A World Without Heroes(4)

April raised her eyebrows. “Not bad.”

Holly rolled her eyes. “You guys are such geeks.”

“Geeks rule the world,” Jason countered.

Holly grabbed her sister. “We better get over to the softball cage.”

Jason wanted to ask them to grab a snack or something. Well, specifically, he wanted to ask April, but asking both of them would be less intimidating. They were two girls; he was with two other guys—it would just be a small group hanging out. There would never be a more perfect moment to casually approach April. Who knew, they might end up with a study date for the biology test.

But he couldn’t make his lips move in time. The twins were walking away.

“Hey,” Jason called, feeling awkward, squeezing his biology book. “Do you guys want to grab some food when you’re done?”

Still moving away, Holly pushed her hair back over her ear as she apologized. “We can’t. We have to go to our uncle’s birthday party. Maybe some other time.”

“Okay, that’s cool,” Jason said, even though nothing about it was remotely cool.

Behind him Tim exited the batting cage. “You like April?” Tim asked.

Jason winced, stealing a glance over his shoulder. Was he that obvious? “Not so loud. A little, I guess.”

“I think Holly seems more fun,” Matt mused.

Tim tossed Jason the batting helmet. “You’re up. Here’s your chance for back-to-back strikeouts.”

“You’re a riot,” Jason said, sliding on the slightly oversized helmet. A red light glowed near the pitching machine. Jason adjusted the strap on his batting glove, grabbed his bat, entered the cage, and took several practice chops, overswinging at first, then settling into his regular stroke.

“You ready?” Matt asked.

“Go for it.”

The light turned green. Jason crouched into his batting stance, bouncing a little, anticipating the first pitch, trying to ignore the possibility that April was watching. He tended to swing late on the first ball. It hissed out of the pitching machine and blurred past him. He swung way too late.

“He’s a lover, not a hitter,” Tim kidded.

Jason focused. The next ball zipped out of the machine. His timing was right, but he swung too low, and the ball skipped up and back off the bat.

On the third pitch he made a solid connection. The ball rocketed to the rear of the cage, a high line drive.

Matt whistled. “Not bad.”

Jason glanced back at his friends, grinning. Shifting his gaze, he noticed that April was watching her sister enter the fast-pitch softball cage. When he turned to face forward, a ball was streaking toward him. Jason twisted his head just in time to prevent it from striking his face, but the hard sphere thumped against the side of his helmet, knocking it off his head and sending him sprawling.

Artificial turf prickled against his cheek as Jason tried to fathom what had happened. Suddenly Tim and Matt were at his side, asking if he was all right.

“I’m fine,” he muttered, standing up and swaying into Tim, who steadied him.

“You’re out of it,” Matt warned. “You got tagged hard.”

“I’m just a little rattled,” Jason protested, shaking Tim off and heading out of the cage. The ground seemed to be teetering, as if he were balancing at the center of a seesaw. “I just need to sit down.”

Jason plopped onto the bench outside the cage and put his head in his hands. “I should have warned you,” Tim said. “Some of those balls were coming inside for me too. Somebody needs to recalibrate that thing.”

“It isn’t your fault. I wasn’t paying attention. Just bad luck.” He put his face in his hands and massaged the sides of his forehead.

“Maybe we should get you to a doctor,” Matt suggested.

“No, I’m good. It just shook me up a little. Take some swings; I’ll be fine.”