Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Free Featured Fiction: "Hack: The First Inning," #1-2, by D.J. Gelner

No new submissions, so we start the next odyssey: the first third of my novel, Hack: The Complete Game. Like with Twilight of the Gods, I'll start with the first two subchapters to get you into the story a bit, then go subchapter to subchapter after that.

I think folks will enjoy it, even if you aren't really a baseball fan, but there's one disclaimer:


There's quite a bit of adult language and themes in this one, so if that offends you, click away now.

If you're still around, great! I hope you'll enjoy it.

-D.J.






Your love for the game made these books possible.

Hack: Innings 1-3
First Inning
D.J. Gelner

1
 
“So, what’s the bad news, doc?” The old man sat in a “damned-fool” hospital gown at the foot of the exam table. Any sharpness to his voice had long since been eroded by a constant stream of whiskey and millions of puffs on cheap cigars.

The doctor cleared his throat, “You’re sick, Mr. O’Callahan.”

“Christ, that’s a relief. ‘Cause if I was shittin’ and coughin’ up blood and I was healthy as a horse, I guess I’d just be a fuckin’ weirdo, wouldn’t I? How much did you pay for your medical degree, son? What’re ya, fifteen, sixteen years old like that kid doctor on TV?” O’Callahan punctuated his outburst with a coughing fit.

The doctor casually pulled two or three tissues from the box on the counter and threw them at the old man, “Very sick, actually. You have an advanced hepatocellular carcinoma—”

“Hepta-deca-whatnow?” O’Callahan asked.

“—Liver cancer. It’s already starting to spread to other parts of your body, including a small tumor in your stomach, hence the rather disturbing symptoms you’re experiencing.”

O’Callahan’s coughing finally subsided. He pulled the tissues away from his mouth only to find a dark, red spot the size of a half-dollar. He didn’t even need to look; he’d been hit in the face hundreds of times by errant balls thrown or hit by his players, and probably a half dozen more by players who had aimed for his mug. He was familiar with the metallic taste of his own blood as it pooled in his mouth and coated his tongue.

But Roger “Hack” O’Callahan also knew that something was off. This time there was an underlying sweetness to the blood, kind of a mixture of oranges and acetone, that stuck with him in the back of his throat even as he struggled to choke the blood back down.

“Cancer? Well…shit.” Hack stared the young physician down for a moment, and not finding the sympathy he so craved, looked downward.

“Not just cancer, Mr. O’Callahan, but stage three liver cancer. It’s one of the deadliest strains we know of, actually. Very rare. I’d recommend starting chemo—”

“How long?” Hack didn’t bother looking up.

“Well, if you start chemotherapy tomorrow, as I was about to suggest, then maybe a year-and-a-half, maybe two years.”

Hack shook his head, “I ain’t gonna be some sad sack’a bones hooked up to a bag, waitin’ for all my hair to fall out.” The doctor raised an eyebrow, apparently not getting the joke even as Hack stroked his shiny head. “Without the chemo?”

The doctor’s eyes were framed by his thick glasses and level, “Six months. Maybe a year.”

Hack stroked his chin, “It’s temptin’ to make my detractors wait another few months ta’ piss on my grave…” he paused for a laugh that the doctor never gave, “…but I’ll pass on the chemo, Doc. Bet they wouldn’t even let me sneak in any Ol’ Reliable, would they?”

“Old Reliable?” The doctor’s face scrunched up into a grimace.

“You know? Ol’ Reli-ble?” He slurred the words enough that the doctor understood, “That cheap-ass paint thinner they try to pass off as whiskey. Kinda’ an acquired taste.”

Mister O’Callahan, if you’re suggesting that you can continue drinking with this cancer, as your physician I have to say that you simply—”

Hack extended a hand and patted the doctor on the head, “As my physician, son, all you have to do is shut yer’ fuckin’ trap—” he moved his hand to the doctor’s face and gave him a couple of quick, semi-lighthearted raps on the cheek, “—and stay the fuck outta’ my goddamned business. Okay?”

The color drained from the doctor’s face as he took two steps back, hovered for a moment, and recovered from the two (Hack thought) innocuous slaps, that may as well have been haymakers.

