A thousand miles from home, Bubba Derby watches the room blacken as credits start to crawl across the dark screen. It's past 2 a.m. and he needs to get some rest before returning to the baseball field at noon. The 20-second Netflix countdown begins to tick, offering him another fleeting reprieve from reality. He lies in bed with his finger on the remote and wonders: Can he shut out the memories for long enough to drift into dreams, or will he lie awake with the nightmares? 18…17…16…
He remembers all the good things in his life. That's the strategy the therapist taught him. He is alive. So are his father, his mother, his sister, his cousin, his aunt, his nephew. Everyone who went to Las Vegas with Bubba that weekend last fall came home. He knows that 58 people never did. But too late. Now he's back there—13…12…11—and the gunshots are silencing the music, and the bullets are ripping through the earth and through the people around him.
He tries to picture what his family will do the next day. That's the strategy he taught himself. Maybe his sisters, Kim and Val, will visit his parents, Al and Julie. The Derbys all live within 20 minutes of each other, and they rarely let a week go by without a family barbecue. Maybe his nephew, Kaison, will play some wiffle ball with grandad in the backyard. 8…7…6…
For the first few months after the shooting, sleep was sweet relief. Then came the nightmares. In one that haunted him for weeks, Bubba heard car horns and sirens from inside a hotel room with his mother and father. He peered through a sliding glass door to see a faceless man opening fire on the street. The man turned and walked toward Bubba's hotel room. Bubba begged his parents to hide. The man started to sprint. Bubba opened the door to confront him. And then Bubba would jerk awake. 3…2…1…
He finds the courage to click off the next episode, to move on. But he leaves the TV screen on, to hold off the darkness.
We don't really go to music festivals for the food or the drinks or the drugs. We don't even go just to listen to the music. We go to experience a certain kind of connection. We go because sometimes the best way to stir our souls is to brush shoulders with strangers and sing at the top our lungs. We go to feel alive.
Bubba arrives at the Route 91 Harvest Festival just after he finishes his first stint as a Triple-A starting pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers organization. At 23 years old, he is now just one call-up away from The Big Show. A crew of close family—his parents, his sister Kim and her husband, his nephew, his aunt, his cousin and his cousin's girlfriend—accompanies him to Las Vegas for the festival. And when they aren't exploring the Shelby Museum or floating along the Lazy River at the Mandalay Bay, they watch almost every gig as a pack. During the next-to-last performance of the festival, a little after 7 p.m. on Sunday night, October 1, Bubba hoists Kaison onto his shoulders, the little guy beaming in his brand-new cowboy hat and American flag bandana, as Luke Combs strums on stage a hundred feet ahead. They sway together, and Bubba pulls out his phone to snap a selfie. Behind them, the golden windows of the Mandalay Bay glow against the desert sky. None of them have shattered yet. Nothing has.
After Combs finishes his set, Bubba's family huddles around Kaison. They ask the six-year-old whether he wants to stay at the festival or go see Cirque du Soleil with his grandparents. Jason Aldean is Kaison's favorite singer and "Burnin' It Down" is his favorite song, but to everyone's immediate surprise—and later, to their eternal gratitude—he chooses to leave. As the Derbys wave goodbye, none of them suspects that it could be for the final time.
Kim and her husband lie on the lawn near the back of the venue and soon fall asleep. Bubba weaves through the crowd with his Aunt Monica, his cousin and his cousin's girlfriend. They settle into a spot with a nice cushion between themselves and the next group of people, waiting for the headliner.
A few minutes later, a group of five women squeezes into the sliver of space. Two of them are Darci Wallace and Jori Jellison. Darci's older sister, who's been friends with Jori since high school, is turning 47. Jori has three teenagers at home, and she's enjoying a weekend to let loose. At 31, Darci is on the other side of parenting, with two kids under four back home.
