By Rose Engelfried
The summer I turned fifteen, I changed my name from Bobby to Rob. I tried out for shortstop. And my sister Molly went insane.
School had been out for a week when Molly came home from her first year in the U. Texas space program. I was out in the dry field behind the house, throwing a brand-new baseball and catching it in my glove. The ball gleamed white with that bright new leather smell not mixed yet with old sweat and dirt. The long evening sun hit gold on the ball as it arched to my glove. Up, and back again. Up, and back again. A ball of flame, thwack, into my hand.
“Don’t ask her about last winter,” my mom told me that morning, before she left for the airport. “She’s in treatment now. Molly’s just like anyone else.”
Of course I knew that. Thwack. My sister wasn’t sick. Thwack. Yeah, she didn’t know a baseball from a soccer ball. But she’d finish my math homework for me. Then she’d take me outside and tell me stories about the stars.
Don’t think about that now.
Rob Castellini, shortstop, I told myself. Rob Castellini, shortstop. Rob Castellini, shortstop. Thwack.
Forget—thwack—the psychiatrist’s business card I’d found last night by the phone.
“Bobby?” Thwunk. The baseball brushed the tip of my glove and cratered in the dust. I turned around. Molly was home.
She leaned up against a fence post, one elbow on the worn gray wood like she hadn’t left since last summer. Like this was last summer, maybe she’d just graduated, the Yankees were still losing and I just played right field on the team. But she’d lost weight and she’d gotten tan already like no one in Bend, Oregon would be till July, her University of Texas T-shirt bright and baggy against her bare arms. Her white-blond hair straggled down past her shoulders. Her eyes looked right through me. Like I wasn’t even there, and the greatest Yankees game ever was playing just a few yards away.
And me—well, I thought about Mom’s emergency trip to Texas after Christmas. The hours she’d spent with doctors on the phone. Mom’s face in those months, strained tight like a losing team at the last inning. I bent down, picked my ball up out of the dirt. I said, “Could you call me Rob?”
Molly snorted, that snort-giggle that always made me laugh too—a Molly laugh, my sister’s laugh. “Okay, Bobby. Rob.” She pointed. “Look, Rob. The first star.”
The hill at the back of the field stretched long and shadowy blue, three junipers scraggly at the top against the sundown sky. Too light still—but above those trees shone a pinprick, like a flickering diamond.
“Xenoploio,” Molly said. She always knew the names of the stars.
Behind us across the field the kitchen door slammed. “Bobby! Molly!” Sometimes I think my mom umpired in her past life. If she called a foul the whole world would hear. “I set the table fifteen minutes ago.”
“Oh yeah,” Molly said. “I meant to tell you that.” Her shoulders slumped. Her eyes slid past me to the ground.
So, quick, I hugged her, let her smell of clean laundry and books fill my nose. Her back stiffened under my hand, all surprised. Then she relaxed. My right hand with my glove thumped against her shoulder. My ball thudded to the ground.
I went down after it, grabbed it before it rolled into a clump of brush. When I stood up she’d raised her eyes to the star. But at least now she smiled.
“Bobby, pass your sister the mashed potatoes. Take some, Molly. It’s your favorite.”
We sat at the living room table, first time in I don’t know how long. Over in the corner, Molly’s bags lay heaped on the lonely couch—our dinner table practically every night since Dad moved out last year. That couch couldn’t have known what hit it. Molly’s telescope alone took up half the room. I wondered how she’d got it on the plane.
Molly didn’t take the mashed potatoes. She looked out the window toward the hill outside.
“Molly? Earth to Molly,” I said. She didn’t turn around. “Ground Control to Space Cadet. All hands on deck. Mission Control. Loony astronaut in the cockpit…”
“Bobby,” my mom said. “That’s enough.”
In a high, faraway voice Molly said, “Wait. I can’t come now.”
Cold crinkled down my spine. The platter in my hands slipped and hit the table hard, the only sound in the room. Then Molly blinked. She looked away from the window. Across the table. To me.
Please, her eyes said, trapped and scared. Please.
“Molly.” My mom’s voice, way too calm. “Who are you talking to? What do you mean, you can’t come?”
She blinked again, this look on her face like she’d just been thrown out onto the diamond and she’d never held a bat in her life. Like the crowd’s roaring and the team’s chanting and she doesn’t even know where she is. Then her gaze flickered down to her empty plate. I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding. Molly asked, her voice small, “Could you pass the mashed potatoes?”
And then I said it. It sounded funny in my head. Or maybe I just wanted it to, because when someone’s in the team that lost, you have to get the spotlight off them, do anything you can to let them breathe so they can get back into play. “You mean me?” I said. “Or the invisible voices? They like mashed potatoes too.”
Sometimes the opposing team breaks the silence. When that happens, nobody laughs.
Molly got up and left.
We looked at each other, Mom and me, with my sister’s space at the table between us. The back door slammed. Outside, Molly passed the living room window. She’d circled round from the kitchen, headed up towards the hill in the field. Her shadow followed after her on the ground. Above the junipers that star shone, exactly where it had been.
