Ned was the unluckiest guy in the state. First, his parents named him Ned. That’s not short for anything. Just Ned. With a name like that, it is no surprise that Ned’s virginity remained thoroughly intact well into his twenties, more pristine and untouched than those tribes in the amazon that think the gods are communicating with them every time an airplane flies overhead. This wasn’t an ‘i’m saving myself for marriage’ type of proud virginity either, this was a ‘i’d drown a baby in my bathtub if i could only see a female’s nipple’ type of virginity.
He had other problems. In elementary school, he started getting cold sores. Back then, they were thought to be the product of youthful uncleanliness. In middle school, they continued, but were written off as the normal acne that most adolescents suffer through from time to time. By the time high school rolled around, Ned was fed up with them.
He saw a dermatologist.
He had herpes.
“But how??” he asked, incredulous.
“Have you been having unprotected sex?” she asked.
“Hmm, well… actually…. I’m a virgin,” he whispered, embarrassed.
“well, i guess that makes sense…” the dermatologist said.
“what do you mean? How does that makes sense??” he asked, desperate.
“Oh well, right. I guess it doesn’t make sense in terms of your herpes. Maybe you were born with it?”
As it turned out, a thick, untamable mane and narrow knees were not all his mother gave him: she was in the midst of an outbreak, her first in a decade – caused by the stress of the pregnancy, when she popped out the bloody, screaming mess that would come to be known as Ned. She verified this over the phone.
“well, Ned, i’m really sorry. but if you have it, it seems like you probably did get it from me. how quirky!” she said .
“Mom! this isn’t quirky. This is terrible!”
“Oh right, of course not. I’m sorry,” she said.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this? you knew about my cold sores!” he said, distraught and close to tears.
“Oh honey. I’m so sorry, i should’ve told you. but, i guess part of me hoped they really were just acne related. and also i didn’t think it was really necessary, as you’re not sexually active,” she explained.
“how do you know i’m not sexually active? Huh?”
“oh honey… look momma’s at the grocery store. i’ll call you later. love ya sweetie!” and she hung up.
All of this added up. Ned was often unhappy. The name, the lack of sex, the herpes… it was tough. But, worst of all, was that socially, Ned was anonymous. No one knew who he was, and he hated that. He longed to be known. If I am well-known, everything else will fall into place, he thought. I’ve just gotta be well known.
Predictably, Ned was a terrible athlete. He was all joints and no muscle, uncoordinated, and lacked bravery. But he loved baseball. He was a statistics man; he could spout off batting averages and RBI’s for almost any player in the MLB. His enthusiasm was so real and unwavering that, after endless petitioning, the high school baseball coach finally agreed to let Ned on the team as manager. He kept meticulous stats for both practice and games, he filled up water bottles, he cheered and encouraged his teammates. He did these duties with a smile. The guys on the team started to take to their awkward but good-natured manager.
“Ned, you’re kinda retarded, but you’re not too bad, know that?” the first basemen said to him one day after practice.
“Well thanks man! You too!” Ned replied. He loved sort-of being on the team.
Ned’s favorite player on the team was Harnold, the starting short stop. Harnold was a good guy, but he was an even better player. He was one that could easily go on to play in college if he wanted to. And who knows, maybe even pro one day! Ned loved the way he would scoop up grounders and whip them off first or second seemingly effortlessly, and how cool he would look when the infielders threw it around the horn after an out. He dreamed of one day zipping the ball off to first while chomping on a big glob of gum. That was what Harnold did, and he was the coolest guy Ned had ever met.
Once in a while a couple guys would stay around after practice to hit some extra balls. This was Ned’s time for glory – the coach gone, he would grab a glove and head out to short stop to ground balls. He would stand in Harnold’s spot, emulating his every move as closely as he could. Onlookers would notice some similarities, but the differences were more glaring. Watching Ned play shortstop was like watching a shaky bootlegged, camcorder copy of a movie that was still in theaters. And in this case, affter seeing the real thing (Harnold) on the big screen, there was just no interest or respect for the pirated version. Until fate intervened.
It was nearing the end of the season, which had gone abnormally well for the team thus far. So well, in fact, that they were in contention to make the playoffs for the first time in a decade. The school was abuzz with talk of the baseball team. Ned was ecstatic and nervous as hell as they entered the final month of the season, full of must-win games. No matter what Ned did to try and calm himself down, he was a nervous mess. A cold sore developed on his lip. Then it grew. It became huge, the hugest herpes cold sore that ever existed. It hung off of his face almost like a tumor. Ned was nervous.
Ned’s nervous anxiety would turn to disaster for the team. During a long weekend that led up to the final game, Ned had forgotten to clean out the team’s drinking bottles. The next week at practice, the team used their bottles, now filled with mold, and many fell sick. The coach was furious.
“What the fuck happened Ned? Did you poison our boys? Are you a spy, Ned?” He screamed, in his office.
“No sir. I’m so sorry. I must’ve forgot to clean out the bottles last week!” Ned responded.
“Ned, just shut up. Get out of my office. It’s not your fault you were born retarded. Lord, I hope those boys get better,” the coach said.
Ned wanted to tell the coach that it was inappropriate to use the term retarded like that, that it was being phased out of normal conversation, but he didn’t want to upset him any further, so he left.
The days that followed leading up to the game were filled with tension for Ned and the team, as one by one players became healthy enough to play. Finally, the day of the decisive game arrived, and the team had enough players to play – but no substitutes. There were only nine. Fortunately, Harnold was one of them.