The two groups don't take notice of each other at first. Bubba is trying to keep a low profile because, earlier, a picture of him on Instagram had gone up on the big screen by the stage, to which his cousin had shouted, "He plays in MLB!" Darci and Jori have enough friends in their group that they don't feel the need to make any more. Then, they all smell that smell. Someone just farted.
Jori turns and blames it on Bubba, a perfect stranger. He isn't responsible, but he still blushes with embarrassment. Jori takes a swig of his beer as a penalty, and the three fast friends laugh it off. "We were just party pals," Jori says. "He didn't know a thing about me or Darci. He didn't know we were mothers. He had no reason to save us."
At 10:05 p.m., they think they're hearing firecrackers. Aldean has started playing "When She Says Baby," a love song with a driving drum beat, and the concert is coming to a close. Aunt Monica, who works for a California police department in payroll, tells Bubba and his cousin that, no, those aren't firecrackers at all. But they see Aldean strumming away on stage: If he is safe, they figure, well, so are they. They look back at the stage, and it's empty. The crackling sounds cease, and a hush falls over the crowd. When they hear that terrible crackling noise again, there is no doubt: Someone is shooting at them.
People duck. People freeze. People scream. But Bubba knows he has to move. "Get down!" he cries out, as he leaps onto Darci and Jori. He stretches his 5'11" frame as far as his limbs will allow. He sees his cousin covering his girlfriend. And for a moment, his eyes meet Aunt Monica's. "It was the look of, 'Is this it?'" Bubba says. "'Is this the last time I'm going to see you? Are we about to die?' That look is as haunting as anything I saw."
The dirt around them blasts from the force of the bullets. Jori braces for the pain of being shot but tells herself she'll survive. She thinks the gunfire is coming from a helicopter. Darci watches a bullet crater the ground a foot away from her face. She tells herself she'll get home to her children or die trying. Bubba scans the park. By now, most of the crowd is crouching on the ground, but several country-music fans are streaking toward the exits. Bubba can't tell where the shots are coming from, either, so he just listens for a break. He grabs Jori with his right hand and Darci holds on to Jori. Where, he wonders, can they run?
"It was the look of, 'Is this it? Is this the last time I'm going to see you? Are we about to die?'"
The shooting pauses again. There will be 10 more bursts during the 10 minutes of terror. But, for a moment, another hush hovers over the crowd. "Go!" Bubba yells, and the three fast friends are off, running with their backs bent and their heads low, weaving through the bodies around them and beneath them. Darci looks down and sees one of the first victims. She wants to stop and help, but too late. The next burst begins. Bubba grips Darci and Jori more tightly as they try to survive the final 50 feet to a House of Blues just ahead.
Bubba pulls Darci and Jori across the threshold of the tent. Blood and dirt and sweat stain their clothes and their skin. Under the cover, Jori collapses. Bubba picks her up and places her and Darci behind a couch. Darci freezes. Bubba looks at her and mouths the words "Don't panic." He scans the structure and the heaves of people paralyzed with fear. This canvas and plastic cannot possibly protect them from the gunfire; these people, he thinks, are going to die. Bubba grabs a nearby barstool and hurls it into an empty area. "We have to keep moving!" he shouts.
"People didn't know what to do, so they just froze," Darci says now. "He saved a lot more lives than ours."
Finally, Bubba thinks he has found an escape: A fence, constructed to keep festival-crashers from getting in, has been bulldozed by the first wave of survivors fleeing. He returns to Darci and Jori and offers them his hands again. He nods toward the exit, opening up onto Giles Street. "Run for your lives," he tells them.
Two days after the shooting, Bubba jumps in his truck and speeds home. He'd been stranded in Las Vegas for an extra 36 hours because he'd parked in the same garage as the shooter. On Monday, he hadn't slept or eaten well. But on this Tuesday afternoon, he begins to feel safer with every foot he puts between himself and that godforsaken city, with every mile marker that moves him closer to home in Southern California. What he didn't know then was that pain had packed itself in his suitcase, that panic had buckled into the passenger seat.