“You don’t want to listen to me? Fine!” The doctor thundered. His face reddened both with pain and anger. “Go ahead and die, you miserable old fart. Dr. Patel told me about you, and what a miserable, awful person you were.”

“Really? I didn’t think he could hear me through that turbin’a his.”

The doctor scribbled a couple of notes in his file, then drew several vertical loops like he was trying to bore his way through the sheet. He then handed Hack a piece of paper with a prescription.

“What the hell is this?” Hack asked.

“A prescription for vicodin, for pain as it may arise. Do not take it with alcohol.”

Yeah, right, Hack thought.

 “As much as I may find you personally distasteful, I still took an oath that I would do no harm to others,” Hack could tell the doctor was ready to explode, but the physician did well to contain his anger with a deep breath, “and so I shall try to respect your wishes and make you as comfortable as possible as you wait for your,” he exhaled, “inevitable death.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Hack held out his right hand for the doctor to shake, and looked up to see the doctor’s wide eyes. He looked down again and saw that his hand still clutched the bloody tissues from before.

“Shit, sorry,” Hack placed the tissues on the counter a moment before his throat spasmed, and another coughing fit sprayed the air with blood. He grabbed the tissues and brought them to his mouth until the hacking subsided.

“Aw, god damn it!” Hack said, legitimately angry. Specks of blood dotted the doctor’s white lab coat as the color of the physician’s face struggled to match the dark red fluid now on his person. “Let me get that fer’ ya…” Hack brought the bloody tissue to his tongue and moistened it before he rubbed the soiled kleenex on the blood spots on the doctor’s garment.

“Mister O’Callahan, please—”

“I know—I’ll get it out. Got any club soda? I think there’s a soda machine down the hall somewhere—”

Mister O’Callahan!” The doctor thundered. The elderly man in front of him didn’t recoil as expected, but instead met his angry eyes with his own steely gaze.

“Listen, son,” Hack’s tone was even and level as he placed the hand containing the bloody tissue on the doctor’s left shoulder, “I’ve been called every name in the book ‘cept Chi-nese, and a few more that I reckon are just plain made up. Most of the time, it’s some arrogant little shit, like yourself, come to think of it, who thinks he’s got it all figured out. They come in and they tell you to fuck off, that they don’t need to listen to some old timer bendin’ their ears about throwin’ a curveball, or where to position themselves with two on and nobody out in a close game.

“Every one of ‘em who challenges me, who thinks that I don’t know best—every one of ‘em to a man,” Hack exploded to within an inch of the doctor’s face, almost as if arguing with an umpire back in his heyday, “who doesn’t come around is sellin’ insurance or askin’ how some asshole wants his Jag waxed. And you know why?” He leaned in toward the doctor, who had finally lost his composure and was trembling uncontrollably.

“Because…I do know best!” he practically spat the words at the doctor, and added uppity little shit in his mind for good measure before he took a step back, stared the doctor down for a moment, and walked toward the door.

“Don’t worry, Mr. O’Callahan,” the doctor forced a smile.

Looks like someone suddenly developed a bedside manner, Hack thought.

“I’ll get a new coat in the morning.”

“Great seein’ ya, doc,” Hack didn’t so much as glance at the doctor as he put on his overcoat and hat and walked out of the room.

“But…Mr. O’Callahan! Your clothes?!” The doctor yelled after him.

“Fuck it,” Hack yelled back as he shuffled his bare feet down the hallway, with only the flimsy acrylic gown and tweed overcoat to cover him. 

2

  “Hey, ‘evenin’ Mr. O’C!” the large black man who guarded the press entrance to Jacobs Field beamed with recognition. They had changed the name of the stadium because some insurance company had cut a big check to the Indians a few years back, but to Hack, it’d always be the good old Jake. 

“‘Evenin’ Jerry,” Hack said gruffly, with a hint of a smile.

“How you think we’re gonna do tonight?”

“Whattaya mean? Stevenson is pitching,” Hack waddled into the waiting elevator and turned around just as the doors were about to close, “We’re fucked.”

