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Anna George was legendary. But she was legendary not so much for the career that she had. Twenty-two years she played for the hapless Pantherettes, on a life-time contract, one of which had never been signed again. She was famous for the “dancer”, a pitch she threw that almost no one ever came in contact with, but that rarely ever fell into the strike zone.
She hadn’t been a mediocre pitcher. She’d been the ace of the Pantherettes. But the best pitcher on the Pantherettes wasn’t the third-best pitcher on most other teams. They rarely scored runs. Every prospect they’d ever had would bust. Even Anna was a bust. But she was the peach-furred face of an otherwise dark-furred franchise. She sort of stuck out. And despite being far from the best, she was adored in that town.
One might wonder how someone who ended up having such a lackluster, but long and lucrative, career could be a legend. But because of that dancer, in her younger years, it seemed that greatness was a foregone conclusion.
In high school, Veri High in fact, that Anna threw six straight no-hit games. She’d always walk plenty of batters, but she had a big fastball that she could blow by amateurs. It was straight as an arrow, but when you would be expecting a dancer, it was like a bullet to the head.
At the tender age of 15, the Pantherettes came calling with a contract that would pay her an extraordinary sum per year for as long as she wanted to play. The one condition was that she could never play for any other professional team for the rest of her life. Her parents, modest middle-class office workers, advised her against taking it, saying that she could get a far more fair deal, and perhaps more, if she finished school and played Seven-Pitch in the Service.
But Anna couldn’t refuse the offer of a contract that the Pantherettes could never decline. The first year alone was more money than her parents had earned in a lifetime combined. It was clear after the first several seasons she’d made the right choice. What worked for her in high school didn’t work in the pros. She was good. She was probably the best pitcher never to make an all-star team. But she was not a super-star talent.
What she did have was a super-star personality. She was incredibly generous, to a fault, perhaps. She lived well, but always well within her mean. She always did dress extravagantly, but that was only because she’d caught the eye of fashion designer Alain Metrie.
With Metrie, she had a daughter and a son. The daughter’s name was Diamond and the son’s name was Sapphire. Diamond inherited her mother’s dark brown curls, but kept them cut very short. She was a tough, little thing, well-built like her mother, but nowhere as feminine.
Sapphire, Diamond’s twin, was far more feminine than his sister. While it wasn’t unusual for toms to wear eye-shadow on special occasions, Sapphire did all of the time. He also wore fashions that were really meant for Warrior Princesses at formal gatherings. Whatever the case, the girls loved Sapphire, but he didn’t seem nearly that interested in them.
Anna was a beautiful girl. In her youth, her long tumbling curls were legendary, but later in her career, she’d cut them for charity and never grew them back to their former glory. Alain was very unhappy about this for quite some time, but many believed that she actually looked better without the tangled mess that those curls would so often become without the proper maintenance.
In any case, after her twenty-two year career, she retired to become a traveling coach. She basically went wherever Alain went, dropping by local schools and seven-pitch camps to teach the little toms and mollies some life lessons and a few pointers on the game. Anna was extremely popular wherever she went. She was old-school, but always hip.
People thought her crazy wind-up and submarine delivery were pretty awesome, despite the fact that many of the first seven-pitch “hurlers” pitched underhand and had crazy wind-ups just to confuse the hitters. It wasn’t hard to see why kids of her day had no clue how to hit her. A lot of pros still never did, either.
She was the one who taught a lot to Tora’s mom. In fact, Anna George was the reason that Evaine had gotten into the sport in the first place, and that wisdom had been passed down to Clair, as well.
Despite all I’d heard about her, I didn’t get the pleasure of meeting her until after one of Tora’s games towards the end of his senior year season.
Anna had always seemed larger than life, but she in reality wasn’t much taller than myself. Since her playing days, she had put on a good deal of weight, but wore it gracefully. She was as beautiful as ever. It just shocked me to see that we stood nearly eye-to-eye.
