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Perfect Catch

By:Sierra Dean

Perfect Catch - Sierra Dean

Chapter One

Alice Darling was thinking about balls.

More specifically, she was thinking about the semitrailers full of equipment that would be rolling into Lakeland the next morning. Alice looked forward to the arrival of the big trucks every year with the same jubilance as a child waiting for the circus to pull into town.

The trucks meant baseball was back.

Hundreds of bats, thousands of balls, and with them the hope of a new season.

Lakeland was the spring training home to the San Francisco Felons, and late February saw the return of the team, invigorating the whole community for several weeks.

For Alice, the excitement wasn’t merely about baseball—though she loved the game—but rather it was the part she got to play. As a Grapefruit League umpire, she’d have a steady job for the next month and a half and into the ongoing minor league season that followed.

A job more exciting than waitressing and being a periodic Little League ump, anyway.

Spring training meant she’d spend her time circulating through other small Florida towns that were home to big-name baseball teams, and call games throughout Grapefruit League’s short season.

She lived for those six weeks and waited the whole year for them to come around again. It was the only time she got to zone out of her life and focus on something entirely different for a few hours at a time. She was used significantly more during spring training than as an umpire in the minors, since she wasn’t able to travel.

After pulling out of the Carmello’s Diner parking lot, she took the long way home, passing the stadium. The lot was nearly empty, save for a rusty Passat, but the field outside was freshly groomed, with new white chalk lines in place. They’d need to be redone ahead of the first training sessions, but the chalk was a more certain sign of spring to Alice than birds or black flies.

She parked and got out, leaning against the chain-link fence to take a long look at the pristine field. Soon enough it would be flooded with orange-and-white uniforms, while the Felons players ran their paces and tried to win a spot on the team’s forty-man active roster.

Chewing her thumbnail, she paused mid-bite to brush an errant strand of hair from her field of vision and breathed in the smell of fresh-cut grass.

Perfection.

Beyond the ballpark, a wall of dark clouds was rolling in, bringing with it the crisp, ozone-rich smell of a storm. Alice’s phone began to jangle from her jacket pocket, and she pulled it out, pausing to check the caller ID screen.

“Hi, baby.” Her voice slipped immediately into a calm, soothing timbre.

“Mom, can we have pizza for dinner?” Her daughter Olivia was sounding especially whiny, a tone she adopted when she wanted something.

Alice looked at her watch. It was a quarter to eight and well past a reasonable time for her nine-year-old to be expecting food.

“Livvy, Uncle Kevin was supposed to feed you two hours ago. Did you already eat?”

“No.”

“Are you lying?”

“No.”

“Put your uncle on the phone, please.” A long pause followed, during which Alice was certain her daughter was making faces. A moment later the phone was passed over.

“Y’ello.”

“Kevin, did you feed Olivia?”

“Huh? No. It’s only like seven thirty.”

“She’s nine. We’ve talked about this before. You need to get her dinner by six. What about the chicken fingers I left in the fridge?”

A guilty beat passed. “I ate those.”

“Kevin.” Her brother meant well, but the care and handling of a child was sometimes beyond him, since he was basically an overgrown child himself at the best of times.

“She wants pizza, I’ll just order her pizza.” The sound of rustling paper drowned him out for a minute, then a muffled, “Liv, where’s the phone book?” After another lapse of silence, Kevin added, “You’ll be home soon, right?”

Alice didn’t need to dig too deep to unearth the subtext of his question. “There’s twenty dollars in the jar on top of the fridge. Liv will only eat cheese, so don’t order something loaded with meat.”

Kevin grunted. “Maybe I’ll get two. What do you want?”

She had to admit it was nice she hadn’t needed to remind him she would like to eat the pizza she was paying for. “Bacon, please. Anything with bacon.”

“I can probably sort something out. You okay with mushrooms?”

“As long as they’re only on your half of the pizza.”

“Okay. Where are you? Didn’t you get off work like twenty minutes ago?”

Alice gave the field a guilty look. “I stopped off at Joker Marchant. Wanted to see the stadium before things went bonkers.”

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