Episode 9: "Strikeout"
Part One

In Field Fly Sports Pub

Simon watched as Kendra stormed off, pissed that she had the nerve to try and butter him up in order to get closer to Bryce. His gaze slid to his cousin, who was showing Lana how to make a difficult angled shot on the pool table. It took all of his strength to keep from marching over to their game and having a few choice words with Bryce. But it wasn't his fault that so many women have had their eye on him in the past. He knew that Kendra could really have Bryce if she just went after him, yet seeing Bryce with Lana gave him renewed hope.

"She's so beautiful, and from our conversation on the elevator, I really feel that she's different from anyone I've ever met. She seems...loyal, honest, definitely not afraid to speak the exact thought that's crossing her mind at the moment." Simon remembered his discussion with Bryce the day after Bryce had found himself trapped on an elevator with Lana. And if he knew his cousin as well as he thought he did, he'd have to conclude that Bryce was developing feelings for Lana.

He glanced across the table at Jake, who was drawing some sort of diagram on a napkin for Mae. He had not the heart to tell Bryce that Lana had been in love with Jake for three years now. How can his cousin compete with history? Ironically, Jake treated Lana as Simon figured she would treat Bryce...as a close friend. Simon also knew that Jake had a crush on Kendra and had no intentions of escalating his friendship with Lana to a more romantic level. Pity, those two could spark fireworks...then again, Bryce wouldn't be a bad choice either, and I have to side with him since he is family.

But what about me? Who do I have? Freakin' Mae Jernigan.

There was something endearing about Mae, her ringing laughter; her wide ocean blue eyes always round with wonder and twinkling; her goofy grin that brought nothing but a smile to Simon's face. In fact, during her less than awkward moments, she could be down right sexy. They had been friends for so long that it was sometimes difficult for Simon to see her sultry side.

And he needed to see that side of her more than ever.

Oliver got up for another trip to the Backstop Bar while Jake headed for Bryce and Lana's pool table, leaving Simon alone with Mae. She raised an eyebrow at him, taking note of the wistful look on Simon's face.

"Well, it was lovely of Kendra to stop by and grace us with her presence," Mae remarked sarcastically, taking out her compact and examining her hair in its mirror. "I shall tell the other commoners of my good fortune, to think of such a social milestone as sharing a table with the high queen of snobbery herself." Simon's face melted unexpectedly into sorrow and Mae felt her heart sicken. "I'm sorry, Simon, really. That was awful of her to try and use you." She stood up to join Simon's side. "You were so strong not to let her. I mean, any other guy would have been happy to eat the bullshit she was trying to feed you."

Simon looked back at her and laughed uneasily. Observing the serious look on her face made him laugh even more. "I was looking at it from a different point of view. This isn't the first time that's happened."

"She's tried to use you before?"

"No, no, I meant about Bryce. What is it about him anyway? What does he have that I don't have? Besides the attention of practically every woman that lays eyes on him..."

"Simon, you have several wonderful qualities. You're so funny, you're exciting, and deep down, you're willing to do anything for your friends. Not to mention, you're brutally hot."

"Ha ha, brutally? That's piling it on thick. Are you trying to butter me up too?"

"If I wanted to get close to a guy, I'd just talk to him..."

Simon looked into the depths of her eyes, feeling assured that Mae's attention was truly his. She's not so bad. She could be exactly what I need.

Part Two

In Field Fly Sports Pub

"Lana, hey, I've gotta run," Jake interrupted Lana during her pool game. "Would you mind walking me out to my truck?"

Lana looked at him quizzically. "All right, I think. Bryce, I'll be back. Don't you dare move any of your billiard balls." She sternly warned Bryce before grinning widely at Jake. "Shall we?" Jake held out his arm and Lana hooked it with her own.

They walked together in silence to the parking lot of the Pub. The midnight colored sky was touched by the absence of swabs of clouds, allowing the moon to shine in all its glory among sprinkles of stars. The air was heavy with humidity yet Jake felt more weight in his heart than in his breath, remembering his own blunder in forgetting Lana's birthday. When they reached his truck, Jake turned to face Lana and leaned against the driver's side door. Lana tugged at a loose thread on the hem of his t-shirt.

"We never do this anymore," Lana said ruefully, wrapping the thread around her finger. "You're usually out the door so fast. Or I end up just leaving before you do. Whatever happened to walking each other safely to our cars?"

"I know, I know. It's a tradition long established, since the days of Safe Ride at UNF. Do you know how many hot girls I met, driving them to their cars or dorms in a golf cart?" Jake stared up into the starlit sky dreamily while Lana slugged him playfully on his arm. "Well, just say the word, I'll be your safe ride."

"I'll keep that in mind," Lana laughed. "So why tonight? Kendra left before she could walk you to your car?"

"Something like that," Jake tried not to think of the scene between Simon and Kendra he had witnessed earlier that night. "There's also another thing, much more important."

"More important? Really..." Lana raised an eyebrow. "And that would be...?"

Jake grasped her around the waist. Lana looked at up into his eyes, incredulous. He bowed his head toward her face. She felt her feet gravitate to meet him before he firmly pushed her away from the truck. Dumbfounded, she watched as he opened the door, leaned across the seat and withdrew a large flat package. Turning to her, he presented the package to her. "Happy belated birthday, Lana."

Lana looked down at the silvery package in his hands and took it into her own. "Jake, you shouldn't have. It was days ago-"

"Yeah, and I forgot all about it. I'm your designated birthday maestro and I couldn't even remember my best friend's special day. I'm really sorry. But I did remember, eventually. And I got you this. Come on, open it."

Lana's face lit up and she tore the wrapping paper. Staring back at her was the fiery, psychedelic image of Jimi Hendrix. "Ooooh...Jake...is this what I think this is?"

"Electric Ladyland. An original vinyl. Mint condition," Jake proudly pronounced, crossing his arms in front of his chest and leaning against the truck again. "I know you'd rather have the CD, but I couldn't pass up getting you this baby."

Lana was astounded, touched by Jake's thoughtful present. They shared the same taste in classic rock and Hendrix was one of their favorites. Jake actually had the passion for collecting vintage records, which was why Lana couldn't understand why he would give her the vinyl copy. "It's perfect, Jake, really. But if I remember correctly, didn't you put in the special order for this at Retro Vinyl? Why are you giving it to me?"

"Well, I know this is one CD you don't have. Besides, it's the least I can do after missing your birthday. And I have a dinner planned for you and me this weekend. At Cafe Bernice. What d'ya think?"

Lana smiled, her eyes shining with tears of elation. "I love the present. It's the best one I've ever received. And dinner sounds perfect." She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around him. "Thank you so much, Jake."

Jake hugged her back. "My pleasure. I'll stop by tomorrow so we can hammer out the details, okay?" He said, letting go of her embrace. He climbed into his truck and started the ignition. "Good night, Lana."

"Good night!" Lana replied before Jake drove away. She looked down adoringly at her record and hugged it close to her heart.

Part Three

The Bay Area Tribune, Palm Terrace

The next morning, Jake just couldn't unfasten the smile from his face. The load of guilt on his heart had taken him by surprise and though it pained him to part with the Hendrix album, he felt more fulfilled whenever he recalled Lana's happy smile upon opening the gift. He didn't know where he'd be without that smile, and the heart behind it that always warmed his. Her friendship was one of his more prized possessions and he had come so close to staining it permanently.

Even the slow stream of news at work couldn't calm his upbeat demeanor. Suddenly inspired, Jake plunked away on his PC's keyboard, churning what he believed to be his best piece yet. His story: the triumphant return of Bay Area Tempest pitcher Ray Howell, who had been rehabilitating his shoulder since having surgery nine months before. Perhaps there is hope for me yet, Jake thought excitedly. If I heated up the shoulder again, maybe I could take my place in the bullpen with him. Grinning, Jake continued to weave words of wit through the article.

There was a knock on the door to his office. "Come in," Jake called out, keeping his eyes focused on his monitor.

"Hey Herrington," Jake recognized the voice of Keith Donovan, to whom Jake referred as simply Donovan. Jake despised Donovan for seizing the top sports scoops for the past six months...stories that would have otherwise been assigned to Jake. Jake rolled his eyes but gave Donovan his attention. "E.B. wants to see you, in HIS office." There was a smirking note hanging in Donovan's already condescending tone of voice. Jake only nodded his head.

He saved his article and headed for Todd Burton's office. Burton was the sports editor and Jake's supervisor, whom everyone called Editor Burton or E.B. "Mr. Burton, you wanted to see me?" Jake poked his head into Burton's office. Burton was busy on the phone and motioned for him to enter the office. Jake reluctantly opened the door and stood in the doorway. Burton pointed to one of the seats in front of his desk. Jake acknowledged his silent command and sat down.

"You mean to tell me that you've spent the whole weekend in Manhattan, you conveniently left your laptop here in the office, and you didn't record a single note? I don't care if you have to take down your interview on a piece of toilet paper, you get me that damn story by tomorrow or you can fly home and clean out your cubicle!" Burton slammed the receiver down on the phone and turned to Jake, who slunk down deep into his chair. "Jake, Jake, Jake. Good to see you." He grinned widely at him and took his place in the comfortable leather chair behind the desk.

Jake smiled weakly. "Likewise, sir. You wanted to see me?"

"Yes, yes," Burton agreed enthusiastically. Then his face grew serious. "You know that the past few months have been pretty fortunate for our department. The state high school track and field championship, the Tempests doing so well, Donovan winning all those media accolades for his work in our department, and everything. But for the first time since I started working here, we are...well...overstaffed." He paused, studying Jake's face for a reaction. Jake only looked back, a touch of anticipation glazing over his blue eyes. Burton sighed. "I hate to do this, you're such a great kid and all. But we have to let you go."

Jake's heart pounded furiously and for a moment, its beat rang in his ears to block out the rest of Burton's bad tidings.

"Now, we'll give you two weeks of severance pay and I would be more than happy to write you a warming letter of recommendation for your next job. But I'm afraid that's all that I can promise you. I'm really sorry."

Jake had no choice but to accept his boss's offer. Once again, he felt heavy in his heart, the weight of disappointment and failure.

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