“Well if it isn’t Sam Spence!” she said as I approached the little gathering that had come from a local elementary school. Most of them didn’t seem to have any clue who she was. That irked me a bit. She was a living legend. Sixty-two or not, she looked half that age.
“You seem to have me at a disadvantage, Missus George,” I said respectfully.
“Oh, Sam, don’t call me that. Just call me Anna. Right, kids? “
Several of them said, “Yes, Missus Anna,” in unison. The others just looked awkwardly at her, as if they were observing some strange otherworldly phenomenon slowly unfolding before their eyes.
Before I could say anything else, Anna hugged me. “How’s your mum?”
“She’s okay,” I said. This wasn’t long before the sickness took her.
“I hope she gets better soon,” Anna said grimly, “She’s been ill for too long.”
“Mum said you’d be here today,” I said.
“I was hoping to see Steph, too,” Anna said, clearly disappointed that my mom hadn’t joined me. But she then cracked a smile, “But you’ll do!”
“Do for what?” I asked, quite confused.
Anna removed her ball-cap, and her short wild curls shot out in every direction. A few of the kids giggled at the sight. Their chocolate color had darkened in places, lightened in others, and some of her curls had begun to turn silver. For her age, though, she still looked incredibly youthful. She was like a big kid, and she really was.
She pointed the cap towards me, “This is my buddy, Sam. Say hi, Sam!”
This time the kids were much more enthusiastic, “Hi, Sam!” they called out in unison. I was especially impressed by how melodious they sounded. Most children wouldn’t have sounded so harmonious.
“So what are you gonna teach us, Sam?” a young tomcat asked.
“Well, uh,” Sam said. “What do you know about seven-pitch?”
“It’s a game,” a little molly said, crossing her arms, “A stupid game.”
Anna replaced her ball-cap and smiled sweetly, “And why would you say that, miss?”
“Because it is!” she insisted. A couple of the other kids looked darkly at her.
“Then why did you come?” one of the other girls asked.
“Because I had to!” the little girl insisted with a huff.
“What’s your name, kid?” I asked.
“Tanya Belli,” she replied.
I just stared at her for a moment. I never knew that Mira Belli had any children. “Are you related to Mira Belli.”
“Was,” the girl said. “Auntie Mira hit the bottle too hard. She wasn’t very smart.”
Mira had indeed drank herself under the table and under the ground. It wasn’t something that I liked to think about. As much trouble as Mira had caused so many, she’d been a decent player and wasn’t an evil person. But clearly her demons had consumed her and left her little niece hating the sport that she had played.
Anna was about to say something, but I felt I had no choice but to interrupt, “Your aunt was quite a ball-player, you know.”
The girl looked at me crossly. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but then closed it again and growled.
“Yeah,” the first boy said, “She was pretty good. My dad always liked her.”
A few other kids nodded and supported that statement.
“Nobody’s perfect,” Anna spoke up. “Tanya, come here a second.”
The kids all backed away from her, leaving her in the spotlight. She began to crumble under the pressure. Tears started to form in her eyes. She remained stiff as a stone.
Anna walked up to her and kneeled down to look into Tanya’s eyes. “You remind me of Diamond,” she said. “My daughter. She hated seven-pitch, too.”
“Because it’s stupid!”
“Because seven-pitch took me away from home a lot,” Anna said. “Your mother plays too, doesn’t she?”
“She did. Until she was hit in the head by a pitch, went to the hospital, and never came home.”
“I heard about that,” I said. “I didn’t realize she was a Belli.”
“She’s still alive,” the girl said, tears beginning to fall, “But she may as well not be. She can’t do anything. Just looks at me and smiles then goes back to sleep.”
“That’s horrible,” Anna said. “But that was an accident. That sort of thing hasn’t happened very often.”
“But it was a stupid game!” the girl said stomping her feet. “It ruined our lives! My daddy left us and now I have babysitters that watch me and they’re all so mean about it!”
The other kids began to mutter among themselves.
“Well, that’s just not nice,” someone said. I knew the voice well.
“Clair, it’s good to see you!” Anna said, hugging Clair.
