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“You’ve never had a vacation?”
I vividly remember asking Clair that when she arrived a day late to Spring Training. The Ocelots were more than happy to overlook her lateness. But still, it was not like her.
Clair looked at me oddly as I asked that question, “Of course, I have,” she said with a little frown. “Why do you ask?”
“You just seem different,” I said. It was true. She seemed different. “I heard you went pretty far out with Tekki.”
“We just went to the Southeast for some R&R,” Clair replied with a blank expression, which was pretty unlike her.
“Is something wrong, Clair?” I asked.
Clair managed a little smile, “Oh, it’s just I had some rather – interesting – questions asked of me when I got in this morning.”
“Well, I meant to ask, have you ever been on a vacation like that before?”
“Actually, now that you put it that way,” Clair said looking away for a moment. “This is the longest I’ve been out of the spotlight. Come on down to Nepeta and we can get a bite and I’ll tell you about what you have to look forward to asking gals like me as a journalist.”
I couldn’t refuse Clair for anything, though I’ve always felt strange about anyone treating me to anything, even someone as filthy rich as Clair. Then again, Clair always lived modestly. She dressed modestly. She ate modestly. There was nothing fancy about her. I wish more seven-pitch players were like that.
We had a nice lunch at the Nepeta Cataria. I actually wasn’t feeling that hungry, honestly, so I skipped the main course and went right to dessert. I took my time with it as Clair told me about her three months away, how the stress of the season had worn her down to a point that she’d never fallen to before. She also told me how the fact that she went on the trip with Tekki really drew a lot of interest.
“I don’t really see the big deal,” I’d said, slowly finishing my dessert which had by that point mostly melted.
“Unmarried, making a ton of money, never have had a boyfriend,” she listed off. “Going off with a fellow ballplayer, someone you spend a lot of intimate time with in the locker room, on a long vacation is something that can make headlines when you’re the best hurler in the game.”
I dropped what was on my spoon back into the dish. “You know, Clair, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say that.”
“I don’t follow, hon,” Clair said with the smile I was used to. I knew she did, though.
“You’ve never admitted to being the best at anything,” I replied. “You’ve always been so humble.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being right,” Clair chuckled as she sipped her beverage. It fizzled as she sipped through the swirly straw. I was guessing it was alcoholic. Clair definitely had fine taste in alcohol, something I never wanted to touch. I always figured she needed something to take the edge off of all the stress she encountered on a daily basis as a celebrity.
“What happened out there?” I asked point blank.
“Trust me, I’ve said it to everyone else already. Tekki put me on a stress relaxation program. This was the extended part of it. Next year, I should only need a week to get ready.”
That didn't sound right to me. “A week? For a whole season?”
“I must admit that I didn’t believe it myself. But Tekki showed me things about the Felona body that I simply couldn’t believe. I never realized just how much stress I was under every time I took that mound, like the whole world was on my shoulders.”
“Sounds like fun,” I said.
“You may call it that. I call it enlightenment,” she said with a wide grin and spreading her paws apart as if showing me the ocean.
“You do have a way of putting things,” I said.
“I’m glad I can teach you something,” Clair chuckled. “How’s Tora?”
That was a sore subject. “Daubee’s run off with him.”
Clair’s smile evaporated. She then chugged the rest of her drink and looked at me sternly, “You’re kidding.”
“Yeah, the Sheridans hired her as a babysitter.”
“She’s a pro ballplayer. Why would she even be available for something like that?”
“She said it had something to do with seeing herself in him. That she looked up to you the way that he does.”
Clair shook her head, “It’s worse than I thought.”
“Clair, I don’t like her either, but…”
“You don’t know her like I do,” Clair said, looking away and staring out into space.
“Well, I knew that. But Tora won’t even talk to me anymore and his parents seem perfectly okay with it.”
“They’re not,” Clair said, still staring out into space. “But she is right. Those two do have a lot in common.”
“Paola’s from a broken home,” I said. “Not Tora.”
“How well do you know Evaine, Sam?” Clair asked, finally looking back at me, her eyes greatly inquisitive.
“I’ve known her all my life pretty much.”
“You said she and your mother go far back?”
“Do you know who Evaine was with before Cain?”
“No, why would I?”
Clair sighed. “I was the one who hooked up Evaine with Cain.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Cain had a daughter before he met Evaine. But he didn’t know until much later.”
“I don’t follow.”
“His daughter’s name is Paola.”
I felt ready to throw up. “Then, she’s…”
“They’re half brother and sister.”
I felt ready to die inside, “So she really is his sister.”
“I never thought she’d make the connection,” Clair said shaking her head. “But yes, that’s why they’re inseparable all of a sudden.”
“So there’s nothing I can do?”
“Not unless you can magically not have them be related. One thing I will say is that Paola is just as desperate as Tora is to see him succeed.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I want you to help him.”
“They both need this. As much as I know Paola to be all about her own ego, she’s serious about having her little half-brother play the pitch with her.”
“You think this is a good idea, then?”
