He awoke after midnight, fully alert. The moon lit the room. A slight wind shushed through the trees. Shadows wavered indistinctly across the walls. An old-fashioned brass clock and matching barometer stared unblinking down at him from the bookshelf. Something in the shadows made him think of ghosts. He blinked. He took a breath. He listened to the soothing tick of the clock. He repeated what his dad had told him: ghosts of the dead haunted only people who had known them when they had been alive. He had never seen a dead person. No one he had ever known had died. He felt his heartbeat slow. He went back to sleep.
The next morning was beautiful. It promised a day in which anything could happen. His room was absolutely not haunted. The clock’s hands showed it was before seven. He could hear his parents talking in the kitchen. He pulled on his clothes and started down. The bright sun came through the high arch window. It left a purple crescent upon his sight.
Trevor looked with anticipation at the tire hanging in the backyard as he devoured Cheerios. It was mottled with dusty imprints left by errant pitches. Out of sight was a galvanized steel bucket filled with scarred baseballs. The minute he was done eating, he rinsed his bowl and sent the milky water swirling down the drain. Then he was outside, pitching balls through the tire.
Trevor’s dad drove off to the plant. He waved goodbye. He was collecting the scattered balls when Jase arrived, and they hit fungos to each other without talking. The balls rose and fell in beautiful arcs. Roy came through the woods, and not long afterwards Oscar rolled in on his bike, which he nonchalantly dropped onto the grass.
Oscar. Oscar who could do anything, Oscar who could throw a legitimate curve ball, who could touch the basketball rim, who could even hit a driver. His doughy face was swelled by a near-permanent smile. It lacked that sharp edge so often seen in natural athletes. He was generous with his skills. Quick to attribute every favorable outcome to luck. For that they all loved him.
Together they trotted across the street, a cracked, sun-paled county road, carrying the bucket of balls, bats, and gloves. The broad field there was bordered on one side by a stone wall. Beyond that lay the empty mansion. They had been warned not to cross onto the Collier place.
They scuffed away the dew from the dirt patches that served as bases, displaying the diligence that boys expend only on games, and then began. One pitched, one hit, two caught fly balls. When the can was empty they rounded up the strays and started anew. After a few cycles they returned to drink from the hose at the house. Roy looked up. In the cloudless sky the sun hung only degrees apart from the full moon.
“Check that out,” he said. He pointed at one and then the other. They all squinted at the opposing spheres.
“Weird.” Trevor said. Roy glanced at Jase. He looked at Oscar.
“Cool,” Oscar said. “Let’s go.”
Trevor was pitching, aiming low, but Oscar still got beneath it, wheeling the bat with terrific speed, the quick arc of his swing throttling the ball. It was a tremendous shot. It swept over Roy’s head, far beyond reach. Then it struck some angled stone atop the wall and careened again skyward, hung, and then curled into the untended lawn. They ran to the wall. Below them loomed the dark house. They weighed their options. They glanced back at Trevor’s house. Despite the warnings, there was no obvious reason not to go. So they clambered over.
They fanned out to find the ball, kicking through the uneven grass. “Got it,” Trevor called. He held it aloft and then tossed it towards Oscar. It fell short and bounced into a dry patch. A small cloud of gray, like smoke, rose.
“Did you see that?” Jase asked. They gathered around him.
“It’s puff mushrooms.”
They crowded over the small cluster. Trevor plucked one from the pile and clapped it over their heads. Leaden dust drifted, languid in the still air, and fell upon them. At first they kicked them, and then plucked and threw them, natural grenades, and made exploding sounds. Jase landed one on Oscar’s face. They were all laughing. This continued until all they could find had been burst. Around them lay the expended carcasses. Gray spores marked their faces and hands and clothes. Oscar picked up the baseball. He tossed it from hand to hand. Black fingerprints loomed upon it. They crossed back over the wall. Safe.
Later they took a break in the shade of the old elms, leaning against the trunks. Oscar coughed. Then he coughed several times. Then he wiped his eyes. “You all ready?” He finally asked.
They returned to their positions. But Oscar paused. He bent over the bat. He spat into the grass.
“You ok?” Trevor called.
“I’m ok,” he said. He coughed again. “I just gotta get some water.” He dropped the bat in the dust. It bounced and rolled. He walked back and drank from the hose. They kept playing. None of them paid particular attention when he got on his bike and pedaled off around the curve. He had left his glove. It was almost lunchtime, anyway.
Darkness resettled. Trevor was asleep. He awoke slowly, dimly. He could hear his parents talking in hushed tones at the top of the stairs. Then his door was pushed open. The hall lights made a semicircle of illumination on the ceiling. He rolled over.
“Trevor,” his father said, and he sat on the bed. He wore small round glasses. The lenses distorted everything behind them, so that the door and hallway and light were all forced small. His mom stood beside the bed. His dad put the palm of his hand on Trevor’s face.
“What?” Trevor asked.
“It’s about Oscar.”
He blinked himself more awake. “What about Oscar?”
“You guys were playing in the Colliers’ yard, right?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, not really, just getting a ball.”
“I know,” his dad said. “We know. You’re not in any trouble. It’s just that, well, Oscar breathed in some spores. They did something to his lungs. I remember those things from when I was a kid. We blew them up all the time. It’s not your fault. Or Jase’s or Roy’s. Stuff like this just kind of happens.”
“Stuff like what?”
“Oh,” his mother said. She knelt beside him. Her wide face was close to his. “They took Oscar to the hospital but it was too late,” she said. “His lungs shut down. They couldn’t help him.”
“Couldn’t help him what?” Trevor asked, already hopeless.
“He died,” his dad said. “In the hospital. There wasn’t anything they could do. It’s just a fluke. A terrible fluke.”
Trevor lay back. Tears rolled over the curves of his face and onto the pillow.
It was very late. It was too early. In the darkness, for this.
Jeff McLaughlin grew up in the Carolinas but now lives and works in Minnesota. This story is set at his home, as it were. He is just beginning his writing career, and has recently finished his first novel.