“Have a goo—” Jerry’s warm voice was cut off as the doors thudded shut. Hack hit the button marked “3,” and the elevator stirred to life. He always relished these last few moments on the elevator before the doors opened to reveal the hoofing obnoxiousness of the “Press Animals,” as Hack often referred to them. The subtle hum of the elevator still always brought a smile to the old man’s face; given everything he’d been through, such grins were becoming increasingly rare.

The elevator jolted to a stop and the doors opened on the press box, already a hive of click-clacking drones who hammered away on their keyboards, even five minutes before game time. It wasn’t nearly as busy as ten years ago, or even five, but there was still a healthy buzz around the room, which was just now beginning to show its age. A hint of stale pretzels and nacho cheese mixed with the remnants of the bleach-based antiseptic the Indians used to make the press box smell like the unhealthiest hospital one might ever come across.

Hack turned left out of the elevator and nodded at the various media-types; he was never overly-friendly with any of them, even (or perhaps especially) the ones who were close to his age, and who had thus battled words with Hack in the press room underneath old Municipal Stadium.

He stopped at the buffet and grabbed four or five packs of roasted, in-the-shell peanuts. Much to the consternation of the custodial crew, Hack had a bad habit of chewing the peanuts whole, shell and all, and spitting out the shells onto the floor, like he was Joe Fan in the stands. Unfortunately, the cleaning crew couldn’t just hose the press box down like it was the bleachers, and thus were left to clean up Hack’s mess through plenty of vacuuming and gallons of carpet spray.

Not that Hack cared. To him, baseball wasn’t baseball without the salt-caked lips and intoxicating, slightly toasted aroma that the peanuts provided. It was especially true now that he couldn’t really fully eliminate that sickly sweet, nail-polish remover taste out of the back of his throat.

He finally reached his seat on the far left side of the press box, next to the broadcast booth, which was partitioned off only by a layer of plexiglass. He’d never admit as much, but even the short walk from the elevator to the uncomfortable, threadbare fabric-over-plastic chair had winded him, though he had downed a whole bottle of Robitussin to drown any more of the bloody coughing fits before he headed to the stadium.

It was an arrangement that was probably best for both Hack and the Indians; Hack lived in Cleveland and loved watching baseball. Though the team couldn’t very well deny access to the stadium of someone of Hack’s stature, corralling him in the press box kept him away from the clubhouse, where but five years ago he nearly came to blows with a member of the coaching staff over the “dogshit hitting fundamentals” the coach preached.

 Hack settled in, put on his reading glasses, and pulled out his scorecard and a chewed-up pencil as the Indians took the field. Soon enough, he had settled into his routine; he marked every pitch, every foul ball and ball put in play, through the first four innings.

By the fourth inning, though, it looked as if Hack was going to be proven correct once more. John Stevenson, the highly-touted Indians’ starter, had given up six runs on eight doubles, and was laboring his way to another disappointing loss.

Arm like a cannon, head like a can of pea soup, Hack thought.

As if to punctuate Hack’s thoughts, Stevenson fielded a ground ball down the first base line and launched the throw into the first base stands, well away from the first baseman, who threw his glove down in frustration.

Hack snorted and shook his head; it was almost too easy now. Even as the rest of him, his hearing, his vision, some would probably include his sanity (though many would question if he ever possessed the last) left, the thousands of baseball games he had managed through the years gave him a sense of the rhythm of the sport that beat surely as his heart inside of him.

That was the beauty of the game; even though the pace and tempo were more a part of him than the blood that coursed through his veins, and the result of whatever game he watched usually confirmed that expertise, there was always a chance for something out of the ordinary, an errant throw, a botched ground ball, a hung curve that could disrupt that even flow, throw the game into chaos, and make his brain pop with the delight of something new, something different.

He didn’t particularly care who won the game; though he lived in Cleveland, the Indians had fired him over twenty-five years ago, and he still held a grudge against their opponents, the Baltimore Orioles, because their previous owner, Alfred Yossain, was “a cheap-ass, God-damned, camel-fucking Persian” in Hack’s mind, in no small part because the two had a disagreement over a backup middle infielder that Hack had wanted to sign, and Yossain thought the Orioles could do without.

When Yossain held fast and the Orioles won the AL pennant that year, Hack attributed the team’s success to his own remarkable managerial skills and was pleased he was able to win “in spite of” the generally calm, level-headed Orioles owner.

