CleatsAlex laced up the soccer shoes. Not a bad fit, and they were only a little worn, not like the first pair he’d found at the thrift store. Those had been ready for the dumpster. He looked around. No one was paying any attention to the skinny kid by the shoe bin.
He’d worn his baggy sweatshirt to give him a place to hide the shoes, but as he looked from the nearly-new cleats on his feet to the ragged sneakers he’d been wearing, Alex got a better idea. It would be a bit awkward, because the cleats made walking on hard surfaces a little weird, but lots of the kids wore them into McD’s and places after games, and no one paid any attention.
With a final glance around, he made up his mind. He dumped his old sneakers into the bin and stood up. “Exchange isn’t stealing,” he told himself.
A woman in a flowery skirt and a black leotard watched unseen from behind a rack of clothes, but said nothing as the skinny 12-year-old sauntered out the door with a smile and a wave for the old lady behind the cash register.
“Didn’t you find what you needed? Better luck next time!” The kindness in her voice shamed Alex. He blurted “See you later” and fled out the door.
Once on the street, he calmed down. It had worked! Now he could play in the game that afternoon. He’d already missed two because he didn’t have cleats, and the ref wouldn’t let you play without them. Smiling, he looked up, right into the pinched face of Mr. Morales, his history teacher from the previous year. Alex’s smile vanished as Mr. Morales looked down his nose at him.
“And what have you been up to, young man? You should be at home doing your homework.” He claimed he called the boys “young men” to remind them that they were nearly grown. Alex thought it was because he couldn’t remember their names.
“Nuthin,” he muttered. “See you in school,” he added to be polite. He started to edge away.
“No, I, ah, won’t be, ah, returning to Central this year.”
Surprise stopped Alex in his tracks. “You won’t?” Who would the seventh-graders play tricks on, then?
“I, ah, I’m seeking other employment at this time,” Morales said. “Hard work makes us better people, and change is good for the soul.” He was still watching the boy and murmuring platitudes as he entered the shop, and he almost collided with a woman coming out. She executed a deft pirouette to avoid him, and landed on the sidewalk with her skirt swirling around her. Morales frowned, then forgot about her and Alex as he faced the old woman behind the counter and asked for an employment application.
Alex was in time to join the rest of the team as they warmed up before the game. His teammates were happy to see he had the shoes and could play at last. He was their best forward, and they’d need him. They were playing against Lincoln Junior High, always their toughest opponent.
Central was a rough school, and the boys on the team were not always polite. Lincoln was on the rich side of town, and those boys were far nastier than Alex and his friends. Jack Wright, the referee, sighed as he contemplated the two teams. Keeping this lot in order would be no joke. Every play would bring up some kid ready for his Oscar, claiming to have been most foully fouled, and Jack’s job was to sort out the truth of it all, assign blame, and keep the game moving.
He’d also have to stay out of the way of that big kid from Lincoln, the one who ran over everyone, including refs, all the while scanning the stands to be sure his big brother had noticed. Jack knew the brother, too. He was another bully, the worst sort: an adult who had put himself in a position to bully children. The younger brother just wanted his idol to praise him, but the older one was a real bastard. And they said the kids from Central were a bunch of toughs!
An hour later, Jack Wright was still unscathed, due to his ability to dodge and turn. The big kid hadn’t been able to run him over even once, and had moved on to taunting the smaller boys from Central. That would be trouble if he didn’t stop it. Jack glanced toward the stands. The stranger was still there, the woman with an odd outfit and an alien look, who had perched herself on the top railing. He’d noticed her early on, dividing her attention between the kids on the field and the bully in the stands.
You’d think a teacher would be more responsible, but Morales just spewed his moralistic claptrap about hard work and prosperity, and imagined that somehow made up for his failures to actually teach his subject. Now he had a pair of ratty shoes in his hand, and Jack spared a moment to wonder why, before turning his attention back to sorting out the latest scrum. He listened to all the complaints, decided who was telling the truth, and issued a red card to the bullying Morales kid. He could go sit with his brother.
Alex watched the big kid from Lincoln climb into the stands with a mixture of relief and apprehension. He paused a moment, scanning the crowd, then made a bee-line for the top. Why was he going to sit with Mr. Morales? Crap, was the teacher his dad? No, Alex could see that Morales wasn’t old enough to have a 12-year-old son. Brother, then.
Alex’s heart nearly stopped. He saw that Mr. Morales was holding a familiar pair of ratty sneakers. He knew. And soon everyone would know. The boy began talking to the former teacher. Mr. Morales nodded, looking from the shoes to Alex, and reached to hand them to the young bully.
Before he could complete the move, the woman who sat above them reached down, hooked the shoes out of his hand, and vanished over the back of the stands. Mr. Morales rushed to the railing to look.
Alex had stopped running after the ball to watch the action in the stands. He had to get back in the game when the ball bounced off his head. The shoes were out of Morales’ hands, anyway. Maybe he wouldn’t be in trouble just yet. He finished up the game, moving faster and playing better than he ever had before. After he shot the winning goal, he glanced back at the stands. There, in the shadows underneath, stood the strange woman. She held up the shoes, put a finger to her lips, and smiled.
For some reason, he had a friend. He’d broken one of the commandments, been found out by the most two-faced moralistic teacher at the school, and not been turned in because someone he didn’t even know had rescued him. He broke into a smile.
Life might be worth living after all.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2014
Here are my characters. I stretched the definitions to suit my own ends. As usual.
An aggravated thief needing a friend (Alex)
A graceful official searching for the truth (Jack Wright)
An agile, serene traveler (the unknown woman)
A strong actor searching for a family member (Morales, Jr.)
A clumsy, materialistic, moralizing teacher reaching for employment (Mr. Morales)