Erythrophobia By Jameson Croteau (2017)

From out in the outfield dirt, the crack of the bat was the only indicator a ball was rising up before dive bombing, back through the crepuscular sky. Jimmy turned and chased the echo of the sound. Go foul… Go foul… The ball, draped in a cloak of clouds, seemed to carry by a will of its own, as if an invisible hand had wrapped around it and guided it over the fence. In the dim light, Jimmy called foul.

The ball, long bruised and threadworn from one too many of Erik’s ‘fastballs’ being lifted into the stratosphere, hop-skipped along the rhubarb forest and disappeared — as quickly as it had appeared in the darkening sky — to Jimmy.

“Nice going, Ricky!” Erik stood indignant, hands on hips, as the group of eight gathered. He didn’t need to say it was the last ball they had, but he did anyway.

“Pitch better,” was Ricky’s only response. He tossed his glove and his bat — which he had carried all the way from home plate daring Jimmy to be lying about the foul ball — and found his foothold into the chain-link fence.

Jimmy started up after him, feeling a bit guilty that at the crack of the bat he had wished it foul instead of fair.

Erik looked around once.

“C’mon you wuss,” Alain seemed to be talking through Jimmy as he turned over the fence—he was a far better climber than Ricky. “It’s just the Patch.”

The rhubarb forest had as many nicknames as it had tall tales. The crimson weeds swayed with the dead breeze. Four years ago, legend spoke, a young girl, Sara, had gone missing. The only thing they found of her was the tattered remains of her pink and blue-polka dotted dress. And even more recent, the cops had been called, half a dozen months back, to clear out some meth-heads. They ended up running into a couple of teenage Cambodian drug dealers. Nothing more harmful than pot, but the cops had found their drug abusers and found a nice warm cell for their criminals.

The rest of the group had found their foothold and heaved themselves over the fence. Jimmy was busying dusting himself off, when Ricky grabbed a half sliced bit of rhubarb and bit into it.

“Disgusting.”

“It’s bitter,” Jimmy said rather matter-of-factly. No one owned the Patch, as far as Jimmy knew. And for good reason. Whoever had planted the rhubarb must’ve not realized how terrible the taste was. It was enough to send you and your covered wagon back south for a far better settlement. Alain said the Patch had been there since before Papa was born. The way the stalks grew, twining into each other, bending and groping, reminded Jimmy of the sickle-legs of a hungry red spider. The stalks had grown —
surprising in the thin Mill City soil — taller than they should have. The green leaf tops provided in the din, a penumbra umbrella, which would make the ball all that much harder to locate.

Erik stood on the other side.

“You coming?” Ricky tossed his half chewed stalk through the fence. Red was on his lips and on his fingers.

“Not my ball. Not my problem.” Erik’s voice quivered weaker than the breeze.

Ricky gave a red tooth smile, “Erik’s afraid boys. Pitches like a girl. Hits like a noodle. And is gonna wet himself like Jimmy. No offense, Jim.”

Jimmy grimaced and grew red. He deserved it though. It was on this field, four years ago, on opening day, even before he had met Ricky or Erik, where he peed his pants. It was his first ballgame and as he sat on the bench waiting for the bottom of the fifth — he was to get on the field the first time, and play shortstop (he would—after his coach had thrown enough dirt on his uniform to make mud — never get to play at short again) — he had pissed himself. It wasn’t the nerves, he would determine later, but the fear of losing his opportunity if he had gone into the Patch to urinate.

“I ain’t going in there. My pa says never go that way. He doesn’t even want me to play at Ducain. Says there’s crackheads and creeps in there,” Erik said. Firm. The boys watched him turn around and head to the only dugout with a working bulb.

“Alright, Jimmy,” Ricky said, taking leadership, it was his hit after all. “Which way did my Babe Ruth land?”

More Ashburn than Ruth… Jimmy thought, but he didn’t say anything. He was thinking about what Erik had said before stomping away. The moon light, under the level of the rhubarb leaves, was dwindling at best, but the summer air reminded the boys that it wasn’t dark enough to call it quits.

On their hands and knees — annoyed only by the occasional spider and Tim’s sneezing — the seven boys covered as much ground as they could.

Jimmy split up from the group. There was pride to be found in finding. Another ball meant another at bat and there still was a chance to take victory away from Ricky.

