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Authors: Robert Rayner

Tags: #JUVENILE FICTION / Sports and Recreation / Games, #JUVENILE FICTION / Boys and Men, #JUVENILE FICTION / Humorous Stories

Just for Kicks

BOOK: Just for Kicks
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Cover

Just for Kicks

Robert Rayner

James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Publishers
Toronto

Dedication

Just for Kicks
is for Ben and Duncan

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the people at James Lorimer & Company for their help in prodding and molding the narrative, and, as always, to Nancy for her patient and sharp responses to drafts.

1

The Stranger

As soon as we clattered into Portage Street, our cleats rattling on the sidewalk and echoing from the houses, I saw the stranger. He was near the end of the street, and he was watching us. The others didn't notice him. They were too busy playing street soccer.

Shay kicked the ball to Brian, who slammed it against a garden fence. It bounced to Julie, who trapped it neatly and rolled it to me. I was behind everybody and panting, as usual. Brian crouched in the middle of the road, dancing on his toes, his arms wide, guarding an imaginary goal.

He challenged me: “Toby — shoot!”

As I swung my leg, my cleats slipped on the sidewalk. Before I fell backwards, my foot shot under the ball and sent it arcing high toward Brian's make-believe goal. He leapt sensationally but the ball flew over him.

I raised my hands from where I lay sprawled on the ground. “Goal!”

Brian objected. “Over the bar.”

“Just
under
the bar and in the top of the net,” I insisted.

Julie picked up the ball. “No goal — because the goal isn't even in the middle of the road. It's …” She looked around. “It's … It's … It's between the red car and the delivery truck up there.” She pointed farther along Portage Street, towards where the stranger still watched, and raced away with the ball at her feet, her long hair streaming behind her. Shay and Brian gave chase.

I called, “Thanks for waiting, guys,” picking myself up and plodding after them.

Julie was easily first to the “goal.” She put her foot on the ball and folded her arms, grinning back at Shay and Brian. As they drew near, she tapped the ball between the red car and the delivery truck, then raised her hands and danced in a circle in the middle of the road. “Goal! Goal! Goal!”

“Not fair,” said Brian.

“Doesn't count,” said Shay.

As I caught up with them, Julie said, “Now the goal's …” She looked around and repeated slowly, “Now the goal's … the driveway …” She looked back the way we'd come. We all did the same. Suddenly whirling around she finished quickly, “… the driveway at the end of the street.” She rolled the ball forwards and raced after it again.

Brian repeated, “Not fair” as he chased after her.

Shay shook his head, muttering, “Girls …” He set off after Julie, too.

I groaned and trudged behind them. I always seem to be the one plodding after my friends. They don't usually mind. They know I'm slow and a bit overweight and can't play soccer like them. Shay's brilliant. He can do tricks with the ball, and always seems to know where everyone is on the field, and where the spaces are — or will be. Julie's a fast, ferocious defender, and Brian's brave and acrobatic in goal, which is why we call him Flyin' Brian. I like being on a team with them, but I don't think I contribute much. The best I can do is provide a few laughs. Sometimes I wonder if that's the only reason they let me be on the team. I try not to think too much about these things.

It was the first Saturday in September, and we were on our way to the Back Field to play soccer with our friends from Pleasant Harbour. It would be our first game of the season.

Julie put her foot on the ball again, and folded her arms, grinning, as Shay and Brian approached. Like before, she tapped the ball into her “goal” as soon as they went to tackle her. She danced on the sidewalk, spinning in circles with her arms high. “Goal. Goal. Goal. Girls rule.”

The stranger, who was leaning against a car parked on the other side of the road, clapped. Julie stopped spinning. Shay stood beside her.

The man called, “Good goal, little missy.”

Shay and Julie waved at me to hurry and catch up.

“Who's that?” muttered Julie.

“Don't know,” said Shay.

I whispered, “He's been watching us play soccer all the way up the street.”

“Why's he so interested in us playing soccer?” Julie asked.

“Don't know,” said Shay again.

“Is there a big game this afternoon?” the man asked. “I might come and watch.”

He wore a navy sports jacket over a white, open-necked shirt. A ball cap with the letters E.C.C. on the front shaded his tanned face.

Brian was about to answer but I tugged at his arm. “Remember the street-smart drill we did in school? We don't know this guy — so we don't trust him. Right? Come on.”

