“I can do that better!” Jordan called out, catching the ball.
“That was terrific!” Chris crouched again, put down four fingers, and wiggled them, signaling for a change-up.
Jordan wound up, reared back, and pitched the ball again, following through. The ball zoomed toward the strike zone, where it changed speeds at the last instant, dipping down the way God intended.
“Very nice!” Chris tossed the ball back and then put Jordan through his three-seam fastball, a sinker, a slider, and only one curveball because there was no point adding to the wear and tear on his arm. When they were finished, Chris rose, took off the face mask, and walked forward. “That’ll do!”
“Okay!” Jordan jogged off the mound, reaching him with a happy, relaxed smile.
“More than okay! Awesome!” Chris clapped him on the shoulder.
“Thanks.” Jordan grinned.
“Really, your hard work paid off. You’re throwin’ heat.” Chris sensed a new closeness between them, so his mission had been accomplished—or at least part of it had. He wanted to get closer to Jordan, but he also wanted to separate Jordan from Raz. Chris couldn’t get as close to Jordan as he needed to be if Jordan had a best friend, and the crack in the relationship between the boys was already there. All Chris had to do was stick a chisel in the fissure and hammer it into pieces.
Chris motioned beyond the curtain. “Now, run and go get Raz.”
“Raz?” Jordan hesitated. “Why?”
“You’ll see. Hurry, go. We don’t have much time.”
“Sure okay. Be right back.” Jordan took off, tucking the glove under his arm. He ran through the opening in the curtain and arrived only a few minutes later with Raz jogging behind him, his dark eyes flashing with eagerness and his glove already on.
“Raz, hi. I need you.” Chris motioned to him.
“Sure, Coach.” Raz tucked a strand of hair into his man bun.
Chris turned away pointedly from Raz and faced Jordan. “Jordan, I was thinking it would be a great idea to videotape you. Between us, I have a buddy who knows a scout. I can send him the video through back channels, if you know what I mean.”
“Really?” Jordan’s eyes rounded with delight. “What school?”
“I can’t say.” Chris was improvising. Of course there was no scout, no school, and no back channel. “Just leave it to me.”
“That’d be great! I appreciate that, Coach.”
“Good, and keep it on the QT.” Chris turned back to Raz. “Raz, you catch while I film Jordan.”
Raz blinked. “Then are you gonna film me, too?”
“No, just Jordan.”
Raz cleared his throat. “But Coach Brennan, I pitched last season. I’m the pitcher.”
“So?” Chris faked confusion. “Raz, are you telling me you can’t catch Jordan?”
“No, I can catch him, of course I can catch him, but I’m the pitcher. Not Jordan.”
Jordan recoiled. “Raz, I pitched last season.”
“On JV.” Raz waved his glove at him dismissively.
“I’m on varsity now.”
“Because you’re a tryhard, Jordan.”
“No I’m not!” Jordan shot back, pained.
“Whoa, boys,” Chris broke in, acting surprised, as if he hadn’t instigated the conflict. He didn’t need it to go too far. He only needed to turn one boy against the other. He frowned at Raz. “Can’t say I like your attitude, Raz. This is a team. We function as teammates. And don’t give me attitude.”
“Sorry, Coach Brennan.” Raz swallowed hard. “But yo, can I pitch after Jordan? Like, can you film Jordan, then film me? And you could send the video of me to your friend and—”
“Not today. It’s late.” Chris motioned Raz backwards. “Get in position now. Catch.”
Raz stalked away, simmering.
Chris took Jordan by the arm and walked him toward the pitcher’s mound. “Jordan, I didn’t know he’d react that way. I’m trying to do a nice thing for you. Where did that come from?”
“I know.” Jordan walked with his head down. “He wants to stay as the starter. He just brought it up with Coach Hardwick.”
“Coach Hardwick will make that decision, not Raz.”
“That’s what Coach says.”
“I’m surprised Raz would take that to Coach Hardwick. I thought you and he were friends.” Chris paused, letting the silence do its work. The implication was that Raz wasn’t acting like a friend. “Well. You’re not doing anything wrong. You understand that, right?”
Jordan nodded, walking.
“You worked hard and you improved. You put in the time, built up your legs, studied the videos. You earned this shot. A good friend would be happy for you.”
Jordan pursed his lips as they reached the other side of the gym, where Chris motioned to the pitcher’s mound.
“Okay. Put Raz out of your mind. Get up there. Give it everything you’ve got, you hear me?”
Jordan nodded, averting his eyes, then headed toward the mound. He threw a practice pitch, then started pitching in earnest, but the fight with Raz had gotten to him. His pitching had none of its earlier brilliance, and one of his fastballs went wild. Chris hadn’t been sure that would be the result, but even if it hadn’t been, it worked for his purposes. Now Jordan would be mad at Raz for causing him to blow his big chance. Chris filmed the debacle and patted Jordan on the back afterwards, telling him they’d do it again, another time. Jordan and Raz didn’t say another word to each other for the rest of practice and they left the gym separately.
It couldn’t have gone worse for Jordan and Raz.
And it couldn’t have gone better for Chris.
After practice, Chris sat in his Jeep, pretending he was talking on the phone. The dashboard clock read 6:15, and the sky was darkening. Lights in the parking lot cast halos on the empty spaces. He kept an eye on his rearview mirror, watching the players walk toward the student parking lot. It was too dark to see their faces, but he recognized Jordan’s lurching gait and Evan at the center of the group. Raz lagged behind, alone.
Chris left the faculty lot and turned into the student lot, slowing and rolling down his window when he reached the boys, who were clustered around a brand-new BMW M 235i convertible coupe, gleaming darkly under the light. The engine thrummed like six cylinders of German precision engineering.