In between the upturned roots of two rhubarbs he found the ball, it had been walloped and disfigured, causing Jimmy to pass it over twice, before seeing it from the backside. The inner cork had been exposed. It looked more like a yarn ball than anything else. Jimmy tossed it up and down, hearing it whistle through its opened seams. He brought his ear closer to the ball, as if to catch the source of the whistle, but the noise, despite the non-moving ball, didn’t seem to grow any fainter. Another stale breeze brought gooseflesh to his arms.

He hustled, more than he had in the game admittedly, back to the sound of his friends.

“I got it, guys.”

The prized trophy, roughed up beyond recognition, didn’t seem to inspire any cheer in the rest of them. Ricky was busy, near the fence of the field, with a rhubarb—as a conductor’s tool—pointing this way and that. His wicked grin, lopsided and impish, found Jimmy’s eyes.

“I can’t believe,” he said, unable to take a breath, “We’ve never thought of it before. Jim what time do your parents want you home?”

“Uh… nine?” Though Ricky didn’t wait for an answer.

“Good. The Patch is it. The perfect place. Look at how the hill lies, how the plants grow tall and twisted. There’s room here, Jim. The most perfect game of hide-n-seek of all time.” He cackled then, like a magician revealing his final act. “Tell ‘em Tim.”

Timmy, rotund and ropey, opened his mouth. He coughed once, “I saw-

“A shack,” Ricky finished for him, clearly unimpressed with Timmy’s theatrical skill. “Boarded up, but accessible.” Ricky thwacked the rhubarb baton across his palm. “If you’re clever.” He added for good measure. Moonlight, though only with the help of the watercolor sunset back uptown behind the mill horizon, showed the red dripping from Ricky’s mouth.

“You didn’t eat the leaves did you?” Jimmy risked a pick at some of them.

Ricky gave his eyebrows a raise. ‘So-what’ the look dared.

“Poisonous.” Jimmy snatched his own hand away.

Timmy leapt from the stalk he was holding in his hand. “Maybe we shouldn’t play then…”

“Nonsense,” Ricky threw his stalk at Timmy. With his red hands he looked like an Indian demon.

“Don’t be an Erik,” Jimmy cracked his neck, they wouldn’t have been in this situation if it hadn’t been for his terrible pitching. His knees were scratched from finding the ball. He wanted nothing more to go home, or to play ball. But he wasn’t ever going to say no to a mad genius Ricky idea. It was perhaps, unknown to him, his one way of sticking it to his brother. For all the fame Alain Chartier had in Mill City he didn’t have a best friend half as clever as Ricky.

“You just don’t want to be spooked. There’s nothing out here but your imagination. I should know.” Ricky’s words swayed the other boys. It was his confidence. No one, Jimmy knew, had a sliver of the authority Ricky spoke with. His mind was always working, absorbing, reading. You learned to trust him.

Timmy agreed to play. If the big man fell, the others did to. Soon, rhubarb straws were drawn. And rules made. Home base was the other side of the fence. But that was for faint at heart and rule changers. In Mill City hide-n-seek, it was one versus all, no take backs and full force tagging.

Ricky — though Jimmy almost assumed he cheated it — was the man out. He was the seeker.

Without speaking, Ricky turned round, faced the fence and began counting. The six of them bolted through the Patch. Timmy took off as far from the shack as he could. He turned back towards the fence a bit into his run and dove beneath two stalks. William made a beeline for the shack. A tattered thing, Jimmy saw as he ran past. It had a broken window, glass long removed and a flickering bulb. Foolish, Jimmy thought, it’d be the place Ricky would check first.

Jimmy kept moving leaving his friends in the stalks behind. By now, Ricky would have stopped counting. He always got giddy when he got up near twenty.

Past the shack and the view of the fence, past the last few stalks of rhubarb, dead and dying, Jimmy found his hiding spot. An old railway had carved itself into the hillside. It turned up and headed behind the field going away from the city and the Merrimack.

It was an old railway, rusted in most places; it had thick treads—once used to transport textiles to the expanders out west—they were high enough for Jimmy and his pinprick frame to completely disappear. Jimmy made his home between the cool rails, summer had seemed to forget this part of Mill City. Fall foliage, perhaps from years past cushioned his covert bed. He settled down, his rhubarb stalk, long and jagged dug into his palm. And he waited.

Darkness came. And with it noises. These were the type of sounds that came when you were alone. A shift of gravel. A half-wail of wind. Half a moment into his hiding, Jimmy regretted going so far away from the field. The hide-n-seek blues, he called them, came as they always did, settling like a rock into his stomach. Minutes seemed to elongate like a table with infinite leaves. He wasn’t sure if moments were hours. Had he been such a good hider that he’d never be found?

