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Travis Oak scouted the crowded hallway of Orange Blossom Elementary School. Shouts and laughter rose above the usual chatter of six hundred children moving between classes. He propped one shoulder against rose-colored concrete as Ms. Edwards opened the door to her sixth-grade classroom at the end of the hall. A new wave of kids surged toward him. A few students peeled off, headed for their next class. Others caught the scent of oven-fried chicken wafting from the cafeteria and quickened their steps. One familiar fresh-faced kid separated himself from the herd and approached.
"Hey, Coach Oak. What time are tryouts Saturday?"
"Nine o'clock, slugger." The search for a new team mom to handle the daily onslaught of questions from players and their parents moved up his priority list while Travis beamed a wide smile toward the returning pitcher on his Little League team. "All the information was in the packet your folks got when they signed you up this year. Have you been practicing those changeups like I showed you?"
"Yes, sir. When he gets home from work every night, my dad catches for me before we hit the batting cages."
Travis noted the slightest shift in twelve-year-old
Tommy Markham's brown eyes and knew the kid had just told a whopper. Oh, he had no doubt the boy practiced with his dad. Like most fathers, Thomas Markham Sr. had big-league dreams for his only son.
"You're not throwing that slider, are you?" he cautioned. When Tommy's face reddened, Travis ran a hand through hair he'd let grow a couple of inches now that he no longer spent twelve hours a day sweltering on a baseball field. In another year or two, Tommy's arm would grow strong enough to handle the hard snap required to send the ball spinning. Till then, throwing a curve was just asking for an injury.
"Listen to me, now," he said. "Concentrate on accuracy and speed. No curveballs till you're thirteen. Believe me, your elbow will thank you later."
"But, Coach, you should see the way the ball breaks away from the plate."
Remembering the sheer symmetry of throwing a perfect pitch, Travis let himself drift. He felt the cool white leather against his palm. His index finger sought the rippled edge of the seam. Arm up, his feet aligned with home plate, everything he had went into a powerful throw. A quick snap. The release. The follow-through. The ghost of a stitch in his side broke his concentration. He winced. Part of his job was to keep young players from hurting themselves.
"There's nothing prettier than a good curve. But you stick to fastballs and changeups or you'll ride the bench this season."
Tommy scuffed his shoe against the floor. "Yes, sir. See you at tryouts, Coach."
Travis watched until the boy merged with the rest of his sixth-grade pals and moved out of sight. The kid's big heart and love for the game made him any Little League coach's dream, but sooner or later Tommy and his dad would have to face the fact that Tom Jr. would be better off concentrating on his schoolwork. It took more than a strong arm and a good bat to make it to the pros.
Wasn't he living proof? He'd had both and had still never taken the mound in a major league park. Never heard the crowds roar his name on that long walk from the bullpen.
As the time for the next bell neared and the crowd thinned, Travis waved goodbye to Ms. Edwards. He made it halfway to the cafeteria before the pager at his hip squawked. Without breaking his stride, he grabbed the device.
"Oak here," he said into the mouthpiece.
"Mr. Oak, Ms. O'Donnell says there's a problem in the hallway outside her room." Static muffled the school secretary's voice. "Could you check it out?"
"Did she say what's up, Cheryl?" Travis stiffened. A problem could be anything from a bird in the hall to an armed intruder.
"I'm on my way."
Travis spun away from the lunchroom, his footsteps quickening as he headed for the far side of the school. He rounded a corner and stepped into Corridor C. On those rare occasions when he was called upon to break up a fight, one glimpse of his six-foot-two-inch frame headed their way usually sent the participants in opposite directions. Not this time. This time a ring of students surrounded flailing arms. Shouts rose above the hubbub.
"Hit him, Dylan. Hit him," chanted one of the hangers-on.
Travis picked up speed. "Make way, ladies and gentlemen."
The circle of students parted to let him through. He paused only long enough to assess the ineffective punches the two combatants traded before he stepped between them. Grabbing each boy by the shoulder, he firmed his voice. "Enough, gentlemen. That's enough."
Their fists still raised, the boys struggled against his grip. Travis recognized the larger one from sixth-grade Phys Ed and made eye contact. "Dylan Johnson. I said that's enough."
When Dylan's arms dropped to his sides, Travis turned his attention to the second boy. One glance at the blotchy red cheeks beneath a mop of shaggy blond hair told him Orange Blossom's newest fifth grader was still fighting mad.