Ignoring the stranger, we moved on up the street. Running ahead, Brian pranced on his toes beside a sign that said “Brunswick Valley School (Kindergarten–Grade 8): Learning to Live and Living to Learn.” The school — our school, where we were in grade seven — loomed behind him, two storeys of solid old brick relieved only by a few windows painted boring school yellow.

“The school entrance is the goal. Shoot!” Brian called.

Shay rolled the ball behind him, then, catching it between the toe of one foot and the heel of the other, flipped it over his head. Before it hit the ground, he punted it on to Julie, who kept the ball in the air, heading it twice before letting it fall to her right foot and shooting waist high at Brian's goal. He dived, caught the ball, and did a forward roll to cushion his landing. He threw it back to me. I dribbled it into the schoolyard and kicked it as hard as I could. It bounced across the gravel of the playground towards the Back Field.

As we chased after it, I glanced behind me. The stranger was still watching.

2

First Game

Brian was first down to the Back Field. By the time we arrived, he was swinging from the crossbar of one of the goals as two figures trotted in from the Back Road on the other side of the field.

“Yo, Chip,” shouted Brian.

“Cousin Cuz,” I exclaimed.

We ran to the centre of the field. Cousin Cuz grabbed me in a hug, while Chip, who was short and slight and freckly, with wispy, red hair, silently shook hands with each of us in turn.

Brian gaped from me to Cousin Cuz and back. “It's like seeing you in a mirror, Toby, except one of you is a girl, and is …” He hesitated.

“And is even bigger than me,” I supplied.

Cuz and I have the same chunky build, the same full face, and the same short, blonde hair, but Cuz is chunkier and taller than me. The only other difference is that my hair's spiky and hers is curly.

“This is Cousin Rebecca Cousins,” I said. “I call her Cuz.”

“It's like someone's blown you up, Toby,” said Brian, still looking from Cuz to me.

“Hi, Cuz,” said Julie. “Is Cuz short for cousin?”

Cuz shook her head.

“I call her Cuz because that's what she's always saying,” I explained.

“Huh?” said Brian.

I turned to Cuz. “Why do I call you Cuz?”

Cuz shrugged. “'Cause.”

“See?” I said. Turning back to Cuz, I went on, “I thought you were living on the north shore.”

“I was, but the company wanted Dad to take over the Pleasant Harbour plant, so we just moved back. I was going to call you this weekend. I never expected to meet you on the soccer field. I didn't even know you played soccer.”

“I started playing to try and — you know — get in shape,” I said, patting my stomach. “What about you? Why did you start playing?”

Cuz shrugged. “'Cause.”

As we spoke, a minivan pulled into the schoolyard bringing more of the Brunswick Valley team. The twins, Jillian and Jessica, raced onto the field and danced around Chip, their ponytails bobbing behind them as they peppered him with questions.

“We haven't seen you all summer, Chip. Where have you been?” Jillian demanded.

“I like your hair. Have you just had it cut?” Jessica asked.

Blushing, Chip shook hands with the twins. They each took one of his arms, still showering him with questions.

“Nice soccer shirt. Where did you get it?”

“How did you get here?”

“Did you walk over the Mountain Road?”

“'Course he walked over the Mountain Road. He always walks over the Mountain Road. Right, Chip?”

“Who have you brought with you?”

“Is this your girlfriend?”

The last question was directed at Cuz, who put her hands on her hips. I thought I'd better step in.

“This is Cousin Cuz,” I announced to everybody.

“Cuz — short for cousin?” Jessica asked Cuz.

They were saved from my Cousin Cuz routine by the arrival of more soccer players from Pleasant Harbour, who ran in from the Back Road where another minivan had pulled up.

Meredith shouted, “I haven't seen a
single one
of you guys
all summer
.”

“Cool glasses,” I greeted her.

She stopped and adjusted them. They had red frames, shaped like cats' eyes.

“Blue frames are
all
the rage this season,” she said, wiggling her nose and adjusting her glasses again. “So I'm wearing red. Ma says they complement my hair.” She patted her strawberry blonde curls as she walked on, demanding, “
How
was everybody's summer? Who passed? Who
didn't
pass?”

“We all passed,” said Julie.

“Even me,” said Brian.

“All of us, too,” said Meredith.

That meant most of us were in grade seven, except for a few in grade six and grade eight.

As still more players arrived, Brian ran to one of the goals and danced between the posts, his dark eyes flashing. “Come on, folks. Let's play,” he called.