“And here’s the pitch…SA-WIIIING and a miss…STRIKE THREE!” The Indians’ middle-aged radio play-by-play man, Johnny “Country” Engle, boomed through the plexiglass.

Hack rapped on the thin sheet of plastic several times with a disapproving grimace. When Engle turned to give him a mock thumbs up, Hack cupped his hands over his mouth against the plexiglass.

“Shut the fuck up!” he yelled through the plexiglass, “I’m tryin’ to enjoy a ballgame heeya’!”

“There’s our good friend, Hack O’Callahan,” Engle said, sweet as pecan pie, into the microphone, “Hack, of course, is a venerable Cleveland institution. He has the four World Series titles managing four different teams, though none of those came during his short stint with the Indians in the eighties. He managed for a grand total of nine different Major League squads during his career. Maybe most importantly, he served his country in Korea allllll those years ago. And now he’s enjoying his retirement at all of eighty-four years young, isn’t that right, Hack?” Engle made the “jerk off” hand motion, which caused Hack to slam an outstretched middle finger up against the glass. “He doesn’t act a day over eighteen, folks,” Engle shook his head before he turned his attention back to the game.

“Okay, okay, settle down, Mr. O’Callahan,” Josh Stein, the Indians’ Director of Media Relations, rushed over to calm both parties.

“Can’t you tell this prick to keep it down over here?” Hack’s left hand waved dismissively at the radio booth several times.

Stein shook his head, which caused his loose-fitting glasses shake from side-to-side on his pale, narrow face, “Now, Mr. O’Callahan, you know that Johnny has a job to do, same as you used to.”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t a fuckin’ idiot about doin’ mine.” Hack shot back. Engle looked over again while calling the action, and Hack “pulled” on a non-existent noose over his head to pretend as if he was hanging himself, before he pointed to Engle to complete the insult.

Without even pausing, Engle made the “throat-slit” gesture, and pointed back at Hack.

“Are you two children through?” Stein asked.

“Can’t ya’ move me somewhere else, Josh?” Hack asked.

Stein shook his head, “Consider it a spot of honor; closest to home plate, right next to the legendary Country Engle,” This inspired a fresh disgust in Hack. “If I have to keep coming over here and breaking up these fights, we’re going to have to restrict you to somewhere else in the stadium.”

“Oh yeah?” Hack puffed out his chest and sat up in his chair, “Like where? You won’t let me in the clubhouse anymore.”

“How about with the grounds crew?”

Hack cocked his head and balled his fists. Though Stein’s lip trembled a bit, he offered a curt smile and stood his ground.

“You know what?” Hack asked. “Fuck it. I know when I’m not wanted somewhere.”

“Now, now, Mr. O’Callahan, nothing could be further from the—” Stein’s delivery was somewhat less than half-hearted.

“No, no, no—fuck you, Stein. I’m goin’. You’re not gonna have to worry about old Hack anymore.”

“Oh…no…Mr. O’Callahan…” Stein could barely hide his grin.

“Fuck you AND your little chickenshit team. AL Central my ass—it should be either the west or the east. How’re they gonna fuck this sport up next?” Hack shook his head for a moment before he turned to Stein, who raised his eyebrows at the man.

“Go fuck yourself, Stein.”

This time, Stein beamed, “See you later, Mr. O’Callahan.”

Hack stormed into the elevator and down to the parking lot, stopping only briefly to flip the bird at Jerry after the guard told him to “Have a good night” a little too cheerfully. He managed to carom his teal ’67 Chevy the couple of miles home, mostly on his side of the road.

He pulled in front of his aging row house. Thankfully there was plenty of parking space available, as Hack barged onto the curb and left the car there.

Hack took a swig off the whiskey bottle he kept stashed under his seat and teetered out of the car and up the five or six steps to his front door. He jiggled the lock several times until the door gave.

The retired manager stumbled through the hallway that served as a museum to his numerous on-field accomplishments (despite the lack of any family pictures among the framed keepsakes). He made an abrupt right turn into the living room, and launched himself into his worn, green paisley chair that smelled of soaked-in gin and cigar smoke. The odor hung over the entire room like a thin fog, baked over the layer of mothball-and-joint cream “old person smell” which, of course, served as the base aroma of the dwelling.

