"Don't come any closer!" The voice rings out in Mark's head, in his dreams, the vaguely familiar voice giving murky instructions to keep Buehrle at a distance. In his dreams, everything lurks just beyond the ridge, out of reach of comprehension, physical grasp, and even worldly acceptance. The dreams continue nightly, though the last encounter with the Bullpen Arm was almost a week ago. Mark has yet to go back into the woods; not from fear exactly, but for dread of truth. The Bullpen Arm, though remaining mostly obscured, has proven both thoughtful and reasonable, well intentioned and insightful. Just, perhaps, not real. Three times Mark has encountered this arm, each time coming away with an uncertain sense of well-being. Comfort on shaky ground. In his house, awake with his family, he remains in control. The woods and his dreams can only provide enigmatic doubt.
In the early afternoon he shuffles around the house; it's thankfully his for the time being. Buehrle's wife and kids are beginning to nag during this offseason, made worse by his self-imposed restriction to quarters. He can't rightly tell them the reason behind his continual presence at home. Not a chance they, or anyone supposedly right-minded, would possibly comprehend. He has repeatedly considered quitting his passion to spend time with these people; that's the line he'll toe. He's a family man first.
In the front room, looking through drizzle across the open pasture, the woods loom. Why can't I have a normal haunting, he thinks.
Used towels and blankets are scattered around the hotel room in no order, and room service trays are piled near the corner; the chair is full, and the crust-plated overflow is stacked on the carpet. Rios has taken "do not disturb" to the next level, opening the hallway door only to receive food. One week. A week of crap food, half-assed obligatory showers as routine only, of scraggy facial hair, of Mexican soap operas and the occasional people-watching or sunset from the balcony. That beach, his Waterloo if he had read a book. In a second, the girl was gone, his girl, and she's becoming smarter, wittier, more beautiful in his head. She summarily avoided him, her dark hair and slender frame too good for his bloated husk, his boring club-minded adolescence clearly inferior to whatever mystery she carried onto the beach, away. The rejection is frankly shocking, his first, and he's frankly surprised by the overwhelming helplessness.
Not even the sunglasses could save him.
The sun on the balcony is almost unbearable, worse than the booing fans in Chicago shedding miserable light on his failures at work. The few times he has made it out there have ended poorly; a beach full of happy vacationers, of women he'll never now connect with, serves to worsen his mood. The objective beauty tendered by the Pacific reminds Alexis of his tiny stature. He stays in his shade-drawn room, eating pillow mints and lobster, the blue glare of the flatscreen a welcome substitute for the sun. Light that bright renders him helpless but to translucent introspection, and nothing helps.
Not even these fucking sunglasses.
Their dissatisfaction is readily apparent, and the Hair can see them through binoculars, signs raised, marching through the heart of the financial district. It's not clear what they are protesting, but Morel and Lillibridge obviously consider themselves part of the larger movement of unrest. On orders from up high, relayed through the Face, the vigilance continues. The team transition to date has been rocky enough; these youths are earning themselves a tighter leash almost daily. The Hair is protected from view by dark tinted glass, waiting, constantly ready to defend the Organization from threats real or perceived. The duo, amongst hundreds more, continue marching as a violent storm system builds over the lake.
Of course he's rooting for the Cards; they're his boyhood team. It's almost unfathomable that Buehrle could be pitching for them soon, and the potential change, any upcoming change has him nervous. These pervasive thoughts cannot easily be shoved aside as he watches the opening pitch, a ball to Kinsler. That could be me on the bump, he thinks, every tiny reminder echoing through his head. He's had his greatness, but suppressing his appetite for more is... disheartening. Dinner is on the table, but Mark chooses to eat alone in front of the TV.
In his dream last night he wore two redbirds on his chest. The Bullpen Arm was there, though, hidden but effectively calming him. The redbirds were there, but so to were his Chicago teammates. This was almost painfully uncomfortable, and Mark awoke neither anxious nor excited. Focused ambivalence. Mark Buehrle was growing up, but for the first time in a while he felt an ally at his side, cold as it may be.
If only his family could understand.
Rios begins to consider acts like this as "brave," though it's really just sitting. Watching the sky grow lighter. Slowly the daylight comes. Eight days and the carpet looks the same. So does the stucco ceiling. The soaps and infomercials don't change. The bed is unmade, the sheets crumby and wasted by now. Dirtier. Everything dirtier, but at this point hotel services would be an embarrassment to all.
Faint at first, it becomes unmistakable in seconds: the high buzzing sound of a single-engine aircraft, approaching from the south. Ears perking and suddenly energized despite days of lethargic half-sleep, Rios eagerly squints into the dawn. Barely visible in the morning mist against a still-midnight horizon, the plane motors overhead and continues along the coast, blinking wingtip lights beacons of safety and security.
Sloppy disorder be damned – dressed only in sandals and designer jeans, Alexis Rios grabs his wallet and steps into the hallway, into the world.
In Elmhurst the wind and rain has really picked up; it's a wonder the satellite signal is coming through. The dull whoosh of whipping leaves and water are punctuated by the smacking of branches on double-paned glass. Clara Calum, age 5, has dutifully cleared her dinner plate, but not before saving just a slice of ham. Chaos, yellow lab, age 2, eagerly awaits his prize in the living room. Both are thankful to be warm and inside on a night like this, and both happily await the start of the World Series, though neither can profess to be thrilled with the teams involved. The faucet handle in the kitchen is slapped down with some force, and with a grunt Clara's father trudges into the living room. With a flick of the remote, the announcers' voices permeate the house, at once vexing and horrifying these local viewers.
"There ya go, kiddo. Let's see Carpenter shut them down, huh? Daddy's gotta type something, so keep the cheering down, k?" The man says this in half-jest; Clara's fascination is probably nominal at her young age. "Beisbol!", she often yells for no reason, even in the winter. As he settles in with his antique typewriter, he looks admirably at Clara and Chaos resting at the base of the couch, taking in the game. What a good kid, he thinks. Too bad she's being raised a Sox fan. She'll never know any better. 2005 was a long time ago.
As the game continues into the night, the man finishes his potent letter, hearty words finally and firmly on paper. The drowsy five-year-old curls into the soft fur of the dozing Chaos, half-alerted by the cessation of keyboard abuse. What is this, she wonders. What kind of world am I growing up in. Eyelids softly closed, the half-dream mixes with the sound of rambling announcers and overused effects: Why is Nick Punto being walked?