For my children, who taught me to play.
For Mom and Dad, who taught me to read
and made me believe I could do anything.
Ten minutes left in the match and here he comes again. Number 10.
He fakes out our midfield, doing step-overs like a Neymar wannabe. But that won’t work on me. I’ve been shutting him down all night, and it’s making him crazy.
It’s making me crazy too. Because we always beat Port Peterson. We pay for our wins in blood and bruises, but we always win.
Tonight? I glance at the two guys icing injuries on the bench. We’ve got the blood and bruises, but we’re still chasing our first goal.
I ambush number 10 outside the eighteen-yard box and jockey. He touches the ball through, but I get a toe on it. Then he somersaults over my foot.
He could get a gold medal for a dive like that. Or a yellow card.
He rolls around like his leg is broken. Correction: a gold medal and an Academy Award.
The ref whistles the play.
“Called that one,” I mutter. “Drama queen.”
I set up the ball for a free kick. But the ref whistles again and pulls out a yellow. For me!
I roll my eyes. “Seriously, ref?”
Number 10 jumps up and smirks at me.
I clap my hands. “Nice performance, jerkface. Miraculous recovery.”
“Forget it, Jack,” Alex yells from the net. “Grab a man.”
“No problem, bro.” I follow number 10.
The free kick is perfect. So is the elbow number 10 lands when we go up to head the ball. I end up flat on my back counting stars. Son of a—
A whistle? Must be the elbow. Good call, ref.
Wait—cheering? They scored on that header?
I sit up, and everything spins. Hands pull me to my feet and steady me until the black fades.
Alex’s face swims into view. “You all right, bro?”
“Yeah.” Then I see number 10 and lunge. “But I’m going to kill that guy.”
I must’ve hit my head harder than I thought. I can’t reach him. Then I figure it out. Alex won’t let go of my shirt.
“Don’t be stupid, Jack. Just get it back.”
But the ball barely clears the center circle when the game ends.
We’ve lost. To Port fricking Peterson.
Alex and I leave the training center as the dome goes dark and the last car pulls away. The park is deserted this time of night. The lamp posts that line the path show us the way home.
“We’ve never lost to Port Peterson before.” Alex kicks a stone ahead of him. His voice is quiet. “We were unbeatable in the first half of the season. Top of the table. Now, four games into the spring season, we’re 1–1–2. Some captain I am.”
He always takes the blame, even at home. Oh, we win as a team. But if we lose, it’s all his fault. Part of being a keeper, I guess. Part of being the oldest, even if it’s only by ten months. Mom calls him Mr. Responsible.
Now he’s wearing the captain’s armband. But it’s not his fault Jonesy left. “Don’t beat yourself up, bro. You heard Coach. It’ll take us time to learn to play without Jonesy.”
Jonesy left just before spring season started. I heard about it first. I saw him leave Coach’s office with this goofy smile on his face. Like the prettiest girl in school had just grabbed him by the ears and kissed him.
“I just got the best news. I can’t believe it.” He blinked. “I’m going to Liverpool.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“Liverpool. They want to sign me. To play.” He laughed. “In England! I leave in a couple of weeks.”
Leaving? It felt like a soccer boot to the gut. Like when Mom and Dad split up.
“But—soccer! And—Liverpool? That’s…” That’s the Premier League. What every soccer player dreams about. I forced a smile. “That’s awesome, man. Congrats.”
We lost our captain, our top scorer and our best playmaker, all at once. Alex and I lost our best friend.
Hard to believe the world can turn on its head so fast.
I give Alex’s stone a kick. It clangs off a lamp post.
Alex takes everything so seriously. I wish he’d joke around like I do. Or get mad—that burns itself out.
Not Alex. He’d rather chew on it. So I look for a way to fill the silence. “When does our new striker arrive?”
“Late next week. He might make it to a practice. Definitely before our next game. Coach says he’s got a great shot.”
“See? He can be our secret weapon. When we meet Port Peterson again in June, we’ll crush them.”
We seal it with a fist bump.
Good thing we’re almost home. My eye is throbbing.
“I’m going to pay that guy back for the elbow too. With interest.”
Alex looks over. “How is it?”
I touch the swelling with my fingertips and wince. “As big as a tennis ball. Probably twice as pretty.”
That makes him smile. “Better ice it again when we get in the door. So you don’t scare people.”
“Aye, Captain. But I’d rather get an eye patch. Go pirate. You know, in case the crew mutinies. Or the captain abandons ship.” I elbow him in the ribs. “‘Captain Jack’ has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”
He laughs and elbows me back. “In your dreams. I’m not abandoning anyone.”
“Arr, matey. Ice it is then.”
I throw on a pot of pasta and flip open my laptop while it cooks. “So what do you know about the new guy?”
“Just his name—Gil Joseph.”
“That’s enough for Google.” I type it in pirate-style—holding a bag of frozen peas against my eye. “Check it out. He’s got his own YouTube channel.”
Alex leans over my shoulder, and I play the first video. It opens with a scrimmage.
“That must be him.” I point to a tall blond guy in a blue pinny. “He’s quick. Look at him deke their mids.”
When he crosses midfield, he chips the defender and races in on a breakaway. He sends the ball into the top corner. Goal!
“Ouch!” says Alex. “The keep didn’t have a chance.”
The video cuts to shot after shot. Alex and I put on phony Brit accents and pretend to be Premier League commentators.
“Here comes Joseph again. He’s charging down the wing.”
“He’s blazing hot tonight. Just looking for chances. Dangerous, giving him that much space.”
“The midfielder tries to keep him outside, but he can’t read him at all. A step-over, a lovely little touch and…”
“…he’s through! And a nice crisp pass to the middle. Then back to him.”
