A Thousand Paper Cranes
By Delilah Anne Marie
2009, February 27

Summary: Benny leads a life of happiness. He's popular with his friends, talented in baseball, and has the adoration and support of the love of his life. All of that changes, however, after he rescues an unhappy and naive girl whose intentions may not be as innocent as Benny thinks.

Chapter 1: Haunted Memories

1970, California

Benny stood up from his resting position and observed his old bedroom. It was the first time he had really taken a look at it since he came home. In the eerie darkness of the room, he could see the furniture, which was almost as old as he was, covered with a thick layer of dust. Everything from the books and trophies on the shelf to the bobble heads and action figures on top of his cabinet showed signs of being untouched. Benny walked across the room and lightly patted the tan colored wallpaper, which had started peeling like the Babe Ruth posters on his walls. The wooden floor, which had once provided extra space, was now cluttered with piled boxes, stacked chairs, and many other random objects from the previous decade that Benny's mother couldn't quite fit into the attic. He thought the room looked sad and lonely as if it mockingly reflected his own set of emotions.

Benny slowly turned and faced the balcony from where the summer heat entered. The transparent curtain had flown higher, revealing the white painted house next door. Her house. The trees began swaying with the breeze. The wind chimes that hung from her iron balustrade began to play its haunting tune. The translucent curtain steadily rose even higher, as if beckoning him to come forward. Unconsciously, he took a step forward and walked towards the moonlight. Standing on the balcony he tilted his head and let the rain cool his face.

He had come out here many times in the past with the optimistic thought of seeing her. At the moment, however, it was not enough to sway his bleak sorrow. He didn't expect her to come out of her room and step onto the balcony tonight. Or any other night. He didn't expect her to greet him with her warm smile, nor did he expect her to climb over and ask where he had been. Regardless, that didn't stop him from imagining her company. She had gone years ago, but his memories of her still haunted the town. Everywhere he went he saw her, just as vivid and just as lively. There were times when he'd sit on the front porch alone, but would imagine her sitting next to him while she strummed the strings of her father's guitar. He'd see her playing tennis at the school court whenever he drove by, in his mother's office borrowing the typewriter for a school news column, at the diner serving milkshakes. He saw her right now, facing him while she rested her arms on the iron rails of her balcony. But instead of giving him a familiar smile, her face was cheerless, her eyes almost glaring. There was a feature of accusation in the way he saw her looking at him. It was almost unbearable.

The valley held too many memories of her, but he always seemed to return. And he always visited her home. And he always remembered her. His mind, of course, never failed to remind him that she was gone, and that he could do himself a favor if he just moved on. But his heart refused to forget. Why he would put himself through this misery, he didn't know. Maybe it was a cruel trick of the heart for all those times he neglected it. For all those times he neglected her. In all honesty, he left town to forget. His attempt was obviously futile, and Benny acknowledged this as he began to reminisce about the year he had lost almost everything significant in his life.

1965, San Fernando Valley

The year was 1965—the year Casey Stengel of the Brooklyn Dodgers retired after sixty-five years of baseball. The sun hung high above the ground, indicating noon had approached. Benny stepped up to the plate as the crowd on the wooden bleachers cheered insanely. Banners that bore his name were waved as fans chanted his name over and over, and the school colors of black and gold emerged in the forms of pom-poms and cardboard signs. Benny's uniform, which was no longer white, was stained from numerous slides. His hair, which was naturally black, was now powdered with dust and dirt. Regardless of his unsatisfactory appearance, Benny's disposition on the outside was cool and concentrated as ever. On the inside, he was bursting with both joy and anxiety. This is what he was made to live for. Not for the fame and the glory, but for baseball and all its excitement.

"On a normal basis, only eight and a half innings are required to determine a winner," a deep western accent announced through the intercom. "But both teams have been scoring ties since! We are now at the tenth inning, ladies and gentlemen, and our own Benny the Jet has stepped up to the plate. One run is all that is needed to win this game, folks! Just one run. Think the Jet can pull it off? I think so."

