving.”

“Jesus, can’t a guy pee in peace? Be there in two.”

HawkEyeBB: Gotta run. My boss is shouting something. He’s an ass, and not the sex, uniform gripping kind. Good luck tonight. Hit another double.

NateStringerOfficial: Do my best.

Cooper’s status light turned red as the bathroom door opened, and Cal stepped out.

“Let’s go, precious. I’ve been waiting on you for hours,” he said with mock irritation and a shit-eating grin.

10 |Cooper

I’d always enjoyed wearing a suit. There was something about the formality of donning crisply starched cotton that made me feel special. It was like when Batman slips on his tights or leggings or whatever he’d call his bat suit. Tossing my black tie over my shoulder, then taking the rabbit over, under, and through, raised the stakes from preppy to modern professional. Most guys preferred the tight nub of a half-knot, but I still loved the classic look of a well-formed Windsor. If I didn’t fear sideways glances, I’d probably sport a full ascot most days.

Alas, merry ole England we are not.

One last check in the mirror, a tweak of my tie, a flick of a stray hair, a quick pick between two stubborn teeth harboring a last crumb from a power bar that somehow evaded my prewash, toothbrush, hydro-floss, and mouthwash, and I was off.

This was Grammy’s day.

I would love to say I was looking forward to it, to celebrating her life and legacy with those who loved and admired her, but the truth was more complicated and far more emotional. The thought of sitting in front of a hoard of people, some of whom would no doubt cry throughout whatever ceremony Grammy had planned, all while trying to hold myself together with duct tape and paperclips, wasn’t something I relished.

The truth was, I missed her, and today was going to hurt.

Thankfully, despite my required involvement in notifying beneficiaries named in her will, I was not involved in the planning or execution in the day’s events. She had taken care of all that prior to her passing. She’d spelled out everything, down to picking the invitations and table settings. She’d hired a program manager, catering company, even a small string ensemble for accompaniment—and prepaid each. Each day that passed, I learned more about the woman I thought I knew better than any other. She was deeply involved in her community, most people knew that, even if none of us fully appreciated just how prolific she had been. I was also coming to realize she was as brilliant and organized as she was generous.

And all those years, I’d just known her as Grammy.

Grammy, who made the best pound cake ever baked.

Grammy, whose laugh made my insides tickle until I couldn’t hold my own joy back.

Grammy, who held me close when the world turned dark and closed in around me.

Before I realized it, I was standing on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, staring at a life-sized portrait. She wore a powder blue dress with white lace around her neck and a white belt about her waist. Cottony hair swirled and lay, somehow looking both messy and perfectly neat at the same time. Her smile . . .

Her smile was sunshine breaking through clouds.

My heart lurched, and I had to turn away.

Standing on that stage, the sacred hardwood where the greats of country music performed for 34 years, a simple sign taped to one of the pews caught my eye.

“Reserved for Cooper Hawk, Grandson.”

It was the only such sign on the front row.

In fact, aside from the reserved spaces for the media in the balcony, it was the only sign in the entire theater.

For some reason, I couldn’t stop staring at it, at the word, “Grandson,” at the length of empty pew that stretched like a rolling field where nothing grew or flowered. I suddenly felt alone, truly alone, for the first time in my life. Even when my mom and dad went through their battles, they were still there. Sure, they’d passed me off to Grammy and Pop, but then I’d had them. It was never just me.

            Until that moment, on that stage, staring at that sign, in front of her image.

“Cooper, good, you’re early. Mind if I run a few things by you before the guests arrive?”

I turned back toward the curtain to find Janice Monroe, the planner Grammy had hired. Janice had worked in the Mayor’s office, served as Chief of Staff to a Governor, and currently owned and ran an event planning company she’d founded a few years earlier. If Grammy had been brilliant, Janice was inhuman.

“Uh, sure, but I thought Grammy—”

“She detailed everything,” she smiled and nodded while pressing a comforting hand onto my arm. “But there are always details to consider at the last moment. For instance, would you prefer the ushers stand at the top of each aisle once the memorial begins or step back against the walls and doors? One allows them to be visible for late guests, but puts them into the line of sight for those timely enough to be in their seats. Oh,” she tapped her pad with a pen. “Same question with the media. They’re set up in the balcony, but one TV station asked to have a roaming camera. I need to give them an answer.”

We had ushers? And media? There were television stations covering my grandmother’s memorial service? My head was still spinning from seeing Grammy’s photo, and realizing I had to spend the next however many hours saying goodbye to her in front of the whole freakin’ city. My Windsor suddenly felt like the whole of England’s royal family wanted to cut off air to my lungs.

“Uh, well, what do you think?”

“I would have them step back and be invisible. They can always advance if someone needs help. And I would tell the TV people to stay in their cage. We don’t need them distracting guests.”

I nodded, bewildered, but trying to appear thoughtful. “Fine, let’s do that.”

I turned, but her voice grabbed me more firmly than her hand had done a moment ago. “A few more things . . .”


The memorial was Grammy:

Elegant, respectful, perfectly timed, and beautifully presented.