The game finally came. Seven short innings separated them from an all-important playoff position. The crowd was there. The energy was palpable. Everyone knew the stakes. They had to win. The energy was palpable.
The team played well through the first five innings, but their opponents played better, and they trailed 5-4. In the bottom of the sixth inning, they batted well. The bases were loaded. Harnold stood on third base, ready to come in with the tying run. The next batter hit a dribbling single up the middle, and Harnold was off. The ball arrived at the plate at the same time that he did. He ran through the catcher, who dropped the ball. Harnold had scored! But, he wasn’t getting up to celebrate with Ned, as he danced around behind the umpire. Harnold was in agony.
“Ohhhh fuck! Fuck! Fucking shit! Holy fucking shit! Shit. on. my. dick! Fuck!” he screamed. Harnold was in agony.
Harnold had broken his wrist. He was out. He would later become addicted to percosets. The coach had no other option.
“Well fuck me Ned, it looks like I have to put you in. This is a fucking disaster. We’re totally fucked. The whole fucking season down the drain. Alright buddy, go get them out there!” the coach instructed.
The inning closed when the next batter flied out to center.
Ned took Harnold’s glove, much too large for him, and put it on. He wiggled his fingers inside the worn interior, rubbing over the outlines of Harnold’s fingers, formed by years of use. There was magic in this glove, Ned thought. He breathed deeply. He could do this. Just be like Harnold. You’ve been waiting for this moment your whole life. This is your time.
“This is your time,” Ned said to himself, out loud.
“Ned! Who the fuck are you talking to? Jesus christ. Get out there!” the coach yelled. Ned scampered over to shortstop.
The first batter struck out. The next singled and got to first comfortably. The next, the same. Then an easy fly-out. The infielders threw it around the horn, staying warm before the next batter, when it came Ned’s way. He stuck out his glove. Unfamiliar with Harnold’s larger glove, he mistimed his grab, but the ball flew into his glove, nonetheless. He opened his glove to see the ball lodged in the mesh. Ned couldn’t believe it. He looked around. The world slowed down. Time stood still. Ned had never seen anything like this happen before. Ned knew it was a sign. He would be a hero.
“Look!” he screamed. “It’s a sign! We’ll win it all, baby!” Ned had never felt so alive in his life.
Ned ran around the diamond and outfield in circles, laughing manically. Ned had dreamt of this moment for his whole life. He was soaring. Beyond his ecstasy, he could hear the crowd chant in the background, their yells muffled by his euphoria to an indistinguishable murmur. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t hear what they said. He knew they loved him.
The crowd chanted in a slow cohesion: “WHERE. IS. HE. GOING?”
Ned kept running until he finally came to. His coach was screaming, red in the face. Everyone stood with their hands on their hips, looking at him. They were not celebrating, as he imagined. He dislodged the ball and delivered it to the pitcher and took his position.
Back to the game.
Time to focus. They were close to making it through.
Ned was all joints and no muscle, and uncoordinated as ever as he bounced back and forth between second and third. But he had courage now. He was ready for whatever would come his way. And come his way it did.
The next batter, an ogreish fellow with broad, cartoony shoulders and a full beard stepped up to the plate. This person definitely has a child somewhere, Ned thought. Ned was pondering what the mother looked like when the batter swung at a curveball. He made contact. It wasn’t great contact. It came off the bat and bounced along the ground, heading just a little bit to Ned’s left. Harnold would have anticipated the trajectory of the ball and, sidestepping quickly, collected it comfortably. Ned was surprised by the crack of the bat, coming back from his mother-of-the-ogre’s-child daydream, he saw the ball coming his way late. It was happening. The time was now. He had to act.
Ned closed his eyes and dove to his right. The ball skipped off the dirt in front of him and bounced towards Ned’s face. The ball struck Ned’s lip, right where the bigger-than-life cyst hung, soaring through the air. The cyst exploded like a water balloon, sending blood and pus gushing down Ned’s face and all over his uniform and Harnold’s glove. The ball rolled towards the third basemen, who, anticipated Ned’s misplay, had run over to cover. He recovered the ball and threw the ogre out at first. They had made it out of the inning. The crowd cheered.
Ned lay with his face in the dirt. He had done it. He could tell by the crowd. He was loved.
Ned stood up. He was unrecognizable. He looked like a zombie version of himself, as the blood and pus dripped down his face and chin and down the front of his uniform.
“Ewwwww!” reacted the crowd in unison. Ned waved and smiled, revealing teeth turned red by the blood. His coach vomited from disgust in the dugout. The first baseman did likewise. Soon, almost everyone was vomiting, while Ned walked towards the dugout, a bloody, pus-covered mess.
Eventually, the vomiting settled down, and the team went on to win the game. Ned never got a turn at bat. But that didn’t matter to him. It was as if his prayers had been answered. This was all more than he could’ve ever imagined.
“I can’t fucking believe it,” his coach confided. “This is a fucking miracle.” Ned agreed.
He was ecstatic as his mother put towels over her carseats before letting him in and then driving him to the hospital for stitches.
The next day at school, Ned walked around with his head held high. He had a bandage on the side of his lip, and it hurt to smile, but he did it anyway. He was at his locker, putting in his combination, when he made eye contact with the cute girl next to him.
“oh my god, are you the guy with the exploding cyst?” she asked him.
“yeah, that’s me” he said confidently. “I’m the guy with the exploding cyst.”
Ned had finally arrived.