When he gets to his family home, a humble midcentury modern east of L.A., he has a tearful reunion with a few family members who were able to return home on Monday and with a few others who never went to Las Vegas. He'd spent the previous day wishing he were here with them, but now he feels the overwhelming desire to be alone. He retreats to his childhood bedroom, where the muscle car posters are still tacked to the walls and where he stays during the few months a year when he isn't playing professional baseball. He decides to watch Transformers: The Last Knight. But then, the first blast of robotic gunfire stuns him.
Any psychologist could have told Bubba that this was PTSD introducing itself—that the part of his brain responsible for memory was short-circuiting and slipping the past into the present, that the part of his brain responsible for producing emotional responses was now hypersensitive to stress. Bubba didn't know how to deal with those emotions, but he'd long ago learned that the best way to cope with stress was to keep moving. He launches himself toward the remote and flips off the TV.
Bowdien Henry Asa Derby was raised in this house, the baby of the family and spoiled from the start. His childhood nickname stuck to him like a number ironed to the back of a jersey, and as soon as he could stand, Bubba was toddling around the bases after his sister Val's softball games. As soon as he could speak, he was telling people he'd make the majors when he grew up. Most people would smile politely, but Al Derby latched on to the idea. If his son's dream was to be a baseball player, then a baseball player he would be.
Al signed up to coach Little League and enrolled Bubba at age four. They'd arrive hours early for practice so Bubba could take extra swings. They'd stay hours late so he could finesse his fielding. During games, Al would keep meticulous box scores that he'd file away in the garage. If Bubba committed an error or his three hits in a game were stained by a single strikeout, then father and son would be the two shadows flickering on the field in the headlights of Al's Toyota Tacoma, making sure Bubba would be better prepared for the next test.
Bubba burned through 105-degree southern California days. He crisscrossed baseball diamonds across the county on Friday nights, wondering what parties his friends were enjoying instead. And there weren't any holidays from baseball. When he was 11, he and his dad went straight from Easter service to the baseball field. Occasionally, Bubba would overreact to the pressure, like the time Al kept taunting him to hit a pitch and Bubba drove the first one straight back into his father's shin. But over time, he learned that the best way to keep his emotions at bay was to keep throwing, keep swinging—keep moving—until the stress would subside. "Sometimes, I know, I pushed him too hard," Al says. "He could take a lot. He never quit. He never crumbled."
Word of what happened in Vegas beats Bubba home. Darci and Jori had posted thank-you messages to him on Facebook, and soon TMZ had tracked him down for a FaceTime interview and labeled him a hero. He decides that the best way back to a normal life is to return to the field, so he decides to keep a commitment he'd made weeks earlier to coach for his alma mater, La Salle High School.
As he stands in the dugout, Bubba can see the players stealing glances at him. And he can feel the relentless buzzing of his iPhone in his pocket. He checks it each time, hoping for more information about the shooter or updates on the victims. He stares at his screen so often that the La Salle coach pulls him aside and asks if he might feel better switching it off for a few minutes. In his mind, Bubba erupts. That phone saved his life 48 hours ago. It had helped him find his sister and confirm the rest of his family had survived. But then he loosens his grip and loses himself in the game.
Bubba had been a star from the start at La Salle. In his first year of high school, he played on the freshman, JV and varsity teams, all at the same time. Harry Agajanian, his coach, marveled at Bubba's work ethic and his ability to excel under stress. "Kids like him sometimes burn out really quickly," Harry says. "The pressure he felt every game, especially in his last two seasons, was insane."
Before the start of Bubba's senior season, the La Salle squad bused down to San Diego for a team-building activity. Bubba hadn't eaten that morning, and when the team pulled into the Carl's Jr. parking lot, his mouth started watering. But, stepping off the bus, he was greeted by Marines. The La Salle Lancers were given 90 seconds to dump their belongings into camouflage backpacks and put on their uniforms. And then they ran.
