Night Games by Aeryn Rudel

Randall Simmons only plays night games. As he steps into the right-handed box and taps his bat on the plate, he reminds me why. His smile, aimed directly at the pitcher’s mound, is wide and predatory. The bright stadium lights catch for a moment on his teeth, and even from 60 feet, 6 inches away, I see those teeth are too long and too sharp.

Randall is showing me his secret smile, some of it anyway. His smile is for me because I’m here to preserve the Kansas City T-Bones’ one-run lead in the top of the ninth against his team, the Wichita Wingnuts. It’s also for me because I’m the only person in the stadium who knows Randall Simmons is a vampire.

Normally, anytime I step out of the bullpen it’s a big deal. It’s a chance to earn a save, win the game, and maybe even make someone notice a washed-up twenty-five-year-old pitcher still trying to make it to the bigs. That’s a tall order here in the independent leagues, where dreams of big-league baseball and big-league money go to die. But unlike most nights, I’m not thinking about my fastball, my curveball, or the good slider that got me drafted by the A’s five years ago. I’m thinking once the game is over, Randall Simmons will kill me.

I’ve just completed my last warm-up toss and before the ump can shout “play ball,” Brad Harrow, my catcher, calls time and trots out to the mound. Harrow is a big guy in his late twenties with a long, honest face and a soft voice that instantly sets rattled pitchers at ease. He’s a good defensive catcher and calls a good game, but he’s never managed a batting average above .200 in his professional career. So, like many of my teammates, he works a part-time job in the off season at Walmart or Home Depot and plays pro-ball in the spring and summer for the princely sum of eight hundred and fifty bucks a month.

“Need to be careful here, Jules,” Harrow says when he reaches the mound, using the nickname I’ve been hung with for my entire career. My last name is Verne, and in rookie ball one well-read teammate stuck me with “Jules.” Of course, most of the assholes who call me that have never heard of Jules Verne.

I glance back at Simmons standing in the batter’s box. The man who will likely kill me is of middling height, well-built but not bulky, with dark brown hair and sharp features. Honestly, he is hardly the picture of a monster, save for his eyes. Most people would say they are dark brown, but I’ve seen them up close. They’re as black as pine tar.

“Let’s start him with a changeup away. See if we can get him to roll over to short,” Harrow says.

I nod. The pitch he recommends will often get a power hitter out. Unfortunately, Randall Simmons is no ordinary hitter. He’s allowed to play only night games because of what he says is a medical aversion to sunlight called photophobia, but it’s really because he’s batting .423 with seventeen homeruns and fifty-one RBIs. Those are fantastic numbers at any point in the season, but seeing we’re only thirty-one games in, they’re frankly superhuman. Being a vampire apparently makes you one hell of a baseball player.

“Jules,” Harrow says and taps my shoulder with his mitt. “Are you listening, man?”

I have not heard anything my catcher said after his advice to pitch Simmons away. “I heard you,” I lie. “I’m ready.”

Harrow is not satisfied. He pushes his mask up so I can see his face. “Youneed to get your fucking head in the game,” he whispers. “Word is there’s a scout from the Royals here tonight.”

That gets my attention despite Randall Simmons, and I scan the seats behind home plate, the most likely place for a scout to be. The stands are full tonight, and even in the limited space behind home all I see is an ocean of indistinguishable shirts and faces.

“Time to get serious,” Harrow says. “Your pitch is back. People are noticing.”

Three years ago, I blew out my arm—the layman’s phrase for shredding the UCL, a very important ligament in your elbow. They can fix that, so I had the surgery, but I never regained the velocity on my fastball. When I was drafted, I was throwing 92 to 94. Respectable, especially since I had a good slider. After the surgery and rehab, I could barely manage 85. The A’s let me flounder in the minors for a full season before cutting me. Next season I was with the T-Bones. At first, nothing changed. Then, toward the end of last season, my pitching arm stopped feeling like dead weight and started feeling like it used to. It was more than that, though; the results were on the radar gun. One week it was 86 to 88, the next 89 to 90, and at the end of the season I was throwing a consistent 91. The beginning of this season gave me even more reason to hope. I came out of spring training throwing 93.

