Author's Note: Oh my gosh! I'm on a roll, you guys! I actually wrote this all today. Not sure how, but I'm quite satisfied that I have a new chapter to show only a week after my last update! I do think my one chapter a year curse is broken.

Chapter 9

The next day came pretty early, especially since Benny and I had been out all night again, practicing and playing ball. I knew I'd be exhausted and I hated that feeling, but I could never say no to a night of sneaking out with Benny. So, sucking it up, I got dressed, grabbed my bat, and headed out to meet Ben. Before leaving the house though, I had received a call from Taylor. It was nice to hear from her – I hadn't seen her since school got out – and I agreed I would come see her after I was done at the sandlot.

The day seemed like it was going to be a nice one – the sun was out, and it was warm, but not too unbearably hot, like some of the days we got. The guys were already setting up. Ham was first up to bat, with Benny taking Ham's usual position. I had given Smalls my position again, out at left center, but it wasn't going to be for the whole game this time. After Ham was done, Smalls and I agreed we'd switch.

I was excited to get out there and play some ball. I wasn't used to not playing, and if I were being honest, I didn't like the feeling. I wouldn't tell Smalls that though – he needed to get as much practice as possible. If it meant us winning our game against Phillips, I would deal.

I watched from the sidelines as Ham began swinging his bat in practice, while building himself up for the pitch.

"Hamilton "The Babe" Porter," he bragged loudly, "Long Ball" Porter… Come on, DeNunez."

I don't think any of us could help it – we all began laughing. Ham comparing himself to The Babe? Please. None of us were that good. Kenny was practically falling all over himself with laughter.

Snorting, Benny joked from behind Ham, "Yeah, okay. Yeah, I see it."

Finally Kenny managed to pull himself together. Lowering his cap, he pulled back, and then released the ball. It was a fast one, too – Ham swung just a moment too late.

Standing up and looking towards the outfield, Benny shouted, "Whoa!"

Ham fell for the prank for a moment, searching for the ball that he didn't hit, before quickly catching on.

"You call that pitching?" Ham shouted, angrily smacking his bat into the ground. "This is baseball, not tennis! Give me something I can hit!"

"Alright, Ham," Kenny conceded, before coming back with, "This is my Heater – I dare you to hit it!"

While Kenny was winding up, Ham merely narrowed his eyes and mumbled, "You'll be sorry."

Squints taunted, "Give him a basketball, maybe he'd hit that!"

Kenny threw the ball – low, hard, and fast – and somehow Ham managed to smack it. There was a loud noise when the ball made impact with the bat, and then we all watched as the ball flew out towards Smalls. I watched in horror as Smalls chased the ball… And it flew right into Mr. Mertle's backyard. We weren't getting that ball back, that was for sure. Now I didn't get to play.

"Ah, man!" I couldn't help but shout, my face marred by a grimace. "Why'd you do that?"

Ignoring me completely, Ham shouted proudly before beginning to circle the bases, "Yeah! That's how you do it!"

"Ham, you idiot!" Benny shouted angrily, "Now we can't play no more!"

At that point, all the boys began throwing their gloves at Ham. He just laughed, blocked the incoming objects, and continued running. The air was filled with insults of, "Idiot!" When that wasn't good enough, the boys began chasing after him, and hitting his arms and back. None of it fazed Ham in the least. He was too proud of the home run he had hit.

"Ham," I greeted in a sickeningly sweet voice as he approached home. My tone could only insinuate that I wasn't bringing good news.

"What?" Ham asked hesitantly, pulling as far back from me as possible.

"You're buying the next ball," I said flatly, my fake smile falling. Ham's smile fell as well.

"I don't have 98 cents!" He shouted.

"Well then, find it!" I shouted back. We began glaring at each other. I was ruining his moment of glory, and he had ruined my day by ending the game before I could even play.

We were both pulled from our angry stares when Squints shouted out a long, "Nooo!"

Looking where Squints was, with sheer terror eyes, we all saw that Smalls was trying to climb the fence. No doubt he was trying to get the ball back, but he was basically feeding himself to the Beast. Shouts broke out across the boys, and before I knew it, we were all racing across the field towards Smalls.

Turning around at all the noise, Smalls shouted back to us unknowingly, "Hey guys, I'll get it!" Seeing the group of us running towards him though, his eyes seemed to widen in fear a bit, as he asked, "What are you doing?"