The gravel cracked again. His left hand tightened around a loose stone between the tracks. He risked movement, turning with one eye upwards. He saw the sky and the stars. They peered down on him with exigency. The gravel shifted once more. Sliding across the terrain as if weight was placed on it. If Ricky had found him here, a minor impossibility, he’d have to catch him, an even larger unlikelihood.

A boot on the tracks. Heavy.

Jimmy bolted. His toe caught on the rail lift and he stumbled. Turning he saw a not-quite-dirty white shirt and a man.

And while his face, with taut cheekbones, paper lips, and an angular chin, remained hidden by the darkness. Jimmy saw, through it, a sharp haircut, neat and unparted, and below, two eyes. Wide and circular; brown with orange and without pupils. The man lumbered towards Jimmy. His body moving without joints as if pulled forward.

Jimmy pivoted and ran. This wasn’t the type of run to beat out a double play at second, it was the type of running that silenced the world. He cut through, with arms and voice wailing, brush and rhubarb leaves.

He crashed then, tumbling head into sternum, chipping a tooth, as he ran smack into the seeker. Ricky coughed once, getting up. He had his cackle smile on now. “Wrong, Jim. You see. I’m supposed to find you.”

Jimmy found his breath stolen by a gloved hand on his heart. He was hit at once with a lung full of dizziness and a head thick with spasming coughs.

“There’s something-”

Ricky smiled dimly looking down at the rhubarb in Jimmy’s hands and the hives running up and down his friend’s arms. Ricky was still red with his late night snack.

Jimmy pulled away, tugging at his friend, but Ricky, taller and stronger wouldn’t move. “Fair is fair, Jim. Timmy is seeker now. Got him first. I got the best hiding spot.”

“Shut up Ricky! There’s someone out there.”

The smile curled back. “What do you mean?” Ricky found his feet. Jimmy pointed back into the darkness from where he had come. It was harder to speak than he thought. His index finger rattled. Ricky turned.

Together, in the gloom, they heard the shuffling of a man. The eyes, glowing like an animal’s at dusk, followed them. Ricky took a step forward. Jimmy grabbed his shoulder, but his friend seemed not to feel it.

The figure moved closer. His eyes still, unflinching, drank both the boys in. He moved his hands up, covered from wrist bone to fingers with red. The thin lips didn’t move, they coated themselves in a sticker red than Jimmy had seen before by the tracks.

Ricky stumbled forward, hands reaching weakly for the man. But Jimmy grabbed him by the waist and turned him back towards the fence.

In the chaos of flight, the two of them bolted, elbow to elbow, up the rhubarb hill, dashing through the Patch. Ricky pulled ahead, he was faster that day. The rhubarb grew taller as they came to the fence. Ricky was halfway up when Jimmy jumped on. Ricky rose to the top, straddled and looked down. Jimmy, didn’t look behind him. He didn’t risk it. He saw only Ricky’s red teeth and his hands gripping the chain-link top tighter and tighter, until they were crimson all around his fingers. Jimmy winced.

Together they turned over the fence and landed on their equipment. Erik was there, running towards them. Jimmy found his bat and held it in a stance towards the fence. Ricky’s legs wanted to run. He wanted to run. But they waited, staring into the rhubarb. Nothing moved, except the glint of two heavy eyes. Brown and orange moving in the Patch, watching them with the grace, depth, and hungry rapacity of a lioness.

Jimmy gripped his bat, shuffling hand over hand at the handle. He couldn’t even fight Alain off of him, what chance did he have against that.

The eyes didn’t blink, they moved from stalk to stalk. But the man never stumbled closer. He let his figure hide behind the Patch.

“What are you guys doing?” Erik’s voice was about as fearful as Jimmy felt.

Together Ricky and Jimmy turned back to the Patch. The eyes were gone.

“Where are the others?” Jimmy said. Though the voice didn’t sound like his. It was harsh and laconic.

“They went home,” Erik said, “Too dark to play.”

Jimmy breathed in and then out, hearing Ricky do the same. “C’mon” Jimmy looked over at his friend. Ricky’s neck was red, his cheeks flushed from their spiriting, and as Jimmy said “Let’s go home.” Ricky puked up a mixture of red and grilled cheese. It was thick and sloppy. It came out in waves and seemed to poison the grass, steaming in the night.

Jimmy tossed Erik the ball and half-carried Ricky to the dugout exit, taking the path that would drag them furthest from the Patch.