“Okay,” I say. “Get behind the dish. Let’s show that scout something.” My enthusiasm isn’t completely feigned, and I almost forget about the monster in the batter’s box.

Harrow grins, pulls his mask down, and jogs back to home plate. When my catcher settles into his crouch, I step forward and toe the rubber. I’m a righty, and I stand on the third-base-side of the mound. I throw my fastball and slider across my body so it bites down and away from right-handed hitters and down and in to lefties. Randall Simmons is right-handed, but his bat is so fast, his hands so agile, he can go with an outside fastball that catches too much of the plate and poke it over the right-field fence. My pitcher’s brain is taking over despite the fear. To be a good closer, you have to be able to pitch under pressure. Even though I have never been more pressured in my life, I can’t help but think about how to get Randall Simmons out.

I come set, bringing my hands together at my waist, and take a four-seam grip on the ball. I enter the windup, step, and throw, sending my best fastball buzzing at Simmons’ helmet. Most human batters could dodge that pitch, but they’d have to bail out of the box to do it. Simmons just snaps his head back, snakelike, so fast I barely see it. The ball doesn’t come close to hitting him and smacks into the screen behind home plate. Shouts and curses burst from the opposing dugout and are quickly drowned out by a surge of cheers from the crowd. Some of Simmons’ teammates are on the top step. They think I’m throwing at him because he’s already hit a homerun tonight. Hit is a bit of an understatement. His 500-foot blast actually left the stadium.

The anger from the opposing dugout causes Harrow to pop up from his crouch and move to stand in front of Simmons. It’s the catcher’s job to intercept a batter who decides to take his objection to an inside pitch directly to the mound. When this happens, the catcher becomes something like an offensive tackle, and Brad Harrow is one of the best. He takes real umbrage at any batter presuming to charge one of his pitchers. I’ve seen him use his size and strength to knock a guy’s dick in the dirt on more than one occasion.

Simmons doesn’t appear to care that I’ve buzzed his tower. He stands calmly, one foot out of the box, bat on his shoulder, a slight smile playing at the corner of his lips. Harrow turns toward me, holds out his mitt and right hand, and makes the universal “calm down” pantomime catchers have been giving wild pitchers for a hundred years. But I am not wild. I was aiming at Simmons’ head. Part of me still can’t believe what he is, and I wanted to see what he would do. The truth is I have a good touch for my pitches tonight. The breaking ball is breaking, the slider is sliding, and the fastball is live and crisp. It’s a good feeling, but how does it help me?

The ump gives Harrow another ball and he lobs it out to me. I catch it, tuck my glove under my arm, and rub up the ball in my hands. Simmons has stepped back into the box and is staring out at me again, his eyes glinting in the stadium glare like dolls’ eyes, sharks’ eyes.

I wonder how long Simmons has been playing. Vampires are immortal, right? Maybe he played with Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, all the greats. As romantic as that sounds, I know it can’t be the truth. Night games are a fairly recent development, only common in the last forty years. The majors would be exceedingly dangerous for Simmons. Millions of people would see him every night; he wouldn’t be able to hide what he is for long. No, the independent leagues are much safer for a monster hiding in the open, a revolving door of players nobody notices or cares about. Sure, a guy who won’t play day games is weird, but here at the bottom of the barrel the owners will agree to anything if it puts asses in seats.

But why baseball? It’s not inconceivable that even a monster like Simmons is a fan of the game. Plus, his supernatural assets allow him to play at a level most can only dream about. I think there’s another reason, though. Baseball teams travel half the season, allowing Simmons to spread his kills around. A dozen seemingly unconnected murders spread over many small towns are much less noticeable than a localized killing spree.

Last night, when Simmons walked into Eddie’s, the T-Bones’ designated after-game bar, I thought nothing of it. Visiting players often drink with the home team. Some of the guys actually wanted to talk shop with Simmons, hoping to glean a few pointers from him. A few hours later, I was half-a-dozen beers in and got up to take a piss. I didn’t notice Simmons was no longer in the bar.

The single-person bathroom was in use, so I stumbled out behind the bar to relieve myself in the dark, narrow alley behind Eddie’s. I was just about to unzip when I heard a woman’s voice, soft and low, almost whispering, from farther down the alley.

