They’d never won it, the Interschool Soccer Tournament, Under 14s. And now Headers—Brendan Hedgers—had gone penga from his ball being stolen.

“We’re the hosts this year,” Max was saying so his mother wouldn’t ask what three things had he learned that day. “This Saturday is try-outs, but if Headers keeps acting mental, he won’t make the team. Then there’s no way we’ll win the tournament.”

“‘We’—that’s new.”

“How’s he supposed to get good again in four days?”

At the dip in Fairview she shifted the Citroen into second. Changing to low gear made it screech, but a hundred times worse was them chugging up the long hill to the ultra-larney flat they were house-sitting, their car without warning suddenly farting.

“Makes no sense, you not participating. You played on three teams at St. Alban.”

Max turned to look out his window like something was there. Really he was rolling his eyes at how she called it St. Alban when it was St. Alban Junior School. They were passing that stick-insect garden-boy again. He was in his same shorts, slashing at the long grass with a pirate-machete-sword-thing that was bopa-ed with blue twine to the end of a rake handle.

Actually,” his mom said, “you’re buying some cleats and trying out, end of story. Why is everything with you an international incident?”

“The others’re better than me. I watch them practice so I know.”

The fart was double-barreled. Max would’ve got out and walked except then the cars behind them would know it was their car for sure.

“You can either take yourself to the Thrift Shop tomorrow or we’ll go together. Look, sports teaches you to stick to something. Mr. Collins could’ve retired but he knows you wouldn’t have a coach at all then. That says a lot—commitment for one thing.”

Max almost forgot to turn away before rolling his eyes. “Dad hated school sports. He reckons golf’s what I should play.”

Max felt her get ready to say what a big help Dad was from a distance but the Citroen jerked suddenly so she had to concentrate.

“Being on a team is important,” she said, parking in their garage and ignoring him not listening. “You learn toughness, how not to crack under pressure.”

These days they ate supper early. Then they cleared the table and sat back down to homework. Hers was Executive Shorthand, and though she moaned about how much the course cost and that she had to take off work two afternoons a week, plus do three hours of practicals every Saturday morning, she nailed her tests. With a certificate she could stop being a regular secretary. Then they could move into their own flat near where they used to live, plus sell their rubbish car and get an Alpha Romeo Spider or a Corsair.

They were getting out their books when the phone rang. She said he could answer but mustn’t be long since it was a school night.

The phone had its own fancy glass table and backless cushion seat in the gold-and-maroon entranceway. When he was by himself, Max made baboon noises in here because the echoes were real-sounding.

“Dad—how come it’s you?”

“Can’t I phone you except on Sundays? I was thinking about you, Maxo, that’s all. But if your mom’s there, I’d like a word.”

Max said the usual, that he’d take a message. The message was that she should watch the news later; a C-47 had been shot down near the border and the names of those killed were being released.

“Your news gives out names before mine does. I might know some of the guys who were killed. I still care what’s happening there, you know, so don’t think I don’t. Anyhow, if your mom doesn’t phone me tonight I’ll stop worrying.”

Back at the table, his mom had left a note for him on her greenish shorthand paper. “Cleats tomorrow!!” it said. Two ten-dollar notes were under it.

From the cupboard in the kitchen, Max pulled out Miss Piggy and uncorked her snout. Pins and needles were pricking his arms and stinging his fingers but he managed to snag what he wanted, two more tens and some twenty-cent coins.

He was memorizing French vocab when he heard the water being let out from her bath upstairs. If she said she didn’t believe him that it had been a wrong number, to stop her bossing him he’d say okay fine, it was Dad, also what sounded like a party in the background, people laughing round a pool.

At breakfast his mom said he could ride his bike if he promised not to go hands-free down Fairview. The older boys who did that were cocky and also inconsiderate, scaring the living daylights out of the poor drivers. At lunchtime, instead of eating his sandwiches in the quad with everyone else till half-one when usually he went to Lower Field to help Mr. Collins, Max ran to the bike shed. Pedaling fast, he pretended hyenas were after him and pedaled faster. The footpaths crisscrossing the vlei that were shortcuts to the Avonlea shops were so full of rocks his emptied rucksack kept launching itself into the back of his head.

The ball, a Mitre size five, snap to what Headers had, cost $45.50. The man inside Champions said never mind the $5.50, he’d been a player, a midfielder, before he stuffed up his knee.

Back at school, Mr. Collins said policy forbade parents from making a private donation. The ball was a beaut, but rules were rules.

“But it’s me that’s giving it.” Max’s arms started prickling. To ignore it, he pictured the ants that used to march down the kitchen walls in their old house whenever the cook let something burn. “My dad sent me money already, birthday and Christmas combined. He’s living Down South now, in Jo’burg. He reckons it’s time to face facts—that we’re going down the drain. That Rhodesia is, I mean.”

Mr. Collins took the ball. “One fact for sure is every time someone gaps it from here, those who’re staying put have another week of call-up.” He bounced the ball off his shiny forehead and into his hands. “As long as you’re sure it’s from you, hey.”

At Saturday’s try-outs, Headers was back to being brilliant. In every drill—penalty kicks, throw-ins, headers, slow passes—he was on fire, and no matter how tight Mr. Collins had Max set the cones, Headers ran them like thread through a needle. Max could’ve carried on watching and helping except the Citroen’s screech was suddenly behind him, in the parking lot.

He jogged to where the others were waiting for Mr. Collins to shout “Next!” He windmilled his arms, making the prickling feel like tiny spits of rain. Even with torn newspaper in the toes of the five-dollar cleats he’d said cost twenty, the shoes kept slipping down his heels. But it was supposed to look obvious, him making an effort. Then, when he wasn’t even a substitute, he’d say now could she stop making it an international incident, him not wanting to be on a team.


Lynn Bey has had short stories and flash fiction published in The Literarian (nominated for a Pushcart award), The Brooklyner, Birmingham Arts Journal, Two Hawks Quarterly, Marco Polo Arts, Prime Number Magazine, and several other magazines.