The living room itself was befitting an elderly shut-in. Several bookcases lined the walls, filled with volumes and binders of all manner, though there was a decided bias toward both Korean War and baseball history, and a thorough lack of fiction.

In the corner opposite the chair sat a television, constantly on and permanently tuned to ESPN. The remote had been long lost, and Hack’s sole interest in his off-hours was baseball, to the point that he suffered that “damn fool football” for half the year to get his scores and updates during the summer.

He grasped at any one of the three or four bottles that littered the floor on the right side of the chair, and eventually latched onto a mostly-empty container of Old Reliable. Hack greedily unscrewed the top, choked the harsh liquor down, and immediately began to cough again, this time a deep whooping with a force and vigor that nearly toppled him out of the chair.

Hack brought his flannel sleeve up to soak up whatever phlegmy mixture expectorated out of his mouth. During a lull in the fit, he slugged off the Old Reliable once more and drained it. This time, the belt had its intended effect, and calmed down the awful hacking tirade.

“Grandpa’s ol’ cough medicine, all right…” Hack muttered as he studied the empty bottle.

Unfortunately, at that moment, the talking heads on Baseball Tonight analyzed the Indians game.

“Another rough outing for John Stevenson tonight, guys,” the host said.

“Yeah, you’re right Karl, but you know what, this kid has all of the tools to get major league hitters out. You talk about a fastball—”

Unfortunately, the analyst didn’t have a chance to make his case, at least in Hack’s living room. Upon hearing Stevenson’s name, Hack wound up with the whiskey bottle and hurled it toward the TV. He had only meant to shatter the bottle against the wall next to the TV, but as soon as it left his hand, he knew that it was a mistake, and that it was going to be a perfect strike, right down the middle.

The ancient cathode ray tube shattered in a glorious explosion of grey glass and sparks. A tiny column of smoke billowed from the cavity that had just been carved in the middle of the screen as the box teetered on the edge of the stand for several moments before it fell with a heavy “thud.”

Hack didn’t even flinch. He steeled himself for a full minute before the full gravity of what he had done washed over him. His eyes widened before he began to grind his teeth, always a tell for when he was legitimately angry with himself.

A large piece of the screen had come to rest at Hack’s feet. He bent over, picked it up, and stared into it.

“Well that’s great. Just god damned wonderful!” he chided himself. “What’re ya’ gonna’ do now, ya’ old, dumb bastard?”

Hack looked deeply into his reflection. He didn’t mind the well-earned wrinkles, each one a reminder of the battles and blow ups of so many years ago when he still managed.

Nor did he particularly resent the slightly crooked nose or the scars that littered his face, which served as evidence of a life well-lived.

What he hated, though, were his eyes, sunken, complacent, and weak. They were the eyes of an old man, a creature at the end of the road, one struggling to survive another day, waiting for the inevitable.

And now, one without even a TV, or a welcome place in the Indians’ press box to sate his hunger for, or rather addiction to, baseball. The game was the only thing that had brought Hack any joy, that had given him purpose to continue being such a miserable S.O.B., day in, and day out.

“What the fuck are you gonna do?” He looked past his reflection in the glass to a plaque in the hallway shrine behind him. Two players from the sixties joked around with each other while their shorter, sterner manager looked on disapprovingly.

And just like that, Hack had an idea…###

  
What kind of a scheme is Hack cooking up? Tune in to "Free Featured Fiction" again next week to see what's in store for our somewhat off hero.

Can't wait? You can get Hack: Innings 1-3 for free on Scribd (as a PDF), Kobo, iBooks, and Smashwords. It's $0.99 on Amazon and Nook due to their Byzantine price match policies.

     And if you want to check out the entire series,
Hack: The Complete Game is available for $3.99 in Kindle/Paperback, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and Smashwords editions.
 

Thanks for reading, and Happy Hunting!D.J. Gelner is the Co-Founder and CEO of Hunt to Read. Check out his books on his Hunt to Read Profile. Contact him directly at djgelner@hunttoread.com. 

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