Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Boys of Winter - A Free Holiday Short Story

 This story was originally part of Literary Escapism's Black Friday event. I'm posting it here for those of you who want more Mike Solo, the hero of CAUGHT BY YOU. Baseball and shopping, what could go wrong ... or right? 


As a professional baseball player, catcher Mike Solo considered the time between the World Series and the start of Spring Training pretty much a wasteland of workouts and off-season trade rumors. Every gray November day, every dark December night brought him closer to the start of the next baseball season, when life began again. And every year, right around Christmas Eve, it sank in that something else happened in the off-season.
Christmas shopping.
Make that Christmas shopping for his entire family of six brothers and sisters, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and lately, little nieces and nephews. Honestly, it was surprising that Chicago had room for the entire Solo family. His list was enormous and his shopping time was running out. In baseball terms, he was down to the last inning and he hadn’t yet gotten a hit.
Time to swing for the fences. 
Time to dig deep.
Time to hit the malls.
The last few years, he’d resorted to gift certificates. This year, he was determined to shop for real presents selected with his own two hands. Nothing else would get him to set foot on Chicago’s famous Magnificent Mile, a eight-block stretch of pricey boutiques and soaring skyscrapers crammed with department stores.
As he made his way down Michigan Avenue, Mike hunched against the bitter wind blowing off the lake. It felt like icicles slicing through his coat. This was why he’d never been interested in hockey. Give him green grass, blue skies and a sunburned neck any day. He was a baseball guy down to his core.
Much as he detested shopping, Mike had to admit that the city had done a spectacular job decorating the Magnificent Mile. Fairy lights were strung through the bare-branched trees lining the sidewalks. Storefronts offered elaborate displays of gingerbread houses, giant candy canes, evergreen adornments. An early snowstorm had left behind piles of snow, which managed to look festive instead of dingy in the gathering twilight. The sidewalks were thronged with bundled-up shoppers. A fake Santa Claus wandered through the crowds, bellowing, “Ho ho ho” and handing out flyers for the mall.
Mike gritted his teeth and forged down the sidewalk. How hard could this be, anyway? People survived Christmas shopping all the time. If he could hit a knuckleball, he could handle this, right? He scanned the dizzying lineup of stores – Prada, Cole-Haan, American Girl, the Lego Store. Should he get the boys Legos? Or were they a choking hazard at this age? Did his dad need new shoes? Should he blow his entire budget on a single item from Prada? Maybe his sisters could pass it around.
Maybe he should have made a list first. Maybe he should have started before Christmas Eve. Maybe he should go home and admit this was a huge mistake.  
He was in the midst of turning back when something whipped through the air toward him.
This, he could handle. He threw up one hand and snatched the flying object before it could hit him.
A snowball.
He spun around to find a skinny boy in a Chicago Bulls jacket gawking at him. “How’d you do that, dude?” the boy asked in amazement. He looked to be about twelve, with a full head of frizzy hair.
“It’s what I do. I’m a catcher.” He tossed the snowball, which was really more of a chunk of dirty ice, back toward the kid. “You know, baseball.”
The boy tried to catch the ice ball, but missed. “I know baseball. It’s my second favorite sport.”
Mike raised an eyebrow. “Let me guess. Bulls fan?”
“This is Chicago, ain’t it?”
Another snowball winged through the air. Mike had to dive for this one. He flung his arm out, snagging it before it could hit the fake Santa just passing by. “Hey,” Mike called to the snowball hurler. “Watch it, will you?”
A second boy skidded down the sidewalk and joined the first one. Slightly younger, he wore torn jeans, high-tops, and glasses held in place by a headband. “Sorry, Mister! I wasn’t aiming at Santa. I was trying to hit my brother.”
The Santa stopped next to Mike and put his hands on his hips. “Got some troublemakers here?”
“No!” Both boys said at one. “We’re chill. We’re not doing nothing bad.”
“Where are your parents?” Mike asked them. “What are you doing out here?”
They exchanged guilty looks. “Mom’s working at the food court in the mall.” The brother in the Bulls jacket indicated Water Tower Place, one of the multi-story megaplexes on the Mag Mile. “We got bored and she told us to come outside and play.”
“She’s working on Christmas Eve?”