Meredith, Chip, and Cuz fanned out in front of his goal.

“Shoot, Cousin Cuz!” Brian challenged.

Cuz took what looked like a lazy kick at the ball. It flew towards the goal at about a thousand kilometres an hour. I thought — if Brian gets in the way it'll carry him into the woods. But Brian just watched as Cuz's shot crashed against the crossbar. The goal frame shook.

“Wow. Why didn't you tell me you could shoot like that?” Brian shouted.

Cuz grinned. “'Cause.”

Meredith called, “How many players have we got?”

Julie said, “You've got nine, and we've got eleven. You need one of our team to make the sides even.”

We often change sides to make the numbers equal, or just for fun.

“How about Toby playing for us?” Cuz suggested.

I smiled and nodded. “Whatever.”

“Play up front with me,” said Cuz. “You can be centre forward and take the kickoff.”

I nodded again. I usually played defence, and I'd never been a centre forward, but I thought I could do as little damage to the team there as anywhere.

“Everybody ready?” Shay asked, looking around the field.

“Blast off!” I said.

I kicked the ball to Cuz, who passed back to Chip.

“Come on, Toby,” Cuz urged, and began to run upfield.

“I have to
run
?” I protested.

As Cuz charged past me, my eye fell on the stranger. He'd moved to the top of the grassy bank that lay between the playground and the Back Field. He was watching us intently, and his hands were twitching, as if they wanted to point and gesture.

I set off behind Cuz, who called to Chip, “Quick — here's our chance to score.”

She pointed to the Brunswick Valley goal, where Flyin' Brian was balancing on the crossbar with his arms out as if he was walking the tightrope in a circus. Chip kicked the ball at the goal. Brian somersaulted from the bar and landed just in time to catch it. He threw it to Shay, who passed to Jessica out on the wing.

Jillian, standing near the goal, shouted, “Here!”

Quan, one of the Pleasant Harbour backs, moved to cover her. Olaf, the Harbour goalkeeper, crouched, ready to jump for the ball.

A movement at the edge of the field caught my eye. It was the stranger. He'd come down the slope and was pointing at Julie, who was unmarked as she followed up the attack. Jessica looked where he was pointing, and instead of passing the ball to Jillian in the goalmouth, sent it downfield to Julie. Julie took three steps with it before shooting past Olaf, who was still scrambling back from where he'd waited for Jessica's cross.

“Nice goal,” said Olaf.

The stranger pumped his fist.

Following my glance, Cuz said, “Who's that?”

“No idea,” I said. I took the kickoff and puffed upfield. Chip lofted the ball into centre, where Cuz waited. She called, “Heads up, Brian,” and unleashed a missile shot that Brian, flinging himself across the goal, parried but couldn't hold. Meredith, following up, tapped the ball into the net.

Brunswick Valley struck back quickly. Shay got the ball, weaved around Chip and, as Meredith approached to tackle, lobbed the ball over her and collected it on the other side. Cuz raced back to help the defence, running full-tilt towards Shay. He stopped with his foot on the ball. Cuz rocketed past, and Shay set off again towards the Pleasant Harbour goal.

“Will someone please stop him?” called Olaf, dancing on his goal line.

Quan ran to challenge, but Shay tapped the ball through his legs and continued on his way. Meanwhile Cuz had never stopped running. Her momentum had carried her in a wide arc, so that now she was thundering towards Shay from the side, at the same time as Olaf advanced to cut down the shooting angle. Shay reversed direction, leaving Cuz and Olaf heading for each other. Olaf froze, bracing himself for a collision. Cuz dug her heels in the ground, flung herself backwards, and stopped centimetres from Olaf. Shay tapped the ball over them into the net.

“Wicked,” commented Cuz, grinning up at Shay.

Applause came from the side of the field. It was the stranger. “Great play,” he called.

“Who is that guy?” muttered Shay.

A few minutes later it was Pleasant Harbour's turn to attack. Chip stole the ball from Linh-Mai, one of the Brunswick Valley defenders, and raced down the wing with it.

As I waited in front of Brian's goal, the stranger shouted, “Make space for yourself, centre forward.”

Without thinking, I obeyed, moving away from Julie, who was marking me. I looked back to see where Chip was with the ball just in time to see him lob it towards me. Before I could think about what to do with a pass that was too low to head and too high to kick, the ball bounced off my stomach, past Brian, and into the goal.

“Have I scored?” I said.

