She wore a jagged scar, stretching beneath her left eye to the right corner of her mouth. It wiggled across her face like a red worm – fat and crinkled. As big as it appeared, it paled in size to the wound she bore in her heart.
Despite her feelings, Franny bent at the waist and laced her cleats. Everyone said this is what she needed to do – playing would erase the pain – make her forget about the tragedy – give her a distraction for her thoughts. But Franny wasn’t so sure.
She straightened and stood. Franny knew that her teammates would keep their distance. That’s why they stood at the opposite end of the dugout, pretending not to glance with judgement. She grabbed her glove and meandered outside the dugout.
Coach Cross said in his gruff voice, “Better get warmed up.” But Franny had no throwing partner, no teammate to run beside for a warmup lap, nor a friend to share a story with for those pregame jitters. It was just Franny, standing alone with the sun highlighting her disfigurement.
“Let’s go, Franny,” a voice said with a kind hand upon her back, “I’ll be your partner.”
Franny stood motionless, stunned. She considered the offer a prank. Marissa, of all people, had every reason to avoid her.
Marissa looked over a shoulder with a smile and said, “What are you waiting for – let’s get this lap.”
Franny followed behind with her head drooped to the ground. Once the pair reached the outfield grass, Marissa slowed shoulder-to-shoulder with Franny. “Why are you here?”
Franny shrugged her shoulders and avoided Marissa’s eyes.
“Nobody wants you here. You understand that, right?”
Marissa couldn’t see the tears welling in Franny’s eyes. Had she seen them – she wouldn’t have cared.
Marissa bumped against Franny as they jogged, knocking Franny off stride. “You need to leave. This isn’t the place for you. You should be locked up somewhere."
Franny stopped running in dead-center, while Marissa finished the lap.
Coach Cross addressed Marissa as she circled back to the dugout. “What did you say to her?” Cross pointed toward Franny, who now knelt in the centerfield grass with her hands covering her face.
“Nothing. I swear. She was saying something about not wanting to be here and I told her we all wanted her on the team. That’s it.” Marissa brushed past Coach Cross and picked up a ball from the dugout.
As Coach Cross loped out to meet Franny, Marissa received high-fives from teammates.
Franny stood and wiped her tears as Coach Cross reached her.
“Hey, kid. What’s going on?” Cross asked.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“Did Marissa say something to you?”
“No, sir,” Franny lied.
Cross flattened his expression and folded his arms across his chest. “You can’t blame yourself. It’s time to put it behind you and move on, Franny. I’ve forgiven you, and you should forgive yourself.”
Franny suppressed a rising ball of emotion, leaving it stuck in her throat.
Cross glanced at his team and then back to Franny. “Listen, I’m going to start you tonight instead of Marissa at third base.”
The ball of emotion leapt from her throat and exploded in a frantic plea. “You can’t do that. Please don’t do that. You’ll only make things worse.”
Coach Cross reasoned, “You were our starter before the accident, so I see no reason why you don’t start now that you’re back.”
Franny shook her head, but Coach Cross ignored it by clapping his hands and instructing, “Now, go get warmed up for the game.”
A few minutes before the game started, Coach Cross posted the lineup in the dugout. It didn’t take long before the team began to grumble about it. Marissa burst into tears and darted from the dugout.
Marissa’s mother caught wind of the decision and stomped forward. She placed a pointed finger near the coach’s face.
“How dare you, Don. How could you!”
“Listen, Mary – ”
“Don’t you tell me what to do. Don’t even start,” Marissa’s mother shouted.
Coach Cross stepped back with tried to insert some calm with pleading hands and a soft tone.
“Franny’s part of this team again, and she’s the starter.”
“Have you forgotten about what she did? Are you just going to go on acting like she’s not the reason why Marissa cries herself to sleep every night?”
“Mary – ”
“No, Don. It’s not fair and you damn-well know it.” Mary shot Cross one last disgusted look and then marched away shaking her head.
After the game, Franny asked Coach Cross for a word. She stood before him drawing a circle in the dirt with her cleat. “Coach, tonight was a bad idea.”
“You played great, Franny. We probably don’t win without that play you made in the last inning.”
“I’m not talking about the game, coach. The girls hate me.”
“They’ll come around. Give it a week or so and you’ll see.”
“No, they won’t. And Marissa’s never going to forgive me.”
Coach Cross chewed on an idea and said, “When the time is right, I’ll talk to the team.”
Franny tried a smile, but it faded before it peaked. “Thanks, coach. But I think I’m done.”
Don Cross opened the front door but wasn’t met with a hug and kiss that usually followed a win. Instead, his wife, Mary, sat scowling with a drink in hand at the kitchen table.
“Where’s Marissa?” he asked.
“Bedroom,” she said dismissively.
“Want to talk about this?”
Mary downed her drink and nodded. “Yes, I do.”
Don took a seat at the table and poured a drink of his own.
