It was a hot afternoon in late April when LeBron James first met the Illustrated Man as he walked along the deck of his boat sailing towards the Catalina Islands in California. Late in the afternoon, James stopped and was preparing to stretch out and read when the Illustrated Man walked over a hill and stood for a moment against the sky. He didn’t know the man was Illustrated, only that he was tall, well-muscled. His arms were long, and the hands thick, but that his face was like a child’s, set upon a massive body. He seemed only to sense James’ presence, for he didn’t look directly at him when he spoke his first words:
“Do you know where I can find a job?”
“I’m afraid not,” James said.
“I haven’t had a job that’s lasted in all my years,” he said.
He unbuttoned his tight collar, slowly. With his eyes shut, he put a slow hand to the task of unbuttoning his shirt all the way down. He slipped his fingers in to feel his chest. “Funny,” he said, eyes still shut. “You can’t feel them but they’re there. I always hope that someday I’ll look and they’ll be gone. Are they still there now?”
After a long while James exhaled. “Yes,” he said. “They’re still there.”
The Illustrations. He took his shirt off and waded into the water. He was covered with Illustrations from the blue tattooed ring about his neck to his belt line.
“It keeps right on going,” he said, guessing the thought. “All of me is Illustrated. Look.” He opened his hand. On his palm was a rose, freshly cut, with drops of crystal water among the soft pink petals. James put his hand out to touch it, but it was only an Illustration.
“Each Illustration is a little story. If you watch them, in a few minutes they tell you a tale of what the future will hold to be true. In three hours of looking you could see several stories acted right on my body, you could hear voices and think thoughts. But most of all, there’s a special spot on my body.” He bared his back. “See? There’s no special design on my right shoulder blade, just a jumble.”
“When I’ve been around a person long enough, that spot clouds over and fills in. And, it will tell you things you don’t want to know about your own future. I never look at them any more. Don’t you look at them either, I warn you. But, if you cannot resist, then you must give me your word I shall have employment with you the next calendar year.”
James lay back a few feet from him. Whether the Illustrated Man slept he could not tell, but suddenly heard him whisper, “They’re moving, aren’t they?”
James paused for a moment then said, “Yes.”
The first Illustration quivered and came to life…
Ball! Oh, the silent majesty of a September night… The clean, cool chill against the backdrop of a baseball game… An umpire with his chest protector, emptying a chemical toilet upon the game.
Danny Salazar was cruising. Twenty-two pitches in and the first eight Twin batters had gone directly back to the bench. Eduardo Escobar had managed to make his at bat a bit more difficult, but Salazar fooled him on the eighth pitch for what was obviously strike three. Except, a flute without holes is not a flute, and an obvious strike erroneously called a ball gave Escobar first base.
The next batter was Aaron Hicks and he drove a deep fly ball into the gap in left-center field. Michael Brantley sprinted at full speed and laid out for the ball, which he caught firmly in his glove as his right (glove) shoulder crashed into the ground. Sadly, the ball popped out on contact with the unforgiving surface. Worse, Brantley injured his right shoulder and left the game after attempting to bat the next inning.
The Indians would go on to lose the game, the possibility of the 2015 AL Wild Card, and Brantley. He would go on to foolishly attempt to play more games, allow mere rest to cure his ailment, and have surgery that would set back his timetable for a month into the next season. Stubbornness and pride would help ensure that he played in as many games for the 2016 Indians as Kyrie Irving did for Duke.1 A second surgery potentially threatening yet another season and his career.
A small market team is not one to so readily replace an All-Star outfielder who had also won a Silver Slugger Award and finished in the Top 3 of the AL MVP voting. The void in the lineup without the most prominent hitter should be impossible to overcome.
Outside under the blazing sun, the flame of a single candle cannot be appreciated. The insignificant light generated as the flame dances upon the wick would barely be noticed but for its movement. Yet, the same wax stick lit within the darkest of chambers becomes illuminating.
The vacated role of slugger might have disheartened followers of this particular Tribe, but it also created an opportunity for a forgotten prospect to shine. Perhaps a prospect that had risen through the ranks of the Cleveland minor league system at a meteoric rate, but whose initial struggles caused many who cheered to forget the age at which he achieved them.