At that moment, we had reached him. Crowding around him, Benny and a few of the other boys began to drag him from the fence, amongst screams of, "You're gonna get yourself killed!" and "I gotta get the ball!" Setting Smalls down, we all seemed to exhale in relief. That had been far too close for comfort. What was Smalls thinking?

"Holy crap, you coulda been killed!" Squints cried, panting heavily.

"Yeah, yeah, truly. What're you doing?"

"Well, you guys were all leaving, so I just thought I'd hop the fenc-" Smalls said frantically, before being interrupted by Squints.

"If you were thinking, you wouldn't have thought that."

"You can't go back there, Smalls," Benny said, flatly.

"Then, how do we get the ball back?"

"We don't," Timmy answered.

"We don't."

"It's history."

"It's history."

"Kiss it goodbye."

"Kiss it-"

"Shut up, Tommy."

"It's gone, Smalls," I said simply, shrugging my shoulders.

"Games over, man. We'll just get another ball tomorrow-" I couldn't help but give Ham a dirty look, to which he stuck out his tongue at me –"We'll never see it again."

Smalls looked at us, a million questions passing through his little eyes. It had become obvious at this point that he had no idea what the Beast was. Not that we did either, but at least we knew about it. Smalls was clueless.

"Why not?" Smalls finally asked, somewhat quiet.

Exchanging looks amongst ourselves, we all answered in union, "The Beast."

"What's that?"

We exchanged looks again. Who was going to be the one to tell him? Biting his lip in worry, Benny finally stepped forward.

"Smalls, listen to me," he replied urgently, "Go to that fence, real slow, and be quiet."

Smalls eyes widened in fear. He tried to stutter out some excuse, but Benny wasn't having any of that. After much insisting, Smalls began to move towards the fence, extreme caution in each one of his steps. Sucking in my breath, I unconsciously took a step back. I still remembered my first encounter with the Beast… I shuddered every time I thought about it.

Peeking through the fence, Smalls stayed there for a few moments. We all heard the huge growl the Beast let out, and I couldn't help but jump back further. Smalls stumbled back as soon as it let out that awful noise.

"Something got the ball," he stuttered out in shock, "W-what was that thing?"

For what felt like the millionth time that day, we all looked at one another.

"Camp out!"

Walking home with Benny that day was fairly quiet. I guess I was busy thinking about how I was going to fit in a visit with Taylor and a sleepover in the tree house all into the same day. Feeling a nudge to my side, I looked at Benny, who gave me one of his perfect smiles.

"Feelin' okay?" He asked.

"Oh, yeah. Fine," I replied, dismissing his question with a wave of my hand.

"I'm sorry you didn't get to play today," Benny said, looking away.

"Hey, that's alright," I reassured him. I didn't want him to feel guilty or anything. "It was Ham's fault anyways."

Benny gave me another smile.

"Just make sure it doesn't happen again," I joked, nudging his side this time.

"Alright, alright," Benny said, chuckling a little. "So, do you wanna walk to the tree house together?"

"Um, actually, I was just thinking about that," I replied hesitantly, scratching the back of my neck. "I think I'm gonna be late," I admitted.

"What?" Benny complained, pretending to be insulted.

"Well, Taylor wants to hang out for a while. I'll be there, but probably not at 9 o' clock. So, leave without me, okay?"

"Psh," Benny joked, rolling his eyes, "Taylor is forgetting that you're mine."

"Oh, please! I can hang out with whoever I want!" I said indignantly.

"As long as I still get you most of the summer," Benny said, putting an arm around my neck, and pulling me into a hug. "I'd hate to lose my best friend and star catcher."

"You got a new star catcher, now!" I replied proudly into his chest, thinking of Smalls and how he was quickly getting better and better.

"Well, you were there first," Benny replied. "I am really starting to like Smalls though. He's a good guy."

Pulling back, so that I could give him a smile, I told Benny honestly, "Good! I'm really glad."

Benny gave me a matching smile. "So, I guess you gotta go now?"

"Yeah," I conceded reluctantly, even though I was excited to see Taylor. "I suppose I do."

"I'll see you later tonight then," Benny said, finally pulling away and beginning to walk up his driveway.

"Bye!"

"Hey, Andi!" Taylor called to me from her front door as I walked up.

"Hey, Taylor," I smiled and patted her back as she pulled me into a tight embrace. "How have you been?"

"I have been wonderful," Taylor replied, pulling back to smile at me. "You look really good, Andi. You're all tanned up and pretty!"

"Bull," I replied, rolling my eyes before laughing. "You're the pretty one, here."