"Son, enough already," he ordered the midyear-transfer student. So far neither of the boys had landed a single punch. If they kept it that way, he'd give them a stern talking-to and let them go.
"I'm not your son!" the kid let fly.
Travis barely suppressed a grunt when the wild blow caught him in ribs that occasionally sent up a flare three years after the break that had ended his own big-league dreams. Eyeing the new kid with a fresh measure of respect, he dredged up his best no-nonsense voice. "One more swing and you both go to Principal Morgan's office."
Fear and shame battled for first place in the hitter's blue eyes until, fists still clenched, the kid lowered his arms. The foes stepped farther apart, and Travis took a relieved breath. He didn't want to send these students to the office any more than they wanted to go. He turned toward the spectators.
"It's time for all of you to head for class or you'll be marked down as tardy."
The warning bell sounded through the corridor.
Spurred by the reminder of where they were and where they weren't supposed to be, kids scattered down the hall like leaves blown by a hard wind. In their wake, Dylan muttered something Travis didn't quite catch. With a yell, the new kid flew across the corridor. This time he landed a solid punch.
"Hey, slugger." Travis caught the boy's arm before he could draw it back again. "Were you trying to get into trouble? 'Cause you just bought the farm here."
"He said he said " The boy's mouth clamped shut.
Dylan broke in, his eyes tearing. "He's crazy, man!"
Travis eyed the scrappy fifth grader. A faded T-shirt hung from shoulders that were too wide for his thin chest. The frayed hem of his shorts brushed against sturdy legs. The rubber had separated from the sides of well-worn tennis shoes that Travis bet were at least a size too small. Despite himself, he gave the kid high marks for bravery. Not many would dare go up against an opponent a year older and twenty pounds heavier.
"What's your name?" he asked. He'd seen the boy around campus, but the kid hadn't dressed out for any of his P.E. classes.
"Josh. Josh Smith." The boy wiped his nose on his sleeve.
"Well, Josh, what seems to be the problem?" Josh folded his arms across his chest. His lips thinned. "Ask him." He aimed his chin toward Dylan. "He started it."
"Uh-huh." Travis studied Dylan. Everything about the sixth grader-from his all-too-familiar smirk to the way he leaned against the wall-told Travis the boy had stirred up this hornet's nest. "Dylan, what do you have to say?"
Dylan shrugged. "Nothin'. We were just talking about baseball and stuff. All of a sudden, he just went off on me."
Travis studied the two sullen faces. A bright red patch of skin below Dylan's eye was already starting to swell. The kid was going to have a shiner for sure. A shame because it meant Travis couldn't let either boy off with a warning.
"Okay." He let out a long breath. "Let's get you, Dylan, to the school nurse. Josh, you come with me to Principal Morgan's office."
"No fair!" Josh's eyes filled with fresh tears. "He started it. How come I'm the one who gets in trouble?"
Travis shook his head. "You're both in hot water. Dylan's the one with the black eye. He'll see the school nurse. You, my friend, will come with me."
"I am not your friend," Josh protested. "And I'm not your son, either."
"I'll keep that in mind." Travis nodded.
As he steered the boys toward the school office, he couldn't help but notice that beneath the hand he lightly placed on Josh's shoulder, the boy's hard muscles trembled. Travis felt a pang of regret, but the rules were clear. Fighting was not tolerated at OBE. The sooner Josh learned that, the better off he'd be. Once they dropped Dylan off at the infirmary, Travis left the fifth grader to cool his heels on a bench within sight of the secretary's desk. A quick nod guaranteed Cheryl would keep an eye on the boy. A purposeful look got Travis in to see the principal.
An old, familiar ache spread across his side as Travis folded himself onto a guest chair. He waited while Bob Morgan made a final notation on a report and pushed it to one side of his mahogany desk. Beneath a pair of sparse eyebrows, the principal's tired gray eyes sought his own.
"Don't ever go into administration," said his boss and former teammate. "The added paperwork and responsibility will make you old before your time."
"I hear you." Not that Travis needed the advice. Working with Little League and teaching physical education at Orange Blossom were only stopgap measures that kept his head in the game till he landed his dream job. He was on his way back to the pros, this time as a coach.
"So two of our young charges found an unacceptable way to settle their differences?"
Travis's mouth slanted to the side. "Yeah, unfortunately." He filled Bob in on the scant details. "Something about baseball. I was hoping to let them go with a warning, but Josh Smith landed a lucky punch."