For the next two nights, military volunteers at Sergeant Mike Muller's Camp Goalz subjected the team to seemingly endless runs in the sand, seemingly impossible obstacle courses and seemingly pointless punishments. At night, the Lancers had to keep a fire burning on the windy beach.
In the morning, before first light, they were woken by fireworks. And at all times, each boy was expected to keep a 10-pound stone—"the rock of responsibility"—off the ground. During the more physically demanding challenges, many of his teammates crumbled. But Bubba had long ago learned to keep moving forward. When two kids considered quitting the team just to go home for the weekend, Bubba convinced them to stay. When a freshman teammate couldn't handle holding his rock and running, Bubba shouldered it for him. At times, he ran for miles with three or four rocks.
Jordan Leitsch, one of the camp's volunteer instructors, looked at Bubba and saw a future leader. Like Al, he tried to bring out the best in Bubba by leaning into him even more fiercely. Bubba never backed down.
"If I just sit in a dark, quiet room and let my mind wander off to wherever it goes, one hundred percent of the time it's going to that night."
On the first weekend back from Las Vegas, Bubba agrees to meet his parents at his grandmother's house. As a boy, he'd spent most of his afternoons stealing his grandmother's tinfoil to make baseballs for backyard games with his cousin Jordan. They'd hide from her belt in forts they built in her living room. They'd return to her love at the kitchen table, where there were always plenty of empanadas. She died in October 2016. And now, in October 2017, he and his parents are trying to sell her home.
Bubba arrives ahead of his parents. He plays some music on his phone's speakers. He chooses a country playlist. It's still hard for him to hear country music, but anything beats silence. "If I just sit in a dark, quiet room and let my mind wander off to wherever it goes," he says, "one hundred percent of the time it's going to that night."
As his mom walks in the house, the track changes to "Dear Hate." Country star Maren Morris had written the lyrics in the wake of the Charleston shooting but didn't release the song until after Las Vegas.
I saw you on the news today
Like a shock that takes my breath away
You fall like rain, cover us in drops of pain
I'm afraid that we just might drown
Drops of pain drench Bubba's cheeks. His mom holds him on the couch as he sobs.
Just when I think you've given up
You were there in the garden when I ran from your voice
I hear you every morning through the chaos and the noise
You still whisper down through history and echo through these halls
And tell me love's gonna conquer all
Gonna conquer all
"All the thoughts were going through my head," Bubba says. "Why didn't I get shot? So many people around me got shot. Why was I able to survive? I've been a good person, but there were better people than me there who didn't make it. Everything hit me at once. Once I got it out, that was a turning point for me. That's when I started to heal."
The three fast friends burst through the fence, and Bubba's Apple Watch buzzes. It's his sister Kim. He tells Darci he needs to let go of her hand so he can answer. No, she can't let him do that. He puts her hand on his shirt and tells her to hold on to that instead. She does. Kim tells Bubba that she and her husband fled at the first sounds and were safe now in the Tropicana Hotel. Bubba peers north and sees the white facade shining less than a block ahead. He is no longer just running away. He is running to reunite with his family.
As they cross East Reno Avenue, they pick up a Route 91 festival worker named Sophia who sticks with them for the rest of the night, but she's gone the next morning before they can find a way to keep in touch. The four rush into the Tropicana through an employee entrance.
Suddenly, they're on the casino floor, chairs overturned and poker chips abandoned on their tables. Bloodied survivors are shaking under the slot machines. Whistles and bells and chimes of good fortune mock them through the loudspeakers. Bubba's sister and brother-in-law come careening around the corner. Fearing rumors of another attack that had filtered through the crowds, the group of six sprints across the parking lot to the Hooters Casino.