“You can't score with your gut,” Brian protested. “It should be a free kick for us — not a goal for you.”

We all looked at Chip.

“International Soccer Association Law Twelve. Fouls and misconduct. ‘A direct free kick is awarded if a player
handles
the ball deliberately,'” said Chip.

“And I didn't handle the ball,” I said. “I stomached it.”

“Good positioning, centre forward,” the stranger shouted.

“Who
is
that guy?” said Brian.

I sneaked a look at the stranger. He caught my eye, nodded, and raised his thumb. I grinned. I'd scored my first ever goal, even if I didn't really have to do anything — except have a big belly. It felt almost as good as making people laugh.

“What's the score?” asked Julie.

“Don't know,” said Meredith.

“Jillian scored for us, after she got Shay's pass on the wing,” said Jessica.

“Chip and Quan scored for Pleasant Harbour,” I said.

“Don't forget Toby's stomach goal,” Shay put in.

“Didn't you get a goal early in the game?” Linh-Mai asked Julie.

Julie thought. “Did I score, Olaf?”

“Think so,” said Olaf.

“So — what's the score?” Julie said.

We all thought.

“Don't know,” said Meredith.

A horn sounded in the schoolyard.

“There's Mom,” said Jillian.

“'Bye, Chip,” the twins cooed together.

Chip blushed and waved.

“I've got to go, too,” said Julie. “Mom has to work and I'm babysitting Little Sis.”

“End of game,” Shay announced. “See you next week in Pleasant Harbour.”

We always played in Brunswick Valley one week and in Pleasant Harbour the next. We'd done this for two years, since both our schools had decided there weren't enough kids to offer soccer as well as basketball. When the kids were asked which sport they wanted to play, most chose basketball, so Shay and Chip started arranging our games.

The Brunswick Valley players wandered up through the schoolyard while the kids from Pleasant Harbour drifted across the field towards the Back Road to wait for parents to pick them up. We collected Brian from his goal, where he was hanging upside down from the crossbar, and said goodbye to Chip and Cuz as they set off to walk home over the Mountain Road.

Cuz turned back. “Toby, aren't we forgetting something?”

“Sorry, Cuz.” I trotted to her and we hugged.

“Why do you hug goodbye?” asked Brian.

“'Cause,” said Cuz.

“We've always hugged goodbye — ever since we were little kids,” I said.

As we headed across the Back Field, Shay muttered, “Look,” and nodded towards the edge of the playground. The stranger was talking to the twins' mom, and he kept glancing in our direction.

We hurried to catch up with the twins.

“Who's that talking to your mom?” I asked.

“He's her new boss,” said Jillian.

“He's just taken over the car place,” said Jessica. Mrs. Fiander, the twins' mom, worked at the car dealership in Brunswick Valley.

“His name's Alan Fleet and Mom thinks he's a dish,” Jillian added, rolling her eyes.

The stranger beckoned to us.

“We don't know this guy,” I muttered.

Brian was already trotting across to him.

“He's with our mom,” Jillian said.

“I guess that makes it all right to go over — for us, anyway,” Jessica said.

We followed the twins.

As we approached, Mrs. Fiander said, “This is Mr. Alan Fleet. He wants to talk to you.”

Alan Fleet smiled at us. “You all play a good game of soccer. I'd like to help you play even better.”

“Do you play soccer?” asked Brian.

“I used to.” He took off his cap and his sandy hair flopped across his forehead. Pointing to the letters on the front of the cap, he said, “See that? E.C.C. It stands for Eastern Canadian Cougars. Have you heard of them?”

Of course we'd heard of them. You couldn't turn on the sports channel during the soccer season without hearing about them. Last year they were Canadian Soccer League champions.

“Did you play for the Cougars?” Brian gasped, looking up at Alan Fleet with his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open.

“Mostly I played in the reserves, but I had a few games with the first team. Now some of you” — he looked at Brian and Shay and Julie as he spoke — “some of you have the potential to make that grade of soccer, with the right coaching and the right attitude. How about it? Are you interested in getting a little help?”

“From
you
?” Brian breathed.

Alan Fleet nodded. “If you like.”

“Wow. Yes — please,” said Brian.

I looked at Shay. Julie looked at him, too.

Shay shrugged.

Julie said, “We'll have to think about it.”

Alan Fleet said, “I know. You're right to be cautious. You have to check with your parents, of course. I'll get Mrs. Fiander here to call around and set up a meeting.”

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