I almost walked back inside; I didn’t want to interrupt a teammate’s romantic interlude with the splash of piss against a brick wall. But something in the woman’s voice stopped me. I didn’t hear passion; I heard fear, even terror. I started down the alley toward a small alcove that held one of those big yellow dumpsters. As I got closer, the woman’s voice cut off abruptly and was replaced with other sounds—wet, tearing sounds that sent a spike of cold horror deep into my guts. I should have turned back.

When I turned the corner Simmons was looking right at me. He was crouched next to the dumpster, his face smeared with blood that looked black in the sodium-yellow glow of the alley’s only streetlight. His eyes were swollen black orbs, and his mouth gaped open, the points of jagged fangs stabbing down, below his upper lip. Before him, lying on the ground, was the still form of a woman. I recognized her as one of Eddie’s bar flies. I didn’t know her name. I’d always thought of her simply as the “pretty one.” Her face was turned toward me, her eyes open and blank in death, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Simmons had torn off her blouse, and her neck, shoulders, and chest were covered in blood. I could see gouges in the flesh where chunks had been ripped away.

My bladder let go in a hot, wet rush. Simmons did nothing. He just stared at me with those horrible black eyes. Then he smiled, raised his hand, and pointed one hook-taloned finger to the right. Strike one. A simple gesture and so familiar, grossly out of place and singularly terrifying. I turned and fled, fully expecting to get no farther than a few feet down the alley before Simmons ran me down and tore me to pieces. But he didn’t, and I made it all the way home, bursting through my front door, stinking of piss and sweat.

I could have called the police, but what would I have told them? A vampire had killed a woman behind Eddie’s bar? It was absurd. I waited until morning, thinking something would show up in the paper. There had been so much blood. Someone would notice. But the paper and the morning news made no mention of any murders. I should have run far away from Kansas City and Randall Simmons. But baseball is all I know, it’s all I have, and before I knew it, the sun had set, and I was in uniform ready to play what would likely be my last game.

With some effort, I pull my mind back to the game, step to the rubber again, and get the sign from Harrow. He holds down one finger and pats the inside of his right thigh. Fastball away. I enter my windup and fire the pitch a good two feet outside. Harrow makes a lunge for it, but it skips past him. Again, I’m not throwing wild. The ball has hit the ground, and the rules say I get a new baseball. A new baseball means I can take a second to rub it up, pick up the rosin bag, and take some time to think.

The ump gives Harrow a new ball, holds up two fingers on his left hand, and makes a fist with his right. Two balls and no strikes. Harrow fires the ball back to me hard enough to pop my glove—he’s irritated at my perceived wildness. Ball in glove, I retreat to the back of the mound.

What can I do? How can I save myself? I turn loose my pitcher’s brain on my predicament and race through all the things I remember that can kill a vampire: sunlight, holy water, garlic, a stake through the heart. I think I have none of these. Then I look out at the batter’s box where Simmons is taking a few leisurely practice swings and realize that isn’t quite true. Simmons holds a thirty-three-inch maple stake in his hands.

The name Tyler Colvin, a talented outfielder who came up through the Cubs’ organization, leaps into my mind. His name conjures the memory of an ESPN highlight from 2010 showing Tyler stepping across home plate, scoring from third after a base hit, and then clutching his chest, clearly in pain. I remember this because Tyler Colvin injury was so unique—he’d been struck by a chunk of his teammate’s bat after an inside fastball caused the dense maple to explode in a spray of wooden shrapnel. The splinter that hit Tyler penetrated his chest and collapsed a lung. He survived but missed the rest of the season.

What happened to Tyler Colvin was not an isolated event. Many modern baseball bats are made of incredibly dense maple instead of the traditional ash. Also, thick barrels that taper dramatically to the handle create more leverage for the hitter but substantially weaken the bat. As a result, bats splinter easily, especially with the amount of force a professional baseball player can generate with a swing.

I step back on the pitcher’s mound and stare at the batter’s box. If that splinter of wood in Tyler Colvin’s chest had been a few inches to the right. . .

Simmons catches me staring. He takes his right hand off the bat and holds it close to his jersey. He extends two fingers. Strike two they say and call up horrific image of a similar gesture from the night before. Time is running out. I know it and he knows it.