“Yeah, Christmas too. It’s okay. She gets overtime.” But Mike could tell it wasn’t okay. Both boys had that long-faced look that meant their holiday season was likely full of disappointments.
Mike exchanged a glance with Santa. Behind the long white beard and little wire-rimmed glasses, he could tell this Santa was on the young side. “I don’t know about you, Santa, but I have a real problem with this situation.” He offered Santa a wink, hoping he’d play along.
Santa nodded and stroked his fake beard. “Young troublemakers throwing snowballs in the middle of Michigan Avenue? Darn right it’s a problem.”
“It’s not that so much. It’s the baseball taking second place to basketball. I’m not okay with that. You a Cubs fan, Santa?”
“White Sox.”
“I can work with that. Hang on.” A sixty-ish woman was walking by, several rolls of wrapping paper poking out of her tote bag. “Ma’am, I’ll give you twenty bucks for one of those tubes.” When she hesitated, he said quickly, “make it fifty.”
With a beaming smile, she handed over a roll of red and gold striped paper in exchange for the cash. Triumphant, he turned back to Santa and the boys. “We have a bat! Now, for a field.” He jogged to a spot across the street where a storefront sat empty save for a “For Lease” sign.
“You.” He pointed to the kid with the Bulls jacket. “You have a pretty good arm. You pitch. Little brother, you’re up first. Santa, how are you at fielding?”
“All-City, two years in a row.”
“Our lucky night.” Mike exchanged a high-five with Santa. “Let’s show these kids why baseball’s the best game in the world.”
Looking around, he realized that the woman with the wrapping paper had stopped to watch, and other shoppers were pausing in their headlong rush down the Mile. In fact, a small crowd had gathered. He crouched over a spot that seemed like a good place for home plate. The kid with the glasses took a few practice swings with the roll of wrapping paper.
“Pitcher provides the balls!” Mike called to the older brother. Laughing, the boy scooped up some snow and packed it into a tight ball.
“Y’all ready for this?” He made an exaggerated show of winding up and flinging the ball toward Mike. The younger boy swung and missed. Mike caught the ball in his mittened hands, where it fell apart in a spray of snow crystals.  
“Strike one,” someone called.
A few yards behind the pitcher, Santa clapped encouragement. “Hey, batter batter. You got this.” A few more voices called from the crowd.
“Come on, kid … keep your eye on the snowball … swing, baby, swing …”
The next ice ball must have been more tightly packed, because when the boy swung, the roll of wrapping paper thunked against it and sent it soaring overhead. It shed icy sparkles in the fairy lights twinkling from the trees.
“I got it, I got it,” yelled Santa. The crowd cleared the way for him. He caught it softly against the chest of his red Santa suit. The bystanders erupted into applause.
“Need someone to play first base?” A businessman in a long gray overcoat stepped forward. A little girl bundled into a neon orange parka held his hand.
“Can I bat next, Santa?” she asked eagerly. “I love baseball.”
“Sure thing,” said Santa. “I bet you’re going to knock it out of the park.”
Her face lit up. Mike beckoned her toward the ‘plate.’ The boy with the glasses handed her the roll of wrapping paper, which was nearly as tall as she was. Warm laughter spread through the crowd.
“Hey, I’ll cover the outfield,” said a college-aged kid in a thick hoodie.
Mike gave him a “welcome to it,” gesture. The pitcher packed another snowball and, nice and easy, tossed an underhand throw toward the girl in the orange parka. She whacked it to the ground, where it skipped once, twice, then broke apart.
“Fair ball,” Mike roared.
“Run, sweetheart! Run!” Her father yelled from ‘first base.’ The crowd shouted and whooped as she scurried toward her father. Laughing his head off, the pitcher bent to pick up the remains of his snowball. His younger brother cheered for the little girl as if she’d just gotten a hit in the World Series.
Mike met Santa’s eyes, and they both grinned.
For one enchanted moment, everyone stopped hurrying, stopped worrying about what was left on their shopping lists, stopped racing through Christmas Eve. Everyone forgot about the cold wind and gritty snow. For one moment, summer reigned on the Magnificent Mile as baseball—or was it snow-ball—worked its magic on a random collection of shoppers.
And, best of all, two boys had the time of their lives.
Mike would once again be doling out his traditional gift certificates on Christmas Day. But as he looked around at the shining faces around him, he figured it was worth it.

Read Mike and Donna's story in CAUGHT BY YOU, now available at bookstores and all e-retailers!