It was true. I had just worn my grubbies over to her house – my hair was down, and a mess, my hands were dry and calloused, and I may have been tan, but my cheeks and shoulders were also a little pink from getting sunburned.

Taylor looked as light as a summer breeze, as I think the saying went. Her long, blonde curls were tired back in a low ponytail, and she was wearing a soft, yellow dress which stopped right at her dainty knees. Her neck was adorned with a string of pearls – she was quite the image. Once again, I was left wondering how in the world the two of us had ever become friends.

"So, come in," she said excitedly. "We have so much to talk about!"

After much questioning on how the "progress" with Benny was going – which there wasn't any – Taylor switched to asking me about the fair. Who I was going with, what I was going to wear, and a bunch of other things that I had no answers to. Moving to her closet, Taylor began looking for potential outfits she could put me in. I cringed the whole time, watching her pull out girly dress after girly dress. The guys would die of shock if they ever saw me in any of those.

"So, you're going to the tree house with the guys later?" Taylor asked me, while holding up a pretty floral dress, and examining it.

"Yeah, that's the plan. I think the guys just wanna scare Smalls," I answered nonchalantly from where I remained seated on her plush bed.

"Smalls?" Taylor asked, looking at me curiously.

"Right, I guess you haven't heard," I began. "He's the new kid – just moved to town like a month ago. Anyway, Benny's teaching him to play ball. You know what that means?"

"No," Taylor answered honestly, shrugging her petite shoulders.

"We have a full team! Or at least, we have nine guys now, which means we can go up against Phillips! You have no idea how long I've waited to see the look on his face when we cream him!" I told her, giddy with excitement.

She just rolled her eyes at me.

"Andi, Tyler's actually not half bad, if you take the time to get to know him. I mean, how much do you actually know about the guy, other than the fact that you don't like him and he doesn't like you?"

"Well," I stampered out, incredulous. "I know enough!"

"I hear Phillips dad is really harsh," she carried on somberly. "And like, really into baseball. I think he played it when he was young, and I hear he was good."

"So… What's this got to do with our game against Phillips?" I asked, still not convinced, although I was surprised by these new revelations.

"Andi, think about it," Taylor sighed, plopping down next to me on the bed. "Phillips is obsessed with winning. Why? Because of his dad. He doesn't want to let him down. Now how would it be if he had to tell his dad that he lost a game to a girl?"

Seeing my slight glare, she corrected herself, saying, "Not that girls can't play! It's just… Tyler thinks that, and I'm sure his dad does. Honestly, he's probably terrified of losing to you. Just… I don't know, try to see things from his perspective, Andi."

I sighed angrily. I didn't want to hear Tyler's story. I just wanted to hate him, plain and simple. Taylor was making it very hard to do that.

"What?" Taylor asked, chuckling a little.

"You're making me feel guilty," I replied honestly.

"Well, good," She said, before standing up again. "It's about time you started seeing things from both sides."

Spending time with Taylor had been a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, I loved spending time with her. On the other hand, I didn't need to know all that stuff about Tyler. Phillips, I thought to myself, shaking my head. I hadn't ever known any of that stuff about him, like his dad being tough on him, and all. I wondered where his mom was. Scratch that, I wondered if any of that was even true.

I decided it probably was. Taylor wouldn't have lied to me. That just made things more difficult though – how do you hate a person once you know their story? Deciding I wouldn't think about it anymore tonight, or anymore at all, I hiked my pillow and sleeping bag further up into my arms and continued my trek to the tree house.

Benny, Kenny, and I had built the tree house about a year after I met them. It was just a simple, little one room thing – the typical tree fort. As we met more and more of the guys though, we slowly added more on. Now, it was more of a fortress, with its few rooms, several lookouts, rope, and swing. It was really kind of amazing what a bunch of kids could do with some nails, a hammer, and some old, barn wood.

We usually had camp outs there a few times during the summer. Squints would tell scary stories while we all sat around, listening intently while eating the s'mores Ham had made us. It was fun, and a required part of the summer for us. Needless to say, I was looking forward to it.

As I approached the tree house in the dark – it was about 10 o' clock now – I could see a little dim light coming out of the windows of the main room. That was the one big enough to hold us all. Working my way up the set of stairs we had built, I paused when I heard Squints voice.

"Back to a place called Mertle's Acres… It all started, mm," I could hear Squints pause, "About twenty years ago, when thieves kept stealing junk from Mertle's Acres junkyard."