Two, actually. He pressed a hand to his side. The kid packed a powerful wallop.
A concerned frown crossed Bob's face. "That makes the third scrape Josh has gotten into since he transferred at the start of the semester. The others weren't nearly as serious. I've talked with the boy, sent notes home, but he doesn't seem to be settling in here at Orange Blossom." Bob pressed a button on his intercom. "Cheryl, bring me the Smith boy's file. And call his mother. Ask her to come see me right away." When another light on his phone lit, he turned to Travis. "Sorry. That's the superintendent. Budget cuts-another wonderful part of my job."
Travis started to leave, but Bob waved him back into his chair, one hand cupped over the mouthpiece. "This won't take a minute."
By the time the secretary poked her head into the office, Bob had swiveled around so his back was to the door. Cheryl's gaze shifted from the principal to Travis.
"I'll take it," he said, reaching for the thin blue folder. He leafed past a request for records from Josh's previous school and stopped to read an initial evaluation that showed the boy lagged behind his classmates. The tutor who'd been assigned to help Josh catch up had opted the kid out of P.E. in favor of study hall, a move Travis suspected hadn't done the young boy any favors.
All that pent-up energy and no way to release it? That had to be tough.
While Bob continued his conversation, Travis turned to the personal-data sheet. Noticing that someone had scrawled "deceased" instead of filling in the blank with the name of Josh's dad, he frowned. He scanned the rest of the page, noting details that might explain the boy's failure to adjust to his new school.
Bob hung up the phone and leaned across his desk. "I take back what I said earlier about paperwork being the lousiest part of my job. Dealing with budget issues, that's worse. Then there's the joys of telling a parent you're going to expel their child. I don't look forward to the conversation with Ms. Smith."
Travis winced. Getting kicked out of Orange Blossom wouldn't solve any of Josh's problems. "Look." He tapped the file. "It says in here the boy's dad died in an automobile accident last year. Don't you think that explains the chip this kid is carrying around on his shoulders?"
Bob cupped his chin in his hand. "While that's probably the reason, our policy is clear."
"Even if he didn't start the fight? I'm pretty sure Dylan did that. He didn't deny it."
"So you think we should give Josh another chance?"
"I can't imagine what it's like to lose a parent, but I wasn't much older than this kid when my folks divorced." Travis gave his head a rueful shake. "That was hard enough. You know the trouble I got into till things settled out. Good thing I had baseball to ground me. Otherwise, who knows where I might have ended up. Josh doesn't even have that much. Heck, if it were me, I'd probably strike out at the world, too." His point made, he uncrossed his legs. Better minds than his would have to figure out Josh's future.
"So you have a plan for what to do with him?" Bob asked.
"Me?" Travis blinked. He was a P.E. teacher, not a principal. The kid wasn't his responsibility.
"You're the one who wants to keep him in school," Bob pointed out. "Come up with a plan to challenge him, or the next time he gets into a fight, I won't have a choice."
"When you put it that way "
Travis leaned back to consider what little he knew about the boy. From Josh's ropy muscles and athletic build, it was clear the kid didn't sit around playing video games all day. And the fight had been about baseball, which proved the boy cared about the sport. The kernel of an idea began to take shape, and he nodded.
"Okay, how about we do this. Little League tryouts are Saturday. I'll draft him to my team, where I can help channel all that aggression into competition."
"That's a little outside the box, don't you think?"
Travis eyed the man who'd been his friend since they were Josh's age. Playing sports had gone a long way toward keeping them both on the straight and narrow.
"As I recall, you were quite the truant before Coach Marsden promised to kick you off the team if you skipped school one more time."
"Well, there is that. Little League, huh?" Bob rubbed his chin. "I guess we can give it a try, as long as Josh and his mom agree."
"Hah," Travis scoffed. Of course the mom would say yes. What parent didn't want a former minor league baseball player as their son's Little League coach? Not only did he have an eye for talent, but experience had taught him how to bring out the best in the boys. His team had won the district play-offs last year. Since most of his best players would return again this season, he hoped to go even further. State. Maybe even regionals.
Bob cleared his throat, and the image of a championship trophy winked out.
"You know how I hate giving up on a child. Especially when there are extenuating circumstances, like a death in the family. But, Travis, there can't be any more fighting at school."
Travis rubbed his sore ribs. No more fights was fine with him, too.