Simmons now settles into his batting stance, the maple bat cocked over his shoulder, still and straight. I see a collection of stakes waiting to be unleashed with the right pitch.

Harrow gives me the sign—changeup down and away. This time I throw the pitch he asks for, and it hits the outside corner for a called strike. The count is now two and one; I need to get it to two and two. Then Simmons might swing at my pitch—the pitch. I believe Simmons is more baseball player than vampire now, and if he’s thinking about hitting another bomb that will tie the score, then he’s just another hitter.

Harrow points his mitt at me and nods before throwing the ball back. This means, “Nice pitch. Throw another one like that.” I grip the ball in my glove, two fingers and a thumb on the outer third. I toe the rubber, get the sign, come set, and throw. I aim for Simmons’ hip, but the slider’s spin pushes the ball to the outside corner of the plate. It smacks Harrow’s mitt with a satisfying pop. On two and one, a hitter’s count, most players would flail away at a pitch like that, especially here in the independent leagues, but Simmons demonstrates veteran patience and doesn’t swing. The ump calls strike two.

Harrow points his mitt at me again before throwing the ball back. Another good pitch, a pitcher’s pitch. The count is now two and two, and if Randall Simmons is like any other hitter, he’ll be looking to protect the plate, trying to avoid the strike out. I know he’s got an eye like no human batter, so I’ll have to make a perfect pitch, and even then, it’s a slim chance.

I don’t waste any time. I toe the rubber and look in to get the sign from Harrow. Predictably, he holds down two fingers and pats his left thigh. Slider away. I shake my head. It’s the right pitch in this situation, but it’s not the pitch I need. He nods and holds down three fingers and again pats his left thigh. Changeup away. I shake him off.

Frustrated, Harrow stands up and calls time. He trots out to the mound with his mask pushed up over his head. “What the fuck, Jules?” he says, putting his arm around my shoulders and drawing me close. “You can’t pitch this asshole inside.”

“He’s leaning over the plate,” I say. “He’s not giving me the corner. Let me brush him back.”

Harrow glares at me, spits, and then nods. My complaint, although fabricated, makes sense to my catcher. Baseball is a game of inches, and nowhere is this more evident than the battle between pitcher and batter. Against a right-handed hitter, the outer half of the plate is mine. It’s where I make my living, getting a strike called in a zone the batter can’t effectively reach. When a batter moves closer to the plate to take this advantage away, he is rebuffed with a crisp fastball deep into his own territory. The object is not to hit the batter, simply to move him back, remind him where his territory ends and mine begins.

“Fine,” Harrow says and glances toward our dugout where Dave Michaels, the T-Bones’ manager, has climbed to the top step and is staring out at us. “But if you go three and two on him, Michaels might have you put him on.”

The last thing I want to do is intentionally walk Simmons, but if this was only a game of baseball and not a desperate attempt to save my own ass, it would be the right call. I pretend to go with it. “Putting him on isn’t the worst thing in the world. I can get the next guy.”

The ump has come out from behind the dish and is walking toward the mound to break up our conversation and get the game moving again. Harrow doesn’t let him get halfway before turning and trotting back to home plate.

Once Harrow is ready, the ump points at me, the signal that the ball is live and I can throw the next pitch. Simmons takes his stance in the box, and for the first time I notice how good it is—flawless, really. There is nothing fancy or exaggerated in it. He doesn’t waggle his bat or move his feet. He is still and focused. A picture of balance, his cocked bat motionless behind his head. He reminds me of a spring under pressure, tensed yet mechanically perfect in its ability to unleash stored strength.

I step to the rubber and Harrow sets up on the inside corner, below Simmons’ right elbow. He pats his left thigh twice and puts down one finger. Fastball inside, way inside. I nod. This is the pitch I want. Almost. I take a four-seam fastball grip with the ball slightly off-center in my hand. This will slow the pitch down and make it turn sharply into the right-handed batter’s box. If placed correctly, a cut fastball or cutter is a difficult pitch to hit solidly, usually resulting in a weak grounder. . . and a broken bat.

The crowd has quieted. I think they sense something larger here, something hanging in the balance of this single pitch beyond the outcome of this game. The silence lends me focus, and I come set, bring my hands up over my head, kick, and fire. As the ball leaves my hand, I feel the electric certainty that comes with a pitch well thrown. The ball will go where I have aimed, it will break as I have hoped, and Randall Simmons will be swinging away.