I knew right then that he was re-telling the story of how the Beast had come to be. Usually I loved scary stories. I would sit alert, reveling in every detail of gore, screams, and suspense that came with Squints stories. Not this one, though. The story of the Beast hit too close to home, especially since I was the one standing closest to the fence every day.

I didn't want to walk in and sit down, only to let the guys see how terrified I was. I also couldn't bring myself to leave though, so I sat down right there on the steps, and listened begrudgingly as Squints told the awful tale.

"He fed the dog whole sides of beef!" I heard Squints continue. I couldn't help but cringe. How could a puppy eat half a cow? I supposed it made sense, with this being the Beast we were talking about and all. I struggled to keep my hands away from my ears.

"And so, in a few weeks, the pup grew into the Beast, and he grew big, and he grew mean! So that he could protect the junkyard with only one thing on his mind: to kill everyone that broke in! And he did—And he liked it… A lot!"

At this point I was struggling to listen. I looked out at the sandlot, and considered going out there and finding a rock to toss around or something. The image of the Beast hanging out on the other side of the fence though psyched me out too much. There was no way I could move from this spot, so I just lowered my head, and rested it in my lap. Hopefully the story would be over soon.

"They never found a single body. Not one. Some people say they all got away. But we all know what really happened! The Beast ate them – he ate them bone and all."

My overactive imagination was now making me hear the awful crunching of bone. I closed my eyes tighter.

"My grandpa, Squidman Palledorous, was police chief back then. He ordered Mr. Mertle to turn his backyard into a fortress and chain up the Beast and put him under the house. That way he couldn't get out to eat children and stuff. That's where he's been for over twenty years, and that's where he'll be for the rest of his life. Because Mr. Mertle asked the cops how long he had to keep the Beast chained up like a slave, they said until forever. Forever. Forever. Forever."

I finally managed to lift my head, as Squints began to repeat himself, thanking goodness that the worst was over. I decided to wait just a few more minutes before I actually went up. I wanted the cold sweat that had broken out across my forehead to dry. I didn't need the boys calling me a wuss, even though they were all just as scared as me.

Of course, maybe I was more scared. I mean, I was the one who practically stood next to it every day. The first time I encountered the Beast, our ball had gone flying and landing right along the fence line. I had run over to grab it, but was stopped by all the growling. Nothing the guys said could have convinced me to go and get that ball. Benny finally had to swoop in and grab it for me.

I heard Smalls voice then. He sounded a little peeved actually, which was something I hadn't yet seen from him. I supposed I would listen in again.

"You guys are just making this up to scare me!" I heard Smalls accuse.

"Oh yeah?" Squints fired back, probably insulted that he was being questioned. "Stick your head out that window and look down."

Hearing Smalls scream a moment later, I couldn't help but jump and race further up the steps. Breathing heavily, I stood there for a moment, trying to calm down. I was freaking myself out too much, but I certainly didn't want to remain outside anymore. Slowly, I managed to work my way to the door.

"Hey guys," I heard my quiet voice say shakily.

Immediately, everyone in the room jumped.

"Andi!" Kenny said as quietly as possible. "You scared me half to death!"

"Sorry, sorry!" I said, clutching my own heart.

"Yeah, yeah, you came at the worst time!" Yeah-Yeah cried, indignantly.

"Sorry, sorry. I-" I paused for a moment, thinking of what I should say. I didn't want to tell them that I was sitting outside the whole time, having a mental freak out.

"Come sit down, Andi," Benny said from the corner, finally exhaling in the process. He patted the ground next to him.

Working my way through the crowd of boys was not an easy task, but I finally got to the slim bit of empty space next to Benny. I rolled out my sleeping bag – it overlapped Benny and Small's in the process – and fluffed my pillow, before sitting down.

"Wanna s'more, Andi?" Ham asked, sticking one towards me.

"Sure," I whispered back, taking it from him. "Thanks."

He gave me a nod, and then went back to eating his own. I never turned down a s'more, but now that it was in my hand, I realized how not hungry I felt. I decided I just needed to let my stomach settle, and then it would be alright to eat.

"You look kind of green," Smalls said, observing my face with slight concern. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah, I'll be okay, Smalls," I replied quickly. "It, uh… Was just a long run from my friend's house."

"How'd that go, by the way?" Benny asked, jumping in.

"Good," I replied simply, nodding my head. The room had broken out in conversation, the atmosphere finally relaxing. I was relieved. I didn't like that tense feeling in the pit of my stomach. Feeling myself start to relax, I finally took a bite out of the s'more. Realizing then that I actually was hungry, I ate the whole thing quickly, before asking for another, and another, and another.