Time stood still as the pitcher stood on his mound, his expression determined. Benny challenged that determination by taking his stance and positioning himself for a swing. In a couple of swift movements, the ball was speeding towards Benny and, upon impact, a portion of the bat split before it was dropped to the ground. The crowd erupted into wild and enthusiastic ovation as the ball soared across the field.

"Ladies and gentlemen, what did I tell ya?" The intercom boomed. "Looks like The Jet's taking home! And there he goes! First base!"

Benny's heart stopped as he cleared the first two bases. He had lost count of how many homeruns he'd pulled off throughout the years, but he knew it was plenty. The school had humorously dubbed him "The Homerun Daddy" in his freshman year. It was a nickname that didn't quite stick as well as "The Jet." Yet, regardless of how many games his homeruns have won the team, they were never as easy to pull off as the audience assumed. Benny always grew nervous as he rounded basis. There was a first time for everything, and he hoped striking out wasn't one of those firsts. He always carried the burden of anxiety. It wasn't that he didn't want to tarnish his Godly reputation as one of the best baseball players in the state. On the contrary, the attention and expectations from fans did not pressure him at all. It was the fact that he never really knew where he would stand in baseball history. Although he would be gaining fame by entering the league, he'd be doing it for the excitement it would fill him. Never again would he try to make baseball his life. He had learned in his freshman year that baseball wasn't everything.

"And there he goes passing the third base," the intercom informed. "And, yes, YES! HOME RUN! What an easy win, ladies and gents! San Fernando High School wins their first game of the season! Whoohoo!"

Benny was immediately relieved of his temporary anxiety and was greeted with a mob of team mates and fans that habitually carried him on their shoulders and continually chanted "tigers." Yes, this is one of the things what he lived for. Baseball. Everyone knew he was going to move on to bigger, better things.

The bleachers were now emptying as the crowd began returning home from the game. It was the first game Benny's team played for the season, and there were many more to go. School had just started and, in Benny's senior year, baseball scholarships were rushing to him wildly. It was his ticket out of town to do what he loved for the rest of his life. There was nothing else he wanted to do.

Benny had showered and exited the locker room thirty minutes after the game. He looked around the field and leaned against the fence. There were still a couple of teens playing baseball. Some loitered on the grassy turf while others conversed on the bleachers. The sun was beginning to set, giving the sky a beautiful colored mix of yellow, orange, purple, and blue. The breeze was welcoming to Benny as it ruffled his hair. Wearing his letterman jacket and carrying his baseball bag, Benny began walking across the field when two girls approached him.

"Benny! Benny Rodriguez!" One of them called out. She was short and timid with strawberry blonde hair and amazing blue eyes. She smiled when Benny acknowledged her with a polite nod. Her friend, who Benny recognized was a freshman on the girls' new softball team, pulled out a letter from her messenger bag. Benny blushed slightly before regaining his composure and giving a playful response.

"Say, this wouldn't happen to be a love letter, would it?" The girls blushed and giggled as he gave them one of his naturally striking smiles. Stuttering, they confirmed his guess and mentally slapped themselves for falling apart in front of such a handsome boy. Benny, who had received enough of these letters to last him a life time, had tried dealing with them without emotionally hurting anyone. In his case, physically.

"I'm sorry. You girls seem really nice," Benny began as their giddy expressions faltered. "And cute," he added in an attempt to relief them somewhat. "But," Benny paused and looked at the ground, feeling somewhat guilty for trying to produce a false reason.

Then, feeling a pair of eyes watching him, he looked over the girls' heads and saw the slim figure of a girl emerge from the entrance of the small stadium not too far away. She stopped walking and met Benny's gaze as she nudged the strap of her bag up her shoulder. She brushed off the swirling dark locks from her brown eyes and, after realizing he was smiling at her, she smiled back at Benny.

Without taking his eyes off her, Benny finished with a much more truthful response. "But my heart belongs to someone else."