Bubba paces about with his phone, searching for service. He tries to call his mom. Beep...beep...beep... The call fails. He watches the police in paramilitary gear and the FBI agents flood the casino floor. He sees the death toll on TV rise from a few to a few dozen. He hears that the shooter is dead. He tries to call his dad. Beep…beep…beep... He sees Darci and Jori applying bandages to a bloodied woman. He watches Jori give the stranger her left shoe. He checks on his sister, who tells him she's going to throw up. All she can think about is whether Kaison, her firstborn, is safe. Bubba toggles his phone on and off airplane mode.
A mile and a half away, Al, Julie and Kaison are sheltered in a parking garage at the Mirage, where they'd been watching Cirque du Soleil. Julie had learned of the shooting in a frantic phone call from Kim. "They're killing us!" Kim had screamed. When Julie told Al, they talked each other out of sprinting down the strip, straight toward the gunfire, to find their children. They knew they needed to keep Kaison safe. So they follow Mirage employees to the garage and pray. After hours of missed connections, Julie sees Bubba's face on her iPhone screen. Bubba tells his mother that they are all safe but that another mother-son reunion is more important than theirs right now. He tells her to put Kaison on the phone. He sprints through the slot machines to Kim, who is curled on the floor, shivering in a blanket. He hands her the phone. "Hi, baby," she says. She doesn't cry until she hangs up.
Finally, Bubba breathes out. He looks down at his lower body for the first time and sees blood on his cowboy boots and on his jeans. He remembers reading about how adrenaline can mask even the most painful injuries, and he wonders: Have I been shot? He takes off his boots and rolls up his pants. No bullet holes.
On the plane back home to California—before Darci had wept at the sight of her babies at her front door and Jori had cuddled on the couch with her two teenage daughters all night—Jori asks Darci: How will we ever thank Bubba?
The next week, the three meet at the Anaheim Packing House, a trendy food hall between their houses. Darci asks Bubba for his ID, because she can't believe he's only 23. Darci gives Bubba a keychain she'd made with their names on it. Jori gives him a poop-emoji speaker. For three hours, they laugh and cry. Then they make a bold plan: They will go to another concert together.
On October 19, they meet again at Montana's Country Nightclub in San Dimas for a Route 91 survivors night. In just three weeks, Bubba has gone from the guy who was game for any concert in Southern California to a man who considers pulling off at every exit along the 210 to attend one. When he arrives, the survivors are let in first, which gives him a chance to check every exit. And when he scans the crowd, he sees the nervous tics among the strangers—the half-smiles, the full drinks, the shaky sways. It's a room full of people already realizing the difference between survival and escape. And it helps Bubba understand he isn't alone. "It was the first time I went out and I didn't feel vulnerable," he says. "It was the first time I danced."
But like the line dances that night, healing does not follow a straight path forward. A few nights later, Bubba's parents arrive at his sister Val's house to head out for a planned family dinner. They're a half-hour late. The Derbys don't even have a reservation, but Bubba is livid. He swears at his mother and storms out of the kitchen. A few days after that, Kim invites him to the beach with her kids. It's a dreamy Southern California day, and she pulls off at the first street parking space they can find. Bubba parks behind her but then complains for the entire 10-minute walk that they parked too far away. When he's still bothering his sister by the water, she tells him not to ruin a rare day with his niece and nephew, and he lets go.
In Las Vegas, he ran on pure instinct, and every move had been right. But now, no matter how long he runs, pain manages to keep up. No matter where he stops, panic finds him. Bubba calls someone he thinks might have a solution: Mike Muller, the veteran who put him through hell at Camp Goalz when he was 17. "Subliminally, that's what the camp is for," Muller says. "When the shit hits the fan, look around and take a breath and get through it. That's what he did [in Las Vegas]. But it stays with you, and I told him he needed to keep talking about it."
"Bubba reminded me that I could have an impact on people's lives still. In Las Vegas, he could have just fled for safety, but he didn't."