*

They were silent on the way home. Jimmy had come in fifteen minutes past his curfew to an empty house. He wished the porch lights had been on and his father sitting in the chair, reading the paper. Even if it meant being grounded.

They had stopped only once, on the way home, as they jumped from street light to street light, flinching at every cloaked figure, to let Ricky, whose pace, for once, was quick enough to match his motor mouth, to rinse the red off his hands and mouth.

Home had arrived like a surprise. Jimmy’s legs felt like they had barbed wire tied around them. Everything ached, especially his head. His tongue was swollen, from misuse or the rhubarb he was unsure. So he didn’t even get to say goodnight to Ricky as he slunk, in silence into his house.

His door slammed shut. And Jimmy waited until every light in the house flicked on before moving to his place. Erik followed after, “what’s his problem?”

“Shut up.”

*

Jimmy was surprised to find himself awake the next morning. He had expected, in the night that he would turn over and see the hungry eyes just outside his window, but the last thing he remembered was cleansing the image from his mind as his head hit the pillow.

He turned the shower on, careful not to submerge his head in all the way. As he lathered up his hair, his heart turned. He couldn’t dare to close his eyes. Every time he did, it was as if the window would blow open, cold air billowing in from somewhere. When behind shut eyelids, every floorboard in the house creaked. So he left the shower, shampoo dripping from his hair.

At the table, his father sat with breakfast. He gave Jimmy, after the boy had toweled himself off, a look over, wet his fingers and patted the boy’s hair down, before shifting his plate of eggs over to his son. His father went back to the paper, using the same wetted fingers to move to the next page. Jimmy saw more of his father’s eyes and brow than any part of him.

Alain, taller than them both, burst his way through the frontdoor. Heavy bags sat under his eyes, which told the story of another late night romp. Their father gave his eldest a cursory glance.

“Jan wants the car today.”

“Fine.” Alain said. He knew better than to argue. Roland had yet to say anything about the missing beer in the fridge downstairs. The football star collapsed into the lawn chair next to Jimmy. He gave the boy’s hair a ruffle, undoing all that his father had done moments before.

“Stop it,” Jimmy said. Alain tagged him back with a half-strength fist to the shoulder. Though his brother was holding back it still bruised him.

Alain tapped him again. “C’mon little bro. Where’s the rise? Show me those silver mittens.”

“I told you to stop it.” Jimmy’s voice came out hoarse. Alain gave his father a look over the newspaper. The Sun was his father’s permanent shield. A shield against in-laws, neighbors, and children.

“Woah, someone’s upset today.” Alain picked at his younger brother’s wrist. Shaking the tiny twigs by the stem. His eyes squinted, “What’s this?”

The rhubarb stain, and cuts all along his arms flared fresh red on his skin. “I was out playing last night.”

Their father looked over the paper, putting it down. Alain seemed unperturbed and took a mouthful of Jimmy’s eggs.

“Where?” Usually Roland cared little what his children did as long as they were outside, came home in time, and were safe. He had long stopped caring where Alain made his stomping ground. But he and his wife still had hope for their youngest.

“Baseball field.”

“Lakeview?”

“Ducain,” Alain answered. “Looks like rhubarb.” Jimmy shot his brother a daggerous glare.

“Jim…” his father warned, “We talked about going to Ducain late at night.”

“Well, there were highschoolers at Lakeview.”

“I don’t know,” Roland turned over the page, “Ask them to play, then.”

Jimmy rolled his eyes at the impossibility of that statement. He wanted nothing more than to make a beeline to his room. But he couldn’t stand being alone. As he turned to leave the plate for Alain to ravage, his appetite tainted from the now heavy smell of bitter rhubarb in his nostrils, he saw it on the back page of the Sun which his father had just turned over.

Even in the black and white he saw the colors of the night before. The orange and brown, captured forever, without lust or sympathy in the confines of print, was the mugshot of the man from the night before. His hair was the same. Perfectly cut. His mouth, more wormy than he remembered seemed to turn red as his eyes scanned the picture. Above the artists’ rendition was the word Wanted. Jimmy didn’t want to read anymore.

*

Jimmy waited until his father was done with the paper. He stole the page he needed and hustled the three blocks to Ricky’s house. It took eight knocks for Ricky to come to the door. There was still red coloring his friend’s hands. Bags sat under Ricky’s eyes, they were a purplish color, which was about the only color on his face.

“What do you want Jim?” Ricky said not unkindly.

