Chris threaded his way down a packed hallway, having changed into his coach’s gear, a blue polo shirt that read ASSISTANT COACH MUSKETEERS BASEBALL, royal-blue nylon sweatpants, and sneakers. Framed group photos of past CVHS classes were mounted on the white walls, and inspirational posters hung at regular intervals: MUSKETEERS MAKE EMPATHY A HABIT. BE THE CHANGE—NOTICE, CHOOSE, ACT. VALIDATE OTHERS. He passed a window overlooking a courtyard filled with flowerbeds. It was raining out, so practice had been moved inside to the gym.
Chris was looking forward to seeing Jordan and Raz, so he could make a final decision. He had tentatively eliminated Evan because of the boy’s alpha behavior with the snacks and choice of the Bill of Rights team. Raz had also chosen the Bill of Rights team, so he was now on the bubble. Jordan was the frontrunner since he had chosen the Constitution team, suggesting that he was a boy comfortable with structure and authority, perfect for Chris. He needed a boy he could use and manipulate. Tuesday was coming up fast.
Suddenly Chris noticed that two of his players had turned onto the hallway, Trevor Kiefermann and Dylan McPhee. Chris hadn’t met them yet, but he had researched them, and the two boys couldn’t have been more different. Trevor was a tall, blocky redhead with a freckled face and an obsession with kettlebells and weight lifting, according to his social media. Dylan was the tallest kid on the team, at six-five, but reed-thin and wiry with wispy blond hair, fine features, and heavy wire-rimmed glasses that slid down his nose. Dylan’s social media consisted of photos from NASA, the Astronomy Photo of the Day, and photographs of outer space, sent by whatever astronaut was currently orbiting the earth.
Chris flashed them a smile. “Hey guys, I’m Coach Brennan, the new assistant coach.”
“Hey Coach, Trevor Kiefermann, nice to meet you. I play third base.” Trevor shook his hand, squeezing it firmly.
“Coach, I’m Dylan McPhee, center field.” Dylan shook Chris’s hand, too, but his hand was slender, though his grip equally strong.
“Good to meet you both.” Chris fell into step with them down the hallway, and Trevor seemed eager to talk, the more outgoing of the two.
“They say you’re a cowboy. Moved here from Montana, right?”
“Wyoming, but news travels fast here.” Chris allowed his features to reflect mild surprise.
“Raz told us. Where’d you coach before?”
“I didn’t. I almost played minor-league ball but I tore my ACL the week before tryouts.” Chris knew his alias couldn’t be found online on any minor-league roster, should they look him up. Interestingly, the Internet made lying easier and harder, both at once.
“Sucks.” Trevor shook his head. “Where’d you play?”
“Class A, Midwest League. If I tell you which team, you’re gonna laugh. The Fort Wayne Tincaps of Fort Wayne, Indiana.”
“What a name!” Trevor chuckled.
Dylan smiled. “Is that real?”
“Yes, totally.” Chris smiled back, feeling the humor break the ice, as usual. “Still, it coulda been worse. Would you believe the Cedar Rapids Kernels.”
“Ha!” Trevor laughed, and so did Dylan.
“So how’s the season?” Chris asked, though he already knew. The Musketeers were on a losing streak.
“Not so good.” Trevor’s expression clouded. “The season started April 1, and we’re one and five. Coach Hardwick might replace Raz with Jordan for tomorrow’s game. We play Upper Grove, and they’re undefeated.”
“Is Jordan the better pitcher?”
“I think so. He just made varsity and he doesn’t throw as hard as Raz, but his accuracy and control is unreal. He just stays calm, no matter what.”
Dylan interjected again, “Jordan’s a contact pitcher. The batter might get a piece of the ball, but they won’t get a base hit. The ball will be a grounder or fly out, easy to catch.”
Chris mulled it over. “So they’re competing for starting pitcher and they’re friends? That can’t be easy, can it?”
“They’re buds, but hey, it happens on a team. Only one can be the ace.”
Chris was settling on Jordan, but he would need to separate him from Raz to exert the maximum influence on him. The competition for starting pitcher might be the wedge, and all Chris had to do was hammer it hard.
The hallway ended at the entrance to the boys’ locker room, and the door was propped open. Trevor gestured inside. “I’ll show you where the coaches’ office is. Coach Natale should be there, the JV Coach.”
“Lead the way, boys.”
Chris followed the boys down a ramp to a lower level and they entered a large locker room with benches and blue lockers, which was emptying. Trevor and Dylan dropped him off, and Chris walked the short hallway to the coaches’ office, spotting Coach Natale through the window. Chris knew from his research that Natale taught Health, his wife Felicia was a reading specialist at the high school, and their twin girls were in fifth grade at CVMS. They owned a white poodle but Chris didn’t remember the dog’s name. Then it came to him—Snowflake. Confirming, no imagination.
“I’m Chris Brennan, the new assistant,” Chris said, when he reached the entrance to the office, and Victor crossed the room with an eager grin, his meaty hand extended.
“I’m Victor Natale, welcome!” Victor pumped Chris’s hand with vigor. Natale was short and chubby, with an affable Italian-guy vibe. He had large brown eyes, a big nose, and thick lips, his fleshy face framed by thick black hair. “I coach the JV team with my assistant Dan Bankoske. He’s already in the gym. So I hear you’re from Utah?”
“Wyoming. Everybody knows everything here, am I right?”
“Bingo!” Victor laughed. “My wife told me. She’s on the Instructional Support team. She heard it from Anne in the office.” He spread his arms broadly. “Well, this is our palace. The empty desk is yours.”
“Thanks.” Chris crossed to the empty desk and set his backpack on the black desk chair. The windowless room held four black desks facing the wall, and the other three desks were cluttered with forms, three-ring notebooks, and Inside Pitch, Coach & Athletic Director, and Covering All Bases magazines. Black file cabinets lined the opposite wall next to a dorm-size refrigerator, old microwave, and a Keurig coffeemaker.