Some people who’ve had a brush with death say they saw their lives flash before their eyes, but that’s not what happened to me. After I’d collapsed on the baseball field, I hadn’t seen or felt anything. No rush of memories. No montages of friends and family. Not one single image until I awoke hours later in the hospital to find my parents’ concerned faces hovering over me.
I hadn’t needed to see a replay of ‘The Ali Benton Story’ to appreciate the second chance I’d been given. From the moment the doctor explained what had happened, I’d been ready to make the most of that chance. I’d been itching to get my goals back on track and pursue new ones.
But when my parents decided I should live with Dad in Cartersvale, British Columbia, they’d seriously screwed up my plans.
I’d had to say goodbye to countless opportunities: a coaching role at Toronto’s Batter Up Baseball, a training program for girls; a position on the Ontario Women’s Baseball League; a spot on Northern Secondary School’s baseball team. Coaching and playing in Toronto had been my best shot at university athletic scholarships. Because of Mom’s job in Egypt, I had to leave that all behind. I understood she was getting the chance to follow her dreams, but what about my dreams?
As I slumped in my seat by the window, I couldn’t stop thinking about everything that had been taken from me.
The plane banked sharply to the right, preparing for landing. The landscape unfurled below me in a kaleidoscope of lush greens, deep blues, and sandy browns. Trees stood guard around lakes and ponds, and grassy meadows stretched out in all directions. As land gave way to buildings, I sat up straighter. I could make out Ridge High’s baseball diamond a little way in the distance. The sun drizzled golden light onto the checkerboard pattern mowed into the field.
A familiar ache filled my chest. It’d been six months since I’d been on a ball field, and I was more than ready to get back in the game. I might not have been able to remember every detail of my last inning, but I could remember what it felt like to play centerfield. The satisfying weight of the ball as it fell into my glove. The wind in my face as I dove for a grounder. The roar of the crowd when I jumped up on the fence to nab a ball. Robbing someone of a homerun? Pure exhilaration.
The plane pointed toward the airport, and the field disappeared from view. The flight attendant welcomed us to Ridge City, which was a forty-minute drive from Cartersvale. She then instructed passengers to return all trays to an upright and locked position and remove their headphones. I took off my earbuds with a sigh.
The woman sitting in the seat next to me smiled. Aside from a brief greeting when we took our seats on the plane, we hadn’t talked. She’d slept for the first half of the five-hour trip and I’d had my earbuds in for the second half, sending the clear message that I wasn’t up for small talk. She looked ready to chat now, though. Come on, Ali, I told myself. You can suck it up for a couple of minutes.
“I can’t wait to see my daughter,” she said. “I haven’t been to visit her in a year.” She paused. “What about you, dear? Do you have family in Ridge City?”
I shook my head. “My dad lives in Cartersvale. He’s picking me up at the airport.”
“Oh, is this a visit?”
“Not exactly.” God, if only I were visiting, not staying for the whole school year while Mom went on the dig. I would be totally fine with hanging out in Cartersvale for a couple of weeks, as long as I went back to Toronto afterwards. That’s where I belonged.
The woman raised her eyebrows at my response, but she didn’t press me for details. “I’ve never been there,” she said. “What’s it like?”
Lady, what you see is what you get. With only one mall, one movie theater, and a dinky harbor as its main attraction, my hometown was Snoozeville personified. Its little diners and cafes didn’t even have a single TV for keeping up on sports. It was a miracle the high school had a baseball team.
I shrugged. “There’s a harbor. They do boat tours and stuff.”
“Oh, sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll come in for a day and do that.”
“Google Cartersvale Marina. You’ll find the tour schedule on their website.”
“Thanks, dear.” She took a notebook from her purse and scribbled down the information, her eyes lighting up. At least someone was excited about the idea of going to Cartersvale. Too bad she couldn’t take my place. “So,” she said, “what are your plans while you’re there?”
So much for not pressing me for details. The simple answer to her question was that I would be starting at a new school, catching up with my best friend, Rachel, and trying out for the girls’ baseball team. The more complicated answer? Convincing my father that I was fine and ready to get back on the field.
I gave my seatmate a forced, polite smile. “I’m not sure. I guess I’ll decide when I get there.”
The plane began its descent. Thankfully, the woman stopped asking me questions and faced forward, clutching her armrests.
I peered out of my window. Cars moved along ribbons of black, and buildings of different shapes and sizes came into sharp focus. Trees and rooftops whizzed by as the plane made its final turn onto the waiting runway. The landing gear released with a sudden bump. My heart beat against my chest, as strong and steady as the plane’s engines.
The tires slammed into the tarmac, and the plane flew down the runway until the brakes brought it to a halt.