The ball is a white blur between the mound and Harrow’s mitt. I have just enough time to see Simmons’ body uncoil, his front foot striding forward as he swings at a pitch that looks like it’s right down the middle. His bat is so fast I don’t see the swing, but I hear the hollow THWOCK as the ball bites in, away from the barrel of Simmons’ bat and into the handle. The pitch saws the bat into two, and the barrel splinters into wooden daggers that flip end over end in all directions.

Simmons stumbles out of the batter’s box, an almost comical look of disbelief on his face. A foot-long shard of his shattered bat protrudes from his abdomen, just above his belt. It would be a catastrophic injury to any human. To a vampire, it’s simply infuriating.

Simmons recovers instantly and his head snaps around. His secret smile is gone. The one he shows me now, along with everyone in the park, is a bowel-loosening horror show, even worse than what I saw in the alley behind Eddie’s. Randall Simmons’ face has become something entirely inhuman. His mouth is a wide slash that nearly bisects his head, and it is filled with a forest of ivory needles, each as long as my pinky finger. His eyes are blazing slits of orange and red set deep into the now-taut white flesh of his face, and they burn with monstrous rage.

Strike three.

I hear the horrified cries of my teammates behind me and in the dugout, and then a rising tide of screams as the fans closest to the field get a look at Simmons and panic washes through the stands. I see the ump has fainted and is lying across home plate. Harrow is nowhere to be seen, likely having fled with the rest of my team. I have little time to consider these things because the monster that is Randall Simmons surges across the infield faster than any human could manage at a dead sprint. I take a single step backward before he is on top of me, wrapping one hand around my throat, and lifting me from the ground. I try to scream, but my windpipe is squeezed shut, and all I can manage are strangled gasping noises.

Randall Simmons pulls me down to his gaping mouth, slowly, obviously savoring my terror. His jaw seems to unhinge, the fanged maw growing impossibly wide. Sickeningly, I wonder if I am about to be mauled or swallowed whole. I want to close my eyes and shut out my final, horrific moments, but I keep them open because over Simmons’s shoulder I see Harrow crawling on his hands and knees toward the mound. He has discarded his mask, and I see terror and determination warring for control across his face. Simmons is so utterly focused on ending my life he doesn’t see the danger to his own. He doesn’t notice Harrow, even when my catcher reaches the base of the mound and climbs to his feet, even when he levels the sawed-off stake-like handle of Simmons’ bat at the vampire’s back.

Harrow lunges forward, his momentum and weight enough to drive the sharp end of the bat into the center of Simmons’ back. I strongly suspect that, put to the test, Brad Harrow could not tell you precisely where the heart sits within a human chest. Today he and I are lucky.

Simmons’ red-orange eyes bulge from his misshapen skull as the splintered end of his own bat pierces his heart. He drops me to the ground, throws back his head, and screams. It is a sound no human throat could make, a desperate winding howl that fills my head to bursting. Then, quite suddenly, Randall Simmons dies. He doesn’t burst into flames, dissolve into putrid slime, or anything so Hollywood. He simply falls to his knees and pitches over onto his face. The handle of his bat juts from his back like a grim exclamation point.

Harrow, his face pasty white, squats down beside me, a catcher’s crouch. I try to say something, but my battered throat won’t cooperate. Harrow shakes his head, reaches out, and squeezes my shoulder with reassuring strength. His voice trembles, but there is steel beneath his fear. “Nobody,” he says, “charges the mound on my pitcher.”

Aeryn Rudel is the publications manager for Privateer Press and the acquisitions editor for the fiction imprint Skull Island eXpeditions. He has been a writer and editor in the tabletop gaming industry for over ten years. He is also a notorious dinosaur nerd (ALL theropod dinosaurs had feathers!), a rare polearm expert (the bec de corbin is CLEARLY superior to the lucerne hammer), and has mastered the art of fighting with sword-shaped objects (but not actual swords). Aeryn lives in Seattle with his wife, Melissa, who has demonstrated near supernatural resistance to her husband’s nerdery.

Previous                                               Best Of Issue                                          Next





Poetry                                                                                Issue Ten                                                                                Next