Table of Contents
Akeelah and the Bee
Baree: The Story of a Wolf-Dog
Fly Away Home
Kazan: Father of Baree
Two Brothers: The Tale of Kumal and Sangha
Sometimes I thought my older brother Johnny was the coolest guy I knew. He was smart and funny. Last year his soccer team, the Columbia High Cougars, voted him Most Valuable Player of 1977. This year he was captain of the team and president of his senior class.
And then there were other times when I thought he was just plain crazy. This was one of those times.
We were down at the town park. Johnny had given me a ride there after school. Both of us went to Columbia High. He met some guys for a pickup soccer game and I went inside the rec center to play Ping-Pong with Jena Walpen, my best friend since forever.
I beat her six times in a row before we quit. Jena's not exactly the athletic type, even when it comes to something as easy as Ping-Pong. She'd much rather hang out, have a soda, and rate the guys in our school for things like looks, humor, general hotness, and overall future boyfriend potential. That's what we did until she had to go home at four.
Since Johnny was my only way home, I was left waiting for him to finish the pickup soccer game. I went outside onto the field to watch. I found an out-of-the-way spot and leaned against a broken fencepost not far from where Johnny's old wreck of a car was parked on the grass at the edge of the field.
Off on the other side of the field, Kate Dorset, the head Cougar cheerleader, and her cheerleader friends watched the game, too. Once in a while they'd explode with cheers for a great play or dismal groans for a missed kick, just to be sure the guys didn't forget they were there. Those girls always appeared anywhere the boys were, and they especially liked Johnny and Kyle Rhodes, who were playing out on the field that day also.
Kyle was on the soccer team with Johnny and was almost as skillful a player. He wore his hair long like a rock star, and he knew the girls were crazy for him. He was so high on himself that I never wanted anyone to know that he had an effect on me, too. I didn't even want to admit it to myself. But the truth was, when he was out on the field playing soccer, I was always looking at him. Even when he wasn't doing much, my attention would just sort of drift over in his direction completely against my will, of course.
The soccer game ended and most of the guys left, except Johnny, Curt, Craig, and Kyle. They stayed behind on the field, still kicking the ball around and talking.
Then, for some reason, they all turned their attention toward me.
I was a mess! My long blonde hair was sticking out all over. I didn't even have on lip gloss. I was in torn jean shorts, a stained, sweaty T-shirt, and dirty old flip-flops. Of course, it was really only Kyle who I didn't want to
notice me looking like such a slob. I didn't really care what the other guys thought.
“It's like hitting the side of a barn,” Kyle said as they all walked toward me.
And then I understood what was going on. Instantly I felt like an idiot for thinking that they had been staring at me! They were interested in the half-empty soda bottle balanced on the fencepost. But what could be interesting about
“Come on, Johnny. We're late,” I complained, just so I wouldn't appear totally awkward standing there doing nothing as they approached.
The four of them suddenly looked my way, as though up until that moment I had been completely invisible. I guess to them, I had been. But then I noticed that a mischievous light came into Johnny's eyes, as if I'd just given him a great idea. He juggled the soccer ball off his knee and instep as he turned to Kyle. “Let's sweeten the pot. We'll back it up to twenty yards, and I won't be the shooter. My sister will.”
“What?” Kyle cried, disbelief, or maybe ridicule, in his voice. “Her?”
“Me?” I cried, confused. And then I realized that they were betting on which one of them could knock the bottle off the post with the soccer ball. And Johnny was betting
would be the one to do it!
Johnny held up a five-dollar bill to show he was for real. “Five dollars says it's so cake, even my sister can do it.”
I played soccer with Johnny and my two younger brothers all the time. My family was so totally about the game, our last name should have been Soccer instead of Bowen.
My dad played in college and he was our coach. His focus was mostly on the boys, especially Johnny, who he said was “a natural.” I was included in the games but not the training. Still, I was pretty goodâfor a girl, anyway. But I couldn't hit that bottle from twenty yards out. And I didn't want to look like a fool in front of everyone. “No way can I hit that,” I objected.
“She says she can't do it,” Kyle said, turning to Johnny.
Johnny came beside me. “I'll be right behind you,” he whispered, hoping to convince me.
I lifted my right foot. “No, look: flip-flops,” I said to the group, making it sound like an explanation, as though if I'd had on the right shoes, it would have been no problem.
Johnny just grinned. “So, take 'em off.”
Kyle and his pals Craig and Curt stepped closer, suddenly looking more interested in the bet. I guess they figured they had just made an easy five dollars. “One shot, five bucks, and the chick's going to shoot barefoot?” Kyle checked, as if it were all too good to be true.
