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8

Third-place winner

By Andy Steinberg, Fri., Feb. 28, 2014

There's someone else.

A neon sign hovers in front of me. Its bright green baseball diamond shines an artificial contrast to the brick building it adorns, to the unlit alley it guards against, to the starless sky it derives its purpose from. More neon sits beneath the diamond – dull red text that reads, CENTER FIELD. I check the screen of my phone. It's still aglow from the last time.

Need 2 see u. Center field @ 9:30.

I take a breath and open the door.

Instinctively I know where to find her. She's sitting beyond the far end of the bar. We make eye contact and she breaks it immediately, choosing instead to gaze at the empty chair in front of her. My legs are striding, but I'm not moving them. Fate is pulling me forward. Prescience is holding me back. Fate inevitably wins. There's a clock over her head, and I'm 10 minutes late. "Hey."

Her stare remains leveled, even after I sit. It's directed at my neck and suddenly I'm conscious of the weird curl of my collar. Thanks for coming. Now she looks up. Now she smiles. Her voice is incapable of wavering.

All that time in the approach, and I haven't thought of a thing to say. This becomes my single point of concern. For as long as we've been together, I've never allowed more than a brief moment of silence. You don't notice things like that until it's too late to do anything about it. "Kinda weird coming here without having played a game first," I jabber. Silence avoided.

First time for everything. Her smile cycles between genuine and forced, her muscle movements nearly imperceptible. I decide I like her better with a real smile, and that becomes frozen in my vision.

"But not necessarily a last."

Her arms are sprawled across the well-worn table, crossing the grains and imperfections of the wood. I reach out and take her clasped hands into my own. The familiar cold touch of her skin always fills me with a sense of purpose. My hands are shaking, so I begin stroking with my thumbs.

She eyes my grip before offering to get drinks from the bar. I tell her I'll have what she's having, and then she slips away, a hollow left underneath my canopied palms. Only an instant passes, the memory of her not yet faded from my fingertips, before she returns with cocktails. This too is different. She's averse to liquor.

Her glass is already on her lips when I look at her. I watch some of its contents disappear. She's noting the glass in my hands, the one that's making me shiver. If she's waiting for me to take a drink, I don't give her the pleasure before I say, "This isn't what I expected."

I felt like something different.

That was a stupid remark. I want to take it back. Something strong hits my tongue before I remember that I didn't want to drink yet. Whiskey. Do I catch her sighing?

I ask about her throwing arm and she opens up, telling me about her visit with the doctor and the rehab exercises she's been doing. We fall into conversation, and my mind skips the details. It feels normal. When we hit a lull, I refresh the drinks before she can say anything.

Tell me about your day.

I spent my day dreading this encounter. By sleeping the day away to escape the constant foreboding. She had broken up with me a dozen times, in a dozen different ways, today. None of them were going to happen, but I had crafted a reaction for each one. I don't tell her any of this. I lie and make something up about work. My eyes are wandering. Someone's changed the television from sports to news. There's a couple playing pool. A spider is crawling across the face of the clock.

We've been talking for some time. She wouldn't keep me on edge this long. I'm feeling confidence now. "Hey," I say. "I've been thinking about us lately."

She sits up straighter. Me too.

"You and I ..."

She cuts in. Can I go first?

I agree even though I shouldn't.

I don't think we should see each other anymore.

Is it possible to be surprised by the inevitable? I need to say something before it's too late. I finish my thought. "I was thinking that you and I are a lot like the number eight ..."

Please don't.

"... apart we're each nothing ..."

Listen to me.

"... but together we're so much more."

There's someone else.

I try to inhale, but there's no oxygen. My heart skips. The room has become a vacuum. "I can't breathe." The croak sounds foreign. I stumble over my chair and run out the front door, gasping. The air is thick, like right before it rains.

My phone buzzes, and I check the screen.

R u ok?

I lean against a tree to steady myself before reading her message again.

Need 2 see u. Center field @ 9:30.

After a quick survey, I realize that I'm facing the bar and that the world has reset. I don't want to go back inside, but I don't know how to stop.

Ten minutes late. Awkward greetings. "Kinda weird coming here without having played a game first." Regret of the comment. I blink purposefully, and when my eyes open, the scene has changed. She's wearing her ball cap now, and we've drifted to the side of the bar where people come to celebrate.

I'm sandwiched between a dozen rowdy strangers. My yellow jersey would be swallowed into the void of their all-black uniforms if not for the web of arms pushing me forward. They want to buy a round, and they want me to be a part of it. I imagine that this is what it's like to have an octopus for a drinking buddy. She stands behind the melee. Her hand on my elbow is the one constant.

Our beers refill themselves as the crowd around us dissipates into calm. There's a brown streak of dirt on her otherwise flawless cheekbone that I've been admiring all night.

We're doing a figure 8, you and I. How long can we go the same speed?

I pick up on the cue and pull her close. It's not just the first kiss I feel; it's every kiss. My eyes are closed, but I see them all. When I open them, she's looking at my chest again. We're seated, and there are drinks in front of us.

"We're doing another figure 8 right now."

What do you mean?

"You want to say something. I want to say something. But instead we're both playing it safe."

You're right. She gives me a slight nod. I'm not sure how to say this.

"Then don't say it."

I have to.

"Well, I don't want to hear it." I push the table away, stand up, and walk toward the door. She's behind me and out of sight, but her voice is in my ear, as close as ever.

There's someone else.

I walk faster. Out the door, into the night, a few more steps, and spin back around. I can't leave like that, without fixing it. I head back inside. My phone is chirping, and I squeeze it tighter in my fist, grimacing from the pain as its corners dig into my skin. She hears it as I approach and gestures toward it.

Let's see what you got.

"Huh?"