“He left-foots it and…”
The video ends with a beautiful penalty shot. We cheer like it’s Man U.
We grab our pasta, and Alex sits down across from me. He’s got a big grin on his face. “What a highlight reel!”
“He’s a one-man firing squad. Glad he’s on our side.”
When I’m done eating, I knock on the laptop. “Fantasy soccer results should be up. Want to see who’s doing the dishes this week?”
Alex makes a face. “Sounds more like your fantasy than mine.”
“Awww—afraid of getting prune fingers?”
“Shut up, you jerk.” He punches me and laughs. “I’ve seen the scores this week. The only points my guys will get is for field time. I wish Jakobs was playing.”
“I can’t believe you picked him. I saw him in co-op yesterday. His knee is the size of a soccer ball! He won’t be back for months.”
“He’s a Lancer. Where’s your loyalty, bro?”
“I’ve got plenty of loyalty! But it’s not like you picked Benson. He’s coming back soon.”
He mumbles something.
“Ha! You picked Benson too?” I smack myself in the head. “You can’t let personal feelings get in the way of a winning team.”
“So you keep telling me. Hand over the laptop. Let’s get this over with.”
Alex logs on and the stats flash on the screen.
“Big surprise. You beat m—huh.” He blinks at the numbers and scrolls down. “How’d you do that? Is this some kind of joke?”
“Do what?” I lean in for a closer look. That can’t be right. Can it?
“Let me see that.” I log Alex out and try to sign in, but my fingers stumble over the keys.
Finally! Welcome back, Jack Attack.
My stomach does a flip. That’s my name at the top of the leaderboard. That means… that means…
Alex shouts and laughs and punches me. “Ha! Look at that! You’re number one!”
Top team: Jack Attack. I can’t believe my eyes.
I knew I had a good week. But this? This is amazing! I jump up and pump my fist.
“Yeah! I am the king!” I put Alex in a headlock. “Say it! Say I am the king.”
“You are the—the—” He’s laughing so hard he can’t get the words out.
“Come on. Say it. I am the fantasy soccer king!”
“You are the…fantasy…soccer king!” he wheezes.
I let him go and check the screen again. “I can’t believe this.”
“Me neither,” says Alex. “You have all the luck!”
“Luck? Do I have to punch you out?”
“No!” He’s holding his sides now and gasping for breath. “I—I surrender.”
I wag a finger at him. “Luck is for suckers. This takes skill.”
He snorts. “Skill. Right!”
“I would be so rich if I could play for money instead of chores.”
Alex snorts again.
“Don’t believe me? Then tell me. How many weeks did I have dish duty last season?” I cup a hand to my ear. “That’s right. Zero!”
“That just means I suck.” Alex starts laughing again.
I grin. “You definitely suck. You pick players with broken legs.”
Alex is laughing too hard to argue. “Yup.”
“But I beat everyone. Thousands of people.” I raise my arms like a prizefighter. “I am the fantasy soccer king! And that’s why I will be managing Manchester United in ten years, bro. And why you will still be washing my dishes.”
We head to bed around ten thirty, but I’m so pumped I can’t fall asleep. Mom comes in around eleven and tiptoes in to check on us. Then the phone rings. She hurries to her room to pick it up. I can tell by the edge in her voice that it’s Dad.
“Of course they’re not up, Rick. Look at the time…We were all out. The boys had a game, and I had to work late…No, I don’t know if they won…You should’ve asked before you bought the tickets. That’s a school night.”
Tickets? Must be a Lancers game!
“I know. But soccer already takes up a lot of their time. They need to study. Universities look at their grade-eleven marks.”
Then she sighs.
“All right. I’ll ask them…No, not now. In the morning.”
She knows we’ll say yes. Before Mom and Dad split up, we had season tickets. Now we only go when Dad feels guilty.
“I wish you’d just pay your child support instead of buying tickets. The boys need… Of course. A client gave them to you.”
She sighs again. I know what that means.
“I don’t want to get into it, Rick, okay?… Yeah, I’ll tell them.”
“Psst, Alex! You awake?” I throw a balled-up sock across the room, and it bounces off Alex’s head.
“That was Dad. I think he scored Lancers tickets.”
I hope it’s the Portland game.
I was right about the tickets. And the team.
I wait for Dad at our usual spot outside the south gate. Fans flow around me, shouting, singing and sounding horns. A familiar whistle cuts through the noise, and I find Dad in the sea of red shirts and waving flags. It takes us a while to shuffle through the crowds at the gate and work our way up the ramps. Enough time for me to tell Dad about our game and explain the shiner.
“Where are the tickets?” I raise my voice over the buzz.
“Same as always,” Dad says. “Halfway up. Corner of the eighteen-yard box.”
My favorite spot—high enough to see the action, close enough to watch the goals. Right where our season tickets used to be.
The stadium is almost full, and it’s still fifteen minutes to kickoff.
“Too bad Alex didn’t come,” says Dad. “He’s going to miss a great game.”
“Too much homework.”
“How about you?”
“No homework in co-op.” I grin.
“Right! You’re working with the Lancers. I bet your coach pulled strings for that! What have they got you doing? Taping up ankles?”
“Come on, Dad—I’m seventeen. I can’t treat anyone. But I get to watch everything.”
“That’s what co-op is for. I’ve learned so much already. How to treat injuries. How to recover. How to avoid getting reinjured. And I—”
“Well, I guess it’s a step up from the boot room. Two steps up from carrying towels.”
If he only knew. Laying out towels and supplies is mostly what I do in co-op. Plus filing and setting up equipment.