“Excuse me a minute, Anna,” Clair said holding out her hand. The tall strong Clair picked up little Tanya effortlessly and cradled her in her arms. Tanya just sort of stared at her.
“You’re pretty,” she said, as she stopped crying, “Who are you?”
“I’m a stupid seven-pitch player,” she said with a smile. “Your momma was very unlucky.”
I stared at Clair for a minute. I had no idea where this was going.
“How do you know?” the girl asked.
“Because. I was the one that threw the ball.”
Anna and I looked at each other. “What do you mean, Clair?”
“The one that got away,” Clair said. “I almost never pitched again.”
“You hurt my mum?” the girl asked.
“I certainly didn’t want to,” Clair admitted. “It just slipped out of my hand. I thought the helmet would’ve saved her. But it didn’t.”
She put Tanya down on the ground, patted Anna on the back, looked at me solemnly and went inside the nearby restaurant.
The little girl cursed something fierce, “You’ll pay for what you did, Clair Sureclaw! I hate you forever!”
Tanya ran off to who knows where. I was worried no one would ever see her again.
The other kids just stared at the distance.
“I guess Clair has her demons, too,” Anna said, as she rushed off to chase down Tanya.
“What was that about?” one kid asked.
“Was that really Clair Sureclaw?” another asked.
“It was,” I said. I just walked away and into the restaurant to find Clair.
Clair was sitting at the bar. I could tell she was drinking something heavy. When she saw me walk in, she beckoned me to sit at a table, as I wasn’t yet able to sit at the bar as I was too young. Clair just stared at her drink for some time. Then Anna came in.
“I found her,” Anna said. “Had her guardian pick her up.”
“Where did she go?” I asked.
“Mira’s grave,” Anna said. “It’s right down the street from here. The poor thing looked like she’d died and gone to every one of the Seven Hells and came back to life.”
“You’ve always had a way with words,” Clair said, still looking at her drink. She finally picked it up and took a big gulp.
“I never knew you to drink, Clair,” Anna said. “What in your Nine Lives were you thinking out there?”
“I destroyed her life,” Clair said. “Without even knowing it.”
“That was quite a scene you made out there, girl,” Anna said crossly. “The teachers are very upset with me. The kids were all quite distraught about the whole thing. They basically told me I’m not welcome at their school anymore.”
“It’s nothing you did,” I said.
“I’ll talk to them,” Clair said. “After I finish my drink.”
“After you get a good night’s sleep,” Anna insisted. “What were you thinking?”
“I recognized her,” Clair said. “I just happened to be coming by to find Sam.”
“Why, what’s wrong?” I asked Clair. Obviously whatever she’d come to tell me wasn’t good.
“Your mother,” Clair said. “Told me to tell you that she’s proud of you and that may your Nine Lives be blessed.”
I must have looked like I had just died, gone through all the Seven Hells, and returned physically unharmed. I wasn’t the same for a long time after that.
Clair had just told me the sickness had taken my poor mother.
“This is just the day for bad news, isn’t it?” Anna asked.
“The girl deserves to know,” Clair said, finishing her drink.
“Now she’ll hate you forever,” Anna said.
“Better me than everyone else,” Clair said, as she walked out of the restaurant.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked Anna.
“Just what she said. Clair put a face to that little girl’s misery. Mira was a very close friend of hers. She feels responsible for what happened to Vera.”
“I never realized that girl Vera was Mira’s sister.”
“It was a tragedy. No one blamed Clair but herself. The little girl didn’t know until today who had done it to her. Now she does.”
“But why would Clair put that burden on herself?”
“Because,” Anna said. “It’s better for that girl to hate Clair than to hate the whole world.”
I sighed. “I never thought of it that way.”
“Are you okay?”
I hate when people ask that as if asking it would somehow help. “Of course not. But I’m not sure who to feel worse for, myself, Clair, or for little Tanya.”
“Let’s pray to the Mother for all three,” Anna said, kissing my forehead and holding me in her arms. From that day forward, Anna became my second mother.