The flight attendant instructed us to stay in our seats while we approached the gate. The plane taxied down the runway for what felt like forever before finally coming to a complete stop. I grabbed my backpack and waited for the line in the aisle to begin moving. When it did, I hightailed it off the plane as quickly as possible.
Hitching my backpack on my shoulder, I strode through the jet bridge and stepped out into the terminal.
As I walked along the corridor to the stairs leading down to baggage claim, a heaviness weighed in my belly like a boulder. With each descending step, the sensation grew until I felt like I was going to explode from the pressure.
I’m back. This is really happening.
I saw my father waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. When he spotted me, a huge smile lit up his face.
“Alicia!” He rushed forward and wrapped his arms around me in the gentlest of hugs, as if he were afraid he’d snap me in two.
He stepped back quickly, scratching his beard as he studied my face. I was almost as tall as him, but our physical similarities ended with our height. I’d inherited my blonde hair and blue eyes from Mom, along with a fair, freckle-prone complexion. Dad was dark-haired and gray-eyed.
“How was the flight?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Fine.”
I shook my head. I’d even passed through security with no issues. The titanium in my chest hadn’t set off the metal detector, just like the doctor had assured me. Thank God for that. I’d had visions of being forced to explain my condition and produce my pacemaker ID card, while the passengers around me looked on, their eyes brimming with sympathy. My fingers twitched as I replayed the imagined scenario. I hated people’s pity almost as much as I hated my hiatus from baseball.
Dad frowned, his bushy eyebrows drawing together. “You do have your MedicAlert bracelet, right? And your card?”
“Yeah, I’ve got both.” The annoying bracelet circled my wrist, tucked underneath my long-sleeved shirt. At least now that it was September, we were heading into cooler temperatures. All summer I’d been itching to wear T-shirts, but leaving the bracelet in plain sight would be like announcing to the whole world that I was a member of the Pacemaker Club, and that was not happening.
“Okay. Good. How are you feeling? Any dizziness? Chest pain? Trouble breathing?”
“No, I feel fine. You can stop worrying.” If I hadn’t been halfway across the country, he probably would’ve driven to Ontario to get me. He’d been freaking out about me getting on a plane by myself and had been texting me constant reminders for the past week. Make sure you get enough sleep before the early flight. Eat healthy foods. Keep your bracelet and PM ID with you at all times.
Clasping my backpack strap, I moved toward the baggage carousel.
“Here, let me carry that for you.” He pulled my backpack off my shoulder and slung it over both of his.
I struggled to keep my voice even. “You don’t need to do that, Dad. I’m—”
“I’m just giving you a hand. It’s no problem.” He draped his arm around my shoulders and gave me the tiniest of squeezes before letting go. “I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve got everything ready for you at the house. It’ll be just like old times.”
I stared at him. It would not be like old times at all.
An alarm sounded and the carousel rumbled as it began to turn. A moment later I spotted my oversized burgundy suitcase moving toward us on the conveyor belt. I reached out, but before I could grab it, Dad stepped in front of me and grasped the handle. He hoisted the hard-shell case off the conveyor belt.
“You shouldn’t be lifting anything heavy,” he said.
“I can lift my own suitcase, Dad. The doctor said I only had to be careful with heavy stuff for a couple of weeks after the surgery, remember?”
“Doesn’t hurt to be cautious.” Dad wheeled my suitcase away from the carousel, and I rolled my eyes behind his back.
I followed him through the airport’s automatic doors. The first thing that struck me was the quiet. A car door slammed close by, and a couple chattered as they passed us, but it was nothing compared to the assortment of noises outside the Toronto Pearson Airport: passengers hailing cabs; buses lumbering by; the never-ending stream of cars in front of the terminal, their engines roaring; the buzz of conversation as crowds of people came and went.
I didn’t like the quiet. Without the distraction of noise, I could hear myself think too much. Could practically hear the device in my chest working.
Dad led me across the small lot where he’d parked his ugly brown Ford Taurus. The ball in my stomach sank like a lead weight, and I dragged my feet.
While he stowed my suitcase and backpack in the trunk, I opened the passenger side door and climbed in with a sigh.
Dad glanced at me as he got in the car. “Seatbelt on?”
Gritting my teeth, I buckled in and slumped in my seat.
We pulled out of the parking lot and turned onto the road leading out of the airport. I turned on my phone to check my messages. There was one from Rachel, asking if I’d landed yet.
Me: Just left the airport! I’ll let you know when I can come over.
Rachel: Great. Can’t wait to see you!
On the highway, Dad drove well under the speed limit and cars raced by us. I knew he was doing it for my benefit because he’d never driven so slowly before. This was going to be the longest car ride of my life.
Dad kept up a steady stream of chatter. He raved about the fabulous weather in the forecast, described the new paint job in my room, and talked about the new school year.