“Oh, Bobby,” Mom said, and she put a hand up over her eyes.
How could you say it? That’s what she meant. If I’d had the words I would have told her. It’s just—okay. Someone you know doesn’t make it onto the team, and it sucks for them. But you know that they’ll deal, they’ll work hard, they’ll make it next year, and for now they laugh and you laugh with them. You have to laugh. If you laugh, nothing’s wrong, even if it still hurts deep down.
Molly heard voices. That was all. No big deal, just a joke really. She heard voices and she’d thought since Thanksgiving that the stars knew her name. It’d been around then she told her first psychiatrist, “New people are coming.”
Now Mom’s jaw twitched like a first-time batter standing on the mound. A piece of mashed potato clung to the edge of her sleeve. “I need you to listen to me, Bobby. Can you do that? Just listen.” She took a deep breath, gearing up for the ball of a lifetime. “Your sister,” she said. But the pitch didn’t come. She just buried her head in her hands.
Shadows filled the whole room. Outside, that one star still glowed.
Molly used to tell me stories, with spaceships and explosions; we’d lie outside, late summer nights, and look at the stars. “There’s life out there,” she told me once after the captain’s ship had blown up and the black hole made everybody into spaghetti. The grass underneath us smelled green and fresh like a field before the first game. “There’s people,” Molly said, “and they’re waiting for us. Just waiting for someone to hear them.” That night the stars shone like spilt sparks in the sky.
“Mom,” I said. Her shoulder twitched. She didn’t lift her head. “Molly’s fine. She’s not crazy. She’s just—”
“I can’t deal with this.” Her voice came out hard. “You have to help me, Bobby. She’s schizophrenic, and she can’t handle this alone.”
I pushed back my chair. I stood up. “My name’s Rob, alright?” I told her. “And Molly’s not crazy.”
I left the room. I didn’t look back. I slammed the door shut behind me.
Up in my room I flipped open my laptop and waited for Google to load. I punched in one word. Like taking a punch to the gut. Schizophrenia.
A medical condition affecting the victim’s perceptions of reality.
Molly’d always been—well, the smart one, the one with the brains. You know that old joke, where people say, “Come on, it’s not rocket science”? When it was, Molly took it on. She dropped high school science her sophomore year and enrolled at community college. I remember last year, when I almost flunked physics, she tried to explain string theory to me—electrons and quarks, fastballs spinning on their tracks. For a second I’d almost get it, like a baseball that just grazed my glove, and then that missed fastball would fly quick as a comet light years over my head.
Molly ducked if a ball came within ten feet of her. But she caught those fastballs every time.
So if the pitcher can’t see the ball? If the batter doesn’t know it’s there? If the ump calls a foul because a voice told him something happened that never did? I made a fist around a ball I didn’t have. Then I scrolled farther down the screen.
Thought to be heritable. Symptoms include elaborate hallucinations and visual and audio delusions. I hadn’t done this search since Christmas. But I remembered every word.
“Bobby—Rob?” my sister’s voice said.
“Molly. Hi.” She stood right behind me. I hadn’t heard her come in. Blue shadows slid over her face, my laptop the only source of light till I flipped it closed. “Hi,” I said again, and stood up to grope along the wall for the light. Molly’s hand found the switch before mine did.
“Leave it off.” Her cold fingers blocked mine. I drew my hand away. “Rob, I want to talk to you. How—how have you been?”
“Uh—fine, I guess.” She sat on my bed, cross-legged, blonde hair silver in the shadows the window let in from outside. I went back to my desk and ran a hand over my laptop’s shell. The sound of that potato dish hitting the table echoed again in my head. But her voice was her voice now. Her eyes were her eyes. After that plate hit the table, I decided, I actually hadn’t said a word.
So I’m an idiot, I didn’t say; I’m sorry, I didn’t say. I said, “I think I’m going to get shortstop. One month till tryouts. I’ve been practicing.”
Molly’s eyes wandered to the Derek Jeter posters on my wall. Then she looked at me and smiled. And we were okay.
She asked me questions—about school, life at home. I told her I’d scraped a C in physics and how Mr. Blake still holds her up to the class. How Dad didn’t call every few nights anymore, but maybe once a week. The last weekend I’d spent with him he’d promised to buy me a glove. But he never did, and we didn’t practice a single game. The night before I left his house I went out back by myself and bounced my ball off the garage wall till everything else went away.
Molly listened. She asked me questions and sat through my silences while I figured out what I needed to say. Once she leaned forward, elbows on her knees, and told me, “I know what you mean.”
Yeah. She always had.
Those summer nights, growing up, camped out under the stars. Our little fire would crackle down while sparks flew into the night. We’d lie on our backs. We’d talk ourselves out. Then she’d show me the names of the stars.
Betelgeuse. Bellatrix. Vega. Deneb. Bobby, do you ever think there’s something out there? We’re down here on our star, watching them, and they’re up there, watching us. They know we’re not ready. But when we are they’ll be there. When we can understand, they’re going to come.
And I knew they would.