I said, "Let's see what you got, nine."

I loosen my grip a bit, turning the bat in my hands. The brilliance of the sun has washed out the rest of the field, but the picture clears when I look back and see her crouched down behind home plate. Through a smile I ask, "Are you going to harass me every time I come up to bat, seven?"

Depends on whether you agree to come out with us after the game, slugger.

"And what do you have planned after the game?"

Her turn to crack a smile. You're nine. I'm seven. We'll find eight.

The memory dissolves, and I'm once again sitting across from her. On the television there's a report from Japan. It's the anniversary of the Nagasaki bomb, and there's a remembrance ceremony. "I've been thinking about us lately."

Me too.

"You and I ..."

Can I go first?

"... are a lot like the number eight. We only connect on the surface."

So you agree with me?

"No. I don't think you're giving us a chance. We just need more time ..."

There's someone else.

Skip to the part where I'm outside heaving and my phone is nagging me. This time it reads, u cant change it. I throw the phone against a wall and watch it burst into nothing. "How's that for change?" I yell into the emptiness.

The accursed device makes its reappearance known when its screen brightens my face.

Need 2 see u. Center field @ 9:30.

I head toward something that I refuse to call destiny.

"Hey."

Thanks for coming.

We're simply going through the motions now. I'm not supposed to know our destination, but I do. She does too, of course. I want to skip to the end, but I don't know how.

A collision of billiard balls catches my attention. An orange lamp hangs over the solid wooden table, illuminating a cone around it with an unsettling glow. At the far end stands a man who is laughing and eyeing the slender feminine figure bent over the blue cloth surface. She's stretched across the length of the table, one leg elevated, trying to reach the white ball on the far side with her cue. There's only one other ball left, and it would be an easy shot if she could reach it, but she gives up. She waves to the darkness behind her. A tall man emerges and takes her cue. The first man frowns as the second man lines up his shot.

Did you hear me?

"Yeah, you want to break up."

Her hands jerk to her face as she recoils. I hadn't gotten to that yet.

"Well, I don't want to."

That doesn't matter.

"Of course it matters. Why wouldn't it matter?"

There's someone else.

"I have to go." I look up at the clock. Ten minutes late. "Stupid thing is broken." I move toward the exit. I feel knowing eyes around me following me out.

A breeze stirs against my neck as the door swings shut. Towering in front of me stands a decaying clone of the bar. One of the neon letters has burned out. CENTER F ELD. The stars have come out by the hundreds. I squint and lines form between them. A scorpion lies in wait for whatever approaches across the cosmos. Behind me the original bar has vanished. A raindrop wets my hair, and then another. Terrified, I sprint down the empty road.

There's no wind and no light, but I can sense my feet going faster, like I'm falling forward. I run with no perception of time or distance. Ahead of me I see the neon diamond. My phone vibrates in my hand.

Need 2 see u. Center field @ 9:30.

I dash toward the door before slowing, then entering.

Thanks for coming.

Ten minutes late. I don't look at her as I sit. "I don't want to do this again."

Do what again?

"I don't want to go through all of this," I gesture all around us with my arms, "again."

But we haven't ...

I don't let her finish. "Who is it?"

Her mouth tightens. It's better not to know.

"Just tell me who it is, dammit!" I'm above her now, looking down.

It's someone else.

I glance at the clock. Ten minutes late. "Someone fix this fucking thing!" Picking up a glass from the table, I throw it and watch it shatter uselessly against the clock's face.

A featureless man drags me out with muscular arms. She calls out after me. What did you expect? I'm dumped onto the quiet street alone. I ignore my phone's wail and lie there in misery. Silence barely interrupts its cry before it starts again. Standing up, I brush myself off and force myself to look.

Need 2 see u. Center field @ 9:30.

Going back inside is both the thing I want most and least.

Thanks for coming.

"I didn't really have a choice."

You don't have to stay.

It's hot, and she's kicked the sheets to the floor. We're sharing a pillow, my face full of her hair and her smell. "But I waaaant to," I whine playfully. I tighten our embrace, barely leaving room for our sticky mixture of sweat. Threading my legs through hers and locking them, I add, "I couldn't go anyway, I'm knotted up."

Back in the bar. "I've been thinking about us lately."

Me too.

"Can I go first?"

She hesitates. Fine.

"I know why we're here."

Her eyebrows arch. You do?

"You can't do this."

Why not?

"We're too entangled, like an eight."

You only think that. It isn't true.

"It takes time to straighten out. And then you may find a reason to stay."

No. It's over.

"Can we at least try?"

There's someone else.

The urge to breathe becomes the urge to run becomes the repeated scene outside. I can fix this. There's still time. I'm already looking at my phone, ready for her message when it comes. Skip to when I sit down.

Thanks for coming.

"Kinda weird coming here without having played a game first."

First time for everything. Her smile is forced. I need to do something different.

"Listen. I want to say something, and I want to get the whole thing out before we talk about what it is you want to talk about. OK?"

Oh. Umm, sure.

"You're the best thing in my life right now. I've never felt this close to anyone, and I know you're not perfect like I make you out to be sometimes. And I know I'm not perfect, if that even needs to be said. But I think we're both better together."

Strange. Her eyes are glassy.

"You and I are like the number eight. If we can only get pointed in the right direction, we can become infinity."

Her cheeks are wet. There's ... She clears her throat. There's no ...

Why did I need to open my stupid mouth?

Why did I need to say anything?

These aren't my words.

Nothing good was going to come out.

Nothing was going to change.

The image of her dissolves as I wake to the familiarity of my bedroom and a song on the radio, its lyrics replacing my own thoughts. The dim screen of my alarm clock steadily comes into focus. 8:00. I lie there without blinking, waiting for the numbers to change.

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