Over two thousand people crammed into the Ryman, with more turned away at the doors. My only participation was to place a bouquet of flowers shaped in a ring on the easel holding her portrait. By that point in the proceedings, I’d thought tears had run their course. I was sorely mistaken. As my fingers released the ring of her favorite pink blooms, I felt myself letting her go, saying goodbye in a way I hadn’t done before. I stood and stared, begging her to come back. My hand found its way to her cheek. I needed her warmth but only felt the cold stiffness of canvas.

Someone sniffed through their own tears, and I turned to face the mourning mass.

I was supposed to exit stage right, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t take my eyes off the thousands who’d come to honor my grandmother, the thousands who stared at me, into me, as I stood frozen in the performers’ circle.

No one grabbed my arm and hauled me off. In fact, no one spoke, not even Janice. I’d been awed by the skill and precision with which Grammy had planned her own memorial, and here I was destroying that clockwork perfection.

Somehow, it felt right.

My eyes roamed the crowd of mostly unfamiliar faces, landing on a few I’d met over the past weeks. I locked eyes with each, hoping they felt an appreciative embrace, then moved on to the next.

Sam and Miguel were there. Miguel smiled up at me—of course, he did—but not in his cheek, over-the-top-happy way he normally smiled. This felt more private, intimate, as if he wanted me to know he was there for me, that he would do anything to ease my pain or spark joy into my heart once more. I was caught by that. They barely knew met, yet here they were, standing by my side as I said farewell.

Then again, Sam was saying goodbye, too. He’d known Grammy. All of these people had in their own way. She might not’ve been their world like she’d been for me, but to know her was to know unbridled love and compassion. Of course, these people wanted to see her one last time, to feel her presence and goodness, all the things that made her special and unique. Of course, they did

The closest row sat a dozen yards away, yet I felt the guests’ love and support as if they stood with their arms wrapped about me.

Those moments were frightening—and liberating. They brought me strength and peace.

I’d never be able to explain it.

It still doesn’t make sense.

But I needed that time on stage. I needed to see those faces, those thousands of souls, united in admiration for the mother I’d lost and then found once again.

When I finally stepped off stage, and the last notes from Belmont’s choir faded, I felt Grammy’s weathered fingers brush my cheek, as I’d done hers on stage. A hint of rose tickled my nostrils, her favorite scent still in bottles of cream at her home. I squeezed my eyes shut and willed her eyes into my mind as I listened to her voice, her laughter, tinkling like the merriest of bells on a distant breeze.

And then she was gone.


The reception that followed was held in the Omni hotel’s ballroom. Servers in blindingly white shirts and black bowties served every flavor of booze and cocktail weenie ever created. I couldn’t stop the ringing of my mental cash register as I watched bartenders draining one bottle after the next, almost as quickly as they uncorked them. Then I remembered Grammy’s bank balance, and I told that register’s bell to stuff it.

My job at this post-mourning mourning party, was to be the physical representation of Grammy’s family, offering comfort and thanks to each guest who needed a good handshake or hug. It was annoying. I was the one who’d lost his grandmother, yet here I was, being pimped out as a super-greeter for a indeterminate number of hours.

I blew out a sigh, sucked down a Jack and Coke, then took my place near one of the food stations Janice had designated “the receiving line.” Was I a bride? A royal? Why did I need to receive anyone? I tried not to think about it as an elderly man with whisps of hair clinging to his head like a rookie climber to a mountainside reached for my hand.

An hour later, Prince Cooper was still fulfilling his royal obligation. The first dozen stories about his grandmother had been heartwarming. The hundreds that followed faded into background noise. I learned to nod politely, smile, make eye contact without really seeing the person, then do it all over again. I would never make a good politician. What masochist enjoyed this torture?

“Can I get a hug instead of a shake?” a pleasantly familiar motorcycle engine purred.

Ignoring the occasion or propriety or the fact Janice was standing nearby monitoring my every movement, I leapt into Sam’s arms and squeezed him with every ounce of strength I had left.

“God, I needed you here. Thank you so much for coming.”

“Can’t . . . breathe. Cooper—”

I dropped back. “Sorry, I’m just really glad to see you guys.”

Miguel stepped forward and pulled me into his chest. Damn, he had hard pecs. Had I noticed that before? I don’t think I had. And they’re huge. And hard. I wanted to reach up—

“You okay down there?”

“Oh, uh, yeah, sorry. It’s been a really long day. My mind is kind of wandering on its own, like when you take a dog on a walk in the woods and let it off the leash but it runs away and goes wherever the path is—or isn’t—because they sometimes like going in the open woods where there isn’t a path.”

Miguel blinked.

Sam chuckled.

“Well, okay,” Miguel blinked a few more times. “We know you’re busy here, but wanted to invite you over to our house after this is over. We’ll just be grilling out and—”


Miguel cocked his head and blinked again.

“I’d like that. Please. Really. I need it, to be around friends and just hang out and not think about any of this or these people. Or anything. Please and yes.”

“Alright, then. We’ll text you our address. Come whenever you can break free.”

“I’ll text when I’m done.” They started to turn, but I grabbed Miguel and hugged him again. “Thank you, Miguel. Thank you so much.”             For the first time that day, surrounded by thousands, I didn’t feel so alone.