Mary Cross ripped her husband, “Just letting that girl back on the team wasn’t enough for you, but you had to start her over your own daughter – after knowing what that girl has done to this family.”
“She’s just a kid, Mary. And she served her suspension for drinking.”
“She’s a murderer,” Mary shot back through a fury of tears.
“C’mon, Mary – you don’t mean that. And keeping Franny off the team won’t bring David back.”
“No, Don, it won’t, but at least I wouldn’t have to see her. Marissa wouldn’t have to be near her. And I would think you’d want to avoid the daily reminder of how she killed your son.”
Mary’s head collapsed into her hands and she sobbed.
“School policy doesn’t allow me to keep her off the team.” Then, Don raised his voice, “And you know good and well that she didn’t kill David.”
“Like hell,” Mary raged. “If it wasn’t for her, David would still be here.”
Don shot back, “Franny wasn’t the one driving. She didn’t make David drink. Those were his choices, Mary – she just happened to be with him.”
“No, it was her party, Don. Her birthday party. She got drunk and convinced David to drive her down that gravel road – God only knows why.”
“You’re assuming he needed convincing. You shouldn’t assume it was her idea.”
Mary stared across the table at her husband. “That girl was trouble from the start. You know as well as I do. We should have never allowed them to date.”
“We can’t control every aspect of our children’s lives.”
“Oh, you’ve proven that,” she scoffed. “Maybe if you’d have involved yourself a little more, David would still be here.”
Mary’s words stung, but Don knew she didn’t mean it. Instead, he took a deep breath and calmed his tone. “Let’s have some grace for Franny. Yeah, she was drinking – but so was David. And she wasn’t behind the wheel.”
Don pushed his drink away. “Franny has suffered enough. We all have – you, me, Marissa. It’s time for everyone to move on, and if we don’t we’re going to lose more than our son.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mary asked in a combative tone.
“It simply means that we’ve all been through hell. Letting hate spill into the giant holes we have in our hearts isn’t going to make us anything but bitter. We’ve got a daughter to think about. She’s got her whole life ahead of her. If we don’t set the example and show forgiveness, how can we expect Marissa to grow and be anything other than a heart-broken, spiteful adult? Is that what we want for her future?”
From a bedroom down the hall, Marissa heard it all.
At practice the next day, Franny, having laced her cleats and moved from the dugout with her glove, stood next to Coach Cross in the afternoon sun.
“Hey, Franny,” he said in his gruff voice. “Glad to see you here today – I wasn’t sure.”
“Coach,” Franny started and paused before continuing. “I’m quitting and wanted to tell you face to face.”
“I won't let you do that.”
“It’s my choice. This is too hard.”
“Hardest thing ever?” Cross asked and raised his brow.
“You know it’s not, but it’s all connected.”
“Point is, Franny, you’ve already been through the most difficult part. You’re here. You’ve already overcome physical injuries, and I believe you playing ball is going to continue to help you with your emotional pain. You need this team and truth be told, they need you.”
Franny nodded. “I get it. You’re trying to help, but.” Franny stopped midsentence as she felt a kind hand against her back. She turned to see Marissa, smiling.
“Hey, it's true. We need you, Franny,” Marissa said with sincerity. Coach Cross couldn’t hide his prideful smile.
“Like yesterday,” Franny said.
“No, Franny. I was wrong. I’ve been wrong about this. I’ve made you the target of my hurt and I’m wrong for that.” Marissa opened her arms, proposing a hug. “I’m sorry. Can we be friends again?”
Franny embraced Marissa as Don Cross watched with tears in his eyes. He motioned for the team to join.
Coach cross wiped away his tears and cleared his throat to address his team.
“Forgiveness is the linchpin to forward progress after enduring disappointment, loss, or tragedy. I want you all to remember that. It’s imperative for any good team or any strong relationship. Even though forgiving someone can be difficult, you can’t move on without it. And you know, it’s convenient and easy to blame someone from a distance, vilify them for perceived wrongs, or judge another’s actions through a biased lens, but walk a minute, an hour, a day in someone else’s shoes, and you can be humbled pretty quickly.”
Coach Cross peered at the young impressionable faces before him and said, “I want you to each take off your shoes and hand them to the person to your right.”
The team laughed at the idea but complied. Cross said, “Now put on the shoes.”
Cross smiled as he witnessed the struggle each showed trying to fit their feet into shoes that didn’t fit. He then said, “Take a lap.”
The group shook their heads and grumbled with laughter. He crossed his arms and watched as they lumbered around the field and returned.
“How was that?” he asked.
The responses all came at once, but the general theme expressed was one of discomfort and difficulty.
Cross said, “There’s an old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Could you have comfortably made it a mile?”
In unison, the team admitted they couldn’t.
Cross smiled and said, “So, next time you think about judging or blaming someone else, I want you to remember this exercise. Try to think like someone else. Feel what they feel. Understand their perspective. And most importantly, make empathy your first response.”