"Andi," Benny said, shaking his head, "You're eating all the s'mores. Let Smalls have some more – it's his first time trying them."

"What?" I asked in complete disbelief, turning to face Scott.

"Uh, yeah," he said, giving me a nervous smile.

"How have you never had these before? The Babe is one thing, but s'mores?"

"I know about The Babe," Scott said quickly, before continuing. "I guess I don't really get invited to a lot of camp outs."

"Well, we can't allow this. Have another," I said, handing him the one in my hands.

He took it hesitantly, before saying, "Thank you."

I gave him a quick smile, before beginning to wipe my sticky fingers on my little, blue jacket. It was a light, summer jacket, and I was only wearing a yellow tank underneath, so I cuddled into my sleeping bag. I listened intently as the guys talked about girls, cars, and most of all, baseball. It was nice.

Slowly, one by one, they all began crawling into their sleeping bags, and falling asleep. I was dosing off a bit myself, but I wanted to stay up a bit longer, so I forced my eyes to stay open. Finally, everyone was asleep. Seeing that Squints had left his flashlight on, I reluctantly got out of my warm sleeping bag, and tiptoed over to it.

Not trusting that I wouldn't step on everyone's toes on the way back, I brought the light back with me. Making sure I was all set up, I finally switched the flashlight off, and the room was engulfed in darkness. At least until my eyes adjusted to the dim moonlight, that is.

"Hey," I heard the quiet voice beside me whisper.

Rolling over, I looked to where Benny's face should have been. I could just make out the details of his handsome face.

"Hey," I whispered back. "What's up?"

"I dunno, I guess I just saw that you were still awake."

I snorted, before I could stop myself. Looking around, I didn't notice that any of the guys had stirred, so I turned back to Ben.

"You're always the last to go to sleep."

I could see him grin hugely. "Always."

As my eyes adjusted more and more to the darkness, I could see his face clearer and clearer. Not caring, I let my eyes graze over his face, taking in the details as the light revealed them. He wasn't wearing a hat, so I could clearly make out his dark, tousled hair. It was certainly more messy than usual. His face was fairly angular, but still held a bit of that childish softness. I worked my eyes to his, which were catching a bit of the light coming from outside, making them glimmer more green than orange. I guess that was kind of the cool thing about hazel eyes – they went from color to color. None-the-less, they looked lovely right then. Like a pool of dark green grass, with little stars caught in it, and hints of orange.

I internally smacked myself. Since when was I a poet?

"Hey, this is kinda a stupid thought," Benny finally said, quietly chuckling under his breath, "But do you remember when you dared me to kiss you?"

My stomach immediately went back to that tight, pinched feeling, as if it were twisting into little knots. I had no idea where Benny was going with this, and that scared me. I hated not knowing. After a moment, I decided to play it off coolly – if I acted nonchalant about it, he'd never suspect a thing.

I laughed quietly. "Yeah, I remember. We were like… nine years old, right?"

"I thought we were ten," Benny said, thinking.

"No, it was definitely nine," I said, without thinking. I bit my lip, cringing at what I had just let escape my mouth. So much for playing it cool, but this was something I would most certainly remember.

"Well, anyway," Benny said, waving a hand. "You ran away when I tried."

I let out a genuine giggle that time. I got so nervous, I couldn't help it. As soon as I saw his full lips coming my way, I had turned on my heel, and ran for home as fast as I could.

Benny laughed, too. "I was honestly going to kiss you," he admitted, still quiet.

"No way!" I said back, quickly, trying to keep my voice down. "You told me you were just joking!"

"Yeah, I only said that 'cause my ego was hurt. I couldn't believe you actually ran – I figured later that I smelled or something," he continued, smiling.

"You smelled fine to me," I admitted. "Good, actually. Honestly, I just got nervous. That's why I ran."

"That's okay," Benny said, shrugging before changing the subject. "Like I said, funny thing to bring up."

"Eh, I didn't mind. You refreshed my memory," I replied, smiling.

"Good," Benny whispered, grinning at me in the dark. He began to sink down into his sleeping bag, and I did the same. I was exhausted – mentally and physically. It might make it easier to fall asleep though, amongst all the guys snoring. I scooted closer to Benny – his body always radiated lots of heat. Guys were always warm; that was something I had learned from being surrounded by them all day long.

"'Night, Andi," I heard Benny say beside me, before breaking out into a yawn.

"'Night, Ben," I answered quietly, before closing my eyes and drifting off into darkness.