“Check this,” Jimmy unraveled the paper. Ricky’s eyes studied the wanted poster. Ricky looked then, to have grown gills. He choked back something. “We could turn him in.”

Ricky eyes wavered up to Jimmy. “No.”

“What do you mean no?” It have never occurred to Jimmy that he would be the more adventurous of the two of them.

Ricky swiped the paper, ripping it down its seams. “I don’t want to see that again. I don’t want to think about it. That thing out there was…. It wasn’t human.”

Jimmy couldn’t find words. Ricky closed his eyes and then snapped them open immediately. He went over to a trash can and gagged. “Are you alright?”

The color drained further from Ricky’s face. Red was between his teeth. “I’m fine.” Steel came back to Ricky’s voice.

“How about we call the police?” Jimmy suggested. His fingers playing with the two ends of the paper in his hands. “We don’t have to go back to the Patch. We can catch him from here.”

Ricky nodded wearily. Together they went into the kitchen, Ricky braced himself against the wall and plopped into a seat.

“We’ll be heroes, Rick” Jimmy dialed 9-1-1 on the phone. The two halves of the wanted poster sat on the table. He studied the face. Red creeped into the black and white squiggles, curling around his mouth and then down to his hands. The eyes grew scarlet too, one on each slice of paper. They held Jimmy still.

A flatline voice broke him from the newspaper: “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

“Uh,” Jimmy started, pulling himself from the image, “The Sun ran a wanted poster for a man today. I think-” Ricky smashed his head against the table, his arms sliding the paper onto the ground. His body went limp. “Oh god!” The phone slipped from Jimmy’s hand, thudding on the table.

“You didn’t eat the leaves did you?” The realization came soft to Jimmy’s mind. It should have been a thunderstorm conclusion, but it entered into his mind as a drizzle in May.

Ricky looked up at him. His eyes faded. Red mucus pooled out of his mouth in heavy chunks. The bile was rancid, a concoction of sweat and stomach acid. It ran red all over the newspaper. Jimmy felt around at Ricky, trying to shake him to recognition. “Damnit. What do I do?”

Jimmy’s mind raced, curling back to the man in the Patch. His eyes seemed to watch Jimmy now, even in the kitchen of Ricky’s home. The glare’s oppression gripped his heart and turned it meek.

Jimmy grabbed the phone. “Are you there?”

“Yes,” the dispatcher responded immediately. “You need to calm down.”

“My friend. He’s sick I need an ambulance.”

“Talk slow. Where are you? What address?”

“271 Mapleton Street. Mill City.”

*

Three months later, Jimmy dug his cleats into the dirt between first and second. He pounded, with his right hand, into the webbing of his glove. Across the way, in the no-man’s land between second and third was not Ricky. He had never signed up for Fall Ball. The Ducain Field was empty without him.

Jimmy once he had learned Ricky would be fine—a stomach pump later had gotten all the bile out—thought things would go back to what they were before. He had been wrong. Ricky didn’t play ball anymore. Didn’t go anywhere near a baseball diamond. Didn’t even stay in the yard for after-school recess.

Two days after Ricky ‘recovered’ Jimmy thought it wise to call 9-1-1 again. He told the dispatcher what he had wanted to in the first place. That the man was out there in rhubarb patch. Cops scanned the place for days. But found nothing.

Last night, when he was feeling the odd bubbling mixture of bravery and stupidity behind his ribs, Jimmy went out there, to see for himself. Alone, he spent the better part of the night in the shack, finding nothing but needles, creaky-door whistles, and a red drenched torn-away piece of a t-shirt. He supposed bringing the man to justice would save Ricky.

“Strike!” the umpire called. Sending down another Mill City Rebel. Their red jerseys were the color of the leaves now. And as the half-inning ended and Jimmy’s team trotted back to the dugout, he turned back to hear the dying wind slice through the Patch. From behind the left field foul fence, the scarlet stalks waved at him. And as the game finished, an hour later, his eyes went back to the Patch. And by a product of fear, or, what he truly believed, hope, he saw another pair of eyes amongst the dark forest of red.

*

A few months later, Ricky would leave Mill City for good. Whatever he had seen out there, the doctor’s had said after Jimmy’s questioning, was affected by the rhubarb vitriol in his system. Jimmy knew deep down, that out in the Patch, something had been broken in his friend. There were no more half-crazed plans, no more mad scientist cackle, there was just lazy eyes and dulled wit to replace what Jimmy had once clung to.

An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the unedited, full version of this piece.