THE LEGEND OF GARY PAUL BUNYAN
by LAURENCE BLACK
ary Paul didn’t like to think of himself as a murderer. He had never met them, didn’t know them. They were a means to an end, a necessity. After he prayed, he saw visions of them, how they looked before they died, but to Gary, they were nothing more than images in his head, no more real than the girls he looked at online.
Baal said they were real, but that didn’t mean they were. It’s said the devil is a masterful liar (although Gary thought of him more as an angel), but he didn’t care as long as Baal answered his prayers.
He rubbed the ache just below his knee. His fingers traced the scar, hidden by navy-blue socks. His pants were hiked knee-high like all the greats from yesteryear. No one said anything about the way he wore his uniform, not anymore. He was a legend and legends made the rules.
He stood on the dugout steps in plain view of the cameras and looked out over the field. The monstrous screen flashed above the center field wall; the outfielder’s shadows danced like puppets. Like some digitized god, his picture leered over the stadium and the fifty-thousand fans that filled it. He read every statistic that flashed in brilliant gold numbers and letters next to his name, each filling him with a hollow sense of pride.
After tonight, he, Gary Paul Bunyan (as he was known so affectionately to his fans), would go down as the best goddamned ball player to ever play the game. Everything was setting up perfectly. If his teammates didn’t screw it up first, he’d have a chance to cement himself in baseball lore.
World Series, game seven, bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases full of Braves: the stuff of childhood dreams.
Goosebumps prickled his skin. He imagined stepping into the box while the crowd’s roar enveloped him. Paul Bunyan! Paul Bunyan! Paul Bunyan!
Mickey Mantle. Babe Ruth. Hank Aaron. Gary Paul.
Billy Martino drew a six pitch walk and sent Dale Carter to second. Squiggy McGuire lumbered to the plate, his shoulders slumped. Gary grabbed his bat and bounded from the dugout. He stepped into the on-deck circle sending the crowd into a frenzy. Squiggy glanced at him; Gary caught his stare and held it in a violent embrace.
You better not screw this up, kid. Don’t. You. Dare.
Squiggy shuddered and looked away, the color washed from his face.
The bat felt good in Gary’s hands. Right. He rubbed some tar on the handle, dropped a doughnut down the barrel and swung half-heartedly.
Gary Paul Bunyan, the National League MVP and Home Run King, didn’t need practice. But if never seen practicing, it might seem a little queer, given his considerable talent and record-breaking statistics, in the same funny type of way Billy Martino claimed to have a girlfriend but had never been seen with one… ever. Gary’s practice efforts were half-assed. Sure, he’d smile real large and pose, knowing his image would be paraded through the evening’s SportsCenter. So on occasion, Gary would let them see him take a few cuts and shag a few balls and stretch his hammies a couple hours before the game. Media Relations, he liked to call it.
But when it came down to it, Gary Paul Bunyan had something better than practice.
Squiggy stepped in the box and dug in his cleats, shifting his weight to his hind leg as he waved the bat hesitantly over the plate. The catcher crouched behind him, his glove poised at his chest, his throwing hand buried in his crotch. Squiggy looked down the third base line as the coach flashed his signs.
The wind howled and the late-October cold gnawed at Gary’s exposed skin. He paid it no mind. He had more pertinent issues at hand.
“Full count!” the Umpire boomed. Gary relaxed a bit knowing Squiggy would draw a walk, knowing he’d have his dance with destiny.
He scanned the crowd and was delighted to see many of the fans paying him more attention than the game. He winked at a blond who giggled and blushed and waved back. A Hispanic man sat next to her; he resembled the last sacrifice. Gary saw him again, flooding his mind with the guilty memory, just as he had the first and only time: barely visible, like a face behind a veil or the silhouette of a submerged body in a muddy pond. He had never met the man and would’ve never known of his existence if Baal had never sent the vision. That particular prayer resulted in Gary’s requested seventh-inning bomb clinching Atlanta’s World Series birth. It also had resulted in the Spic’s death. It was for a great cause, he reasoned, letting the guilt fall away like a dead autumn leaf. To Gary, their sacrifice ranked up there with the death of Jesus or the soldiers who threw themselves into a sea of bullets on the beach of Normandy.
“Ball four!” the Umpire cried, pulling Gary back to the present. The wind beat against him as he strode forward. He pushed his broad chest outward, walking like a man should. He imagined himself as some gallant knight, his sword Excalibur, his uniform plated mail. The fans roared as if, they too, saw him this way. He grinned for the flashbulbs, mindful of his freshly bleached teeth. Maybe, after the game, he’d request a baseball card be made with photo-shopped twinkling teeth.
Squiggy belted down the line like a scalded dog; dust kicked from his heels into the wind. He snatched a glance at Gary. His smile seemed more relieved than proud.
The moment was his and his alone and he devoured it like a beast. There were no nerves. The outcome was predetermined; there was no fear. So what if it meant the death of some insignificant nobody? At least whoever was chosen would be contributing to greatness rather than living a pointless life. Gary was giving them a gift, a chance to touch excellence.
The true showman, Gary strode to the plate, swishing the bat in front of him as if it were a great sword rather than a piece of wood. He paused, waved to the crowd and then tipped the cap of his helmet. The roar was deafening. Gary bowed elaborately at the plate. The catcher mumbled something that sounded like ‘asshole,’ but Gary didn’t care. The way he saw it, Paul Bunyan, the greatest slugger to ever live, had earned the right to be an asshole.
The scoreboard flashed. The people were frantic. The night was brisk and cold. The moon was bold and robust, shining like a sliver of silver perched just above the scoreboard that showed Gary’s face, like God had made the moon a spotlight, just for this moment, just for Gary.