“It’s going to be wonderful having you at my school,” he said with a smile. “Your old friends are going to be happy to see you again, too.”
I doubted that. The only friend I’d kept in touch with was Rachel. While I’d only been back to visit a couple of times, she’d made frequent trips to Toronto, and we texted each other almost every day.
“Speaking of friends,” I said. “Can I borrow the car later to go to Rachel’s?”
Dad sighed. “Ali, we already talked about this. I don’t think you should be driving.”
I blinked at him. “Not even to Rachel’s?”
“No,” he said, impatience in his voice, “I meant everywhere, even Rachel’s. We went over this on the phone the other night.”
I rubbed the center of my forehead. I remembered, but I’d been hoping he’d make an exception. It was only a five-minute drive to Rachel’s house. “That’s not fair, Dad. I’m not going to get hurt going to Rachel’s. I don’t see what the big deal is.”
Dad signaled as he turned off on the ramp that would take us to Cartersvale. “The big deal is you drive too fast. I haven’t forgotten about the speeding ticket you got last month.” He pursed his lips. “Your mother should never have let you borrow her car.”
I huffed out a breath. “That was a one-time thing! Traffic is crazy in Toronto, and I was late to meet a friend. It won’t happen again. And Mom—”
“Your mother’s been entirely too lenient with you.” His hands tightened on the steering wheel, and a muscle jumped in his cheek. “While you’re living with me, you’re going to slow things down. Besides,” he added, his voice softening, “I’m happy to take you anywhere you want to go.”
I clasped my own hands in my lap and scowled. He didn’t get it. I wanted my independence. My freedom. I didn’t want to rely on my father to chauffeur me, especially if he was going to drive this slowly. I’d get around faster on foot. And I definitely didn’t want to be seen arriving at school with my daddy, the principal.
“I just want what’s best for you,” Dad went on. “And as for going to Rachel’s, I’d rather you held off until tomorrow. Concentrate on getting settled in today.”
I opened my mouth to plead my case, but Dad shot me a stern look, and I knew I didn’t stand a chance of winning the argument.
The traffic lightened up as we drew closer to my former home. Dad tried to keep the conversation going, but I wasn’t in the mood to talk and responded to his questions with one-word answers. Finally, he gave up. My shoulders sagged in relief as I stared out the passenger-side window at the passing trees.
I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the year. Dad had always been a little strict, with rigid rules for bedtime, no cell phones after a certain hour, and that sort of thing. After my surgery, he’d become insanely overprotective. Mom had been really worried about me too, at first, but as the more easygoing parent, she’d lightened up and let me resume normal activities, like lifting my own suitcases and driving. I was beginning to think Dad would never get on board.
If only there’d been a way for me to stay in Toronto. But there was no one to stay with, and Mom thought this would be a good chance for me to bond with Dad.
After my parents divorced five years earlier and Mom was offered a job at the University of Toronto’s archaeology department, I’d jumped at the chance to move with her. While Cartersvale’s baseball program was a joke, Ontario offered in-depth training and high-quality girls’ leagues. I’d felt a little bad about leaving Dad behind, but as a high school principal, he’d been able to visit me during the summers and on major holidays. He’d been visiting me six months ago, so he’d been at the baseball game where I’d collapsed in centerfield. I’d been grateful for his support—he’d taken extra leave so he could stay for a couple of weeks after my surgery—but he seriously needed to loosen up now.
As the silence wore on, I texted Rachel about the change in plans. While waiting for her reply, I pulled up my app for the Pacers Club, an online forum for people who’d been implanted with pacemakers.
I started a new post. I’m six months post-PM implantation and my dad wouldn’t let me lift my suitcase at the airport. And he won’t let me drive. He’s driving me crazy!
Within minutes, supportive comments began to pour in. He’s being over-careful… He should educate himself about PMs… Sorry he’s being so restrictive, honey.
I was so busy reading the messages I barely noticed when we arrived in Cartersvale. Reluctantly closing the app, I looked up and peered through the windshield at the buildings that made up the downtown. Scratch that—Snoozeville’s pathetic excuse for a downtown. Even on a Saturday afternoon, it was almost deserted. It looked pretty much the same as when I left five years earlier. The same four restaurants with truly original names like Cathy’s Diner and Bob’s Café. The scuzzy bowling alley and Moxie’s Bar. The theater playing only one movie. Afterwords, the ancient second-hand bookstore.
When we drove past Cartersvale High, Dad said proudly, “There it is. Your new school. I think you’re going to love it, Ali.”
I hardly heard him. I was focused on the ball field that peeked out from behind the building. The fence was rusty, and the scraggly grass needed some serious maintenance, but it still called out to me. For the first time, the girls’ program had added fall sessions, and I had every intention of joining them.