A World Without Heroes(3)

Over the centuries individuals have crossed from our world to Lyrian in a variety of ways. Although some travelers have journeyed between universes deliberately, normally the sudden voyagers are caught by surprise. They become lost in deep caves and emerge into an unfamiliar landscape. They pass through the natural stone arches that occasionally link our realities. They sink into deep wells, enter passageways near mountaintops, or, less often, crawl through petrified logs. But nobody has ever passed from Earth to Lyrian in a less likely way than Jason Walker.

At the age of thirteen Jason resided in the town of Vista, Colorado. Since his father was enjoying a prosperous career in dentistry, and his older brother had just been accepted to dental school, most of his acquaintances expected Jason would one day become a dentist as well. His parents openly encouraged him in that direction. The expectations had rubbed off, and Jason’s vague plan for life included earning a baseball scholarship to a university where he could begin his quest for a dental degree.

He could not recall ever deliberately choosing this course—he had no real passion for tooth repair. The routine struck him as dull and monotonous. Scraping teeth. Taking X-rays. Applying fluoride. Deep down Jason craved something else.

Ever since he could remember, Jason had felt drawn to animals. He read books about them, watched nature programs, and begged for pets. After he consulted with his father, this passion inspired his interest in a zoology major on the way to his dental degree. Unlike many prospective zoology students Jason actually worked in a zoo. Understandably, he had never imagined that his volunteer job might lead him to an alternate universe.

During an unseasonably warm week in late February, Jason leaned against the railing outside the fast-pitch batting cage at the local sports park. Tim stood in the cage, knees slightly bent, chipping a lot of foul balls as he struggled to regain his timing. Matt, the best hitter on their club team, had gone first, blasting nearly every pitch to the back of the cage with his fluid swing.

“Don’t try to murder the ball,” Jason suggested.

“I’d settle for assault and battery,” Tim grumbled.

On the next pitch Tim crushed a hard ground ball to the left side of the cage. Jason alternated glances between Tim and a labeled image in his biology textbook. He was memorizing the human skeletal system for a test.

“Get your nose out of that book,” Matt murmured to Jason as Tim fouled the next pitch back into the netting.

“I have to head to the zoo after this,” Jason apologized. “I won’t have much time to study today.”

“Trust me,” Matt said, nodding toward their left.

Jason turned his head to find a pair of girls coming toward them. They were April and Holly Knudsen, fraternal twins in his grade at Kennedy Middle School. The girls were not much alike in appearance or interests, especially for twins. Prettier and more studious, April was in three of Jason’s honors classes, including biology. Louder and sportier, Holly held a softball bat in one hand and a batting helmet in the other.

Only two girls at school made Jason feel queasy and self-conscious: Jen Miller and April Knudsen. They were pretty, and smart, and seemed down-to-earth. Jason harbored secret crushes on both of them.

“Hey, guys,” Holly called.

Jason tried to smile. He was suddenly very aware of the textbook in his hands. Would it make him look like a nerd, reading a biology book at the batting cages?

Matt said nothing. He seldom spoke much around girls. Jason tried to make his voice casual. “Hi, Holly. April.”

“Getting ready for your last season before high school ball?” Holly wondered.

Tim whacked a hard fly ball.

“Coach Thayer is already scouting Jason,” Matt said. “He might end up pitching for varsity as a freshman.”

It was true. Jason had hit a growth spurt at the end of sixth grade. His hitting had initially fallen apart as he’d adjusted to his height, while his pitching had started to gain some real speed. He now stood almost six feet tall. His hitting was recuperating, and his fastball was up into the eighties, but his control had suffered.

“Wow, freshmen boys almost never play varsity,” Holly admired. “They almost took state last year.”

“I’m not sure how much I impressed Thayer,” Jason confessed. “My pitches were all over the place.”

“Only one guy on next year’s high school team throws faster than you,” Matt said. “When you throw your best stuff, I can’t hit you.”

“I tense up lately,” Jason admitted with a grimace. Over the past year, during games, he had started to feel very self-conscious, and erratic pitches had been the result. He had blown some games by giving up too many walks, and he’d lost a key game with a wild pitch. He had also hit a few batters, and at the speeds he was throwing, that was a big deal. No opposing batters had been seriously hurt, but they could have been.

At first Jason had assumed the increased speed of his pitches had caused the problem. But then Matt and Tim had begun to notice that he routinely threw better during informal games or practices. It bothered Jason to think that he had lost games because he lacked the guts to throw well under pressure. Maybe the problem came from dwelling on how much others expected from him. Maybe he was expecting too much from himself, fixating on perfection. Or maybe his skills were simply fading.

His friends on the team expected him to overcome his control issues and carry them to glory. But he was not yet the star others expected him to become. He sometimes wished his friends would brag about him a little less.

April pointed at Jason’s textbook. “Are you getting ready for the bio test?”

“I’m trying,” Jason replied.

“What’s the name of your cheekbone?” she quizzed.

He resisted a grin. “The zygomatic arch.”