Undeterred, this youthful man carried himself as a veteran who had achieved much. Confidence drawing near to arrogance given the early returns; yet never quite crossing that wind-blurred line in the sand. Without a prominent home in the lineup or on the field, the hopeful rising prospect would be nomadic in his mission.
Despite the lack of security the stranglehold on a singular position provides, the insistence of the manager for an everyday position inked upon the lineup card were loud. There was no verbal communication of this demand as the work with the bat and the glove provided every bit of argument required.
As the season wore on, the impossible to replace numbers of Brantley (.310/.379/.480) were nearly replicated by Jose Ramirez (.312/.363/.462). The mentor, Juan Uribe, was supplanted at third base. And, many a helmet would be lost throughout the base paths with the bright orange hair revealing the rising Phoenix of J-Ram’s stature.
The stench was unmistakable. A scent of ammonia wafted through the air with a slight rot behind it. The searing of the olfactory sensory endings was as unpleasant as it was constant. Whether lifting the prototypical 400 pound deadlifts or a double-elevated Bulgarian split squat with isometric holds, the stench followed Trevor Bauer to every station.
However, on this day, the nearly inhuman levels of focus he was noted for displaying during workouts was absent. In its place were complaints about the smell emanating from the mats. Halfway through his workout his trainer decided to grant him some reprieve. “Maybe it’s the enormous pee stain on your shirt?” the trainer yelled out.
Bauer’s beloved dog had something unknown frighten him the night before. He had run whimpering to Bauer, but not until he had first relieved himself on the right sleeve of Bauer’s workout shirt. The liquid had dried overnight only to release the trapped odors once the shirt dampened with sweat.
Somehow, neither the urine-soaked shirt nor the sweat dripping from the many in attendance would be the worst emanation from the facility. An acidic machination wafted through the gym until it pierced the nostrils of the participants as the morning grew into day proven by the sun rays bursting through the Eastern-most windows.
“Oh no! My drones!” Bauer exclaimed as he navigated the obstacle course of weights and equipment to make his way into the back bay.
His worst fears were realized as he burst through the swinging doors. A drone sat cocked on its left side, wearily spinning a blade with thick gray smoke billowing from the center engine. Bauer was sure he had turned off everything before he had begun his morning workout, but the burnt remains of his favorite flying vessel spoke otherwise.
Bauer continued to have strange occurrences with his drone army throughout the 2016 season. On the South Side of Chicago, Bauer needed to cut the power to crash his aircraft before it was able to hurl itself into the scoreboard display system. In Kansas City, once again the control seemed to center more in the drone than the operator as it perched itself in the highest branch possible. Bauer needed to enlist the assistance of an extraction team from the Royals clubhouse attendants to regain possession.
Then there were the… interruptions. Several times late at night while pouring through film of his pitching mechanics, Bauer would hear the distinct humming of gears. Each time he would jump, startled, to check on his equipment. Each time, they would be lying motionless. After months, Bauer was sure he was growing mad from the lack of sleep, but he could not shake the realization that his drones had grown sentient for it was the only plausible explanation for the happenings. “No, that’s nonsense.” Bauer thought as he drifted asleep despite hearing the familiar humming start up in the next room.
Only a week later, Bauer would return to his domicile after spending the night celebrating victory in the American League Divisional Series. The Indians had defeated the Boston Red Sox. Trevor Bauer had pitched well, and he had earned the honor of starting Game 2 of the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Except when he barged through his front door, he finally had the proof for his suspicions. There his drones whirled about the room, seemingly communicating with one another. Bauer’s eyes met their glare as they bore their blades towards him with full thrust. A champagne bottle in his glove hand was a weapon enough to negate the advancement of one. But, an empty hand left his pitching hand exposed. Bauer’s girth was enough to win the battle, but the blood spattered on the wall behind him would prove troublesome for his future pitching endeavors.
People have such misconceptions about ghosts. Being the deadly embodiments of a soul born through death being the biggest. No. We are born through traumatic experiences as a rip in the emotional existential fabric allows our existence until the tear is repaired. Deaths just happen to be one of the more common causes.