“No, I think it’s a terrible idea. But dreams are precious and sacred, not be toyed with by others for their own gain and amusement.”
My mouth dropped open for a moment. Clair looked at me and chuckled. “What’s wrong, hon?”
“What you just said,” I said. “That’s exactly what I said to Paola the other day.”
“Interesting,” Clair said thoughtfully, scratching her chin, “Cain used to tell me that when people tried telling me what to be. When I was trying to figure out whether to join the service or seven-pitch.”
“Mr. Sheridan used to say that to Tora. I always thought it was cute.”
Clair got up to leave.
“Where are you going?” I asked her. “What about the bill?”
“I have an account here,” she said and began to walk away.
“I’m sorry! Did I say something wrong?” I asked her. I ended up having to chase after her. We were halfway down the street when she stopped.
“I’m sorry,” she said, still looking the other way. She then turned to me, tears in her eyes. “Evaine was lonely. Cain was so good to her, told her what I just said.
She melted for him. And my… baby was gone.”
Clair then ran off like a sad, brokenhearted little girl. I watched as my hero had crumbled before my eyes, and now knew why Tora and Paola were so important to her.
They were the children of her sweetheart. What I couldn’t understand was, wasn’t Cain a lot older than her? Ten years, in fact. And finally, I knew. She was too young for him, and he married a lady only a bit older than him.
It was never meant to be. But Clair once had a dream, one that was never meant to come true. I feared that Tora would be crushed the same way and in my heart I prayed to the stars that Clair would be able to heal her heart one day.
My prayers would soon be answered. At least, they would be for Clair.
Clair and I began to have regular interviews at the Nepeta Cateria. She would always treat me to breakfast, lunch, or dinner, whatever the meal happened to be. Sometimes we would talk so long, that we'd have two meals together. It seemed worth it to Clair just to talk.
I always had an endless stream of questions for her. I would have to write them all down to remember them all. And at this particular venue, they respected our privacy. Even out in broad daylight, we were sequestered away where we wouldn't be disturbed.
One day, we were discussing a particular striker who was the "bane of her existence."
"So why does Nelli Duro always get to you?" I asked Clair. "Why is she the bane of your existence?"
"I don't really know, Sam," she admitted coolly. "She just gets to me. A glint in her eye, I guess."
"Is it true," I asked, turning into journalistic mode, "That you actually stalk hitters who give you problems on the field?"
Clair looked at me incredulously. "Isn't that a bit personal?"
I got incredibly serious. "Answer the question."
After doing that, I wondered if I'd gone too far. But Clair just laughed.
"Nelli and I go way back. We've been stalking each other for years."
"Why do you two do that?"
Clair just sort of looked at me blankly, "Why does anyone sit and watch their prey?"
"But that's off the field. Why does it matter?"
"Prey is prey," Clair said. "Weaknesses show up in ways you may not expect. Nelli knows how to get in my head because she keeps tabs on me. She knows when I'm at my most vulnerable. She somehow knows the right signals to throw me off."
"Maybe I've lost my hunter instincts," I said with a shrug.
"Felona need to take their instincts very seriously, Sam," Clair told me. "When one Felona injures another, even in a game, it's only natural to take it personally."
"But it's just a game!"
"Nothing is just a game," Clair insisted with a smile. "Nelli and I have been at it since we were kittens. It's fate that she and I have become such rivals, me with the pitch, and she as a striker. We're actually cool with each other."
"Yeah, the trash talking is all for show. We actually get along just fine."
I decided with that burning question out of the way, I had to tackle something much more serious that was weighing on my mind.
"Clair, what do you think of Tora trying to play Seven-Pitch as a career?"
I expected to catch Clair off-balance with that one. But she was more than prepared for that question. "What do you think?"
"I think he's good," I said, not quite whole-heartedly. "He tries hard. He knows the ins and outs of the pitch. He can't strike worth a darn, but you can't be great at everything."
"That's a fair observation."
"But what really bothers me is that I feel like Daubee is just using him as a sidekick. Like he's a publicity stunt or something."
"You really feel that way?" Clair asked.
"Yeah, my gut tells me that she means well. But that's not how it looks."
"Well, trust your instincts. If you're going to be a strong journalist, you need to."
That was probably the best advice she ever gave me.
"So there's something I want to ask you," Clair said.
"Me? Why me?"
"I'm just curious. As aren't all us Felona?"
"So, what is it?"
"Tora. Do you love him?"
"What? He's just a kid!"
"That's not how I mean. I just mean that if you care for him, stop worrying about him so much. Let him find his own way."
"But you said how dangerous Daubee really is."
"Yes, but she's opening doors for him. As much as it pains me to say it, you have to let him be."
"I have a game to prepare for. Preseason or not, I need to go."
"I didn't want you to be upset."
"It was my question anyway," Clair said with a sad smile. "I'll see you at the game, I guess."
And Clair sauntered off, clearly upset.
She still loved Cain. There was nothing I could do about it. Or was there?