He stepped into the box and kicked dirt in the direction of the catcher. Asshole. He squeezed the handle of the bat, turning his knuckles white. He spat a long stream of tobacco juice onto the plate, wrinkled his nose and glowered at the pitcher.
The pitcher, Bill Simmons (an All Star himself), would not meet Gary’s stare. Simmons was still and calculated, his face cloaked in the hat’s shadow; his only movement was his eyes as they darted from third to second to first, trying to hold the runners close. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the pitcher took a great breath, tugged at the bill of his cap, pulled it further down his brow, and wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of his hand. He leaned in, his arm dangling like a wet noodle. Still, he wouldn’t meet Gary’s gaze.
With the pitcher spooked like an abused dog, Gary closed his eyes and prayed.
The world washed away as Gary left the stadium; the crowd’s constant thunder trailed away like a squawking storm disappearing over the horizon. Gary was nowhere, yet everywhere, floating in the void Baal called home.
Gary figured it to be Hell.
He saw no one but felt him as he had a hundred times before, slithering through his mind.
The voice was a child’s. “Gary Paul. What is it you seek?” it asked, full of curiosity. It filled Gary with an awkward unease. He used to feel the same way when he stole dollars from Grandma Jean’s purse.
Gary cleared his throat and tried to speak sternly but couldn’t quite shake the quiver in his tone. “I want my destiny,” he demanded sternly as his eyes moistened with emotion.
Baal giggled playfully. Gary couldn’t say exactly what it was, but the laugh filled him with disgust, like finding an animal’s rotting corpse bedded down beneath autumn’s leaves or like a tickle on the nape of your neck, only to reach for the itch and find a spider.
“What would you have me do then, Hair-eee Gar-eee?”
The sound of his gritting molars reverberated through his skull. Begrudgingly he let the slight go, knowing better than to anger Baal. “I need to hit a homerun. I’ve come so far. I’m so close. It’s my destiny. It’s my final wish.”
The demon’s sigh was followed by silence. Gary held his breath waiting with an almost overpowering anxiety. In his mind he saw himself stroking the ball over the fence and rounding the bases, the crowd booming and bellowing, his teammates mobbing him at home, hoisting him on their shoulders as they paraded him around the field while men cried and women threw panties.
Baal spoke, ripping him from his reverie. “And the sacrifice?” it asked, its tone rising an octave, teeming with giddiness. “You’re ok to sacrifice a fellow man . . . once again?”
No hesitation. “Absolutely.”
“For your personal gain?”
“It’s not just for me; it’s for mankind.”
Baal scoffed. “No matter whom it may be?”
His mouth opened to speak, but he couldn’t find the words. It was an odd question, one that had never been asked before. Gary always assumed the sacrifices were random and that Baal’s taste held no preferences.
Names and faces scrolled through his mind: Mama, Daddy, Jenny, Oscar Smith the butler, the slut from prom, Daryl, John, Mr. Pete, Coach, Kelly Thomas (who had broken up with him and made off with the engagement ring). They would all be willing to sacrifice themselves for Gary, if given a choice, he knew. Then he thought of the trophies and the worshipping fans and his very own statue and all the ass that would come with it.
He nodded vigorously. “It doesn’t matter. Do it.” It could have been the President or the Pope, but Gary did not give one, glorious fuck. He was going to hit that home run and trot around those goddamn bases like a stud.
Like a curtain parting to reveal a stage of thespians, Madeline’s face appeared before him. Gary took a sharp breath and held it. His bowels twisted into a violent knot and rose in his throat.
Maddy! How had he forgotten about Maddy-Pie?
“I-I-I,” he sputtered, breaking out in a cold sweat.
Then he was back in the box, the bat hovering precariously over his shoulder, the stadium lights as blinding as a thousand suns. He blinked hoping his eyes would adjust quickly. The bat handle was slick with sweat. His heart thudded against his ribs as if trying to break free. Strength left his knees. He wobbled, feeling the heat of the cameras, the crowd, the pressure, Maddy, but somehow remained upright, waiting . . . waiting for the pitch.
You don’t have to swing. You don’t, said Baal teasing, heard only by Gary. Life is full of sacrifices. The monster snickered, his tone changing, no longer of a child but something dark and sinister and old.
Maybe it was because he hadn’t seen her in a year or spoken to her in months; maybe it was because he didn’t even know her birthday; maybe it was because she treated him like a stranger. Whatever it was, when all possibilities had rolled through his mind, his daughter had not been among them.
She was now, with her puppy dog eyes and freckled nose and stringy blond hair.
For the first time since shredding his knee, he wondered if he was making a mistake.
Gary gritted his teeth and clenched his jaw. The stadium pulsed. Simmons bristled, started his wind-up, reared back and hurled the ball. Everything moved in slow motion: the franticness of the fans, the pitcher’s fluid movement, the ball streaking like a comet across the night sky. A million thoughts and possibilities blurred his mind.
His eyes flicked to the jumbotron and he saw himself clad in crown and robe. The corner of his mouth twisted into his famous smirk. No, this was no mistake; everything worthwhile in life required sacrifice.
I love you, baby. I love you, Maddy-Pie. Thank you.
Gary Paul Bunyan squeezed the bat, closed his eyes and swung.
Certainly, Madeline would understand.
Laurence Black is an aspiring novelist and writer hailing from the depths of the Okefenokee Swamp in South Georgia. Laurence lives miles from civilization with his hound, Rook, under the canopy of the swamp. He spends his days fishing, writing and making folk art. Laurence has been influenced by Southern Gothic writers such as Flannery O’Connor and modern day writers such as Stephen King and George R.R. Martin. Laurence's short story Soul Food appears in the February 2014 issue of HelloHorror.
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