My birth, as it were, was on a nice Autumn night in 1997 when Jose Mesa allowed the Florida Marlins to overtake the Cleveland Indians and win Game 7 of the World Series in extra innings. People all over the globe watched that game including Mesa’s 15 year old biological son, Michael Martinez. Of course, he did not know nor ever discovered that particular truth. People are a bit unaccepting even of obvious things.
Another fallacy humans tend to have is in our abilities. We exist between dimensions, which is rather lonely on the whole. You can not often see or hear or feel us. We have the capable of forcing the issue, but doing so wipes us right out. So tiresome to expend the energy necessary for people to simply see what is right in front of them.
Take, for example, Game 6 of this World Series. Hatching in my mind was a particular plan, but it would only work in a Game 7 and if no one realized my presence. Well, I wasn’t worried about the latter portion. Shouting “I GOT IT!” on a fly ball between Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall was all it took to knock the Tribe off their game before resting up for the grand scheme. I did take great joy in Naquin’s face being described “as if he saw a ghost,” while not one person actual came to that logical conclusion.
The penultimate game was tricky. The Chicago Cubs have a great number of ghosts of their own who had no desire for their team to win the World Series, which would repair the fabric and nullify their existence. Poor, unfortunate Javier Baez was the direct target of their transgressions. But, once again, not one person suspected foul play despite the Cubs best defender committing multiple errors.
Add to my complexity was that preventing the Indians from winning would not be beneficial towards my ultimate goal. I needed more.
Yes, it was I who held on dearly to Jose Ramirez’s shoes as he was picked off first base. It was I who flicked Corey Kluber’s pitches over the heart of the plate. And, it was I who made Rajai Davis appear to be a fool in center field as a Wilson Contreras fly ball moved as a Tim Wakefield knuckleball through the air – I’m quite proud that I was able to turn this easy out into a double off the wall.
However, I grew worried as the game grew late. Goat Boy – my nickname for the insufferable Cubs elder entity – was doing a terrible job keeping up and the exhaustion of directly interacting with the physical world was taking a toll on me. I even had to resort to passive aggressive suggestions such as “What are you going to do? Make the infallible Jon Lester throw a wild pitch? Please!”
My entire blueprint still might have failed if not for Ramirez and Brandon Guyer assisting with some well-timed hits. The Indians were down two runs and I needed this game to go to extra innings. I melded myself into Davis’ arms and waited. The electricity that flowed through me on that momentous home run was a feeling I will never be able to adequately describe. The existential fabric was mending just as I had spent my remaining strength. The Cubs ghosts also dissipated as the energy from the crowd had created an impenetrable barrier between our dimensions.
Helplessly, I could only bear witness to the rest of the events as they unfolded. An errant throw in the ninth from Yan Gomes gave me hope as it inserted Martinez into the game. Fate, it had seemed, intervened on my behalf. As the Cubs scored two runs in the top of the 10th inning, my tear was opened anew. As the Martinez ground ball was thrown to first base, yours was created.
That, my dear, is how you were born.
It was almost midnight. The moon was high in the sky now. The Illustrated Man lay motionless on the boat. James had seen what there was to see. The stories were told; they were over and done. There remained only that empty space upon the Illustrated Man’s back, that area of jumbled colors and shapes. Now, as James watched, the vague patch began to assemble itself, in slow dissolving from one shape to another and still another. And at last a face formed itself there, a face that gazed out from the colored flesh, a face with a familiar nose and mouth, familiar eyes.
It was very hazy. James saw only enough of the Illustration to make him leap up. He stood therein the moonlight, afraid that the wind or the stars might move and wake the monstrous gallery at his feet. But the Illustrated Man slept on, quietly.
The picture on his back showed Draymond Green lying on a court with James, himself, stepping over him. But, instead, Green would thrust his fist into the groin of James causing him to tumble as the announcers were heard in the background “The 73-win Golden State Warriors with the unanimous MVP have taken an impossible to overcome 3-1 NBA Finals lead. Things look bleak for the Cleveland Cavaliers.”
James didn’t wait for it to become clear and sharp and a definite picture. He swam to shore in the moonlight. He didn’t look back. A small town lay ahead, dark and asleep. He knew that, long before morning, he could reach the town…