Head hanging low, his eyes crossed and unfocused on something even lower, the utterly useless intern makes his way towards a hulking Dunn and his just-immaculate locker. The expendable cretin dodges the players, but they quietly pay him no mind. This slight and moronic intern, a real mirror of The Organization, ask anyone, he's been dreading this moment for weeks. Since he found the envelope. Mid-September, late September, does it matter? The important thing is that the bonehead intern leaves with his life, despite his idiocy, though he'll likely keep his job because of it. Sure, just an envelope, but it was dropped on his desk on April 2nd. Lost in the shuffle. Piles of fan mail, those lightly-worded hopes, permanent excitement on the good stationary, they smothered it, way back in the day. The team was on the road. There was so much going on, what with winning and optimism and home runs and did you see that first game? These are excuses and even the beat writers would understand. The return address is a flight center in Maryland. Dunn is going to be pissed.
Adam Dunn is not pissed, not yet, he's just 409-ing the back wall of his locker, mindlessly, his rose cheeks slack, eyelids burdened by bigness all around; he's been in this exact position in his head forever. .409, wouldn't that be nice, but he's not even thinking that. The nimrod intern taps Dunn's shoulder and holds out the envelope while expecting the worst.
"No, it's fine," spills Dunn before the half-wit has a chance to speak or even duck. Adam saw the return address, he now knows. Hell, he saw the reflection of the sauntering mouth-breather in his shining locker wall from across the room, plodding with obvious regret in his step. Dunn knows and all is forgiven immediately, though not spoken. What other choice does he have? After this inexplicable season? Not the most gullible fan, of which there are a couple, would buy this as a reason, let alone the reason, or even an earthly possibility. For fucks sake, Dunn wants to fly, and far, far away to be sure. His wild insides are finally beaming, with desire, with fleshy wings, with the fleet-footed urge to soar, or just run more than 70 or 90 feet. It's a release from jail, from this mental prison, from the stifling pressure and oh god these people. His pilot's license has arrived, and dammit that's all that matters. He's a good pilot, he knows it. It's his passion. Dunn snatches the letter and lives in the sky. The dunce slips away unnoticed.
Across the locker room a procession forms, a mass of white with black pinstripes. One and Twenty are leaving the grounds, soon to be gone for good. Certain others have already left with very little notice or fanfare, and even more may follow in the coming months. All will be missed, but the mass surrounds these two. Hands are gripped, forearms bumped, good to know you, see you soon. Eyes lock for a moment, and then uncertainty and knotted stomachs. Who replaces the hardest working guy in the clubhouse? Will no one work hard anymore? Who replaces the smartest guy in the clubhouse? Will no one be smart anymore? This is the direction they could be headed. Brent Morel is last in line and worries about his future.
"I'm worried about my future, Brent!" he forcefully whispers, not to himself. Lillibridge smiles, tight-lipped and focused, and looks up and back at Morel.
"It's fine, Brent. The Organization has had a rough year, but it's not your fault. Not your fault," Lillibridge soothes.
It is partially Morel's fault, but he's a good kid. The Brents are excellent kids, actually, the best on a personal level. It's never enough, though, for either of them to know this. They individually recall their grinding attempts to prove their value on the field of play. One of them can remember crushing thirteen homers and diving with abandon, those game-saving Times Square ticker plays still fresh in his condensed memory. The other, golly, he made some good plays at third and defense counts, too. Add in some garbage home runs post-contention. These kids, these days they practically raise themselves.
"Tell me you're going to Pena's party," Morel urges, strangely confident in his confiding. "I don't think I could make it alone." Brent and Brent are only recently a thing. They share a locker now, or did until today. Damn late season call-ups needed the space.