Muller also tells him about what had happened to Jordan Leitsch, the volunteer instructor Bubba had bonded with at the camp. In the intervening years, Leitsch had relocated to Wisconsin and lost his left leg, his life savings and, very nearly, his marriage. Bubba calls the Brewers, and by the time Leitsch is home recovering from surgery, gear and a letter from the team are waiting for him, and Bubba and Muller are planning a fundraiser to pay his medical bills. Only months later does Leitsch learn what happened in Vegas. "Bubba reminded me that I could have an impact on people's lives still," Leitsch says. "To see the way he turned out really encouraged me. In Las Vegas, he could have just fled for safety, but he didn't. With me, he could have just said, 'Hey, we all have our struggles,' but he didn't. Both times, he stayed and helped."
On the one-month anniversary of the shooting, Bubba feels strangely calm. He spends the day driving a parts truck for the GMC dealer where his mom works and imagining, at every hour, where he was at that moment in Las Vegas. He pulls off the interstate at his last stop. There's a soft haze hanging over the San Bernardino Mountains. He's listening to Go Country 105, music no longer a trigger. Then, he hears a few familiar chords but can't quite place them. He stops at a red light. He recognizes the song. It's "When She Says Baby" by Jason Aldean. The light turns green. He stares past it toward the mountains, his body as stiff as the brakes. He closes his eyes. The light cycles back to red. He doesn't move forward.
All winter, Bubba longs for the return of baseball. He craves the joy of jokes in the locker room and the pride of putting on the uniform. He wants to make the majors, because maybe then he would feel like there was a reason why, on a night when so many lives were stolen or scarred forever, he had escaped without a scratch.
He spends weeks of the offseason searching for the shooter's motive, scanning articles from major news outlets and then diving into the catacombs of the internet, through unverified Facebook posts and even conspiracy theory videos on YouTube. Finally, his brother-in-law tells him that he's never going to understand why and that he shouldn't give the killer any more of his attention.
Bubba had always made friends as easily as he'd hit home runs. And he had a soft spot for the misfits. At the little league drafts, Al knew that the last kid picked would be the first kid Bubba invited on the family's next trip to Disneyland. But after Las Vegas, trusting strangers is no longer second nature. Outside of his family, Jori and Darci are the only other people he knows who have seen what he's seen, and sometimes it feels like only they can understand why part of him is still running. Sometimes it feels like the only way for them to move forward is to stick together again.
Darci is about the same age as Bubba's older sisters, so she and her husband make fast friends with them, too. Darci's daughter Lila and Kim's son, Kaison, become friends. Bubba jokes that his new little friend and Kaison will get married someday. Lila starts calling him Uncle Bubba. When Lila hears Bubba's voice on the phone, she asks him to come to Chuck E. Cheese's with her. When she watches him on TV, she wears a pink shirt that her mother made her, with Bubba's No. 11 ironed on. They all go to Disneyland together one day in December, and after Darci and her husband, Dan, return from the single ride they enjoyed apart from the kids, they discover that Bubba has bought Lila a stuffed animal, of baby Bambi.
Darci and Dan are there when the Derbys send Bubba off to training camp in March, and they're there a few weeks later when the family visits him in Arizona. She wears a hat that reads BUBBA THE BRAVE. "We met under horrible circumstances," Darci says, "but we're like family now. When I see him, I don't think about all the bad memories. Instead, we create new good ones."
When Bubba arrives at Brewers spring training, he knows teammates are trying to be respectful of what he's been through. But he can sense what's left unspoken when they say, "It's really great to see you, man." When teammates ask him to tell the story, he feels out whether they want the full version or the short response. His default answer is to say that he saw the devil that day.
For months, he declines interview requests from magazines and morning shows across the country. He creates a custom glove with stitching over the thumb to commemorate the dead: 58 STRONG. "Maybe I would have felt like a hero if so many people hadn't died," Bubba says. "But so many people died. And so many people got hurt. There were so many shattered lives. I felt like I shouldn't have any attention. When people called me a hero, I couldn't stand it. But I did want people to know how much good there was in the midst of this tragedy."
