The Storm King

The Storm King

Brendan Duffy

FOR NATE, SATURDAYS in the spring mean baseball.

His teammates think playing the outfield is ignominious, but he likes it. There’s a meditative appeal to a morning spent watching for hard-struck balls as they spin and slow at the height of their parabolas.

He’s not the most attentive of fielders, but Nate does all right at the plate. He’s third on Greystone Lake’s junior varsity team in RBIs, and when he takes warm-up swings the shouts from the bleachers are authentic.

His mother, father, and brother are among those cheering this last Saturday in April. It’s just a scrimmage against North Hampstead, so Mom’s attendance is unusual. She goes to the real games, but most weekends find her up with the sun and working in her vegetable garden. Nate’s little brother, Gabe, would play in the grass as Mom fussed over her plants. Neither of them are in the garden today, because Mom strained her back, and her seedlings can survive a few days without weeding. Gabe doesn’t mind, because he likes baseball. For some time, he’s been counting the days until he graduates from T-ball. Dad doesn’t make it to all of Nate’s games, either, but this is the kind of day that makes every cell in your body sing, and he can read the Times during lulls in the action as easily as he could at their kitchen table.

Nate’s team wins thanks to a triple he hits in the final inning. Though the matchup isn’t an important one, there are whoops and smiles all around. His coach gives Nate the game ball, and Nate feels proud that his family was there to watch him play well and win.

Mom calls him her baseball hero. What type of pie would her baseball hero like for dessert tonight? she wants to know. There’s an organic market at the Wharf, and she’ll make any kind he wants. She asks to see Nate’s game ball, and that makes him feel proud, too.

His team plays on one of the high school’s fields, near the center of Greystone Lake, and it’s just a few minutes’ drive from there to the Wharf in Dad’s old black Passat. The Wharf itself is only a few minutes from the McHales’ home on Great Heron Drive. The town along the shore is not a large one.

It’s early in the year for tourists, but there’s still a good crowd at the market. Visitors browse for honey, jams, and baked goods while the locals from the Lake and nearby towns buy produce trucked from afar and fish fresh from their home waters. The sky being bell clear and the breeze warm, Dad suggests they picnic in the headlands. This isn’t something they do often, but it’s an intoxicating day. The lake glitters in the sun, and from that height the town will look like a jewel set into the crown of mountains.

They buy baguettes, cured meats, cheeses, and sun-brewed iced teas. Gabe wheedles himself a bottle of artisanal root beer. Vendors sell cherries from California and strawberries from Arizona, but Nate is drawn to the first of the season’s peaches from Florida. He touches them as carefully as he would an infant’s head. Mom buys a basket of the fruit.

The Passat’s trunk is full of baseball equipment and a pile of uncorrected papers from Dad’s AP U.S. history class, so Dad places the bags of food in the back with Nate and Gabe while Mom rides up front with the peaches on her lap. Nate’s game ball is still where she left it on her seat. To avoid sitting on it, she gently places the grass-stained ball in the basket with the peaches.

This is important.

Nate realizes later that it had all been important.

The headlands rise along Greystone Lake’s western shore. Hiking paths are carved throughout the protected woodlands, with parking lots marking the major trailheads. Among the nooks of interest that dot the headlands, Nate’s parents favor a particular meadow. In the deep of the old-growth forest, an open space slopes toward the water and offers an unmatched view of the lake and town.

To reach it, they drive beyond the great houses of the Strand, where the boulevard branches from the shore to the headlands. The road there climbs the hills in switchbacks above the lake; it’s closed during the winter months when its blind turns are too treacherous to be passable.

But this Saturday in April, winter is a distant memory. The wind carries ripe forest smells into the car, and waterfowl patrol the shore below them.

Nate is watching one such flock when the Passat swerves and he’s knocked hard against the window glass. He looks up to see a green Jeep with flashing lights looming beyond the windshield. His mother gasps, and the basket of peaches overturns in her lap. There’s another car now, a shiny SUV straddling the center line like an elephant walking a tightrope. Dad accelerates to get the Passat out of its path. A curve is just ahead.

Nate sees Dad stomp the brakes, but their speed does not change. He hears Mom scream his father’s name as she bends to pull at something at his feet. The peaches, Nate realizes. No, he thinks a moment later. The baseball. Dad cannot slow the car because it’s wedged under the brake. Mom tries to pull it away, but it will not budge while Dad presses all of his strength into the pedal.

Gabe reaches across the space between them to grab Nate’s hand. In the flurry of the moment, this surprises Nate as much as the knock against the window, because Gabe made it very clear on his last birthday, his sixth, that he expected everyone to stop treating him like a baby. Nate looks at his brother and sees that his mouth is wide open but no sound is coming from it.

He wants to tell Gabe not to worry, but then they’re through the guardrail. The bright sky that had filled the windshield darkens into the empty slate of the lake. No more than a few seconds have passed since Nate had his head rapped against the glass, but that life is already over. He realizes this when Mom turns to look at him.

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