At that moment I actually couldn't remember what I found so fascinating about Kyle. It must have been something shallow like his good looks and his rock-star image, because right then he sure seemed like a jerk.
Johnny seemed to read my mind. “Her name is Gracie,” he corrected Kyle.
Kyle had already turned his back. “You're on,” he said starting to walk out twenty yards with Curt and Craig.
Johnny motioned for me to follow him out with the others. “It's your money,” I muttered.
When we were about twenty yards from the bottle, Johnny set the ball down. Kyle and his pals punched one another, snickering. The cheerleaders had picked up on what was happening and were all watching intently, too.
Johnny knew that if I were going to do this, I would have to forget about all of them and focus. “See the target?” he said, talking softly at my shoulder. It was the same low, steady tone my dad used with the boys when he wanted them to get serious and concentrate.
I nodded, narrowing my eyes to try to block out everything else but the bottle.
“Don't look at the target,” Johnny said.
I turned to him, confused.
“You want your eye on the ball,” he explained, “ankle locked, toes pointing down.”
“Toe points down. Got it,” I confirmed.
“When you strike the ball, make solid contact with your instep,” he went on. “Follow through to the target, head downâ¦”
“Let her shoot already!” Kyle shouted, impatient with Johnny's coaching.
Johnny ignored him. “Keep your plant foot even with the ball, but the knee of your kicking footâ¦”
“It's too much to remember,” I complained nervously. Someday Johnny was going to make a great soccer coach, but at the moment I was too anxious to take in all his instructions. With everyone watching, I couldn't hit that bottle wearing my best sneakers, let alone barefoot.
I shot him a look that I hoped would convey how desperate I was to get out of this, but his expression was unruffled and confident. “Wait till you're ready,” he whispered. “You can do anything.”
To wimp outâas I was longing to doâwould have meant letting Johnny down, and there was no way I could do that. So there was no other choice but to get it over with.
I approached the soccer ball, looked at the bottle, and then away from it. My palms were sweating. I wiped them on my jeans and breathed deeply. Then I took two long steps back, waited a beat, and charged toward the ball.
When I kicked the ball, my foot stung like crazy and then the stinging zoomed up my leg to my knee.
I didn't care, though.
In the next second, that bottle exploded into the air. Yes!
Kyle hooted in surprise. Even though he'd lost the bet, he nodded at me, impressed.
Johnny cheered, pumping the air with his fist.
It felt so good, but I was determined to stay cool. “Nice game,” I teased, sauntering toward him. “What's it called?” Keeping up the act, I extended my hand for the five-dollar bill, which he surrendered.
Still smirking at Kyle, Craig, and Curt, I followed Johnny into the car. The motor was noisy and black fumes spit out from the tailpipe as we drove off, but I felt like we were leaving in a blaze of glory.
We were driving back home, both of us grinning our heads off. “Barefoot?” I said, punching him lightly on the arm. He knew I wasn't really mad, and his smile just got wider.
“There was never a doubt in my mind,” he replied. Well, that made one of us. But even though I'd been scared and unsure of myself, it had been worth itâso worth it. Showing off in front of those guys who never believed a girl could kick like that had made me feel so great!
That was the magical thing about Johnny; he had a special way of always making me feel really good about myself. Maybe it was because he saw the best in me that I wanted to be the person he saw. It wasn't only me, either. People liked Johnny because they liked themselves better when he was around. At least that was my theory.
As he drove, Johnny's smile faded and he grabbed my wrist, checking the time on my watch. He cursed quietly under his breath and began driving faster. We'd be late getting home for soccer practice, and that would make my dad extremely unhappy.
Johnny screeched into our driveway and we both shot from the car. Racing around the house, we practically slid into the backyard.
Peter, Johnny's best friend, was maneuvering a soccer ball through an uneven course of orange cones planted in the patchy so-called grass. I say “so-called” because whatever grass there had ever been in our yard had long ago been trampled into dirt by our family's perpetual soccer games and practices.
Our dad, still in the delivery uniform he had worn to work that day, was coaching him. “You're turning too late. Do it again,” he instructed. Since Peter is on Johnny's team and he's always at our house, anyway, Dad long ago started including him in the daily practices.
Behind them, my two younger brothersâMike, who's ten, and eight-year-old Danielâwere horsing around with a soccer ball inside the homemade soccer goal Dad had rigged up years ago. Jena calls the goal the Bowen Family Shrine to Soccer. Normally, Dad would be coaching them along with Peter and Johnny, but since we were late, the practice hadn't officially started.