The routine of returning to work helps him continue to heal, but even on the field, pain is always ready to pounce. A week into practice, the Brewers trainers are reviewing Bubba's heart rate with him when one asks if he was wearing his Apple Watch that night. Bubba says he was, and he scrolls through his Health app to see that just after 10, when the shooting started, his heart rate spiked from the 60s to 120 beats per minute. The trainers are stunned. Pitchers typically have heart rates north of 150 on the mound. "That's low," one of them tells Bubba, "especially if you were running for your life."
A few weeks later, he stands by first base with his position group to receive instructions from pitching coach Fred Dabney. As Bubba looks around the group, he sees red dirt from the field smeared on a teammate's pants. He remembers the blood on those cowboy boots and jeans that night in Las Vegas. And then he realizes something. "The first thing that came to my mind scared me," he says. "Why did I never think about whose blood that was? When I was searching my body looking for bullets, and I was fine, my mind just said, 'You're good.' Not until that point, months later, did I think about how right then I had only been concerned for my own safety."
At the Hooters casino, besieged by hundreds of survivors, Bubba passes the hours with routine. He volunteers to assist hotel employees handing out blankets and bottled water. He returns to his group to check on Darci and Jori and Kim, parked behind a slot machine. By 3 a.m., he finally connects with a cousin back home in California, and they set up a group text message thread with everyone in Las Vegas. From the group thread, Bubba eventually gets word that Aunt Monica and his cousin and his cousin's girlfriend are safe in their suite at the MGM Grand, which is right across the street. Monica invites Bubba to come crash with them.
When Bubba bends down to tell Kim the plan, Darci overhears it and asks:
"Can we come with you?"
"Of course," Bubba says.
"By the way," she says, "I'm Darci and this is Jori."
Wrapped in blankets, they sprint across the deserted street from Hooters to the MGM Grand. Inside, they see something none of them expected: People are rolling dice and pulling levers on slot machines and placing cards on poker tables. Hooters had looked like a refugee camp, but in the MGM Grand, it's Las Vegas as usual. Outside, 58 people have perished. More than 500 have been injured. And before the bandages have been applied, before the bodies have been buried, America has already begun to move on.
They shut the door behind them in the suite and settle into their new realities. No one has much to say, but they are almost all together—Bubba, his aunt, his cousin and his cousin's girlfriend, his brother-in-law and sister, and the band of strangers he was now bonded with forever. They snack on Goldfish and guzzle bottled waters and share phone chargers. About an hour after they arrive, Bubba gets another call from his mom. She and Al and Kaison are on the way over in a cab.
Bubba meets them in the lobby, hugging his exhausted parents and gently shaking Kaison awake. They ride the elevator up to their Grand Tower suite. When the doors open, Kaison, seeing his mom a few feet ahead, bounces from his stroller and barrels across the carpet to meet her. They move into each other's arms. On a night from hell, heaven looks like a tearful family together in a fourth-floor hallway.
"I saw what I saw," Bubba says. "I went through what I went through. At the end of the day, I got to go home with everyone. You can't compare that to someone who lost a husband or a wife or a child. When I left Vegas, I got to leave that behind. That's how I've begun to heal, to live my normal life with my family. Imagine trying to live your normal life without someone who was an everyday part of it. That's impossible. I saw what I saw, and I'll see it every day for the rest of my life. I can't change that. But I can wake up smiling tomorrow because I can call my sister and tell her how much I love her. So many people can't, and that breaks my heart."
Bubba jets to Colorado Springs in April for his first full season as a Triple-A starter for the Sky Sox. The rhythm of starting pitching suits him. When the team is at home, he gets to the clubhouse at the same time every day. On days when he doesn't pitch, he sits in the same spot in the bullpen. When he does go to the mound, he catches the ball, crouches, prays to his grandmother and goes to work.
Bubba doesn't strike an imposing presence on the mound. And with a fastball that rarely breaks 92 miles per hour, he isn't the kind of prospect you typically expect to see in Triple-A at 24 years old. "Hitters see him warming up and get excited," says Landon Burt, who coached him at San Diego State. "Then they get up to the plate and are back in the dugouts without realizing how they got out."