I blinked. Her small voice sounded as far away as those summers. “What?” I asked. Outside one star glowed bright above the trees.
Molly didn’t answer. I yawned into the silence, the kind of yawn that cracks your jaw. I guess I was tired. I guess it wasn’t words. I guess it filled the silence.
“I better go,” Molly said. She stood up. The star pulsed bright through the window.
After she left, I sat on the bed in the warm spot she’d just left. Silver light washed the fields outside and the three trees on the hill. All their branches reached up towards that star. It looked as bright as the moon.
I got undressed. I got into bed. I never turned on the light. That star would still see me, see all the things I should have said.
When my eyes sprang open, the face of my alarm clock glowed 1:47 a.m. The flash of light that had filled the room vanished.
Not a light. It must have been a dream. Moonlight slanted across the floor. I blinked spots from my eyes. Through the window, brighter than anything else, that one star shone.
I got out of bed.
Molly stood at the top of the hill. The moonlight lit her hair white. But I couldn’t see the moon, just that star, held up by the trees. Molly’s star.
She was waiting for me.
I stopped for a second, Mom’s voice in my head: “She can’t handle this alone.” I could have gone then and told Mom, could have made her bring Molly back. But Molly wasn’t alone, was she?—any more than a pitcher out on field. She’d come to me that night. To Rob Castellini. To me.
She knew I’d believe in her. Even if no one else would.
Thirty seconds later the kitchen door creaked shut behind me. I didn’t have a shirt, or shoes. The dusty ground gritted cool between my toes; twig and stone accents bit hard. A coyote yapped. Something rustled in the brush. I stumbled on a shadow. But it wasn’t shadow, just a dusty white ball. I squeezed it till the thread made a road in my palm.
Then I brushed it off. It still looked gray in the cold pure light of that star.
She’d pressed up against the trunk of a tree. Her hair shone white and her arms hugged her knees, drawn up under her oversized T-shirt. She’d laced her fingers together tight. At the sound of my step, she turned.
She said, “You came.” The star gleamed bright in her eyes.
I leaned one hand on the juniper, its fibrous bark rough on my palm. Sun had warmed the sage and the night’s dark washed it cool again so the waft of its crushed leaves lingered like a ghost. I breathed it in. I held the breath. I traced the baseball’s seams with my fingers.
“You should come in,” I said. “It’s almost two in the morning.”
Molly said, “Listen, Bobby. I told you. They’ve been watching.”
I opened my mouth to answer.
And the star blinked out, like an eye that just shuts. And the world went dark, and the voices came.
Imagine there’s an orchestra and the sounds are pictures. And the pictures are your name. The colors of the picture don’t exist but you’ve spent your whole life trying to see them. Color fills the space, fills more than the space. This world has more dimensions than three. And something falls into place, like your brain’s this puzzle that’s always had a piece missing. Now that piece is here. This world stretches before you and a path waits that you can follow. You realize you’ve used such a small part of yourself, all this time.
Then the eye opens. The world goes white. Your sister is silver and bone. And that’s all you see. The orchestra’s dead. The color of your name is gone except in her eyes.
And then they come.
Later I’ll remember them. I’ll wonder if it happened. This can’t happen, but it’s happening now. Long limbs, ghost eyes, the shimmer-flow of scales or halos or wings. I can almost touch them. Their voices drift soft on my skin. One of the voices is Molly’s. She spreads her white wings. Now she is calling my name.
Her voice lodges in my brain like a ball in a glove. But I can’t hold on to what I’m seeing. “Rob. Come with us,” she says, and her voice is a color; it glows. Her touch on my hand sears cold like steam water just before it burns you. I’m on my knees. I don’t get up. I can’t move.
Then the star flares bright and the white road river of light stretches out to the sky. Before I say anything a flash burns away the world.
The summer I turned fifteen, my sister walked away into the night and I didn’t stop her. She followed the voices in her head. They told her she had to go.
I don’t know how long I stayed there, gasping, on my knees. Flares of fire danced in my eyes and my mouth tasted sour. Sweat ran down my face. Blood mixed with grit where rough rock bit into my hands.
I raised my head. Empty hill, empty sky. Dead sky, with a thousand blind stars.
White glowed by my hand.
I picked it up. The red track of stitches showed black as the cuts on my palms. The baseball didn’t smell of new leather now. It didn’t smell of anything. I drew my arm back. Just a dead weight resting in my palm.
Up. Past the dark shadows of trees, pale comet through the night. The kind of pitch that sends crowds wild. Where you stand there, and you watch it fly, and you hear them chant your name. Rob. Rob. Rob…
Listen, Rob. Come with us. Come home…
The ball reached the stars. I never saw it come down again.
Rose Engelfried enjoys creating lyrical fiction and exploring the line between poetry and prose. Also a poet, playwright, and essayist, Rose has published pieces in The Citron Review, The Story Shack, Garbanzo Literary Journal, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and PLUM (Pacific Literature by Undergraduates Magazine), and has work upcoming in Stolen Island Review. She earned her BA in Creative Writing at Pacific University and is currently pursuing an MA in the same field at the University of Maine.