"Of course. Who am I to miss the going away for such a key Organizational figure? I have to go." Tony Pena blows, objectively, but Brent offers assurances with no affront. What's a kid ballplayer to know? Tony Pena will be missed, objectively, and his front office-sponsored party will be good, earnest fun. Mandatory fun for all invited. Anyone who is anyone will be there, and finally the booze will flow. It's something the kids have been waiting for; the keys to the team liquor cabinet are tightly controlled through the season. Morel and Lillibridge can finally relax, temporarily, as long as The Face (of the franchise) allows. Under His watch, His Face (that of the franchise) and His Hair... they are omnipresent and restrictive. Brent and Brent will remember, they will heed, they will practice and perfect their crafts, these effing kids, in the shadow of a great chestnut mane, under the watchful eyes for the Organization. But they will also find temporary release; it's been far too long, and Tony Pena is as good a reason to drink as any.
The subdued chatter of depressed and relieved players and coaches eventually fades, the sharp clanks of equipment thrown and stored subside, and Alexis Rios sits alone. A stinging burnt odor lurks hazily. The push broom in his hands has yet to be used even though it's been hours since the fire. The season a wreck, Rios took to breaking and burning his offensive tools; the remains now lie scattered and charred on the cement floor, with few pieces identifiable as slivers of bat. The pile simply won't vanish, despite miserable stares and angst, an ashen reality spreading slowly in the draft, the dull rush of vented air the only defense against stone silence. With a jarring slam, the side door flies open and hits the wall, hollow metal on cinder block.
"You comin' or what?"
Bison-headed Dunn smiles that down-home grin, his frame as big as the door's. "I know ya won't let the most miserable season ever get ya too damn down! I'm going south, and I figgur you are, too. Les go, c'mon." His hearty and until-recently-impossible laugh is mesmerizing, unknown but comforting.
Dunn is right, as right as escapism can be. Alexis slowly rises and turns, no words, hardly an acknowledgement, shoulders still slumped. He drags ass about the cool clubhouse toward the exit. He can't be too excited, but salvation is in Cabo, he knows. This is an early reprieve, a merciful stage hook by Adam. Rios can't be too grateful, but keeps every impulse and thanks beneath the surface, under the Affliction, beyond the gold. Dunn would also understand, has to, the way the pact has played out. The pile of ash and splinters works its way from center toward the lockers, a dark and dirty mess left behind for others to handle, as the door closes gently behind some of the worst players in baseball.
At Midway, Rios looks over the Cessna in downtrodden stride. It was purchased in January, Dunn explained. Prices were low. Stored here the whole time, he's got a guy that comes around here and there. For maintenance. Adam had figured on the license being in pocket for occasional summer use. That Lidle played in the American League was of little concern to him, but Rios automatically turns his mind to this; unreal that the other pact member brings this up before flying. Alexis stares straight ahead while the Big Donkey climbs in and buckles up.
"Cabo, huh? Welp, I'll drop ya in Houston and I'm sure ya can gofrum thur." Dunn's jointed sausages grip the yoke just like a bat: with inflexible tightness. The flicking of guarded switches during pre-flight is almost a fat joke, but Rios sits silently, still grateful, still humble, still in reclusive shock of finally disappearing. It's not every day he sits passenger in a Cessna piloted by a major-leaguer, let alone one that looks like he's driving a clown plane, what with Dunn's hunch and chubby elbows bowed way out.
It's not every day he can escape being Alexis Rios.
The plane, cleared for take-off, gains speed and rises and Dunn points it south. The overcast gloom sets down upon them and Rios takes it in: the phalanxes of bungalows, the murky subdivisions beyond forest preserves and glossy highways, stretches of muted grey city wallowing in grief. It's just enough. Across the barrel of his pact-member's chest, through wisps of raincloud, the lights are on at Comiskey. Maybe they're lit for the grounds crew, or maybe for Pena's party but oh-who-fucking-cares. Alexis looks away, head now supported by hand, elbow wedged on the cold sill. The two-seater levels off just above the clouds, bursting suddenly into the brilliant western radiance. The Donkey staring ahead to his left, the high cyclic engine drone, the shadowy cloud layer below, Rios is frozen and everything is washed out by the light.