In 12 games with the Sky Sox the season before, he'd gone 5-0 with an ERA of 3.55 and 49 strikeouts. But this season he doesn't seem to have the same stuff, with an ERA just south of 4.50 and nearly as many losses as wins. At one afternoon practice, Dabney, the pitching coach, notices that Bubba seems to be somewhere else. Dabney has just returned from his son's wedding, and he tells the guys that although he doesn't have a daughter, if he did, the only player who could date her would be Bubba. "If you asked Bubba to bring your daughter home by 11," he says, "he'd have her there by 10:15. If you told him to put an empty seat in between them at the movies, I know there'd be popcorn in that chair."
Dabney has them all rolling now, gathered around the field, telling the team he could go gamble on a riverboat and get Bubba to take care of his house for weeks. Now he says he's changed his mind, and he might kick Bubba's ass just for imagining a date with his imaginary daughter. At first, Bubba laughs along with the rest of the group. Then he looks at Dabney and says, "I've seen the worst of the worst, and I'm not afraid of anything." The pitchers fall quiet.
"At times, I can tell something is different," Dabney says. "Now he's a little more reserved. I can see him thinking on the mound too much. He needs a little more encouragement in knowing that he's doing well. I tell him a lot more that he's doing fine. This year versus last year, he needs a lot more security."
During a road trip to Memphis, Bubba is standing with his hand over his heart for the national anthem when a familiar sight startles him. The ballpark backs up against a series of low-rise buildings, and Bubba spots someone on a roof. To Bubba, motionless on the field, the man appears to be staring at his team. As soon as the song ends, Bubba makes a beeline for the dugout and searches for the man again. He's gone.
"When he tells the story about Las Vegas, it can fool you into thinking he is OK. But how can anyone who has seen what he has be OK?"
For the first hour of the game, Bubba worries he is losing his grip on reality. In the fifth inning, another pitcher, Aaron Wilkerson, asks aloud in the dugout: "Hey, did anyone see that guy up on the roof before the game?" Bubba exhales. In the sixth inning, he hears a pop pop pop and springs up to see men doing construction on the same roof. "That was an eye-opener," Wilkerson says. "When he tells the story or even talks about Las Vegas, he's composed, and it can fool you into thinking that he is OK. But how can anyone who has seen what he has be OK?"
In early June, the Sky Sox fly to Sacramento. It's Bubba's only trip back home to California this season, and Darci decides to bring her family to watch him play in person for the first time. She and her husband fell in love in Sacramento, and the couple picks up Bubba from his hotel and bring him to the restaurant on the water where they were married. They walk along the river and sit down for beers. Bubba and Darci can never forget what drew them together. What they survived is the foundation of their friendship. But they don't discuss it much anymore. Instead, Darci shows Bubba photos of her daughters on her phone. Bubba catches them up on the season so far.
After a few hours, they drop Bubba back at the stadium. Night falls, and they return to settle into their seats with a big group of friends. Bubba doesn't play, but the Sky Sox win 7-2, and after the game he's buoyant. He invites Darci and four-year-old Lila down to the field to watch a postgame fireworks show.
Bubba doesn't like fireworks anymore. He braces himself for the blasts by tucking his knees into his chest and sitting in front of the rest of the group so they can't see his face. Before the show begins, Lila slides up next to him. She's wearing her pink No. 11 shirt and a fuzzy pink sweater. It's chilly and she snuggles in closer. She asks her Uncle Bubba if he's excited for the big show. He says that he is. She asks him what his favorite color is. He says it's red. She tells him hers is purple. Lila leans her little head against the pitcher's big arm.
Maybe a part of Bubba will always have to keep running from what happened in Las Vegas, but in this moment, he is still. They stare up into the night sky. There, in the darkness, a loud crackle and a flash of light.