The autumn sky began to lose its warm, magical hue as nightfall began to settle. While Benny walked home next to Janie after the baseball game, he watched the multitude of colored leaves follow them down the green meadow. They used to ride their bikes to school every day, but found it a hassle to carry them up the grassy, bumpy valleys.

"Darn wind," Janie mumbled in annoyance as she tried to keep her skirt from flying up. "The weather's been so bizarre this year. Never mind the fact that the weather man's actually been right during the past couple of months. But it's never consistent! One minute it's scorching hot, the next, it's pouring rain. I'm just glad it didn't shower during the game."

Benny stepped across a small ditch and offered his hand to Janie. "I wasn't too worried about that. In the words of Scotty Smalls, I can play baseball through rain, shine, tidal wave…whatever." Janie took his hand gratefully as she stepped down across the gap.

"Agreed. But I was more concerned about whether I took good shots or not." Benny rolled his eyes. During winter break of their junior year, Janie's maternal grandmother visited from Hawaii and, upon Christmas day, presented her with a very pricey Canon 7s. Once school resumed, the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper assigned Janie to almost every school function with the purpose of taking memorable pictures. As the new editor-in-chief this year, Janie took up the task herself rather than assigning amateur reporters. I gotta make sure it's done right, Janie would always say.

"Perfectionist," Benny snorted. "Never pleased."

"You mean 'never satisfied.' It sounds better." Janie put in knowingly.

"See what I mean?" Benny gave her an amused expression. "I don't know how the junior reporters at the school tolerate you, but you have got to be the most anal editor-in-chief they've ever had. It's a good thing you have a knight in shining armor who tolerates you, huh?"

Janie snorted. "Don't flatter yourself. You're more like a knight in crusted armor to me!" The comment caused Benny to burst out laughing as he lunged towards her. Unfortunately for him, Janie dodged his hands as she began running down the green meadow.

Janie laughed and ran farther away from Benny, who stood in place and watched with adoration as she threw her hands up in the air and began spinning, completely uncaring of the way the wind disheveled her hair

"Why aren't you coming after me?" She yelled cheerfully across the meadow. "I just insulted you, Benny! Are you going to let me get away with that?" Benny continued to flash her a boyish smile as he pushed his hands inside his pockets.

"I'm giving you a head start, babe! It's what an honorable knight would do!"

"Silly! I don't need a head start! The Jet will always find me anyway, no matter where I am!"

"Good point," Benny said before he dropped his bag and instantly dashed towards Janie. He didn't have to chase her far, though, as he caught her around the waist with one strong arm and tightly pressed her against his chest.

"No! Stop!" Janie squealed as Benny began tickling her. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I give up!"

Benny continued to assault Janie's slim waist, obviously intent on ignoring her apology. "You have to do something for me first."

"Anything! I swear it, Benny!" Janie begged inbetween gasps of air. "Just let me go! Please!" Benny stopped his attack and wrapped his free arm round the upper part of her body, holding her closer to him as he pressed his lips against her bare shoulder.

"Kiss me."

"That's it?" Janie asked in relief as she turned to face him. "Goodness, do you really need to ask me to do that?"

Benny nodded. "Of course. It's the knightly thing to do, my lady. "

Janie giggled and turned around, allowing Benny to gather her in his arms again as they stood in the middle of the windy field. "I shall grant my dear knight his not-so noble request."

Janie tipped her head up and slowly shut her eyes, intent on letting her lips meet Benny's. But instead of a kiss on her lips, Janie felt a raindrop. They both looked towards the sky and watched as lightning illuminated the town before heavy showers fell to the ground.

Janie looked at Benny, who cursed at the heavens before shrugging off his varsity baseball jacket and covering Janie with it. He then took her hand, and the two of them began running across the meadow.

Benny and Janie stopped running when they had reached the sandlot, and were now standing under the shelter of the tree house. They were drenched, and yet the cold didn't seem to penetrate their skin.

At the moment, the sandlot was no longer a place for kids to play, as construction had replaced their childhood haven. In the summer of 1964, the town mayor had given permission for a local company to start building affordable homes in empty lots lining Washington Street. The sandlot, unfortunately, lied at the intersection of Washington and Arizona, and construction immediately commenced at the beginning of Benny and Janie's junior year.

Benny and the sandlot boys mourned for their loss, but quickly got over it as other significant events began to take place. Bertram had moved in Benny's freshman year of high school, and the boys hadn't heard of him since. The following year, Mr. Timmons found a new job in Colorado, and the family moved before construction could even begin. Like Bertram Tommy and Timmy hadn't been heard from since. Yeah-Yeah and Kenny, on the other hand, both moved to Texas and were lucky enough to live close to each other, as Chief McClennan and Reverand DeNunez were very close friends. Only Ham, Smalls, and Squints remained. Needless to say, the town had changed dramatically, and game nights between the adults were almost nonexistent.

Benny missed the rest of the boys very much, and was more than thankful that Janie had stayed in town. The Vietnam War was still waging, and Mr. Reynolds had volunteered himself back into the military after almost ten years of retirement from the Navy. He was now forty-years old, but the years had treated him well. Benny was glad Mr. Reynolds decided to leave the family in San Fernando, rather than sending them to live in Hawaii with Sue's parents.

"The sandlot looks terrible," Janie said quietly as she stood staring off at the remains of the sandlot. In the summer before senior year, construction had stopped. The war was beginning to affect the economy, and so the town decided to stop funding constructions in favor of donating to soldiers in Vietnam. At the moment, the sandlot was covered with random holes and mounds of dirt. Metal poles and wooden slabs lied around in stacks, while some were already constructed to frame the home that would have stood there.

Benny sat against the base of the tree as he watched Janie wring out the water from her white dress. He contemplated on whether or not to tease her about the transparency of her wet attire, but decided against it as he admired the way her dress clung to her thighs.

"I wonder. What do you think happened to the capsule?" Janie asked as continued to stare out at the lot. "Do you think it got dug out when they were making all these holes?"

Benny took his eyes off Janie and looked at where the pitcher's mound had once been. The large hole that now replaced it was almost as deep as the one he and the sandlot boys had dug up in the summer of '62.

"I don't know. I'll bet that it's in one of those piles of dirt, though, assuming that it was dug out during construction."

"I suppose. That makes it harder to find it then, if you and the boys do decide come back for it."

Benny shook his head as he remembered the promise he and the sandlot boys made. They dug up a time capsule to preserve the best summer of their lives, and then they made a pact to reunite one day so they could get it back. It was a significant symbol of not only his childhood, but some of the things that were important in his life.

"You think they'll come back?" Janie asked as she stepped into the rain.

Benny thought about the possibilities. Sure, they all planned on meeting again in the summer of 1967. Most of them would have already graduated. But then again, most of them would have moved on too. The sandlot would just be another fond, childhood memory.

"It seems less likely as time passes by," Benny responded as he pulled himself off of the ground and joined Janie under the rain. "But it wouldn't hurt to hope. Maybe someday, before we leave after graduation, we can look for the capsule by ourselves and save the boys the trouble of digging it back up."

"That's thoughtful of you," Janie mused as she recalled how much the boys despised that hole.

"Exactly. But for now until graduation, we have to live up senior year. I think we could start by celebrating my first victory with that kiss you owe me."

"Ooh, a kiss in the rain?" Janie drawled as she turned to wrap her arms around his neck. "That sounds like an excellent start." And then they kissed, sweetly and gently at first until their bodies melted against each other. Time froze as they shared their passion. It wasn't a significant moment, but to Benny, it was a place in time that belonged to them, and he would preserve it in his mind along with many other memories he shared with Janie. She was his best friend. His first love. His future. It was a lesson he learned long ago to love and take care of the people who meant most to him, and it was a lesson he promised Janie he would never forget.