I'm awake - and there is no mistaking the sound of a baseball bat. But we are nowhere near Spring Training, too early even for Grapefruit and Cactus League ball... It's the middle of damn winter.
Out of my bunk, I slide on my feet across the wooden floor to where I can look out through the glass of the front door, and from there I spot him.
I haven't seen him in a long while.
It's Mick the Mechanic. Popping in again from the afterlife, so strong that he remains a part of my Manifold Destiny. And he is heading for my front door, indeed, carrying a baseball bat.
I jerk the door open. "What are you doing? Happy Birthday."
He grumbles, like a bear, not at all whimsically.
"What the hell?" I gesture at the bat in his hands.
Oh, I took out a possum in your hedgerow, there.
I stare at him. Rub my jaw. He looks okay.
"Again? Quit doing that, man. I just got rid of the last one I found in there, and now I know how it keeps happening." I'm not whimsical, either.
Mick laughs at me, a small laugh.
I'm kidding. This is a present I brought for you.
He holds the bat out, with his big paw obscuring the word Louisville, handle pointed skyward. I hesitate for a sec - in part because he never kids, in part because this isn't real - before grabbing it with one hand in the middle.
Mick doesn't let go, though. He suddenly seizes it with his other hand, hard, a lot of power in those mitts. I also grab it with my other hand, expecting to struggle for my life, lest I end up like one of his possums. He lets go with his bottom hand and then grabs it again, above mine, closer to the handle. So do I, and he again, and I again... Until his hand ends up on top. He wins.
We crack up together. He sounds okay.
"So what's with the slugger?" I have to ask.
"I'll bite. It's symbolic of what? The fact that the Tigers are going to be f... fun to watch but not very good this year?"
Mick shakes his head and smiles.
No, man. It's to let you know you went down swingin'.
I look at my old partner in crime, gone two years now, the way a dog looks through a chain link fence.
I know you wanted to hit a home run. You're a slap-hitter, like Rod Carew. You sprayed shots all over the field, ran a couple of guys into the wall. You got some singles and doubles and you hit a few foul balls into the crowd. You played a good game.
But you struck out, kid.
Ah, he's crossed a line. "I'm older than you, Minnow." (Minnow was his nickname; he said it was Dutch for Mick.) He is unfazed.
Struck out. Game over, man.
I look at the bat in my hands, heft it. It feels okay.
Your sister is in good hands. You don't need to be tied up in a court case with some sicko. That was never your purpose.
"My purpose," I say slowly and clearly and honestly, "as you know, is to win."
Mick shakes his head.
It was to protect your family. You did that for long enough. It's all in the hands of others now. You need to protect yourself.
I go out of my way to look dubious, a look of mine that he knows all too well. I get what he's laying down, all right, but the way it smells... It's not okay.
He does not care.
The stands are emptying out. The lights are turning off. Walk away, champ. You did all you could. You didn't lose. You knew you wouldn't.
"Didn't win, either."
You knew you wouldn't.
I look away.
Get out of there.
I keep looking away. But he didn't come all the way down here to give up, either. Thusly, he and I have ever interacted.
It's like this, man...
(It's like this: Mick always means it when the first three words out of his mouth are, it's like this.)
Suppose you had rabies, like our friend in the hedgerow there...
Mick has the wisdom of the ages - wisdom being different than logic or engineering - that has been handed down to him through generations, stuff like, "If you wish in one hand and shit in the other, which one gets full the fastest?". So I oblige.
You have rabies, dude.
Now I'm looking at him.
"I have rabies."
Yup. If you didn't know it before, you do now, 'cause I just told you.
"So, I'm rabid."
Behind him, I see the snow falling, adding a layer to the white blanket covering the Ford Escort ZX2 in the driveway, which needs brakes. I feel a little sad that he hasn't noticed it.
And you know it. So you have to do the responsible thing.
"I don't know what that is." I smirk.
Well then I'll tell you. If you knew you had rabies, you'd chain yourself to a tree and throw the key out of reach before you started foaming at the mouth. You know why.
His words leave a certain taste in my mouth. I don't like it. "For everyone else's sake."
He leans in close.
And yours, man. Ya gotta let it go. It's okay. It's gonna be okay.
It has been a long time. I put the bat down, leaning it against the wall by the door, as good a place for it as any.
Ya gotta let us go, Heller. Charlie's up here with me. Theresa's down there with you. Neither one of us has any reason to worry.
I nod, look down. It seems like our little talks always ended this way.
Step out of the batter's box. You're done.
I say it. Head still bowed, I kick chalk dust and dirt with the toe of my shoe as I say it, hoping to get some on Mick as a last act of cheap revenge against my messenger, but he is gone, so he doesn't hear me: