Three Strikes Out
WRITTEN BY RENEE CHEN
Kuroda, not my father, was the one who taught me how to play baseball.
He was the one whom I watched, emulated, and worshiped as a child before the television, black cap on the head and the overlapped letters of NY in sleet-white.
“He’s Hiroki, and I’m Hiro,” I told my sister once, hands splayed out in the air as if receiving an applause. “We’re connected. Can’t you see?”
“Just first names, moron,” she said and stole the remote control from my hand, switching over to the movies channel. I ran upstairs, into my room and grabbed a bundle of pillows out then tossed them into the air, sending them across the hallway with my plastic bat, aiming for her face.
“Three strikes out,” she yelled after catching my balls. I stuck my tongue out at her.
It wasn’t how baseball worked in real-life, but those were always the rules to her. Three strikes out.
My sister Amber and I are twins. My parents like to tell others that we were born as mono-mono twins, that we had shared the same amniotic sac and placenta in a liminal space that was both life and not life.
Before the two of us were out of my mother’s womb, my parents had planned to give us Japanese names. For a while, in market chit-chats and office coffee breaks, my name was Hiro. Hiro for tolerance, and Hiro for generosity, and my sister was Yōko, for the sun and all the light that ensues.
Yet, within weeks of my birth, my parents learned that I had albinism, and they decided to change my name into Hiroyuki, or white Hiro. But in the end, they didn’t. Instead, like so many families in and out of Kingman, we got American names that didn’t fit with our Japanese last name. We became Aiden and Amber Enomoto. Like complementary colors, our first and last names were each other’s strongest contrast.
Around the time when I was starting kindergarten, my mother told me the story of Yuki-onna. It was one of those days when she was in an obvious good mood and would have my sister and me sit on either side of her on the tatami while she spelled out tales of Momotarō and Kaguya, boys born from peaches and princesses from the moon– tales that were both whimsical and real.
Splayed out on bed that afternoon, she told us that Yuki-onna was a ghost, dazzling with a pair of zircon-blue eyes and pitch-black hair.
“She wears a white kimono,” my mother told us, dragging her voice to make herself sound eerie, “and hunts for travelers on the mountains to kill.”
“Why is she called Yuki-onna?” My sister asked, her head slumped in between her two hands, her elbows on her knees.
“Because Yuki means white in Japanese,” she told us. I stared at my fingers, powder-white skin lighter than the tip of my nails. “And onna means woman.” She stood up from the floor, stretching her hands.
“If I’m a girl, would I be Yuki-onna?” I asked my mother, but she had already walked away.
I got my first baseball bat, a wooden– not plastic– one, on my ninth birthday. Amber was the one who bought it for me. After our parents had gotten us two sets of Monopolies as our boons, she traded them with the boy living across from our house.
When I thanked her, the weight of the gift pressed against my chest, a light sense of coolness emanating out of its wooden skin, she petted me on my shoulder.
“I don’t like Monopolies anyways,” she said, shrugged, and walked away.
That first afternoon after I received the gift, I found an abandoned construction site near my house. It was the practice field of a group of neighborhood children, where baserunners slid across knee-deep ash, under the cheers, the arrogance of childhood dreamers.
“You can play?” One of them, a boy wearing a white, striped Yankees cap, shouted from across the field.
I nodded. He tossed a ball over, and I swung my bat in the air. My eyes traced the ball’s perfect trajectory across the field. He smiled when he walked over, reaching his hand out.
“Sam,” he said, giving me a brief nod.
I took off my cap and fanned it against my face, the summer heat draining down from the sky. “Aiden,” I told him.
I stopped sharing the same room with Amber at the age of five, the summer when her first outbursts started.
Every day for three months, I would wake at midnight to hear her screaming on the bed next to mine, trying to shield myself away from her shrieks as my parents ran into our room to take her out. Within months, midnight screams became no more to my ears than drips of water against melamine plates in our kitchen sink.
“Why do you scream?” I finally asked her one morning, when we were sitting on the veranda outside the living room. We were eating shaved ice, the cloying syrup rose-pink against the grains of ice.
“Because there are ghosts in this house,” she said.
I licked my lips. “What do they look like?”
“White, like shadows,” she said, closing her eyes to picture them. “No legs, or hands. More like clusters of mist.”
I crunched the ice in my mouth.
“Let’s catch them,” she told me and crossed her arms. “Let’s do it tonight, Hiro.”
“Aight,” I said.
The first time my parents took Amber to a pediatrician, they were brushed aside.
“You have to stop spoiling that girl,” my grandmother yelled at them across the telephone. “What do you mean she won’t eat anything but pancakes? This is ridiculous.”
In her room, Amber sat still next to me, breathing in and out quickly. That night, after our promise, I had stayed up late and sneaked into her room at a quarter past one. I almost dozed off, lying on the rug beside her bed, but she woke me up just when I was going to fall asleep.
“There,” she had told me, pointing ahead. I stared at the curtains in front of us, lace polka dots in blue and green. “You see it?”
I blinked hard. I closed my eyes, opened them, then started all over again.
“You still awake?” She asked, pinching my cheek. My lips parted, but no words came out. “It’s there,” she said, standing up on her bed, clutching onto a pillow. “The ghost.”
I didn’t see anything.
The lights above us blinked on, the night silent. I stared at the curtains as Amber started to scream and pull her own hair off.
“It’s coming for me–” She yelled, cried. “The ghost– the ghost–”
I covered my ears with my hands instinctively as she slumped down into her bed, kicked her blanket onto my face, shrieked and cried. My parents ran in. When my mother saw me in the room, my eyes still on the curtains, she slapped me in the face.
Before Amber left the house, the two of us shared a puzzle box that we had found one evening in the attic. It is a birchwood box our grandfather had designed, his name imprinted on the lacquer that ran across its patterns of hazel spirals and red squares. For a while, Amber and I kept it under her bed, buried in the dust.
Inside the puzzle box, we stored bamboo-copters and paper cranes. At night, lying on our stomachs on the floor, we blew up paper balloons, played with the kendama, the red ball dancing up and down in the air.
One time, I decided to show her some magic. I grabbed two paper cups from the kitchen and a red strand of yarn from my mother’s knitting kit. I taped the string onto the bottom of the two cups and told her to hold onto one, put it next to her ear. Then, standing two meters away from her, I whispered into the cup.
“Can you hear me—? Amber—?”
Two meters away, her eyes widened. She grinned and tucked the cup against her face. “Can you hear me—?” She asked. “Hiro— Hiro— Hiro?”
I held the cup next to my ear firmly and tried to track the movement of our words down the strand of yarn but couldn’t see anything. I let her call my Japanese name over and over again as I stared at the string, the only thing that was tying the two of us together across the room. The grasp of the string impossibly flimsy, like so many things else.
The first time Sam came over to my house, we had a sleepover.
The two of us were the youngest players in our school’s baseball team, the underdogs, as he liked to say. We practiced almost daily after school, tossing the ball back and forth in his yard, battering at the construction site. In our own games, I was always the pitcher, and him the hitter. In our whole team, he was the only person who had never been three striked by me.
The time he came over, I took him to my room at the end of the hallway on the second floor of the house. We had raced up the stairs, pretending that we were baserunners, and slid across the marble floor. When we sprang into my room, hopped onto the bed, Amber walked in.
“This place is awesome,” Sam told me, his legs crossed on my bed sheets. There were posters of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Yogi Berra on the wall before us, crayon-drawn sketches of the baseball field and Yankees logo. There was a basket, once used for laundry, beside my bed. Within it were ten baseball bats, three plastic and the rest wooden.
Amber walked into the room, her footsteps light and muffled against the carpet. “Get off my bed,” she said.
“Your bed?” Sam eyed me. I shrugged.
“He’s Sam, Amber,” I told her, hopping down from the bed. “My friend from school.”
I elbowed Sam. “She’s Amber, my sister.”
“I’m not Amber,” she said. “I’m Parasite Mind.”
“That’s her nickname,” I told him before Sam could ask more. But Amber stormed across the room to us and corrected me. “It’s not my nickname. It’s my name.”
I felt my ears get red. “Alright, just leave us for now, Amber.”
“I’m not Amber,” she told me again. Sam shifted next to me, his back straightened. “And you’re not supposed to be on this bed. Scott likes to sleep here.”
“Who’s Scott?” Sam asked.
“My cat,” Amber told him, but with her eyes fixed on mine.
“You have a cat?” He turned to me, and I shook my head. We didn’t have a cat. Scott was Amber’s imaginary pet. Before Scott, she had a bunny named 300. When 300 died, Amber locked herself in her room and wouldn’t come out for two days. My parents had to call a locksmith to get her out. The problem was, 300 was Amber’s imaginary pet too.
“Do me a favor,” I told Sam after the two of us left the room to Amber. We were sitting on the carpet in the living room, tossing a baseball ball back and forth in the air. “Don’t tell anyone,” I said, taking off my baseball mitt, “that I have a sister.”
At first, I didn’t know what schizophrenia is.
For weeks, I visited the local library and tried to understand it by reading anything I could find, science magazines, peer-review journals, medical textbooks, burning through the words and sentences on each page to find an answer. Yet, I was disappointed.
Even now, we still don’t know. The causes of schizophrenia remain a mystery. Less than one percent of the population has ever contracted this disorder.
“So you’re saying that my daughter is crazy,” my mother asked the doctor.
He spun his pen between his fingers and looked at my parents for a long time. “Not crazy, ma’am,” he said, but nothing else.
Sitting on the swiveling chair next to my parents, I poked at my jeans. Amber had tried to choke herself the night before her appointment with the doctor.
“Why?” I had screamed at her. She was strangling herself with her jacket, the sleeves tied around her neck.
“Because I don’t want to live,” she said.
When I started middle school, I stopped calling Amber on the telephone. When my parents visited the psychiatric hospital she was staying in, I stayed behind at home, watching baseball on television. When they asked, I told my classmates that I was an only child who desperately wanted a brother to play baseball with.
In my junior year in high school, I got a fracture in the fibula and had to stay in the hospital for two days. Amber came to visit me, at the doctor’s permit. Only then, when she stepped into the tiny hospital room, staring at the checkerboard tiles on the floor like she was playing chess on it, had I realized how much she changed.
Her hair had darkened and grown longer, now in straight strands down her slim back. I picked at my own hair when I saw her, the whiteness that was impossible to dye.
“Hey,” I told Amber when she looked up at me. I glimpsed at her with the corner of my eye then glanced away.
It seemed as if time had thieved bits of my memories away, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t conceive of what we used to talk about as kids. I laid still on the bed, sweating beneath white sheets that smelt like antiseptics. She didn’t say anything.
“Hey, are you mad at me or something?” I asked her. Her eyes were fixed on the ceiling, and I studied it for a moment.
Amber didn’t say anything, she just kept her head faced up at the fading white paint above us.
“Amber?” I asked. When she turned around to look at me, she stared straight into my eyes. For a moment, when her mouth opened, I thought she was going to scream at me for leaving her. But she didn’t.
She closed her mouth again. And neither of us spoke for the rest of the hour.
At medical school, I studied biochemistry, embryology, and anatomy; I took all the available classes, everything and nothing but neuro and behavioral science.
For a while, I enjoyed college’s craziness. I went to naked parties and took up drinking, topping beer that tasted more or less like caramel. Aprils came and classmates asked me about cherry blossoms and Japan, whether the sakuras there were like those in Connecticut. Eventually, I got tired of explaining that I had never really been to Japan and was raised in Kingman, and no, Kingman is not really in the middle of a desert. It also snows there.
The winter I got my license as a surgical oncologist, my mother called me and told me that Ivy had died. She had jumped off a bridge after she broke out of the mental hospital at midnight.
The next day, I took a five-day break from my work. When my colleagues asked where I was going, I said that one of my friends died in a car accident at home.
The funeral was set up in a tiny, bone-white church. Most of those who went were family members I’d never seen before. As the crowd spread out their condolences to my parents, I stayed at the last bench at the back of the church away from everyone, eyes closed to shut myself from the rest of the world.
Before I knew it, I was hyperventilating in the cold air. White clouds of breath came out of my mouth, at first in strings, then all at once. Slowly, they clotted into a humanoid, the snow and the void between snow, and erupted into life. And then there it was, right in front of me: the world’s loneliest ghost.
After the funeral, I found a telephone booth near the church and went in, counting the coins left in my jeans’ pocket. I tucked my fingers against its cool, rusted buttons and held the phone against my ears, still thinking about the song that they were playing back at the church. It sounded familiar. Was it You Raise Me Up?
As static emanated out of the phone and strings of noises dimmed in and out, I waited, drumming my fingers against the glass wall. When the dots of buzzes faded out, I pushed another coin in, then another, and another. Rain had started pouring down against the walls of the booth, but I kept on waiting. Perhaps, a part of me is still waiting now.
Renee Chen is a high school, Asian-American writer. She has been published in the Daphne Review, the Wilderness House Literary Review, and elsewhere. As an addict to detective and mystery fiction, she can be found reading Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle when she is not writing!